Category: DVD Review

Streaming Review: Runaway (1984)

In the film Runaway, it’s the near future, and people rely on robots for a lot of things, but sometimes robots go haywire and run away. It’s the job of Jack Ramsay (Tom Selleck) to fix it. However, when robots start to kill by program, it’s up to Ramsay and his partner to stop them,

The acting in this film is decent enough, with Tom Selleck turning in an expected good performance as the action hero. Kristie Alley gives the best performance in the film as the villain’s girlfriend, which netted her a nomination for a Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actress. The villain is played by none other than Gene Simmons of KISS. The film is also the movie debut of child star Joey Cramer (best known to a certain generation of 80s kids for his lead role in Flight of the Navigator.)

However, where the film really shines is on a technical level. The practical effects used to bring the robots and chase scenes to life are really impressive for the time, making for some superb action scenes and a superficially good visual feel.

The film’s weakness is really its writing. When you strip away the robots and all the cool visuals, what writer/director Michael Crighton has produced is a very standard 1980s cop film. Our hero is a cop traumatized by the death of his partner and has emotional baggage from that, which can only be overcome by engaging in copious amounts of violence, during which his new female partner falls in love with him because they’re the leads. No word on whether his partner was only three days from retirement, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that were so.

In addition. while the robots are well-designed, it feels like very little thought was given to the world they inhabit. The ready availability of skilled robots at the level of this film would have major implications for society and would literally change the world. You wouldn’t expect a film (particularly Runaway) to go into some discussion of all the ethical and social implications, but you’d expect the writer to have thought through what those would be and to shape his world accordingly. Yet, the world of Runaway is very much “The Eighties but if everyone had robots.” Given the pioneering science fiction films of the era, such as Blade Runner, Terminator, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, and the Star Trek films, it’s easy to see that this was forgotten.

It is by no means a bad film for what it is. If you think a typical 1980s cop film starring Tom Selleck and robots sounds fun, I don’t think this will disappoint. But despite its strength of cast, director and effects, it’s an ultimately disposable and forgettable film.

Rating 2:5 out of 5

As of this writing, Runaway is available for free viewing on Amazon Prime.

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The Top Ten Perry Mason TV Movies, Part Three

A version of this article appeared in 2012.

Continued from Part One and Part Two

3) Perry Mason and the Case of the Lady in the Lake (1988)

Okay, it’s not by Raymond Chandler, but for a Perry Mason film, this one has got some nice twists. First of all, Perry’s client is an ex-tennis player, played by none other than David Hasselhoff, who is accused of killing his rich heiress wife.

This is one of Perry’s more complex cases. It’s not just a matter of this current murder, but a twenty-year-old kidnapping plays a big role as well. The movie was the last for Paul Drake, Jr. (William Katt) and Michael Reston (David Ogden Stiers) and it’s certainly a memorable one with a big twist on the usual Mason ending.

2) Perry Mason and the Case of the Sinister Spirit (1987)

A horror writer invites hosts a private party at a hotel for his friends and associates, who are suing him after he wrote a book whose characters are obviously based on them, in an unflattering way. The writer ostensibly intends to make peace with them, but he instead pulls a series of cruel practical jokes that bring up painful memories for everyone. For publisher Jordan White (Robert Stack), this includes a reminder of the death of Jordan’s son in a swimming pool.

It surprises no one when the writer turns up murdered, thrown from the top of the hotel. The publisher is accused and Perry is hired by White to defend him. Paul Drake, Jr. is investigating. A witness who heard the dead man’s last word and saw him fall to his death is seemingly beset by supernatural occurrences, apparently being haunted. In what amounts to one of the most inexplicable scenes in all the movies, Perry impeaches the poor woman’s testimony. Decency aside, there was no real reason for this and it made Drake’s job harder.

However, the solution to the mystery, the story’s dramatic conclusion, and a spell-binding performance by Dwight Schultz make up for these little wrinkles.

1) Perry Mason and the Case of the Desperate Deception (1990)

Perry Mason takes on Nazi war criminals. This is the basic plot of the story. His client is a young Marine attached to the U.S. Embassy in Paris. The young officer is searching for the concentration camp guard that devastated his family during the Holocaust. He is led to believe he found the ex-Nazi at a health club. However, when the ex-Nazi is killed, suspicion points to the young officer, who faces a court martial.

Perry Mason goes to Paris to head up the defense. He and Ken Malansky find intrigue around every corner. Mason finds ex-Nazis, traitors, and Nazi hunters roaming Paris. Perry has to sort through more than four decades of deception to find the truth, not only to acquit his client but to bring long-overdue justice to the perpetrators of heinous war crimes. A goal worthy of one Perry Mason’s top cases.

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The Top Ten Perry Mason TV Movies, Part Two

A version of this article appeared in 2012.

Continued from Part One

6) Perry Mason and the Case of the Avenging Ace (1988): Prior to the first movie, Perry Mason had been elevated to an appellate court judge. In this film, he revisits a case he’d heard on appeal and declined the defendant’s appeal because the trial was fair. But when the convicted murdered (an Air Force officer) has a new witness come forward, Mason steps in to help clear the man.

This case is far more complicated than that.  The witness changes his testimony at the last minute, so it no longer helps the convicted man and Perry’s client apparently escapes, and is set up to take the fall, when the wavering witness is murdered. This movie takes Perry Mason to a different place – a lot more action, suspense, and intrigue than usual. In addition to this, the producers take full advantage of the Colorado location to produce some great scenic shots.

5) Perry Mason and the Case of the Fatal Fashion (1991): Perry is in New York and this time he defends a long-time friend (Diane Muldaur) of Della’s who is accused of killing the editor of a rival fashion magazine.

This episode has a lot going for it. Ken Malansky finds himself dealing with the mob when a relative of the head of the family is killed before he can reveal vital information to Perry.  He finds a mob tough guy assigned to “help” him investigate, but how far can Malansky trust his new “colleague? This works out to a lot of excitement in New York City.

This movie also features a rare prosecutorial highlight, with the appearance of Scott Baio in his first post-Charles in Charge appearance, as Assistant DA Peter Whelen. Baio makes a solid competitor for Mason as the young upstart New York D.A. You knew he wasn’t going to win, but he made it interesting for a while.

The episode ends with an emotional punch and a murderer you’d never guess.

4) Perry Mason and the Case of the Lost Love (1987):

Perry’s old flame (Jean Simmons) is being appointed to a vacant United States Senate seat, but it’s all put at risk when her husband is accused of murdering a man who knew a secret that could have destroyed her political career.

The chemistry between Simmons and Raymond Burr is incredible. The mystery is well-plotted and we’re left with a powerful and very surprising ending as Mason faces one of his most unpleasant tasks.

Continued…Next Week

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The Top Ten Perry Mason TV Movies, Part One

A version of this review was posted in 2012.

I grew up watching the Perry Mason movies, with new films being released every year. The films featured bearded former Judge Perry Mason fighting for justice for his clients. I began watching when Perry Mason (Raymond Burr) had moved to Colorado along with his secretary (Della Street) because filming costs were cheaper and young lawyer Ken Malnasky (William Moses) had replaced Paul Drake, Jr. (William Katt) as Mason’s legman.

I’ve rewatched them all as an adult. Though the TV movies are not the equal of the original series, Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale’s talents still made the films worthwhile and entertaining through each of the 26 installments.

10) Perry Mason and the Case of the Reckless Romeo (1992)

Geraldo Rivera is perfectly cast as a trashy TV host who releases a memoir detailing his past escapades and dishing dirt on all of his lovers. It’s no surprise when he’s killed and suspects abound.

The mystery takes several turns with some great misdirection when Ken Malansky stumbles onto two suspects who are in the witness protection program, but everything wraps up quite nicely.

9) Perry Mason and the Case of the Maligned Mobster (1991)

Perry usually doesn’t take the case of hardcore criminals, but he finds himself defending reformed mobster Johnny Sorento (Michael Nader), who has apparently settled down in legitimate business. There are quite a few red herrings in this one that throw the viewer off the truth, but the ending has an incredible twist, as the outcome can’t be exactly what Perry’s client was hoping for.

8) Perry Mason and the Case of the Ruthless Reporter (1991)

The movie begins with Perry giving an interview with a news co-anchor. The lead news anchor is on a power trip and kills the story, prompting an angry confrontation with his co-anchor. When the lead anchor turns up dead and the co-anchor is charged, Perry defends the co-anchor.

If there’s one theme that does recur in these movies, it’s that talented people who become the top dog and step on everyone else around them had better watch their backs. It’s rarely more plainly shown than in this installment.

This telefilm also includes more than your average bit of action as Ken Malansky has to go to more extreme measures than usual to corral a key witness.

7) Perry Mason and the Case of the Lethal Lesson (1989)

Speaking of Ken Malansky, The Lethal Lesson was where his involvement with Mason began. In this episode, he ends up as Mason’s client after he’s accused of murdering a fellow law school student.

This particular installment has a fun love triangle between Ken’s girlfriend (Karen Kopins) and his an ex-girlfriend (Alexandra Paul), who is telling everyone that she’s Ken’s intended. For the first half of the movie, you think Paul’s character is unbalanced, but by the end of the film, you’re given a surprise whammy in the payoff.

The story is solid with the usual tension between Perry’s friendships and his duty to his clients. But the introduction of Malansky makes this a fascinating study. With Malansky on board, the series was on its way to capturing some real magic in the chemistry between the cast and that alone makes this a worthwhile film.

To be Continued…Next Week

 

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Film Review: Death on the Nile (2022)

In Death on the Nile, a wealthy woman (Gal Gadot) is murdered on a honeymoon cruise down the Nile, surrounded by people who have reasons to want her dead, including the school friend she stole her new husband from. Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) tries to prevent the tragedy, but can only find out who actually did it.

Death on the Nile is actually my favorite Poirot story and so I had to see this most recent adaptation. Here are my thoughts on the film.

The Good

This is a visually beautiful film, particularly once you get on board the ship. The way the ship, its cabins, and all the aspects of it are shot is flawless. The visual direction is really superb throughout. There’s one scene of Poirot questioning a suspect that’s just a delight to watch.

Branagh is a very good actor and turns in a solid performance, with some great emotional moments. Gal Gadot was great as the murdered woman, showing her versatility as an actress. The rest of the cast is solid with not a bad performance among them.

While I’ll have plenty of critiques of changes to Christie’s story, one that I actually like is the change of Salome Otterbourne’s character from a writer of trashy romance novels to a blues singer. It’s not a pointless change. It works well for the film in that it adds some great moments of blues music to the movie’s background and gives it a very good sound.

The Bad

Much like the later episodes of the Poirot TV series, this film can’t seem to avoid tinkering with Christie’s plots in ways that just don’t work and aren’t consistent with Christie’s talent or style. Even if you hadn’t read the book, if you’d read any other Christie stories, I think you could tell which elements were originally Agatha Christie’s and which were tacked on, which is a sign of a weak adaptation.The movie has Poirot take on an investigation one couldn’t imagine him taking. Then we have the action-packed chase scene, and a ridiculous moment in the denouement in which everyone draws weapons.

Agatha Christie intentionally left much of Poirot’s history as a bit of a mystery. Fans are free to speculate and have their own “head canon” about it. However, if a film is going to broach the subject of Poirot’s past and give him more backstory, it has to be something that’s more interesting than the central mystery. The film fails in that. It attempts not only to deepen Poirot’s backstory, but to give us the origin story of his mustache. The beautifully black-and-white scenes of Poirot serving in World War I are problematic. It’s not just because it contradicts the first Poirot novel A Mysterious Affair at Styles, which had him as a Belgian refugee. Nor is it the fact that Death on the Nile was set in 1937, and therefore if Poirot had served World War I, he would be younger than he was in this movie. It’s that the six-minute scene isn’t that interesting and delays the start of the film. I would compare it to another much-maligned scene in a Gal Gadot movie, Woman Woman 1984. The film features a long scene of young Diana competing in Amazonian games. However, that scene, for all its faults, actually fits into the theme of the movie.

The film often has its 1937 characters behaving in a very modern way, which makes it not ring true.  One scene that sticks out is when Jacqueline “Jackie” de Bellefort (Emma Mackey) meets her old college friend and brags about how much sex she and her fiancé have been having, in the most awkward way possible.

In addition, while every adaptation has to pare down the massive cast of characters and plotlines Christie put in the original book, it felt like this film went just a little too far, to the point that it felt ever-so-slightly dumbed down.

Conclusion

Death on the Nile has good acting and is expertly shot, with some very clever visuals. It’s at its best when it’s telling Agatha Christie’s story. However, its mediocre add-on plot elements are often distracting, boring, poseurish, or cringe-inducing. The result is a mediocre and uneven experience that has doses of delight and frustration mixed in equal measures.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.0

As of this writing, you can watch the film for free on Hulu or HBO Max and it’s also available for purchase on Amazon.

If you don’t want to see the new film, you can watch the 1978 classic version on Freevee.

You can also read why I love the original novel of this story so much here.

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Blu-ray Review: 4-film Collection


This Warner Archives collection features four Noir films of different sorts.

One note on the quality of the set. I ordered this set twice. The first time I watched the first film and it was fine. I waited a few weeks to watch the second and all the remaining disks were bad and I was past the return window. Then the next time, the second and third films played fine but the fourth was unwatchable and I was once again past the return window. Given that this happened with two sets in row, it’d be critical to check all disks before watching. Now onto the films.

Murder My Sweet (1944): This was an adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s novel Farewell, My Lovely. It stars Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe. The film allowed Powell to transition from the light musical comedy roles that defined his early career into the more hardboiled and serious roles that he played for the rest of his career. Powell turns in a superb performance that captures the character perfectly. I don’t think there’s been a better on-screen Marlowe.

Powell’s supporting cast is superb as well. Claire Trevor and Anne Shirley are great as the female leads. Mike Mazurki is superb as the towering thug Moose Malloy. Malloy is terrifying but not entirely unsympathetic. This was the result of some smart changes from the book.

Beyond, the movie has some good camera work and solid incidental music. It’s easily my favorite film in the set.

Out of the Past  (1947) stars Robert Mitchum as private investigator Jeff Balley, who has gone into hiding and running a gas station after crossing a sinister client (Kirk Douglas).

Out of the Past has a lot of twists and turns. At first, I thought it might be a story centered on a flashback like The Killers, but there are plenty of past and present activities that really build suspense. Kirk Douglas hadn’t yet become a superstar, but he’s marvelous, providing equal measures of charm and menace. Jane Greer is great as the femme fatale who really drives the action in the film.

Gun Crazy (1950) is about a troubled young man (John Doll) who is a great marksman but afraid of killing anyone. He marries a woman (Peggy Cummins) who’s already killed, someone. while both are working at the circus. Together they spend his life savings on their honeymoon and then she leads him into a life of crime.

The acting was good and there were some really superb moments from a technical standpoint. I had trouble getting into this one because I thought the premise and some of the psychology were a little too contrived. Still, I can see why it’s viewed as a Noir classic. It just wasn’t for me.

The Set-Up (1949) is a boxing film, but different than many others. The focus of most famous boxing films is huge prize fights that go fifteen rounds with the championship of the world at stake. The Set-Up is about pro boxing in a more seedy part of town. The central story is about a three-round fight fought by an over-the-hill boxer (Robert Ryan) with a losing record. His cornermen agree their guy will take a dive for a local gambler without even cutting their boxer in for a cut of the $50 bribe or telling him he’s supposed to take a dive because they’re so sure he’ll lose, but what if he doesn’t?

There’s so much to like about this film. This is one of those films that really works to make its location feel like a real place. There are so many realistic touches to make this feel like a real arena and give the viewer the impression they’re seeing what boxing is like for all the pro-fighters who never quite make the top tier.  The acting is realistic and adds to the atmosphere the film’s trying to establish.

While I think all of these films look good., this one may be my favorite from an artistic perspective. One thing the movie really went for was capturing how bloodthirsty fans could be at a match and they really excelled themselves in that.

It’s also the shortest film in the collection (at only 72 minutes) which leads to a very pacey film that doesn’t waste any time in crafting a compelling narrative. While it wasn’t my favorite film in the collection, this may be the best one.

Overall, if you love noir movies from this era, this is well worth getting. Do watch out for discs that don’t work, but other than that this is a collection of superb exemplars of American noir films.

Rating:4 out of 5

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DVD Review: The Saint Double Feature

Editor’s Note: A version of this review was posted in 2014.

In 1941, George Sanders left the role Simon Templar in the Saint series and was replaced by Hugh Sinclair.

The contrasts between Sanders and Sinclair is pretty striking.  For Sanders, the Saint was an early highlight of a career that would see him earn parts in A pictures and even earn an Academy Award. For Sinclair, this was as good as it got.  Sinclair just didn’t have the presence that Sanders did, and so both of his Saint films were below Sanders best stories. Though both films were better than Sanders subpar The Saint’s Double Trouble.  

The Saint’s Vacation (1941)  is the better of the two films and truthfully above average when compared to most 1940s B detective features. The Saint is on vacation and gets involved in international intrigue over a music box that serves as the stories Macguffin. It’s not an original idea, but the execution of it in this film is pretty enjoyable. The end is somewhat frustrating and drawn out particularly since we never get to find out what exactly the hubbub was about other than that it was a Macguffin.

The Saint Meets the Tiger  (1943) is based on the first Saint Novel and finds the Saint on the trail of international gold smugglers. Most of the movie is a little boring and hard to follow, so it’s a bit below average. However, at the end of the movie, we get a madcap scene where the Saint’s sidekick and girlfriend are knocking people out aboard a ship really livens things up.

So in short,  the two films are almost mere images of each other. The Saint’s Vacation is an above average film that’s pretty interesting in the beginning but is bogged down by a slow ending. The Saint Meets the Tiger is a below average film that’s propped up by an ending that’s a lot more fun than the film itself.

Overall, I’d give the DVD 3.0 out of 5.0 and recommend it only for Saint completists at its retail price.

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