SubtleTea.com has a new look

Go to the new SubtleTea.com

Nick Zegarac DVD/Blu-ray review archives

Nick Zegarac is an author, poet and writer of several screenplays, two currently under consideration in Hollywood. He lives in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

 

© 2005 - 2012  Nick Zegarac

 

 

Nine, Alien/Aliens/Aliens 3/Alien Resurrection, Moulin Rouge

 

How could a film loosely based on Federico Fellini's immortal classic 8-1/2 fail? Regrettably, Rob Marshall's Nine (2009) proves just how elusive Fellini's blend of neo-realism and broad satire are to recapture on celluloid for the postmodern generation. As a Broadway show, Nine was enigmatic and emblematic entertainment - a rollicking pop opera more directly derived from Arthur Kopit's book with exhilarating songs written by Maury Yeston. Yet, like Richard Attenborough's film adaptation of A Chorus Line (1985), Nine plays more like an exhumation rather than exaltation of the stage show, with the faint aroma of formaldehyde permeating every frame.

 

There's plenty of style, but regrettably little substance to hang our hopes on with Daniel Day-Lewis as a competent - but nevertheless 'not terribly swarthy' - replacement for Javier Bardem, cast as aging film director Guido Contini. Day-Lewis is convincing in spots, yet struggles to lose himself in the role. As such, he never overcomes our estimation that he is not an Italian - the greasy locks and faux accent mere window dressing that speak more to a stereotype rather than an iconic character study.

 

The screenplay by the late Anthony Minghella and Michael Tolkin begins in earnest with Contini at Mussolini's famed Cinecitta Studios in 1966, desperately struggling to develop a creative idea for his latest film project, Italia. Contini is driven to distraction by a bevy of beauties that enter and leave his life at the most inopportune moments and by conversations with his dead mother (Sophia Loren).

 

Surrounded by sycophants who cling to his every word as though it were the new gospel, Contini begins to suffer from angst ridden panic attacks that force him to retreat to the country for some rest and relaxation. His producer (Ricky Tognazzi) and press manager, Fausto (Giuseppe Cederna), exhibit a quiet, if not frenetic, urge for Contini to will an existentialist masterpiece from his crumbling creative genius. Only costume designer, Lilli La Fleur (Judi Dench), realizes how grave the situation is. Contini has yet to pen a single word of his script. 

 

Distracted by an on again/off again affair with Carla Albanese (Penelope Cruz), Contini begins to reflect on the various women who have shaped his life and career. These include seaside prostitute, Saraghina (Fergie), Vogue fashion journalist, Stephanie (Kate Hudson), Guido's first filmic muse and later, his wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard), and his latest creative inspiration, aloof film actress Claudia Jenssen (Nicole Kidman). Gradually, a tragic portrait begins to emerge: that of a man on the verge of destroying himself through genius and excess.

 

Seemingly incapable of sincerity, after retreating to the country Contini telephones his wife to plead for her company, then just as quickly suggests she stay in Rome while he works on finalizing details for his movie. At Contini's insistence, Carla arrives in town and quickly discovers that her love for Contini is not genuinely reciprocated. Shortly thereafter she attempts suicide. Discovering that Italia has no script, Claudia appears briefly for a makeup and wardrobe test before bowing out of the project and out of Contini's love life without much regret. She has already classified him as a lost cause, a rather earth-shattering revelation for Contini that is later confirmed by his dead mother, who also casually walks away from her son during one of the film's many dream sequences.  As for Luisa, she has run out of reasons to stay married to the man she sincerely cares for. Like the rest, Luisa departs from Contini's life, forcing him to admit to his cast and crew that Italia will never be. Thus ends Nine on a remarkably downtrodden and depressing beat.

 

Director Marshall, who previously scored an Oscar-winning hit with Chicago (2002), is in his element when staging the gaudy glam-bam cavalcade of MTV-inspired songs and dances that frequently interrupt the narrative and provide heightening distraction for both Contini and the audience.  But the non-musical portions of the film have no spark to connect these energetic outbursts.  Kate Hudson delivers the highest octane moment in the film, warbling "Cinema Italiano" to a cavorting troop of thin tie, pinched pant male runway dancers. But Marion Cotillard has the most introspective and moving song - the bittersweet 'My Husband Makes Movies' in which the last vestiges of her waning love for Contini are painfully severed.  On the whole then, Nine rates about a three and a half on a scale of one to ten. It rarely elevates to a level in artistry that Fellini himself might have appreciated and completely fails to live up to our expectations for finely wrought musical entertainment.

 

Alliance Home Video's Blu-Ray is also not quite what we expected to see. In the first place, colors do not pop as they should. The palette is rather anaemic. Take, for example, the first moment that Carla emerges from the train to meet Contini for their final weekend tryst. On screen, her velvet ensemble was blood-red, easily the most intense color at the otherwise drab station set. Yet, on the Blu-Ray her outfit merely rates as red, rather flat and even to some extent washed out.

 

Darker scenes seem to suffer from a lack of solid blacks and weaker than expected contrast levels. Flesh tones are natural enough but fine detail is sometimes eclipsed and even lost during night scenes. On the whole, this is an average looking transfer. The audio is DTS and aggressive during the musical sequences but rather nondescript during dialogue sequences.  Extras include several brief featurettes on the cast, crew, staging and making of the film, as well as a few deleted scenes, an audio commentary and theatrical trailer.   

 

 

 

 

The 1970s were a period of seismic shift in both the filmmaking industry and audience tastes and cultural mores. Save the justly deserved resurrection of nostalgia via MGM musicals featured in the compendium film, That's Entertainment! (1974), the decade was framed by a split from that fabled "dream factory" ideal that had once been the main staple and blueprint for Hollywood's golden age. By mid-decade, declining audience revenue and a tightening of budgets across the board saw glamour replaced by a more grittier/less expensive realism.

 

This pervasive look of reality eventually found its way into the realms of horror and science fiction, and two of the most prominently featured genres of the decade to collide in one masterwork exemplifying both. That film was Ridley Scott's Alien (1979), a sustained and viscerally neurotic tale generating more inner hysteria than outward horror for its chills. 

In retrospect, a lengthy period of gestation seems to have benefited the production immensely. Alien began its life as a screenplay by Dan O'Bannon, later fully fleshed out with an assist from Ronald Schusett. Making no apologies for borrowing ideas and plot elements from practically every influential sci-fi movie from the preceding decades, O'Bannon's and Schusett's screenplay was shopped around to limited interest before being sold to 20th Century Fox.

 

In passing the project to writers David Giler and Walter Hill, management incurred a creative rift that gradually boiled over into legalities when O'Bannon and Schusett accused the studio and its writers of attempting to steal the project outright. For all their backroom antics, Fox's executive board was unconvinced of the project's saleability.  Alien might have languished indefinitely as just another script in perpetual turnaround had not the overwhelming success of Star Wars (1977) illustrated that sci-fi had come of age with audiences. Even with Star Wars' colossal success, finding a director for Alien proved elusive. After mandarins of their craft, Jack Clayton, Peter Yates and Robert Aldrich all turned it down, the film was offered to relative newcomer Ridley Scott whose early enthusiasm, along with some high concept production designs produced by Swiss painter/sculptor H.R. Giger, coaxed the powers that be into doubling Alien's budget.

 

As it eventually unfolded, the great success of Alien relied on a sense of claustrophobia rather than gut-wrenching thrills, although the film was to have its share of these as well. In recasting the lead protagonist as a female (in the original Ripley is a man), Alien also made a progressive leap towards the postmodern feminist age.

 

Save a few initial establishing shots, the narrative is confined aboard a vast commercial towing vessel, the Nostromo, which is returning to earth after a lengthy refinement operation in space. Under corporate orders, the crew picks up a weak communication signal and lands on a small and seemingly uninhabited planetoid to investigate its origins.

 

Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) takes Executive Office Kane (John Hurt) and Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) on the exploration, leaving Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) and Engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) on the Nostromo to monitor their progress. But their mission goes horribly awry when Kane is attacked by a bizarre alien "face-hugger". Returning with their fallen colleague to the Nostromo, Ripley denies Dallas, Kane and Lambert permission to re-enter the ship on the assumption that Kane's attacker may pose other infectious concerns for the rest of the crew.  

 

After a few taut moments, Ash overrides Ripley's authority and Kane is brought to the ship's infirmary for treatment. The alien, however, is unwilling to give up its prey, spewing highly corrosive blood when attempts are made to cut it loose from Kane's face. Determined to return to earth for further assistance , the Nostromo rises from the planetoid with the alien on board. Hours later, Dallas returns to sick bay and discovers the alien quite dead with Kane showing remarkable resiliency after his encounter. Physical tests show no abnormalities. However, as the crew prepare to rejoice in Kane's full recovery the real threat to all of them makes its presence known.  The face-hugger has used Kane as its host to incubate an offspring. The new alien child bursts forth from Kane's stomach, before burrowing deep into the bowels of the Nostromo.    

   

The rest of the story essentially follows a conventional race-against-time scenario with the full-grown alien attacker picking off crew one at a time. Brett follows his frightened cat into the ship's loading area and is devoured by the creature. Dallas attempts to force the alien into the ship's airlock where it can be expelled into space, but the creature ambushes him inside one of the ducts. Lambert encourages the remaining crew to board Nostromo's escape shuttle - a decision thwarted by Ripley who awkwardly finds herself in command.

 

Accessing classified computer files, Ripley learns that Ash was assigned by the corporation to apprehend the alien and return it to earth for study, even at the expense of Nostromo's crew. This revelation is short-lived as Ash attacks Ripley but is decapitated by Parker instead, revealing that he is actually an android. Ripley initiates the Nostromo's self-destruct sequence, instructing Parker and Lambert to incinerate Ash before making ready their escape in the shuttle. But the alien kills Parker and Lambert and narrowly misses Ripley as she boards with Brett's cat. The Nostromo self-destructs and Ripley prepares for hyper-sleep aboard the shuttle, only to discover that the alien has made the escape with her. In the final moments, Ripley initiates explosive decompression by opening the shuttle's hatch, propelling the creature into outer space, but with her own solitary future uncertain.

 

When it debuted, Alien was not the blockbuster that Fox had banked on and, in retrospect, for good reason. It's story is brutally low-key and, in Star Wars' wake, unapologetically depressing: a postmodern epitaph arguably lightyears ahead of its time.

 

In re-envisioning a sequel with Aliens (1986), director James Cameron initially ran into opposition from Fox precisely because the box-office tally from the first film had not matched their level of expectation. Nevertheless, Cameron was bolstered by his cache as a director after the premiere of The Terminator (1983),  a certified box-office dynamo.

 

Under Cameron's direction Aliens (1986) arguably takes the very best elements from the original film and makes them better. Ellen Ripley's shuttle is recovered by the Weyland-Yutani Corp. 57 years after the disastrous Nostromo venture. In that passage of time her only child has died and Ripley - alone and accused of having overridden company policy - is "encouraged" by her former employers to return to the planetoid where the original creature was discovered. At first outright refusing to comply, Ripley is told by corporate yes man Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) that the planet has long since been inhabited by a human colony without incident. That is, at least, not until recently when all communication was suddenly terminated.

 

With a military escort aboard the Sulaco overseen by Colonel Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope), Ripley reluctantly returns to the alien planet to find a colony seemingly abandoned by its human inhabitants. The one prospect for learning what happened to the rest of its members materializes in the form of a traumatized, mute little girl nicknamed Newt (Carrie Henn) whom Ripley bonds to as her own child that she never knew. But the cocky Colonel and his equally brash crew have severely underestimated the situation. Inside the colony's science lab, they find remnants of alien face-huggers preserved in formaldehyde. Realizing that the rest of the alien eggs have hatched, Ripley attempts to warn Gorman and his team of impending doom.

 

Gorman disputes Ripley's concerns and attempts to set up a command centre instead. With precision, he and his brigade are picked off one by one - this time by an army of aliens who brutalize and dismember their prey with exceptional ease. After Newt is captured by an alien while hiding in one of the colony's sewers, Ripley summons up all her courage to go deep into the bowels of the mining centre with only a flame thrower and gun as protection. Once inside, she discovers Newt wrapped inside an alien cocoon. Freeing the child, Ripley comes face to face with the alien queen (a multi-pronged bit of malignant magnificence created by Stan Winston) who is in the process of harvesting a new host of offspring. Torching the field of eggs that lay all around her, Ripley makes her way back to the Sulaco with the queen in pursuit.  After a brief battle, Ripley and Newt board the Sulaco and bid the planetoid farewell.

 

Aliens is arguably a better-constructed film than its predecessor. With a screenplay credited solely to Cameron (despite story assists from Giler and Hill) and a more centrally focused narrative on Sigourney Weaver as the series' star,  Aliens became a much more profitable movie for 20th Century Fox.

 

Regrettably, the success of Cameron's movie at the box office gave way to two more instalments in the series; both inferior to either the first or second films. In truth, Sigourney Weaver did not want to return to the franchise after Aliens, prompting Giler and Hill to pen a screenplay that omitted her character entirely: a ploy designed to resurrect Ellen Ripley in a fourth feature. Fox vetoed this idea, however, leaving director David Fincher to scramble for plot consistency as he dove head strong into production on Aliens 3 (1992) without ever having a finished script. After completion of the film, the studio reworked this rough footage without Fincher's participation or consent, leaving the final edit suspect as to the director's original intent.

 

The film begins with an unforgiveable sin: removing Newt from the series by having a fire break out on the Sulaco. The ship crashes near a prison/refinery with Ripley as its sole human survivor.  Unbeknownst to the prisoners or Ripley, a face-hugger has also survived the crash and shortly thereafter begins its usual - and by now - conventional spree of carnage with Ripley discovering by plot's end that she has been impregnated with an alien offspring.

 

In Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Alien Resurrection (1997) the plot concocted by Joss Wedon grows even more tedious and removed from the series roots, this time by 200 years with Ripley cloned and an alien queen surgically removed from her body: all part of a diabolical U.S. military plan to study alien/human hybrids. Tossing in the briefest whiff of lesbianism between Ripley and Capt. Annalee Call (Wynonna Ryder), the story goes nowhere fast, its predictable results and wizardry of state of the art special effects enjoyed to better effect elsewhere in the franchise.

 

Fox's Blu-Ray debut of the Alien franchise is stunning and will surely NOT disappoint. As this reviewer has often stated in the past, I rarely have doubts that a film made within the last 20 years will look stunning in hi-def. But what about 30 years and beyond - particularly when so much of what has been archived throughout the decades has been stored with less than stellar attention to film preservation?  Yet, in these transfers we have that rare treat for fans of the original movie and its masterful first sequel. Alien and Aliens have been given the deluxe treatment on Blu-Ray - along with their less fondly remembered counterparts. Image detail takes a quantum leap forward. Flesh tones have been nicely realized throughout all four films, with the first film retaining its cooler palette and more pasty hues of skin when directly compared to the other three films in the franchise. The image on all four movies is razor sharp with no visible signs of compression artefacts. Rear projection and model work is more evident to the keen eye, but Stan Winston's creature effects hold up remarkably well under such close scrutiny.

 

The audio has been given a 7.1 Tru-HD upgrade and again, the outstanding moments on these discs comes from the renewed sonic experience attributed to the first and second movies; neither the benefactor of exemplary sound design at the time of their original release. When the alien bursts forth from Kane's chest in the first feature, surround channels become aggressively spatial. Are there still dated characteristics to the sound field in general? Absolutely. After all, this is a 30 plus year audio sound mix - but one meticulously gone over with all of today's advantages for creating state of the art sound design.

 

Delving into the goodies, this box set also comes with a myriad of new and previously released footage, documentaries, featurettes, commentaries, stills and theatrical trailers that chart the series creation from virtually every conceivable aspect. "Comprehensive" is a grossly inadequate term to sum up Fox's efforts on this outing. The Alien Anthology is a MUST-HAVE Blu-Ray event. Very highly recommended! Please note that Fox has also made this set available in a flashier "egg" package complete with batteries that make the translucent plastic shell shimmer and glow, a nice added touch for the finite collector except that the egg set is sold for nearly $50 more than the one reviewed herein.

 

 

 

 

If ever there was a motion picture that unequivocally proves movies are an art form, Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge (2001) is that film: a frenetic, pulsating extravaganza reformatted for the MTV generation and with its revisionist ode to 1950s super musicals in full-tilt glitz. Loosely based on the Orphean myth and Giuseppe Verdi's immortal opera, La Traviata, Moulin Rouge blends vintage Bohemia with the likes of Madonna, Elton John and Rogers and Hammerstein. Drawing upon a song catalogue from Broadway and pop chart-topping hits spanning nearly every conceivable decade of the 20th century, Luhrmann and his co-writer Craig Pearce  have constructed a musical melange that never once seems out of place, jaded or absurd.

To this rich music heritage the screenplay affixes the most generic and conventional of plots.  A penniless artist meets an equally penniless girl betrothed to a wealthy man, and he falls in love with her. Yet the best of vintage Hollywood musicals have functioned on far less. What is perhaps most inspiring about Luhrmann's tour de force is his ability to make these generalities seem quite unconventional and fresh.

The film stars Nicole Kidman as Satine, a courtesan at Paris' most decadent nightclub. She is forced into a romance with the maniacal, Duke (Richard Roxbury), by her employer/pimp, Harold Zeitler (Jim Broadbent), but falls for artist and poet Christian (Ewan McGregor) instead. Typical musical fare, but carried off with flair and good humour.
We first meet Christian, hungry and struggling in his cold-water flat to pen a great story on which his future fame as a writer will hang. He is mercilessly interrupted in this endeavour by Henri de Toulouse-Latrec (John Leguizamo) and his merry band of Bohemian artists who crash through the ceiling of Christian's apartment singing an aria from The Sound of Music introducing Christian to the wonderful mind-altering properties of Abthence.

 

Floating on the ether of the Green Fairy (Kylie Mynogue), Christian arrives at the Moulin Rouge in time to witness the club's sultry star attraction, Satine, descend from a rhinestone encrusted swing in the ceiling. Captivated by her beauty, Christian is quite unaware that he is in direct competition for Satine's affections with the Duke, whom Harold hopes to convince to finance his new enterprise by loaning Satine in sexual trade.  But the Duke is a masochist with a frigid exterior. By contrast, Christian offers Satine a life of passionate respect - on a budget. After convincing Satine in song that they should become lovers, Christian fools the Duke into believing that his interests in Satine are strictly focused as the musical director on Harold's new show. However, at every conceivable turn Christian finds ways to divert Satine's commitments from rendezvous with the Duke to "working on the show."  Only fellow dancer and aspiring star Nini Legs in the Air (Caroline O'Connor) knows better.

 

After Nini convinces the Duke that Satine and Christian are collaborating on more than high art behind closed doors, it is up to Harold to tame the Duke's frustrated inflamed desires. This he does to riotous effect in one of the film's show-stopping moments, belting out "Like A Virgin" to the Duke to illustrate Satine's desire is to cleanse herself of a spurious past through prayer. However, unbeknownst to Christian and the Duke, Satine is dying of tuberculosis.  Her condition is grave as the date for Harold's new theatrical endeavour nears. Harold convinces Satine that she must renounce Christian and pledge herself to the Duke in order to spare the Moulin Rouge from bankruptcy. Reluctantly Satine agrees, leaving Christian feeling as though their entire romance was a lie. To relieve his pain, Christian crashes the show's premiere, casting Satine to the ground in a cascade of bills as payment for services rendered. Satine confesses that she has always loved Christian and, to a stunned house, they are reunited in song moments before the final curtain.  But the reunion is bittersweet. For time has run out on Satine's condition. She collapses in Christian's arms and dies with the promise of their lives together unfulfilled. The days turn into months and Christian, at one with his arctic desolation, finally sits down at his typewriter to pen his story, the memoir of his great romance with Satine. 


Moulin Rouge is compelling, visceral and enigmatic entertainment; its superb amalgam of transcendent pop culture songs perfectly grafted onto the lost decadence of 19th century France. As proprietor of Paris' most bawdy hot spot, Jim Broadbent emerges as something of a loveable gargoyle, baiting the Duke with prospects of bedding his most eligible whore, all the while plotting to turn his den of iniquity into a legitimate theatre with the Duke's money. In the end, nobody wins – an uncharacteristic, but telling postmodern epitaph to the musical genre usually bent on its happy endings.

Viewed ten years from its premiere, Moulin Rouge has lost nothing of its wicked charm. As the ill-fated lovers, Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman have sparked chemistry so palpable and intertwined that one can almost forget them as the stars they so obviously are and simply become immersed through their finely wrought characterizations. Neither was nominated for an Oscar - a tragedy more unsettling than the one that closes the film. 
What most critics and AMPAS perhaps overlooked in their reviews ten years ago - for there can be no other reason to exclude Baz Luhrmann from what ought to have been his most justly deserved Best Director Oscar nomination (and, at least in this critic's opinion; well deserved win) - is that his Moulin Rouge is a wickedly satirical slant on contemporary life perceived as a delicious - if utterly devious - party where the only plausible escape is through sublime death.

The screenplay is a critique of youth gone sour with Luhrmann's and Pearce's subliminal snap at sex as commerce quite fulfilling.
Moulin Rouge then, is a musical of varying tempos but only one real melody, that of truly enchanted entertainment. The acting throughout is superb camp of the highest order: the pacing, manic and exciting; and the film - spectacular, spectacular!

Fox Home Video's Blu-Ray is a wonder to behold. The obvious benefactor of a new and painstaking remastering effort, Moulin Rouge is more colourful, gay and finely wrought than ever before; easily besting Fox's 2-disc DVD offering from 2002. Colour fidelity has been exceptionally realized with razor sharp detail throughout. This is a reference quality Blu-ray that belongs on everyone's top shelf. Fox gives us a 5.1 DTS audio that represents the film's soundtrack as never before. Subtle effects that were eclipsed in the previous DVD's audio are brought forth herein, adding another rich dimension to a film of already rare qualities. 
Extras include many of the highlights from the DVD, including Baz Luhrmann's audio commentary, stills gallery, reference art work and theatrical trailers, in addition to several all new featurettes on practically every aspect of the making of the film, plus an exclusive intro by Luhrmann. Highly recommended!

 

 

 

 

 

The King's Speech, Soylent Green, Taxi Driver

 

Some movies are revered for their exceptional advancements in the art of motion picture making. Others are clearly a throwback to that simpler time when movies were required to entertain us without breaking all the rules or simply flooding the screen with a mind-boggling assortment of special effects. Tom Hooper's The King's Speech (2010) is of this latter ilk; a poignant "talking picture" whose strength, oddly enough, is derived from its dialogue. I say oddly because one of the principle performances in the film requires our patience to suffer through a stutter that is as psychologically crippling to its character as it proves to be a genuine chore to listen to throughout the movie.

 

Ah, but how well The King's Speech wears this mantel of frozen respectability and how easily it wins our hearts with its re-envisioning of the proverbial "underdog makes good" narrative that fundamentally we're all suckers for.  Colin Firth magnificently stars as Prince Albert, Duke of York, who is the younger brother to David (Guy Pearce), the future King of England. Albert suffers from a near paralytic stutter that is exaggerated whenever he becomes nervous. His shortcomings as a great orator are made painfully clear at the start of David Seidler's screenplay as Albert attempts to address  a crowd of several thousand at Britain's 1925 Empire Exposition inside Wembley Stadium (no pressure there!).  The address is a disaster and an embarrassment to King George (Michael Gambon). Still, the King can take some comfort in knowing that Albert will not be the one to succeed him on the throne. That honour belongs to first-born David - that is, until he decides to forsake his country for the woman that he loves, divorcee Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).

 

As George falls ill and eventually dies, all eyes turn hopeful and desperately for inspiration to Albert and his dutiful, doting wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter). After Albert attempts to rid himself of his stutter through conventional methods to no avail, Elizabeth decides to secure Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), for the cause. At first, Lionel does not recognize Her Royal Majesty and turns the offer down. Lionel's unorthodox methods for treating the cause of Albert's stuttering create initial friction between the two men. Lionel insists on calling the future King "Bertie" to his face and thereafter breaks almost every rule of monarchical etiquette in order to challenge and defeat the emotional ties that have made Albert so insecure.  After Lionel tells the King that he should abandon smoking to soften his acoustic nerves, Albert informs Lionel that smoking has been soundly conferred on him as a means to manage his stutter by the King's physicians. "They're idiots," Lionel exclaims.  "They've all been knighted," Albert suggests.  "Makes it official then," concludes Lionel.  As Adolph Hitler amasses his armies in readiness for the invasion of Europe, Albert prepares for what will eventually go down in the annals of history as his finest hour: the King's speech delivered with such sustained poise and grace that it rallies his nation to war. 

 

In the ye good ole days of Merchant-Ivory, The King's Speech would have been a lavishly appointed Edwardian spectacle with a visual sumptuousness to rival its subject matter. Tom Hooper does not have that luxury, however. In fact, the film was almost not made because no one holding the purse strings could envision a hit from a movie about two men talking to one another.  As such, The King's Speech is very much a throwback to the "drawing room" talkies made some sixty years before by the Archers at Pinewood Studios in England. There's very little outside of the relationship between Albert and Lionel worth mentioning and yet it proves to be everything!

 

Danny Cohen's cinematography captures the dark dinginess of coal-fogged London. Jenny Beavan's Costume Design resurrects the classicist system with superb attention to every last detail. With the limited means afforded them, Production Designer Eve Stewart and Art Director Netty Chapman work a minor miracle. Still, the effortless repartee between Rush and Firth is what sustains this movie. Both are skilful thespians, classically trained masters in the art of acting, and it shows in every enriching frame that they appear in together. Helena Bonham-Carter is a very capable Queen Elizabeth. Derek Jacobi provides a very solid cameo as Archbishop of Canterbury. 

   

In the final analysis, The King's Speech is most deserving of its Best Picture Academy Award, and now those who missed it in theatres can finally deduce for themselves the reason why. Alliance Home Video's Blu-ray is visually stunning, which is saying much for a film whose cinematography is just average. The transfer is a feast for the eye with very solid colours that are bold and rich. The film's general colour scheme adopts a blue-gray patina but the Blu-ray's handling of this subtly nuanced palette is perfection! Fine detail is evident in every scene. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are somewhat subdued, but again, this is in keeping with the film's original visual presentation. The audio is DTS 5.1 and although hardly as aggressive as your run of the mill action flick, is nevertheless hearty and robust. Dialogue is very natural sounding. Alexandre Desplat's score is given its moment to shine.

 

Extras are rather limited. We get a featurette on the inspirational backstory and a Q&A session with director and cast, as well as speeches from the real King George (the name Albert took after becoming king). There's also an informative audio commentary from Hooper. The King's Speech comes highly recommended. It's "old-fashioned" in the very best tradition of moviemaking, and it really reminded this critic why he used to love going to the movies so often as a child.  

 

 

 

Edward G. Robinson marked his 101st and final on-screen performance with Soylent Green (1973), a depressing dystopian view of the future where population overcrowding and a shortage of natural resources has distilled society into mob rule, and where people have become the prime ingredient in the most readily renewable food source. The actor should have retired at an even one hundred.  Although this apocalyptic future forecast proved wildly popular with the hippie drug-culture set then and has since acquired a solid following as an iconic 1970s science fiction movie, by this critic's assessment, Soylent Green is two hours of my life that I can never get back.

 

Given the run of MGM's dilapidated New York Street backlot to shoot his film, director Richard Fleischer transforms Harry Harrison's novel Make Room! Make Room! into something of a quirky, yet haunting oddity of the genre, a rummage sale in which some truly outstanding old time Hollywood talent is fed through the meat grinder (both figuratively and literally). As if by 1973 any more proof were needed to suggest that the golden age of movies was dead, this film, at least in retrospect, seems to relish the exploitation of thespians like Robinson, Joseph Cotten and Charlton Heston in a plot riddled by stick-figure characterizations and some truly lousy screenwriting.

Stanley R. Greenberg's screenplay is a mishmash of episodic events that Heston traipses through blindfolded. Trapped in a performance that is somewhere in the actor's repertoire between Ben-Hur (1959) and Planet of the Apes (1968), Heston is cast as Robert Thorn, an insolent New York City cop whose "Don't Bogart that can, man!" beatnik attitude is an ill fit at best.

 

Thorn rooms in a dingy apartment with Solomon "Sol" Roth (Robinson), a bookworm professor who is forced to seek out knowledge from the ramshackle remains of the public library. After an untouchable elite, William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotten), is found bludgeoned to death in the trendy apartment he shares with his 23-year old concubine, Shirl (Leigh Taylor-Young), Thorn assumes responsibility for the case. While Sol delves deeper into the mystery of soylent green, Thorn decides to take advantage of Shirl - whom he nicknames "furniture" because she just goes with whomever is occupying the apartment. Thorn then decides that Simonson's ex-body guard, Tab Fielding (Chuck Connors), is a likely suspect for the murder. Truth be told, Thorn does not care much one way or the other who killed Simonson. He just wants to find a scapegoat.

 

The film plays fast and loose with the then fashionable "all cops are pigs" mentality that probably had rioters from Detroit cheering in the aisles. As the mindless masses in the streets clamour for soylent green, they are driven back by nightstick toting police who use dump trucks to scoop up looters and carry them off - presumably to jail, though more than likely to a processing plant beyond city limits where they will become more soylent green for the rest of society. During this riot, Thorn is nearly murdered by Simonson's assassin who is quickly dispatched when the heavy forks from one of the dump trucks crush him to death.  Thorn's next port of call is Tab's girlfriend, Martha (Paula Kelly), a sort of Foxy-Brown-meets-Sharon-Tate sex vixen whom Thorn assaults after Tab attacks him.

 

Meanwhile, having learned the true ingredients of soylent green, Sol decides that he has lived too long and stumbles to his local government assisted-suicide center to end it all. He is given a toxic chemical to drink before being placed in a containment room where Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony blares from loud speakers in front of a Cinerama-styled travelogue featuring bucolic images. Thorn arrives too late to save his friend, but Sol confesses to him with his dying breath that the main ingredient in soylent green is people.

Unable to accept the truth, Thorn secretly follows Sol's body to a waste disposal truck that is driven to a processing plant where soylent green is being made. After battling a few of the plant's technicians, Thorn retreats to an overcrowded church to escape the secret police who are out to silence him. He is shot, wounded and carried away screaming "It's people!" as his superior, Lieutenant Hatcher (Brock Peters), looks on.

 

Soylent Green is a mid- to low-budget potboiler at best. While the novel takes place in 1999, the film is set a bit further down the road in 2025. Yet the decor, clothes, vehicles and hairstyles are straight out of 1970s. This limited imagination in set design works out alright if we are to stretch our own to believe that the world of the past broke down somewhere during 1973 or shortly thereafter, rendering things like fashion inconsequential to the masses for nearly 50 years. But what are we to make of Simonson's apartment then? He is the head of the Soylent Conglomerate, a man of affluence and luxury. He can afford anything, yet he chooses to live his life in 2025 as a retrofitted world of leisure suits and bellbottoms, his penthouse derived from that cookie-cutter, globular postmodern extremist view of architecture that has since dated quite badly. So much for the future!

The book makes mention of soylent steaks that would have made the cannibalism references in the film much more frightening, especially if the crowds in the market had stormed in to devour raw meat that we are to presume was cut from their own brethren. Mmm.  Yummy! Unfortunately, the film instead converts its human waste to tiny emerald-coloured Melba-toast sized squares, a fabrication of screenwriter Greenberg's limited imagination that all but diffuses our thoughts of cannibalism. After all, how does a by-product of human flesh become a cracker?

 

As a critic, I realize I am in the minority in my utter distaste for this film (no pun intended), but there it is. I think it's silly, ridiculous and very pedestrian in its execution. It isn't that the narrative is too gruesome. In fact, I think it's too tame. But the acting is way over the top, particularly Heston who plays Thorn as though he just might believe he can still part the Red Sea with a wave of his hand. The final indignation are the fight sequences, shot in such a way as to expose just how fake they really are and lacking in any kinetic energy to be believed. There is no tension to the film as a whole, no escalation to the supposed shock value, and worse still, no style. Cinematographer Richard H. Kline shoots strictly for footage, in this case, that is flat, boring and frankly even more of a dinosaur when viewed today than it surely must have seemed when the film debuted. Unlike other vintage sci-fi classics from this approximate period (Planet of the Apes (1968) or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)), Soylent Green does not hold up at all. In the end, we are left with a badly composed, tragically executed movie that is epically mundane at best.

 

Warner Home Video's Blu-ray is much improved over its previous DVD incarnations, and yet it lags considerably when compared to other 1080p transfers. Colors are refined, but rarely pop. Fine detail is wanting, particularly during night scenes. Flesh tones seem unnaturally orange at times. There are also minor hints of colour fading during a few key sequences.  Overall, this is a just above average transfer with no real complaints but also, no great moments of awe inspiring imagery. The audio remains faithful to the original 2.0 Dolby. Dialogue is strident and forward sounding at best. Extras include the same audio commentary from Fleischer that was previously available on the DVD. There's also a vintage "making of" and a very brief tribute to Edward G. Robinson.

 

 

 

 A seminal film from the 1970s, and Martin Scorsese's breakthrough as a director, Taxi Driver (1976) is an ironic, deeply troubling glimpse into the deranged mind of an obsessive madman whose crimes against humanity are cleansed by a misguided media blitz. The script by Paul Schrader delves into the haunted recesses of a loner who is pushed over the edge, producing an anti-hero made heroic by the press and foisted onto the unsuspecting public.

 

Schrader's initial concept for the character of Travis Bickle as a disgruntled black man was quashed by Scorsese during preliminary talks because he felt it gave the narrative an unwanted and subversive racial undertone. At Scorsese's insistence, the location in the script was also changed from L.A. to New York, since cabs are more a part of the latter's cityscape in public transit.  As with many films of the 1970s, Taxi Driver opens with a rather laconic character study of its central protagonist. New York cabbie Travis Bickle (Rober DeNiro in a career defining performance) is an isolated, slightly depressed insomniac. Honourably discharged from the Marines, Travis reluctantly assimilates into society as a cab driver on the graveyard shift, but quickly thereafter views the depravity surrounding him on the streets of New York with growing disdain. Inexplicably, Travis is drawn to Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a sultry campaign manager in charge of the Presidential Nominee Committee for New York State Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). Betsy's initial reaction to Travis is awkward but engaging. She relates to his isolationism and agrees to go out on a date with him after some coaxing. Unfortunately, Travis is out of Betsy's league and proves it by taking her to a porn theater on their first date. Repulsed, Betsy ditches Travis and takes another cab home.

 

Betsy's rejection ignites an unforeseen spark of vigilantism within Travis. By day, he obsesses over Palantine and stockpiles his apartment with a small arsenal of weaponry acquired from gun salesman, Andy (Steven Price). He postures shirtless in front of a mirror in full tough guy mode and practises his prowess with a pistol. In retrospect, all of this is in service of a plot to assassinate Palantine and thus prove Travis's misguided love for Betsy to her and to the world.

 

On one of his midnight trolls through the city, Travis unexpectedly encounters child prostitute, Iris Steenma (Jodie Foster), who is trying to escape her drunken pimp, Sport Matthews (Harvey Keitel). To defuse the situation, Travis pays Sport for Iris's time but refuses to take advantage of her. Despite her refusal to eschew "the life," Iris comes to trust Travis. Unfortunately for them both, Travis regards himself as Iris's saviour.  With daybreak, Travis endures yet another Jekyll/Hyde transformation. He shaves his head into a Mohawk, dons dark sunglasses and prepares himself for the assassination of Palantine during the candidate's first public address. Thankfully, this plan is bungled by a pair of secret service agents (Richard Higgs and Victor Magnotta). Retreating to his morally superior high ground, Travis goes after Sport instead. He bursts into the seedy brothel, guns blazing, killing Sport and Iris's Mafioso john (Bob Maroff) before being wounded in the neck.

 

In a bizarre, if not redemptive, epilogue (that invariably has been interpreted by some critics as Travis's dying dream) a reluctant Travis is deified in the press as the city's moral crusader. The misanthrope has been rechristened a model citizen. Fully recovered from his wounds, Travis returns to his old life and career as a cab driver. His last fare of the night is Betsy, who is once again attracted to him and flirts in the hopes of rekindling their relationship. Bad luck for Betsy that Travis has decided he is through with her. He drops her off at her apartment and drives into an uncertain future.  In various vintage reviews of the film, Travis has been interpreted as a shell-shocked Viet Nam vet. But this reading does not hold water, especially when one considers how initially inept Travis is with his firearms.

 

At the time of the film's release, the MPAA forced Scorsese to tone down the color registration during the final bloodbath in the film in order to escape an R rating. Scorsese willingly complied, but cinematographer Michael Chapman was less than pleased. Regrettably, when the film was being reissued to home video some years later, Scorsese and Chapman discovered that in reprinting the original negative to accommodate this alteration, the negative had also been altered irreversibly.   In the last analysis, Taxi Driver was a colossal financial and critical success, earning $28,262,574 in the U.S. alone. In retrospect, like so many social critiques from the 1970s, this one seems to foreshadow the rise of counterculture that now appears to us, if not yet entirely acceptable, then certainly more mainstream than it did back then.

 

Sony Home Entertainment's Blu-ray rectifies man a sin from their previously issued DVDs. Part of the problem with bringing Taxi Driver to home video has always been that there are no original camera negatives to work from. Hence, second- and third-generation materials, with all their inherent shortcomings, must be employed. Although the Blu-ray is undeniably well ahead of other incarnations of this film, Taxi Driver will never be as pristine as it should be on home video.  Having said that, the Blu-ray is a revelation. Colors are infinitely richer, although intermittent muddiness still exists. Night scenes are much improved. The mess of grain that often registered as digitized grit in the past now looks very film like and is quite pleasing throughout this presentation. The audio is a new 5.1 DTS master and again, is a monumental upgrade to what's been offered on DVD. Is it perfect. No, nor should aural perfection be the desirable result. Taxi Driver is a film of the streets, shot on a shoestring budget. The audio reflects these shortcomings with accuracy.

 

Save a new "script-to-screen" interactive feature, all of the extra features are carried over from the DVD presentation from 2006. We get separate audio commentaries, one from Schrader and Prof. Robert Kolker, the other by Scorsese, carried over from Criterion's 1986 home video release. There's also a "making of" documentary and featurettes on the production, a psychological critique of Travis Bickle, interviews with the writer, storyboard and photo galleries and the film's original theatrical trailer.  Overall, this is a worthwhile upgrade. Sony has wisely put its efforts and money on improving the image quality of the feature. I sure wish other companies - most notably Fox - would take the hint and do the same for their catalogue titles. This Blu-ray is highly recommended! 

 

 

 

The Night of the Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Psycho

 

Easily one of the most disturbing movies of its own decade, or any other for that matter, Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955) is a diabolical fairytale noir that blends the zealous furor of Southern Baptism with one of the most indelibly demonic movie villains of all time. Drawing on German Expressionism for its highly stylized visuals, Laughton and screenwriter James Agee remain relatively faithful to the novel by David Grubb that itself is a thinly veiled account of the real life of Harry Powers, a man convicted of murdering two widows.    

Like a Greek tragedy, the narrative sets up a premise of salvation only after the innocent have been corrupted. In this case, the tale is seen entirely from the perspective of two fearful children: John Harper (Billy Chapin) and his much younger sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Seems their father, Ben (Peter Graves) has hidden a fortune he stole during an armed robbery in one of Pearl's favourite dolls. Confiding his secret to John only, Ben is apprehended by the police. As he sits on death row, Ben recounts his tale of theft to fellow inmate, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a sadist and a murderer who upon being released from prison masquerades as a preacher to get nearer to the children's mother, Willa (Shelley Winters).

Presenting himself as a model citizen, Harry marries Willa after Ben is hanged, then brainwashes her into believing she is "unclean" and therefore unworthy of his love, all the while baiting John and Pearl as to the whereabouts of their father's loot.  Willa overhears these conversations and gradually begins to realize that Harry's intentions have not been honourable. Harry slits Willa's throat , then weighs down her body, dumps it in a nearby lake, then spreads the rumour about town that she has run off with another man to divert suspicion from his crime.

John, fearful of what may come next, takes Pearl and the money-full doll. The two run off into the night, escaping Harry's clutches repeatedly before arriving at the home of curmudgeonly widow/social worker, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish), whose farm is a refuge for orphans. Eventually, Harry picks up their trail and hunts John and Pearl down. But Rachel is not about to let anything happen.  She wounds Harry with her shotgun, sending for the police who apprehend Harry the next morning. He stands trial and is convicted for Willa's murder with John and Pearl having to endure a lengthy and nightmarish trial and its aftermath. The film closes with Rachel directly addressing the audience, declaring that children represent mankind at its strongest - "they abide!"

Like a trip through the funhouse, The Night of the Hunter is a haunting cinematic excursion. Moreover, Laughton's direction and Stanley Cortez's stark cinematography make the film a stunning visual experience to behold. Laughton's deeply unhinged vision of a child's terror is conceived in almost storybook format. Yet, like a tale told by Grimm, the film consistently builds on a single premise: that evil is a constant in society that cannot be avoided, though arguably, may be overcome through blind faith and perseverance. 

At the time of the premiere, The Night of the Hunter was ill received, perhaps because its unrelenting portrait of evil in real danger of overpowering goodness was at odds with what America wanted to believe about itself and take away from its collective movie-going experience. Regrettably, the film's failure resulted in Laughton never directing another feature. Today, The Night of the Hunter remains unnerving entertainment of the highest order - a testament to the film's stylistic elements and, undoubtedly, Mitchum's central, driven and unsympathetic performance.

Criterion's Blu-Ray easily bests prior DVD offerings from MGM. For one, the Criterion Blu-Ray frames the film's aspect ratio correctly at 1:66 anamorphic widescreen and not 1:33 full frame. The gray scale on the Blu-ray is much more subtly nuanced. Blacks are deeper, richer and more foreboding. Whites, regrettably, continue to look just a tad dirty gray rather than white. Contrast levels are bang-on. Fine detail is more evident, though again, for a film of this vintage, not quite as refined as this reviewer had hoped. Film grain is more obvious but also much more natural looking.  The monaural soundtrack is well balanced and nicely cleaned up. Where the Criterion excels is in its extra features. Not only do we get an informative audio commentary, but there's also a newly produced featurette on the making of the film as well as the nearly 2 1/2 hr. documentary, Charles Laughton Directs (housed on a separate disc) that contains an overwhelming treasure trove of stills, on set photography and other rare outtakes. There's also a critique of that documentary provided by two noted film historians and the film's theatrical trailer to absorb. Bottom line: highly recommended!

 

 

Often cited as the most intense and genuine movie ever made about the Vietnam conflict, Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979) is a film justly famous for its content but infamous for its production and that it caused its star Martin Sheen to suffer a near-fatal heart attack.  Even before cameras began to roll, a snafu with filmmaker Carroll Ballard resulted in a lawsuit over rights. With a script by Coppola and John Milius drawing its central themes from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now is bleak and foreboding entertainment. But behind the scenes, Coppola encountered a journey so abysmal and self-destructive in its setbacks that it threatened to destroy all of the Hollywood cache he had acquired on his two previous efforts for Paramount: The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974).

Indeed, Brando, a Coppola favorite (though not his first choice on this project), was no help to him on his outing, arriving on set morbidly overweight and flubbing his lines as Admiral Kurtz so that Coppola's team was forced to patch together a performance in the editing room during post production. To minimize Brando's girth on set, Coppola shot another actor from behind in long shot and focused primarily on Brando's face, with his body draped in black and often in shadow. For years the character of Kurtz was thought to be based on Tony Poe, a paramilitary officer with a penchant for gruesomeness during combat. Coppola however, has always suggested that the character was based on Colonel Robert Rheault, whose 1969 arrest over the murder of a double agent had garnered considerable press.

As production in Manila progressed at an excruciatingly slow pace, Coppola was faced with a natural disaster:  a typhoon that decimated several large sets already constructed for the film.  Six weeks behind and $2 million over budget, arguably Apocalypse Now's most destructive force of nature became Coppola himself. Increasingly unable to reconcile the footage already photographed with a screenplay that was forever changing, Coppola wrote and rewrote entire sequences, shooting even more footage than was necessary, only to excise much of it later in his final cut. 

After principle photography wrapped, Coppola informed Walter Murch that he had a mere four months to assemble the sound elements for the film, which was an insurmountable task, given that sound libraries in Hollywood then contained no elements of effects for weaponry used during the Vietnam conflict. After cajoling United Artists to postpone the film's debut from May to October of 1978, Coppola found that the film was still not ready for premiere by December of that year. In April 1979, Coppola elected to screen a three-hour "work print" of Apocalypse Now for audiences at Cannes that proved a disaster, capped off by then popular film critic Rona Barrett's assessment of the film as "a disappointing failure."  Regrettably, that negative publicity dogged Apocalypse Now through its official premiere in August 1979. Despite an impressive $150 million as its worldwide gross, the pall of the experience of making - and remaking - the film had crippled Coppola's ability to procure future projects as an independent in Hollywood. On Oscar night the film won a depressing two statuettes in the relatively minor category of sound editing.    

Plot: In 1969, Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), an emotionally barren, psychologically scarred Vietnam vet, is hired by Lt. General Corman (G.D. Spradlin) and Colonel Lucas (Harrison Ford) to make journey on the Nung River in Cambodia in search of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a highly decorated Special Forces operative feared to have gone rogue. It is an assassin's pilgrimage, fraught with danger on all sides and the very real possibility that Willard will not survive the ordeal.

Willard is informed that Kurtz has gone insane and is currently in command of a legion of his own troops who have also become psychologically unhinged from their pasts. These claims are supported by disturbing radio broadcasts made by Kurtz himself. Aboard the Navy Patrol Boat Riverine with Commander George Phillips (Albert Hall), Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms), Tyrone Miller (Laurence Fishburne) and Jay Hicks (Frederic Forrest), Willard makes a rendezvous with an Air Cavalry commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore (Robert Duvall).  At the mouth of the river Willard, Kilgore and his troops are feebly ambushed by the Viet Cong and shortly thereafter decimated. In the resulting carnage and bombing destruction of a nearby village, Kilgore utters the film's oft-quoted line "I love the smell of napalm in the morning...Smells like victory" as he recalls an earlier battle.

From there, the Riverine navigates increasingly more treacherous waters with Willard's own silent obsession to apprehend Kurtz growing ominous and self-destructive. After the Riverine encounters a sampan, the crew open fire and slaughter all on board, revealing that the vessel contained nothing more than a few innocent civilians and a puppy. Discovering that one of the wounded - a young girl - is still alive, Hicks demands that she be taken for medical attention, whereupon Willard quietly shoots the girl dead, thereby alienating himself from the rest of the men. Further upstream, the Riverine encounters utter chaos at the Do Long bridge, the last U.S. outpost on the river. A North Vietnamese attack has left the remaining U.S. troops stationed there without leadership. Willard learns that an Army Captain was sent earlier to find Kurtz but has since vanished without a trace. Meanwhile, aboard the Riverine, Lance pops open a purple smoke grenade that attracts the enemy's attention. In the resulting chaos, several of Willard's men are killed and Phillips, wounded by a spear through his chest, attempts to murder Willard by drawing him onto its protruding tip.

Willard confides the real purpose of his journey to Lance and Hicks, and the three men agree to see the mission through. As they draw closer to Kurtz's outpost, even they are shocked by the sight of a coastline strewn with dead bodies. Willard orders Hicks to launch an airstrike if he and Lance do not return, but only a bit into the forest Willard and Lance are met by a manic photographer (Dennis Hopper) who attempts to explain Kurtz's philosophical greatness: a stark assumption irreconcilable with the many bodies and dismembered heads encountered along the road to a nearby Buddhist temple where Kurtz currently resides.

Bound and brought before Kurtz, Willard is given a crash philosophical take on the war in a hauntingly relevant monologue that ends with Hicks' murder aboard the Riverine and his severed head being dropped into Willard's lap by Kurtz. Sometime later, a weary villager frees Willard and gives him a machete. Entering Kurtz's chamber, Willard slaughters his captor before dropping his weapon. The villagers comply, and Lance and Willard leave the stronghold as free men sailing into an uncertain future. 

Viewed today, Apocalypse Now remains sobering entertainment, dark and evocative of Conrad's original novel while infusing the basic story with deeper, more timely meaning that continues to ring true. In 2001, Coppola released a "redux" version of the film that incorporated 49 minutes more than its theatrical cut.

American Zoetrope/Lionsgate Home Entertainment have joined forces to bring both versions of Apocalypse Now to The Full Disclosure Edition on Blu-Ray and the results are breathtaking. The packaging, however leaves something to be desired. For starters, my copy did not come with the much touted 48-page booklet. Also, the disc clearly marked as "special features" is actually the movies and vice versa. Clearly, someone was not thinking during the final stamping stages on this box set.

Now, for the plusses.  First, both versions of the film have been given a full 1080p video presentation with visuals that positively glow off the screen. The image is subtly textured, with more natural and very vibrant colors throughout. Fine detail takes a quantum leap forward over the old Paramount Home Video releases. Over 9 hours of extras round out ones enjoyment, including an informative audio commentary by Coppola, the 1938 audio recording of Orson Welles reading Conrad's novel for radio, new and exclusively produced conversations with Coppola, Martin Sheen and John Milius, as well as the original and lengthy documentary, Heart of Darkness, that details the film's troubled production.  Bottom line: Highly recommended!

 

 

By 1960, Alfred Hitchcock was an international celebrity - instantly recognizable around the world. Only part of this notoriety was due to his films. Hitchcock's more palpable form of celebrity came from his weekly appearances, introducing segments of his own television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, on NBC. Budgetary restrictions and the fast pace of shooting television would come to serve as a template for Hitchcock's most popular cinematic endeavour.

Often cited as the film that matured American cinema into its present state of sublime cynicism, Psycho (1960) is based on a novel by Robert Bloch that's rooted in the real life serial killings by a deranged New England farmer who quietly butchered his neighbours. In the book, Norman Bates is a rather pudgy middle-aged recluse, easily identifiable as someone with a darker side. In transplanting the attributes of a serial killer into the seemingly normal and youthfully handsome Anthony Perkins, Hitchcock plays upon an erroneous - yet almost universal - misperception that evil is immediately and quite easily identifiable, or, as Shakespeare more astutely observed, "he that smiles may smile and be a villain."

Budgeted at a remarkably modest $800,000, Psycho went on to earn $40 million in its initial release - a telling sign of the cost-cutting that would come to exemplify film making more and more throughout the 1960s. Joseph Stephano's screenplay carries an immersive underlay of psychoanalysis, perhaps because the writer himself was also in therapy at the time the script was written.

The story begins with Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), a hot and bothered secretary whose lover, Sam Loomis (John Gavin), is unable to commit to marriage because he is struggling to pay for his ex-wife's alimony.  To expedite her way to the altar with Sam, Marion decides to steal fifty thousand dollars from her employer as a runaway down-payment on that fantasy life she misperceives can be hers. Unfortunately, en route from Phoenix to Fairfax the weather turns ugly, forcing Marion to take a night's refuge at the Bates Motel from which she will never return. The motel's proprietor, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), is a congenial mama's boy on the surface, but quickly develops a paralytic sexual frustration that manifests itself as murderous psychosis. After stabbing Marion to death inside one of the motel showers, Norman disposes of her body in a nearby swamp.

Enter private investigator Milton Arbogast (Martin Balsam). Assigned by Marion's employer to track her down, Arbogast eventually traces Marion's route to the Bates Motel and shortly thereafter suffers the same fate as our heroine. Forced to take matters into their own hands, Marion’s sister Lila (Vera Miles) and Sam journey to the motel and that now infamous old gothic house on the hill just beyond (actually a free-standing set built on Universal's back lot). After Sam diverts Norman's attention, Lila hurries up to the house to explore. Having earlier been told by Arbogast that Norman's mother is an invalid, Lila is determined to question Mrs. Bates as per her sister's whereabouts. But Norman becomes unsettled by Sam's probing questions. After temporarily knocking Sam unconscious in the motel's office, Norman hurries home to confront Lila who has hidden herself in the cellar, the last place she thinks anyone will look for her.

Unfortunately, the basement is home to the real truth behind Norman Bates: that his mother, who earlier figured prominently as a possible suspect in Marion's disappearance, is actually a mummified corpse, dressed in her favourite shawl and wig, but rotted through nonetheless. Hitchcock frames Lila's terrifying moment of realization in extreme close up, with mother's back to the camera. He then slowly spins her chair around to reveal a shrivelled corpse, its cavernous and blank eye sockets staring to some unfixed point beyond the camera. Lila's shrieks draw Norman, dressed in his mother's drag and toting a butcher knife, to the cellar for the next slaughter. But Sam arrives in the nick of time to thwart Lila's murder and apprehend filmdom's most celebrated serial killer.

The final act of Hitchcock's most compelling psychological thriller is dedicated to a somewhat laborious explanation by Dr. Fred Richmond (Simon Oakland) about Norman's "condition," which is explained as an inability to reconcile his own previous act of murdering his mother and thereafter transforming half of his life into a schizophrenic counterpart that becomes jealous when Norman is sexually aroused by other women.

For its time, Psycho was a disturbing revelation. It exemplified the weakening of the Production Code of Censorship that would never have allowed such grotesqueness on the screen before then. The shower sequence that claims Marion's life remains one of the most effective and masterful bit of editing ever put on film. Involving ninety cuts, a partially nude stand in for Janet Leigh, and a melon being slashed to simulate the sound of steel cutting into flesh.  The sequence unravels as an assault on the audience's collective expectations of what murder is, providing quick horizontal and vertical edits that collectively reassemble in our minds as a brutal homicide that, in reality, is never entirely visualized on the screen.

When the film debuted it was readily denounced by the Catholic League of Decency as well as by a select few film critics who condemned it and Hitchcock as going too far. The backlash, coupled with Paramount's clever marketing, only served to further fuel the public's rabid fascination to see it. In hindsight, Psycho proved to be Hitchcock's most successful movie.

Years of neglect, and ownership of the film slipping from Paramount to Universal did much to dampen the impact of Psycho on home video. Over the years, the film has looked dated, worn and remarkably un-filmlike. But now, there is a definite reason to rejoice. Psycho on Blu-Ray is at long last a fitting tribute to Hitchcock's masterful classic. The B&W image reveals so much new fine detail that there really is NO point in directly comparing this Blu-Ray to Universal's utterly unsatisfactory DVD from 2002. The gray scale now retains its middle grain and tonality - something lost on previous editions.

We can see imperfections in flesh, crisp detailing in fabrics and minute subtleties like the glint of sunlight off of the hood of Marion's car. Psycho's audio has also been given a crisp revitalization and, in stereo, though film purists would probably not approve. For their consideration, the original mono track has also been included, but the stereo remaster reveals some startling cues in effects and scoring that, at least for this reviewer, only seems to add to the mystique and melodrama of this 50 year-old classic.  Extras are all direct imports from Universal's DVD, including an audio commentary and featurettes on the making of the film, all given a modest sprucing up on this outing with less compression artefacts evident. Bottom line: Psycho is a no-brainer repurchase. On Blu-Ray it is a must-have.

 

 

 

Sex and the City: The Movie, The World Is Not Enough, 2012, Dynasty TV series (first three seasons)

 

 

Over the last two decades Hollywood has cannibalized the small screen for big screen movie franchises to the point of utter absurdity. This trend began in the late 1980s with a string of cultish recreations of beloved television shows from the 1960s and 1970s (The Brady Bunch, The Addams Family, Starsky & Hutch) then continued with the absorption of 1980s pop-u-tainment (Charlie's Angels, Miami Vice, The Incredible Hulk) and gradually mutated into TV tie-in movies of then current television series (The X-Files). However, as a television-to-cinema hybrid, Michael Patrick King's Sex and The City: The Movie (2008) is rather disappointing. Instead of playing as an extension of the highly successful HBO series, the film tends to run on as though it were five, half-hour episodes loosely strung together in an attempt to maintain some sort of consistency and our interest.

When the series last left the airwaves, sex columnist Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) had been rescued from a possessive relationship on the banks of the Seine by the ever-elusive matrimonial hunk, John James "Mr. Big" Preston (Chris Noth), a philandering cad who twice before reduced the usually effervescent Carrie into a pile of sobbing blubber.  In
Sex and The City: The Movie, Big is at it again. After buying a lavishly appointed penthouse apartment for him and Carrie - and redoing its closet to conform to Carrie's ever-expanding obsessive/compulsive fashionista archive - Big proposes marriage then chokes on his promise and bolts at the altar, leaving Carrie looking bizarrely stylish in her atrociously expensive Traviata wedding gown (complete with a blue bird stuck in her veil and - you guessed it - reduced yet again to another blubbering pile).

It seems Big's cold feet stem from a comment made by Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon) at the pre-wedding banquet after she has discovered that her own mate, Steve (David Eigenberg) has cheated on her with another woman. Ironically, given the title and premise of the movie, we never get to see this sexual indiscretion that severs Miranda's and Steve's matrimonial bond. Instead, the first hour of the film is devoted to an endless and nauseating cavalcade of bizarrely unhinged and often tasteless "fashion" costume changes as Carrie searches for the perfect wedding gown.

So much for Carrie's dilemma. In another part of Manhattan the ever optimistic, though obtusely frigid Charlotte York (Kristin Davis) continues to live out a resplendently kosher Cinderella fantasy with Harry Goldenblatt (Evan Handler) and their adopted Oriental daughter Lily (Alexandra Fong).
If these narrative threads in King's screenplay sound weak to begin with, they positively fall apart with resident slut-factory, Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall) forsaking her perfect relationship with the perfect pin-up underwear model/turned movie actor, Smith Jerrod (Jason Lewis), simply for a chance to pursue another dead-end relationship with her next-door neighbor, Dante (Gilles Marini), in Malibu.  He's a guy who prefers to shower nude on a landing overlooking the beach. Honestly, who lives like that?

What is rather alarming about
Sex and The City: The Movie, as opposed to the "Sex and The City" TV series, is how utterly joyless this excursion tends to be despite the fact that it borrows heavily from the familiarity of the TV show with audiences. Carrie's and Big's breakup this time around leaves our heroine shellshocked and sleeping alone at a posh resort in Mexico. Even the girls' conversations about bodily functions, various sexual positions and other tawdry behaviors seem tinged with more than a hint of bitter regret, bitchiness and ennui.

The film retains Carrie's voiceover narration, but only as book ends. In the series, Carrie's reflections on life, love and great sex have been the main staple that guides our perceptions of the action taking place. We know the other characters through Carrie's external referencing of them. In the film, Carrie's comments are neither external nor reflective but merely a regurgitation of what we already know.  Hence, they are pointless. After Carrie suffers her humiliation with Big at the altar the voiceovers stop abruptly then remain strangely absent from the film until near its conclusion.

Jennifer Hudson makes a welcome - if all too brief - edition to the clan as Louise from St. Louis: the friend and personal assistant that Carrie could really have used elsewhere from her wellspring of gals if the others in her self-absorbed set weren't so wrapped up with their own navel-and-crotch gazing.

Arguably the strengths of the series are the film's greatest weaknesses and, ironically, none are exploited to as good effect in the film as they have been on television. For example, in the series nudity played as humorous precursor to Carrie's voiceover narrations. The nudity was not present merely to shock or titillate but rather to draw out the obvious foibles and ridiculousness of the story being told.
In the film, sex is gratuitous.  Steve ravages Miranda; Samantha lies on a glass table in Smith Jerrod's beach house covered in nothing but sushi; and - quite frankly - seeing Gilles Marini's hooded snake in profile and widescreen is a sight this critic could so easily have done without. Bottom line: we've seen all this brainless badinage done before, but readily with more savoir faire and lighthearted fun tacked on for good measure. The film, unlike the series, treats sex like a vice rather than a virtue.

 

Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte and Miranda, already riding the fringe "bimbo" element in the series - but miraculously keeping things together long enough to amuse us with their clever resolve and determination - are thrust into full blown "stupid airhead" mode in the film.  And then there is the rather obvious imbalance in on screen time allotted each gal. One would think that with a two-and-a-half-hour canvas to work with, that the film would do as much girl bonding as possible. Not so. Not surprisingly, Parker's Carrie gets the lion's share of running time. Still, it's rather disheartening to see so little of Cattral's Samantha Jones.  She's relocated to a West Coast abode from which King's screenplay desperately tries to find reasons to have her fly back into town for regular dishing of the latest dirt.

The men of the series were never the series' strength, but they were an integral part to its humor. Regrettably, there is all too little humor to go around in this movie. As proof, the series' reoccurring gay characters, Stanford Blatch (Willie Garson) and Anthony Marentino (Mario Cantone), are barely glimpsed in the film. Yet, in the film, Mr. Big gets a lot of play time.  Too much in fact, thereby relegating the other relationships and characters to tertiary cameos at best.
In the series Miranda was given enough time so that her character (abrasive, though it is) could come across as no-nonsense and somewhat sympathetic in all her harried frustration. In the film, however, she is merely "the bitch" and the catalyst for destroying Carrie's initial chance at marital bliss with Mr. Big.

In the final analysis,
Sex and The City: The Movie is surface-sheen extravagance at best. King's screenplay relies too much on audience identification with the series to sustain these old acquaintances for two and a half hours. We are expected to remember all of the series' memorable moments in order to relate to these characters in the film. The trick doesn't quite work. After all, the gals are older now and thus ought to be wiser as well. Inserting snippets from the series when their struggles were fresher and funnier only serves to reiterate just how far the series has come and how much further removed the incidents in the film seem to be from what we best remember in the series. In fact, the opening title sequence begins with snippets from various episodes in the series: a sort of "Sex and the City, the good years' travelogue" - though nothing short of a solid plot (which the film desperately lacks) can stop these recollections from sinking under the featherweight ridiculousness of the movie's central theme. Experiencing a good movie may very well be like having great sex, but this film is neither.

Alliance/New Line's Blu-Ray easily bests its standard DVD. Color fidelity and fine details take a quantum leap forward. Contrast levels are bang on. Blacks are deep and solid. Flesh tones appear quite natural on the Blu-Ray while looking rather pasty on the DVD.  The audio is an aggressive 5.1 Dolby Digital with a very powerful sonic spread across all channels, giving the pop music soundtrack its due wherever and whenever possible. Extras include a brief "making of" and commentary track that is self-congratulatory at best.

 

 

 

Director Roland Emmerich's 2012 is an exhilarating, often overwhelming experience.  It's a film about the global cataclysm that will bring about the end of civilization as we know it. Long predicted by the Mayan calendar, the film's explanation for this catastrophic death of our planet is that solar storms have generated enough radiation to affect the meltdown of the earth's core, thereby triggering the utter collapse of most of its tectonic plates. Mass earthquakes and tsunamis ensue, wiping out three-fourths of the world's population.

 

On a more personal note, the film stars John Cusak as Jackson Curtis, a one-time, not terribly successful author who is determined to save his family, estranged wife Kate (Amanda Peet), son Noah (Liam James, and daughter Lily (Morgan Lily) from the pending disaster after accidentally learning from his employer, Yuri Karpov (Zlatko Buric), that the end of the world is imminent. Meanwhile, U.S. geologist, Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has been diligently working with a worldwide geophysical team on a timeline leading up to the end of days that will hopefully ensure at least part of the population is saved from annihilation. Adrian warns U.S. President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover) of the looming carnage, and Wilson elects to put a plan of evacuation into action. He also chooses to stay behind with those doomed to extinction, sending his daughter Laura (Thandie Newton) on to safety in his stead.

 

The rest of the plot really boils down to brief interactions between the principal cast as they face one harrowing escape from doomsday to the next. Jackson, together with his wife's new boyfriend, Dr. Gordon Silberman (Tom McCarthy), manages to fly the family to safety after the entire California coastline plummets into the ocean. Escaping to Vegas, Jackson and his family meet up with Yuri and his girlfriend, Tamara (Beatrice Rosen).  The group boards Yuri's private plane which is stockpiled with expensive cars and piloted by Tamara's true love, Sasha (Johann Urb). Intercontinental shift works in their favor and the plane crash-lands in the Himalayan mountains after running out of fuel with everyone except Sasha surviving to make the trek to a secret bunker where Chinese workers have been constructing three massive arks to save humanity for future generations. It's an unhappy circumstance that the ark containing Jackson and company has a failure in its hydraulic watertight door, which will cause the ark's lower levels to fill with gushing waters unless Jackson and Noah can dive into the bowels of the ship and manually release the mechanism.  

  

2012 isn't perfect entertainment and it certainly is not Emmerich's best work. That designation belongs to Independence Day (1996). But it's solid entertainment, expertly crafted. One of the aspects of Emmerich's general filmmaking that this reviewer has always greatly admired is that the director does not go for the cheap, quick and jerky handheld camera movements to express a sense of panic.  Rather, he sets up master shots as the old masters of yesteryear did. Emmerich holds his camera relatively stationary, allowing the viewer to take in and soak up the epic quality of the images put forth.  

 

Overall, the acting in 2012 is competent, rescuing the film from becoming just another rank digital special-effects laden mishmash. John Cusak is a great actor. He's given precious little to do here except run like hell, but he's credible and that's half the battle. Looking as though he hasn't bathed in easily a decade, Woody Harrelson does crazy pretty well as Charlie Frost, a fringe kook ham-radio broadcaster who celebrates the final moments of decimation with almost ecclesiastical joy. Roland Emmerich is the Irwin Allen of his generation, and he proves it with this grand disaster epic. The script by him and Harold Kloser veers dangerously close to cliche, and frankly, this reviewer thought the whole last act rescue of Ark number three a bit overdone.  But, on the whole, there is compelling cohesion to the narrative that moves the story along at breakneck speed.

 

Sony Home Entertainment's Blu-Ray disc delivers a superb visual presentation. The image retains its stylized color palette with steely gray blues and warm reds and oranges, depending on the scene. Contrast is bang-on. Digital effects are well-integrated into the live-action footage and plausibly rendered. Fine details are evident throughout for an image that will surely satisfy. The overall quality of the image is smooth and satisfying. The audio is 7.1 Tru HD, delivering an aggressive sonic experience that really rocks the house with deep base resonance. 2012 comes as both a single Blu-Ray and two-disc SE. Only the single disc is reviewed herein. It contains an audio commentary from Emmerich and alternate ending. Recommended. 

 

 

 

 

If TV's Dallas (1978-91) was responsible for putting Texas on the television radar, then Dynasty (1981-1989) most certainly gave Denver, Colorado its glam-bam pizzazz. Originally named Oil by creators Richard and Esther Shapiro and unceremoniously dubbed a cheap Dallas knock-off by the critics when it first premiered as a three part mini-series, producer Aaron Spelling's golden touch and heavy revisionist undertaking to rid the series of its middle-class roots made the eventual rechristening of Dynasty a megawatt television industry, spawning clothing lines, fine wines and hairstyles.

 

Part of the enduring success of Dynasty must go to fashion designer Nolan Miller, whose weekly clothing allowance was enough to produce an entire episode of Dallas. In Miller's melange, the characters that inhabit this fictional Carrington/Colby world sport a cavalcade of stunning - occasionally bizarre - outfits that became iconic of 1980s haute couture. Who today can forget the endless parade of turbans that Alexis (Joan Collins) wore or Krystal's (Linda Evans) power-brokering shoulder pads that grew exponentially as her character became less demure and more assertive?

 

Viewing Dynasty Season One today, one is dumbstruck by how stilted the whole enterprise seemed, both in its storytelling and character development. The series opens with a union: the newly married Krystal Jennings to Blake Carrington (John Forsythe in a role originally slated for George Peppard) and Krystal's awkward assimilation from common secretary to matron of one of Denver's most influential families. It seems that everyone from the Carrington's Major Domo, Joseph Andres (Lee Bergere), to Blake's daughter, Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin), treat Krystal as though she were a poor relation rather than the new mistress of the house. Of course, it does not help matters much that (at least in the early episodes) Krystal is a placid doormat who allows everyone to dump on her. The one accepting heart belongs to Blake's son, Steven (Al Corley), a closet homosexual who is reunited with his former New York lover, Ted Dinard (Mark Withers), much to Blake's chagrin.

 

Ironically, it's Steven's sexuality that will dominate much of the plot development in Season One. Clearly concerned with introducing a gay character into prime-time television circa 1981, the Shapiros temper and defuse Ted's and Steven's relationship throughout most of  the season. As for Blake, he refuses to accept Steven's lifestyle, creating constant friction that eventually forces Steven to move out on his own. Meanwhile, across town, Blake's overseer, Matthew Blaisdel (Bo Hopkins), has returned home with his wife, Claudia (Pamela Bellwood), after her lengthy stay at a retreat to recover from a nervous breakdown. Although there is little doubt that Matthew loves his wife, he deliberately leaves out the fact that during Claudia's absence he was having an affair with Krystal before she married Blake. The final lover's triangle that rounds out Season One belongs to Blake's daughter, Fallon, her new husband Jeff (John James), and his uncle, Cecil Colby (Lloyd Bochner). After dalliances with the family's chauffeur, Michael (Wayne Northrop), the rebellious Fallon makes a failed play for Cecil before agreeing to marry his nephew.

 

In all these relationships, Fallon is a malignant fraud (in retrospect, the Shapiros' first failed attempt at crafting a viper: a role that will eventually go to Joan Collin's Alexis), yet there is nothing to match Fallon's genuine love for her father. Blake repeatedly placates (though never takes seriously) his daughter's interests in assuming a stake in the family business. As Season One draws to a close, Fallon makes it clear to Jeff that she does not love him, which drives a wedge into their marriage that Jeff never quite recovers from. Matthew attempts to seduce Krystal while Fallon quietly falls in love with him. Having renounced Ted, Steven has a brief sexual affair with Claudia, whose mental condition begins to deteriorate.

 

Discovering Ted Dinard in Steven's room, Blake flies into a rage, pushing Ted, who falls and strikes his head on the fireplace grate. In the resulting murder trial, Claudia confesses her affair with Steven, leaving Matthew jilted at the courthouse. Meanwhile, Claudia's failed attempt to whisk Lindsay, their daughter, away, turns tragic when the two are involved in a near fatal car wreck. Back in court, a star witness with damning testimony for the prosecution emerges to round out the first of many season cliffhangers: Blake's first wife; Alexis Colby (Joan Collins).   Thus ends Dynasty Season One on a somewhat lackluster and shockingly dull note. In retrospect, Season One's pitfalls becoming glaringly obvious.  The Shapiros valiant - though inept - struggle to balance the worlds of wealth and prestige that the Carrington's share alongside the Blaisdel's middle-class existence and further, with a honky-tonk back story that involves Matthew and his wildcat friend, Walter Lankershim (Dale Robertson).  This all fails to gel into one cohesive narrative. As such, those who recall Dynasty from its heady days of glitz and glam may wish to skip Season One. In many ways it plays like an entirely different series than the one most fondly remembered by fans.

 

Fox Home Video's DVD release of Season One leaves something to be desired. The image exhibits dated colors and a barrage of age related artifacts. Colors are often muted at best with the palette primarily adopting a greenish, bluish tint. Flesh tones are a pasty pink. Contrast levels appear a tad weaker than expected. Edge-enhancement and shimmering of fine details plague many episodes. The audio is mono as originally aired and adequate for this primarily dialogue driven series. Extras include two brief reflections by costars Pamela Sue Martin and Al Corley on the course of their characters as well as audio commentaries on select episodes.

 

 

The Carringtons and the Colbys: ah, me. For nine years these two feuding families dominated prime-time Wednesdays with their inimitable blend of venomous spite, intrigue and sinfully laissez faire sexuality. Such was the implausible beauty of television's night time soap operas, though few could match Dynasty (1981-89) for glitz, glam and gaudy excess. Season One's cliffhanger, the debut of Alexis Carrington (Joan Collins) begins Season Two on a high octane note of conniving intrigue.

 

In fact, it is in Season Two that Dynasty really hits its stride and develops its staying power as a pop icon. The storylines crafted by Richard and Esther Shapiro seem tighter.  Character development is more linear and engaging. However, just as Dallas eventually proved to be Larry Hagman's gig as the unscrupulous J.R. Ewing, so does Dynasty quickly evolve into Alexis' grandstand platform. In Season One, the Shapiros' attempt at grafting the role of viper/vixen onto Blake Carrington's daughter, Fallon (Pamela Sue Martin) proved an ill fit for both the character and the actress. After all, how could television's original Nancy Drew willfully hurt anyone? But it's a role that Joan Collins - with all her culture and exacting precision as a performer - was destined to play. Alexis begins her tirade by lying on the witness stand at Blake's murder trial, claiming that he was a violent spouse who threatened her with physical harm if she ever came back to Denver to see her children again. This slander is partly responsible for Blake's conviction of Ted Dinard's murder. However, the verdict is distilled into a suspended sentence, affording Blake the opportunity to move on with his professional oil dealings.

 

Unfortunately for Blake, his homefront is anything but a calming influence. Blake's refusal to accept Steven's homosexual lifestyle only serves to widen the rift between father and son. Meanwhile, Fallon's and Jeff's marital relations continue to disintegrate, especially after Fallon begins to flirt with the family's psychiatric physician, Nick Toscanni (James Farantino). Nick harbors a deep though hidden resentment toward Blake after his brother was murdered while overseeing oil fields in the Middle East for Denver Carrington. As for Claudia, she attempts suicide before mobilizing her efforts to learn where Matthew has taken their daughter, Lindsay. Blake gives Claudia a job at Denver Carrington, a move that Cecil Colby (Lloyd Bochner) takes advantage of when he lies to Claudia about knowing the whereabouts of Matthew and Lindsay but refuses to tell her unless she spies on Blake's oil dealings first.

 

Alexis moves onto the Carrington estate and into the artist's cottage, which was originally a wedding present from Blake and for which she currently owns the deed, causing constant friction between Krystal (Linda Evans) and Blake. After learning that Krystal is pregnant, Alexis further compounds her interest in destroying their marriage by firing a gunshot into the air while Krystal is out riding her horse. The animal is spooked, throws its rider and Krystal loses the baby. Enter Sammy Jo (Heather Locklear), Krystal's scheming, poor niece who immediately sets her sights on becoming a Carrington to inherit her piece of the pie by seducing then marrying Steven, much to Alexis' chagrin.  However, realizing that Steven has no tangible wealth other than what his father gives him, the greedy Sammy Jo quickly loses interest in her new husband and runs off to Hollywood to seek her own fame and fortune.

 

Meanwhile, Blake is taunted by a mysterious, seemingly omnipotent oil tsar named Logan Rhinewood (actually Cecil Colby) who threatens to take over Denver Carrington by buying up its stock. After a car bomb set by Rhinewood's henchmen temporarily blinds Blake, he shuns Krystal and the rest of his family, relying almost exclusively on Joseph (Lee Bergere) to guide him through his daily routine.

 

The last third of Season Two escalates into a powerhouse of dramatic tension.  Fallon learns that she is pregnant with Jeff's baby and eventually gives birth to a son they name Blake Jr.  After spying for Cecil and even sleeping with Jeff in order to steal his keys to some of Denver Carrington's secret files, Claudia learns that Cecil has been lying to her about Matthew's and Lindsay's whereabouts. Already mentally unhinged, Claudia plans to shoot Cecil, but Krystal discovers the gun first. The two struggle and Claudia is wounded in the head. On the eve that Alexis is set to marry Cecil Colby on the Carrington estate, Cecil suffers a massive heart attack and has to be hospitalized. Blake Jr. is kidnapped, and Claudia, having once more lost her grip on reality, disappears into the night without a trace, thus becoming the prime suspect. Unfortunately, Blake's time with Nick Toscanni has run out. In the first of many memorable season cliffhangers, Nick unsuccessfully attempting to seduce Krystal then decides to go after Blake and Krystal at the mountaintop retreat where they are vacationing. Nick confronts Blake on horseback. Blake is thrown down a steep ravine and left for dead just as a violent storm approaches. Thus ends Dynasty Season Two with just about all the high-stakes drama one could hope for from a prime-time soap.

 

Paramount Home Video assumes the distribution rights for Season Two of Dynasty, which is the last season to be released in its entirety as a single package. Image quality is vastly improved over the Fox presentation of Season One, though still not the best it could be.  Color fidelity and contrast levels are superior. Flesh tones are quite naturally realized and there is a considerable amount of fine detail evident throughout. Edge enhancement is practically non-existent, but the image is marred by a considerable amount of age-related dirt and scratches. Also, various duplications within several episodes appear to have been sourced from less-than-original negatives, resulting in a few brief but distracting grainy inserts. The audio is mono as originally recorded but adequate for this presentation. The one extra feature that Paramount bestows on us is a pathetic "interactive" family tree that provides a sort of "six degrees of separation" who's-related-to-who chart with few details. Otherwise, Season Two comes recommended!

 

 

Before delving into the plot elements of Dynasty Season Three Volume One, this reviewer would like to stress the pointlessness of studio greed that has unceremoniously begun to chop up television seasons into two volumes simply to take advantage of the consumer and charge more money for their product.  Television shows come to us in full seasons during their original aired broadcast. Hence, there is little to encourage the continuation of giving us only half a year's worth of that experience - particularly when we are dealing with soap operas that build their story lines to a crescendo throughout the year. Enough said.

 

Dynasty Season Three Volume One represents something of a step backwards, as it were, in plot construction. This narrative awkwardness begins with the very first episode and the complete obliteration of the Nick Toscanni character, who vanishes all too conveniently without a trace and to parts unknown, never to be heard from or seen again. Realizing that something is desperately wrong in Blake's failure to return to the mountain cabin, Krystal trudges on horseback through a perilous storm to rescue her husband. Claudia is tracked down by the police, Blake, Jeff, Krystal and Fallon to a rooftop, clutching what appears to be Baby Blake. Tossing the bundle over the side of the skyscraper, it is revealed that Claudia actually had a doll in her arms, not Blake Jr. Frantic, Jeff suddenly recalls that a groundskeeper he casually met only once while visiting his father's grave, exhibited a curious fascination with his baby. Together with Blake, the two successfully hunt this man down and recover Blake Jr.

 

Meanwhile in Billings Montana an old woman dies, but not before revealing to her adult son, Michael (Gordon Thomson), that she was responsible long ago for stealing a baby from its crib in Denver to claim as her own. That child was Adam Carrington, the youngest heir to Blake and Alexis. The woman now confesses to Michael that he is Adam. After the funeral, Adam is determined to return to Denver to claim his birthright. Family friend Dr. Jonas Edwards (Robert Symonds) makes a feeble attempt to discourage Adam from pursuing his destiny, revealing to Adam that the psychedelic drugs he experimented with in his youth might have permanently impeded his better judgment. Nevertheless, Adam arrives in Denver and after some initial apprehension, is accepted into the Colby fold by Alexis. After marrying Alexis, Cecil Colby dies, leaving her a very rich heiress whose controlling interest in ColbyCo. Oil pits her in direct opposition to Blake's Denver Carrington empire. At the reading of the will, Jeff also inherits half of ColbyCo., forcing him to quit Denver Carrington and go to work for Alexis. But Adam has other plans. He redecorates Jeff's office - presumably as a gesture of goodwill - but with paint tainted in mercurochrome oxide. The hallucinogenic properties of this compound eventually begin to weigh heavily on Jeff's ability to reason or even function properly. Meanwhile, Joseph's daughter, Kirby returns from her schooling in France to renew her childhood infatuation with Jeff. Unfortunately, Adam also takes an interest in Kirby, eventually raping her in Alexis' apartment.

 

The ever-scheming Alexis learns that Krystal's divorce from her first husband, tennis pro Mark Jennings (Geoffrey Scott) was never finalized in Mexico, thus rendering her present marriage to Blake null and void.  Fallon, who has encouraged Blake to let her become the owner of one of his less popular hotels, La Mirage, now finds herself Alexis' unwitting accomplice when she hires Mark to be the new tennis pro at La Mirage. Shortly thereafter, Fallon falls in love with Mark but not before Alexis also seduces Mark while planning to use him to destroy Krystal's love for Blake.  Steven, who has departed Denver to work on-and-off-shore oil rig is presumed dead after an explosion. Although Krystal and Blake pursue leads in Indonesia, they are unable to locate Steven, forcing an extremely reluctant Blake to accept that his son is dead. After an absence of some length, Sammy Jo arrives at Steven's memorial service, carrying Danny, Steven's son.  Thus, ends Dynasty Season Three Volume One.

 

Although Paramount Home Video remains in control of distributing Dynasty on Home Video, the exemplary results achieved on Season Two are slightly less so on Season Three Volume One, with a considerable amount of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details being the greatest distraction. Color fidelity is still excellent, as are contrast levels. However, background detail is a mess of digital distractions, not on all episodes but on enough to render the image quality inconsistent at best. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequate for this presentation.

 

 

It can safely be said that during the end of Season Three, Dynasty makes a modest comeback; unique enough to be considered not the Dallas wannabe critics had initially dubbed it. Fashion designer Nolan Miller's glam-bam is on full display with Joan Collins and Linda Evans wearing some of the most extravagant and expensive ensembles ever associated with a major television series. But the fashion pales to the scintillating performances and storylines that take center stage in this compendium of episodes.

 

Having disorientated Jeff sufficiently with the mercurochrome oxide paint in his office to have him agree to sign all his ColbyCo. shares over to Alexis, Adam focuses on implicating Jeff in the Logan Rhinewood scandal, thus luring Blake's affections away. Meanwhile, Alexis learns a scandalous truth about Kirby's mother and threatens Joseph with the details.  Sammy Jo returns to Denver and attempts to sell Blake Jr. to Krystal and Blake so that she can move on with both her shallow life and career as a New York model. Blake refuses to buy the child from her but agrees at a possible adoption. Alexis pursues her devious takeover campaign of Denver Carrington by forcing the banks to call in Blake's loans prematurely. She further attempts to blackmail Blake's Washington politico, Congressman Neal McVane (Paul Burke), by threatening to reveal his extramarital affairs. Next, Alexis forces Blake's Board of Directors to side with her plans for a merger, lest they be destroyed by her need for revenge. Having broken ties with Alexis earlier, Adam turns to Blake, quietly attempting to frame Alexis for Jeff's mercurochrome oxide poisoning.

 

Meanwhile, the unconscious body of  the sole survivor from the oil rig explosion is pulled to safety. The mysterious stranger is sent to recuperate inside a hospital in Singapore. Assuming the identity of a dead rig coworker after having had major reconstructive surgery, Steven (played for the first time by Jack Coleman) is finally confronted by Blake in Singapore and told that Sammy Jo has born him a son. Reluctantly, Steven returns to Denver and is welcomed by the entire family who briefly rejoice. Meanwhile, Fallon pursues a romance with La Mirage's tennis pro, Mark Jennings until Alexis thwarts the seduction by sneaking into Mark's room just as he has stepped into the shower, pretending to have slept with him by crawling into his bed as Fallon arrives. Back at the Carrington mansion, Kirby becomes jealous of Jeff's friendly relations with Fallon. In the scorching season finale, Alexis lures Krystal to Steven's remote cabin to confront her with news that her marriage to Mark Jennings has never been annulled, offering Krystal a cool million if she will leave Blake for good. Insulted, Krystal attempts to leave the cabin, only to discover that someone has locked both she and Alexis in. The mysterious stranger now douses the cabin in kerosene, setting it ablaze. In the ensuing firestorm a beam comes loose from the ceiling, knocking Alexis unconscious and leaving Krystal alone and surrounded by deadly flames.

 

Paramount Home Video's Season Three Volume Two continues to suffer from edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. Overall, color fidelity is solid, as are contrast levels. However, background detail suffers from digital distractions, not on all episodes but on enough to render the image quality inconsistent at best. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequate for this presentation.

 

 

Season Four, Volume One picks up exactly where Season Three Volume Two ended: inside Steven's cabin that's aflame with Krystal and Alexis trapped inside. Unfortunately for the show's creators Richard and Esther Shapiro, Season Four begins on a rather sour note, fundamentally flawed with too many all too convenient narrative tie-ins that, in hindsight, do not make very much practical sense. We begin with screams for help. Krystal's cries are heard by Mark Jennings, who breaks down the door, allowing Krystal to pass, while carrying the unconscious Alexis to safety. However, Mark's arrival is never entirely explained. What was he doing at the cabin? How did he know anyone was inside it to even attempt a rescue? Unhappy circumstance for Mark that he becomes the police's prime suspect for setting the cabin on fire in the first place.

 

Meanwhile, Joseph loses his grip on reality: a plot entanglement even more feeble than Mark's presence at the cabin. In previous seasons, Joseph is the peerless Major Domo of the Carrington mansion, equally adept at managing the house staff as he is at drawing subtle innuendo out of Alexis. Presumably, because he could not bear to have Kirby learn the truth about her mother from Alexis, Joseph confesses to having set the blaze that trapped both she and Krystal, before taking his own life with a pistol.  Meanwhile, Blake tries to gain custody of Blake Jr., using Steven's homosexuality as the chief reason for his being unfit to raise the boy himself. Sammy Jo lies on the witness stand to further ruin Steven's chances of keeping Blake Jr. But Claudia proposes that she and Steven wed in Reno, having once had a brief affair with Steven before she entered the sanitarium. Steven agrees and the judge declares the couple as Blake Jr.'s rightful parents.

 

Adam switches the original purchase sheets for the mercurochrome oxide with copies he has fooled Alexis into signing. Next, Adam confronts Blake with the forged copies and Blake, in turn, uses these to blackmail Alexis into giving Jeff back his shares of ColbyCo. stock. He also foils the merger between ColbyCo. and Denver Carrington. In an attempt to break out of the insular Carrington/Colby world, three new and devious (though largely forgettable) faces join the cast of Season Four: Deborah Adair as scheming Denver Carrington PR maven, Tracy Kendall, Helmut Berger as unscrupulous playboy, Peter DeVilbis, and Michael Nader as wealthy rival, Farnsworth "Dex" Dexter. Only the latter will have any staying power beyond this season. After Blake appoints Krystal the head of Denver Carrington's PR, Tracy attempts to submarine Krystal's chances for succeeding while gaining access to Denver Carrington's top secret files. Krystal agrees to marry Blake for the second time. At a horse race, Fallon meets the arrogant Peter DeVilbis and instantly becomes smitten with him. Peter introduces Fallon to the drug culture, then feebly attempts to blackmail Blake by having one of his prized race horses stolen from his barn. Neither narrative thread has any real meat to sustain it.  Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger taunts Claudia by telephone with recordings of her late husband Matthew - nearly pushing Claudia over the edge. Blake learns that Adam raped Kirby and that it is his child - not Jeff's - that she is carrying. Separated from Jeff, Kirby agrees to Adam's rather sincere marriage proposal, though shortly thereafter her health takes a turn for the worst.

 

Season Four is a mess of plot entanglements, none of which seem to gel for more than two or three episodes at a time. Secondary characters come and go, having little or no impact on either the existing Carrington/Colby clan or the longevity of developing plausible narrative threads. After the exhilarating intrigues of Season Two and Three, Season Four Part One is decidedly a letdown.

 

Paramount Home Video's  transfers are an improvement over their work on Season Three. Edge enhancement still exists, but it has been greatly reduced for an image that is overall smooth and satisfying. Color fidelity remains solid. However, colors seem less vibrant than on previous seasons. Contrast levels also seem slightly softer than before. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequate for this presentation.

 

 

 

The Terminator, T2: Judgment Day, The Godfather Trilogy (Blu-Ray)

 

 

In the days before real life looming apocalypses of global warming, terrorism and the end of days circa 2012 took their place of central importance in the North American pop landscape, Hollywood occasionally found it quite fashionable to ravage theatre audiences with "what if" projections of futurism run amuck that cursed the human race to near extinction. Of these like-minded scenarios, director James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) was - at least for a time - certainly the most depressingly creative. 

 

As scripted by Cameron, Gail Anne Hurd and William Wisher Jr., the tale of a post-apocalyptic 2029, when artificial intelligence has sought to obliterate mankind from the earth, seemed quaintly compelling and yet totally unrealistic. After all, these were the days before either the "thinking computer" or the Internet: two technological advancements that ironically have brought us closer to The Terminator's vision of tomorrow.

 

In the battle for survival, the humans have a small chance at defeating the machines, prompting the latter to send back through time to Los Angeles circa 1984 a cyborg assassin that is programmed to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the yet-unborn future leader of the human resistance, John Conner.  This killer, a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), will stop at nothing to see that Sarah never realizes her destiny. 

 

All is not lost, however, as the human faction have also mastered a teleportation device to send back Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), the father of John Conner. The Terminator arrives first and sets about murdering anyone in the L.A. phone directory who has the name Sarah Connor. Oblivious to the danger she is in, Sarah and her roommate Ginger Ventura (Bess Motta) plan a night out on the town with Ginger's boyfriend, Matt Buchanan (Rick Rossovich), and a blind date for Sarah who never shows up.

 

Unhappy chance for Ginger and Matt, because the Terminator arrives for his next kill at the apartment Ginger shares with Sarah after she has already left. Meanwhile, Sarah learns of the serial killings of two other women with her name and attempts to warn Ginger by phone. Leaving the safety of the restaurant she's in, Sarah next finds herself being followed down a lonely street by Kyle. Believing that he is the serial killer, Sarah ducks into a dance club where the Terminator is waiting to kill her. Kyle enters the club. In the hailstorm of gunfire exchanged between him and the Terminator, many are wounded. But Kyle rescues Sarah from certain death. After a harrowing car chase, police arrest Sarah and Kyle, taking them to the local precinct where Sarah is informed by Police Lieutenant Ed Traxler (Paul Winfield) that Ginger and Matt are dead.  Driving a stolen vehicle through the front window of the station, the Terminator proceeds to annihilate the entire police force. Kyle and Sarah narrowly escape and for the next several days Kyle informs Sarah of her role in preventing the total destruction of mankind.

 

Sarah reluctantly accepts her lot, and she and Kyle make love eventually.  She is impregnated with the future leader of human freedom.  After several close shaves, the Terminator catches up to Kyle and Sarah inside an abandoned factory. Kyle valiantly attempts to stop the Terminator from murdering Sarah but is killed by the Terminator instead, leaving Sarah to fend for herself. She succeeds by crushing the skeletal remains of her futuristic assassin in a machine press. However, several months later Sarah is seen pregnant and driving her jeep into a gas stop near the U.S./Mexican border. The old proprietor of the establishment tells her that there is a storm coming - referring to inclement weather - but to which the now world-wise Sarah soberly declares "I know."

 

Produced on a shoestring budget for Hemdale and Orion Pictures, The Terminator went on to gross $78 million worldwide and establish both James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger as forces to be reckoned with in the film industry. Initially, Cameron conceived of the Terminator as a small man who would conspicuously blend into the background. Offering the part first to Lance Henriksen (who would end up playing Police Detective Hal Vukovich instead), Cameron was forced to rethink his choice in casting when his pick for Reese - Arnold Schwarzenegger - expressed his interest in playing the evil cyborg instead. It was a pivotal decision in Schwarzenegger's then precariously perched movie career that would ultimately make him a star.

 

Viewed today, The Terminator isn't quite as impressive or apocalyptic as it seemed in 1984, perhaps partly because the advancement of digital effects have made much of this film's pyrotechnics quaint and tame by comparison. Yes, the narrative still works on a superficial level with Schwarzenegger's methodical menacing the biggest asset. But on the whole, the movie seems to have dated badly in its bleak view of the future: an implausible alternative to the arguably more predictable bleakness we face from the real world of today.

 

MGM Home Video's Blu-Ray easily bests any of its previous standard DVD incarnations. The image lacks the overall punch in color fidelity, but remains relatively true to the original filmic origins. Flesh tones are more accurately realized, with Schwarzenegger's pasty pale make up giving his cyborg skin a slightly artificial sheen that suits the character well. Fine details are realized in close up and medium shots, but long shots still tend to have a softer feel with not quite as much fine rendering in background detail. Perhaps, this is due to the limited budget of the film when it was shot or simply the slow degeneration of Eastman Kodak film stock from this vintage. Whatever the case, the image is solid and will not disappoint, even if it does not exactly impress. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital, dated but adequate for this presentation. Extras are direct imports from MGM's standard DVD issue and include a look back with candid interviews from James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as a peak behind the scenes at Stan Winston's then state of the art effects.

 

 

 

Owing to the phenomenal success of The Terminator (1984), director James Cameron always intended to follow up this film with a sequel. For one reason or another, seven years would elapse before Terminator II: Judgment Day (1991) made it to the big screen. By then, Arnold Schwarzenegger's movie career had made him a household word, but in the intervening years he was no longer the physical Colossus he had once been. As such, Schwarzenegger's robust bodybuilding physique so prominently showcased in the first film is largely kept under a brutally weather beaten leather jacket in T2 with only brief glimpses from the chest up during an early bar room brawl.

 

The wrinkle in T2's script by James Cameron and William Wisher Jr. is that Schwarzenegger's Terminator is no longer the bad guy. He has been reprogrammed in the future by the human resistance and sent back to 1995, this time as the protector of Sarah Connor's child, John (Edward Furlong).  Meanwhile, after having attempted to blow up Cyberdyne Systems - the company inadvertently responsible for the looming future apocalypse - Sarah  (Linda Hamilton) has been incarcerated in a maximum-security mental institution for the criminally insane.

 

John's foster parents, Janelle (Jenette Goldstein) and Todd (Xander Berkeley), have a loose hold on their young charge who has been reduced to the status of a common punk in the absence of any real parenting. Meanwhile, John's futurist assassin, the T-1000 Terminator (Robert Patrick) has arrived in the present to destroy him. Able to assume the body of anyone he touches, the T-1000 murders a police officer and assimilates his appearance to search for John.

 

Discovering John at a local arcade, the T-1000 is thwarted by the original Terminator. After a harrowing chase on motorcycle, the Terminator and John become more intimately acquainted, and John realizes that all the stories his mother told him while he was growing up about being a great warrior for the future of mankind are true. The Terminator and John break into the facility housing Sarah on the eve that she has staged a daring escape. The T-1000 arrives and another violent confrontation occurs with The Terminator, Sarah and John narrowly escaping.

 

Isolated and alone once again, Sarah is determined to murder Dr. Miles Bennett Dyson (Joe Morton), the brilliant computer systems engineer who will inadvertently create the technology that destroys civilization. Paring off from John and The Terminator, Sarah arrives at Miles stately home and narrowly carries out her plan. She is prevented in completing the assassination by John and the Terminator with Miles learning the truth about his stake in the future and thereafter vowing to help Sarah, John and the Terminator destroy all of his research currently housed at Cyberdyne Systems.

 

Unfortunately, the police are alerted to the break in at Cyberdyne. In the resulting mayhem, Miles is killed by sniper fire and the T-1000 relocates Sarah, John and The Terminator. Racing down a lonely California highway, the T-1000 meets up with his targets at a steel smelting plant. The Terminator fires several rounds into a tank of liquid nitrogen and momentarily freezes the T-1000. However, the intense heat from the smelting reverses this effect, and the T-1000 pursues John and Sarah to a scaffold high above a pit of molten steel. The Terminator, badly beaten by the T-1000, manages to fire several rounds into the T-1000, knocking it into the boiling pit of fire below. In order to secure a different future for humanity, the Terminator reasons that he too must be destroyed. Sarah agrees and lowers him into the fire.

 

The most expensive movie made to its date, Terminator 2: Judgment Day was an even more bleak and depressing film than its predecessor. Yes, there are memorable action sequences a plenty and, then, state-of-the-art special effects supplied by Industrial Light and Magic and Stan Winston to distract the viewer from the obvious message beneath all the pyrotechnics. However, the sobering reality that mankind may one day invent its own destructor is ultimately what remains most enduring about the film. On its release, T2 grossed a whopping $519 million worldwide, reaffirming that Cameron and company would return yet again for another bite at apple.However, in the years since the film's release, the reality of world events that seem to suggest we may somehow actually be nearer to that dangerous timeline of extinction have superseded any fictionalized account that Hollywood film making of this ilk could offer. In the final analysis, T2 is a film of few questions and even fewer answers.

 

Alliance Atlantis Skynet Blu-Ray edition of T2 easily bests any of multiple reissues the film has endured on standard DVD. One immediate complaint this reviewer has about the Blu-Ray is its delayed upload on standard players as this disc's programming is set to search for a Blu-Ray player hooked up to the Internet in order to download additional content only available online. After several long moments, a message appears on players not hooked up to the Internet suggesting to either retry the disc or cancel its operation entire. Selecting "cancel" will force independent players to upload content available on the disc only.

 

As for the image, it is much improved over previously issued DVDs. However, it is far from perfect. The biggest complaint I have here is that a lot of the image seems more softly focused than I remember it being in theatres. Contrast levels are a tad too weak with a loss of fine detail as the direct result. Colors too are less punchy than I expected. Closeups and medium shots look the best, but long shots seem to have a rather unimpressive rendering on the whole. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and not up to snuff for a thrill ride experience of this vintage. Extras on the disc alone are limited to audio commentaries and a few vintage junkets. This reviewer did not have the time to evaluate online content for this disc at the time of this review. 

 

 

 

To say that Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather (1972) was a highly anticipated movie upon its initial release is an overstatement. Despite its pedigree, including a best-selling novel by Mario Puzo and a cast headlined by Marlon Brando, Paramount executives were less than enthusiastic about the project. Only part of their apprehension pertained to the fact that the film had common thugs, gangsters and organized crime syndicates as its heroes. After all, this was the 1970s: the very center of the universe where movie antiheroes were concerned. No, the gravest concern derived from Coppola's insistence on casting Brando in the lead.

Ever since costly delays on MGM's disastrous remake of
Mutiny On the Bounty (1962), Brando had acquired a fabled reputation for being difficult and undisciplined on set. It did not help matters that Brando was a perfectionist with a will and mindset that frequently conflicted with his directors. As a result, Brando was persona non grata in Hollywood by 1970 and quite out of the loop for plum roles such as this one.

Worse, by 1971 Paramount Studios were precariously teetering on financial ruin and unprepared to incur delays on any project. Hence, Coppola found himself under a very tight contractual agreement and constant scrutiny from the front office. In fact, the studio even contemplated replacing Coppola as director on more than one occasion.

The Godfather
's brilliant script by Mario Puzo, Coppola and Robert Towne opens this epic mafia movie on the afternoon of Connie Corleone's (Talia Shire) wedding to Carlo Rizzi (Giani Russo). While the outdoor reception is in full swing, Connie's father, Don Vito Coreleone (Marlon Brando) is fulfilling favors and requests from guests inside his darkly lit study.
The family's youngest son, Michael (Al Pacino), has just returned from active duty in the war with girlfriend, Kay Adams (Diane Keaton), at his side. Middle son, Santino (James Caan), is heavily involved in the Don's "family business," while the eldest, Fredo (John Cazale), is quietly overlooked because of his less-than-stellar intelligence. Meanwhile, the Don's nephew, singer Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), approaches with a dispute involving Hollywood film director, Jack Woltz (John Marley).

The Don's first move is to send his trusted advisor Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) to Hollywood to negotiate a truce so that Johnny can get a part in Woltz's next movie. However, the production chief is hardhearted. So the Don is forced to take a different approach. In one of many iconic moments from this film, Woltz awakens to discover the bloody severed head of his prized racing stallion in his bed. The message is clear: a request from the Don is a command.


The narrative advances to the Christmas season. Several of the Don's close associates are murdered by rival kingpin, Virgil Sollozzo (Al Lettieri), and the Don narrowly escapes becoming the victim of a botched assassination attempt. While he convalesces at the hospital, Michael assumes responsibility for exacting the family's revenge. He kills Sollozzo and his police stooge Capt. McKluskey (Sterling Hayden) before escaping to Sicily.  There, Michael falls in love with and marries Apollonia Vitelli (Simonetta Stefanelli). But their life together is tragically cut short when another botched assassination attempt claims Apollonia's life instead of Michael's. Michael returns to the U.S. and pursues Kay - a relationship built on mistrust and lies almost from the word "go." Owing to the fact that he is involved with the Don's arch rival, Carlo sets up Santino, who is brutally assassinated at a toll booth, forcing Michael to assume control of the family business and pick off his enemies one by one. It's not war - just business.

The Godfather is a sprawling, hot-blooded and intense family saga with Coppolla pushing the boundaries of screen violence in new directions. What was unique to Coppolla's saga then - but endlessly parodied and borrowed from today - is its treatment of these warring factions, not as the cliched street criminals in days of yore, but rather, just common folk, immigrants who came in search of a better life, only to be forced to defend themselves at the most base level of human integrity. An overwhelming critical and financial success, The Godfather would eventually go on to become Paramount's most successful film to date. Today, it continues to hover on "ten best" lists as one of the top three greatest movies of all time, definitive proof that Coppolla knew what he was doing all along.

 



It rarely happens that a sequel proves to be just as good, if not better, than the original film that spawned the franchise. It is even more unique that any sequel should win a Best Picture Oscar. Indeed, immediately following the release of Francis Ford Coppola's
The Godfather (1972), Paramount was frantic for a follow-up. By now, Coppola's place in the cinema firmament - made precarious a few scant years before by a few abysmal misfires - was now secure for the ages. Flush with this success, and already immersed in the material, Coppola brought Mario Puzo in to co-write The Godfather Part II (1974): both a sequel and a prequel to his original movie.

In splitting the narrative into flashback and a continuing saga, Part II developed a cinema language all its own: drawing parallels between the young Vito Corleone (now played by Robert DeNiro) and his son, Michael (Al Pacino) assuming control of the family business after the Don's demise. Originally, Coppolla had wanted to bring back Marlon Brando to reprise his role. Paramount executives balked at the suggestion, forcing Coppolla to work around Brando's absence.
The present-day narrative charts Michael's rise to prominence as the head of the Corleone family. While vacationing with his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) and their children in Lake Tahoe, Michael becomes the intended victim of a botched assassination attempt. He suspects but cannot confirm that one of his father's old-time associates, Hyman Roth (Lee Strassberg) is responsible for the coup.

Instead of retaliating, Michael infiltrates Roth's organization by pretending to desire an alliance. The ruse works, and Michael soon learns that his brother Fredo (John Cazale) was actually the one who informed Roth's associates of his whereabouts. On the eve that the provisional Castro government seizes control of Cuba, Michael confronts Fredo with this knowledge, forcing him into exile.

The 1917-1925 flashback is almost as compelling. Young Vito Corleone becomes the target of a Don in Sicily who desires to murder his entire family. Friends smuggle the boy to relative safety in America. However, Vito grows up in squalor and poverty. As a young man, Vito (Robert DeNiro) befriends Peter Clemenza (Bruno Kirby) and the two begin a modest crime syndicate to advance their social standing and personal wealth. But their escapades pit them against wealthy prig, Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin). To set the tone of their new regime, Vito assassinates Fanucci in a stairwell and thereafter sets up his stronghold in the neighborhood for his own success.

Many of the scenarios developed in Part II were in fact direct imports from unused bits in Puzo's original novel, so expansive in its detail that the subject matter proved too great for just one film. Apart from Brando's absence, the entire cast is reunited in Part II - a nearly impossible accomplishment and major coup for Coppolla who, only two years before, had had to beg Paramount executives for every casting choice made along the way.

Reportedly, after screening Coppolla's five-hour rough cut, fellow filmmaker George Lucas told his friend,
"You have two films. Take one away." Instead, Coppolla chose to rework both into a revised parallel: cutting between past and present in unconventional ways. In the final analysis, The Godfather Part II is grandiose beyond most expectations. It excels at expanding the already rich canvas of family drama explored in the original film, while bringing new light to characters and places the audience only thought they knew.


 


In 1990, prompted by inquiries from fans and the studio - both of whom considered the Corleone family saga incomplete - Coppolla agreed to revisit the franchise for a third and final installment with The Godfather III. But by then the power and shock value of the human drama had worn thin. There are those among the critics even today who center their denouncements and blame on Coppolla's final chapter squarely on the shoulders of his choice in casting daughter Sophia in the pivotal role as Michael's daughter, Mary. There are also those who consider Andy Garcia's over-the-top performance as Sonny's illegitimate son, Vincent Mancini, a tad grating and out of step. For this critic's palette, the question of the third film's failure has never been about its central casting but rather its obvious retreading over of familiar plot elements. For example, the final act of
Part III is a virtual regurgitation of the montage slaughter sequences in The Godfather and Part II.

On this final outing, Michael Corleone (Pacino looking ragged and careworn) is the aged patriarch of a crumbling Mafia empire that no one seems to want. Estranged from Kay and his adult son, Anthony Vito (Franc D'Ambrosio), Michael suffers from diabetes and succumbs to a near fatal stroke after an attempt on his life by rival gang leader, Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna).  Zasa assumes the role of the Janus-faced hypocrite vacated by Hyman Roth in Part II.
His inroad to Michael's family comes from trusted advisor, Don Altobello (Eli Wallach): shades of Part II's Frankie Pantangelli (Michael V. Gazzo). Michael's secret investment in the Vatican's international banking apparatus is secured through corrupt clergy, Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly), a man plotting his own purge of the Corleone family through spurious connections with other European crime syndicates. With so many of the principle cast from the first two films already wearing toe tags, Part III also suffers from an infusion of too many new characters that have not been developed even as secondary bit parts in the first two films. For example, the screenplay inexplicably refocuses on a doomed love interest between Vincent and Mary in the middle and final acts of Part III, even though neither character appeared in either the first or second movie. Hence, the first act of Part III spends far too much time explaining to the audience who these people are and what their histories have been in order to engage the audience later on and make us care about what happens to them before the final fade out. It may seem to some that this critic is being far too critical about this final act in the Corleone saga. I am not suggesting that there is no spark of brilliance to be had in Part III. However, the overall arch in narrative excitement that was in the original film and Part II is wholly absent. Characters float in and out of the story without having an impact. The central narrative focused on Michael's vain attempts to finally legitimize the family business, as well as the exposure of corruption and murder at the highest levels of the Catholic Church is frequently muddied by long interruptions - trailing the narrative in directions that do not support this central plot.

And then, of course, there are the "copy cat" moments in Part III that seem to suggest Coppolla has run out of ideas as per how to resolve all the loose threads of a story he began to tell more successfully two decades earlier. Zasa's assassination mirrors Vito's killing of Fanucci in Part II - even down to its staged festival atmosphere. Michael's death in Part III mirrors his own father's in the original film. Are these deliberate homages inserted by Coppella to suggest some sublime and inescapable symmetry to the tale, or are they merely easy ways to resolve certain complexities in storytelling that Coppolla has neither the time nor the interest to properly explore and resolve?
In the final analysis, The Godfather Part III is an artistic failure - but a masterfully concocted one that bears further review.

At long last, Paramount Home Video has seen the light. I can recall my waited anticipation when Paramount announced the anniversary re-releases of all three Godfather films to theaters in the late 1990s, and I also remember how I was somewhat disappointed even then by the quality - or lack thereof - of the image. Its de-saturated palette of colors seemed more faded than stylized.

Sure enough, when the films finally arrived as a collection on DVD in 1998, much to my horror, the movies not only looked much older than their years - they also suffered from a gross mess of digital artefacts that rendered much of the enjoyment for reviving these movies on a digital format colossally moot. Not only were there age related artefacts, scratches and chips glaringly present, but contrast levels were so low that many of the night scenes were an undistinguished mess of muddy browns and grays. Worse, a barrage of edge enhancement, pixelization and other digital anomalies made the overall presentation harsh and distracting to the eyes. And then there was the marketing curiosity of splitting Part II across two discs at the film's midway point, even though it ran a modest 12 minutes longer that the original film, which fit quite nicely on one DVD!

No, the original release of
The Godfather movies on DVD was a colossal waste of time and money that infuriated this critic to no end. I know I was not alone. But now a new concern and cause for criticism has emerged with the remastered Coppolla Restoration editions on Blu-Ray. Viewing the image quality side by side with the old transfers reveals a night and day revelation. Image quality exhibits marked improvement. 

The chief concern this time around seems to be a rather fruitless discussion on what some are referring to as a re-imagining of the original film's color scheme. I would argue that what we are seeing on this Blu-Ray for the first time is a more accurate presentation of the original films.
Colors are dated but fully saturated, recreating the "aged photograph" look that Coppola was striving for while making the movies.  Outdoor scenes seem a tad too brightly rendered, particularly Connie's wedding in The Godfather where whites are glaringly pronounced and often obscure fine detail momentarily. But the vintage quality of Coppola's original photography now seems much more vibrant and sustained.


Overall, fine details are far more clear and sharp on this outing. for example, this reviewer never noticed the Academy Award somewhat prominently featured on the nightstand after Woltz discovers his horse's head in The Godfather. I also do not remember seeing quite so much blood on Mary's dress in Part III before.
Again, critics have analyzed the Coppola Restorations as not remaining faithful to the original color scheme, grain patina or contrast levels. However, it is important to note that any digital transfer of an organic film can only be an approximation at best of what the original filmic image looked like. On that score, the Coppola Restorations excel, giving us all three movies in a rendering that is fit for our sustained and everlasting enjoyment!

Sonically, the restorations are on much more solid ground with a 5.1 Dolby Digital mix that creates a more spacious acoustic backdrop. This reviewer can recall how strident and lacking in bass tonality the dialogue, music and effects sounded in The Godfather and Part II on the original DVD transfers. These oversights have been smoothed over and/or corrected on the Coppola Restorations. There are no drop outs and no crackling. Is the audio up to today's standards? Certainly not. Is it the best it can ever be for home viewing? Arguably, yes - and that is saying much for the efforts put forth.

Extras exclusive to the
Godfather trilogy set include two discs of goodies: the first a retread of the previously released trilogy's supplements, the latter previously unseen. The extras directly imported from the original release retain their rather poor visual quality - gritty, grainy and slightly out of focus. The "new to this edition" extras fair much better in terms of visual impact.

Clearly, Paramount Home Video has rethought its skin-flint strategy of yore to deliver an appealing assortment of extras guaranteed to entertain as well as educate. In totem, four hours saturate the viewer's experience and understanding of these landmark movies. While there are those that will continue to poo-poo the transfers as less than what they out to be, this critic would argue that the Coppella Restorations provide the best possible source material and image quality yet for this trilogy on home video. In its Blu-Ray incarnation, the Godfather trilogy is a must-have. Highly recommended!

 

 

 

A Passage to India, Gigi, Ghostbusters, The Diary of Anne Frank

 

 

Following anemic box office returns on Ryan’s Daughter (1970) director David Lean’s career in larger-than-life melodramas came to a sudden and unceremonious halt. Only part of the decision had to do with the fact that Hollywood had moved on from lavish and lengthy entertainment. More to the point, Lean was mortally wounded by the overwhelming negative response by the New York Critics to his 1970 film and went into a self-imposed exile. Small wonder that it took Lean over a decade to return to the big screen, this time with an impressive cinematic adaptation of E.M. Forster’s beloved novel A Passage To India (1984).

Holding true to Forster’s critique of Imperial British dominance, the film concerns itself with a journey made to India by Adela Quested (Judy Davis), a young Englishwoman, whose sojourn (circa 1920s) takes an unexpected twist when she finds herself haunted and alone and accusing her seemingly harmless and congenial guide Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee) of raping her inside a cave: an accusation that threatened any civility between the forced British colonization of Indian territories.  Naturally, Ms. Quested’s fiancé, Magistrate Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers), is all set to prosecute Aziz to the full extent of the law for this crime. But Quested’s traveling companion (soon to be mother-in-law) Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) remains unconvinced.

 

Aziz’s one true friend among the British aristocracy is Professor Richard Fielding (James Fox), who recognizes the hypocrisies of his fellow countrymen but is powerless to stall the unnatural course of action that may very well find Aziz guilty. After much consternation, Mrs. Moore vows to return to Britain before Aziz’s trial. She sails for England, but dies on the luxury liner and is buried at sea instead.

The underbelly of Lean's virtuoso exploration is part travelogue/part critical investigation of British colonization. At the time of the film’s release, Lean ran into flack over the casting of his old good-luck charm, the marvelous Alec Guinness, to play the rather aloof Indian prophet, Professor Godbole: a remarkable bit of understated acting that genuinely holds up in spite of discrepancies in nationality.  The cast is rounded out by stellar performances from James Fox and Art Malik. Despite the fact that it carried a sense of the whimsy and warmth, qualities that had made earlier Lean epics so enticingly real, the trial that effectively closes the last act tends to run off more with the head than the heart. Although nominated for Best Picture like
Ryan’s Daughter before it, A Passage to India clearly reflected that irreversible rift between old and new Hollywood.

 

Reflecting on the film now, one can not only see but also forgive its misfires in casting Judy Davis in the lead. Though an obviously talented actress, she lacks that star quality so essential in the likes of a Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia) or Omar Shariff (Doctor Zhivago) to carry this film to its successful conclusion. On the whole, Lean gets far better results from his supporting cast: Alec Guinness, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, James Fox and, to a lesser extent, Nigel Havers.  Ernest Day’s cinematography is the real star here: sumptuously reproducing the rich tapestry of melded cultures that is India while managing to capture the stoic eroticism that serves as the film’s underbelly and subplot.  Maurice Jarre’s score is less memorable than his work on previous Lean films, though it produces a rather magnificent fanfare to begin the film.

 

For Lean, who died in 1991, the end of his career was something of an elusive quest to regain the supremacy of his early film legacy. A sensitive man of immeasurable wit and stealth in his directing, Lean needn’t have tried so hard to please. A Passage to India remains his glorious epitaph as a filmmaker.  It's a film of immense beauty and great intelligence.

Sony Home Entertainment’s Blu-Ray offering bests its standard DVD release only marginally. In truth, the original movie-only standard DVD was an exceptional mastering effort. The Blu-Ray delivers a refined image with bold, rich and vibrant colors; solid contrast levels, deep blacks and pristine whites. Fine details are nicely realized.  Although the image can occasionally appear slightly softly focused on the standard disc, the Blu-Ray is razor sharp throughout. The audio is stereo-surround and adequate for this presentation. The Blu-Ray also bests the standard release with a barrage of extra features including a fascinating picture-in-picture commentary feature. For the rest, there is a superb audio commentary and featurettes on the making of the film, E.M. Forster and Lean, as well as a brief retrospective of Lean’s career and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!

 

 

 

A seminal masterwork from the Arthur Freed musical unit that once dominated MGM and the deserved recipient of 9 Academy Awards, Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi (1958) remains as sparklingly effervescent as vintage champagne. That it capped off producer Arthur Freed’s illustrious tenure at MGM with style, grace and elegance – trademarks inherent in the greatest of all musicals produced at that studio – seems, at least in retrospect, a glowing tribute and sad farewell to the musical en masse. Although MGM and Freed would continue to produce fewer musicals afterward, none illustrate such meticulous attention to every last detail in production design.

Ironically, the story Gigi by French author Colette had always been considered something of a throw-away when compared to her other literary works. Colette wrote the novel at the height of the war and its rather curiously dark undertone of a young girl being groomed by two aged courtesans in the ways of professional prostitution was cause for great concern with the then reigning Hollywood censorship board.

To Arthur Freed, who had seen
My Fair Lady on the stage, the parallels between that stage show and Gigi were instant and inevitable. Since My Fair Lady could not be produced until it finished its Broadway run, Freed undertook the next best thing: to hire the stage show’s writing/composing team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederic Loewe to rework Colette’s minor masterpiece into a palpable clone. What emerged from this collaboration was initially and unceremoniously dubbed "Eliza Goes to Paris" by the critics. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In the final analysis, Gigi is its own creation, an effervescent cavalcade of the myths of Paris at the turn of the last century.

The film’s plot concerns a tomboyish waif, Gigi (Leslie Caron), who lives in a tiny Parisian apartment on the left bank with her grandmother, Madame Alverez (Hermione Gingold). After much consternation over Gigi’s future, Alverez and her sister, Alicia (Isobel Jeans), decide to fashion a vocation for her as courtesan to the wealthy Gaston LaChailles (Louis Jourdan). Gaston’s passing fancy in Gigi has grown considerably since his breakup with Liane d'Exelmans (Ava Gabor). Furthermore, Gaston’s uncle, the wily boulevardier, Honore (the sublime, Maurice Chevalier), was once Madame Alverez’s lover.  Apparently, the old gent used to get around. However, Alverez still admires Honore from afar, proving that when it comes to love, a classic never dies – especially when they both "remember it so well." The chief problem with Alverez and Alicia’s plan is that Gigi proves too awkward for the ascot and corset set. It is precisely this strange blend of arrogant childishness and relatively bombast that Gaston finds so intoxicating. However, as Gigi grows into a young lady of culture and expectations, is she also in danger of losing her man?

Lerner and Loewe’s score is fanciful, romantic, charming and instantly recognizable: the celebratory "The Night They Invented Champagne", comedic "It’s a Bore", melodic "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight".  And three grand odes of fresh insight into affairs of the heart: "
I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore", "I Remember It Well" and "Thank Heaven for Little Girls."  Reportedly, Leslie Caron was shocked to discover that her singing vocals had been dubbed by contract understudy Betty Wand, even though further review of Caron’s original recordings exposes more than a slight imperfection in her singing talents.

MGM broke a time honored precedence of filming musicals on the back lot and sent cast and crew to Paris for many of the exteriors. Director Vincente Minnelli had wanted to shoot in France ever since
An American in Paris (1951). He was denied the opportunity then but was granted the journey this time around. However, the summer that Minnelli shot in Paris was the hottest on record. Inside the Palace du Glace ice melted, while outside fake trees placed along the boulevards wilted in the noon day sun. Extras corseted into their costumes regularly passed out from heat exhaustion.

All these delays eventually prompted MGM to pull the plug on the Paris shoot before Minnelli had the opportunity to capture Honore and Alverez’s romantic pas deux on film. Hence, a painted – and rather obvious - backdrop on the MGM back lot stood in for
"I Remember It Well".   Despite, or perhaps because of, these obstacles, the film emerged as a colossal amalgam of talents operating at their best. The film became a resounding success. Today, it retains much of that elusive sparkle. Ah yes, we still remember Gigi…well!

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray minting is a direct import from their recently released two-disc DVD. Hence, improvements in image quality are marginal at best. It is important to note that
Gigi was photographed long after Technicolor had abandoned its three-strip process. Employing a new photochemical restoration on the original Cinemascope/MetroColor print, the geniuses at Warner Bros. have resurrected much of the finer luster from these less than stellar fine grain reference materials. Although there are still brief instances where color fidelity is highly suspect, with minor bleeding and fading and a somewhat blurry focus made quite obvious, the overall impact of the image is rather startling, sharp and smartly realized.

A direct comparison between Warner’s previously released bare-bones disc and this new Blu-Ray minting reveals just how far their restoration efforts have come. The opening credit sequence originally had an ominous blue tint that carried over into many of the film’s process shots. Colors have been corrected on this reissue. Flesh tones are still a tad too orange, but overall, fine detail is greatly improved, as are contrast levels. The image is also smoother this time around and almost entirely free of age related artifacts.  The audio has been remastered in 5.1 Dolby Digital and delivers a pronounced kick to all channels. Extras include an audio commentary by Jeanine Basinger and Leslie Caron, the rather perfunctory "making of" documentary, and the original French version of
Gigi.

The overall image quality of this latter extra is well below par. The B&W image has obviously been sourced from a second- or third-generation print. The image is poorly contrasted, riddled with excessive grain and age-related artifacts. English subtitles (in white text) virtually disappear against the faded background during many scenes. Nevertheless, the MGM musical version has been lovingly preserved for posterity and it is for this reason that Warner’s Blu-Ray comes highly recommended. A must have!

 

 

 

 

A seminal supernatural sex comedy, Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984) is still delightfully wacky, good fun. Never mind that the special effects have dated, the screenplay by Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and an unaccredited Rick Moranis (all of whom have plum parts in the movie) reconnects with the tradition of the ghost spoof subgenre in movies that had been absent since the mid-1950s.

 

The film stars Billy Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis as a trio of paranormal "experts" who find themselves at the cusp of a supernatural second coming that threatens to destroy New York City. Murray is Dr. Peter Venkman, a university hack conducting electroshock therapy on student test subjects in order to tap their minds for psychic energy. Actually, he’s just after cute college girls. However, Venkman’s partners, Dr. Raymond Stantz (Aykroyd) and Dr. Egon Spengler (Ramis), are true believers dedicated to their paranormal studies: Egon through a systematic processing of scientific data and Raymond by way of sheer naivety.

 

After being fired from the university, this trio decides to set up shop for themselves as "ghostbusters."  Hiring secretary, Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts) and a fourth ghostbuster, Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson), Venkman, Spengler and Stantz find themselves gaining widespread credence in the press when New York suddenly becomes a hotbed of spectral light activity. Meanwhile, in an apartment building on Fifth Avenue, classical musician Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) has begun to experience some rather bizarre paranormal activity. After contacting Venkman – but finding him obnoxious – Dana chooses to ignore the phenomenon in her kitchen until it is too late. High atop her building, two large cement gargoyles come to life, one possessing Dana’s body, the other taking over her neighbor Louis Tully (Rick Moranis). Louis and Dana are now the "key master" and the "gate keeper," awaiting the arrival of Gozer (Slavitza Jovan), the destructor of the human world.

 

Enter, political EPA hack Walter Peck (William Atherton), who forces an injunction to shut down the ghostbusters’ security grid, thereby freeing all the cantankerous spirits already apprehended. Eventually, Gozer makes her presence known atop Dana’s skyscraper, forcing the ghostbusters to choose the method of their destruction. Unfortunately, Raymond inadvertently recalls a pleasant memory from his childhood, resulting in the reincarnation of a 40-story Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man to terrorize mankind. In the final reel, the ghostbusters are triumphant – but not before they shower most of Fifth Avenue in the creamy cooked entrails of Mr. Stay-Puff.  

 

In viewing the film today the argument is often put forth that the special effects in the film don’t hold up. This critic would disagree. While the SFX lack the pristine visual appeal and smooth glide of digitally created effects, the miniatures, rubber puppetry and animated SFX employed in the film are a perfect match for the subject matter. More important, they have weight to them, something no digital effect in any film I’ve seen to date has been able to replicate. The apocalyptic clouds circling Dana’s apartment (made by dropping ink into water and then agitating it to create ripples) are infinitely more foreboding than any digital storm clouds. Mr. Stay-Puff (a combination of a man in a rubber suit for long shots and large rubber on plaster sculpture for extreme closeups of his head) are quite convincing. Reitman’s direction keeps perfect balance between the comedic and supernatural elements of the story. The laughs are plentiful throughout and the thrills all the more thrilling when they suddenly jump from the screen.

 

Sony Home Entertainment’s Blu-Ray release isn’t quite what I expected. The image quality begins with a strange softness in the early scenes taking place inside New York’s Central Library. Even the Ghostbusters logo seems slightly blurry. Flesh tones throughout are much too pink. [Aside: this reviewer should point out to the reader of this review that in the early to mid-1980s Technicolor experimented with a different photochemical process and film stock that, in retrospect, has proven to be unstable and more rapid in its decomposition. In this light then, perhaps, Ghostbusters is one of unfortunate recipients of this flawed process.]  There are plusses on this Blu-Ray, most notably in the amount of fine detail evident in closeups and also in the complete lack of distracting edge enhancements that plagued the original standard DVD release. The audio has been remixed to Dolby True HD 5.1. Limitations in the vintage recording are evident throughout, such as thinness to dialogue lacking in bass tonality. Overall, this isn’t a bad Blu-Ray release. It’s just not a spectacular one.  Extras exclusive to the Blu-Ray include a "Slimer mode" picture-in-picture popup trivia track, a brief featurette on the Ecto-1 Ghostbusters car and another brief featurette on the making of the Ghostbusters video game. The litany of extras produced for the standard DVD has also been directly imported to the Blu-Ray, but with extremely poor visual quality. 

 

 

 

Based on the tragic best-selling authorship of a 13-year-old Jewish exile hiding with her family from Nazi persecution in the attic of a Holland spice factory, director George Stevens’ The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) remains one of the most poignantly wrought melodramas of all time. Stevens, who had witnessed first-hand the German desecration of humanity within the concentration camps as a field unit cameraman in 1947, was deeply affected by the experience. Upon returning to America, the director primarily known for his frothy comedies and bombastic adventures acquired a more serious patina from which to craft his cinematic legacy.  In late 1955, Stevens met Anne’s father, Otto Frank, to discuss the possibility of bringing their story to the big screen. Although Otto was a congenial gentleman through and through, his association with the motion picture ended after preliminary discussions and principle casting had been completed. After interviewing hundreds of hopefuls for the lead, Stevens decided to cast Millie Perkins, a New York model with virtually no acting experience. Perkins proved an inspired choice.  Her naivety caused her to be unaccustomed to the Hollywood lifestyle, which provided the fresh vitality so fundamental to the part. 

 

To help craft his intimate epic, Stevens turned to noted screenwriters Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who had already written a successful stage version based on Anne Frank’s diaries. Reluctantly, Stevens also agreed to shoot the film in Cinemascope, Fox’s patented widescreen process, though he did win the argument to shoot the film in B&W rather than color. And although the 2:35:1 aspect ratio was not without its challenges, Stevens managed to make the anamorphic process appear smaller and more intimate than it usually was.

 

The film opens in Amsterdam shortly after the war breaks out. Anne’s prudent father, Otto (Joseph Schildkraut), has arranged with spice factory manager Kraler (Douglas Spencer) and Miep (Dody Heath) to take his family underground to avoid being sent to a concentration camp.  The Franks are joined by another family, the Van Daans: Petronella (Shelly Winters), Hans (Lou Jacobi), and their son Peter (Richard Beymer.  Over the next two years, both families will share the utterly cramped, hidden attic of the spice factory, with a staircase concealed by a book shelf. At first the families congregate, mostly in hushed silence, but under the most congenial of circumstances. However, as time wears on, patience wears thin.

At night, the Franks and the Van Daans move about the rest of the complex freely until one evening, when a wayward thief attempting to break into the building, threatens to expose their secret hideaway.

Through it all, Anne (Millie Perkins) endures her hardships, danger and loneliness without bitterness and always with the inspired hope for a better tomorrow. Despite her current predicament, she genuinely believes in the goodness of people.

The Diary of Anne Frank is a visceral and emotionally stirring production that not only manages to capture the essence of the period, but rightfully preserves the memory of Anne Frank, a girl aged well beyond her years who had the clairvoyance to put onto paper one of the most intimately moving, heartbreaking and utterly genuine accounts ever written about World War II.
  Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray reincarnation for the film’s 50th Anniversary offers a more refined B&W anamorphic transfer than the Studio Series standard DVD that was released just a few years ago. And yet, this latest preservation is hardly without its flaws.

The image in general seems to sporadically suffer from "breathing," the sides of the Cinemascope image in constant flux in contrast levels. Certain scenes have an extremely heavy patina of film grain while fine details are occasionally lost in an image that seems slightly overly contrasted. Edge enhancement is rare, but present. The audio is represented in 5.1 Tru HD and 4.0 Dolby Digital with minimal sonic difference between the two tracks.
  Where this new disc bests the original offer is in its extra features. In addition to the original 90-minute documentary on the real Anne Frank, we get a mountain of extras that cover the film and George Stevens' career from every conceivable angle. George Stevens Jr., Diane Baker and Millie Perkins lend new thoughts, and there are some period featurettes that immeasurably flesh out the historical record. There’s also an engaging and informative commentary track from Stevens Jr. and Perkins and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: recommended!

 

 

 

 

The International, Amadeus (Blu-Ray), JFK (Blu-Ray)

 

 

Conceived as an entirely different movie almost two decades before it reached theaters, Tom Tykwer’s The International (2009) is a brilliantly realized, rough and tumble, taught and tenacious espionage thriller. In 2001, screenwriter Eric Singer approached Tykwer with the prospect of doing an action movie based on the BCCI scandal that sent shockwaves through the banking community in the late 1980s.  Then, the BCCI was the third largest independent bank in the world, funneling approximately 70 percent of black-market monies to drug cartels, terrorist cells and other spurious clientele around the globe.  All told, approximately 20 billion dollars. An investigation by New York D.A. Rob Morganthal put an abrupt end to the BCCI’s transactions, though, arguably, it did not end the reigning supremacy of the organization behind it. The bank simply closed its doors. However, no public arrests were ever made.

 

Fast track to 2009 and Singer’s reworking of an idea already on record, and you have The International. Clive Owen is top billed as rumpled Interpol agent, Louis Salinger. Out of shape, sporting two-day old stubble and a scowl that could freeze time, Salinger becomes embroiled in an investigation revolving around the IBBC (International Bank of Business and Credit) after his partner Thomas Schumer (Ian Burfield) drops dead of an apparent heart attack outside Berlin’s Central Station. Schumer had just finished a rather problematic first contact with IBBC executive Andre Clement (Georges Bigot) at the time of his demise and Salinger suspects that Thomas was somehow poisoned (to induce his heart failure) in plain sight.

 

Salinger’s dander is further ruffled when a scheduled meeting with Jonas Skarrsen (Ulrich Tomsen) at IBBC’s headquarters in Luxembourg (actually the Autostadt headquarters for Volkswagen in Berlin) leads to more closed mouths and doors than anticipated. Back in New York, Manhattan Assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) agrees with Salinger’s assessment.

 

Joining forces in Milan, Salinger and Whitman decide to employ the help of current political candidate Umberto Calvini (Luca Giorgio Barbareschi) in their investigation. Unfortunately, Calvini is murdered while giving his public address, leaving Salinger to trail the suspected shooter through the streets of Milan. The suspect manages to get away.  Salinger also realizes that the key to unraveling IBBC’s secrecy is to learn the whereabouts and identity of their "consultant" (Brian F. O’Byrne), the assassin sent in to do damage control on the bank’s behalf and the one responsible for injecting Thomas with the poison that killed him. Trailing the "consultant" back to New York City, Salinger and N.Y.P.D. detectives Iggy Ornelas (Felix Solis) and Bernie Ward (Jack McGee) corner their suspect inside the Guggenheim Museum where they witness a meeting between him and IBBC executive Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl). The meeting is a ruse, however, designed to throw the consultant off the trail of the hit men sent to liquidate him.

 

In the exhilarating climactic showdown that follows, Bernie is killed and the consultant and Salinger briefly team together to kill the hit men. Wexler is apprehended by Eleanor and taken to a secret meeting place where he agrees to help Salinger set up Jonus Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen), the brains behind the IBBC’s entire operation. Salinger exposes the IBBC as a fraud to Calvini’s sons Mario (Gerolamo Fancellu) and Enzo (Luca Calvani) who decide to take matters into their own hands. Meanwhile, Salinger has tailed Skarssen to Istanbul where he fully intends to gain a confession from Skarssen – one way or the other.

 

The International is high-octane thrills, utilizing some of the most stunning contemporary and traditional architecture throughout Europe to achieve a sort of lonely and dwarfing isolationism. The Autostadt, for example, is a monolithic glass and concrete oasis, symbolizing IBBC’s fake transparency in the world of legitimate banking. Even more impressive is production designer Sarah Horton’s flawless recreation of the Guggenheim’s interiors for the climactic gunfight. Ngila Dickson’s understated costumes play well against these modern-art backdrops.

 

Most refreshing of all is the way the screenplay by Eric Singer manages to avoid virtually all of the standard clichés we’ve come to expect from the "mindless" action movie. The bankers, for example, are not menacing villains cut from the same cloth as a Die Hard movie, but rather all intelligent men of thought who through their pragmatism utterly fail to see how their own ignorance leads to disastrous consequences. In this age of choppy, handheld camera mangling with the scenery, Frank Greibe’s smooth cinematography is both a welcome retreat and a seemingly effortless feast for the eyes. This is stylish film making with a patina of richness that this film critic hopes will become more the fashionable norm rather than the exception to the rule of making movies in the future. In the final analysis, The International is skilled entertainment that leaves a residual appeal after the house lights have come up.

 

Sony Home Entertainment’s Blu-Ray release is breathtaking. The image is truly reference quality, exquisitely recapturing the carefully crafted "in-focus" cinematography. Colors are rich, deep and vibrant. Contrast levels have been superbly rendered. Blacks are deep. Whites are very clean. Extreme fine detail is evident throughout. Truly, there is nothing to detract from this visual experience. It is pristine. The audio is True HD 5.1, delivering quite a kick to all channels. Extras include several brief featurettes discussing various aspects of the making of the film, extended scenes and outtakes and a picture in picture audio commentary track worth listening to. Bottom line: highly recommended!

 

 

 

 

Peter Shaffer’s screenplay for Amadeus (1984) is about two people who never actually met in real life: the gifted musical prodigy, brilliantly reconstructed by Tom Hulce as an oafish punster, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and insanely jealous court-composer-with-daggers-in-his-heart, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Throughout the better half of this three-hour epic, Salieri employs his oily charm to ingratiate and attach himself to Mozart’s confidence. His envy is both seething and palpable to all who know him, including Mozart’s wife, Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge). Still, Mozart cannot see the deception before his very eyes. Salieri presents himself as friend and mentor, all the while plotting the young composer’s demise.


The story opens many years after Mozart’s death, with the aged and half-mad Salieri attempting to commit suicide by slitting his throat. He is taken to a mental hospital where he begins to confess his sins to a priest (Herman Meckler). From here, the tale regresses to Salieri’s days as court composer to Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones). Considered the most comprehensive authority on composition in the land, Salieri’s days of supremacy at court are at an end with the arrival of Wolfgang Mozart, a child prodigy turned spoiled teenager whose musical abilities teeter on the rim of blind genius with every note.

 

After artistically insulting Salieri by re-composing his welcome march before Joseph’s very eyes, Mozart further infuriates the emperor’s cronies, including Kappelmeister Bonno (Patrick Hines), by insisting that his first composition for the monarch be in German, rather than traditional Italian. Mozart compounds his displeasure at court by seducing Katerina Caveleri (Christine Ebersole), the operatic diva whom Salieri has long lusted after. When it is announced that Mozart will marry Constanze instead, Katerina flies off in a rage. The news of his son’s hasty marriage also all but destroys Mozart’s father, Leopold (Roy Dotrice), who dies embittered and heartbroken, leaving Mozart haunted by his passing.

 

From here, Salieri begins to plot a thickly orchestrated revenge: first, to remove Mozart from his good standing with the emperor and then pretend to be Mozart’s confident in composition of a requiem that he intends to steal from Mozart only after he has overworked the young genius into an early grave. Constanze, who had previously left Mozart over a marital dispute, returns to discover the ruse too late. She gathers Mozart’s unfinished work and locks it away from Salieri’s grasp, thereby preserving Mozart’s last composition, only to realize that her beloved husband has died of exhaustion.

 

In between this grand opera of personal, moral and physical corruption, the film is immeasurably filled out by stellar performances of some of Mozart’s most memorable compositions, including whole portions from Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro and Abduction from the Seraglio. In the final analysis of Salieri’s narrative, he wholeheartedly believes that he has achieved his own immortality as the man who murdered God’s genius. But did he really? In the last reel the priest, having no way of knowing for sure, absolves Salieri of his sin. Yet, Salieri sinks even deeper into his own madness, conducting Mozart himself as the dead genius laughs at him from beyond the grave.    

 

This prestige production shot in Prague abounds with stunning recreations of the Austrian court, including an uncanny likeness between Emperor Joseph II and Jeffrey Jones, the actor cast as emperor in the film. Still, the driving force in this weighty narrative is Hulce’s charmingly idiotic performance. As the blissfully fart-happy/half mad musical genius, Hulce delivers a textured creation that probably has very little to do with the reality of his character, though it is nevertheless compelling.

What emerges is a sense of decay and deterioration about the antechambers and great halls, an almost prolific moral chiding to anyone whose inner pomposity outweighs their formidable external talents. And that laugh, that haunted, cackle from beyond the grave that reminds us of vanity’s failed attempts at immortality and mediocrity’s likewise entrapment inside a craft that only covets the very best.


Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray disc of Forman’s director’s cut adds another 23 minutes of length to the film’s running time. The imposition is forgivable, providing more depth and exposition that enhances the latter half of the narrative. The Blu-Ray bests the original 2 disc collector’s set only marginally, with marked improvements in color fidelity and fine detail. Reds are blood red and more eye-popping than before. Higher bit rate on the Blu-Ray during compression of data has resulted in a much more refined picture with finer details more noticeable than before.  The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital, delivering a very smooth, yet pronounced sonic tonality – particularly during the film’s opera sequences. Extras include an extensive look back at the making of the film, an audio commentary and the film’s theatrical trailer. Still, given that the only extra is the documentary already featured on the original set from Warner, the repurchase of this title on Blu-Ray is a tough sell. Highly recommended.

 

 

 

Oliver Stone sought to poke hot needles in an open wound of the American psyche when he undertook a re-investigation of the Kennedy assassination in JFK (1991), an magnum opus of conspiracy theories. Critics who were particularly outraged dismissed the film as pure hokum wrapped inside Stone’s own enigma for self-delusion.  Audiences thought better of that quick dismissal and flocked to see what all the fuss was about. What they discovered was a finely crafted, meticulously woven chain link of possible and plausible alternatives to the Warren Commission Report in which any number of spurious characters involved could have been more than likely responsible for the President’s death other than Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman).


Stone’s critique is based on several books, as well as the real life pursuit for justice launched by Louisiana D.A. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), the only man to ever levy formal charges of murder against perceived culprits. It was the defining moment in both Costner and Stone’s careers; the former delivering his final summation, “Do not forget your dying king,” with such conviction and raw emotional depth that it was difficult to sit through and not find tears welling up inside.  Chock-full of stellar performances, outstanding is the word for Gary Oldman as Oswald, Tommy Lee Jones as Clay Shaw/Bertrand, Michael Rooker as Bill Broussard, Laurie Metcalfe as Suzie Cox, Joe Pesci as David Ferrie, John Candy as Dean Andrews, and Donald Sutherland as X - all taking a backseat to Costner’s central tour de force.

 

On every level, director Stone debunked what the Warren Commission has presented to the American public as fact. He shoots so many holes in their malignant simplicity that even if one chose to discard the film’s alternate theories as far fetched or implausible, there is little to dissuade from their considerable impact.


The Blu-Ray transfer on JFK is virtually identical to the standard
DVD release made available for some time. Blu-Ray’s higher bit rate confirms that the film has more information encoded on the disc, but the visual results are not nearly so obvious. In fact, certain scenes seem to favor a de-saturated color palette that looks less like the filmic experience and more like a rather faded adaptation. Contrast levels are accurately rendered, and close ups reveal more subtle detail on actor’s faces and clothing. But long shots continue to appear softly focused. The film’s brilliant use of vintage footage, coupled with Stone’s incorporation of newly shot inserts that are meant to recapture the "newsreel" look have also been accurately rendered.


What is absent from this visual presentation is the kick and the "wow" factor we’ve come to expect from Blu-Ray – the de-saturated sequences are more dull in appearance than stylized. Even when color levels bounce to what might be considered "normal" levels, the resulting impact is more middle-of-the-road than eye-popping or engaging. Overall then, the image quality is above average but not spectacular. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and quite effective at recreating a sonic experience full of subtly nuanced surprises.


The only extra included for our consideration is the mesmerizing documentary, "Beyond JFK," with its less-than-perfect video quality being quite a disappointment for fans of the movie. Considering that Warner Home Video went to the trouble of putting together a press-book binding, rather than standard Blu-Ray case for this presentation (with material pilfered from its already Deluxe Edition box set in Standard
DVD), there is virtually NO reason to repurchase this title on Blu-Ray.

 

 

 

 

 

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, Frost/Nixon Interviews (original interview DVD), The Bridges of Madison County

Moonlighting: The Complete Television Series

 

 

Based on Winifred Watson’s delightfully frank and remarkably adult novel, Bharat Nalluri’s Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day (2008) is an evocative, obscure and lushly photographed comedy about the sacrifice of women doing their best to survive a man’s world at various strati of the human condition. The film stars Frances McDormand as the title character, a put-upo,n common frump and penniless social outcast who finds her niche in the employ of superficial wannabe starlet, Delysia LeFosse (Amy Adams).

 

Seems Delysia is in a quandary over love: the career-climbing variety with Philip (Tom Payne), the wealthy, but frivolous son of a West End stage producer in London; the dangerous kind with spurious nightclub owner Nick (Mark Strong); or the genuine sort with paroled pianist, Michael (Lee Pace). Installed in Nick’s fashionable penthouse with a naked Philip in her bed and Michael soon to arrive on her stoop, Delysia mistakes Miss Pettigrew as her new social secretary, sent to her aid by the very prime Miss Holt (Stephanie Cole).

 

As the awkward Pettigrew finagles her way into Delysia’s life, she comes to recognize that although her charge plays the part of a devil-may-care goddess, undulating to every man’s adoration, beneath this haughty exterior is a frightened little girl who, like Pettigrew herself, is but two steps away from being a common hobo on the streets.

 

The film runs but a scant 1 hr. and 23min. but packs a lifetime of sentiment, heart and the joy of living into every frame. Set at the cusp of WWII, the interjection of looming conflict by screenwriters David McGee and Simon Beaufoy sets a more pressing tone not present in Watson’s original novel. Indeed, Watson’s book was first judged as not publishable for her “no nonsense” approach to sex and the foibles of all male/female relationships. 

 

These pert and crisp observations are retained for the film and used to great effect, particularly in the supporting love match between the heartless fashion snipe, Edythe (Shirley Henderson) and worldly suitor, Joe (Ciaran Hinds), a one-time designer of men’s socks who has currently intruded on Edythe’s domain with his slinky take on women’s lingerie. 

 

Watson sold the rights to her book to Universal Studios in 1939. But the onset of WWII prevented Universal from continuing with a filmic version. Watson later re-sold the rights to Universal in 1953, but to no artistic avail, perhaps because, by then, the bottom had fallen out of minor romantic comedies. Thus, when producer Paul Webster approached Universal as part of a deal with Focus Films, he was promptly informed that he did not own the rights; Universal did. Nevertheless, a deal was struck and production commenced. The results have been well worth the wait.

 

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is a sparkling throwback to the glorious days of classic Hollywood filmmaking at its best: the rich and sumptuously inventive photography by John de Borman adding exemplar touches of ‘30s/’40s chic good taste to the proceedings and giving the eye something to ogle when perhaps the screenplay is just a bit too lax for  something witty to say. This is a fun film, infused with a life-affirming message in the face of certain disaster. It will likely be enjoyed for years to come.

 

Alliance Home Video has done a marvelous job on the DVD transfer. Despite being a flipper disc (with Side A containing a full-frame version of the film and Side B in anamorphic widescreen), the image is bright, sharp and full of eye-popping detail and invigoratingly bold colors.

 

Flesh tones are natural in appearance. Reds are blood red. Contrast levels are bang on with deep, velvety blacks and very bright whites. Film grain is kept to a bare minimum. Discrepancies between live action and digital effects are well blended and concealed. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and delivers quite a wallop, particularly during the nightclub sequence that round out the festivities on screen.

 

Side A contains a nicely put-together featurette, “Making an Unforgettable Day”, while Side B delivers the more poignant “Miss Pettigrew’s Long Journey To Hollywood”, with recollections from the late author’s son, plus deleted scenes and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!

 

 

 

 

 

In 1977, British television journalist David Frost secured the rights to conduct what would later become the most celebrated series of interviews with former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. Acknowledging that an individual as complex as Richard Nixon could not possibly be contained within the brief span of an hour-long television interview format, Frost proceeded to earmark the former President for six hours of taping at an undisclosed location somewhere in Southern California.

 

A house was rented and converted into a makeshift studio, with bedrooms serving as changing rooms for the two men who would, during the course of their differences, tear into the already open wound of the Watergate scandal.  The Frost/Nixon Interviews, as they came to be known, were a coup that pitted the wit of an intelligent interviewer with the magnetic determination of one of the 20th century’s most fascinating political figures.

 

Yet no one could have foreseen how close Frost would get to the inner man beneath Nixon’s mantel of nervous reluctance and need for self-preservation. In today’s rather unscrupulous need for ravenously blood-thirsty tabloid media, the restraint with which this interview is conducted is utterly refreshing.

 

Frost engages Nixon with the utmost of personal decorum and tempered reverence for the man of the hour. Not that Frost fails to ask tough questions. In fact, he aimed his ambitions, along with his camera, at the very heart of Nixon and, in a moment of unexpected personal humility, catches the former President off guard and speaking to his personal and political failings with unprecedented candor.

 

The Ron Howard film starring Frank Langella aside, this is the real thing and so much more memorable if only for the fact that it reveals one of the greatest statesmen of the last hundred years as a frightened, disheartened and isolated individual coming to grips with the sacrifices he forced others to make in his stead before his own inevitable resignation.

 

Now, Liberation Entertainment has released a truncated edition of the Frost/Nixon Interviews: basically, the episode concentrating on Watergate and its fallout. David Frost, circa the present, bookends and contextualizes this segmented piece with remarkable recall and, after the actual interview, reflections on some personal moments occurring between him and Nixon immediately following the taping of the actual interview.

 

Curiously, Liberation Entertainment has not taken the time to present these newly recorded recollections in anamorphic widescreen, but rather “letterbox” format, though the rest of the original interview footage is presented as such and with a startling amount of definition and clarity in the image.

 

Though the tape used to film this interview can never be called “reference quality”, with a slight color bleed around the edges, for the most part, the image is stable, crisp and free of debris and age related artifacts. The audio is mono as originally recorded. Apart from Frost’s post-interview recollections, there are no extra features. Nevertheless, as a historical artifact, the Frost/Nixon Interview is hypnotic and compelling viewing. A must have!

 

 

 

 

Reviewing a film from the vantage of a thirteen-year hiatus is rare for this critic who readily revisits his film favorites sometimes two or three times in a single year on home video. But that’s exactly how long it’s been since I last watched Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County (1995). At first, the quiet, overreaching arch of emotional poignancy is not immediately apparent, perhaps because the acting from Annie Corley and Victor Slezak is just so bad.

 

As the film progresses, their performances improve, or rather, gain a measure of weight designed to jerk tears from a stone – thanks to the careful construction in Richard LaGravenese’s screenplay. As soon as the story regresses to flashback, the narrative begins to weave its laconic magic with moving portraits of a romantic sunburst set in middle-age from Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. 

 

The novel by Robert James Waller was originally written in just eleven days, an intended personalized Christmas gift for a few friends. So impressed by its potency, one of Waller’s friends gave the text to a New York literary agent who was immediately bowled over by the emotional simplicity of its story. In conceiving the project for the big-screen, many directors, including Sidney Pollack and Bruce Beresford, were considered before Clint Eastwood decided to step into roles in front of and behind the camera.

 

The story begins in the present where Michael (Vicor Slezak) and Carolyn Johnson (Annie Corley), the children of the late Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep), are contemplating the last request of their mother: her ashes scattered across a bridge in Madison County near their family home. At first, neither son nor daughter can comprehend what would possess their mother to consider anything but burial next to their beloved father, Richard (Jim Haynie).

 

From here, the story regresses to four days in 1965, on a stifling hot, early fall afternoon at the Iowa farmhouse that Richard and Francesca Johnson share with their children. Richard takes Michael and Carolyn to the State Fair for four days, leaving Francesca alone on the farm to muse over peaceful silence. She does not remain alone for very long. On the second day, Francesca meets National Geographic photographer, Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), who has lost his way on route to take pictures of one of the county’s famed covered bridges.

 

After attempting to explain the way to Robert first, Francesca decides to simply hop in his truck and take him to the spot – thereby striking up a minor conversation that eventually turns into drinks, then dinner, then an unexpected kindling of winter passion neither would have thought possible just a few hours before. The days blend into one emotionally conflicted chain of events with Francesca awakening her submersed need to be loved and Robert recognizing that the life he has spent in endless travel for the magazine has been superficial wandering at best.

 

Robert proposes that the two escape into the night before Richard gets home – a giddy and dizzyingly foolishness that Francesca only briefly entertains. After all, she has seen first-hand what small-minded town gossip can do to a young woman in love ever since an affair with the town doctor branded local Lucy Redfield (Michelle Benes) as the town’s whore. How would Richard and the children ever survive such a scandal?

 

The overall leitmotif of the story is one of self-sacrifice: exercising the importance and impact that one life can have on many. Though Francesca and Robert are probably soul mates, neither can bring themselves to ruin the careful tenured years that have made their love affair too little too late. In the end, Francesca keeps her secrets locked in her heart, the concrete evidence from their affair stored in an upstairs chest of drawers for Michael and Carolyn to uncover after she has passed on.

 

Eastwood’s fragile performance is perhaps a bit static at times. As the audience, we’re never quite convinced that he’s convinced that the affair is right for Robert Kincaid. Streep, however, is never anything less than on point. It is largely due to her subtly nuanced portrait of a common frump suddenly elevated to the stature of that young fiery girl in Francesca’s youth that ignites the narrative with a sparkle of sublime and timeless relevancy. In the final analysis, The Bridges of Madison County delivers a bittersweet and tender groundswell of emotional content. It’s the sort of old-fashioned character-driven screen weepy that, tragically, is out of fashion in today’s cinema.

 

Warner Home Video at long last has seen fit to provide us with an anamorphic widescreen version of this movie (previously only made available in three full-frame transfers!). Now, if we could only get Warner to re-release Rob Reiner’s magnificent ode to Frank Capra, The American President (1995,) with as much aplomb, then this critic will at long last be contented.

 

Color fidelity is quite nicely realized throughout this 16:9 transfer. The stylized image recreates the warm, lazy summer hues succinctly. Flesh tones are orange as originally intended with fine detail evident in every craggy wrinkle on Eastwood’s face. Contrast levels are perfectly realized. Whites are pristine with a slight yellowish tint. Blacks are deep and solid. On the rarest of occasions (usually in long shot) a slight hint of film grain masquerading as digital grit becomes evident. Otherwise, this is a solid and thoroughly satisfying visual experience.

 

The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and ideally realized. This is a primarily dialogue driven film, but several musical sequences come to life with startling and often aggressive clarity. Extras include a somewhat meandering audio commentary, a featurette on the making of the film, a music video and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Recommended!

 

 

 

 

 

 

In 1985 creator Glenn Gordon Caron debuted a two hour, made for television adventure/comedy/mystery entitled Moonlighting. Drawing on a wealth of admiration for the old Nick and Nora Charles, Thin Man film series made by MGM in the 1930s and 40s, Caron developed witty repartee between a sultry ex-model and raucous gumshoe thrust together by unusual circumstances on a race against time.

 

In fact, Moonlighting was the third project in a 3 picture deal brokered by Caron with ABC television. While Caron’s previous two efforts had met with indifference and outright rejection, Moonlighting was decidedly different. Holding open auditions for the part of the gregarious P.I., David Addison, Caron easily found the embodiment of the character in then unemployed actor, Bruce Willis.

 

Unfortunately, executives at ABC could not see the merit in Caron’s choice. Given Hollywood’s penchant for “pretty boys” it is perhaps understandable why ABC balked at Willis from the start. But what Willis lacked in conventional good looks he easily made up in raw charm and spirited charisma.

 

After shooting a screen test with Willis and costar Cybil Shepherd, ABC reluctantly agreed. The result: a most perfect blending of star talent conceived for the small screen.  The chemistry between Willis and Shepherd cannot be overestimated, producing palpable sparks of raw sexual frustration that eventually became the backbone of the series and its lamentable undoing. So popular with audiences was Moonlighting’s pilot that ABC immediately informed Caron he would be making a TV series.

 

Caron, who openly admitted he never had any such intentions from the start, now found himself having to produce weekly episodes that lived up to the same, high artistic standards as his original project. That Caron refused to sacrifice integrity for the sake of keeping up the pace gradually began to wear the series down. In the 5 years that Moonlighting was a main staple on television, it never remotely approached its quota of 32 episodes per annum and, in fact, totaled a scant 76 prior to its cancellation.

 

Season One and Two of Moonlighting easily represent one of the most outstanding, quirky romantic comedies ever to come to television. Like most of the series one-hour mysteries, the two-hour pilot’s narrative is flawed. It begins when former top model Maddie Hayes (Shepherd) discovers that her accountant has absconded with her life savings, leaving her penniless.

 

Determined to liquidate her tangible assets for some quick cash, Maddie arrives at the Blue Moon Detective Agency, overseen by the gregarious David Addison (Willis). Saying all the wrong things – but loveably so – David manages to incur Maddie’s wrath repeatedly until the two become embroiled in a crime in which the only clue is a stolen, broken watch. 

 

In truth, Caron and his team of writers always placed their emphasis more on the double entendre between Willis and Shepherd than on successfully resolving many of the “who done its” that serve as a very thin basis for what is essentially a sex comedy with plenty of oomph! For a while, this shift in traditional focus from sleuthing to seducing sustains the series, particularly throughout seasons one, two and part of season three.

 

Highlights from this first two years include “The Next Murder You Hear”, in which Maddie becomes obsessed with the disembodied voice of a lonely hearts radio jockey after he is supposedly murdered on air, and, “The Lady in the Iron Mask”, in which a disfigured woman hires the duo to find the man who threw acid in her face twenty years earlier. There’s also “The Bride of Tupperman”: Maddie and David search for the ideal mate for a man who is plotting an insurance scheme.

 

Guest stars include Tim Robbins, as a career killer in “Gunfight at the So-So Corral” and Dana Delaney, cast as David’s conniving old flame, out to set him up for murder in “My Fair David”. But the truly outstanding episode of Season Two is undeniably “The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice”: a homage to 40s film noir shot almost entirely in B&W in which David and Maddie separately contemplate how an unsolved crime at an upscale nightclub went down some 50 years before. As a big-band chanteuse, Cybil Shepherd acquits herself nicely of the standards “Blue Moon” and “Told You I Loved You, Now Get Out”.

 

To some extent, the series crests after the end of Season Two, with both Willis and Shepherd, curiously enough, looking considerably older at the start of Season Three. If the third year of Moonlighting doesn’t quite live up to the series reputation, it nevertheless provides some groundbreaking television programming, including “Atomic Shakespeare”, a lavishly appointed and upbeat take on The Taming of the Shrew – and “Big Man on Mulberry Street”, in which David and Maddie do a big-scale musical production number/dream sequence reminiscent of the great MGM musicals from the 1950s. Mark Harmon makes his debut near the end of Season Three as Maddie’s old flame, Sam, who forces David to grapple with his true feelings toward Maddie too little too late. 

 

But the big buildup of having David Addison and Maddie Hayes fall into bed together could only last so long, so at the end of Season Three the results of their great seduction are more a weak expulsion of the inevitable that proved a subsequent letdown for viewers.

 

As a result, Season Four of Moonlighting separates the two lovers almost for the duration of the season, with David sexually frustrated and sleuthing in Los Angeles while Maddie convalesced privately at her parent’s home in Chicago, only to discover that she is in fact pregnant – quite possibly with either David or Sam’s baby.

 

To fill the void created by this separation, Caron and his writers bump up the importance of two subordinate characters in the series: Blue Moon’s dutiful but dumb secretary, Agnes DiPesto (Allyce Beasley), and pontificating operative with a short man’s complex, Herbert Quentin Viola (Curtis Armstrong). At the end of Season Four, Maddie returns to Blue Moon, pregnant and married to Walter Bishop (David Dugan), a man she has met on the train back to L.A. – leaving David deflated and vengeful. In fact, Maddie has married Walter to rid herself of the lingering passion she still harbors for David, a rouse that eventually crumbles when David vindictively forces the couple to renew their vows before God and their friends in a church.

 

Seemingly painted into a corner, Season Five begins with Maddie’s divorce from Walter and her miscarriage of what we come to learn was, in fact, David’s baby. However, instead of reconciliation between the two costars, the tragedy of losing a child reforms Maddie into a kinder, gentler woman, completely robbing the series of its electric banter. Maddie no longer wishes to reform David. In fact, she no longer has feelings for him at all, referring to David almost exclusively as her colleague, even when her cousin Annie (Virginia Madsen) arrives for a visit.

 

Annie and David become lovers, but the move is short-lived when Annie’s husband Mark arrives. David resigns himself to losing Annie, pretending to have an affair with a co-worker so that Annie will make the right choice and return to her husband. Agnes and Herbert marry, and Maddie and David are informed by ABC that the network has decided to cancel their series.

 

All through the series, producer/director Glenn Gordon Caron had toyed with inserting inside jokes into the narrative: from having David periodically giving direct address to the viewing audience to both Maddie and David providing running commentary in constant quips about ABC’s lack of imagination and the rigors of producing a television series. Caron even spoofs the fact that the series could never keep up with the expected 32 episodes per season in “The Straight Poop”, where Hollywood gossip columnist Rona Barrett arrives on set to confront a supposedly standoffish Maddie and David. Tragically, the last year and a half of Moonlighting is a hodge-podge of mire, more melodramatic and soapish than trend-setting good fun.

 

Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment has made Moonlighting’s five seasons available on DVD in four box sets. Season’s One and Two come packaged together. For the most part, image quality is about what one might expect from vintage television with a generally smooth image exhibiting dated colors and bright contrast levels. Occasionally however, the image falters with bizarre shortcomings.

 

Portions of “Atomic Shakespeare”, for example, are riddled with grain and excessive age- related artifacts, while much of “A Womb With A View” exhibits a curious haloing effect that makes the image severely blurry in spots as though it were shot on old Technicolor film stock that has separated and/or shrunk. The audio in all cases is mono but adequately represented.

 

Extras on Season One and Two include three documentaries: “Not Just A Day Job: The Story of Moonlighting”, “Inside The Blue Moon Detective Agency”, and “The Moonlighting Phenomenon”. Season Three also has a half-hour documentary that reunites Caron with Shepherd and Willis. For the rest, audio-commentary tracks are scattered throughout each season, at times offering an insightful backdrop to a series that had no equals during its brief reign.

 

 

 

 

 

Alfred Hitchcock's American films - Part Two: from Notorious to Strangers on a Train

 

 

 

By all accounts David O. Selznick was not the most patient of men to work for. Indeed, by 1946 the strain of toiling under Selznick's scrutiny was getting the better of Alfred Hitchcock. All the more reason to discover that Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) was a production free of most of the angst and headache that had dogged previous Selznick/Hitchcock collaborations. Hitchcock was afforded a rare freedom in artistic expression. Selznick had been forced to bow out of the project while it was still in preproduction. He would eventually sell off his rights as part of a package deal to RKO which included stars Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant, and Hitchcock's services for a slick $800,000 -- plus half the revenue made from the finished film. Selznick used this money to help finance a project closer to his heart: the grandiose and oddly absurd western epic, Duel in the Sun (1946).

 

Based on a novel by John Taintor Foote, Ben Hecht's screenplay opens the story with Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) whose father has just been convicted of being a Nazi spy. Alicia's notoriety as a public party girl with a list of spurious associates garners the attention of the FBI, which sends special agent T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant) to blackmail Alicia into participating in their infiltration of a Nazi League stationed in Buenos Aires. Devlin falls in love with his secret agent: a complication magnified after Alicia agrees to marry one of her father's old Nazi friends, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains), to keep up appearances. However, from the start Alex's mother Anna (Leopoldine Constantin), is critical of the union, suspecting that her daughter-in-law is not all she pretends to be.

 

At a gala party, Devlin discovers uranium being smuggled in wine bottles inside Alex's cellar, accidentally breaking one of the bottles in the process. To cover up his tracks, Devlin embraces Alicia under Sebastian's watchful eye, thereby drawing suspicion to her marital fidelity rather than his scheming. It is a superficial diversion and Alex quickly discovers the truth about Alicia. Together with his mother, Alex attempts to quietly poison his wife. The resulting rescue of Alicia by Devlin draws suspicion from the Nazi plotters, who decide for themselves that Sebastian is an unstable link in their chain, one that cannot be allowed to live.

 

Notorious is Hitchcock's most perfectly realized American thriller from his 40s vintage. It is full of stylish, subtle nuances and visual mastery of film as pure art. Hitchcock also scored a subtle coup against the censors who, in their infinite wisdom to ban salacious sexuality from the movies, had deemed that any on-screen kiss should last no more than a few seconds. Placing his camera only inches away from Bergman and Grant's faces, Hitchcock had the actors merely peck one another over and over again for almost a minute, intermingling the touch of their lips with erotically peppered bits of dialogue. Though none of the kisses lasts for more than a second, the cumulative result on screen became akin to observing two people in the throws of some great lustful passion.

 

To date, Criterion and Anchor Bay have released credible copies of Notorious on DVD. The former provides for an updated transfer that unfortunately has several glaring examples of edge enhancement, while the latter is currently out of print though free of the aforementioned digital anomaly. Both transfers offer a refined image. Criterion's appears to have had its contrast levels artificially boosted, while Anchor Bay's contrast seems just a hint too low. The Criterion also contains an audio commentary, booklet and radio presentation. Interestingly, Criterion's version substitutes the Selznick International Studio logo for the RKO Radio Pictures logo and then severely picture boxes the opening credits with a very thick black border. The audio on both discs is mono as originally intended with no discernable sonic discrepancies between the two.

 

 

The Paradine Case (1947) effectively ended the association between Hitchcock and Selznick with a modest thud. That the resulting project failed to live up to everyone's expectations (coming directly after Notorious) belies Selznick's intervention on the project, even though the film itself is consistently charming and moody, if nowhere near the caliber of its predecessor.

 

Originally Hitchcock had wanted either Ronald Colman or Laurence Olivier for the role of the barrister, Anthony Keane. There is some speculation that Hitch also sought the elusive Greta Garbo as his Mrs. Paradine. Disinterested in paying for these loan outs, Selznick assigned his own homegrown contract players to the cast. Hitchcock was disenchanted with this decision. Although he greatly admired Gregory Peck, Alida Valli and Louis Jourdan as actors, he felt all of them entirely unsuited for their roles.

 

Nevertheless, the project progressed at a grueling ninety-two day shoot, the longest of any Hitchcock shooting schedule to date. At the start of shooting it had been Selznick's intension to create yet another colossus in film length: an extensive courtroom melodrama with obsessive love as its underpinning.  Working from a script by Selznick and Ben Hecht, Hitchcock chose to acquiesce to Selznick's demand rather than fight his desires for a really big movie, delivering nearly three hours of rough cut to Selznick at the end of the excursion. For once, Selznick felt that a film could in fact be too long and, after having disposed of Hitchcock's services once and for all, he went to work chopping the narrative down to a modest 125 minutes.

 

Though the cuts are not damaging to the overall continuity of the story, they tend to reduce various characters to mere cardboard representation. Imminent personalities such as Charles Laughton and Ethel Barrymore (cast in the film as tawdry philanderer, Judge Lord Thomas and Lady Horfield) simply float in and out of the story rather than becoming an integral part of it. So too does the ending in hindsight seem slightly rushed.

 

The story that emerges on screen is rather threadbare, and in viewing the film today one wonders just how much more there might have been to sustain an audience's interest for three hours. The plot concerns one Maddalena Anna Paradine (Valli), the late wife of a blind colonel whom she is accused of poisoning to death. It seems Mrs. Paradine has been having an affair with her husband's valet, Andre LaTour (Jourdan). On the advice of legal council, Sir Simon Flaquer (Charles Coburn), Maddalena hires handsome hotshot attorney Anthony Keane (Peck) as her defense. But the trial is made problematic when the married Keane begins to invest in Maddalena's innocence on the basis that he is slowly becoming enamored with her. Keane's wife, Gay (Ann Todd) is patient in her love, allowing her husband his romantic fancies while all the while knowing that they will come to not; for Maddalena is guilty of the charge.

 

Given the severity of Selznick's editing, the distillation of Hitchcock's usual sterling zeal for generating suspense into tepid melodrama at best is perhaps forgivable. The resulting film is much more a polite melodrama of manners than political/crime thriller. There are no surprises, no great complexities to wade through and no rivalry between characters once the audience has figured out that the accused is in fact destined to die.

 

To date, only Anchor Bay Home Video has managed to release a credible DVD transfer of The Paradine Case. The disc is currently out of print but readily available on Amazon and other websites. The B&W transfer is generally sharp and clean, with only moderate lapses of grain and age related artifacts and the occasional hint of edge enhancement that will not distract. The audio is mono as originally intended and presented at an adequate listening level. The one regret here is that Anchor Bay did not produce either a documentary of featurette on the making of the film.

 

 

Alfred Hitchcock's first effort as a freelance director and his first film in color was Rope (1948) for Transcontinental Pictures. The original story is based partly on the Leopold Loeb case and more directly derived from Patrick Hamilton's modestly successful stage play, Rope's End. In the original tale, a pair of homosexual school mates strangles a straight colleague for kicks, then throws a party for the family of the deceased while the body is still hidden somewhere in the house. The film went one step further, placing the body inside a rather large credenza and then serving food and drinks to the family from its closed top converted into a dining table.

 

To augment the oddity of the exercise, the murderous duo also invites their old college professor, Rupert Cadell, to the party for two reasons: first, because he is supposed to have instilled in them Nietzsche's theory of the superman, thereby providing a theory of justification for their killing, and second, because Cadell is to have had a homosexual affair with one of the killers.

 

Given the climate of censorship in Hollywood at that time, Hitchcock could not directly suggest any of the aforementioned aspects about the crime, though he did succeed in creating a rather sycophantic closeness between the two actors who eventually played murderers, Brandon Shaw (John Dall) and Philip Morgan (Farley Granger). For his part, Hitchcock used Rope as his second exercise in shooting an entire film on one set: a technical gimmick he promoted as a film having "no edits" or shot in "one continuous take." The premise, while interesting from a technical standpoint, proved improbable. Only ten minutes of film existed in a camera at any given time.

 

Undaunted, Hitchcock rehearsed his camera movements meticulously, closing in on an actor's back or close up of a wall at the end of ten minutes before reloading the camera for his next reel. The resulting assemblage of film footage thus gives an awkward illusion of the continuity Hitchcock desired: an "uninterrupted" photographic account of the stage play - though it also makes the viewer acutely aware of the gimmick every ten minutes throughout the story.

 

In hindsight, the chief problem with Rope is in its central casting of James Stewart as Rupert Cadell, the boy's criminology professor. The inability to project the subtext of homosexuality onto the squeaky clean persona of Stewart places the film's chief premise off balance, for no such motive or intimate understanding between Brandon, Philip and Rupert ever exists in the finished film.

 

Stewart is thus left with the mundane responsibility of detecting their crime and bringing his former pupils to justice. Perhaps feeling more than a tad insecure about his role, James Stewart reportedly told an interviewer midway through the shoot that "the only thing that's been rehearsed around here is the camera" -- a bit of uncharacteristic bitterness that, if not entirely, then at least for the most part, was true. His comments leaked out to the trades before the film had its premiere. When Rope was finally released, it did respectable business but was by no means a resounding success. However, it was not a failure either.

 

Universal Home Video's DVD transfer is just average. Color fidelity is slightly dated. Colors are not quite as rich or punchy as one might expect. Flesh tones have a very unnatural pink tint. Contrast levels are slightly weaker than expected. Blacks register a deep gray; whites often acquire a slightly yellow or blue tinge. Fine detail is evident throughout, though the image does tend to have an overall soft appearance. The audio is mono and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a comprehensive "making of" documentary that includes interviews with surviving cast members, as well as a theatrical trailer.

 

 

Alfred Hitchcock's Stage Fright (1950) marked a return of sorts to Hitchcock's British period in films. The story of deception and murder was familiar to the master's hand -- though in crafting the piece he made one critical error that threatened to unravel the film's success. Hitchcock cast the sultry Marlene Dietrich as greedy chanteuse Charlotte Inwood. In the flashback that opens the story, Charlotte arrives on the doorstep of her lover, Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) with her dress bloodied. She has presumably just shot her husband and is seeking asylum and an alibi.

 

To protect Charlotte from the crime, Jonathan returns to her home to get her a clean dress. However, in attempting to make the homicide look like an accidental killing after a burglary, Jonathan is discovered by the upstairs maid who alerts the police of her findings. Fleeing the scene, Jonathan relies on his good friendship with Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) to aid in his escape. The subtext is that Eve harbors an unrequited puppy love for Jonathan and proves the weight of her affections by taking him to her father, Commodore Gill's (Alistair Sim) remote seaside cabin to hide out for a few days. There's just one problem: everything until this point in the narrative has been a lie. Told from Jonathan's perspective, the flashback is a ruse that neither the audience nor Eve is aware of.

 

The rest of the story is rather benign and meandering as Eve masquerades as a maid to secure employment in Charlotte's house with the hopes of discovering some evidence against her for the crime of murder. Meanwhile, congenial Scotland Yard Detective Wilfred Smith (Michael Wilding) has begun to harbor affections for Eve. The nearer he draws to her side, the closer he suspects he is coming to the truth about Jonathan, though, oddly enough, love seems to be on his mind more than sleuthing. Despite these problems in narrative construction, Hitchcock's direction excels during two pivotal sequences.

 

The first is an outdoor charity fundraiser where Charlotte is scheduled to sing. Doubting Jonathan's theory about the crime, Eve's father sends a girl scout up to the stage with a baby doll that he has soiled in a red stain to resemble the blood on Charlotte's dress. The ruse works, interrupting Charlotte's performance and drawing suspicion away from the real culprit. The scene is a brilliant bit of Hitchcock staging with hardly any dialogue. But it also tends to support the false premise that Charlotte -- not Jonathan -- has committed the murder.

 

The latter moment of artistic brilliance comes at the very end of the film; concealing Jonathan deep within the bowels of the music hall, Eve confronts him with her suspicions about the crime. Before her very eyes Jonathan crumbles, confessing to Eve his obsessive love that drove him to murder Charlotte's husband. Hitchcock captures this sequence almost entirely in extreme close-up with Richard Todd and Jane Wyman's eyes growing larger: his with rage, hers widening in fear. This sublime moment of visceral chills ends with a chase through the music hall. Jonathan is accidentally cut in two by the steel safety stage curtain.  By the time, Hitchcock exposes the truth about Jonathan, even the audience finds it difficult to believe that they have been left out of the narrative loop. 

 

Warner Home Video's DVD exhibits just slightly below average quality. The B&W image is often grainy, poorly contrasted and, at times, contains a slight green tinge. Contrast levels are weaker than expected. Though blacks are a very dark gray, whites are a dingy light gray. Fine details are lost during darker scenes. Age related artifacts are present throughout and, at times, distracting. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a scant "making of" featurette and theatrical trailer.

 

 

After a rather uneven filmic tenure in the 1940s, director Alfred Hitchcock redeemed himself in the public's estimation as the master of suspense with his first thriller of the new decade: Strangers on a Train (1951). It was a precursor of the greatness that was to follow. The film is a diabolical and terrifying excursion into the mind of a psychotic, based loosely on the dark, elegant novel by Patricia Highsmith. Hitchcock wanted and received the services of hard-boiled detective writer Raymond Chandler for the screenplay. A master of dialogue, Chandler's narrative construction left something to be desired, and Hitchcock then turned the project over to Czenzi Ormonde to polish the script into its final form.

 

The story begins in earnest with a chance meeting between two men, one a sycophantic mama's boy, Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), the other the all-American hunk and tennis pro, Guy Hanes (Farley Granger). After forcing a luncheon meeting on Guy, Bruno confides in him a plausible way of committing the perfect murder. Two strangers meet and swap crimes: each murdering a total stranger, thereby foiling the motive necessary for any criminal investigation to convict.

 

The idea, while intriguing to Guy -- whose wife Miriam (Kasey Rogers) is attempting to blackmail him with a pregnancy for alimony -- is dismissed once the train pulls into Guy's hometown of Metcalfe. However, Bruno takes the challenge seriously. Tailing Miriam to a fair ground, Bruno isolates his prey in a darkened corner and strangles her, then he returns to Guy with Miriam's broken glasses as proof that she is dead.

 

Appalled, Guy threatens to expose Bruno's crime, a move Bruno discourages because, after all, Guy is an accessory before the fact. Also, Bruno is in possession of Guy's cigarette lighter which he threatens to give to the police as proof of his complicity in Miriam's strangulation. The resulting plot entanglements are a race against time, as Guy struggles to find a way of exposing Bruno as the real killer without making his association known to fiancée Ann Morton (Ruth Roman) or her wealthy family.

 

The film throughout is peppered in Hitchcockian twists and turns, not the least of which is Hitchcock's casting of real life daughter Patricia as Barbara, the younger sister of Guy's new fiancée, Ann and a dead ringer for Guy's late wife, Miriam. After finagling his way into a house party at Sen. Morton's (Leo G. Carroll), Bruno, mistakenly believing that Barbara is the ghost of Miriam, nearly strangles a wealthy dowager during a parlor game.

 

The suspense culminates with a dramatic showdown at the fairground where Miriam was murdered. Bruno attempts to throw Guy from a racing carousel. Instead, the carousel spins out of control, killing Bruno but not before he exposes to Guy and the local authorities that he is still in possession of Guy's lighter, thus releasing Guy from the suspicion of murder.

 

For this climactic finish, Hitchcock wanted a shot of a man crawling beneath the racing carousel en route to its emergency release lever located in the center axis. After toying with the idea of incorporating rear projection to accomplish the feat, the stunt was instead accomplished live by Harry Hines who performed it without trick photography or safety devices -- his head only an inch away from being decapitated by the whirling floor boards of the ride. In an interview conducted many years after the fact, Hitchcock's face grew pale and nervous when he spoke about Hines' foolish bravery.

 

Hitchcock immensely enjoyed working on this film, perhaps because the problems he had had previously with structure and staging were absent from the Chandler/Ormonde screenplay allowing him to indulge in creating his "pure cinema" without having to constantly perform a patch up job on the script.

 

Warner Home Video's 2-disc reissue is welcomed. The initial release of Strangers on a Train on DVD included the pre-release cut billed as the "British version". Hitchcock never released this version theatrically. This 2-disc reissue also includes the alternative version of the film -- both having been completely remastered and restored. The B&W image is therefore smooth -- virtually free of grain and age-related artifacts. The image is sharp without appearing digitally harsh and with an incredible amount of fine details present throughout. Contrast levels are bang on. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are pristine. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level.

 

Extras include an audio commentary on disc one. On disc two we get thorough documentaries on the making of the film, interviews with surviving cast members and a fleeting retrospective on Hitchcock's career.  A stills gallery and theatrical trailer round out the extras.

 

 

 

Alfred Hitchcock's American films - Part One: from Rebecca to Spellbound

 

 

 

The arrival of Hitchcock in Hollywood began innocently enough with a personal invitation from producer David O. Selznick to work on the story of the ill-fated Titanic for Selznick Pictures. Arguably, Selznick had zero interest in this project, but he knew that it was of considerable interest to Hitchcock. Stuck in a comfortable bungalow in Hollywood but with precious little to do, Hitch's dismay was somewhat quelled when he and Selznick concurred on Rebecca (1940) as his foray into American movies. The author of the novel, Daphne du Maurier, was not only greatly admired by Hitch, she was also a close personal friend.

 

To say that Hitchcock was wholly unprepared for the omnipotent and intrusive way that Selznick ran his studio is perhaps an understatement. Though Hitchcock has been described by some as the movies first great auteur, he failed to recognize before the ink had dried on his contract that, although his boss's official credit was strictly as producer, Selznick considered himself more a co-collaborator than a mogul. On the set of Rebecca, Hitchcock found himself taking "advice" from Selznick in everything from the way certain scenes should be shot to his choice of leading lady.

 

Rebecca is essentially Bronte's Jane Eyre set in modern times. A young nameless waif (Joan Fontaine) marries aristocratic, Maxim de Winter (Lawrence Olivier) while vacationing with her paid companion, Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates) in Monte Carlo. For a while Maxim and his new bride are divinely happy. However, upon returning to Maxim's home, the foreboding seaside estate - Manderly, the spiritual essence of Maxim's first wife -- the late, though haughty Rebecca, begins to intrude on the couple's serenity. It seems that everyone from Maxim's sister, Beatrice Lacey (Gladys Cooper), to the matronly, yet strangely demonic housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), will not allow Rebecca's memory to fade.

 

Feeling stifled in her new home, the second Mrs. de Winter (never named in either the novel or film) decides to throw a costume ball to liven the mood. However, her plans go horribly awry when she appears at the ball costumed in a gown that Rebecca wore the year before: one that Mrs. Danvers deliberately suggested. The costume sends Maxim into a rage and he orders his wife to go upstairs and change.

 

The new wife and Danvers have their confrontation in Rebecca's bedroom with Danvers' attempting to brainwash the bride into committing suicide. Instead, the discovery of a shipwreck on Manderly's rocks leads to the discovery of another sunken vessel with Rebecca's concealed remains. Maxim further complicates matters when he confides to his wife that he knew all along the body was there. "How did you know?" his wife asks. "Because I put it there," Maxim explains.

 

This filmic revelation is worthy of consideration because it is not as it appears in the novel. In print, du Maurier had made her hero a murderer as well: Maxim killed Rebecca in a fit of rage after she announced to him that she was pregnant with another man's child. Selznick, a purist in adapting literary works to the big screen, utterly detested the revision from murder to accidental death imposed on the film by the Censorship Production Code of Ethics. In truth, what ought to have been a moment of shocking revelation now plays as slightly anticlimactic, though Olivier's power in orating the tragic moment when Rebecca accidentally stuck her head on a sharp piece of ship's tackle adds considerable weight to the tepid revision.

 

Exonerated from any wrong doing at a public inquest, Maxim hurries home to his new wife whom he realizes he truly loves, only to discover that Mrs. Danvers has gone mad and torched his beloved Manderly, presumably with his new wife inside. After a brief frantic search, the lovers are reunited on the front lawn just in time to witness Mrs. Danvers being consumed by the flames. 

 

As Hitchcock's American entrée, Rebecca is impressive to say the least. In hindsight, Selznick's constant badgering through memos strengthens the novel's loose construction. Hitchcock, though a meticulous technical craftsman, was not always as well served after he and Selznick parted company. On the heels of Selznick's gargantuan success with Gone With The Wind (1939), Rebecca proved a valiant successor, popular with audiences and receiving critical praise and accolades -- including the Oscar for Best Picture of 1940: the first and only time an Academy Award would be bestowed on a Hitchcock film.

 

To date, Criterion and Anchor Bay Home Video have released competing versions of Rebecca on DVD. Anchor Bay's disc is bare bones, though its transfer does not contain the annoying edge enhancements that sporadically pop up on Criterion's presentation. The B&W film elements on both are refined and solid, nicely contrasted and with a fair amount of fine detail present. The audio on both is mono as originally intended and adequately represented.

 

There are several oddities on the Criterion disc that deserve mention. First, Criterion's disc replaces the original title credit with an alternative version that was never seen theatrically: very strange. Second, the opening credits are heavily window-boxed. Third, although Criterion advertises an isolated score track as one of its extras, various cues have been omitted and/or substituted from other parts of the film. Other extras on Criterion's edition include an audio commentary, radio broadcast of the film, a handsome booklet and the film's theatrical trailer. Due to the aforementioned inconsistencies on the Criterion disc, it is this critic's advice that the consumer purchases the Anchor Bay copy for its fidelity to the original source material and purchase the Criterion for the extras.

 

 

 

 

Awash in the success of Alfred Hitchcock's first American thriller, Rebecca, it seems inconceivable that Selznick would allow his star director the opportunity to make a movie for someone else. In point of fact, after acquiring Hitchcock's services but having nothing for him to shoot, Selznick quietly loaned Hitchcock to independent producer Walter Wanger for Hitch's first big hit, Foreign Correspondent (1940), a taut and timely spy thriller set at the cusp of WWII. Though shot before Rebecca, Foreign Correspondent was ultimately released after the former's debut.

 

In hindsight, Selznick may have already been moving away from producing his own movies to assume the roll of a savvy business agent: setting up projects, acquiring scripts, getting talent in front of and behind the camera on board and then wholesale-farming out the package deal for a considerable fee and percentage of the finished film's gross.

 

Foreign Correspondent is the story of Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), a newspaper hound who is sent to Europe to cover the pending political upheaval. Rechristened Huntley Haverstock, Jones is introduced to the curmudgeonly Stebbins (Robert Benchley), who instructs him to play everything low key, including his role as a "foreign correspondent." But Jones is determined to make good on his assignment.

 

Finagling a brief interview with diplomat Van Meer (Albert Basserman), Jones is plunged into the middle of political intrigue when Van Meer is seemingly murdered before his very eyes. Though a resulting chase across the stark landscape of Holland reveals that the diplomat's double is the one who has been assassinated, Jones is unable to prove his findings when the real Van Meer once again disappears.

 

Jones' investigation is further complicated by two unforeseen circumstances: first, his main contact, Stephen Fisher (Herbert Marshall), is actually a double agent working for Nazi intelligence, and second, Jones has fallen in love with Fisher's daughter, Carol (Laraine Day), who knows nothing about her father's corruptions.

 

Attempting to confide in Carol, Jones is nearly run over, pushed off a high tower, and murdered in a struggle with Fisher's henchman, Mr. Krug (Eduardo Cianelli). Eventually, the plot to obtain state secrets is foiled and Fisher, along with his daughter and Jones are trapped in a plane bombed by the Axis en route to Britain. In the resulting flood and deluge Fisher saves his daughter from drowning then nobly commits suicide, leaving Jones free to rekindle his romance with Carol. 

 

Originally, the story that Wanger owned dealt with espionage of a different kind during the Spanish American war. As that conflict had already faded into obscurity by the time this film was set to go before the cameras, Wanger had the premise updated to reflect the dangerous rise of fascism in Europe. The final sequence, with Jones delivering his patriotic summation of "why we fight" during a London bombing, was a tack-on after production had wrapped and Hitchcock had already turned his attentions to filming Rebecca. Ironically, Wanger shot this final speech himself, an intervention Hitchcock deplored though it has remained one of the galvanic moments most readily admired by audiences and easily associated with the film.

 

Warner Home Video's DVD exhibits a smart visual characteristic. The B&W image is beautifully rendered with solid contrast levels and a fair amount of fine detail evident throughout. Blacks are deep and solid; whites fairly pristine. Film grain is rendered effectively as grain rather than digital grit, which is often not the case in DVD mastering. Age related artifacts are present but do not distract. The audio is mono as originally recorded and well represented. Extras include a brief making-of featurette and theatrical trailer. Recommended!

 

 

 

 

The demand for Alfred Hitchcock's services following back to back premieres of Rebecca and Foreign Correspondent was overwhelming. While producer David O. Selznick toyed with developing future in-house projects he loaned Hitchcock to RKO for an unlikely dabbling in screwball comedy: Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941). Scripted by Norman Krasna, the film tells the rather conventional tale of married couple Ann (Carole Lombard) and David (Robert Montgomery), who are floundering for reasons to stay married. The problem it seems stems from the couple's "one question a month" rule.

 

Ann asks David if given the opportunity to go back in time, knowing then what he knows now, would he still have married her. In a moment of honest weakness, David confesses that although he loves his wife he also misses his freedom, leading Ann to deduce that he no longer loves her at all. David's response is made even more problematic when the couple learns that their marriage is not legal because of a state boundary dispute. Recognizing that he has been free all along and assuming the question is therefore moot, David decides to propose marriage to his wife again. Only, it is now Ann who contemplates the practicality of spending the rest of her life with David.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Smith is an admirably nutty bit of unhinged comedy that is masterfully pulled off by Lombard and Montgomery. But given Hitchcock's proven prowess in the field of suspense one wonders today what could have possibly been going through the executive mindset at RKO to hire him for a romantic comedy.

 

Hitchcock shoots his film with uncharacteristically non-Hitchcockian flair. His direction is solid and more than salvageable, if not on par with the mastery of directors like Leo McCarey and Preston Sturges; both refined Sultans of the screwball. In this respect, Hitchcock clearly lags behind his contemporaries with providing the subtle nuances that might otherwise have made Mr. and Mrs. Smith not merely equitable comedy, but an outrageously ingenious one.

 

Warner Home Video's DVD delivers a below par picture quality. The B&W image is grainy, poorly contrasted and contains a litany of age related artifacts. Overall, the image quality isn't terrible, though it is also very far from pristine. Contrast levels are weak at best. Blacks are a deep gray; whites, a pale gray. Fine details tend to get lost under the patina of film grain. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequately represented. Extras include a very brief featurette on the film and its theatrical trailer.

 

 

 

 

By 1941, Alfred Hitchcock had begun to grow restless with the films he had been assigned under his ironclad contract with David O. Selznick.  A reprieve of sorts arrived just in time with Hitch's first project for RKO, Suspicion (1941), the story of wealthy wallflower, Lina McLaidlaw (Joan Fontaine) and her inexplicable romantic obsession with male gold digger, Johnnie Aysgarth (Cary Grant). Defying her parents, Lina becomes Johnnie's wife then slowly begins to realize what a scamp her new husband is.

 

After the death of her father, Lina is shocked to learn she has been left out of his will. For Johnnie, the snub is more critical. He has mortgaged their fabulous lifestyle on the assumption that Lina's inheritance would bail them both out of debt. Now, Johnnie is forced to find other means to sustain the lifestyle to which they both have become accustom. Johnnie confides a get rich quick scheme to close friend, Gordon "Beaky" Thwaite (Nigel Bruce), who agrees to help fund Johnnie's plans -- then mysteriously dies after the project is established. Suspecting that her husband may be a murderer, a progressive thought that ought to have led to an entirely different third act in the film, Lina resigns herself to the love she feels for Johnnie, despite her misgivings about his own sincerity in their relationship.

 

Johnnie tells Lina he is taking her to her mother's because he cannot stand the fact that she distrusts him. On the way there Lina's car door suddenly flies open and Lina, assuming that Johnnie is attempting to throw her from the speeding vehicle, fights him as his hand reaches for her. Instead, Johnnie pulls the car aside and tells Lina that she is a fool. He then further confides that he has always been in love with her -- an unsatisfactory bit of tacked-on nonsense that succeeds in convincing Lina to get back into their car. The two drive home together, all mistrust between them seemingly forgiven.

 

Suspicion is based on Anthony Berkeley's popular novel. In the novel's original ending, Lina discovers that her worst fears are true: Johnnie is Thwaite's killer and is planning to murder her next for the insurance money. An inexplicable obsessive love prevents Lina from saving herself. Knowing that she will be dead by morning, Lina writes her mother a note of confession, explaining the truth about Johnnie, then asks Johnnie to mail it for her after he has already made her drink a glass of poisoned milk. Lina dies and Johnnie, believing that he has managed to murder his wife while making it appear as a suicide, decides that the least he can do for the deceased is to mail her final letter home. The last shot in the film was to have been Johnnie tossing Lina's letter to her mother in a postal mail slot, thereby ensuring audiences and the censors that justice would eventually prevail on Lina's behalf.

 

The censors balked at this scenario, arguing that it did not resolve in very clear and concrete terms for the audience the apprehension of a cold-blooded killer (one of the absolute "musts" in the Production Code of Ethics) and furthermore, that presenting Cary Grant as a murderer would do irreprehensible damage to the actor's reputation with fans. Unable to sway the censors otherwise, revisions to the shooting script were eventually made and the film's ending was awkwardly diluted. Though Suspicion did respectable business at the box office, it proved to be less successful than Hitchcock's previous efforts, the one exception being that Fontaine's performance as Lina ultimately won her the Best Actress Oscar statuette. 

 

Warner Home Video's DVD release is welcome indeed. Suspicion has never looked better. Though the B&W image still contains instances of obtrusive grain as well as sporadic appearances of age related artifacts, the overall quality is one of brightly contrasted, sharp and refined details throughout. The audio is mono as originally recorded and represented nicely herein. Extras include an all too brief featurette on the making of the film and its theatrical trailer. Recommended.

 

 

 

 

Alfred Hitchcock's Saboteur (1942) returns the director's footing to familiar ground -- in hindsight, perhaps too familiar in light of Foreign Correspondent's success. Produced independently for Walter Wanger, the story is that of Barry Kane (Robert Cummings) an aircraft factory worker who is suspected of being a Nazi saboteur after a fire kills his best friend. On the lam, Barry meets kindly blind man, Phillip Martin (Vaughan Glasser) and his niece Pat (Priscilla Lane). Though Pat is ready to believe the worst about the mysterious man hiding in her uncle's cabin -- even going so far as to make several valiant attempts to return Barry to the authorities -- Phillip reminds his niece that not all men accused of a crime are guilty of it.

 

Eventually winning Pat's trust, Barry embarks on a cross country chase after the man he knows is the saboteur the police are looking for: Frank Fry (Norman Lloyd). Narrowly escaping a lavish house party where his arch nemesis, the ever-plotting Nazi sympathizer, Charles Tobin (Otto Kruger), is waiting to kidnap Pat and murder Barry, Barry instead tracks down Fry and chases him to the top of the Statue of Liberty. Fry loses his footing and falls to his death, with Pat ably explaining to the police that he, not Barry, is the saboteur.

 

Saboteur is a patchwork of themes visited more skillfully elsewhere in the Hitchcock canon.  Its screenplay by Peter Viertel, Joan Harrison, and Dorothy Parker is extremely episodic and often not terribly engaging. Decidedly uneven in its plotting, the film provides Hitchcock with an opportunity to test his globe-trotting agility across the continental U.S.: an exercise more fully and artistically realize a decade later in North by Northwest (1959).

 

Universal Home Video's has remastered Saboteur for its second DVD outing. The first, released in 1998 was marred by excessive grain and weak contrast levels. Both oversights are much improved on this reissue, though occasionally, contrast still seems to be a problem, with whites appearing sporadically as a dingy light gray. On the whole, the image quality will not disappoint. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequately represented. Extras include an informative documentary on the making of the film and a theatrical trailer.

 

 

 

 

There are many reasons why Alfred Hitchcock considered Shadow of A Doubt (1943) one of his best. Certainly, the film represented Hitchcock with the opportunity to break away from David O. Selznick's hawk-eyed scrutiny, which he regarded as oppressive at best. The production also realized Hitchcock's desire to direct films that he also produced; this one for his own company Skirball Productions, peripherally aided by Walter Wanger. The film also realigned Hitchcock's inherent zeal for directing cloistered suspense thrillers in confined spaces: a Hitchcock forte in England where money was tight and production schedules tighter still. Despite director/historian Peter Bogdanovich's statement that Shadow of a Doubt is Hitchcock's "first American thriller" (meaning that it was set in America instead of England), that dubious honor goes to the aforementioned Saboteur.

 

The script by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benso,n and Alma Reville concerns the congenial Newton family living in the sleepy hamlet of Santa Rosa, California. Charlie (Teresa Wright), a teenager emotionally wilting from misperceived boredom, is invigorated to learn by telegram that her Uncle Charles (Joseph Cotten), for whom she has been named, is arriving in town for a visit. There's just one problem: Uncle Charles is also The Merry Widow strangler, responsible for the heinous murders of rich elderly dowagers.

 

Despite the fact that Charles presents the Newtons with lavish gifts (token souvenirs from his brutal slayings) upon his arrival in town, the motive for his killings is not money. In one of his most uncharacteristically wicked moments ever inserted into a Hitchcock movie, Uncle Charles illustrates his indelible contempt for "rich, fat, greedy women," equating their useless lives to that of slovenly animals fit for the slaughter.

 

The declaration raises more than a few curious eyebrows around the dinner table, particularly Charlie's.  She has begun to contemplate that her uncle is perhaps not what he appears to be. With a bit of amateur sleuthing, Charlie learns the truth about her beloved uncle, though she is initially reluctant to share it with the family, particularly her emotionally fragile mother, Emma (Patricia Collinge), to whom Charles' reappearance in town has meant everything.

 

Instead, a dangerous game of cat and mouse ensues. Charlie threatens her uncle with exposing the truth unless he leaves Santa Rosa immediately. After several failed attempts on Charlie's life, Uncle Charles agrees to Charlie's demand. However, once aboard his train, Charles, intent on throwing her into the path of an oncoming locomotive, isolates his niece until the cars begin to pull from the station.  Instead, Charles loses his footing and slips between the two speeding trains, crushed to death beneath its wheels.

 

Shadow of a Doubt is a beautifully crafted drawing-room murder mystery, methodically paced and quite stylish in its evocation of idyllic Americana turned upside down. Hitchcock shoots the Newton house -- an actual home in Santa Rosa -- with loving care for its cloistered hominess, as though it were the epitome of small-town gracious living. He furthers this idealism by populating the home with a solid cast of stellar supporting performers, including Henry Travers as Mr. Newton, Hume Cronyn, a humorously meddlesome neighbor with a murder fixation, Herbie Hawkins, and Macdonald Carey (a Fox favorite) in probably his best role, as the sympathetic police detective, Jack Graham, with whom Charlie has begun an adolescent romance.

    

From the onset, Hitchcock's directorial footing is secure and swift, maneuvering his characters to their inevitable conclusion but in such a way that belies where the story is actually headed -- thus, keeping his audience guessing. His subsequent film ventures of this period would not be quite so decisive in their narrative path.

 

Universal Home Video's remastering effort on Shadow of a Doubt delivers a refined B&W image with marked improvements in sharpness and tonality. Contrast levels are much improved. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are generally clean. The image is sharp with fine details nicely realized throughout. Occasionally, a hint of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details intrudes but does not distract. Age related artifacts are present but tempered. The audio is mono but adequately represented. Extras include a thorough and informative documentary of the making of the film, stills and a theatrical trailer. Recommended.

 

 

 

 

Alfred Hitchcock was loaned out by David O. Selznick to 20th Century-Fox for an adaptation of Steinbeck's Lifeboat (1944). The film became the first of Hitchcock's attempts at shooting an entire movie within the confided space of a single set. In this case, that set is a lifeboat. The story concerns a small group of survivors attempting to keep body and soul together after their luxury liner has been torpedoed by a German U-boat. The survivor's list includes feisty reporter Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), mistrustful, John Kovak (John Hodiak), spirited businessman, Charles Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), loyal nurse, Alice Mackenzie (Mary Anderson), proud cook, George Spencer (Canada Lee), lumbering Gus Smith (William Bendix), and trusting Stanley Garrett (Hume Cronyn).

 

Along the way, this group fish out the captain of the U-boat that sunk them, Willy (Walter Slezak). Although Willy first presents himself as grateful and sympathetic, he slowly begins to despise the lot of Americans as his sworn enemies and thereafter plots to murder them one by one. After amputating Gus's infected leg in order to save his life, Willy waits until the rest of the survivors have fallen asleep before sadistically pushing the crippled man overboard.

 

Claiming that Gus's death was accidental, Willy next lies about their whereabouts. He is not sailing them to an American port in Bermuda as planned, but toward a German rescue vessel where he will be saved, while the others will most likely slaughtered or sent to a concentration camp. Charles learns first what Willy is up to and incites the rest of the crew to mutiny. The crew kills Willy in a mob rule before the Axis rescue ship is reached. A battle breaks out between the German ship rapidly gaining on them and an American war vessel looming on the horizon. The German ship is sunk by the Americans with the presumption that the American ship will now rescue the surviving members aboard the lifeboat.

 

It is interesting to note that although Hitchcock avoids garnering any audience support over the prospect of emotional salvation for the lifeboat survivors -- as per their collective crime of murder - he also fades to black before the American war ship has rescued its inhabitants, leaving the fate of the lifeboat survivors an open-ended question mark.

 

Initially written by imminent American author John Steinbeck, Lifeboat is perhaps Hitchcock's most finely wrought character drama to date. The performances throughout are top notch. However, Hitchcock infuriated Steinbeck's sensibilities as an author when he called writer Ben Hecht in to rework several key sequences, including the film's ending. Interestingly enough, despite its overwhelmingly positive conclusion -- that of the assumed rescue of the survivors - the film was misperceived and reviewed by the top film critics in the country as un-American and -- worse --  pro-fascist propaganda. Concerned that this litany of negativity would also blacklist him a communist, Fox's CEO Darryl F. Zanuck pulled the film from circulation shortly after its premiere, despite the fact that it opened to positive opening weekend box office receipts and steady business thereafter. Lifeboat would remain buried in the Fox vaults for the next 40 years. 

 

Fox Home Video has released a Special Edition of Lifeboat that belies the poor storage of the original film elements. Working from a print rather than the original camera negative, the overall quality of the B&W image exhibits boosted contrast levels and a considerable amount of grain that loosely translates into digital grit. Overall, the image quality is not bad, it just lacks in the areas of refinement and fine details. Blacks are deep. Whites are a dirty dingy mess. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a commentary track by noted Hitchcock expert, Drew Casper, a featurette on the making of the movie and its theatrical trailer. Recommended.  

 

 

Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) is a superior psychological thriller. Though produced at RKO, producer David O. Selznick's interference on the film resulted in his Selznick International banner preempting the title sequences instead of RKO's trademark radio tower. Subsequent reissues of both films have attempted to alternate the logo that appears before the credits. Regardless, and in essence, the two films bear Selznick's stamp of meticulous structure and planning.

 

After initial apprehension, Hitchcock persuaded Selznick to purchase the rights to the novel The House of Dr. Edwardes for $40,000. Hitchcock also scored a minor artistic coup by suggesting to Selznick that renown painter Salvador Dali (left) stage the elaborate dream sequences that would stand in as the main character's psychoanalytic nightmares. Spellbound begins in earnest with the introduction of Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman), a somewhat sexually repressed psychotherapist analyzing other sexual neurotics at Green Manors, the county sanitarium.

 

Although Constance cloistered professionalism becomes the brunt of Dr. Fleurot's (Jon Emery) cynical jokes and flirtations, her own romantic life kicks into high gear with the arrival of new chief of staff, Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck), who will be replacing retiring head, Dr. Murchison (Leon G. Glenn). However, certain phobias begin to manifest in Edwardes' character, drawing Constance romantically closer to him, but at the same time, exciting the mother instinct in her to protect Edwardes both from himself and the authorities, who suspect him in the murder of the real Anthony Edwardes.

 

Hitchcock's battles with Selznick on the set of Spellbound were daily and exhausting. At one point the director pleaded with Selznick to buy out the rest of his studio contract and find another director to complete the film. Selznick retaliated with the threat of a lengthy lawsuit, forcing Hitchcock back in the saddle on the project. He also encountered resistance from Salvador Dali, who had planned an elaborate dream sequence far too costly and much too lengthy for the purpose of the film.

 

Although Hitchcock convinced Dali to reduce his scale, many sequences that were filmed were eventually excised by Hitchcock from the final release print to tighten Dali's meandering symbolism. None of these edits pleased Dali's artistic sensibilities. For his part, Selznick intruded on the production by hiring a psychotherapist to act as his ears and eyes, and to make suggestions. After clashing with Hitchcock as to where the film deviated too liberally from the domain of legitimate clinical psychotherapy, Hitchcock reportedly told Selznick's advisor, "My dear, it's only a movie."

 

After Spellbound's premiere, Hitchcock focused his attentions on crafting Notorious. Believing that Spellbound's narrative still lacked clarity, Selznick pulled the general release print and removed a montage explaining the clinical treatment of patients, effectively eliminating an additional fourteen minutes from the finished feature. Even after enthusiastic reviews and favorable box office, Selznick seemed dismissive about the final film, calling it "just another man-hunt wrapped up in pseudo-psychotherapy."

 

To date, both Criterion and Anchor Bay have released credible copies of Spellbound on DVD. The former provides for an updated transfer that, unfortunately, has several glaring examples of edge enhancement, while the latter is currently out of print, though free of the aforementioned digital anomaly. Both transfers offer a refined image. Criterion's appears to have had its contrast levels artificially boosted, while Anchor Bay's contrast seems just a bit too low. Also, the Criterion version seems to be a tad sharper with more reveal of fine details than the Anchor Bay version which is softer in appearance. The audio on both discs is mono as originally intended with no discernable sonic discrepancies between the two. Extras on the Criterion Edition include an extensive booklet of linear notes, a radio broadcast of the film and an audio commentary. The Anchor Bay disc contains NO extras.

 

Being Julia, High Noon, U-Turn, The Best of Everything, Phone Call From A Stranger

Istvan Zabo's Being Julia (2004) is an adroitly humorous, often frank critique of life upon the wicked stage circa 1920s. The film stars Annette Benning as grand dame of the theater, Julia Lambert. Though the actress' professional life could not be any better, she is currently wrapping up a successful London engagement and looking forward to a vacation. Her temperament and frequent bouts of backstage depression render her a rather emotionally unstable spouse for manager Michael Gosselyn (Jeremy Irons).


Michael and Julia have an open marriage.  So lax, in fact, that Michael deliberately introduces his wife to scheming social climber and much too young, though handsome upstart, Tom Fennel (Sean Evans) knowing the probable likelihood that Julia will take a sexual interest in him. Before long, Tom and Julia do indeed become passionate lovers. The trick works. Julia snaps out of her depression and bounces gloriously back into a brand new hit show guaranteed to make Michael a lot of money.


But Tom wants too much. Not content to simply accept Julia's expensive gifts, though she is quite generous in the affair (lavishing her stud with expensive clothes, jewelry and money for travel), Tom is really after some rapid advancement with his own career and wants Julia to offer her understudy's position to his girlfriend on the side, Evie (Juliet Stevenson).


Believing that the acceptance of Tom's terms will bring them closer together Julia agrees, and then she quickly regrets her decision. Evie is a harpy and decidedly not the actress that patrons will pay good money to see. Worse, Tom has grown more distant from Julia since Evie's appointment. Then the truth comes out: Tom is scheming with Evie to have Julia deposed from her perch as the undisputed first lady of the footlights. Only this time depression will not be the order of the day: totally delicious revenge has taken its place.


Primarily an old-time screwball comedy buried beneath some rather contrived and maudlin melodramatic trappings, the narrative clings together -- compellingly so -- thanks to Benning's brilliantly conceived actress of multi-contradictions. Julia is a tour de force, masterfully carried off with a wily sense of self-deprecation. The rest of the cast pales.  Jeremy Irons is given precious little to do. Sean Evans is never quite convincing as the lover driven by purpose. As an audience, we know immediately what his intentions are, begging the question of how could such a woman as sophisticated as Julia be so easily deceived.


The finale is a celebratory mode of preconceived vengeance with Julia taking care of all those who have crossed her, but with an unerringly light touch of distinct pleasure that is never entirely heartless or without merit, even as it delivers immediate personal satisfaction. Being Julia is therefore never easy. Benning however, makes it all seem quite effortless.


Alliance Atlantis DVD presentation is quite acceptable. The anamorphic widescreen image exhibits a refined color palette with rich bold hues, very natural flesh tones and adequately rendered contrast levels. Blacks are solid,  though on occasion do tend to be deep gray.


Age-related artifacts are a non-issue, but distracting edge enhancement and pixelization crop up now and then. A patina of film grain is quite prevalent and more often rendered as digital grit for an image that is, at times, not as smooth as one would hope for. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and quite sufficient for this primarily dialogue driven presentation. Extras include a very brief "making of" featurette and theatrical trailer.

 

 

 

Often coined "the existential western," Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952) is a controversial classic: the examination of one man's moral compass amidst a town of hypocritical weakness. Based on John W. Cunningham's pulp story, "The Tin Star," the screenplay by Cunningham and blacklisted writer Carl Foreman was met with considerable indifference, even outrage upon the film's premiere. Western zeitgeist John Wayne went public, declaring High Noon as the worst movie he had ever seen. While it is certainly true that the film challenged audiences' preconceived expectations of the classic western genre and a certain level of expectation for the readily apparent clichés that were then part in parcel of the western style, there is little to deny that the story was in fact decades ahead of its time.

 

So too did controversy swarm around the casting of Gary Cooper opposite Grace Kelly as the film's romantic couple. Coop was twenty years Kelly's senior in an era when May/December romances were not nearly as commonplace and even occasionally frowned upon. Foreman's contributions on the screenplay were picked apart under government scrutiny as in support of some hidden communist agenda: an erroneous claim that nevertheless temporarily ended the writer's ability to procure work in Hollywood for several long years and eventually led to his incarceration. Today, removed from McCarthyism and the "Red Scare," High Noon plays much more like the timeless morality parable it was conceived to be rather than that misperceived subversive euphemism for political paranoia from its own time.

 

Filmed in and around various Californian locations, including Tuolumne City and Jamestown, the story benefits almost remarkably from its uncharacteristic ballad sung by Tex Ritter and its stark and unromantic landscape. This is the Old West revisited, without sumptuous saloon halls, loveable sidekicks or classic long shots of the gallant posse riding against the backdrop of a picturesque sunset. In every way, High Noon deals openly with very adult themes and equally genuine imminent danger facing its central protagonists. 

 

The story begins with the marriage of Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) to lovely Quaker bride, Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly). A respected pillar of the small community in which he resides, Kane has agreed to resign his commission as the law and live obscurely as a farmer with his new wife; that is, until news comes that notorious outlaw Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald) and his desperadoes are making haste on the noon day train to return and exact their revenge on Marshal Kane for incarcerating them several years before.

 

Urged by Mayor Jonus Henderson (Thomas Mitchell), his deputy/nee acting sheriff Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges), Judge Percy Mettrick (Otto Kruger) and other friends to get out of town fast, Will and Amy make haste on a coach to beat the arrival of the noon train. However, only a few miles outside of town, Will has a sudden attack of conscience. After all, how can he leave the men and women who entrusted their lives to his particular brand of stoic lawfulness?

 

Making the decision to return to town and face down his adversaries, Will is stunned when the very men and women who stood at his side now cower in the shadows at the thought of confronting Miller and his gang once again.

 

For her own safety, Will instructs Amy to take the noon train out of town. She agrees but vows to Will that if he stays behind to fight Miller their marriage will be over before it has begun. Her religious beliefs prevent the prospect of any killing, even in self-defense. In the meantime, Harvey Pell reveals his true jealousies toward Will. Always feeling inferior to Will, Harvey seizes the opportunity to attempt to break Will's spirit and perhaps his jaw in order to gain a certain amount of limited respect as the new law in these parts. He refuses to take up arms and publicly stand by Will's side.

 

While awaiting the train at the town's hotel, Amy comes in contact with local madam, Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado), who once had a rumored relationship with Will before he met Amy. The women exchange mutual glances, followed words and finally mixed emotions over the one man that means so much in both their lives. Helen agrees to take Amy to the station, but when Miller and his gang start shooting up the town, Amy disembarks as Helen looks on. Amy has chosen her husband's safety over her own religious beliefs.

 

As Will faces down a posse of four in a violent hailstorm of bullets, Amy takes up arms, killing one of Miller's men before being taken hostage. Realizing that he just might lose this fight, Miller pledges a trade up to Will from the relative safety of his hideout: Amy's life for his own. Instead, Will shoots Miller dead, the cowardly town's people rushing to his side with restored gratitude. Understanding just how little that gratitude now means, Will tosses his sheriff's star into the dust at their feet, desolate but wiser that he has proven himself as the law he vowed so readily to uphold, even in the face of total dishonor.   

 

High Noon is a sobering cinematic experience. It neither glorifies the Old West visually nor seeks to represent the inhabitance of this every town America as either upstanding, brave or law abiding. In the final analysis, Zinnemann's classic tale is anti-heroic, a rarified chapter in the annals of American movies in general and the Western genre in particular.

 

Lionsgate DVD rectifies the gross miscarriage of justice heaped upon previous DVD reissues of High Noon from Artisan Home Entertainment. In the past, the film has had its contrast levels artificially bumped up with a very severe image quality riddle with edge enhancement, shimmering of fine details and pixelization. This reviewer is happy to report that all of the aforementioned shortcomings have been largely corrected for this new 2-disc Ultimate Collector's Edition.

 

The grayscale has been impeccably remastered with its middle range tonality restored. Contrast levels appear more naturally balanced. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are clean. Age related artifacts have been greatly tempered for an image that is smooth and satisfying. Occasionally, edge enhancement appears, though not nearly as distracting or obvious as before. The audio has been remixed to 3.1 Dolby Digital. The original mono is also included. Extras include all of the special features directly imported from the disastrous Collector's Edition with their inherently poor image quality. These include the Leonard Maltin hosted documentary, an informative audio commentary, and a radio broadcast of Tex Ritter performing the film's signature title tune. The real revelation herein is the newly produced, lengthy and informative documentary Inside High Noon. At 55 minutes, it is dense with information and second-hand personal recollections from the sons and daughters of late cast members. Bottom line: High Noon is a must-have and this is the version to own. 

 

 

 

Oliver Stone's U-Turn (1997) is an abysmal trifle, disposable entertainment of gargantuan misfires. Bogged down by John Ridley's screenplay that presents a "bad day" gone virtually insane, this film is easily the most vile excuse for a road-trip movie ever attempted. The landscape of Ridley's novel and screenplay is populated with a bizarre cast of reprobates that Stone has chosen to flesh out with cameo turns from a potpourri of established talent in a vain attempt to legitimize the minor tale into major box office.

 

The story begins when con-artist Bobby Cooper (Sean Penn) bursts a radiator hose in his 1964 Mustang convertible. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, Cooper, a shyster who has lost two fingers as partial payment to a Vegas hood, Mr. Arkady (Valery Nikolaev), and his henchman, Sergi (Ilia Volokh), was on his way back to Vegas with his $30,000 repayment when this accident occurred. Barely making it to Harlan's, an automobile graveyard and makeshift repair shop run by bleeding gums redneck, Darrell (Billy Bob Thornton), the egotistical Bobby makes short shrift of Darrell's limited intellect before entrusting his repairs to Darrell and then departing on foot to the nearby town of Superior Arizona: a figurative name at best.

 

In reality, the town is little more than a ramshackle of nearly abandoned store fronts and hovels populated by discarded lost souls that time forgot. Bobby's first encounter is with a Blind Indian (Jon Voight) begging for loose change and a cold beverage on the street corner. Quickly, however, Bobby's interests segue to town slut Grace McKenna (Jennifer Lopez), a sultry Hispanic lugging several large boxes of window shades back to her Jeep. Bobby helps Grace with her load and earns an invitation to her home. However, once there, Grace baits Bobby with sexual flirtations that end when Grace's husband, Jake (Nick Nolte), arrives home.

 

A physical altercation ensues. Bobby leaves the McKenna home but is picked up by Jake not far down the road. After apologizing for giving Bobby his bloody nose, Jake propositions Bobby to kill his wife for the $40,000 insurance claim. Bobby refuses. However, when his own bag of money that was to be paid to Mr. Arkady is destroyed in a shotgun blast during the hold up of a local convenience store, Bobby begins to have second thoughts. Distraught and desperate, Bobby telephones Arkady to plead his case, only to have his paymaster send Sergi after him.

 

In the meantime, Bobby incurs the wrath of local hothead, Toby N. Tucker (Joaquin Phoenix), who misinterprets a harmless conversation between Bobby and his girlfriend, Jenny (Claire Danes), as a passionate flirtation. It doesn't help that Jenny -- a clueless waif with more imagination than tact -- enjoys observing Toby in action, thereby fostering reasons for him to vent his rage.

 

Bobby telephones Jake in agreement with his plan to murder Grace, but once alone on a cliff with her, Bobby instead falls under her spell. The two attempt to have sex, but Grace pulls away at the last moment -- confessing that Jake was actually her mother's second husband before he became hers. She tells Bobby of a $200,000 loot McKenna has stashed in a floor safe at their house.  He wears the key to the safe around his neck for safe keeping. Together Grace and Bobby plot Jake's murder.

 

Meanwhile, Sergi arrives in town in search of Bobby. He is promptly arrested by Sheriff Virgil Potter (Powers Boothe) for speeding. Bobby next arrives at McKenna's home that evening with the intent to murder Jake. But the plan goes awry, and after considerable struggle, it is Grace who takes an Indian tomahawk to her husband's chest instead. Bobby and Grace make haste with Jake's body in the trunk of his car only to be pulled over by Virgil, who tells Bobby that he and Grace were supposed to run away together.

 

Grace murders Virgil in cold blood, and she and Bobby dispose of both bodies over the side of a steep ravine. Unfortunately for Bobby, Grace has no intension of sharing her dead husband's money with him. She pushes Bobby over cliff side and he tumbles to the rocky plateau far below, breaking a leg and an arm on the way down.

 

It is only then that Grace realizes Bobby still has the car keys in his pocket. She crawls down him to retrieve them, but Bobby is still alive and after much flailing about, strangles Grace to death instead. Making his way back to the car with considerable difficulty, Bobby laughingly proclaims that he is "still lucky," only to have the replacement radiator hose that Darrell fixed explode on him in the middle of nowhere. Trapped and mortally wounded, Bobby dies in the baking sun, his body awaiting the arrival of the local vultures to be picked apart.

 

Those pondering the significance of this tale will be more than a tad perplexed by its convoluted morality play. None of the characters are above suspicion or reproach, hence none escape the dingy grit and uselessness of their faded, miserable lives. The point of the story is undoubtedly to illustrate the illusive tragic quality of both bad karma and fate/destiny. Bobby has begun his journey with bad intensions -- therefore, his fate can only mirror his own selfishness and greed.

 

Jake is a child rapist who, even in death, is forced to watch another man pleasure the young woman he took advantage of for so many years. Grace is a perverse femme fatale. Though she tells Bobby that she suspects that Jake is responsible for her mother's fatal tumble down a cliff many years before, Grace's own predilection for murder and her final betrayal of Bobby suggest that perhaps she might have killed her own mother to be with McKenna instead.

 

Ridley's screenplay is more a series of improbable vignettes strung together by Bobby's inability to learn from past mistakes. There's no progression or arch to any of the characters' personal development. In fact, each is a cartoonish cut-out with only the most peripheral of understandings in relation to one another. Sean Penn is a fairly descent actor, but this isn't his finest hour. He sleepwalks through his part, utterly disengaged. As Grace, Lopez is drearily magnificent: a cold-blooded reptile beneath her smoldering façade. As Jake, Nolte adds another wacko to his most recent list of performances. Perhaps, in the final analysis, the only point to the film is "you can't win," a fitting tag line, considering how poorly U-Turn performed at the box office.

 

Poor is a good work for Sony Home Entertainment's anamorphic widescreen DVD transfer that is marred by excessive age related artifacts -- dirt, scratches -- and by a very muddy color palette. At times the image can be crisp and relatively grain free. However, there are many instances where browns, taupe, oranges and beiges blend into one indiscernible mess.

 

Flesh tones are much too orange throughout. Fine details are lost during night scenes. Stock footage is slightly out of focus and grainier than the rest of the film. Pixelization occurs in background detail. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital but often registering as slightly unclear during whispered portions of dialogue. This flipper disc also contains a full-frame version of the movie on Side B.  There are NO extras.

 

 

 

Jean Negulesco's The Best of Everything (1959) hardly lives up to its title. The film headlines Joan Crawford and Louis Jourdan even though neither star appears in anything but brief cameos in the film: clearly a cheap publicity attempt to use "big" names that at this point in their respective careers were not quite as big as they had once been. The screenplay by Edith Sommer and Mann Rubin tells the rather generic story of four girls working in a steno pool at Fabian's Publishing Company.


Caroline Bender (Hope Lange) wants a career. Her role model is Amanda Farrow (Crawford), a hard-nosed "bitch" boss whose affair with a married man is on the rocks. Early on, Amanda senses that Caroline will eventually become her competition, a discovery that first leads to blind animosity, then eventual and mutual respect between the two as Caroline proves herself more than professionally savvy and equal to the task. Caroline's commitment to her job makes her desirable to Mike Rice (Stephen Boyd), a wealthy executive whose intentions toward her are only sometimes honorable.

 

On the other end of the spectrum is fashion plate Gregg Adams (Suzy Parker). Dropping out of her career on occasion to pursue auditions for Broadway shows, Gregg aspires to playgirl status and is merely biding her time at Fabian's. Though Gregg's eyes are set on the stage, her heart is quivering over vapid Broadway producer, David Savage (Jourdan). David, however, cares for Gregg only superficially, and much later discards her in favor of another innocuous fling.

 

The central narrative is largely focused on Caroline and Gregg's plight, though it inserts two more aspiring ingénues into the mix: Barbara Lemont (Martha Hyer), working because she is divorced and with child, and April Morrison (Diane Baker), a good-time-gal who gets the short end of the stick -- no pun intended. She winds up pregnant.


This "man's world" corporate commodity is further stirred by the inclusion of randy exec, Mr. Shalimar (Brian Aherne), to whom today's bevy of steno-pool lovelies would have a class-action sexual harassment lawsuit pending. The story only gets more conventional from here, with alcoholism, death and abortion making this melancholy melodrama largely forgettable.  The screenplay is infamous for its clichéd sexual politics, tossing about one liners like, "Find yourself another man...I'm throwing you out...and leave the key" or "I had the ideal husband...too bad he wasn't mine," flippantly out of touch with changing attitudes in the battle of the sexes.

 

In keeping with Fox's very strange choices in films deemed worthy of inclusion in their Studio Classic Series, The Best of Everything doesn't really live up to either the "studio classic" status or even its own title. Recall that Fox has included movies like Return to Peyton Place (1961), an abysmal little nothing of a sequel to Peyton Place (1957), as part of this series while quietly excluding such worthy titles as Hello Dolly! (1969) and Call Me Madam (1953) from the roster -- and even more to the point -- while film titles like Wilson (1944) and Margie (1946) remain MIA.

Fox Home Video's The Best of Everything does come with a rather impressive anamorphic transfer. Colors are rich, bold and vibrant. After years of viewing various discolored incarnations on VHS and television, seeing this film restored is rather like a completely new experience. Fine details are masterfully realized. Contrast levels are solid. A minimal amount of grain and fading is detected. The audio is lush and lovely in stereo. An audio commentary is the only extra. Forgivable, considering there's not much here to warrant a deluxe handling.

 

 

 

 

Star billing in ensemble acting is always tricky business. In Jean Negulesco's Phone Call From A Stranger (1952) - an uncanny amalgam of noir styling, conventional melodrama, and a touch of screwball comedy - it becomes downright confusing. Shelly Winters is given above the title credit even though Gary Merrill has infinitely more screen time. The script by Nunnally Johnson and I.A.R. Wylie is a tedious mishmash of clichés and uncertainties with a few brief nuggets of hidden surprise that seem to come out of nowhere.

The story concerns David L. Trask (Merrill), an attorney running away from his home life after he discovers that wife Jane (Helen Westcott) has been unfaithful. After telephoning Jane from the airport, David buys his ticket under an assumed name. He is "picked up" by lonely ex-actress/former stripper Bianca Carr (Shelley Winters) while waiting for their flight in the terminal, and thereafter also becomes friends with two other passengers: traveling salesman Edmund Hoke (Keenan Wynn) and Dr. Robert Fortness (Michael Rennie).

The flight takes off during a terrible storm and is grounded in Vegas overnight. Dr. Fortness confesses a deep, dark family secret to David, whom he is hoping will be able to provide some much needed legal council. It seems that one night not so very long ago, the good doctor departed a fashionable party with fellow colleague, Dr. Tim Brooks (Hugh Beaumont), en route to treat a patient at a nearby hospital. Unfortunately, David's cockiness and the influence of alcohol contributed to a head on collision where Brooks and all of the passengers in the other vehicle were killed instantly. Lying on his hospital bed, Fortness tells presiding physician, Dr. Luther Fletcher (Harry Cheshire), that it was Brooks, not he who was driving the car. Fortness' story is backed by his dutiful wife, Claire (Beatrice Straight), even though she knows the truth about the accident. The secret eventually tears Fortness' family apart.

Meanwhile, inside the airport terminal, Edmund is proudly passing around a picture of his wife, Marie (Bette Davis).  [Aside: the photo is actually an airbrushed image with Davis' face pasted onto the body of a bathing beauty pin-up.] Bianca jokingly tells Edmund that he is far too lucky to have Marie as his wife. Fortness agrees. For both Fortness and Bianca, Edmund is misperceived as boorish, grating and nonsensical. However David finds Edmund amusing, if not enlightening.

With weather conditions all clear, their plane takes off the next morning only to suffer ice buildup on its engine and wings. It crashes, killing all but three on board. David is the only member of his troop to survive and he spends the rest of the film's running time reluctantly contacting the family members of Dr. Fortness, Edmund, and Bianca to relay their final hours and provide closure and solace to each family.

In Fortness' case, David is able to reunite Claire -- who had become estranged from her husband - with their embittered son, Jerry (Ted Donaldson). In Edmund's circumstance, David learns that Marie has been paralyzed for many years following an ill-fated elopement with her lover that Edmund forgave.

The most peculiar of all reconciliations, played out in flashback like a bad screwball moment ripped from another film, involves David's brief interaction with nightclub proprietor Sallie Carr (Evelyn Varden) and Bianca's estranged husband, Mike (Craig Stevens). Possessive mother-in-law Sallie hated Bianca's independence and fabricated a persona for her that reads more that of the heartless vixen. Sensing Sallie's relish in demonizing Bianca, David fabricates a bit of his own wish-fulfillment about Bianca's audition with Rodgers and Hammerstein, thereby deflating Sallie's claim that her daughter-in-law was a no-good, useless failure.

As film entertainment, Phone Call From A Stranger is acutely convoluted.  Its plot suffers from too many half-ideas that never meld into one complete narrative. Merrill does his usual laconic "world-weary" loner routine with aloof disenchantment. He doesn't seem terribly engaged, but rather trudging from one plot point to the next with an "Am I there yet?" mentality that, at times, is rather oppressive.

Bette Davis is wasted in her near cameo. Truly, Davis' acceptance of the part of Marie (a role that any actress could have played blindfolded) has to be one of the all-time cinema curiosities. How desperate for work was she? Winters is a bit long in the tooth to be the tart with a proverbial heart of gold, but she pulls it off for the most part. Wynn overplays his hand with a painful example of ham acting. In the end, the characters and the plot do not gel the way they should. The results are mediocre at best.

Fox Home Video provides a beautiful DVD transfer. The B&W image exhibits exceptional tonality in its grayscale. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are nearly pristine. Contrast levels are perfectly balanced. Age related artifacts are rare and do not distract. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras are limited to an interactive press book and lobby and stills gallery.

 

April - June 2008 reviews

No Country For Old Men, Judgment at Nuremberg, The Queen, Anne of the Thousand Days/Mary, Queen of Scots

 

 

An utterly faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's brilliantly original novel, Joel and Ethan Coen's Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men (2007) is pitiless, unrelenting social critique seamlessly blended to a harrowing game of cat and mouse. Shot primarily in the empty backdrops of Texas, New Mexico, and Las Vegas, the film's dark, edgy and sparse cinematography by Roger Deakins, along with its sweeping, yet emotionless script by the Coens, produces an unforgiving landscape of soulless characters caught in their own congruent and spiraling webs of self-destruction.

 

At $25 million, the film is a modestly budgeted joint venture between Paramount and Miramax Films. Casting is inspired. Newcomer to American audiences, Javier Bardem, justly receives his Best Actor Oscar for this strangely virtuous, almost philosophical, performance as the wedge-cut assassin driven to commit unspeakable acts in a very discerning way. Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin deliver potent and unsettling portraits of righteous fatigue and invigorated greed respectively.

 

The film begins in the stark landscape of West Texas, circa 1980, with Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) providing an aloof social critique on the sad, slow demise of peace in the region. Professional hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), brutally slaughters Bell's deputy to escape custody, first stealing his police cruiser, then murdering an unsuspecting, innocent driver for his vehicle to continue the trek across the country.

 

In the meantime, good ole boy Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) accidentally discovers the remnant-strewn carnage of a drug deal gone bad: multiple corpses, a bag full of money, and a barely alive Mexican who will perish without his help. At first, greed consumes Moss. He hightails out of the valley with the money, leaving the Mexican to die. An attack of conscience sends Moss back to the scene of the crime. Unfortunately, he is discovered by the other banditos and thereafter begins a panicked escape from Chigurh and the law.

 

Moss hides in a seedy motel, stashing his moneyed satchel in the air vent. Unaware that the satchel also contains a hidden tracking devise, Moss returns to the motel only to discover that the Mexicans have already broken into his room and are awaiting his return to kill him. Cleverly, Moss instead rents the room next door, removes the vent panel from the shared duct, and retrieves the cash before Chigurh arrives to kill the Mexicans in his room.

 

Moss is tracked by Chigurh to another hotel on the Mexican border. Narrowly escaping death, he is nevertheless wounded, awaking days later in a Mexican hospital to discover that another drug operative, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), has a proposition that might save his life. Rejecting Wells outright, Moss telephones him later but is too late to save Wells' life. Chigurh answers Wells' phone, informing Moss that if he does not hand over the money his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly MacDonald), will surely die.  

 

Moss refuses to give in. Instead, he arranges a rendezvous with Carla Jean.  His plan: to pass along the money and send her to safety. Tragically, Moss is discovered by the Mexicans and Chigurh at the rendezvous first and is murdered. Witnessing the aftermath, Sheriff Bell enters Moss's hotel room -- unaware that Chigurh is standing behind the door. Bell notices similar scratch marks on the vent in the room and realizes that the money is gone.

 

Interestingly enough, Chigurh does not kill Bell, nor does Bell notice the assassin standing only inches away from him. Instead, Bell visits his invalided uncle, Ellis (Barry Corbin), while Chigurh hunts down Carla Jean for the cash. In a scene of open-ended interpretation, Chigurh offers Carla her life if she will surrender the cash and call a coin toss -- a reoccurring motif in the film. Carla refuses, and Chigurh departs her home with the money, implying that he has killed her. Unfortunately for Chigurh, he is T-boned by another driver, sustaining injury, but manages a painful escape before the arrival of police.

 

The final moments of the movie are up for discussion, with a retired Bell relating a pair of reoccurring dreams he has about his father to his wife, Loretta (Tess Harper). The first dream involves lost money that his father has given him; the second is a snapshot moment wherein Bell's father, carrying a torch through the frozen wilderness, informs Bell that he will go on ahead to make a fire for their warmth. Bell is left alone and isolated in the cold.  "Then I woke up," Bell concludes to Loretta and the audience, leaving the full poignancy and importance of the dreams a complete mystery.

 

No Country For Old Men is uncomfortable, compelled viewing. Its landscape of forgotten, hard-bitten men of the new West brutalizing one another for the sake of greed, scheming, and elusive wealth is faintly reminiscent of John Huston's The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) loosely reinvented for the Reservoir Dogs (1992) generation. Though the story teems with an ominous oppression and fatalism that is decidedly not "feel good," the Coens' script redeems the narrative from just another conventional "death in the valley of indecision" where not even the most innocent among us is able to emerge unscathed.

 

Alliance's anamorphic 2:35.1 DVD delivers a fairly impressive image throughout -- highly stylized and with a sun burnt yellowish tint throughout that is in keeping with the original theatrical presentation. Fine details are nicely realized throughout. There is a minor hint of edge enhancement but nothing that will distract.

 

Contrast levels are bang on with deep blacks. Whites, as aforementioned, adopt a yellow tint but are otherwise clean and refined. The audio is a 5.1 Dolby Digital effort with impressive spread. Extras include four vintage featurettes shot during production, including one largely self-congratulatory offering dedicated to working with the Coen brothers. 

 

 

One of the most profoundly sobering movies ever made about the holocaust, Stanley Kramer's Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) is often stagy and slightly stoic, though never anything less than completely engrossing post-WWII melodrama. A revealing look at the aftermath of Hitlerian rule and driven by its star performances, the film is as vitally tragic, viscerally disturbing, yet ultimately as life-affirming as any "message picture" ever produced about the rule of law in an unjust world.

Abby Mann's potent screenplay explores the Nuremberg trials from the perspective of American Justice, Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), who is pulled from his retirement to preside on the trial of German judges accused of Nazi crimes. Upon his arrival in Berlin, Dan, a bombed out shell of its former self, is installed in the residence of a deceased Nazi General. Before trial, Dan begins to review the cases of Germany's Chief Justice Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster), a patriot once regarded highly for his personal convictions. The others on trial include the ineffectual Werner Lampe (Torbin Meyer), embittered Emil Hahn (Werner Klemperer), and indifferent, Freidrich Hofstedter (Martin Brandt). 

Gaining guarded insight into Germany's political climate during the war from his two servants, Mrs. and Mr. Halbestadt (Virginia Christine and Ben Wright), Judge Haywood's understandings and experiences are significantly broadened when Madame Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich), the former mistress of the house he now occupies, arrives to take some personal effects back to her small apartment. It is through Bertholt's eyes and reflections that Haywood develops a quiet, though nevertheless potent grounding for the people who did not support Hitler's final solution.

However, the film's narrative also forces Dan to reconsider a very loaded question: Who is more to blame for the atrocities committed under Nazi rule? The ardent SS officers who openly supported Hitler or the conscientious objectors that remained silent while millions went to their deaths a stone's throw away from their villages and towns? 

The real crux and spark of the film derives from its passionate court room exchanges between Defense Attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) and the pronouncedly defiant Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark), who serves as the United States lead prosecutor. One by one, the witnesses are brought forward with heartrending testimony. Rudolph Peterson's (Montgomery Clift) unnecessary sterilization reveals another side to the German justice system that Haywood had not considered. However, it is Irene Hoffman's (Judy Garland) utterly tragic recanting of her platonic teenage association with a retired Jewish merchant -- an association that inadvertently lead to the man's brutal extermination -- that eventually leads Haywood to his ultimate conclusion about the purpose for the trial and its verdict.    

The final moments of the film's narrative are dedicated to a tete-a-tete between Haywood and Dr. Janning, men so similar in their profession and way of interpreting the law that it both startles and haunts Haywood's disbelief that such an intelligent man could so readily support atrocities of the Third Reich. 

Judgment at Nuremberg is not an easy film to sit through. As the audience, we are spared actual visual depictions of Nazi torture and brutalities, though Richard Widmark's gripping commentary as Col. Lawson is quite enough to let our imaginations run wild into their animalistic depravity.  The entire cast performs superbly with Schell and Garland delivering the most haunted moments of reflection. These stellar bits of acting live on long after the footlights have come up.  Nominated for an astounding 11 Academy Awards and winner of 2, Judgment at Nuremberg remains a benchmark in 1960s cinema -- powerfully frank and emotionally satisfying, a story for the ages brilliantly adapted for the big screen. It belongs on everyone's top shelf; a must-have!

MGM DVD delivers a very smooth, though not anamorphic 1:66.1 image that will surely not disappoint. The B&W elements are remarkably clean with minimal film grain, accurately rendered contrast levels, deep solid blacks and very clean whites. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 (the original mono is also included). The two are practically identical in their spatial separation and fidelity, though in the 5.1 mix the music track is decidedly the benefactor.

Extras include a thoroughly insightful featurette in which screenwriter Abby Mann and co-star Maximilian Schell speak of their experiences on the film. Both are so well spoken that they put many a new audio commentary track to shame with their genuine ability to talk on cue. Also included is a 15 minute tribute to Stanley Kramer that is nicely done, if all too brief. A photo gallery, theatrical trailer, and promotional junket materials round out the extras.

 

Stephen Frears' The Queen (2006) is a case of a good idea distilled into a mediocre film. For starters, its title is deceiving, since the narrative's focus is not structured on the Queen at all, but rather on her reaction to England's tragic loss of Princess Diana. Peter Morgan's screenplay relies heavily on inserted BBC footage from those painful hours of mourning around Buckingham Palace immediately following the news that Diana had indeed died. True, gifted actress Helen Mirren (who won an Oscar for her role as Elizabeth) apes the monarch to perfection. She is the Queen in mannerism and deportment and remains the film's one saleable commodity. Yet, there seems to be no cohesion to the footage excised from life and inserted into this story other than its brief reactionary flashpoints to the various sound bytes issuing from the Queen's television.

 

The film opens with Tony Blair's appointment to parliament. The Queen (Mirren) reminds him of his temporary place in the general scheme of British politics, a move that wins a rather uneasy détente between them until that fateful night in Paris. Moments after the first televised news that Diana's car has been struck in a tunnel, Blair (Michael Sheen) is on the phone to Her Majesty, cautiously instructing as to the appropriate course of action. Blair advises a public address. But the Queen will have none of it. Instead, she's off to Balmoral Castle for a little R&R with Prince Philip (James Cromwell), Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), and the young heirs to the throne.

 

At first, the mass sympathy is with the royal house. Soon, however, public opinion turns sour, particularly after the Queen refuses to offer even the most basic acknowledgement of Diana's importance on the world stage: flags flying at half mast, a public address, her return to Buckingham Palace to mix with the outpouring of tears from mourners.

 

The film delights in exposing a crusty underbelly of tension amongst the royals: Prince Philip's overriding contempt for Diana, Charles' presumed outpouring of loss made ineffectual by an overbearing mother, Cherie Blair's (Helen McCrory) refusal to curtsy before the queen. Yet, the overall empathy of the piece is lost under its barrage of actual news clips and sound bytes and under some heavy handed editing that reduces the Queen to mere glances and moments of silent introspection sandwiched between the documentary footage.

 

This isn't a great melodrama, just a mediocre one that proved very adept at feeding the loyalist/royalist fan base to both Dianaphiles and devotees of the Queen. In the end, The Queen is a curiosity and an anomaly, an addendum to history made from a curious vantage of extensive research without the infusion of any sort of heart or soul to make the project come alive.

 

Alliance Home Video's DVD is quite adequate. In theaters, the image had a tendency to be quite grainy in spots. This DVD reduces that grain element somewhat for a more smooth and acceptable image. Excised television snippets retain their broadcast feel. Filmic elements have a more refined quality. Colors are rich and fully saturated. Contrast levels are a tad weaker than expected. Blacks are more deep gray or hazy brown than black. Whites have a slightly yellowed characteristic that seems in keeping with the original theatrical presentation. Overall, the image quality will surely not disappoint. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include the film's original trailer, an audio commentary and a "making of" featurette.

 

 

 

 

Based on Maxwell Anderson's magnificent stage spectacle, Charles Jarrott's Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) is a visceral and compelling Tudor melodrama about King Henry VIII's mad obsession to produce the next heir of England. Deriving its name from the brief span in which Anne Boleyn became Queen of England then lost her head, the play debuted on Broadway in 1948 with no less a formidable Henry than actor Rex Harrison. Running 288 performances to rave reviews, the filmic adaptation had to be postponed repeatedly until Hollywood's self-imposed code of ethics had sufficiently lapsed, allowing the movie to explore those more seedy sidelines of royal intrigue, incest and adultery.

 

The film opens on the twilight of Henry's marriage to Queen Katharine of Aragon (Irene Papas). Originally an affair of state, the marriage was thrust upon Henry (Richard Burton) by his father to secure an alliance between England and Spain. However, Katharine has been unable to bear Henry a son. At court, Henry eyes the young maiden, Anne Boleyn (Genevieve Bujold). But his dalliances with Anne's older sister, Mary (Valerie Gearon), have toughened her resolve. Apart from her obvious disdain for a man who would impregnate one woman while still married to another, Anne is in love with Lord Percy (Terrence Wilton).

 

But their love match is thwarted when Henry denies his blessing, and furthermore uses his influence to command Cardinal Wolsey (Anthony Quayle) to separate Anne and Percy so that he may pursue her instead. Eventually, Anne agrees to marry the King, though not without conflict. She does indeed give birth to the King's future heir, Elizabeth: a bitter pill for Henry to swallow and made even more rancid when their second child -- a son -- is stillborn. 

 

Producer Hal B. Wallis delivers a formidable -- if lengthy -- filmic feast. By far, Burton's Henry is the most flawed and human of all movie incarnations, revealing a fallible and tragic side. He is superb, but the acting kudos on this occasion belong squarely to Genevieve Bujold who delivers a wholly captivating performance as the woman who would dominate and change the future course of England's history.

 

Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) charts the rise of Mary Stuart (Vanessa Redgrave), the last Roman Catholic ruler of Scotland. The only legitimate child of James V, Mary becomes the wife of the dauphin Francis (Richard Denning), who dies tragically in a riding accident. Encouraged to return to her native Scotland as the undisputed monarch, Mary is denied passport through England by Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson). Elizabeth further orders Mary's sailing vessel observed.

 

Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, including a minor revolution and constant threats of death, Mary manages to maintain her faith while attempting to unite her country and restore it to prosperity. She is hampered in her efforts on all fronts by a growing roster of false friends, as well as her own utterly bad judge in choosing male advisers. To this end, Mary falls madly and marries Lord Henry Darnley (Timothy Dalton), the great-grandson of England's Henry VII. But her marriage is hardly ideal, especially with Darnley's growing jealousy toward David Rizzio (Ian Holm), her trusted foreign correspondent. Eventually, Darnley makes a prisoner of his wife, who manages to escape a fate worse than death, only to be thrust into an even more abusive relationship with James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell (Nigel Davenport). 

 

Once again, producer Hal. B. Wallis and director Charles Jarrott regale us with tales of palace espionage. However, even at its lengthy running time, and with so much intrigue to contend with, the film seems pressed for time. The sets and costumes are first rate but the acting is secondary to both. Redgrave is an ample Mary, as is Jackson's turn as Elizabeth. Their confrontations are the best and most enduring aspect about the film. For the rest, this is a mostly glossy and not very compelling melodrama that truncates history and speeds through pivotal events that really deserve more of our time and attention.

 

Universal Home Video has made a 2-disc collector's set of both movies. Image quality on each transfer is uniform for the most part -- save one discrepancy on Anne of the Thousand Days to be discussed in a moment. On both transfers color fidelity has been nicely preserved. Colors are rich and vibrant. Flesh tones have a very natural appearance. There is a good amount of fine detail available for a generally smooth and pleasing presentation throughout. Contrast levels seem bang on with deep blacks and clean whites. Occasionally, age related artifacts are present, but do not distract. The audio on both is 5.1 Dolby Digital and well represented with a very aggressive spread during music and effects. Dialogue is very natural sounding.

 

Now for the discrepancy.  On Anne of a Thousand Days there are several brief sequences in which the image jerks horizontally. During these moments, the image is highly unstable and riddled with an excessive amount of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. The "jerking" motion is probably due to sprocket hole damage inherent in the original camera negative. But the digital artifacts are entirely unacceptable and quite distracting. Overall, then, this DVD is a worthwhile purchase for its content -- not its presentation.  

 

January - March 2008 reviews

Crash, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Eyes Wide Shut, East Side West Side

 

In essence and tone, Paul Haggis' Crash (2004) is a morality play interweaving and overlapping several stories - all serving one fundamental theme: the purity of the human spirit, its tainting by the outside world, and recovery from learned prejudices. Set in present day Los Angeles, with Police Det. Graham Water's (Don Cheadle) family tree providing the flimsiest of cohesion between various story threads, the film is, at times, a sobering reflection on racial stereotypes harbored under false pretenses and an underlying collective mistrust dictated by common fear.

 

That fear begins for DA Rick Cabot (Brendan Fraser) and his wife, Jean (Sandra Bullock), when their SUV is taken at gunpoint by carjackers Anthony (Ludacris) and Graham's younger brother, Lucien (Dato Bakhtadze), good-natured bad boys destined to meet with an untimely end. En route from their latest heist, the boys accidentally run down Park (Daniel Day Kim), a night worker whose laundry truck is stocked full of illegally smuggled Chinese refugees. Anthony and Lucien decide to save Park's life by dumping his body off at the local hospital, unaware of the cargo they're carrying.

 

Meanwhile, once safely at home, Jean freaks out about getting the locks changed on all the doors at their fashionable home, employing her own misguided racial profiling to convince Rick that locksmith Daniel (Michael Pena) will sell one of the master keys to thieves, just because he is Hispanic.

Responding to an APB on the Cabot's stolen vehicle, Police Officers John Ryan (Matt Dillon) and Tom Handsen (Ryan Phillippe) pull over a similar vehicle carrying an upscale married couple, Cameron (Terrence Howard) and Christine Thayer (Thandi Newton). Ryan's prejudice toward blacks in general causes him to overreact to the situation. He terrorizes the couple, physically assaulting Cameron and sexually abusing his wife before letting them off with "a warning." Shaken and disgusted by the incident, Handsen attempts to apply for a transfer; a request denied by Lt. Dixon (Keith David).

 

The narrative next picks up Daniel, who has been called in the middle of the night to fix the lock of a local Persian merchant, Farhad (Shaun Toub). Farhad's daughter, Dorri (Bahar Soomekh), has bought him a gun as a precaution against intruders. However, owing to Farhad's rather hot-headed temper, Dorri has also loaded the weapon with blanks -- foresight that will figure prominently later on.

 

There is a lot more to each of these lives, best left unsaid for the first-time viewer to discover. The film is fluid and evolving, or unraveling, that is, as the various plot elements spin together to form one compelling ball of tension. Like Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, the screenplay by Haggis and Robert Moresco provides mere snapshots at varying intervals before moving in other directions, only to return and pick up each thread later on. Yet, on the whole, and for this critic's tastes, the resolution to many of these proves a little "too kismet," becoming an inbred glimpse into characters who, try as they might, cannot seem to get away from one another. Praised for its frank and hard-hitting honesty, its bold critique of bigotry and racism, Crash is indeed an interesting exercise or, perhaps, "lesson" is a more fitting descriptor. But as pure entertainment, it does tend to be rather short-sighted.

 

Maple Home Video's DVD exhibits exemplary mastering. The stylized visual elements are boldly authored with a stark and rather stunning color palette that is bold and vibrant. Contrast levels are severe, as intended. Blacks are jet black. Whites are often blooming, again, as intended. Grain structure varies throughout, though night scenes appear to contain minute traces of digital grit not as obvious during the film's original theatrical engagement. On the whole, the visual quality of this disc will not disappoint. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and delivers an aggressive sonic characteristic.

 

Disc One contains one of the poorest examples of a DVD "introduction" from a director that this critic has ever had the displeasure of viewing. The audio commentary by Haggis is not much better, though Don Cheadle's and Bobby Moresco's involvement eases the pain somewhat. On disc 2 there are several interesting deleted scenes with or without director's commentary, several additional featurettes on the making of the film, a music montage, storyboard, and script-to-screen comparisons.

 

 

 

 

Unabashedly optimistic, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) is arguably the first intellectual science fiction movie ever made. In retrospect then, at last Hollywood dared to tell a story that did not invite the "blood-thirsty haunted beings from a far off galaxy, hell bent on earth and earthlings' destruction" scenario that by the 1950s had become so cliché ridden as to obstruct our sensibilities about the very real probability that "we" are not alone with benevolent travelers from another universe waiting to meet our acquaintance. In reflection on his own work, Spielberg has acknowledged that the film is a young man's dalliance with the "what if" fantasy about alien life and, more directly, a precursor to his own E.T., The Extra Terrestrial (1982).

 

Richard Dryfuss is Roy Neary, an engineer who, after being called out to investigate a city wide power outage, instead has a close encounter with an alien craft at a lonely crossroads in the isolated country. The experience shatters Neary's family life, already precariously looming toward divorce,  especially when his unsympathetic wife, Ronnie (Terri Garr), refuses to accept that Roy has seen anything but a mental breakdown.

 

Meanwhile on a remote farm, single-mother Gillian Guiler's (Melinda Dillion) son, Barry (Cary Guffey), is abducted from their home by another alien encounter. After Roy almost runs over Barry with his truck, Gillian and Roy meet and quickly discover their mutual unrelenting and inexplicable urge to journey to the rocky enclave of Devil's Tower where they quickly learn that the U.S. government has been putting up a front to scare local residents into an evacuation so that they can establish interstellar contact with the alien mother ship.

 

Those expecting fast action pyrotechnics and a conventional "boy meets alien" scenario would do best to satisfy their fixation elsewhere. Close Encounters is a thought-provoking, often lyrical and perennially engrossing tone poem made by a master filmmaker on the cusp of his own journey into the stars and the unexplained. Spielberg's direction is sure-footed but methodically paced. The film raises more open-ended questions than providing closed-minded answers, but ultimately succeeds where lesser sci-fi fodder has failed: at creating an emotional backstory that serves as the film's grounding element, utterly compelling, undiluted or overly explicative. 

 

At the time Spielberg was preparing for his foray into sci-fi, he had just stepped off the overnight success of Jaws (1976), a film not even Universal Studios had initially harbored much faith in. Ironically, Universal's shortsightedness continued when Spielberg pitched his original idea for Close Encounters, allowing the beleaguered Columbia Studios their bite at the apple of Spielberg's burgeoning "magic touch". Collecting his thoughts and handpicking a cast from an envious roster of stellar performers (including legendary film maker/author Francois Truffaut), Spielberg began shooting his movie under high expectations that were somewhat hampered, then entirely dashed, by Columbia's urging to have the film ready for a Christmas release.

 

The gamble paid off. Close Encounters was a colossal financial and critical success though Spielberg always felt he had been forced into compromise in his final edit. Hence, after the film pulled Columbia out from its financial red, the studio granted Spielberg's request to go back three years later to shoot additional scenes and re-edit his masterpiece for a new special edition. Unfortunately, Columbia imposed one more stipulation on Spielberg's artistic integrity, forcing him to include a final sequence where Roy is seen inside the mother ship before it departs into uncharted intergalactic territory.

 

In 1999, Sony released this Special Edition as the "definitive version" of Close Encounters even though it was not to Spielberg liking. Now Sony Home Entertainment has rethought that strategy with Close Encounters of the Third Kind: the 30th Anniversary Ultimate Edition, a three-disc compendium containing the original theatrical cut, the aforementioned Special Edition, and a new "Director's Cut" approved by Steven Spielberg. All three versions run just a little over two hours and appear to have been sourced from identical film elements. Though much improved in image quality from their original release, these new discs fall a tad short of expectation.

 

Overall, color fidelity is excellent, particularly during sequences shot during the day. Flesh tones appear more natural then they do during night sequences. Optical shots retain a slightly degraded visual characteristic inherent in the matte and SFX processes employed at the time. Although the work itself retains that elusive aura of make-believe, the overall representation on these discs tends to emphasize their dated characteristic. A few brief shots continue to contain a more heavy and obvious patina of grain than one might expect, exaggerated by a sudden -- if brief -- digital harshness. The soundtrack on all three discs has been remastered using the best possible source material. Oddly enough, the new musical cue inserted into the final credit sequence of the SE fairs better sonically than the original theatrical and DE tracks, which crackles slightly when played at higher decibel levels.

 

Extras include a comprehensive look back at the creation, upgrading and restoration of this monumental bit of film history and theatrical trailers for all three versions, as well as a special new introduction by Steven Spielberg. Highly recommended!

 

 

 

 

Stanley Kubrick's final movie before his death was Eyes Wide Shut (1999). He should have quit while he was ahead. For in this last experimental venture through the dark and depraved world of the sexually promiscuous and suicidal, Kubrick offers nothing but rare glimpses and brief flashes of his usual high standards.  Based on the brooding and ambiguous novel by Arnold Schnitzler, [Traumnovelle or Dream Story]  the film veers wildly between realms of subliminal perversion and kooky black comedy, peppered in sickly truncated bits of clichéd melodrama.

 

It stars then-married couple Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as Dr. William Harford and wife Alice. Though the thin veneer of William's respectability appears to be holding true to very conservative form inside his cloistered circle of upper crust friends - embodied by his association with fellow physician Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack) - alone and behind closed doors, Bill and Alice indulge in hot sex and recreational drug use after their young daughter, Helena (Madison Eglinton), has tottered off to bed.

 

Now for the wrinkle. Bill's world is inexplicably turned upside down after Alice confides that she once had naughty thoughts over a naval officer she glimpsed in the lobby of the hotel they were staying at during their honeymoon. Though Alice never acted on the impulse, Bill decides to "get even" with his wife by frequenting the seedy part of town and getting into mischief. But his efforts lead to more sexual frustration than liberation.

 

An awkward dalliance with a prostitute results in the discovery that she is dying of AIDS. A group of college kids inexplicably assume that Bill is a homosexual and decide to rough him up outside a jazz bar. Inside, Bill learns from his old college buddy, Nick Nightingale (Todd Fields), of a frisky group sex party at a country estate. But the deal turns sour when the cult leader of this private affair realizes Bill is a party crasher and almost makes him the object of a group rape.

 

The filmic styling of the piece is what stands out the most. But style without substance is a poor precursor for solid entertainment value, a commodity the film miserably fails to deliver. Then rumors of Cruise's own marital problems with Kidman are glaringly obvious on the screen. Their tawdry sex scenes have zero chemistry. It's as though they're brother and sister rather than husband and wife.

 

Opinion remains divided on Kubrick's last film. You either love it or hate it. This critic falls into the latter category. The script by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael is an utterly pointless mishmash of moments best left on someone else's cutting room floor. As the audience, we keep waiting for Kubrick to bring all the loose ends together (perhaps not in complete resolution, but at least a tightening up) and, for the most part, are bitterly disappointed when he leaves us hanging on Alice's final request for she and Bill to just go home and "fuck."

 

Warner Home Video's anamorphic widescreen DVD is disappointing, not the least for the fact that it does NOT contain both the theatrical and unrated versions of the movie as promised on the slip cover packaging. What is even more disappointing is how overly saturated and softly focused the overall image seems to be. Flesh tones are never natural, but rather a garish stylized orange that is distracting and not in keeping with the original theatrical presentation. Though the image can occasionally be razor sharp, it more often contains a patina of haze and some rather obvious grain (the latter was a part of the theatrical presentation), that plays more like digital grit. The audio is 5.1 and delivers a fairly powerful kick in the film's underscoring. Extras include vintage "making of" featurettes, a meandering audio commentary, and the film's original theatrical trailer.

 

 

 

 

Based on the scintillating novel by Marcia Davenport, Mervyn LeRoy's East Side West Side (1949) is a potent melodrama that takes a rather frank and unrelenting look at marital infidelity and the fallout incurred in the name of kept-up appearances with faux respectability. The story begins on New York's fashionable East End with married couple Jessie (Barbara Stanwyck) and Brandon Bourne (James Mason) enjoying a ritual Thursday night feast at Jessie's mother Nora Kernan's (Gail Sondergaard) apartment. The gathering seems idyllic and quaint enough. However, as the couple departs for their own home, Nora suspects that all is not entirely well.

 

You see, Brandon was having a rather torrid romance with viper/mantrap, Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner), an affair that Jessie forgave. However, Isabel is back in town, and meaner, hotter and more sensually tempting than ever before. She lures Brandon away from Jessie at every chance, flaunting her success while certain that she will win her conquest in the end. Not that it matters either way to Isabel, who is currently seeing New York thug in a three-piece, Alec Dawning (Douglas Kennedy), much to the chagrin of his other playmate, Felice Backett (Beverly Michaels).

 

In the meantime, Jessie has befriended former cop turned man of the people, Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin), on leave from his job in Italy. Dwyer's girlfriend, Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse), has been nursing a school girl's crush and keeping her home fires burning for Mark over the last two years in the hopes that he will feel the same toward her upon his return to America. But Mark quickly develops a yen for Jessie instead.

 

The great curiosity and skill of LeRoy's direction is how it manages to effortlessly shift from a seemingly conventional soap opera about six lives inexplicably and unpredictably intertwined, into a full-blown film noir after Isabel's body is discovered choked to death inside her apartment. LeRoy's direction is strong and straightforward, though never pedestrian. He keeps the film moving, inserting comedic bits of business to break up the rather dark and brooding monotony of the more sinister plot twists.

 

The entire cast is superb. Mason, in particular, gives a brilliant read of this sort of "weak/troubled" and utterly flawed, though handsome enough man about town that became his stock and trade during the 50s, most notably as Norman Maine in A Star Is Born (1954). There's great conviction in Stanwyck's performance as well, shifting atmospherically from doting, respectful and understanding wife to a woman who's had enough of both her life and the man who pretends to occupy it with her.  

 

Warner Home Video's DVD is adequately rendered with minor flaws worth noting. Edge enhancement plagues the main title and end credit sequences. Age related artifacts are present throughout and, at times, heavier than expected. On the whole the gray scale has been impeccably rendered with fine gradation and a considerable amount of fine detail evident throughout. Blacks are solid and deep; whites, nearly pristine.

 

On several occasions image quality seems to have been sourced from a less than stellar print rather than the original camera negative (as in the scene where Mark takes Jessie to his old neighborhood and runs into a school mate he hasn't seen in some time). Here, the image is briefly softer with lower contrast levels. On the whole, however, this transfer will surely not disappoint. The audio is mono as expected. Extras include a radio broadcast, several short subjects and the film's original theatrical trailer. Recommended.

 

 

 

 

October - December 2007 reviews

 

300, The Big Street, The Land of the Pharaohs, Kenneth Branaugh's Hamlet

 

 

Inspired by graphic novelist, Frank Miller's highly stylized and much celebrated reincarnation of the Battle of Thermopylae, Zack Snyder's 300 (2006) is a thought-numbing would-be epic of impeccable carnage mostly created through the magic of CGI.  The film charts the ruthless and relentless journey of that noble sect of Grecian warriors, The Spartans, as they prepare to do battle against insurmountable Persian forces.

 

The Spartans are led by valiant King Leonidas (the spectacularly muscled Gerard Butler, who claims, in one of the behind the scenes featurettes, to holding a strict regime of 4-hour daily workouts 3 months prior to the film shoot), a bit of a maniacal crazy obsessed with an inherent code of ethics that cannot be tempted or compromised.  The Spartans march as one indestructible conquering machine. Throughout the film's rather flimsy narrative, Leonidas makes repeated references to the fact that free men will always fight with more honor/valor and blind determination to preserve what is theirs than an army of slaves.

 

On the home front, Leonidas is loved by his Queen, Gorga (Lena Headey), respected by his people and worshipped by his soldiers. However, in Sparta's council of elders there is much consternation over the question of leadership, particularly from Theron (Dominic West), a Janus-faced traitor who trades on his political authority for leverage with both the council and the loyalties of its Queen.  At the onset, the Spartans wage an all out slaughter against the Persian forces in one magnificent victory upon the next. But the tide turns out of favor when Leonidas discourages a humpback cripple, Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) from joining their forces. Ephialtes betrays his king for superficial and earthly rewards.

 

The great disappointment of the film is that, though its visuals remain bloody and faithful to Miller's original comic, their overwhelming spectacle is married to a rather passionless hodgepodge: more decorative than narrative and allowing for even less of a personal investment from the audience than one might expect. (For example: The central male/female relationship between Leonidas and Gorga fails to generate even an ounce of believable passion beyond the friction of bodies rising and falling in connubial bliss.)

 

Understandably, speaking parts are neither the point nor the purpose of Miller's comic or the film's screenplay. That works in service of the graphic novel, but it is a bit more problematic for cinema. In depriving us of words beyond mere sound bytes, the film becomes a derelict of mottos, not motivations. The Spartans' causes - honor, family, glory, freedom - never surmount the bone-crushing epic splendor of an ancient carnival freak show, with the Spartans appearing as though they have taken their memberships to Gold's Gym too seriously and are now suffering from a bad case of penis envy and 'roid rage.

 

As Leonidas, Gerard Butler clearly has both a physical and emotional grasp and presence. Yet he is oddly deprived of humanity, circumcised in favor of a bloodless façade cut from the same cloth as Arnold Schwartzenegger's Terminator. His actions thus appear more instinctual than articulate, less the meticulous plotting of a master warrior and superior general than the rabid backlash of a wounded animal.

 

Larry Fong's MTV style camerawork and William Hoy's editing -- though considerably more smooth than most of their generation -- nevertheless contribute to a superficial artificiality instead of total audience engagement. The battle sequences are not so brilliantly staged as they remain plastic and waxen vignettes (a sort of stop-motion tableau of Miller's novel): artful, perhaps, but one-dimensional nonetheless. In the end, 300 inspires praise for its ability to provide an exceptionally accurate recreation of Miller's comic styling. However, taken from its printed context, the filmic excursion remains as flat as those imaginative images on the printed page.       

 

Warner Home Video's 2 disc DVD is generally pleasing and captures the CGI splendor of the original filmic presentation, though not without a few flaws. The stylized color palette is dramatically recreated. Blacks are solid and deep. There are no clean, pure whites. Occasionally, digital grit (apart from that inherent and planned in the original theatrical release) is quite thick and obvious, particularly during the final battle sequence, where close ups of Leonidas reveal a tiling effect on his headgear. The audio is an aggressive 5.1 Dolby Digital. Extras include an informative, occasionally rambling audio commentary track, plus a litany of behind-the-scenes featurettes on disc 2, delving into every conceivable aspect of the film's creation. Oddly, the original theatrical trailer is not included.

 

 

 

 

Irving Reis' tragic film noir, The Big Street (1942) is an engrossing character study in toxic relationships: a dark and brooding examination of a tragic woman who is evil in her intent, yet strangely sympathetic in her flawed understanding of human frailty and love. The film stars Lucille Ball as Gloria Lyons, a hot-to-trot nightclub singer who is utterly adored by busboy, Augustus "Little Pinks" Pinkerton (Henry Fonda, playing convincingly against type as the starry-eyed fop). Gloria loves no one -- not even herself. She uses her boyfriend, the thuggish Case Ables (Barton MacLane), until she sets her eyes on a more handsome prospect, playboy Decatur Reed (William Orr). Unfortunately, for Gloria, Ables decides to teach her a lesson: slapping her down a flight of stairs. The resulting fall leads to irreversible and crippling paralysis.

 

Discarded and embittered, Gloria's recovery is embraced and funded by "Pinks" and his band of faithful well-wishers, fronted by restaurateur Violet Shumberg (Agnes Moorehead), and playful gambler, Professor B (Ray Collins). But Gloria cannot stand the lot of them. Her seething contempt for poverty and those who work to live conceal her deeper fear that her own life is over and that, without the use of her legs, she will never be able to land the rich meal ticket she believes she deserves.

 

Based on the short story by Damon Runyon (who would later script the glorious Guys and Dolls), the screenplay by Leonard Spiegelgass adeptly moves the action from New York to Florida where Gloria continues to ridicule Pinks and the rest of those who seem to care more for her than even she does for herself. As Gloria, Ball is a revelation, a character so maniacal and oppressive in her discontent that she surely seems to be the most wicked and unflattering of all female leads.

 

Yet Ball manages to infuse something of a "little girl lost" into her performance, allowing us to see flashes of insecurity behind the sadism that will ultimately doom her to a tragic end. Gloria's motto may indeed be that "a girl's best friend is a dollar" but the infinite wisdom of the film is that it provides for a more enlightened philosophy: Selfless compassion is the admirable redeemer of fallen idols.

 

Warner Home Video's DVD is fairly impressive. The B&W image is relatively grain free with a minimal amount of age related damage. Contrast levels appear slightly weak at times, but overall the gray scale exhibits a fine tonality with solid deep blacks and relatively clean whites. Occasionally, a slight hint of edge enhancement is detected, as well as pixelization in background details, but on the whole the image quality in this presentation will surely NOT disappoint. Extras are limited to two vintage short subjects and the film's theatrical trailer.

   

 

 

 

Howard Hawks' The Land of the Pharaohs (1955) is an impressive anomaly in the director's career. Under the creative aegis of making a "Cecile B. Deville-type picture," Hawks aligns an impressive script by Harold Jack Bloom, William Faulkner, and Harry Kurnitz with stellar leads and a cast of literally thousands. The film boasts one impressive spectacle upon the next, not the least of which is Pharaoh Cheops Khu-Fu's (Jack Hawkins) triumphant processional and return to Egypt.

 

The story begins with Pharaoh's return, trailed by a band of captured peoples fronted by the architect Vashtar (James Robertson Justice). Cheops orders Vashtar to build him an impregnable tomb where he will rest in luxury and want for nothing in his "second life." As construction begins, the spirit and hope of the people are high. Soon, however, Pharaoh becomes consumed by the thought of death, and the tone of his order and rule turns dark and brooding. After discovering that Vashtar's sight is failing and that he has shared the secrets of Pharaoh's tomb with his only son, Senta (then heartthrob, Dewey Martin), Pharaoh condemns both father and son to be buried alive in the tomb after his death.

 

Even more of a curiosity is the next act of the narrative.  Always loyal to his adoring wife Nailla (Kerima), Pharaoh is inexplicably drawn to hell cat Princess Nellifer (Joan Collins), who first denies Pharaoh's workers the grain and monetary aid to build his resting temple, spits at him and bites his wrist, then plots his murder with her hulking man servant. This plan however goes awry when Pharaoh's loyal advisor, Hamar (Alex Minotis), discovers Nellifer's treachery and devises a fitting end for her after Pharaoh's death.

 

The tale moves along effortlessly enough with much to admire from both its actors and the enormous and detailed sets that dwarf all human condition set before them. Director Hawks never cared much for the finished product, believing it to be a minor work amongst his illustrious canon of film favorites. Yet there is something genuinely engrossing about this sort of spectacle -- more robust in its plotting and action than DeMille's own Ten Commandments, and far more character driven with subliminal underpinnings of sadism and revenge. Though what is ultimately remembered from the film are not its quiet moments of introspection but the scathing spectacle, Land of the Pharaohs is thrilling entertainment of the sword and sandal vein.  It delivers the golden goods and makes us care about the whole darn mess.

 

Warner Home Video's DVD is a tad disappointing. The anamorphic Cinemascope widescreen transfer was shot on Eastman Warner-Color film stock, a flawed format. The image, while occasionally sharp and detailed, is moreover marred by a distinct fading throughout, overly orange flesh tones and, at times, a considerable amount of obvious film grain and age related artifacts. There is also a hint of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details sporadically throughout this presentation. Occasionally, the image wobbles from left to right during dissolves and fades. Colors are flat and pasty for the most part.

 

The audio is Dolby Stereo Surround and recaptures much of the vintage "scope" stereo sound -- though occasionally the tracks are more strident than pure, with dialogue utterly manufactured. Extras are limited to the film's theatrical trailer and a rather sparse audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich with inserts of Hawks from an interview conducted in the early 1970s.

 

 

 

 

To date, Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (1996) remains the only filmic version of Shakespeare's immortal play to embrace the bard's full text, incorporating all of the scenes and dialogue from the first folio and second quarto: a gargantuan undertaking that Branagh would later admit became his obsession. Not that anyone at Castlerock Entertainment, the studio funding the film's $18 million bottom line, shared in the director's verve for the assignment.

 

On the contrary, weary that Shakespeare on film has always been risky business, Castlerock hoped against hope to convince Branagh to shoot an "abridged version" that would be released simultaneously with the director's own plans for an epic 4-hour spectacular. In the end, Branagh won out and only the full version had its general limited release to much critical praise, lamentation, and 4 Oscar nominations (but, tragically, no win!).

 

Hamlet (Branagh) is the rightful heir to the throne of Denmark, usurped of his title when his Uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) marries Hamlet's mother, the queen (Julie Christie), thereby become the sovereign liege. But that isn't what perplexes and haunts the very fibers of Hamlet's being. Rather, he suspects foul play in the death of his own father, a suspicion made ruthlessly whole when his late father reappears as a ghost (Brian Blessed) to reveal his poisoning at Claudius' hands. Yet how best to reveal the murder and fraud to the court of Denmark?

 

Hamlet's mother suspects him to be suffering from some great mental malady, a depression capable of pushing him on the verge of insanity. Hamlet's tender and loyal girlfriend, Ophelia (Kate Winslet), makes valiant attempts to rid her lover of his inner demons. But her own inability to conceive what Hamlet already knows, coupled with Hamlet's growing paranoia that Ophelia's father, Polonius (Richard Briers), the prime minister and Claudius' right hand, might be manipulating his own daughter in service to hatch a new murder plot against Hamlet, sends the young heir into an emotional tailspin from which only great tragedy and death results.

 

Situating the action loosely somewhere in the 19th century allows for a spectacular update of lavish locations to take center stage in this magnificent cinematic poem. It also affords Branagh the opportunity to carry off the play's most celebrated soliloquy ("To be or not to be...") in front of a double-sided mirror, presumably making his own exchange in private, while all the while being cautiously observed by a plotting Claudius and innocent Polonius.

 

The film is also a veritable potpourri for a stunning Who's Who of 20th century acting talent. Charlton Heston is frightfully on point as the Player King, commanding and well appointed. Judi Dench is an engaging Hecuba; Robin Williams a delightfully obtuse Osric; and Billy Crystal is foppishly coy as the grave digger. True enough, Jack Lemmon's Marcellus and Gerard Depardieu's Reynaldo are mere flashes of dialogue, appearing then disappearing from the plot as written, and arguably master talents like Ruffus Sewell and John Mills are wasted in limited bit parts.

 

Branagh however, has taken a cue and made a valuable study of all star spectacles à la the cheek and girth of Michael Todd's  Around the World In Eighty Days (1956), while borrowing from the bard's own quill that "the play is the thing." What is therefore memorable about the film, in addition to its superb stellar roll call, is how many big names and even bigger talents managed to appear in brief support and to marvelous effect throughout. This is the Hamlet to put all others (save Olivier's Oscar winning turn in 1949) to shame.

 

Warner Home Video's anamorphic DVD has been superbly rendered with startling image clarity unseen since the film's original 70mm road show engagement. Colors on this vibrant, rich and fully saturated. Branagh's piercing blue eyes are blue. Claudius' bridal attire is blood red. Fine details are evident throughout. Close ups of actors for example reveal minute lines and wrinkles in their faces.

 

The film is spread across two discs, broken at the original intermission, a forgivable interruption that allows for the badly needed food and/or bathroom break. Contrast levels are bang on. There is a minute amount of grain and a few minor instances of digital enhancement in certain scenes, but on the whole this is a pristine, near reference quality presentation worthy of addition to everyone's home video collection. The audio has been magnificently remastered to 5.1 Dolby Digital. Patrick Doyle's music cues are the real benefactor, but dialogue too seems to contain a more robust clarity than previously made available on the laserdisc edition.

 

There is but one disappointment to note in the extras. Although Branagh's and Russell Jackson's audio commentary is superb it is not accompanied by anything but vintage featurettes to augment this presentation. There's no "look back" featurette or documentary with interviews from the surviving cast and crew that would have authenticated this two disc release immensely. Oh well, a minor quibbling, I suppose. This edition of Hamlet comes highly recommended. At every level it is a spectacle of intense emotion NOT to be missed!

 

 

 

 

July-September 2007 reviews

 

The Best Years of Our Lives, To Catch A Thief, Coma, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

 

 

Director William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is often sited as producer Samuel Goldwyn's most enduring cinematic masterwork: an unvarnished, often frankly poignant and disquieting examination of the postwar fallout facing American soldiers returning after WWII. The film charts the reassimilation of three valiant heroes, Al Stephenson (Fredric March), Fred Derry (Dana Andrews) and Homer Parrish (real-life double amputee, Harold Russell).

 

Al, a once stoic family man and banker, whose ever doting wife, Milly (Myrna Loy), has kept the home fires burning while he's been away, promptly returns to Milly's side before taking her on a wild bender to celebrate his homecoming. Fred realizes that his old job as a soda jerk has been filled by a boy who did not go off to fight and that his fashion-plate wife, Marie (Virginia Mayo), has been off having a time for herself with another man. Homer, who lost both arms during a bombing raid, returns to his ever-loyal fiancée, Wilma Cameron (Cathy O'Donnell), who is determined as ever that they should be man and wife.

 

Eventually, Fred, the stoic loner of this trio, who spends his nights at a local watering hole run by his piano player buddy, Butch Engle (Hoagy Carmichael), reforms, accepts that his marriage is at an end, and begins to develop feelings for Al's forthright, upright daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright).

 

What sets The Best Years of Our Lives apart from the compost of most melodramatic fare is "the Wyler touch", a directorial hallmark grounded by the human element.  Rather than relying on another buddys-come-home-from-war "feel good" scenario, Wyler imbues every frame of this magnum opus with a sense of verisimilitude: a genuine realization of and empathy for the human condition reflected in the war torn faces of its returning warriors and mirrored back at them in the longing felt by those they left behind. In the end, the film is much more of a cinematic docutainment than mere time capsule,  framing the bittersweet context of life in a pantheon of high art and coming across as both artistic and lifelike.

 

MGM has released The Best Years of Our Lives on DVD once again. This is the third outing for this magnificent film. Sadly, third time is not the charm! The first incarnation was for HBO with an isolated score, a featurette with interview commentary from Teresa Wright and a rechanneled Chace Stereo audio track.

 

In repackaging the film under the MGM banner, these extras have been inexplicably jettisoned. Sadly, the limited quality of the film on all three incarnations has been directly imported onto this latest MGM "Awards Series" re-release. The B&W movie exhibits a very weak picture with poor contrast levels, aliasing, edge enhancement and pixelization throughout. Film grain and age-related artifacts are everywhere. The audio is presented in its original Mono and is passable. There are NO extras.

 

 

 

 

Derived from the axiom, "Set a thief, to catch a thief", Alfred Hitchcock's 1955 masterwork, To Catch A Thief, represents the director at his most lavish, playful, and delightfully adroit, an effervescent compendium of the working relationships that Hitchcock had cultivated some years earlier and had transformed into a well-oiled machinery capable of producing such slick entertainment with incomparable cinematic flare.

 

That film scholars and critics have since unfairly judged To Catch a Thief as mere 'featherweight fun' is indeed a shame, since the film is very much a great thrill ride and jewel heist caper, wrapped inside Hitch's inimitable blend of A-list star talent married to stellar behind the scenes crew -- all pistons firing on one marvelous burst of stylish creativity. 

 

The film stars the charming Cary Grant as retired jewel thief, John Robie, nicknamed "The Cat" because of his prowess on the rooftops. A recent string of high-profile heists has the local police suspecting the worst from Robie, and he knows it -- especially after five officers come to his fashionable mountain top retreat to apprehend him. Hiding out at the Cannes beach club, Robie relies on his old smuggling buddy, Bertani (Charles Vanel), to put him in touch with insurance agent, H.H. Huston (John Williams). The plan: for Robie to learn who has the biggest jewels, ergo, who might be next to be burgled.

 

The plan goes slightly awry, however, as Robie meets and gradually falls for rich and headstrong American playgirl, Frances Stevens (the luminous Grace Kelly). Frances' mother, Jessie (Jessie Royce Landis), is a foxy, good-natured gal with more karats than class. Robie rightfully pegs her as the Cat's next victim. But Frances has already pegged John as the burglar. Will lust or greed win out?

 

Hitchcock delivers a flashy, fun, and scintillating romantic yarn that is as marvelous as any of his more praised thrillers. Evidently, Hitch, who detested working on location, went against his own edict for at least half of the production shoot. The south of France is as captivating as the sparkled gems that Frances misperceives are driving John closer to her.

 

The cast performs with inspired enthusiasm and Hitchcock's direction, rarely to be questioned, exhibits exemplary deftness at providing a compelling tapestry of superb craftsmanship. In the end, To Catch a Thief may be lighter in tone and subject matter than, say, Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), but that effervescence should not be confused with "fluff" because To Catch a Thief represents the most rarest vintage, a Hollywood classic that continues to delight and entertain without dating. 

 

This is Paramount Home Video's second outing on DVD. The first was an abysmal misfire riddled in digital and age related artifacts, poorly balanced colors, and a patina of digital grit that belied VistaVision's original claim in "motion picture hi-fidelity."

 

I am pleased to report that Paramount's new "Special Collector's Edition" is a revelation in restoration and preservation on DVD. Colors are rich, bold and mostly eye-popping and fully saturated. In every aspect, the visual quality on this disc is virtually superior.

 

Flesh tones on the original release, particularly Cary Grant's (a tan), were ruddy and dark and often sported a very orange tint. On Paramount's new Special Collector's Edition, flesh tones are bang on. Grant's tan is now a healthy light brown, not half-burnt or sun-baked. Grace Kelly's stunning good looks positively radiate off the screen.

 

A revelation for this reviewer came during the sequence where Robie is attacked at night at a villa, as part of a set up to apprehend the real cat burglar. On the original disc -- and for as long as this reviewer can recall -- this sequence registered in a very deep royal blue with rather faded flesh tones. The sequence, as featured on the restored SCE exhibits the same vibrant emerald green patina that was trademarked for night scenes during the film's opening sequences and also used during its finale.

 

The audio is the same 2.0 stereo remix included on the original disc, which was quite adequate. The one added extra that is not a carry over from the original disc is a fun and loose audio commentary from Peter Bogdanovich. Purists will pooh-pooh the fact that Bogdanovich meanders away from directly discussing the film on several occasions, but on the whole this is a great reflection piece from a master storyteller and film historian. The four featurettes included on this disc, on writing, casting, making-of and personal reflection on Hitchcock, are imports from the aforementioned old release. Also included are a short featurette on Edith Head and the film's original theatrical trailer. Definitely worth the repurchase! Enthusiastically recommended!

 

 

 

 

 

Michael Crichton's Coma (1978) is a paralyzing medical thriller starring Michael Douglas and Genevieve Bujold as doctors Mark Bellows and Susan Wheeler. The two are lovers on the verge of marriage. But Susan's dander is raised after an unexplained coma ensues on a healthy patient during routine surgery at the hospital. The patient, Nancy Greenly (Lois Chiles), was a close friend and Susan is certain that her death was no accident. However, attempts to gain access to Nancy's files turn up a polite cover up of the facts. Chief of staff, Dr. George A. Harris (Richard Widmark), attempts to calm Susan's inquiries, politely suggesting that she is paranoid, overworked, and under stress. At first, Susan is inclined to agree with him. But then, more seemingly healthy patients start slipping away under induced states of coma -- and under the radar of medical malpractice detection.

 

Working from Robin Cook's best-selling novel, Crichton's screenplay and direction are superb. He creates and sustains an overall sense of foreboding, drawing his audience into Susan's paranoia and growing frustrations. As the audience, we see the truth through her eyes, marvel at the ineptitude of others in the medical profession who cannot piece together the symptoms of this conspiracy and cover-up, and eventually begin to suspect that any and everyone is involved.

 

Several set pieces elevate Coma above the standard medical mystery yarn, the best example being Susan's harrowing race against a hired attacker through the vacant ward and morgue after the rest of the staff have all gone home. Here Crichton exhibits a flare for elegant chills without relying on cliché or direct confrontation between Susan and her attacker. Instead, we get the pervasive sense that at any moment the two will be forced to engage in a struggle that never happens, but is nevertheless satisfyingly presented as a series of missteps.

 

Warner Home Video's DVD transfer is quite acceptable. Though colors are slightly dated and faded, on the whole the image exhibits a reasonably refined palette with nicely realized contrast levels. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites adopt a slight yellowish tint. Fine details are evident throughout. Occasionally, film grain appears more prominent than one might expect. The audio is mono. Dialogue is often not very natural sounding. The entire sound field seems to be lacking in bass tonality, often strident and/or dull. There are NO extras.

 

 

 

 

 

Mervyn LeRoy's Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) is an exhilarating war time propaganda film, its banners unfurled, over-the-top flag waving an intoxicating blend of "get up and go" and rousing cheer for the G.I.s who were then in the thick of things over in Europe. The film stars resident MGM pinup, Van Johnson as Lt. Ted Lawson, a cocky but congenial flyer who finds himself slated for the most aggressive bombing raid on the enemy.

 

In the meantime, Ted's wife, the ultimate all-American war bride, Ellen (Phillis Thaxter), has just announced that she's going to have his baby. Their relationship is the stuff of idyllic optimism in the face of impending disaster. At one point, Ted tells Ellen, "How'd you get to be so cute?" to which she replies, "I had to be, if I was going to get me such a good looking fella!"  The trick and magic of it all is that there is genuineness to their repartee that is totally engaging and entirely believable.

 

However, before this wholesome romance can lead to, well, more passionate pursuits, Ted is drafted into the service of Gen. James Doolittle (Spencer Tracy), along with his buddies, Lt. Bob Gray (Robert Mitchum), Cpl. David Thatcher (Robert Walker), and Lt. Dean Davenport (Tim Murdock). Together, they fly their plane into enemy territory, despite the fact that Ted has detected a rather ominous propeller problem just before take off. After a successful bombing raid on Tokyo, in which MGM's visual effects department manages to generate some fairly impressive master shots of total decimation, Ted's left blade gives out over open water. His plane crashes.

 

The rest of the film is a journey in crisis, as Ted and his troop are rescued and hidden in a Chinese hospital, but besought with discovery from marauding Japanese forces at any moment. Eventually, Ted must face the inevitable, that his left leg, injured in the crash, has to be amputated without the benefit of anesthetic in order to save his life.

 

Based on real-life incidents penned by the real Ted Lawson and amiably scripted by Dalton Trumbo, the film is a powder keg of exciting moments and impressive visuals. The one note of disappointment (and it is a minor one) stems from Spencer Tracy having been given the rather thankless duty of a near cameo performance, providing details to his troops but never partaking in their mission. However, Tracy's final oration to Ellen is worthy of the actor's prowess. In the final analysis, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo performs a most impressive hat trick: it manages to take thirty seconds and transform it into nearly two hours of high stakes action and four hanky melodrama.

 

Warner Home Video's DVD is fairly impressive though not without its flaws. The most disappointing aspect of the transfer is Warner's complete failure to go back to the source material to correct previous misregistration problems from prior video mastering that cause fine details to uncontrollably shimmer. The gray scale on this B&W image is impressive -- with fine and detailed tonality represented throughout. Blacks are rich and solid. Whites are fairly clean. Film grain is present but not distracting. The audio is mono but adequately represented. Extras are limited to vintage short subjects and the film's theatrical trailer. Recommended.

 

 

 

 

April-June 2007 reviews

 

The Devil Wears Prada, I Wake Up Screaming, Frank Capra: The Premiere Collection, The V.I.P.s,

Ever After, The Last of the Mohicans

 

 

David Frankel's The Devil Wears Prada (2006) is an astute, often unflattering backstage pass into the glittering glam-bam of the fashion industry, a world inhabited by shallow vixens and scheming backstabbers, unrelenting in their drive to succeed. The film stars the precocious Anne Hathaway as Andy Sachs, a college graduate and aspiring journalist who interviews for an assistant's position at Runway magazine.

 

This formidable kingdom of sketch and design is run by barracuda Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), a sadist whose sense of personal entitlement allows her to mistreat staff with equal contempt and disregard. Hired on a whim, as Miranda later puts it, and taking a chance on the "smart, fat girl", Andy soon learns that she has entered a lair of heightened temptations she knows absolutely nothing about.

 

Predictably, Andy repeatedly falters in her initial -- and quite demanding -- assignments. She confides to her live-in boyfriend, Nate (Adrian Grenier), that her days are numbered and repeatedly incurs Miranda's wrath until a quiet mutual understanding begins to grow. Andy's one semi-sympathetic confidant within Runway's hallowed halls is assistant editor, Nigel (Stanley Tucci), who is all too familiar with the scheming politics and shifting alliances that make up the back story of haute couture. However, as time and patience wear on, Andy begins to understand how much of a sacrifice may be involved. The only question thereafter: is she willing to sell out for "the good life"?

Director Frankel is working from a brilliant screenplay adapted from Lauren Weisberger's bestselling novel by Aline Brosh McKenna that goes much deeper into the subculture of "creating beautiful images" that will sell next year's spring line. We are given substance with purpose and purpose with rich characterizations that transcend the gaudiness and glitz of make-believe.

 

It is refreshing to see that Hathaway has grown as an actress since her Princess Diary days. Streep delivers a potently vital performance as the hard-edged bitch of the boardroom, but with a tinge of tragedy that considerably humanizes the character. Stanley Tucci is superb as the jaded, clairvoyant "spirit guide" for Andy's transformation from naïve girl to fashion savvy waif. The Devil Wears Prada is a great film, not simply for its performances, but because it seems to intimately know the world it's trying to recreate and is able to convey the depth and weight of its subject matter, not merely its superficial veneer.

 

Fox Home Video's DVD is reference quality. Colors are robust and vibrant. Flesh tones are very natural. Contrast is ideally balanced. Blacks are velvety smooth and deep. Whites are pristine. The overall image is crisp and sharp without being digitally harsh. Fine details are evident even during the darkest scenes. Edge enhancement is briefly detected but pixelization and other anomalies do not exist. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and delivers an aggressive spread.

 

Extras are a tad disappointing. Though the audio commentary is fairly engaging, the featurettes have been haphazardly thrown together, providing only the briefest of sound bytes from cast and crew. The "Boss From Hell" featurette is an incongruous mesh of comments from the director, inexplicably intercut with several real-life interviews from men and women talking about their worst work experiences. The "deleted scenes" are actually mere trims, not new scenes that were absent from the final cut. Recommended.

 

 

 

 

H. Bruce Humerstone's I Wake Up Screaming (1941) is a rather convoluted and diffused film noir. It stars Victor Mature as Frankie Christopher, a playboy sports columnist and promoter who pins his hopes and desires on Vicki Lynn (Carol Landis), a shoot-from-the-hip hash slinger at a cafeteria. On a dare, Frankie introduces Vicki to New York society, including ham actor Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray) and press agent Jerry MacDonald (William Gargan). Together, this trio of wolves is responsible for turning a virtual nobody into a glamour girl virtually overnight. But all is not sables and diamonds among the moneyed set. Vicki's sister, Jill (Betty Grable), doubts Frankie's intentions: a skepticism that worsens as she herself begins to fall in love with him. For her part, Vicki is pure poison. She uses her newfound clout to launch herself on a film career, departing from the three musketeers without whom none of her transformation would have ever happened. Ah, but then there's the murder that puts a period to it all. Vicki winds up with a toe tag and Frankie and Jill go up for suspicion of the crime against all too familiar and all too interested police inspector Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar). There's also the rather offbeat inclusion of Harry Williams (Elisha Cook Jr.), a sycophant hotel clerk who likes to ogle starlets and who will play a rather prominent part later in the plot.

 

With so much star talent thrown in, one would expect a miraculous work of high art and high stakes tension. But the plot only comes to life in fits and sparks. The beginning of the film vaults back and forth between a stylish Fox melodrama of this vintage (with absurdly elaborate sets, like the New York Club where Frankie introduces Vicki to society for the very first time) and gritty atypical noir locales as in the police precinct. There's a bit of "who done it" going on until thirty minutes into the film when we are told who the killer is. The rest of the tale then unravels like a guilty lovers' triangle with predictable conclusions. For mood, the film gets high marks.  There is a genuine sense of "noir" permeating most of the production.

 

Laird Cregar is rather curiously effeminate as Cornell. We're never quite sure whether his fascination with Vicki's murder has to do with the fact that he secretly loved her or is actually even more secretly lusting after Frankie Christopher's jocular loins -- although the scene where Frankie awakens in the middle of the night to discover Cornell quietly observing him from the foot of his bed gives us a fairly good indication. But Grable, this simply isn't her bag. As Fox's biggest female chanteuse since Alice Faye, one keeps expecting her to suddenly burst into song and when she simpers off instead with only an ounce of curiosity it's bitterly disappointing. Landis proves why her career never went beyond the ingenue stage: she's rather tragically one-dimensional.

  

Fox's DVD transfer on I Wake Up Screaming is just a tad below par. Though the image is quite clean and with a minimal amount of grain present, there are several glaring instances where mis-registration of the negative creates distracting halos. The image also tends to sporadically wobble from sprocket hole damage (right to left) during the film's opening scenes. For the rest, whites are clean. Blacks are solid, rich, and deep. The soundtrack has been remixed to stereo but the original mono (also included) will do. Extras include an informative audio commentary by Eddie Muller, a deleted scene where Grable's character is put upon by her much too old boss who aspires to be her sugar daddy, stills from the production and promotion of the film, and the film's original theatrical trailer.

 

 

 

 

Frank Capra: The Premiere Collection is a rather curious and somewhat disappointing box set from Sony Pictures that unites four Capra masterpieces: It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and one minor classic, American Madness (1932) with a stunning biographical overview of the director's illustrious history, "Frank Capra: American Dream".

 

The set begins in earnest with American Madness (1932), a Depression-era tale of mob mentality and the moral deconstruction of the every man that embodied so many of Capra's later great works. As Thomas Dickson's (Walter Huston) bank teeters on the verge of ruin, he is asked by his board to merge with a bigger trust or resign. He refuses to do either. Then his bank is robbed.  Most suspect by loyal teller, Matt Brown (Pat O'Brien in a role he's really not cut out for). Brown's an ex-con to whom Dickson gave a second chance. But Brown refuses to say where he was at the time of the robbery even though he has witnesses in his favor. The film has elements of Capra-corn but is much more a kissing cousin to the vein of bad-gangsters-gone-good genre that Warner Brothers made a success of with actors like Cagney and Bogart.

 

Next up is the film that made Capra Columbia Studios and Harry Cohn's golden child of the decade, the Oscar winning It Happened One Night (1934). Superbly crafted on a shoestring budget, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable star as a pair of feuding and unlikely compatriots in a road picture that literally defined the genre and still has no equal.

 

Gable is Peter Warren, a news hound who's sworn off reporting until he comes face to face with the scoop of his career, Ellie Andrews (Colbert). She's an heiress that the whole world is looking for after her marriage to King Wesley (Jameson Thomas) is denied by Ellie's loving father (Walter Connelly). No one could have predicted the film's overwhelming financial and critical response. MGM had loaned Gable to Columbia for the assignment as punishment. It was the sweetest kind of medicine. He won his one and only Best Actor statuette. Colbert, decidedly not in tune with either Capra or the making of the film, reportedly telephoned a friend on the last day of shooting to say that she had just finished "the worst film of my career." Nothing could have been further from the truth.

 

Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) is a delightfully daffy excursion about Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper), a pixilated gentleman from Mandrake Falls who suddenly finds himself the custodian of one of the largest fortunes in Depression America. Deciding to give away his money to the people who need it most, Deeds comes into conflict with corrupt lawyer, Mr. Cedar (Stanley Andrews), who is determined to secure the kickbacks from the transfer of funds for himself by introducing court proceedings that will declare Longfellow insane and thereafter have him committed to a mental institution.

 

Of sheer delight is newspaper gal, Louise "Babe" Bennett (Jean Arthur). At first hired to make a mockery of Longfellow's simple nature in print, Louise (masquerading as simple farm girl Mary Dawson) begins to realize that Deeds is the most humble, intelligent, and ultimately attractive man she's ever met.  So, how does it all end? With tears and laughter and the kind of Capraesque finale that has since become the director's trademark.

 

The collection advances to Capra's next Oscar winning success, You Can't Take It With You (1938), an utterly delightful and unhinged bit of fluff and nonsense. The film begins with Wall Street tycoon Anthony P. Kirby (Edward Arnold) expecting his only son, Tony (James Stewart), to follow in his footsteps. However, Tony's only genuine interest is his secretary and fiancée, Alice Sycamore (Jean Arthur). Alice is the only "sane" person in a family of eccentrics helmed with great humor and warmth by her grandfather, Martin Vanderhof (Lionel Barrymore), and mother, Penny (Spring Byington).  Naturally, Tony's parents (Mary Forbes plays the mother) are appalled by the rambunctious drive of these free spirits and their overall devil-may-care interest where high finance is concerned. The film is a showcase for a cornucopia of Capraesque screwballs.

 

The last film in this collection is the one that ended Capra's association with Columbia Studios: Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), a film that, at the time of its release, infuriated senators and politicians with its depiction of corruption and graft on Capital Hill. Capra everyman James Stewart is cast as Jefferson Smith, an idealist who cannot conceive that his lifelong mentor and longtime friend of his late father, Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Raines in a watershed performance) is involved in kickbacks with Jim Taylor; a greedy puppetmaster who has political aspirations. In appointing Smith to the senate, Taylor and Paine hope to find a dupe who the general public will believe in, but one who can be easily manipulated by them for their own gains. They quickly realize their mistake in plans when Smith develops into a one-man crusade to rid the Senate of corruption and instill genuine value, faith, trust and honor to the seat of freedom's reign.

If you own any of these films in their previous incarnations, only American Madness was never released as a single.  This reviewer has both good and bad news for you about these Premiere Collection re-releases.

 

We'll start with It Happened One Night, the worst remastering effort I have seen in a long time. While the originally minted DVD was far from perfect, it was nevertheless easy on the eyes. This new incarnation is virtually unwatchable. The contrast levels have been bumped so low that most of the night scenes come across as a muddy and undistinguishable mess. You can't even see Claudette Colbert's face during the road camp scenes. Forget fine detail, this reviewer would be happy with any detail at all. The image is much too dark, even with adjustments to picture quality made on one's television. 

 

Contrast levels are also to blame to a far less extent on Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Once again, fine details are the victim here as the entire image appears to suffer from a slightly less punchy and decidedly less contrasted quality than on the previously released DVD incarnations. In both cases, film grain, scratches, and other age-related artifacts are present. Certain scenes on both films appear to have been minted from less than first generation prints with a decided loss of clarity, details, and contrast.

 

Now, for the good news.  You Can't Take It With You has received the much-needed clean up it ought to have received the first time around on DVD. Then the image was riddled with dirt, scratches, and other digital and age-related artifacts that made it virtually unwatchable. These shortcomings have been removed. The image is still far from smooth and nowhere near reference quality, but the film is at long last viewable, and that is indeed this collection's greatest blessing.  So too is the image quality of American Madness and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a reason to stand up and cheer. Both films deliver a finely realized gray scale with good contrast levels, solid blacks, and very clean whites.

 

All films in this collection are presented in their original mono and feature an audio commentary by Frank Capra Jr.  Extras also include the aforementioned biographical documentary, "American Dream", which is a must-have, and featurettes with historian Jeannine Basinger and others who share in Capra's vision of America.

 

On a personal note, this reviewer cannot fathom the executive mentality and/or logic at Sony's front offices that permitted the exclusion of Capra's masterpiece, Lost Horizon (1937) from this box set. Nor is there any excuse for leaving out such Capra/Columbia delights as Lady for A Day (1933) The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1934), and the original Broadway Bill (1934). For those who will wonder why I have left out Meet John Doe (1941) from this mix,. it belongs to the Warner Bros. archive and has long been released in terrible DVD transfers as a public domain title by various companies, something Warner Home Video should rectify with a digitally restored and remastered release of their own!  Bottom line for this collection: the good marginally outweighs the bad. But I wouldn't trade in my old discs yet!

 

 

 

 

1963's The V.I.P.'s is a thoroughly misguided attempt to rekindle the majesty and grandeur of MGM's Grand Hotel (1932), recast and reset in a posh airport lounge. It is also a rather obvious stab at capitalizing on the illicit love affair between two of Hollywood's biggest stars of the period, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The two are cast as married couple Frances and Paul Andros. He's a successful industrialist who is exceedingly in love with his wife; she's an empty hearted gal diddling the sublime romantic trappings of lover, Marc Champselle (Louis Jourdan). Paul deposits Frances at the airport terminal, quite unaware that his wife has left him a note explaining that she will not be returning from her "vacation". Paul lovingly says goodbye, goes home, reads the note, then returns: first to attempt to murder his wife and lover in a jealous rage then to try and buy off Champselle -- and finally to destroy himself in a wallow of pity that eventually leads Frances to realize that she actually does love her husband.

 

In the meantime, tractor manufacturer Les Mangrum (Rod Taylor) and his dutiful secretary Miss Mead (Maggie Smith) are also occupying space in the VIP lounge and patiently waiting for the fog to lift so that he can solidify a deal in New York. Unfortunately, all appears to be lost when a key stockholder sells Les out. While Mangrum is hold up in his hotel suite with a ditzy blonde plaything, Miss Mead digs in her heels, orchestrating a hostile corporate takeover by appealing to Paul Andros (currently going through his distraught phase) to loan her boss the money he needs to relaunch his company to even greater success.

 

In another corner is Max Buda (Orson Welles) and Miriam Marshall (Linda Christian). He's a British film actor/producer who is planning to evade paying taxes. She's a golddigger actress of spurious talent who is destined to become his wife and partner in crime.

 

Finally, there's Margaret Rutherford, cast in her Oscar-winning role as the Duchess of Brighton. She has absolutely nothing to do with the plot but appears here and there as comic relief, the last of a dying breed of British aristocracy who eventually falls into some money that will help her sustain her living conditions for the time being.

 

Director Anthony Asquith does his best to balance the dramatics but the whole darn mess falls apart about midway through. The Frances/Paul/Marc love triangle is supposed to be the focus of the tale. But it is repeatedly interrupted by the Les/Mead financial problems and further diluted by the pathetic comic dithering of both the Buda/Marshall scandal and dithery duchess who can't seem to find her passport, hotel room or anything else.  

 

Warner Home Video's DVD transfer is a tad thick. Colors tend to be muddy, faded, and inconsistently balanced. Black levels are too intense during certain scenes, causing a general lack of fine details throughout the presentation. There is a generally dull, flat, and grainy characteristic to the visual elements. Flesh tones are very unnatural, either appearing garishly orange or grossly pink. There's really not much to recommend the visual presentation which is one of the poorest of this vintage this reviewer has seen. The audio is mono and quite dull also. There are no extras.

 

 

 

 

Andy Tennant's Ever After (1998) is a sumptuously mounted, engaging recanting (and slight revision) on the traditional Cinderella fable.  The film stars Drew Barrymore as Danielle De Barbarac. Born to privilege, the young Danielle's world is shattered when her father, Auguste (Jeroen Krabbe), dies of a heart attack in her arms.

 

Danielle's stepmother, the jealous Baroness Rodmilla De Ghent (Angelica Huston) seizes upon the tragedy to transform Danielle into the family's servant, waiting on every whim of her own daughters: the spoiled and simpering Marguerite (Megan Dodds) and infinitely more understanding Jacqueline (Melanie Lynskey).

 

However, a ray of hope enters Danielle's bitter life when she attacks the handsome Prince Henry (Dougray Scott) whom she first mistakes as a common thief. The prince must marry soon, such is the royal decree and wish of his parents, King Francis (Timothy West) and Queen Mary (Judy Parfitt). But will he choose Danielle above all others after learning the truth of her identity?

 

Director Tennant is particularly engaged on this outing. What might otherwise have become a cliché-ridden and predictable regurgitation of a story most know all too well is instead a refreshingly bright and spirited filmic experience that never once seems contrived. As the audience, we are provided with masterful representations of characters we only thought we knew.

There is just enough comedy to sustain the subtleties of romance without crushing it into romantic farce. In the end, the film proves winsome escape from the everyday in one of the longest running "happily-ever-afters" on record.

 

WARNING: Fox Home Video has two competing versions of this film currently available on DVD. The packaging is virtually identical but with one major difference. One disc has been enhanced for widescreen televisions, while the other is "letterboxed". 

 

In the early days of Fox's foray into DVD, the studio did not see the validity in enhancing its discs for widescreen displays. However, quickly executive logic recovered from this grand oversight.  Certain films escaped into the public in "letterbox" format, only to be replaced months later with "anamorphic" copies. (Aside: Tragically, many Fox titles of this early vintage have yet to be reissued in enhanced widescreen.)  Unfortunately, Fox never bothered to recall their mistakes. Read the back packaging carefully: under "Bonus Features" the enhanced version will read
"Anamorphic Widescreen" while the other will merely state "Aspect Ratio 2:35:1".

 

Fox Home Video's DVD exhibits a very refined image that is near reference quality, anamorphic widescreen, with fully saturated colors finely contrasted and with a considerable amount of detail evident, even in the darkest scenes. Blacks are rich and solid. Whites are pristine. A hint of edge enhancement exists, but does not distract. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and delivers a very satisfying and enveloping spread. There are NO extras! Recommended!

 

 

 

 

Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans (1992) is an exhilarating and passionate love story set against the violent backdrop of a clash of cultures and wills. The tale begins in earnest as British and French troops launch into an all out colonial war on American soil. The British brigade led by Col. Edmund Monroe (Maurice Roeves), including his two daughters, Cora (Madeleine Stow) and Alice (Jodhi May), are in retreat under a Mohican escort when they are ambushed by French forces under Gen. Montcalm (Patrice Chereau).

 

The Colonel is killed and Cora's officer/boyfriend, Maj. Duncan Heyward (Steven Waddington) seriously wounded in the ensuing slaughter, leaving the girls at the mercy of their enemies and rival Indian war lord, Magua (Wes Studi). But Mohican guide, Nathaniel "Hawkeye" Poe (Daniel Day-Lewis) is not yet ready to surrender to his captors.  Using his cunning and stealth, he launches an assault on the posse, rescuing Madeleine and her sister to the safety of a nearby British outpost. Eventually, a romance develops between Madeleine and Nathaniel, but not before the bloody carnage of two worlds collides. 

  

Midway through post production, Mann's masterpiece became a film in minor crisis. Composer Trevor Jones was hired to write the score, but creative differences between Jones and Mann eventually led to a split, with composer Randy Edelman called in to finish the job.  After an initial prescreening of the nearly 3 hour rough cut, Fox executives ordered Mann to prune the running time down to just under 2 hours. Director Mann always felt that the original theatrical cut had been slightly mangled by the editing imposed on him by the studio. In 1999, he recut the film for home video, yet reinstated only fifteen minutes more.

 

WARNING: Fox Home Video has two competing versions of this film currently available on DVD. One disc has been enhanced for widescreen televisions, while the other is "letterboxed".  The anamorphic widescreen version of The Last of The Mohicans exhibits a fairly solid visual presentation with bold, rich, and vibrant colors. Fine details are evident throughout. Contrast levels are nicely balanced. Blacks are deep and velvety. Whites are generally pristine. Age related artifacts are not an issue. Edge enhancement is present, as is pixelization. However, both these digital anomalies are far more persistent on the "letterbox" version. The audio on both is 5.1 Dolby Digital and delivers quite an engaging spread across all channels. There are no extras on either version. 

 

 

 

 

2007/2006 reviews

 

 

 

January-March 2007 reviews

 

James Bond Ultimate Editions 3 & 4, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, The Searchers (special edition), The Maltese Falcon (special edition)

 

 

 

JAMES BOND ULTIMATE EDITIONS 3 & 4

 

James Bond: The Ultimate Edition Vol. 3 brings together some of the most engaging thrillers in the series. The collection begins in earnest with Sean Connery's second outing as 007, From Russia With Love (1963). As President John Kennedy had made it known that From Russia With Love was his favorite Ian Fleming thriller, and its cold war theme was ideally suited for the decade of real life espionage and 'Camelot,' producer's Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman decided to use the novel as their follow-up to Dr. No. In point of fact, Broccoli and Saltzman would have preferred From Russia With Love as Bond's cinematic entrée. 

 

However, its weighty plot and shifting locales were prohibitive to the budget they had been allotted by United Artists. At the behest of the studio, Broccoli and Saltzman agreed to change the name of Bond's arch nemesis from SMERSH, the Russian based espionage ring, to SPECTRE an independent underworld organization, thereby diffusing whatever Cold War animosities the film might have otherwise incurred. 

 

Although From Russian With Love has some marvelous vignettes, the best of these being the two lavishly staged fight sequences; the first in a gypsy camp, the latter between Bond and SPECTRE assassin, Red Grant (Robert Shaw), as a whole the film seems far more dated and problematic than either its forerunner or subsequent adventure, Goldfinger

 

The helicopter assault sequence, as example, in which Bond is attacked from the air as he races across the stark hillside, is decidedly a ripped off of Hitchcock's penultimate wrong man classic, North by Northwest (1959), in which Cary Grant is similarly besought by rapid fire from a biplane. So too, does the initial set up of Bond presumably being murdered in the pre title sequence seem out of place in a rather lengthy prologue that continues for sometime after the opening credits. 

 

With a budget twice that of its predecessor, From Russia With Love began its shoot as an expensive project destined to be promoted as more 'an event' than a movie. But spirits on the set were dampened when actor Pedro Armendariz (cast as MI6 secret agent Kerim Bey) was diagnosed with a fatal form of cancer. Working around Armendariz's condition -- and eventually restructuring the schedule to accommodate his deteriorating condition the pall of his death before completion of the rest of the story elements, seems to have impacted the mood of the film as a whole. 

 

From Russia With Love remains a somber entrée in the Bond franchise -- darker, more sinister and ultimately less effective than Dr. No. Even Connery appears ill at ease as he strikes Russian defector Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi), a woman he has just finished making love to, in an attempt to make her confess what she in fact does not know -- that her superior officer, Rosa Klebb is a defector currently employed by SPECTRE. 

 

At $78 million in worldwide box office returns, From Russia With Love was a valiant financial successor to Dr. No -- yet, like James Cameron's Titanic, it is only in terms of its revenue perhaps that the film should ultimately be considered a great success.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) represents something of both a departure and a finale for the Bond franchise. At 140 minutes it is the longest Bond adventure. It is also the last of that breed imbued with stylish kitsch in ultra-60s chic. Broccolli and Saltzman had done their best to woo Connery into the fold but to no avail. Presented with the daunting task of 'discovering' the next James Bond the producers eventually settled on fashion model, George Lazenby who had yet to add film work to his list of professional credentials.

 

Concerns that Lazenby would be a jolt to audience expectations, and possibly be the series' final act, trailers and poster art featured a faceless Bond as part of their marketing campaign. Yet, what is most often forgotten in retrospectives is that the film is probably the single most detailed and fully realized Bond adventure in the entire series. It treats the character not as the cardboard cutout of a superman (which he had rapidly deteriorated into during Connery's tenure) but genuine flesh and blood, and, with very real emotional needs for love and to be loved.

 

From the onset, director Peter Hunt builds a carefully constructed mélange, determined not to replicate or even mimic Connery's iconography, but rather allow Lazenby to discover Bond through his own characterization. The pre-credit sequence features a fight done mostly in silhouette, at the end of which Lazenby's face emerges in his first close up and with the glib comeback, "this never happened to the other fella." The line -- deserving of a round of applause at the premiere, was actually a throw away that Lazenby had been using around the set in between takes.

 

What is also unique about On Her Majesty's Secret Service is Bond's unmistakable love and affection for his Bond girl -- Tracy Vincenzo (Dianna Rigg). In a series populated by buxom bimbos and fiery femme fatales, Tracy represents the Bond 'girl' as a complete woman. Her fears and anxieties, her self-destructive nature, mirror Lazenby's conflicted performance as Bond -- they are counterparts cut from the same cloth.

 

While previous, and for that matter subsequent, Bond adventures have set up the very cold and removed premise that women are a means for fleeting sexual gratification or at the very least, diversionary eye candy, the characterization of Tracy brings out the very best in Fleming's hero. He is genuinely moved by her, rather than merely going through the motions to satisfy his own desires. 

 

The plot diverges into two very different narratives; the first, a traditional spy thriller, the other a rare opportunity to present James Bond as a man first and agent second. In an entanglement reminiscent of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, Bond is assigned the task of wooing sexually frigid Contessa Teresa ' Tracy ' Vincenzo by her father; shipping magnet, Marc Ange Draco (Gabrielle Ferzetti).

 

Although Bond and Tracy's initial meeting is disdainful -- the eventual romance that blossoms between them is quite genuine. But before Bond can pop the question, duty calls. He is sent to impersonate Sir Hilary Bray, a genealogist scheduled to inspect the coat of arms of a respected personage atop a mountain retreat. Instead, what Bond finds is that his old arch nemesis, Ernes Stavro Blofeld (on this occasion cast as Telly Savalas) is plotting a toxic game of mind control, using a bevy of neurotic lovelies as his hypnotized harbingers of doom.

 

Director Peter Hunt must be given credit for producing this textually dense -- though never boring -- film; a seamless blend of all these narratives threads. The action sequences are masterful set pieces that rank among the best in the series -- including a toboggan/ski run chase, and, an auto race that ends only after Bond and Tracy have entered a legitimate motocross. 

 

What seems to be the sticking point for most audiences today is that neither Connery nor Bond's other iconic performer, Roger Moore are on hand for the proceedings. As Bond, George Lazenby is decidedly more wooden than Connery, and yet removed from Connery's hype and Moore 's savvy way around a one liner -- Lazenby is quite adequate in the role. His emotional response to Tracy 's murder is a highpoint for the film that neither Connery nor Moore ever achieve. But there is no denying that in keeping with the history of Bond as a character, Lazenby is something of a road show distillation, instead of iconic and galvanic. When all was said and done, On Her Majesty's Secret Service proved to be a considerable success at the box office, raking in $80 million.

 

With his debut to the series in Live and Let Die (1973) Roger Moore realigns the persona of 007 with more contemporary trends -- no small feat of accomplishment, considering how rabidly popular Connery's stoic and brooding Bond had been only a few short years before.

 

Yet, unlike Connery -- who had detested the glitz, glam and endless hounding for autographs and interviews from the press and his fans, almost from the moment he had essayed into the role-- Moore relished every moment in the process of becoming Bond and proved to be a great raconteur, both on and off the set. While filming in the tropics, Moore also attended a Tarot 'reading' that uncannily predicted with accuracy he would have a son and become a humanitarian.

 

Redesigning Bond to suit Moore 's personality meant the loss of the harder edge that Connery had infused. As screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz would later explain, Connery's personality allowed for the option of writing a scene in which Bond either kissed or killed a girl. Moore , however, would appear thuggish and ill at ease with this latter option. Hence, Live and Let Die has plenty of threatening menace -- but most of it is delivered by Moore as total quip and tongue-in-cheek.

 

Ironically, at the time of the film's release, critics perceived this nonchalance as having a 'softening' effect on the character. They also criticized the inclusion of J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), a sublimely over-the-top caricature of the Southern bigot that nevertheless won the laughs and popularity of audiences. If any singular unforgivable sin may be ascribed to Live and Let Die it derives from the absence of resident gadget master "Q" (Desmond Llewelyn); an omission that has never been satisfactorily explained.

 

Today, Live and Let Die is perhaps more heavily dated than most of the Bonds -- certainly more than any of the other Roger Moore classics. Its focus on Harlem hoods, thugs and a drug cartel run by San Monique politician Dr. Kananga/Mr. Big (Yaphet Kotto) simply reeks of the sort of blacksploitation that readily flooded the marketplace then, but is now acknowledged and almost universally panned as racial tripe in films like Shaft (1971), Blacula (1972) or Foxy Brown (1974).

 

The heady concern that Moore would not be accepted as Bond by his peers was counterbalanced by an impressive media blitz in publicity that included everything from a round of interviews to oddities like commercial tie-ins with Evinrude Motors and Glastron Boats, and even a commercial in which Moore trades vodka martinis to promote milk consumption. The campaign proved successful. Upon its release, Live and Let Die became the most profitable Bond yet, raking in $161 million. Broccoli, Saltzman and Moore could at last breathe a sign of relief. 

 

With For Your Eyes Only (1981) Broccoli made every attempt to return Bond to his more 'realistic' Ian Fleming based roots. In everything from the film's opening sequence (that has Bond placing flowers on the grave of his late wife, Tracy) to the staging of its action sequences, (right up to and including the climactic near drowning of James and his Bond girl, Melina Havelok (Carole Bouquet), there is a sense that the events occurring in this film, above all other Bonds, are quite plausible. The fact that Bond does not save the world but merely aids in the preservation of its currency, in retrospect foreshadows the present downgrading in Bond's status from super human, to just an action guy with really cool gadgets.

 

Bond is deployed to recover a decoding device from a British sea vessel, the St. Georges, that has sunk somewhere off the coast of Greece . At the same time, Melina Havelok (Carole Bouquet) is on a mission to avenge the murders of her mother and father who were attempting to salvage the wreck. Inevitably these two destinies collide when it is discovered that a man named Aris Kristatos (Julian Glover) is responsible for both the sinking and the killings. At first, Kristatos presents himself as an ally to Bond. He is a cultured patron of the arts and devoted sponsor to Olympic hopeful, Bibi Dahl (Lynn-Holly Johnson in a camp performance as an underaged/oversexed skater, setting her cap for Bond, and Kristatos stooge, Erich Kriegler -- John Wyman). However, very shortly these alliances shift as Bond discovers his true compatriot in Greek smuggler, Milos Columbo (Topol).

 

In retrospect, this film is notable for the appearance of the late first wife of future Bond, Pierce Brosnon; Cassandra Harris as the Countess Lisl. Esthetically, For Your Eyes Only also marks a first for Bond films by featuring the transparent ghost of Sheena Easton singing against the main title sequence. At $195 million, the receipts on For Your Eyes Only may not have been as impressive as those accumulated by the previous Moore Bond flick, Moonraker, but they were respectable enough to convince Broccoli that his revised interpretation of Bond had been the correct one all along.

 

By late 1992 both Broccoli and MGM/UA desperately wanted to return James Bond to cinema screens. Lengthy litigation between EON Productions and the aforementioned studio, that had forced the franchise into a hiatus, had been resolved under the latter's new management and all concerned were anxious to launch another installment in the Bond series. Timothy Dalton's departure was only one hurdle that needed to be overcome. England's Pinewood Studios -- which had primarily been James Bond's home, were unavailable to accommodate the shooting schedule for Broccoli's latest and last project -- Goldeneye (1995), forcing the company to virtually build another studio, later named Leavesden, from scratch. Broccoli would die the following year of natural causes, leaving behind a legacy in anthology filmmaking that will likely remain unsurpassed. 

 

Relieved of his NBC contract, and relegated to several years of inconsequentiality as an actor, Pierce Brosnan enthusiastically approached the assignment -- perhaps a bit weary that his commitment rested precariously on the shoulders of a studio that could not afford to have a flop. Happy accident for all, that despite an erratic gestation period and rather awkwardly structured script, Goldeneye proved to be anything but a failure.  

 

Imbued with the best elements of the series, (though arguably, the rejuvenation of Miss Moneypenny as a woman much prettier and younger than Bond remains a misfire) including exotic locales and stunning action sequences, Goldeneye proved a notable return to form. 

 

The plot concerns a stolen helicopter with nuclear missiles and a rogue element in MI6, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean). Once a committed agent, Alec has defected to the Russians who plan to hold the world hostage by using a satellite to zap out potential adversaries from the relative safety of outer space. (This tired pretext had been previously exploited in Diamonds Are Forever and would be reused again as the main threat to world domination in Die Another Day.) Not that audience seemed to mind this retread on old ideas. Upon its release, Goldeneye grossed a staggering $351 million -- a financial success more telling of the rising costs in theater tickets rather than an accurate measure of total audience attendance. 

 

MGM/Sony/20th Century Fox joint release of these films in a deluxe box set, like Volumes one and two, is a winner that belongs on everyone's top shelf. Owing to Lowry Digital restoration efforts, the image quality on all of the films in this third box set is exemplary. Colors are vibrant, bold and accurately balanced. Fine details are present even during the darkest scenes. Contrast levels are bang on. Blacks are rich, deep and velvety. Whites are pristine. There is not even a subtle hint of age related or digital artifacts for picture quality which will not merely entertain, but astound. 

 

Previously, the matte photography on From Russia With Love had exhibited a horrendous faded characteristic that belied its usage during certain shots in the film. The colors have since been corrected for a very smooth visual presentation. Live and Let Die's previous transfer had exhibited a very unstable image during the thrilling boat chase sequence. This shortcoming too has been completely resolved for a stunning new and very sharp looking transfer. The Harlem Fillet of Soul sequence still exhibits moderate grain but one must assume that this is inherent in the original film elements. The audio on all films has been remixed to a 5.1 stereo track that is quite complimentary -- although purists will note that the audio is a tad too thin and strident on For Your Eyes Only.

Extras include everything available in the previous Bond DVD's plus a host of intriguing extras -- outtakes, rehearsals, new audio commentaries, commercials, behind the scenes footage and so much more than this review can adequately delve into in brief. Suffice it to say, this is the Bond collection that every film connoisseur needs: a must have! 

 

 

 

WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?

 

Mike Nichols' directorial debut, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) is a bold departure in American cinema. The film -- as the play before it - is a psychological microcosm captured in one night behind the flickering embers of a pathological marriage. Artistically, it's the best work either Richard Burton or Elizabeth Taylor ever committed to celluloid as a couple. Burton and Taylor are cast (perhaps self reflexively so) as middle-aged university professor George and his carping wife, the unrelenting foul mouthed Martha. 

 

Based on Edward Albee's controversial play, George was a once brilliant mind corrupted by life. He's since turned to alcohol to cope with Martha's bombardment of malicious barbs -- a vice that is slowly rotting his mind as much as his wife's constant humiliation has dismantled his heart. For her part, Martha is a grotesque shrew - pure acid and one of the all time great female characterizations in American movies. She lacerates her husband's reputation, brutalizing and emasculating him as a man and as a human being. The adage 'if words could kill' fairly accurately describes Martha's malevolent relationship with George. Her bitterness pivots on a thin veneer of polished decadence -- an almost lampoon of Taylor 's own on screen persona during the forties and fifties.

The plot thickens -- or perhaps curdles is a better word - when new professor, Nick (George Segal) and his naïve wife, Honey (Sandy Dennis) arrive for late night drinks at George and Martha's. What they are treated to is a chaotic destructive portrait of what marriage may hold in store for them in twenty years or so. 

 

While there was nothing new about this sort of frank and detailed critique of American life turned upside down on the stage, on screen Mike Nichol's bold handling of the 'objectionable' situations and language literally broke new ground in American movies. Never before, in the history of cinema had there been such a toxic exposition of the raw underbelly plaguing some married lives. There's no happy ending here. No resolution, no coming to terms. Just a vindictive backlash of angry, mutual hatred and untiring disgust that permeates envelopes and dissolves lives to a shattering mess. 

 

What was shocking then seems perhaps a bit tame by today's standards -- but the dramatic irony that saturates the story has lost none of its vim or vicious vigor. Quite simply, this is one hell of a good show and a veritable showcase for private hostilities between two thespians/lovers played out in a very public venue. 

 

Warner Home Video's Special 2 disc edition of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? offers a fairly impressive DVD transfer that accurately captures the stark black and white photography. Shadow and contrast levels are nicely realized. Whites are generally clean. Blacks are overall solid and deep. Occasionally the picture seems just a tad soft but these moments are sporadic and forgivable. The audio is mono which is also adequate since the film is largely an exercise in dialogue with limited musical scoring or sound effects. 

 

Extras include two documentaries; one on the making of the film, the other a very dated overview of Elizabeth Taylor's acting career. Honestly, with all that Taylor has done both on and off the screen it's a considerable wonder that her life hasn't been immortalized in a comprehensive 2 hr. biography with restored vintage film clips. That's what a great actress of Taylor 's enduring legacy and reputation needs and deserves. Other extras include the film's original trailer and a fairly involving audio commentary; great stuff all around.  

 

 

 

THE SEARCHERS

 

John Ford's The Searchers (1956) is a sprawling dark saga into one man's driving ambition to avenge the death of his entire family. The film stars Ford favorite, John Wayne as tired loner Ethan Edward. Edward is a rover who returns to his brother, Aaron's (Walter Coy) ranch house somewhere in Death Valley , to rekindle relationships. He is welcomed by all, including Aaron's wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan), son Ben (Robert Lyden), and daughters Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (Lana Wood). 

 

But the reunion is short lived. For when Ethan is called to investigate the ravages of Comanche Indians on a nearby cattle ranch, he returns home later to find that his own homestead has been burnt to the ground and his entire kin massacred. The loss turns rancid when Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), who was in love with Lucy, decides to accompany Ethan on his tour of revenge. Martin is half Comanche and therefore despised by Ethan. But Ethan's heart and soul cannot rest until he learns what has become of his only family member not among the dead -- the youngest child, Debbie. The rest of the film is basically a sad man's journey; overriding and all-consuming frustration and avenging passion to murder murderers.  

 

Director Ford peppers the volatile raids by the Comanche and Ethan's bouts against Indian attacks, with moments of quiet introspection in which the audience is able to project their own angst and emotions onto the granite of Wayne 's proud chin. It's as though we are seeing the journey through Ethan's eyes and are just as unable to reconcile our thoughts with his own when Debbie emerges unscathed but changed (and sufficiently aged to be Natalie Wood) -- an adopted daughter of Comanche big chief, Scar (Henry Brandon), the man who killed Ethan's family. Viscerally photographed against the desolate and towering beauty of Death Valley , The Searchers remains one of John Ford's most prolific and engaging westerns. It is not to be missed and will undoubtedly continue to be thoroughly enjoyed. 

 

Warner Home Video gives us a brand new reason to rejoice with their new 2-disc edition DVD. The image has been created from a fine grain restored master print and the results speak for themselves. Where, once the filmic landscape was pale and flatly contrasted this newly mastered image positively glows off the screen. Colors are robust, vibrant and, at times, all consuming in the lurid characteristics of vintage WarnerColor. Contrast levels are breathtakingly realized with rich deep blacks and very clean whites. Occasionally a hint of edge enhancement and age-related dirt crops up, but nothing that will distract from an otherwise reference quality print. The audio has been remixed to stereo from original stems (original VistaVision movies only contained mono tracks). The audio is quite engaging and full bodied. Extras include an audio commentary and a documentary on the making of the film.

(Aside: this new edition of The Searchers is made available to the consumer in three distinct packages: first -- as a two-disc stand alone DVD; next, as a deluxe and handsomely packaged special collector's edition -- complete with reproduced promotional materials; and finally, as part of the John Wayne/John Ford box set -- also from Warner Home Video. A curiosity of sorts is the discrepancy in the box set. If you purchase it in Canada , you will receive the deluxe edition with promo materials but no copy of Wayne/Ford's other outstanding collaboration, Stagecoach (1939). If you purchase the disc in the U.S. you merely get the stand alone DVD but with Stagecoach included.)

 

 

 

 

THE MALTESE FALCON

 

John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) is required viewing for anyone who considers themselves connoisseurs of detective films or, for that matter, movies in general. Often duplicated, though never equaled - the story was made twice before by Warner Brothers; once in 1931 under the same title, then again in 1936 as Satin Met A Lady. Neither version is worthy of Dashiell Hammet's cagey film noir pulp novella. The 31' is too serious without the sass. The 36' is a horrible misfire for Bette Davis and Warren William -- who plays the lead with all the sycophantic charm of an aging pedophile. By all accounts, after the latter flopped, the story should never have been made again. 

 

Ah, but then came the real deal from John Huston that concerns hard-bitten realist and private eye, Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart in the role that officially made him a star). Sam and his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) have been employed by a Miss Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) to find her runaway sister and a man named Floyd Thursby...at least that's the tale as Brig' tells it. Actually, this femme fatale is in a mad dash to get her hands on a jewel encrusted falcon (dipped in black molten lead to conceal its true value). 

 

But Brigid has company in a trio of reprobates who'll stop at nothing to get the falcon before anyone else does; fat man Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) and Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr.). Before long Sam finds himself being suspected by the police for the murder of his dead partner, embroiled with this dangerous lot and plodding along with the rest to unravel the confounding mystery that is derived from 'the stuff that dreams are made of.'

 

Bogart's Sam Spade is hardly a hero cut from the swatch of classical he-men and good ol' boys like Clark Gable, Gary Cooper or James Stewart. In short order director Huston dismantles any such notions. Yet Bogart transcends the raw dirt of the role to make despicable behavior the height of romantic chic and, in doing so, became one of the first anti-heroic 'heroes' of modern cinema. For those who have not yet seen this elegant, fast moving detective thriller, if behooves this reviewer to pause here to suggest that there has been no better time to experience the film anywhere than on Warner Bros. new 3 disc special edition.

 

Previously, Warner Bros released The Maltese Falcon as a bare bones single disc with nominal extras and a transfer that was well below par for a film so deserving as this. Now Warner's really delivers 'the stuff that dreams are made of' with a stunning new digital transfer. The B&W image is breathtaking and near reference quality. Contrast levels are incredibly refined, revealing more detail and shadow delineation than has ever been seen. Whites are clean and bright. Blacks are rich, velvety and solid. The image exhibits a minimal amount of film grain and virtually no digital anomalies. There are one or two moments where the quality slightly falters -- mostly in the process shots -- which is to be expected -- but to acknowledge these seconds of less than stellar image quality seems grossly unfair considering how genuinely gorgeous the overall image quality is. The audio is mono but nicely cleaned up. Background hiss is infrequent and barely noticeable. Truly, this is one fine edition to add to your library. So what's on the other two discs in this 3-disc special edition? 

 

Disc two contains the aforementioned previous two versions of the film that, after seeing Huston and Bogart's definitive vision are decidedly an embarrassment. Image quality on these films is well below par. The original 31' version fares slightly worse than the 36' but neither is really unwatchable from an esthetic standpoint; from an artistic one is an entirely different matter. 

 

Disc three contains The Maltese Falcon: One Magnificent Black Bird, a documentary that, frankly, is a tad shorter than I expected and not nearly as thorough as I anticipated it would be on the making of the film. There's also, Becoming Attractions: The Trailers of Humphrey Bogart (a featurette that aired on Turner Classic Movies, hosted by Robert Osborne and was included as an extra on the previous single disc edition released by Warner Bros.). There's also an audio commentary, the film's theatrical trailer and some vintage short subjects to indulge in. Bottom line -- the film and the DVD are indeed 'the stuff that dreams are made of.' While other detective thrillers have been made over the years, The Maltese Falcon remains the one to beat. Arguably, it never can be.

 

 

 

 

October/December 2006 reviews

 

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (Deluxe Edition), A Streetcar Named Desire (2-disc Special Edition), 

Ronald Reagan Signature Series

   

 

CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (Deluxe Edition)

 

Even under the rigidity of extreme censorship, Richard Brook's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) remains a scathing deconstruction of intimate family bonds. As per the production code that governed motion pictures of this vintage, all references to Brick's homosexuality and his affair with his football buddy who committed suicide, Skipper, have been omitted herein. In place, and to explain away the inexplicable sexual frigidity Brick harbors toward Maggie, Brooks and screenwriter James Poe have concocted a rather flimsy assumed love affair between Skipper and Maggie that, in actuality, never transpired.

Hence, Brick has been holding out on his wife for reasons which seem thoughtless and simpering at best. Regardless of these omissions and mutations, Cat is a powder keg of dangerous sexuality, chiefly thanks to the electric sparing performances of Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. Taylor 's performance is particularly brilliant, perhaps in part because she was internally reeling from the fiery death of her third husband, producer Michael Todd, in a plane crash just days before principle photography began. As for Newman, he exudes all the lush qualities of a studly leading man, but sadly, minus any deportment that might have better hinted at Brick's subliminal homosexuality.

As the story unfolds, Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives) arrives home after having undergone a series of tests to confirm or deny a medical condition of terminal cancer. Although the prognosis is negative, Dr. Baugh (Larry Gates) has decided to conceal the truth from his patient and his family. Meanwhile, back at Big Daddy's plantation, his youngest son, Brick (Paul Newman) is in the middle of tying on another alcoholic bender. Brick is laid up with an ankle he broke the night before while reliving his glory days as a high school athlete by jumping hurdles in the dark. Brick's withholding of intimacy toward sultry wife, Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) whose overt sexual behavior seems to repulse him, is at the crux of Maggie's frustrations and hyperactive disgust at having children. The dialogue between Brick and Maggie during these early scenes is peppered with subtle hints of the play's more blatant stance on homosexuality, such as "You agreed to live like this!" (Brick). "I know, but I can't! I can't!" (Maggie). 

Big Daddy's eldest son, Gooper (Jack Carson) is also waiting for his father's return. A noncommittal type married to the domineering one-woman fertility machine, Mae Flynn (Madeleine Sherwood), Gooper is caught in the urgency of having Brick removed from Big Daddy's will. But Big Daddy favors Brick, and more to the point, Maggie. Destined to return to his cavalier days as a ruthless businessman, Big Daddy chides his wife Ida (Judith Anderson) and denounces Brick's drinking as a frivolity no self-respecting patriarch would tolerate.

From here on, the story is very much a picking apart of those deep wounds and scabs in pain and denial between father and son. Brick tells Big Daddy the truth about his medical condition: a move that hastens his father's demise. But it also softens Big Daddy's heart. He realizes that he has made a life based on material wealth and not love. The end of the story as portrayed on screen is one of return to normalcy and trust within those familial ties that bind. 

Warner Home Video's Deluxe Edition of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof at last corrects all the problematic elements in transfer quality inherent in its first DVD incarnation. Colors on this newly minted DVD are far more rich, vibrant and accurate. The biggest complaint of the original transfer was that it favored a decidedly cold and bluish color palette with considerable fading and age related artifacts present throughout. There was also an intense amount of film grain present then, as well as some very distracting digital anomalies (edge enhancement, pixelization, etc.). All of these shortcomings have been remedied on this anamorphic reissue. Colors now favor a red tone that is probably more in keeping with the original theatrical release. Flesh tones are consistently rendered. Fading is not an issue. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are generally bright, though not blooming.  Film grain is barely visible. All digital anomalies have been removed. The audio is mono but fitting for what is essentially a dialogue driven character study. Extras are a tad disappointing. Save Donald Spoto's audio commentary (that rambles aimlessly in spots), the only other feature included is an all too brief (under fifteen minutes) featurette offering superficial coverage of the back story behind the making of the film. The film's original theatrical trailer is also included.

 

 

 

A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (2-disc Special Edition)

 

Elia Kazan's adaptation of Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) is a smoldering and lush cornucopia of brutish lust and sexuality, repressed desires and mental derangement. The film afforded then relative unknown, Marlon Brando one of his best roles as Stanley Kowalski. Stanley is married to Stella (Kim Hunter) the sister of ravenous "Mrs. Robinson"-type, Blanche DuBois (Vivien Leigh). Seems Blanche has come to New Orleans on the pretext of a visit, but planning to live for an undisclosed time with sis' and Stan. In the play (not the film) Blanche has actually fled her home town in haste and given up her profession as a school teacher after she was caught having sex with one of her students. Kazan does his best to make Blanche's past obvious from the start of the film by having her flirt with a very young sailor as she boards the streetcar bound for Stella's neighborhood in New Orlean's Latin Quarter

The sexual friction between Stella and Stanley is palpable from the start. She finds his brand of boorish masculinity strangely erotic. He is tempted by her wiles but more concerned over what has become of her family's dwindling fortunes which, as Stella's husband, he believes he is entitled to. Eventually, their confrontations lead to an "implied" rape scene that, in the final cut released in 1951, was heavily butchered by the censors but restored for this DVD presentation. The story progresses as Stanley 's poker buddy, Harold Mitchell (Karl Malden), begins to court Blanche. Blanche is intrigued by Harold though not in love with him. Instead, she flirts her way into an erotic kiss with a young boy before confessing to Harold that her interests in him are purely platonic. Humiliated, and by now degenerating into a state of mental confusion that ultimately culminates in her being committed to an asylum, Blanche departs her sister's abode and life as a shattered tragic figure chasing after her own figment of forgotten youth.   

 

This is the second release of the director's cut of A Streetcar Named Desire, albeit, this time as a 2-disc special edition with winning accoutrements. However, the transfer quality of the actual feature appears to be almost identical to that featured on the first run through. The black and white image, although relatively spruced up, is not entirely up to par for the course of what one would expect from today's DVD. The shortcomings in image quality begin immediately with a main title sequence that is grainy. The credits seem to wobble slightly from side to side. Stock footage of Blanche's arrival and exteriors of the train depot are also grainy. Interiors fair much better but the image throughout appears consistently dark -- perhaps a bit overly so -- during many of the scenes. The audio is once again mono, but very nicely represented for what is essentially a dialogue driven melodrama. Extra Features are where this DVD release of Streetcar excels. First up is the feature length audio commentary by Rudy Behlmer, Jeff Young and Karl Malden that is both insightful and engaging. On disc two is the comprehensive look at Elia Kazan: A Director's Journey, as well as five very thorough and satisfying featurettes on Brando, censorship, the Broadway debut, the making of the Hollywood film and Alex North's screen compositions with interviews interspersed from Kim Hunter and Karl Malden. Also included is Brando's screen test for Rebel Without A Cause, outtakes from the film and isolated musical scoring sessions not featured in the general release. Bottom line: this is a comprehensive immersive experience of a film classic long overdue. All aboard this streetcar into film history. It's a winner!

 

 

 

 

RONALD REAGAN SIGNATURE SERIES

 

The legacy of the late Ronald Reagan is a rich heritage two fold the American experience: the latter half, as one of the most endearing and memorable American presidents the country has ever known. But the first half, as a very solid Warner contract player of the late 30s, 40s and early 50s, is often relegated to B-actor status or overlooked entirely. This oversight is a genuine shame -- one the press often chose to exaggerate during Reagan's presidency, but one considerably rectified by Warner Home Video's Ronald Reagan: The Signature Collection. The box set contains 5 of Reagan's most poignant performances and some very fine, if slightly offbeat, films that are a must-have for anyone who appreciates great movies. 

Apart from containing two of Reagan's universally lauded performances in Kings Row and Knute Rockne: All American, this set also contains the disturbing and controversial Storm Warning, the delightful baseball flick, The Winning Team and the heartrending melodrama, The Hasty Heart (more notable for Richard Todd's poignantly tragic portrayal of the central character, than Reagan's standard all-American verve). 

Knute Rockne: All American (1940) is the classic bio flick about George Gipp (Reagan). It contains the much revered one liner, "Win one for the Gipper!" that Reagan repeated played on during his later presidency to evoke his own good ol' boy charm on the American public, and, it's a fitting place for this box set to start immortalizing the Reagan legacy on celluloid. Historically inaccurate; for it depicts Knute Rockne (Pat O'Brien) perfecting the forward pass as a Notre Dame undergraduate (the forward pass having been legalized and in use since 1906), the film is nevertheless a loving valentine to Gipp's charismatic career. 

Over the years rumors have abound that no less Hollywood luminaries than John Wayne, James Cagney (who at least diligently lobbied to break free of his bad boy image), and Bill Holden were considered for the part, but in actuality only Warner contract player Dennis Moran and Reagan ever tested for it. Director Lloyd Bacon ensures that the football sequences are quite thrilling and the central performances never falter. Still, the film is plagued by several lapses in which the plot seems to flounder without a purpose before getting back on track. As a film then, Knute Rockne is far from perfect. As a depiction of the all American on celluloid there are few examples that have excelled further. 

Kings Row (1942) is a densely packed, astounding cinematic achievement on nearly every level, including its evocative and crisp high key lighting from master cinematographer James Wong Howe. Derived from the best selling novel by Henry Bellamann, the story concerns five children; optimist Parris Mitchell (Robert Cummings), free spirit Drake McHugh (Ronald Reagan), understanding Randy Monaghan (Ann Sheridan), defiant Louise Gordon (Nancy Coleman) and mentally troubled Cassandra Tower (Betty Field). They all live within the parameters of the superficially idyllic town of Kings Row . Parris is a sensitive child (as portrayed by talented child star Scotty Beckett in the early scenes), compassionate, pure of heart and utterly devoted to his aging grandmother, Madame Marie Von Eln (Maria Ouspenskaya).

Upon Von Eln's death, Parris desires to enter a prestigious medical academy in Vienna and follow his calling as a physician. However, before he can apply, he apprentices with Doctor Alexander Q. Tower (Claude Rains) a reputable, yet shunned physician in Kings Row, whose wife and daughter, Cassie (Fields) have been reduced to reclusive shut-ins through a series of spiraling nervous breakdowns. The awkward and introspective Parris makes several ill fated attempts to woo Cassie, but Dr. Tower eventually promotes his pupil to the European academy for study. 

Meanwhile, Parris' best friend, Drake (Reagan), is his complete opposite; a wealthy lady's man about town whose direction in life is relegated to squiring young women to no end or commitment. However, Drake's playful days of uncertainty are shattered when a disreputable broker absconds with his entire fortune. Despite his demise Louise, the daughter of a barbarous and sadistic physician (Charles Coburn), remains desperately in love with Drake whom her father has already pre-judged as unsuitable. In the interim of their forced separation, Drake genuinely falls in love with Randy ( Sheridan ), a devoted girl from the proverbial wrong side of the tracks.

 

Here's where the plot darkens: when a railway accident injures Drake, Dr. Gordon seizes the opportunity to amputate both his legs, believing that he will also cripple his daughter's affections for Drake. However, the truth, as they say, shall set you free, and Parris returns from his studies in Vienna to sort through the deep brooding underbelly of cynicism that is actually Kings Row. Author Bellamann openly conceded that he had modeled his fictional town on his own Missouri enclave of Fulton , a confession that effectively ostracized him from polite circles in his midst once the torrid tale became a best seller. 

The Hasty Heart (1949) is an impeccably soppy tear jerker from master craftsman of this sort of melodrama -- director, Vincent Sherman. The film is set inside an American M.A.S.H unit against the backdrop of warring 1945 Burma . But this is not a tale of war and conflict; rather, a poignant and sincere examination of brave men forced to deal with their own mortality. Despite being top billed for his performance as ailing American soldier "Yank", Ronald Reagan takes the proverbial backseat to Richard Todd's immaculate turn as Scottish soldier, Corporal Lachlan MacLachlan: Lachie for short. It seems that Lachie is recovering from a wound in his back. The truth is far more disheartening. Shrapnel from the bullet has destroyed his only good kidney and the other will fail him in less than a month. Instructed to look after her patient like any other, Sister Parker (Patricia Neal) makes valiant attempts to ease Lachie's burden without divulging the truth of his condition. She enlists Yank's help, along with Lachie's fellow patients; Tommy (Howard Crawford), Kini (Ralph Michael), Digger (John Sherman) and Blossom (Orlando Martins). 

At first, Lachie resents his circumstances. Lacking in social skills, he does not know he is dying and longs to return home to Scotland where he has invested his money in the purchase of farm. He is bitter and rude to his fellow patients and his nurse, a foul nature explained away by the fact that he was born a bastard and vehement ostracized by every living person in his hometown since his birth. However, when Sister Parker and the boys get together to surprise Lachie with the rather costly gift of a kilt and all its accessories for his birthday, the Scot recognizes the error of his ways and judgment and slowly begins to accept that not all humanity is unkind. Todd's central performance as Lachie is quite brilliant, running the gamut from strong willed defiance to ultimate acceptance of his fate. He was nominated as Best Actor but lost to Broderick Crawford's Willie Stark for All The King's Men

Storm Warning (1951) is a cross between a film noir and crime thriller, and even today its style and narrative remains quite a revelation. It stars Ginger Rogers as Marsha Mitchell, a fashion model who decides to make a pit stop in a small southern town to visit her younger sister, Lucy (Doris Day). Unfortunately, timing is everything and Marsha just happens to have stumbled across an eve when the Ku Klux Klan is out to lynch reporter, Walter Adams (Dale Van Sickel) for publishing damaging exposés on their activities. The murder occurs only a few feet away from Marsha who, understandably shaken, rushes to her sister only to discover that the Klansman who shot Adams is Lucy's husband, Hank (Steve Cochran). Enter District Attorney Burt Rainey (Ronald Reagan) a man of substance, honor and dedication. He is determined to rid his town of the Klan's pestilence. But when Marsha falls under pressure from Hank and her sister to conceal the truth what sort of chance will Rainey have of succeeding. 

The film is unrelenting in its dark oppressive atmosphere that seems more stark and complimentary today than it must have in 1951. Super-charged with stellar performances and a profoundly unsettling visual style, Storm Warning excels despite several obvious drawbacks. The first of these is the casting of Ginger Rogers -- who is far too old (and very much cut from the chalkboard of a schoolmarm) to be believable as a successful fashion model. Though Rogers acting is embittered and in keeping with the material she is given, her overall tone is more that of a scorned musical/comedy star than a hard bitten realist. As for Doris Day -- one keeps expecting her to sing, though perhaps she is not as hard to believe as the naïve bride of a sadistic brute.

The Winning Team (1952) effectively rounds out this box set with the inspirational "true" story of celebrated baseball legend, Grover Cleveland Alexander (Reagan). A former employee of the telephone company, Alexander's hobby of "pitching" baseball becomes his profession after he is discovered by the Philadelphia Nationals. His rise to stardom assured, 'Alex the Great' pitches near perfect games, migrating over to the Chicago Cubs, then the St. Louis Cardinals where he is befriended by benevolent manager, Roger Hornsby (Frank Lovejoy). The film's baseball sequences are good, but the back story is far more engaging, including the scenes with Doris Day who plays Alexander's devoted wife, Aimee.  Purged of all the unpleasant aspects of Alexander's real life (including a stint in WWI and a bout with alcoholism), the film's characterization develops along the lines of "everybody's all American" -- a fitting conclusion not only to this boxed tribute to Ronald Reagan but also indicative of the sort of individual "can-do" attitude that Reagan exuded in his life beyond the camera. 

The transfer quality on all of the films in this set is, for the most part, impressive. The least pristine image is The Hasty Heart, generally suffering from a considerable amount of film grain (particularly during stock shots of the actual Burmese conflict). Kings Row exhibits a curious flaw. Despite the fact that most of the film is bursting with the lush cinematographer of James Wong Howe, there are various instances where dupe inserts have been substituted for original camera negative. At varying intervals, the image is also highly unstable (presumably from sprocket hole damage) and exhibits a horizontal crease that registers as a briefly visible black line. Storm Warning's film grain is slightly exaggerated in several shots by a hint of edge enhancement. There are also moments where dupes appear to have been inserted. Knute Rockne and The Winning Team exhibit generally clean, though slightly soft and slightly over contrasted transfers, though nothing that will distract. 

To point out these oversights is not to suggest that the quality of the image on any of the films will disappoint, merely to illustrate that the value to the consumer does not register in the realm of the pristine. Despite advertising audio commentaries on the exterior of the box, only The Hasty Heart contains an informative supplementary track by the late Vincent Sherman and Reagan biographer, John Meroney. As for the rest, theatrical trailers are about all one gets and a few short subjects -- of which "The Hasty Hare", a Bugs Bunny Looney Tune with Martin the Martian, is about the best. Though some may argue the point that these films do not warrant more consideration, this reviewer would suggest that Kings Row most definitely deserved at least a supplementary audio track and perhaps an isolated musical score track.  

 

 

 

 

 

August/September 2006 reviews

 

Patton, The Carole Lombard Collection, Sweet Bird of Youth, The Clark Gable Collection

 

PATTON

Patton (1970) is the multiple Oscar-winning $12 million dollar military epic from director Franklin J. Schaffner. Starring curmudgeonly George C. Scott as the larger than life military zeitgeist, General George S. Patton (the only Allied Gen. Rommel and the rest of the Nazis genuinely feared -- primarily for his unpredictability which was loosely translated as brilliance), the story is one of the most faithful screen biographies to ever emerge from Hollywood. 

 

To his superiors, George Patton is an unknown quantity. Nobody doubts his military stealth, but more than a handful of his superiors, and those serving under him, question his sanity. Envisioning and seemingly achieving the impossible, Patton eventually becomes a legend in his own time; a true renaissance man, whose fortitude and vision help shape the outcome of the Second World War. Rightfully so, the screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North stays very close to its central character, following the war on a battle by battle basis through Patton's eyes, heart and soul.

 

Filmed primarily on locations in Spain , Morocco and England , the film carries a sense of gravity that ideally shapes the character of Patton as a man of courage, audacity, conviction and unrelenting vanity -- the latter quality not always admired or appreciated by the powers that be. Charting the rise of a military genius and his lamentable fall, Patton remains a film of scope and quality untarnished by the passage of time. 

 

It should be noted herein that Fox's Cinema Series reissue of Patton on DVD is the identical transfer and mere release of the original two disc edition that debuted in 1999. On disc one we get the film (originally shot in Dimension 180) in a very clean and nicely balanced anamorphic transfer. Colors are rich, vibrant and bold. Contrast levels are bang on. Blacks are solid and deep. A hint of film grain persists throughout, but nothing that will terribly distract. There are also several instances of minor edge enhancement that crop up now and then. Otherwise, this is a perfectly acceptable digital transfer. However, if you already own the previously issued 2-disc set, there is absolutely NO need for a repurchase here. On disc two we get reflections on the filming of Patton and a tribute to Franklin Schaffner. 

 

Clearly, someone at Fox has decided to consolidate its catalogue under one uniform banner. That's commendable, I suppose -- though it makes for a broad interpretation of what constitutes a cinema classic. This reviewer would encourage more effort from Fox to release its as yet untapped wealth of golden age classics; including Dragonwyck, Wilson , The Black Swan, Suez , Blood and Sand and, dare we hope for, remastering efforts on The Ghost & Mrs. Muir and The Mark of Zorro?

 

 

CAROLE LOMBARD: THE GLAMOUR COLLECTION

The Carole Lombard Collection effectively brings together six fairly good reasons why this madcap beauty was bar none the most spirited diva of 30s cinema. The films featured in Universal's rather lackluster two disc digi-pack may not be main staples of the American film scene, but they are distracting and delightful diversions nonetheless.

Man of the World (1934) is actually a film vehicle for William Powell, cast as the spurious reprobate Michael Trevor. Trevor is a worldly novelist who is blackmailing Harry Taylor (Guy Kibbee) the uncle of Mary Kendall (Carole Lombard) the woman Trevor is professing divine love to. As one might suspect, this is a comedy of errors played more for camp than for thrills and winningly pulled off by the natural chemistry and sparks coming off of both Powell and Lombard. Together the two would later make film history with the ultimate screwball: My Man Godfrey (not included in this collection). Man of the World may not be up to Godfrey's pedigree, but it's more than passable for a night's pleasant entertainment and so right for Lombard 's strengths as a comedic actress.

We're Not Dressing (1934) is a weak bit of fluff immeasurably aided by its two headlining stars; Carole Lombard (this time cast as elegant society gadabout, Doris Worthington) and Bing Crosby (cast as Stephen Jones as a singing sailor). While entertaining guests on her yacht in the Pacific, Doris ' ship hits a reef and is sunk. Her life and that of her guests is salvaged by Stephen and together they make it safely to an island where survival is the order of the day. Not that friends Edith (Ethel Merman), Uncle Hubert (Leon Errol), Prince Michael (Ray Milland) and Prince Alexander (Jay Henry) would agree. They're positively useless!  As is the case with a conflict of social caste, Stephen's resourcefulness is not an immediate hit with those who think him grandstanding for Doris ' benefit. True, he has designs on Doris , but will she reciprocate ...perhaps after a clambake. The film is a meandering mess of plot entanglements best explored on an episode of the old "Gilligan's Island " television serial and readily just as riddled with hokum.

In Hands Across the Table (1935), Lombard is cast as Reggie Allen, a beautiful manicurist/gold digger. One of her regular clients is the sympathetic paraplegic ex-aviator Allen Macklyn (Ralph Bellamy, who made a career out of playing good guys who always finish last). Macklyn is quite wealthy. He also has a yen for Reggie, only she's not exactly up to playing Mother Theresa in trade for the wealth he could provide. Enter Theodore Drew III (Fred MacMurray) a free and easy playboy more attune to Reggie's own desires -- only his family fortune has been lost in the stock market crash. To keep things status quo, Ted contemplates marriage to Vivien Snowden (Astrid Allwyn) the rather uppity daughter of a pineapple baron. While Reggie is determined to avoid Ted at all costs, both she and lover boy #2 eventually discover that a life of wealth and privilege may be meaningless without any genuine affections to go along.  This is a delightful film, full of rich comedy and poignant turns that showcase Lombard 's flair for playing polar opposites in temperament. MacMurray is an adequate fop and Bellamy is at his generic best. All in all, then -- a winner.

The same cannot be said for Lombard's next vehicle, Love Before Breakfast (1936) a quickly made and quickly forgotten trifle that has Lombard cast as madcap Kay Colby whose frequent dalliances with obnoxious Scott Miller (Preston Foster) are getting the better of her. Featherweight and virtually plotless, no explanation is ever given for Kay's eventual cave-in to Scott. A shoddy tack-on of sorts involves Scott being exiled to Japan no less and a rather epic (though misguidedly wrong for this picture) storm at sea in which Kay discovers her own sincere romantic thoughts. At best, Love Before Breakfast was a film made to capitalize on Lombard 's success in Hands Across The Table. It did respectable business at the box office but has little to recommend its inclusion in this set besides.

The Princess Comes Across (1936) is a foppish tale of a Swedish prude, Olga (Lombard) who boards an ocean liner in Europe en route to an acting gig on Broadway. Shipboard romance takes over between Olga and band leader King Mantell (Fred MacMurray). So far, so good. But then a mysterious blackmailer begins to send even more mysterious notes, claiming that the princess is not all she claims to be. From hereon in, the plot becomes a mess of entanglements including a turgid ditty about a stowaway killer pursued by international police. Eventually, both King and Olga become suspects: a never-to-be-taken-seriously snafu that sets both lovers on a quest to uncover the real killer's identity. Problematic in its narrative, and hopelessly slap happy -- the film is not much better than the aforementioned Love Before Breakfast, though herein we do get to see much of the Lombard/MacMurray chemistry back in play.

One would hope that the lesson of casting Lombard in a blackmail scenario might have been learned in the prior failed excursion. But then there comes True Confessions (1937) the last film featured in this collection; a discombobulated madcap comedy/adventure yarn regarding kooky married couple, Helen ( Lombard ) and Ken Bartlett (Fred MacMurray). She's a pathological liar; he, her scrupulous alter ego. Ken's failed attempt at the law is offset by Helen starting a new job -- that is, until her employer is found dead. Put on trial for murder, Helen contemplates life in prison while Ken mounts her defense. Successfully acquitting his wife, all is not serene when a disreputable court room straggler Charley (John Barrymore) attempts to blackmail Helen by claiming to have evidence that could convict her of a crime she clearly did not commit.  Lighthearted and empty-headed, True Confession's major selling feature is Lombard -- unattainably nutty and decidedly witty -- she elevates this rather thin material to palpable fodder.

The transfers for all the films are fairly average in quality. Of all, True Confessions looks the best with a B&W image readily free of age related artifacts and with a minimal amount of film grain. Contrast levels are ideal. Whites are clean for the most part. Blacks are deep and solid. The poorest transfers in this set are Hands Across the Table and Man of the World. In the former, there seems to be more than an adequate amount of age related artifacts and a slight wobble in the image that is distracting. In the latter, the image appears rather thick, with low levels of contrast and a decidedly softly focused look that distracts one from the performances.

The rest of the transfers fall somewhere in between these polarities in image quality. None is particularly up to the standards of the best classics presented on DVD -- then again, none of these films are particularly up to the standards of being labeled as genuine classics. Still, Lombard is a treat to behold. She is the embodiment of fresh-faced vitality and untapped charm cut tragically short by her death in a plane crash. Though she made better films during her brief tenure, this collection is recommended for anyone who admires a great actress giving limited material her all -- and more often than not -- rising above it with great gusto.  

 

 

SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH

Richard Brooks' Sweet Bird of Youth (1962) is perhaps the most disheartening stage to screen translation of a Tennessee Williams masterwork. For in its morph from live theater to celluloid several key elements that made the subtext of the former so raw and uninhibited were inexplicably softened to appease censorship. In the play, the character of the enigmatic drifter, Chance Wayne does not impregnate Heavenly Finley. Instead, he gives her a venereal disease which leaves her emotionally scarred and sterile. Also absent from the final cut of the film is Chance's comeuppance -- that of a crude castration conducted with the use of a walking stick by Heavenly's brother, Thomas. Clearly, Williams' intensions in this off color and lurid excursion into southern bigotry did not equate to a feel-good sensation for his audience. Nevertheless, the stage version of Sweet Bird of Youth was an instantaneous sensation and a huge career boost for its star, Paul Newman.

Recapping his role as Chance, the film opens with Newman racing home to Florida carting the sensationally garish and intoxicated Alexandra Del Lago (Geraldine Page, also on the stage); an aging screen queen on the verge of her own self-imposed oblivion. At once a manic, devouring, needy, dispassionate and ravenous mantrap, Alexandra toys with her latest conquest while denying that she is in any position to help Chance get his big break. But Chance has the upper hand. He has kidnapped Alexandra from a party in the hopes that he can either seduce her or blackmail her into granting him her connections for a screen test.

Ruthless, manipulative, but undoubtedly out of his depth, Chance has come home to rekindle his romance with teenage flame -- Heavenly (Shirley Knight) without realizing that at their last rendezvous he had left her pregnant and at the mercy of her tyrannical father, Tom "Boss" Findley (Ed Bagley). Tom is determined to get reelected -- an aspiration threatened by his own son, Tom Jr.'s (Rip Torn) involvement in a Nazi-styled youth group, Heavenly's publicized pregnancy and secret abortion and his own philandering with resident trollop Miss Lucy (Madeleine Sherwood).

As the world closes in on Chance, Boss Findley's clandestine empire begins to fold, especially after a disastrous public rally ends in riots and looting. Confronted by Tom Jr. and his father's thugs, Chance has his face (not his genitals) smashed with a cane, presumably to put an end to his days as a gigolo and finality to his aspirations of becoming a leading man in the movies. Unfortunately, for all concerned, MGM could not resist tacking on its own happy ending. Heavenly comes to Chance's rescue. The two get into Chance's automobile and drive off for a life together.

Warner Home Video's transfer on Sweet Bird of Youth is, frankly, disappointing. The anamorphic Cinemascope and Ansco color print is in a state of semi color fading that makes for a generally muddy print throughout. With the exception of several brief sequences during the rally - obviously shot on a sound stage - most everything else about the image appears pasty and flat. The color palette has an overwhelmingly dingy preference for pea greens and muddy brownish/blacks with varying contrast levels throughout the presentation that veer from passable to down-right unacceptable. Fine details are lost in a slightly soft image with undistinguished black levels.

After conducting some research, this reviewer is unable to confirm or deny that several of the Cinemascope shots have been inaccurately recomposed for this DVD release from alternative source materials -- though, in particular, the sequence in which Heavenly confronts her father about his affair with Miss Lucy (and is slapped down into the Florida surf) appear to be heavily cropped and mis-framed with an excessive amount of film grain and a decided increase in blurring of the image.  The audio is a faithful recreation of the original six track stereo but often with a strident characteristic. Extras include an extremely curt synopsis of the production with brief inserts of Madeleine Sherwood reflecting on her participation. Overall, for both quality and its lack of delivering the usual gut-intellectual "punch" of its predecessors A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Sweet Bird of Youth comes recommended only for die hard fans of either Tennessee Williams or Paul Newman. Despite its lucrative box office returns at the time of its general release, this "bird" lays an egg on DVD.  

 

CLARK GABLE: THE SIGNATURE COLLECTION

Clark Gable: The Signature Collection belongs in everyone's top drawer this summer season. It features 'the king' of the movies in six of his most rousing charmers -- five worthy of the price tag, the other, Mogambo, an inexplicable inclusion, since it is a remake of the vastly superior Red Dust (1932), yet to be release by Warner on DVD. Overall, the transfer quality of this box is quite good -- the one abysmal disappointment being Wife Vs. Secretary (1936) a delightfully genuine and unexpectedly sublime tear jerker that will have the collector wringing tears for how bad the film actually looks: but more on quality in a moment. 

 

Robert Z. Leonard's Dancing Lady (1933) is the oldest film in the collection. It's a fairly ambitious flick about Janie Barlow (Joan Crawford) an equally ambitious hoofer who does double duty in a house of burlesque as a stripper nicknamed "Duchess." Enter Tod Newton (Franchot Tone) the man about town with a penchant for slumming it on the wrong side of the tracks. Discovering a rare find in Janie, Tod sets her up for a musical debut on Broadway to be directed by the slave-driving Patch Gallagher (Gable).

As with most fluff and nonsense that passed for delightfully effervescent musical extravaganzas of this vintage -- there's really no doubt from the start that Patch and Janie are destined to lock lips before the final fade out. Earlier, Patch provides his own version of disconnect when he asks Janie, "You wanna work with me?" With an emphatic 'yes' from his aspiring hopeful, Patch lets Janie have the back of his hand with a polite butt slap to which an exuberant Crawford angelically replies, "Thank you!"  

 

Apart from showcasing The Three Stooges in minor cameos as three clueless stage managers, and the sudden and quite unexpected appearance of Fred Astaire and Nelson Eddy (cast as themselves), the film is justly famous for two lavishly produced production numbers: "Heigh-Ho, the Gang's All Here" -- that Crawford rambunctiously hoofs with Astaire; and "the carousel number" in which a score of scantily clad lovelies and Crawford cavort on a mind-boggling art deco merry-go-round illuminated from within. It's really quite spectacular.

 

Tay Garnett's China Seas (1935) is next up: a delightfully wacky ship-to-shore extravaganza with the egotistically charming Capt. Alan Gaskell (Gable) maneuvering his vessel and an all-star cast en route from Hong Kong to Singapore . The roster includes Wallace Beery as blowhard gambler Jamesy McArdley, Lewis Stone (3rd officer Tom Davids), Jean Harlow (as smart-mouthed old flame, Dolly "China Doll" Portland ) and Rosalind Russell (cast as knockout new flame cum fiancee, Lady Sybil Barclay, turning up the heat with Gable).  Vintage hams and character actors Akim Tamaroff, C. Aubrey Smith and Robert Benchley make the most of their brief cameos throughout this adventurous journey. 

 

Despite his cool exterior, Gaskell's really a "good egg" and hopelessly devoted to his fiancée. He shuns Dolly's ambitious -- though not very tactful - attempts to regain her toe-hold on his life and even finds time to make the most insulting remarks seem utterly charming: "It's bad enough having a ship that looks like this and a captain that looks like me without having a first officer that looks like you!" Such was the animal magnetism and genuine mystique of Clark Gable. 

 

But there's rough trade ahead for this crew and its cargo, a mint in gold coin absconded from the orient and for which Gaskell and his ship are later besought by a violent pirate attack that places Dolly and Jamesey as coconspirators in the theft. Never dull, and often quite thrilling, China Seas is the sort of ripe ambitious movie that helped build Gable into the thirties most celebrated male hero, a moniker he rightfully held and deserved.

 

Clarence Brown's Wife Vs. Secretary (1936) is an astute and frank examination of what becomes of the happy American home after self doubt and speculation are planted as destructive seeds in the minds of its blissfully ignorant couple. In the film's case, that couple is Van (Gable) and Linda Stanhope (Myrna Loy). He's a big shot publisher -- she's the delightfully content little women/socialite. Although Van's secretary is the precocious girl next door with a killer bod, Helen Wilson (Jean Harlow), Linda is unmoved by petty jealousies. Instead, Linda and Van's home is an idyllic sanctuary filled with gay parties and sublime marital happiness, mutual respect and understanding. That is, until Van's meddlesome matriarch, Mimi (May Robson) suggests that perhaps it would be prudent of Linda to have Helen transferred to another office. But it's no use. Helen is an indispensable appendage to Van. 

 

Despite being the furthest thing from a mantrap, Helen nevertheless manages to get herself involved in several awkward debacles that make her relationship with her employer appear more than merely professional to Linda. Such as the night in Havana when, after working feverishly on a business proposal in Van's suite, Helen accidentally picks up the phone in his room only to find Linda listening in on the other end. Eventually, Linda puts two and two together and comes up with a million reasons why Helen should be fired. Her impatient pleas eventually become threats -- threats that Van won't tolerate against an innocent woman. The two start their divorce proceedings and Helen begins to entertain the prospect of accepting Van's gifts even though she realizes he is still desperately in love with his wife. 

 

In one of the film's most fondly remembered and deftly executed moments, Helen confronts Linda, who has decided to leave her husband for good. "You're a fool," Helen explains, "For which I am grateful." Never coy of cloying, Wife Vs. Secretary is a rare gem in Gable's career. Ditto for Harlow's and Loy's. 

 

Bar none, the best Gable movie in this box set however is W.S. Van Dyke's San Francisco (1936) -- the rousing blockbuster that casts "the king" as disreputably loveable saloon keeper, Blackie Norton. Always in the market for a fresh face and new pair of legs to adorn his gambling paradise and beer garden, Blackie auditions precociously pure, Mary Blake (Jeanette MacDonald). Though her voice is choice, her squeaky clean persona as a church-going gal and chanteuse of the choir doesn't bode well with Blackie's idea of 'a dame.' 

 

However, smitten with Mary as a possible romantic lead for himself behind closed doors, and in part to thwart Mary's attempts at romance or career advancement anywhere else, Blackie signs her to a two year exclusive engagement. After Mary passes out from hunger at the club and is revived by Nob Hill socialite Jack Burley (Jack Holt) and Signor Baldini (William Ricciardi) she is offered an even more desirable career in grand opera. Naturally Blackie refuses to release Mary from her contract. Instead, he pursues her socially and almost wins out -- that is, until noble friend and cleric, Father Tim Mullin (Spencer Tracy) intervenes in the burgeoning romance. Enraged, Blackie and Father Tim get into a skirmish that Blackie wins -- though he loses his girl. To defy her old lover, Mary enters a competition at Blackie's establishment -- belting out the rousing ' San Francisco ' and easily winning the $10,000 cash prize. 

 

But the moment triumphant is shattered by the epic 1906 Frisco earthquake that virtually levels the city into ruin. Apart from the solidly crafted melodrama which is top notch and appealing, as well as MacDonald's rendering of choice spiritual and secular tunes, the film is outstanding for its breathtaking visual effects that match the real quake -- brick-for-toppling-brick -- in spectacular devastation. Of MGM's illustrious film output of the decade, San Francisco ranks among the best.

 

Spencer Tracy ditches his collar for a shovel and a dream alongside Clark Gable in Jack Conway's rough and tumble Boom Town (1940). Gable is Big John McMaster, a by-the-scruff prospector determined to strike it rich in the oil boom. Tracy is his nemesis, Jonathan Sands. Oh yeah, you just know this town isn't big enough for the both of them. After a polite confrontation crossing the street, that ends when gun shots fired from a nearby saloon send both men diving into the mud for cover, the race begins for who will win out in the high stakes race for supremacy amongst the oil barons. 

 

Claudette Colbert appears to good effect as Gable's virtuous wife, Elizabeth Bartlett McMasters who sees the good in every man -- even Sands. But it's sultry siren, Hedy LaMarr as ruthless and sometimes cutthroat business woman, Karen Vanmeer that steals the show. LaMarr's smoldering sensuality is an enticement for both men to throw in their digs and sell out to the highest bidder. But who will dominate in the final reel? Best to see the film and prepare to be astonished...or at least, entertained. Resident character hams, Frank Morgan, Lionel Atwill and the delightfully obtuse, Chill Wills round out the stellar cast. In the final analysis, Boom Town is high octane sexy good fun with male testosterone in overdrive. 

 

Director John Ford never made a bad film, but Mogambo (1953), the final film in this box set, comes dangerously close. An unnecessary and inferior remake of one of Gable's most celebrated movies, Red Dust (1932 and featuring the vastly superior vamp, Jean Harlow), on this occasion the part of Eloise "Honey Bear" Kelly is passed to Ava Gardner, whose own brand of hot blooded foreplay cannot match Harlow's original sassy raunch. Eloise has eyes for Victor Marswell (Gable) the proprietor of a big game trapping company. 

 

Believing that the film's appeal would be immensely fleshed out by a change of scenery, MGM opened its coffers to photograph this melodrama amidst the expansive backdrop of Kenya . Eloise gets her hooks into Vic until the arrival of Mr. Donald (Donald Sinden) and Mrs. Linda Nordley (Grace Kelly) arrive for a gorilla safari. Linda's affections have drifted away from her aloof husband -- a divide enhanced by Vic's persuasive charm and charisma that sets Eloise's jealous mind afire. Essentially a conflict of interest romantic melodrama with an exotic backdrop tacked on for good measure -- the film is just barely middle of the road amusing, despite the fact that it was nominated for 2 Oscars in 1954. 

 

Transfers: The best of the bunch in order of pristine quality are Boom Town , Dancing Lady and San  Francisco . In the case of all three, the gray scale has been impeccably mastered with a broad spectrum of tonality. Blacks are solid and deep. Whites are generally clean. Age related artifacts are less evident on the first two titles -- but not troublesome or distracting on the latter aforementioned either. Fine details are visible throughout. While film grain is present throughout each presentation, it will not distract. China Seas appears to have been mastered from a slightly less contrasted print element. It's a tad darker than one would hope for in spots and shows more signs of wear and tear in terms of age related artifacts. 

 

However, the worst looking monochromatic transfer in the lot is Wife Vs. Secretary: an undeniably shoddy mastering effort from Warner with pervasive and quite often distracting age related damage, as well as a poorly contrasted tonality that is much too dark. In addition to these shortcomings, the image is overly soft and portions appear not to have been progressively enhanced, suffering from digital combing. Mogambo, the only Technicolor transfer in the collection, isn't very impressive either. Age-related artifacts abound throughout. The color palette is often quite muddy and inconsistently rendered with an overriding brownish tint and more film grain than one would expect from a movie of this vintage. There's also a hint of minor negative shrinkage with subtle but obvious haloing effects -- albeit for very brief moments. Nevertheless, these shortcomings are distracting to the overall enjoyment of the film.

Extras are a tad disappointing, but they include vintage short subjects, cartoons and theatrical trailers for all films. There's also an alternative ending included on the San Francisco disc. What this reviewer finds problematic about all of Warner's "signature" box sets -- presumably designed to extol the virtues of a particular artist's body of work (Errol Flynn, Hitchcock and Garbo have been others in this Warner line up) -- is the stunning lack of backstory for any of the artists who have been so endowed with such a collection. We get NO brief featurettes about the films, no polite intros from resident DVD commentator, Leonard Malten and no biographic information -- either by way of a short subject or a full blown biography on the star of the hour. Collections billed as "signature" editions deserve at least as much consideration. Wouldn't you agree?   

 

 

May/June 2006 reviews

 

Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection

 

MARLENE DIETRICH: THE GLAMOUR COLLECTION

Marlene Dietrich's enviable place in American films seems to be predicated on the fact that she began her career as arguably filmdom's first openly bisexual heroine. Certainly, during her pre-code tenure, she was often poured into masculine attire and seen kissing an equal portion of women and men on screen. However, with the installation of the production code for moral ethics in film making in 1934, much of that dangerously ambiguous allure evaporated -- or rather was reconstituted into a string of parts that had Dietrich playing temperamental hookers or loose married women with a heart of gold. Regardless of her early trailblazing days as a pioneer or liberator for the sexually repressed, this reviewer has personally never fully acquired a palpable taste for her particular brand of neutral sexuality. And now Universal Home Video offers yet another reason for social historians to poo-poo the actress on film -- or, rather, DVD. Marlene Dietrich: The Glamour Collection effectively brings together 5 of Dietrich's flicks that for the most part should have remained ambiguously absent from home video.   

 

Joseph Von Sternberg's Morocco (1930) is over-the-top Dietrich: cast as Mademoiselle Amy Jolly, an asexual seductress performing in a seedy nightclub in Paris run by the disreputable Lo Tinto (Paul Porcasi) Fresh from his outpost in the Foreign Legion. Monsieur La Bessiere (Adolphe Menjou) is a scallywag with boozin' and ballin' on his mind. At roughly this same junction, legionnaire Tom Brown (Gary Cooper) catches Amy's tuxedo-clad act. He is mesmerized by her but scarred by his own secretive past life. While Amy struggles to decide between La Bessiere and Brown, Tom is reassigned on a deadly mission to parts unknown. Not much beyond a turgid melodrama, Morocco excels primarily because of Dietich's ability to portray garish inner torment and inconsolable sadness as the epitome of self-sacrifice and wounded betrayal. Cooper's performance leaves much to be desired and Menjou seems wrong for this sort of carousing alley cat. But the film keeps together with all eyes affixed on Dietrich's tour de force.

 

On the whole then, Dietrich's next vehicle, Blonde Venus (1932), is infinitely more satisfying. Dietrich is given the unglamorous name, Helen Faraday, wife of American chemist Ned (Herbert Marshall, who always seemed to be married to the wrong kind of woman in films), whose Radium poisoning requires expensive treatment and a long recovery. To make ends meet, Helen returns to night club work, transforming herself into the freakishly asexual yet popular Blonde Venus. In between performing gaudy musical numbers with a platinum afro, Helen prostitutes herself to millionaire playboy Nick Townsend (Cary Grant). With Ned recuperating in Europe , Helen indulges her loneliness in a sordid affair with Nick. The wonder lust is short lived upon Ned's return. Helen grabs their son Johnny (Dickie Moore) and lives obscurely. Eventually, Johnny is taken away from her. Embittered, Helen agrees to a proposal of marriage from Nick, but can she ever forgive Ned or forget her son? This film is a classic amongst Dietrich fans and a genuinely adult critique of themes usually unexplored in American films of this vintage.

 

The Devil is A Woman (1935) is problematic on a number of levels -- not the least of which is its lengthy and cumbersome flashback devise -- illustrating an elderly gentleman, Capt. Don Pasqual Costelar's (Lionel Atwill) obsession with Concha Perez (Dietrich) a woman beholding to no one, but seemingly able to foster a knack for inexplicably getting under everyone's skin. Von Sternberg is clearly relying more heavily on Dietrich's prior fame as a temptress to carry this story. Staged primarily in von Sternberg's garishly surreal incarnation of the Carnival in Spain, the captain attempts to warn his younger friend Antonio Galvan (Caesar Romero) of Concha's power over men, only to recognize that Galvan will suffer the same fate as he did -- falling under Concha's ravenous spell for disposable desire. The film in totem is a valiant experiment at creating a dreamlike fable about sexual frustration. Sadly, it never comes off, despite impressive photography and a thoroughly engrossing central performance by Dietrich.

 

The Flame of New Orleans (1941) is an elegant French farce. By 1941, Dietrich's inimitable brand of smoldering sensuality had been greatly tempered -- thanks to the production code - and she was reserved in films to play arrogant and haughty flights of a cocky know-it-all rather than virile vixens.  As Countess Claire Ledoux, Dietrich's central concern is to convince her middle-aged banker/finance, Charles Giraud (Roland Young) that she is actually another woman named Lili; a deception made necessary by the arrival of Robert LaTour (Bruce Cabot) an old flame. To defuse the situation, Giraud plots to foreclose on a loan made to LaTour -- leaving him penniless and unable to court Claire.  A soft as cream folly played strictly for laughs, The Flame of New Orleans is vintage kitsch -- not vintage Dietrich. It's light and entertaining but perhaps a tad off putting for those expecting the grand dame to turn her usual sexual ambiguity into the height of passionate play.

 

Golden Earrings (1947) is the last film in this collection, and arguably the worst. A dispassionate unintentionally comedic tale about war time deceptions, it casts Dietrich as gypsy house frau, Lydia who aids a British captain, Ralph Denistoun (Ray Milland) in keeping the Nazi's at bay. How is this achieved? Simple -- Lydia pierces Denistoun's ears and teaches him to read palms. Denistoun's contact and friend, Richard Byrd (Bruce Lester) is a double agent working to uncover the German's formula for poisoned gas when he is murdered by the Gestapo. Eventually Denistoun contacts Professor Krosigk (Reinhold Schunzel), the anti-Nazi inventor of the gas and together the two set about to stop the German war machine from killing millions.  There's really not a lot for Dietrich to do in this film except look repugnant and awful in her gypsy make up. But her inexcusably bad taste in choosing this vehicle pales to Milland's idiotic take on playing a fortune teller to escape his own fate in a concentration camp. Truly, this is one bad film buffeted by a war time propaganda slant that would even have made Roosevelt blush -- if only he hadn't already died two years before. 

 

Universal has a rather disappointing batch of transfers to offer in this two disc set. Of all the films included herein, only Golden Earrings seems up to snuff with a reasonably balanced and sharp gray scale, solid black levels, relatively clean whites and only a hint of age related artifacts. The Flame of New Orleans is almost as good. But the rest of the transfers do not fair well at all. Morocco, the best film in this set, is marred by a very blurry, dirty and grainy looking transfer that is in desperate need of some digital clean up. Blonde Venus is almost as bad on all levels of quality. The Devil Is A Woman is also in fairly bad shape. The audio is mono in all cases but exhibits a perceptible hiss and pop on Blonde Venus and Morocco. Often dialogue seems muffled. There are no extras.

 

 

 

March/April 2006 reviews

 

Cary Grant Box Set, Breakfast At Tiffany's, Pin-Up Girl, The Good Earth

 

After soaking the paying customer with exorbitant prices for their lackluster and bare bones DVD transfers of classic releases it appears as though Columbia/Tristar Home Video (newly christened as Sony Home Entertainment) has had a change of heart -- or, at the very least, a change of marketing strategy is more accurate -- with the release of The Cary Grant Box Set, a five disc compendium that exemplifies the very best work done by the actor under the old Columbia Pictures banner. The set includes the screwball classics The Awful Truth (1937), His Girl Friday (1940), The Talk of the Town (1942), the more serious Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and the never before released to DVD, Holiday (1938) -- a trifle that is quaint and charming, if not up to the level of artistic standards set by the rest of the films included herein. 

 

Director, George Cukor's Holiday is the tale of free-thinker Johnny Case (Grant) who finds himself almost accidentally betrothed to a millionaire's daughter, Julia Seton (Doris Nolan). Despite Johnny's lack of wealth (he hasn't the proverbial "pot" to his name) Julia's family embraces the marriage, that is until the family's desire to have Johnny assume some responsibility in their family business forces him to rebel and take a "holiday" with the black sheep of the family, Linda (Katharine Hepburn). Linda's accomplice in the matter is her drunken brother Ned (Lew Ayres, marvelously cast against the perennial goody-two shoes type) With the not so subtle aid of friends, Nick (Edward Everett Horton) and Susan Potter (Jean Dixon), Johnny eventually makes up his mind in favor of the better career path and more suitable mate. If you haven't already seen this film, it behooves this reviewer to reiterate that in screwballs like this it's generally sure fire to draw one's own conclusions. 

 

Only Angels Have Wings is director Howard Hawks' dark and brooding, though lightly peppered with romantic comedy, tale of the short shelf life of South American mail plane pilots. While waiting for her embarkation to parts unknown, an American ingénue Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) is detained at a small South American landing strip. The pilots there have almost sworn themselves into a suicide pact by delivering their mail across dangerous foggy mountains. Geoff Carter (Grant) is the lead flyer, a rough and tumble fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants man's man who is at once cold and aloof toward Bonnie's more cockeyed optimism. After one of their own meets with a fiery end, the rest of the crew's perceived lack of understanding forces Bonnie into a direct conflict with Geoff; a conflict heightened when Geoff's old flame, Judy MacPherson (Rita Hayworth, in her breakout performance) shows up to pitch a little woo on the side, even though she has her own husband in tow. Hawks gets to the grit and adventure of the piece without getting mired in it. His direction alone saves the film from becoming just another flimsy character piece in a Tiffany setting of action/adventure.

 

George Steven's The Talk of the Town (1942) is a film of various genre shadings. It begins in earnest as a prison break adventure; mutates into a romantic screwball comedy; is transformed into a mystery/suspense thriller, before miraculously ending on a high note of distinct melodrama. All these elements are kept in check in a film that is quite compelling and remarkably fresh in both its deportment and accoutrements. Grant is cast as Leopold Dilg, a presumed arsonist who escapes his prison term and takes up refuge at the country estate of one Nora Shelly (Jean Arthur). The trouble is that Nora has rented the property for the summer to Michael Lightcap (Ronald Colman) a professor recently appointed to the Supreme Court. Unaware that he is housing a fugitive, Michael and Leopold (pretending to be the estate's gardener, Joseph) become the best of friends until realization and propriety demand of the former that he do the right thing. Unwilling to see his friend go to prison, Michael and Nora ultimately set out to hunt down the real culprits and clear Leopold's good name.

 

Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday (1940) is a remake of The Front Page, the story of two newspaper hounds going at it tooth and nail for the scoop on a great story. In updating the property, Hawks became inspired to recast the part of Hildy Johnson as a woman, thereby creating one of the most sublime 'battles of the sexes' romantic comedy ever conceived for the movies. Hildy (Rosalind Russell in her best role) is the ex-wife of Walter Burns (Grant), a ravenously enthusiastic newspaper editor who still thinks he can win back Hildy's heart. One problem: Hildy's become engaged to Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy, in a variation on the sort of 'long suffering' foppish roles that made him a solid second string actor). Not that Walter will let a little thing like love with a tax attorney stand between him, Hildy and the greatest scoop of either one of their careers. After all, when Walter aims high, he does tend to hit low...at least below the belt. Peppered in great vignettes and rapid fire overlapping dialogue that is so incendiary it's a wonder how many of the gags got past the censors, His Girl Friday is an untouchable among screwball classics -- a genuinely inspired bit that never ceases to entertain.

 

Leo McCarey's The Awful Truth (1937) is the other truly great screwball comedy featured in this set. Seemingly happy couple, Jerry (Grant) and Lucy Warriner (Irene Dunne) divorce on a whim, then spend the rest of their time trying to get back together. The reason for the split: Jerry suspects that Lucy was having an affair with her music teacher, Armand Duvall (Alexander D'Arcy), even though the film hints that it is he, Jerry who was the one being unfaithful from the start. Regardless of who shagged who, neither it seems wants to be with anybody else but the other. Lucy attempts a static romance with foppish mama's boy, Dan Leeson (Ralph Bellamy again). But Dan's mother, (Esther Dale) isn't convinced that Lucy and Armand are 'not' an item. Meanwhile, Jerry tries his hand at seducing a nightclub singer Dixie Belle Lee (Joyce Compton), a move that leads to one of the all time great burlesque comedy numbers My Dreams are All Gone With The Wind. Failing in that attempt, Jerry next becomes entangled with the stuffy socialite, Barbara Vance (Molly Lamont). However, that grand amour is laid to rest when Lucy appears incognito as Jerry's hapless and marvelously tacky sister -- performing an even more riotous rendition of the aforementioned Dreams number. Ultimately, Jerry and Lucy find true love where they ought to have been looking for it all along -- in each other's arms; a forgone but nevertheless fitting end to one of the all time great comedy classics.

 

Columbia 's commitment to DVD continues to be a mixed blessing and these transfers are no exception. Although Only Angels Have Wings and His Girl Friday were sourced from prints given a thorough restoration effort before the studio reversed its policies on providing stellar transfers on all their classic titles, the rest of the films in this box range in quality from passable to below average. The worst looking of the lot is Holiday -- odd, since it is blatantly advertised on a sticker on the front jacket as "first time ever on DVD!" One would think that that moniker alone would have forced the studio to revisit the title with a better looking transfer. On Holiday then, contrast levels in the B&W image are quite weak. There are no deep blacks or clean whites but variations of tonal gray. Film grain is intense. Often the image appears slightly blurry or out of focus. Fine details are generally lost under the haze of age related artifacts. 

 

Since only Holiday was new to the home video market, one might expect that transfers on The Talk of the Town and The Awful Truth would have been made spiffy for this box. At least, on The Awful Truth some much needed attention seems to have been paid between this transfer and its original release. The original was plagued by quite a few age related artifacts (scratches, dirt and chips) that have been greatly reduced on this newer minting. Contrast levels too appear to be a tad more refined on this version with deeper blacks. The image remains softly focused in spots -- but again, compared to the first release -- looks just a shade better than it did before. However, The Talk of the Town has been given NO further consideration this time around. The edge enhancement and digital shimmering that plagued the original release has been directly imported here, along with the softly focused image and considerable film grain in spots.

 

Extras are skimpy at best. Each disc is given a featurette on the film that boils down to a few choice comments made by various film critics and interspersed with scenes from the film. There's also a short featurette on Rosalind Russell (which is a direct import from the original His Girl Friday disc), as well as an all too short bio on Cary Grant. Word to the wise -- the best video biography on Cary Grant is A Class Apart featured on Warner's 2-disc special edition of Bringing Up Baby. It remains the definitive look at Grant: the actor, the man, and the legend.

 

 

 

 

In the past I have referred to Blake Edward's Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) as a vintage classic Hollywood film. After reviewing Paramount's newly minted Anniversary Edition DVD I now feel quite differently about that assessment. After all, the story is that of an emotionally scarred prostitute with no permanence or lasting attachment to the lost world she inhabits -- a plot point rarely included in any summary of the film. In that vein, Breakfast is very much a transitional piece of American cinema rather than a classically mounted super production. 

 

In this revisionist statement, this reviewer is not revising any of his prior admiration for the film's quality, immediate impact or enduring audience appeal. On the contrary, Breakfast at Tiffany's is a superlative masterwork -- for it manages to capture much of the embittered and tragic darkness from the Truman Capote novel on which it's based, while interjecting a sense of grand wonderment, and even light comedy about the spurious lady of the evening, Miss Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn). 

 

There is much to be said for the characterization of Holly as perceived by the whimsical Ms. Hepburn.  As the gadabout Manhattan call girl, Hepburn manages to infuse the part with a sense of the playful free spirit, though she always makes it clear to the audience that that initial perception is merely a very thin veneer, masking much deeper psychological wounds.   

 

Holly is introduced to the handsome writer, Paul Varjak (George Peppard) after Varjak's "decorator" friend, Mrs. Failenson (Patricia Neal) installs her "kept" man in the same apartment complex, run by Japanese photographer, Mr. Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney). In the all too brief documentary on the making of the film that is included on this disc, director Blake Edwards makes it clear that neither Peppard nor Rooney would be his choices if he had the film to do all over again -- a pity, since both actors manage to make the most of their characterizations -- particularly Peppard, who is both sympathetic and tragic in his own right. 

 

The romance between Paul and Holly is interrupted several times. First, by Paul's slow realization that the woman he is growing to love is, in fact, a hooker; then by the sudden arrival of Holly's ex-husband, Doc (Buddy Ebsen), who confronts Paul with the knowledge that Holly isn't even her real name, hence, he's developed affections for a woman that does not actually exist; and finally, by Holly's near miss of incarceration, after having been exposed as a go-between for imprisoned Mafia kingpin, Sally Tomato (Alan Reed). In between these obstacles, Holly sets up a few of her own, veering wildly between fake affections for various fly-by-night lovers, whom she repeatedly misperceives as great -- or at the very least, rich -- men. 

 

Ultimately, Edwards was forced to make alterations to Capote's text -- particularly in reference to Holly's flirtations with bisexuality, and the more adventurous aspects of her sexual romps with men. Henry Mancini's score set the standard for what followed -- a lush, 60s chic, funky -- sometimes wild -- swinging party scene, capped off by the lyrical and emblematic "Moon River." The song was nearly cut from the film -- an artistic miscarriage averted when Hepburn herself defiantly balked at any attempt to alter her rendition of the lyric. Audrey's recording -- solemnly performed with a guitar solo absolutely typifies her character's lost innocence.

 

Paramount Home Video has done an impeccable remastering job on Breakfast At Tiffany's. Get ready to use your old disc as a Frisbee. The Anniversary Edition sports a refurbished picture element that positively glows. Past home video incarnations have suffered from pasty colors, excessive film grain and image flicker that was, to say the very least, distracting. 

 

All of these shortcomings have been corrected on this new minting. Colors are bold, stable and, for the most part, accurate. In several scenes flesh tones appear a tad more pink than natural, but this is a quibbling best mentioned as a sideline. Contrast levels are bang on. Blacks are deep and textured, allowing for Hubert Givenchy's immaculate monochromatic designs for Holly's attire to really sparkle and shine on screen as never before. The remastered audio is 5.1 and packs an engaging, if subtly induced, wallop. 

 

Extras include the aforementioned "making of: featurette, and several others, including two on the film's and Audrey's enduring relationship with the jewelry store, Tiffany & Co. So resilient and complimentary was this life long association that when Audrey died on January 20th, 1993 the company shut down for a day of mourning, hanging this epitaph with photos of her in their windows: "To Audrey, our huckleberry friend..."

 

 

 

 

H. Bruce Humberstone's Pin-Up Girl (1944) is the film largely accredited with transforming Betty Grable into America's #1 sweetheart for G.I.s all over the world. If that's the case, there's genuinely little to recommend either Grable or the film today. A decidedly dated pastiche of flag-waving, mired in a clichéd script by Libbie Block and Robert Ellis, the story concerns canteen cutie, Lorry Jones (Grable). Seems Lorry is off to join the USO. But not before a slight detour puts her in close proximity to her romantic ideal, naval hero Tommy Dooley (John Harvey). After finagling her way into Eddie Hall's (Joe E. Brown) exclusive nightclub, Lorry meets Tommy and the two hit it off. Tommy gets Hall to hire Lorry, who fakes a past Broadway career as part of her résumé. The fact that Lorry can, in fact, sing is just an added plus for the showman who eventually builds an entire review around her -- much to the chagrin and fury of headliner and girlfriend, Molly McKay (Martha Raye). A wrinkle develops when Dud Miller (Dave Willcock) claims that he's engaged to Lorry (a plot point easily explained away, as Lorry has become engaged to the entire armed forces as part of her "support the troops" mentality).

 

It's a telling hint that the best number in the film doesn't feature Grable or her famous legs at all, but rather a novelty act simply billed as "skating vanities." The number attempts (unsuccessfully) to emulate the geometric patterns of a Busby Berkeley musical at Warner Brothers before showcasing several performers who execute some very skillful routines. If nothing else, they had to be very dangerous. 

 

The films musical sequences are incongruously strung together without much thought and end on a decidedly sour note with an overly long military routine in which Grable and a crew of gun-touting gals perform maneuvers without so much as warbling a song. Garish in their costuming and execution.  Truly then, if anything, the film is a monument to tacky bad taste and super kitsch peppered in patriotism run amuck. 

 

Fox's DVD transfer is not very good. The Technicolor print is punctuated by an overly turquoise/blue palette that dominates and arguably overpowers all other colors. Flesh tones appear a garish orange or faded pink. Contrast levels are much too weak. The cumulative effect of these shortcomings is a generally muddy print that only occasionally appears sharp -- though never detailed. Overall, the image is much too dark to be enjoyed without viewing it in an entirely dark room. Age related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum.  The audio has been remixed to stereo, but the mono is more than adequate for this sonically uninspired presentation. Extras include an audio commentary by noted film historian, Richard Schickel, ONE lobby card (not several, as the packaging suggests) and a theatrical trailer.

 

 

 

 

 

Sidney Franklin's The Good Earth (1937) is based on Pearl Buck's Pulitzer prize winning novel about Chinese peasants toiling under the hardships of famine, revolution and a thoroughly terrifying locust plague. One of producer Irving Thalberg's pet projects begun before but released after his death, the story is that of an introvert; young O-Lan (Viennese actress Luise Rainer looking and behaving remarkably convincingly as an Oriental). A slave in a 'great house' she is sold in marriage to farmer, Wang Lung (Paul Muni, a bit over the top and out of his depth on this occasion).

 

O-Lan and her husband work the land and are granted a son. But Wang's father (Charles Grapewin) and freeloading uncle (Walter Connelly) are superstitious. Eventually their greatest fears are realized when a devastating famine wipes out all of Wang's crops. Impoverished and forced to flee from the growing ominous shadows of revolution. O-Lan is nearly assassinated by revolutionary soldiers for stealing some jewels from the now decamped "great house." In a sequence that must rank among the finest Hollywood is ever committed to film, the estate is stormed by a rabble of starving peasants, ransacked with terrifying speed, leaving O-Lan to be crushed under foot. Trampled, but alive, she awakens to watch as a firing squad shoots many of the peasants for their actions.

 

But before she can be shot the army is recalled to fight. The reprieve is bittersweet. Giving the jewels to Wang, he mounts a campaign to regain his land. But the plot turns sour when Wang decides to take up with a wanton loot player, Lotus (Tilly Losch), a woman who uses Wang for his money, then turns to his eldest son for affection. Distraught, Wang banishes both his son and Lotus from the "great house" while O-Lan, who has never fully recovered from her injuries sustained during the looting, looks on. However, before the harvest and exile can take place, a horrifying plague of locust descend on the crops. This sequence is probably one of the most viscerally engaging and upsetting to emerge from a classic Hollywood film.

 

Wang's son comes up with the idea to set ablaze part of the fields in order to create a smoke barrier between the locust and the rest of the crops. The plan works and Wang's faith in his son is restored. O-Lan, grateful for the small mercies God has shown them, lies on her deathbed, even as Wang and the rest of the family celebrate the marriage of his son to another, unaccredited Chinese woman. For sheer spectacle and magnificent performances rendered throughout, The Good Earth is as fine a film as any Hollywood has ever or yet to make. It should be seen by everyone.

 

Warner's DVD transfer on The Good Earth is perhaps a tad below par as per the rest of their recent DVD output, but having said that, the image is still quite viewable. The gray scale in many scenes has been rendered with care. Age related artifacts are perhaps a bit more prevalent on this occasion but still do not distract. Several scenes have an excessive amount of film grain that is just a little distracting though, still, not terribly. Contrast levels are perhaps darker than one would have expected, with fine details often lost during night scenes. The audio is mono, as it should be, and presented at a reasonable listening level. Extras amount to two short subjects and a trailer.  

 

 

 

 

January/February 2006 reviews

King Kong (1933), Edward Scissorhands Anniversary Edition, The Muppet Movie, It's A Wonderful Life

 

King Kong (1933) was and, arguably remains, a marvel of stop motion animation. Directed by the tag team of visionary maverick Merian C. Cooper and adventurer, Ernest B. Shoedsack -- the tale is that of the great ape -- the eight wonder of the world. Oversized, burly and with a penchant for human sacrifice and erotic love (at least with Fay Wray), Kong is sought after by film maker, Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong). Actually, Denham's more interested in exotic realism and the idea of transforming the down-to-earth Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) into an exotic creation of a mystic isle. However, when Denham and his cast are found out by the native tribe of headhunters, who mean to use Ann as a human sacrifice for the towering simian, Denham gets a better idea. He tranquilizes Kong and transports him to New York City - oh yeah, smell the disaster. At a lavish gala unveiling the ravenous reporters generate a barrage of flashbulb activity that infuriates Kong. He breaks his chains, reclaims Ann and climbs the Empire State Building where, sadly, he meets with his untimely end.

 

For years several key sequences of this melodramatic horror/adventure yarn lay on the cutting room floor -- thanks to the Breen/Hays censors who thought them too scandalous for contemporary folk. Perhaps the most revealing (no pun intended) of these excised pieces is a moment early on in the jungle where Ann, having passed out in the hairy fist of her captor, lies helpless while the curious primate peels away layers of her dress to see what's underneath. 

 

An interesting bit of trivia finds that the famous dinosaurs that inhabit the island, and battle with Kong on several occasions, are actually holdovers from an abandoned project at RKO entitled Creation. Revolutionary for its day, Kong continued to inspire Cooper and others over the years -- primarily because RKO had a colossal super hit on their hands and thought that they could cost cut and output some lousy sequels with the same revenue attached.

 

Warner's newly minted DVD King Kong is and isn't what one would hope for. Before delving into a critique of the quality put forth herein, there is a basis of contention that this reviewer would like to put forth and then let the chips of public opinion fall where they may.

 

Aside: A while back, several key figures in Warner's restoration process went on record for another classic film, claiming that they could effectively clean and remove all the grit and grain from old movies and make them smooth and 'new' looking -- but that that was not the point of film restoration. Rather, the point -- so we are told -- is to render the image comparable to what it must have looked like the year the film was shot.

 

This reviewer would disagree with that assessment. If we were talking about the restoration of a classic theatre and someone suggested that the upholstery should not be recovered because then the vintage allure of coffee spills and greasy popcorn stains would not show through, one would find the argument totally insane. The idea in restoring a classic theatre would of course be to bring back the state of the art splendor of the room as it appeared on the night before a single human butt was allowed to be seated.

 

And, in terms of film restoration, this reviewer is not talking about generating internal digital intrusions onto the original film elements (ergo, inserting mattes or removing or adding details which did not exist in the original film). But printing and reproduction processes of the period in which any film from the first half of the last 100 years was shot in were, arguably, inferior to those at our disposal today.

 

With HD DVD looming large on the horizon, it behooves the purveyors of classic archives to remember that what the home consumer is most interested in is a pristine image above all else. It also behooves the restoration expert to recall that when an 'old' movie first premiered -- it most likely did so in an almost pristine condition -- free of dirt, most grain and all scratches that time has inserted throughout the years.

 

Now, on the subject of grain: film grain on a film format is more that acceptable since film itself is an organic substance. But grain transferred onto a digital format and projected onto a high resolution television monitor is not natural looking. More to the point it is highly distracting and rarely appears as it did or should during a theatrical presentation. If anything, film grain on a television monitor misrepresents the original image as unstable and unappealing.

 

Having stated the obvious I return to Kong: The black and white image is hardly pristine. Though looking light years younger than it ever has -- and thanks to an exhaustive investigative research for lost elements that extended to archives around the world -- Kong is better looking now than it was before. But grain is obtrusive throughout. Age related artifacts riddle the print. Yes, they are more subdued than they have ever been in the past -- but they are not absent as they should be. As a result, one finds the eye visually distracted to portions of the screen where grain and artifacts are most highly concentrated. The added degradation inherent in the stop-animation process, plus excessive layering of matte artistry and multi-layered effects, as presented on DVD generate an image quality that is 'busy' on the eye with seemingly too much to look at in every frame. On smaller monitors this distraction is minimal. But on 60-80 inch displays (both television and projection monitors) the image on Kong is decidedly painful on the eye. The audio is very nicely cleaned up and presented at an adequate listening level.

 

Extras include an audio commentary, the marvelous documentary "I Am Kong" that charts the life and times of Merian C. Cooper, as well as the extensive making of Kong that is divided into sections that thoroughly encompass the production of King Kong. There's even a laborious recreation of 'the lost spider sequence' meticulously reconstructed by Peter Jackson -- whose new Kong movie makes this 1933 version look like the Bible according to Planet of the Apes. Bottom line: King Kong is resplendent sci-fi drama with a good story and some genuinely interesting moments. That it appears here to probably the best effect we are likely to see as home consumers is indeed a let down -- since restoration (at least by this reviewer's estimation) is supposed to take a crumbling piece of art and restore it to a level that anyone can enjoy.    

 

 

 

Edward Scissorhands (1990) is the eclectic manifestation of its director, Tim Burton; a quirky, often bizarre, redux of the fairytale meets the tragic horror figure. There's really nothing new about the premise. Director James Whale did as much with Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. But Scissorhands seems to best balance that lightness and dark of the classic fable by Grimm and translate it's spookiness into grand live-action entertainment. Like Frankenstein, Edward (Johnny Depp) is the creation of an inventor (the usually malevolent Vincent Price, here more kindly, affecting and sympathetic than Dr. Frankenstein ever was). Unfortunately for Ed, his 'father' dies before he can finish building him a pair of human hands. Burton seems to build on the premise that if only Edward had hands he'd be considered normal by 'human' standards; an oddity in constructive logic since Depp's makeup and hair clearly demarcate that he is NOT of this world -- at least in the conventional nine months of gestation period, seven hours of intense labor.

 

The parallels between the Frankenstein monster and Edward are numerable. Both live alone and afraid of the human world in Gothic ruins that just happen to overlook normalcy. In Edward's case, normalcy is represented by the idyllic -- and rather Hitlerian -- 50s pastel suburbia inhabited by productive husbands and sexually repressed housewives. The plot thickens as Avon maven Peg (Dianne Wiest) discovers Edward and gives him a makeover. The rest of the tale is really cross between coming of age and being content with one's self morality play, as Edward adapts his scissor hands for salon tresses and topiary sculptures. Instantly popular, Ed's dreams of a romance with Peg's daughter, Kim (Winona Ryder) sour his relationship with all concerned -- a bit of racial prejudice creeping in from the periphery of this too perfect world.

 

Burton is a master of spectacle. Most of his worlds are a highly stylized, yet goofy, blend of the demonic and the sacred that oddly enough always works in service of his stories -- even when plot falters. But Edward Scissorhands is a departure from 'quirky for quirk's sake.' It's a more evenly paced, more genuinely personal critique of estrangement.

 

As an actor, Johnny Depp was in the process of departing the small screen for movies. His mute embodiment of an alien child caught at the crux of human emotions is the epicenter of vulnerability, even as his physical trappings evoke the classic iconography of silent horror movies like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. As a result, Edward is more empathetic than pathetic, more soulful than scary, yet oddly at odds with the melodrama romantic tragedy that much of the latter half of its story line is clearly paying homage to.

 

Previously made available in an adequate transfer from Fox -- this new anniversary edition is, sadly, not an upgrade in video quality. Though colors can be vibrant, like Ed's complexion, they can also appear slightly pasty at times. Contrast is just a tad lower than one would expect and fine details are often not fully realized. The audio comes in both 4.0 and 2-channel surround. Both are strangely similar -- neither particularly engaging nor enveloping. Separate commentary tracks by Burton and Danny Elfman, an all too brief featurette, concept art and some collectible photos are all the extras we get. Hardly worth the upgrade if one already owns this title.

 

 

 

The Muppet Movie (1979). When one reflects on the Muppets it is difficult to contextualize them as a gaggle of flannel and floppy friends. They are more on par with their flesh and blood counterparts. Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and Fozzie Bear have since entered our collective consciousness as genuine performers -- a living testament to the late Jim Henson and his driven belief in a world populated by strange and wonderful vagabond rejects from the marionette factory.

 

What this film has, that none of the subsequent big screen outings has been able to recapture is an innately magical blend of whimsy and warmth, seamlessly blended into, or perhaps grafted onto, an all too human world invested in the mistrust, greed and madcap dash for the all mighty buck. But then we get the delightful and memorable score by Paul Williams (including his Oscar-nominated and poignantly visceral; The Rainbow Collection). The journey from swampland to Hollywood is well stocked with cameos and some stellar integrated hoopla from such luminaries as Orson Welles, Carol Kane and Steve Martin. And although welcomed in their sudden appearance, the story can easily function without any help from its visible human intrusions.

 

It's as heartfelt, yet as delinquent, a tale as any from that gritty bare-bones decade of claptrap cinema; but glowingly reassigned for 'the lovers, the dreamers' and anyone who longs for a hint of the miraculous, rarely glimpsed in the everyday.  Previously made available in a rather blurry grainy transfer -- this newly minted DVD is an improvement -- though still falls short of what one would have hoped for, for the film that started them all. Colors are dated, though can appear vibrant at times. Blacks are rarely black. Whites are sometimes a hazy yellow. Age related artifacts are persistent throughout. The real improvement here seems to be in overall picture sharpness. Where the previously issued disc appeared slightly soft focused throughout, this new disc seems more solid and carefully delineated. The audio is dated but, let's face it... you're not buying The Muppet Movie to give your speakers a sonic workout; overall then, an adequate presentation. One simply pines over the fact that Disney Inc. has done nothing in the way of extras -- save a brief exposé on Kermit the Frog that is coy, short and strictly geared for the kiddies.    

 

In his first post war production, director Frank Capra alienated audiences with this somber tale of simple man, George Bailey (James Stewart) who, after being driven to attempt suicide, is provided with the opportunity of being able to see what life would be like if he had never been born. By now, It's A Wonderful Life (1946) is a perennial holiday and television favorite. But at the time of its release the film found indifference at the box office and shortsightedness in praise from its critics; a genuine shame. For in this film we have been given the rarest occasion to vicariously reevaluate private failings and conceptualize the consequences of ending it all.

 

James Stewart's performance as the perennial every man at the end of his rope is both heartbreaking and genuine. In the moments following his initial confrontation with Clarence Oddbody (Henry Travers) we see George's mind eagerly at work, believing that the hoax, however elaborately conceived, has been worth the effort. But it is the more stark and bitter realization of knowing that no man lives in a vacuum, that the impact of George's life, or void thereof, has destroyed so many that were enriched by his presence, that eventually leads one to coincide with the film's most glorious and satisfying conclusion; no man is a failure who has friends.  

 

 

 

 

2005 reviews

 

November/December 2005 reviews

The Garbo Signature Series

 

Rarely does a star of Garbo's enigmatic caliber and illusively memorable charm grace us with such presence...okay, never; except this once. Born in Stockholm Sweden in 1905, Greta Lovisa Gustafsson was a not-so-successful actress in her own country until famed Swedish director Mauritz Stiller cast her in two of his most profitable films. Stiller was shortly thereafter offered a contract by L.B. Mayer, and agreed to a four picture loan out on the understanding that MGM would take Gustafsson (by now, both his protégée and lover) as part of the deal. Mayer agreed, but was shortly thereafter dismayed by 'this awkward peasant girl.' Never one to mince words, the mogul's opener to Gustafsson was "Americans don't like their women fat, and get your teeth fixed." Few could have foreseen the zeitgeist of smoldering sensuality that would emerge from beyond that façade of the 'peasant girl.' After a gross misfire, in which MGM's publicity dept attempted to fabricate an athletic persona for their fledgling starlet, within a few short years Gustafsson (now Garbo) would be considered by many to be the premiere movie actress, the seemingly liquid embodiment of mystique, passion and, above all else, ubiquitous sexuality. 

 

And now, after what can only be described as a prolonged absence, the divine Garbo emerges on DVD in a formidable collection of her best loved movie favorites from Warner Home Video. Garbo: The Signature Series aptly unites ten classics for the first time; three silents and seven talkies. Because all of the silent films generally have the same image and sound quality a review of that quality will immediately follow a brief synopsis of all three movies included herein.

 

The collection begins in earnest with The Temptress (1926) director Fred Niblo's impassioned tale of seduction and self-loathing. Garbo is Elena. Accused of destroying one man's wealth, she ravenously pursues Manuel Robeldo (Antonio Moreno) an impressionable romantic fop that she meets at a masked ball. But the plot thickens when local heavy, Manos Duras (Roy D'Arcy) challenges the young lothario to a whip duel. The Temptress is therefore a film where fortunes are made, but lives are lost in a whirlpool of aggression and lust.

 

The next silent entry is worthy of its own back story: Flesh and the Devil (1926) was Garbo's first teaming with co-star John Gilbert (a silent matinee idol of the first order who was deposed from his throne of adoring admirers by the dawning of sound). In this film Garbo and Gilbert are Leo and Felicitas. She's married to Ulrich (Lars Hanson), Leo's best friend. But that doesn't stop her from seducing Leo -- a move that eventually destroys their lifelong friendship and results in Ulrich's death. Dramatically speaking, Flesh and the Devil is not very engaging, but when one realizes that Garbo and Gilbert were heavily involved at the time (a tryst that dissolved like cotton candy when Gilbert announced to the tabloids that he was marrying his costar...only she never showed up to the alter), the film takes on special meaning. It represents a very intimate portrait of a very public affair -- at the end of which Gilbert's reputation as a leading man was irreversibly damaged and Garbo moved on to greater heights in the talkies.

 

Niblo's The Mysterious Lady (1928) is, in retrospect, a film reminiscent of Mata Hari (which Garbo would make in 1931). Here, she's Tania Federova, a Russian spy who seduces her victims. Her first conquest is Captain Karl Von Raden (Conrad Nagel) whom she meets during an opera and shortly thereafter has an affair with. But by the time the two meet again on a train, Karl has learned that Tania is a spy. He refuses to believe that she loves him; and he's probably right -- since Tania steals some valuable secret plans that Karl is carrying. Karl is eventually court-martialed for his stupidity and stripped of his military rank -- a move that sets up for the revenge tragedy that follows.  

 

All three silent movies have a decidedly thick image characteristic; exemplified by weak contrast levels, not very solid blacks, a considerable amount of film grain and some very nasty age related artifacts. These films are more for the die-hard Garbophile or film historian. Their merit as pure entertainment is limited and, in their present condition, not indicative of all that DVD can offer the consumer. The audio scores that accompany the films are newly recorded offerings (thanks to Turner Classic Movies Young Composer's competition), and they are quite good, capturing the vintage feel of the films without seeming maudlin or overly melodramatic. 

 

Garbo turned her proverbial professional corner with her first talkie; Clarence Brown's Anna Christie (1930). A seedy waterfront drama, the tale revolves around a used-up waif (Garbo) who returns to live with her father, Chris (George F. Marion) on his riverboat. To accommodate her, Chris moves his alcoholic live-in, Marthy (Marie Dressler) off the barge. But the plot takes an unexpected turn when Chris and Anna rescue three seamen in peril. The lumbering Scot, Matt Burke (Charles Bickford) pursues Anna, even going so far to declare he will marry her. Chris's rejection of the offer causes undo friction between the three -- a maelstrom tempered only after Anna decides to reveal a deep dark secret she's been carrying since her return. Garbo's husky vocal is an ideal fit for the careworn Anna. Bickford is perhaps a poor choice to play a strapping sailor, but Dressler more than makes up for any miscasting. She's marvelous. 

 

The DVD transfer on Anna Christie is better than expected. Though blacks are weak and whites are rarely clean, reduced film grain, considerable fine detail and overall acceptable contrast levels generally sell this image. Age related artifacts abound but strangely are not distracting -- perhaps because of the pale image. The audio is decidedly dated ergo you won't be listening to it for fidelity. But it's nicely presented and gives an accurate representation of early sound recordings and their limitations.

 

Anna Christie may have convinced movie exhibitors that their most exotic silent star could handle the microphone, but Mata Hari (1931) can safely be said to be Garbo's first sound box office dynamo. It's Paris , circa 1917 and Mata Hari is a notorious erotic dancer. But the dance is an illusion -- a front for her spying for the German government. Russian General, Sergi Shubin (Lionel Barrymore) is taken with Mata Hari. She pretends affections toward him but falls in love with his courier Alexis Rosanoff (Ramon Novarro) instead. Learning of Rosanoff's secret mission to fly back to Russia with crucial dispatches, Mata Hari must choose between her public life of intrigue and private need to be loved. 

 

The image quality on Mata Hari suffers greatly from age related artifacts. Though the B&W image is nicely contrasted, there is a considerable amount of film grain that, at time, is most distracting. Whites are never clean, though black levels are often deep. Fine detail is present but marred by a hint of edge enhancement that periodically crops up throughout the transfer. Not exactly the way I'd like to remember history's most notorious female spy.

 

Grand Hotel (1932) was producer Irving G. Thalberg's ensemble production based on a novel and play by Vicki Baum. It stars Garbo as Grushinskya, a temperamental ballerina whose frequent bouts with nervous tension contribute to her almost being fired from the ballet. That is, until she meets her grand paramour in Baron Felix Von Geigern (John Barrymore). The two become romantic soul mates, a move threatened when it is revealed that the Baron is really a jewel thief, who is being blackmailed to steal money and gems from patrons in the Grand Hotel. Meanwhile -- in another room -- Preysing (Wallace Beery), a German industrialist has received very bad news. A merger that he was counting on to save his company from bankruptcy has fallen through. Throwing caution to the wind, Preysing decides to escape his creditors with stenographer, Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford) who has little interest in Preysing as a man, but likes his money nevertheless.  Playing as very much the forerunner to today's soap operas, the whole mess culminates in a murder that has the potential to destroy Grushinskya's faith in humanity and send her fragile ego into an irreversible tale spin.

 

Previously released, this is the identical transfer of Grand Hotel as before. It suffers from considerable grain and a highly unstable image with considerable fading in spots and overall soft and poorly contrasted image. There are quite a few age related tears and speckles that crop up as well. The audio is sometimes inaudible with a decided background hiss. Considering that Grand Hotel was a big money maker for MGM, an Oscar winning Best Picture and an enduring staple on television, fans of this movie deserve a better image and new digital transfer.

 

Rouben Mamoulian's Queen Christina (1933) is a cinematic masterpiece of sublime erotic subversion. Young Swedish monarch, Christina (Garbo) becomes a dominant European power at the end of the Thirty Years War. She is pressured into a political marriage but falls madly in love with Spanish emissary, Antonio (John Gilbert). Aghast that their Protestant queen might marry a Catholic, the court of Sweden does everything in its power to ruin the match. Ultimately, both the court and Christina lose what they most desire in life and the queen departs her homeland for an unknown future, with only the betrayal of her country and memory of a dead lover buried deep in her heart. Garbo's gender neutral performance is sublime. Her asexual aloofness is at once strange and wondrously at odds with her innate need to be admired as a woman first and ruler second. 

 

The image quality on Queen Christina appears to have been the benefactor of some digital clean up. Though the picture is far from perfect, source material is largely free of the age related garble that plagued earlier described releases in this box set. Black levels are, for the most part, deep rich and solid. Whites are clean. Fine detail is generally nicely realized. The audio is mono but very nicely cleaned up and will surely not disappoint.

 

Clarence Brown's Anna Karenina (1935) bears little resemblance to Tolstoy's Russian melodrama. But the discrepancies hardly matter. Garbo is, of course, Anna -- a beautiful, congenial and much beloved wife to senior Russian statesman and all around bore, Karenin (Basil Rathbone). And although her virtue is beyond question, speculations begin to mount when Anna takes an interest in a member of the Imperial Guard, Vronsky (Fredric March). The two quickly develop as lovers, a move that places Anna's future with her son, Alexei (Freddie Bartholomew) in peril. You just know this is going to end badly. Of all the Garbo classics, this film most brilliantly opens up its cinematic space and develops a real flare for storytelling that goes beyond the acting. Brown's initial establishing shot -- a lavish tracking over a seemingly endless dinner table decked out for the soldiers -- is both impressive and commanding. Ditto for his handling of Anna's exile from her home at the hands of her husband (another marvelous tracking shot) and her fatal final moments on the railway tracks. David O. Selznick personally supervised and produced this spectacular entertainment under the aegis of his MGM contract and the same meticulous attention to detail that would exemplify his own productions by the end of the decade is present here. This is a marvelous film.

 

Warner's DVD transfer is the second most impressive one in the bunch. A generally clean image with minimal grain, exceptionally fine detail, solid blacks and clean whites greets the consumer. Age related artifacts are present but sufficiently tempered so as not to distract from the presentation. The audio is mono but very nicely balanced and presented at an equitable listening level.

 

George Cukor's Camille (1936) is probably the film that most people identify with Garbo today. It is a bittersweet and tragic love story set in 1847's gay Paris where gentlemen by day meet girls of the moment for a little badinage behind closed doors. The most popular gal du jour is Marguerite Gautier (Garbo), whose sparkling wit and way with dapper men is dampened by a diagnosis of tuberculosis. Surrounded by a couturier of fair weather mongrels, including Prudence Duvernoy (Laura Hope Crews) and Baron De Varville (Henry Daniell), Marguerite meets at least one man who isn't out to use and abuse her -- the handsome and respectful Armand Duval (Robert Taylor -- never looking more dashing). Knowing what Marguerite is, Armand's family is dead set against the match; a move that forces Marguerite to sacrifice her own happiness so that Armand's reputation might not be sullied. Masterfully directed, and delivered with a tense sense of immediacy and shattered grace, Camille stands as one of the finest movies ever made.

 

The DVD transfer is less than what one would expect. Though this is the absolute best this film has ever looked for home video, contrast levels are still relatively weak in spots and age related artifacts abound. Blacks are rarely deep or solid. Whites are never entirely clean. Film grain is obtrusive in spots. The audio is mono but fairly accurate in its representation of vintage sound recordings from this period. Overall, the satisfaction level attained from this transfer is just a little above average; a shame, since the film itself is head and shoulders above most romantic tripe of the period.

 

Ernest Lubitsch's Ninotchka (1939) effectively rounded out Garbo's MGM tenure with a colossal bang, and it is the last great film to be included in this collection. A scathingly funny romantic comedy, it stars Garbo as a Russian commissar who is dispatched to Paris when three of her fellow comrades are suspected of defection. Installed inside Paris 's most opulent hotel, she soon discovers debonair playboy, Count Leon D'algut (Melvyn Douglas), a man of considerable suave sophistication who is at first in pursuit of the Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire), but easily switches in mid-ride to tackle the immense obstacle of melting Ninotchka's heart. Throughout, the film is peppered is charming dialogue and situations that continue to tickle the funny bone; such as the moment Leon, observing Garbo studying a city map, tenderly indicates for her where they are standing by taking Ninotchka's index finger in his hand. "Are you flirting with me?" she asks. "Absolutely," he declares. "Suppress it!"

 

The image quality on Ninotchka is bar none the best in this box. A very clean, solid and nicely contrasted film like transfer with fine detail and a minimal amount of film grain all add to the sparkle of the occasion. The audio is mono but exceptionally well balanced. 

 

In 1940, Garbo made what ultimately turned out to be her last movie: Two-Faced Woman -- an unqualified disaster. She departed MGM for what was then described as an extended rest from which she never returned. After World War II, Garbo officially retired. And although choice projects were constantly being pitched to her, she denied us all the luxury of ever standing before the cameras again, forever perpetuating that ethereal mystique that plagued her desire for a quiet life. Upon moving to New York City Garbo played up to her reputation as a recluse with some very prominent jet setters and, in 1954 she was bestowed a special Oscar for 'unforgettable performance' -- an honor she didn't show up to collect. On April 15, 1990, Garbo succumbed to pneumonia at the age of 84. Yet her legend has endured -- grown even, to embody all that is illusive, haunting, intellectual (perhaps far more than she ever was in life) and tragically poetic. As such she remains the consummate embodiment of a great actress. She is, after all, one of only a handful of stars from Hollywood 's golden age that needs no first name introduction to be immediately identified. 

 

Extras on this divine Warner box set are fitting for a star of Garbo's magnitude. We begin with TCM's stunning feature length biography; a thorough and intriguing investigation of the lady and her legend that is both comprehensive and entertaining. Next is nine minutes of footage from the 1928 lost film, The Divine Woman (long heralded as one of Garbo's best performances that sadly, we will never get the chance to see). Nearly four hours of audio commentaries on Garbo's silent movies are extremely thorough to say the least. And finally, of merit is TCM's featurette "Setting the Score" that showcases the young composer's responsible for rescoring Garbo's silent movies. Theatrical trailers are also included. Long live the great lady of American cinema.  

 

 

September/October 2005 reviews

White Noise, The Aviator, Rebel Without A Cause, Casino

 

Geoffrey Sax's White Noise (2005) is a sleeper. By this I mean that it will, quite literally, put the viewer to sleep. It is an inane little bit of fluff and nonsense that relies so heavily on the atmospheric subtly -- a la its "X-Files"-ish B.C. locations, that there isn't much time for grieving widower, Jonathan Rivers (Michael Keaton) to get to the bottom of supernatural goings on from beyond the grave. Mourning the freakish accidental death of his wife, Anna (Chandra West), Rivers is driven to distraction when a paranormal investigator convinces him that he just might be able to have a one way séance with his dead wife via the phenomenon of 'white noise'. For those unfamiliar, think of the scene from Poltergeist (an infinitely better film) in which Heather O'Rourke turns to her mother and father after peering into the blank screen of their television set and whispers, "They're here." Known as EVP, or Electronic Voice Phenomenon, which allows the dead to communicate to the living through images and voices recordable on a variety of electronic media such as VCRs, computers, Jonathan becomes obsessed with making contact until he begins to get unsettling vibes that perhaps the afterlife is riddled in evils far greater than those on earth. A little bit too conveniently, Jonathan builds connections between the mixed messages he's getting and a string of killings and disappearances taking place in Vancouver. The story just gets weirder from there. Director, Geoffrey Sax, known primarily for his work in British television, manages to salvage something in mood and tone in an otherwise torrid little bit of hokum. But there are all too few moments of genuine eeriness in this otherwise dumb thriller/horror flick in which obsession leads a bereft man to confront the destructive nature of the afterlife.

 

The anamorphic transfer from Universal is rather impressive. Though much of the story takes place predictably at night or in dark places, fine details are prevalent throughout. The stylized color scheme exhibits exemplary tonality and contrast. The audio is 5.1 and manages to inflict a few faux moments of fright where none would otherwise exist. Extras include several featurettes, including one on the paranormal, as well as deleted scenes.

 

 

 

The Aviator (2004) is director, Martin Scorsese's exercise and send up to Hollywood's mythology in glamour during the golden thirties and glittering forties. A quick recap of Scorsese's career finds that he has delved into various time periods throughout his film canon in an attempt to make the past live again. On some occasions -- as with his fifties pastiche done in snapshots for Raging Bull or Goodfellas, or in his sixties rekindling used in Casino, Scorsese is bang on, and generates a genuine flair. Other attempts, like his reconstruction of turn of the century city life, in Gangs of New York, or exploring the cultured set in The Age of Innocence have faired less than ably -- perhaps hinting of a sniff of formaldehyde dabbled in sensibilities and mannerisms that are too contemporary to fit in. 

 

The Aviator ranks somewhere between these two extremes in the director's film making prowess. Like his previous efforts to celebrate the forties in New York, New York, The Aviator proves equivocally that Scorsese has trouble evoking this sort of past without adding something of a contemporary vein to it. From his recreation of Hollywood's legendary Cocoanut Grove through his valiant attempt at recapturing the pioneering spirit that made intercontinental flying such an exciting prospect in the first place, Scorsese's master craftsmanship is once again hampered on this occasion by his casting of effeminate and prepubescent-looking Leonardo DiCaprio as the legendary Howard Hughes. 

 

Hughes -- at least in the photographs I've seen that were taken in his youth -- was studly yet, quite clearly looked every bit his age, in a way that men of his generation tended to have a more careworn façade that was both sexy and mature, much more than today's youth. DiCaprio has something of the coloring of Hughes' wanton and maniacal flair for the dramatic -- at least in spots -- but it gets mired in his own disbelief of acting the part; as though he suddenly awakens half way into his lines and realizes that he's just Leonardo DiCaprio and not Howard Hughes. Hence, the suspension of belief for an audience in his characterization only comes to life in fits and sparks -- most often dying slowly -- and rather painfully -- before our very eyes.  

 

But enough about DiCaprio's shortcomings. I remain at an even greater loss to explain why so many critics found Cate Blanchette's take on Katharine Hepburn the definitive evocation of this great lady. Having seen every Katharine Hepburn movie ever made - at least twice -- and, owning more than a handful of her best performances for repeat viewing after seeing this film -- as well as owning no less than four documentaries in which Hepburn speaks about her life, the movies, Spence, and so on - I must reiterate for this review that Blanchette is nowhere near the stature or embodiment of Kate Hepburn any more than I could pass for Cary Grant! In both her mannerism and behavior, Blanchette presents us with a gross caricature of Hepburn, something in the subtext of a manic latex puppet with a New England brow. 

 

The story of Hughes and his romantic goings on with Hepburn fuel the first half of Scorsese's film. In pacing and style it does come together rather nicely in spots, but there is never a sense of the characters being lived in or the places they occupy seeming as anything more than highly stylized sets. The clothes worn are not attire, but costumes that feel out of vogue with Scorsese's handling of the material. Hence, the whole affair comes across as something of a gavotte in horse's harness -- an impeccably lit and beautifully photographed fake of an era, instead of a living snapshot of the world circa 1920-1949. To go any further with the plot of this film seems moot, since it isn't a very glamorous story -- made even less glamorous by its two leads. Best then, to simply state that, although the film was generally applauded as Scorsese's most "accessible work" (a comment I find rather insulting, since it has the faint echo of being talked down to or, at the very least, suggesting that Scorsese has sold out by talking down to his audience), I suspect that Academy voters were not fooled by either the film or its performances -- at least not enough to give either the picture or its director statuettes. 

 

Now, for the good news. Warner Home Video's widescreen transfer is reference quality. The anamorphic picture is stunning with a sumptuous color palette that absolutely jumps off the screen. There are moments when the image will almost appear three dimensional for those watching it on larger projection units. Rich, deep and solid blacks, very clean whites and some beautifully rendered night scenes -- in which even extreme background detail is obvious, but never digitally harsh, leave much to recommend this film as a visual experience. The audio is 5.1 and a marvel to listen to, with even the most subtle clanging of dinner and flatware evident from various channels of one's surround sound. Extras -- too many to get into in this review; the standouts being The Age of Glamour and The Role of Howard Hughes. Scorsese's commentary track for the film is also a highlight not to be missed.

 

 

 

 

Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without A Cause (1955) is probably the film most closely associated with James Dean's iconic persona as the volatile, yet soulful teenager with a chip on his shoulder. Dean is Jim Stark -- a young man who's hen-pecked by an overbearing mother (Ann Doran) and compromised in his reference of adult masculinity by a weak father figure (Jim Backus). Though it is suggested that Jim's relocation to a new school is the result of his wild run in with the law, the film begins on a night of drunken debauchery. 

 

While awaiting his family in the police station, Jim eyes fast girl, Judy (Natalie Wood), but takes an invested interest in a young man in whom he sees varying shades of his former self -- the self-destructive, Plato (Sal Mineo). Judy's association with greaser, Buzz (Corey Allen) ensures a volatile conflict between Buzz and Jim; and there are two. The first is a fight with switch blades outside the famed planetarium near Los Angeles. But, as this early attempt at asserting who's the leader of the pack is thwarted by police intervention, Buzz and Jim settle on another venue at another time; the justly celebrated game of chicken that has both men racing their automobiles towards a dangerous cliff. Given Dean's untimely death at the hands of the wheel, this sequence has particularly ominous significance for today's viewer. 

 

But in the film, at the last minute, good sense prevails and Jim bails out of his car.  Buzz's sleeve gets caught on the door handle. He sails over the cliff and dies in a fiery explosion. From this point on, Jim spirals into an emotional whirlpool. He's distracted from total self destruction by Judy's kind and understanding way, their growing romantic affection for one another, and, Plato's looming and dangerous disdain for authority. Of course, you just know this is going to end badly. 

 

Like most sensationalist melodrama of the 1950s, Rebel is dated by today's standards. Its grasp on sexual politics and what it means to be a man, in a society that asks for conformity rather than self assertion, is an ominous precursor to the folly of wayward youth that was later embodied in such films as Blackboard Jungle and West Side Story. What the film does offer from the contemporary perspective, is a time capsule of 50s sensibilities that oddly enough, continue to resonate with teenagers and twenty-something's to this very day. 

 

This 2 disc edition of Rebel is a welcomed treat. Though the original single disc had a very nice looking transfer -- this newly minted DVD appears to have more subtle nuances in color fidelity, and, with the added treat of owing considerably less to film grain. Colors are rich, vibrant and bold. Blacks are solid and velvety deep. Whites are generally clean. Though there are some examples of fading between dissolves these are inherent shortcomings in all early Cinemascope productions and not the flaw of DVD mastering. The audio is a remix of the original magnetic six track that accompanied Rebel's roadshow engagement. It's remarkably bold and sonically stirring. Extras include a new documentary on the making of the film, as well as the original featurettes that were featured on the single disc, plus a James Dean bio that is very much a collector's item.

   

 

Casino (1995) is director Martin Scorsese's analytical, if overly graphic, critique of mob rule and its loss of control over Las Vegas' gambling empire. It stars Robert DeNiro as Sam Rothstein, a hand-picked inside wise guy and front runner. Sam's put in charge of one of the biggest gaming palaces on the strip, The Tangiers. Initially he's assigned to clean up the penny corruption of local shady con artists. After all, the mob can't be the one's getting scammed. However, when Sam meets Ginger (Sharon Stone) the sexy and devil-may-care high rolling courtesan of the blackjack tables, he throws caution and the advice from his mob bosses to the wind in favor of a good time. This already volatile situation is further stimulated by the arrival of Nicky Santora (Joe Pesci), a thug in a fancy suit with a decided disregard for the niceties of gracious living. Nicky presents himself as Sam's indispensable appendage. But it isn't long before his uncontrollable behavior threatens to topple Sam from his roost. With the mob bosses getting very nervous over Nicky's rising body count and Sam's flamboyance in the work place, it isn't long before everything falls apart. 

 

Scorsese populates his cinematic landscape with a veritable who's who of contemporary stellar and old time talent, including Don Rickles, Kevin Pollack, James Woods, Dick Smothers and Alan King. After some smart talking and fast shooting at the crap tables, Scorsese takes us on the real tour of Vegas -- in its corrupt byways, brothels and hidden cemeteries out in the middle of an unassuming corn field. 

 

The 10th Anniversary Edition of Casino has been remastered for DVD. The anamorphic picture element is free of the dirt and debris that the prior bare bones release of this formidable film had. Colors are rich, vibrant. Contrast levels are bang on. There is a bit of color bleeding during some of the underexposed scenes, but perhaps this in keeping with the film's original texture. Blacks are deep and solid. Fine details are fully realized throughout. Only a hint of edge enhancement intrudes (and then, only briefly) on an otherwise impressive transfer. The audio is 5.1 and delivers a real punch and kick to the bass and rear speakers, particularly with its emphasis on vintage background music. The brutalization of Nicky with a baseball bat is even more viscerally disturbing in this new sonic mix. You can actually hear subtle nuances in breathing as they bludgeon him to death. Extras include a bevy of making of featurettes, including interviews with many of the principle cast, some nice behind the scenes junkets, deleted scenes, and an extensive backstage look at the real life incidents that inspired the film. Bottom line is, this is the version of Casino fans have been waiting for.

 

 

 

July/August 2005 reviews
"Law & Order"/Meet Joe Black/The Magnificent Seven/Confidential Agent/Leave Her To Heaven



"Law and Order" is the groundbreaking, record-breaking police/lawyer television drama that in recent years has spawned several television spin offs. Despite, or perhaps because of, the spin off successes, Universal has at last decided to start releasing the original television episodes on DVD. At last we get the original series (season one) as it premiered back in the mid-eighties with its original cast. The box set from Universal is rather impressive. All 24 episodes from season one are represented. Some of the best and most disturbing moments in the entire series came during season one, including the child molestation and wife battery episode -- considered so emotionally disturbing that after its initial broadcast it was never aired on network primetime again. How times have changed.


Over all, the image quality on these discs is fairly good. Some episodes have a considerable amount of film grain present. However, I suspect this is more the fault of the original tape elements used to record the series and lesser quality of equipment used in television productions nearly thirteen years ago. Colors are muted and dated but they are well balanced. Flesh tones are accurately presented. Black levels are solid. Contrast levels are generally good, though a few episodes seem to have considerably lower levels than the norm. Edge enhancement and pixelization are generally kept to a minimum, though they are present throughout the series. The audio is remastered and well presented, only occasionally sounding strident.



Extras include a brief mini-documentary from Dick Wolf, the producer, and some trailer junkets. If you're a fan of this great television series you should seriously consider adding this box set to your collection.





Meet Joe Black is a film riddled in contradictions. After starting out with a genuinely thought-provoking premise (what would happen if death took on a human form and came to earth to learn about life from its next victim), the plot comes to a grinding halt when Death -- in the embodiment of Brad Pitt -- falls for his victim's daughter, Susan (Claire Forlani). Anthony Hopkins is Bill Perish, Death's next intended and, as usual, he delivers a performance of quiet, poignant introspection and rectitude. After some laborious inner conflict between these three principles (Susan loves Death but doesn't actually know who he is; Death wants to claim Susan for his own but can't without killing her; Bill doesn't want Death to kill Susan) and some totally extemporaneous scenes that have nothing to do with the central plot (Death visits and revisits an elderly Jamaican woman dying of cancer before claiming her life), Meet Joe Black concludes with a knockout birthday celebration sequence. There is such an emotional swell built into this sequence -- in which Bill tells Susan and his other daughter, Allison (Marcia Gay Harden) that they have brought a meaning and joy into his life that he had no right to expect -- that I caught myself getting choked up before the inevitable finale. 



Fine performances from Hopkins, Harden, Forlani and Jeffrey Tambor (as Quince, looking strangely like a Dr. Phil knock off) cannot excuse the fact that Brad Pitt is thoroughly out of his element as the central character. Pitt's interpretation of Death is one of stunted bewilderment, often taking excruciatingly long pauses before getting his point across. In the latter half of the film he somewhat improves in his performance, but nevertheless is dry, uninspired, and generally a complete bore to watch. Director Martin Brest, intent on delivering an epic (the film runs just a bit over three hours) instead gives his audiences two movies in one, neither as richly derived or compelling as the gala party sequence that masterfully draws all the plot elements to a successful close. I am thus conflicted in my review of Meet Joe Black. It has its points to make and its merits to extol but it falls flat, then dies, then is miraculously resurrected through the party sequence, making one -- if not forget -- at least forgive some of the painful moments that paved the way to the finale. 



This is the "Ultimate Edition" of a DVD already made available from Universal. All the studio has done on this occasion is to slap the same transfer into some snazzy new packaging while adding some throwaway extras on a second disc that one could easily live without if one already owns the first DVD release. Image quality on this DVD is the same as the previously released DVD. At times the picture is quite solid, with excellent color fidelity, shadow and contrast delineation and solid black levels. Unfortunately, quite often the picture gets bogged down with pixelization that really breaks apart background detail. There's also some minor edge enhancement and some slight shimmering of background and fine detail. Contrast levels can, in a few instances, be too low. The audio is 5.1 and well balanced, with explosive bass levels that will really give your rear speakers a work out. The big, big, BIG extra that Universal throws us on disc two is Death Takes A Holiday: a Paramount flick with Frederic March playing Death, who comes down to earth to study mankind before claiming one for his own. This is a dated movie with overly theatrical performances and a generally middle-of-the-road budget that really makes the whole excursion pretty tacky. As for the quality of the transfer, the gray scale is adequately balanced but with chips and scratches on the original negative. Contrast levels are often too low. The audio is mono and strident.





The Magnificent Seven is based on the Japanese movie The Seven Samurai. It stars Yul Brynner as Chris Adams, a retired gunslinger forced to pick up his pistols to free a small Mexican town from its oppressive regiment of banditos fronted by Calvera (Eli Wallach). The updating and transmutation from the original premise -- that of seven desperados out to avenge a ruthless cutthroat's stronghold on a poor community -- is, for once in the business of remaking movies, totally justified and worthy in its own right. Steve McQueen is Vin, one of the six other liberators. The film explores each man's motives for signing onto the mission: Bernardo's (Charles Bronson) need to belong to something and someone, Lee's (Robert Vaughn) desperate attempt to regain his composure in the face of death, and Chico's (Horst Buchholz) desire to prove himself as a hero to the men he admires. The climactic showdown also points to a revisionist perspective in Hollywood westerns, a cinematic landscape where the good guys don't always finish first and sometimes die trying to make good on their honorable intentions. 



MGM Home Entertainment gives us a tired, worn print of this classic film with faded colors and a barrage of age related blemishes -- all this, while calling the disc a "Special Edition". Colors can be rich and nicely balanced at times. However, most of the movie's color scheme has suffered from the natural ravages of time. Blacks are weak. Browns, beiges and light grays all appear to have the same muddy texture. Reds are slightly orange and flesh tones are not very natural. There's a considerable amount of edge enhancement and fine detail shimmering throughout. Chips, scratches, dirt and tears in the original print are evident throughout. The audio is stereo but feebly so, with a forward sounding characteristic that is not terribly engaging. The music is generally well represented. Extras include a "making of" that falls somewhere short of a full-fledged documentary but too long to be considered a featurette. There's also a theatrical trailer and an audio commentary. Usually I don't critique DVD menus but this one is just plain awful. Attempting to showcase a montage of snippets from the film, the clips presented suffer from excessive edge enhancement and aliasing problems that render them impossible to view.





In between To Have And To Have Not and The Big Sleep, Lauren Bacall had made Confidential Agent -- a miserable flop that put her career as a leading lady on very shaky ground. The Big Sleep might have continued her downward spiral had certain retakes not been made. The chemistry between Bogie an Bacall can be distilled into one word -- insolence. And in The Big Sleep this mutual disdain comes across with a sexual tension so palpable that one can hardly wait for the moment when the two finally embrace. Plot wise, The Big Sleep is an enigma that defies logical explanation. Even author Raymond Chandler couldn't make head or tails out of the mish-mash. Ultimately, the narrative proved inconsequential to the film's critical and box office success -- a genuine example of cinematic style triumphing over raw substance. 



Bogart is Det. Philip Marlowe. He's been hired by Gen. Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to investigate the blackmail behind a series of gambling debts proliferated by his youngest daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers). However, when Carmen winds up barely conscious and non committal with the corpse of Arthur Gwen Geiger (Theodore Von Eltz) at her feet, Marlowe suspects more than a hint of fowl play. Sternwood's other daughter, Vivian Rutledge (Bacall), is determined to make Marlowe's investigation go away. To this end she attempts to do her own probing into one, Eddie Mars (Johnny Ridgely) to whom Carmen owes a heap of money. But here the plot becomes completely confusing, introducing a heap of extemporaneous characters that, even after viewing the film more than six times, I am unable to completely summarize either their importance or their purpose in the proceedings. There's Dorothy Malone as the Acme bookstore proprietress, Angel -- somehow involved with amateur blackmailer, Joe Brody (Louis Jean Haydt), and there's Bernie Ohls (Regis Toomey) a cop who suspects that Marlowe is responsible for the murder of Sternwood's chauffeur, Sean Reagan (whom we never see). Despite the fact that I cannot offer the avid reader of this review any more by way of plot and yet still recommend this film is perhaps a testament to the masterful direction of Michael Curtiz, who never once allows the convolution to slow down his film or make one ponder at all the unexplained loop holes.


Warner Brothers has given us an adequate transfer of this legendary crime/thriller. Contrast and shadow delineation are good over all, but there are several scenes where the original camera negative is just too weak to sustain a polished look. Tears, chips and other imperfections are present throughout. There are even several instances where a 'jump cut' between scenes is glaringly obvious. Given all these inconsistencies and the fact that a few brief scenes look as though second or third generation print material were used, the image quality throughout is generally smooth. The audio is mono, strident but in general, well represented. Extras include a first - the original cut of the film that didn't have as much of Lauren Bacall in it as the final version. The plot of this alternative version also follows a more linear path. Also included is a mini-retrospective and the original theatrical trailer. These are wonderful supplements that enhance the viewing experience of the actual movie. One merely wishes that more had been done in the restoration of the film itself!







By its very definition, "film noir" (meaning, dark film) does not encompass Technicolor productions. A shame, since Darryl F. Zanuck's Leave Her To Heaven (1945) is as thrilling, disturbing and evocative of the noir style as anything shot in black and white. At best then, let's just say that Leave Her to Heaven is a rich, finely wrought tapestry of sinister thoughts and destructive ambition. The film, based on a novel by Ben Ames Williams, is concerned with the seemingly congenial romance that blossoms between famous writer, Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde, looking quite stylish and very handsome) and statuesque beauty, Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney, as smoldering, sultry and radiant as ever). Richard and Ellen meet as strangers on a train - a chance pairing that leads to an idyllic first summer retreat in the mountains with Ellen's family; mother, (Mary Philips), father (Ray Collins) and younger sister (fresh faced Jeanne Crain - clearly being groomed on this occasion as the odds on favorite for Richard's affections). A slight hiccup in Ellen's plans happens when her former beaux, Russell Quinton (Vincent Price) deliberately turns out to pitch a little rice on the side of her pending nuptials. Later, Quinton's own desires for Ellen will culminate in his prosecution of Richard for murder. But for now, Ellen isn't about to let anything or anyone come between her and the man of her passions.



By the time Tierney made Leave Her To Heaven she had developed a reputation as Fox's good girl. The culmination of this role and her formidable zest to make the transformation from congenial maiden to cold-hearted vixen believable, forever altered that perception of her in Hollywood. As her younger sister, Jeanne Crain is an excellent foil and runner up for Richard's affections. Even Vincent Price is exceptionally convincing as Ellen's former and very jealous lover. The one disappointment, in terms of acting, is Cornel Wilde. Undeniably eye candy, Wilde's performance comes off rather stiff and unconvincing once the character of Richard awakens from his love struck stupor and realizes what sort of monster he's actually married. Nevertheless, the material given to all is indestructible, and directed with slick and sinister panache by the gifted John M. Stahl, Leave Her To Heaven emerges as sensational sure fire entertainment.



Fox Home Entertainment has done a simply outstanding job in remastering this film for DVD. From its opening title sequence, so clear and finely rendered that one can make out the texture of paper on which the actor's names have been printed, to the deep focus photography which is luminous, there is absolutely no finer example of a Technicolor film to video transfer of this vintage available on the home video market today. Colors are rich and fully saturated. Shadow and contrast levels are superbly rendered. Clarity and fine detail throughout is outstanding. Blacks are solid and deep. Whites are pristine. The exterior photography is absolutely eye-popping. The audio has been remixed to stereo. But there is very little to distinguish it from the original Mono mix that has also been included. Extras include a stills gallery, audio commentary track, restoration comparison and theatrical trailer. Highly recommended for anyone who loves classic films.

 

May/June 2005 reviews

Phantom of the Opera 2004, Twentieth Century, The Agony and the Ecstasy, Raging Bull, My Man Godfrey, The Thin Man, Judgment At Nuremberg

 

 

At long last, after nearly two decades of humming Andrew Lloyd Webber show tunes in my garage, the big screen spectacle that is the cinematic incarnation of The Phantom of the Opera (2004) has arrived on DVD. Gaston LeRoux's story is as old as the movies -- actually older. Lon Chaney startled everyone with his extreme and grotesque make-up in the silent version. Claude Raines did his best, but failed to do the same in the 40s glossy remake. A sixties contemporary twist, The Phantom of Paradise, did little to generate interest in the property, and, Robert England's gross departure into horror with his 1980s scare fest is just plain wrong. 

 

But now we get the film inspired by Webber and Broadway; a huge sweeping white elephant that, even before its title sequence ends, seems quite dated in a sort of "please, help; I'm trapped in vintage 80s Broadway."  Winsome Emmy Rossum is breathtaking as the film's opera ingénue Christine Daae. Too bad the same can't be said for Gerard Butler's Phantom (a pity that Michael Crawford did not feel himself up to reprising the role which made him immortal on Broadway). Not only is Butler NOT Rossum's match vocally, he seems to entirely lack in any conveyance of menace and sensuality -- except in the number "The Music of the Night." As Raoul, Christine's legitimate love interest, Broadway's Patrick Wilson is the contemporary Nelson Eddy -- but that's not a compliment. Although he is in fine voice, he remains a stiff chocolate soldier -- sort of like a statue that comes to life for a duet, then turns to stone for the rest of the venture. Minnie Driver has a ball, if for no one but herself, diving head first into the vampish preening of reigning opera diva Carlotta. Driver's vocals throughout have been dubbed which is odd, since she does a fine job of warbling "Learn to Be Lonely" the film's closing title sequence which also happens to be its only new song. 

 

Director Joel Schumacher has managed a subtle coup with his sublime staging of the subject material. Is it theatrical? --well, yes -- and hampered by too many audience reaction shots and brief glimpses of the phantom lurking in the shadows. Like -- no kidding, Joel; we know he's there. But Schumacher's been decidedly faithful to the show's Broadway roots without seeming stilted or stage bound. Overall, then, its one hell of a good attempt at recapturing the luster and magic of both Webber and LaRoux; and any film that has Emmy Rossum dripping honey from her lips as she emotes the haunting "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" against a backdrop of a silent and foggy graveyard gets my vote. Both she and that scene are poignantly exquisite. 

 

The 2-disc DVD from Warner is a visual and audio stunner -- almost reaching reference quality levels. Colors are sumptuous, bold and vibrant. Blacks are velvety deep. Fine details are completely realized, even during the darkest scenes -- of which there are many. The candle lit processional through the murky waters under Paris will deliver goose-pimples in both its execution and clarity. The audio is 5.1 and thrilling with Rossum's vocals, once again, the absolute high point in fidelity. A strong overall sonic characteristic, buffeted by deep sounding bass and perfectly light treble touches, make the audio presentation on par with sitting in the Broadway theater on opening night: outstanding! Extras include the comprehensive story behind, not only this film but the history of the Phantom himself, as well as a deleted scene and the film's original theatrical trailer. 

 

 

 

Twentieth Century (1934) is a brilliant and scathing screwball yarn about a manical Broadway impressario, Oscar Jaffe's (John Barrymore) headstrong attempt to mold a shopgirl, Mildred Plotka (Carole Lombard) into the toast of the Great White Way. A bigger ham than any of his protiges, Oscar's career goes into a sudden tail spin after Mildred, christened Lily Garland, breaks free of his artistic stronghold for a chance to make it big in Hollywood. Now the toast of two coasts and everything in-between, Mildred doesn't need anyone to help her career. Oscar's bitter rejection and professional oblivion seems complete until he chances to meet Lily again, this time on the Twentieth Century Limited. Desperate to resign Mildred, but unwilling to admit that he needs her, the battle of the wills that ensues between these two old rivals is hilarious. The Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur screenplay pulls out all the stops. As bitter enemies, Barrymore and Lombard are out and out crazy to the point of madcap absurdity. Howard Hawk's spirited direction in confined spaces draws upon the humanity of the piece and comes up a real winner.

 

The same can't be said for Columbia's lack luster DVD transfer. The black and white image is very unstable. Blacks are sometimes deep, but less than often. Whites are not very clean. There is a considerable amount of film grain throughout. The contrast levels fluctuate as well. Often looking quite dirty and riddled with age related artifacts, the comedic sheen of Twentieth Century leaves something to be desired. The audio is mono but in about as good a condition as the visual elements of the film. Occasionally a pop and hiss can be heard under the arch of great performances which is a genuine shame. The DVD comes with an obtrusive string of trailers for other films and Japanese subtitle option - whatever! Bottom line: the film is golden. The transfer is tin. Let the buyer beware before making their purchase decision.

 

 

 

After a decade of declining profits in Hollywood where Biblical epics were concerned, Twentieth Century Fox's The Agony and The Ecstasy (1966) managed to recapture much of the glory, if not the box office, of that sort of 50s storytelling without getting too religious. Charlton Heston and Rex Harrison star as two of the Renaissance's most explosive and emotional titans; the great sculptor/painter, Michelangelo and Pope Julius II. Julius is a tyrannical, often crass, dictator who's true aspirations are for the ultimate glory of Rome and preservation of the Catholic church. To this end he will stop at nothing to inspire his people and ignite controversy amongst the clergy. Michelangelo's career as sculptor par excellence is sidetracked when Julius orders him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. "But I'm not a painter," Michelangelo explains. All evidence to the contrary.

The battle of wills that ensues is heavy on melodrama but rather flat on inspiration. As Michelangelo, Heston is solid, stoic and virtuous - a sort of Moses with a paint brush. What he ultimately lacks is any real conviction as one of the artsy set. Also, knowing as we do today that Michelangelo was not interested in women romantically, per se, Heston's faux romance with Contessina de Medici (Diane Cilento) is grossly misleading from a historical perspective. What is compelling about this sometimes stagy, rather long-winded film is the way in which Heston and Harrison's unique acting styles spar off of one another. Director Carol Reed, whose greatest contribution to cinema will forever be The Third Man, on this occasion, fills the vast expanse of Panavision with lush photographic set pieces that strangely are cold and disengaging. Overall the film does fall short of expectations, but it remains immaculate craftsmanship from an era in film-making in which such attention to every detail was simply par for the course.

 

Fox's DVD faithfully returns the film to its original visual vibrancy. The color by DeLuxe is rich and very nicely balanced. For decades this film's magenta layer had been so severely faded that for most of its running time the flesh tones and backgrounds looked as though they were suffering from severe sunburn. These oversights, as well as shortcomings in film grain and age related artifacts, have all been corrected. What is still obtrusive about the picture quality is its excessive edge enhancement. On widescreen televisions it is barely noticeable. On regular picture tubes, horizontal and vertical lines on much of the Italian architecture shimmer uncontrollably. Quite distracting. The audio is 5.1 surround, remastered from the original six track recording. Yet the audio falls short of expectations. It's slightly muffled and not very aggressive even when the swell of music grows from the side and rear channels. Extras include theatrical trailers for several Fox releases as well as this one. Overall, then, this presentation of The Agony And The Ecstasy is still something of a compromise for the home theater audience, as much of a compromise as the film is itself with regards to taking history directly and seriously.

 

 

 

Raging Bull (1980) is, bar none, the best work that director, Martin Scorsese has ever done in American cinema. Though not recognized as such at the time of the film's original release, and somewhat eclipsed in popularity by the later successes of Casino and Goodfellas, it is in "Raging Bull that Scorsese really hits his stride. The film is a not-so-fictional, often critical and harsh account of real life boxing legend, Jake LaMotta (Robert DeNiro). Not that LaMotta would disagree with that assessment. In fact he would probably add that the film pales in comparison to the sort of lunk-headed jerk he was with his first wife, Vickie (Cathy Moriarty). Scorsese, admittingly not a fan of boxing at the start of production, sinks deep into the material and comes out swinging as the undisputed champion. The evocative black and white (except for rare color sequence) cinematography really captures the mood and feel of old time boxing news reels. Of course the other half that makes the story sparkle like no other sports movie before or since, and cannot be overstated, is Robert DeNiro's masterful performance as Jake. Gaining and losing some sixty pounds for the shoot, in every ounce of his being and delivery, DeNiro is LaMotta. The line between character and actor is so poignantly blurred that the performance stands out as genuine and raw in its reverence and sincerity to both LaMotta and the sport. Joe Pesci, who at this point in his career had almost decided that acting was not for him, establishes an indelible light as Joey LaMotta that would continue to burn in his many works since this one - both with and without Scorsese. The rest of the cast, hand picked by Scorsese for their non-actor-eque qualities, come off as real life patrons of the ring, an inspired artistic mileau that with each new viewing seems more like a hidden camera account of LaMotta than its fictional equivalent. DeNiro rightfully took home the Best Actor Oscar for Raging Bull. Scorsese and the film were wrongfully overlooked.

 

MGM/UA has given us a stunning new transfer of Raging Bull. The black and white image is smooth, beautifully contrasted and very nicely balanced. Blacks are deep and rich. Whites are generally clean, except where Scorsese has deliberately toned down the contrast for artistic effect. Fine detail is fully realized throughout. There is no edge enhancement or other digital glitches for a picture quality that is staggeringly beautiful in all of its sustained and intense glory. The faded color sequences, deliberately rendered that way, are poignant snapshots of a private life that add yet another layer to the telling of this tale. The audio, remixed to 5.1, like the Raging Bull himself, packs an incredible one/two wallop. The sound field is engaging, intense and always on pitch. Extras include a string of interesting documentaries that chart the film from conception to post production. LaMotta as well as DeNiro are on hand to comment. There's even a side by side LaMotta to DeNiro fight sequence to compare styles in fighting. The film's theatrical trailer, a gallery and audio commentary round out the extras.

 

 

 

Considering how truly awful this movie has looked in the past, Criterion's edition of My Man Godfrey must be commended for its resurrection of an almost lost cinematic masterpiece. William Powell stars as Godfrey Smith -- a forgotten man transformed, at the insistence of madcap heiress, Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard) into the perfect penguin -- her witty butler! After being 'discovered' at a city dump near the water front, Godfrey is whisked by Irene to a catered affair in which the idle rich are gathering 'lost' items for a contest. Irene's lost item is a forgotten man. Irene's sister, Cornelia (Gail Patrick) is jealous of the find. After being cleaned up, Godfrey notices that Cornelia's intentions toward him are not honorable but deftly avoids creating scandal within the household. Mischa Auer, Eugene Pallette and Alice Brady make up the rest of the mad cap Bullock family -- a cavalcade of crazies plucked from the insane asylum of decadence and devil-may-care. When Alexander (Pallette) loses his family fortunes in the stock market crash, Godfrey reveals his true colors. He is not a forgotten man but a millionaire. Absolutely disgusted by the shallowness personal wealth makes of men, but also realizing that some families, like the Bullocks, cannot live without money, Godfrey rescues his employer from poverty and wins the heart of Irene.

 

Previously issued only on bootlegged VHS tapes, as well as late night viewings that have been painful to watch, Criterion's restoration efforts are a subtle step in the right direction. However, I would be interested in learning how much more can be done with the original film elements. For the record, My Man Godfrey still exhibits a soft picture with low contrast levels and an excessive amount of film grain. Blacks and shadow levels are very weak and there are certain scenes where the gray scale is reduced to either pure black or white visual representation, with an understandable loss of fine detail and over all image clarity. Still, the many rips, chips, tears and water damage, that one was used to seeing before, have all been tempered or all-together eliminated from this print. Many scenes on this transfer exhibit image quality that is quite satisfactory. The audio on this disc is mono but nicely restored. There are several glaring examples of pops and crackles that can be heard, as well as a persistant strident characteristic throughout. But believe me when I say that My Man Godfrey - save its premiere - has never looked or sounded better for the home video market. Criterion can't convince me of their hefty price tag for a petty audio commentary and inclusion of the Lux Radio Broadcast of this movie included herein. If the price of this disc dropped to around the twenty dollar level I'd be recommending it wholly for your consumption. As it stands, only a die hard fan of this legendary screwball comedy would invest in this disc - there's still much restoration work that needs to be done and the extras, quite frankly, are not worth the price!

 

 

 

The Thin Man is an urbane, acidic and charming murder mystery derived from the best seller by Dashall Hammett. It features William Powell and Myrna Loy as husband and wife private investigators, Nick and Nora Charles. He's a playful alcoholic who is immune to taking his work seriously. She's a lanky brunette with a wicked jaw and a host of one liners. Together they investigate the disappearance of a scientist (William Henry) after his frantic daughter, Dorothy (Maureen O'Sullivan) believes that foul play has befallen him. As with all of the subsequent Thin Man installments, (there are an additional 5 in the series - none of which are currently available on DVD) this film relies heavily on the chemistry generated from Loy and Powell and their wire-haired terrier, Asta. If the plot meanders aimlessly rather than in a linear format, it's a small price to pay for such a witty and charming trio on the road to getting their man. The investment in character development is not wasted.


Warner Home Video has done an outstanding job on The Thin Man DVD. Where previous copies of this movie on VHS and laserdisc looked as though they had been fed through a meat grinder, suffering from age, damage and disrepair, the print used for this DVD looks as though it were shot yesterday, with incredibly sharp, detailed images almost entirely free of any such ravages of time. The visual quality of the print is remarkably solid with little edge enhancement and no pixelization. The audio is mono but well represented with no background hiss. Apart from giving us theatrical trailers for all of the Thin Man movies there are no extras.

 

 

 

Judgment at Nuremberg is Stanley Kramer's often stoic, though never anything less than completely engrossing, post-WWII melodrama. It's high octane film making driven by star performances and masterfully scripted dialogue; a vital, tragic, yet overall life affirming message picture about the difference between abiding the law and doing what is just in an unjust world. The film stars Spencer Tracy as the honorable American Judge Dan Haywood, assigned to supervise the trial of four German justices, including Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) who have been accused of sending innocent men to their brutal deaths in Nazi concentration camps. Put up in the home of a former high ranking Nazi official, Haywood gains personal insight into the aftermath of Germany's political climate through his engagement of the servants (Ben Wright and Virginia Christine) and through a chance meeting with their former mistress, Madame Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich). But the real spark of this film is to be found in the mutual bitterness between passionate Defense Attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) and the pronouncedly defiant Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark), who serves as lead prosecutor. In a cameo appearance Judy Garland is remarkably heartbreaking as Irene Hoffman, a middle-aged frump whose fatherly relationship with a Jewish gentleman resulting in his death. Nominated for an astounding 11 Academy Awards, and winner of 2, Judgment at Nuremberg remains a benchmark of 1960s cinema -- a powerful and emotionally satisfying film for the ages.

MGM's DVD delivers a very smooth image that will surely not disappoint. The B&W picture is remarkably clean, with minimal film grain, accurately rendered contrast levels, deep solid blacks and very clean whites. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 (the original mono is also included). The two are practically identical in their spatial separation and fidelity, though in the 5.1 mix the music track is decidedly the benefactor. Extras include a 20 minute thoroughly insightful featurette in which screenwriter Abby Mann and co-star Maximilian Schell speak of their experiences on the film. Both are so well spoken and frank that they put many a new audio commentary track to shame with their genuine ability to talk on cue. Also included is a 15 minute tribute to Stanley Kramer that is very nicely done, if all too brief. A photo gallery, theatrical trailer and promotional junket materials round out the extras.

 

 

January/February 2005 reviews

Dr. Strangelove, the Oliver Stone Collection, The Day After Tomorrow, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, "The Golden Girls", and Gunga Din

 

 

STRANGE LOVE of DECIMATION on DVD - DR. STRANGELOVE

A byproduct of the cold war is that it provided Hollywood with enough fodder to celebrate espionage in a string of political thrillers. Some took the threat of Russian invasion quite seriously. Others chose a less credible, but wholly more satisfying route into pure farcical escapist entertainment. Of particular interest in this latter category is Stanley Kubrick's intense black comedy about the nuclear age; Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb The film, frequently adorning "all-time best" lists, is a vapid spoof that teeters on political insanity and military incredulity.  The story begins as homage to the Cuban Missile Crisis, with General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), an obsessed relic, launching his own personal assault on Communism. Ripper commissions a squadron of B-52s to bomb the USSR . Naturally, the big bad Russians launch their own counter offensive - the so- called "Doomsday Device".  While the world holds its excess gas, U.S. President (Peter Sellers) enters into riotous hot-line negotiations with his Commie counterpart. Always fascinating to watch, Sellers also interjects his own inimitable brand of craziness into two more roles; a British military attaché with a humorous tick and the psychotic bomb-maker, Dr. Strangelove. This trio of psychotics is fleshed out by Gen. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants loose canon whose military advice boils down into two parts mass hysteria and one part factoid meaningless statistics.

 

This is the third outing for Dr. Strangelove on DVD. As with its predecessors, this disc exhibits a stunningly rich and textured visual presentation. The B&W image has a marvelously balanced and remarkably solid gray scale. Blacks are velvety deep and smooth. There is some minor edge enhancement and a hint of pixelization but nothing that will distract you from enjoying this classic. Multiple aspect ratios are in keeping with the film's original theatrical presentation. The movie also boasts 5.1 DTS. This 40th anniversary edition also embellishes its extras made previously available with two more short subjects. Overall, there's little reason to run out and re-buy this title, although die hard fans will ultimately want the very latest from the military board room in the cockpit of their own libraries. Either way, brace yourself -- its blast off time for the neurotic age!

 

 

 

 

OLIVER STONE COLLECTION

The Oliver Stone Collection (Redux) is the second time out that Warner has trundled this great director's wares on DVD. The first collection was limited to titles that Warner held the rights to. This time we get a comprehensive collection of the master's work; 14 films in all, representing Stone's brilliant work from virtually every studio in Hollywood -- save Paramount . The set contains Stone's most prolific masterpieces (Platoon, Natural Born Killers, Born On The Fourth of July, Any Given Sunday), his most ridiculed and underrated set pieces (JFK, Nixon, Wall Street, The Doors) and his largely forgotten precursors to greatness (Salvador, Talk Radio) which, in hindsight, are great masterworks in their own right.

 

Synopses in brief:

Talk Radio: A hard-edged journey into the spiraling out of control life of a radio shock jock who is on the verge of a crying gag.

Salvador : A burned out freelance photographer's interest in journalism is rekindled amidst the civil unrest in war ravaged El Salvador .

Platoon: A troupe of soldiers enter the hellish nightmare that was Vietnam and lose their souls to the inner struggle that has no heroes or winners.

Wall Street: Martin and Charlie Sheen butt heads after the latter goes to work for unscrupulous corporate raider, Gordon Gecco (Michael Douglas). Heavily dated in its oh, so 80s subject matter.

Born On The Fourth Of July: A no-holds-barred, bare knuckled account of the folly and shame of an ungrateful country that befell returning Vietnam vets.

Natural Born Killers: A seething, scathing attack on the legal justice system and media hype that transforms the terrorizing debauchery of a couple of reprobates -- Mickey and Mallory into Robin Hood-like vigilantes. 

The Doors: The calamitous highs and debilitating lows of rock legend Jim Morrison get the robust treatment in this high octane rock-u-mentory that puts "Rock Star" to shame.

JFK: The stunning conspiracy theory saga that attempts to offer up alternative theories to the Warren Commission's report on President Kennedy's assassination. An eclectic, thrilling roller coaster of a movie with a slam bang finish!

Nixon: A rather straight-forward retelling of Nixon's highs and lows with Sir Anthony Hopkins doing his best to hide the fact that no one is quite like Tricky Dick but the man himself. Paul Sorvino is hauntingly on point as Henry Kissenger and Joan Allen gives a most intelligent read of first lady, Pat. 

U-Turn: A rare and debilitating misfire in Stone's career in which a wrong turn (literally) leads to a destructive and deadly road of no return. The characters are marginally engaging but the story is pure poison and lacking in Stone's usual cynicism which is his magic touch!

Any Given Sunday: A hard-edged look at the world of professional sports and how corruption, greed and the competitive spirit collide. Cameron Diaz and Al Pacino stage some rough-house politics to will a ferocious team out of its losing streak. Hot stuff!

 

This collection gives you a solid batch of transfers, the one disappointment remaining: Born On The Fourth of July, which still has not been anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. Otherwise, picture quality throughout is superb. Colors are rich and vibrant. Wall Street exhibits the most dated picture quality of the lot. Some pixelization is evident on both Nixon and Talk RadioPlatoon and JFK exhibit a flawless and impeccably balanced transfer quality with very clean, reference quality whites and deep, rich solid blacks. The audio on most films is pristine. Again, the earlier films in the collection (from Salvador to Wall Street) have a more tinny treble and hollow sounding bass, but this is to be expected. Special features vary according to each disc. All come with at least an audio commentary provided by Stone. There's also a host of extra features on Stone himself, his life and life's work, as well as a preview of his latest project, Alex ander. For the price this box set is an absolute must for any collector!

 

 

 

 

THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW - A DISASTER ON SO MANY LEVELS

A while back some well intentioned film critic wrote about The Day After Tomorrow that it was a clear case of a good film mired by bad science. I disagree. The Day After Tomorrow is nothing like a "good" film.  You would think that after September 11th America 's sick cinematic fascination with its own pulverization would have cooled down. Think again.  Or don't think at all. That certainly works for director, Roland Emmerich and his new apocalyptic claptrap, The Day After Tomorrow. I am still trying to glean the Freudian logic behind his twisted fetish for destroying New York City . If you recall, Emmerich also relished New York 's decimation in Independence Day with aliens standing in for Mother Nature. 

The Day After Tomorrow is a weak "star vehicle" for Dennis Quaid who makes the least of his role as Jack Hall, a climatologist that nobody believes.  Sela Ward is his estranged wife who, true to Hollywood cliché, melts like an ice cap after 'hero' husband rescues their resourceful son. Just once I'd like some sane movie executive or screenwriter to explain to me why every couple in a disaster film embark as spiteful enemies but finish out the final reel like a twittering pair of reconciled love bunnies.  Presumably there's nothing like a billion tons of snow to bring two stubborn and evasive soul mates together. At last, something colder than their temperaments.

 

There's an absence of 'good' sense in the way Emmerich allows all of his plot threads to ball up into minor and bothersome sequences of melodrama that play second fiddle to the special effects. For example, when self-sacrificing Laura Chapman (Emmy Rossum) gets blood poisoning from a leg wound she sustained while trying to save a South African mother and child from the raging flood waters (gee, why couldn't Emmerich have had the directorial huts-bah to go all out and make them quadriplegics too if he was going for the sympathy vote?) and is held up with a fever and chills in the New York Public Library, her impish but studly would-be boyfriend, Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) treks out to the Russian freighter in search of the penicillin that will save her life. But the administering of the drug is not the central issue of the sequence, so much as it serves as the spring board for a drawn out chase in which Sam and his loyal friends are almost mauled by a pack of ravenous wolves -- eat your heart out, Farley Mowat!    All this schlock and 'no -- sense' would make perfect 'movie' sense if Emmerich's intentions of creating a 'message' picture were not staked out in two feeble tack-on's: (1) that man is killing himself through his own stupidity and, for lack of a better explanation, needs to get in touch with his feminine side and become a kinder, gentler animal on and to this planet, and (2) that fossil fuels are bad. Well, duh!

 

If you're still interested in owning this film, Fox DVD delivers a pretty impressive looking image and sound quality. The anamorphically enhanced picture is beautifully rendered, with deep stylized colors, rich hues and rich, solid blacks. Contrast levels are just low enough to mask the rather obvious digital effects that, at least in the theater, looked very "cut and paste" and cartoon-like. Edge enhancement is present but does not distract. The audio has an incredible kick in the base and a very natural sounding spread. Extras include two audio commentaries (neither particularly engaging), a sound demo and DVD-Rom junkets that, frankly, are a waste of your time.

 

 

 

 

WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?

Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a hybrid of genres: a film noir murder mystery grafted onto the hyper-text of the animated cartoon. The plot centers on washed up detective, Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins).  Shifting between his own inner demons of a brother who was killed on a case and his alcoholism, Eddie's luck appears to take a turn for the better when R.K. Maroon hires him for a cheap and easy snoop job. But the job is a set up directly linking the murder of a night club owner to the mystery behind a missing last will and testament. Roger (voiced by Charles Fleischer), a five foot tall animated rabbit is the prime suspect. He and Eddie go together like oil and water but with the help of Roger's lusty busty wife, Jessica (voiced by Kathlene Turner) the two embark on a burgeoning friendship destined to save Los Angeles from the dreaded Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd). 

At the time of its release the seamless blend of traditional animation and live action won Disney and Touchstone a host of accolades and the respect of the entire industry, not to mention a couple of technical achievement Oscars for good merit. However, in the intermission between 1988 and the present this sort of complexity has become rather passé (seen in everything from theater promos to television commercials). Thus in retrospect the film has dated much more as a cliché than might be expected. Instead of maintaining timelessness there is the faint odor of formaldehyde teeming from the cheering sidelines of animation's finest and most enduring creations. Everyone from Bugs Bunny to Betty Boop appear in cameos but the effect no longer enthralls as much as it seems the expected sideline to an otherwise stagy cinematic experience.

 

The original DVD release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit was not anamorphic and although that problem has been rectified on Touchstone's newly minted two disc special edition, there remains a host of digital anomalies that seem new to this incarnation. In a pre-digital domain environment of editing, the source elements for the duped and animated plates in this film seem exceptionally worn, suffering from a barrage of dirt and scratches. Screen flutter is excessive in almost every scene in which cartoons and humans interact. There are also a few cases where either the human element or the cartoon characters appear slightly out of focus. Shadow effects on animated characters create a disturbing and distracting halo effect that is unflattering to say the least. Digital grit is at times excessive, especially in the opening cartoon sequence. Fine details occasionally shimmer. Colors are overall well balanced. But there are a few inconsistencies. For example, watch how Roger's red pants change from red to orange, then back to red, throughout the film. Also, "the Red Car" street cars register more orange than red. All of these problems, I suspect, are the result of cramming too much info on one disc.

 

Even though this is a two disc set, Disney/Touchstone has reserved the first disc for a full frame copy of the movie and an audio commentary only. The rest of the features, including an extensive array of well produced documentaries, deleted scenes, trailers and other extras, have all been crammed onto disc #2 along with the widescreen version of the film. The result is less than optimal picture quality. The sound for both versions of the film is a 5.1 remix that is identical to the previously issued DVD. It is strident and shrill at times and very well balanced at other moments. With all the hype surrounding this re-issue, more should have been expected and delivered from the folks over at Disney.

 

 

 

 

"THE GOLDEN GIRLS"

In 1985 television was introduced to rambunctious "The Golden Girls;" a wacky troupe of over the hill ladies living in the posh pastel surroundings of Miami . Hard-driving, no-nonsense, Dorothy Zbornak (Beatrice Arthur), the dim-witted fluff ball, Rose Nylund (Betty White) and haughty femme du jour, Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan) shared their deluxe accommodations with Dorothy's mother, Sophia Patrillo (Estelle Getty -- the youngest in the troupe) after Sophia's retirement home burnt down. The first season follows 'the girls' as they go through a series of adjustments and failed attempts to find marital happiness the second, third and tenth time around. Each episode is a gem, but aficionados will note that in the first two episodes the girls (except for Arthur) look considerably older than they do in the rest of the series. The laughs come fast and furious. Highlights include Rose's lover dying of a heart attack after a night of passion, Blanche's planned affair with her personal trainer and Dorothy's failed reunion with her ex husband, Stan (Herb Edelman). For outright riotous fun, this is one series from the 80s that -- despite its dated set décor and costuming -- hasn't dated in terms of good time humor and great fun.

 

Unfortunately Buena Vista 's three disc DVD collection presents a series of problems for certain DVD players. If you discover cut outs in sound in episodes 3-7 and 11 and 15, or experience sudden fades during the opening theme music -- it's an interesting anomaly that only seems to happen on certain models of DVD players. By that measure, I can't really fault the disc mastering entirely. But I can fault Buena Vista for presenting 'the girls' in a rather inconsistently rendered batch of transfers. Colors vary widely from episode to episode. Flesh tones are sometimes too pink, sometimes too orange, and other times nicely balanced. There are a barrage of glitches associated with digital tape that crop up throughout the episodes, including blips and lines running up and down the image. This isn't a stellar presentation of one of the most successful sitcoms in television history and it's certainly not the way I'd like to remember "the girls" for years to come.   

 

 

 

 

GUNGA DIN

1939 was a bumper crop year for cinema magic and George Steven's Gunga Din is no exception to the rule. A sprawling, sweeping, comedy/action/adventure yarn with few equals; it is a masterful example of Hollywood 's studio system hard at work. RKO pulled out all the stops; casting Cary Grant (Cutter), Victor McLaglen (MacChesney) and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.(Ballantine) as a trio of mischievous knockabout British officers who stumble upon the murderous Thugee cult in 19th century India (...one can see where Steven Spielberg borrowed his idea for 'Temple of Doom').  When the inhabitance of a nearby village to their outpost mysteriously disappear this bombastic sect of musketeers set out for truth, justice and revenge -- not necessarily in that order. The outstanding and poignant performance by Sam Jaffe as the turban and loin clothed title character, Gunga Din, is a naïve and imperialist incarnation, but carried off with such panache that its hard to resist. Joan Fontaine gets the thankless role of the romantic ideal for Ballantine, working against type as the sometimes headstrong Emaline. A handsome and enthralling screen spectacle, "Gunga Din" is what Hollywood used to mean by grand entertainment!

 

Warner's DVD transfer is a mixed blessing. Though much of the film looked far younger and is more perfectly realized than ever before on any home video format, the print source material is riddled throughout with age related artifacts (dirt, scratches, tears and misregistration) and a considerable amount of film grain in spots. The gray scale has been very nicely rendered with solid blacks and generally clean whites. There are no digital anomalies (aliasing, pixelization, edge enhancement) for an image that is otherwise quite smooth. The audio is mono and, at times, somewhat muffled. Extras include a brief but comprehensive 'making of' documentary, a fine audio commentary and two theatrical trailers.

 

 

March/April 2005 reviews

Bringing Up Baby, etc.

 

"Bringing Up Baby"(1938) is the adventageous screwball comedy about a madcap New England heiress, Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) who, after accidentally running into stuffy zoologist, David Huxley (Cary Grant) is determined to land him as her husband. Not that David would notice. He's too concerned with acquiring a bone for his museum collection - go figure. But a gregarious little terrier named George (actually Asta from "The Thin Man" series) intervenes in David's plans, burying the irreplaceable fossilized bone somewhere on Sue's country estate. Meanwhile Baby, Susan's leopard, threatens the whole show by tearing up the scenery, as leopard's will do, after escaping from her cage. Naturally the whole mess winds up in front of a local magestrate, who lacks the ability to put two ideas together and come up with one coherant thought. The supporting cast is a who's who of crazies, including Charles Ruggles as Major Applegate, a pompous big game hunter, May Robson as Sue's dotty rich aunt, Elizabeth Random, and Barry Fitzgerald as the congenial scatterbrain, Mr. Gogarty. Director, Howard Hawks infuses his artistic mileau with every screwball gag in the book - and a few never before seen - illiciting the overwhelming and riotous laugh a minute that has made "Baby" one of the unique highlights in film comedy history. Not that anyone knew it at the time. On the contrary, "Bringing Up Baby" was widely panned by the critics and did only modest box office on its initial release. But hey, what did they know? Time has proven that "Baby" is the one to beat; a high water mark of comedic prowess that only the likes of someone like Preston Sturges could hope to match.

 

 

Warner's 2-disc special edition of this vintage comedy is a welcomed treat for DVD-philes. The black and white image is astoundingly solid. The gray scale has been impeccibly mastered from very clean film elements. Contrast levels are superb. There's a hint of edge enhancement now and then, but nothing that will distract. Fine details are fully realized. Film grain is kept to a bare minimum. Aside from the very thorough commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich, disc 2 of this DVD contains two feature length documentaries; one on Howard Hawks, the other on Cary Grant. There's also a couple of vintage short subjects and a gallery of trailers from other Howard Hawk's films. Very nice. Bottom line: "Bringing Up Baby" is a sheer delight and this new DVD expounds twice the good time in its beautifully rendered picture and sound quality from the good people at Warner Brothers.

 

Katharine Hepburn possessed two qualities which made her a star; the first was her unique New England brough and mannerisms that simply wreak of hauty excellence; the other quality is guts. After winning an Oscar for "Morning Glory" Kate the great was branded box office poison - a moniker that destroyed many a starlet's chances from hitting the big time again. But not Kate. Undaunted by Hollywood's snub, she commissioned long time friend and play Philip Barry to pen the Broadway smash "The Philadelphia Story" for her to star in, and then, purchased the film rights herself. Hence, when MGM decided that it wanted to make a film of the play, they had no choice but to consider Ms. Hepburn's terms first. These were, in fact, quite simple. Cast Ms. Hepburn in the lead; as spoiled socialite, Tracy Lord, and give her casting approval. The idea of relinquishing control to a then has-been actress must have really burned L.B. Mayer. However, he must have had nothing but smiles and praise for Kate when the film version of "The Philadelphia Story"(1940) became one of MGM's biggest money makers.

The plot concerns Tracy's pending rebound marriage to George Kittredge (John Howard) a weak man who cannot hope to match Tracy's fiery temperment. That's perhaps the reason why Tracy has taken to him so. You see, Tracy's previous marriage to C.K Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), a man her equal in every way, ended badly. He actually knocked her to the ground with his fist. But times have changed. Dexter's changed. And he's realized that he's still carrying a torch for his ex. Fast forward to the weekend before the wedding; a family scandal involving Tracy's estranged father, Seth (John Halliday), and the wiley machinations of her uncle, Willie (Roland Young) lead to Tracy's acceptance of a couple of tabloid journalists, Mike Connor (James Stewart) and Liz Embrie (Ruth Hussey) to cover her pending nuptuals. But the plot is about to thicken in an unexpected way when Tracy decides to go after Mike on a drunken binge and midnight swim. So how does it all end...brilliantly and with much fanfare, pomp and hilarity. "The Philadelphia Story" was so enormously successful that MGM decided to make it into a musical a decade later - and to exceptionally good effect - with Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra. As "High Society" it once again became the biggest and brightest money maker of the year.

Warner's 2-disc special edition of this vintage comedy is a welcomed treat. The black and white image has been impeccibly mastered from very clean film elements. Contrast levels are superb. There's a hint of edge enhancement and some fine detail shimmering, but nothing that will distract. Fine details are fully realized throughout. Film grain is kept to a bare minimum. Aside from the commentary track by Jeannine Basinger, disc 2 of this DVD contains two feature length documentaries; one on George Cukor, the other on Katharine Hepburn. There's also a couple of vintage short subjects and a gallery of trailers from other Cukor films and an audio only radio broadcast. Very nice. Bottom line: "The Philadelphia Story" is a rare cinematic delight and this new DVD sparkles as only a few films of this vintage have. The good people at Warner Brothers deserve another pat on the back for their formidable efforts.

 

"Libeled Lady" (1936) is a sparkling romantic comedy of errors. When committment shy newspaper editor, Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) finds that his newspaper is being sued for alleging that a socialite, Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) is a home-wrecker he delays plans to marry his fiancee Gladys (Jean Harlow) yet again, by placing her in the midst of elegant playboy, Bill Chandler (William Powell). The idea is to have Gladys and Bill marry so that Connie will then be fooling around with a married man - hence Warren's paper will be off the hook for printing the initial story. But the plot goes hopelessly and predictably awry when Gladys starts to have genuine feelings for Bill and he for her. So what's a struggling foursome to do?

 

Director, Jack Conway fleshes out this thimble of a plot with a series of hilarious vignettes and some really stellar acting from the cheap seats, including cameos by Charles Grapewin, Arthur Connelly and Cora Witherspoon - all instantly recognizable war horses from MGM's ever expanding stable of second string talent. "Libeled Lady" may be light and fluffy, but it certainly packed a wallop at the box office.

 

Warner's DVD treatment is just a tad above middle of the road. The black and white image has been mastered from reasonably clean film elements. Contrast levels are adequate, though at times weak. There's a hint of edge enhancement and some fine detail shimmering, but nothing that will distract. Fine details are sometimes nicely realized. Film grain is kept to a bare minimum. Age related artifacts are present throughout. An audio only radio broadcast is the only extra included.

Ernst Lubitch's "To Be Or Not To Be"(1943) has to be the most genuinely bizarre political satire to emerge from Hollywood's golden age. It stars Jack Benny and Carol Lombard as Joseph and Maria Tura - a married couple and stage performers living in occupied Poland during WWII. Determined to alter the course of the war, the two helm a troupe of ham actors in a dead pan comic assault on the Nazis When a spy emerges who has damaging information to the Polish resistance, Joseph and Maria decide to prevent the information from being delivered to the Reich. Benny's brilliant lampoon of Hamlet's soliloquy "to be or not to be" is at the crux of a disastrous rendezvous between Maria and Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack). Stan gets the hots for Maria - a passion not reciprocated. Hence, when Stan is dispatched for war, he cruelly implicates Maria with Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), the real spy who has a secret plan to destroy the Warsaw resistance. The theater troupe is then forced to use their thespian skills to ensure their own survival; impersonating Nazi officers and even Hitler in order to outwit the enemy. Controversial to say the very least, "To Be Or Not to Be" opened to modest acclaim and was later remade, to limited effect, as a 1983 farce starring Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft.

 

Warner's DVD treatment is middle of the road. The black and white image has been mastered from reasonably clean film elements. Contrast levels are adequate, though at times weak. There's a hint of edge enhancement and some fine detail shimmering, but nothing that will distract. Fine details are sometimes nicely realized but darker scenes suffer from inconsistent quality. Film grain is moderate. Age related artifacts are present throughout. An archival news reel and short subject are the only extras included.

 

"Stage Door" (1937) treads the familiar backstage yarn of heartache and dismissal with unfamiliar panache and a killer cast. Wealthy socialite, Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn) wants desperately to break into Broadway theater only she wants to do it on her own. So Terry decides to go slumming, secretly checking into a theatrical boarding house populated by sharp shooter, Judy Canfield (Lucille Ball), wise girl, Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers), and Eve (Eve Arden) and Annie (Ann Miller), a couple of stage struck kids...almost. What Terry discovers is that life upon the wicked stage might be the nearest thing to heaven, if only she could manage to get closer to the stage itself. Very quickly, however, Terry learns that her fate, and that of the other hopefuls is plagued by ever-present disappointments. A big break of sorts comes by way of Jean's new affiliation with a powerful producer, Anthony Powell (Adolphe Menjou), only he wants Jean for more than just a role. Enter Terry's father, set to help his daughter's career but in a production in which she is almost surely to fail.

Director Gregory La Cava's astute perceptions about stage folk and their ragged existence beyond the footlights provides deeper insight and juicier vignettes than one might expect. There's an intense immediacy to the drama and a biting edge to the comedy that is generally uncharacteristic of comedies from this vintage. Hence, "Stage Door" comes across as a unique Hollywood classic - frought with exciting performances, wonderful cameos and the opportunity to see budding new talent at the very beginning of their careers. Great good fun and hearty entertainment besides.


Warner's DVD treatment is just a tad above middle of the road. The black and white image has been mastered from reasonably clean film elements. Contrast levels are adequate, though at times weak. There's a hint of edge enhancement and some fine detail shimmering, but nothing that will distract. Fine details are sometimes nicely realized. Film grain is kept to a bare minimum. Age related artifacts are present throughout. An audio only radio broadcast is the only extra included.


Warner Brother's unleashes a galaxy of stars in its new Comedy Collection box set. Six films of impeccible pedigree - two in deluxe special editions, flesh out this collection; "The Philadelphia Story" and "Bringing Up Baby". In addition there's much to admire from "Stage Door", "Dinner At Eight" and "Libeled Lady." Only Lubtisch's "To Be Or Not To Be" falls somewhat short of expectations - though it too is a welcomed sight on DVD.

 

 

Plots:

 

"Dinner At Eight" (1933) is the tale of a society matron, Millicent Jordon (Billie Burke)who is so enraptured at the prospect of throwing the society party of the decade that she eschews all other concerns in favor of the frivolities associated with such a swank soiree. Her roster of guests include the boorish social climber, Dan Packard (Wallace Beery) and his much younger wife of hot body but low class, Kitty (Jean Harlow), aging grand dame of the theater, Carlotta Vance (Marie Dressler), family physician, Dr. Wayne Talbot (Edmund Lowe) and desperate has-been movie actor, Larry Renault (John Barrymore). Millicent's husband, the kind-hearted, good natured Oliver (Lionel Barrymore) has just discovered that he is fatally ill. However, acknowledging his wife's lack of feeling for anyone but herself, Oliver decides to forego divulging his diagnosis, presumably until after the party.

 

"Bringing Up Baby"(1938) is the adventageous screwball comedy about a madcap New England heiress, Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) who, after accidentally running into stuffy zoologist, David Huxley (Cary Grant) is determined to land him as her husband. Not that David would notice. He's too concerned with acquiring a bone for his museum collection - go figure. But a gregarious little terrier named George (actually Asta from "The Thin Man" series) intervenes in David's plans, burying the irreplaceable fossilized bone somewhere on Sue's country estate. Meanwhile Baby, Susan's leopard, threatens the whole show by tearing up the scenery, as leopard's will do, after escaping from her cage. Naturally the whole mess winds up in front of a local magestrate, who lacks the ability to put two ideas together and come up with one coherant thought.

 

"The Philadelphia Story"(1940) concerns itself with the pending nuptuals of Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) to George Kittredge (John Howard). Tracy's previous marriage to C.K Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) ended badly, but shows signs of coming back from the dead when Dex turns up to pitch a little rice this time around. But the plot thickens in an unexpected way when Tracy decides to go after tabloid journalist Mike Connor (James Stewart) on a drunken binge and midnight swim - leaving both groom and ex feeling left out.

 

"Libeled Lady" (1936) is a sparkling romantic comedy of errors. When committment shy newspaper editor, Warren Haggerty (Spencer Tracy) finds that his newspaper is being sued for alleging that a socialite, Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) is a home-wrecker he delays plans to marry his fiancee Gladys (Jean Harlow) yet again, by placing her in the midst of elegant playboy, Bill Chandler (William Powell). The idea is to have Gladys and Bill marry so that Connie will then be fooling around with a married man - hence Warren's paper will be off the hook for printing the initial story. But the plot goes hopelessly and predictably awry when Gladys starts to have genuine feelings for Bill and he for her. So what's a struggling foursome to do?

 

Ernst Lubitch's "To Be Or Not To Be"(1943) has to be the most genuinely bizarre political satire to emerge from Hollywood's golden age. It stars Jack Benny and Carol Lombard as Joseph and Maria Tura - a married couple and stage performers living in occupied Poland during WWII. Determined to alter the course of the war, the two helm a troupe of ham actors in a dead pan comic assault on the Nazis.

 

And last, but not least is "Stage Door" (1937), treading familiar backstage heartache and dismissal with unfamiliar panache and a killer cast. Wealthy socialite, Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn) wants desperately to break into Broadway theater only she wants to do it on her own. So Terry decides to go slumming, secretly checking into a theatrical boarding house populated by sharp shooter, Judy Canfield (Lucille Ball), wise girl, Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers), and Eve (Eve Arden) and Annie (Ann Miller), a couple of stage struck kids...almost. What Terry discovers is that life upon the wicked stage might be the nearest thing to heaven, if only she could manage to get closer to the stage itself.

 

All of the discs in this box set have had some restoration work performed on them. The two outstanding transfers are "Bringing Up Baby" and "The Philadelphia Story." Both are 2-disc special editions mastered from very clean film elements and jam packed with lots of extra features. Contrast levels are superb. There's a hint of edge enhancement and some fine detail shimmering, but nothing that will distract. Fine details are fully realized throughout. Film grain is kept to a bare minimum. The good people at Warner Brothers deserve a pat on the back for their formidable efforts. As for the rest; they are a mixed bag at best. with inconsistently rendered black and white images, sometimes weak contrast levels and hints of edge enhancement and some fine detail shimmering. Extras on these latter disc are bare bones to say the least. Even so, this box set comes highly recommended. It contains films we are not likely to see again on DVD and presented in transfers, that while lacking among the very best that DVD is capable of, are nevertheless head and shoulders above what previous VHS incarnations have offered to the home video market. A big and sincere "yes" then for these.

 

 

 

 

2004 reviews

 

 

You'll Never Get Rich is the first of two musicals Fred Astaire made with Columbia's resident bombshell, Rita Hayworth. Although it's light, breezy, and brimming to the ceiling with comedy and music, ironically there's not much for the lovely Ms. Hayworth to do, except tap one solo and dance all too briefly in a contrived finale with Astaire. The plot focuses on Robert Curtis' (Astaire) employer, Robert Cortland (Robert Benchley), whose roving eye gets him in perpetual hot water with his wife (Frieda Inescort). Currently, both Roberts have their eye on Sheila (Hayworth). The unlikely affair begins, then stops, then starts up again when Sheila realizes she's falling in love - not with Benchley's Robert, but Astaire's. To get Astaire's Robert out of the picture, Benchley's Robert makes certain that he's drafted into the army -- an error in judgment that Benchley spends the next two hours trying to rectify. How's it end? With music, fun and good humor: all main staples of the Hollywood film musical at its zenith.


Considering the lackluster transfers that Columbia has been giving classic film buffs of late (Talk of the Town, You Can't Take It With You, The Awful Truth), You'll Never Get Rich is above par! The gray scale is accurately rendered - though several scenes look as though second or third generation film elements were used instead of an original camera negative. There is a definite grain structure present, but apart from that, the usual aliasing, edge enhancement, and pixelization that has accompanied many Columbia titles is thankfully absent herein. The audio is MONO but very nicely balanced and - for its vintage - natural sounding. There are no extras.

 

 

Cinema Paradiso is the poignant tale of "Toto" (seamlessly played by three different actors: Salvatore Casico as a child, Marco Leonardi as a teenager, and Jacque Perrin as middle-age man). Toto is a young and impoverished Italian boy who, after the death of his father in WWII, comes to love the movies when a lonely projectionist, Alfredo (Philip Noiret), allows him a backstage pass into the world of fantasy. However, Toto soon learns that life and fiction don't co-exist in a world of all too real heartaches and tragedy. When Alfredo's sight is taken away from him during a fire that decimates the modest movie house, Toto drops out of school to assume his responsibilities in the newly constructed movie palace that takes its place. But Toto's future is forever changed when he meets the lovely, Elena (Agnese Nano). Their passionate rendezvous are thwarted by her stoic father and Toto's admission into the Italian army. The rest of the plot is best left up to one's own experience. But bring Kleenex to this masterfully told tale of young love.


There are two versions of the film on this collector's edition disc - the original theatrical cut which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and a new director's cut that is 59 minutes longer. Trust me on this one: you want to see the director's cut. It fleshes out character motivation and the latter half of the story in ways that make the viewing experience so much richer. Both versions have been digitally remastered in anamorphic widescreen. The original cut is presented in Dolby Stereo, the new version in 5.1 stereo. But the original theatrical cut is visually rather lackluster by direct comparison to the director's cut, with overly dark contrast levels and subdued colors. Nevertheless, age-related artifacts are limited and aliasing, edge enhancement and some pixelization inherent in the original release are not present on the special edition. Over all, the film looks very clean. Nothing can detract from the performances.  There's not a one to fault in this beautifully told masterpiece.
A genuine shame arises in that there are NO EXTRAS to augment this double bill. But I implore, regardless, you must see Cinema Paradiso. Brilliant, poignant, tragic, but ultimately a moving experience that - in this age of digital generated this and reality based that - will make you remember why it is that we all go to the movies! Paradiso is the reason why celluloid was invented. A MUST!

 

 

Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is an apocalyptic, postmodernist vision of the future. The story involves a bounty hunter, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who is assigned to kill three replicants: android style robots that look identical to humans, but who have come to earth to seek revenge on their creator, Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel). Sean Young costars as Rachel, the latest model of replicant, who is so incredibly lifelike that not even she knows that she's not human. Also in the cast are Rutgar Hauer as Roy Batty -- the ultimate killing machine, Edward Olmos as a drugged out police detective, Gaff, and Darryl Hannah, as the psychotic replicant, Pris. Flawed in its narrative, but visually stunning, Blade Runner has developed a cult following - and it is easy to see why. The production is layered with multi-references to the steady moral and social demise of our own society that stir the mind into rethinking this movie as much more than a sci-fi adventure. This version of the film is the re-edited director's cut that audiences were never shown in 1982. The subtle tweaking of story and plot elements really doesn't enhance one's viewing experience so much as it just alters the story in a different direction.


But what a shame about the transfer! Though the general color balancing and attention to fine details, even in the darkest scenes, are adequate, there is simply NO EXCUSE for leaving the chips, scratches and in some cases, tears in this DVD transfer. Pixelization crops up now and them, but the most disturbing part of the transfer is that it fails to pay attention to the dirt and (in some cases) hair, stuck to the film negative. The result is a dirty looking picture that, while perhaps in keeping with Ridley Scott's vision of a dank, hard universe of the future, is most definitely not what the director had in mind. Saving grace: the transfer is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. The sonic characteristic of the 5.1 audio is rich, though dated. Strong bass and reasonably well balanced dialogue and effects, though there are a few perceived occasions where dubbing in of dialogue sounds possible. And one final insult from Warner Brothers, this disc has NO extras -- not even a theatrical trailer!

 

 

Dracula (1931) is the film version of that Transylvanian count (Bela Lugosi) who must suck the blood of innocents in order to survive. He sleeps by day, terrorizes by night, and keeps a crew of virgin wives as his slaves in the darkened recesses of his haunted castle. Of course, it's up to Professor Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) to put an end to all the blood letting and bandages. The subsequent films in this collection are a mixed bag of B-pictures, the best probably being Dracula's Daughter, because of Gloria Holden's compelling performance as Countess Marya. At least she attempts to pick up where the original nightmare left off. The last two films (Son and House of) are truly laughable. But the real revelation in this collection is the Spanish version of the original film, Dracula. Produced simultaneously with the original film and on the same sets, it is an improvement on the Lugosi version in both its camera techniques and visual special effects. One pines for such originality elsewhere in this collection.


The transfers are a mixed bag at best. No attempt has been made to clean up the age related artifacts that riddle the print of the 1931 original horror classic. It is so extensively marred by every conceivable anomaly (scratches, excessive film grain, tears in the original camera negative, fading) that it is a painful viewing experience. Contrast and black levels are so unbalanced that fine detail is not even an issue - (personally, I'd be happy to see any detail at all.) There's also a considerable amount of digital anomalies that only add to the frustration of watching film history being destroyed before your very eyes. The audio of the original film is muffled, often inaudible, and suffers greatly from background hiss, pops, and a strident characteristic. The subsequent films in this collection are spared such massive deterioration, presumably because they did not get as much play time over the years and as a result have been better preserved.

 
As with the Frankenstein box set, extras include two succinctly produced featurettes, theatrical trailers, audio commentaries and a shameless promotion for Van Helsing the disastrous contemporary retelling of these characters, starring Hugh Jackman.


I cannot in good faith recommend this box set, even to die hard Dracula fans, because the original film - the only one in which Lugosi appears - has been rendered in such poor condition on DVD. A genuine disappointment!

 

 

Alfred Hitchcock's British film making period hints at the brilliant foray of creative genius that was to follow during his Hollywood tenure. In The 39 Steps Hitch' perfectly captures the aura of swinging London and its music halls - except that this time they have become the scenes for murder, mayhem, and one of Hitchcock's classic touches: the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Robert Donat stars as that wrong man, playing out a series of parts as Richard Hannay, Mr. Hammond, Capt. Frazer, and Henry Hopkins. A Canadian tourist, Hannay is forced to flee police across the countryside and Scottish moors after he is suspected as part of a deadly conspiracy that resulted in the murder of a mysterious spy in his London flat. Hannay is accompanied, for the most part, by the abstinent Pamela (Madeleine Carroll). Determined to prove his own innocence and find the criminal mastermind with the missing fingers, Hannay eventually winds up in a showdown and a race against time. Hitchcock populates his landscape with a series of eccentrics, villains, and downright kooks in an effortless blend or romance and adventure. 

 

The 39 Steps is made available in a slew of bootlegged DVD transfers -- none of which are satisfactory, including the legitimate and expensive Criterion Edition. Granted, The 39 Steps was a film in genuinely bad shape, before Criterion came along. But this DVD is not "pristine" or "sparkling", as Criterion's packaging suggests. Contrast levels are still too low. There's an incredible amount of camera flicker in almost all of the scenes. Fine details are lost in darker scenes and only marginally visible during the brighter ones. There's also a limited amount of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine detail. This is not an outstanding restoration or even a mediocre one. When I think of "pristine" and "sparkling", Warner Brothers' Mildred Pierce comes to mind. The 39 Steps is no Millie!!!


Extras include the usual fluff stuff - a bunch of written essays that are really, really boring. Honestly, how many DVDs have you read lately? A documentary on Hitchcock's British period is also included, but is not comprehensive and appears as though the source material being used were found under a hay stack in Sussex. And this is what Criterion wants consumers to pay upwards of $40-$60 bucks for? FORGET IT!

 

 

SCORSESE BOX SET

The greatest living director of our generation, Martin Scorsese, finally gets a much overdue tribute, thanks to Warner Home Video. The Martin Scorsese Collection features five outstanding examples of a master director indulging in his craft; Who's That Knocking At My Door (1968), Mean Streets (1973), Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), After Hours (1985) and Goodfellas (1990). Scorsese, who became a producer, writer, actor and finally director, grew up in New York's Little Italy, the inspiration for his best films. Many of his masterworks have long been available on DVD, including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, The Last Waltz, The Last Temptation Of Christ, The Age Of Innocence, Casino and Gangs Of New York.


There is so much to talk about that we might as well get started. Who's That Knocking At My Door is the story of J.R. (Harvey Keitel), a young man of no ambition who, quite by accident, finds himself sitting next to 'the girl' (Zina Bethune) on the Staten Island ferry. The girl is impressed by J.R's knowledge of classic movies and the pair quickly become lovers in a problematic relationship that is, sadly, doomed nearly from the start. This is the only B&W film in this box set. Contrast levels appear a bit weak with whites slightly on the gray side. Image detail is also unstable, some scenes appearing quite detailed and others just so-so to extremely blurry. These shortcomings appear to be inherent in the original film negative and are not a flaw of DVD mastering. Film grain is present but hey, it's a Scorsese film: he generally likes a gritty image and this film is certainly a fine example of that.

 

Mean Streets is the first teaming of Scorsese and DeNiro on film. Harvey Keitel is Charlie, a thug who collects debts and runs a numbers game. One of his friends, Johnny Boy (Robert De Niro) owes money to Michael Longo (Richard Romanus). But Johnny is a loose canon and, as the plot progresses, we learn just how unstable a person he can be. Tensions mount after Charlie becomes enamored with an epileptic, Teresa (Amy Robinson). By no means a watershed production, in hindsight, Mean Streets heralds the coming of Goodfellas. This is a very dark film -- literally.  But Warner's DVD mastering is bang on with colors that are vibrant. Flesh tones are very accurately rendered. Black and contrast levels reveal a significant amount of fine detail. Overall the image is very sharp. There is a slight amount of film grain and some light shimmering present. No edge enhancement though, for an image that is basically smooth.

 

Next up is Scorsese's first important masterwork, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Departing from his formulaic atmosphere of dark brooding unscrupulous characters, Alice tells the story of Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn), an abused housewife on the verge of a nervous breakdown when her husband, Donald (Billy Green Bush) is suddenly killed in a truck accident.  Determined to exploit the tragedy as her new lease on life, Alice packs up her station wagon with son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), in tow.  Alice's dreams of becoming a singer are short-lived; but a second chance at romance might be in the stars when Alice lands a job as a waitress at Mel & Ruby's Café, where a frequent customer, David (Kris Kristofferson), recognizes Alice's innate value as a soul mate. Burstyn's tour de force performance won her the 1974 Academy Award as Best Actress; and the film spawned the long running, highly successful television series, "Alice".  Warner's DVD certainly delivers with vibrant colors. Black levels are very deep and whites are always clean. Contrast and fine details are nicely realized with only a hint of film grain. During the opening shots there is some very distracting artifacting going on but this vanishes after the opening credits for a picture that will surely NOT disappoint. 

 

After Hours is the out of control, spiraling saga of mild mannered Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne), whose chance meeting with the seemingly harmless, Marcy (Rosanna Arquette), leads to an increasingly perilous adventure. Marcy is full of interesting stories and this is precisely why Paul is initially attracted to her. However, Marcy's behavior becomes increasingly unstable and Paul bolts. Feeling like a jerk, which of course he is, Paul decides to return for an apology but discovers Marcy dead in her bedroom. Unfortunately for Paul, he soon finds himself the focus of a troupe of vigilantes who believe he's responsible for a string of burglaries. Eventually, Paul's artist friend offers him a means of escape by turning him into a Paper Mache figure -- go figure! Although much maligned by critics upon its initial release, After Hours has since developed a cult following that has spilled into the mainstream. Critics and poor box office aside, the film is a tour de force of set pieces with an eerie, unsettling quality and some very grim, black humor that is outstanding. Warner's DVD delivers a very nice looking vintage 1980s image. Colors are vibrant and flesh tones are accurately rendered. Black levels are deep and white are very clean. Film grain and a hint of dirt are present but do not distract. There are no digital anomalies for a very smooth picture that will not disappoint.

 


Now, for the icing on the cake: Goodfellas, #94 on AFI's list of 100 greatest movies of all time and widely regarded as the best mob movie ever made by critics and audiences alike. Written by Nicholas Pileggi and based on his book Wiseguy, Goodfellas charts the meteoric rise and catastrophic crash and burn of tough guy, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). Hill was a small-time thug whose involvement with the mafia paved the way for the most daring narcotics ring ever established in the U.S. Hill's teaming with the very dapper, very savvy, Jimmy Conway (Robert De Niro) and the very foul-mouthed Tommy De Vito (Joe Pesci) is at once fortuitous and frustrating as Hill watches Conway and De Vito rise to great heights within organized crime while he remains the front runner of lowly accord. The trio's mob boss, Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorvino), befriends Hill, but the association is short-lived after their latest heist goes horribly awry. Brutally violent and viscerally disarming, the first time viewing experience of Goodfellas is very much like riding a psychotic horse through a burning barn -- particularly in the latter half when Hill's own drug addiction leads to a manic and paranoid existence.  As for the quality of this newly minted DVD, there is a marginal improvement between this disc and the original flipper from Warner.  Flesh tones are overall accurate but there continues to be a reddish tint in certain scenes. A murky haze continues to be present during the early scenes.  Digital anomalies are completely absent for an overall smooth look that is appealing. Fine details, black levels and contrast levels are bang on. The image quality will surely NOT disappoint. 

 

Apart from the Goodfellas disc, all other soundtrack elements have been preserved in mono. There's really nothing to talk about in terms of fidelity for the mono films. They are presented at an adequate listening level and with an absence of hiss or popping that is usually characteristic of films of this vintage. Who's That Knocking At My Door is perhaps the weakest audio of the bunch, exhibiting a muffled characteristic. However, considering the shoe string budget for the film this is to be expected. Goodfellas is a very finely wrought 5.1 presentation. Dialogue is perhaps a bit more front sounding than one would expect -- though no less bold and ironically crystal clear. The effects and music tracks really pack a wallop.  

 

Extras include commentary tracks for all the films. Goodfellas has two, plus a host of featurettes and a thorough documentary on the making of the film. For the rest, there are shorts and featurettes that are nice complimentary extras. One would have appreciated a definitive documentary on Scorsese as a film maker, but perhaps this was asking too much for a box set that retails well under a hundred dollars. Overall, this is a great edition to any home theater aficionado's library and it comes highly recommended.

 

 

 

THE BEST AND THE WORST RESURFACE ON DVD

James Cameron's Titanic became the first film in nearly 50 years to tie the record of 11 Oscars once held exclusively by Ben-Hur (1959); an irony not wasted upon the fact that most of "Titanic's" wins came from the technical categories -- not the acting categories. There's good reason for that -- the plot, such as it is, is contrived and poorly acted. In a nutshell, penniless artist, Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) wins a third class ticket on the ill-fated liner. He meets Rose (Kate Winslet), a spoiled rich girl engaged to Cal (Billy Zane) but who is about to commit suicide by jumping off the ship's stern because she feels trapped in her pampered existence -- oh, please! Jack and Rose become lovers. Then the ship hits an iceberg and its every man for himself.

 

No one has more admiration for Cameron's attention to detail in sets and costumes and his epic staging of the climactic sinking of the great leviathan into the icy Atlantic , than I do. But it's all for not when the primary diversion during the first two hours of this truncated melodrama is the childish bump and grind of two misfits inside the cargo hold. Truly, "Titanic" had more fascinating real life passengers on board, whose lives could have been more fully explored. Kathy Bates is wasted as Molly Brown, Victor Garber too, as Matthew Andrews.

 

The DVD transfer is a disappointing effort from Paramount . The letterbox picture has not been enhanced for widescreen televisions. Though colors are fairly represented and clarity and sharpness are amply present, there's a considerable amount of edge enhancement in the vertical paneling of the smoking room, the railing that surrounds the ship and many of the long shots of the ship sailing off into the sunset. Contrast levels are nicely balanced. Blacks are generally solid. Some film grain and digital grain make certain scenes break apart when viewed on a larger format. The audio is 5.1 stereo and provides a very strong and visceral listening experience. There are no extras on this disc except for the film's theatrical trailer.

 

 

 

 

THIS ONE STRUCK A NERVE - PURE DISGUST!

The Deer Hunter is one of those films that, once seen, will linger in the recesses of your mind forever. It's a powerful, painful reminder of the Vietnam fiasco that doomed American POW's to a haunted hell of torture and torment with ultimately no vindication in a homecoming for their suffrage. Robert DeNiro is Michael -- a stoic loner whose home fires burn for Linda (Meryl Streep), the girl of his best friend, Nick (Christopher Walken). But when the boys are drafted into the Vietnam War they leave their small mining town to serve their country. After a lengthy wedding scene (which frankly, is too long) between Steven (John Savage) and Angela (Rutanya Alda) the boys, including Steven ship off to war. They are captured, tortured and forced to play a demented game of Russian roulette. Nick loses his mind, abandons all hope of returning home and eventually kills himself in a game of roulette for profit. Steven's legs are so badly bitten through by rats that they have to be amputated to save his life, with the net result of permanent emotional scars destroying any chance for his happiness with Angela. Only Michael emerges relatively unscathed by his experience -- still stoic and alone and in search of some sort of personal satisfaction that seemingly will never come to him. The film, an American classic, pulls no punches in presenting the grim, hard reality of life during and after the Vietnam war. It deserves far better treatment than what it current has been given on DVD.

 

The transfer from Universal is terribly flawed. Not even anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions, the 2:35:1 picture is marred by digital artifacts, tiling, edge enhancement, pixelization, aliasing and a terribly rendered color scale that is unbalanced and, in spots, terribly faded. Colors bleed and are muddy. Film and digital grain are way too excessive. Shadow and contrast levels are poor. Blacks are not solid or deep. There's really nothing to recommend this visual presentation. The audio is remastered but very strained in both its bass and high end levels. Finally, there are no extra features. Don't waste your money.

 

 

 

 

 

PROFOUNDLY MOVING EXPERIENCE - PROFOUNDLY DISMAL TRANSFER!
The Best Years of Our Lives is a sobering depiction of lives forever changed by WWII.  When returning soldiers, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), Al Stephenson (Frederic March) and Homer Parrish (real life amputee, Harold Russell) return from the battlefield, they find a society that has moved on without them. Fred's high stepping girlfriend (Virginia Mayo) is on the cusp of liberating herself in the arms of another man, Al's children are all grown up and Homer's fiancée (Cathy O'Donnell) must readjust to the fact that her one time lover no longer has the use of his hands. The re-assimilation of these men into their former lives is genuinely poignant, heart-breaking, yet ultimately, life affirming.

But the DVD transfer is an absolute travesty. Not only is the gray scale poorly rendered, with insufficient black levels and low contrast, but there is so much film grain and age related artifacts present that the film is virtually un-viewable. Worse, digital anomalies; aliasing, shimmering, edge enhancement, abound and are thoroughly distracting. The audio - remixed by CHACE sound is amply presented. A previously available version of this film distributed by HBO had a documentary on the making of the film (though there too the transfer of the film was pure junk). The re-released transfer from MGM does not include the documentary. This film will get a better transfer somewhere down the road. On this journey however, the wise DVD consumer would do best to steer clear!

 

 

 

 

 

TAXI DRIVER (1976)

Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) has a big problem - and not just one. He's a seemingly ordinary New York cabbie who's stalking one woman, Betsy (Cybil Shepard) while playing savior to another, Iris (Jodie Foster). But ol' Trav' is just a few coins short of a full meter, a neurotic oversight that will allow him to turn vigilante, threaten the political reelection campaign of Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) and blow away Iris's pimp/drug dealer (Harvey Keitel). Suffice it to say, Taxi Driver is not your feel good movie of the summer. It is a cinematic snapshot of 70s pop culture gone horribly awry, with its crack and whore infested streets, its unstable social setting for easy scores and cheap sex, and a seething underbelly of corruption and dismal isolation as its acrid palette for moral decay. Travis' slow spiral into becoming the loner with a purpose is predicated upon warping the old adage and precedent that one man can make a difference. But when that one man is touched by his own sexual and financial inadequacies, his psychotic inability to bond with another human being and his self delusion - that he is on par with a deity, above the rest of humanity and the law -- then the difference he can make is between destroying himself and bringing about the next apocalypse. Martin Scorsese directs adeptly enough, drawing the viewer into this dark world of unsettling realities. The irony of the ending seems somewhat strained and rather a bit like the happy ending tack on associated with conventional Hollywood wisdom, but there is the frightening prospect that with a return to normalcy, Travis' alter ego is, like many a volcano, merely dormant, not dead, and destined to erupt in the future.


The transfer from Columbia is a rather disappointing remastering effort. There are moments when the color is bold, if dated, and moments when fine detail is generally realized to good effect. But the bulk of this video presentation is riddled with excessive grain -- both film and digital, a barrage of compression artifacts, a lot of aliasing, some tiling, and a considerable amount of edge enhancement. Night scenes break apart with pixelization and exhibit a very muddy color scheme. There's plenty of age related dirt and grit to further detract from your viewing experience. The audio has been remastered - but just barely - with low to no bass and a really screechy high end that betrays the original mono elements. Extras include a 70 minute making of documentary with interviews featuring the director and principle cast, a photo montage, still gallery, theatrical trailer and storyboard sequences.

 

 

 

 

 

NETWORK (1976)

The film which introduced us to the now legendary quotation, "I'm as made as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore," Sidney Lumet's "Network" is a scathingly brilliant and ominously accurate prediction of what network television circa 2004 (in particular the news division) has become. When stalwart television news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) suffers an on air mental breakdown he is encouraged to continue ranting as "the angry prophet, denouncing the hypocrisies of our time" in order to boost the network's Nielson ratings. Shifting the focus from hard news to factoid entertainment, the new Howard Beale show is the brain child of Dianne Christensen (Faye Dunaway, marvelously on point as the neurotic programmer). Dianne is an oversexed cutthroat who will stop at nothing to exploit Beale for a thirty share. She usurps Max Schumacher's (William Holden) position as head of the news division and later destroys his life and marriage with the broken promise of a torrid affair. The cast also includes Robert Duvall as maniacal Frank Hackett, a shrewd corporate executive whose sell out mentality is successful at turning the once prominent art of journalism into its lowest common denominator -- sensationalism. In an all too brief though nevertheless poignant performance, the late and very great Beatrice Straight delivers a masterful turn as Max's betrayed wife, Louise. The film's eerie clairvoyance on contemporary television makes it one of the truly outstanding American films of the 1970s.

 

However, Warner Home Video's import of a previously released MGM DVD is one of the worst DVD transfers I have ever seen. The film is anamorphic widescreen but colors are horribly muted, dull and incredibly faded. Flesh tones are so inaccurate that there's really no point in suggesting any consistency.  Either they are a pasty pink or garish orange, but never natural looking. Contrast levels during night scenes are so low and marred by excessive film grain and digital grit that fine detail is not even an issue. Day scenes tend to suffer from over exposure and way too high contrast levels. Light browns, oranges, beiges and flesh tones all exhibit an undistinguished muddiness. There is also an incredible amount of film and digital grain throughout the transfer that makes for a completely unsatisfying viewing experience, no matter the size of your television screen. There is nothing, I repeat - NOTHING, to recommend this visual presentation. The audio is mono, strident and unnatural sounding. There is also background hiss in many of the more quiet scenes. The only extra is a theatrical trailer. This classic needs a complete and meticulous restoration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

GRAND HOTEL IN LESS THAN GRAND TRANSFER
"Grand Hotel" is an all star extravaganza -- the first of its kind -- that follows the intimate goings on of guests staying at Berlin 's posh resort. There is the high strung, temperamental ballerina (Greta Garbo), the sassy vamp-like stenographer (Joan Crawford), the boorish industrialist (Wallace Beery), the fatally stricken laborer (Lionel Barrymore) and the devilishly handsome baron (John Barrymore). These seemingly separate lives crisscross - some happily so, others with tragic circumstances - all thoroughly absorbing and brilliantly performed and realized. At the time of its release "Grand Hotel" was the first movie to feature more than one star above the title credits.

 

After years of looking as though the camera negative had been fed through a meat grinder, this DVD is a considerable improvement. Having said that, a lot of work remains to get this one looking up to par. Solid blacks are about the best thing on this DVD. Contrast levels appear too low in many of the scenes. There are a considerable number of age related artifacts and quite a bit of film grain present.  Edge effects, aliasing and shimmering of fine details make for a very harsh looking visual presentation half way through. The audio has been extensively cleaned up but continues to exhibit considerable hiss. If this is a special edition it's one of the poorest I've seen. Some featurettes are included that round out the history too briefly of this classic film. "Grand Hotel" is undeniably engrossing entertainment. The transfer is NOT up to snuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

CLEOPATRA (1963)

Cleopatra is a film that in retrospect has come to symbolize great excess and tragedy in Hollywood. As the doomed Egyptian queen, Elizabeth Taylor nearly died before filming on this gargantuan epic began. She also launched into an affair with Eddy Fisher (then married to Debbie Reynolds), which effectively branded her a home wrecker and persona non gratia in the U.S.  After constructing all of the sets at England's Pinewood Studio and casting the film with a stellar roster that included Peter Finch as Julius Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Mark Anthony the shoot was moved to Rome to accommodate Taylor's illness and recovery.  The change of venue effectively launched Liz into the arms of her new costar, Richard Burton -- who also was married at the time. These and other back stage intrigues are well documented in the masterful documentary on the making of Cleopatra that is included on disc three of this three disc set. 

 

Academy Award winning screen writer, Joseph L. Mankewitz was decidedly working against type on this project. After director Roubin Mamoulian was fired, Mankewitz assumed directorial responsibilities on the film as well. The added stress nearly killed him and effectively ended his tenure in Hollywood film making. Mankewitz had conceived of shooting two major motion pictures simultaneously Caesar and Cleopatra and Anthony and Cleopatra.  However, when the Burton/Taylor sex scandal broke in the tabloids around the world, Fox demanded that the two projects be made into one elephantine film. The result was that a vast amount of film footage was scrapped or excised from the finished product. Even with all the excisions, "Cleopatra" weighed in at a hefty four hour plus running time. 

 

Made at the end of a profitable cycle of Roman epics, and with enough studio generated hoopla and publicity for four major motion pictures, "Cleopatra" made a resounding thud at the box office, despite ticket sales that were better than average. The reason - "Cleopatra" was the most expensive motion picture ever made until the debacle known as Kevin Costner's Waterworld eclipsed it some 35 years later. 

 

The plot opens with Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison), learning of a political upheaval in Egypt between Queen Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) and her brother, King Ptolemy. Interested in bridging the gap between Rome and Egypt Caesar bates the two co-rulers until he discovers that Ptolemy is the one responsible for high treason. Caesar makes Cleopatra the undisputed monarch of Egypt, then proceeds to have a very public affair with her. This of course does not sit well with either Caesar's wife or the Roman senate, manipulated by Caesar's first born, Octavian (Roddy McDowell).

Aside: an oversight prevented McDowell's stellar performance from being nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category. 

 

Fed up with Caesar's affa