Saturday, October 31, 2009

NORTH BY NORTHWEST - Bluray (MGM 1959) Warner Home Video

Arguably, the Hitchcock thriller by which all others are measured, North By Northwest (1959) is a superior example of all the technical mastery and visual storytelling craftsmanship that director Alfred Hitchcock acquired during his American tenure in films. After the abysmal box office performance of his psychologically complex Vertigo (1958), Hitchcock’s last film of the 1950s returned to his more reliable blend of dark sadism and light humor and his 'wrong man' scenario to ensure audience popularity.

Determined to write a ‘wrong man’ movie to top all the rest, screenwriter Ernest Lehman devised a stylish thriller incorporating nearly every Hitchcockian film devise from the director’s illustrious tenure into one seamless roller coaster ride of masterful thrills and humorous suspense.

Over the years rumors have circulated that Hitchcock unintentionally mentioned the idea for the project to James Stewart while production was wrapping on Vertigo. When Stewart became eager to play the part of Roger Thornhill, Hitchcock was forced to admit that he had Cary Grant in mind all along. However, there are problems with this story.

First, Hitchcock seldom worked far in advance in planning his subsequent projects. In general, but specifically at this point in his career, Hitch’ took his time deciding what film would come next. Also, once he was involved on a movie, he committed himself wholly to that project until it was completed. Since North By Northwest was not a pre-sold play or movie property already waiting in the wings, but one commissioned from Lehman by Hitchcock, it seems unlikely that the idea came to him well in advance of wrapping production on Vertigo.

Second, given the solid working relationship between Hitchcock and Stewart, it does not make much sense that Hitch’ would have mentioned a movie idea to his star without having Stewart in mind for the lead. More than likely, MGM did not want Stewart cast – either because he seemed too old for the part, was not one of their stars under contract or was inadvertently being blamed for Vertigo’s poor performance at the box office.

Whatever the reason, North By Northwest stars Cary Grant as harried ad man, Roger O. Thornhill. After being mistaken for a secret agent by Phillip Van Damme (James Mason), Roger quickly discovers that he is a sitting duck, rift for multiple assassination attempts by Van Damme’s men unless he can get to the bottom of things. Unfortunately, Roger’s attempts at contacting UN political analyst, Lester Townsend (Philip Ober) goes horribly awry when one of Van Damme’s assassins kills Townsend in the middle of the United Nations lobby, making it appear as though Roger is the killer.

Considered a fugitive from justice, Roger next stumbles onto Eve Kendell (Eva Marie Saint), a mysterious flirt traveling by train and oddly intent on helping Roger elude the authorities.Slowly Roger comes to trust Eve and the two have an affair. However, when Eve appears to be working for Van Damme, Roger confronts their motley crew in the open, thereby exposing Eve to terrible danger because Eve is the double agent that Van Damme has mistaken Roger.

Hitchcock relied heavily on matte paintings and process photography in North By Northwest to sustain a level of purely escapist make-believe. The film’s two most memorable set pieces – a bi-plane assault on Roger along a lonely stretch of North Dakota road – and the scaling of Presidential faces carved into Mount Rushmore were both elaborately staged at MGM in front of sets and process screens rather than shot on location.

In the former instance, Grant was placed on a treadmill in the foreground, running for his life while reacting to rear projection; the bi-plane photographed separately. In the latter sequence MGM’s scenic art department crafted an elaborate plaster replica of Rushmore’s faces, relying on equally elaborate matte paintings to capture the steep downward perspective as Eve and Roger appear to be dangling from the jagged precipices for the film’s climactic showdown.

Some surviving studio memos indicate that this final race across Rushmore was recreated out of necessity rather than from Hitchcock’s innate dislike of location shooting. It was only after the State Park denied MGM access, or even permission, to the real location that the decision was made to recreate Rushmore on the back lot.

At Hitchcock's request, MGM licensed Paramount’s patented VistaVision process for North By Northwest after Hitchcock refused to photograph the film in Cinemascope. Although the making was an enjoyable experience for all concerned, North By Northwest was to be the only film Hitchcock ever made at MGM. It also marked the last time Cary Grant worked for Hitchcock.

Today, rumors abound as to why these two alumni never reunited for another try – especially since North By Northwest was one of Hitchcock’s most profitable thrillers. One plausible reason is that Grant had begun to feel as though his days as a leading man were numbered. While the actresses Grant was frequently being paired with were increasingly getting younger, Grant himself was already well into middle age at the time North By Northwest went before the cameras. Following the success of the film, Grant would reluctantly agree to make only one more thriller: Stanley Donen’s faux Hitchcockian spy movie: Charade (1963).

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray transfer doesn't necessarily best their beautifully remastered standard DVD so much as it presents us with an alternate viewing experience. The original DVD's color palette has been considerably toned down on Blu-Ray; particularly the red levels, yielding more realistic flesh tones but robbing us of the blood red patina of Eva Marie Saint's sultry cocktail dress.

Directly comparing the Blu-Ray to the standard DVD illustrates some stark differences. Overall, the image is considerably darker. Flesh tones appear more natural. Blues are more pronounced. Night scenes are now very dark and saturated in deep blue hues.

It's no surprise that Blu-Ray's infinite capacity for storage yields a more robust image with finer details jumping off the screen. The image is startlingly sharper, crisper and more refined. Wow! is the first word that comes to mind. Also, colours and flicker have been stablized. For the first time since its release, we truly get to see North By Northwest in VistaVision's motion picture 'high fidelity'. The remastered True HD audio is the welcomed upgrade; crisper, cleaner and more finely balanced than the old 5.1 audio on the DVD.

Extras are also a reason to trade up for the Blu-Ray. They include the SD's audio commentary by Ernest Lehman and the Eva-Marie Saint hosted documentary on the making of the film. Also added into the mix is the extensive bio on the life of Cary Grant that previously appeared as an extra feature on the Bringing Up Baby collector's set offering from WB. Newly created featurettes on the making of the film and Hitchcock's prowess as a director round out the extras.

Bottom line: highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



FORREST GUMP - Sapphire Edition Bluray (Paramount 1994) Paramount Home Video

“The world will never be the same once you’ve seen it through the eyes of Forrest Gump” (1994); so declared publicity campaigns for director Robert Zemeckis’ ambitious and sweeping fable about a simpleton, (Tom Hanks) whose perspective and insights about the flawed world around him proved to be both clairvoyant and poignant recollections on world events during the turbulent 1960s and 70s.

After being told that he will never walk without the aid of leg braces, young Forrest breaks free of his irons, goes on to become a college football star, a decorated Viet Nam war hero, the CEO of a lucrative shrimp business, and finally, husband to ill-fated Jenny Curran (Robin Wright Penn) the girl of his dreams and father to young Forrest (Haley Joel Osmond). Along the way, Forrest learns a life lesson often forgot by even the most intelligent among us – that life’s journey is a gift, one that grows more sweetly rich and stirring with the passage of time.

The screenplay by Eric Roth is based on Winston Groom's poignant novel and manages to capture that kernel of truth about humanity and the purest among us that the book so tenderly conveys. Don Burgess cinematography is subtly evocative. He captures the essence of the 60s and 70s without going full out nostalgic or meticulously detailed.

As for the film, it is a thoroughly moving epic that takes dead aim at our hearts. Zemekis' great gift for making the implausible as tangible as the world outside our windows infuses the film with a genuine humanity that is undeniable and heartwarming. Gary Sinise is magnificent as Lt. Dan Taylor – a hot shot military man until a bomb robs him of his legs. Sally Fields excels as Forrest’s mother, a woman determined to see that her son lives a full and useful life – despite what everyone else around Forrest misperceives to be his limitations.

What makes Forrest Gump so remarkable is its handling of the central character. Like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (1988), Tom Hanks’ brilliant central performance is a finely wrought tapestry of thoughtful, well placed and subtly nuanced introspection. As an audience, we do indeed ‘see the world’ through Forrest’s eyes. His elation is ours – his heartbreaks too. Director Zemeckis never allows sympathy or stereotype to dictate or override our emotional response to the character, the poignancy derived from Eric Roth’s masterfully conceived screenplay.

Paramount Home Video’s Blu-Ray easily bests its DVD from some years ago. The image has been brought up to1080p, removing much, though not all of the woeful age related artifacts and color fading that seem to plague Paramount's standard DVD. Colors are much more vibrant and natural in appearance. Flesh tones are quite stunning and the new clarity in the transfer registers fine details as never before seen. The audio also gets a much needed sonic upgrade with a DTS-HD master that will give your speakers a considerable workout.

Extras are plentiful and it's about time. Most of the featurettes are presented in HD - most welcomed. Audio commentaries are direct imports from the SD disc as are a number of brief featurettes discussing music and production design.

Bottom line: highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



DALLAS (Lorimar Telepictures 1978-91) Warner Home Video

The term 'cliffhanger' might very well have been invented for David Jacob's Dallas (1978-1991). Overnight this pop-opera became a sensation, then an American institution for 13 years on primetime television, and finally - in retrospect - a reflective relic for all that was good, gaudy, yet flawed about the American perspective on life, love and success throughout the 1980s. Dallas may not have invented the soap opera format, but it honed and mined its time honored traditions, centralizing fundamental human frailties and fanning the ratings flames with desire, lust, greed, deception, steamy sex and violent death; lurid, powerful fodder for the masses.

From today's jaded perspective of ultra-raunch it all seems so utterly quaint. The iconic world that J.R., Bobby, Pam, Miss Ellie and their like inhabit now plays like a prologue to another forgotten time completely removed from our own. The sexual mores, the vices, the corruption don't seem to hold up under closer scrutiny, posing the question;
'as a society...have we evolved, or simply become too cynical to recognize the strength of artistic sentiment?'

Beginning as a five episode miniseries shot entirely on location, Dallas quickly escalated in the network ratings to become the quintessential zeitgeist in pop entertainment. Series creator Jacobs was initially hampered by a production deal with Lorimar Telepictures that kept a tight rein on where the monies were being spent. Although all interiors would be shot at the old MGM studios in Culver City after the first season, the South Fork Ranch remained popular for exteriors until escalating production costs forced the entire series to California from 1989 to 1991.

Viewing the miniseries today it really does have a low budget look and feel. The trademark Southfork Ranch, located in Parker Texas, does not appear in the miniseries and neither does Ted Shackelford as the Ewing's wayward middle son, Gary (Gary Ackroyd, as originally cast).

Initially, Jacobs had pitched the idea of Knots Landing first to CBS, who encouraged him to develop a more 'glitzy' saga-like show. Dallas was the recipient of Jacob's creative genius. Ironing out many kinks along the way, Dallas proved indestructible by the mid-1980s, its devil-may-care approach to corporate business and private scandal perfectly in tune with the 'steal little/steal big' public mindset of that decade.

As the series developed, the focus gradually shifted from the marital concerns of younger brother Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy) and his wife, Pam (Victoria Principal), to heir apparent, J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) - a devious and scheming oil baron whose wily sexual appetite afforded him the luxury to play fast and loose with both his big business wheeling and dealing and the many women who ran through his bedroom while wife, Sue Ellen (Linda Gray) digressed into becoming a drunk.

Technically, Southfork was presided over by staunchly proud and resiliently Texan, Jock Ewing (Jim Davis) and his ever-devoted Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes). But the ranch also contained a rather lecherous relationship between hired hand, Ray Krebbes (Steve Kanaly) and pint size minor, Lucy (Charlene Tilton). As for Pam; she was the daughter of Digger Barnes (David Wayne and later, Keenan Wynn) - the destroyed shell of a man, so the story went, by the power hungry hands of Jock and later J.R. Pam's brother, Cliff (Ken Kercheval) fairly took his father's side, but also found time to be sympathetic to Pam - primarily after she split from Bobby at the end of Season Four.

In between these tempestuous relationships, someone shot J.R. (who survived), Southfork burned in an epic house fire (but not to the ground) and Bobby was murdered by Pam's half nutty sister in 1985; then unceremoniously resurrected in a shower sequence that attempted to illustrate for the viewing audience that the entire previous season had been just a dream in Pam's mind (groan!).

Contractually speaking, Patrick Duffy had believed that his fame on Dallas would allow him to find lucrative work elsewhere in television and the movies. He was quickly disillusioned. Meanwhile, Dallas' ratings tanked and the producers invited Duffy back into the fold.

In 2004, Dallas' arrival on DVD heralded an age of experimentalism for the format. After all, would anyone collect all 13 seasons? Apparently so. But the results from Warner Home Video are hardly stellar; beginning with their marketing choice to brand the miniseries and Season One as Season One and Two respectively - thereby throwing off the count of Dallas' seasons by one.
More disheartenment follows as most of the series is housed on flipper discs. The remastering efforts are remedial at best. Colors are extremely dated.

The image contains a barrage of age related nicks, chips and scratches. Dubs for the opening credit montages are woefully out of focus. Occasional edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details also present their own litany of problems. Finally, the audio on some of these episodes is strident and occasionally crackling.

Truly, there's not much to recommend the effort put forth here except to say that the show looks about as crisp as it did on my old 21" television purchased during the late 70s. On a small screen, Dallas still looks adequate. However, blow up to my current 65" dimensions, there's nothing to write home about.

To some degree, the Seasons tend to fair slightly better in overall video and audio fidelity as the seasons grow and get younger (Season 8 looks particularly sharp), but the improvements from season to season are marginal at best. It's difficult for me to recommend these discs to anyone but die hard Dallas fans of which I know there are many around the planet. For you, dear hearts - I suppose these discs are a treasure. For this reviewer, however, more was and should have been expected in the transfers.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Season One 1
Season Two 1
Season Three 1
Season Four 1

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT/SIDE STREET (RKO 1948/MGM 1950) Warner Home Video

Warner Home Video delves deeper into noir lore with two gems starring Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. The first, director Nicholas Ray’s They Live By Night (1948) is a tour de force cautionary morality tale that pits the fragile – if slightly embittered - naivety of youth against the more sullen and corrupting voices of experience. Based on Edward Anderson’s novel ‘Thieves Like Us’, the film stars Granger as Arthur ‘Bowie’ Bowers, the driver for a three man bank robbing crime syndicate fronted by Henry T-Dub Mansfield (Jay C. Flippen) and thuggish Chicamaw ‘One-Eye’ Mobley (Howard Da Silva).
After a harrowing escape from the law, the trio decides to take refuge at an out of the way motel run by drunken Pa Mobley (Will Wright) and his sullen granddaughter, Catherine ‘Keechie’ Mobley (Cathy O’Donnell). The trio also secures the services of Mattie Mansfield (Helen Craig) by promising to spring her husband, Robert (Frank Marlowe) from prison.
Keechie cannot abide a life of crime and, at first, takes an intense dislike to Bowie.

Soon, however, she realizes that Bowie yearns just as much for a legitimate existence far away from his partners in crime. After a fleeting and flawed romance, Keechie and Bowie decide to steal off into the night with Bowie’s third of the group’s robbery monies.

In one of the film’s most tenderly awkward and utterly poignant moments, Keechie and Bowie are married in a dingy chapel before retreating to an isolated cabin motel to begin what they believe is a fresh start and a new life. Unhappy chance for both Keechie and Bowie; the motel’s plumber (Guy L. Beach) recognizes Bowie from a newspaper mug shot and scurries away to warn the police. Worse, disgruntled and psychotic Chicamaw has decided to re-enter their lives by forcing Bowie to help him and T-Dub knock off one last bank. The robbery goes awry and T-Dub is shot dead by the police. Later, we learn that Chicamaw too has been killed while trying to break into a liquor store.

Believing that their troubles are at an end, Bowie and Keechie arrive at Mattie Mansfield’s trailer park to lay low. Unfortunately, Mattie – having grown tired of waiting – has worked out a secret deal with the police to apprehend Bowie in exchange for Robert’s release from prison.

In his debut film as a director, Nicholas Ray hits one out of the park with They Live By Night. His edgy, no holds barred script adaptation – finally written by Charles Schnee – and his quick shot direction move the narrative and the action at breakneck speed, balancing the finer tragic elements of young love destined not to last with the unrelenting brutality of disreputable figures fated to lose everything over greed.

The second film in this set is Anthony Mann’s Side Street (1950); a reunion picture of sorts for Granger and O’Donnell in two very different roles but with a similar outcome in the last reel. From its opening magnificent overhead aerial shots of Manhattan and masterfully conceived prologue to its extensive use of New York landscapes utilized in the best tradition of film noir, Side Street is a spooky, unsettling – if unconventional - masterpiece.

Granger is part time letter carrier, Joe Norson, delivering his mail without a care in the world, living at home with his in-laws (Esther Somers and Harry Antrim) and expectant young wife, Ellen (Cathy O’Donnell). Unfortunately for Joe, he has a moment of weakness on one of his routes and steals $30,000 from spurious attorney, Victor Backett (Edmund Ryan) to provide for his new family.

The money has actually been paid out by wealthy broker Emil Lorrison (Paul Harvey) as hush money to keep quiet Lorrison’s extra-marital affair with call girl Lucille Colner (Adele Jergens). However, having secured the monies, Victor has assigned thug George Garsell (James Craig) to put a definite period to Ms. Colner’s demand for part of the payback.

Racked with guilt and fear – and, not knowing that the men he has stolen from are murderers – Joe decides the money must be returned. One problem, Nick Drumman (Ed Max) the bartender Joe gave it to for safe keeping has decided to steal the cash instead. Meanwhile, Joe is suspected by police captain Walter Anderson (Paul Kelly) of Lucille’s murder, leaving Joe in a race against time to track down Garsell through his gal pal, Harriette Sinton (Jean Hagen).

Side Street is stellar noir entertainment – brilliantly scripted by Sidney Boehm and photographed to dark and brooding perfection by Joseph Ruttenberg. Farley Granger’s career, largely predicated on being cast as the young handsome stud whose emotional stability doesn’t quite match his physical stature, gives a marvelous performance fraught with nervous tension.

Warner Home Video houses both films on a single sided disc. Image quality is not compromised, however, only They Live By Night appears to have been the benefactor of digital clean up. Side Street suffers from a considerable amount of edge enhancement, a softly focused image and weaker than expected contrast levels. Overall, the gray scale on both films is well balanced. Fine details are generally more evident on They Live By Night. Film grain fluctuates from moderate to intense on They Live By Night but is practically none existent on Side Street.

The audio is mono as original recorded and quite adequate for both presentations. In addition to providing two separate and comprehensive audio commentaries (one for each film) Warner Home Video also provides us with two featurettes on the films in which various noir and film historians briefly wax about the finer points of the genre in general and each film in particular. Theatrical trailers are also included. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
They Live By Night 4
Side Street 3.5



WHERE DANGER LIVES/TENSION (RKO 1950/ MGM 1949) Warner Home Video

Warner Home Video unleashes two more noir thrillers, one made at RKO, the other at MGM with their Classic Film Noir Collection Double Feature Series. Director John Farrow’s Where Danger Lives (1950) is a bit of brooding nonsense that pits one of noir’s iconic leading men, Robert Mitchum against a heap of trouble attractively embodied in the form of Faith Domergue.

The screenplay by Charles Bennett is desperately plying the conventional wisdom of the suspense thriller, though arguably without the intense scrutiny to know when to use more restraint than pulp to get each plot point across. The story opens with noble doctor Jeff Cameron (Mitchum) saving the life of attempted suicide victim, Margo Lannington (Domergue).

Cameron is sweet on nurse, Julie Dorn (Maureen O’Sullivan) for about thirty seconds; until Margo’s poisonous venom seeps into his consciousness and thereafter takes over entirely his every thought. Through a series of nightclub liaisons Margo and Jeff become intimate. She confesses – or rather, lies – to Jeff about the maniacal tendencies of her rich but controlling husband, Frederick (Claude Rains).

Tragically, Jeff believes Margo’s every word, leading to a confrontation between him and Frederick at Margo’s stately home. Jeff accidentally murders Frederick in a brawl but not before Frederick manages to give Jeff a concussion that will most likely lead to his slipping into a deadly coma. Margo packs Jeff in to her car and together the two make a break for the Mexican border, along the way running into all sorts of blockades that threaten to send both of them to prison. Where Danger Lives isn’t particularly engaging entertainment.

Mitchum is doing his best drowsy-eyed, devil-may-care and to hell with the world take on life that made him so right for noir suspense thrillers. But he’s hampered by an ineffectual and wildly inconsistent performance from Faith Domergue; part Audrey Totter/part Jane Greer – neither wholly convincing. The inimitable Claude Rains is wasted in the thankless part of the bitter hubby. Still, there is Nicholas Musuracas’cinematography to revel in, as well as Eda Warren’s swift editing of the chase sequences that ad a spark of brilliance to the proceedings.

Much more satisfying on every level is director John Berry’s B-movie, Tension (1949); an acidic and capable minor noir that stars the now largely forgotten Richard Basehart as Warren Quimby. Warren is a milquetoast pharmacist doing his best to live up to the impossible expectations of his sexually ruthless and utterly emasculating wife, Claire (Audrey Totter).

It seems Claire wants it all; danger, sex and money – none of which Warren is able to provide. Hooking up with tough guy, Barney Deager (Lloyd Gough), Claire leaves Warren for Barney’s beach house only to be tailed by Warren. In the resulting confrontation, Barney beats Warren to a pulp, leaving Warren with just one option: to plot Barney’s murder.

Adopting the name Paul Sothern, Warren moves into a nearby seaside apartment where he meets aspiring photographer, Mary Chandler (Cyd Charisse). After breaking into Barney’s beach house, Warren has second thoughts about killing him. Instead, he holds a sharp poker to Barney’s throat until Barney wakes up – then, confronts Barney with a two fold revelation: first, that Claire is probably out on the prowl for her next love interest and second, that all of Barney’s brute strength is for not against Warren’s own cunning that has led to this moment where he could so easily stab Barney to death if he so chooses.

Leaving Barney to contemplate his own insignificance, Warren returns to Mary to pursue a romantic relationship. But Claire has other ideas – especially since she has just murdered Barney herself and plans to pin the crime on Warren to escape prosecution. But neither Warren nor Claire plan on the estate powers of deduction of Police Ltn. Collier Bonnabel (Barry Sullivan). Pitting Claire and Warren against one another and revealing to Mary Warren’s true identity, Collier pulls no punches in coaxing an inevitable confession from the guilty party.

Tension is nail-biting good fun; its cast all working at top speed to ensure finely wrought performances throughout. Basehart is a natural at this sort of characterization; as proven by his other outstanding turns in such noir classics as 14 Hours and The House on Telegraph Hill. In Tension, he successfully balances his performance between the Egbert chemist and suave traveling salesman – the henpecked hubby eventually giving way to a manlier mate for the voluptuous Mary. Totter is perfection too; the very embodiment of sinful repulsiveness. Barry Sullivan makes a winning detective. It’s a wonder he never did more sleuthing in other movies or on television. In the final analysis, Tension generates plenty of it with a fitting conclusion to boot.

Warner Home Video has housed both films on a single sided disc. Nevertheless, image quality does not seem to have been compromised. Both films exhibit similar tonality, sharpness and clarity with Tension marginally crisper than Where Danger Lives. The gray scale on both films is well balanced. Fine details are generally evident. Age related artifacts appear more prominently on Where Danger Lives than Tension. Both films exhibit several lapses in overall sharpness with more than an acceptable amount of film grain evident in several scenes. Minor edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details is also evident throughout both features.

The audio is mono as original recorded and quite adequate for both presentations. In addition to providing two separate and comprehensive audio commentaries (one for each film) Warner Home Video also provides us with two featurettes on the films in which various noir and film historians briefly wax about the finer points of the genre in general and each film in particular. Theatrical trailers are also included. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Where Danger Lives 3
Tension 4



Wednesday, October 21, 2009

ESTHER WILLIAMS VOL 2 (MGM 1945-53) Warner Home Video

A little over two years ago Warner Home Video, in conjunction with Turner Classic Movies, released Volume One of Esther Williams; a mixed blessing, since none of the 5 films included in the set had been restored and two in particular (Easy To Wed, and, Bathing Beauty) were in pretty rough shape. Hence, the celebratory tribute was somewhat blunted by a less than stellar visual presentation. Even more curious for fans was the fact that many of Esther's better screen efforts had been omitted - most noticeably Easy to Love and Million Dollar Mermaid. Perhaps the most promising feature of Volume One was that it was clearly marked as 'volume one' - with the commitment to more volumes to follow in the future.

Now, Warner Home Video and TCM have lived up to that promise with their Spotlight edition of Esther Williams Vol. Two - an all together more satisfying launch of America's mermaid. The films in this set span Esther's career from 1945 to 1953 - the flourishing years of the MGM musical and Esther's career as one of the studio's most popular and bankable stars.

Richard Thorpe's Thrill of a Romance (1945) kicks off Volume 2's selections; an all together enjoyable and light hearted romp. Williams is Cynthia Glenn, a swimming instructor living blissfully with her slightly obtuse and loveable Uncle Hobart (Henry Travers) and Aunt Nona (Spring Byington). After spying Cynthia poolside, an improbable romance ensues with uppity business tycoon, Robert Delbar (Carleton G.Young). Cynthia quits her job and the couple retreat to a fabulous country resort for their honeymoon - one of MGM's implausibly lavish concoctions that makes even the Beverly Hills Hotel look second rate by comparison.

Unfortunately for Cynthia, Bob gets called away to D.C. almost immediately, leaving Cynthia with nothing to do but mingle with the other hotel guests; these include world-renown opera star Nils Knudsen (Lauritz Melchior) and returning war hero, Major Thomas Milvaine (Van Johnson). A comedy of errors has mantrap Maude Bancroft (Frances Gifford) erroneously assuming that prize fighter, K.O. Karny (Donald Curtis) is Milvaine, leaving Cynthia wide open to pursue a platonic relationship with the real Major. They share long walks through the country and pleasant enough turns in the pool as Cynthia teaches Milvaine to tread water.

There's really not much more to the story, as Bob remains respectfully out of view long enough for Cynthia to realize what a mistake their whirlwind marriage is. What makes Thrill of Romance so enticing is therefore not so much plot as it is presentation , with MGM pulling out all the stops via glamour and gaiety to really package up a neat entertainment. At 105 minutes we get Helena Stanley (as Susan Dorsey) playing The Man with The Horn - a sort of fractured classical meets swing tribute to Tommy Dorsey, as well as Buddy Rich performing a mean drum solo. And Melchior is in fine voice, belting out a series of favourites including Viva La Company. All in all then, Thrill of a Romance scores as effortless entertainment, charmingly put forth by MGM's dream factory at the height of its producing powers.

Far more curious is the next film in Volume 2, Richard Thorpe's Fiesta (1947); arguably not an Esther Williams vehicle at all, but rather a launching pad for the careers of Ricardo Montalban and Cyd Charisse. Cast as twins, Williams and Montalban are Maria and Mario Morales - heirs to their father Antonio's (Fortunio Bonanova) estate. Mario's love is music, but Antonio believes that his son's future is in the arena as a great bullfighter. A father/son rift develops after Antonio deliberately sabotages Mario's chances of meeting famed Mexican conductor, Maximino Contreras (Hugo Haas) to further his music career, forcing Mario to flee amongst the people. Bitter and forsaken, Mario accidentally hears one of his own compositions 'Mexican Fantasia' played on the radio while in a street cafe. Rushing into Contreras' office, Mario learns that it is Maria who has arranged for his composition to be played. In the implausible finale that ensues, Maria bribes one of her father's servants, Chato (Akim Tamaroff) into taking Mario's place in the arena and is nearly skewered by the bull for her efforts.

Assuming that it is Mario in the ring, Antonio realizes that his son's true passion is music - not bullfighting - and gives his blessing. Somewhere in between this implausible plot line, a budding romance develops between Mario and Conchita (Cyd Charisse); tapped out to electrifying perfection in 'The Flaming Flamenco'. There's also a rather tepid relationship in store for Maria and milquetoast Pepe Ortega (John Carroll). None of these subplots seems to gel however, but the musical numbers, including 'La Bamba' keep the pace lively enough.

Next up is typical Esther fare with Richard Thorpe's This Time For Keeps (1947); a frothy, tune filled escape that MGM so readily excelled at in its heyday. The son of famed opera star (Lauritz Melchior), Richard Herald Jr. (Johnny Johnston) is a returning GI who is expected to join his father's opera company and marry Frances Allenbury (Mary Stuart); a high society gal. Tragically, young Herald has other plans - set to jazz and the thrill of another romance with lusciously leggy, Aquacade star Nora Cambaretti (Esther Williams).

Richard attempts to get a job with the Aquacade as a means to procure their romance. However, Nora's accompanist Ferdi Farrow (the ever-loveable Jimmy Durante) keeps the young Locinvar at bay by arranging work for Richard with Xavier Cugat's orchestra instead. Pursuing Nora to Mackinaw Island, Richard ingratiates himself with Nora's grandmother (Dame May Whitty), a retired circus performer. Unfortunately for Richard, the jilted Ms. Allenbury arrives to threaten his budding aspirations on both fronts.

The film clings together, precariously so, with some truly lush photography and winning musical performances by all concerned. Threadbare on plot, This Time For Keeps maintains a momentum that producer Joe Pasternak was generally famous for - mixing the light, the heavy, the implausible and the down right fantastic into an intoxicating blend of good cheer.

Robert Alton's Pagan Love Song (1950) is perhaps the only dud in Volume 2's canon. At 76 minutes, it's one of the shortest films in Esther's canon and one of the most unrelentingly dull.

Rich baritone, Howard Keel is cast as Ohio school teacher cum coconut plantation owner, Hap Endicot. After initial disappointment at discovering that the plantation is virtually in ruins, Hap becomes inspired and rallies the locals into helping him rebuild. The only excitement on the island materializes in the sultry form of half Tahitian/American Mimi Bennett (Williams), who is slated to depart for New York unless Hap can get his romantic game on.Inconsequential to a fault, Pagan Love Song's nimble plot is fleshed out by a few moderately enjoyable musical numbers: none that are enough to distinguish this musical as anything but largely forgettable. Alton's camera work is commendable and the Hawaiian locales (subbing for Tahiti) are sumptuous to be sure - but it somehow doesn't seem quite enough to hold the audience's interest.

Next up in Esther's best film, Mervyn LeRoy's Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) - a largely fabricated out of thin air bio pic reporting to be the life and times of aquatic sensation Annette Kellerman. Australian born to doting father, Frederick (Walter Pigeon), as a sickly child the young Annette (played by Donna Corcoran) strengthens her polio-crippled legs by learning to swim in the pond not far from the Kellerman's Conservatory of Music. Fast tracking through a series of competitions, Kellerman (now sufficiently aged to be played by Williams) becomes a champion swimmer, only to learn that Frederick's finances have been bankrupted.

Selling the conservatory on the promise of employment in London, Frederick and Annette board a luxury liner where they meet James Sullivan (Victor Mature) and Doc Cronnal (Jesse White); a pair of shameless charlatan promoters whose latest act is Sidney - the boxing kangaroo. Sullivan is convinced that Annette has a future as an aquatic star and offers to help promote her when they arrive in London - an idea immediately shot down by Frederick who believes that swimming should remain Annette's hobby rather than her career.

Unhappy circumstance for the Kellermans, who arrive in London to learn that Frederick's new place of employment has closed, leaving Annette and Frederick penniless. Desperate for cash, Annette catches onto Sullivan's plan to swim the English Channel, thereby attracting instant media attention. Sullivan convinces the Kellermans that America is where they belong, with Annette headlining New York's gargantuan Hippodrome. Although the theatre's manager, Alfred Harper (David Brian) agrees that Annette would be a sensation, he cannot promote a virtual unknown along with the other big acts and quietly turns Sullivan down.

However, after Annette makes headlines for appearing in a scandalous two piece bathing suit off the Coney Island pier, she once again garners media coverage. Sullivan crafts his own modest showcase for her to appear in and eventually the management of the Hippodrome decide to give Annette her big break. She appears in several spectacular ballets and Harper, who has by now developed a romantic yen for her, proposes marriage. He even sweetens the deal by hiring Frederick to conduct the Hippodrome orchestra. Tragedy strikes, however, as Alfred dies of a heart attack.

Annette attempts to convince James that he should settle down, but the wayward Sullivan has his own plans to be the first man to fly across the United States in his homemade plane. A tiff leads to a break up and Alfred moves in with designs on making Annette his own. Romantically torn between James and Alfred, Annette leaves the Hippodrome for a movie deal in California. But the glass in Annette's swimming tank breaks, flooding the set and damaging her spinal cord with the very real threat of lifelong paralysis.

Million Dollar Mermaid presents Esther Williams with the first genuine acting assignment of her career - a challenge she admirably rises to with dramatic perfection. Busby Berkeley's inventive Smoke and Fountain sequences, presumably taking place in the Hippodrome's tank, are the musical highlight in an otherwise largely musical free drama that miraculously retains both our admiration and respect.

Charles Walters' Easy To Love (1953) rounds out Volume 2's offerings on a spectacular - if ultra-fluffy - note with Esther cast as Julie Hallerton; a Cypress Garden aquacade star under the guiding hand of Ray 'Cash Register' Lloyd (Van Johnson). Ray knows how to market his bevy of beauties to the public. He also knows how to play fast and loose with Julie's romantic affections.

Presumably to make Ray jealous, Julie begins dating Hank (John Bromfield); a buff Texan who co-stars with her in several water spectaculars. Julie tells Ray that Hank is about to propose to her; a move that leads Ray to pack Julie off to New York - but not because he's jealous. Only because he believes that marriage to anyone - least of all him - will ruin her career. The plan of escape backfires when Julie catches the eye of nightclub crooner Barry Gordon (Tony Martin) who promises marriage, money and a life for Julie away from Cyprus Gardens. So, what is Ray to do?

For starters, he recalls Julie to Florida, believing that the separation will make her forget about Barry. Unfortunately for Ray, Barry isn't one to so easily give up. He pursues Julie to Cyprus where a curiously unromantic menage a trois ensues with Ray, Hank and Barry all attempting to procure grand overtures to win Julie's affections.

The film's strengths are obvious; the lush Florida locations captured in brilliantly saturated hues of Technicolor, plus the beautifully staged climactic water ski finale, shot from every conceivable, and occasionally, seeming logistically impossible angle. Also soothing is Cole Porter's title track and the less than memorable Didja Ever - sung by Martin as part of Barry's nightclub act. The chief misfire is arguably casting. Van Johnson's Ray is so unappealing in his scheming and lack of genuine affection for our Julie that it's difficult to understand why she would prefer him to either Hank or Barry - except that both are about as animated as wet paint of a horizontal surface.

All the films in Vol. Two are presented in 4:3 aspect ratio and Technicolor. Of the lot, Fiesta's image is the most problematic with bumped contrast levels and a rather unhealthy reddish hue cast over almost the entire camera negative. The most perfectly realized transfer in the bunch is Easy To Love with eye-popping colors and a startling amount of fine detail evident throughout. A close second is Thrill of A Romance - though there are several glaring instances of Technicolor mis-registration that create annoying halos and blur the overall sharpness of the image. This Time for Keeps delivers a pleasing enough transfer, though it's color seems slightly less saturated than it ought to be. Pagan Love Song's image is not quite as sharp as the others and exhibits some rather obvious fading of the original film elements. Million Dollar Mermaid's transfer is solidly average with several sequences looking fairly impressive by comparison - most noticeably, the fountain and smoke water ballets.

The audio on all films is mono as originally intended, but Easy to Love's audio appears slightly more strident in spots than the rest; particularly during the orchestrations for the climactic water ski finale. Extras are superfluous at best, with several musical outtakes being the highlights. There are also short subjects and theatrical trailers to indulge in. Bottom line: recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Thrill of a Romance 3.5
Fiesta 3
This Time For Keeps 3.5
Pagan Love Song 2.5
Million Dollar Mermaid 4
Easy to Love 4.5

Thrill of a Romance 3.5
Fiesta 2.5
This Time For Keeps 3
Pagan Love Song 3
Million Dollar Mermaid 3.5
Easy To Love 4.5


Wednesday, October 7, 2009

ALLY MCBEAL: THE COMPLETE SERIES (David E. Kelly Productions 1997-2002) Fox Home Video

At the time of its cancellation in 2002, David E. Kelley's Ally McBeal (1997-2002) was one of the most widely revered and heavily criticized television drama/comedies. Influenced by the musical styling of Vonda Shepard (then, a virtual unknown on the music scene), the series was an eclectic and humorous blend of socially retarded misfits thrust together into the mélange of a Boston legal firm presided over by Richard Fish (Greg Germann); whose life pursuit seemed to teeter between accumulating vast amounts of money at any cost, and, a bizarre obsession with women's wattles.

Feminists decried the series for its flighty heroine, Ally McBeal (Calista Flockhart) as a throwback to the indecisive female of sit/coms in days of old, claiming that Ally was an insult to women in general and working women in particular. This snap analysis however, did not stop audiences from taking to the series with an almost religious following - tuning in each week to see the waifish attorney balance her own emotional psyche against an ever more curious roster of cases. Whether confronting threesome marriages or suing God, Ally tackled her workload with an apprehensive gusto for the law, love and life itself - thereby giving the series its emotional center.

The initial premise for the series stemmed from Ally's struggle to rid herself of the memory of a painful break up with her college lover, Billy Allen Thomas (Gil Bellows) who unfortunately worked at Cage, Fish and Associates and thereby was in constant proximity to Ally - creating sexually charged friction. Ditto for Billy's wife, Georgia (Courtney Thorne-Smith); who came to work for the firm after losing her own place in litigation at a rival law office.

Ally's roommate, assistant DA, Renee Raddick (Lisa Nicole Carson) was constantly pricking Ally's insecurities in an attempt to illustrate just how insignificant and superficial they were to her, occasionally incurring Ally's wrath and distemper along the way. As a counterbalance, law associate John Cage (Peter McNichol) presented his own roster of emotional insecurities that, at times, seemed to overshadow Ally's and make her appear quite normal by direct comparison.

Also in the cast were ex-Broadway star, Jane Krakowski as the firm's obsessively curious and meddling secretary Elaine Vassal and Dianne Cannon as Richard's much older love interest and voice of reason, 'Whipper'.

Season One of Ally McBeal ultimately pivoted more on Ally's social life than on her caseload - a focus somewhat blunted in Season Two with the addition of Lucy Liu as Ling Woo - a client who eventually became a partner in the firm and develops a genuine distaste for the inner office dynamic of this inbred gathering. Also new to the firm in Season Two was Portia di Rossi as Nell Porter - the sometime object of John Cage's affections.

Reflecting on the series today, one can see its perceptive blend of sex-charged comedy and dramatic scenarios paving the way for HBO's Sex and the City; its light touch and memorable score (made up mostly of updated standards sung by Vonda Shepard in a bar located at the base of Richard's law firm) providing the perfect blend from which David E. Kelley had a veritable field day indulging in various back stories about the absurdities of the law.

Ally's quirky projections, both onto her own state of mind and perceptions of what others were thinking proved charming staples to the series. For example, when Billy confesses to Ally that he has married Georgia since their breakup a sudden flourish of imaginary projectile arrows pierce Ally in the heart. Likewise, when Elaine begins to natter on about her own proficiency, Ally perceives Elaine's head to be inflating like a balloon with her own self importance until Ally pops it.

But perhaps the most memorable of these surreal and imaginary gags was 'the dancing baby' - a computer generated, disco churning and diaper clad, cherub stepping to the tune of 'Hooked on A Feeling'. Symbolic of Ally's own biological ticking clock and sexual frustrations, the dancing baby made frequent appearances, thereby flustering Ally into several flawed love affairs along the way.

When David E. Kelley - who also produced and wrote all of the episodes to Seasons 1, 2 and 3, creatively moved on into developing The Practice for prime time, it was inevitable that a crossover of plots and characters would ensue. But in Season Four the series chose to kill off Gil Bellows character, thereby leaving the show without its sexually charged center. Shortly thereafter Robert Downey Jr. joined the cast as Ally's new love interest Larry Paul.

Regrettably, Downey's private demons prevented his continuation on the series and unfortunately, various attempts thereafter to resurrect the show's unique balance of character driven chemistry did not gel with audiences. As such, the ratings reflected the public's sudden and immediate loss of interest and Ally was canceled.

Due to music licensing issues, Ally McBeal has been absent from DVD since going off the air, save a rather claptrap assembly of six episodes plucked from Season One and repackaged as a compendium by Fox Home Video. But now, Fox gives us the real deal and a fitting tribute with Ally McBeal: The Complete Series - a handsomely bound 32 disc offering that includes all five seasons of this multi-Emmy Award-winning television drama/comedy.

Image quality is generally consistent with a very nicely remastered picture that is mostly sharp with rich, vibrant colors. Season One is presented full frame as originally aired with subsequent seasons all presented in anamorphic widescreen. Occasionally, the image can appear slightly soft or include some edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. Flesh tones are slightly orange, but given the stylized lighting throughout the series, this is probably as intended. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital and remarkably aggressive during Vonda Shepard's vocal arrangements.

Extras include 'Bygone Days'; a retrospective documentary where most of the principal cast reunite to talk about their involvement on the show. There's also the Fox produced TV Special: The Life and Times of Ally McBeal narrated by Bill Maher and Season featurettes on seasons 2, 3 and 5 - plus a tribute entitled 'Goodbye, Ally'. Fox has also graciously included the crossover 'Axe Murderer' episode from season 2 of The Practice in which Ally's character appeared and Vonda Shepard's music video 'I Know Better'. Bottom line: for fans of the show this is Ally McBeal as one would want to remember her - with each episode intact and with enough extras to remind us all how good prime time TV used to be. Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Season One: 4.5
Season Two: 5
Season Three: 4.5
Season Four: 4
Season Five: 3.5


Sunday, September 6, 2009

THE GOLDEN GIRLS: Season One (Touchstone 1985) Buena Vista Home Entertainment

1985 will forever be marked in television history as a ‘golden’ year. For that is the year NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff and television series creator Susan Harris launched The Golden Girls: a poignant and hilarious situation comedy about the comings and goings of four elderly women living their daily lives together under one roof in Miami, Florida.

Tartikoff originally conceived the series after visiting his elderly aunt and her next-door neighbor who, despite their constant bickering and arguments were life long friends. But it was Harris’ snazzy take on keeping the ladies an eclectic and cosmopolitan blend of diverse personalities that gave and kept the series engaging, fresh and sincere.

Scripted exclusively by Kathy Speer and Terry Grossman (seasons 1-4) this successful writing team eventually gave their more general ideas to other staff writers beginning in Season 5 before bowing out entirely in 1989. From 1990 to 1993 Lavern and Shirley writer Marc Sotkin served as the guiding force for the show with assists by Richard Vaczy, Tracy Gamble, Marc Cherry and Jamie Wooten.

During The Golden Girl’s eight year run on NBC it often tackled such offbeat and taboo topics as gay marriage, impotence, suicide, gambling addiction, cross-dressing, lesbianism, Alzheimer’s Disease, child abandonment, euthanasia and botched plastic surgery, always with tongue firmly in cheek, often with blunt sexual innuendo in play, though never clumsily insincere.

It might have all been for not if casting had not been quite so inspired. Still, choices made then, that now seem so obvious, were anything but at the time of pre-production. For example, originally Rue McClananhan was cast as Rose and Betty White as Blanche; the former having played nutty but nice opposite Bea Arthur’s Maude while the latter had been the man-hungry man trap on Mary Tyler Moore. Also, McClanahan is the youngest of the series’ alumni – almost twelve years everyone else’s junior, while Estelle Getty – cast as Bea Arthur’s mother - was actually 14 months younger than Arthur herself.

In reuniting these television alumni The Golden Girls proved indestructible entertainment and a runaway smash hit for Touchstone Television (a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co.). The show became the flagship program for NBC's Saturday Night Must See TV line up and during its original run all four stars were honored with at least one Emmy Award; the show itself receiving 65 Emmy nominations and 11 wins, four Golden Globes and two Viewers for Quality Television awards.

The premise for the show is by now, through syndication and rerun, practically a given but worth reiterating herein. Widow Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan) has decided to rent rooms in her Miami home to help pay expenses. Widow Rose Nylund (Betty White) and divorcee Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur) responded to the ad and are shortly thereafter joined by Dorothy's mother, Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty) after Shady Pines, Sophia’s retirement home, burns down.

From the get go, Season One of The Golden Girls opens with superb – if mildly risqué - repartee between its leading ladies, creating iconic and inspired comedy along the way. In all, 25 episodes comprise the first season of this landmark series with ‘Blanche and the Younger Man’, ‘ A Little Romance’ and ‘The Flu’ arguably being the most memorable.

In the first of these, Blanche attempts to turn back the hands of time to keep up with Dirk, her much younger instructor from a jazzercise class. The exercise is all for not as Dirk later confides to Blanche that she reminds him of his mother, but earlier, when Blanche tells the girls that Dirk is nearly “five years younger” than she, Dorothy bluntly replies, “In what, Blanche…dog years?”

In the second of these celebrated episodes, Betty White dates Doctor Jonathan Newman; a ‘little person’ who becomes the subject of much consternation amongst the girls – particularly Blanche, who cannot stop from sticking her foot in her mouth at practically every possible turn in their conversation.

In the latter episode, Rose inadvertently gives Dorothy and Blanche a very nasty cold the week prior to their required attendance at a gala benefit. In their weakened condition and misery the girls turn on one another and thereafter are determined to attend the gala – sick or not!

Buena Vista Home Video’s presentation of Season One of The Golden Girls is hardly worth mentioning except to state that it is one of the worst of all possible tributes for such a memorable television series.

Not only are the episodes presented out of chronology (the wallpaper in the kitchen goes back and forth between a circular and leafy pattern), but there seems to have been little care in the remastering of any of these episodes. Digital noise, color bleeding and a soft hazy patina plague most of these episodes. Flesh tones are orange and unnatural. Contrast often appears overly bright. Aliasing and edge enhancement are prevalent throughout and very often distract.

On Disc One the audio perceivably varies between episodes from very loud to extremely soft. There is even an instance where the audio completely cuts out for a brief but obtrusive moment during The Triangle episode. The only extra feature is an idiotic and pointless ‘fashion commentary’ by Joan and Melissa Rivers. Season One is a thoughtless contribution from The Walt Disney Co.: one that ought to be rectified if this series ever goes to Blu-Ray (which it most definitely should).

Recommended only for content but definitely NOT for transfer quality!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



GRUMPY OLD MEN - Blu-ray (WB 1993) Warner Home Video

Conceived as something of a reunion for one time ‘Odd Couple’ costars, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, Donald Petrie’s Grumpy Old Men (1993) is a delightfully acidic romantic comedy charting the exploits of two elderly and very adversarial Wabasha Minnesota bachelors destined to remain the best of friends.

The script by Mark Steven Johnson is devilishly clever and multilayered, superbly tying together a history of gross miscalculations between two men that have paved the way for the current series of subplots that begin to unravel almost from the moment the film begins.

Since the death of his wife May, retired school teacher John Gustafson (Lemmon) has lived his life in relative obscurity. John’s daughter, Melanie (Darryl Hannah) is estranged from her husband, Mike (Christopher MacDonald) and much his concern. Also on John’s plate is immediate eviction from his home after the IRS perceive that he is $30,000 behind in his taxes. Paramount in John’s life is his tempestuous relationship with neighbor, Max Goldman (Matthau). The two simply hate each other – though the ‘why’ at the crux of their mutual disdain will only later yield to cooler reason.

Both men are stirred to romantic thoughts upon the arrival of eclectic free spirit, Ariel Truax (Ann-Margaret). A sculptor/painter with laissez faire ideas about living life to its fullest, Ariel makes her initial move on John and the two become lovers. However, when John believes he has nothing to offer Ariel apart from himself he quietly breaks her heart, allowing Max to move right in.

Meanwhile, John attempts to clumsily entangle Melanie in a romance with Max’s single son, Jacob (Kevin Pollak). The two were once high school sweethearts. However, when Melanie awkwardly arrives to visit John for Christmas with Mike in tow she effectively deflates both John and Jacob’s hopes for rekindling that romance. Depressed and alone, John ventures into the cold and suffers a near fatal heart attack.

Max and Ariel rush to John’s side and Jacob – the newly appointed mayor of Wabasha - thwarts the IRS foreclosure on John’s home with Max cutting a check to make certain John will remain his neighbor for many years to come. Ariel confesses to Max that she loves John and the two are married before the final fade out.

Grumpy Old Men was a colossal success upon its release, grossing more than $70 million and virtually resurrecting the screen careers of both Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon who would continue to work in films until their respective deaths. Viewed today, the film retains its bitter edge of dark, often sexually risqué humor; particularly in the crude barbs randomly pitched by actor Burgess Meredith; cast as John’s randy father, Grandpa J.W. Gustafson. But it’s the feel good crescendo at the end of the story that remains in our hearts after the final fade out.

Warner Home Video has at long last done the film justice with an anamorphic 1080p Blu-Ray transfer that easily bests its own slip-shod full frame standard DVD. There is no comparison between these two discs to intelligently speak of. The Blu-Ray’s refined image captures the subtle starkness of John E. Jensen’s cinematography. Flesh tones appear slightly pinkish but fine detail is evident throughout as is film grain. The audio is True HD Dolby 2.0 and adequate for this presentation.

The one failing of this disc is that Warner Home Video has not seen fit to give us even a brief featurette or retrospective on either the film or the careers of its two memorable costars. A theatrical trailer is the only extra feature. Nevertheless, recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



THE SAND PEBBLES - Blu-Ray (2oth Century-Fox 1966) Fox Home Video

A disquieting, ambitious film of immense scope married to subtle poignancies, Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles (1966) is a war melodrama with few equals. Based on Richard McKenna’s best seller, the story is centralized in China circa 1920; a turbulent paradise plagued by political strife and home grown revolutions between opposing loyalists on either side.

Into this turbulent mixture come outside forces with hidden agendas; the British, the Americans and the missionaries (the former only referred to, the latter merely touched upon and the central, the focus of our story) – each superficially dedicated to bringing peace to the Far East; though at what price?

The screenplay by Robert Anderson remains relatively faithful to McKenna’s book. China’s political climate circa 1960s precluded director Wise and his company from shooting on actual locations. Hence, Taiwan and Hong Kong are stand-ins for the Yangtze. Nevertheless, the set dressings by Boris Levin and sumptuous cinematography from Joseph MacDonald are quite successful at recapturing a ‘fake realism’ for both the region and the period in which the story takes place.

The film opens with the arrival of engineer Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) aboard the USS San Pablo – a patrolling American vessel overseen by the ineffectual Capt. Collins (Richard Crenna). Holman is an unassuming loner who prefers the company of steam pistons and crank shafts to his fellow crewmates, though eventually he develops a friendship with first mate, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough).

Holman’s relations on board are strained with his Chinese engine crew who all but run the internal machinery of the San Pablo. After the chief engineer is killed in an accident, both the American and Chinese crew regards Holman as a curse. Perhaps in part to lessen these tensions, Holman promotes one of the Chinese, Po-Han (Mako) to chief engineer and then spends the first half of the patrol training Po in his general maintenance duties.

A rather awkward romance blossoms between Holman and missionary Shirley Eckart (Candice Bergan) who is stationed at a mission near China Light. At the same time, Frenchy has begun to favor his affections on Maily (Emmanuella Arsan), a captive in the brothel of corrupt Oriental pimp, Victor Shu (James Hong). After bidding for her freedom, Frenchy and Maily escape Shu’s wrath and are secretly married. Their joy together, however, is short lived.

Threatened with retaliation from the marauding forces of Chiang-Kai-Shek, the crew is confined to the San Pablo for the duration of their journey. Po-Han is captured and quartered by revolutionaries, forcing Holman to shoot him before the torture is completed. This mercenary act brands Holman a murderer in the eyes of the Chinese and very nearly results in a mutiny aboard the San Pablo.

There is much more to this lengthy narrative, best left absent from this review for the first time viewer to discover. In hindsight, the most impressive aspect of the film is its pictorial backdrop – starkly contrasted and conflicting cultures caught in maelstrom of danger and intrigue. The most outstanding performance in the film belongs to McQueen – a sustained tour de force that, perhaps, more than mirrors the actor’s own aloof nature.

On set, McQueen briefly clashed with Wise – resulting in a two week stalemate between director and star that ended only after McQueen saw the rushes from the footage already shot and deemed Wise a genius. Inclement weather and repeated delays caused the originally budgeted and scheduled nine week location shoot to balloon into nine months, a staggering oversight that sunk Fox Studios more deeply into the red following the disastrous release of Cleopatra (1963).

In the last analysis, The Sand Pebbles emerges as one of the major grand exercises in old time epic film making. No expense has been spared. Built expressly for the film by Vaughn and Jung in Hong Kong from the keel up at a cost of $200,000 (then a considerable sum), the San Pablo is a fully functional sea faring vessel.

Some two thousand costumes were either created or assembled for this production, representing an eclectic melding of American, Cantonese and Mandarin styles. Existing streets and structures were refitted with convincing facades to resurrect the look and feel of 1920s China. In all then, The Sand Pebbles is elephantine and impressive – a must see spectacle with an engaging story to propel its 3 hr. plus running time.

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray easily bests its previously issued and lavishly appointed 2 disc DVD released as part of their Cinema Classics Collection. Curiously, the 196 min. road show edition (included on the DVD) is absent from the Blu-Ray, though all of the deleted scenes are offered as extras on the Blu-Ray.

On the Blu-Ray: the 183 min. version exhibits extremely vibrant colors, stunning clarity and a considerable amount of fine detail throughout. Superior color fidelity, solid contrast levels, accurately rendered flesh tones and a minor smattering of film grain mark a near flawless presentation. The audio is 5.1 lossless and exhibits remarkable clarity, though it retains a strident tinny echo during battle sequences.

Extras are direct imports from the Cinema Classics DVD and include two comprehensive audio commentaries and an isolated track showcasing Jerry Goldsmith’s superlative score. Also included is the rather choppy 6 part documentary on the making of the film, two incongruously edited tributes to Robert Wise and Steve McQueen and a litany of vintage extras from the Fox Vaults – trailers, stills, press kits and radio spots.

What is missing from the Blu-Ray are all of the collectible extras featured with the DVD; these include lobby cards, a brief historical summary and the reproduction of the film’s original press kit. Nevertheless, the Blu-Ray comes highly recommended for its superior video presentation of the film itself.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



Wednesday, September 2, 2009

GLADIATOR: Blu-Ray (Universal/Dreamworks SKG 2000) Paramount Home Video

Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) effectively resurrects the Roman epic from oblivion and to thunderous effect. The film stars resident Aussie heartthrob, Russell Crowe as Maximus, a loyal General to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (the late and very great Richard Harris).

After a victorious campaign in Germania, Marcus decides that Maximus will succeed him on the throne; a move that does not bode well with the Emperor’s only son and legitimate heir, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix).

Determined to secure his birthright, Commodus murders his father before he has a chance to tell Maximus of his placement, and shortly thereafter frames Maximus for that murder. Although Commodus’ sister – and sometimes incestuous playmate, Lucilla (Connie Nielson) is both enamored by, and loyal to, her father and, by extension, Maximus, there is precious little she can do but acquiesce to Commodus’ sycophantic desire to be loved, in order to keep his psychotic wrath at bay.

Director Scott fills his screen with gorgeous, mesmerizing – and for the most part – stylized and desaturated glories of the coliseum and senate, its byways and winding streets of ancient Rome, and the reinvented rustic countryside peppered with barbarism and deceit.

This is the sort of grandiose potluck entertainment Hollywood and audiences have not seen for some time, and it provides stellar bits of business for quality British talents Derek Jacobi, David Schofield and the late Oliver Reed, as gladiator turned slave trade merchant Proximo.

Reed’s long overdue absence from the big screen seemed to be at an end when the actor suddenly died of a heart attack while filming, forcing director Ridley Scott into a minor quandary. Either recast the part or restructure the screenplay to account for Reed’s absence. Scott chose the latter, but only slightly, relying on the wizardry of computer generated images and use of stock footage and outtakes from scenes already shot, with a voice double to finish Reed’s performance. The results are unperceivable and satisfying.

Though, at least in this reviewer’s mind, nothing will ever quite rival the emotional swell of William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), Gladiator is a close second on all accounts; a vivid, powerful and ultimately satisfying escapism that should continue to thrill audiences as long as there are fans of the sword and sandal epic.

Paramount’s new Sapphire Edition Blu-Ray DVD easily bests any of the previous incarnations made available to the home video consumer. The image is peerless and virtually without flaws. An incredible amount of fine detail is evident even during the darkest scenes, with superiorly balanced contrast levels that recreate even the most subtle and soft texture. The digital effects are seamlessly blended together with the full scale action.

The audio is 5.1 Tru HD Dolby with superb fidelity – seeming even more robust and nuanced than the DTS track from the previously issued disc. A chariot full of extras – most directly imported from the previously issued and lavishly appointed box set - include extensive documentaries on nearly every facet of the film’s production, with special attention paid to casting, production design and staging of set pieces like the action sequences in the coliseum.

My admiration for Paramount’s efforts on Blu-Ray in general continues to grow. The studio has raised the bar considerably on what it means to call any disc a ‘special edition’. This one is very special indeed! Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



BRAVEHEART - Blu-Ray (Paramount 1995) Paramount Home Video

Braveheart (1995) is the historical/mythological cinematic hybrid of the life and times of William Wallace (Mel Gibson); a Scottish commoner turned vigilant crusader for his people’s freedom. The movie opens large with the brutal slaughter of Scottish noblemen at the hands of tyrannical English monarch, King Edward Longshanks I (Patrick McGoohan).

The battle that ensues to avenge these deaths leaves young Will’ without a father in the small town of Elderslie. Raised by his uncle, Argyle (Brian Cox), Will returns to find love amongst the craggy mores with winsome Murron MacClannough (Catherine McCormack). Their pastoral bliss, however, is short-lived.

Meanwhile, Longshanks is determined to divide and conquer the Scots and leave their country as a trophy to his son and heir, Edward (Peter Hanly). To ensure the continuation of his monarchy, Longshanks arranges the reluctant Edward’s marriage to Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau) even though Edward prefers the company of his royal consort, Philip (Steven Billington) instead. Their badinage is playful and frequent. Though the queen knows of her husband’s homosexual philandering she is silent until Philip is murdered by Longshanks after the truth about his homosexuality is brought to light.

The last act of this sprawling epic is a struggle of wills. William is betrayed, drawn and quartered, his head placed on London Bridge as a warning against future rebellion. But in murdering a patriot, England resurrects a martyr whose legend far outweighs the importance of the man.

Braveheart is both epic and satisfying. Despite its historic discrepancies and the rather obtrusive inclusion of director Randall Wallace’s scripted humor that occasionally translates as more James Bond pithy comeback – the narrative holds together due in large part to its’director/star’s overriding vision embodied in the total sum of Will’s earthly heroism.

Reportedly, director Wallace knew nothing of William Wallace until he took a vacation to Scotland – after which he became engrossed with legends told by historians and common folk alike. The curiosity for the film – as well as the historical record - is that the real William Wallace remains largely a myth. Following his bloody end at Longshank’s hand, all textual evidence to Wallace’s existence was expunged from the historical record, leaving word of mouth as the only surviving narrative.

Much has been made of the ‘inconsistent’ handling of Wallace’s charge across the open field to fight the English. He begins in full stride with pickaxe firmly in hand, then seen reaching for the sword behind his back, then pictured in full marathon sprint with hands pumping in slow-mo by his side and finally with sword fully raised overhead. Are these continuity errors, or director Wallace’s way of depicting how the gallantry of this myth or a man is viewed by the English as an unstoppable weapon of destruction?

Paramount’s Sapphire Edition Blu-Ray easily bests all previously issued DVD incarnations. While overall fidelity on the previously released DVD was solid, the Blu-Ray’s superior bit rate reveals clarity and texture to the overall image that was previously unseen. In short, the Blu-Ray is a revelation. Colors are bold. Contrast levels are superior, particularly during dark scenes. This is a reference quality image. The audio is Tru-HD lossless Dolby, rich and full bodies with an aggressive bass.

Extras include the previously recorded audio commentary by Mel Gibson, as well as several interactive features that provide an in-depth timeline of the Scottish rebellion. There are also featurettes on medieval battle and the process of writing this film. But perhaps the most satisfying extra included this time around is the hour long ‘look back’ with insightful reflections from much of the principle cast and crew. There are also two theatrical trailers in HD to view.
Once again, this reviewer’s admiration for Paramount’s efforts on Blu-Ray in general continues to grow. The studio has raised the bar considerably on what it means to call any disc a ‘special edition’. This one is very special indeed! Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



Sunday, July 12, 2009

RIO BRAVO - Blu-Ray (Warner Bros. 1959) Warner Home Video

Based on a short story by B.H. McCampbell, director Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) represented something of a major comeback. By the time of its release it had been almost five years since Hawks last movie.

The laconic Hawks, who had exhibited three decades of versatility behind the camera on films like Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Big Sleep (1946) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) had seen his reputation plummet with Land of the Pharaohs (1955); a DeMillian epic that ironically failed to catch on with the public and was all but lambasted by the critics. Also in this interim, the studio system that had coddled directors like Hawks had severely eroded, leaving Hawks at sea in terms of reestablishing himself with both his peers and the public.

Employing long time collaborators Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman to pen the screenplay, Hawks turned to long time friend and star, John Wayne for backing on the project. Like Hawks, Wayne’s career had faltered with a series of minor misfires throughout the early to mid-1950s. In fact, Wayne had not had a hit or appeared in a western since John Ford’s iconic The Searchers (1956).

In casting Rio Bravo, Wayne’s name on a marquee still carried major clout. And although Walter Brennan’s name was quick to accompany Wayne’s on a short list of actors the director knew and trusted, to round out his cast Hawks made two uncharacteristic choices that proved fortuitous and ever-lasting to the film’s box office appeal and success.

The first of these was Dean Martin; then seen as half of the ultra-popular comedy act Martin and Lewis. A rift with Jerry Lewis made Martin a free agent and more than eager to make his bones on a Howard Hawks picture. However, Hawks feared that Martin’s light persona was at odds with the harsh portrait of drunkenness he had in mind for the character of Dude. Nevertheless, Hawks granted Martin an audience and later, an audition for the part and was sufficiently impressed by both to hire Martin for the film.

The latter uncharacteristic casting choice Howard Hawks made for Rio Bravo involved pop icon and teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson to play the gunslinger, Colorado. At the time Ricky Nelson was the biggest name in the cast – having grown to prominence on TV’s The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. However, Hawks was rather unimpressed by Nelson’s first few days of shooting, eventually coaching him to observe the mannerisms of actor Montgomery Clift in another Hawks’ western – Red River – to develop his own cadence and mood for the part.

The plot to Rio Bravo begins in earnest with the imprisonment of Joe Burnette (Claude Akins) for the murder of an innocent man during a bar room altercation that involved Deputy Sheriff Dude (Dean Martin) and the town Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne). Burnette’s posse doesn’t take lightly to his incarceration and neither does Burnette’s brother, wealthy rancher Nathan (John Russell).

After the Sheriff’s long time friend Pat Wheeler offers to help guard the jail – and is murdered by Burnette’s men as a direct result – Wheeler’s hired gun, Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) decides to unite with the Sheriff, Dude and town jailer, Stumpy (Walter Brennan) to hold down the fort until the U.S. Marshall’s arrival.

There are two back stories running simultaneously with this central narrative; the first involving the Sheriff’s growing affections for Feathers (Angie Dickinson) – part of a card game con who is on the lam and out to romantically snare the Sheriff. The other narrative thread worth mentioning is Dude’s triumphant resurrection from the clutches of alcoholism brought about by a previous love affair gone rancid.

Eventually, all of this quiet sustained tension culminates in an explosive showdown between the Sheriff, Dude and Colorado vs. Nathan Burnette and his men. However, just prior to this finale Hawks finds a perfect moment in the screenplay to illustrate his appreciation for male bonding by having Dude and Colorado lead Stumpy and the Sheriff in two quaintly familiar songs; thereby extolling the singing virtues of Martin and Nelson – a definite plus for audiences of their day.

Not all of Rio Bravo is great but so much of it is solid entertainment that it is impossible not to be captivated by the movie as a whole. There are several long stretches where the action seems to drag, particularly during the first third of the movie. The last act however, is pure gold. Hawks is working with stellar material and certainly, stellar talent.

The film is as much a reunion and return to form for all concerned as it is about making a great western to counterbalance and/or offset Hawks own contempt for the anti-establishment western classic, High Noon starring Gary Cooper. In the final analysis, Rio Bravo is sparkling entertainment and so deserving of its place in cinema history. It’s no wonder Hawks elected to remake it twice more in his later years.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray offering easily bests its Collector’s Edition standard DVD. Yet, the image still isn’t quite up to par. Despite a print made by Technicolor, the anamorphic image exhibits a rather ruddy and undefined color palette. Browns, oranges, blacks and grays all take on a non-descript muddy tone. Flesh tones are often too reddish pink or flat orange. Both in long and medium shots, fine details seem to be buried under a light patina of film grain and clumpy color.

Overall, the image will certainly not disappoint – but it doesn’t seem to be pushing the boundaries of Blu-Ray’s high resolution either. The audio is 5.1 lossless. The real beneficiary is the two songs sung by Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin, obviously remixed from the original mag tracks and reedited back into the sound mix for this update.

Extras are all direct imports from the SE DVD, including the three documentaries (one on the film, the last two on Hawks), plus an informative audio commentary from John Carpenter and Richard Schickel, and, the film’s original theatrical trailer. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)