Saturday, June 22, 2013

AT LONG LAST LOVE (2oth Century-Fox 1975) Fox Home Video

Generally I am as fascinated by filmdom’s grand catastrophes almost as much as I am intrigued by its truly great and occasionally hidden masterpieces, for the primary reason that – despite all claims to the contrary as set forth in Mel Brook’s sublime farce, The Producers (1967) – no self-respecting producer/director initially sets out to make a bad movie. The error in judgment that leads to an artistic implosion is even more deliciously intriguing when one ponders how time can do strange things to art; for example – Hitchcock’s maligned Vertigo (1958) eventually resurrected as the truly superior psychological masterwork that it so obviously is. But hindsight is even further compounded when one pauses to reflect on what might have been instead of what actually is; for example – what would Cleopatra (1963) be if Joe Mankiewicz had been allowed to release it as two ‘three hour’ epics instead of one truncated four hour turgidity.  No, Hollywood’s flops are – for the most part – a fun way to spend a rainy afternoon. Occasionally, however, the resurrection and/or rediscovery of a near-forgotten turkey cannot yield this sort of rich verity.
Case in point: the critical vitriol that greeted Peter Bogdanovich’s At Long Last Love (1975) remains regretfully justified; its glue-footed mockery of the effervescent Hollywood musical and thorough bastardization of Cole Porter’s illustrious contributions as one of the premiere song writers of the 20th century, the movie remains so archaically slapped together that even in its definitive director’s cut it never rises above its reputation as a bona fide non-entity; brimming with vacuous performances that stifle the imagination in all their bad taste and even more dim-witted execution. Bogdanovich, who had risen to prominence in Hollywood as a director capable of evoking period better than most any of his generation, with films like The Last Picture Show (1971) and What’s Up Doc? (1972), sought to emulate the gleaming deco allure of Astaire/Rogers’ musical pastiche with its white on white sets, ultra-sheen of cultured manners and even more cultured gardens, and its escapist fantasy domains where the prospect of people breaking into song remains not only believable but truthful to the genre. In fact, At Long Last Love looks every inch what a ‘30s musical might had it been photographed with the advantages of widescreen and color; the landscapes shimmering/glimmering in their too cha-cha for words precious moonlight.
Tragically, this is where any similarity between every musical from the 1930's and At Long Last Love ends; the resultant spectacle so woefully miscast, so incredibly mangled along the way by Bogdanovich’s lumbering, yet threadbare, screenplay, and so grotesquely misappropriated by its stars, (who have neither the concept nor the inclination of what it takes to properly execute a song or dance and truly ‘sell’ either to the public), that its artistic implosion is not just a misfire, but a cataclysm with very little competition for being the worst movie musical ever made; perhaps uncomfortably situated between Ross Hunter’s lackluster remake of Lost Horizon (1973) and Ken Russell’s calamitous Lisztomania (1975) . It’s really no secret that Fox executives were frankly insulted by what they saw in Bogdanovich’s rough cut; yanking the film from his control and mercilessly butchering it in the editing room in an attempt to stitch together a silken purse from this sow’s ear. The chop-shop cuts did not help the picture.
But neither has the reinstatement of ‘crucial’ sequences left on the cutting room floor back in 1975. Bogdanovich has always had mixed feelings about At Long Last Love. On the one hand he claims the studio liked the picture, but then, on the other, he's readily referred to the experience as a ‘total disaster’ attesting to his own ‘inexperience’ in the genre. Bogdanovich compounded his inability to get credible performances from the actors by forcing them to actually sing their songs live – the orchestrations dubbed in after the fact. I'll just presume for a moment that this attempt at taking the musical back even further, to its infancy in the late 20's before over-dubbing and lip-syncing were common practice, must have been Bogdanovich's feeble stab at hope (or prayer, is more like it) for a miracle of spontaneity to occur.
The miracle never happens, and this leaves us with the movie’s plot – a pathetically undernourished wafer about the idle rich; three pairs of would-be thoroughly confused lovers: respectively, bored playboy Oliver Pritchard III (Burt Reynolds) with gold digger debutante Brooke Carter (Cybill Shepherd); Broadway star, Kitty O’Kelly (Madeline Kahn) carrying on with immigrant Lochinvar, Johnny Spanish (Duilio Del Prete) and Eileen Brennan (as Elizabeth, Brooke’s maid) developing her yen for John Hillerman (as Oliver’s urbane valet, Rodney James). No one can make up their minds who to bed, so they ‘change partners’ then change back again; satisfaction guaranteed…well, sort of…before the final fade out.
If only one could say the same for the movie. Bogdanovich might have had a sleeper on his hands – ill-timed and ill-received in its own time, though arguably more than the sum of its parts or merit allotted back in the day. This isn’t the case. At Long Last Love is every bit the millstone it proved to be in 1975, dragging Bogdanovich’s reputation down the proverbial crapper and all but dismantling Cybill Shepherd’s movie career. Although Shepherd would rise like cream to the top of the heap in the mid-1980's as the sassy, saucy Madeleine Hayes on TV’s Moonlighting, Bogdanovich never rebounded in any meaningful sort of way after At Long Last Love. And it’s a shame too, because as a director/writer/producer Bogdanovich had the chops and the clout to etch a meaningful career – one for the ages - before At Long Last Love drove the proverbial stake through its heart.
What is chiefly lacking from this excursion to the blissfully obtuse world of movie musicals is suspension of disbelief and a modicum of largesse for the ample bounty of Cole Porter tunes (some of them big hits, others golden nuggets of near-forgotten, naughty wisdom).  At Long Last Love should have clicked. But the movie doesn’t evoke the past so much as it dredges up our fond memories for that golden age by sprinkling embalming fluid all over the palatial grounds of Oliver Pritchard III (Burt Reynolds); somehow meant to preserve and instill the joy of those bygone days, yet instead stagnating our appreciation for both the vintage and the score in ways that, frankly, I didn’t even think were possible.
At Long Last Love is, if nothing else, either a valentine to Bogdanovich’s then hot and heavy affair with Cybill Shepherd or a terribly cruel in-joke perpetuated on the audience about just how awful movie musicals had become in general in the 1970's.  It must have at least seemed like a good idea at the start, the utilization of 16 Cole Porter standards, many unheard for years, all replete with additional lyrics extolling Porter’s yen for double-entendre. Shockingly, the bubbles from this champagne cocktail don’t tickle our nose so much as they burst, leaving a sweaty/sticky feeling of thorough and unapologetic dread.  
In her cameo as Oliver’s mother, Mabel, vintage ham Mildred Natwick practically steals the show – or what’s left to pilfer (which isn't much) after the bones have been thoroughly picked apart by the principle cast. Burt Reynolds seems the most invested of the players; his overall commitment to this fizz-watered purgatory nearly impaling itself on his flat-footed dancing or his wan rendering of the songs. Reynolds is like a stick of kindling next to Cybill Shepherd; brittle but utterly void of any sort of romantic spark to keep us invested in their burgeoning/beleaguered relationship. It takes Reynolds and Shepherd three songs to warm up to the score. But by then the audience has thoroughly cooled to them. And Shepherd seems at times to be reading her dialogue from cue cards, mildly disenchanted to utterly bored with the scene, the score, the moment and the milquetoast of a plot she’s been asked to wade through for true love’s sake. Badly done doesn’t even begin to cover it.
Slotting the plot around the songs makes At Long Last Love a thoroughly self-indulgent movie-going experience. At times a distinct ennui emerges; that perhaps Bogdanovich and Shepherd are having their own backstage spree with friends; a party to which none of us is invited. Yet, as a legitimate contender designed to resurrect the 30's musical At Long Last Love miserably fails. The transparencies are obvious without ever entering the realm of homage: John Hillerman double-take on the old Eric Blore cameos from Astaire/Rogers never-never-land is thankless and meandering. Burt Reynolds isn’t Cary Grant, except if one crosses Grant’s suave sophistication with a Ginsu-wielding O.J. Simpson.  Cybill Shepherd would like to think of herself as the 70's incarnation of that honey-colored ice princess a la Grace Kelly – or Kelly as she appeared as Tracy Lord in High Society (1956). She’s not. The sass evaporates from Cole Porter’s songs; made curiously dull by way of their sing-song effect and all but lethally deadpan deliveries.
As a neat little parody of '30's musicals At Long Last Love has even less staying power; like a Cole Porter coloring book left in the hands of a blind autistic savant who neither can see the canvas on which to paint nor can remotely understand the basic concept for which its Crayolas were intentionally designed. Viewing At Long Last Love made me think of Cole Porter – the man - in surreal terms, the composer pictured to me as unable to roll over in his grave or plug his ears within that final resting place in Peru, yet strangely still able to be accosted by this incalculable bastardization of his witty lyrics. The orchestrations are frequently intruded upon by a talk/sing style (vaguely reminiscent of Rex Harrison’s turn in My Fair Lady, albeit with none of Harrison’s inimitable charm or finesse – apologies to the late Mr. Harrison for this comparison) and are, on the whole, interminably over-expressive, making the Porter score unrecognizable or, at the very least, extremely difficult to listen to with any shred of pleasure.
Fox Home Video has labeled this Blu-ray as the ‘director’s definitive edition’ but in any incarnation At Long Last Love is far from definitive except if one chooses to regard it as an absolute disintegration of the movie musical as art. Well, did you evah?!?!?  We have to give Fox high marks for the transfer. At Long Last Love looks beautiful in hi-def. One can truly bask in Laszlo Kovacs’ evocative cinematography, just about the only redeeming quality this movie has. Beautiful sets only get you so far, however, particularly when the beautiful people wearing Bobbie Mannix’s beautiful clothes sing and act as though they’d rather be shooting craps poolside at the Beverly Hills Hotel.  
I’ll give Fox Home Video an A+ for effort. I don’t know what mark I ought to afford them for rushing this unmitigated turkey to the head of the line when their back catalogue of golden classics remains such a colossal embarrassment of riches yet to be unearthed in hi-definition. Initially, At Long Last Love was going to be a Twilight Time limited edition release. For some reason the studio pulled the plug on these plans and went with a national release instead, though the isolated score (included on all Twilight Time titles) remains intact; so our ears can be doubly offended by having to listen to the mauling of Porter’s lyrics in new crystal clear DTS mono.  
Framed for the first time since its theatrical release in its proper 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the image is solid, but quite heavy on film grain and with de-saturated colors that favor the B&W patina of 30s musicals. This is probably accurate, not for the 1930s but for film stocks from the 1970s, so no complaints herein. Blacks are very deep, although edges seem a tad soft. Again, I suspect this looks very much as it did back in 1975. I’m going to try and end this review on a positive note, because I truly wanted to like At Long Last Love as another undiscovered gem whose time had finally come around. Having seen the movie now I can honestly say that once was too much.  Bottom line: not recommended! I mean, ‘really’ NOT recommended!!!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
0
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS

1

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

EMPIRE OF THE SUN: Blu-ray (WB 1987) Warner Home Video

Steven Spielberg took a break from directing his usual fantasy fare, erroneously regarded as fluff entertainment by the critics, to make Empire of the Sun (1987); an often grisly, sweepingly panoramic depiction of Japan’s occupation of Shanghai during WWII. Tom Stoppard’s screenplay based on J. G. Ballard’s novel, itself a semi-biographical account written some forty years after the actual event, stays fairly close to the unvarnished truths as seen through an eleven year old Jim Grahame’s eyes. In retrospect, the project seemed tailor-made for Spielberg whose penchant for re-entering the world of a child, or rediscovering the child from within, had served his cinematic story-telling prowess exceptionally well throughout the 1970s and early 80s. However, in the case of Empire of the Sun the amalgam of an unflinching wartime tale shattering the idyllic optimism of an innocent proved infrequently problematic; that and the mangled approach to its religious subtext lightly feathered in throughout the narrative.
No, in retrospect Spielberg must have been fighting a battle in his own mind, belaboring a genuine uncertainty for how it would all come together in the final edit. Empire of the Sun is hardly an artistic failure (although its anemic $22 million box office in North America was rather disappointing, particularly when compared to The Color Purple’s $98 million and E.T.’s gargantuan domestic gross of $435 million), and certainly, Empire of the Sun is made on a scale worthy of the great war epics from generations gone by. But ultimately the film succumbs to its own fragile concoction of childhood introspection from fractured and/or embellished memories that Ballard himself would agree took him twenty years to forget and another twenty to commit to paper.
Empire of the Sun introduced audiences to thirteen year old Christian Bale; even then an actor of formidable intuition and the presence of self that never gets lost amid the thought-numbing chaos. Not so much the case for Rupert Frazer or Emily Richard who are cast as Jim’s parents. In fact, in reviewing Empire of the Sun it becomes immediately apparent how much the film belongs to Bale, and even more perplexing, how little it owes to virtually any of the other considerable talents on display but curiously overshadowed in the mix. John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson, Nigel Haver, Joe Pantoliano: these are fine actors to be sure, but they are given precious little to do in Stoppard’s screenplay and worse, make the least of what little they have been given, fading into the background and largely forgotten when they are not on the screen.  
There is no denying Empire of the Sun has an epic quality evocative of a movie made by David Lean, whom Spielberg so clearly admires and who had first embraced the directorial duties, with Spielberg as the film’s producer, before bowing out of the project. One can definitely see Spielberg’s affinity for Lean on display herein, a sort of aping of Lean’s style that doesn’t quite fit with Spielberg’s own luxuriance for telling ‘kiddie’ tales; the protagonist ‘pint’ rather than ‘king’ sized a la an actor like Peter O’Toole or Omar Sharif. Christian Bale definitely holds his own. But he lacks the command of his craft, nee the restraint of an adult actor to know when too much is too much. The greatest of Spielberg’s movies have always managed to awaken the child within and then take the audience all along for that magic carpet ride. But Empire of the Sun does the reverse; brutalizing childhood innocence with its exposure to the harsh and indoctrinating realities of the adult world. Jim Grahame – a child slightly spoiled and most definitely born to privilege – is about to grow up. The transition is devastating, the wounds inflicted more crippling to the cerebral and imaginative properties of a boy forced to suddenly think like a full grown man in order to survive the occupation.
Spielberg handles these various tragedies inflicted on Jim with uncharacteristic frankness. Yet, he seems to occasionally forget that the crux of the story is a boy’s interpretation of war – what is real, what has been exaggerated through myth of memory, and, what is being filtered through the imaginative rubric of an eleven year old child’s limited prism in understanding the world in general and war in particular. Jim’s hypersensitive intelligence is counterbalanced with an even more perplexing naivety; particularly in his atheistic quandary that infrequently interrupts the story with contemplations about God. Early on Jim declares himself an atheist, his devotion distilled into vignettes of being utterly bored singing hymnals in church. Much later in the story Jim mistakes the detonation of the nuclear bomb and its pulsating aftershocks as the ethereal escape of a dying woman’s soul. Throughout the story Jim’s fascination with aviation is linked to his childish desire to fly into the heavens and confront God – if, in fact, He does exist. Yet, on the whole, Jim’s struggle to make sense of religion is a badly mangled affair; an oddity incongruously inserted at perplexing moments rather than becoming an integral, or at least interwoven, part of the story. 
Spielberg spent several months shooting Empire of the Sun in Spain, England and Shanghai, converting whole portions of this cosmopolitan city back to its prewar state with the complicity of China’s government and using 5,000 extras, many of whom were old enough to remember the Japanese occupation as it had occurred in 1941. The authenticity in Norman Reynolds’ production design is beyond reproach. Yet here too the movie tends to get bogged down in a sort of stark visual decadence; the row on row of abandoned aristocratic abodes left to rot and decay after the exile and imprisonment of their British, French and American inhabitants;  the recreation of movie marquees and wall-sized billboards depicting The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and Gone With The Wind (1939); the absurdity of an over-the-top costume ball given by the ex-patriots juxtaposed against the mass starvation of the indigenous Chinese.  Ultimately, these contradictory backdrops buttress the film’s leitmotif depicting a perishable society utterly decimated by war. Shanghai pre-WWII was a thriving multicultural metropolis of glittery nightclubs and gaudy thoroughfares; a veritable evocation of western sensibilities permeating its mood, style and undeniably its architecture. After the war these cultural touchstones were vanquished, replaced by a decidedly Asian preeminence.      
Christian Bale plays Jim Grahame, a pert but prepossessing tot obsessed with aviation and genuinely fascinated by the prospect of war without truly understanding the severity of conflict. Jim and his parents, John (Rupert Frazer) and Mary (Emily Richard) live in a stately Victorian manor built in the heart of Shanghai’s international district; an insular enclave untouched by these hard realities pressing in on all sides.  In keeping with the cliché of British colonialism Jim is rather condescending to the family’s house servant, Amah (Susan Leong), informing her that she must do as he asks. The Grahames attend a costume ball where the impending Japanese invasion is discussed. Jim discovers a downed plane in an open field and plays at being a pilot after crawling into its cockpit. Later he observes his father in their study destroying some rather legal-looking documents in the fireplace. The next day John decides to move his family into the city to a fashionable hotel where he assumes they will be more secure.
Unhappy chance for all concerned that this move places the family in closer proximity to the harbor where Japanese war ships have already been positioned for a strike on the city. Jim observes one of the war ships signaling to another and decides to partake in the exercise by signaling with his own light from an upstairs balcony. Bombs begin to fall and Shanghai is thrust into turmoil. In the ensuing chaos John is separated from Mary and Jim; then Jim from his mother. Thus begins Jim’s odyssey. He returns to the family home, certain his parents will return shortly. But after several days of living alone and hungry Jim is confronted by Amah who proudly slaps his face as she loots the bedrooms.
Chased into the streets by the advancing Japanese army, and then by Yang (Zhai Nai She); a local intent on stealing Jim’s shoes, Jim is inadvertently rescued from the assault by Frank Demarest (Joe Pantoliano); an impoverished sailor who takes Jim back to the rusted hull of an abandoned ship where fellow sailor, Basie (John Malkovich) is preparing a rice dinner. The two men decide to sell Jim for some badly needed money. But none of Basie’s contacts want to buy the boy and Jim, realizing that his only hope for survival is to remain at Basie’s side, offers to take him back to his old neighborhood where they can pillage the abandoned homes for their lavish accoutrements. Regrettably, the Japanese have already taken over Jim’s former residence. They capture and beat Basie as Jim looks on, the trio forcibly taken to Shanghai’s Lunghua Civilian Assembly Center where Jim is reunited with Mr. and Mrs. Victor (Peter Gale and Miranda Richardson), friends of his mother and father. Eventually all of the prisoners are rounded up and transferred to Soochow Creek Internment Camp.
Despite the hardships of war Jim proves himself quite resourceful as a scavenger for Basie, involving the camp’s commanding officer Sergeant Nagata (Masatô Ibu) in a sort of black market trade; earning the respect of the American prisoners and eventually invited by Basie to live with them in their dorm. The character of Basie is most curious. On the one hand he is hardly Jim’s friend or protector, all too ready and willing to abandon, sell or exploit Jim for his own selfish pursuits when the going gets tough. Yet on the other hand, Basie entrusts Jim with the responsibility of managing his belongings, particularly after Nagata mercilessly beats him to a pulp. It must also be pointed out that Jim’s affinity for Basie is equally bizarre – a child’s miscalculation in high regard for an individual unworthy of such praise and idolization, yet akin to Jim’s growing admiration for the Japanese; particularly their Kamikazes. 
The camp’s hospital physician, Dr. Rawlins (Nigel Havers) becomes Jim’s surrogate father; furthering his education and understanding of the world while enlisting Jim to help at the hospital where death and disease are a daily occurrence. Through the barbwire fence of the camp Jim befriends a Japanese teenager (Takatarô Kataoka) who, like Jim, daydreams of becoming a pilot. Basie sends Jim on a fool’s errand, telling him to set snare traps outside the barbed wire fence. Actually, Basie is testing the perimeter of the camp for mines. Narrowly spared detection from Nagata, Jim is promised by Basie to be part of his escape plan. Instead, Basie makes a successful break by himself leaving Jim more despondent than ever.
At dawn Jim quietly observes the kamikaze ritual at the adjoining air base and serenades the pilots with the Welsh song Suo Gân. The solemnity of the moment is interrupted by an impromptu attack from American P-51 Mustang fighters, the camp abandoned shortly thereafter as the Japanese leave the prisoners to die in the baron wilderness from fatigue and malnutrition. Jim confesses to Dr. Rawlins that he can no longer recall his parent’s from memory. Left to their own devices the camp’s survivors make their way to an amphitheater built in the middle of nowhere where they discover a graveyard of remnants – crystal chandeliers, furniture and automobiles - from their former glory left to rot and/or rust away. Mrs. Victor, who has been separated from her husband, is near death. Jim decides to stay behind with her while the others forge ahead; experiencing the aftershock of the nuclear bomb detonated on Nagasaki but mistaking its brilliant light as the escape of Mrs. Victor’s soul into heaven.
Jim tosses his meager suitcase containing all of his childhood memories and possessions into the nearby river – a symbolic gesture meant to represent his utter break with, and abandonment of, his past before returning to Soochow Creek where he and the Japanese teenager he befriended are reunited. The teen is utterly distraught over his country’s surrender but compassionate, offering Jim a mango to satisfy his obvious hunger. However, as he prepares to slice into it with his katana the teen is shot to death by Basie who has also returned to loot the camp of its Red Cross food stuffs. Jim is enraged, his childhood affection for Basie forever fractured by his insistent refusal to accompany Basie back to Shanghai. Miraculously, Jim is discovered by American soldiers and taken to a Shanghai orphanage where he is reunited with his mother and father; his stoic – near shell-shocked – resolve almost unable to identify them at first. In this penultimate moment of bittersweet reunion Spielberg falls back on one of the primary precepts of his film-making prowess – namely, the convenient ‘feel good’ happy ending; strangely unsettling herein as the movie concludes with a shot of Jim’s abandoned suitcase still floating down river; presumably symbolic of a journey in Jim’s mind that will never end.
Empire of the Sun is compelling. Yet it lacks the emotional center essential to make meaning from the mayhem. A war story told from the adult perspective might have succeeded without this latter commodity, the familiar mantra of ‘war is hell’ sufficient to sustain not only the action but the tone and mood of the piece. But Empire of the Sun is relayed from a boyhood memory – albeit one forty years removed in its recollections made by author, J. G. Ballard. And for all his astute maturity, there is something genuinely deficient in Christian Bale’s central performance – a sense of boyhood wonderment dashed to pieces and/or recklessly matured. Yes, Bale’s performance will break your heart, but it peculiarly fails to enter it completely – the actor’s craft too advanced to make Jim Grahame anything more or better than a well-rehearsed bit of play acting.
The story is also bereft of enduring influences from any of the adult actors; just a lot of well-intended stick-figure characterizations. Empire of the Sun is not a story of adult heroism but of a child’s sustained opinions of the adults who populated his life and how these perceptions are changed through wartime experiences. Basie’s calculated exploitation of Jim’s good nature and sense of adventurism to suit his own means is a miscalculation that leaves the audience unappreciative of John Malkovich’s skills as an actor. We don’t love or hate Basie so much as we loathe his despicableness. Miranda Richardson’s Mrs. Victor is an even less sympathetic creature; aloof and lacking even a shred of maternal instinct. If she was, as the film professes, a good friend of the Grahames, she and her husband certainly have an odd way of showing their friendship; all but ignoring Jim. Nigel Havers’ Dr. Rawlins is about the best of the lot; yet more by our built-in appreciation for Havers - the actor - rather than by anything his character actually says or does throughout the story.
One of the movie’s gross and inexcusable misfires is that it utterly fails to establish any sort of familial solidarity within the Grahame household before the war tears them apart. Jim’s relationship with his parents is scantly represented at best but he seems, at least superficially, closer to his father, John. His mother, Mary is an uncommunicative shrike, brittle and terrorized as she is devoured by the fleeing mob in the streets of Shanghai, leaving the film’s penultimate moment, when mother and son are reunited at the orphanage, strangely underwhelming. In the end Empire of the Sun is not one of Spielberg’s best films. It has Spielberg’s unquestionable hallmark of impeccable craftsmanship to recommend it, but it miserably lacks in any emotional content – just another war story, albeit one told from the fascinating resurrection of a child’s long-lost perspectives reconstituted and revisited as an adult.
Warner Home Video has at long last released Empire of the Sun on Blu-ray. The title was originally listed last October then pulled without explanation just weeks before.  Allen Daviau’s cinematography looks marvelous on the whole, although this new 1080p transfer didn’t exactly overwhelm me. Color fidelity is good but colors don’t really pop. Flesh looks very natural but reds appear a tad washed out. The image is quite crisp without being artificially sharpened; no edge effects or boosting of contrast either. Grain is accurately represented as are fine details. Again, there’s nothing wrong with the image. I just found it average rather than spectacular. The new DTS 5.1 audio is a minor revelation. Warfare sequences will give your speakers a workout and John William’s memorable underscore excels as never heard before on home video. Warner rounds out the extras by two: a vintage ‘making of’ that is rather extensive and has its nuggets of fascination to unearth, regrettably in 720i, and a DVD extra ‘Warner Goes To War’ – a feature length documentary on the studio’s vast assortment of wartime propaganda movies from Hollywood’s golden age, appropriately narrated by Steven Spielberg. Given the delay in this release it would have been great to have an audio commentary from Spielberg. Too bad. A lost opportunity. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS

2.5      

Monday, June 10, 2013

THE MIRACLE OF THE BELLS (RKO 1945) Olive Films

Few movies so completely miss their mark as Irving Pichel’s The Miracle of the Bells (1948); a leaden ‘would be’ potboiler that attempts to straddle the chasm between the traditional warm-hearted religious feel-good (a la The Bells of St. Mary’s 1945) and the even more clichéd Hollywood rags to riches – back to rags – story of a virtual unknown who attains stardom and immortality; presumably the only two commodities worth fighting for within the capitalist model of rank success. On this outing, the daydream isn’t quite licked, primarily because our winsome protagonist, Olga Treskovna (Alida Valli) is already dead at the start of the movie; having succumbed to tuberculosis and leaving a very distraught lover, William Dunnigan (Fred MacMurray) to pick up the tattered pieces of their failed romance. Bill’s therapy is the deification of Olga’s memory – chiefly in seeing the movie she made just prior to her death, a badly mangled retread of Joan of Arc, posthumously released theatrically. Curiously, Ingrid Bergman was also shooting Joan of Arc for RKO at the time The Miracle of the Bells had its debut. Neither it nor Bergman’s effort were a success, however. 
Bill, a press agent working for movie mogul Marcus Harris (Lee J. Cobb) is certain his boss will comply. But Harris is a dollars and cents man. He knows there is no point in releasing the movie because there is virtually no way to capitalize on a dead star’s stardom after the picture’s debut.  So Harris has decided to shelve the picture and recast it at a later date. Dunnigan, however, will not let the matter rest. Returning to Olga’s hometown for her burial, a last request Olga made of Dunnigan before expiring, Bill quickly encounters a lot of small town slum prudery and deceit. He learns that Olga’s father was a drunkard hardly held in high regard and that Olga had sincerely hoped to instill a sense of pride and restore her family’s good name in town by becoming a great star; a beacon to all the other young girls who aspire to be better than just the forlorn daughters of this modest mining community.
Regrettably, the Ben Hecht/Quentin Reynolds/DeWitt Bodeen screenplay, loosely based on Russell Janney’s tear-jerker of a novel is a woefully undernourished claptrap that waffles between the boundaries of the past and present; the flashback device infrequently employed throughout the first third of the movie so awkwardly patched together that it neither manages to establish the character of Olga satisfactorily or create an enduring sense of empathy for her once we have moved forward in the narrative with only Bill’s dower visage and blind determination to see her name and reputation made known to the public through his decidedly ridiculous publicity stunt; hiring all the churches in town to ring their bells for three full days and nights to honor Olga’s memory. The ploy does work the town into a mild frenzy, particularly Father J. Spinksey (Charles Meredith); who oversees the most prosperous church. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Father Paul (Frank Sinatra); a mild-mannered milquetoast whose piety – meant to be legitimate in the film – is so overwrought with a sense of smug self-importance in Sinatra’s performance, that it becomes all but impossible to tolerate or even take at face value.
Until the eleventh hour, Harris remains stubbornly unimpressed by Dunnigan’s devotion to Olga, even ordering him to cease and desist on his ‘miracle of the bells’ that has begun to draw crowds of onlookers to Olga’s modest funeral at St. Michaels. All of this persistent ringing weakens the support beams of the church, enough so that the statues of both the Virgin Mary and St. Michael flanking Olga’s casket suddenly shift and appear to be turning to face her coffin. The crowds who have come either out of devotion, fear or just plain rabid fascination to witness the spectacle suddenly become convinced that divine intervention has caused the statues to move. Father Paul, however, knows better but is convinced by Dunnigan to keep his findings to himself. The miracle will stand, not to lend credence to his publicity stunt (which it does, of course) but as Dunnigan puts it, to give the people hope in their hour of hopelessness, to restore their faith in humanity at large and in miracles in particular, and yes, to give Olga the moment she always wished for but was cruelly denied in life; to be honored for doing her job. Harris finally relents to the fervor of all this press coverage and agrees to release Joan of Arc – a movie that now, even despite the demise of its star, will undoubtedly make him a ton of money.
The Miracles of the Bells is a terrible mess; its rank sentiment so transparent and insincere that it seems to hold no distinction other than in being a terrible bastardization of religion for trashy art’s sake. Sinatra is trying much too hard to be the sort of iconic figure of Catholicism exemplified in similar portrayals by Spencer Tracy (Boy’s Town 1938) or Bing Crosby (Going My Way 1944). But Sinatra’s own temperament is ill-suited for this conversion; his Father Paul a cheap mimic of the aforementioned and a terrible flub in his own movie career. When Sinatra speaks his sanctity is subverted by a sense of passionless pontification; his words devolving into platitudes etched out of the cheapest devotion. He speaks with hushed intonations but the reverence is utterly lacking.  
Even more of an embarrassment is Alida Valli – an actress of some merit elsewhere – but herein cast as a ‘too good to be true’ ingénue so frightfully dewy-eyed and wet behind the ears, so utterly lacking in the complexities of a grown woman, that she degenerates into a walking cliché of the lamb being led to the slaughter. This incongruous one-dimensionality is compounded by the fact that Valli plays Joan of Arc in the movie within the movie – her self-sacrificing portrait of that peasant girl stirred into battle by Holy visions transgressing into a sort of waxy mannequin performance that is painful to watch. The triumvirate of misguided actors is rounded out by a thoroughly lackluster turn from Fred MacMurray, seemingly incapable of deciding whether his character is part of the crass commercialism and money-driven machinery designed to exploit Olga’s dead memory for its own pure profit, or simply involved in the quest of a distraught nobleman who is operating under more benevolent delusions; unaware that his cheap publicity stunt is not in keeping with the higher moral ideals of his deceased love interest.
The flashback device used in the movie is severely flawed. After a bitter prelude of the action that will take place in the present day, with Dunnigan riding in a hearse to the funeral parlor, we regress to his first ‘cute meet’ with Olga at a rehearsal for a new Broadway show. Dunnigan spares Olga from getting fired with some fast taking and later – much later, so we are told – treats her to a Chinese dinner one snowy night. Again, time passes – a lot of it – and Olga is now a bit player working for Harris who also employs Dunnigan for his publicity. Olga is given her big break in Joan of Arc after Harris’ first choice proves too temperamental. In between these bouts of back story we meet Father Paul. Dunnigan acquires a growing affection for this elfin-like Catholic clergyman, particularly after he refuses to take any sort of payment for providing his services for Olga’s burial. But even the friendship between Father Paul and Dunnigan remains unfulfilling and not fully realized. Far too much time is spent getting Dunnigan’s grand plan – the ringing of the bells – off the ground and even more time squandered on the constant long-distance banter between Dunnigan and Harris; the latter stubbornly refusing to budge on his decision to release Olga’s Joan of Arc to the public.
The film loses sight of its primary objective – to be a life-affirming story about faith – and instead attempts to sit on too many artistic chairs all at once; its melodrama misspent, its absence of pathos or even rank sentimentality leaving the character’s to their own accord – stick figures at best with cardboard cutout motivations; merely bumping into one another and occasionally the furniture with a sort of rank amateurism that is really beneath such fine players. I can’t understand the complete implosion of this movie – so clueless a claptrap of misfires that it loses its ability to captivate or even moderately entertain almost from the moment the main titles have dissolved into the primary action. This is badly done in the extreme.  I wouldn’t recommend The Miracle of the Bells even if there was absolutely nothing else to watch on TV after midnight. It’s just that awful!
The efforts put forth by Olive on this Blu-ray are not much better. This single-layered offering exhibits a very thick and occasionally grainy B&W image that really does not favor Robert De Grasse’s cinematography. Age related artifacts are everywhere. The image is neither smooth nor clean, compounding the disappointment already felt by seeing the movie itself. The audio is adequately represented though it too is hardly a miracle of mastering. As with most other movies offered via Olive, this one comes with absolutely nothing in the way of extras. Perhaps it is just as well. I saw nothing in the movie that would have made me want to listen to an audio commentary or sit through even a short featurette on how it was made.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
0
VIDEO/AUDIO
1.5
EXTRAS

0 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

THE ODD COUPLE: Blu-ray (Paramount 1968) Warner Home Video

A team that always does business. By 1968, the year that The Odd Couple made its way to the big screen, Neil Simon’s sublime comedic masterpiece about a pair of mismatched roomies destined to remain lifelong friends in spite of themselves, had already become one of the Tony-Award winning cultural touchstones of the American theater. The Odd Couple was, and has remained Simon’s most successful stagecraft; an infectious bit of social commentary about the ties that bind and damn near can tear us apart, but in the end make the human condition and need to belong to someone else an essential part of the human psyche. The play’s lengthy run on Broadway precluded any film version being made for nearly three years; a project initially attached to Billy Wilder’s name. Wilder, the premiere director of esoteric comedies of his generation had expressed great interest in doing The Odd Couple as a film and was even instrumental in bringing Jack Lemmon on board the project.
Unhappy chance for Wilder that Paramount desired to go the quick and dirty route; balking at the expense of hiring an A-list director like Wilder to helm the project. Besides, the powers that be had already settled on a million dollar salary for Jack Lemmon as their ‘big star’ name above the title; the role of fastidious fussbudget Felix Unger initially hailed to the rafters on Broadway with Art Carney. Like so many formidable talents of his generation, Carney was quietly overlooked for a reprise of the role he had made justly famous on the stage, just as Julie Andrews missed out on movie adaptations of My Fair Lady and Camelot. Carney, who would come into his own on film a few years later, lost out to Lemmon, already a well-established and much beloved screen comedian. As for Walter Matthau; he had already appeared in movies and had even worked opposite Lemmon in The Fortune Cookie (1968); a role that won him a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award.  Matthau’s $300,000 paycheck may have paled by comparison, but he proved to be one half of that very necessary equation to make the movie click and a very happy marriage between best friends both on and off screen.
Much has been written about Lemmon and Matthau; the men, the legends and their mutual, life-long friendship that lasted until Matthau’s death in 2000. While the on screen pairing of these two brilliant raconteurs cannot boast the lengthy association accorded such classic comedy duos as Bud Abbott and Lou Costello or even Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, the body of their work, including the Grumpy Old Men franchise, attests to a level of sincere affection and admiration impossible to fake. When we watch Matthau and Lemmon together on the screen there is a built-in history to their repartee far more enriching than the dialogue they speak; the levity in their friendship creating a subtext of sheer joy for the audience. It is impossible not to appreciate the boys for their craft, especially when so much of it comes straight from the heart.
Of course the unsung hero behind this ‘odd couple’ is director Gene Saks; a nearly forgotten – or at the very least, largely overlooked – director who managed a minor coup with Simon’s lengthy diatribes; giving cinematic structure and even reinvigorated life to what was essentially a two room play with very few changes on the Broadway stage. Saks opens up the play just enough to take advantage of the New York locations without ever distorting or diluting Simon’s razor-backed badinage. If The Odd Couple is remembered for only one scene today, it arguably remains the moment when perpetual slob, Oscar Madison (Matthau) has finally had enough of his live-in roommate, Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon); ordering him to remove his plate of ‘spaghetti’ from the dining room table. “It’s not spaghetti,” Felix insists with a condescending chuckle, “It’s linguini.” Without hesitation Oscar takes the plate and slams it against the wall. “Now,” he tells Felix, “…it’s garbage!”  In this singular moment all of the elements are in play: Saks’ ability to ever so slightly intercut the sequence to heighten its dramatic/comedic continuity, and, Lemmon and Matthau’s ability to reveal something deeper and more meaningful behind this confrontation, rather than simply play to the thirty-second laugh; which comes roaring out with a defiant frustration.
Neil Simon’s great gift to the American theater has always been his ability to draw from his own astute observations on humanity; evoking a subtle poignancy from the human condition. His best plays and the movies derived from them; The Odd Couple, The Goodbye Girl and The Sunshine Boys among them, are about close-knit (perhaps too close for comfort) individuals thrust into impossibly flawed relationships and/or friendships that miraculously evolve into meaningful mainstays before the last act. Simon, who reaches into the depths of turmoil and conflict through comedy, makes meaningful even the benign and elevates ‘personal observation’ to a very fine art indeed. Oscar and Felix are not simply mismatched figures of fun because there is something genuine and, at times, even piteous about the pair; a commonality to their suffrage made obviously apparent to the audience from the start but less so to the characters until almost the end. In this case, the commonality derives from Oscar and Felix’s mutual failure in their marital relationships.
For Felix the wound is all too fresh and upsetting. But Oscar is far happier as a confirmed bachelor – his penchant for carousing matched only by his inability to manage anything better than a ham sandwich. At one point even this mere sustenance seems a stretch for him; returning from the kitchen with a stack of sandwiches tucked under his armpit, two of which have obviously passed their expiration date. Oscar may be contented to be single, but he is an incomplete person nevertheless; his sloppy mismanagement of his own affairs put into order by a man who regards mere dust specks as a sin on the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval; but who is not above making an absolute nuisance of himself by obsessively moaning inside an all-night diner simply to clear his Eustachian tubes of unnecessary pressure.
Our story, however, begins on a more ominous note; Felix’s varied, though utterly flawed, attempts at suicide following the realization that his twelve year marriage has suddenly come to an end. Trolling the seedier districts of downtown Manhattan, first to an eleventh floor hotel room where he plans to hurl himself to the ground only to realize all of the windows have been nailed shut, then to an even more derelict girlie club where the dancers cavort like mindless wax mannequins with a faraway emaciated look of no distinction that leaves Felix’s immediate need for companionship utterly dissatisfied, Felix eventually makes his way to the prearranged poker game at Oscar’s apartment.
His arrival is preceded by a phone call from his newly estranged wife that sets Oscar and his cronies, Vinnie (John Fiedler), Murray (Herb Edelman), Roy (David Sheiner) and Speed (Larry Haines) into a tailspin of manly concern. After the game breaks up Oscar takes Felix to a diner to cheer him up, leading to the aforementioned incident where Felix making a public spectacle of himself. Later the boys take a walk in the park near Grant’s Tomb where an epiphany of sorts comes to Oscar. Felix will move in with him…at least, for the time being; a decision Oscar will come to rue very shortly. The impenitent sedulousness of Oscar’s new roomie is almost immediately apparent. Felix rearranges Oscar’s life – literally – wreaking havoc on his perfect disarray.  It is to Simon’s credit however that Felix’s OCD is never at the crux or brunt of the humor – in other words, the condition and its fallout do not dictate the laughs. Rather it is Oscar’s inability to articulate exactly what about bringing order from his chaos sends his blood pressure boiling that elevates the cream of the jest.  
As far as Oscar is concerned all Felix needs to reset his world is a woman; good, bad or indifferently stupid – the latter exhibited in a pair of sisters newly arrived from England who are living in the upstairs apartment. Gwendolyn (Carole Shelley) and Cecily Pigeon (Monica Evans) are just the sort of loveable nonsense Oscar has in mind. He invites the pair out for dinner; a situation slightly altered when Felix insists on cooking meatloaf for them at home because it will save money that Oscar can send to help pay for his wife’s alimony already several months in the rears. Gwen and Cec’ are quite a pair indeed – bobble-headed and bubbly; full of flirtatiousness that translates into a rocky start when Felix seems incapable of warming up to the prospect of ‘getting lucky’ for the night. Oscar, however, cannot wait to get the girls drunk and alone. But after he hurries into the kitchen to get the party started with some stiff drinks, Felix reluctantly recalls the sob story of his failed marriage to the girls. Gwen and Cec’ find themselves becoming emotional and oddly maternal toward Felix. Thus, when Oscar returns he finds the trio sobbing on the couch. Dinner burns to a crisp, leaving the girls to suggest that perhaps Oscar and Felix would prefer to join them in their apartment for some leftovers. Oscar wholeheartedly agrees, promising to come straight away with the mixed drinks. But Felix stubbornly refuses to accompany him. He’s much rather wash the dishes and then his hair.
For Oscar it is the last straw. The two reach an impasse in their friendship that crystalizes into a rooftop confrontation. Afterward, the friends part company but hardly for long. After all, Felix has decided to move into Gwen and Cec’s upstairs apartment, at their insistence no less! The Odd Couple is a delightful comedy; a hilarious clash of temperaments generating its veritable potpourri of comedic eruptions.  Neil Simon’s inspiration derived from the exploits between real life roomies Danny Simon (Neil’s brother) and theatrical agent Roy Gerber. Despite his many successes, Simon always regarded The Odd Couple as his favorite venture. Today, many critics agree. The Odd Couple is sublime comedy. On stage, all of the action took place inside Oscar’s apartment. On film, Simon rewrote and reworked several scenes to take advantage of various New York locations.
Although critics of the day often commented that Jack Lemmon’s Felix was more a variation on the actor’s own persona, his performance as the neurotic Felix was nevertheless embraced by the audience. As for Walter Matthau – whose career in Hollywood had been spotty at best – he achieved super stardom with this reprise of his Broadway performance and the chance to forge a new movie career that had previously been denied him. Viewed today The Odd Couple retains much of its wit, at times underplayed, which makes it even funnier. Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau are ideally cast as the ‘couple’ whose friendship slowly falls apart. Their off screen admiration for one another is in full view. Backstage, Lemmon was a glowing presence on the set, winning friends from both the cast and crew. Matthau, however, was a more resolute figure – preferring to indulge his betting habit.  As for the film - it was a smash success. Two years later ABC re-launched the premise as a highly successful sitcom costarring Jack Klugman as Oscar and Tony Randall as his Felix. In later years, The Odd Couple was even revived as an all-black, and later all-female Broadway show. But in the final analysis it’s the original that holds up best; alongside and truer to its Broadway roots.
The release of The Odd Couple on Blu-ray comes via Warner’s acquisition of the Paramount Home Video library. I am not entirely certain which studio is responsible for the mastering effort, although I strongly suspect Paramount, because the new 1080p image yields an impeccable effort from start to finish. Colors that were merely prominent on the DVD are bold, rich and fully saturated on the Blu-ray. We also get a level of clarity only possible from a complete rescan of the original film elements. The image is very smooth but with a consistency to the grain structure. Contrast is superior and fine detail really pops. The newly remastered 5.1 audio gives renewed resilience to Neil Hefti’s catchy ‘Odd Couple’ theme. Good stuff all around and most definitely worth the repurchase. Warner has imported all of the featurettes included on Paramount’s 2 disc Studio Series DVD from a few years ago. They’re all in 720i but looking fairly solid (minor edge effects not withstanding), and really add to our appreciation of the movie, with interviews from Saks and surviving cast members, plus interviews with sons Chris Lemmon and Charles Matthau. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5
EXTRAS

4

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

EARTHQUAKE: Blu-ray (Universal 1974) Universal Home Video

In the 1970s disaster was big business; the ‘people in peril’ scenario carried to its zenith and extreme in Irwin Allen’s 1972 smash, The Poseidon Adventure, followed two years later by The Towering Inferno (1974). The formula was hardly new. In the late 1930s Hollywood had put its best foot forward on such immortal all-star catastrophes as San Francisco (1936), The Hurricane (1937) and The Rains Came (1939). Then, however, the focus remained more on the people than special effects; the nature of disaster situated as a dramatic highlight rather than at the crux of the melodrama. 1970s disaster movies were something quite different, however; a chance to resurrect the glam-bam glitter of old-time talent desperate to work in an industry that had already experienced its own seismic shift a scant decade before, the tremors of the old studio system and last gasp of the establishment still being felt and mourned throughout Hollywood.
The new Hollywood that had replaced it was grittier, more direct in its approach to story-telling, willing to take its gamble on the gratuitous sex scene and car chase to get people back into theaters. But there were still those eager to see the cultural touchstones from the old regime – namely, its stars – pull themselves together for one last hurrah. If these cheers came with a modicum of nudity, a brutal fist fight and/or race through the streets – either on foot or by various modes of mechanized transportation – and could also be counted upon to place such familiar faces in danger; all the better at the box office. Yet there is something faintly grotesque about the human desire to witness its own demise at the movies; our odd fascination with self-destruction fairly reeking of some bizarre voyeuristic need to destroy ourselves vicariously from the relative safety of an isle-seat with a bucket of popcorn firmly planted between our legs.
Producer Irwin Allen implicitly understood this cruel self-infliction and readily delighted in making his audience sweat out every last drop of fear by creating carefully plotted nail-biting labyrinths into which some very top-flight talent was put through the motions of survival – some making it, some not. The key to a successful disaster epic, particularly one from the 1970s, seems to have been its careful balance between establishing various characters and having the disaster (natural or man-made) break out relatively early on and thereafter continue to terrorize the survivors and the audience with that constant threat of total annihilation. This premise isn’t entirely licked in Mark Robson’s Earthquake (1974); primarily because an earthquake – even the proverbial ‘big one’ - cannot be sustained for much longer than a few moments on the screen, leaving the plot of Earthquake – the movie – rather void of its penultimate cataclysm.
What we are left with then are bookends of melodrama, pre and post-quake; a soap opera about angry spouses, surly drunkards, embittered dreamers and dewy-eyed lovers torn asunder; all of them experiencing a ground-breaking (literally) moment of realization that their own lives are relatively small in comparison to the unexpected wrath of Mother Nature. Arguably Earthquake – the movie – would have worked better had it taken a cue from San Francisco (1936); a film celebrating that particular city and the star-crossed machinations of a pair of mismatched lovers (played by Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald) who ultimately realize the strength of sentiment and their importance to each other through surviving a natural disaster – the spectacular 1906 earthquake that leveled Frisco. But Robson’s Earthquake is trying too hard to be cut from the same loin as Irwin Allen’s aforementioned disaster classics; its star-studded roster mimicking both The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.
The only problem is that unlike either of these movies, Earthquake does not take place within the confined spaces of either a sinking cruise ship or burning high rise, but across the whole expanse of southern California – centralized for the film as downtown Los Angeles with a few visual nods downwind to Hollywood.   This spread, or lay of the land, is arguably too vast; the disheveled and displaced left to wander the various crumbling streets and caved in byways in their feeble, tear-stained and bloodied disorientation, either with altruistic or cutthroat motives; the film heavily mired in its last act of vigilantism. There is another problem with Earthquake; chiefly its roster of stars; most utterly wasted in bit parts or woefully incapable of communicating the immediacy of their presumed peril in anything beyond fitful glimpses of faux shock and awe.
Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene and Walter Matthau are great actors. But you would never guess it by watching Earthquake; each stumbling through what effectively boils down to a cameo amid the carnage. Geneviève Bujold probably gives the most heartrending performance in the movie, but even hers lacks the utter soul of conviction to keep us interested in what happens to either her character or that of her young son (played by Tiger Williams). And then there are the cringe-worthy misfires to consider; Richard Roundtree’s brutally jive heroism as a sort of failed Evel Knievel turned rescuer; George Kennedy’s bitter cop transformed into a blubbering mass of contradictions just before the final fade out, and, Victoria Principal, as an afro-wearing bimbette more concerned that her wig and form-fitting ensemble remain relatively wrinkle-free throughout the deluge as she coos and cowers from the peripheries of the screen.
Because the quake hits roughly in the middle of the movie we are afforded far too much time with these characters, easily allowing us to pick apart their flaws. Blame the George Fox/Mario Puzo screenplay this time; so inarticulately cobbled together that it barely holds our interest in-between tremors. Ava Gardner’s shrewishness as the brittle, scorned wife wears paper thin almost from the moment her character appears. Charlton Heston treats his performance as though at any moment he might part the Pacific with a wave of his hand. Lorne Greene has an even more curious difficulty attempting to maintain his composure in character without the fertile backdrop of a sprawling ponderosa to back him up.
What we are left with then, is ‘the quake’ – rather spectacularly staged under Frank Brendel’s command; most of the matte work exceptional and still holding up under today’s closer scrutiny in hi-def. During the last third of the story Earthquake also attempts – rather inanely – to insert a dam-busting deluge into the proceedings – the flood sequence all done in miniature, but with too brief cutaways that neither heighten the impact of the narrative nor come to much of anything in the final edit; the waters from the crippled Mulholland Dam never reaching the already beleaguered city, but merely filling the underground sewers where several key survivors are trapped and will likely drown.
After some impressive aerial shots of L.A. with Hollywood in the background, lensed by Philip H. Lathrop, we settle into the feuding and fussing of one Stewart Graff (Charlton Heston) and his significant other, Remy Royce (Ava Gardner); a socialite harpy prone to bouts of suicide because she suspects her husband of philandering. Stu has just returned from his morning jog and is in the process of topping off his workout with some resistance training when Remy barges in to terrorize. Long since unmoved by his wife’s constant badgering, Stewart takes a shower and prepares for work, discovering Remy unconscious with a bottle of pills nearby. But before he can induce vomiting a violent tremor rattles the bedroom and Remy’s nerves. No, she’s not dead – just faking and Stewart is not impressed.
We shift focus with the briefest of purpose or motivation; first, to the nearby Mulholland Dam where a worker (Clint Young) on a routine inspection is drowned inside one of the drainage shafts that has filled with water after the tremor – an ominous prelude to the movie’s penultimate flood sequence. Next, its’ on to downtown Hollywood where Sgt. Lou Slade (George Kennedy) and his partner Emilio Chavez (Armendáriz, Jr.) are in hot pursuit of a suspect. The chase ends badly (actually, in the front hedges of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s house…no, really!). Back at the precinct, county sheriff's deputy (George Sayawa) chews out Lou for the mishap and Lou, a hothead with a very short fuse, knocks him on his proverbial pride. In his own defense, Lou attempts to justify his actions by explaining to his supervisor (Lonny Chapman) that the suspect he was chasing had stolen a car and even run over 6-year old Mexican girl without stopping: all very convincing – except that Lou is still placed on temporary suspension.
On his way to work Stewart decides to play ‘weekend daddy’ by popping in on Denise Marshall (Geneviève Bujold), his lover and an actress who is also a widow with a young son, Corry (Tiger Williams). In the meantime, panic alarms have begun to go off at the California Seismological Institute after junior staffer Walter Russell (Kip Niven) has calculated that Los Angeles is on a collision course with ‘the big one’ destined to hit the city in the next few days. Too bad Dr. Frank Adams (Bob Cunningham), the chief seismologist, has already discovered this for himself, having been buried alive by another tremor while out in the valley conducting research. Acting supervisor, Dr. Willis Stockle (Sullivan) stubbornly refuses to place the city on alert, suggesting that if Russell’s predictions are wrong the institute will lose its funding. He also points out that the obvious panic of an unorganized full-scale evacuation of L.A. would be as devastating as the quake itself. Instead, Stockle places the National Guard and police on high alert to help deal with the fallout.
Moving on: Rosa Amici (Victoria Principal) has reached the checkout of her local grocery store only to realize she does not have enough money to pay for all her items. The benevolent manager, Jody Joad (Marjoe Gortner) insists Rosa keep her things. She can make up the difference the next time she shops. Learning of the mobilization of the National Guard reserves Jody hurries to his dilapidated boarding house to change into his NCO uniform; a bit of ridiculous gay-bashing ensuing from his housemates shortly thereafter. We now shift gears to a seedy downtown watering hole where Lou has ambitions to get quietly drunk and where the resident wino (Walter Matthau) has momentarily stirred.  
Aspiring daredevil Miles Quade (Richard Roundtree), his manager, Sal Amici (Gabriel Dell) and Rosa convince Lou to a loan of $50 so that Quade can perfect a new motorcycle stunt. In the meantime the previous tremor has cancelled Denise’s shoot so she decides to surprise Stewart at work. With presumably nothing else but free time on his hands, Stu takes Denise back to her place where they make love. Later, he invites her and Corry to spend the summer with him in Oregon where he has been assigned to oversee a new development project. It’s all so perfect – except that Stu’s boss, Sam Royce (Lorne Greene) also happens to be his father-in-law, with a wily penchant for keeping his spoiled daughter happy. He’s even willing to hand over the presidency of his company to Stu at a moment’s notice. The offer has merit. But all of it goes out the window when Stu spied Remy coming up the stairs. Has she orchestrated the whole thing just to keep her hooks in him?
It would seem that way. So Stu storms out of the office, pursued by Remy into the street where mercifully the major quake suddenly strikes. In its ‘every man’ – and woman – for him/herself scenario, Earthquake suddenly shifts into high gear for a fleeting nine minutes of unparalleled mayhem. Buildings crumble, gas and water mains rupture, roads crack, church steeples topple, cars drive off the suspended highway, and a hapless populace flees on foot in all directions. Rosa, who had gone to the movies to see High Plains Drifter is nearly trampled by the panicked theater patrons, her pointless stumbling about the streets while everything comes crashing down around her making one wish that a big chunk of brick and mortar would just take her out too. The quake also destroys Quade’s stunt track and flattens a bridge over a spill way that Corry was riding his bike across, leaving the child unconscious.
The rest of Earthquake is basically a tale of survival with a few truly silly oddities along the way. Together with Stewart, Sam manages to rescue many of his employees before he suffers a fatal heart attack (shades of Shelley Winters from The Poseidon Adventure). Denise discovers her son lying on the ground near some live high voltage wires and, after crawling down to him via the damaged bridge, gets Quade and Sal to assist in their rescue moments before the spill way floods from water being diverted from the nearby Mulholland Dam.
In what is perhaps the movie’s most overblown and undernourished subplot, Rosa is arrested for nibbling on a donut inside a ruined diner. Having been made a sergeant in the National Guard Jody separates Rosa from the rest of the detainees, but then inexplicably turns homicidal when another faction of the guard arrives with his former housemates as prisoners. Jody cold-bloodedly executes them, presumably to avenge his wounded pride for having endured all their long-time bullying. Terrified, Rosa now recognizes that she hasn’t been rescued so much as she is being taken prisoner.  Stewart goes in search of Denise and Corry, picking up Lou along the way. The two just happen to stumble upon Jody and Rosa. She attempts a getaway, but Jody holds Stewart and Lou at gun point until they agree to leave the scene. Later, Lou doubles back, thwarting Jody’s attempted rape of Rosa and killing him in self-defense.  
Stewart hears on the radio that an aftershock has destroyed Wilson Plaza where he left Remy and Sam, and hurries to the scene with Lou and Rosa in tow. They attempt a perilous rescue of the survivors still trapped in one of the underground parking garages, using a jackhammer to blast their way into the air pocket where the survivor remain. Too little too late the Mulholland Dam gives way, its raging waters filling the underground sewer system. Denise and Corry survive, but Remy and Stewart are swept away. The film ends with Lou surveying the wreckage that is L.A. – a smoldering ruin in utter decay; an apocalyptic finale to what has already degenerated into a badly worn downer.
As pure entertainment, Earthquake is truly a disaster – its storytelling a veritable claptrap of mangled melodrama. Characters come and go throughout the story, none making much of an impact beyond their cardboard cutout characterizations.  Given the fact that a lot of the film’s run time is wasted on telling each person’s back story this remains a curiosity.  Perhaps the fault is in the performance, although I suspect the screenplay to be the culprit bearing most of the brunt. It’s dull, uninspired and episodic at best, moving its stars about the desolate post-quake landscape like chess pieces and with even less connective motivation between each sequence.
The worst moment in the movie is undeniably Rosa’s captivity under Jody’s maniacal rule. In her afro-wig Victoria Principal – an actress of extremely limited talent and appeal – becomes a figure of camp fun. George Kennedy doesn’t do the finale any favors either by attempting to stave off emotions he is incapable of expressing. It’s sad to see actors like Lloyd Nolan – herein looking doleful as a little lost puppy and reduced to mere sound bytes, presumably to express the pervasive sense of loss everyone is feeling in the aftermath.  No, Earthquake doesn’t work at all. In fits and sparks it has moments of interest – mostly in the SFX that are spectacular to say the least. The only problem is that at 129 minutes the film has outstayed its welcome by at least 120; its chief marketing feature – the quake – lasting less than 9 minutes on the screen and taking with it all hope and chance for a great disaster classic to emerge. Buried somewhere under the rubble of this wasted opportunity is director Mark Robson’s pride, whose illustrious pre-Earthquake career included such classics as The Seventh Victim (1943), Home of the Brave (1949), The Harder They Fall (1956), Peyton Place (1957) and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958). In this company Earthquake seems either a colossal joke or to have been made by another film maker entirely. If you’re looking to get the shakes I can think of a few other ‘better’ ways to satisfy. Pass.
Universal’s Blu-ray gets more than a passing grade however. The 1080p rendering is first rate with solid contrast and color and an excellent smattering of grain and fine details throughout. A few of the matte shots still look obvious, particularly close ups of Heston as he makes perilous attempts to rescue Sam and others trapped inside the office building. Here, color looks slightly off – the backdrop strangely purplish, and grain advances to a level grossly out of register with the rest of the visuals. Otherwise, this is a very competent transfer that will surely not disappoint. Earthquake won an Oscar for its sound mix and Universal has loving preserved its own patented ‘Sensurround’ experience on Blu-ray where, I must admit, it still manages to pack an aggressive wallop. Your speakers are in for a work out…well…at least for 9 minutes. Otherwise Universal as afforded this disc all the accoutrements befitting a clunker – none! We don’t even get a theatrical trailer. It’s probably just as well. I really didn’t see anything in Earthquake that would warrant a ‘making of’ documentary or audio commentary. Bottom line: not recommended.    
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
1
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS