Saturday, November 28, 2015

THE SECOND BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL: Blu-ray (Fox Searchlight 2015) Fox Home Video

Despite invaluable press junkets and promotion, it is a very rare sequel – call it, the unicorn – that can top, much less rival its predecessor. Case in point: John Madden’s aptly titled ‘second best’ 2015 follow-up to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) - even more astutely referenced by film critic, Wesley Morris as mortis interruptus’ - since it neither triumphs over the adversities and obstructions set up for its protagonists in the screenplay, co-authored by Madden and Ol Parker, nor does it come anywhere near to recapture the lithe and intangible effervescence the original had in spades. While the first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel soared, largely on the ether of its inimitable ‘feel good’; the sequel merely devolves into an enviably obtuse ‘plug-n-play’ of its surviving stock company to a new set of crises in the advancing twilight of their years; the original movie’s double entendre positivism, best embodied in a saying put forth by hotel manager, Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) – “we have a saying in India…everything will be alright in the end…so if it isn’t alright, then perhaps it isn’t the end” – now, completely subverted in the sequel; as one of the best beloved of these ceremonial old crocs, co-manager, Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) is placed in imminent peril.
Where to begin with the misfires: perhaps, chiefly with the introduction of Richard Gere, meant to replace the original film’s Tom Wilkinson (as though anyone could) as hotel inspector, Guy Chambers – the ‘ugly American’ thrust upon this Brit-dominated social hierarchy as its proverbial ‘fish out of water’. Gere is incapable of being anything less genuine than himself; though, arguably, not much more besides. Chambers is a no-nothing part anyway; superficially plumbed for its geriatric eye-candy which ruthlessly runs thin. But I must say, compared to the overall haggard appearance of the rest of this cast, Gere could almost pull off his ‘American Gigolo: Part II’ and come off the cropper. However, it is a colossal mistake to take a gutsy determinist like Maggie Smith’s Muriel Donnelly and place her on the verge of succumbing from one of those undisclosed Hollywood illnesses? Part of the issue I had with this sequel was its’ decided shift away from the emeritus crowd, made subservient appendages to the trials and tribulations of Sonny and Sunaina (Tin Desai) – their wedding quandaries devolving into a Bollywood-style musical revue to cap off the climax.
At every turn, director, Madden maddened me by steering clear of virtually every endearing quality that made the first feature such a charmer; this sequel’s unwieldy plot, frequently careening much too far off point; relegating the burgeoning romance between Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) and Douglas Ainslie (Bill Nighy) (the couple, arguably one of the pivotal involvements from the original movie) to mere bit players this time around, faced with two dilemmas (she gets a career/his shrew of a wife, played by Penelope Wilton, momentarily returns). Furthermore the point of transformation; Madden has inexplicably monogamized randy ole sod, Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) while simultaneously transforming his fragile paramour, Carol Parr (Diana Hardcastle) into a twenty cent tart, shacking up with multiple partners, simply because she assumes he is doing the same. The role of the trollop in the first movie belonged to Celia Imrie as Madge Hardcastle – a wily grandma with a decidedly roving eye – be still her beating ovaries, indeed!). But The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015) doesn’t give the ole crotch-jockey much playtime – literally or figuratively – and rather denies the audience an opportunity to wallow in both the virtues and vices of this formidable senior ensemble. It just placates us with more of the same. 
Yet, perhaps the greatest transgression of all is Dev Patel’s exuberant Sonny Kapoor, now turned into something of a preening peacock and martinet. In the first Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Sonny was charismatic, precisely because his, as yet, unformed and even more uninformed ambitions (to become a successful proprietor of a hotel for the aged) were nevertheless firmly grounded in an ancestral spirit to succeed where his beloved father had failed; to prove himself to his mother (Lillette Dubey), Sunaina and her rather austere brother, Jay (Sid Makkar), but most importantly, to satisfy his own insatiable inner need to know the strength of his own self-worth and convictions through hard work and accomplishment. Sonny’s repeated failures at the beginning of the first movie were comedic tragedy; his penultimate triumph at its’ end, despite seemingly insurmountable roadblocks along the way, nothing less than a crowd-cheering exaltation of ‘the little dynamo that could’. Alas, in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Sonny is a little too drunk on his own self-importance to care about raising anyone else’s level of satisfaction. Add untoward and totally unfounded jealousy into this mix (Sonny thinks his childhood ‘friend’, Kushal, played with harmless aplomb by Shazad Latif, is horning in, both on his relationship and his professional plans for expansion into a franchise of hotels) and Sonny Kapoor is not a very likeable figure in this sequel; a shame, since it is basically his story we are being told, and, with whom we are expected to place all of our empathy and compassion. 
Concentrating the sequel on its younger stars, rather defeats the purpose of having such heavy-hitters as Maggie Smith and Judi Dench headlining the picture – except, of course, to promote it with all the gentility and warmth ascribed one’s favorite pair of bedroom slippers. Sadly, neither Smith nor Dench are ever given the opportunity to act. Smith fares marginally better in this regard, primarily because her administrator’s role in the first Marigold Hotel intrinsically links her meandering storyline to Sonny’s latest venture; one, he confoundedly is determined to, in tandem, embrace yet purposelessly defeat while suffering from social inadequacies already dealt with in the first movie, and therefore ought to have been matured and/or strengthened to advance his character forward in this sequel. Instead, Sonny takes three steps back – very much more the spoiled child than the burgeoning adult male capable of taking care of Sunaina’s gentle heart. He does, in fact, apologize – twice – for his misbehavior; Sunaina pointing out that actions speak volumes in place of mere words. The first and second acts of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel plays like a truncated Marx Bros. routine with a bad case of mistaken identity thrown in; Sonny pouring all of his resolve into satisfying Guy Chambers’ every whim, completely overlooking Lavinia Beach (the forgettable Tamsin Grieg) who is actually scouting the hotel for her company’s interests.
The biggest hurdle yet to overcome is the picture’s many overlapping narratives. There is just too much going on in The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: none of it fully fleshed out; virtually everything tinged with a rather sadistic and condescending tone meant to euphonize the geriatric sect into thinking death will come to us all as a gentle nudge; decrepit bodies laid out in colorful saris among the already overpowering sights and pungent smells of this East Indian paradise where, every morning, roll call is taken to ensure no one has, in fact, slipped these surreal bonds in the middle of the night. Apart from the lethally drawn out ‘hesitant lovers on the bumpy road to matrimony’ plot, Madden and Parker give us idiotic diversions meant to go for the cheap laugh, but that instead go nowhere quickly; like Norman inadvertently suspecting he has tipped a patch-eyed Scorpion Tuk-tuk driver (Ashok Pathak) too many rupiahs to take a hit out on Carol. Inexplicably, Madden and Parker have made short-shrift of Sunaina’s brother, Jay, who was a formidable stumbling block to the couple’s happiness in the first movie – mostly, as a doting elder protector of his sister’s already compromised virtue.
Quietly setting aside the fact Evelyn Greenslade already had a career as a consultant with Jay’s call center company in the first movie, we pick up her story, being offered a ‘buyer’s’ job by a prominent U.S. clothing manufacturer; because somewhere along the way she has become an expert on silks. Okay?!?  While the first movie not only intimated Evelyn and Douglas were well along in their relationship, the revised storyline in this sequel now suggests their evergreen ‘friendship’ has fallen on the mercy of two incorrigible setbacks: first, Douglas - a doddering and wimpy clod, who cannot put two sentences together and come up with one singularly romantic thought, except when expressing his devotion to Evelyn to Norman; and second, Douglas, quite unable to consummate their love affair because of Evelyn’s rather coy standoffishness. Fate needs a push it seems, and gets more than it bargained for in act three, when Douglas’ ex, uber-bitch, Jean Ainslie (Penelope Wilton) returns for a brief ride on her sanctimonious broomstick; this time accompanied by their infinitely more compassionate daughter, Laura (Claire Price); who just wants to see both parents happy, though decidedly not together. It’s probably just as well, since Jean wants a divorce to marry her new love back in the U.K. Astutely, Evelyn calls Jean out on her ruse. There is no new man in her life. She has merely come to twist the screw of their impermanent separation a little deeper into Douglas’ heart. This we could forgive. After all, what does one expect from a pig but a grunt? But from Evelyn, who repeatedly toys with Douglas’ affections, denying him entry to her bedchamber, rather cruelly discounting his importance in her fresh start – first, by taking the buyer’s job without his recommendation, then, second – by doing everything to avoid greater intimacy in their relationship, and finally, by repeatedly avoiding contact with his daughter, Laura, despite professing exactly the opposite desire to do so to his face, it is pure sacrilege and a complete betrayal of everything we were led to believe in the first movie about Dench’s right proper, tea and crumpets ex-pat with a fatally flawed sentimentality for emotionally wounded people.    
Taking the story out of Jaipur for a deadly dull and unnecessary prologue set in Los Angeles, where Muriel and Sonny engage a prominent elder community care provider to consider funding their second Marigold expansion, is a rather thoughtless way to set up the premise; Sonny repeatedly inserting both feet into his mouth during the meeting with Ty Burley (David Strathairn) who, nevertheless, agrees to send an anonymous advisor to Jaipur to scope out the details and file a report on his behalf, despite Muriel acting more as Sonny’s wrangler than his business partner. What a downer it is too, to have Muriel diagnosed with one of those rare and mysterious fatal diseases – its name, never spoken, its’ dark reality kept a secret from all – Muriel quietly exiting Sonny and Sunaina’s wedding in the eleventh hour to write her own obituary; Sonny sensing her absence and tearing off on his motorbike, only to discover her laid out in bed and telling him to “piss off” because she is tired and needs her beauty sleep.
It stands to reason any movie grossing $137-million on a relatively modest budget is going to be rife for a sequel. But is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel truly deserving of one? Arguably, no; since the first flick so supremely encapsulated its journey and exploration of latter-life crises on an ebulliently high note, tinged in thoughtful comedy and imbued with a spirit of genuine poignancy, wholly absent from its successor. Pointless and dull, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not even second rate; at 122 minutes, it’s mostly dribble-inducing, snooze-buttoned tedium, stitched together from afterthoughts discarded while making the original. I genuinely wanted to enjoy this follow-up to a movie I sincerely consider one of the best made in the last twenty-five years. Yet, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel falls apart almost from the moment its main titles dissolve into angst and cliché-ridden dramedy. Part of the problem here is the original overwhelmingly joyful message of ‘life is a journey’ (even when one is not entirely up to it) has been supplanted by successes achieved for all concerned at the start of this sequel. The Marigold, on the brink of foreclosure in the original movie, is now a thriving retirement village filled to capacity. Struggle on celluloid is always more richly rewarding than success, perhaps because most of us can deftly relate to the former, while only dreaming of the latter. It is richly rewarding to see the underdog triumph. But then what?
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel fills its run time with superficial nonsense inconsequential to our admiration for these characters. We all but lose the Norman/Carol subplot midway through this show; Norman’s initial concern he has inadvertently taken out a mafia-style hit on his woman, diffused by a case of mistaken language, but then train-wrecked by Norman’s realization Carol has been unfaithful to him, simply because she has assumed he is doing the same. Meanwhile, Madge has been entertaining two wealthy East Indian suitors at the Viceroy Club; toggling between afternoon rendezvous with each, chauffeured back and forth by Tuk-Tuk driver, Babul (Rajesh Tailang) who has a young daughter stricken with cancer. Evidently, Madge’s heart is awakened to the fact she does not love either man sufficiently to marry; her ego-driven quandary placated by Babul with great sincerity.
The last act of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a fanciful travesty.  Lavinia reveals herself to be an inspector, trolling the Marigold for possible annexation by the company she represents. Guy explains he has been lying about his credentials as a writer. He actually is the hotel inspector sent by Ty’s consortium to a have a look-see; momentarily taken an even greater interest in Sonny’s mother, who gradually warms to both the idea and the man. As Sonny repeatedly clashes with Kushal, first accusing him of stealing a property he planned to make a bid on, then demanding he stay away from Sunaina, his own endeavors for a predictably lavish wedding ceremony go hopelessly awry. Unable to agree to a partnership with Kushal that might have secured his business interests, Sonny’s reprieve comes seemingly from thin air; bidding for and buying out the Viceroy Club to turn its palatial grounds into the ‘second best’ Exotic Marigold Hotel. The Viceroy also becomes the site of Sonny and Sunaina’s uber-kitschy Bollywood wedding, complete with its own East Indian slant on the boot-scoot boogie.    
It is difficult to fault director, John Madden for wanting to return to the scene of one of his best-loved movies in a really long while; yet, as begrudgingly foolhardy of him to think he could improve upon what was already premium grade cinema perfection the first time around. Charm has escaped this second visit to the same well, perhaps because the ex-pats have, by now, managed to ransack the local color with their smug – if tenderized – superiority, and have since accepted that their own last act finales should belong to this strange and exotic land. They have settled in, found their groove, niche and level of expectation firmly established. Alas, it just is not any fun to watch people enjoying themselves despite the superficial detours the Madden/Parker screenplay keeps throwing up to momentarily create ripples of strife, easily avoidable and almost as instantly discounted by these accomplished players and their occasionally stuffy noblesse oblige, having entered the age of entitlement rather than enlightenment.
If anything, the ways of the East herein are treated even more quaintly as untouchable peasants, subservient to the wills and whims of these Toffy-nosed, but thoroughly muddle-headed outsiders. In some ways, it is as though colonization never ended in Jaipur. If anything Dev Patel transforms what was essentially a tender – if marginally flawed – performance in the original film, into an embarrassing bit of over-the-top shtick for this sequel; channeling Russell Peters for his caricature, broad brush-stroked in platitudes while playing a sort of Eddie Rochester Anderson ‘yes, boss’ hybrid that even Jack Benny would have ‘oh, please-ed’ right out of the auditorium; as Maggie Smith’s tart-mouthed Muriel readily tries to do but cannot on numerous occasions. There is way too much Patel and not enough of Tina Desai on tap in this follow-up. We are never entirely certain where her loyalties lie either; her playful innocence not really providing enough for the audience to go on. Does Sunaina truly love Sonny? Well, in the eleventh hour, she convincingly professes her unerring affinity for small guys with big ears over sexy studs already with their game together. Do we buy it? Does Sonny? Hmmm?!? 
Arguably, Tom Wilkinson’s closeted magistrate, returning to the origins of a disastrous homosexual affair begun nearly forty years before, only to discover forgiveness and compassion before he dies, was the greatest asset in the original film; the glue that kept this mobile of disparate characters circulating, though cleverly from spinning wildly out of control and/or bumping into one another. In his absence, Richard Gere is expected to pick up the slack. Alas, Gere is no Wilkinson, and, little more than token sexpot with a touch of the relic now creeping in about his weathered façade. Gere’s greatest selling feature was always his face and marginally his body (Remember American Gigolo?). But both have filled out in the interim and begun to droop, making it more apparent than ever Gere’s acting skills range somewhere west of those afforded other aging pretty boys like Michael Dudikoff, Keanu Reeves and Ryan Phillippe.  Good looks are often a curse, particularly as they rarely challenge their owner to look beyond what is reflected in the mirror, and, chiefly because the rest of us allow them to get away with practically murder, simply for the sheer enjoyment of ogling while they thrive. For Richard Gere, sex appeal (except, arguably for the sixty-plus crowd) is over and what is left is not really worth the price of admission.  
Ben Smithard’s lush and colorful cinematography does its best to mask the shortcomings in character development and plot structure but in the end The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel fails to entertain on the same level as its original.  More than anything else, I was exceptionally bored by how little was done with so much inspired talent reassembled for this much anticipated follow-up. If I had it to do over, my decision would be to pass, leaving my memories of the first feature intact. Because as Sonny once so ably explained, “…if everything isn’t alright…then perhaps it isn’t the end.” The ending to the first feature was all inclusive and perfect. No sequel required.
Unlike its predecessor, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was shot digitally with Sony’s CineAlta 65. Mostly, the results are pleasing, precise, and given to a razor-sharp explosion of colors appearing endemic to the East Indian way of life – or rather, a westerner’s light smattering of what it entails.  Close-ups are the most spectacular; with Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Richard Gere’s visages a veritable craggy roadmap of dense wrinkles indicative of the longevity in their respective careers. Daytime photography on the whole is impressive and stunning. We get less pleasing results under the cover of night; the CineAlta showing an inherent weakness in capturing velvety black levels without adding a curious haze; degrading detail and rendering tonal variations muddy brown, also plagued by some rather obvious digital noise.
On screens less than 40 inches, these shortcomings are negligible at best. On my 75 inch theater set-up, such imperfections were not merely present but duly noticeable and momentarily distracting. The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel boasts an impressive and immersive 5.1 DTS – noisily back lit with that whirligig buzz and bounce of densely populated streets; clear sounding dialogue and Thomas Newman’s re-purposed underscore, borrowing whole cues from the original movie, while orchestrating a few original pieces lightly feathered in, once more adding to the verisimilitude of this travelogue-styled excursion to the Far East. Extras are limited to a few press and promotion junkets made to promote the movie. They’re scant at best, and never go beyond mere snippets and sound bites to satisfy. We also get the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: it’s a weak sequel. I could have easily done without it.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
2.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS

2

Thursday, November 26, 2015

THE HURRICANE: Blu-ray (Samuel Goldwyn 1937) Kino Lorber

It has been duly noted that Hollywood’s fascination with the disaster epic correlates to times of great socio-political and economic upheaval; filmdom’s response to a crisis – presenting the audience with a manufactured one to dwarf the hardships already being endured: a classic case of misery loves company. John Ford’s The Hurricane (1937) falls just short of attaining ‘masterpiece’ status; second-tier Ford, undeniably better than first-tier most anybody else. The picture’s tour-de-force is unquestionably its titled fourteen minute tropical storm – superbly staged by special effects master, James Basevi, on a full-scale set built on the United Artists backlot with dump tanks and wind machines tearing to pieces the fictional island oasis of Manakoora. In his review, New York Times critic, Frank S. Nugent heralded this exhilarating sequence as “one of the most thrilling spectacles…a hurricane to blast you from the orchestra pit to the first mezzanine, film your eyes with spin-drift, beat at your ears with thunder, clutch at your heart, and, send your diaphragm vaulting over your floating rib into a region just south of your tonsils.” Point well put and taken. Few depictions of Mother Nature’s carnage have been as graphically or as convincingly captured on celluloid; the deluge that rips through paradise, crippling a small village and laying waste to its inhabitants, truly a visceral and harrowing experience – for the audience as well as the stars subjected to Ford’s devilishly enterprising verisimilitude.
Cleverly, yet almost as an afterthought, the screenplay by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Dudley Nichols telescopically focuses the bulk of Ford’s opus magnum on the characters about to suffer this natural tragedy; the taut and tenacious, Terangi (Jon Hall); half-caste first mate of the Katopua – a cargo ship captained by Nagle (Jerome Cowen); a curiously sympathetic commander, who goes to bat for his right-hand after a disastrous bar room brawl leads to Terangi’s six month incarceration in a Tahitian prison for striking and breaking the jaw of a drunken bigot. Manakoora’s governor, Eugene De Laage (Raymond Massey) will not lift a finger to alleviate Terangi’s sentence, despite vehement protestations from the island’s chronically inebriated physician, Dr. Kersaint (Thomas Mitchell) and the more restrained, though no less impassioned and tender pleas of his own compassionate spouse, Germaine (Mary Astor).
Astor once described John Ford as “very Irish – dark, but with a soft side he did everything to conceal.” Indeed, Ford could be classified as a curmudgeonly sadist towards his actors – especially those he secretly admired – in order to will his visions to life. And yet, one need only reconsider the empathy he exhibits toward the characters on the screen throughout his formidable body of work to realize his instinctual humanitarianism; Ford, undeniably conflicted and quite unable to reconcile the Jekyll and Hyde dualities of his public persona and private compassion for the frailty of human life. Perhaps, Mary Astor could relate to Ford’s dilemma. In 1936, she was still reeling from a scandal brought on by a highly publicized divorce from first husband, Dr. Franklyn Thorpe, who insisted Astor’s diary be included as evidence against her at trial. The court ruled in Astor’s favor. However, the diary was later stolen and leaked to the press; its revelations of a torrid sexual liaison, shocking the blue-nosed and more puritanical. Miraculously, Astor’s reputation in Hollywood was hotter than ever afterward, thanks in part to producer, Samuel Goldwyn’s refusal to fire her from his production of Dodsworth (1936). Decidedly, the diary illustrated an entirely ‘other side’ to Astor’s Teflon-coated screen image as the stately and demure lady of the maison.
The Hurricane is based on a best-selling novel by Charles Norhoff and James Norman Hall (star, Jon Hall’s uncle); co-authors of the wildly successful Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy. And yet, if anything, John Ford improves upon the rather lackluster depiction of the book’s central protagonist, Terangi; portrayed in the novel as more the stick-figure ideal of the noble savage than as a real man; Ford adding an almost Christ-like patina to this earthy, and queerly ‘virginal’, yet ever so slightly homo-erotic muscle god of the South Seas. In Jon Hall, Ford has the perfect ‘raw material’ with which to play and mold; Hall’s mixed heritage (half Swiss/half Tahitian), coupled with his ingenious interpretation of that ‘noble savage’ transcending most of the usual clichés afforded this architype. Ford’s romanticized allegiance to native traditions is closely aligned to his natural contempt for smug superiority as a self-appointed renaissance man – even in 1936, Ford’s world-view of the past having fallen quaintly out of fashion with contemporary society. His intrinsic harmony between nature and humanity, the latter destined to be torn asunder, not only by the storm, but equally by a clash of cultures that certain characters’ in this film disregard in their futile attempts to overlook mankind’s transience on the sands of time; leaving no more than vanishing footprints – literally – upon these windswept beaches, meant to be wiped clean by the wrath of God. Few film makers have struck such an indelible impression or offered as rare, blatant and impassioned a social commentary. Once asked by a well-meaning reporter if he believed in infusing his movies with a highly personal social conscience, the caustic Ford’s curtly replied, “What in the hell else does any man live for?”
Indeed, The Hurricane taps into reoccurring themes familiar in Ford’s body of work: the white European rape of the natural world, man’s unnatural disdain for his fellow man, particularly for any indigenous cultures foreign to his own, expressed with Ford’s clear-eyed scorn for colonization. It’s the French being put under Ford’s critical microscope this time – mismanaging their seemingly peaceful alliance with the Polynesians; turning an innocuous confrontation between Hall’s butch first mate and William B. Davidson’s abusive drunk – into a purposeless cause célèbre; more revealing and potent for Ford’s overriding exposure of racism. Alas, as screenwriter, Dudley Nichols, a superb constructionist, fancied himself as something of a literary wit and playwright, with loftier ambitions to write ‘meaningful’ prose, The Hurricane periodically settles, though mercifully, never sinks, under the weight of a series of heated exchanges between De Laage and Kersaint, rather uncomfortably situated on platitudes instead of passions. “I am not the representative of well-meaning points of view,” De Laage rather apocryphally states, “I represent a civilization that cannot afford to show confusion or conflict to the people it governs.” Later, De Laage’s points of law will grow increasingly intractable, less convincingly to mask his own discriminatory streak and virtually belying all earlier claims that he is not a martinet, when, in fact, he is precisely the worst kind of all; because he allows points of man-made law to be muddled with a more intrinsic force of justice – God, on high, arguably committing the supreme smite to rectify this situation; alas, incurring casualties among the saints as well as the sinners against His natural order.
The Hurricane opens with a rather uncharacteristically ebullient fanfare by Alfred Newman under Samuel Goldwyn’s title credit before falling silent to a howling wind for most of the main titles. Newman’s sparse orchestral underpinnings scattered throughout the rest of the movie are a combination of traditional dramatic score and homages to more indigenous island chants. We open on a passenger steamer sailing past a desolate stretch of seemingly uncharted land, stripped bare of virtually all its natural habitat, with only the dilapidated remnants of a primitive stone structure reaching up toward the sky. A female passenger (Inez Courtney) takes notice of Dr. Kersaint, staring blankly off the port bow, tears welling up in his eyes. She asks him when they will reach the tropical South Sea Islands and he painfully replies they already have, pointing to the barren wasteland passing before them and describing it as one of the most beautiful spots on earth. We regress in flashback to the isle of Manakoora some nine years earlier; the arrival of the Katopua bringing with her cargo two welcomed passengers: first mate, Terangi and the Govenor’s beloved wife, Germaine De Laage. The governor, Eugene and Germaine share a tender moment on the docks.
It is a day of celebration, as Terangi is engaged to marry Marama (Dorothy Lamour); daughter of Chief Mehevi (Al Kikume). Two bridal ceremonies are conducted; the first, rather austere, inside Father Paul’s (C. Aubrey Smith) modest chapel; the latter, an exuberant outdoor festival; the bride and groom, stripped of their colonial duds by the natives and redressed in traditional native garb. Only Dr. Kersaint attends this hedonistic revelry, getting properly drunk in his participation. Ford remains rather circumspect about the wedding night; fading from a moonlit frolic along the beachhead to the early break of dawn. Marama has had a premonition by way of a very bad dream; the wind howling. It is an ill omen. But Terangi will have none of it. After all, he is highly respected by Captain Nagle who, alas, must sail for Tahiti at once and thus cut Terangi’s honeymoon short. In Tahiti, Terangi and some of the other Polynesians shipmates are accosted at the Club Hibiscus by a slovenly white supremacist, who drunkenly challenges Ternagi to leave the premises at once or face the consequences. Be careful what you wish for, I suppose; as Terangi, young and more physically robust, easily knocks the paunchy middle-age drunk senseless with a single punch, breaking the man’s jaw. In retaliation, the man raises charges against Terangi; Tahiti’s Governor (Lionel Braham) and magistrate (Spencer Charters) leveling a hefty 6 months incarceration in hard labor at a nearby mining camp.
Capt. Nagle goes to bat for Terangi. But it is no use. White justice seemingly must side with its’ equally as lily pale clientele – even those as openly despicable. Terangi agrees to take his lumps; the camp’s Warden (John Carradine) mellifluously torturing him to the point where he makes a daring escape attempt. Unable to reach the Katopua, Terangi returns bedraggled to the penal colony, taken back to prison; the judge now leveling another year on his sentence. With subsequent failed ventures, Ternagi manages to turn a cool six months into sixteen years of hard labor; locked in a dank and squalid cell, living amongst the rats in solitary confinement. He serves eight long years before launching into his most ambitious getaway. This time, Terangi is successful. Alas, in his efforts to regain freedom, Terangi strikes a guard with such force he dies from the assault. Now wanted for murder, Terangi makes his way in a canoe back to Marama and Tita (Kuulei De Clercq); the daughter he has never known. With Father Paul’s counsel, the family lives obscurely right under De Laage’s nose. Kersaint, who early preached and pleaded with De Laage to reconsider his impenetrable stance on Terangi’s incarceration, now condemns him for his lack of humanity. Indeed, it has begun to consume De Laage’s every waking thought; his heart of stone infecting his marriage. Eventually, Father Paul confesses his complicity in Terangi’s retreat out from under the repressive yoke of the law. “You helped Terangi?” a bewildered De Laage inquires, “You helped a murderer?!?”  “I aided a man whose heart is innocent,” Father Paul admits, a fine line of distinction that De Laage cannot wrap his head around. “You’ve given aid to anarchy and bloodshed,” De Laage forewarns. “I’ll answer for it,” Father Paul adds.
And indeed, he shall. One of the oddities about The Hurricane is it does not conform to the time-honored Hollywood precept about virtue being its own reward. Ford is casting to type I suppose, Raymond Massey a fairly formidable baddie and C. Aubrey Smith unimpeachable as the devout cleric. And yet, Paul will be sacrificed to the caprices of God’s wrath while De Laage will survive the aftermath of not knowing what has happened to his wife after nature’s catastrophe. The last act of The Hurricane is devoted to a nightmarish spectacle of total annihilation and this aftermath in self-discovery. Unlike most disaster epics, with emphasis squarely placed on the cataclysm about to unfold, Ford has cleverly fleshed out the crisis of conscience within his backstory, shifting the audience’s focus and concern toward what will happen to the characters he has created. As the wind begins to pick up, De Laage learns Terangi, Marama and Arai have been living right under his nose. Terangi intends to launch a canoe with his family to escape De Laage’s fury; De Laage ordering Capt. Nagle to set sail immediately and bring Terangi to justice. This time he will surely hang.
Germaine pleads for her husband’s compassion. Alas, he has none to spare. The Katopua is barely out of port when the big wind strikes the island, whipping up the waters in the bay. The natives are forced to take refuge in their primitive huts; lashing themselves to trees to escape the rising tides. Father Paul hurries his native congregation along with Germaine inside the church while Kersaint climbs into one of the canoes with Marama’s sister who is about to give birth. Bad timing all around as the hellacious gale tears apart ever last stitch of civilization on this small island. Many are killed, crushed and/or maimed; Terangi managing to navigate his boat back to shore and lash Marama and Tita to a nearby tree. Rushing into the church, he begs Father Paul to reconsider his implacable stance to remain at its altar. While Father Paul allows anyone who wishes to leave to do just that, too many put their faith in his man of the cloth and are doomed because of it. The winds pummel and crush the modest church, killing Father Paul and his parishioners. The tree supporting Terangi, his family, and, Germaine is torn from its roots and flung into the raging waters. Miraculously, all survive nature’s apocalypse. By dawn’s early light, the Katapuo limps into port, discovering no sign of life on Manakoora except for Kersaint and Marama’s sister, shell-shocked and still clutching her dead baby.  De Laage’s focus now shifts to learn what has become of his wife.
A short while later, Terangi, Marama, Tita and Germaine are found unharmed, thanks to Terangi’s quick thinking. Realizing they will starve if not rescued, Terangi builds a bonfire on the shore, its’ billowing smoke attracting De Laage’s attention. Alas, when De Laage finally arrives, he finds only Germaine waiting for him on the sand; Terangi and his family once again escaped by sea to parts unknown. His heart sufficiently softened, De Laage finally hears his wife’s desperate pleas to give up the search to bring Terangi to justice. Justice has indeed been served by a higher authority; God resetting the purpose of mankind, as Cecil B. De Mille once astutely surmised, “with a blast from his nostrils”. The Hurricane concludes without us ever knowing whether Terangi and his family make it to safety; Ford more concerned with the redemption of De Laage’s once embittered and prejudice heart – presumably, now having been enlightened.
Despite a few narrative flaws, The Hurricane is deftly scripted by Messrs. Garrett and Nichols, and, as magnificently directed by John Ford. Arguably, the hurricane is the real star of the picture. And yet, all three have conspired to give us enough style, substance, and, backstory prior to the storm surge to do more than merely whet our appetites for the welfare of this ensemble. Arguably, we care for some more than others; Terangi and Marama’s survival taking precedent over Germaine and Eugene, despite Ford’s best efforts to shift the focus to them in the final reel. This clumsy shift presents a minor problem for the denouement, since we are expected to invest ourselves in the redemption of Eugene’s soul after nearly two hours of investment in Terangi’s struggle and strife. Worse, the native element is broadly painted in homogenized brush strokes; Ford relying a tad too heavily on the cliché of the ‘noble savage’. While the white settlers are given unique personalities and character traits that make them stand apart from one another as well as the local color, the Polynesians come off as unified, sweetly naïve and benevolent, virtually unaccustomed to such communal sophistications or even capable of any complex thoughts.
Arguably, audiences of the day would not have found such generalizations unappealing. But in hindsight, they hamper our appreciation for any of these characters as real people. Dorothy Lamour, looking positively luminous in her sarong, radiantly captured in the afterglow of the setting sun and/or backlit by moonlight, and, Jon Hall, perpetually bare-chested to illustrate his more primal virility, in stark contrast to the interloping white settler (always immaculately attired in crisp white linens from horn to hoof), are a gorgeous couple to behold. But they remain architypes at best, put forth by a white middle-European perspective for which Hollywood in the thirties was well-known. Ultimately, none of this matters – much – as the plot is more than serviceable, and the star turns from Mary Astor, Raymond Massey, Thomas Mitchell (and to a lesser extent, C. Aubrey Smith and Jerome Cowen) provide enough to sustain our interests until the hellacious squall hits, forever changing not only a way of life, but an understanding amongst its survivors.     
The Hurricane comes to us in a new 1080p transfer, provided by MGM/Fox and licensed to Kino Lorber via third-party distribution. While the results are a marked improvement over the way this movie has previously looked on home video, they remain not altogether successful for various reasons; chiefly, I suspect, because no good original elements have survived these 80+ years. The B&W image suffers from weaker than anticipated contrast levels, also some light breathing around the peripheries of the screen and a rather dense patina of film grain, not always looking indigenous to its source, and occasionally, slightly digitized. Age-related artifacts are present, but, for the most part, have been greatly tempered and do not terribly distract. The image definitely tightens up, particularly in close-ups, thanks to the relatively high and consistent bit rate. But whole portions – especially long shots – are too soft and marginally out of focus; much more so than Bert Glennon’s evocatively gauzy cinematography was meant to suggest. John Ford was actually quite disappointed he was not allowed to go on location to shoot the picture; Catalina Island, a poor substitute for Tahiti, and the obvious sets constructed on UA’s back lot, not always a clever amalgam of full-scale buildings, miniatures and matte process and rear projection.
Over time, these disparate elements have degraded at different rates, thus peeling away yet another layer to make their artifice even more transparent. This Blu-ray isn’t atrocious. In fact, on the whole the results are moderately pleasing. But they are far – very far, indeed – from perfection. The audio has fared considerably better; no hiss or pop and clear – its mono, lacking bass tonality – but sounding fairly authentic to what audiences must have heard in 1937. It would have been prudent of MGM/Fox to reconsider a full-blown restoration. Extras are limited to an audio commentary by film historian, Joseph McBride, the author of Searching for John Ford: A Life, plus an original, and very badly worn theatrical trailer. McBride’s voice is shaky, but he nevertheless acquits the casual listener of some very interesting tidbits about the man and this movie, occasionally veering off course, but always bringing us back to the reason such commentaries are invaluable. Cash-strapped or not, movie art of this vintage is deteriorating at an alarming rate and more concerted preservation ought to have been applied here to ensure The Hurricane will endure as a point of study and entertainment for future generations. Bottom line: The Hurricane is a powerful film on many levels. While it may not be one of John Ford’s most easily recognizable, or even as fondly recalled movies, it nevertheless proves an admirable addendum to Ford’s formidable body of work. Highly recommended for content/only marginally recommended for overall transfer quality.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
3
EXTRAS

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Monday, November 23, 2015

HOLIDAY IN MEXICO (MGM 1946) Warner Archive

In the echelons of musical sweethearts, Suzanne Burce's journey from cherub-cheeked Portland cutie to winsome soprano superstar is something of its own starlit daydream. She came to the attention of Universal Studios through the enterprising machinations of her mother, Eileen, who pushed Suzanne at the age of 5 into her first radio appearance on Stars of Tomorrow. By age 12, Sue had become Oregon’s Victory Girl with a fairly breakneck schedule of two weekly radio appearances. Under the pretext of ‘taking a vacation’, Eileen orchestrated her daughter’s big debut on Janet Gaynor’s popular radio program, Hollywood Showcase – a talent competition easily won by Suzanne, directly leading to an audition for both Louis B. Mayer and David O. Selznick. Ironically, Mayer signed the pint-sized powerhouse, then quickly loaned her out to make two B-programmers for United Artists, Song of the Open Road (1944) and Delightfully Dangerous (1945).  Though hardly artistic achievements, these pictures made money. Moreover, the girl in them had proved a hit, and Mayer – no fool, and, equally not known for wasting time or talent he could mine to his heart’s content on his own terms – quickly built a homegrown showcase around his latest discovery.
Rechristened Jane Powell, Suzanne’s swift ascendance as one of the studio’s pint-sized chanteuses is nothing short of miraculous. For a while, she held the distinction of never appearing in a movie in which she was not cast as the star, MGM effectively exploiting her in one extravaganza after the next – her status as the new kid on the block quickly transformed into a seasoned veteran of the Hollywood gristmill. Powell’s stardom runs contrary to the path taken by virtually every other starlet who came to Metro during its golden age. Even Judy Garland, arguably the greatest musical asset ever known within these hallowed halls, went through a rather lengthy period of adjustment before becoming one of Metro’s leading ladies. But Powell just was one from the beginning. Despite her formidable talent, modesty prevented Powell from developing the air of a diva. Alas, it also led to isolation, not only from her peers back home, but also the rest of the pack at MGM. For the most part, she worked tirelessly and without complaints, eventually becoming the studio’s number two box office draw after Garland. “I never felt as though I was a part of it,” Powell would later reflect, “…and I couldn’t tell anybody back home what was going on…that I had met Clark Gable, or anybody else, because they would think I was being snobbish. So I would just write letters and say ‘everything’s fine’ and keep to myself.”
Jane Powell’s third movie and her MGM debut, George Sidney's Holiday in Mexico (1946), is a minor curiosity, made mostly in support of Roosevelt’s ‘good neighbor’ policy towards Latin America, but immeasurably fleshed out by Metro's inimitable ultra-glossy production values. Produced at the height of the studio's love affair with the musical as an indigenous and uniquely American art form, in Holiday in Mexico we get to see Powell at her modest beginnings as an actress perhaps, but already fully formed as a singer, supremely accomplished and capable of balancing both the weighty classics and pop standards of their time with equal aplomb. Produced by Joe Pasternak, Holiday in Mexico is a gargantuan undertaking. Powell receives the lion's share of the songs, beginning with The Street Song from The Firefly and capped off by a haunting rendition of Shubert's Ave Maria, accompanied by Jose Iturbi and the MGM studio orchestra. In between these bookends, Powell sweetly trills Les filles de Cadix. She ought to also have performed the invigorating ‘Why So Gloomy?’ at the British Embassy; a number recorded and shot, but ultimately winding up on the cutting room floor (later resurfacing as an outtake in That’s Entertainment! III.
Looking back, it is rather obvious Mayer was taking no chances with Holiday in Mexico; the ensemble chocked full of sure-fire box office talent to draw the public into the theater; for the more mature attendees – Walter Pigeon and Ilona Massey, the latter committing her more robust singing pipes to Csak Egy Szep Lany (or, The Gypsy Lullaby).  To satisfy the ‘good neighbor’ slant, there is Xavier Cugat, ebullient and charming as always, warbling Yo Te Amo Mucho - And That's That while coddling his bug-eyed Chihuahua and skirting the dark and flashing glances of an obviously jealous paramour, as well as providing background accompaniment elsewhere in the movie; also, Jose Iturbi, congenial to a fault and showing off his flying fingers on Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto N. 2 in C Minor, and later, a blistering boogie-woogie interpretation of Three Blind Mice; accompanied by his sister, Amparo (who also is briefly glimpsed in the finale). Holiday in Mexico is really more a cavalcade than a movie; Isobel Lennart’s screenplay (cribbing from a story idea by William Kozlenko) merely interested in providing the most threadbare of connective tissues to get us from plot points ‘A’ to ‘B’ with neatly sandwiched dialogue and a few chuckle-worthy bits of comedy between these musical performances. I mean, was it really necessary to stage a ‘flashback’ sequence just to show us how Pigeon’s kindly diplomat and Massey’s hearty chanteuse first met? Probably not. But Holiday in Mexico excels as the sort of superficially polished and mind-bogglingly all-star claptrap MGM had perfected with relish throughout the 1940's and would continue, for a time, to promote with varying degrees of success in the fifties. Moreover, it is a picture whose sole purpose is to entertain without testing the boundaries of innovation. On that score, Holiday in Mexico is decidedly a highly enjoyable confection; sweet and lovely; full of the bounce and sparkle for which Metro, at its zenith, was justly celebrated.
Joseph Pasternak’s infallible formula, blending the light with time-honored tomes in classical music, glammed up and slightly re-orchestrated to appeal to the masses, strikes exactly the right chords – light-headed, but heart-strong. Holiday in Mexico is by far the most extravagant of the pictures built exclusively around Powell’s extraordinary gifts as a singer. Incidentally, the title is something of a curiosity since, in the movie, Pigeon’s American Ambassador Jeffrey Evans and his daughter, Christine (Powell) are neither on holiday nor planning a holiday – at least, to Mexico - but rather permanently reside there, living quite comfortably in their lush and tropical hacienda. I suspect, the ‘holiday’ in the title is moreover meant to sell the picture to audiences with promises of sweet escapism abroad that many, only just begun to recover from the Great Depression, and, those terrible years during WWII would be hard-pressed to afford on their own otherwise. For logistic reasons, none of Holiday in Mexico was actually shot in Mexico, MGM’s reincarnation of the pampas and sombreros on the back lot and sound stages, unapologetically colorful, stately and quite unlike most anything likely to be seen in reality. Ah well, it served a purpose then. Yet, Holiday in Mexico remains charmingly effervescent to a fault. We have Powell’s presence largely to thank for this.
In Jane Powell there is a natural gift to effortlessly invade and disinfect whatever natural cynicism or folly has befallen us in the day. It is a rare ability, one that, ostensibly, has transcended time, and, remains quite impossible to quantify. For there have been other singers before and since Powell’s time possessing such musical range (some would argue, better); and other child-star actresses as beguilingly sweet and as genuine in their performances on screen. And yet, an intangible aura lingers about Powell, something to do with the way she’s been lit by cinematographer extraordinaire, Harry Stradling Sr.; as though through a veil, preventing any further quantification or qualification of its subtext and/or meaning. Yes, Powell can sing her way into our hearts while hitting the high C’s. That much is a given. But she also tends to linger somewhere more deeply in our collective soul, transfixing and elevating mere pop culture into more meaningful – if highly sentimentalized – movie-land art.  Powell herself, would recall an experience on a New York street some years later; an elderly woman spontaneously approaching to thank her for her musicals, adding “when I used to watch one of your movies, I just knew it was going to be a good day.” Undeniably, Powell’s screen persona radiates warmth – perhaps, not immediately apparent (as she quite often plays headstrong, even pert and mildly annoying and opinionated teenagers too mature for their own good), though nevertheless, imbued with prepubescent sincerity befitting her age, at least, in these early pictures.
Herein, Powell stars as Christine, daughter of U.S. Ambassador, Jeffrey Evans who is stationed in Mexico. The self-appointed glue that keeps her father's life running like clockwork, Christine is entreated by romantic overtures from the British Ambassador's son, Stanley Owens (Roddy McDowell). Although Christine regards Stanley with minor affection, she doesn't really consider him a beau. Jeffrey dotes on Christine. Moreover, he allows her some latitude with the embassy staff, perhaps overcompensating as the single parent since the death of Christina’s mum. All is fair in love, however, and Jeffrey is delighted to learn an old flame, Countess Karpathy (Ilona Massey) has resurfaced after an absence of some years. The two were passionate sweethearts in their younger years while Jeffrey was stationed in Hungary. Alas, time – and a mysterious mutual breakup (the Hollywood kind that leaves no residual animosities) has kept the pair apart ever since. Now, fate has intervened, or rather – Christine; making the rounds to invite the local gentry to the American Embassy Ball.
Stanley wishes Christine would pay more attention to him and less to the ball. Either way, however, he is more than willing to help her along in her duties. The pair make two pit stops; first, to Casa Cugat, the fashionable nightclub where Xavier Cugat and his Orchestra perform nightly. Christine has no way of knowing the Countess, now singing with Cugie’s band, is actually her father’s former flame. Nor does the Countess let on she has known Jeffrey before. But she does break a cardinal rule – never to sing at private parties – to attend the ball. The other call Stanley and Christine pay is on Jose Iturbi; at present, a very busy man. Iturbi mistakes Chris to be the new singer he is hoping to audition for an upcoming outdoor concert. Chris proves capable of fulfilling all these requirements as his winsome chanteuse. One problem: she has no intention of singing at the concert. After all, it would conflict with her father’s plans to take a much needed father/daughter vacation to Vermont to visit his wife’s mother.
Fate intervenes yet again. So does diplomacy – and youth. Jeffrey and the Countess begin to see quite a lot of each other. Their romantic pas deux is not lost on Christine, who gradually begins to resent the time her father is spending away from her. In the meantime, Christine’s best friend, Yvette Baranga (Helene Stanley), the daughter of the French Ambassador, develops an unrequited bad case of puppy love towards Jeffrey. Evidently, love has turned Jeff’s head too, because not only is he quite oblivious to Yvette’s advances, but he also seems incapable of noticing how Christine has been repeatedly wounded by not being included in at least some of his outings with the Countess. Overcompensating for this parental neglect, Christine throws herself at Iturbi’s head, determined theirs’ should be a May/December love affair. Stanley is understandably distraught to learn Chris has thrown him over for Iturbi. Moreover, he thinks Christine is making a fool of herself. Pointing out the obvious to Jeffrey, Stanley is playfully dismissed for his candor and honesty.
But Jeff isn’t laughing so hard when he discovers the new portrait on Chris’ easel in her bedroom is of Iturbi, painted with the same tender devotion she once committed to capturing his own likeness in charcoals. Jeff confronts Iturbi and, after several moments of miscommunication, is immeasurably relieved to discover Jose is not in love with Christine. She has, in fact, imagined the whole grand amour in her head. To prove how implausible such a love match would be, Jeffrey convinces Iturbi to invite Christine and him to a dinner party at which time Jose will reveal to her he is already a grandfather.  Jeffrey and Christine – painted up to artificially look twice her natural age – have barely arrived when Iturbi springs his two granddaughters (Tonia and Teresa Hero) on them. Suddenly realizing the chasm of discrepancy in their ages, Christine is quite unable to go through with dinner. However, upon their return to the embassy, Jeffrey encounters Yvette waiting with her father (Mikhail Rasumny) and mother (Marina Koshetz) in the living room.
Apparently, Yvette has believed the same lie as Christine, informing her parents she is to be engaged to Jeffrey. Alas, the Ambassador makes it clear to Jeffrey the dowry he intends to bestow upon him is small. Realizing his only way out of this difficult situation is to downplay the romance concocted by Yvette, Jeffrey instead suggests only a very large dowry could induce him to consider marriage to the girl. Insulted by the notion Jeffrey would marry Yvette for money alone, the Ambassador storms out of the house, dragging his daughter by the ear and ordering his tearful wife to follow.  Jeffrey decides to set the record straight with Christine. But when he goes upstairs he discovers Chris packing, apparently determined to leave Mexico and live with her grandmother, thus betraying her commitments made to Iturbi for the concert.  Jeffrey explains that “everyone plays the fool now and then” and that whatever Chris’ decision – stay or run – he will support it as only a loving father could.
Jeffrey outlines the rewards of choosing to stay and face the awkwardness she has created; getting to know the Countess better and, very likely, as a new mother; maturing in her own outlook on love with Stanley – a boy of her years who really is a solid potential love match – singing at the concert because as any woman of integrity knows, one must always honor commitments, and finally, apologizing to Iturbi for making an ass of herself.  A tearful Christine comes to the right conclusion for all the right reasons. The scene dissolves to the stupendous outdoor concert finale; a moonlight amphitheater with a candle-lit choral surrounding Christine and a two hundred piece orchestra in the foreground, conducted by Iturbi to the skin-crawling strains of Schubert’s Ave Maria.
Holiday in Mexico won’t win any awards for high art, but it remains a supremely satisfying bit of escapist nonsense put forth with great panache by arguably, the only studio capable to manage its artifice and effervescence in song. Those who would quietly discount the picture as all fizz and no cola, however, would do better to reconsider the embarrassment of riches on display; Harry Stradling Sr.’s luminous cinematography offset by Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith’s elegant production design, and, Irene and Valles sumptuous garments. L.B. Mayer’s standing order at MGM – and not only for musicals – was all women should appear beautiful and all men, handsome. We get this and more in Holiday in Mexico. George Sidney directed the picture, but he really is at the service of this show’s producer, Joseph Pasternak whose particular brand of ultra-glossy European schmaltz has never been equaled. There are more sophisticated musicals out there to be sure, but Holiday in Mexico is just a lot of fun. With Powell, Cugat, Massey and Iturbi working the room, it’s also boffo entertainment, and, a genuine bang for your buck.
Holiday in Mexico comes to us via the Warner Archive. How I wouldn’t give the Archive to go back and do this one right on Blu-ray. For now, the results on MOD DVD are not too far off the mark. While scratches persist, and color-timing blips crop up now and then, the Technicolor on this nearly 80 year old classic has held up remarkably well.  I suspect somewhere along the way Holiday in Mexico received a refurbishment of its Technicolor master from Warner, because not only does the image pop with bright and bold colors, but flesh tones are darn-near perfect. Even more remarkable: no differential shrinkage of the 3-strip negative – the image tight and razor-sharp throughout and showing a lot of fine detail with virtually no compression artifacts or other digital anomalies. Honestly, outside of this catalog title getting a Blu-ray upgrade, I could not be more pleased with these results. Not so much the audio: occasionally crackling during the higher registers of Powell’s singing, and coming off fairly garbled during the first few stanzas of the climactic Ave Maria. The audio’s not terrible, but it decidedly needs some work.  If this ever gets the Blu-treatment via the archive I really would love WB to seek out the separate audio stems and produce a repurposed 5.1 stereo option for Powell’s songs.  I believe this is still possible. Bottom line: recommended as mindlessly appealing fluff entertainment with Jane Powell the real selling feature.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS

0

Saturday, November 21, 2015

FANTASIA/FANTASIA 2000: Blu-ray (Walt Disney 1940-1999) Disney Home Video

For me, it is virtually impossible to hear even one note of Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours without instantly conjuring to mind visions of lithe and balletic hippos, ostriches and alligators cavorting together in one of the lighter moments from Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940). What a miraculous achievement it remains; ensconced somewhere in the darkened recesses of my memory banks and likely to have been absorbed into at least a part of my DNA since that first viewing so long ago. Exposed to Walt’s masterpiece for the very first time at the age of eleven, I can honestly say I was instantly, and as equally, enthralled and bemused; in hindsight, two reasons I suspect the picture did not go over as it ought to in 1940 – first, because, at eleven, the scope of my child’s comprehension of what animation was – or rather, could be – was unaccustomed to what I was about to see; also, my expectations for the art of animation then had been primarily weaned on, and gleaned from, Saturday morning cartoons and other Disney features, following the conventional wisdom of interjecting plot into these colorful pictures. But a ‘concert feature’…what was that?!?
With great certainty, I could then profess to never having seen a movie like Fantasia before. Later, I was to discover no movie like Fantasia, in fact, existed. Walt’s unique vision for his ‘concert feature’ was meant to be an ever-evolving series of fanciful experimentations and lushly exuberant meditations. That Fantasia miserably failed to find overwhelming favor with audiences in 1940, and together with Pinocchio’s spectacular implosion at the box office, fiscally handicapped Walt’s creative freedom to pursue more elaborate projects for the duration of WWII, would continue to preoccupy my overall beguilement with Fantasia over the years, perhaps as much as it stuck in Walt’s craw, perplexedly and begrudgingly to haunt him to his grave. Indeed, in Walt’s own lifetime he was never again to test the creative waters so unreservedly, falling back on lucrative ‘packaged’ entertainments like Make Mine Music and Melody Time (the poor man’s pop-art version of Fantasia) while diversifying his empire into live-action movies, and later television and finally, theme parks to stabilize his company’s fiscal security. Arguably, Walt would gamble only once more with ‘cartoons’: 1959’s lavishly appointed Sleeping Beauty – the second highest-grossing picture of 1959 that, alas – due to Walt’s own extravagances in preparing the picture – did not make back its production costs either.
With subsequent theatrical reissues of Fantasia in the late sixties, its’ reputation as a cult classic grew. Today, Fantasia is readily and rightfully regarded as a magnum opus; one of many made under Walt’s inspired leadership, cementing our communal understanding of childhood, both its daydreams and nightmares as no filmmaker before or since has even dared with such audacity, consistency and purpose. Walt Disney remains one of the most instantly recognizable and influential filmmakers – nee, geniuses – of the 20th century.  If we can agree that the purpose of animation is to illustrate that which otherwise cannot be expressed in the cinema arts, then Fantasia endures, and must unequivocally be considered the purest form of self-expression, surreal and sublimely artistic, monumentally engrossing, and, supremely satisfying. Walt’s ‘concert feature’ surpasses all expectations, though chiefly, in marrying the intangibleness of some of the world’s most exquisite orchestral compositions with the finitely detail of hand-drawn cell animation. 
Merely to reconsider where Walt’s extraordinary gifts as a storyteller might have taken us, if only Fantasia had been both the critical and financial zeitgeist he had hoped for, saddens me. But the pall of the nation’s more highbrow musicologists, casting their aspersions upon his brainchild in 1940, forced Walt into a sort of resentfully apologetic retraction of his passions, issuing a statement to the press that, in part, read “Perhaps Bach and Beethoven are strange bedfellows for Mickey Mouse, but it’s been a lot of fun.” Yet, even Walt would disagree with this assessment of Fantasia; the experience of making it proving as uncertain to downright hellish as anything he might have anticipated at the outset. Having spent far too much in development on his latest ‘Silly Symphony’ short subject in order to resuscitate the lagging popularity of his most famous creation – Mickey Mouse – Walt had effectively passed the point of no return when a chance meeting with renowned conductor, Leopold Stokowski seemed to offer him a way out. Why not make the short a feature and build an entire series of vignettes around ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’; the only commonality between them, their adherence to classical music and a running commentary provided by no less an authority, than noted critic and musicologist, Deems Taylor? From the outset, Fantasia was begun as a highly cerebral and thoroughly impassioned project and its’ concept was nothing less than revolutionary.
But by the end, Fantasia had drained every last drop, not only of Walt’s creative energies, but equally, depleted the coffers of his studio. Looking back now, one is even more humbled by Walt’s fervor to elevate the art of animation to a level as yet unsurpassed.  It was risky business even back then, in fact; too risky for RKO, the studio usually distributing Walt’s pictures to partake. Indeed, RKO wanted absolutely nothing to do with Fantasia, forcing Walt to incur the spectacular costs to produce and distribute it himself for a limited roadshow engagement – and in Fantasound no less (a precursor to modern-day stereo). The creation of Fantasound alone is a staggering innovation, decades ahead of its time. Today, we reflect on such achievements from a vantage truly spoiled by our technological miracles. But in 1940, Walt and his sound mastering technicians were nothing short of burgeoning with the true pioneer spirit. Modern era Dolby owes a great deal to Fantasound and to Walt Disney for having the guts to invest in a virtual unknown commodity. 
Over the years, an insidious rumor has evolved to suggest Fantasia was both a critical and fiscal fiasco. Nothing could be further from the truth. In New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago, the roadshow engagement of Fantasia played for a year to sell-out crowds with tickets sold months in advance. In these larger metropolitan centers Fantasia was exuberantly greeted by the public too with giddy excitement. The New York Times, San Francisco Herald and Chicago’s Chronicle ladled their high praise on the picture, calling it ‘magnificent’, ‘stupendous’ and ‘a miracle’.  Nevertheless, Walt was to endure a double whammy with Fantasia’s release; first, to meet the crippling cost of retooling a select few theaters to accommodate the experimental six-track ‘Fantasound’ – also, to produce a collectible programme befitting a night out at the ‘legitimate’ theater; second, to realize the very nature of Fantasia’s conception virtually prevented it from reaching the smaller markets in a manner befitting its initial design.  Point taken: Fantasia was practically designed to fail.
Yet, it was the utterly tepid audience reception outside of these big city venues, compounded by the authoritative ennui of music critics that ultimately frustrated Walt. Having failed to grasp his concept – either labeling it as Walt’s ‘lowbrow’ attempt to do highbrow proud, or chastising Walt’s sheer chutzpah to aspire to highbrow – inadvertently alienating the longhairs and their middle class counterparts who, presumably, had only come to the movies to see a glorified Mickey Mouse cartoon; the net result of their temerity to chastise what they obviously had not understood left Walt defeated and vowing never again to chase after such an single-minded vision. The same critics who had heralded Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938) as an incomparable masterpiece were now suggesting Disney’s reach had exceeded his grasp; small-town America – the ‘bread and butter’ barometer by which all movie-land product was either judged a winner or a dud – giving Fantasia their ‘thumbs down’; apparently, agreeing with these critics.
Barring the ‘jam session’ and introduction of the soundtrack as a living entity, effectively inserted as an ‘intermission’ midway; Fantasia is divided into seven distinct musical vignettes; each quite unlike the one preceding or following it and, even more incredibly, divergent from anything yet achieved in the medium of hand-drawn animation; the final sequence consolidating two contrasting pieces of music (Modeste Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, and Franz Schubert’s Ave Marie) to illustrate the struggle between the forces of good and evil. Walt virtually defied conventional wisdom in his own time to explore some of the most progressive avenues, bringing unprecedented scope and complexity to his 20th century ‘world view’ of these ensconced concert pieces.  Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor opens Fantasia with homage to German-American abstract animator, Oskar Fischinger; Walt, unable to resist taking his pseudo-Fischinger impressionism into periodic bouts of more concrete visualizations with Stokowski and the Philadelphia Symphony sometimes superimposed into these interpretations; brightly colored spots casting colorful overlapping shadows upon the walls or illuminated kettle drums at precisely the moment their taut canvases are struck.
From this conjectural interpretation of sound as sight, Fantasia explores more easily identifiable imagery to tell its next vignette. Eschewing the centuries old interpretation; Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet; Suite, Op. 71a is devoted to the four seasons; the screen filled with fairies, water lilies, highly stylized goldfish and ice-skating sprites. Beginning with spring, we transition to early morning in a dense forest, dew sparkling on the newborn foliage; following a cascade of twirling lilies over the edge of a bubbly waterfall. The most famous of these vignettes has unintentionally taken on a phallic representation in more recent times; Walt’s Busby Berkeley-inspired array of fan-tailed goldfish forming geometric patterns below the water’s surface, chased away by flesh-colored oriental dancing mushrooms. These are immediately chased away by Cossack-kicking gladiolus. The final episode in The Nutcracker is devoted to a late autumn frost, transforming nature’s bounty into an azure oasis, populated by glistening snowflakes and pincer-legged sprites. Disney’s version of The Nutcracker is perhaps Fantasia’s most visually spectacular sequence, which is stating a great deal, considering the myriad of treasures yet to follow it.   
Now, the animators introduce us to Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice; the whole reason for Fantasia’s coming into being in the first place; Walt adhering to the time-honored tale; re-cast with Mickey Mouse as the amiable novice of the title. Determined he should elevate his status to be more than simply the fetch-and-carry for his Teutonic master, Mickey borrows the sorcerer’s cap after he has retired to bed, commanding a small army of brooms to perform his menial task of filling the cistern with fresh water from a nearby well. Alas, the magic invoked takes on a life of its own; the neophyte rendered powerless as his maniacal minions flood the workshop; thus threatening to destroy everything. At the last possible moment, the sorcerer is stirred from his slumber and, with a mere wave of his hands, ends this deluge, using the now inanimate broom to hasten his presumptuous trainee outside. The sequence is charming in its own right. But in 1940 it also introduced audiences to a radically redesigned Mickey Mouse from the one to which most had grown accustomed; the animators adding new and more realistic facial expressions; also, pupils to Mickey’s eyes.
The first half of Fantasia concludes with Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, composed in 1913 and, by far, the most recent piece of music in its repertoire; Walt determinedly tackling the creation of the earth and the plight of the dinosaurs as his subject matter. With all the realism invoked by Spielberg’s marauding dinos in the Jurassic Park franchise, we forget that, barring Windsor McKay’s rather fantastic and comical Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and some brief start-stop animation glimpsed in King Kong (1933), Hollywood had not endeavored to resurrect these towering creatures from the Cretaceous period on film for obvious technologically implausible reasons, and certainly never with such awe-inspiring and pseudo-realistic graphics. For decades thereafter, high school science teachers would utilize Rite of Spring to illustrate the early evolution of this planet to their students. Indeed, looking back on this sequence now, one can only marvel at the exacting purity of its vision; Walt inspiring his technicians to explore virtually all the experimental SFX technology created at his studio for over a decade; rotoscoping wind effects, smoke and bubbling mud to simulate volcanic activity with startling results.
The ‘jam session’ intermission is a brief chance for Stokowski’s finely disciplined musicians to cut loose with an impromptu vamp; a highly amusing mini-vignette that feeds into the old cliché about ‘when the cat’s away…’; Stokowski’s reappearance on the conductor’s platform, suddenly quieting everything down. Deems Taylor introduces us to the soundtrack, a rather introverted, occasionally neurotic and decidedly camera-shy thread running vertically down the center of the screen; coaxing this unassuming chord to perform various sounds, graphically illustrated with zig-zagging lines of lurid color. Fantasia’s musical program gets back on track with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 ('Pastoral') Op. 68; the Disney artisans taking their cue from Fred Moore to indulge in a bit of Greek mythology. However, the creation of the centaurs, frolicking in a nearby waterfall, became cause for some minor concern regarding censorship. While the male figures sport brawny bare chests, much belabored debate ensued over the equally as bare-breasted females of their ilk. To be sure, these remain in the picture, although they are quickly and decorously outfitted with Hawaiian-styled leis, artfully draped by amused, and equally as nude, winged baby cherubs. From this rather audacious opener, Walt delves into a bacchanal; the revelry cut short by the gods of ancient mythology; Zeus firing up the storm clouds and forcing everyone to take refuge. At storm’s end a fabulous rainbow is swept away by Helio’s chariot and the advancing cover of night; Diana shooting her arrows into a night sky glistening with stars. Rite of Spring remains Fantasia’s most decadent vignette, immediately followed by what is assuredly its most farcical.
Amilcare Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours, from the opera, La Gioconda, had suffered the slings and arrows of critical backlash for being one of the most repurposed pieces of music in recent history. As such, Walt’s interpretation of a literal ‘dance of the hours’ took Ponchielli to task one step further; transforming the clumsiness of ostriches and the formidable girth of elephants and hippos into the quintessence of tutu and bubble-blowing lithe ballerinas; the corps de ballet invaded by a Ali Ben Gator and his crocodilian entourage. Dance of the Hours is undeniably, Walt’s most Disney-fied sequence; the term not yet coined, but in hindsight, veering towards the kind of cutesy/cuddly animals we have come to expect from a Disney animated film. The trick in the exercise is that it never seems a strange bedfellow for either the documentarian Rite of Spring or the even more deadly serious battle between good and evil immediately to follow it. 
Modeste Moussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain had most recently been heard at the movies – in part – in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) as a repurposed cue to mark Dorothy’s rescue and escape from the wicked witch’s castle.  Yet, its ominous strains were hardly ‘a standard’ outside of the concert hall venue and, even then, rarely resurrected. The interpretation of Moussorgsky’s symphony took to task no less a threat to the human world than the devil himself, rechristened ‘Chernabog’ and largely animated by one artist – Vladimir Tyla – whose undiluted conjuring of pure evil has arguably never been rivaled. The inspiration for Chernabog was German artist, Heinrich Kley whose drawing of this gigantic winged demon forcing workers out of a factory by blocking its chimney was eventually picked up by artist, Albert Hurter, who refined various sketches of this fallen angel, indiscriminately tossing tortured souls into a live volcano. From Hurter's initial sketches, artist, Kay Nielsen created more detailed pastel illustrations, as well as the official model sheet for the creature, passing it along to Tyla to animate.
Drawing on his own Ukranian ancestry and classic European folklore, Tyla’s Chernabog emerges from the peak of Slovenia’s Mount Triglav on the Witches’ Sabbath; Tyla incorporating the natural landscape into his character’s design; the mountain ‘unfolding’ to reveal two gargoyle wings and a muscular/horned anti-Christ, invoking the restless spirits from a nearby graveyard to rise from their tombs as his minions for a night of revelry around his fire pit. Viewed today, Night on Bald Mountain remains a supremely unsettling sequence; Tyla infusing his demon with a grotesque animalism. Few movies outside of Universal’s initial spate of gothic horror classics from the early thirties – made prior to the installation of the Production Code of Ethics – have been as bold in their depictions of the supernatural world. Certainly, nothing like a Night on Bald Mountain has ever been achieved in the realm of animation; the spirits, hellacious, vengeful and terrorizing the small Tyrolean village at the foot of the mountain.
The minions swirling about are graphically depicted; bare-breasted witches, exposing themselves from beneath tattered, flowing robes and skeletal, fanged crusaders riding bareback on haunted steeds. The resurrection and the light, introduced at the height of Cherabog’s sinful merriment by the soothing toll of a church bell and steadily creeping dawn, set to the calming strains of Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria, Op. 52 No. 6, restores normalcy to the earth and draws order from this chaos. And yet, the hallowed, darkly cloaked and faceless figures, who lead this candle-lit processional through a forested cathedral and into the glorious burst of sunrise, are somehow less impressive by contrast and comparison; Fantasia concluding on an almost listless note of purity.  While technologically a masterpiece of the multiplane camera, first pioneered by Walt for 1937’s Silly Symphony short, The Old Mill, the last act finale to Fantasia remains its most bloodless and dissatisfying.  
It has often been said Fantasia was ahead of its time; Walt’s ‘grand and gutsy experiment’. Yet, Disney had very little pretensions toward high culture. At least, from a technical perspective, this much is true; whether considering the effects animation pioneered and/or elevated to a new level of craftsmanship, or, in conceiving an entirely new form of aural experience in the theater, equipped with no less than thirty speakers to envelope the audience in Stokowski’s rich orchestrations, and, even still, in humility of Walt’s somewhat ballsy progressivism, a collision between high and, arguably, low culture; Fantasia marked a staggering departure from the status quo. In 1940, surely it ranked amongst the rarest wonderments in modern cinema.  We would, of course, be remiss in not mentioning at least a handful of the highly skilled artisans whose work on the picture has influenced a new breed of animators; Norman Ferguson’s mastery of broad staging; Hamilton Luske’s analysis and streamlining of procedural duties that helped promote the company’s assembly line output, but with an unprecedented attention to quality and detail; Vladimir Tytla’s emotional intensity, and finally, Fred Moore’s delightfully ‘cute’ endearing appeal for the warm and fuzzy creatures only sporadically populating Fantasia’s backdrop.  
Unfortunately for Walt, the music critics were all but unkind to his grand gesture. Those anticipating furry forest animals and sweetness of the Silly Symphonies ilk were instead subjected to a fairly adult interpretation on everything from the creation of the world to demonic possession. Bewildered at how best to review such an bold and unprecedented break with tradition, many newspapers sent both a film and music aficionado to review Fantasia; only to have the former emerge considerably alienated by the plot-less experience; the latter, much offended by Walt’s cheek in depicting hippos, minotaurs and goldfish indulging the likes of Dukas, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. Walt had intended that his ‘concert feature’ should always be evolving with new segments constantly being added. However, following Fantasia’s epic disappointment, all such plans were immediately scrapped. Henceforth, Walt would regard the picture as a painful personal failure. Time, however, was on Fantasia’s side. Largely due to its resurrection on college and university campuses, and two theatrical reissues to bookend the 1960s (first, in 1963, then again in 1969) Fantasia’s reputation as a bona fide work of art steadily snowballed.
As a one-time animation student, I can recall meeting several Disney animators at Sheridan College for a Q&A back in 1991, where one of the most readily repeated inquiries was "when will there be another Fantasia?" The response then was both cordial and cryptic; but even suggestions about a possible ‘follow up’ on the horizon (though hardly in development) were met with spontaneous applause. By the end of the decade, the rumored resurrection of Fantasia had become fact: Disney Inc. debuting Fantasia 2000 in 1999. In hindsight, Fantasia 2000 is an epitaph to the studio's second golden epoch in hand-drawn animation first inaugurated in 1989 with the startling success of The Little Mermaid and ostensibly capped off by a decade's worth of mind-boggling returns to the Disney tradition with Beauty & The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Hercules, and, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Fantasia 2000 is a little worse for the wear because of its adherence to ‘star’ introductions. Perhaps in reconsidering that contemporary movie audiences were even less likely to know any of the noted musicologists of their own generation, Fantasia 2000 is instead anchored in various cameos from former Disney Inc./Touchstone Pictures alumni; Steve Martin, Bette Midler, Penn and Teller, Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones among them. James Levine conducts the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; a curious choice, especially when considering the higher profile and thus mainstream marketability of The Boston Pops, by then under the baton of Keith Lockhart. 
As it had served as the inspiration for the original Fantasia, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is now the centerpiece of Fantasia 2000, excised from its predecessor, slightly cropped and matted to conform to the new 1:85:1 aspect ratio of its successor. The Sorcerer's Apprentice is bookended by some of the most visually arresting animation yet achieved at the studio. The Pines of Rome, as example, is an engrossing undersea ballet with graceful killer whales serving as weightless titans of the silvery surf. Carnival of the Animals is an obvious homage to the irrepressible humor in Dance of the Hours; with a flock of jealous flamingos – caught in conformist mode – vehemently attempting to censure one of their own who has recently discovered the joys of a Yo-Yo. The Steadfast Tin Soldier Concerto No. 2 is a relatively faithful adaptation of the classic fairytale about an unlikely romance between a one-legged toy soldier and the music box ballerina he adores from afar.
Stylistically speaking, Fantasia 2000 is all over the place. While the original movie had a sort of homogenized look to it, by this, I mean to suggest all of the hand-drawn art follows a lucidity based on the time-honored principles of hand-crafted cell art known to the Disney artisans until then, the goal of the various directors toiling independently on Fantasia 2000 seems to endeavor to make each sequence as startlingly unique as all the technological prowess gleaned since 1940 will allow. Fantasia 2000 is capped off by two truly inspired artistic moments; the first - a story of rediscovering childhood simplicity in adult life; the set of circumstances necessary to procure ‘a happy life’ in cluttered downtown Manhattan, circa mid-1950’s, ranging from the successful procurement of gainful employment for a down-on-his-luck welder, to a wealthy – and rather snobbish – middle-aged couple, rediscovering why they fell in love with each other by adopting a puppy, to a harried upper middle-class mum and dad frantically reunited with their wandered off prepubescent daughter; George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is a veritable feast for the heart and eye, melding together one of the all-time great pieces of music from the 20th century with the finite, yet equally as free-flowing, linear artistry of celebrated caricaturist, Al Hirschfeld.
Arguably, the picture’s pièce de résistance remains its finale, The Firebird Suite, (owing a great deal to the forest fire sequence from Walt’s own Bambi, 1942); a no holds barred and nothing short of mesmerizing sequence, begun when a spark of lightning ignites the mythological fiery phoenix, who lays waste to this majestic forest, only to have the green earth goddess, nee Mother Nature, resurrect the land to its former natural splendor. The greatest of all animation stirs the heart as it beguiles the eye; The Firebird supremely satisfying on both counts; its themes of rejuvenation, both earthy and spiritual, concluding Fantasia 2000 on a powerful note. The animation in virtually every sequence featured in Fantasia 2000 is exquisite. A pity it is bookended by self-congratulatory introductions; some, like Angela Lansbury - rising above the triviality of her scripted narration, while others – particularly, Penn and Teller and Bette Midler, foundering badly with virtually nothing to contribute except a feeling of unease that settles in even before their brief moments in the spotlight have begun. Nevertheless, Fantasia 2000 is compelling entertainment - a sumptuous visual feast brilliantly conducted by James Levine and The Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Prepare to be astonished! For just as publicity of its day declared "Fantasia will amaze yah!" Disney Home Video’s 2-disc Blu-Ray is geared to impress in every way. Quite simply, the image quality on both features exhibits superior resolution; a gorgeous and grain-preserving image on the original Fantasia and a markedly more creamily smooth - yet as sumptuously sharp – hi-def transfer on Fantasia 2000. There’s really nothing to complain about here. Colors on both features pop as they should. A monumental preservation and restoration effort on the original Fantasia has yielded an impressive clarity, with boldly saturated Technicolor oozing from every inch of the frame. More than ever, Fantasia is a visceral and eloquent 'experience' not to be missed. Startlingly beautiful, with all but a handful of minor hints to belie its 70+ years, Fantasia sparkles as the crown jewel of this bygone era in hand-drawn animation. The original Fantasia's audio - named 'Fanta-sound' by Walt – was decidedly ahead of its time.  And it remains a testament to Walt’s faith in burgeoning technologies, even more so since the advent of true HD 5.1 stereo, these original audio stems, recorded with decidedly primitive equipment back in 1940, have nevertheless retained their aural integrity, given renewed life in repurposed 5.1.DTS as few soundtracks from this vintage are able to reproduce. The meticulous attention paid to Stokowski's orchestrations back in 1940 have weathered exceptionally well in the interim. 
For its 1982 reissue, Fantasia was re-recorded by noted conductor, Irwin Kostal to produce a Dolby Spectra-Sound ‘true stereo’ experience. Alas, at the time, this impressive endeavor was judged the lesser to Stokowski and dropped from all subsequent theatrical reissues of the picture. It would have been prudent of Disney Inc. to include the option of listening to both the original and Kostal’s orchestrations, purely as a comparative analysis. But no – Kostal’s re-orchestrations are nowhere to be found on this disc – a minor oversight. Something else to consider: the bookended sequences hosted by Deems Taylor – the noted musicologist who serves as MC– were dropped from subsequent truncated reissues of Fantasia until 1982, at which time it was regrettably discovered Taylor’s original recordings were in such a delicate state of disrepair they could not be preserved and/or represented in any satisfactory way to contemporary audiences. Instead, the studio hired Corey Burton to mimic Taylor's vocalizations. To be sure, Burton’s work is credible – even a valiant effort – and, those never having heard Taylor are apt not to notice this dubbing job.
Extras are a bit of a mystery: we lose the comprehensive ‘making of’ hosted by David Ogden Stiers that accompanied the DVD release – replaced on this Blu-ray by a new audio commentary from Brian Sibley. It is comprehensive to say the least, but I still would have preferred the original ‘featurette’, rife with vintage outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage. Herein, we get 4 ½ minutes devoted to the opening of the Walt Disney Museum as well as 14 minutes on Herman Schultheis' technical processes as ‘effects coordinator’. On Fantasia 2000, we get another audio commentary by Roy E. Disney and James Levine, a brief featurette on Salvador Dali and Walt, and the short, ‘Destino’ original begun in 1945, but only more recently completed in 2003. Bottom line: and quite simply, Fantasia is a masterpiece. Its sequel falls a little short of this benchmark, though not by very much. This 2-disc set comes very highly recommended for lovers of animation in general, of Disney animation in particular, of Stokowski and Levine, or simply to devotees of classical music. Walt’s original intent to bridge the gap between high and low brow, with Fantasia becoming all things to all people, has arguably come to pass. Some 70+ years too late for Walt to appreciate, the fruits of his labors have decidedly been recognized. It took the rest of us far too long to catch up to you, Walt. But God bless you for trying to improve our minds.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Fantasia  5+
Fantasia 2000 4
VIDEO/AUDIO
(both movies) 5+
EXTRAS
3