Friday, May 18, 2018

FREAKY FRIDAY: Blu-ray (Walt Disney Pictures, 1976) Disney Club Exclusive

The hysteria that was Haley Mills in the 1960's was succeeded by the Walt Disney Studios active search for another prepubescent enigma to continue the trend in the 1970's. After a few false starts, an heir apparent did emerge, this time in the unlikeliest embodiment of tomboyish, Jodie Foster – an undeniable talent, later to make an even greater splash in films, entering super-stardom as an adult. It is always gratifying when a child star transcends this first flourish of instant fame afforded them largely because they are ‘cute’. So, many disappear completely from view once puberty kicks in. But Foster has proven to be a uniquely gifted performer, far above and beyond the many who try for as much, and, whose extraordinary talents have only continued to ripen with age. For those fortunate enough to have lived as long, we literally watched Jodie Foster mature on our movie screens, the public scrutiny of a life lived in front of the camera worn exceptionally well by this no-nonsense star. Foster has managed to skillfully elude the tabloids and retain her reputation as a consummate pro.  It is interesting to compare and contrast Foster’s breakout performance as Iris, the teenage prostitute in Martin Scorsese’s seminal melodrama, Taxi Driver, with the featherweight chameleon, Annabel Andrews, afflicted by the ultimate mind warp in Disney’s Freaky Friday (both films released months apart in 1976). While for certain, Walt would not have approved of her more adult foray, in hindsight, he would have likely been as passionate a proponent, recognizing Foster’s intuitive talents to fashion and guide her career as yet another beloved and wholesome moppet in his stable of stars.
Swiftly directed by Gary Nelson, with its emphasis on the hokey rather than the sincere, Freaky Friday is based on Mary Rodgers’ popular teen fiction about a mother and daughter, each assuming the other has the idyllic lifestyle. A cruel, though nevertheless educating twist of fate – or bad karma, as it were – transposes the mother’s brain into the daughter’s body and vice versa, leading to all sorts of misdirection, chaos and unintended hilarity as both women discover the proverbial grass is not nearly as green on the other side of the fence. Keeping with a time-honored Disney tradition, Freaky Friday is cast with some easily identifiable screen and stage actors with already ‘built-in’ character traits we have come to know and love; Broadway sensation, Barbara Harris (as Annabel’s mama, Ellen), John Astin (TV’s Gomez, as her befuddled exec/father, Bill; Dick Van Patten (Eight is Enough’s papa, herein reconstituted as the snobbish and doubting, Harold Jennings), Alan Oppenheimer (as his, and Bill’s boss, Mr. Joffert), Sorrell Booke (TV’s ‘Boss Hog’ as Principal Dilk), vintage Fox contract player, Patsy Kelly (as caustic and boozy housekeeper, Mrs. Schmauss) and finally, Ruth Buzzi (as the boorish ‘nameless’ coach of a rival ‘all-girl’s field hockey team). In hindsight, Disney Inc.’s live action output from the 1970s is a real mixed bag; on the one hand, still invested in big-budgeted movie musicals, like 1977’s Pete’s Dragon, though increasingly relying on quick n’ dirty outings like Freaky Friday to sustain its balance sheet. 
Freaky Friday is hardly A-list from the Walt Disney Company. Indeed, modestly budgeted at $5 million, Charles F Wheeler’s cinematography possesses about as much big screen appeal as a run-of-the-mill half-hour Norman Lear sitcom; Mary Rodgers’ screenplay, providing the bare minimum in character development, merely to connect the dots in a perfunctory way and touch upon all the goofy little nuances one does not readily think about before attempting to assume another’s identity wholesale. So, after her crazy ‘brain transplant’ the usually put together Ellen suddenly begins to unravel at the seams, possessing no clue how to even stock a washing machine, much less drive a car. She tries to goad neighbor boy, Boris Harris (Marc McClure) into getting behind the wheel, but to no avail, and, passes off the duties of preparing a buffet for Bill’s big marketing meeting on her seven-year-old son, Ben (Sparky Marcus), the gentlest soul whom Annabel has rather cruelly nicknamed, ‘Ape Face’. 
Like all Disney features, Freaky Friday is a morality tale that endeavors to teach a valuable lesson as Annabel and Ellen come to terms with the virtues and vices inherent in each other’s lives. Ellen gets Annabel’s braces off, has her hair done and borrows Bill’s credit card to do a little shopping for clothes the real Annabel would never deign to wear. Quickly, however, Ellen – in her daughter’s body – recognizes the girl she views rather tragically as a tomboy is actually quite an accomplished athlete, while Annabel acknowledges it takes far more effort, finesse and skill to play the ‘piss elegant’ lady of the maison; devoted wife, mother, confidant and confessor, juggling all these variables to make for a proficient and happy home. Freaky Friday is hardly deep, but it remains replete with insightful reflections for adults and teens to help debunk and bridge the generation gap. The best that can be said of the picture is that it remains effortlessly charming and rather naively wholesome good-natured fun from start to finish, topped off by a crudely cobbled, and unnecessary ‘comedy/action’ sequence that has Ellen (actually Annabel) driving irresponsibly through the city streets with Ben and Boris in tow, determined to reach the marina in time to save her mother (still in her body) from severely injuring herself in the water-ski show Annabel is expected to perform for her father’s business associates.
Immediately following a bouncy main title sequence, animated and set to Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha’s largely forgettable, ‘I’d Like to Be You for a Day’, Freaky Friday embarks upon setting up its tidy little tale of middle class domesticity. In this ‘almost perfect’ world, Ellen and her daughter are in a chronic flux of misunderstanding. Ellen wants Annabel to behave more like a young lady. But Annabel is devoted to her sports and could not give a hoot how she looks. Ascribing to the cliché that teenagers, by their very definition, are not fit for polite society, both Ellen and Annabel are in for a very rude awakening as each separately daydream about taking on the role of the other, on Friday the 13th no less. Their wish granted, Annabel – now implanted with Ellen’s brain, quickly realizes she is very much unable to keep up with the interests of her daughter’s contemporaries, Hilary Miller (Shelly Jutner), Bambi (Charlene Tilton) and Jo-Jo (Lori Rutherford). Interestingly, neither Ellen nor Annabel try to get in contact with one another, presumably, recognizing what has happened and determined to enjoy the switch while it lasts.
Annabel, as Ellen decides to indulge in a little creative make-up/makeover, adding undue rouge, lipstick and phony eyelashes with sabotaging results. But this is mere child’s play when considering the mockery Annabel makes of basic household chores: the laundry, as example (adding waaay to much detergent and overloading the machine) or basic car repair, buying groceries and managing the slate of carpet and dry cleaners who arrive on cue.  Firing the brittle Mrs. Schmauss after she makes some backhanded crack about Annabel being spoiled, Ellen (as Annabel) is incapable of even looking after the family’s beloved Basset Hound, Max. To make matters worse, Bill saddles his wife with preparing a spread for twenty-five after his company’s caterer backs out of a planned event at the last minute. Panicky, Annabel enlists Boris, a teenager on whom she harbors a crush (but who increasingly begins to find ‘Ellen’ attractive instead) to babysit Ben and prepare a chocolate mousse and turkey dinner. Too bad for all, the boys forget to put the lid on the blender and Ellen, having stepped out only for a brief errand, returns to discover the turkey burnt to a crisp.
In the course of these preposterous misfires, Annabel (as Ellen) develops a newfound respect for her baby brother. As Ben has confided in his mother that he thinks his big sister is the greatest person alive, Annabel begins to rethink the way she has marginalized his importance in her life thus far. Meanwhile, Ellen (as Annabel) immerses herself in the rigors of high school. What she quickly realizes is that Annabel’s extracurricular activities far exceed her level of comprehension. A parent/teacher interview with Annabel’s English teacher, Miss McGuirk (Pat Carroll) and Principal Dilk alerts Annabel to the fact the faculty truly believes in her smarts; something Annabel has virtually neglected in favor of her sports. Now Ellen, as Annabel, is grotesquely defeated in her all-girl’s field hockey finals, incurring the disappointment of her teammates, who were counting on Annabel as their most valuable player. Worse, she effectively ruins all her friends’ final assignments in photography class by accidentally turning on the lights in the dark room. Desperate to escape this academic nightmare, Annabel reports to Bill’s office to borrow his credit cards. After all, today is the day the braces on her teeth come off. Perhaps, it is also time for a fashion makeover. Inadvertently, Annabel (still, Ellen) meets Bill’s sultry secretary, Lucille Gibbons (Brooke Mills) whom she quickly sets about to unsettle in her ambitions by suggesting Bill is a devoted family man who would never look at another woman, much less contemplate an affair.
Having achieved Annabel’s physical makeover, Ellen is quite unaware her daughter is scheduled to perform in a water ski spectacle for Bill’s bosses. Horded into the back of a waiting van by the rest of the water-skiers, Annabel makes every attempt to wangle her way out of this duty. Meanwhile, Ellen (still, Annabel) is hurriedly plowing through the streets with Boris, Ben and her burnt turkey in tow; her haphazard driving drawing undue attention. The police make chase, but, in typical Disney-esque fashion, they prove more the Keystone Cops than competently positioned LAPD Highway Patrol. Somewhere between home and the marina, Ellen and Annabel wish for their own bodies back. As before, the exchange is granted, only now Ellen, in her black gown, is on waterskies and Annabel, behind the wheel of the family’s Volkswagen Beatle. Shocked and bewildered by the sight of his wife haplessly sailing around the lake, Bill tries to run interference with his boss, Mr. Joffert and his snooty assistant, Mr. Jennings who, along with a select group of invited guests, are surveying the aquacade from a floating pontoon in the middle of the lake.
Eventually, Annabel, Boris and Ben arrive at the dock, its support beam knocked out by Ellen’s skis that have already punctured one of the air-filled buoys on the pontoon. Taking to the skies on a hand-glider, Ellen somehow manages to navigate over to the half-submerged family’ car; pulled to safety by Annabel and Boris as Bill, and the rest of the guests on the pontoon, sink beneath the waves from the fatal puncture earlier inflicted. Sometime later, Ellen and Annabel remain very cagey about not explaining anything to Bill who is decidedly confused over what has transpired. Annabel accepts Boris’ invitation to go out for pizza, but also elects to take Ben along. Unable to comprehend his father’s upset, Ben informs Bill that if only he could assume his identity for one day he would surely know how to live a more fulfilling life. Bill agrees. If he could become Ben, life would be a whole lot easier. Hence, we end on the presumption another miraculous metamorphosis, this one between father and son, is about to take place.
Freaky Friday is an effortlessly appealing popcorn muncher. As a ‘coming of age’ flick, it passes the time without ever delving too deeply into the real trials and tribulations ‘parents with teenagers’ or ‘teenagers with parents’ undoubtedly share. The newfound respect Ellen and Annabel gleans from their day-long ordeal is marginally rewarding, though more so because we can see some sort of brain activity going on beneath Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster’s facades. Neither gets any real help here from the screenplay, so it is left up to the actresses to convey depth. Each, on occasion, does, elevating their performances beyond the rank cardboard cutouts that virtually populate the rest of the picture. I get it. Freaky Friday is not a melodrama but a souffle from the Disney stable at a time when their live-action feature output had dwindled to all but a trickle – the company in transition (or perhaps, decline) and interested in making movies never to strain the intellect…only their own credibility as purveyors of ‘family entertainment’. But really, Freaky Friday plays much more like a Disney Sunday Movie rather than a bona fide feature in the best tradition from Walt’s illustrious past.
Freaky Friday has found its way to Blu-ray via Disney’s Exclusive Club. What this means for anyone outside of the U.S. is it is virtually off limits except via third-party vendors on and retailing for triple the cost incurred as a Disney Inc. member.  I suppose we ought to be grateful the ‘Exclusive Club’ Blu-ray releases are back on – after an interminable hiatus that threatened to leave a good many vintage catalog in limbo. The good news for fans of Freaky Friday is that this 1080p offering sports some impressively vibrant color. A good deal of Freaky Friday’s photo-chemical and matte SFX shots, depicting Ellen on water skis and Annabel driving the family car, suffer from intermittent amplification of grain and matte work that is transparently obvious, with some built-in color fading to boot. Outside of these SFX inserts, image quality is uniformly vibrant, with oodles of fine detail and excellent contrast. The DTS 2.0 is threadbare at best, with thin-sounding dialogue and a general cacophony of cluttered noise during action scenes, bearing no aural separation. I suspect this is par for the course of the original soundtrack. It’s adequate…though just barely. The only extra that was available on the DVD release was a brief featurette in which the usually absent Ms. Foster waxed rather affectionately about her Disney days. But we do not get even this on the Blu-ray. Like all Disney ‘exclusives’ this is a movie-only release. The ‘Mouse House’ continues to slip in their 1080p output. Bottom line: the visuals look great. The sound is barely a middling effort. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

GUN CRAZY: Blu-ray (United Artists, 1950) Warner Archive

What makes a basically decent kid grow up to become a career criminal. Is it money, infamy, or the love of a truly psychotic femme fatale? According to director, Joseph H. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950, and also intermittently recognized as ‘Deadly is the Female’), it’s the latter elixir, emanating like a powerful hallucinogenic and working its corruptible black magic on the unsuspecting country wiles of John Dall’s crime spree-prone young man. We should not entirely blame Peggy Cummins’ busty and blonde cowgirl/sideshow performer, Annie Laurie Starr for Bart Tare’s downfall. Long before Bart ever crossed paths with this rootin’/tootin’/shootin’ young lass he illustrated a penchant for petty larceny, inexplicably conjoined to his perplexing fascination with guns. But Bart (Russ Tamblyn as a spookily precocious 14-year old) was never ‘all bad’. Indeed, his busting the storefront window of a local gun merchant to steal a revolver, and his even earlier childhood desire to shoot a baby chick with his BB gun (only to be haunted by tearful remorse after observing his handiwork) are seen as virtues rather than vices, by his devoted sister, Ruby (Anabel Shaw) and boyhood chums, Dave Allister (David Bair) and Clyde Boston (Paul Frison). All three present themselves before Judge Willoughby (Morris Carnovsky) as character witnesses after Bart is apprehended for his youthful thievery.
Gun Crazy is mostly a cautionary tale about the toxicity of passion for a really bad woman ruining the future of a mostly genuine and good-hearted man. Personally, I have always found it rather odd so many film historians consider Gun Crazy an integral part of the film noir pantheon. I tend to see it more as a ferociously intense melodrama with a few noir-ish moments interspersed. Apart from Lewis’ exploitation of the femme fatale, there is not much else about the picture to recommend it as a bona fide noir classic; Russell Harlan’s B&W cinematography only occasionally delving into the stylistic bleakness most readily associated with the movement, though never with any great interplay of chiaroscuro light and stark shadows. Dalton Trumbo and MacKinlay Kantor’s screenplay (Trumbo, writing under the nom de plume Millard Kaufman to escape the blacklist) is a genuine departure from the time-honored principles of noir’s proverbial ‘man alone’; Dall’s anti-hero, more corruptible by his own stupidity where women are concerned. The script also affords Bart two ever-devoted pals; the aforementioned Dave Allister (played as an adult by Nedrick Young), eventually the editor of the town’s newspaper, and, Clyde Boston (Harry Lewis), who grows up to be the town’s sheriff, and therefore, Bart’s enemy. The noir anti-hero is usually all alone – no support system. Even so, Clyde cannot bring himself to shoot Bart. It’s no use. He knows it. We know it. Bart’s not the problem. He’s the victim.
The real appeal for noir enthusiasts is undeniably Peggy Cummins (in a part originally planned for noir veteran, Veronica Lake). Whether tricked out in her carnie/sideshow cowgirl’s gear or sporting the fashionable attire of a tight-knit sweater and beret (a look vaguely reminiscent of the real ‘Bonnie’, of Bonnie and Clyde fame, and much later to be copied by Faye Dunaway in the 1967 movie that immortalized this dynamic crime duo), Cummins’ exudes a sort of cheap and tawdry ferial scent of sexual attraction that could – and does – so easily turn the head of our inexperienced country bumpkin. Hmmm. You would think Bart’s stint in the army would have taught him something about the craftiness of this archetypal bad girl. But no, from the moment Bart encounters Laurie the two are on a collision course, destined to become wanted criminals in search of the finer things in life neither can legitimately afford. Reportedly, to achieve this on-screen chemistry, director Lewis told John Dall “Your cock's never been so hard,” before leaning into Cummins to add, “You’re a bitch in heat, and you want him. But don't let him have it in a hurry. Keep him waiting.”
Cummins is a sadly underrated actress, I suspect, because she appears rather effortlessly herein to typify the sort of white trash female who would do just about anything to survive in a man’s world. Her manipulative skills, coupled with that insincerely ‘come hither’ glance, cast directly as opposed to the usual ‘over the shoulder’, is void of virtually all corny female subterfuge. She makes no bones about her intentions and is smitten with Bart only after he purports to favor the same stolen luxuries. But Bart really does not want to be bad, much as he desires this very wicked and warped babe. And this creates a stifling disconnect between his past and future; willingly inveigled in a life of crime even as he reconsiders what life would have been like if only he had stayed home to hoe potatoes on his sister’s farm.
Gun Crazy opens on a rain-soaked eve in the rural enclave of Hampton with fourteen-year-old Bart Tare peering into the local hardware store’s display window after hours. Just beyond his grasp, a new shiny revolver. Oh, what he couldn’t shoot if he owned that gun. And so, Bart shatters the glass with a large stone and takes what he wants. Alas, he is hardly the seasoned career criminal, slipping on wet pavement and dropping his ill-gotten gains at the feet of a nearby police officer. At trial, Judge Willoughby sympathetically listens to testimonials from Bart’s sister, Ruby and boyhood compatriots, Dave and Clyde. None, however, are able to sway the Judge in his duty. And so, Bart goes off to reform school, and then, rather valiantly to serve his country for a stint in the army. Returning from the front an expert marksman, the adult Bart is reunited with both his sister and boyhood chums, all grown up and living lives of their own. Clyde and Dave elect to take Bart out for a night at the carnival to celebrate. Alas, this will be the last camaraderie for the boys as Bart is introduced to sideshow sharp shooter, Annie Laurie Starr. Almost immediately, she catches Bart’s eye, much to the chagrin of her boss, Packett (Berry Kroeger), who desires her for himself.
Accepting – and winning – a wager to outshoot the act, Bart is wooed by Laurie to join up with the show. This does not sit well with Packett, who tries to break up their growing mutual attraction by divulging an insidious chapter from the girl’s past. But it makes no difference to Bart whether or not Laurie might have killed a man. He is already poisoned with the prospect of possessing her. Hence, when Packett tries to force himself on Laurie, Bart valiantly intervenes, threatening to pull the trigger himself. Packett coolly fires the couple and Bart almost immediately, and rather naively proposes marriage. The couple are wed in a cheap ceremony without family or friends, Laurie forewarning Bart that she is ‘bad…but will try to be good’ for his sake. For a while, Laurie lives up to her end of the bargain…at least, until the money holds out. But a Vegas-styled honeymoon is cruel on their savings and Bart quickly realizes they do not have enough money to get by for much longer. At this juncture, Laurie proposes an ultimatum; either Bart joins her in a life of crime or she will divorce him. Very reluctantly, and with jangled nerves, Bart partakes of several petty robberies. The couple holds up seedy motels, gas stations, corner and liquor stores.
In the back of his mind, Bart plans to squirrel away this cash for an early retirement, possibly to Mexico. But Laurie likes to spend what they have – on dinners, and dancing and expensive furs. So, more robberies are necessary to keep her in the manner to which she is fast becoming accustomed. Bart and Laurie get corresponding jobs at the Armor Meat Packer’s plant – she, as a stenographer to payroll manager, Miss Augustine Sifert (Anne O’Neal); he, as one of the meat cutters in the vast warehouse facilities. It isn’t long before the two hatch a plot to hold up their employer and make off with enough cold cash to set them up for good. Too bad even the best laid criminal plans are never entirely foolproof. Although Bart and Laurie manage to confine Sifert in the corner office at gunpoint while they fast empty out the company’s coffers, Laurie murders her boss in cold blood after Sifert pulls the emergency alarm to alert police of the holdup. Laurie and Bart take off in a stolen car, pursued by police. At the last possible moment, Bart shoots out the cop car’s tires, forcing them off the side of the road.
It appears as though the couple are home free. Ah, but then they make the terrible mistake of attempting to spend their loot on a night’s diversions at the boardwalk dance hall. The ticket seller recognizes the serial numbers on the bill Bart has used to pay for their entrance as part of the stolen moneys and alerts the police.  In desperate need of other funds, Bart and Laurie hold up a grocery store, Bart narrowly preventing Laurie from murdering the defenseless clerk. Sometime later, he reads about Sifert’s murder in the papers and, thanks to Packett, finds mug shots of him and Laurie plastered across the front pages of the local newspaper. Now wanted as national fugitives, Bart is more determined than ever to escape and start their lives anew without the pall of being branded wanted criminals. Originally, Bart and Laurie had agreed to split up for a while. To each other’s ever-lasting detriment, both quickly discover they cannot bear the prospect of remaining separated, even for a moment. Now, the FBI launch an intense manhunt for the couple. And yet, thanks to some clever disguises, Bart and Laurie still manage to outfox the locals, passing effortlessly in and out of roadblocks. Regrettably, time runs out. Forced to abandoned their car in the woods, Bart and Laurie scamper on foot, making it back to Ruby’s farmhouse.
While modestly grateful to see her brother again, Ruby cannot abide his chosen life of crime. Very quickly, a quiet animosity builds between Ruby and Laurie. In the meantime, Bart is confronted on Ruby’s front porch by Clyde and Dave, who have pieced together the clues, only to realize the dragnet has closed in on their one-time friend.  Holding the men at gunpoint, though with no intention to shoot either of them, Bart and Laurie steal Ruby’s car. This too is later ditched in the mountains, Bart and Laurie forced to go it alone over rough terrain on foot. They find their way to a very murky bog. Too bad, Clyde and Dave know this area almost as well, catching up as they attempt one last and very ill-fated negotiation for Bart and Laurie to turn themselves in. Laurie emerges from the swamp, eyes and pistol gleaming as she vows to kill again. Unable to watch as his wife murders his best friends, Bart shoots Laurie dead and is, in turn, gunned down by one of the advancing police officers, dying only a few feet away from his one-time beloved. As Clyde and Dave look on in despair, they cannot help but wish all their lives had been very different.
Gun Crazy is a fairly entertaining programmer from United Artists; B-budgeted and expertly played by Dall and Cummins. We really have to give it to director, Joseph H. Lewis. Through his expert use of flashback and montage he manages to take the picture’s modest 1 ½ hour run time and make it seem like a far more enveloping narrative. Gun Crazy just seems a ‘bigger’ entertainment than it actually is. If there was one thing that old-time directors of these B-unit pictures knew, it was how to tell a solid – if sordid – story on limited means and still possess it with the trappings of an A-list feature. It is a genuine pity Dalton Trumbo could not have published this screen credit under his own name.  The writing is among his best. Initially planned as a Monogram Studio’s release, King Brothers Productions settled on UA as its distributor, a decision affording Gun Crazy a fairly wide release, very lucrative to its bottom line. Critics too were impressed by the picture for its propellent direction and intense candor.  Although the reigning Production Code prevented Lewis from illustrating the extent of Bart and Laurie’s elicit passion, he nevertheless manages, mostly through Freudian subtext and the couple’s infrequent and oft truncated leering, to get across the notion neither could survive for very long without seeing the other naked.
Gun Crazy arrives on Blu-ray via the Warner Archive in yet another almost perfect 1080p transfer. Truth be told, the retired DVD from 2006 looked pretty spiffy. So, WAC was likely cribbing from some very solidly mastered elements to start. The B&W image is very clean and reveals vastly superior detail, especially in close-up. A few dupey-looking shots momentarily intrude on an otherwise supremely crisp visual presentation that sports excellent film grain and contrast. There are several fleeting glimpses of edge enhancement. Aside: I detected more than this on the old DVD, also – a ton of it from Criterion’s recent Blu-ray release of 1940’s The Philadelphia Story that reported to be from a ‘new’ 4K scan conducted by Warner Home Video – although it suspiciously mimicked the shortcomings of Warner’s archival print struck for its own 2002 DVD release. Is WAC cutting corners on their archive releases? Not sure. Won’t comment any further, except to say, the fleeting glimpses of edge enhancement on Gun Crazy’s Blu-ray are in exactly the same spot they appeared on the 2006 DVD. So, old scan or new to Blu from flawed surviving elements? Hmmmm. Ported over from the DVD release is a superb audio commentary by Glenn Erickson, plus, the nearly hour-long documentary: Film Noir – Bringing Darkness to Light. Personally, either extra is worth the price of admission alone. Combined with this nearly perfect transfer, Gun Crazy is a definite ‘must have’ for any noir-loving aficionado. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

THIS IS CINERAMA: Deluxe Edition Blu-ray (Merian C. Cooper, 1952) Flicker Alley

Technical innovations are often the barometer by which the state of any art is judged. The introduction of sound, as example, liberated movies from what was then considered their zenith in pantomime and self-expression. Alas, the innovation of ‘sound’ also led to a mass exodus and an even crueler fate – watching the stardom of silent legends implode virtually overnight, simply because their vocal capabilities lagged behind the enigma of their screen presence immortalized in ‘dumb show’. Then there was color – hand-tinted frames at first, giving way to the unpolished novelty of 2-strip Technicolor; its palette favoring pasty pinks and swamp frog green/beige hues. Then, 3-strip Technicolor, the Eastman monopack, color by DeLuxe and so on. The more one considers the history of Hollywood, the more apparent the fledgling flickers were in a constant state of upheaval – only partly attributed to its chronic technological refurbishments. While some of what ailed the industry behind the scenes has dissipated with time, technologically speaking, modernizations continue: widescreen, home video, CGI, a rebirth of 3D, another 1950’s novelty come full circle, only to fall out of favor with TV manufacturers, and most recent of all, 4K/8K digital mastering and projection taking the place of film.
In retrospect, Cinerama – a forerunner in the widescreen war – and undeniably the biggest, with its cumbersome three-camera set up and projection – does not seem so much a revolution as the preamble that forever changed the shape of movie screens from their relatively square 1:33.1 OAR. Inventor, Fred Waller gets the footnote for this evolution.  Arguably, he deserves most of it; his fifteen years of research instituted as the Waller Gunnery Trainer – a realistic flight simulator for U.S. combat pilots, later tweaked, refined and rechristened as Cinerama.  But lest we forget French director, Abel Gance beat Waller by nearly 20 years with the premiere of Napoleon (1927); a silent epic that, in its final sequence, breathtakingly expanded the square-ish movie frame into a 3-camera projection for the Battle of Waterloo. There was also William Fox’s superior Grandeur process in 1930’s early talkie, The Big Trail - a 70mm precursor, some thirty years ahead of its mid-1960s competitors. So, Cinerama did not hold the monopoly as a gigantic evolutionary step as much as it proved costly and very unwieldy: the kick-starter for that mad dash toward newer/better widescreen technologies yet to follow it: Cinemascope, Todd A-O, VistaVision, Technirama, Dimension-150 and, Panavision among them.
Waller’s first time out, Vitarama, was little more than a novelty showcased at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Yet, in viewing Cinerama’s debut today, with 1952’s This Is Cinerama, one is left dumbstruck, not only by its overwhelming success (the film had a five-year continuous run on Broadway), but also by how little the technology had progressed between the aforementioned touchstones and this re-introduction at the start of the 1950's. Arguably, without the Great Depression and WWII – both severely impacting budgets spent on innovations and movies in general throughout the war years - Hollywood would have likely streamlined and main-stapled ‘widescreen’ as the industry standard by the mid-1930's. Still, there are others who deserve a share of Cinerama’s success, beginning with maverick film maker, Merian C. Cooper, who backed Waller’s grand experiment; Hazard E. Reeves – pioneer of modern day sound recording, and finally, flyer extraordinaire, Paul Mantz, whose harrowing passes over such natural wonders as the earthy red mesas of the Grand Canyon, and craggy spiked rock formations at Zion National Park made for some truly spectacular scenery. This Is Cinerama’s grise eminence, Lowell Thomas was a world class writer/traveler/broadcaster/reporter – a true renaissance man of diverse experiences; among them, one of the hallowed few to have interviewed the real T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia).
With its promise of untold wonderment from the four corners of the earth (and a few nooks and crannies never even heard of then in the western world), This Is Cinerama caught the whirlwind optimism of the postwar generation. Ironically, the ripples from Cinerama’s box office sensation ran parallel to television’s introduction (another technology premiered at 1939’s World’s Fair, though regrettably then, to throw the whole menagerie into a tizzy by convincing nearly 40% of the paying public to stay home and get their entertainments for free in the comfort of their own living rooms). Overnight, these competing technologies forced studios into a race for competing widescreen formats. To be fair, This Is Cinerama did introduce various innovations to the movie-going experience that truly set it apart from its rivals. Cinerama’s louvered screen, as example, comprised of horizontal chords meticulously angled, greatly improved the overall luminosity and clarity of the image being projected onto them. So too did Cinerama give us our first real taste of eight-track directionalized stereophonic sound.  Walt Disney had earlier toyed with stereo - dubbed ‘Fanta-sound’ for 1940’s Fantasia. But Cinerama delivered a true stereophonic orchestral richness, unheard in any venue outside the classical concert hall before its time and arguably, ever since.  More than any other widescreen technology, Cinerama filled the entire periphery of human vision with its all-encompassing vistas.
Indeed, Cinerama’s pedigree was nothing short of impressive. Yet the film is somehow less than spectacular when viewed today, except in fits and sparks. This Is Cinerama opens with a rather tedious prologue in B&W and mono, featuring Lowell Thomas attempting to breach the chasm between the ‘dawn of time’ and, then, present day 1952. We move from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to Eadweard Muybridge’s experimental still photography of a running horse to settle a bet, then onto Thomas Edison’s famed ‘the kiss’ actuality, and, a detailed abridgement of Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) with Thomas’ monologue, at times, gravely overly-simplified. This prologue serves a trifecta purpose; first – it is a glorified history lesson; second – it artificially lengthens This Is Cinerama’s run time by twelve minutes, despite the fact this footage is not in Cinerama or even in color. Finally, it sets up a distinct comparison, as in ‘this is where we’ve been. Now this is where we’re going to take you’.
And so, immediately following Thomas’ declaration of “Ladies and gentlemen…this, is Cinerama!” the screen reveals its full aperture inside the dugout of Rockaway Playland’s Atom Smasher roller coaster; the audience placed in a front row seat as the car pulls from the station and plunges through a series of steep inclines and hairpin turns. Even on home video – arguably the least effective way to view true Cinerama – there is absolutely nothing to touch this moment for sheer exhilaration, and such a shame too, in the remaining 118 minutes of This Is Cinerama we are infrequently treated to little more or better than snippets of coming attractions for a feature that arguably never comes along. Instead, This Is Cinerama runs on like a glorified test reel for the format and not the comprehensive ‘you are there’ world-class experience its road show engagement program and movie posters promised. There is, of course, something to be said for the argument that today’s audiences have become jaded in their entertainment expectations. So, what played as ground-breaking then cannot help but fall short, given the vast improvements made in the 70+ years since.
Even so, there are some true oddities in this extended travelogue. A brief aerial shot of Niagara Falls in blazing Technicolor is followed by the turgidity of a static sequence photographed in sepia as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir enter with their backs to the camera, raising their voices in Handel’s Hallelujah. The sequence is meant to show off the razor-sharp clarity of Cinerama’s 6-track stereophonic sound. It does. But the staging just seems off if not entirely bizarre; drawing attention to the immobility of the camera rather than the size of the image, and to those atrocious seams separating the three panels. The setting itself, curtained with a makeshift altar taking center stage, is as unimpressive a thing as any ever photographed since the early days of silent cinema.
The opera vignettes from Verdi’s Aida are static, salvaged only by the staggering opulence of La Scala, the sumptuousness marred by the camera’s inability to get closer to the action. Cinerama’s tri-panel maintains the proscenium of the stage experience. From these rather stuffy moments, presumably meant to elevate the stature of Cinerama as justly capable of satisfying the highbrow, the production departs for a truncated tour of Spain with its flamenco dancers, castanets clicking; then, Italy’s St. Mark’s Square and a gondola ride down the Venetian canals. This, regrettably shows off one of the shortcomings rather than the virtues of Cinerama; a severely exaggerated warping of the image, the overhead bridges unnaturally stretched into cavernous, lopsided and tunnel-like spans; the seams between panels two and three slightly overlapping. After a brief intermission – a necessity to reboot the 3-projector setup, This Is Cinerama embellishes the splendors of Florida’s Cypress Garden for an invigorating water ski aquacade, and, an even grander Floridian display of southern-styled belles parading through some very lush tropical vegetation. This is the movie’s most lurid and eye-popping moment. It is rumored cameraman Harry Squire’s eyebrows were singed clean off when his boat sailed through a ring of fire in pursuit of the speedboats and water skiers.  Lowell Thomas’ commentary is mercilessly threadbare here, allowing for a flourish of Max Steiner’s orchestral underscoring in 8-track stereophonic sound.
This Is Cinerama’s finale is a mesmerizing overhead trek across America – from its fruited plains to pinnacled mountains, with breathtaking aerial views of Manhattan, Washington D.C. and Frisco’s Golden Gate bridge feathered in for good measure – serenaded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s haunting refrains of America, The Beautiful. The moment when Harry Squire’s low-lying camera, strapped to the nose of Paul Mantz’s P-51 Mustang, goes sailing over the edge of the Grand Canyon still retains its ability to take our breath away; ditto for Mantz’s hair-raising and equilibrium-testing swoops into the jagged caverns of Zion National Park. Mantz’s plane was so close to the rocks, the experience as captured on film convinced Squires to never again fly with him. As a tragic postscript, Mantz would die while performing similar aerial maneuvers for Robert Aldrich’s Flight of the Phoenix in 1965.  
Vintage reviews of This Is Cinerama ranged from moderately glowing to downright gushing.  Frequently, critics referenced the film’s ‘travelogue’ atmosphere – something Lowell Thomas vehemently detested because in the truest definition of that word This Is Cinerama is not a ‘travelogue’ per say, but a compendium of spectacular shots incongruously assembled to suggest something of a world tour or journey, shot mostly from overhead. Despite the success of This Is Cinerama and its several highly publicized sequels ‘The Windjammer’ and Cinerama’s Seven Wonders of the World among the many highlights, in hindsight it is very easy to see why the format never went beyond this initial fascination. To say the least, Cinerama’s laborious 3-camera setup and projection process was not cost-effect. Worse, at least for conventional storytelling, it suffered from a complete inability to favor the conventional Hollywood close-up. 
Even in MGM’s all-star blockbuster How the West Was Won (1962) - one of only two traditional narrative movies to use the process, and arguably, the only one to show off Cinerama to its very best advantage - the actors and action remain at a distance from the camera, the audience even further removed from the story by the proportionate space between their theater seats and the massive curved screen. This is Cinerama can be fun. I must admit, positioning myself just so in front of an 80-inch flat screen gave me a fairly accurate ‘you are there’ effect for the roller coaster and water-skiing sequences. But on the whole, the movie plays like the grand experiment that it was, but with slight imperfections. For a truly immersive experience, see This is Cinerama on a big canvas to recreate its enveloping and comprehensive movie-going experience. On home video, one cannot help but notice the exacerbated effect of slightly misaligned panels, or the curious anomaly of having rock formations, trees, bridges and buildings infrequently appearing as though they are about to crash against one another where the Cinerama panels meet.  
This Deluxe Edition of This Is Cinerama is the second outing put forth by restorationist/Cinerama enthusiasts, David Strohmaier and Greg Kimble with one major difference. The previous release was remastered from a 70mm Panavision recomposite of the original 3-strip panels made back in 1971 for a roadshow reissue. Various critics attending this theatrical experience in 1971 were quick to point out it left much to be desired and in no way recaptured the unique clarity of the original 1952 release in all its true 3-panel glory.   For this deluxe reissue on home video, This Is Cinerama has been remastered from newly recovered archival 3-strip original negatives. The results are head and shoulders above the old release. Colors are a revelation, yielding a richness of reds, greens, blues and yellows to almost recapture the vintage look of glorious Technicolor. It’s not perfect, but it is impressive nonetheless. Kimble has also managed to reduce a goodly amount of age-related damage and camera jitter for a fairly smooth presentation. Does this improve our overall viewing experience? Absolutely! But Cinerama’s inherent shortcomings – even the small ones – are quite obvious, perhaps more so than they probably appeared in a theater in 1952 when audiences were simply overwhelmed by the sheer size of Cinerama in projection. ‘Big’ can hide a lot of sins. The DTS audio is presented in either 5.1 or 4.0 DTS and is robust and bellowing with all the drama of Cinerama’s opening night sonic splendor.
Extras this time around are plentiful. We really need to tip our hats to Strohmaier and his team, beginning with a very engrossing audio commentary provided by Cinerama Inc.’s John Sittig (Cinerama Inc.), Strohmaier, historian, Randy Gitsch and original crew member, Jim Morrison. Anyone truly into the mechanics of film in general, Cinerama in particular, and, the business of 'making movies' cannot afford to miss this track. We also get The Best in the Biz, a revamped hour-long documentary, devoted to the composers of Cinerama. There’s also, Restoring This is Cinerama a thorough account of this new restoration, plus carried over extras from the original Blu-ray release, including an alternate European Opening for Act Two; Cinerama Everywhere, a French-produced short, an homage to the New Neon Movies; a brief celebration of Cinerama’s resurgence at the Ohio theater, plus radio interviews with Cinerama’s creator, Fred Waller, and, a refreshed This is Cinerama movie trailer.  Last, but not least, we get Cinerama Returns to the Cinerama Dome; a promo for the 50th anniversary of Cinerama, a breakdown reel of footage originally projected during the interruptions of any Cinerama performance (and there were many), and finally, TV spots – originally aired to market This Is Cinerama and Seven Wonders of the World.
Perhaps the best that can be said of This Is Cinerama, removed from all its hype and the luxury of seeing it as only it should be seen – in true 3-panel projection – is that it comes across as a quaint relic instead of a newly resurrected classic for all time. Although exceedingly grateful to Strohmaier and his crew for their renewed efforts, also to Flicker Alley for their faith in reissuing it to Blu-ray – a very important part of cinema history indeed – This Is Cinerama is nevertheless not a movie most outside of the die hard collector's community, film buffs and/or historians will find compelling. For certain, it has its moments. But they do not add up to achieving that participatory spectacle movie audiences undoubtedly experienced in 1952. That’s a shame. It’s also the truth. On home video, This Is Cinerama is likely to remain an intriguing historical anomaly, not a cinematic masterpiece. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

DIE HARD: 4K Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 1988) Fox Home Video

Can it really be 30 years since a belligerent John McClane (Bruce Willis) took out a small army of mercenaries in John McTiernan’s high octane actioner, Die Hard (1988)? Alas, yes, as time does not stand still, much as we might sometimes prefer it. Yet, in the interim, Die Hard has only ripened with age, grown more adventurous and fun-loving in all its ‘yippee-ki-yay, mother f#@ker’ tongue-in-cheek American yahoo spirit. Even more impressive, given the generally short artistic expiration of movies made in the 1980’s, Die Hard has not really dated in any tangible way since; thematically, still relevant (perhaps, even more so since 9-11), its campy elements tempered by Willis’ superb smugness and obstinate joy at beating these would-be terrorists at their own game. Die Hard is an actioner like no other before or since its time. Fox’s decision to turn it into a franchise, with mixed reviews and varying quality, does not diminish the fact McTiernan had tapped into a whole new sub-genre. In hindsight, Willis’ ex-cop/man of conviction is something of a roadshow knock-off of Roger Moore’s James Bond, made grittier (he plays virtually the entire movie in a ripped, and increasingly blood-stained wife-beater) and discharged of the niceties, though as much the bon vivant of the beer and pretzels sect, and sincerely, just as charming.
We give it to Bruce Willis, overcoming a teenage stutter and the blindsided opinion of casting directors who repeatedly thought him ‘unsuitable’ to play leading men. He came to prominence first, as the self-effacing, arrogant and womanizing David Addison opposite Cybil Sheppard’s glacial and uppity ex-super model in TV’s award-winning comedy/caper series, Moonlighting (1985-88); in hindsight, the perfect ‘proving ground’ for his formidable comic range. After a pair of tepid movies (his debut in Blake Edward’s turgid Blind Date, 1987 could hardly be counted upon as a successful launch, nor 1988’s Sunset, where he had a modest supporting role). Willis then came to McTiernan’s attention and Die Hard became a reality. Willis actually performed all of his own stunt work in the picture, an ambitious slate that would have made even a seasoned stuntman think twice. His professionalism and willingness to do whatever was asked of him ingratiated Willis to McTiernan and the two got on famously throughout the shoot.
McTiernan was far less popular with the executive brain trust over at 2oth Century-Fox, particularly after staging a fairly impressive display of pyrotechnics that blew out the ground floor windows in their newly constructed headquarters at Century City (the high-rise substituting for the fictional Nakitomi Plaza). Based on Roderick Thorp’s novel ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’, Die Hard effectively ushered in the gut-wrenching/heart-pounding roller coaster ride that audiences have since come to expect as a main staple in their popcorn-munching summer film fare. What McTiernan did was to take the nail-biting thrills of a Bond flick and illustrate that the rules of engagement could equally apply to an every man pushed to the brink of revenge. John McClane is not the suave lady’s man in a tux, but a sullen and estranged husband and father, a cop stripped of his initiative, though hardly his impetus to take on the bad guys, playing out his scenes in an undershirt and barefoot no less. With the vigor of a Teddy Roosevelt, our John may speak softly, but he carries with him an awfully big stick (or, proverbial ‘boulder-sized’ chip on his shoulder, as the case may be).
And, if we are to believe his wife, currently marketing her executive potential under her maiden name, Holly Genero (Bonnie Bedelia), then McClane’s glib, street-savvy, uber-smug morality has been very hard to live with; the circumstances of their split exacerbated when John arrives in Los Angeles for the Christmas holidays, only to discover his wife, her boss and the rest of their party taken hostage by a motley crew of above average thieves masquerading as terrorists. This renegade force is front-lined by narcissistic, Hans Gruber (the late, Alan Rickman). This was Rickman’s introduction to ‘the movies’ and he conquered the medium with impeccable menace, affecting an absolutely convincing ‘American’ accent for a pivotal sequence in which he momentarily tricks McClane into believing he is just another hostage in need of his protection. Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza’s screenplay keeps the action taut and the thrills coming in cleverly parceled off waves of high stakes suspense, gingerly interrupted by the bro-mantic chemistry McClane shares with Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald Veljohnson). Like himself, Powell is just a cop on the beat and the only man to take McClane’s initial claim of international terrorism seriously. For comic relief, we also get Paul Gleason’s caustic and clumsy Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson, and, William Atherton’s overzealous and arrogant news reporter, Richard Thornburg; the pair, constantly threatening, mostly through gross negligence, to wreck McClane’s well-laid plans to intercept and diffuse the situation.
Die Hard was, is, and has remained a grandly amusing thrill ride all these years; high octane in its impressively full-scale sequences, but with oodles of charm and Bruce Willis’ inimitably devilish and gutsy chutzpah to boot. Too many action heroes of late – and many of yore – have taken themselves far too seriously. Willis never does. Indeed, his John McClane is a breath of very ‘fresh’ air, challenging Gruber’s smug superiority at every turn and really putting a crimp in his otherwise foolproof plan to make off with some valuable bearer bonds. Die Hard would have faded into obscurity long ago if not for the caustic chemistry and rancid antagonism constantly roiling between Willis’ telescopically focused wrecking ball and Rickman’s latent wicked thief in the night. One would be nothing without the other. Together, they deliver a very satisfying knockout punch, their sparing, more verbal than physical as Gruber leaves almost all of the heavy lifting to his hot-headed cohorts; Karl (Alexander Godunov), Franco (Bruno Doyon), Tony (Andreas Wisniewski), Uli (Al Leong), and, Eddie (Dennis Hayden).
Die Hard opens with John McClane’s arrival in Los Angeles, a world apart from New York’s gritty realism. Some time ago, McClane drew his line in the proverbial sand, refusing to give up his career in law enforcement to relocate to Lalaland in support of his wife’s career. Estranged, though not divorced, Holly has nevertheless been passing herself off as Holly Gennaro. In the spirit of Christmas, Holly’s boss, Nakatomi’s east coast President, Joseph Yoshinobu Takagi (James Shigeta) has decided to surprise her with a reunion, sending a limo to collect John at the airport, driven by the enterprising would-be lady’s man, Argyle (De'voreaux White). Despite the discrepancy in their ages, John and Argyle bond on the car ride to Nakatomi Plaza; Argyle, agreeing to wait for John’s call in the underground parking garage. Neither is prepared for what happens next. High atop this imposing superstructure, the executives of the Nakatomi Corporation are in full swing party mode, quite unaware an insidious group of organized criminals is fast infiltrating the Plaza at ground level, murdering the security guard on duty and effectively sealing off all entrances for any possible escape. Their leader, Hans Gruber is endeavoring to steal the riches stored in Nakatomi’s code-sensitive vaults.
Invading the tower with the element of surprise, Gruber and his men, including computer code cracker, Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr.), quickly establish their stronghold. Having only just arrived to this party, John manages to slip through Gruber’s dragnet and make his way to another floor still under construction where he attempts to telephone the local authorities. Alas, Gruber has thought of everything, ordering Eddie, now pretending to be the front lobby’s security guard, to diffuse police inquiries and suggest the call was either a crank or a false alarm. The ruse almost works, Sgt. Powell turning away until John tosses one of Gruber’s stooges out the window from high above, the body landing on Powell’s cruiser and causing a brief, but full-scale assault from the rest of Gruber’s men. Meanwhile, Gruber has escorted Takagi to his private suite of offices, demanding he divulge the key codes to the vault. When Takagi refuses, claiming not even he knows all the codes for total access, Gruber unexpectedly murders him in cold blood as John helplessly looks on.
Aware of John’s presence, Gruber sends his goon squad to take care of him, McClane, at first, is regarded as little more than a nuisance. Too bad for Gruber, he has underestimated John’s street-savviness. As the police are now aware something is remiss at Nakatomi Plaza, and soon to alert the FBI, Gruber and his boys are in a race against time to crack the codes and make off with their loot. John endures assault after assault, narrowly escaping from being blown up, repeatedly shot and stabbed in hand-to-hand combat. To divert the FBI’s attentions, Gruber goes through the motions of pretending to be a terrorist, demanding as ransom the liberation of imprisoned compatriots around the globe, even as Theo works feverishly to decrypt the codes and free up the $650,000,000.00 in bearer bonds sealed within Nakatomi’s vault. Gruber, generally steely-eyed and patient, loses his cool as John increasingly proves a one-man arsenal, skillfully picking off his men one at a time. Even as John and Sgt. Powell strike a bond, John inadvertently incurs the wrath of Powell’s superior, Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson. For a brief wrinkle, John has the upper hand. Alas, what John does not count on is overzealous reporter, Richard Thornberg’s live report, inadvertently exposing Holly as McClane’s wife – thereby tipping the scales in Gruber’s favor. Now, he decides to hold Holly as the ultimate hostage in his high stakes showdown.
John knocks out the last of Gruber’s men, mistaken for one of them by the FBI’s sniper-firing helicopter circling overhead and narrowly avoiding his own complete annihilation on the rooftops of Nakatomi Plaza. Gruber threatens to shoot Holly. Instead, John fires a concealed weapon, wounding Gruber in the shoulder. As he stumbles back, and through one of the tower’s shattered glass windows, Gruber attempts to take Holly with him. John intercepts and saves his wife; the couple observing as Gruber plummets to his death on the pavement far below. Arriving at ground level, John and Sgt. Powell meet face to face for the first time. The overzealous Richard Thornberg, who has been dogging John’s every move simply for the sake of a good scoop, and, in fact, was instrumental – if inadvertently – in exposing Holly’s marital status to Gruber, now shoves a microphone in the couple’s faces, hoping for an award-winning sound bite. Instead, Holly belts Thornberg in the chops as she and John stagger beyond the deluge, presumably to be reunited as a family once again.
Die Hard is in a class apart – although at the time of shooting, it is doubtful anyone, perhaps even McTiernan, knew it. Viewing dailies, Fox execs were none too happy McTiernan and his crew were detonating real explosives inside their, as yet unfinished, office complex (built on the hallowed ground where once all those glorious 2oth Century-Fox back lot facades from the golden era had stood). Although assured the building was structurally sound and undamaged by the staging of these sequences – only sound box office revenue upon the film’s release could convince the executive brain trust the danger had been worth the exercise. What they received for their white-knuckled patience was a summer blockbuster of chart-topping proportions. On a $28 million budget, Die Hard grossed a whopping $140.8 million, one of the studio’s biggest and brightest of the summer season.  The picture also crystalized Bruce Willis’ box office potential as a leading man, proving his initial flourish of dynamism and success on Moonlighting was not a fluke and could, in fact, be translated from the small screen to the movies. Likely, this left more established stars like Sylvester Stallone, Harrison Ford, and Don Johnson scratching their noggins as all three had initially turned down the project.
And Willis, having decidedly earned his $5 million payout (unheard of then, for an actor with no real box office cache), was circumspect the fee had been afforded, more out of desperation on the part of Fox President, Leonard Goldberg and the other execs, in need of a star – any star – to partake of the movie nobody wanted to commit. Indeed, Fox had tapped every ‘big’ name working in Hollywood then, including Richard Gere and Clint Eastwood with no takers, despite dangling an attractive fee for their services under their noses. The choice to alter the villains from terrorists to decidedly ‘above average’ (though nevertheless common) thieves, was McTiernan’s, believing political intrigues made for tepid summer box office receipts. But McTiernan had other concerns as well, beginning his shoot without actually agreeing to the ending as written; also, condensing the action into a single night’s bombardment. The Stuart/de Souza screenplay had originally spread the hostage crisis over three consecutive days.
Due to McTiernan’s constant refining of scenes, sets built at a great expense before McTiernan had had the opportunity to block his action were occasionally left unused; the result, some of Jackson De Govia’s lavish production design never making it into the camera lens or only briefly glimpsed as background in a quick pan. Undeniably, De Govia’s piece de resistance was Nakatomi Plaza’s 30th floor atrium-styled office suites, complete with a cavernous common area, architecturally reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic, Fallingwater; its vast array of windows overlooking a night-scape of Los Angeles. This was actually a 380 ft. cyclorama enveloping the sound stage, complete with animated lights to simulate the metropolitan cityscape. Over and over again, McTiernan encountered roadblocks from Fox over his decision to stage his real-life blitzkrieg in and atop their ‘as yet’ unfinished corporate headquarters; the moment where an armored car storms the front steps, flattening a banister, as well as the hellish rooftop explosion, complete with helicopter and Willis dangling from a rigged harness, requiring months of negotiations for only a few extra feet of usable footage.  But in the final analysis, everything clicked as it should: McTiernan and Fox breathing a sigh of relief when Die Hard proved an immediate smash hit with the public.
Die Hard on home video has always, and rather inexplicably, looked a bit shabby; in retrospect, because I suspect no previous video format was capable of properly balancing its subtler color palette. Photographed on 35 mm anamorphic Panavision with SFX shots completed in 65 mm, for this newly remastered 4K edition the original negatives have been scanned and graded in HDR10.  The results are very impressive to say the least; head and shoulders above what Die Hard has looked like since its theatrical debut. Most improved is the layering of fine detail and the consistency of film grain, at last, appearing indigenous to its source. Colors remain subdued, but shadow delineation is greatly deepened, with exceptional highlights, and, a far more subtly nuanced image on the whole. Do not expect eye-popping brilliance here. Die Hard’s color palette was always stylistically subtler; the image, now, richer for its inherent darkness, acutely brought forth, while keeping other visual elements perfectly in check; definitely a winner. Audio remastering in DTS 5.1 never entirely measures up. Die Hard was originally released theatrically in Dolby Surround, although there are memos in the Fox vault to suggest limited engagements were in 6-track stereo and 70mm in the major cities. Die Hard can never sound like a movie made yesterday, nor would this be the expectation or the barometer by which to grade its audio presentation herein. Comparatively, as a soundtrack from the 1980’s, it sounds just fine, sporting exceptional clarity with atmospheric underscore and SFX all kept in their proper place; dialogue always front and center, surrounds employed for a directionalized aural experience.
The 4K disc includes an audio commentary from McTiernan and De Govia recorded eons ago for the defunct 5 Star DVD release (remember those 2-disc metallic sleeve packages back in the infancy of DVD?). We also get another, showing off the talents of cast and crew. There is also a scene specific commentary from visual effects producer, Richard Edlund. It may be sacrilege, but I found Edlund’s more fascinating than McTiernan’s. Fox has also included the tired old 1080p Blu-ray.  *Note: the Blu-ray has not been remastered from the 4K elements! It includes the same audio commentaries, plus bloopers/outtakes, an interactive gallery and trailer gallery. Missing from the 5 Star DVD is all the ‘making of’ goodies that have never resurfaced on home video since. Bottom line: Die Hard is a seminal actioner from the 1980’s. It holds up remarkably well and is deserving of a 4K release. Not exactly the most stunning 4K disc I have reviewed thus far, but solidly mastered nonetheless, and, with marked improvements over previous home video incarnations. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Sunday, May 13, 2018

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN: 4K Blu-ray (Dreamworks, 1998) Paramount Home Video

We pause a moment for reflection herein, to give sincere and hearty thanks to our Armed Forces and to that ‘greatest generation’ having sacrificed so very much to ensure the rights and freedoms we continue to enjoy have remained a steadfast part of the American fabric of life. The military might of any great nation cannot be overstated. Nor should it ever be set aside or merely taken for granted. It is a privilege to live in a country where the individual supersedes the homogenized collective whole; where, liberty – in all its many divinely-lit facets (and perhaps a few cringe-worthy) is allowed to flourish without reprisals and where the strength of national pride and character is built upon and by individuals collectively pooling their talents and resources to achieve great things, still best exemplified via the term, ‘e pluribus unum’ (translated, ‘out of many – one’). 
WWII and its historic fallout has given film makers ever since a wellspring of gripping narratives; the tales, slowly shifting from romanticized depictions to the horrific realities many faced with unflinching resolve, dare we suggest, gallantry and resistance against tyranny - a very noble cause. And while it may sound as though I am rhapsodizing quixotic from my own limited (and non-serving) comprehension, in my own defense, I will simply extend both humility and thanks to those who stand silent and tall in the face of danger; to the many for whom my protection, and indeed, the defense of millions at home and abroad is more a devotion than an oath and a loyalty blindly pledged to the nameless millions they will never meet in person but have chosen to safeguard with the same valor they would apply in defense on their own families. As much then as I am able, I respectfully honor and treasure the fighting men and women of the Armed Forces. They are unquestionably among the finest examples of humanity on this earth. 
Given the extended life of the war drama on the movie screen, it is saying a great deal perhaps only a handful can complete with Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998); a $481 million-dollar box office dynamo, brilliantly scripted - if gruesomely recalled by writer, Robert Rodat, who effortlessly shifts the picture’s focus from the brutalities of mechanized combat to the resultant human sacrifice. There are moments in Saving Private Ryan indelibly etched in the heart, likely to scar the subconscious in seared snapshots ripped from the war-correspondent’s memoirs or yellowing pages of a LIFE magazine: the staggering loss felt by Mrs. Ryan (Kathleen Byron) upon receiving consecutive telegrams informing the death of three of her four sons; or the moment when an aged James Francis Ryan (Harrison Young) is stricken to his core in recalling the gallantry of fallen comrades, or, the hellish charge in Ramelle that brought him safely home so many years earlier (to name but three vignettes), the latter, memorably stirred by John William’s ‘lump in the throat’ inducing underscore; his cue – ‘Hymn to the Fallen’ – an exemplar of what film scoring ought to be.    
Many confuse the impetus for Rodat's inspiration as direct homage to the fallen Niland brothers. But actually, Rodat conceived his story after learning of the remarkably similar fate of four brothers who died during the American Civil War. He submitted his first draft to producer, Mark Gordon, later to find its way into the hands of star, Tom Hanks, who then gave it to Spielberg. Having demonstrated his passion for the period with Schindler's List (1994), Spielberg immediately signed on to helm Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg’s singular ambition was to cast the movie from a myriad of faces uncannily resembling those forever immortalized in vintage newsreel footage. “You know, the people in World War II actually looked different than people look today…so I wanted to match the faces I saw on the newsreels.” Once casting choices had been made, Spielberg determined they should ‘look the part’. To this end, Spielberg had all his co-stars (except Matt Damon) Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Adam Goldberg, Giovanni Ribisi, and Tom Hanks put through the rigors of a ten day ‘boot camp’ overseen by Marine veteran, Dale Dye and Warriors, Inc., a California-based company specializing in training actors for realistic military maneuvers.
This preparation would decidedly come in handy as Spielberg launched into his bloody recreation of the Allied invasion of Normandy – arguably, the most hellish depiction likely ever recorded of that frequently documented cacophony of human carnage. For twenty odd minutes, the audience is plunged into the grotesqueness and irony of sheer waste as these conflicting factions come to their death grips on Omaha Beach. Janusz Kamiński’s desaturated cinematography, born of a khaki/grey and steely blue dawn color palette, assaults the eye with the orangey/red splatter of decimated human remains, casually littering these windswept shores. Spielberg bravely allows this unremitting display to fully sink into the public consciousness. Once witnessed, it continues to haunt the memory with the magnification of that oft cliched, though nevertheless, very sobering declaration; that lest we forget - war, is the human (or perhaps ‘inhumane’) equivalent of hell. 
Interestingly, Spielberg had initial misgivings about making Saving Private Ryan, although he clearly harbored an affinity for the period as illustrated by previous successes with Empire of the Sun (1987) and Schindler’s List (1993). In hindsight, the double-whammy of critical/commercial success afforded Saving Private Ryan encouraged Spielberg to serve as executive producer on the HBO mini-series, Band of Brothers (2001), its counterpart, The Pacific (2010, reunited with Tom Hanks), and finally, to explore WWI with the as affecting War Horse (2011).  Saving Private Ryan is book-ended by a superb prologue set in the present, authentically at Normandy’s American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer and Calvados. From here, the production bounced around, to Hatfield, Hertfordshire, Thames Park, Oxfordshire and Wiltshire, England, with the invasion of Normandy actually lensed on Ballinesker Beach, Curracloe Strand, Ballinesker, just east of Curracloe, County Wexford, Ireland. Spielberg, populated this latter sequence with a staggering, 1,500 extras culled from Irish Reserves, members of local reenactment groups, and real-life amputees, at an impressive cost of $12 million.  
A stickler for detail, Spielberg also insisted the depiction of Charlie Company be as authentic to the historical record as possible, with only slight modifications made for ‘artistic reasons’; from the sea sickness experienced by many before they reached the beaches, and the distinct ‘ping’ of M1 Garand rifles ejecting their ammunition clips, right down to the original code names used.  Twelve genuine 10 LCVPs and 2 LCMs were employed as part of the armada of landing craft to ‘invade’ the beach; Spielberg, employing underwater cameras to depict soldiers being hit by bullets beneath the waves.  As no functioning Tiger I German armored vehicles existed, copies were built on Soviet T-34 chasses, with similar modifications made to depict Panzers and Marder III tank destroyers.  The actual ‘look’ of this footage, however, was a collaborative effort from Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kamiński; the latter, stripping off the protective coating from the camera lens to create a more contrasty and diffused focus. Later, the camera negative was run through a process known as ‘bleach bypass’ to offset brightness and desaturate its color.
Saving Private Ryan opens in the present, at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Aged war veteran, James Francis Ryan makes his pilgrimage to one of the countless markers dotting this silent and sunny landscape, becoming genuinely overwrought with emotion. As his family aid in his comfort, our story regresses in flashback to June 6, 1944: America’s landing on Omaha Beach as part of the Normandy Invasion. Casualties are staggering as the German defensive artillery unleashes its full might. Amidst the chaos and confusion, a valiant Captain John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) of the 2nd Ranger Battalion assembles his troop, burrowing deep into the German defenses. Spielberg pauses a moment on the knapsack of a dead soldier lying face-down in the blood-stained surf, stenciled with the name, Ryan, S. In Washington, General George Marshall (Harve Presnell) discovers three of the four Ryan brothers have been killed in action; the fourth, James (Matt Damon) presumably MIA after having parachuted somewhere over Normandy. Realizing, the boys’ mother will receive three telegrams from the War Department, Marshall fires off an executive memo to bring Private James Ryan home immediately.
Still beleaguered and exhausted from three days fighting after D-Day, Miller is given his directive to locate Private Ryan. Expediently, Miller assembles a crackerjack team for the task, including Sergeant Mike Horvath (Tom Sizemore), Privates First Class Richard Reiben (Edward Burns) and Adrian Caparzo (Vin Diesel), Privates Stanley Mellish (Adam Goldberg) and Danny Jackson (Barry Pepper), medic Irwin Wade (Giovanni Ribisi), Corporal Timothy Upham (Jeremy Davies), plus a cartographer and interpreter borrowed from another unit. The troop moves out. But it is not long before the war inflicts its first casualty. Caparzo takes a sniper’s bullet at Neuville; the enemy dispatched immediately thereafter by Jackson. Coming upon a friend of James Ryan, Miller moves his company toward Ramelle, where it is assumed Ryan is part of a team defending an important bridge. Alas, en route to the town Miller elects to neutralize a Nazi machine gun position, despite strenuous objections from the rest of his men. Still, Miller is in charge. And thus, the ambush occurs. Wade is killed by a Nazi soldier the company crudely nicknamed, Steamboat Willie (Joerg Stadler). But Miller shows ‘Willie’ mercy, provided he surrenders to the first Allied Unit he encounters.
Disgusted by this turn of events, Reiben makes his intention to desert known, prompting a confrontation with Horvath that Miller quells by revealing to all his knowledge the men have set up a betting pool. Very reluctantly, Reiben remains with the troop. Just outside of Ramelle, Miller and his men encounter another German half-track. They ambush this modest stronghold together with three paratroopers (Neil Finnighan, Peter Miles), the latter of whom it is discovered is none other than the man they have come to seek out: Private James Ryan (Matt Damon). Following a successful surprise attack, Miller pulls Ryan aside and explains to him the purpose of his mission. He also, reveals the loss of his brothers and the two men from his company who never made it to Ramelle.  Considering the situation frankly, Ryan informs Miller he intends to remain at the front, not only to honor his fallen siblings, but to fight at the side of ‘the only brothers’ he now has left in this world – his fellow soldiers. Miller is humbled by Ryan’s valor and plans to aid these paratroopers in their takeover of the bridge against a pending Nazi onslaught. Rigging the already brutalized town with mines, Molotov cocktails, detonation cords and ‘sticky bombs’ made from socks filled with Composition B smeared with thick grease, Miller and his men hunker down for a protracted assault.
A faction of the 2nd SS Panzer Division bears down hard on Ramelle. Despite inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy, most of the paratroopers, along with Jackson, Mellish and Horvath are killed. Crippled by anxiety, Upham conceals himself from the foe. In attempting to blow up the bridge, Miller is mortally wounded by Steamboat Willie.  Now, a dying Miller begrudgingly crawls to the middle of the bridge, opening fire on the advancing Nazi troops. At the last possible moment, when all appears lost, an American P-51 Mustang flies overhead, accompanied by American armored units on the ground. The Nazi stronghold is put on the run. Regaining his composure, Upham emerges from his hiding spot and confronts Willie. Believing he will be spared a second time, the Nazi grins and raises his defenseless hands. But Upham is not Miller. He shoots Willie dead to avenge Miller but allows the remaining enemy soldiers their retreat.  Reiben and Ryan comfort Miller in his dying moments, Miller cryptically suggesting Ryan has earned his release from service. We return to the present with these words still echoing in Ryan’s ears; the old man kneeling at Miller’s headstone. Comforted by his wife and family, Ryan fears he has lived a life unworthy of their sacrifices. Mrs. Ryan assures her husband that he is, and has always been, an honorable man. Ryan rises to his feet and proudly salutes his fallen comrades.
It has taken me longer to review Paramount’s 4K release of Saving Private Ryan for the simple reason I have always found the picture an exceptionally difficult emotional experience. I do not mind admitting I sincerely wept in the theater when I first saw it in 1998 and have only been able to get through my standard Blu-ray disc twice since in a single night’s viewing. What can I tell you? It’s that kind of a picture for me. I have now exposed myself to Spielberg’s hauntingly passionate roller coaster ride yet again, this time in the stunning clarity of UHD 4K. Truthfully, I do not think I shall find any good reason to ever revisit this movie again.  It hits a little too close to home for me. That said, Saving Private Ryan is precisely the sort of movie that should be required viewing for every living adult on this planet; Spielberg’s disturbingly graphic and emotive maelstrom, an affecting reminder of the oft clichéd adage about “freedom not being free.” Indeed, freedom has been, and continues to be, paid on an almost hourly basis with the sweat, blood and valor of individuals devoted to liberty around the world.
I will stop just short of labeling Saving Private Ryan Steven Spielberg’s finest hour. Undeniably, a master craftsman and visionary storyteller of Spielberg’s ilk and body of work has far too many contenders to effectively choose only one for this hallowed top spot with any degree of certainty. Without question, however, Miller is Tom Hanks greatest achievement (perhaps, tied only by his sensitive turn as Forrest Gump), with a nod paid to the other stellar performance from Matt Damon that is almost as good. My one regret herein is Spielberg chose to stage a good many of the combat sequences with the frenetic energy of a handheld camera. I understand exactly why he did it; the equilibrium-discombobulating tug and bounce of the camera effectively typifying the exhaustive and chaotic nature of war. There is nothing clean or artful about human carnage or the mind-numbing wreckage it leaves behind.  
And Spielberg's meticulous skill has spared the picture from becoming just one extended, vomit-inducing blood fest. The point herein is the audience, unlike the solider, need brief respites to realign their perspectives. Spielberg, alas, never quite gives us the opportunity to appreciate the thought-numbing sobriety of mano a mano self-destruction. In an effort to make the experience more genuinely immersive, Spielberg has distilled the humanity of the piece into a much bleaker reenactment, where the specter for death unravels, at least partly, the real human saga at the crux of his storytelling. In the final analysis, Saving Private Ryan is affectingly powerful. But it remains, at least for this reviewer, a movie that cannot be ‘enjoyed’ purely as an entertainment. I can admire Spielberg’s artistry as a testament to the fallen – yes. And again, deservedly rife for rediscovery by each new generation. But once seen, it is best remembered from memory than repeat viewings. The horrors of war as depicted herein are disturbing enough.  
Viewing Saving Private Ryan in 4K, properly color graded with HDR and Dolby Vision is a deliberately grainy experience. Spielberg and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski have conspired to create a frayed-around-the-edges newsreel quality that is perfectly realized in UHD. The quantum difference between 4K and Blu-ray is in the details, every pebble and grain of sand on display, the overall clarity adding yet another layer to our appreciation for what the 4K format can achieve when time, care and money are afforded a home video release. Overall image brightness is definitely improved. The gritty visuals are exaggerated, almost to brink of appearing digitally harsh. Nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of this hyper-sensitive visual display: a lot of grime, sweat and blood-spattered pores, wrinkles and the like, amplified to a level never before achieved.  Directly compared against the standard Blu-ray, it is the razor-sharpness and sporadic pop of color on the 4K counterpart that really antes up the experience of revisiting this movie on home video.
Saving Private Ryan’s original 5.1 DTS has been reinvented as an even more immersive Dolby Atmos mix.  And although the stage-dominant effects greatly benefit from this upgrade, it is the authentic clarity of virtually every subtly nuanced SFX, dialogue and music cue that distinguishes this re-imagining as yet another exemplar for the way modern movies, properly remastered for home video, ought to sound – as well as look.  The abounding bass, while dominant, never overtakes the other soundtrack elements; the aural distinction between dialogue, SFX and music, all-encompassing and thoroughly effective. As with virtually all 4K releases thus far, extra content has been dropped, though mercifully, Paramount has included the standard 2-disc Blu-ray as compensation. Everything has been carried over from 2010’s Sapphire Edition, including an introduction from Spielberg, and brief featurettes: Looking In To The Past: The Research, the Screenplay and the Vision, Miller and his Platoon, Boot Camp for the Cast, Making Saving Private Ryan, Re-creating D-Day: Omaha Beach, Music And Sound and Parting Thoughts. The most comprehensive extra is Shooting War, at just under an hour and a half, a fairly engrossing testament to WWII combat photographers, narrated by Tom Hanks and written/produced by film historian, Richard Schickel albeit, in SD. Bottom line: this is the definitive home video presentation for Saving Private Ryan. It comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)