Thursday, September 29, 2016

MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL: Blu-ray (WB 1997) Warner Archive Collection

“Truth…like art…is in the eye of the beholder.”
Not exactly sure how Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) works, but it does. It's not exactly a ‘whodunit’ since there is little doubt the film's protagonist, wealthy and flamboyant philanthropist/antique art dealer, Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey) murdered his gay hustler boy toy, Billy Hanson (Jude Law) in cold blood. It’s not entirely a thriller either, even though - as in the celebrated tradition of the novel by Syracuse native and magazine writer, John Berendt (based on actual events) – there remains plenty of moody southern American Gothic allure; the lush and steamy Savannah locale, malingering with a palpable disquiet and, at times, perversely tense ennui. The film has no climax to speak of - the machinations in Jim’s subsequent trial and exoneration (even though we already know he is guilty as sin) a foregone conclusion about midway through the screenplay, superbly consolidated by John Lee Hancock, although perhaps revealing just a tad too much long before the moot verdict is announced near the end of the film's 155 minute run time.
At best then, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is an ensemble piece, very much cut from the same artistic cloth as a Robert Altman flick - its plot secondary to getting to know these vibrant characters who skulk about this moonlight and magnolia backdrop with their gentile drawl and aged bourbon firmly in hand. Action occurs almost incidentally, with a sort of languid cadence, and, only when absolutely necessary to move the audiences from one lurid vignette into the next – indeed, a very ‘southern’ approach to this material. And yet, from beginning to end, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is never anything less than riveting. In retrospect, what it has in spades is uncanny verisimilitude, thanks to Clint Eastwood's foresight in casting the real people written about in the novel as their own cameos in his film. Except for stars, John Cusack, Kevin Spacey, Jude Law and a few supporting players, Eastwood has invited virtually all of the gentry actually a part of this mystery, to partake of its reenactment; the one forgivable omission, the beloved British bulldog/mascot, Uga IV who, by the time Eastwood and his entourage came to town, was long since deceased, replaced by his successor, Uga V. Such cameos do more than merely provide charm, humor and sublime texture to these proceedings. They lend an air of verisimilitude impossible to top any other way.
Berendt’s novelization of the actual murder, which took place in the 1980s, alludes to the time-honored principles of black magic – or voodoo – ‘midnight’, believed to be the ephemeral grace period when forces of the supernatural can be manipulated either for good or evil; the garden, South Carolina’s Beaufort cemetery; a decaying oasis of moss-laden statuary and architecturally spellbinding mausoleums, where spiritualist, Minerva (Irma P. Hall) practices incantations over the grave of her late husband, Dr. Buzzard, presumably to ensure a successful resolution to Jim William’s trial for murder.  “I was seduced by Savanah,” Berendt openly admits, “I didn’t choose it, it chose me. I was absolutely overcome by its spectacular beauty; eighteenth century and nineteenth century Victorian mansions. I loved the stories. I loved the people. But it’s about a very strange circumstance. In the movie, John Cusack plays me, so it is suggested, come to write a piece for Town and Country magazine, which I had never written for. But ultimately, I thought Clint Eastwood did a marvelous job with it, and I must say that many of my friends have gone there since, to visit the locales as depicted in the film; not one of them disappointed by what they’ve seen.”
Berendt’s prose – a page-turner, unprecedentedly on the New York Time’s Best Seller List for 216 weeks (that’s four years!!!), rearranges certain events in the actual crime of passion, loosely classified as non-fiction or ‘faction’ – a hybrid originally popularized by Truman Capote and later, Norman Mailer.  John Lee Hancock’s screenplay is fairly faithful to both the structure and dialogue of the book. Yet it is Eastwood’s meticulous craftsmanship, his unfailing persistence and ability to meander through these cultured private courtyards and byways, allowing his audience to discover the mounting tension as our every man, Yankee freelance writer, John Kelso (John Cusack) does, that lends Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil its genuinely disturbing air as a haunting cinematic experience.  Initially, not all of Savannah embraced the book’s popularity, certainly not Williams’ sister, Dorothy W. Kingery, who found something moderately distasteful in Berendt’s decision to periodically interrupt the severity of her brother’s story with interspersed lighter inserts devoted to the ‘crazy and colorful’ Southern folk long suspected of inhabiting the region. Upon publication, shopkeepers stocking Berendt’s novel discovered to their horror, their front windows and doors pelted and smeared with rotten eggs, apples and tomatoes. “In the south we’re raised not to tell family secrets,” gift shop owner, Deborah Sullivan explains, “But this one tells a lot of family secrets. It’s a true story and a compelling one – but I received threatening letters when I first decided to open my shop.” Publishing phenomena are rare. The last one to hit the South was arguably, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. But Berendt’s book proved another earth-shattering event from which, arguably, Savannah has yet to recover. Indeed, regional tourism has remained high since; the novel and movie’s popularity gradually gaining acceptance among the locals. “I had decided to carry 400 copies of the book when it was first published,” antique book seller, Ginger Duncan explained, “But by the end of the first year I was able to buy a brand new Buick with the proceeds I had made off the book.” 
“Today Savannah is more aware of itself,” Berendt later commented, “…and more aware that the world is watching them which really hasn’t changed much around here except for the price tag of houses.” “I think most people have come to realize that the book is a real investment for Savannah,” the real Sonny Seiler (Jim Williams’ former attorney, who appears in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil as the presiding judge) explained, “There are a few people who still 'scrumble' about it. I suppose it just depends on whose ox is in the ditch!” “It’s changed my life tremendously,” the transgender Lady Chablis Deveau (who plays herself in the movie) added, “I’ve met so many wonderful people since the book and the movie. You know, even before the book came out John (Berendt) told me ‘you’re going to be famous’…and he kept his word.” 
“I came to the novel second best,” Eastwood would later confide, “Having read John Lee Hancock’s script first, and liking it very much. I thought - this is different. This is something I would like to try. Then I read the book and appreciated it even more because John (Hancock) had taken what was a very quirkily written and sometimes episodic story and managed to sort through and find a continuation of story; the characters all interwoven into the plotline, whereas in the novel some of them merely interweave with Savanah – creating mood and texture.” Eastwood would spend a great deal of his preproduction phase on Monterey Square; the historic eighteenth century promenade overlooking Mercer/Williams House, aptly named after its two most renown residents; composer, Johnny Mercer and, of course, Jim Williams, its most scandalized denizen. Resplendently sheathed in long billowy curtains of Spanish moss, Mercer/Williams House would prove equally a character as any of flesh and blood. Even so, Eastwood knew the success of his movie lay in discovering an actor who shared not only something of the physical stature of the real Jim Williams, but moreover, was able to convey a more intangible zest for inhabiting the part; body, mind and spirit. “Kevin had a certain resemblance to the real Jim Williams,” Eastwood admitted, “…and, of course, did his own intense research into the character. It was a tough role to play, because Williams was both very flamboyant, charismatic, and yet, with an air of mystery about him. And Kevin gave us all that and more.”
Indeed, Spacey’s central performance is the glue holding the picture together with a disconcerting significance. His incarnation of Jim Williams is part smooth operator/part charlatan, with a devilish twinkle of the bon vivant caught in his eye. Yet, Spacey’s demeanor equally bears a somewhat threatening sophistication; a formidable palette of insincere emotions, cheek and class for which the actor has proven time and again the inimitable ability to unearth pathos and sass with technical proficiency and immeasurable artistic panache. Two other outstanding performances mark the film’s assortment of larger-than-life caricatures; John Cusack, as Berendt’s amiable alter ego, come to call on an unsuspecting murder mystery about to unfold right before his eyes, and, Benjamin Edward Knox – better known throughout Savannah (and since the release of the movie, around the world) as The Lady Chablis; a drag entertainer, more overtly suggested as a transgender woman in the movie. “In the south,” Berendt admits, “People regard other people’s lives as works of art…and Chablis is quintessentially southern in this respect.”  Chablis, in typically outspoken style, lobbied hard for the part, adding of Eastwood’s decision to cast her as herself in the movie, “Well…he was a hunk a’ man…and such a gentleman. He was quiet in a shy sort of way, and yet he was intimidating in a ‘Dirty Harry’ sort of way.”
Our story begins with voodoo spiritualist, Minerva (Irma P. Hall) seated on a park bench, observing an airplane flying overhead, carrying writer, John Kelso (John Cusack) to Savannah, almost as though she knows the reason for his arrival. Kelso has been assigned, at least so he believes, by his publisher to write a 500 word article for Town and Country on a Christmas party to take place at wealthy philanthropist, Jim Williams' heritage estate. What Kelso quickly learns is he has been summoned by Williams to write the piece for the magazine. Jim's interest in Kelso is never entirely disclosed, although Kelso does find a copy of the book he has written on one of the shelves in Jim's study. But Jim is a guarded man, most notably scrutinized under the watchful eye of his attorney, Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson). The first 45min. or so of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in an infectious TripTik through the fictionalized Savannah: Eastwood, introducing us to assorted hams, eccentrics, exhibitionists and shameless self-promoters. Almost immediately, Kelso is smitten with the prospects of staying on to do a more intimate and detailed piece, informing his editor by telephone, “These people sound like they’re in Gone With the Wind!”
It goes without saying Clint Eastwood is a meticulous craftsman. No other director working in pictures today possesses the unbridled courage to simply amble through these warmly amusing southern addresses, introducing us to an ensemble of slick and stylish roués and oddballs, including nightclub owner, Joe Odem (Paul Hipp), Jim's slightly pert social secretary (Kim Hunter) and southern belle, Mandy Nicholls (Alison Eastwood – Clint’s daughter); a character created expressly as a love interest for Kelso and not originally in Berendt’s novel. But without a doubt the most captivating of the lot is The Lady Chablis (played to riotous free-spirited perfection by the real Chablis; inexplicably rechristened ‘Frank’ Deveau in the movie). Kelso first meets Chablis after Jim is arrested for the murder of Billy Hanson – a crude hustler, perhaps to have had a sexual liaison with Jim, now turned rancid. Tracking Chablis down via a bit of free-styled investigative research, determined to get the goods about her former association with Billy, Kelso is first given the cold shoulder by Chablis, then warmly embraced by this flamboyant class act who regards life as her own personal movie with herself in the starring role, and, who acts as something of the 'Greek chorus' in this film, providing a running commentary to fill in gaps in the back story. Through Chablis we discover Billy Hanson was "a good time not yet had by all".
In one of the film's most exuberant vignettes, Kelso is invited to attend a fund-raising cotillion that Chablis crashes, wearing an exquisite and show-stopping blue sequin dress, after having been told by Kelso she cannot come as his date. Alluding to her own promiscuity, while exposing the peccadilloes of another of the evening's honored guests, Chablis slickly seduces a young male party guest with whom she performs some rather risqué dance moves before being escorted by Kelso from the ballroom. Meanwhile, out on bond, Jim introduces Kelso to Minerva. On a thickly mist-laden evening, the three hold a séance over Billy's grave. Minerva implores Jim to ask for Billy's forgiveness; also, to confess he and Billy were actually lovers. "In order to understand the living you got to communicate with the dead!" Minerva tells him. The pervading eerie atmosphere is capped off by a haunting jab of dark pleasure. But Jim is suddenly wounded by the revelation and storms off. The next afternoon, Kelso tells Mandy he is concerned the police have bungled the crime scene. On a quest for the truth, Mandy helps Kelso sneak into the morgue to examine Billy's body. Kelso notes Billy's hands might not have been bagged properly, thus owing to the prosecution's claim there is no gun powder residue to support Jim's claim of self-defense; Billy, supposedly firing his gun first at Jim on the eve of the murder. This suspicion is confirmed after Kelso learns Nurse Sara Warren (Patrika Darbo) did, in fact, bag Billy's hands only after he was brought to the hospital, thus contradicting Det. Boone's (Leon Rippy) statement at trial; that he personally secured all aspects of the crime scene.
Ecstatic and still believing in Jim's innocence, Kelso rushes to reveal the evidence he has unearthed, only to have Jim confess to the contrary; first, that the statement he gave to police - and the story he continues to run with at trial - are a lie. Although Billy did - at least, by Jim's account - threaten him with violence, he did not draw a gun on him. Instead, Jim shot Billy once in the chest, then again in the back in cold blood. Disillusioned, Kelso allows Sonny to use the evidence of a botched police investigation to exonerate Jim. The victory, however, is bittersweet and very short lived. For upon returning home, Jim suffers a fatal heart attack in exactly the same place where he stood on the night of the murder - dropping to the floor and briefly hallucinating Billy's body lying next to him; curiously grinning as his supernatural day of reckoning draws near. After Jim's funeral, Kelso decides to remain in Savannah. The film closes with the suggestion he and Mandy are on their way to becoming seriously romantically involved.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is compelling in ways most movies made today are not. Its character-driven narrative harks all the way back to the huge ensemble set pieces Hollywood once cultivated most spectacularly in the 1930s with classics like Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933). The picture greatly benefits from its infusion of the local gentry invited to play themselves. Evidently, participants were treated to the unanticipated rigors of making a movie; hours of waiting around for the cameras to roll and enduring the stifling heat in elegant evening attire without the benefit of air-conditioning.  Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil possesses some subtly nuanced performances; front and center - Kevin Spacey’s devious, yet courtly art lover, closeted beneath a thin veneer of faux respectability. John Cusack is an engaging hero; his best moments realized when the script takes its 'fish out of water' premise less seriously and to extremes - allowing the actor to camp it up and play to the irony of the situations thrust upon him. But Cusack also illustrates a profoundness for the drama; particularly his reactions to Jim’s confession of guilt; panged, with a modicum of repulsed disappointment, both in Jim and himself, for having been duped into believing in Jim’s false innocence from the outset.
Herein, we pause to offer sincere praise for the Lady Chablis, who left us much too soon at the age of 59 this September, 8. Chablis, who came to prominence via her riotous and unapologetic autobiography, ‘Hiding My Candy: The Autobiography of the Grand Empress of Savannah’ would go on to reach international notoriety with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. A natural in front of the camera, with charisma plus and the native gifts of an edgy and ebullient raconteur, Chablis’ bawdiness and brains make her a stunning edition to the film as no ‘actor’ could have brought such vivacity to the part. The chemistry between Chablis and John Cusack’s naïve Northerner is palpable and engaging. At times, it effortlessly toggles between the restless sort of traditional male buddy/buddy camaraderie we are used to seeing in the movies, and, a deliciously gender-bending bro-mantic chemistry. There is an air of sophistication to the ‘lady’ in question; friskiness too, arguably, derived from channeling her ‘male’ intuition, or perhaps, the realization she can take the best of both sexes to create a truly unique and fascinating personality all her own. I recall awakening Sept. 8th to read with great sadness the headlines Chablis had died; the profoundness of that emotion intensifying by revisiting her performance in this movie again last night.  Drag performers are a dime a dozen. Many wear the clothes but not the mantle of quality essential to go beyond mere performance. The Lady Chablis was, and remains a true denizen of the art, the craft, and the illusion of life itself as a higher form of sheer artistry. In times yet to follow, the depth of her loss to the world of entertainment will likely diminish. Time, after all, marches forward and onto new things, while memory is left to fade. But there will never be another Lady Chablis.
Jack N. Green's evocative cinematography extols the moody elegance of Savannah - exploring its rich cultural history with a timely and genuine flair for its decadence. The final spark of creativity stems from Eastwood's insistence on using orchestrations written by legendary composer, Johnny Mercer as cues in service of the action. Mercer, a Savannah native whose former home became the setting for this real life murder mystery, wrote some of the most eloquent ballads. These, at intervals, come to epitomize Savannah's eclectic neighborhoods. Eastwood kicks off his picture with ‘Skylark’ – perhaps, Mercer’s most instantly recognizable and haunting melody, sung Acapella with sad-eyed restraint and a background of faint ill-willed wind about to blow through and disrupt the relative tranquility of these eccentrics.  Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is not so much an obvious triumph in Clint Eastwood's directorial canon as it remains a truly outstanding achievement of the 'little gem' class - extraordinarily meaty in its characterizations, if occasionally rather wafer-thin on plot, but with a monumentally compelling roster of players to distract and entertain. 
Two grave sins have been rectified with the Warner Archive’s (WAC) Blu-ray release of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. The first is for those eager to collect ‘all’ of Eastwood’s directorial masterworks created under the Warner studio banner. When Warner Home Video released its ‘Eastwood Collection’ in hi-def back in 2009 it unceremoniously failed to include Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, chiefly, I suspect, because as late as 2013 the studio was still resting on its laurels, repackaging the DVD with different cover art but the same utterly abysmal and severely flawed transfer created all the way back in 1997 at DVD’s infancy. It is not overstating the obvious to suggest that Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil on DVD was one of the worst examples of failed compression to come from a major studio; whole portions of the image suffering from tiling, severe edge enhancement, a lot of shimmering of fine details, and, a thoroughly digitized and pixelated image that in no way even made the attempt to replicate Jack N. Green’s lush and moody cinematography.
Well…you can officially retire that ole disc as a coaster for your drink, because Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil on Blu-ray is one of the best looking hi-def offerings to come from WAC in 2016; and this, in a banner year for the archive, that has bestowed an embarrassment of riches on the movie collector. Prepare to be astonished, as they used to say, because what’s here is nothing short of gorgeous. Colors pop with renewed vibrancy. Flesh tones are extremely accurate. Greens in foliage are sumptuous. Chablis’ blue sequin gown sparkles with all the bedazzled excellence of a drag queen in her element and prime. Contrast is superb with no crushed blacks. Film grain is looking very indigenous to its source. It is more than gratifying to see Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil looking this spectacular on home video: it is a revelation, and one surely to impress both the first time viewer, but also the ardent lover of this piece of cinema art who has since been cribbing their memories from the aforementioned careworn and dull DVD transfer of nearly 2 decades ago. The new DTS 5.1 audio is as much, if not more, a revelation with subtle nuances scattered, and, dialogue sounding crisp and natural. You are going to LOVE this disc. It’s that simple. The one miscalculation: the only extra feature is The Real People in the Garden; a rather short series of interviews in standard def, conducted with some of Savannah’s participating gentry. We would have preferred a new audio commentary from Eastwood and some more comprehensive extras; vintage ‘behind-the-scenes’ stuff must exist; but realistically, we are not going to poo-poo the extraordinary investment made by WAC to get the movie itself looking this darn good.
My admiration for WAC in the past is duly noted. So, for those regularly reading this blog, my gushing herein will come as no great surprise. But it bears mentioning again WAC’s output this year is running neck and neck with Sony Home Entertainment’s level and high standards in invested quality. Such attention to detail ought to always be acknowledged and praised, not only to draw attention to it for those considering a ‘blind purchase’ of their product, but equally to encourage the studio to continue the trend well into the future. So, to the good folks at WAC under George Feltenstein’s management, consider me both ‘impressed’ and extremely grateful. To everyone else, the message is more simply stated: buy this disc – a treasure forever. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

FANNY: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1961) Shout! Factory

The greatest of all movie romances mirror the analogous trajectory of the complex and inconspicuous frailties of life: he said that he loved her. She said that she loved him. Then they both decided to go their separate ways. Such is the incongruity and fitfulness of being human; to love and be wounded in love/by love; to suffer discontentment and disillusionment within the resolve of life’s struggle, if only to periodically unearth nuggets of truth, wisdom, and on that rarest of occasions, satisfaction in the choices made. Magically photographed on location by one of the irrefutable masters of cinema, Jack Cardiff and directed with a bittersweet, yet zestful flavor for the port city of Marseilles; Joshua Logan’s Fanny (1961) remains a lithe, yet amazingly candid and perspicacious champagne cocktail about the intangibleness in sustaining the pleasures of life, and, the grave sacrifices one makes along its journey to the inevitable. At intervals, Fanny is joyously yet utterly heartbreaking; a tearful, lyrical, and engrossing amalgam of art imitating the all too human foibles. If roses are the unofficial representative of an idyllic affaire de Coeur movies of Fanny’s vintage oft aspire to, then dandelions mark a distinct reminder: no love worth having is an Eden without weeds. 
Consolidating and highly romanticizing plot points from the first two installments in French playwright, Marcel Pagnol’s affecting ‘Marseilles Trilogy’, the Broadway musical adaptation of Fanny (the second play in that trilogy) had its debut in 1954 and was an immediate success. Interestingly, while the first two Pagnol plays, Marius (1929) and Fanny (1931) were designed for the theater, the final installment, César (1936) first came into being as a movie (directed by Pagnol); ten years later to follow its predecessors as successful stagecraft. Fanny had, in fact been translated into a movie back in 1932; director, Marc Allégret’s poetic adaptation still considered a classic of the pre-war French cinema. Logan’s 1961 reincarnation thus faced two hurdles; the enduring reputation of the ’32 version and, audiences more recent expectations the new movie would teem forth with Harold Rome’s lush Broadway orchestrations and songs. Two things prevented the inevitable: first, Jack L. Warner’s outright purchase of the property in 1957; wary of the recent decline in big screen musicals’ popularity. Interestingly, Warner would reevaluate this decision to abstain after UA’s 1961’s West Side Story proved a colossal smash hit, Warner going on to produce several noteworthy musicals throughout the decade, including The Music Man (1962), and, My Fair Lady (1964). The second decision to impact Fanny was Warner’s choice of screenwriter, Julius J. Epstein who, along with his brother, Philip had written some of the studio’s most iconic hits of the forties; Casablanca (1942) and Mr. Skeffington (1944) among them. Epstein had virtually zero interest in adapting a musical. He did, however, possess a passion for Pagnol’s original works, though interestingly, kept the ending from the Broadway musical (which deviates considerably) to conclude his filmic adaptation.
Leaving all the memorable songs on the cutting room floor nevertheless proved something of a blessing in disguise as practically none of the cast eventually assembled for the picture had any prior experience in musicals; Rome’s orchestrations – minus their lyrics – used as underscore.  Part of the picture’s success is owed to its impeccable casting; the grand boulevardier, Maurice Chevalier (the only musically inclined performer to appear in Fanny) as wealthy widower/ship merchant, Panisse; Charles Boyer (who had originally refused the role when it was first anticipated he might have to sing – a talent Boyer lacked), as the incomparably compassionate, César; Horst Buchholtz - his son, Marius and, as the title heroine, the winsome Leslie Caron (in a part originally intended for Audrey Hepburn). In the play Fanny and Marius are still teenagers; eighteen and nineteen respectively, while in reality Buchholtz was twenty-eight and Caron thirty. There are others in the cast who lend an air of authenticity to their memorable cameos; Georgette Anys as Fanny’s mother/portly fishmonger, Honorine; Raymond Bussieres as the somewhat detrimental enabler, The Admiral; Victor Francen, who as Panisse’s elder brother, delivers an eloquent soliloquy of ‘thanks’ to the new mother for perpetuating their family name (apparently all of the Panisse men from this previous generation were born sterile), and, Joel Flateau who, in what could so easily have devolved into a thankless part as Césario, the illegitimate offspring of Fanny and Marius’ one-night flagrante delicto, is given Panisse’s good name and his formidable kindness and resources; the child star nevertheless establishes a memorably angelic presence to makes us care about Césario’s past as well as his future.
Fanny is a poignant and oddly glamorous affair, Jack Cardiff’s vibrant cinematography transforming the fishing port of Marseilles into an elegant seaside retreat. Beginning with the picture’s dizzying descent from the clouds into the city’s bustling harbor – a miraculous and daring helicopter shot that introduces us this eclectic, vital and colorful anchorage, to the elegantly moonlit water’s edge where Fanny crystalizes her deep-seeded passions to and for the somewhat obtuse Marius; Cardiff’s visuals ply a luminous patina to these sun-baked and cobblestone byways, intimate enclaves crowded with the rawness of people who love, sin and falter on the altar of their best intentions, yet somehow manage to make not only the best out of an increasingly awkward situation, but come together to attain at least a smattering of their more altruistic pursuits. Fanny is a perfect parable for an imperfect love and an even less intact reality, created, then endured by its titled protagonist; driven to possess a young man, too immaturely full of his own passions to ‘be someone’ and not entirely convinced love of a good woman alone is enough to sustain his dreams. Too late, he discovers the error in this adventurist’s spirit; choosing a life at sea while quite unaware his one night of farewell passion has resulted in a pregnancy.
The situation is further complicated by Panisse; impotent and far too old to squire the fires of lust in Fanny’s heart, yet perhaps able to provide the girl with an out from her predicament; a marriage of convenience in which her child will be reared as his own. The town, including Marius’ father, Fanny’s mother and the entire elder Panisse clan, band together in celebration of the child’s birth; only some to maintain the secret and their own respectability while others continue to know absolutely nothing about the ‘arrangement’; the wrinkle in their carefully orchestrated ruse – Marius – who returns after only one year abroad to discover Fanny has married and produced a child he later learns is his own. As the boy matures he looks more like his father and is drawn to the people and places Marius once adored; a bitter pill for Panisse to swallow, and yet, ever so pragmatically understood within the natural order of life renewing itself. On the eve of a planned ‘circus/party’ for Cesario, Panisse is fatally stricken with a heart attack. As Fanny has come to love Panisse, if only for the forfeits made on her behalf, Panisse quietly asks César to preside over Fanny’s second marriage to Marius and the gentle rearing of the child he has come to regard as his own, who all agree must never know the truth of his parentage. Herein, the picture is exceedingly and most uncharacteristically guileless; everyone pulling in service of the boy, but also, to honor Panisse’s memory, without whom none of Cesario’s now promising future would have been possible.  
After the initial descent into the harbor, Fanny begins with a routine charter crossings of local ferryboat captain, Escartifique (Baccaloni), whom we learn is prone to seasickness. We are also introduced to The Admiral, a somewhat ‘crazy’ town bum whom we later learn was prevented in his youth by an overweening mother from pursuing his love of the sea. The parallel is thus made early on: that if Marius, equally driven by an innate desire to sail away from Marseilles, is forced to remain in service to his father, he will surely suffer a similarly cruel fate. César, the local barkeeper is devoted, but equally as blind to his nineteen year old son’s thirst for adventure. He is more keenly hopeful Marius will inherit his establishment after he is gone; in the meantime, marrying Fanny, the daughter of a seaside fishmonger. Fanny’s mother, Honorine is in hot pursuit of Panisse, an elder merchant with a respectable business. Despite his advanced years, Panisse is the most eligible catch in the county. The wrinkle here is Panisse would much prefer Fanny, who is at least thirty years his junior. Panisse, Cesar and Escartifique, along with a resident Englishman, Monsieur Brun (Lionel Jeffries) are fond of playing a rather sadistically ridiculous game; placing a heavy rock beneath a brim bowler left in the street and waiting for unsuspecting passersby to kick it. However, the trick backfires when the local clergy partakes of this opportunity and wounds his foot as a result. In these opening scenes, Joshua Logan simultaneously establishes the essence of time and place with an impeccably erudite sense of the cinema space and a genuine flair for the people who call Marseilles home. There is a lazy cadence to life in this port city, a sort of timeless ‘matter-of-fact’ most everyone except Marius accepts. Prompted by The Admiral’s vicariousness, Marius’ head has been cluttered in daydreams of sailing around the world. Secretly, Marius has already packed his tote; the Admiral arranging for the sailors of a rare scientific sailing expedition presently docked in port to take Marius on as their first mate. 
Unable to tell his father the truth, Marius instead makes a rather feeble attempt to explain his love and gratitude to Cesar. This is heartily reciprocated. Cesar is very proud of his boy; a pride soon to be tested as Fanny lures Marius to the docks to confess her undying love for him. She has worshipped Marius ever since they were children and cannot imagine a life without him. Overwhelmed by passion, Marius allows himself a night’s indiscretion with Fanny; the young couple discovered at dawn by Honorine who has unexpectedly come home early from her out-of-town trip. Deeply disappointed, Honorine confides her discovery to Cesar, who is less appalled and more generally hopeful by this turn of events. For certain, Marius must now settle down, marry Fanny and assume responsibility for their lives together: a perfect arrangement, as far is Cesar is concerned: except Marius still intends to sail away with Fanny’s bittersweet complicity. Fanny helps lure Cesar away from the boat’s launch while Marius hurries aboard, spied in his departure by Panisse who is both confused yet quietly elated to have his competition for Fanny’s affections leave Marseilles, presumably for a five year expedition at sea.
Some two months later, Fanny realizes she is pregnant with Marius’ child. Upon learning of the child, Honorine violently beats her daughter for the shame she has brought upon their household, but then repents for this hasty anger by begging for Fanny’s forgiveness. Still, it will mean ruin and exile for them both as the pious town gossips will not tolerate an illegitimate in their midst. Honorine now hatches a plot. Fanny should marry Panisse. Indeed, Panisse has not waned in his pursuit of her since Marius’ departure. But Fanny is incapable of fooling Panisse. Instead, she confides in him the error of her ways. He is moved and very understanding; much more so than Cesar who, at first, is outraged the girl that ought to have been his daughter-in-law, has agreed to marry an old man, thus depriving him of his grandson. Panisse smooths over this insult by allowing Cesar to be the unborn child’s godfather. The plans settled, Panisse and Fanny are married; a most ‘unhappy’ affair for Fanny who, even as the blushing bride in white on her wedding day, cannot rid herself of Marius’ memory. Upon young Cesario’s birth, the extended Panisse clan descends upon the house; Panisse’s elder brother offering a genuinely heartfelt thanks to his dear sister-in-law for propagating the family lineage that otherwise would have died out with their generation. 
For a while, all is well and pleasant; Panisse and Fanny rearing Cesario according the agreement. Alas, on the eve of the child’s first birthday, Panisse is called away on business to Paris, and, as fate would have it, Marius returns from his travels abroad. Too late, Marius learns from Cesar of Fanny’s marriage and ‘their’ child; Cesar refusing to tell his son the truth about the boy’s parentage. Hurrying to Panisse’s home, Marius feigns having come to bestow his blessings, but soon confesses his spirit of adventure has cooled. He realizes now what a fool he has been for giving up Fanny. The rude awakenings continue as Marius learns the child Panisse is rearing is not his own. Cesar intrudes upon the couple’s flawed intent to rekindle their affair, discouraging it as tasteless and cruel, especially since Panisse has missed his train and is certain to return home. Panisse arrives and is confronted by Marius who is bitter and hurt, yet conflicted in his gratitude for the kindnesses Panisse has shown the child he unknowingly abandoned. Panisse informs Fanny that if she would prefer, she may divorce him now to wed Marius. But the child will remain his to rear as his own. Cesar agrees, telling Marius, “You were his father before he was born. But Panisse has been ‘a father’ to the boy ever since.” Bitterly acknowledging Fanny will never abandon their child for him, Marius departs Marseilles again…or so it would seem. Actually, he has merely exiled himself to Toulon, working as a mechanic while making even more ambitious plans to immigrate to America and begin anew.
Time passes, but it does not heal all wounds. Marius grows more resentful and distant. To prevent the child from ever coming in contact with his past, Panisse moves his family away to a manor house on a hillside overlooking Marseilles. Honorine’s birthday gift of a telescope brings the port closer to the child’s heart. Indeed, Cesario is inexplicably drawn to ships and adventure, just like his real father. As Panisse is planning a circus/party for the boy’s birthday, Cesario learns about Cesar’s son, Marius. Panisse asks Honorine to take Marius to the park to distract him while the circus performers set up their wares in his front yard. Instead, Honorine decides to take the boy to the wharf where she once sold fish. Reunited with two of her old sellers, Honorine loses sight of Cesario for a moment. He meets The Admiral who recognizes the boy as Marius’ and takes him to meet his real father, now working as a mechanic on the other side of the city. Meanwhile, Honorine frantically returns to the house, informing Panisse and Fanny she has lost Cesario. Panisse, who has been in declining health for several years, suffers a heart attack. But Fanny, wisely deduces what has become of her child and charters a boat. She finds Cesario and Marius together, informing her son ‘his father’ is gravely ill. Marius offers to drive them back home – a faster route that Fanny gratefully takes advantage.  Spying their arrival from his bedside, Panisse asks Cesar to take down a letter. He is dying and wishes that after he is gone his estate will go to Fanny and Cesario, with the added codicil Fanny may marry Marius and thus ensure the child is restored to the father he has never known. Tearfully, Fanny confesses to Panisse she has grown to love him over time; for he has been exceedingly good and kind-hearted as both provider and husband. The movie concludes with Marius and his son bouncing on a trampoline in the forecourt of Panisse’s home; the family restored – perhaps.
Fanny is a movie imbued with two parts, a certain je ne sais quoi, to one part, immeasurable joie de vivre; immaculately counterbalanced by a nostalgic sense of humor for a way of life now all but dead and forgotten. Joshua Logan’s personally supervised production is owed considerable accolades for transforming Pagnol’s modest Marseilles Trilogy into a strikingly pictorial epic devoted to love: imperfect, alive, sincere, fragile, and yet, noteworthy in all its flawed tenacity and believability. Fanny is a beautifully told and remarkably true-to-life romantic ‘fable.’ Borrowing the best from Pagnol’s original and the Broadway spectacle concocted by S.N. Behrman and Joshua Logan, screenwriter, Julius Epstein has transferred these textual sentiments into a coherent and lissome confection. Fair enough, there are some flaws in the overall construction; the early scenes a tad too rushed, the penultimate grandeur of the Panisses at home rather absurdly realized. After all, Honore Panisse is a seller of sails and other nautical gear; not an industrialist whose money could have afforded such a lavish estate as depicted in the movie. And, at times, the cultured finesse that quite simply is Maurice Chevalier seems insincerely at odds with the more modest merchant he is playing; a sort of Honoré LaChailles from Gigi (1958) gone ever so slightly to seed or not altogether successfully disguised. But on the whole, Joshua Logan and his cast have pulled out all the stops for a delicately balanced, effervescent and utterly charming ‘love story’; peerless, pleasing and with exceptionally few contenders to rival its moody magnificence.  While Harold Rome’s lush underscore occasionally draws more direct reminders to the Broadway musical, and the loss of the songs that made the stage’s Fanny such a memorable ‘show’; Logan’s substitution of somewhat sentimentalized tragedy is more than serviceable.  In the end, Fanny is tasteful, affecting, lovely and charming to a fault.
We cannot say the same about Shout! Factory’s abysmally second-rate Blu-ray release. To preface, Fanny has never looked good on home video. But this Blu-ray only seems to exaggerate the inherent flaws built into this careworn print while minimizing its pluses. For starters, the opening credits are window-boxed in 1.66:1 while the rest of the feature is presented in 1.85:1. Never having seen Fanny theatrically, I still cannot imagine this was ever Joshua Logan’s intent, although the credits nevertheless appear comfortably fitted within this cropped image. Worse are the egregious age-related artifacts scattered throughout this transfer, but obtrusively distracting during the main titles, all but ruining Jack Cardiff’s sublime descent from the clouds into the port city of Marseilles. The title featuring Cardiff’s screen credit is so muddy, dull and poorly contrasted, it is a slap in the face to his keen camera eye. While overall quality greatly improves once the opticals have ended, the image never reaches the lushness of a vintage Technicolor transfer; flesh tones wan instead of sun burnt, and reds generally leaning towards a garish orange.
With intermittent examples to the contrary, the overall color palette is faded and contrast is weaker than anticipated.  Detail in close-ups is pleasing, but in long shot tends to look slightly blurry and soft.  This really is not the way Fanny ought to be seen and it is a genuine shame Warner Bros. never bothered to renew the rights to a picture they helped to produce, since having fallen into public domain and looking every inch the travesty befallen most PD titles. Nothing short of a full-blown chemical and digital restoration will suffice at this point, though it remains highly unlikely Fanny will ever receive such a five star treatment. Pity that! The audio is DTS mono and adequate, but only just; dialogue sounding crisp; the score lacking bass tonality. Save a theatrical trailer, there are NO extras. What a shame and a sham. Even the old – and now retired ‘Image Entertainment’ DVD gave us a separate disc containing the movie’s ‘soundtrack’. Shout! could have done as much as an ‘isolate score’ option. But no and how sad.  Fanny is a movie deserving of our love. But this Blu-ray is a Frisbee and not worth your time or your money. Pass and be very glad that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, September 26, 2016

AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON: restored edition Blu-ray (Universal 1981) Universal Home Video

Thirty-six years ago, director John Landis' An American Werewolf in London (1981) terrorized audiences with its curious blend of horror and black comedy. Time has yet to diminish the impact of its narrative or grotesque visual storytelling - a testament to the way all truly great horror movies are made. Horror, it should be noted, done correctly, is a psychological byproduct of the mind and not the fallout sustained by having one’s artistic sensibilities or even basic human decencies desecrated with an assault of visually repugnant special effects. The late director, Jacques Tourneur once pointed out that in an era liberated of censorship any artist toiling in the cinema must be wary of pushing the boundaries too far simply because he can. Rob Zombie…are you listening? Tourneur did go on to suggest that so long as the ‘true artist’ had ‘good taste’ – even the most repellent ideas could be made palpable – even titillating, to test the exquisite perversity of the mind without actually berating it into submission. Rob Zombie…are you listening?!?!? Probably not; decidedly not. If ‘31’ is any indication, then Zombie’s taste is all in his feet, or rather, knee-deep in the bloody stool-sampled excrement of someone who ought never have been let near a budget, much less a movie camera to disseminate such gruesome pulp as (choke!) entertainment. Hey, Bobbie, it’s not. Just so we are clear…but I digress.   
There is, to be sure, a very fine line of distinction; one director, John Landis’ comes dangerously near to transgressing on several occasions in An American Werewolf in London, but even more miraculously, never entirely crosses. Landis’ here, I think, is especially adept at combining the sort of moderate ‘gross out’ appeal of his prior adolescent comedies (Kentucky Fried Movie 1977, Animal House 1978, and, The Blues Brothers 1980) perhaps even drawing upon elements from his own all but forgotten B-grade horror foray, Schlock (1973) in which a ‘banana killer’ (an overstuffed ape) is on the prowl for human flesh in a small town. By now, ‘American Werewolf is, or rather, ought to be, renown for Visual Effects master, Rick Baker’s superb ‘transformation’ sequel; still the absolute all-time best lycanthropic mutations illustrated in cinema history; poor David Naughton, via a series of brutally convincing latex applications and various other sundry trick illusions skillfully edited together, transformed into the hump-backed and harry beast set to terrorize unsuspecting Londoners from the posh heights of their affluent neighborhoods to the bowels of the Underground tube.
An American Werewolf in London is the sort of perversely creepy ‘good scare’ that has continued to hold up remarkably well in the intervening decades, primarily owed to Landis’ restraint rather than his verve for show-and-tell; also, the naughtily glib repartee in his screenplay; the conversations between Naughton’s terrorized American exchange student, David Kessler, periodically haunted by the otherwise grotesquely mutilated remains of his best friend, Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) who, despite having half his head and intestines blatantly ripped apart and left dangling as half-encrusted entrails, nevertheless, provides the darkly wicked ‘humor’ of the piece as he casually ‘encourages’ Kessler to do everyone a favor by committing suicide before it is too late.  It is the irony that is so gosh darn appealing here; the idea their boyhood friendship, prematurely turned asunder after a routine walking tour turns brutal and deadly for Jack – David, narrowly escaping with a few wounds and his life…such as it is, or rather, is about to become: a nightmare – can nevertheless endure beyond the surreal boundaries of time and space because both now share in a lineage, centuries older than their own.  An American Werewolf in London does not cheat the viewer of its bone-chilling and cringe-worthy frights. But it does expertly temper and spread them out - and apart - throughout an hour and thirty-eight minutes.
Far too many ‘horror’ movies merely set up their premise thirty-seconds into the plot and then spend the bulk of their run time chasing after every clichéd and reviled way to dismember and disembowel the various cast members. Personally, I have seen enough exploding heads, chopped off limbs and red dye #9 indiscriminately splashed about to last me a lifetime. And the older I get, the less impressed I am by the knee-jerk pseudo ‘cleverness’ of these audio-animatronics, latex puppetries, CGI and the likes to extend such absurd and overtly brutal killings into even more heinously vivid depictions of butchery and bloodshed.  Besides, Landis and American Werewolf have a better – or rather – more tragic narrative to pursue; Kessler, the unwitting, emotionally scarred and thoroughly scared ingénue, steadily coming to terms with the fact his life has been unceremoniously cut short by this freak encounter on the moors. Incurably contaminated, young David now must sacrifice himself or face the perpetuation of the cult of the werewolf, bringing about the same death and destruction to others similarly brutalized by his newfound and uncontrollable impulses.  And, there is love at stake here too; in this case, that of a truly good woman – Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter), whom David clearly loves and is loved by in return.
At its core, An American Werewolf in London endures as a masterful and memorable horror classic because it introduces a strain of moral repentance into its fitful fright-fest. David does not aspire to commit such blood-thirsty carnage. That alone is refreshing. Rather he is driven by animal instincts he cannot control or even stave off; the cliché of the heavily tread upon ‘full moon’ encounters, heightened by a very empathetic performance from David Naughton as the ‘put upon’ human sacrifice. Virtually all the cinematic retellings of ‘the wolf man’ have, at least to some extent, relied on the notion that such villainy is imposed rather than a perversely pleasurable ‘release’ perpetuated by a psychotic mind. Unlike most horror villains, the killer here does not wish to kill; rather, he must, is driven, and taken over by certain unearthly impulses to react as a rabid animal would under similar circumstances. Perhaps, it is the concept of not being in complete control of one’s own body or mind that truly terrorizes at the crux of the real ‘reel’ horror in An American Werewolf in London; the steady erosion of David’s sanity as he discovers he cannot resist these bleaker stimuli that have poisoned his system and, in time, will thoroughly come to dominate it.  The tragedy of the piece is made complete when Alex, having only just begun to understand the man she has restored back to health must now be the one to take the life she helped to save, of course, utilizing the ‘silver bullet’ to end the misery, though never the memory of this all too human love, supernaturally denied.   
John Landis came up with the concept for An American Werewolf in London after witnessing a curious burial by gypsies in Yugoslavia in 1970. Reportedly, the gypsies were performing rituals to prevent the deceased’s rising from the dead. Over the next decade, Landis wrote his draft(s) of the screenplay, shelved briefly to direct his debut movie 'Schlock' - a passable first effort. From here, Landis launched into a trilogy of box office successes (Kentucky Fried Movie, Animal House and The Blues Brothers); his ever increasing popularity with audiences lending cache and clout to his respectability within the industry and thus affording him carte blanche on subsequent projects. Landis secured the $10 million dollar budget necessary to begin pre-production on An American Werewolf in London. But the monies were hard won. Backers concerns fell into two categories; either the horror was too gruesome for a comedy or the comedic elements threatened to offset and diffuse the horror. Acknowledging the real star of his movie would be the werewolf, Landis commissioned master effects creator, Rick Baker to design a groundbreaking and believable 'transformation'. Remarkably, until An American Werewolf in London, virtually all such ‘transformations’ had been achieved using conventional lap dissolves; the actor undergoing the process of conversion, strapped into an apparatus to keep head movements to a bare minimum while make-up artists gradually applied hair and latex, ‘building up’ the prosthetics, layer upon layer, until the desired effect was achieved. Baker’s transformation would be ‘different’; utilizing hand-crafted latex puppetry, its mutations created in-camera. The sudden growth of body hair (nee, fur), or emergence of fangs from the mouth, as example were shot in reverse; the actual hair and teeth receding through poked holes in molded latex skin. Decades later, Baker's superb SFX continue to hold up under the closest scrutiny – even in hi-def; maintaining their stomach-churning grotesqueness.
Better still, Landis, while possessing the clearest understanding audiences have come to his movie to bear witness to such pivotal ‘hot spots’, never entirely relies on them to sell the rest of his plot; gradually building upon increasingly complex ‘relationships’ between characters, while mining cinematographer, Robert Paynter’s moodily lit craftsmanship to heighten his sense of dread between these thirty-second scares. A ‘dream/nightmare’ sequence, as example, in which a recuperating David imagines returning home to America, only to witness the slaughter of his entire family by a sect of deformed mutants, leads to an extreme close-up: David’s eyes turned hellish green, his visage transformed into a hideous grimace; so ‘in-your-face’ that even when entirely prepared for this moment upon repeat viewing, one still cannot help but lean away from the screen with unease and a modest jolt of repulsion. The sequence is far from gratuitous, despite its perversity; tinged with a bit of sadness, obvious amounts of fear, and just a touch of foreshadowing. This is not going to end well for David Kessler; Landis knows it. The audience knows it. Alas, and perhaps for the very first time, David is suddenly aware of what the future holds; this seemingly ‘toss away’ moment given its payoff much later on when David, now fully aware of his fate, telephones home to bid the family he realizes he can never see again, a cryptic and very bittersweet farewell.  
An American Werewolf in London begins innocuously with our protagonists, David Kessler and Jack Goodman, backpacking American college students having lost their way along the brooding and boggy Yorkshire moors. Landis takes his time setting up the somewhat sophomoric camaraderie between these two old friends. It’s the sort of good-natured buddy/buddy friendship we can relate to; just two guys out on a lark and so cruelly unaware of the destiny in store for them just around the corner. Although neither is as yet aware, they will soon inadvertently find themselves the victims of a werewolf.  The locals at a nearby pub are skeptical of David and Jack’s impromptu arrival; thoroughly unfriendly towards them. Venturing back into the misty night, Jack is instantly mauled to death by the beast. But David survives the attack, thanks to a last minute rescue intervention by the nearby townsfolk. Regrettably, his ordeal is just beginning. Jack returns as 'the undead' - a zombie in an ever-advancing state of physical decomposition, informing David he must kill himself with a silver bullet or face turning into the very creature that attacked them whenever the full moon rises. David is, of course, skeptical. But he cannot rid himself of terrible nightmares depicting the slaughter of his entire family. Psychologist, Dr. J. S. Hirsch (John Woodvine) assures David his visions will subside with the passage of time. He also assigns Nurse Alex Price (Jenny Agutter) to stay with David while he recuperates in hospital. Regrettably, Alex develops a crush on her patient. After David is discharged, she invites him to live in her London flat and the two become romantically involved.
Dr. Hirsch decides to pay a visit to the town David and Jack visited on the moors before their terrible ordeal. Even though David insists he was attacked by a wild animal, the story provided to Hirsch by the town's folk suggests David and Jack were the victims of a deranged madman. But this story does not wash at all, particularly after Hirsch discovers a proper police report was never filed and David's wounds were dressed by the town's folk before he was allowed to be taken to hospital. Armed with these facts, Hirsch races back to London. He is too late.  David has turned into a werewolf and set about his bloody rampage; murdering a young couple as they are returning to their fashionable flat. The next morning, David awakens naked in the wolf pavilion at the London Zoo. After some truly hilarious skulking about in the raw, stealing clothes while quietly observed by a young boy with great curiosity, David makes his way back to Alex's apartment. David confides his suspicions to Alex; that something extraordinary and terrifying has occurred. She tries to quell her lover’s anxiety but to little avail. Sometime later, in Alex’s absence, David is reborn as the werewolf yet again, this time pursuing an unsuspecting businessman newly exited the subway and casually strolling down the tight underground passages en route to street level. He will never make it out alive.
Both Landis’ screenplay and David Naughton’s performance provide us with the psychological complexities afflicting the character; Kessler suffering something of a nervous breakdown from extreme survivor’s guilt; yet, powerless to express it as he is being driven by unseen demonic forces to become his harry/hellish alter ego, mercilessly set to brutalize the London citizenry. It cannot go on. And yet, Landis and Naughton provide the audience with a template for Kessler’s internalized scuffles. The werewolf is thus neither purposely evil nor without his soul; a similarly realized Jekyll and Hyde-like struggle for the supposedly ‘inherent goodness’ in man, supplanted by a fitful and un-containable need to destroy one’s self as well as others in the process. At its crux, and particularly during its third act, An American Werewolf in London is almost Shakespearean, gussied up in the blood-thirsty trappings of the ‘traditional’ horror movie. This symbolism begins to crystalize for the audience as David, now thoroughly haunted by the evil he has committed, encounters Jack near an adult cinema in Piccadilly Square. Lured inside the theater, David comes face to face with the walking dead his previous night's carnage has created. Terrified, though unwilling to entirely accept he is responsible for their murders, David is once more transformed into the werewolf. He terrorizes the patrons inside the cinema before breaking free to wreak havoc on Londoners who have gathered outside. Dr. Hirsch and the police trail David to a dead end alley. Having figured out her lover’s fate for herself, Alex now tells David - still in wolf form - she loves him. It can make no difference now, as police rain down a small arsenal, killing the beast, transformed back into his dying human form. The last act of An American Werewolf in London is a romantic tragedy; a sort of ‘beauty and the beast’ fantasy gone horrifically awry. The weight of conflict between David and Alex and roiling terror preparing to burst forth from within elevates the narrative from just your ‘run of the mill’ shock and schlock fest. We feel for David and Alex. We even feel for Jack – a curious, if ever so slightly nauseating empathy, not usually afforded in a horror movie.
Initially forced to cast 90% of his crew from British talent to take advantage of Britain's tax break Edie Plan, this proved a blessing in disguise for Landis. All of the local talent is magnificent, even in bit parts, everyone heightening the believability of this dark and disturbing tale. The genuine camaraderie between Griffin Dunne and David Naughton (the only two Americans in the picture) strikes a chord of lightness, both a welcomed – if brief - respite from the ‘horror’, but also, increasing the bittersweet-ness of fate. Arguably, the one element of An American Werewolf in London that does not hold up under today’s scrutiny is its soundtrack. Landis has flooded his movie with a plethora of ‘then’ contemporary pop tunes. Occasionally, these seem heavy-handedly inserted and thoroughly out of place, their breeziness in direct contrast to the bewildering spectacle simultaneously unfolding and on display. Overall, the soundtrack does not hurt the story’s impact. However, at times it does undermine Landis’ otherwise exemplary crafted level of suspense. In the end, An American Werewolf in London is a good scary movie. But in hindsight it also seems to cap off the second renaissance of horror, briefly explored to exquisite effect throughout the mid-to late 1970’s with such iconic fare as The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), The Omen (1976), and, Halloween (1978) – to name but a handful of the richly disturbing fear fests on tap.
Universal Home Video's remastered and restored Blu-ray is most welcome. An American Werewolf in London was one of the studio’s very first 1080p offerings back in Blu-ray’s launch and infancy, and, in hindsight, the old hi-def disc showed distinct signs of Universal’s rather spendthrift attitude to simply ‘dump’ deep catalog movies onto the burgeoning marketplace without much care invested in the product itself. Although An American Werewolf in London sported some impressive color saturation, untoward digital tinkering had been rather heavily applied; a lot of the image’s ‘razor-sharpness’ artificially induced; appearing very digitized and wholly unlike what audiences saw in 1981 at their local movie houses. Universal’s ‘restored’ Blu-ray is thus cause for celebration; also, pause to mark how far Blu-ray has come in ten short years – and – how much further still it has to go to catch up to the good ole/bad ole VHS days, when virtually every deep catalog title was made available on home video for consumer consumption.
The studio edict – and not just at Universal – has been to delay a good many catalog releases in favor of simply reissuing already available movies in reincarnated ‘special editions’. Generally, I am not in favor of this practice; the time and monies spent, merely to repackage already available product, at least by my thinking, far better invested getting more ‘deep catalog’ out there. But at least on this outing, we can report Universal has done their utmost to rectify their previous sins and make considerable atonement.  When Blu-ray had its debut I recall so well being disappointed by a lot of what was coming down the pipeline from all of the studios. It just seemed Hollywood was so darn eager to give us anything and everything they could in 1080p, there truly was no concerted effort to first inspect the archival elements or respect the film maker’s original integrity to ensure the utmost quality control was being adhered to across the board. Worse, some studios were merely content to regurgitate the same tired digital files used to mint their DVD’s, bumped to a 1080p output. Not good, and a similar fate since befallen a lot of 4K UHD releases. Will Hollywood ever get the point and/or its collective act together? Hmmm. But again, I digress.
This time around, image quality on An American Werewolf in London is smooth and consistent with eye-popping colors, better contrast, and far more natural flesh tones. It is also free of age-related debris and artifacts. Indeed, the movie looks decades fresher. Gone is the artificial digitized look, replaced with a consistent remastering very film-like in motion and with the indigenous grain accurately reproduced. Fine details pop, only now as cinematographer, Robert Paynter would have preferred; the punctuation on his mood lighting, and also, Rick Baker’s visual SFX. This is a reference quality reissue with virtually nothing to complain about.  As far as I can deduce, the 5.1 DTS audio appears to be identical to the previously issued Blu-ray: not a bad thing. Although predictably dated, with dialogue occasionally sounding tinny, the vintage-ness of the soundtrack is what is important. This just feels right for a movie soundtrack from the early 1980’s.  Extras are utterly impressive; nearly 2 hours of comprehensively assembled ‘making of’ documentaries and featurettes, covering the production from every conceivable angle. There is also an audio commentary from Dunne and Naughton, deleted scenes/outtakes, an interview with John Landis, stills gallery, and, theatrical trailers to sift through. It should be pointed out these extras were previously made available on the ‘Full Moon’ reissue Universal released in 2008. Bottom line: the studio has done its homework on this reissue. Even if you already own the previous edition, this ‘restored’ edition comes very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Saturday, September 24, 2016

LABYRINTH: 30th Anniversary Blu-ray (TriStar Pictures 1986) Sony Home Entertainment

All of the flawless know-how that master puppeteer, Jim Henson could pour into a $25,000,000 budget, a pop-tune inspired soundtrack from the legendary David Bowie, and, some of the most unreservedly unimaginable, and still very impressive, special effects went into the creation of Labyrinth (1986); visually, a richly layered fable a la the Brothers Grimm meets Frank L. Baum and Maurice Sendak. Yet, despite its inventiveness, this compendium of clichés and exoticism failed to jell beyond the pedigree of such impressive visuals. Superficially at least, there was nothing inherently mistaken in pursuing the rather heavily trodden escapist ‘dream’ motif (for which an entire body of science fiction has relied on time immemorial) or our proto-feminist heroine, entering this illusory province of infinite joys and dangers by way of an Alice Through the Looking Glass porthole. Regrettably, there was also not much more to the point of Terry Jones’ screenplay. For once having crossed to the other side of its highly stylized insanity, the Labyrinth seriously lacked the impetus of a forward-thinking narrative structure; the singular quest in the journey leading to more mayhem and misadventures with misanthropes than a search for self-discovery; usually the purpose of such soulful enterprises. We should pause a moment to tip our hats to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale admitting to the Good Witch of the North that if she ever feels the urge to go in search of her own heart’s desire again, she will never look further than her own backyard – “…because if it isn’t there, then I never really lost it in the first place.”  No movie before or since has done as much for our ageless suspension of childhood disbelief while proving the affirmation of these daydreams that, far from dissipating, seem only to ripen more sincerely with the passage of time.  
At least in theory, Labyrinth has all glitter, panache and makings of an epic children’s movie classic like Oz. Yet, it foundered at the box office – barely clawing back half its initial investment. But this rather makes sense to me now. I can recall seeing the movie in ’86. Even at the ‘mature’ age of 15 (the same age as our heroine) I found Labyrinth more disturbing than enchanted. Fair enough, the literary world of the Brothers Grimm is peppered in the edgily dark and demonic. Yet, in the case of Labyrinth, here was a tale about a bitter ingénue, Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) who, with tearful spite and venom toward her stepmother, and, ‘big sister’ cruelty re-channeled to a helpless and blubbering baby, wishes the innocent banished to an eternal and forgotten lair of fantasy she knows absolutely nothing about. Then, with her miscarriage of imagination devilishly fulfilled by Jareth, the Goblin King (David Bowie) – a gangly, punk-haired, Dracula-caped, shape-shifting tease, spewing platitudes and glitter in tandem – Sarah pursues a rescue intervention from his brooding netherworld; a place where virtually all friendships are fickle and fleeting, and all ‘creatures’ encountered along the way are deformed non-human entities. Meanwhile, the Goblin King holds other people’s seemingly unwanted children captive in a sort of ageless vacuum for his own amusement.  
Some thirty years later, I still see no reason to revise my initial assessment of Labyrinth as a thoroughly ambitious, but equally as flawed masterpiece. Despite its cult status, and a rather intriguing performance by Bowie, tailor-made to his life-long adoration for gender-bending make-up and costuming, Labyrinth is grotesquely undernourished and wafer-thin on plot and purpose. Again, I defer to MGM’s mammoth Wizard of Oz. Unlike Oz’s Dorothy, entering a fascistic alter-reality, impacting positive change via three enduring friendships and, in the process, liberating the denizens of its demesne under a tyrannical witch, but also the false-prophesized micromanagement of a ‘humbug’; Sarah in Labyrinth is never motivated by any such altruism. She is merely desperate to undue the impromptu madness she herself has caused before dad (Christopher Malcolm) and step-mama (Shelley Thompson) can unearth her wicked wretchedness.  If Oz is a place where good girls go in search of their better selves, than the Goblin King’s labyrinth is a purgatory lurking with temptations for tarts who moronically believe they can do better without any help at all. Jareth’s domain is not a magical fairyland ‘somewhere over the rainbow’, but an arid and generally unkempt principality, overgrown in vines and weeds, a dystopian paradise gone hopelessly to seed with periodically cobble-stoned Tyrolian townships and moss-laden, swampy ‘stinky’ marshes where only the fittest – or at least, the most enterprising – can survive. Worse, at least for the picture’s success, is the queerly unsettling, if briefly mutual, sexual attraction between the child, Sarah and worldly Jareth; Bowie’s otherworldly presence a potent potion for this burgeoning young lass who lacks his level of experience, though otherwise possesses the chutzpah to play his game on his terms by exploiting her own ‘come hither’ eligibility as an intoxicating counterpoint of interest.
The project was begun in earnest after an impromptu conversation between Jim Henson and Brian Froud; the pair having worked together on Henson’s other pet project, The Dark Crystal (1982). Froud, who would ultimately serve as Labyrinth’s ‘conceptual designer’, pitched some of his ideas to Henson with a passion for the age-ole folklore of goblins as its centerpiece. While Henson liked the idea, he also encouraged Froud to seek out the humor rather than the pathos of the piece. Henson was also more determined his puppets should have ‘character’ this time around.  Yet, almost from the beginning, the concept for Labyrinth became muddled. An early novella, commissioned by Henson from author, Dennis Lee seemed to shed some light. Indeed, Henson admired the lyrical quality of the piece, passing it along to screenwriter, Terry Jones.  However, Jones disliked practically everything about Lee’s book so much, he elected instead to begin afresh, cribbing from Froud’s concept art for his only inspiration.  Although Jones would receive sole writing credit on Labyrinth, the shooting script would continue to morph and was to be heavily rewritten by George Lucas, Laura Philips and Elaine May, with Henson putting in some of his own finishing touches. What ultimately emerged from all this tinkering was a movie Jones would all but disavow.
Part of the problem lay in Jim Henson’s decision to cast David Bowie as the irrefutable ‘star presence’; a move resulting in the part of Jareth being greatly revised and expanded. Initially, Jareth was just another puppet creature in Henson’s arsenal of convincing oddities. Eventually, the character outgrew this primitive concept; Henson leaning more toward the idea of hiring a pop star to play the part. While the likes of Sting, Prince, Mick Jagger, and Michael Jackson were all briefly considered, Henson eventually hit on the inspired notion of casting Bowie in the lead. One cannot underestimate Bowie’s distinctiveness; his unique and angular physicality married to one of the most iconic and trend-setting careers of any musician in his vintage. Bowie had studied acting, arguably his first true love, before embarking upon a career in music. Yet, only more recently had he chosen to split his time between live concert performances, writing, producing and recording albums; also, to include a breakneck schedule of thoroughly impressive theatrical and movie appearances; 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1979’s Just a Gigolo, and 1983’s The Hunger among them.  
And indeed, in revisiting Labyrinth some thirty years on, regrettably after Bowie’s untimely passing, his performance remains the one thing about the picture ostensibly that has not aged. Bowie brings a certain aristocratic je ne sais quoi and flamboyance to the part; also, a distinctly asexual glamour that is as innocuous as it remains succinctly subtle in the art of scintillation. “I'd always wanted to be involved in the music-writing aspect of a movie that would appeal to children of all ages, as well as everyone else,” Bowie would later confide in an interview, “…and I must say that Jim gave me a completely free hand with it. The script itself was terribly amusing without being vicious or spiteful or bloody, and it had a lot more heart in it than many other special effects movies. So I was pretty hooked from the beginning.” Yet, to some extent, Bowie’s participation also offsets and/or unhinges the strength of our heroine’s soulful search for self-discovery.
In Terry Jones’ original screenplay, Jareth is an enigma of Sarah’s mind; elusive, yet hypnotically compelling; the labyrinth, not revealed until Sarah’s discovery of it in the third act. It thus, and simultaneously, remains a mystery to the audience. In the finished picture, however, the labyrinth is represented several times throughout the story; Bowie leaping about its Roman forum-esque construction in a rather transparent music video-ish performance that could have just as easily been excised from TV’s The Muppet Show (1976-81). Between 1983 and 1985, Jones’ screenplay would undergo many mutations and no less than twenty-five heavily revised drafts. Bowie was not particularly impressed with the script, believing it lacked humor and pathos. At one point, he even contemplated withdrawing from the project, his fears allayed by Henson’s repeated promises that ‘improvements’ were being made to accommodate his interests.  It is perhaps noteworthy to recall in these early drafts, the protagonist of our story shifted from an Arthurian liege to as equally as bygone a princess, and finally, to a little girl from Victorian England. To keep budgetary concerns to a minimal, the bookends of Labyrinth were eventually updated to then contemporary America, making Sarah’s atypical fascination with spotty widgets, spirits, goblins and the like all the more curious out of context.
Labyrinth began its arduous five month shoot on April 15, 1985 at Elstree Studios in London; a relatively brief schedule for principle photography preceded by almost a year and a half of pre-production to create convincing creature designs. Employing virtually every major sound stage the studio had to offer, Production Designer Elliot Scott and Art Directors, Terry Ackland-Snow, Roger Cain, Peter Howitt, Frank Walsh and Michael White handcrafted a fantastic assortment of indoor sets, requiring the expert execution of forced perspective and enveloping dioramas – arguably, the largest ever built – to mimic this vast and seemingly endless landscape. To anchor the tale in its ‘American setting’, the production crew also took advantage of staging the movie’s bookends in Upper Nyack, Piermont and Haverstraw, NY. There is, to be sure, a certain level of verisimilitude to these opening shots depicting Sarah, soiled in her ‘princess white’ robes as she races home from her afternoon of make-believe during an impromptu thundershower, that the rest of the studio-bound work never entirely assuages; despite the inclusion of 120 truckloads of tree branches, 1,200 turfs of grass, and 850 lbs. of dry leaves scattered throughout these stylized sets to suggest some pseudo-authenticity beyond their artifice. But the uncanny illusion of life, oft’ honed by a small army of puppeteers toiling behind the scenes, would be most complexly realized in Hoggle – the elfin, pock-skin ‘garden gnome’ who serves as Sarah’s reluctant guide through the zigzagging abyss.  Ultimately, character actress Shari Weiser was suited into the costume, providing the spritely pantomime of body movements while four radio-controlled puppeteers plied their craft to will a separate ‘performance’ from the elf’s audio-animatronic head. Despite its transatlantic exodus from Hollywood, most of Labyrinth’s creatives were culled from talent loyal to Henson’s state’s side production company, including a good many ‘Fraggle Rock’ alumni; Frank Oz, Dave Goelz, Karen Prell, Ron Mueck and Rob Mills among them.
After a main title sequence set to Bowie’s ‘Underground’, and featuring an animated barn owl swooping in and out of the credits, Labyrinth opens with Sarah Williams rehearsing for a part in a play in a park-like setting with her loveable mutt, Merlin. A light spring rain stirs Sarah from this fantasy role-playing to recall she is supposed to be at home preparing to babysit her infant brother, Toby (Toby Froud) while their father, Robert and Sarah’s stepmother, Irene go out to dinner. Coming into direct conflict with Irene on the front steps; then, acting belligerent toward Robert, Sarah next sets about tormenting her already tear-stained brother with angry diatribes that do little to comfort his tears. Aside: as a fifteen year old boy in 1986 I could not imagine a more hellish nightmare than to have been left in Sarah’s care. What a spoilt and viperous brat!  Ah, but Sarah is in for a good ‘head shake’ as it were; her rash request to have the fictional Goblin King from her play swoop down and remove Toby from her care, suddenly granted. The execution of this abduction is, in tandem, one of the most exhilarating and terrifying moments in the picture; the expansive bedroom set filled with shafts of bluish lightening from the storm outside and the infrequent grizzly giggles of goblins hiding everywhere in plain sight, awaiting the satisfaction of their master – Jareth.
What occurs next is rather inexcusably befuddling. Jareth appears in the form of a barn owl, miraculously transformed into David Bowie. He offers Sarah a gift in exchange for Toby; a clear-glass orb juggled between his fingertips, suddenly transformed into a hideous snake. Urging Sarah to forget about Toby, the girl instead takes up Jareth’s challenge to pursue him into the labyrinth. Given Jareth’s initial abject discouragement, it is more than a little confusing he should then grant Sarah a brief pardon into his private kingdom – thirteen hours to ‘solve’ the riddle of the labyrinth, before commenting “what a waste, Sarah” and vanishing into thin air, leaving the girl to fend for herself in this strange land. Entering the maze by way of a magic doorknocker, Sarah has difficulty discerning turns and corners. Yet most of what she visually perceives is an optical illusion. Hoggle appears, but is of little help at first. After all, why bother. Unraveling the mystery of the labyrinth is impossible. But Sarah gets advice from a cockney worm; actually, a bit more misdirection than she bargained for, plummeting down a bizarre mineshaft comprised of ‘helping hands’ and reunited with Hoggle in a dark oubliette. While Hoggle is ever-pessimistic about their future, Sarah encourages him to reconsider the labyrinth as little more than a semi-complex puzzle to be solved. In response to her dismissal of his game, Jareth suddenly reappears. He ups the ante by advancing the clock several hours ahead, thus providing Sarah with less time to search for Toby. Jareth then threatens Sarah and her newfound companion with a strange metallic excavating device burrowing down the tight mine shaft, hurtling towards them and sure to crush and annihilate.  
At the last possible moment, Sarah and Hoggle discover a secret passage and a wooden ladder leading back up to the surface. More encounters with strange and unearthly creatures from this netherworld follow; a sage with the upper half of a talking ostrich as his headdress, demands remuneration from Sarah (she gives up her ring) but then absolutely refuses to tell her anything in return. Pursued by warring pygmies, Sarah and Hoggle become estranged; Sarah stumbling across a gigantic beast, tied and dangling upside down from a tree. The beast, Ludo, briefly functions in the role of Sarah’s protector. However, he too gets lost in the Bog of Eternal Stench; Jareth reappearing to Hoggle, ordering him to give Sarah a freshly ripened peach (think the tainted apple from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs 1938). In the meantime, Sarah is accosted by ‘the Firies’ – the least convincing of Jim Henson’s creatures, shot in full figure against a blue screen and unconvincingly matted into the live action. The Firies perform another of Bowie’s songs, ‘Chilly Down’ before trying to separate Sarah’s head from her body. Mercifully, Hoggle comes to Sarah’s aid; a betrayal that causes Jareth to exile both of them to the Bog of Eternal Stench where Sarah is reunited with Ludo. From here, the encounters grow more frequently episodic. The primary criticism I have against Labyrinth is it completely fails to engage the viewer with anything better than these brief encounters, meant primarily to show off the technical prowess of Jim Henson’s puppet cavalcade. It’s all show rather than an experience.
Sarah, Hoggle, and Ludo are denied access to a narrow bridge by Sir Didymus, an anthropomorphic Fox Terrier and his English Sheepdog, Ambrosius. Yet, like virtually all the other obstacles Sarah has encountered, and will continue to, this one too is a red herring in misdirection, merely meant to cleverly delay the journey without actually causing us to fear its failure altogether. All Sarah has to do is ask Didymus’ permission to pass. This granted, she now falls prey to Hoggle’s ‘gift’ – Jareth’s juicy peach, causing a hallucinogenic nightmare to further detour Sarah’s odyssey. Instead, she imagines herself in a trance-like state during a lavishly appointed masked ball; Jareth steadily approaching to proclaim his love. The courtiers are as a gathering of wax mannequins escaped from Madame Tussauds; the illusion shattered when the memories Jareth is attempting to suppress with this elaborate ‘dream’ come barreling back into Sarah’s subconscious. She collapses, and is plunged into yet another illusion, that of having arrived to the relative safety of her own bedroom. It is, of course, even more misdirection; Sarah realizing the room is cobbled together from spare parts and relocated in a vast junkyard on the outskirts of the labyrinth.  Ludo and Didymus come to her rescue and together they make their way to Goblin City. Now, Hoggle sheepishly – and rather bravely – helps everyone get past the tower gate. Despite his feeling unworthy, Sarah and the others forgive and welcome Hoggle back into their fold. Determined to prevent Sarah her entry into his castle, Jareth sends the goblin army to attack. But these diminutive warriors are no match for Ludo’s strength, as he hurls mountain rocks and other debris to clear a direct path to the castle. Sarah enters a room modeled on the famed Escher Staircase; its forced perspective, resulting in a discombobulating sequence, seemingly unbound by the laws of gravity.
In one of Labyrinth’s creepiest and utterly icky moments, Jareth makes one final attempt to prevent Sarah from fulfilling her journey’s end. He promises her his eternal love if she will only ‘submit’ to him and thus surrender Toby into his care. Recalling for the first time the circumstances she is presently living through, mirror the events as depicted in the play she was rehearsing for at the start of the movie, Sarah begins to recite the lines she has learned, stumbling over a pivotal bit of dialogue; the only words that prevent her from returning home safely. As Jareth dangles the glass orb before Sarah, pleading for her reconsideration, she draws from memory the play’s definitive moment of liberation – “…and you have no power over me.”  The spell is broken and Jareth dissolves into a heap of rags blowing restlessly in the wind. Sarah discovers herself back in the foyer of her family home; the barn owl flying out the open front door as she races upstairs to discover Toby peacefully asleep in his crib. As with most everything that has occurred thus far, Labyrinth’s finale is nonsensical. Sarah returns to her bedroom, slightly wiser and more ‘grown up’, but as saddened it all now appears to have come to an abrupt end. However, just as unexpectedly, Hoggle, Ludo, Didymus and Ambrosius, together with an eclectic assortment of creatures encountered along the way, suddenly reappear to surround her in jubilation. Perhaps, Sarah reasons, there is just a little more time to be squeezed out of ‘childhood’ before the inevitableness of time marching on creeps in for good. As the revelers rejoice, Jareth, in owl form, quietly observes from beyond the window before flying off into the night.
Despite its uber-sophisticated blend of puppetry and other sundry visual effects, Labyrinth is a convoluted fable at best. When stripped of all its ‘creature comforts’ it is not an altogether prepossessing one either. It desperately wants to be hailed as a revisionist’s mythology, and, moreover, a new ‘children’s movie classic’ on par with The Wizard of Oz.  However, the cinematic Oz is a fairytale of the highest order, primarily because it is imbued with those intangibly light touches of faith in the future. And it has a heroine who never wanes in her positivism or goal. By contrast, Labyrinth’s Sarah is repeatedly delayed and frequently allows herself this luxury to wallow, either in self-pity or simply in the latest hallucination du moment.  She is neither as clever nor as driven in her pursuit, primarily because outside of finding the brother she has exiled to this otherworldly maelstrom, she cannot see the ‘proverbial forest for its trees’; that a return to mid-town America does not necessarily equate to a restoration of life as she once knew it, or even better – an appreciation for – the humdrum of it she so easily dismissed at the start.
Alas, Labyrinth equally suffers from the elephantiasis of its top-heavy visual design that, while breathtaking, does not, in and of itself, generate the intimate or engaging backdrop onto which all its allegorical and semi-nonsensically staged action can thrive. While Oz’s trajectory moves in a linear forward direction, the purpose of Sarah’s journey in Labyrinth’s is neither clearly stated nor ever resolved completely at the end. In hindsight, the most impressive aspect of the movie is its SFX, virtually all but a handful achieved full-scale and in-camera. The movie’s other great salvation is David Bowie’s performance, imbued with stirrings in tandem of empathy, plodding vindictiveness, and, in a few scenes, an almost pedophiliac ‘romantic’ desire to possess Jennifer Connelly’s Sarah; herself, transformed from wicked to winsome before the end; a real woman with a ‘reel’ woman’s heart.  Does any of this work? Partly. Should any of it make sense? Hmmm. At some point, even the most fantastical of all mind-bending movie trips has to meet the most basic criteria: to tell its story succinctly, competently, and purposefully without pretending to be anything more than an entertainment; a way to conveniently fill up our leisure with a good yarn and a dash of thought-provoking magic not to be unearthed in the natural world. Labyrinth fails in this purpose, mainly because Jim Henson is more invested in the vignettes, the technicalities, and the precision of bringing ‘life’ to the inanimate among the cast.  As ever, this was, is and remains Henson’s great gift to the world. It does not, however, equate to movie magic of the highest order – at least, not in Labyrinth’s case.   
The 30th Anniversary of Labyrinth has received a stunning new 4K restoration utilizing the original camera negative. The results speak for themselves: a substantial upsurge in color fidelity and density, fine detail, and, accurately produced grain structure, perfectly capable of capturing the distinctive and subtler textures employed in these stunning visuals. Prepare to be dazzled because Labyrinth on Blu-ray has never looked better.  Labyrinth’s carefully composed shots and exquisitely detailed old-school film-making techniques put virtually all of today’s digital photography to shame; Alex Thomson’s artistry remains a many-splendored thing; the likes of which ‘reel’ cinema magic is oft made.  Detail is the most markedly improved. I found myself noticing things like the print of the wallpaper in Sarah’s bedroom, or some of the surreal textures in the puppet’s latex skin and artificial hair. No, it did not take me ‘out of the story’ – such as it is. If anything, a new appreciation steadily evolved for the ultra-high level of craftsmanship pursued and perfected on this project. Detail even emerges from the shadows; blacks velvety rich, though never crushing and skin tones looking more genuine than ever.  There is absolutely nothing to complain about here. Labyrinth is a reference quality disc sure to delight its myriad of fans.
Labyrinth also gets a new Dolby Atmos 7.1 track.  As with the image, Sony has taken the utmost care to deliver the goods with a truly immersive sonic experience; low, sustained rumbles during the thunderstorm, creature groans and moans sounding true to life rather than manufactured Foley and wow, dialogue so crisply rendered you will swear the cast is doing a live reading in front of your screen. The clarity of the music is also lushly spread around with careful distinction and an infinitely more robust bass than was available on the old Blu-ray release. The vocals are front and center as they should be. But there is atmospheric support creeping in on all sides. Anyone questioning the validity of converting older audio recordings to Dolby Atmos need only take a careful listen how good they can sound when all the care, bells and whistles have been applied with due diligence.
Lastly, Sony has pulled out all the stops for the most comprehensive assortment of extras, beginning with ‘The Henson Legacy’ – featuring Jennifer Connelly and members of the Henson family, plus a rare trip to the Center for Puppetry Arts that includes over 100 puppets from Labyrinth. Mythbuster’s Adam Savage hosts a Q&A with behind-the-scenes craftsmen, Brian Henson, David Goelz, Karen Prell and Sheri Weiser. In what must be considered the most poignant of the featurettes, Jennifer Connelly pays a glowing tribute to David Bowie in The Goblin King, along with Jim Henson’s children, Brian and Cheryl: bring Kleenex. Best of all, unlike Disney’s recent misfire with Beauty and The Beast, Sony has no compunction about including ALL of the previously afforded extras on their reissue of Labyrinth, including the old Picture-in-Picture commentary, another by Brian Froud, the original – and frankly, very comprehensive ‘making of’ documentary, plus two additional documentaries, exploring the movies vast assortment of characters, and a behind-the-scenes look at ‘Goblin City’; finally, the original theatrical trailer. It bears repeating that when it comes to Blu-ray, Sony remains ahead of the pack. Grover Crisp and his magicians are owed the utmost respect for bringing yet another vintage catalog release to the forefront with superior mastering and restoration techniques that have yielded bar none the most impressive Blu-ray of this newly inaugurated fall season. For those who have afforded Labyrinth its cult status over these many years, this new 30th anniversary will make a very fine Christmas stocking stuffer. Permit us to worship and give thanks.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)