Wednesday, April 25, 2007

HEIDI (2oth Century Fox 1937) Fox Home Video

Allan Dwan’s Heidi (1937) is one of Shirley Temple’s most fondly remembered films. A poignant tale of enduring love against seemingly insurmountable obstacles, the film stars Temple as the orphaned, impoverished waif sent to live with her stern, though kindly grandfather, Adolph Kramer (Jean Hersholt) in the Austrian Alps. At first, the gruff old man does not take to his new charge, even forcing Heidi to sleep in the barn with the animals.


However, this is Shirley Temple we’re speaking of – an impossibly lovable child who quietly wins over Adolph’s heart. Unfortunately for Heidi and grandpa, Heidi’s aunt kidnaps her from their idyllic mountain paradise and shortly thereafter sells her to a wealthy family whose daughter Elsa (Pauline Moore) is an invalid. Undaunted and determined to make the most of a bad situation, Heidi befriends the foppish house butler, Andrews (Arthur Treacher). She also breaks down Elsa’s bitterness and eventually making her walk again, much to the amazement of her own father, Seseman (Sidney Blackmere).


Director Dwan performs a near perfect balancing act with this sentimental classic, never allowing the treacle to drown its narrative potency. To be certain, Temple is impossibly cute – but Dwan tempers her sweetness with a stellar cast of vintage ham actors, each performing as a perfect counterbalance to Shirley’s formidable optimism. In the end, we seek the simplified happiness that only grandpa can offer our heroine and are readily delighted when Dwan and Temple give in to our expectations, reuniting the two in blissfully obtuse true Hollywood fashion moments before the final fade out.


Fox Home Video’s bastardization of the Shirley Temple legacy continues with this disc. The film is presented in both its original B&W (thank God) and (e-gods!) a grossly inadequate colorized rendition. The B&W image is quite solid and impressively mastered with a very clean and fairly smooth visual characteristic that only occasionally shows obvious signs of age. Contrast levels are nicely realized. Fine details are evident throughout. Occasionally, edge enhancement crops up, but age related artifacts are well concealed.


As a matter of record, the colorized version is painful. Colors are broadly applied; flat, thick pasty and wholly unnatural hues. No film purist would be caught watching a Temple classic this way. The audio has been remixed to 2 channel stereo (the original mono is also included). Both are quite similar. There are NO extras!


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
0

THE BLUE BIRD (20th Century-Fox 1940) Fox Home Video

The last film Shirley Temple made for Fox was Darryl F. Zanuck’s personally supervised The Blue Bird (1940); an abysmal and amateurish attempt to recapture and bottle up some of the glorious fantasy magic of MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) which Temple had been up for – as part of a studio loan out - but lost to Judy Garland. In almost every way The Blue Bird is a wholly inferior and leaden filmic experience. Yet, only part of this gargantuan misfire can be blamed on the hokey production values and shoddy special effects.


The latter half of the film’s poor box office returns must lay in Temple’s complete lack of grasp on the role of the protagonist. Well past her prime as the pint sized princess, Temple’s desperate awkwardness to retain even a little of that angelic pixie dust that had made her such a star during the 30s is at odds with her pre-teen body proportions. If only the film had been made three to five years earlier, she might have been able to pull it off.


Temple is miscast as Mytyl, a Germanic knockoff of Gretel (of Hansel and Gretel fame), whose father, Tyl (Russel Hicks) is slated to go off to war. Heart-sore and befuddled, Mytyl falls asleep and has one whopper of a dream about the blue bird of happiness – a mythical creature that escapes her discovery. The good fairy, Berylune (the wholly ineffectual Jessie Ralph), instructs Mytyl to search for the blue bird with her brother, (Johnny Russell), her dog and cat, whom Berylune has transformed into faithful human servants, Tylo (Eddie Collins) and Tylette (Gale Sondergaard). But Tylette is mischievous and nearly gets the whole lot killed during a raging forest fire.


Ernest Pascal's screenplay is episodic and uninspired almost from the opening credits. The garish sequence in which Mytyl journeys to heaven and meets boys and girls who have yet to be born – some eagerly awaiting the hour of their birth, others utterly depressed by the prospect of leaving heaven for earth - neither hinges on the scene that immediately preceded it, nor cohesively leads into the scene that immediately follows, but is just a bit of suspended fantasy in a narrative structure that is desperately struggling for cohesiveness.


Zanuck’s faith in Temple was stirred into mounting this super production, but without any of the suspended disbelief that MGM’s Oz has in spades. The film's abysmal flop at the box office sent Temple packing from Fox in a hurry. In retrospect, The Blue Bird is not a worthy vehicle for either Zanuck’s efforts or Temple’s acting abilities. It is an unaffected bit of tackiness to be avoided.


Fox’s DVD transfer is below par. The Technicolor is quite unstable with fluctuating hues, overly orange or pink flesh tones, some mis-registration problems that crop up now and then, and a barrage of age related artifacts that are more obvious during the matte process and effects photography. Fine details are occasionally lost in a print that becomes quite softly focused. The audio has been remixed to 2 channel stereo (the original mono is also included). Neither distinguishes itself. There are NO Extras!


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
1.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5

EXTRAS
0

REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (20th Century-Fox 1938) Fox Home Video

Allan Dwan has another Shirley Temple classic with Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), an adroitly scripted comedy of errors that has the angelic Temple cast as Rebecca Winstead. Placed in the care of her uncle, Harry Kipper (William Demarest), Rebecca is entered in a radio contest to be the next spokes-person for a popular entertainment program. Instantly, Rebecca is a hit.


Unfortunately, a clerical mix-up by Orville Smithers (Jack Haley) has Rebecca being rejected by the radio sponsors – a move that forces the penniless Kipper to send Rebecca to live with her stern, but kind at heart Aunt Miranda (Helen Westley) and her cousin, Gwen Warren (Gloria Stewart) in the country.


Never at a loss for good wholesome fun, Rebecca dances up a storm with farm hand, Aloysius (Bill Robinson), puts some color back in her cheeks with good honest work, and ends up chasing a piglet across the property to an adjacent farm.


Meanwhile, discovering the station’s error much too late to do any good, radio promoter Tony Kent (Randolph Scott) embarks on a vacation to the country to clear his head of work related stress. His hiatus on the property adjacent Miranda’s farm leads to a fortuitous meeting with Rebecca and, a burgeoning romance with Gwen.


There’s really not much more to the film’s paper thin plot – but Dwan keeps all the elements in play long enough to make his audience forget the obvious and settle in for a pleasant enough time. Temple is quite simply ideal for this part. She exudes the sort of unspoiled natural tenderness that so many of today’s child stars lack. This is wholesome family entertainment at its very best.


Fox’s DVD contains both a restored B&W transfer and their patented colorized version that is shamelessly tacky and bears no further investigation in this review. The grayscale on the original B&W is very clean and smooth with good solid contrast and a considerable amount of fine detail evident throughout. 


Several brief scenes bear the hallmark of being sourced from less than stellar print material, but overall, the quality is quite acceptable for a film of this vintage. The audio has been re-channeled to stereo. The original mono is also included. The former is no great improvement. There are NO extras.


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
0

THE LITTLE PRINCESS (2oth Century-Fox 1939) Fox Home Video

Shirley Temple's career as 20th Century-Fox's most bankable pint size star reached its apex with the Technicolor extravaganza, The Little Princess (1939); based on the celebrated novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  Walter Lang’s film  is a sumptuously mounted, often poignant melodrama. Temple is Sara Crewe, the privileged – though quite unspoiled - precocious daughter of Capt. Reginald Crewe (Ian Hunter), who is placed in the pampered care of Amanda Minchin’s (Mary Nash) private school while her father goes off to fight in the great war.


Life at the school is blissfully serene. Sara fits right in and makes friends quite easily. She is unselfish and giving of herself. Miss Minchin affords her new charge a great deal of latitude, because she believes the more she caters to Sara the greater her fee for her care will be once the Captain returns from the battlefields. 


Unfortunately, word reaches Amanda that her father has been killed abroad, and worse – that his estate is virtually penniless. In order to pay for her education, the rather cold hearted Miss Minchin makes Amanda her servant – relegating her to quarters inside the freezing attic apartment where Sara must feverishly work night and day to stay warm and focused on her future.


But Sara is ever the optimist. She befriends Ram Dass (Caesar Romero) the dashing Arabic servant to Lord Wickham (Miles Mander), and easily wins the respect and support of Amanda’s brother, Hubert (Arthur Treacher), a butler at the school who eventually sneaks Sara into the sick ward of the military hospital to search for her father among the wounded soldiers. In one of the film’s best remembered sequences, Sara’s impassioned pleas even win the heart of England’s most gracious majesty, Queen Victoria (Beryl Mercer).


The Little Princess is heartwarming entertainment through and through. Shirley Temple excels as the unflinching child who remains steadfast and pure despite having to endure many hardships. Ethel Hill and Walter Farris' screenplay tends to drag during the middle act, but only occasionally does the treacle seem pronounced, or at least, rehearsed. Overall, The Little Princess is delightful, timeless and enduring family fun; a movie that will appeal to both the young and young in heart.


Fox’s DVD transfer is satisfactory, though not amazing. The original Technicolor exhibits a very saturated colors that occasionally suffer from 3 strip mis-registration. Colors on the whole are rich, bold and vibrant. Contrast levels are ideally realized. Fine detail is often very nicely realized.


There are several scenes where the image appears to suffer from a ‘thick’ characteristic – categorized by blocky colors and a sudden loss of detail that is brief but distracting nevertheless. Age related artifacts have been cleaned up. The audio is re-channeled stereo surround. The original mono will suffice quite nicely. There are NO extras.


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
0

THE X-FILES: Seasons 1-8 (Fox 1993 - 2003) Fox Home Video


In 1993, director/writer Chris Carter introduced television audiences to the utterly addictive, often terrifying and very paranoiac realm of The X-Files (1993-2002).  Brilliantly scripted, intensely researched, and cleverly photographed to illicit maximum shock on a relatively small budget, The X-Files formula relied on nearly every sci-fi and horror cliché from antiquity, reconstituted into a modern and very eclectic tapestry that easily translated into 'must see TV' compelling melodrama.


The series began with a rather simple premise; two FBI agents in search of the ‘truth’ behind unexplained phenomena. One agent, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) firmly believes in the existence of extra terrestrial life and a government conspiracy to cover up their involvement in the alien abduction of his sister, Samantha. The other agent, Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) is a hardened skeptic, soon to have both her religious faith and her scientific theories tested.


Scully is originally assigned by Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) - not to assist Mulder in his quest for the truth - but rather to debunk his beliefs and put an end to his research. Soon, however, she discovers that perhaps there is more ‘out there’ than either the government or anyone else knows or is willing to admit.


Season One of this runaway smash hit series is all about establishing the pervasively dark and unsettling atmosphere that would eventually propel The X-Files through nine riveting seasons. The production is greatly aided by its choice of location – Vancouver B.C. – populated with dense forests, isolated communities and an overall rural feel of quiet foreboding. 


Very early on in the series, Chris Carter established two distinct narrative threads; the first concerning episodic investigations of the unexplained, and the second involving Mulder's quest to expose his superiors in the government for their cover ups perpetuated on the American public.


We meet Agent Mulder – a rather stoic believer, playfully aware of the fact that no one in the Federal Bureau of Investigations takes either him or his research seriously. Yet Mulder senses more of an open dialogue with Dana Scully. Although he doesn't entirely trust her at the start, very quickly these two agents will align themselves against the government in their many attempts to quantify their supernatural and extra terrestrial experiences.  Some of The X-Files best episodes derive from this first season.

In ‘Fire’ a Scottish chauffeur uses pyro-kinetic energies to murder members of the British aristocracy. In ‘Ghost in the Machine’ a computer wizard is attacked and murdered by his own artificial intelligence. ‘Squeeze’ is the diabolical tale of Eugene Tooms, a contortionist/cannibal who can fit through most any space. 


The X-Files has often been heralded for its originality, and - true enough - there are some spectacularly cutting edge episodes. But there are also some rather obvious rip offs. ‘Ice’, for example, is a rather blatant attempt at revisiting ‘John Carpenter’s The Thing’ with a like-minded scenario of a troop of geologists in the Arctic who are infiltrated and picked off one by one by an infectious biological parasite.


Like most series television, The X-Files uses its first season to learn what works in order to 'find' its audience. But by the start of Season Two Chris Carter is off and running with some of the best melodramatic horror and sci-fi the small screen has seen since the days of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone.


Season Two is perhaps the most unsettling in the entire series. It begins with Mulder’s trek through dense jungle terrain in South America to an abandoned American outpost where it is believed alien life has made contact with a remote satellite computer terminal. We are introduced to ‘the black ooze’ for the first time; a mysterious biological agent inadvertently recovered from a sea salvaging expedition. There is also the presence of an ‘other-worldly’ shape shifter (Brian Thompson) who has been sent to kill off alien/human hybrids.

Season Two also introduces us to rogue FBI henchman, Alex Krycek (Nicholas Lea), seemingly working with Mulder, but actually out to sabotage and possibly even murder him before the season finale. However, the most compelling narrative thread in Season Two involves Scully’s kidnap and abduction. She is experimented on, implanted with a tracking device and given a lethal injection of cancer. The season culminates with Mulder discovering a train car filled with alien corpses, buried in the Nevada Mountains.



With so much at stake one might have suspected that Season Three had nowhere to go but down. In fact, the opposite is true. Mulder is saved from a near death experience and he and Scully investigate a series of bizarre prison murders. They also uncover a grotesque ‘rigged’ game of chance in which unsuspecting and impoverished Chinese immigrants are being harvested for their internal organs. Season Three also probes the personal lives and motivations of secondary characters Walter Skinner and Alex Krycek a little bit deeper.

What is quite unusual about Season Three, is that it also indulges in a bit of quirky tongue-in-cheek sci-fi humor; as in ‘Jose Chung’s From Outer Space’ where Mulder and Scully probe UFO abductees in a small in-bred community that leads to two parallel versions of the same event being told from very different perspectives. 


If anything, Season Four builds upon the series' eclectic and seamless blend of apocalyptic darkness, crystalizing  Mulder's quest to learn what has become of his sister. In the season's opener, Mulder employs a faith healer, Jeremiah Smith to save his mother after she has been the victim of an assassination attempt. 


In ‘Unruhe,’ a sadist leaves behind psychic photographs of his victims before they are actually abducted. Mulder experiences warped déjà vu in ‘The Field Where I Died’ when he begins to suspect he is the reincarnation of a civil war hero. In ‘Kaddish’, Mulder and Scully discover that a dead man is responsible for a series of brutal murders within a cloistered Jewish community. But the most poignant episodes in Season Four involve Scully’s aggressive battle against her cancer. As Scully struggles to accept her own mortality, Mulder races against time for the antidote that will save her life.


In retrospect, Season Five hints at the beginning of the end for the series’. The season begins with Mulder discovers a secret government laboratory facility that may hold the cure to Scully’s cancer. Thereafter, first four episodes are preoccupied with this narrative thread – compellingly held together by Gillian Anderson’s restrained performance. 


However, the rest of the season is rather a mixed bag of blessings – the best involving Carter’s fascination with bizarre religious practices; such as ‘All Souls’ in which the devil has come to earth to hunt down mentally challenged victims and claim their immortal spirits by striking them with lightening.


There’s also ‘Patient X’; a group of alien abductees are mysteriously being burned alive to prevent colonization of the earth from taking place. On the lighter side is ‘The Post-Modern Prometheus’ – a curious tale shot in B&W about a freakishly misshapen man who impregnates women while listening to Cher. 


Appropriately, Season Five concludes with an episode entitled, ‘The End’; Mulder’s entire repository of information on The X-Files is torched by a mysterious arsonist, and his request to reopen his investigation for ‘the truth’ officially shut down by the FBI.


Season Six is, in many ways, a colossal misfire. A contractual dispute forced Chris Carter and his production crew to relocate the series to Los Angeles, resulting in the sudden and inexplicable loss of Vancouver’s lush, yet strangely foreboding locales that were very much a major selling point of the series. 


Season Six also inserts an awkward road block in Scully and Mulder’s association when it is decided that Agent Spender (William Davis) will helm The X-Files, with Mulder and Scully reassigned to separate covert clearance duties. The bulk of Season Six struggles to find new ways of re-involving Mulder and Scully in joint investigations that may jeopardize their future within the bureau.


Drive’ is a sort of sci-fi derivative of the film ‘Speed’; Mulder is taken hostage by a man infected with a pathogen that will cause his head to explode if the car they are driving in slows to under 50 mph. In the quirky ‘Dreamland’ episode, Mulder trades places with a foppish agent after the space/time continuum is interrupted by an interplanetary disturbance inside Area 51. 


In ‘Terms of Endearment’ the agents pursue a seemingly normal businessman who is actually a demon impregnating multiple partners. In ‘The Rain King’ a climatologist just might hold the key to manipulating destructive weather patterns through psycho-kinetic powers channeled by rage. 


What is rather off-putting about Season Six is its implausible flip-flop in character motivations. Whereas Mulder was the man who believed in aliens and the paranormal, in Season Six it is Scully whose faith is transformed and Mulder who seemingly and quite inexplicably jettisons his quest for ‘the truth’ in favor of becoming an embittered cynic.


Like so many television serials that have come and gone before it, Seasons Seven and Eight of The X-Files painfully illustrate a truly great premise regrettably past its prime; a gross parody of all we have come to know and love about the show; perhaps nowhere more obviously showcased than in ‘Hollywood A.D.’; where a film company decides to immortalize Scully and Mulder on the big screen with grotesque embellishments. 


After co-starring in 175 episodes David Duchovny had understandably grown disenchanted with the series – officially bowing out with an abduction scenario that seems quite forced and unfocused, leaving Scully to move on with her new partner, the ineffectual John Doggett (Robert Patrick).

The X-Files holds the dubious distinction of being one of the very first TV series to be offered to the home consumer on DVD. Fox Home Video released season box sets after each season aired on television. Then, the sets included thicker boxes with linear notes and short featurettes involving Chris Carter’s reminiscences, along with sound bytes from other cast and crew. 


With the series cancellation in 2002, Fox Home Video decided to lump together various episodes into two disc compendium sets that represented something of a truncated time line for viewers who perhaps preferred the episodes dealing with the government conspiracy angle rather than the episodic investigations of the paranormal.


Now, Fox Home Video has re-released complete seasons once more, repackaged in much thinner slip cases, but oddly enough, minus the original linear notes and featurettes. These newer season disc sets are offered at greatly reduced prices from the original releases (in some cases, up to $35 dollars less than the original suggested retail price) and are virtually identical in image quality to the previously issued disc sets.


Seasons 1-4 are presented in full frame aspect ratio. The rest of the series are framed in 1:85:1 anamorphic widescreen. None have been progressively mastered, with digital combing the most glaring and obvious shortcoming – easily remedied by switching your DVD player to ‘interlaced’ output.


Image quality on Seasons 1-5 inexplicably varies between episodes. While some episodes are visually smooth and quite appealing, others suffer from compression artifacts and a glaring amount of edge enhancement, shimmering of fine details and pixelization. On the whole, colors are rich, bold and vibrant. 


However, Seasons 6-8 look overly dark with an inherent loss of fine details throughout. The audio for all seasons is 5.1 Dolby Digital and quite aggressive. Seasons 6-8 contain featurettes and several noteworthy extra features including special effects reels and an excessive amount of television promo junket materials.

Given the series enduring popularity among fans, and its considerable ranking (Empire Magazine recently ranked the series #4 in a top ten list of 'all time greatest' TV serials), it would be nice to have Fox go back to the drawing board and remastered the series for 1080p hi def. Considering Fox's track record on Blu-ray of late we won't hold our breath for that one any time soon!


Quite frankly, The X-Files is X-ceptional entertainment. X does indeed mark the spot for a ‘spooky’ good time. Recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Season One 3.5
Season Two 4.5
Season Three 4.5
Season Four 4.5
Season Five 3.5
Season Six 3
Season Seven 2.5
Season Eight 2


VIDEO/AUDIO
Seasons One - Four 3.5
Seasons Five - Eight 3


EXTRAS
Seasons One - Five 0
Seasons Six - Eight 2.5

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

ROMANCE ON THE HIGH SEAS (Warner Bros. 1948) Warner Home Video

All the elements are in play for a rollicking good time in Michael Curtiz’s ‘case of mistaken identities’ musical - Romance on the High Seas (1948); the movie that brought former big band singer, Doris Day to international acclaim as a movie actress and took home the Best Song Oscar for Day’s memorable, ‘It’s Magic’.


The plot of Julius and Philip Epstein's witty screenplay begins in earnest when wealthy socialite Elvira Kent (Janis Paige) suspects her husband, Michael (Don DeFore) is a no good two-timing ladies man. Smart gal…too smart for her own good, in fact. When Michael tells Elvira that he will be unable to accompany her on their planned ocean cruise getaway, Elvira’s storm signals kick into high gear.


Deliciously devious, Elvira decides not to go on the cruise either – taking a room at a nearby hotel to spy on Michael while hiring a near-penniless nightclub chanteuse, Georgia Garrett (Doris Day) to take her place aboard ship. Naturally, the plot goes hopelessly awry – since Michael has also hired private detective Peter Virgil (Jack Carson) to tail his wife and Peter actually thinks Georgia is Elvira – while falling hopelessly in love with her.


Such maudlin tripe might just as easily have become leaden, dull and cliché. Yet, under Curtiz’s direction and with delightfully buoyant songs penned by Sammy Cahn and Jules Styne, Romance on the High Seas hits mostly high notes.


To find Doris Day in excellent voice is hardly startling, though given that this was her movie debut audiences must have been bowled over by her soothing singing pipes. But to discover her innate ability to carry off the comedic and dramatic elements with equal - seemingly effortless - aplomb is a minor revelation. Doris Day is a rarity from Hollywood's golden age. She somehow managed to emerge on screen as a fully formed star of the first magnitude right from the beginning. 


Jack Carson is delightful as the bumbling detective. Janis Page is her usual glossy self - all glycerin and bubbly charm. Curtiz's pacing of the action, his staging of the rather lavish musical production numbers seems effortless, and the Technicolor is both frothy and rich. And the film?…well - it’s magic, of course!


Warner Home Video has done an exceptionally fine job on this DVD transfer. On the whole colors are very nicely balanced. Flesh tones appear just a tad pasty – but certainly not entirely out of character for color stock of this vintage.Contrast levels are nicely realized. Whites are generally bright. Blacks are deep and solid. There are rare occasions of Technicolor misregistration, but these are brief and negligible. The audio is mono, but adequate for this presentation. One wishes that Warner had had the foresight to remaster at least the songs in 5.1 Dolby Digital from the original directionalized audio stems used to create the mono mix. Short subjects are the only extra feature.


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5



VIDEO/AUDIO
4



EXTRAS
1

MY DREAM IS YOURS (Warner Bros. 1949) Warner Home Video

A thoroughly undistinguished follow-up for Warner’s newest leading lady, Michael Curtiz’s My Dream Is Yours (1949) is a rather amiable, though forgettable remake of 1934’s 20 Million Sweethearts. The film’s most captivating asset is Doris Day, fresh from her colossal success in Romance on the High Seas, and cast as young hopeful, Martha Gibson – a single mom who can really belt out the tunes if anyone would stop and give her a chance to prove it. But talent and stardom do not necessarily go hand in glove and Martha remains quaintly out of the limelight.


However, when conceited radio personality, Garry Mitchell (Lee Bowman) decides he has had enough of the big time and refuses to renew his contract, the station sends contact agent, Doug Blake (Jack Carson) on a talent scouting mission to find a fresh new face to take his place. Blake soon discovers Martha, but he also encounters infinite opposition from the sponsors who are wary of an ‘unknown quantity’ and would much prefer to have Garry back – whatever the price.


If things are looking down professionally, they’re even worse – privately. Soon, Martha and Blake are inseparable. But as fame draws nearer, it also draws Martha’s affections away from Blake toward Garry instead.


The heavy-handed script patched together by Harry Kurnitz and Dane Lussier (from the Allen Rivkin/Laura Kerr original), leaves zero tolerance for the saccharine sweetness – pushed to its limit in a very awkward blend of live action and animation, cut-and-pasted together by Fritz Freleng and featuring Warner Bros. most valuable cartoon commodity - Bugs Bunny.


For the rest, Day is given the opportunity to warble some fine tunes, the best being the utterly dreamy and heart-felt, ‘I’ll String Along With You.’ Resident Warner contract players, Eve Arden, Adolph Menjou, and one of the all time great treasures of the American cinema - S.Z. Sakall, are all welcome additions to the cast.


Warner Home Video has done another fine job with this Technicolor transfer. Colors, for the most part, are bold vibrant and true. Flesh tones are a tad more pasty pink than they out to be. Contrast levels are nicely realized. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites, generally clean – though occasionally adopting a slight bluish tint. Technicolor misregistration occurs sporadically throughout.


The animation/live action sequences suffer from a tad more obvious film grain and age related artifacts. The audio is mono but adequately represented. One wishes that Warner had had the foresight to remaster at least the songs in 5.1 Dolby Digital from the original directionalized audio stems used to create the mono mix. Short subjects are the only extra feature.


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
1

I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (Warner Bros. 1951) Warner Home Video

Uncharacteristically shot in B&W (since most musicals of its vintage had long since made the transition into blazing Technicolor), Michael Curtiz’s I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951) is an often compelling and tender musical bio about the resilient marriage between composer/musician Gus Kahn (Danny Thomas) know as the ‘Corn-Belt Bard,’ and Grace LeBoy (Doris Day) – the woman who simply adored him.


A film of immeasurable strengths apart from Day’s obvious contributions to the venerable songs she belts out with spunk and heart – and with definite chemistry emanating between its two costars, I'll See You In My Dreams is a cornucopia of great American standards from Tin-Pan Alley, Vaudeville and the early sound era. Sensitively directed by Curtiz from Melville Shavelson and Jack Rose’s poignantly scripted scenarios, the film also marks Danny Thomas’ movie debut.


Briefly touching upon the darker aspects of Kahn’s life (his multiple affairs and addiction to alcohol) the film is basically an old-fashioned love story. Grace works for a music publishing firm that caters to young song writers. Gus strolls in one afternoon to pitch his wares and a little woo on the side.


In no time at all, the struggling Chicago song writer is penning odes and pop tunes that the whole town is singing, with Grace by his side as his collaborator. Grace's constancy in their partnership eventually leads to marriage but occasionally illustrates a rather unflattering portrait of the possessive clingy woman, yet always with a grounded center that can bring calm from the chaos of their sometimes turbulent relationship.


In supporting roles are Frank Lovejoy as the superb drunk, Walter Donaldson, and Patrice Wymore as sultry Ziegfeld star, Gloria Knight – oozing sexuality from every pore as she warbles ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ the song that would, ironically, serve as the title and canvas for one of Day’s greatest musical hits several years later.


Warner Home Video’s DVD exhibits a very nice B&W transfer. The grayscale has been balanced with deep solid blacks and very clean whites. Contrast levels are nicely realized. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites, generally clean. A fair amount of film grain is noticeable in several scenes and there are tempered age related artifacts sprinkled throughout the transfer. Still, the quality will surely NOT disappoint.


The audio is Mono but adequately represented. One wishes that Warner had had the foresight to remaster at least the songs in 5.1 Dolby Digital from the original directionalized audio stems used to create the mono mix. Short subjects are the only extra feature.


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
1

ON MOONLIGHT BAY (Warner Bros. 1951) Warner Home Video

Roy Del Ruth’s On Moonlight Bay (1951) is a fairly forgettable yet quaintly permissible and passable turn-of-the-century entertainment. Based on Booth Tarkington’s Penrod Stories, and with the overwhelming success of MGM’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) firmly in mind, this film stars Doris Day as Marjorie Winfield, a pert and plucky tomboy who begins a romance with the boy next door, William Sherman (Gordon MacRae).


Will is a free thinker – unimpressed by material possessions and not terribly interested in marriage either; just two departures from the status quo that land him in hot water with Marjorie’s dad, George (Leon Ames); a die-hard capitalist banker who does not see his daughter’s future tied to this impressionable upstart. 


At first Marjorie takes her father’s side. After all, she has her reputation to consider. Ah, but then there’s Will’s soothing and melodic vocals to sway and anesthetize her common sense. In no time, Will has completely won Marjorie over. Daddy is another story.


Apart from Charles Tobias and Peter De Rose’s ‘Love Ya’ – the rest of the score is a potpourri of traditional ballads, including ‘Till We Meet Again’, ‘Cuddle Up A Little Closer’ and ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.’


Featherweight and not nearly as impressive as MGM's Meet Me In St. Louis, the film it is so clearly and desperately trying to emulate, On Moonlight Bay is nevertheless enjoyable, if fairly antiseptic fun. The Jack Rose/Melville Havelson script struggles for something to say. The vignettes of early 20th century living are adorable enough, but tend to grow long in the tooth and remain detached from the central narrative, which really doesn’t have much more of a social comment to make except to young love…‘ain’t it grand?’


Warner Home Video’s DVD exhibits a fine Technicolor transfer. Colors, for the most part, are bold vibrant and true. Flesh tones are pasty pink. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites, generally clean – though occasionally adopting a slight bluish tint. Technicolor misregistration occurs sporadically throughout.


The audio is Mono but adequately represented. One wishes that Warner had had the foresight to remaster at least the songs in 5.1 Dolby Digital from the original directionalized audio stems used to create the mono mix. Short subjects are the only extra feature.


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
1

BY THE LIGHT OF THE SILVERY MOON (Warner Bros. 1951) Warner Home Video

David Butler’s By The Light of the Silvery Moon (1953) is a cordial wrap-up and sequel of sorts to Roy Del Ruth’s On Moonlight Bay (1951), and it marks Doris Day’s final association with Gordon MacRae. The two had made 5 movies together. Ever a definitive example of style and song triumphing over substance – the film is a featherweight concoction of musical vignettes skillfully strung together by Irving Elinson and Robert O’Brien’s adroit and often humorous screenplay.


Will Sherman (Gordon MacRae) returns from WWI. But his hasty pre-war proposal to Marjorie Winfield (Doris Day) is not nearly as close to his heart as it once was – all the worse for Marjorie who cannot wait for Will’s return; a chronic source of consternation for Marjorie’s father, George (Leon Ames).


Loosely based on Booth Tarkington’s Penrod stories, the subplots are varied and largely forgettable; including one involving actresses who want to rent the Winfield’s barn, but who take on a spurious coloring when Marjorie’s younger brother, Wesley (Billy Gray) thinks the eldest is romantically after their father.


Again, plot is not as essential as the characterizations and settings. Wisely recalling the importance of their supporting cast; Mary Wickes returns as the irrepressible maid, Stella. Rosemary DeCamp, as Mother Winfield, is the ideal foil for her blustering husband…and Gordon MacRae – given a more intensive stint as a dancer, proves that although he is no Gene Kelly, he is amiable and light on his feet. For the rest, Day and MacRae flesh out the story with another bumper crop of Tin Pan Alley standards; the melodic, I’ll Forget You,’ playfully coy, Be My Little Bumble Bee and spirited Ain’t We Got Fun.
Warner Home Video’s DVD exhibits a fine Technicolor transfer. Colors, for the most part, are bold vibrant and true to their original spectrum. Flesh tones are a tad more pasty pink than they out to be. Contrast levels are nicely realized. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites, generally clean – though occasionally adopting a slight bluish tint. Technicolor misregistration occurs sporadically throughout.



The audio is Mono but adequately represented. One wishes that Warner had had the foresight to remaster at least the songs in 5.1 Dolby Digital from the original directionalized audio stems used to create the mono mix. Short subjects are the only extra feature.


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
1

LUCKY ME (Warner Bros. 1954) Warner Home Video

An awkward eclecticism of meandering styles emerges in Jack Donohue’s Lucky Me (1954) a rather abysmal blend of perfunctory coyness made all the more glaring and mawkish by the expansive proportions of Cinemascope. The film stars Doris Day as Candy Williams, a struggling musical performer in a traveling show headlined by gregarious Hap Schneider (Phil Silver, at his most inept and grating). Forced to 6become hotel servants, Candy and company are in for a delightful change of pace when she catches the eye of successful celebrity song writer, Dick Carson (Robert Cummings).


Although Candy has no concept of how fortuitous her burgeoning romance with Dick will be, Hap is determined to manipulate the variables of their relationship to suit his own end. One problem; Dick is already practically engaged to the haughty Loraine Thayer (Martha Hyer), heiress to an oil baron’s monopoly. The solution: Dick casts Candy as the lead in his latest Broadway venture – a show he hopes Lorraine’s father, Otis (Bill Goodwin) will finance.


The first Warner musical to be shot in Cinemascope; Donohue’s inexperience with its expansive widescreen aspect ratio results in some fairly abysmal, overly long – and overly ‘close’ close-ups of all the principles – the effect quite stifling on the big screen. The screenplay by Irving Elinson, Robert O’Brien and James O’Hanlon plays like a comedic mishmash of snippets ripped from several other movies all flung together. 


Worse, the musical program is scant and largely in support of the comedy – though here to, the songs are just passable, and in some cases, as with the ‘Superstition Song’, well below par, making Lucky Me a very unlucky – and unworthy - experience indeed!


Warner Home Video’s anamorphic DVD exhibits an adequate transfer. Colors, for the most part, are bold vibrant and true to their original spectrum. Flesh tones are a tad more pasty orange than one might expect. Film grain and artifacts are also an issue, particularly during transitions – an inherent flaw in all early ‘scope’ productions. Contrast levels are adequately realized. Blacks are sometimes more gray than black. Whites, generally clean – though occasionally adopting a slight bluish tint.


The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital – recapturing the essence of early ‘scope’ stereo and much too overpowering when directly followed by almost mono sounding bits of dialogue. Short subjects are the only extra feature.


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
2.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
2

Sunday, April 8, 2007

DANTE'S PEAK: Blu-ray (Universal 1997) Universal Home Video

In 1997, two rival movies with the central theme of volcanic disaster were released in theaters; Mick Jackson’s implausible and frankly boring, Volcano and Roger Donaldson’s infinitely superior and  more realistic, Dante’s Peak. In this latter film, Pierce Brosnon plays Dr. Harry Dalton, a volcanologist with a haunted past who is convinced that the town of Dante’s Peak is headed for disaster when its nearby dormant volcano begins to rumble with signs of life. Harry's seen it all before. While he hopes against hope that he's mistaken, he has a very bad feeling that it's only a matter of time before the mountain exacts its revenge on the tiny hamlet nestled at its base. 


This idyllic rural enclave is governed by mayor; Rachel Wando (Linda Hamilton), who’s relationship with her late husband’s mother, Ruth (Elizabeth Hoffman) is strained to say the least. But Rachel’s children, Lauren (Jamie Renee Smith) and Graham (Jeremy Foley) take an instant liking to Harry.


So does Rachel – even though she is apprehensive about getting close to anyone. Gradually, Rachel and Harry begin to fall in love – an ill-timed entanglement that is interrupted when Dante’s Peak blows its top. Forced into a race against time before fire, lava and a pyroclastic cloud devour everything in sight, Harry, Rachel, Ruth and the children endure one harrowing natural disaster after the next.


Director, Donaldson is working from a straight forward screenplay by Leslie Bohem. It’s just weighty enough on facts to make it sound intelligent without dragging down the action. The balancing act that Donaldson performs, keeping the threadbare narrative alive when it seems imminently in danger of being swallowed by a barrage of thought-numbing special effects, is commendable. 


Make no mistake – the action is thrilling, but it’s not the whole show. Brosnon and Hamilton have great on screen chemistry. That makes us care about the survival of their characters. Thank Leslie Bohem that she hasn't made the all too often misfire of writing 'cute' parts for the children. True enough, we still get a bit of implausible heroics perpetrated by the family dog, but overall the people that inhabit Dante's Peak are genuine flesh and blood, rather than simpering and scared cardboard cut out cliches. 


But hey, we also have to give credit where credit is due: to Digital Domain and Roy Arbogast for coordinating a believable natural disaster from matte paintings, miniature models and composite digital SFX. In the final analysis, Dante’s Peak succeeds because of these seamless special effects cleverly woven into an intimate character driven story with a thoroughly deadly final act.


Universal Home Video's Blu-ray is fantastic. Everything tightens up in 1080p hi def. Colors pop, fine details abound, all in service to bringing the story elements closer into our living rooms. Colors are rich, bold and vibrant. Contrast levels are ideally realized. Blacks are deep. Whites are clean. DNR has smoothed out the rougher edges that were readily apparent on the DVD and the edge effects that plagued the standard edition have been eradicated on the Blu-ray. Good stuff. Great visual presentation!


The audio is 5.1 DTS, delivering an aggressive sonic spread  – particularly during the eruption sequences. Extras include ‘Getting Close to the Show’ a thorough and engaging documentary on volcanoes and the making of this film – as well as storyboard sequences, and extensive background materials (including poster campaigns and the original shooting script). Recommended.


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5

EXTRAS
4

SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE - Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1978) Warner Home Video

Forget Brandon Routh. There is only one Superman and his name was Christopher Reeve. In 1978, director Richard Donner premiered his flight into fancy with Superman: The Movie – a captivating, intelligently scripted, escapist fantasy about the man of steel and his exploits amid we mere mortals here on earth.


Epic, sprawling and thoroughly faithful to its comic roots, Superman: The Movie begins in earnest on the planet of Krypton, where Superman’s father, Jor-El (Marlon Brando) is desperately trying to convince his superiors that the planet is headed for Armageddon. Sadly, the elders, fronted by 1st Elder (Trevor Howard), feel that Jor-El is becoming an alarmist.


Released into the atmosphere inside a safe cocoon of protective crystals, moments before Krypton is destroyed  – baby Superman crash lands on earth where he is quickly snapped up by childless couple, Jonathan (Glenn Ford) and Martha Kent (Phyllis Thaxter). They raise the child as their own. But Superman (renamed Clark and played as a youth by Jeff East), doesn’t quite fit in. How can he? He's smarter, faster and stronger than his contemporaries, yet forced to suppress his powers. After Jonathan dies of a heart attack, Clark leaves the farm to journey to the South Pole, where he discovers his Fortress of Solitude and the real purpose for his being on earth. After many years of tutelage, Clark (now played by Christopher Reeves) returns to civilization and takes a job as a mild-mannered cub reporter on The Daily Planet in Metropolis.


There, Clark meets gregarious reporter, Lois Lane (Margo Kidder). Smitten – though the affection is barely reciprocated, Clark gains Lois ear and interests only after he narrowly saves her life as the studly man in red and blue spandex. Overnight, the legend of Superman is born – a tabloid exploitation destined to bring out both the best and the worst in mankind. Of this latter persuasion is the diabolical Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) – whose heart is set on world domination.


Luthor is a criminal mastermind who uses simpleton henchman, Otis (Ned Beatty) as his eyes and ears above ground while he plots taking over the world from his underground lair beneath the city's subway system. Superman presents a definite problem, one Luthor cannot seem to overcome until he realizes that a rock sample fallen to earth from Krypton has the power to destroy his adversary. Luring Superman to his underground lair, Luthor exposes his arch nemesis to the devastating powers of the Kryptonian rock, leaving Superman to presumably die.


Thankfully, Luthor's love interest, Eve Teschmacher (Valarie Perrine) is not without a heart. After Luthor leaves to carry out his diabolical plan, Eve rescues Superman who flies to stop Luthor from starting a devastating earthquake in southern California. Regrettably, he is too late. The quake hits and swallows Lois Lane in her car. She dies, leaving Superman with no recourse but to reverse the orbit of the earth and thereby time itself in order to reset the path of human history by a few minutes. Okay, so the last act makes no sense - scientific or otherwise. Just go with it. It's only a movie, and a damn good one at that!


Publicity of its day proclaimed “You will believe a man can fly” and miraculously, audiences did. Reeve’s central performance as a man out of time and ‘space’ – literally – is perhaps the most seamless and timeless portrayal of a super hero ever captured on celluloid. There’s a magnificent undercurrent of believability to everything he does as both Clark Kent and his alter ego, a sort of grand deception that readily makes audiences forget that the man and the character are not one in the same.


Donner was pressed for time, working on both this film and its sequel simultaneously. Unhappy chance that producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind were less than impressed by the amount of time it took to accomplish this feat. They removed Donner from the project before its completion and the result was a film that – while commercially viable – did not entirely reflect Donner’s vision.


That oversight has been rectified with Warner Bros. release of this newly minted extended Blu-ray. Reassembling footage to accommodate the director’s original vision, and with the added benefit of digital restoration, Superman: The Movie has never looked or sounded better. The 1080p image is exceptional. Colors are rich, bold and vibrant. Contrast levels are nicely realized. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are generally clean; though occasionally adopt a bluish or yellowy tint.


Matte photography and split screen special effects are nicely concealed, though every attempt has been made to integrate these elements into the overall integrity of technologies available back in 1978. Extras include 3 fascinating behind the scenes documentaries, stills galleries, an audio commentary, music only track and storyboard concepts. Recommended.


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
3.5

Friday, April 6, 2007

SEX AND THE CITY (HBO 1998-2004) HBO Home Video


In 1998, four frisky females from Manhattan’s Upper East Side caught the vapors of our collective fascination with Sex and The City (1998-2004). This frank and fun-loving, often horny little romp through the steel and concrete jungle of New York City followed the exploits of newspaper sex-pert/columnist, Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker).


Carrie is an enigma – a girl who wants love, but settles for sex when the former is woefully unavailable. She is surrounded by an entourage of flighty gal-pals, including idealist Park Avenue ‘good girl’ and ‘wannabe plaything’, Charlotte York (Kristin Davis), career and angst driven attorney at law, Miranda Hobbes (Cynthia Nixon), and sultry vixen with a ravenous libido, Samantha Jones (Kim Cattrall).

Using her friends as fodder, Carrie embarks on a never-ending quest for true love amongst the postmodern ruins. During the series' 6 year/94 episode run, many an amiable male swinger passed through the girl’s meat grinder; Chris Noth (Mr. Big), John Corbett (Aiden), Kyle MacLachlan (Trey MacDougall) and David Eigenberg (Steve) to name but a few.


From the start, the premise for this half hour HBO Presentation seemed strained at best – four babes of varying attractiveness and sexual prowess dishing the dirt on everything from toxic bachelors to homemade lubricants and pseudo-lesbian affairs. But by Season Six it was clear to all that Carrie and company had done much more than wax openly about the morays and peccadilloes of a basic biological function - they had, in fact, lost none of their potency for making the rest of us blush in total agreement over all the preposterousness women and men attach to the basic act of procreation.


Based on Candice Bushnell’s equally frank novel, the series is far more engaging than most, and certainly, more naughty than many that attempt to tell-all, rather than show all. Not that there’s no graphic shortage of ‘T’ and ‘A’ to be had – most provided by Ms. Cattrall as steamy eye candy that raises the heartbeat – yet, on the whole, Sex and The City delivers a fairly buoyant comedy gem with equal portions of sadomasochist charm and no nonsense brevity. Its sexy good fun, tongue-in-cheek and beckoning the viewer to indulge in a box of Kleenex – not just for tears!


Now HBO Home Video has released Sex and The City: The Complete Series – a rather flashy 20 disc compendium in pinky-purple faux embossed velvet and with a host of extra goodies included on a bonus disc. The problem is that nothing has been done to rectify shortcomings in the DVD transfers that were inherent from the original single season releases put out in 1999, 2000 and so on.


Season One is by far one of the extreme WORST examples of DVD mastering on record for any major television series. The pilot episode is so garishly flawed with digital compression artifacts, edge enhancement, pixelization and grain - that registers as digital grit - it is practically unwatchable.


What is problematic about the entire box set, is that certain episodes appear relatively unscathed by any of these digital anomalies, while other episodes contained on the same side of the same disc are virtually a mess of artifacts.
The word for the mastering effort put forth herein, then, is inconsistent. Colors can be bright and vibrant one minute, then dull, unnatural and muted the next. Contrast levels are either nicely realized or hopelessly low, with a loss of fine detail adding to an already abysmally poor visual presentation.


Season’s Two through Six fair a bit better in overall image quality, but none of the discs in this box will be winning any awards for impeccable DVD mastering. At best then, you’re buying this box for its content – not its quality. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and far superior to the visual presentation.

Extras include the ‘En-sex-lopedia’ – a look back at the best and most crass moments in the series; ‘Sex Essentials’ – a video jukebox peppered in advice to the lovelorn; a ‘quote-me’ game feature; a guide to all the pop-spots in New York City; and ‘The Guest List’ - a who’s who of the celebrities that appeared in cameos.


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5
EXTRAS
3.5