Saturday, June 23, 2007

THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO (MGM 1944) Warner Home Video

One of the best movies ever made about WWII, Mervyn LeRoy’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) is an exhilarating propaganda film, its banners unfurled and over-the-top flag waving an intoxicating blend of ‘get up and go’ and rousing cheer for the G.I.’s who were in the thick of things. The film stars resident MGM pin up, Van Johnson as Lt. Ted Lawson – a cocky, but congenial, flyer who finds himself slated for the most aggressive bombing raid on the enemy.

In the meantime, Ted’s wife – the ultimate all-American war bride, Ellen (Phillis Thaxter) has just announced that she’s going to have his baby. Their relationship is the stuff of idyllic optimism in the face of impending disaster. At one point, Ted tells Ellen, “How’d you get to be so cute?” to which she replies, “I had to be, if I was going to get me such a good looking fella!” The magic of it all is that there is genuineness to this seemingly 'aw shucks' repartee that remains totally engaging and entirely believable.

However, before this wholesome romance can lead to…well, more passionate pursuits, Ted is drafted into the service of Gen. James Doolittle (Spencer Tracy), along with his buddies, Lt. Bob Gray (Robert Mitchum), Cpl. David Thatcher (Robert Walker) and Lt. Dean Davenport (Tim Murdock). Together, they fly their plane into enemy territory, despite the fact that Ted has detected a rather ominous propeller problem just before take off. After a successful bombing raid on Tokyo munitions plants (MGM’s visual effects department managing to generate some fairly impressive master shots of total decimation) Ted’s left blade gives out over open water and his plane crashes.

The rest of the film is a journey through crisis as Ted and his troop are rescued and hidden in a Chinese hospital, but perpetually threatened with discovery from marauding Japanese forces at any moment. Even more debilitating, Ted must face the fact that his left leg – injured in the initial crash – has to be amputated without the benefit of anesthetic in order to save his life.

Based on real life incidents penned by the real Ted Lawson, and amiably scripted by Dalton Trumbo, the film is a powder keg of exciting moments and impressive visuals. The one note of disappointment (and it is a minor one) stems from Spencer Tracy having been given the rather thankless duty of a near cameo performance - providing details to his troops but never partaking in their mission. However, Tracy’s final oration to Ellen is worthy of the actor’s prowess. In the final analysis, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo performs a most impressive hat trick: it manages to take thirty seconds and transform it into nearly two hours of high stakes action and a palpably engaging 'four hanky' melodrama.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is fairly impressive – though not without its flaws.  The gray scale exhibits impressive tonality – with solid detail. The image is infrequently soft and age related artifacts are present. Contrast levels are quite good. Blacks, rich and solid. Whites, fairly clean. Film grain is occasionally more gritty than film-like. The audio is mono but adequately represented. Extras are limited to vintage short subjects and the film’s theatrical trailer. Recommended.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
2

REUNION IN FRANCE (MGM 1942) Warner Home Video

Jules Dassin’s Reunion in France (1942) is a rather clueless bit of tripe, peppering light comedy, heavy melodrama and a dash of Joan Crawford (looking absurdly scrumptious in a cavalcade of fashionable accoutrements by Adrian) with the likes of all-American, John Wayne – hopelessly miscast as R.A.F. flyboy, Pat Talbot.

Crawford is equally out of sorts as a French woman (minus a French accent), Michelle de la Beque – a fashion plate trophy gal to industrialist, Robert Cortot (Philip Dorn). After attending a rather lack luster political benefit, Michelle is all set to commit to Robert, only he fears that Hitler’s divisions will soon invade Paris. As a precaution, Robert sends Michelle away to the country. Days later, the bombing attacks begin.

Forced to schlep it on foot with the rest of the fleeing refugees, Michelle makes her way back to Paris only to discover that her boyfriend has become an ex-patriot and the driving industrial force in support of the Nazi military machine. So what’s a disillusioned gal to do?

Well, if you’re Michele you immediately set up shop with the next best thing – in her case, strapping American Pat Talbot (Wayne). Rescuing Pat from Nazi capture, the two quickly become a romantic pair; he masquerading as her chauffeur as they plot how best to get him back to Britain so that he can fly again for the Allied Forces.

Sandwiched somewhere between a war-time weepy and a legitimate Crawford picture, the screenplay by Jan Lustig meanders aimlessly from one implausible vignette to the next – the most comical: Crawford getting a job as a model at the fashion house that is far more art deco Hollywood than gay Paris and the same place she once frequented for her own haute couture while Robert was footing her bills.

MGM, a studio known for its surface sheen, musters up some ultra high gloss for these proceedings, but on the whole there is a decided note of grand superficiality to the darn mess and a tinny ring to the melodrama; less than flare or even modest respect for the refugee element the film is supposedly trying to champion.

Warner Home Video’s DVD exhibits a rather fine B&W image that occasionally seems slightly soft and blurry. The gray scale exhibits fine tonality throughout and fine details are usually nicely realized. Age related artifacts are present but kept to a bare minimum, as is the grittier aspect of film grain. The audio is mono but adequately balanced. Extras are limited to two vintage featurettes and the film’s theatrical trailer.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
1

PUMPING IRON (George Butler 1977) HBO Home Video

The psychology of what it takes to be a champion is at the crux of George Butler’s Pumping Iron (1977); a guilty pleasure – a documentary shot on a shoe-string budget, centered on the then freakish art of bodybuilding. Butler follows the exploits – both on and off the circuit - of 28 year old Arnold Schwarzenegger as he religiously trains for his sixth consecutive Mr. Olympia. Schwarzenegger, nicknamed ‘the Austrian Oak’ is in rare form on this occasion – both physically and theatrically speaking – and it is largely due to his enigmatic personality that the plotless, threadbare narrative seems more amusing and enlightened than it actually is.

Arnold gets his digs in – outfoxing fellow competitors, Lou Ferrigno and Mike Waller while equating the intense ‘pump’ sensation derived from hoisting massive poundage over his head to the act of consummating a sexual relationship with a beautiful woman. If it were only for the general amusement of seeing how Schwarzenegger began his illustrious film career – this documentary would already have a lot going for it.

However, that Pumping Iron also managed to transcend the  widely held public opinion that bodybuilding was nothing more than a carnival side show – equating those involved with it as socially vane - to generate a national craze of ‘getting in shape’ (that continues to be the norm to this day) is perhaps the greatest feat since Charles Atlas began running those tacky print ads about the scrawny four-eyed geek getting sand kicked in his face at the beach.

In retrospect, Pumping iron has become a time capsule and cultural touchstone – in the interim since Arnold’s generation of hulksters, a new and more vicious breed of steroid inflated bo-hunks has taken over the platform; bigger, meaner and more dependent on illegal drugs to build their morbidly huge physiques that – in all honesty – dwarf Arnold and his contemporaries by at least a couple hundred pounds. But Pumping Iron is a documentary about bodybuilding as an aesthetic and long before it was chic; a snapshot of the forerunners that ultimately spawned an industry.

HBO Home Video’s 25th Anniversary DVD is a welcomed edition. Shot full frame, the original film stock was poorly contrasted and color balanced. The DVD makes amends for these shortcomings, preserving every last bit of grain and texture from the original camera negative to provide a dated visual quality that is thoroughly in keeping with the film’s original presentation. Flesh tones are rarely accurate, but more an unhealthy and, at times, pasty orange. Overall, the DVD appears to be true to its source material.

The audio has been remixed to 5.1 stereo, but there’s not much to appreciate, given that the original sound mix was flat mono and quite unimpressive. Over 84 minutes of extras round out this DVD – most about Schwarzenegger’s career post Pumping Iron and riddled with all too brief snippets and sound bytes that are loosely put together as the most superficial of narratives. There’s also a very engaging 2003 interview with the great man himself, a rather humorous, often intimate portrait of the muscle man who literally broke the mold and went on to have one hell of a lucrative career as a result. Recommended.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
3.5

36 HOURS (Allied Artists 1965) Warner Home Video

One of the most diabolically delicious 'caper' stories ever conceived, George Seaton’s 36 Hours (1965) is a bizarre and engaging WWII thriller with a sort of Manchurian Candidate guilt complex. The complexity of its brainwashing scenario, coupled with solid performances from James Gardner and Eva Marie Saint keep the improbable plot afloat. Loosely based on Roald Dahl's 'Beware of the Dog' Seaton's screenplay revels in deconstructing the slow, deliberate corruption of a sane man's mind until he is ready to believe even the most improbable tripe peddled his way. 

The film stars James Gardner as Maj. Jefferson Pike – a top American military strategist stationed in Nice shortly before D-Day. Pike is told by his superiors to keep a low profile. However, he is perhaps too nonchalant about his whereabouts. After sampling the local color at a cafĂ©, he suddenly collapses in the street and is whisked away by enemy factions to a private clinic in the hills.

Artificially aged, Pike is awakened and brainwashed by Maj. Walter Gerber (Rod Taylor) and nurse, Anna Hedler (Eva Marie Saint) into believing that the war is over. Gerber is a defector. The hope is that with Pike’s mind at ease – and thoroughly confused – he will open up all the military secrets about the Allied Invasion plans that have yet to actually occur.

A curious and spurious game of cat and mouse ensues between Pike and Gerber with time of the essence as Gerber, Hedler and the clinic’s ‘doctor (Werner Peters) pump Pike for information, all the while plying him with a fiction that grows more surreal and confusing with every twist and turn.

Director Seaton, primarily known for his light and airy romantic comedies, delves deep into paranoia, and for the most part delivers a compelling – if slightly premised – fiction that serves up the thriller goods with great ambiguity and a bit of nail-biting tension. As the audience, we know the truth and hold our breath in the hopes that our hero will discover the reality of his situation and come back to his senses before it’s too late.

In retrospect, Seaton’s fascination with the James Bond era is perhaps a bit more obvious than one would hope for – the whole espionage angle bobbing dangerously close to Bondian lampoon. For the most part, 36 Hours is a rather ingenious, if minor effort that will surely come as a surprise to most – especially since the film has been out of general circulation for quite some time.

Warner Home Video’s DVD contains some strange digital anomalies that render certain scenes in the anamorphic transfer with a curious horizontal and ‘wiggly’ line of video noise. Most of the B&W image is wholly absent of this oddity, though when it occurs it is most distracting. For the rest, the gray scale exhibits superb tonality with fine details evident throughout. Film grain too is practically nonexistent for a thoroughly smooth visual presentation. The audio is mono but adequately represented. Dialogue sounds manufactured and effects have a decidedly frontal sonic characteristic. The only extra is a James Gardner theatrical trailer gallery.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
0