Wednesday, August 22, 2007

300 (Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures/Virtual Studios 2006) Warner Home Video

Inspired by graphic novelist, Frank Miller’s highly stylized, and much celebrated reincarnation of the Battle of Thermopylae, Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006) is a thought-numbing would-be epic of impeccable carnage – mostly created through the magic of CGI. The film charts the ruthless and relentless journey of that noble sect of Grecian warriors – The Spartans as they prepare to do battle against insurmountable Persian forces.

The Spartans are led by valiant King Leonidas (the spectacularly muscled Gerard Butler, who claims – in one of the behind the scenes featurettes – to holding a strict regime of 4 hr. daily workouts 3 months prior to the film shoot); a bit of a maniacal crazy, obsessed with an inherent code of ethics that cannot be tempted or compromised. The Spartans march as one indestructible conquering machine. Throughout the film’s rather flimsy narrative, Leonidas makes repeated references to the fact that free men will always fight with more honor/valor and blind determination to preserve what is theirs than an army of slaves.

On the home front, Leonidas is loved by his Queen, Gorga (Lena Headey), respected by his people and worshipped by his soldiers. However, in Sparta’s council of elders there is much consternation over the question of leadership, particularly from Theron (Dominic West) a Janus-faced traitor who trades on his political authority for leverage with both the council and the loyalties of its Queen. At the onset, the Spartans wage an all out slaughter against the Persian forces in one magnificent victory upon the next. But the tide turns out of favor when Leonidas discourages a humpback cripple, Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) from joining their forces. Ephialtes betrays his king for superficial and earthly rewards.

The great disappointment of the film is that, though its visuals remain bloody and faithful to Miller’s original comic, their overwhelming spectacle is married to a rather passionless hodgepodge – more decorative than narrative and allowing for even less of a personal investment from the audience than one might expect (As example: the central male/female relationship between Leonidas and Gorga fails to generate even an ounce of believable passion beyond the friction of bodies rising and falling in connubial bliss.)

Understandably, speaking parts are neither the point nor the purpose of Miller’s comic or the film’s screenplay. That works in service of the graphic novel, but it is a bit more problematic for cinema. In depriving us of words beyond mere sound bytes, the film becomes a derelict of mottos – not motivations. The Spartans causes: honor, family, glory, freedom never surmount the bone-crushing epic splendor of an ancient carnival freak show, with the Spartans appearing as though they have taken their memberships to Gold’s Gym too seriously and are now suffering from a bad case of penis envy and roid rage.

As Leonidas, Gerard Butler clearly has both a physical and emotional grasp and presence. Yet, he is oddly deprived of humanity – circumcised in favor of a bloodless façade cut from the same cloth as Arnold Schwartzenegger’s Terminator. His actions thus appear more instinctual than articulate – less the meticulous plotting of a master warrior and superior general than the rabid backlash of a wounded animal.

Larry Fong’s MTV style camerawork and William Hoy’s editing – though considerably more smooth than most of their generation – nevertheless contributes to an artifice of superficiality instead of total audience engagement. The battle sequences are not so brilliantly staged as they remain plastic and waxen vignettes – a sort of stop motion tableau of Miller’s novel – artful, perhaps, but one dimensional nonetheless. In the end, 300 inspires praise for its ability to provide an exceptionally accurate recreation of Miller’s comic styling. However, taken from its printed context, the filmic excursion remains as flat as those imaginative images on the printed page.

Warner Home Video’s 2 disc DVD is generally pleasing and captures the CGI splendor of the original filmic presentation, though not without a few flaws. The stylized color palette is dramatically recreated. Blacks are solid and deep. There are no clean, pure whites. Occasionally, digital grit (apart from that inherent and planned in the original theatrical release) is quite thick and obvious – particularly during the final battle sequence, where close ups of Leonidas reveal a tiling effect on his headgear.

The audio is an aggressive 5.1 Dolby Digital. Extras include an informative – occasionally rambling audio commentary track, plus a litany of behind the scenes featurettes on disc 2, delving into every conceivable aspect of the film’s creation. Oddly, the original theatrical trailer is not included.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
4

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

OTHELLO (Warner Bros./B.H.E. Productions 1965) Warner Home Video

Widely embraced by critics and fans as the greatest of all productions of this Shakespearean tragedy, to this reviewer’s eyes and reflections, Stuart Burge’s Othello (1965) seems a rather modestly dated and not terribly engaging translation of the stage play – its one salvation being that it contains some truly fine acting from the players then assigned to Britain’s National Theatre.

Plot wise, Venetian officer Iago (Frank Finlay) is driven to wild distraction over the appointment of Cassio (Derek Jacobi) to the rank of Lieutenant by his own general, Othello (Lawrence Olivier). Together with Roderigo (Robert Lang), Iago baits the benevolent Brabantio (Anthony Nicholls) into believing that his only daughter, Desdemona (Maggie Smith) has been disloyal to her husband – an allegation vehemently denied by both Desdemona and the innocent Othello.

To separate the two and therefore quash whatever rumors and doubts may linger in court, Othello is commanded to Cyprus to fight against the raging Turkish hoards. Othello is victorious. But Iago has other plans – inviting Desdemona to celebrate Othello’s win, while planting the seed of jealousy in Othello’s ear – that his own wife is having an affair with Cassio.

This film version is probably Shakespeare as Shakespeare himself might have envisioned if the movie camera had been around during his own time – a dark and moody bit of indirect and rather stagy plotting that relegates camera movement and cinematic styling to the backstage in favor of merely photographing the play’s content from a proscenium. The characters move in and out of scenes as they would during the play with the camera often quite stationary. Unfortunately, what works on the stage tends to appear quite ill at ease on film. This is a very Teutonic rendition of what might otherwise have played superbly as a lover’s triangle of mistaken jealousies.

Worse, Olivier’s central performance tends to be marred by the rather obvious fact that he is a Caucasian pretending to be a gentleman of color. His ‘blackface’ (literally and figuratively) is an obvious embarrassment from which today’s audience might take offense. But the make up application also tends to obliterate Olivier’s rather descriptive and subtle facial expressions, except, of course, when he is photographed in close up. Maggie Smith is magnificent as Desdemona – having mastered both the arts of stage and screen by this point in her career and able to understand where the strengths and weaknesses of both lay.

Unfortunately for the film, the rest of its cast are primarily stage thespians with an overly rehearsed and highly stylized form of performance that, while obviously entrusted and enraptured by the live theater, seems all too frigid and out of whack with the requirements of film acting. In the end, Othello is compelling – but ever mindful that its roots are stage bound and not screen savvy.

Warner Home Video’s DVD anamorphic DVD presents an average visual presentation with contrast levels that are just a tad below what one might expect. The overall image characteristic is quite dark, with an overall adoption of reds and oranges. Colors tend to lean toward the brown end of the spectrum and fine details are often lost in the darkness of the overall image. Flesh tones are a tad too pasty – mostly soft pink, but occasionally orange.

Age related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum and digital artifacts are not an issue. The audio is mono but presented at an adequate listening level that will surely not disappoint. Extras are limited to a brief vintage featurette where a somewhat pretentious Olivier talks about his involvement on the film, as well as the film’s original theatrical trailer.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
2

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM (Warner Bros. 1935) Warner Home Video

In retrospect, it is generally conceded by the critics that one of the artistic ironies about William Shakespeare’s immortal works is that, although they translate – almost effortlessly – into captivating and escapist live theater, on film they often degenerate into stagy and plotting yawns that belie their greatness for posterity in the movies. Max Reinhardt’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935) is just one of these latter unfortunates; a frightfully pretentious (in both talent and temperament) adaptation of the bard’s merrily chuckle to young love.

Indeed, in planning their production, Warner Brothers spared little expense on arguably Shakespeare’s most ethereal grand dream – investing heavily in the fantasy genre which, regrettably, they knew little about. Warner Studios then, were the purveyors of ‘ripped from the headlines’ gangster/crime and detective stories. With varying degrees of success, and immediately following the production code’s sanitization of these aforementioned genres, the studio tried various experiments in an effort to change the public’s image of their filmic product. The Busby Berkeley musicals were just one example. Reinhardt’s adaptation of Shakespeare was another.

But on this occasion, the studio’s assemblage of talent seems to have been blunted by too many grand ideas thrown haphazardly into one mesmerizing blend of super kitsch; interesting perhaps as a series of vignettes, yet entirely void of that vapory excitement so essential in keeping the entire enterprise cohesive and lighter than air.

The plot is renown, and shall be dealt with herein only in brief. Theseus, the Duke of Athens (Ian Hunter) is to marry the Queen of the Amazons, Hyppolyta (Verra Teasdale). At once, the lowly Demetrius (Ross Alexander) is engaged to the flighty Hermia (Olivia DeHavilland) who, in turn, shares none of his affections, but in fact, is heart struck with the fairly foppish, Lysander (Dick Powell). In the meantime, Helena (Jean Muir) is smitten with Demetrius.

Enter the rather confrontational puppet masters of the piece, Oberon – King of the Fairies (Victor Jory) and Titania (Anita Louise), his queen. Oberon and Titania are split over the rearing of a child currently in Titania’s care. But before the two can straighten out their own marital discourse, they are thrown into an examination of the folly of these aforementioned couples – who have stolen into the night to be together and are now trapped in that forested domain.

The last bit of structural plotting involves mischief maker, Puck (Mickey Rooney), a devilish prankster who delights in sabotaging the course of true love to suit his own ticklish fancy. Exploiting the rather hapless weaver, Bottom (James Cagney) and his own misguided opinions on love and romance, Puck transforms man into ass – literally - and thereafter sets about concocting a jealous love triangle with the potion-drugged Titania. Naturally, Oberon will stand for none of it.

The chief problem with this adaptation of the play is that there seems to be zero sparkle to any of the aforementioned couplings. As an audience we question, for example, Hermia’s clutching devotion to the Lysander – primarily because Dick Powell in tights (whose lack of artistic understanding for the role – he plays with the verve of a chorus boy in one of Berkeley’s many extravaganzas) is about as appealing as coming home to find one’s mother drunk and passed out on the floor.

Mickey Rooney delivers us a Puck as though he were a ravenous doomsayer ramped up on a sugar fix, rather than the happily oblivious punster. Victor Jory’s Oberon is stoic and commanding, but minus an element of remote understanding that would have convince us of Titania’s overriding and bubbly joy and affection for him.

Cagney’s Bottom is perhaps the best realized of the star turns. He is, in fact, top billed in the credits. Yet, even now, decades removed from his ingrained on screen image as a cutthroat villain in practically all of the studio’s ‘murder’s row’ and prison movies of the 30s and 40s – he remains something of an arrogant misfire, valiantly going through the motions with all the commitment of a consummate professional – but minus the suspended believability to be entirely embraced and admired as a performance unto itself.

In the end, despite its costly budget and elaborate staging and costumes, A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays more like a leaden nightmare – tired, worn and more of a junk sale of top notch personalities utterly wasted.

There’s nothing wasted in Warner Home Video’s beautifully restored B&W image on this DVD. The gray scale exhibits and perfectly captures all of the tenderly smooth gauze and fluid lighting effects with a rare sparkle and clarity that has never before been made available on home video in any format. Fine details are readily seen in close ups, though medium and long shots do continue to slightly blur.

This, I suspect, is in keeping with the aforementioned effects photography. Occasionally, age related artifacts are present and obvious, but nothing that will distract. Digital artifacts are well concealed with no edge enhancement or pixelization. The audio is Mono, but well represented and balanced. Extras include a thorough commentary from Scott McQueen, Olivia DeHavilland’s screen test, a vintage featurette, short subjects and trailer.

It’s hard not to recommend this transfer, even if the film itself continues to hold up primarily as an interesting financial flop or mixed artistic failure.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
3.5

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

MYRNA LOY AND WILLIAM POWELL COLLECTION (MGM 1934-1941) TCM/Warner Home Video


In 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld, William Powell – as the title character - confesses to a beguiling Myrna Loy that there’s “nothing I can give you except my love” to which Loy – as his potential 2nd wife, Billie Burke astutely replies “That isn’t enough. I’d expect part of your ambition, half of your trouble, two-thirds of your worries and all of your respect.” It was a telling bit of on screen dialogue for the two actors who became affectionately known as everyone’s perfect married couple.

Before getting underway, this reviewer must confess a biased soft spot for the teaming of William Powell and Myrna Loy. Never in film history, have two separately accomplished talents been so idyllically paired. Their palpable chemistry stems from a genuine affection for one another behind the scenes – never a great romance, but a solid and mutual respect and understanding for each other’s much enjoyed company, camaraderie and craft. Never married in real life, Powell and Loy continue to be fondly remembered today as everyone’s favorite sleuthing duo – Nick and Nora Charles from MGM’s popular Thin Man series.

But apart from these six stellar films, it’s little wonder that MGM kept Powell and Loy in close proximity to one another on screen. They made 14 films together – 13 of which are now available on DVD – five in this TCM/Warner Home Video newly minted Myrna Loy and William Powell Collection.

This set effectively brings together 5 of the couple’s celebrated outings, beginning with their first film together: Manhattan Melodrama (1934). Unusual for the pair, they’re not married at the start of the film. Loy is Eleanor Packer, a fast talking, wry moll to Clark Gable’s carefree racketeer, Blackie Gallagher.

Eleanor is Blackie’s gal, preaching restraint and prudence for getting off the fast track to nowhere – a cause not embraced by her paramour. In mid-stride, Eleanor switches over to Blackie’s boyhood chum, James Wade (Powell), a self-made man who becomes New York’s DA and shortly thereafter pledges an end to organized crime.

The wrinkle in the story occurs when Blackie murders rival racketeer, Manny Arnold (Noel Madison) and accidentally leaves James’ coat (loaned to Eleanor after their first date) behind. Wade thinks he has the evidence required to arrest his old friend. But then Blackie’s stooge, Spud (Nate Pendelton) informs his boss that he’s had an exact copy of Wade’s coat made to order for a bait and switch.

Oliver Garrett’s screenplay may seem dated and cliché now, but in 1934 it was cutting edge – enough to earn an Oscar as Best Screenplay. In retrospect, I must confess that the serious undercurrent of this story slightly interfered with this reviewer’s overall enjoyment of the story – primarily because everyone seems to be working against type. Gable plays the villain of the piece – not its hero. Powell and Loy are not a couple yet and Asta isn’t even an afterthought. In reality, none of the film’s stars had yet to create their iconic reference points that audiences have since come to know and love.

Next in this collection is Evelyn Prentice (1934) – a superior thriller in which Loy is cast as the loveless spouse of the title. Her husband, attorney John (Powell) is a notorious womanizer whose latest fling involves Nancy Harrison (Rosalind Russell) – a client accused of murder. Jilted and in emotional distress, Evelyn takes up with writer Lawrence Kennard (Harvey Stephens). But the affair turns sour when Evelyn discovers that her lover will stop at nothing to extort money.

Panicked at the thought of surrendering her cushy lifestyle, Evelyn shoots Larry and runs away – realizing hours later that she has, in fact, killed him – and that another woman, Judith Wilson (Isabel Jewell) has been accused of the crime. To alleviate her guilt, Evelyn encourages John to take the case, hoping that his prowess in the court room will earn Judith an acquittal. But the facts are not stacked in her favor and, as the mood of the trial grows more ominous and dire, Evelyn finds herself considering her own confession to the crime.

Based on W.E. Woodward’s novel, the plot moves effortlessly, drawing us into Evelyn’s growing angst, its ‘crime doesn’t pay’ message neatly concealed behind stellar performances from all concerned.

The third film in this collection is also the first opportunity we get to experience Powell and Loy doing what they do best – romantic comedy. Double Wedding (1937) is a riotous catered affair; all about Waldo Beaver (John Beal) – engaged to the long suffering Irene Agnew (Florence Rice) for four years while residing at the home of her sister, Margit (Myrna Loy). Waldo’s a bit of a willy-nilly – a fact that does not sit well with Irene who desperately wants a he-man by her side.

To shake her fiancée from his complacency, Irene professes a grand love for trailer park Bohemian artist, Charlie Lodge (Powell). Naturally, Margit will have none of it. She is determined to see her sister’s happiness tied up with Waldo – whom she suspects is genuinely in love with her sister. Confronting Charlie about Irene’s interests, Margit discovers a new wrinkle; she too seems to be falling in love with him and this – inevitably (though not predictably) leads to a ‘double wedding.’ As Charlie harbors the same affections for Margit he sets about a new task; to transform Waldo into a man Irene can be proud to call her own.

Delightful, wacky and charming, Double Wedding is a gifted comedy transcribed for the screen by Jo Swerling from a play by Fernec Molnar. It sparkles with vintage kitsch and coo – the sort of good-time romantic comedy in short supply these days and a very welcomed addition to this set indeed.

Next up is the buoyant – often poignant - comedy of errors, I Love You Again (1940). Powell is cast as boring businessman, Lawrence Carey. While on a cruise with his old friend, Doc Ryan (Frank McHugh) he whacks his head, develops acute amnesia and is transformed into mean-spirited swindler George Carey. That would be enough of a premise for one Powell/Loy caper. But the plot only thickens from there.

Faking his identity and milking it for all its worth, George pretends to be Lawrence for the sake of his friends and family. The comedic coup de grace is that George realizes he is deeply in love (or, at least, lust) with his own wife, Kay (Loy) on the eve that she is to divorce him for Duke Sheldon (Edmund Lowe).

W.S. Van Dyke – who directed the pair in their most successful Thin Man movies, is once more in rare form on this outing, working out the romantic comedy kinks from a stellar screenplay by Charles Lederer, Harry Kurnitz and George Oppenheimer. Witty banter and a series of convoluted plot twists make the film a sparkling – if underrated – gem in the Powell/Loy canon.

And finally, there’s the delightfully unhinged, Love Crazy (1941); an absurdly premised good time chuckle that never fails to generate the hearty laugh. Powell and Loy are cast as idyllically married couple, Steve and Susan Ireland. But a note of suspicion is cast on Steve’s fidelity by busybody, Mrs. Cooper (Florence Bates) – a seemingly well intentioned indictment, especially when Susan catches Steve in a completely harmless – though, on the surface, compromising position with their neighbor’s wife, Isobel Grayson (Gail Patrick). To halt Susan’s divorce proceedings, Steve fakes insanity – a ploy that backfires when the judge hearing the case decides that Steve should be relegated to a mental institution for life!

The William Ludwig, David Hurtz, Charles Lederer screenplay plays fast and loose with mental illness (arguably, never a laughing matter), but populates the scenery with such a delightful bunch of crazies, that even most die-hard cynics will not be able to help themselves in this overwhelmingly hysterical outing.

The DVD transfers on these B&W films are, on the whole, quite solid – though not without a few oversights worth mentioning. The grayscale on all films has been impeccably rendered with a minimal amount of grain and age related artifacts. Contrast levels are accurate on all, except Manhattan Melodrama where they appear just a tad weaker than expected, though surely will not disappoint. Occasionally, the image quality can appear slightly soft on the aforementioned and also on Evelyn Prentice. But these are minor quibbling on an otherwise completely acceptable transfer. The best image quality in the bunch would be on I Love You Again and Love Crazy – if it were not for the excessive edge enhancement, aliasing and shimmering of fine details on the latter (only slightly on the former) that are quite distracting.

The audio on all films is mono, occasionally quite soft, almost inaudible, on Manhattan Melodrama, but presented at an adequate listening level on the rest of the discs. Extras are limited to audio only radio broadcasts, cartoons, short subjects and theatrical trailers.

One final omission worth noting – there is no chapter menu provided on any of these discs, though chapter stops have been haphazardly inserted (approximately 10 per film). For sheer entertainment value, this is a marvelous collection that should be added to your home library. One simply wishes that Warner Home Video would take more care in transferring their films minus these digital anomalies.
FILM RATING (out of 5 0 5 being the best)
Manhattan Melodrama 3.5
Evelyn Prentice 4
Double Wedding 4
I Love You Again 3.5
Love Crazy 4
VIDEO/AUDIO
Manhattan Melodrama 3
Evelyn Prentice 3.5
Double Wedding 3.5
I Love You Again 4
Love Crazy 2.5
EXTRAS
2