Tuesday, October 30, 2007

THE THREE STOOGES COLLECTION: VOL. ONE (Columbia 1934-'36) Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

The Three Stooges are an acquired taste – meaning, that to see them in all their spectacular insanity is to acquire an affinity for their misguided antics forever. Though it’s quite true that men tend to find Moe, Larry and Curly more amusing than women, there is little to deny that this trio of chuckleheads has left an indelible mark on the history of American comedy.

They began professionally as Ted Healy and His Stooges with a series of short subjects made at MGM, where they also made their feature film debut in Dancing Lady (1933) opposite Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. The act, however, wasn’t working. Healy was a control freak and the stooges were better off as a solo act. So, with a split from Healy and a change of venue to then ‘poverty row’ studio, Columbia – the newly inaugurated ‘Three Stooges’ embarked upon a prolific career with 200 shorts as connoisseurs of the slapstick – a reputation that has only grown since their deaths.

Ask most anyone to name their personal fav’ and ‘Curly’ usually gets the odds-on nod. It’s no wonder; since Sony’s newly released The Three Stooges Collection Vol. One 1934-1936 provides us with 19 nyuk-nyuks featuring that loveable bald guy – leering, laughing and lumping his way into our hearts. Some of the trios’ best work is represented in this 2-disc collector’s pack. Starting with the stooges’ first short for Columbia, the musical novelty – Woman Haters (1934), we get a chance to see the evolution of that inimitable branding. The boys play three jilted lovers who have officially sworn off the fairer sex. One problem – they all fall for the same dish who plays all three for suckers.

Moving along; a personal favorite – Punch Drunks (1934), the short in which Curly becomes a boxing powerhouse each time he hears Larry play ‘Pop Goes the Weasel.’ Men in Black (1934) finds the boys as three rejects from med’ school who practice their own variety of intensive care. The last of 1934’s offerings is Three Little Pigskins - the boys tackle the fifty yard line with hilarity and chutzpa.

1935 begins on a bright note with Horse Collars; the boys are a trio of detectives sent to collect an IOU from a ruthless killer. Restless Knights sets the boys in medieval England to protect the queen against palace intrigue. Next up, another personal favorite; Pop Goes the Easel; the boys hide out at an art studio and top off their stay with a gregarious clay fight. Uncivil Warriors sets the trio during the civil war as ‘intelligence’ experts who infiltrate the south to gather war secrets. Pardon My Scotch has the boys as bootleggers, inventing a new and very potent scotch to help ease the sting of prohibition. Hoi Polloi – another personal fav’ – the boys sent off to charm school by a millionaire who is convinced he can turn them into gentlemen. The last of 1935’s offerings is Three Little Beers – a riotous excursion into high society that ends with a calamitous golf match.

1936s’ roster includes Ants In the Pantry - the boys are exterminators who chase away more two-legged guests than four-legged pests; Movie Maniacs – the boys go to Hollywood; Half-Shot Shooters – some payback incured with an old army seargent; Disorder in the Court – a mockery of legelease; A Pain in the Pullman – most famous for the antics between Curly and a cantankerous monkey; False Alarms – the boys as half-witted firemen who start more fires than they put out; Whoops I’m An Indian! – roughing it in the wilderness; and finally: Slippery Silks – the stooges inherit a dress shop and turn high fashion into high-sterics! So much for the line up. What about the transfers?

THANK YOU, SONY! After having to endure the travesty of overpriced, colorized and un-restored countless reissues of the same old Stooges shorts presented out of sequence, Sony Pictures has finally issued a compendium of classics at a bargain basement price, in chronological order, and, remastered in high definition. Having been a victim of Sony’s faux advertising of ‘remastered in hi-def’ without the benefit of any digital restoration in the past, this reviewer frankly did not hold out much hope for this collection.

I am happy to report that not only has considerable work been done on these shorts, but that most look superior to anything consumers have yet seen from this vintage of Stooge Classics. The B&W picture elements are remarkably clean, smooth and solid with fine contrast levels and a minimum amount of grain and age related artifacts. Fine details are evident throughout. Blacks are generally deep. Whites are almost pristine. Occasionally, the image appears more grainy and less refined, but on the whole these lapses are brief and tolerable.

The one exception to this rule is ‘Whoops I’m An Indian!’ I suspect that the original negative for this short was not available since the image quality here seems to have been sourced from a print. The image is overly contrasted and fine details are lost in either extreme blacks or extreme whites. Process shots are very obvious and dirt, scratches and other age related artifacts are quite obvious. Judging by the rest of the work that has been done on this set, this reviewer suspects that Sony did the very best they could with limited archival materials on this short.

The audio on all is Mono as originally recorded. The only extras are a few trailers for upcoming DVD releases including Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Ray Harryhausen in Color (Oh, no! More colorization nonsense!). I suppose I could scold Sony for no documentary, audio commentaries or other goodies on the side – but frankly, I am thrilled that The Three Stooges have finally been paid their due with some quality DVD transfers.

Bottom line: highly recommended! ‘Why soit-ney! Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk!’
FILM RATING (out of five - five being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS
1

Friday, October 19, 2007

A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (Warner Brothers 1971) Warner Home Video

As they say, ‘timing is everything.’ In 1971, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange became the victim of ‘bad timing’ when a copycat crime in London’s west end sent the censors on a political witch-hunt and, for all intensive purposes, made Kubrick and his wife prisoners in their own home. They were the subject of repeated death threats. Eventually, all the bru-ha died off. In Britain, the film was eventually allowed into cinemas in 2000! However, removed from its negative publicity and hype, there is both a lot and a little to recommend A Clockwork Orange today.

Certainly, the film’s main theme of ‘controlling human behavior’ to the detriment of human beings remains as relative as ever in our progressively stifling pop culture. Yet, the film itself is very much a time capsule of London’s swinging mod scene turned under and ugly by a pseudo-fascist regime of politicos and police out to lynch, then convert a young man to the good – no matter the ultimate consequences.

Malcolm MacDowell stars as Alex de Large, a wayward youth who is jailed, then transformed through ‘aversion therapy’ and later pronounced ‘cured’ of his malignant behaviors by the powers in charge. He is given a new lease on life and released back into society. One problem: the society that spawned Alex’s delinquencies in the first place is also waiting for him to return to his old haunts when he gets out.

Unable to assimilate, Alex is shunned by family and friends and proclaimed a general outcast. After a near death experience, Alex reverts to his old ways. He joins a ruthless gang who delight in maiming, torturing, raping and murdering the respectable folk of London with great contempt, disdain and relish for the sychophantic thrill of the rush. Perhaps the most visceral repugnant of this latter slated debaucheries is when Alex and friends break into the home of a prolific author who is writing against aversion therapy. They bludgeon the man and his wife and generally have a good time with their bloody carnage.

All the power, shock and revulsion of these scenes were already inherent in Anthony Burgess’s original novel. Yet, it is seeing the acts come to life on the screen, in Kubrick’s unforgettable attack on the senses – his combination of providing the most jovial of atmospheric touches during some of the most socially aggressive and revolting acts of violence - that continues to make A Clockwork Orange utterly disturbing on a grand scale.

Brainwashing aside, the film is a bitter time capsule of social morays and vices made all the more acidic and disturbing by the fact that they seem to illustrate man’s basic enjoyment of the vulgar by creating a palpable time bomb into which the audience quickly discovers they are but merely incremental to an overwhelming and out of control powder keg.

Warner’s new 2-disc release of A Clockwork Orange improves upon the old release; anamorphic widescreen with more balanced and saturated colors. The overall image quality is a tad darker and softer than the previous release. There’s also a noticeably less amount of film grain on this transfer than the aforementioned single disc release.

In some scenes, discrepancies between transfers seems minimal at best, while at other instances there is a pronounced overall change to both hue, saturation and overall color fidelity. Fine details are evident throughout. Flesh tones continue to look a tad too orange for this critic’s preference. The new 5.1 Dolby Digital plays like a very obvious attempt at refurbishing an original mono mix for more contemporary listening palettes.

Extras include an extensive look back and ‘making of’ documentary that is quite thorough and fascinating as well as a career bio of Malcolm McDowell and an audio commentary with McDowell and film historian Nick Redman. Recommended.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
4

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

MICKEY ROONEY AND JUDY GARLAND COLLECTION (MGM 1939-43) Warner Home Video

The Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland Collection effectively brings together all 4 of the duos non-Andy Hardy musical excursions: Babes in Arms (1939), Strike Up The Band (1940), Babes on Broadway (1942) and Girl Crazy (1943); a filmic cornucopia of memorable songs and stunningly staged set pieces that effectively made Garland and Rooney the number one box office draw in America during the war years.

Suckled to MGM after his popularity at Warner Bros had begun to cool, choreographer Busby Berkeley graduated to full directorial duties. His promotion grated on Judy Garland’s fragile nerves and ego, and all but made each of their collaborative efforts an artistic nightmare to wade through behind the scenes.

Thankfully, none of this backstage tension materialized on the big screen. Instead, what transpires for the first time viewer is a colossal representation of musical movie perfection – a series that rank among the greatest offerings in the genre and with two of the biggest zeitgeists to ever hit Hollywood under a gale storm of truly awe inspiring professionalism. All of the films featured in this collection are suspiciously similar in plot: a bunch of amiable, ultra-talented ‘kids’ wanting to put on the biggest Broadway extravaganzas ever seen.

In Busby Berkeley’s Babes in Arms (1939), Mickey Moran (Rooney) is the son of a Vaudeville legend, Joe (Charles Winninger) who is down on his luck. Joe decides to take his act, and that of all the other aging Vaudevillians living in their small town, on the road much to the chagrin of local social services curmudgeon, Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton). Mickey is determined to prove to his father that the next generation of performers, embodied by himself and all the other offspring in town have more than enough talent, heart and know-how to see the future through.

Meanwhile, Mickey is in love with Patsy Barton (Garland), a winsome singer who envisions her name in electric lights right along side her boyfriend. Tragically, Ms. Steele has decided that Joe’s reinstatement of his act constitutes child abandonment, forcing Mickey and the gang into foster care.

Musical highlights include Garland’s ‘Hey-di Ho, Figaro’ and the extravagant finale, ‘God’s Country’ played out on a set built to resemble the Capital Building. Originally, Garland and Rooney were also scheduled to impersonated Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, but the sequence was cut at the last minute. Buoyant, fun-loving and ultimately boffo box office, Babes in Arms is five star musical entertainment of the best value – something subsequent films in this collection would continue to improve upon with all the glam and luster that MGM could muster.

Next up is Berkeley’s Strike Up The Band (1940) a rousing patriotic ‘big’ show with Rooney and Garland once again at the forefront of staging a grand finale to top anything yet seen from the studio that practically invented the concept of filmic grandeur. Rooney is James Connor, a gifted composer who sees potential in newcomer Mary Holden. The two rapidly establish a behind the scenes love affair that turns temporarily rancid when rival performer Barbara Morgan (June Preisser) almost steals the headlining spot and with it Connor’s heart.

There’s really not much more to the plot, though once again the top notch musical program easily makes up for narrative shortcomings. Garland and Rooney perform the enchanting ‘Our Love Affair.’ Rooney stages a ‘Gay Nineties’ revue that pokes fun at the simple cultured set from scarcely thirty years before. The finale – a reprised compendium of all the hit tunes is capped off by Strike Up The Band; as patriotic a send up as anything Hollywood en masse ever put forth with banners unfurled and flags waving proudly.

Berkeley’s Babes on Broadway (1942) is arguably the best film in the Rooney/Garland series. Mickey is aspiring Broadway impresario, Tommy Williams, part of a trio performing dinner theater in a basement spaghetti joint in New York City. Garland is his muse and leading lady, Penny Morris. Together, these two set out to concoct a show within a show that will leave the critics panting for more.

One problem: the same one as in the last two films…no money and no faith from the backers who might otherwise want to finance their dreams into reality. So, Tommy decides to stage a benefit concert to help raise awareness for his project and monies to send poor refugee kids from Europe on a two week excursion in the countryside. Unfortunately, there’s only enough cash raised for one venture and Tommy must decide – does his submarine his own chances for greatness, or run out on his obligations and with them, Penny’s patient understanding that he is a man of great heart and conviction. The musical program features Garland’s rousing ‘Chin Up, Cheerio, Carry On’, ‘How About You’ and the elephantine minstrel finale done in blackface.

*It would behoove the first time viewer of this last sequence to remember that ‘blackface’ was a form of entertainment popularized in the early 1900s that remained a fashionable main staple throughout most of the early 20th century. Though harshly judged by today’s standards as racist, the overall central purpose behind ‘blackface’ during its heyday was hardly an indictment on social issues – rather, an accepted and passable form of popular culture. The finale to Babes on Broadway should be taken and enjoyed in such a light.

The last film in this collection is also the one that effectively ended subsequent Berkeley’s collaborations with Garland: Girl Crazy (1943). Reportedly, Garland – already heavily dependent on studio sanctioned pills – suffered an emotional and physical collapse under Berkeley’s duress while filming the climactic ‘I’ve Got Rhythm’ dude ranch finale, forcing MGM to remove Berkeley from the director’s chair and replace him with the more compassionate Norman Taurog.

Based on the popular Broadway show, this one stars Rooney as spoiled rich playboy, Danny Churchill. Concerned over his son’s penchant for wine and women, Danny’s dad bundles him off to an all-male college that also functions as a western dude ranch – where men are men and women are glad of it. At least, that’s how Danny perceives his initial encounter with the dean’s luscious daughter, Ginger Gray (Garland). But Ginger is far from impressed with Danny’s usual shtick. Fortunately for all, her heart gradually melts like butter amidst a flurry of misconceptions that threaten to tear the young lovers apart. The film is most notable for its score, featuring the playful, ‘Biding My Time’, the romantic ‘Embraceable You’, the lovelorn ‘But Not For Me’ and its’ riotous and noisy finale.

When the Rooney/Garland formula dissolved after Girl Crazy, Garland moved on to bigger – though arguably and with very few exceptions (Meet Me In St. Louis 1944 and A Star Is Born 1954 not withstanding) – not better films at MGM and elsewhere. Tragically, Rooney quickly found that his maturity in years precluded audience believability in more of his simple teenage fluff derived from the Andy Hardy series. Both performers would ultimately continue to enchant audiences to varying degrees and in various mediums (television/stage/screen) during the subsequent decades. But for this reviewer’s money – there will never be anything quite to top the four films featured in this memorable box set.

Warner Home Video provides us with adequate, but not exceptional transfers of all the films in this collection; the best looking being Babes on Broadway; the worst – Girl Crazy. Overall, the B&W image has an acceptable gray scale with nice contrasts and overall sharpness. The image is pervasively softer than usual on Babes in Arms and appears a tad harsh on Strike Up The Band and Girl Crazy.

Age related artifacts are present on all titles, most obviously on Babes in Arms. Grain is also present. There is a hint of digital artifacts including edge enhancement on Babes in Arms and pixelization on Girl Crazy. None of the titles will disappoint but more could have and should have been done to make the picture elements as smooth as possible. The audio on all films is mono but quite nicely represented at an adequate listening level.

Extras are more plentiful than expected. In addition to Warner Home Video’s usual litany of unrelated short subjects, cartoons, trailers and specialties, there’s also a running audio commentary by Garland biographer, John Fricke on Babes in Arms and a brief introduction to all the other films provided by Mickey Rooney. A bonus disc contains TCM host Robert Osborne’s 1996 interview with Rooney and a joyous collection of 21 musical moments from other Garland musicals. There’s also a gatefold with 20 high quality photos and a rather thick commemorative booklet to peruse through. Recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Babes in Arms 3.5
Strike Up the Band 3.5
Babes on Broadway 4
Girl Crazy 3

VIDEO/AUDIO
Babes in Arms 3
Strike Up The Band 3.5
Babes on Broadway 3.5
Girl Crazy 3

EXTRAS
4

THE ISLAND (Dreamworks/Warner Bros. 2005) Warner Home Video

Under the old adage that ‘everyone has a twin somewhere in the world,’ director Michael Bay’s The Island (2005) is atypical sci-fi action/melodrama ripped from the pages of embryonic stem cell research gone horrible awry. In this pseudo-Hitlarian futurist utopia, rich people have given the power and the right to clone copies of themselves expressly for the use as ‘spare parts’ to an oligarchic scientist, Merrick (Sean Bean).

Unbeknownst to the clones, they are being bred for ‘harvesting’ at some future stage in their developmental research. The remoteness of the institute – buried deep beneath the red earth of New Mexico - is enough to convince the clones that they are living in a virtual and all inclusive paradise removed from the rest of the world which has been contaminated in nuclear fallout.

Ewan McGregor stars as Lincoln ‘Six’ Echo, the clone of Tom Lincoln (also played by McGregor). ‘Six’ is in love with another clone, Jordan ‘Two’ Delta (Scarlett Johansson). However, when Jordon wins the institute’s ‘lottery’ – that is to say, she is being recalled by her human counterpart Sarah Jordon for harvesting – Lincoln becomes suspicious. After all, none of the previous ‘winners’ ever returned from the island to tell their tale.

Lincoln employs the help of another resident, McCord (Steve Buscemi) to investigate the mystery behind the island. Learning the truth, Lincoln is tagged for immediate extermination by Merrick. But he escapes with Jordon into the shocking ‘reality’ of life circa 2019 – not all that more progressive than life circa 2007, but ultimately just as unsettling.

Falling somewhere between The Matrix and Minority Report, the rest of Bay’s excursion quickly degenerates into his predictable and formulaic ‘us versus them’ chase scenario (seen in The Rock, Con Air, et al). Lincoln and Jordon are stalked at every turn by unrelenting Albert Laurent (Djimon Houdsou) and his not so merry band of hit men. Throughout, the film’s visuals are highly stylized and blessed by digital manipulations that are clever, quirky and perhaps more than a hint telling into the future of our own society.

Bay’s forte, as he’s clearly proven in countless filmic outings of yore, is action. The Island has some of the most breathtaking high stakes adventure sequences ever filmed, and yet, there is an overriding sense of ennui – a very obvious realization for the viewer that what we are seeing has already been done before.

Ewan McGregor is an amiable hero for this un-heroic age; penchulantly suave and deviously threatening. Scarlett Johansson does her best to appear shell-shocked and demure while scaling tall buildings a la Laura Croft Tomb Raider-style and firing rounds of metal nails into potential attackers. Once more, Sean Bean’s baddie is the most appealing of the lot – a very palpable personification of a man with no soul. Buscemi sleepwalks through his part.

In the final analysis, The Island isn’t ‘bad’ entertainment – it’s just not as terribly original as one might expect.

In keeping with the original stylized color palette of the theatrical presentation, Dreamworks DVD delivers a solid anamorphic transfer with eye popping colors. Flesh tones are either saturated orange or cool blue. Fine detail is evident throughout. Occasionally, digital artifacts are obvious, but overall, this is a transfer that will surely not disappoint. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and aggressive, delivering a deep sonic bass and kick to all speakers. Extras include a brief and superficial ‘making of’ featurette and an audio commentary from Bay that rather meanders and contains some long pauses throughout.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
3

DOLORES CLAIBORNE (Castlerock Entertainment 1995) Warner Home Video

Based on Stephen King’s dark and brooding tale of mystery and suspense, Taylor Hackford’s Dolores Claiborne (1995) is a pensive – if understated - minor masterpiece. The film stars Kathy Bates as a woman who may or may not have killed her husband Joe (David Strathairn) many years before. Dolores is currently accused of murdering her former employer, Vera Donovan (Judy Parfitt) by pushing the wheelchair bound invalid down a flight of stairs at her Cape Cod home. To be certain, Dolores is a bitter recluse – a woman scorned and a battered soul…but is she really a villain?

Having investigated Joe’s death years before, detective John McKey (Christopher Plummer) finds Dolores’ current actions and behavior contemptible. In point of fact, Dolores neither delights in baiting John’s inquiries nor confessing her innocence against insurmountable evidence to the contrary. Never mind that the burden of proof has yet to be met or motive firmly established for either crime. Dolores has been convicted in the court of public opinion. Even her own estranged daughter, Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has her misgivings about letting Dolores come too close to her heart.

Nova Scotia substitutes for the film’s Maine locations, capturing the rustic stark coastal beauty in a decidedly dour hue of dark blues and complimentary depressing grays. But the real story is in the finely wrought threads of Tony Gilroy’s quiet and methodical screenplay. In an era of ‘in your face’ thrillers fraught with blood and guts violence, Dolores Claiborne is a remarkably restrained and stylish mystery that gradually unravels for the audience under Hackford’s skilled directorial guidance. As the audience, and through Bates’ formidable portrayal, we get to know Dolores from the inside out – gradually peeling back the layers of innuendo and rumor to the bare, solid and unapologetic truth.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is just below par in terms of image quality. The anamorphic widescreen picture exhibits a slightly grainy patina. Overall, colors are nicely rendered, with subdued flesh tones. Deep blacks and relatively clean whites compliment an adequate contrast level. Fine details are evident throughout. More grain and some digital artifacts intrude, but nothing that will terrible distract. A hint of edge enhancement and pixelization are also present. The audio is 5.1 and quite effectively rendered with subtle nuances in the sound field even during quiescent scenes. The only extra is the film’s original theatrical trailer.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
1

THE PALM BEACH STORY (Paramount 1942) Universal Home Entertainment

Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story (1942) is one of those gloriously idiotic comedies that no one in their right mind is expected to take seriously, yet put together and pulled off with such panache from its five star cast that no one can fall far from its miraculous screwball spell. Claudette Colbert stars as Geraldine Jeffers, the devoted wife of Tom (Joel McCrea), a budding young architect. The couple are about to lose their fashionable apartment when a chance meeting with the Wienie King (Robert Dudley), an old time millionaire with an eye and penchant for the ladies, saves the day.

Wienie convinces Geraldine that both she and Tom would have a much greater chance for success if they divorced; each pursuing the path of money their separate ways. Tom refuses. After all, he’s desperately in love with his wife. To save him from making a big mistake with his life, Geraldine runs out on him, taking a fast train to Miami where she is determined to land herself a millionaire.

However, after being unceremoniously evicted from her upper birth, Geraldine finds John D. Hackensacker III (Rudy Vallee) the bookish heir to a fortune and his more flamboyant sister, The Princess Centimillia (Mary Astor) – a scatterbrain divorcee looking for romance number three. Eventually, Tom learns of Geraldine’s whereabouts and crashes her lovely affair with Hacksacker, before falling prey to Centimillia’s ludicrous advances.

Aside: in real life, Astor was a bit of a daring playgirl herself – her scandalous diaries becoming public knowledge at a time when demure prudence was the more expected commodity from women. Hence, Centimillia must have afforded the actress one of the best opportunities to indulge her real self into a fictional character.

As with all Sturges’ comedies, the end destination to all this hoopla is not nearly as important as the journey we take to get there, and The Palm Beach Story is one hell of a comedic ride. The cast is undeniably having a blast going through their motions. Whether its Geraldine having to dodge the increasingly drunken members of the Ale and Quail Lodge within the confined spaces of a speeding train, or Centimillia’s repeated thwarting of her lover, the pint-sized lothario, Toto’s (Sig Arno) advances, Sturges’ script indulges playful dithering at every turn – some of it advancing the plot, most of it merely offering us a good time. In the end, there’s an increasing admiration for the film’s harebrain charm – as flimsy and wobbling as Jell-O but just as slippery and delicious to get down.

The Palm Beach Story is sold, both as a single disc and as part of Universal Home Video’s The Preston Sturges Collection. The DVD transfers are virtually identical – full frame, generally smooth with a nicely contrasted gray scale and minor hints of grain and age related artifacts spread throughout, though the latter compilation is preferred, since you also get five other Sturges classics for under $70! The audio is mono but adequate for this otherwise ‘talkative’ talkie. There are NO extras in either incarnation.
Recommended.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
0