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

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

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