Sunday, November 25, 2007

THE VERDICT (20th Century Fox 1982) Fox Home Video

In retrospect, Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982) is a somewhat predictable, yet understated court room experience that attains its high stakes drama solely through an audience’s investment in the main character, Frank Galvin (Paul Newman). Originally intended as a vehicle for Robert Redford, David Mamet’s screenplay stayed so relatively subdued and faithful to Barry Reed’s novel that Redford eventually bowed out of the prospect of playing a ‘has been’ alcoholic.

Plot wise: Attorney Frank Gavin has hit rock bottom. A one time hot shot reduced to ambulance chasing and peddling his wares inside funeral homes until he gets kicked out, Frank also indulges in pinball and binges at his local pub in Boston. His biggest thrill now is picking up one night stands.

Frank’s colleague and mentor, Mickey Morrissey (Jack Warden) is also his most devoted friend. He believes in Frank even when Frank doesn’t in himself. After Frank is approached by Sally Doneghy (Roxanne Hart) and her husband, Kevin (James Hardy) about a case involving medical negligence and malpractice, Frank decides to pull himself up by his bootstraps and take on a trio of reputable surgeons at a noted hospital.

However, Frank’s biggest opposition proves to be defense counsel, Ed Concannon (James Mason, in his final film role) – a wily old man who knows the law like the back of his hand and is not afraid to use any tactic necessary to win his case. To this end, Concannon befriends the presiding judge, Hoyle (Milo O’Shea) – who also has a more personal agenda against Gavin.

Concannon also assigns a spy, Laura Fischer (Charlotte Rampling) to seduce Frank in between alcoholic bouts and bleed him for information about the case. Frank’s eventual discovery of her treachery leads to one of the film’s most memorable confrontations. Hampered by ineffectual witnesses and a failure to locate the admitting nurse, Kaitlin Costello (Lindsay Crouse), Frank goes to trial with the barest of essentials – a fighting will and understanding heart – all the while harboring the deep suspicion that he will lose his case in the end.

Director Sidney Lumet is dealing with relatively standard material here. In retrospect, the film plays like a glorified episode of Law & Order with sustained and methodical pacing. At times, Mamet’s screenplay seems to be struggling for something to say. Then again, The Verdict is hardly a film noted for either its last act crescendo or narrative twists.

What remains compelling and sustaining throughout are the performances; most notably delivered by Paul Newman, James Mason and Jack Warden. All three men are functioning at superlative levels with Newman’s laconic loner dominating every frame. Mason’s seasoned neuroticism is diabolically on point. Warden does ‘his pal Friday’ proud. The Verdict may not be a film you’ll remember for story, but it certainly stands out as an actor’s dream.

Fox’s Special Edition DVD is an improvement in image quality over their standard release. Though digital artifacts and film grain remain prominent and add a distracting texture to the visuals during several key sequences, the overall image quality is one of refined and desaturated intensity. Flesh tones are slightly too orange at times. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are bright, but not blooming. Fine details are nicely realized in close ups, though more problematic in long and medium shots. There are several scenes that exhibit more age related damage than one might expect. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 Dolby Digital and is presented at an adequate listening level.

Extras include an audio commentary from Lumet and Newman that is rambling in spots; three featurettes on various aspects of the film’s construction and shaping; and the original theatrical trailer.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
3.5

THE DIRTY DOZEN (MGM 1967) Warner Home Video

Based on E.M. Nathanson’s scathing examination of military decorum, Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) is a provocative war movie set in the last glory days of espionage in 1944. The film stars Lee Marvin as Maj. Reisman. To his superiors, Reisman is a wild card. In point of fact, he’s insubordinate, smart mouthed and utterly disdainful of the military’s handling of localized covert operations. Major Armbruster (George Kennedy) advises Reisman against ruffling the army’s feathers any more with his own smug superiority, but Reisman simply doesn’t give a damn. In fact, in seeing through his commanders’ hidden agendas, he fails to realize just how much of an expendable threat they consider him to be.

General Worden (Ernest Borgnine) knows all of this too well. In fact, he’s received reports from Reisman’s acting superior, Colonel Everett Dasher Breed (Robert Ryan), that have Reisman pegged for a swift court marshal…that is, if he survives his latest mission.

Instead, Worden orders Reisman to an unthinkable task – find twelve soldiers convicted to hang, train them and set them loose on a nest of Nazis conducting secret military operations inside a remote chateau behind enemy lines. To be certain, Reisman has his work cut out for him. The ‘trainees’ assigned range from petty criminal and cheap crook, Victor Franko (John Cassavetes) to Bible thumping rapist, Archer Maggott (Telly Savalas).

The rest of Reisman’s motley crew is rounded out by a stellar cast including Charles Bronson (as the defiant, Joseph Wladislaw), Clint Walker (muscle bound, Samson Posey), Donald Sutherland (sycophant Vernon Pinkley), Jim Brown (scheming Robert Jefferson) and Trini Lopez (Pedro Jiminez). Reportedly, Lopez’ agent asked for more money midway through filming, necessitating Aldrich writing the actor out of the story earlier than originally intended.

What is unique and compelling about the film today is not the mission itself; though the finale remains an impressive sequence of mass devastation and carnage. Aside: reportedly the chateau, as built by art director William Hutchinson on MGM’s back lot was so massive and well constructed that it would have required 70 tons of explosives to destroy. Instead, Hutchinson built a faux front identical to the actual structure, made from more easily destroyed cork and plastic for the climactic sequence.

There are many war movies that treat their protagonists as little more than stick men falling to either the right or left of that traditional G.I. Joe center. The Dirty Dozen takes no such back road and the results remain as one of the best and most fondly remembered war movies ever made.The intense character study continues to stand up. Reisman’s dirty dozen are indeed a pack of raving psychotics. It would have been so easy to lump them together as cardboard cutouts without delineating any of their individual back stories.

Instead, Nunnally Johnson’s impeccable screenplay provides a serious, often thought provoking deconstruction of each character’s internal make up. As an audience, we get to know these men intimately; learn their strengths, weaknesses and overriding arch of flawed behavior that will ultimately lead to each man’s undoing before the final reel.

Given the film’s significance, Warner Home Video’s 2 disc incarnation is a very palpable disappointment; at least from a visual standpoint. The Dirty Dozen falls into a gray area of photochemical color processes that began with the introduction of Eastman and AnscoColor film stocks in the mid-fifties that continued to be used during the mid-60s. These dyes proved highly unstable and showed significant signs of fading even three to five years after the films were produced.

All the more reason then that Warner Home Video ought to have undertaken a complete video restoration of the image for this DVD re-release. Image quality is a marginal improvement at best over the previously released single disc treatment. Color fidelity varies greatly from scene to scene and, in some cases, from shot to shot.

Flesh tones are either a garish pink or ruddy orange. Many scenes adopt either an overly green or overly brown tonal quality. Contrast levels appear weaker than expected. Blacks are more a deep brown. Whites are yellowish and dull. Some scenes are very softly focused and blurry while many remain relatively sharp and appealing with a considerable amount of fine detail present. There is a significant and occasionally distracting amount of grain and digital grit present in this image. Age related artifacts are also quite obvious.

The audio is a 5.1 Dolby Digital remix of the original mono – adequately represented during dialogue scenes but sounding quite strident in its sound effects tracks. Extras on disc 2 are of an impressive array that even Warner Home Video has rarely afforded its deluxe 2, 3 and 4 disc editions. We get a definitive history of the film; a behind the scenes look at most of the actors involved in bringing this project to life; afterthoughts and retrospectives on the production; stills; an audio commentary and the original theatrical trailer. Impressive accoutrements: a pity the film itself does not live up to them.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
4

ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS/MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS (Universal 1969/71) Universal Home Video

Based on Maxwell Anderson’s magnificent stage spectacle, Charles Jarrott’s Anne of the Thousand Days (1969) is a visceral and compelling Tudor melodrama about King Henry VIII’s mad obsession to produce the next heir of England. Deriving its name from the brief span in which Anne Boleyn became Queen of England – then lost her head - the play debuted on Broadway in 1948 with no less a formidable Henry than actor Rex Harrison. Running 288 performances to rave reviews, the filmic adaptation had to be postponed repeatedly until Hollywood’s self imposed code of ethics had sufficiently lapsed, allowing the movie to explore those more seedy sidelines of royal intrigue, incest and adultery.

The film opens on the twilight of Henry’s marriage to Queen Katharine of Aragon (Irene Papas). Originally an affair of state, the marriage was thrust upon Henry (Richard Burton) by his father to secure an alliance between England and Spain. However, Katharine has been unable to bear Henry a son. At court, Henry eyes the young maiden, Anne Boleyn (Genevieve Bujold). But his dalliances with Anne’s older sister, Mary (Valerie Gearon) have toughened her resolve. Apart from her obvious disdain for a man who would impregnate one woman while still married to another, Anne is in love with Lord Percy (Terrence Wilton).

But their love match is thwarted when Henry denies his blessing, and furthermore uses his influence to command Cardinal Wolsey (Anthony Quayle) to separate Anne and Percy so that he may pursue her instead. Eventually, Anne agrees to marry the King, though not without conflict. She does indeed give birth to the King’s future heir – Elizabeth; a bitter pill for Henry to swallow and made even more rancid when their second child – a son – is stillborn.

Producer Hal B. Wallis delivers a formidable – if lengthy – filmic feast. By far, Burton’s Henry is the most flawed and human of all movie incarnations, revealing a fallible and tragic side. He is superb, but the acting kudos on this occasion belong squarely to Genevieve Bujold who delivers a wholly captivating performance as the woman who would dominate and change the future course of England’s history.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1971) charts the rise of Mary Stuart; the last Roman Catholic ruler of Scotland. The only legitimate child of James V, Mary becomes the wife of the dauphin Francis (Richard Denning) who dies tragically in a riding accident. Encouraged to return to her native Scotland as the undisputed monarch, Mary is denied passport through England by Elizabeth (Glenda Jackson). Elizabeth further orders Mary's sailing vessel observed.

Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, including a minor revolution and constant threats of death, Mary manages to maintain her faith while attempting to unite her country and restore it to prosperity. She is hampered in her efforts on all fronts by a growing roster of false friends, as well as her own utterly bad judge in choosing male advisers. To this end, Mary falls madly and marries Lord Henry Darnley (Timothy Dalton), the great-grandson of England’s Henry VII.

But her marriage is hardly ideal, especially as Darnley’s jealousy mounts against David Rizzio (Ian Holm); her trusted foreign correspondent. Eventually, Darnley makes a prisoner of his wife, who manages to escape a fate worse than death, only to be thrust into an even more abusive relationship with James Hepburn; the Earl of Bothwell (Nigel Davenport).

Once again, producer Hal. B. Wallis and director Charles Jarrott recant us with tales of palace espionage. However, even at its lengthy running time, and with so much intrigue to contend with, the film seems pressed for time. The sets and costumes are first rate – but the acting is secondary to both. Redgrave is an ample Mary, as is Jackson’s turn as Elizabeth. Their confrontations are the best and most enduring aspect about the film. For the rest, this is a mostly glossy and not very compelling melodrama that truncates history and speeds through pivotal events that really deserve more of our time and attention.

Universal Home Video has made a 2-disc collector’s set of both movies. Image quality on each transfer is uniform for the most part – save one discrepancy on Anne of the Thousand Days to be discussed in a moment.

On both transfers color fidelity has been nicely preserved. Colors are rich and vibrant. Flesh tones have a very natural appearance. There is a good amount of fine detail available for a generally smooth and pleasing presentation throughout. Contrast levels seem bang on with deep blacks and clean whites. Occasionally, age related artifacts are present, but do not distract. The audio on both is 5.1 Dolby Digital and well represented with a very aggressive spread during music and effects. Dialogue is very natural sounding.

Now, for the discrepancy: on Anne of a Thousand Days there are several brief sequences in which the image jerks horizontally. During these moments, the image is highly unstable and riddled with an excessive amount of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. The ‘jerking’ motion is probably due to sprocket hole damage inherent in the original camera negative. But the digital artifacts are entirely unacceptable and quite distracting. Overall, then, this DVD is a worthwhile purchase for its content – not its presentation.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Anne of the Thousand Days - 4
Mary Queen of Scots - 3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
Anne of the Thousand Days - 3
Mary Queen of Scots - 3.5

EXTRAS
1

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

HAIRSPRAY: Blu-ray (New Line Cinema/Alliance 2007) Alliance Home Entertainment

Adam Shankman’s Hairspray (2007) is an irreverent clash-back to the exuberant late fifties that never were. Based on John Waters’ 1988 film and, more directly, the Broadway musical it spawned, this film is a high octane, ultra-star powered frenetic feel good blast of toe-tapping electricity. Bursting with one infectious tune after the next (Good Morning Baltimore, I Can Hear The Bells, There’s A Light in the Darkness), Hairspray owes much more to the pop operas of Andrew Lloyd Webber than the classic Hollywood film musical. Indeed, there is very little exposition sandwiched between the songs – a circumstance that can get just a tad oppressive mid-way through one’s viewing experience.


The story begins with Nikki Blonsky (in her film debut) as irrepressibly optimistic, Tracy Turnblad – a hefty chunk of a girl who doesn’t let what others think dictate her life. Tracy’s mad obsession with the local Corny Collins Show (an obvious rip-off of American Bandstand) leads to her auditioning as a replacement after one of the dancers becomes pregnant. The show’s host (James Marsden) keeps an open mind. But its’ producer, libidinous racist Velma Von Tussle (Michelle Pfeiffer) is determined to keep ‘fat’ girls off the air – especially when Tracy proves to be a real threat to her own daughter, Amber (Brittany Snow) winning the local 'Ultra Clutch' high hair competition.


Initially, Tracy’s mother, Edna (John Travolta), a weighty gal herself and somewhat embittered cynic, is all too quick to discount Tracy’s dream. But then, the unexpected happens. Tracy wins the role as a replacement dancer – no small thanks to her instructor and friend, Seaweed (Elijah Kelley) – a non-Caucasian who is only allowed to dance on The Corny Collins Show on Negro Day.


Overnight, Tracy becomes a local celebrity – a status that infuriates Velma and sponsor, Mr. Spritzer (Paul Dooley), neither of which supports integration between blacks and whites on the show. In the meantime, Mr. Pinky (Jerry Stiller) the proprietor of the Hefty Hideaway fashion emporium, transforms both Edna and Tracy into glittery paragons for his own ‘fat is beautiful’ marketing campaign. But Tracy’s popularity throws a real crimp into Amber’s lust for heartthrob and fellow dancer, Link Larkin (Zac Efron), who very quickly realizes that there is so much more to Tracy than meets the eye.


Beneath its mindless froth and hit tunes, Hairspray attempts to be a message movie about racial intolerance. But this really isn’t a message movie; more of a quaint and quaffed look back at that junction in American history when the status quo was tested and the times began to change.


Christopher Walken makes the most from his minor role as Tracy’s eternally optimistic father, Wilbur – despite being trapped in a dead end job and almost accused of marital infidelity under false pretenses after Velma tries to wreck Tracy’s home life by seducing him. Queen Latifah sells her wares as Motormouth Maybelle - the Corny Collin's co-host on Negro Day. Director/writer of the original film, John Waters also makes a cameo appearance early on as a flasher. 


The cast is imbued with a sparkling zest for the material – particularly Blonsky who – with a simple wave of her chubby fingers - actually makes ‘fat’ all that. There may be better musicals out there, but Hairspray wins its audience on the merit that it’s having a darn good time being outspokenly funny. That exuberance easily translates to taking the rest of the audience along for the ride.


Alliance Home Video's Blu-ray is definitely a step up from their DVD. The image exhibits exemplary quality. Colors are bold, rich and fully saturated. Flesh tones are very natural. Contrast levels are bang on; blacks are deep and solid; whites pristine. Details pop as they ought in 1080p. The audio is 5.1 DTS and is a real powerhouse.


Extras include several featurettes on the making of the movie, outtakes, interviews and an audio commentary track. Bottom line: highly recommended!


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

VIDEO/AUDIO
5

EXTRAS
3

FLOWER DRUM SONG (Universal 1961) Universal Home Video

Henry Koster’s Flower Drum Song (1961) is perhaps the least known of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s stage to film adaptations. Based on the serious novel by C.Y. Lee, the story’s social premise appealed to Broadway producer Joseph Fields who convinced R&H to have a look at the property. Reportedly, Lee sold the story to Fields for $3000 and a percentage of the gross – a very savvy move when the Broadway show went on to become a stunning success.

Given that four other R&H Broadway smashes had already made it to the big screen, it was inevitable that Hollywood would eventually acquire the rights. Billed as ‘the most romantic musical’, and well received at the time of its release, today the film is a rather stoic and often overly sentimental comedy of errors that makes more stereotype than sushi of its Asian American actors.

The film stars Miyoshi Umeki as Mei Li, a Chinese refugee smuggled to San Francisco with her father (Kam Tong) aboard a freighter. Once docked in the harbor, Mei performs ‘flower drum songs’ in the street while seeking out her 'picture husband', Sammy Fong (Jack Soo). Fong is the proprietor of a ritzy nightclub; the Celestial Gardens in old Chinatown. Currently, his headline act is the sultry dancer, Linda Low (Nancy Kwan) who has been engaged to Fong for the last five years but is increasing growing impatient with the stalemate in their affair.

To ease the tension and make Sammy jealous, Linda takes up with Wang Ta (James Shigeta); the eldest son of a local merchant, Wang Chi-Yang (Benson Fong) who clings to the ‘old ways’ and will not see his first born marry into crass commercialism. Meanwhile, Sammy has a plan of his own. To thwart his own marriage to Mei Li, Sammy delivers her to Wang’s home as a suitable prospect for Ta. The third wheel in Ta’s romantic life is Helen Chao (Reiko Sato), a dress maker who seems the most ideally suited to his manner and temperament.

The irony of the story is that after establishing Helen’s character as the perfect match for Ta’s affections, the plot jettisons her in favor of concocting an awkward set of events that lead Ta into Mei Li’s arms. In C.Y. Lee’s novel, Helen commits suicide after learning that Ta will marry Mei – a gruesome finale averted in both the stage and screen versions by simply excising Helen from the story all together.

The score, as with most R&H offerings, is first rate including the now classic ‘I Enjoy Being a Girl’, the haunting ‘A Hundred Million Miracles’ and the gregarious ‘Chop Suey.’ Producer Ross Hunter delivers a fairly inviting bauble immeasurably fleshed out by Irene Sharaff’s stunning costumes, Howard Bristol’s magnificent set design and Russell Metty’s evocative cinematography that captures all the gaudy glitz and tea light warmth of old Chinatown. If there is any fault in the piece, it belongs to Koster’s rather pedestrian direction that creates a rather stagy proscenium during several of the dance sequences – leaving too much space between the audience and the actors to either create or maintain overall intimacy that, on the whole, seems lacking.

Universal Home Video’s DVD transfer is, on the whole, an adequate presentation – though not without its flaws. Colors are generally bold, vibrant and nicely balanced. Archival establishing shots on location in San Francisco exhibit more film grain than one might expect, as do the matte process shots employed for a bit of film trickery during the number ‘I Enjoy Being a Girl.’

There’s also a considerable amount of image flicker during this song. For the rest, flesh tones appear much too orange. Contrast levels have been nicely rendered. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites however are almost always slightly blue or yellow. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 Dolby Digital with an uncharacteristic spread across all channels.

Universal Home Video has really gone to town on this catalogue title, producing a litany of informative extras worthy of the source material. There are 5 featurettes covering virtually any and all aspects of the production with interviews from surviving cast and crew and an audio commentary by Nancy Kwan and film historian Nick Redman that is quite interesting. Bottom line: recommended.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
4

JAILHOUSE ROCK: DELUXE EDITION (MGM 1957) Warner Home Video

Falling somewhere between quaint urban putty and certified classic, Richard Thorpe’s Jailhouse Rock (1957) is a minor milestone amongst film musicals. A showcase for the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley (Elvis had made only two films at this point in his career – neither in his natural setting as a pop tune icon), Jailhouse Rock provided audiences with the first filmic example of Presley’s innate gift for hard hitting musical exposition. Indeed, this was the first time that any film had been crafted around the enigma of that fledgling ‘new’ form in song and dance.

Presley is Vince Everett, a reprobate who lives hard and takes what he wants. But after a brawl in a local night spot leads to his incarceration, Vince is taken under the wing of fellow cellmate, Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy). A former country singer, Hunk educates Vince in the power and prestige of music – a lesson earned and learned well when, upon his release, Vince meets society belle, Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler) and thrills her with his pipes. Peggy’s connections eventually lead to record producer, Teddy Talbot (Dean Jones), who wastes no time in exploiting Vince’s ‘new’ sound to make him one of the most popular voices in the business.

Unfortunately, Vince has yet to learn that humility and fame ought to go hand in hand. He alienates Peggy at a social gathering and all but wrecks his free ride to fortune after getting involved in yet another skirmish that could cost him his career.

Today, save Elvis’ hip swiveling and raw outpouring of gritty emotion during the title song, the film seems utterly tame. There’s not much to the story, though it clings together nicely enough, thanks to five more tunes that Presley managed to make instant gold records on the hit parade.

From a remastering standpoint, Warner Home Video’s re-release of this catalogue title is a welcome edition to anyone’s DVD library. The anamorphic enhanced B&W image exhibits exemplary fidelity in all aspects. The grayscale is superbly rendered. Whites are clean. Blacks are deep and smooth. Fine detail is evident throughout. There are no age related artifacts and only a minor hint of grain suggested for a smooth as silk video presentation. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 Dolby Digital, but apart from the songs, exhibits a very obvious mono characteristic.

This critic is genuinely at a loss to explain what constitutes a Deluxe Edition in the eyes of Warner executives. The Canadian edition is not a double, but rather single disc incarnation that has an all too brief featurette critiquing the title number and an audio commentary to its credit. Disappointing for a Deluxe Edition to say the least. Bottom line: recommended.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5

EXTRAS
2

Saturday, November 17, 2007

THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (20th Century Fox 1953) Fox Home Video

Richard Sale’s The Girl Next Door (1953) is a rather bizarrely amusing claptrap of oddities that comes together in a practically delightful way. The film stars resident Fox rival blonde to Betty Grable – June Haver (in her last screen appearance) as Jeannie Laird; a superficial nightclub chanteuse who buys her first home in the glamorous foothills of an isolated community, then rants and reels at her neighbors, cartoonist and single father, Bill Carter (Dan Dailey) and his ten year old precocious son, Joe.

The absurdity is that Jeannie quickly becomes fixated on Bill as a potential beau – a move that sticks in Joe’s craw. You see, Joe has become used to the ‘father/son’ routine and sees Jeannie as a definite threat to his monopoly on dad’s time and friendship.

As Jeannie and Bill’s romance heats up Bill cancels a retreat he planned for Joe – a move which prompts Joe to write his father’s paper and claim that his popular cartoon strip is not legitimate since it depicts an idyllic father/son who go fishing in Canada – something Bill and Joe did not do.

There are some delightful moments to be had in this otherwise conventionally small musical offering from 20th Century-Fox. On the plus side: The ‘Nowhere Man’ ballet is an overblown film noir regurgitation of MGM’s Girl Hunt ballet from The Band Wagon (1953) but interesting for its psychological underpinnings. In it Bill, who is observing the ballet from his front row seat at the nightclub where Jeannie is performing, projects his overly protective male machismo into the sequence. He becomes a sort of blithe spirit of the ‘Johnny Dollar’ detective serial – rescuing Jeannie from rival pawing cads.

There’s also Bill and Joe’s delightful dish throwing dance routine to the confirmed bachelor song, ‘I’d Rather Have A Pal Than A Gal.’ On the negative, is Bill and Joe’s rather tacky pas deux as a pair of dancing duds in a father/son dream sequence ballet.

The musical program isn’t exactly trend-setting, but it’s more than passable and it does make valiant inroads toward establishing the ‘integrated musical’ – then a revolutionary staple of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway musicals and, occasionally, some of MGM’s more progressive efforts from the mid-forties, whereby songs echo a character’s sentiments and/or emotional state and are not merely tack-ons for pure entertainment value. In the end, The Girl Next Door doesn’t expect much from its audience and its audience seems only too happy to reciprocate the feeling with a nod and a smile.

Fox Home Video’s DVD is a tad below their usual standard. The full frame DVD captures the garish color palette of Fox musicals from this vintage. When the 3-strip Technicolor is perfectly aligned the image is bright, sharp and eye popping. Unfortunately, just like Fox’s other release ‘With A Song in My Heart’, ‘The Girl Next Door suffers from intermittent Technicolor mis-registration.

There’s also a thin patina of film grain (a curiosity, since Technicolor was a ‘grain invisible’ system of photography – much more so than B&W). Flesh tones again are more orange than natural. Certain scenes appear to have an overly blue/green tint that is distracting. Minor edge enhancement exists. The audio is mono but nicely represented. Three vintage featurettes and the theatrical trailer round out the extra features.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
3
EXTRAS
3

GOLDEN BOY (Columbia 1939) Sony Home Entertainment

Based on Clifford Odets’ powerful stage sensation, Rouben Mamoulian’s Golden Boy (1939) is a high octane melodrama about a boy and his aspirations to make the big time. Just what that means remains up for grabs, especially when the boy happens to be multitalented. The film that catapulted young William Holden to stardom almost didn’t happen. Reportedly, the young actor did not impress his director on his first time out. It didn’t help matters that Odets had based the character of Joe Bonaparte on rising film star John Garfield, whom he hoped would do the film.

Columbia exec’ Harry Cohn had other ideas. He wanted to use the movie as build up for his new star. Even so, Mamoulian seriously contemplated recasting the part of Joe several times – a threat averted when costar Barbara Stanwyck (already an established performer and hot commodity in Hollywood) stepped in with the decree that if Holden was fired she too would refuse to continue in the film. Years later, when Stanwyck was given a life time achievement Oscar, Holden (as its presenter) acknowledged his eternal debt of gratitude to Stanwyck for her blind faith, optimism and guidance throughout the shoot.

Golden Boy’s story picks up with young Joe arriving at the office of fight manager, Tom Moody (Adolph Menjou) to inform him that his prize pugilist has just broken his hand in a practice bout at the local gym. Infuriated, Tom storms off to confront his boxer with girlfriend, Lorna Moon (Stanwyck) and Joe in tow, only to discover that it was Joe who broke the fighter’s fist. Begging for the opportunity to sub in his place, the curmudgeonly Tom eventually gives in to Joe’s relentless persuasion and is rewarded handsomely when Joe wins the fight.

Meanwhile, Joe’s father (Lee J. Cobb) has another surprise in store for his son. Owing to Joe’s musical talent with the violin he has purchased the instrument for his twenty-first birthday. However, when Joe returns home to tell his father that he has chosen boxing over music as his profession the struggle between art and fortune begins. At first Lorna sees Joe as Tom’s latest cash cow – a means to an end. She desperately wants to marry Tom and realizes that Joe’s victories will allow Tom to pay off his wife, get a divorce and marry her.

But quickly another wrinkle begins to tear at Lorna’s heart – her own growing romantic affections for the young buck and her concern for the preservation of his rising fame and general safety. When Tom attempts to rig a fight with local gangster Eddie Fuseli (Joseph Calleia) Lorna must chose between love, sacrifice and profit.

Golden Boy is a film of considerable stealth and sincerity. Everyone is functioning at high capacity. Holden’s awkwardness as an actor is just what the role requires. Stanwyck smolders with sultry allure. Menjou does his embittered cynic routine to perfection. Mamoulian’s direction is smooth and well paced. The results are a melodrama worthy of addition to anyone’s home video library.

At long last, Sony Home Entertainment has seen fit to release this long overdue catalogue title to DVD. The B&W film elements appear to be in fairly good condition. The gray scale is expansive and nicely balanced. Contrast levels are refined. Blacks are black. Whites are relatively clean. A modicum of film grain does not detract from an otherwise smooth visual presentation. Occasionally, age related artifacts intrude – but again, they are NOT distracting. Overall, this is a very pleasing visual presentation. The audio is mono and presented at an adequate listening level. Sony appears to be going the route of Warner Bros. on this title, providing a litany of unrelated – though thoroughly enjoyable – vintage short subjects as supplemental extras. Bottom line: recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
2

EYES WIDE SHUT (Warner Bros. 1999) Warner Home Video

Stanley Kubrick’s final movie before his death was Eyes Wide Shut (1999). He should have quit while he was ahead. For in this last experimental venture through the dark and depraved world of the sexually promiscuous and suicidal, Kubrick offers nothing but rare glimpses and brief flashes of his usual high standards. Based on the brooding and ambiguous novel from Arnold Schnitzler the film veers wildly between subliminal perversion and kooky black comedy; both peppered in sickly truncated bits of clich├ęd melodrama.

It stars, 'then' married couple, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as Dr. William Harford and his wife Alice. The thin veneer of William’s respectability appears - at least on the surface - to hold true to very conservative values, especially within his cloistered circle of upper crust friends, including fellow physician Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack). However, alone and behind closed doors ‘Bill’ and Alice indulge in hot sex and recreational drug use after their young daughter Helena (Madison Eglinton) has tottered off to bed.

Now for the wrinkle: Bill’s world is inexplicably turned upside down after Alice confides that she once had naughty thoughts about a naval officer she glimpsed in the lobby of the hotel she and Bill were staying at during their honeymoon. Though Alice never acted on her impulse, Bill decides to ‘get even’ with his wife for her mental infidelity by frequenting the seedy part of their home town and getting into a lot of mischief. But his efforts to procure a wild past for himself lead to more sexual frustration than liberation.

An awkward dalliance with a prostitute results in the discovery that she is dying of AIDS. A group of college kids inexplicably assume that Bill is a homosexual and decide to rough him up outside a jazz bar. Inside the bar, Bill learns from his old college buddy Nick Nightingale (Todd Fields) about a frisky group sex party at a flashy country estate. But the deal turns sour when the ‘cult leader’ of this private affair realizes Bill is a party crasher and almost makes him the object of a group rape.

Kubrick's style is what stands out the most. But style without substance is a poor precursor for solid entertainment – a commodity the film miserably fails to deliver. Then rumors of Cruise’s own marital problems with Kidman are glaringly obvious on the screen. Their tawdry ‘sex’ scenes have zero chemistry. It’s as though they’re brother and sister rather than husband and wife.

Opinion on Kubrick's final bow remains split. You either love this film or hate it. This critic falls into the latter catagory. The script by Kubrick and Frederic Raphael is an utterly pointless mishmash of moments best left on someone else’s cutting room floor. As the audience, we keep waiting for Kubrick to bring at least some of the loose ends together (perhaps not in complete resolution, but at least tightening up) and, for the most part, are bitterly disappointed when he leaves us hanging on Alice’s final request – for she and Bill to just go home and “fuck.”

Warner Home Video’s anamorphic widescreen DVD is disappointing – not the least for the fact that it does NOT contain both the theatrical and unrated versions of the movie as promised on the slip cover packaging. What is even more disappointing is how overly saturated and softly focused the overall image seems to be. Flesh tones are never natural, but rather a garish stylized orange that is distracting and not in keeping with the original theatrical presentation.

Though the image can occasionally be razor sharp, it more often contains a patina of haze and some rather obvious grain (the latter was a part of the theatrical presentation), that plays more like digital grit. The audio is 5.1 and delivers a fairly powerful kick in the film’s underscoring. Extras include vintage ‘making of’ featurettes, a meandering audio commentary and the film’s original theatrical trailer.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
3

Thursday, November 1, 2007

EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE (MGM 1949) Warner Home Video

Based on the scintillating novel by Marcia Davenport, Mervyn LeRoy’s East Side West Side (1949) is a potent melodrama that takes a rather frank and unrelenting look at marital infidelity and the fallout incurred in the name of keep up appearances with faux respectability.

The story begins on New York’s fashionable east end with married couple Jessie (Barbara Stanwyck) and Brandon Bourne (James Mason) enjoying a ritual Thursday night feast at Jessie’s mother Nora Kernan’s (Gail Sondergaard) apartment. The gathering seems idyllic and quaint enough. However, as the couple departs for their own home – Nora suspects that all is not entirely well.

You see, Brandon was having a rather torrid romance with viper/mantrap, Isabel Lorrison (Ava Gardner) – an affair that Jessie forgave him. However, Isabel is back in town, and meaner, hotter and more sensually tempting than ever before. She lures Brandon away from Jessie at every chance, flaunting her success while certain that she will win her conquest in the end. Not that it matters either way to Isabel, who is currently seeing New York thug in a three piece, Alec Dawning (Douglas Kennedy); much to the chagrin of his other playmate, Felice Backett (Beverly Michaels).

In the meantime, Jessie has befriended former cop turned man of the people, Mark Dwyer (Van Heflin), on leave from his job in Italy. Dwyer’s girlfriend, Rosa Senta (Cyd Charisse) has been nursing a school girl’s crush and keeping her home fires burning for Mark over the last two years in the hopes that he will feel the same toward her upon his return to America. But Mark quickly develops a yen for Jessie instead.

The great curiosity and skill of LeRoy’s direction is how it manages to effortlessly shift from a seemingly conventional soap opera about six lives inexplicably and unpredictably intertwined, into a full blown film noir after Isabel’s body is discovered choked to death inside her apartment. LeRoy’s direction is strong and straight forward, though never pedestrian. He keeps the film moving, inserting comedic bits of business to break up the rather dark and brooding monotony of the more sinister plot twists.

The entire cast is superb. Mason, in particular, gives a brilliant read of this sort of ‘weak/troubled’ and utterly flawed, though handsome enough man about town that became his stock and trade during the 50s – most notably as Norman Maine in A Star Is Born (1954). There’s great conviction in Stanwyck’s performance as well, shifting atmospherically from doting, respectful and understanding wife to a woman who’s had enough of both her life and the man who pretends to occupy it with her.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is adequately rendered with minor flaws worth noting. Edge enhancement plagues the main title and end credit sequences. Age related artifacts are present throughout and, at times, heavier than expected. On the whole the gray scale has been impeccably rendered with fine gradation and a considerable amount of fine detail evident throughout. Blacks are solid and deep; whites, nearly pristine.

On several occasions image quality seems to have been sourced from a less than stellar print rather than the original camera negative (as in the scene where Mark takes Jessie to his old neighborhood and runs into a school mate he hasn’t seen in some time). Here, the image is briefly softer with lower contrast levels. On the whole, however, this transfer will surely not disappoint. The audio is mono as expected. Extras include a radio broadcast, several short subjects and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Recommended.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
1

TO PLEASE A LADY/JEOPARDY (MGM 1950-53) Warner Home Video

Warner Home Video has assembled two rather pedestrian and not terribly engaging feature films for a Barbara Stanwyck Double Feature; 1950s To Please a Lady and Jeopardy (1953). There’s really not much to recommend either apart from the fact that they represent a bit of cinema history best left as the second half of another double bill.

First up: Clarence Brown’s To Please A Lady (1950) is second tier melodrama with Clark Gable clearly past the roguish prime that made him such a heartthrob prior to WWII. In the intervening decade, Gable had gone through active service and lost the great love of his life, comedian Carol Lombard. The cumulative effect of these two watershed events on his emotional psyche was enough to instill a more world weary, less playful and somewhat less charming incarnation of his former self with a decided downturn in his box office appeal and earning potential after the war ended.

Here, Gable is Mike Brannan; a butch race car driver who plays dirty on the track, using every trick he can to win his races. He’s hated by the fans and despised by newspaper maven, Regina Forbes (Barbara Stanwyck). After witnessing Mike cause, what she believes to be a deliberate pile up on the raceway, Regina vows to destroy him in print. The motion for Mike’s demise is seconded by the paper’s ruthless owner, Gregg (Adolphe Menjou). However, Regina gradually begins to understand Mike’s perspective on racing and on life. She realizes that he’s not quite the demigod she envisioned and a quiet – if problematic – romance develops.

Director Brown offers nothing in either spark or flare from his illustrious past career on this outing. The film is a leaden, dull and uninspiring hodge-podge of sopping wet melodrama inserted between badly edited race car footage – most of it obviously shot in front of a process screen with cartoonish effect. Stanwyck delivers a complementary performance to match her costar, but she just doesn’t seem to be able to get much mileage out of feeling low. Gable is bored with his character on the whole. He reads his lines as though he can’t wait to collect his check and move on to something else on his roster.

The other film in this double feature is John Sturges’ low budget pseudo noir, Jeopardy (1953) – a wholly disengaged thriller without the thrills or enough plot to sustain its scant 94 minute running time. The tale begins on a buoyantly uncharacteristic note with young married couple, Helen (Stanwyck) and Doug Stilwin (Barry Sullivan) and their young son Bobby (Lee Aaker) en route for a vacation in the wilds of Mexico. Finding a desolate spot on the beach, the story attempts to kick into high gear when Doug jams his leg between a slab of rotting wood from a nearby dilapidated boardwalk and a stone on the beach. With high tide only a matter of hours away, Doug encourages Helen to get in the car and drive for help at an isolated service center they passed about ten miles back. Unfortunately for Helen, she finds the station deserted, save psychotic criminal escapee, Lawson (Ralph Meeker).

After commandeering the car, pawing at Jessie and presumably raping her in a remote and abandoned hacienda in the middle of nowhere, Lawson suddenly reforms. He drives Jessie back to the beach and rescues Doug from drowning, before escaping from the police across the beach head to freedom.

At the time Jeopardy went before the cameras, Dore Schary was head of MGM. A wily executive, once responsible for most of RKO’s gritty noir thrillers, Jeopardy is just the sort of film he would have liked – a message picture with a sort of maligned ‘don’t talk to strangers’ scenario. But the film is woefully short on something to say and with an almost malignant abuse of star power in favor of telling a tale that only a die hard noir aficionado could love.

Barry Sullivan is wasted in a thankless role, reduced to lying on his side in waste high ocean surf while imbuing his son with diatribes about how he will be ‘the man’ of the family ‘if’ Jessie should fail to return.

Stanwyck doesn’t quite know what to make of her part. At first she’s the simple little woman; then, a rather voracious mother lioness; and finally, an emotionally spent and aloof woman of the world. The gamut doesn’t quite come together as one performance, but rather samplings of various performances that are never fully realized.

Meeker is perhaps the worst served by his character. He plays psychotic and crazy fairly well, but then must shift gears entirely to do the right thing and save the family. His early scenes crackle with raving electricity that we rarely get from him throughout the rest of the film.

Owing probably to the fact that Warner Home Video is aware of the niche market for these titles, it has done a rather outstanding job on transferring them to DVD. The B&W image on both is beautifully contrasted with minimal grain and age related artifacts. The image is slightly more refined with greater detail evident on Jeopardy. Process shots on To Please A Lady are obvious and distracting. Neither film’s image quality will disappoint. The audio on both is mono. Extras include short subjects and theatrical trailers; adequate enough and satisfying nonetheless.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
To Please a Lady 3
Jeopardy 2.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
To Please a Lady 3.5
Jeopardy 3.5

EXTRAS
1