Tuesday, December 11, 2007

THE DEPARTED: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 2006) Warner Home Video


Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (2006) is indeed a curiosity, since in both plot and execution the film does not represent the director’s very best or even solid second tier in his list of accomplished masterworks. A contrived, often cliché-ridden abuse on the senses and artistic sensibilities, the film stars Leonardo DiCaprio (Bill Costigan) and Matt Damon (Colin Sullivan) as a pair of undercover police officers working opposite ends of a crime syndicate to bring Irish-American crime boss, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) to justice.


Costello is a deranged freak who delights in the macabre butchery of anyone who double-crosses him. Bill is a plant in Costello’s mob. Seemingly up for the assignment, Bill’s daily diet of watching men die in the most brutal and heinous ways begins to wear heavily on his conscience. Bill’s bosses, Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Walberg) have opposing views as to how long Bill will be able to fake his sincerity and allegiance before being discovered.


Meanwhile, Colin is Costello’s right hand; an inside man on the police force – presumably squeaky clean, who has risen through the ranks on his own merit. He harbors insecurities that are crippling his current romantic entanglement with staff psychologist, Madolyn (Vera Farmiga) who is also seeing Bill as a patient. All of these lives intertwine in bizarre and unexpected ways that, thanks to William Monahan’s fast moving screenplay, ought to have resulted in some truly suspenseful moments.


Instead, Scorsese diffuses the narrative with a reoccurring bloodbath and ever-rising body count - so readily gruesome and on display that it effectively desensitizes the audience from relating to any of the characters as more than mere cardboard cutouts. The best of Scorsese’s filmic works about organized crime (Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino) have all been harbingers with a certain level of dispensation for the niceties.


Yet, in The Departed we are provided with none of the weight behind the profanities that actors like Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro brought to their reoccurring roles in the aforementioned. Instead, DiCaprio, Damon and Walberg sulk and skulk about in a purgatory of emotionless conflict, spewing vial diatribes and verbal garbage at one another that is as largely forgettable as it is repugnant and disarming to one's senses


Worse, the overriding lack of mood to the staging of set pieces (Queenan’s murder, Costello’s assassination, Colin’s comeuppance) render each the least memorable moments in the film – drawn with broad strokes of exploding guts in a hail storm of bullets that are not homage to the cartoony loony-land of a graphic novel or Scorsese’s aforementioned stellar film examples. In the end, The Departed leaves as quickly and unexpectedly as it arrived, with only a messy contradiction to reconsider; how could anyone of Scorsese’s caliber have made such an egregiously awful motion picture?


Warner Home Video's Blu-ray rectifies the shortcomings of its 2-disc DVD, accurately evoking Michael Ballhaus' stylized cinematography. Difficult to assess color accuracy, but having seen the film theatrically, I believe the Blu-ray is a faithful a recreation of the blown out contrasts and gritty textures. and accurately rendered flesh tones. The 1080p transfer exhibits a lot of grain - as originally intended - and accurately reproduced with a 'grainy' feel.


The audio is 5.1 DTS and very bombastic. I have to say, I found the extras - all imported from the aforementioned 2 disc DVD - more fascinating than the film. We get TCM’s exceptional documentary on Martin Scorsese’s career; 9 additional scenes with director commentary; a detailed back story of the Boston mob, and a back story on Scorsese’s fascination with crime in the movies.


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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
3.5

CRASH: Blu-ray (Lion's Gate Films 2005) Maple Home Video


In essence and tone, Paul Haggis’ Crash (2004) plays very much like a Robert Altman movie, with its interweaving and overlapping story lines  - all serving one fundamental theme: the purity of the human spirit, its tainting from the outside world, and recovery from learned prejudices. Yes, it could be an Altman film, if only the script and the characters had something more meaningful to say! But Crash is a cliche unto itself, a heavy-handed 'message picture' whose own moral ambiguity deals superficially with themes of drug abuse and racism, disastrously thrust together rather than fully critiqued and explored.


Set in present day Los Angeles – Police Det. Graham Water’s (Don Cheadle) family tree provides the flimsiest cohesion between these various story threads. At times the film can be a sobering reflection on racism harbored under false pretenses, as when interpreted from an underlying collective mistrust between the various social classes that make up American society but are generally dictated by common fear.


That fear begins for D.A. Rick Cabot (Brendan Fraser) and his wife, Jean (Sandra Bullock) when their SUV is taken at gunpoint by carjackers Anthony (Ludacris) and, Graham’s younger brother, Lucien (Dato Bakhtadze) – good natured bad boys destined to meet with an untimely end. En route from their latest heist, the boys accidentally run down Park (Daniel Day Kim), a night worker whose laundry truck is stocked full of illegally smuggled Chinese refugees. Anthony and Lucien decide to save Park’s life by dumping his body off at the local hospital – unaware of the cargo they’re carrying.


Once safely at home, Jean freaks out about getting the locks changed on all their doors; employing her own misguided racial profiling to convince Rick that locksmith Daniel (Michael Pena) will sell one of their master keys to thieves, just because he is Hispanic. Responding to an APB on the Cabot’s stolen vehicle, Police Officers John Ryan (Matt Dillon) and Tom Handsen (Ryan Phillippe) pull over a similar vehicle carrying upscale married couple, Cameron (Terrence Howard) and Christine Thayer (Thandi Newton).


Ryan’s prejudice toward blacks in general cause him to overreact to the situation. He terrorizes the couple, physically assaulting Cameron and sexually abusing his wife before letting them off with ‘a warning.’ Shaken and disgusted by the incident, Handsen attempts to apply for a transfer; a request denied by Lt. Dixon (Keith David).


The narrative next picks up Daniel, who has been called in the middle of the night to fix the lock of a local Persian merchant, Farhad (Shaun Toub). Farhad’s daughter, Dorri (Bahar Soomekh) has bought him a gun as a precaution against intruders. However, owing to Farhad’s rather hot-headed temper, Dorri has also loaded the weapon with blanks – foresight that will figure prominently later on.


There is a lot more to each of these lives, best left unsaid for the first time viewer to discover. The film is fluid and evolving – or that is, unraveling as the various plot elements spin together to form one compelling ball of tension. Like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the screenplay by Haggis and Robert Moresco provides mere snapshots at varying intervals before moving in other directions; only to return and pick up each thread later on. Yet, on the whole the resolution to many of these threads proves a little ‘too kismet’ – becoming inbred and too predictable. These characters, however hard they try, cannot seem to get away from one another.


Praised for its frank and hard hitting honesty, its bold critique of bigotry and racism, Crash is indeed an interesting exercise – or perhaps, ‘lesson’ is a more fitting descriptor. But as pure entertainment, it does tend to be rather short-sighted.


Maple Home Video’s Blu-ray exhibits exemplary mastering. The stylized visual elements are razor sharp. Contrast levels are blown out, as intended. Blacks are jet black. Whites are often blooming – again, as intended. The grain structure varies throughout but is well preserved in 1080p. On the whole, the visual quality of this disc will not disappoint. The audio is 5.1 DTS and delivers an aggressive sonic characteristic.


Extras include an ‘introduction’, an audio commentary by Haggis, several interesting deleted scenes – with or without director’s commentary; several additional featurettes on the making of the film; a music montage and storyboard and script to screen comparisons.


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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5

EXTRAS
3.5

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (Altlantis Alliance 2003) Alliance Home Entertainment

BEST PICTURE 2003

Although it remains the only time in Oscar history that a final installment of any trilogy has been the recipient of the Best Picture statuette – and ten additional awards - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) is a convoluted mess of untidy plot entanglements – hold-overs and leftovers from the first and second installments of this series that director Peter Jackson weaves into his final chapter in the cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolken’s literary masterwork.

Beginning with Frodo’s (Elijah Wood) capture and – yet again, and near death experience - this time at the talons of a gargantuan spider, this finale degenerates into familiar territory already explored in the first and second installments. Frodo’s demise is thwarted by his ever loyal traveling companion, Sam (Sean Aston) who instructs that the ring must be returned to the fires of Mordor at all costs in order to spare the world from great evil.

But Frodo – whose heart thus far has always remains pure – has begun to be seduced by the ring’s dark side; his mind in constant conflict over what to do next. It doesn’t help matters any that Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis) is ever-taunting him with an insatiable thirst for “my precious.”

Meanwhile, an equally drawn out, technically proficient, but otherwise laborious battle sequence is taking place with the other valiant crusaders; Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Boromir (Sean Bean) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom); this time staged at the gates of Mordor overseen by Sarumon (Christopher Lee – oddly absent from theatrical release, but present and accounted for in the director’s cut).

Beyond the spectacle of mind-numbing special effects, director Jackson and his narrative emerge more troubled than ever within a rapid succession of layered endings that fade to black but continue to outlive their welcome long after the average audience attendee’s attention span has been severely exhausted.

What is commendable about Jackson’s mammoth undertaking is the sheer size of the project and the considerable amount of narrative content he manages to cover – or that is, squeeze in. Though large portions of the epic sets exist only inside computer generated templates from which blue screen trick photography and matte process work is exhaustively utilized, there are enough tangible assets to make this last installment mildly impressive and compelling on an emotional level.

Clearly, the Academy thought so. The question however remains for the ages: where does the greatness in Jackson’s vision ultimately end within the cinema firmament? Only time will tell.

Alliance Atlantis DVD transfer exhibit exemplary quality. Available separately or together, in both full screen and widescreen 2-disc theatrical cuts and extended director cuts, the director's cuts are not so much a revelation as they merely add length to the already lengthy excursion.The stylized picture exhibits a refined clarity that is quite stunning. Colors are fully saturated and bold. Blacks are deep and velvety. Whites are pristine.

Occasionally, edge enhancement crops up – particularly midway through the first film, but its distraction is brief.The audio on all films is 5.1 Dolby Digital and delivers a powerful spread across all five channels. Extras include extensive featurettes covering every aspect of each film’s production, interviews with cast members, intimate critiques of Tolken’s works, special effects deconstruction, a shameless promo for the video game equivalent and the film’s original theatrical trailer.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
5

EXTRAS
5+

CHICAGO: Blu-ray (Miramax 2002) Buena Vista Home Video

Rob Marshall’s Chicago (2002) is the big screen musical adaptation of Broadway’s stunning smash hit co-written by legendary song and dance man, Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb. More directly, the inspiration for that musical came from a little known non-musical classic starring Ginger Rogers – Roxie Hart (1942); an all together more satisfying adaptation available from Fox Home Entertainment.


Set during the rum-running twenties, Chicago is bawdy, gaudy and relentlessly showy in a rather obvious and distracting way that Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001) is not. But Chicago really plays more like a pop opera than a traditional musical and that's part of its problem. We get style plus but without so much as a hint of substance. The score tumbles forth, one song upon the next with only the most superficial bits of dialogue to loosely connect the story from one vignette to the next. 


All of this would, of course, be quite forgivable if the characters had something meaningful to say in a cinematic way. Regrettably, Dion Beebe's cinematography is all about preserving the play's origins. As such, Chicago isn't so much a movie but a faithful recreation of 'the show' as seen on Broadway. Bill Condon’s screenplay musters up the flashy musical sequences with relative ease. But the numbers are just that - showstoppers shot with a heavy-handed music video-esque approach that leaves everything stage bound.


The plot only superficially follows the real life exploits of two murderesses; Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones-Douglas) and Roxie Hart (Rene Zellweger). Both are awaiting their fate on death row.Velma is more mercenary; Roxie is a sadist. Velma murdered her husband and her sister because they were having an affair. The revenge – it seems – was sweet. But Roxie assassinated her boyfriend simply because she learned that he had no intention of making her a star…and Roxie needs to be a star. If nothing else, her splashy trial is destined to transform her reputation into notorious celebrity.


Enter Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) a cocky lawyer who promises to make it all go away – but not before he exploits the trial to establish a name and a career for himself. Electrifying musical numbers rock this rather flat narrative; bumping and grinding out something of a haughty good time – particularly Queen Latifa’s prison matron Mama Morton crowing ‘just be good to mama!’


To be certain, Chicago is brash and bold. But the film is like a pony put out to pasture, then repainted after the circus has already left town. It has its’ moments and offers a showcase of star talent performing some fairly impressive routines. Richard Gere’s superbly rendered court room ‘tap dance’ comes immediately to mind. Yet, the songs and dances are unable to sustain the story. The vignettes, though sultry and saucy to the point of distraction, are just that – vignettes, instead of charting a straight line between beginning and final fade out; begging the question – Is this really the Best Picture of 2002?!?


Buena Vista's Blu-ray release rectifies the shoddy treatment Chicago received on DVD. Grain structure has at last been accurately preserved in 1080p.  On the DVD it tended to lock up or look gritty and digitally harsh. But the Blu-ray gives us a dense patina of grain that is quite natural. Colors are well balanced and fully saturated. Flesh tones still look a tad too pinkish and flat for me. But fine detail takes a quantum leap forward, even during the darkly lit scenes.  Edge enhancement, that was also a problem on DVD is gone on the Blu-ray.


The audio is 5.1 DTS that is aggressive. When Chicago had its initial release back in 2003 extras were slim pickin's indeed. But in 2005 we were given the 'Razzle Dazzle Edition' and its these extras - most of them anyway - that have found their way to Blu-ray. Director Rob Marshall delivers a rather comprehensive audio commentary. We also get 6 deleted scenes, outtakes and one complete song - 'Class' - cut from the movie before its premiere. There are also 5 rehearsal performances from the voice recording and choreography sessions. 


Best extra is the 27 min. 'History of Chicago' that skips through the creation of the Broadway show that actually flopped in 1975 before Bob Fosse gave it a complete overhaul. Four vintage featurettes about the film follow with cast, crew and director Marshall affectionately waxing about their participation on the project. There's also a vintage piece from the Dinah Shore Show featuring Liza Minnelli singing Nowadays. Minnelli stepped into Gwen Verdon's shoes on Broadway after the latter swallowed a feather and developed a throat infection. 


I have to say I enjoyed the extras much more than I did the movie which, upon renewed viewing, I still tend to find heavy-handed and fairly dull in spots. The extras raised my appreciation for the material, but not the movie. The Blu-ray is a class act, however, and will surely delight those who love the movie. For that reason, this disc comes highly recommended.


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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
5

A BEAUTIFUL MIND: Blu-ray (Dreamworks SKG 2001) Universal Home Video


Eschewing the less flattering passages in Sylvia Nasar’s book (including John Forbes Nash’s frequent run-ins with the law, his fathering an illegitimate child, and his alleged solicitation of homosexual sex in a men’s public bathroom), Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001) treads safe and familiar territory in his moderately fictional account of the brilliant mathematician’s life. Yet, there is something disingenuous about Akiva Goldman’s screenplay that sets up the initial premise of John Nash – genius – while still a student at Princeton, then spends the bulk of the film's running time debunking that genius by graphically illustrating John’s quiet descend into schizophrenia.


Nash’s arrival at Princeton is initially met with much anticipation. He’s already won the prestigious Carnegie Prize for mathematics and is considered a great mind in the making. That’s enough to impress his roommate, Charlie (Paul Bettany) as well as to create a quiet rivalry among Nash’s more immediate peers. But Nash is antisocial; his lack of success in squiring the ladies leading him to develop the concept of ‘governing dynamics.’ He assumes a professorship at MIT where he meets Alicia (Jennifer Connelly) – one of his calculus students.


Now, here’s where the narrative gets tricky. Nash is reunited with Charlie who introduces him to his niece, Marcee (Vivien Cardone). Nash is also introduced to a mysterious agent in the U.S. Dept. of Defense – William Parcher (Ed Harris)…or is he? Nash is asked by Parcher to decipher an encrypted telecommunications message, which Nash does with considerable ease. However, soon Parcher is asking Nash to look for more encryptions in everything from newspaper articles to magazine ads. Nash’s quest for these ‘hidden messages’ eventually becomes his all-consuming obsession. He is hunted by Soviets spies, sedated and then sent to a psychiatric facility.


The wrinkle that is later exposed in the narrative structure is that none of the aforementioned actually happened. All are a product of Nash’s increasing schizophrenia and paranoid delusions. After enduring an excruciating series of shock therapy sessions, Nash is released into Alicia’s custody. But the antipsychotic drugs he is forced to take have affected his innate ability to perform complex mathematics.


The latter half of the story is dark and foreboding with Nash increasingly contemplating the death of his young son and wife at the behest of Parcher’s urging. Eventually, Nash fights back his demons and is restored to a portion of his former self, doing research at Princeton. The film ends with Nash being honored with the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics.


Well received by most critics, there are too many major inconsistencies between fact and fiction in this film to warrant A Beautiful Mind as a bio-pic on par with movies like Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. Rather, A Beautiful Mind is more along the lines of an enlightened, if largely experimental, delving into the realm of mental illness and those suffering from it. Yet, even here, the film tends to hypothesize and speculate rather than relate cold hard facts. For example, Nash’s hallucinations were auditory – not visual. The film presents them as tangibly real – Nash actually seeing what he's believing. In the end, the film succeeds only if one sets aside what is known about schizophrenia or John Nash and rather, simply accepts the story as a work of pure fiction.


Universal’s Blu-ray exhibits exemplary image quality. Visually, this is a very dark film. Yet, fine details are evident even during the blackest scenes. Colors are stylized as in the theatrical presentation. The palette starts off deeply saturated with golds and greens and as Nash’s psychosis get the better of him, becomes less so. This is as originally intended. Contrast levels are superbly rendered. The audio is 5.1 DTS and quite aggressive in its accoustics. Extras include a making of featurette, audio commentary and theatrical trailer.


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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5

EXTRAS
3

Saturday, December 8, 2007

PLATOON: Blu-ray (Orion 1986) Fox/MGM Home Video

Often critiqued as a valiant successor to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) is a far more engrossing – less self-indulgent tour of duty with its prerequisite roster of casualties. An ensemble film following the excruciating exploits of a troop of thirty soldiers, the narrative is set at the height of conflict in 1967.


In a subtle homage to Coppola’s war epic, Stone cast Charlie Sheen as Platoon’s narrator, Pvt. Chris Taylor; a cockeyed optimist who is about to get an eye opener. Fresh faced, middle-class and college graduated, Taylor is not only ill equipped for the horrors of conflict – he’s an absolute washout.


Assigned to the 25th Infantry, Taylor and fellow soldier, Private Gardner (Bob Orwig) join the rifle platoon with enthusiasm dashed after they are ambushed on their first night of foot patrol. Gardner dies. Taylor is wounded. The platoon regards Taylor as expendable. However, while recovering, Taylor confides that he gave up college to join the military because he felt it unfair that only the underprivileged were required to serve in the draft while the rich were exempt and sent off to Ivy League educations. His confessional earns him new respect among his peers.


Reinstated to combat, Taylor witnesses the frustration of his platoon after they are confronted by villagers harboring weapons for the enemy. The soldiers, led by Sgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Sgt. Wolfe (Mark Moses) destroy the village and murder its civilians. Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) puts both men on suspension, a move that leads to his being marked for extermination in a dangerous game of cat and mouse. Barnes leaves Taylor for dead amid a slaughter by the North Vietnamese. He further abandons Elias during the invasion of another village, resulting in his assassination at the hands of the North Vietnamese. Later, Barnes claims he thought Elias was already dead. Knowing this to be a lie, Taylor – wounded but alive - goes gunning for, and eventually murders Barnes in cold blood.


The script by Stone probes each man’s crumbling emotional psyche while examining their war-induced neuroses. This was a project very close to Stone’s heart. In fact, Stone modeled Sheen’s performance on his own Viet Nam experiences. In a bit of macabre verisimilitude, Stone cast himself as a nondescript officer who is blown to bits in his bunker by a suicide runner. Grim and unrelenting, Platoon marks the raw the hellish nightmares of the Viet Nam experience. 


MGM/Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray is a pleasant surprise. Given  the laissez faire handing of catalogue titles in hi-def from Fox, Platoon looks as though it's obviously been given the true 1080p upgrade.  We get fully saturated colors, rich in deep vibrant greens, deep blacks and raw gory reds. Flesh tones are nicely balanced. Contrast levels are spot on. Fine details pop. Film grain is accurately reproduced. The audio is 5.1 DTS and delivers a powerful sonic spread across all five channels. Extras include an immersive audio commentary, ‘making of’ featurette and theatrical trailer.


FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS
3.5

ORDINARY PEOPLE (Paramount 1980) Paramount Home Video

Based on the novel by Judith Guest, Robert Redford’s directorial debut, Ordinary People (1980) is the story of Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton), a young man emotionally strapped by a guilt complex deriving from his surviving a boating accident that claimed the life of his older brother, Buck (Scott Doebler). After attempting suicide, Conrad finds it difficult to resume his former life either at home or at school. In truth, he always existed in the afterglow of his brother's memory.


Since Buck's death, Conrad's mother, Beth (Mary Tyler-Moore) has become ineffectual, aloof and quite unwilling to accept Conrad for who he is. When Conrad's dad, Calvin (Donald Sutherland) recommends that he visit psychiatrist, Dr. Tyrone C. Berger (Judd Hirsch) Conrad reluctantly agrees much to Beth's chagrin. In truth, Beth is much more concerned about keeping up appearances than she is about the welfare of her younger child.


While in hospital Conrad had befriended Karen Aldrich (Dinah Manoff); another patient recovering from her attempted suicide. But since his return home, Conrad has remained mostly isolated. He is surrounded by memories of Buck that continue to haunt him. Buck's best friend, Joe Lazenby (Fredric Lehne) is sympathetic but to no avail, while Conrad's swim coach, Salan (M Emmett Walsh) is constantly critiquing his performance compared to that of his late brother. 


At home, Conrad is in constant conflict with Beth. Although he makes valiant attempts to come to some common ground and understanding with her, Beth rather ruthlessly pushes him away. Calvin decides to take Beth on a vacation, but increasingly begins to realize that there is just no reaching her anymore. She would prefer to forget the past summer ever happened and simply move on with her own life without worrying about Conrad's future recovery. 


Eventually, Conrad decides that the best way to rid himself of Buck's memory is to make a clean break of his old life. He takes an interest in fellow student Jeannine Pratt (Elizbeth McGovern) and decides to see Karen one last time in friendship. Regrettably, Conrad is informed by Karen's mother that she committed suicide the night before. Fearing that he will follow the same path whether he wants to or not, Conrad rushes to Dr. Berger's office where he at long last is able to fully confront his demons about the past. Returning home with a renewed resolve, Conrad discovers that Beth has moved out. Father and son console one another on the back porch, the camera optimistically pulling away to reveal a bright sun on the horizon.


There's nothing ordinary about these Ordinary People. The Alvin Sargent/Nancy Dowd screenplay is critical of its characters when it needs to be; illustrating Calvin's inability to keep the family together, Beth's unrelenting determination to find distraction for herself even if it is damaging to the welfare of her family; Conrad's stubborn refusal to let go of his inner torment and accept circumstances as they are.  


In his directorial debut, Robert Redford achieves a sustained elegance to all this sad moral decay and decline of a once solid family unit. Yet he avoids the obvious pitfalls of extolling the tragedy per say. The film never veers into melodrama but rides a hard edge between drama and reality. The actors are bearing their souls and their investment exposes their characters' fragmented self-destructive lives. 


Timothy Hutton's performance is undoubtedly the most flashy - prone to dramatic fits and tearful soliloquies. But Mary Tyler-Moore is the real revelation. On the surface, her Beth is a hopelessly shallow socialite. Yet her uncaring facade actually masks a terrified and insecure matriarch who realizes she lost the one man in her life - Buck - who meant something to her. Judd Hirsch and Hutton have great on screen chemistry as the doctor/patient who evolve their relationship into a trusting bond during Conrad's breakthrough. Donald Sutherland is spot on as the engaged, though emasculated father, desperately trying to reconnect with his son to save his life.


Paramount Home Video’s DVD is anamorphic widescreen. There is some pixelization, shimmering of fine details and edge enhancement present, and at times all are distracting. Colors are slightly faded. Fine details get lost in a softly focused and grainy image that is unremarkable. The mono audio seems slightly distorted. This is terrible bare bones effort from Paramount - one that ought to be rectified if the film ever gets to Blu-ray which it definitely should. 


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

VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5

EXTRAS
0

KRAMER VS KRAMER: Blu-ray (Columbia 1979) Sony Home Entertainment

Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is a high strung ad executive who returns home from work one evening to discover that his harried wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep) is abandoning him and their young son, Billy (Justin Henry). In shock and angry, Ted vows to make the best of his new situation. Only, being a full time parent isn’t an easy job.


At first Billy resents everything Ted does. To ease the stress, Ted brings home a date, Phyllis Bernard (JoBeth Williams) who inadvertently winds up naked in the bathroom with Billy the next morning. Oh well, Billy’s fairly mature and he proves it, by politely introducing himself and then exiting the room.


If Ted's life on the home front seems strained, it's positively crumbling at work. After Ted repeatedly puts his son ahead of his career, his boss Jim O'Connor (George Coe) quietly fires him with the 'best intentions' that Ted will get his act together. In point of fact, Ted's pretty good at rebounding. He corners a new employer into hiring him just before the Christmas holidays and begins to bridge the gap between him and Billy, with the guidance of mutual family friend and single parent, Margaret Phelps (Jane Alexander). 


The wounds from Joanna's abandonment have begun to heal when Joanna reappears in both Ted and Billy's life. It seems she's started her life over and now wants Billy to come and live with her. Ted's bitterness toward Joanna is too strong to give in. He petitions the court for custody and Joanna fights back - neither particularly interested in the best interests of their child...at least, not at first.


To be certain, films before Robert Benton’s Kramer Vs Kramer (1979) had glossed over divorce. Based on Avery Corman's novel, Benton's screenplay is a critical, often frank, deconstruction of the fallout that follows a breakup. There's an honesty and an integrity to the writing that is seamlessly married to stellar performances by Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep.


Joanna is not an unfit mother. She isn’t evil either. She’s just at the end of her rope. Ted is not a bad father. He’s just inexperienced. What the film so masterfully represented is that struggle between separated parents to preserve some semblance of order and sanctity for the love they continue to share for their child.


Kramer Vs. Kramer is not a feel good movie, though it has elements of optimism. From Ted’s frequent consultations with Margaret to the penultimate moment in the film where both Ted and Joanna realize they may have reached an impasse in their own relationship but not in the life that is shared between them, Kramer Vs Kramer is a quiet wake-up call for divorced couples with children, made from the perspective of a divorced couple who have just realized their own mistakes, but are making concerted efforts not to repeat them.


Kramer Vs. Kramer was an odd choice to receive a 1080p upgrade from Sony as part of their all out launch of the hi-def format. Not because the film isn't deserving. But visually, there are few opportunities to really show off. Kramer Vs. Kramer is a low budget, intimate family drama. That Sony placed it ahead of other films in its canon like The Guns of Navarone, Annie, Lawrence of Arabia, A Man for All Seasons...to name a few...is curious indeed. But why quibble when the results are this good. We get a hi-def transfer that yields eye-popping colors, accurate flesh tones, solid contrast and fine detail throughout. Film grain is accurately reproduced for a stunning visual quality. The audio is 5.1 DTS. Again, Kramer Vs. Kramer is primarily a dialogue driven movie so don't expect a workout of your speakers.  Extras are limited to an audio commentary and all too brief featurette. Bottom line: recommended.


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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
2

ROCKY: Blu-ray (United Artists 1976) MGM/Fox Home Entertainment

In retrospect, it seems rather preposterous that Rocky (1976), the testosterone thumping boxing flick about a small time wanna-be pugilist, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) should have walked off with the Best Picture Academy Award. I mean, this is the year of Network, The Omen, All The President's Men and Taxi Driver! Rocky?!? Really?!?!


Sylvester Stallone's screenplay is pedestrian at best. This is a run of the mill melodrama that follows the downtrodden and, quite often, pathetic exploits of a guy from the wrong side of the tracks with little reason to celebrate his own existence. Didn't we already get this build up in The Champ (1931); doomed to be remade in Rocky's afterbirth as...well...The Champ (1979)? But I digress.


Our hero, Rocky starts life as a sort of Marlon Brando knockoff from On The Waterfront; a thug collecting debts for loan shark, Gazzo (Joe Spinell). To pass his time and keep in shape he boxes with ex-trainer, Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) who has faith in Rocky when no one else – least of all Rocky himself - believes that he can become the heavy weight champion of the world.


But oh gee - wait for it - our hero is really a shy guy who develops a yen for wallflower, Adrianna Pennino (Talia Shire). Their casual friendship predictably blossoms into romance. She believes in Rocky so Rocky begins to believe in himself. Adrianna affectionately swaps barbs with her brother, Paulie (Bert Young) who could not be happier that some man – any man – has finally taken an interest in his gawky sister. The romance between Rocky and Adrianna is slow and cautious. She confides in him that she’s never been to a man’s apartment. He sets her mind at ease; then takes her to bed. Go Rocky!


The central narrative gets back on track when it is announced that the current world heavyweight boxing champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) has decided to use the gimmick of giving a virtual unknown a chance to beat him in the ring for the title. Surveying the various training facilities in the greater Philadelphia area, Apollo discovers Rocky and the match is set.


The rest of the plot is really just an excuse for the final showdown between Rocky and Apollo. We are treated to endless montages leading up to the big day; Adrianna’s apprehensions and concerns, Rocky’s reassurances, his near defeat in the ring, and finally, his triumph over insurmountable odds.


As a film, Rocky's feel good is rather obvious and overstated; our hero's escalation from underdog to top dog on the world stage of boxing predictable and yet not terribly prepossessing. This sort of escapist wish fulfillment has its place in American movies to be sure. Everybody likes a Cinderella story - even if Cinderella needs a shave and breaks into a sweat now and then. But Best Picture?!? Really?!?  


Stallone had a solid acting career before Rocky. Afterward he became the poster child for simple-minded lumbering lummoxes on the movie screen. In retrospect Stallone can be perceived as the precursor to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Certainly, in the years following Rocky's debut and its many subsequent sequels, Stallone did everything in his power to compete with Schwarzenegger on the 'body beautiful' level - juicing up and launching into the Rambo films. Personally, I think Rocky ruined Stallone's movie career. In hindsight, this is the beginning of the end of Stallone the actor and the start of Stallone the cliched muscle head whose biceps are bigger than his brain.  


Okay, I've commented on this before and will continue to do so when the results are this bad. Whoever is responsible for the hideous cover art for this disc needs to give their heads a shake. I mean, look at the awful airbrushing and the way Stallone's head is pasted onto his body (if it is his body). I mean the angles aren't even close. The eye line is brutal. If this is our hero he looks like a misshapen sack of badly bruised potatoes. Yuck! Note to Fox - hire better airbrush artists or just go back to using original movie poster art to market your new releases. 


The good news is that the hi-def results are much better than the cover art - thank heaven! MGM/Fox's Blu-ray is the same transfer as the previously issued disc (that had better cover art). The transfer isn't perfect, but its smooth, solid and delivers a reasonable facsimile of the theatrical presentation. DNR has been liberally applied to reduce the appearance of film grain. Thankfully, it's still there so we're not subjected to those gawd awful waxen images that plagued Fox's Predator  Blu-ray. 


The audio is 5.1 DTS and dated. The music improves but the dialogue still sounds strained and very flat. We get all of the extras imported from Fox's Special Edition of Rocky on DVD, including multiple featurettes on the making of the film, scene specific audio commentary from Stallone and director John G. Avildsen, a stills gallery and theatrical trailer.


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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
3

ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST: 35th Anniversary Blu-ray (Fantasy Films 1975) Warner Home Video

Milos Forman’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)  follows the mismanaged exploits of one Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson); a convict charged with statutory rape who fakes insanity to escape hard labor in prison. Convinced that McMurphy has indeed lost his mind, the warden transfers him to a maximum security asylum for rehabilitation. The facility is overseen by Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher); a superficially congenial nurse who employs subtle humiliation, drug therapy and a debilitating regiment of menial exercises to keep her patients sufficiently anesthetized.    


Oddly enough, McMurphy seems to fit right in. He delights at ‘playing’ with the fragile psyches of his fellow patients; the reclusive, Ellis (Michael Berryman); perpetually horny and delusional, Martini (Danny DeVito); neurotic Billy (Dan Dourif); pseudo-frustrated intellectual, Frederickson (Vincent Schiavelli) and stoic deaf/mute Chief Bromden (Will Samson) until he realizes that what is entirely lacking from this hospital environment is any genuine sense of hope for rehabilitation. Instead, Ratched and her staff seem content to maintain the patients in their current state, simply to keep the peace.


Determined that he should not lose his own sanity while under lock and key, McMurphy steals a bus and takes his fellow inmates on a lark and fishing expedition that infuriates the administrative staff. McMurphy further incurs Nurse Ratched's wrath by suggesting that he and 'his friends' should not be physically restrained and/or drugged into submission simply because they are bothersome.


During a group therapy session one of the patients, Cheswick (Sidney Lassick) suffers a breakdown that results in a brawl between the orderlies and McMurphy and Chief Bromden. The three are restrained and sent for electroshock therapy to 'correct' their behavior and Randle begins to realize that faking his own 'insanity' might not have been such a good idea. 


With his own release from the hospital no longer assured, Randle plots a breakout. He bribes the night guard to allow his gal pal, Candy (Marya Small) and her friend, Rose (Louisa Moritz) into the facility with some booze so that the boys can have themselves a party. The next morning Ratched discovers Billy and Candy together. His stutter is gone. But when Ratched informs Billy she is going to tell his mother what he's done his stutter returns. Billy locks himself in the doctor's office and commits suicide. Randle is so outraged he attacks and attempts to strangle Ratched before being knocked unconscious by one of the guards. 


Much later Chief Bromden sees Randle being led to his room. Believing that he is preparing for their escape from the hospital, Bromden quietly sneaks in but is horrified to discover that Randle has been lobotomized. Rather than allow him the indignation of this catatonic state, Bromden smothers Randle with his pillow, then escapes by smashing through one of the windows.


One Flew Over A Cuckoo's Nest is a strangely enlightened and morally uplifting film. Director Milos Forman constructs an insular world that is both unsettling and yet safe and familiar. Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman's screenplay struggles to maintain a balance between the many character parts - each fascinating - though some given precious little to do except adorn the background - and the overall arch of inspiring hope when nothing but abject misery seems to loom overhead. 


Whenever the script allows, Forman and his cinematographer Haskell Wexler get up close to the characters, allowing the drama to naturally develop between them. Much more of an ensemble piece than a star vehicle, the film is undoubtedly grounded by its two most galvanic central performances from Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. But in the end its the unerring human drama and saga of the human spirit that continues to speak to us these many years later.


Warner Home Video’s 35th Anniversary Blu-ray pads out the extra features but gives us the same 1080p transfer as its single disc digipak offering from a few years ago. This isn't necessarily bad, but 'Anniversary Editions' are supposed to be about offering the home consumer definitive hi-def transfers. We don't get that here. Color and contrast levels seem just a tad weaker than expected. Flesh tones are pasty at best. Whites exhibit a dull slightly bluish tint. Film grain is present although it appears some minor DNR has been applied to minimize its presence herein.  The audio is a bigger disappointment. We get the same 5.1 Dolby Digital rather than a DTS upgrade, which a 35th anniversary of anything certainly warrants!  


Extras include an audio commentary from Milos Forman. It's the same commentary as before. We also get the 86 min. 'Completely Cuckoo' - a thorough look back at the making of the film, as well as a 31 min. featurette on the improvements made to real mental institutions since the film's debut. A few deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer are also included. Again, Warner pads out the extras with reproduced lobby cards, poster art and a booklet that is glossy but short on production details. Bottom line: recommended. 


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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
3

Friday, December 7, 2007

MIDNIGHT COWBOY: Blu-ray (United Artists 1969) MGM Home Video


Based on James Leo Herlihy’s novel, John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) marked a definite turn in the way Academy voters cast their ballots. AMPAS, long admired, berated, applauded or abhorred (depending on who you ask) for its milquetoast sentiments towards art that dared push the time-honoured invisible boundaries in film making took an unexpected step away from their usual favouring of big budget epics/musicals and instead went for this hard-hitting modestly budgeted melodrama about the unlikely bond that develops between aspiring gigolo/greenhorn Texan, Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and street savvy two bit hustler, Enrico ‘Ratso’ Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman).
Owing to the brief flashes of nudity, its overt references to homosexuality, and its particularly disturbing rape scene, Midnight Cowboy became the first and only X-rated film to win a Best Picture Oscar. Today, despite changing attitudes and tastes the film’s content continues to hold up remarkably well, primarily thanks to Schlesinger’s focus on the friendship between Joe and Rizzo. Walter Salts’ screenplay begins with Joe quitting his job at a roadside greasy spoon in Big Spring Texas – a backwater with dead end possibilities for a man of his obvious good looks. Dressed like a cheap knock off of the clichéd western rodeo star, Joe aspires to become some New York socialite’s kept man. But he is hopelessly inept at his chosen profession – painfully obvious once he reaches the urban decay of New York City.
After several false starts, Joe meets Rizzo, a cut-rate con artist who promises an introduction to a well-known pimp, only to steal Joe’s money instead and turn him over to a religious fanatic. Out of luck and money, and now desperate for both, Joe markets himself for gay sex – a deviation from the novel’s premise that Joe’s bisexuality only extended to close friends and not total strangers. With no hope of securing…uh… ‘work’ Joe divides his time between an all-night movie theater where he can acquire some fresh Johns and the local bus terminal that has become his new home. When next his path crosses Rizzo’s, Joe threatens the cripple with bodily harm – a move that makes for an unlikely truce between them. Rizzo trains Joe in the art of pick-pocketing and makes several serious attempts at marketing him as a heterosexual stud for hire.
The directorial choices Schlesinger makes in providing back-story for these two unlikely compatriots is interesting. For Rizzo, the past is revealed primarily through dialogue – mostly quiet conversations with Joe. We learn that Rizzo refused to follow in his father’s footsteps as a shoe shiner. However, for Joe, Schlesinger employs the cinematic device of the flashback. The audience actually gets to see Joe’s fractured past – his Grandmother Sally (Ruth White) dies of a broken heart while Joe is off serving his country in Viet Nam. Joe’s girlfriend, Annie (Jennifer Salt) was loose gal who reformed after meeting Joe. But one night, the good ol’ boys got together to hunt her down. Finding Annie and Joe in the backseat of Joe’s car the rabble took their turns raping both Annie and Joe, forcing Annie’s father to institutionalize her after she suffered a nervous breakdown.
From here, the story only gets more bizarre: Joe and Rizzo continue to pull off their petty heists. They are invited to a swinger’s party where Joe mistakes marijuana for a cigarette and is shortly thereafter slipped a pill that causes him to hallucinate. Higher than a kite, Joe leaves the party with Shirley (Brenda Vaccaro) – a cougar-ish socialite on the make. But their first sexual encounter is thwarted by the residual effects of the marijuana. It renders Joe temporarily impotent.
Meanwhile, Rizzo, who has fallen down a flight of stairs, makes his way home with a hacking cough that is getting the better of him. Indeed, the story hints that he has developed tuberculosis. When Joe returns from his romp with Shirley, he discovers Rizzo gravely ill. The two get aboard a bus to make haste to Miami where Rizzo has suggested the warmer climate will do him good. Regrettably, Rizzo dies, leaving Joe once more alone and friendless in the world unrepentant and cynical, and destined to devour his dreams.
Midnight Cowboy is very dark and often quite disturbing. The ugliness of its story would be enough to turn off most viewers if not for Waldo Salt’s masterful screenplay that keeps the corrosiveness of the story at bay just long enough to explore the fascinating, if utterly flawed relationship between Joe and Rizzo. These are two utterly tragic outcasts – each trapped in the seedy underbelly of a cold and heartless world that has turned against them. Both Hoffman and Voight turn in devasting performances in this quintessential ‘drawing room’ melodrama that uses the whole of New York as its backdrop. Adam Holender’s cinematography transforms the dingy streets of Manhattan into an ever constricting web that threatens to trap and crush our anti-heroic duo.    
MGM/Fox’s Blu-ray doesn’t fair all that much better than their various DVD incarnations. This is definitely a tired old 1080p up-conversion of the same tired old 720p video files that Fox has had under lock and key since 2005. Colours are muddier than expected and contrast levels still appear weaker than they ought. Owing to Blu-ray’s higher bit rate the visuals marginally tighten up and grain tends to look just a tad more natural than gritty as it did on DVD. But overall, the improvements are marginal at best. Booooooring! Disappoooooointing! The audio is 5.1 DTS and not terribly prepossessing. Again: old elements/same quality. An audio commentary and three featurettes exploring ‘the making of’ and ‘lasting impact’ of the film round out our enjoyment. 
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
3
EXTRAS
2

A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS (Columbia/Horizon 1966) Sony Home Entertainment

What does a man profit by if he loses himself in the process? I'm paraphrasing, but this question is very much at the crux of Fred Zinnemann’s magnificent A Man For All Seasons (1966) a taut character and case study in defense of Sir Thomas More (Paul Scofield), the English nobleman and lawyer who is first courted, then condemned by reigning English demigod, King Henry VIII (Robert Shaw). More opposes the King’s divorce from Queen Mary to wed his sixth wife, Anne Boleyn.


Henry’s appeal goes first to the Church of England where Cardinal Wolsey (Orson Welles) reluctantly signs the decree under duress. Wolsey is acutely aware of the church’s stance on divorce. But he also realizes the consequences for denying a royal command.


An engaging subplot involves More’s wife, Alice (Wendy Hiller), his daughter, Margaret (Susannah York) and her seditionist suitor, William Roper (Corin Redgrave). More will not allow Margaret to marry unless William pledges his allegiances to the Crown and respects his wishes as Margaret’s father and the ‘right hand’ of the throne of England – something Roper emphatically refuses to do.


Meanwhile, the ambitious Thomas Cromwell (Leo McKern) has correctly assessed the peoples’ waning affections for their ruler. Ruthlessly, he blackmails More’s young charge, Matthew (Colin Blakely) to defame More’s credibility and reputation, forcing the king to declare More’s actions as treason against the state and inadvertently turning the people against him.


A Man for All Seasons is powerful melodrama – rigidly explored through mannerisms rather than actions. This is immensely satisfying because of the potpourri of finely wrought performances given by some of the finest actors of their generation, beginning with Paul Scofield's meticulous handling of Sir Thomas - a truly inspired tour de force, brilliant and spellbinding - if ever worthy of his Best Actor Oscar statuette.


Robert Shaw is threatening and fiery as the King Henry. Orson Welles and Leo McKern are riveting as two sides to the same flawed equation. How to usurp a throne without being toppled from their own authority. Director Zinnemann is frequently criticized for his methodical pacing, unjustly misconstrued as leaden. It is not. Rather, he adds a sustained momentum to this tempest brewing beneath each cultured collar and corset.


Sony Home Entertainment has re-released A Man For All Seasons as a 'Special Edition'. Image quality is dramatically different than that featured on the previously released DVD. The SE exhibits a much darker image. Colors are more fully saturated, bold and vibrant. Flesh tones however, are perhaps still a tad pasty and just a bit too reddish over the original DVD.The image on the SE is quite solid with more than a fair amount of fine detail realized. Age related artifacts are kept to a bare minimum.


Some minor edge enhancement and aliasing crop up but nothing that will distract. Unfortunately, the image on this new release is 'too dark'. The previously released DVD bumped up contrast levels allowed for a greater amount of visual information during night scenes. Occasionally, the image is also slightly out of focus.The SE's audio has been re-channeled to stereo with predictable limitations in sonic fidelity. The original mono is also included.


The only extra on the SE is a brief history of Sir Thomas More with various historians providing a rather interesting commentary on the real man. The SE also contains several theatrical trailers that begin automatically before the feature film - annoying, simply annoying! There are no extras on the standard disc.


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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
1

TOM JONES (United Artists 1963) MGM Home Video

Based on Henry Fielding’s classic novel, director Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) is a raucous, uninhibited tongue-in-cheek recanting of that scoundrel’s many sexual escapades with the ladies. The film breaks just about every cinematic tradition known to the ‘historical’ epic – its characters frequently making hilarious asides to the audience while treating the subject material as though it were a contemporary comedy of errors or sheer farce.


The tale begins with B&W silent-movie footage of young Tom’s origins. Squire Allworthy (George Devine) returns home to discover an infant in his bed. Believing it to be the illegitimate son of his two servants, the Squire banishes them and decides to raise the child as his own. From here, the film leaps into color and sound with Tom (Albert Finney) living a life of privilege. Handsome and wily, Tom is the chamber maid’s delight. However, also being a bastard he cannot hope to wed his one true love, the fair Sophy Western (Susannah York).


Sophy’s guardian Aunt – Miss Western (Edith Evans) and father, Squire Western (Hugh Griffith) have arranged a marriage for Sophy to Mr. Blifil (David Warner), the wealthy heir of Western’s widowed sister, Bridget (Rachel Kempson). On her deathbed, Bridget writes a letter revealing the origins of Tom’s birth – a letter intended for Western’s eyes only, but intercepted by Blifil and his two tutors; Mr. Thwackum (Peter Bull) and Mr. Square (John Moffatt). Thereafter, this ill-mannered trio set about to denounce Tom as a villain.


Sympathetic to Tom’s plight, Allworthy give him a meager allowance and sends him forth into the world to seek his fortune. But the road to self-discovery is paved with spurious characters. Tom is beaten up, has his money stolen, and is falsely accused of philandering with a married woman, before proving both his heroism and nobility to Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman). Meanwhile, to escape her marriage to Blifil, Sophy runs away from home. Both she and Tom arrive in London separately – unaware that the other is in town.


Tom falls prey to Lady Bellaston (Joan Greenwood), an unscrupulous heiress who eventually contributes to Tom being accused of robbery and attempted murder. He is saved from the hangman’s noose by Squire Western who has at last discovered Bridget’s letter and is able to set the record straight about Tom’s birthright.


Essentially a drawing room comedy, John Osbourne’s screenplay discards most every convention of the novel and of the period in favor of a ‘screwball comedy’ approach that affords each and every one of the characters moments of hilarious fallibility. Richardson’s direction moves quickly through the plot points, almost with racing precision, taking nothing too seriously. In retrospect, the film is a perfect time capsule for that 1960’s ‘let it all hang out’ mentality.


MGM’s DVD is one of the most grossly undernourished transfers I have ever seen. Not only is this disc mastered from a poorly contrasted print rather than the original camera negative, but there are excessive amounts of age related artifacts, edge enhancement and pixelization. Color fidelity is so weak and muted that at times even the color footage appears to be teetering dangerously close to a ruddy monochromatic palette. Flesh tones are orange. Greens are a dull muddy brown. There is virtually nothing to recommend the visual presentation of this movie. For shame! The audio is mono and quite strident. There are NO extras!


FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)4
VIDEO/AUDIO0
EXTRAS0

Thursday, December 6, 2007

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (Michael Todd 1956) Warner Home Video

It's difficult today to imagine what Academy members were thinking when they voted Michael Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days (1956) Best Picture of the year. Although the film is a glorious showcase for Todd’s patented Todd A-O - its 'bug eye lens' capturing the globe-trotting expansive vistas of far off landscapes - and an even greater showcase of actors briefly appearing in bit parts Todd himself dubbed ‘cameos,’ the film takes on very pedestrian feel – just the first in a long line of star-studded travelogues. But Todd was himself a showman more than a film maker. And Around the World in 80 Days is quite a show. No less an authority than Edward R. Murrow introduces us to this lavish adventure with an eight and a half minute narration over George Melies silent classic, A Trip to the MoonFrom this primitive introduction we advance to the present and a test rocket blasting off the launch pad in New Mexico. 


A clever series of aerial shots supposedly depicting the rocket's orbit around the earth follow before we dissolve to London England circa 1900. At a glance, one might wonder what any of the aforementioned has to do with our main story - and in point of fact the answer is 'absolutely nothing'. But what Todd does with these establishing shots is to ground the time period of the story that is to follow. 


Based very loosely on the Jules Verne classic novel, the film charts the ambitious exploits of Professor Phileas Fogg (David Niven). On a dare from his social club, Fogg and his man servant, Passepartout (Cantinflas) set about to prove that the circumference of the earth can be crossed by hot air balloon in a matter of 80 days.


Unfortunately for Fogg, he soon discovers that bad timing, bad weather and ill company can slow down even the most passionate of endeavors. Along the way, Fogg and Passepartout dance the Flamenco with Jose Greco, fight off an Indian attack with Ronald Colman, cross the Nile in style, and save the life of exotic Indian Princess Aouda (Shirley MacLaine). Miscalculating the amount of time he’s already spent on his globetrotting, Fogg decides he must concede defeat. The irony is that he’s only a few blocks away from his destination with a whole day’s time left to spare.


Todd cajoled a litany of internationally reknown thespians to appear in his movie – some without even paying for their services, their cameos lasting mere minutes on the screen. The list is endless but highlighted by memorable bits from Charles Boyer - as travel agent Monsieur Gasse, Red Skelton (a drunkard), Marlene Dietrich (a madam), Frank Sinatra (a barroom piano player), Trevor Howard (as wagerer Denis Fallentin), Noel Coward (proprietor of an employment agency), Charles Coburn (a steamship company clerk), George Raft (a Bowery thug), Peter Lorre (stowaway), Joe E. Brown (stationmaster), John Carradine (Colonel Stamp Procter) and Hermiona Gingold (sporting woman). 


Around the World in 80 Days may not be the most intricately plotted adventure story ever told. In point of fact, it's cartoony and episodic at best. But it is certainly one of the most glamorous, grand and gregarious spectacles ever achieved on celluloid. That is, after all is said and done, what Michael Todd was after all along. The film doesn't evolve so much as it hurls the viewer through a series of fun house styled vignettes. The 'who's who' cavalcade is the film's primary selling feature. Without this glittering assemblage of stars there's not a whole lot to recommend the story as sheer entertainment. 


Warner Home Video’s DVD is quite solid. Though there are brief moments when the brilliance of the Technicolor seems less than stellar and there are also moments where film grain and age related dirt and artifacts seem more prevalent and obvious – on the whole the image quality will surely not disappoint. Colors are steadfast and bold throughout. Contrast levels are very nicely realized.


A slight flickering of the image – inherent in early Todd A-O productions is detected in a few brief scenes but nothing that will distract. Blacks are velvety deep and solid. Whites are generally clean. The audio is a 5.1 Dolby Digital remix of the original six track magnetic stereo stems – quite pleasing on the ear. Extras include a Playhouse 90 Tribute to the film, vintage and anniversary documentaries on the making of the film and a very thorough and engaging audio commentary. Recommended.


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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
3.5