Sunday, March 30, 2008

DOWN ARGENTINE WAY (2oth Century-Fox 1940) Fox Home Video

For anyone desiring a textbook example of the typical frothy Technicolor musical that once so readily populated the American movie landscape, see Irving Cummings’ Down Argentine Way (1940); an unabashedly sentimental, tune filled and lighter-than-air confection that unequivocally proves ‘substance’ is not required when ‘style’ is plentiful.


Exploiting the ample musical talents of Betty Grable, Don Ameche, The Nicholas Brothers and a personal discovery of Darryl F. Zanuck – Carmen Miranda (who fairly steals the show, despite the fact she only appears in three musical numbers that have absolutely nothing to do with the plot), the screenplay by Karl Tunberg and Darrell Ware is not particularly a strength – per say - though its serviceable ‘boy meets girl’ scenario is adequate enough to hang the rest of the film’s elegant trappings.


It is worth noting that on any other actress, a bowl of fruit and feathers as headdress would appear ludicrous at best. On the fabulous Miranda, however, they prove not only ideal but iconic – transforming the relatively unheard of singer into an international superstar virtually overnight. Part of Miranda’s appeal is absent from this film – her marvelously obtuse fracturing of the English language. Herein, she sings three signature pieces – the best probably being ‘South American Way’. Miranda, who was a nightclub singer in New York could not be pried loose from her contract to do the film, hence all of her sequences were photographed on a sound stage constructed in the Big Apple.


The film debuts the effervescent Betty Grable (photographed for the first time in Fox’s lurid Technicolor) as Glenda Crawford; a rather haughty heiress who wants to buy a race horse from suave Latin lover, Ricardo Quintana (a role originally intended for Ricky Ricardo but ably earned by Don Ameche). Learning of Ms. Crawford’s interests to buy the horse before discovering her true identity (that of a descendant from a family despised by Ricardo’s stoic grandfather, Don Diego), Ricardo agrees to sell Glenda his pony, then reneges on their deal, leaving Glenda jilted and confused.


She departs with her aunt Binnie (Charlotte Greenwood) to Buenos Aires where, as fate would have it, Ricardo lives. After a few not-so-rough spots are ironed out all is forgiven between Ricardo and Glenda. Between Glenda and Don Diego (Henry Stephenson) is another story. He bitterly refuses to have anything to do with any member of the Crawford family – even threatening to disown Ricardo should he pursue the love affair. Ah, but then he inexplicably melts like butter when he discovers that Glenda has helped his greatest race horse win a derby match: so much for plot.


Director Cummings knows his way around such inconsequential bits of business. Instead of explaining things, he delivers decorous usage of the grand musical mythology to suggest that Argentina is a tropical country. It is not. He intermittently interrupts the narrative with delightful and mind-boggling routines from Carmen Miranda and the Nicholas Brothers – diversions that are as welcome and celebrated as the star turns from Ameche and Grable, and, he even affords the wacky Greenwood a frenetic specialty number ‘Sing for Your Senorita.’ What one takes away from the experience is not so much ‘style’ as it remains lavish kitsch and superior escapism into that dream-like world of eternal youth, joy and cleanliness. There is only one way then to describe this trip Down Argentine Way. It is sheer delight.


Those words also befit Fox’s DVD transfer; an impeccable Technicolor dye transfer print. Colors simply glow and shimmer off the screen. Grable’s lips are blood red, the night scenes are bathed in a haunting bluish afterglow and Ameche’s hair is jet black. Carmen Miranda’s dress and headgear is an eye-popping Technicolor rainbow. Fine details are realized throughout, even in some cases exposing the heavy make-up applications. Contrast levels are perfectly realized.


The soundtrack has been remixed to stereo (the original mono is also included) but there is very little difference between the two. Inherent shortcomings in the original audio have been tempered as much as possible for a thoroughly adequate audio presentation.


Extras include a fantastic audio commentary by resident Fox expert, Sylvia Stoddard and a Biography special on Betty Grable’s life. Stills gallery and theatrical trailers are also featured. Highly recommended!


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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5

EXTRAS
3

ON THE BEACH (Stanley Kramer 1959) MGM Home Video

Socially conscious director Stanley Kramer is at his best with On The Beach (1959) a sobering reflection on the last days of human civilization as we know it. Based on Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic novel about the impending doom of a nuclear holocaust, the screenplay by John Paxton and James Lee Barrett pulls no punches in delivering a stark, unsympathetic mirror of the perils facing mankind.


The film stars Gregory Peck as Dwight Lionel Towers, Commander of the submarine, USS Sawfish. Towers and his crew have sailed to Queensland Australia, the last bastion of civilization untouched by fallout after a nuclear holocaust between the two super powers has contaminated the rest of the world. The journey, however, is hardly an escape. Predictions from local scientists are that terminal radiation will reach Queensland’s shores before the week is out, killing off the last survivors and ending mankind's supremacy on the earth.


The inhabitance of Queensland already knows this – though the mood and temperament on the island has yet to degenerate into mass hysteria. On the contrary, life goes on as though nothing has happened. After all, what else is there to do?


Upon his arrival at the local military base in Queensland, Towers is greeted by free spirit Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner) who invites him to her home for a party where Lt. Cmdr. Peter Holmes (Anthony Perkins) and scientist, Julian Osborne (Fred Astaire) have gathered to discuss options before the inevitable end.


As word comes over the airwaves that the cloud of radioactivity is fast approaching Queensland with the prevailing winds, Julian becomes more morose. Of all the party goers, as a scientist Julian understands his own part in the development of the bomb. His is a deep-seeded irony and self-pity that science – arguably once perceived as man’s technological salvation - has, in fact, become mankind’s undoing.


The screenplay asks the potent question of ‘if you only had a few hours to live how would you spend that time?’ Moira – never much for relationships decides to take a chance on Dwight – himself a widower since the explosions abroad killed his family back in the United States.


Julian decides to live out a life long dream and becomes a race car driver. He competes in a local competition, cheered loudly by Dwight and Moira, before asphyxiating himself in a closed garage with his engine running.


Only Mary Holmes (Donna Anderson), Peter’s young wife is reticent about what lies ahead. Her inability to conceive of killing her baby with an overdose of pills, in order to suffocate his pain before radiation poisoning, is a moment fraught with disturbing, heartrending and tragic overtones - none easily forgotten after the houselights come up.


Director Kramer grabs his audience from the beginning with a doomed vague sense of finality that does not allow us to either relax from the uncertainty of these characters or forget the pending ramifications. The film forces us to face our own mortality; perhaps with grace, honor, dignity and ultimate resolve, but look squarely into the abyss nevertheless. There is a pervasive and overriding sense of grand waste that infects every moment of the story. Poignant – if depressing – On the Beach is a finely wrought melodrama that deserves our renewed consideration, respect and understanding if, for no other reason, that its message is more timely and relevant than ever before. Highly recommended!


MGM DVD delivers a rather smooth DVD presentation in its original 1:66:1 aspect ratio. The gray scale is refined with solid blacks and very clean whites. Age related artifacts are present throughout and, at times, rather distracting. Edge enhancement, pixelization, and shimmering of fine details persist, but do not distract. The audio is mono but well represented. Regrettably, there are NO extras!


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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
0

TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY (MGM 1946) Warner Home Video

In the great pantheon of MGM’s celebrated film musicals, Richard Whorf’s Till The Clouds Roll By (1946) is a colossus – uniting the studio’s justly celebrated and formidable roster of diverse musical talents (including Judy Garland, Van Johnson, Angela Lansbury, Lucille Bremer, Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson and Lena Horne) into an epically mounted – if superficially fictional - super-production.


The narrative by Myles Connelly and Jean Holloway is reported to be the life and times of Broadway legend Jerome Kern. Don’t you believe it! Behind the marvelous performances there is nothing more than pure confection that, while engaging and melodic – is as fanciful as Kern’s own melodies; in ample supply on this outing. Reportedly, Kern discouraged screen scenarists Guy Bolton and George Wells in drawing inspiration from his own life – presumably because it lacked narrative intensity. The reconstitution however does not fair much better.


The film opens with a lengthy prologue of standards from Jerome Kern’s (Robert Walker) most successful stage play – Showboat. Kathryn Grayson and Tony Martin make an engaging couple, warbling ‘Make Believe’; Virginia O’Brien does her usual deadpan in ‘Life Upon the Wicked Stage’ and Lena Horne, coos a positively sultry interpretation of ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine.


From here, the story digresses to the youthful days of Kern’s consternation and his chronic inability to gain outside interest in his songs. He meets musical arranger, James I. Hessler (a wholly fictional character, though adequately embodied by Van Heflin) who works diligently to help launch Kern’s career.


The early tunes in the Kern catalogue may be somewhat lesser known today, but MGM’s art department gives each and every one a glorious visual interpretation. Angela Lansbury coos ‘How’d You Like To Spoon With Me’ atop a swing. Dinah Shore warbles ‘They Didn’t Believe Me’ under a stylized magnolia tree. A non-singing June Allyson accompanies Ray MacDonald in the brilliant pas deux with a chorine of boys and girls toting pink and blue umbrellas in the rain.


The most ambitiously staged sequences are those reserved for Judy Garland’s cameo – cast as the sympathetic stage star, Marilyn Miller. Her first song is ‘Look For The Silver Lining’ – a poignant ballad sung purposefully behind a stacks of dirty dishes to conceal the fact that Garland was, in fact, pregnant at the time with daughter Liza. The second Garland appearance is a tour de force – ‘Sunny', Who?’; beginning with an elaborately staged circus vignette that effortlessly dissolves into Garland atop an escalator surrounded by elegant men in top hats and tails.


The film’s finale is a compendium of Kern standards staged atop a towering edifice of gleaning white art deco pedestals and sung by every performer except Garland. Lena Horne offers ‘Why Was I Born,’ Tony Martin/You Are The Promise of Springtime, and Kathryn Grayson/Long Ago and Far Away; capped off by Frank Sinatra’s electric rendition of ‘Ol Man River’ – so vibrantly solemn in his early Brooklyn crooner’s style that it provides the perfect finish for this monumental musical achievement.


Till the Clouds Roll By was MGM's first all-star 'bio' musical and its overwhelming success at the box office ensured that more like minded fare would follow. Viewed today, the production values alone are mind-boggling. This is a colossus in every sense of the word, staged with MGM's chic good taste for pictorial value. If one ever doubted the appeal of star power, this film confirms its strength in spades. Only MGM could pull off such a feat and the results yield an embarrassment of artistic riches. 


After having to contend with numerous public domain copies of this film on DVD (none up to par where quality is concerned) Warner Home Video’s transfer on Till The Clouds Roll By is much welcomed – easily eclipsing all others. For the most part, colors are bold, vibrant and full saturated – thanks primarily to a major restoration effort undertaken in the early 1990s for a long overdue and highly anticipated laserdisc release.


Contrast levels are nicely realized. Fine details are present throughout. Grain and age related artifacts are practically nonexistent. Misregistration difficulties that were inherent on the aforementioned laserdisc release have been corrected on this DVD. The audio is mono but very nicely cleaned up. Extras included a brief featurette, audio only tracks and the film’s theatrical trailer. Recommended!


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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
2

Thursday, March 27, 2008

JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (Stanley Kramer 1961) MGM Home Video

One of the most profoundly sobering movies ever made about the holocaust, Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) is often stagy, slightly stoic, though never anything less than completely engrossing post-WWII melodrama.

A revealing look at the aftermath of Hitlerian rule, and driven by its star performances, the film is as vitally tragic, viscerally disturbing, yet ultimately as life affirming as any ‘message picture’ ever produced about the rule of law in an unjust world. Abby Mann’s potent screenplay explores the Nuremberg trials from the perspective of American Justice, Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy) – pulled from his retirement to preside on the trial of German judges accused of Nazi crimes.

Upon his arrival in Berlin – a bombed out shell of its former self – Dan is installed in the residence of a deceased Nazi General. Before trial, Dan begins to review the cases of Germany’s Chief Justice Dr. Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) a patriot, once regarded highly for his personal convictions. The others on trial include the ineffectual Werner Lampe (Torbin Meyer), embittered Emil Hahn (Werner Klemperer) and indifferent, Freidrich Hofstedter (Martin Brandt).

Gaining guarded insight into Germany’s political climate during the war from his two servants, Mrs. and Mr. Halbestadt (Virginia Christine and Ben Wright) Judge Haywood’s understandings and experiences are significantly broadened when Madame Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich) the former mistress of the house he now occupies, arrives to take some personal effects back to her small apartment. It is through Bertholt’s eyes and reflections that Haywood develops a quiet, though nevertheless potent grounding for the people who did not support Hitler’s final solution.

However, the film’s narrative also forces Dan to reconsider a very loaded question: who is more to blame for the atrocities committed under Nazi rule– the ardent S.S. officers who openly supported Hitler or the conscientious objectors that remained silent while millions went to their deaths a stone’s throw away from their villages and towns.

The real crux and spark of the film derives from its passionate court room exchanges between Defense Attorney Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) and the pronouncedly defiant Colonel Tad Lawson (Richard Widmark), who serves as the United States lead prosecutor. One by one, the witnesses are brought forward with heartrending testimony. Rudolph Peterson’s (Montgomery Clift) unnecessary sterilization reveals another side to the German justice system that Haywood had not considered.

However, it is Irene Hoffman’s (Judy Garland) utterly tragic recanting of her platonic teenage association with a retired Jewish merchant – an association inadvertently resulting in the man’s brutal extermination – that eventually leads Haywood to his ultimate conclusion about the purpose for the trial and its verdict.

The final moments of the film are dedicated to a tete a tete between Haywood and Dr. Janning – men so similar in their profession and way of interpreting the law that it both startles and haunts Haywood into disbelief that such an intelligent man as Janning could so readily have supported the perverse atrocities of the Third Reich.

Judgment at Nuremberg is not an easy film to sit through. As the audience, we are spared many visual depictions of Nazi torture and brutalities, though Richard Widmark’s gripping commentary as Col. Lawson is quite enough to let our imaginations run wild into animalistic depravity. The entire cast performs superbly with Schell and Garland delivering the most unnerving moments of reflection. These stellar bits of acting live long after the footlights have come up.

Nominated for an astounding 11 Academy Awards and winner of 2, Judgment at Nuremberg remains a benchmark in ‘60s cinema – powerfully frank and emotionally satisfying - a story for the ages brilliantly adapted for the big screen. It belongs on everyone’s top shelf; a must have!

MGM DVD delivers a very smooth, though not anamorphic 1:66.1 image that will surely not disappoint. The B&W elements are remarkably clean with minimal film grain, accurately rendered contrast levels, deep solid blacks and very clean whites. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 (the original mono is also included). The two are practically identical in their spatial separation and fidelity, though in the 5.1 mix the music track is decidedly the benefactor.

Extras include a thoroughly insightful featurette in which screenwriter Abby Mann and co-star Maximilian Schell speak of their experiences on the film. Both are so well spoken that they put many a new audio commentary track to shame with their genuine ability to talk on cue. Also included is a 15 minute tribute to Stanley Kramer that is nicely done, if all too brief. A photo gallery, theatrical trailer and promotional junket materials round out the extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
3

SOLOMON AND SHEBA (Edward Small, 1959) MGM/Fox Home Entertainment

Based on a story by Crane Wilbur, King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba (1959) is a highly questionable Bible-fiction melodrama that proves relatively entertaining nevertheless. Originally, Fox matinee idol Tyrone Power had been cast in the lead. However, after just a few weeks of shooting, Power collapsed while filming the climactic duel with costar George Sanders, suffering a fatal heart attack and dying on set at the age of 44.

In recasting the part for Yul Brynner independent producer Edward Small sought to salvage what he could of the Power footage, apparently using long shots already made of Power in the finished film rather than re-shooting from scratch. (Aside: this critic has never been able to spot the bait and switch, even in pause mode.)

The treatment of divine intervention (aka God) as a sort of wish fulfillment ‘seek and ye shall receive’ in the screenplay by Paul Dudley, George Bruce and Anthony Veiller is rather obtuse. It seems that anyone who prays to the Almighty has their prayers instantly answered; be they Israelite or Pagan; a novel ideal that rather defeats the purpose of converting Pagans to Christianity – after all, what’s the point?

The tale begins in earnest with brothers, Solomon (Brynner) and Adonijah (Sanders) – the two halves of Israel’s King David (Findlay Currie) awaiting an ambush from Egyptian forces in the desert. Pompous, greedy and assured, Adonijah believes that he will be crowned king after David’s death – an expectation dashed when David summons his final breath to bestow the crown to Solomon instead.

After David’s death – and despite his outward declaration of treason against the crown – Adonijah is appointed the Captain of the Armed Forces in charge of protecting Israel by Solomon. Praying to God for guidance near a rocky formation, Solomon is openly answered with the promise of renewed peace and prosperity for all who reside in Jerusalem.

In the meantime, Egypt’s Pharaoh (David Farrar) consults with the sultry Queen of Sheba (Gina Lollobridgida) on an attack strategy that will decimate Israel. Sheba suggests that rather than plunge their two allied kingdoms into bloody conquest that she attempt the toppling of Israel from within. Granted her request, Sheba arrives at the gate of Jerusalem to discover a rich and prosperous people.

As smoke screen against her true intensions, she makes a lavish gift of silks, gold and livestock that Solomon accepts with open gratitude. Gradually, however, Sheba plants the seeds of desire in Solomon’s heart, luring him away from Abishag (Marissa Pavan); the woman chosen to be his wife.

Eventually, Solomon breaks his vow to Abishag, during a passionate Pagan orgy where he falls to Sheba’s wily seductions. The mighty – and apparently vengeful - hand of God strikes violently its wrath on Jerusalem – destroying the graven image of Sheba’s god, the king’s throne room and temple that Solomon built as a dying dedication to his late father. Abishag, who begged God to spare Solomon and punish her for his indiscretions instead, is buried in the rubble, turning the will of the King’s trusted advisors and his people against him.

Adonijah – previously exiled from Jerusalem for his treacheries – returns to attack the city with the Pharoh’s armies. Leaving the battle, and presumably slaughter of Solomon to his generals in the field, Adonijah enters the city and declares that Sheba is to blame for all of the city’s suffrage. Adonijah commands the inhabitants extract their revenge by stoning Sheba to death and they do.

Meanwhile, Solomon lures the charging Egyptian forces to their doom by blinding them with reflections of the sun in his men’s shields. The Egyptians drive their chariots over the side of a great precipice and are killed in a horrendous fall. Solomon returns to the city victorious to discover Sheba bloody and near death on the steps of the Temple.

Adjoniah challenges his brother to a duel. He is mortally wounded and dies – proclaiming Solomon the undisputed ruler once and for all. Removing Sheba to his throne room, Solomon learns that it was she who spared his life by renouncing Paganism and pledging loyalty to the one true faith. The voice of God intrudes to concur with Sheba that this is so and restores her to life – though he exiles Sheba back to her kingdom where she will give birth to Solomon’s son.

Solomon and Sheba is not perfect entertainment. Like so many of the Bible-fiction epics that preceded and would follow it, the narrative lags painfully at the beginning of the film – with awkward moments of stoic introspection. George Sanders is ill-suited for the role of the passionate usurper; looking quite ridiculous in warrior garb. Lollobrigida’s straining of the English language in her paused delivery of certain lines of dialogue is obvious and, at times, distracting. The most exhilarating sequence in the film is the final full scale charge of the Egyptian armies and their ill-fated demise off the side of a cliff – magnificently staged. In the final analysis, Solomon and Sheba is entertaining enough to get this critic’s recommendation. Just be forewarned, it’s no Ben-Hur (1959).

If MGM/Fox Home Entertainment had paid as much attention to restoring the film as they did in preparing some gorgeous show box cover art, there might have been something to cheer about in this DVD presentation. Produced in Super Technirama 70 (a Technicolor process) the anamorphic widescreen image varies in consistency – though not as badly as other films shot on Eastman film stock. Colors are generally pleasing though there are some glaring moments when the palette is severely faded and slightly out of register.

On occasion, the image wobbles, either from left to right or right to left. Contrast levels have been fairly accurately rendered. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are mostly white. Fine details are inconsistently rendered throughout. Matte shots occasionally appear obvious and distracting. Flesh tones are somewhat orange. Film grain crops up now and then and is distracting, as are several moments marred by a heavy patina of age related artifacts.

Once again, MGM/Fox has chosen to source this film from its inferior 35mm general release print rather than the original – and superior - 70mm road show film stock. Go figure! So, instead of the road show’s glorious 6-track magnetic stereo we get a garishly reproduced MONO mix that is strident, dull and unrepresentative of the original presentation. Disappointing! There are no extras!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
0

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

THE MAYOR OF HELL (Warner Bros. 1933) Warner Home Video

Archie Mayo and Michael Curtiz’s The Mayor from Hell (1933) is the most satisfying crime melodrama of three that studio bad boy, James Cagney made that year; a tautly scripted minor endeavor from writer Edward Chodorov, based on Islin Auster’s Reform School.

Known for his razor sharp delivery of a line and his ability to tower over most of his contemporaries, despite a diminutive physical stature, Cagney makes the character of racketeer Richard ‘Patsy’ Gargan a credible hero in this decidedly un-heroic age.

In the film’s narrative, political fop Richard Gargan is made deputy commissioner of a boy’s reform school as his ‘reward’ for public service by corrupt political cronies; Sam – the political boss (James Donlan), Judge H.J. Gilbert (Arthur Byron) and Hopkins, the Children’s Aid lawyer (John Marston).

Initially, Gargan takes little interest in this appointment. It’s a paycheck set up under graft that affords him an equitable front and lifestyle with plenty of schmoozing and pay offs. However, Gargan eventually develops a legitimate empathy for the boys he oversees – particularly, Jimmy Smith (Frankie Darro), perhaps because in their plight and struggles Gargan taps into his own hopeless start in life as a delinquent youth.

Reformed by the love of the school’s infirmary nurse, Dorothy Griffith (Madge Adams), Gargan eventually begins to rebuild both the spirits of its inhabitants and the institution’s reputation beyond its walls. Gargan censures and/or fires the guards responsible for battering the boys while flying under the radar of heartless and tyrannical Mr. Thompson (Dudley Digges).

Sending Thompson on a holiday, Gargan implements some of Dorothy’s reformist ideas into practical action – including developing an internal system of self regulation and justice that places responsibility for the school’s daily operations squarely on the shoulders of the wayward boys. They are in charge of their own fates. Unfortunately, Gargan is withdrawn from the school to some political business in the city – actually a set up - where he accidentally shoots another man during a staged fight.

His reputation in ruins, Gargan goes into hiding. Thompson returns to the school to spread the rumor that their one time hero has denounced his responsibilities for good. Abolishing all of the progressive reforms Gargan and Dorothy have put into place, Thompson reestablishes his rigid prison-like command – firing Dorothy after she attempts to go higher up the ladder for a reprieve.

The boys are bitter and frustrated but continue to cower under Thompson’s authoritarian rule until one of their own, Johnny Stone (Raymond Borzage) - a popular whipping boy - suddenly dies while placed in solitary confinement. Anarchy ensues. The boys seize control of the school and murder Thompson. Distraught, Dorothy seeks out Gargan who vows to return to the reformatory and become its permanent guiding force for progressivism and social change.

There are many outstanding performances in this film, beginning with Cagney’s raw and motivational standout - so ambitious that it easily dwarfs the rest of the cast. The plot for this film proved so popular it was recycled twice by the studio – once under its original title ‘Reform School’(1938) with Humphrey Bogart and The Dead End Kids generated considerable heat. Yet, as good as Bogart’s performance is in that second film – it is Cagney’s extolling of Gargan’s genuineness and humanity in this original that wins out in the opinion of this critic.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is below par. The B&W image is softly focused with fine details frequently becoming lost during darker scenes. Contrast levels appear weak. Blacks are never deep but rather a faded gray. Whites are a lighter gray. Age related artifacts and screen flicker distract on occasion. The audio is mono but represented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a very engaging audio commentary by Greg Mank and a litany of shorts and trailers a la the Warner Night At The Movies treatment. Recommended – for content, not transfer quality.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
3

SMART MONEY (Warner Bros. 1931) Warner Home Video

In a review, Time Magazine marked Edward G. Robinson as “an actor with the face of a depraved cherub and a voice which makes everything he says seem violently profane”: a description that would have terminated the popularity of any other talent in the business. Fortunately, for Robinson, this snap assessment only seemed to galvanize his reputation as a bankable star at the box office. Indeed, Robinson’s installation at Warner Bros. – the studio known for its gritty ‘of the streets’ melodramas and crime thrillers – became the ideal proving ground for an actor as uncharacteristically unassumingly apart and gentile from his on screen persona as any of his fans might have guessed.

With its shift in focus from violence to laughs, Alfred E. Green’s Smart Money (1931) is notable as the only Warner Bros. film to team two of its resident ‘murder’s row’ alumni – Edward G. Robinson and James Cagney – together. Sandwiched in the canon of great gangster flicks between the former’s wrap up on Little Caesar (1931) and the latter’s yet to be filmed Public Enemy (1931), Smart Money features Cagney in a supporting role – a place of importance that would thereafter be reserved for second tier newbee on the Warner backlot, Humphrey Bogart. The screenplay by Kubec Glasmon, John Bright, Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Jackson is an ambitious amalgam of twists and turns, all leading to a very predictable outcome.

The film begins with Robinson as Nick Venizelos – a barber with big dreams of going to the city to become a celebrated gambler. Indeed, Nick’s local small operation in his backroom ‘establishment’ is good for his business in more ways than one. Presuming himself to be a gambler on par with the best cons in the biz – particularly after he defeats big time gambler Sports Williams (Boris Karloff) strictly by chance - Nick taps a few friends including his loyal sidekick and fellow barber, Jack (James Cagney) to loan him $10,000 that Nick promises to turn into a million.

Unfortunately for Nick, without a definitive background in con artistry or the chutzpa to present himself as anything but a marked pigeon, he easily becomes the dupe of gangster moll, Irene (Margaret Livingston) and her ruthless band of cutthroats fronted by Sleepy Sam (Ralf Harolde) and Irontown (William House). Nick loses everything he owns and then some - then swears to get even if it’s the last thing he does.

Nick’s first move is to get Jack back at his side. The two aggressively barber their way into some quick cash that they later successfully bet on the horses. Nick opens up his own gambling den in the heart of the city, suckering the mugs who took advantage of him and stealing Irene in the process. The two set up housekeeping together – an arrangement not unheard of in pre-Code Hollywood movies but virtually taboo after 1934.

Unfortunately for Nick, romantic complications arise after he inadvertently saves another girl (Evalyn Knapp) from committing suicide. Irene turns out to be a plant – the easy plaything of corrupt District Attorney Black (Morgan Wallace) and she wastes no time in planting evidence about Nick’s racketeering that will likely send both he and Jack to prison for a very long time. It isn’t that D.A. Black is trying to clean up his city of illegal gambling, but merely trying to weed out the competition with regards to his own floating crap games.

In a shocking bit of pre-Code action, Jack learns of Irene’s motives and physically assaults her – severely – with the unsuspecting Nick walking in and exacting his own bit of utterly misguided revenge. The scene also contains some rather subversive pantomime and obvious references to cunnilingus.

In the final analysis, Smart Money is a rather jolly roller coaster ride – its deportment and manner delivering all the anticipated grit and humor one might expect from Warner product of this vintage. But its frank and sobering underbelly is what sets the film apart from the rest. Cagney is a raw new talent herein to Robinson’s already well established persona.

Complimentary performances from both actors must have suggested that the studio would eventually team them again in subsequent films. Tragically – or perhaps fortunately (depending on one’s point of view) – Cagney’s swift rise to the upper echelons of his own super stardom precluded any such notions. Smart Money remains the catalyst for two of the studio’s most caustic ships effortlessly passing one another in the night.

Warner’s DVD transfer can only be described as a disappointment; far below what we’ve come to expect from their usual stellar treatment of classic films. One can only assume that the original film elements were in a delicate state of disrepair, requiring more restoration work than was financially feasible for the studio to incur on such a relatively unknown title.

Age related artifacts are prevalent and quite often distracting, as is the unstable flicker. The gray scale is, in fact, quite weak. There are no prominent blacks or whites but very muddy tonalities of middle gray throughout. The image also appears softly focused with a decided loss of fine details. The audio is mono and remarkably in better shape than the visuals. Extras include an audio commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini, as well as a litany of trailers and shorts a la the Warner Night at the Movies ilk.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5

EXTRAS
3

LADY KILLER (Warner Bros. 1933) Warner Home Video

Of all the cockeyed crime/comedy capers to emerge from Warner Bros., Roy Del Ruth’s Lady Killer (1933) is perhaps the most joyously unhinged and down right crazy of the lot. Based on a legitimate short story, ‘The Finger Man’ by Rosalind Keating Shaffer, the screenplay by Ben Markson and Lillie Hayward plays it strictly for laughs.

Resident studio bad boy, James Cagney, who only two years earlier had cut his teeth playing the ruthless grapefruit-in-the-face smashing Public Enemy is a gangster’s chump and romantic fop on this outing. With the exception of one powerful scene in which Cagney hauls off and drags a woman out of his boudoir by her hair, any tension that might have arisen from this otherwise slightly tawdry tale is utterly defused in favor of a quick shot, free and easy.

The story opens with Dan Quigley (Cagney) a smart mouthed, shoot-from-the-hip usher at one of New York’s big time movie palaces. Dan’s not bad, per say, but his heart isn’t in tearing ticket stubs for the paying customer. His spare moments between flicks are spent shooting craps in the men’s washroom. Eventually fired, Dan eyeballs femme fatale, Myra Gale (Mae Clark) in the lobby of a swanky hotel. Unaware that Myra’s purse dropping routine is prelude to a rouse that lures unsuspecting gamblers back to the fixed game of Spade Maddock (Douglas Dumbrille) and his cronies, Dan walks right into the rigged set up and loses fifty bucks.

Figuring out the score, Dan forces Spade to give him back his cash when another pigeon arrives to be bilked at the apartment. Thereafter, Dan becomes an integral part of Spade’s fix. In no time at all, Dan, Myra, Spade and his motley crew are running a big time nightclub that’s raking in the dough. However, Spade is a greedy creature. When he seizes on the idea of turning from legitimate business to robbing the homes of wealthy patrons that frequent the club, Dan goes along with the idea in his sort of devil-may-care playful way until he is set up to take the fall for a jewel heist at the estate of Mrs. Marley (Marjorie Gateman) where a maid is accidentally murdered.

Escaping custody, Dan goes to Hollywood where he becomes an extra in the movies. Dressed as a Sioux Chieftain, Dan accidentally meets and falls for film siren, Lois Underwood (Margaret Linsay). To bump up his own credibility and gain bigger roles opposite Lois, Dan writes his own fan mail – convincing studio bosses that he ought to be their newest leading man. Unfortunately, at the moment that Dan’s popularity in films begins to soar, Myra reenters Dan’s life – as do Spade and his henchmen later on.

They threaten to topple Dan’s success unless he goes along with their plans to begin a crime wave amongst the rich and famous in Beverly Hills. Dan attempts to bribe the gang first – then expose them. He is framed for the heist of Myra’s jewels and incarcerated. Spade, recognizing that his crime spree will be over if Dan tells the truth at trial, puts up Dan’s bail money for an early release. Spade further tells Myra to drive Dan out of the city where he and his gang will be waiting to silence Dan once and for all. Fortunately, Dan has already figured out their dastardly plan. He tips off the cops – leading to a fast chase and shoot out that ends with Dan being reunited with Lois before the final fade out.

Lady Killer isn’t one Warner Bros. movie, but rather a bizarre amalgam of three or four irreconcilable plots and genres that are all jumbled together into one crazy quilt of a narrative. The opening scenes play like a fairly serious crime/melodrama from the studio’s early vintage - right up until the heist gone wrong at the Marley estate. However, once Dan makes it into Hollywood the action is played strictly screwball with Cagney’s larger than life gangster persona given the oddity of a fish-out-of water backdrop. He becomes, first a sap, then a romantic bungler, a violent anti-social and lastly, a matinee lover on the lam.

There’s no consistency to any of the characters – least of all Dan. Myra is drawn as a tough as nails scheming vixen who intercepts Dan’s happiness at every chance before taking him into her confidence in the last act in an attempt to spare his life. Spade is a two parts Edward G. Robinson to one part Buster Keaton – an evil doer whose heart is as silly and uninspired by his work as the rest of his cronies. In the end, Lady Killer is a diluted, if diverting claptrap of several stories; its ultimate message of ‘crime doesn’t pay,’ watered down with a special amendment for Dan…only sometimes!

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is just a tad below average. Age has not been kind to the film elements. Despite considerable clean up and adequately reproduced contrast levels with a smattering of fine detail throughout, the image is marred throughout by age related artifacts and a very unevenly reproduced roughness with considerable film grain present. Dissolves and wipes suffer the most. While the image can appear sharp at times, it mostly suffers from a rather soft characteristic. The audio is mono and more strident than expected – very scratchy in spots. Extras include a very informative audio commentary from Drew Casper and shorts and trailers a la Warner Night At The Movies.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
3

PICTURE SNATCHER (Warner Bros. 1933) Warner Home Video

The quick shot anarchy and hysterical incongruities depicted in Lloyd Bacon’s Picture Snatcher (1933) make Lady Killer (1933) seem like high art. This bizarre and nonsensical crime drama is convoluted, ill-placed and heavy-handedly slapped together as any of the Warner ‘gangster’ movies yet to be released to home video. Resident bad boy, James Cagney is ill served as a good-time mug attempting to play it legit in the real world after a weighty stint in the big house.

The story concerns ex-convict Danny Kean (James Cagney) who, after being released from prison to a hero’s welcome from his buddy, Jerry the Mug (Ralf Harolde) and other affiliated hoods, suddenly declares reformation from a life of crime. Instead, Danny wants to become a reporter on a legitimate newspaper. Disavowing his ‘friends’, Danny arrives at the office of editor, J.R. Al McLean (Ralph Bellamy). The newspaper, The Grover Graphic is a rag, but McLean gives Danny an assignment to snatch the picture of Hennessy (G. Pat Collins); a deranged fireman whose wife and lover were burned to death in his apartment. It seems Hennessy is determined to keep the press at bay. In fact, he’s already wounded one of the reporters assigned to the story with his rifle.

Using some of his old con artist skills and making out like an insurance adjuster, Danny lifts Hennessy’s marital photo, earning McLean’s respect, as well as that of the paper’s owner (Robert Barrat). His fame and salary increased, Danny is next given the assignment of showing a few college students around the newsroom on a tour. One of these is precocious Patricia Nolan (Patricia Ellis) whose father, Casey (Robert Emmett O’Connor) also happens to be the Police Lieutenant that first put Danny behind bars. A burgeoning romance between Pat and Danny awkwardly develops. It is thwarted by Casey – then reluctantly encouraged until Danny lands himself in hot water yet again over snatching a photograph; this time of a public execution after stealing another reporter’s press pass to get into the event.

Naturally, the photo proves sensational in the tabloids the next day, but it also costs Casey his job and puts a period to Dan’s intimacy with Pat – at least for the moment. Meanwhile, McLean’s slutty cub reporter and live-in girlfriend, Alison (Alice White) has decided for herself that Dan is going to be her latest fling. These affections are not shared by Dan. However, when McLean walks in on Alison’s unreciprocated seduction of Dan, he also assumes that Dan has double crossed him and vows to avenge the betrayal. Wounded by the inference that he can’t become an honest man, Dan abandons the paper and hits the bottle. En route to becoming a lush, Dan is forgiven by McLean who informs that he has left the Grover Graphic to start his own legitimate publication.

Meanwhile, Jerry the Mug is on the lam. Learning of his old affiliate’s hideout, Dan pretends to be Jerry’s friend on the eve that the police close in. In the hailstorm of bullets that eventually riddle Jerry, Dan manages to save the Mug’s wife and kids. He’s hailed a hero – setting up a very weak premise that it was Casey all along who alerted him to Jerry’s whereabouts. Casey is restored to his job. Alison reappears to attempt another seduction of Dan, but is knocked unconscious by him and dumped in the back of McLean’s car, leaving her and McLean presumably to reunite while Dan is reunited with Pat at some later date.

If the screenplay by Allen Rivkin and P.J. Wolfson (based on a story by Daniel Adhern) is being pitched as legitimate drama it’s about as unconvincing and screwball as narratives go. If, on the other hand, the story is meant to be sold strictly for laughs, there’s too much cyclical revenge, spite and deception spread throughout to make the comedy lighter than air. This scripted amalgam of chuckles and excitement bunch together in unattractive clumps; unbelievable, unsympathetic and wholly ridiculous. In the final analysis, we get silliness with more substance than featherweight laughs and a stored up summary of gags rehashed for the hard bitten crime thriller. In any case, the story doesn’t work – at least not well enough to make anyone believe it for more than a few moments at a time.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is below average. Despite clean up and adequately reproduced contrast levels with a smattering of fine detail throughout, the image is marred by excessive flicker, age related artifacts and very uneven film grain. Dissolves and wipes suffer a rather soft characteristic. The audio is mono and very strident with a considerable amount of hiss during quiescent moments. Extras include a very informative audio commentary from Jeffrey Vance and Tony Maietta, shorts and trailers a la Warner Night At The Movies.




FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
2.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5

EXTRAS
3

BLACK LEGION (Warner Bros. 1937) Warner Home Video

In the tradition of Warner Bros. hard-hitting melodramas, Archie L. Mayo’s Black Legion (1937) must go on record as one of the studio’s most controversially engrossing and thoroughly compelling indictments of unlawful activity ever put on film. The screenplay by Abem Finkel and William Wister Haines (based on a story by Robert Lord) is a thinly veiled fiction based on the actual events that gave rise to the real Black Legion - an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan – and ultimately brought about the organization’s ultimate demise.

At the height of its popularity the real Black Legion – based out of Detroit Michigan - numbered some 30,000 misguided individuals who committed bodily torture and arson on the person and homes of unsuspecting foreigners in the name of their particularly warped brand of ‘Americanism.’ Infamous for their night raids, the Black Legion gained notoriety for the murder of Charles Poole in 1936.

The film stars Humphrey Bogart, not yet on the cusp of becoming everyone’s favorite war time romantic hero, as machine shop operator, Frank Taylor. When the shop’s foreman is promoted to a supervisory post Frank naturally assumes he will be next in line for the foreman’s job. Unhappy circumstance that fellow worker – and bright newcomer - Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon) is awarded the coveted post instead. Frank resents Dombrowksi’s appointment, more so because he had earlier promised his loyal and devoted wife, Ruth (Erin O’Brien-Moore) and son, Buddy (Dickie Jones) a new life with expensive trappings.

In Frank’s bitter resentment fellow shop worker, Cliff Summer (Joseph Sawyer) senses a kindred angry spirit. Cliff taps into Frank’s seething rage and encourages him to join the local chapter of the Black Legion. Under the tyrannical command of the group’s leader, Alf Hargrave (Alonzo Price), Frank takes an oath of loyalty to the organization and thereafter revels in exacting his revenge on the Dombrowskis. Father (Egon Brecher) and Joe are severely beaten. Their chicken farm is burned to the ground.

Meanwhile, next door neighbors to the Taylors; Michael (Clifford Soubier) and Mrs. Grogan (Dorothy Vaughan) are pressing for the marriage of their daughter, Ruth (Ann Sheridan) to Frank’s good buddy, Ed Jackson (Dick Foran). Ed had previously taken up with the notorious mantrap, Pearl Danvers (Helen Flint), though in recent months he’s given every indication of settling down with Ruth instead. After proposing marriage to Ruth over sodas at the local drug store, Ed returns to Frank’s home to find him elated at Dombrowski’s sudden ‘disappearance’.

Furthermore, Frank is promoted to foreman not long after – a post he proves unable to hang on to when, in his recruitment of a new addition to the Legion, he neglects his shop floor duties and is fired. Thereafter, Frank partakes in a litany of illegal activities for the Legion; destroying property and intimidating families judged as ‘undesirable’ under the organization’s racist code. When Michael Grogen is appointed the new shop foreman, the Legion reacts with a kidnapping and flogging that sends Ed on a quest to learn the truth about Frank’s nightly activities.

Ed is kidnapped, beaten and dragged into the forest by the Legion members. Attempting escape, Ed is shot dead by Frank in a moment of panic. The Legion’s members flee from the scene, leaving Frank to lump it on his own back to town. He is apprehended by local authorities at a nearby truck stop and tried for the murder of his one time best friend. In the resulting trial, a man pretending to be Frank’s attorney gains access to his jail cell to set Frank up to lie on the witness stand along with Pearl Danvers in order to prove a trumped up charge of ‘self defense’ instead of murder.

Danvers plays her part to the hilt, incriminating Frank and the memory of Ed as two hotheads in an illicit lover’s triangle gone wrong. However, in the end, Frank comes to his senses. He exposes all the members of the Legion to the Judge (Samuel Hinds); thereby bringing about an end to the Legion’s supremacy.

Black Legion is sobering entertainment. The screenplay is about as unsympathetic and shocking as any ever put into production by a major studio during this vintage. Bogart is magnificent as the loyal husband and father, easily swayed to commit unspeakable acts in the name of patriotism. As a one time member of the studio’s affectionately named ‘murderer’s row’ this is perhaps Bogart’s finest hour on the screen. The rest of the cast play out their parts with genuine conviction – seemingly unrehearsed and fairly without embellishment. In the final analysis, Black Legion is powerful stuff. A must see classic that reveals the unglamorous grit of the American dream turned topsy-turvy.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is above average, though hardly exemplary. The B&W image can exhibit a nicely balanced gray scale with minimal film grain and digital artifacts, though on occasion both are glaringly present. For the most part, tonality is smooth and satisfying, though in the final few scenes there appears to be some considerable fading of the original elements, resulting in a sudden loss of fine detail. The audio is mono but presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include ‘Warner Night At The Movies’ minus the usual intro by Leonard Maltin, an fascinating audio commentary from Patricia King Hanson and Anthony Slide and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
3

BROTHER ORCHID (Warner Bros. 1940) Warner Home Video

Based on Richard Connell’s witty short story first serialized in Collier’s Magazine, Lloyd Bacon’s Brother Orchid (1940) is a fascinating hybrid (some critics have considered it a spoof) of the Warner crime/melodrama. The studio’s film product of the early 1930’s had been primarily trademarked by its gritty realism with storylines ripped directly from newspaper headlines.

However, with the advent of the Film Production Code in 1934, Warner Bros. was suddenly faced with a gross dilemma; how to continue to utilize the bulk of their stars that had been their bread and butter during the first half of the decade. Indeed, names like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson could no longer be celebrated as the kingpins of crime. To retain their supremacy at the box office something drastic had to be done with their on screen persona – making it more palpable under the code.

Hence, from 1935 onward Warner’s crime dramas acquired an increasingly more gentile palette that became more prone to poking fun at itself by the end of the ‘30s. Brother Orchid is of this latter ilk – though, this reviewer would contend that the film’s true resilience lays in its powerful depiction of the reformation of its central character, Little John T. Sarto (Edward G. Robinson); a racketeer grown tired of commanding the most successful mob in New York City at the start of the film.

Determined to turn over a new leaf, Sarto hands over daily operation of his ‘business’ to his right hand, Jack Buck (Humphrey Bogart). He bids his female play-thing, Flo Addams (Ann Sothern) and simple-minded bodyguard, Willie ‘The Knife’ Corson (Allen Jenkins) a fond farewell before embarking on a whirlwind tour of Europe. Unfortunately, for Sarto – his motto of ‘easy come/easy go’ does not bode well with the decadence of Paris, Rome, London and Monte Carlo. In no time, Sarto has bankrupted himself and is forced to return home to reassume control over his rackets.

Unhappy circumstance, that Jack is not willing to let bygones be bygones. Instead, Sarto is thrown out on his ear. Sarto’s first line of recourse - to stiff Flo’ for some quick cash that will jumpstart a new organization – is stalemated after Sarto learns of his fiancée’s pending flirtations with dim-witted Texan, Clarence P. Fletcher (Ralph Bellamy). For her part, Flo’ still loves Sarto just as much as ever – perhaps more so, now that he has returned to discover her a successful proprietor of the swanky nightclub she once hat checked at.

In her innocence, Flo’ attempts to broker a truce between Sarto and Jack that results in the former narrowly escaping assassination at the hands of a couple of Jack’s thugs. Sarto collapses at the gate of a monastery run by benevolent monks fronted by Brother Superior (Donald Crisp). The monks restore Sarto – whom they rechristen ‘Brother Orchid’ to health and are thereafter amazed when their protégée takes to his new vocation as though he were born for the work.

Determined to avenge himself on all who double-crossed him, Sarto returns to his former life only to discover that Flo has now become engaged to Clarence and that Jack is in total control of the rackets. However, when Jack’s ‘protection’ threatens to exclude the monks from selling their flowers in the city market square, Sarto suffers an attack of conscience – returning to his chosen calling as Brother Orchid; a man who discovers that the ‘class’ and refinement he has been seeking all his life is not to be found in one man’s capital gains but in the many hearts one man may touch with random acts of human kindness.

Robinson is superb as the deposed thug and fallen crime idol who rediscovers new reasons to rejoice that do not require muscle or money. Donald Crisp delivers an angelic performance stripped of any cheaply religious hyperbole. Bogart – still cast in the part of the cutthroat – is convincingly menacing. This is a great film – one that tickles the funny bone regularly and occasionally manages to warm the heart. A must have!

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is very solid. The B&W image exhibits a refined gray scale with exceptional tonality. Occasionally, age related artifacts and film grain intrude but will surely not distract. Blacks are a tad weaker than expected. Whites are slightly blooming. Still, this is a very solid and smooth transfer. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a litany of shorts, news reels and other junket materials under the ‘Warner Night At the Movies’ banner, plus an informative audio commentary by Alan I. Gansberg and Eric Lax. Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
3

Monday, March 24, 2008

BAND OF BROTHERS (HBO 2001) HBO Home Video

Even if you know nothing of history, or presumably don’t go for ‘war movies’ it is hard not to develop an instant and lasting affinity with a lump in your throat for Band of Brothers (2001). Superlatives escape, but the memorable stories encapsulated within will endure for the ages.

Deriving its title from this quote by Henry V“From this day to the ending of the world, we in it shall be remembered. We lucky few. We band of brothers. For he who today sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.” – producers Steven Spielberg and Tom Hank’s have created a visually stunning, viscerally haunting, living testament to the valor, courage and bravery of those fateful many who defended honor and liberated Europe from Hitler’s tyrannical stronghold during WWII.

A ten part HBO mini-series with no equal; directed invariably by David Frankel, Tom Hanks, David Leland, Richard Loncraine, David Nutter, Phil Alden Robinson, Mikael Salmon and Tony To - each episode opens with authentic first hand recollections of the European conflict told by its survivors. With a budget nearly three times that of Spielberg’s own WWII epic Saving Private Ryan (1998), Band of Brothers is a small screen miracle that embarks upon a most ambitious quest – to create a lasting memorial to the soldiers behind the conflict; a graphic realization of their hopes and fears and ultimately, a celebration of their camaraderie.

Any assessment in review of this series’ in depth plot will undoubtedly prove futile. Nevertheless, summary judgment will stand in place of a blow by blow critique. Suffice it for this reviewer to encourage everyone reading herein to explore the breadth and intimacy of this magnificent achievement; as unique, poetic and heartrending as anything ever put on the screen.

Our story begins in earnest at a Georgian training camp where Capt. Herbert Sobel (David Schwimmer) is ruthlessly drilling the cadets of Easy Company in preparation for the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Of his new recruits, Richard D. Winter (Damian Lewis) distinguishes himself early on – proving that he can endure Sobel’s punishments while maintaining discipline among the men. Schooling in parachute infantry – then a brand new concept in warfare – Sobel slowly begins to suffer his own mental breakdown. He repeatedly breaks under pressure and louses up tactical maneuvers; ultimately reassigned to a training school at Chilton Foley. This shift in the balance of power forces Winter to assume command of the airborne on their drop into Normandy.

On the eve before deployment, soldier Bill Guarnere (Frank Jone Hughes) learns that his brother – already fighting overseas – has been killed in combat. Determined that he should avenge his brother’s death while not suffering the same fate, Guarnere adopts a cocky devil-may-care exterior that conceals his true rage beneath a distinguished coat of Teflon valor.

In Episode 2: Day of Days – Lt. Winter and Easy Company suffer appalling casualties in an ill fated night drop over the skies of France. Reunited with fellow soldiers Donald Malarkey (Scott Grimes), Buck Compton (Neal McDonough), George Luz (Rick Gomez), Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston) and others, Winter moves the men on to a crippling assault, destroying the guns at Brecourt Manor and vowing to God in the end that if ever this war should spare his life he will return home and desire conflict no more.

In Episode 3: Carentan – Easy Company take a French town held under German occupation. Lt. Carwood Lipton (Donnie Walberg) is near fatally shot in the crotch while attempting to storm one of the civilian households under fire. Meanwhile Lt. Ronald Speirs (Matthew Settle) attempts to rehabilitate Pvt. Albert Blythe (Marc Warren) of his combat fear – instructing the soldier to consider himself already a casualty, thereby liberating his soul from the expectation of death. The rouse works and Blythe distinguishes himself during a Panzer attack – only to been fatally shot later on.

In Episode 4: Replacements – a troop of fresh-faced paratroopers join Easy Company in Holland for Operation Market Garden. Look for a then unknown James McAvoy as Private James Miller; eager to engage the Germans in combat without truly understanding the grit and gruel of hand to hand combat. In Holland, Easy Company suffers its worst round of casualties against the superior German blitz.

In Episode 5: Crossroads Winter leads a risky, though victorious mission on a Dutch dike. He is promoted to Battalion Executive Officer – a post that frustratingly removes him from the daily rigors of combat. However, his new appointment also forces Winter to contend with inferior officers commanding the forces beneath him in their latest effort deep within the Ardennes Forest.

Episodes 6: Bastogne and 7: The Breaking Point are bookends of a brutal struggle to hold off the Germans while contending with nature as an adversary. In the dead cold of winter, the men endure frost bite in their summer uniforms with little rations or ammunition to protect and sustain them. Medic Eugene Roe (Shane Taylor) develops a lasting romance with a Belgian nurse whom he later marries. In the end, Easy Company takes the town of Foy under the most animalistic carnage yet faced.

In Episode 8: The Last Patrol – Winter breaks rank to send in a second patrol into the Alsacian town of Haguenan after rooky Lt. James – eager to distinguish himself in battle – narrowly escapes total annihilation. Episode 9: Why We Fight – is arguably the most impacting emotional groundswell of the entire series.

Encountering little resistance, Easy Company enters Germany to discover a Nazi concentration camp with many of its emaciated prisoners still barely alive. This sickening reveal is compounded in the men’s minds when they enter a nearby town to learn that the local citizenry disavow any knowledge of the atrocities committed only a scant few miles from their place of residence. This episode concludes with the knowledge that Adolph Hitler has committed suicide.

In the final Episode 10: Points – Easy Company capture Hitler’s Eagle Nest; the once impregnable fortress where Nazi generals conspired to launch WWII. Armistice in Europe is declared, though the men are soon informed that they will be deployed to the Pacific to take part in the conflict with the Japanese. Comparing 'points' to decide which men have earned the right to go home, fortunately, at a makeshift base where the men are engaged in a baseball game, Winter and Nixon arrive with the bittersweet news that the Emperor of Japan has surrendered. WWII is over.

Episode 10 spends its final moments in summation of where glory’s path beyond the battlefield leads its greatest generation after arriving home. A few of the standouts: Compton, we learn became a prosecutor in LA – his most famous case; the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. David Webster (Eion Bailey) who became a celebrated writer for the Wall Street Journal and Saturday Evening Post disappeared at sea in 1961.

Lipton assumed the success of an executive for a glass manufacturing plant; Speirs remained in service for the rest of his life. Perhaps the most satisfying epitaph of them all is Winters – who moved to a farm in Hershey Pennsylvania where he fulfilled the promise made to himself in Episode 2; living in peace amongst the memories of his harrowing past.

It is saying much of this series that it achieves and sustains its strange cacophony of conflicted emotions throughout its lengthy running time; emotions that only seems to grow more robust and satisfying as each episode develops toward the series’ ultimate conclusion. As the audience, we start by wanting each man we meet in the first two or three episodes to return home with a hero’s welcome. We are quickly disillusioned when many perish on route to victory, and strangely, we feel disquiet and longing for the male bonding so poignantly depicted throughout that must disband at war’s end. We ponder – as the soldiers must have for themselves – on all the uncertainties ahead in the long years of peace and prosperity.

HBO Home Video’s anamorphic widescreen DVD transfers are worthy of their subject matter. The stylized palette of desaturated colors has been vividly reproduced with maximum sharpness, clarity and fine details evident throughout. Contrast levels have been enhanced – as intended – reflecting an almost ‘postcard’ graphic depiction of the conflict that is strangely very reminiscent of all the B&W photos seen in countless history books documenting the war. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and provides an aggressive and enveloping audio field. Extras include a plot summary for each episode and a beautifully produced documentary on the filmmaker’s journey in bringing Band of Brothers into living memory. Highly recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
3.5

Sunday, March 23, 2008

KIM (MGM 1950) Warner Home Video

In the early 1950s, MGM embarked upon an aggressive resurrection of the costume drama – many based on great literary masterworks from the past. Such is the case with Victor Saville’s Kim (1950) a lavish recreation of Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated literary classic.

Kipling’s original – a children’s swashbuckler set against the political unrest between Russian/British influences in conflict in Central Asia - had first been serialized in McClure’s Magazine in 1900. Ironically, the tale had never been told cinematically until MGM acquired the rights.

The screenplay by Helen Deutsch, Leon Gordon and Richard Schayer is a loose revamp of the novel with considerable artistic license applied along the way. Shot partly on location in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, India, Kim also represents one of MGM’s last ditch efforts to delve into their creative past in order to revitalize their future. The studio once known for its elephantine costume dramas of the early thirties had been prosperous throughout the war before having their profits dip at wars end.

Only part of the blame can be ascribed to the introduction of television. The rest must fall squarely on MGM’s own inability to look beyond its past. By wars end, L.B. Mayer was spending far too much time away from the studio to indulge his new passion – horse racing – leaving the daily operations, more or less, to run themselves. But the old time mogul's edict for glamorous entertainment still endured even as it became increasingly out of touch with audience’s changing tastes.

In this context, Kim is decidedly a relic. The story concerns Kimball O’Hara (Dean Stockwell), the orphan of Sahib – an Irish soldier. Kim’s days are spent begging for food and running small errands for Mahbub Ali – the Red Beard (Errol Flynn). Mahbub - a horse trader and native operative for the British Secret Service.

On his beggary through the streets of Lahore, Kim befriends a Tibetan Lama (Paul Lukas) who is on a quest for eternal peace. Becoming a disciple of the Lama, Kim accidentally learns of military secrets. He is seconded into service for the British, running dispatches back and forth to Colonel Creighton (Robert Douglas). By a gracious whim of fate, Kim is recognized on one of these exchanges by his late father’s regimental chaplain Father Victor (Reginald Owen) who sends the boy away to be formally educated in Lucknow.

After three years, Kim is given an appointment by the British consulate to partake in the espionage and intrigues between the British and the Russians. Kim reunites with the Lama for a trip deep into the Himalayas where spying and spiritual awakening make for very strange bedfellows.

The Lama unwittingly falls prey to Russian intelligence agents and Kim is forced to obtain top secret papers from the Russians to aid the British in their conquest of the region. In the novel a character named Babu slyly befriends the Russians to provide Kim with the necessary cover of escape. In the film, Flynn’s Mahbub assumes the role – thus ensuring the actor a bigger part in the narrative.

Kim and the Lama escape persecution and Mahbub, discovering the River of the Arrow, achieves spiritual enlightenment. The ending of the film remains as ambiguous as that written by Kipling in his novel. At a crossroads between materialism and spiritual enlightenment, which will Kim ultimately choose?

By 1950, Errol Flynn had departed Warner Bros. the studio that had galvanized his on screen iconography as a swashbuckling ladies man. For many unfamiliar with Kipling’s novel the expectation for more of the same from the actor on this outing must have yielded considerable disappointment. Although Flynn delivers a solid ‘star’ performance (with added scenes specifically written to take advantage of his particular brand of machismo and heroism) – Mahbub is by no means the central driving force of the film’s narrative.

Furthermore, there is very little of the actor’s trademark carousing and devil-may-care on display herein. Yes, the story stands on its own as compelling entertainment of the exotic ilk that once proved so highly popular with audiences. However, in the final analysis, Kim is an anomaly in Flynn’s body of work – like his efforts in The Prince and The Pauper (1937) – he remains an ever present and welcome edition to a plot that gets away from him at almost every chance.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is adequate. Colors are rich and bold, though just a tad less refined than one might hope for. Film grain and a few rare instances of mis-registration are evident throughout. Contrast levels are bang on. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are generally clean. Age related artifacts are present but do not distract. The audio is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level. There are NO extras.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
0

LOST HIGHWAY (Universal 1997) Universal Home Video

The cinematic creations of David Lynch in any language are grotesquely odd. With a narrative thought to be loosely based on celebrated author Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) remains one of his most disturbingly convoluted psychological thrillers in recent years - invariably drenched or mired (depending on one’s point of view) in the iconic trappings of a classic film noir.

Lynch formulated the general concept for his film after falling under the spell of author Barry Gifford’s Night People. Employing Gifford to help write the screenplay for his movie, the director and author clashed repeatedly over content and characters until Lynch had a moment of clarity while driving home one evening from the set of his famed television series, Twin Peaks. Reportedly, the film’s publicist, Deborah Wuliger came up with the concept for the central character’s psychogenic fugue – a rare mental condition wherein a person suffers a total eclipse of their former life but is able to convince themselves into becoming a completely new personality.

To this end, the Lynch/Gifford screenplay opens with angst ridden jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) who suspects that his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette) is having an affair. After overhearing the words ‘Dick Laurent is dead’ on his intercom, Fred discovers a package on their front porch. Inside is a video cassette. On the tape is a recording of the couple fast asleep in their bedroom, alerting Fred and Renee to the fact that someone has gained entry to their home and violated their sense of security. Previously, the couple had disarmed their security system because of a series of false alarms. However, after consulting local detectives, Al (John Roselius) and Ed (Louis Eppolito), Fred agrees to have the alarm reinstated.

Presumably to alleviate suspicion of an extramarital affair, Renee takes her husband to a somewhat pornographic party hosted by third rate sleaze-ball, Andy (Michael Massee). There, Fred meets the very creepy Kabuki-styled Mystery Man (Robert Blake) who informs Fred that he is already at his house, in fact, at the very moment that their conversation is taking place.

To dispel this outlandish claim, Fred telephones home only to have the Mystery Man pick up on the other end. Understandably disturbed, Fred hurriedly rushes home to conduct a thorough search that yields virtually no clues of anyone having been inside since he and Renee left for Andy’s party. While Renee prepares for bed, Fred discovers a 5th dimensional corridor that he walks through and disappears, returning moments later with an ominous shadowy figure.

From here on, the story takes a quantum leap forward into bizarro-land. Fred discovers a videotape showing him next to the bisected remains of his wife. He is physically assaulted by Det. Al and Ed who accuse him of murder. Incarcerated, Fred suffers headaches and a reoccurring vision of a burning house in the desert before morphing into garage mechanic, Peter Raymond Dayton (Balthazar Getty).

Unable to assess Peter’s culpability in Renee’s murder or even answer the question of how he came to be in the cell that once housed the now presumed escapee Fred, the police release Peter from custody. He returns to his motorcycle parents, William (Gary Busey) and Candace (Lucy Butler) and place of work - Arnie’s Garage - but is placed under 24 hour surveillance.

At the garage, Peter meets local gangster, Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) who is also identified as Dick Laurent, and Eddy’s mistress, Alice Wakefield (Arquette again). Not long afterward, Peter and Alice begin their notorious affair. The two conspire to rob Andy and use the money to run away together. Suspicious, Eddy threatens to kill Peter if he learns that the two are lovers.

Peter arrives at Andy’s home and sadistically murders him. Alice and Peter drive into the desert where they arrive to the same house envisioned by Fred while in prison. After an erotic night, Alice informs Peter that he will never ‘have her’ before leaving the house naked. Perplexed, Peter morphs back into Fred. The Mystery Man reappears, presumably from nowhere and with a video camera in hand to explain to Fred that Alice is actually Renee.

Terrified and confused, Fred comes in contact with Mr. Eddy again who – oddly enough – recognizes him. A struggle ensues whereupon the Mystery Man hands Fred a knife he uses to slit Eddy’s throat. The dying Eddy is shown porn made with Alice on a portable television before being shot to death by the Mystery Man who then vanishes.

Discovering Andy’s body, detectives Al and Ed also find a picture of Renee that supplies them with the perfect motive for Fred being implicated in the crime. As the dawn breaks, Fred arrives home to utter the words first heard on his intercom ‘Dick Laurent is dead’ before being pursued by an armada of police down a dark 5th dimensional stretch of ‘lost highway’. Fred suffers another seizure and the film ends.

Lost Highway is unconventional viewing to say the least – its alternate states of consciousness in both Fred and Peter’s character (or are they one in the same?) creating liquid palettes of unhinged and incoherent tension and frustration for the audience that, quite frankly, still do not add up by the final fade out.

True, Lynch is known for his reveling in the abnormal and the macabre. However, none of the elements in Lost Highway mesh together to produce a satisfying feeling of great uncertainty, but rather some great cyclical nightmare from which no awakening towards any truth, clarity or even modest explanation seems possible. In the final analysis, the film is a fractured erotic noir – a prelude to a premise never entirely fleshed out.

Universal Home Video’s reissue of Lost Highway has been long overdue. At last, presented in anamorphic widescreen, the image continues to fall short of expectations; appearing much too dark and with its red hues seemingly oversaturated. Overall, fine details are nicely realized. The image is reasonably sharp. Whites are clean. Blacks are murky. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and aggressively realized. Universal provides us with NO extras to help explain exactly what the point of Lynch’s movie is. Perhaps, there simply is NO point.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
2.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
0

Friday, March 21, 2008

AN IDEAL HUSBAND (Miramax 1999) Buena Vista Home Video

Oliver Parker’s An Ideal Husband (1999) is a faithful adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s scathingly comedic stage play first presented to the public in 1895. Like so many of Wilde’s great masterworks, the themes of public vs. private honor are of central focus and concern in the film’s screenplay (also by Parker).

Indeed, by the time the play premiered, Oscar Wilde was accustomed to success and An Ideal Husband’s run of 124 public performances was no exception. Unfortunately for Wilde, in April of that same year he was arrested and charged with ‘gross indecency’ over a homosexual affair gone sour – a crime that marred his public reputation and directly led to his name being removed as the author of the play. In reflection, Wilde would later write,
“We shall all have to pay for what we do…but no one should be entirely judged by their past.”
Parker’s adaptation of Wilde’s play begins on the eve of a lavish party at the fashionable home of London politico Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam). Lady Chiltern (Cate Blanchette) is the epitome of social grace and congeniality. The guest roster also includes family friend and dandified bachelor Lord Arthur Goring (Rupert Everett) and Robert’s precocious sister Mabel (Minnie Driver) who is heart sore for Goring’s affections. Goring is determined to play the field, remaining faithful to no one woman, much to the chagrin and social embarrassment of his stoic father, Lord Caversham (John Wood).

Not on the guest list, though nevertheless present and accounted for is Mrs. Laura Cheveley (Julianne Moore) – a school rival of Lady Chiltern. Laura attempts to blackmail Robert into publicly supporting her scheme in the House of Commons for the construction of a canal in Argentina. Cheveley’s upper hand in this matter stems from a prior association between Robert and Cheveley’s mentor Baron Arnheim (Jeroen Krabbe). In those early days of Robert’s career it was Arnheim’s tip off that netted Robert a tidy sum on which the very foundations of all his financial wealth and political power have since grown. Fearing certain character assassination, Robert reluctantly submits to Laura’s demands.

Hurt by her husband’s change of heart – and misconstruing it to mean that a passionate affair might have developed between Robert and Laura – Lady Chiltern demands that Robert renege on his promise; effectively rupturing his career and home life. Meanwhile, Lord Goring presses Robert to fight Cheveley and admit his prior guilt to his wife. Unfortunately for all, it is this moment of truth that also reveals Robert and Laura were once engaged to each another. Unable to forgive her husband for these ‘betrayals,’ Lady Chiltern exiles Robert from their home.

Goring becomes involved in retrieving the supposed ‘letter’ of intent written in Robert’s hand that Laura is using as leverage in her blackmail. The acquisition of this document effectively sets Goring up to play the romantic fop with Laura after Lord Caversham erroneously deduces that his son has affections for Cheveley.

Eventually, Goring smoothes the surfaces of this rather abrasive lover’s triangle – exposing Laura as a devious vixen while winning Mabel’s hand in marriage – though not before he is able to restore Robert to his rightful place both at home and in parliament. In the final analysis, all ends well for everyone concerned – a merriment that Oscar Wilde frequently fell back on in his texts but readily discredited in public as mere fancy unaccustomed to life’s machineries.

The production values of this magnificent film are impeccable and lavish. In execution, however, the action does tend to become a tad stifling rather than buoyant – the chain of devious events bunching together in the late third act rather than spreading consistently throughout the narrative development. Rupert Everett does some of his best acting in his career as the randy bachelor stirred to settling down. His performance is fraught with integrity and blithe humor: ditto for Jeremy Northam’s performance as the long suffering politician with secrets to keep.

However, it must be pointed out that Cate Blanchette’s turn as Lady Chiltern is politely out of step with the rest of the cast. Essentially, she overplays her hand, as does Minnie Driver. Ultimately, none of these ‘shortcomings’ ruin the film in any lasting way. Though truncated by Parker’s hand, there remains enough of Oscar Wilde’s magnificence within the spoken word to captivate and tantalize the eardrum, even when the eye becomes ever so slightly weary with the visuals presented on screen.

Buena Vista Home Video’s DVD is quite satisfactory. The anamorphic widescreen image is solid, though it retains some age related scratches and chips from its source material. This disc has obviously been minted from a print and not the actual camera negative. Colors are refined. Contrast levels appear just a tad weaker than expected. Blacks are deep and solid but whites adopt a dingy gray patina in many of the darker scenes. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and quite adequately represented for what is essentially a dialogue driven narrative. Extras are limited to a brief vintage featurette and theatrical trailer. Recommended.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
1