Sunday, March 22, 2009

FROM HELL - Blu-Ray (20th Century-Fox 2001) Fox Home Video

Inspired by the Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell graphic novel about Jack the Ripper, directors Albert and Allen Hughes’ From Hell (2001) is a harrowing, bloodthirsty journey into the heart of a madman, akin in spectacle and thrills to having the unnerving experience of careening through the darkened recesses of an amusement park funhouse.

Stylishly executed and with a great sense of cinematic space provided by Peter Deming’s lush cinematography, the film grips its audience almost from the beginning, thanks to a very clever screenplay by Terry Hayes and Rafael Yglesius. No one knows for sure who the Ripper was, but the screenplay does an intriguing job of weaving all sorts of plausible suspects, finally settling on a conspiracy between Scotland Yard and Queen Victoria.

Our story opens with a troop of ‘unfortunates’ working the sex trade in the seedy White Chapel district. Although embittered, Mary Kelly (Heather Graham) encourages her fellow prostitutes to stick together and resist becoming pawns of the ruthless Nichols boys – a pair of pimps.

One of the prostitutes, Ann Crook (Joanna Page) seems to have already escaped this threat by marrying Albert Sickert (Mark Dexter); the lover she believes is a successful businessman. Having placed their young daughter in the care of Mary Kelly for the afternoon, Ann goes off for a romantic rendezvous with her husband. What she cannot know is that Albert is really Queen Victoria’s nephew – Prince Albert, who has been stricken with incurable syphilis.

Victoria’s (Liz Moscrop) Scotland Yard spy, Ben Kidney (Terence Harvey) learns of Ann and Albert’s rendezvous and seizes them in the act of love making. Kidney packs Albert off to the palace and exiles Ann to a mental institution where she is lobotomized to procure her continued silence. Meanwhile, the Ripper begins to work his carnage on the streets of White Chapel, slowly eradicating all of Ann Crook’s friends.

Enter Inspector Frederick Abberline (Johnny Depp); a brilliant detective who experiences moments of clairvoyance while attempting to blot out his own inner demons by taking opium. Abberline and Mary Kelly form a bond, she providing him with pieces to the puzzle that don’t quite fit, even as nightly more and more of her working girl friends die gruesomely at the hands of the Ripper.

Taking a clue that the Ripper is a man of surgical expertise, Abberline engages Sir William Gull (Ian Holm); physician to the Royal family for a little expert advice. Through Gull, Abberline discovers the secret society of the Masons and begins to suspect that one of their own, Dr. Ferrel (Paul Rhys) may be the Ripper. Abberline baits Ferrel. He also sends Mary Kelly and Ann Crook’s baby away to the relative safety of the country. Unfortunately, Abberline has critiqued the situation badly. It is Gull, not Ferrel who is responsible for the killings.

From Hell is gripping entertainment from start to finish – haunted by that specter of genuine evil and fleshed out with stellar performances from all its principle cast. Johnny Depp, one of the finest chameleons of his or any other generation, assimilates into the role of this brilliantly flawed detective, so tormented by visions that they eventually drive him to the brink of self destruction.

Heather Graham is remarkable as the careworn, weather beaten prostitute whose faith in humanity is restored by her flawed romantic association with Abberline. Trevor Jones’ musical score provides the finishing touches on this period drama/thriller, elevating the sheer terror of the exercise with a paralyzing grace. In the final analysis, From Hell is grand, nail-biting entertainment!

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray release is disappointing. First, the good news: great care has been taken to preserve the visual styling of the film. Despite being a single layer disc, From Hell on Blu-ray looks marvelous. Colors are rich, fully saturated and vibrant. Contrast levels are bang on. Good solid grain and fine details are faithfully reproduced throughout for a thoroughly beguiling video presentation from start to finish. Truly, this is a reference quality transfer with absolutely nothing to complain about. The audio is represented as 5.1 DTS lossless audio and is as powerful and representative of the original theatrical presentation as the visuals.

Now for the bad news: Fox continues to neglect the special features on its Blu-Ray releases – extras that have been made available forever on their DVDs are absent on this Blu-ray. On the Blu-Ray we get the previously available audio commentary, alternate ending and 20 deleted scenes – none presented in anything but 480i. We also get the film’s original theatrical trailer.

What we're missing from the Blu-Ray is the brilliant picture in picture ‘explore the feature’ commentary from the standard DVD that basically gave the viewer an inside comparison between the graphic novel, real history and the film. Also absent is the spectacular BBC documentary on the real Jack the Ripper that was also a supplement on Fox’s Collector’s Edition. For shame!

Why Fox continues to reduce its special features on Blu-ray is beyond the scope of understanding of this critic. Suffice it to say, if the studio is planning to re-release the same titles currently available on Blu-Ray in the next few years with all of those extras we already own elsewhere, this is one collector who will not be running out to buy yet another copy of any film he already currently owns!

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



BULLITT - Blu-Ray (WB 1968) Warner Home Video

Long on style, but fairly short on substance, the plot of director Peter Yates’ taut political/action/thriller Bullitt (1968) remains perplexing, but here goes: Johnny Ross (Pat Renella) is a front man for his brother, Chicago mobster Peter. Escaping death twice, Johnny is placed in protective custody by politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) whose interest in Ross is superficial and politically motivated.
Johnny has agreed to testify at trial against Peter. Problem: one of the names that could get called before the grand jury is Chalmers’. Now, Chalmers asks Detective Lieutenant Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) and Sergeant Delgetti (Don Gordon) to guard Ross at a flophouse.

But the assignment goes horribly awry with yet another assassination attempt on Ross’s life that leaves him in a coma at the local hospital. Feeling he has been set up – and he has - by Chalmers, Frank bleeds information from his leeches to learn the truth. After Johnny dies, Frank keeps the death a secret from Chalmers, whom he already suspects as being responsible for setting up the assassination.

Nervous, but without recourse, Chalmers is determined to keep everything hush-hush or dismantle Bullitt’s career. After pursuing Ross’s would-be assassin - making attempt number two on his life inside the hospital - Bullitt gets down and dirty with a high-speed pursuit of his suspects that are now attempting to put a period to his investigative research and his life.

The car chase through San Francisco that follows has since entered the annals of all time great filmed chase sequences. What is remarkable about this sequence when viewed today is that none of it is faked. For the most part, McQueen does his own driving or was at least in the car with a stunt double while filming took place, careening off insanely steep Frisco slopes and coming perilously close to wiping out on a very tricky hairpin curve.

Critics who initially doubted McQueen’s staying power at the box office were quick to turn coat and suddenly declare the actor ‘the king of cool.’ As for McQueen's alter ego in the film, Frank - after contributing to the fiery crash of his assassins at a highway gas station, he has fingerprints lifted from the crime scene that reveal Chalmers as complicit in the assassination attempts. Like a lot of thrillers from the 1970s, Bullitt's last act is sort of a downer; the apprehension of Chalmer's a foregone conclusion with limited cinematic impact, even if it does end in a firestorm.

What is best remembered about Bullitt today is undoubtedly the aforementioned car chase – perhaps not the most esthetically sound reason to recommend a movie as a whole to a friend – but in Bullitt’s case, that recommendation is arguably well deserved. Need another reason? Steve McQueen, who plays his hand with equal portions of compassion and ‘harder than nails’ raw determination. He’s an anti-hero’s hero, struggling to justify his hunches when no one seems even that interested to listen to him. Bullitt is real McQueen.

The rest of the performances in the movie pale, while the Alan Trustman/Harry Kleiner screenplay (based on Robert L. Fish's novel) never attains the sort of slick and stylish ultra cool of its lead actor. William A. Fraker’s cinematography and Frank P. Keller’s editing should also get a nod, particularly for their frenetic and relentless pace of the car chase.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray is nothing to write home about. Warner’s previously issued remastered 2-disc standard DVD exhibited a dated image with intense film grain. We retain that grain on this Blu-ray, but it looks exaggerated and gritty. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a lover of DNR. But Bullitt's image looks quite harsh to me and that grainy patina often distracted from my viewing experience.

Colors continue to exhibit a slightly faded characteristic with pasty orange flesh tones. Contrast levels too seem a tad weaker than I expected, which is odd considering the whole image is considerably darker on Blu-ray than it was on DVD. Scenes shot in full light fair the best. Here, colour fidelity is pretty vibrant. But low lit scenes struggle to make themselves visible under a haze of aforementioned grain.

The audio on the Blu-Ray is Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, with all the inherent sonic limitations one might expect. What is impressive about this disc are the extras: two feature length documentaries; one on McQueen, the other, a critique of film editing presented in 1080p – The Cutting Edge.

I'd like to give Bullitt a big thumbs up on Blu-ray, but have to say that the visual presentation of the film left me flat and uninspired. Yes, it is an improvement over the DVD - no kidding. But I suspect there's a long way to go before we can honestly say this is the best the film is ever likely to look in hi-def. Sorry folks, that's the truth.

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



SPEED - Blu-Ray (20th Century-Fox 1994) Fox Home Video

Jan De Bont’s Speed (1994) is a high octane action/thriller with a one hit wonder premise written by Graham Yost. In a nutshell, a Los Angeles city bus has been rigged with a bomb that will explode if its speed drops below 50mph. That this threadbare plotline could sustain a nearly two hour movie seems initially improbable, particularly as the leading man is Keanu Reeves: a stilted performer whose very declaration “There’s a bomb on the bus!” seems to have been misinterpreted or read off a delayed text on a malfunctioning teleprompter.

Despite what seem to be insurmountable shortcomings, Speed clings together as compelling entertainment, garnering our interest, respect and sustained disbelief in the improbability of the exercise along the way. It's really difficult to assess why the film works but it does and that's all you really need to know before delving more deeply into his very shallow plot.

The story begins inside a high rise where a group of businessmen and women are trapped in an elevator rigged to explode by blackmailer/madman Howard Payne (Denis Hopper). Enter L.A.P.D’s SWAT team fronted by Jack Trevan (Keanu Reeves) and Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels). Attempting to barter with Howard by telephone for the lives of the hostages, Jack instead departs from the scripted negotiations and, together with Harry, rescues all of the men and women seconds before Howard detonates the elevator. Although Howard escapes capture, Jack and Harry are made public heroes and receive citations for valor from their precinct.

But something is clearly wrong. Howard was going to detonate the elevator anyway. He wasn't interested in money or negotiating for other perks. He was simply out for blood, the pleasure derived from taking lives his primary objective. After his promotion, Jack assumes he has seen the last of Howard, a naïve assumption refocused after Howard detonates another bomb on board a buss that kills one of Jack’s friends.

Howard seizes the opportunity to play a game of cat and mouse with Jack, informing him that another bus – this one loaded with passengers – is set for a similar fate unless Jack can devise a clever way to rescue them. Aboard this second bus is Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), a good natured gal forced to play the part of the heroine after bus driver, Sam (Hawthorne James) is accidentally struck by a wayward bullet. Jack makes chase in a commandeered Jaguar, boarding the bus and successfully steering it through the crowded streets, byways and highways of greater Los Angeles.

Jack discovers that Howard has rigged a hidden camera on board to keep track of the passengers on closed circuit TV. Jack radios Harry with this info and Harry patches in his own video feed, recorded back and then looped so that Howard thinks nothing has changed. Meanwhile Jack begins to evacuate everyone on board except for himself and Annie. Someone has to keep the bus moving at 50mph. Knowing that Howard will eventually discover his rouse, Jack rigs an escape for him and Annie. The two jump to safety as the bus continues to endlessly circle around an abandoned airport terminal.

Outraged and more insane than ever, Howard stalks Annie and takes her as his hostage aboard a moving subway. He straps her with a belt of explosives and forces a showdown between him and Jack. One way or another Howard is determined that they are all going to die unless Jack can be clever once again.

Speed is a movie so feeble in its premise that it boggles the mind, yet even more so when one considers just how entertaining the film actually is. Andrzej Bartkowiak’s cinematography, Jon Wright’s film editing and Mark Mancina’s gripping score all conspire to develop and exploit the thrills, chills and narrow escapes of our stars from certain peril - even when Yost’s screenplay struggles desperately for something intelligent to say.

Clearly, Speed is a film where style alone is triumphant over substance. There's no other way to explain its appeal. Perhaps the only unforgiveable moment in the film is its shamless rip off of William Friedkin's The French Connection. Annie accidentally plows into a baby carriage while driving the bus down a city street. In Friedkin's film Gene Hackman narrowly misses a pedestrian crossing the street. But the baby carriage is a MacGuffin – pushed by a bag lady, not with an infant inside, as Annie originally presumes – but brimming over with empty beer cans collected for recycle money. Speed is exonerated from its simplistic bad taste by its clever and slick marketing. It’s an action/thriller with few contemporary equals. I guess you could say it's so bad it's good.

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray bests the studio’s previously released Five Star Edition on practically every level – delivering a crisp, clean image with fully saturated colors, strong contrast levels and an excellent smattering of fine details throughout. DNR has been applied, but the film still retains its filmic quality. Regrettably, Fox has only given us a single layered transfer.

Flesh tones are a tad more orange than expected. But image detail is generally good. The PCM 5.1 Dolby audio delivers a real kick. No 7.1 on this outing but Fox gives us two separate audio commentaries, a trivia track, a ‘game’ feature and theatrical trailer to peruse.

Why Fox Home Video continues to reduce its special features previously made available on standard DVD in abundance on titles like Speed is beyond me. Suffice it to say, if the studio is planning to re-release the same titles currently available on Blu-Ray in the next few years with all of those extras we already own elsewhere, this is one collector who will not be running out to buy yet another copy of any film he already owns!

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



PRETTY WOMAN - Blu-Ray (Touchstone 1990) Buena Vista Home Video

Gary Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990) is a fable that could only have been made palpable to film audiences at the end of the 1980s; a decade revered for its improbable comedies (The Breakfast Club, The Secret of My Success, Mannequin, Weird Science, Bachelor Party, Big etc).

Transforming then relative unknown Julia Roberts into a megastar, Pretty Woman became one of the most celebrated romantic comedies of its time and a colossal money maker for Disney’s Touchstone apparatus – a Cinderella story set in modern day Beverly Hills, between a Hollywood Blvd. prostitute and a romantically frigid corporate raider in desperate need of a lover’s makeover.

Yet, viewed from the vantage of over 20 years removed from that decade of featherweight pulp, and in particular, with the ominous socially mobile framework of dark and more brooding social critiques that currently occupy our filmic landscape, Pretty Woman seems a little worse for the wear; its premise pure soap and treacle, its characterizations mindless and from another planet, rather than another time.

Even given that the company's penchant for producing ‘family entertainment’, Vivian Ward (Roberts); a Hollywood hooker minus the vices of many a working girl (drug addiction, bastard children, STDs, etc.) seems strange bedfellows (pun intended!). Make no mistake, Pretty Woman is still a fairytale with the princess distilled into a nice girl with a heart of gold who just happens to also be a real whore in bed.

The screenplay by J.F. Lawton opens with Edward Lewis (Richard Gere), an emotionless shell of a man who lives, eats and breathes corporate raiding. Unable to pry his limousine from the juggernaut of party guest’s cars at the home of his attorney Philip Stuckey (Jason Alexander), Edward borrows Stuckey’s Lotus Esprit, instead. But his attempt to make it back to the Beverly Wilshire prove a disaster. Edward can neither successfully drive a stick shift nor navigate the streets of Los Angeles. Instead, he quickly finding himself on Hollywood Blvd. after hours where he meets Vivian working her corner with fellow hooker, Kit De Luca (Laura San Giacomo).

Asking for directions, Edward gets more than he bargains for when Vivian offers to drive him back to the Beverly Wilshire. As Edward has just broken up with his current girlfriend, Jessica, he invites Vivian upstairs to his penthouse suite – entirely uncertain what his next move with her will be. Slowly, an unlikely romantic bond begins to develop between these two. Edward decides to have Vivian stay the week with him at the Wilshire. He needs a girl on his arm to close an attractive deal, but one without romantic illusions.

The hotel's manager, Barney Thompson (Hector Elizondo) confronts Vivian about the reasons for her staying in the penthouse. "Things that happen at other hotels don't happen at the Beverly Wilshire," he reminds her. Nevertheless, Barney has a heart. After Vivian breaks down in his office he decides to help her achieve her goals for the week; to dress and behave like a lady of culture.

Vivian works her magic on the new men in her life, easily winning Edward and Barney’s respect along the way. Barney trains Vivian in the social etiquette of fine dining for her first big night out with Edward and rival businessmen, James (Ralph Bellamy) and David Morse (Alex Hyde-White). But the meeting turns sour after Edward makes it clear that he hopes to acquire and then dismantle James’ company through a hostile corporate takeover.

Meanwhile, Philip begins to sense that Edward’s infatuation with Vivian is growing into a love that may have softened his partner’s usual ruthless business savvy. All this needless worrying is, of course, mere window dressing. The fairytale prevails, with Edward conquering his fear of heights to scale Vivian’s fire escape and ask her to be his wife by the final reel.

What is particularly naïve about the narrative in retrospect is how all the elements of living dangerously have been excised from the subtext. A hooker’s life is presented as good natured, and curiously sexless, romantic fun with more than a hint of glamour associated to the art of the trade.

In the extended cut of Pretty Woman – not seen in theaters but previously released by Buena Vista Home Video for the ‘Anniversary Edition’ – the character of Carlos (Billy Gallo) the pimp was modestly fleshed out in a key sequence to present at least something of a serious threat to Vivian and Kit’s welfare and safety. He threatens Edward in the alley behind ‘The Blue Banana’ – a club frequented by Vivian and Kit. *This scene does not appear on the Blu-ray.

Even the death of ‘Skinny Marie’ a fellow prostitute addicted to crack at the beginning of the film is dolled up for sheer comic relief The body is never shown. Instead, a man and woman are seen taking pictures of the alley cornered off by police. Asked by the presiding detective (Hank Azaria) if they are from the media, the woman casually replies,
“No, we’re from Orlando.”

Pretty Woman is a showcase for Julia Roberts and she works it like a pro. Her performance sustains the film with sincerity, heart and a frank understanding. Richard Gere’s stoic and near expressionless corporate raider is another matter. As an actor, Gere has two expressions to draw from; mediocre and mediocre plus. Ironically, the mileage he gets from this limited range is rather impressive – perhaps because the character of Edward Lewis demands little else.

Hector Elizondo is the most charming edition to the cast; a sort of 'fairy Godmother' who finds something unique and enchanting in the girl from the wrong side of the tracks and thereafter does all he can to sprinkle a little pixie dust over the film's inevitable ‘hearts and flowers’ conclusion.

In the final analysis, Pretty Woman represents Touchstone Pictures at its most slickly packaged. Throughout the 1980s, the company produced many less than perfect entertainments that nevertheless caught the public fancy and box office dollars; Adventures in Babysitting, Can’t Buy Me Love – both in 1987, Beaches 1988 among them. Pretty Woman represents the last of this breed, today belonging more in a time capsule than definitive history of American movie making.

Buena Vista Home Video’s Blu-Ray release of Pretty Woman is sure to infuriate fans of the film on several levels. First, after providing the consumer with the extended cut on DVD, Buena Vista has decided to limit its Blu-Ray release to only the theatrical cut. The limited ‘special features’ that were included on the extended cut – including Natalie Cole’s ‘Wild Women Do’ music video and a meandering audio commentary by Garry Marshall – are the only extra features regurgitated on this outing and presented in 480i – not 1080p. But perhaps the biggest oversight on this release is the studio’s failure to go back to original source masters for the film's 1080p upgrade.

The image is virtually identical to the previously issued ‘Anniversary Edition’ on standard DVD – its only marginal improvements coming from Blu-Ray’s superior bit rate that results in a tighter image with ever so slightly more vibrant colors. The differences between the DVD and the Blu-Ray are negligible at best and frankly, a let down.

Several scenes appear softly focused with a considerable loss of fine detail. The audio is uncompressed DTS – thank heaven. Other extras include a blooper reel and vintage production featurette from 1990. Big deal!

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



THE SEARCHERS - Blu-Ray (WB 1956) Warner Home Video

John Ford, the purveyor of so many classic images of the old west, undertook a revision of its heroism in The Searchers (1956); a dark and brooding saga into one man’s soulless driving ambition to avenge the death of his entire family. Ford is undoubtedly the ideal director to take on this formidable challenge. After all, he practically invented the mythology of the old west: an arid, starkly surreal backdrop populated by honourable men, desperadoes, saloon whores wearing their hearts of gold on their sleeves, and, blood thristy 'red skins' looking to exact their pound of flesh from the human scalps of innocent settlers guiding their wagon trains way out west.

Such was Hollywood's concept of 'how the west was won'. And so it has largely remained on the screen for generations since Ford's time, the legend and legacy of Ford's west eclipsing the more frank and harsh historical record.

The Searchers stars Ford favorite, John Wayne as loner Ethan Edward. Ethan is a rover who returns to his brother, Aaron’s (Walter Coy) ranch house somewhere in Death Valley. Upon his arrival, Ethan is welcomed by Aaron’s wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan), son Ben (Robert Lyden), and daughters Lucy (Pippa Scott) and Debbie (Lana Wood). Their reunion is short lived.

When Ethan is called to investigate the assault of Comanche Indians on a nearby cattle ranch, he returns to Aaron's farm a few hours later to discover that the homestead has been burnt to the ground and his entire kin massacred. The pain of this loss turns rancid when 'half breed' Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), who was taken in by the family and reared as one of their own, decides to accompany Ethan on his quest for revenge. Ethan is a racist who, even on a good day, barely tolerated the Indians as people. Now, he is out for blood and looks upon Martin as a traitor to the white race lurking in his midst.

The one body not amongst the carnage on the ranch is Debbie, and Ethan suspects the Comanche have carried her off to their camp.
The rest of the film is basically Ethan’s journey to reclaim Debbie. But the desire that fuels this journey is hardly noble. In fact it contains a kernel of overriding and all-consuming frustration that is itself out for the satisfaction that only a complete slaughter of the Indian tribe responsible will provide.

For years Martin and Ethan travel the lonely trails, visiting trading outposts in search of Debbie but to no avail. Increasingly, Martin's girl, Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles) grows weary that Ethan's search will turn Martin into the hollow shell of a man she perceives Ethan to be. In truth, Laurie is not too far off the mark where Ethan is concerned. He is a man consumed by hate, incapable of maintaining a relationship with anyone for very long. Ethan belongs to the vast openess of the west. It is there where he thrives. But Martin is not meant for that life.

Eventually, Ethan and Martin have a meeting with Scar (Henry Brandon) the chief of the tribe who killed Aaron and his family. And although the years have transformed Debbie into a young woman, both Ethan and Martin clearly recognize her working amongst the other Indian women. She has been reared as one of their own.

Ethan believes Debbie has been brainwashed into forgetting her family. His quest is now to destroy, rather than rescue her. But Martin prevents the inevitable from happening. Forced to choose between saving or murdering Debbie, Ethan reaches for his pistol, then just as quickly seizes Debbie in his arms before informing her that he has come to take her home.

John Wayne was perhaps the ideal choice to re-envision the Hollywood western hero. After all, he had created the archetype along side John Ford, had built upon it in countless movies, each time ever so slightly tweaking his performance in a slew of highly successful movies throughout the 1940s. But in The Searchers Wayne becomes the antithesis of his own legacy. He inverts our expectations of what a western hero is with this truly haunting, often unlikeable and fairly unglamorous portrait.

Winton C. Hoch's cinematography, in VistaVision, is sumptuous. It may sound strange to refer to it as lush, given the stark arid landscapes that populate the story, but Hoch's camera lens evokes a moody, yet elegant isolation that is both enveloping and inviting. Max Steiner gives us another monumental score. He is the dean of American film underscoring. In the final analysis, The Searchers remains one of John Ford’s most prolific and engaging westerns. It is not to be missed.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray gives us yet another visual interpretation of what the original VistaVision image might have looked like. The original DVD release from 1997 was a mess of age related artifacts and faded colors that in no way lived up to VistaVision’s claim of ‘motion picture high fidelity’. Then, in 2002 Warner’s restoration experts revisited this title with a beautiful print master.

Now we get a Blu-Ray whose colour balancing is dramatically different to the DVD. Which more accurately represents the film as it appeared 'on film'? That's anybody's guess. The Blu-ray favours a more yellow palette. Earth tones that were ruddy orange and brown on the DVD have been transformed to a more sepia toned atmosphere. Curiously, blues, reds and flesh tones seem more natural on the Blu-ray. The higher bit rate on the Blu-ray has yielded a truly remarkable amount of background information with a natural reproduction of film grain. Contrast is darker than before, as it should be. This is motion picture high fidelity as arguably not even VistaVision could deliver. But is this really how the film looked to theater audiences over 60 years ago?

The audio has been remixed to PCM Dolby Digital. Max Steiner's score is the real benefactor here. Dialogue is still very frontal sounding. Remember that VistaVision - for all its advancements in how movies looked, was still a format that favoured mono sound. Warner has done an outstanding job of repurposing the track for a stereo presentation, albeit one with continued limitations in audio fidelity.

Extras on the Blu-Ray are all direct imports from Warner’s lavish box set and include ‘an appreciation’ featurette, the 1990 documentary about Wayne and Ford’s collaborative efforts and personal relationship, a commentary track from Peter Bogdanovich and vintage ‘behind the scenes’ segments from Warner Bros. Presents television show. Highly recommended! What we lose in the trade up from DVD to Blu-ray is Warner's rather lavish packaging, reproductions of lobby cards and poster art, and a comic book of The Searchers made available to the public at the same time as the film's original general release. Oh well, I suppose we can't have everything!

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



Friday, March 20, 2009

THE THREE STOOGES: VOL. 5 (Columbia 1946-48) Sony Home Entertainment

Curly Howard will forever remain everyone’s favorite stooge – his bald pate and bulbous face contorted into innumerable expressions of severe stupidity that elevate ‘dumb comedy’ into a refined art. Such was the case when Curly began as one of The Three Stooges together with brother Moe and cohort Larry Fine in Vaudeville. These three cinematic nitwits reigned supreme over just about every other comedy act working in films of their day, even though they appeared in nothing more a series of relatively low budget two reel short subjects for Columbia between 1932 and 1950.

Now, Sony Home Entertainment rolls out the latest installment of their franchise celebrating Columbia’s most enduring funny men, Larry, Moe and Curly with The Three Stooges Collection: Volume 5. Spanning the years 1946 to 1948, this latest 2 disc set is perhaps the most bittersweet. Midway through shooting 1947’s Half-Wits Holiday (a remake of another stooge classic, Hoi Polloi 1934) Curly Howard suffered a debilitating stroke that forced him to withdraw from the trio.

However, even before this tragedy occurred, there seems to be – at least in retrospect - a sense of tired restraint lingering throughout the shorts featuring Curly in this box set. Not only Curly, but Moe and Larry look more careworn, or perhaps merely less carefree than we’ve come to expect. Although Uncivil Warbirds – the short that casts the stooges as a trio of confederate soldiers during the war between the states – is a bright spot of clever comedy, shorts like Beer Barrel Polecats and Monkey Businessmen tend to meander as waning reminders of the stooges at the height of their popularity. Only now, they appear to simply be going through the motions.

After Curly's stroke Moe suggested to Columbia’s president Harry Cohn that the stooges be given a second chance to make good; this time with Moe’s other brother – Shemp Howard, who had begun as part of the act in Vaudeville, but departed the stooges before they made the successful transition from stage to film.

The shorts featuring Shemp in this collection are perhaps the real reason to stand up and cheer; for they represent not only a renewed willingness on Moe and Larry's part to resurrect and slightly reinvent the act for a new generation, but also a commitment on Columbia's part to reinvigorate the franchise with as much pomp and circumstance as the act received at the height of Curly’s popularity.

Shemp’s inaugural as a stooge, 1947’s Fright Night is a tour de force in slapstick as they exploit a prize fighter by feeding him creampuffs. Hold That Lion (1947) is an exuberant mishmash of hilarity as Curly makes his final cameo in a stooge short while Moe, Larry and Shemp hunt down a swindler for revenge. Shivering Sherlocks (1948) is another delightful romp as the new trio comes face to face with a bloodthirsty robber and his diabolical henchman, while The Hot Scots (1948) is a whacky tale of three detectives guarding a haunted highland castle.

In all then, Volume 5 of The Three Stooges is a celebratory note for the ‘fourth’ chuckle-head – Shemp. Part of Shemp Howard’s appeal is that he attempts in no way to resurrect his brother's memory through his own performance. Whereas Curly was bombastic and irreverent with grandiose gestures in physical comedy, Shemp is a more refined raconteur, carrying the act of a ‘mama’s boy’ to new heights of whiny perfection. Although Curly will always be in our hearts, Shemp occasionally gets inside our heads. Hence, when we think of Curly we remember his energy and laugh out loud. When we think of Shemp we simply have to smile.

Sony Home Entertainment’s commitment to ‘restoring’ the stooge classics on DVD seems to have slightly waned with this latest compilation. Although these shorts come from a later period in the stooges’ career and are therefore younger than all the shorts offered in previous collections, a good many in this collection tend to exhibit more grain and a less smooth B&W image.

A Bird In The Head (1946) as example appears to have several dupe shots inserted from second generation source material that is slightly out of focus and considerably more grainy than the rest of the short. Three Loan Wolves (1946) exhibits some minor edge enhancement. The characteristic of the visuals is therefore inconsistently rendered at best. The audio portion of this presentation is mono and adequately represented. As is the case with all other Three Stooges Collections currently put forth by Sony, there are NO extras.

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



TAMMY TRIPLE FEATURE (Universal 1957, 61, 63) Universal Home Video

Based on Cid Ricketts Sumner’s heartwarming novel, director Joseph Pevney’s Tammy and the Bachelor (1957) is an equally charming big screen adaptation whose chief asset is the winsomely angelic Debbie Reynolds. Oscar nominated for her role as backwoods babe Tambey ‘Tammy’ Tyree, Reynolds infuses the character with an unspoiled sincerity, utterly effervescent and genuinely enchanting. The film is one of those near forgotten gems that really deserves more playtime and appreciation.

The film opens with Tammy and Nan’ (her goat) by a babbling brook near the Ellenbee, the shanty riverboat Tammy lives on with her grandfather, John Dinwitty (Walter Brennan). Learning of a wreck up the river, Tammy and John come across the bedraggled and unconscious body of wealthy playboy, Peter Brent (Leslie Nielsen). Nursing Peter back to health, Tammy develops an infatuation that Brent is neither anxious to discourage nor encourage from progressing. Now, how’s that for a tease?

Unfortunately for Tammy, the day arrives when Peter is well enough to return to his family. He does so and all but forgets about Tammy – that is, until she comes up the road with Nan’ looking for what has become of him. Seems John has been sent to prison for selling corn liquor; a considerable offense. Through a misassumption that Tammy’s grandfather is dead, Peter’s mother (Fay Wray) and father, Professor Brent (Sidney Blackmer) take Tammy into their southern colonial home where she proves to be a useful edition to their family.

Peter’s aunt, Renie (Mildred Natwick) finds Tammy’s simple freshness invigorating, though Mrs. Brent prefers that Tammy should remain silent and preferably upstairs in her guest room. Renie learns of Tammy’s genuine love for Peter and encourages their romance, despite the fact that Peter is already engaged to snobbish socialite, Barbara Bissle (Mala Powers). It is Barbara’s desire that Peter should leave his dream of restoring his family home to prosperity through farming and instead go to work for her father in his textile business.

But Peter’s love of the land is more aligned with Tammy’s desire to see him thrive at whatever his passion may be. Eventually, Peter comes to his senses about the girl from the bayou – although his revelation comes too late to save his own dream of farming his ancestral lands.

Oscar Brodney’s expertly crafted screenplay keeps the story development effortless and fanciful. Debbie Reynolds sings the Oscar nominated Ray Evans/Jay Livingston song ‘Tammy’ from her moonlit bedroom– an unabashedly sentimental highlight in the film, as is the scene where Tammy revives the ghost of Peter’s great grandmother by dressing in her trousseau and recanting for a crowd of visitors how it was that she and the man of this great house came to start the Brent clan so many years before.

In the final analysis, Tammy and the Bachelor may not be phenomenal entertainment, but it is irresistable as it is poignant; a fable, expertly told and a sheer joy to behold.

Encouraged by the film’s success, in 1961 director Harry Keller decided to rip another chapter from Sumner’s saga – this time with teen pop sensation Sandra Dee as his Tammy. Unfortunately, Tammy, Tell Me True (1961) never quite attains the level of homespun charm that its predecessor had in spades. In the original, Tammy is merely a fish out of water, inadvertently casting her own spell of loveable enchantment on the people she meets from the world outside her own cloistered existence. However, in the sequel the character becomes something of a determinist backwood’s pixie, liberating the modern world from its own self imposed oppressions. This can become grating - and does - fairly quickly, the 'us versus them' scenario having a negative impact on both the folksy and socially mobile elements in the film.

The sequel opens with Tammy once again pursuing Peter who has deserted her to attend an out of state agricultural school. Tammy deduces that Peter’s abandonment is directly related to her own lack of culture and education and vows to go to college to better her social standing and win Peter back. At the behest of Professor Thomas Freeman (John Gavin) Tammy enrolls in college as a ‘special student.’

However, from the moment classes begin, the students – all white bred snobs – find Tammy a figure of fun. To help pay for her education the school’s administrator, Miss Jenks (Virginia Grey) suggests that Tammy become the live-in companion to Mrs. Annie Call (Beulah Bondi); a bitter old woman who has her faith in humanity and health restored after she runs away with Tammy to live on the Ellenbee.

The pieces are all in place and Sandra Dee does her best to live up to Debbie Reynolds galvanic heroine in rags, but this second visit to the well of simple sincerity doesn’t quite come together as it should. Instead, there are sparkles and fragments of genuineness that come and go. The film even makes a vane and pointless attempt to have Dee warble another Evans/Livingston tune that in no way equals the original song for either warmth or charm.

Worse, Oscar Brodney’s retread screenplay shatters our expectations from the first film by having Tammy fall out of love with Peter, making her new and burgeoning romance with Prof. Freeman seem either foolhardy or fickle at best. Apparently, very few of these imperfections in narrative construction seemed to matter to film audiences in 1961 because in 1963 Keller tried the formula once more for Tammy and the Doctor – an abysmal final act to the trilogy, garishly misappropriated by an ineffectual performance from Peter Fonda, cast as the goony love interest/physician on whom Tammy’s new infatuation is thrust. Beulah Bondi returns as Annie Call, stricken with a heart ailment that sends her to the hospital and placed in the kindly care of Dr. Wayne Bentley (Macdonald Carey).

To be near Annie, Tammy becomes a nurse and quickly establishes herself as the most indispensable staffer on the ward. There, Tammy meets Dr. Mark Cheswick (Fonda) who takes a passing interest in Tammy that gradually blossoms into love. He introduces her to highbrow culture and the arts.

It’s easy to see why no more films in the series were forthcoming after this installment. Oscar Brodney’s screenplay is in desperate need of something to say and regrettably discovers nothing by way of either character motivation or plot entanglements that are even remotely amusing or fresh to refine and build upon. Tammy and the Doctor is therefore a film already on life support before the opening credits roll, and in vital need of a transfusion by the final reel.

Universal Home Video’s two disc/three film ‘DVD collection’ needs some revisiting. The original feature, shot in Cinemascope suffers from muddy colors and a considerable amount of film grain during fades and dissolves. At times the image can appear rather nicely refined with somewhat pasty flesh tone and enough fine detail. Unfortunately, there are many scenes that are on the verge of vinegar disintegration, where the color is not only faded, but clumpy – resulting in a very blurry and somewhat distorted image.

The last two features were both shot in 1:75:1. To varying degrees the shortcomings already mentioned plague these last two installments as well. Universal Home Video has reserved a single disc for Tammy and the Bachelor and compressed the latter two features on one side of a second disc. In all cases the audio is mono and adequately represented. There are no extra features and NO chapter listings.

While I can’t fault Universal for not taking the high road on the last two films, the original is a time capsule worth preserving. In this critic’s opinion it would be nice to see a restoration expert like Robert A. Harris tackle this assignment.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Tammy and the Bachelor 3.5
Tammy Tell Me True 2.5
Tammy and the Doctor 1



Saturday, March 7, 2009

MOONTIDE (2oth Century-Fox 1942) Fox Home Video

Archie Mayo’s Moontide (1942) is the film that was supposed to make an American star out of French actor Jean Gabin; already a megawatt personality in French cinema but a relative unknown elsewhere. The problem isn’t so much that Gabin’s performance in the final cut of Moontide is bad. On the contrary, he acquits himself of the role of Bobo (originally called Frenchy); a disreputable lady’s man/sailor who walks – or rather, saunters - through life without a care in the world.

The biggest hurdle for the film is its generally bad script from Nunnally Johnson and John O’Hara. Based on Willard Robinson’s sordid novel, the property was condemned outright by Hollywood’s censorship code for its references to homosexuality, rape and prostitution. These aspects in the story are never outwardly represented in the film, leaving Moontide utterly emasculated of its’ more potent and juicy content.

The story opens with Bobo arriving at The Red Dot, a seedy waterside nightclub where he attempts to make the acquaintance of a ‘working’ girl whose boyfriend of the evening thinks otherwise. Bobo’s best friend is Tiny (Thomas Mitchell, cast against type); a clingy, somewhat effeminate sadist who derives rather bizarre pleasure out of snapping his wet towel after the naked buttocks of Nutsy (Claude Rains, also painfully cast against type). For some reason, Bobo never quite makes the connection that Tiny is hot for him.

Instead, Bobo meets Anna (Ida Lupino); a careworn prostitute who attempts to drown herself in the surf after she has been brutally gang raped. Bobo’s kindness resurrects Anna’s hopes for genuine happiness. Indeed, Bobo – who never considered women as anything but playthings, experiences a conversion to romantic love. He marries Anna, sending Tiny into a reckless desire to destroy them both with a frame up for a murder he has committed. After attempting to brutalize Anna, and succeeding in crippling her, Tiny is hunted down by Bobo and forced onto a jetty in the fog where the surf consumes him.

In the original novel, Anna is raped and killed by Tiny, leaving Bobo to avenge his wife by murdering Tiny. Hollywood’s code of ethics prevented any of these plot points from reaching the screen, thereby blunting the impact of the story to an extent where what emerges on film is mildly alarming at best and filmed entirely on the Fox backlot with immeasurable aid from Charles G. Clarke’s and Lucien Ballard’s evocatively spooky cinematography.

Unfortunately for all concerned, Moontide did not do well at the box office. It also did not make Jean Gabin a star in America. In retrospect, it’s perhaps easy to see why. Gabin’s soothing intercontinental charm is vocally expressed, but his carriage and visage are more pug ugly than leading man material. The two don’t seem to go together or fit – except to remind us of a bizarre blend between Paul Henreid and Humphrey Bogart.

Ida Lupino, who had departed Warner Brothers to freelance, was corralled into the Fox stable temporarily by Darryl F. Zanuck (her biggest fan on the lot). Still, and despite Zanuck’s great admiration for her, Lupino’s career at Fox was hardly dazzling. In Moontide, she turns in a rather sympathetic performance as damaged goods given a second lease on life, though her fresh face is more cute than careworn. Thomas Mitchell’s maniacal closet homosexual is not the actor’s finest hour. Neither is Claude Rains’ village idiot. Despite both men being exceptional craftsmen from Hollywood’s golden age, neither breaks beyond the barrier of tragic miscasting in this film. In the final analysis, Moontide is a blip rather than a bombshell of noir excellence.

Fox Home Video’s DVD is beautifully rendered. The image throughout is crisp, though never harsh. The gray scale exhibits exceptional tonality throughout with fine details evident even during night scenes. Age related artifacts and film grain are present, but do not distract. The audio is mono as originally recorded and remastered with adequacy. An audio commentary from Foster Hirsch is exceptionally thorough, while the featurette ‘Turning The Tide’ is a fairly accurate account of the film’s ill fated production.

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