Wednesday, April 15, 2009

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (Castlerock 1994) Warner Home Video

Strange, that no one at the time of general release considered Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption (1994) worthy of any distinction, much less an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Even today, it rarely appears on 100 best film lists. But in 1994 less than a handful of critics had their pens poised in praise. For the most part, audiences stayed away at the box office. After all, what could be so compelling about two hours behind the walls of a prison?

Based on a short story by Steven King The Shawshank Redemption proved that there was more than enough to inspire and keep our minds active. Darabont's screenplay does a magnificent job of fleshing out both the characters and the story, while Roger Deakin's cinematography creates indelible images of the struggle and triumph of the human spirit.

The story (set in Maine but actually shot in Mansfield Ohio) concerns Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) a banker wrongfully accused of killing his philandering wife and her lover. For this crime of passion, Andy is sentenced to life behind the walls of Shawshank Prison. One problem: Andy isn't guilty of this crime. Regrettably, he quickly learns that innocence alone cannot shield him from the harsh realities of prison life.

Inside Shawshank, Andy is severely beaten and repeatedly raped by 'the sisters': a group of gay inmates fronted by the sadistic Bogs Diamond (Mark Rolston). He is also generally abused by the guards who relish exercising their authority over the inmates in an attempt to break their spirits. But Andy is not quite so easily defeated. He remains stoic and silent.

After befriending fellow inmate, Ellis Boyd (Morgan Freeman - originally described in the novel as a red headed Irishman) Andy strikes a pact with Boyd to reunite with him on the outside when Ellis comes up for parole. Although Ellis believes that Andy is sincere he also sincerely doubts that either of them will ever see the light of day outside of Shawshank.

The system is corrupt. Warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gunton) is a crook, exercising his own moral contempt over the inmates, determined at any and all costs to keep the men he oversees from ever making their parole. Those who are released, like Brooks Hatlen (James Whitmore) have systematically had their spirits destroyed by the system. Hence, they are entirely lost in the nightmarish world of societal rehabilitation beyond Shawshank's walls. In Brooks' case, his menial suffrage at a minimum wage job inside a grocery store is at an end after he takes his own life - living up to the inmate's motto of either 'get busy living, or get busy dying.'

Amidst all this hopelessness, Andy keeps everyone's spirits up on the inside. His quest to better all their lives results in a curious d├ętente between himself and the warden. A banker by trade, Andy offers expert financial advice to Norton and his guards; offering to manage their accounts and do their taxes, all the while quietly cooking the books to expose them for their tax evasion to the FBI.

However, when a new inmate, Tommy (Gil Bellows) arrives at Shawshank he reveals to Ellis and the others that Andy is indeed innocent of the crime of murder that sent him to prison. Learning of Andy’s innocence from Tommy – but fearful of losing his most complicit tax cheat – the warden has Tommy assassinated in the prison courtyard on the eve that he is set to be paroled; thereby ensuring that Andy will remain at Shawshank for the rest of his life. Unfortunately for the warden, Andy has developed another passion in prison – escaping.

Using popular pin up posters to conceal the tunnel he is digging to freedom, Andy escapes Shawshank without a trace on a dark and stormy night. Or has he? Andy has left clever clues and enough money for Ellis to find him upon his parole. At first, Ellis seems unwilling to try, fearful that he will return to Shawshank for parole violations. But after he retraces Brooks footsteps, Ellis deciding to make his own break for the coast. Unlike Brooks, Ellis has decided to 'get busy living.' The final moments of the film are dedicated to the film's most poignant voice over narration, as Ellis and Andy are reunited on a sandy beach somewhere in Mexico – free from the tyranny and oppression of their former lives.

The Shawshank Redemption is a film of such immense poignancy that it's a little hard for this critic to objectively provide an unbias review. I loved (and continue to love) this film. It's as perfect as movies get. There is so much to admire; from the stellar performances to the inspirational score by Thomas Newman, and Roger Deakins’ stylized cinematography that makes Shawshank Prison appear, if not homey, then at least a place where both prisoners and audiences feel strangely at home.

Of course the continued mystery and tragedy of the film is that it was misperceived as a quiet little nothing upon its general release and expected to fade quickly and quietly into the night. Thankfully, this artistic exile never occurred. In fact, since its release the opposite has been true. The Shawshank Redemption is steadily growing in reputation and is today regarded as one of the truly outstanding films from the 1990s.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray disc easily bests its re-issued 2 disc SE DVD. The Bluray excels in every department. Colours are bold and fully saturated. Fine details are evident even in the most minute background information. Contrast levels are bang on perfect. Edge effects that were obvious and quite distracting on the SE DVD have been eliminated on the Blu-ray. The image is smooth and satisfying, while retaining its grain structure. This is a class 'A' rendering of a very classy production. Bravo!

The audio remains PCM 5.1 Dolby Digital but delivers a very robust sonic experience - probably not as full and rich as a DTS remastering, but we'll take it for now. Extras include the magnificently produced BBC retrospective documentary, as well as a ‘making of’ featurette, original theatrical trailer and audio commentaries. Highly recommended.

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



COOL HAND LUKE - Blu-Ray (WB 1967) Warner Home Video

"See, what we have here is a failure to communicate!" In essence, Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke (1967) is a throwback to the ‘big house’ subgenre of gangster/crime movies from the early 1930s; gritty, but with a likeable anti-hero at its core. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that Warner Bros. – the studio that pioneered this genre - should have also bankrolled this film after a previous arrangement between Rosenberg and Columbia Studios fell apart.

The script by Don Pearce and Frank Pierson (based on Pearce’s episodic novel) captures a lot of the textured nuances of a disenfranchised small town loner without delving too deeply into what makes the character tick.

When first we meet Luke Jackson (Paul Newman), he is a returning war hero without a care in the world. After drinking up a storm and feeling no pain, except perhaps slaphappy 'feel good', Luke is discovered by a police officer sawing the heads off of parking meters. He is promptly incarcerated and placed in a state work farm overseen by a calculating law man known only as Captain (Strother Martin).

Each day, the prisoners are taken from the farm and placed on road crew duty – toiling long hours in the hot sun clearing debris and re-tarring weather worn surfaces. At one point in the film, the men are forced to clear a roadway near a derelict farm house where a nameless backwoods temptress (Joy Harmon) delights in soaping up an old jalopy in the most sexually explicit way.

Aloof and keeping largely to himself, Luke incurs the wrath of fellow inmate, Dragline (George Kennedy) who challenges him to a boxing match. The diminutive Luke is no challenge for Dragline who delights in pummeling him into the ground – that is, until Luke refuses to give in. With each bone shattering blow knocking Luke back into the dust Dragline realizes that there is just no stopping Luke’s obstinacy.

Ironically, from this moment forward, Dragline develops a deep admiration for Luke. Thus, when Luke later declares that he can eat 50 eggs in one hour, Dragline becomes Luke’s most ardent proponent, challenging the rest of the prisoners to bet on the event. The first half of the movie builds on this buddy/buddy camaraderie with Dragline developing an almost religious affinity for Luke.

However, after Luke’s mother Arletta (Jo Van Fleet) dies, Luke is forever a changed man. Owing to Luke’s more somber outlook, the Captain resolves to place Luke in solitary confinement rather than risk his attempting to escape while working the road crew. Luke, who has been a model prisoner until that time, decides that he can endure imprisonment no more. Hence, he first attempts a daring night time prison break and later, an even more bold escape from the road crew. In both cases, he is caught and returned to the work camp where his outlook continues to deteriorate.

Captain punishes Luke by making him dig and re-dig the same hole to the point of complete exhaustion. Luke fakes a broken spirit convincingly enough to be reinstated on the road crew where he once more makes a dramatic escape, this time with Dragline in tow. The police soon catch up to them however and Luke, after being told that he will merely be sent back to the camp as punishment, is instead gunned down outside of a church by the police. After attempting to avenge Luke’s death, Dragline is severely beaten and taken back to the work camp where he relays Luke’s last act of heroism to the other prisoners.

Conrad Hall’s cinematography is stark, yet lush – creating a visually gorgeous palette through his framing. Ironically the photography came under considerable scrutiny by critics who thought the effect ‘too pretty.’ On the contrary, Hall’s ability to incorporate the stark flat reality of the work camp with the rather claustrophobic interiors of the sweatbox facilities the men sleep in presents an appealing counterbalance to the storytelling.

Newman is at the top of his game as Luke; brilliantly reconceived from the novel’s Luke to be an appealing foil for the local law enforcement that are portrayed as unattractively cynical and morally jaded at best. The camaraderie between George Kennedy and Newman is genuine, provided the essential glue of the piece from whence all other points of interest and plot entanglements within the script are thoroughly explored. In the final analysis, Cool Hand Luke is an admirable update to the classic Warner gangster/crime drama produced on mass three decades earlier.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray disc easily bests their standard DVD in all departments. Colors jump to life with realistic flesh tones and vibrant greens. On the standard DVD the sun burnt flesh of the men on the road crew registers a flat pasty orange. On the Blu-ray there is more variation in tonality. Fine details are prevalent throughout. The Blu-ray is razor sharp, while the standard disc exhibits some minor softness – particularly in background detail. Black levels are deep, rich and solid. Whites are clean and bright, though never blooming. Edge effects are present on the DVD, but not on the Blu-ray.

The audio is mono as originally recorded and represented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a thorough documentary on the making of the film with interviews from director and costar George Kennedy. The film’s original theatrical trailer is also included. Recommended.

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



BONNIE AND CLYDE (WB-Seven Arts 1967) Warner Home Video

A considerable simplification and utter fabrication of the facts, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) takes its loose tongued playful crack at one of America’s most notorious husband and wife crime waves. In reality, the duo achieved nation wide notoriety as a pair of modern day Robin Hoods for their series of daring and seemingly unstoppable bank robberies during the age of ‘the public enemy (1931-35) even though Clyde Barrow’s preference was for gas station and general store hold ups.

Newspaper headlines of the day remade the couple into infamously compelling fugitives. In reality, Bonnie never fired a gun or even directly participated in the stick ups. She was the gang’s logistics expert – planning their activities and aiding in transportation to and from the crime scenes. The 1967 film suggests a much more proactive role for Bonnie Parker, its screenplay by David Newman and Robert Benton drawing on Faye Dunaway’s sexually neurotic performance to produce one of the cinema’s most enduring and electric femme fatales.

Historically regarded as the first ‘new Hollywood’ production that shattered many pre-existing taboos – for its time, Bonnie and Clyde was a runaway hit with younger audiences – its glib devil-may-care attitude towards ultra violence and sex strangely shocking yet comedic. So meager was Warner Bros. faith in the project that they offered actor Warren Beatty 40% of the film’s gross rather than pay him his standard actor’s fee. When the movie grossed over $70 million worldwide, Beatty became an overnight millionaire.

The artistic liberties taken with historical fact are many and worth noting; beginning with the reduction of gang members to a manageable five; the exclusion of any of the gang’s repeated imprisonments along the way, and finally, an complete absence of any of the cold-blooded murders they committed while on their crusade.The character of C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard) is actually an amalgam of two Barrow Gang members; Henry Methvin and Henry Daniel Jones – the latter filing a lawsuit against Warner Bros. when the film was released – claiming that his credibility was ‘maligned’ in the story. The film also presents Texas Ranger Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle) as a reoccurring fop rife for the pair’s humiliation; an inept and hateful cliche of southern bigotry and inefficiency. In actuality, Hamer’s first contact with the duo was the successful ambush that riddled the couple's car in a hailstorm of bullets.

Greatly influenced by the French New Wave's non-linear editing style, Robert Benton and David Newman's screenplay opens with a screwball slapstick interpretation of Clyde Barrow’s (Warren Beatty) first stick up. Flatt & Schrugg’s Foggy Mountain Breakdown banjo music transforms crime into keystone comedy and immediately sets the tone for all the artifice that is to follow. We cut away to a sexually repressed Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) longing for the touch of a man inside her upstairs attic bedroom while her mother (Mabel Cavitt) decries her lack of ambition to do anything but laze around all day. Presumably to escape eternal boredom, Bonnie elopes with Clyde and thereafter accompanies him on every hold up.

Along the way, Clyde acquires the services of a backward clerk, C.W. Moss (Michael Pollard), his cousin Buck (Gene Hackman) and his wife, Blanche (Estelle Parsons). This gang of five enjoys a series of stick up successes across the Midwest, much to the chagrin of Sheriff Frank Hamer (Denver Pyle) whose anxiety, dismay and anger incrementally grow with each new robbery.Eventually, the authorities catch up to Clyde and his entourage. In a shoot out they capture Blanche, Buck and C.W. However, the daring duo escapes, bidding a final farewell to Bonnie’s mother before becoming the victims of a staged turkey shoot along a lonely road.

The final moments of the film are more an homage to Romeo & Juliet for the Tommy-gun age than a fitting conclusion to the traditional crime story, with Bonnie passionately reaching for Clyde moments before Hamer and his deputies open fire. The introduction of ‘squibs’ – small explosive charges detonated beneath actors' clothing – afforded this sequence its then uncharacteristic bloody finish.

Despite Bonnie and Clyde's initial success, critics of the day were appalled by the escalated level of violence depicted on the screen. Even today, controversy surrounds the movie. To be certain, from a pure narrative perspective, the story remains uneven. Characters are cutouts and cartoony. Is this employment of ultra lampoon a mere oversight on director Penn’s part or is it a more deliberate attempt to get to the heart of these two mythological criminals while breaking down artistic barriers in the movies? Time has not convinced this critic of the latter.

Although Faye Dunaway delivers a fairly straight forward performance – arguably the one credible piece of acting in the film – the rest of the cast never seem to take either the script or themselves seriously. Given the screenplay's indifference at representing the duo as big-hearted, thick-headed gun-totting avengers out for a good time, regrettably, as an audience we are left wondering what all the fuss was that made the real Bonnie and Clyde such iconic household names in the first place. The slapstick approach to violence does more than simply make the whole enterprise slightly silly, it distills Cyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker into mere figures of fun.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray bests their 2-disc special edition DVD, rectifying many of the shortcomings in its previously released single disc offering from 1997. Although red color levels appear to be slightly boosted, on the whole image quality is quite pleasing. Colors are more refined on the Blu-Ray, contrast levels deeper, fine details more sharply realized.

Film grain is accurately recreated. Certain scenes retain a soft patina and slight haze. But age related artifacts, although greatly tempered, still exist. The audio is a 5.1 PCM Dolby Digital remix with noticeable limitations in fidelity.Extras include a 43 minute History Channel bio on the real Bonnie and Clyde and a 22 minute ‘making of’ on the film. There’s also deleted scenes, screen and wardrobe test footage and a theatrical trailer to consider.

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



Friday, April 10, 2009

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS - Blu-Ray (MGM 1951) Warner Home Video

A musical of immense visual lushness and formidable craftsmanship, Vincente Minnelli’s An American In Paris (1951) should be required viewing today; an iconic vision of film as absolute art. Originally, it was the brainchild of MGM producer Arthur Freed who had long desired to make a film immortalizing the song catalogue of George and Ira Gershwin – particularly George’s ‘American in Paris Ballet’.
By 1951, Freed had logged a decade’s worth of solid musical masterpieces and minor gems at MGM. Indeed, Freed was Louis B. Mayer’s golden boy – a man of great personal integrity and chic good taste in all things. In fact, it's not an overstatement to say that almost single-handedly Arthur Freed ushered in the golden era of the MGM musical.

At MGM, this musical’s pedigree had seemed so secure throughout the 1940s. However, at war’s end audience’s tastes began to change toward grittier melodramas, thrillers and more realism in general. L.B. Mayer, a man who adored musicals as much as Freed, was unceremoniously deposed as MGM’s mogul in 1950. His successor, Dore Schary did not share in Mayer and Freed’s zeal for musical entertainment, particularly since the post war era had seen an escalation in production costs, while theater attendance was steadily declining with the advent of television. Hence, musicals – the costliest of all genres to produce – were increasingly becoming a gamble at the box office.

Undaunted, Arthur Freed employed the very best under contract at the studio for this film, including Vincente Minnelli to direct, Gene Kelly to star, Alan Jay Lerner to write the story, Johnny Green to conduct the MGM orchestra and Irene Sharaff to design the costumes. In retrospect, An American In Paris had everything going for it. Still, Kelly lamented the fact that MGM had no authentic ‘French’ girl under contract to play the part of Lise Bouvier. After a quiet search, Kelly ‘discovered’ unknown, Leslie Caron – performing as the ‘cat’ girl in a Parisian show. But Caron wanted nothing to do with the movies. However, Caron’s mother – an avid filmgoer - encouraged her daughter to reconsider.

The story concerns American painter, Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly). An ex-G.I., Jerry is a starving artist enjoying his relative obscurity in Montmartre – that Bohemian playground for artistic inspiration – until wealthy playgirl Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) takes a serious interest in both Jerry and his art. But Jerry is not so easily fooled. He also doesn’t fancy himself a boy toy for the idle rich.Although Jerry is not a fortune hunter, he is savvy enough to recognize what getting involved with Milo could do for both his career and his social standing. Instead, he begins to fall for young Parisian gamin, Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron) after a chance meeting at a local watering hole.

Meanwhile, Jerry’s best friend, pianist Adam Cook (played to comedic perfection by Oscar Levant) advises Jerry against any romance. Art is important, Adam reasons. Women are just a diversion.The wrinkle in the plot occurs when Adam learns that Lise is engaged to marry his friend, Henri Burell (George Guetary) – a great star of the Follies Bergeres. Though Lise desperately loves Jerry, she feels a sense of duty toward Henri. After all, he did raise her during the war after her own parents were killed. But how long can Lise deny her heart?

Lerner’s screenplay is brilliantly conceived – stylish, quick paced and dramatic with humor mixed in. The Gershwin score is among the finest repurposed for any musical with such indelible hits as Embraceable You, S’wonderful, I Got Rhythm and the immortal American in Paris Ballet seamlessly blended in. Apart from the opening sequence which sets up our expectations for gay Paris with vintage travelogue stock footage, the entire movie was photographed on the MGM back lot in Culver City.

Reportedly, when Irving Berlin learned that Arthur Freed, Kelly and Minnelli were planning to end their story with a 20 minute ballet and no dialogue afterward, he curiously commented, “I guess you fellas know what you’re doing.” Indeed they did. An American In Paris became the first musical to win a Best Picture Academy Award since The Great Ziegfeld (1936).

Viewing An American In Paris today, one remains captivated by its flawless execution; its brilliant choreography, energetic milieu of merriment and song and intoxicating blend of personalities in synergetic compliment to one another. Arthur Freed, who had advanced the musical from its stage bound presence throughout the 1940s once again took a quantum step forward with the craftsmanship exuded on An American in Paris; a loving tribute to the city of light, the Gershwins, romance in general and Hollywood musicals in particular.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray disc is a direct import from their 2-disc Ultra Resolution DVD transfer. The results are a magnificently restored example of vintage Technicolor that sparkles with crisp brilliance. It should be pointed out however that for those already owning the 2 disc edition, there is little reason to upgrade to the Blu-Ray. Apart from being marginally sharper (a result of Blu-Ray’s superior compression capabilities) the quality of this transfer is on par with the existing 2 disc edition.

Color fidelity is utterly impressive. Reds are blood red. Whites are stark though never blooming. The meticulous re-registration of the original three strip elements has produced an image with so much fine detail and clarity throughout it is a staggering marvel to recall that the film is well over 50 years old. If only this restoration process could somehow become standardized and economical enough to be employed on a litany of other Technicolor titles in the Warner catalogue.

The audio has been restored as well, though nothing can mask the somewhat strident nature of this vintage recording – lacking in bass tonality. Extras include a rather lackluster documentary (actually a featurette) on the making of the film with interviews from Nina Foch and Leslie Caron, as well as vintage stuff from Minnelli and other creative members of the cast.

Warner has also seen fit to re-release Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer (previously released as its own single in a Kelly box set) – an altogether more fitting tribute to Kelly’s talents. Finally, this disc contains outtakes and one surviving clip of George Guetary singing the poignant and melodic ‘Love Walked In.’ There is also some unrelated short subjects and a theatrical trailer.The film and the transfer are indeed, ‘S’wonderful!’ and ‘S’marvelous!’ The extras are nice to have, but one wishes that Warner would go back to the days when they used to release classic movies with isolated scoring session tracks – especially for their musicals. Bottom line: highly recommended!

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

Blu-Ray - 5+
Standard DVD 5