Sunday, September 6, 2009

THE GOLDEN GIRLS: Season One (Touchstone 1985) Buena Vista Home Entertainment

1985 will forever be marked in television history as a ‘golden’ year. For that is the year NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff and television series creator Susan Harris launched The Golden Girls: a poignant and hilarious situation comedy about the comings and goings of four elderly women living their daily lives together under one roof in Miami, Florida.

Tartikoff originally conceived the series after visiting his elderly aunt and her next-door neighbor who, despite their constant bickering and arguments were life long friends. But it was Harris’ snazzy take on keeping the ladies an eclectic and cosmopolitan blend of diverse personalities that gave and kept the series engaging, fresh and sincere.

Scripted exclusively by Kathy Speer and Terry Grossman (seasons 1-4) this successful writing team eventually gave their more general ideas to other staff writers beginning in Season 5 before bowing out entirely in 1989. From 1990 to 1993 Lavern and Shirley writer Marc Sotkin served as the guiding force for the show with assists by Richard Vaczy, Tracy Gamble, Marc Cherry and Jamie Wooten.

During The Golden Girl’s eight year run on NBC it often tackled such offbeat and taboo topics as gay marriage, impotence, suicide, gambling addiction, cross-dressing, lesbianism, Alzheimer’s Disease, child abandonment, euthanasia and botched plastic surgery, always with tongue firmly in cheek, often with blunt sexual innuendo in play, though never clumsily insincere.

It might have all been for not if casting had not been quite so inspired. Still, choices made then, that now seem so obvious, were anything but at the time of pre-production. For example, originally Rue McClananhan was cast as Rose and Betty White as Blanche; the former having played nutty but nice opposite Bea Arthur’s Maude while the latter had been the man-hungry man trap on Mary Tyler Moore. Also, McClanahan is the youngest of the series’ alumni – almost twelve years everyone else’s junior, while Estelle Getty – cast as Bea Arthur’s mother - was actually 14 months younger than Arthur herself.

In reuniting these television alumni The Golden Girls proved indestructible entertainment and a runaway smash hit for Touchstone Television (a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co.). The show became the flagship program for NBC's Saturday Night Must See TV line up and during its original run all four stars were honored with at least one Emmy Award; the show itself receiving 65 Emmy nominations and 11 wins, four Golden Globes and two Viewers for Quality Television awards.

The premise for the show is by now, through syndication and rerun, practically a given but worth reiterating herein. Widow Blanche Devereaux (Rue McClanahan) has decided to rent rooms in her Miami home to help pay expenses. Widow Rose Nylund (Betty White) and divorcee Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur) responded to the ad and are shortly thereafter joined by Dorothy's mother, Sophia Petrillo (Estelle Getty) after Shady Pines, Sophia’s retirement home, burns down.

From the get go, Season One of The Golden Girls opens with superb – if mildly risqué - repartee between its leading ladies, creating iconic and inspired comedy along the way. In all, 25 episodes comprise the first season of this landmark series with ‘Blanche and the Younger Man’, ‘ A Little Romance’ and ‘The Flu’ arguably being the most memorable.

In the first of these, Blanche attempts to turn back the hands of time to keep up with Dirk, her much younger instructor from a jazzercise class. The exercise is all for not as Dirk later confides to Blanche that she reminds him of his mother, but earlier, when Blanche tells the girls that Dirk is nearly “five years younger” than she, Dorothy bluntly replies, “In what, Blanche…dog years?”

In the second of these celebrated episodes, Betty White dates Doctor Jonathan Newman; a ‘little person’ who becomes the subject of much consternation amongst the girls – particularly Blanche, who cannot stop from sticking her foot in her mouth at practically every possible turn in their conversation.

In the latter episode, Rose inadvertently gives Dorothy and Blanche a very nasty cold the week prior to their required attendance at a gala benefit. In their weakened condition and misery the girls turn on one another and thereafter are determined to attend the gala – sick or not!

Buena Vista Home Video’s presentation of Season One of The Golden Girls is hardly worth mentioning except to state that it is one of the worst of all possible tributes for such a memorable television series.

Not only are the episodes presented out of chronology (the wallpaper in the kitchen goes back and forth between a circular and leafy pattern), but there seems to have been little care in the remastering of any of these episodes. Digital noise, color bleeding and a soft hazy patina plague most of these episodes. Flesh tones are orange and unnatural. Contrast often appears overly bright. Aliasing and edge enhancement are prevalent throughout and very often distract.

On Disc One the audio perceivably varies between episodes from very loud to extremely soft. There is even an instance where the audio completely cuts out for a brief but obtrusive moment during The Triangle episode. The only extra feature is an idiotic and pointless ‘fashion commentary’ by Joan and Melissa Rivers. Season One is a thoughtless contribution from The Walt Disney Co.: one that ought to be rectified if this series ever goes to Blu-Ray (which it most definitely should).

Recommended only for content but definitely NOT for transfer quality!

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



GRUMPY OLD MEN - Blu-ray (WB 1993) Warner Home Video

Conceived as something of a reunion for one time ‘Odd Couple’ costars, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, Donald Petrie’s Grumpy Old Men (1993) is a delightfully acidic romantic comedy charting the exploits of two elderly and very adversarial Wabasha Minnesota bachelors destined to remain the best of friends.

The script by Mark Steven Johnson is devilishly clever and multilayered, superbly tying together a history of gross miscalculations between two men that have paved the way for the current series of subplots that begin to unravel almost from the moment the film begins.

Since the death of his wife May, retired school teacher John Gustafson (Lemmon) has lived his life in relative obscurity. John’s daughter, Melanie (Darryl Hannah) is estranged from her husband, Mike (Christopher MacDonald) and much his concern. Also on John’s plate is immediate eviction from his home after the IRS perceive that he is $30,000 behind in his taxes. Paramount in John’s life is his tempestuous relationship with neighbor, Max Goldman (Matthau). The two simply hate each other – though the ‘why’ at the crux of their mutual disdain will only later yield to cooler reason.

Both men are stirred to romantic thoughts upon the arrival of eclectic free spirit, Ariel Truax (Ann-Margaret). A sculptor/painter with laissez faire ideas about living life to its fullest, Ariel makes her initial move on John and the two become lovers. However, when John believes he has nothing to offer Ariel apart from himself he quietly breaks her heart, allowing Max to move right in.

Meanwhile, John attempts to clumsily entangle Melanie in a romance with Max’s single son, Jacob (Kevin Pollak). The two were once high school sweethearts. However, when Melanie awkwardly arrives to visit John for Christmas with Mike in tow she effectively deflates both John and Jacob’s hopes for rekindling that romance. Depressed and alone, John ventures into the cold and suffers a near fatal heart attack.

Max and Ariel rush to John’s side and Jacob – the newly appointed mayor of Wabasha - thwarts the IRS foreclosure on John’s home with Max cutting a check to make certain John will remain his neighbor for many years to come. Ariel confesses to Max that she loves John and the two are married before the final fade out.

Grumpy Old Men was a colossal success upon its release, grossing more than $70 million and virtually resurrecting the screen careers of both Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon who would continue to work in films until their respective deaths. Viewed today, the film retains its bitter edge of dark, often sexually risqué humor; particularly in the crude barbs randomly pitched by actor Burgess Meredith; cast as John’s randy father, Grandpa J.W. Gustafson. But it’s the feel good crescendo at the end of the story that remains in our hearts after the final fade out.

Warner Home Video has at long last done the film justice with an anamorphic 1080p Blu-Ray transfer that easily bests its own slip-shod full frame standard DVD. There is no comparison between these two discs to intelligently speak of. The Blu-Ray’s refined image captures the subtle starkness of John E. Jensen’s cinematography. Flesh tones appear slightly pinkish but fine detail is evident throughout as is film grain. The audio is True HD Dolby 2.0 and adequate for this presentation.

The one failing of this disc is that Warner Home Video has not seen fit to give us even a brief featurette or retrospective on either the film or the careers of its two memorable costars. A theatrical trailer is the only extra feature. Nevertheless, recommended.

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



THE SAND PEBBLES - Blu-Ray (2oth Century-Fox 1966) Fox Home Video

A disquieting, ambitious film of immense scope married to subtle poignancies, Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles (1966) is a war melodrama with few equals. Based on Richard McKenna’s best seller, the story is centralized in China circa 1920; a turbulent paradise plagued by political strife and home grown revolutions between opposing loyalists on either side.

Into this turbulent mixture come outside forces with hidden agendas; the British, the Americans and the missionaries (the former only referred to, the latter merely touched upon and the central, the focus of our story) – each superficially dedicated to bringing peace to the Far East; though at what price?

The screenplay by Robert Anderson remains relatively faithful to McKenna’s book. China’s political climate circa 1960s precluded director Wise and his company from shooting on actual locations. Hence, Taiwan and Hong Kong are stand-ins for the Yangtze. Nevertheless, the set dressings by Boris Levin and sumptuous cinematography from Joseph MacDonald are quite successful at recapturing a ‘fake realism’ for both the region and the period in which the story takes place.

The film opens with the arrival of engineer Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) aboard the USS San Pablo – a patrolling American vessel overseen by the ineffectual Capt. Collins (Richard Crenna). Holman is an unassuming loner who prefers the company of steam pistons and crank shafts to his fellow crewmates, though eventually he develops a friendship with first mate, Frenchy (Richard Attenborough).

Holman’s relations on board are strained with his Chinese engine crew who all but run the internal machinery of the San Pablo. After the chief engineer is killed in an accident, both the American and Chinese crew regards Holman as a curse. Perhaps in part to lessen these tensions, Holman promotes one of the Chinese, Po-Han (Mako) to chief engineer and then spends the first half of the patrol training Po in his general maintenance duties.

A rather awkward romance blossoms between Holman and missionary Shirley Eckart (Candice Bergan) who is stationed at a mission near China Light. At the same time, Frenchy has begun to favor his affections on Maily (Emmanuella Arsan), a captive in the brothel of corrupt Oriental pimp, Victor Shu (James Hong). After bidding for her freedom, Frenchy and Maily escape Shu’s wrath and are secretly married. Their joy together, however, is short lived.

Threatened with retaliation from the marauding forces of Chiang-Kai-Shek, the crew is confined to the San Pablo for the duration of their journey. Po-Han is captured and quartered by revolutionaries, forcing Holman to shoot him before the torture is completed. This mercenary act brands Holman a murderer in the eyes of the Chinese and very nearly results in a mutiny aboard the San Pablo.

There is much more to this lengthy narrative, best left absent from this review for the first time viewer to discover. In hindsight, the most impressive aspect of the film is its pictorial backdrop – starkly contrasted and conflicting cultures caught in maelstrom of danger and intrigue. The most outstanding performance in the film belongs to McQueen – a sustained tour de force that, perhaps, more than mirrors the actor’s own aloof nature.

On set, McQueen briefly clashed with Wise – resulting in a two week stalemate between director and star that ended only after McQueen saw the rushes from the footage already shot and deemed Wise a genius. Inclement weather and repeated delays caused the originally budgeted and scheduled nine week location shoot to balloon into nine months, a staggering oversight that sunk Fox Studios more deeply into the red following the disastrous release of Cleopatra (1963).

In the last analysis, The Sand Pebbles emerges as one of the major grand exercises in old time epic film making. No expense has been spared. Built expressly for the film by Vaughn and Jung in Hong Kong from the keel up at a cost of $200,000 (then a considerable sum), the San Pablo is a fully functional sea faring vessel.

Some two thousand costumes were either created or assembled for this production, representing an eclectic melding of American, Cantonese and Mandarin styles. Existing streets and structures were refitted with convincing facades to resurrect the look and feel of 1920s China. In all then, The Sand Pebbles is elephantine and impressive – a must see spectacle with an engaging story to propel its 3 hr. plus running time.

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray easily bests its previously issued and lavishly appointed 2 disc DVD released as part of their Cinema Classics Collection. Curiously, the 196 min. road show edition (included on the DVD) is absent from the Blu-Ray, though all of the deleted scenes are offered as extras on the Blu-Ray.

On the Blu-Ray: the 183 min. version exhibits extremely vibrant colors, stunning clarity and a considerable amount of fine detail throughout. Superior color fidelity, solid contrast levels, accurately rendered flesh tones and a minor smattering of film grain mark a near flawless presentation. The audio is 5.1 lossless and exhibits remarkable clarity, though it retains a strident tinny echo during battle sequences.

Extras are direct imports from the Cinema Classics DVD and include two comprehensive audio commentaries and an isolated track showcasing Jerry Goldsmith’s superlative score. Also included is the rather choppy 6 part documentary on the making of the film, two incongruously edited tributes to Robert Wise and Steve McQueen and a litany of vintage extras from the Fox Vaults – trailers, stills, press kits and radio spots.

What is missing from the Blu-Ray are all of the collectible extras featured with the DVD; these include lobby cards, a brief historical summary and the reproduction of the film’s original press kit. Nevertheless, the Blu-Ray comes highly recommended for its superior video presentation of the film itself.

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