Friday, January 30, 2009

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (MGM 1967) Warner Home Video

Based on the sweeping epic novel by Thomas Hardy, John Schlesinger’s Far From The Madding Crowd (1967) is a rather fascinating case study in the destructive power of romantic love. The film stars Julie Christie as Bathsheba Everdene, a reckless, willful wretch of a girl whose love is a toxic elixir to the three men who will never entirely possess her.

Hardy originally published his forth novel in 1874. Although it was immediately popular, he revisited the work twice more; in 1895 and 1901 to make further additions and changes to his text. The title is perhaps a bit confusing. ‘Madding’ is interpreted as ‘frenzied’ but suggests that the characters within are removed from such chaos. Nevertheless, the events depicted throughout the novel illustrate just how unstable each character’s life is.

As the film begins, Bathsheba lives with her aunt, Mrs. Hurst (Alison Leggatt) on a remote farm in Wessex. She is daily courted by the man who will eventually become her second husband, Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates). Through frugality and hard work, Oak has managed to accrue a small sheep farm on a remote bluff not far from Mrs. Hurst’s home.

In point of fact, Oak is a most honorable catch and one that would make any woman a fine husband. However, Bathsheba rebukes him several times and then leaves her aunt to go and live with an uncle in the small town of Weatherbury.

Meanwhile, Oak’s stake in farming comes to a tragic end when his wayward sheep dog terrorizes his herd into leaping to their death off a rocky cliff. Impoverished; Oak journeys to another nearby town, Casterbridge, to seek a post working for someone else. He is first introduced to William Boldwood (Peter Finch), who can find no use for Oak on his vast estate.

Disheartened, Oak stumbles upon a disorganized rabble of servants unsuccessfully attempting to extinguish a blaze that threatens to destroy another manor house. Taking charge of the situation, Oak garners the attention of the cloaked mistress of the manor – none other than Bathsheba, who has inherited the estate from her late uncle.

Bathsheba reluctantly hires Oak to manage her farm, but further complicates her own affairs when, in a foolish school girl’s prank, she sends a valentine to her neighbor, William Boldwood with the inscription “marry me” hand written inside. Naturally, Boldwood assumes the card an invitation to pursue Bathsheba on a romantic plain. Instead, Bathsheba rebukes William’s advances – though the two remain friendly toward one another.

Disgusted by Bathsheba’s wayward affections, Oak confronts his employer and is fired from his post. However, when Bathsheba’s sheep begins to die of bloat, she swallows her pride and begs Oak to return to the farm and save what remains of her herd.

From here the film momentarily departs Bathsheba’s romantic nonsense to concentrate on several torrid liaisons between Sgt. Francis Troy (Terence Stamp) and his beloved Fanny Robin (Prunella Ransome). Troy proposes marriage to Fanny. However, she confuses the location of ‘All Saint’s Church’ – thus publicly humiliating Troy, who waits endlessly at the altar. Arriving too late for the ceremony, Fanny is admonished by Troy who breaks off their engagement.

Disenchanted, Troy accidentally meets Bathsheba. Fascinated by his dangerous passion, the two elope to Bath, returning to Bathsheba’s estate with Boldwood offering Troy money if he will give her up. Troy pretends to contemplate the offer; then publicly humiliates Boldwood at a party where he announces that the two have already married.

Troy indulges in drunken revelry that leaves him and most of the hired hands incapacitated on the eve of a violent storm. Oak, who has not taken part in the festivities, ventures alone into a night to shelter the crop. Seeing him struggling in the gale, Bathsheba also takes into the night and together she and Oak manage to rescue a portion of her investment for the coming year.

Fanny resurfaces, destitute and pregnant. Realizing that the child she is carrying is his, Troy gives Fanny all the money he has, instructing her to go into town and rent lodgings for the night. Troy further promises that he will return with more of Bathsheba’s money the following day. Unfortunately, Fanny is overcome by sickness and dies in childbirth that night.

Having reasoned that her husband and Fanny are still in love, and learning of Fanny’s death, Bathsheba orders Fanny’s body brought to their home. After waiting all day in vain for Fanny to arrive and collect the money, Troy returns home, discovers the truth and is sickened by the thought of living with Bathsheba another moment.

He erects a monumental marble headstone to his beloved’s everlasting memory and then strips to bath in the sea. As fate would have it, a strong undercurrent carries Troy out to sea; a mixed blessing, as it causes Bathsheba to presume that Troy has drowned and Boldwood to take up his pursuit of marriage to Bathsheba.

A year passes and Boldwood decides to throw a lavish party for the woman he hopes will agree to marry him. Unfortunately for all concerned, Troy resurfaces and arrives at the party to drag the reluctant Bathsheba away with him. Determined that history should not repeat itself, Boldwood murders Troy in full view of his guests and a frantic Bathsheba throws herself at her late husband’s head, at long last revealing to Boldwood that he could never have meant anything to her. Henceforth, Boldwood’s final days are spent in the darkness of a prison cell.

Oak announces to Bathsheba that he has decided to leave her employ and venture out on his own once again. Bathsheba asks if there is any way that he would consider staying on and Oak declares that only marriage would prevent him from his decision. Bathsheba agrees to this rather straight forward proposal and, in the final few moments, the she and Oak are seen together in the garishly cozy room she once furnished as a sort of romantic shrine to Troy.

Far From The Madding Crowd may not represent the very best of filmic sweeping epics, but it does manage to impeccably capture the essence of Thomas Hardy’s characters and also create an evocative and textured backdrop of the England that must have been. Director Schlesinger and screen writer Frederic Raphael have done an exemplary job of condensing Hardy’s masterwork into a faithful screen adaptation. Nicholas Roeg’s cinematography is lush and complimentary. Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp give exceptional, sustained and magnetic performances with Prunella Ransome almost as good.

The disappointment comes in the casting of Julie Christie as Bathsheba. Fresh from her Oscar win in Darling (1965), Christie hardly seems the iconoclastic heroine of Hardy’s novel but rather a fresh faced interloper; the wicked depth and clever shrewdness of Hardy’s heroine distilled into a simpering and somewhat spiteful creature ill in control of her own destiny. Hardy’s Bathsheba is far more calculating than Christie gives her credit for.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is, for the most part, a quality effort. The anamorphic widescreen image exhibits a rich color palette. Flesh tones appear quite natural. Reds are blood red; blues and greens so vibrant that they belie the fact that the original film elements are in excess of being 40 years old. Contrast levels are bang on with deep blacks and very crisp whites.

Apart from several very brief scenes that consist of a more obvious grain pattern and age related artifacts, most of the image is sharply rendered with fine detail evident throughout. The audio has been remastered to 5.1 Dolby Digital, though at times it seems strident and lacking in bass tonality. Apart from a theatrical trailer there are NO extras. Recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
0

Thursday, January 29, 2009

WATERLOO BRIDGE (MGM 1940) Warner Home Video

Based on the stage play by Robert E. Sherwood, Mervyn LeRoy’s Waterloo Bridge (1940) marked the first occasion that Vivien Leigh appeared in a movie following her meteoric rise to super stardom via Gone With The Wind (1939). With its obvious reflections to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and timely appeal as a prelude to the looming conflict in Europe, the film became a megawatt hit, propelled by a four hanky weeper of a screenplay written by S.N. Behrman, Hans Rameau and George Froeschel.

The tale opens on the eve of bombing raid in London with one of MGM’s most popular leading men, Robert Taylor starring as Capt. Roy Cronin. Aged and carrying a small lucky charm in his pocket, Roy strolls the length of Waterloo Bridge, reminiscing over the love that was so divine. Flashback to another time and another war: Roy, once again on the bridge and this time coming in contact with the innocent Myra by happy circumstance and moments before another bombing raid hits the city.

The two duck into a nearby and very crowded shelter, cautiously flirting with one another. Roy learns that Myra is a ballet dancer and, against the direct orders of his colonel (Gilbert Emery), skips out on a dinner engagement to attend the theater instead. Myra’s ballet master, Madame Olga Kirowa (Maria Ouspenskaya) is not impressed. There can only be one love in a young woman’s life: the ballet.

All evidence to the contrary for Myra who, against Madame Olga’s direct edict, goes dancing with Roy and then, the next afternoon rejoins him in the pouring rain to rekindle their passionate romance. Forced to choose between love and the ballet, Myra is fired from her job along with another dancer, Kitty (Virginia Fields) who sides against Madame Olga’s tyrannical authority. Roy proposes marriage to Myra but is called away to the front lines before he can make her his wife.

Forced to survive, and unbeknownst to Myra, Kitty turns to prostitution to pay the bills on their cold water flat. Myra receives a letter from Roy instructing her to meet his mother, Lady Margaret (Lucille Watson) at a fashionable tea room. However, Lady Margaret is late and in the interim Myra reads a report in the local papers that falsely lists Roy among the soldiers killed during battle. Unable to quantify her emotions when Lady Margaret finally arrives, Myra is distant and rather cruel. Lady Margaret departs the tea room and Myra returns home to learn the truth about Kitty’s ‘profession.’

Turning to prostitution herself, Myra becomes jaded by life – a turn of events made all the more bitter when she and Roy are reunited at the Waterloo Train Station. Unable to see what their separation has done to Myra, Roy believes that their reunion means a return to the carefree romance of yore. Myra desperately tries to convince herself of as much but, upon arriving at Roy’s ancestral family estate in Scotland, realizes how far removed she now is from the sort of culture and decorum that once might have ideally suited her.

Struggling with her own emotions, Myra confides in Lady Margaret the truth. Lady Margaret is not judgmental, but Myra realizes that she and Roy can never marry now. Disappearing into the night, Myra does not return to the cold water flat she once shared with Kitty. In search of Myra, Roy and Kitty go slumming in London’s seedy lime house district where Roy finally realizes just how cruel a fate their separation has been.

Myra, who has completely given up on life, strolls the precipice of Waterloo Bridge. As a caravan of Red Cross Army trucks go by, she throws herself beneath the wheels of one of the vehicles and dies. The story flashes forward again to the aged Roy Cronin on Waterloo Bridge, still forlorn and love soar after all these years – continuing to wonder how such divine happiness went so utterly wrong.

Waterloo Bridge is compelling melodrama of the highest order. The screenplay packs a lifetime of romantic longing into a scant 109 min. Vivien Leigh is tragically marvelous as the ballet dancer who turns to prostitution to keep body and soul together. Robert Taylor is amply sustainable as the devil-may-care soldier. Virginia Field makes the most of Kitty. Character actors C. Aubrey Smith, Maria Ouspenskaya and Lucille Watson are superb in their cameo appearances. In the final analysis, Waterloo Bridge is a grand romantic tragedy – a cautionary tale that blames the death of a woman’s fragile purity on the conflicts of war.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is middle of the road. Previous bootlegged editions of this movie available around the world have been abysmally bad. However, Warner’s transfer does little to restore the image to its rightful glory, apart from stabilizing and removing previously inherent chroma bleeding.

The B&W elements appear to suffer from lower than usual levels of contrast. Certain scenes are quite dark, with a loss of fine detail evident throughout. Dissolves and fades contain a considerable amount of film grain. Age related artifacts, a reoccurring vertical scratch in the center of the frame, and, even a hair caught in the bottom of the lens during one particular scene all add up to a less than stellar home video presentation. The audio is mono but adequately represented. Apart from a theatrical trailer, there are NO extra features!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
0

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

THE YELLOW ROLLS-ROYCE (MGM/Anatole de Grunwald Productions 1965) Warner Home Video

Still counting the profits from Anthony Asquith’s The V.I.P.’s (1963), MGM reunited the director with screenwriter Terrance Rattigan for The Yellow Rolls Royce (1965); a memorable excursion, following at least part of the life cycle of that famed luxury automobile as it passes between various owners en route to the inevitable scrap yard.

Since the early 1930s, MGM had been one of a few studios to successfully carry off ensemble motion pictures – jam packing somewhat conventional and recycled plots with a blinding array of star personalities. In the early ‘30s Grand Hotel and Dinner At Eight set the tone.

However, conventional wisdom and tepid audience response to such extravagances as Weekend At The Waldorf (1945) quashed further mining of the studio’s treasure trove and, by 1959 – with the disbanding of the star system – it seemed that no further ensemble movies were possible. Refreshingly, Asquith resurrected the genre with The V.I.P.’s; a rather lugubrious melodrama set in London’s Heathrow airport and capitalizing on the public’s fascination with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.

Although the order of the day for previous ensemble movies had been one narrative involving all of the star personalities, Terrance Rattigan’s screenplay for The Yellow Rolls-Royce chose instead to focus not on any one person, but rather the automobile in question; thereby freeing up the film’s running time with an ever changing cavalcade of episodic back stories.

The first involves Lord Charles Frinton (Rex Harrison), a Marquess handling London’s foreign affair office. Frinton buys the yellow Rolls-Royce as a 10th wedding anniversary present for his wife, Lady Eloise (Jeanne Moreau); unaware that she is having an affair with his aid, Fane (Edmund Purdon). On the eve prior to Fane being sent to the Far East, Charles unveils the luxury vehicle to his wife at a lavish house party. The next day he plans to watch his race horse ride to victory for the Gold Cup.

In the meantime, Eloise and Fane plot a lover’s rendezvous, unintentionally thwarted by Charles when Eloise announces that she has a headache and the ever dutiful Charles follows her to bed. The next afternoon, however, Charles is given an earful as to his wife’s whereabouts from the playfully wicked, Hortense Astor (Joyce Grenfell).

Disbelieving Hortense, Charles leaves his box at the races moments before his horse is set to run and discovers Eloise in Fane’s arms inside the yellow Rolls-Royce. The horse wins the race, but Charles has been cut to the quick. He begrudgingly accepts the Gold Cup – returning home with Eloise, but instructing his chauffeur to return the car to the showroom because it ‘displeases’ him.

From here the story jumps to Naples, Italy where Mafioso right arm to Al Capone, Paolo Maltese (George C. Scott) is entertaining his fiancée, Mae Jenkins (Shirley MacLaine) and hired gun, Joey Friedlander (Art Carney). Mae is uncultured, though she takes an immediate liking to the yellow Rolls-Royce; currently parked in an Italian showroom.

Paolo strong arms the salesman into selling him the car – then learns of a gangland coup back in America that demands his immediate attention. In the meantime, Mae has decided to take up with gigolo, Stefano (Alain Delon) whom the trio first met while taking tourist photos at Pisa. Stefano seduces Mae by offering her a romance unobstructed by crime. But their chance at happiness ends with Paolo’s return and Mae resolves to wed Paolo in America as quickly as possible.

As Mae and Paolo drive away the narrative jumps ahead to Trieste, circa 1941 on the eve that Hitler is planning his military push into the Balkans. The Rolls-Royce is seen beat up and on blocks at a Yugoslav garage. It is refurbished for wealthy American Gerda Millett (Ingrid Bergman); a frivolous creature carting around a nattering Pekinese. Bribed by Yugoslav patriot, Zoran Davich (Omar Shariff) to smuggle him back into the country, Gerda first resists; then reluctantly acquiesces and finds herself at the center of a freedom fight at the start of WWII.

An unlikely romance blossoms between Zoran and Gerda as they rescue beleaguered townsfolk and band together a troop of freedom fighters to stand guard in the mountains against the advancing German army. The romance ends prematurely when Zoran informs his love that the best way she can help him help others is to return to America and persuade F.D.R. to enter the fight against Fascism. The last shot in the movie illustrates the battered, but still in tact, yellow Rolls-Royce being loaded off ship in America; its future uncertain, but ongoing.

The Yellow Rolls-Royce is not perfect entertainment. The events depicted are episodic at best; their only thread and cohesion being the automobile itself. Furthermore, while the first and last act of this three part series are played more or less seriously, the middle portion involving Paolo, Mae and Stefano tends to unfold like a classic screwball comedy.

Of the acting performances scattered throughout, Rex Harrison’s is probably the most convincing. Bergman and Shariff do their best in the latter story, but there is no spark in on screen romantic chemistry to fuel their improbable romance or translate the effects of war tearing them apart into a bittersweet tableau. Still, so much of the film is good and engaging that it is most certainly worthy of a second glimpse on DVD.

Warner Home Video’s anamorphic widescreen transfer is generally a delight. Despite the fact that several sequences suffer from slight color fading, image quality throughout is more often sharp, bright and full of richly saturated colors. Flesh tones tend to appear slightly pasty, but fine detail is nicely realized, as are contrast levels. The audio is regrettably mono and, at times, quite strident. (It would have been nice to have at least Riz Ortolani’s buoyant main title score represented in stereo.) Apart from a well worn theatrical trailer, there are NO extra features. Recommended.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
0

GOODBYE MR. CHIPS (Apjac Productions 1969) Warner Home Video

Based on the sentimental novel by James Hilton, Herbert Ross’ Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969) is an utterly faithless adaptation and thoroughly stultifying musical. This was MGM’s second trip to the well for inspiration. In 1939, the British apparatus of MGM had released a magnificent screen melodrama starring Robert Donat as the lonely Latin school master, with newcomer Greer Garson as his exceptionally tender and charming wife, Katherine.

It was a colossal intercontinental hit, earning rave reviews from the critics and Donat the Oscar as Best Actor, above such contenders as Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable’s performance in Gone With The Wind.

However, in the mid-1950s MGMfound it fashionable to turn many of their early comedies and melodramas from the ‘30s and ‘40s into musicals. Some were extremely successful. For example: The Philadelphia Story (1940) became High Society (1956) and Ninotchka (1939), Silk Stockings (1957). Unfortunately, by the mid-60s this cycle had expired. A pity that no one at MGM took notice of this.

Undaunted by changing public taste, as well as a growing aversion to musicals in general, and in dire need of a major hit to fill their ailing coffers, MGM once again banked on Goodbye Mr. Chips to set cash registers ringing around the world. It was not to be. For the melding of the original story’s more poignant moments with a mélange of large scale musical numbers proved an insurmountable balancing act for director Herbert Ross; particularly since most of the songs by Leslie Bricusse were barely memorable and, in many cases, well below par.

Terrance Ratigan’s screenplay found it necessary to severely juggle the events of the novel and the earlier film, inexplicably updating the story’s setting from WWI to WWII and expanding the role of Katherine (who dies early in both the book and in the 1939 film during childbirth) to suit the talents of recording sensation, Petula Clark. Oswald Morris’ heavily diffused cinematography and Ralph Kemplen’s heavy handed editing (which frequently fell back on zooming in or out of crane and aerial helicopter shots) made mince meat of the love scenes – some shot in such extreme close up that they cut both the top and bottom off the principles’ heads.

Worse, where Donat’s ‘Chips’ had been a sympathetic introvert, momentarily liberated by the love of his life, Peter O’Toole’s take on Arthur Chipping proved a strange mix of frenetic awkwardness and restrained tolerance for both his wife and his profession. Clark outshines the rest of the cast, although her role is not entirely without its flaws either.

As the story unfolds in this revamp, Chips (Peter O’Toole) is already a craggy, middle aged school master who openly admits that his pupils despise him for his crusty, though benign primness and propriety. When it comes to academics, learning is more important than sports – a view that comes in direct conflict with Lord Sutterwick (George Baker); an imminent contributor to Brookfield’s private school fund.

A colleague, William Baxter is none too keen on Chips’ formalities either, though Max Staefel (Michael Bryant) – a German born professor - defends his friend from these naysayer pundits. Chips’ luck, however, is about to change for the better.

Invited by fellow academic, Johnny Longbridge (Michael Culver) for a night at the theater, Chips is introduced to the star of the show, Katherine Bridges (Petula Clark) by Johnny, who erroneously assumes that Katherine may one day choose to marry him. Instead, Katherine takes a somewhat immediate fancy to Chips, whose years as an isolated bachelor make their first meeting a thoroughly awkward one. From here the screenplay incongruously cuts to Chips on his walking tour of Pompeii. And, although she would have no way of learning Chips whereabouts, inexplicably Katherine turns up at the same ancient ruins.

Through a badly photographed and thoroughly chopped up montage, Chips and Katherine are seen touring the rest of the city, at the end of which Katherine proposes that they make love. Taken aback by her forwardness, Chips retracts into his shell. However, once back at Brookfield he accepts an invitation from Katherine to attend a party at her house where he is introduced to the garish flapper/boar – Ursula Mossbank (Sian Phillips).

In a scene desperately struggling for something to say, Ursula mistakes Chips for an actor. Johnny learns that Katherine fancies Chips and magnanimously bows out. Chips proposes marriage and Katherine accepts.

Returning to Brookfield, Chips learns that Lord Sutterwick has begun to spread rumors of Katherine’s spurious romantic past about the campus. Sutterwick also threatens to pull his financial support from the school unless Chips loses his job. Katherine flees the school in humiliation with Chips in hot pursuit. The two return to Brookfield with Ursula in tow where we learn that Sutterwick and Ursula used to be lovers. This revelation forces Sutterwick to withdraw his request for Chips dismissal.

However, when Brookfield’s Headmaster (Michael Redgrave) announces his retirement and names Chips as his successor, the school’s Board of Directors instead snubs the nomination in favor of William Baxter (Jack Hedley). Naturally, Chips is bitterly disappointed.

As WWII arrives on England’s doorstep, Chips is dealt another blow when Max announces that he is being recalled to Germany at the behest of Adolph Hitler. War breaks out and Katherine is killed in a bombing raid on the eve that Chips learns he is to be made headmaster after all. At war’s end, he retires from the school, and, in the last scene is observed strolling amongst the new arrivals to Brookfield – once more a lonely, isolated man.

I rarely dislike a film outright, much less one made under such a distinguished pedigree. But Goodbye Mr. Chips fails on every level. Although there is some on screen chemistry between O’Toole and Clark it never seems to be enough to get us past the film’s myriad of glaring oversights and misfires. The slap shod cinematography, weak songs and ‘cut and paste’ editing style work against whatever minor joys are to be had. In the final analysis, this Goodbye Mr. Chips is a colossal waste of time.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is well below par for a film from this vintage. The anamorphic widescreen image suffers from color fading, color bleeding and a genuine lack of balanced contrast levels. While some scenes appear remarkably sharp, with a considerably smooth color palette, many others suffer from a very softly focused and blurry image that slightly wobbles.

Age related artifacts are present throughout and occasionally obvious. Black levels are never entirely deep or solid. Whites often take on either a blue or yellow tint. Flesh tones fluctuate between very pasty pink and de-saturated gray/orange. This is a woefully undernourished visual presentation with little to recommend it. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 Dolby Digital, retaining the inherent flaws of vintage recording technologies. Extras are limited to two theatrical trailers; one from the 1939 film, the other from its ‘69 remake. Not recommended!

FILM RATING (out 0f 5 - 5 being the best)
0

VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5

EXTRAS
0

Sunday, January 25, 2009

FROST/NIXON: THE ORIGINAL WATERGATE INTERVIEWS (PBS 1977) Liberation Entertainment

In 1977, British television journalist David Frost secured the rights to conduct what would become the most celebrated series of interviews with former U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. Acknowledging that an individual as complex as Richard Nixon could not possibly be contained within the brief span of an hour long television interview format, Frost proceeded to earmark the former President for six hours of taping at an undisclosed location somewhere in Southern California.

A house was rented and converted into a makeshift studio, with bedrooms serving as changing rooms. In due course these two men would tear into an already open wound, speak frankly on Nixon's White House tenure and talk openly about the Watergate scandal. The Frost/Nixon Interviews – as they came to be known – were a minor broadcasting coup that pitted the wit of an intelligent interviewer with the magnetic defiance of one of the 20th century’s most fascinating political figures.

Yet no one could have foreseen how close Frost would get to the inner man beneath his mantel of nervous reluctance and need for self preservation. In today’s rather unscrupulous need for ravenously blood thirsty tabloid media, the restraint with which these interviews were conducted is utterly refreshing.

Frost engages Nixon with the utmost personal decorum and tempered reverence for the man. Not that Frost fails to ask the tough questions. In fact, he aimed his ambitions, along with his camera, at the very heart of Richard Nixon and, in a moment of unexpected personal humility, catches the former President off guard and speaking to his personal and political failings with unprecedented candor.

The Ron Howard film starring Frank Langella aside, this is the real thing and so much more memorable if only for the fact that it reveals one of the greatest statesmen of the last hundred years as a disheartened and isolated individual coming to grips with the sacrifices he forced others to make in his stead before his own inevitable resignation.
Now, Liberation Entertainment has released a truncated edition of the Frost/Nixon Interviews – basically the episode concentrating on Watergate and its fallout. David Frost, circa the present, bookends and contextualizes this segmented piece with remarkable recall and, after the actual interview, reflections on some personal moments occurring between him and Nixon immediately following the taping of the actual interview.

Curiously, Liberation Entertainment has not taken the time to present these newly recorded recollections in anamorphic widescreen, but rather ‘letterbox’ format, though the rest of the original interview footage is presented as such and with a startling amount of definition and clarity in the image.

Though the tape used to film this interview can never be called ‘reference quality’, with a slight color bleed around the edges, for the most part, the image is stable, crisp and free of debris and age related artifacts. The audio is mono as originally recorded. Apart from Frost’s post interview recollections, there are no extra features. Nevertheless, as a historical artifact, the Frost/Nixon Interview is hypnotic and compelling viewing. A must have!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
1

MISS PETTIGREW LIVES FOR A DAY (Focus Features 2008) Alliance Home Video

Based on Winifred Watson’s delightfully frank and remarkably adult novel, Bharat Nalluri’s Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day (2008) is an enchanting and lushly photographed comedy about the sacrifices women make to survive in a man’s world. There is both style and substance here, and both are on full display. The film stars Frances McDormand as the title character, a put upon common frump and penniless social outcast who finds her niche in the employ of superficial starlet, Delysia LeFosse (Amy Adams).

Seems Delysia is in a quandary over love: the career-climbing variety with Philip (Tom Payne), the wealthy, but frivolous son of a West End stage producer in London; the dangerous kind with spurious nightclub owner Nick (Mark Strong); or the genuine sort with paroled pianist, Michael (Lee Pace). Installed in Nick’s fashionable penthouse with a naked Philip in her bed and Michael soon to arrive on her stoop, Delysia mistakes Miss Pettigrew as her new social secretary, sent to her aid by the very prime Miss Holt (Stephanie Cole).

As the awkward Pettigrew finagles her way into Delysia’s life, she comes to recognize that although her charge plays the part of a devil-may-care goddess, undulating to every man’s adoration, beneath this haughty exterior is a frightened little girl who, like Pettigrew herself, is but two steps away from being a common hobo on the streets.

The film runs but a scant 1 hr. and 23min. but packs a lifetime of sentiment, heart and the joy of living into every frame. Set at the cusp of WWII, the interjection of looming conflict by screenwriters David McGee and Simon Beaufoy sets a more pressing tone not present in Watson’s original novel. Indeed, Watson’s book was first judged as not publishable for her ‘no nonsense’ approach to sex and the foibles of all male/female relationships.

These pert and crisp observations are retained for the film and used to great effect; particularly in the supporting love match between the heartless fashion snipe, Edythe (Shirley Henderson) and worldly suitor, Joe (Ciaran Hinds); a one time designer of men’s socks who has currently intruded on Edythe’s domain with his slinky take on women’s lingerie.

Watson sold the rights to her book to Universal Studios in 1939. But the onset of WWII prevented Universal from continuing with a filmic version then. Watson later re-sold the rights to Universal in 1953, but to no artistic avail; perhaps because by then the bottom had fallen out of minor romantic comedies. Thus, when producer Paul Webster approached Universal as part of a deal with Focus Films, he was promptly informed that he did not own the rights; rather that Universal did. Nevertheless, a deal was struck and production commenced. The results have been well worth the wait.

Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is a sparkling throwback to the glorious days of classic Hollywood filmmaking at its best; the rich and sumptuously inventive photography by John de Borman adding exemplar touches of ‘30s/’40s chic good taste to the proceedings and giving the eye something to ogle when perhaps the screenplay is just a bit too lax with something witty to say. This is a fun film, infused with a life affirming message in the face of certain disaster. It will likely be enjoyed for years to come.

Alliance Home Video has done a marvelous job on the DVD transfer. Despite being a flipper disc (with Side A containing a full frame version of the film and Side B being in anamorphic widescreen), the image is bright, sharp and full of eye-popping detail and invigoratingly bold colors.

Flesh tones are natural in appearance. Reds are blood red. Contrast levels are bang on with deep, velvety blacks and very bright whites. Film grain is kept to a bare minimum. Discrepancies between live action and digital effects are well blended and concealed. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and delivers quite a wallop, particularly during the nightclub sequence that round out the festivities on screen.

Side A contains a nicely put together featurette ‘Making an Unforgettable Day’, while Side B delivers the more poignant ‘Miss Pettigrew’s Long Journey To Hollywood’, with recollections from the late author’s son, plus deleted scenes and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
3

Thursday, January 22, 2009

MGM: WHEN THE LION ROARS (Turner Pictures 1992) Warner Home Video

Frank Martin’s MGM: When The Lion Roars (1992) is an ambitious behind the scenes glimpse into the magic and majesty that was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Hosted by Patrick Stewart, this 3 part documentary is perhaps the most comprehensive look at a Hollywood dynasty ever conceived. Few studios can boast a history as rich in lore, legend and legacy as MGM; the studio once home to “more stars than there are in heaven.”

Dividing the girth of MGM’s heritage into 3, 2 hr. installments affords Martin (who also directs the series) the luxury of indulging in MGM’s wealth of back story, interviewing many of the surviving creative personnel – both in front of and behind the camera – mere mortals who established that ethereal tapestry in artistic achievement. There’s also a cornucopia of rare vintage interviews and even more candid newsreel outtakes stitched together to provide a living tableau of what life must have been like behind the studio gates.

Part One: The Lion’s Roar takes us inside the Irving Thalberg era. We witness the amalgam of creative titans L.B. Mayer and Marcus Loewe; men responsible for infusing MGM with its frothy excess in stardom and glamour. Maureen Sullivan, Samuel Marx, Helen Hayes and a host of others expound on the virtues and vices of the studio system.

We relive the real life backstage romance between Thalberg and actress Norma Shearer, learn new truths about producer Paul Bern's suicide/murder scandal, relish the virtual creation of a galvanic star personality from Lucille LeSeur to Joan Crawford and finally, gather insight into the character and conflict between Thalberg and Mayer and, perhaps more importantly, Mayer and his New York boss, Nicholas Schenk.

In between these fascinating moments of private intrigue, we are also treated to the real reason why MGM’s legacy endures: its movie heritage. Johnny Weissmuller is seen swinging from vines as Tarzan, Norma Shearer denounces her husband’s philandering in The Divorcee, Clark Gable forces Mary Astor to shoot him in Red Dust, Garbo utters her trademark “I want to be alone” in Grand Hotel. and pigmies make mince meat out of white explorers in Trader Horn. Part One concludes with the sudden tragic death of Thalberg at the age of 36.

Part II: The Lion Reigns Supreme is a glittering homage to MGM’s unmatched supremacy as purveyors of popular entertainment during the war years. Mayer assumes sole control of the studio and shifts its focus from literary adaptations to more congenial family films. Mickey Rooney waxes affectionately about the Andy Hardy movies and his relationship with L.B., Ricardo Montelbaum admires the studios zeal for ultra chic good taste and glamour and Van Johnson speaks to the impact WWII had on shaping the scope and popularity of his own career.

In truth, the bulk of memorable filmic moments most novice film goers associate with the studio are featured in this second installment. We enjoy the elephantine ‘A Pretty Girl is Like A Melody’ number from The Great Ziegfeld, watch Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra’s careers take flight in Anchors Aweigh and delight in Judy Garland’s journey down the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz. There are also snippets from a myriad of iconoclastic screen performances too numerous to list herein.

Part III: The Lion In Winter begins in earnest with a celebration of producer Arthur Freed’s musical career at MGM. But the tone of this third installment quickly takes a more ominous turn with the firing of L.B. Mayer and entrance of Dore Schary – an ambitious, though miscast independent producer cum production supervisor whose zeal for visually stark ‘message pictures’ clashes with MGM’s ultra sophistication and escapist and surreal beauty. Vintage interviews with director Vincente Minnelli and actress Katharine Hepburn, as well as current critiques from Roger Mayer take us through the years of sad, slow decline.

We witness the studio’s final flowering of home grown successes with mega hits like Gigi and Ben-Hur, explore the influx of independent creative talents like Hitchcock, John Frankenheimer and Stanley Kubrick; observe MGM’s awkward foray into television, and finally, are privy to the crass dismantling of the studio’s vast production facility in a vane attempt to restore MGM to fiscal solvency. The final blow is the auctioning off of valuable props, costumes and sets after the corporate takeover by Las Vegas financier Kirk Kerkorian.

MGM no longer exists. But MGM: When The Lion Roars is a potent reminder of the studios importance in shaping the public’s fascination with movie making. Martin’s documentary is a jam packed nostalgic stroll, bursting at the seams with secret tales, memorable movies and that inescapable twinge of ultimate sadness in the realization that such a stunning compendium of talent and genius is no longer exists.

More is the pity that Warner Home Video has finally released this fascinating series in a less than exemplar presentation on DVD. A three part series deserves 3 separate discs – one for each 2 hr installment. Instead, Warner has chosen to incongruously split Part II of the series across a 2 disc presentation. Throughout, the video quality is suspect.

No fault is ascribed to the vintage materials that range from fair to poor in quality. However, a fair amount of added video noise and color bleeding exists throughout, even in the newly recorded interviews. Most of Patrick Stewart’s narrative segue exhibits a rather soft and pasty visual patina with unnaturally pink flesh tones. All in all, the video quality is below par for Warner’s usual sterling commitment. The audio is basic stereo surround and adequate for this presentation. Regrettably, there are NO extra features!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5

EXTRAS
0

MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (Universal 1954) Criterion Home Video

Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954) is a rather syrupy remake of John M. Stahl’s 1935 movie of the same name. Both films are loosely based on the 1929 novel by Congregationalist pastor Lloyd C. Douglas; a convoluted tale of religious fervor and mutilated Christianity cleverly wrapped in a conventional romance, involving a rich playboy who discovers God through his sudden devotion to a good woman he has initially wronged.

Although the novel left much to be desired in terms of its critique of religion, its romantic subplot and well timed condemnation of the jazz age nevertheless captured the public’s immediate fascination and the book became an instant best seller.

Robert Blees’ 1954 screenplay is much more faithful in its adherence to the 1935 Stahl film than it is to Douglas’s novel. In Sirk’s Technicolor remake, Jane Wyman is cast as Helen Philips (the role originally played by Irene Dunne); newlywed to a prominent physician who dies alone at his seaside home because the inhalator that might have saved his life was borrowed moments earlier to resuscitate Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson); an egotistical playboy capsized in his speedboat.

Distraught, but recovering rather quickly from her grief, Helen quickly learns that the hospital her late husband founded is in dire financial straights. Apparently, Dr. Philips was treating needy patients without any thought for collecting on their overdue bills. Owing to a rather restrained view of religion, circa the 1950s, the film avoids any direct comment on the logic or reasoning behind the good doctor’s philanthropy.

When Merrick learns that Helen’s husband likely died to save his own life he becomes morbidly fascinated by that level of self sacrifice. Awkwardly, Merrick launches into a cheap flirtation that rubs Helen the wrong way and later ends tragically when, in an attempt to escape his advances, Helen accidentally backs out of a taxi cab and into oncoming traffic. Blinded, Helen convalesces at home with the aid of her good friend and nurse, Nancy Ashford (Agnes Moorehead) and a tomboy schoolgirl, Judy (Judy Nugent).

In the meantime, Merrick has seemingly been touched by the hand of God, or at least stirred to greatness by the benevolence of Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger); a close personal friend of the late Dr. Philips. With Edward’s guidance, Merrick returns to medical school, something he gave up long before. Quietly, he reintroduces himself into Helen’s world as Robbie Robertson – a man Helen gradual grows to love.

Secretively, Merrick pays for three of the best European neurosurgeons to examine Helen in Germany. However, their negative prognosis sends the usually optimistic Helen into an emotional tailspin from which she recovers only when Merrick reenters her life as Robbie and their tangled romance ensues. After learning that Robbie is Merrick Helen retreats into a self imposed exile.

A near death experience reunites Merrick and Helen. He is forced to operate on her brain to relieve a build up of pressure. The film’s narrative stops just short of restoring Helen’s sight in the final screen moments, but suggests that Helen can make out a bright light. Is it proof, as she believes, that the restoration of her sight is imminent, or are these the final moments of a near death experience?

A filmmaker renown for such excessive romantic treacle and implausibly heartrending melodrama, Douglas Sirk must be given high marks for keeping both the impracticality and soap opera-ish quality of the story successfully at bay. Magnificent Obsession is far from perfect storytelling. But it maintains an often gripping and intelligent patina of considerable good taste.

Both Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson deliver seminal performances in their respective careers. Hudson in particular is a revelation, his transformation from embittered blowhard to thoughtful surgeon startlingly on point. By comparison, Robert Taylor in the original film is quite one dimensional – seemingly out of touch and unable to communicate the brevity of his transformation.

Unlike Irene Dunne’s perennial pert and plucky take on Helen – often teetering dangerously close to the madcap heroines she often played elsewhere, Jane Wyman is effectively tragic without degrading her blind woman to stock Hollywood cliché. In the final analysis, Magnificent Obsession is an over the top four hanky weepy that deserves a second viewing. It may not be high art, but it aims successfully at being solid second tier melodrama.

Criterion’s anamorphic widescreen DVD is advertised as a ‘restored’ hi-definition transfer. Unfortunately, the image is inconsistently rendered at best. In assessing how far the image has come (from those prints readily available on late night television), and, how far it still has to go, one should recall first that Technicolor was a film grain concealing process.

Unfortunately, many scenes in Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession are marred by excessive grain, either for a film of this vintage and certainly for a DVD advertised as ‘restored.’ Worse, there are several glaring instances where the 3-strip color is grossly misaligned, resulting in obtrusive halos and a generally blurry picture. When the color is properly registered, it tends to shimmer, with ‘breathing’ around the edges of the film frame. Flesh tones fluctuate from shot to shot. Several scenes exhibit extreme color fading.

The 1935 original is also included as a supplement. Here, the B&W image is generally sharp, though again, far from smooth. Age related artifacts and film grain are the biggest culprits, though on the whole the film is quite acceptable. The audio on both editions is mono as originally recorded and presented at an adequate listening level.

Extras include several video interviews, a comprehensive commentary track on the Sirk version by film scholar Thomas Doherty and the film’s original theatrical trailer. On the 1935 original we also get the 1991 documentary, From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers. There’s also a very smart snap analysis of the film in booklet form written by Geoffrey O’Brien.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
1954 version - 3
1935 version- 3

VIDEO/AUDIO
1954 version - 3
1935 version - 3.5

EXTRAS
3.5