Monday, March 23, 2009

HOW THE WEST WAS WON - Blu-Ray (MGM 1962) Warner Home Video

In the wake of television cannibalizing theater attendance, maverick movie producer Merian C. Cooper pioneered a ‘revolutionary’, although not quite 'new' form of motion picture presentation he called Cinerama. This cumbersome experiment employed three synchronized 35mm projectors angled at 146 degrees on a perforated screen to create a one of a kind ‘you are there’ moving going experience for the audience.

So successful was the fledgling company’s first feature ‘This Is Cinerama’ (a plot-less travelogue released in 1952) that Cooper believed all major movie studios would be clamoring to license Cinerama for standard film making. It never happened. Within a year, 20th Century-Fox’s single strip anamorphic process – Cinemascope - became the norm. The age of Cinerama had ended even before it had officially begun.

Hence, 1962’s How The West Was Won emerges as an even greater anomaly to the footnote that was Cinerama – coming, as it did, a decade after the initial hype of Cinerama. Described as an ‘epic western’ by MGM’s marketing department, and employing no less than four of Hollywood’s alumni directorial talents (John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall and Richard Thorpe), the resulting project is only one of two narrative films shot in Cinerama.

And although How The West Was Won became the highest grossing movie of its year, in retrospect it is hardly a landmark screen achievement.The story – part fact/mostly fiction – from screenwriter James R. Webb is trite, predictable and rather turgid in spots. The ensemble cast – featuring some of the finest actors of their generation – is under employed in an ever-changing cavalcade of brief cameos to tell a generational story of struggle and setback against the faux old west.Ironically, what made How The West Was Won so monumental (it’s Cinerama photography) is what dates the film today.

No conventional television monitors can reproduce the ‘you are there’ experience of Cinerama’s curved theater screen. Hence, as a home video viewer we are treated to some very skewed ‘fisheye’ perspectives, while the vertical lines that separate the three camera images create some rather interesting, unintentional effects – particularly during pans and zooms. As example: watch the buffalo stampede, where the animals appear to be running into one another on the left and right sides of the screen.

Perhaps most regrettable of all is Cinerama’s lack of close-ups on the actors. Everyone appears either in full or three quarter medium shot all the time; thus the distance between the characters on the screen and the audience is greater.

Our story begins in earnest with Zebulon (Karl Malden) and Rebecca (Agnes Moorehead) Prescott and their two daughters; Lilith (Debbie Reynolds) and Eve (Carroll Baker). Zeb is hell bent on settling as a farmer out west. Along the way, the clan is introduced to lone trapper, Linus Rawling (James Stewart), whose confrontation with a murderous band of cutthroats fronted by Jeb Hawkins (Walter Brennan) almost leads to his death. Eve has her head stuck in a book of romantic fairytales. She daydreams of Linus as a rugged backwoodsman and is immediately smitten. Lilith, however, has other ideas about returning back east where culture and refinement are the order of the day.

Tragedy strikes without warning. Zeb and Rebecca perish in a white water rafting accident, leaving their daughters alone and divided. Eve marries Linus, has two sons by him and sets up house on the land where her parents are buried and Linus goes off to fight in the American Civil War.

Lilith becomes a saloon entertainer in St. Louis. She is told by her barrister (Clinton Sunburg) of a gold mine inheritance that beckons her to California. Along the route, Lilith meets Roger Morgan (Robert Preston); a wagon train foreman who falls madly in love with her. Unhappy chance for Roger that Lilith’s heart has already been swayed by no account gambler, Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck). After some initial apprehensions, Cleve reforms and proposes marriage.

Following the film’s intermission, our story jumps forward by several decades. Eve’s eldest son, Zeb (George Peppard) enlisting in the Army to carry on the fight that his father began. Eve laments Zeb’s decision but allows him to go to war because his idealistic visions of a soldier’s glory cannot be swayed. However, Zeb soon learns how unglamorous war actually is. Linus is killed in action and, upon returning home at war’s end, Zeb learns that Eve has also died – presumably, of a broken heart.

With nothing left for him, Zeb leaves the farm and continues his commission, becoming the law in a lawless country. Railroad foreman, Mike King (Richard Widmark) exploits Zeb’s alliance with the Indians to assure that the Union Pacific railroad goes through. The Indians retaliate by creating a buffalo stampede through settler country and many lives are lost.

Finally, Zeb – now a married man – is united with his aged Aunt Lilith who represents the staunch, undying will and determination that, presumably, cultivated the west and made it great.What is particularly distressing about James R. Webb’s screenplay is how devil-may-care it is with each of these narrative threads; discarding character interaction by simply cutting from one plot point to the next.

For example; after Lilith and Cleve’s initially tempestuous relationship, Lilith’s free spirit is inexplicably tamed to accept his proposal of marriage just before the film's intermission. After the intermission Cleve’s character is discarded. We never see him again. We only learn that Cleve has died some forty years later as Lilith observes with bitter regret the auction of all her late husband’s assets to pay for their mounting debts.

Worse, a slew of genuinely gifted performers have been reduced to mere sound bytes in the film. John Wayne and Henry Morgan (as Generals Sherman and Ulysses Grant respectively) have four lines of dialogue in two very brief scenes. Raymond Massey is barely glimpsed in profile as President Abraham Lincoln without so much of one word to recite.

Finally, there is Spencer Tracy as our narrator; providing intrusive external bridges to the action when plot lags behind.There are many such artistic misfires in the film. But this reviewer suspects that most of these were probably overlooked by an anesthetized audience gaping in awe at the enveloping process of Cinerama. After all, who cares about narrative structure when the Rockies are towering in on all sides or the roar and hiss of locomotive steam seems to explode from all the stereo channels in the theater?

Hence, How The West Was Won is a Cinerama experience rather than a movie – its gimmicky ‘you are there’ feel compensating and/or overriding all other shortcomings. Removed from the ‘Cinerama experience’ on a flat television monitor these oversights become insurmountable and glaring - a bizarre and incongruent revisionist myth of the old west.

Predictable for the Cinerama experience, How The West Was Won concludes its lengthy overhead pan across the various landscapes of the U.S.; a dizzying array of overhead shots that challenge our equilibrium. We sail over skyscraper, dive through canyons and trace the contours of the Golden Gate Bridge. But the spectacle is diffused because our home viewing screens cannot - and do not - match the grandiose curved screens in a darkened theater properly calibrated for maximum effect.


For years, all home video versions of How The West Was Won were glaring example of Cinerama’s more prominent shortcomings. Mis-registration of the three camera negatives and obvious fading between the various film stocks exaggerated the separation between left, middle and right images. But in 1997 the Library of Congress declared How The West Was Won a culturally, historically and aesthetically significant film worthy of preservation.

And now, after two previous lack luster incarnations on DVD, Warner Home Video seems to concur with that assessment. They have resurrected How The West Was Won in an approximation of how it must have appeared to audiences in 1962. Released simultaneously as a Blu-Ray and standard DVD, the Blu-Ray bests its standard counterpart considerably, providing a more refined visual palette with sharper colors, deeper contrast levels and a tighter image with incredible fine details.

Flesh tones appear more natural on the Blu-Ray than they do on the DVD by direct comparison. But best of all, the Blu-Ray has included a ‘smile box’ version of the film – essentially making the image concave on a flat screen to suggest what the actual Cinerama presentation must have felt like.


On smaller monitors, this ‘warping’ of the image may be distracting. On a larger monitor or projection screen the effect is rather startling, particularly during action sequences and aerial shots. With regards to the new alignment of the three panel image: apart from a few very brief moments, the vertical separation lines have been seamlessly laced together to give the illusion of a single strip of film.

The audio is DTS from the original 7-track stereo masters – delivering a startlingly aggressive spread across all channels. The biggest benefactor here is the film’s score. It soars. Dialogue continues to sound a tad strident and generally lacks in bass. Extras include a thorough audio commentary stitched together from new and vintage interviews and a comprehensive documentary on the Cinerama process – Cinerama Adventure; a fond look at those early heady days of this widescreen wonderment that is worth the price of the disc all by itself.

*Please note that How The West Was Won has also been repackaged as a ‘Deluxe Edition’ Oddly enough, no Blu-Ray SE has been released. Extras on the discs are virtually identical with only a collectible brochure and stills offered in the box set at double the price!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
Blu-Ray - 5+
DVD - 4

EXTRAS
3

QUO VADIS - Blu-Ray (MGM 1951) Warner Home Video

Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis (1951) is gargantuan spectacle. Partly to stem the tide of waning theater attendance caused by the advent of television, but more importantly, to continue to exercise its supremacy as a world leader in movie entertainment, Louis B. Mayer’s dream factory – MGM – acquired the rights to Henryk Sienkiewicz’s sprawling novel of Roman bloodshed and Christian conquest.

At the turn of the century Sienkiewicz’s book had sparked a public fervor for ancient civilizations. Indeed, Sienkiewicz – who studied abroad to soak up the Roman Empire’s richly dark heritage – infused his novel with meticulous attention to detail, producing one of the most comprehensive contemporary reflections on Roman antiquity.

And 'large' is precisely the way a Roman film company envisioned their 1913 silent masterpiece of the same name. The movie was so wildly popular that it ran over a year. It was followed by an even more ambitious American version in 1917 that, although popular, did not make back its initial costs.

With the coming of the second World War and Hitler’s fascination with Roman artifacts, the public’s general fascination with this particular part of the historical record fell out of favor; an unhappy circumstance for MGM. They had acquired the rights in 1943.

Quo Vadis was original conceived as a film for Robert Taylor and Elizabeth Taylor. Ultimately, only the former Taylor would weather the various mutations in casting and script that proceeded throughout the 1940s until Mervyn LeRoy assumed the reigns from director John Huston in 1949. However, the post-war period in Hollywood had been particularly unkind to more intimate dramas that had been a primary staple during the first half of the decade.

Hence, Quo Vadis would not only have to be grand in the reigning style of super productions that had once been popular in the 1930s; it needed to be colossal beyond all living expectations. L.B. Mayer, who was battling company politics in a desperate bid to maintain his control over the studio, saw Quo Vadis as one last chance to exercise his vast and highly skilled studio on a project that would be the gold standard bearer for the rest of Hollywood.

The film begins in earnest with the arrival of soldier, Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor) to the gates of Rome after a successful campaign against British forces. Marcus is a crude male animal, whose rough edges begin to smooth out after his first sight of Lygia (Deborah Kerr) – a freed slave and a Christian living in the house of a retired Roman general. From the start, Lygia is physically attracted to Marcus even though she cannot abide the pleasure he derives from recanting his bloodthirsty conquests.

The state is under tyrannical rule from the mentally unstable Nero (Peter Ustinov); whose bastardization of the arts is but one discomfort endured by his council, Petronius (Leo Genn) who also happens to be Marcus’ uncle. Nero has recently murdered his wife and mother to marry Poppaea (Patricia Laffan) – a woman of ill repute and even more ill temper. The film makes much of Poppaea’s destructive influence over men in general and the empire of Rome in particular.

At Petronius’ home, Marcus is introduced to Eunice (Marina Berti); an exotic slave intended as a gift for his sexual pleasure. But Marcus’ heart has already been drawn to Lygia, leaving Eunice to confess her genuine and undying affection for Petronius instead. After exercising a rule of law to take Lygia by force, Marcus is utterly perplexed when Lygia recoils from him in despair.


Lygia is taken to Nero's court and made a concubine. Outwardly remote, Lygia’s assigned lady in waiting, Acte (Rosalie Crutchley) confesses that she too is a Christian in exile. Together with Lygia’s former bodyguard, the towering mountain of flesh – Ursus (Buddy Baer), Acte helps Lygia escape into the night.

The exile is bittersweet; for Lygia cannot return home, but must live obscurely within the hidden community of Christians at the home of philosopher, Paul (Abraham Sofaer). At the palace Nero embarks on a lethal campaign of self destruction. With delusions for a gleaming white city, he orders the Praetorian Guard to torch the old to make way for the new, forcing Rome’s populace to flee into the streets.

The flames draw Lygia out and she is reunited with Marcus. Unfortunately for these lovers, Poppaea has become jealously enamored with Marcus herself. After she convinces Nero to spread the lie that it was the Christians who torched Rome, Poppaea decides that if she cannot possess Marcus for her own she will destroy him. Nero devises a sport out of throwing Christians to the lions. Marcus is imprisoned along with the rest. But having experienced an epiphany he rescues Lygia from the arena. Rome turns against Nero, forcing him to commit suicide.

The action in Quo Vadis plays like grand soap opera; albeit with a religious slant. The screenplay by S.N. Behrman, Sonya Levien and John Lee Mahin suffers from the same mild turgidity that plagued many sword and sandal spectacles from this vintage; apparently incapable of deciding whether to approach the exercise as a human drama or a Biblical melodrama the screenplay attempts to do both, but only occasionally succeeds.

Robert Taylor is long in the tooth as the romantic heartthrob but manages to make the most of his role. Deborah Kerr is quite extraordinary – balancing Lygia’s naiveté with a more profound spirituality. Regrettably, there is NO on screen chemistry between these two celebrated stars - rendering their romance moot and occasionally, even unattractive. Taylor is too boorish, too 'Roman' in his man handling of this delicate flower. Kerr shrinks too much and spends too many close ups casting telling glances in every direction but toward her lover.


The standout performance belongs to Peter Ustinov as Nero; a maniacal and bizarrely tragic historical figure never more skillfully displayed in the movies. Despite Nero’s insatiably monstrous behavior, Ustinov manages to create an underpinning of sympathy for the character. No small feat given that Nero was a demigod of mythic proportions. Leo Genn is the other memorable actor in the movie; devilishly congenial as the arbitrator of good taste. His Patroneus is most readily missed after he is forced to commit suicide or die at Nero's hand.

Ultimately, audiences do not flock to see such a colossal entertainment for its historical accuracies, but for the mind-boggling fun of witnessing gargantuan sets and spectacular costuming. Quo Vadis masterfully delivers on both fronts. Matte artist Peter Ellenshaw takes the film’s already lavish production values and expands them through exceptional use of paintings on glass, achieving a scope and depth that is daunting.

Warner Home Video’s 1080p Blu-Ray of Quo Vadis is the beneficiary of the studio’s patented ‘Ultra-Resolution’ restoration. The usually stellar results however, are not flawless.

The DVD (issued simultaneously as the Blu-ray) exhibited several glaring examples of misaligned Technicolor, producing a jumpy transition between cuts. Whole portions of the orgy at Nero’s palace were out of focus with the color appearing blurry and at times overly contrasted. These oversights all seem to have been corrected on the Blu-ray. But age related artifacts are still present. Nicks, chips and scratches all make their presence known. On the standard DVD, these imperfections are less obvious than on the Blu-Ray.

The standard DVD is spread across two discs. The Blu-Ray compresses the entire 3 hr. plus feature on one disc. Image quality is more refined on the Blu-ray to be sure. Without a doubt, the image is sharper and tighter on Blu-ray. The DTS audio exhibits all the shortcomings of an original mono track remixed to pseudo-stereo using original sound stems. That said, this is an impressive repurposing with interesting spread across all five channels. It won't win any awards for fidelity, but it provides for a unique listening experience never before heard on home video.


Both the Blu-Ray and the DVD come with a comprehensive documentary on the making of the film. There's also a very comprehensive audio commentary that is worth your time and consideration and the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Highly recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
Blu-Ray 4
DVD 3.5

EXTRAS
2

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)
4.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
5

EXTRAS
2

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)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
4.5

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)
3

VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5

EXTRAS
2

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)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
2.5

THE PINK PANTHER - Blu-Ray (The Mirisch Co. 1963) MGM/Fox Home Video

Blake Edward’s The Pink Panther (1963) is perhaps the most delightfully obtuse sleuth/comedy ever conceived for the movies. Certainly, it is one of the most visually elegant. The film not only provides comedian Peter Sellers with one of his most enduring and iconic performances – that of French Inspector Jacques Clouseau – it also launched a cartoon phenomenon franchise for the effeminate feline featured in the film’s main title sequence.

True, the screenplay by Maurice Richlin and Edwards is a bit episodic, but its juxtaposition of three separate narratives gradually melds into one seamless and very hilarious caper. It is pointless to wallow in a critique of specific errors in narrative construction. For example, there really is no reason why Simone Clouseau (Capucine) ought to have married a police inspector when her heart is obviously drawn to the devices and seductions of Sir Charles Lytton (David Niven). The point is that the narrative is more than adequate to sustain all of the claptrap and calamity brought on by a frantic race to possess the most fabulous diamond in the world.

The film opens in an undisclosed province in the Far East where the reigning monarch bestows the fabulous ‘pink panther’ gem to his daughter, Princess Dala (Claudia Cardinale). After a cartoon main title sequence that introduces the panther, as well as Henry Mancini’s instantly recognizable theme music, the narrative fast tracks some twenty years into the future.

A mysterious phantom cat burglar makes off with some priceless jewels in Rome. In Hollywood, con artist George Lytton (Robert Wagner)fakes his own college graduation photo to present to the uncle who has paid for his formal education – such as it is or, in fact, isn’t.

The plot thickens as the action migrates to Cortina, where George’s uncle, Sir Charles is keeping tabs on Princess Dala. Next, we’re off to France, where a mysterious woman is seen fleeing the police after exchanging a package with her contact on the banks of the Seine. The woman, who manages a stunning escape by performing a quick change in an elevator, is none other than Simone Clouseau – Jacques’ wife!

Jacques bumbling ineptitude in practically all things makes him a figure of fun, though his slightly savvier cohort, Tucker (Colin Gordon) is particularly faithful as a sidekick. Unable to recognize that his wife is an accomplice in the latest series of jewel robberies, Jacques focuses his attentions on Sir Charles – never realizing how close to the truth he is. Meanwhile, Princess Dala attends several fashionable parties given in her honor by nattering socialite Angela Dunning (Brenda De Banzie), while all the while playing a cagy romantic game of cat and mouse with the very flirtatious Sir Charles.

What is perhaps most intriguing about the narrative is how many loose ends and secondary characters there are that don’t amount to much or seem to matter. Angela Dunning is a dead end character, as is her nameless Greek cousin played by Fran Jeffries – who is given a plum musical highlight; Mancini’s Meglior Stasera to sultrily slink through as all the principles look on.

In suspending the plot for this musical interlude director Edwards respects his audience just enough to forget them; a directorial move that requires fortitude, self-confidence and plain old guts to masterfully pull off. A resounding success upon its initial release, The Pink Panther spawned a film franchise that arguably, was not quite up to snuff. Nowhere else in the series, except perhaps A Shot In The Dark (1964), do all of these elements - zany characters, cornball sleuthing, clever innuendo and unabashedly screwball comedy - unify to produce such an inspired featherweight, feel good entertainment.

MGM/Fox's The Pink Panther on Blu-Ray easily bests its SE DVD incarnation. The image is undoubtedly crisper and tighter – given Blu-Ray’s superior bit rate. But colour fidelity doesn't quite take that quantum leap into the future. Yes, colours are brighter and more refined on the Blu-ray than on the DVD. But flesh tones seems just as pale. Fine details improve as does contrast and grain looks more film like than before. Age related artefacts aren't an issue either. Overall, the image is smooth and satisfying.


The DTS remix of original mono exhibits obvious shortcomings. Although Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther theme gets the full stereo treatment, much of the rest of the music, effects and dialogue are bound by rather limited source material – the biggest regret being Meglior Stasera sung by Fran Jeffries; a track that apparently does not survive in any sort of pristine recording - either stereo or mono. It is interesting to note that Jeffries unique rendering of the song also does not appear on the 2002 CD release of The Ultimate Pink Panther compilation that features the rest of Henry Mancini’s musical cues from the entire series remastered in true stereo.

Extras are all direct imports from the SE DVD and include an audio commentary from Blake Edwards and three featurettes: The Pink Panther Story, The Coolest Cat In Cortina, and The Tip-Toe Life Of A Cat Burglar.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
3

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)
5+

VIDEO/AUDIO
5

EXTRAS
4

INDEPENDENCE DAY - Blu-Ray (20th Century-Fox 1996) Fox Home Video

The first hour of Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) is a revisionist take on the 1950s paranoia-infused sci-fi thriller and it comes about as close to attaining cinematic perfection as is humanly or otherworldly possible. We're given multiple perspectives based around a singular 'what if?' scenario.

What if the world befell an intergalatic invasion from hostile aliens? So far, par for the course of just about every sci-fi film from the last 50 years. But Emmerich's take is a bit more chancy than most. He bates us with brief glimpses of apocalyptic fire clouds gathering in the sky, grainy video images of unidentified objects hovering overhead, and pierces the sound barrier with a ominous low frequency hums ever-present and growing over the loud speakers monitoring this never before experienced phenomenon.

And just when he's whipped the audience into a frenzy for more of the same, Emmerich lowers the boom with a litany of chilling special effects; his saucer shaped cruisers emerging overhead to dominate the major U.S. cities and dwarf its paralyzed human populace cringing below. This is a great set up, visually arresting and, more importantly, narratively compelling. Emmerich hasn't forgotten how to tell a good story. He works his audience into a sustained panic. Rewatching Independence Day does not diminish the impact of this set up. We're still in 'must see' (or re-see, as the case may be) territory.

Roughly the first half of the screenplay by Dean Devlin and Emmerich is clever enough to avoid most of the conventions and clichés of a traditional sci-fi movie. We're given interesting characters to invest ourselves in and that makes all the difference in the world. Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Judd Hirsch, Vivica A. Fox...et al, are recognizable celebrities. And the story isn't really about the alien invasion - not yet - but rather how these very real and very human survivors will endure after the apocalypse has hit. That's an angle in the sci-fi genre that arguably has not been explored as thoroughly since Spielberg gave us Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T.

That the rest of Emmerich's film disintigrates into a video-game-esque race against time to save what's left of the human race almost as rapidly as the cities of New York, L.A. and Washington D.C. are pulverized to dust by his alien ships; this is indeed a shame and hardly imaginative. Perhaps, it’s just bad planning, bordering on cliché, but the middle and third acts fall short of the film's first half hour. The story clings together, even heroically so, primarily because the cast continue to sell their silliness as complete truth. But the immediacy of their peril, that nail-biting tension Emmerich has worked so dilligently to sustain for the first thirty minutes or so of the film, is gone, replaced by state of the art special effects and an increasingly frenetic pace to just move the necessary business along until we get to the end.That's disappointing!

The story begins with an Area 51 sighting of a large circular object moving toward the earth from outer space. Foppish U.S. President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is informed of a possible other worldly invasion by his military advisers. Tragically, he does not recognize the immediacy of their concern, at least in time to evacuate the populace from the initial three major U.S. city centers that have been targeted by the alien mother ship for extinction.

Meanwhile, hotshot cable programmer, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) has managed to decode a countdown in the alien ships’ broadcast signals. Driving to Washington with his father Julius (Judd Hirsch), David convinces his ex-wife, Constance Spano (Margaret Colin) to inform the President. The White House is evacuated and all military installations are placed on high alert. The mother ship strikes and Washington, Los Angeles and New York are wiped off the face of the map.

In another part of the country pilot Steve Hiller (Will Smith) is pressed into military service to combat and eliminate the encroaching invaders. Prior to his enlistment, Hiller had planned to marry his stripper/girlfriend, Jasmine Dubrow (Vivica A. Fox). With L.A. a distant memory, Hiller believes that Jasmine has been lost to him.

In a remote desert town, alcoholic crop duster Russell Case (Randy Quaid) is exonerated. For years he endured the stigma of being branded a weirdo by his fellow citizens after claiming to have been one of many alien abductees. But when the mother ship bursts forth from a cloud of atmospheric haze to cast its gigantic shadow over all residing beneath her Case's friends and neighbours have a sudden change of heart.

These four male lives and the resurrection of their romantic relationships via acts of valor done in the name of human salvation are the film’s focus for the next two hours. The melodrama isn’t bad. It’s just that following the spectacular deluge of New York, Washington and Los Angeles it never contribute anything more than serviceable filler before the final battle between the aliens and earthlings.

Steve distinguishes himself in a dogfight with an alien fighter plane. The unconscious captured specimen is taken back to Area 51 for analysis, where it predictably comes back to life, terrorizing and killing all the scientists who were examining it before it too is exterminated in a blitz of military might. President Whitmore sounds the attack. Steve is reunited with Jasmin, but leaves her for honour and glory, along with David who has figured out a way to upload a virus into the alien ship's computer, thereby forcing it to self destruct.

Emmerich's patriotic flag waving aside, the final act of Independence Day is pretty par for the course of what constitutes a sci-fi thriller these days. We've seen all of this before and occasionally, done with more originality elsewhere. Still, it's difficult to discount the film altogether. Its action laden finale is awash in some truly stellar SFX and there's some good humour thrown into the mix. For example, when Julius suggest that the huddled masses waiting on the ground gather around to pray, one of the President's advisors, Albert Nimzicki (James Rebhorn), noticing the yamaka atop Julius' head, replies, "But I'm not Jewish." "Well..."replies Julius with a shrug, "Nobody's perfect."

Employing detailed miniatures of famous U.S. landmarks, a litany of pyrotechnic special effects shot at high film speeds, Emmerich achieves a much greater sense of realism to the destruction sequences. I have to say, not being a big fan of CGI overkill, these old school effects really hold up. Karl Walter Lindenlaub's cinematography is first rate. He takes his time to explore master shots, static shots and long setups that allow the audience to focus in on the action rather than being overwhelmed by it. His artistic restraint at not having every image simply ricochet across the screen like a pinball is most commendable.

In the days following the real life terrorist tragedies of Sept. 11th 2001, 20th Century-Fox contemplated re-editing the New York City destruction sequences, particularly the static long shot that shows both towers of the World Trade Center with their upper floors decapitated and burning. Thankfully, cooler heads have prevailed. Film is an artistic expression and time capsule that reflects (perhaps more poignantly than others) where a society's collective consciousness is at. In 1996 the collapse of the twin towers was hardly imaginable. Whatever other shortcomings the film might have, all films before Sept. 11, 2001 are an artifact of a simpler, more carefree time when such gross acts of violence seemed not only fanciful, but all together improbable.

In 1998, Independence Day became one of Fox Home Video’s first 2-disc Five Star DVD Editions, later repackaged as a Deluxe Edition. The new Blu-Ray from Fox bests all previous standard editions in image quality.

The 1080p Blu-Ray is obviously sharper, cleaner and more vibrant in its colour fidelity than the aforementioned DVD. Like all of Fox's early Blu-ray offerings, this one is single layered. Colors are very rich and warm. Flesh tones are much more natural in appearance. Contrast levels are bang on. Fine details are evident throughout and do not appear to have suffered from excessive DNR. The image is crisp and smooth without appearing waxen or lacking in grain. The audio is DTS lossless and exhibits an overwhelming improvement over the DVD with bass tonality that will rock your speakers during the invasion and battle sequences.

Fox has limited its extra features two audio commentaries and a trivia track. Regrettably, the extensive documentaries illustrating how the film was made that were a part of both the Five Star and Deluxe Editions are no where to be found on this Blu-ray. This reviewer has never been able to ascertain the executive logic taht prevailed during Blu-ray's debut. Then, Blu-ray was more expensive to own than DVDs, but for that extra cash the consumer was being offered less extras for almost twice as much of their money. No wonder Blu-ray's debut didn't catch on as rapidly as the studio had envisioned!

Bottom line: Independence Day on Blu-ray is a no brainer upgrade for those who want a pristine hi-def copy of the film to add to their home video collections. But don't discard your 5 Star DVD edition just yet. You'll need it to take advantage of all the great extras.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5

EXTRAS
3

Friday, March 20, 2009

THE ROBE - Blu-Ray & DVD (20th Century-Fox) Fox Home Video

In the late 1930s French film pioneer Henri Chretien tried valiantly to convince American film makers that his anamorphic widescreen process was a revolutionary invention in screen projection they simply could not do without. Hollywood studios thought otherwise and the standard 1:33:1 aspect ratio remained the norm until 1953 when television suddenly sent the entire film making community into an economic tailspin.

Progressive by most mogul's standards, 20th Century-Fox’s production chief, Darryl F. Zanuck remembered Chretien and his device, putting both to work for Fox with the debut of The Robe (1953), the first Cinemascope widescreen motion picture with 6 tracks of stereophonic sound. How much The Robe’s initial impact and critical/financial success was predicated on Chretien’s ‘evolutionary’ film process, as opposed to the film’s subject matter, remains open for debate. What is for certain is that The Robe revitalized the sub-genre of Bible/fiction epics first made fashionable two decades before by Cecil B. DeMille.

Based on Lloyd C. Douglas’ novel of spiritual conversion, director Henry Koster’s The Robe is a sweeping spectacle employing all of the tried and true Hollywood clichés about ancient Rome. Originally, screenwriter Albert Maltz collaborated on the adaptation with Philip Dunne. Unfortunately for Maltz, his indictment by HUAC in the Red Scare resulted in an obliteration of his screen credit – an oversight that this new home video incarnation has corrected.

The Robe opens with a grand master shot of a Roman coliseum ripped from the film’s sequel: Demetrius and the Gladiators (simultaneously shot but released one year after The Robe’s triumphant debut). From this magnificent vista we are treated to a montage of images depicting Rome’s decadence and its impervious disregard for humanity in the slave markets.

Enter tribune Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton); a playful but vane and self centered man of wayward charm. Perusing the local trade, Marcellus has his heart set on bidding for a pair of Macedonian twin sisters. Unfortunately for Marcellus, the Emperor Caligula (Jay Robinson) also has his eye on the pair.

Before the bidding, Marcellus is reunited with childhood sweetheart, Diana (Jean Simmons) who is currently Caligula’s ward. Caligula is a demigod; drunk with power and emotionally unstable. Nevertheless he has assumed the reigns of governing the most powerful empire on earth. He rules by tyranny. After Caligula outbids Marcellus on the twins, Marcellus deliberately outbids the emperor on the Greek slave, Demetrius (Victor Mature), thereby incurring Caligula’s wrath.

Caligula exiles Marcellus to Jerusalem where he encounters Christ’s arrival on Palm Sunday. Marcellus is unmoved by the experience, but Demetrius has an on the spot conversion that transforms him into one of Christ’s disciples. Demetrius learns that Governor Pontius Pilate (Richard Boone) intends to sentence Christ to death for crimes against the state, but he is too late to prevent the crucifixion. Instead, he arrives at the foot of the cross that bears Christ’s body to collect ‘the robe’ Christ wore.

The robe is seized in a card game and won by Marcellus who has been put in charge of the crucifixion. However, as Christ takes his last breath, the spirit of his suffering bewitches the robe and thereby Marcellus who attempts to clothe himself in it during the violent thunderstorm that immediately follows. Haunted by an intangible mental sickness that renders him a shivering wreck, Marcellus returns to Rome where he and Diana rekindle their love.

Marcellus embarks on a journey to discover Christ’s past and thereby rid himself of the ‘curse’ of the robe. In the process, however, he crosses paths with a loyal merchant, Justus (Dean Jagger), Christ’s disciple, Peter (Michael Rennie) and Miriam (Betta St. John). Through their faith, compassion, love and understanding, Marcellus’ health is restored. But more important, Marcellus has now become a true believer in the kingdom of heaven and this, ironically, makes him an enemy of the state.

Forced to choose between Caligula and God, Marcellus picks the latter, providing Caligula with the opportunity to sentence both Marcellus and Diana to death. The film ends, not with another crucifixion, but with Marcellus and Diana escorted from Caligula’s palace, the backdrop transformed into a heavenly spire of clouds married to composer Alfred Newman’s lush and evocative choral and orchestral underscoring.

In point of fact, Newman should get most of the credit for elevating what is otherwise a largely pedestrian tale to its heights of celestial bliss. Comparatively speaking the Maltz/Dunne screenplay is not up to snuff, periodically faltering for something meaningful to say. The growing pains of adapting conventional filmmaking techniques to the more expansive 2:35:1 aspect ratio also seems to have hampered Leon Shamroy’s ability to create engaging cinematography. The film relies heavily on process matte shots and paintings that are less than seamlessly blended to the live action.

Nevertheless, the story clings together, primarily because the performances from Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature and Dean Jagger in particular are so very good. Interestingly, Burton – primarily a stage actor up to this point in his career - thought he was terrible in the role. In point of fact, he does seem mildly stiff in his actions, but his ability to communicate volumes of self loathing transformed into the highest levels of exaltation makes his performance quite the standout. The same can be said of Victor Mature who, given limited dialogue, majestically conveys the eloquence of a tortured soul released to its higher calling through Christ’s invisible message.

The Robe has been simultaneously released on DVD and Blu-Ray with varying degrees of success. The original filmic elements, that for years have registered the glaring ravages of time, underwent a monumental restoration effort and the results are an image that is far more textured, smooth and detailed than anything ever before seen on home video.

Although transitions between scenes (fades, dissolves) continue to suffer from momentarily clumpy colors and an obvious amount of film grain, the rest of the picture elements are in fine form. Flesh tones are particularly improved, more pink than the garish and putty-like orange we’ve become too used to in previous incarnations.

Comparatively speaking, the Blu-Ray disc outranks the standard DVD on every level. The 1080p image is tighter, smoother, richer in its colour reproduction, more sharp with a clarity and resolution that at times is breathtaking. We are able to appreciate background details that add to the texture and spectacle of the presentation. Although the Blu-ray is preferred, for those yet unwilling to upgrade, the Special Edition of The Robe in either incarnation will surely not disappoint.

The audio has been remastered and delivers a sonic experience unlike anything we've heard before. Alfred Newman's score soars to new heights. The directionalized dialogue and effects are more crisp and clean sounding. Truly, this is how this film was intended to look and sound.


Extras on the DVD include an introduction by Martin Scorsese, commentary from David Newman, Jon Burlingame, Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, an isolated score track and two featurettes – one on the making of the movie, the other on the Cinemascope process. There’s also a stills gallery and interactive press book to consider.

The Blu-Ray imports all of these features and adds another exclusive on Hollywood’s 50s obsession with the Bible, as well as an audio interview from Philip Dunne and a ‘picture in picture’ comparison of The Robe in widescreen and full frame. The Blu-ray comes highly recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
Blu-Ray 4
Standard DVD 3.5

EXTRAS
Blu-Ray 4
Standard DVD 3

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)
3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
0

PINOCCHIO 70th Anniversary - Blu-Ray (Walt Disney 1940) Walt Disney Home Video

Walt Disney’s initial flush of success with Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937) was to be put to the test on his next animated project, the ambitiously mounted Pinocchio (1940). With its very adult and sophisticated themes, in many ways Pinocchio is a close cousin to James Whale’s Frankenstein; the tale by Carlo Collodi, much more a harrowing nightmare about the harshness of humanity pitted against an innocent creature not of this world.

Like Frankenstein, all the antagonists in Pinocchio are adult male authority figures – each devious, threatening and running amuck in their own social depravity – determined even - to ensure that the oddity in their midst is not allowed to assimilate into the human world.

The narrative eventually ironed out by Ted Sears, Otto Englander, Webb Smith, William Cottrell, Joseph Sabo, Erdman Penner and Aurelius Battaglia consolidates the Collodi tale into three separate vignettes: the first, charting Pinocchio’s (voiced by Dickie Jones) abduction by Honest John (Walter Catlett) and Gideon (Mel Blanc) and his brief career as an actor in Stromboli’s (Charles Judel) traveling menagerie of puppets. However, apart from a few brief moments where the full wrath of Stromboli is revealed, this opening vignette is the most light-hearted of all three represented in the film.

The second sequence is terrifying to say the least. Pinocchio’s naïveté is ruthlessly exploited by the delinquent, Lampwick (Frankie Darro). The two boys are taken by The Coachman (Charles Judel also) to Pleasure Island – a veritable paradise of adolescent decadence. After a night of vapid debaucheries, Lampwick is transformed into a physical manifestation of the jackass he has been behaving, right before Pinocchio’s eyes.

The transformation is largely done in silhouette but is nevertheless frightening even to an adult audience. Pinocchio escapes his own complete transformation by diving off a cliff and swimming to safety – retaining a set of mule’s ears and a tail as his comeuppance. In the final sequence, Pinocchio returns home to discover that Geppetto (Christian Rub), his wood carver/father, has been swallowed by Monstro, the giant whale. To offset the darkness of these adventures, Disney artisans developed and expanded the role of Jiminy Cricket.

In Collodi’s original he is rather unceremoniously squashed by Pinocchio before the real story even begins. In the film, Jiminy (Cliff Edwards) not only survives, he assumes the function of being Pinocchio’s conscience – a gift from The Blue Fairy (Evelyn Venable) who entrusts Jiminy with Pinocchio’s very soul. However, Jiminy is far from an innocent. At varying intervals in the narrative he is worldly, satirical and quite a scamp with the ladies – in short, a Chaplinesque creation representing man, woman and child.

At a cost of $2 million, Pinocchio was more technically and artistically proficient than Snow White; its Oscar-winning ballad ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington married to stunning usage of Disney’s multiplane camera. Yet, the film only managed to recoup $3 million dollars at the box office; a colossal disappointment.

At long last, one of the finest animated films ever conceived has been masterfully restored by The Walt Disney Company. Painstaking restoration efforts have yielded a masterpiece so complexly executed and multi-textured in its visual presentation that in either its standard DVD or Blu-Ray incarnation this should be a reference disc for many years to come.

Where the previously issued bare bones ‘limited edition’ yielded a very orange color palette, this latest transfer captures all the spooky blue/gray tones of the original artwork. Pleasure Island’s ominously garish tones positively pop with fright. The Blue Fairy is a vibrant, ethereal blue. Jiminy Cricket is a warm and subtly textured green. In all, the visual splendor of this American classic shines with a sustained and meticulous focus to fine detail in each and every frame.

Grain and age related artifacts have been removed for a crystal clear video presentation. Walt Disney Home Video has made the prospect of owning the Blu-Ray 2 disc 70th Anniversary Edition even more appealing by providing consumers with both the Blu-Ray and standard DVD in one package – something this critic hopes will become the norm and trend for subsequent releases.

The restoration of the audio is a revelation too – expanding the sonic palette, not merely to provide re-channeled stereo, but a genuine stereo mix from the original mono stems. This is Pinocchio like you’ve never heard or seen it before and so gratifying to see it at long last on DVD.

Walt Disney Home Video has also outdone themselves on the extra features. Apart from the prerequisite music videos and junket materials that have since become standard on all Disney DVDs (games, trivia tracks, stills galleries) this 2 disc set also includes a comprehensive ‘making of’ documentary and an appealing sidetrack charting contemporary toymakers and puppeteers journey to develop tomorrows toys. Pinocchio in any edition is a must have. In its’ current restored state it is an essential to any home video library! Highly recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
Blu-Ray 5+
Standard DVD 5

EXTRAS
4.5