Wednesday, April 15, 2009

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (Castlerock 1994) Warner Home Video

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
5

EXTRAS
3

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5

EXTRAS
3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5

EXTRAS
3

A PASSAGE TO INDIA - Blu-Ray (Columbia 1984) Sony Home Entertainement

Following anemic box office returns on Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and the overwhelming critical backlash to that film's debut, director David Lean’s career came to a sudden, self-imposed unceremonious halt. Only part of Lean's decision had to do with the fact that Hollywood had moved on from lavish and lengthy entertainment.

More to the point, Lean was mortally wounded by the negative response from the New York Critics to his 1970 film. He went into a mild depression and very public self-imposed exile. Small wonder that it took Lean over a decade to return to the big screen, this time with an impressive cinematic translation of E.M Forster’s beloved novel A Passage To India (1984).
Holding true to Forster’s critique of Imperial British dominance, the screenplay by Lean concerns itself with a journey made to India by Adela Quested (Judy Davis), a young Englishwoman, whose sojourn takes an unexpected twist when she finds herself haunted and alone in the Marabar Caves. Accusing her seemingly harmless and congenial guide Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee) of rape, Adela's accusation becomes the call celebra that threatens to rupture already pensive civility between the British colonizing forces and its Indian territories.

Naturally, Adela’s fiancé, magistrate, Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers) is all set to prosecute Aziz to the full extent of the law. But Quested’s traveling companion – soon to be mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) remains unconvinced of Aziz's complicity. She has seen first hand what colonization has done to India; its mistreatment of the natives fracturing the spirit of goodwill with an air of stoic pomposity and smug superiority.

Aziz’s one true friend among the British aristocracy is Prof. Richard Fielding (James Fox); an academic who appreciates, but does not respect, the hypocrisies of his fellow countrymen. Regrettably, he is powerless to stall the unnatural course of action leading to a trial that may very well find Aziz guilty. After much consternation, Mrs. Moore vows to return to Britain before Aziz’s trial. She sails for England, but dies on the luxury liner before reaching home and is buried at sea.


Aziz is acquitted of his crime, but only after Adela confesses that she felt compelled to accuse him of rape to save her own face - masking her own libidinous urges towards him inside the Marabar Caves. Exonerated, but understandably bitter, Aziz admonishes Fielding and reverts to a general contempt for all British society. The years pass and Aziz becomes a doctor in a small town far removed from all the unpleasantness. Fielding seeks him out and reveals to Aziz that he has married, not Adela, but Mrs. Moore's daughter. The two men come to an understanding, and Aziz allows himself the power of forgiveness.

The underbelly of Lean's last virtuoso film making is part travelogue/part critical investigation of British colonization. At the time of the its release, A Passage To India ran into flack over the (mis)casting of Lean's old good-luck charm Alec Guinness to play the rather aloof Indian prophet, Prof. Godbole – a remarkable bit of understated acting that genuinely holds up in spite of discrepancies in nationality.


A Passage to India is superb in every detail. Lean and his production designer John Box resurrected Imperial India, building a full scale marketplace and town center on the back of an existing palace. Like Lean's most fondly remembered masterworks (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, The Bridge on the River Kwai) location is its own star in this production too. Ernest Day's lush and lovely cinematography captures the sumptuousness of India - a brightly coloured paradise of culture clash with a richness and vibrancy rarely seen on the screen. Judy Moorcroft's costumes and Hugh Scaife's set decoration add memorable touches to the visually dense backdrop.

Although nominated for Best Picture, like Ryan’s Daughter before it, A Passage to India was hardly a box office blockbuster, and its mediocre response at the box office clearly reflected that irreversible audience rift between old and new Hollywood; the film's 'old time' lavishness at odds with the more slapdash way of telling a story circa the 1980s.

Reflecting on the film now, one can not only see, but also forgive its misfired casting of Judy Davis in the lead. Although an obviously talented actress, she lacks that star quality so essential in the likes of a Peter O’Toole (Lawrence of Arabia) or Omar Shariff (Doctor Zhivago) to carry a Lean epic to its successful conclusion. On the whole, Lean gets far better mileage from his supporting cast; Alec Guinness, Dame Peggy Ashcroft, James Fox and, to a lesser extent, Nigel Havers.

Lean also surrounded himself with familiar talent behind the camera, composer Maurice Jarre being no exception. His score for A Passage to India maybe less infused with the musical bombast of either Zhivago or Lawrence but it is memorable nevertheless, and it also yields a rather magnificent fanfare to open the film.

For Lean, who died in 1991, the end of his career was something of an illusive quest to regain his supremacy in film making. A sensitive man of immeasurable wit, silent intuitiveness and superior stealth behind the camera, David Lean needn’t feel that he had fallen short of our expectations with this final offering. A Passage to India remains his glorious epitaph – a film of immense beauty and sublime intelligence.

Sony Home Entertainment’s Blu-Ray bests its standard DVD in every aspect. The true 1080p image is reference quality indeed: bold, rich and vibrant colors; solid contrast levels and fine details ideally realized throughout. Although the image can occasionally appear slightly softly focused on the standard disc, the Blu-Ray is razor sharp.

The audio is stereo surround and adequate for this presentation, but its mastering comes with a minor caveat. During the first few scenes, frontal dialogue seems to be drowned out by the overwhelming roar of side and rear channel sounds. I tried adjusting my speaker frequency (bumping up my middle and dimming my side and rear channels to compensate for this) but to no avail.


Quite simply, the frontal dialogue just seems to have been remastered at a very low - almost inaudible frequency. Thankfully, this oversight is only noticeable in two scenes - one where Adela and Mrs. Moore are aboard a train crossing a bridge, the other when Ronnie first meets them with his carriage in the middle of a funeral procession. Otherwise, we get a faithful stereo mix of the original soundtrack with Maurice Jarre's score the real winner.

The Blu-Ray also bests its standard DVD release with a barrage of extra features including a fascinating picture in picture commentary track. For the rest, there is a superb audio commentary and featurettes on the making of the film, E.M Forster and Lean's career, as well as the film’s original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
3.5

Friday, April 10, 2009

CLEOPATRA: 75th Anniversary (Paramount 1934) Universal Home Video

The reputation of Cecil B. De Mille has always been larger than life. Whether it was De Mille’s own predilection towards sporting the tough authoritarian exterior of a perfectionist, outwardly exemplified by being strapped into a pair of orthopedic boots and carrying a riding crop, or his enthusiasm for crafting Biblical epics with all the gargantuan spectacle that the studio system of his heyday would allow, the name ‘De Mille’ remains a call word for lavish escapism on the big screen.

One of the biggest spectacles of De Mille’s early talkie career at Paramount – the studio he co-founded - is undoubtedly Cleopatra (1934). Although Fox and Theda Bara had been first to immortalize the Queen of the Nile in a silent epic, it was De Mille’s sound version that became the template for Joseph L. Mankeiwicz’ bizarre soap opera in 1963.

Casting pop sensation Claudette Colbert as his serpentine conqueress was a no brainer for De Mille who had worked with the star on The Sign of the Cross (1932) – a faux Biblical epic in which Colbert appeared in the raw, taking a bath in ass’s milk. Colbert, a difficult personality behind the scenes who insisted she only be photographed in close up from the left side, was a genuine powerhouse in front of the camera. Ironically however, she worked well with De Mille, perhaps because De Mille’s tyrannical rule on set tended to intimidate and keep everyone in line.

In Cleopatra, Colbert is the sultry siren who rules Egypt with authoritarian gusto. She’s a clever, diabolical vixen who revels in her own pageantry and in the seduction of many male suitors to occupy her free time. But Cleopatra has met her match with Julius Caesar (Warren Williams); the supreme Roman ruler who chooses to form a political alliance that will bring stability to Cleopatra’s fledgling empire. The alliance turns romantic, however, and with Caesar’s seduction in Egypt there comes a definite downturn in his popularity back home. He is set up outside the Roman forum and murdered by a group of senators.

Vowing vengeance for this crime, Roman general Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon) arrives in Egypt to discover Cleopatra a bitter and venomous rival. Until Antony can bring about the execution of all of Caesar’s conspirators, Cleo' will have nothing to do with a Roman alliance – or at least, so it would seem. Instead, she toys with Antony’s affections, as just another one of her many sexual conquests. Eventually however, the two become lovers locked in a passionate maelstrom of haunted desire. These lusts will ultimately destroy them both. In the final act, as a new Emperor marches toward Alexandria, Cleopatra chooses to take her own life by being bitten by a poisonous asp rather than survive capture and possible enslavement.

Reportedly, Colbert was deathly afraid of snakes and refused to do the scene with the asp. To help overcome her fear, De Mille rented the biggest python he could find from a local zoo, slinging it over his shoulders and approaching Colbert on the set. The terrified Colbert retreated into a corner where De Mille – keeping a respectable distance with the python around his shoulders – pointed to the relatively small garden snake in a nearby cage that Colbert would have to handle for the scene. Colbert was so relieved at the miniscule size of the reptile that she immediately seized it from the cage and performed the sequence without further complaint.

In viewing Cleopatra today what is even more remarkable than the lavish sets and costumes afforded the film is its’ rather blatant open sexuality. True enough, these were the days before Hollywood’s self regulating Production Code of Ethics, but De Mille had always utilized risqué sexuality in his Biblical epics. Curiously enough, the Production Code tended to be more lenient when it came to showcasing sexual aberrations in conjunction with the Bible – particularly where De Mille was concerned.

In Cleopatra, the love making between the queen of the Nile and Caesar is slightly more circumspect. With Antony however, passion gets exhibited full throttle. Colbert is barely concealed behind her flimsy beaded costumes and the positioning of arms and legs is most suggestive. In the final analysis, De Mille’s Cleopatra is a rather fascinating tableau into the sexual taboos of his own nation. The 1963 remake is much more of a character study perhaps, but this 1934 costume epic is still the best incarnation of that oft' told ill fated tale.

WHY ISN'T THIS ON BLU-RAY YET?

Universal Home Video has afforded a new and slightly cleaned up transfer of the film for its 75th Anniversary. Previously, Universal had released The Cecil B. De Mille Collection – a smartly packaged five film ensemble that also included De Mille’s other Biblical teaming with Claudette Colbert The Sign of the Cross. The transfer on the Cleopatra disc included in that box set was quite softly focused and marred by lower than expected contrast levels and a considerable amount of digitized film grain and age related artifacts.

Universal’s 75th Anniversary edition bests this aforementioned disc in all departments; chiefly in its contrast correction. The B&W image exhibits a more refined transfer, though age related artifacts and grain are still present and occasionally heavy in spots. The audio is mono as originally recorded, with a slight hiss and pop present. Overall, this disc is a marked improvement worthy of a repurchase.

Extras are disappointing. Apart from F.X. Feeney’s thorough and engaging audio commentary, the three featurettes included on DeMille, Colbert and the Code all utilize the most scant and poorly exhibited vintage newsreel and film footage. Contrast, grain and general deterioration are so bad that VHS quality does not begin to describe just how awful the visuals are.

Worse, the accompanying commentary is superficial and threadbare at best. Really, there are better documentaries on all three subjects to be found elsewhere. Ultimately, this disc comes recommended for the film itself – well worth the purchase price and definitely worthy of a second glance.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
2


GIGI - Blu-Ray (MGM 1958) Warner Home Video

A seminal masterwork from the Arthur Freed musical unit that once dominated MGM, and the deserved recipient of 9 Academy Awards, Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi (1958) remains as sparklingly effervescent as vintage champagne. That it capped off producer Arthur Freed’s illustrious tenure at MGM with style, grace and elegance – trademarks inherent in the greatest of all musicals produced at that studio – seems, at least in retrospect, a glowing tribute and a sad farewell to the musical en masse.

Although MGM and Freed would continue to produce fewer musicals afterward, none illustrate such meticulous attention to every last detail in production design. Ironically, the story ‘Gigi’ by French author Colette had always been considered something of a throw-away when compared to her other literary works. Colette wrote the novel at the height of the war and its rather curiously dark undertone of a young girl being groomed by two aged courtesans in the ways of professional prostitution was cause for great concern with the then reigning Hollywood censorship.

To Arthur Freed, who had seen My Fair Lady on the stage, the parallels between that stage show and Gigi were instant and inevitable. Since My Fair Lady could not be produced until it finished its Broadway run, Freed undertook the next best thing; to hire the stage show’s writing/composing team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederic Loewe to rework Colette’s minor masterpiece into a palpable clone. What emerged from this collaboration was initially and unceremoniously dubbed ‘Eliza Goes to Paris’ by the critics. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In the final analysis, Gigi is its’ own creation – an effervescent cavalcade of the myths about Paris at the turn of the last century.

The film’s plot concerns a tomboyish waif, Gigi (Leslie Caron) who lives in a tiny Parisian apartment on the left bank with her grandmother, Madame Alverez (Hermione Gingold). After much consternation over Gigi’s future, Alverez and her sister, Alicia (Isobel Jeans) decide to fashion a vocation for her as courtesan to the wealthy Gaston LaChailles (Louis Jourdan). Gaston’s passing fancy in Gigi has grown considerably since his breakup with Liane d'Exelmans (Ava Gabor). Furthermore, Gaston’s uncle, the wily boulevardier, Honore (the sublime, Maurice Chevalier) was once Madame Alverez’s lover.

Apparently, the old gent used to get around. However, Alverez still admires Honore from afar, proving that when it comes to love, a classic never dies – especially when they both ‘remember it so well’. The chief problem with Alverez and Alicia’s plan is that Gigi proves too awkward for the ascot and corset set. It is precisely this strange blend of arrogant childishness and relatively bombast that Gaston finds so intoxicating. However, as Gigi grows into a young lady of culture and expectations is she also in danger of losing her man?

Lerner and Loewe’s score is fanciful, romantic, charming and instantly recognizable; the celebratory ‘The Night They Invented Champagne’, comedic ‘It’s a Bore’, melodic ‘Say a Prayer for Me Tonight’ and three grand odes of fresh insight into affairs of the heart; ‘I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore’, ‘I Remember It Well’ and ‘Thank Heaven for Little Girls.’

Reportedly, Leslie Caron was shocked to discover that her singing vocals had been dubbed by contract understudy Betty Wand, even though further review of Caron’s original recordings exposes more than a slight imperfection in her singing talents.

MGM broke a time honored precedence of filming musicals on the back lot and sent cast and crew to Paris for many of the exteriors. Director Vincente Minnelli had wanted to shoot in France ever since An American in Paris (1951). He was denied the opportunity then, but granted the journey this time around. However, the summer that Minnelli shot in Paris was the hottest on record.

Inside the Palace du Glace ice melted, while outside fake trees placed along the boulevards wilted in the noon day sun. Extras corseted into their costumes regularly passed out from heat exhaustion.All these delays eventually prompted MGM to pull the plug on the Paris shoot before Minnelli had the opportunity to capture Honore and Alverez’s romantic pas deux on film. Hence, a painted – and rather obvious - backdrop on the MGM back lot stood in for ‘I Remember It Well.’

Despite, or perhaps, because of these obstacles, the film emerged as a colossal amalgam of talents operating at their best. The film became a resounding success. Today, it retains much of that elusive sparkle. Ah yes, we still remember Gigi…well!

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray minting is a direct import from their recently released 2 disc DVD. Hence, improvements in image quality are marginal at best. It is important to note that Gigi was photographed long after Technicolor had abandoned its 3 strip process. Employing a new photochemical restoration on the original Cinemascope/MetroColor print, the geniuses at Warner Bros. have resurrected much of the finer luster from these less than stellar fine grain reference materials.

Although there are still brief instances where color fidelity is highly suspect, with minor bleeding and fading and a somewhat blurry focus made quite obvious, the overall impact of the image is rather startling, sharp and smartly realized.

A direct comparison between Warner’s previously released bare bones disc and this new Blu-Ray minting reveals just how far their restoration efforts have come. The opening credit sequence originally had an ominous blue tint that carried over into many of the film’s process shots. Colors have been corrected on this reissue. Flesh tones are still a tad too orange, but overall, fine detail is greatly improved, as are contrast levels. The image is also smoother this time around and almost entirely free of age related artifacts.

The audio has been remastered in 5.1 Dolby Digital and delivers a pronounced kick to all channels. Extras include an audio commentary by Jeanine Basinger and Leslie Caron, the rather perfunctory ‘making of’ documentary, and the original French film of Gigi.The overall image quality of this latter extra is well below par.

The B&W image has obviously been sourced from a second or third generation print. The image is poorly contrasted, riddled with excessive grain and age related artifacts. English subtitles (in white text) virtually disappear against the faded background during many scenes. Nevertheless, the MGM musical version has been lovingly preserved for posterity and it is for this reason that Warner’s Blu-Ray comes highly recommended. A must have!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
Blu-Ray - 4.5
Standard DVD 4

EXTRAS
3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EXTRAS
4