Sunday, May 31, 2009

CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER - Blu-Ray (Paramount 1994) Paramount Home Video

Based on Tom Clancy’s best selling novel, Philip Noyce’s Clear and Present Danger (1994) is a compelling action film brimming with genuine nail biting suspense. The film stars Harrison Ford as Clancy’s CIA analyst and unlikely ‘every man’ cum hero, Jack Ryan. Thrust into the fray of a Colombian drug cartel after a close personal acquaintance to President Bennett (Donald Moffat) is found by the coast guard with his family brutally murdered, Jack is assigned by Deputy Director of Intelligence, Adm. James Greer (James Earl Jones) to investigate the truth behind the slayings. What he discovers instead is a government conspiracy to cover up the truth.

It seems the President’s friend was actually working for the Cali Cartel while managing to skim $650 million of their blood money for his own personal use. To avenge the killing, the President gives National Security Advisor, James Cutter (Harris Yulin) unofficial permission to launch a private war under the disguise that the Colombian drug cartels represent ‘a clear and present danger’ to the U.S.

Meanwhile Greer is diagnosed with aggressive pancreatic cancer forcing Jack to go it alone in his investigation. Ryan asks Congress for increased funding related to CIA intelligence operations in Colombia; a request granted, provided that no troops will be involved. Cutter, however, has other plans, turning to CIA Deputy Director of Operations Robert Ritter (Henry Czerny) who secures the assembly of a black-ops team with the help of John Clark(Willem Dafoe), a secret field operative. Clark and his team believe they are working in service of the government at large, a miscalculation that leads to an ambush in which almost all the men are slaughtered.

Drug kingpin Ernesto Escobedo (Miguel Sandovol) assigns his own assassin, Felix Cortez (Joaquim de Almeida) to take care of his problems. Cortez romantic association with Moira Wolfson (Ann Magnuson), an unwitting contact inside the U.S. government affords Cortez a direct line of access into the Federal Bureau of Investigation ongoing Columbian stakeout. Having served her purpose, Cortez entices Moira to a remote cottage with the prospect of a romantic getaway. Once there, he murders her instead.

In Columbia, the leaders of the various cartels stake out the arrival of a diplomatic envoy carrying Jack Ryan. In the ensuing gun battle, everyone except Ryan is killed. In retaliation, Cutter orders the aerial bombing of a villa where all of the Cartel's leaders are set to meet for a summit. Unfortunately for Cutter, both Ryan and Cortez independently discover that the bombing were orchestrated by him.

Seizing upon his own opportunity for advancement, Cortez bribes Cutter into accepting a ploy to murder Escobedo and take over the Cartel or face being exposed for his illegal bombing raid that accidentally killed women and children. Cutter agrees, but Ryan has had enough. He hacks into Ritter's computer only to learn that Ritter and the President have been in contact all along on their ‘private war’.

In the film’s darkest hour, Ryan realizes he has been set up to be the government’s scapegoat. He also learns that his good friend, Adm.Greer has died. From here, the last act unravels like a Shakespearean tragedy. Faced with an uncertain future, Ryan goes to Columbia to rescue John Clark and the remaining soldiers. However, Ritter and Cutter get to Clark first, telling him that it was Ryan who double-crossed them and caused the ambush of Clark’s men. Clark vows to assassinate Ryan and almost does before Ryan convinces him that Ritter and Cutter were responsible.

Next, Ryan arrives at Escobedo's mansion to expose Cortez’s planned treachery. Unfortunately, one of Cortez's men kills Escobedo shortly thereafter, leaving Ryan and Clark to kill Cortez.
Returning to the relative safety of the White House, Ryan confronts President Bennett who smugly informs him that, owing to Ryan keeping his mouth shut he will be in line for all sorts of Presidential perks. The late Adm. Greer will be set up to take the rap for the debacle in Columbia. Ryan refuses, thereby implicating the government in a scandal that is sure to have severe repercussions.

Director Noyce is working from Clancy’s most complex web of internal government intrigue and from a very skillfully adapted screenplay by Donald Stewart, Steven Zaillian and John Milius. The script manages to condense all of the novel’s extensive plot points without discarding any of its’ taut narrative structure. What evolves on screen is a more intricate storyline that often deviates from the novel considerably. That said the film is its own entity, riveting audiences to their seats from beginning to end in a deeply disturbing and exceptionally stylish thriller.

Paramount’s Blu-Ray easily bests the Special Collector’s Edition DVD released several years ago. Then, image quality was more than a tad disappointing. The Blu-Ray doesn’t appear to have been sourced from the same print elements. Colors that were pasty on the SE DVD are more refined on the Blu-Ray, yet curiously still don't pop as they should.

Flesh tones remain oddly pink, but fine detail has been greatly improved. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites however retain a pronounced bluish tint. Overall, the image tightens up for improved clarity. The audio is 5.1 DTS and fairly aggressive. Extras on the Blu-Ray are a direct import from the SE DVD and include a very brief ‘making of’ featurette and theatrical trailer. Recommended!

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



BRIDGET JONES'S DIARY: Blu-ray (Miramax 1996) Alliance Home Video

Based on the 1996 novelized exploits by Helen Fielding of a chain-smoking, moderately alcoholic, slightly overweight and thoroughly unhappy British frump, director Sharon Macguire’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) is a riotous, often introspective, and, thoroughly perceptive glimpse into the world of sexual frustration.

Perhaps because much of her book was based on serialized articles written for newspaper, Fielding’s novel is a more episodic search for Mr. Right, touching base with thoughts on her own career, vices, family/friends and other natural disasters. She divides the world into ‘singletons’ (unmarried people) and smug marrieds (those who look down on singletons for all the wrong reasons) with special attention paid to ‘fuckwittage’ – a euphemism Fielding uses to explain all the emotional angst and confusion men inflict on the women in their lives.

Overall, the film is a far more satisfying journey of self realization and ultimately, self discovery. Starring Renee Zellweger as the awkward title character, Bridget Jones lives alone in a London flat; overeating, drinking too much and musing about the perfect man who seems to be nowhere in sight. Reluctantly attending her parent’s annual New Year’s Eve party, Bridget meets human rights attorney Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) whom she instantly takes a dislike to. He’s arrogant, boring and egotistical – at least, on the surface. Mark looks down on Bridget – or so she believes.

At work, Bridget has more success seducing her boss, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) who wastes no time corrupting and indulging Bridget’s vices. For Bridget, Daniel’s aiding and abetting translates into true love, though in actuality he is merely passing his time with her until he can pursue another, more physically attractive woman on the side.

Bridget’s motley crew of perennially loyal friends include ardent – foul mouthed - feminist Shazzer (Sally Philips), no nonsense businesswoman, Jude (Shirley Henderson) and gay man about town, Tom (James Callis). Each advises more caution from Bridget in her relationship with Daniel. All are head over heals in love with Mark from the onset – particularly when he unexpectedly turns up to comfort Bridget after she has learned that Daniel has been cheating on her for some time. Arriving at Bridget’s flat to apologize (well…not really) Daniel is physically assaulted by Mark in an all out brawl at a Greek restaurant just across the street.

In essence, Shazzer, Jude and Tom are Bridget’s real family – their thoughts and emotions in sync with her own. By contrast, Bridget’s biological family is hampered by a rather domineering mother (Gemma Jones), emasculated father (Jim Broadbent) and perverted Uncle (James Faulkner), who enjoys copping a feel from Bridget whenever he can.

Ultimately, true love between Bridget and Mark triumphs over seemingly insurmountable adversity and odds, though hardly with Bridget’s help. In fact, throughout most of the film Bridget’s lack of tact and the good sense God gave a lemon causes her to say and do practically everything she can to sabotage her own happiness with Mark.

However, what makes the character of Bridget Jones so endearing to an audience as we watch her repeatedly foil her own good fortune is not so much what she does as how she naively does it. Here, Bridget as heroine is on par with some of Jane Austen’s greats, immeasurably fleshed out to sympathetic perfection by Renee Zellwegger’s unrelenting empathetic performance. In her idiocy and fumbling, Zellwegger brings a genuine note of lost innocence to the part that never sacrifices our ability to relate to her inner unhappiness or discover it mere patina as jaded miscalculation and obvious folly.

Hugh Grant and Colin Firth are two sides to the coin of masculinity; the first disreputably unsavory, the latter hopelessly chivalrous; each vying for Bridget Jones’s great misguided love and affection. The Helen Fielding/Andrew Davies/Richard Curtis screenplay keeps the action of all three central characters moving swiftly, with plenty of compelling support from the rest of the cast.

In the final analysis, Bridget Jones’s Diary is a feel good romantic romp that often takes the most unconventional paths to reach its inevitable conclusion. As a result, it emerges a winner time and again – unique and pleasing and – like a car crash one is privy to but not a part of – oh, so unbelievably compelling to watch.

Alliance Home Video’s Blu-ray isn't much of an upgrade over their previously issued DVD. Colors are not nearly as rich, bold or vibrant as they ought to be, leading me to think this is just another tired old 720p transfer bumped up to a 1080p signal. Boo-hoo! I hope consumers get wise to this sort of manipulation and stop buying substandard product advertised as 'new and improved'. 

Predictably, contrast levels are tighter and everything sharpens up - marginally. The audio is 5.1 DTS. As this is primarily a dialogue driven movie, the only real sonic kick to your speakers derives from the film’s pop tune inspired infusion of songs.

Extras include brief featurettes on the making of the film, retrospective ‘look back’ at its success and other nuggets of press and promotional stuff – some vintage, some new. Director Maguire provides an audio commentary that isn’t as informative as one would hope. There are also more than 100 individual columns to read by author Helen Fielding and some very funny deleted scenes to wade through. Highly recommended.

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


BRIDGET JONES: THE EDGE OF REASON (Universal/Miramax 2004) Universal Home Video

Hollywood hasn’t an original idea in its head…so the saying goes. To some extent, the phrase holds true for Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004); a second trip to the wellspring of delusional fun and confusion a la the very special claptrap that is Bridget Jones’ life. This time around, director Beeban Kidron assumes the creative reigns with creator Helen Fielding, Andrew Davis, Richard Curtis and Adam Brooks primping up what is essentially a remake rather than an addendum to the first movie.

Seems after pitching the unscrupulous Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) to the wolves for Mark Darcy in the final reel of the first movie, Bridget has begun to have second thoughts about where her relationship with Mark is going. Even though he treats her with kid gloves and more than a modicum of respect (which, arguably, she may or may not deserve) Bridget begins to suspect Mark of cheating on her with Rebecca (Jacinda Barrett) – a pretty little clerk in his firm who just happens to turn up one night at his home.

Furthermore, Bridget becomes more than slightly annoyed with Mark after he essentially leaves her on her own at a social gathering arranged for his firm; thereby affording her the opportunity to generally make an ass out of herself; something our Ms. Jones is eternally good at. Determined to teach Mark a lesson and reassert her importance in his life, Bridget and her friends Shazzer (Sally Phillips), Jude (Shirley Henderson) and Tom (James Callis) escape to Thailand for a holiday.

Unhappy chance for all concerned that upon their arrival Bridget learns Daniel is also in Thailand – having become a news reporter in town to cover a story. Seemingly a changed man, Daniel senses that Bridget may once more be his easy mark. He pours on the charm and suggests that perhaps he and Bridget can at last become a couple; a daydream Bridget briefly toys with before discovering that Daniel has – in fact – not mended his wicked and promiscuous old ways.

Meanwhile, Shazzer has taken up with another ‘tourist’ in their hotel, Jed (Paul Nicholls); an association that will turn out badly when Jed gives Shazzer a statue – presumably as a gift – to take back with her to Britain. Unable to fit the large object into her luggage, Shazzer gives it to Bridget instead.

At customs, the Thai authorities confiscate and smash the statue, revealing that it is full of heroine. In one of the film’s most hilarious sequences, unable to prove her innocence, Bridget is sent to a Thai prison where she befriends practically the entire female ward by regaling them with tales of western decadence, her own miserable mishaps with Mark and through teaching everyone to sing Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’.

Learning of Bridget’s imprisonment, Mark arrives in Thailand to spring her from the big house. And although he obviously still has affections for Bridget, Mark pretends that he has not directly come for her; a rouse that makes Bridget believe he no longer loves her until she returns to London and is told by Shazzer, Jude and Tom just how diligent Mark has been in securing her release from jail.

In a moment directly copied from the original film, Mark confronts Daniel, having learned that he deliberately left Bridget behind in Thailand. The two engage in another all out brawl, this time at a public museum that ends after both sissy fighters fall into a public fountain.

Arriving on Mark’s front porch to personally thank him for her release, Bridget discovers Rebecca waiting inside. Seems Mark is at the firm and in conference. However, the residual jealousy Bridget feels toward Rebecca is quelled when Rebecca reveals to her that she isn’t in love with Mark but actually with Bridget instead. Apologizing for not being a lesbian, Bridget rushes off to the firm to beg Mark’s forgiveness. It is granted, but not before several hilarious vignettes renders Bridget a muddy mess.

The film ends with Bridget’s mum and dad (Gemma Jones and Jim Broadbent) deciding to renew their wedding vows with Mark and Bridget standing up for them at the ceremony.

In general, there’s nothing particularly lacking with this second installment to the Bridget Jones saga except that most of what we see herein has already been played to perfection in the first movie. More squabbling between Bridget and Mark or Mark and Daniel or Daniel and Bridget – however cleverly maintained – is simply more of the same.

The screenplay makes the most of weaving predictable sets of circumstances into a generally pleasing mélange – but apart from a few fits and sparkles, The Edge of Reason plays more like The End of Originality.

Universal Home Video’s DVD is not quite up to the impeccable transfer standards set by its predecessor. The image is not nearly as sharply focused and color fidelity is rather suspect in spots – lacking the visual punchy flair of eye-popping colors. Flesh tones appear more pasty than natural. Contrast levels are slightly weaker than anticipated. Blacks are usually more deep brown than black, while whites tend to adopt a slight blue tint. Sonically, the film is more secure with the 5.1 Dolby Digital audio delivering a fair kick to the speakers.

Extras include an alternate beginning sequence and more deleted scenes; a rather benign quiz feature to learn whether you ‘fancy’ Mark or Daniel, a brief featurette on the fight between Daniel and Mark, an two more featurettes featuring Zellweger and Firth. Recommended, I suppose.

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



ALFIE (Paramount 1966) Paramount Home Video

Based on Bill Naughton’s titillating play, director Lewis Gilbert’s Alfie (1966) is the somewhat angst driven and woeful jaunt of a disreputable scamp through his carefree, sex-charged swinging scene in London. The film stars Michael Caine as Alfie Elkins, a working class bloke who rather heartlessly runs amuck of the many ‘birds’ (women) in his life, manipulating their emotions as he regards them simply as his mindless playthings.

The film is really a series of vignettes exploring Alfie’s promiscuity rather than one cohesive narrative. We first meet Alfie in the shadowy backseat of a Rolls Royce with Siddie (Millicent Martin) – one of his many, otherwise attached women of leisure. Exiting the steamy automobile, Alfie sees a mongrel curiously looking up at him. He turns to the camera and addresses the audience directly; a narrative device that often contrasts or entirely contradicts the action taking place within the actual scene.

From here, the narrative jumps ahead to Alfie’s first remotely serious sexual entanglement; this one with a bird called Gilda (Julie Foster). Naïve and desperately in love with Alfie, she quickly becomes pregnant with his baby. The birth of the child – Malcolm - temporarily gives Alfie a new perspective on women and fatherhood. Although Alfie does little to curtail his extracurricular activities with other ‘birds’, he truly revels in being a father. That is, until Gilda reveals to him that bus conductor, Humphrey (Graham Stark) has proposed marriage to her instead.

Alfie embarks upon a sexual binge in anger that eventually leads him to suffer a minor breakdown. Relegated to a convalescence home, he meets Harry Clamacraft (Alfie Bass); whose wife Lily (Vivien Merchant) he will later seduce and also get pregnant. For the time being however, and in hospital, Harry confronts Alfie on the fact that not only is he doing harm to himself through his wild living, but he is also ruining the lives of the many women he mistreats along the way. To no avail, Alfie continues his wanton ways.

Leaving the hospital, Alfie next takes a job as a chauffeur, meeting homeless girl, Annie (Jane Asher) at a rest stop along the highway to London. Knowing that she has been picked up by a truck driver, Frank (Sydney Tafler), Alfie plots to trick Annie into coming with him instead by spreading the lie that Frank is into kink and sharing girls that he casually picks up along the road. Believing what she hears, Annie flees with Alfie to London where he quickly puts her to work scrubbing the floors of his cold water flat, mending his clothes and cooking his meals – all the while employing the same causal contempt he has afforded the rest of his women.

Eventually, Frank confronts Alfie at a local pub about Annie’s mistreatment. A knock down, drag out brawl ensues and Alfie reveals what a coward he really is. Lily turns up on Alfie’s doorstep with the news that she is pregnant and Alfie rather coldheartedly arranges for her to have an abortion. However, the sight of the unborn fetus transforms Alfie’s character. He resolves to ‘go straight’ and propose marriage to Ruby (Shelly Winters); a middle age wealthy widow whom he has been casually seeing for some time.

Unhappy chance for Alfie that the one woman he has finally decided on for his own has absolutely no intensions of settling down with any man including him. Arriving at Ruby’s apartment unannounced, Alfie discovers that she is entertaining a young guitarist in her boudoir. “What’s he got that I ain’t got?” a steamed Alfie demands to know, “I just don’t get it!” “He’s younger,” Ruby coolly admits, “Get it?” The player has been played.

The story has come full circle. Alfie finds himself near the Thames reassessing the entirety of his escapades; suggesting that without peace of mind there can be no lasting happiness in any life – least of all his. Alone and seemingly without companionship, Alfie suddenly realizes that the waterfront mongrel who originally spotted him with Siddie in the backseat of the Rolls at the start of the film is now curiously eyeing him once again. They’re two of a kind - two mutts – who can regard each other in mutual understanding as they stroll off together.

At the time of Alfie’s theatrical release, the film and Michael Caine’s performance were almost universally hailed as milestones by the critics; Caine’s frank, glib and hauntingly shallow take on human sexuality pretty much in tune with that laissez faire attitude of a generation weaned on Woodstock and free love. Yet, in retrospect neither the film nor Caine’s performance have aged well. Instead, they are a capsule from another time so far removed from our current generation that any direct appreciation of either is entirely hampered by the fact that none of the film’s timely topical discussion seems relevant anymore.

In an age of far too prevalent and occasionally lethal STDs, Alfie’s overt promiscuity is foolhardy at best and obtusely naïve at worst. His lack of respect for women in general does not bode well with the currency of politically correct feminism and, in fact, seems more garishly misogynistic than it actually is; certainly more so than it probably was perceived to be at the time of the film’s general release.

The U.K. release of Alfie sports a complete score by noted jazz great, Sonny Rollins. In America, composer Burt Bacharach was inspired by the film to write the hit song ‘Alfie’; a chart topping single for Cilla Black. When the film was eventually released in America, Bacharach’s song, with a cover by Cher, was heard over the end titles. Ultimately, Dion Warwick’s cover became the most popular rendition in America with Bacharach and collaborator Hal David receiving an Oscar nomination.

Paramount Home Video’s DVD is a bare bones offering. The film is presented in its original Techniscope (2:35:1) aspect ratio. Color fidelity is badly dated. Flesh tones are a pasty, soft orangey yellow. At times, close ups of Michael Caine look almost waxen. Overall, the image is smooth and relatively sharp, though there are several occasions where grain and age related artifacts intrude. On the whole the image is passable, but one wishes for more consistent color fidelity and attention paid to fine details. The audio has been remixed to Dolby Digital 5.1. The original mono mix – restored – is also included. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.

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



Sunday, May 17, 2009

VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (20th Century-Fox 1967) Fox Home Video

Determined with considerable effort, and at considerable expense, to transform Jacqueline Susann’s smut-laden best selling novel into an equally shocking Hollywood big screen exposé, director Mark Robson’s Valley of the Dolls (1967) emerges as a scathingly bad bit of super kitsch and ultra tacky camp, so ill conceived that when viewed today it embodies that painfully awkward transition between classic ‘old school’ glam’ and the grittier contemporary strain that would soon become Tinsel Town’s bread and butter.

Helen Deutsch and Dorothy Kingsley’s screenplay emasculates all of the more graphic references in Susann’s novel to homosexuality except in sporadic use of the word ‘fag.’ The most utterly bizarre train wreck of plot points is thrust together, creating a deadly soapish milieu.

The film stars Barbara Perkins, Patty Duke and Sharon Tate as a trio of aspiring models/actresses who take on the Big Apple and west coast with varying degrees of depravity and success. Perkins is the ingénue, Anne Welles who has no illusions about stardom until she is catapulted into the center of it via talent agent, Lyon Burke (Paul Burke). He casts her as ‘the girl’ in a popular television shampoo commercial.

In the meantime, Burke and Welles become lovers. The two are instrumental in promoting rising musical star Neely O’Hara (Patty Duke) after Neely is ousted from a hit Broadway show by reigning Broadway barracuda Helen Lawson (a role originally intended for Judy Garland, but ultimately going to Susan Hayward instead).

The last character to figure prominently into the plot is Jennifer North (Sharon Tate); a buxom starlet put upon by her money hungry mother and virtually overlooked for her tenderly warm personality because she is simply too drop dead gorgeous. Jennifer succumbs to the charms of Vegas styled lounge lizard, Tony Polar (Tony Scotti); a sincere soul whose remote half sister, Miriam (Lee Grant) spends most of her time skulking about corners and dropping one or two lines of dialogue with the far away look of a figure in Median tragedy.

Tony and Jennifer are in love and marry on the fly. However, before long, the strapping ‘would be’ movie hunk begins to succumb to a crippling illness that eventually forces Jennifer to put Tony into a sanitarium. The stay doesn’t come cheap, however, and Miriam decides that the best way to support her brother’s institutionalization is to pimp out her sister-in-law in French art house porn.

Meanwhile, Neely has hit rock bottom. After discovering her husband Ted Casablanca (Alex Davion) naked in the pool with another woman (in the book it’s another man), Neely turns to pills and alcohol for solace, becoming a tyrannical boar and all but destroying her own film career in the process.

Lyon offers to get her help, but Neely runs away, eventually collapsing on a city street. She is placed in the same institution as Tony. On the road to recovery, Neely sings one of Tony’s old songs at a sanitarium dance, stirring him from his paralytic state briefly to remember the good old days. Lyon and Neely begin an affair that Anne eventually learns about. Anne moves out of Lyon’s home and returns to her Connecticut family estate.

Hardly the wiser from her stay in the sanitarium, Neely returns to Broadway where she confronts her old nemesis, Helen Lawson one last time before falling apart at the seams yet again with her reoccurring addiction to pills.

After a bitter split from her Parisian porn film producer, Jennifer, who has become something of an icon in the ‘nudies,’ returns to America, only to discover she has cancer. Seemingly with nothing left to live for, Jennifer reveals her illness to Anne and Lyon, then prepares for her final close up in an erotic negligee as she takes an overdose of pills and commits suicide.

For those unfamiliar with the aspects of life imitating art; Sharon Tate was the wife of director Roman Polanski who, along with six other individuals invited to her home for an intimate gathering while Polanski was off shooting a movie in Europe, was disemboweled and had her unborn child removed from her womb by the demented followers of Charles Manson on Aug. 9, 1969.

It is impossible to view Tate’s performance as the doomed adult film star without a reoccurring pang of empathy and regret for the talent she might have become. In fact, of the Valley of the Dolls alumni, Tate’s performance is the one that stands out the most, despite the fact that she is afforded the least amount of screen time.

Barbara Perkins, who is given the plum role is the most obscurely realized character in the film – all but disappearing into the backdrop as the sympathetic Anne. Patty Duke’s Neely is the most flamboyant by far. Yet Duke exhibits none of the finely honed acting chops previous displayed in her breakthrough performance in The Miracle Worker (1962). Instead, she is so over the top maniacal throughout, that she robs the character of any sort of empathy after Helen gives her the old heave-ho from what would have been her Broadway debut.

Director Mark Robson ought to have been the ideal choice for this sort of seedy melodrama, having done Peyton Place (based on Grace Metalious’s best selling novel) for Fox in 1957. Yet, Valley of the Dolls is an unapologetic disaster with Robson completely out of his depth – striving for some grand arch of melodramatic intensity. His direction is pedestrian at best.

John Williams score for this film is easily his worst, with the ‘theme’ song readily becoming a nonsensical intrusion to the various plot contrivances. In the final analysis, and like the song Neely debuts at the telethon, “It’s Impossible” to appreciate Valley of the Dolls as anything but a terrible joke.

Fox Home Video has released Valley of the Dolls as part of their Cinema Classics Collector’s Series, but the results are not what anyone would consider stellar. The anamorphic 2:35:1 image exhibits a dated color palette by DeLuxe. Flesh tones are often pasty pale orange. The white snows of Connecticut waffle between a dull gray and a rather dingy yellow tint. Reds during the nightclub scene where Jennifer meets Tony for the first time are blood red, but reds elsewhere adopt a slightly orange hue.

Transitions between scenes are marred by a considerable amount of grain and obvious age related artifacts. Inconsistent is the word that most readily comes to mind. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Surround, exhibiting more strained limitations in audio fidelity than one might expect. Only the painful songs deliver a kick to the speakers with dialogue sounding quite unnatural.

Extras are the saving grace. An audio commentary by E!’s Ted Casablanca (no relation to the character in the film) and Barbara Perkins is meandering at best and, at times, struggling for something half intelligent to say; but the in-depth coverage of vintage and new interviews put together to form several documentaries on the making of, and enduring impact of the film on the gay community are quite comprehensive. 

There’s also an isolated score – in case you’re interested in assaulting your eardrums with really bad music minus dialogue – and a sort of ‘how to abuse drugs’ featurette. All in all, hardly worth the price of admission and best left on the cutting room floor.

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



THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD - Blu-Ray (WB 1938) Warner Home Video

Co-directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) perhaps represents Errol Flynn’s finest hour on the screen as a devil-may-care matinee idol. Certainly, it remains the actor’s most iconic role in a spectacularly vibrant swashbuckling adventure that grows more robust and hearty with each passing year.

The film stars Flynn as the titled mysterious crusader of Sherwood Forest. Robin steals from the rich to give to the poor – or so the legend goes. Together with Will Scarlett (Patric Knowles), Robin’s antics generate much cause for concern inside the English Court. With King Richard (Ian Hunter) off on his bonny crusades England is being mismanaged by the devilish autocrat, Prince John (Claude Rains) and his wily henchman, Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) who would like nothing better than to rid the kingdom of Robin’s particular brand of philanthropy.

With Richard the Lionheart imprisoned in Austria, Prince John has plans to ascend the throne of England as undisputed monarch and thereafter tax its inhabitants to death. John’s royal ward, Maid Marian (Olivia DeHavilland) seems oblivious to the Prince’s plotting, though she is not blind to his playful advances.

After a harrowing confrontation during a feast in the throne room, Robin escapes capture and returns to the forest.On a mission to flush out Robin from Sherwood Forest Sir Guy and the High Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) are ambushed by Robin and his band of Merry Men. Humiliated, but unharmed, Sir Guy and the Sheriff are returned to court in rags and laurels of tree leaves where they incur the wrath of Prince John.

However, Marian is forced to remain in Sherwood. At first unimpressed by Robin’s gregarious charm, Marian’s heart is stirred to kindness after she witnesses the needless exiles, once poor and starving, to whom Robin has given sanctuary, food and place to live in freedom. 

From then on, Marian is Robin’s girl. She secretly revels in his mockery of Prince John, along with her dutiful lady in waiting, Bess (Una O’Connor) and even assists in Robin’s escape from certain death after he is discovered by Prince John during an archery match. Having exuded his prowess with a bow and arrow and narrowly defeating Sir Guy, Robin leaps into action and narrowly escapes capture once more. Learning of a vial plot to capture Robin and his men Marian plans to rush to Robin’s side, only to be discovered by Sir Guy. Held captive in the castle tower, Marian awaits her fate or perhaps, rescue.

The latter arrives – predictably enough - in a flurry of sword play that remains among the best of examples in film history between Robin and Sir Guy. Interestingly enough, Basil Rathbone was the more skilled swordsman, reportedly telling Flynn one day on the set between takes, “You may win the fight on screen, but I could easily kill you any day of the week.”

Directors Michael Curtiz and William Keighley deliver a sprawling adventure yarn amiably fleshed out by a witty script from Norman Reilly Raine and Seton I. Miller. Casting is inspired. Alan Hale delights as Robin’s loyal right hand, Little John; Patrick Knowles, perfectly congenial as Will Scarlett; with curmudgeonly Eugene Pallette as the fiery Friar Tuck.

Stunningly photographed in blazing Technicolor, the film abounds with brilliant art direction and costume design. Authenticity may not be the order of the day, but The Adventures of Robin Hood is full of eye-popping detail, quite sumptuous and a genuine feast for the eyes.

Given that the film is advertised as a ‘new Technicolor transfer’ Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray is a tad disappointing. Though colors are often vibrant and breathtaking there are scenes in which the restoration efforts falter with considerable film grain and an obvious dulling of the color spectrum. It is important to note that Technicolor was a grain concealing process. Yet, several scenes are softly focused, while others have more than a hint of shimmer and heavier than usual patina of grain.

Contrast levels are excellent. A hint of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details is infrequently detected, but will surely not distract. The audio is mono and is presented at an adequate listening level. All the extras from Warner’s previously issued 2-disc DVD are included herein including two documentaries; one on the making of the film, the other on the Technicolor process; audio commentaries and isolated music scoring sessions, short subjects and blooper reels and an extensive gallery of vintage photographs and press/promo materials. Recommended.

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



THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT TRILOGY - Blu-Ray (MGM 1974, '76, '94) Warner Home Video

Upon its release, That’s Entertainment! became the biggest and brightest money maker of 1974…and it’s no wonder. In a little over two hours audiences had the enchanted experience of being teleported back in time to a world just this side of the rainbow. Here was a cornucopia of magical scenes and snippets from MGM’s most magnificent musicals.

Directed with adroit – if self-congratulatory – wit and concision by Jack Haley Jr. (son of Oz’s Tin Man), That’s Entertainment! was the sort of spellbinding all-star extravaganza void virtually elsewhere in the cinema firmament in 1974, reinforcing MGM’s once galvanic mottos of “art for art’s sake” and “more stars than there are in heaven.”

In an age before home video, where else could one hope to see Eleanor Powell majestically tap down a series of spiral drums from Rosalie (1937), or witness the mammoth spectacle of ‘A Pretty Girl is Like A Melody’ from The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Here again, Esther Williams swam, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire danced and Mario Lanza projected ‘Be My Love’ soothingly to Kathryn Grayson. The Cotton Blossom sailed with Cap. Andy from Show Boat (1951), Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney ‘put on a show’ and Bing Crosby crooned ‘True Love’ to Grace Kelly from High Society (1956). In all, some 150 clips and snippets from MGM’s iconic history gave audiences the sort of walloping ‘one/two’ impact in mass entertainment that, even today, can scarcely seem fathomable.

At its gala premiere, Jack Haley Sr. declared, “This isn’t nostalgia. This is art.” Rightly so, by 1974 the MGM musical had been dead for some time and the studio was then on the verge of a restructuring that would ultimately reduce its holdings to garage sale status. But at least in this film such nearly forgotten treasures were resurrected from near oblivion to their rightful place in film history.Variety gave That’s Entertainment! a glowing review, trumpeting, “That while many may ponder the future of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, no one can deny it’s had one heck of a past!”

Naturally, MGM just had to have a sequel. So, two years later That’s Entertainment Part 2 (1976) premiered. Unfortunately, director David Melnick’s follow up was decidedly a let down on several levels.

First, it removed the star cameos that so poignantly buttressed the original’s vintage clips. Second, it presented the footage in a seemingly hap-hazard chronology. Third, it frequently interrupted the musical performances with a showcase of disjointed word play from some of the studio’s non-musical performers that neither enhanced the memory of their original performances or this new film experience in totem.

Finally, due to the fact that MGM had leveled their outdoor back lots to make room for developer condos, the newly filmed introductory sequences in this sequel (featuring Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly) were confined to garish sets on a sound stage. Though not nearly as successful as its predecessor, That’s Entertainment II was nevertheless a money maker.

In 1994 MGM once again revisited the vaults for That’s Entertainment III the final installment in the series. But by now the experience vaguely resembled grave robbing. The new film’s primary selling feature was that, in addition to showcasing another round of classic performances, it also dug deep into the coffers to showcase deleted musical sequences that until 1994 had rarely been seen. Despite these innovations the final installment to this trilogy was the one most poorly received by the pubic.

Warner Home Video may have taken its sweet time to release the original DVD box set of these films, but their Blu-Ray incarnation came almost at the start of the Blu-age. Having all three That’s Entertainment! films in hi-def ought to have been a most welcome experience. But the results are only marginally better than what we have previously seen.

Unlike the DVD release that featured each film presented twice (once in an anamorphically enhanced version that recreated the theatrical experience for widescreen TV’s, complete with multiple aspect ratios, and the other in a reformatted full frame version with the widescreen segments properly letterboxed for full frame displays), the Blu-Ray discs contain only the anamorphic multi-aspect ratio transfers.

That’s Entertainment! – retains a considerable amount of film grain, particularly when the film attempts to alter the original aspect ratio of certain sequences by ‘blowing them up’ to encompass a 1:85:1 aspect ratio.

At times there is a density and a thickness to the image that is quite unflattering. Only intros from the stars seem to be sharper than on the standard DVD versions. There are also several glaring instances of edge enhancement and a considerable amount of pixelization.

That’s Entertainment! Part 2 is worse for the wear than part one; full of the gritty texture and age related artifacts. There is more film grain noticeable in the B&W sequences and a dull patina to many of the Technicolor sequences. 'From This Moment On' (as example) from Kiss Me Kate is a muddy mess with garish globs of color that fall into a limited spectrum of oranges and limey greens.

What is genuinely perplexing to this reviewer is why That's Entertainment III – which is fairly new compared to the previous installments - and has had the benefit of digital clean up and remastering prior to its theatrical release – should suffer from a harshness and grainy texture that was completely lacking on MGM’s deluxe laserdisc box set release from 1996. Colors are much more refined on this disc during the Technicolor sequences, but the B&W sequences have excessive video bleeding and noise so that color can be detected in plaids and fine detail throughout.

The audio on all films is stereo surround, but certain sequences in the first two films have an uncharacteristic muffled sonic reverb that artificially enhances the bass levels out of proportion. Hence, the musical experiences are more ‘noisy’ than melodic.

Extras too are a disappointment. While we get several 1970s vintage interview junkets and press materials (that have been made available herein for the first time), the catalogue of musical outtakes and so forth that have been added to this program are a hodgepodge of materials directly ripped from the aforementioned 1996 laserdisc release (without the benefit of further clean up or color correction) with some rather glaring omissions.

Many more snippets that were included on the 1996 laserdisc are absent from this disc. Also, the audio-only tracks that were so marvelous and extensively produced on the previous laserdisc are dramatically truncated herein – to the point where one wonders why the effort to assemble such a scant collection of ‘stuff’ was even considered. The original theatrical trailers for all three films are also included.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
That's Entertainment! - 5
That's Entertainment Part II - 3.5
That's Entertainment Part III - 3



MOONLIGHTING: the complete series (Picture Maker/ABC 1985-89) Lionsgate Home Entertainment

In 1985 creator Glenn Gordon Caron debuted a two hour, made for television adventure/comedy/mystery entitled Moonlighting. Drawing on his wealth of admiration for the old Nick and Nora Charles, Thin Man film series made by MGM in the 1930s and 40s, Caron developed a witty repartee between a sultry ex-model and raucous gumshoe thrust together by unusual circumstances in a race against time.

In fact, Moonlighting was the third project in a 3 picture deal brokered by Caron with ABC television. While Caron’s previous two efforts had met with indifference and outright rejection, Moonlighting was decidedly different. Holding open auditions for the part of the gregarious P.I., David Addison, Caron easily found the embodiment of this character in then unemployed actor, Bruce Willis.

Unfortunately, executives at ABC could not see the merit in Caron’s choice. Given Hollywood’s penchant for ‘pretty boys’ it is perhaps understandable why ABC balked at Willis from the start. But what Willis lacked in conventional good looks he easily made up in raw charm and spirited charisma.

After shooting a screen test with Willis and costar Cybil Shepherd, ABC reluctantly agreed. The result: a most perfect blending of star talent conceived for the small screen. The chemistry between Willis and Shepherd cannot be overestimated, producing palpable sparks of raw sexual frustration that eventually became the backbone of the series and its lamentable undoing. So popular with audiences was Moonlighting’s pilot that ABC immediately informed Caron he would be making a TV series.

Caron, who openly admitted he never had any such intensions from the start now found himself at ABC's mercy to produce weekly episodes living up to the same high artistic standards as his original project. That Caron refused to sacrifice integrity for the sake of keeping up the pace gradually began to wear his creative talents down. In the 5 years that Moonlighting was a main staple on television it never remotely approached its quota of 32 episodes per annum and, in fact, totaled a scant 76 prior to its cancellation.

Season One and Two of Moonlighting easily represents one of the most outstanding – if quirky – romantic comedies ever to come to television. Like most of the series one hour mysteries, the two hour pilot’s narrative is flawed. It begins when former top model Maddie Hayes (Shepherd) discovers that her accountant has absconded with her life savings, leaving her penniless.

Determined to liquidate her tangible assets for some quick cash, Maddie arrives at the Blue Moon Detective Agency, overseen by the gregarious David Addison (Willis). Saying all the wrong things – but loveably so - David manages to incur Maddie’s wrath repeatedly until the two become embroiled in a crime in which the only clue is a stolen, broken watch.

In truth, Caron and his team of writers always placed their emphasis more on the double entendre between Willis and Shepherd than on successfully resolving many of the ‘who done its’ that serve as a very thin basis for what is essentially a ‘sex comedy’ with plenty of oomph! For a while, this shifting focus from sleuthing to seducing sustained the series; particularly throughout seasons one, two and part of season three.

Highlights from this first two years include The Next Murder You Hear – an episode where Maddie becomes obsessed with the disembodied voice of a lonely hearts radio jockey after he is supposedly murdered on air, and, The Lady in the Iron Mask; where a disfigured woman hires the duo to find the man who threw acid in her face twenty years earlier. There’s also The Bride of Tupperman; Maddie and David search for the ideal mate for a man who is plotting an insurance scheme.

Guest stars include Tim Robbins, as a career killer in Gunfight at the So-So Corral and Dana Delaney, cast as David’s conniving old flame, out to set him up for murder in My Fair David. But the truly outstanding episode of Season Two is undeniably The Dream Sequence Always Rings Twice: a homage to 40s film noir shot almost entirely in B&W in which David and Maddie separately contemplate how an unsolved crime at an upscale nightclub went down some 50 years before. As a big band chanteuse, Cybil Shepherd acquits herself nicely of the standards ‘Blue Moon’ and ‘Told You I Loved You, Now Get Out’.

To some extent, the series crests after the end of Season Two, with both Willis and Shepherd, curiously enough, looking considerably older at the start of Season Three. If in its third year Moonlighting doesn’t quite live up to the series reputation, it nevertheless provides some groundbreaking television programming, including Atomic Shakespeare – a lavishly appointed and upbeat take on The Taming of the Shrew – and Big Man on Mulberry Street, in which David and Maddie do a big scale musical production number/dream sequence reminiscent of the great MGM musicals from the 1950s. Mark Harmon makes his debut near the end of Season Three as Maddie’s old flame, Sam, forcing David to grapple with his true feelings toward Maddie too little too late.

But the big build up of having David Addison and Maddie Hayes fall into bed together could only last so long, and, at the end of Season Three the results of their great seduction are more a weak expulsion of the inevitable that proved a subsequent let down for viewers.

As a result, Season Four of Moonlighting separates the two lovers almost for the duration of the season, with David sexually frustrated and sleuthing in Los Angeles while Maddie convalesced privately at her parent’s home in Chicago, only to discover that she is in fact pregnant; quite possibly with either David or Sam’s baby.

To fill the void created by this separation, Caron and his writers bump up the importance of two subordinate characters in the series; Blue Moon’s dutiful but dumb secretary, Agnes DiPesto (Allyce Beasley) and pontificating operative with a short man’s complex, Herbert Quentin Viola (Curtis Armstrong).

At the end of Season Four Maddie returns to Blue Moon, pregnant and married to Walter Bishop (David Dugan); a man she has met on the train back to L.A. – leaving David deflated and vengeful. In fact, Maddie has married Walter to rid herself of the lingering passion she still harbors for David; a rouse that eventually crumbles when David vindictively forces the couple to renew their vows before God and their friends in a church.

Seemingly painted into a corner, Season Five begins with Maddie’s divorce from Walter and her miscarriage of what we come to learn was, in fact, David’s baby. However, instead of reconciliation between the two costars, the tragedy of losing a child reforms Maddie into a kinder, gentler woman; completely robbing the series of its electric banter. Maddie no longer wishes to reform David. In fact, she no longer has feelings for him at all, referring to David almost exclusively as her colleague, even when her cousin, Annie (Virginia Madsen) arrives for a visit.

Annie and David become lovers, but the move is short lived when Annie’s husband Mark arrives. David resigns himself to losing Annie, pretending to have an affair with a co-worker so that Annie will make the right choice and return to her husband. Agnes and Herbert marry and Maddie and David are informed by ABC that the network has decided to cancel their series.

All through the series, producer/director Glenn Gordon Caron had toyed with inserting ‘in jokes’ into the narrative; from having David periodically giving direct address to the viewing audience to both Maddie and David providing running commentary in constant quips about ABC’s lack of imagination and the rigors of producing a television series. Caron even spoofs the fact that the series could never keep up with the expected 32 episodes per season in The Straight Poop, where Hollywood gossip columnist Rona Barrett arrives on set to confront a supposedly standoffish Maddie and David. Tragically, the last year and a half of Moonlighting is a hodge-podge, more melodramatic and soapish than trendsetting good fun.

Lion’s Gate Home Entertainment has made Moonlighting’s five seasons available on DVD in four box sets. Season’s One and Two come packaged together. For the most part, image quality is about what one might expect from vintage television with a generally smooth image exhibiting dated colors and bright contrast levels. Occasionally however, the image falters with bizarre shortcomings.

Portions of Season Three's Atomic Shakespeare, for example, are riddled with grain and excessive age related artifacts, while much of Season Five's A Womb With A View exhibits a curious haloing effect that makes the image severely blurry in spots as though it were shot on old Technicolor film stock that has separated and/or shrunk. The audio in all cases is mono but adequately represented.
Extras on Season One and Two include three documentaries; Not Just A Day Job: The Story of Moonlighting; Inside The Blue Moon Detective Agency, and, The Moonlighting Phenomenon. Season Three also has a half hour documentary that reunites Caron with Shepherd and Willis. For the rest, audio commentary tracks are scattered throughout each season, at times offering an insightful backdrop to a series that had no equals during its brief reign.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Season 1&2 - 4
Season 3 - 3
Season 4 - 2
Season 5 - 2


Season 1&2 - 3
Season 3 - 2
Season 4 - 1
Season 5 - 1