Sunday, June 21, 2009

THE INTERNATIONAL - Blu-Ray (Columbia/Atlas 2009) Sony Home Entertainment

Conceived as an entirely different movie almost two decades before it reached theaters, Tom Tykwer’s The International (2009) is a brilliantly realized, rough and tumble, taught and tenacious espionage thriller. In 2001, screenwriter Eric Singer approached Tykwer with the prospect about doing an action movie based on the BCCI scandal that sent shockwaves through the banking community in the late 1980s.

Then, the BCCI was the 3rd largest independent bank in the world, funneling approximately 70% of black market monies to drug cartel, terrorist cells and other spurious clientele around the globe; all told approximately 20 billion dollars. An investigation by New York D.A. Rob Morganthal put an abrupt end to the BCCI’s transactions, though arguably it did not end the reigning supremacy of the organization behind it. The bank simply closed its doors. However, no public arrests were ever made.

Fast track to 2009 and Singer’s reworking of an idea already on record and you have The International.

Clive Owen is top billed as rumpled Interpol agent, Louis Salinger. Out of shape, sporting two day old stubble and a scowl that could freeze time, Salinger becomes embroiled in an investigation revolving around the IBBC (International Bank of Business and Credit) after his partner Thomas Schumer (Ian Burfield) drops dead of an apparent heart attack outside Berlin’s Central Station. Schumer had just finished a rather problematic first contact with IBBC executive Andre Clement (Georges Bigot) at the time of his demise and Salinger suspects that Thomas was somehow poisoned in plain sight to induce his heart failure.

Salinger’s dander is further ruffled when a scheduled meeting with Jonas Skarrsen (Ulrich Tomsen) at IBBC’s headquarters in Luxembourg (*actually the Autostadt headquarters for Volkswagen in Berlin) leads to more closed mouths and doors than anticipated. Back in New York, Manhattan Assistant D.A. Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) agrees with Salinger’s assessment.

Joining forces in Milan, Salinger and Whitman decide to employ the help of current political candidate Umberto Calvini (Luca Giorgio Barbareschi) in their investigation. Unfortunately, Calvini is murdered while giving his public address, leaving Salinger to trail the suspected shooter through the streets of Milan. The suspect manages to get away.

Salinger also realizes that the key to unraveling IBBC’s secrecy is to learn the whereabouts and identity of their ‘consultant’ (Brian F. O’Byrne); the assassin sent in to do damage control on the bank’s behalf and the one responsible for injecting Thomas with the poison that killed him.

Trailing the ‘consultant’ back to New York City, Salinger and N.Y.P.D. detectives Iggy Ornelas (Felix Solis) and Bernie Ward (Jack McGee) corner their suspect inside the Guggenheim Museum where they witness a meeting between him and IBBC executive Wilhelm Wexler (Armin Mueller-Stahl). The meeting is a rouse, however, designed to throw the consultant off the trail of the hit men sent to liquidate him.

In the exhilarating climactic showdown that follows, Bernie is killed and the consultant and Salinger briefly team together to kill the hit men. Wexler is apprehended by Eleanor and taken to a secret meeting place where he agrees to help Salinger set up Jonus Skarssen (Ulrich Thomsen); the brains behind the IBBC’s entire operation. Salinger exposes the IBBC as a fraud to Calvini’s sons Mario (Gerolamo Fancellu) and Enzo (Luca Calvani) who decide to take matters into their own hands. Meanwhile, Salinger has tailed Skarssen to Istanbul where he fully intends to gain a confession from Skarssen – one way or the other.

The International is high octane thrills, utilizing some of the most stunning contemporary and traditional architecture throughout Europe to achieve a sort of lonely and dwarfing isolationism. The Autostadt, as example, is a monolithic glass and concrete oasis, symbolizing IBBC’s fake transparency in the world of legitimate banking.

Even more impressive is Production Designer Sarah Horton’s flawless recreation of the Guggenheim’s interiors for the climactic gunfight. Ngila Dickson’s understated costumes play well against these art modern backdrops.

Most refreshing of all is the way the screenplay by Eric Singer manages to avoid virtually all of the standard clichés we’ve come to expect from the ‘mindless’ action movie. The bankers, for example, are not menacing villains cut from the same cloth as a Die Hard movie, but rather all intelligent men of thought who, through their pragmatism utterly fail to see how their own ignorance leads to disastrous consequences.

In this age of choppy, hand held camera mangling with the scenery, Frank Greibe’s smooth cinematography is both a welcomed retreat and a seemingly effortless feast for the eyes. This is stylish film making with a patina of richness that this film critic hopes will become more the fashionable norm rather than the exception to the rule of making movies in the future. In the final analysis, The International is skilled entertainment that leaves a faint residual appeal behind after the house lights have come up.

Sony Home Entertainment’s Blu-Ray release is breathtaking. The image is truly reference quality, exquisitely recapturing the carefully crafted ‘in-focus’ cinematography. Colors are rich, deep and vibrant. Contrast levels have been superbly rendered. Blacks are deep. Whites are very clean.

Extreme fine detail is evident throughout. Truly, there is nothing to detract from this visual experience. It is pristine. The audio is True HD 5.1, delivering quite a kick to all channels. Extras include several brief featurettes discussing various aspects of the making of the film, extended scenes and outtakes and a picture in picture audio commentary track worth listening to. Bottom line: highly recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
5+

EXTRAS
3

GHOSTBUSTERS - Blu-Ray (Columbia 1984) Sony Home Entertainment

A seminal supernatural sex comedy, Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984) is still delightfully wacky good fun. Never mind that the special effects have dated, the screenplay by Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and an unaccredited Rick Moranis (all of whom have plum parts in the movie) reconnects with the tradition of the ‘ghost spoof’ subgenre in movies that had been absent since the mid-1950s.

The film stars Billy Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis as a trio of paranormal ‘experts’ who find themselves at the cusp of a supernatural second coming that threatens to destroy New York City. Murray is Dr. Peter Venkman – a university hack conducting electro-shock therapy on student test subjects in order to tap their minds for psychic energy. Actually, he’s just after cute college girls. However, Venkman’s partners, Dr. Raymond Stantz (Aykroyd) and Dr. Egon Spengler (Ramis) are true believers dedicated to their paranormal studies; Egon through a systematic processing of scientific data and Raymond by way of sheer naivety.

After being fired from the university, this trio decides to set up shop for themselves as ‘ghost busters’. Hiring secretary, Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts) and a fourth ghost buster, Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson) Venkman, Spengler and Stantz find themselves gaining widespread credence in the press when New York suddenly becomes a hotbed of spectral light activity.

Meanwhile, in an apartment building on Fifth Ave. classical musician Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) has begun to experience some rather bizarre paranormal activity. After contacting Venkman – but finding him obnoxious – Dana chooses to ignore the phenomenon in her kitchen until it is too late. High atop her building, two large cement gargoyles come to life; one possessing Dana’s body, the other taking over her neighbor’s; Louis Tully (Rick Moranis). Louis and Dana are now the ‘key master’ and the ‘gate keeper’, awaiting the arrival of Gozer (Slavitza Jovan) – the destructor of the human world.

Enter, political EPA hack Walter Peck (William Atherton) who forces an injunction to shut down the ghost busters’ security grid, thereby freeing all the cantankerous spirits already apprehended. Eventually, Gozer makes her presence known atop Dana’s skyscraper, forcing the ghost busters to choose the method of their destruction.

Unfortunately, Raymond inadvertently recalls a pleasant memory from his childhood, resulting in the reincarnation of a forty story Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man to terrorize mankind. In the final reel, the ghost busters are triumphant – but not before they shower most of Fifth Ave. in the creamy cooked entrails of Mr. Stay-Puff.

In viewing the film today the argument is often put forth that the special effects in the film don’t hold up. This critic would disagree. While the SFX lack the pristine visual appeal and smooth glide of digitally created effects, the miniatures, rubber puppetry and animated SFX employed in the film are a perfect match for the subject matter. More important, they have weight to them – something no digital effect in any film I’ve seen to date has been able to replicate.

The apocalyptic brooding clouds circling Dana’s apartment, and made by dropping ink into water and then agitating it to create ripples, are infinitely more foreboding than any digital storm clouds. Mr. Stay-Puff – a combination of a man in a rubber suit for long shots and large rubber on plaster sculpture for extreme close ups of his head are quite convincing.

Reitman’s direction keeps perfect balance between the comedic and supernatural elements of the story. The laughs are plentiful throughout and the thrills all the more thrilling when they suddenly jump from the screen.

Sony Home Entertainment’s Blu-Ray release isn’t quite what I expected. The image quality begins with a strange softness in the early scenes taking place inside New York’s Central Library. Even the Ghostbusters logo seems slightly blurry. Flesh tones throughout are much too pink.

Aside: before continuing, this reviewer should point out to the reader of this review that in the early to mid-1980s Technicolor experimented with a different photochemical process and film stock that, in retrospect, has proven to be unstable and more rapid in its decomposition. In this light then, perhaps, Ghostbusters is one of unfortunate recipients of this flawed process.

There are pluses on this Blu-Ray; most notably in the amount of fine detail evident in close ups and also in the complete lack of distracting edge enhancements that plagued the original standard DVD release. The audio has been remixed to Dolby True HD 5.1. Limitations in the vintage recording are evident throughout, such as thinness to dialogue lacking in bass tonality. Overall, this isn’t a bad Blu-Ray release. It’s just not a spectacular one.

Extras exclusive to the Blu-Ray include a ‘slimer mode ‘picture in picture pop up trivia track, a brief featurette on the Ecto-1 Ghostbusters car and another brief featurette on the making of the Ghostbusters video game. The litany of extras produced for the standard DVD has also been directly imported to the Blu-Ray, but with extremely poor visual quality.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
4

POINT BREAK: Blu-Ray (20th Century-Fox 1991) Fox Home Video

Based on a story by Rick King and W. Peter Illiff, Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break (1991) is a rather turgid action/adventure flick that has since found its cult following. Originally bought by Columbia Studios, the project languished for a brief period, was green lit, then canceled entirely, leaving producer Peter Abrams to watch in disbelief as the half constructed sets for his project were dismantled.

Enter executive producer James Cameron and his professional partner, Kathryn Bigelow with a decided interest in the project and a very lucrative picture deal at 20th Century-Fox. Together, this trio of creative minds conceived Point Break as a high octane thriller delving into the Californian subculture of surfer dudes and their beach bunny groupie chicks. Yet, the final results are curiously out of sync.

Fresh from his megawatt success in Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze is cast as surf junkie Bodhi, sporting a ‘moon doggie’ haircut, and, with a death wish. Together with his band of cronies, Bodhi robs banks in his spare time to pay for their adrenaline rushes on the waves. The hit squad’s gimmick is that they sport masks of former presidents Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson while looting various banks in the greater Los Angeles area.

Meanwhile at the FBI, Agent Pappas (Gary Busey) has a hunch that the timeline of the robberies coincides with high tide: ergo the robbers belong to that rare sect of individuals who worship surfing as a sort of warped religious experience rather than mere past time. Pappas doesn’t have much luck convincing his superior, the foul-mouthed and utterly arrogant, Ben Harp (John C. McGinley) of as much, but newbie agent, Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) believes that Pappas’ theory bears further investigation.

Utah takes to the beach but is a complete failure on his first attempt to cut an impressive figure in the water. Nearly drowning, Utah is saved by Tyler (Lori Petty); a surfer chick who works at a seaside greasy spoon. Cribbing from the FBI’s dossier on Tyler – which reveals that she has lost her parents in a plane crash - Utah feeds Tyler a line about wanting to learn to surf after his parents died in a car wreck. Understandably moved by his story, Tyler introduces Utah to Bodhi. A mutual – if rather bizarre – respect grows between this trio. Tyler and Utah become lovers and Bodhi introduces Utah to surfing’s counterculture.

Unfortunately, Utah learns too late that Bodhi is his man. Having already figured out that Utah is a federal agent, Bodhi forces Utah to take part in their next bank robbery or Tyler will die. The robbery goes bad and a few of Bodhi’s men are picked off in the confrontation with police. Suspecting that Utah has gone to the other side, Harp places him under arrest. However, Pappas frees Utah and together the two make for a showdown with Bodhi at the airport where Pappas is murdered by one of Bodhi’s men, Roach (James LeGros) but not before Pappas also fatal wounds Roach.

Bodhi forces Utah into the plane and after flying over Mexico, Bodhi, Roach and Johnny parachute into the desert. Bodhi frees Tyler to be with Utah, and then escapes to safety. Having previously told Utah of ‘the ultimate storm’ – a set of ideal surfing conditions along the Australian coast – Utah bides his time to make his arrest. However, at the last minute Bodhi convinces Utah to let him have one more ‘ride’ on the waves. Realizing that Bodhi is asking for permission to commit suicide, Utah releases Bodhi from custody to meet the end of his adrenaline rush on his own terms.

Point Break is hardly perfect entertainment. Its super charged action sequences are buttressed by some lethally boring melodramatic bookends that pivot on a flawed romantic relationship between Utah and Tyler. The surfing subculture narrative spirals into a seemingly endless sequence of drug parties and touch football games by bonfire.

The screen teems with angry, self loathing men on testosterone overdrive; a concept that plays itself too fast and wears out about midway through the film. Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi is perhaps the most perfectly realized character in the piece, but Reeve’s Johnny Utah is about as leaden and stultified a creation as the movies can produce. In the final analysis, Point Break breaks a cardinal rule of the action/thriller; zooming along to its inevitable conclusion with more thugs than thrills.

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray incarnation easily bests their previously released standard ‘Pure Adrenaline Edition.’ Colors are not as punchy as one might expect but fine detail is greatly improved. There’s a smoothly satisfying texture to the image while maintaining its razor sharpness. Flesh tones appear nature. Black levels are deep and solid. There are three audio mixes; one in 5.1 lossless DTS, another in 5.1 Dolby Digital, and a third in 4.0 Dolby Surround.
Featurettes are a direct import from the aforementioned standard DVD including; ‘It’s Make or Break’, ‘Ride the Wave’, ‘Adrenaline Junkies’ and ‘On Location: Malibu. There’s also several brief deleted scenes (not remastered), a stills gallery and theatrical trailer on tap.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5

EXTRAS
3.5

CAST AWAY - Blu-Ray (20th Century-Fox 2000) Fox Home Video

Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away (2000) presents its audience with the answer to that old clichéd question; ‘what would you do if you were stranded on a desert island?’ Written by William Broyles Jr. the film tells the story of Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks); a harried executive for FedEx shipping who is so lost in his micromanagement of time down to the nanosecond he has completely forgotten that the true measure of life is in the experience of living it.

Chuck is engaged to Kelly Frears (Helen Hunt) – the love of his life. After a brief Christmas interlude and family get-together, Chuck is called away at the last minute to accompany a special shipment. Unfortunately for Chuck and the rest of the crew, the plane flies into rough weather somewhere in the remote tropics, losing pressure and plummeting into the stormy ocean below.

Chuck is the only survivor and, after a harrowing night of being tossed about the infinite blackness, discovers that he has washed ashore on a remote island with no signs of life. At first, Chuck believes it is only a matter of time before FedEx sends out an expedition to search for the wreckage. However, as days roll into months – then years – Chuck slowly comes to the realization that he is all alone in the world and will have to transform himself both physically and mentally in order to survive.

Recovering various packages that wash ashore from the downed plane, Chuck creates a refuge from the elements. He learns to hunt and fish. Four long years pass. Finally, Chuck realizes that he can no longer live alone on this tropical hideaway. No one is coming for him. His only salvation will be the one he makes for himself.

Building a raft, Chuck manages to break the tides surrounding the island. He is hurled and tossed about the sea, almost dying before being discovered by a freighter. The news of Chuck’s survival is momentous to say the least, but also semi-tragic as Chuck soon learns that during his absence Kelly has married dentist, Jerry Lovett (Chris Noth) instead.

After Jerry breaks the news to Chuck at the airport, Chuck and Kelly are reunited in the pouring rain where she confesses to him that he has always been the love of her life. Chuck decides to make one final delivery for FedEx – to a remote farm where a female artist specializes in iron sculptures. And therein lies the crossroads of Chuck’s destiny; to return to his career or remain on the farm with the woman who we are led to believe could be his future romance.

In our age of reality based Survivor TV, Cast Away is not quite the exhilarating entertainment we might expect. The opening sequence plays like an extended commercial, extolling the proficiency of FedEx shipping. The initial scenes with Kelly and Chuck lack any palpable chemistry between Helen Hunt and Tom Hanks to make their characters’ burgeoning romance, sudden separation and later reunion overwhelmingly tragic and/or meaningful.
Once Hanks gets to the island time stands still – or rather – crawls along at an excruciatingly slow pace for the rest of us. Yes, there are sparks of ingenuity to the screenplay – but overall the conflict between man and the elements seems curiously deemphasized, except for a few brief encounters with bad weather. In the final analysis, Cast Away is a film that tosses more into the wind than is returned.

Alan Silvestri’s score immeasurably elevates what is essentially a turgid tale of lost opportunities, often keeping the whole enterprise afloat on waves of introspective background music when all else – including the script and Hanks’ performance -fails. In many reviews of this film, much has been made of the ‘relationship’ between Chuck and ‘Wilson’ – the volleyball that Chuck re-christens as his only friend and companion on the island.

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray incarnation easily bests its standard DVD presentation though once again Fox has chosen to release a rather bare bones offering instead of the jam packed 2-disc SE it gave us on standard disc. Colors are rich, vibrant and beautifully realized. Reds are red. Blacks are deep and solid. Contrast levels are subtly realized. The texture of island foliage is breathtakingly vivid. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 lossless audio. Extras have been pared down to Zemeckis’ audio commentary and trivia track and the film’s theatrical trailer presented in HD. For shame!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5

EXTRAS
2

THE THREE STOOGES: Vol. 6 (Columbia 1949 - 51) Sony Home Entertainment

The Three Stooges Collection Volume Six is a curious potpourri of hilarity and misfires. The 2 disc set picks up the trio’s tenure from 1949 to 1951, two years after Curly Howard’s death and his replacement as part of the act by brother, Shemp – usually considered the lesser to Curly.

What makes the stooges tenure with Shemp often appealing is that Shemp never tried to emulate the wide eyed antics of his brother. Perhaps Shemp’s tenure in films apart from the stooges helped to contribute to his characterizations within the act. Still, there’s no denying that when all the pistons are firing, the stooges with Shemp works as a marvelous team.

24 short subjects comprise this set, beginning with The Ghost Talks – the boys as a trio of movers arriving at a drafty castle on a stormy night to remove a suit of armor, only to discover that it is possessed with the playful spirit of the late Peeping Tom. In Who Done It? an aged millionaire (Emile Sitka) is kidnapped by a trio of thugs who plan to do away with the stooges - assigned as private eyes to investigate the disappearance. Hokus Pokus is all about an insurance fraud scam that goes horribly awry, while Fueling Around finds the boys unwittingly kidnapped after a trio of thugs believes that Larry is the inventor of rocket fuel.

One of the stooges best remembered shorts; Malice in the Palace finds the boys as proprietors of a small café but ends with them invading an Arabian palace after the Imer of Schmo has stolen the Rootin-Tootin’ diamond. Vagabond Loafers is a painfully bad remake of the stooges own A Plumbing We Will Go, utilizing whole portions of stock footage from that previous effort while attempting to recreate the classic moment of building a watery prison out of leaky pipes. Dunked in the Deep, finds Larry, Moe and Shemp as stowaways on a ship after their Russian neighbor turns out to be a spy who has stolen some top secret documents.

In Punchy Cowpunchers the boys must infiltrate the Dillon Gang – a ruthless sect of desperadoes in the old west. Hugs and Mugs finds the boys the unwitting victims of a trio of sultry female jewel thieves. Dopey Dicks is a riotous race against time after an heiress has been kidnapped for ransom by a trio of thugs. Love At First Bite has Larry and Moe attempting to dispose of Shemp’s body after they erroneously assume that he has been poisoned with moonshine liquor. Self Made Maids tops out the offerings on Disc One; the stooges playing not only themselves but their fiancées and their father.

On Disc Two we get Three Hams on Rye – the stooges employed by a Broadway producer to keep a tabloid news hound at bay. In Studio Stoops, an actress disappears right under the stooges’ watchful eye, forcing the boys to craft a publicity squib to set the record straight. Slaphappy Sleuths has the boys masquerading as a trio of gas station attendants in order to foil a crime wave. A Snitch in Time has the boys making a special delivery to a den of thieves. In Three Arabian Nuts Shemp discovers a genie in a bottle who will grant him any wish.

Baby Sitter Jitters finds the boys looking after a belligerent baby boy while his mother goes out for the evening. In Don’t Throw That Knife, the stooges are a trio of census takers who have little luck procuring information from the people they visit. Shemp is released from a sanitarium in Scrambled Brains, but his delusions may not be entirely cured.

Merry Mavericks is a remake of the Phony Express; the boys forced to do battle with a notorious gang in a lavish mansion. The Tooth Will Out employs the trio as dentists who end up removing more than a tooth from their clients. Hula-la-la casts Larry, Moe and Shemp as dance instructors to some natives who decide they’d rather shrink heads than learn to samba. Finally, there’s Pest Man Wins with the boys as a trio of exterminators.

Many of the gags in all of these shorts have been reworked from better days with Curly. When the scripts allow Shemp to be his own character the comedy is more meaningful and enjoyable. However, when he attempts to emulate his late brother’s legacy the results are less than stellar.

‘Less than stellar’ is a fairly accurate way to describe the visual quality of these two discs. While Sony Home Entertainment has taken the time to remaster many of the early stooge shorts with Curly represented on Volumes 1 through 4, Volume 5 released earlier in the year hinted that perhaps the studio did not hold the rest of the trio’s legacy in such high regard. The shorts included in Volume six have far more grain and age related artifacts from dupe elements.

The image is frequently softly focused and the gray scale less than finely balanced. Overall, these shorts look superior to anything we’ve seen when they were broadcast on television, but that should not be the barometer of how good they could have looked if just a little bit more time and care had been employed to remaster them from surviving fine nitrate elements. The audio on all is mono and adequate for this presentation. There are no extras.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
0

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK - Blu-Ray (2oth Century-Fox 1959) Fox Home Video

Based on the best-selling authorship of a 13 year old Jewish exile, hiding with her family from Nazi persecution in the attic of a Holland spice factory, director George Stevens’ The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) remains one of the most poignantly wrought melodramas of all time. Not an overwhelming financial success at the time of its release, the film nevertheless received its much deserved share of critical praise. But it's reputation and popularity with audiences has only grown since, living up to Stevens' own claim of "we'll know what kind of film this is in twenty years."

Stevens, who as a field unit cameraman had witnessed first hand the Nazi desecration of humanity within the concentration camps in 1947, was deeply affected by the experience. Upon returning to America, the director primarily known for his frothy comedies and bombastic adventures became focused on more introspective literary material. For Stevens, movies could no longer simply entertain us. They had to also serve as a mirror held up to society at large, asking 'what's wrong with this picture?'  



Critics usually dubbed this type of entertainment 'the message picture', and very often audiences found such movies heavy-handed in their ability to education, quite often at the expense of providing sheer distraction. Yet, Stevens found a way to make his social commentaries work on the big screen as both 'message pictures' and pure entertainment. As such, audiences have been a little richer for his contributions.

In late 1955, Stevens met Anne Frank's father, Otto to discuss the possibility of bringing their story to the big screen. Although Otto was a congenial gentleman through and through, his association with the motion picture ended after preliminary discussions and principle casting had been completed. After interviewing hundreds of hopefuls for the lead, Stevens decided to cast Millie Perkins; a New York model with virtually no acting experience. Perkins proved an inspired choice. Unaccustomed to the Hollywood lifestyle, her naivety was exactly the sort of fresh faced vitality so essential to play the unassuming character of Anne.

To help craft his intimate epic, Stevens turned to noted screenwriters Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who had already written a successful stage version based on Anne Frank’s diaries. Reluctantly, Stevens also agreed to shoot the film in Cinemascope – Fox’s patented widescreen process; though he did win the argument to shoot the film in B&W rather than color. And although, the 2:35:1 aspect ratio was not without its challenges, Stevens managed to make the anamorphic process appear smaller and more intimate than it usually was.

The film opens in Amsterdam shortly after the war breaks out. Anne’s (Millie Perkins) prudent father, Otto (Joseph Schildkraut) has arranged with spice factory manager Kraler (Douglas Spencer) and Miep (Dody Heath) to take his family underground to avoid being sent to a concentration camp.The Franks are joined by another family; the Van Daans - Petronella (Shelly Winters) Hans (Lou Jacobi) and their son Peter (Richard Beymer).

Over the next two years, both families will share this utterly cramped, hidden attic space, concealed by a hidden book shelf. At first, the families congregate, mostly in hushed silence, but under the most congenial of circumstances. However, as time wears on – patience wears thin.At night, the Franks and the Van Daans move about the rest of the complex freely until one evening, a wayward thief attempting a break in threatens to expose their secret hideaway.

Through it all, Anne endures many hardships, danger and extreme loneliness, yet without bitterness and always inspired to hope for a better tomorrow. Despite her current predicament, she genuinely believes in the goodness of people. Regrettably, her prayers for the future are to remain unfulfilled. The Nazis discover the Franks and Van Daans hideout. The families are seized, separated and sent to various concentration camps where they are inevitably slaughtered. Only Otto survives. He returns to the spice factory after the war, without fear, only to find Anne's diary still lingering among their few pitifully discarded belongings buried under the dust in the attic. With tears in his eyes, he randomly turns to a chapter and reads aloud of Anne sincere desire to believe in the goodness of all people. That blind faith in humanity, so eloquently expressed by his daughter, restores his own.

The Diary of Anne Frank is an emotionally stirring production. Not only does it manage to capture the essence, tone and mood of the great war's most intimate tragedy, but it also preserves the enduring legacy of Anne Frank – a girl aged well beyond her years, who had the clairvoyance to put down on paper one of the most utterly genuine accounts ever written about WWII.

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray reincarnation for the film’s 50th Anniversary offers a more refined B&W anamorphic transfer than the ‘Studio Series’ standard DVD released just a few years ago. And yet, this latest preservation is hardly without its flaws. The image in general seems to sporadically suffer from ‘breathing’, the sides of the Cinemascope image in constant flux in contrast levels. Certain scenes have an extremely heavy patina of film grain while fine details are occasionally lost in an image that seems slightly overly contrasted. Edge enhancement is rare, but present. The audio is represented in 5.1 Tru HD and 4.0 Dolby Digital with minimal sonic difference between the two tracks.

Where this Blu-ray bests the DVD is in its extra features. In addition to the original 90 minute documentary on the real Anne Frank, we get a mountain of extras that cover the film and George Stevens' career from every conceivable angle. George Stevens Jr., Diane Baker and Millie Perkins lend new thoughts and back story, and there are some period featurettes also that immeasurably flesh out the historical record. Finally, we get an engaging and informative audio commentary from George Stevens Jr. and Millie Perkins and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
5+

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

FATAL ATTRACTION: Blu-ray (Paramount 1987) Paramount Home Video

The movie that made every married man who was even contemplating an extramarital affair cringe, Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) subverts the predominantly male fantasy of taking a mistress to bed without reprisals. Instead we get every man's worst nightmare – discovering that the gal on the side is both insane and pregnant with his child. In retrospect, Fatal Attraction is a far more insidious thriller than critics of its day gave it credit. Indeed, the premise that a happily married man could stray from even the perfect wife and mother and then have to face the consequences of his spousal betrayal had been attempted many times before, but never with such an outburst of potentially scalding backlash - mostly from feminists who thought Lyne and screenwriter James Dearden were trying to say something negative about career women being transformed by their futile attempts to 'make it' in a man's world into sadistic gargoyles with no emotional content other than blind rage. 

It's a silly argument, and one that basically asked the wrong question - 'what more could Mrs. Gallagher have done to keep her man?' - when in reality the onus ought to have been placed on critiquing just what in the hell was wrong with her man who could so callously shrug off his commitments and fidelity simply because the wife was out of town for the weekend. Ultimately, Lyne and Dearden made no judgment calls or, in fact, gave us any explanation. Such is life, I'm afraid; rarely what we would hope it to be and often reaching up from behind to assault our senses and good name when we least of all expect it. 


In the meantime the emotional castration of attorney at law, Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) seemed to satisfied more than a handful of married women who thought it divine retribution for his philandering ways. Yet, the punishment inflicted upon Dan by his jilted plaything, Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) spills over to terrorize his wife, Beth (Anne Archer) and young daughter, Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Latzen); the impact of his actions having far-reaching ramifications that will cause the entire family to reassess their loyalties and perhaps even their way of life.

Fatal Attraction is unquestioningly a harrowing tale; yielding to that moment when intense passion crosses the line into a dangerous downward spiral of psychotic obsession. In today’s cynical climate, Lyne’s movie perhaps seems more tame than it ought, like a melodramatic cliché bordering on pure camp. There's no denying the Dearden has painted the characters in very broad brushstrokes; Dan the wayward stud about town whose sense of manliness equates to machismo entitlement; Beth, the doe-eyed, faithful as a bird dog Suzie Cream Cheese who cannot fathom her husband's wandering eye beyond her own naivety; Alex, the cliched 'I am a bad woman hear me roar' being thrust together. What salvages the writing are the performances by Douglas, Archer and particularly Close; the latter giving us a brilliant interpretation of the lost - though hardly soulless - creature who refuses to be dumped like garbage once the man has had his fun. 


It's all quite good up to the end, Lyne falling back on the traditional 'showdown' ending to wrap up the story. The ending to Fatal Attraction was, in fact, forced upon Lyne who had conceived a much more diabolical last act - Alex taking her own life with a knife Dan had used earlier in her kitchen, his fingerprints discovered by police who thereafter assume the 'obvious' - that he's murdered his lover to shut her up - and arresting him in front of his wife and child: the ultimate betrayal come home to roost and inflict its final devastation on the Gallagher family. 


For its day, Fatal Attraction trod some particularly tawdry ground in an unexpectedly cheap and tawdry way. Based on a short film by James Dearden (who also wrote the screenplay) Michael Douglas is cast as attorney at law ‘every man’, Dan Gallagher, happily married to Beth (Anne Archer), yet not above indulging in a little sexual badinage with publishing gal, Alex Forrest (Glenn Close).

After a chance meeting at a self help book publishing party, Dan decides to seduce Alex…or is it the other way around? Having sent Beth and their daughter, Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Latzen) off to Beth’s mother in the country, Dan indulges his every sexual whim with Alex for an unhibited weekend of erotic pleasures before returning to his comfortable middle class life.

Alex has all the raw passion that is lacking in Dan’s idyllic existence with Beth. However, Dan’s escapade comes with residual responsibilities that Alex is determined he will live up to. At first, Dan mildly rebukes Alex; then outwardly rejects her. On the surface at least, Alex acknowledges that she can’t have Dan for her own. Ah, but then the unexpected voracity of ‘a woman scorned’ kicks in; midnight telephone calls that end in hang ups, stalking from a not so respectful distance and slaughtered bunnies cooking over from large stock pots. But, I digress.

Beth learns the truth about her husband’s affair with this psychotic stranger who is now also pregnant with his child. Exiling Dan from the family home, Beth stands her ground with Alex whom she threatens with death. However, after Ellen is abducted from school for an afternoon by Alex in which Beth fears the worst and, as a result, becomes involved in a near fatal car accident, Dan realizes that the only way to protect his family is to resolve to threaten Alex with bodily harm. He arrives at her apartment and, after some not so polite chit-chat almost loses control to the point of killing her.

This is the most significant scene in the film because it ends with Dan laying a large carving knife down on the countertop inside Alex’s apartment.Originally, director Lyne had wanted the film to end with a guilt-ridden and completely insane Alex slices her own throat, using the same knife, but not before she scatters evidence about her apartment to suggest that Dan is her murderer. With Dan’s fingerprints on the murder weapon, the police haul Dan off to prison. But Beth discovers an audio tape of Alex confessing that she will kill herself should Dan ever leave her to return to Beth, thereby exonerating Dan of Alex’s murder.

Paramount balked at this understated conclusion, forcing Lyne to piece together a bit of clichéd villainess nonsense, culminating with both Dan and Beth killing Alex in self defense after she miraculously materializes in their upstairs bathroom to threaten Beth with the same knife. 
The ending, as it stands, remains heart pounding, though fundamentally flawed. For example; how is it that no one in the small country house sees Alex approaching the property? Furthermore, once Beth and Alex begin to struggle for the knife in the upstairs bathroom – with Beth, at first, shrieking mercilessly for help – why does no one, including Ellen (who is sleeping in a nearby upstairs bedroom) immediately rush to her aid? Finally, although it is Dan who attempts to drown Alex in their bathtub, it is actually Beth who murders Alex with a fatal gunshot, leaving Dan – more or less – the emasculated victim of the piece.

None of these glaring oversights seem to have mattered to audiences. When Fatal Attraction hit theaters it became an immediate megahit, unintentionally setting off a powder keg of outrage amongst feminists who denounced the film as masochistic tripe; suggesting that because Alex worked for a living and was pregnant at the time of her death, that the film cast unflattering light on all women who preferred careers to home and family – at least until the chips were down; an absurd notion at best.

In reflecting on the film today as pure entertainment one can appreciate Adrian Lyne’s more subtle nuances leading up to the bizarre last act; his artfully subdued cinematography – particularly in the confrontational scenes of either passion or unadulterated hatred between Dan and Alex that make Fatal Attraction much more of an artistic masterpiece than a commercial colossus; although it became that also in the summer of 1987.

Paramount Home Video’s Blu-Ray incarnation of Fatal Attraction rectifies many sins committed on previous DVD versions. For starters, the 1080p transfer is free of age related artifacts. The DVD was mercilessly plagued by a barrage of scratches, chips and other anomalies. Also, whereas colors on the DVD were generally faded and quite often muddy, the palette on the new Blu-Ray is extremely vibrant throughout. 
Shadow and contrast have been beautifully rendered for a very sharp – though not artificially enhanced – smooth transfer that exhibits very satisfying fine detail and film grain. Once again, Paramount’s contributions to preserving their studio heritage on Blu-Ray are beyond reproach. This is a very fine offering that will surely NOT disappoint.

The DTS audio will impress. Extras include all of the featurettes previously made available on Paramount’s Special Collector’s Edition; regarding the making of the film and its cultural impact, as well as the film’s original theatrical trailer. Get ready to make a Frisbee of your old DVD. This Blu-Ray comes highly recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5

EXTRAS
3

Friday, June 5, 2009

FIELD OF DREAMS - Blu-Ray (Universal 1989) Universal Home Video

Except for a few locations photographed in Boston, most of the action in director Phil Alden Robinson’s Field of Dreams (1989) takes place on adjoining farms in Jo Davies County, Illinois – the fictional home of Ray (Kevin Costner) and Annie Kinsella (Amy Madigan). It's a good life, idealized in that necessary bucolic way Hollywood tends to admire the agrarian lifestyle from a safe distance, unencumbered by pesticide spraying, dry rot, drought and all the other tragedies that readily befall the American breadbasket. 

It's difficult to quantify exactly what makes Field of Dreams work so beautifully; the understated screenplay and acting by virtually all of the principle cast; John Lindley's sumptuous cinematography and James Horner's poetic underscore conspiring to create a truly unique, expressive and heartfelt sojourn for the viewer down a memory lane we all secretly yearn for; the 'going home again' wish fulfillment working overtime and delivering its home run into our hearts; bases loaded and with a tear memorably caught in our eye. Based on the novel ‘Shoeless Joe’ by the real Ray Kinsella, Field of Dreams is both a fond valentine to the sport of baseball and a poignant homage to familial bonds transcending time and space. 


Too many movies merely resurrect the past from a visual standpoint - the production values impeccable but nevertheless bending to the artifice rather than seeming to genuinely exist at least for an hour or two. One can admire such detail at a glance from a purely visual perspective, and quite possibly even appreciate it for the run of the story. But it does absolutely nothing for the heart, mind or soul.  Field Of Dreams is undeniably different. It moves the viewer in almost unexpected ways, sneaking up and then gently tugging at the heartstrings without ever becoming maudlin or contrived. It is a rare movie that can do this unabashedly and seemingly without making us feel manipulated in the process. Field of Dreams is that movie; tenderly realized by craftsmen both in front of and behind the camera who so obviously have the rosin and dust of natural turf coursing through their veins. 


Ray is a novice farmer, his current crop of corn the envy of his neighbors. Residing on the land with Annie and their young daughter, Karin (Gaby Hoffmann), Ray’s life is serene and peaceful…that is, until he hears a mysterious voice repeatedly, and rather cryptically whispering to him from the cornfield, “If you build it, he will come.”  
To be sure, Ray is not a mystic, and yet almost daily he finds himself being compelled to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn. Ray is determined to not become complacent as he believes his late father did after his dreams of playing pro baseball were cut short.

Although skeptical of Ray’s decision, Annie is supportive. Ray’s neighbors, however, clearly feel that he has lost touch with reality. As the year passes without incident Ray and Annie are forced to face the fact that their investment in the baseball diamond has severely impacted their personal finances. Ah, but t
hen, the miraculous happens. Karin sees a ball player dressed in 1919 garb pitching on Ray’s field. The man turns out to be the ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson (Ray Liotta); a stellar Black Sox pitcher whose dream of playing ball has been resurrected. Over the next few months, Joe returns to the field, each time bringing more of the 1919 Black Sox team with him.

However, Ray and Annie are the only ones who can see Joe and his team. Captivated by the magical time warp that has come to their property Ray refuses to plow under the field, even at the behest of his brother-in-law Mark (Timothy Busfield). After a heated discussion at their local PTA Ray is compelled to contact reclusive author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) whose own confession of having seen the Dodgers play on Ebbets' Field is shrugged off as scandalous imagination by the others. 
Embittered, Terence initially rebuffs Ray’s invitation to come to his farm. Eventually, he softens - enough to help Ray seek out 1920's baseball legend, Archibald Moonlight Graham (Burt Lancaster).

Here’s where the plot gets a little unsettling. Ray and Terence discover that Graham – who lived in later years as a county doctor - has died sixteen years earlier. However, that evening Ray is teleported back in time to 1972, the year of Graham’s death where miraculously Graham meets with Ray and confesses that he still has dreams about playing baseball one last time. 
Ray offers to fulfill Graham's dream on his farm. But Graham declines, returning Ray to the present instead where, together with Terence, they begin the drive back to Ray’s farm. All is not lost, however. On a lonely stretch of road, Ray and Terence decide to pick up a young hitchhiker (Frank Whaley) who introduces himself as Archie Graham – the reincarnated younger version of Moonlight.

The last act of Field of Dreams is a superb 'lump-in-the-throat' melodrama tinged in the supernatural. The trick and the majesty of it is that nothing ever seems weird, out of place or lacking; Robinson sustaining our disbelief in ways we can all believe in and root for. It's all an act, of course, but the magic lantern illusion is working overtime, the joy mirrored in the character's eyes exponentially mounting with our own satisfaction for having been supremely entertained. 


Returning to his farm, Ray and Terence are astounded to learn that the 1919 team have been making regular appearances to play ball on Ray’s field of dreams. The young Graham joins the roster. Unfortunately, Mark arrives – having bought Ray’s mortgage – to declare that either Ray plow under the field or sell the farm to him. In an ensuing struggle between Mark and Ray, Karin is knocked to the ground, choking on the hot dog she was eating.

Recognizing that the child will die without his intervention, Graham crosses the invisible barrier between the past and the present. He is instantly aged into old Doc Graham, resuscitating Karin and thus saving her life. For the first time, Mark is able to see all of the players and understands what the field means, not only to Ray but also these ghosts from the past. Tragically, the time/space continuum cannot be reversed for Graham. He departs the field for the last time.

The players encourage Terence to join them as Moonlight’s replacement. At first, Ray is hurt at not being invited, but then realizes that to partake in the game he would have to leave his wife and daughter behind in the present. Instead, Shoeless Joe approaches Ray to reveal the true identity of the team’s catcher – none other than Ray’s late father whom Ray introduces to Annie as ‘John’. Humbled at the sight of his father as a vibrant young man – something Ray never considered before – he emotionally addresses John as ‘dad’ – realizing that it was his father’s voice he heard in the cornfield all along. 


On every level, Field of Dreams is masterful entertainment, the screenplay also by Phil Alden Robinson delivering a groundswell of emotion with all the grace of that bygone era in sports left intact when personal integrity and athletic prowess went hand in mitt. This is a poignantly told generational melodrama with subtly nuanced performances by Costner, Jones and Lancaster, and a remarkably intuitive turn from Liotta. Sports movies are not usually this satisfying, and it is saying much of Robinson’s carefully paced action that he does not allow the narrative to degenerate into a cliche of that fuzzy ‘feel good’ in the last act. Instead, like Ray, the audience are left with contemplative sadness brought on by the inevitable passage of time and the loss of people, traditions and ways of living that seem so much more vibrant and enriching than our own. 

Universal Home Video’s Blu-Ray bests the two previously issued DVD releases, though not without its own anomalies. Flesh tones that were pale on the first DVD and slightly too orange on the collector’s edition are now a very pronounced brown/orange on the Blu-Ray. The green husks of corn take on a slightly brown hue. Overall, color saturation seems a tad too robust.

The Blu-Ray benefits from a higher bit rate with fine details more prominently displayed. Contrast levels seem to have been slightly boosted, however, for an unnatural appearance overall. We also get some very annoying edge effects. I sure wish Universal would reconsider redoing this disc. It needs it. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and satisfying, though hardly distinguished among acoustic renderings. 
Extras include several featurettes directly imported from the Collector’s Edition, an audio commentary and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
3

CHOCOLAT - Blu-Ray (Miramax 2000) Alliance Home Video

Based on Joanne Harris’ quirky novel, director Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat (2000) is a sustained, often sublime comic fable set in the insular fictional French village of Lansquenet-sous-Tannes in post war Europe. The film stars Juliette Binoche as Vianne Rocher – a wandering heart and current proprietor of the town’s chocolaterie. To be certain, Vianne is restless, though likable enough. However, her free spirit is judged as Godless and immoral black magic by the town's mayor, Comte Paul de Reynaud (Alfred Molina).

There may be something to the Comte’s allegations. With each new arrival to the chocolaterie, Vianne manages to create a special decadent dessert that seems to cure the worldly woes of the person who buys it. The screenplay by Robert Nelson Jacobs stops short of suggesting black magic – something the novel more directly explores – instead, coming to the conclusion that it is Vianne’s kindness and faith in humanity that makes all the difference to her patrons.

More relevant to the narrative is how Vianne’s fear of commitment, her ravenous need to endlessly uproot and relocate herself in the world just when it looks like she might make lasting friends has become harmful to the stability of her six year old daughter, Anouk (Victoire Thivisol). For now, Vianne thrives in her current establishment, serving sinfully delicious chocolate treats to the town’s parishioners. One by one, however, Vianne’s patrons are stifled in their appreciation of her skill by the Comte’s glower and his repeated attempts to influence the town against Vianne’s charm by labeling it as just another sinful act by a wanton woman.

In the meantime, Vianne befriends a young wife, Josephine Muscat (Lena Olin) whose husband, Serge (Peter Stormare) is an abusive clod that the Comte exploits to his own advantage in threatening to run Vianne out of town. Vianne also becomes an understanding surrogate to embittered diabetic Armandi Voizin (Judi Dench) whose own daughter, Francoise Drou (Helene Cardona) is determined to keep her locked away from virtually all worldly vices – including chocolate – thereby depriving the old woman of any real attempt to live life to its fullest.

The late arrival to this melodramatic feast is Roux (Johnny Depp); a riverboat gypsy who briefly plays out his romantic attachment for Vianne. In point of fact, Roux would be so good for Vianne and Anouk and perhaps even put an end to his own days as a restless wanderer of the earth. Vianne naturally resists Roux's advances; but only after each has had a taste of what life could be like together. A fire breaks out, forcing everyone to reexamine their loyalties. 


After Armandi dies peacefully at home Francoise joins the Comte's cries to have Vianne evicted from the village. But by then a most miraculous turn of events has happened. The town's folk, who were bitter and lonely before Vianne's arrival to their small enclave, have rallied their support at her side, forcing the Comte to admit that he too is compelled by her fascinating window displays of sumptuous desserts - in fact, wallowing in his own bitter surrender and stuffing his face with chocolates; thereby losing all respect and authority in Lansquenet-sous-Tannes.

Chocolat is as sumptuous, rich and satisfying as any confection on display in Vianne's shop window. With chocolate itself becoming code for uninhibited sensual pleasure, as a purely cinematic gratification, Chocolat weaves its spell as surely on the audience as the dark candied dessert eventually contributes to the degeneration of the Comte’s ironclad faux piety.

There is genuine on screen chemistry between Depp and Binoche – palpably erotic and yet, like the soft center of a bon-bon, tenderly sweet. Dench, Molina and the rest of the cast offer fine support. The screenplay takes its time, slowly enriching the tapestry of character development along the way. There is both style and substance to the piece that creates a truly heartwarming tale long overdue in American movies for some time. In the last analysis, Chocolat is elegant and charming – a great date movie with a yummy dark chocolate center.

Alliance Home Entertainment’s Blu-Ray disc moderately improves upon the Miramax Collector’s Edition released in 2002 on DVD. The 1080p transfer exhibits solid detail and natural colors that are perhaps a tad less pronounced than we’re used to seeing on Blu-Ray. Contrast levels are solid but grain appears to have been unduly scrubbed with some excessive DNR. It's not as bad as those waxy images we've seen before, but the smoothness of the image doesn't equate to sharpness or all for a lot of the fine details to shine through.

Overall, the image will not disappoint those viewing it on smaller monitors. But blown up or projected the shortcomings are quite obvious and that's a shame. There's no reason why this title could not have looked perfect on Blu-ray!  The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and satisfying enough. This is primarily a dialogue-driven story. There are no extras and frankly, Alliance's idea of screen menus is also pathetic!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5

EXTRAS
0

ROMANCING THE STONE - Blu-Ray (2oth Century-Fox 1984) Fox Home Video

Robert Zemekis’ Romancing the Stone (1984) is a throwback to 1940s Saturday matinee adventure serials. Fueled by the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), producer Michael Douglas acquired the rights to Diane Thomas’ like-minded fluff yarn about romance novelist, Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner), a spinster forced into the sordid details of a life she generally writes about when her sister, Elaine (Mary Ellen Trainor) is captured by a Columbia drug smuggler.

Against the advice of her publicist, Gloria (Holland Taylor), Joan departs the relative safety of her New York apartment for the tropical wilds. She is befriended by American wanderer, Jack Colton (Michael Douglas); the physical embodiment of heroism with a rather jaded heart and unrelenting desire to get back to civilization.

Together, the two explore hostile jungle terrain, spend a harrowing night inside the shell of a downed plane, and, are chased from village to countryside by the rebels and by police who are after Ralph (Danny DeVito) and Ira (Zack Norman), the men responsible for Elaine’s predicament. All are after one thing; the mystery of El Corazon - a fabulous gemstone hidden somewhere in the rainforest.

Zemekis keeps the pace of his eclectic comedy/adventure yarn mostly taut and moving, though on occasion he pauses to insert superfluous nonsense that does not augment, as much as it provides interludes apart from the main narrative. There is, for example, really no real purpose for Jack and Joan’s celebratory dance at an outdoor club during carnival, except to solidify what the audience already knows – that they have fallen in love. Still, the sequence is one of the most colorful and beautifully staged.

Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner have definite on screen chemistry – his glib, no nonsense fortune hunter in perfect sync with her naïve fish out of water turned wild flower with an edge of determination. Danny Devito is the perfect comic foil – making the most out of a role that is cameo at best.

At the time of its release, Romancing the Stone was a huge critical and box office success – prompting a sequel; The Jewel of the Nile. Tragically, screenwriter, Diane Thomas was killed in an automobile accident shortly after the film’s premiere in a car that was a gift of appreciation from Douglas who also produced the film.

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray easily bests its DVD predecessor in both color fidelity and image sharpness. Colors that were moderately engaging on the DVD are now rich, bold, refined and nicely balanced. Contrast levels are superbly realized. Age related artifacts that were present on the DVD are absent on the Blu-Ray and all of the shortcomings in edge enhancement have been eliminated.

The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital. Like most films from the 80s, it lacks in bass tonality but is quite acceptable otherwise. Extras have all been imported from the DVD, including 3 featurettes detailing various aspects of the film’s production and deleted scenes. Highly recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5

EXTRAS
3.5

COMING TO AMERICA - Blu-Ray (Paramount 1988) Paramount Home Video

In the early years of his career, the eclectic audacity of Eddie Murphy knew no bounds. A superb comedian with a flair for mimicry, and an unvarnished - though always ultra-clever approach to making us laugh, Murphy was one of the most enigmatic and luminescent of comedy stars from the 1980s.   In hindsight, he instinctively knew where to punctuate a sentence and how to emphasize a nuance - using the whole of his expressive visage - to maximum effect.

Regrettably, Murphy was to leave his 'rawness' behind in later years to become a more 'family friendly' raconteur. It didn't suit his style and the films themselves were often very substandard to his formidable talents. But Murphy's 'rawness' was never abrasive and certainly never without purpose. As he once astutely pointed out, "I can't just do a curse show", illustrating the point thereafter by throwing together virtually every foul word in the English language and then pretending to walk off stage by wishing the audience a good night. Murphy's casual dismissal of the dramatic weight generally ascribed to foul language made it seem not only extremely funny, but ultimately not nearly as bad as we all thought it was supposed to be. No, Eddie Murphy made beautiful music with four letter words, cleverly spaced and even more potently timed to tickle our funny bones to wild distraction.

Based on a story idea supplied by Eddie Murphy, John Landis’ Coming To America (1988) is a superbly crafted romantic comedy that casts Murphy as Prince Akeem of Zamunda – the heir apparent to a lush African province presided over by his proud father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) and the Queen (Madge Sinclair). Zamunda is a land of pure fantasy, resplendently bedecked in palms and palatial surroundings. They even have an elephant named Babar. Those familiar with the children's stories will get the joke.

In tweaking the original concept, screenwriters David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein came up with the brilliant idea of allowing their star to invent his own material for several key sequences in the film – most notably the various barber shop sequences presided over almost entirely by various incarnations of humanity played exclusively by Murphy and costar Arsenio Hall, cast as Semmi – the Prince’s royal confident. Coming to America really is a showcase for Eddie Murphy's talents as a chameleon to shine. In retrospect, the cameos he performs apart from the lead seem an escapism from the part of the Prince - arguably, the most forthright and restrained character Eddie Murphy has ever played.

The film opens in the idyllic and resplendent kingdom of Zamunda where it has been decided by King Joffer that his son, Akeem is of age to marry Imani Izzi (Vanessa Bell); Princess of a neighboring kingdom. To be certain, Imani is a sumptuous feast for the eyes – every man’s embodiment of physical desire. One problem – she has been taught not to think for herself; a quality devalued by Akeem who wants a woman to excite his intellect as well as his loins.

Choosing to take a vacation in America before his pending nuptials, Akeem and Semmi are plunked down in the worst neighborhood in Queens where they are literally shunned and/or robbed by the natives. The ‘boys’ are befriended by a local barber (also played by Murphy) who also inadvertently introduces Akeem to his future wife, Lisa McDowell (Shari Headley) a community fundraiser. At a local event presided over by a horny black evangelist (also Murphy) and sponsored by McDowell’s restaurant and the hair weave relaxer ‘Soul Glow’; whose spokes model Darryl Jenks (Eriq LaSalle) also happens to be Lisa’s boyfriend, Akeem and Lisa meet for the first time.

Having set his sights on Lisa, Akeem takes a menial job at her father, Cleo’s (John Amos) fast food restaurant and gradually ingratiates himself into Cleo and Lisa’s favor. In the meantime, Semmi has taken it unto himself to spend money like water in redecorating their shabby apartment – a move that causes King Joffer to make inquiries about his son’s visit and suddenly realize that Akeem’s true purpose in coming to America was to find his own bride.


Of course, this being a comedy, it all ends well with Lisa respecting Akeem as a pauper, then ultimately realizing she has come to love him as a prince. We return to Zamunda on the day of Akeem's marriage, the kingdom rejoicing that the valiant successor to the throne has at last found his bride. Coming To America is one of Eddie Murphy's best movies. It's part fairy-tale/part romantic comedy and yes, part social commentary - all of it neatly packaged and slickly scripted to take advantage of Murphy's craftiness as a great comedian. The vignettes in the barbershop not withstanding - for these play more like asides than intervening narrative construction to move the story along and forward, the plot evolves with an effortless charm that never becomes obvious or strained.

Almost from the moment the film begins, so too do the laughs – multi-layered and superbly crafted. Coming To America arrived at the tail end of Murphy’s supremacy as a comedic successor to the late Richard Pryor. As an actor/star/comedian, Murphy is indeed in rare form – his gamut of bizarre stereotypes crossing both black and white cultural barriers and running riotously amuck of each.

Who can forget Murphy’s take on the Jewish retiree, Saul whose bad humor is so obtuse it’s a riot. Or what about Murphy’s utterly perverted musings as the Rick James inspired evangelist who helps host the fundraiser? After witnessing a bevy of female beauty contestants paraded on stage next to the band ‘Sexual Chocolate’, Murphy’s salivating, grimacing evangelist declares, “I know there is a God after all!” Time and again, Murphy proves that he not only is a superior chameleon but a pure comedy genius on par with Richard Pryor and Robin Williams.

Arsenio Hall, then best known to audiences as the host of his own popular late night talk show in competition with The Tonight Show, acquits himself admirably of being Prince Akeem’s less than experienced court liaise. The rest of the supporting cast is very good indeed, particularly James Earl Jones as the slightly cantankerous and occasionally despondent ruler of this majestic land, and John Amos, who steps in as something of a surrogate in Jones' absence during the middle act of the story. Sol Negrin and Woody Omens’ cinematography creates perfect counterpoints between the fictitious Zamunda and all too real slums of Queens. In the final analysis, Coming To America is great good fun and likely to remain so for many decades to come.

Paramount Home Video’s Blu-Ray offering easily bests its non-anamorphic DVD release of several years ago. It also improves upon the more recent collector’s edition with a slightly more refined image. Colors are beautifully rendered in medium and close up, with fine detail evident in fabric, skin tones and background detail. Moderately disappointing is how long shots tend to suffer from a decidedly softer focus, often slightly blurry – particularly in their background details. Overall, the image will not disappoint and yet there is decidedly something lacking.

The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and quite adequate for this vintage 80s presentation. Extras include new featurettes detailing the creation of the film, Rick Baker’s contributions to make up, the costumes, as well as a vintage sit down with Eddie Murphy and the film’s theatrical trailer presented in hi-def. Highly recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
3.5

GOSFORD PARK - Blu-Ray Universal/USA Films 2001) Alliance Home Video

It may be a throwback to the days when simplicity and solid story telling reigned supreme in film making, but Gosford Park (2001) - director Robert Altman’s penultimate tale of murder set inside a stylish English country estate - is a rich and rewarding tapestry of magnificent performances; a curious landscape of assorted characters, each with their own fully realized hidden agenda played out for maximum effect.

Initially based on nothing more than an idea by Altman and producer/co-star Bob Balaban, the final screenplay by Julian Fellowes teems with darkly comedic insincerity. On the surface, the plot is a standard mystery/suspense of the Agatha Christie ilk.

However, Fellowes’ clever interpretation of this material allows for a subtle investigation of England’s class structure and a fascinating glimpse into the underworld of British aristocracy as seen almost entirely from the perspectives of its servants.

The film begins in earnest with the arrival of Lady Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith) to the fashionable country estate of her cousin, Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon). A pampered nuisance, Constance is one of William’s guests for a weekend retreat and hunting party. William’s wife, Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas) is self-indulgent and bored; carrying on a quiet flirtation with Lord Raymond Stockbridge (Charles Dance) while Raymond’s wife, Louisa (Geraldine Somerville) is having a full-blown affair with William.

At the same time, William is also carrying on with his upstairs maid, Elsie (Emily Watson) – very chummy, indeed.The rest of William’s guest list for the weekend retreat reads like a who’s who of the well-to-do; desperate, financially strapped Anthony (Tom Hollander) and his understanding wife, Lavinia Meredith (Natasha Wightman); bumbling Hollywood film producer, Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban) and Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), his American twink boyfriend cum actor who is also impersonating his valet; money-hungry schemer Freddie Nesbitt (James Wilby) who is blackmailing William’s daughter Isobel (Camilla Rutherford) over an affair they had that resulted in her pregnancy and abortion; Freddie’s innocent and put upon wife, Mabel (Claudie Blakley) and British film star, Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam) who has been invited to provide piano entertainment during the parlor games.

Aside: of these guests, only actor Jeremy Northam plays a person who actually existed in life. Indeed, by 1930 Ivor Novello was on of Britain’s most popular matinee idols, appearing in such classics as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger (1927).

In the above stairs intrigues; Anthony is hoping to involve William in a business venture to supply soldiers in the Sudan with military garb – a prospect William originally entertained but now seems reticent to partake in. After making a nuisance of himself in both the kitchen and the parlor, Henry latches on to Sylvia’s superficial flirtations and the two briefly become lovers – though only after he has failed in his attempt to rape one of the servant girls.

Meanwhile, an entirely different set of tragedies is unfolding below stairs; the estate’s cook, Mrs. Croft (Eileen Atkins) despises her sister, the head mistress, Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren) with a passion. The head butler, Jennings (Alan Bates) harbors a dark secret while inadvertently becoming the idealized romantic figure of chambermaid, Dorothy (Sophie Thompson).

Constance’s lady in waiting, Mary Maceachran (Kelly MacDonald), becomes the object of Henry’s failed rape, then grows enamored with man servant, Robert Parks (Clive Owen) who has come to the McCordle estate to tend to some ‘unfinished family business.’Altman’s gift for overlapping dialogue weaves all of these finely conceived narrative threads into one magnificent tapestry of cinematic verisimilitude.

The characters are engaging, their motivations - magnetic. Yes, the murder is expected, but that’s not the point of the story. Gosford Park harks to an era when the journey, rather than the destination, was of utmost importance in thrilling an audience. On that basic level the screenplay excels. Gosford Park is most definitely Altman’s masterwork.

Alliance Atlantis Blu-Ray disc is a colossal disappointment! The original DVD was an adequate, though not pristine presentation. On DVD, the image was merely soft. On Blu-Ray the image looks faded, grainy and overly softly focused throughout. Theatrically, this softness was represented pleasingly. On DVD it appears more blurry than anything else with a decided loss of fine details. On Blu-Ray it is a gross distraction.

But what is wrong with the Blu-Ray’s colors?!? They have so grossly been de-saturated that at times the image appears almost monochromatic. Contrast levels appear to have been artificially bumped up. Bar none – this is one of the worst discs I have seen in the new medium. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and offers nothing by way of an upgrade.

Worse, extras including several brief featurettes, two engaging audio commentaries, a commercial for the soundtrack album and the film’s original theatrical trailer that were included on the DVD have been omitted for the Blu-Ray release. This is certainly not the way this reviewer wants to remember one of the finest melodramas made in the last 10 years. Not recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5

EXTRAS
0

AIR FORCE ONE - Blu-Ray (Columbia 1997) Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Back in the day when homeland terrorism was not quite so immediately ingrained in the public consciousness it was fair game and avid film fodder for high-octane thrills on the big screen. Wolfgang Peterson’s Air Force One (1997) is no exception: a bare-knuckled thrill ride capitalizing on yet another variation of the ‘what if’ scenario that delivers the cinematic goods on almost every level.

The film stars Harrison Ford as fictional U.S. President James Marshall. After addressing a Russian delegation in Moscow on America’s ‘zero tolerance’ stance toward terrorists, Marshall, the First Lady, Grace (Wendy Crewson) and their young daughter, Alice (Liesel Matthews) board Air Force One for a routine flight back home.

Unfortunately for all concerned, the plane is hijacked by militant Russian terrorist, Ivan Korshunov (Gary Oldman) and his brutalizing band of cutthroats who are intent on holding the President, his family and members of his cabinet flying home with him hostage until Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) can negotiate the release of dissident enemy of the state, Gen. Ivan Radek (Jurgen Prochnow).

Double unfortunate for the terrorists - because Marshall refuses to give in. An all out war breaks out high in the sky as Marshall and his captives struggle to make Korshunov and his men accountable for their actions. Time, however, may not be on anyone’s side. As Air Force One continues to taxi in the sky its fuel supply dwindles until the only means of safety for the President and his crew is to evacuate via parachute.

In his best non-Jack Ryan political thriller of the decade, Harrison Ford proves once again why he is one of the best action heroes of his generation; infusing that special blend of defiance with a thin veneer of vulnerability that makes all of the characters he plays ultimately more human and satisfying. Glenn Close gives fine support from her briefing room at the White House. Gary Oldman is a veritable chameleon.

Director Peterson is a master of this sort of cliché action thriller – never allowing the audience to stop and reconsider the improbabilities - like firing a litany of rounds from a semi-automatic rifle without one bullet piercing the plane’s pressurized cabin. Instead, Peterson concentrates and capitalizes on the looming claustrophobia. After all – we, like the President and the terrorists, are confined to a plane for nearly two hours. There are only so many places to hide. Yet, not once does the maneuvering between upper and lower levels become boring, stultifying or dull.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Blu-Ray is a step up from its two previous and competing versions on standard DVD: the first a bare bones disc; the second - an equally bare bones ‘Superbit’. However, there’s really not much difference between the Superbit transfer and the Blu-Ray. Arguably, there wasn’t much room for improvement.

A side by side comparison in image quality between the Blu-Ray and standard DVD reveals just how impeccable the original disc’s mastering efforts were. The anamorphic widescreen image is superb. Yes, the Blu-Ray’s color palette is ever so slightly more vibrant and refined on the Blu-Ray. Yes, contrast levels have been more finely rendered to include subtler details. Blacks are deep and solid; whites, pristine. Still, this 1080p transfer is hardly worth an upgrade unless you’re a die hard fan of the film, particularly so since only a director’s commentary is included as an extra feature. The audio is presented only as 5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
1

ROXANNE - Blu-Ray (Columbia 1987) Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Fred Schepisi’s Roxanne (1987) is actually Edmund Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac recast, updated and set in a small Washington ski village during the off season. On this occasion, Cyrano is Charlie Bales (Steve Martin), the accomplished captain of the town’s inexperienced fire brigade. Charlie’s a great guy – everyone’s best friend and a genuine ham when it comes to the ladies.

He has everything going for him except his nose. It’s huge and the subject of much hushed discussion within the town – hushed, that is, because anyone making a public spectacle of Charlie’s formidable girth can expect a verbal crucifixion and possible assault with a tennis racket in return.

Confident, proud and generally above the trivialities of life, Charlie’s world is turned askew with the arrival of sophisticated astronomer, Roxanne Kowalski (Daryl Hannah).

Almost immediately, Roxanne is attracted to Charlie’s intelligence and sensitivity. But can she ever truly find him desirable?Charlie's friend, Dixie (Shelly Duval) insists that all Charlie has to do to win the fair Roxanne is be who he is. Instead, Charlie finds himself writing love poetry as the mouthpiece for fellow firefighter, Chris McConnell (Rick Rossovich).

Every man’s envy and every woman’s desire, Chris is so deathly afraid of women in general that he literally throws up when true love is mentioned. Soon Roxanne finds herself torn between the prose of one man and the physicality of another whom at least in the flesh, pales to her expectations in both wit and class. How can this be?

The film is justly remembered for Steve Martin’s sustained comedic performance and its superb set piece that takes place inside the town’s local watering hole. Confronted by a bar room boar, Charlie accepts the challenge to come up with thirty more clever ways to make fun of his own nose.

Darryl Hannah, Shelley Duvall and Rick Rossovich all give credible – if hardly superb – performances in support of Steve Martin’s wit. Schepisi’s direction is smooth and effortless. This is a timeless comedy, immeasurably fleshed out by its beautiful cinematography and the effortless grace of Martin at his best. In the final analysis, Roxanne is a treat and, in retrospect, an adult comedy that does not talk down to its audience.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment’s Blu-Ray incarnation easily bests the lack luster, non-anamorphic transfer fans of this film have been grappling with since its debut in 1999. The Blu-Ray’s anamorphic widescreen image is remarkably life like with vibrant – if dated - 1980’s colors. Solid contrast levels and a considerable amount of fine detail are clearly evident, even during the darkest night scenes. Occasionally, flesh tones still appear slightly pasty, though they are much improved over the old DVD transfer.

Age related artifacts that were obvious on the DVD have been removed on the Blu-Ray and compression artifacts often glaringly obvious on the DVD are absent on the Blu-Ray for a very smooth and satisfying image throughout. The audio is 2.0 surround and sufficient for this primarily dialogue driven movie. There are NO extras.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5

EXTRAS
0