Sunday, July 12, 2009

RIO BRAVO - Blu-Ray (Warner Bros. 1959) Warner Home Video

Based on a short story by B.H. McCampbell, director Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) represented something of a major comeback. By the time of its release it had been almost five years since Hawks last movie.

The laconic Hawks, who had exhibited three decades of versatility behind the camera on films like Bringing Up Baby (1938), The Big Sleep (1946) and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) had seen his reputation plummet with Land of the Pharaohs (1955); a DeMillian epic that ironically failed to catch on with the public and was all but lambasted by the critics. Also in this interim, the studio system that had coddled directors like Hawks had severely eroded, leaving Hawks at sea in terms of reestablishing himself with both his peers and the public.

Employing long time collaborators Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman to pen the screenplay, Hawks turned to long time friend and star, John Wayne for backing on the project. Like Hawks, Wayne’s career had faltered with a series of minor misfires throughout the early to mid-1950s. In fact, Wayne had not had a hit or appeared in a western since John Ford’s iconic The Searchers (1956).

In casting Rio Bravo, Wayne’s name on a marquee still carried major clout. And although Walter Brennan’s name was quick to accompany Wayne’s on a short list of actors the director knew and trusted, to round out his cast Hawks made two uncharacteristic choices that proved fortuitous and ever-lasting to the film’s box office appeal and success.

The first of these was Dean Martin; then seen as half of the ultra-popular comedy act Martin and Lewis. A rift with Jerry Lewis made Martin a free agent and more than eager to make his bones on a Howard Hawks picture. However, Hawks feared that Martin’s light persona was at odds with the harsh portrait of drunkenness he had in mind for the character of Dude. Nevertheless, Hawks granted Martin an audience and later, an audition for the part and was sufficiently impressed by both to hire Martin for the film.

The latter uncharacteristic casting choice Howard Hawks made for Rio Bravo involved pop icon and teen heartthrob Ricky Nelson to play the gunslinger, Colorado. At the time Ricky Nelson was the biggest name in the cast – having grown to prominence on TV’s The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. However, Hawks was rather unimpressed by Nelson’s first few days of shooting, eventually coaching him to observe the mannerisms of actor Montgomery Clift in another Hawks’ western – Red River – to develop his own cadence and mood for the part.

The plot to Rio Bravo begins in earnest with the imprisonment of Joe Burnette (Claude Akins) for the murder of an innocent man during a bar room altercation that involved Deputy Sheriff Dude (Dean Martin) and the town Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne). Burnette’s posse doesn’t take lightly to his incarceration and neither does Burnette’s brother, wealthy rancher Nathan (John Russell).

After the Sheriff’s long time friend Pat Wheeler offers to help guard the jail – and is murdered by Burnette’s men as a direct result – Wheeler’s hired gun, Colorado Ryan (Ricky Nelson) decides to unite with the Sheriff, Dude and town jailer, Stumpy (Walter Brennan) to hold down the fort until the U.S. Marshall’s arrival.

There are two back stories running simultaneously with this central narrative; the first involving the Sheriff’s growing affections for Feathers (Angie Dickinson) – part of a card game con who is on the lam and out to romantically snare the Sheriff. The other narrative thread worth mentioning is Dude’s triumphant resurrection from the clutches of alcoholism brought about by a previous love affair gone rancid.

Eventually, all of this quiet sustained tension culminates in an explosive showdown between the Sheriff, Dude and Colorado vs. Nathan Burnette and his men. However, just prior to this finale Hawks finds a perfect moment in the screenplay to illustrate his appreciation for male bonding by having Dude and Colorado lead Stumpy and the Sheriff in two quaintly familiar songs; thereby extolling the singing virtues of Martin and Nelson – a definite plus for audiences of their day.

Not all of Rio Bravo is great but so much of it is solid entertainment that it is impossible not to be captivated by the movie as a whole. There are several long stretches where the action seems to drag, particularly during the first third of the movie. The last act however, is pure gold. Hawks is working with stellar material and certainly, stellar talent.

The film is as much a reunion and return to form for all concerned as it is about making a great western to counterbalance and/or offset Hawks own contempt for the anti-establishment western classic, High Noon starring Gary Cooper. In the final analysis, Rio Bravo is sparkling entertainment and so deserving of its place in cinema history. It’s no wonder Hawks elected to remake it twice more in his later years.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray offering easily bests its Collector’s Edition standard DVD. Yet, the image still isn’t quite up to par. Despite a print made by Technicolor, the anamorphic image exhibits a rather ruddy and undefined color palette. Browns, oranges, blacks and grays all take on a non-descript muddy tone. Flesh tones are often too reddish pink or flat orange. Both in long and medium shots, fine details seem to be buried under a light patina of film grain and clumpy color.

Overall, the image will certainly not disappoint – but it doesn’t seem to be pushing the boundaries of Blu-Ray’s high resolution either. The audio is 5.1 lossless. The real beneficiary is the two songs sung by Ricky Nelson and Dean Martin, obviously remixed from the original mag tracks and reedited back into the sound mix for this update.

Extras are all direct imports from the SE DVD, including the three documentaries (one on the film, the last two on Hawks), plus an informative audio commentary from John Carpenter and Richard Schickel, and, the film’s original theatrical trailer. Recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
3.5

DIE HARD - Blu-Ray (20th Century-Fox 1988) Fox Home Video

Based on Roderick Thorp’s novel ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’, John McTiernan’s high octane action/adventure, Die Hard (1988) effectively ushered in the gut-wrenching heart-pounding roller coaster ride that audiences have since come to expect as a main staple from their summer film fare. What McTiernan did was to take the nail-biting thrills of a James Bond flick and distill them down for the everyman.

As such, McTiernan’s hero, John McClane (Bruce Willis) isn’t a suave lady’s man in a tux; just a cop in his undershirt and barefoot no less, carrying an awfully big grudge.

McClane is glib, street savvy and hard to live with. This latter bone of contention is exacerbated when John arrives in Los Angeles to discover that his wife has not only made a great success out of her career, but is also working under her maiden name; Holly Genero (Bonnie Bedelia).

However, before the mechanics of John and Holly’s tempestuous relationship can be effectively fleshed out in the screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza, Bonnie’s place of business, Nakatomi Plaza (actually Fox’s then newly constructed Century City) is taken hostage by a group of East German terrorists front-lined by the maniacal narcissistic Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman). Gruber goes through the motions of pretending to be a liberator for imprisoned compatriots around the globe, but actually he’s just a common thief who is after the $650,000,000.00 in bearer bonds sealed within Nakatomi’s vault.

First threatening, and then murdering Nakatomi’s east coast President, Joseph Yoshinobu Takagi (James Shigeta), Gruber next employs his computer hacker, Theo (Clarence Gilyard Jr.) to set about cracking the codes to the safe before local law enforcement learns of their coup.
But Gruber has met his match when John decides to become a one man arsenal. Skillfully picking off the terrorists one by one, John gains the attention of Sgt. Al Powell (Reginald Valjohnson) and inadvertently incurs the wrath of his superior, Deputy Police Chief Dwayne T. Robinson (Paul Gleason).

What John doesn’t count on is Gruber discovering that Holly is his wife – thereby tipping the scales in Gruber’s favor when he decides to hold her as the ultimate hostage in this high stakes showdown.As an action movie, Die Hard is in a class by itself – although at the time of shooting, it is doubtful that anyone knew it. In fact, Fox executives were none too happy with McTiernan and his crew when they viewed dailies and saw that the crew was detonating real explosives in their as yet unfinished office complex (built on the site where the glorious old Fox Studios back lot facades once sat).

Although assured that the building was structurally sound and undamaged by the staging of these action sequences – only sound box office revenue after the film’s release could convince the studio that the danger was worth the exercise. What they received for their white-knuckled patience was a summer blockbuster of chart topping proportions.

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray offering of Die Hard easily bests its previously issued (and re-issued under various other editions) 2-disc 5 Star Edition. The Blu-Ray’s picture quality is superb, capturing even the most subtle tonality in the stylized orangey hues that, on previous editions, registered as a ruddy – and often very flat and pasty - brown.

On the whole, colors are deep, rich and solid. Flesh tones are very nicely realized, right down to Bruce Willis’ shoulder scar. Fine details are visible and much sharper than ever seen before. The audio is HD lossless 5.1, delivering an earth shattering experience to the sonic field during the action sequences. Dialogue, however, tends to sound a bit tinny by comparison with a curious lack of timber in the bass.

What is unforgivable about this Blu-Ray release is its excision of the extras included in virtually all of the SE DVD releases, including the thorough and detailed documentary on the making of the film and reflections and interviews from cast and crew. Instead, we get two audio commentaries, a stills gallery and the film’s theatrical trailer. For shame!

Die Hard on Blu-Ray comes recommended for its impeccable video and audio quality. But don’t pitch your standard disc out just yet. You’ll need it to appreciate the extra features!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
5

EXTRAS
2

DIE HARD 2 - Blu-Ray (20th Century-Fox 1990) Fox Home Video

Based on Walter Wager’s novel, 58 Minutes, Die Hard 2 (1990) has been generally slammed as a heavy handed sequel to John McTiernan’s 1988 blockbuster. Owing to the fact that McTiernan was unavailable to participate in this second excursion, director Renny Harlen assumed the reigns with Steven E. de Souza returning to pen the screenplay along with newcomer to the franchise, Doug Richardson.

Undeniably, the story in this second installment is darker in mood and tone, although that should hardly be considered a shortcoming. If fact, in viewing the film today, the severity of the story line seems a perfect counterpoint to the more lighthearted previous venture.

Plot wise: having already rescued his wife, Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) the Christmas before from marauding terrorists inside Nakatomi Plaza, Detective John McClane (Bruce Willis) must now save her and a host of passengers aboard their flight bound for New York after a group of terrorists fronted by Col. Stuart (William Sadler) seize control of the airport’s radio tower and threaten to start crashing planes by giving them faulty landing coordinates – unless, of course, their demands are met.

The chief problem within the narrative is, of course, that there is an insider on this rescue mission; Maj. Grant (John Amos) who pretends to be on McClane’s side, but is actually working with Stuart for the liberation of Gen. Ramon Esperanza (Franco Nero). *Aside: Esperanza is credited as being an exile from Valverde – the fictional Latin American country featured in the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Commando, for which Wager’s novel was originally purchased as a possible sequel to that film – not Die Hard.

The central problem with the screenplay, however, is that it becomes a bit too conveniently contrived the further we get involved with the characters. As example: the insertion of characters, Sgt. Powell (Reginald Veljohnson); the good natured cop, and, the lecherous reporter, Richard Thornburg (William Atherton) – conveniently aboard Holly’s plane (thereby allowing her some sweet revenge for the havoc he created with her life in part one) play more like camp ‘reunion’ elements within this story, rather than integral bits to the action at hand.

Nevertheless, the level of expectation with regards to the thrill factor in this second outing is valiantly met. Pyrotechnics and gun fire aside, Willis emerges from the debris as the undisputed every man champ of the piece; the ideal blend of cynicism and patriotism that becomes more palpably engaging with renewed viewing.

Harlin’s direction is perhaps a bit more perfunctory than McTiernan’s. He likes his action sequences done with multiple cuts and a lot of slow mo to fully take in the breadth of destruction. Nevertheless, Harlin’s take on the franchise really doesn’t damage its credibility – a commonly wielded accusation from critics at the time of the film’s general release. In the final analysis, Die Hard 2 isn’t quite as good as the first movie; but it’s hardly a dud.

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray offering easily bests its previously issued (and re-issued) Collector’s Edition. The Blu-Ray’s picture quality is superb, capturing even the most subtle tonality in the stylized orangey hues that, on previous editions, registered as a ruddy – and often very flat and pasty - brown. On the whole, colors are deep, rich and solid. Flesh tones are very nicely realized. Fine details are visible and much sharper than ever seen before. The audio is HD lossless 5.1, delivering an earth shattering experience to the sonic field during the action sequences. Dialogue, is more natural sounding.

Curiously, this Blu-Ray release contains all the extras included in the SE DVD (*curious because most of the extras from the SE DVD for the original Die Hard have yet to make the transition to Blu-Ray) including the thorough documentary on the making of the film and reflections and interviews from cast and crew; plus audio commentaries, a stills gallery and the film’s theatrical trailer. Recommended.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
3

DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE - Blu-Ray (20th Century Fox 1995) Fox Home Video

Owing to tepid response to their 1990 sequel, 2oth Century-Fox held off on attempting another installment to their lucrative franchise until Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995). By then, director John McTiernan’s schedule had freed up to return to the fold, along with star Bruce Willis. Employing an original screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh, with support from original screenwriter Roderick Thorp for certain characters and situations, this third installment comes full circle.

Jettison from this narrative is Bonnie Bedelia’s damsel in distress in favor of a dangerous game of cat and mouse between John McClane (Bruce Willis) and terrorist, Simon Gruber (Jeremy Irons) – Hans Gruber’s brother. After a bomb is detonated inside a popular New York department store, Simon Gruber contacts John to set his plot in motion; a taut game of punishment loosely based on the children’s ‘Simon Says’ where Gruber manipulates John’s every move.


After John is forced by Simon to sport a billboard in the middle of Harlem with an incendiary racial slur scribbled across it, he inadvertently is rescued from certain death at the hands of an all black gang by Zeus Carver (Samuel L. Jackson) – a local shop keeper. Incurring Simon’s wrath, Zeus and John are forced to join together on their search for the bombs that Simon assures them have already been planted around town and in local public schools with a countdown to total destruction.

What John and Zeus fail to realize is that Simon is not really interested in blowing up buildings, but rather in raiding New York’s gold depository for some quick cash. Simon also happens to be out for revenge on John for having killed his brother in the original Die Hard. Eventually Simon’s rouse is discovered but not before John and Zeus nearly tear one another apart.

Of all the Die Hard movies, this one is perhaps the most satisfying. The chemistry and male bonding between Jackson and Willis seems convincing and genuine; allowing the audience to grow into their relationship as their characters reluctantly do the same. Jonathan Hensleigh’s screenplay combines high octane thrills with great moments of intensely enjoyable comedy – something Part 2 regrettably lacked – thereby allowing the audience its break from Simon’s severity that threatens to bring New York to its knees.

*Aside: in the years since 911, scenes of New Yorkers fleeing explosive destruction has taken on an ominous precursor to real life events – disturbing and perhaps foreshadowing things to come. Nevertheless, as a time capsule in the days before such homeland violence was a consideration, this third installment to the franchise is engaging and exhilarating - jam packed with harrowing stunts and great excitement and thrills.

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray easily bests its previously issued SE DVD. The Blu-Ray’s picture quality is superb. On the whole, colors are deep, rich and solid, though there continues to be a fine patina of grain present in this third movie that neither of the first two films visually had. Flesh tones are very nicely realized. Fine details are visible and much sharper than ever seen before. The audio is HD lossless 5.1, delivering an earth shattering experience to the sonic field during the action sequences.

Extras include a making of documentary, audio commentaries, trivia tracks and theatrical trailer: all imports from the standard DVD release. Recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
3

Saturday, July 11, 2009

NATIONAL TREASURE - Blu-Ray (Disney/Bruckheimer 2004) Walt Disney Home Video

Jon Turteltaub’s National Treasure (2004) is intriguingly mindless good fun; an action adventure yarn that attempts to fabricate a mystery involving the Free Masons, the founding fathers and the constitution of the United States. The screenplay by Jim Kouf and Cormac and Marianne Wibberley contains just enough truth to tantalize an audience, while delivering its fanciful treasure hunt caper in the best tradition of the old Saturday matinee serials.

The story begins one dark and stormy night in the attic of John Adams Gates (Christopher Plummer) where grandson, Ben (Hunter Gomez) has discovered a secret text containing clues to a fabulous treasure hidden somewhere in the United States by the Templar Knights of the Free Masons. Ben’s father Patrick (Jon Voight) dismisses granddad’s claim that the treasure actually exists, explaining to Ben that three generations of Gates have wasted their lives in the futile pursuit of this legend.

Fast-forward to present day: an undaunted Ben (Nicholas Cage) is in hot pursuit across the frozen Arctic for the next hidden key to the mystery – the S.S. Charlotte; a sunken ship lost almost a century ago. On this mission, Ben is joined by friend and colleague Riley Poole (Justin Bartha) and devious treasure hunter, Ian Howe (Sean Bean) who has funded the expedition for personal gain. Upon discovering the Charlotte and yet another clue inside its hull pointing to a secret map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, Ian decides it is time to jettison his relationship with Ben and Riley by killing them both.

The plan goes awry. Ian makes off with the next clue while Ben and Riley arrive in Washington D.C.However, after confessing their wild tale to the FBI, the men are confronted by skepticism from National Archive curator, Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger). Ben makes a radical decision. He will steal the Declaration before Ian does in order to preserve the hidden location of its national treasure. And so, the chase for more clues and race against time begins.

Caught somewhere between the pages of this contemporary Indiana Jones styled action/adventure flick is a romance desperately screaming to get out. Abigail inadvertently gets mixed up in the theft of the Declaration, thereafter perking her intrigue and providing the necessary, but predictable sexy subplot between her and Ben while everyone is relentlessly pursued by FBI investigator, Sandusky (Harvey Keitel).

To be certain, there are some marvelous set pieces scattered throughout this rather obvious film – the best involving the discovery of the cave of treasures. On the whole however, the narrative slips into pedestrian escapism. We’ve seen all this before – just tweaked in a slightly different direction and with more engaging actors at the forefront of the story.

Cage is adequate as the ‘passionate’ amateur sleuth whose deductive logic is seemingly working overtime 24/7. His laconic ‘charm’ however, never quite elevates his performance beyond a sort of ‘ho-hum…I’ve re-discovered America’ attitude. Even after he’s seen the stored riches with his own eyes, one gets the sense that he’s not so much impressed by the grandeur of it all as he is slyly pleased with himself for having proven three generations of his family wrong. Bartha is an amiable cohort on this journey – foppish and stooge-like to Ben’s brilliance, although one wonders exactly why Ben would chose someone so inept to assist him on his recovery mission. Kruger is the weakest of the lot, playing insipid insolence that inexplicably melts away almost immediately after meeting Ben.

Bean is typecast as the baddie once again. He’s menacing enough, but wasted in a near cameo performance that has him hiding around corners and playing catch up just two steps behind Ben and his treasure protectors. In the final analysis, National Treasure isn’t a bad film. It’s just not an exceptional one and a single outing with Ben and company is enough to last a lifetime.

Disney Home Video’s Blu-Ray ironically doesn’t seem to best its Deluxe Edition 2-disc DVD as much as it matches the exemplar quality of that disc on par. The anamorphic 2:35:1 image contains colors that don’t seem quite so bold or eye-popping as one might expect. Contrast levels are bang on. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are pristine. The audio is a Disney Home Theater 5.1 Digital remix that is extremely aggressive and nicely spread across all channels.

Extras include everything available on the 2-disc standard DVD; a litany of deleted scenes and alternate endings with or without director commentary, several informative featurettes, games, theatrical trailers and vintage interviews with cast and crew, plus two new extras exclusive to Blu-Ray: a history special on the real Declaration of Independence and an audio commentary. Recommended!

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
4

EXTRAS
3

FANNY (Warner Bros. 1961) Image Entertainment

Based on S.N. Behrman’s musical play by the same name, Joshua Logan’s Fanny (1961) jettisons the original Harold Rome songs of the stage show (they are only heard as orchestral background) in favor of a remarkably adult tale about a French waif who suddenly finds herself pregnant, but without a husband.

The screenplay by Julius J. Epstein is remarkably frank and uncharacteristically glib about the foibles of human sexuality and its inevitable fallout; a very progressive attitude then, given the climate of the production code and Hollywood’s usual lack of addressing any adult relationship as a relationship between adults. Jack Cardiff’s lush and captivating cinematography offsets the immediate severity of the story with some truly inspiring vistas of the south of France.

The narrative begins at the seaside café of Cesar (Charles Boyer) and his adult son, Marius (Horst Buchholz). Cesar and the town’s wealthiest reprobate, Panisse (Maurice Chevalier) indulge in some harmless badinage with the locals by placing a heavy brick under a bollard brim hat and then casually observing as various passers by attempt to kick the hat but instead miserably stub their toes.

Panisse has eyes for the youthful Fanny (Leslie Caron) who frequents Cesar’s café in the hopes that she will eventually lure the affections of Marius away from his first love; the sea. To no avail, Fanny realizes that Marius’ true desire is to leave the claustrophobic existence of his youth behind and sail away to great adventures on the ocean.

Unfortunately, one night of passion before Marius sneaks off to become a sailor results in Fanny becoming pregnant. Her mother, Honorine (Georgette Anys) is furious with Fanny, almost as much as Cesar is with Marius for abandoning them both for his personal lark. To save face, Fanny agrees to a marriage proposal from Panisse who offers to rear Marius’ son as his own – thereby fulfilling his family’s legacy to procure an heir for the family business after he has passed on.

Cesar vows to keep Marius’ son, Cesario (Joel Flateau) a secret. But Escartifique (Salvatore Baccaloni), the crazy sea captain who was initially responsible for having Marius put out to sea, eventually reunites Cesario with his real father. Panisse becomes ill on the eve of a lavishly planned birthday gala for Cesario, forcing Fanny to go in search of her son – only to discover that Marius and he have found one another. On his deathbed, Panisse realizes that Fanny still love Marius. Deciding to free Fanny of her marital obligations to him, Panisse’s final request is that Cesario retain his family name and maintain the secret of his illegitimate birth.

Billed as “all the world’s love stories rolled into one” Fanny was nominated for 5 Academy Awards including Best Picture. Yet, in viewing the film today it seems more of a time capsule than a revelation. Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Boyer and Horst Buchholtz all deliver A-1 caliber performances, and yet there is something intrinsically lacking from the piece as a whole.

Perhaps, given his own heavy handed lack of success with musicals in general, director Joshua Logan’s excision of the memorable score works in favor of the film. As an entertainment, Fanny does come alive in fits and sparks – more so during the last act than anywhere else – but it never quite lives up to its own marketing publicity even as a serious melodrama. Is it worth a second glance? Yes…but that’s about all.

Owing to a rights issue, Image Entertainment assumes the DVD release of Fanny – a film originally made with funding by Warner Bros. The anamorphic transfer is quite adequate, though hardly stellar. Jack Cardiff’s cinematography is slightly buried under a patina of film grain and age related artifacts. Colors on the whole are vibrant, but the subtle nuances of Cardiff’s best work are tempered by manipulated contrast levels that fade out much of the middle register – particularly during bright day time scenes. Studio bound footage fairs better. Flesh tones appear slightly pasty and somewhat pinkish. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital. The only extra worth noting is a CD copy of the film’s beautifully orchestrated score – well worth multiple listens even as the film may only warrant one casual viewing.

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

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
1