Wednesday, December 15, 2010

TONIGHT: 4 DECADES OF THE TONIGHT SHOW (Carson 1969-1992) R2 Entertainment

In 1962, brought on by contractual disputes and several ill timed emotional outbursts from its then host Jack Paar, NBC made the auspicious decision to recast its live New York late night variety hour with failed talk show, but moderately successful game show, host Johnny Carson. Late night TV would never be the same. Assuming the reigns in October of that year, the revamped Tonight Show hit the ground running - with a new theme supplied by Paul Anka and buoyantly orchestrated by Doc Severinsen, as well as Ed McMahon's trademark "Heeeeeeer's Johnny!"

The Tonight Show's format, though simple, proved effective with Carson often making weak, and even bad, jokes seem like the height of chic good taste during his opening monologues before swinging a phantom golf club to kick off a round of interviews and performing acts.

To say that Carson elevated camp to high art would be an understatement. Over the next two decades he introduced television audiences to such beloved chestnuts as cantankerous busybody Aunt Blabby, turban wearing clairvoyant Carnac the Magnificent, and, loveable ham Art Fern. And, of course, there was Carson's superb multiple cameos as President Ronald Reagan throughout the 1980s.

However, there was also a streak of meanness about the Carson mystique, particularly during the 1970s when on camera barbs swapped with Ed McMahon frequently turned sullen about their mutual drinking, carousing and multiple lady friends and wives. During Sept. 26th, 1974's broadcast featuring Dom DeLuise, Burt Reynolds and Art Carney, Carson used DeLuise's simple magic act involving real eggs to start a raucous food fight, rubbing whipped cream on Reynolds leather pants. It all seems to have been in great good fun, but in hindsight some genuine bitterness shines through.

Carson had his share of legitimate feuds; some played for spectacle on The Tonight Show, others leaked in private. Frequent jokes made by Carson about Wayne Newton's alleged homosexuality resulted in a near physical altercation between the two backstage. An ongoing love/hate relationship between Carson and comedian Don Rickles resulted in Carson unexpectedly dunking a fully clothed Rickles in a tub of water during one of his skits; a bit of improv that did not amuse the bedraggled Rickles.

Finally, there was the instance when Carson embarrassed comedian David Letterman by having his beat up pickup truck towed from his Malibu property. The incident was later ironed out in a follow up episode where Judge Wopner mediated the return of the vehicle to Letterman.

In hindsight The Tonight Show's ultimate strength and staying power lay in its ever-evolving roster of guests; a blisteringly eclectic myriad of Hollywood legends, up and comers, sports stars, politicians and beloved animal acts whose interactions, both with Carson and other featured guests on the same episode, made for compelling conversations around the water cooler the next day.

Originally, The Tonight Show began at 11:15pm and ran for 90 minutes. But by 1972, that had been pared down to the more manageable hour format with Carson offering Monday to 'guest' hosts. Among these, comedian Joan Rivers became the most 'permanent' fixture until she was offered her own show in 1986, causing a permanent rift between Rivers and the king of late night.

On May 22, 1992 Johnny Carson retired from The Tonight Show after a week's worth of farewell episodes culminating with long time friends Robin Williams and Bette Midler providing a stellar close to his guest roster, and a solitary 'goodbye' episode that simply featured Carson with Ed and Doc schmoozing about their collective tenure.

"And so it has come to this," an emotional Carson concluded, "...I have enjoyed every single minute of it...I can only tell you that it has been an honour and a privilege to come into your homes all these years and entertain you, and I hope when I find something that I want to do, and I think you would like, and come back, that you'll be as gracious in inviting me into your home as you have been. I bid you a very heartfelt goodnight."

Johnny Carson may be the undisputed 'king of late night' but you would never guess it judging by the utterly miserable slap dash treatment he has received from R2 Entertainment - the company that currently controls the rights to The Tonight Show. Tonight: 4 Decades of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson is the company's latest venture in a series of misfires.

This latest instalment to the Carson legacy is, frankly, an embarrassment! Fans continue to get spliced together episodes rather than complete broadcasts - heavy-handedly Ginsu-ed by someone who clearly does not understand the basic concepts of editing.

These reconstituted snippets vaguely resemble something of the complete episodes as they originally aired. However, many of the clips included in this box set simply fade to black, often in the middle of an interview. Consider December 17th, 1985's episode featuring Bette Midler that also promises a Christmas medley from Doc and the orchestra, who have been ostensibly preparing it over the last 20 years. After Midler offers a sumptuous musical rendering of the Johnny Mercer classic, Skylark the rest of her interview simply fades to black before we move on to the next episode featuring Billy Crystal and Buddy Rich.

As an ardent fan of Carson and his guests, this critic also cannot say that I'm a fan of the omission of such Tonight Show main staples as comedian Buddy Hackett, Bette Davis, Richard Pryor and James Stewart from this box set, particularly since their absence has been filled by some truly forgettable interviews from Bob Uecker, Doris Day, Burt Mustin and Maude Tull.

Worse than the omissions is the fact that these current discs have been mastered with a severely distracting digitized moire and strobe pattern. This imperfection in the video quality is not a part of the original broadcast quality, and brief clips on line from this box set do not contain such distractions which suggests that in the stamping of these discs a compression/authoring error has occurred.

Little, if any, attempt has been made on the part of R2 Entertainment to stabilize colour and contrast to acceptable levels. Color bleeding is prevalent throughout - occasionally excessive and distracting. The results of all this disregard for the Carson legacy is an image so heavily digitized and visually unstable that it makes many of the episodes unwatchable.

The audio is predictably strident during the earlier episodes and more 'refined' - if that word can be used - during the later 1980s and 90s episodes. This set also comes with over an hour of footage 'rescued' from the Tonight Show's 1960s tenure - slapped together in haphazard succession and with even less attention paid to preserving the integrity of the image quality than on the rest of the episodes featured in this box set.

We also get brief recollections from Loni Anderson, Baxter Black, David Brenner and Jim Fowler - gushing over their respect for Johnny Carson. Despite being advertised as containing all new content, there is some overlap in this box from the previously released 'Here's Johnny' box set.

What a shame and sham! The advice from this long time Carson fan is regrettably, "DO NOT BUY THIS SET! IT IS A WASTE OF MONEY! FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Ernest Lubitsch’s effervescent romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner (1940) is an enduring masterwork of subtle surface politeness under which lusty home fires rage. Based on Miklos Laszlo's 1937 Hungarian play, Parfumerie, the tale as re-scripted by Samson Raphaelson begins in turn of the century Budapest and Matuschek's Gift Shop; the center of the universe – at least for its select group of loyal employees.

These include the owner Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan), his devoted right hand, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), slippery sales and lady’s man, Ferencz Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut) and wistful Pirovitch (Felix Bressart).

Hugo is a benevolent boss, though not above his own fits of impatience and flustered blustering. Alfred’s advancement at the shop is hindered with the arrival of Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) – a headstrong creature who bullies her way into a position at the store. Before long she and Alfred are bumping heads on practically every modest issue that concerns the shop's daily operations.

A further crimp to Alfred’s ambitions surfaces when Hugo suspects him of having an affair with his wife – a subplot that proves erroneous but temporarily gets Al’ fired. Yet, the greatest bit of irony springs forth from Al and Klara’s tempestuous relationship. You see, the two have been corresponding through letters on a blind date that seems kismet for marriage – that is, until Al discovers the truth and thereafter does everything he can to goad Klara into liking him.

Director Lubtisch’s uncanny knack for transforming such contrite drivel into the epitome of chic good taste is working overtime here – performing a clever cakewalk between all these nimble narrative threads that seamlessly draw the whole story to its ‘lighter than air’ satisfactory conclusion. What is most remarkable about the film today is how much of its elusive charm remains intact and palpable to contemporary tastes.

Stewart and Sullivan share genuine on screen chemistry of the highest order; selling their artistic wares alongside the shop's holiday gifts and making the entire enterprise one of sweetness and light, though never dribbling saccharine. Frank Morgan is a befuddled delight - just the sort of nonsensical boss with a heart of gold that one might wish for.

Hollywood never lets a good idea go, however, and in 1949 this film was remade to disastrous effect as an utterly charm free musical starring Judy Garland and Van Johnson; In the Good Old Summertime. In 1998 director Nora Ephron tried to duplicate the escapist magic of the original with You’ve Got Mail - pitting a rivalry between Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks as two competitive book sellers in New York City. Again, it didn’t work.

Which brings this reviewer to a long overdue assumption about classic movies: that their inimitable brand of style, romance and beauty are elegant trappings from some forgotten past in American cinema best resurrected by perennial viewings of the original films rather than abysmally second rate remakes that have neither the grace nor the guts to leave well enough alone!

Warner Home Video’s DVD is, in a word, marvellous. The benefactor of a meticulous digital restoration, the film looks years younger than it ought, with a refined B&W image, exemplary contrasted gray scale and very smooth image quality throughout. Occasionally, edge enhancement creeps into this otherwise reference quality disc that shows zero signs of age related artefacts. The audio is mono but very nicely restored and presented at an adequate listening level. Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer. Note – the DVD jacket advertises trailers for the two subsequent remakes but these are not included on the disc.

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






Monday, November 29, 2010

TWO SISTERS FROM BOSTON (MGM 1946) Warner Archive Collection

Director Henry Koster's Two Sisters from Boston (1946) is billed as a musical - but its program of packaged delights doesn't quite bare out that snap assessment by MGM's marketing department; its screenplay by Miles Connelly much more prone to flights of slapstick and featherweight clich├ęd comedy. Nearly all of the musical numbers are subordinate to this comedy of errors and frequently interrupted by the action taking place elsewhere within the scene. For once, producer Joseph Pasternak's blending of the light and heavy seems to lack his usual aplomb for slick, stylish entertainment - instead coming up a rather curious hodgepodge of vim and vigour that, if hardly cohesive, is nevertheless easy on the eyes and ears for the duration of its running time.

MGM's resident soprano, Kathryn Grayson co-stars as Abigail Chandler - a proper Bostonian woman whose move to New York for music lessons has resulted in her appearing nightly at The Golden Goose - a Bowery speakeasy that is about as classy as mud. Doted on by her friend and sometimes musical manager, Spike Merango (Jimmy Durante), Abigail's 'career' in showbiz is a kept secret from her family back home. It is eventually exposed as rumour during her sister, Martha's (June Allyson) piano recital.

Abigail's honour impugned, the family make haste to New York to see for themselves if the rumour is true. But Abigail's uncle (and benefactor), Jonathan Chandler (Harry Haden) has ulterior motives in learning the truth. He has set his cap on becoming Boston's mayor. Together with his wife, Jennifer (Isobel Elsom) and Martha in tow, the trio arrives at Abigail's apartment only to be flimflammed by her into believing that The Golden Goose is a time honoured play and that she has already procured a position of distinction within New York's Opera company.

Jonathan decides to book tickets for the opera to celebrate Abigail's success, leaving Abigail in a quandary that Spike quickly rectifies by schmoozing the opera company's doorman, George (Chester Clute) as well as its assistant stage director (Franco Corsaro) into believing that Abigail is the mistress of Lawrence Tybert Patterson (Thurston Hall) - the opera's key patron. In the meantime however, Martha has learned the truth about Abigail. Although she is heartbroken at her sister's betrayal, Martha decides to keep her secret and shield the family from its fallout.

Regrettably, news of Abigail's instatement in the opera's chorus reaches Lawrence Tybert Patterson Jr. (Peter Lawford), seated with his mother Ella (Nella Waker) in their private box, moments before the performance. Lawrence Jr. confronts Abigail backstage. However, not knowing who he is, she admonishes him as an ill timed stage door Johnny before effectively upstaging the opera's star tenor, Richard Olstrom (Lauritz Melchior) during the performance.

Convinced that Abigail is legit, Jonathan and Jennifer go back to Boston, but Martha stays behind for her own particular brand of humorously flawed damage control. Her first stop is the Patterson household, where she confronts Lawrence Jr. with an apology and then a heartfelt plea for his father to reconsider Abigail for the opera. Lawrence Jr. agrees that Abigail has talent and invites her to give a recital at a house party being given that weekend. Unfortunately, the Patterson's butler, Wrigley (Ben Blue) is a frequent patron of The Golden Goose and, after hearing Abigail sing at the party, exposes her as the Belle of the Bowery. Spike, who has been serving as Martha and Abigail's chaperone asks "what's wrong with being the Belle of the Bowery?" to which Mr. Patterson Sr. explains that anyone who would claim that title for themselves would be unfit to hold a more prestigious position within the opera. To save face and provide Abigail with her opportunity, Martha lies to Patterson and his guests that she is the star of The Golden Goose. To prove it, she trains with Spike and makes her debut the following night at speakeasy as the Pattersons look on.

While Lawrence Jr. and his mother are quite distinctly insulted by this bawdy display put on for their benefit, Mr. Patterson is not so easily fooled. Realizing the sacrifice that Martha has made to save her sister's face, and more importantly, understanding just how much Abigail wants to better herself socially, Mr. Patterson agrees to provide Abigail with the opportunity she's always wanted. In the final moments, the Chandlers are seen as guests of the Pattersons in their private box at the opera as Abigail takes her rightful place at Olstrom's side on stage.

Despite lavish production values and a stellar cast, Two Sisters from Boston is not one of MGM's more impressive efforts. From the studio that gave us Anchors Aweigh, The Harvey Girls and Meet Me In St. Louis, Two Sisters from Boston is decidedly a poor country cousin in both its musical weight and deportment.

Jimmy Durante is quite irrepressibly charming as the big hearted musical director of The Golden Goose. But the rest of the cast seem to flounder in a screenplay that spreads the musical program too thin to sustain the narrative. Grayson is given two plum solos - both interrupted by other bits of plot taking place elsewhere in the scene. Allyson only sings once! Melchior belts out a few operatic arias but these too are used more as filler when the screenplay is struggling for something witty to say, rather than for the sheer presence of their musical enjoyment. In the final analysis, Two Sisters from Boston is a rather tiresome footnote in MGM's illustrious history as purveyors of the greatest musicals of the 20th century.

This Warner Archive edition is adequate though not stellar. The image is, for the most part, solid. Age related speckles and dirt are evident everywhere, but the gray scale has been nicely preserved with considerable grain evident during several sequences. The audio is mono, as originally recorded, but quite bombastic during the musical sequences with minimal hiss and pop elsewhere. There are no extra features.

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






Thursday, November 25, 2010

A STOLEN LIFE (WB 1946) Warner Archive Collection

A remake of a 1939 British film, director Curtis Bernhardt's A Stolen Life (1946) comes near the end of Bette Davis' reign of supremacy at Warner Brothers - a studio that she effectively dominated for a little over a decade as matron of the woman's weepie. However, by 1946 the strong creative winds that had propelled her career from one shining success to the next had begun to shift direction toward Davis' arch rival, Joan Crawford - newly arrived from MGM after her contract there had been cancelled. Jack Warner's sudden interest in Crawford's career came at a distinct expense to Davis's. Yet, none of this backstage intrigue seems apparent in A Stolen Life: an often compelling - though utterly nonsensical melodrama that pits Bette Davis against her only true competition at the studio: herself.

Davis plays identical twin sisters Patricia and Kate Bosworth. Having missed the local New England ferry to a remote sea faring village on an off shore island, Kate coaxes lighthouse assistant, Bill Emerson (Glenn Ford) into carrying her across to meet her uncle Freddie Linley (Charles Ruggles). During that brief sojourn Kate decides that Bill is for her. The next day, she charters a small sail boat, arriving at the lighthouse under the guise of wanting to paint the keeper Eben Folger's (Walter Brennan) portrait. But the crusty old barnacle refuses Kate's gracious offer - that is, until she promises to make him a present of a rather expensive ship in a bottle he has been eyeing inside the shop of a local merchant.

Arriving daily to paint Eben's portrait, Kate and Bill's romance blossoms. Yet, Kate won't bring Bill home to meet her family. The reason is revealed when Kate's twin Pat learns of Bill's existence and shortly thereafter woos him for her own - quite easily and effectively away from a distraught and weak-kneed Kate. Freddie encourages Kate to take a more aggressive approach to winning Bill's heart. But Kate resorts to type and fades into the background. Pat marries Bill and Kate and Pat become estranged.

Kate finds some peculiar solace in Karnock (Dane Cook); an opinionated and domineering artist whom she invites to work in her studio after a showing of her work at a local gallery garners his displeasure and disdain. In the meantime, a chance meeting between Bill and Kate in New York leads to a reconciliation of sorts. Bill tells Kate that he is going to Chile on business and encourages Kate to return to the island to reunite with her sister.

Forever the martyr, Kate returns to Pat and the two decide to go sailing. An unfortunate storm rocks their tiny boat off lighthouse cove and Pat is thrown into the raging waters where she drowns. Kate is knocked unconscious and mistaken for Pat upon reawakening from the ordeal inside the lighthouse.

Realizing that she can assume her sister's identity and finally have the man that she once loved for her own, Kate pretends to be Pat. However, she quickly learns that Pat has been unfaithful to Bill with various suitors, including attorney Jack R. Talbot (Bruce Bennett) who has left his wife and family for her. Worse, Bill has finally come to the decision that he wants a divorce from Pat. Desperately wooing Bill to her side, Kate pretends to be Pat for as long as she can - increasingly coming to the realization that if Bill does take her back it will be as her sister and not for herself. Distraught, Kate retreats to the beach where she and Bill were once happy. But Bill has learned the truth. He rushes to Kate's side with renewed passions for the loyal sister he ought to have married all along.

A Stolen Life is atypical melodrama from the Warner stable. Utilizing sets and costumes recycled from other movies, the screenplay by Katherine Turney and Margaret Buell Wilder (based on the novel by Karel J. Benes) clings together - at times precariously so and primarily because of Davis' galvanic performance as two cat-clawing sisters. The rest of the cast really doesn't get the chance to do much but pad out this central narrative with a few well timed turns and mild support.

But it must be said that Glenn Ford's romantic appeal in this film utterly escapes this reviewer. He is neither rakishly handsome nor 'personality plus' to suggest any plausible reason why two woman should fight so desperately to retain his affections. And there is something insipidly wanting in the way Bill allows his head to be so easily turned by devilish Pat when Kate is so obviously the more faithful and doting companion. Nevertheless, A Stolen Life was a colossal success when it was released, one of the last crown jewels in Bette Davis' Warner career. Today, given the catalogue of indelible performances by Davis, A Stolen Life seems more of a footnote than a benchmark.

The Warner Archive release of A Stolen Life is about as strong a video presentation as this reviewer has seen from this burn-on-demand collection. Despite no evidence or marketing to suggest it, the B&W image has obviously undergone extensive restoration work. The results are a fine grain transfer that is razor sharp with solid deep blacks and crisp whites. Edge enhancement doesn't seem to be an issue and age related artefacts are only rarely glimpsed. Process shots exhibit a heavier patina of film grain but on the whole this is a beautifully rendered image that will surely NOT disappoint. The audio also seems to have been cleaned up with very brief instances of hiss and pop. This disc comes with a theatrical trailer as its only extra. Recommended!

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






THE SWAN (MGM 1956) Warner Archive Collection

The last work that Grace Kelly committed to celluloid before becoming Her Serene Royal Highness of Monaco was for director Charles Vidor in The Swan (1956); a remake twice removed from its source material by Ferenc Molnar. A sort of grandly operatic riffraff that MGM had once excelled at during the 1930s, The Swan tells the tale of a conflicted young woman who must choose between the duties of a Queen and the passions of a woman - placing one above the other in order to secure her family's future place within the monarchy.

MGM had already successfully adapted this Ruritanian romance under its original title in 1925, then again in 1930 before effectively retiring the rather conventional story once and for all. However, in 1954 Grace Kelly was the invited guest of Prince Rainier aboard his yacht. Their whirlwind romance that followed seemed a matter of life imitating art so perfectly that MGM could not resist pulling this old chestnut out of mothballs for one final bow.

In a nutshell, this version of The Swan has everything going for it. Its top flight adaptation by John Dighton lightly treads on Molnar's masterpiece with a renewed sense of humour that is quite refreshing at times. The film's sweeping score by Bronislau Kaper is befitting of a future princess with aptly lush orchestrations. The outstanding cast includes not only Kelly in the title role, but also super stars Alec Guinness and Louis Jourdan as her amiable suitors.

Princess Alexandra (Kelly) is the daughter of a minor branch of the European aristocracy, betrothed to her cousin Prince Albert (Guinness) - a man whom she neither loves nor, in fact, has met since the two were children. The princess' two brothers, George (Van Dyke Parks) and Arsene (Christopher Cook) are attended to in their studies by Dr. Nicholas Agi (Louis Jourdan); a handsome tutor whose progressive teachings promise to be the harbingers of real romantic chaos later in the narrative.

The princess' mother, Princess Beatrix (Jessie Royce Landis) is a delightfully scheming scatterbrain, determined to have her family restored to the good graces of Queen Maria Dominika (Agnes Moorehead) even at the expense of her own daughter's true happiness. The rest of the family includes dotty spinster aunt Symphorosa (Estelle Winwood) and uncle, Father Carl Hyacinth (Brian Adherne); a true man of the cloth and the one calming and intelligent voice within this otherwise unhinged family.

A marriage between Albert and Alexandra will restore the family to the throne taken from them by Napoleon. However, all is not as easily won - especially when Albert seems to take an interest in everything except Alexandra; from shooting duck and engaging in a spirited game of football with the princes to interrupting a ball given in his honour by playing the bass fiddle with the orchestra. To urge an inevitable proposal from Albert, Beatrix coaxes Alexandra to pretend in a romantic interest in Nicholas. But this rouse backfires when Nicholas mistakes the Princess's sudden affections as legitimate overtures to romantic love.

Alexandra spurns Nicholas upon learning of his infatuation, but then succumbs to his charms. Albert, learning of their genuine affections declares that once he is King he will allow the family to return to France, despite Alexandra's obvious desire to run away with Nicholas. An impatient Dominika arrives the next afternoon to learn whether or not there will be a royal marriage. Realizing how prescient and perilous the future of the monarchy is, Nicholas leaves the manor without his true love. Albert returns to Alexandra's side, declaring that she is like a swan - serene upon the waters, yet evermore a goose on dry land.

The Swan does have its spirited moments, mostly procured from the fine ensemble acting throughout. The screenplay takes itself just seriously enough to be engaging and involved but never weighted down. Grace Kelly is very much the storybook princess and, in retrospect, there is a sublime blurring of the lines between this fictional story and Kelly's own fairytale reality that was soon to follow.

True enough, the stronger talents of Alec Guinness are slightly wasted in this featherweight melange, but in the few moments where it is required, his presence adds depth and resonance to what is, by far, an outrageously farfetched and glossy bauble. Louis Jourdan is appropriately contrite and always fun to look at. In the final analysis, The Swan is worth another glance on home video - it's blunted poignancy nicely framed in surface sheen and stylish accoutrements a la the old MGM style.

This Warner Archive burn on demand edition of The Swan is advertised as 'remastered' and to be certain the film has obviously had some minor work performed on it in preparation for this release. However, the Cinemascope image remains rather softly focused throughout. The palette of Eastman color severely pales in comparison to true Technicolor.

At times the palette is quite muddy with browns and beiges being the most dominant. Flesh tones are often pasty pink or washed out entirely to almost ghostly white. This isn't a particularly engaging home video presentation and that's a shame, considering all of the splendid art direction and vivid cinematography by Joseph Ruttenberg and Robert Surtees. The audio is a 5.1 remastering of the original Cinemascope six track stereo and is appropriately crisp and bombastic in spots. There are no extra features on this disc - not even the film's original theatrical trailer.

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






Thursday, November 18, 2010

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY: Blu-Ray (MGM 1935) Warner Home Video

The Oscar winning sea epic that forever set a standard for all those that followed, Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny On The Bounty (1935) is a sprawling, yet intelligently written and character driven melodrama about the most infamous revolt in Maritime law. One of the many brain children of MGM producer Irving Thalberg, the film is an exceptional example of a major studio production set forth with all its pistons firing. In reality, the filmic bounty shares very little historical accuracy with her celluloid counterpart. Still, the best of Hollywood films excel when there is a clear cut good vs. evil battle for the human spirit and Mutiny on the Bounty is no exception.

For starters, while the real Capt. Bligh was undoubtedly a disciplinarian (as any good captain of his vintage might well have been) two of Bligh's 'tortures' depicted in the film (one, Keelhauling, the other flogging) never actually happened aboard the real vessel as she sailed to Tahiti. In fact, the only two deaths aboard ship had absolutely nothing to do with Bligh. One seaman died of scurvy (a common disease in those days), while another died of alcoholism. But that doesn't make for very engaging copy, and it certainly doesn't afford Fletcher Christian the opportunity to become a heroic figure in the embodiment of everybody's movie king - Clark Gable.

Gable is Fletcher Christian – first mate to the tyrannical William Bligh (Charles Laughton). At first loyal to his captain, Christian eventually grows weary, then suspect, of Bligh’s intensions. The first half of the film plays fast and loose with the question of whether or not Bligh is merely asserting his authority to maintain control of the ship or has he become a brute sadist who relishes discovering new ways of pummelling the spirit of his men?

By the film's second half, the screenplay by Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman and Carey Wilson has veered about as far off the map as possible to deliver a typical ‘Gable’ vehicle pumped full of machismo with style, panache and rousing adventure to boot. MGM’s attention to surface sheen and gloss serves this story well enough.

Gable is roguishly handsome as the central mutineer, though far removed from the physicality of the real Fletcher Christian. Gable's one concession for the role was that he shaved his trademark pencil moustache after being informed that the British fleet had outlawed facial hair.

Popular second string leading man, Franchot Tone gives a poignant performance as Midshipman Roger Byam; a man wronged by his captain, who does wrong against him, then reforms to carry on another day.

The film's narrative is balanced around one central event - the Bounty's arrival in Tahiti to collect and bring back breadfruit plants to England. Upon arrival to the island, Christian falls in love with native girl, Maimita (Mamo Clark). It is through her innocence that Christian's relatively aloof exterior melts. After Christian and his fellow mutineers set Bligh and his officers adrift on open waters, they return to Tahiti to take up with the sweethearts they left behind. But a British inquest forces the survivors back home to a trial and imprisonment.

This film clearly delineates Laughton's Bligh as a villain of ‘zero’ redemption – a miscalculation that proves problematic in the end when Laughton is reinstated by the British who seek to prosecute and put to death each and every mutineer. In this clear cut banality of ‘good’ vs. ‘evil’ – evil arguably wins, remarkably and quite distinctly.

Yet the film's narrative is clearly one sided, and that side remains with the mutineers, as Christian delivers his impassioned speech about starting over on Pitcarn Island with the purity of its native culture intact. In reality, the mutineers who stayed in Tahiti quickly degenerated into a rabble of murderous thugs that all but wiped themselves out of existence in a matter of a few short months.

But who needs a history lesson when there is so much sumptuous scenery to take in? Arthur Edeson's cinematography evokes the resplendent escapism of the tropics with surreal beauty. Gable is at his stoic masculine best - cutting a dashing figure in his white pirate's sheath, undone to his navel, hair slicked into a tight pony tail and looking as though he may either kiss or kill the competition into submission at any given moment. Laughton's performance ranks amongst his best - although in truth I cannot recall a single 'bad' performance that the actor ever gave. His Bligh is an effeminate sadist who fiendishly delights in the self destruction of his mutineers.

At Oscar time Mutiny on the Bounty took home the coveted Best Picture award - although oddly enough it lost in just about every other major category it was nominated in. Despite numerous remakes in Technicolor and widescreen, it's this 1935 spectacle that can still hoist the Jolly Roger to swimmingly grand heights of cinematic pleasure.

So, prepare to set sail once more - this time in grander style still as Warner Home Video bows a Blu-Ray worthy of rediscovery. Although original film elements continue to suffer from age related artefacts, dirt and scratches - particularly during the storm sequence - the image quality on this Blu-Ray easily bests Warner's previously issued DVD where one might most expect it to.

Contrast levels improve. Blacks look deeper and more crisp. Whites appear very clean throughout. Fine detail also takes a quantum leap forward, while grain structure - looks more film-like now than on the DVD, where it often appeared as digital grit.

The audio remains mono, but nicely cleaned up. The one shortcoming of this disc is that it comes with NO new extra features. We get the same vintage featurette on Pitcarn Island and two theatrical trailers - one for this film, the other for its disastrous Marlon Brando remake from 1962.

Warner has padded this disc's packaging with a gloss 32 page booklet that superficially covers the making of the film. While I'm not particularly a fan of this sort of reissue, I do hope that advanced sales of this title will encourage Warner Home Video to reconsider giving us more great vintage B&W classics remastered in 1080p in the near future. Do I hear takers for Marie Antoinette (1938), Romeo & Juliet (1936), The Prisoner of Zenda (1937), Captains Courageous (1937), Pride and Prejudice (1940), Mrs. Miniver (1942), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Random Harvest (1942) et al? My list of 'must haves' is much longer and equally distinguished!

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






Wednesday, November 17, 2010

THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER: Blu-ray (UA 1955) Criterion Home Video

Easily one of the most disturbing movies of its own decade or any other for that matter, Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) is a diabolical fairytale noir; blending the zealous furor of Southern Baptism with one of the most indelibly demonic movie villains of all time. Drawing on German Expressionism for its highly stylized visuals, Laughton and screenwriter, James Agee remain relatively faithful to the novel by David Grubb that itself is a thinly veiled account of the real life of Harry Powers - a man convicted of murdering two widows.

Like a Greek tragedy, the narrative sets up a premise of salvation only after the innocent have been corrupted. In this case, the tale is seen entirely from the perspective of two fearful children; John Harper (Billy Chapin) and his much younger sister, Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). Seems their father, Ben (Peter Graves) has hidden a fortune he stole during an armed robbery in one of Pearl’s favourite dolls. Confiding his secret to John only, Ben is apprehended by the police. As he sits on death row, Ben recants his tale of theft to fellow inmate, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) – a sadist and a murderer who, upon being released from prison, masquerades as a preacher to get nearer to the children’s mother, Willa (Shelley Winters).

Presenting himself as a model citizen, Harry marries Willa after Ben is hanged, then brainwashes her into believing she is 'unclean' and therefore unworthy of his love, all the while baiting John and Pearl as to the whereabouts of their father's loot. Willa overhears these conversations and gradually begins to realize that Harry's intentions have not been honourable. Harry slits Willa's throat , then weighs down her body and dumps it in a nearby lake; spreading the rumour about town that she has run off with another man to divert suspicion from his crime.

John, fearful of what may come next, takes Pearl and the doll full of money. The two run off into the night, escaping Harry's clutches repeatedly before arriving at the home of curmudgeonly widow/social worker, Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) whose farm is a refuge for orphans. Eventually, Harry picks up their trail and hunts John and Pearl down. But Rachel is not about to let anything happen.

She wounds Harry with her shotgun, sending for the police who apprehend Harry the next morning. He stands trial and is convicted for Willa's murder with John and Pearl having to endure a lengthy and nightmarish trial and its aftermath. The film closes with Rachel directly addressing the audience, declaring that 'children' represent mankind at its strongest - "they abide!"

Like a trip through the funhouse, The Night of the Hunter is a haunting cinematic excursion. Moreover, Laughton's direction and Stanley Cortez's stark cinematography make the film a stunning visual experience to behold. Laughton’s deeply unhinged vision of a child’s terror is conceived in almost storybook format. Yet, like a tale told by Grimm, the film consistently builds on a single premise; that evil is a constant in society that cannot be avoided, though arguably, may be overcome through blind faith and perseverance.

At the time of the premiere, The Night of the Hunter was ill received – perhaps because its unrelenting portrait of evil in real danger of overpowering goodness was at odds with what America wanted to believe about itself and take away from its collective movie-going experience. Regrettably, the film's failure resulted in Laughton never directing another feature. Today, The Night of the Hunter remains unnerving entertainment of the highest order – a testament to the film’s stylistic elements and, undoubtedly, Mitchum’s central, driven and unsympathetic performance.

Criterion's Blu-Ray easily bests prior DVD offerings from MGM. For one - the Criterion Blu-Ray frames the film's aspect ratio correctly at 1:66 anamorphic widescreen and not 1:33 full frame. The gray scale on the Blu-ray is much more subtly nuanced. Blacks are deeper, richer and more foreboding. Whites, regrettably, continue to look just a tad dirty gray rather than white. Contrast levels are bang on. Fine detail is more evident, though again, for a film of this vintage, not quite as refined as this reviewer had hoped. Film grain is more obvious but also much more natural looking.

Criterion's monaural soundtrack is well balanced and nicely cleaned up. Where the Criterion excels is in its extra features. Not only do we get an informative audio commentary, but there's also a newly produced featurette on the making of the film as well as the nearly 2 1/2 hr. documentary, 'Charles Laughton Directs' (housed on a separate disc) that contains an overwhelming treasure trove of stills, on set photography and other rare outtakes. There's also a critique of that documentary provided by two noted film historians and the film's theatrical trailer to absorb. Bottom line: highly recommended!

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






MODERN TIMES (UA 1936) Criterion Home Video

There are few who would dispute comedian extraordinaire, Charlie Chaplin as one of the great cinematic artists of the 20th century. A modest congenial man in real life, Chaplin's on-screen persona of the gregarious ‘little tramp’ emerges as something of a triumphant everyman, besought and nearly beaten by circumstance, yet always with that spark of defiance burning within.

In Modern Times (1936), Chaplin is a nameless factory worker who, after going mad in a mechanized world, takes up with a penniless gamin (Paulette Goddard) on a lark about town. She convinces him that simplicity of being within the ever-changing complexity of an industrialized society not only has merit, but is absolutely essential to the preservation of his sanity.

The factory sequence that opens the film owes much of its styling and execution to Rene Clair's A nous la Liberte (1931). Chaplin is seen as a common labourer tightening bolts on an assembly line. Gradually, the overbearing demands of his boss (whom Chaplin modeled at least physically on the likeness of Henry Ford - a personal friend) and his work cause Chaplin to assume the persona of Shakespeare's Pan from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Running amuck and tightening everything in the factory from his co-worker's nipples and noses, to the rather obviously large buttons on a secretary's pants, as well as the blouse of an unsuspecting Wagnerian female walking down the street with two oversized buttons fixed approximately where her breasts hang, Chaplin is taken to a mental asylum.

Upon his release, he is penniless and unemployed. A passing truck carrying lumber accidentally drops its warning flag and the little tramp, ever the helpful soul, picks it up in an attempt to return it to the rightful owner. Instead, the tramp finds himself suspected of being a Communist sympathizer after he inadvertently joins a union march down main street, still with the truck's flag in hand. Arrested, but ultimately released after accidentally snorting cocaine while in prison, Chaplin meets up with a penniless gamin. The two are acquainted, but only platonically.

She brings out the best in the tramp and he, in turn, opts to do right by her kindness by securing a job as a night watchman at a local department store. Smuggling the gamin into the bedding department so she can have a proper night's rest on a real bed, the tramp also encourages a trio of would-be robbers to enjoy the spoils available in the store. The store owners arrive and arrest the gamin and robbers.

Fired, the tramp endures further random acts of humanity's unkindness. The gamin, however, has escaped from prison and found the tramp a job as a singing waiter in the saloon she is also working at under an assumed name. Having lost the lyrics to his debut song, the tramp adlibs gibberish in place of words; brilliantly acting out the song's scenario and easily stealing the show. The police arrive to apprehend the gamin but the tramp thwarts their arrest. In the final sequence, the tramp and the gamin are seen walking hand in hand down the open road to an uncertain, though undoubtedly brighter, future together.

It goes without saying that Chaplin is a brilliant satirist. In reviewing his movies, however, one is often struck by the sheer simplicity and clarity in his narratives. Chaplin's distaste for the dehumanization of men in a mechanized world is often misperceived as his general distaste for capitalism. Yet, the tramp and the gamin in Modern Times show no disgust during their romp inside the lavishly appointed department store. They relish the high life - however briefly. If anything, they recognize the significance of capitalism's spoils but in the end, realize that they can just as easily get along without them.

In the years that followed the release of Modern Times, Chaplin would be misperceived for such commentaries as a Communist sympathizer. By the mid-1950s he was forced into exile by the United States government to live abroad. To be certain, films like Modern Times are critical – perhaps rightfully so – of the shortcomings of the capitalist model that places profit above the innate value of human beings. As another Charles (Manson) once said, “The truth is ugly, so we put our judges in prison.” Chaplin proved unequivocally with Modern Times that to judge a situation as unacceptable is decidedly not the same as condemning the system that fosters it.

Criterion Home Video debuts Modern Times on Blu-ray in a transfer at long last worthy of the film. In 2001, Warner Home Video and MK2 Productions gave us an extra packed 2 disc DVD minted from a European based PAL hi-res video transfer. However, in converting the transfer to NTSC North American broadcast standards the video quality suffered from severe chroma bleeding and a barrage of problematic digital anomalies.

I am pleased to report that the Criterion Blu-Ray - also sourced from MK2's fine grain materials - has corrected 99% of the shortcomings from this previous DVD release.

We get a near pristine B&W image with subtle nuances in the gray scale and a quantum leap forward in fine detail and film grain that actually looks like grain and not digital grit. The briefest instances of edge enhancement crop up now and then but overall do not distract. There is quite simply nothing to squawk at here and fans of Chaplin and this film are in for a genuine treat with the Blu-Ray offering. The audio is mono and has been cleaned up considerably for this release.

The original MK2 featurette - Chaplin Today - is included on the Criterion Blu-ray, along with an exclusive audio commentary by David Robinson. There's also a wonderfully composed 'visual essay' by Jeffrey Vance, featuring still photographs of Chaplin at work on the set as well as stills from three deleted sequences from the film that no longer exist. A few short amateur films by Chaplin and Modern Times' theatrical trailer round out one's overall enjoyment of this buoyant classic. Highly recommended!

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






Monday, November 1, 2010

BACK TO THE FUTURE TRILOGY: BluRay (Universal 1985, 89, 90) Universal Home Video

After a decade of disillusionment with pop entertainment, audiences fell in love again with going to the movies once more in the 1980s. Bolstered by a renewed positivism from the Reagan presidency, Hollywood marked its move away from the bleak symbolism of the 70s, rebounding with a string of light-hearted comedies that played up the devil-may-care, laissez faire, 'what me worry?' charm that would come to envelope and embody the decade.

Today, 80s cinema gets a knuckle wrap from most critics as utterly simplistic, perhaps because our present pop culture and more dire political climate seem to once again favour apocalyptic visions of a future without much hope or redemption. Thankfully, 80s cinema has never entirely fallen out of favour with audiences - some, who find it harmless hokum, while others - such as myself who grew up during that time - appreciate its unabashed verge for 'feel good' entertainment value.

To those latter many who continue to review movies from this period through the afterglow of fond remembrances, one of the fondest is undoubtedly Robert Zemeckis' Back to the Future (1985); an utterly implausible time travel fantasy/comedy/adventure that effectively draws a fitting parallel between its own light-hearted present and that of - arguably - the greatest pop culture decade of them all; the 1950s.

Scripted by Zemeckis and screenwriter, Bob Gale Back to the Future initially began its lengthy gestation after Gale discovered one of his father's old yearbooks in the basement of his family home and wondered, if he had been in school at that time would he have been friends with his father? Pitching this loose idea to Zemeckis - the two secured a deal to develop a project at Columbia Studios in 1980. But after numerous rewrites the deal fell through.

In the meantime, Zemeckis worked in close partnership with Steven Spielberg on two films that proved to be less than lucrative for either collaborator. Concerned that his name might become synonymous with flops, Zemeckis agreed to a deal at Fox to shoot Romancing the Stone; a huge box office hit that marked a turning point in the director's career.

After rejections from Columbia and Disney, Back to the Future began to acquire newfound interest at Universal Studios. But casting the film proved problematic when first choice Michael J. Fox bowed out of the project, citing prior commitments to his then highly popular television series, Family Ties. Zemeckis recast the part of Marty McFly with Eric Stolz. But after a month of filming, both the director and his star realized that Stolz's serious take on the character was in direct opposition to the more light-hearted narrative. Stolz graciously left the project and a new deal was struck with Fox whereby the actor would shoot his television series by day and Back to the Future at night - surviving on a scant 5 hours of sleep in between schedules.

The film opens with Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) a troubled teen living in Hill Valley. His father George (Crispin Glover) is subservient to an oafish supervisor, Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), while Marty's overweight mother, Lorraine (Lea Thompson) has a drinking problem. In essence, the McFlys are an unhappy couple, contented in their misery by occasionally recalling the glory days of their past. Lorraine recounts for Marty how she fell in love with George after her father accidentally hit George with his car.

If the home front seems bleak and depressing, it pales to Marty's own existence - trapped, as he seems to be, in a life that is passing him by. Despite obvious talent for music and a passion to better himself, Marty just cannot seem to get a break. At school, he is constantly taunted by Mr. Strickland (James Tolkan) who relishes telling Marty that, just like his father, he will never amount to anything. Marty's girlfriend, Jennifer (Claudia Wells) is encouraging and supportive of Marty's dreams, but Marty's most engaging friendship is with scientist, Dr. Emmett 'Doc' Brown (Christopher Lloyd).

Regarded as a kook by the status quo, Doc has developed a vehicle for time travel; a DeLorean powered by plutonium and a device he calls a 'flux capacitor'. Doc asks Marty to film his first time travel excursion for posterity. However, before Doc can take his experimental trip into history, the terrorists he stole the plutonium from arrive on the scene and murder him, forcing Marty to use the DeLorean as his getaway vehicle. The car leaps into hyperspace, but Marty is cast 25 years back in time to Nov. 5, 1955.

After the shock of his journey wears off, Marty is introduced to his father as a young man, still being bullied by Biff. But when Marty saves George from being hit by Lorraine's father's car he accidentally takes the hit himself, thereby altering his own future as his teenage mother slowly begins to fall in love with him instead of George. Meeting up with Doc as a young man, Marty convinces him that he is from the future and Doc, already predisposed to flights of fancy, tells Marty that unless he can bring his parents back together he - Marty - will cease to exist.

Marty encourages George - who is smitten with Lorraine - to plot a rouse to win her affections. Marty will attempt to take advantage of Lorraine at the high school dance and George will come to her rescue. Regrettably, a drunken Biff shows up first and tries to rape Lorraine. When George arrives he is bullied once more by Biff. Nevertheless, George follows through with the plan, knocking Biff unconscious. A smitten Lorraine takes George by the hand and together they slowly begin to fall in love - ensuring that Marty's future as their child will endure.

Meanwhile Doc, having figured out that only a direct lightning strike will provide sufficient energies capable of sending Marty and his DeLorean back to the future, has rigged an elaborate charge to the town's clock tower. The bolt strike the car and Marty is zapped into the present, arriving too late to save Doc from his assassination. However, as Marty hovers over his fallen friend, Doc stirs to life - revealing to Marty that he was wearing a bulletproof vest all along.

The story ends with Marty discovering that his intervention in his parent's past has improved their present - they are self-confident and physically fit. However, just as Marty and Jennifer are about to go on their merry way, Doc arrives to inform them that there is a future problem with their own children - thus setting up the possibility for a sequel.

Back to the Future is unapologetic hokum of the highest order - taking itself just seriously enough to make the whole implausible enterprise believable. The first film in the trilogy remains the best. The first sequel - released in 1989 - is an apocalyptic vision of the present. Biff Tannen rules as almost an autocratic Al Capone type, thanks to Marty inadvertently giving him a sports almanac from the present that he uses in the past to amass a fortune.

Keen viewers will notice that Marty's girlfriend Jennifer is played by Elizabeth Shue in the sequel while George McFly is an amalgam of actor Jeffrey Weissman wearing prosthetics to make him look like Crispin Glover as well as various outtakes of Glover that director Robert Zemeckis amassed from the first movie. Claudia Wells departure from the series was prompted by her mother's ill health, but Glovers seems to have been predicated on a salary increase demand that producers thought excessive.

Back to the Future II is also noteworthy for its excessive SFX via Industrial Light and Magic; a veritable potpourri of cutting edge techniques then that, for the most part, continue to hold up remarkably well under present day scrutiny.

As a sequel, Back to the Future II is not terrible - but it does tend to go 'long in the tooth' before its final fade out; the concept of time travel exploited with so many trips to the past, then the present, then the future, then back to the past, then the future again before returning to the rectified present - that ennui rather than excitement become the order of the day.

Prompted mostly by solid reviews and a winning box office tally that exceeded the first film's intake, Zemeckis dove into Back to the Future III (1990) perhaps a bit too hastily. The final film is a nonsensical regression to the old west where Marty travels to 1885 to rescue Doc from certain assassination by Bufford 'Mad Dog' Tannen (again Thomas F. Wilson). Doc falls in love with Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen) and decides to remain with her, sending Marty back to the present to Jennifer with the prosaic message that 'the future is what we make it'.

Universal Home Video has re-issued the Back to the Future Trilogy, this time on Blu-Ray with all the original added bonus features, plus digital copies of each film. Image quality on all three movies takes a quantum leap forward in all aspects - more noticeable on its two sequels than the original film. Colours are more vibrant throughout and age related artefacts have been eradicated for an image that is mostly smooth and razor sharp. The first film continues to have more than its share of film grain that briefly registers a tad too harsh - especially in the scene where Marty tests the giant amp Doc has built for his rock n' roll debut. Otherwise, the image quality on all three movies in the series will surely not disappoint.

The audio mix on all three movies is 5.1 lossless Dolby; fitting if slightly dated in its sound mix, but more than adequate for these presentations. Extras are a virtual carbon copy of those featured on Universal's trilogy DVD release from 2000 and include an extensive backlog of archival footage, interviews, screen and SFX tests, as well as documentaries chronicling the making of each movie, its cultural impact and enduring appeal. Back to the Future on Blu-Ray comes highly recommended. It is a blast from the past for the present and arguably - the future.

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

Back to the Future 5+

Back to the Future II 3.5

Back to the Future III 2





Wednesday, October 27, 2010

ALIEN ANTHOLOGY: Blu-Ray (Fox 1979-97) Fox Home Video

The 1970s were a period of seismic shift in both the film-making industry and audience tastes and cultural mores. Save the justly deserved resurrection of nostalgia via MGM musicals featured in the compendium film, That's Entertainment! (1974), the decade was framed by a split from that fabled 'dream factory' ideal that had once been the main staple and blueprint for Hollywood's golden age. By mid-decade, declining audience revenue and a tightening of budgets across the board saw glamour replaced by a more grittier/less expensive realism.

This pervasive 'look' of reality eventually found its way into the realms of horror and science fiction; two of the most prominently featured genres of the decade to collide in one masterwork exemplifying both. That film was Ridley Scott's Alien (1979); a sustained and viscerally neurotic tale generating more inner hysteria than outward horror for its chills.

In retrospect, a lengthy period of gestation seems to have benefited the production immensely. Alien began its life as a screenplay by Dan O'Bannon, later fully fleshed out with an assist from Ronald Schusett. Making no apologies for borrowing ideas and plot elements from practically every influential sci-fi movie from the preceding decades, O'Bannon and Schusett's screenplay was shopped around to limited interest before being sold to 20th Century Fox.

In passing the project to writers David Giler and Walter Hill, management incurred a creative rift that gradually boiled over into legalities when O'Bannon and Schusett accused the studio and its writers of attempting to steal the project outright. For all their backroom antics, Fox's executive board was unconvinced of the project's saleability.

Alien might have languished indefinitely as just another script in perpetual turnaround had not the overwhelming success of Star Wars (1977) illustrated that sci-fi had come of age with audiences. Even with Star Wars colossal success, finding a director for Alien proved elusive. After mandarins of their craft, Jack Clayton, Peter Yates and Robert Aldrich all turned it down, the film was offered to relative newcomer Ridley Scott whose early enthusiasm along with some high concept production designs produced by Swiss painter/sculptor H.R. Giger coaxed the powers that be into doubling Alien's budget.

As it eventually unfolded, the great success of Alien relied on a sense of claustrophobia rather than gut-wrenching thrills; although the film was to have its share of these as well. In recasting the lead protagonist as a female (in the original Ripley is a man), Alien also made a progressive leap towards the postmodern feminist age.

Save a few initial establishing shots, the narrative is confined aboard a vast commercial towing vessel, the Nostromo; returning to earth after a lengthy refinement operation in space. Under corporate orders, the crew picks up a weak communication signal and lands on a small and seemingly uninhabited planetoid to investigate its origins.

Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) takes Executive Office Kane (John Hurt) and Navigator Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) on the exploration, leaving Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) and Engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) on the Nostromo to monitor their progress. But their mission goes horribly awry when Kane is attacked by a bizarre alien 'face hugger'. Returning with their fallen colleague to the Nostromo, Ripley denies Dallas, Kane and Lambert permission to re-enter the ship on the assumption that Kane's attacker may pose other infectious concerns for the rest of the crew.

After a few taut moments, Ash overrides Ripley's authority and Kane is brought to the ship's infirmary for treatment. The alien, however, is unwilling to give up its prey, spewing highly corrosive blood when attempts are made to cut it loose from Kane's face. Determined to return to earth for further assistance , the Nostromo rises from the planetoid with the alien on board.

But hours later, Dallas returns to sick bay and discovers the alien quite dead with Kane showing remarkable resiliency after his encounter. Physical tests show no abnormalities. However, as the crew prepare to rejoice in Kane's full recovery the real threat to all of them makes its presence known. The face hugger has used Kane as its host to incubate an offspring. The new alien child bursts forth from Kane's stomach, before burrowing deep into the bowels of the Nostromo.

The rest of the story essentially follows a conventional 'race against time' scenario with the full grown alien attacker picking off crew one at a time. Brett follows his frightened cat into the ship's loading area and is devoured by the creature. Dallas attempts to force the alien into the ship's airlock where it can be expelled into space, but the creature ambushes him inside one of the ducts. Lambert encourages the remaining crew to board Nostromo's escape shuttle - a decision thwarted by Ripley who awkwardly finds herself in command.

Accessing classified computer files, Ripley learns that Ash was assigned by the corporation to apprehend the alien and return it to earth for study - even at the expense of Nostromo's crew. This revelation is short lived as Ash attacks Ripley but is decapitated by Parker instead, revealing that he is actually an android.

Ripley initiates the Nostromo's self destruct sequence, instructing Parker and Lambert to incinerate Ash before making ready their escape in the shuttle. But the alien kills Parker and Lambert and narrowly misses Ripley as she boards with Brett's cat.

The Nostromo self destructs and Ripley prepares for hyper-sleep aboard the shuttle, only to discover that the alien has made the escape with her. In the final moments, Ripley initiates explosive decompression by opening the shuttle's hatch, propelling the creature into outer space, but with her own solitary future uncertain.

When it debuted, Alien was not the blockbuster that Fox had banked on and, in retrospect, for good reason. It's story is brutally low key and, in Star Wars wake, unapologetically depressing; a postmodern epitaph arguably light years ahead of its time. In re-envisioning a sequel with Aliens (1986), director James Cameron initially ran into opposition from Fox precisely because the box office tally from the first film had not matched their level of expectation. Nevertheless, Cameron was bolstered by his cache as a director after the premiere of The Terminator (1983) - a certified box office dynamo.

Under Cameron's direction Aliens (1986) arguably takes the very best elements from the original film and makes them better. Ellen Ripley's shuttle is recovered by the Weyland-Yutani Corp. 57 years after the disastrous Nostromo venture. In that passage of time her only child has died and Ripley - alone and accused of having overridden company policy - is 'encouraged' by her former employers to return to the planetoid where the original creature was discovered. At first outright refusing to comply, Ripley is told by corporate 'yes man' Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) that the planet has long since been inhabited by a human colony without incident. That least, not until recently when all communication was suddenly terminated.

With a military escort aboard the Sulaco overseen by Colonel Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope), Ripley reluctantly returns to the alien planet to find a colony seemingly abandoned by its human inhabitants. The one prospect for learning what happened to the rest of its members materializes in the form of a traumatized, mute little girl nicknamed Newt (Carrie Henn) whom Ripley bonds to as her own child that, in fact, she never knew.

But the cocky Colonel and his equally brash crew have severely underestimated the situation. Inside the colony's science lab, they find remnants of alien face huggers preserved in formaldehyde. Realizing that the rest of the alien eggs have hatched, Ripley attempts to warn Gorman and his team of impending doom.

But Gorman disputes Ripley's concerns and attempts to set up a command centre instead. With precision, he and his brigade are picked off one by one - this time by an army of aliens who brutalize and dismember their prey with exceptional ease. After Newt is captured by an alien while hiding in one of the colony's sewers, Ripley summons up all her courage to go deep into the bowels of the mining centre with only a flame thrower and gun as protection.

Once inside, she discovers Newt wrapped inside an alien cocoon. Freeing the child, Ripley comes face to face with the alien queen (a multi-pronged bit of malignant magnificence created by Stan Winston) who is in the process of harvesting a new host of offspring. Torching the field of eggs that lay all around her, Ripley makes her way back to the Sulaco with the queen in pursuit. After a brief battle, Ripley and Newt board the Sulaco and bid the planetoid farewell.

Aliens is arguably a better constructed film than its predecessor. With a screenplay credited solely to Cameron (despite story assists from Giler and Hill) and a more centrally focused narrative on Sigourney Weaver as the series' star, Aliens became a much more profitable movie for 20th Century Fox.

Regrettably, the success of Cameron's movie at the box office gave way to two more instalments in the series; both inferior to either the first or second films. In truth, Sigourney Weaver did not want to return to the franchise after Aliens, prompting Giler and Hill to pen a screenplay that omitted her character entirely - a ploy designed to resurrect Ellen Ripley in a fourth feature. Fox vetoed this idea, however, leaving director David Fincher to scramble for plot consistency as he dove head strong into production on Aliens 3 (1992) without ever having a finished script. After completion of the film, the studio reworked this rough footage without Fincher's participation or consent, leaving the final edit suspect as to the director's original intent.

The film begins with an unforgiveable sin - removing Newt from the series by having a fire break out on the Sulaco. The ship crash lands near a prison/refinery with Ripley as its sole human survivor. Unbeknownst to the prisoners or Ripley, a face hugger has also survived the crash and shortly thereafter begins its usual - and by now - conventional spree of carnage with Ripley discovering by plot's end that she has been impregnated with an alien offspring.

In Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Alien Resurrection (1997) the plot concocted by Joss Wedon grows even more tedious and removed from the series roots - this time by 200 years with Ripley cloned and an alien queen surgically removed from her body; all part of a diabolical U.S. military plan to study alien/human hybrids. Tossing in the briefest whiff of lesbianism between Ripley and Capt. Annalee Call (Wynonna Ryder), the story goes nowhere fast, its predictable results and wizardry of state of the art special effects enjoyed to better effect elsewhere in the franchise.

Fox's Blu-Ray debut of the Alien franchise is stunning and will surely NOT disappoint. As this reviewer has often stated in the past, I rarely have doubts that a film made within the last 20 years will look stunning in hi-def. But what about 30 years and beyond - particularly when so much of what has been archived throughout the decades has been stored with less than stellar attention to film preservation?

Yet, in these transfers we have that rare treat for fans of the original movie and its masterful first sequel. Alien and Aliens have been given the deluxe treatment on Blu-Ray - along with their less fondly remembered counterparts. Image detail takes a quantum leap forward. Flesh tones have been nicely realized throughout all four films, with the first film retaining its cooler palette and more pasty hues of skin when directly compared to the other three films in the franchise. The image on all four movies is razor sharp with no visible signs of compression artefacts. Rear projection and model work is more evident to the keen eye, but Stan Winston's creature effects hold up remarkably well under such close scrutiny.

The audio has been given a 7.1 Tru-HD upgrade and again, the outstanding moments on these discs comes from the renewed sonic experience attributed to the first and second movies; neither the benefactor of exemplary sound design at the time of their original release. When the alien bursts forth from Kane's chest in the first feature, surround channels become aggressively spatial. Are there still dated characteristics to the sound field in general? Absolutely. After all, this is a 30 plus year audio sound mix - but one meticulously gone over with all of today's advantages for creating state of the art sound design.

Delving into the goodies, this box set also comes with a myriad of new and previously released footage, documentaries, featurettes, commentaries, stills and theatrical trailers that chart the series creation from virtually every conceivable aspect. 'Comprehensive' is a grossly inadequate term to sum up Fox's efforts on this outing. The Alien Anthology is a MUST HAVE Blu-Ray event. Very highly recommended! Please note that Fox has also made this set available in a flashier 'egg' package complete with batteries that make the translucent plastic shell shimmer and glow; a nice added touch for the finite collector except that the 'egg' set is sold for nearly $50 more than the one reviewed herein.

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

Alien 4

Aliens 5

Alien III 2

Alien Resurrection 1