Saturday, February 6, 2010

THE CLAUDETTE COLBERT COLLECTION (Paramount/Universal 1933-47) Universal Home Entertainment

An enviable actress with acute eccentricities, Claudette Colbert remains one of Hollywood's most luminous and highly regarded female stars from the golden age of movie making. Beginning her career in 1927, Colbert quickly rose through the ranks, proving her metal in Biblical/historical epics and taut melodramas. Arguably, she is best remembered for her turn as a madcap in romantic screwball comedies from the mid-1930s onward.

In over 60 films, Colbert retained that strange and elusive air of a movie queen - occasionally prone to temperament and eccentricities on the set. Some may recall that she insisted all her close ups only being photographed from the right side to conceal what she alone perceived was her facial flaw; a demand that drove her various directors logistically batty.

Others may remember how she made It Happened One Night (1934) for director Frank Capra with so much reluctance that when Capra called 'cut' on the final scene to be shot, Colbert simply grabbed her wrap and hat, walking off the set without so much as an acknowledgement to either her director or co-stars for their work. Instead, she telephoned a friend almost immediately to declare "I've just made the worst film of my career!" However, an interesting postscript came on Oscar night, when Colbert won Best Actress and chose the moment to remedy her ill behavior by simply stating, "I owe this to Frank Capra."

By the mid-1930s, Colbert's ascendency to stardom had plucked her from relative obscurity in poverty row B-movies; entering a plush Paramount contract that made her the highest paid actress in the business by 1937. After her career faltered in the mid-1950s, Colbert continued to work tirelessly on the stage, before retiring and dying of a series of strokes at the age of 92 in 1996. Today, she continues to rank among filmdom's most treasured stars. She is currently #12 on AFI's list of Screen Legends.

And now - at long last - Universal Home Video has seen fit to honor the star with a collection of 6 movie classics; 5 from Colbert's tenure with Paramount. Spanning her reign from 1933 to 1947 the films in The Claudette Colbert Collection are a testament to Colbert's versatility as a consummate professional. Not that every movie in this collection is a gem, but Colbert's performances arguably are.

The first film in this set is Elliot Nugett's Three Cornered Moon (1933); an abysmally second rate comedy that holds the dubious distinction of being readily cited as the first 'screwball' in American film.

Colbert is Elizabeth Rimplegar, pert daughter to a scatterbrain mother, Nellie (Mary Bolland) and three useless brothers; Kenneth (Wallace Ford), Eddie (Tom Brown) and Douglas (William Bakewell). This wealthy entourage is rendered instantly penniless by Nellie's bad investments, thus forcing everyone to go out and get a job in Depression America with varying degrees of failure and success.

The family's trusted physician, Dr. Alan Stevens (Richard Arlen) secretly pines for Elizabeth, even though she is engaged to penniless hack writer, Ronald (Hardie Albright). However, when Kenneth's girlfriend, Kitty (Joan Marsh) takes up with Ronald, the doctor makes his move and he and Elizabeth vow to marry.

The screenplay by Ray Harris and S.K. Laren cannot focus on any one in the cast long enough for our sympathies to agree on a favorite. Colbert is given the plum part, but it is constantly being interrupted by some such nonsense featuring Elizabeth's ineffectual brothers or business with the foreign housemaid, Jenny (Lyda Roberti); whose constant fracturing of the English language is painfully obtuse.

Colbert fares better in the second film in this set; Frank Lloyd's Maid of Salem (1937); a fictionalized account of the paranoia that spread during the trials that condemned many an innocent to death for witchcraft. Colbert is Barbara Clarke - a maiden whose rural community is rocked by rumors that there are witches living amongst them. Barbara meets Roger Coverman (Fred MacMurray); a political exile who romances her behind closed doors but reveals too much of himself in dark shadows - thus convincing some of the more simple minded folk that Satan is lurking about town.

Unable to reveal Roger without betraying him, Barbara is accused of being a witch (a similar charge conveyed against her late mother) and sentenced to death. After being imprisoned, Roger receives a reprieve from the governor and comes to Barbara's aid.

Maid of Salem is spotty entertainment at best with its screenplay by Bradley King something of a mishmash of spook stories and half truths about the real Salem witch hunts. Nevertheless, the film holds together primarily because of Colbert's compelling performance. Although an amiable actor in his own right, Fred MacMurray is miscast as the Irish dissident on the lam.

Next up is Wesley Ruggles' I Met Him In Paris (1937); a wacked out - rather than wacky - screwball comedy that pits Colbert's Kay Deham against a pair of would-be lotharios; foppish playwright, George Potter (Melvyn Douglas) and his ragtag man about town best friend, Gene Anders (Robert Young).

The boys are on holiday in Paris when they stumble across Kay who is having trouble relating to the locals in their native tongue. Coming to Kay's rescue, George is clearly smitten by her charms - though somehow unable to articulate his feelings, that translate into awkward contempt. This leaves the romantic playing field wide open for Gene...if only he didn't already have a wife back in America. Gene strikes a bargain with George to keep his secret; a promise that seems in constant danger of being broken.

Whisking Kay to a snowy retreat in Switzerland, Gene pulls out all the romantic stops to win Kay's heart. However, when Gene's wife, Helen (Mona Barrie) arrives for a surprise visit, Kay realizes what a fool she has been.

Working from a screenplay by Claude Binyon and Helen Meinardi, I Met Him In Paris is too contrived to be fully appreciated. The situations are awkwardly staged and happen almost by accident rather than through plausible circumstances. Even Colbert seems ill at ease with the material she's been given. Certainly, there's no spark of chemistry between the costars, leaving the romantic element of the story rather cold and flat.

The next film, Ernest Lubitsch's Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938) rectifies all major sins committed thus far. Colbert is magnificent as Nicole Deloiselle - an attractive gal in search of the bottom half of a pair of pajamas for her doting uncle, the Marquis (Edward Everett Horton). A cute meet with brash American Michael Brandon (Gary Cooper) in the men's department of a Parisian shop leads to an hilarious misunderstanding.

Michael falls in love with Nicole without telling her first that he has had seven previous failed marriages to his discredit. Discovering this fact leaves Nicole rather jealous. She goes through with her marriage to Michael, then embarks upon a campaign to make him insanely jealous of her attractiveness to other men.

What is often referred to by film critics as 'the Lubtisch touch' - the director's penchant for entertaining elegant European wit and sophistication with a touch of the slightly naughty - is working overtime in Bluebeard's Eighth Wife. From start to finish the film is a lush and gregarious confection of riotous plot developments. The screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder is A-1 - deftly ladling frivolity with moments of inspired wit and charm. There is genuine chemistry between Colbert and Cooper - a quiet animosity that gradually and quite plausibly builds into love.

The next film in this collection, Mitchell Leisen's No Time For Love (1943) is almost as good, with Colbert cast as Katherine Grant - a photographer much sought after for her keen eye and skill with a camera. After Katherine's editor assigns her to take pictures of 'sandhogs' building an underground vehicular tunnel, Katherine comes face to face with Jim Ryan; an opinionated digger she nicknames 'the ape' but who stirs Kate's romantic interests primarily because he is so self-assured and overtly butch.

Katherine's sister, Hoppy (Ilke Chase) urges her to publish a photograph taken in the mine of Jim slugging another worker during a brawl. Katherine refuses, then finds that her editor and soon to be fiancée, Henry Fulton (Paul McGrath) has published the photo anyway without her permission. The exposure gets Jim suspended from his job. To make up for his loss, Katherine hires Jim to do odd jobs as she photographs subjects for the magazine.

The on screen chemistry between Colbert and MacMurray only previously glimpsed in Maid of Salem is fully explored in No Time For Love with hilarious results. The romantic sparring between these two is genuinely electric, particularly during scenes where Jim calls out Katherine to admit her obvious attraction toward him.

In one of the film's best remembered sequences, Katherine is assigned to photograph, muscular model, Leon Brice (Jerome DeNuccio) - sparking a near lethal confrontation between Leon and Jim that ends when Jim takes Leon's dumbbell and tosses it into Leon, thereby sending the man and his muscles sailing through the paper thin photographic backdrop Katherine has set up in her studio.

The collection caps off with Chester Erskine's The Egg and I (1947); Colbert and MacMurray once again - this time cast as Betty and Bob MacDonald; a loving couple put to the test when Bob announces that he has decided to give up city life and his promising career in advertising to become a chicken farmer instead.

Based on Betty MacDonald's slightly autobiographical novel, the screenplay by Erskine and Fred F. Finklehoffe delights at extolling various 'fish out of water' scenarios that inevitably arise when city folk make the rocky transition to country life, thus threatening the MacDonald's happy marriage. The film is also noteworthy for its debut of Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main - cast as irrepressible Ma' and Pa' Kettle; a pair of country bumpkin sponges who both aid and take advantage of the McDonalds as they reshape their lives into the very picture of rural bliss...well, sort of.

The first 5 movies of this collection are from Colbert's Paramount tenure; the last, from Universal. All are B&W and all have been digitally remastered to look their best - although the results are not entirely thrilling. Not surprising, the poorest transfer of the lot is the oldest; Three Cornered Moon, its image suffering from slightly lower than expected contrast levels and a loss of fine detail throughout. Otherwise, the transfer quality on the remaining titles falls into the mid-range.

On Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, there are several glaring instances where the image wobbles (presumably from sprocket hole damage). Minor edge enhancement plagues The Egg and I but will surely not distract. Otherwise, the transfers are generally crisp and remarkably free of age related artifacts. The audio on all titles is mono as originally recorded and quite adequately represented. The real disappointment here is that Universal has given us NO extra features - not even theatrical trailers and/or audio commentaries to supplement the films. For shame!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Three Cornered Moon 1
Maid of Salem 3
I Met Him In Paris 2.5
Bluebeard's Eighth Wife 4
No Time For Love 3.5
The Egg and I 3.5



Friday, February 5, 2010

DIRTY HARRY: Blu-Ray (W.B. 1971) Warner Home Video

Don Siegel's Dirty Harry (1971) is the gritty cop caper that, in essence, style and storytelling, turns the traditionalist mold of the noble detective on end. In hindsight, the film is rather predictable entertainment, both from a reflective and historical perspective.

For example, throughout the 1960s, social, cultural and political upheaval seemed a daily occurrence in mid-town America. By the end of the decade, both young and old were asking more probing questions of both their leaders and themselves, with a pervasive sense of overwhelming helplessness and disenchantment as the byproduct of a disintegrating pop culture.

From a film industry perspective, the dismantling of the studio system, the star system and the production code of ethics gave rise to a new form of heroism in the movies that mirrored that social disillusionment. Heroes were no longer neither noble nor pure of heart, but seemed to be articulating society's popular rage with vigilante ideas of their own. As main staple genres like the musical and the western fell out of favor with audiences, the criminal drama came into its own.

In Dirty Harry, director Siegel is blessed with Clint Eastwood as his star; an established celebrity whose hard hitting, stoic realism in spaghetti westerns for Sergio Leone throughout the 60s ironically proved the ideal platform for Eastwood's transition from outlaw/desperado to crime fighting vigilante.

The screenplay by Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, Dean Riesner and John Milius wisely sticks to Eastwood's strengths as an actor - his ability to convey menace without speaking too much dialogue. The film's justly famous line of "Do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do you?" is about all the literary depth we get from San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan and it fits Eastwood's no nonsense persona like a glove.

Dirty Harry opens with a sniper (later identified as Charles 'Scorpio' Davis and played to deranged perfection by Andrew Robinson) taking dead aim at a lovely young woman (Diana Davidson) as she swims in the rooftop pool of her apartment building. From here we are quickly introduced to Inspector Harry Callahan (Eastwood): a.k.a. Dirty Harry because his superior Lt. Al Bressler (Harry Guardino) tends to assign him the most undesirable cases. To illustrate the extent to which Harry is willing to take the law into his own hands, the script departs from its central story for a pivotal sequence in the film.

Harry foils a bank robbery singlehandedly, threatening to murder one of the wounded suspects in cold blood with his Smith & Wesson Magnum revolver . Even though Harry's open season shooting spree foils the robbery, it also incurs the wrath of San Francisco's Mayor (John Vernon) who, along with Judge Bannerman (William Paterson) point out to Harry that the law is to be obeyed by everyone - but especially by those who wear the badge.

Having established the tempestuous nature of Harry's relationship with authority figures, the film turns once more to focus on hunting down Charles Davis before he can kill again. Harry is assigned a partner, Chico Gonzolez (Reni Santoni) and although the partnership begins on rough footing, eventually a quiet mutual respect develops between these two men - particularly after they discover another of Davis' victims, a young black boy in a vacant field with half his head missing.

The rest of the film is essentially a ruthless game of cat and mouse between Harry and Charles Davis who has kidnapped another victim and informs Harry that she will be suffocated if Harry doesn't play along with his plan.

At one point, while on a stakeout, Charles wounds Chico by shooting him while Harry stabs Charles in the leg - later taking him into custody. Unhappy circumstance for Harry that his search of Charles seedy apartment was illegal - thereby rendering all evidence found inside inadmissible in court. Free to kill again, Charles hires a thug to brutalize him, then attempts to pin the assault on Harry who has been tailing him around town.

Eventually, Charles cannot contain his blood lust. He hijacks a school bus full of children, intending to hold them for ransom until he can escape the city. Harry, however, has other ideas; intercepting the bus in mid-travel and directing it to a rock query where an inevitable final showdown ensues.

Dirty Harry may not be the most consistent police/drama/thriller but it continues to pack a wallop today. Chiefly responsible for the film's enduring appeal is Clint Eastwood's central performance; done with fearless focus and a determination to do all of his own stunts - including jumping from a trestle onto the roof of a moving bus. Also working in the film's favor is the fact that, apart from one brief scene, the entire production has been shot on location in and around San Francisco, giving the story an air of genuine authenticity. While Eastwood would reprise Harry Callahan in several more films throughout the 1970s and 80s, Dirty Harry remains the one for which he is best remembered.

Warner Home Video's Blu-Ray easily bests all previous DVD releases. The image is generally crisp with eye popping Technicolor photography of the city by the bay. Scenes shot outdoors tend to offer truer, more natural appearing color than those photographed indoors. Film grain is inconsistently rendered. There are scenes that appear almost entirely free of it while other scenes contain an obvious patina of grain that has been accurately rendered.

The audio has been remixed to 5.1 Dolby Tru HD and delivers a fairly aggressive - though dated - sonic presentation throughout. Extras include three extensive documentaries - the first two on the making of the movie; the third a career profile on Eastwood. There's also a juicy audio commentary to indulge in and vintage junket materials that round out our appreciation for the movie. Highly recommended!

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



ROSALIE (MGM 1938) Warner Archive Collection

Utterly nonsensical to a fault, yet blindingly spectacular to equal aplomb, W.S. Van Dyke's Rosalie (1938) is a movie musical desperately in need of one good story idea instead of a myriad of bad ones. Not that the film suffers terribly from its hyperbole haphazardly poured over mountains of awkward cliché. On the contrary, Rosalie is a triumph of style over substance and staged with a Herculean amount of glamour that only MGM in its heyday could so magnificently put together and pulled off.

The inimitable Cole Porter provides 9 songs, many of them showstoppers. Nelson Eddy warbles the bombastic title tune as well as one of Porter's most sublime and enduring creations; In The Still of The Night. What is curious about the film is it preposterous claptrap of plot points, unceremoniously lumped together by writers, William Anthony McGuire and Guy Bolton.

MGM's 'tops in taps' dancing lady, Eleanor Powell stars as Rosalie - Princess of the fictitious Balkan province of Romanza. Living incognito as a student at Vassar, Rosalie is much admired by her classmates in all respects except in her curious despising of All-America football star and West Point cadet, Dick Thorpe (Eddy). However, like all great love/hate relationships in the movies, this one too is destined for happier times before the final fade out.

Dick's best friend, Bill DelRoy (Ray Bolger) is something of a chicken livered wallflower, despite the fact that he is also a West Point cadet with prospects of marrying real looker, Mary Callahan (Virginia Grey). At a party given to celebrate Dick's final football victory for the academy, Dick is introduced to Rosalie. However, despite sharing a dance, she is pert, curt and rather snobbishly rude to him - believing Dick to be a lady's man. Instead, Dick proves Rosalie wrong by traveling all the way to Vassar for a chance to serenade her in the dark.

In the meantime, it is revealed that Rosalie is actually Princess Rosalie - heir to the throne of Romanza. She is recalled to her native country by her father, King Frederick Romanikov (Frank Morgan, at his bumbling best) for pending nuptials to the Chancellor's son, Prince Paul (Tom Rutherford). Paul, however, is desperately in love with Rosalie's best friend, the Countess, Brenda (Ilona Massey).

Infatuated, though unconvinced that Dick's intentions are strictly honorable and true, Rosalie challenges him to follow her to her country on the eve of a celebration. However, she keeps from him both the fact that she is a princess and that she is engaged to someone else.

From here, the plot only becomes more convoluted and pointless; salvaged only by MGM's immeasurable penchant for ultra glamour. On the eve of the celebration, Dick arrives in Romanza by performing a darling trans-Atlantic flight. Bill, who has taken safe passage by boat, pleads with Dick to allow him to lie about having flown with him, thereby winning the respect of Mary and her stubborn father.

A dramatically staged revolution breaks out, but is almost instantly quashed. Nevertheless, the King and Queen (Edna May Oliver) depart for America where Rosalie tours West Point with Dick as her chaperone. Once again, she is rude and haughty towards him, only this time - having learned her true identity - Dick reciprocates, giving the Princess a taste of her own medicine. The two eventually reconcile and the King allows his daughter to marry Dick, leaving the Countess and Prince Paul to pursue their romantic attachment as well.

Rosalie is magnificently mounted entertainment - but it fails to catch on and hold our attention except in fits and sparks. There is genuine chemistry between Eddy and Powell. Often Eddy has been assessed by the critics as having a generally wooden acting personality, and, while I must confess that to be a fairly accurate critique of his filmic work opposite Jeanette MacDonald, with Eleanor Powell at least, Eddy seems more at ease and actually, quite amiable. Powell, while in rare form as a dancer, is miscast in all her haughty exclusivity. One wonders why Dick would continue to pine for Rosalie since her demeanor toward him is mostly sullen and cruel.

Apart from Eddy's vocals, the high water mark of this film is undoubtedly Powell's tap rendition of the title tune, performed on a 60 acre soundstage with 2000 extras in attendance and 27 cameras rolling. It's a mindboggling spectacle of epic proportions. Also impressive is the royal wedding finale. In the final analysis, Rosalie is a film that should be revisited for its sheer scope and majesty. Just don't expect too much by way of plot.

This Warner Archive Collection burn-on-demand title exhibits a rather softly focused B&W image. While medium shots can appear relatively sharp with a considerable amount of fine detail present, long shots tend to be a tad blurry on the whole. For a film over 70 years old, it's quite remarkable how little age related artifacts there are. The image is clean and quite smooth in appearance. Contrast levels are weaker than expected and there are instances of edge enhancement, but overall the image will not disappoint. The audio is mono and adequate for this presentation. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.

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



Wednesday, February 3, 2010

DEAD CALM (W.B. 1989) Warner Home Video

Based on Charles William's suspense laden novel, director Philip Noyce's Dead Calm (1989) is a mixed bag of cliché and melodrama that capitalizes on the isolationism of the open sea for much of its taut thrills. Although it has its moments, the film never quite comes off as a nail biter, despite good performances by Nicole Kidman and Sam Neill. The greatest challenge to overcome is a rather turgid script by Terry Hayes and an utterly ineffectual turn from Billy Zane - cast as the sulking, rather than sinister, villain.

The story opens with Capt. John Ingrim (Neill) returning home from a voyage with his crew. However, as their train pulls into the station, Ingrim's wife, Rae (Kidman) is nowhere to be found.

As various anxious sweethearts collect their mates on the platform it becomes apparent to Ingrim that his wife is not among them. Unhappy circumstance for the Captain, who quickly discovers that Rae and their young son have been involved in a horrific car accident en route to the station. The Ingrim's son has died after being jettisoned from the vehicle and Rae is barely clinging to life at the county hospital.

From here Haye's screenplay takes a quantum leap forward, with a restored Rae waking up screaming from another nightmare about the crash aboard her husband's plush yacht. Ingrim comforts Rae with promises of a future free from fear - all evidence to the contrary as their yacht approaches the Orpheus; a black schooner bobbing about the open waters. Upon closer inspection, Ingrim and Rae take notice of a solitary sailor mercilessly rowing for all its worth toward their vessel.

The man, Hughie Warriner (Zane) tells a harrowing tale of escaping near death after his ship's food supply became tainted with botulism. Five shipmates were not so lucky. Unconvinced by the story, Ingrim encourages Hughie to go below and rest, then tells Rae he intends to board the Orpheus to conduct his own inspection. What Ingrim discovers once aboard are the gruesomely dismembered remains of four young women and another man. There can only be one conclusion; Hughie Warriner is a sadistic murderer.

Meanwhile, Hughie awakens from below deck. Realizing what Ingrim must have discovered aboard the Orpheus, Hughie takes command of Ingrim's yacht, abandoning Ingrim to the black schooner and kidnapping Rae into uncharted waters.

What follows is supposed to be a heightened game of cat and mouse with Ingrim employing his vast knowledge of ships to resurrect the Orpheus from sinking so that he can pursue Rae and Hughie. Instead, Ingrim discovers that the black schooner is mortally wounded and destined to sink, leaving Rae as his only hope for survival.

Here, however, the tale becomes quite convoluted and slightly ridiculous. For although Rae has a double barrel shotgun and harpoon at her disposal - as well as ample time to sneak either or both away from Hughie and use them in her own defense - she instead spends the first two thirds of the film whimpering in corners, attempting half hearted and badly planned escapes, as well as, allowing Hughie to ravage her sexually to bide her time. At the last possible moment, Rae harpoons Hughie in the shoulder before tossing his unconscious body into an inflatable raft, then cutting him loose from the yacht.

As the Orpheus sinks further into the sea, Ingrim learns from the ship's video log that Hughie was a mate hired to take photographer, Russell Bellows (Rod Mullinar) and four aspiring female models for a cruise to shoot some nude photographs. Why any of this should matter to the overall plot of the film remains a topic never discussed.

Meanwhile, as night falls, Ingrim douses the Orpheus in petrol, setting it afire as a beacon for Rae to find. She does, and Ingrim is rescued. The next afternoon, Rae and Ingrim come across the inflatable raft. But there are no signs of Hughie, except two bloody palm prints rubbing against their yacht that neither Rae or Ingrim see.

Ingrim goes below deck to prepare breakfast for his wife, leaving Hughie to make one last attempt at strangling Rae with her own towel. Ingrim returns, sees the act of murder in progress and fires a solitary flair into Hughie's head, thereby effectively killing him.

Thus ends, Dead Calm on a rather blissfully obtuse note - without pomp or much of a resolution for that matter. The greatest folly of the film remains its knotting of more than a handful of ambiguous plot threads into a narrative that never entirely gels. As the audience, we are led to believe that Hughie has murdered Bellows and his beauties after being ruthlessly badgered by Bellows and laughed at by the models; hardly a decisive or plausible reason for all of the carnage.

This scenario would work if Hughie exhibited more psychotic episodes once left to his own devices with Rae. However, upon ditching Ingrim in the middle of nowhere, Hughie makes every attempt to be a rather amiable and playful suitor for Rae. He makes no threat or even menace of rape and only after Rae plays along with his romantic advances does Hughie decide to engage in intercourse with her. Hence, when Rae finally decides to attempt to poison Hughie then shoots him with the harpoon, a rather strange sense of empathy for Hughie emerges as the byproduct. She has misled him and he becomes a wounded animal in need of rescue who is instead unceremoniously put to death.

The other tragedy from which the film never recovers is Billy Zane's abysmally dull central performance as Hughie. Zane is much more the fop than the romantic interest and ever so much more the lover than the fighter, leaving the audience to speculate just how it is he might have been able to murder the Orpheus' entire crew single handedly when he cannot even handle one frightened woman once alone on Ingrim's ship. In the final analysis, Dead Calm has its moments but there is far too much 'calm' in between them to make an impact one way or the other.

Warner Home Video's Blu-Ray transfer is a reason to rejoice however. The image throughout is bright, sumptuous and beautifully contrasted with a quantum leap forward in fine detail. Age related artifacts are nonexistent for a smooth and satisfying visual presentation. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and adequately reproduced herein. Save a cropped theatrical trailer, there are no extras.

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



IMMORTAL BELOVED: Blu-ray (Columbia 1994) Sony Home Entertainment

Rarely do biographical films attain a level of exquisiteness in scope and beauty as is the case with Bernard Rose's Immortal Beloved (1994). Comparisons between Milos Forman’s Amadeus and Rose's film – the latter, a lavishly produced life and times of Ludwig van Beethoven - are perfunctory and inevitable. However, all such comparative analyses should begin and end on one simple fact: that both movies deal with musical prodigies and absolute genius.

From that snap analysis, Rose’s filmic excursion proves infinitely more intimate and personal with the utmost reverence and sincerity employed in exploring a multifaceted mystery. In essence the life of Ludwig van Beethoven is a great tragedy; our hero is an embittered, tortured recluse whose enduring melodies are rarified glimpses into the human soul that the composer never heard for himself in all their orchestral glory.

However, Rose is not so much concerned with critiquing Beethoven's skills as an artist. Nor is he particularly interested in providing his audience with a musical chronology of Beethoven's greatest hits; though both the artist and his music get more than their ample do throughout the film's lengthy running time. Moreover, Rose’s screenplay attempts to unearth the very essence of Beethoven - the man.

As such, the film is constructed as three lengthy interrupted flashbacks, loosely strung together with a quest inculcated by Beethoven’s long time friend, Anton Felix Schindler (Jeroen Krabbe). Upon Beethoven’s death it is Schindler’s desire to discover the whereabouts and identity of Beethoven’s mysterious ‘immortal beloved’ – an paramour referred to in passionate correspondences written in Beethoven’s hand.The letters never reached their destination. As far as Schindler is concerned only this ‘beloved’ is responsible for the inspiration that stirred the master to his greatest compositions; hence, only she is entitled to reap the financial rewards by inheriting Beethoven's musical legacy.

To this purpose, Schindler travels throughout the Austrian Empire to become acquainted with the three most likely women of varying backgrounds that Beethoven is rumored to have been a lover to; his first pupil, the precocious Giulietta Guicciardi (Valeria Golina); his most ardent, yet critical admirer - the countess, Anna Marie Erdody (Isabella Rossellini) and Therese Obermayer (Alexandra Pigg), Beethoven's late brother’s embittered wife.All of the aforementioned will supply Schindler with insight into the man he only knew superficially – each will touch his heart in an unimaginable way. As the mystery unravels, the audience is allowed to experience the sublime nirvana that is Beethoven's labyrinthine success – a journey that cuts to the bone of musical genius.

Director, Rose has been blessed with one of the cinema’s truly great chameleon - Gary Oldman as his Beethoven. Although Oldman did not play music, he actually practiced five hours a day to learn proper fingering on the piano, convincing enough for any film purist and/or musicologist alike. Ultimately, what Oldman achieves on the screen is a sublime verisimilitude; a truly haunted performance as a tortured soul that ranks among the greatest acting achievements of his career.

Does the story waver from fact? – undoubtedly; for there is very little in existence on Beethoven's life to sustain the screenplay. 200 years of scholarly research have, as yet, been unable to deduce the actual source of that impassioned letter written in Beethoven’s hand. Perhaps, what is achieved by the film is closer to the truth than anyone might care to admit - but that analysis remains for scholars of music history to debate. At best, Immortal Beloved is an approximation of history. However, as film entertainment, it remains pure perfection created by artisans who clearly have the master and his music in their blood.

Sony Home Entertainment’s Blu-Ray bests its standard DVD - but not by as much as one would expect. It should be pointed out that Sony's standard DVD marked a superb transfer of near reference quality. Colors on the Blu-Ray are more vibrant and richly represented on the Blu-Ray with flesh tones the most noticeable benefactor. The anamorphic widescreen image exhibits refined details, solid black levels, and very clean whites. The Blu-Ray excels in razor sharpness and extolling minute details in costuming and background information. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital; both smooth and pronounced. Extras are regrettably confined to a brief vintage featurette on the making of the film. Nevertheless, highly recommended!

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



MRS. DOUBTFIRE: Blu-Ray (20th Century-Fox 1993) Fox Home Video

Chris Columbus’ Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) is a rather obvious gender-bending mishmash of every angst ridden cliché from the old androgynous closet. More often than not the screenplay by Randi Mayem Singer and Leslie Dixon goes for the twenty-second laugh rather than the more reserved chuckle, coming across as quaintly ridiculous rather than monumentally hilarious.

The film stars Robin Williams as voice over artist, Daniel Hillard; a father whose marriage has crumbled into ongoing confrontations with his advertising executive wife, Miranda (Sally Fields). After Miranda files for divorce and takes up with an old flame, Stuart Dunmeyer (Pierce Brosnon), Daniel doesn’t get to see his children, Lydia (Lisa Jakub), Christopher (Matthew Lawrence) and Natalie (Mara Wilson). In fact, thanks to Miranda's testimony, the court has concerns about Daniel being an unfit father.

Moving in with his gay brother, Frank (Harvey Fierstein) and his lover, Jonathan Lundy (Robert Prosky), Daniel soon realizes that Miranda will never let him look after their children - at least, not as himself. Enter Euphenegia Doubtfire (Williams, with a skirt), the pert, curt and feisty British matron who is determined to do right by his kids, even if he has to pitch a little latex and lip rouge on the side.

Miranda hires ‘Effie’ to prepare meals, keep house and act as a surrogate mother while she pursues her career and Stuart. At first, his kids resent this new interloper. Eventually, they come to regard her as an integral part of their lives – a genuine affection made all the more problematic by the fact that Daniel cannot tell them who he really is.

After Christopher and Lydia figure out the rouse they all agree to keep it a secret from Miranda and Lydia, the latter having become quite attached to Mrs. Doubtfire as the doting grandmother she's never known. Unfortunately, when Stuart takes the family out to a posh restaurant for dinner, Mrs. Doubtfire decides to pepper his Cajun cuisine with curry; resulting in a food allergy that lodges a shrimp in Stuart's throat.

Performing the Heimlich to save Stuart's life, Daniel's make-up applications are exposed to Miranda. Utterly shocked and humiliated, she hauls Daniel back into court. This time the judge bans Daniel from seeing his children outright. But Miranda's heart has softened. She realizes that any man who would sacrifice his ego to such a charade really must love his children. The film ends with Miranda agreeing to allow Daniel to watch Christopher, Lydia and Natalie for the after school hours while she is at work.

Mrs. Doubtfire is hardly perfect entertainment. When the script allows for Robin William's improvisation, the results are predictably hilarious. However, Columbus’ direction is swift and assured. But the Singer/Dixon screenplay tends to go nowhere fast. Instead of critique we get cliché; instead of recognition for the tribulations of being a woman we are subjected to tack on snickers and the suggestion that a man in drag is a better 'mother figure' than an any woman. William’s take on a proper English nanny veers grossly into the realms of extreme parody.

Unlike Dustin Hoffman’s characterization of a woman in Tootsie (1981), completely assimilated beneath the wig and makeup applications, as the audience we are never entirely convinced that Williams is not underneath his fat suit and curlers. William's essence is everywhere to remind us how painful the experience of wearing a girdle can be. Unfortunately for the film, most men have already figured that one out for themselves without the benefit of trying one on for size.

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray is a direct import of their ‘Behind the Seams’ standard DVD. This is an adequate, though not exceptional transfer. There’s nothing really off about the color spectrum. It just isn’t as vibrant as most Blu-Ray titles. Contrast is superbly rendered as are fine details. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and appears to be the identical mix as on the previously issued DVD from Fox.

It should be pointed out that the extras available on this Blu-Ray are direct imports from the DVD release. Apart from deleted and extended scenes, the rest of the extras include on-camera interviews with stars and crew, a meeting with animator Chuck Jones, behind-the-scenes make up and pencil test footage, trailers, vintage promotional junkets and a ‘making of’ that is largely self congratulatory.

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



SIGNS: Blu-Ray (Touchstone 2002) Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Until its final moments, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002) is a paranoiac gem of a sci-fi thriller – capturing all of the hysteria and fear essential to propel its’ rather hokey narrative toward one hell of a heart-pounding conclusion. The film stars Mel Gibson as Rev. Graham Hess; a man so emotionally wounded by the loss of his wife in a fatal car wreck that he has forsaken his calling and abandoned the church.

Now, living as a corn farmer with his brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) a would-be baseball pro, and two children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), Graham’s seemingly suffocated lifestyle is stirred to conviction when the family's television begins broadcasting visceral snippets of alien invasions occurring across the globe.

Terrified and secluded, Graham attempts to keep his family’s sanity together, all the while realizing that the obscure and baffling crop circles that have begun to appear in his cornfields suggest that the aliens are hitting closer to home and threatening his isolationism.

Working from his own script, Shyamalan casts himself as Ray Reddy - the man whose split second dozing off at the wheel of his pick up resulted in the death of Graham's wife, Colleen (Patricia Kalember).

In all, Signs is a grandly perverse, occasionally spiritual, and often frightening film experience, but it also contains a gross error in film continuity. After Graham resolves to keep the alien invasion out of his home by bolting and nailing doors shut, he closes a door of an upstairs bedroom by pulling the door towards him and nailing several wooden planks across its jam, presumably to prevent whatever is on the other side from opening the door and entering the house. One problem: the door opens into the room.

Director Shayamalan captures the essential ‘fear of the dark/fear of the unknown’ paradigm that make us all cringe, ratcheting up sustained increments of nail biting suspense until the audience is ready to jump from their seats. That Shayamalan drops the artistic ball – so to speak - moments before the final fade out by actually showing us the alien in full figure is a moot point. Final acts to sci-fi thrillers are rarely wholly satisfying.

As the audience, what is remembered long afterward is a sense of extreme and, at times, utterly terrifying self paralysis, calculated at every plot twist. Like a harrowing ride through the darkened recesses of a carnival funhouse, Signs delivers the goods almost from the moment it begins and takes the rest of us along for the exhilerating ride.

Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray easily bests its Vista Series DVD. Teh anamorphic image is considerable darker on Blu-Ray with deeper blacks. Yet, ironically, more fine detail emerges from these dark spaces than was present on the more lightly contrasted DVD. Colors overall are rich and vibrant. Flesh tones continue to appear slightly more orange than expected, but contrast levels have been superbly realized. Edge enhancement that occasionally plagued the DVD has been eradicated on the Blu-Ray.

The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and delivers a fairly aggressive spread across all channels. Extras are all imported from the standard DVD and include a six part documentary encompassing most aspects of the film’s production. Storyboards, a multi-angle feature and Night’s First Alien film – a childhood project, round out the extras. Recommended!

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