Tuesday, April 27, 2010

THE PRESTIGE: Blu-Ray (Touchstone 2006) Buena Vista Home Entertainment

Mystery/thrillers rarely come this good, but Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (2006) is a movie about magic, as opposed to a movie that is magical. The screenplay by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan and Christopher Priest is all about the art of illusion - a obsessive passion that leads to a deadly rivalry between two illusionists in a race to rightfully be classed as the greatest of all time. Fudging history by inserting the credible scientific genius of Nikola Tesla (played with uncharacteristic and exquisite panache by David Bowie) into this mix, the film’s central plot is quite brilliantly baffling.

We first see Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) working an act for Milton the Magician with their mentor, illusionist engineer, Cutter (Michael Caine). The finale of this act involves binding Robert’s wife, Julia (Piper Perabo) with heavy rope before dunking her into a glass tank filled with water. However, this night is not like all the rest. Alfred ties the knots. But something goes horribly awry and Julia is drowned.

Robert blames Alfred for Julia's death - a claim Alfred seems to take minor pleasure in by providing no direct answer. The two men part company, determined to outdo one another on the stage. Robert takes Cutter and becomes The Great Danton while Alfred hires a new engineer and assumes the stage persona of 'The Professor'. Consumed by rage and a thirst for revenge, Robert employs his new assistant, Olivia Wenscombe (Scarlett Johannson) to get close to Alfred and discover his slight-of-hand secrets.

Robert also hires genius inventor Nikola Tesla to build for him an electromagnetic chamber for a magic trick where Robert vanishes into a ball of kinetic energy only to reappear seconds later on one of the balconies nearest the stage. Tesla advises Robert against this experiment, as per its dangerousness and prohibitive costs, but Robert will not be deterred. As a fascinating aside, the film also depicts Tesla's rivalry with Thomas Edison that eventually led to Tesla's laboratory being torched by men hired by Edison (an actual real life event) as a parallel - or perhaps parable is more fitting herein - to the lengths that creative genius will sink to in order to declare their own supremacy.

The screenplay is structured as a magic trick in three equal parts; the first third of the story involves the rather straight forward rivalry between Robert and Alfred. The middle third showcases their respective performances of grand illusion and bring into play the historical figure of Tesla to suggest a theory of teleportation (a subject that, in real life, Tesla believed was possible, though never proven by his scientific data).

The last act of the film involves the bizarre faking of Robert's death to both destroy Alfred's reputation as an illusionist and imprison him for life. During the shocking final moments, the macabre ‘death trick’ is revealed with bone-chilling sadism best not revealed in this review for those who have yet to see this film.

However, about midway through the story the narrative becomes just a tad too contrived, too clever for its own good. As example: Robert has an exact look alike: a derelict drunkard who agrees to mimic Robert. Alfred also has a twin - a mute brother who is able to successfully double him in public. Both Robert and Alfred lose the woman nearest their heart; one through fate, the other through vanity. As such, these coincidences tend to pile on in rapid succession, diffusing the taut narrative and leaving behind an overriding sense of déjà vu.

Despite these clichéd similarities, The Prestige clings together with great aplomb; a deliciously clever period thriller that manages to make a magical experience out of the art and craft of illusion itself. Jackman and Bale are formidable performers - their presence greatly enhancing the material. David Bowie give a most credible and fascinating turn as Tesla: the reclusive inventor of so many contemporary scientific luxuries that are often erroneously attributed to other 'great minds' from his generation. In the final analysis, The Prestige is a movie to rethink and bear witness to repeatedly. It's a must have.

Buena Vista Home Video’s Blu-Ray easily bests its already impressive standard DVD. The stylized color palette is more finely wrought on the Blu-Ray. This is a dark film. Where the DVD often lost much of the background details during darker sequences, the Blu-Ray reveals much more of hidden background information even during the deepest, darkest sequences. Flesh tones are stylized as either cool blue-gray or warm.

Whereas these warm hues on the DVD come across as very orange, on the Blu-Ray they are more subtly balanced to reveal more naturally occuring flesh tones throughout. The hint of edge enhancement inherent on the DVD has been removed from the Blu-Ray presentation. The audio remains 5.1 Dolby Digital - curiously, no lossless HD mix forthcoming. Dialogue that was curiously inaudible during the first few scenes on the DVD is more clearly represented on the Blu-Ray mastering. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD release; distilled into a very brief ‘making of’ featurette and some rather haphazardly assembled shorts discussing production design and character development. Bottom line: recommended!

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



ELIZABETH: Blu-Ray (Polygram/USA Films 1998) Universal Home Video

Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth (1998) is an engrossing masterwork of interwoven political intrigues charting the turbulent rise of one of England’s most enigmatic monarchs – Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett). An immense melodrama, epic in scope yet satisfying in its emotional intensity, the screenplay by Michael Hirst takes many historical liberties, not the least of which is transforming loyal subject Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) into the major catalyst for inciting an overthrow of the monarchy.

The film begins in earnest in the year 1558 with the arrival of the Catholic Queen Mary’s (Kathy Burke) guardsmen at the stately Tudor manor of her exiled sister, the Protestant Elizabeth I - child of Henry VIII and Ann Boleyn. Seems the Queen, a hysteric suffering from a cancerous tumour in her uterus, is determined to rid her kingdom of any impediment that may topple her precarious hold on the monarchy.

Public burnings of those suspected of being traitors to the crown are quite common, creating an atmosphere of fear and quiet loathing for the monarchy. However, when Mary realizes she is dying, she has no choice but to release Elizabeth from the Tower of London and instate her to the English throne. The appointment, unfortunately, is not without sacrifice.

Elizabeth has been entertaining romantic dalliances with ambitious statesman, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester; an indulgence that her trusted advisor, Sir William Cecil (Richard Attenborough) makes valiant attempts to discourage. The court is further rocked by news that The Duke of Norfolk (Christopher Eccleston) plans to have Elizabeth murdered so that he may assume appointment to the throne. Enter Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), a noble of spurious sexual proclivities who is loyal to the crown and quite willing to kill anyone who attempts to harm Elizabeth.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, Mary of Guise (Fanny Ardant) is brokering a coup to conquer England for her own with Norfolk's aid and complicity. As England draws nearer to the precipice of royal disaster Elizabeth must harden her resolve and her heart against any outside influences that may or may not have her best interests at heart.

The palace intrigues condensed in Hirst's screenplay tend to pile up midway through this lavish spectacle – an otherwise evenly paced potpourri of macabre alliances, faltering ambitions and maniacal desires to take over England's throne from within. Interestingly, the film tends to age the entire cast to middle age and beyond even though many of the principles in life, like Walsingham and William Cecil, were actually in their twenties when Elizabeth began her reign.

Also, the Norfolk of history was hardly an all powerful demigod intent on destroying Elizabeth, but rather an easily manipulated pawn who first attempted to wed Mary of Guise in 1569. Finally, Elizabeth did not cut her red hair to become the Virgin Queen as depicted in the film, but rather wore a wig later in life to disguise her thinning tresses from a bout of smallpox.

Historical inaccuracies set aside, there is much to admire in Elizabeth. The entire cast is superb – particularly Blanchette. This is the film that made her an international star. Geoffrey Rush and Richard Attenborough add pedigree to the cast, as does Christopher Eccleston. Hirst's imaginative narrative occasionally falters, but the cast is so good at carrying on that the general lapses tend to vanish under the exceptional craftsmanship of the exercise.

Originally released under the PolyGram label on DVD, the Blu-Ray offering from Universal Home Entertainment is quite stunning. exhibits quite a stunning. Colors are bold and fully saturated. Contrast levels that were slightly weaker than expected on the DVD seem to have been brought into check on the Blu-Ray with fine details evident even during dark scenes. We get a very minor hint of edge enhancement scattered briefly throughout but nothing that will distract. The audio is lossless and quite aggressive, although on occasion whispered dialogue is inaudible. Extras are direct imports from Polygram's DVD and include The Making of Elizabeth, an audio commentary and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!

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



ELIZABETH - THE GOLDEN AGE: Blu-Ray (USA/Working Title 2007) Universal Home Video

An exceptional pseudo-historical sequel, Shekar Kapur’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) is a monumental achievement – a visually resplendent and sensual epic with guts and beauty; quite unlike anything the movies have produced in the last decade. Honours for the film’s scope and grandeur go to Richard Roberts’ meticulous set decoration and Alexandra Byrne’s Oscar-winning costumes that resurrect the 14th century with a grace and regal vitality quite unlike anything we've seen on the screen for quite some time.

The film reunites director with stars Cate Blanchett (the two had worked on Elizabeth in 1998), Geoffrey Rush, and producer Tim Bevan, for this second instalment in the saga.

The year is 1588 and the military might of Roman Catholic King Phillip II of Spain (Jordi Molla) dominates the landscape of central Europe. A religious zealot who believes that God has ordained the inquisitions, Phillip views England’s Protestant monarch and her country's independence as a direct threat.

He is also acutely aware of political tensions between Elizabeth (Blanchett) and her sister, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton).Seizing on this political intrigue, Phillip first plots to have an assassin do away with Elizabeth while she is at prayers. The scheme fails, although it provides Phillip with the ideal set of circumstances for his next wicked pursuit. He sets about creating a series of treasonous correspondence between the Spanish court and Mary. These letters are then deliberately leaked to Elizabeth’s most trusted advisor, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush).

The ploy works beautifully. Walsingham confides Mary’s presumed acts of treason to Elizabeth who, believing that her sister has conspired to murder her, is forced by English law to condemn Mary to death. Mary suffers a public beheading before Walsingham discovers the merit of the lie he has been fed and reveals the truth to Elizabeth – that Phillip, not Mary willed the crimes against her to insight holy war between Spain and England.

Meanwhile, one of Elizabeth’s ‘favorites’ at court – Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) seduces her young lady in waiting, Elizabeth ‘Bess’ Throcknorton (Abbie Cornish). The dashing Raleigh had been perceived by Elizabeth as her last chance for supplying England with an heir. Instead Elizabeth learns second hand that Bess is with Raleigh’s child. Bitter, spurned and conflicted, and, with war against Spain looming in the background, Elizabeth condemns Raleigh for his romantic betrayal and exiles Bess from her court.

Later, these emotional wounds are, if not healed, then at least tolerated. But for the moment there is little to ease Elizabeth’s conscience or concern.Phillip attacks England with his formidable armada, but Raleigh’s quick timing thwarts the attack by launching ‘fire ships’ at the enemy. Spain’s navy endures the single most cataclysmic defeat in its history, leaving Elizabeth to reign supreme over her land for the remainder of her ‘golden age.’

As was the case with the first movie, the screenplay by Michael Hirst and William Nicholson takes liberties with the historical record to make for more compelling cinematic melodrama. Critics on the whole were ruthless in their assessment of this sequel. To be fair to the script, the melodrama on this second outing does tend to lose much of the aloof and cerebral quality that made the first movie so utterly captivating. That it tends to substitute rank sentiment and some syrupy romantic entanglements in its place hardly render the narrative obtuse or trashy, as some film critics have suggested.

Director Kapur’s fluidity in resurrecting history above what could have so easily degenerated into a turgid and wordy exercise is most commendable. Whatever its shortcomings, the skilfully sewn together screenplay manages to fit a lot of history in just under two hours, but more importantly, it makes everything seem larger than life.Blanchett delivers a more deeply nuanced performance this time around.

In the first film she played it appropriately naïve throughout most of Elizabeth’s formidable struggles to ascending the throne. The second film is all about analyzing what to do once absolute power has been achieved; how not to let it get the better of the human spirit and how to maintain it in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity. The film’s social critique notwithstanding, Elizabeth: The Golden Age an absorbing historical action/melodrama, worthy of our admiration and renewed viewing.

Universal Home Video delivers a reference quality Blu-Ray with an image that is utterly gorgeous; rich, vibrant, bold and eye-popping in its colors. Reds are blood red. Whites are pristine. Flesh tones are accurately rendered. Contrast levels are bang on with very robust, deep and solid blacks. Fine details are evident even during the darkest scenes. Truly, there is nothing to complain about.

The audio is lossless HD, delivering an pronounced bass during action sequences. Dialogue sounds more natural in this sequel than it did in the original film. Extras are all direct imports from the standard DVD release in 2008, including four comprehensive featurettes on the making of the film – each covering a specific aspect. There are also several previews and a thoroughly engrossing audio commentary to enjoy. Highly recommended!

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



TOMBSTONE: Blu-Ray (Hollywood Pictures/Cinergi 1993) Buena Vista Home Video

Easily one of the greatest western dramas ever committed to film and arguably one of the greatest movies of all time, Tombstone (1993) touches on many of the central themes that have justly been made famous and legendary in other westerns movies throughout the decades; including 1957's Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and 1946's My Darling Clementine. Yet, for this reviewer's taste, as great as those classic movies are, they always seemed to lack the intimate association between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday; somehow more intent on preserving the grandeur and mystique of the old west rather than exploring this essential and, at often complex, social camaraderie.

Tombstone rectifies that absence brilliantly with superb character studies that provide a glowing back story to the action that is to follow. Although the directorial credit on this film went to George P. Cosmatos at the time of its theatrical release, star Kurt Russell actually directed from a magnificent script written by Kevin Jarre.

The film is loosely based on that much revered and largely fabled western iconography surrounding Wyatt Earp's (Kurt Russell) arrival in Tombstone Arizona, along with brothers Virgil (Sam Elliot) and Morgan (Bill Paxton) and gambler/outlaw Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) to face down a band of notorious criminals. Quietly eschewing a major historical fact - that the Earps were tried but acquitted of a botched Wells Fargo robbery – Jarre's screenplay instead chooses to tread the more familiar tumbleweed of clearly delineated good vs. unmitigated evil.

After cleaning up the rambunctious Dodge City, the Earp clan is anxious to start anew and let their reputations as law men quietly fade into the sunset. Doc Holliday is also in tow, already afflicted with the tuberculosis that will eventually claim his life. Unfortunately for all, shortly after arriving in Tombstone Wyatt’s respect for the law is tested, this time after Curly Bill Broscius (Powers Boothe) accuses the Earps and Doc Holliday of interfering with his illegal gambling operations.

Although an early crisis is narrowly avoided when Wyatt informs Broscius that he is retired, and therefore is disinterested in Broscius's affairs, Broscius's henchman, Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) takes an immediate dislike to Doc; thereby setting up a disquieting and growing tension that will ultimately erupt in violence.

Encouraged by the townsfolk to help rid the town of Broscius and his men, Wyatt at first refuses until Tombstone's Marshal, Fred White (Harry Carey Jr.) is shot in cold blood by Broscius. Taken into custody by Wyatt - but acquitted during trial because no witnesses to the crime can be found - Broscius is released from jail and quickly sets his sights on getting even with the Earps.

Virgil becomes Tombstone's Marshal, escalating to the showdown between the Earps and Broscius at the O.K. Corral. During that legendary gunfight, three of Broscius's men are killed and Virgil and Morgan wounded. Law and order are temporarily restored, but very shortly the Earps are ambushed by Broscius loyalist, Frank McLaury (Robert John Burke). Morgan is killed and Virgil's arm is maimed for life.

A despondent Wyatt packs up to leave Tombstone. However, realizing that he will never be rid of Broscius, Wyatt announces that he has become the new U.S. Marshal and intends to kill any man wearing a red sash - the signature fashion accessory of Broscius' cowboys. Wyatt is ambushed by Broscius but manages to kill his would-be assassin, leaving Johnny Ringo in charge of the cowboys.

As Doc's health deteriorates, Wyatt is forced to leave him behind at the home of a close friend, Henry Hooker (Charlton Heston). There, Wyatt is reunited with Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany); a saloon performer he first flirted with during his early arrival in Tombstone. Ringo sends a messenger to Hooker's ranch, telling Wyatt that he wants a showdown. Not realizing that Doc has already left for that rendezvous, Wyatt sets off to confront Ringo. Doc kills Ringo before collapsing to his knees. He is rushed to a sanitarium where he succumbs to his tuberculosis, but not before he pledges that Wyatt commit himself to Josephine. Thus ends Tombstone, with great sweep and a beautifully scripted postscript narrated by actor Robert Mitchum.

At the time this reviewer first experienced Tombstone on the big screen I was not an ardent fan of the big Hollywood western. That assessment has since changed with a more steady diet of westerns to wet my appetite. It is, however, saying much that I was instantly bowled over by this movie's innately human and profoundly tragic tale from the first. My admiration for Tombstone, has only matured with time.

Performances throughout are finely wrought and expertly performed. The romantic chemistry between Russell and Delany is palpably engaging, while the arch of friendship between Holliday and Earp has never been more stirringly realized. With so much stirring entertainment to behold, it is perhaps noteworthy to recall that Tombstone had a rather awkward gestation. Buena Vista refused to distribute the film if Willem Dafoe was cast as Doc Holliday, leaving the door open for Val Kilmer to give the greatest performance of his career.

On set, Russell clashed with Jarre over a script he felt was at least 20 pages too long. In the end, the back stories of many secondary characters were trimmed or excised altogether. But the final blow came when Cosmatos - who ghost directed the film for Russell under the actor's specific scene direction - claimed in subsequent interviews that he was actually the director of the film; leaving screen credit open for interpretation and all but locking Russell out of contention for even an Oscar nomination. In the final analysis, Tombstone earned a little more than double its $25 million production costs during its theatrical engagement.

Buena Vista’s Blu-Ray easily bests its rather lack lustre 2-disc Vista Series offering from 2001. Yet, all is not ideal in this offering either. The anamorphic image exhibits bold, rich and vibrant colors. Contrast levels seem a tad too low. Blacks are generally deep, rich and velvety. Whites are pristine. Film grain that had often registered as a patina of digital grit on the DVD is superbly realized on the Blu-Ray.

Regrettably, there is still edge enhancement present. Although nothing to the levels experienced on the DVD, the enhancement is excessively distracting during two key sequences in the film; the opening assassination of a newlywed couple and a priest and the scene in the saloon where Doc uses his shot glass as though it were a pistol to upstage Johnny Ringo's expert marksmanship. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and quite powerful. Extras include a ‘making of’ featurette, theatrical trailer, audio commentary and other press and promotional junket materials.

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



Monday, April 26, 2010

STARSHIP TROOPERS: Blu-Ray (Columbia 1997) Sony Home Entertainment

Loosely adapted from the wildly creative 1959 novel by Robert A. Heinlein, director Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers (1997) is a visual effects feast that relies heavily on the rudimentary sex appeal of its youthful cast, some tasteless humour, and, a super race of digitally composited bugs (think giant mosquitoes and praying mantises) to first shock, then gross out, and finally anesthetise its audience.

From a purely visual standpoint, the film is a curious futuristic revision of Nazi Germany; where government enforced military service equates to becoming a citizen of the republic. Intellectually, the film is light years off of Heinlein's anti-communist manifesto and social themes that critique and deconstruct democracy.

On the whole, Edward Neumeier's screenplay is a success - given that he completely jettisons the finer points of the novel in favour of all out carnage that renders most of the performers a Ginsu-ed mess by the final fade out. Made for $105 million, the film grossed a rather lugubrious $121 worldwide. Nevertheless, two lesser known sequels were subsequently released in the franchise to varying degrees of success.

The story begins in earnest, centered largely on the exploits of one Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien); a young military cadet who doesn't have the grades like his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) to escape the fate of mobile infantry. Carmen and Rico's best friend, psychic Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) have enlisted in the armed forces to become citizens - a bizarre political subtext; part Roman/part Nazi themed in its intent. But Rico's reason for joining is only to be near Carmen. Big mistake! For Carmen and Rico are parted soon after being drafted.

It seems an interstellar war has broken out between humans and the Arachnoid species - affectionately hereafter referred to as 'the bugs'. Rico and the rest of the mobile infantry are ruthlessly put through drills by Career Sergeant Zim (Clancy Brown) - a heartless and unforgiving task master. The one ray of light in this otherwise gloomy venture for Rico is being unexpectedly reunited with former classmate, Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), who harbours a huge crush on Rico that is far more sustaining and loyal than Carmen's fleeting attachment, currently focused on her rival pilot Zander (Patrick Muldoon).

After Rico is flogged for a training accident he calls his parents in Buenos Aires to say that he is quitting the army. Unhappy chance for all that at that exact moment Buenos Aires is crushed beneath a cataclysmic asteroid the bugs have sent to earth as part of their plan to eradicate humanity from the universe. Rico stays put and under the Federation's command invades the bug occupied planet of Klendathu - a surface to space assault that ends in total disaster. Believing that Rico has died in the latest bug attack, Carmen proceeds full throttle with her relationship with Zander.

Meanwhile, under Lieutenant Jean Rasczak's (Michael Ironside) command, Rico, Diz' and fellow squad member, Ace (Jake Busey) proceed on a mission to Planet P where they discover the entire human garrison wiped out by yet another infestation of bug warriors - these, with razor sharp pincers that take great pleasure in decapitating their human prey. Amidst the struggle to stay alive, Diz' confesses her true feelings to Rico and the two become lovers. Shortly thereafter, Diz' is killed during another bug attack.

Meanwhile Carmen learns that Rico is still very much alive. Carl, who has become a central commander in military intelligence, proposes that the mobile infantry attempt to locate 'the brain bug' responsible for orchestrating the bug attacks. Carmen and Zander's air ship is hit by Arachnoid fire and the two are taken hostage into the brain bug's lair where Zander's brain is sucked from his skull. Rico and Carl arrive in the nick of time to save Carmen from a similar fate and the brain bug is taken captive - presumably ending the war between bugs and humans.

Starship Troopers is hardly perfect entertainment. The story moves like gangbusters, but the emotional interplay between characters is barren at best. Director Verhoeven significantly ramps up acceptable levels of screen violence with this movie - arguably creating some of the most tasteless carnage glimpsed on the big screen. Dismembering and disembowelling aside, the film treats such blood lust as rather par for the course as the narrative progresses with pithy one liners thrown in, presumably to diffuse the graveness of the scene with ill timed comedy. Regrettably, much of the film plays more as a big budget homage to B-slashers than an A-list sci-fi action/adventure.

And then, of course, there is the whole Nazi-influenced pageantry of military spectacle to behold, curiously goose-stepping in perfect time with the U.S. ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In Heinlein's novel the military faction is anti-communist. There is no mention of fascism per say or direct appraisal of the former Reich. Yet, Verhoeven's visuals are all about resurrecting that Hitlerian spectre.

The comparisons go far beyond simple costuming (Neil Patrick Harris' storm-trooper-esque trench and cap as he rises through the ranks to become a commanding officer) or the way military parades shown in recruitment videos are hauntingly reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl's documented film chronicles of the Nuremburg rallies in Triumph of The Will. In fact, the whole subtext of the film seems to draw more than a friendly parallel between U.S. military might and Hitler's armed blitzkreig to carry this bizarre morality parable into some strange and alternative dimension that may or may not be flattering.

In the final analysis, Starship Troopers is remedial entertainment at best. It's gaudy sci-fi patina is more glossy perhaps, but its narrative pitfalls too great a chasm to be effectively bridged by mere special effects.

Sony Home Entertainment's Blu-Ray disc bests its DVD offerings but not by as much as one might expect. The image is bright and razor sharp with eye popping, brilliant colors. Not much more to say, except that from a visual standpoint the movie is even more astonishing than this reviewer recalls. Sonically too, the 7.1 lossless mix is aggressive. Extras include a veritable archive of new extra features married to virtually all of the extensive content that was already available on Sony's standard DVD collector's set release.

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



THE LONGEST DAY: Blu-Ray (20th Century-Fox 1962) Fox Home Video

Ken Annakin’s The Longest Day (1962) is really much more of a producer’s movie than it is a director’s personal vision. In this case, the producer happened to be Darryl F. Zanuck, the visionary film pioneer who made a star out of man's best friend - Rin Tin Tin - at Warner Brothers before transforming 20th Century-Fox into a premiere production facility in the mid-1930s. However, by the mid-1950s, as old Hollywood was reluctantly giving way to changing technologies, the advent of television and meddling government intervention in the way things were run, Zanuck tired of his role as studio executive. Instead, he retired from the fray to explore independent productions in Europe. The move was only partly fuelled by artistic integrity.

Zanuck had, for some time, been estranged from wife, Virginia after his latest extramarital affair with Bella Darvi became public fodder in the gossip tabloids. Retreating to Europe, Zanuck continued to produce a string of films under a distribution deal with Fox. Although many of these movies were artistically sound, virtually all proved disappointing at the box office.

However, in the spring of 1960, Zanuck encountered the novel, The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan – a sprawling true-to-life recanting of WWII’s Normandy invasion. It was a project destined for Zanuck to realize on film; not only for its comparable mid-western sensibilities, but also because Zanuck had served in the military during the war and therefore had an innate understanding of the topic. But Zanuck’s film would not be just another war movie. It would become a balanced examination from all sides with each nationality speaking its own language with the aid of English subtitles.

The initial scenes in the movie set up what are largely fictional relationships between the ensemble cast, relying more on each actor's star power than the screenplay by Cornelius Ryan, Romain Gary, James Jones, David Pursall and Jack Seddon to draw out our sympathies. These include Richard Beymer as Dutch Scholtz, whose wily poker playing earns him enough money to send home to his mother: only shortly thereafter we learn that his mother has died. Richard Burton has a nice little walk on as an embittered Allied pilot who has to inform another flyer that his best friend has died in a crash.

Roddy McDowell is briefly glimpsed as 4th infantry's careworn Private Morris. Red Buttons is John Steele, one of the few Allied survivors of a botched paratrooper decoy that turns into a Nazi ambush at Sainte Mere-Eglise. Veterans John Wayne and Robert Ryan enjoy buddy/buddy chemistry at play as Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort and Br. Gen. James Gavin respectively. Gert Frobe and Curd Jurgens make for a formidable pair of Nazi cohorts...and so on. There are too many cameos to list. Suffice it to say, Zanuck's film is richly populated with a cornucopia of Hollywood's finest blended into an international cast.

To say that The Longest Day became a personal obsession with Zanuck is a gross understatement. Instead of the traditional narrative structure, Zanuck chose the then revolutionary documentary-style – dividing the work among four directors including Gerd Oswald, Andrew Marton, Bernhard Wicki and Ken Annakin; each responsible for a varying perspective on the war and its fallout.

Zanuck further hedged his bets for success by populating the film with no less than 43 star performances; among them – Henry Fonda, Robert Wagner, Peter Lawford, Sean Connery, Rod Steiger, Richard Todd and Mel Ferrer. For the teen audience, Zanuck secured the services of then heartthrobs Paul Anka, Tommy Sands, Sal Mineo and Fabian. Finally, Zanuck also cast his latest romantic fling, Irina Demich as Janine Boitard – a free French resistance fighter who used her obvious sex appeal to turn Nazi heads in the wrong direction while her brother smuggles refugees across the border.

It’s important to note that The Longest Day is not a star vehicle for any of the aforementioned performers. Rather, it is an ensemble film, brimming with cameos richly layered one to the next, fostering a rare verisimilitude for the wartime experience. Despite various setbacks incurred during production (including a money shortage and near cancellation of the project by the Fox board of directors midway through production), Zanuck’s film endures as an impregnable, action charged masterwork that miraculously never loses its emotional center amidst its fury, spectacle and sensational carnage.

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray incarnation has been lauded and criticized by reviewers; the latter uncertain that the overall smoothness of the image isn't the result of heavy handed DNR (digital noise reduction). By this reviewer's eye, the image is astounding, easily head and shoulders above Fox's 2-disc Cinema Classic standard DVD release from 2002.

There are stark differences in image quality between the standard and Blu-Ray offering. Whereas the DVD seemed a little too dark with lower than expected contrast levels, the Blu-Ray seems to have a brighter gray scale that reveals greater detail throughout. The B&W image is breathtaking with razor sharp clarity. Black levels are crisp, deep and solid. Age related artefacts and grain seem to have completely vanished from the image - a cause for some critics to assess that this Blu-Ray presentation does not recreate accurately the theatrical experience. This reviewer disagrees - for the following reason.

Any motion picture represented on anything but actual film stock is only an approximation of the actual theatrical experience. What studios ought to be focusing on when restoring a vintage title for the home video market is not so much an exact representation of the film's opening night (because depending on where you are that presentation can differ greatly), but rather providing the consumer with an image that as close to possible replicates the clarity, contrast and rendering of fine details that the medium of Blu-Ray itself can offer.

If that means going back into the archives and digitally omitting and/or cleaning up things like wire harnesses and/or other SFX backdrop mattes to bring them in line with contemporary audience levels of expectation, but that would probably not have been visible to the naked eye during theatrical projection, then so be it. There. Enough said. The audio on Fox's Blu-Ray has been remixed to 5.1 Dolby Digital with an inherently tinny sound that is not very natural sounding, but does contain some directionalized dialogue and effects which prove startling.

Extras include an audio commentary on disc one. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD and include four featurettes, an interview with Annakin, audio commentaries and AMC’s Back story, plus the film’s theatrical reissue trailer and a stills gallery. Highly recommended!

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



Saturday, April 24, 2010

THE YOUNG VICTORIA: Blu-Ray (GK Films/Momentum Pictures 2009) Alliance Home Video

Intelligently scripted by Julienne Fellows and directed with appropriate sweep and intimacy by Jean-Marc Vallée, The Young Victoria (2009) is a compelling - if slightly truncated - portrait of the formative years of England's longest reigning monarch to date. The film stars Emily Blunt as the adult Victoria with various brief and fleeting scenes of the princess's childhood depicted by child actors Grace Smith and Michaela Brooks.

Through Blunt's voice over narration we learn that Victoria's mother, The Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) is a rather ineffectual matriarch, more enthralled by her behind-closed-doors relationship with the overbearing Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong) than she is with raising the future heir of England. Conroy is determined to have Victoria sign over her power to him, declaring a regency in England after the death of King William (Jim Broadbent).

This, the strong willed Victoria will not do, incurring Conroy's wrath and constant threat of physical violence. For his part, the King admonishes The Duchess of Kent at every chance, condemning her mishandling of Victoria's youth and education and her isolation away from court.

Meanwhile, King Leopold of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann) is frantic to gain England's financial assistance to sustain his own monarchy. Leopold reasons that the best way to control the future destiny of his own country is to sell one of his sons into marriage to the future Queen of England. To this end, Leopold dispatches two amiable suitors for a 'visit' - one of them Prince Albert (Rupert Friend). However, early courtship is marred by Albert's indoctrinated training to appreciate everything Victoria knows and loves. Despite a general lack in being exposed to this sort of mimicry, Victoria is not so easily fooled and recognizes the rouse.

Gradually, however, Albert begins to trust his own instincts and speaks to Victoria from his own heart through a series of letters. These more honest revelations come at a time when Victoria is been pushed towards a possible alliance with the current Prime Minister, Lord William Melbourne (Paul Bettany). Although Melbourne effectively becomes Victoria's secretary of state he will never gain control of her command as it was earlier hoped.

Instead, Victoria and Albert are married and, after several early and brief hiccups in their marital bliss, a mutual respect grows between the two. Victoria exiles her mother and Conroy from court and moves into the newly erected Buckingham Palace to begin he reign as England's much cherished monarch. King Leopold realizes that he will not control England through Albert's marriage. The film ends with Victoria and Albert arriving at one of the many balls they enjoyed during their 20 year marriage.

Albert died of typhoid at the age of 42, leaving behind nine royal heirs. Victoria would go on to reign another 41; each evening laying out Albert's clothes as though she might expect him to return to her. It is this sense of quiet, loyal passion that Albert and Victoria shared throughout their marriage that is largely at the crux of Julienne Fellows' melodic screenplay, even though the two are kept apart by royal intrigues and deceptions that threaten to destroy them both for much of the film's running time.

Emily Blunt, an actress only briefly glimpsed in American movies, and virtual unknown to American audiences, Rupert Friend, have genuine chemistry together; their repartee during a chess game in their early courtship, teeming with sexual tension, subtext and foreshadowing. Superbly crafted and expertly played, The Young Victoria is magnificent entertainment that will surely impress.

If the film has one shortcoming, it is that much of Victoria's youth prior to meeting Albert is glossed over in fleeting vignettes that pass in succession before us as not terribly engaging montage. Nevertheless, this is a great film - more historically accurate than most and worthy of renewed viewing.

In the U.S. the film received a very limited release contributing to its rather lack lustre gross of only $26 million on a $35 million budget. However, this reviewer would like to point out that it is not always the biggest grossing movies that endure the test of time. We should all be reminded herein of just two 'little known' classics...uh...Citizen Kane and It's A Wonderful Life...both disatrous financial flops when they originally premiered but have since more than proven their cherished weight in gold as stunning and much beloved pieces of film art! As for The Young Victoria: the Blu-Ray belongs on everyone's top shelf. Add this one to your collection today!

Alliance Home Video's Blu-Ray transfer is quiet stunning, capturing all the sumptuous color and pageantry of royal court with breathtaking clarity. Scenes taking place in candle lit halls or at night are more softly focused as intended by Hagen Bogdanski's evocative cinematography. Flesh tones are natural. Fine detail is beautifully realized.

This is a reference quality disc with top notch performances to boot. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and quite adequate for this largely dialogue driven narrative. Extras are the biggest disappointment. Deleted scenes are about the best of the lot. The 'featurettes' are an utter claptrap of nonsensically thrown together clips from the film that fade into the briefest of sound bytes provided by cast, crew and Lady Sarah Ferguson - the Duchess of York. Bottom line: recommended!

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



Wednesday, April 21, 2010

AMELIA: Blu-Ray (Fox Searchlight 2009) Fox Home Entertainment

On July 2, 1937 aviatrix Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan officially departed the realm of historical record to become an enduring and almost hypnotically appealing, living mythology. What became of Earhart and Noonan after the radio tower lost contact with them on the last leg of their transatlantic crossing instantly became fodder for tabloid speculation and later, revered legend.

The film version of those, as well as other events in Earhart's brief span on this earth, leading up to that fateful last length, doesn't quite live up to either the legend or legacy of Earhart - the woman, or Earhart - the aviatrix. Instead, director Mira Nair's Amelia (2009) is something of a casual, occasionally lugubrious tale of greatness snuffed out in its prime, yet without either a detailed character study of its protagonist or a mastering of the impact Earhart had on aviation history.

The screenplay by Ronald Bass and Anna Hamilton Phelan is based on two novelized interpretations of Earhart's life; the first by Susan Butler, the latter by Mary S. Lovell. Whereas both books manage to retain a sense of Amelia Earhart (Hilary Swank) as a woman of indomitable spirit and vigour, the film merely plays her as a loveable misfit out of step and out of time until her life and love are discovered, unlocked and skilfully tapped by publishing tycoon George Putnam (Richard Gere).

Told as a giant flashback, the story begins with Earhart and Noonan's (Christopher Eccleston) fateful flight. From here we are treated to the briefest glimpse of Earhart as a precocious child, obsessed with flying. The story jumps forward to the moment Earhart first meets Putnam - already a married man. Putnam proposes Earhart be the first woman to cross the Atlantic in a plane. Naturally, the idea appeals to Earhart, until she learns that she is merely to be a passenger. The pilots will be Slim Gordon (Aaron Abrams) and Bill (Joe Anderson); two macho flyers who have little faith in Earhart's abilities to navigate their journey. Earhart, however, refuses to give up.

Arriving back in New York after their successful landing in Whales, Putnam engages his 'star' attraction for a series of guest lectures and public appearances that capitalize on her instant fame. He even encourages Earhart to write a book about her experience. Earhart, however, is ashamed of the rouse and shortly thereafter sets off to prove her own metal as the first female pilot of merit.

Her guts and gumption earn Earhart Putnam's respect and eventually his love. Putnam divorces his wife and marries Earhart. However, at a house party Earhart also meets Gene Vidal (Ewan McGregor), the future U.S. Federal Aviation Administrator. A divorced father with a young son, Gene falls madly for Earhart and the two begin a quiet romance under Putnam's watchful eye.

Eventually, Earhart realizes that she loves her husband more and returns to him, chaste and determined to be faithful evermore. Undaunted to complete one final flight circumnavigating the globe, Earhart's first attempt in Hawaii ends with fiery disillusionment as the plane's landing gear fails and snaps off on the runway.

Making their repairs, Earhart and Noonan choose to fly their Lockheed Electra in reverse direction, thereby leaving the transpacific crossing to the end of their flight. But shortly after takeoff radio transmissions between Earhart and the Coast Guard picket ship Itasca reveal a looming crisis that cannot be fixed. Doomed, Earhart and Noonan fly into the clouds with the wind at their backs, a silent understanding between them that this is indeed their final hour in flight.

Amelia is hardly perfect entertainment, and yet there is so much that is good. Kudos go largely to Hilary Swank for her emblematic turn as Earhart. If only the script had been more articulate at fleshing out the character we might have been privy to a truly fine performance. More than looking the part, Swank has the demeanour and that intangible quality of Earhart coursing through her veins. The way she moves, a quick flash of the eyes or sudden turn of her head; these are Earhart gestures not merely copied, but somehow assimilated and timelessly represented in Swank's very fibre of being.

The same cannot be said for Richard Gere's dull and uninspiring performance as Putnam. Ewan McGregor is a fine actor, but he's given preciously little to do within the screenplay except fawn over Earhart and occasionally attempt a mild confrontation with Putnam to win her affections.

Stuart Dryburgh's cinematography captures much of the glamour from the period with freshness and, at times, beautifully composed shots that herald all the way back to another era in film making; one utterly void of MTV styled chop-shop editing. But Nair's direction is pedestrian at best. Somewhere amidst the heavy handed way she stages certain sequences there is a would-be epic to be told. Regrettably, that story never materializes in anything but brief glimpses, leaving the contemporary audience wondering what all the fuss about Earhart was in the first place.

20th Fox Home Entertainment's Blu-Ray transfer is quite stunning. The 2:35:1 widescreen image exhibits a rich palette of colors. At times the image can be quite sharp, with sumptuously realized fine details. However, there are moments where the visual characteristic adopts a rather soft quality that this reviewer does not recall experiencing in the theatrical presentation of this film. On the whole, the quality of this disc will surely not disappoint. The audio is lossless Dolby Digital, ideally complimenting this visual presentation.

Extras include deleted scenes, vintage MovieTone newsreel footage and five featurettes on the making of the film and Earhart the woman and the legacy of her journey.

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



Tuesday, April 20, 2010

FALCON CREST (Lorimar 1981-82) Warner Home Video

The world of a prime time soap opera is riddled in cliché and hyperbole. That said, few of any vintage can compete with Earl Hammer's Falcon Crest (1981-1990); a richly distilled vintage featuring hallmark characters and ongoing familial strife, centered on a gripping struggle of wills to possess some of the most fertile land in California's Napa Valley winery country.

Throughout its 9 season run on CBS, this thrilling television series stirred with a creative sparkle that saw Falcon Crest's matriarch, Angela Channing (Jane Wyman) conduct the daily business of her empire on her own ruthless terms - much to the chagrin of serious man of integrity and rival owner, Chase Gioberti (Robert Foxworth) and Angela's long lost prodigal son and newspaper magnet, Richard (David Selby).

As he had done for television's Dynasty (and would later do for Dynasty II: The Colbys), maestro Bill Conti sets the musical tone for this fondly remembered soap with a stirring orchestral accompaniment; a flourish and fanfare of strings and drum roll that seem to idyllically frame the drama with great pomp and circumstance. Still, what is remembered most, and perhaps best, from the series is it's intriguing plots and diabolical twists along the road. While TV's Dallas was a soap hinged on building a groundswell of anticipation for each season's 'cliff hanger', Falcon Crest derived its strength and audience popularity from an ever tumultuous unravelling of its central narrative - producing episodes that tended to become their own cliff hangers by the end of each hour long broadcast.

Season One of Falcon Crest begins with a murder; that of Chase's drunken father (and Angela's brother) Jason, bent of thwarting a romantic rendezvous between his niece Emma (Margaret Ladd) and an oversexed farm hand. After accidentally pushing Jason to his death, a shell-shocked Emma fetches Angela who, in order to protect Emma from incrimination and arrest commands her manservant Chao Li Chi (same name as the actor who played him) to dump Jason's body off a cliff.

The news of Jason's death is relayed to Chase by phone . Although a successful pilot living in New York with his family, Chase is stirred to rethink his career after Jason's funeral. At the reading of Jason's will, Angela and Chase both learn that he has been bequeathed 50 acres of Falcon Crest's prime acreage - thereby setting up a bitter rivalry between Angela and Chase almost from the word go.

Chase leaves his career and moves to the valley with wife Maggie (Susan Sullivan) and their two adult children, Cole (Billy Moses) and Victoria (Jamie Rose); the latter having broken from a bittersweet relationship with a much older man back home.

Angela first tries to buy the land back from Chase at the market value price, but to no avail. Next, she attempts to ruin Chase's opportunities to advance the quality of his stake in the vineyard by threatening every bank in the Bay area to refuse Chase a much needed loan to make improvements.

Meanwhile, Angela's playboy grandson, Lance Cumson (Lorenzo Lamas) has become increasingly difficult to manage. He even blows up one of Chase's wells to further hasten the threat of defeat. To tame her young charge, Angela brokers a loveless marriage between Lance and Melissa Agretti (Ana Alicia); the daughter of a profitable rival vineyard landowner. It is Angela's hope that the marriage will translate into an alliance between Falcon Crest and the Agretti Wineries to effectively squeeze Chase and his family out of their fair share once and for all. Instead, it only serves as another source of friction between Angela and Lance - the latter increasingly distancing himself from Angela's control and his new bride with a series of casual sexual liaisons. Unfortunately for Angela - her time is running out in Jason's murder/accident cover up. Emma has increasingly been prone to nervous outbursts that threaten to spill the secret to Chase.

As though to prove itself the valiant successor to Dallas, its preceding soap opera on CBS, Falcon Crest: Season One wastes no time in delving into its various intriguing narratives focused on wily deceptions and marital infidelities. Season One is a superlative maelstrom of good writing; deviously delicious from its debut episode to its first of many climactic grand finales.

The same cannot be said for Warner Home Video's utterly lacklustre transfer quality. The image is hopelessly marred by extremely faded colors and a barrage of color bleeding that renders all long shots an utterly hopeless mess of distracting visual noise. The image literally breaks apart during establishing shots. Contrast levels are much too weak with blacks more a dusty gray and fine detail all but disappearing beneath a patina of pasty hues.

Truly, this is one of the worst mastering efforts of a beloved television series yet to debut in the format - and so undeserving of a show as richly written and luminously acted as Falcon Crest. Warner Home Video ought to be ashamed of the 'effort' put forth herein! The audio is mono as original broadcast and adequate for this presentation. Warner Home Video delivers one final blow to fans of this show - virtually NO extra features! Not recommended!

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



Sunday, April 18, 2010

THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE (Walt Disney Pictures 1985) Disney Home Video

Coming as it did after a prolonged dry spell in the Disney animated canon that threatened to push the once vibrant company into receivership, The Great Mouse Detective (1985) is a valiant, though nevertheless, largely fruitless retelling of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes heroics loosely masqueraded throughout the children's book series 'Basil of Baker Street' by Eve Titus.

Often incorrectly sited as the first animated feature to use CGI technology for its climactic showdown inside the gears of Big Ben (CGI was first employed in Disney's The Black Caldron 1985), the screenplay struggles in fits and sparks to drag the narrative along to its next predictable scenario- inserting musical vignettes along the way that have absolutely nothing to do with the central tale and all but stop the story cold. Several curiously forgettable songs written by Henry Mancini attempt to resurrect the Disney tradition for 'musical' entertainment.

Set in London England circa 1897, the story concerns Olivia Flaversham (voiced by Susanne Pollatschek) the daughter of a toymaker. Olivia's father, Hiram (Alan Young) has been kidnapped by Fidget, the bat (Candy Candido) at the behest of his employer, Professor Padraic Ratigan (Vincent Price) to carry out a diabolical bait and switch scenario involving Queen Mousetoria (Eve Brenner).

Hiram's robot will replace the real Queen and declare Ratigan to be mouse-dom's supreme ruler. It's a wicked ploy to be sure, except that Olivia has decided to take matters into her own hands and seek out the crime-solving expertise of Basil of Baker Street (Barrie Ingham); the great mouse detective.

Basil's domicile is at the base of Sherlock Holmes elegant mansion. After discovering Olivia lost and shivering inside an abandon boot, Maj. Doctor David Q. Dawson (Val Bettin) brings the young charge to Basil's attention. Basil, however, has other plans; distracted by his singular quest to apprehend Ratigan and prove himself the greatest crime solver in all England. Eventually recognizing that his and Olivia's quest are one in the same, Basil employs the services of Holmes faithful Basset Hound, Toby (Frank Welker) to pursue his arch nemesis.

From here, however, the narrative becomes increasingly distracted with living up to the 'Disney tradition' for song and good cheer. We get a truly terrible anthem to crime sung by a preening and remarkably effeminate Ratigan. This is followed by an almost equally obtuse torch song warbled by a sultry 'nameless' saloon entertainer (Melissa Manchester), who has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the other characters or the plot.

The narrative gets back on track with Ratigan capturing Basil - who temporarily loses his nerve and is resigned to his own demise - and Dawson, who refuses to accept defeat. Replacing the Queen with Hiram's creation, Ratigan is declared the new ruler of England only to have Basil intercept the controls and declare the entire evening a shrieking fraud. Ratigan escapes with Fidget aboard a flying machine that crashes into Big Ben, resulting in a showdown between Ratigan and Basil amidst the clockwork gears.

This last act is, to be sure, the highlight of the film and there are some stunning visual effects to behold. However, on the whole neither the visuals nor the character traits represented herein seem to gel with everything that's gone before them. The CGI recreation that allows the animation inside Big Ben to move with ease as a camera might through similarly staged live action footage liberates the sequence. But it also draws undo attention to the rather static animation that has gone before it.

In terms of character development; Ratigan, who has until this moment been played mostly as a feminized fop in love with his own image, is suddenly transformed into a pulsating mass of wicked testosterone, hell bent on clawing the rather lanky Basil to death.

The sequence ends with Ratigan plummeting to his death off the minute hand of Big Ben. Basil is rescued by his own ingenuity, transforming Ratigan's crippled airship into a makeshift solo flying device and peddling his way to safety. The story concludes with Olivia and Hiram reunited and Dawson, employed by Basil to pursue yet another case as his crime solving partner.

Viewed today, with the restoration of Disney's reputation for animated family entertainment galvanized in such contemporary classics as The Little Mermaid, Beauty & The Beast, et. al. The Great Mouse Detective seems even more curiously dated and uninspired by direct comparison.

Lest we forget that the best Disney animation not only heralds its rich and illustrious past, it also retains a timeless appeal for adults as well as children. The Great Mouse Detective arguably does neither. Although it will be popular with tiny tots to be sure, there is a decided disconnect for older children and adults with the enduring Disney legacy. This is very much a kiddie flick and not the sort of eternal storytelling for the ages at any age that we've come to expect from the Disney banner!

In their infinitely confounding wisdom, Disney Home Video has reasoned that only some of their animated features deserve both a Blu-Ray and DVD release. The Great Mouse Detective gets only the latter; advertised as a remastered 'Mystery in the Mist' edition. On the whole, colors are vibrant, if slightly dated. Dirt and scratches that were inherent in the original DVD release have been cleaned up. However, edge enhancement is still glaringly present during the climactic Big Ben showdown.

The audio, originally recorded and featured in theatres as 'Dolby Surround' has been re-channelled to 5.1. Curiously, the upgrade seems to amplify rather than mask the shortcomings of the original fidelity. Effects sound tinny, while songs tend to be center channel focused.

Extras are largely direct imports from the original DVD release, including a fleeting 'making of' featurette. A new interactive game and quiz feature is also included.

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



Tuesday, April 13, 2010

LETHAL WEAPON: Blu-Ray (WB 1987) Warner Home Video

In retrospect, Richard Donner's Lethal Weapon (1987) is a rather depressingly lugubrious, often gratuitously violent satire loosely hinged on the redemption of its principle protagonist, Martin Riggs - an ex-special forces soldier whose life has fallen apart after the untimely death of his wife. The screenplay by Shane Black grafts its incongruous and unlikely buddy/buddy chemistry onto a narrative almost entirely driven by testosterone overload.

The action sequences staged by Bobby Bass, some actually pertaining to the central narrative, are a raging homage to men who fall into the Arnold Schwarzenegger school of acting - by that, I mean they tend to be overly drawn out, mindlessly destructive and full of thought numbing special effects that distill human tragedy to the concrete wreckage of all structural forms and vehicles.

Set just prior to the Christmas holiday, the film begins with the half-naked frame of Amanda Hunsaker (Jackie Swanson) clinging loosely to the balcony of her high rise apartment, and even more loosely to reality after having inhaled a line of cocaine for recreational purposes. The wrinkle: the narcotic has been laced with Drain-o, rendering it toxic. Amanda plummets to her death. From this rather morbidly gruesome opener, the narrative departs to the relative banality inside LAPD Det. Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) house. Roger is suffering from a mid-life crisis with the onset of his 50th birthday until he learns of Amanda's 'suicide'.

Meanwhile, in a rundown trailer near the beach, LAPD Det. Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) is wallowing in yet another round of self pity, spending long tearful hours clutching his wife's picture in one hand while mercilessly attempting to blow his brains out with a revolver in the other - always with a moment of clarity that prevents him from taking his own life. Regarded as a loose cannon by his superiors, Riggs is assigned to Murtaugh's unit - a move that is destined to pit these unlikely partners against one another.

At the behest of Amanda's grieving father, Michael (Tom Atkins), who also happens to be Roger's old war buddy and a man hiding a deep, dark secret, Martin and Roger begin their investigation into Amanda's homicide by questioning her pimp. Unfortunately, the pimp is killed in the confrontation with Roger developing a respect for Martin after he saves his life during the showdown.

United in their cause, Martin and Roger next arrive at the home of Dixie (Lycia Naff) - a prostitute whose home is leveled by a cataclysmic explosion seconds before they arrive. Seeing Martin's army tattoo, a neighborhood child informs him of the arrival of another man to Dixie's home earlier that day, and, in the resulting investigation and recovery of a mercury switch used to blow up Dixie's house, Martin realizes that the 'accident' was actually a professional hit put out by ex-army intelligence.

Confronted with their findings, Michael confesses to Martin and Roger that he was laundering money for a heroin-smuggling operation masterminded by Peter McAllister (Mitchell Ryan) and a shadowy figure known only as Mr. Joshua (Gary Busey). Amanda's murder was a way to retain Michael's silence. Unfortunately for Michael, his time has indeed run out. He is shot by Joshua from a helicopter.

From here, the plot only grows more sinister and ominous with Joshua and McAllister turning their assassin's intent on Martin whom they mistakenly believe they have killed, though he is wearing a bulletproof vest and has survived. Kidnapping Roger's daughter, Rianne (Tracy Wolfe), Joshua and McAllister next force an exchange with Roger whom they also plan to kill, but not before they torture him to learn how much of their operation he knows about. Refusing to tell his assailants anything, Roger is repeatedly brutalized - his wounds rubbed in salt. Meanwhile, Martin is discovered to be alive, captured and given several rounds of electro-shock before managing to free himself and rescue both Roger and Rianne.

In a harrowing escape, McAllister's car is detonated by a hand grenade, with Joshua heading to the Murtaugh family home to exact his final revenge against Roger for fowling their perfect plan. Instead, Joshua is apprehended by an army of L.A.'s finest. In a page that might have been scripted for the latest UFC bout, Martin and Joshua endure a demented battle of wills on Rogers front lawn, with both men driven to the brink of mental and physical destruction. Faking defeat, Joshua gains access to a police officer's pistol. But Roger and Martin are faster on the draw, killing Joshua in unison and thereby cementing their professional partnership and personal friendship.

In the last few moments of the film, a patched together Martin arrives on Rogers doorstep Christmas Eve to give him the bullet he intended to use on himself, a symbolic token of thanks for their friendship, adding that he believes Rianne has developed a crush on him as a result of his heroics. "Touch her and you're dead!" Roger jokingly replies, as the two men go into Roger's house to spend the holidays together.

Lethal Weapon has its moments, but on the whole the film has dated badly. Mel Gibson's outrageously 'big' hair aside, the central narrative is threadbare on cohesiveness, its action sequences somehow void of relative importance to the story of two unlikely men - each facing a crisis of conscience and emotion - who awkwardly find a kindred spirit in one another. Gibson's performance is often embarrassingly second rate - a cheap knock off of his Mad Max persona. At times, he seems to be playing it straight for dangerous realism, then inexplicably veers into the realm of gross camp with badly timed, and even more poorly written comedy at his disposal.

Glover, on the other hand, remains relatively low key throughout the film, perhaps too much to be believed as a hot shot detective. Yes, there is definite and palpable chemistry between these two as the film progresses, but it very often is only glimpsed in fits and sparks, rather than incrementally growing as the narrative progresses to its inevitable conclusion. In the final analysis, Lethal Weapon is a time capsule of 1980s film making at its most conventional.

Warner Home Video's Blu-Ray easily improves on its standard DVD incarnation. Color fidelity as well as fine detail take a quantum leap forward on the Blu-Ray. A rich, warm and fully saturated palette of hues is married to an extraordinary amount of minute detailing in everything from flesh tones to density of clothing and background information. This is one fine visual presentation, only occasionally marred by several softly rendered sequences that are probably more inherent of flaws in the original cinematography than they are of Blu-Ray mastering. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and powerfully expressed across all speakers. Extras boil down to two brief featurettes imported directly from the original DVD presentation.

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



Sunday, April 11, 2010

TROY: Blu-Ray (WB 2004) Warner Home Video

There is one minor distinction to be made between director Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) and Homer’s The Iliad from whence this cinematic tale derives. The Iliad was a multifaceted and monumental achievement in the art of storytelling in which ‘the Gods’ share their hand in integral and pivotal elements within the structure and development of the narrative. The film is merely a flashy old time screen spectacle where the Gods take a backseat to more concrete and earthly visceral delights.

In truth, the film has a lot of territory to cover. Homer’s The Iliad is as mesmerizing as it remains epic. The screenplay by David Benioff assumes a twofold responsibility; first – to remain loyal to that text and second - to chart the recorded history of the Trojan Wars while delving into a complex tapestry of mythological characters.

These include the brooding Grecian warrior Achilles (Brad Pitt – good fighter/bad heel); noble prince Hector (Eric Bana), male beauty cum warrior, Paris (Orlando Bloom – lover, not a fighter) and vixen Helen (Diane Kruger…was this the face that launched…? Yes - exactly!). For the most part, Benioff succeeds where other mere mortals might all too easily been prone to embracing predictability to a fault.

Owing to the fact that Brad Pitt is the star of this film, the story opens with King Agamemnon (Brian Cox) conquering yet another principality in his Grecian empire from King Triopas (Julian Glover) at the hand of Achilles, his most valiant warrior. Achilles slays the rather oafish gargoyle on steroids – Boagrius (Nathan Jones) with one fell slash of his sword. However, Achilles despises the master he serves.

Meanwhile, in another part of Greece, Agamemnon’s brother, Menelaus (Brenden Gleeson) is having a pair of nobles to supper; Prince Hector and his brother, Prince Paris – sons of the noble Priam (Peter O’Toole); ruler of Troy. Known for his prowess with many ladies, Paris is currently having an affair with Menelaus’ wife, Helen of Sparta.

After the affair is exposed, Priam brokers a tentative peace with Menelaus. But Paris steals Helen aboard Hector’s sailing vessel. Seizing upon Helen’s defection as a 'good enough' excuse to start another war, Agamemnon exploits the opportunity by engaging Menelaus' armies to help conquer Troy for his own purposes. However, Troy is not so easily taken. In fact, it proves virtually impregnable.

Assuming false reason for Agamemnon’s arrival, Paris woefully miscalculates his one-on-one battle with Menelaus. He is saved from certain death by his brother, who slays Menelaus and sets into motion a series of revenge scenarios that will eventually thrust the fate of Troy into mortal chaos. An adversarial animosity forces a bleak showdown between Hector and Achilles; the latter eventually claiming his victory by dragging Hector's bloodied remains behind his horse, back to his camp. Priam, alone and unarmed, approaches the camp by night to plead with Achilles for Hector's proper burial and Achilles - much reformed by the days carnage and his steady growing love for Brisies (Rose Byrne) agrees.

During the mourning period, the Greeks devise a more clever method of entire into Troy - The Trojan Horse. After the rest of the city has retired for the night, the small commune of smuggled in Greeks emerge from the horse to unlock the city's main gate, thereby allowing the Greek army to march in and begin its devastating occupation. In the maelstrom of looting Priam is butchered and Achilles skewered by Paris' skilled archery. Paris and Brisies escape the city through a secret passage and Achilles is given a heroes funeral - set afire on pyres.

In terms of casting – Troy is on fairly solid ground. True, Brad Pitt is a tad too pretty in a grungy sort of ‘I’m too sexy for my breast plate’, but he provides heightened and unexpected emotion complexity to Achilles. O’Toole and Cox are masterful thespians of the old school who lend weight to their supporting parts. Gleeson is almost as good. Perhaps most impressive is Eric Bana in a sustained and nuanced reading of Hector that carries a good deal of emotional weight. The worst of the lot is the rather effeminate and ineffectual Orlando Bloom pretending toughness. Does anyone buy that his Paris would be able to slay Achilles; the ultimate warrior of his generation?

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray easily bests its standard 2 disc DVD delivers breathtaking clarity throughout. This is the extended cut of Petersen's film, including nearly 40 minutes of footage not seen in theatres. Colors are exceptionally bold and vibrant. Contrast levels are ideally realized. The overall quality of this image is smooth, while sustaining a crisp characteristic with beautifully rendered fine details evident throughout.

The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and quite aggressive during the battle sequences. Extras have all been imported from the standard DVD and include an audio commentary, several detailed featurettes on the film’s creation as well as its’ historical/fictional roots. There's also the original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended.

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



Wednesday, April 7, 2010

THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY: Blu-Ray (Alliance Atlantis 2001-2004) Warner Home Video

Difficult to assess where the overall importance of director Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-2004) lies. To be certain, the trilogy was and is a massively impressive undertaking; epic, yet often overly self-indulgent, while remaining true to J.R.R. Tolkien's sprawling narrative of widgets, wizards and wonderment. At present all three films have both their ardent admirers and formidable detractors. Such is the case with all truly great art, engaged along a great divide in public sentiment and its importance in film history.

Although Tolkien's novel, on which the films are based, is impressive, it is actually part of a larger creative canvass that the author first began writing in 1917. Literary reviews of his day placed the novel's importance somewhere between the greatest 20th century masterwork and tragically shallow and psychologically vapid tripe. Nevertheless, the books have endured and today have a largely positive following by both audiences and the critics.

The title of the book derives association with the dark lord, Sauron (Christopher Lee) who, in an earlier age, has created a ring capable of ruling the world or destroying it. In the prequel history that predates all three movies, Sauron is defeated by the mortal, Isidur who claims the ring for himself. Isidur is later killed by the Orcs and the ring is lost in the Anduin River. Two thousand years later, cousins Deagol and Gollum fish the ring from its resting place. The possessive power of the ring causes Gollum to murder Deagol and covet the ring for five hundred years before he too loses it.

Any brief summary of the meandering intricacies behind Tolkien’s sprawling narrative is futile at best. A distilled summary follows the exploits of one Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood); entrusted with a great quest to return the powerful and destructive gold ring to its molten domain deep within the middle earth of Mordor. Besought by evil forces from without commanded by Sauron and temptation from within to possess the ring for himself, Frodo enlists the aid of long time friend Samwise Gangee (Sean Astin) noble warriors, Legolas Greenleaf (Orlando Bloom) and Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), as well as the sage wisdom from the wizard, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) to make his journey complete.

The first film The Fellowship of the Ring is arguably the most perfectly realized in the trilogy, mixing fantastic flights of fancy with powerful moments of self-realization and exhilarating action/adventure sequences. Frodo and his companions are attacked by the Orcs as they make their way through the treacherous mines of Moria. Gandalf fights off a Balrog (a dragon like creature) and seemingly plummets to his death down a deep chasm. From here, Frodo and his entourage make safe passage to the forest of Lothlorien where they are given temporary refuge by Lady Galadriel (Cate Blanchette). Realizing that the rest of his quest must be a solemn one, Frodo breaks from the fellowship, accompanied by Sam only, to continue his journey.

The second instalment, The Two Towers is hopelessly marred by a seeming lack of editing prowess on director Peter Jackson's part – endlessly bouncing back and forth, from a violent battle between Aragorn and Sauron's armies for control over the sacred city of Isengard, to a haplessly dragged out sequence committed to Sam and Frodo's further trek through a forest of talking/walking trees. What is particularly impressive about the second film is the creation of Gollum (voiced by Andy Serkis); a character entirely realized within the digital domain, yet viscerally palpable in both weight and content of performance.

Although AMPAS awarded its Best Picture honors (as well as 10 additional statuettes) to part three, The Return of the King, by this critic's assessment, the film remains a rather troublesome claptrap of left over plot entanglements from the first two movies, beginning with a flashback involving Gollum's acquisition of the ring and Frodo’s capture and – yet again – near death experience, this time at the talons of a gargantuan spider.

Having been reincarnated as an immortal, Gandalf reasons that Sauron will attack the city of Minas Tirith and rides off to thwart the attack with Pippin (Billy Boyd) who has had a vision of a white burning tree. The Morgul army does indeed attack, decimating the lower city. Meanwhile, Gollum convinces Frodo that Sam is after the ring for himself. The two friends are briefly parted as Gollum makes plans to lure Frodo to his death and reclaim the ring for himself. Sam, however, is unwilling to give up.

Sam saves Frodo and begins the arduous journey toward Mount Doom, surrounded by a garrison of Orcs. Aragorn and his men advance to part the way for Frodo and Sam. But Frodo succumbs to the jealous control of the ring, engaging Gollum in a last bitter struggle to possess it. In the tussle, Frodo's ring finger is bitten off by Gollum, resurrecting Frodo's spirit from the ring's demonic command and plunging Gollum and the ring into the molten fires of pooling lava below. Sauron is destroyed and the immense shockwave that follows his passing effectively wipes out the remaining evil Orc forces, leaving Aragorn and his men unharmed.

This critic recalls too well how the succession of endings that fade to black, only to continue to more and more endless snippets of resolved storytelling left many audience member in theatres frustrated in getting up and then having to sit down repeatedly. Renewed viewing confirms - at least for this critic - that out of time and out of budget, Jackson's last act of this third movie remains episodic at best.

What is commendable about Peter Jackson’s mammoth undertaking on the whole is the sheer size of the project and the considerable amount of narrative content he manages to cover - given that this is one, and not two sets of trilogy. The acting throughout all three features ranges from competent to exceptional. But this isn't a trilogy to invest in solid performance. The films' singular marketing feature remains its digital effects matted onto blue screened live action. Artistically speaking, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is spectacle with substance.

Ironically, there remains something lacking in the overall emotional impact of the exercise. As the audience, we are overwhelmed by the thought-numbing magnitude of presentation, caught in a relentlessly lavish visual melange that regrettably, only partly satisfies. The complexities inherent in Tolkien's original novel and the considerable dexterity exercised in concision by Fran Walsh, Phillippa Boyens, Peter Jackson screenplays leaves the inner connectivity between its characters to cardboard cut out relationships at best that do not satisfy unless one has already had the opportunity to read Tolkien's books. In the final analysis, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy is compelling viewing, although, upon renewed viewing, it seems strangely absent to evoke a sense of inner purpose.

Warner Home Video's Blu-Ray release of only the theatrical editions of these three movies in one box set has infuriated a significant percentage of its fan base. However, this reviewer is not among them, although I do believe that the release of these editions is a well-timed snatch and grab by the studio to force diehard fans to double dip for the trilogy now and the one yet to come.

Affording a press release to this marketing snafu, Warner Home Video has confirmed that director Jackson is hard at work on new extra features to accompany another Blu-Ray set that will include the extended cuts of each movie, let out just in time for Jackson's theatrical debut of The Hobbit.

It's really no surprise that the Blu-Ray transfers on all three films in this trilogy easily best the quality of all previously issued standard DVD editions. However, The Fellowship of the Ring seems to look slightly softer than expected - most certainly, less refined in its fine detailing than the second and third film on Blu-Ray.

The stylized picture elements throughout all three films exhibit a refined clarity that is quite stunning. Contrast levels are beautifully realized with deep saturated blacks. Again, fine detail and overall image sharpness is better on the second and third films.

A quick internet search has suggested that the first film's lack of sharpness is due to the lower budget of the first movie and its less than stellar post production tinkering; a claim this reviewer finds erroneous at best since Jackson was off in New Zealand shooting all three movies simultaneously - hence all three were edited employing the same digital equipment. Whatever the case, the eyes do not lie and the first movie is definitely not on par in visual clarity with the second two instalments.

The audio on all films is TruHD lossless, startling clear and aggressive across all channels and all three movies. Extras are virtually all direct imports from the existing standard DVDs and include extensive featurettes covering every aspect of each film’s production, interviews with cast members, intimate critiques of Tolkien’s works, special effects deconstruction, a shameless promo for the video game equivalent to each movie and each film's original theatrical trailer.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
The Fellowship of the Ring 4
The Two Towers 3
The Return of the King 3.5

The Fellowship of the Ring 3.5
The Two Towers 5
The Return of the King 5


Saturday, April 3, 2010

THE TERMINATOR: Blu-Ray (Orion/Hemdale 1984) MGM Home Video

In the days before real life looming apocalypses of global warming, terrorism and the end of days circa 2012 took their place of central importance in the North American pop landscape, Hollywood occasionally found it quite fashionable to ravage theatre audiences with 'what if' projections of futurism run amuck that cursed the human race to near extinction. Of these like-minded scenarios, director James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) was - at least for a time - certainly the most depressingly creative.

As scripted by Cameron, Gail Anne Hurd and William Wisher Jr. the tale of a post-apocalyptic 2029, where artificial intelligence has sought to obliterate mankind from the earth, seemed quaintly compelling and yet totally unrealistic. After all, these were the days before either the 'thinking computer' or the internet; both technological advancements that ironically have brought us closer to The Terminator's vision of tomorrow.

In the battle for survival, the humans have a small chance at defeating the machines, prompting the latter to send back through time to Los Angeles circa 1984 a cyborg assassin that is programmed to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the mother of the as yet unborn future leader of the human resistance. This killer - a terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) will stop at nothing to see that Sarah never realizes her future destiny.

All is not lost, however, as the human faction have also mastered a teleportation device to send back to 1984 Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn); the father of Sarah's as yet unborn baby. The Terminator arrives first and sets about murdering anyone in the L.A. phone directory who has the name Sarah Connor. Oblivious to the danger she is in, Sarah and her roommate Ginger Ventura (Bess Motta) plan a night out on the town with Ginger's boyfriend Matt Buchanan (Rick Rossovich) and a blind date for Sarah who never shows up.

Unhappy chance for Ginger and Matt, because the Terminator arrives for his next kill at the apartment Ginger shares with Sarah after she has already left. Meanwhile, Sarah learns of the serial killings of two other women with her name and attempts to warn Ginger by phone. Leaving the safety of the restaurant she's in, Sarah next finds herself being followed down a lonely street by Kyle. Believing that he is the serial killer, Sarah ducks into a dance club where the real Terminator is waiting to kill her.

Kyle enters the club. In the hailstorm of gunfire exchanged between him and the Terminator many are wounded. But Kyle rescues Sarah from certain death. After a harrowing car chase, police arrest Sarah and Kyle, taking them to the local precinct where Sarah is informed by Police Lieutenant Ed Traxler (Paul Winfield) that Ginger and Matt are dead. Driving a stolen vehicle through the front window of the station, the Terminator proceeds to annihilate the entire police force. Kyle and Sarah narrowly escape and for the next several days Kyle informs Sarah of her role in preventing the total destruction of mankind.

Sarah reluctantly accepts her lot and she and Kyle make love; he impregnating her with the future leader of human freedom. After several close shaves, the Terminator catches up to Kyle and Sarah inside an abandoned factory. Kyle valiantly attempts to stop the Terminator from murdering Sarah but is killed by the Terminator instead, leaving Sarah to fend for herself. She succeeds by crushing the skeletal remains of her futurist assassin in a machine press. However, several months later Sarah is seen pregnant and driving her jeep into a gas stop near the U.S./ Mexican border. The old proprietor of the establishment tells her that there is a storm coming - referring to inclement weather - but to which the now world wise Sarah soberly declares "I know."

Produced on a shoestring budget for Hemdale and Orion Pictures, The Terminator went on to gross $78 million worldwide and establish both James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger as forces to be reckoned with in the film industry. Initially, Cameron conceived of the Terminator as a small man who would conspicuously blend into the background. Offering the part first to Lance Henriksen (who would end up playing Police Detective Hal Vukovich instead), Cameron was forced to rethink his choice in casting when his pick for Reese - Arnold Schwarzenegger - expressed his interest in playing the evil cyborg instead. It was a pivotal decision in Schwarzenegger's then precariously perched movie career that would ultimately make him a star.

Viewed today, The Terminator isn't quite as impressive or apocalyptic as it seemed in 1984; perhaps partly because the advancement of digital effects have made much of this film's pyrotechnics quaintly surreal and tame by comparison. Yes, the narrative still works on a superficial level with Schwarzenegger's methodical menacing the biggest asset. But on the whole, the movie seems to have dated badly in its bleak view of the future; an implausible alternative to the arguably more predictable bleakness we face from the real world of today.

MGM Home Video's Blu-Ray easily bests any of its previous standard DVD incarnations. The image lacks the overall punch in color fidelity, but remains relatively true to the original filmic origins. Flesh tones are more accurately realized, with Schwarzenegger's pasty pale make up giving his cyborg skin a slightly artificial sheen that suits the character well.

Fine details are realized in close up and medium shots, but long shots still tend to have a softer feel with not quite as much fine rendering in background detail. Perhaps, this is due to the limited budget of the film when it was shot or simply the slow degeneration of Eastman Kodak film stock from this vintage. Whatever the case, the image is solid and will not disappoint, even if it does not exactly impress. The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital, dated but adequate for this presentation. Extras are direct imports from MGM's standard DVD issue and include a look back with candid interviews from James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as a peak behind the scenes at Stan Winston's then state of the art effects.

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