Monday, June 28, 2010


The cat and mouse that defied studio convention and gave Disney animation a run for its money in the mid-1940s, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera's Tom & Jerry (1940-1958) forever defined and endeared the eternal struggle between polar opposites.

Determined to compete in the increasingly popular realm of cartoon shorts, MGM commissioned their own cartoon shorts in the mid-1930s through their Rudolf Isling unit where Hanna and Barbera worked. Joe Barbera, a story man with a passion for character design pitched the concept of a cantankerous cat and mischievous mouse to William Hanna over lunch in the MGM commissary. The rest, as they say, is history - although it was history that almost didn't get made.

Despite the successful debut of Puss Gets The Boot in 1939, studio response to Hanna and Barbera's clever comedy was tepid at best. In fact, the studio discouraged the duo from producing more Tom & Jerry shorts until overwhelmingly enthusiastic inquiries from major theatre distributors began pouring in. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was equally infatuated, nominating 'Puss' for Best Short Subject; an honor it lost to another Isling cartoon - The Milky Way in 1941. In all, Tom & Jerry would receive 13 Oscar nominations and win 7 throughout their nearly 20 year career; effectively ending Disney's exclusivity in the marketplace.

The die was cast. Recognizing a good thing, animation producer Fred Quimby commissioned Hanna and Barbera to rechristen the their cat and mouse duo (in Puss Gets the Boot, Tom is named Jasper and Jerry has no name at all) and make more Tom & Jerry cartoons. While Jerry's physicality remained relatively unchanged throughout the series, Tom's appearance went through several major overhauls to streamline his look and make him easier to animate.
Over the next decade Tom & Jerry reigned supreme at MGM, winning an unprecedented four consecutive Oscars. By the mid-1940s, Tex Avery's inimitable brand of sight gags made the series one of the most celebrated and most violent, even eclipsing Warner Bros. Looney Tunes for sheer mayhem. The duo became so popular in fact that MGM afforded them cameo appearances in two of their major musicals; Anchors Aweigh (1945) and Dangerous When Wet (1953).

With the advent of television and more stringent economical concerns throughout the mid-1950s, MGM decided to close its animation division when they realized they could simply recycle old Tom & Jerry shorts in theatres and achieve the same box office response. Although the studio would eventually farm out the franchise, first to Rembrandt Films in 1960 and then to Chuck Jones' Sib-Tower 12 Productions in 1963, the golden age of the cat and mouse effectively ended after 114 shorts in 1957 and 'Tot Watchers' - the last of the original Hanna and Barbera comedy capers.

Viewed today, Tom & Jerry contains its share of racism - most commonplace in its stereotype of the mammy and several brief off handed references to the then popularized artistic expression known as 'black-face'. To their credit Warner Bros., the studio currently in charge of redistributing these classic cartoons on home video, has seen fit to reissue them with their original content unedited, choosing instead to tag the series with a disclaimer that neither promotes nor endorses the stereotypes featured within.

Warner Home Video's latest trip down the mouse hole; Tom & Jerry: The Deluxe Anniversary 2 disc set is not nearly as 'deluxe' as one might expect. In fact, it's rather scant when compared to the studio's previously issued 'Spotlight Collections' Vol. 1 and 2. On this outing we get 20 vintage cartoons from the Hanna/Barbera tenure coupled with 3 shorts from Chuck Jones' tenure and some television episodes after the series went cheap and easy in the late 1970s.

The classic shorts have been given a modest upgrade in their video masters but continue to exhibit a considerable litany of age related artifacts; including scratches and color fading to varying degrees. Several shorts are plagued by an overwhelming amount of edge enhancement - particularly in their title sequences.

Aside: by this late stage in DVD authoring edge enhancements ought to have been made obsolete from all home video mastering technologies! That these shorts continue to exhibit this distracting anomaly is regrettable and, at least by this reviewer's ideals, unacceptable!

The audio on all shorts is mono as originally recorded and adequately represented herein. Extras include a brief featurette retrospective on the evolution of the series, as well the animated sequences from Anchors Aweigh and Dangerous When Wet.

If you already own Vol. 1 and 2 of the Spotlight Collections you may want to overlook this latest Tom & Jerry incarnation. It brings nothing fresh or new to one's overall enjoyment of this loveable cat and mouse.

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



Friday, June 25, 2010

ST. ELMO'S FIRE: Blu-Ray (Columbia 1985) Sony Home Entertainment

In retrospect, Joel Schumacher’s St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) is a fond farewell to the brat pack teeny-bopper flicks that director John Hughes made justly famous during the first half of the 1980s; the brat packers having matured beyond their teens and, at least in this film, represented as graduates of Georgetown University.

Schumacher has always resisted the term 'brat pack' - suggesting that no such clique ever existed in Hollywood. Nevertheless and for a brief while, the term stuck to the careers of Ally Sheedy, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald (the latter not featured in this movie).

Deriving its title from the electrical weather phenomenon that occurs when a grounded object comes in contact with an atmospheric electric charge, the screenplay by Schumacher and Carl Kurlander explores that painful rift where youth must suddenly come to terms with their lives apart from the cloistered halls of academia and assume their responsibilities as adults With memorable bits of melodrama, the film stars a potpourri of then up and coming talents, most of whom would continue to grow up and evolve in front of the cameras with varying degrees of professional success.

In retrospect, the film seems to favour Rob Lowe's perpetual screw up, Billy Hicks – a once, high man on campus who finds that the world beyond college holds no tangible place for him. With nowhere but down to go, Billy plays sax and seduces a bevy of college lovelies nightly at the local frat watering hole – St. Elmo’s Bar. Under the opening credits we first see Billy and his fellow grads optimistically departing Georgetown with their cap and gowns donned.

From here, however, the narrative takes a quantum leap six months into the future. A concerned waiter, Kirby Keger (Emilion Estevez), preppy aspiring writer, Kevin Dolenz (Andrew McCarthy), political assistant Alec Newbary (Judd Nelson) and his fiancée, Leslie Hunter (Ally Sheedy), arrive at the hospital emergency ward to make their inquiries about Billy and his date, the demure rich girl, Wendy Beamish (Mare Winningham) who have been involved in a drunk driving accident. They are almost immediately followed by drama queen, Jules (Demi Moore) and her latest, nameless boy toy (David Lain Baker).

Learning that both Billy and Wendy have escaped their wreck with only minor injuries, the plot pares off to explore each character's private life. Most immediate of these plot developments involves Kirby's sudden infatuation with Dale Biberman (Andie McDowell); a young doctor whom Kirby obsessively fantasizes about seducing.

In another part of town, we learn that Alec has managed to fast track his career as a promising advisor in the political arena but that his eagerness to marry Leslie has been met with subtle apprehensions. It seems that Leslie has developed affections for Kevin who has always loved her. Uptown, Jules invites Kevin to her new apartment that she has furnished entirely on credit in the hopes that her modest job as a bank teller will lead to a promising affair with her boss.

Meanwhile, in Georgetown's fashionable upscale suburbs, greeting card magnet, Mr. Beamish (Martin Balsam) has invited Billy to dinner in the hopes of learning what his intensions are toward Wendy. But the night is a disaster, capped off by Billy reverting to form, getting drunk and climbing out onto the Beamish's cape cod rooftop with a forty ouncer in hand. Ironically, Wendy finds Billy's adolescent antics charming and continues to see him. However, rather than rely on her father's fortunes to sustain herself, she decides to take a job as an assistant at the downtown welfare office and homeless shelter.

From here the narrative threads become more intertwined. Wendy learns that Billy has impregnated another girl and ends their relationship. To impress Dale, Kirby gets a job driving limo for a Japanese businessman, then throws a house party at his employer's home that goes hopeless awry. As guests begin to trash the place, Alec publicly announces that Leslie is to be his wife, forcing Leslie to reject Alec once and for all reveal her affair with Kevin. The realization that Kevin and Leslie are lovers sends Alec into a painful tailspin of regret and anger that forever fractures their friendships.

Meanwhile, thrust into the newfound responsibilities of becoming a father, Billy makes several half hearted attempts to sober up and procure more serious work. He returns to Georgetown's frat house, hoping that his past reputation will stand in for a chance to prove himself as a sort of campus social director but quickly learns that the new plebs regard him strictly as their front man for acquiring better booze and drugs.

Across town, Jules days of living lavishly on a modest budget have officially caught up with her. She is cast into receivership. Repo men clean out her apartment and she is fired from her job after having skimmed monies in a last ditch attempt to salvage her lifestyle. Assuming the worst, Billy and Kevin break into Jules apartment to discover that she is on the verge of attempting suicide.

As for Kirby, his romantic lusting over Dale has reached a fevered pitch. After pursuing her to a mountain cabin, Kirby learns that Dale is engaged to another doctor. But his heartbreak is cured when, in a moment of farewell, he passionately grabs Dale in a dramatic dip, planting a long and memorable kiss on her lips. The film ends on a rather open and insecure note as the young adults gradually depart Georgetown to pursue their separate lives, realizing that their days as 'lifelong' campus compatriots have suddenly and irreversibly come to an end.

The Schumacher/Kurlander script is notable for conveying the pitfalls of shallow materialism and also for exposing the pressures that youth face during their most awkward transitional period - from carefree college kids to maturing, responsible adults. Fuelled by David Foster's memorable St. Elmo's Fire theme and John Parr's chart topping single, Man In Motion, St. Elmo's Fire is a memorable excursion and a rewarding coming of age flick that will likely continue to endure for many decades to come.

Sony Home Entertainment’s Blu-Ray transfer bests its DVD but only marginally; perhaps because the DVD's video quality was, for its time, quite remarkable. Colors on the Blu-Ray are richly saturated, yet ironically, don't pop as one might expect. The most impressive difference is the Blu-Ray's attention to minute detail in background information and clothing. Flesh tones still appear weak and a tad too pink as they did on the DVD. Contrast levels are adequately represented, but blacks don't feel as solid or deep as one might expect. Infrequently, film grain is more naturally realized on the Blu-Ray. On the DVD it registered as digital grit. On occasion, the image also seems slightly soft. The audio is a 4.0 Dolby Digital mix that captures the dated characteristics of 1980s movie tracks; lacking in some mid-range and bass tonality.

Extras include a brief retrospective interview with Schulmacher on casting the film, a vintage 'making of' featurette, an audio commentary which tends to meander, and the music video to John Parr's Man In Motion. Bottom line: recommended.

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



Wednesday, June 9, 2010

SHUTTER ISLAND: Blu-Ray (Phoenix/Sikelia/Appian Way 2010) Paramount Home Video

Based on Dennis Lehane's gripping novel, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island (2010) is an evocatively photographed, intellectual jigsaw of intriguing plot entanglements that never quite attains a heightened psychological level of sheer thrills for the audience. Adeptly scripted by Laeta Kalogridis and an unaccredited Steven Knight, the film stays fairly true to Lehane's original intent right up until the end.

Plot wise: it's 1954 and U.S. Marshall Edward Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his partner, Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) arrive at Ashecliff Hospital on Shutter Island to investigate the impossible disappearance of patient, Rachel Solando (Emily Mortimer). From the moment they set foot on the island, Daniels and Aule find themselves trapped in an ever more constricting vacuum of total isolation exacerbated by presiding psychiatrist, Dr. John Cawley's (Ben Kingsley) rather nonchalant lack of compliance to provide Daniels with Rachel's medical records and patient history.

As the narrative unfolds, Cawley and Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sidow) subtle refusals appear more as maniacal taunts that gradually drive Daniels, first to distraction, then obsession to unravel the mystery behind Rachel's vanishing act. Resigning from the case, Daniels and Aule's trip back to the mainland is delayed by a hurricane, forcing Daniels to reconsider his options. What is revealed to Daniels by Cawley is that Rachel has been locked away for some time after drowning her three children.

In flashback, we learn that Daniels was one of the liberators of the concentration camps at Dachau. Haunted by those horrific images from the war and by strange nightmares about his late wife, Dolores Chanal (Michelle Williams), who died in an apartment fire two years earlier, Daniels persists in scouring the craggy moors of Shutter Island for clues about Rachel's disappearance; another dead end when Daniels is told by Cawley that his star witness, Rachel's psychiatrist Dr. Sheehan, has departed the isle for an extended vacation.

From here, the narrative begins to unravel quickly. Daniels tells Aule that his real reason for taking on the case at Ashecliff is to learn the whereabouts of Andrew Laeddis, the man Daniels believes is responsible for starting the fire that killed Dolores. Daniels further informs Aule that on the mainland he met George Noyce (Jackie Earle Haley), a former Ashecliff patient who told Daniels about horrific lobotomizing experiments being conducted at the hospital.

A fake Rachel miraculously reappears and mistakes Daniels for the husband she lost in WWII. During a power outage, Daniels discovers Noyce locked in a dank cell inside the bowels of maximum security Ward C where Noyce informs Daniels that the entire weekend is a rouse designed to keep him on the island forever. This suspicion is confirmed by the real Rachel Solando (Patricia Clarkson) who confides in Daniels that she was once a doctor at Ashecliff. After learning about the lobotomizing experiments done at the lighthouse, she was declared insane and committed to the institution as a patient by Cawley.

Now more determined than ever, Daniels makes a harrowing trek to the lighthouse but finds Cawley waiting there to intercept him with the truth; that Daniel is actually Andrew Laeddis, who murdered his manic depressive wife after she killed their three children. Chuck, who in reality is Dr. Sheehan, has agreed to play along with Andrew's belief that he is Daniels in an experimental therapy that both he and Cawley had hoped would cure Laeddis of his hallucinations, thereby sparing him the gruesome remedy of having a lobotomy.

After suffering a complete breakdown Andrew seems to come through the experiment with a renewed sense of clarity that is not to last. He later refers to Sheehan once again as Chuck, indicating that the therapy has failed. As Andrew is lead away, presumably to have his lobotomy, he questions whether it is better to live as a monster or die as a good man. Thus ends Shutter Island on a note of self-destruction befitting a flawed hero of Greek tragedy.

The central shortcoming of the film is not immediately inherent in either the film's content or its foreboding stylistic delivery - both holding up considerably well. What is absent from the exercise however is that overriding sense of doom and shock necessary to elevate Shutter Island beyond mere conventional thriller status.

As an audience, we've seen all this done before. The hero who is really the antithesis of his character is a plot device more recently and more successfully deployed in movies like The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Others (2001). Because of those precursors, it's not enough to give the audience on this outing a plot twist at the end debunking the two and a half hours that have gone before it. Hence, what we are left with in Shutter Island is the quality of performance to sustain our interests as Daniels goes through the machinations of discovering the truth about himself.

DiCaprio - an actor this reviewer has never held in high esteem - does an adequate job herein, but he still seems far too young (at least in face) and insufficiently jaded to be believed as the careworn and emotionally scarred vet who has truly lost his mind. Kingsley and Von Sidow are, of course, time honored professionals in their craft, both delving deep into character and coming out on top at every turn. Ruffalo, Clarkson and Williams add what they can to this lugubriously menacing mélange with sustained sparks of their own brilliance. Thanks primarily to Scorsese's stylish direction, the final outcome of Shutter Island may fall short of expectations, though never without formidable artistic merit.

Paramount Home Video's Blu-Ray offering is stunning. The image throughout exhibits a richly saturated color palette. The stylized picture elements pop with renewed sharpness, clarity and pitch perfect color balancing. Flesh tones exhibit an astonishing amount of fine detail as does the rest of the image. Even during the darkest scenes, minute visual information is present. Truly, this is a reference quality disc. The lossless HD audio is a perfect complement to the visuals. Extras are the biggest disappointment, two utterly fleeting featurettes that begin and end seemingly in the middle.

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






Friday, June 4, 2010

ALICE IN WONDERLAND: Blu-Ray (Disney 2010) Walt Disney Home Video

'Curiouser and curiouser' - fitting words to describe the Disney company's latest foray through the looking glass with director Tim Burton's re-envisioned Alice in Wonderland (2010); an even more obtuse claptrap than its Disney-fied predecessor from 1951. In truth, author Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel (more about poking fun at British parliament and aristocracy than a children's book) is a series of quaintly bizarre vignettes that, in retrospect, greatly influenced all fantasy literary that was to follow. And although Burton's ambitiously mounted film, curtly scripted by Linda Woolverton, does have its moments, it still pales to the superbly cast, all star comprehensive television adaptation from 1985.

What we get on this outing is a more mature Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) taking valiant strides to make sense of it all. As a child, Alice's 'dreams' of Wonderland have led to many a sleepless night. The net result is a careworn and sleep deprived teenager with circles under her eyes, about to be forced into marriage to Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill) the ineffectual and physically repugnant son of a Lord who has taken over the business holdings of Alice's late father. After walking out on Hamish's very public proposal of marriage, Alice follows Niven McTwist, a.k.a. the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) down a deep hole into 'Underland' where everything is topsy-turvy.

Alice is introduced to Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both CGI creations voiced by Matt Lucas) who drag our heroine past a gaggle of talking flowers to the mushroom court presided over by Absolem, the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman). This hookah smoking insect declares that Alice is not 'hardly' herself yet. Their meeting is interrupted by the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), commanding a regiment of playing cards and the Bandersnatch - an albino beast. The Bandersnatch attacks Alice but is thwarted from devouring her whole by Mallymkun, the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), who plucks out its eye with a stick pin.

From here the narrative moves to the court of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), intermittently referred to as The Queen of Hearts even though the Red Queen and The Queen of Hearts are two very separate and distinct characters in the Lewis Carroll novels. The Red Queen is an impatient harpy, bitterly entertaining romantic notions with the Knave while declaring to him that Alice must not be allowed to slay The Jabberwocky - a conquest foretold.

Meanwhile, Alice has stumbled into the charred remains of The Mad Hatter's residence. The Hatter (Johnny Depp) becomes Alice's protector and is captured by the Knave for his efforts. Taken to the Red Queen's court, the Hatter attempts to deflect her dismay from Alice, who has arrived to rescue the Hatter disguised as 'Um'. The Knave flirts with Alice/Um and is spurned by her. Meanwhile, Alice learns that the Vorpal Sword - the only weapon capable of killing the Jabberwocky - is inside the Red Queen's palace, guarded by the one-eyed Bandersnatch.

In a trade, Alice restores the Bandersnatch's eye and is granted access to the sword. The Red Queen's sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) encourages Alice to be her champion and slay the Jabberwocky; thereby restoring her to the throne of Underland. Alice reluctantly agrees and indeed kills the towering dragon-like beast in an epic battle entirely envisioned in CGI.

As her reward, Alice is restored to her own world where she refuses Hamish and takes control of her own life. Impressed by her assertive nature, Hamish's father appoints Alice to a prestigious post within her late father's shipping company. In the final moments of the film, Alice embarks on a clipper bound for the Orient with Absolem - now a butterfly - making the journey with her. Thus, ends this reincarnation of Alice In Wonderland.

Lewis Carroll's original novel is actually titled, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, though none of the filmic versions have ever appeared as such. This version of Alice is by far the most financially successful adaptation - ranking as the fifth most profitable movie of all time. However, a large portion of that success must go to the film's well timed release that has heavily capitalized on the latest craze for 3D movies.

Yet, as pure storytelling Tim Burton's vision falls considerably shy of becoming a classic in its own right. What is particularly disheartening is the excision of many of Carroll's creations and subplots in favour of Burton and Wooverton's zeal to craft a narrative favouring cinema chameleon, Johnny Depp. To be certain, Depp proves worthy to the task, delivering yet another bizarrely compelling performance that ranks him among the most talented of contemporary stars. In fact, the chief problem with this film cannot be blamed on casting at all.

Mia Wasikowska is a poignant and engaging Alice, moving through the digitized scenery as a young Gwyneth Paltrow might, with an uncanny resemblance in both physicality and mannerisms to Paltrow herself. Helena Bonham Carter is richly rewarding to behold as the villainous Red Queen. Yet, like all versions of Alice that have gone before this one, the tone of this piece seems to lack an overriding arch of personal investment in these characters. They remain cut outs, cartoonish and one dimensional, barely breaking through to a level of distinction.

This Alice in Wonderland had a flawed incubation. Originally slated for 2009 release, the shooting schedule did not get underway until Sept. 08; a full four months delayed. With exception of early footage shot at Antony House in Torpoint, 90% of the film is photographed green screen with CGI effects supplied by Sony Pictures Imageworks. Reportedly, Burton shot, then scrapped a fair amount of footage in his reshoot, opting to photograph the film with standard cameras in 2D and then convert the footage to 3D in post production - a practise publicly maligned by director James Cameron.

For all its innovative camera work, Alice In Wonderland is a stylish footnote in the realms of cinema art. It neither enchants nor encapsulates the audience with its bizarre artistic melange. It merely exists as a rudimentary exercise in CGI technology with competent performances thrown in for good measure.

Walt Disney Home Video's Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack offers three different ways to enjoy the film. For the purposes of this review, only the Blu-Ray version is critiqued herein. This is NOT the 3D version of the film, but its 2D rendering. The image exhibits a stylized color palette, meticulously realized. Colors are bold, rich and vibrant. Fine detail is evident throughout. Contrast levels - artificially elevated as in the original theatrical release - retain their stark grandeur. A minute amount of edge enhancement exists but does not distract.

The audio is Disney's usual 7.1 lossless mix. Yet, occasionally dialogue seems inaudible.
Extras include a litany of featurettes on the making of the film in which principle actors and Burton discuss their involvement on the project and wax affectionately and self congratulatory about one another's performances.

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