Saturday, January 30, 2010

FAME: Blu-Ray (MGM 1980) Warner Home Video

Going all the way back to the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland 'hey kids, let's put on a show' formula, Alan Parker's Fame (1980) is a revamp of the tried and true time honored principles of the movie musical, this time brought to the screen with a rather peerless clarity for the anxieties facing a group of young hopefuls in training at New York's famed School for the Performing Arts.

Coming, as it did off the 1970s, a decade of gritty realism, but with the success of MGM's frothy tributes to their musical heyday of yesteryear That's Entertainment! parts I and II in mind, Christopher Gore's screenplay walks the tightrope in awkwardly balancing these stylistic polar opposites and, for the most part, makes a success of the exercise despite rather pedestrian production numbers.

The film's salvation is its roster of young talent, fronted by irrepressible Irene Cara as Coco - a driven songstress determined to pull out all the stops in order to have the world 'remember her name'. Other standouts in the cast include Gene Anthony Ray as rough around the edges hoodlum come dancer, Leroy and Lee Curreri as Bruno - a would-be musician/composer, if only he would realize that not every tune in the world should be performed entirely on a synthesizer. The rest of the young talent includes Barry Miller as insecure wannabe comic, Ralph and Maureen Teefy as Doris - a hopelessly awkward wallflower who may not make it to the top, but will undoubtedly 'find herself' in the process of going through her training.

Almost as compelling to the story, and certainly as integral to our overall appreciation of the film, are the cast that make up the School's faculty; with Albert Hague's stalwart music instructor, Mr. Shorovsky, Anne Meara's dominant English maven, Miss Sherwood and Debbie Allen's dance diva, Lydia marking their territory with crusty, compelling and passionate distinction amidst the amassed chaos of their feisty up and comers.

The film begins with the rigors of students auditioning for the few hallowed openings in this prestigious academic institution. Some strike an indelible first impression and begin their journey of self discovery, while other hopes are instantly dashed. From these preliminary sequences one can speculate where a young Simon Cowell might have manifested the idea for American Idol's reject reel. The auditions are a make or break trial by fire.

After establishing who has made the final cut, the reality of comprehensive school curriculum begins to set in. Students are expected to learn a little bit of everything; ballet, tap, music appreciation, acting and singing, in addition to their regular academic studies.

From this vantage, Gore's screenplay gradually begins to explore the more privately moral and social insecurities of its various players. We learn, for example, of fellow student, Montgomery's (Paul McCrane) crippling fear that his homosexuality will ruin his chances for fostering friendships at the school; explore Leroy's anxieties over not being able to read or write and what that means for his chances of succeeding, not just at the school but in life, and, we come to champion Coco's gutsy ambition for performance as she finds kinship in Bruno's opinionated passion for writing 'good music'.

In all, Fame is the story of uncertain youth at the cusp of entering adulthood on a full time basis, though perhaps yet without the full palette of social skills necessary to make that transition a complete success. The musical numbers are incidental intrusions at best - the very best of these being Coco's poignant rendition of 'Out Here On My Own'. Performing the number on a blackened stage with only Bruno as her audience, the song attains a meaningful mélange of heartfelt compassion and soulful depth of personalized struggle that predates the start of the film. It is as much a character building number for that character as it is a revealing glimpse into the hard knocks of real work that goes on behind the glamorous facade of stardom.

Despite the fact that the movie is billed as a 'musical', it very much comes to life in its dramatic portions rather than its musical bits and this is to Alan Parker's credit; for, in its drama, Fame is genuinely compelling entertainment.

The movie's title track spawned a hit Oscar-winning single for Cara and a lucrative television series that further explored the life and times of its cast - almost all of whom made the transition from film to the little screen. In the final analysis, Fame is deserving of our repeat viewing and respect and so undeserving of the abysmal big budget movie remake it received in 2009. This is the one that you want. Remember the name - Fame!

Warner Home Video's Blu-Ray easily bests its standard DVD release on every level. The anamorphic widescreen image is startling in both its color fidelity and razor sharp clarity that renders fine details with precision that home viewing audiences have never seen before on any format. Flesh tones have been superbly realized, neither too pink or too orange as was the case with the standard disc.

Again, fine detail is what sets the Blu-Ray apart. We can actually see texture in fabrics, wood paneling and hair. All this advanced detail gives the film's visual patina of grit and decay a very real edge that is most appealing. The soundtrack has been remastered in 5.1 Dolby Digital and is adequate for this presentation, though to more keen ears the sonic palette is unmistakably dated in its overall fidelity. Extras are direct imports off the standard disc and in standard def' including a Class Reunion featurette, another on the real School for Performing Arts and an audio commentary track. Recommended!

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



THE NUN'S STORY (W.B. 1959) Warner Home Video

Based on Kathryn Hulme's probing novel, director Fred Zinnemann's The Nun's Story (1959) is an unapologetic social critique of the structure and strictures placed upon young novices as they commit their lives in service to God. Robert Anderson's screenplay strips bare the filmic piety of devotion to Catholicism (made poignantly attractive in films like Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's) to, instead, devote much of the film's 152 minutes toward an investigation of the inward perplexities associated with becoming a nun.

The fact that the story's heroine, Gabrielle Van der Mal is a young woman of impeccable breeding and background above reproach - and thereby an ideal candidate - yet, cannot measure up to that level of expectation in obedience, chastity and poverty - strikes a particularly devastating chord for the Catholic church. After all, if such an extraordinary creature as Gabrielle cannot attain inner perfection of the Holy Rule, what hope is there for the lesser of us?

Our story opens with Gabrielle (Audrey Hepburn) leaving her idyllic family life to join a convent in Rotterdam, Holland. It is Gabrielle's hope that the sisterhood will assign her to missionary work in the Belgian Congo upon receiving her vows. Gabrielle's father, Dr. Van der Mal (Dean Jagger) urges Gabrielle to reconsider her chosen path. At home with him she has the love, support and devotion of two sisters, a brother and a fiancée. Still, Gabrielle is certain that the nunnery is her life's destiny.

She is sequestered along with other hopefuls and put to task under the most rigid of conditions and house rules. A proper nun - so we are told - can never look at herself in a mirror. She does not form 'attachments' (friendships) with fellow novices. She obeys without question any and all requests from her superiors. She does not speak unless she is spoken to and she resigns herself to forget every last fact and memory about her past. A little black diary is given to each novice into which she must daily 'accuse' herself in writing of each impure thought. The Holy Rule is supposed to attain a sense of higher purpose for the novice, to help repress a sense of self and to smite vanity in all its forms. Yet, the film suggests its crippling effect on the humanity of our very souls instead.

Rechristened Sister Luke, Gabrielle dedicates herself to the cause with great passion, yet oddly, with a constant self doubt that her studies are being sabotaged by her pride. Sister Margharita, the Mistress of Postulants (Mildred Dunnock) is Gabrielle's greatest proponent. It is through Sister Margharita's constant encouragement that Gabrielle finds the strength to pursue her studies, even as some of the other novices recognize that the life of a nun is not for them and drop out.

However, at the hospital where Gabrielle is stationed to care for the sick as well as train in her medical duties, a fellow novice accuses Gabrielle of pride in her superior mastery of medicine. The accusation reaches the ears of their superior, Mother Marcella (Ruth White) who all but demands that Gabrielle deliberately fail her final examination.

However, it is essential that Gabrielle pass the medical portion to be considered for assignment in the Congo. As Mother Marcella encourages, failure will prove to the rest of the novices that Gabrielle is willing to sacrifice her own personal goals to attain a higher sense of selflessness. Yet, for Gabrielle, the whole purpose in becoming a nun was to administer her medical training to the less fortunate in the Congo.

Defying Mother Marcella, Gabrielle comes in fourth from the top of her class during the oral medical examination. As punishment, she is re-assigned to care for the criminally insane in a sanitarium and is nearly murdered by one of its occupants who refers to herself as the Archangel (Colleen Dewhurst).

Eventually, Gabrielle does make it to the Congo, but here too her aspirations to care for native inhabitants is dashed by the Catholic Archdiocese when she is instead assigned to the white hospital presided over by Dr. Fortunati (Peter Finch); a no-nonsense surgeon who comes to greatly admire Gabrielle for her medical prowess. Dr. Fortunati even goes so far as to conceal Gabrielle's bout of tuberculosis from the church in order to heal her himself while keeping her close at hand as his medical assistant.

After the local Chaplain, Father Andre (Stephen Murray) is injured in a bicycle accident, Gabrielle manages to reset his crushed bones without Fortunati's aid and save Father Andre's leg. This noble deed earns Gabrielle the respect of the entire congregation - yet, ironically she is 'punished' once again for her pride of workmanship by being recalled to convent life in Rotterdam.

Once home, Gabrielle learns that her father has been mercilessly gunned down with other refugees by the Nazi army. Realizing that she can never endure a life of servitude where her innate skills as a medical nurse are undervalued, Gabrielle declares that she has decided to leave the nunnery once and for all. After signing her declaration, she is quietly and rather unceremoniously cast out of the convent and into a rather bleak and uncertain future.

Thus ends The Nun's Story on a shockingly ambiguous note. The film is immeasurably blessed by Audrey Hepburn's poignantly understated central performance. There is real chemistry between Hepburn and Finch in the briefest of scenes they share together and one rather hopes for more to come. This, however, never happens, leaving Hepburn alone to carry the episodic vignettes to their inevitable conclusion. To her credit as an actress, the story - without much interaction between Gabrielle and anyone else - nevertheless holds our attention.

The Nun's Story is hardly perfect entertainment. The first act of Anderson's screenplay tends to drag on. We are given almost a daily blow by blow of oppressive convent life, while in the last two acts, featuring Gabrielle's journey to the Congo and return to Rotterdam during WWII are dealt with short shrift and rather episodically. Still, this is an engaging tale and one told with such professionalism and 'pride' or workmanship, that one cannot help but admire the exercise for its precision and polish.

Warner Home Video's DVD release could use a little more of both precision and polish. Despite being photographed in Technicolor, the transfer on The Nun's Story suffers from inconsistently rendered colors, pasty flesh tones and a considerable amount of age related artifacts. At times the image can appear quite rich, colorful and textured. However, many scenes possess a muddiness and faded palette of hues, coupled with a soft focus that renders fine details moot. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequate for this presentation. Ironically, given that the film earned 8 Oscar nominations upon its release, extras on this DVD are regrettably limited to only a theatrical trailer - a disappointment!

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



Sunday, January 24, 2010

MRS. PARKINGTON (MGM 1944) Warner Archive Collection

In the annals of great film couples, the inspired teaming of Irish charmer, Greer Garson and American star Walter Pigeon is legendary. The films they made together at MGM are largely exercises in patient restraint and poignant reflection of the idealized romance after marriage.

On screen, Garson and Pigeon represent marriage as a triumphant - though not perhaps perfect, celebration of all too human spirits joined for better or worse. Indeed, many outside Hollywood thought Garson and Pigeon married in real life, while others who knew better, clung to the hope that perhaps someday they might marry for real to live out the fairytale so prolifically treasured on the big screen.

Of their seven screen outings as a couple, only four of Garson and Pigeon's movies have made the happy transition to DVD. Of these, Tay Garnett's Mrs. Parkington (1944) is a memorable masterpiece, lavishly produced at the height of MGM's ultra glamorous period in film making. Based on Louis Bromfield's celebrated novel, the screenplay from Robert Thoeren and Polly James tells the story of Mrs. Susie 'Sparrow' Parkington (Garson) largely in flashback, several years after the death of her beloved husband, Maj. Augustus 'Gus' Parkington (Pigeon).

It seems that the Parkington family of the immediate present are in a very bad way - socially speaking. Susie's grand daughter, Jane (Frances Rafferty) is engaged to Ned Talbot (Tom Drake); a promising, though stubbornly head strong accountant, once in her father, Amory's (Edward Arnold) employ.

However, Ned has resigned after learning that a pair of government agents are investigating Amory for fraud. After Suzie confronts Ned and Amory with the truth, Amory attempts suicide, much to the nonchalant chagrin of his wife, Helen (Helen Freeman) - who is far more interested in keeping up appearances than she is in the welfare of her husband. Amory's son, Jack (Dan Duryea) is a heartless, calculating sponge who openly disassociates himself from his father as the whole mess unravels.

As for the rest of the family, Mrs. Parkington's daughter Alice (Gladys Cooper) is a sullen dowager, while her daughter, Madeleine (Lee Patrick) is on her third marriage - this time to a rather likable Texan, Al Swann (Rod Cameron); a man who just happens to be from Mrs. Parkington's home town - Leaping Rock.

Al's association with Mrs. Parkington's past sets up the first of many flashbacks in the film. We see Suzie as a young maid scrubbing floors inside Graham's Hotel; a residence run by her mother (Mary Servoss) for silver miners toiling under unsafe conditions for Augustus Parkington.
After paying an impromptu visit to the mine, Augustus openly flirts with Suzie. She accepts his advances to a point, but bars her emotions without the genuine prospect of marriage. A cave in at the mine claims Mrs. Graham's life and Augustus - feeling personally responsible - marries Suzie to save her from a life of servitude.

By all accounts, their marriage is a happy one. Suzie is befriended by Baroness Aspasia Conti (Agnes Moorehead); Gus' former mistress, but now a loyal and mutual friend to them both. On their third wedding anniversary, Gus presents Suzie with a lavish mansion. However, polite New York society does not take kindly to Gus's ostentatious manner. After virtually all of his invited guests refuse to attempt a party given in Suzie's honor, Gus vows to destroy each and every one by dismantling their fortunes.

Learning of this plot only after one of the men Gus has ruined has committed suicide, Suzie tells Gus she is ashamed to be his wife and leaves him for a country retreat. Gus, however, is not about to let Suzie go. He wins back her affections and the two resume their life together.

Tragedy strikes with the death of their son and Suzie descends into a dark depression, leaving Gus to venture to England and take up with Lady Nora Ebbsworth (Tala Birell). Aspasia convinces Suzie to rejoin the human race and they make journey to England to surprise Gus.
Arriving at Gus' stately country house while he, Lady Nora and a veritable entourage of fair-weather friends are on a fox hunt, Suzie inadvertently befriends Edward, Prince of Whales (Cecil Kellaway) before she realizes who he is. The Prince, however, is enchanted by her vivaciousness and cantor.

Learning of her husband's romance with Lady Nora, Suzie attempts to reclaim what is rightfully hers. After a tug of wills between Lady Nora and Suzie plays itself out during a game billiards, Edward intercedes on Suzie's behalf, issuing a command that Lady Nora attend his mother, Queen Victoria as her newest lady in waiting - thereby exiling her to a life at court and away from Gus.

Later that evening, Aspasia confides to Suzie that she has bought a home in her native France. She will not be returning with them to America. In the meantime, Gus professes his undying love for Suzie and she, realizing that in Gus' heart at least, his affections are genuine, takes him back.

From here the film reverts back to the present. Having failed in her attempt to convince the family that their inheritance might save Amory from going to prison, Mrs. Parkington informs them that she has nevertheless decided to give away her wealth to the people Amory has swindled, thereby restoring the Parkington name but leaving everyone penniless as a direct result. The story ends with Mrs. Parkington informing her devoted maid, Mattie Tournsen (Selena Royale) that they will be moving back to Leaping Rock.

Mrs. Parkington is Hollywood film making on a grand and opulent scale. Utilizing portions of sets, props and costumes from Marie Antoinette (1938) and other MGM period films, Mrs. Parkington manages to capture a resplendent atmosphere of elegance and refinement. Although the flashback device is overused throughout, it does not impact the story telling in general, and, under Tay Garnett's direction, the narrative moves effortlessly forward.

Garson was justly Oscar nominated for her performance, as was Agnes Moorehead as Supporting Actress: neither winning. As for Pigeon - be plays the dutiful husband much more selectively and with greater believability than he does the philandering rake. Nevertheless, the on screen chemistry between Pigeon and his costar is poignant and sublime. This is a great film and one that deserves renewed viewing.

Mrs. Parkington is a Warner Archive release. However, the film elements are in exceptional shape, owing to at least some restoration work having been performed somewhere along the way. The gray scale is beautifully rendered with strong tonality. Contrast levels are bang on and fine detail is evident throughout. Age related artifacts have been reduced to a bare minimum. There are several brief instances where edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details are apparent, but nothing to distract from one's overall enjoyment of this movie. The only extra is a theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!

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



SARATOGA TRUNK (WB 1945) Warner Archive Collection

Based on Edna Ferber's celebrated novel, Sam Woods' Saratoga Trunk (1945) is a mishmash of plot entanglements surrounding the comings and goings of 'notorious' woman, Clio Dulaine (Ingrid Bergman). Seems Clio's late mother was a fiery sort whose weak spot for men in general, and one married man in particular - Nicholas Dulaine - led to an affair that scandalized her reputation and all but destroyed the Dulaine family honor. Shunned by society, Clio's mother endured social obliteration after the affair ended, thereafter dying a broken woman - presumably in France.

All this is back story, of course, scripted in short shrift by Casey Robinson before the boat from France carrying Clio, her embittered housemaid, Angelique Buiton (Flora Robson) and mischievous, diminutive man servant, Cupidon (Jerry Austin) arrives on the shores of New Orleans. It is Clio's intent, as Nicholas' illegitimate child, to reclaim a place amongst respectable society. Arriving at the abandoned house that her mother once shared with Nicholas, Clio restores the Cajun villa to prominence and thereafter delights at taunting Nicholas' surviving relations; Charlotte (Sophie Huxley), Mrs. Dulaine (Helen Freeman) and grandmother (Adrienne D'Ambricourt) by her very presence.

In the meantime, Clio becomes attracted to tall Texan Colonel Clint Maroon (Gary Cooper); a wily chameleon of a gambler who sees Clio quite clearly for the rake in bustle that she is. At first Angelique detests Clint for his demanding ways. Soon, however, Angelique begins to realize that Clint might be exactly what the doctor ordered. Clio is prone to inexplicable fits of confusion - occasionally bordering on some sort of insanity - that only Clint's rough and tumble ways with her seem to be the cure.

Eventually, Clint and Clio's stormy passion drives a wedge in their relationship. Clint departs for Saratoga and Clio, having outstayed her welcome in New Orleans and thus being paid off by Nicholas' family, burns all of her mother's belongings in a bonfire before trailing after Clint.

Arriving in Saratoga, Clio is befriended by Sophie Bellop (Florence Bates); a dowager whose influence on polite society carries quite a lot of weight, despite the fact that she is as penniless as Clio. Clint and Clio are reunited even as she makes plans to seduce wealthy railroad financier, Bartholomew Van Steed (John Warburton); an affair managed by Sophie. Meanwhile, Clint and a ragtag crew of rail busters are determined to put an end to the pilfering of the 'Saratoga Trunk' a rail line that threatens Van Steed's supremacy in the area.

Having befriended Cupidon in New Orleans, Clint is not terribly surprised when the pint size stows away with the rail busters on their next crusade. Unfortunately for all concerned the train carrying Cupidon, Clint and the rail busters is involved in a head on collision with another locomotive. Barely surviving, Cupidon and Clint are brought back to the hotel on the night that Van Steed proposes marriage to Clio. Realizing that she loves only Clint, Clio spurns Van Steed's offer and rushes to Clint's side, eventually restoring him to health.

Saratoga Trunk isn't particularly engaging entertainment, and yet there is something compelling about the enterprise as a whole. Ingrid Bergman is miscast as Clio - her bouts of giddy discontent more comical than tragic. Still, there is genuine chemistry between Bergman and Gary Cooper, the latter on familiar ground and delivering the one credible performance in the movie.

Flora Robson is painfully miscast as the black slave, Angelique - her heavy makeup and ultra thick uni-brow creating some sort of gross pantomime that would have been better served by the likes of Louise Beavers, Hattie McDaniel, Butterfly McQueen, Ethel Waters or even Lena Horne. Robson - a gifted actress when the material is right - does her best with a Creole accent that is tenderly convincing but her obvious Caucasian features give the performance away as sheer black faced camp.

On the plus side are Joseph St. Amaad's superb production design and Max Steiner's elegant score that together resurrect all of the gentile finery of turn of the century Louisiana. Ernest Haller's cinematography is perfection, as are Leah Rhodes' sumptuous costuming for the film. As such, even when the foreground action seems to slack off, there's plenty for the eye to latch on to in backdrop accoutrements.

Saratoga Trunk is a Warner Archive release. Without the benefit of restoration, this burn-on-demand DVD transfer fairs inconsistently with age related artifacts present throughout. The first and last third of the film are relatively sharp, with a refined gray scale and a fair amount of fine detail. The middle third is a curiosity; inexplicably muddy and softly focused, suggesting that this portion of film has been derived from either second or third generation elements rather than original camera negatives. The audio is mono and adequate, though at times dialogue seems slightly inaudible. There are NO extra features.

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



Friday, January 22, 2010

CONSPIRATOR (MGM 1949) Warner Archive Collection

Prior to WWII, Louis B. Mayer - then head of MGM - solidified a joint Anglo-American alliance that basically served a twofold purpose for his studio. On the one hand, it made the British pool of talent readily available for his talent scouts to sign, thereby crossing over to international fame and fortune - as was the case with discoveries like Greer Garson. On the other, it afforded MGM a distribution apparatus in England where American directors could utilize skilled trades to make their product overseas with American stars in the leads.

With the onset of WWII, the British operation was suspended, leaving a mass migration of British stars to come to the U.S. to continue their work for the studio. However, for a brief period after the war, MGM resurrected its overseas operations to make movies in England.

From this latter output comes Victor Saville's Conspirator (1949); a rather lugubrious spy caper with few thrills that seems, at least in hindsight, to illustrate the glaring awkwardness of Elizabeth Taylor's acting skills as she leaves behind her career as a child star to move into more adult melodrama. Production wise, the film has much to recommend, not the least of which are Freddie Young's evocative cinematography and Alfred Junge's production values that create a moody backdrop. The chief problem, however is the film's central foreground action, so utterly stilted that it rarely rises above mediocrity.

Working from a fairly intriguing novel by Humphrey Slater, the screenplay by Sally Benson and Girard Fairlie makes the least of a prime opportunity to challenge the viewer with chills, suspense and drama. What emerges is more a manner comedy of errors between a would-be communist who cannot make up his mind whether to be a die hard 'red' or devote his life to the sultry young thing that he's made his bride.

The story opens on a lavish Embassy party where wallflowers Melinda Greyton (Elizabeth Taylor) and her good friend Joyce (Honor Blackman) are patiently awaiting their first dance with some British officers. Melinda is an American staying with Joyce for an extended period. The two have become quite close in fact, enough for Melinda to be able to crawl into bed with Joyce after being inexplicably terrorized by a rather quaint thunder storm.

At the party, Melinda is introduced to Maj. Michael Curragh (Robert Taylor, fruitlessly attempting to resurrect his pre-war image as a dashing lady's man for the post war generation). Melinda is instantly smitten. Before long the two are inseparable, spending long hours in the tall grass along the Thames, dreamy eyed and haplessly in love. After incurring Melinda's wrath by leaving for a brief weekend retreat in the country to discuss his future with devoted Aunt Jessica (Marjorie Fielding), Michael proposes marriage to Melinda who - no kidding - accepts.

However, the storybook ending is short lived. Soon after being installed in Michael's fashionable home, Melinda begins to suspect that her new husband may be having an affair. He inexplicably cancels dinner engagements and often skulks off into the night, only to return in the wee hours of the next morning. The truth, however, is much worse. It seems that Michael is a communist sympathizer who is bleeding British intelligence secrets to his two contacts in the North Country - Alek (Nicholas Bruce) and Radek (Karl Stepanek). The secrets are smuggled in-between counterfeit British pound notes.

Exonerated of having an affair, Melinda learns the unholy truth about Michael's dealings with the communists after attempting to re-pay Michael's good friend Capt. Hugh Ladholme (Robert Flemyng) for a birthday gift of some golf clubs with one of Michael's phony bills. Heartbroken, but nevertheless determined, Melinda gives Michael an ultimatum. He must choose between the communist party or her. The party, however, knows how to play hardball. They order Michael to murder his wife in order to silence her from exposing them.

At a duck hunt, Michael does indeed take a pot shot at Melinda but his heart is not in it. She is superficially wounded and thereafter confides the truth about Michael's communist activities to Joyce, who swiftly alerts Hugh. A group of British officers and a Scotland Yard detective descend on Michael's home only to learn that he has committed suicide by shooting himself. To preserve the integrity of British Intelligence for the public at large, Hugh pleads with Melinda to make the official cause of Michael's death one of lovelorn depression - presumably because Michael has learned that Melinda was going to leave him. Melinda willingly agrees.

Thus ends, Conspirator - rather awkwardly and without much fanfare. What is particularly disheartening about the film in general is its heavy handed editing by Frank Clarke, who literally cuts away, dissolves or interrupts various scenes in the middle of dialogue to move the action forward.

In terms of acting, Robert Taylor is a poor choice for the role. As a man conflicted, he is wholly unsympathetic. Ditto for Elizabeth Taylor, who spends much of her time as a petulant flirt, so utterly insecure and simpering that as an audience we don't really feel much for her character one way or the other. This isn't either actors finest hour and the film isn't really much of an entertainment.

Conspirator is part of the burn-on-demand Warner Archive Collection. Owing to the fact that no restoration work has been performed on this title, the B&W elements are about what one might expect. Age related artifacts abound, but are not terribly obtrusive. The real distraction is 'breathing' of the image, with wavy lines of distortion glaringly obvious during darker scenes. As for the rest, the image can be rather sharp, with good contrast throughout. Transitions, fades and dissolves all exhibit temporarily more grain than one would expect. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequate for this presentation. The only extra is a theatrical trailer. Not recommended!

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



Friday, January 15, 2010

MAN OF THE YEAR (Universal/Morgan Creek 2006) Universal Home Entertainment

There needs to be a special place in heaven reserved for the utterly gifted Robin Williams; a man so generous with his art in making us laugh at the absurdities of being human, that to simply classify him as a comedian is to distill those formidable talents into crass pop-u-tainment.

Like Chaplin before him, Williams is a consummate raconteur: deceptively weighty in the tiny nuggets of wisdom he peppers throughout his stand up routines. His genius lies not in the myriad of rapid fire laughs, farcically - if generously - ladled, one upon the next, nor in his unrelenting sugar spun delivery - so full of wisp and polish that it confounds our senses as it tickles our funny bones.

No, Robin Williams' great gift to the world is his genuine affection for the audience. He so obviously and deliciously enjoys his craft and that infectious spirit of discovering himself as one of the people is a journey he willingly takes the rest of us along on.

His filmic career has constantly striven toward more lofty platitudes, even when the films themselves have been less than ample to sustain his grand insanity. So, perhaps it isn't surprising that we find Williams in peak form, with all of his creative juices pumping at full piston in Barry Levinson's Man of the Year (2006); a shockingly original poke at politics that stripes away the media circus to reveal a tragic little sideshow.

Williams plays Tom Dobbs - a political talk show host whose genuine concern for the future of the United States inadvertently thrusts him into the arena as a viable Presidential candidate. After declaring his candidacy, Dobbs learns that he has been taken seriously enough by both the Republican and Democratic parties to partake in the Presidential debate as an Independent.

With his former producer, Jack Menken (Christopher Walken) at his side, Dobbs departs from the scripted debate to accost incumbent, Sen. Mills (David Ferry) while moderator Faith Daniels helplessly looks on. The sheer firestorm derived from Dobbs incendiary remarks nets him primetime space on all the networks even though he never takes out personal air time to campaign for himself.

Meanwhile, in an arena of a different sort, computer programmer Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) is fast learning that truth serves no purpose in a world unrepentant to accept it. Working at Delecroy, a company whose new software is poised to revolutionize the way the American public casts their ballots, Green discovers a glitch in the system too late.

Warning her boss Hemmings (Rick Roberts) of the possibility that the voting system could elect the wrong man to the Oval Office, Eleanor is told to forget about that margin for error, then, is threatened by Hemmings legal mouthpiece, Stewart (Jeff Goldblum) and later, drugged in her apartment with a near lethal cocktail of barbiturates and other illegal narcotics.

After flipping out in the middle of Delecroy's cafeteria to a packed audience, the company quietly fires Eleanor in an attempt to put the matter of her exposing their ineptitude to rest. Unfortunately, for the executives, Eleanor's next line of defense is to contact Dobbs directly and reveal to him that a malfunction is responsible for electing him President of the United States.

The screenplay by Levinson continues on this dual trajectory - inserting touches of Williams' comedic genius whenever this rather heavy 'conspiracy' narrative threatens to submarine the film's otherwise high octane entertainment value. Gradually, however, the X-Files styled rogue elements of the story line win out and dominate the narrative, culminating with a failed rendezvous between Dobbs and Eleanor.

After Eleanor is nearly killed in an attempted hit and run, Dobbs realizes that he is, in fact, not 'the man of the people', though ironically - in confessing this to a packed audience during a live broadcast he suddenly becomes their 'man of the year.'

It's difficult not to appreciate the film for its highlights - as there are many: most deriving from Williams' wickedly satirical hatchet job on the status quo of American politics. However, like many of Williams' other movies - the material here and on the whole falls otherwise short of his zeitgeist efforts to sustain it.

Linney and Walken are superb supporting cast - each offering bold, broad strokes of gifted performing. But Jeff Goldblum is utterly wasted in this screenplay that inexplicably makes him the heavy midway through and thereafter jettisons his character entirely, except in flashback sound bytes.

In the final analysis, Man of the Year is worthwhile entertainment in general, but it somehow manages to fade to black unremarkably, with only a casual smile as its parting afterthought for the audience.

Universal Home Video's DVD presentation is unremarkable. While the image is frequently sharp and nicely realized with bold colors, fine details more often than not seem to be more softly focused. Occasionally, flesh tones are much too pink. More minute details completely disappear during darker scenes while daytime photography is best characterized by a color palette that appear slightly washed out in general.

The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and quite aggressive in spots. Bottom line: this is a film primarily driven by dialogue so there's really nothing to give your speakers a work out. Extras include two brief featurettes that superficially address William's brilliance and the making of the film.

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



MARY REILLY (Tri-Star Pictures 1996) Sony Home Entertainment

It's often been noted that great books don't necessarily translate into great movies; at least not verbatim. Often the transition from page to screen is tricky, particularly since novels deal more deeply - and arguably - intuitively with the inner workings of the human mind and heart.

Character studies, taken literally, have a tendency to poorly materialize into visual form. Such is the case with director Stephen Frear's literal approach to Valerie Martin's Mary Reilly (1996); a thoroughly misguided attempt to re-envision the immortal Robert Lewis Stevenson Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the perspective of his devoted housemaid.

Previous film versions of Jekyll/Hyde have taken great liberties with the Stevenson tale - particularly the 1931 and '41 film versions that introduce the duality of the virgin/whore scenario by involving the good doctor with a virtuous fiancée and adulterous bar wench as he ricochets back and forth between his struggling dual personality.

Both female characterizations are not in Stevenson's novel. However, from a purely cinematic standpoint, they provide greater probing into the central character's emotional psyche as it spins wildly out of control.

Fredric March's iconic performance in the '31 version and Spencer Tracy's equally indelible turn in the '41 film are tough acts to follow. In Mary Reilly, eminent actor John Malkovich assumes the responsibilities of resurrecting Stevenson's ill stricken monster/hero. The tragedy is that he rarely rises above mediocrity in the part as either Jekyll or Hyde and never outperforms either previous actor in the role.

As the put upon maid, emotionally torn between her love for Jekyll and rather erotically explored fear of Mr. Hyde, Julia Roberts is clearly out of her depth; skulking about doorways and occasionally casting petrified glances as though she were a deer caught in the head lamps of an oncoming semi.

The story opens with Mary Reilly meticulously scrubbing the front stoop of her employer's residence. The script by Christopher Hampton goes to great pains in the following scenes to set up Mary's neurotic compulsion to be the perfect servant, though she occasionally clashes with Jekyll's staunch butler, Mr. Poole (George Cole) in matters of social propriety and decorum.

The first forty minutes of the film are almost entirely devoted to Mary's perceptions of the household. We see Malkovich in only brief glances as Dr. Jekyll and never as Mr. Hyde.
Jekyll sends Mary with a letter of recommendation to the bordello of Mrs. Faraday (Glenn Close); an embittered madam who delights in taunting Mary while she awaits her written reply. It seems Jekyll is interested in renting a room at the house of ill repute for his assistant, Mr. Hyde.

However, when Faraday sends for Jekyll after Hyde has butchered one of her working girls, Mary arrives with a particular sum of money instead, and, is shown to the room where the carnage has taken place. It is drenched in blood - the one truly shocking moment in an otherwise painfully mundane film. Later, Faraday arrives at Jekyll's residence to demand more money for her continued silence. Jekyll promises it; then, transforms into Hyde and murders Faraday in his laboratory.

From here the story takes a different approach - with Hyde emerging to take the doctor's place and toying with Mary's affections at every opportunity. However, Malkovich's Hyde is not depicted - either visually or through action - as the hump back half animal with a ravenous sexual libido, as was his previous acting peers endeavor; rather, as a younger version of the doctor - mildly discontent and sexually playful, at least where Mary Reilly is concerned.

Malkovich's take on both Hyde and Jekyll are remarkably similar in tone. As such, the tension of 'will he or won't he?' harm Mary as Hyde is utterly diffused, leaving a carefully calculated game of manners as its emotionless fallout.

There's really not much more to say about the film. In its last act, Hyde inexplicably murders Sir Danvers Carew (Ciaran Hinds). In both the 1931 and '41 film versions, Carew is the devoted husband and respectable father of Jekyll's fiancée - hence his murder by Hyde is heinous as it represents Hyde's ability to slaughter the idealism that Jekyll idolized.

It is important to note that Mary Reilly's version of Carew - as a derelict member of parliament who wantonly frequents Mrs. Faradays for casual sex is in keeping with Stevenson's novelized original and, more to the point, the characterization in Martin's novel from whence - more directly - this film's plot derives.

What is problematic is Carew's murder by Hyde - since there has been no direct interaction between Jekyll and Carew throughout the film. As such, Carew's death is needless, pointless and deprived of all but its momentary shock value as Hyde burrows the steel tip of Jekyll's walking stick into Carew's cheek. For those seeking an engaging film version of Stevenson's classic tale, this reviewer's advice is to seek it elsewhere. Mary Reilly is two hours of your life that you can never get back.

Sony Home Entertainment's DVD transfer (under the old Columbia Tri-Star marketing banner) is somewhat disappointing. The stylized image, with its desaturated color palette, appears to suffer from lower than expected contrast levels. The results are a softly focused visual presentation where darker scenes register as a muddy mess of indistinguishable grey-blues and brownish blacks. Thankfully, edge enhancement is not an issue. Flesh tones are somewhat pasty. The audio is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital and a 2.0 stereo version. Extras include trailers and a brief 'making of' featurette. Not recommended!

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



Sunday, January 10, 2010

DR. STRANGELOVE: Blu-Ray (Columbia 1964) Sony Home Entertainment

A byproduct of the 'cold war' age is that it provided Hollywood with sufficient fodder to explore and even celebrate the art of espionage through a series of political thrillers.

Some took the threat of communist infiltration and possible WWIII doomsday scenarios quite seriously, while others chose to embrace the threat of catastrophe as utter rubbish and farcical nonsense. Of this latter ilk, Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb (1964) remains a sobering milestone in critiquing intellectual insanity and the incredulity of world politics.

Originally intended to be a faithful adaptation of Peter George's dramatic novel 'Red Alert', the screenplay by George, Kubrick and Terry Southern eventually was tailored to suit Kubrick's more perverse sense of dramatic irony.

Perhaps Kubrick had always intended it so - as, unlike other filmic projects, he did very little preliminary work on preparing a dramatic script, but rather, jumped headstrong into amassing research and then exploring the demented psychology of warfare. Thereafter, the screenplay placed a veritable collection of loose cannons on whom the fate of the planet rests with one simple push of a self destruct button.

With an intent to educate through the ladling of absurdity upon hyperbole, the story opens with Brigadier Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) declaring a state of emergency at a high security military base in order to launch his own counteroffensive against communism. It's a private war with very public consequences. Summoning Gen. Capt. Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) to his office, Gen. Ripper reveals that his intent is to bring about total world annihilation through the use of the atom bomb.

Naturally, the more cool-headed Mandrake is outraged and terrified - but powerless to stop the general in his efforts. Meanwhile, high overhead, a U.S. patrol of B-52 bombers under the command of Major King Kong (Slim Pickens) are ordered to fly toward Russian air space to detonate their nuclear devices.

Inside the U.S. war counsel room, President Merkin Muffley's (also Peter Sellers) is attended by ensconced feckless stooge, Gen. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), gregarious alcoholic, Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull) and the mysterious cripple - Dr. Strangelove (also Sellers); the latter an exiled Nazi genius put to work for the U.S. on the secretive doomsday device that now threatens the very existence of life on earth.

For the next two hours these models of political inefficiency will endlessly debate the pros and cons of destroying the world before inevitably, though quite accidentally, bringing about an end to civilization. Such was and remains Kubrick's message; that at any point in time in history the fate of billions hangs in the balance of omnipotent powers that may or may not have the best global concerns at heart.

Today, that message remains as relevant as ever - perhaps due in part to the epically tragic portraits of political decadence derived through brilliant performances within the film. It must be said that Peter Sellers gives three of the most startlingly wicked and satirically unique character studies ever conceived for film.

His Mandrake is a foppish and placid political fool; his Muffley an ineffectual egghead and finally, his Strangelove, the most sinister, yet utterly brainwashed demigod. Separately, these characterization span the gamut of hack politicos run amuck: together, they are comedic brilliance tinged with more than an ounce of sobering reality.

Sony's Blu-Ray of Dr. Strangelove represents a quantum leap forward in both clarity and contrast levels. Previous DVD releases of the film (and there have been four) have chosen to either bump up or tone down contrast so severely that either the gray scale appeared slightly washed out or much too dark to appreciate the more subtle details in the B&W image.

The Blu-Ray gets it right with a finely nuanced, sharp and minutely detailed image that is quite stunning and superbly rendered. Film grain is evident but quite natural in appearance. This is, at long last, a fitting visual presentation, perfectly complimented by a 5.1 soundtrack. For purists, the original mono track has also been included.

Extra features have been imported from the previously issued 40th Anniversary standard edition DVD, save a 'picture in picture' added feature exclusive to this Blu-Ray release. Bottom line: highly recommended!

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



BECKET: Blu-Ray (Paramount 1964) MPI Entertainment

Nominated for 12 Oscars, director Peter Glenville's Becket (1964) is a classic struggle of wills that pits two of England's premier thespians - Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton - in a tumultuous saga of princely intrigue and papal deception. O'Toole is Henry II; the reigning, self destructive and mildly perverse monarch of the realm whose platonic 'love affair' with Sir Thomas Becket (Richard Burton) is brought to a tragic end after the latter is appointed Archbishop of Canterbury.

Prior to this appointment the two men are the very best of friends, boozing and balling their way through a series of lower class wenches in the Saxon provinces. The king is both impatient and feckless. His demands take on the flavor of a petulant child. Hence, upon appointing Becket as his royal chancellor, the king's edicts take on more ballast, for Becket is both sound and wily in his reasoning.

This is particularly true when Becket offers guidance in Henry's dealings with the church, presided over by the elderly Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald of Bec (Felix Aylmer). Henry desperately requires tax monies from the church to oversee his conquering of lands seized by King Louis VII of France (Sir John Gielgud).
Brokering a peaceful acquisition of these lands, Becket is the more reserved of the two men - clearly relishing his close friendship with the king, yet always mildly goading him to acknowledge the differences between divine right and princely humility. However, Becket himself is not without flaws, chiefly in his inability to truly love anyone including the ever faithful Gwendolen (Sian Phillips).

Upon learning that Becket has inadvertently traded her to Henry for the love of a peasant girl that he, in fact, has no desire to procure for a romance, Gwendolen commits suicide aboard Henry's barge - thereupon driving the first wedge between these two men.

The second, and more lethal blow to their friendship derives from Becket's appointment as Archbishop. Quickly discovering that he cannot serve both church and state at once, Becket embraces his title as clergy, thereby incurring Henry's wrath. Exiled, Becket journeys first to France, then Rome for an audience with Pope Alexander III (Paolo Stoppa). But the Pope encourages him to return to England. Having secured his safe passage through Louis VIII, Becket returns to England as Archbishop, only to be murdered at the altar by a mindless following of knights loyal to Henry.

Superbly scripted by Edward Anhault, who is working from a celebrated stage hit written by Jean Anouilh, Becket is powerhouse entertainment. The one shortcoming frequently cited by critics about the film is that it tends to be heavy on dialogue and light on epic action. All to the better for this critic however, because the literal quality of the screenplay encourages both O'Toole and Burton to deliver quality, sustaining performances as only two gifted actors of their ilk can.

The machinations of their crumbling relationship is allowed its full flourish through brilliant exchanges in which the camera remains steadfast and fixed largely in two shot set ups to capture the dynamics of both performers, unlike today's heavy handed chopping up into sound bytes that make veritable mince meat of most actors' performances.

The nimbly invisible touch of long time producer Hal B. Wallis is indelibly imprinted on the sumptuousness of this film, It's resplendent and visually stylistic sets and costumes - recreate the regal decadence of England on a grand scale inside Shepperton Studios (produced for Paramount Pictures).

Running a lengthy 150 minutes without the benefit of an intermission, Becket remains superb high drama. Thought to have been lost in an epic fire, an original negative of Becket eventually resurfaced after 40 years in isolation, allowing for the first stunning DVD presentation and now this even more impressive Blu-Ray - both released through MPI Home Entertainment in conjunction with the Academy Film Archive.

The anamorphic transfer on the standard disc is quite immaculate. Where the Blu-Ray outperforms its predecessor is in color density and razor sharp fine details. Flesh tones still appear slightly more pinkish than natural, but Henry's blood red robes are less orange than on the standard disc. There remain minute examples of edge enhancement and some minor breathing of the image around the edges, but these are minor quibbling on an otherwise largely flawless visual presentation. The audio has been gloriously restored and is presented in a rather bombastic 5.1 Dolby Digital mix.

Extras on the Blu-Ray are a direct import from the standard disc with brief featurettes dedicated to the Anne V. Coates, film editor and composer Laurence Rosenthal - though ironically, not the film itself. There is also an articulate audio commentary by Peter O'Toole and two interviews done by the BBC with Richard Burton that are more interested in picking apart his personal life than analyzing his film and/or stage career. Bottom line: recommended!

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



A ROOM WITH A VIEW: Blu-Ray (Goldcrest 1985) BBC Home Entertainment

Affectionately based on E.M. Forster's tenderly astute novel of classicist hypocrisies, Merchant/Ivory's A Room With A View (1985) was a breakthrough production for producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory. Their intuitive perceptions and sumptuous production values, coupled with reoccurring critiques of the former British aristocratic decadence have since influenced Hollywood's historical film output, particularly from the mid to latter 1990s. Until 1985, however, Merchant and Ivory were largely unknown quantities outside of Britain, as was most of the cast gathered together for this film.

Working closely with screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Merchant/Ivory managed to remain faithful to Forster's poignant balance between character study and slight whimsy, producing a memorable excursion that brought such talents as Daniel Day Lewis and Helena Bonham-Carter to international attention.

The story concerns one Lucy Honeychurch (Bonham-Carter); a pragmatic young Miss eschewing the social rigidity of her upper middle class British upbringing while on a tour of Florence, Italy. Her free spirit is somewhat impeded by the presence of a spinster chaperon, Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith) whose prudery remains in full flourish, particularly towards Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliot) and his son George (Julian Sands). The Emersons represent a looming liberalism that is in danger of dismantling the caste system.

Ensconced in their hotel in Florence, the Reverend Arthur Beebe (Simon Callow) encourages patience as well as prudence, though Charlotte will have none of it - although she does enjoy indulging in vapid gossip put forth by fellow traveler and novelist, Eleanor Lavish (Judi Dench).
While on a carriage ride through the country, Lucy and George share a kiss and embrace - quite enough for Charlotte to whisk Lucy back to the relative safety of merry ol' England and right into the arms of Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis); a self appointed prig who represents a stifling leap backward into that primordial abyss of bygone and stalwart decorum.

Throughout the rest of the film's running time, Lucy will have the metal of her more free-thinking convictions regularly - and often hilariously - tested. As example; in one of the film's most memorable moments, Lucy, Cecil and Cecil's mother (Maria Britneva) are inadvertently witness to a ritual bath rather rapturously played out by Mr. Beebe, George and Lucy's brother, Freddie (Rupert Graves) in a public pond.

In all, A Room With A View is sparkling fresh and vivacious entertainment - beautifully scripted, exquisitely performed and fondly revisited. The stellar British cast is superb beyond measure with Bonham-Carter and Day-Lewis distinguishing themselves. Julian Sands also enjoyed brief international fame following his North American premiere in this film while Maggie Smith's waning popularity in American movies was resurrected for a new generation of film goers outside the U.K. in a serious of character parts in major Hollywood films.

Today, especially when directly compared to Merchant/Ivory's more lavishly appointed Howards End and The Remains of the Day, A Room With A View seems more quaintly dated and less engaging. Nevertheless, the film is fanciful and poignant and quite deserving of another glimmer of appreciation on Blu-Ray.

A Room With A View's Blu-Ray premiere is head and shoulders above its standard DVD release some three years ago, although not entirely without its flaws. While the previously issued standard DVD was released in handsome packaging from Warner Home Video, the Blu-Ray disc appears to be the sole property of Goldcrest Films (the British conglomerate who initially funded the project) and BBC Home Entertainment (who eventually acquired its rights).

Color fidelity and rendering of fine details are much improved on the Blu-Ray disc. The DVD greatly suffered from a softer image and digital 'combing'. The Blu-Ray presentation is without either flaw. The image is at times razor sharp. However, it must be noted that in the scene where George climbs a tree to declare his motto, the image on this Blu-Ray quite suddenly, briefly and inexplicably suffers from a severe bout of edge enhancement that renders the image momentarily a shimmering mess.

The audio on the Blu-Ray is the same 5.1 remastering effort found previously on the Warner release. Extras are also identical to those included on the standard DVD, with informative audio commentaries, a rather haplessly put together tribute to Forster and an all too brief glimpse at Merchant and Ivory as highlights. Bottom line: this disc is most definitely worthy of a repurchase. A Room With A View is poetic bliss. Highly recommended!

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



Monday, January 4, 2010

RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS (MGM 1932) Warner Archive Collection

Hollywood's historical epics are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they report to be a factual recreation of events that shaped the world. On the other, as with all forms of mass entertainment, they seek to engage and captivate their audience - usually through spectacle, and largely at the expense of factual substance.

All to the good, the dream merchants would probably argue. Certainly, they are lavish escapism for many who might not otherwise have either the time or the inclination to pick up a history book and actually read the true story behind Hollywood's glittery myth.
Perhaps no other event in world history has been as mythologized and/or bastardized through the lens of Hollywood's fantasy wish fulfillment as those tragic last days of the Russian Romanov dynasty.

Owing to the diligence of the revolutionaries who overthrew the monarchy - and thereafter effectively wiped most of the slate clean of any reference to Nicholas II and his family for the premiere half of the 20th century - the final days of Russia's last monarch have long been fodder for constructive hypothesis and pure conjecture. What is known today is hardly more conclusive than what was known then, thus allowing the Hollywood myth to be perennially perpetuated and resurrected for good box office.

Of this ilk is MGM's lavish 1932 film, Rasputin and the Empress. As scripted by Charles MacArthur (with unaccredited assists from Lenore J. Coffee, Ben Hecht, Robert Sherwood and Mercedes de Acosta) and rather haphazardly directed by Richard Boleslowski (who basically dedicates the last seven and a half minutes to twelve years of history) the film brings together for the first and only time, theatre's 'royal family': John, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore. In layman's terms, this film is pure hokum, though artistically salvaged from descending into pure tripe.

As with most epics from this vintage, Rasputin and the Empress opens large, with Czar Nicholas II (Ralph Morgan) and Czarina Alexandra (Ethel Barrymore) celebrating a milestone anniversary in the Romanov reign. To a packed cathedral, the royal family - including Czarevitch Alexie Aloysha (Tad Alexander), princesses Natasha (Diana Wynyard), Maria (Jean Parker), Anastasia (Ann Shirley) (though oddly, not Olga or Tatiana) - parade majestically past their loyal court while outside a restless mob of peasants impatiently wait to catch a glimpse of their sovereign. Also present at court is Grand Duke Igor (C. Henry Gordon) - a fiery diplomat who is informed by Prince Paul Chegodieff (John Barrymore) that his brother has been assassinated while attending the theatre.

Demanding vengeance, rather than justice, Igor and Paul clash in both their views and loyalties. Igor is more tyrannical - constantly encouraging the Czar to extract his will on the people by autocratic rule as it is his divine right to do so. But Paul represents the democratic view - that the future of Russia lies in the hands of the people and the establishment of a Duma (or parliament).

From here, the story shifts to Czarina Alexandra and her love of Alexie. After the boy falls in the garden and suffers a bout of hemophilia, Alexandra summons the court doctor, A. Remezov (Edward Arnold) to attend him, only to realize that modern medicine can do nothing to stop his bleeding. Desperately grasping for salvation, Alexandra is persuaded to allow a rebel monk, Grigori Rasputin (Lionel Barrymore) to 'pray' over Alexie in private.

Here, the script begins to delve into pure fantasy with Rasputin casting some sort of 'magic' spell over Alexie that, while stopping his hemorrhaging also transforms the child into a sort of walking zombie who is loyal in both his fear and worship only to Rasputin from this day forward. In a bizarre moment in the script, Rasputin terrorizes Alexie by forcing him to watch an ant devour a fly under a microscope, illustrating that the fly is the monarchy, but that he - Rasputin - will never allow it to be destroyed.

All evidence to the contrary, as Rasputin slowly bribes and cajoles his way into the government, replacing the Czar's loyalists with cronies who basically sponge off the excess of riches while abusing the Russian people for their own profit and pleasures. Only Paul remains true to his Czar and above it all - though his merit is tested and then misrepresented by Rasputin who suggests to the Czarina that Paul is really the one driving a wedge between the Czar and the devotions of his people.

The last act of this film is pure fiction, but compelling - even disturbing - melodrama nonetheless. Rasputin's hold on the royal family has become omnipotent. The monk shows signs of planning to rape Princess Maria - a minor - as she sleeps in her bed. Natasha, however, discovers Rasputin's devilry. First attempting to beat and murder Natasha, then cast a powerful hypnotic spell on her, Rasputin is exposed to the Empress who exiles him from court once and for all.

At a party at Paul's estate, Rasputin is fed dessert pastries by a waiter (Misha Auer) that are laced with a powerful poison. Before discovering the rouse, Rasputin learns that Paul is hiding within a closet and forces him down into the cellar of the estate, locking the door behind them. It is Rasputin's intent to murder Paul, but Paul reveals to Rasputin that he has in fact been poisoned and only has moments to live.

The two men struggle and Paul - in a powerful fit of rage - murders the monk by first bludgeoning him repeatedly with a hot poker from a nearby fireplace, then dragging the still conscious and extremely bloody Rasputin outside into a raging snow storm, before submersing him in icy waters just beyond the estate grounds.

Until this moment, the narrative has been evenly paced and made rather compelling. Unfortunately, two hours have run their course and with still much history to cover, director Richard Boleslowski slaps together a brief series of vignettes in a rather shoddy attempt to summarize the demise of the Russian royal family.

The Czar publicly exiles Paul for Rasputin's murder, but privately and gratefully thanks him for his duty to the crown. Paul encourages the Czar to seek exile outside of Russia, or at the very least, send the royal family away to parts unknown for their own safety. Barring this suggestion, Nicholas and his family are led away by the revolutionaries to a cellar where they are assassinated before the final fade out.

Before exploring the quality of this burn on demand DVD, there are curiosities in the cut of this film that bear brief mention. First, it is important to remember that Rasputin and the Empress was made in pre-code Hollywood and there appears to have been some rather heavy handed editing performed after its original premiere, presumably either to cut down the film's running time and/or satisfy the censors for subsequent reissues after the code's instatement.

A handful of scenes are jump cut together with obvious portions of dialogue and situations 'sanitized'/omitted. These cuts are damaging, not only to the overall impact of the storytelling but also the performances of which Lionel Barrymore's remains the emblematic stand out. His Rasputin is a diabolical anarchist, consumed by greed and haunted in the depths of a Godless existence. If a more complete cut of this movie exists, Warner Home Video should do all it can to research and restore this film.

Rasputin and the Empress has been released as part of the Warner Archive Collection. The B&W transfer exhibits all of the shortcomings of a film that has not been restored. Although the image can be rather sharply detailed, contrast levels appear to have been boosted with the mid-range of the gray scale all but absent. Close ups have good detail but long shots tend to digress to a muddy, softly focused mess. Age related artifacts are prevalent and often distracting. Thankfully, there is no edge enhancement or shimmering of fine details to contend with. The audio is mono and exhibits considerable hiss and pop, all par for the course of a bare bones offering. The only extra is a theatrical trailer.

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



IDIOT'S DELIGHT (MGM 1939) Warner Archive Collection

Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play by Robert E. Sherwood (who also wrote the screenplay), director Clarence Brown's Idiot's Delight (1939) is a rather tepid anti-war melodrama/comedy that pits MGM's 'queen of the lot' Norma Shearer against their reigning king, Clark Gable. The two make for an engaging couple.

At the time of its release, Shearer was decidedly on a downswing at the studio. After the death of her beloved husband, Irving Thalberg, Norma lost the one man who truly understood how to mold and shape her career. Gable's career, however, was just on the cusp of entering its golden period with his turn as Rhett Butler overshadowing his performance herein by a long shot.

Gable is Harry Van, a Vaudevillian who returns from WWI a hero, only to discover that his soldier's status means he is at liberty in the outside world - a tactful way of saying he's unemployable. Leaving the army hospital and breaking hearts along the way, Harry eventually develops a mentalist act with Madame Zuleika (Laura Hope Crews); an old beef who is prone to drink and therefore not what she ought to be when it comes to deciphering Harry's code for the act.

Waiting in the wings is fellow performer, Irene Fellara (Shearer), an aerialist who, in an attempt to save Zuleika from making a fool of herself, inadvertently exposes her as a fraud to a live audience. Irene and Harry share an impassioned few days before parting company. The years roll by until Harry is discovered on a train bound for Vienna with Les Blondes - a troop of hoofing beauties he hopes to promote as a new act.

Unhappy circumstance for Harry and Les Blondes that their train is detained at the frontier on the cusp of WWII. Invited to a posh hotel in the Alps by American tourist turned hotel coordinator, Don Navadel (Skeets Gallagher) Harry and his group discover they are guests of one of the Nazis high commanding officers, Capt. Kirvline (Joseph Schildkraut) and his entourage of soldiers.

Also in attendance at the hotel are Charles Coburn as Dr. Hugo Waldersee, a scientist who abandons his research on a cure for cancer - using the metaphor of war as a cancer that humanity will never cure; Burgess Meredith, as a staunch anti-war protestor who incurs Kirvline's wrath and is assassinated; and Edward Arnold - as Achille Weber, a disreputable Nazi sympathizer arriving on the arm of none other than Irene, masquerading as a Russian countess.

Denying that she ever knew Harry, Irene continues her rouse until it is revealed that Achille has no intension of taking her with him. In fact, Achille does everything he can to expose Irene as a fraud - hence, leaving her at the mercy of the Nazis. Bombs fall on the hotel from a nearby airfield, leveling most of it to the ground, but sparing Harry and Irene who reconcile their love amongst the ruins.

The film is justly famous for Gable's delightfully rambunctious performance of Puttin' On The Ritz - a buck n' wing that outraged his devote following at the time of the film's release. Viewed today, Idiot's Delight isn't particularly engaging entertainment. It's passable enough, but too passive in its 'war is hell' statement to be anything more than a minor diversion. Shearer and Gable have chemistry, and this saves the film from becoming a bore. Gable's roguish personality is in fine form - his sly lady's man approach to the material boding well with Shearer's regal remoteness. In the final analysis, Idiot's Delight is worth a second look, but it doesn't retain the hallmarks of an enduring classic.

Idiot's Delight is a Warner Archive release. There's not much to recommend the transfer. It suffers from excessive video noise. Fine details strobe in multicolored array and/or are plagued by an excessive amount of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. When the image is solid, it is generally free from age related artifacts, but that doesn't happen too often. Worse, there seems to be a glitch in the authoring. About an hour and 45 minutes into the film, the disc inexplicably pauses, then jumps forward by several minutes before continuing to play.

This reviewer is unable to deduce whether this glitch is specific only to my copy of the disc or a general malfunction indicative in all burn on demand mintings of this particular title. Either way, this transfer is NOT recommended. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequate for this presentation. A theatrical trailer is the only extra feature.

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



Friday, January 1, 2010

HOLIDAY IN MEXICO (MGM 1946) Warner Archive Collection

George Sidney's Holiday in Mexico (1946) is a minor curiosity immeasurably fleshed out by MGM's glossy production values. Produced at the height of the studio's love affair with the musical as an art form, the film launched the MGM - as well as Technicolor - debut of pert and precocious Jane Powell. Powell had appeared opposite W.C. Fields in Song of the Open Road one year earlier at Universal and had so impressed L.B. Mayer with her musical talents that he immediately began negotiations to secure her for this film.

In the echelons of musical stars, Suzanne Burce's own journey from Oregon unknown to super stardom is something of a starlit daydream. She came to the attention of Universal through the enterprising machinations of her mother before bursting onto the musical scene fully formed and the star of this, her first MGM film. Throughout the 1940s, MGM was the absolute last word in movie musicals so, at least on the surface, bringing Powell over from Universal seems like a natural decision. 

Rechristened Jane Powell, she reigned supreme as one of their most popular pint-sized chanteuses, cast in one star studded extravaganza after the next - all of them built around her unique talent, despite the fact that she was their new kid on the block. This is, of course, running contrary to the path of virtually all other starlets who came to the studio during its golden age. I mean, even Judy Garland went through a period of adjustment before becoming an MGM leading lady. But Powell just was one from the start.

Powell's modesty prevented her from developing the air of a diva, but it also isolated her from the rest of the pack at MGM. For the most part, she worked tirelessly and without complaints, eventually becoming MGM's second most popular singer after Judy Garland. In Holiday in Mexico we get to see Powell at her modest beginnings as an actress perhaps, but fully formed as a singer capable of balancing both weighty classics and pop standards.

Powell stars as Christine Evans, daughter of U.S. Ambassador, Jeffrey Evans (Walter Pigeon) who is stationed in Mexico. Regarding herself as the glue that keeps her father's life as a diplomat from faltering, Christine is besought by romantic overtures from the British Ambassador's son, Stanley Owens (Roddy McDowell). Although Christine regards Stanley with minor affection, she doesn't really consider him a beau.

Taking center stage in Christine's life are plans for a lavish Embassy ball that Christine has convinced her father she can coordinate on her own. Engaging Stanley to drive her about on her many ports of call, Christine arrives first at the home of Jose Iturbi  (playing himself), then at Xavier Cugat's nightclub to implore both men to perform at her father's ball. There's really no struggle in convincing either, but Cugat (also playing himself) suggests that perhaps his new singing discovery - Hungarian chanteuse, Countess Toni Karpathy (Ilona Massey) might have reservations. At first, this indeed seems to be the case - that is, until Toni learns who Christine's father is.

Seems Toni and Jeffrey were once very much in love while Jeffrey was stationed in Europe - presumably also while Jeffrey was married to Christine's late mother. Learning of Toni's presence, Jeffrey takes matters into his own hands to rekindle their one time love affair. To Christine, it seems as though her father has thrown the love he has for her for another woman. To convince herself that romance can be grand with the proper suitor, Christine throws herself at Iturbi's head while her best friend, Yvette Baranga (Helene Stanley) does as much to Jeffrey.

Eventually, both Christine and Yvette get rude awakenings in direct response to their grand romantic overtures, but not before each inflicts their own set of comedic circumstances destined to make Iturbi and Jeffrey's lives uncomfortable for a time. So much for the film's plot.

Produced by Joe Pasternak, Holiday in Mexico is a gargantuan musical undertaking. Powell receives the lion's share of the songs, beginning with The Street Song from The Firefly and topping out with a magnificently inspirational - if Americanized - rendition of Shubert's Ave Maria. Xavier Cugat gives us the rambunctious Yo Te Amo Mucho - And That's That. Jose Iturbi performs Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto N. 2 in C Minor and a boogie woogie rendition of Three Blind Mice. In all, the film abounds with memorable set pieces that continue to strike the right chord of light-heartedness long after the footlights come up.

Incidentally, the title of the film is something of a curiosity since the Ambassador and his daughter are neither on holiday nor planning a holiday to Mexico, but rather permanently reside there and live quite comfortably in a lush and tropical hacienda. This oversight aside, Holiday in Mexico is memorable entertainment - a sheer delight from start to finish.

The Warner Archive edition of Holiday in Mexico exhibits a fairly sumptuous Technicolor image with bright and bold colors. Occasionally, flesh tones can appear slightly muddy and there is also a tendency for the image to occasionally suffer from some minor age related artifacts and residual softness. Otherwise, this is a fairly stellar visual presentation. The audio is mono and briefly crackles midway through the film. It also tends to be somewhat indistinguishable during the first part of Powell's rendition of Ave Maria. Still, this is a fine effort that will surely not disappoint fans of either Jane Powell or movie musicals in general. Recommended!

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



LUXURY LINER (MGM 1948) Warner Archive Collection

Producer Joe Pasternak, famous for his light-hearted excursions where people are just people shortly before truly magical circumstances begin to happen to them, is in peek conditioning with director Richard Warf's Luxury Liner (1948); a buoyant musical journey across the high seas. The film stars MGM's answer to Deanna Durbin - Jane Powell - as Polly Bradford, the head strong daughter of the ship's captain, Jeremy Bradford (George Brent).

Seems Polly isn't content to let her father have all the adventures without her accompanying him. To this end, Polly stows away on the liner's next cruise - much to the dismay of Jeremy, who exiles his own daughter to the galley to teach her a lesson about hard work and obeying her elders.

To broker an audience with one of the ship's more prominent passengers, famed opera star, Olaf Eriksen (Lauritz Melchior) and get him to listen to her sing, Polly befriends another passenger, Laura Dene (Francis Gifford) who just happens to have the cabin next to Eriksen. In the meantime, and much to Polly's chagrin, Eriksen's alto soprano, Zita Romanko (Marina Koshetz) has developed a romantic yen for the Captain. Polly, however, wants her dad to fall in love with Laura instead.

In between these charmingly conventional plot twists scripted by Richard Connell, Karl Kamb and Gladys Lehman, Pasternak and Warf fill the ship to its rafters with engaging musical delights. Powell warbles the enchanting Spring Came Back To Vienna, The Peanut Vendor, Alouette and Gavotte from Massenet's Manon, while Melchior thrills passengers with the ear-shattering Die Walkure Manon and more 'pop' friendly Helen Gar - accompanied by Xavier Cugat and his orchestra, who also contribute The Walter Winchell Rumba to the ship's festivities.

In terms of musical offerings from MGM's heyday, the blending together of light and heavy entertainments by Pasternak are usually regarded as mindless froth at best. Certainly, they are often referenced by critics as comparatively 'less than' to the more intricately staged musicals from producer Arthur Freed. But this critic would argue that while Pasternak's approach might be more devil-may-care and less high brow than Freed's, the measure of both men's wealth in terms of entertaining their audience is on par. As such, we leave a Joe Pasternak musical with a smile and Luxury Liner is no exception to that rule.

The Warner Archive edition of Luxury Liner owes something to restoration work probably begun earlier with plans for a Jane Powell box set or some such offering on legitimately authored standard DVD. As such, the image quality on this burn on demand title is gorgeous and virtually free from flaws. The Technicolor positively glows. Flesh tones are perhaps a tad too pink at times, but this is a minor quibble. Contrast levels are bang on and fine detail is evident throughout. There are only minor instances of age related artifacts for a very smooth and satisfying transfer. The audio is mono as originally recorded but sounding quite crisp and clean. Recommended!

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



WEEKEND AT THE WALDORF (MGM 1945) Warner Archive Collection

In 1932, MGM won a Best Picture Oscar for Grand Hotel; the star laden, top heavy melodramatic extravaganza set inside a fictional hotel in Berlin. The film starred Joan Crawford as a social climbing stenographer who falls for a baron (John Barrymore - actually a jewel thief). In it too were Greta Garbo (as an emotionally insecure ballerina), Wallace Beery (as a boorish industrialist) and Lionel Barrymore (as a fatally stricken pensioner whom the stenographer eventually latches on to). Based on a celebrated play by Vicki Baum, Grand Hotel was a stunning success for MGM. It was also the first movie to feature an all-star cast.

Americanized and watered down for the post war generation, director Robert Z. Leonard's Weekend at the Waldorf (1945) doesn't quite pack the same wallop as its predecessor. For starters, there is no climactic murder to send the last act into a suspenseful tail spin. Furthermore distilling the melodrama to melodramatic tripe is the inclusion of Xavier Cugat and Lina Romay performing 'Gualalahara' in the hotel's famed Starlight Room - actually a recreation on the MGM back lot. The number is lavish and enjoyable but really doesn't gel with the other elements in the film - somehow reducing our expectations for more of the same into a sort of musical offshoot that never fully develops.

In this story incarnation, the distraught ballerina has morphed into no-nonsense American film actress, Irene Malvern (Ginger Rogers). Irene is besought by subtle romantic overtures from her agent, Henry Burton (Leon Ames) and by the more obvious affections lobbed at her heart from war correspondent, Chip Collyer (Walter Pigeon) who is, at first, mistaken by Irene to be the lover/jewel thief of her hired maid, Anna (Rosemary DeCamp).

Collyer is leaving for Europe after his weekend stay at the famed hotel, hence, his romance with Irene can only be a fleeting diversion at best. In the meantime, newly engaged Cynthia Drew (Phyllis Thaxter) suspects that Irene is in love with her fiancée - which she is not. To quell Cynthia's suspicions, Irene informs Cynthia that she has married Collyer on the fly, much to his amusement. The rouse, however, turns sour for Irene when Collyer informs her of an old law that states the mere inference of having married someone can, in fact, legally declare that person to be a common law spouse.

In another part of the hotel, public stenographer Bunny Smith (Lana Turner) is in search of any man with a healthy sized wallet to make all her dreams of a Park Ave. apartment come true. One of the hotel's current guests, Martin X. Edley (Edward Arnold) makes just such a proposition to Bunny - having finagled a crooked business deal with the Bey of Aribajan (George Zucco). And although the angle Edley proposes to Bunny is exactly what she's has been looking for, her heart has since hopelessly fallen for returning war hero, Capt. James Hollis (Van Johnson) who is stricken with a tumor from which he may or may not survive.

In true MGM form from this period, none of the more weighty plot entanglements drafted into the screenplay by Sam and Bella Spewack are allowed to impact the overall lushness and glamour of this puff piece. Weekend At the Waldorf is mindless entertainment at best, but magnificently fleshed out by comfortable star performances enjoying the obliviousness of the exercise. The sets and location work succeed in creating a credible environment of high style where both high and low interests can mingle, transfer and ultimately wallow in the sublime sumptuousness of it all.

Owing to the fact that no restoration work has been performed on this title, the Warner Archive edition of Weekend At The Waldorf exhibits a rather inconsistent B&W image with fluctuating gray scale. At times the image is quite smooth in appearance with a rather accurate amount of fine detail evident throughout. However, at other times a considerable amount of grain is present and the image suddenly becomes somewhat soft in appearance. Age related artifacts are obvious and, at times, obtrusive. There are no obvious edge effects or shimmering of fine detail to speak of. The audio is sharp and clean throughout. The only extra feature is a theatrical trailer. Recommended.

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