Tuesday, March 23, 2010

THE AFRICAN QUEEN: Blu-Ray (Romulus/Horizon 1951) Paramount Home Video

Fearlessly directed by master craftsman John Huston, The African Queen (1951) is an exemplar of the classical Hollywood narrative. Based on the 1935 novel by C.S. Forester, the screenplay by James Agee manages to capture all the harrowing exuberance and spirit of its source material - despite constant meddling from the Code of Censorship.

Credit for much of the timeless allure and appeal of this film must go to perfectionist cinematographer, Jack Cardiff whose work in Technicolor yielded some of the most sumptuous and surreal cinematic treasures of the 20th century. For The African Queen, Cardiff fills the screen with lushly transcendent hues that capture the vast open spaces and mysterious nooks and crannies of jungle terrain.

The film stars Humphrey Bogart in his only Oscar-winning performance as crusty Canadian sea captain, Charlie Allnut, whose mail delivery route through the missionary villages of German occupied East Africa place him in constant contact with British missionaries Samuel (Robert Morley) and Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn).

Charlie attempts to forewarn the Sayers that their safety is in question after WWI has begun, but Samuel coolly shrugs off the threat leaving Charlie to continue on his mail route. Shortly thereafter the Germans arrive, torching the Sayers mission and beating Samuel into such a state that he soon contracts an infection, then fever and eventually dies.

Returning to discover stark desolation where once a thriving community existed, Charlie helps Rose bury Samuel before convincing her to join him aboard the African Queen. In discussion of their situation, Rose learns that the Louisa, a German gunboat, is preventing British counter-attacks in the region. She is resolved to use the African Queen as a torpedo boat to sink the Louisa - thereby avenging Samuel's death. Although Charlie reluctantly agrees to placate Rose's efforts, his subliminal hope is that she will become discouraged by these near insurmountable odds and resign herself into quiet exile.

The logistical nightmare that results from this seemingly simple plan of counter attack is what fuels the rest of the film's narrative. Together, Charlie and Rose battle harrowing rapids, dangerous wildlife and the constant threat of being taken as prisoners of war by either the Germans or hostile locals.

A confrontation with German soldiers wounds the African Queen in her boiler, thrusting the helpless vessel into deadly rapids. The boat violently pitches and severely floods but nevertheless survives. Ecstatic over their good fortune Charlie and Rose momentarily embrace: the awkward beginnings of a slow, yet ultimately satisfying romance.

A third set of rapids cripples the boat's propeller shaft, but Rose's ingenuity and Charlie's steady hands manage to resurrect the ship once again. Unfortunately, the Queen becomes lodged in heavy mud and despite several valiant attempts to free her, Rose and Charlie quickly discover that they are trapped amongst the rushes and reeds.

Charlie contracts malaria and becomes delirious. Without proper food or water to heal her ailing partner, Rose quietly resigns herself to death and prays that both she and Charlie will be admitted into Heaven. Her prayers are answered by way of a thunderstorm that not only provides the two with fresh drinking water but also raises the river levels, thereby floating the Queen to safety and not too far from the Louisa.

Recovering from his fever, Charlie helps Rose convert oxygen cylinders into torpedoes. On the eve of another violent storm, Charlie attempts to use the Queen as a battering ram to sink the Louisa. Ill timing and a rush of sea water tip the Queen. As she sinks, Charlie is captured by the Germans and taken aboard the Louisa. The next day, Rose resigns herself to the same fate, confessing to the German captain their plan to sink the Louisa and thereby forcing him to sentence the two to death as spies.

Charlie pleads that before the two are hanged they be made man and wife, having endured all the struggles sufficient to declare them a couple in the eyes of God. The Captain agrees, even as the gallows are prepared. Fate intervenes moments after the ceremony as the Louisa suffers a mortal wound by having brushed over the submersed hull of the Queen, thereby detonating its oxygen torpedoes. In the ensuing panic, the Louisa is destroyed, leaving Rose and Charlie to float their way to safety up the Belgian Congo.

The African Queen is exuberant old school film making at its finest; the performances by Hepburn and Bogart sparklingly original, bold and as refreshing as the day they were recorded. Assuming many perils along the way, not the least of which was utter lack of faith from his financiers, director John Huston set off to conquer the wilds and ended up delivering a poignantly visceral experience that excites the intellect as it warms the heart. By all accounts, the shoot was arduous and plagued by bouts of sickness and inhospitable living conditions. The end result, however, is nothing short of completely satisfying.

Satisfying is also an apt word to describe Paramount Home Video's treatment of this American classic. Selected for preservation by the National Film Registry, and absent from the public's viewing for more than a generation (except in horribly marred third and fifth generation bootlegged prints) The African Queen has long since been one of the 'Holy Grail' titles desperately sought by film collectors around the world.

Extensive restoration work has produced a minor miracle. The resulting image is crisp, well defined and bursting with the luxurious hues of 3 strip Technicolor. Truly, this new Blu-Ray presentation will surely not disappoint. The audio has been cleaned up and is presented in mono as originally intended. Extras are regrettably limited to a comprehensive documentary on the making of the film, but oddly, no comment on its restoration. Highly recommended!

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



TOY STORY: Blu-Ray (Disney/Pixar 1995) Walt Disney Home Entertainment

1995 proved a banner year for the Walt Disney Studios largely due to the release of its joint venture project with Pixar Animation – director John Lasseter’s Toy Story. A delightfully whacky and unhinged American farce – all about what children’s toys do in their off time from play with their human counterparts - the initial story concocted was to have featured a mechanical drummer named Tinny, who gets lost in a child’s playroom and eventually comes into conflict with a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Thankfully, this concept went through considerable revisions with Tinny eventually morphing into Buzz Lightyear (voiced to perfection by Tim Allen) and the ventriloquist’s dummy mutating into Cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks).

Originally, Robin Williams had been considered a viable vocalist for either role – having proven his worth in several Buena Vista live action movies and, more directly pedigreed as the voice of the Genie in the studio's animated Aladdin. Unfortunately, the latter film was cause for a bitter falling out between Williams and Disney.

Toy Story opens during human, Andy’s (John Morris) birthday party. The older toys in his closet and play box wait in sweaty anticipation to see if their popularity will be eclipsed by some new attention monger. Only Andy’s favorite toy, Woody seems unshaken; that is, until the arrival of Buzz Lightyear. Seemingly overnight, Woody goes from being exclusive in popularity with Andy to becoming a cast off – his domain transformed into a space-age homage for Buzz and his television show. As jealousy worms its way into Woody's idyllic enclave, he and Buzz come to blows.

The wrinkle in the story is that Buzz actually believes in himself. He does not realize he is a toy – a fact Woody makes every attempt to expose. When Buzz and Woody accidentally fall out of Andy’s car en route to a local pizza restaurant they must combine their skills to return safely home. Unfortunately, the two inadvertently become the property of Andy's next door neighbor, Sid (Erik von Detten); an absolute horror of a child who derives pleasure out of dismembering and destroying his toys.

In retrospect, Toy Story was an ideal candidate for the first all-inclusively CGI feature length animated motion picture. The textures of plastic are perfectly suited and reproduced within the virtual realm. True enough, this gimmick would be nothing without the story, exceptionally scripted by Robert McKee.

Furthermore, Lasseter's persistence in making a 'buddy movie' rather than a traditional Disney musical gives the film a sense of surreal realism. As the audience, we believe in the toys; buying into the concept that perhaps our inanimate playthings from days of yore may have, in fact, taken on lives of their own when we weren't around.

The film's central themes of finding truth in one’s own self and believing in ourselves when all else fails are universal and appealing. In 2003, the Online Film Critics Society erroneously voted Toy Story the ‘greatest animated film of all time’ – a perplexing insult to the many meticulously crafted, hand drawn masterpieces that have gone before it. Nevertheless, as pure entertainment, Toy Story is completely satisfying - an enchanting coming of age drama for the toddler/tween set that many adults continue to find reaffirming as well.

In one of the most bizarre marketing decisions to hit the DVD/Blu-Ray market, Disney Home Entertainment has chosen to release Toy Story in either a standard DVD show box or in a Blu-Ray show box - both editions including one copy on standard DVD plus their miraculous Blu-Ray transfer. In a word, the image on the Blu-Ray is breathtaking! Overall image resolution takes a quantum leap forward in virtually all respects.

Colors are richer and deeper. Fine details are evident throughout. Textures on the toys jump forth from the screen with an almost third dimension. The audio is Tru-lossless HD and superbly nuanced. Over 90 minutes of extras that are mostly confined to direct imports from the studio's previously issued DVD, including a making of documentary, short subjects, new interactive 'game' features and a sneak peak at Toy Story 3. Highly recommended.

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



TOY STORY 2: Blu-Ray (Disney/Pixar 1999) Walt Disney Home Entertainment

At a then affirming $3 million dollar return on their investment Disney/Pixar's Toy Story was a marketing phenomenon utterly ripe for a sequel, and so it received one in 1999 with the release of director John Lasseter's Toy Story 2; a far more ambitious and introspective, though perhaps not quite as satisfying follow up to the original film. Intended at first to be a 60 minute direct-to-video release, Disney green-lit the project for theatrical release after viewing a few rough reels of the impressive animation Pixar was lining up.

Reworking the story elements to accommodate a 90 min. cut of the film, Lasseter and screenwriter Pete Docter eventually patched together a crazy quilt of narrative threads that begin with Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks) having to face his own ‘toy’ mortality after his human Andy (John Morris) accidentally rips off his arm. Mistakenly discarded, but rediscovered at the family’s garage sale by an obsessive collector, Al McWiggin (Wayne Knight), Woody is later stolen and taken to Al’s shrine of forgotten toys.

At Al’s apartment, Woody is introduced to the other toys of his vintage and design; Cowgirl Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Stinky Pete (Kelsey Grammer) who eventually convince Woody that his future is with Al and his plans to sell them all to a toy museum in Tokyo.

In the mean time, having witnessed Woody's kidnapping, Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) arrives at Al's apartment with a litany of Andy's toys in tow. Buzz comes face to face with a newer model of his self - who has yet to realize that he is a toy - and also with Emperor Zurg - his television arch-nemesis. In the resulting pandemonium, Woody is packed away by Al along with Jessie and Stinky Pete and carted to the airport en route to Tokyo. But all is not lost. Buzz has a showdown with Stinky Pete and Woody and Jessie are rescued and returned to Andy's house.

In the final moments of the film a sobering message emerges; that although time erodes every toy's usefulness and popularity with their human counterparts, there is friendship amongst these forgotten and cast off plastic play things that will forever remain eternal.

Toy Story 2 is ambitious in its story-telling. Yet, there is something too frenetic about its pacing to make the story completely work; too much plot and subplot to flood 90 minutes of screen time and over engage the audience at a breakneck speed. We don't really get to relate to the new toys in this sequel. Jessie, Stinky Pete and the others are more cardboard and one dimensional than the returning cast members.

Quite simply, there isn't any time to flesh out the character of Cowgirl Jessie and this is particularly dissatisfying because in the last third of the movie we are supposed to relate to her growing romantic attachment toward Woody.

The visuals in Toy Story 2 are far more impressive than those in the first movie, yet, at times, they too suffer from an overabundance of visual stimulation. There's too much to look at - too much to appreciate and as a result, much of what the audience sees gets glossed over or forgotten in favor of moving the story along to its next plot point.

In the final analysis, Toy Story 2 is not a bad movie - but it does fail to meet the fundamental challenge blissfully achieved by its predecessor; to envelope, inhabit and populate the realm of a child's imagination with simple - though not simplistic - appreciation for the art of the exercise.

In one of the most bizarre marketing decisions to hit the DVD/Blu-Ray market, Disney Home Entertainment has chosen to release Toy Story 2 in either a standard DVD show box or in a Blu-Ray show box - both editions including one copy of the film on standard DVD plus their miraculous Blu-Ray transfer. In a word, the image on the Blu-Ray is breathtaking! Overall image resolution takes a quantum leap forward in virtually all respects. Colors are richer and deeper.

Fine details are evident throughout. Textures on the toys jump forth from the screen with an almost third dimension. The audio is Tru-lossless HD and superbly nuanced. Over 60 minutes of extras that are mostly confined to direct imports from the studio's previously issued DVD, including a making of documentary, short subjects, new interactive 'game' features and a sneak peak at Toy Story 3. Highly recommended.

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



Tuesday, March 9, 2010

THE PATRIOT: Blu-Ray (Columbia 2000) Sony Home Entertainment

The jury is in, and sweeping spectacle is director Roland Emmerich's forte. The Patriot (2000) is no exception; a sprawling saga of familial love and loss loosely grafted onto the heart-wrenching backdrop of the American Revolution with more than a modicum of historical inaccuracy gallantly along for the ride. The film is as gripping as it is gargantuan.

The Patriot stars resident heartthrob, Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin - a soldier of fortune mellowed in the years since his bloody raid against the French. As a widower, Benjamin lives pastorally on his farm in South Carolina with his children; Gabriel (the late Heath Ledger), Thomas (Gregory Smith), Margaret (Mika Boorem), Nathan (Trevor Morgan), Samuel (Bryan Chafin), William (Logan Lerman) and Susan (Skye McCole Bartusiak); the latter refusing to speak since the death of their mother.

As the American Revolution gets underway, Gabriel is impatient to join the Continental American Army against British forces overseen by Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis (Tom Wilkinson). As a favor to Martin, Col. Burwell (Chris Cooper) places Gabriel under his command - ensuring his relative safety through the endlessly gruesome carnage. As the warring factions draw nearer to Martins' plantation, Thomas also expresses his intent to enlist - a move that Benjamin quashes.

Several hours later, a superficially wounded Gabriel arrives at the family home carrying military dispatches. The next afternoon, the Martins tend the wounded from both armies. Unfortunately for Benjamin and his family, their unbiased philanthropy is viewed as treason by Colonel William Tavington (Jason Issacs); an unrelentingly cruel leader of the British Green Dragoons cavalry. After discovering Gabriel's dispatches, Tavington orders that Gabriel be hanged, causing Thomas to attempt to save his brother's life. In the resulting struggle, Tavington deliberately kills Thomas, incurring Benjamin's wrath.

The rest of the film is really a revenge melodrama, with Benjamin calling to arms his fellow Americans to stand against the British. Forming a militia, Benjamin wreaks havoc on Cornwallis' troops, even stealing his dogs and blowing up a tall ship of British supplies in full view on the eve that Cornwallis is entertaining members of the British aristocracy.

Having sent the rest of his family to the relative seclusion and safety of his late wife's sister, Charlotte Selton's (Joely Richardson) plantation, Benjamin continues to organize revolt against the British in one successful ambush after the next.

In the meantime, Gabriel weds Anne Howard (Lisa Brenner), his long time love. To conceal their marriage from the British, Anne returns with her father and mother to their small town - a move that seals her fate, as Tavington has arrived there first to accuse everyone of harboring Benjamin and his men. The town's folk, including Anne and her family are corralled into the church and set on fire.

Benjamin's real war is now with Tavington - particularly after Charlotte and the rest of his family narrowly escape Tavington and his men torching her plantation. Gabriel finds Tavington first. Regrettably, in the showdown that follows, Gabriel is killed by Tavington, leaving the final ruthless confrontation at the Battle of Cowpen between Tavington and Benjamin.

Screenwriter, Robert Rodat reportedly wrote no less than seventeen drafts before his screenplay was accepted. In the end result, Rodat's conflicted hero, Benjamin Martin is thinly based on several heroic men from that period; one being Francis Marion - a real life militia leader known as the 'Swamp Fox'; a move that caused minor uproar in the British press when it was revealed that Marion had actually been a serial rapist who hunted Indians for sport. While critics for the most part derided the narrative as conventional melodrama with fundamental historical flaws, audiences were more or less kind in their overall assessment and the film became a modest success.

In the final analysis, The Patriot is exuberant film making; Rodat's screenplay grafting one man's odyssey for vengeance and self redemption onto a much larger canvass and valiant fight for democracy and freedom.

Sony Home Entertainment's Blu-Ray at long last rectifies the lackluster transfer this film received back in 2000 and later in 2003 as part of their Superbit Series. Then, the image suffered from considerable edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. But now we get an absolutely flawless image with fully saturated colors; free of any digital imperfections. Contrast levels are bang on. Even the most minute detail is present for a sumptuous and engrossing visual presentation.

The audio is Tru-HD and appropriately aggressive during the many battle sequences. Dialogue is natural sounding and music and effects are nicely integrated. Extras are direct imports from the Superbit disc and include three brief featurettes on the making of the film. Highly recommended!

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



Wednesday, March 3, 2010

2012 - Blu-Ray (Columbia 2009) Sony Home Entertainment

Director Roland Emmerich's 2012 is an exhilarating, often overwhelming experience, about the global cataclysm that will bring about the end of civilization as we know it. Long predicted by the Mayan calendar, the film's explanation for this catastrophic death of our planet is that solar storms have generated enough radiation to affect the meltdown of the earth's core, thereby triggering the utter collapse of most of its tectonic plates. Mass earthquakes and tsunamis ensue, wiping out 3/4 of the world's population.

On a more personal note, the film stars John Cusak as Jackson Curtis, a one time, not terribly successful author who is determined to save his family; estranged wife Kate (Amanda Peet), son Noah (Liam James) and daughter, Lily (Morgan Lily) from the pending disaster after accidentally learning from his employer, Yuri Karpov (Zlatko Buric) that the end of the world is imminent.

Meanwhile, U.S. geologist, Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has been diligently working with a worldwide geophysical team on a timeline leading up to the end of days that will hopefully ensure at least part of the population is saved from annihilation. Adrian warns U.S. President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover) of the looming carnage and Wilson elects to put a plan of evacuation into action. He also chooses to stay behind with those doomed to extinction, sending his daughter, Laura (Thandie Newton) on to safety in his stead.

The rest of the plot really boils down to brief interactions between the principal cast as they face one harrowing escape from doomsday after the next. Jackson, together with his wife's new boyfriend, Dr. Gordon Silberman (Tom McCarthy) manages to fly the family to safety after the entire California coastline plummets into the ocean.

Escaping to Vegas, Jackson and his family meet up with Yuri and his girlfriend, Tamara (Beatrice Rosen) - the group boarding Yuri's private plane stockpiled with expensive cars and piloted by Tamara's true love, Sasha (Johann Urb). Intercontinental shift works in their favor and the plane crash lands in the Himalayan mountains after running out of fuel with everyone except Sasha surviving to make the trek to a secret bunker where Chinese workers have been constructing three massive arks to save humanity for future generations.

Unhappy circumstance that the ark containing Jackson and company has a failure in its hydraulic watertight door - the ark's lower levels filling with gushing waters unless Jackson and Noah can dive into the bowels of the ship and manually release the mechanism.

2012 isn't perfect entertainment and certainly, it is not Roland Emmerich's best work. That remains Independence Day (1996). But it's solid entertainment, expertly crafted. One of the aspects of Emmerich's filmmaking in general that this reviewer has always greatly admired is that the director does not go for the cheap, quick and jerky hand held camera movements to express a sense of panic, but rather, he sets up master shots - as the old masters of yesteryear did. Emmerich holds his camera relatively stationary - allowing the viewer to take in and soak up the epic quality of the images put forth.

Overall, the acting in 2012 is competent, rescuing the film from becoming just another rank digital special effects laden mishmash. John Cusak is a great actor. He's given precious little to do here except run like hell, but he's credible and that's half the battle. Looking as though he hasn't bathed in easily a decade, Woody Harrelson does crazy pretty well as Charlie Frost - a fringe kook ham radio broadcaster who celebrates the final moments of decimation with almost ecclesiastical joy.

Roland Emmerich is the Irwin Allen of his generation and he proves it with this grand disaster epic. The script by Emmerich and Harold Kloser veers dangerously close to cliché, and frankly, this reviewer thought the whole last act rescue of 'ark #3' a bit overdone, but on the whole, there is compelling cohesion to the narrative that moves the story along at breakneck speed.

Sony Home Entertainment's Blu-Ray disc delivers a superb visual presentation. The image retains its stylized color palette with steely gray blues and warm reds and oranges - depending on the scene. Contrast is bang on. Digital effects are well integrated into the live action footage and plausibly rendered. Fine details are evident throughout for an image that will surely satisfy. The overall quality of the image is smooth and satisfying. The audio is 7.1 Tru HD, delivering an aggressive sonic experience that really rocks the house with deep base resonance.

2012 comes as both a single Blu-Ray and 2 disc SE. Only the single disc is reviewed herein. It contains an audio commentary from Emmerich and alternate ending. Recommended.

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