Friday, May 28, 2010

SPARTACUS: Blu-Ray (Universal 1960) Universal Home Video

The mythical tale of a Thracian who became the divining heroic rebel against Rome's social injustices has since entered the realm of global folklore - thanks in part to director Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960); a somewhat problematic thinking man’s epic that follows the man's exploits from copper mine slave to gladiator in training, and later, defiant freedom fighter.

After hamstringing a Roman guard for attempting to beat him into submission, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is chained to a God forsaken rock where he presumably will starve to death. He is spared this fate by Senator Lentulus Batiatus (Peter Ustinov) who takes pleasure in training gladiators for the games in the Circus Maximus. Impressed with Spartacus’ musculature, Lentulus sends his new protégée to school – a sort of primitive ‘fight club’ for brutes destined to wind up as ground meat in the Roman forums.

The school is run by a merciless taskmaster, Marcellus (Charles McGraw) a gladiator who has earned his freedom through deed and who uses every opportunity to taunt Spartacus – particularly after he refuses to fight him. Spartacus endures further humiliation from Marcellus after he is given a woman, Varinia (Jean Simmons) - presumably to build stamina - but refuses to simply abuse her for his own sexual gratification.

When visiting senator, Marcus Licinius Crassus (Lawrence Olivier) arrives at Lentulus’ home, requesting his own private gladiator game to the death, Spartacus is pitted against Ethiopian Draba (Woody Strode). And although Draba defeats Spartacus in the arena, he refuses to kill him - instead launching into an attack against his captors that ends with Crassus slitting Draba's throat. Varinia is sold to Crassus with Lentulus promising to deliver her the next time he is in Rome.

Meanwhile, Spartacus attacks and murders Marcellus. The gladiators revolt against the school, breaking out and setting about the countryside to form an army of rebels against the Empire. Crassus is given a male slave, Antoninus (Tony Curtis) as his house boy. Interestingly, there are subtle hints that Crassus intends to procure Antoninus as his concubine. However, before this can occur, Antoninus steals into the night and joins Spartacus' forces.

The rebels enjoy early successes against the Roman Army, liberating more slaves in the process who ultimately join their growing legions. This, of course, infuriates Crassus immensely but very much works in service to Senator Sempronius Gracchus (Charles Laughton) plans to install Julius Caesar (John Gavin) to the throne. A misguided alliance with the Cilicians cripples Spartacus' chances for victory after Crassus buys their loyalty. Realizing the hopelessness of their situation, the Cilician's envoy (Herbert Lom) offers safe passage to Asia for Spartacus and Varinia. Spartacus refuses, opting to remain with the men who have pledged their allegiance to him.

As Crassus' armed forces decimate the rebellion, Spartacus is captured along with his surviving army. Crassus declares that he will spare their lives if they reveal Spartacus' identity to him. In the film's best remembered, and most poignantly scripted moment, the soldiers refuse, flanking Spartacus and standing up, one by one - each declaring that they are Spartacus. Crassus edict sentences Spartacus and his legions to crucifixion - a fate spared Varinia and Spartacus' young son when Lentulus masks their identities as his wife and child. In the final scene, Varinia is briefly reunited with Spartacus, who hangs on his crucifix, dying but with the knowledge that Varinia and his child will endure as free members of a new society.

The backstage politics during Spartacus' preproduction is almost as fascinating as what emerges on the screen. For its time, Spartacus was a new hybrid of the time honoured Roman epic - void of any direct references to Christianity or Jesus as was the forte usually ascribed this type of film. Blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo replaced Howard Fast under the pseudonym Sam Jackson; a move overturned by Kirk Douglas insistence that Trumbo be given screen credit under his own name.

For his part, Stanley Kubrick was rather dissatisfied with the final outcome, despite being given a $12 million budget and 10,500 extras to command; put off by the fact that his hero had no perceivable character flaws and emerged from the tale as a deified patron saint of freedom.

Viewed today, Spartacus exemplifies a certain style in film making wholly absent from our contemporary cinematic landscape. Exteriors were shot outside of Madrid, Spain with the Spanish army subbing in for the Romans during the epic battle sequences. Yet, it must be said that the footage shot in Hollywood belies the shift from one continent to the other. There is an artifice and an artificiality to the sound stage footage - ironically, that Kubrick preferred - but that completely stifles the more visceral and dramatic footage shot in Spain. The juxtaposition of these stylistic polar opposites is, at times jarring to contemporary eyes.

Nevertheless, Spartacus remains impressive to behold. Impressive is also a fairly accurate way to describe Universal's Blu-Ray offering. Although flesh tones are arguably too red on this outing, the higher bit rate in mastering this film has resulted in a level of clarity and fine detail never before witnessed on home video - not even on Criterion's 2-disc SE DVD.

Craggy rock formations and wrinkles in actor's faces jump forth from the screen. Film grain is less evident on this outing and restoration expert Robert A. Harris has given this disc a failing grade, but this reviewer could not help but be impressed by the image quality in general - despite its color correction and possible DNR shortcomings. For the novice collector as well as the more ardent film fan, this edition of Spartacus will probably not disappoint.

The lossless audio is more pronounced, with a more aggressive bass than on the DVD. Where Universal has dropped the ball on this anniversary edition is in its extras. Virtually all of the Criterion extras, including audio commentaries and newly recorded interviews and a featurette on the making of the film have been dropped from this Blu-ray. The only extras we get are a few very brief vintage interviews from Ustinov and Simmons as well as a brief selection of deleted scenes. Those who own the previously issued Criterion set will not want to part with it just yet!

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



STAGECOACH: Blu-Ray (Walter Wanger 1939) Criterion

John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is often billed as the first ‘adult western’ and for good reason; coming, as it had on the heels of a decade’s worth in low budget two reel quickies that were little more than Saturday matinee filler for the kiddy set. Ford’s revision of the Hollywood western is quite something different – if not new. The script by Dudley Nichols and an unaccredited Ben Hecht weaves a hypnotic narrative of lives intertwined within the confines of a carriage racing toward the open plains.

The story begins in earnest with woman of ill repute, Dallas (Claire Trevor) and a disgraced alcoholic, Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell, in his Oscar-winning role) being run out of town.Together with card shark, Hatfield (John Carradine in a thinly veiled impersonation of Doc Holliday), pregnant newlywed Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt) – eager to be reunited with her husband serving in the cavalry, and the modest henpecked traveling salesman, Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek) the stagecoach hits the open road, driven with wild aplomb by the irrepressible Buck (Andy Devine).
On the outskirts of town, the stage stops to pick up bank manager, Henry Gatewood (Berton Churchill) who has just absconded with the bank's $50,000 payroll. But danger is near. Buck and Marshall Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) have received word that Geronimo’s tribe is on the move.

Under the cover of a cavalry escort (led by a very young Tim Holt), the stage makes its way across Monument Valley's desolate landscape, meeting up with The Ringo Kid (John Wayne) – a good natured desperado with a reputation who has just broken out of the penitentiary and is on the hunt to avenge his brother's killer, Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler).

The rest of the film is basically a series of vignettes tracing the intersecting lives and social hypocrisies of these men and women from varying strata, forced to occupy the same limited space. Louise refuses to eat at the same table as Dallas. She is sheltered by Hatfield who presents himself as a gentleman. Ringo befriends Dallas – and later proposes marriage. Doc Boone reclaims his profession and his dignity by delivering Louise’s baby. Henry is exposed as a thief. But all of these narrative threads are mere back story for the film’s raison d’etre; a harrowing race against Geronimo that threatens to put a period to all concerned.

In a chase/action sequence with few equals – Ford took many artistic liberties, broke editing rules, employed a litany of stuntmen and sacrificed several horses: the result - one of the truly outstanding highlights of any western film yet made – a high stakes/no holds barred and bare knuckle trek across the baron wasteland. Impressive too, is Ford’s meticulous attention to every detail in staging and set design. In the final analysis, Stagecoach is a film of stark intelligent beauty and very intimate portraits of life.

Criterion's Blu-Ray disc bests Warner Home Video’s 2 disc DVD offering from a few years back. Still, the results are far from stellar. One really cannot fault Criterion for the lack lustre image quality. Stagecoach is, regrettably, one of those many exemplars from the early part of Hollywood's golden age for which no original camera negative or even a remotely salvageable first generation print survives. Hence, Criterion is working from substandard materials. The linear notes suggest that many hours were spent removing hundreds of anomalies from the image. If that's the case, the original film stock must have been in exhaustively terrible shape.

That said, as they appear on this Blu-Ray, the B&W elements are often hanging on by a thread. Dissolves and fades between scenes suffer the most with excessive and distracting grain. Long shots are plagued by a barrage of age related scratches, tears, nicks and chips that are quite distracting. Close ups are the most stable and exhibit a goodly amount of fine detail. Contrast levels have been brought back in line on this Blu-Ray, as opposed to Warner's DVD that shows signs of boosting and considerable DNR manipulation. Bottom line: if you purchase this disc be forewarned that it's not to show off the reference quality reproduction of the Blu-Ray format.

The Blu-Ray audio is mono as originally recorded, but more subtly nuanced than the audio on Warner's 2 disc DVD. The biggest regret herein remains in the extras. None of Warner's special features survive this upgrade. Lost is an audio commentary and two informative and comprehensive documentaries; one on the making of the film, the other of John Wayne and John Ford’s tempestuous relationship over the course of their respective careers.

In place, Criterion has included an early western silent feature shot by Ford in 1917, a brief opinion piece by Peter Bogdanovich, an overview of stuntman Yakima Canutt's career, some vintage promotional junkets including a lengthy interview with Ford, a new audio commentary that falls short of expectations and the film's original theatrical trailer - in even worse shape than the feature itself.

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



THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA: Blu-Ray (WB 2004) Warner Home Video

Based on the immortal novel by Gaston Leroux, director Joel Schumacher’s The Phantom of the Opera (2004) is more obviously a direct descendent of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera of the same title – a sprawling, musical-packed extravaganza that only occasionally catches the sublime fire and charm of the stage show, despite having been imbued with an impeccable cast and stellar production values. Webber and the director have collaborated on this 'show of shows' but the results are not comprehensively engrossing.

The major setback that Schumacher has in directing this film is, ironically, also its greatest asset; the Lloyd Webber roots that made Phantom such a colossal hit in the first place. Pop-opera is edifying on the stage. It’s larger than life. It breathes forth a palpable energy that can only be released through the art of live performance. Yet, on the big screen such grandeur has almost the opposite effect. The gaudy excess and luscious trappings are somehow dwarfed and almost submarine the intimacy of this tragic love story.

Still, there is plenty to appreciate and recommend in this film; not the least of which is Emmy Rossum, cast as the epically winsome and tragic embodiment of Lloyd Webber's heroine, Christine Daae. Rossum has an intangible freshness that bodes well with her ingénue alter ego and her voice is pure gold. She elevates Webber's 'Think of Me Fondly' into musical art of the first magnitude and her ode in a frosty graveyard to Webber's ‘Wishing You Were Somehow Here’ is undoubtedly the film’s dramatic and musical highlight.

Far more problematic for the film is its casting choice of Gerard Butler as the Phantom – capable and chilling as the mad spook, yet rather soulless and entirely lacking in any sort of empathy or compassion so essential for the audience to be able to relate to the phantom as anything more than a sadistic ghoul. This Phantom doesn't menacingly skulk around the bowels of the Paris opera house so much as he slinks with effeminate disdain for the elegant creatures of his artistic melange that he can never possess. In the end, the assets of the film narrowly outweigh these liabilities.

The film opens with an aged Raoul (Patrick Wilson) purchasing an ornate music box that once belonged to the late Paris Opera House chanteuse, Christine Daae (Rossum). An orphan, living under the watchful eyes of her caregiver, Madame Giry (Miranda Richardson) and a mysterious benefactor, the Phantom (Gerard Butler), Christine is promoted to the lead of the opera’s latest show after its resident diva, Carlotta (Minnie Driver) is first sabotaged, then outwardly threatened with death by the Phantom. Christine debuts at the opera is a smashing sensation.

However, the Phantom has more intimate plans for his young protégé. Seducing her through song, he lures Christine into the bowels of the Paris Opera, exposing his lair and bearing his soul to her. Sadly, Christine loves Raoul and the Phantom – spurned by that revelation, with a loathsome contempt for his own hideous disfigurement – is driven to total madness and self destruction.

In the film's climactic moment, the Phantom seizes Christine on stage, dropping them both through a trap door to his watery lair while distracting the authorities by releasing the theatre's grand chandelier from its ceiling moor. The great orb of glass and candlelit swings into the stage, setting the opera house ablaze and sending extras scurrying to save their own lives. Raoul makes chase and confronts the Phantom in a dual.

At the last moment, Christine and Raoul are spared certain death by the arrival of a torch carrying mob, but the Phantom has vanished once more into the night - presumably never to surface again. The narrative jumps forward to the present with the aged Raoul clutching Christine's music box - a broken man with only bittersweet memories as his accompaniment into a very uncertain and dark future.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray offering bests its 2 disc Special Edition. Yet, the image doesn't quite contain that 'wow' factor associated with the best Blu-Ray discs on the market. Yes, the palette is both rich and fully saturated. Yes, reds are velvety and deep. But flesh tones, though appearing quite natural, seem at the same time to suffer from a loss of fine detail except in close up. The image is sharp, but not outstandingly so. Contrast levels also appear slightly weaker than expected, especially when comparing the Blu-Ray directly to the 2 disc DVD.

Warner has opted to carry over its 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack instead of providing a true HD lossless track. Extras are all direct imports from the 2 disc DVD and include a thorough back story divided into several documentaries that cover all of the filmic versions and the impetus of the stage show essentials – plus an additional scene left on the cutting room floor and the film’s original theatrical trailer.

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



Tuesday, May 11, 2010

THE MAN IN THE IRON MASK: Blu-Ray (UA 1998) MGM/Fox Home Video

Very loosely adapted from the immortal novel by Alexandre Dumas, director Randall Wallace’s The Man in the Iron Mask (1998) is the captivating adventure yarn that rarely takes itself seriously. This is all to the good, as far as this reviewer is concerned. Liberally borrowing characters and plot elements from Dumas' D'Artagnan romances as well as The Vicomte de Bragelonne, Wallace's revisionist celebration of Dumas heralds back to a time honoured tradition in American movies that treats both world history and literary masterworks with more gentile glamour than reverence for accuracy.

In this latter pursuit, Wallace is most blessed with having the French court of Louis XIV as his luminous backdrop. Candle lit to sumptuous perfection and glowingly photographed by Peter Suschzitsky, The Man In The Iron Mask never falters in its own mythology. As such, the screenplay by Wallace quickly escalates into one heck of a good roller coaster ride, its clipping pace and marvellous acting elevating the exercise to grand entertainment.

The film stars Leonardo Di Caprio in the dual role as King Louis XIV and his twin brother, Philippe. In the original novel the King is at first represented as unsympathetic, but then gradually evolves into the noble monarch that his loyalists would want him to be. In the celebrated 1929 film, Philippe is depicted as the pawn in a sinister plot to destroy the crown. However, in Randall's revisionist take, King Louis is both unscrupulous and without moral ethics - a ruler destined for his own fall.

Separated at birth by their mother, Queen Anne (Anne Parillaud), Philippe has long been imprisoned in an isolated fortress and made to wear a horrifically confining iron mask to conceal his uncanny resemblance to the king. Anne harbours a dark secret from both her sons and her lover, D'Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne); that he - not the former King is their father.

Meanwhile, in another part of France, Athos (John Malkovich) is a retired musketeer whose son, Raoul (Peter Sarsgaard) is courting the fair, Christine (Judith Godreche). However, when Louis decides to have Christine for himself, he deliberately sends Raoul to the front line of battle, knowing that he will be killed.Enraged by this obvious treachery and the loss of his only son, Athos confides the secret of Phillipe’s birthright to his fellow musketeers, Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) and Arimus (Jeremy Irons).

Together, these three comrades rescue Philippe from the prison, free him of the mask and begin a rigorous training in the mannerisms at court. The plan is to kidnap Louis – whom they realize is a danger and a threat to the nation, and replace him with Philippe, who is humble, kind-hearted and pure of spirit and faith. If they succeed, France will be to the good. If they fail, their lives will be at stake.

Of course, the fly in this ointment is D'Artagnan who long ago seduced the Queen to produce these two rival heirs, but who knows nothing of his own complicity or Philippe's survival all these years. At a lavish ball, Porthos, Arimus and Athos taunt the King with fleeting images of the iron mask that eventually wreak havoc on the King's sanity. He retires in a sweat to his bed chamber where the Musketeers await to carry out the next length of their well laid plan.

Unfortunately, D'Artagnan has found his former colleagues out. In the ensuing confrontation, and epic swordplay Philippe is ordered back to his prison by Louis. Athos, Arimus and Porthos break into Philippe's cell and charge the Musketeer army that has been standing guard. The King is defeated and forced into exile, but not before he kills D'Artagnan who is finally told that both the King and Philippe are his sons. Teeming with lusty full-blooded melancholy and stellar examples of masterful swordplay, The Man In The Iron Mask harks back to the best of Errol Flynn swashbucklers, while offering a refreshing take on the old cliché ‘all for one and one for all.’
I can recall going to the theatre to see this movie with trepidation in 1998, since Leonardo DiCaprio was then, and to large degree remains in my estimation, hardly my kind of actor. Having come from the overriding - and arguably undeserved accolades afforded James Cameron's Titanic, DiCaprio seemed to me all hype and zero substance. Therefore, my expectation for this film were more aligned with the overall arc of storytelling rather than centered on individual performance.

So, it is saying much that I found and continue to find DiCaprio's dual starring role in this movie one of its most compelling features. True, the supporting cast continue to outrank him; most notably Byrnes, Malkovich and Irons - but DiCaprio holds his own with these titans and is most convincing throughout the story.

MGM/Fox Home Video's Blu-Ray disc rectifies the considerable sins committed by MGM Home Entertainment's standard DVD release of this film that inexplicably toggled back and forth between a progressive and an interlaced transfer. Colors that were bold on the DVD are much more so on the Blu-Ray with fine detail taking a quantum leap forward on the Blu-Ray for an image that is visually resplendent. Flesh tones are infinitely more natural on the Blu-Ray while color in general just seems to pop. Truly, there's nothing to complain about.

The audio has been given its upgrade to a DTS lossless master with predictable sonic improvements. Extras include a director’s audio commentary, a making of featurette, alternate mask prototypes and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Fox has also included MGM's original flipper DVD as part of their packaging. Highly recommended.

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



CLIFFHANGER: Blu-Ray (Columbia 1993) Sony Home Entertainment

With its nail-biting intensity and breathtaking views of the craggy mountain turrets in Cortina d’Ampezzo Italy subbing in for the Rockies, Renny Harlin’s Cliffhanger (1993) is a high-octane alpine thriller with more gusto than guts; more filler than fantasy, but ever so slickly packaged to make us forget how threadbare and superficial it all is. The plot, rumoured to be the subject of a heated lawsuit between three writers eventually settled out of court, casts muscleman Sly Stallone as a careworn climber doing his best to remain the cynical moralist after an improbable heist goes horribly awry.

In the film’s prologue, rescue climber Gabe Walker (Sylvester Stallone) flies to a precarious peak where pals, Hal Tucker (Michael Rooker), Jessie Deighan (Janine Turner) and his girlfriend Sarah Collins (Michelle Joyner) are trapped. While attempting a dramatic plane-to-perch rescue, Sarah’s harness snaps, leaving her flailing over a deep chasm. Though Gabe is within reach, Sarah plummets to her death leaving Gabe shell-shocked and emotionally wounded.

Flash forward a few months later: Gabe has decided to bow out of the tiny town for parts unknown. Hal, who has blamed Gabe’s grandstanding for Sarah’s death from the beginning, receives a frantic CB call for help at their rescue outpost. Jessie encourages Gabe to go along and aid in the expedition. However, once atop the mountain, tempers flare and Hal narrowly stops himself from tossing Gabe over the side of a cliff.

Unfortunately for all concerned the frantic call turns out to be rouse. Gabe and Hal are taken prisoner by the psychotic Eric Qualen (John Lithgow) and his accomplice, Richard Travers (Rex Linn); a pair of thieves searching for their three $100 million dollar US Treasury suitcases that went down with a plane somewhere in the mountains after a botched skyjacking.

Locating the first suitcase with a beacon transmitter, Qualen orders Gabe to scale a steep wall and retrieve it. However, once hidden from view, Gabe loosens his tether as a means of escape. Qualen opens fire, causing an avalanche that kills one of his own men and is presumed to have buried Gabe beneath a deadly pile of heavy snow.From here on, the screenplay by Michael France and Stallone develops along the lines of a very improbable and dangerous game of cat and mouse with Gabe just a few nimble steps ahead of Qualen and his gang.

Gabe and Jessie are reunited inside an abandoned log cabin and together they recover the second case. When Qualen and his men arrive they find the case empty – save a $1,000 bill with the words ‘Want to trade?’ scribbled on the back. In the meantime, Qualen and Travers use Hal as their homing pigeon in a race against time to recover the third case. In an absurd moment in the film, Jessie and Gabe burn the money from the second case as a means to keep warm while Qualen and his mercenaries spend the night at the abandoned cabin.

The following morning, Qualen hijacks a rescue chopper as Hal leads Travers and the rest of Qualen’s men to the location of the third case. Jessie, who has signaled the helicopter to rescue her and Gabe is instead taken hostage by Qualen and his men.Using Jessie’s two way radio, Qualen makes a deal with Gabe to spare Jessie’s life if Gabe hands over the monies recovered from the third case. Instead, Gabe tosses the bag into the chopper’s rotors, dispersing the loot into the winds and the precipices of the mountain.

The helicopter crashes with Gabe and Qualen dangling from its wreckage – Gabe disentangling himself at the last moment as Qualen plunges to his death. The film ends with Gabe, Hal and Jessie reunited but trapped atop that narrow peak, awaiting rescue by federal agents.

Cliffhanger is barbarically simplistic entertainment, barely conscious of the factual information it attempts to fictitiously utilize. As example: Qualen’s men have supposedly absconded from the Denver Mint with three cases of paper money. One problem: the Denver ‘mint’ only manufactures coin currency. $300 million in coin would weigh a prohibitive 2500 tons!

Though largely panned by both film critics and rock climbing enthusiasts – particularly for its inaccuracies regarding a ‘bolt gun’ that shoots support hooks into the rocky terrain (no such devise exists) – the film was, and remains, a big hit with movie goers and went on to earn an utterly impressive $250 million at the box office.This critic has always been remiss at being able to understand the enduring appeal of Sly Stallone.

True, Stallone generated a minor coup with 1976’s Oscar winner, Rocky. But by the mid-1980s, the filmic exploitation of the ‘muscle head’ had been successfully usurped by former Mr. Olympia Arnold Schwarzenegger. Stallone had Rambo then, but those films were pale ghosts to the elephantine blockbusters Hollywood was embracing with Arnold as their lead.

In Cliffhanger, Stallone is a ripened physical specimen cut from inferior posing trunks. Despite the fact that most of the film takes place in frigid alpine climates, Stallone is stripped down for most of the action, flexing his artificially enhanced biceps and pecs amidst snowy backdrops – diversionary eye-candy for any Junior Miss or couch potato with a predilection for the old cliché of ‘size matters’.

In retrospect, Cliffhanger retains much of its heart-palpating appeal, though it’s hardly memorable entertainment; rather a stellar filmic example of style entirely triumphant over substance.

Sony Home Entertainment’s Blu-Ray delivers an appealing visual presentation with solidly contrasted images, bright colors and a fair amount of fine detail evident throughout. Yet, the image doesn't seem to pop as it should. There's just something missing. Contrast appears a tad weaker than expected and that's probably part of the problem. Fine details are often not as sharp as we expect, leaving a rather waxen impression to the image that is passable but hardly stellar.

The audio is a lossless DTS master and marked by an aggressive sonic spread across all channels with effects and music being the real beneficiaries here. Extras include deleted scenes and featurettes on the special effects, and the making of the movie. There is also a personal introduction by Harlin, an audio commentary by director and star Stallone, storyboard comparisons, a photo gallery and theatrical trailer to wade through. For the most part, the extras do not enhance an appreciation for the film as much as they merely present a lot more of the same.

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



THE LAST EMPEROR: Blu-Ray (Columbia 1987) Criterion

Mesmerizing, whimsical and fictional to a point, Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987) is the heartbreaking saga of China's last Imperial ruler, Pu Yi (John Lone); curiously represented in the film as something of a complicit pawn whose reign is shaped by largely unseen sinister forces, ill-timing and tragic fate. Taken from his mother at the age of three and raised to believe in his own divinity as absolute monarch; the first half of Bertolucci's sprawling epic examines Pu Yi’s rearing under the most rigid set of circumstances and traditions within the walls of the Forbidden City.

Like most latter day epics, this one is told in a succession of flashbacks from the vantage of a mature Pu Yi, imprisoned as a war criminal by the People’s Republic of China in 1950. Pu Yi attempts suicide – his last thoughts triggering the start of this lavish unfolding retrospective of his life. Throughout this weighty epic, Bertolucci unveils a series of vignettes that are – more or less - accurate snapshots from Pu Yi’s upbringing; his bittersweet relationships with his estranged mother and emotional attachment to his nurse maid; his arranged marriage to opium addicted princess, Wan Jung (Joan Chen), the murder of their only child and heir to the throne, and, finally his internment at the prison camp.

Peter O’Toole appears to good effect midway through the first half of the film as Reginald Johnston, English tutor to his majesty in diplomacy and matters of state regarding the outside world. Although his tutelage is beneficial, it does not prepare Pu Yi for his arranged marriage to Wan Jung; a union eventually marred by her chronic and debilitating opium addiction. Forced to flee his gated world, Pu Yi succumbs to all the decadences as a modern playboy; his importance self inflated yet fatally diminished in the outside world where he becomes an elegant stooge, and finally, the sad, fading shadow and victim of China's cultural reforms and re-education programs.

Ironically, Bertolucci dedicates the latter half of the story to an almost wish fulfillment rewrite of actual history. As a gardener, Pu Yi witnesses a Maoist parade and makes imperial remonstrance to Red Guard students who are participating in the pageantry. He next journeys to the Forbidden City as a tourist and meets a precocious child who instructs him to step away from the throne he once sat upon. Instead, Pu Yi takes his place on the gilded chair – discovering a cricket nearby – the Chinese symbol for good luck and hope - and a pet he once kept in earnest at his side. Pu Yi passes the insect on to the child, who regards it with great affection, only to discover that the last emperor has indeed vanished into the annals of history.

At times Bertolucci’s epic is poignant, heart-breaking and visually resplendent – a vivid reminder of the ancient ancestry and traditions swept away by the winds of change. The screenplay by Mark Peploe and Bertolucci uses China’s Forbidden City as allegory for that pampered, yet caged existence that dooms the essential vestiges of Pu Yi's life to ultimate sorrow and quiet self destruction. Occasionally, the screenplay falters with static moments that seem endless and meandering. But the sheer grandeur of the film’s visuals is sufficient to sustain our attentions and admiration when mere dialogue and situations seem less prescient.

The Last Emperor won an Oscar for Best Cinematography, but one would never guess as much by examining previous incarnations of the film on home video. Long overdue for an update, Criterion Home Entertainment has seen fit to restore The Last Emperor to its relative glory with a high definition transfer.

Criterion's Blu-Ray offering is, regrettably, a distilled entry to their lavish four disc offering on standard DVD. As seen theatrically in 1987 the film featured a 2:20.1 aspect ratio that has been cropped on both sides and reformatted as 1:78.1. Criterion insists that this is how Bertolucci always intended the film to be shown. However, the image as currently framed often looks cramped, with characters in medium shot and close up barely contained within in the frame, drawing undue attention to the fact that there is more information that was originally shot than we are actually seeing on this transfer!

Otherwise, there's little to complain about in terms of quality. The image is sharp, with crisp colors and fine detail evident even during the darkest scenes. Occasionally, edge enhancement wreaks havoc on background detail, but these are fleeting moments of distraction at best. The audio is lossless HD. However, the film is largely dialogue driven and with few moments to exercise the full extent of a 7.1 mix.

Extras are all direct imports from the previously issued DVD from Criterion, containing a cornucopia of rare archival and new documentaries, featurettes, interviews, theatrical trailers and stills – all in all, some five hours worthy of Criterion’s asking price. The best of the lot is a 47 minute documentary on Bertolucci. There's also a very informative audio commentary.

Now for the slam: taking their cue from other studios (most notably Fox), Criterion has decided not to include the much longer TV version of the film it gave us on their standard 4 disc DVD offering. This reviewer is rather incensed by the current sporadic practice of releasing movies to Blu-Ray that do not feature all the extras we have come to know and expect. If it was good enough for standard DVD than it is certainly not much of a stretch to demand that studios give us everything and then some on Blu-Ray if their true intent is to have us all up-convert to the new format!

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



THE TRANSPORTER: Blu-Ray (Fox 2002) Fox Home Video

Falling somewhere between a Jon Woo movie and Die Hard wannabe, there are really only two ways to consider The Transporter (2002): either as a skilfully staged, slightly art house, high octane chase movie or utterly classless rubbish with a capital 'R'. Co-directed by Louis Leterrier and Corey Yuen, The Transporter is a ticking time bomb of an action flick; explosive and surreal with enough pyrotechnics to terminate half the French Riviera. It stars former fashion model and race car driver, Jeremy Stratham as ex-special forces operator Frank Martin – a resolute man of spurious means who freelances as a mercenary ‘transporter’ of any goods that anyone wants moved in secrecy – no questions asked.

Martin has a heart of stone – presumably, also without a soul – who exploits his hidden talents to the highest bidder in order to finance an envious lifestyle at his remote chateau on the Mediterranean. His latest client is ‘Wall Street’ (Matt Schulze), an American ‘businessman’ who has asked for a special shipment to be smuggled under the radar of the international police. But Martin’s curiosity is peaked when his ‘package’ begins to move. Breaking his own rule of not caring what's being transported, Martin cuts open the ‘package’ to discover a bound and gagged woman, Lai (Shu Qi) inside.

Delivering Lai to her captors, Martin is asked by Wall Street to deliver a briefcase to another client. The case turns out to be a bomb that almost kills Martin and all but vaporizes his prized BMW. Returning to Wall Street's lair, Martin makes mince meat of his enemies and takes Lai back to his ocean side retreat, giving her, her freedom.

The next day Inspector Tarconi (Francois Berleand) arrives with a few polite question to which Martin offers the most evasive of answers. Unable to quantify a reason to arrest Martin, Tarconi leaves. Shortly thereafter, Martin's home is firebombed by men loyal to Wall Street with enough arsenal to invade a third world country, setting into motion a revenge scenario.

Martin makes an executive decision – to protect Lai and get to the bottom of the real story – rescuing Chinese exiles that have been smuggled into France by Wall Street as slave labour. Throughout the rest of the story, Martin will struggle to justify his own thirst for revenge against doing the right thing for Lai; an inner turmoil never more severely investigated than on a wholly superficial level.

In between these brief Hamlet-esque contemplations Martin uses his skills as ex-military to transform the rest of the story into an MTV styled cavalcade of action sequences. Slick and stylish, Jeremy Stratham does some truly astounding manoeuvres and faux karate. The hand to hand combat sequences are really the film's salvation.

The screenplay by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen falls into that mindless B-action movie category, but with an intelligently premised espionage tale at its center. Nevertheless, The Transporter delivers the goods – at least, for the most part. Jeremy Stratham makes ambivalent nonchalance seem like the epitome of rough-neck chic. He’s not an actor – just enough of one to make us forget and/or accept his shortcomings. His martial arts prowess and taut body are well exercised during some fairly intense fight sequences that are as much a dramatic interpretation of violence as they represent a sort of bo-hunk wish fulfillment for those testosterone-driven armchair warriors sitting in the dark of their local cinema.

Directors Leterrier and Yuen do a fairly impressive balancing act between the polar extremes of ultra violence and exposition and the results are a fast paced but never mind-numbing experience that give their audiences thrills, chills and all of the anticipated excitement exemplified from the best in this sub-genre. Is The Transporter high art? Hardly. At times it isn't even coherent film making. But on the whole, the narrative clings together - precariously so - and just enough to hold our attention and deliver a harmless night's worth of entertainment. In the final analysis, The Transporter is solid bang for your buck!

Fox’s Home Video's Blu-Ray is single layered - a shame - but still a vast improvement over its previously issued DVD transfer. Colors on the Blu-Ray are fully saturated and stylized. Flesh tones are natural in appearance. In keeping with the stylized palette, contrast levels are bumped up just slightly with a razor sharp clash between darks and lights. Fine details are much more evident on the Blu-Ray.

The overall image is smooth and easy on the eyes. The audio is lossless HD remaster, an upgrade from the DVD's 5.1 mix and is very aggressive across all channels. Now, for the bad news. Fox continues to offer us Blu-Ray movies that do not include all of the extra features included on the DVD! Here, we get only the audio commentary with Stratham. The deleted scenes and featurettes that were included on the DVD have been dumped from the Blu-Ray. For shame!

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



BRAUM STOKER'S DRACULA: Blu-Ray (Columbia 1992) Sony Home Entertainement

At the time of its theatrical release Francis Ford Coppola's reinterpretation of Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) infuriated a lot of critics and fans - most weaned on the North Americanized Bela Lugosi and Hammer Film interpretations of that famed blood-sucker that in no way reflected the original storytelling prowess of its author.

No, there is no bat-like transformation sequence in Coppola's remake, no high collared black cape or majestic hand manoeuvres a la the stylishly elegant re-interpretation of Bela Lugosi. But what Coppola achieves herein goes beyond the hokum of Draculas gone by to evoke a genuine sense of the gothic thriller/romance that would have made the likes of Stoker or even Emily Bronte proud.

Yet today, removed from all its marketing hype - that at least in part promised audiences what the film never entirely delivers: a really good scare - one can see that Coppola's take on Dracula is far more comprehensive and faithful to Stoker's authorship than any movie made before or since. The screenplay by James V. Hart has a lot of literary territory to cover and, for the most part, succeeds in providing a narrative that compels as well as entertains.

It's 1462 and Vlad 'The Impaler' Dracula (Gary Oldman) embarks upon a bloody religious crusade against the Turkish Empire. Presumably riding to his defeat, Vlad prays for victory and is granted such - presumably by God, only to return to his Gothic retreat and discover that his one true love Elisabeta (Wynona Ryder) has committed suicide after hearing false reports of Vlad's death. Consumed with despair and further enraged by the notion that his wife is eternally damned for committing suicide, Dracula desecrates his chapel and renounces God, stabbing into the large cross and declaring that he will rise from his grave to avenge Elisabeta with all the powers of darkness.

Fast track to 1897, to Transylvania where law clerk Jonathan Harker (Keanu Reeves) arrives at Castle Dracula to complete a real estate acquisition left unfinished by his colleague R.M. Renfield (Tom Waits) who has gone insane. Dracula (also Oldman), is a witheringly haunted and manic reflection of Vlad. During the signing of the papers, Dracula discovers a picture of Harker's fiancée Mina (also Ryder), and realizes that she is the reincarnation of Elisabeta.

Leaving Jonathan to be nightly raped and drained of his blood by his undead brides, Dracula restores himself to a more youthful appearance before sailing to England with boxes of his native soil. Taking refuge inside Carfax Abbey, Dracula's arrival is foretold by Renfield's ravings at an asylum run by Dr. Jack Seward (Richard E. Grant). Confronting Mina on a busy London street, Dracula is at first admonished by his former bride who gradually is compelled to learn more about the stranger and eventually succumb to his wicked charms. In the meantime, Harker manages to free himself of his blood-lusting beauties to make a harrowing escape from Castle Dracula to a nearby convent where he is slowly nursed back to health.

In London, Dracula transforms himself into a werewolf-like creature who hypnotizes and contaminates Mina's close friend, Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost) with the fate of the undead. Her health in steep decline, Lucy's former love, Quincey Morris(Bill Campbell) and new fiancée Arthur Holmwood(Cary Elwes) begin a frantic race to save her soul. With Seward's encouragement, they summon Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins) to the case, during which he discovers that Lucy is a victim of the vampire.

Getting word from the sisters at the convent that Jonathan is safe, Mina leaves for Hungary to marry him causing Dracula to transform Lucy into a vampire as his revenge. Presumably dead, Lucy is buried in a crypt, then exhumed by Van Helsing, Holmwood, Seward and Morris, who arrive just in time to prevent her from devouring the blood of an innocent child in order to prolong her undead suffering. Beheading Lucy to save her from eternal damnation, Van Helsing next turns to saving Mina and Jonathan, who have returned to London.

Renfield attempts to warn Mina of her fate and Dracula brutally murders him for this betrayal. Retiring to her bedroom, Mina is visited by Dracula. Confessing to her that he murdered Lucy, Dracula begins to transform Mina into a vampire as well. Van Helsing and his followers break into Mina's bedroom and foil the completion of this ritual but not before Dracula - now strangely bat like in appearance - declares Mina as his bride.

Sailing to Hungary to escape persecution, Dracula is hunted down by Van Helsing, Harker, Morris and Seward. In the final confrontation, Harker slits Dracula's throat while a wounded Morris stabs him through the heart. In the same chapel where he renounced God centuries earlier, Dracula rebuffs Mina's attempts to pull the knife from his heart, instead asking her to give him peace. The chapel is lit by God's presence and the hole in the cross heals itself. The curse of eternal damnation on both Elisabeta and Mina's souls is lifted, with Vlad and Elsabeta ascend together to Heaven.

Bram Stoker's Dracula is hardly perfect entertainment but it remains a compelling study of period gothic horror, albeit without the essential element of a good 'chill' down the spine. Most problematic for the film's overall success is its casting of Keanu Reeves as Harker. In hindsight, it's astonishing how many plumb roles Reeves received during his Hollywood career considering his anemic acting abilities. Here, he is painfully miscast in a role he neither understands nor even remotely attempts to make his own - his period costumes unable to mask that inimitable brand of 'Kowabunga' California surfer dude persona that would have long ago been the kiss of death for any other actor's career.

Equally as troublesome is the usually gifted Wynona Ryder - here reduced to somewhat simpering melodrama. Yes, she is more convincing in her part than Reeves is in his, but she emotes more fret than fright throughout the story, reducing Mina to a weak kneed lily that simply awaits her fate to be plucked by either the Count or Harker.

On the plus side are Gary Oldman's superb interpretation of Dracula in all of his many forms and Anthony Hopkins who gives the most intelligent and exciting read of Van Helsing to date. Together, these two craftsmen in their art manage to sustain the rest of the story, even when the script or their acting counterparts miserably falter. In the final analysis, Bram Stoker's Dracula is a film that should be given more respect for Coppola's direction, its sets and costumes and its infinitely more faithful adaptation of a beloved literary classic.

Sony Home Entertainment's Blu-Ray is somewhat disappointing. Although the image exhibits good solid color rendering, it is softly focused with a loss of fine details throughout. Overall, the image will not disappoint, but it's hardly as spectacular as it might have been. The audio is lossless HD but here too the effect seems blunted by dialogue that is, at times, so quiet that it seems inaudible, only to be followed by bursts of effects and dialogue that threaten to blow out one's sound system. Extras include extensive deleted scenes and a very thorough series of featurettes that equate to one comprehensive documentary on the making of the film.

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



Wednesday, May 5, 2010

NINE: Blu-Ray (Relativity/Lucamar/Weinstein 2009) Alliance Home Video

How could a film loosely based on Federico Fellini's immortal classic 8 1/2 fail? Regrettably, Rob Marshall's Nine (2009) proves just how elusive Fellini's blend of neo-realism and broad satire are to recapture on celluloid for the postmodern generation.

As a Broadway show, Nine was enigmatic and emblematic entertainment - a rollicking pop opera more directly derived from Arthur Kopit's book with exhilarating songs written by Maury Yeston. Yet, like Richard Attenborough's filmic adaptation of A Chorus Line (1985), Nine plays more like an exhumation, rather than exaltation of the stage show with the faint aroma of formaldehyde permeating every frame.

There's plenty of style, but regrettably little substance to hang our hopes on with Daniel Day-Lewis as a competent - but nevertheless 'not terribly swarthy' replacement for Javier Bardem; cast as aging film director Guido Contini. Day-Lewis is convincing in spots, yet struggles to lose himself in the role. As such, he never overcomes our estimation that he is not an Italian - the greasy locks and faux accent mere window dressing that speak more to a stereotype rather than an iconic character study.

The screenplay by the late Anthony Minghella and Michael Tolkin begins in earnest with Contini at Mussolini's famed Cinecitta Studios in 1966, desperately struggling to develop a creative idea for his latest film project 'Italia'. Contini is driven to distraction by a bevy of beauties that enter and leave his life at the most inopportune moments and by conversations with his dead mother (Sophia Loren).

Surrounded by sycophants who cling to his every word as though it were the new gospel, Contini begins to suffer from angst ridden panic attacks that force him to retreat to the country for some rest and relaxation. His producer (Ricky Tognazzi) and press manager, Fausto (Giuseppe Cederna) exhibit a quiet, if frenetic, urge for Contini to will an existentialist masterpiece from his crumbling creative genius. Only costume designer, Lilli La Fleur (Judi Dench) realizes how grave the situation is. Contini has yet to pen a single word of his script.

Distracted by an on again/off again affair with Carla Albanese (Penelope Cruz), Contini begins to reflect on the various women who have shaped his life and career. These include seaside prostitute, Saraghina (Fergie), Vogue fashion journalist, Stephanie (Kate Hudson), Guido's first filmic muse and later, his wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard) and his latest creative inspiration, aloof film actress Claudia Jenssen (Nicole Kidman). Gradually, a tragic portrait begins to emerge; that of a man on the verge of destroying himself through genius and excess.

Seemingly incapable of sincerity, after retreating to the country Contini telephones his wife to plead for her company, then just as quickly suggests she stay in Rome while he works on finalizing details for his movie. At Contini's insistence, Carla arrives in town and quickly discovers that her love for Contini is not genuinely reciprocated. Shortly thereafter she attempts suicide.

Discovering that the film 'Italia' has no script, Claudia appears briefly for a makeup and wardrobe test before bowing out of the project and out of Contini's love life without much regret. She has already classified him as a lost cause, a rather earth-shattering revelation for Contini that is later confirmed by his dead mother who also casually walks away from her son during one of the film's many dream sequences. As for Luisa, she has run out of reasons to stay married to the man she sincerely cares for. Like the rest, Luisa departs Contini's life, forcing him to admit to his cast and crew that the film 'Italia' will never be. Thus ends Nine on a remarkably downtrodden and depressing beat.

Director, Marshall - who previously scored an Oscar-winning hit with Chicago (2002) is in his element when staging the gaudy glam-bam cavalcade of MTV inspired songs and dances that frequently interrupt the narrative and provide heightening distraction for both Contini and the audience.

But the non-musical portions of the film have no spark to connect these energetic outbursts. Kate Hudson delivers the highest octane moment in the film, warbling Cinema Italiano to a cavorting troop of thin tie, pinched pant male runway dancers. But Marion Cotillard has the most introspective and moving song - the bittersweet 'My Husband Makes Movies' in which the last vestiges of her waning love for Contini are painfully severed.

On the whole then, Nine rates about a three and a half on a scale of one to ten. It rarely elevates to a level in artistry that Fellini himself might have appreciated and completely fails to live up to our expectations for finely wrought musical entertainment.

Alliance Home Video's Blu-Ray is also not quite what we expected to see. In the first place, colors do not pop as they should. The palette is rather anaemic. Take, for example, the first moment that Carla emerges from the train to meet Contini for their final weekend tryst. On screen, her velvet ensemble was blood red, easily the most intense color at the otherwise drab station set. Yet, on the Blu-Ray her outfit merely rates as red, rather flat and even to some extent washed out.

Darker scenes seem to suffer from a lack of solid blacks and weaker than expected contrast levels. Flesh tones are natural enough but fine detail is sometimes eclipsed and even lost during night scenes. On the whole, this is an average looking transfer. The audio is DTS and aggressive during the musical sequences but rather nondescript during dialogue sequences.
Extras include several brief featurettes on the cast, crew, staging and making of the film, as well as a few deleted scenes, an audio commentary and theatrical trailer.

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



Tuesday, May 4, 2010

SAVING PRIVATE RYAN: Blu-Ray (Dreamworks SKG 1998) Paramount Home Video

Only a handful of war epics can complete with Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998); a $481 million dollar box office dynamo, brilliantly scripted - if gruesomely violent - WWII saga from writer Robert Rodat that effortlessly shifts its focus from the hell of combat to its resulting human fallout and sacrifice. Many confuse the impetus of Rodat's inspiration for the screenplay as direct homage to the fallen Niland brothers.

Actually, Rodat conceived his story after learning of the remarkably similar fate of four brothers who died during the American Civil War. He submitted his script to producer Mark Gordon. Gordon gave it to Hanks, who then gave it to Spielberg. Having demonstrated his passion for the period with Schindler's List (1994), Spielberg immediately signed on to the project. decided to direct Saving Private Ryan after reading the film's script.

The story opens in the present day with WWII vet James Francis Ryan (Harrison Young) making his pilgrimage to the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Wracked with emotion, Ryan kneels at the grave site; the story suddenly regressing in flashback to that harrowing morn of June 6, 1944.

Ensconced in their beachside bunkers the German infantry make mince meat of the Allied Forces landing on Omaha Beach - an unrelentingly grim and gripping 27 minutes of footage that is sure to upset even the most coldhearted. Commanding officer, Capt. John H. Miller (Tom Hanks) survives this bloody carnage, leading a troop that successfully penetrate the German defenses. But Miller's plans are about to take an unexpected turn.

In the U.S. Gen. George Marshall (Harve Presnell) learns that three of four brothers in the Ryan household have all died within days of each other and that their mother is about to receive the bad news all in one day. Marshall also learns that Ryan's fourth son, Private James Francis (Matt Damon) is MIA somewhere in Normandy and makes it his mission to either return Private Ryan to his mother or learn the fate of the presumed last surviving heir.

In France, Miller receives his revamped orders to locate Ryan. Assembling a battalion of six Rangers, Miller moves to the small town of Neuville. Unfortunately, the German's are wise to their activities and one of Miller's men, Private Adrian Caparzo (Vin Diesel) is fatally wounded by a sniper. After a brief case of mistaken identity, Miller learns that Private Ryan is defending a strategically-important bridge on the Merderet River in the fictional town of Ramelle.

On the way to Ramelle, Miller and his troop neutralize a small German machine gun position, incurring another casualty; this time their medic, Technician Fourth Grade Irwin Wade (Giovanni Ribisi). In the ensuing skirmish, a lone surviving Nazi (Joerg Stadler) is taken captive by the troop who demand of Miller that they be allowed to assassinate the unarmed man. But Technician Fifth Grade Timothy E. Upham (Jeremy Davies) pleads for the Nazi's life, declaring that to kill an unarmed man now is tantamount to cold blooded murder.

Three Allied paratroopers arrive in Ramelle, among them Private Ryan. However, after being told the fate of his brothers by Miller, Ryan refuses to go home. Instead, he and Miller's surviving troops decide to continue to defend the bridge until the arrival of a reconnaissance unit.

Fifty German troops and a tank division descend on Ramelle and the bridge. With Miller leading an extremely creative defense charge the Germans receive heavy casualties, although almost all of Miller's remaining fighters are also lost in the raid. While attempting to blow the bridge, Miller is shot by the unarmed Nazi he let free, but an American P-51 Mustang arrives in the nick of time to turn the tide in the Allies favor. Realizing that there can be no rules of warfare with an enemy who does not respect them, Upham executes the Nazi. Ryan rushes to Miller's aid but the damage has been done and Miller dies in his arms.

In the present, Ryan openly weeps over Miller's grave and Ryan's wife (Kathleen Byron) - having also been moved by the experience that has reduced her husband to tears, confirms quietly to Miller on her husband's behalf that his sacrifice and that of other soldiers lost in the war was not in vain. Thus ends, Saving Private Ryan - as hauntingly tragic and overwhelmingly saddening as the note first struck on that fateful opening sequence on Omaha Beach.

Arguably, the film represents Tom Hanks finest hour as an actor with a stellar performance from Matt Damon that is almost as good. Spielberg's direction is solid, but he tends to rely too heavily on the frenetic energy of the handheld camera to lens much of the combat footage throughout the film. The result is an exhaustive assault on the senses, rather than a nail-biting recreation of combat.

Spielberg's meticulous attention to narrative pacing saves the rest of the film from becoming one vomit-inducing slaughter-fest. Yet, rarely do we, as the audience, have the opportunity to simply take in the action presented to us. In an effort to make the experience more real than cinematic, Spielberg cripples our ability to absorb everything in tandem and this is indeed a shame since stunt work and staging of the battle sequences is - after the unstable camera work is stripped bare - of a rare perfection.

In the final analysis, what saves Saving Private Ryan from itself is its human tale - the bonding amongst men from all different walks of life who have been brought together by fate and destiny under the dark specter of war.

Be forewarned. Paramount Home Video's original minting of this Sapphire Edition Blu-Ray had audio sync issues. Replacement discs have been made available to retailers and carry a yellow (rather than white) UPC bar code to distinguish them from the flawed discs. Also, the disc itself has a blue face, as opposed to the original's silver face.

In this latter minting, Saving Private Ryan bests the rather lackluster DVD transfer from Dreamworks SKG from several years ago. The stylized image that seemed to suffer from contrast boosting on the DVD has a more naturally stylized look on the Blu-Ray. It is difficult to assess accuracy of flesh tones or anything else since the image has been deliberately desaturated to reflect the stark, harsh realities of war. Suffice it to say that the Blu-Ray looks more 'natural' in all visual departments than its DVD counterpart, with grain more accurately represented. The audio is an aggressive DTS master that really gives the speakers a workout.

Extras are housed on a second Blu-Ray disc and represent direct imported content from the previously released DVD - much of it upgraded to HD for this presentation - including almost an hour's worth of featurettes, deleted scenes, interviews and more. New and exclusive to the Blu-Ray is 'Shooting War' a lengthy tribute to WWII combat photographers narrated by Tom Hanks and written/produced by film historian Richard Schickel. Highly recommended!

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



DIRTY DANCING: Blu-Ray (Vestron 1987) Lionsgate Home Video

Shot on a shoestring budget in 105 degree heat in just under 44 days, Emilio Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing (1987) revisits the tawdry comings and goings of oversexed socially repressed youth – a theme common place throughout the teen movie circuit that director Delmer Daves merely suggested in his 1959 classic, A Summer Place. The story is based largely on screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein’s youthful recollections on a series of summer vacations she spent with her own family in the Catskills.

Described as a coming of age fable, Dirty Dancing actually had an arduous journey from screenplay to screen. Bergstein’s original draft ‘It’s My Turn’ ended up as a Michael Douglas vehicle with all its dance sequences cut out, much to Bergstein’s dismay.Revising the project considerably before deciding to do a complete rewrite from scratch, Bergstein next pitched the idea to MGM where it was endlessly tinkered with before effectively being retired. Eventually, Bergstein moved on to Vestron Pictures where Dirty Dancing was green-lit for pre-production. As for choreography, director Ardolino turned to Kenny Ortega, a dancer in training under the expert tutelage of Gene Kelly.

However, casting the film proved deceptively difficult. Initially, Ardolino had optioned Billy Zane for the role of Johnny – first conceived as a Latin/Italian lothario. Bergstein had based Johnny on her own chance meeting with Michael Terrance – a dance instructor moonlighting in the Catskills in 1985. When initial dance test footage of Zane failed to meet the director’s expectations, newcomer Patrick Swayze was cast instead; a decision that did not bode well with costar Jennifer Grey. She had worked with Swayze previously on Red Dawn and their collaboration had not been a pleasant one.

So too did Swayze’s agent discourage his client from accepting the part. However, Swayze was a dancer at heart and, having read and liked the script, he went over his agent’s head to accept the role. It was a fortuitous decision. The resulting film would transform Patrick Swayze into an international super star and household heartthrob virtually overnight.

As for Jennifer Grey, the daughter of Oscar-winning actor, Joel Grey – she quickly resolved the tensions between she and Swayze off camera and the two began a symbiotic relationship that eventually expressed itself as fiery passion on the dance floor. It also blossomed into mutual appreciation and respect for one another’s acting techniques.Supporting players proved almost as difficult to cast.

Though Jerry Orbach and Jane Brucker easily signed their contracts, virtually all other supporting parts went through a considerable struggle to get filled. Sex therapist and personal friend to Bergstein, Dr. Ruth Westheimer balked at playing Mrs. Schumacher when she learned the part involved being a kleptomaniac. Signed to play Mrs. Houseman, Lynn Lipton fell ill and was replaced by Kelly Bishop instead.

The film’s plot tells the tale of Frances 'Baby' Houseman (Grey), a naive rich kid who goes slumming on the wrong side of the tracks with Johnny Castle (Swayze), a struggling dance instructor possessing genuine talents both on the dance floor and in the bedroom. The wrinkle of course is that Johnny is actually a great guy whose looks lead to his being put upon by wealthy/frisky middle-aged women that frequent the resort in the Catskills where Baby and her family are staying.At first meet, Johnny and Baby’s moralities clash. She finds him obnoxious. He thinks she’s a kittenish prude. However, gradually the ice between these two begins to melt.

Through Baby’s eyes Johnny begins to believe in himself. He even considers the prospect of settling down.However, when Johnny’s dance partner, Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes) becomes pregnant by a waiter at the hotel, then suffers a botched abortion, Baby’s father, Jake (Jerry Orbach) naturally assumes the aborted child is Johnny’s mistake.The resulting animosity between Jake, Baby and Johnny is, of course, eventually resolved in the film’s climactic dance showdown, book ending a ‘love conquers all’ scenario that audiences had no difficulty swallowing.

Hardly subtle, though nevertheless effective, Dirty Dancing remains a touchstone of the typical ‘80s feel good movie.Ardolino’s direction is smooth and assured. There’s not that much substance here but the intoxicating mix of ‘60s pop tunes and then contemporary mega hits – most notably the Jennifer Warnes/Bill Medley runaway song success, ‘The Time Of My Life’ – serve this paper-thin narrative well.

Swayze’s dancing prowess is never in question. To find him a subtly nuanced actor who handles the light comedy and more intensive dramatic elements with ease is perhaps more of a revelation. Grey holds her own during the dance routines though she clearly isn’t in the same league as her costar.In retrospect, the film isn’t high art, though upon further reflection it retains its allure as diverting entertainment – easy on the eyes as it sets the feet loosely tapping; the hips slightly gyrating.

Made available on DVD in four previous DVD transfers, the first two, (film only and collector’s edition) not enhanced for widescreen televisions, Dirty Dancing re-emerges for its second outing on Blu-Ray - this time as a 'Keepsake Edition'. The results, this time out are a marked improvement over the previous Blu-ray release that had been mastered from the same tired elements as its predecessors.

Colors tend to pop more on the Keepsake edition than on the previous Blu-Ray. Instances of edge enhancement and pixelization that were prevalent on the previous Blu-Ray have also been corrected on this reissue. Film grain has been more naturally realized. ‘Jaggies’ that appeared in detailing of wood railings, brick and roofing have all been corrected. This is probably as good as this film will ever look in 1080p. The soundtrack is a lossless remaster as opposed to the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that accompanied the first Blu-Ray release.

There are lots of extras – most of them direct imports from the previously issued DVDs: two separate audio commentaries, a look back at the making of the film, locations, the music, as well as tributary featurettes on the late Emile Ardolino, Jerry Orbach and, of course, Patrick Swayze. A few featurettes on the art of dancing, outtakes, an extensive stills gallery, music videos, multi-angle options for various sequences in the film, deleted/extended scenes, the Eleanor Bergstein script, a fan reel, trailer and trivia track round out this very comprehensive Blu-Ray offering. There's also some snazzy packaging and a collectible 'hard bound' booklet with some nicely reproduced photo and PR art for the collector to enjoy. Highly recommended!

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



DOCTOR ZHIVAGO: Blu-Ray (MGM 1965) Warner Home Video

An epic often referred to with the same quiet reverence afforded Victor Fleming's Gone With The Wind (1939), David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) is a monumental – if lengthy – soap opera with few equals. Yet in retrospect, the film represents something of a lost opportunity for its director; a last stand as the purveyor of this sort of sprawling spectacle, but one that falls just a tad short of Lean’s usual sterling expectations in retrospect. Lavishly mounted and with impeccable performances layered throughout, Lean's focus is somewhat disengaged during the latter half of the story, oddly rushed and, at the same instance, meandering.

Based on the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Russian author Boris Pasternak (who had to refuse the award because the Soviet government thought it a decadence. The book was banned in Pasternak's native country for nearly three decades following the release of the film), Robert Bolt's complexly evolving adaptation begins in earnest with a nameless dam worker (Rita Tushingham) summoned to her boss’s office by Gen. Yevgraf Zhivago (Alec Guinness). The General suspects ‘the girl’ to be his long lost niece; heir apparent to his late brother, Dr. Yuri Zhivago’s (Omar Sharif) poetic legacy. The girl, however, has her doubts.

Told in flashback, the narrative digresses to the waning golden days before the Russian Revolution. After his mother’s death, Yuri is raised by wealthy Moscow doctor, Alexander Gromeko (Ralph Richardson) and his family. Early on Gromeko's wife, Anna (Siobhan McKenna) decides that Yuri will marry their daughter, Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). During these formative years Tonya and Yuri develop a kindly bond - more brotherly/sisterly than future husband and wife. Nevertheless, their engagement is set.

However, at Svetinski's Christmas party Yuri is fascinated by a young woman who attempts to murder and actually shoots, and superficially wounds, Viktor Komerovsky (Rod Steiger) - a notorious womanizer and sadist. The woman in question, Lara Antipova (Julie Christie) has been Komerovsky's kept woman for some time. After confessing her affair to her young lover, Pasha (Tom Courtney); a passionate crusader for the revolution, Lara and Pasha still marry.

From here, the narrative jumps ahead considerably with a masterful voice over by Alec Guinness to summarize the impact of the Russian Revolution and the end to Yuri’s settled existence. Called upon by the Tsarist government to assist the White Army in stitching up their wounded on a remote battlefield, Yuri is reunited with Lara on the open road; she having joined the armed services as a nurse. Away from Tonya and their young son, Yuri's passion for Lara grows steadily and, after much consternation, the two become lovers.

Yuri’s tempered anguish at betraying his wife is basically at the crux of the rest of the story. He and Lara set up house in the small village of Yuriatin a few miles away from the cottage Yuri shares with Tonya and Dr. Gromeko. However, while traveling into town for one of their rendezvous, Yuri is ambushed by the Red Army who force him into service. He vanishes without a trace and months pass. In the bleak of winter, a bedraggled, malnourished Yuri deserts the Reds and finds his way back to Lara's apartment in Yuriatin where he collapses. He is nursed back to health by Lara. The two later retreat to the cottage in the woods as the Red Army marches into town.

Komerovsky, who has been observing the couple from afar, arrives at the cottage with a means of safe passage for all of them. However, at the last moment Yuri changes his mind. He sends Lara off with Komerovsky, knowing he will never see her again. As Lara and Komerovsky hurry their escape by sleigh Lara reveals to him that she is carrying Yuri's child.

So far, so good. But the last act of Doctor Zhivago suddenly abandons its tight narrative threads - Pasternak's sprawling novel presumably too much for even a gifted scenarist like Robert Bolt to handle. The screenplay sails through a decade's worth of detail and complexities in only a few modest scenes, relying even more heavily on Alec Guinness' grave voice over to keep the enterprise together.

The years and the violence of the revolution pass. Frail and in poor health, a middle-aged Yuri envisions seeing Lara walking past a trolley car he is traveling on. In a heightened state of panic to reunite with his one true love, Yuri suffers a massive heart attack and dies alone on the street only a few feet from where the woman he thought was Lara has passed.

In his aftermath, it is revealed that Lara and her daughter were separated from one another during a violent uprising in the provinces. She has returned to Moscow with Yevgraf's help to relocate the child but to no avail; eventually vanishing altogether herself. The narrative flashes to the present with Yevgraf revealing to the nameless dam worker that she is in fact Yuri and Lara's love child; a destiny she ambiguously refuses to believe.

Unable to film in Russia, Lean shot most everywhere else in Central Europe, capturing the flavour and atmosphere of a doomed civilization’s ruptured collapse. Occasionally, however, Lean seems to lose sight of his main characters; the canvass of upheaval and displacement too broad somehow and the restrictions of screen running time to confining for Pasternak's sprawling narrative - each, suddenly becoming a hindrance to Lean's craftsmanship as a visual storyteller.

Given the director’s methodical pacing and allowances for character development elsewhere in the film (the first third is superb intellectual melodrama), the last act of Doctor Zhivago plays almost as montage – made cohesive only by Alec Guinness’s narration. To be certain, Doctor Zhivago is grand and resplendent entertainment. But upon further reflection the film seems to lack something of Lean’s overriding and all pervasive sense of vision.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray is above average, though hardly superb. Sourced from restored elements, the anamorphic image exhibits often beautiful color fidelity with fine details evident throughout. Blacks are deep and velvety; whites are generally bright and pristine. Age related artefacts are kept to a bare minimum. Still, the image is not as punchy as one might expect.

Unfortunately, edge enhancement that was inherent in the original DVD release has been imported to the Blu-Ray. Yes, it is less obvious on the Blu-Ray than on the DVD but when it crops up - as in the sequence where Yuri discovers, inside a lonely dress shop, that Lara is the reason her mother has attempted suicide, it is utterly distracting!

Before critiquing the audio on this disc, this reviewer should point out that I have always found the audio portion of this movie quite problematic. Dialogue has never sounded natural, but instead, quite manufactured and frontally focused. Strident is perhaps the best word to describe the overall timbre. Effects are not particularly integrated into this sound field. All these shortcomings inherent in the original sound mix have been imported onto the Blu-Ray. The real benefactor of Warner's lossless remaster is undoubtedly Maurice Jarre's score, seemingly more smooth and lush sounding.

All of the extra features - save Omar Sharif's introduction - available on the previously issued DVD have been imported to this Blu-Ray release, including an hour long ‘making of’ documentary, two audio commentaries, vintage featurettes and theatrical trailers. The Blu-Ray exclusive is distilled into a two part 'celebration' of the movie whereby current film makers reflect on the impact and staying power of the film, incorporating some beautifully remastered behind the scenes footage and photos of Lean at work on the set. Recommended!

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