Saturday, July 31, 2010

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE: Blu-Ray (Miramax/Universal 1998) Alliance Home Video

At the end of John Madden's Academy Award winning Shakespeare in Love (1998) Lord Wessex asks Queen Elizabeth "So, how does it all end?" to which Elizabeth replies, "With tears and a journey"; words that might also accurately express the process by which this film was made. Upon its release, several publications noted similarities between the Marc Norman/Tom Stoppard screenplay and a 1941 novel, 'No Time For Bacon', prompting author Faye Kellerman to sue the producers one year later after insisting that Stoppard had pilfered whole portions of text from her novel 'The Quality of Mercy'.

Even before these latter day controversies, Shakespeare In Love seemed a project destined to never get off the ground. In late 1989, Norman approached producer Edward Zwick and then rising star Julia Roberts with a fictionalized account of William Shakespeare's love affair with high born woman. Roberts was clearly interested in playing that latter part, but Zwick disliked the screenplay so much that he hired Tom Stoppard instead for what eventually boiled down to a complete rewrite.

The old adage of 'once begun/hard done' seems to, at least in retrospect, fit the gestation of this project. Unable to convince Daniel Day-Lewis to co-star, Julia Roberts withdrew after sets and costumes were already well underway, just a scant six weeks before principle photography was to begin. With monies tied up and no principle cast at his disposal, Zwick aggressively shopped the project to Miramax who loved the idea from the get go but were not particularly interested in having Zwick direct. After their outright purchase of the property, Zwick was appointed the defacto producer and John Madden was assigned the film, recasting Gwyneth Paltrow in the pivotal role of Lady Viola.

For their choice of title character, producer Harvey Weinstein made a rather unlikely decision in Joseph Fiennes. Although Fiennes had distinguished himself in West End London theatre, he was a virtual unknown to film audiences at large and a relative stranger to making movies in general. 1998 would change all that - particularly after Fiennes compounded his success herein with another in Elizabeth (1998) starring Cate Blanchett.

For the most part, Shakespeare in Love is a fabrication of Shakespeare's life, even though certain characters and situations remain true to the period and biographical information made readily available. Young Will (Fiennes) is a playwright without a theatre. His latest venture - to supply Philip Henslowe's (Geoffrey Rush) struggling Rose Theatre with a play for the summer season - has run into considerable writer's block.

Worse, Will has become an artist without his muse. To divert his attentions from this quandary, Will wenches his way through a fair cue of young bar maids including rival theatre owner, Richard Burbage's (Martin Cunes) mistress, even though Will is married, though estranged, from his wife who is living at Stratford. Although his heart and his loins are never in the same place at once, Will is stirred to inspiration after the first sight of Lady Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) whom he accidentally meets while spying on one of Burbage's command performances for the Queen (Judi Dench). Viola is from a wealthy house that frowns upon the theatre and those associated with it. Her family's opinions however, do not stop the headstrong Vi’ - whose dream it is to become an actress. One problem: women are not permitted on the stage under Elizabethan law. So, Viola disguises herself as a man - Thomas Kent - to audition for Will’s latest play; Romeo and Ethel – the Pirate’s Daughter.

The audition goes well - too well, in fact and Will soon learns that Kent is Viola. The two become passionate lovers. But that affair is doomed when Viola's father pledges her in marriage to the overbearing Lord Wessex (Colin Firth). Wessex threatens Will with imminent death and to escape his true identity being found out, Will tells Wessex that he is Christopher Marlowe (Rupert Everett); England's then leading playwright. This lie will have grave repercussions later on.

In the meantime, Wessex takes Viola to Elizabeth's court for an audience with the Queen whereupon Elizabeth correctly deduces that Viola has 'been plucked' since she last saw her. The revelation sends Wessex into a rage. Coincidentally, news arrives by messenger at a brothel Will is frequenting with his players, including Thomas Kent, that Marlowe has been stabbed in a tavern on the outskirts of town. Incorrectly assuming that Wessex has lived up to his threat to kill him, Will goes into deep despair.

Hearing a rumour that The Rose has cast a woman in their play, Master of the Revels, Edmund Tilney (Simon Callow) closes the theatre. All is not lost, however. Burbage, who had commissioned a play by Marlowe, now proposes that Henslowe and his company put on their play - rechristened 'Romeo & Juliet' at his theatre instead. Meanwhile, Viola's reluctant marriage to Wessex crumbles after she learns that the play is to continue as planned. Sneaking away to attend, Viola is asked to play the part of Juliet instead after the voice of the boy assigned to the role has already begun to change.

The audience is understandably agog at the sight of a woman on stage, more so after the play's resounding success when Tilney arrives to arrest everyone in the name of the Queen because of Viola's performance. Instead, Elizabeth reveals that she has been observing the play all along from the balcony and breaks with her own law by pretending that Viola is Thomas Kent.

Elizabeth also admonishes Lord Wessex, her modest delight in humbling this arrogant peacock proving to be a most fitting conclusion to the story. Regrettably, English law prevents Elizabeth from setting aside Viola's marriage decree. After commissioning Will to court as her official playwright, Elizabeth instructs Viola to make journey with Wessex to America where she will start her new life as his wife.

The final few moments of the film spare Viola this fate as the plot of Will's latest play 'Twelfth Night' parallels Viola's journey. The ship carrying Wessex and Viola to the new world is sunk and Viola, being the sole survivor, approaches a vast sandy, windswept beach alone, her future as uncertain as the heroine in Will's play.

Thus ends, Shakespeare in Love. At the time the film debuted, this reviewer must confess to being rather disheartened by Madden’s tongue-in-cheek treatment of the film's historical characters. Like Milos Forman’s depiction of Mozart as a vulgarian who enjoys spanking women’s bottoms while passing gas from his own in Amadeus (1984), Madden’s assessment of Shakespeare as a carousing fop of no account, whose inspiration is sparked only after a few spirited rolls in the hay, hinted at more than an whiff of sacrilege.

Time, however, does strange things to one’s opinions and first impressions. Madden's film has a veneer of stylish elegance all its own and a genuinely heartfelt and emotional last act – one that realigns the slum prudery and feisty pepper in Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s screenplay.

Gwyneth Paltrow delivers a rapturous performance as the conflicted Viola. Autonomy seems to have been Joseph Fiennes best friend on this outing. In 1998 he was believable as Shakespeare simply because as an audience we knew him not as anyone else beforehand. Since the film it has been difficult to think of him as anyone but.

Judi Dench delivers what is basically the second shortest performance to ever win a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. In her fleeting eight and a half minutes she is a commanding presence, utterly charming in all her restrained, impatient decadence. In the final analysis, Shakespeare in Love is an intriguing alter-history and a wonderfully irreverent glimpse at the Elizabethan age. It's superb script blends comedy, drama and romance into a tapestry of Shakespearean quotes made truer to life by their glib excisions.

Alliance Home Video has released a bare bones Blu-Ray in Canada but it is hardly worthy. For starters, the image is 1080i not 1080p - an oversight that frequently plagues Alliance releases this side of the border. Is the image superior to the 1999 DVD from Buena Vista Home Video? Absolutely. The resolution is tighter, the image more refined, crisp and with more natural colors realized throughout. Is this the best the film can look on Blu-Ray. Decidedly not, as every attempt ought to have been made to scan the image progressively for optimal quality. Furthermore, there are more than a handful of instances where age related artefacts make their presence known.

This reviewer will pause a moment herein to suggest that lack of foresight is a large part of the reason Blu-Ray sales on the whole have not been as overwhelmingly positive as DVD sales used to be. If the studios are serious about having people repurchase titles on the new digital format then the necessary up conversion of existing transfers to true HD 1080p brilliance must be of paramount concern and consideration. There's really NO POINT in offering less than perfect transfers of this or any other movie for that matter. Enough said!

Back to this review. The audio remains Dolby Digital 5.1. Again, there is nothing wrong with it - but this disc is hardly utilizing all the capabilities that Blu-Ray has to offer. Extras are even more of a disappointment. There are none, save a 'car commercial' that precedes the feature.

BOTTOM LINE: As Alliance in the U.S. seems reluctant to release any of the titles under the old Miramax banner (The Cider House Rules, Life Is Beautiful, Muriel's Wedding, Gosford Park...etc.) I suppose this Alliance Canada reissue must suffice for lovers of their product. Hence, this disc comes grudgingly recommended.

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





Wednesday, July 28, 2010

BLACK NARCISSUS: Blu-Ray (J. Arthur Rank/Archers 1947) Criterion Collection

Too few movies can justly be called 'masterpiece'. But Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Black Narcissus (1947) fits the bill; a haunting drama that pits the unmitigated pleasures of the flesh against those cerebral pursuits of finding one's self through life struggle and spirituality. So ambitious in scope and narrative that it perhaps has no equals amongst its contemporaries - certainly none from the present day compost that passes for filmed entertainment - Black Narcissus is loosely based on Rumer Godden's intense novel. In bringing the story to the screen, Powell and Pressburger achieve several coups, not the least of which is producing a sprawling narrative of stark epic grandeur that - with exception to several brief exterior shots, is entirely stage bound on the back lot at Pinewood Studios.

Until Powell and Pressburger formed their alliance under 'The Archers' banner, the critical opinion of British cinema was that it generally lagged behind Hollywood's output - both in terms of production value and content; the English zeal for 'polite' drawing room' banter strangely theatrical and un-film-like. Indeed, with the advent of WWII, England lost many an artisan both in front of and behind the camera that might have otherwise made their films the art form they eventually became during the post war generation.

This latter day renaissance is largely due to Powell and Pressburger. Elevating the universal appeal and artistic merit of English cinema to exhilarating heights with the pseudo-historical melodrama, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and continuing with the WWII drama/sci-fi, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), this contradictory duo were ever-testing the boundaries of art vs. commerce.

While their most easily identifiable film today is undoubtedly The Red Shoes (1948), arguably, the most stunningly poetic of their accomplishments in totem remains Black Narcissus. The screenplay by Powell and Pressburger begins in earnest with Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr) being summoned to the office of Mother Dorothea (Nancy Roberts). The old nun informs Sister Clodagh that she is to be the youngest Sister Superior of a new order - St. Faith - tucked high in the Himalayas. The residence being offered to this new order by the old General (Esmond Knight) was once a palace harem. Perched high atop a Tibetan plateau, it is the old General's wish that the Anglican sisters establish a school and dispensary for the reluctant locals to frequent. To convince the locals to comply, the General is paying them.

Sister Clodagh is given several nuns as her staff at St. Faith by Mother Dorothea; each handpicked for a specific virtue and task: there's popular Sister Honey (Jenny Laird) whom it has been decided shall ingratiate herself to the locals with her winning personality and teach school, prudent Sister Briony (Judith Furse), in charge of administering medical care, stoic Sister Phillipa (Flora Robson) - an experienced gardener to raise herbs and vegetables to sustain the order, and, finally Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron), whom Mother Dorothea has sent away in the hopes that the high altitude will help restore her deteriorating mental health.

Yet, from the moment this expedition arrives at St. Faith they are greeted with disdain by both the local British agent, Mr. Dean (David Farrar) and Angu Ayah (May Hallatt); a mentally unstable groundskeeper who operated inside the palace when it was still a harem. Although Angu merely tests the patience of her new occupants, Mr. Dean challenges and even threatens the sisters' faith in God by presenting himself as a virile man of the world - a constant reminder of the lives they surrendered to become nuns. At one point, Mr. Dean brings his mute concubine, Kanchi (Jean Simmons) to Clodagh, suggesting that her libidinous appetites would be wisely tamed by a residency at St. Faith. Clodagh reluctantly agrees, but finds herself further challenged at keeping Kanchi's desires at bay after the arrival of the Young General (Sabu) who at first claims that he has come to St. Faith to learn and discover Christianity for himself - then, is seduced by Kanchi during a fleeting moment of sexual passion.

Dean's influence is particularly felt by Sister Clodagh, who frequently lapses into memories of her life before the convent and Con (Shaun Noble); the man who abandoned her fervent hopes for marriage and children when he went away. At one point, Sister Clodagh orders that Mr. Dean remove a Tibetan holy man from his perch near St. Faith because she believes his influence is at odds with her own agenda. Instead, Dean heartily refuses, condescendingly asking Clodagh, "What would Christ do?" - implying that Clodagh's methods and actions are more grounded by personal vanity than Christianity. The point is taken to heart and the holy man is allowed to stay.

While the convent unpacks, Sister Ruth narrowly saves the life of a local woman, garnering respect from the locals who regard her healing as magic. Dean sympathizes with Ruth after she is chided for her personal pride by Sister Clodagh, thereby implanting the thought in Ruth's mind that he has taken a romantic fancy in her.

All is not well, however, at St. Faith. Sister Philippa is seduced by the wonderment of the plateau, planting flowers instead of crops, thereby sabotaging St. Faith's ability to become self sustainable. Meanwhile, Sister Briony's inability to provide proper medical care to a sick baby results in the child's death and an instant mistrust by the locals of both the sisters and their work. Abandoning St. Faith to its remote desolation - the sisters are left to fend for themselves.

Until this point, the film's narrative has been fairly straight forward; albeit impeccably realized with solid acting from all the principles and sumptuous, stellar cinematography provided by the brilliant Jack Cardiff. However, the last act of Black Narcissus must rank amongst the most compelling and shocking finales in cinema history.

Ever finding herself at odds with the rigidity of convent life, Sister Ruth rebels. In an attempt to seduce Mr. Dean, Ruth buys a red dress, paints her lips and journeys to Dean's home in the valley. Her amorous affections are rebuked by Dean who declares that he loves no one, even though Sister Ruth rightly assesses that he loves Clodagh. Dean's rejection is enough to push Ruth's mental state over the edge. She returns to St. Faith, intent on murdering Clodagh and nearly succeeds at pushing her over the edge of St. Faith's precariously perched bell tower before plummeting to her own death in the valley far below.

Having failed in her mission to establish an outpost for disseminating Christianity, Clodagh has no choice but to return to Calcutta for retribution and reassignment. Dean accompanies the rnuns on their journey through the jungle, pausing at the crossroads to take Clodagh by her hand for a moment. As Dean looks on with sad farewell in his eyes, Clodagh and her entourage make the turn to Calcutta; monsoon rains darkening the length of their journey home.

In retrospect, Black Narcissus is a work of inimitable erotic fiction; its sublime sexual electricity teeming with rich insights into Sister Clodagh's true self. She seems to embody a singular failing inherent in all man and womankind; our misguided beliefs that reality can be willed to conform to our own idealized image of life as we would wish it to be. In Clodagh's case, her pristine white robes barely conceal an earthy, certainly vane, obsession for human perfection; one that is repeatedly tested by Dean's uninhibited masculinity and his refusal to allow her to uphold any false belief in her own propriety that, after all, is only a pretext.

It is through Dean's challenges to Clodagh that she is able to awaken her sexual past - not begrudgingly so, but rather with fond recollections for that past imperfect. Sister Phillipa's claim that Clodagh 'can see too far' only serves to underscore how much of Clodagh remains shrouded in faux piety from her fellow nuns. It is this kinetic struggle between outward perfection and inward fragility that is at Black Narcissus's core.

Casting is quite superb with Deborah Kerr - on loan from MGM - delving deeply into a wellspring of conflicted emotions. David Ferrar is brilliant as the square jawed, sultry eyed realist who refuses to allow hypocrisy to color his judgment about base human desires. In complete silence, Jean Simmons manages to convey more smouldering sensuality than any amount of dialogue could suggest, while Flora Robson delivers the most subtly nuanced trespass into human clairvoyance.

The other standout performance, of course, belongs to Kathleen Byron as the mad, sexual neurotic; transformed from placid hypocrite, into venomous vixen, before crossing the line into fledgling femme fatale before our very eyes. In the final analysis, Black Narcissus is a film of incredible depth of character, a rich tapestry of conflict set ablaze by the passions of life beyond our rules.

After a disastrous DVD release from Criterion in 2000 that was plagued by chroma bleeding, aliasing and softly focused images, this new Blu-Ray release is a most welcomed sight. The 1:33:1 framed video is, in a word, stunning - magnificently realized from start to finish. Mastered on a Spirit HD Datacine with input from Jack Cardiff and Thelma Schoonmaker, the Blu-Ray excels at showcasing fine detail and natural flesh tones. The Technicolor dye transfer has been given a considerable upgrade and the results are near flawless. There are several extremely minor examples of edge enhancement that crop up but will surely not distract. The audio is mono as originally recorded. It can be strident, but on the whole compliments the image.

Extras include a video introduction and video appreciation for the film (in French) by Bertrand Tavernier, a profile of the film containing archival and new interviews with Cardiff, Byron and other surviving crew members, historians and film makers, a featurette on Jack Cardiff's work and the film's original theatrical trailer.

Bottom line: highly recommended!

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






Friday, July 9, 2010

FIRST KNIGHT: Blu-Ray (Columbia 1995) Sony Home Entertainment

Yet another revisionist take on the fabled existence of King Arthur's Camelot - this time loosely based on Chretien de Troyes Arthurian accounts, Jerry Zucker's First Knight (1995) is a stunningly beautiful romance/action movie that treads lightly on the Arthurian legacy.

The film's central shortcoming is not to be found in William Nicholson's screenplay that more or less adheres to the conventional mythology from that period while adding some refreshing - if not entirely new - plot twists. Rather, the flaw remains in the miscasting of Richard Gere as valiant Sir Lancelot.

Not only does Gere speak his part without an English or French accent (Lancelot DuLac was French), but his whole demeanor seems to suggest a jarring contemporary, and painfully sacrilegious 'cowabunga' surfer dude bravado that is quite simply out of touch with the timelessness of his character.

The film's opening tableau outlines Arthur's (Sean Connery) victorious return from war, his dedication to establishing a peaceful utopia where all will be welcomed, prosperous and able to live their lives in peace and harmony. Naturally, Arthur's fanciful creation of Camelot appeals not only to his own constituents but outsiders as well. An internal fly in the ointment is Malagant (Ben Cross), a knight of the round table who rebels to seek the throne of England for his own.

Meanwhile, it has been decided that Arthur will marry Guinevere (Julia Ormond); a queen to her region's peoples all but extinguished from their lands by Malagant's forces. En route to Camelot Guinevere and Lancelot's paths cross, he saving her from the first of many near fatal ambushes by Malagant's men. Lancelot pursues Guinevere on a romantic plain but his initial advances are heartily spurned.

However, Lancelot and Guinevere meet up again, this time inside Camelot where Lancelot finagles a kiss from the lady fair under Arthur's watchful eye. Impressed by Lancelot's reckless courage, Arthur shows him the Round Table; the emblem of Camelot's brotherhood. Guinevere is kidnapped by Malagant's followers forcing Lancelot to come to her aid once more. This he does in spectacular fashion, winning Arthur's gratitude but still not the lady's heart.

Arthur appoints Lancelot to Malagant's old post at the Round Table under ample protests from the other knights, each suspecting that Lancelot's vanity and affections for Guinevere will bring about an end to Arthur's peaceful domain. Nevertheless, and despite Guinevere's growing affections for Lancelot, Arthur marries Guinevere. However, there is little time for rejoicing or lovemaking.

A messenger arrives from Leonesse to inform the King and Queen that Malagant's forces have conquered that region and lane waste to its lands. Arthur leads Lancelot and the rest of his knights into battle. They are victorious against Malagant and his soldiers with Lancelot distinguishing himself on the battle field. However, Lancelot has been reformed by the experience and soon afterward begins to harbor guilt over his gnawing romantic feelings toward the queen.

By now Guinevere has hopelessly fallen for Lancelot; a romantic tragedy that culminates with Arthur stumbling upon the two locked in a passionate embrace. Despite protestations from both, Lancelot and the queen are charged with treason to the crown by Arthur. However, during their public trial, Malagant resurfaces in a surprise attack.

The terms of his invasion are stay and surrender, but Arthur encourages his people to rise up and fight for the preservation of their freedoms instead. Malagant's men fatally wound Arthur with their crossbows and Lancelot - free of his chains - chooses to fight for Arthur's Camelot by seizing the king's fallen sword, Excalibur, and killing Malagant during the final showdown. A dying Arthur places Lancelot's hand in Guinevere's, urging his most valiant knight to oversee the future safety of both his queen and Camelot. Arthur's body is placed on a funeral pyre that is set adrift. So ends, First Knight.

The film has perhaps been unfairly criticized for avoiding many of the clich├ęs so prevalent elsewhere in the Arthurian mythology. To this critic's mind, the absence of such time honored hokum has always made this adaptation pointedly refreshing.

Connery's interpretation of Arthur is impressive - perhaps not surprisingly so. After all, the actor's cache has always been his larger than life screen persona - first, as James Bond and then in a series of roles in the mid-1980s (DePalma's The Untouchables kicking off the most recent cycle in the actor's career) that reestablished him as a performer of some range beyond the iconic British super spy.

Julia Ormond's understated performance as Guinevere deserved mention. As a woman internally conflicted by her very different emotional attachments to two men, Ormond amply delivers both subtlety and substance. But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Nicholson screenplay is its flawed buddy/buddy dynamic between Arthur and Lancelot - men of honor obviously enamored with each other's station in life but unable to allow jealousy to replace that moral integrity they both share.

First Knight may not be perfect entertainment, but it does exercise a fair amount of featherweight pleasure for the average filmgoer. The period costumes and sets have impeccable detailing, hardly surprising since the production was shot entirely in England. Jerry Goldsmith's score is appropriately fanciful, romanticized and exhilarating where propriety demands. In the final analysis, this is a solid film that surely delights.

Sony's Blu-Ray disc delivers the goods, easily besting its DVD offering from 1999. The hi-def master exhibits a truly sharp and inspiring picture quality marked by occasional softness. For the most part, colors are bright and pop. Flesh tones are naturally realized. Contrast levels are beautifully realized. The audio is Dolby TruHD and amply aggressive for this presentation.

Extras are confined to all of the supplements made previously available on the collector's DVD from Sony. They include two informative and diverse audio commentary tracks and three featurettes on the making of the film. Of these, only the last one, entitled 'In Shining Armor' is worthy of a glance. Bottom line: recommended!

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



SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET: Blu-Ray (Columbia/Mandalay 1997) Sony Home Entertainment

Shot mostly in Argentina, Canada, Nepal and Austria, and based on Austrian mountaineer, Heinrich Harrer's detailed autobiography, director Jean-Jacques Annaud's Seven Years In Tibet (1997) is the kind of sweepingly glamorous epic that harks back to the days of David Lean.

The script by Becky Johnston develops an interesting alter-narrative to Harrer's published accounts while managing to capture the flavour and mood of the piece. Unable to lens his film in Tibet, Annaud supervised a minor coup by sneaking a second unit in to capture approximately 20 min. of legitimate footage in and around the Forbidden City of Lhasa.

This being a Hollywood adaptation of life, there are, of course, discrepancies worth noting, beginning with the modification of the climber's association to the Nazi party. By all accounts, Harrer was unabashedly a Nazi SS Officer. In the film he is represented as a reluctant 'sympathizer' who is proud of being Austrian, but who agrees to plant the Swastika for the German government atop the Tibetan high plateau.

Loosely covering the span between 1944 and 1951, the film opens with Harrer (Brad Pitt) and his wife, Ingrid (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) quarrelling over his latest climbing venture. Unsympathetic to Ingrid's emotional and physical state (she is pregnant with their son), Harrer entrusts his good friend, Horst Immerhof (Gerardo Ebert) to look after Ingrid while he is away. Egotistical, pompous and self righteous to a fault, Harrer joins the rest of his expedition team fronted by Peter Autschanaiter (David Thewlis), but their relationship is a tempestuous one from the start, mostly due to Harrer's inability to consider himself as part of a team.

However, very shortly Harrer's own zealousness to conquer the Himalayas turns rancid, particularly after a harrowing storm and near avalanche threaten with the spectre of looming death. At the outbreak of WWII, Harrer and the rest of the climbers are declared enemies of the British Empire, arrested and taken to an internment camp in India. Over the next several years Harrer stages several daring escapes from the camp; all ending in his recapture.

Peter and several members from the climbing team devise a more devious plan of escape by impersonating British officers and local Indian labourers. At the last moment, Harrer decides to join them. The rouse gets Peter and Harrer past the camp, but Harrer pares off from the rest, declaring that he is better off alone. After nearly starving to death and enduring a brutal bout of dysentery from eating spoiled food left as a religious offering, Harrer and Peter are reunited.

Peter plans to seek work in China, a prospect that sounds promising to Harrer as well. Regrettably, the two are taken hostage by a hoard of marauding bandits but manage a harrowing night escape. To sustain themselves, Harrer and Peter slaughter their horses and consume the raw meat. Left for dead in the middle of nowhere, Harrer and Peter next encounter pilgrims en route to the forbidden city of Lhasa.

But their presence is hardly welcome by the locals who consider the sight of white flesh an evil. Only the Lord Chamberlain (Ngawang Chojor) and Gnawwang Jigme (B.D. Wong) advisor to his Holiness, the Dali Lama (Jamyang Jamtsho Wangchuk) take a personal interest in these weary travelers; the former offering them his home, the latter making Harrer and Peter a gift of new clothes hand sewn by local tailor Perma Lhaki (Lhakpa Tsamchoe). Harrer is smitten with Perma, grandstanding at every opportunity to win her affections. But Perma quickly makes it known that her heart has been moved by the more reserved and introspective Peter.

Peter and Perma are married, relocating to a remote farm on the outskirts of the Forbidden City. It is a bitter pill for Harrer to swallow until he is informed by Great Mother (Jetsun Pema) that the Dali Lama wishes to meet him. From here the film's narrative focuses almost exclusively on Harrer's growing paternal affections toward the enlightened one, heavily associating their growing friendship as a surrogate for Harrer's internal struggle to justify having abandoned his own son.

In the meantime, the winds of change have 0taken ominous tones for Lhasa's inhabitants. A visit from the People's Republic of China, Gen. Chang Jing Wu (Ric Young) is hardly reassuring, particularly after the General and his advisors desecrate an intricate floor mosaic that the Tibetan monks have been toiling over for more than a month as a gesture of goodwill toward their Chinese invaders.

Ngawang Jigme makes a critical error by surrendering to the Chinese a mere eleven days after several villages are attacked; blowing up the Tibetan ammunitions dump and thereby dismantling all hope of a counter attack. As Chinese forces take hold of Tibet Harrer condemns Ngawang Jigme as a traitor to his Holiness.

Harrer next returns to the Lama with a plan of escape that is thwarted when the Lama explains to Harrer that he cannot leave his people when they need him most. It is through the Lama's compassion, understanding and finally, blunt assertion to Harrer that he never has considered him as his father, that Harrer comes to realize he must return to Austria and be reunited with his own child.

Perhaps in an attempt to bring closure to this narrative plot point, in the film, Harrer is reunited with his son, Rolf (Sebastian Zevalia as a child/Phillip Kreichbaum as a teenager). However, in reality Rolf was raised by his ex-wife's mother as Harrer never found much in life to implore him to his responsibilities as either a husband or father.

Seven Years in Tibet is masterful entertainment, regrettably marred by several oversights that threaten to sabotage the enterprise. Most obvious of these misfires is the central miscasting of Brad Pitt as Harrer, who so incredibly fractures his German accent that not a word escaping his lips is able to be believed or even moderately enjoyed. Pitt is clearly out of his element, regrettably so, since he must carry much of the action and resolution.

There is also the fudging of history to suit the confines of a Hollywood movie which must be addressed herein. For example, Harrer's autobiographical account contains no reference to an air arrival from China's Gen. Wu, perhaps because no airport existed near Lhasa until 1956 - five years after Harrer left Tibet. The film's depiction of Wu as a heartless Communist who equates religion to poison and encouraged his soldiers in their desecration of Tibetan villages is also a fabrication of Becky Johnston's screenplay and not Harrer's own reflections from that period. So enraged were Chinese officials after pre-screening the film that its director and stars were officially banned from ever entering China.

Johnston's screenplay is also noteworthy for its lack of fidelity to Harrer's own contributions while in Tibet. Her reconstruction of Harrer's life to suit the Hollywood convention of a man enlightened before the final fade out is admirable from a fictional perspective, but it does tend to emasculate the real Harrer's obvious infidelities as a flawed man. These are far more detailed - and arguably, more captivating - in Harrer's autobiography while all but left on the cutting room floor for the film.

In the final analysis, Seven Years in Tibet remains an interesting travelogue experience, primarily because Annaud is clever enough to mask these shortcomings with some truly stunning camera work by Robert Fraisse. The film ought to be seen - just not taken seriously as historical fact.

Sony's Blu-Ray incarnation is a marvel, perhaps not surprisingly so since its DVD release also boasted an impressive transfer. On the Blu-Ray we get a razor sharp anamorphic image with rich, bold and vibrant colors that quite simply pop. Flesh tones have been accurately reproduced. Fine details take a leap forward. In close up we can actually see makeup applications in several instances and pores on flesh. The audio is Dolby Digital and quite aggressive in spots - most noticeably in its music cues. Dialogue is natural sounding with good spatiality. Extras are regrettably limited to a featurette and trailers.

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



Friday, July 2, 2010

THE LEOPARD: Blu-Ray (Il Gattopardo: Titanus Productions 1963) Criterion Home Video

Sumptuously mounted but rather uninspiring in its execution, Luchino Visconti's Il Gattopardo (The Leopard in English) (1963) is an often colossally resplendent critique of the end to Italian decadence and the rise to prominence of its lower classes through violent means and uprisings. Based on Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's sprawling, often scathing chronicles of Sicilian society during the Risorgimento, the novel was twice rejected for publication before finally appearing on book shelves in 1958 after Lampedusa's death, when it quickly became the top-selling Italian novel of all time.

Despite poor health at the time of the film's production, the cantankerous Visconti nevertheless managed to capture the essence of that embalmed aristocracy so close to Lampedusa's heart. The film's weighty budget forced Visconti to cast an international star in the lead of Prince Fabrizio Corbera of Salina. Visconti's first choice, Lawrence Olivier, was unavailable. While the director contemplated a replacement, the studio chose Burt Lancaster for him instead - causing a minor caustic rift between director and star until shooting was well underway. In fact, Visconti is reported to have said "What am I supposed to do with this American gangster?" Undaunted, Lancaster assumed the role and very quickly gained Visconti's admiration and respect. Thereafter, Lancaster and Visconti became lifelong friends.

There are actually three versions of The Leopard: the original 185 minute Italian cut, its 161 min. North American counterpart and 151 min. Spanish cut that has never been seen since the film debuted. The film's English title is perhaps deceiving in that Il Gattopardo in literal translation means a Serval, a North African cat that roamed near Lampedusa's own territory.

The novel and the film begin their narratives with the May 1860 invasion of Sicily by Giuseppe Garibaldi, the heroic figure who united Italy through a daring thrust of military might. But the story is actually centralized on the sad, stoic demise of Don Fabrizio (Lancaster); a 19th century nobleman who quietly observes the slow erosion of his family's stately position. Usurped of both his power and his lands, Don Fabrizio solemnly endures the winds of change with great self reflection while continuing to frequent the brothels of his youth to escape the stifling climate of his own regal household.

There are considerable differences between the novel and film that bear further examination, beginning at Don Fabrizio's Tuscan palace where we are first introduced to the character of Father Pirrone (Romolo Valli) who, in the novel, is a spiritual guide of great foresight but in the film is played primarily as a fop for comic relief.

Don Fabrizio is alerted to the looming invasion by Garibaldi's troops, yet his concern veers toward his nephew Prince Tancredi Falconieri (Alain Delone); a wily playboy, would-be suitor to Don Fabrizio's daughter, Concetta (Lucilla Moracchi) and egotistical turn coat who has taken up Garibaldi's cause as a soldier, if only his true passion were not banal for adventure of any kind, thereby making his army service more of a lark than actual defiance in support against his own class.

Ironically, Don Fabrizio is accepting of his nephew's perceived shortcomings. Father Pirrone declares that Garibaldi's invasion will destroy the church and the aristocracy but Don Fabrizio is more prudent in his assessment; that change - regardless of its scope and sweep - takes time to occur, enough time at least to see him through his own life relatively unchanged.

Nevertheless, Don Fabrizio moves his family to their estate at Donnafugata under the guise that they will be further removed from the battle lines there. In reality, Don Fabrizio can be nearer to his own mistress at Donnafugata. He is also reunited with loyalist, Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa) whose daughter, Angelica (Claudia Cardinale) has grown into a regal beauty.

Superficially wounded in battle, Tancredi arrives at Donnafugata for a grand party at Don Fabrizo's estate. Tarcredi is smitten with Angelica, shifting his romantic infatuations from Concetta over the course of dinner, much to her mother, Princess Maria's (Rina Morelli) impatient regret. Tarcredi seizes on Angelica's interest to hear his war stories and tells a rather sordid tale of how he and his fellow soldiers invaded a convent. The story draws hushed gasps of disgust from everyone at the table except Angelica who finds the perverse humour rapturously charming.

The next afternoon, Don Fabrizio decides to go on a hunting expedition with Don Ciccio (Serge Reggiani), to quietly pick his brain for information about Don Calogero and his family. Ciccio is disdainful and bitter in his scandalous stories about Calogero, but he extols Angelica's untarnished innocence before moving to a rather lustful critique of her obvious physical attributes. Contented that Angelica is a good match for his nephew, Don Fabrizo informs Ciccio that respect must be paid to her.

Unshaken by Concetta's rejection in favour of Angelica - for he might just as easily have pursued a sexual relationship with her in his younger years, Don Fabrizio encourages his Tancredi's advances. The courtship proceeds and Angelica and Tancredi are married. In the novel their marriage is problematic, buffeted by competitive egos and an escalating mutual disdain. But the screenplay by Suso Cecchi d'Amico, Pasquale Festa Campanile, Enrico Medioli, Massimo Franciosa and Visconti is more forgiving and optimistic in its assessment of their life together. In fact, we only get a hint of Tancredi's possessive nature after Angelica dances a waltz with Don Fabrizo at the ball.

The last act of the film is problematic. Visconti has deliberately left out the final third of the novel from his movie, including Fabrizio's death in favour of one last stoic glimpse of the Prince as he slinks off to his mistress in the slums after an elegant ball has sullied his opinion of the aristocratic classes. Also, by presenting Tancredi and Angelica's marriage as mostly ideal, Visconti has diffused the erotic tension so palpably engaging in the novel. As such, Il Gattopardo is a film of mannerisms and mantras without the full-blooded embrace of its social classes as anything beyond mere cardboard cut outs.

As example, Prince Fabrizio spends large portions of the film eloquently espousing the end of his class. Yet, in those reflections there is little to suggest that he assumes any responsibility for the aristocracy's demise. Instead of being engaged by his own words, the Prince almost seems to be delivering soliloquies aimed at another place and time, as a soothsayer from the future might in reflection of an historical record far removed from his own timeline.

Visconti opted to dub the entire film in postproduction, robbing us of Burt Lancaster's magnificent range of vocalization (heard on the North American cut of the film) on the Italian version. In this dub, so too do we lose Claudia Cardinale's range of dialects. For example, she spoke fluid French when reading her lines to Alain Delon and perfect English to Burt Lancaster; none of which appears in the final cut.

When Il Gattopardo debuted it was a huge flop in North America, bankrupting Titanus Productions and all but bringing about an end to this sort of lavish style of film making in Italy. Today, the film has enjoyed a revival of sorts and, to be certain, there is much to recommend it, not the least of which are its superb production design and melodic scoring and central theme. However, on the whole, Il Gattopardo remains rather tepid melodrama at best, spectacularly sheathed in period garb but flat and one dimensional in its storytelling.

Criterion Home Video's Blu-Ray represents a stunning and immaculate reference quality transfer. The image is solid and, for the most part, utterly breathtaking. On Disc One we get the restored Italian cut, properly preserved at its 2:21:1 aspect ratio from the original Technirama film elements. Here, colors are fully saturated. Flesh tones are quite natural. Contrast levels have been superbly realized. Blacks are deep. Whites are very clean and film grain is properly represented. On the DVD - also from Criterion - grain appeared a tad digitally harsh - a shortcoming of DVD's inferior disc space. Also, Criterion has taken painstaking care to remove all hints of age related damage to the original camera negative. The result is an image of stunning clarity, well preserved for future generations to enjoy.

Blu-Ray Disc Two in Criterion's set gives up the North American cut of the film with Burt Lancaster speaking his own lines in English. Regrettably, this version has not been restored and is reframed at 2:35.1 on inferior Cinemascope film stock. Colors are faded and age related artefacts have not been cleaned up for a substandard presentation full of age related anomalies by direct comparison.

Keen eyes will note that the Twentieth Century-Fox logo that precedes the Italian cut is not the same as the one that precedes the North American cut. This is a curiosity since both the North American and Italian versions of Il Gattopardo were released at the same time theatrically by Fox. On the Italian version the Fox logo appears to be from Fox feature films circa the mid to late 1960s with its iconic art deco facade slightly cropped at the bottom and appearing horizontally stretched. On the Cinemascope version the logo is from the same vintage as the film and naturally uncompressed.

(Aside: this reviewer has noticed similar logo manipulations on other Fox classics released by 20th Century-Fox Home Video. As example, the fox logo that precedes the DVD releases of Leave Her To Heaven, That Night in Rio and Weekend in Havana is definitely not as the logo that would have appeared from the 1940s but rather inserts of the Fox logo circa the mid-1960s, heavily cropped to conform to the full frame aspect ratio of those films. This reviewer is at a loss to explain why these changes have been made to the original films. But we digress from the review herein).

Extras on Disc One are limited to an informative audio commentary from Peter Cowie. On Disc Two we get a nearly hour long reflection on the film with surviving cast and crew as well as personal reflections from the late Sidney Pollack. There's also a pair of video interviews - the first with producer Goffredo Lombaro, the second with scholar Millicent Marcus. Original trailers, newsreels and stills round out an appreciation for the film.

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