Thursday, September 30, 2010

SE7EN: Blu-Ray (New Line 1995) Alliance U.S. Home Video

As viscerally disturbing as when it was first released, director David Fincher's Se7en (1995) is a thriller that continues to cast its influential darkness (both in narrative and visually) about our current cinematic landscape. Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker wrote his story during a fallow creative period in New York, and although the city in which the film takes place is never identified, there are shades of Manhattan peppered about the landscape - even though the film was shot in California and Pennsylvania.

Stylistically, Darius Khondji's cinematography for Se7en is a partial send up to 1940s film noir, it's dark, gritty urban landscape,complete with perpetual rainfall, creates a shadowy - often oppressive and depressing - backdrop of constricting uncertainty. The streets in Arthur Max's production design teem with spurious dregs of humanity and emotionless denizens who move, almost paralytic, through the murky recesses of their caged existence. This is a metropolitan wasteland inhabited by the ambiguity of moral and social decay.

Initially, the character of Somerset (eventually played to perfection by Morgan Freeman) was envisioned by Walker for actor William Hurt, while the character's name is actually a send up to Walker's favourite author; W. Somerset Maugham. We first meet William Somerset at the scene of a domestic dispute turned fatal. The bodies of a man and a woman lie in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor as Somerset examines the crime scene.

Enter, Det. David Mills (Brad Pitt), Somerset's new and very impatient partner. From the outset, the two men develop a tempestuous dislike for one another, due in large part to Mill's overbearing 'hot shot' attitude that Somerset chalks up to Mill's youth and inexperience working homicide in his city. Mill's request for reassignment to Somerset's division intrigues Somerset, who is looking forward to his own retirement in seven days with thoughts to escape the nightmarish hell hole he currently finds himself in.

Somerset and Mills are assigned by their Police Captain (R. Lee Ermey) to investigate the brutal murder of a fat man (Bob Mack) who was force fed by his killer until his intestines exploded. At the grim crime scene, Somerset discovers the word 'gluttony' scrawled in bacon grease behind the fridge, suggesting to him that the murder is not random, but one in a series reflecting the killer's zeal for avenging humanity's seven deadly sins.

Realizing that in order to solve this case he will have to postpone his retirement, Somerset begs to be taken off the assignment. His request is promptly denied. However, he and Mills are briefly separated in their duties until a second murder occurs. This time, rich attorney Eli Gould (Gene Borkan) is discovered in his fashionable office, bound and forced to extract a pound of his own flesh (a reference to Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice) in order to atone for his sin of greed. Mills is stumped by the killer's motives but later learns from Gould's wife (Julie Araskog) that the abstract art in her late husband's office has been hung upside down. Behind the picture the words 'help me' have been written in finger prints that Somerset and Mills trace to a local drug dealer, Victor (Michael Reid McKay).

Regrettably, Victor is not their killer, but rather victim number three - his sin; sloth. He is discovered by Somerset and Mills, emaciated, with most of his outer layer of flesh painstakingly peeled away. Unable to add up the clues to any satisfactory conclusion, Somerset rejoins Mills on the case to apprehend the serial killer now affectionately nicknamed John Doe.

At this point in the narrative, Walker's screenplay takes a much needed respite from its gruesomeness to introduce the character of Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow); Mill's congenial wife whose kind facade barely masks her overwhelming unhappiness. Somerset has dinner with Mills and Tracy and the three share in some much needed laughter. Isolated, Tracy later and rather awkwardly confides in Somerset that she has become pregnant and fears the repercussions of raising a child in such an environment.

Shifting focus once again to the murders, Somerset and Mills trace John Doe by his library card after Somerset suggests to Mills that their suspect is well read in the seven deadly sins. Their investigation leads straight to Doe's apartment; a recluse who confirms their suspicions by first taking a couple of pot shots at Mills and Somerset in the hallway and then leading Mills on a harrowing foot chase through the bowels of his multi-levelled apartment complex that ends with Mills almost being shot by Doe in the back alley.

Inside Doe's apartment, Somerset and Mills discover epic volumes of diaries written by Doe that emphasize his irrational thoughts and social judgments. But they arrive too late to save Doe's next victim; a prostitute (Cat Mueller) who has been raped to death using a metal knife-like phallus by her john (Leland Orser) at Doe's gunpoint; the victim of lust. This crime is followed with another female victim, a model (Heidi Schanz) who has been forced to mutilate herself as she represents the sin of pride.

At this point, Doe turns himself in by walking into the precinct and declaring to Somerset and Mills that there are two unsolved crimes remaining in his reign of terror. Doe will lead the detectives to the remaining bodies, but only if they do exactly as they are told. Reluctantly, Mills and Somerset agree to Doe's demands.

With a SWAT escort by helicopter, Mills and Somerset drive Doe to a barren landscape in the middle of nowhere where Doe instructs them to park their car and wait. Presently, a delivery truck arrives with a small package. While Somerset leaves the scene to investigate the contents of the box, Mills holds Doe at gunpoint.

The shocking truth is revealed only by the look on Somerset's face as he discovers Tracy's severed head inside the box. It now becomes clear to Somerset that Doe has made himself the next victim - his sin being 'envy' of Mills, and with his final intention to make Mill's the ultimate victim of the last deadly sin - 'wrath' by forcing Mills to shoot him. Somerset races back to beg Mills not to listen to Doe, but with Doe's confession and the revelation to Mills that his late wife was carrying their child, Mills' surge of disbelief, pain and rage become uncontrollable. He murders Doe using all the rounds in his gun.

The final moments of the film are shared between the Captain and Somerset as a shell shocked Mills is taken away from the crime scene. Somerset explains through a quote by Ernest Hemingway that "the world is a fine place and worth fighting for" with Somerset adding, "I agree with the second part."

Thus ends, Se7en on an apocalyptic whimper. The film is, in fact, a very perverse and overwhelmingly downbeat reflection on societal discourse in general. The claustrophobic cityscape that the characters occupy is bleak with no hope of reprieve and there is little to suggest that life anywhere else on the planet might be better.

At the time Se7en was originally released, this reviewer can recall thinking how brilliant Kevin Spacey's performance was. Time, and renewed viewings have not diminished that assessment. Spacey's John Doe is diabolically cold yet strangely compelling and even moderately sympathetic. When he stands before an entire precinct, calling out Mills' name at the top of his lungs for acknowledgement of his crimes, he is the very essence of a demented Charles Manson-esque martyr. Here is a figure so utterly frayed at the senses, so tragically warped with sadism run amuck, that he is determined to destroy himself to prove his twisted ideology about humanity at large.

It goes without saying that Morgan Freeman delivers a superb turn as the emotionally rumpled and intellectually scarred Detective Somerset. This is a man who has seen too much in his professional calling and it has changed the hot wiring of his very being. The singular casting flaw therefore remains Brad Pitt who, at least by this reviewer's barometer, has never played anything but variations of himself on the screen. As the cocky Mills, Pitt is equal parts testosterone driven bravado and dysfunctional belligerence. Yet, he never seems to entirely assimilate into the role but rather adlibs his own reactions to the lines he's been given, effectively grafting himself on top of the character profile until all we see on the screen is Brad Pitt and not Det. Mills.

In the final analysis, this shortcoming has minimal impact on the narrative - perhaps because Fincher's direction keeps the camera focused on the thriller aspects of his story. We settle on the characters just long enough to appreciate each of them for their fundamental flaws and virtues; our attentions shifting to the quest to apprehend John Doe before he strikes again. The result is that Se7en endures and continues to succeed as a noir styled thriller.

This is a second trip to the well for Se7en on Blu-ray and a more wholly satisfactory offering from Alliance Home Video's U.S. distribution. Alliance Canada released Se7en almost two years ago on Blu-Ray, with an open matte transfer in 1080i that completely betrayed Darius Khondji's spooky cinematography and aspect ratio framing, and with the added insult of bumped up contrast levels that rendered the image brighter than expected . But now we get the 'official' release from Alliance/New Line Home Video; correctly framed in its 2:25:1 aspect ratio and with deep saturated blacks.

Colors are rich and fully saturated. Fine detail is magnificently realized throughout. The audio is the same 5.1 Dolby Digital mastering from several years ago. Extras, including audio commentaries and a vintage featurette on the making of the film, are all direct imports from Alliance/New Line's previously released deluxe packing of Se7en on DVD from 2000. There is one curiosity and one complaint that should be noted between this transfer and the new Blu-ray. First, the curiosity.

The scene after Mills has shot John Doe dissolves to a brief scene where Somerset and the Captain observe as a shell shocked Mills is taken into custody in the back of a police cruiser. Somerset's voice over refers to the Hemmingway quote and the screen fades to black.

On the DVD this sequence appears to have been shot in late afternoon, same as the murder of Doe, with a predominantly orange color palette as the sun sets in the background. However, on the newly minted Blu-ray this sequence looks as though it were photographed in the moments just beyond magic hour, the sky a deep purplish black with only a minute hint of afterglow from the sun coming from the far left of the screen. This reviewer is unable to recall exactly how the film played in theatres. Suffice it to state that in either incarnation, the final moments of Se7en lose none of their bleak, emotionless impact.

Now for the complaint. Se7en on Blu-ray loads with three theatrical trailers for lesser movies currently available from Alliance that you cannot fast forward through. Instead, you are force fed each movie preview in rapid succession. This reviewer cannot stress how annoying this feature is to the collector. Trailers are fine - but the choice of viewing them ought to be made by the consumer and not the company hoping to sell a few more discs on the side. Nevertheless, this version of Se7en comes highly recommended.

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

4

VIDEO/AUDIO

4.5

EXTRAS

2.5

Monday, September 20, 2010

AMERICAN BEAUTY: BLU-RAY (Dreamworks SKG 1999) Paramount Home Video


Academic interpretations on director Sam Mendes' American Beauty (1999) abound; from heavy handed variations on the meaning of life theme turned rancid through materialism, to various exploitations of the vapid shallowness of suburban societyAs with all great artistic achievements, no single interpretation suffices. Rather, the film remains a multi-layered, multi-purposed exposé on the demise of the sacred and rise of the profane in American lifestyle. Neither is a dominant force for change however and that lack of immediate triumph or total collapse within Alan Ball's screenplay has caused many a critic to conclude that the film has no 'centre' but rather a multitude of voices all speaking at once on behalf of the plight of the middle class.


Whatever your interpretation of the story, there is little to deny the emotional power or entertainment value invested in the film; its astute narrative and superb cast really giving it their all. If American Beauty does have a central theme it is perhaps instructional - as ad campaigns of the day professed - for audiences to 'look closer' at their own lives and recollect their efforts to improve themselves by seeking personal salvation beyond the status quo.


As for the concreteness of the story at hand, it revolves around middle aged office grunt, Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey). Dissatisfied at work and metaphorically emasculated at home by his shrill wife, Carolyn (Annette Bening) - herself on the verge of a nervous breakdown - Lester finds himself in an ever constricting, suffocating existence that threatens to destroy his sanity. But then he meets his daughter, Jane's (Thora Birch) Lolita-esque girlfriend, Angela Hayes (Mina Suvari). A contemptible teenage flirt, Angela professes a more worldly attitude than she actually has, prompting Jane to begin her web search for breast augmentation clinics.


At the same time, the Burnham's welcome a new neighbour to their block; retired Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper), his wife, Barbara (Allison Janney) and their quirky teenage son, Ricky (Wes Bentley). On the surface, the Fitts appear as a very average suburban family. The smoke and mirrors of it is that behind closed doors, beneath his iron-fisted tyranny, Frank is a closeted homosexual; Barbara - an emotionally isolated and affectionately starved drudge and Ricky, a slightly disturbed drug dealer who finances his Peeping Tom-ism through high tech surveillance equipment he uses to spy on his neighbours.


When Lester's company hires an efficiency expert to help downsize staff, Lester reaches his breaking point. Instead of going mad, he cynically decides to blackmail his boss for a payout of $60,000. Meanwhile, Carolyn - a not so successful realtor - improves her prospects at work by having an affair with Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher); the self professed 'king' of realtors.


On the home front, Lester and Carolyn's relationship continues to crumble. Yet their demise is not so much crippling as it results in Lester liberation from what he perceives are the shackles of married life. Free to do as he chooses, Lester reverts to the mantra of a free spirited teenager; buying the sports car he always wanted, 'vegging' at home, smoking premium marijuana supplied to him by Ricky on a regular basis and working out in his garage.


Of course, in totem these activities add up to a male mid-life crisis with the object of Lester's infatuation increasingly becoming Angela. Meanwhile, Jane and Ricky begin to relate to one another on a platonic romantic level; their Gen-X angst teeming with co-dependence that can only end in romantic tragedy. Thankfully - and cleverly - Ball's script doesn't go there, choosing instead to focus on an ever coiling series of mishaps that draw Col. Fitts into believing that his son is a homosexual.


The film's last act is an exhilarating slalom to hell as Carolyn - having been discovered in her affair with Buddy by Lester - plans to murder her husband on the evening that Ricky and Jane have already decided to run away and elope. Angela, who has provoked Lester with prospects for a sexual rendezvous nervously confesses that she is still a virgin when it looks as though he just might take advantage of her offer. In this context, Lester no longer regards her as a sex object but as the child that she truly is.


Meanwhile, having beaten his son to a pulp for his own closeted homosexuality, Col. Fitts is emotionally destroyed by Ricky's lie/confession that he has been turning gay tricks to fund his expensive camera equipment. Realizing that his life is bound to Carolyn, Lester awakens from his mid-life crisis only to have Col. Fitts put a bullet in his head because he suspects that Lester was the object of Ricky's homo erotic affections. Yet, in those final moments, Lester has indeed found what he has been searching for since the film began and quite possibly his whole life: absolute contentment.


American Beauty stands as a call to action. What is so incredibly compelling about Mendes' masterpiece of self reflection is not so much the way these characters' lives intersect on a crossroads ultimately doomed to destruction, but how ably and poignantly the director has managed to capture a slice from this inevitable decline and fall from “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

What Mendes and the film seem to be saying is that, all we, 'the people' have to do, in order to form a more perfect union, is to take a step back from the fray…and then, as the film’s publicity fittingly suggests, “look closer.”

Paramount Home Video's Sapphire edition of American Beauty puts to shame the lacklustre Dreamworks DVD from eight years ago. With so much visual richness at hand, the Blu-Ray reissue is perfection itself, exhibiting rich, deep and vibrant colours married to a superb amount of fine detail and film grain that has been rendered as such. Contrast levels have been ideally realized. Blacks are dark and solid; whites, quite pristine. The film's most dominant colour is, of course, red and captured herein with such explosive power that it seems to burst forth with dimensionality from the screen.



The audio is a Tru-HD lossless remaster that is quite aggressive across all channels. The one disappointment herein is that there are NO new extra features added to this presentation. The hour long Storyboard Presentation by Ball and cinematographer Conrad Hall and the 20 minute featurette are direct imports from the DVD, but the film's two theatrical trailers have been remastered in HD. Bottom line: highly recommended!


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


VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5


EXTRAS
2

Thursday, September 16, 2010

CHARADE: Blu-Ray (Universal 1963) Criterion Home Entertainment

The film's of Stanley Donen represent an unique and stylish cache of memorable classics that are as progressive in their narrative structure as they remain compellingly fresh upon renewed viewing. Of Donen's many stellar accomplishments, Charade (1963) remains the epitome of the elegant romantic thriller and it's certainly no wonder; co-starring two of the twentieth century’s most radiant stars – Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn.

Working from a screenplay by Peter Stone and Marc Behm, Donen originally approached Grant with the project two years earlier but was promptly turned down.

It seems that Grant, who had quietly observed the erosion of his own film career with nonchalance, had finally decided to retire from acting - citing that at his age - then 59 - he was a little long in the tooth to continue playing romantic leads; especially when the average age of his leading ladies hovered in the late 20s to early 30s. Thankfully, Donen persisted in acquiring Grant for this deal - especially after Audrey Hepburn signed with the understanding that she would do 'the chasing' as it were, after Grant rather than the other way around.

In essence, Charade is a Hitchcock film; its 'wrong man' (or in this case, 'wrong woman) scenario, wildly careening plot twists and spurious roster of rogues pretending to be good guys perfectly pitched to the climate of Hitchcock's greatest movies from the 1950s. But Charade is not merely a Hitchcock knock off. Under Donen's direction, it crackles with an air of romantic folly that is more aligned with the cynicism of Dick Avery (a character played by Fred Astaire in Donen's Funny Face 1957). Charade's other big plus is that it has Donen's supremely effective use of real locations; gradually transforming the elegant, swinging backdrop of Paris into an eerily unsettling city of danger, suspense and mystery.

Charade opens with one of the most gripping pre-title sequences in movie history; a bloodied body being thrown from a moving train in the middle of the night. From this shocking opener, we dissolve to the relative safety of a fashionable chalet where Regina Lampert (Audrey Hepburn) is having lunch. She is interrupted by the deviously playful, Jean-Louis (Thomas Chelimsky) who squirts her with his toy gun. Summing Jean-Louis's mother, Sylvie Gaudel (Dominique Minot) to look after the boy, Regina announces to Sylvie that her brief marriage to Charles Lampert is at an end.

Sylvie and Regina's platonic vacation takes an interesting turn when Regina meets Peter Joshua (Cary Grant). The two spar with glib barbs that tingle with romantic chemistry before Regina sends Peter on his way. It seems that until one of her current acquaintances either dies or leaves her side, Regina cannot bring herself to take another person to her bosom.

Returning to the fashionable Paris apartment she shared with Charles, Regina is shocked to discover that the home has been completely liquidated of its assets. Upon identifying her husband's body at the morgue, Regina is even more surprised to learn from Insp. Edouard Grandpierre (Jacques Martin) that Charles was not a wealthy businessman but Carson Dyle; an international spy whose consortium of crooked friends are now after her to gain access to the $250,000.00 fortune Charles supposedly stole from them.

This motley crew includes embittered, one armed, Herman Scobie (George Kennedy), slightly psychotic Tex Panthollow (James Coburn) and schemer, Leopold Gideon (Ned Glass). In due time all three will meet with untimely ends. However, as the narrative slowly unravels, we learn that Peter Joshua is also involved with these men...or is he?...while courting Regina to pump her for information. Could Peter be the one killing off the competition?

Approached by CIA's Hamilton Bartholomew (Walter Matthau), Regina is forced into playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse to learn the truth? Is Bartholomew on her side or is Peter more than he pretends to be?

Charade is a film teeming with what Hitchcock once coined the MacGuffin - plot points that seem of paramount interest at the start, yet amount to nothing by the end. The biggest MacGuffin in Charade is, of course, the $250,000.00 that Charles has cleverly concealed by using a rare stamp worth that amount affixed to a letter addressed to Regina but discovered amongst his personal effects on the train he was thrown from.

But who threw Charles from that train?

As the body count begins to mount the choice suspects narrow to either Peter or Bartholomew; the latter actually being Carson Dyle's brother, Alexander. Terrorized and not knowing who to trust, Regina inadvertently reveals to Alexander that she has the stamp and Dyle, as Bartholomew, agrees to meet Regina to secure the exchange - all the while planning to murder her.

In the climactic finale - appropriately played out on the stage of an abandoned theatre, Peter kills Dyle by dropping him through a trap door. But the biggest surprise is yet to come. Peter reveals to Regina that he is Brian Cruikshank - a federal agent who has been trying to retrieve the stamp as part of a government investigation.

Charade is superb entertainment - as fresh and contemporary today as it was the year it debuted. Owing to a rights issue, there are no less than 7 different public domain incarnations of Charade on DVD and two legitimately sanctioned; one from Criterion Home Video, the other as part of a flipper disc from Universal (the company that originally made the movie), as an ‘extra feature’ on the film's remake ‘The Truth About Charlie’ 2002 - a wholly forgettable excursion co-starring Thandi Newton and Mark Walberg.

Of the two legitimate versions, neither represented Charade satisfactorily. The Criterion edition suffered from severe edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details while the Universal edition exhibited a faded color scheme with less than adequate image sharpness.

But now, Criterion gives us Charade as we should have had it all along - breathtakingly realized on a flawless Blu-Ray. The remastered 1080p transfer is stunning. Colors are deep, rich and solid. Fine details are razor sharp throughout. Contrast levels have been ideally realized. The most impressive aspect of the new transfer is its retention of film grain (something that was scrubbed away by excessive DNR on previous versions). As such, Charade looks remarkably film like for the first time - and most welcomingly so.

Sticklers for remaining true to the original film's fidelity, the audio is represented in uninspiring mono but has been nicely repurposed and cleaned up for this edition. If this disc has a shortcoming, it's that Criterion has not deemed this title worthy of including any new extra features. We get the original essay on Donen's movies as well as his audio commentary and that's about it.

Nevertheless, for the video/audio presentation alone, Charade on Blu-Ray comes highly recommended! A must have!

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

5

VIDEO/AUDIO

4

EXTRAS

2

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS: Blu-Ray (UA 1978) MGM/Fox Home Entertainment

Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) is a disturbing update of the classic sci-fi tale of paranoia first made famous in 1956. Then, producer Walter Wanger played Jack Finney’s novel strictly for camp with a foreboding anti-communism slant that was well suited for the McCarthy era. Kaufman’s revamp is a far more sinister excursion, delving more deeply into the horror genre than its predecessor while still retaining the book's cosmic terrors.

The film opens with a migration of ‘pod’ aliens from outer space into the atmosphere of an unsuspecting earth. Disguised in the innocence of a cleansing spring rain, the pods soon attach themselves to other living plant life in and around San Francisco.

They are first observed with curiosity by micro-biologist, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) as she heads home after a long day at the office. Liz’s live-in boyfriend, Dr. Geoffrey Howell (Art Hindle) thinks her speculation about parasitic plants is farfetched. Very shortly, however, he discovers the truth when one of the pods grows into his counterpart – a human/alien hybrid that begins to colonize the city with perfectly cloned imitations of its human counterparts.

However, the new aliens lack our emotional response to make their transformation complete, causing Elizabeth to notice a change in Geoffrey’s behaviour and consult her friend, Board of Health investigator, Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland). At first, Matthew is just as reticent about accepting Elizabeth’s theory of colonization. Then, he begins to witness the changes first hand as he frequents local establishments in the city, only to discover an emotionless population staring blankly back at him. Keen viewers will recognize actor Kevin McCarthy's brief cameo as a frightened man who runs into Matthew's car on a crowded Frisco street as he is pursued by pod people.

Meanwhile across town, massage therapist Nancy Bellicec (Veronica Cartwright) and her husband Jack (Jeff Goldblum) begin to suspect that their establishment has already been frequented by the pod people. Eventually, they are approached by Matthew and Elizabeth with their findings. The foursome flee within the city limits – masquerading as pod people to infiltrate the city, only to learn that they are already too late to save either the world or themselves from complete extinction.

Kaufman’s vision is both tragic and apocalyptic. He presents a hopeless scenario for his protagonists and creates a very palpable feeling of intense and threatening isolationism. The special effects are gruesome and hold up very well under contemporary scrutiny. Yet, it is the overall believability of the actors who really sell this monster mash that makes this version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers one of the best all time scare fares in movie history. Chilling on every level and sure to lead to a few sleepless nights besides; Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a film not so easily ignored. True of the best movies – once seen it is never entirely purged from our collective consciousness.

MGM/Fox Home Entertainment's Blu-Ray delivers marginal improvements to their previously released Collector's edition DVD. Most noticeable is the tightness of the image owing to Blu-Ray's higher bit rate. Where the DVD was merely sharp, the Blu-Ray is razor sharp with a modicum of fine detail revealed as a result. Flesh tones seem slightly more accurately rendered. Contrast levels are more crisp. The audio is the same Dolby Digital 5.1 mix from the aforementioned DVD and is remarkably crisp for a film of this vintage that was, after all, first released in 1978 in mono. Extras include a thorough audio commentary, the original theatrical trailer and 3 featurettes detailing the film’s creation and impact. There's the pointless inclusion of the DVD version as well. Highly recommended!

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

4

VIDEO/AUDIO

4

EXTRAS

3

Saturday, September 11, 2010

THE THIRD MAN: Blu-ray (London Films 1949) Lionsgate Home Entertainment


Based on a screenplay by Grahame Greene, director Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949) is arguably the most perfectly realized post-war thriller; a dark, yet deceptively playful melodrama that follows the exploits of Harry Lime (Orson Welles) – or that is, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten), an American pulp novelist who cannot bring himself to accept that his old best friend has been accidentally struck and killed outside his fashionable Viennese apartment.
A co-production between London Films and American producer David O. Selznick, The Third Man charts Holly’s growing disillusionment with Harry’s death…or perhaps disappearance? From its dilapidated Viennese facades - the once proud trappings of a sophisticated city now in ruins and quartered by Allied forces pushing it to the brink of extinction - to the film's triumphantly thrilling climactic showdown in the bowels of the city’s sewer system, The Third Man moves like gangbusters.
Like the best thrillers from any vintage, at first all the pieces seem to fit. Holly arrives at Harry's apartment in Vienna, only to be informed by the building's porter (Paul Horbiger) that he is too late to accompany the funeral cortege to the cemetery. Harry Lime, at least it seems, is quite dead - the victim of a hit and run. Holly arrives at the cemetery in time for the priest's blessing. There, he sees Anna Schmidt (Alida Valli), and two of Harry's fair weather cronies; Baron Kurtz (Ernest Deutsch) and the Romanian smuggler, Popescu (Sigfried Breuer).
Also in attendance is Major Calloway (Trevor Howard); a cynical ex-military determined to learn the truth behind Harry's untimely demise. Calloway offers Holly a ride from the grave in his motor. The offer is only slightly philanthropic. Moreover, Calloway is interested to learn all he can about Holly's purpose in Vienna. After getting Holly properly pissed, Calloway encourages him to take the first train from Vienna back home. But Holly isn't going anywhere. In fact, he is more determined than ever to explore Harry's past in the hopes of learning what happened to his old friend.
Upon returning to Harry's apartment, the porter explains to Holly that he heard the accident and saw Baron Kurtz, Popescu and a third man carry a lifeless body across the street where medics pronounced him dead. Ah, but then there is the curiosity that won’t go away: ‘the third man’ – unnamed and unidentified by either Kurtz or Popescu upon further interrogation.

The one sympathetic note from this chorus of dissention derives from Harry’s former flame, Anna Schmidt– an actress whom Major Calloway soon discovers is living and working in Austria with forged papers. Through a twist of fate and good timing Holly agrees to stay behind, unravel the mystery of Harry's death and hopefully help Anna recover from her loss. But will his investigation also dismantle the faith and trust he once had in his boyhood chum?
Calloway has Anna detained with the prospect that she will be deported. Meanwhile, Holly soon discovers that Popescu and Kurtz are keeping secrets from him and the authorities. Determined to unearth the truth, Holly travels the cobblestoned streets by night, skulking about the scenery until one evening he witnesses a sight he never thought he would see again. Harry Lime - alive and well and eager to explain his part of the tale...to a point.
At a lonely abandoned fairground in the city's centre, Harry tells Holly that he cannot reveal to anyone the truth of his survival. Holly agrees to remain silent, though he stresses to Harry how much it would mean to Anna if she knew he was alive. Just why Harry wishes to remain legally dead remains a mystery to Holly until Calloway tells Holly that his friend was dealing in black market drugs. These tainted medical supplies were sold at a premium by Harry to hospitals who gave them to their adolescent patients. The lucky ones simply died. But the survivors are now crippled or in a coma and doomed to remain so for the rest of their lives.
Reluctantly, Holly agrees to help Calloway apprehend Harry. He sets up a meeting between himself and Harry at a remote cafe near the train depot - a rouse that is successful at drawing Harry from the shadows. Anna is astounded to see her lover resurrected before her eyes. But before the two can be reunited, Calloway and his men burst onto the scene. Harry makes a break through the back of the cafe and down into the rusty bowels of the city's sewage system with Holly, Calloway and the police in full pursuit. After some truly harrowing cat and mouse antics, Harry and Holly come face to face. Harry takes dead aim at Holly but is shot to death at the last moment by Calloway.
The film ends as it had begun, this time however at the real burial of Harry Lime. Calloway offers Holly a ride to the station. But the two come across Anna solitarily walking away from Harry's grave, having lost him twice. Calloway lets Holly out of the car and drives off. However, Anna, who now blames Holly for Harry's death, walks by him and onward to a remote fixed point in the distance without so much as looking his way.
Thus ends, The Third Man - its bittersweet, bleak view of the future as uncertain and self destructive as the past inhabited by these spurious characters. The film is justly famous for its departure from conventional orchestral underscoring, with Anton Karas zither tracks ricocheting between playful lyricism and grating chords that heighten the taut visual styling of Robert Krasker's stark and rather cockeyed cinematography.

Reed’s direction is both solid and revolutionary – exercising the skewed camera in nearly every shot to create a world where nothing and no one are as they seem, and, everything, from Vienna’s glowing and decadent post-war decay, to its harrowing sewers beneath the city are lit with dramatic integrity. In a near cameo role, Orson Welles dominates every scene in which he appears and steals the whole show. All of the cast perform with inspired perfection to create a rich tapestry of immorality and/or aloofness; milling about with that intangible and elusive spark of cinematic magic firmly tucked between the grit and sneer of their careworn teeth.

The Third Man has been released twice before by Criterion Entertainment; once as a deluxe 2-disc DVD, the other as a single Blu-Ray with all of the 2 disc's extra features included herein. Now, due to a lapse in rights, The Third Man arrives anew on Blu-Ray via Lionsgate Home Entertainment. The results, however, are not so much an improvement over Criterion's efforts as they represent the film in yet another 1080p incarnation that may or may not be satisfactory to collectors.
Comparing the Criterion Blu-Ray alongside Lionsgate's efforts it seems as though the Lionsgate disc has an ever so slightly smoother image. However, this may be the result of more stringent DNR (digital noise reduction) application, rather than improving on the original film elements. Grain is still present, but it has been considerably tempered from Criterion's Blu-Ray.
Also, the Lionsgate disc seems to exhibit a slight greenish tint that the Criterion did not have. This, of course, can be remedied by simply turning the color scale of one's chosen monitor down to zero. Overall, fine detail is still quite evident, with close ups of faces most impressively rendered. So, which is better? That remains open for discussion. Suffice it to state herein that Lionsgate's Blu-Ray will not disappoint.
The audio on both Blu-rays seems to be sourced from the same elements and are virtually indistinguishable from one another. Where the Criterion wins the war in this reviewer's opinion is in the extra features. The Lionsgate offering excises the audio commentaries, introduction by Peter Bogdanovich and the nearly 2 hr. 'Shadowing the Third Man' documentary.
In their place we get a few scant extras that do not live up to the reputation of the film - the best probably being Guy Hamilton's newly recorded commentary track and Joseph Cotten's nearly hour long audio only interview where the star waxes affectionately about the film and his overall career. Bottom line: The Third Man is a fantastic film of timeless appeal and enduring magnetism. If you missed the Criterion offering from a few years back you owe it to yourself to purchase this disc as a runner up. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS
3

MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL (WB 1997) Warner Home Video

Not exactly sure how Clint Eastwood's Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) works, but it does. It's not exactly a ‘who done it’ since there is little doubt that the film's protagonist, wealthy philanthropist antique dealer, Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey) murdered his gay hustler boy toy, Billy Hanson (Jude Law) in cold blood. It’s not entirely a thriller either, even though - as in the celebrated novel by John Berendt - there's plenty of moody southern gothic and local color to leave the viewer modestly unsettled and, at times, perversely unnerved. The film has no climax to speak of - the machinations of Jim's subsequent trial and exoneration (even though we already know he is guilty) a foregone conclusion about midway through the screenplay by John Lee Hancock and long before the moot verdict near the end of the film's lengthy 155 min. run time is rendered.
At best, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is an ensemble piece, very much cut from the artistic cloth of a Robert Altman flick - its plot secondary to the characters that skulk about the scenery - except when absolutely necessary to propel the action to its next lurid vignette. In retrospect, what the film has in spades is uncanny verisimilitude; thanks to Eastwood's foresight in casting real life people written about in the novel in his film. These inclusions provide a charm, humor and sublime texture to the proceedings that the story might otherwise not possess.
Our story - such as it is - begins with voodoo spiritualist, Minerva (Irma P. Hall) seated on a park bench, observing an airplane carrying writer, John Kelso (John Cusack) to Savannah, almost as though she knows the reason for his arrival. Kelso has been assigned, at least so he believes, by his publisher to write a 500 word article on a Christmas party that will take place at Jim Williams' heritage home. What Kelso quickly learns is that he has been summoned by Williams to write the piece for the magazine instead. Jim's interest in Kelso is never fully disclosed, although Kelso does find a copy of the book he has written on one of the shelves inside Jim's study.
But Jim is a guarded man, most notably under the watchful eye of his attorney, Sonny Seiler (Jack Thompson). The first 45min. or so of the narrative meanders in a warm southern address through a cesspool of disingenuous 'characters', including nightclub owner Joe Odem (Paul Hipp), Jim's slightly oddball social secretary (Kim Hunter) and Mandy Nicholls (Alison Eastwood); the latter a character created expressly as a love interest for Kelso in the film and played by the director's daughter. Oh, no nepotism there, I’m sure!
But without a doubt the most glamorous and captivating of the homegrown nut bars is The Lady Chablis (played to riotous free-spirited perfection by the real Lady Chablis; a transvestite Frank Deveau). Kelso first meets Chablis after Jim is arrested for Billy's murder. Tracking Chablis down to inquire about her/his former association with Billy, Kelso is first given the cold shoulder, then warmly embraced by Chablis who acts as something of 'Greek chorus' in the film, providing a running commentary and back story to the other characters in our story. Through Chablis we learn that Billy was "a good time not yet had by all".
In one of the film's most exuberant vignettes Kelso attends an all-black cotillion that Chablis crashes, wearing an exquisite show-stopping blue sequin dress after having been told by Kelso that she cannot come as his date. Eluding her own promiscuity and that of one of the evening's honored guests, Chablis next seduces a young male party guest whom she/he performs some risqué moves on the dance floor before being escorted by Kelso from the ballroom. Meanwhile, out on bond, Jim introduces Kelso to Minerva. On a thick and misty evening, these three hold a séance over Billy's grave. Minerva implores Jim to ask for Billy's forgiveness and also to confess to the jury that he and Billy were actually lovers. "In order to understand the living you got to communicate with the dead!" Minerva tells them. The eerie atmosphere and the notion of hoodoo - that brief span of time on either side of midnight that can either be used for good or evil incantations - provides this otherwise forgettable moment with a haunting jab of darkly pleasure.
The next afternoon Kelso tells Mandy that he is convinced the police have bungled the crime scene. On a search for the truth the pair sneaks into the morgue to examine Billy's body. Kelso notes that Billy's hands might not have been bagged properly, thus owing to the prosecution's claim that there is no gun powder residue to support Jim's story of Billy firing first on the eve of the murder. This suspicion is confirmed after Kelso learns that Nurse Sara Warren (Patrika Darbo) did indeed bag Billy's hands only after he was brought into the hospital, thus contradicting Det. Boone's (Leon Rippy) statement at trial that he had bagged them himself at the crime scene.
Ecstatic and still believing in Jim's innocence, Kelso rushes to his side to reveal the evidence he has unearthed, only to have Jim first confess that the story he initially told - and the one he continues to run with at trial - is untrue. Although Billy did - at least, by Jim's account - threaten him with violence, he did not draw his gun on him. Instead, Jim shot Billy once in the chest and once in the back in cold blood. Disillusioned, Kelso allows Sonny to use the evidence of the botched police investigation and Jim is acquitted by a jury of his peers. The victory, however, is short lived. Upon returning home, Jim suffers a fatal heart attack in roughly the same place he stood on the night of the murder - dropping to the floor and hallucinating Billy's body lying next to him; curiously smiling at him as his supernatural judgment. After Jim's funeral, Kelso decides to remain in Savannah. The film closes with the suggestion that he and Mandy are on their way to becoming a couple.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is compelling in ways that most movies are not. Its character-driven narrative harks all the way back to ensemble set pieces like Grand Hotel (1932) or Dinner at Eight (1933) and benefits immensely from the infusion of local gentry playing themselves, but also from the skilled and subtly nuanced performances interspersed by the actors. Kevin Spacey is devious; a courtly, malicious villain who masks his sins beneath a thin veneer of faux respectability. John Cusack is engaging and amiable; his best moments realized when the script takes its 'fish out of water' premise to extremes - allowing the actor to camp it up for the camera.
Jack N. Green's evocative cinematography extols the moody elegance of Savannah - exploring its rich historical links and lush moonlight and magnolia aristocracy with a genuine flair for visual decadence. The final creative link is Eastwood's insistence on using the past musical accomplishments of legendary composer Johnny Mercer as cues in support of the action. Mercer, a Savannah native whose home was the abode of the real Jim Williams, wrote hauntingly beautiful songs that epitomize the essence of Savannah's eclectic neighborhoods and brooding byways. In the final analysis, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is not so much a triumph in Clint Eastwood's directorial canon as it remains 'a little gem' - an extraordinary hiccup in an otherwise exceptional career that is fascinating in its own right and deserving of our renewed respect.
The same cannot be said for Warner's reissue DVD – using a print master dating all the way back to 1998 with a barrage of video based artifacts edge enhancement and pixelization. When the image is stable (which it rarely is) colors are vibrant - particularly greens. But flesh tones tend to be on the orange side. The image is often digitally harsh without being crisp. Vertical and horizontal details exhibit jaggies. This is a piss poor effort at best and one you can easily use as a Frisbee.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital audio is also curiously out of whack. At the start of the disc, portions of dialogue are inaudible and background foley seem louder. This is THE SAME transfer that Warner issued back in 1997 when DVD was a scant few months old and the shortcomings in that early technology are glaringly on display herein. The only extra feature, other than the film's theatrical trailer, is an 'interactive' tour of Savannah in which the real life extras and some of the principle cast wax about the real life Jim Williams and the murder trial that followed.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
1.5
EXTRAS
1

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

FORBIDDEN PLANET Blu-Ray (MGM 1956) Warner Home Video

Simultaneously, Fred M. Wilcox's Forbidden Planet (1956) has been hailed as an innovative masterpiece and painfully ridiculed as the worst science fiction movie of all time. Viewed today, there is little to deny that MGM was at least attempting to legitimize a genre that until that point in movie history had been relegated to B-movie status with very few exceptions.

The hiring of Walt Disney animator Joshua Meador to animate the invisible beast illustrates the extent to which pedigree played an important factor for MGM in bringing this project to life. So too did the investment of $125,000 to create a believable robot become an expensive venture. Finally, the vast indoor sets by Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Longeran are impressive to a point, if utterly stage bound in all their cyclorama and matte painted glory.

Yet, despite the studio's valiant art direction, its hiring of imminent screen personality Walter Pidgeon to star, and some fairly impressive special effects (at least for their time), the film remains a thinly cloaked attempt at resurrecting Shakespeare's The Tempest for modern audiences. The level at where this enterprise is entirely successful remains debateable.

By the mid-1950s, America at entered the atomic age, buttressed by fear of the atom bomb and a growing paranoia that would ultimately usher in The Cold War. These factors weighed heavily on most sci-fi plots during the first half of the decade; most notably in Robert Wise's masterful, The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), framed as a cautionary tale about man's tampering with the laws of the universe to his own detriment. Regrettably, most sci-fi of the period remained low brow; structured around primitive narratives and shot on shoe string budgets. Forbidden Planet, however, was different.

A. Arnold Gillespie, Iriving G. Ries and Wesley C. Miller's Oscar nominated special effects were considered cutting edge, as was the film's unusual electronic score by Louis and Bebe Barron. But perhaps the most outstanding achievement of the production - and certainly the one that the film is justly famous and fondly remembered today - is the creation of Robby the Robot.

Voiced with wry comic brilliance by Marvin Miller, and with his various vacuum tubes, cogs and neon electronics whirling, churning and glowing in the dark, Robby is the first mobile robotic giant built for a movie that looked as though he actually might work in real life. In fact, Robby most definitely influenced the design of 'Robot' from Irwin Allen's television classic Lost In Space, shot a decade later. Robby even went on to star in his own movie a year later - The Invisible Boy, and was the subject of a TV episode on MGM's popular Thin Man series starring Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk.

The screenplay to Forbidden Planet by Cyril Hume begins ambitiously enough in the 23rd century with a United Planets Cruiser catapulting through space en route to Altair IV, a large gleaming planet sixteen light years from earth. Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Neilsen) has been assigned to discover the fate of a human expedition sent to Altair 20 years earlier. Through radio transmission, Adams makes contact with Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) - one of the original party. Hardly congenial, Morbius urges Adams and his crew to turn back without landing on the planet. Naturally, this ominous message makes the prospect of visiting Altair IV irresistible.

Morbius makes his guests welcome, although there is a hint of foreboding about his futuristic abode - particularly after Adams and his first officer, Lieutenant Jerry Farman (Jack Kelly) and Lieutenant Doc Ostrow (Warren Stevens) learn that all of the original expedition - save Morbius and his late wife - were torn limb from limb by some invisible force. To restrain this beast, Morbius destroyed his escape ship, the Bellerophon, and has since found peace and relative tranquility on his private island.

After being introduced to Robby the Robot, Adams and his men meet Altaira (Anne Francis); Morbius' intellectually savvy though worldly naive daughter. Jerry attempts to educate Altaira in the ways of all flesh - an enterprise thwarted by Adams who then assumes the reigns of Altaira's more earthly pursuits. Their relationship is standoffish at first and fraught with misunderstandings. Gradually, however, the two begin to fall in love.

Morbius attempts to provide Adams with the necessary supplies he needs to construct a transmitter that will contact earth with their findings proves fruitless when the same invisible creature that murdered his own party so many years before sneaks onto Adams ship late at night and destroys the broadcast device. Morbius next tells Adams about the Krell - a superior race of beings who built an underground utopia on Altair IV only to vanish as a civilization shortly thereafter - leaving behind no clue as to the cause of their sudden extinction.

Morbius takes Adams, Jerry and Doc on a tour of the Krell's fantastic subterranean world, charged by thermonuclear reactors in support of a series of laboratories. Next, Morbius shows Adams the 'plastic educator', an apparatus designed to unleash the intellectual powers of the mind. The educator killed the Captain of the Bellerophon instantly when he tried to use it. Undaunted, Morbius tapped the devise for his own use and was astounded when his own intellectual capacity was doubled as a result.

The next evening, despite having erected a force field around his ship, the invisible creature returns, killing Lt. Farman and several other crew members. At the same instance Morbius, who has fallen asleep in the Krell laboratory, hears Altaira screaming. Adams arrives at Morbius' house and confronts him about the monster while Ostrow sneaks away to the underground lab to use the plastic educator. The device fatally cripples Ostrow but not before he reveals to Adams that the underground thermonuclear reactors were constructed to materialize any object that the Krell could imagine. As such, it is Morbius now who has been commanding the monster that killed his fellow countrymen as well as Adam's crew.

Morbius scoffs at the notion, but when Altaira defies him by declaring her love for Adams the monster reappears and comes after them. Terrified, Morbius commands Robby to destroy the creature. However, recognizing the monster as an extension of Morbius' thoughts, Robby - who has been programmed to respect human life - cannot kill it.

Adams, Altaira and Morbius take refuge in the Krell laboratory, but the invincible creature dissolves the metal doors and enters behind them. Morbius renounces the creature and attempts to intervene. He is mortally wounded by the creature, who has destroyed its creator and by extension, itself. The dying Morbius gives his blessing to Adams and Altaira, then instructs Adams to detonate the planet thereby putting an end to the possibility that a future civilization will reactivate the monster through their own subconscious design. Adams, Altaira and Robby escape aboard Adam's ship and watch from a safe distance as Altair IV self destructs.

The original screenplay by Irving Block was entitled Fatal Planet and there is a good deal of fatalism in the narrative. Morbius is a tragic figure to be sure, only capable of finding peace in this vacuum of lonely perfection he has created for himself. Yet, there is also a tinge of the fatalist in Adams. As characterized by Leslie Nielsen, the Captain is a solitary commander who cannot bring himself to fraternize with his crew on anything more than a professional plain of discussion. Altaira is the link between her father and Adams; the intermediary whose love has been unable to sway Morbius from his self-imposed exile but gradually reawakens Adam's distant heart to the realm of less cerebral possibilities between men and women.

In the final analysis, Forbidden Planet is an interesting anomaly in the sci-fi genre. At once it marks the point and bridges the gap where big budget, high concept melodrama met with that kitschy world of things that go bump in the night. Forbidden Planet also foreshadows the future of science fiction on television in shows like Star Trek and Lost in Space; both directly - and occasionally heavily - borrowing from the film's key concepts and production design.

Warner Home Video's reimagining of Forbidden Planet on Blu-Ray leaves something to be desired. The 1080p transfer is not a true hi-def upgrade but merely a conversion of the remastered elements from the DVD release from 2007. As such, the image features improvements that are marginal at best. Owing to the higher bit rate, overall image sharpness is ever so slightly improved as is fine detail. The appalling Eastman Color film stock that the film was originally shot in shows its glaring shortcomings on this outing; but that is to be expected. The audio is remastered in TruHD and adequate for this presentation.

Extras are all direct imports from the 2 disc Deluxe DVD edition and include Robby the Robot's follow up film; The Invisible Boy (1957) - a bizarre sci-fi adventure that mixes playful homespun charm with ominous evil. There's also Robby's appearance on an episode of television's The Thin Man and a pair of documentaries; the first about science fiction in the 1950s, the second a 'making of' Forbidden Planet. None of these extras have been up-converted from their 720i original broadcast quality.

Warner Home Video - once the leader in bringing catalogue titles like this one to the forefront in outstanding looking transfers has dropped another ball with Forbidden Planet. This reviewer cannot stress enough the point that to give consumers video transfer quality that is not true hi def is tantamount to defrauding the public where Blu-Ray's stellar capacities are concerned. After all, what's the point?

Also, by compressing all the extensive extra features on the same disc as the feature, the quality of the film transfer is ultimately compromised. As film restoration expert Robert A. Harris has often pointed out the capacity of Blu-Ray - while far superior to DVD - is not "that good!" Given Warner's short shrift with the transfer, coupled by the fact that there are NO new extra features included herein, there's really NO GOOD REASON to repurchase this title on Blu-Ray - unless, of course, you don't already own it.

So, to the good people at Warner, this reviewer would suggest the following: take heed, stop and do things right the first time on Blu-Ray. We don't need multiple visitations on the same titles with modest upgrades each time. Just one 'be all/end all' effort that will stand the test of time. You are not winning any favours or browning points with collectors by simply making such titles available on Blu-ray just to say that they are available on Blu-ray!

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

3

VIDEO/AUDIO

3

EXTRAS

4