Tuesday, January 25, 2011

THE COLOR PURPLE: Blu-Ray (Amblin 1985) Warner Home Video

After a decade of directing everything from rubber sharks to hand held puppets, Steven Spielberg surprised even his harshest critics with The Color Purple (1985) an affecting and bittersweet triumph of the human spirit, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Alice Walker.

Elegantly mounted, wholly memorable in its narrative simplicity and buttressed by absolutely marvellous performances throughout, the film is a showcase for black actors, of which the standout performance belongs to then, relatively unknown comedian, Whoopi Goldberg. As Celie Harris, the awkward, put upon wife of boorish, Albert (Danny Glover), Goldberg delivers an Oscar worthy performance that sadly, went virtually unnoticed by the Academy.

Sensitive to the subject of persecution, Spielberg brought an unusual intensity and emotional outpouring to this exercise - qualities that not even the book's author initially anticipated would be forthcoming from a man internationally known for his work in science fiction. Yet, with an unforgettable score by Quincy Jones and a masterful screenplay by Menno Meyes, that encapsulated all of the critical angst and suffrage in Walker's novel, the film emerged as a major critical and financial triumph.

After having her illegitimate daughter sold by her stepfather who has raped her, Celie (first played by Desreta Jackson) is sold in servitude to Albert (Glover); an abusive man who cannot shake free the memory of his onetime lover, Shug Avery (Margaret Avery). Life in Albert's home is demoralizing to say the least. Celie's introduction to Albert's three children results in her being struck in the head with a brick. Generally exploited as a drudge housekeeper and as an object for Albert's occasional drunken sexual abuse, Celie's one ray of sunshine is her relationship with younger sister, Nettie (Akosua Busia) who quietly teaches Celie how to write - a skill that will become useful to her later in life.

Unfortunately for these sisters, Albert has also taken an interest in Nettie. After Nettie escapes Albert's attempt to rape her, she is banished from his farm and forced to fend for herself. Celie (now played by Goldberg) endures the passing of her young adult years in demoralizing servitude to Albert.

When Shug returns, Albert brings her into his home as his mistress. But time has changed Shug. Once the respected daughter of preacher, Reverend Samuel (Carl Anderson), Shug's reckless alcoholism and her preference in singing torch songs at honky-tonks on the wrong side of the tracks rather than spirituals in church has made her an outcast of her family.

As Shug slowly begins to sober up she and Celie strike up an unlikely, but wholly remarkable friendship. In the novel, this relationship does more than hint at lesbianism, but in the film it rewardingly evolves as an indestructible bond between two women who are gradually coming into their own.

Shug teaches Celie how to love herself, how to appreciate the innate gifts she has to offer the world, but perhaps most important of all, how to stand apart from her husband's constant ridicule. The two rifle through Albert's mail and learn that Nettie has been writing Celie through the years in letters from Africa that Albert has kept from Celie in order to punish her.

In the meantime, Albert's son, the hapless no account, Harpo (Willard Pugh) has impregnated the impoverished, though stalwartly determined, Sofia (Oprah Winfrey). Forcing the marriage, Sofia becomes the 'man' of her family - bossing about Harpo until, at his wits end, he asks Celie what he should do with his new wife. Regrettably, Celie's only reply is one that she has learned from living with Albert. She instructs Harpo to beat his wife into submission. But Sofia is hardly the shrinking type. Instead she gives Harpo a bigger beating before leaving him for another man. Harpo takes up with Squeak (Rae Dawn Chong); a young woman with few inhibitions.

However, when Sofia refuses to take menial work from Miss Millie (Dana Ivey), the mayor's wife, she is arrested and beaten by racist police and then sent to the woman's detention home where she is repeatedly abused before being released into Miss Millie's custody as her servant.

After years of enduring her husband's emotionally crippling abuse, Celie defies Albert - almost killing him with his own razor; a fate intervened by Shug, who rightfully explains that if Celie kills Albert now, she will never entirely be free of him. Shug and her new husband, Grady (Bennet Gillory) take Celie and Squeak with them. Gradually Celie learns to become independent; opening a haberdashery that specializes in 'one size fits all' slacks.

Shug returns to the local community sometime later. Yet, despite her attrition from past immorality, her father is unable to forgive her. Appearing at Harpo's speakeasy on Sunday, Shug begins to sing her trademark torch song. She is emotionally stirred to join in the faint echoes of her father's gospel choir performing at his nearby church, effectively dragging the entire gathering from Harpo's bar into Reverend Samuel's church, declaring, "See daddy. Even sinner's have souls."

The music also has a softening effect on Albert's hard heart. He writes immigration to bring Nettie and Celie's illegitimate son back to America to be reunited with her. The film ends with this emotional reunion as Albert wanders off in the distance - alone, though nevertheless having come to some peace within himself.

Alice Walker’s initial misgivings, about having ‘a white boy’ direct an all black ensemble were set aside after Spielberg's early rushes so captured the spirit of her characters that Walker admitted she was absolutely bowled over.

To be certain, Spielberg’s intimate handling is first class all the way. He proves his metal with a genuine flair for screen intimacy only superficially exercised in films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. - the Extraterrestrial. His, is a richly textured and ultimately liberating canvas of superlative moments effortlessly strung together; the generational tale growing somehow more poignant and revealing with each passing sequence and, even more startlingly so, upon repeat viewings of the film. Rarely has a story of such tenderness been more acutely captured on celluloid.

The Color Purple arrives on a single Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video. While image quality takes a quantum leap forward over Warner's own previously issued 2-disc DVD from 2002, the film's lengthy run time and limitations in Blu-Ray compression hamper the overall impact of the image as it might have existed, if it were spread across two discs using Blu-Ray's higher bit rate.

Nevertheless, colors are bold, vibrant and well delineated. Contrast levels are superbly rendered. Occasionally, digital artefacts remain, but the overall grain structure is much improved as is the extolling of fine details in grass, trees, fabric used in costumes and close ups of faces. Fine details are evident even during the darkest scenes.

The audio is 7.1 Dolby Digital and remarkably powerful – particular during the climactic showdown of songs, in which Shug’s honky tonk twang is reformed into a spiritual revival with the sinners all miraculously reformed back into relative saints. Extras include 'Conversations with Ancestors: from Book to Screen - a documentary on the making of the film, short featurettes on the stage musical adaptation, cast focused featurettes, but regrettably, no audio commentary from Spielberg or anyone else for that matter. The film’s original theatrical trailer is also included. Highly recommended!

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






Saturday, January 22, 2011

AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER: Blu-Ray (20th Century-Fox 1957) Fox Home Video

Director Leo McCarey's remake of his own pre-war romance, Love Affair (1939), An Affair To Remember (1957) is a masterful update of that quintessential weepy for the post-war generation. A lush, if slightly ludicrous mélange of nearly every romantic cliché the movies have ever given us, the strengths in Delmar Daves and McCarey’s screenplay far outweigh the misfires – including several needlessly inserted musical offerings voiced by Marni Nixon that greatly slow down the plot. Regardless of whether you see the original or its remake the net result is ultimately slated to turn out the same - bring Kleenex.

Perennially suave Cary Grant stars as Nicky Ferranti; a congenial enough big 'dame' hunter: a playboy all set to marry rock and gravel heiress, Lois Clark (Neva Patterson) when he accidentally meets and falls - but hard - for Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr); the park avenue play-thing of a wealthy New York financier, Kenneth Bradley (Richard Dennings).

At first McKay regards Ferranti as just a flirtatious fling. She makes it known to Nicky that her intentions are to return to New York and marry Bradley. However, after befriending Ferranti’s grandmother, Janou (Cathleen Nesbitt) Terry begins to realize that perhaps Ferranti isn’t so much a heartless womanizer as he is a lonely man in search of his soul mate.

As in the original, McKay and Ferranti discover that their love affair may not be enough to keep their dreams alive, particularly after one of them suffers a tragic accident that alters the course for both their futures. Terry is struck by a car and crippled on her way to their rendezvous at the Empire State Building, leaving Nicky - who is already on the building's observation deck - to conclude that he has been had for the price of a cheap pulp romance novel. Despondent and bitter, Nicky begins to paint - his one true love.

Courted by a local art dealer, Courbet (Fortunio Bonanova), Nicky paints from life and his inspiration catches Terry's admiration from afar. Courbet gives Terry, Nicky's painting of Janou.

Unable to see that Terry has shielded him from the truth about her paralysis, Nicky arrives at her apartment, all set to humiliate her as he believes she has hurt him. Instead, Nicky discovers the painting of Janou hanging in her bedroom. Remembering from Courbet that the woman who bought it was in a wheel chair, Nicky realizes what a sacrifice Terry has made for true love and vows to become her champion and lover once more.

It is quite simply impossible to watch An Affair to Remember with dry eyes. If the screenplay suffers from too much schmaltz at the beginning and more than a few too many musical distractions along the way, these shortcomings are instantly eradicated by the final moments in the film, so fraught with emotional satisfaction from poignantly rendered performances by Kerr and Grant that one easily forgives McCarey's need to dabble in clichés elsewhere.

By the late 1950s, Fox’s patented Cinemascope had revolutionized the movie-going experience – some continue to argue to its own detriment. Although the big screen spectacle was successful at staving off the onslaught of dwindling audience attendance due to television’s intervention, it also forced film makers to sensationalize stories that were ideally and for the most part, much more intimately suited for the non-anamorphic screen. McCarey’s Love Affair is a perfect case in point; its modest story of two people hopelessly committed to one another despite past indiscretions, slightly off kilter when stretched to Biblical proportions. Still, and to McCarey's credit, the film works on several levels. As McCarey himself once concluded: "The first film was made by an amateur - the second by a master craftsman."

It’s perhaps interesting to recall that An Affair To Remember was something of a forgotten classic until it became part of the subplot in the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan romantic comedy, Sleepless In Seattle (1993). Ryan and her co-worker played by Rosie O’Donnell endlessly gush and weep over the film's premise, quoting whole portions of dialogue while indulging in a box of Kleenex. Interestingly, Sleepless in Seattle’s climax mirrors the unrequited moment from Affair to Remember – with Hanks and Ryan actually making it to their rendezvous atop the Empire State Building.

Upon Sleepless in Seattle’s theatrical release, 20th Century Fox began receiving an unusual amount of fan mail requesting that they issue An Affair To Remember on home video.

Unlike other studios that began marketing their classic movies to television as late night filler in the 1950s, Fox had resisted this impulse to exploit catalogue titles. As a result, and with very few exceptions to that rule, Fox films remained hidden from public view for several decades until overwhelming public requests came pouring in for the availability of An Affair to Remember.

Shortly thereafter Fox began a belated marketing campaign for their classic product on home video. The studio’s commitment to revisiting their classic library continues to this day.

And now arrives the Blu-Ray - perhaps not entirely welcomed by direct comparison to the remastered 2 disc DVD from a few years ago. Image quality is wildly different on the Blu-Ray. But is it more true to the original theatrical release? I wonder. Colours seems to be muddier on the Blu-Ray, particularly during some of the luxury liner sequences taking place in the dining room. Terry's dress, that looked orange and flesh tone on the DVD actually appears more brown and taupe on the Blu-Ray.

The image is also decidedly darker on the Blu-Ray. Colours overall are more soft and muted. Nothing seems to pop. But again, Fox's patented 'De-Luxe' colour and the inherent shortcomings of early Cinemascope might have something to do with these anomalies. The image is decidedly sharper and grain is very much more obvious on the Blu-Ray. This is, as it should be.

The soundtrack has been given a 7.1 Dolby Digital upgrade, using the original six track Cinemascope optics. Undeniably, the film's score by Alfred Newman and Vic Damone's vocals on the title track are the big winners here. Otherwise, the audio has some good spatiality, thanks to directionalized dialogue via the original sound mix.

Extras are all direct imports from Fox's DVD include a tribute to Cary Grant, another to Deborah Kerr and a third – and all too brief retrospective on director, Leo McCarey – along with the already available and all too short AMC produced Back-story documentary on the making of the movie that spends its time dishing dirt on Cary Grant (apparently Grant used LSD medicinally to recover from his own tragic affair run dry with Sophia Loren). Honestly, do we really need another tell all debasement of an American icon?

Also included are some stills and a theatrical trailer. Overall, the extras are disappointing. I can't really condemn the alterations in colour fidelity between the Blu-Ray and DVD offerings but I can't say that I love these discrepancies either. I also cannot honestly attest that they are an improvement. That's a personal call - one I usually refrain from but An Affair To Remember just doesn't look as good as I expected it would on Blu-Ray. Regrets.

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






ALL ABOUT EVE: Blu-Ray (20th Century-Fox 1950) Fox Home Video

By the time Joseph L. Mankiewicz premiered All About Eve (1950) he had already won a pair of back to back Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Screenplay on A Letter To Three Wives the year before; a towering achievement that was to be impressively matched by this film – perhaps his most perfectly realized screen creation.

In his day, Mankiewicz's work was often criticized as lacking cinematic staging – the perception being that his characters are too intelligent for film audiences, their dialogue and nuances more theatrical in mood and tempo. The point is valid only superficially, for the subtext in any Mankiewicz movie is far superior to any misperceived ‘lacking’ in camera prowess. Indeed, Mankiewicz was to muse years later that in his movies it was the actors – rather than the camera – that were required to act!

In this respect then, All About Eve remains the quintessentially urbane and sophisticated melodrama about show folk; a critique of that Teflon-coated smug superiority held dearly within the theatrical establishment turned on its end. The film is a microcosm for viperous social climbers and cutthroat sensationalists seething with venom and insecurity. After first choice to play grand diva Margo Channing actress Claudette Colbert injured her back, Mankiewicz turned to larger than life Bette Davis. It was a move not entirely embraced by 20th Century-Fox, whose top brass were well aware that Davis’ last few movies had pointed to a definite downturn in both her popularity and box office.

Davis was herself nearing forty and suffering from the same anxieties as her fictional character. Indeed, since her release from Warner Bros. (the studio that had groomed her for superstardom), Davis discovered that she had quietly become unemployable overnight. Thus, in the many lean years that were to follow Davis would acknowledge “…not everything I do is quality, but I chose the best from what I am offered.”

From Mankiewicz however, Davis had nothing to complain about. His screenplay delivers a revealing look at base classicism and greed behind all that publicly glitters. Mankiewicz's critique of human fallibility is bang on and with Davis in the driver’s seat he is guaranteed a star who not only completely understands the material but relishes in its execution. Reflecting years later on the resuscitation of her film career, Davis generously acknowledged Mankiewicz for his faith in her – “I owe it all to Joe. He resurrected me from the dead.”

After a brief prologue at the Sarah Siddon’s Society, exclusively narrated by sinister poisoned pen columnist, Addison DeWitt (George Sanders), the rest of the film is told entirely in flashback. Margo Channing (Davis) is backstage preparing after her last performance to see lover/director, Bill Samson (Gary Merrill) off to Hollywood. Despite their considerable age difference, Bill worships the ground Margo walks on, though neither Bill’s commitment or his love are enough to convince Margo that she is perhaps making a terrible error in judgment by loving one man so completely.

Margo’s continued success on the stage is largely due to her enduring friendship/partnership with celebrated playwright Lloyd Richards (Hugh Marlowe) and her eternal friendship with Lloyd's wife, Karen (Celeste Holm). Margo's private life is almost exclusively managed by Birdie Coonan (Thelma Ritter); an ever-devoted maid with a sharp tongue but soft heart who will soon become the first to discover a traitor in their midst.

Into this close knit community arrives the Judas; backstabber Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) masquerading as a doe-eyed ingénue. After ingratiating herself into Margo’s hallowed company with a sob story of pure fiction, Eve systematically goes about manipulating Margo’s alliances and friendships; all the while playing the part of a respectful personal secretary. Instead, and with her eye firmly on the prize, Eve has plans to topple Margo from her throne as the first lady of the American theatre.

Eve’s ace in the hole is Addison DeWitt, whom Eve erroneously believes she can extort to her best effect as she has done with the others. Addison, however, has more than Eve’s career advancement on his mind – a prospect Eve entertains only peripherally to manoeuvre into a position of power within Margo’s circle of friends. However, Eve quickly discovers that there is nothing as venomous, nor as dangerous, as a man just as unscrupulous as she.

Behind the scenes, Davis and Baxter did not get on – a tension brought to its boiling point when both were nominated as Best Actress in the Oscar race. Neither won – leading Davis to forever consider herself robbed. In retrospect, she probably was.

Davis as Margo is – as Addison might have concluded for himself - perfection itself; a stunning tower of the ‘fire’ and ‘music’ Mankiewicz describes in his screenplay. When Davis as Margo forewarns her guests in the film’s most memorable moment to “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night” her tone is fraught in shades of dark moody bitterness and wily comedic devilry – as though she despises not only her own place in the world but is also laughing at it from the inside.

If Davis always harboured a hint of resentment at losing the Oscar, she could at least take temporary comfort in the afterthought that her fleeting romance with co-star Gary Merrill – a whirlwind of ‘fire and music’ - culminated in an even more short lived marriage. Today, All About Eve remains as fresh and ever-present in a world of ruthlessness and self destruction. In a pop culture where words like ‘instant classic’ are bandied about with reckless disregard for their actual meaning, All About Eve is most deserving of that moniker on a multitude of levels. It is a perfect movie!

Fox Home Video's Blu-Ray at last rectifies the unfortunate and utterly painful DVD incarnations we've been forced to contend with all these years. Gone is that tired regurgitation of a gritty B&W image with blandly contrasted gray tones. Instead, we get a vibrant, sharp and very clean rendering on this Blu-Ray with superb preservation of the film's grain structure. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are pristine. This truly is what we should have had all along!

Once again, Fox has included two audio tracks; the original mono and a re-channelled stereo track. While I'm generally not a fan of repurposed audio from mono stems, this pseudo-stereo offering doesn't sound awful and for many, will be the preferred choice when viewing this film.

Extras are all direct imports from Fox's 2-disc DVD release from a few years ago, including two commentary tracks (the better belonging to Sam Stagg who is comprehensive in his account of the production), AMC Backstory about the making of the film and several brief shorts that were included on the Fox Studio Classic series disc. Also present are four featurettes: ‘Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ a beautiful retrospective on the director’s career, another on his personal life, a reveal of Mankiewicz’s inspiration for ‘the real Eve’ and a special featurette on the Sarah Siddons Society. (Incidentally, at the time of the film’s release, there was no Sarah Siddons Society. Mankiewicz made it up. A few short years later, the ‘Society’ was formed.)

Bottom line: This Blu-Ray comes highly recommended!

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






20TH CENTURY FOX 75TH ANNIVERSARY (Fox 1931-2010) Fox Home Video

Depending on one's vantage, 20th Century Fox's 75th Anniversary Collection is either an ambitious compendium of the studio's biggest and brightest money makers from 1931 to present, or an utterly shameless repackaging the studio's surplus in back catalogue titles; most having been collected elsewhere at an even greater expense than the hefty $400 plus price tag this handsomely packaged set is being sold for.

Throughout the decades, 20th Century-Fox has had an illustrious history. The company dates all the way back to 1915 and its theatre chain pioneer, William Fox. Today, it seems inconceivable that the studio would come second in the overall creation of this film and television corporate entity. However, just as Marcus Loewe had done with MGM, William Fox proved to be more the entrepreneur and businessman. He built picture houses, forming fleeting distribution deals and, in some cases, lasting alliances with then prominent independent film producers as an afterthought. But by 1926, this sort of freelancing product for the rapidly expanding theatre chain was no longer feasible. To be truly great, meant to have a full time production company making films exclusively for the Fox theatres.

In 1927 Nicholas Schenck assumed the reigns of Loew's Incorporated after Marcus Loewe's untimely death, and this hastened a proposed merger between Loew's and Fox. For better or worse, L.B. Mayer - the president of MGM thwarted this deal to preserve his studio's autonomy under the U.S. anti-trust laws and Fox - already deep in debt - was shortly thereafter forced into receivership.

It seemed the end of the line, except that by 1933 Joseph Schenk's Twentieth Century Pictures was a fledgling studio with minor clout in search of a distribution apparatus. Wooing producer/writer Darryl F. Zanuck from Warner Brothers, the new amalgam of 20th Century-Fox instantly became the last of the six major motion picture studios to enter the marketplace. It did not take the new studio very long to establish itself as one of the best in all Hollywood. Zanuck's background as a writer/producer helped fuel a steady string of highly profitable, artistically sound movies including The House of Rothschild (1934) and Les Miserables (1935) - both Oscar nominated for Best Picture.

By late 1949, Zanuck had decided to leave the studio to pursue his own independent productions elsewhere around the world, having made 20th Century-Fox the envy of the world - in strong competition with MGM and Warner Brothers. The debut - and lucrative renting out of Fox's patented Cinemascope process - the most readily used widescreen format - ensured that the studio's profits would endure for a time.

There is something to be said for 'the age of Zanuck', if only by direct comparison to the way his studio was mismanaged under successor, Spiros P. Skouris. By 1952, the studio had swelled in size and scope to encompass a vast backlot - second only to MGM. They also managed to produce some of the most memorable entertainments of the golden age. Zanuck briefly returned to helm Fox after 1964 before being ousted by his son, Richard and co-producer, David Brown in 1971. From here on in, 20th Century-Fox gradually slipped into its current state as an impersonal corporate entity - expanding aggressively into television under Rupert Murdoch's guidance and eventually becoming an offshoot of his News Corps. empire.

Now, after decades of oversight, Fox's studio coffers have once again been looted for the film aficionado and casual classic buff. But this 75th Anniversary offering only features three movies that are new to DVD and virtually no new remastering efforts on any of the other discs included in this set.

Of all the decades represented in what ought to have been a more comprehensively 'balanced' offering, the 1930s are the most woefully neglected. We get 1933's Cavalcade (the long overdue debut of a magnificent generational melodrama that won the studio its first Best Picture Oscar), Steamboat Around the Bend (1935), a standard Will Rogers comedy and 1939's Shirley Temple classic 'The Little Princess'. While it is gratifying to have Cavalcade finally released, this set is poorer for the absence of such Fox classics from this vintage as In Old Chicago, The Big Trail, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, The Littlest Rebel, Heidi, On The Avenue, Sally Irene and Mary, Alexander's Ragtime Band, Suez, The Rains Came, and, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

From this meagre offering, we delve into Fox's richest period with some truly iconic movies: The Grapes of Wrath 1940), Blood and Sand (1941) starring resident heartthrob Tyrone Power as an ill fated bullfighter, John Ford's truly memorable melodrama about Welsh miners, How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), The Song of Bernadette (1943), Laura (1944) - Otto Preminger iconic film noir - Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947) - everyone's favourite Christmas classic, and finally, Twelve O’Clock High (1949). Still, there are some rather glaring omissions from this period that, at least in this reviewer's opinion, ought to have been included, such as The Razor's Edge, The Ghost & Mrs. Muir, Wilson, State Fair, Down Argentine Way, Week-end in Havana, With A Song in My Heart, Pin-Up Girl, Moon Over Miami, The House on Telegraph Hill, Boomerang and The Snake Pit.

The 1950s are well represented by some stellar offerings: Joseph Mankewiscz's scathing melodrama, All About Eve (1950), Robert Wise's enduring sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Howard Hawk's delightfully obtuse Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) - that officially launched the career of Marilyn Monroe, The Robe (1953); the first feature to be photographed in Cinemascope, The Seven Year Itch (1955), The King and I (1956), Love Me Tender (1956), Leo McCarey's perennial three hanky weepy, An Affair to Remember (1957), South Pacific (1958) and the sobering melodrama, The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Other titles that ought have been included are Anastasia, Oklahoma!, Island in the Sun, The Three Faces of Eve, Three Coins in the Fountain, Desk Set and The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.

From the 1960s, we get Paul Newman's memorable turn as The Hustler (1961), Zanuck's independently produced all-star war epic, The Longest Day (1962), the disastrously overproduced spectacle Cleopatra (1963) that nearly bankrupted the studio, Anthony Quinn's iconic turn as Zorba the Greek (1964), The Sound of Music (1965) - still the happiest sound in all the world - the garish sci-fi misadventure, Fantastic Voyage (1966), Robert Wise's disturbing war melodrama, The Sand Pebbles (1966), Planet of the Apes (1968), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and last, but not least, Hello Dolly! (1969); a movie musical that bombed upon its initial release but that deservedly takes its place amongst the all time great musical entertainments.

Robert Altman's anti-war comedy M.A.S.H (1970) kicks off the 70s. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Patton (1970) - a reverent portrait of WWII's most enigmatic general. The French Connection (1971), Poseidon Adventure (1972), Phantom of Paradise (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), The Omen (1976), Star Wars (1977), Alien (1979), All That Jazz (1979) and Norma Rae (1979) conclude the decade's offerings with both high and low lights from the studio coffers. But where oh where is The Towering Inferno, Vanishing Point, Sleuth, The Heartbreak Kid, The Paper Chase, Harry and Tonto, Silent Movie, Julia, The Turning Point and The Rose?

Seemingly unable to find a single film worth including from the first half of the next decade, the set leaps ahead to 1985's Cocoon to kick off the '80s, that includes Raising Arizona (1987), Oliver Stone's Wall Street (1987), Big (1988), Die Hard (1988) and Working Girl (1988). Next to the 1930s, the 1980s are the most poorly represented decade in this set and that's a genuine shame, since the studio gave us such memorable flicks from this period as Broadcast News, 9 to 5, Oh Heavenly Dog, Aliens, Quest for Fire, Romancing the Stone, Bachelor Party, Prizzi's Honor, The Fly and The Abyss - to name but a handful of the unceremoniously omitted.

Home Alone (1990) kicks off the 90s, that also feature Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Speed (1994), Waiting to Exhale (1995), The Crucible (1996), Roland Emmerich's sci-fi spectacle, Independence Day (1996), The Full Monty (1998), There’s Something About Mary (1998) and Boys Don’t Cry (1999). Glaring omissions from this roster include: Edward Scissorhands, Sleeping With the Enemy, Point Break, Speed, True Lies, That Thing You Do, Romeo + Juliet, Anastasia, The X-Files: The Movie, Ever After, The Thin Red Line, Never Been Kissed, and, Anna and the King.

The last spate of films included in this box takes us up to the present. Cast Away (2000), X-Men (2000), Baz Luhrman's Moulin Rouge! (2001), the computer animated, Ice Age (2002), Spielberg's chilling sci-fi thriller, Minority Report (2002), Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), Sideways (2004), Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005), Walk the Line (2005), The Devil Wears Prada (2006), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Night at the Museum (2006), Juno (2007), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), Avatar (2009).

As already stated, the DVD transfers included in this box are derived from existing elements. No new remastering efforts have been put forth. In all cases, the discs included herein appear to feature the last mastering effort (in cases where certain titles have had multiple re-issues) thereby ensuring that the latest advancements in disc mastering quality have been retained. In some cases, this is not a issue. The B&W films in this box set vary in quality. Steamboat Around the Bend seems to be the poorest offering of the B&W classics with Cavalcade respectably sharp, though perhaps not quite as refined as one might have expected. The color features vary greatly due to film stocks and color technologies of their day. There really is no accurate way to review them all by direct comparison except to say that there are no glaring screw ups anywhere to complain about.

Audio effortlessly shifts from mono to stereo as the decades wear on and where ever possible, Fox has also included a rechanneled stereo track on their older releases for those who simply cannot bear the thought of their surround channel speakers remaining silent. A goodly number of the discs included herein contain all of the extra features that came with their original single disc release some time before. A glaring omission is the lengthy 'Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood' documentary. When Cleopatra was first released as part of Fox's Five Star Series it included this magnificent documentary on a separate disc. This new 75th Anniversary does not include that third disc.

Bottom line: if you haven't any of the films in this set, then for its price this is the one to buy. You will be getting a gargantuan slice of Hollywood history in one giant slab of engrossing, often frothy, always eclectic entertainment. However, if you, like so many others, own a goodly number of these titles from years gone by, then this critic's advice is that you abstain from this purchase simply to acquire the three titles new to DVD. Given the glaring omissions of Fox classics listed above, this set is hardly as comprehensive as it ought to have been and no doubt, in days yet to come, it will be replaced by efforts from Fox to remaster these films for Blu-Ray (the current preferred mode of home theatre viewing).

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

3.5 (for comprehensiveness of this collection)*


4 (for overall quality of mastering efforts featured in this set)



Thursday, January 20, 2011

BACKDRAFT: Blu-Ray (Imagine Entertainment 1991) Universal Home Video

Derived from an original screenplay by Gregory Widen, Ron Howard’s Backdraft (1991) is a superior action/thriller. Originally discovered as a script collecting dust by producer Brian Grazer, the project was brought to Howard’s attention and immediately embraced. Widen, who moonlighted as a fireman to put himself through university had amassed a litany of real life stories, shaping his narrative around the acute phenomenon of backdraft; a situation whereby a fire, starved for oxygen, ceases to burn but lies lethally dormant at high temperatures within a confined space. When oxygen is reintroduced by opening a door or window, the resulting combustion is deadly explosive.

Widen always saw ‘fire’ as the star of his story – a living entity with a carnivorous appetite to consume and destroy. Amidst the flames, Widen fashioned the more conventional yarn about inherent heirs to the legacy of old man fire; brothers robbed of their patriarch - a fireman killed in the line of duty. Shot entirely on location in Chicago, Production Designer Albert Brenner was instructed by Howard to find his sets among the abandoned ruins within the city rather than create his sets from scratch.

Verisimilitude on the project extended to the casting of Cedric Young, Kevin Casey and Jack McGee in supporting roles; all firemen cum actors who lent an air of authenticity to the action as well as the fire hall camaraderie between its ensemble actors. A stickler for authenticity, Howard also instructed costume designer Jodie Tillen to pool her resources from the same company that provides real fireman with their equipment and apparel. The costumes the actors wore therefore were actual fire fighting gear weighing in excess of 85 lbs.

Cast and crew were given a crash course in fireman training and subjected to the real thing via a cleverly devised system of pipes that could effectively raise and lower the various blazes at will. At one point during the shoot, actor John Glenn, who agreed to be set on fire for a climactic sequence, realized that the flames had spread beneath his retardant apparel and were beginning to burn through several layers of under clothing. He was quickly extinguished, but sustained minor injury to his back and inner thigh.

Plot wise: Widen’s screenplay follows the familial conflict and ultimate resolution of the McCaffrey brothers. Stephen (Kurt Russell) is a valued alumni of the fire hall, living up to his father’s proud heritage. However, Brian (William Baldwin) has been struggling to overcome the childhood legacy of witnessing their father’s death in a terrible explosion. He enlists in basic training but becomes a reluctant graduate from the academy along with friend, Tim Krizminksi (Jason Gedrick).

Upon graduation, Brian learns that his quiet attempt to incur a transfer away from his brother’s battalion has backfired and he is, in fact, slated to take his place on Stephen’s company. This close proximity opens old bitter wounds, sparking a sibling rivalry that threatens the time-honoured firefighter’s edict of ‘safety first’ on several occasions.

Eventually, Brian draws back from Stephen’s constant badgering, going to work for fire investigator Donald Rimgale (Robert DeNiro) instead. It seems that several aldermen and other key city officials have recently succumbed to a series of backdraft related fires too coincidental in nature to ignore. In the meantime, Alderman Marty Swayzak (J.T. Walsh) is attempting to whitewash budgetary cuts made against the expansion of the city’s fire patrols. Swayzak’s aid, Jennifer Vaitkus (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) just happens to be Brian’s former lover – a situation that leads to a rekindling of their romance.

Meanwhile, Brian begins to suspect that Stephen may have some insidious insider information about the backdraft crimes. Stephen’s relationship with wife, Helen (Rebecca DeMornay) is strained at best, and Brian misinterprets all the signals as a possible motive for his own brother cracking under pressure to become an arsonist.

To draw clarity from the situation, Brian and Donald arrive at the psychiatric ward of a local prison to interview confirmed fire bug, Ronald Bartel (Donald Sutherland in a superb cameo). Ronald’s meandering thoughts force Brian to come to terms with the death of his own father and, in doing so, he is able to resolve not only the bitter resentment between he and Stephen but also solve the cover up.

The animosity between Brian and Stephen is poignantly realized in the performances derived from Kurt Russell and William Baldwin. Russell seems particularly engaged, giving one of the most credible performances of his entire career as the emotionally withdrawn shell of a man with untapped resources of seething rage beneath his glib exterior. As the audience, we sense the weight of hidden pain and sympathize with his inability to find redemption in either his marriage or relationship with his own brother.

Stunt coordinator Walter Scott and pyrotechnic genius Allen Hall deliver the goods during the visceral and harrowing fire sequences – some of the most death-defying full scale set pieces ever staged for film. Under their watch, fire truly becomes another character in the story, but one immeasurably offset by the intimate brotherly struggle and also, by the subtext of a virulent murder mystery. In the final analysis, Backdraft is a movie to be admired for its formidable melding of multiple narratives and its complex and dangerous stunt sequences. It succeeds at being a total package of blistering entertainment.

Universal Home Video’s Blu-Ray release carries over all of the extensive extra features from its original 2 disc collector's edition DVD. As expected, color fidelity, grain structure and fine details all take a quantum leap forward. Colors are exceptionally rich and bold. Contrast levels exhibit superior blacks and pristine whites. The modicum of edge enhancement that was evident on the DVD has been eradicated on the Blu-Ray.

The audio has been upgraded to an aggressive 7.1 Dolby mix that is about as heart palpitating as one might expect. Despite being over 20 years old, this is one hell of an engrossing sonic exercise for your speakers. Extras include an intensive audio commentary and several well thought out documentaries on the making, casting and special effects of the film, as well as stories about real life firemen and the film’s original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended!

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



BACHELOR MOTHER (RKO 1939) Warner Archive Collection

Utterly nonsensical to the point of complete enchantment, Garson Kanin's Bachelor Mother (1939) remains a superior screwball comedy; a fanciful case of mistaken identity that gets blown all out of proportion to riotous effect in the board as well as the bed room. Based on an Oscar nominated tale by Felix Jackson, the screenplay by Norman Krasna develops its lighter than air scenario with complete believability - no small feat given the absurdity of the plot.

Ginger Rogers is Polly Parrish, a seasonal sales girl who spends her days winding mechanically quacking Donald Ducks inside the toy department of John B. Merlin & Sons; a lavishly appointed New York department store all decked out for the holidays. Unhappy chance that with the arrival of Christmas, Polly is being given the boot by her employer. While on her lunch break, Polly decides to look for other work.

Polly is stunned to see an elderly woman (Leona Roberts) depositing a baby in a basket on the front porch of the Foundling Home. The woman insists the baby is not hers, leaving Polly to bring the child inside. Unfortunately for Polly, both the Home's matron (Edna Holland) and its investigator (Ernest Truex) refuse to believe Polly when she emphatically tells them that she is not the mother.

After gleaning Polly's name and her place of employ for their own records, the Foundling Home's Investigator decides to take matters to the next level. He petitions Polly's boss, J.B. Merlin (Charles Coburn) to save her job. The matter is handed over to the company's Vice President, J.B.'s son, David (David Niven) who wastes no time in bestowing the good news on a bewildered Polly. However, when Polly learns that David thinks the foundling is hers she not only refuses his offer, but dumps the baby at the Merlin's palatial estate - taking off to 'Dreamland'- a dance club with floor walker, Freddie Miller (Frank Albertson) in the hopes of winning prize money that will allow her to move back home.

David tails Polly and Freddie to Dreamland, attempting to enter the competition himself to get closer to Polly and convince her to take back the child. Instead, he is considered a rowdy by the dance judge and tossed on his ear along with his butler (E.E. Clive) and the baby. Returning to Polly's apartment to wait for her, David and Polly exchange heated words. The apartment's owner, Mrs. Weiss (Ferike Boros) overhears their conversation and assumes that David is the baby's father. An understanding landlady with a heart of gold, Mrs. Weiss agrees to watch the baby while Polly goes to work at Merlin & Sons.

At first Polly is hurt and resentful of David's insistence that the baby belongs to her. However, gradually she begins to respect David's interferences. After all, any man who would do what he has done to secure a child's future can't be all bad. As Polly warms to David's philanthropy, David begins to fall in love with her. With no date for New Year's Eve, David surprises Polly with clothes sent over from the store, then shows her off to his rather snooty friends and ex as a Polish princess. Despite his obvious affections for Polly, David keeps them and his relationship with her a secret from his father.

Now come the kicker. Freddie, who has been wanting Polly for his own, decides that Polly's baby is also David's. Freddie sends a blackmail letter to J.B. and J.B. in turn takes it upon himself to have his butler follow David as he makes his way about town. Meeting up with David and Polly in the park, J.B. declares that the child is his grandson. David, of course, denies any involvement and promptly goes to Freddie with a bribe for him to admit that he is the father of Polly's baby. Meanwhile, Mrs. Weiss agrees to allow her grandson, Jerome (Leonard Penn) to pretend to be the baby's father.

Regrettably, the foursome of Freddie, David, Polly and Jerome all arrive at the same time to admit to J.B. that they are both the father of the baby. Unable to convince J.B. of the truth, and suddenly realizing just how much he loves Polly, David declares himself to be the father and proposes marriage to Polly.

Bachelor Mother is sublime screwball with Rogers and Niven at their absolute best. The convolutions of the narrative really do take a backseat to the wonderful reactions each actor provides us throughout this hapless story. Watching Polly and David's gradual acceptance in becoming a couple under the most improbable of circumstances is a sheer delight from start to finish. In 1956, director Norman Taurog tried to recapture the magic of this classy classic with Bundle of Joy - a musical adaptation co-starring then real life couple Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher: a garish, glossy and gargantuan misfire in everyone's careers.

Bachelor Mother is part of the Warner Archive Collection. Inherent age related artefacts are present throughout this rather grainy and occasionally softly focused transfer. The B&W image exhibits an adequate gray scale but lower than anticipated contrast levels. When the image is solid it can be pleasing. More often than not, however, it is simply middle of the road. The audio is mono as originally recorded and exhibits hiss and pop. There are NO EXTRAS.

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






Thursday, January 13, 2011

MEET JOHN DOE (WB 1941) VCI/Laureate Home Video

The last collaborative effort between director Frank Capra and screenwriter Robert Riskin, and the first independent production for Capra (who saw to it that the film became a minor masterpiece of social consciousness away from his alma mater - Columbia Studios), Meet John Doe (1941) tells the story of a downtrodden everyman tempted by personal profit. While the theme itself was nothing new for Capra and Riskin, the approach to the material was decidedly unique.

For starters, Capra was motivated by a story by Richard Connell and Robert Presnell; based on Connell's 1922 published short story 'A Reputation'. As a screenplay, the property first became known as 'The Life and Death of John Doe' (and later 'The Life of John Doe') before finally ending up as 'Meet' John Doe. Used to sketching out his own stories for Capra, Robert Riskin was equally enamoured by the Connell/Presnell treatment - enough to be inspired to adapt it for the screen.

Although Gary Cooper had always been the director's first choice to headline the cast, the part of wily newspaper columnist/opportunist Ann Mitchell was first offered to Warner contract star Ann Sheridan and then Olivia De Havilland, before ultimately going to Barbara Stanwyck.

At Columbia, mogul Harry Cohn had tried to woo Capra back into the fold with a plum renewal contract. However, Capra, weary of Cohn's constant tyrannical meddling on previous projects, had already made the decision to venture forth on his own - a daring gesture that prompted Cohn to begrudgingly mutter - "You'll be back!" Capra, however, was on a winning streak and Meet John Doe arguably remains the greatest of his pre-WWII slice of life comedy/dramas.

At Warner Bros., producer Jack L. Warner gave Capra unprecedented autonomy and most of the money to make the picture. However, after Capra's expenses went over budget, Warner refused to top up the till, forcing Capra to dip into his personal savings in order to finish the film. The gamble paid off handsomely. Meet John Doe was an immediate smash hit with audiences and for obvious reasons.

The Riskin/Capra plot begins in earnest with an absorbing (near silent) opening scene. A newspaper page (Benny Bartlett) emerges from Editor Henry Connell's (James Gleason) office with a list of names whose employment with 'The New Bulletin' have been terminated. One by one, the page gleefully draws an index finger across his throat, making a knocking sound with his tongue against his lips to signify their terminations.

Cub reporter, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) emerges from Connell's office; perplexed, torn and bitter. She pleads for her job, even at a drastic pay cut. But Connell has a heart of stone. He instructs Mitchell to pack her things and collect her final cheque, though not before she puts her final story for the paper to bed.

In retaliation, Ann writes her final column on the fly - a fake letter from an unemployed 'John Doe' who threatens suicide by jumping from the roof of City Hall in protest of society's ills. The note causes a sensation with the Bulletin's readership and Connell is forced to rehire Mitchell to continue the 'human interest' series. One problem: John Doe doesn't exist. But Mitchell has a solution for that problem too. The paper will find a derelict who embodies the noble qualities of John Doe and exploit him for pure profit. After running the gamut of possibilities, Ann and Henry settle on John Willoughby (Gary Cooper); a onetime baseball player who agrees to the rouse, but only if the paper will pay for the surgery necessary to restore his chipped elbow - the cause of his demise as a professional athlete.

Doe's compatriot, The Colonel (Walter Brennan) is leery of this arrangement. He explains his philosophy as that of the 'He-lots' - in reference to the way society judges those who have financial prosperity as opposed to those who do not. People are polite and sympathetic but ultimately unhelpful to a poor man, the Colonel reasons, but those same people suddenly become quite chummy when they realize that man has come into some money. They look for handouts from the rich.

A further damper is cast on Doe's plans to return to baseball after his surgery when bodyguard Angelface (Warren Hymer) explains that sports heroes are looked up to by children and no one will want to even know Doe after he pulls his stunt for the paper.

The rouse planned by The Bulletin has John fake his own death on Christmas Eve by jumping off a tall building. Thereafter, John will be paid to get out of town and disappear to a quiet life far away from the furor of the John Doe movement. There's just one problem: the localized 'love thy neighbour and give him a hand' homespun philosophy becomes a national craze, spawning 'John Doe' societies across the United States.

Ruthless newspaper tycoon, D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) taps the John Doe following in the hopes of using John as his pawn to channel support for his own political ambitions. He relieves Connell of his duties on the John Doe campaign and further instructs Ann to write her prose for him directly - an edict that Ann willingly complies with for the sake of social climbing.

Meanwhile, Spencer (Andrew Tombes) of rival newspaper, The Chronicle offers John a $5000 bribe to throw his first radio press conference and admit that he is a fraud. At first it looks as though John will comply, thereby securing the money he needs for his arm surgery immediately. However, brought to the brink of acknowledging his own greed, John pulls back at the last minute when he is humbled by the thousands who have come to witness his latest speech.

Norton's political machinery moves into high gear and John is made a celebrity of considerable clout and power. The trick of it is that John actually believes in his own words and the John Doe philosophy while Norton is interested only in securing his own political office. By the time John realizes he has been used as a fop for an unscrupulous and power hungry tyrant, he is too late to stop the ravenous machinery behind him.

During a nationwide broadcast, the coast to coast hook up is sabotaged by Norton who exposes John as a fraud. The crowd becomes an angry mob and John's reputation as their saviour is destroyed. Unable to recover from under Norton's landslide of destructively manufactured public opinion, John resigns himself to go through with the initial promise of suicide that began his rise to prominence. His death will prove him to not be a fraud.

But Ann has fallen in love with John. She forsakes the materialistic happiness that Norton has provided her and on Christmas Eve amasses followers of the John Doe movement to storm the rooftop of City Hall. Mercilessly, Ann begs John's forgiveness and asks him to spare his own life, explaining with Christ-like reverence that an historical John Doe already died for the sake of humanity. The film concludes with a proud Connell trumping Norton by declaring, "There you are, Norton...the people. Try and lick that!"

Meet John Doe is powerful entertainment - less well known than other Capra classics of its vintage if only due to an oversight that has caused the film's rights to fall into public domain. To date, numerous bootleg copies of this film have surfaced on home video - none up to par for the digital format. That includes this latest DVD incarnation from VCI Entertainment. Although modestly improved over other releases, this edition of Meet John Doe is inconsistently rendered at best.

The B&W image exhibits a gray scale with bumped contrast levels. Fine detail is lost under a fuzzy, slightly out of focus image that suffers from frequent missing frames - resulting in jump cuts either from scene to scene or in the middle of specific scenes. Grain isn't an issue, but the image wobbles occasionally. And there is also the slightest hint of combing, resulting from an image that has not been altogether progressively mastered. The audio is muffled in spots and elsewhere exhibits hiss and pop consistent with minimal restoration.

VCI has laughingly referred to this edition as having been "digitally restored to its present condition" - a vague reference whose only claim can be that the video noise and bleeding seen in other copies of this film on DVD have been eliminated for this outing. Disc One includes a very rambling audio commentary from Laureate Home Video's Ken Barnes with archival audio sound bytes from Frank Capra.

Disc Two houses three slap shod featurettes on Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Capra, the original Lux Radio broadcast of Meet John Doe, a 'restoration comparison' that is pretty hard to distinguish from before and after shots, plus what has been billed as 'extensive' cast and crew profiles - actually, brief bios and filmographies assembled without much care or planning.

In the final analysis, Meet John Doe is worthwhile viewing. Regrettably, Warner Home Video has failed to rescue this title from public domain as they have previously done with such titles as Till The Clouds Roll By and Royal Wedding. Note to Warner Brothers - "Please rescue Meet John Doe and that other wonderful classic that belongs in your catalogue - 'Topper' starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett from public domain hell!" There. Enough said.

This DVD is not recommended!

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






WALL STREET: Blu-Ray (20th Century-Fox 1987) Fox Home Video

Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) examines the cold, calculating underbelly of corporate America’s spurious market trading practices in the 'win/win' eighties; perhaps the best film made about business - save director Robert Wise's Executive Suite (1954, and a personal favourite of Stone's). An homage to his own father’s request for a ‘good’ movie about business (Stone’s dad was himself a corporate trader on that famed thoroughfare), Wall Street is part ruthless investigation and melodrama/part message picture about the human price paid for big financial gains at the expense of corporate conglomeration.

In hindsight, all the pieces fit nicely into Stone’s grand plan. But in 1987, nothing had been for certain – least of all Stone’s choice of Michael Douglas to play Gordon Gekko; the antagonist cutthroat who seduces a young eager trader, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) to the dark side of that ‘go anywhere/steal anything’ acumen that ultimately became the film’s tagline “Greed is good.” To date, Douglas had done well on television and film, playing variations of the wholesome ‘good’ guy. But in Wall Street the actor showed an entirely different side to his acting chops.

We first meet Gekko through the rose coloured glasses of Bud Fox, an ambitious trader who is tired of slogging it out in the bowels of the business world. To Fox, Gekko is a golden boy – untouchable, proficient and a wily genius of the board room. With little to say and even less to offer, Fox finagles his way into fifteen minutes of gutless gab inside Gekko’s New York God spot. He is admonished, dismissed, then resurrected from oblivion by Gekko’s desire to plant a fresh face – and possibly ‘talent’ – amidst his biggest enemies. After a few spurious inside trades, Fox does indeed earn Gekko’s respect. But it also places him in the precarious position of being exposed for illegal trades should Gekko decide that Fox has become expendable.

Meanwhile, Fox’s father, Carl (Martin Sheen), advises against Bud’s further involvement in Gekko’s plan to take over a local airline. Carl is the teamster’s negotiator. He provides Bud with informal, though nevertheless, inside information on the company’s future. For Bud, the carrot of opportunity has been dangled too closely to the rabbit. He betrays his dad to help turn a tidy profit for Gekko instead. But Bud’s world – private and public is about to get a reality check.

Director Stone was granted permission to shoot several key sequences on the floor of the actual stock exchange during business hours, using real traders as his supporting cast. Timed perfectly to coincide with the ‘80s rise in white collar crime, in retrospect the film is a personal reflection on how far corporate America had strayed from its founding roots into the ‘new economy’; a pyramid scheme where companies are no longer created, but instead bought and sold by hidden interests that neither share nor look to produce anything that doesn't first bow to the almighty bottom line.

The screenplay, written by Stone and Stanley Weiser both exposes and balances that struggle between the grand old men of integrity (best personified by Bud’s laconic former boss, Lou Mannheim (Hal Holbrook) and his father, Carl, and, that new wave of raiders, traders and traitors to U.S. business interests – brilliantly embodied in Michael Douglas’ total emotional void and shark-like precision as Gordon Gekko. Today, it is impossible to think of anyone else playing that role, but in 1987 the studio was pushing for Warren Beatty, while Stone had initially pinned his hopes on landing Richard Gere for the part.

If the film has a flaw, it remains the awkward casting of Darryl Hannah as Darien Taylor; Gekko’s sideline fling who finds Bud attractive but cannot justify her own need for material goods against the love of a man who truly cares for her. In the script Darien is just as cold, manipulative and absent of scruples as Gekko – character traits that clashed with Hannah’s interpretation of the part. What emerges instead from her performance is a rather unstable waif-like kitten trapped in a vixen’s body, resulting in an unconvincing performance that fails to hold up under more careful consideration.

Viewed today, Wall Street seems to have dated more than most films of its vintage, particularly in the shadow of our current recession ridden economy: less certain than stable and more driven by mere sustainability these days than the 80s’ ravenous need to consume every and anything for mere pure profit. Nevertheless, as a time capsule of where the head of business was at that time, Wall Street remains compelling entertainment, fuelled with consummate professionalism both in front of and behind the camera.

Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray Anniversary edition greatly improves on the image quality put forth on their 20th Anniversary DVD - released the year before. On home video Wall Street has always retained a rather thick visual characteristic with a flawed hazy patina of muddy colors and lower-than-average contrast levels that make for quite a dark visual presentation. The Blu-Ray's refinement of fine details and its additional - if subtle - pop of colours is therefore most welcome. Flesh tones retain their ruddy orange complexion. But film grain that appeared digitally harsh and gritty on the DVD is now naturally realized for what it is.

Minor video noise evident on the DVD has also been minimized, though not eradicated on the Blu-Ray. The audio is 5.1 and appropriately dated. The score is the real benefactor, but dialogue continues to sound manufactured and oddly strident.

Stone provides a comprehensive, if sometimes rambling, audio commentary throughout the film that is almost as compelling as the film itself. Several featurettes with vintage and new interviews from cast and crew as well as the film’s original theatrical trailer are all direct imports from the DVD. Save D-Box navigation, there is nothing new by way of extras to recommend this reissue.

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






BEING THERE: Blu-Ray (WB 1979) Warner Home Video

Based on Jerzy Kosinski’s quirky novel, director Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979) is, in retrospect, the last great Peter Seller’s comedy; a bizarre, often unsettling examination of an ethereal innocent cast adrift in a sea of mortal corruption. The film opens and closes with a death, both disruptive experiences for Chance, the gardener (Sellers).

To label either the book or film as mere black comedy is too much of a simplification of where the story takes us. Kosinski – who also wrote the screenplay – infuses his tale with rather cryptic references to the Bible and manages to convey a sense of the supernatural throughout, even as his subject seems all too grounded in the daily confusions of earthly mire.

The story begins with the death of Chance’s elderly employer. A gardener residing in the ‘old man’s’ cramped, if tranquil, townhouse, Chance’s entire life experiences are anchored to his perceptions of daily programming on television. He knows nothing of the world beyond these walls and thinks even less about what he sees on TV. His only confident, house maid Louise (Ruth Attaway) willingly abandons Chance after the old man dies in his sleep, while attorney for the estate, Jeffrey (Ernest McClure) promptly informs Chance that he is to vacate the premises by noon the following day or face a very prompt forced eviction.

Rather than fight the bureaucracy, Chance bravely ventures beyond the walls of the only home he has ever known, only to realize that the world outside is foreboding, full of danger and mischief. Unable to quantify what he sees, Chance flounders in his interaction with other people; that is, until he catches sight of his own image projected onto a large format storefront television screen; then accidentally wedges his leg against the chauffeur driven automobile of Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine).

Presuming him a gentleman – and one whose leg she has nearly broken – Eve offers to drive Chance to a nearby hospital to avoid a lawsuit. However, Eve thinks better of her initial offer and instead invites Chance to her home; a sprawling estate where her very sick husband, Benjamin (Melvyn Douglas) is being cared for by a private physician; Dr. Robert Allenby (Richard Dysart).

From here on in, misinformation seems to be the order of the day with Benjamin taking an instant liking to Chance – whom he rechristens as Chauncey Gardiner – while misinterpreting all of Chance’s garden references as being witty metaphors about the state of the U.S. economy. After an informal meeting with the President of the United States (Jack Warden), Benjamin launches plans for an economic task force that he hopes Chance will consider helming.

Meanwhile, the President uses one of Chance’s garden references in a televised speech, casting an immediate and very direct spotlight of public scrutiny on Chance. Who is he? Where did he come from? How is he involved in government affairs? To answer these questions, the media interviews Chance on a ‘Tonight Show’ styled talk show, then hounds his every move. Unaware of his inflated importance, Chance maintains a calm sense of bearing – yet again, misperceived by the press as being cagy and cool and playing his cards close to his chest.

Meanwhile, Benjamin senses a special bond developing between Eve and Chance. Knowing that his death is inevitable, Benjamin gives his blessing to a romance between Eve and Chance; a romantic circumstance fraught with comedy as Chance seemingly does not know, or even understand, what sex is. For example: Chance’s inference to Eve that “he likes to watch” – meaning television - is misperceived by Eve as a kinky invite for her to masturbate in his presence.

Meanwhile the President’s top aids are powerless to uncover any records or personal history on the mysterious man of the hour leading to yet another misperception: that Chance has had his life history expunged by both the CIA and FBI. At a state dinner, Chance wows the Russian Ambassador, Vladimir Skrapinov (Richard Basehart). Now, more rumors abound that he is in fact a world diplomat of the highest order.

Up till now, the story has been about Chance – a character no one knows anything about. The final scenes in this story, however, bear more fruitful analysis. Benjamin succumbs to his illness and dies in the presence of Dr. Allenby and Chance without ever completing his final thought – “Tell Eve…”

Chance, who had shown no emotion when his former employer died, now seems genuinely touched by this loss. As Benjamin’s board of directors quietly assess that the future of Rand Enterprises will be best managed by Chance, he wanders away from the funeral procession and, in the final moments of the film, casually walks across a lake of very deep water on the estate as the President proclaims in his eulogy that “living is a state of mind.”

In essence, Chance is a blank slate upon which those who come in contact with him write their own misperceptions down as part of his personal history. He migrates in the public estimation from lowly gardener to A-list political celebrity – transformed by lies, innuendo and rumors over which he has no control and has not helped to evolve or spread.

As the audience we are as guilty – if not more so – than the characters who place their blind speculation in Chance by making such snap analyses. We see Chance as a rather lost, childlike and somewhat mentally challenged individual who has been overwhelmingly lucky to encounter the kindness of total strangers within a world that might otherwise have swallowed him alive.

Director Ashby and writer Kosinski lead us down this path of misdirection. However, in the final few moments Chance reveals himself to be something much greater. His act of walking on water is at once startlingly Christ-like and yet, unsettling alien to us, begging the question: Have we been indulging in farce with a figure of fun, or are we witnessing the second coming?

Visually speaking, Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray is ahead of its 2 disc collector's set DVD, but not by much. Colors are more vibrantly rendered on this outing, though flesh tones seem to have retained their severe reddish hue. Interior scenes photographed at North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate continue to suffer from lower than adequate contrast levels and a rather fuzzy/soft patina. Grain, however, is more naturally rendered and the result is an image exhibiting less loss of fine detail than its DVD counterpart. Overall then, this visual presentation is just middle of the road instead of spectacular 1080p.

The audio is mono as originally recorded with all the natural inherent limitations one might expect. The extras are direct imports from the DVD and include a featurette, two deleted scenes, an alternate ending, gag reel and trailer. Of these the featurette is the most disappointing - 15 min. of superficial commentary from Illeana Douglas (Melvyn Douglas' granddaughter).

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