Saturday, March 26, 2011

THE DEVIL'S OWN: Blu-ray (Columbia 1997) Sony Home Video

It took producer Lawrence Gordon six years to bring The Devil's Own (1997), a subdued political thriller, to the big screen. By then the original story by Kevin Jarre had undergone major rewrites to flesh out the supporting character of Tom O'Meara into a leading man and much of the film's IRA critique and criticism had been distilled into traditional Hollywood cloak and dagger nonsense that, at least in the final analysis, fails to come together except in fits and sparks.
The Devil’s Own stars then rising talent Brad Pitt as IRA assassin Francis 'Frankie' Austin McGuire. When he was just eight years old, Frankie watched as his Republican sympathizing father (Martin Dunne) was murdered by a masked Loyalist gunman while he sat at the head of the family's dinner table. Fast forward to 1992, and Frankie is now a Provisional IRA foot soldier whose blood lust has only intensified with time. After a harrowing showdown with British agent, Harry Sloan (Simon Jones) in the streets of Belfast, Frankie is taken to a safe house in the country and given a fake passport by fellow freedom fighter, Martin MacDuf (David O'Hara). Frankie's mission is to go to New York City and contact Billy Burke (Treat Williams) a black market gun runner, buy surface to air missiles and then sail away on a re-purposed boat to Ireland with his stash in tow.
The situation, however, becomes complicated when Frankie - rechristened Rory Devaney - is sent by his U.S. contact, Judge Peter Fitzsimmons (George Hern) to live in the home of NYPD officer Tom O'Meara (Harrison Ford). Tom is not a party to Frankie's plans nor is he aware of the oversized duffle containing a million dollars to buy the weaponry, given to Frankie by Peter, and that Frankie has hidden beneath some floorboards in Tom's basement washroom. Frankie lies to Tom about immigrating to the U.S. for a job as a construction worker but secretly meets up with Sean Phelan (Paul Ronan), a fellow IRA gunman who has purchased a broken down tug that will serve as his and Frankie's means of escape once the missiles have been purchased.
Frankie's perfect plan is hardly foolproof. In fact, his hard heart has already begun to soften towards Tom, his wife Sheila (Margaret Colin) and their family. Frankie's plight is further complicated by his attraction to Fitzsimmon's nanny, Megan Doherty (Nathascha McElhone) and later, when learning that Martin MacDuf has been murdered back home, thereby forcing Frankie to put his plans with Billy Burke on hold. Burke, who has already purchased the missiles using his own money is hardly impressed by the delay and sends his thugs to Tom's house to collect the money he is owed. Although Tom at first believes that this home invasion is a simple burglary gone awry, he gradually becomes more suspicious after Sheila takes inventory and realizes that nothing has been stolen. Tom's dander is raised again when he examines Frankie's room and finds that his couch, mattress and personal belongings have all been brutally cut open in the burglars obvious search for something.
Discovering the million dollars under his bathroom floor, Tom confronts Frankie, then places him under arrest with the aid of his partner, Edwin Diaz (Ruben Blades).Unfortunately for Tom and Edwin, en route to the precinct Frankie manages a daring escape that leaves Edwin dead and Tom wounded. At the morgue Tom is suspected by Harry Sloan of being an IRA sympathizer, placing his job and his freedom in jeopardy. Billy Burke holds Sean hostage until Frankie agrees to pay him for the missiles he has already purchased. But the trade is merely a rouse to get Frankie alone in an abandoned factory. There, Billy has one of his henchmen toss Frankie Sean's severed head. Billy reveals to Frankie the contents of a van full of missiles then attempts to assassinate him. In the resulting hailstorm of bullets Billy and his men are killed by Frankie instead.
Meanwhile, Tom confronts Fitzsimmons at his home during an elegant party, then narrowly apprehends Frankie in Megan's bedroom upstairs. Megan agrees to help Tom apprehend Frankie, but only if Tom promises not to hurt him. True to his word, Tom hurries to the abandoned pier where Frankie's tug is moored. But in the resulting confrontation both men take a bullet from each other's gun. While Tom's shoulder wound proves superficial, Frankie has been mortally struck in the stomach. He dies next to Tom, but not before revealing to Tom that he was, in fact, justified in his actions.
The Devil's Own is peculiar indeed. The last to be directed by Alan J. Pakula, it very much wants to be an action movie, but isn't. It aspires to be a political thriller, but isn't. It desperately attempts to resurrect the buddy/buddy genre with a parallel good cop/bad cop, good Irish/bad Irish subplot twist, yet here too it miserably falters. What we are left with then is a rather bizarre, occasionally probing morality play peppered with sporadic gun play and espionage. The film is a valiant attempt to explain away both sides of the Irish conflict with logic, compassion and understanding. It doesn’t work.
The greatest stumbling block in the screenplay by David Aaron Cohen, Vincent Patrick and Kevin Jarre is its’ attempt to make over one man’s crusade into an emotional bond between two. In Jarre's original draft, Tom O'Meara is a mere supporting character. However, Brad Pitt's suggestion that Harrison Ford play the part necessitated fleshing out the character to entice Ford's participation on the project. As such, there are several painfully out of touch sequences inserted into the story that have absolutely nothing to do with the central narrative. There is even a bit of good cop/bad cop cliché at play as Tom catches Edwin in a lie after Edwin shoots a fleeing suspect in cold blood while claiming the unarmed suspect shot at him first.
These scenes are meant to endear the character of Tom to the audience. He's a good man, a good cop and someone who would never under normal circumstances harbor a fugitive like Frankie. This conflict of conscience that evolves once Tom realizes Frankie's true identity is, of course, what fuels the latter half of the story. Yet, it's rather tragic the way Pakula allows the last act to degenerate into a series of protracted blood baths; between Tom, Edwin and Frankie; between Frankie, Billy and his henchmen, and finally, between Tom and Frankie. As the body count rises, one gets a sense of just how imbalanced the screenplay is. Even the film's ending, with Tom alone and steering Frankie's boat back to shore with Frankie's body in tow, suggests something of a misfired dénouement. It is an inevitable conclusion but lacks finality to truly satisfy on a pure entertainment level. In the final analysis, The Devil's Own is a film of many ambitions, none entirely realized in the finished product.
There's better news ahead. Sony Home Video's 1080p transfer is quite stunning. We get an image that is bright and vibrant with colors so rich and saturated that the film really does not look its age. Blacks are deep, rich and solid. Whites are pristine. Fine details are beautifully realized. Truly, this is a reference quality rendering. One simply wishes that Sony would invest as much time and effort in bringing so many of their more popular and enduring catalogue titles to Blu-ray (Little Women, Tootsie, The Remains of the Day, Places in the Heart, Sense and Sensibility, etc. etc. etc.).
The audio is a 5.1 DTS rendering that is aggressive during action sequences, but strangely quiescent elsewhere. Often dialogue sounds inaudible at a normal listening level. While cranking up the speakers corrects this disadvantage, it also is likely to blow out a few rear channels once the car chases and gunfire begin. There are NO extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

ANASTASIA: Blu-ray (20th Century-Fox 1997) Fox Home Video

History on film has always been a tough nut to crack. First, there are the facts to contend with. These rarely run conducive to the linear plot of a motion picture. Then there are the cast of characters from the historical record that inevitably have to be condensed and/or tweaked so there exists definite heroes and villains. Finally, there's the time line - stretching in reality often for decades or even centuries to be distilled and made sense of in two to three hours. Add to this mix a healthy sampling of actors' egos and creative license and voila! - history becomes...well...not quite as it was but as a screenwriter might have wanted it to be. All of these factual shortcomings are at play and compounded in Don Bluth and Gary Goldman’s Anastasia (1997); easily, the most sumptuous non-Disney animated feature of the last twenty years – if not, in fact, of all time.
Taking its cue more from director Anitole Litvak's spectacular 1956 fairytale re-envisioning of history rather than the historical record, Bluth and Goldman's Anastasia further muddies the waters by becoming an animated musical. The poignant underscoring from composer David Newman and superb songs written by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahren are all showstoppers. As such, the resulting movie plays very much like a grandiose Broadway show and this is as it should be. For the 1956 film, screenwriter Arthur Laurents capitalized on the real life legend of Anastasia, the girl who may or may not have escaped the fateful assassination of the Russian royal family in 1918. Then, the mystery surrounding the real Anastasia was further complicated by the fact that a woman named Anna Anderson - who had spent much of her adult life in and out of mental asylums - was claiming to be the last surviving heir of Tsar Nicholas II.
The Cold War in the U.S.S.R. precluded any real investigation of what had become of the Tsar and his family. But the 1994 discovery and exhumation of the royal's bodies that had been shot, burnt and buried in an unmarked grave in 1918 created even more of a stir, since neither Anastasia nor her brother, Alexei were among the remains. Since the execution and burial had been carried out in haste it makes no sense that their bodies should have been disposed of elsewhere. Although an exhumation of Anna Anderson's body and DNA testing in 2000 proved unequivocally that she was not Anastasia, the whereabouts of the real girl are an unsolved mystery to this day and likely to remain so. History’s loss – Hollywood’s gain.
As for the 1997 film, the narrative concocted by Susan Gautier and Bruce Graham is fanciful to say the least. A majestic prologue narrated by the Dowager Empress (voiced by Angela Lansbury) attempts to condense 500 years of Romanov history into less than eight minutes of screen time. It is most effective at setting up the villainy of Rasputin (Christopher Lloyd), the mad monk and one time advisor to the royal family. Rasputin condemns the Tsar and his family at a grand ball. To simplify the narrative - and not frighten the kiddies too much - we are told that Rasputin used a magical reliquary to send his green goblin-esque minions to dismantle the monarchy. This spectacular fall of a dynasty is tempered by Rasputin's cute and cuddly sidekick, Bartok the Bat (voiced by Hank Azaria).
According to the historical record, Grigori Rasputin was a most bizarre individual. Ordained by the Orthodox church he was also a philandering scamp prone to all forms of human debauchery, and, a shameless self-promoter who claimed to possess mythical powers imbued in him by God. These he used on the Tsarina and on Alexei to supposedly 'cure' the young heir's hemophilia.
However, Rasputin's reputation prior to entering the Royal house did much to tarnish the Tsar's image, so much, in fact, that a secret assassination plot was hatched and carried out by Prince Youssoupov. Rasputin, who had always claimed that if any evil befell him his curse would destroy the Tsar, proved eerily on point when Vladimir Lenin and his party came into power. But back to the film; after the child princess is lost while trying to escape with the Dowager on a train out of St. Petersburg, the narrative jumps forward some ten years. Anja (voiced by Meg Ryan) is now an impoverished waif living in an orphanage. A blow to the head has erased all memory of her past, although she craves a mother and father and is compelled to journey to St. Petersburg in the hopes of finding them.
Instead, Anja falls prey to a couple of sympathetic con artists, Dimitri (John Cusak) and Vlad (Kelsey Grammar). They plan to take a girl – any girl - from the streets and train her in the royal customs - just enough to fool the Dowager Empress, who is an exile living in Paris, into bequeathing a handsome sum of money to her lost granddaughter. But this heartless ploy goes awry when Dimitri discovers that Anja is actually the girl they have been looking for, and more to the point, he has been in love with since his childhood days as a palace servant.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, Bartok has rediscovered Rasputin's reliquary and accidentally resurrects his old master from purgatory. Rasputin, who has lost none of his vim and vinegar for the Royal family is determined to murder the Tsar's last surviving heir. Part ghost/part walking corpse, Rasputin uses the powers of the reliquary to teleport himself to Paris where he plots the death of Anastasia.
Of course, this being a musical and a cartoon Rasputin's various attempts all come to not. After some sound advice from the Dowager, who eventually comes to believe that Anja is Anastasia, the girl realizes true love trumps a royal flush any day of the week. She chooses to abandon her crown and her title to pursue a romance with Dimitri instead, but not before a showdown with Rasputin puts a period to his life once and for all.
Those expecting a history lesson should seek it elsewhere. What this film does provide is a very lush tapestry in the best vein of Broadway to Hollywood hybrid musical offerings. Quite simply, it works: completely and charmingly. Buttressed by Bluth’s attention to detail and having his artists capture authenticity in their drawings, the film has flair and magic all its own, and is a success on every level, but mostly at striking the right chord in our hearts.
The fact that the real Anastasia's whereabouts remain unknown to this day gives at least partial plausibility to featherweight alternatives such as this one. And let's be honest...we all love a good fairytale. So, did Anastasia survive the fate of her family? Did she find happiness and love and safety in the arms of a handsome stranger? Did she endure and go on to live her life in peace? Well, it's the rumor, the legend and the mystery. Perhaps we'll never know. Then again, perhaps we never should.
Fox Home Video's Blu-ray captures the breathtaking art of animation in every detail. This a visually resplendent film that comes more regally to life in 1080p than ever before. Colors are bold, vibrant and eye-popping. Blacks are deep and velvety. Whites are very clean. This is a reference quality visual presentation. The audio remains in 5.1 Dolby Digital - its original theatrical presentation. While audiophiles will quip about the aural differences between 5.1 and 7.1 DTS, this audio presentation delivers an enveloping listening experience that, at times, really gives your speakers a work out.
Extras are all direct imports from Fox's previously released 2-disc DVD, and include an ill-timed sequel – Bartok the Magnificent (a tour de force for Hank Azaria, reprising his role as the loveable albino bat), an extensive look inside the making of the film, a sing-a-long, and several music videos. While virtually all of the extras are in 720i and prove to be less than visually satisfying, it's the presentation of the original film that deserves credit here. It's really quite stunning and comes highly recommended.
One final note: I am really not a fan of repurposed cover art for Blu-ray releases. If the original poster art was good enough to sell the film to audiences in theaters then why isn't it good enough to sell it to them on home video? Anastasia's Blu-ray cover art isn't the worst I've seen so far (that dubious honor belongs to Pleasantville) but it in no way compares to the amazing poster art produced at the time of the film's theatrical release - artwork that, in fact, was also used for Fox's first non-anamorphic release of the film on DVD in 1998.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

ALICE ADAMS (RKO 1935) Warner Home Video

George Steven’s Alice Adams (1935) poignantly marks the misadventures of a wallflower, so desperate to fit into polite society that her antics and expectations are easily translated into an astute reflection of the struggles of youth coming of age. The film differs from the Booth Tarkington novel in several respects, most notably in its 'happily ever after' resolution that is pure Hollywood confection circa the 1930s. In the novel Alice's dreams of romance and a life of privilege end badly. Alice accepts her rejection by the upper classes with a stiff upper lip and sense of self-worth and pride rather than tears. She comes to some sort of inward acceptance that the boy of her early school girl crush, Arthur Russell, will never be hers.
While Tarkington's novel is very much a social critique of America's caste system at the turn of the 20th century the film remains a sparkling romantic melodrama that works on its own level even if it is not a faithful literary adaptation. The Dorothy Yost, Mortimer Offner and Jane Murfin screenplay begins in earnest with Alice (Katherine Hepburn in one of her best roles) daydreaming as she doddles along Main Street in a cloudy romantic haze. Unable to afford the luxury of a corsage, Alice picks a bouquet of violets from the park before hurrying to the less-than-fashionable middle class, mid-western home she shares with her mother (Ann Shoemaker) and ill father, Virgil (Fred Stone) whom Alice dotes on.
Alice's mother is a harsh woman in many respects, but not without a genuine tough love for her daughter. Virgil, however, encourages Alice's flights of fancy, implicitly believing that his girl can have anything she wants if she wants it badly enough. Alice’s older brother, Walter (Frank Albertson) is a scruffy pragmatist; the exact opposite of his sister. He finds the rich for whom he works all day a colossal bore and only grudgingly agrees to chaperone Alice to one of their ritzy society affairs after Alice tells him that he does not have to remain at her side for very long. A dance is being held at the home of local socialite, Mrs. Palmer (Hedda Hopper), a sort of coming out party for her rather snooty daughter, Mildred (Evelyn Venable); a slightly venomous creature who has her eye on fashionable playboy, Arthur Russell (Fred MacMurray).
Upon her arrival at the Palmer house Alice places herself near the front hall where guests are coming and going. But the society set do not even realize that she is there. At every turn, Alice attempts to make awkward conversation with her peers, but they are oblivious to her fragile need to fit in. This is perhaps the most finely wrought scene in the entire film, one illuminating with painful clarity Alice’s inner desperation and crippling insecurities. Walter, who has sneaked off to schmooze with the hired help, inadvertently lands himself in hot water after he is discovered by Mrs. Palmer shooting craps in the kitchen with her servants.
Meanwhile Alice has fixed her romantic sites on Arthur. Mrs. Palmer encourages Arthur to ask Alice to dance. He does so, though mostly out of cordial politeness. At first, Alice misperceives this as a gesture that he likes her. She is reawakened from this fantasy after Walter is quietly asked to leave the party, forcing Alice to realign her loyalties with her brother and go home. The evening in ruins, Alice retreats to her bedroom in shame. She lies to her father, who has waited up for her, about having a wonderful time at the party, then locks herself away to weep, augmented by Robert De Grasse's brilliant cinematography that mingles Alice’s tears with the light spatter of rain poetically falling just outside her window.
To Alice's great good fortune Arthur comes calling the next afternoon - mildly ashamed of the way he and his friends have behaved the night before. To entice Arthur to her side Alice decides to invite him to dinner, then sets about transforming the family's modest dining room into a den of culture, elegance and refinement. This last act in the film is played strictly for laughs - a rather curious, but salvageable shift in pacing and mood as Arthur arrives for dinner to find the modest home suddenly abuzz with 'piss elegance'.
In Tarkington's original novel, Arthur has come to dinner merely to be entertained by the family's modest attempts at what they misperceive to be cultural refinement. He knows that the event is being staged entirely for his benefit, including the hiring of Malena Burns (Hattie McDaniel) as their maid. These gestures the Arthur of the novel finds both idiotic and utterly laughable. However, in the film, Arthur is genuinely touched by all the effort Alice has gone to simply to impress him.
In altering Arthur's character from cad to congenial love interest, director Stevens’ deflates the point of the novel's last act where Alice comes of age and awakens from her romantic idealism. Still, the decision to fall back on the rather conventional ‘boy meets girl’ scenario doesn't really hurt the movie. In fact, as pure screwball comedy, Alice becoming horrified after learning Malena doesn’t know the first thing about waiting on table (at one point she even loses her hair doily in the soup tureen)proves an enchanting misfire where a good time is generally had by all. Believing that her chances of love with Arthur are ruined, Alice flees in tears to her front porch only to have Arthur come to her side chivalrous and doting, declaring his undying love for her.
Alice Adams comes near the end of Hepburn's first glory period in Hollywood - right before film critics turned on the actress, erroneously declaring her 'box office poison'. And, it is saying much of Hepburn's performance in this film that it eschews all of the strong-willed feminism we generally associate today with Katherine Hepburn as a screen personality. Hepburn's Alice is uncharacteristically tender and fragile, wearing her heart on her sleeve until we, as the audience, hope and pray alongside her that Arthur Russell will live up to her Prince Charming ideal. For his part, Fred MacMurray makes the most out of his then matinee idol good looks. Though he could never be confused with a swarthy or even sophisticated lady's man a la the likes of a Cary Grant or Errol Flynn, MacMurray's Arthur is an amiable young suitor that most middle-class women living in America then must have found deliciously attainable.
At 99 minutes, Alice Adams is a short slice of Americana expertly staged by director Stevens, with solid pacing and memorable vignettes that live up to our expectations for frothy wish fulfillment. Though it hardly belongs in the same class as some of Steven's later masterworks (Gunga Din, The Talk of the Town, Giant, The Diary of Anne Frank), Alice Adams nevertheless illustrates sparks of brilliance that the director would later infuse into more meaningful and sustained entertainment.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is a very solid effort indeed. Sourced from restored picture elements, the B&W image is near pristine with a refined gray scale. This is a reference quality mastering effort with fine detail evident in every frame and an almost complete lack of age related artifacts. The image is exceptionally smooth throughout. The audio is mono but very nicely realized. An excised snippet from George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey, as well as a brief featurette on Hepburn’s RKO career are the extras. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)