Wednesday, May 25, 2011

THE GREAT DICTATOR: Blu-ray (UA 1940) Criterion Home Video

In retrospect, Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) plays as inspired anti-war comedy and an utterly wicked satire of Adolph Hitler. True enough, the film fits that bill. Yet, to simply view it as such is to discount the bravery of its creator. Only Chaplin it seems had the audacity of genius to challenge the status quo in Hollywood and defy the grim harsh realities of the Axis powers. By 1940 Adolph Hitler was well on his way to achieving his maniacal fantasy of world domination with the rest of the world powers still in complete denial of his atrocities. In Hollywood, there was an almost obtuse ignorance to even consider that another World War had begun to brew. Instead, the dream factories chose to concentrate on the fantastical make-believe that had made their profits soar throughout the 1930s.
It was a mistake of blind-sightedness but one that the movie moguls - most of them of Jewish descent - hoped would continue to appease Hitler enough to allow them to continue distributing their product to the foreign market. Hitler was, in fact, a huge movie buff who enjoyed a steady diet of American films. What he liked he passed on for general distribution. What he found subversive was quickly condemned and occasionally even re-edited by Hollywood studios in yet another attempt to pacify the Nazi leader. But with The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin's little tramp took an unapologetic dead aim at the tyrannical forces of the Third Reich. It's as though Chaplin is looking Hitler straight in the eye shouting, "Hitler, Schmit-ler. You're a crazy man and I defy you through the power of laughter."
Chaplin, who had never spoken in films before or even considered sound necessary, chose The Great Dictator as his first 'talking' movie. Clearly, his cinematic genius had something relevant to say. The strength of Chaplin's convictions cannot be overstated. In fact, when he announced that The Great Dictator as his next project the creative trusts at the other studios quietly banned together to encourage Chaplin to abandoned the film.  After all, it would undoubtedly receive a negative review and be banned in Germany. But even more disturbing for the moguls was the prospect that Hitler might view Chaplin as evoking Hollywood's collective sentiment and thus impact their own ability to do future business overseas. Undaunted, Chaplin received the biggest plug of his career when U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt not only encouraged him to make the movie but also guaranteed its distribution.
The script, by Chaplin, is another tour de force. The Great Dictator begins in earnest with an unnamed Jewish barber (Chaplin) blundering through the front lines of World War I. The barber rescues an officer, Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) who is carrying important documents that may turn the tide of war and save their country of Tomania from falling into a dictatorship. Regrettably, the plane carrying Schultz and the barber loses altitude and crashes. Although both men survive the wreckage their country is lost. Flash forward twenty years into the future. Tomania has become a totalitarian state under the autocratic leadership of Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin also) whose political agenda is for an anti-Jewish Arian nation. Minister of Interior, Garbitsch (Henry Daniel) and Minister of War, Herring (Billy Gilbert) are the right and left hands of the administration; the former a crafty and manipulative warmonger, the latter a grossly incompetent fop simply along for the ride.
Suffering from amnesia, the barber returns to his trade only to learn that Hynkel's storm troopers have condemned the shop for being owned by a Jew. After a scuffle with these agents the barber is rescued by another exile, Hannah (Paulette Goddard) who strikes Hynkel's henchmen on the head with her fry pan. Captured by Commander Schmidt, who is now a high-ranking official in Hynkel's government, Hannah and the barber are released from custody after Schmidt recognizes the barber as the man who once saved his life. Meanwhile, Hynkel invites neighboring Italian dictator, Benzino Napaloni (Jack Oakie) to a demonstration of his military might. The exercise is a disaster and Hynkel quickly breaks the political pact he has formed with Napaloni in favor of pursuing his unilateral dream for world domination. It should be pointed out that this course of action is maniacally encouraged by Minister Garbitsch who has his eye on becoming dictator himself, presumably by overthrowing Hynkel at some later date.
The film now enters its most inspired arena of comedy. Schultz, Hannah and the barber are sent to a concentration camp but escape when Schultz taps into the idea of using the barber to impersonate Hynkel. The rouse works on the camp guards and the trio is set free. Meanwhile, Hynkel is accidentally thrown overboard while on a duck hunting expedition. He is recovered from the drink but accused of being the barber attempting to impersonate Hynkel and is sent to one of his own camps. The barber, now dressed as Hynkel seizes the opportunity to liberate Tomania from its tyranny, addressing the people and Hannah directly from a podium during one of Hynkel's rallies.
"Hannah, can you hear me? Wherever you are, look up, Hannah. The clouds are lifting. The sun is breaking through. We are coming out of the darkness into the light. We are coming into a new world, a kindlier world, where men will rise above their hate, their greed and brutality. Look up, Hannah. The soul of man has been given wings, and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow—into the light of hope, into the future, the glorious future that belongs to you, to me, and to all of us. Look up, Hannah. Look up".
In retrospect, time and history have regrettably proven the barber's speech too optimistic an epitaph for the realities of Adolph Hitler. Still, the potency of Chaplin's own plea to the world cannot be discounted. In many ways, the final speech in The Great Dictator plays like a call to arms for the Allied Forces. Certainly, the film illustrates with the most threadbare of masks that darkening malaise having begun to envelope central Europe. There is no mistaking the parody of either the names or situations depicted as anything but a direct hit to Hitler's self-perceived supremacy on the world stage.
By 1940, Chaplin's popularity was in a class apart from the rest of Hollywood. Arguably, he was the number one star in the world. A decade earlier, Chaplin had been mobbed by ardent fans in Berlin, a display of adoration that infuriated the Nazi party and led directly to the publication of their propaganda, 'The Jews Are Looking At You'. Now, Chaplin was taking an even more direct stab at the Nazi establishment, one that could not be ignored either for its sentiment or scathing parody.
Despite Chaplin's enviable autonomy in Hollywood, failure to find distribution for The Great Dictator would have meant financial ruin. Chaplin had invested $1.8 million of his own money to make it. Yet, in hindsight The Great Dictator came at a curious crux in the genius' career. Following its release and overwhelming critical and financial success, Chaplin would make only four more movies, each met by increasing unpopularity with audiences. By 1950, the McCarthy witch hunt labeled Chaplin a subversive Communist sympathizer. Exiled from the U.S. - except for a brief reprieve to accept his Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1972, Chaplin's reign as the undisputed comedic genius of the 20th century had come to a sudden end immediately following the release of The Great Dictator.
Criterion Home Video gives us another gorgeous 1080p transfer from the Chaplin archives and Mk2. Previously they released a breathtaking Blu-ray of Modern Times. If anything, The Great Dictator looks even better than its predecessor on Blu-ray. The B&W image exhibits a superbly rendered gray scale. Blacks are deep and velvety. Whites are crisp though never blooming. Film grain appears as grain, not digital grit. The annoying aliasing and digital combing of an interlaced transfer that plagued the Warner release of the film on DVD in 2005 has been completely eradicated. Age related artifacts have been almost entirely removed. The image is smooth, clean and gorgeous. In keeping with Criterion's attention to authenticity, the film's soundtrack is presented in original mono, nicely cleaned up and very crisp sounding.
Extras include the hour long, 2001 TCM documentary that parallels Chaplin and Hilter's lives, a compelling audio commentary by Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran, two extensive visual essays totalling 40 minutes, nearly a half hour of silent but thoroughly fascinating behind the scenes footage shot by Chaplin's brother Sidney in Technicolor, a sequence from the 1921 film King Queen Joker, a deleted sequence from another Chaplin precursor shot in 1919 and a 30 page collector's booklet by film critic Michael Wood. Good stuff all around. The Great Dictator on Blu-ray is a no brainer repurchase. It belongs on everyone's top shelf!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

BEVERLY HILLS COP: Blu-ray (Paramount 1984) Paramount Home Video

Martin Brest's Beverly Hills Cop (1984) is a film very near and dear to my heart. I was thirteen when I first saw it with a live audience at my local theater. Almost immediately I was impressed with relative unknown stand-up comic Eddie Murphy who seemed to be able to shoot barbs as quickly from his hip as he could bullets from his holster. Then and there I decided that Eddie Murphy's brand of comedic genius was tailor-made for the movies and I became a huge fan. The passage of time has not altered my snap assessment of Murphy’s talents some thirty years later, although I will concede Eddie's made some terrible movies since.
Now, movies from the 1980s generally get a bad rap as high camp disposable puff art. Those who haven't seen enough from the decade are too quick to point out the tacky hairdos and flamboyant fashion trends (padded shoulders, mesh tank tops, pastel Don Johnson suits et al that I must agree have dated since), and the uber-glam-bam of consumer materialism run amuck (lifestyles of the rich and famous here we come), the improbable feather-weight quality of scripts and finally, to the whole laissez faire attitude toward acting then as over-the-top, transparent or just plain dull.
Truer still, there's no shortage of 'bad' movies from the 1980s, but then again, isn't that true of any decade in cinema history? And, I have no doubt that if either Sly Stallone or Mickey Rourke had accepted the challenge of playing Axel Foley (both were initially offered the role) that Beverly Hills Cop would be wedged in the collective consciousness of a bargain basement bin along with the other forgotten whacky-tacky relics. How refreshing then to discover that with Eddie Murphy in the driver's seat not only has Beverly Hills Cop not dated, it seems to have avoided all of the aforementioned pitfalls.
The film opens in the slums of inner city Detroit. Undercover cop Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) is attempting to bust a ring of smugglers by pretending to fence stolen cigarettes when the squad cars move in. One of the smugglers gets cold feet, steals the semi with the contraband and Axel barely clinging to its side and leads the cops on a harrowing chase through the gritty back alleys. The smugglers get away. Axel is left to face the wrath of his superior, Inspector Douglas Todd (Gilbert R. Hill). That evening Axel hooks up with his old pal, Mikey Tandino (James Russo), once a cop too, but who left the badge with a mutual friend, Jenny Summers (Lisa Eilbacher) to work for L.A. high roller, Victor Maitland (Steven Berkoff). One problem: Mikey stole from Victor's private stash and it gets him murdered.
After narrowly escaping the same fate, Axel informs Todd that he is taking a leave of absence for a presumed vacation. Todd warns Axel not to pursue Mikey's homicide but Axel makes his way to the City of Angels anyway. Almost immediately he is met by Victor's violent opposition. A pair of Maitland’s boys ‘sucker toss’ Axel through a plate glass window. Axel is placed under arrest and confronted by Lt. Andrew Bogomil (Ronny Cox) and his two officers, Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold) and Sgt. John Taggart (John Ashton). Although all three cops sympathize with Axel's predicament and promise to look into Mikey's murder in his stead, they absolutely refuse to invest themselves in anything except procedural by-the-book investigative practices. Naturally, this conflicts with Axel's more intuitive powers of deduction.
Axel finds Jenny working as the curator in one of Victor's art galleries. As their friendship rekindles, Axel and Jenny begin to realize that Victor Maitland is involved in illegal narcotics smuggling. But Axel must prove this as in order to establish a motive for Mikey’s murder while dodging Bogomil and brokering a truce with Billy and veteran hard ass Taggart. Ultimately, the comedy gives way to a slam-bang finish with Axel arriving at Victor Maitland’s Beverly Hills mansion for a shootout in which no one – save the principals - is spared. Daniel Petrie's screenplay deserves the real credit here. In as much as Eddie Murphy proves himself to be the master of the adlib it is Petrie's clever shaping of the buoyant buddy-buddy relationship between Axel, Taggart and Rosewood that really keeps the film's pace alive and electric.
Reportedly, director Martin Brest flipped a coin to decide whether or not he would do the film. After it became a smash hit, Brest had the quarter framed and hung on his wall as a good luck piece. In retrospect, Beverly Hills Cop seems to have everything going for it. In reality, it might just as easily have been a disastrous flop. The original script was written in 1977 as a more serious crime drama with action split between Pittsburgh and California. Jenny Summers was to have been Axel's lover and Mikey his brother. When Eddie Murphy became cast in the lead major rewrites were necessary - all of them in service to making the film an action/comedy.
The 'cut and paste' work done on the final draft was still incomplete when Brest started rolling his cameras. To fill in the gaps Brest relied heavily on Murphy's genius for improvisation to literally create dialogue and situations on the spot, many ultimately staying in the film and proving to be among the enduring highlights. In the final analysis, everything clicked to produce the first megawatt hit in Eddie Murphy's film career. Both 48 Hours and Trading Places precede Beverly Hills Cop though neither came anywhere close to clinching the comedian's universal popularity with audiences. Thirty years later, Beverly Hills Cop still holds up spectacularly well.
The same can be said for Paramount Home Video's new Blu-ray incarnation. After some opening credits that belie their 1080p mastering efforts (some wonky colors and camera flicker), the image becomes razor sharp and nearly pristine. Colors pop. Film grain is slightly thicker during interior scenes (as expected for film stock of this vintage) but is in keeping with a very film-like presentation. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are pristine. Contrast is bang on. Fine details are perfectly realized. This is a video presentation that will surely NOT disappoint.
The audio is advertised as a newly remastered DTS. Nevertheless, it remains very frontally focused as is probably in keeping with the original soundtrack. Vintage Dolby really didn't do much with rear channel sound and this audio is no exception. Sorry, but my mind doesn't go back that far and even if it did, I was thirteen. Acoustics meant absolutely nothing to me back then. Could I hear it? Yes. Fine. It sounded good. Times and my tastes have changed. But this DTS 5.1 sounded very good to me.
The highlight of the extras is a 29 minute 'making of' featurette. Martin Brest's audio commentary left me wanting, what with long pauses and only the most superficial of recollections about the film. Featurettes on casting and underscoring the film are relevant but very brief. Together, they barely add up to 18 minutes. All of these extras, save the original theatrical trailer, are in standard definition. Nevertheless, Beverly Hills Cop on Blu-ray is another must own catalogue title given its due on Blu-ray. The folks on the mountain ought to be proud of their enduring commitment to quality hi-def transfers. Show them they deserve more than honorable mention in this review. Buy this disc!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

THE COMANCHEROS (20th Century-Fox 1961) Fox Home Video

Sumptuously mounted, if rather nonsensical and episodic to a fault, Michael Curtiz's The Comancheros (1961) is a super western of the old school, a last gasp of the old establishment as the Hollywood of yesteryear reluctantly gave way to grittier, more contemporary realism throughout the 1960s. Curtiz, who was in ill health at the start of production, continued to decline and was forced to withdraw midway through, leaving his star, John Wayne the defacto director on the project. That Wayne proved himself as skilled behind the camera as he undeniably was in front of it was perhaps no surprise. After more than 100 films he had obviously learned the craft from the ground up.
Based on Paul Wellman's best-selling 1952 novel, the narrative patched together by screenwriters James Edward Grant and Clair Huffaker periodically waffles, perhaps because the hero of Wellman's novel is Paul Regret and not Jake Cutter - the Marshal played by John Wayne. Casting Wayne necessitated rewrites to flesh out his character at the expense of the former. The tale begins in earnest in Louisiana, circa 1843 with Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman in a role originally envisioned by Wellman as belonging to Cary Grant); a wily gambler with a certain ruthlessness about him. After an accusation of having cheated at cards Regret guns down his accuser, Emil Bouvier (Gregg Palmer) during a gentlemen's duel.
The duel's overseer, Gireaux (Henry Daniell) informs Regret, owing to the fact Bouvier was the son of a local magistrate, the likely penalty will be his hanging for the murder – despite their gentlemen’s agreement. Instead, Regret flees the state, bringing about a countrywide man hunt with a sizable bounty on his head. Aboard a gambler's riverboat, Regret meets and is seduced by Pilar Graile (Ina Balin); a mysterious woman of means whose former lover, Esteban (Richard Devon) is now Pilar’s servant. After spending several pleasurable days with Regret in her private suite, Pilar curiously vanishes without a trace.
Enter Jake Cutter (John Wayne), a U.S. Marshall who arrests Regret as the boat docks. Determined to bring him into custody unharmed Cutter's plans are foiled when, after encountering an Indian massacre, Regret seizes the opportunity to knock Cutter unconscious and steal his horse. Returning empty-handed to his outpost, Cutter is given a new assignment; to learn who has been selling guns to the 'Comancheros' - a barbarous sect of ranchers allied with the Indians and living obscurely by their own rules of lawlessness. Under a distant escort from Texas Ranger Tobe (Patrick Wayne), Cutter buries his supply of guns for trade in the wilderness before driving an empty wagon to the prearranged destination where he meets unrepentant and mildly psychotic roughrider, Tully Crow (Lee Marvin). Learning what he can from Crow, Cutter enters a game of poker at Crow's behest and is inadvertently reunited with Regret who recognizes Cutter immediately but keeps his true identity a secret from Crow.
After losing several hands of poker Crow becomes violent and Cutter is forced to kill him. Arresting Regret once again, Cutter takes him to the location where he buried the guns and makes him dig up his stash. Cutter explains his mission to Regret who reluctantly goes along for the ride. Recognizing that Regret's act of murder was a case of fair play rather than cold-bloodedness Cutter takes him to the Marshall's office to plead his case. Regret is made an honorary Marshall by Circuit Court Judge Thaddeus Breen (Edgar Buchanan), thereby absolving him of his crime.
Regrettably, from here on in, the plot becomes intriguingly convoluted. Regret accompanies Cutter on his mission to learn the whereabouts of the Comancheros. The pair is ambushed by Esteban, who recognizes Regret from the riverboat. Even after Cutter pretends that he and Regret have come on business to aid the Comancheros, he and Regret are strung up by their wrists along a narrow precipice, presumably to die in the sun. They are saved from this rather gruesome fate by Pilar. As it turns out she is the daughter of the Comanchero's ringleader (Nehemiah Persoff). Pilar and Regret are reunited and Pilar's father affords Cutter and Regret every hospitality under Esteban's watchful eye. After a night of drunken revelry, Wayne and Regret stage a daring escape from the Comanchero's stronghold with Pilar in tow and her father bound and gagged. The Comancheros make chase. But Tobe has brought the U.S. Cavalry with him and the entire band of outlaws is apprehended. Cutter departs for his next mission, leaving Pilar and Regret to start their life together in the open wilderness of Mexico.
The Comancheros clings together largely because of Wayne’s larger than life persona, and the exemplary production values afforded the film. This is a class ‘A’ feature, immeasurably fleshed out by some stellar talent working behind the camera. Composer Elmer Bernstein provides a spectacularly memorable central theme under the main titles that manages to capture the vast open spaces of the old west. More directly, it borrows heavily from his own underscoring for another super-western, The Magnificent Seven (1960).
The best thing about the film is John Wayne. By this stage in his acting career, Wayne had matured to a place of being comfortable in his own skin. As the embodiment of the old west Wayne delights in the more flippant dialogue he's given throughout the narrative. To be sure, Wayne is a towering monument of a man, but he’s also very relaxed and a born natural for these landscapes. His persona reaches beyond the screen and pulls the audience into the story - no small feat, given the shortcomings of the script. Regrettably, the other cast members do not live up to Wayne's high standard, particularly the very wooden Stuart Whitman and even more rigid and uninspiring Ina Balin. There is some minor buddy/buddy chemistry at play between Wayne and Whitman but virtually zero romantic chemistry between Balin and Whitman, leaving the plausibility of the film's finale highly suspect.
The Grant/Huffaker screenplay makes its share of misfires - mostly during the latter half of the story when Pilar inexplicably pivots from Comanchero loyalist to Cavalry informant. In the course of two brief scenes she rats out her own father in favor of starting an uncertain relationship with a man she barely knows. None of this makes much sense even if one buys the western fairy-tale course of untrue love. Nevertheless, The Comancheros hangs together - awkwardly so at times, but for the most part without drawing too much attention to its weaknesses.
Previously Fox Home Video made the The Comancheros available as part of their John Wayne: The Fox Westerns Collection on DVD. Now we get a deluxe Blu-ray offering that is infinitely more satisfying on every level, not the least of which are the Blu-ray's bounty of extras. More about these in a moment. The transfer is exceptionally detailed and very crisp and pleasing. Colors on the Cinemascope DeLuxe print are surprisingly bold, especially when directly comparing them to the rather tepid tones on the DVD. Flesh tones look more natural on the Blu-ray too. Softness in long and medium shots remains, but the image is infinitely tighter on the Blu-ray.
The audio is a 5.1 Dolby DTS. There's also a 4.0 Dolby track for purists of the original directionalized stereo masters. The DTS is often quite exhilarating - especially the Bernstein music cues. Dialogue is never as natural sounding, too much front channel and rather strident at times. Still, this is a faithful reproduction of the original theatrical soundtrack. Extras on the DVD were limited to a theatrical trailer. The Blu-ray provides a bounty of extras worthy of a re-purchase. We get an extensive 'making of' documentary that also critiques the real struggles incurred to civilize the west. A two part documentary on Wayne's Fox tenure features extensive film clips from the likes of The Barbarian and the Geisha, Red River, North of Alaska and The Alamo – titles that this critic hopes are in the works at Fox for a Blu-ray re-issue in the very near future.
There's also a well-informed audio commentary, a stills gallery, the original Comanchero's comic book digitized on 97 screen displays (the ending of the comic greatly varies from the film's ending, so it's definitely worth a look) and the original theatrical trailer. Overall, Fox has outdone themselves on this offering. Let's all hope it's the start of a trend. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)