Thursday, September 29, 2011

BIGGER THAN LIFE: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1956) Criterion Home Video

Director Nicholas Ray was never one to shy away from controversy. In fact, a retrospective of his films suggests that he thrived on it. Remarkably, despite changing times and audience tastes a good many of his films hold up under close scrutiny. Some have even improved with age. Of this latter ilk is Bigger Than Life (1956) a thoroughly unsettling excursion into substance abuse/addiction; taboo subject matter undeniably ahead of its time. Based on medical writer Berton Roueche's New Yorker article 'Ten Feet Tall', the film stars James Mason as Ed Avery: schoolteacher and family man. Ed is the most congenial sort. He works hard, loves his wife, Lou (Barbara Rush) and young son, Ritchie (Christopher Olsen) and does his absolute best to be a good provider. In fact, he's even taken a part time job as a taxi dispatcher to help make ends meet. Everybody likes Ed. Still, his best friend, phys-ed teacher, Wally Gibbs (Walter Matthau) thinks Ed is wasting his time in the education system. He should have a more high profile job.
So far, so good. A rosy post-war picture postcard of the American family. Regrettably, this idyllic snapshot is not to last. Ed is stricken with a strange illness. He suffers excruciating pain and blackouts until Dr. Norton (Robert Simon) diagnoses him with polyarteritis nodosa, a congenital and potentially fatal stricture of the arteries. To improve Ed's blood flow, Doc Norton prescribes cortisone pills. But the cure comes with a warning. Too much cortisone can be mind-altering and dangerous. Ed agrees to follow his doctor's orders. But once the genie has been let out of its bottle Ed begins to abuse the drug. If a little makes him feel good then a lot should make him feel spectacular...right? Wrong! Under the influence Ed is transformed from a mild-mannered Jekyll into a sadistic Hyde. He chides a roomful of parents during parent/teacher interviews for raising idiots and suggests that the best thing any adult can do is to beat their children into submission until the age of consent.
Naturally these rather...uh...'progressive views' clash with the rigid 'picket fence' conventions of the Eisenhower generation. Ed quickly finds himself on the edge of reason and sanity. He abruptly quits his job at the cab company and then isolates Lou and Ritchie in their home. Determined to 'make a man' of his son, Ed tortures Ritchie with complex math equations and relentlessly trains him in football until Ritchie comes to hate his father. Lou is patient, but realizes Ed is out of control. In his penultimate descent into madness Ed admonishes God, then decides that Ritchie must be destroyed. He locks Lou in the closet and heads up to Ritchie's room with a pair of scissors. Thankfully, Wally intervenes. The two struggle and Ed is knocked unconscious. Placed under Doc Norton's care for detoxification, Ed emerges from his nightmare unscathed after the ill effects of the cortisone have worn off.
At the time of its release Bigger Than Life was a controversial box office dud. In truth the degenerative effects of cortisone on Ed's character are exaggerated and simplistic. But the strength of James Mason's performance carries off the coup of believability. In retrospect Mason's entire career excelled at creating such weak-minded men easily swayed by their vices. Bigger Than Life ranks among his most diabolically compelling star turns. In fact, he carries the show. Screenwriters Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum move their story along with economy but the real steam in this piston is James Mason. The brief scenes without him (where Wally and Lou debate about what should be done about Ed's deteriorating mental health) are painfully obtuse and drag. The rest of the cast is just filler, an oversight from which the reasonably taut narrative never entirely recovers. This isn't to suggest Bigger Than Life is a stinker. In fact, as early as 1963 French critics were praising Ray and the film for its frank, overt depiction of drug abuse. But that was 1963. Today, Bigger Than Life seems more mellow and tame. Nevertheless, Mason is magnetic.
Criterion Home Video delivers a very impressive 1080p Blu-ray of this edgy classic. The original 35mm Cinemascope image has been scanned at 4k resolution (distilled to 2k) and is simply gorgeous. Criterion has performed extensive restoration work to ensure a solid and richly textured visual presentation.
Colors pop off the screen yet look very natural. Fine detail is exceptionally realized. Wow, doesn't begin to describe the image. The atypical problems of Cinemascope (grainy dissolves in transition between scenes) is absent. The audio is a crisp and clean 1.0 LPCM - not the most astounding sonic experience, but competent and pleasing nonetheless. Extras include Geoff Andrew's thorough audio commentary, a vintage profile on Nicholas Ray that is a tad hammy, a featurette with Jonathan Lethem extolling the virtues and many subliminal themes from the movie, a brief interview with Nicholas Ray's widow and the original theatrical trailer. Criterion also includes 'Somewhere in Suburbia' - an essay by B. Kite. All in all, very nicely packed, this kit and recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S: Blu-ray (Paramount 1961) Paramount Home Video

Blake Edward’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) is usually referred to as a vintage classic. True enough, the film is packaged as slick and stylish - an Audrey Hepburn movie with gowns by Givenchy and padded out with a sublime Henry Mancini score. But its subject matter is strictly progressive for the new Hollywood. Truman Capote's 1958 novella tells the story of a devil-may-care mid-western teenager arriving in New York and living hand to mouth on daydream fantasies of landing a rich man to look after her.

Remarkably, the film retains this narrative of the emotionally scarred prostitute with no permanence or lasting attachment to the world she inhabits – a plot point rarely included in any summaries of the film. As such ‘Breakfast’ is very much a transitional piece in American cinema rather than a classically mounted super production. It straddles both the glamour of old Hollywood and grit of the new.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a superlative masterwork – for it manages to capture much of the embittered and tragic darkness of the Capote novella even as its forte is largely played as light comedy. There is much to be said for Hepburn’s characterization of Holly Golightly as a gadabout Manhattan call girl infused with a playful free spirit.
The first act of George Axelrod's clever screenplay and Hepburn's built in persona with audiences takes us down that very traditional path we've come to expect from an Audrey Hepburn movie. But gradually both she and it peels away the very thin veneer that masks Holly's much deeper psychological wounds.

It's six o'clock in the morning and a taxi cab pulls up to Manhattan's Tiffany's jewelers. From the backseat emerges a willowy creature of sumptuous female perfection, elegantly attired in a slinky black dress and faux diamonds, a coffee in one hand, a Danish in the other. This is Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn); a winsome daydreamer. As she peers through the various display cases we sense her longing to partake in that world of riches just out of reach.

Returning home to her brownstone Holly is introduced to handsome writer Paul Varjak (George Peppard) after Varjak’s ‘decorator friend’, Mrs. Failenson (Patricia Neal) installs her ‘kept’ man in the same apartment complex run by Japanese photographer, Mr. Yunioshi (Mickey Rooney). Although Holly frequently infuriates her landlord by forgetting her key or disrupting Yunioshi's sleep with wild parties, her renewed promises of eventually allowing him to photograph her in the raw set his mind and patience at ease.

A flawed romance between Paul and Holly is interrupted several times. First, by Paul’s slow realization that the woman he is growing to love is, in fact, a hooker; then by the sudden arrival of Holly’s husband, Doc (Buddy Ebsen); and finally, by Holly’s near miss incarceration, after having been exposed as a go-between for imprisoned Mafia kingpin, Sally Tomato (Alan Reed).
On the surface Holly is everything a man could possibly want and so right for the jet set whom she caters to, what with her vapid and uncompromisingly shallow views of love and life. She latches on to Rusty Trawler (Stanley Adams); an amiable fool with lots of money, before settling on Jose (Jose Luis de Vilallonga); an aspiring politico. Jose briefly toys with the idea of making Holly his wife. Only Paul sees through their relationship. Jose has no investment in Holly's welfare.

The one man who never used Holly was her brother Fred, who is currently in the army and fighting overseas. Unhappy chance that Fred is killed. When the war telegram arrives it sends Holly's idyllic world into a tailspin. Jose abandons her but Paul remains behind to pick up the pieces. He informs Holly that she is a key witness against Sally Tomato. But Holly has decided to revert to type. Unable to face her problems she will run away from all of them once again. Only this time true love prevails.
In a rain soaked taxi cab Paul confesses his love to Holly. He is admonished by her but forced to realize that she has indeed met her match. They are cut from the same cloth and ultimately made for each other. Holly chases after Paul in the rain and the two embrace, their days as 'two drifters off to see the world' finally and fittingly at an end.

Ultimately, director Edwards was forced to make alterations to Capote’s text – particularly in reference to Holly’s bisexuality, and the more adventurous aspects of her sexual romps. Nevertheless, Edward manages a coup in breaking down the barriers of censorship, particularly with the delightfully over the top party sequence in Holly’s apartment, where all manner of reprobates convene for a drunken evening of obtuse carousing.

Composer Henry Mancini’s melodic score sets a new standard in underscoring elegance, capped off by his lyrical and emblematic Moon River. Nearly cut from the film, Audrey’s recording – solemnly performed with a guitar solo absolutely typifies her character’s lost innocence. Fifty years later Breakfast At Tiffany's remains enchanted film making at its finest. This is a peerless movie - one never to be equalled and certain never to be forgotten.

Paramount Home Video’s Blu-ray advances in all departments from their previously issued and reissued DVD incarnations. The refurbished picture element positively glow. Colors are bold and rich. Flesh tones that appeared a tad too pink on the DVD are completely natural on the Blu-ray. Contrast levels are bang on. Blacks are deep and textured, allowing for Hubert Givenchy’s immaculate monochromatic designs to really sparkle and shine. The 5.1 audio is equally impressive, with Mancini's score the real benefactor.

Extras are all holdovers from the Centennial DVD release. These include a ‘making of’ featurette, ‘Brilliance in A Blue Box’ and ‘It’s So Audrey’, ‘A Golightly Gathering’ – a cocktail party reuniting some of the extras from Breakfast’s riotous party at Holly’s apartment.

There’s also ‘Henry Mancini: More Than Music’ – a brief, but nevertheless loving tribute to the late composer. Finally, we get the superfluous ‘Mr. Yunioshi: An Asian Perspective’ in which Mickey Rooney's performance in the film is dismantled and admonished as racist.
This reviewer takes a different perspective on the matter. Movies are a cultural artefact of their own time. Times have thankfully changed. But movie art reminds us how far we have come and occasionally how far there is left to go. Mr. Yunioshi is a figure of fun. Played by Rooney or a true Asian actor there is little to suggest he would have been anything but.

Bottom line: Breakfast at Tiffany's is movie art of the highest order. This Blu-ray belongs on everyone's top shelf for the holidays. Must have. Must own. Enjoy.

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



THE CAINE MUTINY: Blu-ray (Columbia 1954) Sony Home Video

In the mid-1950s Hollywood began to take chances. Although the decade generated renewed prosperity for America, arguably unseen since the early 1920s, that ‘go-to-the-devil’ unbridled sense of entitlement was now replaced by a button-down ultra-conservatism that, at least on the surface, appeared stifling and downright Victorian. At the same time, Hollywood chose to combat the threat of television by tempting their own self-imposed censorship, exploring topics previously barred from a tried and true repertoire. Hence drug addiction (The Man with The Golden Arm 1955), homosexuality (Tea and Sympathy 1956), the repression of erotic sexuality (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof 1958) and incestuous mother/son relationships (Suddenly Last Summer 1959) began to creep into the daily diet of the movie-going pop culture.
It wasn’t all about aberrant behaviors, however. Whether inculcated by the weary frustrations endured during the war years or merely fueled by a more inquisitive and concerted need to know, some of America’s most time honored institutions were also being investigated, probed and questioned on film. Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront (1954) took an unvarnished look at unionized graft, while Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) deconstructed the sanctity of suburban middleclass morality and its seemingly destructive influence on youth. And while the concept of ‘natural order’ was always brought forth from this chaos and restored before the final fade out on the screen, each filmic exercise had nevertheless fundamentally chipped away at some social moray and/or morality that had once been blindly considered beyond reproach.      
On the surface, Edward Dymtryk’s The Caine Mutiny (1954) plays out as just another ‘men at sea’ and in peril drama with a slam-bang courtroom finish. But the film is actually much more of a social critique about the navy – shattering that wall of silence that forces free thinking, honorable men to blindly follow orders on command, even if these instructions come from a neurotically unhinged superior officer. Based on the novel by Herman Wouk, The Caine Mutiny is very much a questioning of authority, even if the net result for one’s own convictions represents a betrayal of that unwritten oath in faithful obedience. Stanley Roberts’ screenplay brilliantly presents us with the unrefined adventurism of a new recruit Ens. Willis Seward Keith (Robert Francis) whose fervent admiration for the navy is about to be tested.
Keith (Robert Francis) is a callow wasp; broad-shouldered but decidedly narrow-minded whose own masculinity has been cowed by an over-possessive mother (Katherine Warren) who has all but wrecked his chances for an adult romance with nightclub singer, May Wynn (May Wynn…how precious is that?). In this light, the navy represents something fine and exhilarating to Keith, a chance for him to escape the stifling rigidity of his family’s spoilt riches and sail away to new adventures. But Keith’s first assignment is the Caine, a battle-scarred minesweeper moored at Pearl Harbor; hardly the grand ship he has envisioned for his naval debut.   
The outgoing captain of this roughhewn vessel, Lieutenant Commander William H. DeVriess (Tom Tully) has allowed discipline to lapse, his crew as slovenly and unkempt as anything Keith could have imagined. In short order Keith is introduced to the rather stoic Lieutenant Stephen Maryk (Van Johnson), and razor-backed novelist come communications officer, Lieutenant Thomas Keefer (Fred MacMurray). Both men sympathize with Keith’s disillusionment. Indeed the Caine is not a ship as much as a floating hotel in the low rent district of the navy. But things are about to change with the arrival of a new captain, Lieutenant Commander Phillip Queeg (Humphrey Bogart). At first, this change in command seems very much in line with Keith’s sentiments about the navy. Queeg is a staunch disciplinarian who immediately dominates the Caine with his stern no-nonsense command.
The rest of the crew is hardly pleased with their reversal of fortune. But Keith seems to thrive and even feed off Queeg’s workmanlike authority. Shortly after Queeg’s instatement as captain, the Caine is assigned to tow a target out to sea for gunnery practice.  Becoming distracted by the micromanagement of Keith and Keefer over the appearance of one of their crewman, Queeg ignores a helmsman's warning that the ship is about to cut its towline. The accident is an obvious embarrassment to Queeg, one he attempts to cover up by blaming the rest of the crew for his incompetence. Queeg’s reaction leaves a sour taste with Keith and Maryk. But Keefer uses the incident to investigate Queeg’s track record as a naval officer, gradually trickling down his findings to Maryk and Keith and instilling a corrosive skepticism within their minds that will only continue to undermine Queeg’s authority as time wears on.  
An incident where some strawberries go missing from the officers’ mess leads Queeg into a lengthy and absurd investigation of his men. For Keith, the pettiness in Queeg’s allegation of thievery is more than ridiculous. In fact, it seems to back up Keefer’s claim that Queeg is on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Maryk encourages Keefer to put an end to their suspicions. The captain is the captain. His authority cannot be questioned. But an even most alarming incident occurs when, under enemy fire, Queeg suddenly chooses to abandon his escort of a group of landing craft by dropping a yellow dye marker into the water instead. The crew is disgusted by Queeg’s cowardice. Afterward, Queeg makes a half-hearted and very nervous attempt to apologize to his men, asking for their support. But his plea is met with the indifference of a dead silence.
After some serious talk Keefer tries to convince Maryk that Queeg should be relieved of his command under Article 184 of Navy Regulations. The captain is obviously on the brink of a mental meltdown. But Maryk refuses to comply. Instead he begins keeping a daily log of Queeg's erratic behavior. Keefer next pitches to Maryk and Keith that they join him in presenting their case to Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr. aboard his flagship. But at the last possible moment Keefer chickens out, encouraging Maryk and Keith to also back away from raising their concerns to the admiral.  Deflated in their purpose, though not in their desire to do something about Queeg’s imploding mental health, Maryk is forced into an impossible situation during a violent typhoon. Perilously tossed about the rough seas, Maryk urges Queeg to steer the Caine into the waves and take on ballast in order to save the ship. Queeg refuses, believing such a move will foul the fuel lines with salt water. But when the ship begins to founder Queeg becomes lost in his own paralytic fear. Maryk makes the executive decision to relieve the captain of his command, a move that is seconded by Keith and effectively marking both men as mutineers.
Upon their safe return into port Maryk and Keith are apprehended to face a court-martial. Cynical Lieutenant Barney Greenwald (José Ferrer) reluctantly becomes Maryk's defense counsel. Yet, despite the overwhelming evidence to suggest Queeg’s perilous mental state, the court proceedings do not go well for Maryk or Keith, particularly after Keefer – still self-serving to the very end - manages to deny his complicity in their actions to relieve Queeg of his command during the typhoon. Navy psychiatrist Dr. Dixon (Whit Bissell) testifies on Queeg’s behalf, but when Queeg takes the stand he begins to exhibit obvious paranoid behavior under Greenwald's grueling cross-examination. As a result, Maryk is acquitted and Keith spared any charges; a victory by most any standard – except Barney’s.
Arriving drunk at the hotel where the Caine’s officers are celebrating, Barney admonishes his own participation in the trial and rebukes Maryk and Keith for having torn down the reputation of a brilliant naval officer. Castigating Maryk and Keith for their inability to see what a brilliant strategist Queeg had once been, and how the years have conspired to wreck his nerves, though hardly his sanity, Barney confronts and exposes Keefer as the coward and real villain of the trial, revealing to everyone that his testimony alone nearly submarined their defense. Barney then dowses Keefer with a bitterly celebratory glass of champagne, declaring “To the real author of the Caine mutiny!” Having simultaneously cleared his own conscience and given the men something to think about, Barney leaves the room, the rest of the men filing out and leaving Keefer alone to consider his betrayal of their confidences. Several days later Keith reports to his new ship, his captain making assurances that Keith’s naval career will begin anew and with a clean slate.  
The Caine Mutiny is knockout entertainment despite the Keith/May romance that has been infrequently interpolated but to no lasting effect.  Few courtroom melodramas are as potent. Bogart delivers a towering performance as the paranoiac Queeg. We’re used to seeing the actor as the hero in our movies, but actually Bogart began his career playing villains. In The Caine Mutiny he is neither heroic nor maniacal, but a man utterly lost in the deterioration of his own authority and strapped by his incapability to stave off this slow sad and steady decline.  As such Queeg comes across a very tragic figure, the sacrificial lamb of the piece to be pitied rather than pummeled.
Primarily known as the bright and breezy MGM leading man of the war years and star of some very frothy musicals, Van Johnson is monumentally impressively as the pessimistic heavyweight mutineer. Johnson, who was nearly decapitated in a devastating car accident in 1943 that left him with a metal plate in his head, seems to have tapped into a deeper wound for his performance herein. While the stitching and scars from that accident are obviously on display, the inner workings of the actor’s mind lend Maryk a darker sense of self and purpose. We understand Maryk’s motivations in taking over the ship, not because he has been prompted to do so by Keefer, but rather because there is something far more fascinating going on behind the character’s eyes.
Finally, there is Fred MacMurray, whose career is really at a transitional crossroads in The Caine Mutiny. During his early career MacMurray had often been cast as the devil-may-care man about town who could be easily corrupted by a pretty face – as in Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944). He would continue to appear in films as a self-destructing creature of affluence, again for Wilder in The Apartment (1960) but from the mid-1950s onward, MacMurray became more the trademark homebody in Disney movies, The Shaggy Dog (1959), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and The Happiest Millionaire (1967), eventually starring as the doting patriarch with homespun values and advice doled out weekly on television in My Three Sons (1960-65). MacMurray’s Keefer is therefore something of a swan song to all the fatally flawed reprobates he had once played.
The Caine Mutiny on Blu-ray looks spectacular. Previously issued DVDs have suffered from an overly grainy image and very unstable colors. Neither hindrance is perfectly resolved in this new 1080p transfer, but neither is as distracting this time around. The Blu-ray delivers a solid visual presentation. Anomalies do still exist.  Contrast levels fluctuate and occasionally seem a tad boosted. Flesh tones can be more orange than natural and briefly can also appear washed out. But these inconsistencies are rare and negligible. Film grain has been very naturally reproduced. Colors are mostly bold and fully saturated. Fine detail is evident throughout, particularly during close-ups. The image is razor sharp too. Best of all, background artifacts that plagued the various DVD incarnations have been eradicated for a visually smooth and very satisfying presentation. The audio gets a rather robust upgrade too. Max Steiner's music cues deliver a sonic bravado not heard before, and the typhoon is genuinely terrifying now with its manufactured sounds of wind, rain and ocean spray. Extras are confined to two very potent featurettes on the film and its back story, crudely divided on the disc (without chapter stops) as Part I and Part II. These are carryovers from the DVD collector's edition presented herein at 720i resolution. Nevertheless, this is a no brainer upgrade. Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Orson Welles' RKO career as the ‘enfant terrible’ of cinema was short lived and very bittersweet. Hailed as the new boy wonder in 1940, by 1942 that reputation had soured to the point where Welles was persona non grata in Hollywood. His tenure at RKO generated two immortal classics that effectively ostracized Welles from the director's chair but left him with a fairly lucrative acting career. The first of his RKO/Mercury Player Productions was Citizen Kane (1941); the second, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), an even more somber outing based on Booth Tarkington's 1918 novel. The screenplay by Welles opens with a superb time capsule of the gay 1890s in Indianapolis. Society is gentile and relaxed. Cordiality and superficiality rule the roost, but propriety is the beacon and the hallmark of all good taste, and at the forefront of respectability are those magnificent Ambersons - the wealthiest family in town.
Daughter Isabel (Dolores Costello) is amiably pursued by Eugene Morgan (Joseph Cotten), a middle class suitor. After a clumsy moonlight serenade Isabel allows herself to be spirited away by the rather dower Wilbur Minafer (Donald Dillaway). The two marry and have a son, George (Bobby Cooper) who is spoiled rotten during his youth and grows up to be a defiant and rebellious prig (played as an adult by Tim Holt). Upon returning home from studying law at college George is given a rather lavish reception by his grandfather, Major Amberson (Richard Bennett). In the interim Wilbur has died leaving Isabel to rekindle her romance with Eugene, himself a widower. Eugene's daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter) briefly becomes the focus of George's romantic interests.
Instinctively, George scorns Eugene - not only in his chosen profession as one of the proponents of the automobile, but also because he absolutely refuses to allow his mother falling in love with anyone else. For all their wealth and privilege George, like the rest of the Ambersons, is a very backward thinking man. He would prefer the time of gentlemen to his current age of the industrialist. Very quickly Eugene's fortunes come to rival the Amberson family’s wealth. George's Aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorehead) and Uncle Jack (Ray Collins) inform George that Isabel has long admired Eugene, even before she met his father. This realization sends George into a rage. He interrupts his own romance with Lucy, rebuffs Eugene and takes Isobel on an extended trip to Europe where they live obscurely until illness forces them to return home.
The bond between Isabel and George is vaguely tinged with a hint of incest that the film cannot fully explore. Hence we are left with a curiously possessive mother/son relationship. Isobel's strange and compelling far away glances and her periodic cradling of the adult George in her arms is meant to suggest a relationship far more insular and self-destructive. But when Isabel and George return to Indianapolis they find a very different home than the one they left behind. One thing unchanged is Eugene's love for Isabel. But Eugene is once again thwarted in his attempts by George, then by Fanny who has becoming increasingly erratic in her behavior. Isabel confesses on her death bed that she would have liked to see Eugene one last time.
Grief stricken over his daughter's loss, Major Amberson gradually succumbs to depression and an opium addiction. Jack decides to leave town and take a job in New York. He tells George plainly that he has finally received his comeuppance for all his wickedness. Through bad investments the family's fortunes are squandered. George is forced to forsake the law and get a job at one of the local factories to support his Aunt Fanny who has completely lost her mind. The Amberson mansion is boarded up. Although she loves George, Lucy never reconciles with him, telling her father the story about a Native American chieftain who was pushed out in a canoe after he became too obnoxious and overbearing for the rest of the tribe to tolerate. Lost and alone, George wanders the streets - unable to comprehend how the world has moved on without him. In the final moments we learn that George has had a terrible car accident, becoming crippled in both legs. Eugene rushes to his side, the two reconciling. Eugene and Fanny leave the hospital together with renewed hopes for a brighter tomorrow.
This final sequence was not shot by Welles, nor did it receive his consent when he screened the rough cut. RKO further elected to butcher the movie by excising nearly 40 minutes. Viewed today, one can see how lethal and heavy-handed these cuts are. The last act of The Magnificent Ambersons is nothing more than an extended montage of snippets and sound bytes, the cohesive narrative carefully constructed by Welles during the first two thirds is completely absent. Major Amberson’s drug induced diatribe is interrupted by a slow fade to black right in the middle of his thoughts. We lose Fanny's progressive descent into madness. She ricochets from relatively sanity in one scene to stark raving in the next.
The tempo and the mood, the meticulous craftsmanship that is Orson Welles at his very best at the start of the film is destroyed in the last act. There's no build up to George's car wreck. We simply fade up on a wreck with strangers gathered around and gossiping about what has happened. But we never see George again. Instead, the scene dissolves to Eugene leaving George's hospital room. He is met by Fanny who lovingly takes him by his arm as the two stroll down the hall with Eugene insisting that George will be well once again. All is forgiven. All is well. In this upbeat ending Fanny appears just as she did at the start of the movie - her madness a thing of the past, or perhaps merely a fantasy of our imagination. How has she recovered? Why has she recovered? Why have George and Eugene reconciled? They were mortal enemies. No. The pieces simply do not fit. It's no wonder The Magnificent Ambersons tanked at the box office. In its current form it is a severely fractured masterpiece. To be sure there are touches of greatness sprinkled throughout. But the last act is shockingly bad.
It has long been suggested that Brazil might hold a full cut of Welles’ film. After RKO took over the picture and shed 40 minutes they presumably also destroyed the original camera negative and all prints containing these additional scenes. Without them it is difficult to damn near impossible to judge the movie as a work of art. Clearly, this is not the movie Orson Welles intended his audience to see. Editor Robert Wise has gone on record as saying that the movie was not much better in its longer cut; simply 'longer'. Nevertheless, it would be fascinating to reassemble the missing pieces for today's audiences to be the judge. Perhaps someday we will have that opportunity.
In the meantime Warner Home Video has seen fit to release The Magnificent Ambersons in its truncated form on DVD, advertised as digitally remastered. Despite this claim, the transfer is a below par effort for WHV. The image is thick and occasionally murky. The mid register of the gray scale is rather harshly contrasted. Edge effects are prevalent and crop up from time to time. Overall, most of the image is free of digital manipulations, but age related dirt and scratches are fairly obvious and occasionally distracting. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequate for this presentation. For shame - Warner's DVD has NO extras - not even chapter stops! Bottom line: with a back story as intriguing as Citizen Kane it would have been good form on Warner's part to include a making of documentary or audio commentary as supplements.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

CITIZEN KANE: 70TH ANNIVERSARY Bluray (RKO 1941) Warner Home Video

'It's terrific!' publicity for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane touted in 1941; a rather fitting declaration, since the word 'terrific' actually means something that is at once awe-inspiring and strangely unsettling. Welles' movie is certainly both. Just as Gone With The Wind (1939) had bench-marked the height of 1930s melodrama, and has since remained David O. Selznick's uncompromisingly lush vision of that ancient Hollywood glamour, Welles' Citizen Kane became the epitome of the new decade's darker and more nightmarish visions of the human condition. Welles was just twenty-three when he enthusiastically accepted the daunting task to rescue RKO Studios from its steep financial decline. He was told to make whatever movie he wanted without compromising or interruptions from the front offices. But the enfant terrible who had frightened the masses half out of their wits with his radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds a few years earlier was about to meet his match (or perhaps his alter ego) in aging newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst.
Citizen Kane is often mis-perceived as a film a clef of Hearst and his relationship with MGM starlet Marion Davies. In actuality Welles' movie is a scathing, semi-autobiographical amalgam of incidents, some borrowed from Hearst's life that seek to show how a great man is reduced to nothingness by his own ambition. In this respect, Citizen Kane foreshadows the demise of Welles own reputation in Hollywood, although in 1941 no one - least of all Welles - could have known this. As scripted by Herman J. Mankiewicz (a fairly bitter, though brilliant screenwriter) and Welles, the film’s nonlinear narrative charts the life of Charles Foster Kane (Welles); a child torn from his mother's bosom and who thereafter embarks upon a life of deliberate self-destruction under the auspices of his miserly legal guardian, William Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris).
In his twenties Kane takes over a beleaguered newspaper - The Enquirer - with the aid of his best friend, Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotten) and Mr. Bernstein (Everett Sloane - who shaved his head for the role). Over the course of the next decade Kane will grow the paper into a publishing empire. But the trajectory of Kane's political ambitions is interrupted twice; the first time to his advantage with his engagement to the President's niece, Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick); the second, to his own detriment after his affair with chorus girl, Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore) is exposed by political adversary Jim W. Gettys (Ray Collins).
The rest of the film is dedicated to a rather depressing illustration of Kane's own demise; his misguided attempts to regain respectability that ultimately unravel his life. Publicly disgraced, socially humiliated, Kane embarks upon the almost Svengali-like transformation of Susan's career from chorine to aspiring opera diva. But this possessive pursuit leads to a rift in their marriage, one that leaves Kane alone, frustrated and reclusive inside his decaying pleasure palace, Xanadu.
When Kane finally dies his derelict of possessions is reduced to a bonfire, the march of time crushing the last tangible vestiges of all that his life has amounted to - or lack thereof. Citizen Kane's final act is at once self-reflexive and very Shakespearean - "a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury...signifying nothing". Kane has failed in his attempts at immortality. He has become a forgotten relic in his own time. Conversely, Welles' own reputation as a director never fully recovered afterwards. The parallels between the film and Hearst’s own life and circumstances are irrefutable, and indeed, raised the old tycoon’s dander to the point where he threatened RKO with a lawsuit and also disbarment from ever appearing in his newspapers again.
The same fate might have befallen Citizen Kane the movie. Upon its release Hearst fired off a litany of injunctions that all but crippled its’ ability to earn back production costs. Despite unanimously glowing reviews from the critics – all except for Hearst stooge, Louella Parsons - RKO's management panicked and pulled the film from circulation at the height of its popularity, shelving it indefinitely to satisfy the tyrannical publisher. RKO did allow Welles another bite at their creative apple however. After all, they could recognize true artistry and were determined to recoup their losses by having Welles produce another masterpiece for them. That Welles chose an even more taboo subject for his follow up project (family incest) with The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) effectively crippled his own chances at immortality as a Hollywood director.
In retrospect time has been more than kind to Citizen Kane - rightfully resurrected to prominence on home video; its stark deep focus cinematography by Greg Tolland largely contributing to our enduring appreciation of the film’s visual style. Yet, even in today's more apocalyptic narratives Citizen Kane remains a darkly haunted and fairly disturbing motion picture. It illustrates that the real demons to be feared are not to be found externally. They come from within our own flawed makeup.
Welles was a creative genius. His prowess both in front of and behind the camera is staggering. Before our eyes he ages some forty years from an ego driven entrepreneur into the very shell of that great man he once hoped to become. But behind the scenes Welles is the supreme puppet master, plucking at all the creative strings; creating his singular vision of cinematic perfection using actors who - like Welles himself - had never before appeared before the camera. That Citizen Kane is as perfect a movie as one might wish it to be is not only a minor miracle but a major coup from the boy wonder who would quickly find himself on the outside looking in on his own Hollywood career. In hindsight, this was the beginning of the end for Orson Welles – director. Although Welles became an instantly recognizable face in front of the camera, often appearing in less than grand film fare for lesser directors to keep his expense accounts in check, as an artist and creative genius he arguably would never again know the likes of such storytelling.
Warner Home Video has unleashed Citizen Kane on Blu-ray in a new 4k 1080p transfer that absolutely blows their old DVD out of the water. The image is slightly darker (as it should be). The gray scale is infinitely more refined with a startling amount of fine detail throughout. Blacks are solid, deep and velvety. Whites are pristine. There is absolutely nothing to complain about here. This is a reference quality Blu-ray that belongs on everyone's top shelf. The audio is mono but perfectly restored for an aural experience that will surely not disappoint.
Extras are pretty much what we've come to expect from WHV; everything but the kitchen sink and most of it carried over from their DVD release from 2001. There are two competing audio commentaries; one from Roger Ebert, the other from Peter Bogdanovich. Ebert's is more comprehensive and introspective. We also get two celebrated documentaries on the film and Welles career; The Battle Over Citizen Kane (1995) and RKO 281 (1999). Warner's slick and handsome packaging – with its faux leather jigsaw puzzle piece exterior - is also to be commended: an extensive collection of lobby cards, reproductions of memos and other archival materials and a thin, but glossy collector's book with factoid information and some production stills. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

I LOVE MELVIN (MGM 1953) Warner Archive Collection

Don Weis's I Love Melvin (1953) is an enjoyably forgettable musical entertainment, magnificently sold as high art by MGM's overriding 'Class A' treatment and the considerable talents of its two stars Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor. The script by Lazlo Vadnay and George Wells doesn't go anywhere except through the motions - following the meager exploits of Judy Schneider (Reynolds); a wannabe Hollywood star who is actually the daughter of Frank (Allyn Joslyn); a part time drug store manager in New York City.
Frank is determined that Judy take her head out of the clouds and marry Harry Flack (Richard Anderson); a solid, but boring milquetoast prospect that leaves her romantically cold. On a routine walk through Central Park, Julie meets Look magazine's photographic assistant, Melvin Hoover (Donald O'Connor) - a bumbling and largely inept daydreamer who only comes to life when he either sings or dances. Good for O'Connor for whom dancing is his forte - but bad for Melvin.
After some finagling, Melvin promises to put Julie on the cover of Look Magazine, even though he has neither the pull nor the authority to do so. His boss, Mergo (Jim Backus) discourages and all but ignores Melvin's romantic infatuation with Julie, declaring "Wow! A girl on the cover of Look. Imagine the novelty!" As is the case with nonsensical wish fulfillment of this rank and sort, Julie does indeed eventually get her name and face on the magazine's cover - but only after Melvin forges it in a single copy to mask the lie that he probably cannot get her in the magazine any other way.
As a film, I Love Melvin is simplistic to a fault. The narrative is woefully conventional. There's really nothing fresh here. The musical numbers are an entirely different matter however, and thankfully so - particularly Judy's two dream sequences set to 'A Lady Loves' in which Judy envisions herself as Julie LeRoy - a grand film diva surrounded by fawning admirers who shower her with jewels, furs and even an Oscar. O'Connor and Reynolds do some high stepping in 'Where Did You Learn To Dance?' and later, O'Connor has an electric solo with the I Wanna Wander - a rather obvious 'Make Em Laugh' knock off from Singin' in the Rain in which O'Connor changes his wardrobe multiple times to play act his way through a travelogue of comedy. There's also 'Saturday Afternoon at the Park' a rousing football themed production number that has Reynolds as a human football being tossed about by some lanky jocks. In all, 7 songs and dances skillfully divert our attention from the fact that I Love Melvin is just a B movie gussied up to look like an A-class picture.
Oddly, the chemistry between Reynolds and O'Connor is curiously absent outside of their dance numbers. Reynolds is too coy, too shallow as it were while O'Connor is simply a buffoon rather than an amiable and awkward suitor. In the final analysis, I Love Melvin isn't grand entertainment. But it is a rather fascinating footnote and part of the reason why MGM musicals fell so quickly out of favor with audiences after WWII. In its heyday MGM had this idea that star power alone could propel a movie to profitability. During the war and without the advent of television as a viable threat for audience's attentions this logic proved sound for nearly two decades. But after the war audiences began demanding more realistic entertainment. Musical stars retreated to TV variety shows and minor gems like I Love Melvin became something of an anomaly rather than tried and true bread and butter.
It isn't that I Love Melvin is a bad film. It merely isn't an exceptional one and in a decade buffeted by changing tastes and government intervention in the industry, a movie musical had to be darn good to succeed. MGM continued to churn out musicals throughout the 50s and at an alarming rate. Some, like Showboat, Annie Get Your Gun, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Silk Stockings, High Society and Gigi proved exceptional hits. But as the decade wore on these became the exception rather than the rule. I Love Melvin is not in this class. It's fun, but fruitless; amusing, yet hardly legendary.
This is the second edition of I Love Melvin for the Warner Archive Collection and the preferred version for those considering a purchase of this title. While the previously issued disc had a poorly contrasted and faded Technicolor image, this reissue appears to have been sourced from an improved camera negative. There are still age related anomalies throughout and some minor edge effects but otherwise this is a fairly good presentation on MOD. Colors are generally vibrant. Contrast is bang on. Whites are white. Blacks are black. Flesh tones veer between orange and pink as is to be expected from a vintage Technicolor film that has not had proper restoration. You won't be disappointed by this transfer, but you won't be overly impressed by it either. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequate for this presentation. We get the 'homespun' outtake of 'A Lady Loves' plus the film's original theatrical trailer as extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

STAR WARS: THE COMPLETE SAGA - Bluray (Lucasfilm/Fox 1977-2005) Fox 2011

Long ago in a galaxy that now seems much too far away, a great American sci-fi trilogy was born. It was immediately embraced and much beloved by movie audiences around the world, spawning a mad obsession to collect all things intergalactic. The original Star Wars (1977) (rechristened 'A New Hope by Lucas in 1981) has often been referred to as a 'space opera' and that is a fitting description. In an age of gritty counterculture Star Wars resurrected the heroics a la an Errol Flynn swashbuckler. Yet, at its core the original film is a hybrid of the old morality play; an atypical 'good vs. evil' conflict made palpable for contemporary audiences by being set in outer space - the real 'final frontier' for mankind's daydreams and fantasies. If you don't know the history of this series by now then plot summaries really won't help, but here goes.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is a farmer working the land for his Uncle Owen (Phil Brown) and Aunt Beru (Shelagh Fraser) when he is confronted by a cryptic discovery from two droids, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels). The droids have been sent by Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) in search of Ben Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness); a retired Jedi knight living obscurely on this isolated planet. Leia's diplomatic ship has been captured by Darth Vader (David Prowse for height/James Earl Jones for voice); an Imperial autocrat and his storm troopers.
Vader's men track the droids to the farm and slaughter Luke's uncle and aunt. Obi Wan and Luke hire smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his furry sidekick, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to take then on their rescue mission to the Death Star, an Imperial space station capable of destroying a small planet. Obi Wan is killed by Vader, but his spirit is transformed into part of 'the force' that will keep Luke, Leia and Han safe for the rest of their adventures.
In The Empire Strikes Back (1980) the rebel forces are on the run as Vader and his evil empire rebuild the Death Star. After a spirited battle on the frozen tundra of Hoth, Luke retreats to a murky bog to begin his technical training as a Jedi knight with Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz), the Jedi master. Luke, Leia and Han are conned by Han's old smuggling buddy, Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams). They arrive at his Cloud City where Vader and his men take them hostage. Han is frozen in carbonite as a prize for smuggler Jabba the Hutt.
Leia and Lando escape from Cloud City leaving Luke and Vader to do battle. In the resulting conflict Luke loses his hand. Vader implores Luke to follow him to the dark side, then confesses that he is his father. Luke defies Vader and is rescued by Leia and Lando. The three vow to fight another day and in Return of the Jedi (1983) that's just what they do with the aid of a cute and cuddly band of Ewok warriors. For the sake of economy I am greatly simplifying these film summaries. The Star Wars Trilogy is among the most covered and revered in movie history. Suffice it to say, most who are reading this review know the rest by heart and don't need me to reiterate it. So why waste precious time and space even if the latter is infinite?
The original Star Wars trilogy was an all-inclusive saga, imaginative and breathtaking in both its scope and execution. It required no prequels to explain away its narrative threads. In fact, for a brief wrinkle in time Lucas himself insisted as much. Ah, but then came his 1987 divorce - a costly separation that threatened to wipe him out financially. Lucas had been developing prequels for some time and in 1993 announced his intentions to resurrect Star Wars by creating a back story to the original films. Logistically it all made sense. The principle actors from the first three movies (now, the last three chronologically speaking) were past their prime to reprise their roles in sequels). But Lucas quickly realized that there were too many loopholes in his original film series that defied 'filling in the blanks' in the prequels without going back into his original films and making alterations to accommodate his new story line.
So, the tampering began. At first it was only minor changes. A slight re-edit here, adding a brief music cue there. But pretty soon Lucas just could not help himself. CGI allowed him to revisit his classics with digital tools, making it all too easy for him to add whole scenes and characters to the series. Jabba now made his debut in A New Hope, not Return of the Jedi. Luke had a battle with the Wampa. Cloud City, a modest fortress grew into a metropolis and the end battle on the moon of Endor had its magnificent John William's music cue excised in favor of a terrible piece of extended disco that in no way captured the epic flavor of the original track.
And all of this was done to satisfy the meandering narrative threads present in three prequel movies. Tragically, The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) are poor precursors to the original trilogy. They shift the focus of the first three movies from Luke and Leia to Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader. The resulting six films become a sort of psychological exploration of what makes a virtuous man turn to evil. But these prequels, and the theatrical reissue of 'new' cuts of the original films made Lucas a lot of money. And money - more of it - is really what this latest Blu-ray release is all about.
So hold on to your laserdiscs because here we go again. George Lucas trundles out The Star Wars Saga on Blu-ray with his predictable litany of 'improvements', though not necessarily the ones we might have expected to see. The original Star Wars trilogy was art. But its retreads and prequels are mere manipulations designed to mine the consumer market (repeatedly and shamelessly) with reissues, all the while dangling the carrot in front of our noses that someday we will get the original films in their original theatrical cut to add to our home video catalogues. No such luck on this outing or in the foreseeable future. So, at present we have to be contented with this set. Or perhaps 'contented' is the wrong word. Tolerate is more like it.
You would think that the delay of Star Wars on Blu-ray would herald all brand new image harvest in 1080p. I mean, surely that's what Lucas and his minions must has been up to all this time, right? Wrong! These films come to Blu-ray by way of the same HD scans created for DVD back in 2004. What?!? The scans are not 8k, 6k or even 4k resolution. They are 1k and many moons removed from the current 'state of the art' in hi-def mastering. Many will recall from the DVD release that these scans were rife with video anomalies. Lucasfilm and Lowry Digital have done wonders improving the overall image quality for these Blu-ray reissues but this is decidedly not the best that Star Wars can be. Nor is it a fitting tribute to one of the most spectacular franchises in cinema history.
Color timing, the biggest issue on the DVDs, has been corrected for the most part. Lightsabers, as expected, are now searing white hot in the middle rather than looking like pink, blue and frosty green sherbet. So far, so good. But don't expect pristine quality elsewhere. In fact, we still have edge enhancement cropping up as well as some hold over artifacts like static grain and filtering and even a mis-registration problem on Return of the Jedi that creates a bizarre loss of resolution about fifty to sixty minutes into the film.
If anything, Lucas' inserted scenes and digital manipulations in his original trilogy are even more obvious on Blu-ray. The CGI creations are more in focus, with crisper detail than the rest of the film based footage. We don't really get the ultra-resolution that contemporary Blu-ray offers on vintage catalogue titles. In fact, fine detail in flesh and hair in the original series is remarkably subdued and, on occasion, even softly focused. Color on all the films is much brighter but perhaps just a tad oversaturated. The best looking film in this 6 collection is Revenge of the Sith - not surprising since it is the last film to be shot chronologically and therefore benefited from all the contemporary film making technologies at its disposal. The audio is the big revelation on these discs. 6.1 DTS delivers a sonic kick to your speakers never before heard on home video. There's nothing to complain about here and you'll know it from your first listen.
Extras weigh in at over 40 hours. I must confess I have only had the opportunity to superficially review a handful of them. The audio commentaries on all the films are carried over from the DVD releases and remain informative, fascinating and comprehensive. On Disc Seven we get an extensive archive dedicated to Episodes One to Three. Disc Eight does the same for Episodes Four through Six. Here you'll find original concept art, matte paintings, alternate scenes, outtakes and other archived materials - many never before seen.
Disc Nine contains a back log of documentaries. The newest in this batch include 2011's Star Wars Spoofs, a look back at The Empire Strikes Back (2010) and Star Warriors (2007); a rather bizarre chronicle of diehard fans who aspire to 'be' their filmic counterparts through meticulous costume recreations. We also get the original 'making of' featurettes for all three classic Star Wars films made at the time each film was being shot, as well as 'Classic Creatures' (1983) a behind the scenes look at the creation of vintage Star Wars monster makeup. There's also a pair of vintage featurettes on the SFX and technical aspects of weaponry featured in the films.
Bottom line: This is Star Wars. Regardless of the tampering Lucas continues to do he knows you're probably going to run out and buy this set because it is the first release on Blu-ray. Just don't expect it to be the last. Is it worth your money? Probably. Is it the last time you're likely to see 'improvements' made on this epic saga? Don't count on it. May the force - and your wallet - be with you. You'll need both to keep up.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
The Phantom Menace 2
The Clone Wars 2.5
Revenge of the Sith 3
A New Hope 5
The Empire Strikes Back 5+
Return of the Jedi 4.5

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

ATHENA (MGM 1954) Warner Archive Collection

Billed as 'the MGM musical with young ideas' Richard Thorpe's Athena (1954) is a bit of a mutt; not quite a musical, sort of a comedy, and occasionally something of a debacle. Through it all we get pert performances from Jane Powell (cast in the title role) and Debbie Reynolds (playing one of her seven sisters). Esther Williams has gone on record as saying she developed the project one year earlier with writer Leo Pogostin and director Chuck Walters. Then Williams became pregnant. She naturally assumed the project would be shelved until her return. Instead, production chief Dore Schary simply recast and rewrote the part to accommodate a singer rather than a swimmer. Williams never entirely forgave Schary his trespasses and eventually chose to leave MGM.
The plot scripted by William Ludwig and Leonard Spigelgass revolves around conservative lawyer Adam Calhorn Shaw (Edmund Purdon) who hopes to be elected to congress as his father and his father's father. Adam certainly has the right temperament for the job. He's officious to a fault. He's also engaged to stuffy socialite Beth Hallson (Linda Christian). It's all just too perfect. That is, until Athena Mulvain (Jane Powell) enters the picture - a plucky, no nonsense and very outspoken 'health nut.' Adam and Athena accidentally meet while he is complaining about his dying peach trees at a local nursery. Athena tells Adam to mulch his trees, then offers to do the deed herself to prove the point.
Athena believes in the stars and numerology. After figuring out Adam's number she is convinced that they will be married. Meanwhile, Adam's friend, nightclub and TV crooner Johnny Nyle (Vic Damone) meets Athena and erroneously assumes that she is Adam's girlfriend. Athena sets Johnny up with her sister, Minerva (Debbie Reynolds) who quickly puts him on a vegetable diet and introduces him to her grandfather, Ulysses (Louis Calhern). Grandpa runs a new age retreat for buff bodybuilders.
Knowing how stuck on Adam and Johnny his girls are grandpa encourages the boys to adopt a more athletic lifestyle. Johnny embraces the fitness craze - sore muscles and all - but Adam rebels and comes into direct conflict with Ed Perkins (Steve Reeves) who is sweet on Athena too. From this point on the film's narrative becomes rather hopelessly mired in virtually every cliché in the Hollywood musical mélange. During a catered affair staged to bolster Adam's public image for his political future Beth attempts to embarrass Athena by poking fun at her family's 'quaint' ideas on health and diet. Athena tolerates these insults at first but eventually they get the better of her and she admonishes Beth for her arrogance.
Adam swears he will never see Athena again, but realizes he cannot dismiss her memory from his mind. He attends the Mr. Universe competition with Athena. Ed wins the coveted trophy. But Adam lands the newly inaugurated champ on his muscled assets with a bit of purposely timed Judo. Grandpa is outraged and humiliated. The entire family retreats to their new age compound. Although Adam is told in no uncertain terms that his relationship with Athena will never work out, the next day Athena comes to his home to confess she has decided to meet him half way and be his wife. Thus ends the film Athena - a bizarre and very rare duck indeed.
It's musical program is a fascinating mish-mash of old and new material that attempts to resurrect the tried and true formula of a typical 40s Jane Powell musical. The results are only partly successful. For example, the title song is only sung by a chorus over the main titles. Vic Damone opens the musical repertoire with a deadly dull rendition of 'The Girl Next Door' (actually The Boy Next Door from Meet Me In St. Louis with just a few gender specific lyrics changed).
From this decidedly flat note the songs have nowhere to go but up and they do. Debbie Reynolds and Vic Damone warble 'Imagine' - a charming little ditty about the possibilities of their burgeoning romance. Later Damone is also given a rather flashy production number 'Venezia' flanked by a cavalcade of oddly attired MGM dancers cavorting through a Neapolitan fantasy. Reynolds and Powell engage other alumni in the spirited 'I Never Felt Better' as they extol the virtues of clean living while transforming Adam's front parlor into a new age meditation lounge.
Powell also gets the plum operatic aria 'Chacun le sait'. The one regret is that she and Edmund Purdon share no romantic pas deux in song. Originally they were supposed to sing 'Love Can Change The Stars', but in the final edit Powell sings this song alone, later very briefly reprised by Damone and Reynolds. There was also supposed to be an 'athletic ballet' featuring Powell and Reynolds. This was eventually dropped in favor of an extended faux Mr. Universe competition where some of the day's best sculpted male bodies are given their beefcake due.
In the final analysis, Athena is a curiosity rather than a cohesive film musical. Its parts do not add up to a total entertainment. Although some moments truly measure up to MGM's old time panache the film collapses under the weight of too many ideas simply thrown together. Reportedly director Thorpe would toss script pages already shot onto the floor in an act of bitter defiance, a move that Jane Powell recollects cast a disparaging pall over the entire production.
Athena is a Warner Archive release and despite being advertised as 'remastered' the resulting video image is fairly dull. This film was shot on Eastman color stock but processed by Technicolor (supposedly). Nevertheless, colors are dull, ruddy, muddy and generally unappealing. The entire image has a sort of soft gritty haze. Flesh tones are quite orange at times. Fine details are lost under a patina of film grain that is more exaggerated than it out to be. Not very appealing at all!
The audio is stereo surround, acceptable as a vintage recording with predictable limitations. Warner has decided to add extras to this title (unusual for an archive release). We get 3 musical outtakes that seem to have survived in a more pristine visual quality than the rest of the film. Although contrast levels are boosted, the image on these outtakes is noticeably sharper. Bottom line: Athena is a blip on the MGM radar. If you love Jane Powell or Debbie Reynolds (or both) or simply like to ogle taut musclemen in their tight shorts then you'll probably like this film. Otherwise, it's forgettable.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)