Tuesday, January 25, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5+

VIDEO/AUDIO

4

EXTRAS

3

Saturday, January 22, 2011

THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (MGM 1936) Warner Home Video

Ad campaigns of its day prematurely proclaimed The Great Ziegfeld (1936) “the sensation of the century.” Perhaps not, but this mind-boggling pseudo-biographical film is at once sumptuous and elephantine; a super-production by any measure that quite easily puts most other screen spectacles of its vintage to shame. Such was the supremacy of MGM in the 1930s, presided over by the near mythological figure of L.B. Mayer and granted peerless production values along with a roster of star talent more comprehensive than virtually all the other studios combined.

To say that The Great Ziegfeld had the best of all worlds is putting it mildly. Ziegfeld's widow, Billie Burke was a contract player at the studio whose diligence and persuasion launched this film based on her late husband's Broadway career. Although Mayer was enthusiastic about the prestige such a movie would bring MGM, he was not particularly excited by the amount of money producer Hunt Stromberg eventually ended up spending to make it as fine and as lavish as anything seen before it on the big screen.

And the project itself was not without drawbacks, chiefly that Billie Burke had final edit over William Anthony McGuire's screenplay that played fast and loose with the specifics of their lives - most notably in the many affairs Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) had throughout his life with various chorines. In the final film, Ziegfeld only has one indiscretion and that occurs long before he even meets Billie (Myrna Loy).

As scripted with a lush embellishment slanted toward the man's benevolence, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., the man who ‘glorified the American girl’ begins his career as a not terribly successful carnival barker at the World's Fair. His main attraction is Sandow the Strongman (Nate Pendleton). But audiences are not lining up. All the better for Ziegfeld's rival showman, Jack Billings (Frank Morgan) whose 'Little Egypt' is a writhing belly dancer creating quite a stir on the midway.

Ziegfeld gets an idea, allowing female patrons to squeeze Sandow's biceps, thereby generating audience thrills through titillation. The rouse works until Ziegfeld plans a wrestling match between Sandow and a lion to illustrate man's supremacy over beast. One problem, the lion has been drugged and falls asleep in the ring. Ziegfeld is branded a charlatan and looses all his money.

Returning to his father's music conservatory, Flo confides that he has no interest in teaching music. Instead, he travels to Europe where Anna Held (Luise Rainer) is currently the toast of the British stage. Learning that Billings has also crossed the Atlantic in hopes of signing Anna to an American engagement, Flo intercedes and convinces Anna to sign with him instead, even though he has no money to produce a show around her. Flo further exacerbates Billings' patience when he convinces his valet, Sidney (Ernest Cossart) to quit Billings employ and become his personal groom.

The temperamental Anna initially finds Flo’ an utter nuisance. In one of the most comically satisfying bits in the film, she repeatedly orders Flo from her dressing room with haughty dispatch before recalling him to her side simply because his bouquet of flowers is more to her liking than Billings.

Flo engages an English tutor and music instructor to assist in Anna's transformation, but it is his charm that wins her over. Before long, the two are married and Flo - true to his promise - makes Anna a great Americanized star. Regrettably, the king of Broadway, with his world famous follies packing them in nightly at his theatre, is also prone to dalliances with his bevy of beauties.

He settles too long on Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce) an impatient social climbing chorus girl, determined to destroy his marriage. After appearing to great success in his rooftop follies a drunken Audrey makes her affections toward Ziegfeld known to a packed house. True to Audrey's prophecy, their affair leads to Flo’s breakup with Anna, and although Anna believes that their separation will ultimately result in a mutual reconciliation, her heart is broken when Flo’ marries again, only this time to already established stage lovely, Billie Burke (Myrna Loy).

Another of Billings protégées, Burke first meets Flo at a costume ball where he deliberately has rigged a round robin dance to repeatedly pause so that he and Billie may share a few intimate moments together. Well aware of Flo's charm and flair for chorus girls, Burke thwarts his romantic advances, much to Billings delight. But then Flo confesses his undying love for her with a genuineness Billie finds utterly beguiling. Flo tells Billie that he knows she can manage without him as she has already proven by her Broadway success independent of his own. "...and that's grand," he concludes. The only question remains can he survive without her.

Flo's second marriage to Burke is a success, threatened not by flirtations this time, but by the insidious bad timing and 1929's stock market crash that jeopardizes Flo's ability to maintain Billie and his family in a manner to which they have become accustom. While at the local barber, Flo overhears several men speak loosely about his imminent demise; his days as an impresario numbered. Instead, Flo is rallied to produce four hits on Broadway simultaneously.

The workload, however, wears him out and Flo collapses from the strain. Recuperating under Sidney's watchful eye while Billie is at work, Flo plots one final follies in his mind - his head filled with an ever rising set of stairs that his shows have always been justly famous for, and, populated by a parade of elegant ladies. Sidney observes as the rose Ziegfeld has been clutching in his hand drops to the floor, signifying that his life has come to a sudden end.

What sets The Great Ziegfeld apart from other soppy melodramas of its vintage are the performances given by William Powell and Myrna Loy. Even if the biographical material in William Anthony McGuire's script is less than sincere, neither performer ever is. By this time in their respective careers, Powell and Loy had been teamed in several films at the studio - most notably in The Thin Man (1933) - a movie that ultimately spawned a very lucrative series for the two at MGM.

In any of their many films together, the on screen chemistry between Powell and Loy is genuine - though perhaps never more so than in this movie. When Billie tells Flo that as his wife she expects half his hardship and all of his respect, we believe Loy implicitly. When Powell as Ziegfeld explains that there is nothing he can offer Billie but himself, his words throb with a sad passion that suggests love without reprisals. In real life, each actor was happily married to somebody else but, like the teaming of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, fans of Powell and Loy always suspected that there was a mutual love - even if it was platonic - that transcended their working relationship.

The other impressive aspect of the film is undoubtedly its enormous production numbers; the most lavish; ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody’ built on a gargantuan revolving art deco platform with its sachet of glittering cat girls and dapper tuxedoed men whirling to a great Irving Berlin melody. Clearly with the genius of Busby Berkeley's tenure at Warner Brothers in mind, the kaleidoscopic dance routines staged by Karl Freund, Ray June and George Folsey may not be as geometrically creative, but they certainly sparkle with all the vintage kitsch that a showman like Ziegfeld would have appreciated and been very pleased to experience.

Director Robert Z. Leonard was one of MGM's in house directors and his execution of the material is rather pedestrian - relying on lush cinematography to grab the viewer's attention. As such the pacing and editing style lags - especially during the first half of the film. Nevertheless, as produced with every last cent abundantly displayed on the screen The Great Ziegfeld is ambitiously star-studded film making at its best. It’s more an experience than a movie and great good fun to watch.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is a mixed blessing. Please note that despite the repackaged cover art, this is the identical transfer of the movie first released in 1999. The film’s lengthy run time is compressed onto one side of a single disc. While compression artefacts in the mastering process have been well concealed, the overall image is inconsistently rendered. The gray scale is nicely balanced, but age related damage is present throughout and on more than one occasion quite distracting.

The audio is mono and presented at an adequate listening level. Hiss and pop is noticeably present during quiescent moments. For the first time, the film’s original overture, intermission and exit music are included. We also get a very brief featurette: Ziegfeld on Film that glosses over the importance of the man and his memory, as well as theatrical trailers for this film and the two subsequent follow-ups MGM made that bear his name; Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946).


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

4

VIDEO/AUDIO
3

EXTRAS
1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

VIDEO/AUDIO

3

EXTRAS

3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom line: This Blu-Ray comes highly recommended!

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

5+

VIDEO/AUDIO

4.5

EXTRAS

3

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 (for comprehensiveness of this collection)*

VIDEO/AUDIO

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

EXTRAS

3

Thursday, January 20, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5


EXTRAS
3

BACHELOR MOTHER (RKO 1939) Warner Archive Collection


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5

VIDEO/AUDIO

3

EXTRAS

0

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA: Blu-Ray (WB 1984) Warner Home Video

Interpreted as an opium induced hallucination by many a film critic, director Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In America (1984) makes perfect sense. In fact, it remains perhaps the most sublimely understated indictment on organized crime and the early immigrant experience ever put on film. Unhappy chance for Leone that after an exuberant premiere abroad, North American audiences were instead subjected to two bastardized and severely truncated versions of his masterpiece - both re-edited by the studios without Leone's consent in a vain attempt to create a linear narrative out of what is essentially a non-linear tale. Neither of these North American releases caught on with audiences' tastes. But more about that later in this review.

Leone, who had established a dark revisionist mood with his spaghetti westerns starring Clint Eastwood was heartbroken by this film's critical and financial failure in the U.S. For many years this fact alone was enough to keep Once Upon A Time In America off movie screens and home video. But time does strange things to true art, and in 1997 Once Upon A Time In America was re-screened in limited release, and, in its original edit to thunderous audience applause and near universal critical praise.


Viewed today, the film has all the celebrated trapping associated with Leone's best work; a superb script based on Harry Grey's novel 'The Hoods'; brilliant performances by Robert DeNiro and James Woods, stellar production values and an utterly evocative score from Ennio Morricone (unjustly overlooked for even an Oscar nomination at the time of the film's general release).


For the purposes of this review, the film's plot will be summarized in a linear fashion even though in the film itself Leone liberally breaks with that time honoured structure of the classic Hollywood narrative to jump back and forth from events taking place in the 1920, 30s and late 60s. The screenplay by Leone and a litany of writers including Franco Arcalli, Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernadi, Franco Ferrini, Ernesto Gastaldi, Stuart M. Kaminksy and Enrico Medioli, typically begins in the middle of our story circa mid-1930s, with the character of David 'Noodles' Aaronson (played by Robert De Niro) hiding out from Mafia hit men in an opium den. Inducing a drugged stupor, Noodles goes through a series of either flashbacks or flash forwards (if we are to believe the theory that this initial opium usage is responsible for the rest of the story).


The narrative regresses to the early 1920s where Young Noodles (now played by Scott Tyler) is a ruffian living in squalor inside New York's Jewish ghetto community. Noodles and his fellow mugs, including Patsy (Brian Bloom), Cockeye (Adrian Curran), Domenic (Noah Moazezi) and Fat Moe (Mike Monetti) work over drunks for a local hood until they inadvertently meet up with Max Bercovicz (Rusty Jacobs) - a bigger operator on every level.


Max convinces the boys to go independent and together they manage a minor crime spree that sets them up financially with fancier clothes. However, it also places the fledgling organization in direct opposition to Bugsy (James Russo); a ruthless Mafia player who murders Domenic in cold blood. This assassination sets off Noodles, who not only stabs Bugsy to death in an act of revenge, but also wounds Police Officer Whitey (Richard Foronji) who attempts to break up their confrontation.


Noodles, who previously had an unrequited love for Moe's sister, Deborah (Jennifer Connelly) now spends the rest of his youth incarcerated for murder as a juvenile. Upon his release in the early 1930s, Noodles (again played by Robert DeNiro) discovers that Max (now played by James Woods) has been steadily escalating his involvement in organized crime and that, true to their friendship, Max has made him a partner by proxy. Noodles rejoins the rest of his friends at a speakeasy that is the essential front line for all their lucrative cash flow. He is reintroduced to Deborah (now played by Elizabeth McGovern) who is as distance and aloof as ever and has spent her time establishing a career as a modest dancer/actress of respectable merit.


The boys are hired by big time Mafioso Franki Manoldi (Joe Pesci) to assist his mobster brother, Joe (Burt Young) in smuggling some diamonds in from Detroit. Noodles is not entirely certain that Max should partake in the venture; a suspicion confirmed when the exchange of money for diamonds at an abandoned ship's graveyard turns bloody and murderous. Following the assassination of Joe and all his men, Max confides to Noodles that he was told in advance by Franki to murder Joe and collect the diamonds for himself.


From this point onward, Noodles and Max steadily grow apart; their interests diverging on a basic ideology. Noodles believes that as an operation they should work for themselves and remain small but their own men, while Max believes that the only way to rise to the top is to organize with bigger criminal masterminds further up the ladder of success. Max takes up with Carol (Tuesday Weld); a sadomasochistic creature who previously helped the boys rob a jeweller, then encouraged Noodles to beat and rape her as part of the rouse to prove to her bosses that she was not in on the fix.


Solvent for the first time in his life, Noodles decides to pursue a romance with Deborah; an ill fated folly that almost immediately sours when - after wining and dining Deborah in regal style - she confides in Noodles her plans to depart the next afternoon for Hollywood. Her confession turns Noodles affections to rage and he brutally rapes Deborah in the back of his rented limo as the driver looks on - unable to even fathom why she would resist his sexual advances.


The last act of the Leone's saga plays even more fast and loose with the narrative timeline, but ultimately takes us to a botched stick up job on the U.S. Federal Reserve - the aftermath only briefly glimpsed in the film's early prologue with the charred remains of presumably Max, Cockeye and Patsy lying on the cold wet pavement in body bags. Prior to this grizzly end, Max and Noodles had taken a vacation to Florida where they learn that prohibition has been repealed, thereby putting their speakeasy out of business. The narrative fast tracks to 1968.


Having discovered a briefcase containing a million dollars of stolen treasury money, Noodles, now a middle aged man, reunites with Deborah backstage. She has become a successful film and Broadway star and in their interim separation has married Secretary Bailey - a man currently suspected of city corruption. Noodles tells Deborah that he has been invited to Secretary Bailey's home for a party, but Deborah pleads with Noodles not to go. Instead, Noodles learns that Deborah has a son, also named David (also played by Rusty Jacobs who played young Max).


Arriving at Bailey's lavish Long Island estate, Noodles learns that Secretary Bailey is actually Max. Having escaped the Federal Reserve holdup, he has lived a public lie for half a century, exploiting his contacts higher up in organized crime to obtain his current rank. But now Max's house of cards is about to cave and Max - unable to accept his demise - encourages Noodles to shoot him in his study, even providing a foolproof plan of escape so that the crime can go unpunished.


Instead, Noodles refuses the offer - recognizing that if he were to comply with Max's request he would forever destroy the second half of his life as surely as the first half has been turned to excrement by their association. Walking away from the estate in the dark, Noodles takes notice a garbage truck parked nearby. The truck begins to follow him and from behind it there emerges a shadowy figure - presumably, though perhaps not entirely - Max (Leone was particularly evasive about answering the question of Max's demise). As the truck passes Noodles, the shadowy figure is momentarily blocked from his view and afterward has altogether vanished. If this figure is Max, then we must assume he has thrown himself into the rear compactor as a final act of insane self-destruction.


We return to the opium den once more, in the scene that began our story. Set in the mid-1930s, Noodles arrives one dark night and is shown a bed by the proprietor who helps him ingest large quantities of opium smoke into his lungs. Noodles reclines on his back with a queer, faintly disturbing grin splashed across his face. The story has come to a mysterious and inconclusive end.


The only way the narrative works is if one assumes that it is entirely the product of Noodles opium induced hallucinations. Having seen the original truncated and re-edited North American print on its initial theatrical release in 1984, I recall how nothing about the film seemed to make any sense at all then and how the narrative contained what I then misperceived as very sloppy, major and rather glaring omissions in continuity that rendered the plot utterly incoherent.


Thus, when I re-screened the original Leone cut some years later I was taken aback by how integrated the narrative became. Everything fits, neatly and tightly, generating a nightmarish landscape that is probably truer to the immigrant experience than most other American movies would like to admit. As a dream, the audience is not entitled to have all the pieces of the story, rather, just the ones necessary to loosely connect the dots between the narrative's past, present and future.


Originally, Sergio Leone had planned to make a gangster trilogy in the same way he had created 'The Man With No Name' western trilogy starring Clint Eastwood. Leone even turned down Paramount Pictures offer to direct The Godfather to pursue what ought to have been his dream project. Instead, the film ran into one financial snag after the other and a revolving roster of casting choices that came and went as quickly as did Leone's slew of writers on the project. Some interesting early choices included Richard Dreyfuss as Noodles and James Cagney as the elderly Max. Briefly, Brook Shields was also considered for the part of Deborah.


In the end, Leone compromised ever so slightly to bring his dream to life. But the strain proved too great for his heart and Once Upon A Time In America remains the first instalment in an, as yet, incomplete trilogy.


Warner Home Video's Blu-Ray release is a marked improvement over its original two disc DVD. The harsh digital look of the DVD has been eradicated for a relatively smooth presentation on the Blu-Ray. Film grain that registered as digital grit on the DVD is refined and more natural in appearance on the Blu-Ray. Image sharpness and fine details both take a quantum leap forward.


However, all is not right with this Blu-Ray presentation. While most of the image is brightly contrasted with sharp imagery, occasionally the visuals become softly focused. This is more problematic after the intermission and one can only suspect that it is probably the result of trying to compress a 225 minute movie on a single Blu-Ray disc - with a litany of extra features no less! A film of this length ought to have been split at the intermission across two discs to take full advantage of Blu-Ray's superior compression rates. (Aside: the DVD presentation was split across two discs but oddly enough 'NOT' at the intermission: rather during the showdown sequence at the ship's graveyard.)


Edge enhancement still exists, though hardly to the extent that it did on the DVD. Colours are the most curious and perhaps the biggest disappointment herein. Flesh tones continue to be either very orange or very pink in tone - even when taking into account the stylized sepia palette with which Leone chose to represent the 1920s and 30s in the film.


The audio has been given a lossless upgrade but exhibits all the inherent shortcomings of a dated soundtrack recording. Ennio Morricone's score is the real benefactor here. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD release and include Richard Schickel's audio commentary and a featurette that reunites various cast and crew to reminisce about their experiences working with Leone. Recommended.


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


4


VIDEO/AUDIO


3


EXTRAS


2