Saturday, March 26, 2011

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

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

Thursday, March 24, 2011

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

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

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (MGM 1946) Warner Home Video

What can one say about Ziegfeld Follies (1946), MGM's elephantine footnote to producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.s glorification of the 'American girl'? Directed by Lemuel Ayers, Roy Del Ruth, Robert Lewis, Vincente Minnelli, Merrill Pye, George Sidney and Charles Walters, it remains a film so stiflingly top heavy and incongruously mounted, and, so regrettably bloated with one extravaganza toppling into the next, that as an entertainment for the ages, Ziegfeld Follies ultimately emerges as more the tired worm from its artistic cocoon than that anticipated glorious butterfly, extolling some forgotten age of opulence in the American theatre.

MGM, purveyors of the most lavish musical entertainments were determined to outdo not only themselves, but also the master showman and his follies on which this claptrap is more directly based. They ought to have left well enough alone, having resurrected Ziegfeld twice before (in 1936's The Great Ziegfeld, then again with 1941's Ziegfeld Girl) to superb effect. On this outing it seems that too many creative 'cooks' were stirring the broth; the net result being that Ziegfeld Follies holds the dubious distinction of having the most production numbers ever shot for a single movie that were never in the final cut.
It seems everyone from Fred Astaire to Arthur Freed had a great idea for a musical vignette in this film. Astaire, in fact, was to appear in a number entitled 'If Swing Goes, I Go Too' for which numerous still photographs exist and continue to be circulated. Regrettably, the number itself, although filmed at a considerable expense, does not survive today.
Neither does Avon Long's rendition of Liza sung to a mute Lena Horne, shot against a paper mache riverboat backdrop. And then there is the never completed reunion between Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland entitled 'I Love You Just As Much in Technicolor as I Did in Black and White'. This ought to have been an homage to their 'hey kids! Let's put on a show!' days from the early 1940s. Jimmy Durante's 'Start off Each Day With A Song', as well as a reprise of Fanny Brice's 'Baby Snooks' routine from Vaudeville were apparently also photographed but do not survive in any form for retrospective viewing.
At the last possible moment, Vincente Minnelli's desire to shoot a lavish soap bubble finale, where all of the stars appearing in Ziegfeld Follies sail to and fro in large gondolas, had to be scrapped when it was discovered that the bubble machine and its 10,000 gallons of liquid produced noxious gas that caused chorus girls and camera men alike to swoon.
In most film reviews, Ziegfeld Follies is often referenced as "an embarrassment of riches". However, by this critic's estimation the film is more 'lacking in' than a 'cornucopia of' classic moments. To be certain, Ziegfeld Follies does have its highlights, but these are sandwiched between interminable bouts of boring comedy and several musical sequences that are more garish than lavish, and gaudy than glossy.

MGM's chieftain, Louis B. Mayer saw Ziegfeld Follies as a film to celebrate the studio's 20th anniversary. In a very public way, Ziegfeld Follies was also an attempt to re-establish the supremacy of Mayer's regal movie kingdom, resplendent with 'more stars than there are in heaven.' However, by 1946 MGM was hardly the studio it had once been. In fact, if only in revenue and awards, MGM had begun to lose its status as the brightest studio in Hollywood, though it remained the biggest for some time to follow.
Regrettably, as a plot-less celebration of MGM’s top heavy star system, Ziegfeld Follies outwardly reflects the inner malaise gradually enveloping the studio: a leaden and laborious exercise in mismanaged funds and wasted talent. With such formidable stars on tap as Judy Garland, Red Skelton, Esther Williams and Kathryn Grayson it’s rather difficult to miss the mark of integrity entirely. Yet, on the whole, Ziegfeld Follies is less of a big time entertainment and very much more the tired old chestnut one wishes would simply fade into obscurity.
The film opens with William Powell reprising his role as Ziegfeld; this time looking down on MGM from heaven with admiration. Ziegfeld envisions an opening number in the vein of his early follies, hosted by Fred Astaire (who wound up getting the lion's share of musical numbers in the film).
As such, "Here's To The Beautiful Ladies" is meant as homage to Ziegfeld's glorification of the American girl. There are plenty to go around- and around - on a bizarre pink carousel featuring live horses. The girls, in all their pink plumage, coo and smile politely for the camera as Astaire emerges on the arm of Cyd Charisse - still being groomed for her balletic abilities by the studio - but who is given precious little to do except a momentary kick or two on point.
From here, the sequence degenerates to a grotesque twaddle of lavishness run amuck. Lucille Ball emerges from a cloud of black and red smoke to tame a chorus of cat women with her whip as they pretend to claw at her lavishly sequined pink gown. As though realizing that all of this nonsense is more crass than class, the opening number gives way to an utter lampoon of itself; 'Here's To Those Wonderful Men' sung with deadpan perfection by Virginia O'Brien.
Afterward, the film dives head first into an Esther Williams water ballet. Originally, this sequence was to have been preceded by the song 'We Will Meet Again in Honolulu'. Instead, what survives is an inexplicably truncated sequence that begins and ends in the middle with Williams swimming through a congested underwater jungle of multicoloured plastic plankton.
Perhaps most disappointing of all are the film's comedy sequences - a claptrap of Vaudeville routines set against rather pedestrian backdrops. The first of these immediately follows the water ballet. Victor Moore's 'Pay The Two Dollars' tells the tale of a man who is fined for expectorating on the subway. His lawyer (Edward Arnold) refuses to pay the modest fine resulting in Moore narrowly escaping a capital death sentence for presumably spreading a contagious disease. Released from prison with his reputation as a solid citizen in ruins, Moore forgets himself and spits on the subway again, thereby starting the whole process of incarceration all over again.
Ziegfeld Follies now moves into its most garish vignette; the James Melton/Marian Bell operatic aria from Traviata. The costumes are some of the ugliest ever conceived for film: men dressed in 18th century tuxedoes with angular cut waist coats and frilly ruffled shirts, women sporting black and beige ball gowns with an embroidered insect pattern. Even the camera seems unsure of where to divert its attentions, pulling back and forth from high overhead shots looking directly down as if to suggest a Busby Berkley-esque moment, then pulling back in extreme long shot that dwarfs the coupled dancers against a deadening backdrop of white curtains cut to suggest a cathedral setting.
Red Skelton polishes off his old routine 'When Television Comes/Guzzler's Gin Program'; the most static of the comedy sequences in which Skelton as a radio announcer is forced to drink gin as part of his on air promos. He thereafter becomes increasingly intoxicated from this alcoholic libation.
The film's midway point is also its most intuitively realized dramatic/musical sequence: 'This Heart of Mine' - sung by Fred Astaire as a jewel thief who seduces a princess (played by Lucille Bremer) at a lavish ball as a prelude to stealing her jewels. Unable to rid himself of a growing love for his intended victim, the thief bids the princess farewell, but is amazed when she, who has figured out his motive for dancing with her, willingly offers him her necklace and earrings at their parting. The thief accepts her offer, then realizes he would rather have the girl instead. They reunite in a passionate embrace and leave the ball together.
'This Heart of Mine' is superb pantomime set against the film's most glorious and lavish backdrops. A blood red ballroom with white chandeliers gives way to a gray marbled terrace set against piercing blue skies where Astaire and Bremer are accompanied in their pas deux by a dozen dancers elegantly attired in lurid shades of purple, yellow and black.
Regrettably, this sequence is followed by the lugubrious 'Sweepstakes Ticket'; a ridiculous, and often violent parody between an impoverished husband and wife played by Fanny Brice and Hume Cronyn. He has won the lottery but cannot seem to remember where he has hidden the winning ticket. Eventually, the husband recalls that he gave it in trade to their landlord (William Frawley) who now refuses to give it back.
Things pick up with Judy Garland's scathing lampoon of Greer Garson in 'The Great Lady Gives an Interview'. Garson had originally been tapped by producer Arthur Freed to poke fun at her own film persona. She declined and after the Judy/Mickey reunion number was scrapped from Ziegfeld Follies program, Freed approached Judy to perform this number instead. Garland is magnificent throughout - her wicked leer and flashing eyes wooing the gentlemen of the press as she dramatically over emotes the virtues of Madame Crematon; the inventor of the safety pin.
Astaire and Bremer return in Limehouse Blues; a curious pas deux inspired by Gertrude Lawrence's Broken Blossoms and incorporating sets from MGM's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Astaire is a Chinese peasant who follows Bremer's working girl into the red light district of London where she is seen courting a wealthy Anglo patron and admiring an ornate Chinese fan in one of the shop windows.
A robbery breaks out and Astaire is accidentally shot by the police. As he lays dying, his character envisions a French chinoiserie paradise where he and Bremer frolic and dance. In addition to staging this atmospheric nightmare, Vincente Minnelli also supervised its art direction; dotting the landscape with gunmetal palms, burnt orange feathers and hot red plaster and clay statues that were sprayed with silver and rubbed in gold. Unfortunately, for Astaire and Bremer, the set becomes so busy that at times it's difficult to appreciate the dance as pure performance.
The last comedy vignette in Ziegfeld Follies, 'Number Please' is also its most careworn. Keenan Wynn plays a man unable to connect with a New York telephone extension, despite the fact that virtually everyone else who uses the same pay phone is capable of calling the most obscure locations on earth, including, Brazil, South Africa and Transylvania.
Ziegfeld Follies concludes with two very different musical offerings. The first, The Babbitt and the Bromide, is the only time Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly danced on film together (save 1976's 'reunion' in That's Entertainment Part II) The jovial lyric follows the lives of two men who outwardly pretend to be friends, but secretly view one another as rivals. Their first meet in youth is followed by another at middle age, and finally their last after death, as a pair of angels still out to prove who is the better dancer in front of St. Peter's gate.
Ziegfeld Follies concludes on a decidedly sour note with Minnelli's ill fated bubble ballet and a truly joyless song - There's Beauty Everywhere, warbled by Kathryn Grayson on a revolving platform set against a rather apocalyptic backdrop of brewing storm clouds. From here, the song dissolves to a very brief portion of the half executed bubble ballet. Cyd Charisse is briefly glimpsed flitting through mountains of glittery soap before the camera dissolves to a Salvador Dali inspired backdrop populated by statuesque beauties who move with stilted grace as Minnelli's camera meanders amongst the ruins.
As we come to the last of these lovelies posed with all the frigidity of a department store mannequin, the camera follows a long extension of her scarf to a pedestal where we once again are reunited with Kathryn Grayson, concluding the song as a large canopy of lights spells out the film's title against a curtained backdrop.
Ziegfeld Follies is a peculiar offering to say the least. It's professionalism is beyond question. All of the stars are giving it everything they have, and yet somehow, it's never quite enough, even as the entire enterprise steadily sinks deeper under the weight of its fantastic artifice. The film drags with interminable and paralytic lethargy. At the end, one feels as one might after having gorged on too many sweets at the pastry table - with a general sense of nausea for all the missed opportunities to abstain along the way.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is simply not up to par. Though certain segments of Ziegfeld Follies exhibit a rather crisp image with refined colors, many of the vignettes seem to suffer from a muddy colour palette that has been inconsistently rendered. The aforementioned ‘Traviata’ sequence is notorious in its unstable flesh tones – shifting from hazy orange to dull pasty pink. Age related artefacts are apparent throughout. Film grain is negligible but quite often registers as digital grit. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 stereo from the original isolated stems. Extras include the aptly titled featurette ‘An Embarrassment of Riches’ as well as audio outtakes of three surviving musical numbers.

Aside: the original laserdisc release of Ziegfeld Follies included an extensive catalogue of audio outtakes and it’s rather disappointing to see that these have been discarded for the DVD. Overall, Ziegfeld Follies is flat and uninspiring. Connoisseurs of such kitsch will be delighted.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

ALICE ADAMS (RKO 1935) Warner Home Video

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

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

BAMBI: Blu-ray (Disney 1942) Disney Home Video

Blessed with a palpable sense of grandeur in its heartrending coming of age story, Walt Disney’s Bambi (1942) is justly revered as the last truly great pre-war artistic achievement in the studio's animated canon. That the film's poignancy proved perhaps too much for some critics and parents, who thought the death of Bambi's mother a fundamental truth too terrorizing for tots. Amid dwindling box office and disappointing critical response to Disney’s back to back artistic highlights, though financial flops - Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) – and an animator’s strike in 1941 that threatened to close the studio for good, Disney chose to gamble on this, arguably his most controversial classic. Behind closed doors, Walt's kingdom was precariously perched on a very badly needed successor to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It was hoped Bambi would be the studio’s salvation.
Based on the novel by Felix Salten, Bambi is perhaps Disney’s most ‘adult’ animated feature. We first meet Bambi (transitionally vocalized from childhood onward by Bobby Stewart, Donnie Dunagan, Hardie Albright and John Sutherland) in the secluded grotto of his mother (Paula Winslow). News of the young prince’s birth spreads throughout the forest and soon all the animals turn out to pay their respects. These include the gregarious young rabbit, Thumper (Peter Behn), shy skunk, Flower (Stan Alexander) and wise Friend Owl (Will Wright).  When Bambi is old enough to walk he is also introduced to the playful fawn, Faline (Cammie King) – a cute meet that ends embarrassingly when Faline’s devil-may-care pursuit of the shy Bambi thrusts him head first into a babbling brook.
The first half of the screenplay by Larry Morey and Perce Pearce is an idyllic snapshot of childhood innocence – fragile yet articulate and introspective; a vibrant almost dream-like landscape of discovery born from a child's fertile imagination. Bambi's optimism is mildly unsettled by the onset of these first flashes of self-awareness. His first winter, burgeoning friendships with the other animals and meeting his father for the first time, the Great Prince of the Forest (Fred Shields), are indelible moments that gradually reshape Bambi's character and build to the central moment of tragedy; the loss of childhood in the death of Bambi’s mother.
In a sequence that never fails to draw out a few well-placed bittersweet tears, the wounded sadness tenderly conveyed within this heart-breaking sequence is exquisitely depicted by a sustained moment of deafening silence immediately following the sound of a single gunshot; the Disney artisans mirroring this loss of life in a lyrical yet sobering backdrop of new fallen snow. Pictorially, this moment ranks among the most emotionally satisfying ever conceived either in animation or live action; the audience intuitively made to feel Bambi’s loss at a most vulnerable, visceral level. As Bambi grows into prominence he learns to accept life as a practicality, his innocence splintered with the passage of time. The world that Bambi inherits, though pastoral and serene at times, is framed by very real dangers and exceedingly harsh realities; a harsh lesson perhaps regrettably at odds with the tiny tot sect that was and remains Disney's target audience for the film.
Seeing Bambi for the first time at the age of seven, I recall being rather shell-shocked by the experience. It stirred a strange insecurity from within that I couldn't quite comprehend or even articulate. The animals, though exceptionally drawn, were not always cute and cuddly and the action, particularly during the climactic burning of the great forest was disturbing. That realism was quite jarring at the age of seven – perhaps because it was largely unexpected and conflicting with my limited understanding of the Disney brand. It is only as an adult that I have come to appreciate and respect Bambi as art – exceptionally wrought and frankly constructed to evoke life’s unvarnished truths, but in a very heartfelt way that respects the audience – both young and old – enough to be honest about the fundamentals of life and death.
Indeed, the biggest criticism Bambi received upon its initial release from the critics was that the narrative adhered to an unrelenting frankness and realism about the fallibility of life. Hence, despite its many virtues that time has proven enduring, endearing and frankly, memorable, Bambi proved to be another financial disappointment for Walt at a time when his company could not afford to have a flop. With Bambi’s relatively poor reception at the box office, Walt learned a valuable lesson. Death, however tenderly portrayed on the screen, was a commodity best left to the cinematic storytelling of Hitchcock.
Yet, in the intervening decades the stature of Bambi has only continued to grow with audiences and critics alike; from those who, like myself, saw it through the undiluted rubric of a child’s whimsy, were startled by its narrative precepts, but ultimately enriched enough to recommend the film to our own children, nieces and nephews. This is as it should be. David Hand’s direction balances the studio’s trademark sentimentality and sumptuous visuals with superior craftmanship; the film’s adult themes genuinely affecting. The breathtaking realism achieved by Frank Thomas, Milt Hahl, Eric Larson and Ollie Johnston is a marriage bridging the chasm between the real and created realms that arguably Disney's alumni never again achieved on celluloid.
To be certain, the characters have their own cadence and weight. More important however, they have individual merit. On this rare occasion the forest landscape in not populated by fuzzy animals but an array of intelligent and very true-to-life representations of the human spirit that capture and depict our frailties and failings in animal form. As such the narrative extols moments of discovery and truth; the characters truer still; the net result being a rare window into the natural world where few films before or since have even dared to trespass.
Disney’s Blu-ray is a marvel to behold; decidedly improving on their previously issued Platinum Edition 2-disc DVD. For the first time in over 50 years, Bambi's artwork comes to life as never before. Disney's revolutionary multi-plane camera effects add a genuine sense of a third dimension in 1080p. Colors are rich, deeply saturated and vibrant throughout. Age related artifacts are gone. Edge enhancement present on the DVD is completely absent on the Blu-ray. This is a superior visual presentation. Likewise, the audio has been impeccably remastered in new and vibrant 7.1 DTS.
New extras include 'Inside Walt's Story Meetings'; a picture-in-picture feature that plays in tandem with the feature and packs a wealth of information into your viewing experience. The other new to home video feature is 'Disney Second Screen' - a feature that syncs your iPad or computer with the movie and provides access to a ton of storyboards, art, photographs, puzzles, games, trivia and other interactive materials. All the extra features on the Platinum DVD have been imported herein, including the comprehensive documentary on the making of the film. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)