Wednesday, March 30, 2011

THE COMPLETE SHERLOCK HOLMES: Blu-ray (20th Century-Fox 1939/Universal 1942-46) MPI Home Entertainment

Everyone loves a good mystery and in the annals of superior sleuthing, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries easily rank among the all-time greats. Holmes' brilliant powers of deduction coupled with his superior intellect and Doyle’s clever craftiness for concocting mind-boggling crimes for Holmes to solve became wildly popular reading around the turn of the last century. In truth, Conan Doyle only wrote the novels to amuse himself while attending school to become a physician. But the books took on a life of their own that eventually established Doyle’s reputation as a literary figure - something the author never quite accepted.
As his readership began to clamor for more Sherlock Holmes stories Doyle became increasingly insecure about his ability to maintain the series. In fact, in 1893 the author murdered Holmes in his novel, The Final Problem, but was so besieged by angry outcries from fans that he was forced to resurrect the character anew in 1901's The Hounds of the Baskerville - arguably Holmes' most enduring and fondly remembered mystery. In 1918 Conan Doyle died of pneumonia, putting a period to the Sherlock Holmes series though not to the character's continued popularity. In fact, with the advent of the movies, Sherlock Holmes was to find an even more enduring legacy.
The rights to Conan Doyle's novels were first secured by Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox. Zanuck intended making a series based on famed detective and quickly launched into The Hounds of the Baskervilles (1939) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), the two most intricately produced and fondly remembered movies in the series. Both films religiously adhere to the character traits of the master sleuth as described by Conan Doyle and, more importantly, are set at the turn of the last century.
In the first film, Holmes (Basil Rathbone) and Dr. John Watson (Nigel Bruce) receive a cryptic visit from Dr. James Mortimer (Lionel Atwill) who is gravely concerned that the new heir to the Baskerville estate, Sir Henry (Richard Greene) will suffer the same murderous fate as his ancestors because of the curse of the hounds. After an attempt is made on Sir Henry's life in the streets of London Holmes sends Watson and Sir Henry ahead to the Baskerville estate where strange goings on and an ominous glow in the fog lead to more attempts on Henry's life among the craggy rocks of Dartmoor.
Holmes shadows Watson and Sir Henry in the disguise of an old peddler. While exploring the moors, Sir Henry becomes smitten with one of his neighbors, Beryl Stapleton (Wendy Barrie), whose brother John (Morton Lowry) is keeping secrets. A flock of red herrings round out this deceptive journey; the Baskerville estate's brooding butler, Barryman (John Carridine) – who seems to be skulking about to some deep diabolical purpose, his odd wife (Eily Malyon) – peaking around corners and through keyholes, and Mrs. Mortimer (Beryl Mercer) - the self-professed clairvoyant who attempts to hold a séance to learn the real identity of the murderous assailant.
Darryl F. Zanuck did not consider The Hounds of the Baskervilles as one of the studio's major releases. However, it was so wildly popular in the U.S. that Zanuck immediately recast Rathbone and Bruce in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939); a valiant follow up intended to mark the real start of what would become a future series for 20th Century Fox. On this second outing, Holmes arrives too late at the Old Bailey to expose some evidence that would have convicted his arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty (George Zucco) of the crime of murder. Moriarty goads Holmes with the prospect that he will concoct a crime so vial and perfectly executed that it will leave Holmes' reputation for deducing crime in tatters. In point of fact, Moriarty is setting up Holmes for a wild goose chase that will deflect his suspicions from his real – and much more straight forward - plan to steal the Crown Jewels.
Holmes and Watson are visited by Ann Brandon (Ida Lupino) who worries that her beloved brother, Lloyd (Peter Willes) will be murdered as their father was some ten years earlier. When Lloyd is discovered bludgeoned to death in the park one foggy eve the prophecy seems to have come true. Holmes pursues the case, believing that Ann is next to die. After hearing her screams, Holmes captures Gabriel Mateo (George Regas) an intruder who confesses to Holmes that it was Moriarty who put him up to this revenge in order to settle an old score against Ann and Lloyd's late father. Racing to the Tower of London, Holmes finds Moriarty in the middle of his thievery and, in the resulting chase, sends Moriarty to his presumed death.
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes was a resounding hit for Fox. But for reasons never fully explained, Zanuck discarded the series after these two films. Universal Studios acquired the rights to the rest of Conan Doyle's novels and immediately set about cannibalizing their literary past, frequently combining several of the novels’ plots into a single film or writing new scenarios for Holmes and Watson to pursue. Gone were the Victorian trappings – too expensive to reproduce. Holmes was given a new, and wholly bizarre haircut, and plunged into the depths of contemporary espionage – a crime fighter battling the Nazi threat on his home front and globetrotting to America to unravel clues to one of Washington’s most baffling mysteries. It didn’t work – not for the series or for diehard fans of the series.
Sherlock Holmes and The Voice of Terror (1942), Sherlock Holmes and The Secret Weapon (1943) and Sherlock Holmes in Washington (1943) are the least fondly remembered installments in the franchise. The first is loosely inspired by Conan Doyle's 'His Last Bow' and finds Holmes determined to unearth an organization of Nazi saboteurs using radio broadcasts to instill fear in Britain's population. In 'The Secret Weapon', Holmes smuggles a scientist to the West whose bombsight is much sought after by the Hitler's armies. 'In Washington' has Holmes and Watson on the trail of an abducted British secret agent smuggling microfilm with vital war information out of the country.
At the end of this trilogy Universal finally realized their error in judgment. The series had lost fans, but more importantly – money. Today, such debacles would be enough to tank a film franchise for all time. But in Sherlock Holmes’ case the series had only just begun. Based on Conan Doyle's 'The Adventures of the Musgrave Ritual', Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943) mercifully returned Britain's most amiable sleuth back to his own country and in more familiar territory. Although the Victorian trappings remained absent (too expensive), there is a decided gothic mood permeating the film from start to finish. Holmes helps Watson learn the truth about a hospital where military men recovering from shell shock are reportedly being plagued by ghosts. Although set in the present ‘Faces Death’ contains trademark touches from the first two films - ominous glowing fog banks and a brooding gothic manor - that helped make this movie one of the better offerings from the Universal period.
In The Spider Woman (1944) Holmes fakes his own death to expose a series of supposed suicides as genuine acts of murder perpetrated by Adrea Spedding (Gale Sondergaard); a vial socialite using mind control to achieve the grisly demise of her victims. With its ever-clever shifting plot written by Bertrand Millhauser and a climactic race against time inside a carnival shooting gallery, The Spider Woman ranks as a truly fascinating entry in the franchise. Arguably, the best film from the Universal lot is 1944's The Scarlet Claw. Holmes and Watson find themselves in Quebec in the tiny hamlet of La Mort Rouge where murders are being committed presumably by a hideous monster that haunts a nearby bog. More than any other film from the Universal tenure, The Scarlet Claw resurrects the spookiness and sense of foreboding that had been the backbone of Conan Doyle’s novels.
Evidently, Universal took the hint from The Scarlet Claw’s success. The Pearl of Death (1944) has plenty of fog and craggy back lot moors to mask its rather threadbare plot involving a stolen sacred gem known as The Borgia Pearl. Holmes impersonates a clergyman aboard an ocean liner to retrieve the pearl from jewels thief, Naomi Drake (Evelyn Ankers) and Giles Conover (Miles Manders) – both in service of ‘The Creeper’ (Rondo Hatton); a murderous, subhuman who has the strength of ten men and enjoys killing anyone who gets near the pearl by breaking their backs with his bare hands.
In retrospect, Universal was never a very forward-thinking studio when it came to movie franchises. Unlike MGM’s carefully spacing of at least a year between installments of their Andy Hardy, Dr. Kildare, Thin Man and Tarzan serials, Universal simply abused the good graces of its audience with a bombardment of like-minded product. Although this greed for profit did not seem to hurt the popularity of the Sherlock Holmes series at first it inevitably did little for its overall integrity. The Holmes movies were ground out at an assembly line pace. The two subsequent films in the series bear out this exhaustive regularity. The House of Fear (1945) has Holmes and Watson investigating seven men living in a remote Scottish castle being picked off by a mysterious murderer one at a time. In The Woman in Green (1945) bodies turn up all over London with their fingers missing. In this latter effort, the diabolical Professor Moriarty made his unwelcome return for the last time.
Confined spaces helped to liven the suspense in Pursuit to Algiers (1945) and Terror By Night (1946). In the first, Holmes and Watson escort a royal heir (Leslie Vincent) safely home after his plane is downed by saboteurs. Masquerading as Watson’s nephew, Nikolas, the future king skulks around a cruise ship while secret agents plot his demise. In the latter, Holmes and Watson pitted their deductive prowess to solve a perilous jewel heist aboard a moving train. Both films movies are particularly clever at exploiting a sense of claustrophobia to heighten suspense and yet somehow neither distinguishes itself as a standout within the series. By now Universal had begun to realize that the series had run its course. Thus, Dressed to Kill (1946) marked a fond farewell to Holmes and Watson with a rather stylish and superbly crafted murder mystery involving kidnapping and the cracking of a secret code hidden inside a series of children’s music boxes being manufactured inside a prison.
It is important to note that the death of the Holmes series was only partly predicated on dwindling box office returns. At the end of the war, Hollywood turned a corner in film production with rising costs effectively killing off the B-movie and all serials by 1950. In retrospect, the most endearing aspect of the Holmes series is its utterly charming syncopation between the two leads. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce have exceptional on screen chemistry; a little bit Tracy and Hepburn and somewhat Abbott & Costello, yet with an intangible magic all their own. True, Bruce’s Watson has very little to do with Conan Doyle’s conception of the character; and truer still – Bruce’s bumbling comedic light touch infuriated many a Doyle purist. Yet, Bruce’s Watson remains the definitive interpretation today – the utterly hapless sidekick to Rathbone’s wily and stoic crime fighter. Whether plunged into the heart of the Victorian age or remade for the 20th century, as depicted by Rathbone and Bruce the duo remains timeless. Even in arguably their worst film, The Voice of Terror, these two old souls find something to amuse the audience with their repartee.
It was rare then and virtually nonexistent today to have a team so in rhythm that they could ostensibly recite the telephone book and still draw an audience. But Rathbone and Bruce were a smash on film and a main staple on the radio too. The character of Sherlock Holmes has since been played and replayed by many skilled thespians including Jeremy Brett and, most recently, Robert Downey Jr. But when the filmic chapter is finally closed on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle's super sleuth will have only one name synonymous with the character and that name is Basil Rathbone.
MPI Home Entertainment delves into its catalogue for this deluxe Blu-ray release of The Complete Sherlock Holmes, featuring all 14 original movies in the series. Regrettably, the first two made at 20th Century Fox have not been restored. Remarkably, the gray scale on both The Hounds of the Baskerville and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes holds up well. Age related artefacts plague both titles but none that will severely distract. Film preservationist Robert Gitt provides a bit of background on the valiant restoration efforts made by UCLA'S Film & Television Archive on the remaining 12 Universal titles. Frankly, some were in an appalling state of disrepair by the time Gitt and his team came upon them, particularly Dressed to Kill; missing both its 'title card' and end titles. All of the Universal titles were missing their trademark Universal 'globe' logo that preceded them as well as the 'Universal presents...' title card, after the studio allowed its rights on these films to lapse. With so few original camera negatives in existence it is a minor miracle that the films in this collection look as good as they do.
Although the gray scale balance on all of the titles in this set is somewhat brighter than on previously issued DVDs, the films do not appear to have had their contrast levels artificially boosted. I will not bore herein with a film by film critique of the image quality. Suffice it to state for the record that many of the films in this set look quite good. However, even the ones that are in rougher shape do not look so bad as to dissuade one from enjoying these movies as art.The most impressive in this set all exhibit a considerable amount of fine detail and film grain as grain and not digitally harsh grit. The most popular of the Universal titles, The Scarlet Claw, regrettably is also the only film in this collection for which no original elements exist. MPI has managed a minor coup by using digital wizardry to correct many of the inherent visual shortcomings.
The audio on all films is mono. Yes, there is hiss and pop present on many of the features - particularly The Hounds of the Baskerville, but you're not buying vintage titles like these for their pristine sonic clarity. With what they had to work from, MPI has done a marvelous job preserving these movies for future generations. Extras are a bit scant. The six audio commentaries that accompany the more time honored titles are all exceptionally informative, genuinely augmenting the viewer's appreciation for each film. Some very rough newsreel footage of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and theatrical trailers on seven titles - all in very rough shape - round out the extras. Highly Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Overall score 3.5
Overall score 3

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)

THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD: Blu-ray (UA 1965) Fox Home Video

Lavishly produced at a cost exceeding $20 million dollars (a monumental sum then), George Steven's The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) began its gestation as a stoic character study of the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Written by Stevens and James Lee Barrett, who loosely based their lengthy narrative on 1947's series of half hour radio episodes derived from the Gospels, and, from the 1949 novelized adaptation by Fulton Oursler, there's little to deny that the resulting 199 minute film contains many awe-inspiring sequences, superbly rendered in stylized melodrama.
The almost monochromatic costumes and 47 full size sets suggest a more reserved and probably more realistic setting to the narrative, in stark contrast to all those glamorous trappings of an epic made by Cecil B. De Mille (The Ten Commandments) or even William Wyler (Ben-Hur). This is all to the good. Exploiting the wilds of Arizona, California, Nevada and Utah for the Holy Land, Steven's film has a strange timelessness that arguably has not dated, especially when compared to other Bible/fiction epics made during the 1950s and early 60s.
If nothing else, this is a very serious attempt at recreating a living testament to Jesus; perhaps too serious. For although Loyal Griggs and William C. Mellor's cinematography extols the vastness of its subject matter with meticulous sincerity, there really is nothing that can salvage the dragging pace of the story. Worse, Stevens (a director I greatly admires) seems incapable of generating any intimacy between the edges of the vast Super Panavision 70mm frame. We either get a series of long master shots with thousands of tiny extras scattered about or extreme close ups of talking heads. Medium reverse shots, where most dialogue sequences in other films generally play, seem to have been forgotten or discarded.
And then, there are the cameos to contend with; a Michael Todd inspired ensemble of famous faces paraded in rapid succession before the camera to suggest star power comparable with the film’s gargantuan size. Casting then relative unknown Max Von Sidow as Jesus was a step in the right direction. Even now, after all of Sidow's many other accomplishments, he appears if not entirely in continence, then at least in manner and, dare we say, 'spirit', to be an inspired Christ-like figure that the audience can believe. Not so much sustained believability derives from the rest of the cast, particularly Telly Savalas's Pontius Pilate, played embarrassingly as a thug straight from the Bronx or Ed Wyn's Old Aram whom we might expect to burst into song and a comedy skit about the plagues as he emotes real tears from his prosthetic contact lens.
We begin in a manger with the ‘immaculate conception’ of Baby Jesus to Mary (Dorothy McGuire) and Joseph (Robert Loggia). King Herod (Claude Rains) fools the Three Wise Men into alerting him to the whereabouts of the child, presumably so he too may be permitted to worship. Instead, Herod sends his armed minions to Bethlehem to murder all the young male children and rid himself of the prophecy that a King of Kings has come to free all men from bondage. The slaughter proves a hollow victory, for as soon as he is told by the captain of his guard that his commands have been carried out, Herod dies on his throne. His son, Herod Antipas (Jose Ferrer) inherits a crumbling empire whose inhabitants threaten to overtake him during a revolt. As such, Herod Antipas is forced to place his kingdom under Roman regency controlled by Pontius Pilate.
Exiled from Bethlehem, Antipas is counseled by Caiaphas (Martin Landau) and Sorak (Victor Buono), advisors who prove lethal to his limited authority but who also point the finger at John the Baptist (Charleton Heston) as a possible threat from afar. John is brought before Antipas and beheaded. From here, the film fast tracks to the life of the adult Jesus (Max Von Sidow), presumably because the gospel does not mark much in the way of what happened between Christ's birth and his debut into manhood.
Having conquered temptation in the form of The Dark Hermit (a.k.a. Satin played by Donald Pleasence), Jesus begins to amass his disciples out of the wilderness; James (Michael Anderson Jr.), Matthew (Roddy McDowell), Judas (David McCallum), Peter (Gary Raymond) and John (John Considine). They travel to many cities inspiring blind devotion particularly after Jesus heals a woman (Shelley Winters) of leprosy, restores sight to Old Aram (Ed Wynn) and stirs the cripple, Uriah (Sal Mineo) to walk. These miracles beyond human suffrage are an act of faith, so Jesus teaches. Yet, with each laying of hands Jesus acquires the more profound moniker of a spiritual healer.
After Jesus resurrects Lazarus (Michael Tolan) from the dead, he is condemned by Caiaphas for witchcraft, sedition and blasphemy. Caiaphas rounds up ministers who are loyal to him and together they hold a secret trial that finds Jesus guilty of these crimes. One minister, Nicodemus (Joseph Schildkraut) decries these proceedings but is silenced by Caiaphas. Jesus is sent to Pontius Pilate for sentencing, but he in turn attempts to pawn Jesus' fate on Harod Antipas. Instead, Antipas forces Pilate to make an example of Jesus by crucifying him. Carrying his cross through the city, Jesus is helped to his feet by Simon of Cyrene (Sidney Poitier) before being nailed to the cross on the hill with no less an iconic cinematic figure than John Wayne (as a Roman Centurion) declaring "Surely this man was the son of God."
The end of the first act leading into the intermission and the finale of the second, where Jesus rises from the dead are both book-ended by choral re-orchestrations a la Alfred Newman of Mendel's Hallelujah chorus. The rest of the score is reverent to a fault, but at times frightfully evocative of Newman's underscoring of another religious epic; The Robe (1953). The Greatest Story Ever Told is hardly as great as its title suggests. It is a film that will unlikely ever be duplicated. Yet, it stands today as more of a final fade out to that elephantine spectacle that was so in vogue in the late 1950s and early '60s and an epitaph to the now defunct studio system from Hollywood's golden age. Rarely does it transcend into the rare echelon where art becomes the catalyst for eternal inspiration.
Fox's Blu-ray offering is, frankly, an abomination. In re-examining their packaging, nowhere on either this disc or its rear cover art does studio marketing advertise this transfer as 1080p though undoubtedly it is. What it is not is 'restored' or 'remastered' - as was previously advertised on several internet sites prior to this disc's release. Instead, this is the same problematic and utterly lackluster image derived from MGM's previously issued DVD incarnations.
The image throughout is riddled with dirt, scratches, severe fading, slight to considerable age related damage and a shimmering of fine details, as well as a smattering of instability inherent in the original print. Fine detail, that ought to be present in a large gauge format like Panavision 70 is wholly absent in this transfer. Flesh tones veer from pasty pink to ruddy orange. The image has also been artificially enhanced, suffering from extreme edge enhancement throughout. Film grain is digitized and harsh looking throughout. Truly, this is one of the worst looking Blu-ray discs to ever come on the market.
Fox has includes a disclaimer immediately before the movie starts, erroneously claiming that they have brought the film to hi-definition using the best possible source materials. This is an outright lie. The superiority of an original Panavision 70 camera negative would never produce such garish amounts of digital grain and other anomalies as are glaringly present herein, particularly during the crucifixion. The image is so unstable during this penultimate sequence that background detail breaks apart.
The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital and adequate, though it too does exhibit moments of hiss and pop and, on occasion, can sound more strident than most stereo tracks of this or any other vintage. For all of the aforementioned reasons The Greatest Story Ever Told is a complete fail, in my opinion. Extras are direct imports from MGM's previous DVD and include two very brief featurettes, one vintage, the other recorded in the mid-1980s and featuring fascinating, if all too short, snippets of Charlton Heston and Shelley Winters waxing affectionately about George Stevens.
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)