Thursday, April 28, 2011

MOGULS & MOVIE STARS: A HISTORY OF HOLLYWOOD (Ostar Enterprises 2010) Warner Home Video


The rise and fall of Hollywood's golden age is the stuff that dreams and legends are made of. That era of innovation and ingenuity, modernization and mechanization that transformed mere 'dumb show' into celluloid art produced on an assembly line scale was as epic and memorable for its tumultuous back lot backstabbing as it became internationally revered for its surface sheen glitz and glamor. To understand and truly appreciate all that the movies achieved in this relatively short period of time it is important to recognize how the industry itself was conceived. This latter ambition is at the crux of TCM's seven part documentary Moguls & Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood (2010); an elaborate deconstruction of the studio system and the often maniacal creative geniuses behind the camera who made everything possible.
Divided into seven one hour episodes, this series attempts to explain away the myth and mystique of Hollywood's greatest period in critical and financial growth and evolution; without a doubt, a daunting task. The humble birth and mounting aspirations for movies as both an art and viable commerce are well documented in the series first two episodes (contained on Disc One): Peepshow Pioneers 1889-1907 and The Birth of Hollywood 1907-1920. Here we see the men before they became moguls; immigrant dreamers with stardust in their eyes and sawdust in their veins; part showmen/part hustlers. They migrated from New York to Los Angeles in search of riches but became some of the most acclaimed storytellers of the 20th century in the process. These 2 episodes chart the rise to prominence of independent creators, both in the fields of technology (Thomas Edison) and the burgeoning art of storytelling on celluloid (D.W. Griffith).
Disc Two features 3 episodes (The Dream Merchants 1920-28, Brother, Can You Spare A Dream? 1929-41, Warriors and Peacemakers 1941-50) that celebrate the acclaim and prestige of the studio system, its glittering assemblage of star power unprecedented before or since, and, the monopolistic supremacy of its star makers as undisputed monarchs in the realm of entertainment. It's here that the likes of Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, Harry Cohn and Sam Goldwyn, among others, are given their due; their determined ruthlessness to outdo each other at the crux of achieving a personalized quality and level of sophistication that belied their 'cookie cutter' dream factory assembly lines. Through sheer effort and occasional blind faith profits soared throughout the terrible years of WWII.
The last disc in this set features the final two episodes (The Attack of the Small Screen 1950-60, Fade Out, Fade In 1960-69). Here, we witness the last gasp of the establishment. As the old moguls are bought out, die off or are forced into ceremonial posts and retirement, the system they fostered begins its slow sad decline into oblivion. Television captures the public's fascination and with it, forty percent of the dream merchant's potential audiences. The government's involvement, first with HUAC's communist 'Red Scare' and later its monopoly-dismantling 'Consent Decrees' cripple a once vibrant industry and reduce its legendary status to mere auction house rubble. Free agents, changing morays and shifting cinematic tastes bring down the curtain on an age once thought of as impervious to even the most daunting of outside influences (WWII, The Great Depression, censorship).
Moguls and Movie Stars marks an epitaph to Hollywood's golden age that regrettably has not given rise to anything more promising or nearly as lasting within the industry during its last 40 years. The documentary is ambitious, but rather curiously short on indulging us with vintage clips from some of this period's best loved movies. Realizing, of course, that the documentary's tag line is "A History of Hollywood" not "...of the movies" it still seems rather incongruous to make a biography about the industry without jam-packing it full of priceless and memorable nostalgia that, after all, was Hollywood's stock and trade. Yet, except for the briefest of clips from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and His Girl Friday, there are virtually NO film clips from any movie that does not already belong in the Warner library (presumably due to exorbitant licensing fees from other studios). This, in itself is a shame and a considerable oversight for a documentary that reports to be about all of Hollywood.
Even when the producers of this documentary turn to the vast Warner library for inspiration the results are less than satisfactory. We get mere snippets from The Wizard of Oz and Singin' in the Rain. Bette Davis is briefly glimpsed unloading her gun from the opening scene of The Letter. Cagney is seen dodging a bullet in The Public Enemy (but no grapefruit scene). Busby Berkeley gets a momentary reprieve with a blurry shot of his kaleidoscopic efforts in Wonder Bar - one of his lesser artistic efforts. But there are no epic shots of the burning of Atlanta from Gone With The Wind, no 'frankly my dear...' either. Such filmic colossuses as Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur (1959) are not even mentioned!
Cecil B. DeMille gets scant play time with no clips from any of his films - not even The Ten Commandments! Alfred Hitchcock's legacy is distilled into a 10 second snippet of Cary Grant being hunted down by the crop duster from North By Northwest. No reference to Hitch' and Selznick, or Hitch's tenure at WB, Paramount or Universal. The Marx Brothers are the only comedy team briefly afforded a place in this history. How anyone could do an overview of Hollywood in general and not at least provide footnotes on the other brilliant comedic teams of Abbott & Costello, Laurel & Hardy and The Three Stooges is beyond me!
Marilyn Monroe's death and funeral get more coverage than her work in films - not a single clip from a Monroe movie is included herein. We get one clip from John Wayne's The Fighting Seabees - a minor programmer - yet, no clips from The Searchers or The Alamo, arguably his two most enduring masterworks. The 1950s widescreen revolution, beginning with Cinerama is glossed over in a sentence or two in episode six.
Even more curious are the incongruities that do appear. For example, one black and white still image from The Sound of Music is followed by color film footage of Rex Harrison as he prepares to shoot Fox's disastrous Doctor Doolittle. Yet which musical has more historical significance? Liz Taylor's Cleopatra, the film that arguably 'changed Hollywood' and damn near ruined 20th Century-Fox is glimpsed from an out of focus B&W home movie rather than inserts from the film itself. The rise of youth culture in the early fifties is reduced to a 10 second clip of James Dean arguing with his parents in Rebel Without A Cause and another clip of Glenn Ford attempting to diffuse a harrowing knife fight in The Blackboard Jungle.
If anything, that comprehensive quality essential and so evident in other documentaries about Hollywood, like MGM: When The Lion Roars, The Making of A Legend: Gone With The Wind, and, Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood is wholly absent herein. At 419 minutes Moguls and Movie Stars can hardly cover all of the ground it needs to, making it a monumental mouse rather than an all-encompassing saga about Hollywood and the film industry. The film historians (Leonard Maltin, Jeanine Basinger, Molly Haskell, Robert Osborne, among them) gathered together to provide filler commentary all have something valuable to contribute, yet rarely do their comments seems to dig deeper than the surface narration by Christopher Plummer. In the final analysis, Moguls & Movie Stars is a superficial look at Hollywood's first 60 years.
Warner Home Video's 3 disc DVD set is a modest offering at best. First of all, image quality is well below par. Vintage clips are inconsistently framed with a goodly number of originally full framed 1:33:1 aspect ratio images reformatted for 1:75:1 TV screens. As example, a clip of Gene Kelly singing in the rain is cropped from its full frame aspect ratio to conform to the 1:75:1 video screen while a clip from The Sweet Smell of Success, originally shot in 1:66:1 is presented non-anamorphic and centered with very thick black bars on both sides and thin ones at the top and bottom of the screen. There's also a rather disturbing amount of video noise present throughout this presentation, particularly - and oddly - on disc two, perhaps because, unlike discs one and three, it houses 3 episodes rather than 2. The final snub comes when viewing the 'panel discussions' that have been shot in widescreen as an extra feature to augment the series and provide additional information from some of the documentary's historians.
These extras, one per episode and hosted by Robert Osborne have NOT been anamorphically enhanced either. Stretching the image, via changing the aspect ratio on one's DVD/Blu-ray player only serves to cut off part of the image. The audio is 2.0 Dolby and adequate for this presentation. Parting thoughts: Moguls & Movie Stars left me wanting more. It plays like a preview for something else; a 'coming attractions' trailer for a finished product that will never come!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
2.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5
EXTRAS
1

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

BLOW OUT: Blu-ray (Orion 1981) Criterion Home Video



Brian DePalma's Blow Out (1981) is a perplexing jigsaw puzzle. It's a political thriller...well, sort of, yet far removed from the bland prestige that usual accompanies that sub-genre. It's a love story...uh...in a way, since its leading man, imperfect hero cum sound editor Jack Terry (John Travolta) is hopelessly obsessed with the screams of a reformed 'working girl', Sally (Nancy Allen). It's a crime story...in spots, particularly during its climax; a traumatic race against time that uncharacteristically ends with the psychotic assassin, Burke (John Lithgow) murdering our heroine. 
In retrospect, the most interesting aspect about Blow Out is that it manages to sustain all these narrative threads in harmonious balance – mostly. Its departure from our conventional expectations for virtue triumphing over evil is usurped, even more ambitiously diverted with each new plot twist. Perhaps the most astute assessment of the film came from noted critic Pauline Kael – a huge DePalma fan - who suggested that Blow Out represents that seemingly irreconcilable crossroads between 'art', 'trash' and 'dreams'. As a barometer of DePalma's work in totem Blow Out most definitely illustrates the director at his zenith.
DePalma is particularly engaged, his pacing of the action taut from first frame to last as he strains the audience’s nerves into a nail-biting frenzy. His is an exhilarating roller coaster ride that effortlessly bridges the chasms between art, trash and dreams. The screenplay by DePalma and Bill Mesce Jr. opens on a generic B-slasher movie, set in an all-girl's college dorm. For a moment, our disillusionment is overwhelming. How could the man who gave us Carrie (1976) have degenerated into such low brow camp? The answer is deceptively revealed as the intended nude female victim of a paunchy knife-toting mama's boy screams in terror at the sight of his drawn weapon. Only what emerges from the naked blonde in the shower is hardly a scream.
We cut to the relative safety of an editing room inside Liberty Studios, a fly-by-night hole in the wall where sound technician, Jack Terry (Travolta) has been assigned the task of dubbing in an actress who can provide him with a shriek of terror. There's just one problem...none of the women he auditions are any good. This opener perhaps represents the first thread in DePalma's mélange – what Kael has referred to as 'trash' that Jack must somehow turn into 'art'. But can he do it? Jack's quest for new sound effects to add to his library lead him to a catwalk beneath a bridge in Philadelphia where his calibrated equipment records various natural sounds on reel to reel tape. After a few false starts Jack's microphone picks up a gunshot...or is it a blow out? A car comes into view, loses control and careens over the embankment, plunging into the river with Governor McRyan (John Hoffmeister) and a call girl, Sally (Allen) inside.
Jack dives into the frigid waters, discovers McRyan dead and Sally about to drown. Saving Sally from her fate Jack is given the third degree at the hospital by the governor's aid, Lawrence Henry (John McMartin), who suggests that Jack keep silent about Sally; a request very reluctantly agreed upon. Only there is something much more sinister and troubling about this harmless cover up, presumably to spare the Governor's grieving widow and his family their dignity. Meanwhile, amateur photographer, Manny Karp (Dennis Franz) announces to the press that he has 8mm footage of the governor's 'accident'. Unbeknownst to Jack, Manny and Sally were part of a scheme to blackmail the governor, thus preventing his bid for the U.S. presidency. What is as yet unclear to Sally is that the man who fired the fatal gunshot that killed McRyan, the assassin Burke (Lithgow), had also been hired by Henry, not to scandalize the Governor’s reputation but to eliminate him from the race altogether.
To blur this trail of conspiracy Burke kills several prostitutes in the downtown Philadelphia area, all of them bearing a striking resemblance to Sally. Dubbed 'The Liberty Bell Stalker' by the police, the press’s rabid fascination with the Governor's death fades into the backdrop of the local news. The sophistication with which DePalma slowly dispatches these seemingly obvious threads of a grotesque cover up unfurling before our very eyes is what elevates Blow Out's premise from simple entertainment to pure 'art' - his second thread as outlined by Kael. Regrettably, Jack refuses to accept the official cause of death as 'accidental'. Instead, he begins a flawed romance with Sally, one predicated on learning her complicity in what she believed was a simple blackmail scheme. Realizing that Sally is a relative naïve of the bigger conspiracy Jack convinces her to wear a wire to help him draw Burke out of hiding.
It's a flawed premise, concocted on the fly and it costs Sally her life. Yet, Sally's blind devotion to Jack is both touching and appalling. She represents DePalma's final thread - the 'dream'. Without reason or even an ounce of self-preservation, Sally unwittingly places her life in Jack's hands, believing the old adages 'crime must pay' and 'good will triumph over evil'. Regrettably, the film's harrowing climax proves everyone wrong. Sally has overestimated Jack's heroism as well as his love for her, just as Jack has underestimated Burke's cunning to outwit his reliance on technology. Jack loses Sally as a result of his own obsessions. Left with only Sally's recorded final screams of terror as she is being slaughtered by Burke, Jack inserts these death cries as his overdub into the B-movie; a cruel and haunting homage that will continue to call out to him from Sally’s grave.
In these final moments Blow Out is heartbreaking with Travolta really giving us his all; an uncanny and paralytic frustration seeping into every fiber of Jack’s being. This is very uncharacteristic for a movie that began with the stock premise of a 'who done it?' Yet, even with the killer's identity made known to the audience – if not the public within the film - and long before its final showdown, Blow Out loses none of its tormenting dread. In fact, the climactic ‘cat and mouse’ chase through the crowded streets of a city on the verge of urban renewal, and during its Founder’s Day Parade no less, sets the stage for Jack's eerie purgatory that follows.
Sally, the embodiment of Jack’s 'dreams' is destroyed, only to be reborn as 'a sound effect' for his ‘trashy’ B-movie. Few parallels of art imitating life are as macabre; the man who ought to have been Sally’s protector instead exploiting her gruesome death for the sake of his art. The real crime - the conspiracy to kill McRyan goes unpunished, despite Burke’s death. In the final analysis, Blow Out knots together the threads of art, trash and dreams into a perverse mobile forever dangling over the audience, always just a little out of reach for our imperfect hero; with our own collective consciousness also caught in Jack’s 'what might have been' nightmare ending.
Criterion Home Video brings Blow Out to Blu-ray. The transfer is noted as ‘director approved’ but Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is given short shrift. There are even a few instances of edge enhancement. Check out the rather obvious shimmer on front grills and chrome of parked cars as Jack and Sally pull up to the train station for her rendezvous with Burke. Regrettably, this is a 2K scan made at a time when 4K has already been established as 'the norm' in hi-def mastering and 6K is increasingly preferred. Blow Out's image has adopted a rather severe 'red' hue that doesn’t strike me as faithful to its original source materials. Flesh tones are frequently orangey. Grain is thick in appearance. But the overall presentation is considerably darker than on the DVD from MGM. While the DVD looked too bright with boosted contrast levels the Blu-ray appears just a tad too dim with a loss of fine detail during night scenes.
Criterion maintains a faithful 2.0 stereo track that, although dated is very clean and solid. Extras are the real plum in this pudding: an hour long interview with DePalma, new interviews with Nancy Allen, DePalma's 1967 feature Murder a la Mod, plus a new interview with Steadicam inventor, Garrett Brown and the film's original theatrical trailer. Overall, Blow Out on Blu-ray is recommended, although with slight misgivings. It’s not a perfect effort and that’s a genuine shame.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
3
EXTRAS
3.5

Friday, April 22, 2011

VANITY FAIR: Bluray (Focus Features 2004) Alliance Home Video


Based on William Thackeray's panoramic social critique of English society, director Mira Nair's Vanity Fair (2004) is a lush, occasionally erotic and always flamboyant celebration of period costume. That the central performances sometimes become secondary to Declann Quinn's gorgeous cinematography is a misgiving I have no doubt Thackeray himself would have approved of, particularly as the story’s focus is on the absurdities of following the latest fashion to a most unhappy conclusion.
Made in 1935 as Becky Sharp starring Miriam Hopkins, this exotic remake also proved to be an expensive dud at the box office. This is a shame, because unlike the 1935 version, Nair's remake is both clever and concise, no small feat given the expansiveness of Thackeray's novel. It should be pointed out that Thackeray's central character, Becky Sharp is hardly a stock Hollywood heroine and this is perhaps the difficulty many have with her when viewing any film derived from the book; our level of expectation for a winsome gal in a bodice and corset is at odds with the scheming complexities of the character as written. For Becky Sharp is a shrewd, conniving and manipulative social climber. Her thirst for riches is unquenchable. She will cease at nothing to be satisfied.
In Nair's version, Becky is played with exceptional reverence by Reese Witherspoon, who was pregnant at the time of filming no less. In the Matthew Faulk, Julian Fellowes, Mark Skeet screenplay we are first introduced to Becky as a child inside her father's impoverished artist's studio, determined to barter with the exceptionally wealthy Marguess of Steyne (Gabriel Byrne) for a price on her father's latest portrait. The Marguess acquiesces to the child's demands out of a playful fascination for this willful urchin girl. After the death of her own father Becky is sent to Miss Pinkerton's (Ruth Sheen) Academy for Young Ladies where she is generally abused and overworked. At the end of her tenure at this finishing school Becky is shipped off to the dilapidated country estate of Sir Pitt Crawley (Bob Hoskins), entrusted as a governess with the education of his two young daughters.
Becky's one true friend, Amelia Sedley (Romala Garai) continues to write to her at Sir Pitts regularly. Amelia's rather oafish, though kindly brother, Joseph (Tony Maudsley), an officer in the army, is entranced by Becky from the start but heartily discouraged from pursuing a romance by his fellow officer George Osbourne (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Sir Pitt is most impressed by Becky's tutelage and the way she has whipped his unkempt house into shape for the arrival of his wealthy sister, Matilda (Eileen Atkins) whom he depends on for his own inheritance. Matilda is a shrewd woman and recognizes Becky's intensity to be of the upper classes rather than simply a slave to them.
To this end, and even moreover because it will frustrate the family whom she readily despises, Matilda brings Becky back with her to London where she eventually falls in love with Matilda's favorite nephew, Rawdon (James Purefoy); a Captain in the Royal Army. Meanwhile, Amelia fantasizes an engagement to George. Regrettably, he is a selfish prig who considers Amelia an unfit match after her father's estate is brought to financial ruin by his own father (Jim Broadbent). To defy his father's edict that he should marry a wealthy woman rather than one he truly loves, George marries Amelia and is promptly ostracized from his family and his presumed inheritance. The same fate befalls Rawdon after he sweeps Becky off her feet and is disowned by Matilda. These circumstances force Rawdon and Becky to survive on his soldier's salary, meager at best, and by her wits, amply endowed.
Amelia, George, Rawdon and Becky take their holiday in Brussels. However, after the outbreak of war with Napoleon, George and Rawdon are called into service while Becky and Amelia are driven into seclusion to wait out the duration of the Battle of Waterloo. George is killed during this skirmish, leaving Amelia with child. Mr. Osbourne refuses to acknowledge Amelia as his late son's wife, but takes a definite interest in his unborn grandson, whom he will eventually conspire to steal away from Amelia.
In the meantime, Becky enters into an arrangement with the Marguess. This 'trade' secures Becky and Rawdon the necessary monies to live off but also destroys their marriage after it is revealed that Becky is expected to return to the Marguess whenever she is called to satisfy with sexual favors. Distraught, Rawdon leaves Becky for good and is forced to abandon their son with his brother, Pitt (Douglas Hodge) before accepting a commission on Coventry Island where he succumbs to Yellow Fever and eventually dies. Revealing to Amelia that George once attempted to seduce her while still married, Becky pursues Joseph in India where he has become quite a wealthy land owner. Realizing that she has been a fool in love, Amelia surrenders her memory of George and their child to marry Major William Dobbin (Rhys Ifans), the only man who ever truly loved and cherished her from afar.
Vanity Fair is sumptuous and extraordinarily engrossing at times. The screenplay is adept at keeping all of the characters in play. Yes, the show belongs to Witherspoon’s Becky Sharp, but we are also introduced to a miraculous ensemble of witty, adroit and deceptively handsome characters, all entertaining us with their own fascinating back stories that enrich the experience as a whole. If there is a criticism to be made against the movie it is that Nair's direction at times seems to momentarily depart from the period detail, devolving into odd neo-classic realism.
As example, the sequence in which a discarded Becky performs a rather erotic India ballet could almost take its cue from a vintage MTV music video. While staged with finesse and beautifully photographed, the sequence does tend to stand apart from the scenes that bookend it and this becomes quite jarring. Nevertheless, Vanity Fair is a riveting melodrama. It is a must see/must own visual cream sundae with solid performances that will live on long after the elegant Ms. Sharp has departed for greener pastures.
Alliance Home Video's Blu-ray is quite beautiful. Mastered in full 1080p, the image exhibits some very breathtaking colors and an all-around sharpness and attention to fine detail that will surely not disappoint. Flesh tones are bang on as are contrast levels. Blacks are solid and velvety deep. Whites are crisp and clean. Film grain is represented as grain not digital grit. There are no digital anomalies to speak of. The audio is 5.1 DTS and very hearty indeed. Mychael Danna's sultry score is the real benefactor. Dialogue is natural sounding.
Extras are scant but well-placed, included three brief featurettes that cover similar ground on the making of the film, plus an audio commentary by Nair that is comprehensive to say the least. Aside: I could have done without Alliance Home Video's interminable litany of trailers that precede the feature, but overall I have to say that in this case, their handling of the Blu-ray format is most satisfying.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5
EXTRAS
2

THE KING'S SPEECH: Blu-ray (Weinstein 2010) Alliance Home Video


Some movies are revered for their technical advancements in the art of motion picture making. Others clearly hark to a simpler time when movies were required to entertain without breaking all the rules or simply flooding the screen with a mind-boggling assortment of anesthetizing special effects. Tom Hooper's The King's Speech (2010) is of this latter ilk; a poignant 'talking picture' whose strength, oddly enough, derives from its dialogue. I say, oddly, because one of the principle performances in the film requires the audience to suffer through a stutter that is as psychologically crippling to its character as it proves a genuine chore to listen to throughout the movie.
Ah, but how well The King's Speech wears its mantel of rigid respectability and how easily it wins our hearts in re-envisioning the proverbial 'underdog makes good' narrative; a throwback to the earliest days of movie-making. The King’s Speech is really a hybrid of the Cinderella story in reverse; the outcast already royalty, though very much feeling more like the upstairs butler to his overbearing father – the king - and even more devoted to his elder brother, the heir apparent. The King’s Speech is the kind of movie Hollywood once made en masse and infrequently endeavored to dapple in with varying degrees of success throughout the 1980s and '90s all the way up to the late 2000. But by 2010 this was a story that could only have been made in Britain with Britons at the helm. The King’s Speech relies almost exclusively on a wellspring of British talent to evoke its narrative eloquence. The film is very cheaply made. It lacks the pageantry of, say, a Merchant/Ivory production or even one made for the BBC. But it never skimps on talent – the one essential to propel its wordy byplay onward to victory.
Colin Firth stars as Prince Albert, Duke of York; younger brother to David (Guy Pearce) the future King of England. Albert suffers from a near paralytic stutter that is exaggerated whenever he becomes anxious. His shortcomings as a great orator are made painfully clear at the start of David Seidler's screenplay, as Albert attempts to address a crowd of several thousand at Britain's 1925 Empire Exposition inside Wembley Stadium (no, pressure there). The address is a disaster and an embarrassment to King George (Michael Gambon). Still, the King can take some comfort in knowing Albert will never succeed him on the throne. That honor belongs to the first born, David - that is, until he decides to forsake his country for the woman he loves, divorcee Wallis Simpson (Eve Best).
As George falls ill, then dies, all eyes turn hopefully or perhaps desperately for inspiration to Albert and his dutiful, doting wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter). After Albert attempts with no avail to rid himself of his stutter through conventional methods, Elizabeth decides to secure the services of Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). At first, Lionel does not recognize Her Royal Majesty and turns the offer down. Lionel's unorthodox methods for treating the cause of Albert's stuttering create friction between the two men. Lionel insists on calling the future King 'Bertie' to his face and thereafter breaks almost every protocol of monarchical etiquette in order to challenge and defeat the emotional vices that have rendered Albert insecure. After Lionel tells the king that he should abandon smoking to soften his acoustic nerves, Albert informs Lionel that smoking has been soundly conferred on him as a means to manage his stutter by the court physicians.
"They're idiots," Lionel exclaims.
"They've all been knighted," Albert suggests.
"Makes it official then," concludes Lionel.
As Adolph Hitler amasses his armies in readiness for the invasion of Europe Albert prepares for what will eventually go down in the annals of history as his finest hour; the King's speech delivered with such sustained poise and grace that it rallies his nation to war.
Under the auspices of a production house like Merchant/Ivory The King's Speech would have been a lavishly appointed Edwardian spectacle with a visual sumptuousness to rival its subject matter. Tom Hooper does not have this luxury, however. In fact, the film was almost not made at all because no one holding the purse strings could envision it as a hit. Indeed, the whole movie is about two men who do nothing except talk to each other. As such, The King's Speech was regarded as something less of a throwback and much more of a return to that lost art of the 'drawing room' talkie; movies made in Britain some sixty years before by the Archers at Pinewood Studios. There's very little outside of the relationship between Albert and Lionel worth mentioning and yet it proves to be everything!
For there is nothing to touch the electric sparks generated between Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush; two formidable talents undeniably within their element. To observe either actor in the thick of Albert’s expert tutelage is to be magically teleported back into an era when actors – rather than the camera – did most of the performing. Rush and Firth know their way around a scene; moreover they understand the mechanics as well as the emotional content and are able to convey superbly the fundamentals of the story. They could have played their scenes together against a blank backdrop and still have retained such poignancy. Thankfully, we are treated to Eve Stewart’s clever production design; a moody conclave of darkly lit interiors and desaturated exteriors filtered through a clingy fog. Danny Cohen's cinematography captures the looming dinginess of London teetering on the brink of war. Jenny Beavan's Costume Design resurrects the English classicist system with superb attention to every last detail.
Still, it’s the effortless repartee between Rush and Firth that sustains the movie; skillful and seemingly effortless, enriching every frame. Helena Bonham-Carter is a very capable Queen Elizabeth. Derek Jacobi provides a very solid cameo as the Archbishop of Canterbury. In the final analysis, The King's Speech is most deserving of its Best Picture Academy Award.  Now those who missed it in theaters can finally deduce for themselves the reason why.
Alliance Home Video's Blu-ray is visually stunning, which is saying much for a film whose cinematography is just average. The transfer is a feast for the eye. The film's color scheme adopts a blue-gray patina but the Blu-ray's handling of these subtly variances is breathtaking. Fine detail is evident in every scene. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are somewhat subdued, but again, this is in keeping with the film's original visual presentation. The audio is DTS 5.1 and although hardly as aggressive as your run of the mill action flick, is nevertheless hearty and robust. Dialogue is very natural sounding. Alexandre Desplat's score is given its moment to shine.
Extras are rather limited. We get a featurette on the inspirational back story and a Q&A session with director and cast as well as speeches from the real King George (the name Albert took after becoming king). There's also an informative audio commentary from Hooper. The King's Speech comes highly recommended. It is 'old fashion' in the very best tradition and it really reminded me of the reasons I used to love going to the movies so often as a child; chiefly for the satisfaction of seeing brilliant actors performing great theater with all the God-given accoutrements at their disposal. Bravo to all and hearty kudos to each. The King’s Speech is a winner! The nation awaits – now, none of us have to!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
5
EXTRAS
3

LOGAN'S RUN: Blu-ray (MGM 1976) Warner Home Video


At least in literature, the 1970s were a particularly prolific period for science fiction morality tales; most foreboding, some occasionally foreshadowing an apocalyptic future where mankind's stupidity brings about an end to civilization as we know it only to give rise to another even more terrifying outlook than the one left behind. Based on William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson novel of the same name, director Michael Anderson's Logan's Run (1976) is supposed to be a movie about a dystopian 23rd century mega-city where population control is achieved by killing everyone over the age of thirty. That the resultant movie emerges as a colorful claptrap rather than lush metaphor for post-Hitlerian societal decline is a shame as well as a gross bastardization of its source material.
Cheap jack sets and ultra-tacky special effects (that won an Academy Award, no less) are painfully obvious in all their 70s – then chic - moderne design. This isn't anybody’s idea of the future but, in fact, a reconstituted vision of the immediate present, gussied up with a few flashy/trashy pieces of modern art that have severely dated over the last 30 plus years. Of course, as a time capsule of ‘70s cinema all this oversight in Robert De Vestel's Production Design would be largely forgivable if the screenplay by David Zelag Goodman did not degenerate into a pointless chase, shot mostly in and around Fort Worth and on the old MGM back lot (in a deplorable state of decay and on the verge of becoming a housing project).
The film stars gooney '70s pop star Michael York as Logan 5, a bounty hunter working the policed state circa 2274. On the surface, the future is an idyllic paradise populated by half-naked sex kittens wearing paper-thin diaphanous gowns, and, buff young surfer dude-types who can barely hide what God gave them under Nylon/spandex ensembles. These ludicrous outfits are color-coded to reflect the age of the person who wears them. At birth, infants have a chip imbedded in the palm of their hands that changes color as they grow up. Red proves to be the most lethal hue in the spectrum. For once the chip turns red and begins to blink it signifies the end of an imposed life expectancy. These inhabitants are collected together, trade in their color-coded robes for white-hooded garments (that look like cast offs from the KKK) and demonic black and white hockey masks, and, are sent to 'carousel'; a new-fangled take on the old Roman arena.
With the rest of the city's gentry cheering them on, the expired individuals are hurled toward a spinning vortex that vaporizes them in much the same way a garden bug zapper dispatches unwanted mosquitoes and flies. Logan 5 and his best friend, Francis 7 (Richard Jordan) are Sandmen - assigned to capture a wayward expiree (known in the film as 'runners'). After some silly leaping and sprinting all over the multileveled interior of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, the runner is quickly dispatched by Logan and Francis using 'flare guns'; about as excitingly executed in SFX on the screen as watching lead paint dry. All hot and bothered from the chase, Logan returns to his apartment to search for recreational sex on 'the circuit' - a ‘pay as you go’ service that teleports companionship right into his bedroom. Logan's desires are inflamed by Jessica (Jenny Agutter); a Twiggy-esque blonde airhead.
But after Jessica and Logan engage in a conversation about why it is wrong to run, Jessica opts to leave Logan to his own devices. Before she leaves his apartment however, Logan takes notice of an ankh pendent around her neck. Back at Sandman headquarters, the state’s super computer reveals the runner he and Francis killed also wore a similar pendent belonging to a secret organization that helps runners escape their fate by showing them the way to 'sanctuary'. Logan is given the assignment to locate sanctuary and destroy it. To convince the organization that he is also in jeopardy of being called to carousel, the computer advances Logan's palm crystal so that it begins to flash red. Remembering Jessica's ankh pendent, Logan reunites with her and helps another runner escape. Francis, who is unaware of Logan's assignment takes Logan's actions as treason against the state and sets out to destroy him.
Logan and Jessica's first port of call is a medical clinic overseen by Doc (Michael Anderson Jr.) and his sultry assistant, Holly (Farrah Fawcett-Majors). Here, life-altering plastic surgery is achieved through instant laser procedures. Jessica assures Doc that Logan is their friend, but Doc is unconvinced. He places Logan in the operating chamber then deliberately attempts to cause the machine to malfunction so that the lasers will incinerate Logan instead. Too bad for Doc that Logan is a better fighter than the machine. After escaping the operating table, Logan manages to toss Doc inside the operating chamber where he is seared by its laser beams. Holly follows Logan and Jessica to an abandoned part of the city where members of the organization who save runners are waiting. After some initial convincing, one of the members instructs Logan and Jessica to make their way beneath the city, using the ankh pendent as a key to open various vapor locks along the way.
Unfortunately, Francis and a small army of Sandmen arrive, blowing the first gate, barring Logan and Jessica’s entry, and, killing Holly in the explosion. Logan and Jessica escape into the bowels of an underground 'fish farm'. Francis floods its chambers with sea water but Logan and Jessica manage an escape into a brightly lit frozen cave overseen by the robot keeper, Box (Roscoe Lee Browne). After some initial exploration of the cavern Logan and Jessica come upon the tombs of all the previous runners whom Box has hermetically sealed in frozen wall units. Box now informs Logan and Jessica that they too must be frozen as a possible future food source (shades of Soylent Green). Logan fights back – without much effort, I should point out - destroying Box and much of the cavern, to reveal a porthole leading to the outside world...but is this sanctuary?
Decidedly not! In fact, after walking some distance through swampy marshes and densely overgrown forests, Logan and Jessica come upon the tattered remains of Washington D.C., a city they have never known but whose landmarks are distinct and easily recognizable to the rest of us. In the Capitol Building Logan and Jessica discover 'Old Man' (Peter Ustinov); a hapless, cat loving curmudgeon whom they promise to bring back to their world as proof that one can grow old. Unhappy circumstance that Francis has found his way to the Capitol Building too and, after a struggle, is killed by Logan in the vine-encrusted hallows of the former U.S. Senate. Logan and Jessica take Old Man back to the city, though why either should desire to return there is, frankly beyond my scope of comprehension.
Leaving Old Man just beyond the city limits, Logan and Jessica are captured and taken to Sandman headquarters where the super computer attempts to extrapolate the true origins of sanctuary from Logan's thoughts. The revelation that sanctuary does not exist is too much for the computer. It overloads and short circuits. Logan and Jessica escape, killing more Sandmen in the process. The city's totalitarian command center self-destructs and the inhabitants are released into the outside world where they discover Old Man eagerly waiting to meet them.
Logan's Run is a gargantuan and very gaudy misfire. The acting is universally terrible, except for Peter Ustinov who has great fun hamming it up and delivers an amusing cameo. Michael York is unprepossessing and awkwardly un-heroic; stumbling through each scenario without fully grasping where any of the action is headed. York’s inability to convey even a shred of visceral energy diffuses the immediacy of the film’s badly concocted ‘escape’ scenario. But even York can seem like an Olivier next to the kitten-faced/blank-staring Jenny Agutter or glowering and beady-eyed Richard Jordan; neither achieving anything more than stick-figure/cardboard cutout caricatures of the wholesome ingénue and villain respectively.   
I will concede that the matte work and cinematography by Ernest Laszlo is first rate, particularly his melding of the old MGM back lot to paintings of the corroded and overgrown Lincoln Memorial and Capitol Hill. But Dale Hennesy's Art Direction is a disaster. Glen Robinson and Wayne Rose SFX singularly fail to fire the imagination. Fisher-Price has designed better gizmos and gadgets. The miniatures of the domed city in long shot have all the believability of an HO scale train model of the 1960s New York World's Fair. If this is their vision of the future it is one of the most lugubrious and lackluster ever conceived.
Warner Home Video brings Logan's Run to Blu-ray. When the transfer kicks into high gear, the 70mm elements are bright, registering vivid colors and solid contrast levels with a considerable amount of fine detail evident throughout. Unfortunately, optical process shots are extremely grainy and even more obvious to the naked eye in 1080p. The audio is unexceptional, with Jerry Goldsmith's score given good representation. But dialogue is never natural sounding and sound effects very strident – obviously inserted into the film’s post production rather than acoustically integrated into the action on the screen.
Extras are restricted to a rather meandering and self-congratulatory audio commentary from Michael York and director Michael Anderson who gush and coo about the film as though it were the futuristic ground-breaking equivalent to Gone With The Wind. There's also a vintage featurette, badly faded and full frame, where star and director once again extol the virtues of their efforts. If there's nothing like a great sci-fi movie to kick off the summer season of blockbusters than Logan's Run is indeed nothing like a great sci-fi movie! It's not even second tier vintage camp. It's just plain awful, two hours of my life I can never get back. Quite easily, this is one of the worst motion pictures in any genre to be financed by a major Hollywood studio.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
0
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS
1

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

TRACY & HEPBURN: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION (Warner,Fox Sony, Universal 1942-1967) Warner Home Video


Hollywood's dream merchants of the golden age were savvy businessmen to be sure. But they were also blessed with intuitive creativity; an essential in the industry then and one almost entirely, and regrettably, lacking from the movie making subculture now. One of the most enduring ghost flowers from that mythical age was the creation of magnificent ‘screen teams’; pairing gifted talents together that became iconic touchstones of our shared movie going experience. Audiences looked forward to seeing these familiar faces do familiar things, but always in new and interesting stories. Over the years there have been many such alliances; Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon, William Powell and Myrna Loy, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, Gable and Lana Turner, and, of course, who can forget Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. But if you had to pick just one team to exemplify this legacy of screen pairings, I have a feeling the vote would be unanimously cast for Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
By the time they made their debut together, each had already been working steadily - if unevenly - in the industry for more than 10 years. Their respective bodies of work apart from each other made their faces easily identifiable. Both had cache at the box office, although Tracy's was more secure than Hepburn’s by 1942. If, apart, they held their own, then together they were nothing less than dynamite; the quintessence of martial perfection seen in 9 movies between 1942 and 1967, the year of Tracy's death. The truth, of course, was far removed from this idyllic on screen portrait. Tracy, a devote Catholic, was already married to Louise with two children of his own, while Hepburn had managed a string of highly publicized affairs – including one with Howard Hughes - that, like her movie career seemed to have more downs and ups.
Once labeled 'box office poison', Hepburn had managed to claw her way back to stardom after appearing in both the stage and screen versions of The Philadelphia Story (1940). The clout Hepburn acquired from this film earned her the right to choose her next screen property, Woman of the Year (1942) and with it her choice of leading man. Hepburn chose Tracy. It was the beginning of a memorable partnership. In retrospect, George Steven's Woman of the Year (1942) seems the ideal vehicle to debut Tracy and Hepburn as two relentless go-getters who desire one another but have to choose between their respective careers and true love. In real life, there was never any question as to what came first. But in the screenplay by Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin, newspaper political analyst, Tess Harding (Hepburn) is not at all certain she prefers the company of crass sports columnist, Sam Craig (Tracy) to her work on the newspaper.
On the surface, Tess fits quite nicely into Sam's world, though he remains an affront to her cultured set, particularly Tess's ever-present male secretary, Gerald Howe (Dan Tobin). Despite their obvious differences, Tess and Sam are married and adopt a refugee child, Chris (George Kezas) whom Sam takes to with a genuine affection, but whom Tess regards merely as another fashionable appendage to her already overwhelmingly busy social life. Realizing how unfair this is to Chris, Sam returns him to the orphanage while Tess is out on one of her political rallies. Infuriated, Tess is told by Sam that their marriage is over. At the same time, Tess receives a phone call from Ellen Whitcomb (Fay Bainter), the aunt who raised her. After years of sacrificing her own happiness in the service of causes, Ellen has decided to marry Tess's father (Minor Watson). As a result, Tess also comes to realize that a woman of influence must make the inevitable choice between love and having a career.
To prove her love for Sam, Tess sneaks into his apartment the next morning, determined to remake herself into ‘the good wife’ by cooking him breakfast. But this menial task becomes a hilarious disaster. Nevertheless, Tess’ genuineness at attempting domesticity strikes a chord with Sam and they are reconciled. Although no one probably knew it at the time, Woman of the Year was to become the template for most Tracy/Hepburn movies that followed. With few exceptions, the two played variations on this sparing couple formula for the rest of their careers. The first exception to this rule however became their next film, George Cukor's Keeper of the Flame (1942); a dark and brooding mystery/thriller with political undertones, based on Donald Ogden Stewart's best-selling novel. In retrospect, ‘Keeper is an ill fit for Tracy and Hepburn, though it did moderately well at the box office at the time of its release. She plays Christine Forrest, the youthful widow of a nationally revered elderly political statesman who drove his car over a bridge one dark and stormy night. But was it suicide or murder?
The rest of the I.A.R. Wylie screenplay plays fast and loose with a stack of red herrings. These include the possibility that Christine killed her husband after he learned she was having an affair with her cousin, Geoff Midford (Forrest Tucker), or perhaps was toying with Robert's social secretary, Clive Kerndon (Richard Whorf). After surveying the outpouring of public grief at Robert's funeral, Reporter Steven O'Malley (Spencer Tracy) begins to suspect Christine of all sorts of wickedness, particularly after he has a brief tete a tete with Robert's insane mother (Margaret Wycherly) who suggests that her son's marriage to Christine was a destructive doomed union. Eventually, the real truth emerges, that Robert was a fascist working from his time-honored political connections within the government to secretly destroy the United States. In retrospect, Keeper of the Flame is a nonsensical espionage thriller. Hepburn doesn't do the haunted femme fatale thing well at all and Tracy seems more lugubrious and lumbering as the investigative reporter. That Tracy/Hepburn spark of chemistry and magic so potent in Woman of the Year is entirely absent herein.
Perhaps because of this, Hepburn and Tracy would not make another film together until 1945's Without Love, a charming minor programmer based on Philip Barry's smash stage hit. This film returns Tracy and Hepburn to their romantic comedy roots. Tracy is Patrick Jamieson, a brilliant scientist who takes a room in the mansion of a young spinster, Jamie Rowan (Hepburn) to conduct his vital experiments for government research in her basement. After an initial misunderstanding, a gradual friendship blossoms between these two and Jamie suggests that they marry 'without love' to conceal the true reason for his staying at her home. Patrick is reluctant on the subject, having had nothing but bad luck with relationships. Nevertheless, the two are married and agree to a platonic understanding that eventually gives way to genuine feelings of romance.
The next film, Elia Kazan's Sea of Grass (1947) is a rather breath-taking melodrama set against the vast expanses of the western frontier. Based on Conrad Richter's novel, the screenplay by Marguerite Roberts and Vincent Lawrence is a battle of wills. Hepburn is Lutie Cameron, a prim St. Louis bride who marries New Mexico rancher, Colonel Jim Brewton; a man who uses intimidation and force to keep settlers off the unspoiled plains. Jim's arch enemy in town is Brice Chamberlain (Melvyn Douglas), who eventually becomes an elected judge and thereafter launches a full scale attack on Jim's interests in the name of the law.
After Jim's stake in preserving the plains leads to a near fatal bludgeoning of homesteader, Sam Hall (James Bell) and the miscarriage of his wife, Selina's (Ruth Nelson) child, who just happens to be Lutie's good friend, Lutie realizes that her husband is the aggressor, not the hero of the west that she has imagined for herself. This revelation begins a rift in their marriage, one that leads Lutie into an affair with Brice in Denver. The result of this fleeting moment of passion is a son, Brock (Jimmy Hawkings as a child, Robert Walker as an adult) that Lutie reveals is not Jim's while she is in labour. Loyal friend, Doc J. Reid (Harry Carey) vows to keep Lutie's secret, but eventually the town's folk begin to suspect the affair and Jim's marriage to Lutie crumbles. Lutie leaves her children in Jim's care but eventually returns to his side, the years having mellowed the differences that once divided them.
I didn't expect to enjoy Sea of Grass as much as I did, especially when I read that director Kazan hated the finished film so much that he encouraged his friends not to see it. Yet, the final product is a considerable masterwork with a sweep and grandeur that only a studio like MGM could pull together during its heyday. True enough, this isn't the Tracy/Hepburn chemistry that fondly or even immediately comes to mind but the two deliver competent performances that are faithful to the source material. The Roberts/Lawrence screenplay manages to bring believable concision to the expansive novel and, as a result, we get a generational narrative that only occasionally seems mildly rushed.
The next film in the Tracy/Hepburn cannon remains one of their very best; Frank Capra's State of the Union (1948); produced independently for Capra's Liberty Films production company and distributed by MGM. Once again, Tracy and Hepburn are cast as an established married couple; Grant and Mary Matthews. Grant is a U.S. Senator whose pureness of heart in the political arena is about to be corrupted by wily publicist Jim Conover (Adolph Menjou) and newspaper maven, Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury). In fact, Kay and Grant have been having an affair for some time in Washington D.C. while Mary has remained back home. Convinced by Conover that Grant has a real spot at becoming President, Grant is also informed by Kay that to have a real shot at the office he must patch things up with Mary before embarking on the campaign trail as a viable 'family oriented' candidate.
After some reluctance, Mary returns to Grant's side, partly because she truly believes in him as a strong and honest man who is right for the job. Cynical press agent, Spike McManus (Van Johnson) starts out on Grant's side with his own misgivings but gradually comes to respect Grant as Mary does. All the more reason for Mary and Spike to suddenly find themselves bitterly disillusioned when Grant starts to take his cues from Conover and Kay, who suggest that the only way to win the party's nomination is to lie, steal and cheat. State of the Union is Capra's most inspired, politically themed film since Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939). Hepburn and Tracy are superb together as a married couple torn apart by external forces that threaten not only their marriage but also the very essence of who they are as people. Anthony Veiller and Myles Connelly's screenplay, based on the stellar stage play from Howard Lindsey and Russell Crouse is as slick and fast moving as the political machinery that threatens to destroy an honest man. This is a great film!
Tracy and Hepburn move on to what is today probably considered their most fondly remembered sparring, in George Cukor's Adam's Rib (1949); a fascinating battle of the sexes made fashionably funny long before the ‘60s rise of feminism and sexual revolution. They play Adam and Amanda Bonner, two halves of the legal system. He is a prosecuting attorney. She is a defence lawyer. Both find themselves on opposite ends of the same case when a woman named Doris Attinger (Judy Holliday) is charged with attempting to murder her philandering husband, Warren (Tom Ewell).To prove her point in the courtroom - that women are judged inferior to men by a patriarchal society - Amanda is willing to place her relationship with Adam on the line, even encouraging the flirtatiousness of song writing playboy, Kip Lurie (David Wayne). Once seen, few can forget the iconic moment when Adam, who is giving Amanda her rubdown in their apartment midway through their case, decides to slap her behind instead to silence her from singing Kip's song. When challenged by Amanda, who suggests to Adam that his reaction is 'typical masculine brutality', Adam replies "What do you have back there? Radar equipment?"
Adam's Rib is delightfully astute in its critique of the unique qualities that separate male from female and masculinity from femininity. Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin's screenplay is as poignant as it is hilarious, taking an exceptionally rare and deft excursion that rings more than a few 'true to life' bells along the way. Tracy and Hepburn chew up the scenery with galvanized performances that are as relevant as ever. After a hiatus of nearly 3 years, George Cukor's Pat and Mike (1952) proved - as though proof were required - that the Tracy/Hepburn chemistry was as vital as ever. Once again Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin provide a stellar screenplay, this one casting Hepburn as Patricia Pemberton, a superior all around lady athlete who can withstand any adversary except the condescending stare of her stuffy academic fiancée, Collier Weld (William Ching). To ease her anxieties, Patricia enlists the help of Mike Conovan (Tracy) who is currently involved in training brain dead pugilist, Davie Hucko (Aldo Ray) for the heavyweight championships. Unable to quantify that elusive quality that makes Pat so proficient an athlete, Mike knows too well what her downfall is. To the purpose of securing Pat's own successes for the newspapers and provide himself with a perennial meal ticket, Mike becomes Pat's full time trainer, keeping Collier at bay. Narrowly rescued by Pat from having his legs broken after a bet goes sour, Mike decides that Pat is the only gal for him.
In retrospect, Pat and Mike is the last truly great Tracy/Hepburn film. It also happens to be the final movie they made for alma mater, MGM. Their next endeavor, Walter Lang's Desk Set (1957 at 20th Century-Fox) is an atypical retread of themes already explored elsewhere. Leon Shamroy's cinematography is much more concerned with celebrating the expansive rectangular layouts of Cinemascope (that I must confess, are grand), than it is in re-interpreting the old Tracy/Hepburn intimacy for the widescreen. The screenplay by Phoebe and Henry Ephron isn't bad, per say, but it does tend to meander somewhat, losing focus on the increasingly romantic friendship between efficiency expert, Richard Sumner (Tracy) and research analyst Bunny Watson (Hepburn). To a large extent, the old Tracy/Hepburn chemistry is blunted by the intrusion of Gig Young as Mike Cutler, Bunny's soon to be ex-fiancée and, strangely enough, by Hepburn's performance that attempts to balance the strong savvy archetype she helped to create in films like Adam's Rib with a more giddy school-girlish fascination for Mike that seems grossly out of character.
The final film to star Tracy and Hepburn also proved to be the last for Tracy who died at the age of 67 a scant two weeks after filming Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). Viewed today, the film's 'love is color blind' social critique - then timely in a country struggling with race relations in the middle of the civil rights movement - seems moderately clichéd and occasionally heavy-handed today. Nevertheless, the screenplay by William Rose makes the attempt to take an honest - if gentile - look at the subject of racism from both sides. Tracy and Hepburn are Matt and Christina Drayton, a forthright older married couple whose liberalism is put to the test when daughter, Joey (Katharine Houghton, who is actually Hepburn's niece) announces she is engaged to be married to Dr. John Wade Prentice (Sidney Poitier) - a man whose skin colour obviously does not match their own. Christina is at first shocked, but then accepting of their union. Matt, however, is challenged by a spectre of emotions and feelings he probably never realized he even had until this very moment.
The family's close friend, Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway) is dismayed at Matt's inability to overcome his prejudices. Yet, even these pale to the intolerances exhibited by John's own father (Roy E. Glenn) who is discouraged with his son's decision to marry a white girl. Meanwhile, Christina attempts to win over Mrs. Prentice (Beah Richards). The film is most fondly remembered today for a brilliant summation delivered by Tracy during the final moments, where he equates John and Joey's love for each other with the depth of mutual admiration, respect and sincerity he and Christina have shared throughout their years together. Yet, in this abridgement of love's great story there also seems to be a blurring of the lines between reality and fiction; the very public relationship Tracy and Hepburn shared for so many years just as meaningfully embodied and on display in this penultimate poignant declaration.
Warner Home Video has at long last collected the works of these two formidable icons of the screen into one deluxe box set, aptly titled 'Tracy & Hepburn: The Definitive Collection'. And although 'definitive' it most certainly is, at least in the essence that every movie from their tenure is represented herein, the quality of these transfers hardly lives up to that moniker.
In fact, with the exception of Keeper of the Flame and Sea of Grass, the rest of the transfers included in this box set are identical to those previously released from their respective studio catalogues. This is a regrettable oversight, since Woman of the Year, Pat & Mike and Adam's Rib (arguably the most iconic Tracy/Hepburn movies in this set) sport problematic digital transfers that date all the way back to 1997 and the infancy of DVD mastering.
None of the transfers are terrible, but Woman of the Year, Pat & Mike and Adam's Rib contain a considerable amount of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details that this critic had hoped would be eradicated for this new 'definitive' release. Overall, the gray scale has been exceptionally preserved on all of the B&W movies in this set. Keeper of the Flame seems to suffer from contrast levels that are just a tad lower than expected. The transfer on Sea of Grass occasionally suffers from more prevalent grain than one might anticipate.
On the whole, however, the image quality is adequate and will surely not disappoint. The best looking B&W transfer of the lot unquestionably belongs to State of the Union - released by Universal Home Video. It's the same transfer as released in 2002, but remarkably smooth, sharp and full of fine detail throughout. Only Desk Set (from Fox) and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (from Sony Home Entertainment) are in color and widescreen. These are also the same digital transfers as before, Desk Set from 2004 and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? from its reissue in 2006. Both contain beautiful looking transfers, the Cinemascope offering on Desk Set supporting slightly more refined and richer colors, though ironically a little less fine detail than is evident on Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
Extras are limited to a few short subjects included on Sea of Grass and Keeper of the Flame. There are also audio commentaries on Desk Set and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? The last extra worth mentioning is Kate Hepburn's personal tribute documentary to Spencer Tracy, housed on a separate disc. The quality of this transfer is, frankly, terrible. The film clips included are often blurry, grainy and out of focus. For a definitive collection like this, it would have been nice to have new masters on all of the titles, but particularly on Woman of the Year and Adam's Rib, plus audio commentaries on each film and, at least chapter stops included on State of the Union, Sea of Grass and Keeper of the Flame!
For the price point of $49.99, I suppose I can recommend this collection to someone who has yet to have purchased any of these titles as they originally appeared one separate discs. But if you already own all but Sea of Grass and Keeper of the Flame, my advice is to simply buy these two titles as they are sold separately and add them to your collection. You get nothing new in this set that would warrant a repurchase.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Woman of the Year 4
Keeper of the Flame 2.5
Without Love 3
Sea of Grass 3.5
State of the Union 5+
Adam's Rib 5+
Pat and Mike 5
Desk Set 3.5
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? 3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
Woman of the Year 2.5
Keeper of the Flame 3.5
Without Love 3
Sea of Grass 3.5
State of the Union 4
Adam's Rib 3
Pat and Mike 3
Desk Set 3.5
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? 3.5
EXTRAS
2.5