Saturday, July 30, 2011

FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL (Polygram 1994) MGM/Fox Home Video


Mike Newell’s Four Weddings and A Funeral (1994) is a daft and delightful English farce. The screenplay by Richard Curtis totters along its dotty trail of marital mishaps that can make weddings either a supremely joyous occasion or utterly kooky claptrap of romantic misfires. The film is an eighteen month slice of life in the ongoing folly of serial monogamist Charles (Hugh Grant). As a man in his early thirties Charles knows he's expected to marry. Yet, somehow he can never bring himself to the altar. His previous relationships have all been unqualified disasters. Having broken too many hearts along the way it stands to reason that Charles has set himself up to have his own broken. This, of course, does happen, but not without maturing the boy into a man, while promising him a reprieve – or more astutely – a tradeoff for his sacrifice of these youthful anxieties. On the surface, Four Weddings and A Funeral is just a jolly good romp through all the misshapen merriment. But beneath the surface there are clever observations about romance, love and loss sprinkled throughout Curtis’ screenplay; a bittersweet center of loneliness lingering even after our principals have presumably found ever-lasting love.  
Charles lives with his free spirited – also single - sister, Scarlett (Charlotte Coleman) in a dingy London flat. The two are chronic procrastinators and prove it when they are almost late to the marriage of Angus (Timothy Walker) and Laura (Sara Crowe). Bad luck all around; Charles is Angus’ best man and he’s forgotten the rings! Never fear; with his menagerie of loyal friends including dimwitted millionaire, Tom (James Fleet), his cool – if abrupt - sister, Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas) and gay couple Matthew (John Hannah) and Gareth (Simon Callow), the day, the hour and the moment are saved - barely.
At Angus and Laura's pastoral reception Charles meets American, Carrie (Andie McDowell). She’s experienced, witty, enjoys people and lives life to its fullest – all qualities that Charles finds engaging. After spending the night with Carrie at a quaint country inn Charles blows his opportunity to win her heart the next morning. Three months pass. Carrie and Charles are reunited at the wedding reception of Bernard (David Haig) and Lydia (Sophie Thompson). At first Charles believes he’s been given a second chance at love. But then Carrie reveals that she has become engaged to Hamish (Corin Redgrave); a much older, though wealthy Scottish businessman. Carrie further compounds Charles misery by dragging him to every bridal shop in London on her quest for the perfect wedding dress.
Only Charles' deaf brother, David (David Bower) sees through the rouse. David tells Charles that he must follow his heart before it’s too late. However, when one of Charles old flames – the mentally unstable - Deirdre (Susanna Hamnett) resurfaces, Charles decides to marry her instead. Two events intercede to save the day. The first is Carrie's marriage to Hamish that miserably fails almost from the moment the two say 'I do'. The second is the unexpected death of Gareth from a heart attack that forces Charles and all of his friends to consider the brevity of life and love, ergo - life without love is no life at all.
Four Weddings and a Funeral is inspired ensemble acting at its best. Its humor is as sparkling dry as vintage Riesling; its characters straight out of Emily Post's reject guidebook. Reportedly, director Newell auditioned many actors before deciding on Hugh Grant as his star. Grant, who had limited appeal in his native England was a virtual unknown to American audiences. This was his breakout. McDowell too was a last minute choice. A former model, Newell picked up McDowell’s option on the fly with only two weeks to go before principle photography commenced. The rest of the cast is a veritable who’s who of stellar British talent – many of whom have gone on to become celebrated in other intercontinental productions since.
MGM’s remastered Blu-ray is a welcomed surprise. The film was produced and released theatrically under the now defunct Polygram label. The original DVD from MGM was not anamorphic and contained an abnormal amount of ‘age related’ artifacts (dirt, scratches, etc.). MGM's deluxe edition reissue on DVD corrected almost all of the aforementioned shortcomings but still was far from a stellar presentation. MGM's Blu-ray is all the more impressive for having improved virtually all aspects of the image quality. Colors are more vibrantly reproduced this time around with more natural flesh tones. Fine details are nicely realized and contrast levels have been greatly improved. Film grain still exists but thanks to a 1080p mastering effort it now looks like grain instead of digitized grit. Overall, the image quality is quite smooth and pleasing. The audio has been remastered in TruHD 5.1. Although it won't win any awards it is adequate for this presentation.
Extras are rather disappointing. The informative audio commentary notwithstanding, the brief featurettes are all carryovers from MGM's 'Deluxe DVD'. They're haphazardly assembled from stock footage, big on conciliatory praise for the cast while practically nil’ on how and where the film was made. The quality of these featurettes has NOT been improved for this Blu-ray reissue. They're still in deplorable 480i. Also included is the film’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Over a decade later and this comedy still holds up. For the badly needed image upgrade this disc comes recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS
2

DYNASTY Season 5 (Spelling 1985) Paramount Home Video



Contemptible alliances, devious mistresses, borderline psychotic villains and even a palace coup, these are just some of the deliciously deviant back stories that made Season Five of Aaron Spelling's Dynasty the most watched primetime soap opera of 1985. It even beat out the grand-daddy of them all - Dallas in the Nielsen ratings! With a weekly costume budget provided to Nolan Miller that was roughly the cost of an entire episode of Dallas, Dynasty's fan base was primarily women, perhaps even less surprising when one stops to consider just how many of the story lines centered on the show’s female characters. Instructed by the studio to find a ‘J.R.’ in shoulder pads, co-writers Richard and Esther Shapiro cast glamorous Joan Collins as Alexis Carrington-Colby-Dexter in Season Two forever altering Dynasty’s chemistry to the good. By season five, Dynasty had become Alexis’ show; all subplots and intrigue revolving around the uber-bitch queen bee. Top marks must be given to Collins – for creating this towering figure of the schemer/seductress who kept everyone on their toes, frantically scrambling to do their own damage control in the wake of her destructive nature.
But in retrospect it's amazing how long the series took to 'find itself' and its audience. With the advent of DVD one can scrutinize the glaring loopholes in plot and character development more easily. There are, in fact, too many in Dynasty. But that did not stop the series from becoming one of the most fondly recalled and revived syndicated soaps in television history. At the end of season four alumni Pamela Sue Martin (Fallon) decided she would not be returning to the series, leaving creators Richard and Esther Shapiro with a dilemma. Do they kill off this much beloved feisty daughter of Blake Carrington (John Forsythe) or recast her with another actress? Ultimately and regrettably, in season five both paths are explored.
Season Five begins with Jeff Colby (John James) conducting a valiant search for Fallon who left him at the altar during Season Four's cliff hanger. His search leads him first to a youth hostel, then a college and finally a monastery in California where Jeff is informed by a monk that the woman he knew as Fallon Carrington is dead. But wait...where's the body? Where's the proof? Enter Nicole Simpson (Susan Scannell) the ex-wife of Peter DeVilbis (Helmut Berger in Season Three) whom Fallon briefly dated. Nicole seduces Jeff, marries him, then realizes he will always love Fallon - even if it's only her ghost. Nicole attempts to lure Jeff on an expedition after a gold statue in Guatemala. They go, never find the statue or Fallon and return home bitter enemies.
Unable to paint themselves out of a narrative corner the producers abandon this thread entirely and turn their attentions instead to the other hold over from Season Four's cliff hanger; Alexis (Joan Collins) charged with the murder of her former bodyguard, Mark Jennings (Geoffrey Scott). Son, Steven (Jack Coleman) alleges in court that he saw a shadowy figure push Mark from Alexis' balcony wearing the same dark cape Alexis wore to Fallon's wedding that was not to be. One problem; at the end of Season Four Alexis was arrested for Mark's murder at Fallon's wedding reception wearing a stunning red dress! Somehow continuity seems to have overlooked this glaring recalibration of Alexis' wardrobe.
Infidelity proves a major theme throughout Season Five as well. Alexis' husband Dex (Michael Nader) is having an affair with her daughter, Amanda Bedford (Catherine Oxenberg) whom Alexis gave up to her sister to rear in Britain. Blake discovers that Amanda is his child and welcomes her into the family. At the same time Steven and Claudia's (Pamela Bellwood) marriage begins to crumble, thanks to Adam's (Gordon Thompson) meddling and a series of well-timed innocuous outings Steven has with his male social secretary, Luke Fuller (Billy Campbell).
The ambiguity surrounding Steven's sexuality is one of the most regrettable misfires in the entire series. In Season One Steven is a homosexual whose lover, Ted Dinard is accidentally murdered by Blake. In Season Two Steven marries Krystal's niece, Samantha 'Sammy-Jo' (Heather Locklear), then divorces her and declares his sexual orientation as being 'gay'. But in Season Three Steven divorces Sammy-Jo and then marries Claudia Blaisdel whom he manages to stay married to until Season Five and Luke Fuller. Meanwhile, Krystal (Linda Evans) begins to doubt Blake's marital fidelity after receiving mysterious photographs of him in the company of Lady Ashley Mitchell (Ali McGraw); a fashion photographer who is shooting a spread on Denver's oil baron but has begun to entertain romantic ideas toward Jeff - not Blake.
At approximately the same time Krystal's heart is stirred by the prospect of a new romance with old flame Daniel Reese (Rock Hudson); a horse breeder and sometime mercenary who indulges his spare time in rescuing political dissidents from obscure prisons in third world countries. Daniel and Krystal's innocent rendezvous are also photographed and sent to Blake to further stir their pot of marital discourse. In another part of Denver Dominique Devereaux (Diahann Carroll) reveals to Blake that she is his half-sister. She loses her husband, Brady Lloyd (Billy Dee Williams) in the process but gains the power and wealth of Denver's most affluent family in the trade. Stricken with a heart ailment that nearly costs her life, Dominique is rushed to the hospital and gradually restored to health.
While on a conference with Alexis and Dex in South America Amanda is introduced to Prince Michael of Moldavia (Michael Praed) with whom she begins a tempestuous affair. Michael is a playboy. But Amanda's heart is still tethered to Dex. Spurned by Dex, Amanda bitterly agrees to marry the prince in name only, a vow made even more complicated when it is revealed that Alexis once had a passionate affair with Michael's father, King Galen (Joel Fabiani). Alexis convinces Galen that Michael should break his betrothed engagement to Elena, the Duchess of Branagh (Kerry Armstrong) and marry Amanda with all speed. Alexis sweetens the deal by suggesting to Galen that Colby Co. will invest heavily in his country's ailing economy after the marriage takes place. But the Captain of the Guard (Michael Gregory) has other plans for a bloody palace coup.
With so much going on in Season Five it's easy to see how these narrative threads could get sloppy...and they do. Whether revealing Congressman Neil McVane (Paul Burke) as Mark's killer, wearing a wig and clothes to look like Alexis (utterly laughable and entirely implausible) or suggesting that Sammy-Jo is responsible for sending Blake and Kyrstal the fake photographs to break up their marriage (even though she is in New York for most of the season) or recasting Fallon as Emma Samms (who does not even remotely resemble Pamela Sue Martin) and then changing the portrait of Fallon above the fireplace in the Carrington's living room midway through the season to look like Samms instead, Season Five is awash in misfires and missteps. Curiously enough, none of these oversights sank Dynasty's popularity in the Nielsen ratings. In fact, they soared.
Season Five is the only time Dynasty would ever scale such heights. By the end of Season Six it had slipped from #1 to #7, clearly indicating that the end of the night time soap opera cycle had begun. The Shapiro's debuted Dynasty II: The Colbys that same year - designed as a spin-off would only last two seasons. One year later Dynasty fell in the ratings to #24.
Paramount Home Video has once again chosen to issue this much beloved soap opera by splitting the season up in two competing DVD sets. Unlike previous seasons (where the interim between volumes could, and was often longer than six months) Season Five: Parts 1 and 2 are debuting together. One can either buy them separately or as a packaged set. Image quality continues to impress, especially when one compares Dynasty's transfers to similar vintage soap operas Dallas and Falcon Crest put out by Warner Brothers. Honestly, Falcon Crest's transfers are pathetically bad. Dallas looks as though the original elements have been fed through a meat grinder. I wouldn't expect this sort of shoddy workmanship from a third rate bootleg operation like Madacy Entertainment, much less a big lumbering outfit like Warner Brothers!
But Dynasty, on the other hand, exhibits a very crisp and reasonably clean transfer. Colors are bright and bold. Fine detail is rather startlingly realized. The one problem this reviewer has with Season Five - like other seasons issued thus far is that there is sporadic edge enhancement present in the transfer. While some episodes are virtually free of its distraction others are plagued by a lot of background shimmering of fine details in glassware, artwork, window dressings, etc. Otherwise, there's nothing to complain about. The audio is mono as originally recorded but very solidly represented. The one extra included herein is a vintage Entertainment Tonight interview with Rock Hudson. It’s short and pointless, in very poor condition, and frankly does nothing to enhance your viewing experience.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS
0

Friday, July 29, 2011

ANY GIVEN SUNDAY: Blu-ray (WB 1999) Warner Home Video


Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday (1999) is a gridiron armchair warrior’s wet dream, a testosterone-driven, over-sexed exposĂ© on the fickle ‘business’ machinery behind professional football. Stone’s preference for filmic exploitation has always veered on the side of controversy and this film is no exception.


The screenplay by Daniel Pyne, John Logan and Oliver Stone is a backstage pass into the sweaty locker rooms and million dollar mansions of the league's most egotistical players and an insider's view of the even more superficial lifestyles of its owners (although wranglers seems a more fitting descriptor here). These guys are animals!


Behind closed doors deals are made and careers are destroyed. Deception is par for the course. Sex with multiple partners is preferred. And performance enhancing and recreational drugs and booze are as interchangeable as the score cards. I can't much say I approve of the tactics these boy's with toys use to claw their way to the top. But like a train wreck one is privy to but not a part of, it is compelling to watch.

Something of a patchwork of extensive research, Stone originally developed his treatment as ‘Monday Night’ from a script by San Francisco 49er Jamie Williams and sports journalist, Richard Weiner. This original content was then married to John Logan’s spec script, On Any Given Sunday, and later, Daniel Pyne’s Playing Hurt with extensive revisions by Gary Ross, Raynold Gideo, Bruce Evans, Lisa Amsterdam, Robert Huizenga and finally, Stone himself – although the final writing credit exclusively goes to Logan and Stone.

Huizenga’s input in particular gives insight into the backdoor/backroom medical abuse of the league's players. Frequently told that their injuries are ‘just bruises’ when in reality they have suffered ruptured discs, torn ligaments and a litany of other career-ending and possibly life-threatening injuries. For further authenticity Stone incorporates archival footage featuring Jim Brown, Y.A. Tittle, Emmitt Smith and Terrell Owens – among other 'greats' in the profession. Some even appear in cameos.

Like most of Stone's more admirable efforts this one is an ensemble piece. But its central narrative revolves around two characters. The first is in-your-face head coach of the Miami Sharks, Tony D’Amato (Al Pacino doing a gross caricature of Dallas Cowboy’s Tom Landry). The second is the team's new owner-in-training, Christina Pagniacci (Cameron Dias); a rather prissy backstabbing heiress to this sports’ dynasty.

Under Christina’s late father and surviving widow Margaret Pagniacci (Ann Margaret) Tony was allowed his way with the team. For many seasons he delivered the sort of leadership and inspiration that turned a tidy profit for all concerned. Lately however, his instincts haven’t been so good.

Tony’s methods are perceived by Christina as an out-of-date. As far as she is concerned Tony is a warhorse with little resale value except maybe for glue. Worse, their professional working relationship has become sandpaper and salt at best. To reinvigorate the team with some new blood Christina hires offensive coordinator Nick Crozier (Aaron Eckhart).

On the surface Nick’s only there to augment Tony’s tutelage of the players. Behind the scenes Chris’ makes no bones that she will be replacing Tony as soon as his contract expires. Meanwhile, Chris’ begins a series of strategic political manoeuvres that result in a showdown between the AFFA Commissioner (Charlton Heston) and Miami Mayor Tyrone Smalls (Clifton Davis).

A minor subplot involves star player, Jack ‘Cap’ Rooney (Dennis Quaid) who, after being sidelined with a potentially crippling back injury is fast-tracked to play again by Dr. Harvey Mandrake (James Woods). But the good doctor is more Frankenstein than Kildare. His idea of rehabilitation is juicing up the players with a cortisone and steroid cocktail, designed to mask their pains rather than heal their injuries. Rooney’s physical weaknesses are compounded by the unrelenting gall of his trophy wife, Cindy (Lauren Holly). She'll stop at nothing to exploit her husband for his money even if it costs him both his career and his livelihood.

While Rooney is on the mends Steamin’ Willie Beaman (Jamie Foxx) subs in the line up and makes the most of his opportunity to show the managers he has what it takes to become their next star player. A rookie with a lot of heart, ample talent and an ego beyond the scope of either, Beaman trifles with a singing career, asks Christina on a date and frequently overrides the approved game plan to grandstand. This does much to incur the wrath of fellow player, Julian Washington (LL Cool J). On more than one occasion these two brutes decides to settle their differences with a fist fight.

The rest of the film unfurls as though it were an earthy battlefield cry choreographed by Led Zeppelin. We are treated to a barrage of mind-numbing music video junkets. These are staged for nothing else than a maximum turbo-infused adrenaline pump. From a purely visceral standpoint these montages do get the heart pounding.

Bookending each bone-crushing head-on contact and slow-mo sweat spilling tumble across the green is an endless line-up of afterhours glitz and glam-bam where players try to out-bling one another. A flash of gold chains and teeth and some muscle flexing follows. This is a world where the men are cold and ramped up on the latest steroid du jour, and, the women they screw stay hot yet grossly superficial. When they're not busy beating one another to a pulp there's nothing more entertaining to this motley crew then to trash their grossly expensive homes and cars. Clearly the bygone era of courtly sportsmanship is not on this movie’s agenda!

As the tension and losses mount the future of the Miami Sharks and Tony’s affiliation as their coach converge on a parallel course, diffused only after Tony agrees to a buyout and ‘retirement’. The joke, however, is on Christina – who is informed along with the rest of the spectators that, not only has Tony accepted a lucrative post as head coach and general manager of the Albuquerque Aztecs, but he has also convinced Willie Beamen – their only star player – to sign on as his starting quarterback and franchise player.

Any Given Sunday is heavy-handed entertainment at best. It moves quickly but without much cinematic stealth. Stuart Levy, Thomas Nordberg, Keith Salmon and Stuart Waks chop-shop editing recreates the frenetic energy of the playing field well enough. Regrettably, this stylized Ginsu effect goes on throughout the rest of the story telling, resulting in an endless and rather anesthetising spectacle.


Stone directs with his usual in-your-face flair and succeeds in looking beyond mere scores and touchdowns. In the final analysis however Any Given Sunday displays an awful lot, yet reveals very little. If anything our already low expectations of professional sports figures sinks even further. According to this film they're all just a bunch of vane behavioural misfits, severely out of touch with reality and a huge social embarrassment to anyone except the most ardent fan.

Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray easily bests its DVD incarnation. This is a pristine reference quality 1080p transfer. Colours leap from the screen. There's a genuine spatiality and dimensionality to the image. Fine details are evident throughout. Black levels are deep and solid. Whites are bright though never blooming. For the 'wow' factor in HD there are few discs to compare. This one's a winner through and through.

The audio is TruHD 5.1 and incredibly aggressive as it should be. This presentation is as much a feast for the ear as it is for the eyes. Extras include a two proficient and very different audio commentaries from Stone and selected cast and crew, a barrage of 'making of' featurettes, 6 minutes of deleted scenes, outtakes and montages, an interview with Jamie Foxx, a music only audio track and the film’s original theatrical trailer.


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


3


VIDEO/AUDIO


5


EXTRAS


4



Friday, July 8, 2011

JUMANJI: Blu-ray (Tri-Star 1995) Sony Home Entertainment


Based on Chris Van Allsburg's popular pop-up children's book from 1981, Joe Johnston's Jumanji (1995) is a superb example of the children's movie that can be just as popular with adults. This is mostly because the screenplay by Greg Taylor, Jonathan Hensleigh and Jim Strain does not talk down to its audience, tiny tyke or seasoned film goer alike. It's a fantasy piece with comic undertones but like the best of its genre Jumanji understands that the most captivating and enduring fairy tales are the ones with a harrowing dark side. In this respect Jumanji is a very spooky film, occasionally veering dangerously close to the edge of light horror but never dropping off that artistic cliff side.
The story begins with an 1869 prologue where two boyhood chums are burying a chest that contains an ominous and primal drumbeat seemingly coming from inside. Flash forward to 1969 and we're in Brantford New Hampshire, an idyllic small town community whose sole economic stabilizer is a shoe factory run by Sam Parrish (Jonathan Hyde). Sam's son, Alan (Hann Byrd) is an inquisitive introvert. After he accidentally gets his friend Carl (David Alan Grier) fired for the jamming of an expensive piece of manufacturing equipment Alan incurs the wrath of the town bullies.
He is beaten to a pulp and finds his way – bloody and bruised - back home where his mother, Carol (Patricia Clarkson) sympathetically dresses his wounds. Sam however, does not share in his wife's coddling approach to child-rearing. Instead he decides to send Alan away to the private school he attended as a boy. After some words Sam and Carol head out to a party leaving Alan home alone with the board game he discovered earlier buried not too far from his father's shoe company. But the board game 'Jumanji' has a demonic side to it, one that Alan and his girlfriend Sarah Whittle (Laura Bell Bundy) regrettably discover when they roll the dice. Alan is sucked into the game leaving a terrified Sarah to flee a pack of rabid vampire bats that have infiltrated the chimney inside the Parrish home.
Fast forward to 1995. After the tragic death of their parents in a skiing accident in Canada, Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter Shepherd (Bradley Pierce) are the wards of their loving Aunt Nora (Beb Neuwirth) who has decided to buy the old Parrish estate for their new home. The mansion has since fallen into a horrible state of disrepair. It also carries memories of happier times. The town of Brantford has also fallen on incredibly hard times thanks to the demise of the Parrish shoe company some years earlier.
Judy and Peter find Jumanji in the attic and begin to play, unleashing a motley crew of oversized mosquitoes, a lion and a pack of wild monkeys before a quirky roll of the dice releases Alan (now played by Robin Williams) from his nightmarish purgatory. At first Alan cannot believe he is free. But the return home is bittersweet. He has lost 23 years of his life inside the game. His parents are both dead and the town he once knew and loved as a boy has become a derelict for winos and street people. His father's factory is gone too; a burnt shell preyed upon by the homeless. Alan realizes the only way Judy and Peter will ever be free of the game is if they finish what he and Sarah started back in 1969. Believing that she has been delusional all these years, Sarah (now played by Bonnie Hunt) is reunited with Alan and introduced to Judy and Peter. The four take on the game, unleashing all manner of destructive forces including man-eating plants, a wild stampede or rhinos and elephants, and, a big game hunter named Van Pelt (also played by Jonathan Hyde) who enjoys hunting people.
As the game progresses the stakes become dire. Alan, Judy, Peter and Sarah narrowly escape being assassinated by Van Pelt during a raid on a nearby thrift store. They are subjected to a monsoon that nearly drowns them and are almost eaten alive by perilous vines that have invaded and taken over the Parrish mansion. For his attempt to cheat the game by fixing the dice Peter is punished by being slowly transformed into a wolf. Alan becomes trapped in the floorboards of the attic that have temporarily become quicksand, while Judy's turn unleashes an infestation of gigantic tarantulas. In her attempt to ward off the spiders from attacking Sarah, Judy is stung in the neck by the poisonous man-eating plant and dies in Peter's arms. It's Alan's turn to roll the dice. But before he can Van Pelt appears and tells him that the game is over. He has lost. Alan drops the dice in defeat. However, in doing so his dice rolls the winning number. Alan’s game piece finishes his round. He declares the word 'Jumanji' out loud, recalling all of the game's horrific aftermath to return to its porthole.
Alan and Sarah shut their eyes tight and hang on to one another as the game's destructive forces advance. But when they open their eyes again each is astounded to see themselves as children once again. Even more fitting, they have gone back to their own time. It's 1969. Alan's father comes into the study looking for the speech he's written and Alan realizes that he has the opportunity to set the record right. He tells his father that it was he and not Carl who broke the shoe machine at the factory earlier in the afternoon thereby sparing Carl his job. Alan and Sarah weigh Jumanji down with chains and toss it into a stream that will eventually carry all of its wickedness out to sea. Fast forward twenty-three years later and the outlook for Brantford is very different, thanks to Alan assuming managerial responsibilities at Parrish Shoe Company. Business is booming because of Carl's invention of the ‘sneaker’ and Alan has married Sarah. They are about to have their first child.
But even more advantageous for Alan and Sarah is the prospect of seeing Judy and Peter again. Having hired the children's parents to prevent them from taking their fateful ski trip to Canada Alan and Sarah are reintroduced to Judy and Peter who, of course, have no recollection of ever having met before. The extended Parrish family gathers around the piano to sing Christmas carols and as the camera pulls back from the mansion ablaze in holiday lights there is a sense that all is right in the world once again. But not so fast; for somewhere on a beach in France two new players are about to have their encounter with the nefarious board game washed ashore.
Jumanji ends on both a hopeful and yet a very ominous note. To be sure the real star of the film is its myriad of special effects made possible by the wizards over at Industrial Light and Magic. These SFX convincingly transform a seemingly quaint little hamlet into death-defying jungle terrain. But what really makes the film click is its casting. There's solid chemistry between Robin Williams and Bonnie Hunt as well as between the adults and the children in the story. Kirsten Dunst gives a rather tragic performance as the elder Shepherd child who has buried her grief with constant lying and pretend until the game convinces her that reality is infinitely more terrifying than make-believe. The script is fast paced and keeps the tension alive, even escalating it during the last third of the film when all appears to be lost. Finally, there's James Horner's brilliant score that augments the nightmarish aspects and adds yet another dark layer to the story. In the final analysis, Jumanji is a thrilling adventure yarn that will appeal to children of all ages. It's good fun!
Sony Home Video's Blu-ray is exquisite. Colors are bold, deep and vibrant. The overall characteristic of the image is darker than its DVD incarnation, but that's as it should be. Fine detail is realized throughout. Film grain is present but appears as grain should and not as digitized grit. The audio is a new 7.1 DTS master and really gives the rear and side channels of one's sound system a dynamic workout. Extras are jam packed carry-overs from Sony's previous issued Deluxe DVD presentation and include several featurettes on the making of the film. There's also a theatrical trailer and two diverse audio commentaries that ad much to one's enjoyment of the film. Sony adds a Blu-ray live feature to this disc but you have to be plugged into the internet to appreciate it. Bottom line: Jumanji on Blu-ray is a definite keeper.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
5
EXTRAS
3.5

Thursday, July 7, 2011

WHEN LADIES MEET (MGM 1941) Warner Archive Collection


Joan Crawford bowed out of MGM with Clarence Brown's When Ladies Meet (1941); an elegant warhorse trundled in magnificent trappings on celluloid for the first time since 1933. Based on Rachel Crotther's evergreen stage hit, the screenplay by S.K. Lauren and Anita Loos is slightly hampered by the more stringent production code not around when the earlier film was made. In place of the original play's more sordid details MGM gives us what MGM did best - surface sheen and immaculate production values that turn this modest chestnut into one of the most eye-popping gorgeous spectacles.
Crawford is authoress, Mary Howard. She generally writes women's stories, harrowing tales of self-sacrifice and romance that are adored by both her publisher and the public with equal aplomb. Despite her successes, Mary has decided to ditch her current publisher for Rogers Woodruff (Herbert Marshall); a man of seemingly impeccable taste, wit and culture. More to the point, he seems to love the authoress as much as her books. But is Rogers really good for Mary's career?
Old flame Jimmy Lee (Robert Taylor) doesn't think so. In fact, having read the galleys of Mary's latest book he's found her new story of a woman contemplating grand amour with a married man fairly dull and uninspired. However, as Jimmy begins to assess the words on the page as more fact than fiction he decides to make an attempt to thwart Mary's burgeoning romance with Rogers. To this end Jimmy employs Mary's scatterbrain friend, Bridget Drake (Spring Byington) to keep Mary preoccupied while he can figure out an angle to expose Rogers for the cad he suspects him to be.
Bridget invites Mary to her idyllic country cottage (more like an estate) for the weekend to work on her book. Mary agrees to this weekend retreat but also encourages Bridget to invite Rogers. So far the weekend is looking up. But Jimmy, sensing that Mary might be on the verge of destroying another woman's happiness for her own decides to bring Rogers wife Claire (Greer Garson) to Bridget's cottage uninvited. Jimmy uses the pretext of a stalled car to get Claire to Bridget's place then introduces Claire to Mary on a first name basis only. He further stirs the tempest by sending Rogers on a wild goose chase after another author he knows Rogers has been trying to woo to his agency for some time. In the meantime a terrible thunderstorm strands Jimmy, Claire, Bridget and Mary at the cottage. They will all have to spend the night there.
In the next twenty-four hours Mary and Claire become great friends. Mary tells Claire the plot of her latest book and Claire, upon hearing the details, explains to Mary why she believes her 'fictional' scenario is flawed. In Claire's opinion Mary has only thought of her protagonist's happiness. She hasn't fully explored the character of the man's wife, a character who may not be evil or shrewd or even caught aware of the protagonist's affair with her husband. As their late night girl talk progresses Mary begins to see Claire's point of view and also begins to reconsider her own affair with Rogers. Thus, when Rogers arrives at the cottage he is confronted by both his wife and his mistress in one of the most poignant and understated scenes of confrontation ever filmed.
Claire lets Mary down gently. Her heart is broken but she resolves to move on without her husband. At the same time Mary has had a change of heart. Realizing that Jimmy was right all along Mary thanks Claire for her sincerity. The women part company, perhaps not as friends, but with a mutual bond and understanding between them that can never be broken. Rogers goes after his wife to beg for her forgiveness (we can only imagine how successful or not he will be) and Jimmy and Mary renew their one time romantic promises to one another.
When Ladies Meet is often referred to as the film that ousted Joan Crawford from MGM. In point of fact it is one of the last great movies the actress committed to film at that studio. True enough, circumstances on the set were unhappy at best. Crawford already knew L.B. Mayer was plotting to cancel her contract and the receipts from her last four movies before this one had been utterly disappointing. Variety, who had once referred to Crawford as Hollywood royalty now branded the actress (as well as others in a scathing article published mere months before this movie came out) as box office poison. How quickly the mighty had fallen.
Nevertheless, director Brown is working with superior material here and a stellar cast that is more than able to pull off the melodrama without any of it becoming maudlin or dull. Crawford's personal unhappiness at the studio seems a good fit for her character, torn between finding what she fathoms as true happiness in the arms of a married man or returning to an old love who really has her best interests at heart. The cordial sparing between Crawford and Garson is equally engaging and palpable. These are two of the very best 'ladies' from the MGM back lot and they sell their burgeoning friendship as few actresses of any vintage could. The men in the film are window-dressing at best but that's okay because the plot really doesn't require them to be anything else. Robert Taylor's support is fair enough. Herbert Marshall is his usual urbane and sophisticated self.
Cedric Gibbons’ art direction and Edwin Willis' production design can be overwhelming at times. Bridget's cottage, complete with a full size water wheel that feeds an ornate swimming pool, is a pastoral paradise where one might expect to find Anne of Green Gables frolicking. Mary's apartment is gargantuan and filled with eclectic bric a brac borrowed from just about every MGM film made to date. All this eye candy is deceptively at odds with the simple story being told but it gives the audience something visual to admire between plot points. An interesting aside; when the film debuted MGM was inundated with hundreds of requests for the architectural plans for the cottage. The studio dutifully complied, sending blueprints to prospective contractors. But like all Gibbons’ stunning work at the studio, the blueprints for the exterior were irreconcilable with those for the interior, leaving most builders with practical construction knowledge scratching their heads and thoroughly perplexed.
Finally, When Ladies Meet was not the film that killed Crawford's career at MGM. Even before it went into production Crawford knew she would be leaving the studio. Despite often being confrontational with her boss, she and L.B. Mayer eventually reached a settlement to her contract and Crawford moved on to Warner Brothers where she would reinvent herself once again as the grand dame of that studio.
When Ladies Meet is a Warner Archive release and not a very competent one at that. I suppose I should be grateful that there's no chroma bleeding on this B&W transfer, a deplorable occurrence held over from VHS mastering days that continues to plague many other transfers in this collection (Honky Tonk and Idiot's Delight to mention two stellar films currently in far less than stellar condition on home video from the studio!)
But the B&W image is quite weak. The gray scale registers somewhere in the mid tones with no truly crisp whites or dark and brooding blacks. Fine detail is often lost in an imagine that is softly focused for the most part. Age related artifacts really aren't the issue although they do exist. During the credits there's even a 'tracking problem (another hold over from VHS mastering days) that has been...uh...lovingly preserved, shall we say for posterity? Like a lot of other transfers in the Archive series the audio on this one exhibits a slightly muffled characteristic. Aside from a trailer there are NO other extra features.
In closing I would just like to add the following comments directed squarely at those responsible for the Warner Archive. While collectors are eternally grateful to you for making rare and downright obscure titles available on home video for the first time since VHS we are decidedly not at all pleased with the way a lot of these titles are arriving to the digital format. If complete digital remasters are out of the question the least you can do is to get rid of the aforementioned anomalies that were inherent in the analogue format. That means NO CHROMA BLEEDING and NO TRACKING PROBLEMS from now on. There, I'm glad I got that out of my system.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5
EXTRAS
0

Sunday, July 3, 2011

NIGHT FLIGHT (MGM 1933) Warner Home Video


A turgid little melodrama, deadly dull and meandering for most of its run time, Clarence Brown's Night Flight (1933) makes a valiant effort to recreate the all-star magic of Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933) but miserably fails to catch the tailwind of success. Before Grand Hotel no studio dared conceive the all-star blockbuster. Immediately following its Oscar win every studio tried to outdo the other. That such a formulaic approach to film-making should be embraced overnight is perhaps nothing new. Hollywood’s creative brain trust has always been willing to exploit a good thing for pure profit. That MGM – the studio who basically invented the format should stumble so horrendously into this blunder only a year later is unforgiveable. The script by Oliver H.P. Garrett is based on a French novel Vol de Nuit by Antoine de Saint-Exupery; a solid pedigree, but one that proved almost impossible to film.
The book's rather socialist-moralizing approach to a philosophical question - of whether the sacrifice of one to serve the needs of the many is a worthwhile – nee heroic - pursuit translates poorly into visual terms. Worse, the novel’s episodic narrative does not lend itself to the all-star treatment, primarily because it compartmentalizes the action into vignettes and therefore keeps the stars mostly apart from each other. Each is given precious little to do except wring their hands in frantic anticipation. Paramount’s huge success with Wings (1928) and RKO’s Hell’s Angels (1930) – two high-flying melodramas about peril in the skies must have seemed a natural for MGM – the studio with more stars than there are in heaven. But Night Flight goes the quick and dirty route, eschewing realistic aerial sequences (the definite plus of the aforementioned two movies) in favor of some shoddy rear projection and rather turgid dialogue sequences between the pilots – in short, more talking with a mere relocation of venue from the airport to the air. Not good!
Clark Gable is Jules, a pilot called into service by his boss Riviere (John Barrymore) to fly a shipment of drugs over rough mountain terrain in South America to a hospital in Argentina where it will help stave off an outbreak of polio. Riviere is a hardened taskmaster. But he is also under the gun and constantly being scrutinized by Robineau (Lionel Barrymore) a bean counter who has threatened to pull the plug on Riviere's Patagonian Mail run. Jules' night flight runs into a terrible thunderstorm. The plane is lost, leaving Jules' wife Madame Fabian (Helen Hayes) to pick up the pieces of her wounded heart. In the meantime, Riviere sends another pilot, Auguste Pellerin (Robert Montgomery) into the fray with another shipment of the vaccine. Auguste's wife (Myrna Loy) begs him not to go but he defies her and his own considerably shaky nerves to see the shipment through successfully through to the hospital in Argentina.
That's pretty much it. A hefty portion of the film's modest 84 minutes is spent up in the air - literally, with long drawn out flying sequences illustrating Gable's character writing down his thoughts on a large placard, documenting the impending disaster as his plane dives headlong into the storm that will ultimately claim it and his life. When we're not following Gable's hot shot pilot through the clouds the narrative becomes bogged down in various scenes of confrontation between Lionel and John Barrymore, endlessly debating the novel's central theme of self-sacrifice. The French names of the central characters are an ill fit for the stars since none of them even attempt a French accent. Gable's role is mostly a silent one depriving us of 'the king's' usual boastful swagger. Robert Montgomery is so all-American that when others in the film refer to him as 'Auguste' we are made painfully aware of that disconnect between star and role.
John Barrymore spends way too much time illustrating for us why he is known as 'the great profile'. He plays most of scenes rigidly pointing either toward stage left or stage right. His brother Lionel spends just about as much of the film's run time scratching himself, presumably from a case of emphysema. Helen Hayes - whose appeal as a younger woman on screen has always escaped me (I prefer her as the dowager in Anastasia or devious con artist in Airport) skulks around the Patagonia Mail offices with a doe-eyed faraway look that translates more into utter confusion than sympathy.
I really am at a loss to explain why such nonsensical drivel as Night Flight gets a stamped DVD release from Warner Home Video while other more worthy titles like The White Cliffs of Dover or Mrs. Parkington have gone directly to the inferior Archive MOD program. Night Flight is about as pedestrian and simple-minded as movies can get. There’s no substance to anything here and a genuine waste of star power. Even upon its initial release Night Flight was a financial flop.
Warner's DVD doesn't win any points for mastering efforts either. The original elements must have been in rough shape because the B&W image contains a ton of age-related artifacts, some serious fading and a lot of grain that translates more as digitized grit. Fine details are lost. The image is frequently softly focused. Contrast levels are lower than expected and there is some severe breathing around the edges throughout most of this presentation. Truly, there's not much to recommend this disc. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequately represented herein. A short subject and theatrical trailer are the only extras. Again, I find this release a most curious one. Night Flight commits a cardinal sin in the world of entertainment. It bored me to tears! Not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
0
VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5
EXTRAS
1

THE FIRM: Blu-ray (Paramount 1993) Paramount Home Video


Based on John Grisham's exhilarating ‘legal beagle’ page turner, Sidney Pollack's The Firm (1993) is a harrowing cloak and dagger thriller that delves into the backroom espionage of a prestigious law firm whose biggest client happens to be the Mafia. The film stars Tom Cruise and Jeanne Tripplehorn as a naive and optimistic young couple whose world is about to be turned upside down. The screenplay by David Rabe, Robert Towne and David Rayfiel keeps the novel's high octane twists and turns but contains some glaring alterations that are in service of preserving Tom Cruise's persona as the all-American good guy.
In Grisham's novel, Cruise's character is out to get all he can from 'the firm' after he discovers their tainted past. He steals money from them to save his brother - money that is never recovered. In the film, Cruise simply exposes an overbilling fraud, convinces the FBI to fund him for helping to expose this illegal practice, then uses the money to give his brother a means of escape from jail. But Cruise's character also escapes legal prosecution with his reputation and ethics intact.
Cruise is Mitch McDeere, a brilliant law student at the head of his class. This earns him some fairly hefty offers to join just about every major law firm in the country. He chooses a modest firm in Memphis after they offer him a house, a car, moving expenses and more money than all the other offers combined as his base starting salary. Naturally, Mitch is ecstatic and so is his wife, Abigail (Tripplehorn). Abby's family is from old money. But wealth is a new concept to Mitch who had to struggle to put himself through law school.
Mitch is determined to pass the bar with flying colors and prove himself worthy of the firm's faith in him. Their senior partner, Oliver Lambert (Hal Holbrook) appoints another senior partner, Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) as Mitch's mentor. Very soon, however, Mitch begins to realize that some of the firm's clientele are not exactly beautiful people. Avery takes Mitch to the Cayman Islands, presumably on business. However, while there he also sets Mitch up with a prostitute to use as blackmail just in case Mitch gets second thoughts about leaving the firm.
Mitch learns that two of the firm's senior partners who were working with clients in the Caymans have died under mysterious circumstances. At this point FBI agent Wayne Tarrance (Ed Harris) enters the picture. He informs Mitch of the firm's illegal money-laundering practices and threatens Mitch with imprisonment for his part in their activities unless he helps expose the firm by copying some of their illegal documents and handing them over to the FBI.
Mitch is in a catch 22. If he exposes the firm then he has betrayed the attorney/client privilege and will be disbarred, if not in fact killed by the Mafia first. If he defies the FBI and keeps the firm's secrets Mitch faces going to prison as a co-conspirator in their illegal activities. However, Mitch does have one ace in the hole; his brother, Ray (David Strathairn) who is currently serving time for illegal drug possession. Mitch blackmails Tarrance. If he expects him to rat out the firm then Tarrance must first release Ray from prison and pay to his account $750,000. After some legal haggling Tarrance reluctantly agrees. But his plans are to release Ray just long enough to get Mitch to comply and then arrest them both and send Ray back to prison.
On Ray's advice Mitch turns to private investigator Eddie Lomax (Gary Busey) to get some dirt on the firm. Sensing a stool pigeon in their midst, Oliver sends William Devasher (Wilfred Brimley) and his men to take care of the problem. Devasher's men kill Lomax while his secretary, Tammy Hemphill (Holly Hunter) is hiding under his desk. Tammy vows to avenge Eddie's murder by helping Mitch copy the files that Wayne needs to bust the firm's illegal practices wide open. Tammy also helps Ray elude being recaptured by the Feds. Ray escapes to the Caribbean with the $750,000 where he and Tammy plan to start a new life.
In the meantime Abigail learns about her husband and the prostitute. Her pride is wounded. But as she plans to divorce Mitch, Abby comes to realize just what a tight spot he is in. She decides to pretend to take Avery up on his offer of seduction in the Caymans'. Returning to his bungalow in search of evidence, Abby drugs Avery. The firm has had enough. Suspecting Avery of collusion, Devasher sends a hit squad to murder him in the Caymans. Abby escapes Avery's bungalow with the necessary files just before they arrive. She returns to Memphis with the proof Mitch needs to indict the firm. Devasher and his hit men pursue Mitch to an abandoned warehouse where he narrowly escapes being killed. Tarrance ends the bloodshed in a hailstorm of bullets. The firm is shut down and Abby and Mitch depart with a U-Haul in tow bound for Boston from whence all their troubles first began.
The Firm is nail-biting and taut entertainment. Apart from Top Gun, I have never been a Tom Cruise fan and it is saying much that despite this bias I rather enjoyed both Cruise's performance and the film as slick and stylishly packaged thrills. Sydney Pollack's direction is fast paced. He holds close to Grisham's text while ever so slightly tweaking it to suit the needs of his star. American audiences may appreciate an anti-hero but they generally love one that can redeem himself despite seemingly insurmountable odds. While Grisham's Mitch McDeere is a bit of a brute and a scamp, the film's take on the character is much more in keeping with Cruise’s toothy-grinned all-American. Mitch is a good guy trapped in bad circumstances.
Gene Hackman delivers another seductively sinful performance as the sexually promiscuous, devil-may-care attorney whose Teflon-coated exterior is about to be irreversibly tarnished. Even the minor performances of Busey, Tripplehorn, Hunter and Brimley click as they should. The one over the top exception is Ed Harris. Otherwise and in short, casting is inspired. The jury is in. The prosecution rests. The verdict is that The Firm is a winner!
So is the Blu-ray incarnation from Paramount Home Video. The 1080p image is outstanding in all respects. This is a reference quality visual presentation of a catalogue title. The image is crisp and refined. Colors are bold and fully saturated. Contrast levels are bang on. Fine detail is evident even during the darkest scenes. We get film grain faithfully reproduced as grain and not digitized grit. Truly, there is nothing to disappoint.
The audio is a DTS remastering that perfectly captures all the subtle sonic nuances in the original tracks. Dialogue is natural sounding. Effects and music are nicely spread throughout the channels, often with aggressiveness that give your speakers a workout. The Firm is primarily a dialogue driven movie and the audio is a complimentary to its equally perfect visuals. Regrettably, Paramount gives us NO extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
5
EXTRAS
0

CYNTHIA (MGM 1947) Warner Archive Collection


Based on a play by Vina Delmar, director Robert Z. Leonard's Cynthia (1947) is one of those maudlin exercises in homespun family conflict that only a studio like MGM could pull of convincingly throughout the 1930s and 40s. The film is a showcase for Elizabeth Taylor, then a child star on the cusp of becoming a smoldering teen sensation. And although Taylor is undeniably drop dead gorgeous throughout the film she really is under-served in this little nothing of a plot concocted by Harold Buchman, Charles Kaufman and Delmar.
The story opens in the 1920s before Cynthia is even born. Her parents, Louise (Mary Astor) and Larry Bishop (George Murphy) are attending the local college with dreams of becoming a researcher and doctor in Vienna respectively. However, after they share a moonlight boat ride on a lake in their home town of Napoleon the two decide to get married. Louise becomes pregnant with Cynthia and their dreams are dashed to make a home for the new baby. Louise becomes a common frump and Larry goes to work at the local hardware store.
Cynthia is a sickly child and the medical expenses alone cripple Larry's ability to do little more than keep the family's heads above water. Larry's older sister Carrie (Spring Byington) has married Dr.Fred Jannings (Gene Lockhart), a pompous practitioner who seems intent on keeping Cynthia dependent on his B12 injections. Fred has convinced Larry that Cynthia must not partake in local school activities or face becoming even more ill.
In fact, Cynthia longs to join the other kids at play, most notably returning 'war hero' Ricky Latham (Jimmy Lydon) who has developed a crush on her much to the chagrin of Fred's daughter Fredonia (Carol Brannan) who would like Ricky for herself. Although Fredonia is insanely jealous of Cynthia, Cynthia does not harbor similar feelings toward her or even despise Fredonia for her unwarranted meddling in her affairs.
Larry and Louise attend their weekly dinner at Carrie and Fred's house where Larry proposes that Fred co-sign to approve a bank loan that will allow him to buy the house they are renting. Instead, Fred, who has more money than he knows what to do with, informs Larry that he has his own family to consider and refuses to sign his papers, hinting that Larry is a risk and may default on his payments.
In the meantime, Larry's boss J.M. Dingle (Harlan Briggs) is attempting to keep his most valuable employee dependent on his modest earnings for the rest of his days. Louise confides in Larry that she is disappointed at how their lives turned out. She is tired of beholding to Fred for advice on how Cynthia should be raised. Louise's one source of pride is their daughter. Larry is wounded by the insinuation that his wife is ashamed of him and their marriage temporarily suffers from hurt feelings.
Meanwhile, the school's musical director, Professor Rosenkrantz (S.Z. Sakall) dotes on Cynthia and has big plans for her to star in his Spring play. Unfortunately, Cynthia contracts the flu while trying to impress Ricky. She is forced by illness to withdraw from rehearsals. Still not contented to have her cousin out of the play, Fredonia plots to drive a wedge between Cynthia and Ricky. Her attempts are feeble at best and quite unsuccessful.
Larry forbids Cynthia to go to the Spring dance with Ricky. But after Louise convinces Larry to attend a local political meeting she sneaks her daughter out to have her moment of fun. Cynthia's coming out is a huge success. Larry confronts his boss, quits his job and plans to take Louise and Cynthia away to wherever their heart's desire might be. But Louise has had a change of heart. She buys the house with money she has saved since their marriage for a rainy day. Cynthia informs her father that she and Ricky are betrothed. She cannot leave Napoleon either. But all is not lost. Mr. Dingle arrives on their doorstep to beg Larry to reconsider working for him.
Cynthia is just the sort of 'slice of fictionalized Americana MGM's chief Louis B. Mayer adored. It's full of idyllic snapshots that suggest an America not to be found anywhere except the studio back lot. The hand-me-downs for this film are glaringly obvious. The streets where the Bishops live are well-trodden territory for Andy Hardy and The Smith family. There's even a moment when Fredonia belts out a badly off key rendition of 'The Trolley Song' from Meet Me In St. Louis as part of her audition for the Spring play.
Taylor would later wax rather condescendingly about her own lack of musical ability. She sings 'Voices of Spring' in Cynthia. Although the voice is thin, Taylor nevertheless hits all her notes with great accuracy - even the impossibly high ones, and fairly impresses. If, obviously not a singer on par with Kathryn Grayson or Jane Powell, she can certainly hold her own in this little bit of homespun nonsense. There's really not much else to say about the film except that it is a B programmer with A-list production values and a few quaint highlights scattered along the way.
Cynthia is a Warner Archive release. The MOD DVD exhibits a rather softly focused image that is rather disappointing. The gray scale's contrast levels appear a tad weaker than expected. Occasionally the image looks worn and faded. Age related artifacts are present but not glaringly so. Overall, this is just a middle of the road visual presentation of a middle of the road film. The audio is mono as originally recorded. It's adequately represented although during Taylor's song it crackles slightly. Like all other titles in the Archive Collection there are NO extras features, just a theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5
EXTRAS
1

RIO RITA (MGM 1942) Warner Archive Collection


For once MGM, the studio with 'more stars than there are in heaven', looked outside its own embarrassment of riches to borrow Bud Abbott and Lou Costello from Universal to star in one of their best comedies in years. Director S. Sylvan Simon's Rio Rita (1942) may not be a direct descendent of Florenz Ziegfeld's 1927 smash stage musical or even a kissing cousin to the 1929 film made at RKO, but it is still one humdinger of a good show.
In revamping the Broadway original to fit tried and true comedic material from A&C, screenwriters Richard Connell and Gladys Lehman kept only the threadbare overview of the stage hit; involving a young ingénue who is hoping to turn her struggling hotel around by hosting a lavish fiesta. This being 1942 however, the writers interjected an incongruous bit of espionage nonsense perpetrated by the Nazis.
The story opens at the Hotel Vista Del Rio; a property belonging to Rita Winslow (Kathryn Grayson in her second movie) but managed by her late father's trusted advisor Maurice Craindall (Tom Conway). Unbeknownst to Rita, Maurice is a Nazi saboteur whose latest diabolical plot involves smuggling a shipment of wax apples that house radio communicators that his spying cohorts will use to keep in constant contact with one another.
Rita has great expectations for the hotel, particularly when her school girl’s crush/turned singing sensation, Ricardo Montera (John Carroll) arrives to partake in the festivities. Rita hopes to rekindle their childhood romance. But she quickly disillusioned, realizing that Ricardo has become a Latin Lothario in her absence. In fact, Ricardo doesn't even remember her name.
In the meantime, Wishy (Lou Costello) and Doc (Bud Abbott) have been fired from their job at the pet store. With nowhere to go and no money to get there, they stowaway in the trunk of Ricardo's car and find themselves at the hotel too. Hungry, they mistake the radio-transmitting apples for the real McCoy, are angry when the apples prove fakes and toss the entire consignment to a bunch of mules and one precocious German Shepherd who devour them with gusto.
A rivalry for Ricardo's affections begins to grow between vixen Lucette Brunswick (Patricia Dane) and Rita. The fiesta's master of ceremonies, Harry Gantley (Barry Nelson) informs Wishy and Doc, who have been hired by Rita as house detectives that he is an FBI agent who has come to the Hotel Vista Del Rio to bust the spy ring. Harry is murdered, leaving Wishy and Doc holding the bag. The fiesta kicks into high gear and Lucette attempts to explain to Ricardo that she is also working for the FBI in the hopes that he will lead her to the radio transmitters. Actually, Lucette is a double agent working for Maurice and the Nazis.
After exposing the spy ring over live radio, Doc and Wishy make chase after Maurice and his cronies. But at the last possible moment Wishy lets them get away. The spies pile into a car and speed off toward the U.S./Mexican border. Asked by Ricardo why he has allowed the spies to escape Wishy simply plugs his ears just as a bomb goes off inside the Nazis getaway car. This explosive device was earlier planted by one of the Nazis, Jake (Peter Whitney) on Wishy's person. However, in their tussle Wishy managed to slip the bomb back into Jake's coat pocket at the last possible moment.
Rio Rita is a potpourri for A&C's time-honored comedic routines. There's a hilarious skit in which Doc informs Wishy that if he does not get something to eat soon he will start to see things. The two men close their eyes near the hotel and attempt to sleep while a pair of waiters set up a buffet nearby. Wishy smells the food including roast chicken, thinks it's a mirage but eats it anyway, prompting Doc to bet him for the chicken.
"I'll bet you're not here," says Doc. "You're not in Boston. You're not in Philadelphia and you're not in Washington. And if you're not in Philadelphia, Boston or Washington then you must be someplace else. And if you're someplace else then you can't be here." But Wishy has the last laugh. "If I'm not in Boston, Philadelphia or Washington I must be someplace else and if I'm someplace else than I can't be here. So if I'm not here then I obviously can't steal your chicken!"
Kathryn Grayson and John Carroll are passable as the star-crossed lovers but they are given precious little to do. This is Bud and Lou's show all the way. Still, Carroll croons the title track during the fiesta, oozing charm while Grayson has her moment warbling the deliciously operatic, The Shadow Song. The two also join the MGM male chorus for the rousing 'Ranger's Song'. This tune becomes a pivotal plot point later on. Seemingly trapped and at the mercy of the Nazis, Wishy drives the pack of mules who devoured the radio transmitter apples through the fiesta concourse. The radios are all playing the 'Ranger's Song'. Assuming that the rangers have come to arrest him Maurice evacuates the hotel with his cronies, heading for the car with the bomb already inside it.
The Connell/Lehman screenplay is a threadbare patchwork at best, with John Grant contributing specialty skits for Bud and Lou. Their star power alone carries this version of Rio Rita to its rousing conclusion. MGM's lavish production values augment the prestige of these comic titans with sets and backdrops that Universal's art department could only dream about. The success of Rio Rita prompted MGM’s L.B. Mayer to offer a buy out of Bud and Lou’s studio contract. But Universal knew a good thing when they saw it. Apart from a few loan outs later on, the bulk of Abbott and Costello’s film career would be blissfully spent on their own back lot, churning out one comedy hit after the next. By the end of the 1940s, Bud and Lou were among the top 10 box office draws in the nation.
Rio Rita is a Warner Archive MOD DVD. The results are better than one might expect. Sourced from restored and remastered elements, the B&W image is actually quite solid, exhibits superb gradation and tonality in its gray scale and is virtually free of any digital anomalies. Occasionally age related artifacts crop up but these do not distract from this presentation. Fine details are evident throughout and the overall image is razor sharp without being artificially enhanced. The audio is mono as originally recorded but remarkably clear and free of hiss and pop. Like all Archive titles this one only comes with a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Rio Rita is good fun and a must own for A&C fans.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS
1