Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT

About Blu-ray, streaming and the proverbial 'wave of the future!'

by Nick Zegarac

In response to the most recent spate of debacles in transfer quality on several time honoured classic movies (West Side Story, My Fair Lady), I have decided to kick off a brand new series on NixPix entitled Why Aren't They On Blu-ray yet?!?
But before we get to that it must be said that the Blu-ray market is, frankly, a mess and the studios have, in no small way, been almost exclusively responsible for submarining this hi-def digital format. They have systematically lowering consumer expectations, releasing 'fly-by-night' substandard transfers or 'bumped up' 1080p discs instead of taking the time and money to remaster their catalogues and release true-HD transfers. Some studios have had better track records than others. But one way or another, they all have been guilty of cutting corners.
And now it appears as if the insult to the collective consumer intellect doesn't stop there. We're now being told that 'streaming' is the wave of the future - not Blu-ray. Yet there are inherent problems with 'streaming' that bear more fruitful discussion on message boards and certainly an honourable mention in this column.
For starters, 'streaming' a full movie 'clogs' up one's computer memory for long periods of time - slowing down productivity and accessibility to other functions until the full download is complete. I certainly hope the studios aren't suggesting we all invest in two computers per household - one for their nonsense and the other to get basic chores like book keeping and emails looked after!
Second, streaming cannot and does not equal the bit rate currently available on Blu-ray. So, although the studios are down playing this loss of quality as marginal at best, I assure you on larger monitors and HD displays it will be noticeable.
Third, 'streaming' requires an HDMI hook up between one's computer and HD projection monitors. As someone who's computer system is located in an entirely different part of the home than my home theatre this presents a definite problem.
Do I start drilling holes through walls and ceilings now to run my cable from my computer to my TV or do I relocate one or the other to a room in closer proximity, which also means relocating phone jacks?!? Personally, I'm not willing to do either. I designed my living space to suit my needs, not to cater to the whims of what is rapidly becoming a very fickle marketplace!
Fourth, as a collector whose private library of films and television currently houses more than 3,000 titles, I have a real problem with once again 'renting' my entertainment for a modest fee from the majors on a rotation of availability. 'Streaming' is essentially DIVX all over again. You 'rent' a title for a short window and for a nominal fee. The info is decoded by the studio and sent to your computer where it is briefly stored and then exported to your TV.
You can watch what you stream during this pre-determined time frame. But you can't burn what you've saved onto a disc to enjoy over and over again whenever you feel like it once your time is up. Since not even the majors can afford to keep an 'ever growing' roster of films and TV available at all times, titles will come and go on their websites and be available for home viewing only when the studios decide to make them available.
Now, let's be clear. Moratorium is a part of any format. No studio can afford the licensing fees for rights to everything in their catalogue all at once. But at least on DVD or Blu-ray the consumer is given the option to buy and own every title they put out for the life of the disc format - not merely for a 24 to 48hr. 'rental' duration. And you can always find used copies on Amazon or elsewhere to own.
Fifth - home entertainment formats have become as depressingly obsolete as computer technology. When we made the quantum leap from VHS/Betamax to Laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray the conversion in formats was justified on the basis that the quality of the image and sound we were experiencing was always getting better. Streaming is a step backward from the advancements already made in the digital format on Blu-ray. Should it be considered an option? 
Arguably, yes - for those tech heads who relish and can afford more and more obtrusive gadgetry invading their lives. But should it be the ONLY way to experience movies and TV from now on? Decidedly and emphatically - NO!
Streaming is not the wave of the future but a quaint relic from the not so distant past! In an economy as soft as ours this isn't the time to convince, cajole or force the public to embrace yet another format over what's already being offered - especially when Blu-ray's true potential hasn't been fully mined for possibilities and likely never will be before the format becomes extinct.
Finally, I'm fairly computer savvy, but my concern herein is for those who are not and presumably will never be 'streaming' anything from the internet because they cannot figure it out or simply can't be bothered.
I know I'm not alone here. We all have family members and friends who don't own or perhaps cannot afford a computer and internet access to 'stream' their entertainment. But even these unfortunates find stuff to buy and watch from the $4.99 bins at Wal-mart or Best Buy.
My sincere hope for 'streaming' as a format is that it will miserably fail.
I'm tired of clever marketing from Hollywood that wants me to invest, re-invest, then invest some more in changing technologies that have proven not so much advancements in pristine picture and sound quality as they are marginal regurgitations of something I already own on another format. 
So, this collector is calling on all collectors all over the world to put a stop to their collecting for the time being and for a purpose. Send a clear message to the studios that what you want is quality over quantity. You can have it too without the introduction of a new format. Blu-ray exists and, when done properly, is the best way to see any movie - past, present or future.
We don't need more gadgets or formats. All we need is a commitment from Hollywood to give us their best. Support this cause. Boycott 'streaming' and voice your complaints about substandard transfers of time honoured movies on Blu-ray. We deserve better than what we're being offered. But it's our choice to either speak up or put up. I'm tired of putting up. How about you?
Voice your complaints accordingly:

Buena Vista Home Entertainment(distributes Disney, Pixar, Miramax, Hollywood, Dimension & Touchstone)
350 South Buena Vista Street
Burbank, CA 91521
818-295-5200

CBS Home Entertainment(distributed by Paramount)
5555 Melrose Avenue
Hollywood, CA 90038
323-956-5000

The Criterion Collection
578 Broadway, Suite 1106
New York, NY 10012
(212) 431-5199

DreamWorks Home Entertainment(distributed by Paramount)
1000 Flower Street
Glendale, CA 91201
818-695-5000

HBO Home Video (distributed by Warner)
1100 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10036
212-512-1000

Lionsgate Entertainment (formerly Artisan)
2700 Colorado Ave., Suite 200
Santa Monica, CA 90404
310-449-9200


MGM Home Entertainment(distributed by Twentieth Century Fox)
10250 Constellation Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90067-6241

Miramax (distributed by Buena Vista)

7920 Sunset Blvd., Suite 230
Los Angeles, CA 90046-3353
213-969-2000

New Line Home Entertainment

116 North Robertson Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90048
310-854-5811


Paramount Home Entertainment(distributes DreamWorks, CBS MTV, Comedy Central)
5555 Melrose Avenue
Hollywood, CA 90038
323-956-5000

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

10202 West Washington Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232-3195
310-244-4000


Starz Home Entertainment (formerly Anchor Bay Entertainment)(distributes Anchor Bay, Manga Entertainment, Film Romain)

2950 N. Hollywood Way, 3rd Floor
Burbank, CA 91505
818-748-4000


Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment(distributes MGM)

2121 Avenue of the Stars, 25th Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90067
310-369-3900

Universal Studios Home Entertainment

100 Universal City Plaza
Universal City, CA 91608
818-777-1000

Warner Home Video

4000 Warner Blvd.
Burbank, CA 91522
818-954-6000


The Weinstein Company(distributed by Genius Products)
345 Hudson St. 13th Floor
New York, NY 10014
646-862-3400

Thursday, November 24, 2011

12 ANGRY MEN: Blu-ray (UA 1957) Criterion Home Entertainment

Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957) is a filmic exercise in American jurisprudence; a taut, emotionally charged glimpse into the legal machinery that every day citizens rely on to maintain law and order in society at large. Based on Reginald Rose’s play – originally broadcast on CBS television in 1954 – the film is often cited for its limited use of sets; creating claustrophobia through confined spaces, first exploited by Alfred Hitchcock in Lifeboat (1944), then again by Hitchcock for Rope (1948).

Shot on a shoestring budget of $350,000.00, Lumet relies heavily on his stellar cast to sell the movie’s narrative through sheer force of their collective interaction. That 12 Angry Men’s debut failed to garner popular success was a disappointment slightly offset by the fact that critics and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences applauded Lumet’s efforts. Although nominated for 7 Oscars, 12 Angry Men lost in virtually every category to David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Plot wise: It is the eleventh hour in the life of the nameless ‘accused’ (John Savoca) – a youth suspected in the brutal homicide of his abusive father and whose life now quietly hangs in the balance of twelve total strangers who shall decide if he is to receive the death penalty. At first the atmosphere in the sequestered jury room is relaxed – almost glib. Juror #7 (Jack Warden) even suggests that a speedy consensus will leave him enough time to take in a ballgame that he has bet on.

Though Juror #1 (Martin Balsam) attempts to hasten the verdict along by a quick show of hands, a single note of quiet dissention is struck by Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) who cannot bring himself to agree with his peers, at least, not solely on the basis of thrift.

Juror #5 (Jack Klugman) can relate to #8’s apprehension. In the accused, #5 recalls his own tough upbringing on the wrong side of the tracks; a circumstance beyond the accused’s control that Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb) seems to believe is somehow paramount in recognizing his culpability. Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall) seeks to reason the case by persuasion on the basis of its 'facts' – the most concrete proof being a knife (the murder weapon) that defense counsel has claimed is a 'one of a kind' purchased by the accused just hours before the murder occurred.

However, when #8 produces an exact copy of the weapon that he bought at a pawn brokers just around the block from where the accused lives the rest of the jurors must admit that evidence alone might not be enough to convict. Thus, when #1 proposes a secret ballot vote - the majority returns minus #8’s participation contains yet another vote of innocence; this time from Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney).

For bigoted Juror #10 (Ed Bagley) this new revelation plays more like superficial grandstanding. He despises #8 for his foresight and wherewithal in investigating the case beyond the sequence of events presented at trial. Furthermore, #10, backed by #3 and #4 suggests that the boy’s alibi is awash in contradictions, not the least of which is the fact that he claims to have been at the movies at the time of the killing, but cannot recall the specifics about the films he reports to have watched.

There’s much more to this textually rich and melodramatically dense exercise, best left to be discovered by the first time viewer. Suffice it to say, this is not a boring movie; if for no other reason – that its high stakes deliberations occur each and every day in a free thinking, law abiding world. The film, therefore, may very well be a snapshot of the process twelve total strangers go through to define another person’s innocence or guilt.

Henry Fonda is the right choice to play #8; the one noble note of dissention in an otherwise unanimously flock of sheep. There’s a quiet majesty to his performance that keeps the more gregarious performances neatly in check. Lee J. Cobb and Jack Klugman are equally superb.

In the final analysis, 12 Angry Men is a reality check for the public - an absorbing drama that exposes how the slightest miscalculation can shatter an innocent life in an instant. This is ‘must see’ entertainment for the masses.

Criterion Home Entertainment's Blu-ray incarnation takes a quantum leap forward from the old MGM/Fox Collector’s Edition DVD. Although image benefits from the higher resolution, age related artifacts persist throughout this presentation. The Blu-ray's gray scale greatly improves in its density and tonality. Blacks are generally deep and solid. Whites are almost pristine but not as bright as one might expect.



The audio is mono but presented at an adequate listening level. Criterion fleshes out the extras features with impressive featurettes, extensive interviews with director and stars, an informative audio commentary, the original TV broadcast version that inspired the film and original theatrical trailer. We lose Drew Casper's audio commentary from the MGM/Fox DVD but gain much more on this outing. Coupled with the Blu-ray's marked improvement in the visuals, this comes recommended for a repurchase. Good stuff all around!


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


3.5


VIDEO/AUDIO


4


EXTRAS


3.5

Friday, November 18, 2011

THE GREAT WALTZ (MGM 1938) Warner Archive Collection


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer used to be the studio with 'more stars than there are in heaven' - a magnificent assembly line for creating celluloid magic of the most incomprehensible scope and with blistering regularity throughout the golden age of Hollywood. The Cartier of movie making MGM remained an empire to be reckoned with for nearly three decades, so mythical and sublime that today it seems quite impossible it should ever have existed at all. The proof, alas, remains in MGM's myriad of celluloid treasures - the only tangible assets that survived the brutal strip down and wrecking ball mentality of the 1970s that effectively reduced MGM to the figurehead of a roaring lion. These films are the heirs and testament to MGM's greatness: so many and so beloved as they continue to resonate their untarnished magnificence long after the legends that created them are no more.


I may be gushing here. In point of fact, I am - unabashedly and sentimentally as some of MGM's best loved movies. Julien Duvivier's The Great Waltz (1938) doesn't quite fall into this latter category but that certainly does not stop the film from trying to win our hearts. Given MGM's penchant for star power, this film's one saleable asset is Luise Rainer, hot off her back to back Best Actress Oscar wins for The Good Earth (1935) and The Great Ziegfeld (1936). Flanking the great lady are two new finds; Fernand Gravey and Miliza Korjus. Both ought to have become big stars in their own right after this movie. Neither did. In fact, The Great Waltz marked Ms. Korjus' debut and swan song in American movies.


The screenplay by Gottfried Reinhardt, Samuel Hoffenstein and Walter Reisch is a very loose fitting biography of Vienna's waltz king, Johann Strauss II. In reconstituting Strauss' life and times as a pseudo-musical, the writers are blessed with a back catalogue of the great man's music. Whenever they paint themselves into a narrative corner the lilting strains of that immortal music interrupt in a memorable, swirling vignette breathtakingly realized by cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg.


Plot wise: it's 1845 and Johann Strauss II (Fernand Gravey) - 'Schani' to his friends - is a discharged bank teller who forms his own orchestra from a pack of unemployed and otherwise cast off musicians who are hungry for their chance to make good. Otto Dommeyer (Herman Bing) gives Johann and his boys a venue to play their music, but the debut is a bust. That is, until Dommeyer opens the windows to his establishment, allowing the rest of Vienna to hear Strauss' orchestra perform. The concert draws the whole of Vienna to Dommeyer's restaurant, including operatic prima donna, Carla Donner (Miliza Korjus).


She unabashedly flirts with the young maestro, encouraging him to perform that very evening at the home of Count Anton Hohenfried (Lionel Atwill). Strauss' fiancée, Poldi Vogelhuber (Luise Rainer) is encouraging, but at the same time harbours a deep seeded insecurity that all of Strauss's new found success will go to his head. She has good cause for concern. Carla exposes Strauss's music to the upwardly mobile masses, then pursues him romantically, even though she makes no apologies for also pursuing a lustful dalliance with Anton.


Johann is at first put off by Carla's divided affections. He returns to Poldi and proposes marriage. For some time afterward the two are content. But Carla has fallen under the spell of Johann's music. She will not give him or it up for anything. When Johann is commissioned to write an opera for Carla his wildest dreams are realized. But Poldi has found them out. She sacrifices her great love for her husband and Carla and Johann make plans to run away together to Budapest. Too late Johann realizes he has made a fateful mistake. The fire and music he shares with Carla is not equal to the enduring romantic love of his ever faithful wife. Johann sends Carla to Budapest alone and returns to Poldi.


The last few moments in the film are dedicated to Strauss's legacy. In their waning years the Strausses are summoned to the palace by Emperor Franz Josef (Henry Hull) and Johann is celebrated as a much beloved and iconic figure in the Viennese tradition. Curiously enough, although Strauss is touched by this epic assemblage of well wishers, at one point in the concluding medley of his works he thinks he hears and sees Carla Donner singing above the crowd - proof that his memories of her have not faded with the passing years.


The Great Waltz is extravagant escapism, supremely entertaining if totally untrue. Dimitri Tiomkin's re-orchestrations of Strauss's immortal music are particularly adept at 'contemporizing' the schmaltz out of the many waltzes and marches that fill our ear throughout the film. Oscar Hammerstein's lyrics manage to yield a few pop tunes, including They'll Come A Time - trilled to artistic perfection by Miliza Korjus.


The curiosity and even greater disappointment is that Korjus - who radiates brilliance in song as well as acting style - never made it in films afterward. But what a one hit wonder she is - superb, enchanting and in perfect pitch. Fernand Gravey had a lucrative film career in France afterward, but faded from memory too quickly with American audiences to be fully appreciated. It is a credit to MGM that they had the foresight to recognize both of these talents for this gargantuan and sumptuously mounted screen spectacle. Whenever anyone says "boy, they sure don't make movies like they used to" The Great Waltz is likely just the sort of film they are referring to.


Warner Home Video makes The Great Waltz available as part of their MOD 'Archive Collection' in a fairly impressive transfer. No attempt has been made to clean up age related artifacts from the image. It is speckled and scratched (sometimes severely) throughout. But Warner has remastered the elements. The gray scale is very nicely balanced. The image is crisp without becoming digitally enhanced, allowing for an impressive amount of fine detail to shine through. Contrast levels are very nicely balanced with pristine whites and very solid blacks. The audio is mono as originally recorded and infrequently suffers from hiss and pop. The only extra is a badly worn theatrical trailer. Recommended.


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


3.5


VIDEO/AUDIO


3


EXTRAS


0

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

LOONEY TUNES: PLATINUM COLLECTION VOL 1 - Blu-ray (WB 1930-1969) Warner Home Video

Throughout the golden age of Hollywood there were many cartoon studios that attempted to revolutionize animation. Most fell under the umbrella of a studio major. Paramount had Popeye. MGM developed Tom & Jerry under Hanna/Barbera. UA owned The Pink Panther. Arguably, only one studio could lay claim to 'revolutionizing' the cartoon as an art form - Disney. But that did not stop the other studios from making their own valiant attempts at sibling rivalry.



Although no other studio from this period ventured into feature length animation, Warner Bros. quickly established itself throughout the 1940s and early 50s as the undisputed monarch of the celebrated cartoon short. The Looney Tunes brought together some of the most prominent directors ever to work in the medium: Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, Tex Avery, Robert McKimson, et al. and it yielded an iconic cavalcade of lovably obtuse slapstick characters that have lived in our hearts and minds ever since.


Who in the world today does not instantly recognize Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, or Sylvester and Tweety, or the Road Runner and Wiley Coyote for that matter. My personal favorite has always been Pepe Le Pew. My dad is partial to Foghorn Leghorn...and this list of WB alumni is hardly exhaustive. Virtually no other studio in the history of animation can claim to have created so many fondly appreciated and enduring cartoon whack jobs as Warner Brothers did in their prime.


Part of the Looney Tunes lasting legacy and success rests with the understanding that these cartoons were never meant to indulge children. Rather, they were forerunners in the theatre to the feature film (1930-1969) and presented primarily to an adult audience for pure slapstick comedy entertainment. As such we tended to see ourselves in the Looney Tunes - both the best and the worst embodied in the human condition.


It is perhaps just one of those Hollywood ironies that Bugs and his buddies became even more iconic when television snapped them up in the 1950s for perennial Saturday morning kiddy cartoon fodder. Because of their relatively short run times, the Looney Tunes were an ideal fit for the small screen, endlessly repackaged by Warner Brothers over the decades with special 'tags' created expressly to introduce them for TV.


As I write this review I find myself singing the first few bars of "Overture...candle lights. This is it. The night of nights...no more rehearsing, or nursing of parts...we know every part by heart..." Well, enough of that.


Warner Home Video releases Looney Tunes: Platinum Collection Vol. One on Blu-ray - a veritable potpourri of some of the best loved shorts from the WB vaults, most remastered to perfection for this hi-def debut. Fifty shorts in all comprise this collection.


Disc one contains the following: Hare Tonic, Baseball Bugs, Buccaneer Bunny, The Old Grey Hare, Rabbit Hood, 8 Ball Bunny, Rabbit of Seville, What's Opera Doc?, The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, A Pest In the House, The Scarlet Pumpernickel, Duck Amuck, Robin Hood Daffy, Baby Bottleneck, Kitty Kornered, Scaredy Cat, Porky Chops, Old Glory, A Tale of Two Kitties, Tweetie Pie, Fast and Furry-ous, Beep-Beep, Lovelorn Leghorn, For Scent-imental Reasons and Speedy Gonzales.


Disc Two includes: One Froggy Evening, The Three Little Bops, I Love To Singa, Katnip Kollege, The Dover Boys At Pimento University, Chow Hound, Haredevil Hare, The Hasty Hare, Duck Dodgers in the 24th 1/2 Century, Hare-Way to the Stars, Mad As A Mars Hare, Devil May Hare, Bedevilled Rabbit, Ducking the Devil, Bill of Hare, Dr. Devil and Mr. Hare, Bewitched Bunny, Broomstick Bunny, A Witches Tangled Hare, A-Haunting We Will Go, Feed The Kitty, Kiss Me Kat, Feline Frame Up, From A to Z-Z-Z-Z, Boyhood Daze.


These shorts are presented in remastered hi-def 1080p and with very few exceptions are as close to perfect as the Looney Tunes have ever looked on home video. Colours are exceptionally vibrant. The image is razor sharp. Occasionally there is a hint of edge enhancement, but nothing that will distract from your viewing pleasure. Age related artifacts are still present, and, on a few cartoons, are quite obvious and briefly distracting.


This reviewer owns all of the aforementioned 'Golden Collection' DVDs and can attest to the overall improvement in the visual quality made for this Blu-ray reissue. Colours are markedly brighter. The image is definitely cleaner, though not always pristine.


The audio is another matter.


Doing side by side comparisons I could not detect any noticeable differences between the audio on the aforementioned DVDs and these Blu-rays. I'm assuming some audiophile will prove me wrong, but on my system the audio sounded virtually identical. Let's be frank - there's just so much you can do with 50 plus year old monaural tracks. Having said that, I always thought these shorts sounded great on home video. So, no harm no foul. There's really nothing to complain about. "On with the show, this is it!"


Warner Home Video has also been particularly adept at amassing nearly 5 hours of extra features. Most are direct imports from their previously issued 'Golden Collection' DVDs and range from many featurettes, isolated scores and commentary tracks specifically dedicated to some of the cartoon shorts listed above.


But herein we also get the feature length movie 'Chuck Amuck', several glowing tributes to veteran animator Chuck Jones, nine vintage Chuck Jones rarities that (at least to my knowledge) have never been seen before, pencil tests for How The Grinch Stole Christmas, and these bonus cartoons (Fright Before Christmas, Spaced Out Bunny, Duck Dodgers and the Return to the 24th 1/2 Century, Another Froggy Evening, Marvin the Martian in the Third Dimension, Superior Duck, From Hare to Eternity, Father of the Bird, Museum Scream).


Warner Home Video has made this set available in two competing editions. One simply offers all of the aforementioned content in a slim case packaging. But there's also a limited edition 'box' that contains a letter of authenticity, a commemorative lithograph cel, a Looney Tunes magnet and a Bugs Bunny shot glass (I'm not exactly sure I understand the significance of this last trinket).


Bottom line: break out the mallets and stun guns for a hilarious trek through the studio's animated heritage. It's quite a journey, sure to illicit outrageous laughs along the way. Box or no box, this one comes very highly recommended!


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


5+


VIDEO/AUDIO


4.5


EXTRAS


4.5

WEST SIDE STORY: 50th ANNIVERSARY Blu-ray (Mirisch 1961) MGM/Fox Home Video


Racial prejudice, gang violence and even murder may have seemed like strange bedfellows for the musical genre before West Side Story (1961) hit Broadway. Afterwards audiences would never look at either in quite the same way. This contemporary spin on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in the ghetto was fleshed out on stage by scenarist Arthur Laurents. Coupled with an electric Leonard Bernstein/Jerome Robbins’ score and scintillating choreography, West Side Story became an exuberant showcase for social commentary. Regrettably, the stage show did not garner the respect it deserved. In fact, reviews were mixed. West Side Story was not even nominated for a Tony Award! But in the four years between its Broadway debut and the cinematic experience a strange thing happened. A few of the show's songs were picked up by pop singers and turned into hummable hits on the jukebox. The net result was that by the time West Side Story made its way to the screen it was already an instantly recognizable commodity.
After purchasing the rights to produce West Side Story as a film for a then staggering $375,000, the Mirisch Company was taking no chances. In translating from stage to screen co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins and screenwriter Ernest Lehman resisted the urge to ‘open up’ the story. Save the mesmerizing opening overhead shots of New York City and the prologue dance sequence (both shot on the location now occupied by Lincoln Center) the rest of the film was made entirely on back lot sets and sound stages. Ernest Lehman restructured the narrative and order of the songs considerably while producer Saul Chaplin made the executive decision to over dub the vocals of virtually everyone in the cast. The producers fired Jerome Robbins mid-way through filming because they felt he had been neglectful in allowing the production to go over budget and over schedule. Hence, Robert Wise completed the last third of the shoot alone.
The story opens with a conflict between rival gangs the Sharks and the Jets on New York’s west side. The Jet’s leader, Riff (Russ Tamblyn) wants a 'war council' to settle a conflict over turf rights once and for all, a request that Shark’s leader, Bernardo (George Chakaris) is only too happy to oblige. To garner support for his rumble Riff decides to look up Tony (Richard Beymer) who has left the gang to work in Doc’s (Ned Glass) Drug Store. Although Tony refuses to re-enter ‘the life’ as a retired gang member in good standing he does agree to attend the local high school dance in order to express his solidarity with the Jets. At the high school gym he meets, and inadvertently falls in love with Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Natalie Wood). Their brief introduction is interrupted by Bernardo’s threats. But Tony can’t help himself. Neither can Maria. They secretly meet under Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita’s (Rita Moreno) watchful eye. But their union is doomed when Tony, in an attempt to stop the rumble, murders Bernardo after he has already killed Riff.
Tony returns to Maria and confesses his crime. However, her bitterness does not outweigh her love for him. Sympathetic to Maria, Anita's heart is turned to stone after the Jets taunt and nearly rape her inside Doc's Drug Store. As retaliation Anita tells the Jets to inform Tony that Maria has been murdered by her jealous boyfriend, Gino. The message brings Tony out of hiding. He and Maria are briefly reunited in the playground before Tony is shot and killed by an avenging Sharks' gang member. The blood feud at an end, Maria challenges both sides with her hatred to find a new common ground where harmony rather than bloodshed will prevail.
West Side Story is an iconic bit of stagecraft rivetingly transferred to the expansive Panavision screen. It's Leonard Bernstein score soars, yielding a rich mélange of almost operatic social commentary. This stings as much as it inspires. Robert Wise's direction is brilliantly on point - effortlessly blending together the light fantastic with hard-hitting melodrama and coming up a winner on both fronts. Even today, West Side Story's curious melding of street violence and musical ballet never seems strained or out of place. Wise, who began his career as an editor for Orson Welles and later, a director of low budget Val Lewton horror movies, is one of a handful of truly iconic directors from the 20th century. His list of accomplishments, including The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Sound of Music and The Sand Pebbles will likely remain unequalled. Although hardly Puerto Rican Natalie Wood makes the most of her innocent portrayal of Maria. If somewhat stilted, the film is not particularly hindered by Richard Beymer’s wooden interpretation of Tony either. But in retrospect the most exciting bits of casting remain George Chakaris and Rita Moreno. When these two take to the roof tops to stamp out the defiant and controversial ‘America’ their taut atmospheric sexuality is palpable and electric.
Were it only the case with MGM/Fox Home Video's new Blu-ray we would truly have a reason to stand up and cheer. Sadly, a few faux pas prevent West Side Story from attaining brilliance on home video in this latest 50th Anniversary incarnation. For starters, the opening Saul Bass credits inexplicably fade to black just before we get the title credit that dissolves from Bass' impressionistic lines to the helicopter shot of Manhattan. This is an unforgivable screw up and one that further suggests the team responsible for mastering Fox/MGM's classic library don't know what they're doing or, for that matter, simply don't care. It would have been so easy for them to pull a reference print off the shelves to see that NO fade out/fade in is present in the original camera negative.
The next glaring mistake involves the overhead shots of New York City. These are plagued by severe edge enhancement and moire patterns, rendering their once breathtaking vantage utterly moot. This sort of sloppy mastering is incomprehensible and frankly, inexcusable. The studios have had a long enough gestation period in the art of digital mastering for the home video market place to eliminate ALL edge enhancement issues - PERIOD! Throughout West Side Story there are many 'optical' SFX shots - artistic dissolves and scene changes that continue to look grainier than the rest of the film stock. These have been ever so slightly tweaked but still appear slightly problematic compared to the rest of the transfer.
Now for the good news. Apart from the aforementioned errors, West Side Story has never looked more vibrant on home video. The 1080p scan exhibits a vibrancy and faithfulness to its 70mm color film stock that is breathtaking. Details in flesh, clothing and background information have a dimensional quality. Occasionally, contrast levels appear slightly bumped up, but if you can wrestle your way through the other problematic issues described herein, there is much to appreciate.
Unfortunately, the soundtrack presents yet another short sightedness on the part of MGM/Fox. The original six track stereo masters were discovered last year and completely restored. But these elements were not used for the mastering of this Blu-ray release. Instead, the studio reverts to a repurposed DTS-HD audio using the same four track elements employed on their previously issued DVDs. What?!? Yes, sad but true. Are the results of this repurposing better than on the DVD? Absolutely and without question. Are they the absolute best that they can sound on home video? Arguably, and emphatically, NO! For a 50th Anniversary I expected more.
MGM/Fox have taken the time to produce two brief featurettes on the cultural impact of West Side Story - cumulatively clocking in at around 40 min. For the rest, extras are all direct imports from the DVD release of a few years back and include 'Memories of West Side Story'. There's also theatrical trailers and a rather ineffectual commentary to wade through. MGM pads out this box set with a CD 'tribute soundtrack' featuring various artists singing some of the songs from the film. Aside: it would have been so much more meaningful if MGM/Fox had given us a remastered CD of the film soundtrack instead! There's also a hard cover booklet that is short on 'making of' info, and glossy reproductions of poster art. Ho-hum!
My advice - wait! MGM/Fox has recently announced that they intend to address at least some of the issues in their Blu-ray mastering and re-release West Side Story at a later - as yet undisclosed - date. I should point out that the wait might be interminable. Yours truly was promised a replacement disc 2 years ago. I’m still waiting!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
3
EXTRAS
3

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

JURASSIC PARK: Ultimate Trilogy Blu-ray (Universal 1993, 97, 2001) Universal Home Video


Written as a cautionary tale against mankind’s blind tinkering with the unknown quantities in medical science, Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel, Jurassic Park is a disturbing, often philosophical critique of the ways greed and personal ego effectively turn our most ambitious, and perhaps high-minded dreams into our worst nightmares. Crighton’s great gift for melding DNA fact with science fiction cleverly masks what is essentially a morality play, using the façade of a dinosaur caper to lure in his readership. In translating the book into a movie these more subliminal messages are buried by director Steven Spielberg's verve for creating a sci-fi blockbuster, the theoretical contemplation distilled into mere snippets or discarded outright in favor of an all-out cinematic roller coaster ride.
At times, Jurassic Park (1993) the movie teeters dangerously close to the edge of schlock horror. But Spielberg's zeal for good storytelling prevents the more gruesome elements from running totally amuck. The film stars Sam Neill as paleontologist Allan Grant. Together with paleo-botanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), Grant is in the middle of a daring excavation when he is encouraged by billionaire theme park developer John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) to attend a weekend retreat on his remote island of Isla Nublar off the coast of Costa Rica. There, Hammond and his team of biologists have genetically re-engineered dinosaurs based on DNA found in mosquito fossils. Grant is intrigued, although highly skeptical. However, when Hammond offers to fully fund Grant’s current archeological dig to its completion Grant and Ellie reluctantly agree to be Hammond’s guests for the weekend – a decision they are soon to regret.
Also invited for the getaway are 'rock star' chaos theorist Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and Donald Gennero (Martin Ferraro), the attorney representing Hammond’s investors. Once on Isla Nublar, Dr. Grant is forced to confront his own anxieties about having children when it is decided that Hammond’s grandchildren, Tim (Joseph Mazzello) and Alexis (Ariana Richards) will accompany the group on their first motorized tour through Jurassic Park; a sort of prehistoric zoological attraction. Unfortunately for all concerned, the park’s chief computer programmer, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) has accepted a bribe from competing interests. He sabotages the attraction, steals vials of the dino DNA and escapes on the eve that a major hurricane makes landfall.
The shutdown disables the park’s protective parameters; the net result being that humans and dinosaurs are suddenly thrust together after an absence of roughly six million years. After Donald is eaten by a tyrannosaurus, Alexis and Tim take refuge with Dr. Grant in a tree to escape a similar fate, while Ellie and the island’s doctor, Gerry Harding (Gerald R. Molen) rescue Malcolm who has been injured in the attack. The rest of the movie is essentially a race against time to restore the protective barriers of the park and escape before the wilder inhabitants devour their human creators. Some make it; some don’t.
Returning to Jurassic Park some eighteen years removed from all its marketing hype and tie-ins the visual pioneering of digital technologies and puppetry that made the melding of dinosaurs and humans so believable still works. After a bit of a rocky start the screenplay by Michael Crichton and David Koepp is quite successful at balancing the adventurous bits of nonsense with the more subdued intimate drama that plays between Dr. Grant and Ellie with Malcolm feathered in as glib comic relief. Overall, the performances are solid.
So popular was Jurassic Park that Universal Studios undertook another excursion to the island with The Lost World: Jurassic Park II in 1997. Regrettably for director Spielberg, and despite having Crichton’s novel to draw from, he was unable to secure Crichton’s participation on the screenplay, leaving Koepp to create a patchwork of narratives so convoluted and meandering that the net result remains a movie painfully marred by false starts and disassembled bits of melodramatic incoherence. This time out Hammond has bribed Malcolm to visit his auxiliary site for dinosaur experimentation, Isla Sorna by already sending Malcolm’s girlfriend, Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) on ahead. Unbeknownst to Malcolm his daughter from a previous marriage, Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester) has managed to smuggle herself along for the trip with the laboratory equipment. Having lost control of his vast holdings to an unscrupulous nephew, Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), Hammond is determined that Malcolm and Sarah document the validity of his original experiments before Peter transforms them into a freak show for the masses. Too little, too late, Malcolm and Sarah discover that Peter and a veritable army of his cronies have captured and sedated a female tyrannosaurus and her baby and are en route to San Francisco to debut the pair as the first featured attraction of Jurassic Park U.S.A.
Crichton wrote his second novel under considerable duress from Spielberg and Universal who desperately wanted a novelized sequel to the 1993 blockbuster. However, upon publication in 1995, Crichton officially bowed out of the film project and refused to have anything to do with the movie version. It was a wise move. The Lost World is a lost cause; rarely coming to life with special effects not quite so special the second time around and, on occasion, painfully below par. The sequences taking place in San Francisco after the female T-Rex has escaped are a shameless patchwork of digital effects not so seamlessly married to obvious miniatures.
Robbed of the more stoic performance of Sam Neill in the original, Jeff Goldblum’s Dr. Malcolm spends much of the film running around spewing cautionary advice that is never heeded by anyone. Whereas there were definite sparks of flirtation between Grant and Ellie and even Ellie and Malcolm in the original film, there is zero romantic chemistry between Goldblum and Moore in this sequel, thereby bankrupting the emotional center of the piece as well. Surprisingly, given the abysmal reviews and rather tepid box office response to the sequel, Universal chose to take a third crack at decoding dino DNA in 2001, this time with Joe Johnston directing and Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor penning the screenplay. At just one hour and 33 min. Jurassic Park III is an entirely more successful enterprise on every level.
This time, Dr. Grant (Neill) and his assistant, Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivolo) are tricked into visiting Isla Sorna by divorced parents, Paul (William H. Macy) and Amanda Kirby (Tea Leoni). Seems the Kirby’s teenage son, Erik (Trevor Morgan) was parasailing near the island with a custodian when the boat trailing their line was sabotaged by a pair of hungry velosoraptors, leaving Kirby to fend for himself on the abandoned natural preserve surrounded by carnivorous dinosaurs. Grant thinks he is accompanying Paul and Amanda on a flight over the island, but learns the truth too late. Not only are the Kirbys not the millionaire benefactors they report to be – and therefore cannot fund Grant’s expedition on the mainland (the only reason he consented to accompanying them to the island in the first place), but they are also ill equipped to provide adequate protection against the onslaught of raging prehistoric beasts that quickly devour three of their crew once their plane has crashed.
Dr. Grant and Billy are separated on their journey across the island. Billy decides to steal a few dino eggs that he hopes will fetch a price on the mainland to fully fund Grant’s expedition. Unfortunately, that theft also becomes the focus of the rest of the plot as the egg’s parents hunt for their missing offspring. What is particularly palpable on this third visit to the franchise is the overwhelming sense of desolation created when the best of intensions are turned under by human greed and corruption. Isla Sorna is not so much a biological preserve anymore as it has become a decaying monument to the errors of mankind.
The massive facilities; warehouses, visitor’s center and huge bio-chem labs once built to house state of the art technologies are now hollowed out shells; foreboding relics to bad science. The overriding feeling of the entire film is very apocalyptic, emphasizing humanity’s smallness rather than exercising its capacity to achieve great wonders. This sense of doom works to accentuate the immediate dangers presented our heroes even when no carnivorous creatures are in their midst. In the final analysis, Jurassic Park III restores the mantle of quality established by the first movie, rendering the waning impact of Part II as moot as ever.
Universal Home Video's Blu-ray tri-pack of the Jurassic Park movies represents a quantum leap forward in all aspects of presentation. The image quality throughout is head and shoulders beyond what these films have looked like on home video. The most impressive transfer of the lot is on the first film, with bright bold colors, natural flesh tones, superb realization of fine details throughout and a seamless melding of digital effects and models with the live action. Part II's model work and digital effects look more obvious by comparison on this new Blu-ray. Part III's color palette is curiously subdued. True enough, the first film was photographed by Dean Cundey, Part III by Shelly Johnson - so some account must be taken for stylistic differences between these two cinematographers. And Part III is a darker film both visually as well as in its story-telling.
Still, Part III on Blu-ray seems a tad dull in its visual presentation. The richness of the lush island vegetation as well as the capturing of all its fine leafy detail just isn't there. Wan flesh tones and a decidedly muted color palette give the image a softer look. Don't misunderstand - Part III looks great upon first glance, but overall it did not live up to this reviewer's scrutiny or expectations on Blu-ray.
The audio on all three discs has been upgraded to HD-DTS, successfully reproducing that epic powerhouse sonic experience from the theatrical engagements. Each disc contains an all new bonus extra feature 'Return to Jurassic Park' that comprehensively provides a retrospective on the making and impact of all three movies. These documentaries are presented in hi-def. All of the old and extensive extras from the DVD 'franchise' collection have been amassed herein. Regrettably, none of these extras have been color corrected or remastered beyond 480i. They are faded and riddled with edge enhancement. Bottom line: Jurassic Park on Blu-ray is a no brainer upgrade. Universal has done an outstanding job on remastering all three movies for the new digital medium. Bravo, and just in time for Christmas.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Jurassic Park 3.5
The Lost World 1
Jurassic Park III 3

VIDEO/AUDIO
Jurassic Park 4.5
The Lost World 4.5
Jurassic Park III 4

EXTRAS
4