Sunday, February 26, 2012

THE TWILIGHT ZONE: Season One - Blu-ray (CBS 1959-60) Image Entertainment

"There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow. Between science and superstition. And it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call, The Twilight Zone."
- Rod Serling
In the late 1950s the business of making movies was in dire straits. Emasculated by the government (who forced the studios to divest themselves of their 'top heavy' star system) and trumped by the onslaught of television (then viewed by the movie moguls as 'that little black box' that would 'never amount to anything') the film industry in totem began its sad, and excruciatingly slow, decline.
Many of the stars that had built careers at a single studio for 20 or even 50 years, now found themselves unemployed - and seemingly unemployable as freelancers. In hindsight, the movies' loss was television's gain. While the movies desperately continued to search for the next 'big name' to hang on a marquee TV was content to exploit the cast offs from the silver screen. One of the small screen recipients that benefited immensely from this mass exodus was Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1959-1964). Each week audiences could tune in to see such stellar talents as Charles Bronson, Burgess Meredith, Jack Warden, Richard Conte, Rod Taylor and Jack Klugman in bizarre tales of the supernatural. Better still, Serling's half hour serial was photographed on the old MGM back lots in Culver City - a superior landscape of architecture and props that gave The Twilight Zone its ultra-gloss high production values.
Serling, who began his career from the ground up, eventually transitioned from radio to teleplays and then this, his first independently produced TV series. The Twilight Zone features intelligently written stories (mostly by Serling) expertly played. Regrettably, The Twilight Zone was not to last. Frequently in trouble with the censors and his sponsors, Serling found creative ways of inserting his own morality and social critiques into each story line. But the show never found its audience. Regrettably so, The Twilight Zone was never a smash hit, despite some initial enthusiasm and praise from the critics. It was cancelled three times during its initial run on CBS, only to be resurrected again by a new sponsor in the eleventh hour each time.
However, time does strange things to real 'reel' art. Hence, even from our contemporary perspective The Twilight Zone remains a masterpiece. More importantly, it has entered our collective consciousness to become synonymous with the macabre and the unexplained. Even those who have never seen an episode know the mere mention of the show's title and can probably hum a few bars of its iconic opening music. Serling, who wrote 92 of the original 156 episodes, eventually tired of his weekly battles to get his pure vision across. In 1964, The Twilight Zone went off the air for good. Yet, it left an indelible mark on audiences. Throughout the 1970s, it was frequently revived on CBS in syndication as late night fodder following the eleven o'clock news.
And now CBS Home Entertainment bows The Twilight Zone on Blu-ray. The results are beyond what anybody - even Serling - might have imagined. The show's debut episode, 'Where Is Everybody?' features Earl Hoffman as a man who finds himself in a seemingly normal mid-western town completely void of people. 'One For The Angels', has Ed Wynn as a failed salesman who cheats death...but at what cost? 'Mr. Denton on Doomsday' stars film noir favorite, Dan Duryea as a drunk in the old west who reclaims his former life as a gunslinger, thanks to a mysterious traveling salesman's magic elixir. 'The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine' stars Ida Lupino as a faded film star locked in her screening room and refusing to accept that her career is over.
The aforementioned episodes are all beautifully told within the confines of a half hour time slot. And yet they seem to lack something, perhaps that dark and sinister quality that would eventually come to exemplify the series later on. 'Walking Distance' marks the true beginning of that something more diabolical lurking beyond the shadows with Gig Young as a harried executive who returns to his hometown only to discover that he has stepped back in time. 'Time Enough At Last' showcases Burgess Meredith as a far sighted, henpecked bookworm who finds that a world without people is impossible to live in after he has broken his glasses. 'Perchance to Dream' has Richard Conte as a man terrified to go to sleep because he believes a woman in his dreams is out to kill him. 'Judgment Night' is the story of a German passenger aboard a British cruiser, who is devoured by his anxieties after WWII breaks out. 'And When The Sky Opened' has Rod Taylor as a Colonel in the space program who, after returning from his first mission, hallucinates a crew aboard his one man rocket.
'What You Need' is the first of Serling's 'urban decay' stories with a two bit thug hoping to cash in on a salesman's uncanny ability to sell customers things they will need in the future. 'The Four of Us Is Dying' is truly remarkable; about a shape shifter who meets his demise on a lonely city street after assuming the wrong identity. 'Third from the Sun' is the story of two NASA scientists who steal a spaceship to escape nuclear winter on earth. 'I Shot An Arrow into the Air' pits three astronauts against one another for survival after their ship crash lands on a foreboding landscape.
'The Hitch Hiker' is another chilling standout, with Inger Stevens as a woman travelling across country, who keeps seeing the same hobo thumbing for a ride on the side of the road. 'The Fever' is about an ultra-conservative boor who is ruined by his gambling addiction. 'The Last Flight' is a shocker, as Kenneth Hugh lands his WWI biplane in the present day, having lost 50 years in the blink of an eye. 'The Purple Testament' tells the story of a WWII soldier who has the uncanny ability to identify those who will die in the next battle simply by looking into a soldier's face.
'Elegy' is perhaps the most disturbing episode from Season One. It tells the story of three astronauts who crash land on a planet remarkably like earth, except that all of the inhabitants appear to have been embalmed. 'Mirror Image' features Vera Miles as a woman who increasingly fears that a replica of herself is trying to take over her life. 'The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street' examines man made hysteria, after a quiet street turns chaotic with rumours that aliens have already landed to colonize the earth. 'A World of Difference' takes the old adage of 'art imitating life' a bit too seriously when a man suddenly has doubts whether the life he's been living is real or perhaps imagined. 'Long Live Walter Jameson' stars Kevin McCarthy as a history professor who has actually lived all of the events he lectures on. Paranoia runs amuck when Roddy McDowell plays an astronaut on Mars where he discovers inhabitants very similar to us in 'People Are Alike All Over'. In 'Execution' a man escapes being put to death in the present but cannot cheat fate quite so easily.
In 'The Big Tall Wish' a washed up prizefighter gets a boost from a little boy who believes in magic. In 'Nightmare as a Child' a woman is forced to relive her mother's murder as seen through the eyes of a precocious 11 year old. 'A Stop At Willoughby' is one of the series' most iconic episodes with James Daly as a man who manages to stave off a nervous breakdown by dreaming of an idyllic hometown. 'The Chaser' turns a man's lust upside down when the love potion he uses to seduce his intended goes awry. 'A Passage for Trumpet' gives a band player who committed suicide a second chance to make his mark on the world.
'Mr. Bevis' is a quid pro quo between a dorky wallflower and his guardian angel who forces him to make a terrible sacrifice to gain the success he desires. 'The After Hours' has Anne Francis as a woman who discovers her department store salesgirl is really a mannequin. 'The Mighty Casey' resurrects a baseball team's hope of winning the championship by employing a humanoid robot to pitch. The final episode in Season One is 'A World of His Own' featuring Keenan Wynn as a playwright who can make things and people appear or disappear, simply by describing them. Say what you will about my all too brief descriptions of these episodes. Suffice it to say, The Twilight Zone is never dull! On a weekly budget that today wouldn't even pay for a twenty second commercial spot, Rod Serling manages to pull off the impossible, creating weird and engrossing alter universes to the one we all currently reside in.
The main reason for the series' enduring success is that Serling doesn't rely on gimmicky (and expensive) special effects to sell his oddities. Like all great storytellers, he knows that the simple approach is usually the best. As such, these episodes heavily rely on the actors to generate necessary chills, harrowing uncertainty and unnerving paranoia. Serling's 'twist' endings have since been overdone as overkill on many a TV series hoping to cash in on The Twilight Zone's success. In fact, Serling even tried to match The Twilight Zone's taste for the macabre a few years later with another serial - Night Gallery. Yet none of the pretenders that have come since have rivaled or surpassed these episodes for their bold originality. Most cannot even compare.
Image Entertainment (in conjunction with CBS Home Video) have outdone themselves on The Twilight Zone on Blu-ray. The exemplary mastering efforts have yielded a superior B&W image with rich textures and fine details never before seen. Skin, fabric, grass, trees, etc. - the image pops with superior clarity. The gray scale has been impeccably balanced. Blacks are velvety deep and solid. Whites are pristine. Age related artifacts have been cleaned up. Film grain is very natural in appearance. The audio has also been remastered for maximum clarity in stereo. CBS has also preserved the original mono audio tracks for purists.
When Image opted several years ago to release the entire series as a box set, they included a litany of extra features. We get all of those on this Blu-ray incarnation, plus rare and exclusive bonus audio commentaries and interviews with many of the actors and producers who worked on the series, plus historians like Gary Gerani and Steven C. Smith. In all, 19 new commentary tracks supplement these discs. There's also 18 radio dramas and 34 isolated musical scores from such legendary composers as Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann, as well as promos for each show hosted by Serling, plus footage from the Emmy Awards. Bottom line: Image/CBS (usually known for its cost cutting rather than its extravagance on home video) has outdone themselves on The Twilight Zone Season One. This 5 disc set belongs on everyone's list of 'must own' titles. Buy it today!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

I DOOD IT (MGM 1943) Warner Archive Collection

Vincente Minnelli's fledgling MGM career was ill served by I Dood It (1943) a preposterous bit of musical dumb show that is more 'dumb' than 'show', despite being sold with gusto by Red Skelton and Eleanor Powell. Fred Saidy and Sig Herzig's screenplay is a loose retread of a Buster Keaton silent movie but without Keaton's flair for sight gags. In this reconstitution Powell is Constance 'Connie' Shaw, a Broadway star whose greatest admirer is a lowly drycleaner, Joe Riverton Renolds (Skelton). Joe never misses one of Connie's performances, showing up to the theatre always wearing the best in men's apparel that he's pilfered from the shop both he and Ed Jackson (Sam Levene) co-own.
Ed is constantly warning Joe that his scheming will come to no good, and this prophecy seems to be right on the money when Joe shows up one evening backstage to ask Connie out on the town. Owing to a jealous argument Connie's has just had with co-star Larry West (Richard Ainley) over his midnight rendezvous with Suretta Brent (Patricia Dane) - a wealthy socialite who producer Ken Cawlor (Thurston Hall) is hoping will back their next show - Connie agrees to go out with Joe. After all, he's dressed like he has money. The wrinkle is, of course, that he's practically penniless.
Regrettably, Connie and Joe show up at the same nightclub where Suretta and Larry are sparking. Larry's latest indiscretion sends Connie into a fury. On a spur of the moment, she trashes her dressing room, then agrees to marry Joe to get back at Larry. The rouse turns sour however, for Joe who believes that his new wife is truly in love with him. On their wedding night Connie plans to spike Joe's drink with a powerful sleeping pill, thus avoiding connubial bliss. But as fate would have it, she confuses the drinks and ends up swallowing the spiked cocktail herself, leaving Joe to helplessly drag her heavy dead weight into the bedroom to put her to bed.
In the meantime another of the current show's players, Roy Hartwood (John Hodiak) is a saboteur working for Nazi interests. In between performances he's been busy with the painstaking task of drilling through the theatre's basement wall to expose a stockpile of U.S. defense supplies on the other side. Roy's plan is to plant a bomb downstairs and blow everything up. (Honestly, wouldn't it be easier just to break into the back window of the building next door after everyone's gone home?)
After our initial glimpses of Roy, the film rather forgets about him until its last act. In the meantime, the show must go on. Larry tells Joe that Connie really doesn't love him. Joe informs Connie that he isn't rich and Connie declares that she wants an annulment to pursue Larry. Inexplicably (or perhaps more to the point, because the screenwriters have painted themselves into a narrative corner from which there is no escape) the plot jumps to an audition for Connie's new show. Lena Horne and Hazel Scott take center stage; Scott displaying a hypnotic command of the piano with a classically rendered version of 'Takin' A Chance on Love' that effortlessly segues into its mesmerizing boogie-woogie finale. Horne sings 'Jericho' - a jazzy riff of the time honored tale about Joshua blowing his horn to tear down those fabled city's walls of sin and corruption.
The plot moves into its final act with Roy asking Joe (who knows Roy's part on stage by heart) to go on in his stead. Joe, who is still desperately in love with Connie, agrees, not realizing that in taking Roy's place he has given the saboteur ample time to go below and plant his bomb. Making mincemeat of Roy's part and all but ruining the final performance of Connie's show, Joe suddenly realizes Roy's diabolical plan and rushes to the basement to challenge him in an all-out brawl. Having saved the day, Joe is declared a hero. Realizing that Larry and Suretta are in love, Connie forsakes him and returns to Joe's side.
Thus ends, I Dood It as mercilessly uninspired as it began. In retrospect, the most depressing aspect of the film is its rather anemic musical program. This is a musical - remember? Yet, save the aforementioned Horne/Scott interlude the only other musical moment of merit is Eleanor Powell's technically superior tap routine with a lariat set to 'So Long Sara Jane' (sung by Bob Eberly).
Jimmy Dorsey and his orchestra are featured twice, once under the title credits to minimal effect, then later at a nightclub where they perform 'Star Eyes' (sung by Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell) on a revolving platform. Unfortunately, I Dood It also steals two of its most iconic moments from other Eleanor Powell films. The hula dance that Joe hallucinates while trying to commit suicide after he reasons that his romance with Connie is hopeless has been excised from Honolulu (1939) while the film's 'big' finale is merely a regurgitation of the poop-deck finale from Born to Dance (1938) with re-orchestrations from Dorsey replacing 'Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue' with a woefully dull rendition of 'Anchors Aweigh'.
By the mid-forties wartime rationing had hit Hollywood hard. One of the ways the studios combated shortages in building materials was to creatively utilize already existing indoor and outdoor sets with minimal redressing. But another way they compensated - particularly in the case of musicals - was by recycling performances from past movie successes excised from their original intent and haphazardly inserted into a new film. No new construction and no added expense. All fine and good in the days when movies only played for one or two weeks at the local theater with no way for the consumer to revisit them at home in their own way and in their own good time. However, with the advent of home video this exercise becomes glaringly obvious.
In the final analysis, I Dood It is as inane and misguided a hodgepodge as its title suggests. The film marked the end of Eleanor Powell's contract career at MGM (save a few cameos later on). It did nothing to advance the careers of either Red Skelton or Vincente Minnelli, although in retrospect, it also did nothing to harm them either. As a casual film buff I'm usually a sucker for such high gloss, ultra-glamor but I Dood It is a colossal embarrassment and a complete waste of your time. That's a pity because Powell's lariat dance and Hazel Scott's piano solo are virtuoso first rate contributions to an otherwise utterly forgettable film.
Warner's MOD DVD release is actually quite good. The B&W elements are in remarkably good shape. Save a few rather obvious age related artifacts (scratches, nicks and chips) the image is mostly clean, solid and showing good tonality throughout its gray scale. There is no video noise or edge enhancement to contest. The audio is mono as originally recorded, but again, remarkably clean and often quite robust. The only extra is a badly worn theatrical trailer that appears to have been photographed in sepia. Bottom line: Not Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

J. EDGAR: Blu-ray (Imagine/Malpaso/Wintergreen 2011) Warner Home Video

Undeniably, J. Edgar Hoover was one of the most haunted and hallowed, fascinating, yet fundamentally flawed politicos of the 20th century. Hoover's shadowy world of 'man behind the curtain' secrets has left too much of a gap in the public memoir of his private life, and interpretations of the man and his methods have veered wildly into pure speculation since his death: everything from closeted homosexual to power mad puppet master whose own dictates came before even those of the various presidents Hoover served under. Despite these discrepancies, virtually all agree on one fact about the man - he was a legend to be feared in his own time. And now comes Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar (2011); a movie that is supposed to decrypt the myth and help transform that legend back into a man whose passions and proclivities we will be able, not only to understand, but appreciate and admire...well...sort of. The trouble with this narrative approach is that like all men of vision, decoding Hoover's DNA isn't as black and white as the film would have us believe.
We first meet Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) in his later years, dictating his memoirs to a writer (Ed Westwick). The film makes much of the extreme guarded atmosphere inside the director's office, with only his ever loyal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) allowed into the inner sanctum for consultations and critiques. We regress, in flashback to 1919 when Justice Department Attorney Gen. A. Mitchell Palmer's (Geoff Pierson) brownstone is bombed. Immediately following this assassination attempt Hoover is put in charge of a new anti-radical division. Insatiably driven, Hoover begins to amass a list of suspected communists and communist sympathizers.
As he builds his roster of handpicked talent, Hoover introduces himself to Helen, singling her out from the steno pool with a mild flirtation. But his attempt to procure a romance with her inside the Library of Congress is feeble and awkward at best. Sensing his desperation, Helen politely declines Hoover's spontaneous proposal of marriage. However, she does accept his offer of employment to be his private secretary. Hoover hopes to instigate a mass deportation of foreign radicals. But the Department of Labor refuses to comply with his terms unless there is clear evidence of a crime. Taking his cue from the Commissioner Gen., Anthony Caminetti (Jack Axelrod), Hoover has anarchist, Emma Goldman's (Jessica Hecht) life put under a microscope. She is called to testify before a committee. Her refusal to answer any and all questions gets her deported. Palmer loses his job, but Hoover gains an ally in Attorney Gen. Harlan Stone (Ken Howard) who basically gives Hoover free reign to pursue his agenda of developing a mass profiling apparatus inside the Justice Department.
Hoover is socially introduced to Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) at a restaurant. Admiring Clyde's suit and tie, and doing a quick background check on him, Hoover hires Tolson without much reservation. Clyde has Hoover done over in style, the two men spending a great deal of time together outside of the office. Much has been made of this 'relationship' between Hoover and Tolson - but the suggestion that the two had a lifelong homosexual affair in real life is wholly unfounded and never fully explored on the screen. Hoover's FBI branch of the Justice Department hits the ground running and has success bringing gangsters and bank robbers to heed before the strong arm of the law. But when Charles Lindbergh's (Josh Lucas) baby is kidnapped Hoover is generally cast aside by the presiding authorities and perceived as an interloper in the investigation. After the baby's body is discovered, Hoover gets more clout under his wing to establish the crime lab - a precursor to modern day forensics.
So far, the Dustin Lance Black screenplay has relied on what we know about Hoover to tell a fairly straight forward story. But now we delve into a very gray area of creative license, full of tawdry speculation and diluted innuendos. Hoover, his mother Anna Marie (Judi Dench) and Tolson go to a Shirley Temple movie. But afterward the three wind up at a nightclub where Ginger Rogers (Jamie LaBarber) suggests a flirtation. She is quickly shot down by Hoover in her efforts. Anna picks up on her son's awkwardness with women and later attempts to teach him how to dance, telling Hoover that she would rather he die than become a 'daffodil'. To break these tensions and those ever mounting at work, Hoover and Tolson go on a vacation together that ends with Tolson kissing Hoover in his bedroom. The men brawl and Hoover tells Tolson that it must never happen again. But when Tolson tries to leave, Hoover begs him to stay. Owing to his 'affections' for his boss, Tolson reluctantly agrees to remain as Hoover's right hand.
The film has reached a crossroads in its artistic interpretation. It has a choice, to either forge ahead at an even keel or skip through the catalogue of historical moments yet to be unearthed. Unfortunately, it chooses the latter option rather than the former. The years pass and Hoover begins to feel his own physical strength on the decline. Tolson suffers a stroke. Hoover attempts to manipulate Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) with knowledge acquired from an illegal wire tap that the President is having an affair. He also tries to blackmail Martin Luther King into rejecting his Nobel Peace Prize. Kennedy is assassinated and we move into Hoover's Nixon years at the White House.
These latter two incidents are laid out at the beginning and the end of the film, presumably to bolster the 'absolute power corrupts' narrative thread gently woven just beneath the surface of the main plot. Tolson appeals to Hoover that the time has come for his retirement from the FBI. But Hoover is recklessly driven to remain in power, claiming that Richard Nixon will dismantle his beloved bureau if he leaves office. The final moments of the film are dedicated to life after Hoover, with Helen quietly destroying volumes of 'hidden' files, presumably extolling the less than admirable aspects of the late director's enduring legacy.
J. Edgar has its moments, and certainly there is much to admire in Leonardo DiCaprio's emblematic performance as the mastermind behind the FBI. DiCaprio's take on this tragically conflicted man is restrained and intelligent. Regrettably, there's just too much of J.Edgar - the man - for J. Edgar - the movie - to cover. While the first half of the film takes its time exploring both the man and the myth, the latter two thirds simply hop around from one vignette to the next, lacking in any sort of cohesiveness to draw the viewer in for more than just a few minutes at a time. We also don't get much continuity from the Dustin Lance Black screenplay. It starts off fairly strong and even paced but winds up omitting whole portions of history after the Lindburgh baby episode. As such, J. Edgar - the movie - plays like a three hour 'would be' epic that has had its last two thirds brutally paired down by unskilled edits.
And then there is Tom Stern's cinematography to contend with - too dark and too stylized to fit the time period. For a moment I thought I was looking at an image shot by one hit wonder Janusz Kaminski (Honestly, every film that guy photographs looks like a badly faded postcard). But I digress. This film's cinematic landscape is oppressive to say the least, with desaturated colors and blown out contrasts that make the entire image look like a good exercise in bad Photoshop or just a really bad colorized movie via Ted Turner. The palette favors minty greens, nondescript navies, muddy browns and - ah yes - a splash of ruddy orange for flesh tones. But the spectacle of it all, dare I say it - yes, the gaiety - from that period - and indeed the flamboyance of Americana circa (1940-1960) is entirely lacking herein. J. Edgar offers some well interpreted nuances that deconstruct the mystery behind the man, but in the final analysis the film is a well-tailored exercise in restrictive mannerisms rather than an all-out investigation of J. Edgar Hoover and his enduring legacy.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray gives a solid representation of the theatrical experience. Tom Stern's cinematography is well served in 1080p. As mentioned elsewhere in this review, the desaturated color palette is limited and often murky, but that's as it was intended to be. It's difficult to assess visual accuracy or inaccuracy when the image is so heavily stylized as this. Again, this is a very - VERY - dark film; both figuratively and literally. Even so, the Blu-ray manages to capture minute detail. The audio is Tru-HD 7.1. This is a primarily dialogue driven movie, so don't expect that your speakers will be given a workout. The few loud moments that do exist in the film impress and dialogue is very natural sounding across all channels. Extras are limited to one: a measly twelve minute critique of Hoover - the man.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

ANATOMY OF A MURDER: Blu-ray (Columbia 1959) Criterion Home Video

Some films are a product of their time; others, timeless. And still others are changed by the passage of time. Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959) is of this latter ilk, a jazzy riff of a court room drama that, like all great art, tells far more than it actually shows. At the time of its release the film was a horrendous flub for all concerned, garnering critical praise by only a select few critics while being virtually overlooked by the general public. But time does strange things to art - or perhaps, even stranger things to the emotional psyche of a film’s potential audience. Perhaps, we've finally grown up - at least enough to justly appreciate Anatomy of a Murder as the true powerhouse that it genuinely is. From its unexpected (though, most welcome) Duke Ellington’s bee-bop score and Saul Bass's impressionist main title sequence, to its hard-hitting, frank and engrossing screenplay by Wendell Mayes (based on a novel written by Supreme Court Justice John B. Voelker) that never lets up for a moment on being up to the minute ultra-cool, slick and stylish - but with substance, Anatomy of a Murder takes one of the most tried and true genres in American movies (the crime/detective thriller) and makes even its most obvious conventions seem brand new all over again.
Indeed Preminger and his company were to descend on Ishpeming and Marquette Michigan, using the actual locations to get to the heart of what had been one of the most talked about trials in that region; the murder of a probable rapist by a hot-headed soldier. In fact, many who had partaken in the actual trial were cast as extras in the film, lending an air of authenticity that went well beyond mere verisimilitude. Preminger, who could be thorny, has been described as a ‘pussycat’ by many of these extras. Indeed, Preminger seemed to have immensely enjoyed the experience of making the film, getting along with his cast and crew and overall exhibiting the hallmarks of a true statesman as well as the master of his craft.    
Anatomy of a Murder stars James Stewart as Paul Biegler, a laid back small-town lawyer whose imminent talents in the court room are not all that apparent at a glance. Paul used to be the D.A. in Upper Michigan But since losing his re-election he spends most of his time fishing, playing piano and catering to the alcoholic whims of friend and colleague, Parnell McCarthy (Arthur O'Connell). Paul's secretary, Maida Rutledge ( Eve Arden) also does double duty as 'his girl Friday' and devoted mother hen to both men, even if her pay voucher has a fifty-fifty chance of bouncing. They're quite a team in and out of the courtroom.
Paul is contacted by Laura Manion (Lee Remick), whose husband, Army Lieutenant Fred (Ben Gazzara) is currently in jail for plugging innkeeper Barney Quill, under the pretext that Quill raped Laura while he was away on duty. Unfortunately for Fred, he cannot claim justifiable homicide. But he may be able to use 'irresistible impulse' as his defense strategy. There are chinks in this armour, however. For starters, Laura is hardly the meek, stay at home little woman. In fact, Paul has to practically order her to swear off of men, honky-tonks and outright flirting to tame her party girl image. Worse, Fred seems to have a temper. Laura's black eye certainly attests to as much. The Manions' marriage is hardly a loving one. In fact, Fred's rather aloof when it comes to his wife's advances.
Paul attacks the case against Fred by putting the current D.A. (Brooks West) and prosecutor, Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) at ease with his homespun charm. But inside his head a keen deductive reasoning is playing out every possible high stakes shenanigan he can use to achieve an acquittal for his client. Against Dancer's strenuous objections, Paul gets Laura's rape admitted into court as evidence with Judge Weaver (Joseph Welch). Dancer's next strategy is to demolish Laura's pretext of a squeaky clean reputation. A minor bombshell explodes when Dr. Matthew Smith (Orson Bean) testifies that he doubts Laura Manion was raped. Dancer next points the finger at the Manions loveless marriage and brings out Fred's mistrust of his wife.
In the meantime, Quill's daughter, Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant) stands to inherit the inn. Mary refuses to believe that her father would rape anyone. But she's also fighting to keep her identity a secret because she was born out of wedlock. Worse for Paul, the inn's bartender Al Paquette (Murray Hamilton) - and who supposedly witnessed the murder - absolutely refuses to testify on the stand. In the climactic courtroom showdown, Mary testifies that she found Laura Manion's panties in the laundry room after the alleged rape, proof that Quill did, in fact, try to conceal the evidence as Laura had earlier suggested. Dancer retaliates, first by calling Mary a liar, then by accusing her of being Quill's lover. Instead, Mary submarines his theory by declaring that Quill was her father.
Fred is acquitted of the crime of murder by reason of insanity. But Paul's victory comes with a rather unsettling postscript. The day after the trial Paul and Parnell go to the Manions' trailer park to collect his legal fee, only to discover that the trailer has disappeared. A note left at the scene by Fred suggests that he was 'seized by an irresistible impulse' - the same theory Paul used in his defense. The curiosity herein is not so much that the Manions have fled the jurisdiction and their responsibilities to Paul, but that Fred might have actually beaten or even killed Laura before leaving for parts unknown. The trailer park pad is strewn with litter and empty bottles. However, it might also suggest that Fred knows he is guilty of the crime of Quill's cold blooded murder. Whatever the reason for the Manions hasty departure, the film concludes on the open-ended premise that Paul and Parnell are on their way to having another fine weekend together. We're at the same place we started before the trial began. '
Viewed today, Anatomy of a Murder is a classic that, unlike most others, doesn't feel its age. Part of the reason for this is Wendell Mayes' snappy dialogue. It's edgy without being dated, and gives each character something utterly fascinating to say. The other half of the equation lies with the actors doing the talking. There’s nothing even remotely creaky about these performances. James Stewart is brilliant, as are Lee Remick, Arthur O'Connell and Ben Gazzara: not a false note among them. George C. Scott's flashy mouthpiece is a tad over the top, but a nice contrast to Stewart's understated approach to his courtroom antics. All the pistons are firing and the results are pure entertainment dynamite!
Sony Pictures had previously released a DVD under the old Columbia Classics banner. The DVD was solid and gave a good representation of the film. But Criterion's new Blu-ray is absolutely stunning. By direct comparison this 1080p hi-def transfer delivers the goods on all levels: a reference quality disc. The B&W elements are in superb shape and what we get as a result is a starker, more refined, and most impressive image that extols all the subtle nuances of Sam Leavitt's cinematography. There's minute detail to skin, fabric, wood grain, etc. that ratchets up the visuals to a level unseen since the film's debut.
Criterion antes up with a brand spanking new 5.1 Dolby mix (uncharacteristic for a company that usually remains exclusively faithful to the film maker's original intent). Of course, Criterion also includes the original remastered mono. In truth, I could detect very little difference in either of these mixes, except to say that the Duke Ellington score is definitely the benefactor in the 5.1 stereo. Otherwise, this is primarily a dialogue driven film. Whether you choose the 5.1 or mono the results are likely to sound pretty much the same - clean with no discernible hiss and pop. Good stuff!
Running true to form, Criterion pads out this disc with a litany of suitable extra features. We get interviews with Foster Hirsch and Otto Preminger, a critique of Ellington's score by Gary Giddins, Pat Kirkham talks about Sal Bass' impressive main title sequence. There are also excerpts from a few vintage documentaries on the film and other interviews with Preminger, a trailer and an extensive booklet featuring an essay by Nick Pinkerton. Bottom line: this is a real NO BRAINER! Anatomy of a Murder is a stellar film, presented for the very first time on home video in stellar condition. Run out and buy it today!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Monday, February 20, 2012

THE ICE FOLLIES OF 1939 (MGM 1939) Warner Archive Collection

It's odd. Joan Crawford's career before entering the star-studded gates of MGM was littered with a closet full of trophies for dancing the Charleston. In fact, one of the ways the studio chose to market their new find very early on was to have Crawford warble and dance in the Hollywood Review of 1929. But almost immediately L.B. Mayer lost interest in grooming another musical star in his stable and took Joan's career in a different direction. All the better for Crawford fans today, who know and love her for playing the supremely elegant shop girl makes good, or devious bitch with a vengeful streak.
But MGM never entirely gave up on la Crawford the musical star either. Regrettably, the musicals they put her in were always second rate drivel (Torch Song 1954), or lavish spectacles (Dancing Lady 1932) that all but eclipsed Crawford's innate ability to hoof around. Tragically, Reinhold Schunzel's The Ice Follies of 1939 (1939) is a little of both, a lavishly distorted claptrap of jaw-dropping spectacle grafted onto a thimble's worth of plot, supplied by screenwriters, Leonard Praskins, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allen Woolf.
The story, such as it is, involves Larry Hall (James Stewart) and Eddie Burgess (Lew Ayres); an ice skating duo who used to rock the rinks with their talent before Larry met Mary McKay (Joan Crawford). Now, Mary's an integral part of the act. Despite having talent, she proves to be just enough of a dead weight to sink the boy's partnership. Mary is desperately in love with Larry and he with her. On the fly they marry, then break the news to Eddie, who couldn't be happier...only he decides that there's just no room for a third wheel in this partnership.
So, Eddie bows out to do a solo. But before he does, he gets into a fender bender with movie mogul, Douglas Tolliver (Lewis Stone). An imminent brawl with Tolliver's chauffeur, Henry (Joe Manz) is averted when Tolliver graciously offers to pay for all damages. The next day, Mary arrives at the studio to collect the check. But this time she has more than just money on her mind. Faking distaste for the business of movie making, Mary convinces Tolliver to give her a screen test. It's a hit, and Mary is immediately placed under a bit player's contract at the studio. She makes good on her first small part and graduates - seemingly overnight - to superstardom. That's all well and good for Mary, but it leaves Larry's own failure to procure sponsorship for his ice follies feeling deflated, and rather like a sponge.
Mary and Larry separate. Larry convinces his buddy, producer Mort Hodges (Lionel Stander) to raise funding for his first ice follies, and what do you know? It's a hit too. Now that success is assured on both sides of the marital bond you would think Larry and Mary would get back together. And, of course, you would be right. Mary, who has somehow garnered an impressive amount of clout at the studio (she practically controls her own career), recommends to Tolliver that he produce Larry's ice follies for the big screen. Naturally, he does, and the result, wait for it...a colossal smash hit.
If only the results on screen mirrored what we, the audience are being sold as art, the film might have fared far better than it actually does. L.B. Mayer wasn't often known for producing glossy duds, but MGM certainly lays a gigantic egg with The Ice Follies of 1939. The screenplay is workmanlike serviceable at best. The acting, about the same. The overproduced Cinderella ice follies finale - shot in sparkling Technicolor no less - is a gargantuan mishmash of missed opportunities and hopelessly obvious reasons to show off the then newly improved 3 strip color process.
Crawford arrives in a storm blue ball gown that would make Norma Shearer's Marie Antoinette blush, complete with several yards of flowing feather and veil train dragging behind her. She doesn't skate, sing or dance, but perches herself elegantly next to a rather effeminate 'Prince Charming'. From this queenly vantage, Cinderella beholds a rather dizzying array of truncated skating routines performed by members of The International Ice Follies.
First, there's the human candlestick, bedecked in red and white candy-striped spandex. Then, a foursome of Old Bailey judges in flowing wigs and regal red robes perform a bit of swing time, before a pie filled with female blackbirds (from the old nursery rhyme, 'Sing a Song of Six Pence') comes to life. What any of this has to do with Charles Perrault's perennial tale of the scullery maid and her glass slipper is anybody's guess. Certainly, the film offers no explanation (and no apology, either) for throwing together such a bedazzling spectacle of missteps into the audience's lap. Even George Bassman and Earl K. Brent's music transitions from one sequence to the next are clumsily strung together.
A running gag in this sequence is Crawford's Mary constantly whispering into Larry's ear from the audience that she ought to have skated in the film. I'll second that suggestion. Perhaps then, there would have been some narrative cohesiveness to the film! As it stands, Crawford and James Stewart have little on screen chemistry, and even less of an opportunity to explore their characters as the film's plot spirals out of control. Lew Ayres is generally wasted, and nearly forgotten, as the loyal friend who miraculously crops up in the final reel, seated next to Lewis Stone. Though why a movie mogul as 'all powerful' as Douglas Tolliver would be caught dead with someone as unimportant as Eddie Burgess is frankly, yet another puzzlement in a film riddled with more questions than answers.
In a year as rich and ripe with treasures aplenty from MGM and all of the other studios in Hollywood combine, The Ice Follies of 1939 is, quite frankly, an embarrassment. It's so second rate, yet in such a gargantuan, big n' splashy way, that one wonders how a studio known for its chic good taste, could launch a gawd-awful disaster like this! I watched the film only once, but that's 82 minutes of my life I'll never be able to get back!
Warner's Archive Collection release is about what you'd expect. The B&W sequences have ample grain (occasionally excessive), while the Technicolor finale looks fairly smooth with mostly vibrant colours. There are very minor hints of mis-registration here and there, but otherwise, the print is in okay shape. The B&W portions occasionally suffer from age related artefacts, but not to a point so as to distract from the film - arguably, a pity! The audio is mono and adequately represented. Like everything else about this film and its transfer, the audio won't be winning any awards. The only extra is a theatrical trailer. Not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Thursday, February 16, 2012

ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT: Blu-ray (Universal 1930) Universal Home Video

Based on Arthur Wesley Wheen’s English translation of Erich Maria Remarque’s WWI novel, Im Westen nichts Neues, director Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) is a heart-rending anti-war melodrama told from the perspective of a young German soldier. Internationally, the novel was an overnight publishing sensation in 1929, prompting Universal’s Carle Lemmle Jr. to secure the rights to produce the film. In re-conceptualizing the book for the screen writers Maxwell Anderson and George Abbott remain relatively faithful to the novel’s origins with one minor exception.
While the book is told entirely from Paul Baumer’s narrator’s perspective, the film adopts a third person POV with Baumer (Lew Ayres) as its central protagonist. Baumer is an idealist, an innocent thrust into the middle of a world spinning out of control. He recognizes the damaging and lasting effects that war has on the human psyche. His body is pressed into service, but his heart and mind refuse to surrender his soul to the cause. Reportedly, the studio was unimpressed with director Milestone’s choice of Lew Ayres as his star. The actor had only appeared in two films prior to this one. But neither had made Ayres a saleable commodity in Hollywood. Worse, he lacked the traditional matinee idol good looks the studio demanded from their stars. Undaunted, Milestone pressed on and Ayres was reluctantly cast. It was the right decision.
For Carl Lemmle Jr. had overlooked the obvious. First, it was essential that the public become wrapped up in the story rather than the star playing the lead. Second, the cold harsh and often unsympathetic narrative of self-destruction required an actor who could emote to the horrors of war with empathy and a mere glance. Ayres proved he could draw an audience in with his understated, yet utterly poignant performance. The film opens with the conscription of young men into the military. Baumer and his classmates are stirred into an almost religious fervor for bloody conquest by their teacher, Professor Kantorek (Arnold Lucy). The popular perception is that nothing could be finer than to fight and die for God and country. As cadets, Baumer and his classmates are ruthlessly drilled by Lieutenant Bertinck (Pat Collins) who delights in demoralizing trainees in order to transform them from a sloppy group of fresh-faced adolescence into uniformly detached killers.
Baumer and his fellow soldiers are shipped off to the combat zone where they encounter their first grim and unflattering taste of carnage. After a day of fighting, the new recruits mingle with the established regiment and barter cigarettes for food rations. Baumer is assigned the task of stringing barbed wire along the front. But a foxfire ensues and several soldiers meet with untimely ends. The fundamental point constantly hammered home in the Anderson/Abbott screenplay is that war is hell; its casualties not confined to those brave many that die on the battlefield but also those who survive to relive the horror in subsequent fighting and later, inside the darkest recesses of their own minds through reoccurring nightmares.
A scene inside the makeshift army hospital best exemplifies Baumer’s increasing resentment toward the conflict. He and several other soldiers including Mueller (Russell Gleason) sneak into the ward to console their friend, Franz Kemmerich (Ben Alexander) who has been injured in battle. Kemmerich is unaware that his leg has been amputated until Mueller lets it slip out during casual conversation. Kemmerich becomes agitated and asks everyone to leave. The room empties, but Baumer returns and Kemmerich dies his arms. His boots are passed on to Mueller who, in turn is killed the following day in battle – the boots passed to another solider for more bloodshed and tragedy. Baumer’s emotional tenacity is relentlessly put to the test – witnessing unspeakable slaughter while being forced to partake in atrocities for his ‘fatherland.’ The screenplay questions the ‘success’ and 'glamour' of war – particularly in the scene where Baumer observes his own firepower mowing down a brigade of French soldiers. The dichotomy in that moment is poignantly captured.
From a tactical perspective, the slaughter is perceived as a victory. But from a personal perspective it is a betrayal of the sanctity of Baumer's own creed. Returning home briefly, Baumer is sullen. His mood continues to sour in the face of blind patriotism of his family and friends who have stayed behind and deem him a hero. Their glorification of the war without any real understanding of its severity sickens Baumer. The final moments of the film are truly heart-breaking. Distracted by the purity of a white butterfly darting about the battlefield, the one true emblem of the freedom Baumer craves for mankind, Baumer reaches for it as his own last ditch effort to reconnect with the ‘goodness’ of life. It is a fatal mistake. Baumer is shot in the head by a French sniper, becoming just another casualty, his sacrifice achieving no immortalization in the annals of history.
A colossal success on its initial release – winning the Best Picture Oscar – All Quiet on the Western Front was re-cut as pro-war propaganda during WWII. Not surprising, the film was banned by Adolph Hitler in Germany and did not resurface on the European continent until the late 1960s. By then it was missing several key sequences. The Library of Congress undertook a spectacular search for the missing elements and conducted a restoration and preservation in the mid-1990s. Today, All Quiet on the Western Front is regarded as one of the greatest motion pictures ever made. The impact of its message remains as resilient as ever; that in man’s fervent struggle for self-preservation against an enemy he frequently destroys himself.
Universal’s Blu-ray resurrects All Quiet on The Western Front as never before. The B&W elements have been given a superior restoration for Universal's 100th Anniversary and the results are very impressive to say the least. Scenes that were pale and poorly contrasted on Universal's previously released DVD have been brought back with a startling clarity in 1080p. While the studio has employed DNR to minimize the severity of the film grain, there's still quite enough of it present to give this transfer a very film like quality. Contrast levels are vastly improved over the aforementioned DVD release. Fine detail sparkles. Truly, this transfer is far beyond what I ever expected this film could ever look like on home video. It's a revelation that made me want to see this movie again - twice!
The audio has also been restored for this presentation. If anything, it has dated for more than the picture elements. There's a slight, but notable hiss. Again, Universal has done all they could to resurrect the original sound elements. They should be given top marks. Given the film’s importance and prestige, it’s a minor tragedy that the Blu-ray doesn't get updated in the extras department. No audio commentary or documentary on the film. We get Universal's junket on their anniversary celebration and the same Robert Osborne intro that came with the DVD. Otherwise, this is a bare bones offering from Universal. I should also add that the Blu-ray packaging is rather impressive. We also get a very nice booklet presentation with some interesting factoid style information and an informative introduction. But as I stated on Universal's reissue of To Kill A Mockingbird - more was expected of the studio with extra materials - especially for a 100th anniversary! But for the sheer impressiveness of this remastered image, All Quiet on the Western Front gets high marks and is highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

ANONYMOUS: Blu-ray (Columbia 2011) Sony Home Entertainment

Did William Shakespeare write his own plays? For centuries, scholarship has taken the Bard’s 154 sonnets and 37 immortal stage works at face value. However, in more recent times it has become somewhat fashionable to deconstruct the man, the myth and the legend that was William Shakespeare. After all, there are plenty of inconsistencies in the historical record to suggest alternative theories. The most prominent fact is that Shakespeare effectively retired from playwriting shortly after the death of Edward De Vere, and at the height of his own popularity. He left London and retired to Stratford on Avon where he became a successful grain merchant for the rest of his days.
Shakespeare's plays were published in a folio seven years after his death, but from manuscripts not written in Shakespeare's own hand. Even more curious, Shakespeare's father as well as Shakespeare's daughters were all illiterate. The question therefore remains, how did a man of such eloquence in verse learn his craft when no one in his family before or after him could even spell their own name? And then of course there is the name itself...or rather, the signature. Only a few samples rumored to be Shakespeare's original hand exist. But these often misspell his name, or perhaps more to the point, spell it differently than we have all been taught is the correct spelling.
And now comes Roland Emmerich's Anonymous (2011); a retelling of the man behind the legend that goes even further into antiquity to deconstruct the myth of William Shakespeare. Emmerich's film is part scholastic re-interpretation and part clever revision a la the likes of screenwriter and historian John Orloff, who manages to mangle about as much of the screen's time with pure speculation as he does with fact. Even so, Anonymous is a film of multi-layered variables, court intrigue, pure poppycock and more than an ounce of respectable truth all rolled into one. The tale is told from the vantage of our present day fascination about Shakespeare's origins with actor Derek Jacobi serving as our master of ceremonies. We regress through Jacobi's narration to the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, our story beginning one dark and stormy night. Playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armesto) is cornered inside the Globe Theater, then arrested by Sir Robert Cecil (Edward Hogg). The theater is torched by Cecil's guards and Johnson tortured into divulging the whereabouts of a certain assortment of popular plays attributed to one William Shakespeare.
As yet, we are quite unaware of the importance of these opening moments, but soon enough we regress even further back in time. As a young boy, Robert (Isaiah Michalski) was insanely jealous of his own father, Sir William's (David Thewlis) devotion to his ward, Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (Jamie Campbell Bower). Edward's desire to write is not in keeping with William's puritan household. After Edward accidentally murders one of William's spies lurking behind a curtain in his study, William suggests a plausible way to keep his young ward from the chopping block. Edward will marry William's daughter, Anne (Helen Baxendale) even though William is quite aware that Edward has already taken Queen Elizabeth I (Joely Richardson) to bed.
Flash forward forty years into the future. Edward (Rhys Ifans) is more determined than ever that he have his voice heard in the theatre. To this end he engages Ben Johnson to produce his plays under no particular authorship. Audiences are enthralled by the plays that follow. But Johnson grows more sullen as each new work he produces becomes a magnificent success. For he can neither claim credit for the works himself, nor expose Edward as its true author. "You have no voice," Edward tells Johnson, "That is why you were chosen!" Meanwhile, Robert Cecil's ambitions to be the man nearest the throne of England have resulted in wicked manipulations of the Queen (now played by Vanessa Redgrave). On Sir Robert's suggestion the Queen orders the Earl of Essex (Sam Reid) and the Earl of Southampton (Xavier Samuel) to fight against Spain. Essex has been the Queen's lover and private confident for years. But Southampton is the Queen's bastard son by Edward. The Queen does not know this. Neither does Edward.
At The Globe, an unhappy accident occurs. A mere bit player named Will Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) emerges from behind the curtain after a performance of Hamlet to declare himself the author of the play. Ben Johnson and Edward are in attendance, but powerless to dispel Will's lie without exposing their own. Henceforth, Will Shakespeare will claim credit for all of Edward's clever stagecraft. Now, the film's narrative becomes moderately complex as John Orloff's screenplay juggles between the youthful dalliances of young Edward and Elizabeth, and the present, where Edward has become increasingly embroiled in a plot to defy Robert's plan to have King James succeed Elizabeth on the throne. In the past narrative, after William Cecil parts the Queen from Edward, the latter takes up with Bessie Vavasour (Vicky Krieps). Robert Cecil informs her majesty of Edward's new love and she jealously has the two fornicators imprisoned. But William comes to Edward's rescue, forcing him back into his loveless marriage with Anne.
In the present narrative, Will threatens Ben Johnson to hold his tongue after Johnson vows to expose Will as a fraud. Edward plans to restore Essex as the man nearest the throne of England and the Queen's heart. But Robert thwarts Edward's organization of a spontaneous mob to rally in Essex's defense. Instead, Essex arrives at the Queen's residence with men loyal to him, only to be ambushed by Robert's guards. Robert tells the Queen that Essex has come to destroy her and take command of the throne for himself. Robert then confesses the truth to Edward, that he was the son of his own father, William Cecil and the Queen. In seducing the Queen as a young man he committed incest with his own mother to produce the Earl of Southampton. Essex and Southampton are imprisoned and slated for beheading. Essex eventually loses his head, but Edward finagles a deal for Southampton by confessing to the Queen the truth of his ancestry and that of her bastard child. The Queen spares Southampton's life with Edward's promise that he will never learn of his true parentage. But she also banishes Edward by having his name stricken from the official record forever. Henceforth, Will Shakespeare will lay claim to all authorship of Edward's plays.
The years pass. The Queen dies. Then Edward dies. But on his deathbed he bequeaths all his folios and sonnets, written in his own hand, to Ben Johnson, entrusting Johnson with their future proliferation. We return to the beginning of the film, with Johnson being tortured by Robert to divulge the whereabouts of these manuscripts. Johnson informs Robert that they have all perished in the flames when his men set fire to the Globe Theatre. But later, when Johnson returns to the smoldering embers of the Globe he finds that the box he had hidden Edward's manuscripts in has survived the blaze. Johnson vows to remain true to Edward's wishes. We return to the present day with Derek Jacobi providing a few final footnotes that round out our curiosity with more questions than answers. The lights come up and the audience departs the theatre, left to ponder all that has been set before them.
Anonymous is a striking and ambitiously mounted entertainment. John Orloff's screenplay is slow to start, and more than slightly confusing along the way, but it gathers both steam and our interests about midway through, tying up a lot of loose ends along the way that seem more fact than fiction before the final fade out. Stephen O. Gessler's art direction and Ann Foerster's cinematography create a brooding, murky palette where such grand illusions and even grander deceptions seem quite possible, if not entirely probably. Nils Bleeck's special effects and Sandra Balej digital visual effects seamlessly blend the real with the fanciful to resurrect an England previously made real only in period sketches and history books.
The acting also deserves our admiration. The cast is in very fine form; too many exceptional performances to single out individually herein. But the real standout is Rhys Ifans - previously remembered as the daft roommate of Hugh Grant in Notting Hill. Barely recognizable herein, his Edward is a tortured proud nobleman, a passionate man of conviction amongst mere players to his art. The film's success entirely rests on his shoulders and he proves himself more than capable of carrying off this complex and multifaceted character. In the final analysis, Anonymous may not be high art, but it is compelling viewing. It raises intelligent questions about Shakespeare's enduring art, in a medium not especially known today for either its artful intelligence or careful craftsmanship in the art of make believe. Anonymous attempts to do both and, more often than not, succeeds at offering us a little of each.
Sony's Blu-ray release captures the oppressive darkness of the cinematography with impressive results. This is a film whose backgrounds were largely conceived in a digital world employing a green screen and extensive matte work. The 1080p image is adept at bringing all this technical wizardry to life - gray and near monochromatic as it may be. The stylized color palette evokes part aged historical parchment and part graphic novel. It's difficult to assess color accuracy, as this is a highly stylized visual presentation. As such, flesh tones tend to be deliberately washed out. The general presentation is murky - but again, as it should be - or at least was in the theatre.  The audio is a 7.1 DTS mix that is exceptionally aggressive. Dialogue is pronounced. Effects are well placed with good spatial spread across all channels. Extras include an informative audio commentary, deleted/extended scenes and three very brief featurettes that take us behind the making of the film and the enduring mystery that remains Will Shakespeare. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

THE ENGLISH PATIENT: Blu-ray (Miramax 1996) Miramax Home Video

Based on Michael Ondaatje’s sweeping WWII novel, Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996) is a sumptuously mounted historical epic. At its center are a pair of love stories, one romantically flawed, the other utterly obsessive and tragic. The lover's triangle formula is as old as movies itself. But unlike many, The English Patient avoids practically every pitfall known to the genre, episodically driven to tell a good story. Like David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, The English Patient is told primarily through a series of integrated flashbacks.
Minghella's screenplay wastes no time in setting up the premise. A young French-Canadian nurse, Hana (Juliette Binoche) is left behind in an abandoned Italian monastery to tend to a mysterious burn victim, Count Laszlo de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes). With more than eighty percent of his flesh charred, Almásy is dying. It is a certainty, though perhaps one Hana is not yet ready, willing or able to accept. Almásy has faked amnesia to avoid prosecution from the Allied Forces. Known to Hana only as 'the English patient', Almásy is actually a Hungarian geographer who was making maps of the Sahara Desert when he became romantically involved with Katherine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas).
As the hours turn into days, Hana befriends Almásy and he gradually begins to open up to her about his remembrances during the war. Almásy once organized the Royal Geographic Society dig in Egypt and Libya, funded by Katherine and her husband, Geoffrey (Colin Firth). During long stretches when Geoffrey was away on business Almásy's growing desire for Katherine became an all-consuming obsession. Although Katherine was initially faithful to Geoffrey, she eventually relented to Almásy's temptation and their passionate affair began. But it was doomed to burn itself out. Overwrought with guilt, Katherine ends the affair. But Geoffrey has already found the lovers out. Thus, when Katherine informs him that they must fly their biplane out to some desert cave to collect Almásy at the dig, Geoffrey instead seizes the opportunity to crash land his plane into Almásy, thereby killing them all. Unhappy chance that only Geoffrey is killed in the crash.
Katherine has survived but will bleed to death unless Almásy can make it into town on foot to get help. Leaving Katherine in the cave where she will ultimately perish, Almásy is taken prisoner by the Allies who refuse to listen to his pleas about Katherine. Almásy escapes and steals a plane. But he arrives too late to save the woman he loves. As a grief stricken Almásy flies home his plane is downed by the Nazis, the fire from its engine engulfing him. Hana and Almásy's exploration of these recent events is interrupted with the arrival of David Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) - a Canadian intelligence operative who lost both his thumbs and was severely tortured by the Nazis because of what he has perceived as Almásy's betrayal. At the same time Hana becomes involved with Sikh bomb expert, Kip (Naveen Andrews), an infatuation that gradually blossoms into a more meaningful love. Having acquitted himself of his past regrets, Almásy instructs Hana to administer a lethal dose of morphine that will finally put him out of his misery.
Winner of nine Academy Awards The English Patient retains its sweeping arch of passionate storytelling. Minghella’s direction, his use of long takes and static master shots, fleetingly conjures to mind the visionary genius of David Lean – if not in spirit, then certainly in both its tone and production values. The desert sequences, particularly the sand storm, are thrilling. But, it must be said that the teaming of Fiennes and Thomas as the ravenous lovers is problematic at best.
Whether Fiennes prowess as an actor has been irreversibly tainted by his brilliant performance as the maniacal villain in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993), or it is simply a matter of miscasting, in both physical stature and outward demeanor Fiennes is quite unacceptable as the Count. Fiennes' insolence is too shifty-eyed, his sullen mood too brooding - too insane to be misconstrued as mere passionate obsession. Almost from the moment we meet the Count, Fiennes makes him a wholly unsympathetic and largely unlikeable character. As for Kristin Scott Thomas, her Katherine is too remote, too aloof and seemingly too proper and refined to succumb to such devious charms. Hence, her willing abandonment of propriety in general and fidelity to her marriage in particular seems even more mean-spirited than Almásy's driven need to possess her.
The film has much better luck with Juliette Binoche's tender and meaningful take on Hana. Hana's burgeoning romance with Kip is both tender, yet fraught with a worrisome denial, that she is somehow a jinx to those she loves the most. Binoche is effortless in conveying the depth of these hidden desires and anxieties, intermingling just beneath her outward facade as a compassionate caregiver. John Seale's cinematography captures the stoic isolationism of the desert sands and the bustling chaos of a thriving culture caught between the trials and tribulations of an epic war. Gabriel Yared's score creates a haunting overlay that draws out the emotional center of the film and keeps it alive and ever present in our minds.
Miramax/Alliance Home Video's newly remastered Blu-ray rectifies the absolute travesty of Alliance Canada Home Video's initial hi-def release of The English Patient. This time around we get a progressive, dual layer 1080p transfer and it's about time! It should be noted that Miramax's Blu-ray veers radically away from previous home video incarnations in its reproduction of color. Whereas all previous versions on DVD and Blu-ray maintained a relatively cool to medium register of colors, with piercing blue skies and very bright whites, this new Blu-ray adopts a very warm almost copper tone/sepia hue. It's been too long for me to recall what the actual theatrical look of the film was. Suffice it to say, I don't remember the image looking quite this sun burnt. Nevertheless, fine details take a quantum leap forward on this disc. Contrasts are very nicely balanced with deep blacks and very solid, although yellowish, whites.
The audio has been remastered Tru-DTS 7.1 and is very aggressive. Dialogue sounds quite natural. The sand storm sequence will rock your speakers. Extras are all imports from Miramax's extensive 2 disc DVD from 2000 and include a very comprehensive commentary by writer-director Anthony Minghella, producer Saul Zaentz and author, Michael Ondaatje. The CBC’s documentary on the making of the film is somewhat of a disappointment, relying heavily on trailer junkets and very little but sound bytes from cast and crew. There are also featurettes on scoring the film, writing the film, Minghella's career and Ondaatje's writing style, plus a theatrical trailer to sift through when time permits. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)