Saturday, March 31, 2012

THIS HAPPY BREED (Eagle-Lion/Two Cities 1944) Criterion Home Video

David Lean's This Happy Breed (1944) is a little gem of a family saga, sublime and poignant; a beautifully crafted snapshot of a Britain already lulling into a state of social decline. Based on Noel Coward's 1939 play, the screenplay by Lean, Anthony Havelock-Allen and Ronald Neame manages to effortlessly span the years between 1919 and 1939 in just 111 minutes, yet without ever seeming rushed or out to prove a point. Then again, that was the genius of Noel Coward; unabashed sentimentality and comedic, while feathering the real joys and struggles of a typical English family into the play's subtext. Whereas Coward's earlier Cavalcade presented a reflection of an eternal England, the proud and unflinching empire, This Happy Breed takes a more subtle, and arguably, more honest view of this careworn kingdom as its globe-encompassing supremacy slowly fades into obscurity.
The Gibbons family represent this sad prolonged farewell to the Victorian age. Yet to Coward's credit he never once makes any of them maudlin or unappreciative of all that has gone before their time, even as they look toward a tumultuous future with grieved uncertainty. On stage, Coward had set the play's action all in one house and played the lead himself. On film, however, the part of patriarch Frank Gibbons went to Robert Newton instead, and it is saying a great deal of the actor that for once, his more gregarious mannerisms were brought to heel at the behest of the source material and director David Lean, who also felt that Coward's stage presence was a bit much to be believable on celluloid.
Our story begins shortly after WWI and on a very optimistic note. The entire country is returning to normalcy after those terrible years of conflict and looking forward to happier times. The Gibbons family, a hard working middle class brood move into their new - if slightly dingy - flat; No. 17 in Clapham, South London. Solid citizen Frank (Robert Newton) and his stoic drudge wife, Ethel (Celia Johnson) are a simple couple, contented with the projected hopes and future promises they have for their children, stubborn Reg (John Blythe), complacent Vi (Eileen Erskine) and headstrong Queenie (Kay Walsh). Frank discovers that his next door neighbor is none other than Bob Mitchell (Sterling Holloway), a good natured bloke with an invalided wife who served shoulder to shoulder with Frank in the army. Reg looks up to Vi's boyfriend, Sam Leadbitter (Guy Verney) a diehard socialist whose views seem at once controversial yet frightfully exciting. Meanwhile, Queenie is romantically pursued by Bob's son, Billy (John Mills).
We experience the Gibbons first years of life as usual during peacetime. Frank finds work at a travel agency, rekindling his friendship with Bob along the way. The two become favorite drinking buddies and frequently get tight with a fresh bottle under the stairs, much to Ethel's mildly cross objections. Frank's flighty spinster sister, Sylvia (Allison Leggett) and Ethel's mother, Mrs. Flint (Amy Vaness) also live with the Gibbons and their tempestuous sparing is frequently at the crux of some minor strife within the family unit. But nothing seems to unsettle 'this happy breed' for very long. The entire family attend the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924, and celebrate their Christmases together. Everything is perfect...well, sort of.
Billy proposes to Queenie. But she tells him that she cannot abide the family's complacency and downtrodden lifestyle. She wants out - badly - and cannot see her way clear to become her mother's daughter by marrying into a life she misperceives as common as dust. Bob, a sailor, goes away to serve his country in peacetime leaving Queenie to indulge in the high life as a notorious flapper. In the meantime, a general strike threatens to cripple the nation. Reg, who has followed Sam into a violent protest is injured in the brawl on Whitechapel Road and taken to hospital, leaving Vi - in a moment of frustration - to break off their romance. This detente does not last for very long however. Vi marries Sam and their union has an anesthetizing effect on Sam's socialist views. He falls into line, happily so, and thereafter becomes less of a role model for Reg.
In that same year, Reg decides it is about time he also married his sweetheart, Phyllis Blake (Betty Fleetwood). As Ethel and Frank delight in their children's marriages, the Gibbons' house becomes emptier and more isolating for Queenie. To escape, she enters and wins a Charleston competition in 1928 and thereafter becomes the champagne darling of the nightclubs - eventually taking up with a married man (whom we never meet in the film). Billy returns on leave to visit his father, who has become lonely since the death of his wife. But Billy has also decided to appeal once more to Queenie's heart. Regrettably, both his intensions and her affections are misplaced. She confides in him that she loves a married man and he, sympathetically suggests she is making the biggest mistake of her life. Unable to convince herself of as much, Queenie steals off into the night, leaving a letter for Frank and Ethel to find on their fireplace mantel. While Frank is heartbroken over the news, Ethel turns cold and aloof toward her daughter. She has brought shame upon the family.
This Happy Breed is a story about the moments in life that raise our spirits and those that break our hearts. In terms of its critique of the tight knit family unit, the film can justly be viewed as a sort of English version of Meet Me In St. Louis (released that same year by MGM in America). However, while Meet Me In St. Louis celebrated an America of a simpler vintage - and one that arguably never entirely was to begin with, This Happy Breed is a far more frank and honest critique of the Britain that probably is. And so, the last act of our story is an unsympathetic one, marred by intimate tragedies and the looming specter of another world war on the horizon. Mrs. Flint dies of old age, leaving Sylvia to mismanage her grief by becoming even more dotty as a spiritualist. As Frank and Ethel attempt to settle into their emeritus years, their hearts are shattered by the sudden loss of Reg and Phyllis, both killed in a freak automobile accident.
The screenplay cleverly parallels these private misfortunes with the grander catastrophes gripping the entire nation, including the rising anti-Semitic sentiment in London and the death of King George V. As Frank and Bob get paralytic drunk under the stairs, they affectionately muse about the way of life that has fallen by the waste side. Bob moves away to the country. Billy comes to No. 17 to reveal to Frank and Ethel that not only has he found Queenie living in France, but that they were married two weeks earlier in Plymouth. He has brought a more repentant daughter home to reconcile with her parents. As WWII approaches, Queenie gives birth, leaving her child in Frank and Ethel's care while she joins Billy in Singapore. As the house is now much too big for Ethel to manage alone, she and Frank decide to move into a smaller flat. The film ends as it has begun, with the abandoned house in Clapham, though never again to be quite so vacant of the memories of the Gibbons family.
This Happy Breed is an extraordinary film on many levels, chiefly in its ability to make us care about what happens to this outwardly average - though hardly dull - middle class family. The succinctness with which Lean flashes twenty years of life before our very eyes never seems hurried or out of place. In fact, we feel as though we have lived a very full and unusually satisfying history with these people. Celia Johnson and Robert Newton strike just the right chord and are profoundly moving as husband and wife, sharing in each other's joys and bucking one another through their mutual sorrows. Reportedly, Newton was a notorious drunkard on the set, holding up the last ten days of production with chronic stupors that resulted in a slight clash of wills between himself and David Lean.
Noel Coward, who was mildly disappointed at not playing the part of Frank Gibbons himself, was nevertheless wholly satisfied with the final film that marked David Lean's true solo debut as a director. And the film itself was a great success with audiences then, both in England and abroad. Viewed today, This Happy Breed remains a very affecting family portrait, exceptionally staged, and with finely wrought performances throughout. To experience the life of the Gibbons family once is to treasure them in our hearts forever.
We can also treasure this gorgeous 1080p transfer from Criterion. Owing to a 2008 restoration effort by the BFI, this newly minted Blu-ray delivers an exceptionally vibrant visual presentation, capturing all of the subtle nuances of cinematographer Ronald Neame's restrained use of 3 strip Technicolor. The image is crisp with only minor hints of edge enhancement here and there. Fine details are beautifully realized. Contrast levels are bang on. The image is bright and colorful. The audio is mono and well represented with minimal hiss and pop.
Extras include another very comprehensive interview with scholar Barry Day and an extensive interview with Ronald Neame from 2010 in which he basically talks about not only this film, but also the others in the David Lean Directs Noel Coward box set. We also get two trailers. Currently, This Happy Breed is only available as part of that collection, along with Blithe Spirit, In Which We Serve and Brief Encounter. Bottom line: Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Friday, March 30, 2012

IN WHICH WE SERVE: Blu-ray (British Lion 1942) Criterion Home Video

Few wartime movies are as unabashedly patriotic, or as sentimentally moving as Noel Coward's In Which We Serve (1942); a glowing testament to those gallant fighters in Britain's merchant marine. Yet, the story is not at all about these brave men per say, but rather, the tale of a ship - the H.M.S. Torrin - and her faithful crew. Co-directed by David Lean and Coward (who also wrote the screenplay and the score, produced, and, starred in the film), In Which We Serve is an extraordinarily understated cinema classic. It is the film that brought Noel Coward out of his self-imposed exile from the motion picture business (that the playwright always regarded as an inferior medium to live theater), and cemented an enduring friendship with his collaborators Lean, screenwriters Ronald Neame and Anthony Haverlock-Allen.
Reportedly, Noel Coward was enticed into making the film after he approached Prime Minister Winston Churchill (a close personal friend), offering to do his part in the war effort. Coward had eluded active duty in the First World War due to tuberculosis, and this had left him feeling rather disloyal to England. Churchill, however, was not moved by Coward's impassioned plea to partake in WWII as an enlisted man. In the meantime, Capt. Lord Louis Mountbatten (another personal friend of Coward's) had just returned on leave from duty after his ship, the H.M.S. Kelly had been sunk by Nazi torpedoes during the battle of Crete. Regaling Coward with this fateful tale gave the playwright his inspiration, as well as the impetus to write In Which We Serve (the only work Coward expressly wrote for the screen).
But it was a screenplay for a six and a half hour movie. Owing to Coward's immense stature and formidable reputation in the entertainment world, Haverstock-Allen tread lightly when suggesting that his masterwork would have to be re-written (or, at the very least, pruned down to a manageable size). Apart from being a genius and a wit, Coward was also one of the most congenial and compassionate writers of his generation. He wholeheartedly agreed, allowing Haverstock-Allen and Neame to edit his prose.
David Lean's contributions on the film were an entirely different matter. Although Lean was only a 'cutter' (the term for a film editor in those days) before filming began, Coward had admired his clever and intuitive pacing. He also knew that Lean desperately wanted to direct. But Lean was shrewder about his future than that. Asked by Coward to 'assist' on the film, Lean politely inquired first about the credits, agreeing to do the film only if his title card read 'Directed by Noel Coward and David Lean'. Coward, happily agreed and thereafter afforded Lean every professional courtesy on the set, choosing to 'work' with the actors on their performances while Lean concerned himself with the actual staging and execution of the scenes; a mutually rewarding and beneficial alliance that would ultimately yield three more screen collaborations.
The film opens with an odd declaration by Leslie Howard; "This is the story of a ship!" and for the next several minutes we are, indeed, privy to an extensive montage of clips depicting the construction, launch and battle man oeuvres of the H.M.S. Torrin; a destroyer stationed off the coast of Crete in 1941 and captained by E.V. Kinross (Noel Coward). The men under his command are embroiled in a merciless sea battle that ends tragically when the Torrin is mortally wounded in an aerial attack by a fleet of German bombers.
Forced to abandon ship, some of the officers and crew take refuge on a Carley float where they endure constant strafing from overhead. The rest of the story is told in flashback - at first clumsily so - as each survivor reflects on both his home life back in England, and his home away from home - the Torrin - now resting at the bottom of the sea. We see the Captain comfortably in his middle class cottage before the war, with dotting wife, Alix (Celia Johnson) and his two children nestled at his side. We meet Chief Petty Officer Walter Hardy (Bernard Miles) and his wife, Kath (Joyce Carey) and her mother-in-law Mrs. Lemmon (Dora Gregory) who lives in a London flat under constant fear of the blitz. And we are introduced to ordinary seaman, Shorty Blake (John Mills) who falls in love, and is eventually married to Freda Lewis (Kay Walsh). Freda is related to Hardy. After she becomes pregnant she moves in Kath and Mrs. Lemmon while the men are away at sea.
The Torrin is engaged in a naval battle off the coast of Norway and narrowly escapes sinking. During this skirmish a young powder handler (Richard Attenborough) cracks under the pressure and abandons his post. While Capt. Kinross is a stern commander, he also believes that a happy ship makes for a constructive crew. He lets the handler off with a warning, accepting part of his shame as his own for not having more time to properly train him before sailing into battle. As fate would have it, not all the casualties of war are to be found on the front lines. As Freda nears the due date of her pregnancy, a bomb strikes the Hardy home, killing Kath and Mrs. Lemmon. After Freda gives birth in an Army Hospital she writes Shorty of the news and he stoically relays it to a disbelieving Hardy, who suddenly realizes he has lost everything he holds dear.
We return to the survivors of the Torrin still clinging to their raft. These few men are rescued by another ship and Capt. Kinross comforts the wounded and dying below decks. He also learns that more than half of the Torrin's crew was lost at sea. Telegrams are sent home, and both Alix and Freda learn that their husbands are safe. Kinross and the survivors are taken to Alexandria Egypt to regroup and recuperate. After being informed that his crew is to be broken up and sent to other ships to continue their valiant fight, Kinross offers a rousing speech to his men that is as inspirational as it is heartrending. An epilogue declares that bigger ships will come to avenge the fate of the H.M.S. Torrin.
In Which We Serve is undeniably rousing entertainment. Yet, its opening act rather inelegantly sets up each flashback with overwrought melodrama and somewhat disjointed vignettes. The first thirty minutes of the film seem quite uninspired - bordering on dull - with Coward somewhat out of place wearing Mountbatten's actual naval cap as he commands the crew of the Torrin. Coward, it should be noted, did not come from a cultured upper class background. But throughout the 1920s he had cultivated an adroit wit and effete charm that seemed to belie his lower middle class upbringing. This became problematic when Coward cast himself as the star of In Which We Serve - and, in truth, during these opening scenes he remains a little hard to swallow as the modest everyman.
But about midway through the story, Coward sheds this carefully crafted public persona. He reveals to us an uncharacteristic humbleness and great humanity that is most sincere and quite devoid of his usual droll mannerisms, so much that when - as the Captain - he arrives at the last act of the film, proudly embracing the camaraderie of his surviving crew, we believe Coward in his every nuance and syllable. The fate of these heroic men has become quite personal, not only to the Captain, but also to Coward and his performance makes their plight (as well as that of the real fighting men) even more intimate and enduring for the audience.
In Which We Serve was hailed as a masterpiece upon its premiere and earned Noel Coward a special Oscar. Today, it remains an engrossing WWII 'propaganda' film with few equals. The collaboration between David Lean and Coward gave Lean his true start in films and yielded three more emblematic of the best in British cinema. It also allowed Coward to re-assess his initial opinion of the movies as an inferior entertainment. Although Coward would always regard live theater as his first love, the movies he made with Lean elevated the stature of that medium for him. Despite changing times and cinematic tastes, the emotional center of In Which We Serve remains as poignant and relevant as ever. This is a great film.
Criterion's Blu-ray, in conjunction with a meticulous 2008 restoration effort by the BFI, has resulted in a beautiful 1080p transfer with a few minor anomalies. The gray scale has been impeccably rendered. The finely detailed image is solid with a modicum of naturally occurring film grain. Even matte shots and rear projection look natural. What is regrettable is the hint of edge enhancement that continues to occur - however briefly - during a few key sequences. Because the rest of the film is razor sharp and solid, this intermittent anomaly is all the more apparent when it occurs. The audio is mono but has been very nicely restored for a smooth sonic representation that will surely not disappoint.
Extras include Barry Day's reflections on the making of the film, a profile featurette that covers a lot of the same ground with snippets from the film and interviews with Haverstock-Allen and John Mills, and an extensive 'audio only' 1969 Q&A that Richard Attenborough hosts with Noel Coward in front of a live audience. At present In Which We Serve is only available as part of Criterion's David Lean Directs Noel Coward box set that also includes Blithe Spirit, This Happy Breed and Brief Encounter. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Thursday, March 29, 2012

BLITHE SPIRIT: Blu-ray (British Lion 1945) Criterion Home Video

Can the dead come back to watch over the living? This contemplation is at the crux of David Lean's Blithe Spirit (1945); an ethereally genuine - if slightly morbid - romp through the occult and spiritualism. Based on Noel Coward's whimsical drawing room comedy, the film's screenplay by Lean, Ronald Neame and Anthony Havelock-Allan sticks remarkably close to Coward's original. Reportedly, Coward wrote Blithe Spirit from start to finish in five days at a seaside hotel while on holiday, with only two lines of dialogue changed before its premiere. Coward, who pilfered his title from Percy Shelley's poem 'To A Skylark' - and would later refer to it as 'superficial', was slightly unprepared for the controversy that arose amongst critics; most of whom thought that a play poking fun at death at the height of WWII was, quite simply, in bad taste. Critics aside, the public loved it and Blithe Spirit became a smash hit, running 1,997 performances.
Hollywood put in their bids to produce it. But Coward had been entirely unimpressed by previous translations of his work on the big screen in America and instead chose to sell the rights to Blithe Spirit to General Films - a British production company. As a film, Blithe Spirit has everything going for it; an exemplary cast, glowing Technicolor, Coward's acerbic wit, and masterful director David Lean at its helm. Curiously enough, neither Lean nor star Rex Harrison wanted any part of it. Lean did not feel that comedy - dark or otherwise - was his forte, while Harrison took his cue from the London stage adaptation and was therefore afraid playing a middle aged man would harm his 'sexy Rexy' bachelor's reputation. As such the part was tailored to suit him as a 'younger' man.
Kay Hammond made the transition from stage to film as the rather randy 'blithe spirit'. But the only other West End alumni to make it to the screen is Margaret Rutherford - who had at first balked at playing the part. She was, in fact, a devote spiritualist herself and one who took umbrage to Coward's representation of the spiritualist in the piece as a dotty, cotton-headed, flighty fool. It was only after the playwright convinced the actress that his take was meant to delineate the true believer from the hapless charlatans, who report to dabble in the occult merely to make a quick buck that Rutherford agreed to be in the production.
As a film, Blithe Spirit is rather unnerving, perhaps because it never takes the supernatural seriously. Without its ghostly trappings, the play is just like any other Coward stage vehicle from this vintage, with its long suffering, harridan-ridden protagonist longing to be free of his apathetic existence. Coward always saw the piece as a tragedy, rather than an outright comedy. And true enough, David Lean's film is neither as spooky as anticipated, nor quite so out and out funny as one might expect. What it remains is engrossing and inquisitive - both pluses for audiences to enjoy.
We open on the loveless, but pastoral life of a narcissistic writer, Charles Condomine (Rex Harrison) and his second wife, Ruth (Constance Cummings). Charles' first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond) died prematurely of pneumonia and has been buried some seven years. In that interim it seems Charles and Ruth have lived an exemplary life together, waited on hand and foot by their frenzied maid, Edith (Jacqueline Clarke). Yet, Elvira's memory is still very much alive in Charles, perhaps as a perfunctory escape. For Ruth, despite all her culture and more obvious physical charms remains as waxen and emotionally frigid as a sculpture. One evening, the couple decides to entertain old friends, Dr. George Bradman (Hugh Wakefield) and his wife, Violet (Joyce Carey). The only other guest is Madame Arcati (Margaret Rutherford); a spiritualist who has agreed to perform a séance after dinner. Charles has invited Madame Arcati strictly as part of the research he is conducting for his latest murder mystery novel.
And although everyone is amused by Madame Arcati's didactic behavior and peculiar recitations during the séance, no one - least of all Charles - is laughing when the evening's 'harmless' entertainment conjures up his first wife, Elvira (Kay Hammond) back from the dead. At first, no one except Charles can see her. This predictably leads to all sorts of marital misunderstandings, with Ruth becoming increasingly incensed by the way her husband is behaving. It is only after Charles begs Elvira to levitate several objects about the room that Ruth suddenly realizes he has been telling her the truth.
In life, Elvira was something of a trophy wife, indulging infidelities to occupy while Charles wrote his novels. In death however, she is something more of a devilish prankster who wants Charles for her own once again. Ruth goes to Madame Arcati to demand she reverse 'the spell' put on their home and send Elvira back into the great beyond. As Madame Arcati is quite unable to do this, Ruth becomes increasingly cold and aloof toward Charles. Now it is Elvira who comes up with a plan. She fixes the brakes on Charles car and then asks him to take her for a ride. The inevitable fatal crash that is sure to follow will bring Charles' spirit to her side. Unfortunately, Ruth takes the car out for a spin instead. She is thrown and killed, her invisible, though very angry poltergeist returning home a few hours later to assault Elvira. Unable to rid himself of either his first or second wife's ghosts, Charles goes to Madame Arcati to beg for her help. She regales him with a previous case that inspires her to dive head strong into various incantations.
Nothing seems to work until Madame Arcati discovers that Edith is also a medium. She can see Ruth and Elvira as plainly as Charles can. Including Edith as part of her final exorcism, Madame Arcati drives Ruth and Elvira's spirits back towards the abyss of time. Unfortunately, even this attempt is not entirely successful. True enough, Ruth and Elvira's ectoplasmic manifestations are no more. But Madame Arcati continues to sense their presence in the house. Nervously, she encourages Charles to leave his home at once, preferably for a trip abroad. Charles agrees. His bags levitate toward him. The front door opens and the convertible top to his automobile is brought down.
What Charles is quite unable to fathom is that Ruth and Elvira are up to no good, reasoning that if they must spend their eternity together then Charles is going to join them with all speed. Sure enough, Charles loses control of his car and is killed off the same bridge where Ruth died, his spirit landing with a thud between his first and second wife - the three spirits doomed to spend what can only be anticipated as a highly charged and mildly toxic eternity together. This ending was changed from the play to comply with censorship. In the play, Charles casually strolled out of his home while Elvira and Ruth hurled furniture and flatware at one another, declaring his great relief at being rid of them both. The Production Code absolutely forbade this conclusion, stating that, in resurrecting Elvira, who inadvertently kills Ruth, Charles also has become a co-conspirator in her murder and must therefore ultimately not go unpunished.
The film's revised ending does more than satisfy the code. It draws out the audience's sympathy for these blithe spirits and forces our egotistical hero to face a most justly deserved fate. Arguably, Charles has never been in love with anyone but himself. But in death, he will be forced to confront and surrender this vanity or face a most unflatteringly complicated and utterly restless eternity. If Blithe Spirit sounds like an odd duck, it is. There has never been a film before or since to challenge its unflappable wickedness or giddy ferocity. Curiously, such deftly calculated resentment and despair never unhinges the entertainment value of the piece, perhaps because so much of Noel Coward's own adroit humor is peppered throughout. Despite Coward's claim that the play is more tragic than anything else, the film trips along effortlessly with tongue firmly in cheek; its resilient approach to death and the un-dead refreshingly light without becoming silly.
Much has been made of the fact that Kay Hammond - alive or dead - was much too old to ever be married to Rex Harrison's Charles. And truth be told, in her garish green makeup and scarlet glowing lips and fingernails, she is something of an uncompromising fright. Nevertheless, one can infer that in the seven years since her expiration, an inevitable decay has further aged her into the present. And Hammond is a droll comedian besides - most readily amused by contributing to the deconstruction of Charles' current marriage to Ruth. Rex Harrison's performance - one of stoic cynicism overturned into utter disbelief - is pitch perfect. Yet, despite his obvious charisma and comedic charm, the actor never quite takes center stage, leaving Margaret Rutherford's daft spiritualist as the cornerstone of the film's enduring success. Reportedly, David Lean thought Rutherford's performance wholly unfunny.
Yet, it became the only part in the film to garner universally good reviews from the critics. Viewed today, we can see better still, just how masterful Rutherford's performance is; proud underpinnings of a real spiritualist at work, lending credence to her monumentally clever turn. She is at once brilliantly feather-headed, yet firmly a believer in her craft and that makes her performance all the more engrossing and genuine. In the final analysis, Blithe Spirit is unsettling and supernatural. David Lean preserves the play in a fairly straight forward adaptation. The film is moody - and at times, quite disturbing, and will undeniably continue to 'haunt' audiences for many good years yet to come.
Criterion's Blu-ray, in conjunction with a considerable restoration effort put forth by the BFI in 2008, yields a razor sharp 1080p presentation that will surely not disappoint. Still, the transfer is at the mercy of the original 3-strip elements and certain scenes continue to exhibit 'breathing' of the image and slight 'flicker' likely due to mold damage. Nevertheless, the Technicolor has been perfectly aligned to produce a gorgeously varied and textured visual presentation. Colors glow off the screen. Fine detail is evident throughout and age related artifacts have been greatly tempered. The audio is mono and well preserved, with minimal hiss and pop.
Extras include Barry Day's comments on the film and on Lean and Coward, an interview with Coward from the mid-1960s and the film's original theatrical trailer. I have one pet peeve. Criterion has woefully undernourished this disc with chapter stops. We get nine - count them - 'nine!' chapters for a two hour movie (ten, only if you count 'color bars' as a necessary chapter stop). Frankly, this is pathetic and I cannot understand why Criterion continues to be so skinflint on this basic necessity in the digital format. Otherwise, Blithe Spirit on Blu-ray comes highly recommended. At present, it is only available as part of the David Lean Directs Noel Coward box set that also includes This Happy Breed, Brief Encounter and In Which We Serve.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER: Blu-ray (J. Arthur Rank 1958) Criterion Home Video

On April 15, 1912 when the Titanic slipped beneath the icy Atlantic she took 1502 souls to their watery grave; a cataclysm whose callous enormity sparked a review and revision of Maritime Laws and arguably gave birth to the most celebrated, and undeniably, most enduring legacy of any luxury liner. Her story instantly became the stuff of legend and myth and in the intervening decades it has only grown to encompass more fanciful re-telling of that fateful night and maiden voyage. Titanic is a perennial; a story as compelling as it is undeniable tragic. It has given rise to many adaptations on screen, stage and television, but none more definitive than Roy Ward Baker’s A Night To Remember (1958). Instead of eschewing a responsibility in giving credit to those fatefully stricken with their bitter end on the night in question, Eric Ambler's screenplay (from the meticulously researched book by Walter Lord) focuses on the real people aboard this ill-fated luxury liner.
If what followed – in terms of plot - is as fictional as most other filmic accounts, then at least the essence of the piece, the very heart and spirit of Lord’s novel, is affectionately in the right place. Better still Walter Lord had spent years interviewing Titanic survivors, documenting their recollections with painstaking detail. That Baker’s movie has such overwhelming authenticity behind it from the start is therefore hardly surprising. In absence of Hollywood star power, Kenneth More (a sizable British talent, well regarded) is top cast as Second Officer Charles Lightoller. It is mostly through Lightoller’s interactions that we are permitted glimpses into the lives of Col. Archibald Gracie (James Dyrenforth), Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe), Benjamin Guggenheim (Harold Goldblatt), Isador Straus (Meier Tzelniker) and Molly Brown (Tucker McGuire) among others; all legitimate passengers on the RMS Titanic.
We tread the familiar tale with a refreshing perspective that, quite simply, has not dated with the passage of time. Lighttoller takes his place among the crew, waxing affectionately about his good fortune to be aboard the grandest ship ever designed by man. The Titanic's designer, Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe) as well as White Star chairman, J. Bruce Ismay (Frank Lawton) wholeheartedly agree. The Titanic is the world's unsinkable liner. In fact, Ismay encourages Capt. Edward John Smith (Lawrence Naismith) to utilize the Titanic's expansive boilers to maximum capacity in an attempt to break the transatlantic crossing record on their maiden voyage. As fate would have it, their journey is destined to enter the annals of history on a more notorious footnote.
As the passengers retire to their cabins for the evening a large chunk of ice looms large on the horizon. Unable to avoid a collision, the bow is torn apart, mortally wounding the grand ship and dooming its passengers to a watery grave. The extent of the impact is, at first, not immediately apparent and many regard the incident as little more than a minor impediment to their arriving in New York harbor on time. Soon, however, their fate takes on a more concrete form. The forward compartments fill with sea water dragging the ship down by its bow. Anxiety grips the decks as many frantically struggle to get into the lifeboats capable of saving less than half of all those aboard. Capt. Smith resigns himself to the inevitable while Lighttoller and his gallant men risk everything to save as many as they can from going down with the ship.  
In Britain, A Night To Remember generated considerable audience interest and box office revenues. Regrettably, not much of either was forthcoming in the U.S. where the story had already been played out in Jean Negulesco’s 1953 glossy, if slightly idiotic disaster epic, Titanic. It must be said that Negulesco’s soap opera cannot hold a candle to this movie. In hindsight, what is particularly remarkable about A Night to Remember is how well the staging and SFX hold up under today's closer scrutiny. Yes, the boat is obviously a miniature, but photographed with such attention to detail that one can easily suspend disbelief for the few brief moments the vessel is shown in long shot. The sinking is handled with eerie reverence and a meticulous attention to detail. In fact, when James Cameron was preparing his 1997 version of this climactic moment he all but excised whole portions of Geoffrey Unsworth’s spectacular cinematography, using the exact same angles and lens to strikingly plagiarist effect.  
Unlike Hollywood versions of the story, that tend to afford the fateful moment a crescendo in denoted panic-driven music cues (most survivors have attested that the actual striking of the berg was largely unnoticed at first by passengers), A Night To Remember quietly acknowledges the moment this sea-faring leviathan struck its cold emasculator, but without much in the way of foreshadowing or fanfare. Hence, A Night To Remember plays ominously like newsreel footage rather than a re-enactment in dumb show. We feel the terror creeping into our hearts as palpable and chilling as icy Atlantic seeping into the mail and cargo holds. The result; a thoroughly haunting, absorbing cinema 'document' - not a heartrending exercise in melodramatic pathos that threatens to drag history down twice, then once more for the count with its lugubrious fiction.
Criterion's 2k restored Blu-ray rectifies the great sin of their lackluster DVD from some years back. This 1080p transfer - enhanced at 1:67.1 for widescreen TVs - delivers the goods with a beautifully balanced gray scale, very clean whites and deep solid blacks. Fine detail is nicely realized throughout and film grain has been accurately reproduced. The original DVD had a very flawed, digitized look to it. The Blu-ray is more fluid, more film-like in every respect. If you've only experienced this film from Criterion's DVD, then the Blu-ray is sure to be a revelation. Quite simply, the image is breathtakingly sharp. The audio is mono and very nicely cleaned up and presented at an adequate listening level.
In addition to Ken Marschall and Don Lynch's exemplary audio commentary and the exceptional ‘making of’ documentary produced by the BBC (featuring Walter Lord and accounts from Titanic survivors - both extras previously made available on Criterion's DVD) we also get an archival interview with survivor Eva Hart, the 1962 Swedish documentary with more survivors telling their stories, and the feature length 2006 documentary, The Iceberg That Sank The Titanic. Bottom line: despite James Cameron's best efforts, A Night To Remember remains the definitive Titanic disaster movie. The Criterion upgrade is a no brainer. You must own this disc! Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: Blu-ray (Paramount/Columbia/Dreamworks/Amblin 2011) Paramount Home Video

In 1929 Belgian artist George Remi (who wrote under the nom de plume Herge) debuted a beloved children's hero in 'comic album' form as a supplement to the newspaper Le XXe Siecle. Instantly embraced by readers young and old, the series eventually became known throughout the word as The Adventures of Tintin (pronounced Tauntaun); reproduced in 50 languages and selling more than 200 million copies worldwide: a publishing phenomenon by most any standard. Herge, who parlayed his fictional character into a successful Tintin magazine, and then an entire studio in 1950, produced twenty-four comic albums, many eventually adapted for radio, theatre, TV and finally, the movies. In many ways, Tintin is a most unlikely hero. Though only a boy, he already has a lucrative career as a reporter, accompanied on his many explorations by Snowy (Milou in French); his ever-faithful fox terrier. He is intellectual and well-rounded, with a probing fascination, yet naive understanding of the world. Critics have often misconstrued Tintin as 'bland'. But what Herge has done is to give his reader a sort of 'everyman' blank slate, allowing us to become Tintin and enter these misadventures through his thought-provoking mind.
Herge, who never quite came around to explaining how his prepubescent, red-headed protagonist evolved at such an early age to live alone, with no parents or even parental heritage to speak of, at least afforded Tintin some adult companionship along the way - most notably, the brazen liquor-soaked Irish mariner, Captain Haddock, the intellectually stimulating/but quite deaf, Professor Calculus (Professor Tournesel in French) and a pair of bumbling detectives, Thomson and Thompson (Dupont et Dupond); a contemporary derivative of Lewis Carroll's Tweedles Dee and Dum. What is perhaps most remarkable about this series, apart from its signature ligne claire drawing style, are its engrossing and meticulous - occasionally clairvoyant - plotlines that span the spectrum of literary genres from action/adventure and thriller/mystery to urbane political/social commentary - always tinged with adroit humor, intelligent insight into the human condition, and great good taste.
And now comes The Adventures of Tintin - the movie (2011); a long awaited, very elaborate, utterly fast paced and occasionally enchanting 'motion capture' experiment from director Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson. Both men are long time ardent fans of Herge's work. In fact, following the release of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) Herge and Speilberg began transatlantic talks of translating Tintin to the big screen. Regrettably, their face to face meeting never materialized. As Spielberg and his production partner Kathleen Kennedy were wrapping up on The Temple of Doom (1983) Herge died, leaving their pending project in limbo. Although his widow willingly allowed Spielberg to option her late husband's stories the next year, Spielberg was never entirely satisfied with the script treatments that kept coming down the developmental pipeline.
Furthermore, he feared that the more fanciful aspects of Herge's stories could not be satisfactorily translated into live action. The project was put into turnaround and Spielberg eventually allowed his option to lapse. Then, in 2001 Spielberg announced he would be renewing his option to produce a Tintin film with Dreamworks' computer animation division. Again, the project ping-ponged back and forth as Spielberg toyed with reconsidering live action. To this end, Spielberg contacted Peter Jackson at Weta Digital to inquire about the feasibility of creating a computer-generated Snowy. Jackson, who adored Herge's books as much - if not more than - Spielberg, shot test footage with himself playing Capt. Haddock while a digital Snowy playfully hopped around his feet. But the more both men assessed this footage the more they recognized that such a melding of live action and computer animation simply did not serve the story well.
At this point, Jackson suggest photorealistic 'motion capture' technology as a possible solution. Although impressed with the results, Tintin's creative gestation was once again interrupted. First, screenwriter Steven Moffat became embroiled in the 2007 writer's strike. Afterward, a conflict of commitments to the Doctor Who series precluded his further involvement on Tintin. Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish were assigned to do a complete rewrite. Then, Universal Studios (who had initially agreed to co-produce) declined to pursue the project, citing disappointing box office on Monster House and Beowulf, as well as Spielberg's request for his usual 30% of the domestic gross as their reasons. Eventually a deal was ironed out between Spielberg, Jackson, Paramount and Sony Pictures (under the Columbia banner). Paramount had already spent $30 million on Tintin's preproduction, but refused Spielberg's gross percentage request. Sony, however, backed the deal, ensuring that at least the first two films in Spielberg's envisioned Tintin trilogy would come to fruition.
Like all Hollywood interpretations of great literature, the filmic Tintin takes artistic liberties with Herge's work. We are introduced to Tintin (vocal by Jamie Bell) at a Belgian street market, having his portrait painted by Herge himself. Tintin becomes fascinated by a model of the tall ship Unicorn and purchases it from a vendor. Moments later, Tintin is accosted by a mysterious stranger, Barnaby (Joe Starr) who warns Tintin to leave the ship amongst the other forgotten relics on sale. Barnaby's warning only serves to galvanize Tintin's resolve. Ditto for his confrontation with Ivan Ivanovitch Sakharine (Daniel Craig), who offers Tintin whatever he wants for the model, then breaks into his apartment while Tintin is out to steal it. Before this theft, the model is damaged when Snowy has a minor confrontation with a stray cat. In the scuffle, the ship's mast breaks apart and a tiny metal flask with a cryptic message inside rolls beneath Tintin's dresser.
Meanwhile, detectives Thomson (Nick Frost) and Thompson (Simon Pegg) are 'not so' hot on the trail of local pickpocket, Aristide Silk (Toby Jones). Tintin returns to his apartment to discover it ransacked and the Unicorn gone. But Snowy alerts Tintin to the metal flask under his bureau. Tintin discovers the message inside and tucks it into his wallet, later stolen by Aristide. Venturing to Marlinspike Hall; Sakharine's foreboding country estate, Tintin and Snowy are assaulted by Sakharine's men, Tom (Mackenzie Cook) and Allen (Daniel Mays). They abduct Tintin and Snowy and take them aboard the Karaboudjan - a rusty cargo ship. There, Tintin and Snowy are introduced to another prisoner, Capt. Haddock (Andy Serkis) whose men have mutinied against him, thanks to Tom and Allen's goading. Tintin convinces the chronically inebriated Haddock to invest in their adventure, and together these three escape their captors aboard a lifeboat.
The next day Sakharine sends Tom and Allen in a seaplane in search of Tintin and Haddock. But Tintin skillfully shoots the plane down and, with Haddock's assistance, takes Tom and Allen hostage. Making the necessary repairs, Tintin and Haddock fly toward the Moroccan port of Bagghar, but crash land after a storm in the desert. They are rescued by foreign legionnaires. Haddock now regales Tintin with the story of the Unicorn. Haddock's ancestor, Sir Francis, was its captain, assaulted during a sea battle by Red Rackham, Sakharine's blood relative. Sir Francis chose to sink the Unicorn's bounty of treasure in the ocean rather than surrender his ship to Rackham. Now Sakharine is in search of that treasure and the three models of the Unicorn - each containing part of a cryptic message that, once reassembled, holds the coordinates to locating the sunken ship. Sakharine already has the first part of the message. Tintin, the second. But the third remaining piece of the puzzle belongs to a wealthy sheik, Omar Ben Salaad (Gad Elmaleh) - though not for long.
At a lavish reception at Salaad's palace, Sakharine sends his trained falcon to retrieve the model. This results in an extraordinary chase through Bagghar's crowded streets, with Tintin and Haddock eventually cornering Sakharine and his men at the docks - thanks to the last minute intervention of Thomson and Thompson. It seems that, having retrieved Tintin's wallet from Aristide Silk, this bungling pair have inexplicably managed to tail Tintin and Haddock to Bagghar. Reuniting the three Unicorn scrolls, Tintin and Haddock learn that Marlinspike Hall was built by Sir Francis. Returning to the estate, they discover a small consignment of the Unicorn's plunder hidden behind a wall in the cellar. Haddock, now sober and fascinated by his own ancestry, vows to assist Tintin in salvaging the rest of the Unicorn's lost sunken treasure.
The Adventures of Tintin is a mostly enjoyable action/adventure yarn with elements of film noir peppered throughout. From a purely visual standpoint the film is a wondrous, if mildly absurd, amalgam of blisteringly surreal images. What is less successful is Spielberg's hurling his camera about this meticulously crafted computerized realm as though it were a pinball flipped about with nauseating results. We soar up, then down through stormy skies over the ocean, dive deep into the sea during a flashback sequence aboard the Unicorn, and careen with violent abandonment through the streets of Bagghar on a motorcycle. This sort of constantly moving backdrop will appeal mostly to today's generation, weaned on rapidly edited music video pulp and video game nonsense. However, as an artifact of pure cinema the results tend to overpower, rather than excite, our senses.
Perhaps Spielberg has forgotten that 'action' is best explored through the motivations and confrontations between a film's pro- and antagonist - not the immediate result of some manic manipulations of the cinema space through choppy camera work and heavy-handed editing. Mingzhi Lin and Charles Pottier's SFX are first rate, creating three dimensional flesh and blood renderings of Herge's one dimensional cartoon drawings. Yet, in perusing the pages of Herge's comic albums, I was struck by how much emotional content there was in that one dimensional (and simply drawn) world. Perhaps, this is where the books advance over their filmic counterpart.
While the characters in Spielberg's film all look like reasonable facsimiles of Herge's imagination, and move realistically as they should, they somehow never entirely come to life on the screen. Technologically proficient in all their vastly superior detailing, they nevertheless lack that intuitive humanizing quality to truly be believed. The Moffat, Wright, Cornish screenplay brilliantly binds three of Herge's most memorable tales into one cohesive narrative that moves along nimbly and with a genuine feel for its source material. John William's score is epic, yet playfully adventurous, striking just the right chord. The Adventures of Tintin will satisfy most who see it. But it lacks the warmth and charm of Herge's original drawings, and the staying power of a truly classic adventure yarn. Unlike Herge's stories that have endured the test of time, we probably won't be celebrating this film in the next century.
Paramount Home Video's Blu-ray has been given the A-list treatment. We get a beautifully rendered image that extols all the crisp, refined details of this digitally inspired fantasy world. The extraordinary and subtly nuanced palette of textures and colors all look gorgeous and razor sharp. Truly, nothing to complain about here. And you won't find gripes from this critic over the bombastic DTS 5.1 audio that rocks all of the surround channels. We get a series of in-depth featurettes that cumulatively represent one comprehensive documentary on the making of the film. Here, you will find an extensive catalogue of all things Tintin - the movie - put together with fascinating insight and interviews from virtually all of the cast and crew. Bottom line: If you're a fan of this film, then Paramount has outdone themselves on ensuring all your needs have been met. But if you're a fan of Herge's Tintin, the final results achieved in this film may occasionally leave you wanting for something more.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

MY WEEK WITH MARILYN: Blu-ray (Weinstein/BBC) Alliance Home Video

The life and career of Marilyn Monroe are legendary and tragic. Her tenure at 20th Century Fox was all too brief but distinguished by some very fine films - most still fondly remembered today. And although overstated time and again, it must be said that Monroe's iconography, an intoxicating blend of sexual innocence and bubble-headed brashness, has never been equaled by any star or celebrity since her time, although most every ingénue and starlet has miserably tried and failed to recreate it. That the truth about the woman behind the facade should be more conflicted, painful and ultimately genuine than any of her on-screen images audiences continue to fall in love with and hold so dear, is perhaps the greatest misconception about the woman herself. But Marilyn Monroe played the dazzlingly ditz better than anyone could. But she was neither as naive, nor as utterly silly as her characters behaved on the big screen. Yet, even minor attempts to remake her own image - her move to study at the Actor's Studio for instance, to become a more serious actress - met with frequent and renewed disapproval from her studio bosses and audiences alike. Once Marilyn Monroe - the icon - had been galvanized with her fans there was no room for Norma Jean Baker.
Simon Curtis' My Week With Marilyn (2011) attempts to tell only a very small segment of what is ultimately Monroe's public and private legacy. It's Spring 1956, a scant 7 years before Marilyn's death. Following a string of light-hearted big box office hits, Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) is at the top of her professional game. Regrettably, as her stature has risen so have her insecurities. A growing addiction to prescription drugs and mounting fears that she is not living up to her own potential as an actress has left Marilyn at the mercy of sycophantic acting coach, Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker). In constant need of approval, Marilyn is, perhaps more than anything else, an incredibly lost and frightfully unhappy child in womanly form.
She has just arrived in England with her third husband, imminent playwright Arthur Miller (Dougray Scott) to begin work on The Prince and the Showgirl, a film being financed, directed and co-starred in by Sir Lawrence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh). The opportunity to co-star with Olivier - arguably, Britain's greatest theatrical talent - comes at a particularly bad time for all concerned. Although at the peak of her artistic powers Marilyn is also in the absolute depths of her inner despair. Miller is cold and aloof and frequently absent from her side while Olivier is regularly frazzled by Marilyn's inability to perform a single scene without Paula's approval. 'Larry's wife, Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond) is the aging movie queen from another vintage, who recognizes the strange hold Marilyn has on men - including her own husband. Into this mix of unhappy lost souls comes the real innocent of our story - Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne). Born into a life of stifling privilege, Colin views the movies as his big break away from that ensconced heritage. But his family, particularly his father, see Colin's interests in film as thoroughly misguided - the daydreams of a boy who has not yet grown up.
Based on the real Colin Clark's book about his weeklong escapist fantasia with the most popular actress of her time, the film's screenplay by Adrian Hodges retains Clark's first person narrative. We quietly observe his innate and personalized awkwardness, his inability to procure a position within the film's production unit until Vivien sympathetically reminds Larry that he has promised a friend of a friend to give Colin his first big break. Colin is introduced to Marilyn at the start of the production, while spirits are still universally high and expectations for an intercontinental hit, higher still. Marilyn sees Colin as just another wide-eyed admirer. And, in fact, Colin is that. But there's something more that Marilyn is able to draw out of him - a shared sadness perhaps - to be misread so simplistically and perhaps condescendingly by the rest of the world.
On set, Colin sparks a burgeoning friendship with costume manager, Lucy (Emma Watson). She can see how star struck he is with Marilyn and tells him point blank that she is not up to being a stand-in substitute, merely to satisfy the lusts he has procured while ogling Monroe during filming. Nevertheless, Colin and Lucy begin to fall in love. But Colin's attentions are quickly diverted away from Lucy. He has caught Marilyn's fancy and she calls upon him - first as her personal gofer, then as a friend she can trust with her secrets. Colin incurs the wrath of second assistant, David Orton (Robert Portal). He used to be Marilyn's fetch n' carry boy once not so long ago and perhaps even her lover. David's jealousy toward Colin is quite obvious, but to no purpose.
Marilyn demands Colin on the set and Olivier - already behind schedule and over cost - is only too happy to acquiesce. But he warns Colin not to get too close to Marilyn. Despite her pleas against loneliness, Olivier tells Colin "She doesn't need to be rescued." Nevertheless, when Paula finds Marilyn's bedroom door locked and is unable to talk to her through the door, the first person she leans on is Colin. He rushes to Monroe's rental - a remote country cottage far away from the paparazzo's prying eyes and flashbulbs - and scales her second story window with a ladder. He finds his icon not dead or even distraught, but slightly woozy from the sleeping pills she has taken to go to bed. Colin spends the night with Marilyn - fully clothed - but lying next to her in bed. The next day, David warns Colin to stay away from Monroe from now on. Marilyn's private bodyguard, Roger Smith (Philip Jackson) arrives at Pinewood Studios to collect Colin for an 'engagement'. Much to David and Olivier's dismay, Colin discovers Marilyn in the backseat. She has kidnapped him with Smith's complicity for a day of playing hooky from the set.
Colin uses this opportunity to show Marilyn something of the world he comes from. He takes her to Windsor Castle where his uncle, Sir Owen Morshead (Derek Jacobi) is curator of the expansive library archives. Marilyn works her magic on Sir Owen and the rest of the staff who applaud her arrival as though she were their queen. Next, it's off to Eton Prep-school where Colin and his 'date' are accosted by a friendly group of boys - shocked and surprised to discover a goddess in their midst. The afternoon concludes with a romp through the nearby woods. Marilyn goes skinny dipping and Colin - by now hopelessly bound in his puppy love - dutifully dives into the water after her. The two share a very brief kiss in the lake, then another - more tenderly sweet and prolonged on dry land, before Smith encourages that they return to the cottage to settle in for the night.
The next day Marilyn is luminous in her scenes with Olivier. Afterward, Olivier crudely suggests to Colin that it is their tryst that has made all the difference in her acting. Colin denies any sexual contact, but Lucy is bitterly wounded by the obvious affection mirrored in his eyes for Marilyn. The filming of The Prince and the Showgirl continues. As production winds down Olivier invites Colin into the screening room to view the dailies. Marilyn glows off the screen and Olivier muses that she does not even know how extraordinary she is. However, as Colin has wisely deduced for himself, the film will do nothing for either performer's image; not to advance Marilyn's desire to be taken seriously as an actress, nor transform Olivier's theatrical presence into that of an engaging film star.
As the production wraps, Colin realizes that his brief interlude with America's reigning sex symbol has come to an end just as Olivier and Roger Smith predicted. Yet, Marilyn has not used Colin merely to suit her own needs. Nor has he exploited her status to elevate his own level of importance within this cloistered film making community. As Marilyn bids Colin a polite farewell, Lucy asks "She broke your heart, didn't she?" And although Colin is unable to answer her directly, the evidence of Marilyn's impact on him is plainly obvious. "Good," Lucy quietly reasons, "It needed to be broken."
My Week With Marilyn is a superbly written, expertly played film on most every level. Michelle Williams is frighteningly on point as Monroe. There is always a danger when attempting to emulate an iconic personality - such as Marilyn Monroe - of delving too broadly into camp mannerisms that render the performance cloying as a caricature. Certainly, every star in Hollywood who has gone through her own Monroe phase (from Madonna to the late Anna Nicole Smith) has never managed to scratch beyond the surface of the Monroe mystique.
But Williams gets under Marilyn's skin. She breathes life into her art that seems very genuine and at times borders on some chilling perfection channeling Monroe's spirit. We believe her every step of the way and can almost feel a connection from beyond the grave. I can think of only two other actresses in recent times who have come this close in resurrecting a talent; Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daugther (1980) and Marion Cotillard's morphing into Edith Piaff for La Vie En Rose (2007). Of course, My Week With Marilyn would not work nearly as well if the male lead were unequal to William's central performance. Eddie Redmayne proves himself perfectly pitched to meet that challenge. His Colin Clark is the boy someone like Norma Jean Baker - before she became Marilyn Monroe - ought to have married. His performance goes beyond simple charm - although Redmayne is charming as all that.
Yet, his Clark is also a kindred spirit to William's Monroe. They are the same person in many ways, similarly occupied with dreams and aspirations that will - and can - never be fulfilled, At their core, each is a very fundamental flawed human being and that makes their 'affair' and ultimate parting all the more bittersweet for the audience. Like the greatest of love stories, these are two people who truly belong together but can never be together. The rest of the performances in the film are uniformly solid, particularly Branagh's Olivier. Branagh - revered as his generation's Olivier - captures, if not in contents, than in spirit the essence of Sir Larry's caustic wit. Judy Dench, cast as Dame Sybil Thorndike - (who had a small part in The Prince and the Showgirl) has an even smaller, but arguably more memorable role in this film. She is at once Olivier's friend, Marilyn's sympathizer and Colin's confidant.
Ben Smithard's cinematography is like looking at a gorgeous - if prolonged - vintage Kodachrome snapshot from this period. We get all the commemoration but with none of the kitsch attached. Judy Farr's costume design nicely contrasts Marilyn's simple fifties elegance against the more stoic traditionalism of Great Britain from a period, when it was hardly as great as it had once been, but still clung gallantly to its old ways. Films about Hollywood icons that actually work in filmic terms are extremely rare, but My Week With Marilyn is definitely one of them. it excels at telling its story without much punctuation or glitzy fanfare and that, perhaps, is best reason why this semi-biographical film works so splendidly as sheer art for art's sake. Bravo and heartily won kudos to all!
Alliance Home Video's Blu-ray delivers the goods. This is a beautifully rendered 1080p translation of the original filmic elements. Color has an appropriately dated appeal. Flesh tones seem natural. Contrast is stylized but nicely rendered throughout. Truly, you are in for a visual treat with this disc. The 5.1 DTS digital audio is also a winner - very much preserving the rather understated score by Conrad Pope. Extras are limited to a featurette about the real Marilyn and her recreation for this film.
One note of discontent that must be pointed out: Alliance opens this disc with a 'commercial' and then bombards the viewer with no less than six trailers for upcoming Bluray releases. These 'extras' cannot be fast forwarded, but you can advance through them - one at a time - using your chapter search button. Seriously, Alliance - 'a commerical?!?' This is just in bad taste. I, as I suspect others, buy movies on Blu-ray for the sheer appreciation of the film - not so that we can feel as though our regular broadcast monitors have never been turned off! Badly done. Nevertheless - My Week With Marilyn comes very highly recommended. This is one we'll be remembering for many years yet to come!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

YOLANDA AND THE THIEF (MGM 1945) Warner Archive Collection

Begun with lofty aspirations and high artistic sentiment, Vincente Minnelli's Yolanda and the Thief (1945) is at once a breathtaking escapist romp through some reconstituted Hispano-American Technicolor utopia, and an unreservedly bizarre fantasia that, at least in part, is too grounded by its many misfires along the way to fulfill our daydreams satisfactorily. Even as an artifact of pure Minnellian artistry, Yolanda and the Thief fails to bewitch - and this, despite some of Minnelli's most inventive staging. The screenplay by Irving Brecher is saddled by frightfully maudlin source material from Jacques Thery and Ludwig Bemelmans; fobbed off as a short story first published in Town and Country magazine. The tale is of an heiress who, having spent her formative years inside a convent, is foisted onto the unsuspecting world without first being able to fully comprehend its awful, wicked ways.
As scripted, Yolanda Aquaviva (Lucille Bremer) leaves her cloistered school to assume control of her family's financial empire. It seems Yolanda's native country, Patria is a principality governed by one family - hers. It is a warm and sunny - yet oddly sterile oligarchy, managed in Yolanda's absence by her obtuse Aunt Amarilla (Mildred Natwick) - who cannot even remember where the west wing of the house is, much less yield the necessary force or intelligence required to wisely preside over an entire country for the last eighteen years. But now, it is Yolanda's turn to manage this vast estate. Regrettably, the nuns at the convent have not prepared her for business, and more to the point, to recognize the conniving entrapment of a money-hungry swindler like Johnny Parkson Riggs (Fred Astaire). Johnny and Victor Trout (Frank Morgan), his inept partner in crime, are travelling incognito to avoid arrest for their spurious dealings states side. As Victor astutely points out, Patria has no extradition laws. Ergo, it is the perfect hideaway. Furthermore, the relative isolation of this quaint hamlet makes it ideal for Victor and Johnny to go to work on new corruptions that will fatten their wallets.
Yolanda is an obvious pigeon, dulcet and naive, convinced by Johnny that he is the earthly incarnation of her very own guardian angel. Without much contradiction, or even intervention from anyone else for that matter, Johnny relieves Yolanda of her fortunes by getting her to sign away her power of attorney. Unexpectedly, she develops a sycophantic attachment to Johnny that is more lost, desperate child in search of a father figure, rather than blossoming young woman in love with a man. Johnny is unscrupulous to the core - his repeated manipulations of this imbecilic adolescent making him a wholly unsympathetic character, all the more patronizing and tiresome as the story progresses.
In the lobby of their hotel, Johnny and Victor verbally spar with Mr. Candle (Leon Ames); a man they misperceive to be even more enterprising than themselves. Candle goads Johnny onward - though not necessarily to the destiny he has planned for himself. That evening, Johnny suffers a nightmare, and, Vincente Minnelli has his dream sequence in which our...uh...hero?... must confront his fears of wedlock and his growing, almost hypnotic attraction to the fair Yolanda. One can see shades of Minnelli's good taste scattered throughout this lengthy, misshapen ballet. Yet, at every turn the director seems unable to fully flesh out, or even reconcile Johnny's dilemma through this disjointed clap-trap of images haphazardly flung together.
If anything, the ballet illustrates Minnelli's glaring weakness; given carte blanche he is quite incapable of reigning in his own self-indulgences to compliment this simple story. Inexplicably, the ballet is interrupted midway with 'Will You Marry Me?' - one of the worst (if not, the worst) songs Arthur Freed has ever written. The lyric is trite and thoroughly out of context with the rest of the rhythmic Latin beats. Johnny awakens in a cold sweat, but is virtually unchanged in his motives. After signing away her family's fortunes to him, Yolanda finagles 'a date' with Johnny for the carnival. Very reluctantly, he agrees and then quickly finds himself embroiled in a pseudo-theologian discussion about Michael, the arch angel; Yolanda's superficial understanding of the Bible and Johnny's utter lack of knowledge making for some pretty silly conversation.
Mr. Candle oversees the couple as they segue into 'Coffee Time'; a repurposed Arthur Freed song that is more firmly rooted in Tin Pan Alley than genuine Hispanic culture, but is nevertheless the singular musical highlight in the film. Set against a very glossy monochromatic floor, Minnelli fills the vertical plain with a panacea of garishly colored dancers, before clearing the arena for Yolanda - in her sunshine yellow ensemble - and Johnny - in his soft pastel blue suit - performing a very energetic pas deux. Afterward, Johnny and Victor make for the last train out of Patria. They are informed by Candle that if the train crosses the border both will be arrested. Johnny has only one choice - to go legit, return to Patria and marry Yolanda. Only as her husband can he satisfy his own earthly lust for money and Yolanda's more connubial yearning to mate with the man she has thus far misperceived to be her ever-loyal spirit guide.
Yet, even as this plan is laid out by Candle, Johnny's selfishness cannot grasp its importance beyond pleasing himself. Johnny and Yolanda are married in a lavish ceremony at the convent and Candle finally reveals to them both that he has always been their guardian angel. Yolanda and the Thief was to have been Lucille Bremer's big MGM musical debut, following her brief appearance as Rose Smith in Minnelli's Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) and later, that same year, as the silent - but sultry - dance partner for Fred Astaire in two dramatic dance sequences from Ziegfeld Follies.
That Yolanda and the Thief marked the end, rather than the beginning, of Bremer's all too brief stint in Hollywood, came as something of a mild letdown to Minnelli, who had invested a great deal of his own visionary craftsmanship in practically every last detail. And, it must be stated that from a purely visual perspective, Yolanda and the Thief is a mesmerizing feast for the eyes, with Charles Rosher's gorgeous cinematography hauntingly surreal, yet strangely evocative of some forgotten Latino paradise. Cedric Gibbons and Jack Martin Smith's set design further enhances this intoxicating subtropical luxe.
Tragically, the characters that populate the exotic landscape are marred by a paganized view of Catholicism. Astaire is too wicked to redeem himself at the end of the film; Bremer still too much the misguided innocent unaware of Johnny's loveless intensions towards her. There is no romance here - merely the incongruous mating of two unhappy and emotionally challenged people, arguably, doomed to grow more distant and bored with one another almost immediately after the last handful of rice has been pitched. The dream sequence, an even more disturbing nocturnal hallucination than the rest of this probing exercise into romantic fantasy, is grossly overinflated. It intrudes on the story rather than augmenting it, and it makes NO sense at all - fantastical or otherwise - not even within the fanciful context of the film.
And then there is the score. This being a musical - and one of MGM's most expensively mounted to date - we expect another superlative grouping of memorable ballads and dance sequences that MGM was well known for by this time. Furthermore, the casting of Fred Astaire seems to warrant lavish production numbers in glorious Technicolor. But no. Yolanda and The Thief is sparse, almost cruelly, on its musical program. The film opens with Patria's National Anthem - an insipid sing-song trilled by a boy's soprano choral. From this rather innocuous beginning we wait nearly twenty minutes for the next interlude, 'Angel'; a perversely sexual beguine warbled by Bremer as she bathes and is then dressed by a small army of ladies in waiting.
Given that the veneer of Johnny's deception is never entirely shattered in our protagonist's mind, Astaire's performance of 'Yolanda' is strangely lighthearted, yet lustful at the same time. Regrettably, apart from the aforementioned 'Coffee Time' and an all too brief tap routine tacked onto the end of 'Yolanda', Astaire keeps his feet firmly on the ground. Even the ballet provides too few opportunities. Astaire spends most of it scurrying about a paper mache rock formation, observing Yolanda and her courtiers from a respectful distance. In all, Yolanda and The Thief's score is arguably the weakest of any Arthur Freed Unit musical - save, maybe, I Dood It (1943). Worse, the songs are eclipsed by Minnelli's overpowering visual style that tends to clutter up the screen. At any rate, Yolanda and the Thief was a costly gamble - a $2,443,704.00 grand experiment that, in hindsight, seems to have reaffirmed MGM's blind faith in their wunderkind director's ability to pull things together.
Unfortunately, the film's dull plot and cavalcade of wholly unlikable characters proved too great a hurdle for even Minnelli's artistry to conquer. Critical reaction to the picture was mixed. But audiences turned a cold shoulder to Yolanda and The Thief. It became the first unqualified financial bomb for both Freed and Minnelli. Still Minnelli did not learn his lesson. It would take the commercial flop of another musical experiment - The Pirate (1948) to convince him that his particular brand of back lot magic was perhaps a tad too sublime and too ultra-sophisticated for the general public's more standardized tastes.
Yolanda and the Thief is a Warner Archive MOD DVD release, and although not advertised as 'restored' or 'remastered' the print is in very fine shape. Age related artifacts are the biggest complaint, but even these are fairly rare. We get a lovely Technicolor image that glows richly from the screen. Surprisingly too, the visuals are crisp without appearing digitally harsh and there are no instances of color negative mis-registration. The audio is mono and in very good shape. The only extra is a badly worn theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)