Tuesday, June 26, 2012

THE ARTIST: Blu-ray (Sony, Weinstein 2011) Alliance Home Video

How does one successfully turn back the hands of time? It’s a trick question filmmakers have been asking themselves since the dawn of motion pictures. For here is a medium that can – and frequently does - a convincing job of replicating the past and present, as well as predicting the future. The camera only knows what it sees; not what is reality. However, it is one of Hollywood’s minor ironies that although they readily resurrect virtually any period in human creation before our eyes, they also generally struggle with their own mythology on the contemporary screen, perhaps because when it comes to recreating Hollywood, filmmakers are faced with not one, but two incongruent and conflicting mythologies; what was Hollywood circa the 1920s-1930s, and what the outside world thought Hollywood was during this same period in time. The impression of Hollywood is far greater than its reality, and perpetuated by the fantasies Hollywood readily told about itself during its own golden age.
I’ve seen a lot of contemporary filmmakers try to recapture this essential magic – at least, stylistically, but with actors miserably failing to inhabit their meticulously crafted sets. One cannot simply ape the theatrical style of acting that used to dominate the art. One has to believe in it as the art itself. But that’s a tough nut to crack. Miraculously, Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist (2011) sidesteps practically every misfire a movie about Hollywood can make. The screenplay by Hazanavicius is basically a silent version of A Star is Born; charting the meteoric rise of one star’s career and epic crash and burn of another at the dawn of the sound era. Given our present day ‘artistic’ sensibilities for all things CGI and SFX laden, choosing to tell a story in B&W, full frame, and for the most part without a stitch of dialogue, is a fairly gusty move to say the least. Add to this the fact that The Artist has no major stars for instant box office cache and conventional wisdom would suggest that Hazanavicius has given himself an impossible hurdle to overcome.
Ah, but The Artist has Hollywood antiquity in its favour; Guillaume Schiffman’s glowing soft focus and softly lit B&W cinematography and Laurence Bennett’s breathtaking set design that does more than recreate mere atmosphere – it resurrects a bygone era in perpetuity like no film I’ve seen in a very long while. And then there is Jean Dejardin as our doomed star – a dead ringer for Douglas Fairbanks Sr. with drop dead matinee idol looks and a sly megawatt smile of pearly whites. But Dejardin does one better than looking the part. He acts like Hollywood royalty. Ditto for Berenice Bejo; a winsome, fresh faced ingénue who can melt or break our hearts with one subtle glance or panged stare.
Our story begins in 1927, the height of the silent era when more than 20 million people went to their local Bijou at least once a week. The fantasy of make believe had morphed into an assembly line industry overnight. It’s premiere night in Hollywood, a glittery assemblage fronted by silent star, George Valentin (Jean Dejardin). George’s latest feature, ‘A Russian Affair’ (a cross between Metropolis and The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse) is packing the audience in. George and his dog (Uggie) mug for fans and reporters outside the theater after the sold out engagement.
In the crowd is Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo) who inadvertently takes a tumble past the police blockade and comes face to face with George. He gives her a glower before laughing off the incident and then encouraging Peppy to share his spotlight. In an impromptu moment, Peppy leans in and kisses George on the cheek, the press capturing the moment for posterity. The next day Variety publishes a splashy spread across its front page. But to the chagrin of George’s boss, mogul Al Zimmer (John Goodman) the focus of the article isn’t on the premiere but Peppy’s kiss with the caption ‘Who’s That Girl?’.
Reading the headline, George’s jealous wife, Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) suspects an affair brewing. George does everything to quell his wife’s fears but to no avail. Meanwhile, Peppy gets a job as an extra at Kinograph Studios. George is delighted to find Peppy once more, but Al – still angry over the Variety piece – orders her off the set. George, whose stardom and clout go a long way, refuses to work unless Peppy stays. Begrudgingly, Al acquiesces and is pleasantly surprised when the public take to Peppy’s near cameo appearance. The studio gradually builds her up with bigger and better parts until she becomes a featured player with renewed success.
In the middle of shooting a ‘three musketeers’ inspired action yarn, Al halts production to invite George to an executive’s preview of a new sound test featuring George’s former co-star, Constance (Missi Pyle). The execs are over the moon for this new technology. But George fluffs it off, telling Al that if sound is the future he can have it. Realizing that George is fast becoming a relic in the business, Al quietly fires him. Disgruntled but undaunted, George decides to make his own silent feature, a sort of King Solomon’s Mines inspired safari adventure entitled, ‘Tears of Love’ starring himself. He uses a considerable chunk of his own personal fortune to finance the picture that goes way over budget.
Meanwhile, Kinograph debuts Peppy in her first talkie. On opening night, George is stunned to see line ups wrapping around the block for her picture while his own is playing to a scant few stragglers inside the cavernous theater where he once knew his biggest successes. The next day, Peppy makes a special trip to George’s Beverly Hills mansion to tell him how much she enjoyed ‘Tears of Love’. But George is rather sullen toward her, more so when Peppy’s date (Dash Pomerantz) rushes to her side to tell George that his father is a huge fan.
The 1929 stock market wipes out George’s fortunes. Doris kicks George out of their home. George and his faithful man servant, Clifton (James Cromwell) take up residence in a smaller apartment. As times become tougher, George quietly hocks his personal effects, first to a pawn broker (Ken Davitian), then to an auctioneer (Basil Hoffman) where two mysterious individuals (Ed Lauter and Beth Grant) quickly buy up just about everything they can get their hands on. Unbeknownst to George, these two work for Peppy as her maid and butler and have purchased the bulk of George’s estate on her behalf.
After he is unable to pay him a salary, George fires Clifton. The ever faithful man servant patiently waits for a reprieve all night long outside George’s house. But by early morning light Clifton and the car are gone. George suffers a nervous breakdown and in a fit of rage torches his entire private archive of movies. Fumes and smoke from the blaze render George unconscious, leaving his faithful dog to lead the rescue by summoning a policeman (Joel Murray).  Learning of George’s near fatal incident, Peppy rushes to the hospital, instructing the doctor (Harvey Alperin) to have George moved to her home for a full recovery.
When George awakens he discovers Peppy at his side. The two rekindle their romance and Clifton – who now works for Peppy – tells George to swallow his pride. For someone as self-assured as George this isn’t an easy thing to do. Harder still, when George accidentally stumbles upon all of his things sold at auction inside a cavernous storage room in Peppy’s house. Demoralized, because he thinks himself a complete failure unworthy of Peppy’s love, George goes back to the burned out shell of his apartment, determined to blow his brains out. Thankfully, Peppy arrives in the nick of time, pledging her love and devotion. The two audition for Al in a tap routine and are cast in a big budget musical. Al is elated that George can dance and asks him and Peppy if he can get just one more take. “With pleasure,” is George’s grateful reply. The camera pulls away to reveal the back stage trappings of a working Hollywood soundstage as the technicians prepare to photograph George and Peppy’s tap dance for posterity.  
The Artist is an enviable work with inspired bits of genius, especially considering its release at the height of our current era in crass ‘blockbuster’ commercialism. The film is not without its flaws and curiosities, however. For starters, Ludovic Bource’s orchestral score (which won an Oscar for Best Original Score) actually sounds as though it’s ‘borrowed’ whole portions from other well-known film compositions – most audaciously during Peppy’s frenzied rush to rescue George from his suicide attempt. I am almost certain this track is nothing more than a refurbished Bernard Herrmann cue from Vertigo.  Also, the Metropolis movie within a movie that begins our story is an overwrought bit of ham acting that really doesn’t enhance our central narrative. It doesn’t foreshadow the rest of the film either. It’s just there, and tends to drag on.
But now, for the good stuff – and there is plenty to go around. Dejardin and Bejo are the iconic silent era couple. They have genuine on screen chemistry – no small feat considering neither speaks a word for most of the film. There are inspired scenes of pure cinema magic peppered throughout. The best of these is probably Peppy’s initial ‘cute meet’ with George’s dinner jacket. She slips her hand into one of its sleeves, then pretends that it is George’s hand seductively caressing her thigh. Berenice Bejo does this moment proud, playing it strictly legit instead of for camp or laughs.
I also was moved by director Hazanavicius’ clever use of sound effects and dialogue.  In the first case, sound effects suddenly introduce George to the objects in his dressing room. A high ball clinks against George’s dressing room table. George then topples a few more items across the table’s surface, each making a corresponding sound. His dog barks and there are noises coming from outside too; the laughter of a single chorine multiplied into a cackled from many who seem to be leering at George in all his misery. He tries to scream but cannot, hearing only the sound of his own breath, heart pounding, as a lonesome wind blows between the empty sound stages. This scene ends with another surprise as George awakens from what he perceives to be a bad dream. Only, it isn’t a dream. George has just been given a glimpse into the future of movies – a future that doesn’t include him.
The last sequence in the film is also inspired in its use of the sound field, as we suddenly realize we can hear George and Peppy’s taps against the highly polished floor. At the end of a dry run through of their musical number, we hear their heavy breathing and John Goodman says the first full line of dialogue uttered in the picture; “Could you give me one more?” George grins, nods and says, “With pleasure.”  
In all, The Artist is a cunningly crafted film. That much is for certain. But it also has a definite emotional pulse that wells up unexpectedly despite its lack of dialogue. Dejardin and Bejo have obviously absorbed the art involved in making silent movies. They manage to live in their roles, not as stick figures putting on their dumb show, but as flesh and blood protagonists we can really root for and most definitely can hear in our own imaginations. Think that’s easy to do? Think again and try it sometime in front of a mirror. Or simply re-watch The Artist – it is a sublimely engaging masterwork with few equals, for very obvious reasons.
Alliance Home Video/Sony Home Entertainment and The Weinstein Company’s Blu-ray is, in a word, gorgeous. The 1080p B&W image idyllically captures the diffused glow of Guillaume Schiffman’s lush cinematography. Contrast is soft, as it should be, evoking the 1920s imperfect film stock with a hazy glimmer. Fine details pop in close up. Long shots look less refined – again, mimicking ‘old’ movie stocks. Grain is present but subdued. This is a faithful reproduction of the theatrical look of the film and it’s a winner. The audio is 5.1 DTS and very much in service of the story, understated in spots, bombastic in others. Good stuff. Extras are entertaining too. We get 2 min. of bloopers, a 22 minute ‘making of’, 45 min. Q&A with director and stars, and two additional featurettes that take us on brief tours of Hollywood, showing us the sets, costumes and cinematography employed to bring the story to life.
Final thoughts: The Artist is an exciting film in many respects, but it does tend to play more like a novelty than a true American classic of either the silent or sound era. Still, its strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. Much enjoyed, and likely to be enjoyed again in the not too distant future. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Monday, June 25, 2012

DELIVERANCE: 40th Anniversary Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1972) Warner Home Video

If I had to pick one movie that still creeps me out, John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) would be it. Here, is a weekend warrior/survivalist’s worst nightmare, and utterly terrifying because it has more than a faint whiff of verisimilitude proliferating the humid river banks where the hunters suddenly find themselves the hunted (not a good place to be in). I don’t know if author James Dickey (who co-wrote the script with Boorman) ever had such harrowing experiences in the Appalachians – or knew of anybody who did - but I prefer to think he simply made the whole thing up from scratch. I sleep better at nights that way.
I suspect that part of the everlasting appeal of Deliverance is that it is a horror story for adults who don’t readily believe in the boogie man. Perhaps that is precisely why the film proves such an unsettling experience; because it challenges our expectations about what true evil looks like, while debunking the myth that there is safety in numbers. Boorman agreed to make the film while Dickey’s novel was still in galleys. But Dickey, a poet, made something of a damn nuisance of himself on the set and was quietly asked to leave. Evidently, whatever tensions existed between these two were eventually ironed out because Dickey returned to play the part of the Sheriff.
Deliverance opens innocuously enough with the arrival of four Atlanta businessmen up for a week of roughing it on the Cahulawassee River. The boys – tough guy, Lewis (Burt Reynolds), sensitive Ed (Jon Voight), wimp Bobby (Ned Beatty) and straight shooter, Drew (Ronny Cox) have been looking forward to this weekend of male bonding in the bush. What could be more wholesome or natural? En route to the river, they come upon a backwoods enclave of hillbillies at an out of the way gas station. Drew picks up his guitar and engages one of the locals, Lonnie (Billy Redden) in an impromptu bluegrass jam session. But the boy turns away from Drew at the end of their strumming, in a strange almost catatonic state. Bobby is condescending in his opinion of the hillbillies, loudly voicing that he suspects they all suffer from inbred genetic defects. Afterward, Ed proudly declares that they are off to conquer nature. But Lewis forewarns, “You don’t conquer it. It conquers you.”
Indeed, by their first night of camping an ominous tension begins to build among the friends. Lewis suspects that despite their remote location they are not alone. These suspicions are confirmed the next afternoon when Ed and Bobby’s canoe is intercepted by a vindictive mountain man (Bill McKenney) and his toothless compatriot (Herbert ‘Cowboy’ Coward).  Ed is bound to a tree. But Bobby is forced to strip, is verbally humiliated and then viciously raped by the mountain man while Ed is forced to watch. Ed is spared a similar fate however, when Lewis happens upon the scene and kills the mountain man with his crossbow. The toothless man escapes into the forest, despite Lewis making chase.  
The psychological ramifications of what’s happened weigh heavily on Drew, who refuses to partake in the burial of the mountain man. He would rather they all go to the authorities to report Bobby’s rape. But Lewis explains that at best they would all be incarcerated and eventually found guilty of the mountain man’s murder by a group of his peers. What happens next is open for speculation. After burying the mountain man in the woods, Ed, Bobby, Lewis and Drew get back into their canoes and head down river. Ed pleads with Drew to don his life jacket but Drew refuses, suddenly shaking his head and tumbling into the rapids where he drowns. The two canoes collide and Lewis’ leg is badly broken in the white water tumble.   
Lewis tells Ed and Bobby that he suspects the toothless man is hunting them down as revenge for the mountain man’s murder.  While Bobby stays behind to look after Lewis, Ed scales the craggy embankment high above them to wait out the toothless man’s inevitable return. By first morning’s light Ed sees what appears to be the same man scanning the cliff side for Lewis and Bobby. He takes dead aim with his bow and arrow but freezes at the last possible moment, momentarily impaling himself. The man lunges for Ed and Ed strikes him with a wayward shot that mortally wounds. Ed ties the body to a chord of heavy rope and begins to lower it and himself back to the stony grotto where Lewis and Bobby are waiting. Unfortunately, the rope frays and breaks plunging Ed and his trophy corpse into the river. Resurfacing, Ed drags the body to the grotto for Bobby to identify.
Ed now becomes the leader of the group.  After sinking the toothless man’s body, he, Bobby and Lewis head down river where they make the gruesome discovery of Drew’s badly contorted remains caught between two large rocks. Ed gives a brief eulogy and then weighs down Drew. The trio make their way to the remnants of a town called Aintry where they relay their harrowing experience, Drew’s death – but minus the other murders – to Sheriff Arthur Queen (Macon Macalman), who confides in Ed that he has a brother-in-law who went hunting in the mountains a few days before but never came back.  Ed assumes he has killed Queen’s relative, but pretends not to know anything when questioned.
Lewis is taken to hospital to recuperate. But Queen places a Deputy (Lewis Crone) on his hospital room door before asking Bobby and Ed why four life jackets were recovered from their boat. Bobby becomes flustered and suggests that perhaps there was an extra one. But Ed calmly tells Queen that Drew was not wearing his at the time of his death. Unable to pinpoint the exact lie, Queen instead offers the men a warning – to never return to his county and never even think about ‘trying anything like this again’. Ed and Bobby nervously agree, then hightail it to Lewis’ room so that they can get their stories straight. Lewis pretends to be suffering from amnesia when questioned, leaving Bobby and Ed feeling secure in their deception. However, the film ends with Ed’s reoccurring nightmare, seeing a cold dead hand slowly rising from the muddy Cahulawassee.
Deliverance is superior grand guignol, deftly played with a dark voracity and an ever pervasive knack for extolling the apocalyptic from the every day. Before James Dickey left the set he played a minor cruel joke on the cast, telling each member separately that the situations depicted in his book were drawn from real life experiences, then swearing each actor to secrecy. In the end it turned out to be a lie, told to conceal the fact that Dickey had made up the novel from his own imagination.  John Boorman handpicked his cast, with Ronnie Cox and Ned Beatty being the first to sign on the project.
The director’s first choice for Ed was always Jon Voight, even though the actor was uncertain he wanted the role. Boorman told him he had just thirty seconds to decide. Voight took ten minutes but eventually signed on the dotted like. Boorman also chose to override the studio’s strenuous objections to casting Burt Reynolds as Lewis, citing Reynolds spotty track record of three failed TV series and a few minor B-movies. In the final analysis, Boorman had the ideal cast. There’s a genuine camaraderie between the stars and that’s a commodity you cannot put a price on. Without it, you have just a seedy B-movie. But Reynolds, Voight, Beatty and Cox are wholly believable as lifelong friends. As such, we invest more in their survival. It’s as though they’ve invited us along on their trip. Jon Voight gives the standout indelible performance in the film, as the shell shocked survivor who will likely never recover from his weekend in the country.     
Warner Home Video repackages yet another disc released as a single back in 2007, this time with a handsome booklet and one extra feature to whet the consumer’s appetite for a repurchase. Frankly, I’m getting rather tired of Warner’s approach to multiple issues and reissues of 1080p Blu-rays, adding one or two extras to mask the fact that they’ve been rather lax in giving us an abundance of new discs of movies yet to make the transition to hi-def. Warner’s upcoming roster looks more promising, thank heaven for that. But I digress.
This is the same 1080p transfer from 2007. That said - all the superlatives afforded that transfer still apply. This disc excels at extoling Vilmos Zsigmond’s naturalistic and grainy cinematography. Colours are bold and contrast levels are handled with superior care. The rugged foliage is vibrant with a lot of fine detail evident throughout. This transfer will surely not disappoint. The audio is identical to the aforementioned release and exhibits the same dated sonic characteristics. But it’s also quite acceptable.
Warner ports over all of the extras from 2007, including a comprehensive audio commentary by Boorman, an equally comprehensive 57 minute documentary and a retrospective featurette. Warner adds a brand new 30 minute featurette in 1080p with Reynolds, Cox, Beatty and Voight reunited at Reynold’s ‘museum’ in Jupiter Florida. Okay, I’m not complaining about this. It’s nice. But realistically, it covers a lot of the same territory as the 57 minute doc, produced back in 2007. And to what purpose?
I mean, couldn’t that money used to bring together these stars again have been spent on padding out the extras of other upcoming Blu-ray releases that have NO extras? What I would appreciate from Warner is a renewed commitment to restore and release more vintage catalogue titles that have yet to see the 1080p light of day. How about Raintree County, or The Merry Widow, or The Red Badge of Courage, or Marie Antoinette or…I could go on, but won’t. As for Deliverance – it’s a no brainer. If you don’t already own it in hi-def then you should and this new incarnation is definitely the way to go. But if you already own this one you can easily do without this repackaged re-release.  PS – what a lousy airbrush job on the cover art! P.U.!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Friday, June 22, 2012

PULP FICTION: Blu-ray (Miramax 1994) Alliance Home Video

In the opinion of this reviewer, director Quentin Tarantino is a one hit wonder. That hit is undeniably Pulp Fiction (1994); an eclectic melding of four distinct movie genres (the crime story, the suspense thriller, the screwball comedy, and the action movie) into one seamless and enthralling spectacle that rivets the audience to its seats. Tarantino’s screenplay is a brilliant patchwork of sordid stories remaining curiously aloof and fascinating unto themselves, only to crystallize into one cohesive narrative moments before the final fade out. That’s a tough sell indeed. But Tarantino knows exactly when to cut away from one story and move onto another. He doesn’t linger or divulge too much during any of these sequences, and manages the minor coup of keeping us guessing where all of this gutter depravity will lead.
But the film is also a potpourri for stellar cameos, made pointedly raw by Tarantino’s decided disregard for the niceties. In retrospect, Pulp Fiction is the movie that reintroduced audiences to John Travolta; that 70s pop icon who fizzled in the 80s and was, by ’94 considered something of a has-been in the industry. Travolta really does owe the latter half of his career and staying power to this movie. It’s a new kind of Travolta we get in Pulp Fiction and that takes a lot of guts. He’s playing against type, eschewing the clean shaven stud image that made him a star and delving more deeply into a dark, often conflicted character that is doomed to never be top dog in his chosen profession.   
The plot concerns two hit men, Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson). The two are working together for crime boss, Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) to liquidate several former associates who have double-crossed Marcellus and stolen a very valuable piece of property (more on this later). On their fool’s journey Jules and Vincent inadvertently come in contact with Ringo (Tim Roth) and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer) – a pair of amateur robbers about to hold up patrons in a restaurant in broad daylight.
The narrative unconventionally jumps about. There’s Vincent’s brief encounter with Marcellus’ wife, Mia (Uma Thurman) that almost ends with her death from an accidental drug overdose. We’re also introduced to washed-up prize fighter, Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) who refuses to take a payoff to throw his upcoming match.  Christopher Walken makes a hilarious entrance as a returning war hero whom Butch recalls giving him the gift of his late father’s watch that he concealed in his anal cavity while over in Viet Nam. Don’t ask.
Pulp Fictions major selling points are its star power and its shock value. There’s plenty to unsettle just about everyone. An intentionally disturbing rape scene involves rednecks Zeb (Peter Greene) and Maynard (Duane Whitaker) taking out their sexual frustrations on a bound and gagged Marcellus that ends only after Butch, their intended victim #2, manages to free himself and slice through Zeb with a Japanese sabre. But there’s also Vincent’s accidental assassination of Marvin (Phil LaMarr); a onetime associate of Marcellus whose head is blown off after Jules hits a speed bump. The trick in these gruesome exercises is how Tarantino manages to repel us with one act of violence – the rape – while ticking our collective funny bones with the other – the shooting of Marvin. Somewhere in between our repulsion and exhilaration comes Mia’s near death experience; having her breast bone penetrated by a stabbed injection of adrenaline to save her life.
And, of course, there is the language to consider. Pulp Fiction is not a movie for the faint of heart or Puritan sensibility. This becomes immediately apparent from the opening moments of the story when Yolanda threatens to execute every last ‘mother fucking’ one of the restaurant patrons unless they acquiesce to her demands. And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The film is riddled with cleverly timed, expertly placed profanity that is as gratuitously startling as it proves utterly hilarious. I don’t think I’ve ever sat through a two hour curse show that seemed so pleasantly amusing – or, if you prefer, profane with a purpose. It’s hard to refer to the ‘F’ word as charming, but in Pulp Fiction I think the case can be made.
Perhaps even more fascinating than how all of the parts come together in the end is just how each vignette manages to perfectly function as its own independent mini-movie. The great mystery in the film relates to what is inside the briefcase recovered by Jules and Vincent on Marcellus’ behalf. Inside is…well…we’re not exactly sure. Tarantino has always remained silent on divulging a concrete answer to explain away the curious golden glowing object inside the briefcase. During the sequence where Marcellus orders Butch to throw his fight we’re treated to our first clue – a big close up of the back of Ving Rhames’ bald pate with a giant Band Aid concealing…a scar? Again, not sure.
One interpretation of the glowing object is that it is Marcellus’ soul, fallen into the devil’s hands and therefore of the utmost importance to regain control. Question #1: If it is his soul, how did it escape his body in the first place? Question #2: once reacquired, how will it re-enter his body so that no one else can possess it? At some point I suppose one has to simply accept or refute the evidence and go with the assumption that it’s only a movie.
Since Pulp Fiction works on almost every other level, this blind acceptance is not so hard to invest in and in the final analysis Pulp Fiction is a superior action/mystery/ comedy/drama. That the film seems to have dogged Tarantino’s reputation as a brilliant innovator ever since – and mostly to his own detriment, as his subsequent movies have been unfairly compared and judged inferior to Pulp Fiction – is a shame. Still, what Tarantino has given us in this film is so good, so solidly crafted, so utterly compelling on so many levels in all its many fragmented pieces that fit so neatly together, its’ hard to fault him for perhaps failing to live up to his own legacy, because Pulp Fiction is a very tough act to follow.
New Line’s Blu-ray bests its 2 disc DVD from some years ago. The image is impressive with bold rich and vibrant colors. Contrast levels seem to have been bumped up, however. I’m not entirely certain this is in keeping with the theatrical presentation, but DNR has been liberally applied for a very ‘grain free’ visual that is decidedly not in keeping with the way I remember this film looking on the big screen. We get a sharp, but overly smooth and video-esque image. The audio is 5.1 DTS and exhibits an exhilarating spread across all five channels. Extras include extensive back story material, Tarantino’s ramblings on an audio commentary, interviews and storyboards, script pages and a ton of press release junkets – all imports from the old DVD release, but sure to please. Bottom line: Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

ANGEL FACE (RKO 1952) Warner Home Video

Otto Preminger’s Angel Face (1952) appears on Francois Truffaut’s list of the best American movies ever made. With all due respect to Truffaut, this engaging crime noir is remarkably similar to MGM’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and, in this critic’s not so humble opinion, is readily surpassed by that film noir. It isn’t that Angel Face is a bad movie. It’s a good one, in fact. But it’s hardly cutting edge or fresh in its approach of well-trodden material. Based on James M. Cain’s pedestrian murder yarn, Preminger manages to work in some minor Freudian references that generate an unsettling frost in juxtaposition to the film’s more obvious smoldering sexuality.
Our story concerns ambulance driver, Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum). Frank and his partner Bill Crompton (Kenneth Tobey) arrive at the moneyed estate of Mr. and Mrs. Tremayne one foggy evening to discover that the wife, Catherine (Barbara O’Neil) is recovering from a botched suicide attempt. Or was it murder? Cate’s hubby, Charles (Herbert Marshall) isn’t saying much but looks as though he knows more than he’s willing to tell. Ditto for the Tremayne’s cat faced daughter, Diane (Jean Simmons), whom Frank first discovers faking mournfulness and playing a dirge on the piano in the Tremayne’s stately parlour.
Frank has a girl of his own, nurse Mary Wilton (Mona Freeman). But after being belted in the kisser by Diane he’s hooked. Frank bails on a dinner date with Mary to take Diane out instead. Her flirtations are obvious. But Frank doesn’t buy Diane’s sugar and spice act for a minute. Still, with a little coaxing he dumps Mary and quits his job to become the Tremayne’s full time chauffeur. Why? Well, for the money, of course. Frank has his eye on the prize, using the Tremayne’s wealth to finance his plans for a Formula One garage.
The idea has merit and Catherine rather likes it. But Diane attempts to get Frank to despise her stepmother as much as she seems to by telling him that Catherine threw out his proposal after he left. It’s a lie and Diane’s deceptions don’t work in their anticipated hardships. But Frank starts to get ideas of his own. A botched reconciliation with Mary leads Frank right back to the Tremayne house where Diane has rigged her stepmother’s car to go in reverse when the gear is set to drive. Unaware of Diane’s tampering, Charles asks his wife to drive him into town. The two are hurled over the side of a steep ravine and die together.
Distraught over her father’s death, Diane confesses her crime but is spared a life in prison by oily attorney, Fred Barrett (Leon Ames) who gets Frank to marry Diane in order to provide them both with an alibi.  Diane and Frank beat their wrap of conspiracy to commit murder. Believing that this means she and Frank can start over, Diane returns home to find Frank packing his bags. He has decided to leave her for good. Contrite and apologetic, Diane offers to drive Frank to the station; then drives them both over the same cliff side where the Tremayne’s perished. So much for plot.
Angel Face is an interesting crime/thriller. But I still don’t see it as one of the greatest of its kind and certainly not the greatest of all time. Robert Mitchum gives us another laconic performance. We’ve seen him do it before; better, and in better films like Out of the Past, Macao, Where Danger Lives and His Kind of Woman. Personally, I have a hard time digesting Jean Simmons as the feline femme fatale. She’s mousy rather than smoldering, and just a tad too simpering to be outright sinful. Again, personal taste. Simmons and Mitchum do have some strange on screen chemistry happening between them, but it’s antiseptic at best; sort of like ‘big older brother’ watching over that dotty sister he knows needs a rubber room more than a velvet glove.
Oscar Millard, Ben Hecht and Frank S. Nugent’s screenplay keeps the action moving and the mood taut and sinister. However, there are too many narrative loopholes along the way and these most certainly threaten to sink each character’s motivations. As example: Herbert Marshall’s Charles’ motivations are never entirely or satisfactorily explained away. Clearly, Charles wants Catherine’s money and is probably even willing to kill to get it. Catherine’s botched suicide has the markings of a cheap con like Charles all over it. So why ask Cate to drive him into town? Why indeed. And why does Frank go after Diane initially? There’s nothing in their flawed first ‘cute meet’ to suggest she will be better for him than Mary. In fact, Diane exhibits a fairly unstable manner from the get go.
Frank most definitely knows she is somehow involved in Catherine’s botched suicide/murder, if not initially, then by the time he accepts his chauffeur’s position with the Tremaynes. Why is any of this a turn on to him? Yet, throughout the plot this supposedly intelligent and enterprising schemer allows himself to be manipulated, first by Diane, then by Fred Barrett. No, the more the film goes on the more Frank’s motivations unravel.
In the final analysis, Angel Face is just another noir thriller, not an A-list noir that outshines most all others. Harry Stradling’s cinematography captures the oppressive mood of a deceitful web of lies. Stylistically, there’s a lot to admire. This is a very atmospheric and spooky little film. Overall then, an interesting, though flawed, B noir.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is very good. The B&W picture has a nicely contrasted gray scale. The image is occasionally gritty, rather than grainy, and that’s a problem, especially during scenes shot at night and outdoors. There’s also a hint of edge enhancement and some shimmering of fine details. The audio is mono but adequately represented. Extras include TCM’s Private Screenings with Mitchum and Jane Russell, an audio commentary and the film’s original theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

SISTER ACT/SISTER ACT II: BACK IN THE HABIT (Touchstone 1992/93) Buena Vista Home Video

What do you get when you cross a Vegas lounge singer with a rosary? An answer is at least attempted in Emile Ardolino’s Sister Act (1992); a quaintly undernourished comedy caper scripted by Joseph Howard. If ever a movie was a one hit wonder, Sister Act is it. The trick and wonderment of the exercise is that it seems to work, at least on a purely escapist level; its superficial ‘fish out of water’ set up decorously over plastered in gangsters and nuns. Don’t get me wrong. I think this film is fun, but in a moronic way at best. The calibre of its humour can be distilled into the presence of Whoopi Goldberg. Without her, there aren’t any laughs. It’s therefore saying a lot that Goldberg acquits herself quite nicely of the role of Dolores Van Cartier, a second rate casino chanteuse on the run from her mobster boyfriend, Vince LaRocca (Harvey Keitel).
Our story begins predictably in a lounge at the Nevada Club where Delores is entertaining a few drunkards with her act. Afterward, she seriously contemplates giving up ‘the life,’ particularly since Vince has promised her that he will eventually leave his trophy wife, Connie (Toni Kalem) to be with her. Vince gives Dolores one of Connie’s fur coats, a move that infuriates Delores. In fact, she’s all set to give the coat back when she walks in on Vince and his henchmen, Joey (Robert Miranda) and Willy (Richard Portnow) icing his croupier (David Boyce) whom Vince suspects has been stealing from him.
Shell shocked, Dolores lies to Vince that she only came to thank him for his gift; then quickly hightails to the local police station to confess that she has just witnessed a murder. Lt. Eddie Souther (Bill Nunn) informs Delores of Vince’s ties to organized crime. Convinced that she knew nothing of their investigation, Eddie puts Delores in the witness protection program, posing as a nun inside St. Katherine’s, a rundown Roman Catholic parish in San Francisco, until a trial date can be set for Vince.  
The convent’s Reverend Mother (Maggie Smith) is reluctant to comply until she learns that a considerable stipend will be paid for the ailing church run by Monseigneur O’Hara (Joseph Maher).  Rechristened Sister Mary Clarence, in order to conceal her true identity from the other nuns and thus make her camouflage complete, Dolores struggles to assimilate into convent life. Her dismay is softened by the friendships she makes along the way, with curmudgeonly Sister Mary Lazarus (Mary Wickes), introvert Sister Mary Roberts (Wendy Makkena) and overly optimistic Sister Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimy).
One night, after she is certain the others have gone to bed, Dolores sneaks out to a seedy bar across the street for a little R&R. She is tailed by the other three nuns who believe she has gone there to administer to the poor. Averting a near brawl while removing the sisters from harm’s way, this foursome is ambushed by Reverend Mother who decides then and there that Dolores will join the choir. In short order Dolores reforms the pathetic choir and becomes its new director. Although their debut performance of ‘Hail Holy Queen’ at Sunday mass is a resounding success – drawing parishioners in from the street – its rock and roll styling is an affront to Mother Superior’s ears.
Monseigneur O’Hara intervenes, praising the choir and Dolores who, seizing upon the opportunity, pretends it was Mother Superior’s all along. Dolores also lies to the rest of the nuns, telling them that Mother Superior has finally decided to allow them to go out and administer to the poor in their community, something she has been exceedingly apprehensive to do. Unable to contradict Dolores without exposing the truth Reverend Mother goes along with Delores, but quietly writes the diocese to be relocated as soon as possible.
In the meantime, Vince sees Delores on television. Having put two and two together, he sends Willy and Joey to take care of her. Unfortunately, the two stooges cannot help themselves. Suspecting that Dolores has perhaps become a nun since she left Vince, both Joey and Willy fear they will go to hell if they kill her. Instead, they kidnap Dolores back to Vegas. Reverend Mother informs the rest of the nuns of Dolores’ true identity. After some consternation, the nuns and Mother Superior fly to Vegas to rescue Dolores. In the resulting chase, Vince is captured and arrested by the police. The film ends with Dolores conducting the choir for a command performance given in Pope John Paul II’s honour.
Sister Act is silly beyond stupid. Its trite plot is ably fleshed out by some stellar performances, particularly Mary Wickes and Maggie Smith. These are beloved performers we’ve come to respect from their work elsewhere. You really can’t put a price on that cache. Harvey Keitel is believable as the Mafia thug. But Bill Nunn offers a fairly diluted performance as the Lt. who sort of likes Delores…but maybe not. The screenplay and Nunn’s interpretation of his role are never quite sure – hence, neither are we. For all this dumb show, the film belongs to Whoopi Goldberg who tackles it as a pseudo-extension of her stand-up comedy.  She’s raucous when she needs to be and does the ‘who me?’ double take exceedingly well. Goldberg’s own personality goes a long way in selling us on her character. And the film is blessed that she is such a strong and dynamic presence on the screen.
Undoubtedly, more people liked – or even loved – Sister Act than not. Despite some severe lambasting from the critics, the film did solid box office, ensuring that a sequel would eventually follow. One year later, came Bill Duke’s Sister Act II: Back in the Habit (1993); a film so thoroughly misguided and rushed out the gate, simply to capitalize on the franchise, that it’s barely worth mentioning in review except to say that its script by James Orr, Jim Cruickshank and Judi Ann Mason makes the original Sister Act look like Lawrence of Arabia.
On this outing Sisters Mary Lazarus, Mary Roberts and Mary Patrick encourage Delores to give up her lucrative Las Vegas nightclub act to become a lowly music teacher at St. Francis – a once proud preparatory school fallen on hard times. The school’s administrator, Mr. Crisp (James Colburn) is attempting to hasten the school’s foreclosure. But Reverend Mother has snuck Delores in under the radar as Sister Mary Clarence once again. Given the overwhelming popularity and notoriety Delores brought to the arch diocese in the first film it’s a wonder Crisp and the school’s principal Father Maurice (Barnard Hughes) don’t know who she is.
This time around we’re asked to invest ourselves in a ‘To Sir With Love’/‘Lean On Me’ meets ‘Fame’ rescue mission scenario over some unruly inner city kids. Dolores attempts to reform her students with some tough love, then by organizing everyone into a choir that will compete at the state level.  No kidding – they win the competition and save the school from foreclosure. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Bolstering the pop diva catalogue is singer Lauryn Hill, miscast as angst ridden teenager, Rita Louise Watson whose mother, Florence (Sheryl Lee Ralph) won’t allow her to partake in the choir (because singing is a waste of time) but predictably is proud of her daughter when she disobeys her to compete. Ho-hum. Bad writing. Terrible movie.
Buena Vista Home Video has decided to make the Sister Act franchise available, squeezing both movies onto a single Blu-ray along with some extra features. A while back film restoration expert Robert A. Harris pointed out that just because Blu-ray discs afford the opportunity for greater compression is no reason to strain the format by jam-packing multiple movies – or super long single ones – onto one disc, because compression ultimately suffers. Unfortunately, no one at Disney seems to have gotten this memo. Sister Act and Sister Act II share the same side of a single disc the same way Disney’s earlier release of both Father of the Bride movies came to hi-def. While Sister Act doesn’t appear any worse for this oversight, Sister Act II looks decidedly weaker on almost every level. Good news first. 
Sister Act – the original movie – is a head and shoulders improvement over the old non-anamorphic DVD we’ve been suffering through since 1997. Colors pop. Fine detail abounds. Contrast levels are bang on. Film grain is naturally reproduced. In short, this is a very snappy 1080p visual presentation that will surely not disappoint. Can’t say the same for the sequel. The transfer on Sister Act II: Back in the Habit is the antithesis of part one. Colors are muted and dull. Fine details are weak at best, as are contrast levels. Grain even looks digitized in spots for a very gritty, and thoroughly unappealing, visual texture. If you’re a fan of Part II you won’t be amused.
The audio on both movies is 5.1 DTS but here too there are discrepancies worth noting. I think the lion’s share of compression has gone to the original movie – and rightly so - because the audio really kicked my speakers during the sparse musical sequences. By direct comparison, Part II’s musical sequences seemed less vibrant, with a weaker bass. Even dialogue in Part II sounded less crisp. I don’t think I’m imagining this.
Extras include a brief featurettes and Lady Soul’s ‘If My Sister’s In Trouble’ – a music video released at the time of the original Sister Act as a curious tie in, since the song itself never appeared in the finished movie. Bottom line: If you’re a fan of the first movie then this disc comes recommended. Disney’s done a fine job remastering the original film in hi-def. The sequel doesn’t live up to expectations – either as a movie or Blu-ray transfer. Purchase accordingly.  
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Sister Act 3
Sister Act II 0
Sister Act 4
Sister Act II 2

EVITA: 15TH ANNIVERSARY - Blu-ray (Hollywood Pictures/Cinegi 1996) Buena Vista Home Video

To say that Andrew Lloyd Webber reinvented the Broadway musical is perhaps a bit much. Still, there’s no denying Sir Andrew the titanic impact of his creations on live theater. Webber’s gift to stagecraft is his showmanship; his ability to write instantly recognizable pop operas with collaborator Tim Rice. The pop opera is perhaps the toughest nut to crack. It requires a delicate balancing act.
Too heavy on the libretto and you have a clunky heavyweight entertainment that’s trying too hard to be highbrow. Too light on telling the story through uninterrupted song and you wind up with just another ‘review’ full of bright and bouncy tunes that become forgettable as soon as the houselights come up. But Webber’s contributions have neatly fit somewhere between these polar opposites to become iconic masterworks.
In retrospect, Evita is perhaps Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first major work of cultural significance. However, turning the rather sordid life of Eva Peron into a song spectacular was a prospect not immediately embraced. Indeed, producer Robert Stigwood had hoped to entice Webber and Rice to write a new musical version of Peter Pan. That project was abandoned. But it was almost immediately replaced by an idea Webber had after hearing a radio dramatization of Eva Peron’s life on the BBC.
Beginning as a ‘concept album’ in 1972, Evita hit London’s west end four years later with an already presold score, where it became one of the most celebrated live theater events of its generation. Unhappy chance and timing for Webber and Rice that Hollywood had long since turned its back on the big splashy stage to screen musical hybrid that had been their bread and butter throughout the 1960s. Yet, in retrospect, this lack of timing seems fortuitous.
The interim between Broadway’s smash debut and this film version by Alan Parker in 1996 had given rise to pop singer Madonna – arguably the only music icon of her generation who could do justice to that role made immortal a decade earlier on the stage by Patti Lupone. Madonna’s reputation for salaciousness preceded her arrival to Argentina and created quite a bit of scandal and protest amongst the locals. Eva Peron had been – and was still widely regarded – as the country’s uncrowned princess – no less a deity than Grace of Monaco or England’s Elizabeth.
Screen heartthrob Antonio Banderas was cast in the pivotal role of Che – a sort of one man Greek chorus who bookends the play and the film’s narrative as our master of ceremonies. Che is a curious creation. In fact, Andrew Lloyd Webber had no interest in immortalizing guerrilla fighter Che Guevara when he began to write Evita. It was only after producer Harold Smith Price became associated with the project that Guevara was incorporated into the story.
But Argentina had other reasons for objecting to Evita; namely its portrayal of their most vivacious First Lady as a scheming social climber who began her career as just another prostitute in one of the country’s infamous many brothels.  Andrew Lloyd Webber worked diligently to reshape his work, along with Oliver Stone, to suit the conventions of a big budget Hollywood musical.
The narrative is told as one gigantic flashback.  After patrons to a local cinema are alerted of Eva’s passing, thereby plunging the country into a collective mourning, Che opens the musical program with ‘Oh What A Circus, What A Show’ – a deconstruction of the deity back into the woman ‘Eva Eduardo’ whom we first meet in a seedy brothel entertaining clientele (Song: Another Suitcase in Another Hall).
The social climbing Eva has other plans however, and each time she beds a new customer she finds new ways of elevating her stature (Song: Goodnight and Thank You Whoever). A singing job on the radio brings her to the attention of Gen. Juan Peron (Jonathan Price) who is eyeing his own political ambitions. The two evolve their mutual admiration into an affection that seems quite genuine but raises the dander of the Argentina’s military as well as its upper class (Song: Peron’s Latest Flame).
At first, Eva sees Peron as just another opportunity to better herself. But then something miraculous occurs. The two fall in love and are married. Both the play and the film make no apologies for each using the other to get what they want. Eva exploits the power of the radio to sell Juan to the people as their next ruler. Her campaigning works (Song: A New Argentina). Peron becomes President and Eva his First Lady, much to the chagrin of the Argentinian aristocracy, who shun Eva at every social opportunity. But it doesn’t matter. The people adore her (Song: Don’t Cry For Me Argentina), and Eva uses this newfound popularity to bring clean water, electricity and other amenities to the poor and underprivileged in her country (Song: And The Money Kept Rolling In).
Peron affords his wife unprecedented leeway to reach out to the masses because he understands how successful his Presidency has become under his wife’s manipulations. But Peron’s Privy Council don’t like Eva either, and gradually begin to hint that perhaps he would do better without her guidance and support. Realizing that the future of his regime will rely on outside world influences, Peron decides to send Eva on a goodwill European campaign (Song: The Rainbow Tour).
The excursion begins on a high note, with Eva as popular as ever in her ability to connect with the people. Unfortunately, the Pope gives Eva a polite, but rather obvious brushoff, and this begins a downward spiral in her popularity. Succumbing to a mysterious illness during her visit to France, Eva is rushed home to recuperate. She learns she has been stricken with a fatal cancer. Retiring to the Presidential palace, Eva is cared for by her adoring husband (Song: You Must Love Me). The film ends with her death, Che tormented and Peron utterly distraught over her passing, perhaps realizing that her passing is also the death knell for his Presidency.
In every sense Evita is a monumental undertaking. Moreover, in the anti-musical climate that preceded the film, it was a very gutsy move by Alan Parker. However, lest we forget that Parker is the man responsible for Fame (1980); another movie musical no one really wanted to make, but that went on to have a life of its own as a popular television series for some years thereafter. Parker knows his way around a good story and Evita is certainly a fascinating bit of history wrapped inside this big shiny tune filled extravaganza.
The score is scintillating and pulls no punches. Webber and Rice have stitched together a brutally honest, richly detailed tapestry of the life and times of Eva Peron. The only original song written expressly for the film is ‘You Must Love Me’ –  and marketed as a pop single months in advance of the film’s debut. Slick marketing. Good P.R. And it must be said that Madonna is the quintessence of Eva Peron down to the last detail. This is her finest hour in movies and such a pity that it wasn’t better received by the critics then, most of who thought her voice too thin for the more ambitious vocal arrangements. I disagree.
True enough, Madonna does not hit these tunes out of the park as Patti Lupone’s Broadway cast recordings do. But what she does is to integrate the emotional content of the character into these melodies. Her Eva Peron is not the Broadway diva selling a score, but the flesh and blood incarnation of a real woman, emotionally fragile yet passionate about her convictions. There is poignancy in Madonna’s reconceptualising of the Webber/Rice lyrics. As such the songs don’t stand out per say so much as they contribute to the general arch of the narrative. That sort of vocalization is impressive in its own right. More importantly, it works for film storytelling. The story doesn’t end when the music begins or vice versa. The result is a totally immersive cinematic experience.
Banderas is in very fine voice. His Che is an embittered jilted lover who is torn between a conflicted admiration/contempt for the girl he once knew and the frosty reception of a woman who has shunned his affections since in order to better her own circumstances. Vocally, Banderas captures the essence of Che’s frustrations, translating the Webber/Rice melodies into fiery diatribes that seer themselves into our collective memory. Jonathan Price is adequate, though not nearly as exceptional as Peron. He’s something of a disappointment when directly compared to Banderas and Madonna. That said, he isn’t awful and manages to hold his own.  
In retrospect, what I find most impressive about Evita is that it’s nearly 134 minutes of wall to wall music with very brief interludes of dialogue sandwiched between; yet there’s never a moment where the score seems to overpower the senses or make us wish the story would just come to an end. That is perhaps a hallmark of Parker’s brilliant staging. He is ably aided by Darius Khondji’s evocative cinematography that manages to recapture much of the vintage look of Argentina under Peron’s reign. In the final analysis, Evita remains one of the best Hollywood musicals made in the last 40 years.  
Buena Vista Home Video has finally come around to honouring us with a Blu-ray of this great movie. It’s about time! We’ve had to contend with one of the worst looking DVDs of all time for fifteen years. The Blu-ray gets an anamorphic transfer. That’s a step in the right direction. But there’s something strangely anaemic about the colors in this 1080p transfer. I remember seeing Evita at the theater, but don’t recall the overwhelming sepia tone being quite so faded in appearance then.
The image is dark, as is in keeping with the original theatrical presentation. And while fine detailing takes a quantum leap forward over the DVD (which wasn’t hard to do), a lot of detail simply gets lost during darker sequences. Flesh tones looked just a tad too pasty for my liking. Overall, I have to say I was underwhelmed by the visuals. They’re sharp and nicely contrasted, but again, color fidelity seems wanting.
The audio is markedly improved; 5.1 DTS with an aggressive kick. Extras include a retrospective ‘making of’ documentary with Parker and cast and crew going to Buenos Aires to affectionately wax about their involvement. We also get Madonna’s music video for ‘You Must Love Me’ and a badly worn teaser trailer. I’m going to recommend this Blu-ray because it certainly improves at every level over the lackluster DVD release. Is it perfection? Uh…no – and that’s a shame. Bottom line: recommended. 
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Friday, June 8, 2012

HONDO: Blu-ray (Batjac/Warner Bros. 1953) Paramount Home Video

The western movie takes on more ballast with john Farrow’s Hondo (1953): a probing critique of the complex relationship between the native Indian and the white settler. This intricately intertwined relationship is brought forth in the title character, Hondo Lane – a dispatcher for the U.S. Cavalry who harbours a moral integrity, intuitive respect and admiration for the First Nations peoples. Based on Louis L’Amour’s short story (later expanded into a best seller) James Edward Grant’s screenplay matures the western beyond its usual scope. This isn’t your average cowboys and Indians action/adventure per say, although if that’s all you’re looking for then the film functions on that basic level too. But there is also a moral ambiguity to the piece that blurs the western clichés into tonal shades of gray. Like Angie Lowe – the embittered woman raising an only child on an isolated ranch – we, the audience have to come to terms and our own conclusions about the American west. Farrow doesn’t provide us with any cut and dry easy answers or patriotic flag waving. The casting of John Wayne as our hero, however, softens this blow.
What does one say about John Wayne, whose impressive body of work spanned from the early talkies to the mid-1970s? If not for death, I have no doubt Wayne would still be making movies to this day and as big a box office draw as ever. There really isn’t anyone to compare – or even anyone who comes close – and that is why John Wayne remains an indestructible touchstone as iconic and resilient as the American west. The Duke gives one of his most iconic performances as Hondo – the half-Apache man unto himself who is caught between these irreconcilable worlds of the nomad and the settler. He is an accomplished gunfighter, forthright but never self-righteous, and able to see quite clearly the mistakes each side has made to the detriment of both. Duke’s Hondo is sincere and intelligent in his attempt to straddle this chasm, healing self-inflicted wounds as a nation struggles to come together.
Our story begins on Angie Lowe’s (Geraldine Page) remote New Mexico ranch. A homesteader whose husband has been gone for quite some time, Angie is raising her son, Johnny (Lee Aaker). One afternoon, Hondo Lane appears on the horizon, on foot and carrying his saddlebags and rifle. He tells Angie he lost his horse in a clash with Indians while riding dispatches for the U.S. Cavalry. Offering to ‘break’ a pair of wild bucks for Angie, if he can have one to ride to the outpost, Hondo quickly tames his ride, then proceeds to do a few menial chores around the ranch.
At nightfall Angie offer Hondo a bed on the floor inside the house. He graciously accepts. However, when Angie notices ‘Hondo’ inscribed on the rifle butt she recalls from memory the gunslinger who killed three men the previous year. Angie tries to defend herself at gunpoint. Thankfully, the first chamber is empty for safety and Hondo is spared. After loading the gun for Angie’s safety, Hondo leaves the ranch for the cavalry outpost, informing Buffalo Baker (Ward Bond) and Major Sherry (Paul Fix) that the troops they sent to bring settlers north have been slaughtered by the Apache.
Meanwhile, a band of Apaches led by Chief Vittorio (Michael Pate) and Silva (Rodolfo Acosta) arrive at Angie’s ranch. Her previous relationship with the Indians has been civil. But this time they manhandle her. Johnny rushes to his mother’s aid and nicks Silva’s ear with a single gunshot. Impressed by his bravery, Vittorio makes Johnny an Apache blood brother, then informs Angie that unless her husband returns soon she will be forced to take an Apache husband because Johnny needs a male to teach him how to become a man.
In town, Hondo gets into a barroom brawl during a poker game with boorish Ed Lowe (Leo Gordon) whom Hondo suspects as Angie’s missing husband. Feeling guilty, Hondo decides to go and see Angie to confirm his suspicions. Unaware that he is being tailed by Lowe and his ill-bred hired man (Frank McGrath), Hondo prepares to make camp for the night. After a confrontation with a pair of Indians, Hondo is forced to kill Ed who is still determined to avenge the earlier insult. Discovering a tintype of Johnny among Ed’s belongings, Hondo realizes he has just murdered Angie’s wayward husband.
The next day, Hondo is attacked by an Apache party who capture and take him to Vittorio. The tribe plan to kill Hondo to avenge his killing Silva’s brother. But when Vittorio finds Johnny’s picture in Hondo’s satchel he erroneously assumes that Hondo is Angie’s husband. Silva declares the ‘blood rite’ to avenge his brother. The men do battle with a pair of knives. Although Silva wounds Hondo in the shoulder, Hondo manages to pin his assailant to the ground, drawing his knife close to Silva’s throat and ordering him to withdraw the blood rite or die like his brother. Silva agrees and Vittorio takes Hondo to Angie who lies that he is her husband to save Hondo’s life.
As Hondo recovers from his wounds, he and Angie grow closer. Their flawed romance is interrupted by Vittorio’s arrival once again. This time the Chief asks Hondo not to join the cavalry soldiers passing through or to divulge the Apache’s location to them. Although Hondo agrees to the first request, he openly refuses the second. Respecting Hondo’s honesty and his decision, Vittorio rides off to warn his tribe. Fronted by the ineffectual Lieutenant McKay (Tom Irish) the army arrives at the ranch. One of the scouts (James Arness) attempts to barter with Hondo for keeping his silence over having discovered Ed’s body in the desert. Instead, Hondo tells Angie the truth about how he bushwhacked her husband. Angie confides in Hondo that she had no love for the man who abandoned her and Johnny for a lifestyle devoted to women, drink and gambling. At her behest, Hondo vows to never tell Johnny the truth about his father.
The army is ambushed by the Apaches in a bloody battle. Lt. McKay is badly wounded, but Vittorio is killed. Angie and Johnny join a protective wagon train heading to the army front. Twice attacked and narrowly escaping harm, the settler’s retreat. But Hondo arrives on the scene where Silva has taken up arms against them. The men do battle once more and Hondo kills Silva. This is the epitaph for the Apache way of life: a rather telling postscript lamented by Hondo as ‘a good way’ as he takes Angie and Johnny back to the fort, presumably to join their family as the boy’s surrogate father.
Hondo is an engrossing, enlightened western. There is a genuine affinity for the Chiricahua Apache. We see them as people – apart and different from the settlers and the cavalry, but hardly the embodiment of that clichéd blood-thirsty savage so readily depicted in countless other western movies. This refreshingly welcomed perspective is capped off by Hondo’s own sadness in acknowledging that the Apache must yield to the white man’s strength in numbers. But the screenplay never picks a side or hints that European colonization represents ‘the taming’ of the American southwest.
Again, John Wayne is at the very top of his game. He’s a gunslinger with a social conscience, a man unharmed – though not unchanged – by the upheaval of Native Americans. He can see the other side of what makes for a country’s manifest destiny and the view is neither progressive nor wholly inspiring, but strewn in corpses on both sides and the eradication of a simpler way of living that will never return. Geraldine Page delivers an Oscar worthy performance that manages to embrace a lifetime of regret and unhappiness, yet somehow retains the promise of a better tomorrow.
Hondo was originally shot in 3D and shown theatrically in 1.37:1 so it’s a bit disconcerting to find Paramount’s Blu-ray in 2D and 1.85:1. Frankly, I don’t understand Paramount cropping and reframing the image to accommodate widescreen monitors. OAR should have been observed!!! The Warnercolor looks quite good, given that the process itself had obvious limitations. Previous home video transfers exacerbated the shortcomings of Warnercolor – its severe grain and extremely muddy colors. For the most part, Paramount’s hi-def transfer rectifies these, although certain scenes continue to suffer from a decidedly thick and slightly blurry characteristic that is unflattering. I can overlook these shortcomings because the image overall is head and shoulders better than what we’ve seen on home video.  Colors pop. There’s a good smattering of fine detail and solid retention of film grain that is very grain like. Archie Stout’s cinematography glows, capturing the gritty essence of those sandy dunes, mesas and craggy landscapes.
There are two audio options: original mono and 5.1 DTS stereo. I’m a purist so I watched the film in mono, but can report that the battle sequences were fairly impressive when reviewed in stereo. Special features are from the 2005 SE DVD and include a comprehensive audio commentary from Leonard Maltin, Frank Thompson and Lee Aaker. We also get a 43 min. ‘making of’ chopped into three segments, a 15min. history lesson on the Apache, a 2 min. interview with the late Michael Wayne, an HD stills gallery and HD trailer. Good stuff and recommended. 
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)