Thursday, November 29, 2012

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT: Blu-ray (Embassy 1962) Olive Films

Based on Eugene O’Neill’s semi-biographical play about insidiously destructive family ties, Sidney Lumet’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) is a mostly compelling – occasionally tedious – but remarkably faithful adaptation of the original stagecraft. Infrequently, the director’s devotion to his source material results in some cumbersome camera set ups. Lumet, who began his career working on a shoestring budget in fast paced TV serials with even more limiting camera techniques, exploits the economy of that small screen medium for the movies. He staves off the temptation to ‘open up’ the play, relying on the briefest of exterior location work for his first act, but then isolating virtually all of subsequent scenes inside a single studio bound set.
This visualized claustrophobia doesn’t particularly hamper the production, although Lumet’s prevalent usage of extreme close ups to punctuate a line or elevate the dramatic mood of a particular moment arguably seems a much better fit for the television screen than the movies. It might have all turned to gumbo, except that Lumet is working with an exceptional cast teetering on the verge of some sublime brilliance in this ensemble piece; Katherine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, Dean Stockwell and Jeanne Barr.
Katherine Hepburn had officially entered the ‘crazy lady’ phase of her career in 1959 with a riveting portrait of the mad matriarch in Suddenly Last Summer. Many a great female star from the 1930s and ‘40s wound up in similar fare throughout the 1960s. And yet, racing through the annals of great literature one is immediately struck by the regularity of this oft conjured middle-aged woman, unflatteringly drawn as a maniacal, injurious creature devoured by her own inconsolable whims. In Long Day’s Journey Into Night Hepburn is Mary Tyrone; a careworn harpy who drowns contempt for her miserly husband and shiftless sons, and her more intimate sorrows with a reoccurring morphine addiction.
Mary was a promising young lass once. But that was a very long time ago; before she met James Tyrone (Ralph Richardson), the clever ham who turned a one hit wonder into his career. The perversity in Mary and James’ relationship is that it ping-pongs between a mutual regard and devotion and a seething repugnance that frequently rears its ugly head. The couple’s inability to keep this more unhealthy aspect of their relationship a secret has contaminated their sons; eldest Jamie (Jason Robards) and the baby of the family, Edmund (Dean Stockwell). Jamie is a boozehound who frequents bars and brothels with an unquenchable thirst to lose and/or destroy himself. Edmund, on the other hand, is a bittersweet realist, currently struggling with a diagnosis of consumption that has intruded on his limited aspirations to become a writer and poet.
Following Mary’s release from a state sanctioned recovery program for drug addiction the family has retreated to their summer home on the Connecticut coast; a large but slightly dilapidated farm house with a spacious garage where it is hoped everyone can rest, recuperate and reconcile their differences while facing their greatest challenge yet; the very real prospect that Edmund will die. Although never seen, the Tyrones readily reference Doctor Hardy – a quack who James discovered in a tavern during his own drinking days and made his family’s physician, moreover because he was cheap rather than skilled in his profession.
Indeed, as the narrative unravels, one of the irksome general complaints the family has is that James is a skinflint for just about everything except his own desire to acquire more land and real estate. Having grown up dirt poor James harbors a poor man’s angst over the possibility of slipping into poverty once again and has repeatedly refused his wife and children creature comforts they believe they deserve. He has even cheated them out of an elegant summer home. The house is a decaying ramshackle of worn knickknacks, its wallpaper peeling; its’ carpets threadbare: a very concrete manifestation for their individual illnesses of the heart and mind; hardly a home and barely homey, but a necessary evil: the one place they can hide from the world, though arguably never from themselves or each other.   
As in the play, the movie is all about revealing truth behind the collusions of this devastatingly flawed family unit: a father’s diseased and deliberate cruelty toward the woman he supposedly loves; sibling rivalry compounded by pity, disdain and fear of one’s own mortality; marital indiscretions – and the jealousy, angst, hurt and emotional chaos and baggage it has brought upon the family – and, a lost woman’s incapacity to accept her own failings as wife and mother without reverting to drugs as a crutch. Each dysfunction is explored through confrontation. What makes O’Neill’s words particularly engrossing is that there is no resolution forthcoming from this conflict.
All of O’Neill’s characters are iron-willed to the point of absurdity, ensconced in all their misguided ennui and regrets. Mary finds a scapegoat in her husband so she does not have to face the truth. But is her chiding truly heartfelt or merely a mask so that the rest of the family will ignore her renewed indulgences without having to feel ashamed?  James remains an unrepentant cheapskate – less effective in his manipulations of the family now that the boys have grown up, yet maintaining his blamelessness, even as Mary relapses into her escapist nightmare of morphine abuse and the family unit continues to crumble beyond repair all around him.
Jamie is Edmund’s rival. Despite his heartfelt and frankly bitter confession - that he has deliberately done everything in his power to corrupt his younger brother with his own vices of wine and women - Edmund cannot bring himself to truly hate his own brother. The fraternal tragedy herein is that Jamie loves Edmund. In fact, one can argue that Jamie has merely deflected his own self-loathing and resentment towards his parents, their inability to love each other or him in any sort of meaningful way, onto Edmund. But this only makes him hate himself more – the cyclical nature of his own abhorrence devouring his self-respect. The complexities of this fraternal bond create an undertow that threatens to ruin the one chance either brother has at remaining friends. Arguably, this bond will never entirely severe unless Edmund dies.
Long Day’s Journey Into Night is destructively poetic. It finds artistic measure in its weighty subject matter and manages to draw out the audience’s empathy for characters that are largely unsympathetic of their own accord. The film is slightly unbalanced by Lumet’s faithfulness to the text. His use of the long take allows for the actors to explore their characters and find the spark of electricity through raw performance. But the lack of cuts also anchors the movie more concretely to performance, as in viewing a moving tableau of live theater rather than experiencing a cinematic interpretation of the stage show.
Katherine Hepburn is particularly grand in all her halcyon madness; inspired even, while mussing her disheveled locks or stumbling about the halls, dragging a crumpled wedding dress behind her. It’s a showy part – one for which Ms. Hepburn is immensely suited. Regrettably, she is absent from almost the entire last act – a void not entirely filled by the confrontational dialogue between Ralph Richardson and Dean Stockwell. But Stockwell and Richard Robards have exceptional on screen chemistry during their bittersweet repartee; unexpected and electrifying – conveying the breadth of what must have been a severely flawed childhood that both their characters have tried so desperately since to forget. The one disappointment herein is Richardson – a gifted actor who fleetingly breathes life into his misguided patriarch, but on the whole reverts to the more epic gesturing of a stage actor that seems out of place amongst the rest of the performances.
I’ll just go on record stating that Long Day’s Journey Into Night won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. In an era when family dysfunctions were rarely discussed – and arguably never even suggested in public – O’Neill’s probing deconstruction of this atypical middleclass family had exculpatory value. In today’s social climate where everyone cannot wait to divulge their own family secrets – increasingly even to total strangers (as on reality TV shows) the play and the movie’s impact have undeniably been blunted. And the film is very much a time capsule of its vintage: further trapped by Lumet’s very obvious staging that owes more to serialized TV than a cinematic experience. Is it a good movie? Let’s just say, it has its place. Will it entertain? Mostly – yes. Is it a classic? No. But Long Day’s Journey Into Night is still a fairly fascinating way to spend a rainy afternoon.
Olive Film’s Blu-ray is an improvement on previous DVD incarnations, chiefly its overall clarity that yields a remarkable amount of fine detail in Boris Kaufman’s B&W cinematography. Close ups in particular reveal startling specifics and imperfections in hair, fabric and flesh. Location photography seems to suffer from slightly boosted contrast while interior shots look fairly accurate. A smattering of film grain is accurately represented throughout. Age related artifacts crop up now and then and are obvious, though arguably never distracting. Overall, the print elements used in this transfer are solid. The audio is DTS mono and adequately represented. Olive gives us zero extras and a very scant selection of chapter stops to choose from. Ten chapters for a 174 min. movie is unacceptable!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

VALKYRIE: Blu-ray (MGM/UA 2009) MGM/Fox Home Video

No home video review should begin by claiming that the best thing about the viewing experience is an extra feature – but there it is. I really did not care for Bryan Singers’ Valkyrie (2009); a perfunctory thriller at best that does about as much for the WWII history buff or war aficionado as discovering a maggot-coated Hersey bar wrapped in cellophane on a piece of Weimar Republic fine bone china. It’s hard to imagine any movie about 1944’s insiders’ plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler as boring. But Valkyrie unequivocally proves that you can make a sow’s ear from a silk purse, even with everybody’s universally ‘loved to be hated’ villain at the crux of the conspiracy.
Difficult to assess where the blame should go; to Christopher McQuarrie and Nathan Alexander’s rather droll, mostly factually, but completely unimaginative and lugubrious screenplay, or to Tom Cruise and the rest of the cast who do their utmost to reset our impressions of the ‘good German’ by revamping the byplay between characters so that it sounds more like cordial repartee over a game of cricket than the taut unraveling of a web of high stakes political intrigue amongst high ranking coconspirators. Has anyone in this cast ever heard a person of Germanic origin speak English before?!? No one herein even attempts an accent – not even an affected one – particularly Cruise, who compounds this glaring oversight by playing charismatic Col. Claus von Stauffenberg as though one end of a very long flagpole flying the swastika had suddenly been inserted into his rectum.
Bryan Singer should also pony up for this misfire – his pacing too pedestrian and sluggish, lacking a sense of immediacy. It’s a genuine shame none of the aforementioned live up to Bernhard Heinrich’s brilliant production design (mostly, redecorating existing locations with Nazi insignia), Cornelia Ott’s costumes and Newton Thomas Sigel’s luminous cinematography that, combined, capture the total essence of Hitler’s Germany – albeit without its throngs of sycophantic worshippers lining the streets of Berlin. It should be noted that Germany under the Fuhrer was hardly united in its praise. In fact, Valkyrie goes to great pains to dispel the myth that every soldier in the Germany army was an unrepentant Nazi stooge or gargoyle; bloodthirsty, soulless and cruel.   
At the time Valkyrie was announced for pre-production Germany’s Finance Ministry denied filmmakers access to the various locations necessary to shoot the movie; publicly citing Tom Cruise’s devotion to scientology (regarded in Germany as a cult rather than a religion) as the reason, but perhaps privately more than a little concerned to see yet another depiction of this most unflattering chapter in their country’s history gruesomely resurrected with American stereotypes to boot. Singer appealed this ruling and, after his script was reviewed, was given carte blanche and his pick of locations.
The initial appeal to do the film for Christopher McQuarrie had been a casual tour of Berlin and the Bendlerblock where a plaque is dedicated to the real von Stauffenberg and others who defied Hitler and paid the ultimate price. Knowing absolutely nothing about Stauffenberg or the 1944 plot, McQuarrie took his own crash course in wartime history before co-writing the script and then approached Singer to direct.  But perhaps Singer bit off a tad more than he could chew, certainly much more than the film’s scant 124 min. can sustain without becoming bluntly episodic in spots, and grossly glossed over it totem.
We open on a battlefield in Tunisia where Wehmacht Col. Claus von Staffenberg (Cruise) is encouraging his superior to evacuate. It is a bitter pill to swallow. Regrettably too, time has run out. Stauffenberg and the rest of his forces are attacked by RAF flyers that bomb and riddle the basecamp. Stauffenberg barely escapes this assault, losing two fingers, a hand and an eye in the process. We digress from this prologue to the first attempt on Adolph Hitler’s (David Bamber) life; a bomb implanted inside a carefully packaged cognac and ushered aboard Hitler’s private plane by Maj. Gen. Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh). Unfortunately, the bomb proves a dud and Tresckow must do some quick finagling to reacquire the liquor once the plane has landed in Berlin. After the SS arrest Maj. Gen. Hans Oster, Tresckow orders Gen. Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy) to find a suitable ‘replacement’ – meaning another conspirator who can become complicit in their espionage. Stauffenberg fits the bill.
The other elitists in this complicated plot include retired Gen. Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), Dr. Carl Goerdeler (Kevin R. McNally) and Erwin von Witzleben (David Shofield). But a second bite at the same apple is not going to be easy. The Nazis are no fools and with the tide of victory already turning against Hitler’s armed forces, treachery is suspected and investigated by the Gestapo everywhere. In the meantime, Stauffenberg accepts his commission behind a desk in the Defense Ministry, returning home to his wife, Nina (Carice van Houten) and their two children. During a bombing raid, Stauffenberg comes up with the concept of using Hitler’s own plan of deployment for the Reserve Army against the Nazi regime. There’s just one problem. Well, alright…actually two. First, Gen. Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) must approve of the plan, as he is in control of the reserves. But Fromm is a wily sort, refusing to partake in Operation Valkyrie directly, but seemingly willing to observe it as a grand – if extremely dangerous – experiment from a distance. The other difficulty is that the orders, rewritten by Stauffenberg, must receive a signature from Hitler himself for authenticity’s sake.  
Staffenberg attends Hitler in Bavaria in the presence of his trusted council, including Joseph Goebbels (Harvey Friedman), Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel (Kenneth Cranham), Reichfuhrer Heinrich Himmler (Matthias Friehof), Reich Marshal Hermann Goring (Gerhard Haase-Hindenberg) and Albert Speer (Manfred-Aton Algrang). Before these men, Hitler praises Stauffenberg’s heroism, and after a few tense moments of perusing the new orders, signs them without fail or suspicion.   
Returning to Berlin, Stauffenberg is promoted by Fromm to secure him access to ‘the Wolf’s Lair’ – Hitler’s private bunker hidden deep in the Black Forest. The plan now is to detonate a small explosive device inside this cement compound that will exude the maximum damage, killing everyone inside.  Colonel Mertz von Quirnheim (Christian Berkel) devises the use of a pencil as the bomb’s detonator while Stauffenberg persuades Gen. Fellgiebel (Eddie Izzard) to terminate all communications immediately following the bomb blast – thereby preventing the outside world from learning the truth until Operation Valkyrie can be properly executed.
On July 15, 1944 the plot is set in motion. But Himmler is not present at the bunker meeting and Stauffenberg is told to abort the mission. Despite these orders, Stauffenberg and Olbricht set the first part of Valkyrie – the mobilization of the reserves - into effect, a move that infuriates Fromm who threatens to expose them if they ever go over his head again. Later that evening Stauffenberg protests the indecisiveness of his coconspirators. In the resulting confrontation Goerdeler demands that Stauffenberg be relieved of his command. Instead, Goerdeler is informed by Beck that the SS have been tipped off and are presently seeking his arrest.
On July 20 Stauffenberg and his adjutant Lt. Werner von Haeften (Jamie Parker) make their second attempt on Hitler’s life. Too late Stauffenberg learns that the conference is being conducted in the summer barrack instead of the bunker because of the extreme summer heat. While Haeften nervously waits in the car Stauffenberg smuggles his briefcase with the bomb already armed into the meeting. He has Fellgiebel call him away at a moment’s notice, presumably with a phone call, and is barely outside the barracks when the bomb explodes. In the ensuing panic Stauffenberg assumes Hitler is dead and orders his driver to whisk him and Haeften to safety. Regrettably, Olbricht refuses to mobilize the reserves until concrete proof of Hitler’s death can be established. This oversight squanders valuable time for the plotters.
Mertz forges Olbricht’s signature, putting Operation Valkyrie into effect. The reserves descend on the party and the SS, making their arrests on masse at Stauffenberg’s command. Goebbels, who has foreseen their arrival, tucks a cyanide capsule between his teeth, telephoning the Wolf’s Lair only to learn that Hitler is still very much alive. Thus when Maj. Otto Ernst Remer (Thomas Kretschmann) arrives to seize Goebbels he is instead met with a phone call from Hitler who assures him the assassination plot has failed. Back at the Defense Ministry Strauffenberg realizes how badly he has bungled the mission. He and his coconspirators are taken by the SS to the Bendlerblock and shot for treason one at a time. A brief epilogue explains that Hitler committed suicide nine months later and that Nina and Stauffenberg’s children survived the ordeal.
Valkyrie is problematic on several levels. First and foremost is its downtrodden central narrative – the failed assassination of a universally despised historical figure – that leaves the viewer with a very hollow resolution at the end. But even without this somber scenario and its penultimate melancholy, Singer and his script have managed to diffuse and distill much of the real Stauffenberg’s heroic defiance into the pathetically bitter machinations of a disgruntled/disfigured soldier; the heroism itself becoming lost in Tom Cruise’s stoic and sullen portrayal of Stauffenberg as a man more out for personal revenge than the liberation of Germany from an unjust and utterly mad tyrant.
The second major hurdle never entirely overcome is Bryan Singer’s directorial inability to make the complex simple or even moderately fascinating. In an era where most directors would have staged the whole story in choppy edits from footage shot with a very unstable ‘steady-cam’ I really do have to commend Singer for going the old-fashioned route, employing stylish camera setups and cuts that have meaning. But he takes great pains to establish all of the players in some detail, then seems to get lost in the variables of the espionage, moving his characters around like exceptionally well-timed chess pieces that have about as much spark-generating interaction as a pile of wet kindling. The film does, in fact, briefly spring to life during the second, full blown execution of Operation Valkyrie, but by then we’ve become so bored with the previous mismanaged attempts on Hitler’s life that this latest seems foregone at the very least and very apropos.
I won’t go into the specifics of why casting doesn’t work. But apart from the general lack of attempt by anyone to even mimic a German accent we have some very fine thespians barely committed to some very inferior work. Most, if not all, have slept-walked their way through these performances – particularly Kenneth Branagh, whom I have pictured on set as giving his lines the thirty second once over before rattling them off and then making a B-line to cash in his paycheck. If that sounds glib or condescending, I’ll simply apologize herein and now. But I really don’t see a commitment on anyone’s part to ‘become’ their characters.
MGM/Fox Home Entertainment have given us Valkyrie in a breathtaking 1080p transfer. Yes, there are hints of digital noise scattered about, but on the whole the stylized image is very film-like with robust color, particularly the predominant ‘red’ in the Nazi flags. Fine detail is exceptionally realized and contrast levels are bang on. Shadow detail seems a tad crushed but there’s been no undue DNR compression applied so we won’t complain. The DTS 5.1 audio will rock the house during action sequences – with explosive bass and good separation – but sounds strangely muffled or too soft at normal listening levels during dialogue sequences. I suppose you can keep your hand on the remote and toggle back and forth between SFX laden sequences and talking scenes but why?
Extras include a pair of audio commentaries; the first from Singer, Cruise and McQuarrie, the second from McQuarrie and Alexander, a few very brief featurettes on the making of the film and behind the scenes devising of several key sequences. But without a doubt, the highlight of this disc is the 114 min. documentary The Legacy of Valkyrie’ – a thorough and comprehensive documentary in HD produced by Kevin Burns with invaluable historical merit and a phenomenal amount of Kodachrome color footage showing Hilter’s Reich at the peak of its powers. This was the best part of my personal viewing experience. As Valkyrie can readily be found at Best Buy and elsewhere for less than $10, I would strongly recommend this disc to history buffs for this extra feature alone.  Otherwise, Valkyrie is unconvincing entertainment with a very small ‘e’: two hours of my life that I can never get back. It was a waste of my time. Don’t let it waste yours.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS: Blu-ray (Universal/Alliance 2009) Universal Home Video

I’m not entirely certain what to make of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009). It’s not a remake of the 1978 shoot ‘em up quickie (with ‘bastards’ correctly spelled in its title) by Enzo Castellari, although Castellari does appear herein in a very brief cameo playing, of all things, a Nazi. It’s certainly not anywhere close to being historically accurate, but an exceptionally skewed Allied counterpoint to the propaganda movies of Leni Riefenstahl. Its bloodthirsty, scalp-collecting Jewish mercenaries fronted by a redneck general with Apache bloodlines; its Jewish female protagonist who deliciously leers and howls from beyond the grave as an audience of high ranking Nazi officials burn to death in her theater, and the explosive (literally) revenge finale that has Adolf Hitler riddled in bullets inside his box at the theater (very Abe Lincoln, if you ask me) do more than hint at subliminal anti-Semitism, or at the very least, anti-American sentiment: making the liberators as well as the victims of the holocaust appear as maniacal, morally bankrupt and self-destructive as their Nazi counterparts.  
Inglourious Basterds has all the ‘over’ and ‘undertones’ of a Sergio Leoni spaghetti western, its cavalcade of severely flawed and very anti-heroic figures managing to do some good in spite of themselves. Tarantino, a director primarily known for his tough as nails approach to most any subject matter, shows unremarkable restraint herein. His set pieces are raw and occasionally gruesome, but on the whole he seems more captivated in telling us his revisionist theory of the war years: a frankly unapologetic, and in ghastly poor taste bastardization to all those who lived through, barely survived and/or defeated the tyranny of Europe with infinitely more gracious dignity than the protagonists in this film. And yet despite its insidious amalgam of faux history and abject nightmarish fantasy, Inglorious Basterds holds together as semi-compelling – if wholly bizarre - fiction.
After Pulp Fiction Quentin Tarantino was hailed as one of the burgeoning masters in American cinema; able to cleverly exploit both the oddities and eccentricities of his own personality into an artistic milieu that simultaneously manages to revile and delight his audiences; marrying a very wicked, extremely dark sense of humor to the most perverted moral ambiguities of our steadily declining contemporary society. But in Inglourious Basterds that probative artistic license is rather inconsistently rendered with smite from an artist clearly drunk on his own reputation as an aging ‘enfant terrible’. Tarantino’s insertion of various title cards in a multitude of fonts is arbitrary at best and seemingly without any deeper meaning.
As example: it’s curious at best that our introduction to Sgt. Hugo Stigleitz (Til Schweiger), a murderous thug filled with inconsolable rage, should include a freeze frame with a massive stylized text of his name, followed by a brief back story of how he acquired his fear-inducing reputation. After this rather lavish overture Stigleitz barely speaks, is rarely seen on the screen, is given no pivotal moment to distinguish himself, and finally, is unceremoniously – and rather easily - killed in a ratskeller. Other characters receive no such ballyhoo, begging the inquiry as to why Tarantino should choose to have us focus on this one.
If a point is being made then it is beyond the analytical skills of yours truly. But it’s just the sort of contradictory diversion that Tarantino takes immense delight in perpetrating on his audience. Do such ‘in jokes’ work? Not sure. Am I supposed to get it? Again, not sure. Frankly, I’m tired of trying to figure Tarantino and this film out especially when the director has illustrated such glib gravitas toward his own work. When asked about his misspelled title Tarantino said he would never explain it. In a later interview he referenced its Basquiat quality and faithful phonetic adherence – “That’s just how you say it!” But that still doesn’t explain anything and with due deference of Tarantino, he hasn’t attained that sort of self-appointed autonomy in either his career or the social echelon yet to start inventing his own language – cinematic or otherwise. Given Tarantino’s overt and impenitent manipulation of history is it any wonder that Inglourious Basterds incurred mixed reviews upon its premiere; the pundits and praise-worthy grossly divided over its merit and overall cultural impact.
Le Monde politely criticized Tarantino for “getting lost” in his fiction; perhaps the kindest criticism the film received. Le Tablet’s Liel Liebowitz was less circumspect, arguing the movie as an “alternative to reality…where we needn't worry about the complexities of morality, where violence solves everything, and where the Third Reich is always just a film reel and a lit match away from cartoonish defeat.” By far The New Yorker’s David Denby was the most pointedly terse, likening the experience to having a “great pot of warm piss emptied very slowly over your head” describing the film in totem as “too silly to enjoy – even as a joke” and citing Tarantino as “an embarrassment” and “idiot de la cinémathèque.”  I’ll throw my own shovel of earth over this open grave by simply saying that Tarantino should stick to fiction and leave history well enough alone.  
At its best Tarantino’s screenplay is a not altogether successful mishmash of stylistic and narrative clichés, lacking his usual gutsy subterfuge to carry off the farce.  Don’t misunderstand. Inglourious Basterds has some marvelous set pieces; two in which Tarantino manages to elevate the nail-biting tension of suspense into a near interminable frenzy for his audience. There’s good stuff here. But getting to it is very much like picking at a scab with the anticipation of finding raw, but healed, soft flesh underneath, only to discover a modicum of puss still oozing from an open wound.
The film’s prologue is set in 1941 with ‘Jew hunter’ Colonel Hans Landa (played to sinister and wily perfection by Christoph Waltz) arriving at the pastoral country cottage of dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet). Landa baits LaPadite with cordial plaudits about his lovely daughters before stating the reason for his impromptu visit; that the Reich suspects him of harboring a neighboring family of Jewish farmers. To spare his own family total annihilation Perrier confesses to Landa that the family he seeks is hiding beneath the very floorboards on which they stand. Landa and his SS officers riddle the cellar with bullets, killing all but the teenage Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) who flees on foot across the open plains and miraculously manages an escape.
Fast track to 1944: American Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is recruiting Sgt. Donnie ‘the bear Jew’ Donowitz (Eli Roth), Cpl. Wilhelm Wicki (Gedeon Burkhard), Pfc. Smithson Utivich (B.J. Novak) and Pfc. Omar Ulmer (Omar Doom) for a perilous mission behind enemy lines. These Jewish-American mercenaries have one assignment: to insight fear and chaos in the Nazi high command by butchering and then scalping as many Nazi soldiers as they can. Nicknamed ‘the basterds’ this motley crew begin a reign of terror by first breaking out Sgt. Hugo Stigleitz (Til Schwieger) from a Nazi prison. Stigleitz is particularly effective with a knife, relentlessly driving his blade into his victims until they have literally been shredded to bits. Donowitz’s specialty involves bludgeoning with a baseball bat. To say that these men make the dirty dozen look like twelve altar boys just out from choir practice isn’t an overstatement. The basterds’ are a repugnant and malicious band of cutthroats with little if any socially redeeming values. Their repeated successful ambushes infuriate Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke), particularly after German Pvt. Butz (Sönke Möhring) accounts his own harrowing encounter to the Fuhrer in person.
Moving to Paris, we pick up Shosanna’s story, now masquerading as Emmanuelle Mimieux – the proprietor of a small but fashionable cinema. A willowy looker with an understandable natural distaste for German soldiers, Shosanna catches the eye of German sniper Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl); a congenial enough fellow whose heroic exploits have become the subject of Joseph Goebbels’ (Sylvester Groth) latest propaganda film, ‘Nation’s Pride’. Zoller pursues Shosanna romantically, but is repeatedly shot down for his efforts. The stalemate in this pas deux leads into Tarantino’s first flash of brilliance in the film: the unanticipated reunion between Shosanna and Landa. Escorted by a pair of storm troopers to one of Paris’ more fashionable restaurants, Shosanna is mildly relieved to discover that she has been brought there at Zoller’s behest. In fact, Zoller has suggested to Goebbels (who is also having lunch there) that the premiere of ‘Nation’s Pride’ be held at Shosanna’s theatre instead of the more grand venue as earlier planned.
The luncheon is interrupted by Landa who ingratiates himself into their conversation, then joins Shosanna for dessert. Does Landa recognize Shosanna as the girl whose back he only saw briefly as she fled in terror from LaPedite’s cottage three years earlier? Or are his slippery insinuations merely that; designed to exculpate his curiosities about this woman Zoller has suddenly taken a romantic fancy? Returning to the relative safety of her theater afterward, Shosanna conspires with her hired man and lover, Marcel (Jacky Ido) on a murderous plot of her own. On the eve of ‘Nation’s Pride’ premiere she will lock all of the Nazis inside, confront them with their atrocities and then burn down the theater.   
Meanwhile in England, film critic Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is recruited by Gen. Ed Fenech (Mike Myers) in the presence of Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor) for ‘Operation Kino’. Hicox’s contact is German film star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a double agent who, along with the Basterds will attend the premiere and plant explosives inside the theater. Regrettably, this well laid plan goes hopelessly awry. For as Stieglitz and Hicox meet Hammersmark inside a basement tavern to synchronize their plan of action, they are confronted by Staff Sergeant Wilhelm (Alexander Fehling) who is in mid-celebration over the birth of his baby son with a group of soldiers. Despite Hicox ability to speak fluent German Sturmbannführer Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) detects his ‘Anglicized’ accent. Hicox lies that he was born in a remote village of mixed origin and Hellstrom plays along, engaging the trio in a game of charades that ends when Hicox gives himself away by signaling for a round of drinks using the wrong fingers.
In the ensuing firefight everyone except Wilhelm and Hammersmark is killed, although she has sustained a gunshot wound with the bullet still lodged in her shinbone. Raine makes his presence known at the top of the stairs and attempts to negotiate a détente, giving Hammersmark just enough time to seize a gun off of Stiglitz’s body and shoot Wilhelm dead. Upon confiding her insider’s info that Hitler will be attending the premiere, Raine makes the crucial decision to go ahead with their plan. Fitting Hammersmark’s leg in a cast Raine, Donny and Omar pose as Hammersmark’s Italian escorts and her cameraman at the premiere.
But Landa is not fooled by Hammersmark, her mountain-climbing story of how she supposedly broke her leg, or her non-verbal entourage. After quietly ushering Hammersmark into one of the private offices upstairs, Landa confronts her with a shoe recovered from the tavern and the handkerchief she autographed for Wilhelm in the moments leading up to the gunfight. Unable to salvage a reply, Hammersmark is violently strangled to death and Raines taken prisoner. But it seems Landa has decided not to intervene in the Basterds plan to assassinate Hitler. In exchange for his complicity in their plot he demands immunity from all previous war crimes, American citizenship and a lifetime of financial security. Reluctantly, Raine agrees.
Meanwhile, as the screening of Nation’s Pride begins Zoller excuses himself from Goebbel’s box to slip into the projection room where he envisions a seduction of Shosanna. Instead the two fatally shoot one another to death. Prompted by a projected image of Shosanna shot earlier by Marcel and spliced into ‘Nation’s Pride’ – where she venomously extols the sublime irony of having a Jew murder Germans - Marcel, who has been waiting behind the screen with a pile of highly flammable nitrate, ignites the film stock with his lit cigarette. The theater goes up in flames and Omar and Donowitz, with TNT strapped to their ankles and rifles in hand, assassinate Hitler, Goebbels and their guards inside their private box before riddling the auditorium with bullets. Their bombs go off and the theater is destroyed in a thought-numbing explosion.
Not long after Landa and his radio operator drive Raine and Utivich across American lines. In accordance with their prearranged plan, Landa and the operator willingly surrender. But to Landa's surprise Raine reneges on their deal, shooting the radio operator in the head. He tells Landa that even though he has agreed to his freedom, he – Landa – will never truly be free of his past. Raine then uses his knife to carve a permanent swastika into Landa's forehead – a concrete reminder that he was, is and will forever remain a Nazi.
Inglourious Basterds ends on such an abysmal note of moral ambiguity that it is impossible to simply relish the irony in this final exercise of mutilation. Tarantino’s script is all over the place. The more striking vignettes – the unexpected reunion of Shosanna and Landa in the restaurant and the tavern firestorm where Stiglitz and Hicox are blown to bits are bookended by some of Tarantino’s worst attempts to tie these many narrative threads into one cohesive whole. The film is far more an ensemble piece than a star vehicle for Brad Pitt. In fact, Pitt’s mercenary yahoo from the Ozarks is one of the least engrossing characters in the film; his attempt at a redneck southerner never quite what it ought to be. He chips his dialogue with an affected accent rather than a naturalized drawl.
Rod Taylor gives us an intelligent Churchill, but Martin Wuttke’s Hitler is a daft boob with a bad comb-over and an officer’s costume rented from central casting; slamming his fist repeatedly against desks and walls, but cowering like a frightened one eyed rooster when he finds himself trapped in Shosanna’s burning theater. Which brings me to Mélanie Laurent’s aloof and cackling harridan; not believable as a fascinating caricature of the asexual harpy to be contemplated and then cast aside. The rest of the cast ranges from middling competency to downright sloppy embarrassments; Sylvester Groth, Mike Myers, Jacky Ido and Daniel Bruhl being the most painfully obvious and ineffectual of the lot.
This leaves the heavy lifting to Christoph Waltz and Diane Kruger – both batting one out of the park with their edge-of-your-seat taut and tenacious performances that are the most engrossing in the film. Kudos also to Michael Fassbender’s dashing spy, August Diehl’s diabolically malicious Nazi officer, and, Denis Menochet’s demoralized dairy farmer; brilliant cameos augmenting an otherwise inferior script. Honorable mention also to Til Schwieger’s near mute portrait of the vengeful assassin.
Inglourious Basterds isn’t the masterpiece that Tarantino hoped for and perhaps that is a shame, although in hindsight it is also of his own doing. Personally, I cannot fathom the ‘loony-tune’ mindset that would turn the factual record of history on end, claim it as artistic license, and take itself seriously – even as lowbrow entertainment. With its inexplicable slurs perpetuated on the Jewish people (basically carpet-hauling them as the aggressors of WWII while playing the Nazis as outlandish lampoons of staggering stupidity) how could Tarantino not have expected the insult to sting. With all due respect to Tarantino – I get it – due diligence and reverence to the war was never his or the film’s intent. But Inglourious Basterds is too far gone down the rabbit hole to be considered mere glib farce or even a parody in bad taste. At some level both Tarantino and the film must be taken seriously and at face value, and that makes Inglourious Basterds a very sour and extremely perverse little nothing indeed - completely undeserving of our renewed admiration for its otherwise relatively ambitious construction.  In years yet to come, Inglourious Basterds may indeed achieve cult status as a sort of delusional revision of the past. More than likely it will be relegated to the ‘anus’ rather than the annals of cinema history.
Universal and Alliance Home Video have collaborated on the release of this Blu-ray with admirable results. The image is bright and razor sharp without appearing digitally manipulated with undue DNR. Colors are bold, rich and fully saturated. Flesh tones look very natural. Fine detail is superb. Lots to admire. Ditto for the DTS 5.1 audio; really kicking into high gear during action sequences but also capturing the subtleness in hushed dialogue. Extras are a hodgepodge at best: deleted/extended scenes represented without any context, talking points expressed by Tarantino and Brad Pitt that begin and end abruptly, a making of snippet on ‘Nation’s Pride’ though curiously no such counterpart for Inglourious Basterds, the full version of ‘Nation’s Pride’; literally a sound byte from Rod Taylor (billed as ‘a conversation’) and some other press junkets haphazardly thrown together. Personally, I’m not surprised. More to the point – I’m not impressed. Bottom line: not recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, November 25, 2012

THE DUST BOWL: Blu-ray (Florentine Films/WETA Television 2012) PBS Home Video

Ken Burns’ The Dust Bowl (2012) is a sobering reminder of man’s blind-sidedness, his boundless ambition to dominate the landscape and his own incredulity when Mother Nature fights back. Burns, whose own ambitions as a documentarian film maker – part impassioned historian and storyteller/part showman tinged with more than modicum of insight into the human condition, herein has amassed a bounty as rich as the waving wheat and as devastatingly profound as the cataclysmic windstorms that all but decimated America’s breadbasket during the ‘dirty thirties’. Twenty-six survivor accounts augment a handsome assemblage of newsreels, photographic footage and private diaries that intricately chronicle the progression of one of the worst man-made ecological disasters in human history.
If it were only for Burns’ meticulous attention to detail, his ability to consolidate and present an overwhelming amount of archival materials in a clear and concise manner, then The Dust Bowl would already have a lot going for it. That he has managed to extol a more meaningful migration of thoughts and ideas, ideals and impressions that collectively humanize this ten year ordeal of near Biblical proportions into an intimate tale of survival and perseverance is both rewarding and nourishing to the mind and the soul. I don’t mind telling the reader that I shed more than a few tears throughout this sumptuous, yet stark, snapshot into America’s past; feeling both the immensity of the disaster and the heartiness of its people in my bones. 
Such is the genius and the prowess of Burns’ storytelling. Viewing The Dust Bowl is like making pilgrimage deep into that nearly forgotten timeline for which the traditional Hollywood narrative of its vintage provides no commentary, except in the occasional snippet excised from faded newsreels. But Burns’ documentary elevates the triumphs as well as the tribulations far beyond mere trifles mired in rank sentimentality. The Dust Bowl is an emotional experience, but never deliberately so in its manipulation of our emotions. Clearly this tale, like so many others told by Burns’ for PBS in the past, has come from a place very close to the film maker’s own heart; the touchstone of his formidable talents and efforts being that we genuinely suffer The Dust Bowl, not as mere memory, but as a living testament to those valiant many who defied the near certainty of their fates.
The program is divided into two, two-hour episodes; each compartmentalized under various headers that effectively take the viewer from the incubation of this man-made calamity to its unrelenting impossible ten years of imminent peril, and finally, to the resurrection of the great plains – still one of the natural wonders of the American landscape in constant threat of reverting back to those terrible days of wind and dust.  Actor Peter Coyote narrates; a superb evocation, with a distinct bearing for the careworn yet proud spirit of the American farmer, extolling his sense of blind faith and even more unseeing determination to defy the land and then, remain a fixture on its windswept barren landscape that seemingly has turned against him.
Like all great stories, The Dust Bowl finds its heroes and moments of heroism in the most unlikely and heartfelt places; perhaps most uncharacteristically in the storyteller himself. In an age where fast paced choppy edits have become the norm for cinematic storytelling, Burns relies on time-honored, evenly paced and often methodically designed ‘moving tableau’ – heavily relying on a musical leitmotif to augment his visual craftsmanship. His defiance of our more modern conventions is a breath of fresh air. Moreover, it remains truer to the timeline of the stories he is trying to tell. As such, the viewer is miraculously teleported to that simpler place, without being indoctrinated by a historical ‘lesson’.
The documentary is most effective at bottling the experience; like a rich and deeply satisfying elixir that Burns’ allows us to sip, sniff and taste. Spanning roughly 1930-39, but more specifically 1934-36, our story begins as the natural wonderment of the prairies suddenly defies its human masters. The skies refused their rain clouds and the land, unanchored by its once natural bounty of moisture barriers like wild grass and trees, becomes a lunar-like landscape where nothing will grow, despite the very best efforts of its farmers. Burns’ narrative squarely places its blame on the modern mechanization of the American farmer, his reliance on the tractor and harvest combine allowing for the strip-mining of these natural inhibitors. Burns, a staunch Democrat and Obama supporter, also manages to champion the cause of government intervention into these private and very proud lives. It’s a subtle dig, but one that suggests the people are better off when overseen and managed by a benevolent Presidential figure under government instituted work programs like the WPA.
Of course, the 1930s had Franklin Roosevelt, one of the greatest of all American presidents to rely on – an unrepentantly forceful man who cleverly masked his crippling condition of polio and outwardly represented the sort of ‘get up and go’ that so completely typified America at this particular time, especially as the country was to become challenged and pressured from all sides in the international socio-political consciousness in fast approaching war years. Roosevelt’s charisma as a great orator endures herein, and is portrayed as something of a harbinger of hope, if not immediate change, made to order for harsh times and even harsher lessons learned.
The Dust Bowl also charts the mass migration of the ‘Oakie’; men and women who, dirty and defeated, left behind everything they knew for the great California migration where they frequently found less than the land of milk and honey awaiting them as promised. The various oppression endured by these already oppressed multitudes provide for an affecting final chapter to Burns story; being put into backbreaking service in the orchards as scab labor, relegated with their families to shanty towns and work camps where living conditions were anything but sanitary, and enduring condescension from their landlords and overseers, who despised their presence while having absolutely no compunction about exploiting their proud work ethic for decidedly inferior wages.
In this final act, The Dust Bowl almost suggests a narrative of deliberate ‘extermination’ – a parallel, not only for the internal racism toward blacks and Hispanics that blanketed the American perspective at this time, but also with water-color shades foreshadowing the Nazi persecution that would engulf Europe in the decade yet to come. The Dust Bowl concludes with a foreboding epitaph – illustrating how lessons learned during the 1930's have infrequently been ignored in the intervening decades, leading to similar – if lesser realized - ecological uncertainties for the breadbasket of America.         
At four hours The Dust Bowl is one of Ken Burns’ shorter masterworks (his ‘The Civil War ran 11 hrs.), though I would argue no less affecting and at least as equally compelling. At once it will break and warm the heart with its poignant storytelling, imbuing a new-found respect for that greatest of all generations, whose resilience we so often have chosen to ignore in all our contemporary complacency. The humility of these survivors elevates The Dust Bowl to humbling, kindly gratitude for a remarkable generation that time itself has been powerless to set aside. Indeed, The Dust Bowl made me so very glad to be alive.
PBS Home Video has given us The Dust Bowl in 1080i not 1080p on Blu-ray which is a sticking point with this reviewer. But the documentary is, for the most part, well served by this transfer. The B&W stills yield a remarkable amount of clarity and fine detail, capturing the grain structure of the image. For obvious reasons, the archival newsreel footage fares less well with a barrage of modeling, streaks, scratches, and other age related damage prevalent throughout. The occasional color inserts into this otherwise monochromatic presentation are problematic. I’m not entirely sure why this is so, but there’s some video noise in the source material that reveals itself in flat colors. Skies, for example, have an odd digitized grainy look to them while blades of grass infrequently suffer from color bleeding. Judging by these results I will assume that this new footage was shot on video rather than film. The effects are not as jarring as all that, but they are present and quite obvious to the naked eye.
The DTS audio is 5.1. Obviously, you’re not watching The Dust Bowl for its gripping sound effects or phenomenally realistic stereo channeling. But I was startled by the subtle nuances; sounds of crickets or chirping birds in the side and rear channels that made my ears perk up. Extras include some fascinating deleted scenes and additional survivor comments not included in the finished film.  Bottom line: highly recommended. The Dust Bowl isn’t simply for the history lover in your family. It belongs on everyone’s top shelf!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, November 17, 2012

THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE: Blu-ray (MGM 1946) Warner Home Video

Lana Turner reinvented her on screen image as that of deliciously devious femme fatale in Tay Garnett’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946); a malignant melodrama. Turner, who had spent most of her young life as a blonde bombshell – more the star than the actress - and whose private life was faster and more loose than any of the fresh-faced debutante she had played on the big screen, became the sexually charged vixen of James M. Cain’s novel under Garnett’s skilled direction. It was a pivotal moment in Turner’s career; one that would continue to increasingly draw on a parallel between her ‘on screen’ and private lives.  
The film also starred John Garfield, a formidable talent whom Turner decidedly did not take a shine to on the set. Despite her penchant for falling in love with most – if not all of – her leading men, the rapport between Turner and Garfield remained decidedly frosty behind the scenes; a complete disconnect from the smoldering sexuality they managed to communicate together on the big screen. For Garfield, The Postman Always Rings Twice was something of a penultimate achievement. For although he would round out the decade in some very high profile movies, his roles became increasingly smaller by comparison; his status as a leading man all but dismantled by the communist ‘red scare’ that labeled him a sympathizer; the stress of which directly contributed to his premature and fatal heart attack in 1952 at the age of 39.  
The Postman Always Rings Twice is really much more of a fatalist melodrama than it is a legitimate film noir; Sidney Wagner’s plush cinematography remaining true to MGM’s bright and breezy, well lit and meticulously detailed set design. The tale is one of shadowy characters with spurious ambitions set against the backdrop of ‘Twin Oaks’ - a sunny Californian eatery. Turner plays Cora Smith, a young woman who married a much older man, Nick (Cecil Kellaway) for whose security she initially hoped would bring her all the good fortune and riches she believed she deserves. Only Nick is a realist, contented to be just what he is – the slightly bumbling proprietor of a roadside diner that caters to the passing trade along an isolated stretch of the Santa Monica highway. That doesn’t sit well with Cora however. It never has. Her ambition knows no limit.
Thus, when grifter Frank Chambers (John Garfield) happens upon Twin Oaks, having hitched a ride with District Attorney Kyle Sackett (Leon Ames), Cora is drawn to him. You see, Frank is from the wrong side of the tracks too. Cora and Frank immediately eye one another as a couple of bad eggs from the hard knock school of life. But Cora initially resists this attraction to Frank; determined not to slip back into the mire of struggle and strife from whence she pulled herself out of by marrying Nick. Frank, however, knows a bad girl when he sees one and elects to hold Cora to that low standard at every chance he gets. Her frosty reception doesn’t fool him for a minute, although she does threaten to wreck his chances of keeping the job Nick has offered him – that of a hapless hash slinger and gas pump jockey at Twin Oaks.
Frank toys with the couple like a feral cat, titillating Cora’s undeniable but suppressed sexual desire for him while illustrating for her that he can get Nick to comply with just about any suggestion he makes. Cora has been after a new neon sign for the eatery, but it’s Frank who convinces Nick to invest the money after an unexpected storm damages the old wooden plaque that used to hang by the side of the highway. Cora is amused, though hardly impressed with Frank’s manipulation of her husband. She chides Nick for being so damn complacent and congenial, but quickly apologizes – realizing that he will never change.
A few moonlight swims later and Cora is Frank’s girl; thriving off the illicit passion she has been starving from in her marriage to Nick. Although Nick probably suspects something is afoot, he refuses to concede that his wife has become involved with the man he sincerely took under his wing as the son he never had. Cora confides to Frank that she is tired of living this way and that her greatest ambition is to be her own boss and run things her way. Frank suggests that they run away together – a move attempted while Nick is out on business. But each quickly realizes that without Nick’s money to sustain them they are merely two shiftless drifters worse off than they are now. Returning to Twin Oaks, Cora and Frank plot to murder Nick and make it all look like an accident. Their first attempt is a feeble one at best, rigging the bathtub for electrocution. Nick is shocked in the incident, but survives and is taken to hospital; his injuries hardly life threatening.
D.A. Sackett smells a rat and investigates, casually interrogating Frank and Cora while keeping a watchful eye on both. But the pair are clever indeed, and without Nick’s corroboration – he really doesn’t believe that his wife and her lover are out to do him harm – Sackett has no choice but to back off and let the inevitable play itself out. For once tested, Frank and Cora will likely make another attempt on Nick’s life. But how? The deed cannot take place at home. It would be too obvious.  
Upon Nick’s release from the hospital, life at Twin Oaks returns to normal. Cora is doting and Frank begrudgingly skulks about the backdrop, all the while plotting. Eventually, Frank devises a plan to go for a drive after Nick has had a bit too much to drink. The threesome gets into Nick’s car and drive to a remote location along a narrow pass near Malibu Lake. Frank knocks Nick unconscious with a bottle of scotch, spilling alcohol across the front seat and leaving the bottle at Nick’s feet before pushing the car off the side of a steep ravine. But the gearshift sticks and Frank is injured in the crash too.
Sackett knows he doesn’t have enough evidence to convict, or even arrest either Cora or Frank for Nick’s murder but decides to play a hunch. He threatens Frank to swear out a complaint against Cora – deeming her the mastermind of the plot to murder her husband. Fear of incrimination forces Frank’s hand, driving a wedge between him and Cora who is in fact indicted for Nick’s murder. But Cora’s defense attorney, Arthur Keats (Hume Cronyn) is a wily sort. His last minute finagling averts Cora’s confession being heard by the jury and as a result Cora receives a suspended sentence with probation, much to Sackett’s chagrin.  
Disturbed by Frank’s betrayal, Cora nevertheless cannot help herself. She and Frank reconcile and take up residence as the new proprietors of Twin Oaks, enduring repeated visits from Sackett who is still attempting to coerce a confession from Frank. With no reason to admit his complicity in the crime, Frank affords Sackett his feeble attempts, in some ways actually enjoying their verbal sparring.
By moonlight the devious pair decides to share in a swim – their last. For on the road back to the eatery Frank accidentally loses control of the car. Cora dies in the wreck and Frank – having at last used up all of his nine lives – is indicted and convicted of killing Cora; a murder for which he is decidedly not guilty. His appeals denied, Frank confides to Sackett on death row that he and Cora did indeed plot together to murder Nick and that he now realizes that ‘the postman’ has rung twice for retribution for their crime. Although he is innocent of Cora’s murder, Frank is being punished by fate for this previous indiscretion.
The Postman Always Rings Twice is an exhilarating melodrama. Yet it lacks the ‘tougher than nails’ potency to be considered a true film noir. Turner’s Cora is as evil and manipulative a femme fatale as any ever conceived for the screen. But MGM’s glossy in house style, as well as Turner’s own on screen reputation as one of the studio’s most luscious mannequins from the 40s seems to deprive, or at the very least, blunt the more harrowing and hard edged aspects of Cain’s sinister novel. Don’t get me wrong. Postman is one of the seminal masterworks of the 40s – a genuine classic with guts and an enduring reputation that will likely remain intact for centuries. But it isn’t film noir – at least not in the traditional accoutrements by which other noir movies are usually judged.
Warner Home Video’s 1080p Blu-ray improves on its DVD transfer from some years ago. Although contrast remains relatively the same, and occasionally seems just a tad bumped up, with a minimal loss of mid-range tonality, the B&W image tightens up sharpness and overall clarity with a solid smattering of grain accurately reproduced. 

The print master used in this remastering effort isn't perfect and shows its age, but not in ways that are detrimental to one's overall enjoyment of the film. Warner has also gone back to the drawing board to clean up dirt and scratches that were inherent, and occasionally rather obvious on the DVD. These have been removed for a crisp and very smooth transfer that will surely not disappoint.
The DTS audio remains in mono as originally recorded but adequately represented. In addition to a documentary on John Garfield – that was included on Warner’s DVD – the studio has also given us ‘Lana Turner: A Daughter Remembers’ – Cheryl Crane’s semi-affectionate ode to her mother that used to be part of The Bad and The Beautiful DVD’s extra features. None of these extras are in HD but don’t look all that bad in standard def anyway. Bottom line: highly recommended!      
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, November 16, 2012

THE DOCTOR/STELLA: Blu-ray (Touchstone 1991/1990) Mill Creek Entertainment

“We place our faith in their skill. We lay our lives in their hands. But sooner or later we realize they are only human…and we hope that they notice we are too.”
I recall so well this tagline to Randa Haines’ The Doctor (1991), quietly believing the truth in its sentiment. I didn’t have a particularly good doctor myself back then, you see. But I was relatively grateful in the complacent way we all are when good health persists that prevented me from seeing him as often as I cared to. In more recent times, as someone who has desperately needed compassionate care, only to discover it in very short supply from practicing physicians in my own home town, I find Haines’ movie and its precepts frankly illuminating.
Personally, I think The Doctor ought to be required viewing for every medical student currently studying to become the next Albert Schweitzer. And if I may, before segueing into my review of the film, I should like to offer a bit of my own advice to the doctors of the world who have misappropriated their training with a feeling of smug superiority that has completely obscured the purpose for their practice. 
Dear doctors: your degrees should do something more for humanity than simply afford you a comfortable lifestyle. The craft of medicine is undoubtedly scientific. But the art of practicing it should never supersede the understanding that those who come to you do so out of necessity and quite often anxious desperation, for which you are required to do more than simply nod and scribble down something that no one other than a pharmacist can read on a prescription pad.
Ever since I first saw it I have admired The Doctor for the valuable lessons learned the hard way by its protagonist, Dr. Jack MacKee; a self-appointed mandarin of the medical profession who dismisses, and even more unconscionably frowns upon the legitimate concerns his patients have until he too is forced to face a life-threatening illness from the inside of his lab coat.  It wasn’t until I lost a beloved aunt to cancer that the film’s more meaningful message; reassessing the importance of one’s own time and being sincere and kind toward others in spite of our more critical nature to be judgmental, suddenly became the truly invaluably and enriching message I gleaned from the movie.  
Based on Dr. Edward Rosenbaum’s 1988 novel, ‘A Taste of My Own Medicine’, The Doctor is the story of Jack MacKee (played to perfection by William Hurt). A successful surgeon whose thriving L.A. practice affords him a comfortable lifestyle with wife, Anne (Christine Lahti) and young son, Nicky (Charlie Korsmo), Jack lacks an essential ingredient to be truly great in his profession: an understanding heart. When a patient recovering from open heart surgery confides to him that her husband is not intimate with her since the operation, Jack cruelly quips that she is just like a Playboy centerfold – and has the staples right down her middle to prove it.
Jack’s partner, Dr. Murray Kaplan (Mandy Patinkin) is an equally devil-may-care sort. But his comeuppance arrives early on when former patient, Mr. Richards (Richard McKenzie) files a lawsuit, having suffered a debilitating stroke as a result of his operation. Kaplan is understandably unnerved. After all, his livelihood and privileges at the hospital are at stake. But Jack confidently assures Murray that he will testify at the formal inquest on his behalf, despite not knowing any of the particulars of Mr. Richard’s case.
On the home front Jack and Anne seem happy – or perhaps ‘happily distracted’ is a better word for it. Each is busy with their career, viewing home and family as something merely fitted between the hours committed to work.  While returning from a dinner party that has gone off particularly well, Jack develops a coughing fit. Anne is alarmed when Jack expels more than a few specks of blood onto his clothes, as well as her own and in her hair. The next day Jack makes an appointment with oncologist, Dr. Leslie Abbott (Wendy Crewson); a rather clinically disinterested sort who treats her patients more as specimens than people with legitimate concerns. After a cursorily examination, Dr. Abbott asserts that Jack has a growth in his throat requiring a biopsy. The news is hardly calming, more so when the results come back positive. Jack has throat cancer.
Forced to endure the same round of evasive tests and endless barrage of paperwork, Jack is scheduled for radiation therapy to shrink his tumor. But he still sees himself as apart from the other patients, his intolerance toward waiting his turn, delays and missteps made by the medical support personnel grating on his nerves, but also incurring the displeasure of fellow patient, June Ellis (Elizabeth Perkins) who is being treated with aggressive chemotherapy for an inoperable brain tumor.
The initial meeting between Jack and June is anything but cordial. She lays it on the line for him and he, believing she just needs to get over herself, condescendingly tells June that she will fully recover from her condition, just as a former patient of his father’s did. This news, wholly fabricated, gives June the necessary hope to continue her treatments. Ironically, her grace and empathy towards the other patients slowly begins to rub off on Jack. He befriends June and the two share stories about their lives – with Jack omitting the fact that he is a doctor.
Inevitably, June learns the truth – that he is – and furthermore that the patient Jack described to her was made up to make her feel better. Jack begins to understand cancer from a patient’s perspective – something he never before considered. A bond develops between June and Jack that is mutually rewarding. In the meantime, Jack’s relationship with Anne has begun to deteriorate. Believing that she has no concept of what he is going through, Jack gravitates to June platonically for moral support. After a mix up of hospital records results in Jack being given a barium enema after his second biopsy – which yields the disastrous result that not only has Jack’s tumor not shrunk with radiation, but has actually grown since the treatments, Jack slowly comes to believe that perhaps Leslie Abbott is not the right doctor to perform his operation.
Confronting Abbott in her office with his concerns, Jack is treated to a litany of excuses and even more frigid disdain for his questioning. In response, Abbott flings Jack’s file at him and storms off. Jack decides to have Dr. Eli Blumfield (Adam Arkin) perform his surgery instead. In the past, Jack has been critical, to downright condescending toward Eli – whom he has nicknamed ‘the rabbi’ to remain popular with his own fair-weather friends – but whose ethics, integrity and bedside manner he has long admired from afar.
Jack applies his own newfound compassion to his latest patient, Mr. Maris (William Marquez) who is fearful of his own pending heart replacement surgery. Mrs. Maris (Lillian Hurst) tells her husband that she believes true compassion is a quality of the heart, and after seeing the way Jack is in calming her husband’s anxieties she believes that he is the surgeon for the job. As Murray’s inquest nears Jack decides to investigate Mr. Richard’s case with an unbiased eye, particularly after he witnesses Mr. Richard lock his keys in his car. Unable to articulate his distress because of the aftereffects of his stroke, Mr. Richard is grateful when Jack steps in. Promising to have Mr. Richard’s keys left for him at the front desk by the time his deposition is over, Jack investigates Mr. Richards’ file privately, learning that a simple test would have alerted Dr. Kaplan to the dangers of proceeding with the operation. In response to this discovery Jack informs Murray that he cannot stand behind his decision at the deposition – a move that effectively severs their lifelong friendship.
Determined to do something nice for June, Jack learns that she has long desired to see a concert given by an American Indian performing arts ensemble. The group is currently performing in Arizona. On a whim and a spree Jack rents a car and calls his secretary to order tickets ahead. Whisking June off with all speed, an ecstatic June suddenly becomes unnerved. She tells Jack that the concert is not as important to her now. At her request, Jack parks the car off to the side of the road and the two share intimate stories as they watch the sun set against the mesa.  
As the date for Jack’s operation approaches he confides in June that he is terrified about what the future will bring; a fear she tries to, but cannot entirely quell for him. Afterward Jack goes home and June begins to write him a letter. Several days pass and Jack receives a page informing him that June has slipped into a coma. He rushes to her bedside, tenderly holds her hand and talks to her until she quietly dies. The next day Jack submits to his own surgery – and although entirely successful, Eli informs Anne that there may be some irreversible damage to Jack’s vocal chords. For a few days after his surgery Jack uses a whistle and an erasable clap board to communicate with Anne. Having been wounded by his lack of faith in her these many weeks, Anne is skeptical. But Jack rallies to her side and in a spontaneous moment utters that he loves her, proving that his vocal chords will eventually recover from the surgery.
Jack has been transformed for the better by these experiences. In response to his becoming a better doctor he institutes a plan of action to convince his interns that they must be more engaged human beings in order to become better doctors. Assigning each intern a particular illness, Jack prescribes the necessary round of tests that each intern will one day prescribe for their patients. Only by going through the process themselves will they truly share in the experience. Returning to his office, Jack is astonished to find that someone has forwarded June’s letter to him.
He rushes to the rooftop where June first bared her soul to him and reads the letter to himself; a parable about a farmer who successfully managed to scare off all the animals from his crops, then realized that he desperately missed their company. So he went into the fields and stretched out his arms to welcome them back. But the animals never returned, fearful of the farmer’s ‘new scarecrow’. The letter concludes with June’s own commentary. “Dear Jack,” she reasons, “Let down your arms and we’ll all come home.”  Realizing the wisdom in this parable, Jack smiles and tilts his head toward the sky with the understanding that the friendship he shared with June will always be a part of him.
The Doctor is likely to be an emotional viewing experience for just about anyone who has suffered through the regimented dictates of a profession that frequently treats its clientele as mere billing numbers on a page. William Hurt and Elizabeth Perkins strike just the right chord; genuine, heartfelt and thoroughly nurturing throughout. Perkins in particular delivers an extraordinary performance. Not knowing her as an actress back in 1991 I recall thoroughly buying into her understated portrait of a woman facing down her own mortality alone, with grace, dignity and consideration towards others. Hurt’s turn as the callous professional transformed into compassionate caregiver is quite simply poetic. For obvious and very personal reasons I cannot recommend this film enough. It should – and must – be seen.
Inexplicably, Mill Creek Media has decided to release The Doctor with another Touchstone catalogue title, John Erman’s Stella (1990); the painfully bad remake of 1939’s Stella Dallas costarring Bette Midler and Trini Alvarado. I won’t go into Stella’s plot in quite so much detail – for the simple fact that Mill Creek has rather unceremoniously dumped the film on the market as a toss away with a thoroughly substandard 720p transfer bumped to a 1080p signal.
But in this remake, Stella Claire (Bette Midler) is an unfashionable, often crude and thoroughly determined Boston gal whose heavy partying leads her into the arms of medical student, Stephen Dallas (Stephen Collins). The two become lovers and Stephen makes plans to marry Stella and begin their life together. One problem: Stella quickly realizes that she is outclassed by her lover’s ambitions and his family.
She can never belong to his world – not really – and after getting pregnant with his child elects to break up with Stephen in favor of raising their daughter, Jenny (effectively played by Ashley Peldon age 3, Alisan Porter age 8 and Trini Alvarado as a teen/early twenty-something) by herself. Of course, Stephen helps out when he can. He also moves on with his own life and marries Janise Morrison (Marsha Mason) – a cultured jetsetter who proceeds to embrace Jenny as her own and help shape her future in promising ways.
Stella becomes resentful of this maternal intervention. Meanwhile Jenny is emotionally hurt after a romantic weekend with Boston blue blood, Pat Robbins (William Macnamara) goes nowhere, and briefly rebels by hooking up with reprobate, Jim Uptegrove (Ben Stiller) instead. Stella breaks them apart, thereafter moving heaven and earth to see that Jenny and Pat are reunited. But she abstains from her daughter’s penultimate moment of happiness, Jenny’s marriage to Pat – realizing that in order to preserve Jenny’s joy she must set aside her own.
The self-sacrificing Barbara Stanwyck did in the 1939 original was both heartwarming and heartbreaking at the same time. Stanwyck’s Stella was a low class dame with high ideals, but with the guts and good sense to carry it off. Midler’s Stella is merely a bumpkin outclassed by virtually anyone who circulates outside her own limited circle of friends. Contemporizing the story also robs it of its quaint melodramatic appeal. Midler and Alvarado have some good onscreen chemistry, but the story as reconstituted for the contemporary audience is undernourished by a pedestrian screenplay from Robert Getchell.
The narrative waffles away from its central theme of maternal martyrdom to include some silly vignettes that are meant to lighten the overall mood of the piece, which frankly, is quite abysmal and heavy-handed. Midler’s performance is problematic at best – struggling to find her character between bipolar moods of motherly charm and excruciating crass behavior. It doesn’t work and neither does the truncated way Getchell quickly rushes through the finale, with Midler unable to resurrect anything but the memory of Stanwyck’s tear-stained matron affectionately staring through a rain soaked window at her daughter’s ultimate moment.  
Now, for some good news. The Doctor is a tru-HD 1080p upgrade. This becomes quite evident from the moment the movie begins to play. The image is crisp without being artificially enhanced. Grain is evident and accurately represented. Colors exhibit a characteristically dated quality – not faded – with flesh tones slightly pinkish at times. Age related damage has been cleaned up for a very clean visual presentation. As such The Doctor looks fairly close to the way I remember it theatrically. Contrast is good and fine detail is evident, particularly during close ups. This isn’t a perfect transfer to be sure, but it commits forgivable sins.
Stella is an entirely different matter. From the first to last moment the print used is hopelessly marred by an excessive amount of age related damage – dirt, scratches, nicks and chips that belie the movie only being thirty two years old. Worse, there’s been some digital manipulation, evident in some minor edge effects and a liberal application of DNR that obliterates fine detail. Colors are pasty pale, with flesh tones appearing piggy pink. Yuck! The image looks a shay better than an average tube broadcast with rabbit ears.
The DTS audio is 5.1 on both titles but seems more refined on The Doctor with unusually solid bass and good spatiality between dialogue, music and effects. Stella sounds like a TV broadcast or rechanneled stereo rather than true stereo; odd, since I remember a more aggressive sonic experience even from my old DVD.
I’m not entirely certain how Mill Creek became the custodians of these Touchstone catalogue titles but there it is. In The Doctor’s case I have to say this transfer gets a pass with honors. In Stella’s case it’s a complete disaster, begging the question why Mill Creek would even waste their time compressing two feature length movies onto a single Blu-ray disc. I could have easily done without this one.  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
The Doctor 4
Stella 2

The Doctor 3.5
Stella  1