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 ingĂ©nue 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)

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS: Blu-ray (Paramount 1956) Paramount Home Video

The single costliest and highest grossing film of 1956 was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments; an elephantine Bible-fiction spectacle designed to dwarf all others that had gone before it, including DeMille’s own 1923 silent version. That the resulting film is eye-popping and star studded is little wonder. On a purely visual scale, few epics before or since can lay claim to as much staggering wealth of production values. After a lengthy career, this proved to be DeMille’s final cinematic gift to the world, and what a whopper it is.
Mind-boggling are the statistics trumpeted by Paramount’s publicity department; as lengthy and involved as the film’s main title sequence. Consider just one fact: 60,000 extras dressed in as many costumes to perform the exodus scene against the largest free standing set (Seti’s city) ever built for a motion picture. The strain of micromanaging such a colossus took its toll on DeMille who suffered a major heart attack while on location, necessitating some quick subbing in by no less than the film’s star, Charlton Heston – briefly seated in the director’s chair. DeMille recovered from his coronary in a record three days and was back on the set, in charge and in command.
As film art, The Ten Commandments is not without its flaws – some of them glaring. As far as historians and Biblical scholars are concerned the research conducted has yielded an inconclusive screenplay by Joseph Holt Ingraham, Arthur Eustace Southon, Dorothy Clarke Wilson, Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jr, Jack Gariss and Frederic M. Frank in which many artistic liberties have been taken. Still, given the task of distilling one of the most pivotal passages in the Bible into a manageable movie, the screenplay is a veritable wonderment in both is comprehensiveness and its concision. If artistic liberties have been taken, and – no doubt, they have – then these have nevertheless produced a superlative text book example of the meticulously crafted classic Hollywood narrative. While the scope and size of the project is undeniably impressive, DeMille becomes a tad too preachy, too reverent as it were, and too ensconced in the factoid information that he crams into the film’s running voice over commentary. And then, of course there is the acting to consider – and reconsider.
Stylistically, The Ten Commandments is straight out of the silent era with extras and stars alike prone to grand gesticulating. This lack of subtlety arguably serves our modern perceptions of antiquity. We never think of people from the ancient world as just people going about their daily business the same as ourselves, but see them as stoic, artfully placed caricatures of human beings, more articulate than we and infinitely more thought provokingly inspired.  DeMille’s epic falls into that misconception and as such, tends to lack in genuine heart and soul. His story is a moving tableau, populated by waxworks with the most fabulous oratory skills this side of Dale Carnegie. As such The Ten Commandments becomes the ultimate example of style trumping substance.
Very loosely based on the Holy Scriptures, our story begins in the time of Ramses I (Ian Keith) who declares that ever Hebrew man child shall be put to death to stave off rumours that a Messiah has been born among them. One child slated for the slaughter is Moses (a role played as an infant by Heston’s newly born son, Fraser).  To spare his life, the child’s mother, Yochabel (Martha Scott) casts Moses upon the Nile in a floating basket quickly discovered by Egyptian princess, Bithiah (Nina Foch), who also happens to be Seti’s sister. Bithiah’s lady in waiting, Memnet (Judith Anderson) spied the Hebrew cloth the child is wrapped in and tells Bithiah she will not see this son of slaves reared in the royal house as one of their own. But Bithiah is a compassionate widow who orders Memnet to sink the basket and swear an allegiance to their secret or die for divulging the truth.
Fast forward: an adult Moses (Charlton Heston) returns triumphant to Egypt to honour Seti II’s (Sir Cedric Hardwicke) jubilee. Although the aging ruler of the two lands has a son, Ramses (Yul Brynner) he favours Moses for his humility and compassion. Whoever rules Egypt will also marry Nefritieri (Anne Baxter), a sultry temptress who also prefers Moses to Ramses and who kills Memnet to keep Moses birthright from him. Through a merciless twist of fate Moses comes to realize he was not born to the royal house and vows to seek out his people and his real family.
Meanwhile, the wily overseer Dathan (Edward G. Robinson) is seconded by Ramses to snuff out the true identity of the Hebrew’s ‘deliverer’. After Seti’s master builder Bacca (Vincent Price) is found murdered the Egyptian guard launch into a manhunt to find the stone cutter Joshua (John Derek), the last man to have supposedly seen Bacca alive, having come to the rescue his beloved water girl, Lilia (Debra Paget). But Dathan was hiding behind a pillar when Bacca was murdered by Moses. He relays this message to Ramses who exposes Moses as a fraud at Seti. The benevolent patriarch is crushed by this discovery, ordering that Moses’ name be stricken from every book, tablet and obelisk.  Nefritieri is betrothed to Ramses and Moses exiled into the desert where presumably he will die.
Instead, he receives his true calling from God and is discovered by Sephora (Yvonne DeCarlo); a lowly peasant girl tending flock with her sisters. Moses and Sephora are married and Moses returns to Egypt after Seti’s death to challenge Ramses supremacy as supreme ruler. Moses is commanded by Ramses to prove that his God is God. In response, Moses transforms his staff into a serpent. A court mystic challenges the transformation as a cheap magician’s trick by transforming his own staff into another serpent. However, when Moses’ snake devours the mystic’s the court is horrified. Ramses, however, is unmoved and unimpressed.
Next, Moses uses his staff to turn the Nile as red as blood. The inhabitants are petrified and plead with Ramses to release the Hebrew slaves from bondage. But when Ramses learns of a mountain in the Cataracts that spewed red clay into the river, he blames the Nile’s redness on a natural occurrence. Moses returns to Ramses court, declaring that forty days of darkness shall fall upon the land. Indeed, after a brief interlude the skies become dark. Hail falls to the ground, turning to fire upon the earth. Ramses threatens Moses, declaring that if another plague comes to Egypt he will turn the Nile red with the blood of first born Hebrews. Realizing that Ramses has brought about the ultimate death, Moses instructs his followers to smear lamb’s blood across their doorways to prevent the pestilence from entering their homes. Instead, the plague murders Ramses and Nefritieri’s only son.
Emotionally destroyed, Ramses releases the slaves from bondage. But as Moses leads the Israelites into the desert, Nefritieri goads her husband with the promise he once made to her – to destroy Moses. Inflamed by her words, Ramses calls the Egyptian guard to amass for the slaughter of the Hebrews who have been led to the edge of the Red Sea.  Dathan attempts to woo the terrified masses to his side with promises of clemency. But Moses draws his staff against the waters and parts the sea so that they may escape to the other side. Ramses forces are consumed when these walls of water tumble back onto the ocean floor. He returns alone to Nefritieri, humbly declaring that Moses’ “God is God!”
Yet, all is not well within the camps made at the foot of Mount Sinai. While Moses is up in the mountains receiving the divine word, his followers are seduced by Dathan to build a golden calf for worship. They indulge in all forms of debauchery. Repelled by what he sees, Moses raises the stone tablets given to him by the All Mighty in anger. He casts the word of God to the ground, the tablets shattering and creating an earthquake that swallows up all the nonbelievers. Unfortunately, Moses actions have also angered God. He is instructed to show the Israelites the path to the Promised Land but not to follow it himself. At the crossroads Moses bids farewell to Joshua and Sephora, telling them to go forward with God’s blessing.
The Ten Commandments is a monumental achievement by any standard, and yet Biblical scholars have been particularly tough in their criticisms. DeMille’s interpretation of God’s voice in particular (actually Charlton Heston’s in slo-mo) has incurred their wrath. In truth, it is rather freakishly ominous, while scholars argue that God’s first contact with Moses was less humbling and, in fact, very much more like a conversation between friends: God employing Moses as his trusted emissary on earth.
John L. Jensen and Arnold Friberg’s costume design also gets picked apart as more a nod to fifties chic re-envisioning of ancient Egyptian clothes than remaining faithful to the look of the period. And then, of course there is the narrative structure to consider. Many historians feel that the first half of the film plays like a Peyton Place retrofitted for the chariot and toga set; with palace intrigues, family incest, infidelities abounding in glorious Technicolor, while the latter half is dedicated almost exclusively to pure spectacle.  Most impressive of these latter spectacles, and the one most frequently revived when retrospectives are given, is the parting of the Red Sea. This full scale miniature was achieved in long shot using two clear glass boxes filled with blue tinted water. By gradually removing the side panels from each box and photographing the spillage at very high speeds (later played back at a regular 24 frames per second) the effect is complete and utterly jaw dropping.              
Despite these academic criticisms, film critics were mostly kind to The Ten Commandments as movie art. Audiences were overwhelmed and flocked to see the film. Adjusted into today’s inflation, The Ten Commandments has earned $446 million worldwide, making it the fifth highest grossing film of all time. It remains among the most beloved movies ever made and a perennial favourite on Palm Sunday TV broadcasts. 
Paramount’s deluxe Blu-ray easily eclipses all previous incarnations available on DVD. At long last we get to see the film in its glorious VistaVision motion picture high fidelity projection. Spread across two Blu-ray discs – broken at the intermission – The Ten Commandments has never looked more spectacular on home video. This is a reference quality presentation. Colors are bold and fully saturated. Fine detail abounds. Contrast levels yield extraordinarily velvety blacks, and pristine whites. The older DVD’s edge enhancement and pixelization are gone from the Blu-ray. This is a complete restoration effort from the ground up and the results are breath-taking. The audio has also received an impressive upgrade. It’s 5.1 DTS with a refined sonic quality, particularly in the music and effects that are spatially satisfying. As for dialogue, it’s crisp and clean.
Extras are another reason to celebrate: a brand new 75 minute ‘making of’ takes an intimate look at the larger than life figures of DeMille and Heston with fascinating back stories to tell. We also get the six part ‘documentary’ that accompanied the DVD, an audio commentary and theatrical trailer – plus DeMille’s 1923 silent version. The elements on this earlier film are badly worn. It’s still watchable, but just barely. Finally, Paramount has fleshed out the extras in flashy collectible packaging. The case parts down the middle – just like the Red Sea – revealing two faux stone tablets housing five discs – three Blu-ray and two DVD. We get a handsome booklet brimming with factoid info and original art and stills, and reproductions of telegrams from Paramount and DeMille, plus costume design inserts. Wow! What a class act! Bottom line: Paramount Home Video has outdone themselves on this presentation. A must have for any film lover! 
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)

IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER (MGM 1955) Warner Home Video

It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) was a musical begun with high expectations from the Arthur Freed unit at MGM. That the film miserably failed at the box office is perhaps more a matter of timing than a reflection of its artistic merit. There is no denying the innovative camera work, the clever use of split screen, or the dynamic songs and dances that personify the very best MGM had to offer. Yet, It’s Always Fair Weather is a difficult movie musical to digest. It eschews the light and frothy air of standard Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and An American In Paris. Its Betty Comden/Adolph Green screenplay delves into darker issues: the awkward assimilation of three soldiers back into civilian life and their falling out as friends. Indeed, the film plays much better from our current post-modern cynicism.
But in 1955, amid a decade of ‘more the merrier’ entertainments, with musicals in particular a main staple as mindless confections, decorously fleshing out their wafer thin ‘boy meets girl’ scenarios, It’s Always Fair Weather is hardly the proverbial ray of sunshine its title suggests. Rather, it is a thundershower on all that blind optimism, perhaps understandably shunned by audiences who, having just endured a decade of war, wanted nothing more from their musicals than glycerine smiles and happy endings.
Furthermore, the popularity of musicals had begun to cool by 1955. To be sure, the genre would outlive the decade, well into the 1960s, but with infrequent successes. Still, It’s Always Fair Weather is an odd duck indeed, its premise of dealing with soldiers and friendships after both cease to exist, seems the very antithesis of other ship-to-shore musicals like Anchors Aweigh (1945) and On The Town (1949), to name but two of the more successful. Whether It’s Always Fair Weather failed to live up to the memory of these past achievements is a moot point. What affected the film most negatively, at least behind the scenes, is Gene Kelly’s self-indulgences to create a star vehicle for himself at the expense of his two male co-stars. Undeniably, the part of Kelly’s Ted Riley is the most robust. Almost every plot point hinges on his character. Collaborator Stanley Donen was in constant disagreement with Kelly over just about every aspect of the film’s production, including the deletion of Michael Kidd’s solo dance.
Plot wise: Ted, Doug Hallerton (Dan Dailey) and Angie Valentine (Michael Kidd) are three soldiers returning from the war, who part company after some heavy drinking at their favourite local watering hole.  Before they separate, Ted tears a ten dollar bill into three equal portions, giving one piece to each of his friends. The trio vow to reunite in ten years to see where life has taken them. Unfortunately, time alters their expectations of each other. Ted becomes a professional gambler and boxing manager; Doug, an uppity ad executive with chronic indigestion, and Angie, the loud mouthed proprietor of a Brooklyn eatery affectionately named the Cordon Bleu. The three chums very quickly realize they have absolutely nothing in common and worse, that they hate one another. However, as fate would have it, Doug’s campaign work for the TV show ‘Midnight with Madeleine’ has fixed it so that the boy’s will suffer a surprise reunion on live television.
Ted immediately makes a play for the show’s producer, Jackie Leighton (Cyd Charisse). She finds him obnoxious at first, but predictably reassesses him as more bearable and even attractive as time wears on. Furthermore, Jackie is sympathetic to Ted’s current bind of being forced to fix a fight. Seems a pack of gangsters headed by racketeer Charlie Culloran (Jay C. Flippen) are determined that Ted’s pro throw his match. Ted intercedes, knocking his boy unconscious in the dressing room, thereby forfeiting the fight. Charlie and his boys tail Ted to the live broadcast of Midnight With Madeleine, presided over by the superficially hilarious Madeleine Bradville (Dolores Gray) where they intend to break a few of Ted’s bones. Instead, Jackie turns the cameras on Charlie, who inadvertently confesses his involvement with the fix on live TV. Charlie and his men attack Ted, but Angie and Doug come to his aid. In the ensuing brawl, Doug, Ted and Angie re-establish their friendship and Charlie and his boys are carted off to jail. Angie, Doug and Ted, with Jackie in tow, return to the bar for one final drink together. They go their separate ways, only this time secure in the knowledge that they will always remain friends.
It’s Always Fair Weather is bittersweet melodrama bundled in the melange of a typical musical. From its conflicted narrative come some of the most exhilarating numbers ever conceived for the screen. Kelly, Dailey and Kidd’s The Binge is an exuberant drunken celebration as the boy’s don metal garbage can lids to perform a clattering tap routine. Kelly’s pompous I Like Myself is a tour de force bit of bravado on roller skates (albeit unoriginal, as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had previously conceived a routine on skates for Shall We Dance 1937). Dolores Gray’s sultry lampoon, Thanks A Lot But no Thanks is a riot as she rejects jewels, furs and other gifts from a pack of hapless male suitors. Once I Had A Dream deftly reconceives the Cinemascope screen as three independent panels with Kelly, Daily and Kidd performing a soft shoe on separate sets in perfect unison. Personally, I’ve always been a sucker for Baby You Knock Me Out, Cyd Charisse’s electric dance performed with a male chorus of pug-nosed pugilists. Musically, there is much to recommend this film, and such a shame that in the end co-directors Kelly and Donen seem unable to fully reconcile the ‘feel good’ in these numbers with the film’s more downtrodden plot.
The other unforgivable sin of It’s Always Fair Weather is that it does not feature the anticipated pas deux between Kelly and Charisse. In fact, according to studio records, even the possibility of staging a romantic song or dance between these two was never discussed. In retrospect, perhaps the film is trying too hard to be an original – to break away from the time honoured conventions of the Hollywood musical and be something that the musical genre was never intended to be. Don’t get me wrong. I like It’s Always Fair Weather. But I find it a curious anomaly. Generally, it’s good. Occasionally, it’s even great. But overall, it doesn’t quite eclipse our preconceived expectations and that, I suspect, remains the biggest hurdle the film needs to overcome.
Warner Home Video’s anamorphic widescreen transfer is rather vibrant, considering the film was shot in lackluster Ansco Color – a monopack dye transfer that has since proven highly susceptible to color fading. Flesh tones do seem a tad pasty and perhaps slightly too orange. But the color on this DVD is quite passable. Though the Cinemascope image is soft at times, that excessive graininess inherent in all early scope productions, especially during dissolves and fades, is kept to a bare minimum. Fine details are nicely realized. Blacks are rarely deep, but overall the image will not disappoint. The sound has been remastered to 5.1 Dolby Digital and recaptures much of the glory of the original mag tracks. Extras include a very short featurette and some junket materials. Overall, nicely done.
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