Tuesday, September 25, 2012

BOND 50: Blu-ray (Eon, UA 1962-2011) MGM/Fox Home Video

To inaugurate the 50th anniversary of the most lucrative film franchise in movie history (and perhaps more importantly, to capitalize on the pending theatrical release of the latest Bond flick – Skyfall, MGM/Fox Home Video releases Bond 50 – a compendium of everything one could possibly hope for, packaged in a stylish collectible box. At long last all 22 Bond adventures are in one place, 9 making their hi-def debut. 
We begin with Terence Young’s Dr. No (1962); the movie that introduced Ian Fleming's James Bond. Young is justly credited with re-shaping a roughhewn Sean Connery into the epitome of male chic: 007 – suave, sophisticated killing machine. To those weaned on contemporary Bond, Dr. No is refreshingly tame. Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the brutal murder of British covert operator, John Strangways (Tim Moxon); is threatened and then kidnapped by the formidable Dr. No (Joseph Wise), a Eurasian mastermind with no hands, who has developed a radar toppling system directed against American missiles launched from Nassau.

Connery’s second outing, Terence Young’s From Russia With Love (1963) is a brilliant cold war thriller set in Istanbul and Venice. At the behest of the studio, Broccoli and Saltzman reluctantly agreed to change the name of Bond’s arch nemesis from SMERSH, the Russian based espionage ring, to SPECTRE an independent underworld organization, thereby diffusing whatever Cold War animosities the film might have otherwise incurred.

The plot begins in earnest with a pre-title sequence where a Bond look-a-like is assassinated by SPECTRE’s resident psychopath, Red Grant (Robert Shaw). From here, the story kicks into high gear with Russian defector, Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya) secretly engaging loyal comrade, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) to lure Bond to his death in service to the state – actually for SPECTRE. Some subversive lesbian badinage between Klebb and her protégée leaves Tatiana cold, though she quickly warms to Bond’s sinful allure. The two become lovers and Bianchi helps Bond steal a decoding device from the Russian consulate in Istanbul with the aid of Ali Kerim Bey (Pedro Armanderiz) who is working for the British.

All, however, does not go smoothly. On the Orient Express, Kerim is murdered by Grant, who poses as Bond’s British contact, drugs Tatiana then attempts to assassinate Bond. Narrowly escaping capture, Bond and Tatiana arrive in Venice, only to discover Klebb awaiting their arrival. At $78 million in worldwide box office returns From Russia With Love remains a somber entrée in the Bond franchise – darker, yet no less effective than Dr. No.

Although it ranks number three in chronology, Guy Hamilton’s Goldfinger (1964) is arguably the most perfectly realized Bond adventure of all time. After a rollicking pre-title sequence that has Bond blowing up a heroin manufacturing plant in Cuba, before electrocuting a would-be assassin in his bathtub, the real story of pursuing billionaire, Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) begins.

Goldfinger’s above board trading and business practices are merely a front for his rabid fascination to monopolize the world gold reserves. To this end, the portly villain employs flight instructor, Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) to train a troop of perky ‘sex kitten’ female pilots. Their job; fly over Fort Knox and disperse a highly lethal nerve gas so that Goldfinger can detonate a nuclear device inside its vaults, thereby rendering the U.S. gold reserve radioactive for hundreds of years.

Honor Blackman is the ultimate Bond girl – a no-nonsense, panther-like, shoot-from-the-hip and ask questions later gal; quite unlike Fleming’s introverted lesbian. The iconic moment that truly sets Goldfinger apart from any Bond adventure before or since arrives early in the story; when Bond awakens in his Miami hotel suite, after being knocked unconscious by Goldfinger’s henchman, Oddjob (Harold Sakata), to discover that his playmate of the evening, Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) has been skin suffocated with gold paint. On all accounts then, Goldfinger is a 24kt hit.
From this point in the franchise, producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman were faced with a minor dilemma; Bond had to top himself in each subsequent adventure – often with mixed reviews and most definitely with a considerable sacrifice to his character development re-shaped by an increasing emphasis on stunt work and gadgetry. These forfeits first become apparent in Terence Young’s Thunderball (1965) – an outlandish $5.6 million thriller shot in expansive Panavision.

As an artifact of the mid-1960s, Thunderball is perhaps no more resplendent or lengthy a film than many from this period. However, as a Bond adventure, Thunderball does tend to lag, particularly during its underwater sequences – the most ambitious for any film to date. During production, director Young had expressed as much concern over the film’s running time – nearly two and a half hours.

The plot concerns Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi); an agent working for Bond’s arch nemesis, the counter intelligence spy agency SPECTRE. Largo holds NATO forces captive by threatening to explode two atomic bombs he has hijacked from a Vulcan bomber. To avert total world disaster, Bond (Sean Connery) travels to the tropics where he discovers a crucial link: Largo’s kept woman; the elegant, though totally innocent Domino (Claudine Auger) who quickly redeems herself by becoming Bond’s lover and ally.

Viewed today, what is particularly rewarding about Thunderball is its inclusion of Italian actress Lucianna Paluzzi as Fiona Volpe, Largo’s femme fatale - as ruthless and deadly as Largo himself. After murdering Domino’s brother, Major Francois Derval (Paul Stassino), Fiona systematically plots Bond’s demise by luring him into a trap at the Kiss-Kiss Club – an outdoor venue where she is accidentally murdered by one of Largo’s henchmen instead.

In retrospect, the box office resiliency of Thunderball (it play on a 24 hour bill at New York’s Paramount Theater for nearly a year), cemented the fate of the next film in the franchise, Lewis Gilbert’s You Only Live Twice (1967): a grossly over-inflated super production, desperate to capitalize on the public’s fascination with the then fanciful space race.

The screenplay by Roald Dahl jettisons all but two aspects from Ian Fleming’s novel to concentrate on a wildly absurd action/gadget laden extravaganza – out-doing its predecessors to its own detriment. If anything, You Only Live Twice proves that you can have too much of a good thing. The action dwarfs the slender narrative. The stunts are deliberately showy and not integrated into the story. The Bond girl is slinkier, the villain meaner, the gadgets...well...more improbably silly - like 'Little Nellie' a pre-fab helicopter affixed with enough explosives to decimate a small village.

The one sequence that never fails to impress is the film's penultimate showdown inside an inactive volcanic crater that serves as Blofeld's improbable lair. Production Designer Ken Adam’s has outdone himself on this outrageously elephantine set, while Freddie Young's cinematography is stunning and strangely poetic. Even Lewis Gilbert's direction excels herein in a way it utterly fails to throughout the rest of the story. Budgeted at $9.5 million, You Only Live Twice was a titanic box office success, even if its worldwide gross of $111 million paled in comparison to Thunderballs record-breaking tally.

Dahl’s screenplay unfolds with a wallop; the presumed assassination of Bond (a plot devise first introduced in From Russia With Love) – designed to throw Bond’s old arch nemesis Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) off his trail. Bond is confronted by Japanese industrialist, Osato (Teru Shimada) and his femme fatale Helga Brandt (Karin Dor) who, after freeing Bond from Osato's lair, deliberately abandons him in mid-flight by parachuting out of the twin engine plane she is piloting.  Predictably, Bond survives and is introduced to wealthy underground agent, Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) and his sister Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi).

Convincing Bond to go Japanese, Tiger moves Bond and Aki to a remote island where strange occurrences have been reported by the local fisherman. Bond's cover is blown, however, and Aki is poisoned. Bond and Tiger infiltrate Blofeld's lair, sabotaging his plans to topple more American/Russian missiles, then unleash a series of explosions that result in a complete melt down of the island.

You Only Live Twice is a lengthy, often tedious excursion. It's bigger, louder and more technically proficient but lacks Thunderball’s unique blend of glib comedy and exhilarating action to make it memorable. Connery spends too much of the film laughably disguised as a Japanese peasant, his chest shaved, his eyebrow plucked and slanted, his hairpiece looking much too obvious to fool anyone. Even Connery seems ill at ease in this makeup and it affects his ability to give a credible performance. After this film Connery retired from Bond for the first time, placing the future of the franchise in jeopardy.

One of the best and sadly most underrated movies in that franchise followed: Peter R. Hunt’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) represents something of both a departure and a finale for the series. At 140 minutes it is the longest Bond adventure by far. It is also the last imbued with large full scale set pieces and super stylish ultra-‘60s chic. Producers Albert R. Broccolli and Harry Saltzman had done their best to woo Connery back into the fold. They were unsuccessful. The producers eventually settled on little known Aussie fashion model, George Lazenby who had yet to add film work to his list of professional credits. 

OHMSS is probably the single most narratively detailed Bond adventure in the entire series. It treats the character of James Bond not as the cardboard cutout of a superman (that he had rapidly become during Connery’s tenure) but as genuine flesh and blood, and with very real needs to love and to be loved. From the onset, director Peter Hunt is determined not to replicate or even mimic Connery’s iconography, but rather to allow Lazenby to discover Bond on his own terms. The pre-credit sequence features an elaborately staged fight done in silhouette on a moonlit beach that ends with a close up on Lazenby’s face and the glib one liner, “this never happened to the other fella.” The line – achieving a round of applause at the film’s premiere - was actually a throw away that Lazenby had been using on the set between takes.

Another unique aspect of OHMSS is Bond’s unmistakable affection for the Bond girl – Tracy Vincenzo (Dianna Rigg). In a series populated by buxom bimbos and fiery femme fatales, Tracy represents the Bond girl as a complete woman. Her fears and anxieties, her self-destructive nature, mirror Bond's contemplative attempts to resign from MI-6. Tracy and James are contemporaries, slightly wounded and bitter, but very much cut from the same cloth. While previous (and for that matter - subsequent) Bond adventures have exploited the 'Bond girl' as strictly a means for fleeting sexual gratification, or at the very least, diversionary eye candy, Diana Rigg's Tracy brings out the very best in Ian Fleming’s original concept of the Bond girl. Bond is genuinely moved by Tracy, rather than merely going through the motions of a transient seduction.

Richard Maibaum’s screenplay diverges into two very different narrative threads; the first, a traditional spy thriller, the other a rare opportunity to show James Bond as a man first and spy second. In an entanglement reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, Bond is assigned the task of wooing sexually frigid Contessa Teresa ‘Tracy’ Vincenzo by her father; shipping magnet, Marc Ange Draco (Gabrielle Ferzetti). Although Bond and Tracy’s initial meeting is disdainful at best – their eventual romance is quite genuine and moving.

Bond is sent to impersonate Sir Hilary Bray, a genealogist inspecting the coat of arms of a respected recluse atop a mountain retreat. Instead Bond finds is his old arch nemesis, Ernes Stavro Blofeld (on this occasion cast as Telly Savalas) plotting a toxic game of mind control, using a bevy of neurotic lovelies as his hypnotized harbingers of death. Bond is locked in the work station of an aerial tram but manages to escape to a nearby village, pursued by Irma Bunt (Ilse Steppat) and a few of Blofeld's more ominous henchmen.  This sequence is fascinating, because it shows Bond as genuinely vulnerable.

Tracy and Bond attempt an escape on skis. But Blofeld deliberately sets off an avalanche that buries them. Dug from the debris, Tracy and Bond are taken hostage atop Blofeld's lair. But Bond wins the day, thanks to Tracy's father, who arrives with his own consortium of mercenaries to take over the hilltop hideaway. The scene dissolves into a lavish wedding reception on Dracos' estate. A tearful Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) looks on as the happy couple cut the cake. Q (Desmond Llewellyn) and M (Bernard Lee) offer their sincere congratulations.  It all seems so perfect.

Bond and Tracy drive off, bound for their honeymoon. But just outside the property, Bond pulls to the curb to unload the lavish floral decorations adorning their car. Irma Bunt and Blofeld streak by, riddling the car in bullets. Bond, who has been thrown to the ground, quickly recovers, shouting for Tracy to move over to the passenger's seat. But it’s too late. A single bullet has pierced the front windshield, fatally lodging in Tracy's forehead. A tearful Bond embraces his dead bride as a police officer pulls alongside their car, whispering "It's alright. No really. We have all the time in the world."

Few movies of any genre have been bold enough to end with an unresolved homicide. But OHMSS is a textually dense – though never boring – film. George Lazenby, an undeniably handsome substitute for Connery, occasionally lacks that intangible flair to re-define the character. Ironically, Lazenby is infinitely more convincing in the romantic portions of the script, his tender reaction to Tracy’s murder the high point. Viewing OHMSS today, one cannot imagine Connery or Moore achieving such believable grief.

Instructed to ‘update’ James Bond, director Guy Hamilton’s Diamonds Are Forever (1971) remains the most hapless of all Bond adventures; a deglamorized, downscaled, adrenaline-infused romp through the Vegas strip that readily degenerates into utterly benign slapstick. The film is remarkably un-Bond-like. After publicly announcing his retirement after You Only Live Twice, Sean Connery reluctantly returned to the series.

The modestly budgeted film (by Bond standards) begins with a South African diamond smuggling ring. Not up to Bond’s usual assignments, even though everyone associated with the sparkling gems turns up dead, Bond kills the next link in the smuggler's chain, Peter Franks (Joe Robinson) and assumes his identity to present himself to fellow diamond smuggler, Tiffany Case (Jill St. John). Bond then discovers that his old nemesis, Blofeld (on this occasion played by Charles Gray) has taken over the bachelor pad of a reclusive Las Vegas millionaire, Willard Whyte (sausage king, Jimmy Dean in a Texas-sized parody of Howard Hughes).

Determined to rid himself of Blofeld once and for all, Bond quickly discovers that the diamonds are being used for a satellite beam that has the potential to spread radioactive death. Arriving at Whyte’s dessert oasis, Bond finds the millionaire under forced house arrest, confronted by two of Blofeld’s playmates; aerial artists, Bambi (Lola Larson) and Thumper (Trina Parks) who attempt to crush Bond with their thighs.

Bond infiltrates Blofeld's lair and disarms the doomsday device. He then confronts Blofeld aboard an off shore oil rig and predictably blows everything up. Reunited with a reformed Tiffany aboard a luxury liner, Bond is confronted by Mr. Kidd (Putter Smith) and Mr. Wynt (Bruce Glover), Blofeld's surviving henchmen. Bond sets Mr. Kidd on fire with a pair of flaming shish kabobs and then blows up Mr. Wynt.  

Diamonds are Forever is a flawed gem. In retrospect, the best thing about the movie is Shirley Bassey's brassy rendition of the title song. We also get a no-nonsense Bond girl in Jill St. John's Tiffany Case; a definite shift away from the sultry playthings of yore. Case is occasionally misguided and/or misinformed about what’s going on – but she always manages to find a way of coming out on top; a resilient characteristic unseen in a Bond girl since Honor Blackman's Pussy Galore.

After Diamonds Are Forever, Connery once again announced his retirement from the James Bond series – and meant it this time…well sort of (Connery would appear as Bond one more time in an unofficial remake of Thunderball  entitled, Never Say Never Again 1983). After a rather inauspicious start as leading man in MGM’s waning years, Roger Moore made a name for himself as Simon Templer in television’s wildly popular series, The Saint. With his debut in Guy Hamilton’s Live and Let Die (1973) Moore managed to realign the persona of 007 with more contemporary cinematic tastes.

Redesigning Bond to suit Moore’s personality meant the loss of 007’s harder edge. Ironically, critics perceived Moore’s nonchalance as having a ‘softening’ effect on the character. They also criticized the inclusion of J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), a caricature of the Southern bigot. If any singular unforgivable sin can be ascribed to Live and Let Die it derives from the absence of resident gadget master “Q” (Desmond Llewelyn); an omission never satisfactorily explained away.

Live and Let Die’s plot begins with the murder of three undercover British operatives – all investigating the spurious business concerns of Mr. Big. Bond quickly comes into conflict with UN diplomat, Dr. Kananga, who employs clairvoyant, Solitaire (Jane Seymour) to predict the future. The other devout member of Kananga’s entourage is Tee Hee (Julius Harris) a one-armed assassin with a metal hook.

When Bond arrives in San Monique he is accompanied by double agent, Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) who is actually working for Big. After Bond seduces Solitaire, the two flee Big’s stronghold to Louisiana, an escape made comical when Bond hijacks flight school’s biplane with one of its students still inside. Bond and Solitaire find themselves at Big’s mercy. Bond detonates Big’s poppy fields before escaping on a train to England.

Viewed today, Live and Let Die is rather impressively mounted – its’ most iconic moments a harrowing boat chase through the bayous of Louisiana, and a sequence where Bond skips to safety atop the heads of live alligators in the Florida marshes. Stunt man Bob Fitzsimmons performed this latter stunt and almost lost a foot for his efforts. Upon its release, Live and Let Die became the most profitable Bond yet, raking in $161 million worldwide.

Regrettably, Moore’s follow up, Guy Hamilton’s The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) proved an absurdly smug entrée. After receiving a golden bullet marked with his double-o insignia, Bond is relieved of all duties and asked by M (Bernard Lee) to disappear for a while. Instead, Bond plots a stake out of Francisco Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) – the man with the golden gun. Unbeknownst to Bond, Scaramanga doesn’t really want him dead. The bullet was actually sent by the hit man’s girlfriend, Andrea Anders (Maude Adams, in her first appearance in a Bond movie). Unfortunately, Bond realizes that Scaramanga’s intentions are to annihilate the world through the harnessing of a destructive solar device engineered from his remote island retreat nestled in Red China seas.

Though many critics consider this film a garish hiccup: too coy to be taken seriously and too extreme to be believable, in retrospect The Man With The Golden Gun foreshadows the Bond mega hits, Moonraker (1979) and Octopussy (1983). And then, of course there is Christopher Lee, perhaps the second greatest nemesis in the franchise. Also noteworthy for comedic relief is the inclusion of pint size Bond villain, Nick Nack (Herve Villechaize, of Tattoo fame on television’s Fantasy Island).

Regrettably, in Bond girl Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland) the film has an insurmountable obstacle. Tepid box office response to The Man With The Golden Gun (it only grossed $98 million) encouraged Broccoli and Saltzman to place the series on hiatus from 1974 to ‘77; but when Bond re-emerged he was more popular than ever.

One of the very best, Lewis Gilbert’s The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) revived Roger Moore’s chance to play Ian Fleming's super spy with a somewhat more serious flair.  Determined to prove his harshest critics wrong, Broccoli invested $13.5 million to bring this latest Bond adventure to the big screen…and big it was! Broccoli commissioned the construction of the 007 sound stage at Pinewood Studios – a cavernous structure to house Ken Adam’s mammoth sets. On this outing Bond is pitted against billionaire oceanographer, Strombold (Curd Jurgen) in a death-defying race to save the earth from total nuclear destruction.

Strombold is obsessed with building a totalitarian empire beneath the sea. In fact he’s already built an imposing floating laboratory – the Atlantis. After murdering Dr. Bechmann (Cyril Shaps) and Prof. Markovitz (Milo Sperber) – the two men responsible for his research – Strombold sets out to steal a pair of nuclear submarines; one from the Russians, the other from the Americans. Meanwhile, Bond is paired with Russian agent, Major Anya Amasova – a.k.a. Triple X (Barbara Bach) at the behest of a joint Anglo-Soviet alliance instigated by ‘M’ (Bernard Lee) and Russia’s General Anatol Gogol (Walter Gotell). However, when Anya learns that Bond was responsible for her lover’s death while on a mission in the Alps, she vows that when their mission is over she will kill Bond as revenge.

The Spy Who Loved Me is memorable for the creation of one of the all-time great Bond villains, the metal mouthed, Jaws (Richard Kiel) who kills his victims by biting them to death. Launched under a revised distribution deal with United Artists, The Spy Who Loved Me went on to gross $185 million worldwide, a blockbuster. Even the most diehard cynics had to concede that when it came to high adventure, ‘nobody did it better’ than James Bond.

Lewis Gilbert’s Moonraker (1979) is perhaps the most lavishly absurd of the James Bond adventures. In capitalizing on the obsession with the space program and the absolute runaway success of George Lucas' Star Wars (1977) the film's screenplay by Christopher Wood retains only threadbare elements from the Ian Fleming novel in which megalomaniac industrialist, Hugo Drax (Michael Lonsdale) hijacks his own space shuttle for a rendezvous with a secret space station.

Moonraker is a text book exercise in the total fusion of all the elements that make Bond films unique: boldly original stunt work, marvelous action sequences; a diabolical villain, and light humor a la Moore, and a smart and sexy Bond girl; Holly Goodhead (Lois Chiles). Bond and Goodhead meet at Drax’s California production facility where the ‘Moonraker’ is built. Bond believes Goodhead is Drax’s girl. In fact, she is CIA masquerading as NASA intelligence. Drax is hell bent on killing the world population with a deadly toxin derived from a rare orchid found in the Andes Mountains. As farfetched as fantasy goes - Moonraker delivers on every level, its’ $203 million worldwide gross unsurpassed until 1995’s Goldeneye.  

With For Your Eyes Only (1981) producer Broccoli made every attempt to return Bond to his more ‘realistic’ Ian Fleming roots. Bond is deployed to recover the A-Tac; a decoding device from the British sea vessel, St. Georges, that has sunk somewhere off the coast of Greece. At the same time, Melina Havelok (Carole Bouquet) is on a mission to avenge the murders of her mother and father who were attempting to salvage the wreck. Inevitably these two destinies collide when it is discovered that a man named Aris Kristatos (Julian Glover) is responsible for both the sinking and the murders.

At first, Kristatos presents himself as an ally to Bond; a cultured patron of the arts and devoted sponsor to Olympic skating hopeful, Bibi Dahl (Lynn-Holly Johnson). However, very shortly these alliances shift as Bond learns that his true compatriot in Greek smuggler, Milos Columbo (Topol). In retrospect, the film is notable for the appearance of the late first wife of future Bond alumni, Pierce Brosnon; Cassandra Harris as the Countess Lisl. At $195 million, the receipts on For Your Eyes Only may not have been as impressive as those accrued by Moonraker, but they were respectable enough to convince Broccoli that his revised interpretation of Bond had been the correct one all along.

Based on two of Ian Fleming’s short stories; Octopussy andThe Property of a Lady, John Glenn’s Octopussy (1983) is one of the better of the latter Moore/Bonds. On this occasion, 007 is assigned to investigate the curious appearance of a Faberge Easter egg at a Sotherby’s auction. What he discovers is that the lady, Magda (Kristina Wayborn) is the property of one, Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan), a prince of spurious heritage who plans to detonate a nuclear bomb on an American military base in Germany with the complicity of Russian dissident, Gen. Orlov (Steven Berkoff). The act of terrorism will surely bring about WWIII, thereby satisfying Orlov's thirst for the bloody conquest of Europe.

Enter Octopussy (Maude Adams) a smuggler/business woman whose traveling circus is populated by a motley crew of lethal femme fatales. Both she and her staff have pledged allegiance to Khan under the false pretense that they are working together as a team to steal the Romanoff jewels. However, when Octopussy learns she has been used as a pawn she takes her place on the side of righteousness and becomes Bond’s ally.

Octopussy is a lush, stunt filled - occasionally campy - outing. With very few exceptions, Moore's Bond is a figure of high stakes amusement and adventure rather than a super spy perilously dangling in harm's way; the antithesis of Connery’s Bond. Midway through filming Moore announced his retirement from the series – much to the chagrin of producer Broccoli who was already planning the next Bond adventure.

Moore bade farewell to James Bond with John Glen’s A View To A Kill (1985) a much maligned, often silly - though relatively engrossing action/adventure.  Bond is assigned to investigate Max Zorin (Christopher Walken), a leading industrialist who has plans to flood Silicon Valley by generating a cataclysmic earthquake with the detonation of a bomb beneath the San Andreas Fault.

A View To A Kill remains one of the most easily identifiable Bond’s in the franchise. It also marks the retirement of Bond alumni, Lois Maxwell as Miss Moneypenny – Bond’s long suffering unrequited, yet ever hopeful love interest. What is perhaps most regrettable about A View To A Kill when viewed today is its attempt to ‘not so finely’ balance the camp elements (as with Bond, knocking the hats of a couple of cowboys while clinging to the undercarriage of a fire truck ladder) with the more serious brevity of saving the world yet again.

A View To A Kill does tend to fall a tad short of expectations – most notably with the casting of Tanya Roberts as Stacey Sutton – an ineffectual and altogether incompetent heroine. But Grace Jones is a marvelous deviant, the very antithesis of 'the Bond girl' - seductively inhuman and strangely unfeminine. We can believe Jones’ May Day tossing a Russian KGB agent off the stands after Royal Ascot or churning a stubborn winch to raise two tons of explosives buried in an abandoned mine after Zorin has betrayed her.

Following Roger Moore’s retirement from the franchise, director John Glen’s The Living Daylights (1987) had a considerable hurdle to overcome. Broccoli courted several possibilities as Moore's replacement, including Sam Neill and American actor Christopher Reeve. However, another actor impressed Broccoli more: Pierce Brosnan. The star of NBC’s Remington Steele, Brosnan was an instantly recognizable commodity. However, NBC’s option on Brosnan’s contract prevented the actor from being considered – hence, Broccoli turned to a choice he had almost made in 1973 after Connery’s official departure.  In retrospect, Timothy Dalton’s characterization of Bond is something of a throwback to Connery.  In terms of plot The Living Daylights is epically satisfying, perhaps the most intricately scripted installment since On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969).

The screenplay by Richard Maibaum and Michael G. Wilson concerns the defection of a Soviet General, Gregori Koskov’s (Jeroen Krabbe) who escapes from behind the Iron Curtain with Bond's help. Too late Bond realizes he has been Koskov's unwilling accomplice in an elaborate hoax. Furthermore, Bond begins to fall in love with Koskov’s paramour, Russian cellist Kara Milovy (Maryam d’Abo). When the general is recaptured by the Soviets, Bond decides to help Kara elude prosecution by moving her first to Vienna, then Morocco, and finally Afghanistan.

In every way the production is big. Regrettably, the film is hampered by is a trio of foppish villains; the rather ineffectual Koskov, his psychopathic henchman, Necros (the very wooden Andreas Wisniewski) and equally psychotic war enthusiast, Brad Whitaker (Jo Don Baker). None are larger than life – something virtually all Bond villains of the golden period had been. 

Glen’s next effort, Licence To Kill (1989) is a film that has no middle ground amongst Bond fans – one either judges it as a superior departure from the formulaic Bond or dismisses it completely as tripe. Timothy Dalton makes his second and final appearance as James Bond, this time transformed from light-hearted savvy adventurer into brutish avenging desperado, more aligned with the villain of the piece, Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi) than with the legacy of Ian Fleming.

After aiding FBI man Felix Leiter (David Hedison) in a drug bust, and standing up as best man at his wedding, Bond returns hours later to discover Felix’s wife, Della Churchill (Priscilla Barnes) murdered and Felix barely clinging to life after being fed to, and half eaten by, a shark. In an awkward plot entanglement that suggests Bond has outlived his usefulness his license to kill is revoked by the British government. Now a-wall, Bond pursues Sanchez as personal revenge in Mexico City.

Licence to Kill premiered at an impressive $156 million, a sizeable financial profit. Critics were far more dismissive. Despite rumors that he was fired, Timothy Dalton respectfully resigned from the series by mutual consent, leaving Broccoli once again in search of a mere mortal to fill Bond’s godlike shoes. Once more, the series went into hibernation.

By late 1992 Broccoli and MGM/UA desperately wanted another Bond adventure. England’s Pinewood Studios – Bond’s home for many years - was unavailable. So Broccoli built another studio from scratch - Leavesden - to accommodate Martin Campbell’s Goldeneye (1995). If the film does have a misfire it remains the recasting of Miss Moneypenny as a woman much prettier and younger than Bond. The cream of the jest had always been that Moneypenny was a woman well past her prime and therefore never considered by Bond as anything more than a casual flirtation.  

Jeffrey Caine and Bruce Feirstein's screenplay concerns a helicopter with nuclear missiles that is stolen by Xenia Onatopp (Famke Jannsen), a nymphomaniac who kills men by crushing their pelvises with her thighs, and a rogue element in MI6, Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) who has defected to the Russians and Gen. Arkady Grigorovich Ourumuv (Gottfried John). This trio plans to hold the world hostage by using a satellite to hone the sun's energy and zap potential adversaries from the omnipotent regions of outer space; a somewhat tired pretext previously exploited in Diamonds Are Forever and The Man With The Golden Gun and reused yet again in Die Another Day. Bond’s only hope is to destroy the hidden satellite and after a series of perfunctory showdowns this mission is accomplished. 

Goldeneye grossed a staggering $351 million. Pierce Brosnan aside, Goldeneye has an exceptional cast. Sean Bean is a frightfully wicked adversary. Izabella Scorupco cuts a dashing figure as 'the Bond girl' - by far the most attractive, gutsy and intelligent since Maud Adams' Octopussy. Furthermore, the set pieces are brilliantly staged, particularly Bond's dive off a Russian dam in the pre-title sequence.

After Goldeneye’s stunning return to form Brosnan’s follow up, Roger Spottiswoode’s Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) never quite lived up to audience expectations. Officially launched into production even before Goldeneye’s release, Tomorrow Never Dies is hampered by two circumstances: first, that both Leavesden and Pinewood Studios were unavailable to accommodate the shooting schedule – thereby forcing the company to build yet another production facility out of an abandoned grocery warehouse - and second, by MGM/UA’s determination to push onward with a pre-slated release date that effectively provided for the shortest pre-production on a Bond film.

Plot wise, the screenplay by Bruce Feirstein is not based on any one Ian Fleming novel, though certain characters are borrowed/imported/stolen from other novels in Fleming’s literary canon. Bond is assigned to investigate the disappearance of a British vessel in Chinese waters. Along the way he comes in contact with media baron, Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce), whose satellite and cable empires span the globe – everywhere except China. China dispatches its own undercover agent, Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh) to Hong Kong where she and Bond find themselves increasingly the targets of various assassination attempts. This rather pedestrian narrative is superficially complicated by Bond’s reunion with old flame, Paris (Teri Hatcher), who is married to Carver.

Despite a fairly cut and dry story, director Spottiswoode makes even less of the material, the characters tumbling into one flawed scenario after the next. There are so many false starts to the action it’s a wonder Bond gets anything done at all.  Jonathan Price is a woefully undernourished villain, unimaginative and quirky with his two sycophantic cohorts, Henry Gupta (Ricky Jay) - a sort of Dr. Frankenstein, and thug muscle, Stamper (Gotz Otto) occasionally popping up to complicate things. 

By now, the Bond franchise was facing a dilemma. All of Ian Fleming’s novels had been used up. But all was not lost in Michael Apted’s The World Is Not Enough (1999) an impressively mounted super-production. Bond (Pierce Brosnon) becomes a hapless fop in the diabolical machinations of Elektra King (Sophie Marceau). Unbeknownst to Bond, Elektra’s prior kidnapping by rogue nationalist, Renard (Robert Carlyle) has brainwashed her into becoming his loyal accomplice and lover.

In the pre-title sequence, Bond retrieves a large sum of money for Sir Robert King (David Calder) from Swiss bankers in Bilbao, Spain. The money is returned to MI6 Headquarters in London, but has been tainted with a powerful explosive that is triggered by a hidden detonator in Sir Robert's lapel pin. After a nail-biting boat race down the Thames in pursuit of King's assassin (Maria Grazia Cucinotta), that ends when she decides to kill herself and, presumably Bond aboard a hot air balloon, Bond is assigned to protect King's daughter, Elektra from a similar fate.

The last Bond film to bear Pierce Brosnan’s imprint is Lee Tamahori’s Die Another Day (2002); a glossy retread on premises and plot elements previously addressed. At best, the screenplay by Neal Purvis and Rodger Wade treads heavily on the Bond legacy - veering dangerously close to lampoon. Bond has been assigned to rendezvous with North Korea’s Colonel Tan-Sun Moon (Will Yun Lee) to capture his arms supplier, Zhao (Rick Yune).  The mission is compromised and Bond is captured and taken prisoner by Red Chinese forces. For 14 months of severe torture he is traded to MI6 for Zao (who had been captured). Suspected of having broken under pressure and revealed secret intelligence, Bond is relieved of his duties and blamed for the leaked information.

M (Judi Dench) confides that she can no longer trust Bond, who shortly thereafter escapes his confined quarters, teaming with sexy covert, Jinx (Halle Berry) who believes that the key to Zhao’s whereabouts lies with the sudden emergence of mysterious British billionaire Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens). Bond confronts Graves, but from here the plot digresses into fantastic plastic surgeries that have made Moon and Graves one in the same, thanks to a genetic conversion that is both painful and short lived.

'Bond for real' is the way one critic described Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006) the 21st James Bond action/adventure. Casino Royale is both faithful to the series’ roots and Fleming's book. Daniel Craig assumes the role of 007, the first blonde Bond in the franchise. Chronology is a big problem for this film. Casino Royale predates Dr. No (1962), establishing how Bond gained his double 'O' status. Yet, the settings for Casino Royale are contemporary. As such, we are asked to set aside the rest of the Bond franchise before delving into this movie – trading Bernard Lee’s ‘M’ for Judy Dench; eschewing main staples like Miss Moneypenny and ‘Q,’ and tolerating alterations made to the trademark ‘gun barrel’ opener that has introduced every Bond movie since Dr. No.

On this outing James Bond (Craig) has just been awarded his double 'O' status. M (Dench) feels that the appointment is a shay premature, especially when Bond kills Ugandan terrorist, Mollaka (Sebastien Foucan) under the watchful eye of embassy cameras. The assassination creates a minor international scandal. Nevertheless, Bond surfaces in the Bahamas to keep a watchful eye on Alex Dimitrios (Simon Abkarian) and his wife, Solange (Katarina Murino). But he quickly migrates to Miami to stop Alex from bombing of a plane.

In Miami, Bond also learns that Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelson) has gambled the world terrorist organization’s bankroll on a dip in airline stocks that Bond has averted. Now Le Chiffre must raise capital anew during a high stakes poker game in Montenegro’s Casino Royale. Enter the beguiling Vesper Lynd (Eva Green), a double agent. Bond and Vesper become lovers after a near fatal poisoning leaves 007 vulnerable.

Casino Royale is a superior installment in the Bond franchise for several reasons. The first is Craig's performance that completely bowls and wins us over from the start. Despite a legacy that would intimidate most actors, Craig assumes the mantel with pride, guts and his own inimitable brand of avenging justice. He's a new Bond for a new generation, his steely-eyed satisfaction pushing the envelope just this side of becoming an antihero, while remaining faithful to the other Bonds that have gone before him.

But Craig falters in his second Bond movie, Marc Forster’s Quantum of Solace (2008) which borrows its title, but precious little else from a Fleming short story. Bond interrogates Mr. White (Jesper Christiansen) who also appeared in Casino Royale, but is betrayed by M’s bodyguard, Mitchell (Glenn Foster) who was supposed to pay hit man Edmund Slate (Neil Jackson) to kill Camille Montes (Olga Kurylenko), the lover of environmentalist, Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric). Bond learns that Greene is assisting Bolivian General Medrano (Joaquin Cosio) to overthrow the government.

The rest of the plot is basically a race against time, but the story quickly degenerates into a dark and insidious thriller with an uncharacteristic body count. Bond’s old ally, Rene Mathis (Giancarlo Gianninni) agrees to accompany him on his mission to Bolivia where they are met by MI6 operative, Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton). Both Fields and Mathis are later murdered. The reality of any Bond movie is that it is pure escapist fantasy.

Quantum of Solace repeatedly betrays this time-honored edict and as such devolves from iconic Bond movie into a David Fincher styled thriller. It doesn’t work, plain and simple. Despite the fact that it remains the highest grossing Bond movie of all time, Quantum of Solace left a very bitter taste behind for most fans; one that the much anticipated release of Skyfall this November will hopefully rectify. 

MGM/Fox Home Video had previously released roughly half of the Bond movies to Blu-ray before scrapping plans for the rest. Instead we get Bond 50, an all-inclusive box set with mostly positive results. My overall impression of the image quality is this – very impressive. The previously issued Bond titles (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Man With The Golden Gun, For Your Eyes Only, Moonraker, License to Kill, The World Is Not Enough) appear to be identical offerings herein.

Of the remaining titles there were no glaring misfires, though I thought the flesh tones a tad too red on A View To A Kill, somewhat faded on Diamonds Are Forever, and, the overall image occasionally softer than anticipated on The Spy Who Loved Me. These are minor quibbles at best and surely none of the transfers will detract from one’s overall viewing enjoyment.  It’s refreshing to see Fox/MGM taking such good care of these transfers, all of them supervised by Lowry Digital, the same good folks responsible for the incredible remastering efforts on the previously released DVDs.

The most unexpected surprises for me came in the DTS 5.1 audio, particularly for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice, both sounding very fresh with good separation and a real kick to the bass during action sequences. Extras are many, and mostly all imported from the DVD editions. As anticipated, MGM/Fox has not remastered the remaining documentaries on the movies that were previously unavailable on Blu-ray. They exhibit very worn 720i images – a genuine disappointment. We get 120 hours of ‘making of’ documentaries, audio commentaries and featurettes dedicated to virtually every aspect of the series. Bottom line: you won’t be wanting for film history herein.

Extras new to this set are an odd assortment. We get an hour dedicated to title sequences and then mere minutes to showcase gadgets, villains, the Bond girl, locations and Bond in motion. MGM/Fox has reunited all 6 actors who played Bond for a woefully short (3 minute) featurette on ‘being Bond. We also get a (choke) 4 minute retrospective on 50 years of Bond style and 10 minutes of Skyfall video blogs designed to whet our collective appetite to start lining up for advanced tickets right now.

Finally, the whole shebang is housed in a very spiffy golden gun barrel styled collector’s packaging with likenesses of all the Bonds on its front cover. The curiosity for me was that these likenesses aren’t represented in chronological order. We get Moore ahead of Connery and Lazenby sandwiched between Bronson (to his left) and Dalton (to his right) with Craig smack dab in the center.  Oh well, it’s still pretty cool cover art. Bottom line: this is the Bond and beyond Blu-ray set to get and just in time for the 007 aficionado on your Christmas list. Highly recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4 overall

4 overall

3.5 overall

Monday, September 24, 2012

THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT: Blu-ray (Castlerock 1995) Warner Home Video

The ghost of Frank Capra must have been shining down on Rob Reiner’s The American President (1995); an unabashedly sentimental and utterly heart-warming romance imbued with the frothy ‘feel good’ of a classy screwball comedy. Scripted by Aaron Sorkin, the film is often seen as a precursor to his popular TV melodrama, The West Wing. But actually the property began nearly two decades before as ‘The President Elopes’ – a screenplay first optioned by Robert Redford that for one reason or another simply changed hands in Hollywood before languishing inside studio vaults for nearly 20 years.
Redford, who had aspired to play the lead himself, eventually bowed out of the project. At the time Reiner was approached to direct he became enchanted with idea of telling an intimate story about a largely idealized White House and its dedicated administrative staff. But Reiner saw the piece as more ensemble and political than romantic. Nevertheless, the Capra-esque quality of the film may have been pre-ordained rather than kismet. After all, Frank Capra III was first assistant director.
The American President is really the Aaron Sorkin show; a turning point in both the writer’s career and his private struggles; intelligently scripted during a very dark period while he was battling cocaine addiction. Despite this backstage melodrama, Sorkin manages to create a witty elegance on the screen. His characters are flawed but always bursting with something compelling to say. The American President is also blessed with a stellar ensemble fronted by Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, both of whom give indelible performances. Of the two, Douglas’ is perhaps the more startling; coming as it did after nearly a decade of playing significantly flawed, morally ambiguous and slightly scummy philanderers. Herein, Douglas embodies a man of conviction, equally balanced in his gentlemanly grace as his politically motivated gravitas.
Our story begins the morning after a televised address with Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), the most popular president in years preparing his second run for the White House. A.J. MacInerney (Martin Sheen), Shepherd’s Chief of Staff, encourages the president to put his full support behind a moderate crime control bill that is currently lacking favor in both the House and the Senate. The President’s PR strategist, Robin McCall (Anne Deavere Smith) believes Shepherd is a shoo-in, his status as a lonely widower exploited in his favor, swaying popular sentiment from the electorate the first time around. Time for a second trip to the well.
But Shepherd’s ever-devoted campaign manager, Lewis Rothchild (Michael J. Fox) is in a frazzle over the president’s moderate ‘slip up’ in which he suggested that ‘America is no longer a great society.’ “Now there’s this ‘thing’ out there!” Lewis suggests. Shepherd, however, is unnerved and even jovial while contemplating the way his words will be reinterpreted by his pundits. At a private lobbyist’s meeting the president is introduced to hardline environmentalist, Sidney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening).
Sidney fumbled her chances, calling out Shepherd for what she perceived as his weak kneed policies, but without first realizing that he is standing directly behind her. It’s an awkward start to say the least. But Shepherd is mildly amused by her fortitude and guts. And Sidney does redeem herself rather nicely when, at a state dinner honoring President Rene Jean D’Astier of France (Clement von Franckenstein) she salvages the rather dull conversation by speaking to D’Astier in his native language. The evening ends on a high note and Sidney returns to work invigorated.
But Leo Solomon (John Mahoney) and the firm who hired Sidney are not entirely certain Shepherd’s new found attentions being paid their hired gun will lead to wider acceptance of their political lobbying. In fact, Leo openly tells Sidney that “we hired a pit bull, not a prom queen”, and forewarns Sidney that her popularity in Washington can be clocked with an egg timer. Throwing caution to the wind, Sidney begins a romance with the president that places both their careers under close scrutiny from the press.
Republican incumbent Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) seizes the opportunity to attack Shepherd’s morality and family values. He also vilifies Sidney in the press, labeling her ‘the first mistress’. Moderately embarrassed, though ever persistent, Sidney campaigns hard for the environmentalist bill and Shepherd decides to play a numbers game that he is certain she will be unable to match. If Sidney can secure 24 votes by the time of his State of the Union the president agrees to deliver the last ten votes necessary to put the proposal forth as a bill.
Unfortunately, Bob Rumson’s accusations, though unfounded, have done considerable damage to Shepherd’s credibility and his poll numbers plummet. Diehards in congress suddenly back down from bolstering their support. Meanwhile, without first considering the political ramifications, Sidney unknowingly gives the president and MacInerney some insider advice during a Christmas party at the White House. She confides that one of the congressmen from Michigan she has been trying to woo to support the environmental bill has revealed to her that the only piece of legislation he and his backers are more interested in defeating is the President’s new crime bill.
Sidney gets enough votes to meet her quota. Unfortunately, Shepherd’s team informs him that he is three votes shy and thus must shelve his commitment to the environmental bill, thereby solidifying campaign support from the Michigan congressmen. MacInerney tells Shepherd that he had better start thinking with the right head if he intends to win his re-election, causing a temporary rift in their professional and personal relationship.
In the meantime Solomon apprises Sidney that she has been duped by the president and then unceremoniously fires her for failing to meet the committee’s objectives. Her political reputation in tatters, Sidney wastes no time in speeding to the White House to admonish Shepherd for betraying his promise to her. She informs him that she has decided to regroup and take a job in Harford, Connecticut. Shepherd implores Sidney to reconsider, but she condescendingly replies, “Mr. President, you have more important things to worry about than losing me…you’ve just lost my vote!”  
Realizing that he has deceived not only Sidney but the fundamental principles he once so firmly believed in – responsible for his election in the first place – Shepard addresses the press on national TV; discrediting Rumson’s attacks on Sidney, throwing his full support behind the environmental bill and suspending his crime bill until tougher terms can be rewritten into its legislation. The strength of his convictions rouses the White House to its feet and resurrects the people’s faith in him.
Hurrying from the Press Room to the Oval Office, Shepherd informs MacInerney that whatever it takes he intends to win back Sidney’s love and respect, only to discover her waiting for him inside, teary-eyed, heart swollen with pride.  The film concludes with Shepherd appearing in the House chamber to give his State of the Union.
From start to finish, The American President is beguiling entertainment. It sparkles with the rarest form of movie magic. Time has not diminished its strength of sentiment, perhaps because at its core Sorkin has given the actors something more meaningful to say. Superficially, the film is a love story. But beneath the warmth of this unlikely relationship are some more resilient precepts about freedom, democracy, politics and the moral sanctity of the presidential office.
There is a palpable and genuine romantic chemistry brewing between Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. It is gratifying to watch these two actors convince us of their characters falling in love rather than simply going through perfunctory emotions as written. This is what’s referred to as ‘living the part’. Both Bening and Douglas excel at being true to themselves and each other. The results seem quite effortless, organic and believable. Michael J. Fox, David Paymer, Anna Deavere Smith and Martin Sheen give stellar support. Richard Dreyfuss, looking like a John McCaine knock-off, overplays his hand. In the final analysis, The American President is a winner through and through, and so perfectly timed on Blu-ray to take advantage of this year’s election.
If only Warner Home Video had done a bit more homework on this 1080p transfer. For decades fans have had to contend with gawd-awful transfers of this movie on home video. The cropped VHS tape notwithstanding, the various digital incarnations on laserdisc and DVD have been miserable to say the least, non-anamorphic and riddled with a barrage of edge effects that have rendered the image virtually unwatchable. Warner inherited this movie’s distribution after Castlerock was acquired by Turner, later acquired by WB.
The good news: this time we get an anamorphic transfer with color fidelity much improved and most – though not all – of the edge effects gone. Unfortunately, the image is still wanting for overall solid contrast levels. Grain appears naturally rendered in some scenes but digitally scrubbed in others.  I have to say that visually this was a bit of a disappointment for me. The image doesn’t pop as it should and occasionally looks weaker overall than I expected. Fans who have only been exposed to the DVD will consider the image a revelation and, from that limited perspective, I suppose I must agree.
But the visuals do not live up to the Blu-ray format – for what reason? I’m not entirely certain. The 5.1 DTS audio too wasn’t all that impressive. The best thing about it is undoubtedly Marc Shaiman’s gorgeous score finally given its due. But dialogue didn’t have that immersive fidelity, and frankly, sounded quite tinny at times. The final insult comes in the extras. Like the DVD before it, we get zippo – just a badly worn trailer in 720i. For shame!  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)



Sunday, September 23, 2012

A DOUBLE LIFE: Blu-ray (Universal International 1947) Olive Films

Often seen as a high concept departure from the pulpy B-grade film noir, George Cukor’s A Double Life (1947) takes the plateau of high art as exemplified by New York’s chichi Broadway theatre, and furthermore by no less a playwright than William Shakespeare, and turns the loftiness of the exercise asunder. During Hollywood’s golden age, live theatre frequently looked down at the movies as being a lesser entertainment by direct comparison. Those toiling in their dramatics on the stage firmly believed that the movies had watered down not only the raw human intensity of storytelling but also shattered the spontaneity in performance. Three years after A Double Life, screenwriter Joseph L. Mankiewicz would launch his own creative rebuttal to this perception, challenging such snootiness with, arguably, the most scathingly on point critique of theatre folk ever made: All About Eve (1950).  
A Double Life doesn’t have such lofty ambitions. It’s theater folk are good people, however insincerely average, into whose midst a nightmarish descend into madness begins for its central character, celebrated thespian Anthony John (Ronald Colman). The film intelligently realigns what might otherwise be considered a traditional melodrama with its dark and moody, strangely oppressive elements of an urban film noir. It is important to note that ‘film noir’ was neither a genre nor a deliberate style at the time films like A Double Life were being made. No one, as example, said ‘let’s go make some film noir!’ Rather, during and after the war, arguably as a direct response to it, a darker view of the world around us began to be popularized on celluloid.
But A Double Life does more than simply comply with the retrofitted esthetics of ‘film noir’. It delivers an engrossing cocktail, elevated by its backstage premise of an aging celebrity whose emotional psyche is disintegrating before our very eyes; a story as tragic as Othello – the Shakespearean masterwork the actors perform within the film. A Double Life also straddles the chasm between high concept melodrama and B-grade noir, though not always successfully.  Despite some truly exceptional location work – a rarity in Hollywood then, the film is ever so slightly hampered by the central casting of Ronald Colman as the disreputable lady’s man who masks his cynicism and inward implosion of social contempt beneath a very fragile ego and even more disturbingly frail grasp on reality.
Colman, who made a career out of playing elegant gentlemen throughout the 1930s and early 40s is working against type in A Double Life. The departure was so startling and so compelling that it won Colman his one and only Best Actor Oscar. In retrospect, the honor is justly deserved. Personal preference of course, but I still favor Colman as the untarnished heroic and utterly charismatic solid citizen he plays in films like A Tale of Two Cities, The Prisoner of Zenda and Lost Horizon.  In A Double Life Colman is an ignoble charmer, as insincere about his many fleeting romantic dalliances as he is disgracefully aloof about his own weakening into madness.   
The screenplay by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin begins with Anthony’s (Colman) arrival to the theatre in preparation for his last performances in ‘A Gentlemen’s Gentleman’; a frothy nothing of a comedy costarring his estranged wife, Brita (Signe Hasso).  Despite having put her through his various bouts of melancholy during their marriage, and probably more than a few indiscretions along the way, Brita and ‘Tony’ have remained the very best of friends. In fact, they’re estrangement is suggested as more solid than their marriage ever was. Tony’s manager, Victor Donlan (Ray Collins) is hot for him to star in a new production of Shakespeare’s Othello. But Tony has reservations perhaps because, being a consummate professional, he instinctually understands how much the part will take out of him.
But Tony is unprepared for what the part might give back, namely an ever-increasing psychosis that slowly erodes his sanity. To ease his mind, and to distance himself from the recherché set currently being entertained by Brita at a house party to mark the closing of their play, Tony goes slumming in New York’s Little Italy and winds up at a modest bistro where he is certain he can go unrecognized and unnoticed.  Regrettably, waitress Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters in her first movie) finds Tony attractive and invites him up to her small apartment. Tony goes, but in the meantime he has also begun to entertain the idea of remarrying Brita. Conflicted, Tony leaves Pat’s apartment without a seduction taking place. But Brita is understandably reluctant to remarry Tony, even though she cannot help but adore and admire him for the talent that he is.
Tony dives headstrong into Othello. The play garners him rave reviews. But as the run of the show nears its 300th performance the part begins to take its toll. During one of the performances Brita, who is playing Desdemona, suddenly realizes that Tony has so immersed himself in his character that he actually believes he is Othello. As the insanely jealous Othello, Tony attempts to strangle Brita’s Desdemona for real in front of a live audience. He is stirred back to reality by Brita’s frantic pleas – the audience unaware that anything out of the ordinary has occurred.
Brita confides in Bill Friend (Edmund O’Brien); their long suffering stage manager who actually has loved Brita from afar for many years. The line between Tony and Othello’s jealousy becomes blurred, with Tony erroneously coming to believe that Bill has been seducing his ex-wife – possibly even during the years of their marriage. Tony confronts Brita, who denies his accusations but realizes that her words alone are unable to convince Tony of her undying love for him. Brita barricades herself in her bedroom and Tony, unable to satisfy his bloodlust, takes off into the night, arriving at Pat’s apartment well after midnight while still hearing voices in his head from the play.
In a fitful moment of insanity Tony strangles Pat to death, her body discovered, splayed across the bed, the next morning by the landlady (Fernanda Eliscu). As police investigate the crime scene, Al Cooley (Millard Mitchell), an overzealous reporter corners medical examiner, Dr. Stauffer (Whit Bissell) and suggests that a possible tie in to the Othello play would garner notoriety for the case if Stauffer were quoted as saying the victim died from “a kiss of death”. Seeing the comparison in the newspaper, Tony is outraged, though arguably quite unaware that he is responsible for Pat’s murder. Enraged, Tony confronts Bill about the headline. The two men get into a skirmish inside Bill’s apartment and Tony, transgressing back into his Othello alter ego, attempts to strangle Bill. Instead, the much younger Bill breaks free of Tony’s assault and tosses him out of his apartment.
But their confrontation leaves Bill thinking. With Al Cooley’s aid, Bill hires a girl (Marjorie Woodworth) to impersonate Pat. He invites Tony to a restaurant, presumably to patch up their quarrel, but with Al quietly observing from a distance, as the girl, disguised as a waitress, approaches their table to inquire what the men will have to drink.   Her striking resemblance to Pat sends Tony into a panic and he departs the restaurant leaving Bill and Al more perplexed than ever. Rushing to the theatre for his performance, Tony suddenly has a moment of clarity in which he realizes he is the one who murdered Pat. Unable to bring himself to face the music, and realizing that Bill is waiting in the wings with the police at hand, Tony uses a real dagger for his own death scene in Othello, thereby putting a definite period to his own mental anguish.
A Double Life is something of a narrative curiosity. George Cukor directs with his usual panache. But the tale strangely lacks cohesion. The opening acts play more like a romantic drama before the ground beneath these seemingly congenial characters begins to shift to quicksand. The Kanin/Garson screenplay remains rather aloof about the real premise of its story until roughly 39 minutes into the film when we slowly begin to realize that Tony’s anxieties about playing Othello are not mere apprehensions but genuine fears well founded in his withering grasp on reality.
Having seen A Double Life several times throughout the years, the idea of having Tony strangle Pat – a woman he barely knows and who has not had the time in their chance meeting to betray his confidences – has always seemed strained. It would make more sense for Tony to murder his ex-wife, as he superficially tries to on stage. After all, Tony suspects Brita of an affair with Bill. But Pat? No, it’s problematic storytelling at best.
Shelley Winters gives a very good type-cast performance as a woman of easy virtue who’s not above seducing customers at her regular place of employ. But Signe Hasso is awkward casting; too good natured and too good to be true as the woman who so obviously senses instability in the man she loves, but cannot bring herself to accept it enough to get him the mental help he so obviously needs.  The show, however, belongs to Ronald Colman and he delivers a chilling performance as a man for whom art does indeed imitate life in very tragic and ultimately self-destructive ways. A Double Life is worth a second glance, but it somehow doesn’t live up to expectations. It isn’t a melodrama or a true film noir, but an odd amalgam of the two while meeting the full criteria of neither.
Olive Film’s Blu-ray is an equally mixed blessing. While the 1080p image is a quantum leap ahead from previously issued DVDs, the original elements are fundamentally flawed. Without the proper restoration we get very inconsistent image quality.  When the image is sharp it yields an impeccably nuanced gray scale with solid contrast and a striking amount of fine detail scattered throughout. Unfortunately, a few key sequences appear to have been sourced from less than stellar existing film stock. Here, contrast is blown out and the image acquires a very hazy/soft look.  These instances of downgrade are infrequent, but when they occur they are quite distracting. Age related artifacts and a hint of light ‘breathing’ in around the edges of the frame also prove mildly off-putting. The audio is DTS, mono as originally recorded, and sounds fairly solid. The only extra is a brief introduction by Martin Scorsese.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)



Wednesday, September 19, 2012

HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH - Blu-ray (Universal 1982) Shout! Factory

Okay, I still have a problem with Tommy Lee Wallace’s Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982); the…um…sequel…to the first two Halloween movies that has since gone on to have a cult following as one of the most unique departures ever for a horror movie franchise. I suppose the film is owed that much respect. I mean, it has absolutely nothing to do with John Carpenter’s classic spook-fest. Gone are Michael Myers, Laurie Strode and Haddenfield; replaced by a largely incoherent narrative from Wallace about demented Irishmen hell-bent on murdering the children of the world on All Hallow’s Eve. On the surface, at least, this snap analysis of the film’s plot sounds frankly demonic and at least good for a few chills along the way. But the pacing of Halloween III is so turgid, so meandering and so misguided for long stretches that what we ultimately get is a lumbering would-be descent into terror diffused by some truly uninspired ham acting.
Of course the real problem with Halloween III is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the first two movies. Carpet-hauling an audience on the pretext that they’re about to see a continuing, and much anticipated installment in a known horror saga and then completely depriving them of that experience was, and remains really underhanded PR and a downright dirty marketing strategy. If only we had been given an ounce of continuity, as in say casting Donald Pleasance to reprise his role as Doctor Loomis, somehow saved from the fire at the end of Halloween II, perhaps audiences in general, and this critic in particular would have warmed to the prospect of seeing an entirely different narrative unravel before our eyes.  And, unravel it regrettably does, almost from the moment we see an elderly shopkeep, Harry Grimbridge (Al Berry) running in terror down an isolated road at night in Santa Mira California. Grimbridge is trailed by a carload of monolithic businessmen toting concealed weapons.
Clutching a jack-o-lantern mask from the Silver Shamrock factory, Grimbridge eludes his assailants by skulking through a junkyard before collapsing at a nearby filling station. He is driven to the hospital by the station attendant (Essex Smith) and placed under the care of Dr. Daniel Challis (Tom Akins), raving that someone is going to “kill us all!”  Sedated and left to his own accord, Grimbridge is murdered in his hospital bed by another ‘businessman’ (Dick Warlock) before being pursued into the parking lot by Challis where he witnesses the man casually set himself on fire. From this rather grotesquely haunting opener the film has nowhere to go but down and it does, degenerating into a lugubrious who-done-it with Challis walking away from his medical profession to play an ineffectual Poirot with Grimsbridge’s sultry daughter, Ellie (Stacey Elkin).
The two have their fling while following leads in Santa Mira. They meet couple, Buddy Kupfer (Ralph Strait), his wife Betty (Jadeen Barbor) and their young son, Buddy Jr. (Bradley Schacter) who have been invited by Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), the good-natured CEO of Silver Shamrock Enterprises, to partake in an advanced preview of a ‘very special’ Halloween mask promotion. Cochran is an unsettling presence; a charmer on the surface whose courtly polish hide a more sinister ambition.  
While touring Silver Shamrock’s production facility, Ellie and Challis are alarmed to see Grimbridge’s car in the parking lot, guarded by more monolithic men in business suits. Returning to their hotel, Challis quickly learns that he is unable to call out. Ellie is kidnapped and taken to the plant with Challis breaking in after hours in the hopes of rescuing her. Instead, he is discovered by Cochran and the businessmen who are revealed to be androids created by Cochran to do his bidding. Cochran has Challis view a video monitor of the Kupfer’s in their motel room. The TV plays the Silver Shamrock commercial and Buddy Jr. is instructed to put on his jack-o-lantern mask.
Implanted with a chip that channels the witchcraft powers of Stonehenge, the mask devours Buddy’s head, unleashing a vast assortment of bugs and snakes that kill the Kupfers as they helplessly look on at the demise of their child. Cochran informs Challis that on Halloween every child wearing one of his masks will befall a similar fate.  Breaking free of his captors, Challis destroys the factory and its androids. The powers of Stonehenge consume Cochran while Challis and Ellie steal away into the night. But only a few miles from the factory Cochran is attacked by Ellie who is actually an android copy. Presumably the real Ellie has died in the factory.
After a brief struggle, Cochran destroys the android Ellie and hurries to the same filling station where Grimbridge collapsed, telephoning the local TV station with frantic pleas to cancel their broadcast of the Silver Shamrock commercial that will trigger the apocalypse. Although the local affiliate complies, the commercial begins to play on other stations as Challis continues to shout into the receiver, “Turn it off! Stop it! Stop it!”
I’m trying to remain objective in my appraisal of the film on its own merit, as Halloween III – once thought of as the unwanted stepchild within the franchise - has since acquired something of a reputation as a cult classic amongst horror aficionados. But I can’t help it. Whether one chooses to regard Halloween III as a legitimate installment in this franchise or an ambitious and complete departure from it, the results for me are the same: awful, just awful!
Wallace begins his sojourn with some strong moody set pieces, however gruesomely staged, then completely deflates this suspense with a middle sequence that plays more like a maimed TV mystery movie of the week, before segueing into the final act, so thoroughly convoluted and incoherent that it neither explains away the purpose of the first two thirds nor brings any closure to the story – such as it is.
Is Cochran just a perversely demented old man with the same tired dreams of world domination run amuck, or is he truly the resurrection of a modern day warlock who believes his money can help him channel the unwieldy Gaelic spirits of Samhain?  Was Ellie always an android, hoping to lure Challis to his death and if so, to what purpose? Or was she really kidnapped by Cochran, murdered and then replaced with a likeness, and also to what purpose? After all, Cochran’s assumption was that having captured Challis he would die at the Silver Shamrock factory. So why create an Ellie double to pretend to be Ellie until she can kill Challis?
It’s okay for horror movies not to explain away their evil in totem. In fact, it’s often more unsettling if the audience doesn’t know what motivates the killer. But the pieces of the puzzle should at least fit the general premise of the film. In Halloween III’s case, they do not and that makes the film one garish mess of clichés and moody vignettes that never come across as anything better than rank B-grade horror tripe. The acting throughout is so bad that we won’t even go there, except to say that it’s worse than vintage ’80s TV soap opera fodder.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch has been given a much better presentation on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory than I would have anticipated. Perhaps owing to the fact that the movie really hasn’t had much playtime over the years the film elements are in stellar shape, the 1080p transfer yielding a remarkable amount of clarity, sharpness, superior contrast and absolutely beautiful color fidelity. Nothing to complain about here. The DTS audio faithfully preserves the 2 channel mono.
Once again, Shout! has padded out the extras. Two documentaries adding up to nearly an hour that covers the production from every conceivable angle. Fans will undoubtedly be very pleased with this rich mining of back story, further fleshed out in an audio commentary featuring Wallace and a few other noteworthy voices lending their praise to this campy cult classic. A stills gallery, trailers and TV spots in HD round out this presentation. Bottom line: Shout! gets top marks for a stellar Blu-ray. I just wish they had better films to work with.    
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)