Tuesday, April 30, 2013

L.A. CONFIDENTIAL: Blu-ray (Regency/WB 1997) Warner Home Video

Director Curtis Hanson’s gives us so much more than 'just the facts, ma'am' in L.A. Confidential (1997) a taut homage to the great film noir thrillers of the 1940s. In a year when James Cameron’s Titanic utterly dominated the box office and the Oscars, Hanson’s compelling detective yarn went almost unnoticed, though its popularity has steadily grown since. The reality of Hollywood being even more bizarre than the fictional stories it chooses to tell about itself, L.A. Confidential is a fascinating reconstitution of fact and fiction; a grittily perverse story from the pen of James Ellroy, the preeminent author of crime fiction set against the backdrop of a not-so-sunny southern California landscape populated by hoodlums, harlots and ham actors selling their souls for fifteen minutes of fame.
From the start L.A. Confidential had an air of kismet about it. Hanson and screenwriter Brian Helgeland were brought together by their innate love of Ellroy’s stories; Hanson having read at least a half dozen of the author’s work before settling on L.A. Confidential; a tale so unscrupulous that it pulled in Hanson completely – not for its plot – but for its fascinating assortment of disreputable characters. “I didn't like them…” Hanson later admitted, “…but somehow I continued reading. Then, I started to care about them.”  Helgeland, who had been hired to write a different movie for Warner Bros. campaigned heavily to be brought on board. Nearly two years later a viable screenplay emerged, preserving the basic integrity of the novel while skillfully condensing its eight interwoven narratives into three.  
Hanson also immersed himself in the L.A. of the 1950s as seen in films like The Bad and The Beautiful (1952) and In A Lonely Place (1950); extrapolating the myth from the legend and the reality from both, distilling his approach with cinematographer Dante Spinotti who concurred with Hanson’s decision to compose the visuals in the Cinemascope aspect ratio. Against producer Aaron Milchan’s objections Hanson sought out Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce for two of the film’s central protagonists – actors who, until L.A. Confidential were largely unknown to American audiences. Two months of immersive training, practicing their ‘American’ accents and the pair emerged certified ‘Dick Tracy’s’.  Hanson also hand-picked Kevin Spacey and Kim Basinger for their roles. Milchan may not have agreed with Hanson’s choices, but he trusted the director enough to step aside and allow him to continue to shape the cast to his own likes.
L.A. Confidential concerns a series of brutal murders at the Night Owl Café and tie-ins to police corruption. Oscar nominated, rarely seen in 1997, but steadily gaining in reputation ever since, L.A. Confidential follows the exploits of three Los Angeles' police officers, each with ulterior motives for solving the crime. Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is all show. He prefers the company of studio moguls and sultry starlets to his fellow officers and is, in fact, a consultant on a popular television police drama series. Edmund Exley (Guy Pierce), the son of a decorated officer is determined to make detective before thirty-five by any and all means, however cutthroat. Having come from an abusive home, Wendell ‘Bud’ White (Russell Crowe) has pledged himself to the salvation of all damsels in distress.
Bud’s current fixation is Lynn Bracken (Kim Basinger) – a prostitute cut to look like Veronica Lake. Through an ingenious set of interwoven circumstances, all three officers come to investigate the comings and goings of one Pierce Patchett (David Strathairn); an upscale pimp running a high class brothel where call girls have been given plastic surgery to resemble famous movie stars. What is unclear to any of the officers until it is almost too late is how Capt. Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) and district attorney Ellis Loew (Ron Rifkin) fit into their investigation. Behind them all is Sid Hudgens (Danny DeVito); the disreputable editor of ‘Hush- Hush’ magazine – itself a thinly disguised version of the real ‘Confidential’ – a precursory rag to the modern day ‘National Enquirer’. Sid, isn’t about to let good smut go by. And when scandal is in short supply he isn’t above manufacturing a little bit to fill his pages with Jack’s complicity. Sid frames them and Jack bags them, all for the publicity and the copy it sells. Regrettably, neither is aware of unseen forces higher up the food chain plotting to silence them both.
In the meantime Dudley, under the premise of ridding L.A. of Mickey Cohen and its mob rule, persuades Bud to brutalize known thugs inside a room at the abandoned Victory Motel. Bud thinks he’s doing good work – unaware Dudley is merely cleaning his own house to divert suspicion from the police’s complicity in organized crime. Bud and Exley are mortal enemies; the former regarding the latter as a greedy self-promoter; the latter regarding the former as nothing better than monolithic thug muscle. Through a strange set of crisscrossing circumstances, Bud, Exley and Jack find themselves exploring various facets of the same crime; the slaughter at the Night Owl Café where Bud’s partner (Graham Beckel) died.
Lynn and Bud become lovers, but not before she reveals to him the connection between Patchett and D.A. Ellis – an association that eventually leads to the discovery of Patchett’s body – wrists slit inside his fashionable L.A. home. In the meantime, Jack and Exley have reached a reluctant and very strained détente. Jack confides his suspicions about the case to Dudley who has thus far presented himself as a straight arrow, but who wastes no time in murdering Jack to keep his own secrets buried. Bud and Exley are sent to the Victory Motel on a wild goose chase by Dudley, realizing too late that they have been set up to be assassinated. Instead, the pair launches their own last stand inside one of the motel rooms. Bud is shot, but survives and Exley, having escaped the onslaught, reveals all he knows about the internal corruption, thereby achieving his goal of making detective before the age of thirty-five. In the final reel we see a badly wounded Bud and Lynn drive away from the station as Exley looks on, their future uncertain but perhaps brighter now that they have one another.
L.A. Confidential is a classy/saucy noir thriller (albeit in color). It sizzles like raw steak thrown over an open flame. The mystery - dappled in seedy mob hits, sunny California mythology and real life circumstances surrounding famous crimes circa the mid-1950s – delves deeply into those 'tabloid' grabbing headlines, riveting the audience to their seats.  Even more rewarding, the Hanson/Helgeland screenplay doesn’t make things easy for us. L.A. Confidential is a complex narrative with its ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ premise abounding in insidious back stories. Like The Big Sleep (1946), or even Pulp Fiction (1994) we’re not entirely certain how any of these pieces fit together or even if they’re meant to. Ellroy’s novel is hardly an easy read, but the film does its level best to retain something of the intricacy of the book even as it inevitably had to jettison five of Ellroy’s subplots in the process. Overall, the telescoping of the story works – brilliantly so at times – its revelations seemingly coming out of nowhere until one stops to reconsider all that has gone before; the fragmented pieces thereafter making perfect sense.   
In any other year, L.A. Confidential would have won Best Picture. In the year of overwhelming hype over Cameron’s Titanic it had absolutely no chance at all. But reviewed today, L.A. Confidential persistently works as a dark and brooding noir thriller. And it bears repeat viewing because the cast of characters are so finely wrought. Since the film is already ‘period’ it hasn’t dated; the vintage 50s pastiche retaining its strangely oppressive atmosphere that defies the faux sunny California backdrop; the myth and the reality thrust together, generating an intoxicating and visceral impact that continues to enthrall. In the final analysis, L.A. Confidential is a superior film to Titanic – texturally packed though never dense. This is a story destined to be around for a very long time.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is a winner through and through. The image is solid, with very robust colors. Contrast levels and fine detail are superbly realized. As they used to say, 'Prepare to be astonished!' Minor edge enhancement on the DVD has been eradicated on the Blu-ray. We get a very sharp visual presentation with just the right amount of film grain that actually looks like grain - not digital grit. Good stuff. The audio has been remastered in 5.1 DTS and really delivers the 'wow' factor we've come to expect from Blu-ray. The studio packs this disc with a ton of extras including a comprehensive audio commentary, four informative featurettes, the pilot of a TV series, an interactive map that allows us to visit the haunts in the film and an isolated 5.1 of Jerry Goldsmith's evocative score. Yes! Yes! Yes! L.A. Confidential on Blu-ray comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Monday, April 29, 2013

MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY: Blu-ray (MGM 1962) Warner Home Video

A story that always makes money…or at least, so MGM had hoped. By the time Lewis Milestone’s lavishly appointed remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) reached theaters it was advertised and distributed as one of MGM’s ‘landmark’ pictures – an experience more than a movie and quite sadly out of touch with changing audience tastes. A tale about the most infamous upheaval ever to befall a ship under British maritime law, the 1935 B&W classic co-starring Clark Gable, Franchot Tone and Charles Laughton as the malignant Capt. Bligh had been a colossus for the studio and a Best Picture Academy Award winner to boot. Throughout the 1930s and 40s MGM had surged ahead of its competition, producing movies of enviable quality and originality that staggered the imagination and drew in vast crowds into the theaters. But then a funny thing happened.
MGM after the departure of L.B. Mayer was never again a forward thinking studio. In fact, the bulk of their 1950s output was spent on low budget programmers or mining the studio’s illustrious past, remaking classic comedies like The Philadelphia Story (1940), Ninotchka (1939) and The Women (1939) as big budget glossy musicals (High Society 1956, Silk Stockings 1957 and The Opposite Sex 1956 respectively).  Clark Gable remade Red Dust (1935) as Mogambo (1953). Rose Marie, The Student Prince, The Merry Widow and Kismet were all remade with bigger budgets though less fanfare. The silent swashbuckler Scaramouche, roared to life once more, this time with an exhilarating sword fight a la Stewart Granger and Mel Ferrer in 1952. The '50s were book-ended by two colossal remakes of silent epics; Quo Vadis (1951) and Ben-Hur (1959). With increasing regularity MGM fell back on its illustrious past for future revenues. It made perfect sense. In fact, a goodly number of the aforementioned were very popular at the box office.
Regrettably, 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty would not be among these success stories. Whether by design or simply by chance, this Bounty was far more lavishly mounted than its predecessor, yet it quite simply failed to come to life except in fits and sparks. Undeniably good looking, the chief problem with the remake was its central casting of Marlon Brando as 1st Lt. Fletcher Christian. In the 1935 original Christian had been played by no less a heartthrob than Clark Gable. The 62’ version had another towering figure of masculinity in mind - Marlon Brando.
Yet, for reasons only clear to Brando, he chose to play this paragon of the seven seas as an effete fop for the first third; a daft boob for its middle portion, and a ruthless mercenary for the final act. The transitions between these various faces of Fletcher Christian were not entirely successful; their motivation weaker still. Christian’s first encounter with the sultry Tahitian beauty, Tarita (Maimita) seems to have been the catalyst for his first conversion. But regardless of what thought processes it took to take Fletcher Christian from points ‘A’ to ‘B’ the variations never caught on with audiences. As portrayed by Brando, Fletcher Christian is a man more in love with his own image than the cavalcade of strumpets he playfully courts on the mainland.
The film had better luck with the casting of Trevor Howard as Capt. Bligh. Although Howard in no way measures up to Charles Laughton's epic portrait of the maniacal taskmaster from the 1935 movie he is nevertheless ruthless. Bligh is a devious master. The Bounty is his first command and he is determined that its mission – that of gathering rare tropical plants from the Tahitian islands for study – including the grapefruit – shall not fail. But Bligh is sadist – misperceiving treason from his men and frequently administering extreme punishments for even the slightest infractions.
After rough seas, much sickness and several near death experiences the crew is at the crossroads for mutiny. But anarchy is staved off with their arrival to Tahiti – a tropical oasis teeming with luscious native girls. Fletcher meets Tarita, a sultry Polynesian with whom he falls in love. For this brief wrinkle in their journey Bligh is preoccupied with his mission and loosens his tyrannical hold on the crew. However, when the ship departs for home Bligh reverts to his strong-arm tactics. Only this time the crew has other plans. Charging mutiny Christian interrupts the murder of Bligh as planned.
Instead, Fletcher casts Bligh and his sympathizers adrift in a lifeboat, returning to the island where he perceives a future of unending bliss. Nothing could be further from the truth. For seaman John Mills (Richard Harris) – unwilling to trade in one Bligh for presumably another – decides to torch the Bounty so that no one will ever know they have returned to Tahiti. Christian takes a few men aboard in a feeble attempt to put out the fire and is mortally wounded as the vessel begins to sink. Taken back to the island he dies in Tarita’s arms; a very dower conclusion to what has been a very arduous viewing experience.
Mutiny on the Bounty isn’t a terrible film – but it fails to ignite any of that passionate romance one generally associates with sailing the high seas for a tropical destination. It’s rather difficult to reconcile the reasons why this is so. Bronislau Kaper’s score is, for example, robust and hearty, while Robert Surtees’ cinematography reveals some utterly stunning scenery. Better still, unlike the original film that used a model ship sailing in a tank on the MGM back lot, set against painted backdrops, this Bounty was actually built full scale in Lunenburg Nova Scotia to near exact specifications and with a level of authenticity a peerless example of MGM’s motto ‘art for art’s sake’.  Even more authentic, this Bounty made the journey halfway around the world with its cast and crew living the story as they shot it.
As an exercise in documenting the past, this Mutiny on the Bounty is rather impressive. Regrettably, as pure entertainment it becomes rather long-winded and tiresome almost from the moment the ship leaves port. It’s as though the original narrative has been stretched too thin for three and a half hours, despite a harrowing storm at sea, various brutalization inflicted on the crew by Bligh, and the climatic torching of the tall ship. (Aside: the ship set afire was not the full scale vessel but a model, thus sparing the artisans the indignation of having to watch all their efforts go up spectacularly in flames.) There’s nothing inherently wrong with the staging of any of these sequences. But cumulatively there’s very little to tie them together in ways that are both compelling and cohesive.
Yes, the fact that the Bounty herself remains the only full scale functional ship ever built from the keel up for a motion picture is quite impressive, and yes, ditto for the fact that cast and crew actually sailed around the world to bring the story to life in its native locales. True, Brando’s Fletcher Christian is more textually layered than Gable’s, and arguably – even truer to Christian’s own nature. Yet, despite these advantages the 1935 version has more staying power, more intensity and ultimately much more entertainment value. Evidently, audiences agreed. The 62’ Mutiny on the Bounty barely recouped its production costs, pushing MGM’s already precarious bottom line further into the red ink.
Mutiny on the Bounty is accompanied by a very sad postscript. After the debut of the 62’ movie the HMS Bounty made a tour of various ports across the United States, finally appearing as an exhibit during the New York World’s Fair. Afterward, the ship fell into a delicate state of disrepair, salvaged from becoming a sunken wreck by a private collector who managed to raise the necessary funds to fully restore it to its original condition. For decades the Bounty was moored off Cape Hatteras, N.C. But on Oct. 29th, 2012 the vessel was scuttled, then capsized in a disaster just off the coast, a victim of Hurricane Sandy, killing its Captain and a first mate who had signed on mere months earlier.
Warner Home Video’s 1080p Blu-ray improves on the 2-disc DVD transfer from 2002. The 'wow' factor is in evidence, perhaps no surprise since Mutiny on the Bounty was one of the first catalogue titles to receive an HD transfer back in 2007. Remarkably, it never went to Blu-ray then. But sourced from restored original 65mm negatives the image is finely detailed and beautiful from start to finish. Bottom line: this image will surely NOT disappoint. Neither will the 5.1 DTS audio.  Bronislau Kaper's score is the real benefactor here. Extras are all direct imports from the aforementioned DVD and limited to an extended epilogue cut from the film before it premiered, two vintage featurettes and one newly produced, describing the construction and restoration of the ship, but curiously, no 'making of' the film or even an audio commentary - pity. Otherwise, recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

THE IMPOSSIBLE: Blu-ray (Summit Entertainment 2012) Summit/Eone Home Video

Few natural disasters are as ingrained in my mind as the 2004 tsunami that decimated the coastal retreat of Khao Lak, Thailand; an event of such mind-boggling devastation, its total comprehension is virtually impossible to fathom for those of us who were not there. The shaky images captured by terrified tourists on their iPhones and other home video recording devices, flashing across our television screens were significant only in presenting the paralytic moment of impact and its immediate aftermath. But the overhead shots of earthy-colored rising tides consuming the coastline were strangely surreal, or perhaps even artificial; like a spectacular CGI effect created by Hollywood artisans instead of a raw and eviscerating act of Mother Nature.
I must confess to a naiveté. Until 2004 I don’t think I ever even heard the word ‘tsunami’ before – or perhaps had, but chose not to register it consciously as anything more than a big wave knocking over a few trees. Certainly, I had never seen one broadcast in real time and, God willing hope to never experience such a cataclysm in my own life. But in the days and weeks that followed, survivor testimonies began to filter through the media outlets. These were not merely heart-wrenching but crystalized the experience as terrific and as awe-inspiring as any apocalyptic ‘end of the world’ scenario Hollywood could concoct. Most definitely it must have seemed this way for Maria Belon and her family, come to the newly inaugurated Golden Palace Hotel for a little R&R over the Christmas holidays and looking forward to nothing more substantial than a week of lazy lounging on Khao Lak’s ivory sands.
This vacation, however, was to turn deadly for 230,000 people; a loss of human life so staggering that to discover even one survivor from this perilous afternoon seems more a miracle now than it perhaps did then. To learn of five - all in one family - is a phenomenon, and the subject of Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible (2012). Bayona tells the tale from Maria’s perspective; albeit with one minor artistic flub; the Spanish Belon family having morphed into a decidedly Caucasian/British brood headlined by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. Otherwise, The Impossible quickly acquires artistic integrity as an unrelenting portrait of heroism despite overwhelming tragedy; its triumph of the human spirit genuine and satisfying.   
Bayona and his screenwriter, Sergio G. Sánchez have managed an extraordinary feat; to tell a true story in a narratively compelling way without embellishing or twisting the facts. By Maria’s own harrowing account, we experience the epic wrath of the huge black wall of sea water smashing into bungalows, counterbalanced by excruciating moments of gut-wrenching fear racing through our protagonists’ minds; the drowning sensation Maria herself has described as “like being in a spin dryer” realized for the audience in all its heart-palpating, nerve-jangling dread. The Impossible is not an easy film to watch – and not chiefly because we know the event being depicted actually happened, but rather because the performances given by Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland (cast as Maria, her husband Henry and young son, Lucas respectively) seem so ‘of the moment’ and ‘in the zone’ of the close-knit Belons suddenly torn asunder by this swirling maelstrom.
Most disaster movies brutalize the audience, placating our morbid desire for catharsis. We are able to survive fires, floods and the proverbial gnashing of teeth all from the comfort of our plush theater seats or cozily snuggled up on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and favorite soft drink in hand. But The Impossible is different somehow – almost documentarian in its approach, and forcing us to live through the nightmare moment by moment. The drama yields to an even more un-quantifiable appreciation. By the end of the first reel we have completely set aside the premise that these are actors assuming just another role in their ever-expanding repertoires. Watts, McGregor and Holland manage no minor coup when they all but disappear from our collective consciousness, replaced by a haunted verisimilitude that gets under our skin and rattles a deepening trepidation with the even more daunting realization of finding loved ones still alive – if, in fact, at all – after the repercussion from those subsiding tides.
Our story begins predictably enough with the Bennett family’s arrival to the Golden Palace – a picturesque Thai resort newly opened to the public. Physician Maria Bennett (Watts), husband Henry (McGregor) and their three sons Lucas (Holland), Tomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) have been looking forward to this getaway – particularly Henry, who fears that his job at a Japanese firm is about to be terminated. Director Bayona resists the urge to simply jump right into the thick of things. Instead, he conscientious sets up the story with a few choice scenes that establish the special loving nature of this close-knit family; Henry and Maria’s devotedness to one another and Lucas’ selfishness in his inability to understand Tomas’ fear of flying: little brother – what a pain!
Bayona does an exceptional job recreating the relaxed cadence preceding the deluge. We observe the resorts’ guests partaking in a moonlight candlelit balloon launch; the sun-filled beaches a resplendent tropical paradise beckoning Henry and his sons to go snorkeling; the entire family submitting to a retirement from their worldly cares. Regrettably, this respite will be short-lived. For on the next day, as Maria prepares to curl up in her deck chair with a good book, and Henry and the boys frolic in the pool an unexpected shift in the breeze and the scattering gulls overhead mark fateful seconds of quiet repose before the indelible incubus unfurls.  
Triggered by a cataclysmic earthquake in the Indian Ocean miles away, the initial tidal wave unleashes its fury; uprooting trees, tearing apart bungalows and flooding the resort with a mountainous berm of murky salt water that consumes everything and everyone in its path. Maria and Lucas are swept away. Henry is unable to get out of the pool with either Tomas or Simon, presumed to have fallen under the crushing weight of the ocean. Director Bayona does a fairly brave thing with these scenes; silencing the soundtrack repeatedly as Maria’s head periodically slips beneath the raging waters – in effect, realizing the sensation of being drowned for the audience.
Against all odds Maria and Lucas manage to reunite, perilously clinging to floating debris until at last they are propelled far enough inland where the waters have receded, leaving behind their path of unbridled destruction. Compositing CGI with full scale dump tanks and miniatures of the resort, Bayona manages to effectively recreate this incalculable annihilation while never once allowing it to anesthetize the audience in their complacency for more special effects. Maria’s leg is badly injured. Without proper medical attention she will surely die of infection.
Lucas and Maria discover a small child, Daniel (Johan Sundberg) separated from his family and trapped beneath debris. These three climb into a tree to relative safety to await rescue.  A local Thai father and son (La-Orng Thongruang and Tor Klathaley) find Maria, Lucas and Daniel and drag her – literally – to a nearby makeshift hospital where, due to a mix-up Maria is labeled with another survivor’s name. Thus, after being encouraged to go and assist the others, Lucas returns to find Maria’s bed empty and told by the Red Cross Nurse (Jomjaoi Sae-Limh) that his mother has died.
We shift focus back to the waterlogged remnants of the Golden Palace where Henry, Tomas and Simon have survived. Henry entrusts seven year old Tomas with Simon’s care and sends his boys on ahead in a truck bound for the hospital while he sets out on foot to learn what has become of Maria and Lucas.  Injured by falling debris, Henry is taken to an evacuation center where various survivors share their stories. At first Henry is understandably numb. But when another man, Karl (Sönke Möhring), desperate for news of what has become of his own family, willingly offers Henry a chance to call home using his cell phone to explain what has happened, Henry is overwrought with crippling anxiety and hopelessness. Enough cannot be said of Ewan McGregor’s performance in this scene; so lyrically heart-breaking - so utterly true to the moment in its frazzled unraveling of his composure.
Bayona counterbalances this absolutely tremendous moment of realization with another – more understated, but nonetheless graceful. We see Tomas, having arrived at a rest stop for the night, quietly observing the twinkling stars in the night sky as Simon sleeps by his side. A kindly old woman (Geraldine Chaplin) approaches, asking if she may sit with him for a while. To this inquiry Tomas responds as any child might. “How old are you?” to which the woman replies “Seventy-four. How old are you?” “Seven”, Tomas admits. In this single scene Bayona has captured the essence of the tragedy – impactful to both young and old, sparing no one, yet bringing everyone together.   
Now, Bayona telescopes his narrative into its penultimate reunion for the Bennett family. Lucas learns that Maria is alive – having survived surgery on her chest but still very weak and facing an even more arduous operation on her leg. Through a whim of fate the rescue truck with Tomas and Simon has stopped for a moment on the outskirts of the hospital, and Henry – his own search for Maria thus far come to not - has also found his way into the wards.  Maria sees Henry through the heavy gauze of her curtain but is unable to call to him. Meanwhile, Simon – needing to use the bathroom – jumps from the back of the truck to relieve himself on the side of the road. Lucas, who has glimpsed Henry leaving the ward but has now lost sight of him, instead finds Tomas and Simon. Their tearful reunion is heard by Henry who cannot believe his great good fortune. Karl instructs the driver of their truck to move on. Lucas takes Henry to Maria’s bedside and after another successful surgery on her leg the family is ushered by their insurance provider aboard an airplane bound for Singapore – their ordeal at last at an end.      
The Impossible is perfect storytelling – not because it seeks to transform its narrative catastrophe into high art, but rather because it uses the artistic patina of visualized narrative fiction to humanize a story we only thought we knew from newsworthy accounts.  Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor give career-defining performances. The word ‘performance’ usually defines the artifice in acting. But herein I use the term merely as a reminder of how seamless both Watts and McGregor are in resurrecting that raw emotional center of the piece; undeniably the movie’s greatest strength. Tom Holland is an old soul in a boy’s body; absorbing the character of Lucas as part of his DNA and taking on more ballast than one might expect, but never in a way that seems beyond the character’s years.  
Fernando Velázquez score is appropriately subdued and reverent. We get none of the deafening groundswells generally associated with this type of underscoring but rather a quiet, understated and all together effective bit or musical foreshadowing. Dídac Bono, Lek Chaiyan Chunsuttiwat and Marina Pozanco’s production design works its own minor miracle on a budget. The film’s singular flaw is Óscar Faura’s cinematography. I’ve stated before my zero tolerance threshold for shaky handheld camerawork. Faura’s is among the most equilibrium upsetting in recent years. There are other – better – ways to create visual tension. Masking your actors by constantly moving the imagery around doesn’t equate to creating visual art. It never does. It never will. Otherwise, at 114 minutes The Impossible is a succinct drama. It takes us on a terrible journey, but one that is ultimately life-affirming.
Eone and Summit Films have assumed the distribution for The Impossible in North America. Their Blu-ray delivers the hi-def goods – revealing the finer details in Óscar Faura’s copper-toned cinematography. The 1080p image is sharp without appearing to suffer from digital manipulations. The stylized contrast – boosted to bleach out whites – is well represented. The 5.1 DTS audio will give your speakers a workout, but dialogue early on seems thin and lacking in spatiality.  Extras are abysmally bad: two featurettes – each under ten minutes - in which impressions made by principal cast and crew are distilled into mere snippets inserted between truncated scenes from the film. The audio commentary by Bayona, Sanchez and Maria Belon is far more astute and comprehensive at putting the pieces together for us. We also get a few scant deleted scenes and the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

THE GREAT GATSBY: Blu-ray (Newdon Productions/Paramount 1974) Warner Home Video

“Gone is the romance that was so divine; tis broken and cannot be mended…” - not the prose of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, but the first audible line from the prologue to Jack Clayton’s expensive adaptation of The Great Gatsby (1974).  Irving Berlin’s ‘What’ll I Do?’ – a forlorn little ballad written for his 1911 stage hit, ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ and sung herein with sad longing by Bill Atherton, sets up not only the premise to Fitzgerald’s story but also the mood of the entire film quite succinctly; juxtaposing static shots of a magnificent estate looking rather lonely and unloved in the steely-blue gray of dawn.
Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography moves in on silver-framed portraits of a stunningly handsome woman, a hand-embroidered bed cover with the satin gold initials ‘JG’ and finally, various military medals given for valor, lying strangely next to a half-eaten sandwich already besought by the errant housefly. At once Clayton has established the dichotomous interplay and tragedy that is Jay Gatsby (Robert Redford); a mythical and reclusive gentleman, but more the obsessing fool and fraud hiding behind his thin veil of faux respectability. Nor is the mansion hardly one of those glittering white palaces in West Egg, so described later in both the novel and the film but rather something of a mausoleum; faintly reeking of embalming fluid since deprived of its sycophantic revelers never to return, but who came to gawk, gossip and gorge themselves on the excesses of their hermit-host’s social graces.
Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay reinforces the soul of the novel in these opening scenes by excising and paraphrasing portions of Fitzgerald verbatim beginning with: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’…consequently, I’m inclined to reserve all of my judgments.” The film’s narrative remains true to the novel, the bulk of what follows retold for the audience by Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston); the unobstructed observer to Gatsby’s fixated determination to rekindle a spark anew from his old love – quite unaware how flawed the premise truly is. At one point Nick even tells Gatsby, “You can’t relive the past” to which Jay – more preoccupied than ever – renounces him with “Of course you can”.
Fitzgerald’s monumental tale of self-destructive love that basically causes a good man to sell himself in trade for the trappings of a robber baron, simply to impress his ‘one-time’ paramour is a sad, eloquent saga told by a superior wordsmith. Regrettably, Coppola’s script and Clayton’s visuals never come close to matching the author’s prose. With such promise unfulfilled, The Great Gatsby retains but a glimmer of distinction as a fine literary adaptation, mostly from John Box’s lavish production design that manages to visualize this rather heartless generation of ‘go-to-hell’ tea dance twenties millionaires and wannabe stragglers throwing caution to the wind and kicking their heels and skirts high into the air for a good time had my most, though arguably, not all.
The story’s implosion can only be partially blamed on Coppola’s lumbering script – an interminable purgatory of montage-esque odes to the fractured romance between Jay and Daisy – much too faithful to Fitzgerald to become anything greater than a basic lampooning of the author’s word – and made even more forgettable by the woeful miscasting of players who do little more than skulk about this glistening landscape without ever assimilating into the period of the piece. In his powder-pink three piece suits and plaster of pomade quaff Robert Redford’s Jay Gatsby mismanages the confused fop as a simpering fashion plate. Redford’s Gatsby spends a great deal of time perplexedly mooning over our troubled poor little rich girl, Daisy Buchanan – all the more ineffectually mangled by Mia Farrow’s frenetic moping and crocodile tear-stained visage shot through heavy gauze.
I confess; the acting prowess of both Bruce Dern and Karen Black has always eluded me; cast herein as Daisy’s wealthy/philandering husband, Tom and his soulless and very brittle plaything, Myrtle Wilson. Dern and Black’s performances never rise above stock B-grade 70’s television programming; he the perpetually scowled brute, unsympathetic or even memorable, even when he gives the dickering/bickering Myrtle a bloody-nose amidst a roomful of superficial friends come to avail themselves of his money and Myrtle’s bathtub gin. Black captures the greedy resolve of Myrtle’s character, though hardly her devouring temperament. If anything, Black’s Myrtle emerges as a gargoyle, a gal unwilling to acknowledge her low caste even as she remains chained to it.
The most intelligent and believable performers of the lot are Sam Waterston’s middle-class bond salesman who has his eyes opened wide by this deceptive brood; Lois Chiles’ sultry vamp and golf pro, Jordan Baker – and, undeniably, vintage ham Howard Da Silva, as Meyer Wolfsheim; a notorious gangster/racketeer who has set Gatsby up in more ways than one – though chiefly in business, making him the fresh-faced front man for the mafia. It doesn’t help that Coppola’s screenplay reduces most of the novel’s pivotal elements into a rudimentary exercise told mostly in vignettes interrupted by several excruciatingly long party sequences that devolve into a ‘corn’ucopia of buffoonery and broads playfully run amuck; the action remedially shot by Slocombe mostly from the waist down so that we can almost look up the sequined dresses of dancers in their heavy stockings or stare at straight pant-legged tuxedoes and patented leather shoes making a mockery of the Charleston.
No, The Great Gatsby founders because all of its elements seems to be working against one another; the vintage clothing wearing the actors instead of the other way around; the sets gleaming, but never appearing to be truly lived in; the action lensed either in long shot or extreme close up, but with its nauseated focus shifting back and forth between talking heads in the extreme foreground and background. Fitzgerald’s novel isn’t about extolling the elegance or even the extravagance of that bygone era but rather exposing its superficiality and how one can become a slave to it for love. This corrupts our returning soldier/hero whose only crime before the war was to have fallen for a very flawed social climber who arguably never regarded him as keeping up to her speed.
Our story begins on Long Island Sound with Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston) rescuing his panama hat from its waters in a modest outboard decidedly out of place amidst all the other lavishly appointed vessels cruising the coastline. Nick has made the crossing from the less fashionable West Egg to visit his first cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow) whom he has not seen in some years. After a brief introduction to Daisy’s polo-playing hubby, Tom (Bruce Dern) the men return to Tom’s estate where Nick finds Daisy and her girlfriend, Jordan (Lois Chiles) lazing around the open air patio. Tom is called away in the middle of their conversation by a phone call from his mistress, Myrtle (Karen Black) – the affair exposed to Nick by Jordan who seems to be genuinely enjoying Daisy’s insecurity.
Sometime later, Tom collects Nick at the cottage he’s renting; a property facing Gatsby’s back lawn. The two motor into Manhattan, stopping midway in their journey at a grimy garage where Tom introduces Nick to Myrtle and her husband, grease-monkey George Wilson (Scott Wilson). Myrtle meets up with Nick and Tom later that afternoon. He buys her a puppy to go with the new apartment he’s just rented for their frequent rendezvous. But the gathering turns ugly when Myrtle attempts to boss Tom around. He ruthlessly slaps her, causing her nose to bleed. Shortly thereafter Nick receives an invitation to one of Gatsby’s all-night house parties. He is reunited with Jordan and listens to rumors being spread by various party guests about their reclusive host before being escorted to the second floor of the estate by Gatsby’s mysterious bodyguard (John Devlin). Nick meets Gatsby, a man even more cryptic and evasive in person than his own concocted mythology.
Even so, Nick takes an instant liking to Gatsby who suggests they have lunch the next afternoon. Nick wholeheartedly agrees. He is fed a tall tale by Gatsby who claims he is the son of wealthy parents who died before the war. Having distinguished himself in battle – even showing off his medals of valor – Gatsby takes Nick to a rather seedy restaurant where they break bread with Meyer Wolfsheim (Howard De Silva); a charismatic hoodlum who regales Nick with the story of a gangland hit that occurred right across the street. Wolfsheim hints that Nick might wish to join their ‘organization’ – an offer quickly diffused by Gatsby. Wolfsheim apologizes for his ‘misunderstanding’ and tactfully removes himself from their luncheon date. Gatsby will do the same a few moments later when Tom unexpectedly arrives – presumably en route to another rendezvous with Myrtle.
Later, Gatsby makes his truer inquiry known; that he would prefer Nick set up an invitation for Daisy to attend him in the cottage for tea; an inducement for which Gatsby lavishes a large silver service and an abundance of white roses – Daisy’s favorite. Daisy arrives, seemingly startled to discover Gatsby waiting for her. Nick leaves the couple alone but is encouraged by Gatsby to make a tour of his estate. Daisy is captivated by her former lover’s instant wealth. Showing off, Gatsby tosses a closetful of his newly tailored shirts into the air, bringing Daisy to tears. Their love affair is made short shrift of in a series of montages shot through heavy filters. Ebullient beyond words Daisy drags Tom to one of Jay’s all-night soirees and even gives him permission to seduce the showgirls newly arrived from their Broadway show.
Tom doesn’t much care for Daisy’s newly mastered tolerance of his peccadillos. He’s even less amused to discover the motivation behind it; that, to quote the old proverb, ‘what’s good for the goose is also good for the gander.’ Tom becomes suspicious of Gatsby and hires a private investigator (Bob Sherman) to dig up Jay’s mysterious past – particularly his women.  In the meantime a reporter for the New York Journal (Jerry Mayer) confronts Nick with some questions about his fabulously wealthy neighbor. Several days later Nick, Jordan and Gatsby attend Tom and Daisy at their home where Gatsby reluctantly meets the child Daisy has had with Tom. Gatsby’s understanding of their romance is spoiled by this revelation and Daisy, frantic to subdue the situation, makes an impromptu suggestion they all go into town.
The heat is stifling and tempers flares inside the Plaza Hotel. Gatsby informs Tom that he intends for Daisy to marry him and Tom retaliates by revealing the truth about Gatsby’s past. Daisy becomes frantic and runs from their private dining room, pursued by Gatsby with Tom shouting after them about Gatsby’s connections to organized crime. On the trip back home, Jordan, Tom and Nick are confronted by a crowd gathered outside Wilson’s garage. It seems Myrtle, having admonished her husband for his ignorance, ran from the garage and into the street, but was struck by an oncoming car. Eye-witness accounts claim the car was a yellow convertible, the same as Gatsby’s. Nick assumes that Gatsby was driving the roadster that ran Myrtle down.  But in fact it was Daisy who drove the car.
Distraught at having lost his wife, and led by Tom to believe that Gatsby had been Myrtle’s lover, George grabs his shotgun and shoots Gatsby dead as he lies on his patio waiting for Daisy to come to him. In yet another revelation, Nick learns the truth about the accident from Daisy. He also meets Gatsby’s real father, Mr. Gatz (Roberts Blossoms); a poor but disarming man who was all but ignored by Jay once he entered the mafia lifestyle.  Haunted by Daisy’s callousness regarding her complicity in not only Myrtle’s murder but also Gatsby’s death – and seemingly disinterested in anything but her own divine decadences, Nick departs from the Plaza Hotel – ever more the wiser and much an admirer of the great Gatsby and his motives; for Gatsby gave everything of himself for the love of a woman who turned out to be all too unworthy of his aching heart.
The Great Gatsby has never translated well into film and this 1974 version is no exception to the rule. Jack Clayton’s direction is pedestrian at best – his pacing more stultifying than spectacular. The visuals periodically do come to life – particularly during the party sequences at Gatsby’s regal estate. Regrettably, Clayton uses these parties as little more than a visual hodge-podge to celebrate the ostentations of the self-indulgent. I get it – the 1920’s roared like a lion. But Coppola’s script is short – pathetically so – on exposition – arguably, diffusing the forte of the piece which is undeniably Fitzgerald’s writing.
On the whole the characters have very little to say – either about themselves or to each other. The reintroduction of Gatsby to Daisy, as example, and their subsequent love affair is an interminable montage of kisses, dewy-eyed stares across the lawn, and, lying together in Gatsby’s park-like setting. But we know absolutely nothing about the motivation behind Gatsby’s obsessive desire to reclaim Daisy for himself or that obviously wounded past that continues to haunt them from the peripheries of this rekindled romance. Somewhere midway through the story both Coppola and Clayton have tired of and abandoned the Nick Carraway monologue that borrowed whole portions of its exposition from Fitzgerald’s literary prose; a mistake, since it all but severs the already tenuous connection with the novel. The last third of the film spirals into a rather tedious ‘who done it?’ but with minimal surprises and virtually no staying power to hold the audience’s interest.
All of these misfires are a shame – because The Great Gatsby has so obviously been mounted with considerable care and expense. The planning, however, seems to have been more pertinent than the execution. None of the pieces fit and in the end the story falls apart. We remember flashes here and there but none of the whole.  Baz Luhrman’s new interpretation of the story set to debut this year will undoubtedly be more frenetic and flamboyant in its visual approach – shop-chopped with Ginsu-styled editing and a contemporary claptrap of pop tunes inserted in place of a period score to draw in the younger audience. But the story really doesn’t need either. What it does require is a more captivating class of actor, a better screenplay and fluidity faithful to Fitzgerald’s text. Barring these inclusions any version of The Great Gatsby is likely to sink like a stone at the box office.
Warner Home Video has assumed the rights to the Paramount library and this 1080p Blu-ray bears witness to the former’s cost cutting approach. Paramount Blu-rays were few and far between when the studio retained control of its own catalogue but at least they were given the utmost consideration in hi-def. Warner’s mastering efforts haven’t been nearly as successful of late. Despite a very high bit rate, the dual-layered transfer on The Great Gatsby lacks in clarity and overall color fidelity. While the results definitely improve on Paramount’s pathetic DVD from 2002, removing age-related artifacts and eradicating virtually all of the digital anomalies that plagued that release, what we ultimately get is an image that is soft – even when Slocombe’s trigger finger isn’t heavily filtering the image.
Colors are weak at best, although several close ups jump to life. Film grain is naturally reproduced, but looks occasionally thicker than anticipated – particularly during the montage sequences and transitions between scenes. Flesh tones are, for the most part, quite natural in appearance. Some of the shots suffer from a slightly less pronounced level of contrast that makes everything look murky. The plus, herein, is a new 5.1 audio. Dialogue continues to sound strident but the vintage score crackles with renewed vigor. There are NO extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Thursday, April 18, 2013

MAJOR DUNDEE (Columbia 1965) Sony/Twilight Time

I recall so well the braggadocios accolades that accompanied the 2005 ‘restoration’ of Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee (1965); the much maligned western drama unceremoniously dumped on the market where it instantly became something of a colossal flop. Peckinpah had run into opposition from Columbia – the studio footing the bills – and non-compliance from his producer Jerry Bresler (a yes man for the front office). But in 2005, some seventeen years after Peckingpah’s death, critics like Boston’s Chris Fujwara and The Washington Post’s Steven Hunter were falling all over themselves with superlatives extolling the restored version as “magnificent…a unique piece of threatening…alcoholic cinema” with “high-end adult” themes and “a better grade of savagery” carrying with it the ballast of “actual ideas…back in all the fractured glory and confidence.”
I would just like to go on record as saying that the only thing “fractured” herein is the movie – either in its theatrical or restored cut – the latter an approximation of what Peckinpah might have hoped for had his own steady hand been on the moviola.  Yet I cannot even lay as much claim or faith in Peckinpah’s personal aspirations for Major Dundee – having begun it, as he did, without a finished script and basically shooting with only a very fragmented vision of the end result bouncing around in his head.  In hindsight, Peckinpah’  unwillingness to revisit the film years later seems to attest to his own painful divorce from this artistic implosion of ‘high-end savagery’ – a film that doubtless Peckinpah found nearly impossible to reappraise honestly without nursing a very large bottle of scotch.
Peckinpah had initially assigned the script writing duties to Harry Julian Fink – a middling writer at best who had been more prolific in television than movies. Dissatisfied with Fink’s prose – for, at 163 pages they did tend to ramble on…and on – Peckinpah undertook to edit down the material himself with assistance from Oscar Saul – by no means a heavy hitter, but with more movie credits to his name. Yet the results of all this perpetual tinkering seem to have given way to the old adage of “too many cooks spoiling the broth”. While Peckinpah had ambitions to create a sweeping epic masterpiece in the western genre, comparable to David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962 – and Peckinpah’s favorite movie), what he ultimately succeeded in resurrecting was the modest Monogram B-programmer with an A-list roster and production values that nearly sank the studio. 
Major Dundee is an intimate western drama. Yet, in casting Charlton Heston as his title character Peckinpah all but diffuses the ill-fated chimerical saga into one where its larger-than-life protagonist is unable to part the wilderness and lead his people onward without sacrificing his own powers as a major star. Heston championed Peckinpah’s vision for the movie when no one else seemed even mildly interested in making the movie. But he was to regret this decision when the director embarked upon his own irascible odyssey for perfection. Heston’s towering performance – however subtly nuanced – is nevertheless working against type. Not that Heston ever played a steely-eyed bastard before. In fact, he had, convincingly for William Wyler, and in another western, The Big Country (1958).
But Charlton Heston and Maj. Amos Charles Dundee just don’t seem to go together. Heston gives a very credible performance, only the starch in those army britches is just too stiff; the character never evolving beyond a very cold-hearted martinet who briefly loses himself in the arms of a Hispanic prostitute (Aurora Clavell); and this after having already seduced the top-heavy Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger) during an afternoon swim. The inability of the screenplay to give us even an ounce of sympathy for this cruel taskmaster and Heston’s unapologetic adherence to the character as written yields a characterization dangerously close to becoming the villain of the piece. Indeed, by the last act the audience is more apt to root for the doomed southern Capt. Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris) – who meets with a vicious, if heroic fate – than the unrepentant Dundee, still willing to sacrifice every last man in his detail to save his own face by apprehending the blood-thirsty Apache marauder, Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate).
Harris’ performance is the standout in the film – full of contempt for Dundee’s methods but not without more than a modicum of self-loathing that challenges the audience to dig a bit deeper into his motivations and ultimately come to respect Tyreen’s sacrifice. The others in the cast, Jim Hutton as the regimented Lieutenant Graham, Michael Anderson Jr. as bugler Tim Ryan (on whose surviving diaries the film’s narrative is supposedly based), and particularly James Coburn’s masterful rendering of the one-armed native guide, Samuel Potts – these offer the briefest of reprieves and escape from Dundee’s thriving oppressions. But in the end, they’re not enough to make us forget what a terrific monument to the damned Dundee is; a polarizing force who maintains the flimsiest tyrannical control over his men using nothing greater than the art of intimidation to keep them resentful, but also, regrettably, in line.
Adding to Peckinpah’s woes, Columbia chose to slash the film’s budget by a million and cut his shooting schedule down by fifteen days, just two days before principal photography was about to begin.  Peckinpah’s ability to work under such conditions bears out his commitment – not simply to the actors or the film – but to will a finished product more finely wrought than the average fair of its day, yet painfully out of step with what the paying public wanted to see. The other great sin foisted upon the production, after Columbia executives decided to oust Peckinpah from the director’s chair and recut the movie themselves, is its jaunty Daniele Amfiteatrof score – full of rousing marches and other rambunctious orchestrations better suited for a Mexican fiesta on Olivera Street than the somber depiction of one man’s spiral into a kind of self-imposed purgatory.  For the 2005 ‘restoration’ a new score was commissioned from Christopher Caliendo, more in keeping with Peckinpah’s vision for the film.
Yet that vision remains myopic at best – the story hardly improved by the added 14 minutes of ‘lost’ footage reinstated into the film. There’s simply more to consider and – unfortunately – less to admire.  Howard Kunin, William A. Lyon and Donald W. Starling’s editing retreats into a series of visually overlapping montages. We are exposed to Sam Leavitt’s breathtaking cinematography; the sprawling Mexican landscapes imperfectly cut down into snippets awkwardly running into each other like jigsaw puzzle pieces that don’t fit but are being forcibly made to give the appearance of a perfect interlock.         
The story, such as it is, involves Union cavalry officer Major Amos Charles Dundee (Charlton Heston); mildly disgraced at the Battle of Gettysburg and relegated to the wilds of New Mexico where he micro-manages a prisoner of war camp. Prior to the main title sequence we witness the blood-thirsty Apache leader, Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate) and his men massacre a small village of ranchers – men, women and female children – as well as Union cavalry sent there to protect them. Hence, when Dundee arrives with guide Samuel Potts (James Coburn) he is committed to digging a mass grave. Upon returning to the camp Dundee decides to enlist as many of his prisoners for a special detail to hunt down Charriba. But Dundee’s motives are hardly altruistic or even in service of achieving justice for the fallen. Instead, his is an enterprising plan to rebuild his own tarnished reputation as a great military man and hopefully to elevate the army’s opinion of him from these currently abysmal circumstances.
Capt. Benjamin Tyreen (Richard Harris) is hardly fooled by Dundee. Yet he remains chivalrous to a fault. Tyreen’s innate hatred of Dundee stems from an incident before the war when the Major cast his deciding vote in Tyreen's court-martial from the U.S. Army for participating in a duel. In the theatrical cut our first encounter with Tyreen occurs after Dundee has already returned to base camp. He admonishes Tyreen’s refusal – and that of his fellow Confederates - to enlist in the cause of murdering Charriba. In the extended cut we meet Tyreen and these men as they strike a guard in their feeble escape attempt. Apprehended by Dundee and brought back in chains Tyreen and his men are informed that the guard they meant to merely wound has died of his injuries. Having been told by Tyreen that he would rather hang than serve, Dundee accepts Tyreen’s terms and begins to build his gallows. This stalemate is eventually broken by Tyreen, who physically assaults Dundee while still in chains and confers on him the terms for his complicity in the plot. Tyreen and his men will hunt until the last Apache is dead, but with the understanding of a full pardon awaiting them at the other end.
Although Dundee never actually agrees to these conditions he does not outwardly reject them either. Tyreen also promises that when the war against the Apache has ended his own private war against Dundee will result in the Major’s execution. Begrudgingly valued for his soldiering, as well as his gumption, a weird détente occurs between Dundee and Tyreen – tenuous at best, and infrequently threatening to break under pressure. Still, when push comes to shove, both men represent a united front that adheres to the mark of valor ascribed true military men. This is one of the oddities of the screenplay, for Tyreen repeatedly tells Dundee that he has no country after the civil war and seemingly zero loyalties to the newly formed United States of America.    
The strained alliance between the men is divided along lines of class – cavalry vs. prisoners – further splintered by ‘north vs. south’ and ‘colored vs. white’. When these factions are not busy warring with each other they infrequently engage the Apache in several disastrous battles that brutalize the men and inflict many casualties. Charriba and his posse retreat to Mexico, garrisoned by French troops loyal to Emperor Maximilian. Knowing that to cross the border means a direct confrontation, Dundee nevertheless orders his men across the Rio Grande, into a small impoverished town overseen by Teresa Santiago (Senta Berger) whose husband was executed for supporting Benito Juárez’s rebels.   
In a previous altercation with Charriba, Dundee lost most of his garrisons’ supplies – badly needed foodstuffs he was hoping to recoup in the village. Instead, Dundee shares what little remains with the impoverished villagers, allowing French forces to escape for backup. When these do indeed return to the village Dundee ambushes them by night, taking his lion’s share of badly-needed supplies. Although Tyreen is cordial to Teresa, it is Dundee who conquers her heart – albeit very briefly. In an unguarded moment Dundee is wounded in the leg by Charriba’s arrow and forced to hold up in the French-occupied village of Durango – presumably for weeks – while Tyreen moves the men onward in search of this Apache viper. Losing himself in drink and self-pity, Dundee is discovered in the arms of a Spanish prostitute Melinche (Aurora Clavell) by Teresa who abruptly ends their vacuous affair, telling Dundee that for some men “the war will never be over.”
Capt. Tyreen returns with boastful swagger, challenging and humiliating Dundee in order to shake him loose of his inner regrets. A reformed Dundee returns to his men, feigning a sudden loss of desire to apprehend Charriba. The Apache leader falls for the rouse and plans his final attack, determined to murder Dundee and his men. Affectingly, Charriba’s arrival is met with a clever ambush instead. Bugler Tim Ryan (Michael Anderson Jr.) – who has ‘become a man’  by losing his virginity to a Spanish girl - fires the fatal shot that puts a period to Charriba’s reign of terror. Their mission completed, Dundee and his men are outflanked by the French at the Rio Grande, making repeated valiant charges to cross it but incurring massive casualties, including Tyreen – who, wounded but still bitter, defies death to delay a second detachment of French cavalry single-handedly. Dundee and his fragmented forces cross the river and head for home.
In either its extended or truncated form Major Dundee remains a curious flop; its’ ascribed epic quality useful perhaps only to describe the way the film persistently misfires at every conceivable turn and on practically every artistic level; and this, despite Peckinpah’s rather obvious attempts to will a silk purse from its sow’s ear. The strangeness of this artistic implosion is that Major Dundee never catches even the tail fire from some weighty performers giving it their all, coupled with its vistas and straggly landscapes meticulously lensed by Sam Leavitt, but rendered muddy and dull in Pathe’s flawed Eastman color process. These invoke world-weariness all too readily apparent in Heston’s mellifluous performance as the dower Dundee, but regrettably do not equate to, foreshadow or even infer a looming sense of foreboding and grand tragedy that Peckinpah hoped for.  The…uh…romance between Teresa and Dundee is more dulcet than juicy and all but eclipsed by another - the fiery bro-mance between Tyreen and Dundee; two men who clearly share more than a mutual admiration beneath their outward derision of one another.  
I’ve set aside my own admiration for Peckinpah herein; a film maker elsewhere revered. But in all honesty, Peckinpah has made it all too easy for me to disregard and dislike Major Dundee. The flaw is not entirely his to bear. But in the final analysis, Major Dundee is little more than a major blunder; resurrected to prominence by its renewed resurgence on home video, though not to any greater level of artistic poignancy that one would have anticipated. I dislike being overly critical of movies in general. Even the bad one’s take time and ingenuity to make. But Major Dundee is a movie that had a lot going for it at the start. That all its attributes combined come to more gumbo than glory left me feeling cheated from my viewing experience. 
And I watched it twice – first, in its newly restored director’s cut, then again in its original theatrical cut. I will say this; for me at least, the extended version just seemed like too much of a bad thing – the prolonged scenes never enhancing my understanding of the story. The pacing of the theatrical cut played much more ‘clean’ in its narrative approach and to the point, at least, in my opinion. Regrettably, the essential tension is all but ruined in the theatrical cut by Daniele Amfitheatrof’s brutally buoyant underscore, laughingly making some of the visuals play like a badly blunted operetta rather than a western epic. Christopher Caliendo’s 2005 score parallels and punctuates the action far more astutely.
Major Dundee has been released by Sony exclusively through Twilight Time/Screen Archives. We’ve been given the rare opportunity to watch both cuts, each on a separate disc with varying extra features. The 1080p image has been consistently rendered, illustrating the shortcomings of Pathe Eastman color film stocks. The image is very thick. Blue skies flicker purplish/brown. I also have to say that the sequences shot at night are much too dark – particularly in the extended cut. Our introduction to Tyreen, being captured in his attempted escape from the camp is a sea of blackness from which only Richard Harris’ wan face occasionally emerges from the murkiness as a disembodied head.
Flesh tones are more ruddy orange, though infrequently they look fairly accurate. Grain has been accurately reproduced. Again, the Eastman stock translates most of the outdoor landscapes into an indistinguishable brownish earthy tone. Trees are muddy grayish green rather than vibrant. Blue skies tend to appear washed out. These are not – repeat – not a flaw in the mastering process. Sony has done their utmost to preserve the original look of the film. The audio on both cuts is 5.1 DTS but sounds infinitely more refined on the 2005 extended cut – perhaps because effects and dialogue had to be remixed with the newly recorded Caliendo underscore.  
Extras are somewhat satisfying. We get both scores on an isolated track. On the extended cut we also get an audio commentary by Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle. There’s also a litany of extended outtakes and deleted scenes, the original trailer and its 2005 reissue, plus an exhibitor’s reel.  Overall, I like what Sony and Twilight Time have done on this title. I just wish the material they had to work with – namely, the film – was more deserving of their hard efforts. Bottom line: not recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Thursday, April 11, 2013

TAXI DRIVER: Blu-ray (Columbia 1976) Sony Home Entertainment

A seminal film of the counterculture 1970's and Martin Scorsese's breakout as a director, Taxi Driver (1976) is an ironic, deeply troubling glimpse into the deranged mind of an obsessive madman whose crimes against humanity are reconstituted by a misguided media. Paul Schrader’s screenplay delves into the haunted recesses of a loner pushed over the edge by mitigating circumstances. These produce a psychopath whose anti-social behavior is foisted onto an unsuspecting public as ‘take charge’ vigilantism. The underlying message is, of course, that in a crazy world the most insane among us can achieve the greatest success and even become a role model. But Schrader's initial concept for the character of Travis Bickle as a disgruntled black man was quashed by Scorsese during preliminary talks because he felt it gave the narrative an unwanted and subversive racial undertone.
At Scorsese's insistence, the location in the script was also changed from L.A. to New York, since cabs are more an iconic part of the latter's public transit. As with many films of the 1970's, Taxi Driver opens with a rather laconic character study of its central protagonist. New York cabbie Travis Bickle (Rober DeNiro in a career defining performance) is an isolated, slightly depressed insomniac. Honorably discharged from the marines, Travis reluctantly assimilates into mainstream society as a taxi driver on the graveyard shift where he quickly grows disillusioned by all the gutter filth and depravity that surrounds him.
Inexplicably, Travis is drawn to Betsy (Cybill Shepherd); the slinky campaign manager in charge of the Presidential Nominee Committee for New York State Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris). Betsy's initial reaction to Travis is awkward. She relates to his isolationism and agrees, after some coaxing, to go out on a date. Unfortunately, Travis is out of Betsy's league and proves it by taking her to a porn theater on their first date. Repulsed, Betsy ditches Travis and takes another cab home.
Betsy's rejection ignites an unforeseen spark of vigilantism within Travis. By day he obsesses over Palantine and stockpiles his apartment with a small arsenal of weaponry acquired from gun salesman, Andy (Steven Price). He postures shirtless in front of a mirror in full blown 'tough guy mode' and practices his prowess with a pistol. In retrospect, it all has a very John Hinckley-esque quality to it; Travis’ misguided infatuation with Betsy and his plan to assassinate Palantine a fairly accurate foreshadowing of Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster and plot to murder Ronald Reagan.
On one of his midnight trolls through the city, Travis unexpectedly encounters child prostitute, Iris Steenma (Jodie Foster) who is trying to escape her drunken pimp, Sport Matthews (Harvey Keitel). To defuse the situation Travis pays Sport for Iris's time but refuses to take advantage of her. Despite her refusal to eschew 'the life', Iris comes to trust Travis. Regrettably, Travis comes to regards himself as Iris's savior. With daybreak Travis endures yet another Jekyll/Hyde transformation. He shaves his head into a Mohawk, dons dark sunglasses and prepares for the assassination of Palantine during the candidate's first public address. Thankfully, this plan is bungled by a pair of secret service agents (Richard Higgs and Victor Magnotta). Retreating to his morally superior high ground, Travis goes after Sport instead. He bursts into the seedy brothel, guns blazing, killing Sport and Iris's Mafioso john (Bob Maroff) before being wounded in the neck.
In a bizarre, if redemptive epilogue (that invariably has been interpreted by some critics as Travis's dying dream) a reluctant Travis is deified in the press as the city's moral crusader: the misanthrope rechristened as a model citizen. Fully recovered from his wounds, Travis returns to his old life and career as a cab driver. His last fare of the night is Betsy, who is once again attracted to him and flirts in the hopes of rekindling their relationship. Bad luck for Betsy that Travis has decided he is through with her. He drops her off at her apartment and drives into an uncertain future. In various vintage reviews of the film, Travis has been interpreted as a shell shocked Viet Nam vet. But this reading does not hold water, especially when one considers how initially inept Travis is with firearms.
At the time of the film's release, the MPAA forced Scorsese to tone down the color registration during the final bloodbath in the film in order to escape an 'R' rating. Scorsese willingly complied, but cinematographer Michael Chapman was less than pleased. Regrettably, when the film was being reissued on home video some years later Scorsese and Chapman discovered that in reprinting the original negative to accommodate this alteration, the negative had also been altered irreversibly making it impossible to print up the contrast to Scorsese’s original intent. Taxi Driver was a colossal financial and critical success, earning $28,262,574 in the U.S. alone. In retrospect, like so many social critiques from the 70's, this one seems to foreshadow the approaching counter culture that regrettably appears to us today, if not yet entirely acceptable, at the very least certainly much more ‘mainstream’ than it did back then.
Sony Home Entertainment's Blu-ray rectifies man a sin from their previously issued DVDs. Part of the problem with bringing Taxi Driver to home video – let alone hi-def - has always been that there were no original camera negatives to strike a new print. Hence, second and third generation materials, with all their inherent shortcomings, had to be employed. Although this new Blu-ray is undeniably ahead of other incarnations Taxi Driver will never be quite as pristine as it should be on home video.
That said, the Blu-ray is a revelation. Colors are infinitely richer, although intermittent muddiness still exists. Detail in night scenes is much improved. The mess of grain that often registered as digitized grit in the past now looks very film-like and is quite pleasing throughout. The audio is a new 5.1 DTS master and again, is a monumental upgrade to what's been offered before. Is it perfect? No, nor should aural perfection be considered the desirable result. Taxi Driver is a film of the streets, shot on a shoe string budget. The audio reflects these shortcomings with great accuracy.
Save a new 'script to screen' interactive feature, all of the extra features are carried over from the DVD presentation from 2006. We get separate audio commentaries; one from Schrader and Prof. Robert Kolker, the other by Scorsese, carried over from Criterion's 1986 home video release. There's also a 'making of' documentary and featurettes on the production, a psychological critique of Travis Bickle, interviews with the writer, storyboard and photo galleries and the film's original theatrical trailer. Overall, this is a worthwhile upgrade. Sony has wisely focused all of its efforts and money on improving the image quality of the feature. I sure wish other companies - notably Fox - would take the hint and do the same for their catalogue titles. This Blu-ray is highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)