Sunday, October 27, 2013

STALAG 17: Blu-ray (Paramount 1953) Warner Home Video

I must admit that when I first heard the title Stalag 17 (1953) it didn’t appeal to me…neither it, nor the premise behind the movie: a comedy about the hardships of American prisoners of war – hardly, a laughing matter. I was all of sixteen then. Consequently, I abstained from considering the movie any further beyond its title for a goodly number of years, until I was laid up in bed with a fever and basically at the mercy of three broadcast channels after midnight – two playing exercise infomercials, the other beginning a classic re-broadcast with the late Elwy Yost and Stalag 17. What I quickly discovered is that like everything else director Billy Wilder touches, Stalag 17 was easily imbued with his touch of genius and more than a modicum of razor-sharp wit in its dialogue; distinguishable trademarks belonging to virtually every movie Wilder ever made.
Of course, Stalag 17 had been a prominent comedy on Broadway before it became a hit film; although initially no one at Paramount wanted to fund the project. In fact, Stalag 17 was rejected four times before a chance meeting between playwrights Donald Bevan and Edmund Trzcinski, and, Yul Brynner pointed a path to Billy Wilder, who saw it on the stage and instantly fell under its spell. Wilder, however, was not above rewriting greatness to suit his own tastes. Virtually none of Bevan and Trzcinski’s original dialogue survived this transition from stage to screen with Wilder and co-writer Edwin Blum tag-teaming to pool their creative juices into an acerbic cinematic flambé – succinct in its incendiary, but jovial jabs and astutely scathing take on the rank suffrage of POW’s. Indeed, in planning this review I am reminded of Stalag 17’s certain je ne sais quoi; its’ impossible mélange of Nazis, death, deception and war effortlessly stirred into Wilder’s comedic soufflé, the whole thing so gosh darn light and kooky that one could almost as easily forget the severity of the circumstances surrounding both the play and movie’s subject matter.
War is not a laughing matter. Arguably no one knew this better than Bevan and Trcinski (both appearing in cameo parts in the movie); who had been POWs themselves. But Wilder isn’t poking fun at the enemy or even the suffrage endured so much as he is attempting to illustrate the power of wartime camaraderie arising between these captive men of mixed faith and origin brought together under arguably some of the most appalling living conditions. At the crux of Stalag 17 there is the undeniable thread of male bonding; the movie perfectly cast with an essential star presence immeasurably supported by some truly stellar character actors. Each holds his own and is given a moment or two to shine without ever eclipsing the name above the title. Evidently, William Holden didn’t think much of the play. In point of fact he walked out after the first act. Holden’s star had dramatically risen after Billy Wilder cast him in Sunset Boulevard (1950); the movie that resurrected Holden’s career from certain oblivion. Moreover, Holden was grateful to Wilder and appreciative of the opportunity to work with him again. He really ought to have been indebted to Charlton Heston: Wilder’s first choice for the part, who proved unavailable due to a conflict of assignments. Bevan and Trzcinski were equally relieved, feeling Heston too large a presence – both physically and in performance – for the part of the laconic loner.
Holden’s chief concern remained that his character, Sgt. J.J. Sefton, is misperceived throughout a fair portion of the story as a Nazi sympathizer and stooge responsible for getting two Americans attempting escape murdered in a botched ambush. Holden had asked Wilder to write him in a line that clearly delineated Sefton’s aversion to Nazis. Wilder refused, rightly believing that the character’s ambiguity would heighten the suspense of the piece. If Holden’s own opacity about accepting the part continued to dissipate as shooting progressed, Wilder was faced with just as much apprehensiveness from co-star Otto Preminger; ideally cast as the unscrupulous Nazi Gen. Oberst von Scherbach. Preminger, a Viennese Jew who had fled the Nazis during the occupation, and who could be tyrannical as a producer/director on his own set, fell into line with Wilder’s vision of both the character and the movie. But he would forever regard Stalag 17 as a damning influence on his future procurement as an actor – thereafter branded as the perfect embodiment of the villainous Nazi thug.
As the dailies began to come in, Paramount’s top brass had a gripe of their own. Everyone in the cast looked awful; the film’s star weather-beaten and sporting realistic bruises, the supporting cast trudging through thick, black mud often caked onto their clothes and feet; Wilder’s attention to detail transforming the grunge and grime of the prison barracks into a filthy hole that proved the perfect counterbalance to his patina of comedy.  Arguably, Paramount had not allotted $100,000.00 to Wilder to film a sty; nor had they counted upon Wilder’s sublime depiction of drunken arousal when the slovenly Sgt. Stanislaus ‘Animal’ Kuzawa (Robert Strauss) muddles through an alcoholic haze, briefly believing for a moment or two that his best friend in the camp, Sgt. Harry Shapiro (Harvey Lembeck) is, in fact, an incarnation of Betty Grable (Animal’s ultimate fantasy pin-up girl). Paramount encouraged Wilder to tone down the inference that Animal was becoming ‘excited’ while engaging Harry in a Christmas dance. Wilder refused and was eventually successful at keeping this moment in his movie.
For the rest, Wilder hand-picked an exceptional supporting cast to re-envision the play in cinematic terms: Peter Graves as the stoolie, Sgt. Price; Don Taylor as Lt. James Dunbar, marked for treason and death after his involvement in the detonation of a railway bomb; Sig Ruman as the wily/jovial Nazi Sgt. Johann Sebastian Schulz, who conferred his messages with Price through hidden roles of paper exchanged in a hollow chess piece, and finally Richard Erdman, as Barracks overseer Sgt. ‘Hoffy’ Hoffman – the only actor to keep a straight face throughout the entire movie. Stalag 17’s narrative strength derives not simply from Wilder’s wit – always fresh and with something perceptive and/or revealing to say – but from his actors’ ability to differentiate through performance his words as uniquely belonging to them – the characters taking on more ballast, Wilder’s prose becoming their own words rather than mere pages of dialogue spoken in tandem.   
Stalag 17 opens with a clever narration by Clarence Harvey ‘Cookie’ Cook (Gil Stratton); setting up the grim premise for a daring prison break that ends badly for POWs Manfredi (Michael Moore) and Johnson (Peter Baldwin). Their ‘foolproof’ plan of tunneling to freedom ends in a bloody ambush just beyond the barbed wire fence. Someone must have tipped the Nazi guard off. But who? All evidence seems to point to the cynical Sgt. Sefton (William Holden) who callously takes bets on the pair making it out alive, has a stash of ill-gotten goodies in a chest beneath his mattress and seems to have established a unique and favorable rapport with Sgt. Feldwebel Schulz (Sig Ruman), affording him special perks, such as fraternizing with the nearby camp of Russian maidens. Sefton’s fellow detainees don’t think much of him but the feeling is mutual.
In fact, Sefton seems to be exploiting the men by organizing, among other gambles, a mouse race – capitalizing on the men’s desperation and daydreams of home to make a quick buck or two. Sefton’s only real pal is Cookie, who sticks close until the men collectively decide that Sefton is actually a spy kissing up to the Nazis. Perhaps Sefton was responsible for tipping off Schulz about Manfredi and Johnson’s escape.  While the men contemplate the possibility that Sefton is a traitor (simply because they don’t like him), the Wilder/Blum screenplay concentrates on extoling the camp lifestyle and camaraderie; the much looked forward to collective activities of hearing and receiving the daily news, hilariously relayed by Marko the Mailman (William Pierson), the appalling food rations and bathing conditions (they use communal latrine sinks), and the organization of periodic parties and future escape attempts to keep morale up and the men sane. Sgt. Price (Peter Graves) is in charge of security. Naturally, no one suspects him of smuggling information from the barracks using rolled up paper inside a hollow chess piece as his means of communication; the placement of a loose knot in the cord of a hanging lamp in the barracks alerting Schulz to a new message hidden inside.
However, after Schulz confiscates a clandestine radio used to pick up the BBC broadcast, the men retaliate against Sefton, beating him to a pulp and looting his stash. When the Geneva Man (Irwin Kalser) arrives for his general inspection of the camp he finds the men belligerent. But Sgt. Hoffman (Richard Erdman) takes it upon himself to make inquiries about the detainment of Lt. James Schuyler Dunbar (Don Taylor) who was removed from their barracks earlier and is currently being tortured by Scherbach using sleep deprivation techniques because he is suspected of having blown up a Nazi railway. Aware of Sefton’s animosity toward Dunbar – because he graduated from the flyer program Sefton failed, and also because Dunbar comes from an affluent family, the men firmly believe Sefton is responsible for Dunbar’s current incarceration. But Sefton is no fool. In fact, he’s already figured out who the real stoolie is.
After Sefton reveals the truth about Price to the rest of the men Price attempts an escape. He is bound, gagged and forcibly dragged to the floor, silenced while Hoffman makes plans for Dunbar’s daring escape. At the break of dawn, as Dunbar is being led by guards to a waiting car that will take him to Berlin (and his death), the men detonate a smoke bomb, pummel the guards and whisk Dunbar to the nearby water tower where he waits while the rest of the plot is hatched. Sefton agrees to make the daring escape with Dunbar under the cover of night, writing off his fellow detainees with his ‘go to hell’ attitude. The men stage a diversion, using Price as bait – thrusting him into no man’s land with noisy cow bells attached to his feet to create a disturbance. Unaccustomed to such obvious distractions the watchtower guards blindly open fire and murder their own man, von Scherbach and Schulz only discovering the rouse after the body has been turned over; time enough for Sefton and Dunbar to have made their break to freedom.
From beginning to end, Stalag 17 is a cynically engaging, poignantly staged, and occasionally prophetic masterpiece. Billy Wilder’s movies frequently rank among the top ten in their respective categories. Yet Stalag 17 is difficult to place.  On the one hand, it is an observing comedy of errors set in the unlikeliest milieu of a POW camp (inspiring the latter day creation of Hogan’s Heroes for primetime TV). On the other hand, Stalag 17 is a rather scathing and wickedly satirical view of war in general. And still, it owes goodly strength to the precepts of the melodrama, arguably with light comedy peppered in. Wilder, a master craftsman in virtually any and all genres has resisted the urge to clearly delineate the movie for his audience. Arguably, Stalag 17 plays to all of the aforementioned virtues equally, and this is perhaps its greatest accomplishment; Wilder keeping the arc of his narrative taut and exacting while finding moments of verisimilitude only possible through humor – both high and low brow.
Immediately embraced upon its release, Stalag 17 was nominated for several Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor William Holden – who accepted his Oscar rather begrudgingly. (He would have preferred it for his performance in Sunset Boulevard instead.) Viewed today, Stalag 17 retains its air of intangible magic that goes beyond crackling and bright prose or even its stunning ensemble performances and set pieces. The movie…well…moves, Wilder and his characters making – but never belaboring – their points; the intermingling of tragedy and silliness merging as two perfectly realized halves to the same equation. Movies as good as this are very rare indeed – but remarkably more ever-present in Billy Wilder’s own canon of indelible classics: Double Indemnity, Sabrina, Sunset Boulevard, The Seven Year Itch, Witness for the Prosecution, The Apartment and Some Like It Hot among them.  In such esteemed company Stalag 17 often gets overlooked. I still think it’s the title – failing, as it so obviously does, to offer even a glimmer of the robust and razorback drollness that follows.  Oh well, we can forgive a weak title when what is sandwiched between it and ‘the end’ credit is pure box office gold. Stalag 17 is just that – a winner in more ways than one and by far one of the best war-themed satires ever made.
Warner Home Video’s distribution deal with Paramount has yielded another winner in hi-def. It’s Paramount’s mastering we’re seeing here and the results are nothing short of marvelous. Stalag 17 has always looked rather dark on DVD. True enough, this isn’t a bright and airy movie – in visual terms – but now we can appreciate Ernest Laszlo’s strangely sumptuous/yet bleak cinematography. The gray scale exhibits pluperfect tonality. Just wonderful. And film grain is presented pleasingly throughout. Fine detail pops, even during sequences shot at night. The ‘wow factor’ is in evidence. The 2.0 DTS audio is exceptionally hearty, particularly during Franz Waxman’s sparse music cues. Dialogue sounds natural and impressively clean. You’re going to love this disc. Paramount has also retained all of the extras found on its previously issued SE DVD. We get two featurettes – one about the making of the film, the other dedicated to recollections from real-life POWs. Potent stuff. Unfortunately, neither featurette is given an upgrade. Each shows just how awful 720i video-based content can look. There’s also an audio commentary, succinct on factoid information but still worth a listen. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, October 26, 2013

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES: Blu-ray (Samuel Goldwyn 1946) Warner Home Video

I know of no other movie in cinema history that can justly be considered both as perfect entertainment and as nourishment for the nation’s collective soul. But director William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) is arguably both - its poignantly disquieting critique of the changing American landscape G.I.s faced upon their return from WWII resonating with audiences then and delivering a potent message that time has been powerless to disavow since. By 1946 Hollywood’s interpretation of the war had decidedly shifted from more glamorous fare like Mrs. Miniver (1942) and Since You Went Away (1944) to frank and sobering reflections. The harshest realities would not surface on celluloid for a few decades more, perhaps because the Hollywood moguls wisely perceived that those who had lived through the hardship wanted to place their painful memories in the past and move forward.
However, the transition from war to peace time would prove anything but smooth for thousands of returning veterans. Grittier critiques (Twelve O’Clock High 1949) examining the psychological fallout of war would all come later. But The Best Years of Our Lives captures the truthful essence of that hopeful anxiety facing the conquering hero; his re-assimilation into a complacent civilian world, perhaps even misplaced as a distant dream, already moved on without him.
Written by Robert E. Sherwood and Mackinlay Kantor, The Best Years of Our Lives charts this bittersweet and occasionally very awkward period of transition with frankness, honesty and a sense of empathy. Director William Wyler had the original ailment of post-traumatic stress syndrome shifted from the character of Homer Parrish, the sailor, to Fred Derry, the pilot bombardier and then actively sought out Harold Russell – a real life double amputee – for the role of Homer; the only non-actor in the film’s ensemble cast. Russell’s performance proved so enigmatic as the linchpin of the story that he won two Oscars; one for Best Supporting Actor, the other an honorary statuette in acknowledgement of his extraordinary bravery in bringing social acceptance about for the physically disabled.
The three service men whose lives become intertwined once their uniforms have been shelved in mothballs are bombardier Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), platoon sergeant, Al Stephenson (Fredric March) and sailor Homer Parrish (Harold Russell); men of varying social backgrounds brought together in the twilight’s last gleaming after D-Day as they travel back to their home town of Boone City in the nose of a B-52. Anxious for different reasons, Homer, Fred and Al quietly observe the relatively unchanged landscape of their home town by air, taking comfort in the fact that most of what they see is sweetly familiar. But the similarities witnessed from above are, of course, superficial and cosmetic. For upon closer inspection at ground level it becomes immediately apparent that the community around them has changed, the ground beneath their feet having shifted further still.
Fred and Al are quietly impressed by Homer’s agility, and perhaps even more with his seeming sunny outward optimism. Despite the loss of both hands from burns sustained after his aircraft carrier was sunk, Homer is able to sign his name with a pen, carry his own duffle bag, and even light a cigarette using his prosthetic metal hooks. After their plane ride, the boys share a cab. Homer points out Butch’s Bar – an old haunt owned by his uncle that he, Fred and Al vow to return to once they have settled into their old lives. But as the cab approaches Homer’s address his confidence drains. He nervously suggests they turn around and have a drink at the bar now, before ‘going home’. Al wisely forces Homer out, saying “You are home, soldier.” But Fred delays the cab a moment as Homer is reunited with his aged parents (Walter Baldwin and Minna Gombell) and former sweetheart Wilma Cameron (played to winsome perfection by newcomer, Cathy O’Donnell).
Al’s reunion with his family is no less poignant. He is met at the front door by his stunned and tearful daughter, Peggy (Teresa Wright) and overjoyed son, Rob (Michael Hall); encouraging both to keep his arrival a secret from their mother, Milly (Myrna Loy) until she suddenly becomes aware of the deafening silence in the next room, emerging from the kitchen with her simple joy fulfilled at being reunited with her husband.
The least welcome of all the homecomings is Fred’s; returning to a cramped little shack he once shared with Marie (Virginia Mayo); the war bride he married on the fly while still in basic training. Marie is a heartless creature, more enamored with Fred as a flyer than she is with him as a man – even less so when he informs her that due to limited employment opportunities he is returning to his former career as a drug store soda jerk. Marie, who has since become a cocktail waitress at a nightclub, is accustomed to high times and wild parties. She wants excitement, money and uninhibited fun; tangibles that Fred can neither afford or finds particularly unattractive since his sobering return from the war.
Al’s future is hardly as bleak. In fact, the bank where he once worked has offered to reinstate him with a promotion and a raise, viewing his war record as an asset when dealing with other vets seeking loans from the bank. Al gratefully accepts this position, but like his two contemporaries, has already begun to suffer from some deep seeded social angst. In Al’s case, he manages to console his reoccurring fears with alcohol. When the bank decides to hold a dinner in his honor, Al regrettably arrives mildly inebriated but still manages to impart an eloquent speech that champions the bank aligning its interests to help servicemen rebuild their lives in a country whose precepts they defended in the war.  
Meanwhile, the relationship between Homer and his parents becomes strained. Mrs. Parrish in particular cannot bring herself to anything but tearful frustrations over the loss of her son’s hands while Homer’s father seems unable to articulate his worried confusion beyond evasive reflections about the past. Although engaged to Wilma before the war, Homer now encourages her to leave him and seek her happiness elsewhere. But Wilma has been in love with Homer for many years. The loss of his hands has not changed her affections and she remains steadfast in her devotion – not out of a sense of pity or even moral duty – but from a genuineness and unerring love that Homer is reluctant to realize as pure of heart.
Peggy and Fred accidentally meet after she arrives to collect her father from Butch’s Bar where the three old buddies have reunited to drink themselves into oblivion. On the surface Fred pretends that his life is solid and secure. But nightly he suffers from terrors and sweats that Marie is unable, or perhaps unwilling to tolerate. Fred takes comfort from Peggy, who finds Marie utterly shallow. An unexpected spark of romance kindles between Peggy and Fred. This infuriates Al and he orders Fred to stop seeing his daughter.    
Realizing that Al only has Peggy’s best interests at heart, Fred reluctantly agrees to steer clear of her, but thereafter begins to resent Al’s self-righteousness. Homer comes to the drug store where Fred is working, but is dealt a blow by an obnoxious customer who suggests that the war was fought against the wrong enemy. An altercation ensues and Fred loses his job as a result. Afterward Fred and Homer share a heart to heart and Fred, ever loyal and encouraging, tells Homer he should marry Wilma with all speed. Fred even offers to be Homer’s best man.
However, upon returning home in the middle of the day, Fred discovers Marie locked in a passionate embrace with Cliff (Steve Cochran). Marie tells Fred that she has decided to divorce him because he is a failure – at least, in her books. Briefly believing this snap assessment himself, Fred tosses his father (Roman Bohnen) the various medals and citations he earned during the war, glibly suggesting that they were “passed out with the K-rations”. Realizing what a war hero his son is Mr. Derry encourages Fred to remain in town. But Fred wants out and fast. He books himself on a waiting list for the first outbound plane to anywhere, but then takes a side trip to the nearby war airplane graveyard where vivid memories of combat leave him momentarily despondent.
When Fred is interrupted by the boss of the work crew salvaging the aircraft’s aluminum for scrap, he finesses his way into a job to help with the disassembly.  Having resurrected his future from the ashes, Fred decides to pursue Peggy once more. Meanwhile, Wilma tells Homer that her parents have decided to send her away, presumably to forget him. At first, Homer believes this is the best for all concerned, but when Wilma makes it pointedly clear that her place is with him, Homer realizes how much she still loves him and agrees to marry her.
True to his word, Fred stands up for Homer in the wedding. Newly divorced, Fred eyes Peggy from across the room during the service and later, he and Al reach a tentative reconciliation in their fractured friendship. Fred approaches Peggy with the understanding that it may be years before he can find true comfort in civilian life; but reassesses that none of it will mean anything if she is not at his side. The honest gesture is enough. Peggy smiles and kisses Fred, the promise of their life together finally secured.
The Best Years of Our Lives is a flawless, unvarnished masterpiece; perfectly scripted and peerless in its acting. It remains the cinematic touchstone by which all other home front melodramas are judged. The real magic of the film is that it seems more genuine than manufactured; its’ mid-town America backdrop palpably atmospheric and true to life. Director William Wyler evokes the heartfelt without veering into sentimental treacle. None of his actors overplay their hand. Of the lot, Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright strike a perfect chord; symbolic of the ‘new American’ optimism about what the future may bring. Cathy O’Donnell’s screen debut is as impressive; her sad-eyed tenderness the perfect foil for Harold Russell’s wounded pride. Is it any wonder then that The Best Years of Our Lives took home Best Picture honors at the Academy Awards?
Last year, Warner Home Video reissued The Best Years of Our Lives on DVD using the same severely flawed digital files the old HBO and later MGM/UA discs employed to create a thoroughly lackluster rendering. Now comes the Blu-ray. I must confess; when this title was announced with copycat artwork mimicking the DVD release I didn’t hold out much – if any - hope that Warner would do right by this release – and arguably, they haven’t. Before delving into the nuts and bolts of the thing it would behoove the reader to remember that no original camera negative exists for this immortal classic. Hence, Warner is already cribbing from second generation elements to mint this disc. That said, and given all of the many digital tools at Warner Home Video’s disposal, this disc remains something of a let down.
Mercifully gone are the utterly abysmal digital artifacts (edge enhancement, macro-blocking, pixelization) that plagued the DVD and made it virtually unwatchable. Contrast levels have also been brought back into line – marginally. Whites that bloomed now seem merely bright – occasionally, still too bright – but acceptable (again, given the tragic quality of the aforementioned DVD). But the image doesn’t really snap together or tighten up as it should. Close ups look rather marvelous, but medium and long shots lack depth and tonality in the gray scale.  Despite the image obviously being darker (though hardly dark) than its predecessor, contrast levels on the whole are a tad weaker than anticipated.
Warner has jettisoned the Chace re-channeled pseudo-stereo audio mix for a very solid 2.0 mono rendering that will surely not disappoint. What is particularly disappointing about this release is its lack of extra features. For an Academy Award Winner as beloved as this, one would have at least expected a new documentary like the one afforded Warner’s House of Wax!!! But no. We get the same tired intro from Teresa Wright and interviews with Virginia Mayo and Wright that add up to a measly nine minutes. The original HBO rendering on DVD also included an isolated track of Hugo Friedhofer’s immaculate and thoroughly moving underscore, by far one of the greatest compositions ever committed to film. We lose this herein.  Bottom line: I’m going to recommend the Blu-ray for its marginal improvements – chiefly, for eradicating the painfully obvious and aforementioned digital anomalies. The Blu-ray is definitely an improvement. But it isn’t perfect and that remains a shame.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


MINDWARP: Blu-ray (Fangoria Films 1992) Twilight Time

It is impossible to get excited about the future of humanity (or the art of watching movies in general, for that matter) after viewing Steve Barnett’s apocryphal Mindwarp (1992); a turgid and frustratingly unoriginal post-apocalyptic mishmash starring Bruce Campbell – the undisputed king of pedestrian B-grade crapulence. Watching Mindwarp is like being asked by a favorite uncle with spurious intentions to pull his finger, already anticipating the smelly expulsion of gas but leaving a steaming #2 on his white linens instead. Neither amusing, nor shocking (unless, of course, one counts sophomoric stomach-churning with the same level of appreciation as the good solid fright), Mindwarp is a singularly unimpressive endeavor; the cinematic equivalent to a hemorrhoid – painful, festering, embarrassing and abysmally distracting.
If only to contend with the mangling of sci-fi and horror; only the C-grade acting put forth by the decidedly wooden Marta Alicia, pontificating Angus Scrimm and Hoboken-esque nattering of Mary Becker; only the cheapjack sets (many looking like cardboard cutouts from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom); only the implausible machinations of a plot turned rancid and distilled into grotesque violence with panged nods to family incest put forth by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (so obtuse that the pair effectively disown their screen credit as one Henry Dominick); then Mindwarp would already rate an ‘F’ …and I don’t mean for ‘fantastic.’ The excursion into this pseudo-Middle Earth/post nuclear cataclysm fantasy/adventure/horror/sci-fi/comedy mutt (with incongruous nods to the Roman/Greco period) is artlessly slapped together with antiseptic belligerence, and, thriving on the dredges of its own plot-less iniquities.
We are thrust into a feckless black hole of the bleakest despair, expected to relate to a rather gutless and fear-monger damsel-in-distress, Judy (Marta Alicia) who cringes and conquers, only to awaken from the ordeal. It was only a dream…really?!? Barnett’s direction – or lack thereof - is of no consequence; the movie devolving into its mismanaged grand guignol: neither engrossing nor satisfactorily carried off. Mindwarp is a series of bizarre and often tasteless vignettes reveling in the scum of the earth; hideously disfigured troglodytes dwelling beneath it. These excremental cells of submersed society are noisy, yet powerless; completely at the will and mercy of an über overlord (Angus Scrimm) who plucks the eyes from a child, Claude (Wendy Sandow) with his fingers before grinding his bones in a sort of primitive trash compactor, and, as casually as one might skewer croutons from a garden salad, before proposing to perpetuate the perfect human race by impregnating his own daughter…yuck!  Add to this already misshapen mixture, garroting, being impaled on spikes, and, vomiting up leeches and you have a general idea of Mindwarp’s…well…’warped’ sense of narrative trajectory.  It is arguably a very diseased mind that finds this sort of smut-mongering filth even remotely entertaining and even more unsettling to think about what sad, sick and twisted little grey matter was responsible for writing it in the first place.
I’ve seen a lot of junk in my day, but Mindwarp takes the cake – rancid icing, curdled milk, stale filler and all, for just being plain vanilla ‘wrong’ on virtually all levels of artistic merit. Mindwarp might have functioned as basic sci-fi or horror, but it never quite makes up its mind which it wants to be and this is its’ central problem. Are we to be terrorized or amazed by what we see? The answer, regrettably, is neither, as Scrimm’s pseudo-religious despot, Seer, is pitted against the avenging adventurer, Stover (Campbell); old hams at this sort of nonsense, neither rising above the material put forth by Fangoria: the famed horror aficionado’s magazine segue into cinema preceded by its own Children of the Night (1991) – actually begun after Mindwarp but released first.  Worse, the film’s deliberately reserved budget impedes its ability to convincingly cover its disarray of ambitious plot points; fractured odes to environmentalism and a decidedly Marxist slant on governmental intrusion into the private lives of the individual. Blah! Blah! Blah! Boring!  If the movie flashes us moments of flawed familial relationships as the axis of all its gruesomeness (disenfranchised mother/daughter/father/daughter), then it neither explores nor even makes any sort of lasting social commentary.   
I’m not going to spend a lot a time on summarizing the plot of this one – but here goes. We’re introduced to the phantasmagoric realm of Infinisynth – a government sanctioned fantasy role-playing apparatus designed to keep survivors from a worldwide nuclear holocaust properly anesthetized in a perpetual state of their own imaginary limbo. Plugged into their neck implanted programming devices, participants can be and do anything their heart desires – at least, in theory. Judy’s mother fancies herself an opera diva. But Judy is dissatisfied by her imaginary trips and decides to invade her mother’s dream instead, accidentally knocking her off the stage and thus murdering her before a live audience. Unfortunately, when Judy awakens she finds her mother dead, still caught in suspended animation.
Taken before Infinisynth’s omnipotent programmer (Scrimm) and cast out of ‘InWorld’ into the frigid sands of ‘reality’, Judy is attacked by a pair of ‘Crawlers’ – mutants toiling beneath the earth for a malicious overlord, Seer (Scrimm, again) who callously maims and murders to keep his minions in line. She is rescued from her fate by Stover, a rogue survivor of the nuclear holocaust that decimated earth, but remarkably left his cabin and the tall pines surrounding it virtually intact. Judy and Stover make love. The pair is discovered by Crawlers who take them captive below the earth. Stover is made to excavate relics from the rubble in a mine while Judy is taken prisoner by Cornelia (Elizabeth Kent); a Greco/Roman would-be dominatrix suffering from ‘the sickness’, and is hardly maternal toward Claude, her young ward whom she exploits for menial labor.  Seer eventually comes for Judy, revealing to her that he is, in fact, her estranged father, but then insisting that if only he could impregnate her they might build a new species of perfect specimens to hold dominion over the Crawlers. Naturally, Judy is adverse to this suggestion.
Stover clumsy attempts at escape and rescue are thwarted. He is locked in a watery cage to be impregnated in his intestines by leeches with their cannibalizing larva. In the meantime, Seer punishes Cornelia for not being able to convince Judy of his master plan; first, by plucking Claude’s eyes out and pulverizing his flesh and bones in an archaic trash compactor (later encouraging the crawlers to drink of Claude’s blood, poured into human skulls from a fountain head), then by impaling Cornelia on a meat hook. Miraculously, Stover survives his ordeal – partly – and after a struggle, Seer is crushed to death in his own torture device. But as Stover and Judy make their way to the surface she begins to realize a change in him – one that repulses her after he brings up a bounty of leech larvae. Judy awakens from her nightmare…well, again, sort of. She is standing before Infinisynth’s programmer who now reveals his self to be her father. Judy’s nightmare was a test to see if she could assume the mantle of control over Infinisynth’s vast empire. Having passed the test, Judy is free to rule as she sees fit.
I’m not going to waste any more time on it. Mindwarp is mindless junk. It isn’t often I can sit through a movie and find virtually nothing to recommend it. But Mindwarp is definitely one of those experiences – 96 minutes of hapless drivel and dreck for which no excuse, apology or explanation will suffice. If you feel like squandering your time, then Mindwarp is definitely the drug of choice. We’ll give Twilight Time and Sony digital mastering top marks for a snazzy looking 1080p transfer. I’m frankly amazed that Mindwarp has made the leap to Blu-ray when there are so many other worthy contenders out there. But Mindwarp definitely excels as a visual presentation. The generally dark image is layered with good solid consistency. Colors pop. A lot of the underworld sequences are bathed in a rich orange/red hue that is perfectly realized herein, as are contrast levels. Blacks are velvety and never crush. Occasionally the image can appear decidedly soft, with grain inexplicably bumped up to distracting levels. But I’ll venture a guess this is exactly how Peter Fernberger’s cinematography looked projected in the theater; the movie’s shoestring budget impeding a more consistent visual gloss in its presentation.  The 2.0 DTS audio is quite effective – if noisy – throughout. As usual, Twilight Time has included an isolated track to showcase Mark Governor’s score. We also get a TV spot that tries its best to sell Mindwarp as an exotic – if perverse - adventure/drama.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

SABRINA: Blu-ray (Paramount 1954) Paramount Home Video

Billy Wilder’s Sabrina (1954) remains the quintessential modern day derivative of Charles Perrault’s classic fairy tale, Cinderella brought surreptitiously to life. The film is, of course, more directly based on Samuel A. Taylor’s lushly quixotic Sabrina Fair – the pluperfect romantic comedy about a waifish wallflower desperate to be recognized by a flamboyant heir to the manor born. In supplanting the traditional Gothic European castle for a moneyed Long Island estate Taylor’s acclimatization of Perrault’s literary genius has lost none of the original’s zeal for glamorous wish fulfillment. Moreover Taylor has tweaked the formula enough to yield a refreshing, utterly joyous – and slightly unpredictable – ‘feel good’; the discovery of our ‘happily ever after’ this second time around in the arms of an unlikely stranger.
After all, the prince in this story isn’t exactly the budding young stud in cod piece and tights or even the rakishly handsome, platinum tress playboy David Larrabee (William Holden) whom the princess in rags – in this case, the chauffeur’s daughter, Sabrina Fairchild (Audrey Hepburn) -has been mooning over and pining for ever since she was old enough to recognize the differences between boys and girls. David knows about this difference too. Only he just can’t quite see the proverbial forest for the trees in Sabrina; the girl who lives right over his garage. No, Dave’s into debutantes – superficial, flaxen-haired goddesses with trust funds who frequent the elegant parties his family gives during moon-lit warm summer nights. These mannequins have no staying power. Then again, David isn’t particularly interested in them either…at least, not for too long. He’s much too self-absorbed to take life or love seriously; the pleasures of privilege having corrupted his sense of both chivalry and commitment to anything outside of having a good time.
David’s ‘what me worry?’ complacency isn’t exactly embraced by his father Oliver (Walter Hampden). But it is rather cynically abhorred by his elder brother, Linus (Humphrey Bogart) who has assumed control of the family’s empire from a front office in downtown Manhattan and/or shouting orders to his secretary on a Dictaphone from the backseat of his chauffeur-driven limo. Billy Wilder and Ernest Lehman’s brush up of Taylor’s prose play upon the social sacrifices Linus has made in order to pick up David’s slack.  “Look at me,” Linus muses with a chronic sadness, “Joe College with a touch of arthritis!”
Bogart was, in fact, much too old to play even the elder son in this lithesome romantic fantasy. Moreover, he was already in poor health and even more ill-spirits by the time production began – a last minute replacement for Cary Grant. It’s unknown exactly why Bogart took such an immediate aversion to his co-stars. But he most definitely did not get on with Audrey Hepburn – the pair frequently at odds once cameras stopped rolling. Ironically, and thankfully, the malaise of their backstage bickering never seems to affect their on-screen chemistry. Bogart is at his best as the self-deprecating mature man caught unawares by Cupid’s arrow after his initial plan to merely buy off the chauffeur’s daughter to avert a nasty – and frankly, expensive – scandal goes hopelessly awry.  And Hepburn manages to probe a softer side to Bogart. The two just feel comfortable and natural in each other’s arms, unexpectedly so, proving a genuine surprise to the audience, though arguably never to Bogart who continued to carry around a certain animosity.
Asked by a reporter to qualify his working relationship with Audrey, Bogart is rumored to have said, “It’s alright if you don’t mind doing twenty takes.” As for Holden, Bogart was singularly unimpressed by the actor’s approach to his craft. Holden had been considered something of a has-been when Billy Wilder cast him as the unscrupulous screenwriter in Sunset Boulevard (1950). The 1950’s would prove to be the zenith of Holden’s movie career – much sought after and appearing in many high profile movies throughout the decade. Holden’s approach to acting was arguably as legitimate as Bogart’s. But Holden never took himself seriously. “For me,” Holden explained in an interview, “…acting is not an all-consuming thing, except for the moment when I am actually doing it. Movie acting may not have a certain kind of glory as true art, but it is damn hard work.” As for Holden’s opinion of Bogart, years later the actor exclaimed, “I hated that bastard.”  Bearing in mind that the reality of Hollywood is far greater than its mythology, Wilder found himself playing ringmaster between these three artistic temperaments to sooth the behind-the-scenes bickering. And Bogart did eventually come around to Hepburn at least, choosing to play Linus as a true cynic unencumbered by any romantic notions with just a hint of his trademarked glibness seeping through his performance.
Wilder opens his movie with some sumptuous stock footage of, among other locations, the Doheny/Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills subbing in for the Long Island abode of the Larrabees. We’re introduced to the family, Oliver, Maude (Nella Walker), Linus and David gathered together for a family portrait, ironically posed beneath another taken when both Linus and David were just boys. Not much has changed in the interim, except that David has traded in his fascination for fast rides (he’s depicted on a rocking horse in the portrait hanging over the fireplace) for even faster and more disposable, casual affairs. Currently David’s courting a very flashy socialite, Elizabeth Tyson (Martha Hyer) whom both families hope he will eventually marry – since the Tysons could prove a very fruitful alliance in Oliver’s latest venture into plastics.
This of course has led to a particularly unhappy circumstance for Sabrina who has worshipped David from afar all of her life and is heart sore over his relationship with Elizabeth now. In a moment of fitful romantic angst, Sabrina decides to commit suicide by starting all of the Larrabee’s vehicles in the closed garage and waiting for the fumes to overtake her. The plan is thwarted when Linus inadvertently discovers Sabrina lying in between two cars.  She lies about having been told by her father, Thomas (John Williams) to check the exhausts in order to avoid Linus’ suspicions. Sensing that his daughter needs grounding, Thomas decides to send her away for a culinary education in Paris.  While attending her classes Sabrina meets the kindly middle-aged Baron St. Fontanel (Marcel Dalio) who takes a paternal interest. Time passes and Sabrina returns to Long Island as a lady of culture, imbued with a newfound grace and inimitable class that sparkles like a diamond – in short, a woman much too good for the philandering David. However, as luck would have it, David is now very much interested in Sabrina. But so is brother Linus; not for love, but to steer her away from his pending plastics deal so that David and Elizabeth can marry.
To get David out of the way, Linus arranges for a minor accident to occur. During another Long Island party David sits on a pair of glass champagne flutes he has tucked into his waist band in the hopes of seducing Sabrina on the family’s indoor tennis courts. After the chards of glass are plucked from his backside and the stitches are in place, Linus goes to work on Sabrina, firmly believing that she is simply after David for his money. What he quickly discovers is a lonely and introspective girl who bears no such enterprising and manipulative designs on his brother. Still, Sabrina stealing David away from Elizabeth would ruin Linus’ carefully orchestrated plastics deal with Liz’s father (Francis X. Bushman). But as Linus diligently finagles his way into Sabrina’s heart he unearths unexpected feelings of his own towards her.
Upon his recovery, David challenges Linus to plumb the depths of his affections for Sabrina; this, after Linus has already confessed to Sabrina that he only pursued her to get her away from David. Having completely soured her on the Larrabee family, Sabrina departs for Europe on the Queen Elizabeth. David encourages Linus to take the ferry with all speed to meet the ship already pulling out of harbor. This leads to a reconciliation between Linus and Sabrina.  David effectively assumes control of the boardroom and sees the Larrabee/Tyson merger through to completion.
Sabrina is by far Billy Wilder’s most eloquent and frothy romantic comedy. Charles Lang’s sumptuous B&W cinematography lends a moody gloss to the proceedings, as do Hubert de Givenchy’s stunning array of suits and cocktail party dresses that forever solidified Audrey Hepburn’s reputation as one of the undisputed style icons of the 1950’s and 60’s.  As an interesting aside: Givenchy’s initial meeting with Audrey was hardly fortuitous. Told by his secretary that he would be meeting ‘Ms. Hepburn’ for an afternoon fitting, the designer mistakenly believed it was ‘Katharine Hepburn’ who was on her way to his atelier. Hence, when Audrey arrived Givenchy paid her little attention, instructing her to make selections off the rack. However, once the misunderstanding had been cleared up Givenchy graciously apologized. Arguably, he had found his muse for designing clothes. For in the years that were yet to follow the collaboration between Audrey and Givenchy established trendsetting glamor that remains as idolized today as it is continuously and most readily copied and/or evoked by other designers.   
Sabrina is, of course, about much more than the clothes; the romantic chemistry between Hepburn and Bogart quite palpable and engaging, even if they were considerably at odds with one another behind the scenes. William Holden is a devilish rapscallion, oozing a sort of unapologetic, yet wholly likeable disrespectability that quite convincingly remade his movie image into one of the male beefcake/pin-ups of the decade. Given all of the backstage animosity, Sabrina sparkles as few romantic comedies before or since – its intangible qualities immeasurably married to Hal Pereira and Walter H. Tyler’s stylish production design and Friedrich Hollaender’s lush orchestral adaptations of time-honored and pop songs of the day, blended into a frothy confection of uber-chic full scale classiness. “Isn’t it romantic?” By God – yes!
The good news: Paramount Home Video has remastered and released Sabrina on Blu-ray. The bad news – only in Europe. The good news – this disc is region free. The bad news: Sabrina’s image appears to have been ‘scrubbed’ with DNR. We get an image that teeters very close to being unattractively waxy. The gray scale has been impeccably rendered for the most part, although several shots still seem to suffer from artificial boosting – the mid-grade lacking in fine detail. Film grain is regrettably non-existent.  This disc retains the ‘brightness’ of Paramount’s old Centennial Collection DVD, the Larrabee estate shot ‘day for night’ now appearing as though it were merely photographed in broad daylight.
Age-related artifacts are still present in a few shots, but the overall visual characteristic is smooth – too smooth, in fact. It’s not an awful rendering by any stretch, and on smaller monitors the excessive DNR isn’t noticeable. Blown up, however, the image reveals its digital manipulations with painful regularity – a genuine pity. As for the audio, Paramount has cleaned up and remastered the mono in DTS with exceptional clarity. Good stuff. Bad news again. We lose all of the extras that came with the Paramount DVD, including a featurette on Glenn Cove and the decline of the rich estates where Sabrina supposedly took place; another where contemporary fashion designers waxed about the Audrey/Givenchy style alliance and two others on the making of the movie and Paramount’s output in the 1950's. I don’t know why Paramount continues to short shrift its hi-def foreign markets in this way. Licensing can’t be the issue since the studio produced the aforementioned junkets rather than acquiring them from a third party. But this bare bones offering of Sabrina falls decidedly short of expectations for all of the above-mentioned reasons.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Monday, October 21, 2013

FUNNY FACE: Blu-ray (Paramount 1957) Paramount Home Video

In the mid-1950s Stanley Donen established himself as director of peerless, elegant and frothy entertainments; champagne cocktails, really, of sleek sophistication and very stylish panache. The trick and the wonderment of Stanley Donen’s movie career is, of course, that he was equally adept at telling stories outside the musical mélange as he was at extolling the very best qualities of this time-honored genre. Without question Funny Face (1957) is one of his best; an adroit poke and subtle jab at the smug, self-involved superiority of the fashion world, and, a sublimely wicked and extremely astute slap down of the beatnik generation. In a word, Funny Face is charming – the quintessence of class with the cultured Fred Astaire perfectly cast opposite the dreamily ethereal Audrey Hepburn.
Donen’s career stretched all the way back to the early 1940s when he was hired as a dancer/extra in Broadway’s Best Foot Forward. When MGM bought the rights to the play they imported Donen along with several other principle cast back to Culver City: Broadway’s loss/Hollywood’s gain. For in the intervening decades, Donen would make a friend of MGM premiere musical/comedy star, Gene Kelly, and remain the creative genius behind the camera on many of Kelly’s best loved musicals, including Take Me Out to the Ball Game, Singin’ in the Rain and It’s Always Fair Weather. This union was to eventually have its falling out over differences of creative control. But Donen quickly proved he could hold his own without Kelly’s influences.
The fifties were a turbulent period for American film makers, particularly at MGM – the purveyor of grand and glorious musicals. Slowly, the studio had already begun to sink into the mire of frequent mismanagement at the executive level and the toppling of their iconic star system. Amid this chaos Donen became a freelancer. It was a tough sell at first, but Donen persevered; his forte in romantic comedies and musicals gradually acquiring more ballast; his leitmotifs dealing with more serious subject matter yet seemingly with equally effortless aplomb. Funny Face is unmistakably one of Donen’s most urbane offerings; its May/December romance between a naïve bookseller cum fashion plate and the cynically charismatic middle-aged photographer who discovers something alluring and magical in her ‘sunny, funny face’ touches upon the schematics of a deeper cultural divide.
The girl, Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) wants something more out of life, mis-perceiving to have discovered it in the philosophical meanderings of a pseudo-intellectual living in Paris. The man, Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) has no illusions about this modern age or the importance of high style. He merely toils in the creative mire of both to support his highly comfortable living.  In essence, the plot of Funny Face is nothing new. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy sings a song and gets girl. But Donen finds interesting ways of introducing socio-psychological paradigms into his seemingly straight forward narrative – the archetypes becoming less clear-cut and dry as the story progresses to its inevitable conclusion.
What makes Funny Face utterly fascinating entertainment is that we’re never entirely sure Dick and Jo have found true happiness together; not even as their floating palette sails down a narrow stream with the two on board moments before the final fade-to-black. They’ve found each other - this much is true enough. But are they destined to remain in each other’s arms? Jo’s sacrifices have matured her outlook on life. Yet her invested innocence has only slightly scuffed the surface of Dick’s generalized social disparagement. He’s still a craggy middle-aged guy, primal doubts and all. Are they a match or just a temporary quick fix destined to fizzle once the intoxicating allure of Paris has fizzled? Of course, none of it would work at all without the intervention of a third wheel; one that is never villainous, though often ruthless and demanding in her pursuit of perfection.  
Stanley Donen’s one and only choice for the part of fashion maven Maggie Prescott was Kay Thompson; the impeccably groomed, wraith-thin, and angularly shaped trendsetter who had blazed a career crossing all popular media of her day, including successes on the stage, as well as starring in her own smash hit nightclub act. In the 1940s, Kay Thompson gave up the spotlight to toil increasingly behind the scenes as a musical collaborator at MGM, arranging scores and songs for other stars and achieving a uniquely lush – though never florid – sound that remains instantly recognizable to this day.
Donen, however, wanted Thompson ‘the performer’ to reemerge in Funny Face. Thompson, a superb raconteur and appetizingly glib bon vivant really comes into her own in Funny Face, and in reviewing the film today one is immediately stricken by a genuine sense of regret that she never appeared in the movies again. With a visage reminiscent of Eve Arden – and a personality and wit to match – her reedy frame miraculous in all its pert gesticulations as she joins Astaire and Hepburn during their travelogue of the city, ‘Bonjour Paris’, Thompson exudes all of the exoticism and enthusiasm of an intercontinental adventuress out on a lark and a spree. Who can forget Thompson’s ‘pizzazz’ as she wickedly extols the life of a fashion editor with ‘Think Pink’; the celebratory lampoon of high style that kicks off the show? Thompson is also exceptionally brilliant in her duet with Astaire, ‘Clap Yo Hands’ – her inimitable gift for mimicry yielding a deliciously deviant caricature of the prim southern belle.   
Ultimately, the success of Funny Face belongs just as much to Kay Thompson as it does her two co-stars; the ebullient and ever dapper Fred Astaire and translucently glamorous gamin Audrey Hepburn. To voyage with these three into the uber chic byways and street cafes of Paris is to be wondrously teleported on a grand holiday through Parisian haute couture. And Funny Face is a wry tickle as well as a sardonic snub of the fashion world. Under Donen’s expertise and Leonard Gershe’s capably crafted screenplay Maggie Prescott’s exclusivity devolves from a haughty parade of wax mannequins into a surreal and impressionist exploitation of that superficially modish lifestyle. For this is a world created by human hands and ego, and, about as far removed from the one we find ourselves a part of at the beginning of our story. But that is precisely why Funny Face succeeds; because it parallels the mundane with the trivially sacred, elevating escapism to its most rarified art form.   
Funny Face stars the amiable Fred Astaire as Dick Avery, a photographer working under the iconoclastic fashion goddess Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson, doing her magnificent lampoon) as the publisher of ‘Quality’ Magazine. Seems ‘Quality’ is in a quandary. They need a fresh new face to launch their spring and summer campaign. But where, oh where to find that new look of inner intellectualism in a sea of cloned bubble-headed imitations? Well, to Greenwich Village of course, and a beatnik bookstore overseen by Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn). Jo knows as much about fashion as she does of brain surgery. Moreover, she thinks that ‘style’ is silly, self-indulgent and petite bourgeois, not to mention ridiculous. Dick and Maggie descend on her drab book emporium with a slew of photographers and Marion (Dovima) an utterly hapless super model who leers and leans as though she were about to make love to the stacks rather than expand her mind by reading their contents. The shoot goes well, particularly after Maggie locks Jo – who has begun to protest their interference - out of her own store. But Maggie still doesn’t feel that they’ve captured the ‘new look’ of the Quality woman.
Afterward Dick decides to stay behind and help clean up the atrocious mess they’ve made from the shop. He empathizes with Jo, but she is rather direct in her admonishment of his involvement in the fashion world. However, after Dick leaves Jo becomes perplexed by her reaction to a hat left behind by Marion, placing it atop her own head and staring at her image in a nearby mirror. She muses, ‘How Long Has This Been Going On?’ – streaking through the shop with the orange and yellow bonnet’s lime green fasteners vibrantly trailing like the whispy tails of a kite behind her. The next day, Maggie views Dick’s pictures with displeasure. Not even a room full of books could makeover Marion into an intellectual.
But Dick discovers what Maggie seems to have overlooked; that the new ‘Quality’ woman right under their noses – Jo! Maggie admits that Jo has possibilities. But the girl is stubborn to a fault and completely resistant to the prospect of transforming herself into a supermodel – that is, until she learns that one of the perks or this grand experiment will be a trip to Paris where she could schmooze with her intellectual ideal: Professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair). Whisked off to Paris, Jo nevertheless defies Dick and Maggie’s edicts to be outwardly elegance, believing it will harm her inner empathicalism. Gradually, however, the allure of fancy clothes takes hold and Jo realizes that fashion does indeed serve a fundamental purpose beyond mere vanity. But more importantly, she has fallen in love with her mentor – Dick Avery.
Denying her own feelings, Jo escapes into Flostre’s Bohemian enclave, jeopardizing the Paris launch of ‘the Quality woman’, only to discover that Flostre is a fraud; a rank capitalist who has exploited his intellectual theories for pure profit. Disillusioned and emotionally wounded, Jo opens fashion week in Paris, then makes a B-line for the airport to return to America. But at the last moment she comes to her senses. Still wearing the wedding gown off the runway, Jo is reunited with Dick at the little church where she first began to develop affections for him. The lovers embrace and step onto a raft that sails them beyond the shimmering arbors – destined to love – as lover’s do. 
Both esthetically and musically, Funny Face achieves many high water marks. The film is an embarrassment of riches; Donen achieving a stunningly lush recreation of the city of light – more magical, fanciful and utterly appealing than even a boat trip down the Seine. Funny Face does not evoke the Paris that is or even was, but rather the one we all wish it could be – the architectural elements aside; the film extolling the virtues with none of the vices left to question. Arguably, Donen does Paris one better, perhaps nowhere more cleverly than in the moment when Audrey emerges from behind the famed statue of Winged Victory at the Louvre, her lurid red satin strapless gown and lithe chiffon wrap (also red) rising in the same gesture before the rigid marble statue, looking every bit the physical embodiment of it brought breathtakingly to life. Even when Donen descends from arch elegance into Über Bohemianism he cannot help himself; the Café Montmartre transformed into a smoky, seedy, and very sexy den of iniquity with Jo unleashing her inner tramp for a few quick stepping moments of ‘Basal Metabolism.’   
As for the score, Audrey sings in her own voice the poignant, ‘How Long Has This Been Going On.’ Astaire taps the exuberant ‘Let’s Kiss and Make Up.’ Astaire and Audrey do an elegant pas deux to Gershwin’s immortal, ‘S’Wonderful’ and the entire cast gets into the act with ‘Bonjour Paris!’ Arguably, the song which lingers the longest in our collective memory is Kay Thompson’s acidic and comical ‘Think Pink’ – an ode to fashion for fashion’s sake. As Thompson croons – “Red is dead. Blue is through. Green’s obscene. Brown’s to boo…and there is not the slightest excuse for plum or puce…or chartreuse.”
Immeasurably aided by Paramount’s patented high fidelity widescreen process, VistaVision, and the sumptuous backdrop of Paris at its most photogenic (despite chronically reoccurring inclement weather throughout the shoot), Funny Face emerges with genuine sparkle and heart; an ultra-gorgeous musical with much to appreciate and admire throughout. ‘On how to be lovely’, Funny Face rates a perfect ten!
There’s good news and there’s bad news for fans of Funny Face on Blu-ray.  Paramount Home Video has given us a pluperfect hi-def rendering. Good news – it’s region free. Bad news – you’ll have to do an import from Amazon if you want this title. Good new – one simply could not have asked for anything more from this 1080p rendering. It’s dreamy – showing off Paramount’s patented ‘motion picture high fidelity’ VistaVision to exceptional advantage. Colors are bold and vibrant. Contrast levels are bang on. Fine details pop. At times the image seems to acquire an impressive and unexpected depth and dimensionality. Everything is crisp and refined, the audio (remixed from original mono stems into DTS 5.1) still marginally lagging behind true stereophonic sound. VistaVision never supported six tracks of audio, but relied on the inferior PerspectaSound or flat mono instead.
Bad news – we get NONE of the lavishly appointed extras Paramount featured on their Centennial Edition DVD. The comprehensive package that once included Parisian Dreams, Paramount in the ‘50s and The Fashion Designer and His Muse, plus a fascinating, if brief, retrospective on Kay Thompson’s life, a featurette on the art and craft of fashion photographers, and finally, a very brief retrospective on Paramount’s VistaVision process have all been jettisoned from this European hi-def reissue. Despite these inexcusable excisions I’m still going to recommend Funny Face on Blu-ray because the transfer is bar none spectacular. The movie looks as ravishing as anything yet seen and Audrey is luminous with or without her fancy clothes. Bottom line: a must have!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

NOTTING HILL: Blu-ray (Universal 1999) Universal Home Video

Can a lonely book seller find true happiness with a goddess of the American movie screen? Director Roger Michell attempts to illustrate the pleasures as well as the pitfalls of such an Anglo-American alliance in Notting Hill (1999); an utterly charming, astutely adult romantic comedy costarring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant – two of the most congenial ‘feel good’ stars to ever appear in such light-hearted fare. Like a lot of other romantic comedies from its ilk and vintage, Notting Hill’s plot is frequently intruded upon by a pop tune driven soundtrack, director Michell choosing to bridge certain elements in montage to expedite his storytelling while the likes of Al Green, Elvis Costello and Trevor Jones – among others – set the tone and mood for the moment. It’s a clumsy device at best, but in retrospect Notting Hill is one of the last truly engaging romantic comedies of its generation: our present compost having devolved the genre into crude, crass and fairly tasteless bathroom humor without a shred of socially redeeming value. To be sure, Notting Hill tests the boundaries of saucy English farce; particularly in the character of Spike (Rhys Ifans); a tantalizing mixture of daft perversity; the socially inept, but wholly endearing simpleton out of his depth, romantically speaking.
The crux of Notting Hill is not about getting the laugh – ironically, exactly the reason the film gets them with mounting regularity as Richard Curtis’ screenplay introduces us to one dizzy dame and lumbering Neanderthal after another; the wit as dry as a martini, but with little jabs of pleasure deriving from the fact that we already know Julia Robert’s commitment shy mega-star, Anna Scott is destined to find lasting contentment beyond the footlights with Hugh Grant’s ill-spoken/utterly awkward travel bookshop owner, William Thacker.  Notting Hill excels – at least in part – because its stars are genuine. We’ve seen them both play these parts before; Roberts, in any number of frothy romantic comedies with the nimblest of plots, and Grant – coming down from his real life sexual faux pas with Hollywood prostitute, Divine Brown; something his Charles in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) would have done with less folly but more buffoonish finesse.
Notting Hill is Richard Curtis’ brainchild, conceived from a restless night’s tossing and turning, the concept of a quote ‘normal’ person falling in love with the unattainable of this world hardly revolutionary. In fact, the film is rather liberally bathed in shades of the Cinderella fable, albeit – in reverse, and tempered by the very bumpy course of true love. On this outing the impediments are not external, but rather in the roadblocks deliberately set up by our two principals; each arguably wounded and cautious about the direction of their burgeoning relationship. Anna Scott isn’t a bad egg. She isn’t even a gadabout – at least, not the kind Hollywood is used to presenting or even celebrating in the tabloids. No, Anna knows what the world thinks of her; the double edged sword of fame resting squarely on her slender shoulders. She’d like to fall in love. But she is just not all that certain love – or anything even remotely like it – is possible; the fiction of her public image having expunged the reality of the private girl lurking beneath.
Grant’s William Thacker has his own concerns – starting with the social acceptance of his friends and dotty sister, Honey (Emma Chambers) whose introduction to Anna is “holy f_ck!” There’s also William’s flat mate, Spike – who thinks that a way to a woman’s heart is by wearing a T-shirt that reads “You’re the most beautiful woman in the world…fancy a f_ck?”  Will’s best friends, marrieds Bella (Gina McKee) and Max (Tim McInnerny), although encouraging, are weary about the longevity of such a relationship; worried that Anna’s worldly fame will devour the relative obscurity Will presently enjoys. And then there’s number cruncher, Bernie (Hugh Bonneville) – obtuse, oblivious and utterly charming. He doesn’t even know who Anna Scott is.
Director Michell might have wound up with artistic gumbo on his hands, except that he deftly navigates his way through this carnival-esque mélange of twits and misfits, naturalizing his characters to the absurdities in the plot while acclimatizing the audience to each of them with a perfectly pitched home run to our hearts. If Notting Hill were only a ‘cute romantic comedy’ it would already have a lot going for it. But Curtis’ screenplay also goes a little deeper behind the velvet curtain of stardom and Anna’s unromantic viewpoint about the position she currently holds in the cinema firmament. “The fame thing isn’t real,” she explains to William, “I’m just a girl standing before a guy asking him to love her.”  It’s an astute observation, one that Julia Roberts emphasizes with great sincerity, perhaps reflecting a bit on her own popularity – at its zenith when Notting Hill debuted.
Julia Roberts is undeniably one of the last ‘stars’ to emerge with staying power; her doe-like, sensitive eyes and garage door-sized mouth and lips poetically expressive. Roberts’ great gift has always been in her ability to extract our empathy for the characters she inhabits. While her harshest critics have often suggested that Roberts is merely doing a pantomime of who she is – rather than acting - you can’t fake that sort of sincerity and Roberts has it in spades. Moreover, she knows damn well how to bottle and market it into popcorn gold at the box office. Roberts’ first movie, Mystic Pizza (1988) gave us two sides to the woman we would later come to know. She’s a rewarding individual to be around – or at least gives this impression - and that sense of self translates into screen presence whenever she appears.
Interestingly, Hugh Grant’s William Thacker isn’t really the right type for Roberts’ forthright Anna – too soft-featured and effetely cute; lacking that spark of masculine ruggedness referenced in Roberts’ other leading men - most obviously Richard Gere’s smooth shaven but utterly ruthless corporate raider in Pretty Woman (1990). Yet, Grant makes it work – perhaps, because like Roberts, his strength lies more in playing the proverbial fish out of water; unbelievably awkward, demure and struggling half-intelligently to genuinely express himself to the woman he so clearly loves.
Like Roberts, Grant can play the poor old sap we can’t help but sympathize with and that makes him lovable in spite of himself. If there’s something of an absence of the essential romantic spark between these two film favs, then there’s also a complete lack of arrogance or subterfuge about the man. Following Grant’s real-life incarceration for picking up L.A. hooker, Divine Brown, his on-screen characters began to acquire a patina of more sullen bitterness; congenial fop downgraded to disreputable rogue played up and exploited in Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001). But Notting Hill still casts Grant as everybody’s favorite innocent – a man in love with genuine concerns that he’ll ruin the one good thing going for him even with the best of intentions.  
Evidently, screenwriter Richard Curtis’ decision to place his story in Notting Hill – London’s most joyously eclectic and colorful sector where one could just as easily run into a gaggle of buskers as the future Princess of Wales out for a stroll, helps to add plausibility to the plot. It also created minor headaches for production manager Sue Quinn and designer Stuart Craig; London’s police helping to maintain order amidst the chaos of filming all over the city without the luxury of being able to officially close down and seal off the streets to accommodate the film unit. Only Michell’s request for shooting in Leister Square was denied, owing to a prior incident during the premiere of a Leonardo Di Caprio movie. Otherwise, the unit moved from Portobello Road to the Ritz, Savoy and Hempel hotels, and finally Nobu Restaurant for a pivotal scene where Anna confronts a table of men who are all too eager to crudely fantasize about a night in her boudoir.
Yet, the verisimilitude augmented by thousands of onlookers and the paparazzi lurking about the peripheries of each shot not only seems right in keeping with the popularity of the movie’s real life stars, but also fitting for the character of Anna Scott; she skulking in dark sunglasses and a sporty black beret, darting into William’s travel book shop on an impromptu whim to escape her pampered/sheltered life in between work and studio PR junkets. And Will is the perfect guy for Anna at that moment – unassuming and frankly anesthetized by his first glimpse of this larger-than-life fantasy creature he has only been able to admire from afar, but who now stands five feet seven inches tall at his front desk.
Notting Hill opens with an extended montage under its titles set to the tune of Elvis Costello’s rather anemic rendition of an old Charles Aznavour song, ‘She’. We see Anna Scott – world famous star adored by millions, besought by the public and the press; the drama and the spectacle of what most laymen imagine the precepts of stardom in totem to be succinctly summarized under the main titles. It’s a perfect picture – Anna Scott (Julia Roberts): star! All of London is frankly agog and abuzz with the news that Anna is about to begin shooting her latest movie in England. But for one man, independent bookseller William Thacker, Anna’s arrival is about to take on a very special meaning.     
Will’s an introspective divorcee. He has about as much chance of meeting Anna Scott in the flesh as in convincing his uninhibited Welsh flat mate, Spike that the way to a real woman’s heart is through genuine heartfelt sentiment. But kismet is on Will’s side. For Anna does indeed find her way to his cluttered little shop in Notting Hill. It’s a ‘cute meet’ of a kind – she, quietly pretending to be somebody else at first/ he accidentally spilling orange juice all over her, then offering to help clean up the mess inside his nearby apartment.  Her belligerence gives way to coy gratitude; his remuneration sealed with a kiss – the start of an awkward affair destined for better things. Too bad for William that Spike has the I.Q. of a dead flashlight battery.  He forgets to pass along a message from Anna until it’s almost too late; that she’s at the Ritz under the name ‘Flintstone’ holding press interviews for her new sci-fi movie - Helix. Will arrives and is let in by Anna’s agent under the pretext that he is a journalist for ‘Horse & Hound magazine. Naturally, the ‘interview’ goes badly.
Nevertheless, Will is elated when Anna offers to cancel a previous engagement to be his date at Max and Bella’s house for a surprise birthday celebration for his sister, Honey. No one really believes Will when he says he’s bringing Anna Scott to the party, and no one is more startled by Anna’s sudden appearance than Honey who nearly wets herself at the first sight of her favorite movie star in the flesh.  To everyone’s surprise, Anna fits right in with Will’s motley crew. Afterwards Will and Anna share embarrassing childhood stories, the pair breaking into a private London square where they talk some more and gradually fall in love.
It all seems to be working much too smoothly for Will – his skepticism heightened and later confirmed when he learns that Anna’s American boyfriend, Jeff King (Alec Baldwin) has flown in for a quick conjugal stopover at the Ritz. Will crashes the moment pretending to be room service and Anna later reveals that her relationship with Jeff is at an end. Time passes. Then, one day six months later Anna arrives at Will’s home unannounced, pleading for a place to hide out from the press while a scandal involving some ‘cheesecake’ photos taken back in her college days blows over. Will is sympathetic and later discovers to his delight that Anna’s feelings for him have only intensified since their time apart. The couple makes love; their moment of serenity shattered when the press lays siege on Will’s home the next morning with a barrage of questions involving their affair. Believing that Will has betrayed her, Anna darts out the back way and Will attempts once more to forget her.
Time passes again. Anna returns to England to begin work on a new Henry James movie. Earlier, Will had suggested that Anna broaden her range. To him, her acceptance of the Henry James movie now suggests that he is more of an influence and a part of her life than ever before. But this bubble is burst when Will inadvertently overhears Anna on a microphone between takes talking with another actor (Samuel West) about Will as someone she just knows from her past. Will is despondent and leaves the set immediately. When Anna confronts Will, explaining that the co-star is a notorious gossip, he graciously listens to her, but then turns down her proposal of marriage, explaining that he could not survive being rejected by her again.
Dejected, Anna leaves the bookshop and Will heads off to meet his friends at a nearby pub. Everyone is supportive except for Spike who admonishes Will for being a ‘daft prick’. Realizing that life without Anna is none at all, Will gets Max, Bella, Honey and Bernie to drive him to the Savoy where Anna is holding her farewell final press conference before heading back home. Will confesses his undying love under the guise of being just another reporter; publicly apologizes and then proposes. The room erupts in flashbulbs and questions shouted, Elvis Costello’s reprise of ‘She’ leading into a closing montage of clips that illustrate Anna’s retirement from the movies and she and Will are expecting their first child.
Notting Hill is a fairy tale for the post-modern age; the Cinderella fable reversed, with its oft’ resurrected theme of commoner meets (Hollywood) royalty predictably concluding on the proverbial ‘happy ending’.  Love, impenetrable and enduring through time and hardship is the most frequently resurrected commodity in movies because it never fails to click with an audience. Guaranteed box office is a numbers game and romance sells tickets. Moreover, director Roger Michell knows how to manipulate his stars and scenarios for maximum ‘feel good’. From its first frame to the last, Notting Hill finds a place in our hearts not so much because it seems new or even fresh, but rather because Michell knows exactly where to place the right amount of emphasis to elicit the tear-jerking sigh and happily evoked wink, nudge and smile. Comedy in general often gets passed over by the critics as ‘fluff stuff’ – vacuous, escapist and lacking in importance. But I prefer to evoke another popular variant of a time-honored show business adage: “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard!”
Notting Hill only seems effortless because Michell is working from a superior script and has invested with a group of top-notch celebrity talent. With one or the other the film might have worked at some lesser level. With all of the pistons firing simultaneously, Notting Hill emerges as a joyful, occasionally wacky, but always appropriately adult comedy of errors; the principals having discovered genius in the exercise and able to convey it without too many of the flaws showing. Some comedies are silly. Some are crude. Notting Hill is a bit of each, but more astute, evenly paced and very much imbued with a sense of the miraculous in the everyday. Michell and his stars get high marks for selling this bittersweet confection as high art. It really isn’t, but we’re entertained by it nonetheless and, in the intervening decades, Notting Hill remains a perennially refreshing, no-nonsense romantic comedy with ‘feel good’ written all over it. Like the fragrant elixir of a favorite perfume, one whiff of Notting Hill is never enough.
Universal Home Video debuts Notting Hill on Blu-ray in a disappointing transfer using old digital files to master the DVD from 2001.  Doing direct side-by-side comparisons of the image the parallels and inaccuracies are immediate and obvious. Opening credits exhibit a rather muddy patina, the Universal logo looking soft and slightly out of focus, the white lettering used for the credits registering a flat gray and a tad blurry. 
In the scene where Will takes Anna to his flat to change her clothes after spilling his orange juice we get the very same manifestation of digital instability, the background information suffering from a persistent strobe that mimics the distortion one might see during the old analog days when an airplane flew overhead. This anomaly is reoccurring throughout this presentation. On smaller monitors it won’t distract but it is still quite obvious. Blown up on screens 60 inches or greater or during projection it looks positively ghastly!
Universal has been practically nonexistent in releasing catalogue titles over the past twelve months. Given that so little was on the studio’s schedule there really is no excuse for Notting Hill looking this crummy in hi-def. A new hi-rez scan should have been performed!
Colors can be vibrant at times. But the image waffles between moments of razor-sharp crispness and a decidedly soft focus that is not indigenous to the source elements. We lose fine detail and clarity all at once. Notting Hill also lacks the texture of film grain, another sign that Universal has minted this disc from earlier scanned elements not prepared with a hi-def presentation in mind. Flesh tones occasionally tend to look a tad pinkish – not in that awful and artificially enhanced ‘piggy pink’ we’ve seen on other hi-def presentations but still not satisfactorily natural. The 5.1 DTS audio is another cause for consternation. While dialogue is presented at a mid-range listening level, the interjection of pop songs throughout the movie blares at decibel levels usually referenced for big scale action sequences, leaving the viewer in a constant flux with the remote control, toggling the volume control up and down so as not to assault the eardrum. Badly done!  
Extras are all imports from the old DVD and include 12 minutes of deleted scenes, including a hilarious vignette where William attempts to tell his parents about Anna.  We also get 15 min. of ‘on location’ junket material billed as a ‘documentary’. Honestly, there ought to be a law about misrepresenting PR sound bytes as a full-fledged ‘making of’! Finally, there’s 4 min. of Hugh Grant schmoozing with his fellow actors, a 3 min. stroll down Portobello Road, and a pair of music videos: Elvis Costello’s ‘She’ and Shania Twain’s ‘You’ve Got a Way.’  Last, but not least, we get a reprise of Michell, Curtis and producer Duncan Kenworthy’s rather self-congratulatory audio commentary. It’s okay, but doesn’t really get into the mechanics of shooting the movie – more reflections on the fun and camaraderie shared on the set. Bottom line: not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)