Wednesday, February 27, 2013

SCHINDLER'S LIST: Blu-ray (Universal 1993) Universal Home Video


Many years from now when the history books are written on movie legends from the latter half of the twentieth century, one name in particular should typify with distinction between merely ‘working in the business’ and ‘creating true movie art’, and that name is undeniably Steven Spielberg. Spielberg’s gifts as a storyteller are so immense, so comprehensive and so consistently satisfying that he remains the enduring master craftsman of his generation. Hollywood has had a curious love/hate relationship with the man; beloved because his movies always ring registers around the world, yet perhaps quietly reviled by his contemporaries who cannot begin to challenge his success, popularity or the diversity within his body of work.
Like Cecil B. DeMille, Spielberg encompasses that rare intuitiveness in knowing what the public wants to see even before they know they want to see it for themselves. Such undiluted clairvoyance alone is mindboggling. But let the record also show that Spielberg has consistently delivered the goods. Now, Spielberg’s pundits will argue that he is little more than a popcorn salesman, catering to the masses with homogenized mainstream pabulum guaranteed to fit most any commercial taste. But this argument is only well placed if one attempts to critique Spielberg’s art as simply that – Saturday matinee drivel. Certainly, not all of his projects have adhered to that rich tapestry classified as cinema art. Still, a remarkable selection of his films has endured both the test of time and the snarl of criticism always afforded burgeoning genius.
Lest we forget that this is the man who redefined the term ‘blockbuster’ with the release of Jaws in 1975; the director who gave us thought provoking and emotionally sensitive sci-fi melodramas like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, who debuted Indiana Jones, astonished his fans and naysayers alike by breaking away from the sci-fi adventure mold at the height of his own popularity in it to startle with introspective and heartfelt dramas like The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun and Saving Private Ryan; dazzled with such technological breakthroughs as Jurassic Park. Amidst this weighty directorial career – currently totaling 51 features - Spielberg has also either written or executive produced such eclectic box office dynamos as The Goonies, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Band of Brothers.   
No, when Spielberg’s time on earth has ended he will have left behind an indelible legacy of showmanship; compelling, heartfelt, astonishingly clairvoyant, and, utterly memorable. The industry indeed owes him a great debt. Yet, Hollywood has honored Spielberg – the director – but once; arguably for his most thought-provoking and passionate work to date: Schindler’s List (1993). In retrospect the honor is well deserved. But is it also too little too late? Relying on the historical record and a sprinkling of artistic license Schindler’s List accounts one of the darkest chapters in human history; beginning with the Nazi occupation of Poland and one industrialist’s manifesto to save as many Jewish exiles as he can from certain death in their concentration camps. Spielberg’s attention to detail is impeccable; Allan Starski’s production design and Janusz Kaminski’s elegantly stark cinematography resurrecting the period in all its terrorizing moral ambiguity.   
Schindler's List is often erroneously and rather unfairly compared to Shoah (1985); the French documentary account of the holocaust. The comparison is moot. One should no more attempt to understand Spielberg’s movie as a companion piece, or even a rebuttal to Shoah than say, mark an association between Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Those seeking to draw out such a parallel ought first to appreciate Schindler’s List – despite its historical content – as a work of ‘fiction’; meaning that it attempts through dramatization to create an artistic milieu standing alongside with history without actually reporting to be history itself.     
Spielberg's greatest gift as a film maker has always been his ability to be frankly honest and sincere with the audience without becoming preachy or coy. His best films entertain in unexpected ways with a candor and charm that quietly sneaks in the unvarnished truths about humanity and life. From this perspective alone Schindler’s List is a marvel, its educative qualities never impugning the film’s ability to entertain. The art in the exercise effectively blurs, though never obfuscates the line between fact and fiction, each in tandem with the other. Perhaps owing to the severity of his subject matter, as well as his own moral investment on the project Spielberg tends to tread exceptionally lightly on his artistic license.
Based on Thomas Keneally’s book, Steven Zallian’s screenplay begins in 1939 with the relocation of Polish Jews to the Krakow ghetto. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is a roguish playboy and businessman from Moravia with a devil-may-care penchant for high living. A member of the Nazi party, Oskar latches onto the idea of establishing a manufacturing plant to make army mess kits during the war. Knowing absolutely nothing of how to begin this entrepreneurial venture Oskar hires an official from Krakow’s Judenrat to broker a relationship with Jewish laborers; exploiting them for his pure profit. Oskar also embarks on a campaign of lavish bribes. His rouse works and he is afforded the status of ‘Herrr Direktor’ – an appointment that suggests a certain level of autonomy to operate precisely as he wants right under the noses of Nazi officials.
By his nature Schindler is a rather lazy man who would rather carouse with cabaret girls than put in an honest day’s work. However, what he ends up doing, thanks in part to his bookkeeper Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) is to save many otherwise slated for extermination in the camps by having them listed as ‘essential workers’ for the German war machine. To procure his favors while pretending to be on the side of the Reich, Oskar befriends S.S. Lieutenant Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) – a brutal borderline psychotic who derives a warped strength and purpose from the most perverse pleasures; inflicting pain, fear and death on his Jewish prisoners. Goeth has come to Kraków to oversee construction of the Płaszów concentration camp. Upon its completion the ghettos are liquidated by the Nazis who arbitrarily murder anyone uncooperative and foolish enough to defy them. This massacre, observed by Schindler and his latest paramour from a hilltop on horseback, has a profound effect on Oskar.
Yet Spielberg does the film a great service by creating an even more conflicted crisis of conscience in Amon Goeth. He suffers from a distorted sense of self, a misguided fury directed at the Jews and a warped sexual frustration that at once draws him to desire a Jewish peasant from his camp to become his lover. Yet, this strange addiction also compels him to terrorize and beat her into submission after suffering a nervous breakdown. What makes the madman…well…mad is at the heart of this character critique and Spielberg and Fiennes amply flesh out Goeth’s abused logic that could so completely disintegrate a man into a beast.
Oskar goads Goeth with his own philosophy; imparting that the greatest power afforded any man is in his ability to pardon or forgive another for his indiscretions. Goeth is confounded by this mantra, but tests it on the young Jewish manservant he has employed to look after his house. But when the servant slips up, Goeth first pardons, then cold-bloodedly shoots him dead in the yard with his high powered rifle.    
At first, Goeth is easily won over by Schindler’s aggressive charm which he misperceives as sycophantically loyal, if manipulative. However, soon Goeth begins to suspect that Oskar’s performance may be just that – a trick to keep the Nazis at bay. For his part Oskar pretends not to care about the byproduct of his philanthropy - the Jews. But along the way he slowly begins to rediscovers his own humanity - briefly reconciling with his estranged wife, Emilie (Caroline Goodall). Oskar's penultimate realization comes too late, though nevertheless profound: that in his pursuit for riches he becomes an honorable man - his silent objection speaking in defense of the defenseless.
As it becomes increasingly apparent that the balance of power during the war has shifted against Germany Oskar makes ready to leave Kraków with a small fortune. Barring his conscience Oskar, together with Stern’s help, finagles an agreement with Goeth that will allow him the relocation of his workers to a factory in Zwittau-Brinnlitz far away from the Final Solution. The cost of this bribe however, and another made to spare a train car of women inadvertently shipped to Auschwitz, financially cripples Oskar. At war’s end, as a member of the Nazi party and ‘profiteer of slave labor’ Oskar and his wife are forced to feel Germany or face execution by the advancing Red Army. Oskar’s last bit of philanthropy narrowly averts a catastrophe; instructing the SS officers who have been told to open fire on the Jewish factory workers, to go home instead to their families as men and not murderers.  
As he packs his car to escape the factory workers assemble around Oskar, giving him a letter that explains he is not a criminal to them. Their parting gift is even more heartfelt; a gold band forged from one worker’s gold dental bridge, inscribed with “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” This penultimate farewell is fraught with contradictions. Only now does a very humble and tear-stained Oskar suddenly realize how little he has accomplished and how much more he might have done with just a little more personal sacrifice. Stern tenderly assures Oskar that history will be no harsher a critic of his motives than his own conscience. The factory workers are awakened the next morning to discover they have been liberated by a Soviet dragoon.
In the film’s extended epilogue we witness the hanging of Amon Goeth and see the survivors of Schindler’s philanthropy gather around his tombstone in Jerusalem; the B&W footage changing over to color as the cast from the film joins in placing stones upon Schindler’s grave. Ben Kingsley is accompanied by the real life widow of Itzhak Stern who died in 1969.  A title card reveals that although fewer than 4,000 Jews were left alive in Poland at war’s end more than 6,000 descendants of Schindler’s Jews remain active around the world. In the penultimate moment, Liam Neeson is the last man to place roses on Oskar Schindler’s grave.
Schindler's List remains an undeniably unsettling and extremely emotional movie going experience. Liam Neeson's clever take on Oskar Schindler, as the genuinely reformed opportunist, is heartbreaking and heartfelt. Clearly, the actor and his alter ego have undergone a transformation. Yet, in retrospect we tend to focus more on Ralph Fiennes as the chillingly vial, yet strangely charismatic and utterly tragic demigod whose inner horrors eventually devour his soul. Ben Kingsley's bookish keeper of the faith and tally of survivors adds yet another impeccable performance to the film’s repertory. A finer cast could not have been assembled. Except for its brief bookends and the sudden appearance of a young girl streaking through the ghetto in her lurid pink top coat – a symbol of innocence lost and/or destroyed - the rest of the film has been brilliantly conceived in B&W. The results are more like viewing an extended vintage newsreel rather than a Hollywood retelling some 50 years removed from the actual events.
Powerful and affecting in most every way Schindler's List arguably remains the high water mark in Steven Spielberg's career - a culmination of all that his years as a distinguished film maker had become. There is an economy, yet depth, to his story telling. Not a single shot is wasted. Not a moment comes across as false or strained. In the final analysis, Schindler's List is a great movie for the most obvious reasons - not simply because of its subject matter, but because Spielberg has mastered the integrity to tell a truth truthfully and yet artistically – treading that fine line of distinction to elevate both to the rarest vintage and quality. It’s hard to argue with the results; more difficult still for the Academy to deny Spielberg his long overdue Best Director/Best Picture Oscars for this monumental undertaking.
When Universal Home Video initially released Schindler’s List on DVD the results were anything but gratifying. In the first place, the film was spread across two sides of a flipper disc. For another, the extras were grossly limited.  Schindler’s List on Blu-ray at long last represents the film as it should have been all along. The B&W 1080p image takes a quantum leap forward in all respects. Visual tonality and textures in skin, hair and clothing snap to life and the film’s grain structure finally appears as grain rather than digitized grit. Close ups astound in their clarity and sharpness. The wow factor is definitely here. John William’s iconic theme is breathtaking in 5.1 DTS.
Don’t be fooled by the ‘3 disc’ advertised 20th Anniversary Edition. Extras are all direct imports from the DVD, including the hour long ‘Voices from the List’ featurette and eleven minutes on the Shoah Foundation. Discs 2 and 3 are nothing more than the film in DVD format split across two discs to pad out the packaging. Frankly, I cannot understand Universal and Spielberg not conspiring on a new audio commentary for this release, but there it is. None! Bottom line: Universal has done an exceptional job remastering Schindler’s List for hi-def. While much more could have been done with additional content to round out the experience, I have to recommend this one very highly for visually improving on the very flawed DVD from 2004. Highly recommended, indeed.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS
2

Saturday, February 23, 2013

RED DUST (MGM 1932) Warner Archive Collection


Gable smoldered, Harlow sizzled and the jungle trembled with raw sexuality in Victor Fleming’s classy pre-code dazzler Red Dust (1932) – a vivacious romp through the lascivious backwaters of Indochina with Gable cast as a rubber plantation owner and Harlow his latest fling from the red light district of Saigon. Only two years earlier neither was likely to be branded a reigning sex symbol; Gable with his ‘Dumbo’ sized ears, false teeth and crooked jaw, Harlow attempting to Theda Bara her way into the talkies as a raucous vamp with her raunchy platinum and painfully exaggerated bee-stung lips. Yet both rose like cream to the top of their profession; each giving the silver screen something it had never quite seen before and likely will never be seen again – pure animal magnetism.
Of their six films together Gable and Harlow are probably best known for Red Dust, its slick screenplay by John Lee Mahin treading lightly on Wilson Collision’s play about devilish gadabouts and their tricked out harlots who throw caution and everything else to the wind to satisfy an urge in the sticky heat. Red Dust inflames our desire primarily because of its visual restraint rather than its explicitness. Save a brief romp in a rain barrel, Harlow spends much of the film sheathed in a slithery silk robe, looking something like a cheap knock off of the frilly lounger she would sport for David O. Selznick in Dinner At Eight a year later. It’s a good look for Harlow, whose physical appeal has never quite appealed to yours truly, but whose glycerin sass always had me floored.
It’s rumored that Gable and Harlow were having a torrid liaison while making this film – a formidable indiscretion considering Gable was married to his much older manager while Harlow’s marriage to MGM producer Paul Bern had ended with his ‘apparent’ suicide that same year. On screen this pair suit one another to a tee, Harlow’s initial admonishment of the wickedly cool Gable eventually giving way to a tempestuous détente and then, inevitably, a mutual fascination to possess the other. In Red Dust that desire is a bit one-sided for most of the film’s run time, Gable preferring to trade up for the society wife (played by Mary Astor) of his underling engineer (Gene Raymond).
It’s interesting to note that of this foursome, Astor had the most uninhibited backstage lifestyle; its torrid truths revealed when her private diary was stolen and then made public. On screen Astor never had the chance to play such a female tiger, relegated to supporting parts as the piss elegant lady fair who endures, suffers and occasionally is allowed to keep her man before the final fade out. Gable, who remained ‘the king’ at MGM, was actually a quiet introspective man in life. He preferred the company of chauffeurs and bus boys to studio vixens and moguls, while Harlow has been described as a ‘homey’ girl who went to great lengths to cover up the fact that she enjoyed sleeping in the nude, and frequently sat on her father’s lap in between takes on the set. In one of cinema’s great tragedies Harlow would die of uremic poisoning in 1937, age 26, just as she and Gable were in the middle of shooting Saratoga.         
Red Dust is a Victor Fleming production and the director’s penchant for hard-edged characters placed under even harsher living conditions is working overtime herein. We begin in the wilds of southern French Indochina with rough and tumble plantation owner/manager Dennis Carson (Gable) running his lazy coolies ragged as the monsoon season approaches. Dennis’ overseer, McQuarg (Tully Marshall) is a good friend and devoted worker. But fellow worker, Guidon (Donald Crisp) is a shiftless drunkard, more sullen than friendly. The rugged quarters are looked after by Hoy (Willie Fung); a scatterbrain cook and simpleton houseboy. Into this stifling hot enclave arrives Vantine (Harlow); a prostitute who had to get out of Saigon fast and is hoping to elude authorities by hiding out for a while in the last place anyone would think to look for her.
When the only boat traveling the river becomes mired in a low tide mud Dennis is forced to accept Vantine as his guest for six weeks. At first Dennis rebukes the harlot, ordering her about like a servant. But during their time together Dennis begins to see the upside of having a gal like Vantine around the place. The two become passionately involved. For Vantine, the allure is permanent. But Dennis sees her as just another passing fling, even more so after the arrival of his new engineer, Gary Willis (Gene Raymond) and his cultured wife, Barbara (Mary Astor). Dennis is mildly amused by Barbara’s gentile nature, a pleasurable diversion that has Vantine fuming.
Barbara finds Dennis crude and calculating. But when her husband comes down with a potentially life threatening fever she glimpses a softer side to Dennis that begins to grow on her. In the meantime Dennis has decided that Barbara would do very nicely on his knee. After Gary recovers Dennis sends him away, along with Guidon and McQuarg, on an extensive surveying job at a makeshift camp a whole day’s journey removed from the plantation. Barbara is seduced by Dennis without much prodding; particularly after Dennis rescues her from a violent thunderstorm by carrying her all the way back to the plantation on foot.
Vantine decides to play devil’s advocate. She tells Dennis that he’s a rotten lot like herself, unable to bring lasting happiness to Barbara’s life without destroying Gary’s, hers and even his own in this foolish seduction. But Vantine’s words fall on deaf ears. After all, why should Dennis believe her? She’d do anything to stay on at the plantation. But Dennis has a change of heart after spending a night with Gary at the base camp, up a tree to catch a tiger. Gary, whose loyalty and devotion toward Dennis border on idol worship, has been working his fingers to the bone for him. McQuarg wisely assesses that despite Gary’s desire to make good he’s too nice and refined a kid to ever make a career out of this rugged lifestyle.
Dennis agrees and suddenly realizes that Vantine was right. He must send Gary and Barbara away. Returning to the plantation after he’s killed the tiger, Dennis is confronted by Vantine. Their verbal sparring leads to a renewed passion momentarily interrupted by Barbara. Dennis is glib and arrogant about their relationship, claiming it was just one of those things and that Barbara has meant absolutely nothing to him. Consumed with anger and jealousy Barbara draws Gary’s pistol and shoots Dennis in the side. Gary, who has been led by Guidon to suspect an affair, bursts in too late to confront Dennis and his wife.
Smoothing over the rougher edges, Vantine claims Dennis simply made a pass at Barbara, one that frightened her to overreact. Gary vows to take a tearful Barbara away from the plantation in the morning, leaving Vantine to clean out Dennis’ wound and care for him in her room until he fully recovers. Realizing the true merit of her love for him, Dennis rekindles his lust for Vantine as the screen fades to black.
Red Dust is bawdy good fun. The strength in the Gable/Harlow alliance can be distilled into one very genuine and tangible commodity; their rougher than sandpaper sex appeal creating a genuine and palpable friction guaranteed to chafe the skin. It’s easy to see why both their Hollywood legends have long endured. When she’s working opposite Gable, Harlow’s déclassé vixens always had the proverbial heart of gold, while Gable’s greatest contribution to the team remains his sensual masculinity. Arguably, Gable carried this aura about him regardless of his costar. And although I have to concede Gone With The Wind as my personal favorite Gable movie, never in his teaming with Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Claudette Colbert or even Vivien Leigh, does Gable manage to generate so much testosterone-infused turbo charisma as he does opposite Harlow.
Harlow and Gable: the two were made for each other – at least on the screen. Off camera they cut their teeth and wore out their cuffs and collars on a seedy little fling that ended as quickly as it had begun, each moving on to new partners with incomplete results. Gable would marry Carol Lombard in 1939, but lose her to a plane crash three short years later, while Harlow had just decided to settle down with William Powell when she suddenly fell ill and unexpectedly died. Thankfully, we’ll always have Red Dust a film where Gable and Harlow are hotter than ever and ready to devour one another as readily and ravenously as the scenery. They don’t make ‘em like this anymore and more’s the pity indeed.
It’s taken a while to get Red Dust to home video on any other format except VHS. Warner Home Video has always maintained that the surviving print masters were in such poor shape it would take a minor miracle to resurrect the movie on DVD. That may indeed be the case, but Warner has performed such miracles in the past. One had hoped for a standard DVD release – and ideally, a Blu-ray – but alas Red Dust has gone straight to the Warner Archive – their inferior burn-on-demand DVD-R format. The results are actually quite good. Although Red Dust exhibits a lot of age related artifacts, including chips, scratches and the like, and some key scenes have been transferred from less than first generation materials, with the inherent and obvious impediment of severe grain, on the whole this is an adequate viewing experience with moments of startling clarity and some very fine detail in evidence.
The gray scale exhibits no chorma bleeding. Red Dust isn’t advertised as one of the archive’s ‘remastered’ titles but it’s fairly obvious that some preservation work has been done to get this title ready for its rather inauspicious debut. The audio is mono, as originally recorded and yielding a solid texture with slight hiss and pop, but otherwise easy on the ears. The only extra is a Spanish language trailer – a disappointment. Note to Warner Brothers: one sincerely hopes that the brain trust in your front offices will slowly begin to restore and remaster such classic offerings in hi-def and soon. Red Dust deserves better, as does Johnny Eager, Idiot’s Delight, The Student Prince, The Brothers Karamazov, The Catered Affair, etc. etc. etc.  For now: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
4
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS
0

Friday, February 22, 2013

WESTWORLD: Blu-ray (MGM 1973) Warner Home Video

MGM effectively stopped making movies in the 1970s; thanks to Las Vegas financier Kirk Kerkorian, who bought the studio lock, stock and back lot; then proceeded to liquidate just about every available asset – either through public auctions or merely with a bulldozer - to finance, among other things, his MGM Grand Hotel. It took Kerkorian exactly eighteen months to dismantle the vast legacy L.B. Mayer had taken more than thirty years to build from the ground up. Cinematically speaking, Kerkorian put a period to MGM’s sad decline with Westworld (1973): an ominous sci-fi thriller written and directed by novelist Michael Crichton.

The film is at once an allegory for mankind’s over-dependence on modern technology and a forewarning against society’s increasingly dysfunctional self-indulgences. Like most of Crichton’s prolific literature, the concept behind Westworld was slightly ahead of their time. Viewed today, the film has not dated particularly well; its cheap-jack sets reconstituted from remnants once belonging to MGM’s vast storehouse of props and scenery, now looking more like borrowed junk from a garage sale than an escapist playground where the ultra-wealthy can live out their debaucheries with complete immunity from prosecution.
Regrettably, there are several glaring misfires that prevent Westworld from becoming a sci-fi classic. First, is its skinflint budget – the fault of the studio – resulting in a glaring lack of detail in Herman Blumenthals’ production design. This budgetary restriction immediately renders our acceptance of Westworld’s supposed lavishness – where guests spend upwards of a thousand dollars a day to be entertained - moot, as this retreat is nothing more than a series of pathetically obvious cardboard cut outs.
Second, a lack of extras milling about the theme park – also slashed for budgetary reasons – alters the immersive experience of Westworld’s themed lands into rather empty voids. It’s inconceivable that a theme park would have twenty or so guests for its inaugural run. Looking closely, one can see the same extras recycled in the background of all three supposed themed worlds at the park: Westworld, Medieval World and Roman World. Also, there is the acting of the ensemble to consider. Apart from Yul Brynner’s impeccably crafted – often chilling – star turn as the deadly ‘gunslinger’ android the rest of the performances are uniformly mediocre at best.
Finally, there is Crichton’s script – too ambitious for these insurmountable shortcomings and ultimately flawed in its key premise; creating fantasy worlds where guests can indulge their whims to either murder or have sex with robots. After all, how can a human guest be entirely certain that the ‘person’ they are shooting or taken advantage of in other ways is, in fact, only a machine and not another human guest? The script allows for the simple identification of the robots by examining their hands that have not been ‘perfected’ as yet. Of course, the real silliness is that if scientists have been able to craft androids capable of mimicking human behavior in virtually every way then they ought to have also been skilled enough to make a believable set of humanoid hands!
Crichton’s script introduces us to three themed lands of exploration; Westworld, Medieval World and Roman World. But of these only Westworld – the dream vacation visited by James Brolin and Richard Benjamin - is ever explored at any length. The others are superficially glossed over, particularly Roman World (shot on Harold Lloyd’s estate gardens); only glimpsed after the androids have inflicted their carnage on the human guests staying there.
Crichton’s story begins with a TV commercial for the Delos Corporation; an interviewer (Robert Hogan) receiving obviously scripted endorsements from several guests who have already experienced the pleasures of Westworld.  From here, we move to the cabin of a futuristic hovercraft flying perilously low to ground level in the Mojave Desert. Aboard are best friends, Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin), as well as an unnamed man (Norman Bartold) and a banker (Dick Van Patten). The latter two are hoping to indulge their fantasies by playing a knight and a sheriff respectively. Pete and John are bound for adventures in the old west, a lusty/dusty land of lawlessness ruled by bar room sin and confrontations with desperados.  After changing out of their ‘70s chic for chaps and ten gallon hats, the boys take to the open streets. Very soon they are confronted by the gunslinger (Yul Brynner). John, who has been to Westworld before, encourages Pete to accept the gunslinger’s challenge. Pete shoots the gunslinger dead, feeling a sense of exhilaration overtake him.
Next up, the boys visit Miss Carrie’s (Majel Barrett) house of ill repute where they take full advantage of her mechanized prostitutes. Later that evening a shootout occurs just outside the bordello, leaving many bodies strewn about. After the human guests have all retired for the night a work crew appears to collect the robots and take them back to the repair shop to get them ready for the next day’s adventures. But Westworld’s lead engineer (Alan Oppenheimer) is concerned and for good reason. Throughout the day his team of programmers hidden beneath the theme park, have been detecting severe malfunctions resulting in more breakdowns than usual. Relaying his findings to Westworld’s board of investors, the engineer is assured that such malfunctions are par for the course of overseeing a huge operation like Westworld. There is absolutely nothing to worry about.
The next morning, as Pete is shaving in the bathroom the gunslinger returns to confront John in his rented room at the Grand Hotel. But Pete – who only the day before was a mild-mannered divorcee – has now developed a taste for blood. He bursts into John’s room, guns blazing and dispatches the gunslinger to his second ‘death’. Pete is arrested by the town sheriff (Terry Wilson). But John breaks him out of lockup and then murders the sheriff just outside the jail. Now John and Pete decide to go exploring the country on horseback, playfully declaring themselves desperados. They arrive at a remote desert cliff to relax, but John is attacked and bitten by one of the synthetic rattlesnake. The chief engineer – who apparently has cameras set up everywhere – witnesses this attack and orders one of his technicians to retrieve the snake for further analysis.
Meanwhile, in Medieval World, the unnamed man – masquerading as a knight - is unable to satisfy his passions with one of the bar wench androids (Ann Randall).  This is in direct conflict to the android’s basic protocol of obey and serve. The chief engineer recalls ‘the model’ for reprogramming. All too late, he begins to realize that Westworld’s creations have begun to develop a will of their own. The next day the unnamed man is brutally slain by the Black Knight (Michael Mikler) during an unscheduled duel. As Pete and John are leaving the Grand Hotel in Westworld, the gunslinger confronts them once again, only this time he outdraws John and shoots him dead, leaving Pete to flee into the desert.
Unable to bring his operating system back online, the chief engineer and his technicians are trapped inside Westworld’s command center without sufficient ventilation. They suffocate, leaving the human inhabitants of the theme park to fend for themselves. Woefully unprepared, the humans are slaughtered by the androids. Pete makes his way across the desert to Roman World where he finds nothing but bodies scattered about its lavish Imperial gardens. He crawls down a ladder into the underground tunnels of the park and makes haste toward the robot repair room, pursued by the gunslinger. Pete tosses acid into the gunslinger’s face, thereby damaging his sensory capabilities.
Running into Medieval World, Pete is confronted by the gunslinger once again. Only now this killing machine becomes disoriented by the heat given off from various torches inside its castle great hall. Using this to his advantage, Pete sets the gunslinger on fire and flees into a dungeon room where he hears the cries of a woman (Julie Marcus). Believing that she is the last surviving human guest, Pete frees the woman from her shackles and attempts to pour water down her throat to revive her. But she is an android like all the rest and short circuits once the liquid has entered her system. Pete is briefly threatened by the smoldering gunslinger, who topples down the stairs into the dungeon before short circuiting – the sole survivor of Westworld’s carnage as the company’s tagline ‘Boy, do we have a vacation for you!’ begins to echo in his ears.
Westworld abounds in nonsensical contradictions. For example, how is it that the gunslinger can drink pure whiskey and not short circuit while the girl in the dungeon fries over a few drops of water? Where does the gunslinger get real bullets to attack the guests? The engineering staff suffocates in a matter of minutes in their basement bunker despite the room being quite cavernous and thus containing more than enough oxygen to sustain them for at least a few hours – long enough for real help to arrive. Even more curious; where have all the other androids gone after killing their human masters? It seems only the gunslinger is around to hunt Pete. The others have effectively vanishing into thin air.
Fred Karlin’s score is a weird combination of tinny western saloon music and electronica underscoring – the latter used to ominously good effect when augmenting Yul Brynner’s eerily mechanical performance.  This is also greatly enhanced by the reflector contact lenses Brynner wears to make his eyes a pair of frozen silvery orbs when properly lit. Regrettably, the lenses also scratched Brynner’s corneas and had to be abandoned half way through filming. More discerning viewers will take note that in some scenes Brynner’s eyes sparkle cold dead silver and in other scenes appear simply as his own natural brown.
In retrospect Michael Crichton has gone on record as saying that the production was an unmitigated disaster, marred by repeated studio intervention and penny-pinching that continuously forced him to downscale his efforts. Viewed today, Westworld is indeed very second rate on almost every level. And yet, there is something disturbingly vibrant about its last act. Crichton infuses his clichéd hysterics once the mechanical world overtakes its human creators with a genuinely palpable sense of paranoia. If the first two thirds of his story seem grossly uninspired in both content and execution – and they are - the showdown of man vs. machine - is never anything but terrifying. In the final analysis Westworld will not win any awards for high art. But it is unusually contemplative and fairly intelligently scripted. Its strengths are Crichton’s writing and Yul Brynner’s nerve-jangling performance.
Warner Home Video has finally come around to releasing Westworld on Blu-ray. This title has been readily available overseas for over a year from Aventi Home Video. Warner’s incarnation is light years ahead of their old DVD transfer. But it’s considerably different in its color scheme from the Aventi release. Where Aventi’s release exhibited fairly natural looking ‘pink’ flesh, Warner’s release has a decidedly orange patina. Contrast levels are decidedly bumped. Scenes in the desert in particular look somewhat harshly bright to my eyes. Never having seen Westworld in its theatrical run I cannot in good conscience claim which home video presentation is more faithfully rendered. But personally, I prefer the look of my Region B Aventi to this disc.
Warner’s 5.1 DTS is identical, with SFX and Karlin’s score sounding fairly solid. Good stuff here. Where the Warner disc wins out is in the extras. Aventi’s has none. Warner gives us a vintage featurette on the making of the film, plus the nearly hour long TV pilot for ‘Beyond Westworld’ – a series that only lasted for 5 episodes. Reviewing the pilot, it’s easy to see why. We also get the original theatrical trailer. Really good stuff.  All that’s missing is an audio commentary from Crichton. Too bad. 
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3
VIDEO/AUDIO
3.5
EXTRAS

2.5   

Sunday, February 17, 2013

ON THE WATERFRONT: Blu-ray (Columbia/Horizon 1954) Criterion Home Video


In 1952, after initially refusing to comply with his subpoena, director Elia Kazan sat before the House on Un-American Activities Commission to give reluctant testimony under oath and ‘name names’ regarding the infiltration of known communists and communist sympathizers within the entertainment industry. His contribution to what ultimately became known as the McCarthy witch hunts (more formally regarded as ‘The Red Scare’) did not directly influence the blacklisting of individuals in Hollywood per say, but it did much to tarnish Kazan’s reputation within the industry. For his sacrifice Kazan lost many friends and arguably, several choice directing job opportunities. Some never forgave him. Even as late as 1999 the Hollywood community remained divided in their admiration of Kazan: the man and his work.   
Elia Kazan has always denied that On The Waterfront (1954) was his artistic rebuttal to being forced to give testimony, although in hindsight it is virtually impossible to view the film without first considering it as something of a ‘response/justification/apology’ or perhaps a combination of all three, made by Kazan to his detractors, to settle a score and/or set the record straight. Throughout the 1940s Kazan had been a darling of Darryl F. Zanuck over at 20th Century-Fox, responsible for some of the most probing social commentaries ever put on film including the Oscar-winning Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) and Pinky (1949). But when Kazan proposed On The Waterfront to Zanuck he was met with a polite, though very direct refusal. The film would also become the cause of a permanent rift in Kazan’s friendship with noted playwright Arthur Miller, who had written ‘The Hook’ – a preliminary play eventually morphing into On The Waterfront by Budd Schulberg. Schulberg’s screenplay was loosely based on a series of articles appearing in the New York Sun, detailing real life corruption and graft run amuck on the New York and New Jersey docks.     
After Zanuck rejected the story Kazan turned to Schulberg, who pitched the project to producer Sam Spiegel. Eventually a deal was ironed out with Columbia/Horizon Pictures on a shoestring budget and 36 days location shooting in Hoboken, New Jersey. Spiegel, known for his somewhat ruthless nature, frequently tested Kazan and Schulberg’s patience. Meanwhile the film’s star, Marlon Brando, was suffering from bouts of depression and a mounting insecurity that he was unable to fully commit to the part. Brando, who had recently lost his mother, was in analysis. Reportedly, he left the set for a session, emotionally distraught in the middle of the penultimate – and now famous – confrontation scene between longshoreman union stooge, Terry Malloy (Brando) and his brother Charley ‘The Gent’ (Rod Steiger); forcing Steiger to go it alone for his close ups.
Kazan shot On the Waterfront in the dead of winter, evoking his stark realism through the haunting frosty atmosphere poetically captured by Boris Kaufman’s cinematography. The cold weather wore Brando down. But it also lent a distinct air of tension to the story; the actors somehow looking more careworn and gaunt in this unflattering winter light, a verisimilitude that Kazan insisted would have been impossible to recreate anywhere else.
On the Waterfront’s central theme is arguably one of self-reflection and self-discovery; the introspective Brando bringing a very earthy genuineness to Terry Malloy – the ex-prizefighter, now thug muscle being exploited by his older brother Charley (Rod Steiger) for Union mob boss, Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb). Superficially, Terry is a thoughtless mug. Yet, there is something about him that lures the likes of good Catholic girl, Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint) to his side. As she points out “It’s not just having a brain, but knowing how to use it.”  
Terry becomes smitten with Edie, a wise and willful college girl who has had some formal education with the Sisters of St. Anne in Tarrytown. The genius in Brando’s performance lies in his ability to gently reveal to both Edie and the audience a softer side. As Terry later declares to his brother, he “could have been somebody – a contender – instead of a bum.” This bittersweet realization; that Terry has sacrificed – and has been sacrificed by his own flesh and blood for the sake of a few lousy dollars – hits both men between the eyes. But it also breaks each man’s heart and forever alters Terry’s self-perception.   
On the Waterfront has one of the most explosive openers in movie history. Terry Malloy arrives at the apartment of fellow longshoreman Joey Doyle, who has agreed to testify for the Waterfront Commission against mobbed up union boss Johnny Friendly. Terry lures Joey to the roof where Johnny’s men are waiting to toss him over the side. Joey’s father (John F. Hamilton), his sister Edie and Father Barry (Karl Malden) arrive on scene too late to discover Joey’s crushed body lying in the open field. As Father Barry prays for Joey’s soul Edie bitterly disavows the sanctity of the church, viewing the clergy as just a bunch of ‘gravy train riders with turned around collars’.  Father Barry takes Edie’s words to heart. Indeed, he is a true man of the cloth with renewed convictions stirred by her admonishment of him.
The Waterfront Commission know that Friendly is tied into corruption and racketeering but are unable to convince any of the longshoremen to testify against him. They would rather endure the humiliation of having to kowtow to Friendly than suffer the shame of informing. And that’s the least of their worries. The last three men who dared stand tall all died suddenly. Immediately following Joey’s murder Terry begins to express remorse for his part in luring a fellow mate to the roof under the ruse that one of his pigeons has strayed from its rooftop coop. Charley sternly ‘encourages’ Terry to reconsider his loyalties. But Johnny seems content to merely placate Terry’s concerns with a little bit of extra cash and a promise from the foreman, Big Mac (James Westerfield) that he will be elevated to a cushier position on the docks just for keeping his big mouth shut.
Terry takes advantage of these perks. But his conscience will not rest. Pursuing Edie under Charley’s orders to a meeting at the church where Father Barry hopes to recruit new support against Friendly, this scant gathering of protestors is broken up when some of Friendly’s thugs begin throwing rocks through the windows of the church’s basement. The panicked men run into the street where they are assaulted with baseball bats and chains. Terry takes Edie out the back way, sparing her this confrontation. But one of the attendees, Timothy J. ‘Kayo’ Dugan (Pat Denning), who is badly beaten, agrees to stand against Friendly if Father Barry will stand with him in this cause. Barry agrees and Dugan sneaks off to talk to two of the Commission’s emissaries (Robert Webber and Martin Balsam).
Word of this betrayal does not remain secret for very long however, and Friendly arrives on the docks the next day to oversee ‘an accident’. As the men raise palettes of whiskey from one of the ship’s cargo holds the crane operator deliberately drops a shipment on Dugan, thus killing him in plain view of his coworkers. The murder has served two purposes – first, to silence the stoolie, but second, as an obvious warning to anyone else considering as much. Father Barry prays over Dugan’s body, but then shifts to a defiant admonishment of Friendly and his mobsters. Friendly’s men accost Father Barry, pelting him with rotten eggs, bottles and a tin can that creates a rather large gash in his forehead. Undaunted, Father Barry finishes his speech to the men as Edie and Terry look on.
Edie and Terry leave the dock and Terry invites Edie to his favorite bar for a drink – her first beer and chaser – before the couple decides to crash a wedding reception and share in a dance. Regrettably, their romance is awkward at best and overshadowed by the guilt Terry feels at playing his small part in Joey’s murder. The next day Terry attempts to engage Father Barry in a confession. But the priest is angry and unwilling to hear Terry out until Terry confides that he was involved in Joey’s murder. Father Barry decides to test Terry’s loyalties. If he can repeat his story to Edie – the girl he supposedly loves – then Father Barry will believe Terry is willing and ready to do the right thing.
So Terry takes Edie to the waterfront in plain view of Father Barry to make his confession to her. This moment of revelation is brilliantly staged by Kazan who obliterates virtually all of Terry’s dialogue with grating sounds from the waterfront docks; cranes operating and screaming ship whistles; relying almost exclusively on Eva Marie Saint’s reaction to get the point across. Edie retreats, partly in anger, partly from fear, but also out of an anxious sense of conflicted loyalty toward her late brother and this man she has come to love.
In the meantime, Friendly has begun to suspect that Terry’s philosophy of ‘do unto others before they do unto you’ has softened. He orders Charley to find Terry and have ‘the talk’ with him. If Charley cannot convince Terry to see things Friendly’s way he is to ‘take care’ of the situation, which can only mean one thing. Charley collects Terry in a taxi for their ride to 437 River Street; coaxing, then ordering Terry at the point of a gun to see things Friendly’s way. But Terry cannot go back to how things used to be. In what is undeniably On The Waterfront’s most poignant and bittersweet moment of realization, Terry recalls the night he gave up his promising career as a prize fighter, throwing his match at Charley’s request because Friendly had already bought in on a piece of the action. This decision effectively ended Terry’s chances to ever legitimately box again and it forever branded him as nothing more than Friendly’s complicit stooge.
Coming to terms with this fraternal betrayal, Charley realizes he cannot murder his own brother. Instead he lets Terry off at the corner, returning to Friendly’s hangout to face the consequences, in effect knowing he has signed his own death warrant. Terry bursts in on Edie to beg her forgiveness. Although she defies her feelings at first, Edie cannot resist Terry any longer. She sees the good in him. More important, he has come to know it within himself. Terry and Edie make a narrow escape from a truck attempting to run them down in a tight alley. There, Terry discovers Charlie’s body dangling from a meat hook. Enraged and determined to avenge his brother’s murder, Terry arrives with a pistol at the longshoreman’s bar – the backroom a favorite watering hole for Friendly and his men. But the bar is empty.
Father Barry confronts and subdues Terry, telling him that he can either choose to continue to live like and animal or take the high road by testifying for the Waterfront Commission against Friendly. Terry agrees and later testifies in open court. Friendly publicly threatens him, saying “You’ve dug your own grave. Now go and fall into it!” With the hearings over it is only a matter of time before Friendly and his men face incarceration. But Terry arrives on the docks that afternoon to confront Friendly mano a mano.
Friendly takes on Terry and quickly realizes he is unable to defend himself. Instead, he calls in three of his toughest goons to brutalize Terry as the rest of the longshoremen look on. Beaten almost to the point of unconsciousness, Terry is tended to by Father Barry and Edie. But Pop Doyle has decided he has had quite enough of Friendly’s mob rule, unexpectedly pushing the union boss off the pier and into the water. Imbued with a renewed spirit of solidarity the longshoremen watch as Terry – who is barely able to stand – struggles to join his crew for the day’s work. His courage ignites their social conscience. They follow without Friendly’s okay, thereby splintering the mob boss’s hold on them once and for all.
On the Waterfront is a powerful indictment of unions. But to Schulberg’s credit and Kazan’s swift direction the film steadily evolves into so much more than just a ‘message picture’. There is nothing of Hollywood in On The Waterfront. The performances are uniformly and exceptionally well crafted. In retrospect, they also seem undeniably truthful. Brando’s is, of course, the standout and he acquits himself with a rare precision, above and apart from his ‘group theater’ method training. Perhaps the actor’s grief and anxiety over the loss of his mother helped in his preparation for the role. Whatever the means the actor used to explore his character, there is little to deny Brando his moment in the spotlight. His Terry Malloy never seems rehearsed, rather, vital and real – a person/not a character. Yet, the same must be said of Karl Malden’s defiant priest, Rod Steiger’s steely point man, and Eva Marie Saint’s wounded school girl. No, Kazan has managed to surround himself with a peerless roster of professionals; an insular enclave of true believers to create a masterwork of timeless, seamless, breathless perfection.
On The Waterfront has been a candidate for a complete digital restoration for some time. Due to Columbia’s improper storage of original materials over the years, virtually all video incarnations have looked poor to merely passable, suffering from a barrage of age related damage and artifacts that have blunted, though never obscured the raw intensity of the piece. Criterion’s new Blu-ray, with revitalized elements rendered in 4K from Sony, has at long last given us On the Waterfront in a hi-def rendering sure to become a touchstone for future generations to review and enjoy.
On the Waterfront holds a rather dubious distinction of being released at the cusp of the widescreen revolution.  Because some theaters were equipped to project widescreen images while others were not it is possible to have seen On The Waterfront during its original theatrical engagement in aspect ratios ranging from standard 1:33.1 to 1:85.1. Criterion has given us the option to view the film three ways: in the aforementioned ratios and also in 1:66.1.  Personally, I think the 1:66.1 ratio suits the film’s visuals the best. There seems to be too much information on the top and bottom of the screen in standard format, while undue cropping cuts off the tops of heads in 1:85.1.  
Regardless of which version one chooses to view, all three have been impeccably remastered in 4K, dual layered hi-def. The results are astounding. The B&W image exhibits quantum leaps forward in tonality and texture with film grain looking very natural indeed. There is no noise or other digital artifacting for a visual presentation that will positively blow you away. Contrast is superior to anything we’ve ever seen on home video. Fine details pop, with a startling amount of information in hair, skin, clothing, etc. Occasionally, the backgrounds can appear ever so slightly soft, but I am quite certain this is in keeping with the original cinematography and not a flaw of the transfer.  Criterion and Sony have also given us an impressive option of listening to the original mono mix – beautifully restored – or delving into a new 5.1 DTS surround that is subtly nuanced and in keeping with the original intent, while ever so slightly opening things up sonically for a more immersive listening experience. Leonard Bernstein’s score impressively shines herein, as do subtle spatial separations in SFX – particularly in scenes taking place at the docks.
Criterion has also padded out the extras with a bumper crop of goodies guaranteed to fascinate and delight. Richard Schickel and Jeff Young’s audio commentary is a holdover from Sony’s original DVD release. But we also get a new conversation with Martin Scorsese and film critic Kent Jones that is just under 20 min.  There are two exceptional offerings: a documentary on Elia Kazan made in 1982 and a brand new ‘making of’: each running just under an hour. There’s also an interview with Eva Marie Saint, a featurette (also from the DVD) that deconstructs the ‘contender’ scene with competent critiques, Schickel’s interview with Kazan, a new interview with author James T. Fisher, a visual essay on Bernstein’s score and another on deconstructing the proper aspect ratio for the film.
Finally, Criterion has always been known for providing thick booklets to augment their DVDs and Blu-rays, but this one is exceptionally well stocked with essays from filmmaker Michael Almereyda, Kazan’s own defense of his HUAC testimony, one of Malcolm Johnson’s articles that inspired the screenplay, plus a 1953 op/ed from screenwriter Budd Schulberg. Bottom line: On the Waterfront is Elia Kazan at his very best: a watershed American movie with few – if any direct – equals. The Blu-ray at long last gives us a comprehensive appreciation of the movie and the people who made it. This one is a no brainer. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
5
EXTRAS
5

Saturday, February 16, 2013

NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA: Blu-ray (Columbia 1971) Twilight Time


History according to Hollywood is anything but accurate; perhaps not such an unusual predilection, considering that most about Hollywood itself is steeped in a mythology deliberately designed to obfuscate the more unflattering reality. Now to be fair, Hollywood did not invent the concept of telling a tall tale. It did, however, make the truth just a little bit harder to discern and/or separate from the fantasy. As more are inclined to go to the movies than investigate the facts about ancient civilizations for themselves, historical epics manage to create their own faux history; fanciful melo-theatrics that, in effect, become our shimmering portholes to the past. 
The curiosity, of course, is that the epic has always been grounded in truth – just enough to mask its disingenuousness. The best of them anesthetize us with their spectacular resurrection of another time more gallant than our own. For a few hours we can live in that fabricated world, with provisions outlined by Hollywood, while having the benign satisfaction of knowing how it will all turn out in the end.
Resurrecting history through the cinematic lens is one thing. Reviving an historical tragedy is quite another. Few can rival the apocalyptic finality that befell Tsar Nicholas Romanov II and his family on July 17th, 1918.  The fate of the Romanovs is a watershed chapter in antiquity, not simply because it forever altered the course of a nation, but also due to the fact that so much of what had occurred back then was never divulged by the newly formed totalitarian U.S.S.R. The seismic shift that was the Russian Revolution therefore remained hidden from those living beyond its borders, generating a very palpable nervousness in the west that would eventually escalate into the ‘Cold War’.  
As a result, most stories told about that ancient flower that was Imperial Russia and its monarchical demise tend to focus on the lavish aristocracy doomed to self-destruct, and on the rumored ‘disappearance’ of the tsar’s youngest daughter, Anastasia, who may or may not have survived the fate of her family to live out the rest of her days in exile. The fact that Anastasia’s remains were never discovered, even after the exhumation of the rest of the family’s bones from their unmarked graves in 1989, gave rise to a particular fascination with her story; rife for just the sort of enchanted fairytale Hollywood loves to tell and re-tell. Perhaps intuitively, American film makers have felt a kinship to the revolution even at its start; America having suffered its own upheaval during the Civil War. The south, a crippled remnant of its former cavalier glories, in many ways mirrors the total collapse of the Russian monarchy; the assassination of Abraham Lincoln a fascinating parallel to Nicholas’ similar fate.  
Based on Robert K. Masse’s incomplete research – for no other kind was possible so long as the iron curtain remained in place - Franklin J. Schaffner’s Nicholas and Alexandra (1971) is an ambitious attempt to resurrect the Romanov dynasty in all its final flourish and culture-shattering implosion. The screenplay by James Goldman is a melodrama first and foremost, something of an ill-fated Anna Karenina-styled romance second, while remaining steadfast and true to the blinding opulence of an old fashioned Hollywood epic.
Yet Nicholas and Alexandra never triumphs in its primary objective; to unequivocally entertain. Instead, and almost immediately, the narrative devolves into a picturesque travelogue; glossy, but decidedly disengaged as anything more than a very sumptuous, though statuesque waxworks. Part of the problem is the film’s central casting of Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman to play the doomed monarchs. Jayston and Suzman are accomplished stage actors to be sure. Yet neither seems to rise above a stolid imperiousness. Austerity is arguably a hallmark of any 19th century monarchy. But intimacy between Nicholas and his queen is absent; moreover, wholly vacant from Nicholas’ interaction with his children; Alexei (Roderic Nobel), Tatiana (Lynne Frederick), Olga (Ania Marson), Maria (Candace Glendenning) and Anastasia (Fiona Fullerton).  
By all historical accounts, Nicholas II was not an enigmatic ruler. That much of the characterization Jayston has made right. But Nicholas was arguably a devoted father and husband who loved his family very much. That is what is missing from Jayston’s portrait. To observe Jayston throughout the film is to marvel at just how petrified a stick of kindling can become. The actor is wooden to a fault, very much looking, though hardly living his part. Worse, he gestures like a stage marionette, arms spread wide or clenched at the fist; lips frozen so that we can never quite tell whether he is perturbed or pleased.   
Suzman’s portrait of Alexandra is even more perplexingly dull; veering from an emotionless regal consort into some grand desperation as her vigils with Father Grigori Rasputin (Tom Baker) gradually become an exercise in self-denial. Nicholas and Alexandra would have greatly benefited from more recognizable American stars to fill these leads. In 1932, MGM cast the three Barrymores to fit the bill in Rasputin and the Empress. In 1956 Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner made a handsome pair of pretenders to the throne, opposite Helen Hayes in Anastasia. But Nicholas and Alexandra lacks any star half as enigmatic and the film suffers greatly as a result.
Immediately following Richard Rodney Bennett’s austere main title, our story begins with Alexei’s birth. The only male heir born to the house of Romanov, Alexei will one day inherit his father’s kingdom. Alas, the devil’s hand is in the deed. For Alexei has been born with a rare and extreme form of hemophilia. Nicholas’ mother, Marie Federovna (Irene Worth) quietly holds Alexandra responsible, as does Nicholas for a time – a burden upon her conscience that leaves the new mother feeling physically wan, emotionally fragile and utterly insecure.
At the same time Nicholas’ devotion to family is strained by his involvement in the Russo-Japanese War. He is encouraged to withdraw from the conflict by his advisors Count Witte (Laurence Olivier) and the Grand Duke Nicholas (Harry Andrews). The war has been a mistake – one embarked upon to assert Russia’s dominance. But it has also cost too many soldiers and civilian their lives and strained the coffers of the Imperial treasury.  Meanwhile, talk of ending the monarchy is afoot thanks to the formation of a political underground led by Vladimir Lenin (Michael Bryant), Joseph Stalin (James Hazeldine) and Leon Trotsky (Brian Cox). These intellectuals and their radical followers have begun to chip away at Nicholas’ autocracy. But they are also trying his patience. At the very least, they are demanding a Duma (parliamentary governing body) to represent the Russian people.
At court, life goes on as usual. Grand parties are given and the royals entertain their closest friends. But many frowns upon Alexandra – a Germanic princess -  particularly after war is declared between Germany and Russia, but even more so when she is befriended by Rasputin; a self-described religious pilgrim. Just who and what Rasputin is, and how important he becomes to the house of Romanov is at the crux of Nicholas’ toppling from power. Apart from his inexplicable faculty to momentarily subdue Alexei’s hemophilia, Rasputin is a lascivious debaucher, prone to every sinful weakness of human desire that his mind can concoct. His closeness to Alexandra breeds filthy rumors among the aristocracy. These eventually trickle down to the people, who begin to suspect wild carousing and incest occurring inside the palace; wanton revelry that is an affront to Russian culture, but also seems to fly condescendingly in the face of their own abject starvation and suffrage under the most squalid living conditions.
We jump ahead to Bloody Sunday – the accidental slaughter of peaceful demonstrators fronted by a priest, Father George Gapon (Julian Glover) while marching on the Winter Palace to protest their deplorable conditions at a textile mill. Nicholas is not at the palace when they arrive. In his absence the Royal Guard is assembled to protect the gates. When the commanding officer is thrown from his horse panic ensues and the soldiers fire randomly into the fleeing crowd. Although horrified by the number of casualties, Nicholas later admits that he would not have upheld the people’s petition for reform.
Understandably, Nicholas and Alexandra has a lot of ground to cover. However, the transitions, made for obvious time constraints, are not entirely successful. Immediately following Bloody Sunday we advance eight years into the future; the 300th anniversary of the house of Romanov and the family’s summer holiday at the Livadia Palace. This segue is problematic, since it not only foreshortens the time between Nicholas’ reluctant acceptance of the Duma and his eventually dismantling of it (that took years), but it also suggests a rather callous disregard for the Bloody Sunday massacre by juxtaposition; a wicked carnage opposite an escapist summer holiday for the royals in the Crimea. 
Alexei has developed a close personal bond with Naval Sailor Nagorny (John Hallam) appointed as his bodyguard/protector by Nicholas. In the meantime Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin (Eric Porter) arrives with good news. He tells the family that Nicholas’ commissioning of the Duma to grant some of the people’s requests has created newfound respect for the monarchy.  However, once along Stolypin also shares various police reports with Nicholas that attest to Rasputin’s perversities. These have done much to damage Nicholas’ reputation. On a spur of the moment, Nicholas has had enough. He banishes Rasputin from his court; a move that infuriates Alexandra, who demands his immediate return. Nicholas, however, refuses.
As the tercentenary celebrations kick into high gear, the family prepares for another season of grand parties. However, when Stolypin is shot during a royal performance inside Kiev’s opera house Nicholas makes a fatal error in judgment. Determining that by allowing his people their freedoms they have come to regard him as an impotent ruler, Nicholas retaliates with a show of autocratic force: uprooting and executing the conspirators responsible for Stolypin’s assassination, dissolving the Duma and ordering his secret police to seek out treason against the state by terrorizing the peasants and burning their homes.
Alexei suffers an accident at the family’s hunting lodge in Spala and begins to bleed internally. The court physicians are powerless to slow the progression of his hemophilia and even predict that he will die. Desperate to save her only son, Alexandra writes Rasputin who responds with an air of confidence that indeed allows for the boy’s recovery.  Meanwhile, as World War I begins Germany declares war on Russia. Realizing the perilous state his military is in, but unable to retreat from this declaration of war, Nicholas amasses his troops to march toward the front line. In his most egregious lapse in judgment yet, Nicholas decides to command the troops himself, believing that with his guidance they will undoubted rise to the occasion and smite the enemy onward toward victory.
In Nicholas’ absence however, unsubstantiated rumors once again begin to fly that Alexandra and Rasputin are lovers and that he has become involved in fornication with the Tsar’s daughters. Since the people have never been told of Alexei’s perilous condition the rumors take a more concrete hold this time and the general mood toward the monarchy quickly sours.  Nicholas’ mother makes her way to the front lines. He is glad to see her until she begins chiding him for the irresponsible way he has managed his affairs – both foreign and domestic, fueling Nicholas’ hatred of Rasputin once again.
On nothing more than a drunken whim Grand Duke Dmitri (Richard Warwick) and Prince Felix Yusupov (Martin Potter) plot their own conspiracy against Rasputin. They invite him to an opium party in their cellar and then employ various means – including poison, guns and knives to murder him. Rasputin, however, is not so easily killed, fueling the fearful rumor that he was a true emissary of God after all. Learning of Rasputin’s fate, Alexandra becomes inconsolable. The slow erosion of the people’s faith in their monarchy manifests itself in worker strikes everywhere.  The Royal Guard dissolve, leaving Alexandra and the children unprotected in St. Petersburg.
Nicholas awakens to discover that his forces, after months of remaining ever devoted to his cause, but with no tangible end to the conflict or their starvation and suffrage, have abandoned him. He begins the long journey home, but is caught by revolutionaries who force an abdication at Mogilev.  When Alexei learns of this he becomes withdrawn, believing that the family will soon meet with an untimely end. To hasten his own, Alexei attempts suicide by throwing himself on a sled down a flight of stairs. This misguided act reactivates his hemophilia but it does not kill him.
The family and their court physician Dr. Botkin (Timothy West) and Nagorny are taken to Siberia under military guard. However, in late 1917 Russia falls to the Bolshevik Party. The family is placed under house arrest and transferred to the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg where they endure under Yakov Yurovsky (Alan Webb); a vial task master. A few of the guards try to rough up Alexei. When Nagorny intervenes he is physically assaulted, then taken away to be executed.  
The family gathers together to reminisce over letters and photographs previously denied them by their captors. It is a fleeting moment of solidarity, however. That evening everyone is awakened in the dead of night and told to dress and assemble in the basement for passport photographs. Nicholas and the rest of the family oblige. Only after the family has been properly posed Yurovsky enters the room with riflemen, opening fire and murdering the Romanovs in cold blood. 
In these final moments Nicholas and Alexandra visually disappoints. The assassination of the royal family is handled through a series of quick cuts; terrified faces grimacing in preparation of the inevitable, before an excruciatingly long shot of the execution squad firing off their rounds, and then a slight camera pan and tilt to the wall behind the bodies made bloody and bullet holed by their handy work. Yet this penultimate moment lacks the visceral essentialness to elevate it from mere slaughter to grandiose human tragedy. There is no overwhelming weight to the scene; no hint that a way of life has not merely ended, but died along with the Romanovs. Instead, the film quietly concludes on this decidedly dower note without any emotional presence to emphasize either the brutality or permanency of the event.
Nicholas and Alexandra is a visually arresting film. In retrospect, its best aspects are Freddie Young’s cinematography and John Box’s impeccable production design; neither ever faltering nor second rate. But big sets and sumptuous photography do not a great motion picture make, and I am very much afraid that apart from these irreproachable pluses the film very much lacks anything further to make it a mesmerizing – or even modestly compelling – movie going experience.  Having long been fascinated with Russian history in general and this tragic chapter of it in particular, it is difficult for me to dismiss Nicholas and Alexandra outright as a glossily photographed, though undeniably flatly performed failure.  
And there are other aspects of this production that I greatly admire too; the conciseness of James Goldman’s screenplay for one – that occasionally suffers from sloppy transitions, but overall manages the near impossible coup of covering 25 of the most turbulent years in Russia’s history in just under four hours. The actors, as I have already pointed out, are competent – if not convincing – in their performances. Make no mistake: Nicholas and Alexandra is a solidly crafted epic. But in retrospect its artistic milieu seems more workmanlike, lacking the creative synergy to truly inspire, compel and thoroughly satisfy the viewer. One can be momentarily spellbound by the grandeur of the exercise, though rarely – if ever – moved by it.
I tend to disagree with Roger Ebert’s assessment; that “the problem with Nicholas and Alexandra is that it considers the Russian Revolution from, in some ways, the least interesting perspective.” In fact, the film is unique in the perspective taken – attempting a sort of artistic salvation or cinematic apology for the royals – represented herein as utterly flawed, but misguidedly benevolent to a fault and their own detriment. David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago already gave us the revolution from the people’s perspective.  It would have been  ill-advised to foster a similar approach. Perhaps the greatest criticism bestowed upon the film is that it treads on all too familiar territory in an all too familiar way. Ironically then, it is a literal faithfulness to history that becomes Nicholas and Alexandra’s downfall as filmed entertainment.
Nicholas and Alexandra has been given a limited release from Sony on Blu-ray through Twilight Time. No one will be able to fault the transfer. Prepare to be astonished by an impeccable – and virtually flaw free – visual presentation. Colors are sumptuously rendered. Reds and blues pop with a vivid brilliance that will make one pine for the days when visually resplendent movies like this were a dime a dozen. Contrast is bang on. Flesh tones are beautiful. One minor quibbling: the darkest scenes occasionally suffer from a minor crushing of blacks. Otherwise this disc will satisfy even the most discerning videophile. You are in for a treat.
I can’t exactly say the same for the audio.  While Sony has done a spectacular job remastering the original mono mix in DTS, it would have been an impressive venture to have them go back to the original stems and do a fresh 5.1 surround. Indeed, as I watched Nicholas and Alexandra there were several moments where the visuals positively screamed for a more spatial kick to the surrounds and subwoofer. A missed opportunity – and one unlikely to be rectified any time soon - if ever.  Sony has included several vintage featurettes that were also released on their old DVD from 2002 and one welcomed bonus – Richard Rodney Bennett’s score on an isolated track where it can be appreciated for its meticulous craftsmanship. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4
EXTRAS
2