Thursday, January 29, 2015

ANNA AND THE KING (Fox 2000 Pictures, 1999) Fox Home Video

For some time now, it has become painfully obvious to yours truly that the major Hollywood studios have virtually little to zero interest in releasing deep catalog titles to Blu-ray in any sort of comprehensive or organized fashion. While it is nevertheless true that some studios have had a better track record in this regard than others, most would agree that the golden panacea of releasing everything to a new format (as was generally the case during the long retired VHS era) is gone, and unlikely to return. Dwindling profits have only been partly to blame as is the shrinkage of home video apparatuses at Warner, Fox and Universal. Paramount has all but abandoned the notion of ‘home’ video; handing over the rights to their back catalog to Warner. Under Grover Crisp’s inspired leadership, Sony Home Entertainment has undeniably had the most consistent and solid output of preserving Columbia Pictures cultural heritage. But even their record is not without a blemish or two.
This overall slackening of corporate interest in catalog titles has been somewhat resolved by the participation of third party distributors such as Twilight Time, Shout! Factory, Olive Media and Criterion. But these companies merely ‘rent’ titles. They do not ‘remaster’ them for public consumption, leaving the majors – who own the rights – with their custodial responsibilities to perform costly restorations.  With regards to catalog releases in absentia on hi-def, the real culprit has been a decided lack of properly archived and preserved materials available to do proper HD 4K digital scans. Some studio archives are in more dire need of preservation than others. I am certain every passionate film collector out there would adore a sudden flourish of deep catalog releases given the utmost consideration and clean up in hi-def. Alas, restoration – genuinely and generously applied – takes time and money, folks; commodities most studios, presently run by bean counters who are only looking at ways to fatten their bottom lines in a immediate present, have seen no good reason, much less feasibility, to pursue. Which begs the question: what does this mean for the fate of current Blu-ray – and – more importantly, for the future of its bigger brother: 4K ultra hi-def, set to launch sometime later this year? Hmmm. Even less titles coming to home video, most in repackaged reissues of stuff we’ve already seen, while deep catalog titles once more get short shrift and ultimately, are cast aside.
One overlooked gem (and there are many circling the rim of this abyss), deserving immediate consideration in 1080p is Andy Tennant’s Anna and the King (1999); a remake twice removed from its source material. With honorable mention to the Rex Harrison/Irene Dunne classic ‘of Siam’ from 1946, and the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicalized version (rechristened The King and I) made exactly a decade later, Tennant’s re-envisioning of this oft told, and even more often romanticized tale of an upper-crust British schoolmarm, come to the exotic culture clash of Siam (present day Thailand) best embodies the richness of the period, as well as that imperfect truth of history itself. To date, it remains the only version to cast an actual Asian as the formidable Phra Bat Somdet Phra Poramenthra Maha Mongkut Phra Chom Klao Chao Yu Hua; more manageably abbreviated in English-speaking countries as King Mongkut. The aforementioned earlier adaptations of Anna and the King are decidedly byproducts of their own time. Each is told with an Imperialist slant (as was Margaret Landon’s memorable biography on Anna Leonowens, and Leonowens own novelized accounts of her exploits on which all of the aforementioned movies are loosely based). But the earlier versions were made primarily to satisfy a Caucasian audience already weaned on the skewed European perspective of foreign cultures. As fine as their respective performances remain, both Rex Harrison and Yul Brynner (Mongkut in the 1956 variation) are cribbing from a prospectus of stereotypes that render Mongkut a rather crude potentate whose heart is inevitably softened, his attitudes reformed towards progressivism by the interventions of a pixie-fied educator.
Setting aside the fact the real Anna Leonowens was hardly as physically attractive or youthful as depicted by the elegant Irene Dunne or regal Deborah Kerr, the real Anna was also not the instigator, nor even the driving force for reformation in Siam; but one of many tools King Mongkut sought to utilize in advancing his nation’s time-honored principles into the dawn of a new century; a means to broker favor with the Europeans, naïvely as an equal, but also on equal terms, by bringing modernity to Siam, ensuring its economic, as well as its political stability. Tennant’s film is, in fact, the only one to even suggest as much; also, to illustrate the tenuous condition of Siam’s social strata and its politicized warring amongst rival factions, threatening Mongkut’s reign. We bear witness to palace intrigues and the plotting of corrupt generals. There are beheadings; bodies hanged from banyan trees, murders taking place in the dead of night, and the complicity of British mercantile investors, presently operating rubber plantations in Siam, with devious intensions to help overthrow Mongkut’s regime in favor of another they might more liberally exploit. Such revelations are, decidedly, much closer to the truth of what Siam was in the mid-1800s. They also shed a refreshing light of perspective on Mongkut’s necessity to be emotionally shut off and outwardly stern. After all, who could he trust in this quagmire of schemers, usurpers, backstabbers and thieves?
The answer is, of course, Anna Leonowens; once again on loan in the Steve Meerson/Peter Krikes screenplay, as the benevolent arbitrator of forthright solidity and pert responsibility; her relative autonomy (she is neither a politico nor a statesman with invested interests) able to fly in the face of Mongkut’s more outward apprehensiveness. Fundamentally, Mongkut and Anna are the same people; passionate in their desire to evolve as individuals, but learned enough to refrain from sharing these moments of self-discovery – with each other, at first – but also with those who would not hesitate to do them harm. To the film’s credit, this trepidation never equates to abject refusal to accept the necessary changing with the times. In previous versions, Anna’s interloping was misperceived as the impetus to drag a tantrum-prone Mongkut, kicking and shouting, into the next century. In this version, however, Mongkut is far more enterprising and emotionally reserved. In the embodiment of actor, Chow Yun-fat, he is perhaps the finest example of this thinking man; representing Mongkut as an independently-minded philosopher, knowing exactly where to draw the proverbial lines in the sand, and, better still, exactly when to cross the threshold with bold moves that will advance not only his own causes, but also elevate the welfare of his peoples. It’s a refreshing twist on an old story we only thought we knew, and one for which Yun-fat was seemingly born to play.
Of course, none of it would work without the proper Anna. Herein, Tennant is extremely blessed to have Jodie Foster as his more immediately recognizable star to North American audiences. Still much too young, and far too attractive to actually be the real Leonowens, Foster satisfies our expectations, gleaned from the two prior movies, for a resplendent and stunningly handsome ‘love interest’ without actually becoming precisely this in the movie. Although there remain several opportunities in Anna and the King for the old ‘Shall We Dance’ magic to rear its romanticized head (there’s even a lavishly appointed ball in which the king and his consort share a waltz), the Meerson/Krikes screenplay never entirely walks to the dead end of that plank, even if the film inevitably must finish with a bittersweet conclusion. Yes, an understanding develops between these two contrary personalities in the old ‘east meets west’ flavored scenario that has so often translated into bankable box office. But the restraint with which these two co-stars play their burgeoning infatuations results in a far richer, more panged acknowledgement that such a relationship could never quite work, and, not only because of the social biases and racial inequity set up as roadblocks between them.  
Jodie Foster is a superior and engaging Anna; exactly the sort of consort fit for a king. For here is an actress unafraid to plumb the depths of Anna’s courtly resolve – not simply in her steadfastness to make the journey to this tropical oasis, far removed from the cultural mores of her own country – but to thrive and contribute to the edicts of its lord and master, perhaps not in as forthright or monumental a way as her predecessors, but with pride of ownership as a progressively-minded female, making strides and cutting her swath – however narrow – through this tangled socio-political quicksand, stepping ever so lightly around the landmines that persist to make her nascent friendship with the King the subject of dense gossip, thickly laid out by and for addlepated minds. It remains a supremely joyful and utterly refreshing perspective too, to see how Mongkut’s influence affects and alters this Anna’s seemingly dogged inflexibility. Previously, that growth of character had been all one-sided; Anna evolving the King’s implacable outlook, using her pliable feminine wiles and intellect to bring his social conscience up to her speed. Herein, we get a more astute and realistic counterbalance and exchange of ideas; a genuine meeting of these minds stirred to scholarly debate, often to the point of frustration, usually to the edge of distraction, but ultimately, meant to enrich and revitalize both perspectives, evolve and progress in their moral fiber and character.
For years, I have had my own issues with the late Roger Ebert’s critical assessment of the ‘joylessness’ of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. While opinion will vary as to what constitutes great cinema art, on this score I will venture an opinion that Mr. Ebert clearly knows very little; equally as glib in his review of Anna and the King, suggesting that ‘behind every sadist is a masochist, cringing to taste his own medicine.’ It’s a little too simplistic to see either movie in such colorless terms, or perhaps, more to the point, coloring the opinion of the latter with one’s own biases toward the former. Ebert does however, point out some of the inherent flaws in the property as a love story, effortlessly averted under Tennant’s skillful direction: chiefly, that here is a man who, apart from his non-Christian predilections for having multiple wives, many children and countless concubines, also has an innocent – Tuptim (Bai Ling) – the one woman whose heart does not worship at his throne – and her devoted lover, Khun Phra Balat (Sean Ghazi) put to death in a gruesome public beheading.
How could any woman weaned on the relative humanitarian principles of ‘guilty until proven innocent’ defend such an act, or the man who would commit it merely to perpetuate his own authoritarian right to rule? To his credit, director, Andy Tennant makes an effort to suggest the King has very little choice in the matter; a question of his honor and authority is at stake and essentially, under these trying times of political upheaval, it must be preserved. And Chow Yun-fat and Jodie Foster equally illustrate that the decision to put to death the girl and her beloved is met by a mutual conflict of interest, and not merely from within (she flies into a tear-stained rage, smashing furniture and tea cups/he kneels before the fine statuary of his palace prayer room Buddha to convalesce and, so we are left to speculate, ask for divine forgiveness for his soul). 
Anna and the King commences in the grand fashion of an epic a la David Lean. It does, in fact, have a very Lean-esque quality, from its gorgeous main titles set against tapestries and underscored by the sumptuous strains of composers, George Fenton and Robert Kraft, right through to its meticulous palace recreations, built from scratch with impeccable designs by Production Designer, Luciana Arrighi. The other great asset afforded the production is Caleb Deschanel’s lush and vibrant cinematography – simply ravishing from start to finish. The story is bookended by a romanticized voiceover delivered by Mongkut’s heir apparent, King Chulalongkorn (Ramli Hassan). “She was the first English woman I had ever met. And it seemed to me she knew more about the world than anyone. But it was a world Siam was afraid would consume them. The monsoon winds had whispered her arrival like a coming storm. Some welcomed the rain, but others feared a raging flood. Still she came, unaware of the suspicion that preceded her. But it wasn't until years later, that I began to appreciate how brave she was, and how alone she must have felt…an English woman. The first I had ever met.” We meet our heroine, Anna Leonowens as she disembarks from a British steamer, newly widowed and accompanied by her young son, Louis (Tom Felton) and East Indian servants, Moonshee (Mano Maniam) and Beebe (Shanthini Venugopal). Their trek by rickshaw to the King’s palace reveals Siam’s thriving marketplace, also, its woeful – if colorful – living conditions; again, a peerless example of Arrighi’s design prowess and extraordinarily detailed.
Anna is optimistic about leaving her past behind. She naïvely entertains the narrow-minded concept British colonization has effectively made her a free citizen of this globalized community, excluding, of course, even the notion that these conquered nations might, in fact, possess not only the desire, but also the initiative and wherewithal to govern for themselves. Anna and Louis’ introduction to Siam is met with great excitement; optimism turned to dreck when Anna learns the King has virtually mislaid his promise to provide her with a brick residence adjacent the palace walls for her new home. Anna’s defiant resolve pleases Mongkut, at least, insofar as it may be channeled into the scientific education of his many children. Although bitterly disappointed at being ensconced as ‘a guest’ inside the palace, Anna slowly begins to realize the King is hardly the potentate she expected to find.
Mongkut wants to modernize Siam in order to protect her autonomy from the threat of colonialism. The King’s inner court circle is, alas, populated equally by loyalists, including his younger brother, Prince Chowfa (Kay Siu Lim) and the Kralahome – or Prime Minister (Syed Alwi) and traitors loyal to General Alak (Randall Duk Kim). Buoyed by a misguided alliance with the East India Company’s unscrupulous investor, Sir Mycroft Kincaid (Bill Stewart), who promises England’s support in a new government once Mongkut is overthrown, Alak begins to conquer the countryside, slaughtering rebellious factions loyal to the crown, and even murdering several British colonists to further promote the notion to outside interests that Mongkut’s kingdom is both corrupt and bloodthirsty.
To counteract this negative publicity, Mongkut begins ambitious plans to hurry along Siam’s cultural expansion, placing Anna at the forefront of preparations for an elegant party at the palace to welcome Britain’s visiting emissaries and lay to rest any such claims he is a willful and uncompromising barbarian. In the meantime, Prince Chowfa begins to suspect Alak of treason; also Kincaid of being complicit in the plot to overthrow his brother. Keeping to himself these suspicions, the Prince searches for the truth. The country is precariously perched on the cusp of war with its neighbors. But Mongkut’s once warrior-like precision on matters of state seems to have been blunted by his alliance with Anna. The two are frequently seen together in a healthy exchange of ideas; Mongkut becoming increasing interested in the western approach to male/female love; the concept of one man for only one woman increasingly garnering his interests.
More precedence is broken at the ball causing idle minds to wander, as the King engages Anna, ravishingly transformed into something of the moment’s fairytale princess, to accompany him on the dance floor. In tandem, members of both the Siamese court and distinguished assemblage of honored British gentry are either disgusted or pleasantly amused by this turn of events. Mycroft Kincaid takes it upon himself to pompously challenge this courtly display of social graces and etiquette, suggesting to the visiting dignitaries that the portrait being painted herein is hardly reflective of the suffrage the Siamese people living outside the palace walls must daily endure. The King is civil-tongued as he challenges Kincaid on an intellectual level. But again, the moment is brought to a hushed when Anna rises in the King’s defense to suggest that the British have lauded their supremacy at the point of a gun over nations considered lesser than their own for much too long. She challenges Kincaid to explain how this show of force, deemed necessary as a part of colonization, is any different than the military resolve the King must exercise in order to maintain Siam’s tenuous civility on a daily basis and protect its people from encroaching Burmese forces that would seek to destroy and conquer her.
The King is grateful for Anna’s intervention. Moreover, he has come to realize how indispensable she has become to other facets in his daily life. Making a commitment to providing Anna with a home of her own, adjacent the palace walls, the relationship between King and commoner continues to ferment into an unusual romance.  In her lessons to the children, Anna becomes increasingly devoted to Princess Fa-Ying (Melissa Campbell), an effervescent spirit taken ill by cholera. Summoned to the girl’s bedchamber, Anna arrives just in time to witness Fa-Ying’s death in her father’s arms. The two mourn her loss together. Meanwhile, Lady Tuptim becomes increasingly discontented with her lot in life, eventually confiding her love for Khun Phra Balat to Anna, who is instrumental in briefly reuniting them in the dead of night inside the palace walls.
This romantic pas deux leads to unexpected repercussions as Tuptim elects to run away with Balat. She is hunted down like an animal and brought to the palace; put on trial where she is caned. Unable to bear the sight, Anna desperately plead for the King to spare his favorite concubine from the court’s judgment of execution. Alas, with this outburst Anna has inadvertently sealed Tuptim’s fate. The King cannot show clemency now that would appear to have been goaded by her outside influence, much less that of a foreigner, without being misperceived as being a weak and ineffectual ruler. As such, Tuptim and Balat are publicly beheaded and Anna, unable to justify the act or accept her responsibility in it, prepares to leave Siam at once.
Her departure could not have come at a worse time. For Siam is now under siege from what appears to be a British-funded coup d'état fortified with Burmese soldiers. Mongkut sends Prince Chowfa and General Alak with a small regiment to investigate these rumors. Although Mongkut has complete faith in both men, Chowfa has never warmed to Alak, but accompanies him into the jungles, discovering too late he is actually the one behind these Burmese-orchestrated attacks. Alak poisons the King’s regiment. In his attempted escape, Chowfa is hunted down and butchered by Alak, who now rides into Burma to ready his troops for an all-out invasion of Siam. Word of the proposed palace coup reaches Mongkut.  Since the King's armies have ventured too far from the palace to engage these rebels, Mongkut announces that a white elephant has been spotted in the jungles; a pretext for him to flee the palace with his children and wives in tow while biding time for his armies to return. The King’s plan is to take his family to the monastery where he studied in his youth before ascending the throne. But only half way to their destination, the King’s entourage encounters Alak’s approaching warriors. Mongkut gives the order for Anna and the children to proceed on to the monastery while he and his small faction of soldiers prepare a nearby wooden footbridge with deadly explosives to stall Alak’s forces.
Afterward, the King orders his guards to retreat, seemingly alone at the bridge when Alak arrives. The General is suspicious but still disbelieving Mongkut has enough of an army to defeat his own. In the meantime, Anna and Louis orchestrate a minor deception, setting off fireworks in the hills overhead. Louis also blows a bugle charge on his horn to suggest the British forces have arrived in the King’s defense. Spooked by these noises Alak’s Burmese forces retreat in panic, leaving him to confront Mongkut alone on the footbridge. Alak is prepared to fight to the death, but Mongkut challenges him to live and remain the exiled coward, destined to hang his head in shame. As the King turns his back, Alak draws a piston from his concealed robes. But one of the King’s guards is ready, detonating the explosives beneath the bridge and sending Alak to his death in a hellish ball of flame.  A short time later, the King and his family are restored to the palace. Asked by Mongkut why she chose to return, Anna tearfully acknowledges, “Because I could not imagine a Siam without you.” Alas, the King’s children will have to grapple with a Siam minus its most ardent progressive, as Anna prepares to leave for good. As the King and Anna share a silent dance together, quietly witnessed by the young prince atop a balcony we hear the sage voice of the adult King Chulalongkorn in his bittersweet epitaph. “It is always surprising how small a part of life is taken up by meaningful moments. Most often they are over before they start although they cast a light on the future and make the person who originated them unforgettable. Anna had shined such a light on Siam.”
Anna and the King concludes on this unrequited note of lost opportunities for these principals. But it never cheats the audience of its expectation for a truly satisfying romance. Almost all of the great passions in both American literature and American movies are set up in such a way: the man tells the woman he loves her. She reciprocates his affections. Then the pair, through destiny, fate or just plain damn silliness and stubbornness, elects to go their separate ways. In Anna and the King, the march of time and cultural divides conspire to place immovable objects before this man and this woman, destined never to be more to each other than they are at this brief wrinkle in time. Again, it is a poignant and fitting end to what was always a mostly troubled alliance between the East India-born Brit and her exotic Asian Lochinvar.
Again, deferring to Roger Ebert’s review of the film, I cannot help but incur a modicum or ire for any man who would equate Chow Yun-fat’s characterization of King Mongkut as ‘charming’; then, in the same sentence suggest the King to be an “egotistical sexual monster” charming in much the same way as either “Hitler” and “of courseHannibal Lecter”. Ebert’s review is capped off by a glib assessment of the movie’s epitaph; credits affecting how King Chulalongkorn, cribbing from Anna’s expert tutelage, led his people nobly into the 20th century as a democracy, Ebert dismisses this claim by adding “No mention is made of Bangkok's role as a world center of sex tourism, which also carries on traditions established by the ‘good’ king.”
Rarely do I take umbrage to another critic’s assessments. Movie reviews are, after all, largely the stuff of opinion puff pieces. Everyone has an opinion. Mine decidedly differs significantly from Mr. Ebert’s! But in his later years, at least in retrospect, it became something of a blood sport with Roger Ebert to crucify movies of such immensity, simply on the basis that they did not live up to his kind of expectation and satisfy his own personal tastes. I see a good many films – both past and present - that do not directly conform or nourish my own predilections as to what constitutes popular entertainment. Most of the time, I don’t bother to write about them. Why waste all that energy on a negative review? But generally, if a picture is solidly crafted, expertly played and invested with the wherewithal and craftsmanship meant never to talk down to its audience, I generally find something relevant and positive to say about it, even if I cannot abide its narrative story-telling. Does Anna and the King entertain? Decidedly, it does. Is it better than the average movie being peddled to the masses today? I would argue, absolutely. Does it deserve to be criticized? Some – but I’ll leave that to others who dislike the movie enough to commit their sour grapes to paper. Vitriol? None.
Fox Home Video has done an adequate job of releasing Anna and the King to DVD. Now, if we could only convince the studio to do a new 1080p scan and release it to Blu-ray. I sincerely won’t hold my breath on this one. Overall, there’s nothing egregiously wrong with this disc. Colors are vibrant and solid and the image, apart from a few brief flashes of edge enhancement, is relatively stable and colorful. Flesh tones are quite natural and contrast is solidly represented. Film grain seems to have been mildly subdued with a smattering of DNR, but we don’t get that atrociously ugly scrubbed and waxy look anyone who owns more than a handful of vintage Fox titles on home video is, regrettably, all too familiar with. For standard definition, this one looks about as good as it can, and it sounds fairly smart too; the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio having unexpected inspirations of sonic resilience, particularly the blowing up of the bridge, but also the Fenton/Kraft underscore.  Extras are jam-packed onto this disc, beginning with a comprehensive commentary from Andy Tennant, who is clearly passionate about the movie and its subject matter. We’re also afforded five immersive featurettes that effectively cover the creation of Anna and the King’s momentous undertaking. You’ll be even more impressed with the film once you’ve had the opportunity to delve into these extras. Bottom line: highly recommended. Very highly. Now, Fox…pretty please…a new Blu-ray of this for 2015!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL: Blu-ray (ITC Entertainment, 1978) Shout! Factory

Film financier, Lew Grade was not at all pleased after screening the first rough cut assembly of Franklin L. Shaffner’s The Boys from Brazil (1978). The film, by Grade’s own tastes, was too long; the ending – a trio of Dobermans mauling to bloody death our antagonist – bordering on the grotesqueness of grand guignol. And something too was remiss about Gregory Peck’s take on Dr. Josef Mengele; Hitler’s exiled ‘doctor’ in name only, who had conducted some of the most heinous experiments on Nazi prisoners of war at Auschwitz.  An extremely anti-Semitic sadist, the real Mengele used his position at the infamous concentration camp to conduct perverse research on live human test subjects, most of them children. The number of victims he eventually tallied from botched injections and monstrous surgeries is unknown. But Mengele had the wherewithal to realize such tryouts would not go unheeded after the war. So, in 1949, through the still very active S.S. pipeline, Mengele effectively disappeared to the underground, eventually resurfacing in Paraguay, then later, Brazil.
Viewing The Boys From Brazil today, one can empathize with Lew Grade’s apprehensions and anxieties. The film is an odd – at times, affectingly wicked – amalgam of the war movie, an espionage/thriller and, of all things, a light comedic farce; particularly Sir Lawrence Olivier’s take on Esra Lieberman, the bumbling pursuer of the truth (his character loosely based on Nazi-hunter, Simon Wiesenthal – a holocaust survivor). We first meet Lieberman, distracted from fielding a legitimate phone call, in his office with a ceiling so full of holes drizzling in water from a ruptured main, it vaguely resembles a sieve. Olivier is a talent beyond most. But his later movie career was generally marred by performances prone to flamboyance. Here, for reasons only known to him, he affects condescending amusement after learning from a Nazi-hunting novice in Paraguay that there are, indeed, exiled Nazis living and thriving in South America. A plot is afoot. But Lieberman couldn’t care less. Olivier persists in toddling along with an air of effete reluctance for most of the first third of this movie, growing less weary and more dire in increments as we methodically move into the last act finale.
But for starters, The Boys from Brazil plays very much with the buffoonery of a screwball comedy; Esra, suffering the nagging insolence of a doting sister, Esther (Lilli Palmer). I’ll just go on record here and state that any review of The Boys from Brazil ought to first acknowledge, with solemnity and hushed reverence, the persistent pall of those actual atrocities committed by Mengele at Auschwitz during the war. The film is only superficially interested in the enormity of the not-so-good Herr doctor’s deviant notions about science, further muddied by the casting of Gregory Peck to portray this depraved and soulless demigod. The public’s perception of Peck as an exemplar of moral integrity is decidedly at odds with the character. George C. Scott had originally been hired for the part but bowed out after reading the script. Scott might have lent credence to the part.
In lieu of this, Peck gives it the ole Joe College try; his performance invariably teetering toward amateur theatrics; evil by proxy or by way of the clichéd shifty-eyed cohort with menacing hand gestures and gritted teeth. To even attempt to bring Mengele and his debauched experiments to life in any sort of meaningful way as cinema fiction seems to fly in the face of the overwhelming human tragedy that actually unfolded behind those heavily fortified walls at Auschwitz; the extermination of 10,000 a day at the height of its ‘productivity’, to say nothing of the tortures endured at Mengele’s passionate persistence to plumb the depths of human degradation and suffrage, merely to satisfy his own twisted fascination with genocide on an epic scale.
Perhaps to offset the intensity that systematically builds throughout the last act, The Boys from Brazil has a queerly lighthearted atmosphere permeating its first act, even more weirdly equipoised by Peck’s potent mixture of faux benevolence and stern authority. Playing against his Teflon-coated image as a man of integrity, Peck’s Mengele becomes an outlandish angel of death. He gingerly coddles Ismael (Raul Faustino Saldanha); a terrified Paraguayan boy whom he has discovered, helped junior Nazi-hunter, Barry Kohler (ineffectually played by Steve Guttenberg) plant a primitive listening device inside the embassy he is staying at, before casually ordering one of his henchmen to kill the child.  Later, Peck’s Mengele snaps like a twig at a lavish ball, assaulting – and nearly strangling – one of his most trusted assassins, Mundt (the inimitable Walter Gotell, more famously recognizable for his reoccurring role as KGB Gen. Gogol in the James Bond pictures), merely because he suspects him of betraying a directive to murder another unsuspecting civil servant living in Pennsylvania. In fact, Mundt’s orders have already been rescinded by a higher authority in this diabolical chain of command.  
Ira Levin’s 5th novel was a mostly straightforward thriller. Regrettably, Schaffner’s movie takes time to hit its stride and get to the meatier part of Levin’s scenario; namely, Mengele’s genetic cloning of 94 offspring spawned from Adolf Hitler’s DNA; the children given to good middle-class homes scattered throughout the world. At least in theory, any one of these carbon copies has the potential to grow up and become the next megalomaniac. But of course, genetic compositing is only part of the experiment. These children must also grow up under similar lifestyle conditions to ferment their mistrust and hatred of humanity at large. Thus, Mengele has inaugurated a dastardly plan; to assassinate every one of the children’s adopted fathers, thus replicating the loss of Hitler’s own pater at the tender age of thirteen. It’s a monstrous endeavor to say the least; accepted without fail by Mundt, Fassler (Joachim Hansen), Hessen (Guy Dumont), Trausteiner (Carl Duering), Farnbach (Günter Meisner), Kleist (Jürgen Andersen) and Schwimmer (Wolf Kahler).
Heywood Gould does a fairly impressive job of condensing Levin’s novel into a manageable screenplay; the production bolstered by some spectacular set pieces; perhaps the most startling of all, Mundt’s assassination of an old colleague atop a snowy Swedish dam (actually photographed at Kölnbrein Dam in Austria). Another set piece takes place in a typical London flat; the smarmy Hessen seducing a tart, Nancy (Linda Hayden), merely to gain access to her landlord, Mr. Harrington (Michael Gough). In short order, Nancy is found by Harrington, naked and strangled to death in her bed. In turn, Harrington is forcibly hanged by Hessen, the pairs’ horrifically displayed remains discovered by Harrington’s wife (Prunella Scales). The Boys from Brazil is, of course, a product of its time; the 1970’s prone to grittier action, while simultaneously dispensing with the glamour and subtleties of golden age Hollywood storytelling. Viewed today, some of this bludgeoning of the old and time-honored edicts seems woefully deliberate and over the top. As a time capsule, however, the movie holds up remarkably well.
Immediately following Nino Rota’s lush and fracture waltz to underscore the main titles, we begin in Paraguay with Barry Kohler’s discovery of a plot involving dyed in the wool Nazi exiles from the defunct Third Reich. Barry tails Mundt to a secluded embassy, bribing the gatehouse boy, Ismael, into learning where the Mercedes is bound. He then follows Mundt to the airport, sent to collect wily puppet master, Eduard Seibert (James Mason). Under the cover of night, Mengele arrives by biplane. He is immediately taken to the embassy and reunited with his cohorts, initiating his plan against 94 unsuspecting victims scattered across the world. In the meantime, Barry has convinced Ismael to plant a homemade listening device in the embassy’s main room. Alas, while eavesdropping in on Mengele’s conversation from the outskirts of the embassy grounds, the signal is intercepted not only by Barry’s primitive recording device, but also a radio he gave to Ismael for helping him in his plan.
Ismael is taken to Mengele who weasels Barry’s whereabouts out of the child with the false promise his life will be spared. Instead, upon learning the location of Barry’s hotel, Mengele order the boy put to death. Arriving unnoticed back at his hotel, Barry does manage to play a portion of the recorded conversation over the telephone to Lieberman, who is more perturbed than fascinated at first. But his concern is peaked when he hears Mengele and his henchmen burst into Barry’s room, powerless to stop another murder. Prodded by the memory of Barry’s untimely death, Lieberman takes up the case, determined to track down the various civil servants who have suddenly and mysterious died under spurious circumstances. Lieberman’s first interview is Mrs. Dorning (Rosemary Harris), whose late husband (Richard Marner) was crushed to death in an automobile ‘accident’. Lieberman is marginally impressed with their thirteen year old son, Erich (Jeremy Black), who will later bear an uncanny resemblance to other children whose fathers have similarly met with shocking demises. Erich is terse and disrespectful toward Lieberman, encouraged by his mother to go and practice his music lessons while she becomes more transparent in her flirtations, informing Lieberman that her late husband was an abusive bastard.
Sometime later, Lieberman flies to Pennsylvania where he meets the infinitely more grief-stricken Mrs. Curry and her son, Jack (again, played with ineffectual resolve by Jeremy Black). Lieberman is immediately struck by the child’s physical similarities to Erich. He also begins to piece together the facts: all the dead civil servants were 65 and were cold and domineering parents. Lieberman’s investigation reaches a stalemate when he meets Frieda Maloney (Uta Hagen), an incarcerated former guard at Auschwitz who also worked for an adoption agency. Promised clemency for her testimony now, Maloney turns on Lieberman instead; still the embittered harridan who would relish the opportunity to see him incinerated inside one of Auschwitz’s ovens than betray her brainwashed loyalties to the hellish past. You're not a guard now, madam!” Lieberman frustratingly informs her, “You are a prisoner! I may leave here today empty-handed. But you are not going anywhere!”
A short while later Lieberman attends the human geneticist, Professor Bruckner (Bruno Ganz) in his office. Bruckner explains the mechanics of cloning; the removal of eggs from a potential donor; the destruction of their original genetic matter, using ultraviolent light. The barren tissue is then replaced by newly-injected blood cells, the eggs reinserted into the uterus where they incubate and become embryos. It now becomes clear to Lieberman what Mengele has been up to; the perpetuation of a single man’s DNA to create 94 perfect clones of Adolf Hitler.  In the meantime, Mengele entertains Eduard Seibert at his isolated and heavily fortified Brazilian jungle laboratory where, it seems, he has continued to probe the human condition through various experiments conducted on the impoverished natives living close by. Eduard warns that the trail is becoming much too hot to sustain Mengele’s prospects or, in fact, preserve his autonomy. But Mengele, consumed by the terrifying art he has wrought, plies Eduard for more time to carry out his diabolical plan.  
Not long thereafter, Eduard hosts a lavish ball for the exiled Nazis and their sympathizers. Mengele is delighted to attend, but becomes enraged to find Mundt amongst the revelers. Mundt ought to be plotting his next assassination. Unable to contain his anger, Mengele violently attacks and nearly strangles Mundt as the alarmed party goers look on. When Mundt’s frantic date, Gertrud (Monica Gearson) pleads for a doctor, Mengele informs her of his medical credentials before telling her, “Shut up, you ugly bitch!” Led into a private room away from the other guests, Mengele is calmly told by Eduard his itinerary of assassinations has been canceled. Moreover, Eduard has seen to it that Mengele’s experiments at the remote plantation have been indefinitely and immediately suspended. Mengele’s victims have been disposed of and the laboratory leveled to the ground in an inferno set by mercenaries. Refusing to surrender his crusade, Mengele now departs for the United States, to Lancaster Pennsylvania, to murder his next victim; Henry Wheelock (John Dehner) a reclusive dog breeder specializing in Dobermans. It won’t be easy. Wheelock is surrounded by his adoring pets who positively ooze menace towards any outsider in their midst. Mengele convinces Wheelock to place the animals in an adjacent room, but then murders him in cold blood to await his son, Bobby’s return from school.
Alas, the conditions are rife for a showdown as Lieberman gets to the remote farmhouse ahead of Bobby and is confronted by Mengele at the point of a pistol. He is wounded by Mengele but narrowly escapes his own assassination after freeing the Dobermans, who attack and badly mangle Mengele as Lieberman defenselessly looks on. Mengele is momentarily spared his gruesome fate by Bobby, who doesn’t know what to make of the situation of these two strangers, badly battered and lying on the floor inside his living room. Mengele speaks with pride, attempting to sway the boy’s empathy, “You have it within you to fulfill ambitions one thousand times greater than those at which you presently dream, and you shall fulfill them, Bobby. You shall. You are the living duplicate of the greatest man in history – Adolf Hitler!” Bobby, however, remains unconvinced.  Moreover, he thinks Mengele just plain ‘weird’. Sensing all is not lost, Lieberman informs Bobby of Henry’s murder. The child discovers his remains tossed down the cellar steps and sets the dogs on Mengele as retribution. The pack mauls him to death, one animal immediately going for the jugular.
A short time later, Lieberman, who is recuperating inside a hospital, is implored by another Nazi hunter, David Bennett (John Rubinstein) to expose Mengele’s cloning scheme to the world. Instead, Lieberman burns the list he has complied of children’s names and their whereabouts. After all, without Mengele’s intervention, these children should be allowed to grow and prosper with hearts and minds of their own. Unlike the end of Ira Levin’s novel, there is no guarantee in the film any of them will grow up to become the next Adolf Hitler. Then again, there is no suggestion either made that they won’t!
The Boys from Brazil is a darkly cynical and occasionally thought-provoking movie whose ‘cloning scenario’ must have seemed pure science fiction back in 1978, but has since proven to ring ominously with more than an ounce of truth in the intervening decades. The book, not the movie, seems more plausibly allegorical than suspense-laden fiction now. Without Levin’s context, Franklin Schaffner’s flick is little more than a jigsaw puzzled ‘who done it?” with the ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ factored in. This might have worked; except, both Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck are so ostentatious in their characterizations they virtually eclipse the material with rank theatrics. These aren’t towering performances so much as supercilious gestures of glad-handed thrombosis; the clots created by each attempting to outdo the other, neither complimentary nor competitive; merely, a veritable mishmash of acting styles. Olivier comes out marginally better. Peck is decidedly out of his element. His speeches become perfunctory when anchored to platitudes; recitations that never rise to a more sinister menace. Instead, Peck is boastful and flashy, more the carnival barker than this bedeviled and bloodthirsty architect of a New World Order. The Boys from Brazil is still highly watchable. But it never quite attains a status befitting its star power. This is its shortcoming, and indeed, its genuine shame besides.
There’s nothing shameful about Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray release. As part of an agreement between Shout! and ITV Films in Britain,  The Boys from Brazil sports an identical and very snappy 1080p master. Overall, the image is generally sharp, colorful and free of age-related debris and other artifacts.  Fine detail in hair, skin and fabrics really pops. Flesh tones look quite natural. Ditto for film grain. The various locations are breathtaking; the frosty blue-white of snowy in Vienna, the lush tropical splendor in Paraguay: it all looks precisely as it should. You’re in for a treat. A few brief scenes near the end can appear marginally soft, though not to any degree where they might distract.  Although ITV has not ‘restored’ this image, it also hasn’t applied any untoward DNR, edge enhancement or other artificially digitized ‘clean up’. The film looks very film-like, right down to some extremely minor gate weave. The 2.0 mono DTS audio is crisp and sonically on very solid ground. While Nino Rota’s more intense and ominous score is at the mercy of this slightly tinny sound field, dialogue is naturally placed, is crisp and clean with no hiss or pop. *Please note: the back cover indicates a runtime of 118 minutes. But this is the full 124 min. cut. The one oversight here…no extras! Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Monday, January 26, 2015

POLLYANNA: 55th Anniversary Blu-ray (Walt Disney 1960) Disney Club Exclusive

Ever since I first saw David Swift’s Pollyanna (1960) I have been under the spell of Miss Haley Mills; a supremely precocious child prodigy immaculately groomed by Walt Disney to have an enduring place in our collective childhood memories as the perfect little sugar plum darling we would all like to adopt in a heartbeat. Haley, the daughter of accomplished British actor, John Mills is undeniably a breath of fresh air in this Eleanor Porter-inspired drama; void of guile or saccharine and gushing charm. From the moment she disembarks the train in Harrington, the town named after her ancestral clan and presently presided over by her pert Aunt Polly, Haley’s blonde moppet just seems genuine and thoughtful and barely able to contain her zest for life under a preposterously ugly vintage frock that would have better to remain happily buried inside her late father’s missionary barrel. In a word, Haley Mills is delicious; like a cute freckle on the nose of life’s complexion or a tiny cinder in the apple of its eye. I’m paraphrasing lyrics to the occasion of William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968), but they are equally as pertinent to Ms. Mills herein and her delicately astute handling of what could have so easily devolved into a cloying portrait, mired in waxworks treacle. But this Pollyanna Whittier endures because of Mills genteel sincerity; imbued with magnanimity well beyond her years and grafted like sage to a sapling.
The film’s ultimate success isn’t all Haley Mills, though she occupies a sizable chunk of exaltation in this review. Doing a movie ‘in period’ – the recreation of any other time out of our own – is an exercise in ambitious film-making. Over the years, many have tried. Few have succeeded. During Hollywood’s golden age, the studios have had their favorite moments in history to emulate; the Roman/Pagan period, the fictionalized old west and never-waning affinity for an idealized England before, during, and, after the Great War; a Latin America, with perpetually swarthy men and lusty senoritas. Arguably, however, Hollywood’s greatest romance of celluloid remained turn-of-the-‘last’-century Americana; a courtly élan of corseted manners and cinched mannerisms, when ladies in crinolines and garters did their high-stepping to a waltz while their menfolk took pride in their handle-bar moustaches and baller-brim hats. Ah me, the gaiety of the gay nineties!
1900 was perhaps a period unlike any other; the gentry cultured and still clinging to their quaint social graces and customs from the late 1890s, yet ever so cautiously advancing with an air of anticipation into the roar of the 20th century – an era soon to rock and transform their rural homespun iconography in unexpected and not altogether meaningful ways. This affinity for mid-western prudery was wildly popular with movie audiences throughout the mid-1940s, perhaps because it did more than rekindle its nostalgia; it also invoked high-minded morality that, with the outbreak of WWII, must have seemed as ancient a ghost flower as brilliantine and dime cigars. Indeed, Fox made a cottage industry out of musicals set in the afterglow of 1900, while MGM had one of its biggest moneymakers in Meet Me In St. Louis (1944); arguably the movies’ greatest example of wide-eyed optimism that turn-of-the-century America once so resplendently and unabashedly seemed to represent.
Two great joys exemplified this period: people-watching and reading. Of these, the latter proved a marvelous retreat from reality. Women primarily indulged in lurid melodramas steeped in great tear-jerking tragedy. One of the most popular books was Eleanor Porter’s Pollyanna, first published in 1913. Yet even by 1959, the year Walt Disney undertook to transform Porter’s prosaic novel into his memorable classic starring Hayley Mills, the term ‘Pollyanna’ had acquired a sickly pall; odd since Porter’s heroine is neither perfect nor indelible as a goody two-shoes; but a probing and inquisitive child who, through her own blind faith in humanity, manages to impact and soften the hearts, as well as the more rigid social mores of the adult world around her.
The project had great appeal for Walt, who had been a teenager during this time; also, for director, David Swift who, as a mid-westerner, was also fairly assured of his understanding of the material. Swift, who had worked at the studio as an in-betweener in the animation department at the tender age of fifteen before the war, had returned to Hollywood as a television director. Evidently, Walt liked what he saw, affording Swift the opportunity to direct his first major movie. At one million dollars, Pollyanna was an impressively mounted production; no less so in its hand-picked roster of exemplary character actors to bring the story to life. These included Jane Wyman, Donald Crisp, Adolphe Menjou, Agnes Moorhead and Karl Malden, as well as relative newcomers, Richard Egan and Nancy Olsen. Walt also found bits for his time-honored contract players, Kevin Corcoran and Reta Shaw. But the part of the pint-sized moppet, Pollyanna Whittier proved a real challenge to cast. Reportedly, Swift interviewed more than 300 children, disheartened by his seemingly fruitless Scarlet O’Hara-esque search for ‘the girl’ until he was informed by his wife of a young child featured in a little-seen British movie; Tiger Bay (1959).
The child turned out to be Hayley Mills. After screening rushes from Tiger Bay, Walt concurred with Swift’s ecstatic overtures. They had found their Pollyanna. Haley was overjoyed; even more overwhelmed by the experience of arriving in America for the first time and being regally attended by cast and crew in Disney’s monumental undertaking. It’s enough to turn any girl’s head – even one as leveled and properly screwed on as Haley’s. After the first day’s shoot Hayley was pulled aside by her father and criticized for being “a great white cabbage” – in other words, ‘no good’; an admonishment that stuck and provided her with a renewed sense of direction and perspective that better informed the development of her character. Indeed, Walt would spend considerable time and money lovingly molding a career for Hayley Mills in his subsequent and memorable family classics; The Parent Trap (1961), The Moon-Spinners (1964) and That Darn Cat (1965). In viewing Pollyanna today, one is immediately struck by the unassuming tenderness Haley Mills brings to the part – an exceptional interpretation of Porter’s incessantly congenial heroine, reconstituted as a credible little girl.
Pollyanna is a meticulous recreation of vintage Americana. David Swift was born in 1919 - thus missing the turn of the last century by almost 20 years. But he had done a great deal of research in preparing the film, ably assisted by Disney alumni, Ward Kimball, who provided Swift with a vintage book, ‘Among the Folks in History’. Swift’s screenplay essentially borrows the best of Porter’s novel to follow eight individual narrative threads to their penultimate and interwoven climax. Used to working with single-camera setups at a very fast pace, Swift entrenched himself in recreating artist, Dale Hennessey’s storyboards on film. But his tenure in television practically ensured that the million dollar Pollyanna would come in on time and under budget. A good portion of the movie was shot in Santa Rosa, California, taking advantage of local ladies auxiliaries and vintage car clubs to add an air of authenticity and grandeur to the set pieces. In absence of vintage Victorian bric a brac, Swift also shot around existing structures, including the old bale mill and Mableton Mansion, augmented with an exceptional matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw. This matte extended the stately manor house by two floors. Swift also interjected a bit of froth into the 4th of July bazaar sequence, a bit of artistic license gleaned from his own fond memories of the Shrine picnics from his youth.
Employing town’s folk as extras, Swift was amazed when many came already dressed in period clothes – not costumes designed by Walter Plunkett - but bodices and bonnets lovingly preserved and taken out of mothballs especially for the occasion. Famed costume designer, Walter Plunkett did, in fact, create a gorgeous ensemble of vintage clothing for the principle cast. A cultured and compassionate man who positively adored this period, Plunkett’s designs are one of Pollyanna’s truly outstanding achievements. Another is Paul J. Smith’s ebullient score – capturing the effervescence, as well as the innocence of the time, while also interjecting such vintage melodies as ‘When You And I Were Young, Maggie’ and ‘I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen’. Two of Smith’s central themes were later transformed into ‘songs’ for the Pollyanna tie-in soundtrack album, much to Smith’s chagrin and with less than perfect lyrics supplied by David Swift. Swift also fabricated the engraved quotation in Pollyanna’s locket. The quote ‘Look for the good in man and you will surely find it’ is attributed in the film to Abraham Lincoln. Apparently Disney PR never bothered to check if it was genuine because immediately following the movie’s debut Swift was unnerved to discover hundreds of duplicate souvenir lockets with the same quotation being sold inside Disneyland’s various Main Street shops.  
The main title sequence impeccably sets the tone for the film; opening on the naked backside of a small boy swinging out on a rope into a gulch where other boys are already skinny-dipping. The camera pans upward to a wooden trestle. A vintage steam locomotive passes.  In reality, the gulch had to be flooded daily and the train, imported expressly for the shoot.  Afterward a picture postcard main title sequence ensues, some of it shot on location, the rest cobbled together from freestanding outdoor sets on the old Universal backlot, seen in countless movies and TV shows before and since (everything from Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind to episodes of Murder She Wrote). We follow the orphan, Jimmie Bean (Kevin Corcoran) as he rambunctiously chases after a metal hoop with a wooden paddle through the various country byways, startling a flock of sheep, apparently just as frightened of him as he was of them (one falls to the ground in camera while attempting to get out of Corcoran’s way). Jimmie is chided by the Station Master (Charles Seel) for getting too close to an oncoming train. Now, we are introduced to gangly Pollyanna Whittier (Hayley Mills), disembarking from the platform; the orphaned daughter of missionaries, brought to the small town of Harrington by a wealthy aunt, Polly (Jane Wyman).
Having come from the beleaguered West Indies, Pollyanna is spellbound by the vintage opulence that now surrounds her. She is also ill-equipped to face the middle-brow prudery of the locals. Nevertheless, Pollyanna is collected by her aunt’s social secretary, Nancy Furman (Nancy Olsen) who attempts to gently ward off romantic advances from her beau, George Dodds (James Drury). Nancy is also rather appalled at her first sight of Dr. Edmund Chilton (Richard Egan), brought back to Harrington by the town’s mayor, Karl Warren (Donald Crisp) to take charge of the deplorable town orphanage. Edmund was Aunt Polly’s romantic suitor in another life. It could have gone well for them, but instead Edmund left town leaving Polly humiliated and heart sore. In the meantime, Pollyanna meets her first resident of Harrington; the rather pert and stuffy Mrs. Amelia Tarbell (Anne Seymour) who informs the girl that her first order of business should be silent gratitude for having been rescued from the orphanage by her aunt.
Arriving at Aunt Polly’s palatial Victorian estate, Pollyanna inadvertently says the wrong things in front of Reverend Paul Ford (Karl Malden), whom Polly is instructing on how to conduct Sunday service; chiefly by suggesting that her aunt must be very glad she is so very rich. The perpetually scowled upstairs maid, Angelica (Mary Grace Canfield) shows Pollyanna to her room; a modest and cluttered dormer far removed from the rest of the household. Despite being relegated to the attic, Pollyanna remains effervescent and cheerful. She also takes a bird’s eye notice of Nancy and George locked in a rather passionate embrace. Later that evening, Pollyanna attempts to ingratiate herself to her aunt. But Polly is aloof and distant, conducting the household as though it were a regimented convent.
The Harrington wealth controls the town, something many of its residents quietly resent, though no one is particularly willing to stand up to Aunt Polly for fear her monies will be withdrawn from circulation and thus ruin the town’s prospects for the future. Mayor Warren organizes a meeting in Polly’s parlor to address concerns about the derelict orphanage. Polly opposes any new construction, leading Dr. Chilton to side with the residents who plan to stage a lavish 4th of July bazaar to raise the necessary funds themselves. If only Reverend Ford would join their cause, Edmund is certain the town could break free from their dependence on the Harrington legacy. In the meantime, Pollyanna befriends Jimmie Bean. He introduces her to the simple pleasures of meandering down by the lake, but also warns of the vial Mr. Pendergast (Adolphe Menjou); a hermit who keeps children as prisoners locked in his basement…so the rumor goes. When Pollyanna and Jimmie venture toward the seemingly abandoned ruins of Pendergast’s home, the old man makes his presence known.
Jimmie is terrified. But Pollyanna stands her ground and challenges Pendergast as a miserable – but harmless – coot. Pendergast is intrigued by Pollyanna’s audacity, moreover impressed with her joy over observing the refracted natural light filtering through glass prisms from his chandelier. These create rainbow effects throughout the living room. They also give Pendergast an idea on how to capitalize on the effect at the bazaar. Pollyanna also challenges the curmudgeonly Mrs. Snow (Agnes Moorehead), an aged hypochondriac whose daughter, Mildred (Jenny Egan) is Nancy’s best friend, but is being deprived her own opportunities to enjoy life because she is constantly attending her bed-ridden mother. Pollyanna urges Mrs. Snow to reexamine her self-imposed illness, eventually convincing her to abandon such paranoia and venture back into the springtime of her middle-age life.
Next Pollyanna confronts Reverend Ford during his practice run of another hellfire and brimstone sermon. She reveals to him the inscription on the locket given by her late father; that a man of God must look for the goodness in mankind if he is to discover it. The simplicity of this notion humbles Ford, who realizes how he has been manipulated by Polly Harrington to espouse her own edicts, using the church’s pulpit as her soap box. ‘Nobody owns a church,’ Ford nobly insists. As the date for the fundraiser nears, Polly forbids her niece to attend. But Pollyanna has promised to come and sing ‘America the Beautiful’ as part of the festivities. Jimmie climbs the towering tree outside Pollyanna’s attic window and encourages her to follow him to ground level. Defying her aunt’s wishes, Pollyanna attends the bazaar and is a sensation no less, returning hours later with a doll won in a gaming venue. Unfortunately, the doll slips from Pollyanna’s grasp as she shimmies up the tree. In reaching for it, Pollyanna loses her footing and plunges to the ground, damaging her spine in the fall.
Attended by Dr. Chilton, the prognosis is grave. Pollyanna may never walk again. The news is devastating to Pollyanna who, for the first time, loses her ability to see anything positive from her predicament. The crippling of her emotional outlook brings the whole of Harrington to Aunt Polly’s front door; each with their pledge of hope, faith and resolve in the little girl’s ability to get well. Dr. Chilton alerts Pollyanna of a new surgery that may restore her health, carrying her against her wishes downstairs where everyone has gathered to offer their sincere wishes for her wellness. Realizing how much she has meant to these townsfolk, but moreover just how much each and every one of them means to her, Pollyanna vows a full recovery. In the final moments, Aunt Polly accompanies her niece on a train bound for the hospital, the car pulling away from the station, revealing a new placard attached to the town’s name, identifying Harrington as ‘the glad town’.
At its core, Pollyanna is sentimental tripe, majestically carried off with such gravitas and showmanship one can easily forgive its more obvious tugging at our heartstrings. The cast is superb. Moreover, they are authentic. It is this quality that shines through and rises above the treacle. Hayley Mills deserves most of the credit here. She’s perfectly cast and joyously revealing in unexpected ways that make Pollyanna Whittier real rather than a doe-eyed tot from a prosaic novel. Much later, Mills would recall the enormity and meticulous art direction of the sets recreated on the back lot, also inside sound stages at the Disney Studios, particularly Aunt Polly’s Victorian manor that Mills delighted in exploring between takes.
Despite the immensity of its craftsmanship and charm, Pollyanna was not the mega-hit Walt Disney had hoped. Glowing critical accolades aside, the movie did only modest business at the box office – respectably profitable, though hardly a box office dynamo. It’s a shame, really, because Pollyanna represents something of the beginning of the end in Disney’s glamorous foray into live action features. Although Walt would continue to make movies apart from his animation empire – most notably, Mary Poppins (1964), the studio gradually began to dilute its commitment on these subsequent projects (particularly after the financial debacle of The Happiest Millionaire 1967 – a movie that, like Pollyanna, was sumptuously mounted with an all-star cast). Haley Mills would score again, in The Parent Trap (1961) but gradually her popularity too began to wane, especially as she grew into adulthood.
Viewed today, Pollyanna retains its air of infectious optimism despite changing tastes and times. The film was always ‘in period’, hence it hasn’t dated all that much in the last 50 plus years. Today, the moniker ‘family film’ gets bandied about; frequently ascribed to movies that really only appeal to the very young but can easily put their parents to sleep. Pollyanna is the exception. It treats both the young and the young in heart with great respect and affection. As such, it remains a treasure trove of beloved bygone memories like a living catalog of snapshots taken by Currier and Ives and lovingly preserved in an upstairs’ steamer trunk, waiting to be rediscovered. Hollywood in general, and the Disney Studios in particular, don’t make movies like this anymore and this is a shame. Pollyanna is sentimental. But its sweetness remains a confection lighter and more affecting than most any ‘family’ film made over the last forty years. Is Pollyanna a great film? Let us be so bold as to suggest it aspires to greatness and achieves a level of understanding that continues to faintly flicker as warmth in our collective hearts.  
How perfectly lovely to see David Swift’s masterpiece resurrected on Disney Blu-ray, even if it is as an exclusive via their ‘movie club’ instead of a mass marketed general release. Some may recall, Pollyanna was advertised almost a year and a half ago as a November 2012 hi-def release, along with the virtually charm free, Babes in Toyland. While ‘Babes’ did arrive on schedule, Pollyanna virtually disappeared from all trade ads shortly thereafter, leaving fans disheartened. After all, there wasn’t much ‘glad’ to be had in Disney’s now defunct Vault Disney DVD release from 2000; a sorely mangled affair, but especially curious, since restoration expert, Scott McQueen had supervised an extremely arduous restoration of Pollyanna’s badly faded Eastman color negative.  Alas, the image harvest presented on DVD belied McQueen’s efforts; the image marginally to grossly soft and occasionally even out of focus; Peter Ellenshaw’s sumptuous matte work sticking out like the proverbial sore thumb, and, with colors that were fairly anemic. Flesh tones were particularly regrettable, registering pasty pink. Virtually all of the dense green foliage of those once regal exteriors looked ruddy brown. Worse; there was considerable dirt and scratches still imbedded in the transfer, as well as a barrage of digital anomalies that really betrayed Russell Harlan’s gorgeous cinematography. Yuck!
I was left scratching my head, as I am certain was Mr. McQueen. This was a decidedly awful effort (if the word ‘effort’ can even be ascribed). With the 2012 mislaid Blu-ray announcement about Pollyanna’s big reissue it seemed the film would remain one of Disney’s most treasured catalog titles trapped in studio-sanctioned purgatory.  Mercifully, nothing could be further from the truth. Prepare to be dazzled by Pollyanna on Blu-ray. Here, at long last we are afforded the opportunity to bask in the richness of Carroll Clark and Robert Clatworthy’s meticulous production design; a veritable feast for the eyes.
Are there issues with this hi-def remaster? The short answer is ‘yes’ but most are forgivable.  Flesh tones remain a concern; having veered from piggy pink on the DVD to a more earthy orange on this Blu-ray. All in all, this is an improvement. One can believe the ‘look’ of flesh as indigenous to a vintage sepia postcard. While the DVD favored a queer bluish tint to the interiors, this Blu-ray offers a panacea of eye-popping and mostly vibrant colors. The grass and trees are green again and Pollyanna’s once bilious greenish-blue eyes have been brought into check as that smashing set of sapphire orbs they always were.
Age-related artifacts are still present but nowhere near to the degree as previously mentioned. In fact, there are only one or two very brief instances where they marginally distract. Contrast, in spots, seems just a tad boosted; again, not to aggressive levels. The image is tighter, crisper and void of the digitally-related artifacts previously noted on the DVD. Fine detail on the Blu-ray is solidly represented throughout – no edge effects or clumpiness that plagued the DVD. Better still, Peter Ellenshaw’s matte paintings seamlessly blend into the live-action artifice once more. This is a magnificent visual presentation and one surely not to disappoint. So indulge and enjoy. Equally, prepare to bask in this beautiful new 5.1 DTS audio remix, exceptional in its overall clarity, particularly where Paul Smith’s romanticized score is concerned. It hasn’t sounded this robust in years.
Extras are the real disappointment herein. Virtually all of the padding that accompanied the defunct ‘Vault Disney’ DVD has been dropped for this Blu-ray reissue. So, NO charming audio commentary from Hayley Mills and David Swift; NO featurettes dedicated to the making of the movie and Scott McQueen’s restoration efforts. No musical jukebox with rarities. No short subjects to replicate the opening night debut of ‘going to the movies’. Nothing! Nada! Zippo! Gone! I could crucify Disney Inc. for these glaring omissions. But actually, I am so readily pleased with the quality of this 1080p transfer, I’ll simply hold my tongue, hang on to my old 2-disc DVD for the extras, while smiling at the resplendent visuals represented on this new Blu-ray. From a pure presentation perspective, Pollyanna on Blu-ray comes very highly recommended! Buy with confidence. Treasure it forever.  Dirty little secret: you don’t have to be a Disney Club member to gain access to this exclusive. Independent sellers on are awaiting your order now!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, January 25, 2015

THE EAGLE HAS LANDED: Blu-ray (ITC 1976) Shout! Factory

Director, John Sturges officially retired from making movies with The Eagle Has Landed (1976); a smash hit based on Jack Higgins’ novel of the same name. In his impeccable career, it is a fair assessment that Sturges’ métier was the action film; in later years, specifically focused on espionage/thrillers set during WWII. The Eagle Has Landed certainly sent Sturges out on a high note.  Famed movie critic, Vincent Canby, almost as infamous for his snarky putdowns as much as his legitimate critiquing, praised Sturges for his first-rate built up tension, calling The Eagle Has Landeda good old-fashioned adventure…so stuffed with robust incidents…you can relax and enjoy it without worrying whether it’s plausible.” Indeed, there is much to recommend the production, including Sturges’ taciturn direction. More on this in a moment. Tom Mankiewicz's screenplay faithfully borrows the best elements from Higgins’ quick-witted/sure-footed novel. It’s a rare screenwriter who can resist the opportunity for embellishment (improving on an author’s work) and thus, and in general, badly bungle a straightforward translation from print media to screen adaptation.
Mankiewicz is, undeniably the exception to this rule and why not? His father, Joseph Mankiewicz remains justly celebrated as the two-time/back to back Academy Award-winning director/writer of A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950); peerless examples of the elder Mankiewicz’s prowess in both fields of artistic expression. As they used to say, ‘it’s in the genes’ and Tom Mankiewicz had certainly proven this by 1975. Mankiewicz’s recent flourish of success as the writer of three James Bond pictures (Diamonds Are Forever 1971, Live and Let Die 1973, The Man With The Golden Gun 1974) was encouraging to producers, David Niven Jr. and Jack Wiener, who hired him to adapt the novel. And to The Eagle Has Landed, Mankiewicz brings a certain erudite panache and cadence. In hindsight, The Eagle Has Landed is almost as richly satisfying as a character study as it remains a justly celebrated and action-packed adventure yarn; almost farcical at times; particularly Larry Hagman’s ridiculously befuddled Colonel Pitts, who, at one point astutely points out to a subordinate officer, while frenetically passing the buck, that “If anything happens to Churchill they’re going to hang you from Big Ben by your balls!” while leaving the fate of his own scrotum in limbo.
The Eagle Has Landed is equally blessed to have a distinguished cast. It’s always difficult, if not impossible, to tell a WWII story where the audience is expected to reside in its sympathies with the Nazis instead of the allies. Part of this film’s genius is that the Nazis are played most obviously by well-established British and American actors; Michael Caine, as decorated Colonel Steiner; Robert Duval (Colonel Radl), Anthony Quayle (Admiral Canaris) and Donald Pleasance (Himmler). Add to this mix, Donald Sutherland as the embittered Irish rebel, Liam Devlin – so anti-British he would rather see the European hemisphere engulfed in flames, simply to serve a more personal vendetta – and The Eagle Has Landed is already well on its way to becoming a memorable, if decidedly fanciful, shaggy-dog story. Passionate people make passionate films, and Sturges is, perhaps, the most passionate player of them all – or rather, was for a time in the mid to late 1960’s. That passion seems to have waned somewhat by the time he agreed to helm The Eagle Has Landed. Nevertheless, Sturges keeps the mood, tempo and arc of the story at a critical breakneck pace almost from the moment Radl is summoned into Himmler’s confidence to begin hatching a plan to kidnap British Prime Minister Winston Churchill under Hitler’s direct orders.
Author, Jack Higgins was inspired by certain real life events that took place during WWII; chiefly, a plot concocted by the Nazi High Command to have Republican Irish co-conspirators assassinate the Prime Minister.  Although history since has suggested none of this was ever taken too seriously, the reality is Churchill did suspect a plot afoot against his life and, on occasion had a body double and a voice impersonator to read some of his most famous and rousing speeches over the airwaves while he was safely tucked miles away. Where history left off is where Higgin’s artistic license kicked into high gear. As a novel, The Eagle Has Landed proved exceptionally clever at blurring fact with fiction; the film, arguably, even more so, since it presents all this exceptional hooliganism as high art with a distinct pedigree and authority for feigning authenticity.
In its preliminary stages, The Eagle Has Landed underwent several cast changes; chiefly Michael Caine, who had originally been slated for the part of Devlin, but became quite nervous at the prospect of a Brit playing an IRA agent – and a thoroughly malicious one to boot. Richard Harris, who had cheerfully stepped into the part at Sturges’ behest, developed cold feet too after reading Mankiewicz’s first draft. At last, Sturges approached Donald Sutherland as a third substitute. For his part, Sturges would have preferred to get out of directing the project altogether. Indeed, both Tom Mankiewicz and Michael Caine would later recall how their director’s verve for the project inexplicably cooled almost from the moment the film began to shoot, Caine suggesting in his autobiography that the picture was largely salvaged in the eleventh hour of the editing process by cutter extraordinaire, Anne V. Coates who “made it watchable”.
There is, perhaps, truth to this. For all its’ intrigues, The Eagle Has Landed is nevertheless very unlike Sturges’ other similarly themed masterworks. There is a pedestrian quality to the angles Sturges and cameraman, Anthony B. Richmond have chosen for certain pivotal sequences; Sturges framing his action in relative long shot with the actor’s moving within frame and doing most of the heavy lifting themselves, but without the benefit of more effective staging techniques. Coverage is minimal at best, particularly during dramatic scenes. Still, what matters is the script and the performances given. These are peerless and prove the movie’s salvation. The other blessing bestowed on the production is, of course, its exemplary use of locations; Cornwall for the Channel Islands, and Berkshire for East Anglia. But the set piece, shot at the implausible pastoral, Mapledurham, is the most rewarding.
On a limited budget, production designer, Peter Murton manages a minor miracle, building several shops and houses full scale, including a 15th century water wheel adjacent the actual structure and blown up for the movie’s climactic showdown between the Allied Forces, led by gutsy Captain Clark (Treat Williams) and Colonel Steiner and his hostage-taking Nazis. Explosive charges were also skillfully rigged inside the town’s well preserved church, including its bell tower; its original stained glass windows gingerly replaced with reasonable facsimiles to be blown out, shot at or otherwise smashed to bits. These elements of full scale action would later be combined with seamless interiors recreations, filmed entirely on sound stages at Twickenham Studios.
The Eagle Has Landed opens with rare footage of Benito Mussolini’s rescue by German paratroopers; presumably the impetus for Hitler’s fascination with a plot to similarly send in a select group of airmen to capture Winston Churchill and thus hold him as hostage until Britain surrenders. It’s a last ditch effort on Hitler’s part to stem the inevitable defeat of the Third Reich. Hitler is desperate for victory, ordering Admiral Canaris, via Himmler, to do a feasibility study on this kidnap scenario. But how does one conduct such a study – especially in complete secrecy?  Fearing Himmler is trying to discredit him, the Admiral falls back on a time-honored principle; passing the buck – placing his full investigative authority in one of his best officers, the patch-eyed Oberst Radl. When the pair is informed by an underling officer, Karl (Michael Byrne) that their central intelligence has decoded a message about Churchill retiring for a respite to the essentially remote village of Studley Constable in Norfolk, Radl admits the plausibility of such an absurd plan of action. Putting together a crackerjack team to pursue this plan, Radl becomes even more intrigued after he learns one of their sleeper agents, Joanna Grey (Jean Marsh) is already in place.  
Code named ‘eagle’, the plan will proceed at once; Radl convinced that ‘synchronicity’ equates to destiny and Himmler, placing his full authority, backed by Hitler, in Radl without Canaris’ complicity or even his knowledge. It is a dangerous undertaking, fraught with potential failure and even less alluring in its repercussions should anything go wrong. Radl recruits Liam Devlin with confidence. Devlin harbors an innate hatred for the British. Radl has less success convincing himself of running the idea past highly decorated, but conflicted anti-Nazi, Fallschirmjäger officer, Oberst Kurt Steiner. Steiner is a loyalist to the principles that once ruled Germany’s Armed Forces. He has no use for Nazi thug cruelty. While returning from the Eastern Front with a loyal troop of his men, Steiner intervenes in the S.S. roundup of Jews being loaded into box cars en route from the ghettos to the nearest concentration camp. When one of the teenage Jews (Léonie Thelen) attempts a daring escape, only to be recaptured by S.S.-Obergruppenführer (Joachim Hansen), Steiner intervenes, placing the young girl on an eastbound train already departing. Alas, a crack shot from one of the Nazi soldiers kills the girl and Steiner challenges a superior officer to explain the senselessness of murdering the innocent and defenseless. His admonishment is observed as treason to the state and Steiner is all but sentenced to be court-martialed, and presumably executed, when the call is made to have him brought in to helm the kidnapping mission.
Rather than face a firing squad, Steiner and his men transfer to a penal unit on the Channel Island of Alderney, waging high risk attacks against English convoys. After some prodding, Radl convinces Steiner and his men to partake in their miraculous venture. But Devlin incites a minor riot amongst the new recruits by being his usual obnoxious self. They toss him through the shuttered window of a nearby pub. Devlin is more mildly amused than sore – both figuratively and literally. Before long, Steiner, Devlin and the rest of the recruits are parachuting over Studley Constable from a captured C-47, camouflaged with Allied markings. Posing as Polish paratroopers, as few can speak English, Steiner and his men begin their trek into town, quite unaware of a U.S. military garrison only a few hundred miles up the road.
In Germany, Radl receives word that the first part of their plan has gone off without a hitch, proudly relaying this message to Himmler who immediately destroys the document authorizing Radl’s complete authorization. Hence, if anything goes wrong from this moment forward, it will be Radl’s head on the chopping block – not Himmler’s.  In Studley Constable, Steiner and his men move into position, Steiner making contact with Joanna Grey and faking a cordial, if strained, détente with Captain Clark, who unexpectedly arrives in town to visit his girlfriend, Pamela (Judy Geeson). Steiner also befriends the local cleric, Father Verecker (John Standing). Meanwhile, Devlin meets Molly Prior (Jenny Agutter); an impressionable girl who misperceives Devlin as her viable escape from an abusive boyfriend, George Wilde (Tim Barlow). Molly and Devlin quickly fall in love. After cryptically forewarning the girl of his dishonorable intensions to no avail, Devlin’s initial thought is to have his way with the girl, then dispose of her when she is of no use to him.
Alas, it’s all too perfect to remain status quo. When one of the local village children accidentally falls into the moat, one of Steiner’s men, Traumer (George Leech) jumps in to save the drowning girl from being crushed beneath a water wheel. The girl is saved, but Traumer dies in her place, his body brought up from the waters with its uniform torn open to reveal a German uniform beneath it. Steiner takes the villagers hostage, corralling them into the church. Pamela escapes. Unaware Joanna is a sleeper agent, Pamela races to her house to forewarn of the Nazi invasion.  Confronted by the truth, Joanna wounds Pamela in the arm; the girl managing to steal Joanna’s car and make it to the U.S. Army Rangers base where she informs Clark and his superior, Colonel Pitts of the plot afoot right under their noses.
Inexperienced and glory-seeking, Pitts prefers to handle the matter internally, much to Clark’s chagrin. Arriving at Joanna’s home with only one other soldier, Pitts is almost immediately murdered before his second can shoot Joanna dead. Clark orders Steiner to release the hostages. Realizing he must buy as much time as possible to see their plan through, Steiner agrees to surrender the townsfolk, barricading himself and his men inside the church. Clark now organizes an aggressive assault on the church; Steiner and his men firing back in an all-out war against the American contingent. Casualties are incurred on both sides. At some point, Steiner’s men agree to sacrifice themselves while Devlin, Steiner and his wounded second-in-command Neustadt (Sven-Bertil Taube) escape through a series of underground tunnels with Molly’s aid. By now, Devlin and Molly have developed an unexpected mutual love for each other.
Steiner and his cohorts make it to the launch where their escape boat is waiting. But at the last possible moment, Steiner pulls back from this ‘easy out’ – informing of his intensions to pursue Churchill on his own. Receiving radioed messages of the plan’s immanent failure, Radl orders his assistant, Karl to return to Germany at once. It will spare his life. For Radl is now under arrest, presumably for treason, and summarily executed by a firing squad with Himmler already distancing himself from this debacle.  Back in Studley Constable, Steiner manages to avoid capture and sneak up to the manor house where Churchill is staying. Indeed, it would appear he has outfoxed even the Americans who, under Clark’s command, are too late to realize an assassin is in their midst.
Churchill steps onto the balcony with a stiff drink firmly in hand. Defenseless, he is confronted and gunned down by Steiner who, moments later, is shot dead by Clark.  Clark is beside himself, grappling with the enormity of the situation. But Major Corcoran (Maurice Roëves) is unnerved, calmly explaining to Clark the incident never occurred. Moreover, the man lying dead on the patio is not Churchill, presently attending the Tehran Conference, but one George Fowler (Leigh Dilley), a gifted impersonator who assumed the part of the Prime Minister with full comprehension of the ramifications to his own safety beforehand. Knowing only bloodshed and tears can come from their association Devlin quietly evades capture, leaving a lyrical love letter for Molly to discover before disappearing into the night.
As WWII cinema fiction, The Eagle Has Landed is immensely satisfying in much the same way 1961’s The Guns of Navarone managed to retain its air of believability with an impeachable straightforward approach to its narrative and impregnably entertaining façade. Herein, the cast deserves the honors, selling their fanciful wares, moreover, with an air of ‘factual’ legitimacy. There’s just enough authenticity attached to this bizarre exercise to make it seem genuine and marginally plausible; even more passion expended by Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland in their respective roles. Interestingly, Caine doesn’t attempt a German accent; forgivable, and far better than the alternative; affecting a laughably bad one, as co-star Robert Duvall does with hideously disconcerting results. Donald Sutherland’s Irish brogue is spot on, and Treat Williams and Larry Hagman have considerable fun playing the traditionally ‘ugly American’ blunderers, who daftly avert total catastrophe in spite of themselves. The Eagle Has Landed may not be director, John Sturges’ finest hour, but it passes the mustard as an intelligently wrought and deftly executed action/adventure movie. Good, if not great, it deserves a second chance on home video.
Shout! Factory provides just such an opportunity in this mostly pleasing 1080p transfer derived from archived elements preserved by ITV Studios. Like the movie itself, the results are good, if not great. Color fidelity is generally solid, although there are a few instances where flesh tones become unstable, waffling between ruddy orange and soft pink. On the whole, these moments are brief and do not distract. But they are present and accounted for nonetheless. Contrast is solid throughout and film grain is natural. Light speckling does not distract as much as the telecines wobble in a few very brief scenes. Colors, on the whole, are less than robust and infrequently, downright pale. Apart from a few softly focused moments, the overall impression is razor-sharp and crystal clear with fine detail looking spectacular.  
The 2.0 DTS audio is remarkably subtle with excellent fidelity, Lalo Schifrin’s thrilling score sounding exceptionally solid for a mono mix.  Extras are fairly unimpressive; a vintage ‘reflection’ on the making of the film; a much too short and truncated featurette that returns to Mapledurham to see how things have changed – or rather, have remained practically the same since the movie was made; another featurette with the late (and sorely missed) Tom Mankiewicz, musing about his contributions, and finally, a trio of vintage shorts, plus the original theatrical trailer. Again, good, but not great extras. Bottom line: The Eagle Has Landed is solidly crafted entertainment. In a league with other movies of its ilk it doesn’t quite rise like cream to achieve A-list status. Then again, it isn’t all that far behind the pack either. Enjoy the movie and buy this disc with confidence. Good stuff all around!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)