Monday, June 29, 2015

AMERICAN SNIPER: Blu-ray (WB/Village Roadshow/Malpaso Productions 2014) Warner Home Video

What is the truer measure of heroism; the man who fights to defend what is his, or the one who recognizes and accepts the most unconquerable of all, is the battle to discover the truer self from within? Whatever this barometer, typifying the struggle to come out on top is American sniper, Chris Kyle. Too much has been politicized about Kyle’s reputation as a highly decorated Navy SEAL, sporting the most impressive ‘confirmed kills’ while defending his fellow soldiers in Iraq. Intermittently, Kyle has been liberally referred to as a ‘coward’, a ‘murderer’ and ‘inhumane’; the incalculable cruelty of these comments, chiefly made by people who never knew the man, much less deigned to shake his meaty palm, speaks to a level of thoroughly misguided intolerance amongst many contemporaries today who would likely bend to break on the battlefields if ever faced with even one tenth the level of intense insurrections Kyle repeatedly starred down with a clear eye, a cool head and the dedication of an authentic patriot. Those suggesting otherwise would also have us believe wars can be conquered without bloodshed; that an open mind and a skewed slant toward diplomacy can resolve most any issue herein resolved with pin-prick precision at the point of gun.
I have read too much on Chris Kyle that speaks to this level of postmodern disdain - nee abject hatred – for gallant men and women fighting our battles half way around the world on some nearly forgotten plateau of sand and blood; the memory of every soldier – fallen or still in it to win it - somehow made just a little more disreputable and unsavory by these comments; the public’s appetite for a ‘good clean fight’ with zero casualties on either side, eclipsing the reality that any man or woman who invokes their right to protect and serve is placing their bodies – but far more importantly – their spirit and morality in harm’s way so that others might possess freedom; even the luxury to bash their purpose and chosen profession. Frankly, it’s disgusting. Chris Kyle was a shining example of American military might doing what is necessary to make the world safe for democracy. He did it without malice, with pride and with a sense of proportion he fought like hell to regain, then maintain upon returning home to his wife and children. Perhaps because he so embodied that template of the American soldier – body, mind and spirit – he has, by some warped and frustrated standards of today become the perfect whipping boy for the leftist pacifist, who neither grasps the concept of conflict, nor entirely understands exactly what he/she finds particularly offensive about Kyle, except that he was very good at his job.
Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014) approaches Kyle’s best-selling autobiography with all the reverence and trepidation of a master storyteller, intent on getting to the heart and soul of the man behind the rifle. Who could have foreseen when the project was first begun with Kyle’s participation that the resultant movie would serve as a controversial epitaph to the man himself; Kyle - seemingly unstoppable abroad - meaninglessly gunned down in his home town, along with fellow SEAL and friend, Chad Littlefield by Eddie Ray Routh; a deranged act of cowardice the media has since reframed as the sad actions of a mentally disturbed individual suffering from ‘personality disorders’; pitying the psychotic, while casting aside the victim. While Routh, who also served in the military without distinction, never officially offered any answers as per his motivations for this double homicide, both men were shot in the back, with Kyle also sustaining the added indignation of being shot once in the face, suggesting – if anything – these killings were far more a ‘hate crime’ or act of ‘jealousy’ than a case of pure insanity run amuck. Wisely, Eastwood’s movie leaves this penultimate and very bizarre last chapter to Kyle’s life an enigma; the focus remaining on the fallen instead of the ne'er-do-well who survived.  
Barely recognizable beneath a week’s scruff and seriously packed-on muscles, Bradley Cooper, in one of the most awesome and impressively immersive transformations recalled in recent cinema history, allows Kyle’s stoicism, mental anguish, and, ultimate dedication to discharge his duties as ascribed, to shine through. The majesty in Cooper’s portrayal lies in the subtler, uncanny nuances; the inflections and mannerisms he has adopted – more richly Kyle than a mime’s performance. The level of integrity Cooper has invested in this portrait speaks to his own impeccable humility. There are moments in American Sniper where he completely disappears, replaced by an eerie facsimile. And Cooper lets the pain show; the impossible nature of combat, forcing men to lay down their life while dedicating themselves to the ruthless sacrificing of others. But the situation is even further complicated in American Sniper by the fact the foot soldiers on the other side are comprised, not of highly trailed militia, but of brainwashed townsfolk operating as terrorists, blindsided by their archaic adherence to a backward religion and who think nothing of using women and children, some barely old enough to walk, as mules to carry their bombs, grenades and rifles; another aspect of the Middle-Eastern conflict no media outlet seems willing to broadcast.
Make no mistake – this is still, a soldier’s story, some idiotically referencing American Sniper as “a complicated movie about an uncomplicated man”. To suggest as much is fairly insulting to Kyle’s memory, his widow and children – not to mention the U.S. military forces in totem. Soldiers are not mindless killer clones. They are people, highly skilled and staggeringly professional. Clint Eastwood, cribbing from a superlative screenplay by Jason Hall, has valiantly avoided the predictable pitfalls of distilling Kyle’s autobiography into a one-dimensional recap of his book, co-authored by Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice; the soldier merely glorified as a rigorously trained go-getter with all the killer’s instincts of a shark. No, American Sniper is instead a critical meditation on the incredible perils facing the functionality of a soldier’s creed: trained to sacrifice when he must, to endure all he can and beyond, and somehow – inexplicably - remain ‘above it all’; enough to be able to put down his weapon in peace time and presumably set aside the hell he has lived through: a tall order to which many are called but few can subsist without sacrificing their souls to the nightmare.
And just so we are clear: neither the movie nor Kyle’s book have deified the man. Kyle’s widow would be among the first to suggest Chris was not an easy man to understand. He was, however, above all else, equally as dedicated to his family as his profession; a man of high-functioning moral character, rare qualities that made him an incredible asset to the military and possessing strong convictions that served his own emotional core well upon his return home. Cooper’s performance and Eastwood’s principles, as that rare conservative voice in a Hollywood miserably drowning in its own liberalized crapulence, has lent American Sniper an air of tragic valor. To some extent we lose a little of Chris Kyle; the notorious prankster and six foot tall gentle giant best known to his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller, doing a drop dead/bang on incarnation of the widow Kyle); the couple’s first ‘cute meet’ anything but ‘cute’ as the filmic Taya admonishes what she initially misperceives as just another ‘yahoo’ disreputably ramped up on his own male ego and a philanderer’s nature to break her heart.
Again, this isn’t a perfect story about beautiful people; rather, a misshapen nod that gets very up close and personal with individuals who are earthy and alive, who can love, laugh and resonate with one another on a deeply human level; without guile or pretend and with a certain disregard for the niceties of which, arguably, they know all too little about. Even when Clint Eastwood zeros in on Kyle’s calculated pursuit of former Olympic sharpshooter turned Iraqi insurgent, dubbed the ‘Butcher of Fallujah’ (Mido Hamada), his camera lens expresses a brutal absence of the guns-blazing machismo one might expect to dominate; Kyle’s obsession for taking out the competition simply defined on his unwavering commitment to protect as many American lives as is humanly possible. Flashbacks fill in the blanks on Chris’ upbringing: his father, Wayne’s (Ben Reed) tough love approach to rearing two boys into real men; Eastwood perhaps drawing a tad too heavily on the ole ‘Deer Hunter’ imagery as Chris (played as a child by Cole Konis) and younger brother, Jeff (Luke Sunshine as a boy, Keir O’Donnell as an empathetic adult sibling, following in his brother’s footsteps) are taken into the woods for their first hunting experience.
Yet, here too, and in all the flashbacks briefly to follow, Eastwood is sharply unsentimental, immensely effective and entirely uncomplicated; shifting to Kyle’s days as a rodeo bronco buster, caught in a dead end painfully subpar relationship with a trailer park gal pal who would rather be screwing her brains out with somebody else. To some extent, the early middle act of American Sniper stumbled into a predictable montage; the uncompromising depiction of boot camp and Navy SEAL basic training, its incumbents writhing through frigid waters and buried up to their eyeballs in ooze and mud, vaguely reminiscent of Richard Gere’s similarly themed ordeals in Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman (1982).    
Yet, on the whole, Eastwood’s movie gets it right. He pays homage to the dead. He doesn’t desecrate their memory by second-guessing the job they were trained and sent to do. The real Chris Kyle could have expected no finer a tribute and, I suspect, would have been overwhelmed by the air of authenticity Bradley Cooper gave to his life’s work; tragically, also to embody the totality of his life’s story. Indeed, screenwriter, Jason Hall was to discover the merits of Kyle’s immediate and very outward distaste for disingenuousness; also, the real Kyle’s sense of fair play, allowing Hall to prove his mettle in his chosen profession. A cruder author and director might have gone for the Top Gun approach in re-telling Kyle’s story. Aside: Kyle was not above his own embellishments. But Eastwood refrains from adding flourish, no groundswell of background underscore or centralized flag-waving; no chest-thumping powwows as the returning company gather around their makeshift bonfires after an endless and interminable barrage of slo-mo battle sequences, heavy on the exploding squibs. No, American Sniper just seems very real, unrelentingly grim when needed, but mostly unapologetic about its subject.
Personal opinion, of course, but frankly, I have had it with the stunted adolescents who have reviewed American Sniper as an incomplete and abhorrent exultation of the violence that men do in the name of honor. Eastwood’s saga, his best in a very long time, is thought-provoking, evenly paced and well-intended from the first to last frame – period! Moreover, and even more miraculous in lieu of the way things end, it is an oft’ lyrical and life-affirming entertainment, the likes of which the war genre in particular and Hollywood movies in general of late have rarely dared to reexamine without a jaundiced and highly critical view of the military or fervent need to muddy the waters with a certain affliction for making every fictional character – but especially the ones we are supposed to be rooting for – an anti-hero.
American Sniper is book-ended by the real Chris Kyle’s aftermath; Eastwood regressing us to Kyle’s childhood, his father instilling the principles of true manliness: be neither a sheep (easily led and unwilling to defend what is rightfully yours), nor a wolf (the scourge of humanity), but a sheepdog (a.k.a. God’s shepherd on earth, with an impassioned desire to serve and protect the innocent). The message is lost – marginally – in adolescence. It always is: Chris meandering aimlessly as a would-be rodeo star before enlisting in the Navy. Basic training is hellish to say the least; grueling physical activity married to what most any of us would consider physical abuse; being sprayed with pump hoses while doing calisthenics or repeatedly forced ‘face down’ in the clammy mud to test one’s endurance. What these exercises actually instill is a sense of community and loyalty amongst the enlistees. United they stand, divided they fall. Flash ahead to Chris and Taya’s first meet; she ruthlessly emasculating a would-be suitor just prior to Chris’ arrival on the scene, then forcefully telling him to step off and find himself another target for the evening.
As fate, and movie clichés, would have it, such an odious beginning inevitable leads to love. Chris and Taya are married and he and his company are shortly thereafter deployed to Iraq, following the 911 attacks. Chris becomes embattled in a war that ostensibly the United States cannot win; the catacombs and corridors of these crowded streets honeycombed with traitors. As Taya is expecting their first child, Chris telephones to hear the sound of her voice. Terrorists attack the convoy and Chris’ cell phone is lost; Taya made to experience the sniper fire while not knowing whether or not Chris has survived. From this moment forward, a terrible tug of war begins; Chris returning from each tour of duty a little less responsive to Taya’s increasing concerns that the man she married is slipping away. Chris endures three more tours; Taya becoming pregnant again, but threatening to leave if Chris does not make sacrifices for his new family.
Herein, the screenplay, Eastwood’s direction and Bradley Cooper’s monumentally affecting performance superbly illustrate the strange and disturbing elixir that war presents to men like Chris Kyle: the opportunity to save many with the actions of a few while sacrificing their own personal happiness. This is Chris’ drug of choice, not because he fancies himself a great warrior or suffers from egotism and a ‘hero’ complex. Rather, he is living up to his father’s potential as a defender of the right and good. Besides, Kyle is at the top of his skill, picking off nearly every potential threat as his division makes a sweep of Fallujah is search of the ‘butcher’.  Kyle is particularly keen at recognizing one of their ground informants (Ayman Samman) as a double operative, concealing weapons for the enemy.  On his fourth tour, Chris’ outlook begins to change, particularly after his assignment to kill Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) unravels into abject chaos; Chris and his engineers barricaded on the rooftop and spared only by the advent of an epic sandstorm. Recognizing that his private life has outgrown his singular responsibilities to the military, Chris affectingly telephones Taya to say he is coming home. Alas, once on American soil an inexplicable sense of shame begins to creep in; Chris overestimating the threat a playful dog presents at a backyard barbeque and nearly killing the animal as a result. Kyle is haunted by the memory of soldiers he was unable to save. Taya suggests he reach out to other ailing veterans recuperating at the nearby hospital.  The Veterans Affairs psychiatrist (Robert Clotworthy) makes inquiries into Chris’ state of mind, encouraging him to help amputees get their confidence back on the shooting range.
Helping others, Chris helps himself; his relationship with Taya and his young children growing stronger by the day. It seems the impossibly hellish road back from his tour’s end is at last beginning to level off. Regrettably, the hospital sets Chris up to meet a shell-shocked soldier. The penultimate moment of realization, that something is very wrong, comes too late for Chris; Taya quietly, though ever so slightly reluctant to close the door as Chris and the soldier head off together for the shooting range. It will be the last time Taya Kyle sees her husband alive; a slow dissolve and titles explaining Chris’ fate. This is immediately followed by stock footage of the roadside processional carrying Chris Kyle’s body, hundreds lining the streets and highway with flags draped on route to the memorial service at the Cowboy’s Stadium, attended by thousands more.
Even before Chris Kyle’s senseless murder, American Sniper was already a story that needed to be told; a wake-up call about the perils facing America’s troops in the Middle East without the clichés and flourish so often ascribed such cinematic outings. Eastwood’s undisturbed vision of Kyle’s sobriquet, ‘Legend’ guides this film through a labyrinth of narrative landmines, never to shy away from the excruciating, and arguably, meaningless price of honor; a chest full of medals or a flag-draped casket; the hero’s homecoming as bittersweet and tormented as that inevitable loss of conscience.  On every level American Sniper is both satisfying and sobering. Inadvertently, it takes on something of the flavoring of a flag-waver too; almost unintentionally and never with the presumption this was always Eastwood’s intension.
Warner Home Video’s 1080p Blu-ray is predictably, a triumph; serving Tom Stern’s de-saturated cinematography exceptionally well. Razor-sharp textural nuances are married to a rich spectrum of hues, precisely rendered; the burnt sandy tones of the desert contrasted with the sundrenched Texan landscape back home. My one regret is the sparsely used digital effects in American Sniper tend to look even more cut-and-paste on this Blu-ray, particularly the heavy sandstorm that takes place near the end. Here, the image just seems to momentarily become unnecessarily thick, the camera artificially out of focus, presumably to obscure the CGI, though actually drawing more undue attention to it as a direct result. Nevertheless, contrast levels throughout are superbly rendered. Blacks are deep and solid. A lot of American Sniper is shot through a pseudo-sepia tint, leaving true white values a rather moot barometer for measuring image quality. There are one or two instances where the image looks a tad flat, or thick and pasty. Not sure what to attribute these shortcomings to, if, in fact, they are shortcomings.   
The Blu-ray is encoded with Dolby Atmos (core Dolby True HD 7.1), a superior aural presentation that excels on all levels. The sonic resonance during battle scenes is remarkable and precise; ditto for explosions, guaranteed to rattle your subwoofer, offering a truly enveloping sound field; in short, a reference quality presentation. Interestingly, we get no audio commentary, rather, two very comprehensively produced ‘documentaries on the making of the movie; the first: ‘One Soldier’s Story’ covering the real Chris Kyle’s life and legacy, the other, ‘The Making of American Sniper’ providing a blow-by-blow of Eastwood’s arduous journey from page to screen. Bottom line: with the approaching July 4th weekend it would behoove us all to pause for a moment and reconsider the definitions of both ‘freedom’ and ‘valor’. American Sniper is an exceptionally fine way of marking this Independence Day. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, June 22, 2015

MURDER SHE WROTE: Complete Series (NBC/Universal 1984-1996) Universal Home Video

"I always say there are two things in life that I know how to do – one is to keep house and the other is to act. Acting usually takes precedence: the house gets a bit messy."
-        Angela Lansbury
In the annals of great sleuths, one immediately recalls to mind the immortal creations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, and, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple; vintage crime-fighters, possessing formidable powers of deduction and justly celebrated for their crafty investigative skills. In more recent times, the list has grown considerably, particularly on television to include the likes of Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, Lt. Frank Columbo, Remington Steele and, of course, Jessica Fletcher; Angela Lansbury’s iconic incarnation of that atypical New Englander cum mystery writer turned amateur crime-solver, without the protection of a badge or the vigilante muscle to ostensibly pull it off. No worries, Jessica Fletcher’s mind is her best defense; keenly agile as her powers of observation. The brainchild of co-creators, Richard Levinson, William Link and Peter S. Fischer, Murder She Wrote (1984-1996) effectively teleports the precepts of Christie’s matronly bumbler, Miss Marple, to the fictional hamlet of Cabot Cove, Maine. Yet, it may surprise some to learn Christie’s Marple is not the template for our Miss Fletcher; rather, Levinson and Link’s attempt to reboot their own failed Ellery Queen mystery series starring Jim Hutton. It barely lasted one season on NBC (1975-76).
Parallels between the two series are superficial at best. Whereas Hutton’s Ellery was an almost sedentary ne'er do well and social misfit apart from those moments when his brilliant intellect was fastidiously committed to solving baffling crimes, Lansbury’s Jessica Fletcher is antithetically sociable, physically robust and very gracious, employing grandmotherly charm to deflect suspicions she is hot on the heels of catching the bad guys. As the series wore on, Lansbury gradually traded in this more homespun public persona to become a transnationally recognized and extremely well-traveled celebrity, on occasion even romantically pursued by Arthur Hill’s wealthy publisher, Preston Giles and Len Cariou’s international man of mystery, Michael Hagarty. In retrospect, the linchpin to Murder She Wrote’s success is Angela Lansbury’s quaintly domestic take on this retired school teacher, brought unlikely fame and fortune in her emeritus years when nephew, Grady (Michael Horton) inadvertently decides to slip a copy of her unpublished manuscript to his girlfriend, Kit Donovan (Jessica Browne), who just happens to work in publishing as an acquisitions editor.
The cyclical nature of fame had allowed Lansbury’s longstanding appeal as a luminous star of stage and screen to considerably cool by the time this small screen project came to her attention. Indeed, believing Lansbury would never even entertain the notion of ‘lowering’ herself to television standards, Levinson and Link were much more passionate about pursuing Doris Day and/or Jean Stapleton for the lead; the former embroiled in a heavily contested dispute with her agent over misappropriated funds; the latter, newly released from her contract to the short-lived spinoff of All in the Family (1971-79); Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-83). As both actresses turned the producers down flat, Lansbury entered negotiations, committing to Murder She Wrote’s pilot, ‘The Murder of Sherlock Holmes’, on the understanding it was never to be a weekly series; rather, a franchise of ‘special event’ 2-hour movies shot on a more casual slate and spread over the course of the next two or three years.
Alas, the beleaguered CBS, desperate for a hit, had other ideas, particularly after its Sunday airing of the pilot proved a seismic hit in the Nielsen’s. Employing a small army of staff writers to keep the show’s dastardly deaths fresh and coming, for the next twelve years, Murder She Wrote would occupy CBS’s prime time 8pm Sunday night slot, very choice real estate, geared to family entertainment. The series would remain in the Top Ten for its entire run. Lansbury was, in fact, perpetually Emmy-nominated as Best Lead Actress in a Drama – regrettably, an award she would never win. Murder She Wrote proved a double-edged sword for Lansbury; basking in the afterglow of her unanticipated new found success and garnering an entire new legion of fans at an age when most actresses are considered over the hill (if they are even considered – or remembered – at all) and toggling down into retirement. However, it did not take long for television’s breakneck schedule to begin wearing Lansbury down.
Producer/co-creator, Peter S. Fischer (who also penned some of the show’s most memorable episodes) made valiant concessions to work around Lansbury’s increasing frustrations; attempting to spin off a series or two by having Jessica introduce murder mysteries involving other characters. Former Hardy Boy, Shaun Cassidy even made a meager comeback with Season Three’s ‘Murder in a Minor Key’. Ultimately, only Jerry Orbach’s The Law and Harry McGraw (1987-88) was green-lit; the series lasting a paltry one season, though nevertheless paving the way for better things for Orbach on TV’s Law & Order.  However, the public did not take kindly to these deviations from Murder She Wrote’s formula. They wanted more of Jessica Fletcher. So, negotiations with Lansbury continued.  
Several magazine articles at the time suggested an irreconcilable and steadily widening rift of creative differences between Lansbury and Fischer. These were to culminate in a highly publicized rumor Season Five would mark the end of the series. To wrap up the franchise, Fischer wrote a rather brilliant two-part season finale. Mercifully, CBS went into panic mode; suffering the angst of losing their flagship moneymaker at the height of its popularity. Cajoling Lansbury to reconsider her self-imposed retirement with a sweetened money deal – including promises she would receive co-producer’s credit after Fischer’s departure – Lansbury stayed on, necessitating heavy rewrites to the penultimate finale. Two years later, Fischer bowed out. But his replacement, David Moessinger, incurred Lansbury’s displeasure and was reassigned (nee fired) after only one year in the executive producer’s hot seat.  
With its ever-revolving roster of guest stars corralled from a glittery assemblage of old-time Hollywood hams, and, its Cabot Cove exteriors, cobbled together from location work done in Kennebunkport, Maine and Mendocino, California, also incorporating free standing sets and interior sound stages built on the Universal back lot (including the bordello from 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas plainly seen as a substitute for Jessica’s home, redressed and redecorated to mimic the Victorian façade of Blair House; the actual bed and breakfast used as Jessica’s home exterior, photographed in Mendocino), Murder She Wrote became one of CBS’s costliest franchises to produce.
To some extent, the series began to waffle after the executive decision was made to broaden Jessica’s horizons by getting her a ‘real job’; first, as a teacher of literature at a private school; then later, as a criminology prof; permanently moving the series to Manhattan for Season Eight and onward, with only sporadic visits back to Cabot Cove. Logistically, at least, this made perfect sense, since the fictional Cabot Cove had inadvertently become the murder capital of the world; the running gag being, ‘you don’t want Jessica Fletcher at a party because somebody is going to die.’ Alas, lost in this transition was the seaside intimacy of a close-knit New England enclave, beloved main stays like William Windom’s Dr. Seth Hazlitt and Tom Bosley’s Sheriff Amos Tupper (the latter departing prematurely from the series to helm the short-lived Father Dowling Mysteries 1989-91) falling by the waste side. In later episodes, we even lost Jessica's connection to Grady.
Moreover, Seasons Six and Seven suffered a creative ennui brought on by Lansbury’s increasing absence from her own series; Jessica book-ending a handful of episodes dedicated to other crime-fighting cases. In hindsight, Murder She Wrote is not a very consistently plotted show; the writers frequently falling back on clumsy clichés and/or Jessica’s congenial ability to quietly cajole suspects into a confession without actually in possession of anything more than woman’s intuition or a blind hunch about their guilt. Nevertheless, the glue that kept this beloved franchise from imploding was Lansbury herself; presumably, she could just as easily be contented knitting booties for her grandchildren (if ever, Grady Fletcher would get around to producing some) or baking cookies for Cabot Cove’s ladies auxiliary as writing a smash series of mystery novels that garnered her alter ego an enviable fan-base the world over.        
The irony, of course, is Murder She Wrote’s longevity and enduring popularity (it spawned imitators like Diagnosis Murder 1993-02) eventually became its biggest liability; CBS’s brain trust concerned their Sunday night main staple was skewing the Geritol crowd at the expense of ignoring the more lucrative 18 to 39 demographic. Despite being given the axe in 1996 after a formidable run of twelve years, Lansbury’s amateur sleuth would not leave programming altogether; returning to prime time barely a year later for the first of four made-for-television 2-hour Murder She Wrote movies, airing between 1997 and 2003. At age 89, Angela Lansbury is still working hard with a return to her first love – the theater. And despite her initial misgivings about playing the same character over and over again in a weekly television series, in hindsight, Lansbury has grown rather fond of her alter ego, even expressing a sincere interest to make ‘one final’ Murder She Wrote movie. Mercifully, the planned reboot of the series over at NBC with Oscar-winner, Octavia Spencer has been nixed. 
Perhaps because television shows are so much a product of their own time, shot quick and dirty, in hindsight they possess a much shorter than anticipated shelf life as the decades roll on and the socio/political climate evolves, or in some cases, declines. Regrettably, a lot of 80’s TV programming now plays as rigidly silly to quaintly idyllic fluff, not simply made during another epoch in American history, but presumably from another planet; our present-day po-faced disposition feeding a self-prophesizing television landscape populated by serial killers (Dexter, Hannibal), darkly unsympathetic ‘super heroes (Arrow), man-eating zombies (The Walking Dead) and other weirdly supernatural creations (Grimm, Supernatural, Penny Dreadful, et al and ad nauseam). As such, today’s programming is very much at odds with the pie-eyed optimism of the Ronald Reagan years.
However, more recent times, 80’s television has experienced something of a minor renaissance on home video; the publics’ insatiable need for cozy, sweet and familiar ‘feel good’ mercifully never fallen entirely out of fashion, though arguably, no longer the pop-cultural norm. Despite our changing times, Murder She Wrote has remained an iconic and much treasured series from this decade. In hindsight, it has also held up remarkably well under very close scrutiny. It seems very unlikely Angela Lansbury’s particular vintage of homespun Americana will ever fade into obscurity. Let’s face it; everyone loves a good ole-fashioned mystery; particularly one as richly populated by old-time Hollywood stars. Part, if not all of the joy of watching Murder She Wrote today is to enjoy its ever-evolving roster of classic headliners appearing in modest roles; the likes of a Caesar Romero, Jackie Cooper, Cyd Charisse or Martha Scott appearing alongside Adrienne Barbeau and Greg Evigan impossible to pass up. Jessica Fletcher even pitted her wits to the Hawaiian brawn of Magnum P.I. (Tom Selleck) in 1986’s crossover episode, ‘A Novel Connection’.
Any comprehensive summary of Murder She Wrote’s 246 individual episodes is a fool’s errand that this fool in particular is not willing to entertain. Throughout the show’s run, fans have had their enduring favorites (this fan being no exception), beginning with the series opener, ‘The Murder of Sherlock Holmes’. Virtually all subsequent guidelines for the series are well established herein; including an intriguing roster of the ‘usual suspects’ (Burt Convy, Brian Keith, Ann Francis, Ned Beatty) after a private investigator, Arthur Baxendale (Dennis Patrick) is found floating face down in the pool of a wealthy publisher, Preston Giles’ (Arthur Hill) summer retreat. To complicate matters, Jessica has begun to fall in love with Giles. Despite the familiarity of locale and the introduction of Michael Horton’s Grady Fletcher, there is a decidedly different flavor to this 2-hour movie, perhaps because it was never intentionally conceived as the beginning of a series. Not surprising, some of the most beloved episodes in Murder She Wrote’s entire tenure are in Season One; among them, the Mediterranean inspired, ‘Paint Me A Murder’ and folksy, ‘Murder Takes The Bus’ – the latter, inveigling Jessica and Sheriff Tupper on a trip to Portland after when one of the passengers aboard their Greyhound bus is brutally stabbed in the neck with a screwdriver.
Not all of the mysteries corralled into Universal’s practically comprehensive box set are golden, but so many are intriguing, there is plenty for both the collector with fond remembrances and the first time novice to enjoy, admire, absorb and appreciate herein. Season Two’s notables include ‘Widow, Weep for Me’ as Jessica impersonates a well-known socialite to get to the bottom of her best friend’s disappearance in the tropics. In ‘Sing a Song of Murder’ Lansbury also played her twin, Emma MacGill – a London West End actress whose namesake is a nod to Lansbury’s own mother, Moyna MacGill. In some ways, Murder She Wrote truly hit its stride in Season Three; its two-part opener, ‘Death Stalks the Big Top’ justly remembered for its complex structure and ‘greatest show on earth’ circus motif; ‘Crossed Up’ – an obvious send-up to 1948’s ‘Sorry, Wrong Number’, with Jessica overhearing a murder plot while laid up in bed with a bad back during a hurricane no less, and finally, ‘No Accounting For Murder’ – as Jessica travels to Manhattan to visit Grady, whose boss is killed by the resident ‘ghost’ of his old office building.  Season Three also contains the intriguing anomaly; ‘The Days Dwindle Down’ – incorporating actual footage and reuniting the stars from an RKO B-noir thriller, Strange Bargain (1949) to tell a completely new story about a recent parolee Jessica is determined to exonerate of the crime of murder.
‘Indian Giver’ – a tale of native land rights gone hopelessly awry – and ‘Mourning Among The Wisterias’ – in which a popular playwright, loosely modeled on Tennessee Williams, turns up dead, are among Season Four’s most popular offerings. Season Five’s ‘Snow White, Blood Red’ is a particularly harrowing excursion, set in Aspen and with an ever-rising body count culled from prospective Olympic skiers. Season Five’s two-part finale, ‘Mirror, Mirror on the Wall’ – heavily rewritten to accommodate Lansbury’s last minute acquiescence to return to the franchise for another year, has Jessica’s supremacy as both a famous writer and crime-solver challenged by a vindictive and rising literary star, jealously competing to oust Jessica from her position of fame and fortune by any means at her disposal, even murder. It is roughly at this juncture that Murder She Wrote begins to lose steam with more obvious narrative cracks developing throughout seasons Six and Seven; a slump in overall quality as Lansbury steps aside to serve as the eminence gris; a sort of narrator’s bridge for other crime-solvers.
Returning to the series roots in Season Eight, producers also elected to move Jessica to New York with only sporadic ‘weekend’ getaways to Cabot Cove. As a result, Jessica’s homespun personality began to evolve; her tastes becoming more sophisticated, her friendships much more flamboyant and, alas, fleeting.  To some extent, the idyllic hominess would never return to the series after Season Eight despite Jessica’s respites away from the big city; producers taking the attitude and approach that a writer of Jessica’s caliber would naturally gravitate to more palpably luxurious surroundings. In hindsight, the uncharacteristic cleverness of these later years in the franchise seems more than a slight disconnect from the original elements that had made Murder She Wrote so beloved by fans. For its final Season, Jessica would not return to Cabot Cove, but appear in an entirely different city each week, presumably on business, only to become embroiled in a murder plot along the way; either making her the right gal in the right place at the right time or the unluckiest woman in town.  
After parceling off one of their most lucrative franchises in packaged and repackaged seasons, Universal Home Video has gathered together the whole twelve years of Murder She Wrote into one box set.  We’re still missing the four Murder She Wrote 2-hour movies made after the series official went off the air, making this set being advertised as ‘complete’ something of a misnomer at best. The first four years of these single-season sets were previously stamped on Universal’s notoriously unreliable ‘flipper’ discs; DVD-18s that infamously and repeatedly locked up during playback. The problem was with the discs, never the players, although Universal never entirely figuring out how to harness and weed out the glitches or, for that matter, apologized to collectors by offering a disc replacement program to rectify this situation. For this reissue Universal has created single-sided discs; regrettably, with the same flawed transfer quality as previously available.
Let’s get honest, folks. Seasons One and Two are near disaster ‘quality’; the image muddy and soft; colors muted and/or suffering from moderate to, at times, severe fading; age-related artifacts are everywhere, and there is a lot of digitized grain. Worse, no one doing ‘quality control’ at Universal bothered to check Season One/Disc Two’s ‘Hooray For Homicide’; the episode in which Jessica goes Hollywood to stop a spurious film producer from making a cinematic mockery of her best seller, ‘The Corpse Danced At Midnight’.  This episode, which repeatedly locked on Universal’s DVD-18 flipper disc, succumbs to the same glitches herein. Only this time the repeated freezing and digital combing of the image having been factored into the actual transfer. This disc does not lock up. Rather, the image harvest gleaned from the flawed disc does; the counter on your player continuing to move forward even as the image itself repeatedly stalls, freezes and suffers from severe haloing. Honestly, was no one at Universal aware this was going on? 
It is important to recall Murder She Wrote was shot on 35mm film, not digital tape, so there really is NO GOOD REASON for these episodes to look as awful as they do. Interestingly, the overall quality of the masters takes a quantum leap forward from Seasons Three to Seven; colors becoming more refined and stable; the overall appearance very crisp and solid with minimal age-related artifacts present. From Season Seven to Season Twelve there are other issues that need to be resolved. We get an inexplicable amount of video-based noise plaguing virtually all of Season Eight; severe color bleeding and fading, a lot of dirt and scratches and a general softening of the image. Seasons Ten and Eleven suffer from a considerable amount of edge effects. Season Twelve returns to a more stable and pleasing overall quality; the video-noise and edge effects gone – the issue of dirt, scratches and other age-related debris never entirely resolved. The audio remains consistently rendered across all twelve seasons. It’s 2.0 mono Dolby Digital; nothing to set the world on fire but adequately reproducing and feeling very much like vintage 80’s TV Americana. A word about the Magnum P.I. crossover episode, ‘A Novel Connection’ included herein. It is atrocious and virtually unwatchable: plagued by low contrast, bleeding colors, heavy dirt and digitized grain. Honestly, if this is the only way to see this episode I could have just as easily done without it. Extras have all been ported over from the old DVD releases. No new extras. We get "The Great ‘80s Flashback," "Origin of a Series," "Recipe of a Hit," "America's Top Sleuths," and "The Perils of Success”.
Overall, this is a very inconsistently produced and somewhat disappointing box set. For the whopping price tag Universal has afforded it, we ought to have expected much better than what is here. Murder She Wrote is such a cultural touchstone from the 80s it should have made the leap to Blu-ray by now. Evidently, a lot of work is needed before this can even be considered feasible, much less executed. It is a genuine shame no one at Universal seems to harbor even a modicum of respect for this treasured series. Murder She Wrote deserves better. If you are fan of the show, you should snatch this set up. But be prepared for very changeable transfer quality. While at least half the episodes look better than the old analog days, a goodly percentage look as though my 60inch plasma is suffering from a flashback; and more than a handful of episodes fare much worse. Badly done, all around. Bottom line: wait in the hope of better things.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Seasons 1-5 – 4.5
Seasons 6-9 – 3
Seasons 10-12 – 3.5


Seasons 1-2 – 3
Seasons 3-6 – 4
Seasons 7-10 – 2.5
Seasons 11-12 – 3



Saturday, June 20, 2015

THE SUNSHINE BOYS: Blu-ray (MGM/UA 1975) Warner Archive

“I always feel more like a writer when I'm writing a play because of the tradition of the theater ... there is no tradition of the screenwriter, unless he is also the director, which makes him an auteur. So I really feel that I'm writing for posterity with plays, which have been around since the Greek times.”
– Neil Simon
Was there ever a more perfect curmudgeonly comic foil in the movies than Walter Matthau? A fair question and one best answered with an unequivocal ‘no’. In his enviable career, Matthau made an art from being typecast as the embittered and cantankerous slob, often playing older than his actual years. Alas, that impression stuck – the line blurred between the man and his characterizations; largely, a contradiction of his genuine self. Fair enough, Matthau could be difficult on occasion. His rows with co-star Barbra Streisand on the set of Hello Dolly! (1969), as example, are legendary. Yet, those who knew the man best have attested to his openness as an actor with no ‘star’ pretense about his weathered façade.  Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys (1975) ideally casts Matthau in the mold of the ultimate killjoy, Willie Clark; a befuddled and belittling old time Vaudevillian who has yet to realize the good ole days are behind him. He isn’t the headliner he used to be, nor can he afford to be choosy with impunity about the parts he takes. Alas, it will take a stroke – and not necessarily of genius – to make Willie Clark see the light.
When it premiered on Broadway, Neil Simon’s play about two aged hams reunited for a ‘comeback’ TV special, though reconciled by fate, was an immediate sensation. Simon, who began life in modest working class surroundings, would carve his own niche in playwriting history by drawing upon his impressions of these struggles from life; his self-effacing criticisms about human stupidity roaring to the surface in many of his best efforts, including his first, Come Blow Your Horn. This early success would mark a turning point in Simon’s chosen profession, the moment when, as Simon himself would later explain, “…the theater and I discovered each other.” Simon would follow up this debut with a string of uninterrupted hits, including 1963’s Barefoot in the Park and 1965’s The Odd Couple; the latter earning him a Tony Award – his first of three wins (and 17 nominations).  Forging a professional alliance with producer, Emanuel Azenberg in 1972, Simon once again displayed an uncanny verve for situation comedy with The Sunshine Boys.
Interestingly, the infectiousness of Simon’s bittersweet ironies would find even greater success in the movies; perhaps, because unlike so many transplanted Broadway to Hollywood hybrids, Simon was directly involved in rewriting his scenarios for the needs of the screen; blessed with an intuitive understanding, not only of the necessity to ‘open up’ his stories for the more expansive canvass of motion pictures, but equally imbued with an implicit knowledge of exactly ‘how’ and ‘where’ the tinkering could be applied to add girth and dimension to his modest narratives without delaying or deflating their emotional impact. The augmentations made to satisfy the cinema are slight, but pulled off with such finesse one could easily suspect Simon’s first love was, in fact, the movies. It is not. Simon’s stagecraft is usually limited to one or two sets; his ingeniously scripted interplay between actors – predicated on split-second precision timing – proving the integral ingredient to make everything click.  Movies demand more, however, and many a brilliant playwright’s prose have suffered because of it.
Yet, with Walter Matthau and George Burns (Al Lewis) as his feuding fellows, The Sunshine Boys emerges as one of Neil Simon’s most stirring movies. It has since secured its rightful place as a barb-laden and rancorous screen comedy. Burns would, in fact, win the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award while Matthau lost his nomination as Best Actor to Jack Nicholson for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Neil Simon was, of course, inspired from life to pen this tale of a venerable Vaudeville team, caught angst-ridden and angry, though mostly unawares of their lingering and genuine ‘affections’ for each other, brought on by an unlikely reunion in their emeritus years. Simon based his ‘Lewis and Clark’ on two Vaudeville teams; Smith and Dale, from whom he practically pilfered a warhorse ‘doctor’ comedy sketch for the play and movie’s penultimate TV comeback, and, Gallagher and Shean, whose mutual contemptuousness served as the undercurrent for Lewis and Clark’s enduring and endearingly verbalized grudge match.
Walter Matthau, playing at least twenty years older than his 55 years, is a jubilantly obtuse grouch (precursory shades of his aged grumbler in 1993’s Grumpy Old Men). The onus of Willie Clark’s disgust for Al Lewis rests with the fact Al knew when to throw in the towel and fold up the act, while Willie has been fighting his slow sad fade into obscurity ever since the dissolution of their partnership.  When Willie tells his nephew, that ‘as an act, nobody could touch Al, but as a human being, nobody wanted to’ he really is revealing far more about his own secret admiration for this man he cannot help but love, in spite of his aged prejudices and insecurities. With his viewpoint, that life is both ironic and tragic, Simon’s great gift herein is to give us Willie Clark, not as he might have been in his prime, boastful and brilliant, but as a terrifically oversensitive and anxious washout; the implication being Willie’s life stopped in 1953, the year Lewis and Clark split up. The only way Willie can move ahead now is to reenter the ring with this fellow artist he erroneously blames for ruining both his career and his life.
On the flipside of this equation is George Burns’ Al Lewis; self-deprecating and marginally senile; his varying moments of clarity unobstructed by the devouring acrimony that continues to haunt and impugn Willie’s ability to ‘find himself’. We don’t meet Burns’ loveably laid back counterpoint to this mighty belligerent for almost twenty minutes; the gap not altogether successfully filled by Richard Benjamin, as Willie’s perpetually frazzled nephew/agent – Ben. In more recent times, Benjamin has had nothing but good things to say about his costars; Matthau, whom he leaned on as an exceedingly gracious and giving actor with both his time and advice, and Burns, who proved the soul of professionalism. On the first day’s run through the script, Benjamin noted that while he and Matthau ran through their scripted lines, Burns was seemingly caught in a bewildered daydream, blankly staring out the window. However, when it came time for Burns to begin his recitation, he responded to Benjamin’s cue without so much as batting an eye or turning his head. As their reading continued, both Benjamin and Matthau were astonished to realize not only had Burns come totally prepared, but he had memorized virtually the entire screenplay, never once flubbing a line or referring to his copy on the table.
The Sunshine Boys is undeniably the beneficiary of such thought-numbing expertise; the cast treating Simon’s prose with the reverence of the Bible; enjoying the genuineness of their camaraderie, but also relishing the opportunity to be as charming as their alter egos prove riotously irritating to each other. We begin with Willie Clark, hurriedly rushing past Broadway’s bronzed statue of George M. Cohan, a pigeon perched to poop atop its head; Simon’s wry sense of humor, about the perishability of time and its deadly impact on even the most galvanized of reputations, already at work.  When a passerby inquires what he is up to, Clark sternly admonishes, “What does it look like? I’m working!” Indeed, Willie is very late for an audition; a commercial spot for Frumpies potato chips, directed Mr. Walsh (Howard Hesseman). Walsh and Clark have met before. It wasn’t joy galore then, nor is Walsh about to tolerate Willie’s nonplussed delays now. However, Clark isn’t about to let a little thing like rejection get in the way of his ‘future’ career opportunities – such as they are; telephoning Ben at three o’clock in the morning (because his clock stopped at 10pm) to inquire whether or not he has secured the audition. Willie lives in a world of his own design; or rather, a vacuum for which the clock effectively stopped ticking back in 1953, the year Willie and his old partner, Al Lewis called it quits.
Willie’s apartment is riddled in memories, also a lot of emotional debris and collected junk from that bygone era best left in mothballs. The formaldehyde is heavy, but so is Willie’s heart – masking his more fragile concerns about being the one left behind; his grumbling, a shield of faux disgust for Al that keeps him alive. Hence, when Ben arrives to explain ABC has elected to do an hour long tribute to the greatest comedy acts of their generation, of which Lewis and Clark are considered one of the cornerstones, Willie vehemently resists to partake of this opportunity – unless, of course, Ben can secure Al’s blessing on the reunion first. Armed with a frenetic energy to bringing these two one-time titans back to the forefront of the public’s consciousness, Ben drives to New Jersey to interview Al. He finds the retiree a bald, seemingly drifting little garden gnome of a man, pleasantly curled up in a recliner on the sun porch of his daughter, Mrs. Doris Green’s (Carol Arthur) home. Is Al truly doddering or merely faking it to flummox the younger generation? Ben can’t really tell. Afterward, he returns to the Friars Club to inform his uncle the stage has been set for their long overdue comeback and reunion. Willie panics, throwing up a few riotous roadblocks as an ebullient Ben telephones Al, lying to him how excited Willie is to do the show.
Regrettably, Al and Willie’s first meeting to rehearse in his apartment is a modest disaster as apprehensive cordiality steadily gives way to dyed in the wool animosities. Ben bows out just before the deluge, leaving the old hams to flesh out their reminiscences and their disdain for one another. Willie blames Al’s ostensible vindictiveness for breaking up their act at the height of its popularity as the cause of all his woes. But the way Al sees it he ended their alliance on a high-water mark as beloved entertainers. To have gone on would have spoiled a good thing and ruined their reputations in the industry. After artistic differences occur over the reading of a single line of dialogue from their time-honored ‘doctor’ skit, and Al pokes Willie in the chest with his finger, the gloves really come off. Willie pulls a kitchen knife on his old partner, the men limping in tandem around a moth-eaten old couch until Al insists Willie telephone his daughter to have him picked up and driven back to New Jersey. How could these two have ever worked together for so long when the mere sight of one another now is enough to incite such vial resentment? 
The last act of The Sunshine Boys is a rather poignant reminder of just how wrong two people can be about each other. After learning of their disastrous fallout, Ben rushes to New Jersey to plead with Al to reconsider doing the show. Doris intervenes. But she is unable to dissuade her dad from his commitment. The show, as they still say, must go on! Alas, when locked in their dressing room together, Willie’s temper quickly escalates and gets the better of him. He dumps a makeup jar all over Al, practically unintentionally.  As it is much too late to cancel their appearance, Al and Willie go on and do their old doctor’s skit in front of a live audience. It all comes across rather cleverly, until Al inadvertently begins to poke Willie in the chest with his finger. Deviating from the script, Willie takes the opportunity to tell Al what he really thinks of him on live television before storming off the set, shouting allegations of physical abuse. However, pursued by Ben in the stairwell, Willie’s tirade suddenly gets the better of him. He is felled by a very serious heart attack and rushed to hospital. Narrowly surviving the ordeal, Willie continues to make himself a nuisance, insulting the hospital staff and his private nurse.
It’s over. Even Ben knows it now. Willie will never work again. The best he can hope for is an actor’s retirement home to convalesce for the rest of his days. Al comes to visit Willie in his apartment. Despite the catastrophic results of their last meeting, this time Al’s presence has the opposite effect on Willie, perhaps too tired and far too sick to argue with the man he has considered his arch-nemesis for far too long. Al tells Willie he intends to move into the same retirement home because Doris has recently become pregnant and will need the extra room in her house to raise the child. Yet, there is something about Al’s tenderness in these final moments that suggests, quite possibly, he is leaving the safety and comfort of his New Jersey surroundings to be near the one man he once regarded as his only true friend. As Al and Willie begin to shore up their relationship with recollections from the past, the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the breadth of Willie’s soon to be vacated apartment, the walls covered in B&W stills from another, presumably more sweet and familiar, epoch when there was a more even – if spirited – cadence to his own life.
From the outset, The Sunshine Boys attests to Neil Simon’s strengths as a superior observationist of humanity at large; able to ply and pluck the motivations of some truly imperfect, though fundamentally descent characters, built upon the precepts of the time-honored situation-comedy. Simon reveals more than an ounce of life truths lurking just beneath the laughter; or rather, his inimitable genius provides sincere chuckles through the veil of a few tears. Willie’s near death experience is, in fact, the audiences’ wakeup call. Life is imperfectly realized; mankind, more flawed still. What matters, at least to Simon, is not what came before this gestalt, but rather, how his characters react are brought together in their mutual resolve after something terrific has occurred. Like practically all Simon’s masterworks, The Sunshine Boys relies heavily on his playwright’s ability to erect a superstructure of plausible scenarios around character-driven moments of introspection. This is Al and Willie’s story – period – tinged with Simon’s zeal for stichomythic dialogue, crackling with clever waggishness, yet somehow retaining more than a kernel of believability to ingratiate these unlovable hams to the audience as regular Joes, in spite of themselves. 
The zingers still work, but the emotional core of their loaded barbs is neither phony nor shallow. Simon avoids the vacuity of materialistic pursuits. Fame and fortune are not on either Al or Willie’s itineraries. Neither is doing the comeback special for monetary gain, or presumably, to jumpstart their careers. If anything, the pair is drawn to the tantalizing prospect of a reunion merely to see if what they remember as having at the zenith of their careers as their particular brand of magic has, in fact, weathered the storm of life. As such, The Sunshine Boys is a test of faith in themselves and each other; evolving into a brilliant existentialist ode to the virtues and vices of unbreakable friendship. It isn’t perfect and neither are Al and Willie’s reconciliations as the camera pulls back and the scene gradually fades to black.
One can never be entirely divorced from the past. And anyway, Willie never truly hated Al. He was, in fact, bitterly disappointed with Al’s decision to quit the act and has held this against him all these many years – that is all. With his heart attack, Willie’s stubborn resolve gives way to a sort of genuine acquiescence. He can still remember the good ole days, perhaps with a lingering modicum of regret, but now, is very much able to let go of the illusion that what once was might be so yet again. Neil Simon is not about giving us the clichéd and/or traditionalized ‘happily ever after’. Instead, a more plausible outcome is on tap; Simon’s mature farewell to two adoringly defective personalities met with a finely honed sense of proportionate drama, high comedy and pure farce.  The fairytale is over; the nightmare that followed it too. Now, this is where real life – however much is left for these aged grousers – begins.  
The Warner Archive (WAC) bats another vintage catalog title out of the park with The Sunshine Boys on Blu-ray. The film was photographed mostly under natural lighting conditions in Manhattan, New Jersey and on sound stages back in Hollywood by cinematographer, David M. Walsh, a personal favorite of director, Herb Ross. WAC has given the utmost consideration to restoring and remastering the film from a newly sourced interpositive. Herein, we get an exquisitely textured, subtly nuanced image with fully saturated colors to show off the intricacies of Albert Brenner’s production design and Marvin March’s set decoration in resplendent 1080p razor-sharp clarity. Indigenous grain has been lovingly preserved without digitized manipulations. Contrast is bang on perfect. You are going to love this disc, even more for the way it sounds with a very crisp DTS 2.0 mono track. Extras have been ported over from Warner’s old DVD; including a not terribly comprehensive or prepossessing audio commentary by Richard Benjamin. There’s also a screen test of Walter Matthau and Jack Benny. Benny, who had all but signed to do the part eventually occupied by George Burns, was too ill to continue. The audio portion from this test is missing – a pity – since it appears Matthau and Benny are having a whale of a time together. We get a few other junkets, a test of Phil Silver in the Matthau part, plus the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Thursday, June 18, 2015

NORTH AND SOUTH (ABC/Warner Bros. 1985-94) Warner Home Video

ABC’s miniseries of John Jakes’ North and South (1985-94) has been dubbed “television’s Gone With The Wind”; high praise indeed, though, suggestively untrue. There are, of course, parallels between the two similarly themed properties - some blatantly obvious beyond the time frame and real estate; the Rhett and Scarlett-esque romance between cultured Southern gentleman, Orry Main (Patrick Swayze) and fiery belle, Madeline Fabray-LaMotte (Lesley Anne Down); also, the brazen ‘homage’ to Hattie McDaniel’s Mammie in Olivia Coles' Creole lady’s maid, Maum Sally. Setting aside the rip offs, North and South is an epic undertaking in its own right; its recreations of the gallant and soon to be embattled Southern gentry – the plantation-owning Mains of South Carolina – eloquently paralleled with the prosperity of a prominent Yankee clan, the Pennsylvanian Hazards – who operate an iron works. John Jakes’ novel is a sprawling saga about the similarities rather than the differences between these two families, and the social conflict arising from their varying inabilities to come to terms with the shifting ground of turbulent times quaking beneath their feet. So much for the novel.
Alas, producer, David L. Wolper has far more ambitious plans for his miniseries, using the general framework of Jakes’ magnum opus to stir into reality his own huge ensemble period/costume drama, essentially built upon the clichés that made Gone With The Wind such an enduring masterpiece in American cinema. Where comparisons differ is in the luridly operatic approach taken by Wolper. Whereas producer, David O. Selznick’s towering achievement of 1939 avoids the muck and mire of cheaply erotic sentiment, Wolper’s tampering with Jakes’ novel wallows in that spectacular chestnut, resurrecting the South a la Gone With The Wind by way of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and on a far more expansive, though arguably, much less refined scale, occasionally to yield an even more slavishly glossy product, minus the good sense to pull on the bridle and merely tell a good story.  
Consider the plot of the first three episodes for starters: the great white hope of the Hazard family; middle brother, George (James Read); a clear-eyed and noble businessman, under siege from a jealous elder brother, Stanley (Jonathan Frakes), desperate to gain control over this northern dynasty. George is beloved by his youngest sibling, Billy (John Stockwell in the first miniseries, then inexplicably recast with Parker Stevenson for the sequel). George befriends Orry Main during their hellish cadet training at West Point Academy where the pair makes rather a bad enemy of the marginally psychotic, Elkanah Bent (Philip Casnoff). From this auspicious beginning, the Douglas Heyes’ screenplay, co-authored with Jakes’ assistance and approval and augmented by Paul F. Edwards, Patricia Green and Kathleen A. Shelley, ferments a bro-mance to weather these changing times: George and Orry – a friendship only strengthened through time and by the many tribulations life has in store for each of them. George’s wicked sister, Virgilia (Kirstie Alley), a staunch abolitionist, takes an immediate and venomous dislike to Orry and his family. Blindsided by her own steadfast dedication to the cause of ending slavery, Virgilia engages in a disastrous sexual relationship with freed slave, Garrison Grady (Georg Stanford Brown).
The Mains, of course, are not without their familial skirmishes. Orry has two sisters; the vial, Ashton (Terri Garber), who revels in her perpetual scheming, meant to destroy virtually any happiness unrelated to her own, and the virginal, Brett (Genie Francis, shades of Olivia de Havilland’s Melanie Wilkes from Gone With The Wind). Billy is smitten with Brett and vice versa. To spite the couple, Ashton marries a prominent Southern prig, James Huntoon (Jim Metzler); then, conspires with a devious lover, Forbes LaMotte (William Ostrander) to ruin her sister’s happiness.  By contrast, George’s relatively uncomplicated love life, his great and abiding attachment for pure-hearted Irish lass, Constance Flynn (Wendy Kilbourne) is counterbalanced by the even more complex romantic arc in Orry and Madeline’s perilously flawed love affair. Having chivalrously rescued Madeline from a runaway carriage, a snake, a truly vial husband and a loveless marriage, Orry remains steadfastly dumbstruck by Cupid’s arrow. Madeline shares in the sting of this love wound.
Along this road to Tara, our heroes and heroines are made to repeatedly suffer from plagues of illness, natural disasters, a war and the varying physical and verbal abuses, backstabbing and scheming from sibling rivalries. Shifting alliances aside, North and South embraces its muckrakers and sensationalists more willingly than its plot: Madeline’s father, Nicholas (Lee Bergere) setting other plans into motion by orchestrating an arranged marriage to wealthy plantation owner, Justin LaMotte (David Carradine) in order to mask Madeline’s checkered past (she’s half Creole). LaMotte, at first, presents himself as a fairly cordial, though somewhat foreboding figure. Remaining loyal to her father’s wishes, Madeline denies her love for Orry and weds Justin. She soon regrets this decision as Justin unleashes the true nature of his character – or lack, thereof – on their wedding night by raping his wife.  Aware of Madeline’s enduring love for Orry, and after Nicholas’ passing, Justin increasingly dominates and scrutinizes his wife’s every move, drugging Madeline with an addictive narcotic to keep her a virtual prisoner in his house; later, pushing her maid, Maum Sally down a flight of stairs to her untimely death after she attempts a daring rescue of her mistress.
If all of this sounds just a tad whetted by frivolity – it is. Among its many other attributes, North and South is a grandly amusing, and occasionally over the top prime time soap opera; just the sort of venture television’s grand master, Aaron Spelling would have admired, if hoop skirts and corsets were Spelling’s forte; a superbly cast ensemble piece that, like a wheel, contains a good many narrative spokes spinning wildly out of control; the first miniseries culminating with the penultimate declaration of war between the states, seemingly to split Orry and George’s fellowship right down the middle. Created by the ambitious, David L. Wolper, whose previous track record producing megahit miniseries Roots (1977) and The Thorn Birds (1983) won him considerable clout in Hollywood, North and South is monumental on so many levels its near flawless execution masks its more basic motivations to be good ole fashioned tawdry TV. Bodice-ripping aside, Wolper has taken a page directly from Michael Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days playbook, populating the backdrop of his faux Southern blockbuster with some stellar talent from Hollywood’s golden age to pad out, legitimize and prime its mass appeal: Robert Mitchum as Constance’s doting father, Patrick; Hal Holbrook (a queerly unsettling Abraham Lincoln), Gene Kelly (as wily politico, Sen. Charles Edwards), Elizabeth Taylor (the elegant proprietress of a bordello, Madam Conti), Robert Guillaume (as social reformer/abolitionist, Frederick Douglass), Johnny Cash (abolitionist, John Brown) and, Jean Simmons (as Orry’s mother, Clarissa Main) among others.
North and South is a veritable who’s who potpourri; perhaps one of television’s finest – and certainly, one of its last – corralling a lot of big-time ‘names’ to do what they did best. It’s the sort of lushly prodigal – yet, satisfyingly elephantine - undertaking only possible and made palpable in the 1980’s; a decade known for its extravagances and excesses. The production treads a very fine line between the fictionalized land of cavaliers and cotton fields torn from the pages of a Margaret Mitchell-ized literary interpretation of the ‘old south’, dispensing with, or at the very least, white-washing, the more hardcore history lessons with half-truths and heavily weighted melodrama. Jake's novel is essentially a sprawling saga devoted to two families running a parallel course with destiny.  As a miniseries, North and South is far more romantically inclined than historical, delving into that wellspring of moonlight and magnolias, leaving creator, David L. Wolper with the mammoth task of resurrecting these mythological odes to bygone gallantry using some truly inspired and resplendent scenery to encapsulate – nee, stand in for – that gentile way of life, while balancing then contemporary views on slavery and the eventual demise of a cultural mindset far too isolationist to last.
Our saga begins in the summer of 1842, as young South Carolinian, Orry Main leaves his familial estate to attend West Point. Along the road, he meets the beautiful New Orleans French-Creole, Madeline Fabray whom he vows to write to while away attending to his studies. In New York, Orry befriends Pennsylvanian heir apparent, George Hazard, also on his way to West Point. The new incumbents also include George Pickett (Cody W. Hampton), Ned Fisk (Andy Stahl), George McClellan (Chris Douridas), Tom ‘Stonewall’ Jackson (Bill Eudaly) and a senior; Ulysses S. Grant (Mark Moses). The early part of North and South is dedicated to establishing a fraternity among these men from disparate social backgrounds. Here, so we are told, are gentlemen of quality, united in their singular desire to be proud soldiers and a credit to the households from whence they hail. Virtually all are bonded together in their general contempt for the amoral narcissist, Elkanah Bent; a silver-tongued, venomous deviant, his perversity concealed beneath an exceptionally thin veneer of charm. As the company’s drillmaster, Bent is single-minded in his passion to break Orry and, to a lesser extent, George.
Two years pass: George invites Orry to his family’s home during summer leave. Alas, his sister, Virgilia, though ravishing and congenial on the surface, is a headstrong abolitionist who takes immediate umbrage to the Mains as slave owners. Returning to his own family estate, Mount Royal, Orry is devastated to discover Madeline’s absence in returning his overtures of love via letter-writing has resulted in an engagement to Justin LaMotte; a neighboring plantation owner. Later, it is revealed Nicholas kept Orry’s letters from Madeline to further his own interests. Mount Royal may be home, but it is hardly pleasant. Orry clashes with his father over the hiring of Salem Jones (Tony Frank); a ruthless overseer who believes an honest day’s slave labor is gleaned by the crack of a whip. Orry prevents Jones from bullwhipping Priam (David Harris). But the rift from this intervention will never entirely heal, and much later, will rupture with devastating consequences.  We leap forward to the autumn of 1844. Orry and George, together with their fellow cadets, arrange for Bent to be caught with a prostitute by his superior, thus forcing Bent out of West Point. Such humiliation is intolerable. Bent vows revenge and gets it when, upon graduation, Orry and George are sent to fight in the Mexican War where Bent has already attained a superior rank, thanks in large part to his family’s political connections.  At the Battle of Churubusco, Bent orders George and Orry to lead a suicidal charge. Mercifully, both survive the ordeal. But Orry is permanently crippled in the leg. Meanwhile, George is introduced to Constance Flynn, daughter of the Army’s surgeon, Patrick. The two fall in love and eventually make plans to marry.
Deprived of his great love and now his military career, Orry becomes reclusive, drowning his sorrows and anxieties in strong drink. George avenges his friend’s downfall by seeking out and engaging Bent in a battle of fisticuffs he wins, vowing to kill Bent on sight if ever again he threatens either of them. Back on the home front, Orry’s father dies. Orry is now the head of the family. Previously, Madeline had helped Priam to escape Salem Jones to the underground. Now, Orry does one better by firing his overseer and ordering Salem to vacate the property before sundown. Madeline and Orry become secret lovers, their clandestine meetings in an abandoned church eventually found out by Justin.  Meanwhile, George and Constance are married. Orry’s estranged cousin Charles (Lewis Smith) is challenged to a duel of pistols over a dispute involving a woman. Orry helps Charles to survive the duel and a bond is solidified between the two men. The Mains are invited by the Hazards to visit Pennsylvania. There, Ashton pursues George’s impressionable brother, Billy.  Ashton is a vial creature, toying with Billy’s heart without really loving him. Alas, Billy is too blind to see Ashton for what she truly is. Billy and Charles become friends just as George and Orry had before, the pair eagerly planning to attend West Point together. But Virgilia has not softened in her contempt for the Mains, particularly after learning George has agreed to begin a partnership with Orry for a cotton mill in South Carolina on the proviso no slave labor is employed.
Reciprocating the hospitality shown them, the Mains entertain the Hazards in South Carolina where Billy, at last, is freed from the spell of the vain and wicked Ashton. He now begins to gravitate toward her sister, Brett, who has always been sweet on him but far too much the lady to pursue a romance. Virgilia inveigles herself in a plot to help one of the Main’s slaves, Grady escape into the night. In the meantime, Nicholas confides to Madeline on his deathbed that her grandmother was black. Ashton embarks upon a notorious campaign to bed as many of Billy’s friends as she can, alas, becoming pregnant by one of them. To spare her the humiliation of a bastard child, Madeline reluctantly agrees to take Ashton to a local midwife where an abortion is performed in secrecy. But upon her return home, Justin accuses Madeline of infidelity, severely beating, then locking her in an upstairs bedroom where he leaves her to starve. Later, Maum Sally attempts to free her mistress and is murdered by Justin.
By the spring of 1857, Justin has managed to convince a local doctor his wife requires heavy sedation in order to control her ‘outbursts’. Madeline is severely hooked on an addictive narcotic, virtually disappearing from all ‘good’ society and seemingly forsaken her love for Orry once again. Ashton marries an enterprising, but easily swayed politico, James Huntoon, of whom she quickly grows tired and soon after takes up a lover to satisfy her carnal needs. In the meantime, Orry and George’s friendship is put to the test over the issue of slavery. Recognizing the division between the North and the South is quickly escalating to a point of no return, Orry refuses to allow Brett to marry Billy. For once, Brett defies her elder brother, traveling to Fort Sumter where Billy is stationed. George and Orry mutually agree to bury the hatchet. No ‘cause’ is worth sacrificing their friendship. As such, Orry agrees to allow Brett to marry Billy. Meanwhile, Virgilia secretly weds Grady; the pair joining abolitionist leader, John Brown who leads an infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry in Virginia.  Regrettably, the U.S. Army has known about the raid for some time. An ambush ensues. Brown is taken prisoner and Grady and Priam are killed. Virgilia’s narrow escape from the deluge causes her to grow bitterer still.  Ashton plots with Justin and her newest lover, Forbes, to have Billy killed, mostly out of her enduring jealousy for his happy marriage to Brett. Even in her heavily sedated state, Madeline is able to deduce their dastardly plan afoot. Making a daring escape from Justin, accosting him with a sword, Madeline arrives at Mont Royal on horseback, barely conscious, but with news of Ashton’s plans to kill Billy. Orry is incensed and ostracizes Ashton from the family. He takes Madeline into his care and gradually weans her off the narcotic poisoning her ability to function for so long.
Orry embarks upon his last trip to the north, to the Hazard’s country manor house near Philadelphia, to give George his half of their cotton mill profits. George shares the good news with Orry: Constance has given birth to a baby girl they have decided to call Hope. Returned to the family fold, Virgilia proves as unfriendly as ever toward Orry, orchestrating a lynch mob to march on the Hazard estate. The angry Northerners demand George give up ‘the rebel traitor’. United in their loyalty, Orry and George face down the mob together with rifles. But George is no fool. He realizes it is only a matter of time before they return in greater numbers to have their demands met. In the dead of night, George hurries Orry to the train depot. Amidst a flurry of bittersweet farewells the men part; George waving goodbye to his best friend from the platform as the train pulls out of station; the nation on the very brink of civil war.
Producer, David L. Wolper’s golden touch in producing hit TV miniseries continued unabated with North and South. A whopping 9 ½ hours later, America, and indeed, the world, were obsessively absorbed in this enveloping saga spread out over the course of two weeks. To date, its original television broadcast holds the record as the highest-rated miniseries of all time. Naturally, the public, and ABC, demanded a sequel. Mercifully, author, John Jakes had written: Love and War, rechristened ‘North and South Book II by Wolper. If anything, the resultant miniseries proved a far more intricate and lavish than its predecessor. In retrospect, ‘Book II is the obvious beneficiary of Wolper’s renewed clout in the industry; also, ABC and Warner Bros. faith to mount a spectacular entertainment on a budget nearly as epic as its subject matter. Most of the original cast and crew returned, the obvious exception being Parker Stevenson, hired to replace John Stockwell as Billy Hazard. Behind the scenes, there were other changes. Whereas the original series had been photographed by Stevan Larner with a sort of gauzy and romanticized view of the old South, the sequel elected to go for an ultra-high gloss treatment a la cinematographer, Jacques R. Marquette. In hindsight, North and South Book II has a decidedly different ‘feel’ to it; still very much in keeping with the principles and precepts established in the original series, but somehow advancing both the style and tempo of the piece to cruder, more superficially attractive standards. Joseph R. Jennings’ production design for the sequel exhibits a grandiosity that Richard Berger’s similarly themed interiors in the original series could only marginally guess at and/or aspire to create.
Book II begins with Orry and Charles, now officers in the Confederate Army. Despite his initial apprehensions against secession, Orry has since had a change of heart, acting as a general and military aide to Confederate President Jefferson Davis (Lloyd Bridges) in Richmond, Virginia. Charles is introduced to Augusta Barclay (Kate McNeil), a Virginia belle smuggling badly needed medical supplies behind enemy lines to comfort wounded southern soldiers. Paralleling this plot, George and Billy have joined the U.S. Army in Washington, D.C.; Billy as a sharpshooter, and, George, a military aide to President Abraham Lincoln. Meanwhile, Virgilia pursues her ambitions to become a nurse, encouraging fellow abolitionist, Congressman Sam Greene (David Ogden Stiers) to use his clout to help her. Ashton becomes romantically involved with Elkanah Bent. Alas, even her devious feminine wiles are no match for Bent’s psychotic hatred of the Mains. He sees Ashton as a means for getting revenge on the family and the war, simply as a way to get rich quick as a blockade runner. Ashton’s husband, James Huntoon, remains blissfully unaware of his wife’s adultery. As Mount Royal is relatively undefended in Orry and Charles’ absence, Justin stages a daring kidnap of Madeline. In the deluge, Orry's mother, Clarissa is injured while attempting to put out a fire started by Justin in the barn.
The First Battle of Bull Run favors the South; George and Constance inadvertently caught in its chaotic aftermath. Meanwhile, learning of Clarissa’s injuries, Brett elects to make the perilous trip from Washington to South Carolina with her maid, Semiramis (Erica Gimpel). Orry receives word of Justin’s treachery and vows to restore his family’s honor by assailing Justin’s plantation to rescue Madeline. A duel ensues and Orry kills Justin in self-defense.  Shortly thereafter, Orry and Madeline are wed. Unearthing Bent's operation, Orry sets an ambush for his men, confiscating and destroying most of their illegal merchandise.  When word reaches Bent, he is even more hell-bent on destroying Orry. In George’s absence, his elder brother, Stanley has assumed control of the Hazard Ironworks. Seeing a loophole in which to turn the company’s profits into a windfall, Stanley’s enterprising wife, Isabel Truscott Hazard (Mary Crosby) encourages him to use a cheaper grade of iron to make their cannons. Alas, the iron is unstable, resulting in several cannons exploding on their pads and killing Northern soldiers, including one of Charles’ good friends. To mask their complicity in the crime, Isabel convinced Stanley to forge George’s name on the legal company documents.
As the war rages on, brother is pitted against brother. At Antietam, Charles and Billy are forced to come to blows; each allowing the other to escape unharmed – thereby betraying the articles of war, but preserving their friendship. After President Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation into law, Mount Royal experiences a mass exodus of its slave labor. A few loyal souls remain behind. Having escaped life on a plantation, Ashton now gloats about its folly and demise, feigning concern for her mother’s recovery, but later, pulling Madeline aside to inform her of a salacious family secret: Madeline’s mother was a half-black New Orleans prostitute. Threatening to reveal this secret to the local gentry and thus destroy her brother’s public reputation, Ashton agrees to remain silent – but only if Madeline leaves Mount Royal at once and without any further explanation.
Madeline flees to Charleston where she is befriended by Rafe Beaudeen (Lee Horsley); a suave gambler. Endeavoring to benefit the city's destitute and orphaned, Madeline and Rafe are drawn closer together. Ashton is satisfied in her deceitfulness, except Bent has begun to descend into madness with dreams of assassinating the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis to become the new ‘dictator’ of the South. In a moment of weakness, Billy goes AWOL from the army and makes his way to South Carolina. Determined to ruin her sister’s marriage, Ashton plans to alert the local authorities of Billy's desertion. He is spared capture when Brett holds Ashton hostage at the point of a pitchfork, long enough for her husband to escape. Upon his return to the army, Billy is severely censured by his commanding officer. He is, however, spared a court-martial and public execution. After all, the war needs all of its fighting men.
George is captured in a raid and taken to the infamous Libby Prison where he is tortured by the mentally deranged, Captain Thomas Turner (Wayne Newton). At the same instance, Orry is wounded in battle and placed under Virgilia’s care. Despite her hatred of Southerners, Virgilia seems to have undergone a miraculous contrition where Orry is concerned; nursing him back to health and looking the other way as he plots a daring escape. Sometime later, Virgilia is erroneously accused by chief nurse, Mrs. Neal (Olivia de Havilland) of deliberately allowing another Southern soldier to die under her watch. In a fit of rage, Virgilia violently pushes Neal, who loses her footing and topples to the floor. Believing she has killed Neal, Virgilia flees the hospital, pleading with Congressman Greene to give her food, money and asylum. He promises all three in return for sexual favors. In the meantime, Charles saves Augusta from certain rape by small band of Northern soldiers. The two later become lovers.
The tide has turned against the South. Learning of George’s incarceration at Libby, Orry and Charles plot a daring prison break. Turner is killed in the process. Upon his return home, George discovers Stanley and Isabel’s betrayal and forces the couple to admit their complicity. In Charleston, Madeline is discovered by Bent who attempts to murder her. Rafe intervenes, but is shot and killed by Bent for his chivalry. Now Bent, who is completely mad, enlists James Huntoon in his dastardly plot to overthrow the Confederate government. Still oblivious to his wife’s flagrante delicto with Bent, Huntoon nevertheless acts as a double agent, gathering intelligence on Bent’s coup d'état for Jefferson Davis. The Confederate President orders Orry to thwart this dire plot and Bent is presumably killed when his ammunition shack is incinerated in a hellish explosion. Believing her only way to self-preservation is via a complete confession Ashton comes clean to Orry and her husband about her affair with Bent, also about sending Madeline away to deliberately hurt Orry. Too bad for Ashton, some apologies are not enough. Orry disowns his sister while Huntoon, finally realizing he will never have his wife’s loyalty or respect, walks away from their marriage – such as it is.
Despite our collective knowledge of the war’s outcome, Book II’s last act is anything but predictable. During the battle at Petersburg Orry is wounded and Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrenders. Charles returns to Augusta's farm to discover she has died giving birth to his child – a son named Gus. At war’s end, Billy and Brett are reunited and Congressman Greene cruelly ends his affair with Virgilia whom he now considers a political hot potato, detrimental to his future aspirations. Alas, the cruelty is two-fold; for Greene has been lying to Virgilia all along. Neal did not die in the fall instigated by Virgilia. Hence, there was no need for Virgilia to rely on him for her safety and protection. He has been using her for his own gratification. In a fit of rage, Virgilia stabs Greene to death and is sentenced to be hanged. George rushes to his sister’s side but is unable to stave off the execution. The two share a bittersweet farewell and Virgilia is put to death.
Now, George goes in search of Orry, their reunion spoiled by news of Lincoln’s assassination. With George’s help, Orry and Madeline are reunited. She reveals to him they have a son. She also confides the truth about her parentage to Orry. None of it matters now. George, Orry, Madeline and their child return to Mont Royal. Regrettably, Salem Jones, together with Cuffey (Forrest Whitaker) a former slave have decided to lay siege to the Main plantation just as the family has gathered for their reunion. In the resultant blaze, Clarissa is killed by Cuffey while trying to prevent him from raping Semiramis. Charles kills Cuffey and Brett kills Salem, who is about to shoot Billy. By dawn’s early light, Orry and George pledge to renew their family’s friendship, George vowing to have Mount Royal’s smoldering ruins rebuilt with profits derived by reopening the cotton mill.
Love and War is where it all should have ended. Indeed, the first and second miniseries are all-inclusive in their storytelling. And Wolper too felt he had committed every last ounce of energy and prowess as a storyteller to this sequel, bringing about a sense of finality to the franchise. Too bad for all concerned author, John Jakes had written a third novel, Heaven and Hell; worse still, ABC and Warner Bros. dilly-dallied for nearly nine years before resurrecting the franchise on the small screen. By then, the public fascination with the era of the super-colossal television miniseries had cooled – the halcyon decade of the 80’s gone; retired and never again to return to such an epoch of glitz and optimism, its superb ensemble casting and verve – nee, excitement – for telling great stories on a truly epic scale. Neither company was prepared to invest what it had on the first two miniseries; their cost-cutting on Heaven and Hell painfully obvious.  
Heaven and Hell is a scaled down affair; made on a comparatively miniscule budget and pared down from 6-two hour episodes to only three. It really is a mess: beginning with its shifted focus on Elkanah Bent and his enduring hatred for the Mains and the Hazards, having survived the explosion. Bent murders Orry with a single stab wound in the first few moments of the very first episode. Patrick Swayze did not return to the franchise after 1985, necessitating his death be shot in silhouette and shrouded by dense fog. It is a flawed beginning to what is essentially a very troubled, narratively uneven and turgidly scripted last act. We press on to a contrite Ashton, who attempts to kill Bent. She then flees to the West to begin a new life. Remaining behind to face a solitary life, Madeline endeavors to rebuild Mont Royal as her husband might have wished. After learning of his friend’s murder, George pledges to help Madeline in any way he can. Meanwhile, Corporal Charles Main (inexplicably recast with Kyle Chandler), departs for the West, falling passionately in love with Willa Parker (Rya Kihlstedt). Unable to establish herself without familial support, Ashton becomes a prostitute in Santa Fe, endeavoring to earn enough money to acquire the deed to Mont Royal and thus have Madeline evicted from her family home. Carrying out the next part of his revenge scenario, Bent sneaks into the Hazard’s Philadelphia mansion and murders Constance while she sleeps. Like Swayze, Wendy Kilbourne did not reprise her role as George’s devote Irish Catholic wife; the corpse obviously played by another actress.
The last two installments to Heaven and Hell are more of the latter at the expense of the former; George desiring revenge – nee justice – for Constance’s murder by hunting down Bent. We are introduced to Orry’s elder brother, Cooper (Robert Wagner) a member of the Ku Klux Klan who undermines Madeline’s work with the local displaced slaves. Presumably, still suffering the spank of having to admit her part in the cannon debacle, Isabel schemes behind George’s back to buy Mont Royal merely to evict the Mains from their ancestral home. If anything, the last two episodes of Heaven and Hell suffer from too much going on and a fragmented narrative meandering between the wide open spaces of the west and the ensconced remnants of the decaying old South. We toggle back and forth, then back again, from Charles’ romance with Willa, to Madeline’s struggles to keep Mount Royal in the family. In between, George takes time off from his hot pursuit of Bent to pitch in and Charles forms a unit of buffalo soldiers. The predictability of the ‘love affair’ blossoming between Madeline and George seems a grotesque betrayal of both George’s bro-manly devotion to Orry and his once evergreen love for Constance, so indelibly etched in the first two miniseries.
Exploiting Bent as the franchise’s psychotic popinjay, as he covers the nation from one end to the other for his penultimate act of revenge (the kidnapping of Charles and Augusta’s son, Gus) becomes a very ludicrous scenario that, even in Jakes’ novel, seemed far-fetched. Forced to condense the timeline and activities of that sprawling book into a rush job for the miniseries only exaggerates these imperfections. The final confrontation; George and Charles vs. Bent (the latter hanged, thus putting a definite period to his lengthy and tedious revenge scenario) is neither emotionally satisfying nor a fitting end to the character, made somewhat super-subhuman in his vengeance. Meanwhile, having saved enough money to return home, Ashton is stricken with grief to discover Mont Royal burned. Cooper is ordered by his clan leader, Gettys LaMotte (Cliff De Young) to murder Madeline and George. His refusal ends predictably with a gunshot and a murder – George kills LaMotte. Willa, Charles and Gus elect to return to the West while George and Madeline plan for their future happiness together.
Heaven and Hell is not John Jakes’ finest novel, though it nevertheless remains a somewhat compelling page turner for those invested in the North and South book trilogy. Alas, its small screen incarnation is a woeful bastardization; the compression of time, excision of beloved characters in a cost-cutting attempt to pare down the ensemble cast, this time populated by largely forgettable faces, and finally, its lagging production values; this final chapter directed by Larry Peerce and photographed with a decided ennui for the visuals by Don E. Faunt LeRoy, has marginalized Heaven and Hell into a bloated would-be faux marathon of endurance in which only the audience’s patience are tested. Deprived of the luxury of time, Heaven and Hell’s narrative weaknesses become exaggerated – ‘a novel for television’ but with missing chapters and subplots.  It doesn’t work, plain and simple! Those choosing to invest themselves in the franchise would do best to simply end their viewing entertainment at Book II and quietly forget Heaven and Hell was ever even an afterthought.
Recalling today North and South as a television event is a little unfathomable. We have been corrupted with the passage of time and proliferation of rival networks and similarly structured epics in storytelling, making the whole endeavor of the ‘miniseries’ as merely par for the course. Yet, at a time when only three networks dominated the airwaves, North and South was a zeitgeist as few before it; the highest rated television drama of all time. What can I tell you? You had to be there. Gratefully, I was and can recall with excitement the ABC Movie logo suddenly appearing in lieu of regularly scheduled programming; maestro, Bill Conti preceding his bombastic main title with a penetrating drum roll as the announcer’s cue declared, ‘ABC proudly presents a novel for television’, followed by a montage of clips excised from the pending episode and then the announcer again interrupting with, ‘An now, John Jakes’ immortal saga of live and death, love and war, and, heaven and hell – North and South’; the screen dimming and Conti’s clash of cymbals stirring to excitement the opening credits.
In the days when television still regarded itself with a modicum of humility – the comparative ‘lesser than’ to the movies – miniseries like North and South presented a reasonable facsimile of what movies could offer audiences on a much larger canvas. The first two miniseries are gargantuan spectacles, made when it was still possible to cull talent from an impressive roster of Hollywood, old and new. We’ve lost this magic today, the passing of true stars like Robert Mitchum, Jimmy Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, etc. et al. It is one of the great tragedies of our pop culture, that new Hollywood no longer cultivates talent of this caliber; the tenure of today’s celebrities brief: the ‘new find’ discarded for ‘the next best thing’. Although he had been around Hollywood for some time, North and South gave Patrick Swayze a new lease on his career. It also brought James Read to the forefront of public notoriety, a brief reprieve to a career that stubbornly refused to remain vibrant thereafter.  No, time has indeed moved on.
The first miniseries’ incredible popularity dovetailed into an even more resplendent sequel in 1985, a multi-million dollar scale-tipper with even more fanfare and star power afforded than its predecessor. Today, studios and networks are less likely to gamble; to really put on a show with a display of glamor – if not star power. Partly, it’s a sign of the times. The 1980’s blind optimism, infused by the divining rod that was President Ronald Reagan, putting an actor in the White House and thus blurring the line between Hollywood’s inimitable brand of escapist fantasy and real-life political drama, is gone. Miniseries events like North and South have no place in modern programming; derivatives of the formula occasionally finding a new home on cable networks like HBO for those fortunate enough to rent its paid programming. But North and South serves as a reminder from an epoch not so very long ago when television implicitly understood the strength of sentiment and patriotism; Tinsel Town championing both commodities and, in the process, elevating the quality of its general programming to a level that current standards are unlikely to surpass.
Were that I could champion Warner Home Video’s DVD incarnation of North and South. Firstly, Warner has opted for the cheap route. We’re given flippers instead of single-sided discs. I have been informed Warner has gone back and made single-sided disc versions of this box set. I’ve ordered several from Amazon as gifts. None were single-sided. So if they do exist they are a very well-kept secret. A few years ago, I would have likely applauded the results herein; the image overall exhibiting a generally pleasing quality; quite smooth with semi-refined colors looking marginally more saturated than when this series first aired on television. Contrast levels are a tad weaker than expected. Blacks are rarely deep or solid. Whites however are quite clean. Age-related artifacts exist, as do slight digital anomalies (edge enhancement and pixelization) though neither is very distracting.  The audio is Stereo Surround. It should be noted television productions of this vintage have a tinny characteristic. It was barely flattering then, and anything but complimentary now. Ergo, you are not getting this set to give your bass channels a workout.  A very brief ‘retrospective’ is the only extra.
Now, to lower the boom. Warner’s television holdings have not been given the sound consideration they richly deserve. At this late stage in Blu-ray’s evolution, it would have been prudent of Warner Home Video or the Warner Archive to remaster North and South in 1080p. As with Wolper's sister miniseries, The Thorn Birds, North and South was recorded on film, rather than digital tape. So, a complete digital restoration is not only possible, but at this point, much preferred. An incredible amount of time, money and effort went into making these miniseries ground-breaking cultural touchstones of their time. To see North and South exist today only in a visual presentation marginally better than an old analog broadcast is, frankly, insulting. I am going to lead a charge herein for the Warner Archive to give us North and South and its sequels (plus, that other legendary miniseries under their licensing, The Thorn Birds) on Blu-ray before 2017. Having witnessed the stellar work done by NBC/Universal and Lionsgate on the Blu-ray reissues of Little House on the Prairie, we all realize now it not only is possible to achieve such quality for the next generation of broadcast hardware in 4K, but at this stage in the evolution of home video it is a virtual necessity to preserve and present these landmarks in a manner befitting their stature and reputation. Warner Bros. are you listening? 
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Book I 5+
Book II 4.5
Book III 1.5