Saturday, October 31, 2015

LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL - Supreme Cinema Series Blu-ray (Columbia 1994) Sony Home Entertainment

Luc Besson’s Léon: The Professional (1994) occupies a very curious place within my sparse affinity for movies about urban decay and the sad, steady decline of western civilization. On a relatively minuscule budget of $16 million, Besson (who also wrote the screenplay) manages to evoke a highly stylized and heightened sense of uber-realism for this rank disillusion with, at once, a starkly cosmopolitan, de-glamorized New York, and yet, very urbane European sophistication that, at times, threatens to unbalance the more salacious aspects of this mostly grittier affair. It isn’t a stretch to suggest Luc Besson is one of those rare artists working in a medium so ideally suited to his tastes and passions, particularly when telescopically focused, that he can easily put most of his contemporaries to shame. Léon: The Professional is a miraculous achievement on so many levels it remains a humbling experience to sit back in a darkened room and let Besson’s storytelling wash over, shattering virtually every preconception made by the Hollywood establishment about the ruthlessness of a formidable paid assassin. Herein, Besson is admirably aided by Jean Reno – an almost Teutonic figure externally, beneath which there lurks the proverbial tender heart of gold. Reno, a gifted and sadly underrated actor, is at his best when he allows the audience into the head of his killer; the mechanic and deconstruction of his thought processes somehow revealed behind a casual glint caught in his eyes.
Like all creative geniuses, Besson illustrated an early flair – nee, contempt – for the rigidity of a formal education; his dream of becoming a marine biologist thwarted by an unfortunate accident, though nevertheless, later exorcised in his screenwriting/directing on The Big Blue (1988). Globe-trotting during his formidable years, Besson bounced from Paris to America, honing his intercontinental flavor, only to return to France and form his own independent production company, Les Films de Loups, later rechristened Les Films de Dauphins.  In hindsight, Léon: The Professional is Besson’s ‘transitional’ piece; his breakout, as much as it continues to send shock waves throughout Hollywood’s depleted creative storehouses these days as a reinvigorated gemstone – fast on its way to becoming an ‘American’ classic.  Léon: The Professional is an action movie – well, sort of. A ‘shoot ‘em up’ hitman-inspired comedy caper – almost. A buddy/buddy fable – perhaps – and an astute and unsettling romantic screwball; the relationship between its prepubescent moppet, on the cusp of becoming a full blown Lolita, and her inarticulate middle-age and paunchy would-be lover/assassin, contains the sublime texture of a slightly out of sync Bonnie and Clyde. Léon (played with eloquent cynicism by Jean Reno) is the perfect killing machine slightly gone to seed. Mathilda (Natalie Portman) is the urchin – without the usual ‘damsel in distress’ cliché weighing about her neck like a millstone, and, in possession of a startling resolve well beyond her tender, though as jaded, years. Mathilda humanizes Léon, reminds him he has the divine spark of a soul kept buried for far too long beneath his seemingly implacable exterior. Eventually, he comes to regard her with a queer disconnect between fatherly protector and romantic knight on the proverbial white charger. It’s delicious to watch these two disparate – and desperate - personalities go through their dance – coming together; an evolution of kindred spirits destined to be disheartened in the end.
This isn’t Romeo and Juliet…or is it? Transplanted to a decaying metropolis with its faintly reminiscent odes to Marty (1955), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and West Side Story (1961); Léon: The Professional is perhaps the most refined expression of mismatched lovers yet realized for the movie screen. It is always rewarding to be genuinely surprised by a movie – too few made in the past three decades have ventured beyond the confinements of their own ‘test marketed’ predictability. ‘Sneak peeks’ used to be about ‘improving’ the quality of a motion picture. Today, they have become something of a barometer by which all cinema art is being homogenized to resemble that which has gone before it. Besson’s movie is therefore, even more startlingly a breakout; defiantly apart from the rest of its ilk. The fact no film maker has jumped on the band wagon since, despite its success and popularity, is a testament to Besson’s own originality. This cannot be duplicated.  Assessing the story on these few merits alone does the movie a great injustice. For Léon: The Professional is a bold and wholly entertaining experience; its' exceptionalism not immediately, or perhaps at all, quantifiable by dissecting the various parts that make up its' whole.  Jean Reno, our titular hero, is oddly shaped and even more obtuse and solitary in his behavior and mannerisms. He is the ‘good guy’ – marginally – yet, trapped in a cold-hearted bastard’s profession. Here is a man of very few words, perhaps because he is unable to properly spell most of them. Yet, his sparse dialogue is so well placed and full of meaning that, once spoken in Reno’s inimitably thick accent, it demands our complete attention and absolute respect.
But the linchpin to Besson’s story is Natalie Portman, subversively engaging as the twelve year old, Mathilda Lando – a chain-smoking delinquent with a child’s view of obsessive love and a tart’s appreciation for destructive male/female relationships, gleaned from the current chaos inhabiting her own home life. Her father (Michael Badalucco) is a small time cocaine dealer; her mother (Ellen Greene), an unapologetic prostitute who occasionally works off her own sexual frustrations in the bathroom. Mathilda’s sister (Elizabeth Regen) is a narcissistic bitch, obsessing over her body, already slightly gone to seed.  Only Mathilda’s younger brother (Carl J.Matusovich) remains innocent. Thus, when Drug Enforcement Administration agent, Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman) and his overzealous and corrupt goon squad burst in on the family while Mathilda is out buying groceries, riddling their apartment in a hailstorm of bullets, the girl vows to avenge her brother’s murder.
Léon Montana lives two doors down from Mathilda. He works as a ‘cleaner’ for Tony (Danny Aielo); a mafia-style hood, operating out of his gaudy pizza joint in Little Italy without even a casual thought for fear of incrimination. Tony is hording Léon’s payments for jobs already pulled around town; working on his behalf to ensure the money remains safe and easily accessible. So far, so good – except that within two minutes of being introduced to this character even the audience knows Tony has little – if any – intention of ever rewarding Léon for his expert marksmanship in any concrete way beyond keeping him on a very tight and exceptionally short leash. Even so, Tony is never condescending to his trained man, perhaps because deep down he knows one false move could land him with a bullet between the eyes from Léon’s gun. But Léon, despite his profession, is a man of personal integrity. Thus, when Mathilda pleads with him to take her in, after witnessing the annihilation of her entire family, Léon empathetically takes pity on the girl, relents and shortly thereafter comes to regard her with tenderness.
Mathilda knows what Léon is and begs him on numerous occasions to teach her how to ‘clean’; her goal: to acquire an assassin’s skill and murder Stansfield. In return, she offers Léon her own survival skill set in trade; to look after him, his apartment, and, the one possession he most cherishes; a potted ficus Léon meticulously waters and keeps clean.  After some initial reluctance, Léon takes his young charge to the roof of an apartment overlooking Central Park. His high-powered rifle loaded with harmless squibs, Leon shows Mathilda how to ‘shoot’ a moving target: an unsuspecting jogger (David Butler) who rather humorously collapses from fright rather than imminent harm after Mathilda’s well-placed squib spatters his chest in red dye. I find myself feeling ‘unclean’ in admitting that this moment had me genuinely amused, but there it is; Butler’s reaction to the ‘kill shot’ so utterly silly and fun to observe, my compassion instead immediately reverted to the pair on the rooftop – the assassin and his pint-sized would-be killer-in-training – rather than the targeted victim.
Not long afterward, Mathilda begins to develop a peculiarly sexualized attraction toward Leon. This, he unequivocally denies her; an honorable rejection to preserve what modicum of her childhood remains. Alas, Léon’s aloofness does absolutely nothing to dissuade Mathilda from her devotion – only slightly rechanneled as she increasingly becomes his accomplice on various adventures in crime. In many ways, the most rewarding part of their all too brief relationship is built upon Mathilda’s genuineness, her ability to quell Léon’s apprehensions about her participation as she lies to him about being eighteen; as though the age itself is enough of a demarcation for him to find her ‘acceptable’ as his teenage Lolita and killer’s moll. Earlier in the story, we witness Léon’s unique ability to suspend reality on his own terms; sitting alone at the movies in an art house gone to seed, running an old print of ‘I Like Myself’ – the inspired Gene Kelly roller skating solo from 1955’s It’s Always Fair Weather (long overdue for its Blu-ray debut!). Miraculously, Reno exudes all of the wide-eyed optimism a child of Mathilda’s years ought to possess (but utterly lacks) as he basks in the afterglow of Kelly’s terpsichorean brilliance. By contrast, she is the more jaded adult in their relationship, stripped of her innocence much too soon and perverted by life’s hard knocks, eloquently realized in the scene where she tells a desk clerk (George Martin) Léon is her lover; a move that promptly gets them both evicted from the establishment.
Mathilda should be in school. Léon knows this but is unable to convince her of as much. In response to the killing of one of his men, Stansfield lowers the boom on the pair by kidnapping Mathilda and launching into a full blown assault on Léon’s apartment. In the resulting showdown Léon aligns some fairly heavy casualties before being superficially wounded in the arm. Recapturing Mathilda from Stansfield’s stronghold, Léon forces her down a tight crevice in the wall to relative safety, along with his beloved ficus; in effect, realizing this is no moment for tearful goodbyes. Cleverly eluding the SWAT team assigned to take him out, Léon casually strolls toward the front door leading to the street. But Stansfield – who has never had a very good look at Léon – suddenly realizes the ruse and shoots him in the back several times. In response Léon, mortally wounded and lying in a pool of his own blood, gleefully detonates a pack of explosives strapped to his body, killing Stansfield; thus, avenging the murders of Mathilda’s entire family, but also sparing her from the opportunity to become a cold-blooded killer like himself.
In these final moments, Léon has indeed learned the true meaning of love. Mathilda escapes, tearful and still clutching Léon’s ficus as she runs down the alley and back to Tony’s restaurant. Despite her training, and her obvious innate ability to handle a gun, Tony orders Mathilda out of his place. With nowhere else to go, Mathilda returns to the orphanage/school her father threatened to send her away earlier; a pastoral and gated institution, run by a kindly matron (Betty Miller) who miraculously believes Mathilda’s fantastic story of survival and living large with a paid assassin as her best friend. Accepted into the fold, Mathilda’s first act of reformation is to plant Leon’s ficus in the lush green backyard of the school where it will likely thrive and continue to remind her of their enduring friendship.
Given the harshness of its’ subject matter and the even more aberrant and perplexing aspects of the relationship between Mathilda and Léon, Léon: The Professional is an almost lyrical celebration of enduring devotion: an appreciation for the simpler affections that can dictate a heart deprived of its more lushly cliché daydreams.  With this film, Luc Besson has indeed given us a strange new world to explore; an unlikely twist on the formulaic trek of his Don Quixote-styled antihero and his infantile Dulcinea. Neither Leon nor Mathilda is a whole person. He suffers from an incurable developmental stunting that allows for a child’s wonderment to creep in; his innocent exuberance at observing the aforementioned dance performed by Gene Kelly contrasted by Besson with the most unspeakable atrocities merely committed as part and parcel of his chosen profession, strangely with complete incomprehension of their severity. Mathilda, on the other hand, is incapable of seeing the world through anything but a fractured adult’s bitter eyes – her unsettlingly erotic desire for immediate sexual gratification misperceived as the very definition of adult love. In absence of this earthy fulfillment, Mathilda settles for the exertion of a great ‘adventure’ presumed, by following Léon on his bloody carnage. Yet, Mathilda is more than his faithful sidekick even as she forever remains less than his fully fleshed-out lover. Even more curiously, each brings out the very best in the other; in the processes, both learning the truer meaning of genuine sacrifice: enriched, even, and perhaps inspired to atone for some of their sins.
Jean Reno is infectiously engaging as the unassuming vigilante, grafted into Thierry Arbogast’s plush cinematography; itself, perfectly at odds, very stylish and eccentrically continental. Arbogast’s impressions of Manhattan look almost Parisian, its seedy apartments and dirty little eateries suckling the Bohemian sophistication of a curbside café and artists’ l’atelier in Montmartre.  In a way, Léon is an artist; weirdly charming. He paints in blood – marking his kills with a calm and calculated dispatch that ruffles the manic, DEA agent, Norman Stansfield. This freak show of a cop operates above the law in some pseudo-psychotic and drug-induced ether even his fellow officers (Willie One Blood, Don Creech, Keith A. Glascoe, Randolph Scott) find unsettling. In the final analysis, Léon: The Professional remains Luc Besson’s most exquisite and unpredictable charmer; an action/romance/buddy-buddy comedic tragedy. Most movies strive for complexity. Few achieve it. But Besson has ventured to be all things to all people and, with exacting precision, pretty much achieves his goal with a streak of brilliance even more rarely witnessed in our movies today.
Sony Home Entertainment has reissued Léon: The Professional in a peerless 1080p Cinema Series Blu-ray. As before, we get both the original theatrical and international cuts of the movie. The original Blu-ray transfer, now six years old, was simply gorgeous. But this new incarnation positively glows, allowing us to fully appreciate the vibrancy and detail in Thierry Arbogast’s starkly satisfying cinematography. Colors that were bold and fully saturated before, now sparkle with a refined and subtler tonality, attesting the delicate care infused into this 4K re-mastering effort. Flesh tones are ever so slightly more accurate; the subtleties and imperfections realized with stunning clarity. Fine details popped on the original Blu-ray release. Herein, they achieve an almost third-dimensionality; the ‘wow’ factor evoked in spades. Film grain looked natural before. Now, it benefits from an ever so slight refinement. Quite simply, there is absolutely nothing to complain about here.
The previous Blu-ray included a DTS 5.1 sound mix. The Cinema Series Blu-ray has been remastered in Sony’s patented Dolby Atmos 7.1; an ever so slightly smoother, more dynamic and immersive experience with exceptional bass. All the same extras have been ported over, including a trivia track and three behind-the-scenes featurettes, up-converted from SD. Included for the first time is the film’s theatrical trailer but gone are the international ad campaign galleries and isolated audio dedicated to Eric Serra’s memorable score); a genuine loss and shame. But honestly, why can’t we have more transfers of catalog titles like Léon: The Professional on Blu-ray? Sony has always illustrated a commitment to new media formats and their reinvestment in Blu-ray with these releases speaks to a consistent level of dedication hard-pressed to be found elsewhere in Hollywood’s present-day output. I’ve said it before, so I will say it again: it is high time the rest of the studios took their cue from Grover Crisp and Sony and began to realize time itself has already passed for getting their acts together in hi-def. Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount, Universalis anyone listening?!? Bottom line: another high quality reference disc from Sony. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

THE FIFTH ELEMENT: Supreme Cinema Series Blu-ray (Columbia 1997) Sony Home Entertainment

In an industry increasingly devaluing its true artists in proportion to their box office bankability, director, Luc Besson continues to illustrate the feasibility of being commissioned to create works that inspire and ignite the screen with their trail-blazing originality, and still, effectively, make a buck for the money men who can only see the art and craft of making movies in terms of dividends returned. Case in point: The Fifth Element (1997), a cinematic spellbinder’s guide to the universe, circa 2263. The sheer joy in revisiting this vintage piece of intergalactic escapism, it has lost none of its deliciously exotic appeal as a rainbow-hued bonbon space adventure; the antithesis of all our more recent dystopian and monochromatically bleached re-envisions of a very joyless, bloodless, and, decidedly dour futurism. The Fifth Element is quite unlike any projection into the untold millennia the movies have dared to be brave enough to create: even Lucas’ Star Wars (1977), perceived the burgeoning epochs as strangely absent of the earth’s presence as a point of reference. But Besson’s screenplay for The Fifth Element (co-authored with Robert Mark Kamen) has all the interstellar charm of Star Wars, with its weird and wonderful mutants and alien life forces doing battle to preserve the delicate balance, while maintaining mankind’s relevancy within this delicate interplanetary ecosphere. Sandwiched somewhere between the benevolent Mondoshawans and the maniacal Mangolores is modern (or rather postmodern) man – uninformed, arguably unafraid, and still bungling his way through life’s eternal why?; our hero, Korben Dallas (played with luxuriating cynicism by Bruce Willis) about as clueless as heroic figures in science fiction get: just a Manhattan cabbie with above average intelligence, navigating the elevated byways and highways of a New York skyline that is both adventurously new age, even as it has retained an air of 1940’s skyscraper engineering for which New York has justly, and eternally, become famous.
Few in the biz could have conceived of The Fifth Element’s enduring popularity, or Luc Besson, who, having already broken out to critical acclaim in North America with back to back hits, La Femme Nikita (1993) and Leon: The Professional (1994) would suddenly retreat from such notoriety for nearly three years to pursue this passion project. But Besson, a devotee of France’s Bandes Dessinees (comic books), quickly exported his newfound international cache to the cause of hiring France’s foremost graphic artists; Jean-Claude Mezieres and Jean Giraud; the latter, famously known in the comic book industry as Moebius. In their native France, Mezieres and Moebius are legendary figures of pop art; their lifelong friendship forged while aspiring artists attending art school together back in the 1950’s. Upon graduation, their paths diverged; Mezieres departing for America to shadow another lifelong dream – to become a cowboy. In the interim, Moebius practically reinvented France’s comic book industry with Blueberry; ironically, a 1963 graphic novel following the exploits of a solitary cowboy. Upon his return to France, Mezieres created his own lucrative series – Valerian – about as futuristic and far removed from the dusty mesas and plains he had known in the U.S.  But it would be Mezieres and Moebius’ joint creation, Metal Hurlant (a.k.a. Heavy Metal) that would launch them to international acclaim.  Ultimately, Besson regarded both men as cutting edge visionaries, ideal to envision the interplanetary landscapes he had been brainstorming for more than twenty years for The Fifth Element.
Begun under the working title, Zoltman Bleros, The Fifth Element’s pre-production phase corralled some of France’s most influential and rising stars in the comic book industry, including Patrice Garcia; the enclave rigorously toiling long hours, six days a week, under the creative aegis of Mezieres and Moebius. The initial concept begun in 1992 was focused on a butch aeronautic engineer and ex-jet pilot, Zoltman Bleros and his exploits hunting hostile aliens in his spare time. While some design elements would be retained from this initial concept, The Fifth Element would evolve almost as though by kismet, while others – like Garcia’s creation of the fictional luxury liner, Flouston Paradise – an ever-clever, uber-rich and ultra-chichi retreat, home to a thousand and one ‘follies, dollies and lick ‘em lollies’ – would take nearly five full years to envision and refine from first draft sketches to finished product. In the middle of all this burgeoning creativity, the money suddenly ran out, forcing Besson to regroup. The release and success of Leon: The Professional convinced Hollywood’s money men to fund Besson’s project; Besson going after some of the biggest guns behind the scenes to push The Fifth Element into its next design phase; concretely visualizing Mezieres and Moebius’ designs in a three dimensional space. Noted model maker, Niels Nielsen was brought in to construct a towering facsimile of futuristic Manhattan on soundstages at Britain’s Pinewood Studios; filling one cavernous soundstage, 70 feet deep and 140 feet wide, with gargantuan ‘miniatures’ ranging from ten to twenty-two feet in height. Meanwhile, Besson turned to renowned fashion designer, Jean-Paul Gaultier to create the film’s haute couture; Gaultier’s vision of 4014, nothing short of provocative, gaudy, occasionally elegant, marginally simplistic, yet frequently ceremonial. In hindsight, the parade of clothes featured in The Fifth Element is one of its most fondly recalled aspects. Who can forget Ruby Rhod’s (Chris Tucker) sleek-fitting leopard print pantsuit, or LeeLoo’s (Milla Jovavich) white-strapped ensemble, seemingly willed in the hyper-cell rejuvenation chamber via a series of harness restraints?
As production continued, other leaders in their field were brought in to augment and complement the efforts and strides already achieved: Bill Neil, as Supervising Editor, responsible for preparing and staging Korben Dallas’ harrowing cab race to escape the police; using a full-size mockup of the floating vehicle, mounted on a gimbal, capable of being rotated 360 degrees. Gary Pollard, model designer extraordinaire, was entrusted with the creation of the villainous Mangelores – fifty, all told; brought to life using a complex system of motorized puppetry, audio-animatronics, and delicate latex applications fitted onto a group of muscled up bodybuilders and nightclub bouncers, expressly hired for their physiques to portray this disturbing foe. The elliptical designs of the Mondoshawan were handed over to Nick Dudman and Monique Brown; the pair hiring nine actors at a prepossessing height of nearly 7 ft.; then, outfitting them in an intricately designed harness and cage. Atop this skeletal structure, Dudman, Brown and their team built a latex shell, convincingly painted to resemble metal and mounted with video monitors inside, as there was no other way for the actors manipulating these very hot and claustrophobic suits to see what was happening outside.
For the pivotal part of Plavalaguna, ‘the diva’ – a horn-headed operatic entertainer, outfitted with long tubular tresses and a majestic blue body-hugging gown of latex, Luc Besson had first envisioned his fiancée, Maïwenn, then an aspiring actress. Alas, false modesty seemed to prevail, as Maïwenn declined the part, forcing Besson to look elsewhere for his inspiration. Indeed, Besson had settled on a German supermodel in her stead, exceedingly pleased with this decision until the newbee failed to show up on her first day for rehearsals and fittings. In the days that followed, Besson would try in vain to reconnect with his star, only to mysteriously discover neither she nor her agent was accepting his calls. Forced into an impossible deadline, Besson turned once more to Maïwenn, who this time willingly agreed to help her lover out of his stalemate. In preparing for the part, Maïwenn had to learn how to convincingly project as an opera singer, despite the fact her vocals for the breathtaking Aria of ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ would later be dubbed by soprano, Inva Mulla Tchako. A little disenchanted upon discovering Besson had intercut her performance inside Fhloston Paradise’s theater, with an action sequence depicting LeeLoo disarming the Mangalores, Maïwenn was nevertheless startled when her contributions to The Fifth Element became one of the most readily recognized and celebrated by fans, despite appearing on camera in her full regalia for less than ten minutes.  
The Fifth Element begins with a truly haunting prologue set in 1914; archaeologist, Professor Massimo Pacoli (John Bluthal) and his rather laid-back assistant, Billy Masterson (Luke Perry) investigate the ancient hieroglyphics of an Egyptian temple. Pacoli has slowly begun to decipher a secret etched into these stone walls; depicting a ‘fifth’ element, presumably meant to save the world. The excavation is momentarily halted by the appearance of a local priest (John Bennett), who has secretly decided to poison the Prof. drinking water, thus preventing him from unearthing the rest of these mysterious secrets. Alas, Pacoli suggests a toast with Grappa to celebrate his discovery. But before they can rejoice, the temple is visited by a contingent of the Mondoshawans; benevolent protectors of the galaxy, come to collect the four elemental stones, representing ‘earth’, ‘wind’, ‘fire’ and ‘water’, hidden in a secret passage inside the temple. Unfortunately, Pacoli must be sacrificed. He knows too much. The Mondoshawan take the stones from the hidden passage, also removing a sarcophagus from the center of its chamber, containing the mysterious ‘fifth’ element. Masterson seals the fate of one of the Mondoshawan, who nevertheless manages to instruct the priest to impart his knowledge about the looming day of the apocalypse, passing along a secret ‘key’ to this hidden chamber before being crushed between its walls.
Fast track to 2263; the 5,000 year old curse predicted so very long ago is fast approaching. Lindberg (Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister Jr.), the President of the Federated Territories, is faced with the crisis of an advancing planetoid that appears on a collision course with the earth. During a conference, Lindberg instructs General Staedert (John Neville) to fire upon the demonic mass, despite the strenuous objections of Father Vito Cornelius (Iam Holm); the latest priest entrusted with the Mondoshawan’s secret. Cornelius endeavors to explain the colossus in space is pure evil. It cannot be destroyed by any earthly means or implements of war, as ‘evil begets evil’. Not heeding this advice, Staedert repeatedly fires missiles into the globular mass and shortly thereafter, he and his entire fleet are consumed by it. Meanwhile, a Mondoshawan ship on a peaceful mission requests the force fields surrounding the earth be lifted so their spacecraft may return. On Cornelius’ advice, President Lindberg complies. Tragically, the vessel comes under siege from a pair of Mangalorian star fighters and is quickly blown up. However, all is not lost. The retrieval of a gloved hand with cells still alive inside it is inserted into one of the hyper-cell rejuvenating chambers as Gen. Munro (Brion James) and several of the government’s top scientists look on.  The machine recreates LeeLoo from this dying molecular structure; the girl speaking in foreign tongues, undiscernible by Munro or his staff.
Ambitiously, she escapes from the chamber after knocking the wind out of Munro, crawling through the duct work and eventually winding up on a ledge high above the city of Manhattan; a bustling and congested metropolis, complete with flying cars and vertical subway systems. Leaping, presumably to her death, Leeloo plummets through the roof of Korben Dallas’ taxi. Poor Dallas – he cannot afford another accident on his already severely blemished driving record. Surrounded by several police cruisers and ordered to relinquish his fare, Dallas instead takes pity on LeeLoo’s pleas for help. After a harrowing chase through the bustling streets, Dallas manages to hide out in the fog-laden, boggy bowels of the city. He is directed by LeeLoo to seek out Cornelius; who, at first, shuns the pair as clumsy newlyweds, but then realizes LeeLoo is the fifth element earth has been waiting for these many thousand years. Ushering Dallas off while he and his assistant, David (Charlie Creed-Miles) take charge of LeeLoo’s counsel, Cornelius is momentarily kidnapped and taken to the penthouse retreat of Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman); an effete arms smuggler, working in cahoots with the Mangalores to achieve world domination.
Zorg orders Cornelius to divulge the whereabouts of LeeLoo, something he absolutely refuses to do. Zorg, who momentarily begins to choke on a cherry pit, is saved from suffocation by Cornelius; Zorg, in turn, sparing Cornelius’ life, though ever as determined to conquer the planet because he believes the Mangalores will entrust him with the authoritarian rule of the earth as their principality. In the meantime, Gen. Munro rigs a TV raffle. Korben wins the coveted prize of a vacation to Fhloston Paradise; a grandiose intergalactic luxury liner hovering over the waters. Korben, who is ex-military, is ordered to seek out Plavalaguna, an operatic diva, and retrieve the four stone tablets presently traveling with her before Zorg can do the same. Arriving aboard Fhloston Paradise with LeeLoo masquerading as his wife, Korben places LeeLoo in the relative safety of his cabin while he attends the diva’s concert, accompanied by the raffle’s radio DJ; the uber-flamboyant and self-important lady’s man, Ruby Rhod, who wastes no time exploiting Dallas for his sex-appeal, despite Dallas’ repeated attempts to minimalize his presence on the show. After Zorg fails to plant a dupe Korben Dallas on Fhloston’s itinerary, he instead fakes trouble with his own advancing space craft, requesting emergency docking aboard the Fhloston to make repairs. Actually, Zorg has brought a contingent of Mangalores with him; storming the Fhloston, murdering its crew and assassinating the diva immediately following her performance.
As the terrorized attendees flee in all directions, the dying diva instructs Korben to remove the sacred stones from the gaping wound in her stomach. Mortally stricken, the Fhloston begins to list badly, forcing everyone to escape into its pod-craft lifeboats. Having thwarted an attack from the Mangalore in the diva’s stateroom, LeeLoo joins Dallas and Ruby Rhod aboard Zorg’s space ship; Zorg, already having planted a time bomb on board the Fhloston, now is unable to escape the liner before it detonates. Korben, Ruby and LeeLoo are reunited with Cornelius and David back on earth; the quintet racing against time to the ancient Egyptian temple to reinstate the sacred stones, releasing their energies through the fifth element, in order to destroy the evil orb fast approaching the earth. While President Lindberg and Gen. Munro helplessly await news from their command post, Korben manages to muster enough confidence to help LeeLoo sustain the awe-inspiring kinetic energies flowing from these elements, through her body and into outer space. The power of the stones is successful at stopping the orb’s impact with the earth; its monolithic evil solidified into a harmless mass, destined to orbit the earth as a second moon for all eternity.  Dallas and LeeLoo are placed in the hyer-cell rejuvenation chamber to restore their bodies; Munro caught off guard when he discovers the two are making passionate love inside the chamber, moments before a press conference is about to take place.
The Fifth Element is an exuberant tongue-in-cheek adventure. In hindsight, it owes far more to the light-hearted comic book adventures of its creators than Hollywood’s increasingly mundane and gloomy sci-fi pseudo-epics. There is an inimitable joie de vivre to this exercise; lyrically realized by Milla Jovavich; then barely nineteen years old. Although Jovavich had appeared in several movies prior to her work in The Fifth Element, herein she emerges as a strangely exotic creature all her own. Interestingly, Jovavich’s initial meeting with Besson failed to ignite a spark of interest. It was only after a second impromptu meeting between the two that Besson became interested – and this, after more than 400 applicants for the part had been considered. It is difficult to classify what Jovavich does in this movie as ‘a performance’ and yet she undeniably acquits herself of this star-making role, rather convincingly espousing a gibberish-inspired language (derived from French, English, Italian and German extraction, reassembled and phonetically rewritten by Besson, who rehearsed Jovavich in these awkward sentence structures). There is more to LeeLoo than her battered and careworn sex appeal; Besson ordering Jovavich’s dark brown tresses and eyebrows dramatically peroxided, then highlighted in a Raggedy-Anne clementine orange. Alas, this intense color caused Jovavich’s hair to fall out in chunks, forcing Besson to improvise an elaborate wig, worn by Jovavich midway through the production.
The Fifth Element is immeasurably blessed with some very fine performances throughout; Bruce Willis’ weather-beaten cabbie, mildly condescending, yet exceedingly charming as the cool-headed mercenary of the piece – his Korben Dallas, the linchpin to make everything else in the movie click as it should. The most ostentatious incarnation is Chris Tucker, as the exceedingly short-fused and gaudily articulate DJ, Ruby Rhod. Tucker’s frenetic, mad-eyed and angular gesticulations are hilarious; Tucker reportedly drawing his inspiration from pop singers, Prince and Michael Jackson.  Ruby Rhod is more than just amusing or silly - even flamboyant; perhaps, most miraculous of all: Tucker infusing genuineness and heart into what could so easily have – and occasionally does – become a grotesque caricature of the self-important celebrity. Gary Oldman, a veritable chameleon of the screen, herein transforms himself into the affluent redneck arms dealer and daydreamer, Zorg, employing a stiff-lipped Southern accent with a glowering and rigid sense of perpetual frustration for having been born a fine-boned ‘short man’ surrounded by the infinitely more butch Mangalores.
But perhaps the most brilliant aspect of The Fifth Element is its screenplay; exceptionally tight and featuring plausibly ‘implausible’ moments giving each star their moments to shine. A good movie either rises or falls on the basis of its screenwriting. A great movie soars into the stratosphere into an entirely different level of artistic achievement when afforded just the right balance of action, sentiment, intrigue and humor. These qualities are abundant on display in tandem in The Fifth Element; each plucked with the finite precision of a skilled conductor making magical music with the instruments at his disposal. Director, Luc Besson intrinsically understands how to create compelling drama from what could have devolved into a hugger-mugger of badly bungled sci-fi. I have seen too many bad science fiction movies in my lifetime, though particularly of late, making solidly crafted ones like The Fifth Element stick out all the more by contrast.  The Fifth Element is undeniably one of the great sci-fi adventures of all time; peerless in its production values and skillful in telling its story without ever slipping either into farce-laden idiocy or amateur theatrics, the latter prone to taking itself far too seriously. Instead, we have a movie of well-rounded simplicity achieved through painstaking behind-the-scenes chaos: a good story, expertly told with some ground-breaking visuals to augment and sell it as high art.
What a joy to see The Fifth Element debuted in a 4K transfer derived from newly remastered elements. In the early era of Blu-ray mastering, it was fashionable to ‘enhance’ the image being ported over to hi-def, artificially bumping up contrast and colors to ‘reveal’ new information previously unavailable in standard def. But this was neither to the film maker’s liking nor intent; the result, a lot of early Blu-ray’s looking like a Mexican fiesta on Olvera Street rather than closely mimicking their theatrical experience. Sony’s first bite at The Fifth Element on Blu-ray, alas, favored more of this former description; its already multi-colored patina appearing as a Starburst fruit-flavored mess with exceptionally orange flesh tones.  Worse, the early offering suffered from edge effects and hints of age-related debris during many of the optical effects. Mercifully, all of these shortcomings have been corrected on this new Blu-ray release. The results are nothing short of reference quality and astounding. As with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, this restoration effort is well worth the price of a double-dip.
Sony has delivered the goods: amazing depth, stunning clarity, thoroughly realistic flesh tones, eye-popping and enriched colors, rock-solid contrast and an image utterly void of any untoward digital manipulations. Prepare to be amazed, because the quality herein is, in a word, flawless.  Every studio endeavoring to do right by their catalog should look to Grover Crisp, Sony and The Fifth Element as the touchstone in digital mastering. Sony has once again set the bar very high indeed. Better still, Sony has given us two ways to listen to the movie: the stellar PCM, ported over from the previous hi-def release, plus a new Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Both are 5.1 the PCM – at least on my system – still my drug of choice, with a robust and thoroughly natural sonic clarity. The new HD audio is slightly softer to my ears, and also seems less refined – or perhaps, merely lacking the aural bombast of its predecessor. But even more rewarding: this time around, Sony has favored us with a storehouse of extra features; archived interviews assembled with intelligent design, featuring many of the principle cast and crew, plus more recently produced ‘discussion’ pieces that absolutely cover the creation of this movie from every conceivable angle. I’ll leave it to the purchaser to discover everything included herein; the consumer well-rewarded with copious materials – outtakes, deleted scenes, storyboards, commentaries, and so much back story on the making of the movie, it will surely please both the novice and avid film collector alike. Bottom line: Sony has done a bang-up job on The Fifth Element. This newly remastered disc belongs on everyone’s top shelf of ‘must haves’ this holiday season. Spectacular entertainment such as this is very hard to come by these days. Immaculately authored Blu-rays of this caliber are an even greater anomaly. How sad! Bottom line: very, VERY highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, October 26, 2015

BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA (American Zoetrope/Osiris/Columbia 1992) Sony Home Entertainment

I would really appreciate some self-respecting woman offering up an explanation as to why the very thought of some four-hundred year old blood-sucking vampyre feasting on her neck, resulting in a painful transformation into the eternal undead, is considered a pleasurably erotic ‘sexual’ experience. Personally, I have never been able to wrap my head around that idea.  So, it is perhaps saying much that I continue to adore Universal’s 1931 masterpiece, Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. Clever people, over at Universal then: crafting an alternative mythology to the one put forth by gothic impresario, Bram Stoker; Legosi’s courtly caped Count, with his pomaded pate of slicked back, jet-black hair, and those dark and flashing Hungarian eyes, moodily lit for maximum effect along the Borgo Pass, establishing the template for all cinematic incarnations of the Count to follow. Curiously, while Tod Browning’s legendary film set the bar very high, subjecting Count Dracula to ‘countless’ (and increasingly bastardized) re-constitutions of the most basic attributes – and vices – as depicted in Stoker’s novel, that no film maker could resist when retelling the fable, none of the subsequent movies had ventured to tell Stoker’s story verbatim until Francis Ford Coppola’s ambitious 1992 reincarnation. Alas, here too, and despite the film’s full moniker –as Bram Stoker’s Dracula – Coppola could not resist, but to deviate from the original text by including a brief pro and epilogue, devoted to the ‘history’ behind the histrionics.
Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia is more infamously renowned in the historical record today as ‘Vlad the Impaler’, for skewering his foe like shrimp upon the barbie. He ruled a tiny principality in the Balkans from 1456 to 1462; legendary in his uprising against the Ottoman Empire, and for his subsequent bloody victories. Superficially, at least, these had served as Stoker's inspiration for his 1897 novel. Nevertheless, Stoker makes no outright mention of the Prince or his bloody battles in the novel, leaving Coppola to handcraft his own pair of bookends for the movie. It goes without saying, Coppola’s Count is about as far removed from Legosi’s cultured aristocrat as one might suspect. His enigmatic star, Gary Oldman, does possess something of Legosi’s hypnotic sway over the hearts and souls of his victims. But Coppola’s vision for this Dracula is more creepily represented as a very disturbed, semi-tragic snapshot of the fallen angel; Vlad’s shallow victory over the Turks resulting in the suicide of his paramour, Elisabeta (Winona Ryder).  From this auspicious beginning, Coppola sets about on his flawed premise: to make Count Dracula the hero of his sweeping gothic romance. Again, this closely mirrors Stoker’s own empathy for the character.  Too bad for Coppola what works in literature, rarely gels as pure cinema.
Personally, Coppola’s high concept in this retelling of the time-honored tale, already regurgitated ad nauseam as cinema folklore, has never worked for me. Coppola’s determination to employ no digital effects; rather, perform virtually all of the SFX shots in camera, is undeniably commendable, though it nevertheless adds a layer of gratuitous pretense to this already operatic exercise. Establishing mood is one thing. But increasingly, the effect is counter-intuitive to the quest: Coppola, merely striving much too hard to be clever. Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography, Thomas E. Sanders’ production design, Andrew Precht’s art direction and Eiko Ishioka’s costumes draw undue attention to their individual contributions, instead of weaving all of the elements into a seamless tapestry that is all-immersive/comprehensive as ‘another’ netherworld to our own. Ironically, it is not the theatricality of the piece that stifles and/or distracts, but the disparate nature of the impacts made by these artisans. Each repeatedly takes us out of the story. Reviewing Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula again after an absence of some years, I was repeatedly struck by how often my subconscious left the story to suddenly become absorbed by a particular composition, set design or costume. To be sure, there are many visually stunning vignettes in Dracula; marvels of period recreation and engineering, all of them confined to the stages on the old MGM backlot, using hanging miniatures, forced perspective, matte painting and good ole-fashioned movie-land trickery that harks back, in some cases, to the silent era; marking a sense of tradition in craftsmanship sadly discarded for the invisibility of digital compositing. However, in the same paragraph, I draw attention to the fact good shots alone do not a great movie make.
Somewhere along the process, Coppola has become too enamored with these ‘old school’ techniques to appreciate that the story he is endeavoring to tell has, for the most part, already been told before – and arguably better – if not as ostentatiously – elsewhere. The fundamental flaw herein is Coppola’s perception, or rather mis-perception of Vlad the Impaler as a tragic Christian martyr, conquering the Moors in a hellish onslaught, presumably as tribute to God; only to discover the scald of battle has been repaid him with the loss of his beloved Elisabeta. How quickly the human heart can turn to stone, even toward divinity itself; Vlad, sacrificing his immortal soul by defying and blaming the heavens for his beloved’s death. After reading Stoker’s novel again, I still do not see how Coppola could have embraced Dracula as a heroic figure; nee, flawed anti-hero with whom we are meant to empathize. Inevitably, screenwriter, James V. Hart (whose prose underwent a myriad of rewrites before and during production) has elected to treat Dracula as a man ‘merely misunderstood’. So Coppola suggests, Vlad might have been the good little Christian soldier, if only Elisabeta’s untimely passing had not shattered his lusty heart. Yet, to suggest as much is a little like inferring Adolf Hitler could have been a great impressionist painter instead of a mass murderer, if only the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts had accepted his portfolio.
A man is either truthful – or not – to his religious convictions. Vlad is a man who serves his own earthly precepts, taking God’s name in vain. Elisabeta’s death merely affords him the opportunity to reveal his truer self to the Almighty, and it is a nightmarish beast we behold; one unleashed on the unsuspecting world as the love-starved Count goes through his various permutations in search of his next sexual conquest. Near the end of the picture, Count Dracula, having transformed into a life-size, and remarkably hairy bat, confronts Professor Van Helsing (Anthony Hopkins), angrily pleading his case for redemption. “Look at what your God has done to me!”  But what the Count, Coppola and Hart fail to understand is God is not responsible for the suffrage Dracula has endured these many centuries since his renunciation of the church. Rather, the Count has condemned himself to this eternity of darkness from which no speculative redemption can comes to him, unless through the porthole of death he has defied.
We have to give it to Gary Oldman here; one of the most enigmatic, introspective and highly intelligent actors of his generation, in yet another mind-boggling transformation into Count Dracula. Enduring endless hours of interminable and painful makeup applications (building up his slender features with wire and latex appliances; layer upon layer of glue, powder and other sundry tricks to sufficiently age and/or mutate his fine-bones into this ancient relic, an eerie bat or humpbacked wolf), sewn into even more ill-fitting and improbable and unwieldy costumes, designed by Eiko Ishioka (who had never seen a Dracula movie before), Oldman nevertheless manages to unearth an unsettling alter ego from beneath this camouflage and deliver the most credible performance in the movie. His Count is teeming with all the vial repugnancies and immoral vices of a fallen angel like Raphael. But Oldman also evokes a queerly disconcerting empathy for this ageless deviant, caught in a purgatory of his own design. If only the rest of the actors were as good, Coppola’s movie might have at least had one leg to stand on.
Instead, we get Anthony Hopkins’ over-the-top physician cum vampire hunter; hurling blood-soaked and fiery crucifixes about the landscape while espousing religious platitudes with all the ineffectual resolve of a misguidedly drunken cleric having tumbled from his pulpit. At one point, Hopkins grasps an unsuspecting Mina (Winona Ryder) around the waist, drawing her near him to sniff her understandably frightened visage; a very bizarre gesture – even for a craven scientist – and deliberately reminiscent of his Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). But even Hopkins’ grandstanding proves a revelation compared to the likes of Keanu Reeves, Cary Elwes and Billy Campell. Reeves’ in particular is an epic misfire. I have yet to know Keanu Reeves as an actor. I am not certain what he is here. Soulless stick figure is a moniker that immediately comes to mind. At this point in his respective career, I would mercifully settle for mere competence; Reeves’ herein reading every line as though staring blankly into a mirror with the cue cards written in reverse and Mactac-ed to his forehead. Once again, we discover him channeling his inner moon-doggie, leaden and uninspiring as the solicitor, Jonathan Harker; sent by his law firm to oversee the estate of Count Dracula after his predecessor, R.M. Renfield (Tom Waits) has been stricken with a strange malady, presumed as stark-raving madness. Reeves so badly bungles this pivotal role, out of his element as Mina’s youthful suitor, held prisoner in the Count’s castle, and ravaged as a concubinus for ‘the sisters’ – Dracula’s undead trio of brides – his performance prompted Total Film critic, Josh Winning to astutely surmise, “You can visibly see Keanu attempting not to end every one of his lines with 'dude'.”
The miscasting continues with Winona Ryder as Mina; the virgin-esque counterpoint to the high-bodice/high born voluptuary, Lucy Westenra (Sadie Frost). Lucy and Mina are devoted to one another; Mina reveling in her girlfriend’s unabashed and audacious contemplation of sex and men. Engaged to Lord Arthur Holmwood (Cary Elwes, doing nine minutes as a sort of clichéd Texan loudmouth), Lucy is destined to befall the evils of the world for her brazen contempt of its natural order. Women from a certain vintage – particularly Stokers’ – are property – not people – meant to be praised while quietly swooning for their menfolk. This, Frost’s Lucy absolutely refuses to do. Winona Ryder, who would appear almost verbatim in terms of costuming and deportment for Martin Scorsese in The Age of Innocence one year later, is fairly unimpressive herein as the chased ‘chaste’ object of Dracula’s desire; her transformation from naïve waif - green in the ways of the world – to turbo-charged amatory viper, hypnotically thirsting for the blood of the vampyre, despite Vlad’s strenuous objections, reeks of a grotesquely inadequate frenzy, meant, presumably to evoke Mina’s sexual frustration: though herein, more school girl-ish than festering bloodlust. Throughout the picture, Ryder is just awkward, silly and unprepossessing; overshadowed by Frost’s more energetic and animated turn as the deviant mistress, doomed to haunt eternity as just another of Dracula’s undead brides, until Harker and Van Helsing put a stake through her heart and behead her.
Our story begins with a prologue set in 1462: Vlad Dracula, belonging to the Order of the Dragon, returns from a bloody war against the Turks to discover his wife, Elisabeta (also played by Winona Ryder) has committed suicide after receiving a false report of his death on the battlefield. The priest (also played by Anthony Hopkins) passes sentence over her remains. Elisabeta cannot enter the kingdom of heaven after having taken her own life. Unable to reconcile this rejection, Vlad instead damns God; defiling the chapel and causing its statuary and candles to run red with the blood of his sins.  Presumably, because nothing of merit occurs in the next 400 years, we fast-track to 1897; introduced to Jonathan Harker, a newly qualified solicitor, entrusted by his firm to look after the formidable estate of the Transylvanian Count Dracula after his predecessor, Renfield, has succumbed to madness. Jonathan, engaged to Mina, speculates he will be gone little more than a week to setting the accounts and hasten the Count’s acquisition of various other properties throughout Europe, including Carfax Abbey in London.
The initial meeting between Jonathan and Dracula is inauspicious. The aged and curiously effete Count, draped in majestic flowing robes of state, suffering from an albino white skin condition, is seemingly fragile, as he encourages Harker to take supper at his table. However, when Jonathan offers a polite chuckle regarding the Count’s family tree, his playful insinuation is met with an unanticipated outburst of energy. The Count’s wrath is quelled after he witnesses Harker remove a small photo of his fiancée; Mina’s image stirring Dracula to speculate she is the reincarnation of his beloved Elisabeta. Seducing Harker into exploring his castle, Dracula allows Harker to become ensnared by his nightmarish brides. The women make Harker their captive in the dungeon, feeding upon his fresh and blood daily to the point where he is severely aged and weakened. In the meantime, Dracula, now miraculously transformed into a much younger facsimile of his former self, long black tresses flowing from beneath a gentleman’s top hat and sporting the latest fashion and dark spectacles to conceal his blood shot eyes, ventures across the sea in a terrible gale. His arrival in London is foretold by Renfield’s mad ravings: Renfield, now a patient of the dashing Dr. Jack Seward (the marvelous Richard E. Grant in a throw-away part), who is also confidant to both Mina and her girlfriend, Lucy. The girlfriends are inseparable; Mina fascinated by Lucy’s audacity in romantically pursuing Lord Holmwood, newly arrived from Texas.
The narrative timeline gets a little muddled as Lucy is bewitched under Vlad’s hypnosis and lured into the gardens during a violent thunderstorm. Mina chases after her unresponsive friend, but keeps her distance; shocked to discover Lucy splayed across a tombstone in the moonlight, observing her raped by a wolf-like creature. The next day, Lucy’s health begins to deteriorate. She suffers from a strange sort of possession, speaking in tongues and growing more pale and gaunt as the days dwindle down into night. Unable to even suggest a cure, Seward, who was once desperately in love with Lucy, now suggests to another cast off lover, Quincey and her current paramour, Holmwood they summon Seward’s old college mentor, Prof. Van Helsing to devise a method of recuperation. Alas, Van Helsing’s initial assessment proves prophetic. Lucy has been consumed by the blood of the vampyre. It is too late for her reprieve. She will suffer a terrific metamorphosis and die. It is only a matter of time. Yet, a ray of hope there may be in a primitive blood transfusion; Van Helsing ordering Holmwood and Seward to roll up their sleeves and pledge to the cause immediately.
In the meantime, Harker has managed a daring escape from the Count’s Transylvanian castle, tumbling into its moat physically depleted, though somehow managing an escape to a nearby abbey where he is marginally nursed back to health by the sisterhood. In London, Dracula presents himself to Mina in his youthful incarnation. He tempts her as a stranger in town to show him the sites, especially the Cinematique. Mina is, at first, stern. However, she is bewitched and does accompany Dracula to the tented show where all sorts of various oddities are being projected onto canvases, much to the amusement of the other patrons. The romantic mood is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a lone white wolf, bursting into the room and snarling at Mina. The frightened crowds flee. But Dracula is unafraid, coddling the animal as though it were a harmless puppy and encouraging Mina to do the same. Despite the Count’s decidedly odd appearance – and his even more abnormal behavior – Mina is attracted to him. However, upon learning of Harker’s salvation abroad, she packs her bags and travels to Romania to be reunited with the man she truly adores. In Romania, Harker and Mina are married. Outraged, the Count – unseen and lethally enraged – takes possession of Lucy, transforming her into a vampyre as Van Helsing, Quincey and Holmwood helplessly look on.
To spare the girl eternal damnation, Van Helsing convinces Quincey, Holmwood and Seward they must exhume Lucy’s remains from the family crypt, drive a stake through her heart and behead her. Holmwood is, at first, vehemently opposed to this desecration. However, he nevertheless follows the others into the crypt; shocked to discover the glass casket empty. Lucy emerges at the top of the stairwell, carrying a frightened half-naked child in her arms, presumably meant as a human sacrifice. The whites of her eyes swollen with blood, a newly formed set of fangs from her mouth, Lucy is driven back into her casket by Van Helsing, who defends himself with the crucifix long enough for Holmwood to drive a stake through his dead lover’s heart and then decapitate her with his sword. Sometime later, Harker and Mina arrive in London; Harker helping Van Helsing to locate and destroy the Count’s secret hiding place where his boxes of Romanian soil are stored.
A vengeful Dracula transforms himself into a silken green-glowing mist, oozing past the iron bars of the asylum to murder Renfield for his betrayal. Mina, who has been confined to Seward’s quarters, is visited by Dracula, now in the shape of a life-size vampyre bat. Van Helsing, Harker, Seward and Holmwood burst in: Van Helsing, at the point of a crucifix, ordering the Count to return to Transylvania. Alas, the religious icon holds no sway over this demon of the night; the cross bursting into flames in Van Helsing’s hand. The Count manages to reincarnate Mina as his former lover and under his spell she not only confesses to being Elizabeta, but professes to still be in love with him. At Mina’s insistence, Dracula begins transforming her into a vampyre. Too late to prevent the inevitable, Van Helsing instead manages to read Mina’s mind via her connection with Dracula, learning of the pair’s sailing for Transylvania. Pursuing Mina and Dracula to Varna, Harker, Seward, Quincey and Van Helsing split up to save time and cover more ground.
By nightfall, only Van Helsing has managed to make it to the castle. In attempting to protect Mina from further harm, Van Helsing falls under siege from Dracula’s brides; surrounding himself and Mina in a ring of torch-lit fire and placing a communal wafer upon Mina’s forehead. Momentarily, Mina appears to awaken from Dracula’s spell. Meanwhile, the rest of the vampyre hunters are chasing after the coach carrying Dracula’s remains back through the Borgo Pass. Using his powers of persuasion, Dracula turns the local gypsies against the hunters. In the resulting carnage, Quincey is mortally stabbed in the back, though not before he manages to thrust his own knife into Dracula’s heart; Harker, charging from behind to slit the Count’s throat. As Dracula staggers into his chapel, Seward and Holmwood advance upon the castle. They are prevented from pursing Mina by Van Helsing. It’s no use. Mina is still in love with the Count.  Quincey quietly dies in the snow, surrounded by his friends. Unable to restore himself, since having reverted to his ancient demonic form in the chapel where he renounced God so long ago, Dracula instead transforms into his youthful self; Mina’s tender kiss stirring the candles in the chapel to flicker and ignite. With Vlad’s encouragement, Mina plunges a stake through his heart, thus breaking the curse upon her soul and freeing Vlad’s to rise overhead; imbedded in a fresco depicting the Count and Elisabeta, at long last reunited in their ascendance into heaven.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula – or rather, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula – ought to have clicked more succinctly than it does. I cannot exactly pinpoint the fault, except to reiterate its existence as detrimental to the overall appeal of its storytelling. Arguably, Coppola never intended this to be a gory retread of the caped blood-sucker and his romps through a perpetually fog-laden London. And yet, some of this old-time Hollywood hokum has been retained; fleshed out by the grandiloquence in James V. Hart’s prosaic dialogue; too, too operatic; too Shakespearean even, to be believed; its’ stultifying effect compounded and then further stalemated by Coppola’s adherence to the script, at times, as heavy-handed and methodical in his pacing of scenes that in and of themselves are richly compelling, but ultimately prove convoluted and dissatisfying as a whole. Somewhere along the way, Coppola has fallen in love with the exercise of making the movie; overly amused by its artifice without first realizing too much of a good thing is still, decidedly, too much! At the start of the enterprise, Coppola gathered his cast together for a retreat on his Napa Valley vineyard: a dry run of rehearsals and readings; the actors spending a few days interacting with one another and partaking in the pleasures of Coppola’s hospitality; doing improvisations and giving Coppola feedback on his meditations regarding the screenplay. In the interim, Coppola hotheadedly fired the litany of SFX wizards initially procured to establish the look of the picture, after each leaned on Coppola to reconsider his deadlock against using more contemporary and streamlined visual effects. Ensconcing his twenty-one year old son to helm the production instead, Roman Coppola became the de facto visual effects supervisor on Dracula; indulging his father’s every whim to make an ‘old school’ motion picture.
In retrospect, it is not the artifice that mortally wounds Dracula or even prevents it from becoming an iconic re-envisioning of the time-honored Stoker tale. Rather, it is Coppola’s own infuriatingly inability to take an editor’s scissor’s to his work; to see the forest clearly for its trees, as it were, that cripples the entire production. At some level, the effects go beyond and draw undue attention to their presence; not as badly conceived and/or achieved, but rather, as far too clever, gaudy and overly-produced for their own good. It still might have worked as a sort of experiment in ‘stage-bound’ theatricality, except that the acting – apart from Gary Oldman’s immaculate portrayal of the multi-faceted Count – is so woefully pathetic, so muddled by ill-omened casting decisions, and so profoundly dreary when Oldman is not on the screen, that the resultant spectacle becomes a bedraggled and benign cacophony of noise; again, as Shakespeare might have noted, “full of sound and fury…signifying nothing!”    
The style of the picture was heavily influenced by Jean Cocteau’s 1946 Beauty and the Beast as well as various paintings by Gustav Klimt and other symbolist artists; Coppola urging his designers to give him “something weird” and further compelling them to dig deep to bring forth memories from their nightmares. There is little to deny either the technical proficiency or the ‘artistic’ moodiness derived from their contributions, the resultant sets, uber-Gothic and brooding; not a single exterior or location among them. Alas, the cumulative effect proves rather suffocating; this resplendent darkness consumed by overwhelming lavishness. Bluntly put, and once more excluding Gary Oldman from this evaluation; quite simply, the sets and the costumes overpower the actors; the film becoming very top-heavy visually, and in utter absence of juicier performances into which not only Count Dracula could sink his teeth. Coppola and his cast are undeniably luxuriating in the absurd richness of the production design. But the effect is wholly unattractive instead of sparse and uncanny. In the final analysis, Dracula is a failed experiment – often, providing the viewer with exceptional vignettes, imbued with an impressionist’s starkness for boldly re-conceiving the Stoker classic. But the movie founders in too much good taste and not enough actual food for thought. If the blood is the life, Dracula remains queerly anemic, suffering from bloodless arteries that run nowhere except dry.
Sony ‘Mastered in 4K’ re-release of Dracula on Blu-ray will leave some aficionados cold. In 2005, the studio’s ‘director approved’ Blu-ray left much more to be desired. This reincarnation improves on virtually most – though arguably, not all – of the movie’s visual aspects; chiefly and vastly, its’ color-timing. Overall sharpness has taken a quantum leap forward: ditto for shadow depth and fine detail, with a modicum of grain registering as exceptionally film-like and pleasing. Where the controversy will likely fall is in Sony’s decision to re-frame the image. There is a noticeable amount of more information in the upper and left quadrants, so much, it does not constitute ‘more’ so much as it alters – in some cases, considerably – the visual space of the action. Those unfamiliar with previous home video incarnations will be oblivious to this shift. I hesitate to refer to it as an ‘alteration’. My memory of seeing the movie projected in a theater has been muddled with the passage of time. But purists will likely perceive the decision to re-frame as untoward meddling by the studio. Comparing both Blu-rays, personally I have chosen to accept this new disc as the authoritative version, despite the fact both have been heralded as ‘approved’ by director, Francis Ford Coppola.  
Sony has painstakingly re-imagined the soundtrack, this time in 7.1 HD, also a Dolby Atmos track, capturing the essential subtleties and dynamic range with startling clarity. Dracula has never sounded quite so intense, the core elements of this remastering effort giving new life to even the most quiescent moments.  Dialogue is firmly situated in the center channel, but it also enjoys ever so slight reverberation in the surrounds. Given all the work committed to this monumental overhaul, we can sincerely forgive Sony for not going the extra mile to produce ‘new’ extras. Yes, we get an ‘exclusive’ introduction from Coppola. But it is scant, with Coppola suffering from a queer ennui. There’s also new packaging. Personally, I wish the studios would stick with what they know. I am also not a fan of Sony rechristening this as the debut of their ‘Supreme Cinema Series’ as, from past experiences with all the studios, I have come to realize just how short-lived such ‘collections’ can be (Sapphire Series, anyone?). Nevertheless, I cannot deny Grover Crisp and Sony have once again taken the utmost care to prepare this release for Blu-ray; a snazzy 24 page booklet with colorful artwork and info; the rest of the extras distilled to imports from the previous Blu-ray release (actually, these were all part of the DVD collector’s edition); and a few new ones, including, Reflections in Blood: Francis Ford Coppola and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Practical Magicians: A Collaboration between Father and Son and four Legacy featurettes. We also get all of the deleted scenes and the 1993 commentary track, featuring Francis Ford and Roman Coppola and Greg Cannom. 
Parting thoughts: I am not a fan of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, so the improvements herein are moot to me, though nevertheless welcomed. Sony has been at the forefront of remastering their back catalog for a whole new generation to admire. I sincerely would like to see them turn their digital wizardry loose on a Cinema Series hi-def offering of 1994’s Little Women, The Remains of the Day, A League of Their Own, Places in the Heart, Sense and Sensibility and The Age of Innocence: titles I would deem just as – if not more – worthy of this honor. I can see the logic in choosing Dracula ahead of these, as improvements in overall clarity have brought out even more of the hellacious detail in Coppola’s grand guignol. Impressive, yes. Worthy contender…hmmm. Bottom line: highly recommended for fans of the movie.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, October 24, 2015

MY FAIR LADY: 50th Anniversary Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1964) CBS/Paramount Home Video

Everything that movies nowadays are not, George Cukor’s My Fair Lady (1964) was in spades; the lyrical mastery of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (impresarios, responsible for Brigadoon, Gigi and Paint Your Wagon), augmenting playwright, George Bernard Shaw’s highly literate gemstone, Pygmalion into an even more lustrously articulate bit of Edwardian romanticism, teeming with chic good taste in all things. In accepting the challenge to make a movie from this elegant and popular stagecraft of its generation, mogul, Jack L. Warner hit a few snags – mercifully, almost all of them in preproduction; virtually none showing up on the screen by the time, My Fair Lady had its world premiere in Los Angeles. Warner’s marketing campaign for this night of nights likely could have financed another movie entirely. It remains nothing short of impressive; lauded in the press as the event of the decade; its attendees turning out, immaculately quaffed and perfumed; the parade of A-list stars, enough to make the likes of even a showman like Michael Todd blush. In the intervening decades, many have chipped away at Jack Warner’s reputation, labeling him as crass, unyielding, impenetrably thick-headed and idiotically stubborn. Maybe so, but there is no denying Warner his place in the sun as a wily merchant of shadow and light who, unlike virtually all his contemporaries, managed to remain in power longer than any other mogul in Hollywood. I’ll give it to Jack. He knew his business, even if he occasionally meddled in everyone else’s.

Early in My Fair Lady’s incubation, Warner made it clear Julie Andrews would not be considered for the part of Eliza Doolittle. While Andrews had made a stunner of the show, she equally remained a virtual unknown to movie-goers, and in the volatile and cash-strapped sixties, Warner was quite simply unwilling to take such a gamble with his leading lady on a multi-million dollar production. Besides, at a staggering cost of $5.5 million, merely to secure the rights to produce it, Warner needed not just a hit, but a cultural touchstone and box office leviathan to save face. He couldn’t take that risk on an unknown. Even so, his seven year contract with CBS, at the end of which all rights would revert back to them as the custodians of this property, is a deal no mogul in his right mind would concede to today. While many could see the logic in Warner’s refusal to cast Andrews, his initial choices elsewhere were met with immediate resistance. Jack had sought Cary Grant and James Cagney for the parts of Prof. Henry Higgins and Col. Pickering respectively. To each actor’s credit, both nobly bowed out; Grant going so far as to inform Warner that unless Rex Harrison was hired to reprise his role in the film, not only would he boycott the studio’s future output, but he would never again even consider appearing in a Warner Bros. picture.

The reasons for Warner’s change of heart – or perhaps, change of mind – have been muddled through time. Perhaps, Jack reasoned all had been forgiven in the eyes of the public where Rex Harrison was concerned. Two decades earlier, Harrison had been one of 2oth Century-Fox’s rising male stars; an incomparable dramatic actor with an enigmatic screen personality, exercised in Anna and the King of Siam (1946) and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). His American movie debut only served to augment a reputation already well ensconced in his native Britain as a disreputable ladies man – dubbed ‘sexy Rexy.’  However, in the interim, Harrison had become romantically entangled with studio starlet, Carole Landis, who, on July 29th, 1948, committed suicide – later speculated, to spite Harrison for their explosive and failing relationship. At the same time, Fox released Unfaithfully Yours (1948), Preston Sturges’ rather ghoulish comedy about a composer (played by Harrison) who takes a rather fiendish delight in torturing his on-screen paramour; at one point, in a dream sequence, accusing her of infidelity and slashing her throat with a straight razor. To the movie-going public, art had queerly – and rather distastefully – mimicked life and thus, studio-interest in Harrison’s career over at Fox quickly cooled, then soured. Overnight, he had become a pariah.

But then came Harrison’s reprieve; his first bite at 1956’s Broadway incarnation of My Fair Lady. No one could have foretold of its momentous success, the play eventually setting a record as the longest running in U.S. history. While the bulk of Harrison’s fifties tenure would remain committed to Lerner and Loewe’s melodic masterpiece, as well as other roles on the stage; steadily, film offers began to surface: Harrison appearing to good effect in Vincente Minnelli’s deplorably underrated, The Reluctant Debutante (1958). Only the year before My Fair Lady’s movie premiere, Harrison had capped off his filmic repertoire with a stunning incarnation of Caesar in Fox’s infamous Cleopatra (1963). Even as the pall and thud of this lumbering and truncated epic had left the reputation of its director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz in tatters, Harrison’s cache remained virtually untarnished. Now, he leapt at the opportunity to reprise Henry Higgins for this filmic ‘fair lady’. Interestingly, while Broadway’s show had established a fairly balanced exchange between Eliza and Higgins, the cinematic reincarnation would heavily rely on Harrison’s presence; even as his co-star, Audrey Hepburn, managed to establish herself as one of movie-land’s most gracious and luminous stars. Much has been made of the fact Hepburn did not warble her own vocals in the movie: too much, in fact; the revelation exacerbated by Warner’s feeble endeavors to keep professional dub queen, Marni Nixon under wraps until after the Academy Awards. But this backfired for all concerned and arguably cost Hepburn even the nomination as Best Actress.

At the time of its debut, My Fair Lady was not so much a movie as a near religious pilgrimage, the public clamoring for tickets, the critics eager and ready with their hatchets to tear it down as Warner’s folly. The theaters nevertheless were sold out for months in advance, the picture playing for two years straight in some venues. From London, to Rome, to Broadway, Lerner and Loewe’s show of shows once again became a runaway smash, this time breaking all box office records previously set by Rodgers and Hammerstein's  Oklahoma!South Pacific and The King and I.  My Fair Lady’s triumph did come at a price, however - chiefly in preventing even Jack Warner from jumping onto its bandwagon to produce it until the end of its ‘run of the show’ contract. Alas, during this interim the business of making movies had irrevocably changed. Thus, in hindsight Warner’s chutzpah is to be even more generously commended. By 1964, musicals were no longer guaranteed money makers. Even worse for this ‘fair lady’s’ prospects, in 1958, MGM producer, Arthur Freed had circumvented the stalemate of producing My Fair Lady for the movies by slyly hiring Lerner and Loewe to adapt Broadway’s Gigi instead. The results so closely paralleled the circumstances depicted in My Fair Lady that Gigi (1958) was dubbed 'Eliza Goes to Paris', New York Times’ critic, Bosley Crowther astutely pointing out “There won't be much point in anybody trying to produce a film of My Fair Lady for a while, because Arthur Freed has virtually done it with ‘Gigi’!” Thankfully, the filmic 'fair lady' was still a good six years away, allowing Gigi's popularity to fade – though, arguably, never to be forgotten.

As a movie, My Fair Lady required a gentle guiding hand and considerable cash flow to surpass its Broadway roots. It received both and then some as Jack Warner’s personally supervised project. However, as previously mentioned, the deal eventually ironed out between CBS and Warner Bros. did not include an outright purchase of the property – rather, a loan out with rights to lapse and be periodically renewed, but only if CBS agreed to the terms; an arrangement, later to plague and complicate all future screenings and home video releases. As ‘home video’ could neither be conceived, nor even dreamed upon in 1963, Warner’s deal of the decade was something of a minor coup; one that repaid the wily ole-time mogul handsomely with its immediate returns and accolades. In adapting the play for the screen, director, George Cukor ever so slightly tweaked Lerner and Loewe’s narrative structure while remaining religiously committed to its Broadway origins.

If My Fair Lady has a single failing, it remains Warner’s lack of foresight to cast Julie Andrews. However, the actress would hardly go home empty-handed. As rival mogul, Walt Disney had admired Andrews opposite Richard Burton in Broadway’s Camelot he just as quickly snatched her up to star as his ‘practically perfect’ British nanny, in Mary Poppins (released the same year as My Fair Lady). Poppins would unequivocally prove (as though proof were required) that Julie Andrews was every bit a movie star of the first magnitude as Audrey Hepburn. Yet, it must be said, the filmic My Fair Lady never suffers from Jack’s oversight, his replacement star almost as good – though not without her controversy. Although long considered standard practice in Hollywood to dub vocals in movie musicals for stars lacking the ability, the substitution of Marni Nixon's singing pipes for the screen’s Eliza Doolittle created a minor stir. Arguably, it cost Hepburn the Oscar nomination; a brushoff compounded when Andrews took home the Best Actress statuette for Walt’s movie instead. In her acceptance speech, Andrews had the minor – if good-natured – cheek to thank “a man who made a wonderful picture – Mr. Jack L. Warner”; a playfully flippant jab that brought down the house and mildly amused even Warner besides.

For the rest, My Fair Lady emerged as a Teflon-coated and inspired exercise in old-fashioned film-making – justly winning 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, with a long overdue statuette afforded to director, George Cukor. In retrospect, it very likely remains the best of all Broadway-to-Hollywood hybrids – and not simply those achieved throughout the 1960’s; its’ score imbued with a sumptuous displace of philosophical, romantic and scholastic overtures that perfectly extol Shaw’s literary genius, while adding a patina of eloquence, distinctly in, of, and, about the musical theater from this certain rarefied vintage a la the exceptional lyricism of Messers Lerner and Loewe.  Unlike many movie musicals produced in the sixties, succumbing to their big, bloated road show engagements and ultimately destined to spell disaster, faintly reeking of formaldehyde, while eliciting panged longings for their Broadway origins, as a motion picture, My Fair Lady has all but overshadowed its roots.

Credit for the picture’s endurance as a fan favorite over the many years since must continue to reside with George Cukor’s exceptional pacing. The period trappings are theatrical to begin with, and, virtually no attempt has been made by either Cukor or his production designer, Gene Allen, to ‘open up’ the stage experience by moving even a portion of its action to exterior locations or even credible outdoor sets. Everything takes place within the confinements of a soundstage (or, in the case of the now legendary ‘Ascot Gavotte’ – two stages opening back to back, the breadth of their expanse filled to the rafters with extras sporting stunning period recreations, designed by renowned costumier and portraiture, Cecil Beaton.  At the start of the picture, Cukor and Beaton were old friends. By the end, they were barely speaking to one another; Beaton’s insistence on photographing Audrey Hepburn in virtually all of the gowns he had designed (and not just the ones worn by her character), frequently delayed Hepburn’s appearance on the set, holding up Cukor’s schedule and thus, incurring the director’s considerable displeasure.

The plot of this Edwardian fairytale is largely sustained by Lerner and Loewe’s musical articulation of Bernard Shaw’s thorny dialogue. Curiously, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein III had first endeavored to transform  Pygmalion into a musical in 1950. After some consternation, they announced to the press it simply could not be done. While Rodgers and Hammerstein were hardly slouches when it came to adaptation, their difficulty seems to have stemmed from pursuing a literal translation of Shaw’s prose.  Pygmalion extols thoughts and ideas - not emotions; the latter, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s forte. In picking up the gauntlet, Alan Jay Lerner astutely recognized that a great singer should never play Prof. Henry Higgins, ‘an ordinary man’ of extraordinary wit, culture and courtly – if barbed – insults. Rather, a consummate actor might and should. In hiring Rex Harrison, Lerner and Loewe effectively spearheaded Shaw’s verbose byplay by casting one of the greatest living actors of his generation. Initially, Harrison feared the songs would be his undoing. Admitting to Lerner he was not a singer, the composer nevertheless encouraged Harrison to speak the songs on pitch. For some years thereafter, this would become fashionable when casting non-musical talents in movie musicals; though usually registering as a grotesque bastardization of songs not written in a style befitting this concept. But in My Fair Lady’s case, Lerner and Loewe had expressly evolved a structured and seamless cadence between their songs and Shaw’s borrowed dialogue, with Higgins’ divinely inspired ‘music’ the purest extension of his literate thoughts.

For months, Jack Warner’s wardrobe department toiled on a litany of exquisite costumes designed by Cecil Beaton, who would eventually share a screen credit with Art Director, Gene Allen. Beaton, one of the world’s preeminent photographers, among his many other accomplishments, very quickly proved a minor nuisance to both Allen and George Cukor, claiming credit in several prominently featured magazine articles for the picture’s costumes and set design (the latter he decidedly had absolutely nothing at all to contribute). Tensions ran high elsewhere too. As Rex Harrison insisted he could never lip-sync to his own tracks, Cukor had the sound department ingeniously rig a hidden microphone sewn into Harrison’s cravat to record his vocals live. Told her singing would be dubbed, Audrey Hepburn stubbornly insisted on doing several pre-recordings herself, lip-synced to picture to prove a point. Cukor catered to Hepburn’s request, but remained firm, reminding his star of Marni Nixon’s commitment, whereupon Hepburn simply walked out in a minor huff. But, ever the lady, Hepburn contritely recanted her belligerence the very next day, apologizing to all and doubly investing herself thereafter.

Viewed today, My Fair Lady is so obviously a peerless example of Cukor’s formidable expertise; balancing the stagecraft’s ‘theatricality’ with the unique requirements of a movie musical; his camera effortlessly floating in and out of each scene with the trick and the wonder of it all that My Fair Lady never comes across as stilted, stiff or uninspired. Cukor knows exactly how to punctuate every moment in Super Panavision, exploiting Gene Allen’s designs for Kensington Court and the like as sanitized representations of Edwardian English stoicism, the likes of which to be more at home at Disneyland rather than London. Nevertheless, the artifice is in service to the story; never drawing undue attention to itself and somehow always proving an effortless compliment to this courtly clash of manners and mores. Cukor gives us all the elements that made the stage show a grand entertainment, his camera sparingly reframing for close-ups.

And when all else fails to convince, as it rarely – if ever – does, we have the likes of Rex Harrison, Wilfred Hyde-White, Gladys Cooper, Jeremy Brett, and, Mona Washburn to remind us we are in a reasonable facsimile of ‘merry ole England’; their inbred propriety and decorum infusing the piece with a stately grandeur that is a sheer delight to behold. Having performed the role of Higgins some 2,717 times at the Mark Hellinger Theatre, Harrison on celluloid is the quintessence of Shaw’s prickly phonetics expert, a characterization he clearly understands from the inside out and can safely take the actor’s place as an inscrutable alter ego. Harrison’s early solo, ‘Why Can’t The English?’ is a tour de force, as is his later declaration, ‘Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Man?’; each expelled as only a verbal inquisitor and ‘confirmed old bachelor’ like Prof. Higgins can express with caustic and flavorful wit. Yet, the firebrand of Harrison’s own excoriating tongue is everywhere to be had throughout these wonderful rhymes and couplets; his supremely infectious contempt for those who bastardize the language, as ‘the Scotch and the Irish leave (him) close to tears.’ “There are even places where English completely disappears,” Harrison’s Higgins condescendingly concludes with relished delight, “Why, in America they haven’t used it for years!” And as enormously satisfying as these moments are, the coup de grâce for Harrison and the film remains his intrinsically adversarial relationship with Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle; the ‘deliciously low’ and ‘uncommonly dirty’ guttersnipe Higgins undertakes to transform into a lady of stature through a refinement of her speech.

Despite all the brouhaha about not casting Julie Andrews, the film is as immeasurably blessed to have Audrey Hepburn in her stead. Hepburn’s uncouth flower girl is a joyously rambunctious creature of, as Higgins might profess, ‘cotton, hay and rags’, equally as capable to put on the dog as pull off a spectacular ‘lady’ in his presence. The repetition of a single line of dialogue proves what a fine ‘second’ choice Hepburn is as the screen’s Eliza. When Higgins first meets Eliza, she is as unkempt as we might expect, although emphatically declaring with a boastful sense of slum prudery, “I wash my hands and face before I come, I did!” Very near the end of our story, this single line is repeated; Eliza, now sufficiently transformed into exactly the sort of woman Higgins has come to admire, slowly approaching her discarded ‘lord and master’ – after previously reproaching him in his mother’s study – but this time, without his knowing of her presence; softened as she witnesses Higgins wistfully listening intensity to that earlier made recording of her former self. At precisely the moment when the aforementioned line ought to be uttered, Eliza instead quietly switches off the device, receipting it from memory and imbued with an overwhelming tenderness for her mentor.

Hepburn gives us a genuinely sincere Eliza, having grown a woman’s heart for Higgins, despite his scholastic astringency. Feminist scholarship has often viewed the relationship between Higgins and Eliza in a negative patriarchal light; the polished stalwart and this unschooled waif of no account; the latter made whole, only by his constant, often corrosive badgering to do better. Yet, this view completely sidesteps the point of both the play and the movie; that far from being made over in Higgins’ own image, Eliza’s diligence and willingness to rise above, results in her own miraculous betterment. In the end, she proves more than a match for her mentor and in some ways far greater than his equal, and not merely at his behest either; rather, because her resolve has proven Higgins’ wrong, using his own rhetoric as both weapon (to make him see things her way) and as the catalyst for this Cinderella-like transformation.  While it remains debatable how much of Higgins’ influence is crucial to this conversion (arguably, browbeating is never the impetus for building character), what remains for certain is, by the end of Cukor’s movie, Higgins has gone from being ‘an ordinary man’, unwilling to ‘let a woman in his life’, to someone grown acutely aware of what has been missing these many empty years; having inexplicably ‘grown accustom to (Eliza’s) face’ and a good deal more. It is therefore, Eliza’s transformative quality that comes to bear on this steadfast bachelor. She has changed him, not the other way around.

My Fair Lady opens with a sumptuous feast of carnations and gardenias beneath its main title sequence, all of it superbly orchestrated by André Previn. From here, Harry Stradling Sr.’s cinematography dissolves to a lush display of proper young ladies attending the theater; regal mannequins of some social stature and etiquette. An impromptu thunder shower frees them to behave as they might otherwise chose, shedding their societal constraints with kittenish aplomb and scurrying into waiting cabs and carriages. In the crowd is the matronly Mrs. Eynsford-Hill (Isobel Elsom) who sends her congenial son, Freddy (Jeremy Brett) to fetch a taxi. Instead, he encounters, and accidentally knocks over, Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn), while selling her violets pilfered from the castoffs of legitimate sellers at Covent marketplace. Lerner and Loewe’s construction during this opening sequence intricately weaves both the premise and the prerequisite introductions of our essential characters into a superb plum pudding of comedic errors. Enter Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a phonetics professor collecting ‘dialects’ for his latest study of speech patterns. Informed by a passerby that someone is taking down her every ‘blessed’ word, Eliza suffers an embarrassing breakdown, pleading with Colonel Hugh Pickering (Wilfred Hyde-White) to protect her from Higgins, whom she erroneously presumes to be a Scotland Yard detective.

Making his intensions bluntly known to all, Higgins berates the cockney liar into silence, sneering with smug superiority. Realizing who Pickering is, the two men become instant chums, striking a bargain to transform Eliza into a woman of culture. It seems impossible. In fact, neither Higgins nor Pickering has taken the dare seriously – not yet. However, the next afternoon, Eliza arrives at Higgin’s Kensington Court address to begin her tutelage. Growing more amused by the moment, Higgins boastfully declares he will make a duchess of the guttersnipe. He orders his housekeeper, Mrs. Pierce (Mona Washburn) to remove ‘the baggage’ to an upstairs washroom, to be properly scrubbed and tubbed and put to bed before the first morning’s training can effectively begin. What follows is an arduous trial by fire, Higgins forcing Eliza to enunciate tongue-tangling poetry while placing a series of heavy green marbles upon her soft palette. After some frustration, the poor girl actually swallows one of the marbles; Higgin’s now approaching his cure by hooking up Eliza to a series of archaic and quaintly barbaric apparatuses, meant to eradicate her cockney accent and properly retrain her speech patterns.

As teaching Eliza has proven somewhat more of a challenge than Higgins initially anticipated, he is even less concerned when her father, Alfred P. Doolittle (Stanley Holloway), a common dustman, playfully hints at an improper sexual relationship between him and the girl, while suggesting a bribe would satisfy him in allowing their ‘relationship’ to continue. Higgins tips Alfred for his efforts, but then writes American poet, Ezra Wallingford to suggest he has just found England’s most original moralist. In fact, Alfred is the devil-may-care sort who has little desire to elevate his own stature beyond that of a shiftless bum. Meanwhile, Higgins' tutelage of Eliza progresses at an excruciatingly slow pace. He browbeats her with lessons and put downs; perceived as harmless mistreatment systematically designed to wear her down and break her of all those bad habits she has thus far cultivated over a lifetime. After several weeks, Eliza shows definite signs of improvement. But she is more the trained puppet than cultured lady; her premature debut at the Ascot races bearing out her inexperience, as she slips from obviously rehearsed dialogue into her old impassioned ways, hollering after one of the race horses, Dover,“Come on…move yer bloomin’ ass!”

Higgins’ mother (Gladys Cooper) is disheartened by the notion her son intends to continue conducting his experiment on the girl. But Higgins is steadfast in his resolve, particularly after he realizes Eliza’s spontaneity at Ascot has captured young Freddy Eynsford-Hill’s impressionable heart. It could be such a lovely match for Eliza too; except she is disheartened by her own performance; moreover, begun to harbor uncharacteristic affections toward Higgins, despite his completely obliviousness toward her presence, outside of his own perceived Svengali-esque molding of her character. Pickering has also grown weary of their ‘experiment’, particularly as the Embassy Ball is fast approaching. The plan to debut Eliza at the ball as a distant relation, incurs Pickering’s anxiety; somewhat quelled after Eliza descends from her upstairs bedroom in an immaculate white-sequined gown, looking every inch the lady one might anticipate. But will this be enough to pull off the charade?

Even Higgins is not entirely certain, dashing into his study for a quick glass of port. At the ball, Eliza makes a formidable first impression on the courtiers, catching the eye of phonetics specialist, Zoltan Karpathy (Theodore Bikel) who has made it his stock in trade to bribe pretenders to the upper classes. Higgins is confident however; at least, enough to allow Karpathy a waltz with his protégée, especially after the gala’s guest of honor, the Queen of Transylvania (Baroness Rothschild) declares Eliza to be ‘quite charming’ and makes it known her son would like to share a dance. Pickering fears Eliza will be found out, but instead, Karpathy spreads the rumor Eliza’s English is so good it clearly indicates she must be of foreign extraction – possibly, Hungarian. Having fooled the world into believing the impossible, Higgins and Pickering retire to Higgin’s study to pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

They completely ignore Eliza’s contribution, causing her to fly into an angry tirade, hurling Higgins’ slippers at his head before storming out of the house. Awakening the next morning to discover Eliza gone, Higgins hurries to his mother’s atelier to gain some insight into the feminine perspective. He is frankly shocked to discover Eliza already there; moreover, mildly perturbed to learn she has no intention of returning to play the part of his grunt in their experiment. Higgins is incensed, determined to let Eliza make the biggest mistake of her life by marrying Freddy. However, Eliza is not about to sacrifice herself upon the altar for any man. In the meantime, Alfred’s nonchalant lifestyle has been elevated with ‘a little bit of luck’ and Higgins’ own meddling; given into middle class morality and the respectability of a considerable stipend from Ezra Wallingford. Alfred must now assume his responsibilities to Eliza’s mother by making an honest woman of her. Returning to his Kensington home, Higgins mourns the loss of his pupil. He gradually realizes what Eliza has meant to him – far more than he could have ever imagined, ‘her highs, her lows, her ups, her downs’ second-nature to him now – ‘like breathing out and breathing in.’  While reminiscing alone in his study, listening to the gramophone recording of Eliza’s initial visit, Higgins is suddenly stirred to realize he is not alone. Eliza has come back to him. Or has she? Certain they can pick up where they left off, Higgins cocks his hat over his eyes, slumps into his favorite chair and declares, “Eliza…where are my slippers?”

On Broadway, My Fair Lady was exemplary stagecraft. On film, it evolves into an even more richly refined tapestry. The results of Jack Warner and Cukor’s best endeavors are irrefutably a class act, yet to be followed (although rumors abounded in 2008 of a remake in the works). Try as she might, Audrey Hepburn is every bit 'the lady' even when she makes a valiant play to be the uncouth flower girl. Yet, Hepburn's performance is far from flawed. In fact, she is so earnest in everything she does, it is easy to overlook this ‘shortcoming’ - also, being dubbed - and simply treasure her performance for the myriad of joys it provides. Rex Harrison is, of course, incomparable. His Higgins remains one of the all-time iconic and faultless bits of movie acting; his closest rival, likely Robert Preston’s incarnation of Prof. Harold Hill in 1962’s The Music Man. George Cukor's direction sustains the essential flavor of Lerner and Loewe’s stage hit. We never leave the soundstages at Warner Brothers and yet there is a distinct 'English feel' to the piece. Gene Allen's remarkable sets and Cecil Beaton's gorgeous costumes evoke the Edwardian period with artistry and aplomb. In the last analysis, My Fair Lady remains lush and masterful: a film-maker’s nightmare in the planning, but an absolute daydream in its execution. Here is the epitome of that bygone era in American movies when class could still out and the Hollywood artisans understood the strength of sentiment without veering into abject sentimentality.

Regrettably, the movie deal Jack Warner struck with CBS only afforded him film rights until the end of the decade.  Perhaps, unable to perceive ‘resale value’ in any film property after its initial theatrical run, particularly in the era prior to ‘home video’ and ‘cable television’, all of the 70mm film stock on My Fair Lady was handed over to CBS in 1969, later to become a subsidiary of Fox, and even later, of Paramount Inc. There, it continued to languish, was allowed to deteriorate and fade almost beyond repair, until 1989 when restoration experts, Robert A. Harris and James Katz were called in to work their magic on these tired camera negatives. The photochemical fruits of their hard-earned labors were nothing short of a miracle then, the re-emergence of a very ‘fair lady’ given a limited theatrical reissue and a big build up on LaserDisc in 1994 under the old CBS/Fox Home Video banner.  In 1994, digital film restoration was in its infancy and much of the technological wizardry brought to bear on My Fair Lady took place in the analog world with a grueling frame-by-frame inspection of approximately 700lbs of existing 65 and 70mm original camera negatives.  Parceling off, the storage of these fragile elements some sent to vaults at Warner Bros., AMPAS and Pro-Tek; Harris and Katz quickly deducing the critical volatility of this treasure-find; the original negatives cut and edited in Techniscope; the original splices, literally falling apart and suffering from severe color fading and tears. Additionally, the four-track magnetic and six-track original stereophonic soundtracks had begun to get vinegary.  With a then staggering cost of roughly $50 per frame, My Fair Lady’s remastering effort proved one of the most arduous and expensive. In the case of the audio, the final results would be a composite of carefully inspected elements corralled from third and fourth generation sources – hardly ideal – but nevertheless, given the utmost critical care.

Alas, Harris and his team quickly discovered other ominous signs My Fair Lady was on the brink of extinction. For starters, the archival 65mm separation masters made in 1964 were riddled with optical holes. Also, the original ‘floral’ prologue and main titles had been junked long ago. To restore this sequence, Harris turned to Imagica USA, a company on the cutting edge of digital and analog remastering. By the time My Fair Lady had its new premiere, Harris had spent nearly two years amassing, restoring and re-cutting the film’s original camera negative to create a new 65mm inter-positive as a protection element. Without the benefit of present-day digital alignment, the original separation masters could not be precisely recombined. Nevertheless, the results achieved by Harris and his experts then, were nothing short of a revelation.  With the advent of Blu-ray one might have anticipated, My Fair Lady to be destined for even bigger and better things. Regrettably, CBS/Paramount’s first bite at the hi-def apple in 2008 proved anything but award-winning.

To quote Professor Higgins, and a goodly number of the picture’s ardent fans, ‘Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn!’ Undaunted, CBS officially announced a new effort in the works; then, set an impossible date of 2014 to re-issue the Blu-ray and mark My Fair Lady’s 50th Anniversary. To the considerable outrage of most fans, the release was first pushed back; then, indefinitely suspended. Now, almost a year later, My Fair Lady: 50th Anniversary has resurfaced for its 51st milestone. The results are not only spectacular, but have been well worth the wait. Here is the lady as she always ought to have been, or rather likely, as she has never been before – not even on her opening night in 1964. Calling on virtually all the technological advantages gained in the last twenty-one years, with Robert Harris brought in once more as a consultant on this new restoration, My Fair Lady emerges in hi-def as a startling bird of paradise. Not only have the original ‘refurbished’ elements been given a ground-up new 8K scan conducted by Fotokem, but for this latest incarnation Audio Mechanics – a leader in audio remastering and engineering, has employed a delicate procedure to resuscitate My Fair Lady’s original six tracks sources, previously unavailable for consideration. Over 12,000,000 examples of dust, scratches, dirt and debris have been digitally removed for this latest clean-up; the visuals color-corrected in 2K, and registered for quality control in 4K. The results of this formidable team effort speak for themselves: the lady not only looks the part, she sounds utterly magnificent in a newly created 7.1 audio mix. So, prepare yourselves for a revelation. My Fair Lady has never looked or sounded this good before – arguably, not even when projected in its’ original 70mm format.

Even better still, CBS/Paramount has gone back to remaster a litany of extra features previously made available on both Warner Bros. long defunct 2-disc DVD and their own flubbed first Blu-ray release; in addition, adding a few tantalizing extras not seen in more than fifty years. Up-rezzing the vintage documentary, ‘More Loverly Than Ever’ to 1080i has truly given this comprehensive back story a new lease on life. Here is a superb ‘making of’ and ‘restoration’ featurette running just a little under an hour and hosted by the late Jeremy Brett, with meaningful reflections from surviving crew, critics, Robert Harris, and, of course, the many admirers of the film.  We also get the original 1963 Kick-off Dinner in HD, featuring Jack Warner, Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, shortly before My Fair Lady went into production. Footage of the various celebrities arriving for the Los Angeles Premiere remains in fairly rough shape, but the British Premiere has been remastered in HD too. Ditto for Audrey Hepburn’s reinstated vocals for two of the movie’s songs, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?’ and ‘Show Me’. We also get audio excerpts of George Cukor directing Bina Rothschild, and, Rex Harrison’s radio interview. Alex Hyde-White, Wilfred’s son, serves as MC for a series of Production Tests featuring make-up tests performed on his father.

CBS/Paramount has taken the utmost care to preserve several fascinating featurettes in HD; these were produced at Warner Bros. to help promote the movie back in the fall of 1963 and include ‘Story of a Lady’, ‘Designs for a Lady’ and ‘The Fairest Fair Lady.’ Other intriguing tidbits to digest: Rex Harrison’s BFI Honor, his Golden Globe acceptance speech, and, highlights from the Academy Awards ceremonies. Finally, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original introduction recorded for the 1994 reissue is preserved herein, as are a series of step-through galleries showcasing Cecil Beaton’s costume sketches, B&W and color production stills and other sundry press and promotional materials. Last, but not least, we get virtually all of the various trailers used to promote the original theatrical engagement and its’ ’94 reissue, all of them in HD. Bottom line: My Fair Lady is a crown jewel among movie musicals. CBS/Paramount’s 50th Anniversary Blu-ray is a peerless example of the sort of quality treatment all movies deserve in hi-def, but far too few actually receive. This disc is an absolute must have, reference-quality collector’s dream to be treasured by anyone who loves movies as much as I do, and, very likely for many generations yet to come.  Now isn’t that ‘loverly’?

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)