Monday, June 29, 2015

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

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


Saturday, June 27, 2015

APOLLO 13: 20th Anniversary Blu-ray (Universal/Imagine 1995) Universal Home Video

Few endeavors define American exceptionalism as clearly as the space race. Imbued by President John F. Kennedy’s optimistic challenge to the Soviet Union, not only to explore, but also conquer the farthest reaches of our solar system; the commitment only solidified with the untimely assassination in 1963 of its most ardent proponent, and framed by one of the nation’s most turbulent decades of socio-political upheaval and change; the prospect of putting a man on the moon seemingly the sci-fi stuff of Carl Sagan and Stanley Kubrick; by 1969, America had beat out the competition, landing Apollo 11 on the moon. In that momentous instance of ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’ America created the template for standardized exploration of outer space; and this, in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds and a hellish ‘test flight’ command module gone horribly wrong, incinerating Apollo I astronauts, Virgil I. ‘Gus’ Grissom, Edward H. White II, and Roger B. Chaffee.
Today, we have mostly mislaid our excitement for interplanetary exploration; regrettably, also our blind admiration for this particular brand of gutsy human resolve – nee, heroism – required to assail the future into the present: mankind’s meager grasp at the infinite. With NASA’s shuttle program in mothballs and America’s dedication to the stars presumably an ambition from our ‘quaintly’ modern past, the prospect of telling legitimate stories on film about those heady early years of gestation veer between mildly ironic and grotesquely archaic.  How does one turn back the clock?  Perhaps, by illustrating the point; that despite all cinematic evidence to the contrary and Hollywood’s verve to homogenize this supremely ‘human’ endeavor and accomplishment as mere dramatic fantasias (everything from Star Wars, 1977 to Interstellar 2014) there is, decidedly, nothing ‘routine’ about catapulting into the farthest regions of the galaxy. Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995) attains a level of legitimacy primarily because it eschews the histrionics of cheaply sentimental melodrama, despite its bombastic James Horner score (abounding in orchestral swells of flag-waving patriotism); also, because it extol the virtues rather than the vices of an aborted lunar mission; an odyssey that became an ordeal so easily misconstrued as failure, yet, ultimately one of the most triumphant moments in American ingenuity.
In hindsight, Apollo 13 is so clearly infused with a directorial passion for those early years. Ron Howard’s fortitude was always, not simply to recreate and/or document this grand misshapen experiment, but also will into existence a living testament of that epoch in space exploration, typifying an inimitable spirit of uniquely American blind-eyed courageousness that brought forth victory from the chaos. Initially inspired by Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13’, a chronicle co-authored by astronaut, Jim Lovell and award-winning Time Magazine writer, Jeffrey Kluger; Howard’s original concept, and indeed, that of his screenwriter, William Broyles, had been to tell the story of this fateful mission exclusively from the perspective of the three men who experienced it firsthand. A fact-finding visit to Lovell’s home, accompanied by actor, Tom Hanks, would expand on this premise; Howard and Hanks gaining new insight from Jim wife, Marilyn; Howard electing in the final draft to tell three connecting stories as one: the human tragedy unfolding in space, the familial saga rocking the Lovell home, and the race-against-time facing mission control to devise a safe return for their beleaguered aeronautic crew. Along the way, screenwriter, Al Reinert was brought in to refine the particulars. From the outset, Howard had sought Tom Hanks as his ‘star’ – an unlikely choice given Hanks’ early career had consisted of small screen light fluff, fantastic and goofy romantic comedies. Indeed, Lovell had expressed casual interests to be immortalized by the likes of Kevin Costner instead whom he felt ‘looked’ more the part. In retrospect, however, Hanks proved the right choice; capable of carrying off the mission with the appropriate merits – expressing nervous intrepidness in the face of staggering odds.
Howard handpicked the rest of his cast from a stellar assemblage of formidable stars: Bill Paxton and Kevin Bacon as Lovell’s mission-bound compatriots, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert respectively; Gary Sinise as the aborted third member of Apollo 13’s crew, Ken Mattingly - denied his opportunity to partake after being exposed to the measles virus; and Ed Harris, as Gene Kranz, NASA’s stalwart flight director who, when the chips were down, offered his own peerless brand of stern valor, declaring “America has never lost a man in space and it sure as hell isn’t going to on my watch. Failure is not an option.”  With so much butch testosterone on tap, Ron Howard’s movie easily could have degenerated into yet another tired tale of America’s yahoo glory days as space cowboys. And yet, in hindsight, the movie’s linchpin is Kathleen Quinlan’s Marilyn Lovell; the actress highly regarded by the lady who lived through the experience; Quinlan anchoring the drama to a sort of intimate all-American family crisis and immediacy, humanizing the sense of interstellar peril as a wife and mother, powerless to reach out to her husband in his hour of need, yet ever-present and determined to see the fate of their mission through – whatever the outcome.
Apollo 13 is immeasurably fortunate to have attained the blessings of Jim and Marilyn Lovell; the couple in awe of Ron Howard’s attention to detail, right down to building an exact replica of Mission Control on the Universal back lot; also, electing to shoot a considerable amount of the interior ‘weightless scenes’ inside a KC-135 ‘reduced gravity’ military aircraft. In all, director, stars and cinematographer, Dean Cundey, would spend a staggering one hundred hours aboard this plane, the actual pilot performing perilous parabola dives, in order to simulate weightlessness while shooting progressed inside the aircraft’s cavernous cargo hold, redressed to resemble the inner cabin of Apollo 13’s Saturn V rocket. Later, close-ups would be photographed back at Universal, the actors slightly bobbing and weaving within frame to seamlessly maintain the illusion of zero gravity under less fanciful conditions.
Even as verisimilitude proved the order of the day, early on Ron Howard made the executive decision not to use any of NASA’s stock footage of the actual blast off; electing to recreate this moment digitally, using models, early CGI effects and composited matte process photography instead. While the sequence ultimately remains one of the movie’s most iconic and gripping, placing the omnipotent camera at impossible angles to capture the sheer scope of the launch, Howard was also quick to embrace a selection of iconic images originally captured photographically by NASA for posterity, replicating these digitally and interpolating them with his re-envisioned bits. Evidently, the CGI was convincing enough to fool even mission control experts hired as consultants on the picture; Howard asked about the ‘vault footage’, later to confess not a single shot had come from NASA’s archives. 
NASA’s complicity in the making of Apollo 13 extended to a very gracious offer for Ron Howard to use Mission Control Center, housed on the 2nd and 3rd floors of Building 30 at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Instead, Howard elected to build his own exact replica from scratch, affording him greater latitude with camera angles, employing a mechanically operated boom to maneuver in and out of the complex ‘crowd’ shots.  However, Howard took advantage of at least one luxury offered by the military: as the USS Iwo Jima had been scrapped some years before, he employed her sister ship, the USS New Orleans, as the recovery vessel for the splash-landed module. Meanwhile, spacecraft interiors were constructed to exacting specifications by the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center’s Space Works, who had been integral in the restoration of the real Apollo 13’s Command Module. Two individual lunar modules and two command modules were re-built for the movie; each, an exact replica. Co-star, Kevin Bacon would later admit the claustrophobic atmosphere on board, compounded by being physically restrained in air-tight suits and helmets, left him with a queasy sense of unease, mastered only after some personal decompression of his anxieties. It also gave the actor newfound respect for the men who had actually undergone this trial by fire.
Apollo 13 opens with a jubilant aura of celebration as Apollo 11’s lunar landing takes place on July 20, 1969; Ron Howard incorporating a new voice over narration from no less a cultural mandarin than former CBS anchor, Walter Cronkite to summarize the events leading up to this defining moment in American history; a much younger Cronkite, unable to contain his ebullience glimpsed in stock footage heralding Neil Armstrong’s historic imprint on the face of the moon. At the Lovell home, a house party is in full swing. There is, to be sure, reason for optimism. Jim Lovell has been slated for a pending mission to the moon, along with cohorts, Fred Haise and Ken Mattingly. These are heady times, capturing the essence of J.F.K.’s promise to the nation, perhaps, almost lost after Kennedy’s assassination, though now having surpassed even his aspirations. After the party, a slightly inebriated Lovell informs his wife, Marilyn of his unquenchable desire to walk on the moon’s surface. The wait will not be quite so long. For on October 30, 1969, Lovell is quietly informed by his superior, Deke Slayton (Chris Ellis) their mission has been bumped up.
Marilyn is mildly superstitious. It is, after all, Apollo ‘13’ – the historic ‘unluckiness’ of that digit in the back of her mind; an anxiety compounded when her wedding ring slips off in the shower and is lost down the drain; a true incident that both the real Marilyn Lovell and her surrogate in the film prophetically regard as a very bad omen. Indeed, as the days dwindle down to the launch, fate seems to be having its way; Ken Mattingly is denied permission to partake after it is revealed he was inadvertently exposed to the measles. It is a bitter pill to swallow. His replacement, Jack Swigert, lacks Mattingly’s hours in the training module cockpit; a deficit not lost on Lovell, who begrudgingly is forced by Slayton to accept the fact, Ken will not be a part of their mission. Marilyn’s anxieties manifest themselves in a nightmare. Initially, she had elected not to be present for the blast off. But now, she hurries to her husband’s side at Cape Kennedy in a show of support the night before the fateful launch.
On April 15, 1970, Apollo 13 heads for the stars. However, as it climbs toward the outer stratosphere one of its engines prematurely cuts out. Nevertheless, the rocket reaches its orbital objective, charting its third trajectory toward the moon. All systems are go, the crew settling in for an unremarkable three day journey, broadcasting good wishes and images from space, presumably to be broadcast on national television. Lovell and his crew are unaware none of their transmissions are actually being broadcast to the world; NASA publicity man, Henry Hunt (Xander Berkeley) explaining to Marilyn the fickle and blasé nature of network programming. Presumably, the public’s appetite for outer space has cooled to the point where everyone considers such marvels of man-made engineering nothing more than routine.  All evidence to the contrary, as Swigert, ordered by Mission Control to stir Apollo 13’s oxygen tanks as part of their ‘housekeeping’ procedures, inadvertently causes one of the tanks to rupture, creating massive damage. ‘Houston…we have a problem!’
Lovell takes notice; Apollo 13 is venting their oxygen supply into outer space. Mission Control aborts the moon landing, ordering the crew to power up their ‘escape craft’ - the Aquarius - for the return home. At Mission Control, Flight Director Gene Kranz aggressively rallies his team of engineers and scientists to come up with a plan. ‘Failure is not an option!’ Controller, John Aaron (Loren Dean) makes a fortuitous decision to bring Mattingly into the process. After all, no one has spent more hours prepping for this mission; such dedication and attention to detail could – and will – prove invaluable in helping to bring everyone home safely. In space, Lovell quietly laments his lost chance to touch the surface of the moon, his regrets turning to genuine concern as Aquarius is running on auxiliary power; the crew subjected to the extreme cold of space. Swigert suspects Mission Control is withholding the cruel fact they are doomed to perish. Animosity mounts as Haise blames Swigert’s inexperience for the incident. But Lovell quashes their heated debate. Now is not the time to be pulled apart but to stand united and tall in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity.
As carbon dioxide levels rise to near lethal levels, NASA’s engineering team devises a way to adapt the command module's square filters in the lunar module's round receptacles. As Aquarius’s guidance systems are shut down, Lovell does some quick calculations, making a difficult but vital alteration to their flight plan. It will prove their salvation, manually igniting the lunar module’s engines. Mattingly and Aaron transmit their solution to the problems facing Apollo 13’s crew. Swigert transfers Aquarius’ auxiliary power to the command module; the service module jettisoned to reveal the true extent of the damage. Will Apollo 13 be able to reenter the earth’s atmosphere without bursting into flames? Debatable. Momentarily losing radio contact, everyone at Mission Control holds their breath; Marilyn nervously observing from the visitor’s gallery as tensions in the command center mount with each excruciating second of silence; the vacuum broken when Lovell is heard over the airwaves, transmitting their successful splash down in the Pacific Ocean; the craft retrieved by the USS Iwo Jima.  While Lovell and his team are given their justly due hero’s welcome, Walter Cronkite narrates the events that would follow, including an investigation into the explosion, and, a brief summary of each man’s subsequent career, concluding with Lovell’s careworn, yet clear-eyed and, as yet unfulfilled prospects for man’s return to the moon.
As Gene Roddenberry so eloquently put it, space is the ‘final frontier’Apollo 13 resonates as a lovingly assembled snapshot of Americana, torn from a particularly turbulent decade buffeted by socio/political upheavals; a sort of ‘cap’ on President Kennedy’s optimistic promise to explore the uncharted reaches of the baffling infinite. Of course, the space program would continue for some years afterwards; the shuttle program, with its myriad of triumphs and two unexpected disasters – Challenger (1981) and Columbia (2003) – officially mothballing NASA’s plans for future manned space exploration. Director, Ron Howard has quite obviously invested himself – body, soul and creative energies in totem – to will Apollo 13’s authenticity into existence. While the NASA footage of the actual incident was an obvious ‘starting point’ for his research, Howard’s movie, with its expertly advised and multifaceted viewpoints, manages to fill in the gaps, effectively blurring the lines between fact and fiction.
For some time now, our pop culture and American cinema particularly have been the leading arbitrators of verisimilitude; altering history to fulfill the requirements of artistic license, dramatic arcs and personal agendas; generally, leaving reality far behind, in favor of a good yarn. Those who regard movies as their window onto the world – both past and present – thus have been fed a steady diet of pure pulp masquerading as history and fact. The saga of Apollo 13 requires no such embellishments and, as such, is afforded very little by Ron Howard. He hasn’t made a documentary, per say, so much as a living document of the events as they actually occurred; relying on Broyles and Reinhert’s expertly written screenplay – with just enough technical jargon to excite the space aficionado, though never bore the popcorn-munching novice – and, the camaraderie of Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton to carry the load; also Gary Sinise and Kathleen Quinlan’s separate narrative threads, capably intertwined with the unraveling chronicle in space. It’s a winning combination with never a false chord struck for the purposes of dramatic irony, tension, or forced pathos. The situations are real and the cast plays them ‘straight’, or rather, right down the middle. Indeed, after pre-screening Apollo 13 for the men and women who had lived through its ordeal, Ron Howard was told by Gene Kranz that in years yet to follow, whenever someone sought to research this particular era in space exploration they could readily turn to Apollo 13 with confidence, knowing the truth had been nobly illustrated: very high praise, indeed.
Twenty years later, Apollo 13 thunders onto Blu-ray again, this time in a spiffy new hi-def transfer, scanned at 4K from original 35mm elements. It’s about time! Universal Home Video’s initial offering was a fairly abysmal affair, plagued by aliasing, edge enhancement, artificial sharpening, digitized smearing and a decided ‘video-based’ appearance. All these unsightly manipulations are absent herein. What is left to admire is a digital transfer that perfectly recreates the tangibility of a celluloid-based product.  Where to begin in my praise: first, colors: richly saturated and stunning; also contrast; deep velvety blacks and very realistic skin tones. Prepare to be blasted out of your seat by the vibrant reds, whites and blues.
This 1080p transfer captures all of cinematographer, Dean Cundey’s extraordinary visualizations, the ominous green-grey glow of Apollo 13’s powered-down capsule casting its spooky hues across the actor’s faces; the sterile glare of fluorescent-lit Mission Control, and the cozy and enveloping oranges and yellows of the Lovell home. Mercifully, we haven’t been ‘treated’ to a director’s re-conceptualization of his earlier masterwork, transferred to hi-def in digitally color-graded oranges and teals. An aside about this: I am getting fairly tired of older movies finding their way to Blu-ray looking as though they were shot from our present-day epoch, where homogenizing the visual appearance of virtually every movie to mimic all the others has become a sort of ridiculous and idiotic template for how ‘all movies’ should look from now on (Martin Scorsese… are you listening?)  
But I digress. Universal’s 20th anniversary Blu-ray of Apollo 13 ought to serve as the poster child for how to remaster vintage catalog in hi-def.  Here is a movie that looks like a movie (more to the point, as it did back in 1995); not a heavily processed unreasonable facsimile of something that once belonged to the analog world, now adopting the flavor and texture of a digitally recreated video game. So, prepare to be enthralled with the respectful reproduction of fine details and exemplary grain structure. The results speak for themselves – immaculate and free of age-related dirt and scratches. Wow and thank you!  Better still, Universal has subtly reinvented the wheel where the DTS audio is concerned. It’s 5.1, as before, but revealing more subtle nuances in dialogue and effects. Your bass will get a workout during the blast off, but there are some outstanding, if marginally more subtle, Foley effects scattered throughout. These come to life as never before. James Horner’s passionate score, I do confess, will give you goosebumps.
Best of all: Universal has jam-packed this anniversary edition with an insightful roster of extra features, beginning with Apollo 13: Twenty Years Later: A Conversation with Director Ron Howard and Producer Brian Grazer. We also get all of the previously released extras; extensive and comprehensive documentaries on the making of the film and the space program: Lost Moon: The Triumph of Apollo 13, and Conquering Space: The Moon and Beyond: also, Lucky 13: The Astronaut’s Story, as well as two independently produced audio commentaries, one featuring Ron Howard, the other co-starring Jim and Marilyn Lovell. Bottom line: with the approaching July 4th holiday, I cannot think of a better way to mark the promise and pride of the America that once was – and remains, a grand experiment, than with a screening of Apollo 13. Universal Home Video has finally given us the movie as it should surely satisfy on home video. An unqualified must have/must see experience and Blu-ray release. So gather the neighbors and the kiddies around the tube for the 4th. Let’s all pretend it is April, 11th, 1970 all over again!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, June 22, 2015

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

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


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



Saturday, June 20, 2015

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

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