Sunday, September 24, 2017

GOODFELLAS: 4K UHD Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1990) Warner Home Video

Three decades of mob rule gets aired out in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), a hard-hitting yet stylish retelling of famed writer, Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction book, ‘Wiseguy’; the unvarnished biography of professional mobster, Henry Hill.  In retrospect, Scorsese’s milieu has been the gangster picture; almost a throwback to the fast-paced/ripped from the headlines approach that made the fledgling Warner Bros. studios famous back in the 1930’s; albeit, this time with Scorsese’s penchant for adding a patina of gloss, humanity and excruciating attention to detailed brutality, populating his landscape with colorful characters (and even more flamboyant actors to portray them); also, ratcheting up the violence to truly cringe-worthy standards. Right off the bat, Scorsese gives us the lay of the land, a close-up on the trunk of a big ole Pontiac careening down a darkened road with our three antagonists, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Jimmy ‘the gent’ Conway (Robert DeNiro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) nervously riding in silence. A few thumps echo from the boot, necessitating Henry pull over. Alas, the stoolie they have abducted and beaten to a pulp is still very much alive; Tommy angrily plunging a carving knife several more times into the dying man’s chest and stomach before Jimmy joins in with choice shots from his revolver.
It’s been 25 years since this unsettling prologue shattered our preconceived notions of what a ‘mob movie’ ought to be. In the interim, other like-minded fare has come and gone; even Scorsese’s own, and arguably, equally as brilliant, Casino (1995). And yet, Goodfellas remains the benchmark by which all contemporaries are judged. Whereas the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Sergio Leone, in their respective opus magnums, The Godfather (1972) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984) created a sort of Grecian theatricality, even elegance to the tales they told, Scorsese’s great gift to cinema has always been his ability to juxtapose the most profane moments of ultra-violence with a compelling narrative that diffuses its gratuitousness into truly compelling, edge-of-your-seat storytelling.  In this regard, Scorsese’s ace in the hole is undeniably Nicholas Pileggi’s page turner, gleaned from first-hand accounts by the real Henry Hill. The voice over narrations delivered by Ray Liotta are pure Hill, lending an earthy patina to Scorsese’s slick storytelling. Often, voice overs merely bridge a narrative gap – an economical way to carry the audience from one disparate sequence into another and still have it all make sense. However, Scorsese employs them to introduce us to the flavorful language of these wise guys; the cadence in their lingo painting an immediate impression of the world we are about to enter and inhabit for the next two and a half hours. 
Goodfellas is, in fact, the ‘true’ story of Henry Hill; a mob-wannabe who, even as a boy, knew the good life was not to be had in the lower east side Brooklyn slum he lived in with his family, but in the compelling netherworld of dapper dons unfolding just across the street at Tuddy Cicero’s (Fran DiLeo) cab stand where these spurious elite conglomerate in their flashy suits. Of course, the cab stand is a front and, even more obviously, our Henry (played as a youth with great conviction by Christopher Serrone) simply has to be a part of it. After all, what is there about his own home life to inspire him? So, Henry enters a life of crime as the ingénue, the whole operation fronted by Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorveno); a stoic mountain of a man, instilling fear and respect in his cronies and providing protection to his friends while keeping up the appearance of being just an average Joe; bribing local authorities on the side with illegal cigarettes and other choice luxury items stolen from customs and excise at New York’s Idlewild Airport.
In the meantime, Henry (now played by Ray Liotta) and Tommy (Joe Pesci) grow into two of the most lucrative operators working for the mob; front men who enjoy the good score and their nights spent schmoozing with cheap broads and expensive liquor at the Bamboo Club. However, when Tommy smashes a champagne bottle across the proprietor, Sonny Bunz’s noggin (Tony Darrow) over a $7,000 bar tab, Bunz turns to Paulie for ‘protection’, suggesting it wouldn’t be a bad idea if Tommy just disappeared. The notion is hateful to Paulie, who very reluctantly agrees to go into business with Bunz for a time. The restaurant is deliberately run into the ground and then torched for the insurance money. A short while later, Henry and Tommy pull off the ‘Air France’ job. A considerable heist of $400,000, it earns Henry a place of honor on Paulie’s team and also affords him the opportunity to pursue a romantic relationship with Karen (Lorraine Bracco); a girl he initially met through Tommy, but had virtually zero interest in pursuing. Alas, before long nature pulls in a predictable direction, the pair growing inseparable, even as Karen finds some of Henry’s behavior uncouth to downright belligerent and frightening.
Jimmy and Henry shake down local toupee merchant, Morris Kessler (Chuck Low) for the money he borrowed from Jimmy to start his business.  At the same time Karen telephones Henry to tell him how a former acquaintance, Bruce (Mark Evan Jacobs) has attempted to take advantage of her. In reply, Henry pistol-whips Bruce in the driveway of his home, instructing Karen to hide the bloody gun. We jump ahead to Karen and Henry’s wedding; Karen’s parents not entirely pleased with this arrangement – even less so, when Henry and Tommy stay out all night on a drunken binge, incurring their wrath. Karen has reason to be concerned after attending a hostess party thrown by Jimmy’s wife, Mickey (Julie Garfield). Here, gossip runs rampant with lurid stories told by these big-haired, badly dressed and pock-skin princesses wearing far too much makeup: tales about delinquent children, extramarital affairs and husbands gone to prison. It scares Karen, a virgin to the ways of the Mafia. Henry assures his newlywed bride nothing like that will ever happen to them – famous last words, indeed. Henry is solid with Paulie. Moreover, he carefully plans his heists. Only those sloppy with their lifestyle are doomed to fall on hard times - an ominous prelude of things yet to come.
June 11, 1970: a seminal date in the movie’s timeline because it marks the beginning of a downward spiral, destined to undo the organization. The moment begins innocuously when a returning Mafioso, Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) playfully chides Tommy about his past as a shoeshine. Such reminiscences mildly embarrass Tommy in front of his friends. He asks politely for Billy to lay off his reputation. Alas, Billy doesn’t get the hint. And Tommy, whose fuse is short already, decides to make an example of Billy, returning to the club after hours and beating him to a pulp with an assist from Jimmy. We regress to the scene that opened Scorsese’s gangland tour de force, only now with a complete understanding of the severity of the situation; disposing of Billy’s remains with the aid of a carving knife. Afterward, the trio stops off at Tommy’s mother’s (Catherine Scorsese) house to establish an alibi. Months pass. But the heat Paulie incurs over Billy’s disappearance remains unbearable. In the meantime, Henry, who is seemingly happy in his home life, nevertheless takes a mistress, Janice Rossi (Gina Mastrogiacomo). Henry sets Janice up in a cushy apartment not far from the home he shares with Karen. It doesn’t take long for Karen to figure out something is remiss in their relationship.
At a poker game, Tommy shoots Spider (Michael Imperioli), the kid who has the same job Henry once did as the ‘fetch n’ carry’ for the wise guys. Spider’s foot wound is superficial. Not long thereafter Tommy, Jimmy, Henry and Anthony Stabile (Frank Adonis) get together for another round of cards. Spider limps over to their table, wearing an oversized cast. Tommy makes a few jokes about how stupid and crippled Spider is and Spider, believing he is in the right, tells Tommy to go ‘f_ck himself.’ In reply, Tommy opens fire and murders Spider in cold blood. His overreaction to a benign situation disgusts Jimmy, who tells Tommy he will be digging the hole to bury Spider without any help. Henry, however, has begun to harbor sincere misgivings about the laissez faire attitude the wise guys have toward killing. There was a time when murder was committed to prove a point; because someone double-crossed somebody else or to settle an old score. But now, murder is just a means to an end; a mode of self-expression, grotesquely perpetrated on those who neither deserve such vengeance nor are in any position to defend themselves. Bottom line: the unwritten code of honor is no more.
Meanwhile, Karen takes it upon herself to track down and confront Janice at her apartment. She then aims Henry’s gun at his head while he sleeps, the threat narrowly averted when Henry weakens her resolve. The two wind up in a disgruntled heap on the floor. Sometime later, Paulie and Jimmy decide to corner Henry at Janice’s apartment. Things have gone from bad to worse, they tell him. Karen’s hysterics have created ripples throughout the entire extended family. Paulie comes up with a solution. He decides to send Henry off to Tampa with Jimmy to rough up a bookie (Peter Onorati). Paulie also acts as an intermediary in Henry’s marriage to smooth things over on Henry’s behalf with Karen on the understanding her husband’s affair with Janice is over. Alas, the bookie’s sister works for the FBI. By the time the plane lands at J.F.K., Jimmy and Henry are picked up on assault charges, indicted and convicted by a federal grand jury and sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary. Paulie goes to the big house too, on a year’s conviction for contempt of court. Upon their release, with time served and probation, the boy’s embark on a lucrative drug trafficking enterprise without Paulie’s knowledge. This quick n’ dirty/sexy money affords Henry and Karen a lavish lifestyle. Alas, before long Henry becomes his own best customer, snorting cocaine with Sandy (Debi Mazar), who is already a chronic junkie.
The boys pull off a daring Lufthansa heist at J.F.K worth $6 million. Too bad nobody heeds Jimmy’s advice to lay low. Stacks (Samuel L. Jackson), the getaway driver leaves prints on an easily traceable van, necessitating Tommy arriving early one morning at his apartment to put a bullet in the back of his head. Jimmy is ecstatic when Paulie is given the go-ahead to make Tommy a ‘made man’ – the highest rank in the mafia. But Morris proves the proverbial fly in the ointment, refusing to remain silent about his cut from the heist and demanding immediate restitution be paid.  Jimmy has other plans. One by one, the men responsible for the heist begin to turn up in dumpsters, frozen solid in the back of a meat packer’s truck or bludgeoned to death, along with their wives, as they sit in their automobiles.  The proverbial wrench is thrown into Jimmy’s best laid plan when the mob decides to whack Tommy. From this moment on, the situation becomes dire.
Henry’s drug abuse gets the better of him and he starts getting sloppy. He fears Paulie will find out about his lucrative sideline, as does Jimmy, who knows it would not take much for Paulie to have them both toe-tagged rather than put the entire organization in jeopardy. Before anything can happen Henry and his drug-smuggling operation are busted by the NARC’s. Paulie ostracizes Henry from the mob. It’s tantamount to a death warrant and Henry knows it; weighing the option of turning state’s evidence to topple the mob. He lays everything on the line for Karen. It’s over. They are pariah now. If they stay, Paulie will surely have them killed. Karen doesn’t believe it at first. She appeals to Jimmy behind Henry’s back. But when Jimmy sends her to a supposed empty store front to collect a package, Karen begins to suspect she is being set up to be murdered. She hurries home to Henry instead, the couple immediately cooperating with the Feds to put away Paulie and Jimmy. In the film’s epilogue we learn Henry and Karen were placed in the witness protection program, virtually disappearing into thin air overnight. Both Paulie and Jimmy were convicted. Alas, Paulie died only a year into his sentence of a respiratory infection while Jimmy remains in prison, serving 20 years for murder. In 1987, Henry was convicted in Seattle, Washington on drug charges but granted probation once more. In 1989, he and Karen ended their 25 year marriage.    
Goodfellas endures as a watershed American mob movie; Scorsese maturing audiences’ expectations beyond the well-ensconced Hollywood tradition. In some ways, Goodfellas runs true to form here; Scorsese, relying on the ancient premise of a young man’s rise and inevitable fall from grace. Reportedly, Scorsese read Pileggi's book while wrapping up production on The Color of Money (1986), becoming immediately transfixed by its subject matter. It must be said that here is a world Scorsese intuitively understands, Pileggi having penned an unsentimental, yet riveting history. Scorsese’s fervent desire to tell such a story about flawed humanity, simply and plainly, pivots on his own ability to make us love these characters at a first casual glance. Despite the fact our initial glimpse of Henry, Jimmy and Tommy is as a trio of reluctantly nervous killers we cannot help but align our sympathies with these wise guys from the moment Scorsese moves in on a close-up of an unapologetic Ray Liotta in freeze-frame and his voice over admits, “For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster.”  Sounds good. Sounds like a plan.
Scorsese spends the first third of his movie illustrating all the compelling reasons why every man should want to aggressively pursue a life of crime; the immediate fame and, more importantly – respect – garnered during this impressionable age of youth; the sense of community and belonging so absent from Henry’s own ‘legitimate’ home life; and finally, the seemingly un-quantifiable riches to be had for the price of being gutsy and divisive. One could do worse than emulate and admire these innocuous-looking tough guys and ‘made men’, or so it would seem. Ah, but then Scorsese strips away the playful badinage with a moment of sheer brutality; a startling rape of our collective admiration: Tommy’s inexcusable assassination of Spider without as much as a second thought. Until this moment, Tommy has been the foul-mouthed figure of fun (“what? I’m a clown? I amuse you?” – he does), exuberantly portrayed by Joe Pesci. Despite a few minor infractions attesting to his hot-headed temper, Tommy at least seemed like a fairly congenial fellow; bossy, arrogant and demanding, but otherwise just a ‘good fella’ infrequently suffering from the proverbial short-man’s complex. Spider’s death does more than simply alter our impressions of Tommy. It serves as the moment where the pendulum in Scorsese’s fairly breezy tale has decidedly begun to swing in the other direction.
Scorsese directorial mastery provides for this steadily advancing avalanche of misfortune, metaphorically at least; the snowball transformed into a line of cocaine.  The machinery behind the organization, the backbone of Pileggi’s novel, is chiefly what motivates Scorsese narrative; the mechanics of ‘who’, ‘how’ and ‘what’, asked and answered with an absorbing camaraderie to neatly tie all the action together. Goodfellas is not an action movie, or perhaps even a drama, but an intimate backstage pass to the mob: the most dysfunctional family in human history. Henry’s adopted family has its favorite sons and uncles, its nags and nattering aunts, wives and lovers. Only, in this family album the skeletons are not in the closet but readily buried in the backyard or left in the back of a Cadillac to rot in the summer sun. It remains Scorsese’s ability to present the mob as common and flawed ‘every day’ folk that holds the real appeal for us. 
Pileggi’s book essentially followed a linear narrative, functioning as a prolonged, ongoing ‘interview’ with his informant, Henry Hill. Scorsese wisely chooses to shake things up a little by beginning in the middle – the murder of Billy Batts kicking off our story with a decidedly gruesome thrust into this blood-soaked mafia life. Like the spokes of a wheel, all narrative threads extend from this central hub; our regression into Henry’s past and his future destiny with the mob. There is no half way in the criminal underworld. Nor would Henry have it any other way. And Scorsese punctuates this fact with close-ups on hands always doing something; unlocking doors, inserting a key between a few sheets of folded paper, frantically pressing on the call buttons inside an apartment lobby, or, reaching for the grip of a pistol. Symbolically, these shots represent the restlessness of the ‘made’ man’s world. He is never able to relax, the smoke screen of fashionable parties and flashily illicit monetary gains to feather some very tacky nests; all of it proving little more than diversions on which a very high price is extracted. There are only two ways to successfully leave the mafia: death or by going to jail.      
Scorsese and Pileggi collaborated on the screenplay; each agonizing over its lengthy gestation in no less than twelve drafts. From the outset, Scorsese was set on Ray Liotta as his protagonist. DeNiro’s ‘name above the title’ secured the necessary funds and a commitment from Warner Bros. to release the picture. Liotta’s involvement took some convincing; producer, Irwin Winkler delaying the inevitable because he felt Liotta entirely the wrong type. Arguably, Liotta’s appeal for Scorsese is precisely what soured Winkler on his participation; Liota’s autonomy.  Prior to Goodfellas, the actor had appeared in only four movies – all of them inconsequential and unable to break his name into the big time. In the end, Liotta won over Winkler’s approval with an impassioned plea, although as Winkler would later suggest, he would have likely granted Scorsese pretty much anything on blind faith alone. Still, Liotta would later recall how his initial meeting with Scorsese seemed to come to not; Liotta left dangling for a solid nine months before being told he had the part.
As some of the mafia bosses depicted in the film were still very much living, Scorsese agreed to slightly alter their names in the film. Hence, Tommy ‘Two Gun’ DeSimone became Tommy DeVito; Paul Vario/Paulie Cicero, and Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Burke, Jimmy Conway. Director and screenwriter agreed to rename their movie, ‘Goodfellas’ as there had already been a 1986 comedy called Wise Guy, directed by Brian De Palma; also, a highly successful TV series starring Ken Wahl that ran from 1987-1990.  In preparing for their respective roles, both Ray Liotta and Robert DeNiro approached their characters differently. At Scorsese’s request, Liotta staved off the urge to meet the real Henry Hill, instead listening to hours of tape-recorded interviews Pileggi had conducted, to capture the essential cadence in Hill’s speech patterns. Meanwhile, DeNiro relentlessly grilled Pileggi about the particulars of Jimmy’s mannerisms; taking into consideration even the slightest nuance (how to hold a ketchup bottle or flick the cinders from his freshly lit cigarette, as example) and adopting these bits of business with chameleon-like precision. 
Budgeted at $25 million, Goodfellas was Martin Scorsese’s most expensive picture to date. At a sneak preview, Scorsese counted forty walk outs, leaving Warner executives slightly unhinged about the picture’s potential. Scorsese absolutely refused to take out or even re-edit Spider’s murder. He did agree to tightening the film’s third act with his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker adopting the freneticism of the ‘French New Wave’ to create a sense of unease to heighten Henry’s chronic paranoia and anxiety, brought about by his cocaine addiction.  In the final analysis, Warner Bros. had absolutely nothing to fear. Despite mixed critical reviews, Goodfellas was an immediate sensation with audiences, doubling its initial outlay with box office returns of $46,836,394 in the U.S. alone. If anything, the picture plays better today than it did in 1990; Scorsese’s then groundbreaking re-introduction of the traditional mafia hood since having adopted more than a kernel of verisimilitude to be endlessly reincarnated, regurgitated and lampooned.
Warner Home Video has gone back to the well yet again for their true 4K release of Goodfellas.  For although it reports to derive from the same ‘brand new’ 4K elements struck for the standard Blu-ray 1080p release to mark the film’s 25th anniversary, the unnatural push to a bluish tint on the Blu-ray, touted as Scorsese’s original inspired palette for the look of the transfer then, is absent here; colors far more nuanced with the blue tones in check. Goodfellas is not a movie one might anticipate would benefit immensely from a reissue in UHD 4K and the upgrade is not so much a revelation as a modest improvement on the aforementioned 4K standard Blu-ray release. Goodfellas’ image is subdued rather than vibrant. I saw it at the theater when it was first released, but I’ll be damned if I can remember if this disc replicates the theatrical experience or a revision on the experience altogether. Overall, the image harvest sports impressive clarity, sharpness and palpable, if not miraculous color density. Black levels and contrast are, as expected, excellent. Ironically, the new 4K master resembles more closely the color palette of the original Blu-ray release, not its 25th anniversary reissue. Is this a good thing? Hmmmm.  There is little to doubt the UHD 4K bests the 25th anniversary in every way. The image is grainier than before, but with a very organic structure surely to please. While the movie and its audio commentaries are housed separately, the extras are re-represented on standard Blu-ray disc.
Goodfellas audio has also been given the necessary upgrade. The picture was released theatrically in Dolby Surround, later remixed to Dolby Digital 5.1 for the DVD: that mix merely carried over for the 2007 Blu-ray (which justifiably angered a lot of audiophiles). The 4K release is a carry over of the 25th Anniversary audio, spruced up to DTS 5.1. Dialogue is crisp and refined, perfectly integrated with the SFX and pop-tune background music. Bass impact during key moments of violence penetrates the ear with startling clarity. Apart from the ‘all new’ hour long retrospective on the movie and its cultural impact, virtually all the extras have been imported from the old DVD and Blu-ray. The newer documentary has the participation of good many of the film’s alumni, although minus Joe Pesci and including a bizarre anomaly – Leonardo Di Caprio. I don’t really see the point to Di Caprio’s participation herein. He doesn’t add to the discussion and frankly, is Scorsese’s wan muse, compared to DeNiro who, despite having entered his emeritus years, is nevertheless ten times the actor and commentator. The older extras involve a fascinating backstory on the making of this movie; Getting Made, Made Men, The Workaday Gangster, Paper is Cheaper Than Film; alas, all are presented in less than perfect 720p. Warner Home Video has also chucked in a few ‘gangster related’ vintage short subjects and the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Goodfellas in 4K is new, though only marginally improved. Nevertheless, it comes highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, September 22, 2017

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND: 4K UHD Blu-ray (Columbia 1977) Sony Home Entertainment

“In my early years with Noel Coward, he said, ‘My dear, always come out of a new hole.’ But we don’t come out of any new holes today, do we? We go back and come out again and again - out the same hole: parts one, two, three and so on. And I think it’s terribly sad. Looking at the list of recipients, everyone was an innovator, a path finder. They found new things to do. And we all thrive on new things. Okay - do parts one, two, three. But don’t make them the staple diet! We’ll sink if we do.
This business lives on creative pathfinders…I terribly miss somebody like Irving Thalberg. He had a foot in both camps – creatively and with the money. We’re in terrible danger. I think there are some wonderful new picture makers. But please, you chaps in the money department…remember what they are.  Thalberg once said, ‘the studio has made a lot of money…and it can afford to lose some!’ I think the time has come where the money people can once again afford to ‘lose some’ by taking risks with new film makers.  If they get a break, get encouragement…we are all going to come up and up. Anyhow, wish them luck. I certainly do.”
-        David Lean (accepting his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, 1990)
In more recent times, director, Steven Spielberg has gone on record as saying contemporary filmmaker's “have forgotten how to tell stories.” I quite agree. Spielberg was, and remains, one of the last of the more ‘painterly’ masters of his craft; someone so transparently influenced by the true artists from Hollywood’s golden age. It would behoove us all to reconsider how movies have digressed into a sort of frenetically energized spectacle since David Lean’s speech at the AFI. Today’s movies owe more to the nucleus of a badly drawn-out music video or overblown video game than what Hitchcock once termed ‘pure cinema’. Alas, too few, toiling behind the camera are intuitively qualified – or even in possession of such daring – merely to take the time and set up a master shot, positioning the camera to allow for the audience to fall in love with their images. I will go Spielberg a step further and blame the handheld Steadicam for this digression. Like all the creative tricks in the filmmakers’ toolbox, the Steadicam has its place. Alas, it should never be considered the crutch to rely upon. Ditto for ‘green screen’ compositing: this has made a generation of filmmakers lazy in their study of light and shadow, wholly relying on digital matte process to achieve an artificial mood.
Even more fatal to the enduring appeal of American movies, today’s cinematographers have somehow managed to homogenize their art into abject copycat. There was a time when the search for visualized distinction was the Holy Grail. Now, the goal seems to be to make every movie vaguely – if not directly – resemble the one released just before it. Action and science fiction movies are particularly guilty of this: a sort of uber-monochromatic ‘look’ with simplified, washed out color palettes, blown out contrast levels, jittery handheld camerawork, and, in rapture for the John Woo chop-shop editing style that has made visual mincemeat of most every scene in a contemporary movie. For some time, this ‘way’ of making movies has been rather erroneously sold as the new 'style'. Yet, upon careful consideration it is not ‘style’ so much as ‘technique’ – at least, of a kind – and decidedly not even the best of all options, ideally suited for telling stories on film. The argument peddled in its defense is that “no one will sit through a 'slow' paced film these days”; frankly, an insult to both the intelligence and patience of the avid film goer. Worst of all, it has degraded American movies; made them disposable and unmemorable – tapping into the popular zeitgeists of the immediate moment but without any thought for longevity; either, of a particular movie’s staying power or, and cumulatively, of the art form itself.
I would like to extend a challenge to my readership and to up and coming film makers. Name me a movie made this past year, likely to celebrate golden anniversaries seventy-five or even fifty years later, beloved in the same way as a Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz or The Sound of Music. Give me an example of one movie within the last ten years to have gripped and shaken its audience to their core with prolific and enduring messages, as The Bridge on the River Kwai or Network. Show me a single picture from the last twenty years as profoundly humanistic as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, How Green Was My Valley or The Song of Bernadette. Provide an example of a comedy from the last decade to rival the remarkable razor-backed sincerity of The Americanization of Emily, The Apartment or Annie Hall. I’m not greedy. One title will do. Pitifully, even the ‘best’ Oscar-nominees from the last two decades have lacked such staying power.
On a personal note, as a devotee of cinema art, I increasingly get bored watching the 'new style' unravel my innate love for ‘the movies’ into frenetically visualized apoplexy. I don’t want to be disappointed sitting there in the dark, though, frequently, I am. My expectations are high - yes. But if you have not been thoroughly entertained – I would suggest you ask for your money back. Movies are meant to fill up our leisure. This should always remain their paramount function. Two hours of life I can never get back ought to never be wasted on an endeavor that is merely ‘okay’. Consider how the cinema artists of yesteryear were working from a grave technological deficit. Yet they gave us art of the highest (and occasionally, lowest) order. Regardless, there was an innate striving – not only for getting things done – but for doing them well and much better, in competition with the next fella.
The Leans, Hitchcocks, Cukors, Wylers, Wilders, etc. shared a passion for revealing unique truths, exploiting that rareness only the medium of film can provide to illustrate deeper realities about the human condition. I don’t see a lot – if any – of such ‘verisimilitude’ happening in my movies these days. Objectively, I do not think I am alone in this. The genre being discussed is irrelevant because the effect today is virtually the same; barely passable, or even subpar movie-land product being peddled as anesthetizing, rather than ‘enriching’ entertainment. When the dream factories retired their B-serials in the mid-1950’s they also forfeited the right to feed us B-grade shlock masquerading behind an A-list budget, taken over by clumsy editing, inferior acting and ever-clever special effects. So, I say to all: Expect More From Your Movie-Going Experiences! Do not settle for second best.
This lengthy dissertation may seem a very longwinded way to reintroduce Spielberg’s own Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) as the extraordinary achievement in science-fiction it remains to this day. But such an example reminds us of a more leisurely pace in hand-crafted movie magic. There was, to be sure, nothing relaxing about the breakneck swiftness with which Spielberg directed the picture; a back-breaking schedule, buffeted by setbacks and budgetary constraints. In 1977, Spielberg was already the peerless master of his craft: sci-fi long neglected by the money merchants as mere Saturday matinee trifles for the kiddies. But Spielberg had a far better understanding of what science fiction could become; both, its precepts as well as its hallmarks. Perhaps only in retrospect can we see Close Encounters as a Master’s class in elevating sci-fi to a finely honed art form. Revisiting it again, I remain thunderstruck by Spielberg’s comprehension and insightfulness; his deft handling of the anamorphic visual space, calculating every moment for its maximum impact.
The awesome discipline exhibited by Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind has, arguably, never been duplicated since in the sci-fi genre, though it was generally overlooked by most critics of the day as ‘dopey Hollywood mysticism’ with Spielberg’s ‘tinker-toying it together (to) make it enjoyable, mildly funny and -- in one sequence -- even credible.’ Even as many of these same critics enjoyed their experience – or at the very least, their blood sport in writing about it – back then, they failed to give Spielberg his due for providing the amusement fully formed and seemingly, effortlessly.  Yet, in Close Encounters we can clearly see, not only the sheer brilliance and undiluted purity of the work itself, but also, the wheels of its’ director’s mind intelligently deconstructing the alien-abduction mythology. Spielberg illustrates his great respect for his audience by affording them the opportunity to indulge and methodically digest his interwoven stories – never encumbered by flashes of surround sound or snippets of light and shadow, passing phantom-less, mindlessly, with only feverishness before our eyes. Indeed, Spielberg knows how to tell a story on celluloid. Regrettably, he has become the minority in Hollywood these days. Thematically, at least, Close Encounters tips its’ hat to two sci-fi classics without whom this intergalactic sojourn might never have existed: 1956’s Forbidden Planet (that sought to intellectualize laser beams and robots with its nod to Shakespeare’s The Tempest) and 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick’s probing, explorative search for human truths in both outer and inner space).
Unabashedly optimistic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is of this rarefied ilk: a keenly observed demystification of the mysteries beyond our stratosphere, meant to satisfy – or, at the very least, ignite – our insatiable thirst for grasping at the infinite and unknown. In latter day reflections, Spielberg has acknowledged Close Encounters as ‘a young man’s dalliance with that ‘what if’ fantasy about alien life’. In retrospect, the movie is even more directly a precursor to Spielberg’s own E.T.; The Extra Terrestrial (1982). Yet, despite its’ superbly handled optical effects (completed in record time by Douglas Trumbull and Carlo Rambaldi, with impeccable production design by Joe Alves – Spielberg’s collaborator on Jaws), Close Encounters steadily evolves into a ‘discussion’ piece about humanity’s willingness to embrace its own place within a community of the cosmos. 
In the summer of ’77, Close Encounters reaped the whirlwind of the public’s obsession with outer space; at $288 million in worldwide box office receipts, easily Columbia Pictures most successful movie of all time to date. Those too quick to dismiss Close Encounters as simply an expression of Spielberg’s own “benign, dreamy-eyed vision” for alien lifeforms were ignoring its rather transparent Judeo-Christian analogies – or perhaps, merely setting aside the fact that until Close Encounters, alien creatures in the movies were generally perceived as life-threatening intergalactic invaders, destined to do us harm.  Far from imbuing his movie with pie-eyed optimism, Close Encounters is both Spielberg’s homage to the likes of such turn-of-the-century visionaries as Jules Verne and Georges Méliès, even as it has since attained the status of a cultural touchstone on par with its other relevant cinema contemporaries and made significant contributions to the wellspring of prolific writers like Carl Sagan and Ray Bradbury.
Like all truly inspired artistry, Close Encounters defies any superficial interpretations; its references – either accidental or intended – leaning toward youthful spirituality, post-Cold War paranoia, and finally, our collective obsession for otherworldly contact; a premise foreshadowing Chris Carter’s small screen phenomenon, The X-File (1993-2003).  Spielberg has since gone on record with hindsight as a husband and father, to say that if he were to remake the picture today, the film’s ‘hero’ – Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) would never be allowed to leave his fictional family for the ‘mothership’ from another world. And yet, it is this penultimate farewell, made after an arduous quest to make sense of an early ‘brief encounter’ of the first kind, that truly satisfies: Roy, arguably, never having belonged to the human world, suffocated in his traditional lower-middle class suburban existence, suddenly liberated by making the ultimate sacrifice for mankind. Such parting in ‘sweet sorrow’ has not lingered in the cinema firmament since Gene Kelly bid Van Johnson a spooky goodbye at the end of Brigadoon (1954) to escape into the ether of a mythical highland village with the raven-haired, 200 year old girl of his dreams – Cyd Charisse.
In its early stages, Close Encounters seemed destined either to be made as a documentary, consisting mostly of interviews with ‘real life’ alien abductees, or just another B-grade sci-fi thriller. Initially, it was pitched to 2oth Century-Fox. Barring their rejection, Columbia took up the slack with producers, Julia and Michael Phillips signing on almost immediately. Spielberg had wisely deduced no ‘legit’ sci-fi movie could be made for under $2.5 million. Throughout the many permutations that would follow, Close Encounters (under the working title, Project Blue Book) would be pitched to Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz: its’ premise, of flying saucers landing in West Hollywood, an idea that Katz particularly abhorred. Mercifully, Spielberg became embroiled with difficulties and setbacks while making Jaws (1974), his pipe dream repeated delayed, ostensibly ordained to fail. Kismet would afford Spielberg the opportunity to do Close Encounters his way; the mega success of Jaws catapulting his cache in Hollywood into the stratosphere. Meanwhile, in the interim, Spielberg had also commissioned another draft of the screenplay; this one by Paul Schrader – deemed unusable and completely thrown out.  After another draft by John Hill, heavily edited, screenwriter, David Giler was brought in, with Spielberg’s friends, Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, adding to the convolution of plots, subplots and plot twists. U.S. military pilot, Allen Hynek was also hired to legitimize the more fantastic elements with credible UFO-documented experiences, putting his own career in the United States Air Force on the line, particularly after USAF and NASA put pressure on Hynek and the production to cease, vehemently declining all opportunities to partake in the exercise themselves.
From the start, Spielberg had endeavored to shoot the entire movie within the confines of the studio, a particularly impossible request, given the scope of the project. Eventually, he relented to lens the penultimate ‘contact’ at Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower; an ominous buttress of craggy, hanging rocks. As production advanced, Spielberg would wind up shooting apparently everywhere except from a home base; a few interiors in Burbank; also, inside two abandoned World War II airship hangars at Brookley Air Force Base in Mobile and Fairhope, Alabama, as well as Louisville and Nashville Railroad depots in Bay Minette. To simulate the Gobi Desert Spielberg shot in Dumont Dunes, California. The logistics of pulling off such a feat in record time caused Spielberg to label Close Encounters as the most unwieldy, arduous and expensive shoot of his young directorial career.  At the height of his exacerbation, Columbia Pictures, plagued by mounting debts incurred elsewhere in their film-making empire, balked at the ever-escalating costs incurred on Close Encounters. Original spit-balled by Spielberg at a cost of $2.7 million, Close Encounters budget would eventually balloon to well over $19.4 million. Somewhere in the middle of all this frenzy, Spielberg also had to contend with firing co-producer Julia Phillips due to a volatile cocaine addiction. Sometime later, she would write a fairly scathing tell-all account of this experience, blaming her ‘problem’ on Spielberg’s perfectionism.
Meanwhile, Spielberg and his editor, Michael Kahn lamented over the last 25 min. of the picture; their decisions brought to bear on Ralph McQuarrie and Greg Jein’s superbly crafted models of ‘the alien mothership’ a magnificent array of metal and plastic tubes deliberately designed to resemble the apocalyptic landscape of an inverted oil refinery and lit from within with hundreds of fiber optic lights. This impressive creation also contained the movie’s singular and deliberate ‘in joke’: an R2-D2 droid clinging to its undercarriage.  Under the pressure of time constraints, much of this final sequence was shot, not by Close Encounters’ cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond (who had departed on another project), but John A. Alonzo, László Kovács, and Douglas Slocombe, all of them brought in to help Spielberg cobble together his finale. Meanwhile, composer, John Williams toiled on more than 300 five-tone leitmotifs to be used in the climactic ‘contact’ sequence before Spielberg signed off on the now iconic five chords. Spielberg had hoped to interpolate a few bars of ‘When You Wish upon a Star’ into this moment, but was ultimately vetoed the rights to this classic song by the very territorial regime helming Disney Inc. Undaunted, John Williams ever so slightly altered that classic song’s signature melody, clearly – if briefly – heard as Roy Neary prepares to board the mothership. After Close Encounters’ first preview, Spielberg would trim an additional 7 ½ minutes from the film to tighten the impact of these final moments. Interestingly, Williams’ score for Close Encounters lost the Oscar race to his other monumental contribution of that same year – Star Wars – while nevertheless, scooping up two Grammys for Best Original Film Score and Best Instrumental Composition.
Close Encounters opens with a cryptic array of sightings. In the Sonoran Desert, French scientist, Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) and his American interpreter/mapmaker, David Laughlin (Bob Balaban), along with other government-based scientific researchers discover Flight 19; a squadron of WWII Grumman TBM Avengers – intact and still operational – presumed to have vanished into thin air – literally – some thirty years before. Punctuated by the sound and fury of a raging sandstorm, the moment is fraught with menacing overtones as an old man claims to have witnessed an event where ‘the sun came out at night, and sang to him.’ Not long thereafter, Lacombe and his team unearth the remains of the S.S. Cotopaxi; a cargo ship thought to have been lost at sea, now restlessly moored in the middle of the Gobi Desert. In Indianapolis, air traffic controllers listen intently as two jumbo jets narrowly avoid a mid-air collision after each apparently witnesses a UFO. In Muncie, Indiana; an average child, Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey) is stirred from his slumber when electro-magnetic impulses from an unseen force cause his battery-operated toys to become animated on their own. Fascinated, he toddles from his bedroom down to the kitchen, discovering an unidentified ‘presence’ lurking near the fridge. Spielberg cleverly delays showing us the alien entity while feeding into the cliché of ill-omen events yet to follow. But almost immediately, he diffuses these presumptions by focusing on Barry’s reactions; an angelic smile as the boy playfully runs out the back porch and into the rural fields that surround, causing concerned single mother, Jillian (Melinda Dillon) to chase after him.
In the first of Close Encounters iconic moments, Spielberg shifts focus yet again; this time to Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an electrical lineman investigating a series of large-scale power outages in the boondocks of Indiana. Lost on an isolated county road in the middle of the night, Roy pauses a moment in his utility truck near a railway crossing to pull out his maps, quite unaware the approaching lights from behind – mimicking the headlamps of an off road truck - actually belong to an alien spacecraft.  In the seconds that follow, Roy experiences a miraculous electromagnetic storm as the alien craft rises overhead in a dazzling ceremony of lights; its cast off radiation causing his skin to exhibit overexposure akin to bad sunburn. As the ship pulls away, power is restored to Neary’s vehicle. He immediately becomes aware from a cacophony of messages flooding his CB radio reporting ‘strange lights’ in the sky. Now, Neary races after his UFO. Nearby, three police cars are in hot pursuit. Along the isolated and winding highway, bystanders, including Barry and Gillian, have gathered. Roy narrowly avoids running Barry over; one of the police cruisers driving off the embankment in its desire to ‘apprehend’ or at least get a better look at the flying saucers playfully looming overhead.
For Roy, this moment becomes a watershed; his life’s ambitions completely consumed by the experience, much to the dismay of his rather impatient and highly skeptical wife, Ronnie (Terri Garr). As the neighborhood looks on, Roy becomes a veritable recluse in his home, spending the days in his pajamas, tears up his living room, carting buckets and wheelbarrows full of wet earth and plant life to build a replica of Devil’s Tower. Meanwhile, Jillian has begun to experience visions of the famed natural monument; the walls of her home covered in sketches of its unique-looking geological formation. Alas, not too long afterward, Jillian is terrorized by a more intimate alien encounter; the house shaken to its foundation and Barry kidnapped by these unseen forces.  Barry’s abduction is the second seminal moment in the movie Spielberg calling upon all his creative fortitude to usher in an utterly spooky sequence, capped off by a frantic Jillian trying in vain to keep these alien visitors at bay. Once again, Spielberg taps into the ‘authentic self’ of childhood to provide a signpost to his audience that will do more than signify where this incredibly heart-palpitating sequence is headed. Unlike Jillian, who is reduced to a near state of catatonia, paralyzed with fear, Barry elation at seeing these otherworldly visitors return; even running to greet them while shouting ‘toys’, wholly unafraid of what lies beyond the menacing orange lights smoldering from under his front door, affords the audience their twinkling of contemplation. After all, how could any director allow an unsuspecting child to walk into his own death?
The middle act of Close Encounters is its weakest, which is not to suggest it is without merit. However, after building up the characters of Roy and Jillian, Spielberg momentarily loses himself in a return to Lacombe and Laughlin who, along with a rather large contingent of United Nations UFO ‘experts’, have launched a very aggressive investigation of these strange supernatural re-occurrences. From witnesses in Dharamsala, India, Lacombe and Laughlin learn the unidentified spacecraft made a distinctive five-tone musical phrase as they soared overhead. However, the scientists are baffled when their reciprocation of this same musical phrased, projected into outer space, return a meaningless series of numbers (104 44 30 40 36 10) back to them. With his background in cartography, Laughlin deduces these numeric signifiers are actually geographical coordinates, pointing to Devils’ Tower near Moorcroft, Wyoming. Now, Lacombe and a contingent of U.S. military and scientific personnel converge on the site, planting a false report in the media of a toxic train wreck forcing the evacuation of local residents. Inadvertently, the TV broadcast of this bogus news story causes Roy to realize his compulsion to build Devil’s Tower in his living room – a natural wonder he has never seen, and therefore knows not why he has become obsessed with it – results in him making an impromptu pilgrimage, despite the falsified reports of a devastating toxic nerve gas leak.
While most of the civilians inexplicably drawn to Devil’s Tower are eventually apprehended by military patrols, Roy manages a daring escape after being interrogated by Lacombe and Laughlin. Remembering Jillian from his first evening’s encounter Roy now takes her along as the two make their way secretly to the footprint of Devil’s Tower under the cover of a starry night. Creeping along the base of this imposing natural edifice, the pair discovers a massive communication outpost set up by the government to make contact with the alien mothership. As Roy and Jillian look on in awe, a portentous cloud encircles the apex of the tower; a mind-boggling array of lights emerging to form a spacecraft so titanic in size it dwarfs virtually everything in its path. Using a large electric billboard as a musical synthesizer, Lacombe and his scientists are able to form a very rudimentary bond of communication with the mothership. It eventually hovers low to the ground, allowing its massive loading bay doors to open and release over a dozen adults and children from virtually all walks of life: farmers, soldiers, a little girl in pigtails, the missing pilots from WWII, the sailors from the Cotopaxi, and even, Barry, who is tearfully reunited with Jillian. Miraculously, none of these abductees has aged since the hour they were taken from the earth; some, missing more than fifty years. As a sort of trading experiment, the government puts forth their own contingent of viable candidates willing to return to the mothership. Ultimately, only Roy is selected by an alien mediator. The diminutive and waxen creature communicates with a smile and primitive hand gestures; Lacombe using Curwen hand signs to express himself. Roy willingly accepts his lot and boards the mother ship as it ascends into the galaxy – his future unknown.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is so patently Spielberg’s struggle to revisit the wonderment, sheer joy and excitement of his own youthful movie-going experiences; bringing the classical style of Hollywood’s narrative story-telling into the unlikeliest of genres, generally not noted for such sustainability. Close Encounters is by far a more richly satisfy and profound than George Lucas’ intergalactic soap opera, Star Wars (both movies premiered in this same year).Perhaps, comparisons are unfair, as Spielberg’s movie, if anything, remains the antithesis of those fantastical spheres in that other galaxy ‘far, far away’. Collecting his thoughts and hand picking his cast from an envious roster (including legendary filmmaker/author, Francois Truffaut), Spielberg ultimately was forced to cut a few corners to meet Columbia’s deadline for a Christmas release. While he would lament a few of the technical compromises, Columbia’s gamble inevitably paid off. Close Encounters was a colossal financial and critical success. Having pulled the beleaguered Columbia back from the brink, the studio rewarded Spielberg with the go-ahead to rethink these visuals three years later and a new re-release of Close Encounters: the Special Edition.
Alterations to the original movie ranged from excising scenes Spielberg felt had performed awkwardly the first time around (as example, gone is the sequence where Roy Neary digs up his entire front yard for raw materials to build his living room replica of Devil’s Tower), reinstating scenes originally shot in 1977, inexplicably left on the cutting room floor (the reinstatement of Gobi Desert sequence; also the moment where Neary rather violently confronts Lacombe and Laughlin with his psychic compulsion) and finally, the inclusion of brand new scenes for which cast and crew were reassembled three years later. Spielberg also endeavored to tighten the tempo of the picture with minor tweaks made throughout. Unfortunately for Spielberg, Columbia’s ‘free hand’, came with one stipulation. And Spielberg would soon consider it unforgiveable - the penultimate scene with Roy seen inside the mothership, observing its cathedral of pulsating lights, moments before the ship rises majestically into outer space.  Finally, in 2007, Spielberg was given the chance to re-release yet another version of Close Encounters…for the third time (and as we all know, 'third time' seems to be the charm for Spielberg) - this time with no strings attached. This third stab remains Spielberg’s preferred Director’s Cut; basically, excising the aforementioned sequence, while retaining all the other SFX updates and edits from the Special Edition. Regardless, in any of its three incarnations, Close Encounters of the Third Kind must qualify as and out and out of this world masterpiece.
We must sincerely doff our caps and give immeasurable thanks to Sony Home Entertainment for possessing both the fortitude and clairvoyance to include all three versions of Close Encounters of the Third Kind on their newly released 4K Ultra Hi-Def Blu-Ray. I have seen far too many ‘revised’ versions of beloved movies make their way to this ‘newest’ format with a complete thoughtlessness in executive logic to exclude ‘original versions’ from the remastering effort that were already a part of other box set releases. Cost-cutting for the launch of 4K…bad idea, folks: Warner’s Blade Runner UHD release being a prime example. For shame! But I digress. Sony’s UHD Blu-Ray is predictably immaculate. No other major studio has shown a commitment to its back catalog as much as Sony.  We again pay our respects here to Mr. Grover Crisp, whose custodianship of the old Columbia library is as commendable as it remains a peerless exemplar all rival studios ought to be following. Regrettably, none are.  
Prepare to be dazzled, because Close Encounters has never looked this good on home video. The image is more richly textured and color fidelity across all three versions included in UHD is exceptional. Flesh tones appear quite natural. Optical shots retain their slightly degraded visual characteristic inherent in their indigenous matte and SFX processes. But this disc manages to refine even these problematic effects shots while subtly masking their more obvious photographic tricks. Film grain has been retained with far greater consistency. In projection, this UHD Blu-ray gave me the distinct pleasure of believing I might actually be watching a Panavision print master – not a disc. Kudos to Mr. Crisp again – and his talented team for their quality control in these remastering efforts. ‘Wow’ and sincerest thanks. The soundtrack on all three versions has been remastered in DTS – no small feat, considering how few original preservation elements have survived - and using the best possible source materials for an enigmatic 5.1 mix. This is how an ‘anniversary’ edition of a beloved movie ought to be handled – with attention paid to every last detail. A real class act!
Extras? Sony has definitely gone the extra mile here too. We get all three movies on regular Blu-ray but – get this – not simply the tired ole Blu’s from a decade ago, but new remasters also derived from these 4K elements. So, gone is the baked in edge enhancement that was present in the old Blu-ray release, with a marked improvement in both color fidelity and contrast. Sony has also produced two new to Blu featurettes for this re-issue: a 22 min. retrospective with Spielberg and directors J.J. Abrams and Denis Villeneuve, and, a nearly 6 min. compendium of Spielberg’s home movies and outtakes while making the movie. Unlike Disney Inc., Sony has elected to port over virtually all of the extras featured on their old DVD and Blu-ray releases; ergo, it’s a comprehensive package with Laurent Bouzereau’s exquisite 101 min. documentary front and center, plus Watch the Skies vintage 1977 featurette, Spielberg’s 30th anniversary ‘look back’, nearly 20 min. of deleted scenes and over 20 min. of storyboard to film comparisons; a massive photo gallery, the original trailer and the SE edition trailer.
All of these goodies are presented in hi-def! No ‘Strange Days’ slapdash DVD offerings here! For those so inclined, Sony has made Close Encounters available as both the aforementioned disc only set and a deluxe gift set. The packaging of the gift set is ‘gimmicky’; a 2-piece lenticular hologram that actually lights up and plays the iconic ‘five tones’ from the mothership. But the swag doesn’t really add up to the inflated price tag – especially since you are getting virtually everything except the booklet and cool packaging from the basic set. Judge and buy accordingly. Bottom line: very highly recommended! We love Sony at Nix Pix. We just do. There are many, many reasons why. Close Encounters of the Third Kind in UHD is just one of them. This is a must own UHD release. We champion it and hope for more of the same.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Thursday, September 21, 2017

SUSPECT: 30th Anniversary Blu-ray (Tri-Star 1987) Mill Creek Entertainment

Improbable alliances and bizarre plot twists, disjointedly strung together by screenwriter Eric Roth, plus a convoluted timeline, all conspire to deprive director Peter Yates’ Suspect (1987) from achieving the sort of flourish of exhilaration one might expect from a Washington-based game of cat and mouse. This one pits careworn public defender, Kathleen Riley (fetchingly played by Cher) in a staved flagrante delicto with argi-business lobbyist, Eddie Sanger (Dennis Quaid). The picture wastes far too much time on establishing Sanger as a smartly turned out ne’er-do-well who will stop at nothing to sway the vote, even bedding over-the-hill senator, Grace Comisky (E. Katherine Kerr) – who has absolutely nothing to do with the central plot of Suspect, but lingers on during the first twenty or so minutes until she unwisely accepts a midnight rendezvous invite from Sanger in trade for her swing vote on a crucial piece of legislation. The real beef I have with Suspect is it’s a mood piece with no plot – or rather, none quite effectively staged, with Billy Williams’ brooding cinematography and Michael Kamen’s nerve-jangling underscore carrying the load in this absurdly written, and even more meaninglessly structured whodunit. Suspect makes all the lethal mistakes one might ascribe to a low budget B-movie made by a novice director. It’s much too clever for its own good at moments when it should simply tell the narrative clearly and far too quick to reach its implausible denouement when a little more creative storytelling could have been applied.
There is, as example, no reason – good or even plausibly superficial – why Sanger, a self-important and preening peacock on Capitol Hill, utterly bored with his particular sect of Washington insiders, and, presently ordered to jury duty, should take an unhealthy interest in the case of one Carl Wayne Anderson (Liam Neeson).  This deaf mute vagrant is presently accused of slitting the gullet of junior law clerk, Elizabeth Quinn (Katie O’Hare), whose body washed up in the murky surf only inches away from Anderson’s ‘home’ and in whose possession Ms. Quinn’s personal effects, including her driver’s license and $9.00, police ascertain Anderson as the likely ‘suspect’ for this crime of murder. Alas, there is no motivation here either. Why should Sanger start dropping Riley clues as though they were a trail of Pez candy being dispensed from his amateur-sleuth’s pockets? Kathleen’s legal hands are repeatedly tied by presiding Judge Matthew Bishop Helms (John Mahoney). What’s he up to? Suspect is so full of red herrings it ought to have been made (or at least shot) in Rotterdam; director, Yates digging his creative hole fairly deep in the first eighteen minutes with a lot of speculation, pure conjecture and total misdirection. His set-up is so contrived it makes even the novice screenwriter blush; Roth, bouncing about the narrative map with zero staying power. Establishing mood is one thing. But mood alone does not help to formulate or fit these disjointed pieces into a jigsaw puzzle so that, at least in retrospect, the audience can plainly see for themselves how cleverly misdirected they have been.
We witness Quinn receive a glowing letter of reference from Justice Lowell (Thomas Barbour), who warmly bids her and his secretary (Rosemary Knower) a ‘Merry Christmas’ before sticking a double-barrel shotgun in his mouth and blowing his brains out right in his office. We fast track to the Potomac River where some saggy-nipple men from the local Polar Bear Club are indulging in their ritual frigid dip. Suddenly Quinn’s gruesome remains are discovered tangled in the raw sewage sloshing against the docks. Cut to Riley, ruthlessly robbed of her neatly wrapped packages by a pair of punks, who smash a brick against her car windshield; then, gutsily snatch her Christmas booty from its front seat in broad daylight while she is gridlocked in heavy traffic. Is there a point to this vignette? Not really, but it sets up the premise that in D.C. life is cheap and disposable…kind a’ like this movie, although the audience is as yet unaware.  Another flash forward and police have their man – barely. Anderson – emotionally disturbed and frightened – is not about to go quietly. He takes a gut-slicing stab at officers come to search the metal pipe he calls home, discovering Quinn’s purse in his possession. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Sanger is busy trying to woo Sen. Comisky. He needs her swing vote badly. He has the crocodile charm of a flatterer alright. But Comisky, despite her protestations and promises for being a ‘straight arrow’ is nevertheless interested in Sanger’s suggestion they take a fast cab to his place because she has ‘nice blue eyes’…even if she is old enough to be his mother. This fairly antiseptic ‘seduction’ that follows is mercilessly cut short; Yates, having at least the base decency and good taste to abstain from such obviousness and a more graphic explanation to assert for his audience that as far as Washington is concerned, everything is for sale.   
The setup for Suspects MacGuffin is fairly good. No one really cares about Quinn’s murder; the victim quickly becoming an afterthought in the rear view as Yates continues to set up two sides to the Washington establishment; the proverbial ‘haves’ and have nots’ and those tenuously perched to lose even this marginal toehold in this ‘politics as usual’ den of thieves. Eric Roth’s screenplay is desperate to mix political intrigue with murder and a roiling romance between his pair of antagonistic protagonists. Cher and Dennis Quaid have something they can loosely lay claim to as screen chemistry – her half more believable than his; butting heads, sassing each other, and finally – predictably - the gallant coming to the ‘damsel in distress’ in an improbable cliffhanger almost immediately dispatched thereafter. But honestly, Suspect should have had a lot more going for it than this. Lest we forget Peter Yates is the director of Bullitt (1968); that iconic police procedural starring Steve McQueen. It’s too easy to suggest if Yates and McQueen had paired again, than Suspect would be a better thriller. Cher is a formidable talent. But she lacks a remarkable partner to spar with here. Quaid is ineffectual at practically every turn; even as he briefly sheds his shirt for a flash of those trademarked washboard abs so our winsome Kathleen can treat his superficial gash inflicted by Michael (Paul D'Amato) – yet another vagrant who Riley was supposed to defend, except that he skipped out on her, only to resurface with possible ‘vital’ information regarding the ‘real killer’ in her current and chronically stymied defense of Anderson.   
Lowell’s suicide is never revisited in this movie; his death, too conveniently summarized by the late man himself in a recording discovered by Riley, still in the tape deck of Quinn’s abandoned Honda Civic and clearly labeled as incriminating evidence. Riley takes a crowbar to the driver’s side window to gain access to this crucial clue, rather idiotically stumbled upon without actually knowing about it beforehand. Okay, so Riley’s not your conventional public defender. Actually, she is not very good at her job either; relying almost exclusively on Sanger’s clumsy shadowing while constantly planting her own feet into one steamy pile after another in Washington’s closeted cesspool. Late in act three Yates and Roth attempt to embroil Deputy Attorney General Paul Gray (Philip Bosco) in the concealment of a forty year old case that allowed both Justice Lowell and Judge Helm to ascend to their present status as untouchables of the D.C. hoi poloi. Actually, poor ole Gray had nothing to do with any of it. But it makes for a calculating bit of misdirection – too little too late to have any effect at all.
So, to recap: just prior to the Christmas holidays a prominent U.S. Supreme Court Justice takes his own life. The plot thickens – or rather, curdles – as his file clerk, Elizabeth Quinn turns up in the Potomac River with her throat slit from ear to ear; the crime easily pinned on Carl Wayne Anderson, a deaf mute homeless man in possession of her personal effects when police conduct their search for clues. D.C. public defender, Kathleen Riley is reluctantly assigned to the case by Judge Helms, who thereafter denies her the necessary concessions she asks for in order to prepare an accurate defense strategy. Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, wily whip Eddie Sanger sleeps with a middle-aged congresswoman to get her vote on a crucial piece of legislature. Seconded to jury duty in the case against Anderson, Sanger takes an uncanny interest in acting as his own Sherlock Holmes, discovering Quinn’s Honda abandoned in a desolate K Street paid parking lot. He also trades his shoes and socks to a homeless woman to gain possession of a rare cufflink he believes belongs to Quinn’s murderer. Sharing his findings with Riley, Sanger is admonished for his unethical assistance – tantamount to jury tampering if Helms finds out.
Indeed, as the evidence gathered by Sanger and Riley begins to point to Deputy Attorney General Paul Gray, Helms grows increasingly suspicious of Riley’s extracurricular friendship with Sanger. The pair breaks into the Justice Department after discovering Quinn’s private key, only to learn whatever files were once stored in this security box have since been transcribed to a computer disc locked away somewhere else and to which no external access can be gained. Turning to a cryptic case file from 1968, Sanger and Riley are spotted together in the library research room; Riley’s quick thinking delaying Helms’ impression they have come there together in search of clues. Nevertheless, Helms sequesters the jury to prevent Riley from having any further contact with Sanger outside the courtroom for the remainder of the trial.  Believing Gray was likely the prosecutor on the ’68 trial, and therefore behind Quinn’s murder to keep his rigged case a secret, Riley makes the utterly idiotic decision; first, to break into Quinn’s impounded car, where she discovers Lowell’s taped confession (how convenient), and second, to hurry along to Helms’ home on the eve of a party, and where Gray is a guest, to divulge her findings. At the last possible moment, Riley gets cold feet – looking far more inept than she ought. She withdraws from Helms’ home without confiding anything.
Instead, Riley confesses her findings to colleague, Morty Rosenthal (Fred Melamed) at her office, suddenly remembering she has left her case book at the courthouse. Presumably, this will confirm her suspicions. Leaving Morty to wait for her return Riley hurries to the courthouse after hours and, too late, realizes she has been tailed by the real killer. Skulking down narrow corridors and racing through a series of offices, Riley barely escapes her assailant by slipping into an elevator with Anderson’s weapon from the evidence room. The elevator car stops on a curiously vacant floor of jail cells, even more oddly unmanned at their command center; again, allowing the cloaked assassin to make chase through this maze of bars. Meanwhile, fearing for Riley’s safety, Sanger deliberately sets off the fire alarm in the jury’s sequestered hotel, sneaking out undetected. And although he knows nothing of Kathleen’s whereabouts, a quick phone call to her office alerts him to the danger she is in. Sanger arrives just in time as Riley is attacked. Resourceful at last, she slices into her attacker’s wrist with Anderson’s blade. The unknown man flees and Sanger is allowed to play hero. The next day, Helms proceeds to bring about a swift resolution to Anderson’s trial – determined to garner a conviction. He is startled to discover Gray in the gallery at Riley’s request. Now, Riley calls Helms as one of her material witnesses. Talking over his strenuous objections, she exposes him as the prosecutor in 1968 that fixed the trial and doctored the official records thereafter to profit by this deceit. At the same time, Helms’ wrist wound reopens, revealing to all he is the man who attacked Riley the night before, and, in fact, murdered Quinn to silence her discovery of his treasonous actions so long ago.  Vindicated in her assumptions, Riley and Anderson tearfully embrace. Sometime later, Sanger turns up in Riley’s public defender’s office, suggesting they finally consummate the affair he would have liked all along. Riley laughingly agrees and Sanger closes the door behind him.
Suspect is a terribly botched thriller. Thanks to Billy Williams’ cinematography and a fairly competent performance by Cher, the picture is not a total washout. But its Swiss cheese of a plot is so faulty in its premise; so woefully underwhelming and poorly designed to misdirect the audience with fake clues in lieu of cleverly plotted ones that will actually add up to something more than the sum of its parts, Suspect dies slowly and painfully, wearing out its two hour run time by at least a half hour. The implausibility of a wayward Washington whip suddenly becoming John Q. Public: proactive citizen - is weakly scripted. And to simply write off Sanger’s overzealousness as a means to get in Riley’s pants is the flimsiest motivation. There is zero chemistry between Cher and Dennis Quaid, chiefly because he is much too in love with his own cocky caricature to afford his co-star the same Cher doles out with monumental humility. Quaid just cannot wait for the subtler moments to pass so he can grandstand his way into some clumsily conceived heroics. These thoroughly undermine Riley’s aptitude; not just as a public defender, but as a woman. What? She has to have the amateur sleuth spoon-feed her clues? Are we serious about this? Indeed, left to her own accord Riley would have surely allowed Anderson to fry for Quinn’s murder; not because she believed in his guilt, but rather, because of her powerlessness to prove his innocence. In the end, I suspect that Suspect is the kind of thriller one can only find moderately stimulating when all logic is traded for sheer performance. Director Peter Yates does get some economy from at least one of his stars and his own level of competency in assembling a few nail-biting vignettes along the way. Ultimately, he never connects the dots sufficiently to allow the audience in on his hairpin turns merely added as though he is assembling track on a theme park haunted house while the dark ride is in progress. It doesn’t work and Suspect is a middling effort from an A-list director and star who should have known better.
I can state as much about Mill Creek’s thoroughly abysmal 30th Anniversary Blu-ray of Suspect. I am sketchy on what studio has provided the 1080p elements for this transfer. Sony ought to be in control of the Tri-Star catalog. But this Blu-ray exhibits none of their hallmarks in creating immaculate hi-def transfers for third party distributors. Are we really at the tail end of 2017 and still having to contend with vintage catalog looking digitally harsh and grainy, riddled in age-related artifacts, and edge, aliasing and halo effects?!? Really? Are we? For starters, let’s just get off the pot about labeling substandard dreck like this, with virtually NO extra features, as an ‘anniversary’ edition. What is there to celebrate here? Hmmm?
On the plus side: Suspect’s palette of colors is fairly vibrant if slightly boosted; flesh tones more pinkish than is permissible. Fine detail in close-up is impressive, but again, digitally harsh, suggesting untoward tinkering. The image has a highly processed look, as is evident in long shots where vertical and horizontal details in buildings or the courtroom paneling uncontrollably shimmer; ditto for herring bone fabrics. There is nothing film-like about this presentation. While age-related artifacts are present throughout, on occasion they are downright thick and very distracting. The audio is a feeble 2.0 stereo; dated and sounding exceptionally tinny. The final insult: this disc boots up automatically – no chapter stops (other than arbitrarily advanced via one’s remote, and with the added nuisance of beginning with the subtitle feature turned ‘on’. At the end of the feature we do get a very basic menu with a ‘play’ and ‘subtitle’ button, but neither is accessible at the start or throughout the feature. You have to wait for the end. Dumb, idiotic engineering! Bottom line: Suspect is a middling thriller with a piss poor transfer and very silly disc authoring. If you are a fan of this movie, this isn’t the way to cherish it for years to come. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Agatha Christie's POIROT: Complete Cases Collection (LWT/ITV/A&E 1989-2013) Acorn Media

Perhaps no mystery author is as revered as Dame Agatha Christie, and for good reason. In a prolific career that included a collection of short stories and 85 novels, Christie’s verve for the ‘locked room’ thriller never waned; nor did the quality of her writing. And so it was Christie elected with some apprehension to put a period to one of her most enduring – if not entirely ‘endearing’ creations; Belgian master sleuth, Hercule Poirot; formally announcing ‘his death’ in her final installment ‘Curtain’; later eulogized in a fitting tribute published on Aug. 6, 1975 in the New York Times.  This, mercifully, was not to be the real ‘end’ of Poirot; thanks to a series of highly profitable feature films made throughout the 1970's and 80's starring Albert Finney and later, Peter Ustinov as varying incarnations of this fastidious fact finder and self-appointed arbitrator of the moral truth. And then, in 1985, came the first bit of kismet to suggest that one of the world’s most beloved detectives had not yet rested his bones in the earth; the unlikely debut of actor, David Suchet as Inspector Japp, opposite Ustinov in Thirteen at Dinner. From this inauspicious unveiling, Suchet could not have foreseen the monumental impact Hercule Poirot would have on his life and career; not even two years later when he was offered an attractive three year contract to star as the ingenious mastermind in LWT’s (later to be inherited and continued by A&E and ITV) franchise series, simply titled, Agatha Christie’s Poirot (1989-2013). In preparation for the role, Suchet immersed himself in all of the Christie novels, taking to heart Hercule’s quirks as “the sort of man who takes it upon himself to straighten your tie…but also knows how to make a woman feel special.” 
Hercule Poirot is hardly a lovable creature. At times, he can be downright dismissive, even of his most loyal partnerships, setting aside virtually every last vestige of emotion and tact to react as a sort of fact-checking human calculator, adding up the clues with his neuron-firing ‘little grey cells’ to debunk increasingly devious and psychologically complex murder plots. Poirot’s brittle nature was brought into full swing by Albert Finney’s singular turn as the celebrated detective in Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Peter Ustinov softened these rough edges considerably and, despite bearing virtually no physical resemblance at all to the character as described by Christie, nevertheless managed to convey the essence of Poirot in several movies made thereafter; the most enduring, 1978’s all-star cliffhanger, Death on the Nile. But to date, David Suchet remains the only actor to have adapted all of Dame Agatha’s Poirot mysteries in a visual medium; no small feat, and one for which a change in broadcast format, as well as the creative talent toiling behind the screen, created something of a disconnect within the franchise midway through its staggering 24 year run.  Initially developed in partnership by screenwriter, Clive Exton and producer, Brian Eastman, the one-hour mysteries made exceptional use of Christie’s period Art Deco locations and décor, chiefly overseen by Rob Harris until 2000. Exton, in fact, adapted seven of Christie’s novels and fourteen of her short stories for these teleplays before departing. The first eight series were overseen entirely by Exton and Eastman until 2001 when they elected to develop another franchise for the BBC, Rosemary & Thyme.
In their absence, Michele Buck and Damien Timmer set about to ‘revampPoirot; the series on hiatus until 2003 when it returned as 2-hour ‘event programming’ and featured a deep-seated change to the overall tenor of the original franchise. Lost in this translation was Christopher Gunning’s iconic and jocular Poirot theme; intermittently heard thereafter, mostly as somber cues peppered throughout the remaining episodes and, on the rarest occasion, re-orchestrated to spirited effect for the ‘end titles’. One can, I suppose, accept the overall darker flavor of these event movies (the times are presumably unsuitable for more light-hearted fare); even the loss of those utterly gorgeous and sleek uber modernist locations and sets as, inevitably, the timeline of the franchise moves beyond the halcyon days of the early 1930’s into that fast-approaching epoch of WWII. But personally, I cannot abide the alterations made to contemporize Poirot for a younger audience: the facelift lacking humor and taking on a much more macabre tone than was ever present in any of Dame Agatha’s Poirot novels. Buck and Timmer also lay heavily on the more primeval metaphors and oft cliché-reoccurring motifs in their vigor to bring sex, homo-eroticism, drug abuse and abortion to the forefront of their plots, essentially abandoning all subtlety infused in the original series and, in fact, Christie’s tales of terror. I think one of the most unforgivable sins of these latter installments, ironically, Christie would have approved; the absence of Poirot’s entourage in Series 9 through 12; Inspector Japp (played with stoic zeal by Philip Jackson), Colonel Hastings (a disarming Hugh Fraser) and his private secretary, Miss Felicity Lemon (the ever plucky Pauline Moran). Indeed, as Christie evolved Poirot she too abandoned these beloved reoccurring regulars; introducing the character of mystery novelist, Ariadne Oliver as her alter ego (superbly imagined in several episodes by Zoë Wanamaker) beginning in Series 10 in 2006. The debut of David Yelland as Poirot’s ever-steadfast valet, George ought to have come much earlier in the franchise, except the original series, with its focus on the bromantic chemistry between Poirot and Hastings, really had no place for yet another appendage to Poirot’s already exceptionally well-ordered life.     
David Suchet came to Poirot’s pedigree under the auspices and acceptance of Dame Agatha’s surviving family. Indeed, her grandson, Mathew Pritchard has been very accepting of Suchet and as impressed with his performance since and over the series’ evolution; his one sincere regret: Christie and Suchet never met. Christie died at the ripe old age of 85 in 1976. “My grandmother would have loved him, I am sure,” Pritchard has reasserted numerous times. Despite Suchet’s claim to have pictorialized ‘all’ of Christie’s Poirot mysteries, there are several omissions worth mentioning. First, two short stories ‘The Submarine Plans’ and ‘The Market Basing Mystery’, never filmed in their original short story format as Agatha Christie later reworked both into novellas (The Incredible Theft, and, Murder in the Mews, respectively). Both were made into hour-long episodes for the original franchise.  Also, the thirteen short stories comprising ‘The Labors of Hercules’ have been distilled into a single episode of the same name; the character of Lemesurier, giving a polite nod to another short story entirely, The Lemesurier Inheritance’ never filmed for the television franchise. Another absence is ‘The Regatta Mystery’ – generally not considered part of the Poirot canon, despite having first appeared in installments in the Strand Magazine in 1936 with Poirot as its crime-solver. Christie would later rework this story as a Parker Pyne mystery. This is, in fact, how it was published as a full-fledged novel in 1939 and has since been accepted into the Christie, rather than Poirot catalog. Lastly, the play ‘Black Coffee’ – distinctly a Hercule Poirot mystery – remains conspicuously MIA from the TV franchise for dubious reasons. It seems Christie never rewrote the play as a novel. With the family’s complicity, a post-mortem adaptation finally did arrive in book form in 1998. And Suchet did, also, appear in the original play on stage – thus, solidifying his claim to have ‘done justice’ to the entire authentic annals of Hercule Poirot.   
The Poirot franchise is so extensive that to do it justice in any review would mean to entertain my readership with a recitation of the facts as long as the great man’s illustrious career. I shall refrain from such a plaudit. Suffice it to say, an evening spent with Hercule Poirot is never anything less than invigorating. Interestingly, some of the most highly anticipated mysteries in the Christie franchise are not altogether well-served by the television format. Murder on the Orient Express, arguably Christie’s most enduring Poirot mystery, is a rather tepid and wan ghost flower of the aforementioned Sidney Lumet feature film adaptation from 1974, starring Albert Finney; as is Death on the Nile – the production values and lack of an all-star international cast, leaving one to pine for Peter Ustinov’s glib repartee with David Niven’s Colonel Race from 1978. Some of the irrefutable highlights in the TV franchise are The ABC Murders, Death in the Clouds, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, The Mystery of the Blue Train, Appointment with Death, Hallowe’en Party, The Big Four, Elephants Can Remember and Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case; a bittersweet farewell if ever conceived for the small screen. Virtually all of the ITV installments immeasurably benefit from the producers’ great pains to photograph this franchise in authentic, oft exotic locales; from London to Paris to Egypt and all points in between. Indeed, Poirot is one of the most lavishly appointed TV series of its generation, most readily and superbly photographed by Chris O’Dell (15 episodes) and Ivan Strasburg (11 episodes).  The small army of writers, producers, cinematographers and production designers who have contributed to its period look are to be sincerely commended; not just for their attention to every last detail, but in maintaining continuity throughout the series’ fractured past with intermittent fallow periods never once unsettling Suchet’s unimpeachable performance. He is the continuity that holds the franchise together.  
In brief, Poirot was to suffer several shake-ups along the way, threatening both its continuation and its continuity; Acorn Media acquiring the rights to series 1–6 and 11–12 while series 7–10 remained the intellectual property of co-producers, A&E. Of interest, the A&E network broadcast versions omitted scenes, presumably for time constraints. The eventual reissue of these episodes via ITV has reinstated all of this excised footage. But the change in corporate sponsorship may also account for why these episodes included in ITV’s relatively new and comprehensive Poirot Blu-ray box set appear as though to have been sourced from badly worn digital tape copies rather than film stock; looking overly harsh and riddled in edge enhancement, marred also by a decided loss in color fidelity. The hiccup is brief, though nevertheless, quite unforgiveable and appallingly subpar. Beginning with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and continuing right on through to Cards on the Table, image quality is highly suspect and very uneven. Some episodes are more richly contrasted and stable while others suffer from a thick/soft appearance with muted colors and overall poor contrast levels.  
Series 1-6 and 12-13 represent the most competent remastering efforts in this box set. Herein, colors are rich, contrast superb and fine detail shockingly layered in clothes, skin, hair and background detail; Sheena Napier’s costume design in particular, showcasing immaculately tailored suits for Hercule, exhibiting razor-sharp exposure of gorgeous pin-stripes and various other hand-woven textures. In close-up we can see even the brilliantine matting Suchet’s perfectly upturned moustache. Alas, the virtues expounded upon herein all but vanish for Series 7-11; or rather, become uneven and problematic at best. Color density is lacking, as is overall clarity – replaced in a few episodes by a very artificial sharpening of the image, resulting in chroma bleeding and shimmering of fine details: halo effects that are, on occasion, exceptionally distracting. In long shot, textures and details blur, introducing other anomalies: aliasing, dot crawl and electronic processing. I am uncertain of the source used in remastering these episodes in hi-def (despite the claim everything was shot on Super16 between 1999-2000), but again, I strongly suspect these episodes have been upscaled from digital tape, or, are the result of some very dated hi-def scans in desperate need of a revisit, or otherwise, the unwitting sacrifices made by thoroughly misguided workmanship designed to mask their inherent shortcomings; rendering future clean-up and restoration a moot point. I sincerely hope I am mistaken. It would provide at least some hope for future re-re-remastering efforts in hi-def to correct and compliment the visual appeal of these episodes’ storytelling.   
The audio on all episodes from Series 1-13 has been superbly handled in 2.0 DTS. There are virtually zero complaints here; dialogue, very crisp and nuanced, and music and effects well integrated into the mix. ITV has added some impressive bonus features along the way; including 3 comprehensive documentaries. The first, Being Poirot is a 62 minute globe-trotting excursion that takes actor, David Suchet back to the various locales of Poirot’s most memorable mysteries. The second, Super Sleuths (47 min.) is a wonderful retrospective on the series with all its key players returning ‘to the scene of the crime’ as it were, to recount their favorite moments. Finally, there is David Suchet on the Orient Express – also 47 min. but by far the least successful; made as a junket to coincide with ITV’s re-imagining of the classic Christie tale to whet the public’s appetite for its upcoming television broadcast.  Bottom line: Agatha Christie’s drawing power as one of the most prescient writers of the 20th century shows little signs of diminishing in the years since her passing. Hercule Poirot remains as steadfast a part of our mystery-viewing culture as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes; the super sleuth whose popularity Christie had candidly endeavored to equal with Poirot’s creation. ITV’s comprehensive box set is not without its shortcomings. But on the whole, this is a worthwhile set to get your favorite armchair crime solver for the approaching holidays. Bottom line: highly recommended for content, but with caveats for its inconsistently rendered video quality. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Series 1-6       4.5
Series 7-11     2.5
Series 12-13   4