Wednesday, May 30, 2018

THE PARENT TRAP: Blu-ray (Walt Disney, 1961) Disney Club Exclusive

Based on a German novelette, Das Doppelte Lottchen by Erich Kästner, director David Swift’s The Parent Trap (1961) is a most delightful petty larceny – a light-hearted family entertainment that, thanks to Ub Iwerk’s ingenious sodium process split screen, convincingly sells its star, Hayley Mills as twin sisters Sharon and Susan McKendrick. The daughter of renown British movie legend, John Mills, young Hayley came to Walt Disney’s attention after her auspicious debut opposite dad in 1959’s Tiger Bay. More recently, Walt had been most impressed with the girl as she accompanied Mills, along with his wife and other daughter, Juliet during the arduous Tobago shoot on Swiss Family Robinson (1960); a move that led directly to Hayley being cast in Walt’s most anticipated live-action feature to date – Pollyanna (released the same year). Despite her youth – Hayley was, in fact, fourteen playing fourteen in The Parent Trap, she proved every bit the professional after John sat her down for a serious talk about her acting capabilities. The experience of starring in back to back Disney classics (although Pollyanna was not immediately taken to heart as such then) catapulted Hayley Mills into the stratum of superstar overnight, following in the footsteps of other Disney child star alumni, Tommy Kirk and Annette Funicello. 
Indeed, immediately after her special Oscar for Pollyanna, Walt labeled young Hayley “the greatest movie find in 25 years.” Mills’ great gift to the movies undeniably stemmed from her unpretentious and instinctively meaningful acting style. She seems to enter the frame fully formed; a child in years only, yet far less naïve than most, and in possession of a fresh vitality absent of the contrivances of a trained monkey.  Walt would sign Hayley to a 5-year contract. Although featured in some of the studio’s highest profile projects, including In Search of the Castaways, Summer Magic, The Moon-Spinners, and, That Darn Cat, at least in retrospect, none of Hayley’s subsequent features would rival the spunk and energy of The Parent Trap. As she grew into adulthood, Mills also lost the ‘wholesome’ aspect that had endeared her to audiences in the first place. Although not a musical, Hayley would warble the Sherman brothers rockabilly ditty, ‘Let’s Get Together’ in The Parent Trap. This became an unanticipated big hit with prepubescent audiences, director Swift later recalling how Mill’s annunciation of several lines in the song unintentionally carried over her British accent in a picture decidedly about two American teenagers; one from Boston, the other a Southern California girl - “It certainly had its charm!”
Although no soundtrack album to The Parent Trap was ever released (odd), ‘Let’s Get Together’ was released as a single by the studio after it was discovered kids were sneaking into their local movie houses with tape recorders to capture it for posterity. In reflecting upon her years as a Disney child star, Mills was circumspect about the reasons for her success. “It was all Walt. I went to his suite at the Dorchester Hotel along with my parents, my younger brother and our Pekingese, Suki. Walt laughed a lot in rather a shy way. I found him very endearing. I think that’s what made me warm to him. I remember he and I crawling around the floor after Suki, who was eating potato crisps off of the carpet. But he was such a friend and oh, when you’re a little girl you don’t appreciate a lot of things. I miss him dearly.” 

Throughout his career, Walt Disney was as fascinated by the technical aspects of picture-making as discovering new talent to populate his films. And in this former regard, The Parent Trap is a superb pantomime of cinema trickery; Hayley Mills, effectively dissected into two sisters with very distinct personalities. Part of the believability stems from Mills’ duality; her screen double, Susan Henning cleverly used for over-the-shoulder shots, effectively wearing wigs, and possessing an uncanny resemblance around the eyes – enough, to actually be shown from the front (albeit, Henning’s face smeared with cake icing) during the battle royale that takes place between Sharon and Susan McKendrick while away at summer camp.
Initially, The Parent Trap called for only a handful of these ‘trick shots’ to be featured; the studio’s resident effects artist, Ub Iwerk’s employing a proprietary sodium vapor process (a.k.a. yellow screen) for compositing in lieu of the more time-honored chroma key technique. The sodium vapor process was, in fact, superior in this regard. It could even matte smoke without creating any hint of those disturbing ‘blue fire’ halos around its principle actors. The sodium vapor process was a photochemical technique for combining actors and backgrounds shot at different times and in different locations; the actor, in front of a white screen with a powerful sodium vapor light on them, affecting a specific color spectrum. A camera with a beam-splitter prism exposed two separate film elements; one, a color negative, practically impervious to sodium light; the other, a fine-grain B&W, extremely sensitive to its vapor’s specific wavelength. This latter element was then used to create a matte and counter-matte, allowing for the clean isolation of each element, later to be re-composited one at a time in an optical printer.
When Walt saw the few inserts of two Hayley Mills created for The Parent Trap he was so impressed by its seamlessness he immediately ordered rewrites in Swift’s screenplay to take full advantage of the uncanny effect. As Hayley Mills was relatively ‘new’ to pictures, the appearance of her mirror image, behaving differently (thanks to Mills formidable skills as an actress) interacting with herself, created a marketing sensation for the picture. Nevertheless, Walt was not about to rely solely upon a gimmick to sell The Parent Trap to audiences. And so, he populates the film with a crackerjack array of stellar Hollywood alumni; Maureen O’Hara and Brian Keith to play the girl’s estranged parents, Maggie McKendrick and Mitch Evers; Charlie Ruggles and Kathleen Nesbitt as the girls’ grandparents, Charles and Louise, Una Merkel as Verbena, their housekeeper, Leo G. Carroll, an amused Reverend Dr. Mosby, and, Nancy Kulp and Ruth McDevitt as a pair of middle-age and mannish summer camp directors (Miss Grunecker and Miss Inch respectively). The one casting misfire is Joanna Barnes as Vicky Robinson, Mitch’s fiancée (Linda Watkins, playing Vicky’s mother, Edna). Vicky is oft referred to as ‘a child’ – meant to invoke a considerable discrepancy between her and Mitch’s age, and thus, amplify the incongruity of his plans to marry her. But Barnes, despite being 27 years old (to O’Hara’s 42) looks every bit as mature on screen (more so, if you ask me); making the prospect of Mitch being reunited with Maggie all the more appealing. Barnes does play a good villain, however – the enterprising ‘young thing’ with her hooks in Mitch’s wallet and plans to ship the girls off to boarding school just as soon as the band of gold has been affixed to her ring finger.
The Parent Trap was shot by cinematographer extraordinaire, Lucien Ballard – mostly, in California, with picturesque settings at Bluff Lake and Cedar Lake camps near Big Bear Lake; also, Monterey, Carmel and Placerita Canyon, where the exterior of Ever’s sprawling ranch house was built by Art Directors Carroll Clark and Robert Clatworthy. The blueprint to this abode proved so popular the Disney studios continue to receive frequently requests by affluent home owners seeking to duplicate its layout. The joke, apparently, was on them, as virtually all of the interiors were merely false fronts, reconstructed on various sound stages at the studio. Walt also assigned Paul J. Smith to underscore the picture. Smith had worked at Disney since the early 1940's, contributing background cues on many of the studio’s most beloved animated and live-action features. But Walt also wanted songs for The Parent Trap, putting the pop-tune-writing duo of Richard and Robert Sherman on the payroll to pen a title song, a tender love ballad and a specialty number to be performed by ‘the two’ Hayley Mills. ‘The Parent Trap’ is sung by Walt’s favorite Mousketeer, Annette Funicello and teenage heartthrob, Tommy Sands. Walt had hoped to make ‘a couple’ out of this pair. But after their box office implosion in his costly flop Babes in Toyland (starring Funicello and Sands), this idea was scrapped.
As the aforementioned ‘Let’s Get Together’ proved a runaway hit once The Parent Trap hit theaters, this left the Sherman’s love ballad, ‘For Now, For Always’, the only real victim of the editing process. Curious too, as Swift’s screenplay gives a big build up to the moment where Susan (masquerading as Sharon) asks her mother what song they were playing when she and Mitch first met. After some brief contemplation, Maureen O’Hara’s Maggie hums a few bars of ‘For Now, For Always’ and then contributes a brief refrain, the camera cutting to a high angle of mother and daughter strolling through the park before a quick fade to black. Apart from Susan’s fracturing of a few bars during one of her midnight conversations with Sharon, and an all too brief reprise tacked on to accompany Maggie and Mitch’s second wedding ceremony at the end of the picture, ‘For Now, For Always’ would remain unheard.
After an ebullient main title, with start/stop animation produced by Xavier Atencio, depicting a disgruntled couple, their slightly depressed daughters, and a pair of overly-amorous cherubs in hot pursuit of a reconciliation, The Parent Trap opens on Sharon McKendrick’s chauffeur-driven arrival at summer camp. The camps overseers, Miss Inch and Miss Grunecker place Sharon with a pair of roommates, Ursula (Lynette Winter) and Betsy (Kay Cole). But quickly, Sharon becomes fascinated with another girl who bears an uncanny resemblance to her. Rather jealously, this mystery girl and her cohorts sabotage Sharon’s chances to attend the much-anticipated dance featuring boys brought in from the neighboring ‘scouts’ camp. As revenge, Sharon, Ursula and Betsy cut out the back of the girl’s dress, exposing her panties during the dance. A fight breaks out between these two rivals and quickly escalates to an all-out/hair-pulling brawl. As punishment, Miss Inch confines the girls to a cabin all by themselves for the duration of their stay. At first, neither is willing to budge. But then, an impromptu thunderstorm brings out Sharon’s benevolence. The girls begin to talk and Sharon learns the other girl’s name is Susan Evers. Before long, Sharon reasons there is more to their burgeoning friendship than meets the eye and decides to share a portrait of her mother she has brought along to camp. Susan recognizes it as the same picture she remembers sitting on her father’s mantle a long time ago. It now becomes clear to both they are twin sisters, having been separated at birth after their parents’ messy divorce.
The girls hatch a plot: to trade places so they can experience what the other parent they have never known is really like. Susan cuts Sharon’s hair to fool Mitch, and the two rehearse the particulars of each other’s lifestyle and friendships so as to seamlessly pull off the ruse. Alas, like all well-laid plans, this one begins to unravel after Sharon, having met Mitch, Verbena and Susan’s beloved German Shepherd, Andromeda (the dog does not recognize Sharon and barks at her) also discovers Mitch is seeing a new woman, Vicky Robinson with whom he has already become engaged. During one of their many midnight telephone calls – to keep abreast of each other’s developments – Sharon informs Susan she must bring Maggie to California post haste to sabotage Mitch’s wedding plans. Having eavesdropped on the girls’ conversation, Sharon’s grandfather, Charles urges her to reveal the truth to her mother and grandmother the next afternoon. This half of the plot exposed, Maggie hurriedly packs for the trip to California, still unaware of Mitch’s plans to remarry. Meanwhile, Vicky, her mother, Edna and Dr. Mosby have arrived to go over the plans for the pending ceremony, presumably to take place this Saturday.
Of course, Maggie and Susan arrive in the midst, causing Mitch to badly fumble in the moment. Sending Vicky, Edna and Dr. Mosby away, Mitch and Maggie have another of their infamous arguments that, so we are led to believe, was the cause of their divorce in the first place. Mitch learns of the girls’ switch and is delighted to rediscover the daughter he has never known. For a brief wrinkle, everything appears to be in order; Maggie, making plans to return to Boston immediately with Sharon. Alas, the girls have other ideas, pulling off a convincing disguise so that neither Maggie nor Mitch can tell them apart. Sharon and Susan re-stage Maggie and Mitch’s first date in the courtyard of Mitch’s ranch house, hoping it will bring the couple together. It doesn’t. Next, the hatch a plot to go camping together as a family. At the end of the trip, come what may, Sharon and Susan will tell their parents who is who and return to their respective places of origin without incident.
Alas, Vicky is opposed to the idea of Mitch spending a weekend with his ex. Maggie quite agrees and invites Vicky on the camping expedition in her stead, electing to stay behind at the ranch. Mitch, and his hired man, Hecky (Crahan Denton) take Vicky and the girls high into the mountains. Regrettably, Vicky is not used to the great outdoors – a deficit Sharon and Susan exploit to her ever-lasting detriment. They lie to Vicky about keeping mountain lions at bay by cracking together two sticks of kindling, trick her into wading into a lake that is much too deep, and, plant a harmless tree lizard on her cantina to frighten her. That evening, Sharon and Susan rig Vicky’s tent with some twine and a trail of honey that attracts a pair of black bear cubs to begin licking her toes.  Brought to the brink of frustration, Vicky tears apart the base camp, shoving Mitch into his tent and ordering Hecky to drive her back to town. She has had enough of Mitch, the girls and the wilds to last her a lifetime. Meanwhile, back at the ranch (literally), Mitch confronts Maggie about the girls’ scheme to wreck his second marriage. But she truly had no idea what he is talking about. Recognizing Maggie’s innocence as genuine, and moreover, suddenly brought to rekindle the magic of their failed first attempt at marital bliss, Mitch confides he has never stopped loving her. Upstairs, Sharon awakens in the dead of night to ‘a crazy dream’ where she and Susan were marching in organdy dresses down a pathway to an altar. We dissolve to the moment of truth; the girls actually attending their parents’ re-marriage, officiated by Dr. Mosby, who could not be more pleased by the outcome. Thus, ends our story – happily ever after, as was always Walt’s intention from the outset.
From beginning to end, The Parent Trap is a charmer. Director, David Swift deftly handles both the comedy and melodrama with a broad and thoroughly sincere gift for maintaining this lighthearted romp. The emotional ballast of the piece is offset by the dual performance of Hayley Mills, affectingly the girl(s) every mum and dad would love to call their own.  Although the screenplay occasionally deflates into rank lampoon and mild screwball comedy it never entirely falls apart. And thus, The Parent Trap remains a deliciously concocted souffle.  The magnificent usage of the sodium process and optical printer effectively aids Hayley Mills in her deception. Never for a moment do we doubt her as two separate people with conflicting personalities. Brian Keith and Maureen O’Hara are old pros and possess genuine on-screen chemistry as the feuding couple brought back from the brink. In the final analysis, The Parent Trap is perennial satisfying; a true Disney classic in Walt’s live-action canon.
The Parent Trap was released in 1998 on DVD as part of the studio’s short-lived ‘Vault Disney’ series, a deluxe offering with oodles of extras.  Unfortunately, this incarnation was a travesty in other ways.  Colors were faded – amplified during the sodium SFX – and there was a lot of edge enhancement scattered throughout. I cannot believe it has taken 18 years to get The Parent Trap remastered and released in hi-def. But finally, miraculously, we have it on Blu-ray, via Disney Inc.’s rather idiotic decision to confine most of its live-action catalog to their Disney Club; thus, making it almost impossible for anyone living outside the U.S. to buy these deep catalog titles, except through third-party distributors charging exorbitant fees. Dumb! Ah, but there is very good news for fans of this movie, as Disney Inc. has seen fit to completely remaster The Parent Trap on Blu-ray. Gone are the wan colors of yore; also, the edge enhancement. New color balancing has restored the vibrant mid-sixties hues to their original brilliance. 

Blu-ray’s sharper image makes a few fleeting references to the sodium process more transparent, but it is to the credit of the process itself that what looked convincing in 1961 remains largely convincing even today. The trick shots cleverly peppered throughout The Parent Trap are good enough to fool the eye. Occasionally, these matte shots can look slightly softer by comparison. But on the whole, the visuals here are solid and well represented, with a modicum of film grain and contrast that is bang-on. The DTS 5.1 audio is adequate without going the extra mile to win any awards. Once again, Disney Inc. has made the executive decision to jettison virtually all extras that once accompanied this release. Idiotic, if you ask me. But nobody ever does. Bottom line: The Parent Trap is a bona fide Walt Disney classic and an exuberant coming-of-age rom/com.  Every child should see it today. Forget 1998’s clumsily remade version co-starring Lindsay Lohan. It’s the original you want because, despite changing times and tastes, the performances and SFX have held up spectacularly. Good stuff here, and well worth seeing. Very highly recommended! 
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Monday, May 28, 2018

JURASSIC PARK: 4K Quadrilogy (Universal 1993 - 2015) Universal Home Video

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to Costa Rica, Universal Home Video unleashes the Jurassic Park quadrilogy in 4K. Personally, I have always held director, Steven Spielberg accountable for the grotesque quagmire of green-screen SFX that have since come to dictate the picture-making biz to the point where virtually nothing we see on our movie screens anymore can be taken at face value. I should point out, Spielberg always considered CGI a tool, not a crutch (a fine line of distinction, wholeheartedly lost on his contemporaries); an additional means to tell stories that, in no other way, could be convincingly expressed to an audience. So, the debut of Jurassic Park in 1993 was not so much the beginning of the end for the next generation of finely skilled cinematographers (as it turned out to be in hindsight), but a golden opportunity for Spielberg’s creative yen and genius in the realm of sci-fi to be given its full reign.
Too bad, virtually all of today’s aspiring Spielbergs (though none possessing Spielberg’s uniqueness) have come to exploit CGI, simply to matte in everything from giant bugs to perfect sunsets when neither are to be found ideally on tap in nature. It took a film maker like David Lean six weeks to photograph the perfect gale for Ryan’s Daughter (1970). Today, some well-intended exec would merely suggest Lean use a couple of dump tanks and a digital matte artist to create his unholy hurricane. Sorry, folks – but it is not the same! The reality of a maelstrom staged by Lean is all the more awe-inspiring because we know it is ‘real’ to ‘reel’ and not the other way around. Because CGI today, apart from making anything possible, has become far too convenient rather than cost-cutting…oh, and quite transparent. I can spot a digital shot within seconds. They take the viewer out of the story. This latter artistic faux pas, again, can be forgiven Jurassic Park and its subsequent installments because – hey – dinosaurs no longer ‘rule the earth’ even if they dominate at the box office. But I digress.
Written as a cautionary tale against mankind’s blind tinkering within the unknown quantities of science, Michael Crichton’s 1990 novel, Jurassic Park was a disturbing, often philosophical critique on greed, ambition and the effective disintegration of high-minded daydreams, spun wildly out of control and into our worst nightmares. Crichton’s great gift for melding DNA fact with sci-fi speculations cleverly masked what is essentially a morality play, using a dinosaur caper to lure in his readership. In translating the book into a movie these debates were ultimately traded for Spielberg's verve to create a money-making blockbuster, the theoretical contemplation distilled into mere sound bites espoused by chaos theorist, Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) or discarded outright in favor of an all-out cinematic roller coaster ride.
The original movie is fraught with all sorts of murky scientific/religious and moral implications, put forth, superbly summarized by Malcolm in a soliloquy that bears quoting. “Gee, the lack of humility before nature that's being displayed here, uh... staggers me,” Malcolm confronts Jurassic Park’s creator, John Hammond (Richard Attenborough), “Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet’s ever seen, but you wield it like a kid that's found his dad's gun. If I may.. I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you're using here. It didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could do it that they didn't stop to think if they should!” And, indeed, shortly thereafter Hammond will rue the day he ever thought he could harness the awesome power of these prehistoric creatures for the mere purposes of marketing a theme park to the unsuspecting world.
At times, Jurassic Park - the movie - teeters dangerously close to the edge of schlock horror. But Spielberg's zeal for good storytelling prevents the more gruesome elements from running totally amuck. The film stars Sam Neill as paleontologist Allan Grant. Together with paleo-botanist Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), Grant is in the middle of a daring excavation when he is encouraged by billionaire theme park developer, John Hammond to partake of a weekend retreat on the remote island of Isla Nublar off the coast of Costa Rica. There, Hammond and his team of biologists have genetically re-engineered dinosaurs based on DNA found in fossilized mosquito, reconfigured with strands of DNA from the common frog. Grant is momentarily intrigued, although highly skeptical. However, when Hammond offers to fully fund Grant’s current archeological dig to its completion, both he and Ellie giddily agree to be Hammond’s guests for the weekend – a decision they are soon to regret.
Also invited are 'rock star' chaos theorist, Dr. Ian Malcolm and Donald Gennero (Martin Ferraro), the ‘blood-sucking’ attorney representing Hammond’s investors. Once on Isla Nublar, Dr. Grant is forced to confront his own anxieties about having children when it is decided Hammond’s grandchildren, Tim (Joseph Mazzello) and Alexis (Ariana Richards) will accompany the group on their first motorized tour through Jurassic Park; a prehistoric zoological attraction. Unfortunately for all concerned, the park’s chief computer programmer, Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) has accepted a bribe from outside competing interests. He sabotages the attraction, steals vials of the dino DNA and escapes on the eve that a major hurricane makes landfall. The shutdown disables the park’s protective parameters; the net result being that humans and dinosaurs are suddenly thrust together after an absence of roughly six million years. Fate intervenes, as only it can; the slovenly Dennis receiving his just reward by a poisonous dilophosaurus. After Donald is eaten by the park’s resident tyrannosaurus-rex, Alexis and Tim take refuge with Dr. Grant in a tree to escape a similar fate. Ellie and the island’s doctor, Gerry Harding (Gerald R. Molen) rescue Malcolm who has been injured in the attack. The rest of the movie is essentially a race against time to restore the protective barriers and narrowly escape before the wildest inhabitants devour their human creators. Some make it; some don’t.
Returning to Jurassic Park some eighteen years removed from all its marketing hype and tie-ins, the visual pioneering of digital technologies and puppetry that made the melding of dinosaurs and humans so believable still holds up…even, in 4K. After a rocky start, the screenplay by Michael Crichton and David Koepp is quite successful at balancing the adventurous bits of nonsense with the more intimate drama that plays between Dr. Grant and Ellie with Malcolm feathered in as glib comic relief. Overall, these performances are solid and anchor the fanciful story line to an important thread of credibility. So popular was Jurassic Park that Universal Studios undertook another excursion to the island with The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997. Despite having Crichton’s novel to draw from, Spielberg was unable to secure the author’s participation on the screenplay, leaving Koepp to create a patchwork of narratives, becoming so convoluted and meandering, the net result remains a movie painfully marred by false starts and disassembled bits of melodramatic incoherence.
This time out Hammond has bribed Malcolm to visit his auxiliary site for dinosaur experimentation, Isla Sorna, having already sent Malcolm’s girlfriend, Dr. Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore) on ahead. Unbeknownst to Malcolm his daughter from a previous marriage, Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester) has managed to smuggle herself along for the trip within the mobile laboratory. Having lost control of his vast holdings to an unscrupulous nephew, Peter Ludlow (Arliss Howard), Hammond is determined that Malcolm and Sarah document the validity of his original experiments before Peter transforms them into a freak show for the masses. Too little, too late, Malcolm and Sarah discover Peter and a veritable army of cronies have captured and sedated a female tyrannosaurus and her baby and are en route to San Francisco to debut them as the first featured attraction of Jurassic Park U.S.A. with predictably ill-advised results. Crichton wrote his second novel under considerable duress from Spielberg and Universal who desperately wanted a novelized sequel to their 1993 blockbuster. However, upon publication in 1995, Crichton officially bowed out of the film project and refused to have anything to do with the movie version. It was a wise move. The Lost World is a lost cause. Rarely, does it come to life, despite the advancing technological advantages of having ‘better’ special effects, though perhaps, not quite so special this second time around. The sequences that take place in San Francisco after the female T-Rex has escaped are a shameless patchwork of CGI and obvious miniatures.
Robbed of Sam Neill’s stoicism in the original, Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm spends much of the plot merely running interference and spewing cautionary diatribes never heeded by those in charge until after it is already too late. Whereas there were definite sparks of flirtation between Laura Dern’s Ellie and Malcolm in the original film, there is virtually zero romantic chemistry between Goldblum and Julianne Moore in this sequel, thereby bankrupting the emotional core of the piece. Truly – we really do not care what happens to Ian or Sarah as there is no investment in them beyond their stick figure representations of two people who supposedly care for each other. Surprisingly, given the abysmal reviews and rather tepid box office response to The Lost World, Universal was not ready to retire the franchise and took yet another crack at decoding dino DNA in 2001, this time with Joe Johnston directing and Peter Buchman, Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor penning the screenplay.
At just an hour and 33 min. Jurassic Park III is an entirely more successful enterprise on every level. Getting Sam Neill back is a major plus for the picture. This time, Dr. Grant (Neill) and his assistant, Billy Brennan (Alessandro Nivolo) are hoodwinked into visiting Isla Sorna by divorced parents, Paul (William H. Macy) and Amanda Kirby (Tea Leoni). Seems the Kirby’s teenage son, Erik (Trevor Morgan) was parasailing near the island with a custodian when the boat trailing their line was sabotaged by a pair of hungry velociraptors, leaving Kirby to fend for himself on the abandoned natural preserve overrun by carnivorous dinosaurs. Grant thinks he is accompanying Paul and Amanda on a flight over the island but learns the truth too late. Not only are the Kirbys not the millionaire benefactors they reported – and therefore unable to fund Grant’s expedition on the mainland (the only reason he consented to accompany them in the first place), but they are also ill-equipped to provide adequate protection against the onslaught of raging prehistoric beasts. Almost immediately, three crew members are devoured after the plane has crash landed.
Dr. Grant and Billy are separated. Billy decides to steal a few dino eggs he hopes will fetch a handsome price on the mainland. Unfortunately, the theft becomes the focus of the rest of the plot as the egg’s parents hunt for their missing offspring. What is particularly palpable on this third visit to the franchise is the overwhelming sense of desolation created when the best of intension is turned asunder by human greed and corruption. Isla Sorna is not so much a biological preserve as a decaying monument to the errors of one man’s God-complex folly. The massive facilities, including warehouses, visitor’s center and huge bio-chem labs once built to house state of the art technologies are now hollowed out shells; foreboding relics to bad science. The overriding tone is apocalyptic, emphasizing humanity’s smallness rather than exercising its capacity to achieve great wonders. This sense of doom accentuates the immediate dangers presented our heroes even when no carnivorous creatures are present. In the final analysis, Jurassic Park III restored the mantle of quality established by the first movie, rendering the misfire and waning impact of Part II as moot as ever.
One would have thought Universal had had enough of death and dinosaurs after Part III. But no, the franchise officially became something of a reboot with Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World (2015). The biggest gripe I have with Jurassic World is, it is more of the same, or, as Goldblum’s good doctor has already astutely surmised, ‘the next step’. By now, the commonalities between the first and fourth installments should be blatantly obvious to everyone. ‘Psst! Dinosaurs eat people - again!’ Let us forgo the incongruities cobbled together in Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Colin Trevorrow, and, Derek Connolly’s screenplay; as in the genetic Franken-dino, Indominous Rex, supposedly to attack its’ prey based on movement, though in a pivotal scene, velociraptor wrangler, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) is forced to douse himself in transmission fluid to confuse the Indominus’ sense of smell and escape being eaten alive.  I would also really like to know how a well-connected billionaire fat cat like Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan), CEO of this grandly implausible theme park (looking in CGI long shots like a queasy hybrid of Disney’s Epcot and those insidiously bad miniatures created by Dale Hennessey for Logan’s Run, 1976) and heir to the late John Hammond’s genetic research, has managed to convince any major corporation – much less Verizon Wireless - to sponsor an attraction that has already proven highly unstable three times. Come to the park. Get eaten alive. It's not a good marketing slogan; n'est pas?
Part of the appeal of Jurassic Park III was it returned audiences to Isla Nubar; that failed venture for a dino-themed attraction put forth in the original movie, allowing Sam Neill’s Dr. Alan Grant his own meridian of closure and pontification on man’s arrogant disregard for the natural order of things, or as his cohort, Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern) astutely surmised in the original movie, “God created dinosaurs. God destroyed dinosaurs. God created Man. Man destroyed God. Man created dinosaurs. Dinosaurs eat man…woman inherits the earth!” Here, here! Well put and well said!  Yet, Jurassic World undoes virtually all of this didacticism from the first and third movies, if for no other reason, then simply because man has not matured in this outlook one iota, but rather become even more jaded and overweening in his blind ambitions to make nature subservient to his own dictates and profitability. Buried somewhere inside Jurassic World is yet another liberalized bitch-slap against corporate America and the U.S. military, the real baddies of this piece.  Maybe it’s just me, but I have grown rather weary of movies that fly in the face of Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’ analogy, blatantly blanketing western civilization as the affront to all free peoples of the world; a derisiveness against white European culture, perpetuated by the laissez faire, pot-smoking, politically correct, polarized and politicized by present-day cultural mandarins. Frankly, it is high time to get on with the business of living together in harmony rather than beat this thoroughly rotting dead horse and straw dog by promoting perpetual discord. So, let us stop the ‘blame game’. It’s old.
There is plenty blame to go around in Jurassic World; the park’s superficial interests perpetuated by front woman, Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard); a scissor-legged operations manager, sporting a lethal Uma Thurman/Pulp Fiction haircut and perpetually antiseptic scowl, denying her rather obvious – if frigid and suppressed – desire to mate with Owen Grady; the alpha male of this piece.  Howard’s performance, stiff and uninspiring and vaguely reminiscent of Sean Young’s replicant in 1982’s Blade Runner (or Sean Young in general) runs the gamut of emotions from A to B; a leaden dead weight, deprived of her sex appeal and a fairly pointless appendage to this horror movie, running around the jungle in high heels and wearing white. Spielberg’s original movie was not thematically interested, or even concentrated on horror, though it did manage to tap into a series of unsettling chills during its second and third acts. Jurassic World, however, is all about scaring the hell out of the audience, assaulting the senses with one interminable chase sequence ladled upon the next: too much overlap of moments done to better effect elsewhere in this franchise, with Chris Pratt assuming the reigns as a younger, more athletic incarnation of Alan Grant; the position vacated by Sam Neill as the sole voice of reason.
In 2009, Pratt, looking more doughy and haggard while starring in the popular TV show, Parks and Recreation (2009-15), made the farcical prediction he would appear in a Jurassic Park movie. Indeed, the actor has come a long way from those days and in just a very scant few years; undergoing a crash course weight loss metamorphosis that, coupled with his formidable acting chops, at least manages to sell his character with magnanimity, hard-pressed to be found in any of the others populating this movie. From a purely technological perspective, Jurassic World outclasses virtually all its predecessors; the visual effects more seamlessly integrated; the audio animatronics more complex and engaging. But what I would have preferred to see in this movie is more originality. Thematically, Jurassic World is frustratingly passé and increasingly a rehash. We get the same ole ‘kids in peril’ scenario regurgitated yet again; brothers, Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray Mitchell (Ty Simpkins) mere substitutes for Joseph Mazzello and Ariana Richards from the first movie, and, Trevor Morgan’s prepubescent survivor in Part III.
Herein, the brothers Mitchell are suffering from unspoken anxieties of a traditional American family in crisis; their parents, Karen and Scott (Judy Greer and Andy Buckley) on the cusp of messy divorce; the kids sent away on an all-expense paid ‘family’ holiday, meant to be chaperoned by their Aunt Claire, who has about as much interest in rearing children as she does in peeling a turtle. Zach’s outlet is girls; a clingy gal pal left behind (Kelly Washington) and his perpetually raging hormones that cause him to stupidly moon after anything between the ages of 16 and 20 wearing a skirt. This, predictably, becomes the brunt of his younger brother’s jokes. Claire has assigned her assistant, Zara (Katie McGrath) the thankless task of following the boys on their journey throughout the park. Even more predictably, she quickly loses sight of them – thereby allowing Zach and Gray all sorts of opportunities to make a damn nuisance of themselves. Most predictable of all – neither comes to any real harm. Jurassic World is so formulaic, it hurts.
Not surprising, the picture went through a dreaded period of gestation begun in 2001, when Jurassic Park III director, Joe Johnston vehemently denied rumors another installment in the franchise was already in the works. In hindsight, Part III was something of an anomaly, as Spielberg had hoped for an entirely different movie altogether, involving the mythology of dinosaurs. This never materialized, but the kernel of that idea carried over into Spielberg’s plans to produce the, as yet untitled, Part IV. At this point, Johnston officially bowed out and, shortly thereafter, talks with Sam Neill and Jeff Goldblum began. Screenwriter, William Monahan was brought in to begin the first draft, based on Spielberg’s concept; that the dinosaurs had figured out a way to migrate to the Costa Rican mainland and were breeding uncontrollably. From here on, the rumors became even more unwieldy: SFX wizard, Stan Winston leaking information Spielberg would be borrowing scenarios as yet un-filmed from Crichton’s novels, and actress, Keira Knightley letting it be known she was under consideration for two separate roles. Curiously, there was even a rumor Richard Attenborough would return as John Hammond – the originator of the first failed theme park who had died by the time the events in The Lost World take place, suggesting Part IV would either be set in the distant past or, at the very least, entirely ignore the events as unfolded in Parts II and III.
Throughout these permutations, paleontologist, Jack Horner agreed to act as Part IV’s technical advisor. Horner added an even more bizarre spin on the plot, suggesting its scenario would imply humans were genetically derived from dinosaurs. Screenwriter, John Sayles entered the picture. By mid-2004, Jurassic World had a new director, Alex Proyas and a new cast, presumably to costar, Jeremy Piven and Emmy Rossum, with Richard Attenborough reprising his role. But only three weeks later, Proyas made it clear he had made no commitment and once again, Part IV went into turnaround. That same year, Sayles’ first draft script was leaked. Rumors once again abounded, this time, that Buffy/Angel/Bones co-star, David Boreanaz would be cast as a new character; mercenary – Nick Harris, to lead a team of genetically modified human-dino hybrids on a harrowing mission in the Swiss Alps. Mercilessly, as Spielberg had final approval, he quietly vetoed this rather absurd scenario.
Then, in 2005, Spielberg prolifically made references Part IV would include a sequence taken from Crichton’s The Lost World novel, where a character on a motorcycle would outrun a pack of raptors. But the next year, a new screenplay co-authored by Joe Johnston and Horner went nowhere fast; producer, Frank Marshall muddying the waters even further – first, by hinting Johnston would direct the picture, then putting forth Spielberg as the only viable candidate to make any sense of it all. The death of author, Michael Crichton and Jurassic Park film alumni, Stan Winston in 2008 did much to sour producer, Kathleen Kennedy on pursuing the project. Yet, pre-production continued; director, Johnston adding fuel to the fire once again in 2012 after suggesting Part IV would be the beginning of an entirely new trilogy.  A year earlier, Spielberg had engaged writer, Mark Protosevich to prepare just such a treatment. Eventually, two treatments were written. Neither gelled. Finally, Spielberg latched onto Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, while Kennedy and Marshall found their inspiration in nailing down a director to helm their movie: Colin Trevorrow, whose first movie, Safety Not Guaranteed (2012 - about a man who believes he can time travel) was met with great enthusiasm; as was Jaffa and Silver's script about a fully functional dino-theme park. Along the way, a prologue set in China was dropped and several subplots about human-dino interaction either streamlined or toggled back in service of the more box office guaranteeing ‘chase’ narrative.
As all the preliminary footwork neared completion, Spielberg concentrated on the more practical aspects of the enterprise; returning to Hawaii, specifically Kauai, as the fictional Costa Rican isle of Nublar. Nearly two years before the picture’s premiere, it was decided to rechristen the franchise Jurassic World to mark it as a departure from the earlier three movies. Josh Brolin, briefly considered for the part of Owen, was eventually replaced by Chris Pratt, yet to show promise as a box office draw. When Pratt’s breakout performance in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) garnered rave reviews, Spielberg and Trevorrow were left congratulating one another on their good fortune.  Principal photography would take full advantage of locations in Honolulu, Oahu and Kauai; also, New Orleans’ abandoned Six Flags theme park, substituting for Jurassic World’s main thoroughfare.
The events in Jurassic World take place 22 years after the fiascoes encountered on Isla Nublar in the original film. Alas, the picture is, in a word, predictable. It is, however, largely enjoyable as a mindless piece of pseudo-horror/sci-fi, action/adventure. Earning a staggering tally of $1.52 billion, making it the third highest grossing movie of all time (second only to Avatar and Titanic) has practically guaranteed us a Jurassic World Part II with a tentative date for later this year. Personally, I am done with this franchise. After all, it stands to reason any such one-premised endeavor must eventually reach a creative plateau, if, in fact, one has not already been achieved. Jurassic World offers audiences nothing new or even ground-breaking. Indeed, it is mostly a retread. While Spielberg’s original tale was not focused on terror per say – Jurassic World is all about achieving an overriding sense of dread and fear. This, it does. There are cringe-worthy moments scattered throughout.
Question: how much scarier can the franchise get, going into the future? How much more frightening do we want it to be? We have already seen dinosaurs devour humans in the most excruciatingly painful ways; decapitations, dismemberments, eviscerations, etc. et al. Is it really necessary to explore such grotesqueness any further? Haven’t we all had enough spayed guts and bloody entrails strewn across our movie screens to last a lifetime? This query is sincerely proposed to Steven Spielberg, who began his career, not as the grand master of such schlocky nonsense, but a serious and trend-setting entrepreneur of his film maker’s craft, and, with a penchant for illustrating the benevolence behind mankind’s insatiable desire to explore the unknown. Simply because Spielberg did not direct Jurassic World does not absolve him of his responsibility in partaking of this gruesome re-envisioning; nor does it excuse him of the transgression against that legacy he established so very long ago.
Everything here is just a variation on a theme. Chris Pratt is a valiant ‘update’ to Alan Grant – less cerebral, earthier and sexually desirable to the adolescent teen and early twenty-something female attendees (always good for box office). I will reserve my judgements on Bryce Dallas Howard for now – Ron Howard’s daughter (gee, I wonder how she got this gig…no family nepotism at work here); a marginally attractive, though frankly dull and mismatched ‘love interest’, void of any ‘on screen’ chemistry to generate genuine sex appeal. But I really would appreciate it if someone in Spielberg’s camp please inform him he has plumbed the ‘kids in peril’ motif once too often. Children in a Spielberg movie are always more resourceful than most of their adult counterparts. But in Jurassic World we get two defenseless kids trapped in a glass-encased gyrosphere, who survive what a small army of ex-military, loaded with bazookas cannot? Okay, Steven – if you say so. The original Jurassic Park was a cautionary tale against man’s dabbling in creation he neither understood, nor quickly discovered he could not manage. Jurassic World superficially covers the same ground, re-purposing the concept to fit the confines of a horror movie. Ho-hum. Been there. Will likely be there again before this year is out. Boring!
There is better news via Universal Home Video’s quadrilogy in 4K. Virtually all of the Jurassic Park movies benefit from the upgrade to UHD. Color fidelity is vastly improved. One of the biggest complaints about Uni’s old Blu-ray releases was that colors had been artificially bumped. Personally, I never thought so, until I had a chance to spin these 4K discs and see for myself the quantum refinement. Be prepared to be very impressed. Colors are bold without looking like a Mexican fiesta. All of the films in this collection sport renewed visual vigor without looking gaudy or overly bright. Indeed, colors are more nuanced throughout and across all four films, particularly the original and Part III where the heavy use of blue and fog filters for night photography now reveal context of a properly aligned palette with rich and absorbing hues. The image also reveals considerable ‘depth’ of focus and oodles more texture in fine details. Background detail is breathtaking. Wow!   
Aside: I detected a note of edge enhancement during the initial long shots where Hammond’s creations are revealed to Ellie and Dr. Grant for the very first time. It’s just a hint, but it is there. As many of the picture’s SFX in the first film were rendered without the advantage of 4K mastering they also appear slightly softer and/or duller. The technological advances between the original movie and its penultimate sequels, with Jurassic World being the most recent, are also reflected in these upgrades to 4K, with Jurassic World looking the most startlingly crisp, although, as cartoony and artificial. We still have 5.1 DTS audio for all of these movies. For those interested in doing comparisons, the original Blu-rays are also included. These 1080p transfers have not been culled from these newly mastered 4K elements, making the leap to 4K all the more impressive. Extras are not included on the 4K discs but reside in their totality on each Blu-ray: cumulatively, a comprehensive 'Return to Jurassic Park' that provides a retrospective on the making and impact of all four movies. Bottom line: Jurassic Park and its subsequent installments impress in 4K.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
Jurassic Park 4
The Lost World 2
Jurassic Park III 3.5
Jurassic World 3

Overall 5+

Blu-ray Only  4

Sunday, May 27, 2018

THE PATRIOT: 4K Blu-ray (Columbia/Centropolis, 2000) Sony Home Entertainment

Far-reaching spectacle is Roland Emmerich's forte. The director primarily known for apocalyptic disaster movies and super-adventurous sci-fi, surprised even his harshest critics with The Patriot (2000); a gut-wrenching, sprawling familial saga set against the backdrop of America’s Revolutionary War. To date, The Patriot remains Emmerich’s best-received movie, perhaps, in part because he did not partake of the screenwriting duties this time around. Writer, Robert Rodat actually labored over seventeen drafts of the script, always with Mel Gibson in mind for the part of Benjamin Martin, the mercenary resurrected from his self-imposed retirement after his devote faith in the cause of liberty is tested. The parallels between The Patriot and Gibson’s Oscar-winning Braveheart, made a scant five years earlier, cannot be overlooked. Indeed, Benjamin Martin bears a creepy resemblance to William Wallace, a man denied a quiet life on his own terms – each, ruthlessly pursued to the brink of extinction by the British and driven to avenge a grave injustice perpetrated on their families.
There is a certain visual gravitas to The Patriot to set it apart from most every screen epic made in its time; the artistic symmetry in Caleb Deschanel’s 2.39.1 Panavision compositions harking all the way back to the glory days of the bygone mid-1960’s Hollywood epic that, at least briefly in the mid-1990’s, appeared as though it might be on the cusp of a resurgence. This renaissance was short-lived, however. It costs – a lot, in fact – to make a movie as visually arresting as The Patriot: one reason pictures like it are few and far between, and, alas, in the interim since, virtually nonexistent on our movie screens. The other reason is less flattering to the Hollywood community. You see, it takes an artist of considerable wherewithal and a keen visual style to achieve such results. 

In reviewing The Patriot in 4K, its superior framing of the action, Emmerich’s arresting pursuit of a particularly fluid camera for the battle sequences (when a less accomplished director might have simply run on the discombobulating and nausea-inducing swirl of a jerkier hand-held), and his verve for establishing every major scene change with a master shot (unheard of since David Lean’s time) anchors the picture with a sense of time, period and place. Too often, contemporary directors have taken for granted their audience will either know something of the ‘time’, ‘period’ and ‘place’ or merely accept their reconstitution of it, concentrating almost exclusively on wall-to-wall ‘action’ to fill the run time. Mercifully, The Patriot is built more like a Hitchcock thriller than an actioner; Emmerich allowing for quiet respites where the audience can simply indulge in the visual splendor and fall ‘in love’ with the textured sights and sounds of antiquity set before them.
For the pivotal role of Martin’s eldest son, Gabriel, producers first considered Joshua Jackson, Elijah Wood, Jake Gyllenhaal and Brad Renfro before narrowing their choices to either Ryan Phillippe or the late Heath Ledger; the latter winning out for his ‘exuberant youth’. Ledger’s tragic death in 2008, from an accidental overdose on prescription medication, has deprived the world of one of the finest actors from his generation. Ledger’s ability to convey a personal strength of character beyond mere movie-land styled heroism, not to mention his easily pasted heartthrob quality among prepubescent and teenage girls, is decidedly one of the contributing factors to The Patriot’s box office success. The production is also afforded superb performances from Joely Richardson (as Martin’s sister-in-law, Charlotte Selton), Lisa Brenner (as the ill-fated Anne Howard), Tom Wilkinson (a particularly cold-blooded Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis), and, in the pivotal role of the bastard/villain we can all love to hate, Jason Isaacs (an unbelievably vial Col. William Tavington).
Aside: those seeking a history lesson from The Patriot would do wise to digest its earthy chronicle with the proverbial grain of salt, particularly in the case of Tavington’s celluloid representation. It has oft been said a picture is only as good as its meanest foe; our collective need to distill the virtues and vices of mankind into their simplest black and white layers of distinction (when humanity, in all its collective chaos, is anything but as clearly delineated) helps to serve the parable of The Patriot: mentoring us in hyperbolic patriotism where freedom and inherent goodness are not permitted to perish from the earth: the very qualities upon which America’s own mythology is founded. Realistically, neither goodness nor freedom are a given, nor intrinsic or exclusively ascribed to the American tapestry of life. 

So, while it is certainly true the real Sir Banastre Tarleton (on which this character is very loosely based), attained notoriety and infamy for his massacre of the surrendering Continental Army troops at the Battle of Waxhaws, South Carolina (earning him the unflattering nicknames ‘Bloody Ban’, the ‘Butcher’, and ‘The Green Dragoon’), conversely, Tarleton was hailed by loyalists and the British as an outstanding leader of light cavalry, Tarleton’s fate was not decided on the battlefield (as depicted in the movie), but long after the American campaign, and only after he had lost two fingers in battle, returned to England and successfully entered the political arena in 1790 as an MP for Liverpool in the House of Parliament where he would remain steadfast until 1812. A proponent of slavery, Tarleton’s ascendance continued from Major-General in 1794 to Lieutenant-General in 1801.  He would die at home in 1833 of natural causes rather than the bayonet. So much for ‘truth’ in cinema!
Shot entirely on location in South Carolina by cinematographer extraordinaire, Caleb Deschanel with a flair for the traditions of the ole-time Hollywood film-making, The Patriot takes full advantage of these historical settings; the picturesque nature of Charleston, Rock Hill, Lowrys, the antebellum rice plantation, Mansfield near Georgetown, among many others, taking on the scope of one of David Lean’s painterly masterpieces. Particular attention is paid by Production Designer Kirk M. Petruccelli and Costume Designer Deborah Lynn Scott to get the period look just right; the pair, along with Art Director Barry Chusid, and, Set Decorator, Victor J. Zolfo, pouring over a century’s worth of archival research catalogued at the Smithsonian for their inspiration. Despite Emmerich’s association with composer David Arnold, his demo score was rejected for a more thunderous offering by John Williams. Whether stirring an animosity unique to this occasion, or perhaps, simply bringing older artistic differences to light, Arnold would ultimately never again collaborate with Emmerich on any of his subsequent projects. 
The Patriot is as gripping as it is gargantuan, starring filmdom’s then resident hunk du jour, Mel Gibson as Benjamin Martin - a soldier of fortune mellowed in the years since his bloody raid against the French. As a widower, Benjamin resides pastorally on his farm in South Carolina with his children; Gabriel, Thomas (Gregory Smith), Margaret (Mika Boorem), Nathan (Trevor Morgan), Samuel (Bryan Chafin), William (Logan Lerman) and Susan (Skye McCole Bartusiak); the latter, not having spoken a word since the death of their mother. As the American Revolution gets underway Gabriel is impatient to join the Continental American Army against British forces overseen by Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis. As a favor to Martin, Col. Burwell (Chris Cooper) places Gabriel under his command - ensuring his relative safety through the endlessly gruesome carnage. As the warring factions draw nearer the Martins' plantation, Thomas expresses his intent to enlist - a move Benjamin quashes.
Several hours later, a superficially wounded Gabriel collapses at home with military dispatches. The next afternoon the Martins tend the wounded from both armies. Unfortunately for Benjamin and his family, their unbiased philanthropy is viewed as treason by Colonel William Tavington; an unrelentingly cruel commander of the British Green Dragoons. Discovering Gabriel's dispatches, Tavington orders the house burned, the wounded rebels executed and Gabriel sentenced to be hanged. Thomas’ feeble attempt to save his brother's life is met with a cold musket from Tavington’s pistol, incurring Benjamin's wrath when he refers to Thomas as ‘a stupid boy’. The rest of The Patriot unfurls as a revenge/tragedy with Shakespearean overtones rather than any lasting testament to the Revolutionary War. As their home burns, Benjamin orders Margaret to take William and Susan to their Aunt Charlotte’s plantation, travelling with stealth through the open fields infested with British cavalry. In order to rescue Gabriel from the hangman’s noose, Benjamin takes Nathan and Samuel, handing them rifles, into the forest for a successful ambush of the small contingent. Alas, all three boys witness their father brutality; Benjamin bludgeoning the last remaining soldier with his tomahawk as willful revenge for Thomas’ murder. Returning to his children still soaked through in the dead royalist’s blood, Benjamin orders their retreat deep into the woods, to Aunt Charlotte’s plantation. Meanwhile, the sole survivor of Benjamin’s assault is salvaged and interviewed by Tavington, who brands Benjamin ‘a ghost’.  
Against his father’s strenuous objections, Gabriel rejoins the Continentals. After some consternation, Benjamin agrees to fight, placing his children in Charlotte’s care.  En route to the army’s base camp, father and son witness Gen. Horatio Gates of the southern Continental Army engaging the British. Hopelessly outnumbered, the rebels are easily defeated in a particularly bloody conflict.  Reunited with his former commanding officer, Colonel Harry Burwell, Benjamin is made a Colonel, with Gabriel placed under his direct command. Tasked with keeping Lord Cornwallis’ regiments pinned south, Gabriel mildly resents his father’s directives. At first skeptical, French Major Jean Villeneuve (Tchéky Karyo) nevertheless trains Benjamin’s militia how to fight the British, insisting his legions will eventually arrive to fortify their forces at some later date. Having heard rumors of his father’s previous deeds in the French and Indian Wars, Gabriel is now provided with the truth. Benjamin had fought for the British against the French, discovering an atrocity perpetrated on a stronghold earlier fortified. As revenge, Benjamin led a raid on the French at Fort Wilderness where he and his cohorts methodically tortured their enemies to death. There was no honor in their deed. Indeed, it has haunted Benjamin ever since. Perhaps for the very first time, Gabriel recognizes his naiveté in such dreams of liberty without first recognizing the repercussions that rear from a darker side to glory and heroism.
Benjamin calls to arms his fellow Americans, forming a stealthy militia that wreaks havoc on Cornwallis' troops, even stealing his prized Great Danes and blowing up one of his tall ships loaded with British supplies in full view as Cornwallis is entertaining the British aristocracy to illustrate his supremacy in this war. Chagrined, afterward Cornwallis lays blame squarely at Tavington’s feet. His brutal tactics have girded enemy’s resolve. However, fitfully irritated by his own lack of progress, and furthermore shamed by the enemy’s clever ploy to have freed members of the captured militia, Cornwallis now orders Tavington to stop Benjamin by any means necessary. Enlisting the aid of Loyalist Captain Wilkins (Adam Baldwin), Tavington unearths the identities of several militia members and embarks upon a hellish campaign to level their homes and slaughter their families. Under the cover of night, Charlotte manages to escape her plantation with the rest of Benjamin’s children, only moments before Tavington orders the stately abode torched.
The Martins are reunited at the Gullah settlement populated by former slaves. There, Reverend Oliver (Rene Auberjonois) weds Gabriel to his betrothed Anne. For a brief wrinkle in time, all is well. Tragically, Tavington’s brigade invades the small town where most of Benjamin’s militia men reside. As the men are away, Tavington herds their families into the church, ordering Wilkins to burn it to the ground. Arriving too late to save their loved ones, each of Benjamin’s men face the aftermath of their loss in their own way. A bereaved John Billings (Leon Rippy) takes his own life, while others, like Reverend Oliver and Dan Scott (Donal Logue) redouble their efforts with tear-stained steadfastness to see the war through. His heart turned to stone over Anne’s loss, Gabriel, Oliver, Scott and several others ride on horseback to ambush Tavington’s encampment. Although the element of surprise is initially on their side, Tavington manages, at first, to fake his death by pretending to crumple from a superficial shoulder wound. As Gabriel approaches, the wily Tavington turns onto his back, plunging a bayonet deep into Gabriel’s chest. As Gabriel lays dying, Tavington retreats. Benjamin discovers his son on the field and comforts him as he draws his last breath. 

Momentarily wavering in his commitment to the cause, Benjamin rejoins the newly fortified Continental Army, coming face to face with his arch nemesis at the Battle of Cowpens. Tavington and Benjamin engage in a fight to the finish, Tavington momentarily gaining the upper hand to inflict several significant wounds. Benjamin slumps to his knees. However, as Tavington prepares to deliver the coup de grâce with his sword, Benjamin instead stabs him with his concealed knife, using a free hand to thrust the broken bayonet deep into Tavington’s throat. On a larger scale, Cowpens is a Continental victory forcing a humiliated Cornwallis to order retreat. In the brief epitaph that follows, Cornwallis is invaded at Yorktown, surrounded by the Continental Army, newly reinforced with the long-awaited arrival of French naval forces. Benjamin collects Charlotte and his children. The family returns to their former land, where Benjamin discovers his remaining militia men already embarked upon a rebuild of his homestead. It is indeed a new dawn for a new nation.
The Patriot is a rapturous salute to the American Revolution; flag-waving to a fault and superbly cinematic. Screenwriter, Rodat’s inspiration for Benjamin Martin (apart from Mel Gibson, to play him) was culled from the documented exploits of several fighting men from this period, though none more heavily relied upon than Francis Marion – nicknamed ‘Swamp Fox’ for his stealthily executed escapes into the bayous. Alas, Rodat neglected to dig a little deeper, or he might have discovered Marion was a serial rapist who hunted Indians for sport; a ‘minor detail’ to create a major uproar in the British press. Setting aside this parallel, however, and, of course, allowing Rodat his pound of artistic license, it is possible to derive much satisfaction from The Patriot’s fictionalized account of the war, historical warts, flaws and inaccuracies intact. Yet, and in spite of its many virtues, The Patriot was only a modest box office success, earning $215.3 million on its $110 million investment. Why? Perhaps, simply owing to the fact its ‘R’-rating was enough to turn away a goodly number of teenage boys who otherwise might have been drawn to its action-packed bloody conflict, while the more mature and cynical among attendees was apt to reconsider the fakery imbedded in its thin history.
What the movie does spectacularly well is to graft one man’s noblest odyssey, intermittently tainted by vengeance, onto the passionate cause célèbre of an evolving nation; Benjamin Martin’s microcosmic road to redemption translating with exceptional clarity to the collective upheaval of a peoples’ fight for their democracy and freedom. Alas, it remains impossible not to see Gibson’s Benjamin as the Americanized stock company knock-off of William Wallace; his mannerisms uncannily the same and easily identifiable to anyone having seen Braveheart first. Gibson is a fine actor and proves it throughout The Patriot. But he never quite casts off the pall of this ‘other’ larger-than-life historical zeitgeist having won him the Oscar. Ironically, the truly memorable performance in the picture belongs to Jason Isaac’s supremely charismatic sociopath. With his glacial, reptilian stare wed to an eerily Roger Moore-ish smirk, Isaac’s demonic presence is larger than life. We love to hate a good/bad man and Isaac’s Tavington is about as unscrupulous and vial as the wicked come; deliciously evil and mesmerizing. The rest of the cast offers solid support.  However, the crux of The Patriot is devoted to this chest-thumping battle royale between Gibson’s marginally corrupted/world-weary paragon and Isaac’s repellent and soulless monster.  As an actioner draped in the trappings of a faux history lesson, The Patriot yields exceptional entertainment without ever looking too closely at the particulars.    
Photographed in Super 35 Panavision, Sony’s new 4K incarnation of The Patriot offers superior color reproduction, thanks to HDR10 color grading. While several shots appear slightly soft (as likely they did originally on film stock) the image is consistently sharp without any untoward digital tinkering. It also reveals superb detail, down to the minutest cornflower petal and granule of wet sand. Skin tones are superb. Film grain has been consistently handled for an uncannily film-like presentation that will surely not disappoint.  There is a richness to shadow delineation too that the old standard Blu-ray can only guess at, with atmospheric fog and smoke so life-like you can almost reach into the screen to touch it.  Colors are both more vibrant and more natural in appearance. You are going to love the way this looks.  Less appreciated…only the 164-minute Theatrical Cut has been given all the bells and whistles of a 4K upgrade. Those preferring the slightly more immersive 174-min. Extended Cut must content themselves with the Blu-ray – also included in this packaging.
The new Dolby Atmos offers subtler improvements when compared to Blu-ray’s 5.1 PCM.  Its the spaciousness that impresses herein, quiescent moments as enveloping as the heart-palpitating fray of battle.  It goes without saying, dialogue is natural sounding, augmented by groundswells devoted to John Williams’ score.  Extras have been ported over from Sony’s long-defunct 2-disc DVD. They include an audio commentary from Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin, and, featurettes: The Art of War, The True Patriots and, Visual Effects, along with deleted scenes, concept art, a photo gallery and theatrical trailer.  Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
4K Version 5+
Blu-ray 4



Friday, May 25, 2018

WINDJAMMER: The Voyage of the Christian Radich (National Theatres, 1958) Flicker Alley

I do not recall ever beginning a movie review with a plaudit paid to an effort made some 60 years after the initial theatrical release; but the Herculean resurrection achieved by film restorationist, David Strohmaier and his team of creative geniuses on director, Louis de Rochemont’s Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich (1958), co-directed by the producer’s son, Louis III and Bill Colleran (husband of Lee Remick), ought to be held in the highest regard as an exemplar of what real/reel film restoration/preservation work in this digital age is all about. Strohmaier and his cohorts were, of course, responsible for the 2008 Blu-ray release of Windjammer; Strohmaier’s passion for all things Cinerama, then superseding the technology and funds necessary to make his first outing on this deep catalog release a total success. Cribbing from a re-composited Cinemascope image then, the results in 2008 could only be judged as adequate. Even then, I could not have thanked Strohmaier enough for his splendid interest in reintroducing newer audiences to this vintage piece of American cinema history – for much too long, forgotten and withheld from public view.
But now, with 2018’s Blu-ray re-release through third party distributor, Flicker Alley, audiences will at long last get to see Windjammer in as close approximation to its former glory theater attendees were privy to back in 1958. Culling elements from around the world, including original camera negatives and IP’s, Windjammer’s 3-panels have been scanned at 4K and color graded to reveal the extraordinary camera work of Joseph C. Brun and Gayne Rescher. Is it a perfect rendering? Alas, no. Time has not been on Windjammer’s side, and, on occasion, the results of decades-long neglect remain too great, even for Strohmaier’s ardent tenacity to overcome. What is here, however, is superb beyond virtually any and all expectations. Windjammer is a visceral, sumptuous and rousing experience: even for Cinerama - a true rarity in a class apart; the only movie to be photographed in ‘Cinemiracle’ – a then newly patented and slightly tweaked version of Cinerama – its left and right cameras, shooting into mirrored reflections that, once reversed and recombined in the editing process, recreated the total scope of human peripheral vision.  
Windjammer is such a remarkably exquisite movie-going experience that its technical aspects - a logistical nightmare by any stretch of the imagination – have been completely obscured. As example: how does one hoist a 500 lbs. Cinerama camera some 180-feet between dense rigging and sails to achieve all those miraculous overhead shots, looking down onto the decks of the square rigger, Christian Radich, at times, violently bobbing about like a cork caught in a gale? Indeed, on this particular Cinerama adventure, the Radich and its crew were to encounter one of the worst storms at sea ever documented on film, race within mere fathoms of a U.S. naval destroyer (with the very real threat of suffering a collision), and, unbeknownst to anyone at that time, chronicle the last visual record of Germany’s equally as famous four-masted barque Flying P-Liner, the Pamir –  lost in a hurricane off the Azores only a few days later, with only six of her 80+ crew surviving the ordeal. After the Pamir’s disaster, it was also decided by De Rochemont that a few connective scenes should be photographed in post-production to pay homage to her ship and crew. Thus, Sven Libaek and his cohorts, Lasse Kolstad, Kaare Terland, Alf Bjerke and Kjell Grette Christensen (who had formed a quartet aboard the ship, later to record an album for RCA/Victor, grouped as ‘The Windjammers’) were all flown to New York to shoot scenes on a studio-bound recreation of the Windjammer’s club room.
Setting aside the Christian Radich’s six-month, 17,500-nautical-mile globe-trotting voyage from Oslo, across the Caribbean to New York and then back again, De Rochemont and his real-life staff of novice sailors (some as young as fourteen) are to be commended for their blind vision and technological proficiency along the way. Rumored to be displeased with Colleran’s objectives shortly after embarking upon the project, producer, De Rochemont installed his son, Louis III as the de facto director midway through the shoot; a decision that did not immediately ingratiate the 28-yr. old to the rest of the troops. However, almost as quickly they realized Louis not only possessed a keen eye for visual storytelling but also the aptitude to helm such a titanic and all-encompassing journey documented on film. In a fascinating postscript, young Louis’ eye caught the eye of a lass from Oslo who would appear on camera in the movie briefly. Although smitten, when production of Windjammer wrapped, Louis and the girl went their separate ways. Fate, however, had other ideas, and, in 1977, the couple were reunited during Louis’ return to Norway. They married; Turi De Rochemont remaining at her husband’s side until his death in 2001.  
The Christian Radich was then, a training ship for Norway’s merchant marine – a proving ground held in considerably high esteem, where boys were sent to become men; many making a life for themselves as sailors thereafter.  For Windjammer, producer, De Rochemont charted a 9-month excursion through the English Channel to the isle of Madeira, crossing the Atlantic with pit stops along several Caribbean outposts and finishing up in Key West, Florida; then, running up the coast to New York City, Portsmouth and New Hampshire, before making a round trip return to Norway across the top of Scotland; an ambitious slate indeed, given the added expense and burden of importing a sizable film crew and the monstrous Cinemiracle camera along for the journey. In addition to the Christian Radich’s usual training cadets and officers, De Rochemont so ordered a few fresh faces brought aboard, Norwegian actors whom the audience could relate to and around whom the central narrative would be woven.  One of these hallowed chosen was Sven Libaek, a 17-yr. old aspiring pianist who would secure a plum spot performing the solo in Edvard Hagerup Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor opposite renown conductor, Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops; a performance interspersed with some gorgeous pastoral cutaways of the Norwegian countryside. Indeed, permission for Libaek to sail on the Christian Radich was granted by his mother, only after she insisted a piano be brought aboard so the young man could continue his practice while away from home; the upright lashed to a bulkhead to prevent it from careening back and forth during inclement weather.
The making of the Windjammer is worthy of a novel in and of itself. Its 17 officers and 85 young men were exposed to some of the most exhilarating, but also most harrowing conditions on their epic 200+ day voyage; not the least, dangling from the ship’s yardarm and rigging 180 ft. above sea level with the motto, ‘one hand for the ship, the other for yourself.’ Barreling past the English Channel at 18 knots, the Christian Radich encountered its first major obstacle; a perilous winter storm with mountainous waves in the Bay of Biscay, causing most of her novice crew to become violently seasick. Under such hellish conditions the excitement of being in a Hollywood-produced documentary easily evaporated, everyone suddenly invested in the survival of the ship. Passing through the gale without incident, what followed was a spring-like sojourn to the isle of Madeira, first discovered by Portuguese explorer, Zarco in 1419 – their arrival in Funchal captured by the weighty Cinemiracle cameras.  Here, the camera would also document, among many pleasures, the famous downhill slalom of the basket sleds before embarking, under favorable Trade Winds, onto their next port of call – San Juan, Puerto Rico, following the same route Columbus took in 1492.  It was during this league in the expedition the Christian Radich fatefully encountered the four-mast German barque - Pamir, herself en route to Montevideo, Uruguay; both crews, in high spirits, shouting salutations to one another as they passed – literally – like two ships in the night. 
Puerto Rico’s visitation was populated by invitations and parties, capped off by a lavish reception at the Governor's Palace Fortaleza where cast and crew were treated to a special performance by legendary cellist, Pablo Casals. For the next two months, the Christian Radich made a pilgrimage of the Caribbean, incurring production changes in St. Thomas, including Bill Colleran replaced as the director – a decision never entirely disclosed by its producer. One incident not captured by the Cinemiracle cameras occurred when Colleran’s wife, Lee Remick elected to take a swim in the warm waters off the coast of Salt Island, unaware of a nearby shark. Hurried into a small boat by some of the Christian Radich’s crew, Remick would turn a ghostly shade of gray after witnessing ‘a fin’ just several meters behind her. With renewed vigor, and Louis III now in charge of completing the picture, production moved on to Trinidad and the non-stop Calypso-ing at carnival in Port-of-Spain. Among the highlights for cast and crew was a steel drum welcoming committee and the limbo dancers, performing contortionist maneuvers to the rhythmic sway of kettle drums.  From here, production proceeded to the Dutch isle of Curacao.  As the crew disembarked, so too did the ship’s mascot, Stump take his own ‘unofficial’ liberty. As the dog was never recovered, De Rochemont found a suitable look-alike to complete the footage. Departing for Key West, producer, Louis de Rochemont made a fortuitous announcement, having arranged for Sven Libaek to study with concert pianist, Bernardo Segal in New York, in order to perform Grieg’s Piano Concerto with Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops in Portsmouth: the musical highlight of the picture. 
Meanwhile, the Christian Radich pulled into New York harbor, by far the glossiest and most impressionistic part of their journey captured on film; cinematographer, Arthur 'Weegee' Fellig, separating the 3-strip projection into a series of dizzying kaleidoscopic imagery. From here, the Christian Radich engaged the U.S. navy in some breathtaking maneuvers, involving sea planes, a submarine, several naval destroyers and an aircraft carrier; the sequence, accompanied by composer Morton Gould’s most bombastic orchestral arrangement. In Portsmouth, Libaek displayed his musical prowess alongside the world-famous Boston Pops with Arthur Fiedler conducting; his performance interrupted by a montage of breathtaking snapshots of the Norwegian fjords. In the brief epilogue that followed, news of the Pamir tragedy created a sobering postscript to all the heady excitement gone before it; the pall, somewhat dissipated by the Christian Radich’s safe arrival in Oslo, alongside the Danish ‘Denmark’ and Norwegian ‘Sørlandet’; her crew, greeted by cheering crowds and capped off by a much-anticipated reunion with loved ones.
To say that the filming of Windjammer was a life-altering experience for many of its novice crew is an understatement. Some, like Sven Libaek, would leave their native Norway for good to pursue interests abroad. Indeed, even as principle photography wrapped, Louis de Rochemont instructed five of the chosen young men and Lasse to report to a studio in New York to shoot conjoining ‘inserts’ to evolve the storytelling, coached in their English diction by Claudia Franck. Along with Libaek, former shipmates Harald Guttersrud and Kaare Terland selected to remain in the United States thereafter; Harald, to study drama at Yale, and Kaare, devoted to business at Dartmouth, with Libaek eventually getting into Juilliard to continue his music. This trio also became emissaries for the general release of Windjammer, traveling on the Superchief to open the picture in various cities – including Windjammer’s world-premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood and its New York debut at the famed Roxy; along the way, having tea with Rita Hayworth, and, also, forming a singing trio that would regularly feature on popular radio and television programs, eventually cutting an album for RCA/Victor and appear on stage at the Grand Ole Opry.  
With the passage of time, Windjammers reputation as a bona fide Cinerama adventure has only continued to grow, despite the more recent loss of cast members, Jon Reistad, Lasse Kolstad and Alf R. Bjercke. Unlike many popular entertainments of their time, left to molder with the past thereafter, as the fickle public taste moves on toward the proverbial ‘the next best thing’, with each passing year, Windjammer’s legion of fans has continued to grow. Perhaps, by reputation alone, though arguably because of its perennial promise of youth – as depicted by all those bright-blue-eyed/blonde-haired Norwegian tough boys on the cusp of manhood – a real ‘coming of age’ saga in its truest definition, Windjammer remains as celebrated today whenever it plays. And thanks to the Herculean efforts of David Strohmaier and his restoration experts, the resurrection of its glorious past has been brought back from the brink of extinction for generations forever more to enjoy. Arguably, there is no affecting way to see a picture like Windjammer except in a real Cinerama venue; the vastness of its towering, louvered screen suddenly breaking through the conventional proscenium of the 1.33:1 prologue to reveal a spectacle unlike any other.
David Strohmaier’s restoration is to be championed. Alas, it is not perfect. So, it behooves us to point out the inherent flaws in this newly minted 1080p transfer, as represented a second time around on Blu-ray. For starters, there is some alarming edge enhancement during several of the sequences shot at night; Lasse Kolstad’s serenade ‘Kari Waits For Me’ plagued by haloing and flicker in highlighted background detail of the ship’s rigging. As this is the result of digital mastering, and not an inherent flaw in the original camera negatives, it is, at least by my opinion, the biggest disappointment. Is it a deal breaker? Certainly not, as there are only a few intermittent instances where its presence becomes egregious and distracting. We should also point out that despite a lot of dust-busting and digital clean-up with some high-end tools provided by Boris FX, Flicker Free, FotoKem and Chance Audio, the resultant image still reveals instances of color implosion and, again intermittently, brownish seams between the center and two side panels of the vast Cinemiracle frame. There are also one or two scenes shot under low light conditions at magic hour that suffer greatly from color fading. Finally, there is minor gate weave to consider; the left panel (more than the right) prone to distracting wobble. Now, let us be clear here. Nothing short of a multi-million-dollar restoration would correct these aforementioned sins, inflicted upon Windjammer through generational abject neglect.
And indeed, when Strohmaier and his small army of passionate preservationists first encountered Windjammer’s original camera negative, the likelihood anything could be done to restore and preserve it teetered between downright sketchy speculation to the humbug of a virtual impossibility. So, having pointed out the vices and shortcomings of these very unstable original elements, permit us now to extol the many virtues of what has actually been achieved. In a nutshell, nothing short of a miracle…a Cine-miracle if you prefer. Although a triple camera process, Cinemiracle in a theater massaged with precision the vignetting of its 3-projected panels in perfect registration, with steadiness and a more homogenized distribution of screen illumination, yielding better overall definition, image clarity, and, a much greater depth of focus. As an interesting aside: by the time an audience experienced the film in a theater, more than nine miles of actual film had passed through these electrically interlocked projectors.
For this Blu-ray release, Windjammer’s original camera negatives have been scanned in with as much loving care as Strohmaier’s funding would allow. The results are quite miraculous on the whole. Color fidelity is head and shoulders above its previous home video release; ditto, for overall image crispness and reproduction of accurately realized film grain. Occasionally, flesh tones can adopt a slight piggy pink hue. Again, it’s not a deal breaker. When the elements properly align with minimal age-related damage and all the technological bells and whistles playing in unison and in harmony, the resultant image is uncannily Cinerama-esque; augmented by Strohmaier’s insistence to present virtually all of the Cinerama catalog in the artificially recreated ‘Smilebox’ Simulation.  Although economically ideal, ‘Smilebox’ is not exactly ‘user friendly’ for those with home theater projector setups, as there is no way to compensate for the artificially induced curvature.
It would have been prudent of Strohmaier to include a flatly scanned in 3-panel recreation (as Warner Home Video did with their Cinerama release of How The West Was Won; allowing the home video enthusiast to choose the version to screen, given their circumstances and mode of presentation): costlier for Strohmaier and Flicker Alley too, and so we will not poo-poo the decision to only include the ‘Smilebox’ version herein.  The original 7-track audio, featuring an exuberant score by Morton Gould, and some memorable songs to boot, has been given the utmost care. Many of Windjammer’s songs were recorded live on location. However, when Windjammer’s original soundtrack album was released, it was an LP re-recording – not the originals, as heard in the movie. What is here is as it should be, with occasional built-in distortions, but mostly, yielding extraordinary fidelity for which all Cinerama productions of their time were duly noted.
Extras assembled by Strohmaier and his team include a newly expanded making of documentary: The Windjammer Voyage – a Cinemiracle Adventure. At just under an hour, this is an exceptionally comprehensive account of the film’s production, culled from vintage interviews with many of the cast and embellished with rare behind-the-scenes photographic materials never before made available to the public. We also get The Reconstruction of Windjammer – another thorough and engrossing look at the massive undertaking to resurrect Windjammer from the brink of extinction. The rest of the extras are less impressive, beginning with the inclusion of the ‘breakdown reel’ (unrestored) and a brief 2010 featurette on the Christian Radich Today, plus a behind-the-scenes slideshow of images from the production and another, depicting several of the venues where the picture originally played. I would have expected an audio commentary too, but no such luck. Bottom line: Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich is a one-of-a-kind movie-going experience not to be missed. That the Cinemiracle process was never again used is a curiosity, considering its improvements in photographing large-scale 3-panel Cinerama. As for this Blu-ray reissue: it is a no brainer, highly recommended with caveats as expressed earlier. Buy and judge accordingly. But prepare to be dazzled nonetheless. This is one hell of a grand show!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)