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DVD Geek: Red Hook Summer

Friday, April 12th, 2013

Once Spike Lee made Malcolm X, he seemed to lose all of his relevance as a filmmaker, thus reinforcing the adage about being careful what you wish for.  But he really has only himself to blame.  His first films were genuinely edgy, exciting, and revelatory.  Other than his documentaries, his later films have all been flailing around in the dark, trying to find any kind of edge at all.  His 2012 feature, Red Hook Summer, available from Image Entertainment on Blu-ray, is heartbreakingly bad, because it almost isn’t.  If he had thought the story through a little bit more, if he had cast slightly better actors in a couple of key roles (although several others are excellent), and if he would permanently latch back onto the flamboyant style that is only seen in all-too-brief flashes, he might have had a genuinely gripping and dazzling movie.  Instead, it is a confused and uncomfortable one.  It begins as a promising kid’s story, about a young Atlanta boy who, for reasons that really demand more of an explanation than is given, has to spend his summer with his grandfather in Brooklyn.  The boy has not been brought up in the church, but his grandfather is the pastor of a small congregation, and the boy is dragged along to all of the church functions, which he doesn’t mind after he meets the daughter of one of the parishioners.  There is then a surprising and fairly horrific revelation, which upends the boy’s stay.  At its best, the film captures the free-spirited enthusiasm of its youthful characters while also exploring the differences in spirituality each older character has come to value.  Running 121 minutes, it could use a little trimming (Lee needs somebody he trusts to stand up to him and enforce discipline more than has been happening), but more significantly, it needs more consideration.  It feels like a rough draft or out-of-town tryout.  It has potential, but it requires more effort than was exerted, polishing its flaws and streamlining its dynamics.


The letterboxing has an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1, and while there is at times a viable, makeshift feel to the colors, they pop out wonderfully on the BD when the lighting is right and Lee is striving for that effect.  The DTS sound has an excellent directional mix that contributes significantly to a viewer’s engagement with the entertainment.  There are English and Spanish subtitles, a trailer, a music video and 27 minutes of passable behind-the-scenes footage.


Lee also supplies a commentary track, though he somewhat runs out of steam for a while in the second hour, and spends most of his time discussing the characters, the cast and the story.  He does address the plot’s most significant anomaly, and admits that it is the question he gets asked most often about the film, citing his reasoning for going ahead with the concept.  Since he is talking about the mutability of human nature, he is technically correct in his validation of the character’s actions, but good drama requires an emotional momentum that the viewer can comprehend, and Lee’s choices fail that test.


The DVD Geek: Searching for Sugar Man

Tuesday, February 12th, 2013

Nominated for an Oscar for 2012 Best Documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, a Sony Pictures Classics release from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, is part of a not uncommon subgenre of music documentaries about artists who have a strong cult following but have otherwise faded or disappeared entirely from public view, such as You’re Gonna Miss Me and I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco.  Additionally, every pop music documentary in existence cannot help but to feel like This Is Spinal Tap.  The latter was just too knowing and too indelible to push back into the proverbial toothpaste tube of knowledge, and so titters can emerge with the slightest hint of absurdity or possible satire.  But Searching for Sugar Man doesn’t just deserve the Oscar nomination, it deserves to win.  Running 87 minutes, it lulls you into believing—or perhaps even not believing—the story of a few enthusiastic South African fans that attempt to uncover the biography of an American balladeer from the early Seventies called ‘Rodriguez,’ who had a smooth, articulate voice, reminiscent of Jose Feliciano (with his dark glasses, he also looks a lot like Feliciano), and adept recording engineers that brought a detailed complexity and color to his orchestrations.  He is most reminiscent of a blue collar Peter Sarstedt (who was also exceptionally popular in South Africa), spinning out lyrics that, under the oppression of apartheid, South African citizens found particularly inspiring.  He had recorded two albums, and while his former producers—and, thanks to bootleg cassettes, practically all of South Africa—remain incredulous that the albums never hit the big time (many of the songs were too off-color to have played on the radio, and even today, at least one of them would still be bleeped in a couple of places), the music often wavers on a not-ready-for-prime-time cusp, as do the songs and recordings of hundreds of other musicians who dream of being headliners but are lucky if they can fill the cocktail lounge of an airport bar.  But South Africa, where the people speak English but were cut off from the rest of the world during most of the Seventies and Eighties (the last thing anyone in the rest of the world cared about was what Afrikaner kids were rocking to), did not know this, and that is what makes the film so wonderful.  It isn’t just another ‘lost musician’ documentary, it is the epic lost musician documentary, capturing a situation that could only possibly happen once in the history of the world on this scale.  What you have is a cultural structure known as ‘the music business,’ which generally functions in a predictable manner, except, what the film uncovers, is this enormous anomaly that gestated in the days before YouTube, when the Global Village wasn’t the real Global Village it is today.  Without giving away too much more, the reason why the film works so effectively and will likely bring many viewers to tears is that, like any well made epic, it conveys a sweeping narrative that spans continents, climaxing in a cast of thousands, and yet it also explores the personalities of the individuals, so that you end up caring very much about how fate treats them.


The DVD is even more of a treat.  Presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback, the story is told after the fact, so the cinematography is glossy and smooth, except when archival and home movie footage is employed.  Much of it is set in Cape Town, and the film, mindful of its themes, makes the city look like an elegant, nurturing oasis nestled against the sea.  The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is also superb, with a full and compelling dimen­sionality that is present not just in the song recordings, but in the environ­mental settings, as well.  There are optional English and French subtitles.


Great documentaries often make great DVDs because of how the supplements can embellish the original feature, and Searching for Sugar Man is no exception.  There is a brief but wonderful 11-minute segment with Rodriguez and director Malik Bendjelloul in front of a live audience.  Not only does Rodriguez play a number, but some of the questions are great fun.  There is also a trailer and a viable 31-minute production featurette that explains how Bendjelloul pieced together the brilliantly designed narrative even though a decade and more had passed since the events it depicts, and, like all beginning filmmakers, he had virtually no money.  Finally, Bendjelloul and Rodriguez supply a commentary track, which goes into more detail both about Bendjelloul putting the movie together (he would have his interviewees talk in the wrong tense to sustain the film’s internal chronology; he also points out, to cash-strapped filmmakers, that the architecture of cities have terrific, free production value) and what has happened since the events in the film to Rodriguez himself.


DVD Geek: Lawrence of Arabia

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

One of the greatest color films ever produced, David Lean’s 1962 Lawrence of Arabia shows the Earth unadorned by its decorative vegetation or man-made blemishes, with landscapes so vast that humans are no more than tiny specks passing across the surface, hardly larger than the grains of sand beneath the feet of their camels.  Set during World War I in the Middle East, the film concerns not only battles, but the political maneuvering which would set the stage for power equilibriums in the region that are continuing to this day.  As a movie, Lawrence of Arabia seems to do everything right, from Peter O’Toole’s magnificent, exhaustive performance as the title character to Maurice Jarre’s transcendent musical score.  Each choice Lean makes in framing his characters—registering their close-ups and then withdrawing to show their surroundings—imparts a resonance of structure that reinforces the joy of the film’s cinematic power.  Lawrence of Arabia may be depicting self-interested military adventurers in a war that was entirely about self-interest, but it demonstrates what roles an individual can play in the course of history, and just as images move from the hero’s face to desert vistas and the sun beyond, so does the story shift between his internal psychological struggles, the greater entanglement of British colonialism and Arab nationalism, and the irrelevance of these allegiances in the eyes of God.

So far as we’re concerned, Blu-ray was invented for Lawrence of Arabia, but it took Sony Pictures Home Entertainment an interminable amount of time to release the 1962 Columbia Pictures production in the format.  This is the 227-minute version of the 1962 film, which includes footage restored to the movie in 1989 under Lean’s supervision, though differing from the film’s original theatrical premiere version and its later, shorter incarnations.  The presentation may be a little too ‘knowing’ when it comes to the characters discussing the political implications of their choices, but is nevertheless a rich and justifiable preservation of the grandeur Lean originally intended the film to have, which had deteriorated or been lost altogether before the restoration was accomplished.

The DTS sound is absolutely wonderful, even as its inherent frailty calls to mind vacuum tubes and hi-fidelity.  There is rarely an exceptional bass, but otherwise the audio is crisp and stable, with outstanding tonal detail.  The surround mix is not as directional as it was on the old Criterion LD, but the clarity and amplification steadfastness are without fault.  Sony took a shot at doing the film as best as it could be done with a two-platter ‘Superbit’ DTS DVD release in 2004, which had to break the platters at a point other than the Intermission to fit everything in.  The BD’s sound, however, is still noticeably improved, and you don’t have to change platters, even for the Intermission.  There are French and Japanese audio tracks and English, French, Dutch, Japanese and Arabic subtitles.

Purists may grumble about the quality of the color on the BD, but that is only because the color transfer is so good it is hard to believe the film ever looked so colorful.  The desert is alive with chromatic detail, and fleshtones are as finely defined as they are consistently accurate.  The image is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.25:1.  Again, however satisfying the Superbit DVD had seemed, the BD is better, with stronger, more precise and vivid hues.  Also featured on the BD is a running text essay that accompanies the film, talking both about the production of the movie and the real story of T.E. Lawrence, similar to the DVD-ROM material that appeared on the original 2001 DVD release.

A second BD platter in the set holds more special features, many of which appeared on the first release of the DVD.   The centerpiece is a 61-minute retrospective documentary, including interviews with Lean during his work on the restoration, and anecdotes by many members of the cast and crew.  The documentary goes into the film’s interesting pre-production history and the stresses of the two-year shoot, also explaining how most of the biggest signature sequences were achieved.  While we wish they’d included a drawing to better explain how they did the quicksand stunt, the interviews are rich in descriptive detail and are effectively supported by film clips, behind-the-scenes clips, archival photos and other materials.  Near the end, editor Anne V. Coates appears and shares some fascinating insights on how the editing was originally conceived and how they approached the restoration.  It is also revealed that Lean used O’Toole’s voice for the motorcyclist who calls across the canal to Lawrence, “Who are you?” thus enhancing, subliminally, the introspective symbolism of the question that goes to the heart of what the film was trying to achieve.

Along with a good 5-minute piece about the film’s marketing, four ‘original’ production documentaries, made concurrently with the film, are also included.  In those days, such programs evolved from promotional newsreel stories and consisted primarily of silent behind-the-scenes footage supported by narration.  Three are in black and white, one running 2 minutes and two others running 4 minutes each.  The footage is terrific, showing the actors, not always in the greatest comfort, accommodating the desert locations and waiting for their calls.  There is also a lot of material on the Arabian crews working on the film, and on the locations, which look stunning even in black and white.  The fourth documentary, which also runs 4 minutes, is in color and was produced after the film’s Oscar win, including interviews with O’Toole in voiceover and great behind-the-scenes footage of the camera team in action, followed by men with brooms.  As the narrator explains, “After each [take], the desert had to be smoothed down like the infield at a baseball game.”

A 9-minute reflection by Steven Spielberg, who identified closely with the film when growing up in the desert-like environs of Phoenix and who collaborated in the production duties on the 1989 restoration, is included as well..  He shares choice memories of working with Lean and also suggests, intriguingly, that among its other attributes, Lawrence of Arabia has, perhaps, ‘the greatest screenplay ever written for the motion picture medium.’

New to the BD is a minute-long newsreel clip about the film’s opening and a glorious 21-minute interview with the indelible and aging O’Toole.

Sony has also released a Fiftieth Anniversary Limited Edition four-platter set that is substantially pricier.  In addition to the two platters featured on the standard BD release, there is a third platter of special features, along with a 42-minute soundtrack CD.  The third platter contains a 7-minute sequence with added footage, which, as Coates explains, was left out of the restoration because they weren’t comfortable with the substitute voice they were using for Jack Hawkins.  It is what is called the ‘balcony scene,’ between O’Toole and Hawkins (“I believe your name will be a household word when you’ll have to go to the war museum to find who Allenby was.”), and the added couple of minutes of dialog is so rich in character and historical reflection that it is well worth the additional investment.  Heck, if the filmmakers hadn’t been so darn fastidious, they should have left the scene in anyway.

The large box—it almost looks like an LD special edition—contains a nice souvenir-inspired hardcover picture book (though if you want to look up the definition of ‘temerity,’ the dictionary may include a photo of Spielberg’s signature on the book’s opening page) and a ‘genuine’ 70mm frame of O’Toole.  The third platter also features a highly satisfying 74-minute retrospective documentary from 2000 featuring property man Eddie Fowlie, who gives a detailed tour of the locations in Jordan, Spain and Morocco that were used for the film as he also discusses where he obtained the props, how the sets were dressed, and how they made the sand look untrampled; an 8-minute appreciation of the film by Martin Scorsese that has a few interesting points, although it is not as insightful as Spielberg’s piece (and, gag, Scorsese mentions the dopey allusion to the film in Prometheus); a 13-minute segment about re-doing the color and cleaning up the image with current digital technology, with many examples that show why the BD is a significant improvement over previous presentations; an interesting 2-minute newsreel piece about the King of Jordan visiting the set; a 5-minute promotional clip in color, profiling O’Toole, with some great behind-the-scenes footage; 10 minutes of testimonial reflections by William Friedkin, Sydney Pollack and Spielberg again; four trailers and two TV commercials.

DVD Geek: This is Cinerama

Friday, October 19th, 2012

There are two entwined reasons that people watch movies.  The second one is ‘discovery,’ the excitement and satisfaction of experiencing an entertainment one has not experienced before.  But the first is ‘nostalgia.’  Even when a viewer sees a film not seen before, the viewer is seeking to relive the pleasures experienced from seeing other movies for the first time.  With home video, the pull of nostalgia is even stronger; it is the desire to re-experience the satisfaction of that entertainment, and even to recall the circumstances of the original pleasure through the re-experiencing of that pleasure.  And nostalgia is the one component of a movie that increases with time.  Filmmaking technology may advance, tastes may change, and techniques may become more sophisticated, but as a film ages, the sweet heartache of longing for the past it instills can only grow greater, like an infinite curtain drawing back upon an infinite screen.

Along with a standard widescreen presentation, the Warner Home Video Blu-ray presentation of How the West Was Won included a ‘Smilebox’ presentation of the Cinerama feature, in which the sides of the film, which were shot separately from the center, gradually increased in height as they extended to the edge of the image.  The format is intended for the few wealthy viewers who own ‘curved’ viewing screens, but what we discovered is that the format works perfectly well on a standard widescreen TV.  You just have to make sure nobody is around to laugh at you, and then sit really, really close to the screen.  So long as your peripheral vision encompasses little more than the edges of your TV set, then the effect is just as realistic as if the TV were curved.

And so, armed with this knowledge and making sure that all of our doors were locked so as to avoid ridicule from those who do not understand, we eagerly ripped apart the fantastic Flicker Alley Blu-ray release, This Is Cinerama, and settled in with Lowell Thomas for 127 minutes of peripatetic thrills.  For whose unfamiliar with the 1952 feature, which introduced the Cinerama format, it begins with Thomas in the center only, in black and white, presenting a history of photography and motion pictures.  And then, the edges are revealed, the color kicks in and the camera is sitting on the front of a rollercoaster.  That is followed by a ballet performance, a helicopter trip over Niagara Falls, a church choir (in black and white, to emphasize the stereophonic music), Venice, Edinburgh, Vienna, a Spanish bullring, La Scala (Aida), and, in the ‘second act,’ Cypress Gardens and its aquacade, and an aerial tour of the United States.

Cinerama is dead.  It died before our grandmothers did.  To see the Cinerama format in a movie theater as a child, however, was to associate its startlingly wide image with life’s future, the grand possibilities that are spread out before one.  And so to relive that experience now, on Blu-ray, is to grasp, with all the fleeting, orgiastic thrill of grasping a ghost, the hopes and dreams and safety and anticipation of childhood.  By the time the helicopter was flying over Niagara, the tears were flowing from our own eyes with a fervor equal to the Falls.

Because of its boxoffice popularity and continued appeal, Warner could invest substantially in providing a sparkling transfer for How the West Was Won.  Even the vague triptych shifts that separate the Cinerama image into suggested thirds were electronically removed.  This Is Cinerama cannot justify that sort of expenditure.  The source material has undergone an extensive restoration effort, to be sure, but the age of the program is still evident and the ghostly panel borders are still there.  As is explained in a very good 19-minute featurette about the restoration process, the source material that was used came from the film’s 1972 theatrical revival, since older source material is far more heavily damaged.  While by and large, the colors look fresh—the shift from the black-and-white opener to the bright red borders on the rollercoaster car when it emerges into the sun is particularly exciting—there are lengthy passages where the hues are still somewhat yellowish.  In the bullfighting sequence, the lower right corner of the left panel is, for a while, unnaturally green.  The presentation looks great, and it is clear from the documentary that it has been substantially rescued, but it is not in the same league as the no-expense-spared studio restorations.

The film is presented in the Smilebox format only, but you can relax.  Even if you don’t want to make a fool of yourself and destroy your eyes from TV radiation by sitting so close, the format works well enough in a standard setting.  Some of the glimpses given of the film in regular widescreen format in the accompanying bonus materials make one wish that such a presentation has been offered as another option, but the curved top and bottom of the image is never a significant distraction, and is easily forgotten once the action on the screen gets interesting.  It should be noted that disc’s chapter encoding leaves a little bit to be desired.  The chapter marker for the rollercoaster, for example, should begin on Thomas (or there should be another marker there) intoning his famous introductory line, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Cinerama!”  Instead, it begins at the rollercoaster itself.  Other chapter markers are placed at the beginnings of each major segment, but do not offer jumps to highlights within those segments.

The original seven-channel soundtrack, which had three channels in back (technically, there were just two rear channels, but they were alternated between three speakers with a switch operated by the projectionist), is only replicated in the standard five channels, although otherwise, the DTS delivery is quite impressive.  The film’s sound has unusually warm tones, and its separation mix is intriguingly complicated.  There are fewer directional noises in the rear channels than a modern mix would have, but the left-right separations are very aggressive and exhilarating.  During the Edinburgh sequence, for example, there is a marching band that passes the camera, and while the music they are playing remains constant, as each group of instruments, be they bagpipes or drums, passes the camera, those particular instruments somewhat magically become more distinctive than the others.  It is doubtful any audio mix today would bother with that level of subtlety.  Additionally, compared to the precious few stereo tracks of its time or the couple of decades that followed, the dynamic range offered by This Is Cinerama is quite amazing.  There is a very strong bass, and a reasonably stable and clear high end.  In any case, it is well worth amplifying.  The film is accompanied by an Overture, Entr’acte and Exit Music.  There is no captioning.

In addition to the restoration featurette, there is a 2-minute alternate sequence for the opening of the film’s second act that is less ‘American,’ which was shot for the international market.  There is also a very interesting 5-minute ‘emergency’ reel that was to be put on if the film suddenly broke, while the projectionists worked to fix it.  The piece acknowledges the interruption and provides several stopping points, as Thomas shares a couple of embarrassing problems that occurred during his own lecture experiences.  A trailer is included that incorporates footage from the film’s original trailer to promote the most recent restoration, and there are two early TV commercials for This Is Cinerama and one of its sequels, Seven Wonders of the World, both featuring Thomas.  There is a lovely 15-minute featurette on the resurrection of Cinerama in Dayton OH in the late Nineties, a 4-minute montage of photos depicting a Cinerama theater in Denver CO that was later demolished, a 6-minute montage of production stills looking behind the scenes of This Is Cinerama, and another sixteen promotional photos in still frame.  Finally, there are a pair of radio interviews with Cinerama’s creator, Fred Waller, made during the film’s premiere promotions, in which he talks about his career (he also invented water skiing) and about the Cinerama process, and he enthusiastically foresees the day the film would appear on Blu-ray.  “Theoretically, it could be put on television right now.  Practically, I think television’s got quite a little way to go.”

A second platter, a dual-sided DVD, is also included, which presents the Smilebox version of the film on one side and the special features on the other.  The sound on the DVD is in 5.1 Dolby, and lacks the timber or the thrust of the BD’s DTS track.  The picture quality, however, is reasonably similar to its BD counterpart.

On both the BD and the DVD, the film is accompanied by a commentary track featuring several members of the restoration team and a member of the original production crew (“We were very much like a start-up in Silicon Valley.  We really did not know what we were doing.”).  Along with providing extensive background details about each setting (such as how many seats there are at La Scala, and a complete history of Cypress Gardens), they speak extensively about the film’s production history (the film didn’t have an official director, but both Michael Todd and Merian C. Cooper were substantially involved with the shoot), the history of Cinerama, the experiences viewers and critics had when the film first opened, and the many challenges encountered in the shooting and the projecting of the film.

“The take-up reels on all four machines, the three projectors and the sound dubber, had about eight thousand feet of film on them, and there was a lot of torque being pulled through the projector.  The film was acetate, which was not particularly strong, and Cinerama had film breaks, usually toward the end of the reel.

“It was the highest paid projectionist job in the union, and at that time, the union worked strictly on seniority, so the oldest projectionists were the projectionists for Cinerama.  The Cinerama reels weighed between fifty and seventy-five pounds, and you had to lift them up over your head to put them in the upper magazines, so Cinerama came up with a ‘reel elevator.’  You would roll the reel on the floor, over to the base of this elevator, put the spindle in the center hole of the reel, push a button, and the elevator would lift the film reel up about six feet.  Then you could swing the door around and place the film into the upper film magazine.”

For unsatiated Cinerama fanatics, Flicker Alley has also released on Blu-ray, in the same Smilebox format and with an accompanying two-sided DVD, the 1958 ‘Cinemiracle’ Cinerama feature, Windjammer Voyage of the Christian Radich.  Depicting the 8-month training cruise of a Norwegian ‘tall ship’ sailing vessel, the 142-minute feature follows the ship south to Madeira, across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and then North along the Eastern American Seaboard before crossing the Atlantic again to Denmark and Norway.  Since this is the unfettered ‘Road Show’ version of the film, there are, for impatient contemporary viewers, a few too many musical numbers staged aboard the ship, but if one overlooks the half-hour or so of redundancy and padding, the program is another thrilling widescreen spectacle.  The format works best when the camera is in motion, because that is when the illusion of immersement is the most persuasive.  Your mind doesn’t have time to analyze the tromp l’oiel, so you really feel like you are moving, too.  In the Madeira segment, there is a ride on a wooden sled down cobblestone hills that is almost as good as the This Is Cinerama rollercoaster.  During a visit to Philadelphia, there are rides on both old-fashioned and modern fire engines, and in another sequence, the camera gets strapped to the side of a diving submarine.

Once again, the presentation retains a strong nostalgic component.  Many viewers will feel thrilled just to see the ship in full sail, and it is stated specifically that the Nineteenth Century work environment is the best way to prepare young men for the challenges of the future.  At nearly every port, there are folk festivals and other celebrations of the past—even the horse-drawn fire engines racing through the streets of Philadelphia—and the encounters with modern naval ships and equipment are usually displayed in contrast with the presence of the sailing ship.

Like This Is Cinerama, the restoration of the film’s source material is to be hailed with great cheer, even though it is burdened with minor imperfections.  Unable, again, to use the original negatives, the restorers, according to a 13-minute featurette, took an existing, badly faded print and coaxed fresh colors out of it as best they could.  Hues are a bit pinkish at times, and are a little drab in other spots, but for the most part, the colors are reasonably accurate and the image is sharp.  Although not as energetically structured as in This Is Cinerama, the audio, again mixed from seven channels into five DTS channels, remains admirably detailed with a strong dimensional presence and invigorating separations.  Some of the music is quite worthwhile, as well, including an expertly recorded performance by Pablo Casals and an interlude with Arthur Fielder and the Boston Pops.  The film presentation on the DVD is in 5.1 Dolby.  There is no captioning.

An excellent 56-minute retrospective documentary from 2012 is included with the film, interviewing a number of the men who were on the voyage and what the trip and the film has meant for them.  Many production details and plenty of gossip are also shared.  As with This Is Cinerama, there is a 14 minute presentation of additional travelog sequences in a standard aspect ratio that were to be used to bide time as projectionists repaired any interruption in the screening, along with a trailer, a good 9-minute montage of behind-the-scenes photos, a 3-minute montage of newspaper ads, a replication of a souvenir program in still frame, and a nice 7-minute piece about the ship visiting a Tall Ships Festival in Denmark in 2010, which ends with another event that is an overwhelming blend of nostalgia and discovery, a fireworks display.

The DVD Geek: The Strawberry Statement

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

The further they recede in time, the more fascinating the campus riot movies become.  Despite the brief resurgences of similar sentiments in the Occupy Wall Street movement, there is something very alien about the militancy of the youthful rebels.  And while violence as a means of suppression by the authorities has continued as a practice, usually of last resort or near last resort, that practice has not been depicted in popular entertainment since the spirit of the Sixties subsided.  Directed by Stuart Hagmann, the 1970 MGM campus riot feature, The Strawberry Statement, released as a Warner Home Video Archive Collection title, won some sort of secondary award at Cannes, and has some interesting stylistic touches.  When the climactic riot begins, there are even shots from ‘inside a gas mask’ as the police approach the gymnasium where the protestors are peaceably demonstrating.  The police begin running smoke machines, which one supposes would have the protestors coughing and leaving the building as soon as it got heavy enough, but rather than waiting, the police also start whacking on them with nightsticks and such, and dragging them out by their feet.  The logic is illusive, but logic in the heat of such situations is also illusive.

Bruce Davison, back when he still had promise, stars as a member of the college rowing crew who by chance becomes curious about the protestors that have taken over the school’s administration building and gradually becomes involved in their cause.  Kim Darby, who was, briefly, believed to have boxoffice clout, co-stars as another protestor, and the core of the film is the easygoing, college romance that develops between them.  Bud Cort and Bob Balaban also have major roles.  The film really doesn’t have much of a plot, however, as it is relying instead upon the dynamics of the campus protest itself—from the discovery in the Dean’s office of documents that link corporate malfeasance to the college’s financial shenanigans, to the execution of the riot at the end—to justify its narrative.  Maybe in 1970 it did, and the Cannes judges must have believed it so, but now it just seems disjointed, aimless, and strange.

Two versions of the film are presented on two separate platters.  The ‘Original Theatrical Version’ runs 103 minutes (with story-generated chapter encoding) and is presented in letterboxed format with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  The color transfer is fresh and smooth.  The ‘International Version,’ presumably the one seen at Cannes, runs 109 minutes (with generic chapter encoding) and includes an elaborate and provocative erotic sequence featuring Davison, but not Darby.  The International Version, however, is presented in full screen format, adding just a little to the top and bottom of the image and losing a lot from the sides.  The picture is also a little grainier and colors are a little weaker.  So, if you want the sex, you have to pay for it.  The monophonic sound on both versions is fuzzy if you raise the volume too high, but fine if it is kept at a sensible level, and the soundtrack contains several intensely nostalgic Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Neil Young tunes, along with other choice songs from the era.  There is no captioning.  A meandering trailer for the Theatrical Version is also included.

DVD Geek: The Artist

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

French filmmaker Michel Hazanvicius’ delightful 2011 Oscar Best Picture, which dips its toes into Singin’ in the Rain territory, The Artist, has been released on Blu-ray by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment..  The 100-minute film is presented in full screen format and is in black and white, and there is no dialog, although the story is so drenched in emotion and wound so tightly around the traditions of cinema that it makes Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie seem depthless.  The story is about a successful silent film star, played by Jean Dujardin, who is unable to make the transition to talking pictures, and a What Price Hollywood?-type rising starlet, played by Bérénice Bejo, who cares for him.  There is a lovable dog, too.  The film plays out the melodrama of the actor’s decline and fall, however, in an almost pointillist fashion, in that every sequence is also a quotation from some film or some types of films, so that the closer you look at it, the more you see other movies.  This even extends to the lovely original musical score—a marathon effort, to be sure—by Ludovic Bource—which drops its originality in one sequence and draws instead, lengthily and hauntingly, from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Vertigo.  There is the adage in filmmaking that, ‘it has all been done before,’ but The Artist is more deliberately allusional.  It celebrates moviemaking from every conceivable direction at once, whipping the viewer into its maelstrom of motion picture joy.

The black-and-white image is crisp and captivating.  The quality of the BD presentation enhances, among other things, the film’s fabulous production design, so that the locations—such as the Bradbury Building stairwell, evocative of a Jerry Lewis production design, which shows Dujardin’s character on the way down meeting Bejo’s character on the way up, as extras breeze past them and around them in a mysteriously perfect rhythm—and costumes pelt the viewer continually with refreshing stimulation.  The DTS sound gives the musical score—and a sequence or two that have audio effects—a rich, enveloping presence that saturates the viewer in the film’s immediacy.  One warning, however, is in order.  Because the film is so visually oriented—even more so than the standard, linear silent feature, it requires more concentration and attention than other movies, so make sure all of your distractions are tied down or battened up before you begin.

There are English subtitles (for the sound effects) and Spanish subtitles, along with a cute 2-minute blooper reel (mostly of the dog missing its cues), 34 minutes of good production featurettes (which lets you see some of the sets and costumes in color) although there are redundancies among them, a 5-minute piece about the many Los Angeles locations that were utilized (they didn’t just use Mary Pickford’s house—they used her bed), and a rewarding 45-minute question-and-answer piece with the filmmakers and stars in front of an audience.  They talk quite a bit about the film’s unique nature and how that uniqueness affected the creative environment, sharing not just stories about the film’s production, but reflections on the meanings of what they wanted to accomplish.  Supporting star James Cromwell, for example, analyzes in depth how the perspective of performing is altered when the inflections of dialog are not a priority of concentration.  And everyone politely avoids mentioning that proud French tradition, so despised in America, without which the film could never have existed—mime.


DVD Geek: The Rape of the Vampire

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

The greatest bad movie ever is Plan Nine from Outer Space, but coming in a close number two is Jean Rollin’s exquisitely ridiculous The Rape of the Vampire, which has been released on Blu-ray no less, by Kino Lorber Incorporated as a Redemption title. For one thing, it is in that hoity-toity language, French, which connoisseurs of badness embrace as the language of their superiors. For another thing, it has lots of topless women, which in itself is not a bad thing at all—just ask a nursing infant—but is really dopey when there is no particular narrative reason as to why the women should choose not to drape themselves respectably, particularly when there are a bunch of grunting, farmer-looking types, chasing after them with pitchforks.  You also tend to wince when they cavort naked at the beach, not because naked at the beach isn’t fun in concept, but because the women are near old pilings and large stones and other favorite barnacle attachments.  There isn’t any beach sand, either, just pebbles and more rocks.  There is, in fact, one sequence where two of the naked ‘vampire’ girls are making out with a couple of guys on boulders next to the ocean, which encourages one not to pant with the excitement of erotic sublimity but rather to cringe with the thought of hard, sharp objects rubbing against tender flesh.  There were probably enough scratches and cuts when the shooting was over to attract every vampire in miles.

Like Plan Nine, the 1968 film is brilliant, if accidental, Surrealism, and hypnotically captivating from its first frame to its last.  It only runs 95 minutes, yet it has two parts, with a second set of title credits showing up in its center.  Why, or rather, pourquoi?  Who knows, it’s just je ne sais quoi, as they say.  In the first part, there are four or so scantily clothed women who believe themselves to be vampires and a psychologist who thinks he can ‘cure’ them of this, by taking them out in the sun and other aggressive therapies.  Oh, there is this one vampire girl who is blind and likes to practice bowling in the garden, or in the surf, because the editing shifts the bowling pins between those two locations.  The portions of the film that don’t take place at the beach are set in a large mansion-like farmhouse or institution or something.  To get back to the story, in part two, a topless ‘queen of the vampires’ arrives on a boat, gets into a convertible, and bosses everyone around.  What makes the movie’s badness great is that the black-and-white cinematography is genuinely lovely, so that the movie looks like it really ought to be profound—another Orpheus or Vampyr something like that.  But then when you try to concentrate on what is happening, you realize that it was only the cinematographer who had talent, and nobody else on the set had any idea what they were doing.  Except making a masterpiece, of sorts.

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.66:1.  Despite a few stray scratches and speckles, the image presentation is gloriously satisfying, conveying the beauty and smoothness of a theatrical presentation, and making the film all the more mesmerizing.  The source material on the old Image Entertainment DVD release has a few more pronounced markings on it, but is still in reasonably good condition.  The Image picture is lighter, which normally we would prefer because it brings out more detail, but the BD’s picture has such a compelling theatrical feel to it that the film becomes a more involving experience, especially on a larger screen.  The BD’s monophonic sound is relatively stable and coaxes as much out of the film’s audio as is to be had, with the sound on Image’s DVD seeming much weaker and hollower in comparison.  Next to the cinematography, the one component of the film that is not immediately condemnable is the musical score, a mostly jazz style soundtrack that changes tone with seeming randomness—sometimes it’s sophisticated, sometimes it’s primitive—but does not insult the ears.  Did we mention that the film is in French?  There are English subtitles, but of course you don’t really need to use them, n’est-ce pas?

The BD has several satisfying special features, including a good 24-minute retrospective documentary and an additional 7 minutes of interviews with Rollin.  Basically, a producer with money took a look at Rollin’s initial footage and told him he didn’t understand what was going on, but if he’d put topless women in the movie, they would be successful selling it.  Thus began Rollin’s lifelong addiction to putting naked people in his movies.  In May of 1968 when the film opened, the Parisian streets were filled with rioters.  When the rioters had to run away from the police, they would duck into movie theaters, and thus the film became a hit.  Vraiment.  There is also a 4-minute trailer that is kind of the movie in miniature, a 9-minute interview with actor Jean-Loup Philippe, and two short films Rollin made.  One, The Yellow Loves, from 1958, runs 9 minutes and was shot at the same beach location where Rape of the Vampires was made, intercutting footage of a man wandering around the beach with an extensive montage of simple drawings, as a voiceover narrator talks about love and loneliness.  The second short, The Far Country, from 1965, isn’t bad.  It is a dreamlike depiction of a couple attempting to find their way around a labyrinthine city, suggesting, metaphorically, the difficulties the younger generation has in finding its place in the world.

DVD Geek: Camelot

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

One can speak derisively of Blu-rays for their operational legthargy, but there are amazing things that the format can accomplish, and a very good example is that they can turn bad movies into good movies.  Warner Home Video has released Camelot in a fancy jacket that doubles as a picture book and comes with a CD platter that contains the biggest four songs from the film, lasting 17 minutes.  Directed by the aging Joshua Logan (who still had one more big flop in him, following Camelot with Paint Your Wagon), the ungainly 1967 feature runs a full 180 minutes and unavoidably focuses on the enduring but dreary Arthurian tale of infidelity and impotence.  Instead of hiring perky stage performers, the film is bizarrely cast with movie stars of questionable magnitude and, MacArthur Park aside, no vocal credentials to sing-speak of.  Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero headline three hours of dwindling love and broken ideals, and are not helped when Logan’s diminishing faculties prevent the widescreen shots from matching continuity in edits—there is too much going on to keep track of everything—or just plain thinking that youthful Sixties audiences are going to get off on a film about how age can destroy romance.

But then the movie comes out on Blu-ray and all of those drawbacks matter not in the least.  The hummable Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe musical score, for example, can be amped to the max with the BD’s DTS sound, and it is full of joyful old-fashioned separation effects and new-fashioned purity of delivery.  The picture, letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1, is so glossy that the texture of every costume and every prop seems almost touchable, with breathtaking colors and faultless fleshtones.  Redgrave is and always has been remarkable in her role as the queen, and much of the movie is sustained by her skill at conveying her character’s inner feelings and enabling the viewer to care about what those feelings are.  But with the BD, Harris, too, is magnificent.  It is a marathon performance that loses its detail and immediacy when the film’s presentation is anything but pristine, but on the BD he is right there in the middle of the screen as his character is supposed to be, commanding the viewer’s attention and maintaining that grip even as his kingdom is slipping out of his character’s hands.  Musicals have always played by different rules than other movies, and that is what is at work here.  Rather than dwelling on the film’s failures, the BD enables one to embrace what does succeed in the film, and allows those glories to reign

David Hemmings, by the way, shows up suddenly in the second half, which then gives the film a total of three stars who had also appeared in Michelangelo Antonioni films, for what it is worth (and the only Italian actor in the cast wasn’t one of them).  The film is accompanied by a brief Overture, Entr’acte and Exit Music (and whose inspired idea was it to use If Ever I Should Leave You as the Exit Music?).  There is a very good 30-minute documentary about the film’s creation and the problems it encountered, which draws an easy parallel to the film’s plot.  A 9-minute production featurette from 1967 opens with archeologists looking for the real King Arthur before shifting into its behind-the-scenes footage and promotion.  There is also an interesting 29-minute broadcast of the film’s premiere, in very faded color, which incorporates commercials for Camelot-inspired fashions, and there are five trailers.

Film critic Stephen Farber supplies a commentary track, talking about both the film and the stage production.  He expands on the information provided in the 30-minute documentary, but the gist of what he has to say is the same.  He supplies cursory profiles of various members of the cast and crew, analyzes the strengths and flaws of individual scenes, and explains the purposes behind various story choices and stagings.  Even though he admires the work as a whole, he is forthright in discussing the film’s failures.  While praising Redgrave’s transcendent gown in the wedding sequence, for example, he has no problem turning his attention to what he thinks is a less than satisfying canvas for its display.  “If you notice the set—there is no set.  It’s just a lot of candles, and that seems like a missed opportunity because we want to see the grandeur of ‘Camelot’ and all we see is a walkway lit by candles, which seems very inadequate at that point.”

Farber readily points to the persistent lack of imagination on the part of Logan—some sequences are truly awful—and explains how the relative failure of the film dealt the death blow to the last of the great studio heads, Jack Warner, who had failed to appreciate the value of Bonnie & Clyde and almost buried it as he worked to promote his behemoth tentpole feature.  As Farber concludes, “This ending is poignant in kind of dealing with the end of the dream of ‘Camelot,’ and it’s also poignant in the sense that it marked the end of the regime and whole era in Hollywood because this was really the last of the great founding moguls who was still operational, and after this movie, the new ‘corporate’ era in Hollywood had begun, sort of not unlike what they were saying in this film, that an era that was run by these visionary, bold studio moguls was going to be taken over by smaller corporate company men, just as ‘Camelot,’ with its noble dreams, is going to give way to a much more chaotic system of governance in England after the destruction of the Round Table.”


DVD Geek: The Magnificent Ambersons

Monday, April 16th, 2012

Exactly 15 years after DVDs were introduced to the home video market place, Warner Home Video has finally released the last significantly important, classic motion picture in the format, The Magnificent Ambersons, and like the opinions of the townspeople on the fates of the characters at the end of the film, no one cares. DVDs are horse drawn carriages, being sent to the glue factory in favor of Internet downloads, which takes the possession of a film out of the hands of the collector and places it back in the hands of the film company. We have come full circle. Blockbuster stores are closing, stores that do still sell home video software give more and more shelf space to Blu-rays every day, and only extreme enthusiasts like ourselves, the sort who used to pore over newsprint magazines such as Movie Collector’s World in the past, are supporting the market for ‘made to order’ DVDs (as opposed to mass produced DVDs) of obscure, forgotten film titles. But I digress. Orson Welles’ outstanding 1942 RKO Pictures adaptation of the Booth Tarkington novel suffered a similar fate, the same fate as its characters. As a production, it began with great promise, and as a movie, it begins with great promise. But gradually, as a production, it over-extended itself and its backers lost interest in seeing it through, so that, as a movie, it falls to pieces and punishes anyone who has made an emotional investment in it. Running just 88 minutes, it is brilliantly staged, brilliantly acted and brilliantly conceived, but it flames out, rushing through a truncated version of the characters coming to terms with their failures to wrap things up before the final fadeout. If you are familiar with the film and familiar with these failures, then you can readily look past them to see what a magnificent work of art it is, an aching, unrequited cry for the protective mother’s embrace of nostalgia against the unstoppable seepage of progress.

Unless you count the English, French and Spanish subtitles (“George Amberson Minafer avait eu ce qu’il méritait.”), the disc has no special features whatsoever. There is not even a chapter guide. The full screen black-and-white picture looks okay, with no distracting flaws, but there is undoubtedly room for improvement. The monophonic sound has a natural but sometimes cumbersome background noise that can become more pronounced if you try to push the volume on Bernard Herrmann’s musical score.

In 2001, Alfonso Arau made a cable film of Welles’ complete script for The Magnificent Ambersons, which is available from A&E. Unfortunately, it is an idea that would have been best left on the drawing boards. Short or lengthened, the story is a downer. As a novel, it is rescued by the beauty of Tarkington’s prose, and as a film, it succeeded through the dazzling expression of talents overseen by Welles, but Arau has a cable movie budget and no interest in the absolutely intrinsic link between the characters and the nostalgic elements of their environment (at one point, he has the characters performing a tango, which would be appropriate in a Latin-American fantasy novel, but is a jarring anachronism to what Tarkington and Welles were striving for, by at least a decade). Indeed, Arau did not even bother to include my favorite ‘missing scene’ (Welles’ script was part of the excellent Criterion Collection Laser Disc release of the original film), where a car is ‘put to bed’ for the night in a stable. Another scene, in which a young woman describes her feelings for the hero through a made up story about Native Americans, is actually shorter in the cable version than it is in the original film. Running 140 minutes, it is difficult to pinpoint where, actually, the cable film has been expanded. It just seems to take longer to get through the regular scenes, perhaps because, unlike Welles’ staging, the characters here stop moving when they talk. Nevertheless, the film does at least suggest what is missing from the Welles version. Unlike the uncomfortable, bullet-point rush through the last act in the Welles movie, the downward spiral of the various characters are more drawn out and less disorienting. As one character explains, talking about life but reflecting the pathway of the original film, “The things that we have and we think are so solid, they’re like smoke, and time is like the sky the smoke disappears into.” It is entirely possible that if Welles’ cast, his production designers, his cinematographer and so on were tackling the material it would have been more palatable and the film would have sustained its amazing synthesis of aesthetic glory and narrative purgatory, but such resources were the smoke that Arau could never retrieve.

Set at the turn of the previous century, the story, though broken up and focusing on several characters, is centered around a spoiled rich boy, played with an under appreciated sweetness by Tim Holt in the original film and by a more aggressive but still effective Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in the cable feature. Jennifer Tilly seems completely lost attempting to fill Agnes Moorehead’s shoes as his alcoholic maiden aunt. Madeleine Stowe plays his mother in the remake, somewhat unpersuasively, while Dolores Costello had the part in the original. Bruce Greenwood, although he doesn’t age much, captures aspects of his character, a former beau of Stowe’s character, that Joseph Cotten fails to convey in the original. Anne Baxter played the daughter of Cotten’s character and Gretchen Mol covers the part in the remake reasonably well, although she is not given the same opportunities to shine that Baxter had.

The picture is presented in full screen format only. The colors are a little yellowed at times, but are usually presentable. The stereo sound is generally centered, and there is no captioning. Along with text profiles of Welles and the cast (but not Arau), there is a passable 22-minute promotional documentary (although Rhys-Meyers, in one interview, sounds almost resentful that he has been cast in it).

DVD Geek: My Week With Marilyn

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

First, you have to see The Prince and the Showgirl, a Warner Home Video release. It is a film that will continually make you smile.  Its story is cute and its cast is legendary. Marilyn Monroe stars as an American actress with a troupe in London in 1911 when an Eastern European regent, played with an accent by Laurence Olivier, invites her to the embassy for a one night stand while visiting for a coronation.  She ends up staying longer, solving a domestic problem between the regent and his son that could have upset the balance of power in Europe, and falling, for a while, in love. Based upon a stageplay with three fairly recognizable acts, the 1957 feature, which Olivier also directed, is something of a trifle, but a joyful one.  Monroe is exquisite, and the 117-minute film revels in her liveliness and charm.

The picture is in full screen format only.  The image is clean, fleshtones are accurate, and the embassy’s décor is gorgeous, although the colors probably aren’t as vivid as they could be.  The monophonic sound has weaknesses at the upper end on some of the music, but is generally workable.  There is an alternate French language track, optional English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Thai subtitles, text profiles of Monroe and Olivier, a trailer, and a minute-long newsreel blurb about the start of production.

Then you watch My Week with Marilyn, from Anchor Bay Entertainment; on the jacket, it looks like the movie is just called, ‘Marilyn,’ because that word is white while the ‘My Week with’ is in a nearly invisible dark blue against a black background), which is about shooting the film in London.  Eddie Redmayne stars as an assistant director who eventually becomes the one member of the crew that can get Monroe, for a few days at least, to the set at a reasonable hour.  The 2011 film is not about dishing dirt on the production.  It is, rather, and in some ways very much like The Prince and the Showgirl, about the ephemeral nature of love.  It is important, however, to have the latter film fresh in one’s mind, so that when the characters talk about how magical Monroe’s performance is, you will know in your heart that they are telling the truth, and the obscure references to minor plot points and characters in the film, easily forgotten if too much time passes, bring greater resonance to the story and the awareness the characters have of what they are creating.

With Prince and the Showgirl fresh in your mind, the first shot of Michelle Williams playing Monroe, is jarring.  She seems nothing like her and woefully lacking in what is needed for the part.  But then an amazing thing happens.  As the film progresses, she has the opportunity to explore her character’s frailties and to toy with her manipulative skills, becoming completely and utterly the Monroe that you saw in The Prince and the Showgirl.  It is a remarkable accomplishment, and it enables the film to then explore the metaphorical dynamics that have fascinated everyone who has studied Monroe and her representation of some sort of ultimate achievement in feminization.  Kenneth Branagh, who has seemed to shadow Olivier his entire career, brings the sort of inside touches portraying him that add to the film’s playful pleasure, but it is Judi Dench, as Sybill Thorndike, who is truly and delightfully riveting every moment she is on the screen.  Running 99 minutes, the film sustains its entertainment by gradually building the brief relationship Redmayne’s character has with the star.  The film is already good enough that you care about what will happen, but if you familiarize yourself with the real Prince and the Showgirl beforehand, then the movie isn’t just a better film, it is one with more feeling and more power, enabling Monroe, channeled through Williams, to cast her spell once again.

Anchor Bay has also released Blu-ray + DVD.   The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  The colors are smooth and precise, particularly on the Blu-ray.  The musical score is especially tantalizing on the DTS sound of the BD, with the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound on the DVD being subliminally blander.  On both, there are English and Spanish subtitles, and both have the same special features.  There is a 19-minute production featurette that sells the film reasonably well, and the director, Colin Curtis, supplies a decent commentary track for the feature, talking about the performers and the personalities they were representing, revealing that the team actually found some of the real furniture that was used in Prince and the Showgirl sitting in storage in a London film studio and re-used it, praising Williams for her approach to her performance and for her singing voice, explaining the movie’s complicated logistics (Dench shot her scenes a month before the official start of production; Emma Watson shot all of her material in a very compact time frame), and revealing some of his shooting strategy.  “You notice we have a lot of close-ups in this film, but I just couldn’t resist it, really, when we’ve got these actors doing these great performances.  I love pushing in and pushing in.”

DVD Geek: World on a Wire

Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

Back in 1973, when science fiction movies were awful, Rainer Werner Fassbinder made his only foray into the genre, a two-part 212-minute television miniseries, World on a Wire, which was broadcast twice in Germany and then largely forgotten until it was restored as part of a general interest in Fassbinder’s legacy, and has been released on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection.  Not only does the program turn out to be an outstanding accomplishment for its day and a still very rare example of a successful adaptation of a science-fiction novel to film, but its relevance has not diminished in the slightest over the ensuing decades.  Way, way before The Matrix, before Blade Runner and before umpteen Japanese anime tales, Fassbinder not only understood the epistemological paradoxes of cyberworlds, he understood how to communicate those paradoxes to viewers in an entertaining and engrossing manner.  The film has almost no special effects, and conveys its fantasies through conversations, ideas and dramatic conflict, which are staged with Fassbinder’s prodigious sense of cinematic design.  Filled with mirrors and with the camera often rotating in circles upon circles, the film is not only aesthetically captivating, it has a fully accessible narrative and a surprisingly satisfying conclusion.

Based upon a novel by Daniel F. Galouye, which also served as the source for the under-appreciated 1999 feature, The Thirteenth Floor, Klaus Löwitsch stars as a scientist involved in a partially government-funded project to create a fully functioning virtual world, so that various economic and social trends can be accelerated for the sake of prediction (with private manufacturers bribing project officials to obtain marketing tips).  Glitches begin to occur, however, and soon the hero, who looks very much like David Janssen in The Fugitive, is on the run for the supposed murder of his supervisor.  At the same time, he discovers that characters within the virtual world may have become independently cognizant of their situation, and that on another meta-level, he himself may be simply a virtual character in a greater cyberscape. 

Fassbinder balances the ambiguities and the complexities of the premise with camera movements and character blocking that are themselves metaphorical.  When a character walks behind a partition, he ‘disappears’ and when he ‘reappears’ as the camera circles around and catches him strolling in a different part of the room, is it really the same person, has he been replaced, or has the whole setting been readjusted while he was absent from view?  Which side of the mirror is the reflection and which is the original?  The film constantly taunts a viewer’s presumptions about the realities of what is being observed, and goes around and around with its teases.  The women in the film are all dressed in an ever so slightly exaggerated manner, as if their outfits had not been chosen by the feminine tastes of the characters themselves but were instead the attempt of unseen geeky code writers to replicate what they thought the women should be wearing.  Many of the characters, especially the secondary characters, act stiffly, as they do in other Fassbinder films, but here their inertia can immediately be interpreted as insufficient programming.  Even the appearance of many wonderful German actors in cameo parts—readily calling forth allusions to Alphaville, Eddie Constantine also shows up briefly—and the film’s use of so many of Fassbinder’s ensemble favorites, creates distinctive parallels between the film’s virtual worlds and the film itself as a virtual world.  Meanwhile, in America, the best science fiction, if you can even call it such, that anybody could come up with at the time was Zardoz.  In comparison, World on a Wire is a genuine film of the future, in the very best sense, and between the intricacies of its story and the infinite discoveries within Fassbinder’s style, now that the film has been resurrected, it will captivate viewers for decades to come.

The full screen picture looks as good as can be expected, with some sequences appearing smooth and slick, while others, although bright and sharp, still seeming a little aged or vaguely compromised.  Considering the source, it is clear that the presentation is as good as it is going to get.  The monophonic sound has noise in some sequences—as if the more times the action within the film has been replicated, the more it has begun to degrade—but is mixed with a strong sense of purpose and is worth amplifying.  The show is in German with English subtitles and comes with a trailer and two excellent retrospective pieces that analyze the film and explain how it all came together, running a total of 85 minutes.

DVD Geek: Design for Living

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012

Ernst Lubitsch’s delightful 1933 tale of a woman who is shared by two men but marries a third, Design for Living, has been released on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection.  Sexy as all get out as she stretches across a bed in the film’s La Boheme-style Parisian garret where the two men live, Miriam Hopkins stars with Gary Cooper, Frederic March and Edward Everett Horton.  Ostensibly, the film is staged in an artificial manner, with performances to match, and has an erratic narrative jumping not only from character to character, but from country to country; yet it consistently and joyfully seems about as perfect as a movie can be.  Made before the Production Code cleaned up his innuendos and flagrant sexual metaphors, Lubitsch constantly teases the viewer with his balancing act of sharing and hiding what the characters are thinking and doing.  Almost as an afterthought, each man’s fortunes rise because of his association with Hopkins’ character, and yet, for each, it is a downward trajectory of spirit when she turns her attentions elsewhere.  Running 91 minutes, the film achieves density through the masterful precision of Lubitsch’s style, so that while it seems like a lighthearted romantic comedy, there are so many resonances to each image and sound—all of which are greatly solidified with the Blu-ray’s delivery—that its intrigues and pleasures endure timelessly.

The full screen black-and-white picture has an age-related softness but is otherwise in excellent condition.  The monophonic sound also has age-related limitations of range, but is fully functional.  There are optional English subtitles.  As a treat, Lubitsch’s 3-minute segment from the 1932 If I Had a Million, featuring Charles Laughton, is offered in the supplements.

Criterion has also included a valuable 1964 black-and-white broadcast of a soundstage performances of the original Noël Coward play, running 74 minutes and starring John Wood, Daniel Massey and Jill Bennett, with an introduction by Coward in the flesh.  The play sort of works like a sequel to the film, since the three characters already have a strong relationship with one another at the opening, although they then proceed, as in the film, to pair off and break up, in Paris and London, before coming back together in New York to thumb their noses at convention.  On the strength of its visual approach alone, the Lubitsch film is a great deal more appealing, and its dialog is also wittier, but there is an inherent attractiveness to the basic free-spirited nature of the characters, which are all well played in the telefilm, and the program is interesting as a point of reference to the inspired improvements Lubitsch and his team brought to the property.  In an elaboration of that point, there is also a good 22-minute comparison of the play to the film, a history of the script’s development, and an analysis of its themes by Joseph McBride, which dovetails quite effectively with a more elaborate 36-minute analysis of the film’s artistry and its similarities to Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise by film historian William Paul.  ‘Irony’ is always a difficult concept to communicate and Paul does a very good job of explaining why the many ironies in Lubitsch’s works are so effective and so enriching.

DVD Geek: Godzilla

Tuesday, February 7th, 2012

The jacket designs of the Criterion Collection can often be frustratingly obscure and unhelpful, but when you open the jacket on the Criterion Blu-ray release of Godzilla, the monster’s head rears out in classic pop-up style.  Not only do you stand there forever, opening and closing and opening again the jacket, but once you do start moving, it is to take the jacket around and show your friends.  The entire Blu-ray conveys that same sort of delight.  The single platter holds both the original 1954 Japanese feature, and the 1956 revised-with-Raymond-Burr-inserts version, known as Godzilla The King of the Monsters, that conquered America (the latter version is hidden in the supplements), along with some terrific special features.

When Haiti or Malaysia or other locales have suffered the devastation of earthquakes and tsunamis, the calamities have been horrific, but singular.  When Japan had a similar disaster, however, the event unleashed a second, nuclear power cataclysm that decimated its countryside perhaps for decades.  No other land or people have suffered from the effects of manmade atomic destruction as Japan has, and the monster, Godzilla, is a metaphor of that destruction that has proven to be as far reaching and enduring in its truthfulness as the creature itself has been in popularity.  Even America, which is as symbiotically entwined with Japan’s nuclear catastrophes as the American version of the film is with the Japanese version, has embraced the subliminal power that is conveyed by the rubber-suited monster, and its later, upgraded special effect iterations, raging across the captivating miniature landscapes and cityscapes.  By transferring the responsibility of the destruction to the unrestrained ‘other,’ the viewer absolves mankind from the guilt of having instigated the terror.

Both versions of the film have been available on DVD in the past, but most viewers are more familiar with the American adaptation of the film, which downplays severely but does not eliminate entirely the references to Godzilla’s atomic origins.  Directed by Terry Morse, the Raymond Burr footage in the American version is substantial, and when the two films are watched as a double bill—they are different enough that fans will enjoy the experience—the insertions of Burr are both clever and elaborate.  A decent portion of the film remains in Japanese, with Burr either providing a voiceover interpretation or being told as a character what is going on.  The meat of the film, Godzilla’s rampages, of course, requires no translation.  Directed by Ishiro Honda, the original Japanese film has its hokey moments.  As the families of the victims from the monster’s initial attacks on freighters crowd the door of the shipping office to find out if anyone survived, the entire office wall surrounding the doorway wiggles as the extras push against it; and as powerful as the visions of the monster are, the monster is still, so quaintly, a guy in a rubber suit smashing meticulously constructed models.  But it is also a compelling drama, in which the characters have conflicted emotional responses to the monster—an elderly scientist believes the creature is too valuable of a specimen to be destroyed but is deeply disturbed by the horrors it has caused—and to one another.  The manga-esque design of the characters—one troubled scientist sports a dashing eyepatch, which, as you will never learn in the American version, he received in WWII—is more pronounced, defining the film’s fantasy parameters in a more appreciable manner than the overly-eager-to-get-to-the-good-parts American version does.  Perhaps for Fifties drive-in audiences, the Americanized version, which runs 81 minutes, is more efficient and suitable, but for the refined tastes of a sophisticated Blu-ray aficionado, the original Japanese version, which runs 96 minutes, has the calm, poetic beauty of a true work of art, building gradually, teasingly but always inevitably to its climax of frantic chaos and apocalyptic ruin.

Classic Media released a two-platter DVD set, Gojira , which contains both the original Japanese version and the American version.  The full screen picture on the Criterion BD is improved over both of them.  The black-and-white image, though still subject to some wear at the reel-change points, is substantially free of the speckling that is in regular evidence on the other two releases, and blacks are deeper, with better defined contrasts.  The Classic Media version looks okay, but the cleaner and sharper BD just has fewer distractions.  The footage carried over to the American version is somewhat weaker than it is on the original Japanese version, but the fresh American sequences are much cleaner, while still doing a viable job of transitioning with the other footage, and again, Criterion’s transfer is cleaner and sharper. 

It is the monophonic DTS sound, however, that is the most thrilling improvement, even though the other releases had alternate stereo tracks that boosted the dimensionality of the audio.  One understandable but regrettable flaw in the American release is that it holds the film’s credit scroll until the end of the movie, while the Japanese film presents the credits at the beginning, accompanied, before the music kicks in, by powerful, ominous thumps (created by whacking an amplifier).  Who needs the thumps after the movie is over and the monster is supposedly dead?  Anyway, like the rest of the soundtrack, the thumps are present but somewhat subdued on the stereo releases, while on the BD they are thundering, instilling the viewer with enough trepidation to carry through the long dramatic introduction in the Japanese version before the damage begins.  The Japanese version is supported on both presentations by English subtitling, and the American version on both presentations is not captioned.  Both releases also feature trailers from both sides of the Pacific.

In January of 1954, America tested the hydrogen bomb in the Bikini Atoll of the Marshall Islands and the only civilian casualties of the test were Japanese, the crew of a fishing vessel that, although outside of the safety limit set by the authorities, was too close to the unexpectedly powerful explosion and was exposed to the sickening and eventually lethal radioactive fallout.  This incident was the crystallizing moment for producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, who assigned Honda, screenwriter Shigeru Koyama and effects supervisor Eiji Tsuburaya to the project that would reach the screens by the end of the year.  There is an excellent 10-minute piece on the BD about the fishing boat incident, and in an insightful 14-minute interview, film critic Tadao Sato, who began covering the Japanese film industry at that time (“When I’d call Toho’s marketing department, they’d answer, ‘Toho, home of Godzilla!’”), talks extensively about the parallels between the monster and the dangers of nuclear power.

Footage from the various matte components was unearthed in a film archive and is presented in a terrific 9-minute segment that compares the parts of different shots to their integrated wholes.  Shot in 2000, a superb 51-minute interview with composer Akira Ifukube goes over his background and his career as he talks extensively about creating the movie’s memorable music, explains how the monster’s roars were achieved, and gives an in-depth lecture on the dynamics of scoring films.  Three terrific interviews from 2011 are included as well.  The lead actor (or, rather, the second lead after the big guy), Akira Takarada, talks for 13 minutes about the excitement of landing such a major role, how the actors were instructed to react to the special effects (which he deemed more challenging than acting with the other cast members), and explains how ‘Gojira’ got his name—“It’s from gorira (gorilla) and kujira (whale).”  Trained in the mime of kabuki theater, Haruo Nakajima speaks for a delightful 10 minutes about working inside the Godzilla suit, explaining how he was able to breathe and sort of see, how he coped with the heat in the days before the sets were air conditioned (he didn’t even have a fan), and how his physical performance, which Sato likens to a sumo wrestler’s movements, was developed.  “As Godzilla walked along and came across some object it felt was in its way, it would just push it aside.  That was more realistic, more natural, so just intentionally destroying stuff wasn’t allowed.”  Finally, two of the effects technicians, Yoshio Irie and Eizo Kaimai, sit together for 30 minutes discussing their work under Tsuburaya, explaining the creation of the suit and the miniatures, and sharing many other fascinating details about pulling off their amazing spectacle with relatively limited means.  Most of the interviews are accompanied by a wealth of production photographs and other materials presented as inserts during the talks.

Monster movie historian David Kalat supplies commentary tracks on both versions of the film, and they are really intended to be heard sequentially.  Along with explaining why either pronunciation—‘Gojira’ or ‘Godzilla’—is equally valid, Kalat supplies an elaborate Cold War context to the movies and provides many rewarding details about the meanings of each sequence, the production participants (including a touching profile of Burr), its staging, and the success of the film’s marketing, including an excellent analysis of the foreign film market in America in the Fifties.  While some of his statements are arguable—he claims the specific references to World War II were not removed from the American version for censorship reasons but just happened as a coincidence when footage was trimmed to fit in the new material—his justifications for treating the film as an artistic accomplishment, and for not dismissing the alternative English-language version, are not only valid, but persuasive.  He also assures the viewer that Criterion’s transfer is as good as any can get.  “This is what Godzilla looked like to Japanese audiences in 1954.”

Two more monster movie historians, Ed Godziszewski and Steve Ryfle, provide a tag team commentary on the two films in the Classic Media Gojira release.  The talk on the Japanese version has some scattered trivia that Kalat never gets to (and they dispute the name origin story), but is generally more superficial and less expansive or thorough than Kalat’s talk.  For the American version, however, they bring in recordings of reminiscences by several of the people involved with obtaining the rights to the American version, and Morse’s son even joins them to share what he remembers (he worked on it, too) about shooting the American scenes.  It is a rewarding supplement and an effective elaboration to Kalat’s coverage of the film.  The first platter of the Classic Media presentation also has two other terrific features, a 13-minute summary of scenes that were dropped from the film, accompanied by storyboards and still photos that suggest what the scenes would have looked like, and a 13-minute segment on the creation of the monster suit, again illustrated by extensive still photos and other materials.

DVD Geek: Lucky Lady

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

In 1975, the heavily promoted Lucky Lady, sporting three big boxoffice names, was intended to be a Twentieth Century Fox blockbuster.  Directed by Stanley Donen, Liza Minnelli, Burt Reynolds and Gene Hackman play Prohibition Era rumrunners on the Pacific Coast, who fall into a comfortable Design for Living ménage relationship as they battle competitive gangsters and the Coast Guard.  Full of witty one-liners and some decent slapstick (especially from Reynolds), it followed the movie company formula for success precisely, but audiences quickly sniffed a turkey and the stars couldn’t save it.  Outside of a few pining-for-her-mother enclaves, nobody actually liked Minnelli as a movie star, and unless Reynolds was driving fast cars and speaking in CB talk, nobody really liked him, either.  As for Donen, well he had just finished The Little Prince, and Saturn 3 was on the horizon, so the quality portion of his career was receding quickly in the rear-view mirror.  Panicking, the studio tried out two new endings after the movie hit the theaters—another flag of disaster, to be sure (one of the endings, where the cast was wearing terrible old age makeup, was just awful)—but nothing could rescue the film and it sank without a trace.  The problem is that it sank too deeply.  The film is a little messy and rather silly, but it isn’t all that bad, and certainly deserved more post-circulation on television and such than it received.  Truth be told, Minnelli is positively delectable (she even has several teasing near-topless scenes), and her opening musical number alone is worth the price of the Shout Factory DVD release.  The witty one-liners may seem labored upon, but they are delivered with flair by the cast, who all do genuinely professional jobs to justify their big-score salaries.  The action stunts are decent, the antique boats are fun, there is a fine supporting cast including Robby Benson, John Hillerman, Geoffrey Lewis and Michael Hordern, and the ending that was settled upon is satisfying (although it is a shame the DVD did not include the others).  In the year of Jaws, the film represented Old Hollywood ways and means being eviscerated by the new, but now it is simply a pleasant amusement from the past and an easy way to spend 118 minutes free from the stresses of the modern world.

The film’s production designs and costumes are fabulous, but the cinematography is absolutely horrible.  Most of the shots are so gauzy, they remind one of trying to see things in the morning when suffering from a severe eye infection, in both eyes, or trying to read with your glasses after eating greasy chicken.  Applied haphazardly but substantially, the effect is atrocious and looked terrible in the theater, but is even worse in these days of computer-crisp video transfers.  That flaw acknowledged, the color transfer is as good as it can possibly get.  The image is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  Hues look fresh and fleshtones are palpable.  The monophonic sound is smooth and strong, but the quality tends to magnify the massive dialog overlays and alterations, and there is no subtitling.  Along with three trailers and a TV commercial, there is a 10-minute production featurette (the film was shot on water, thus extending its shooting time to two-thirds of a year, something Reynolds repeatedly jokes about) and a 7-minute featurette.

DVD Geek: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Befitting the film’s title, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment and MGM have released Stanley Kramer’s epic 1963 United Artists comedy, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, on Blu-ray, exclusively through www.  The presentation is excellent.  Running 159 minutes, the feature program is about 10 minutes shorter than the laser disc release, not counting the removal of the Entr’acte music (there is still an Overture, an Intermission and Exit music), but the footage not included has been incorporated with other lost scenes in a 59-minute addendum.  For those who don’t recall, the film’s original Road Show presentation was thought to have been destroyed until some, but not all, of the footage was located in the Eighties.  The biggest narrative jumps in the film were smoothed over with the added footage, although some smaller story advances still remain unsupported.  The film is about a group of people who hear a dying mobster’s confession as to where he has buried his loot, and take off in a frantic chase to retrieve it.

The presentation is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.73:1, providing a little more picture information on the sides than the laser disc offered.  The color transfer is gorgeous and removes the shift of quality between the restored lost scenes and the standard footage.  The sharpness of the picture is captivating and adds consistently to the pleasure of the presentation.  The sound is delivered in DTS format and is listed as 5.1, although there is very little rear channel or sub-woofer activity.  The basic front channel separations, however, are wonderful, with a strong dimensional presence, some marvelous old-fashioned separation effects, and richly detailed clarity. There is a French track in 5.1 Dolby Digital, a Spanish track in mono and English, French and Spanish subtitles.

Spencer Tracy plays the cop who is monitoring the progress of the heroes, and the first time you see him, he’s got his right arm extended into his jacket pocket as if he’s missing the limb, like in Bad Day at Black Rock.  It’s a great, throwaway gag when he suddenly removes his hand from the pocket.  Kramer’s film, which is full of delays and anxiety gags, can seem tiresome to those who are not enthusiastically embracing the free-for-all humor, but it is a veritable encyclopedia of comedy in the early Sixties, seeming to feature every major comedian except Lenny Bruce.  It is the mix of the cast that gives the film a historical resonance and creates the foundation for its comical anarchy.  The movie combines television comics such as Milton Berle, Sid Caesar and Phil Silvers, with standup comedians like Jonathan Winters and Buddy Hackett, film funnymen such as Terry-Thomas and Mickey Rooney, and the stage diva Ethel Merman, whose normal shrillness is put to the exactly correct comedic use as Berle’s mother-in-law.  Filling the supporting parts are a casting agent’s rolodex of classic character actors, including, among many others, Jimmy Durante, Arnold Stang, Paul Ford, Peter Falk, Jim Backus and William Demarest.  Briefer cameos, by Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, The Three Stooges and more, can seem frustrating because they barely last a few seconds, but the instant recognition of each face invigorates the film at every point where the comedy gives way to the story and a new burst of energy is needed.

If there is to be one complaint about the collected deleted scenes, it is that they are not presented in chronological order.  There isn’t actually 59 minutes of new footage, as the offering presents existing scenes—there are only a couple of entirely ‘new’ segments—expanded with footage of gags and dialog that was probably deemed redundant when it came time to get more turnarounds in secondary theatrical venues.  The most significant dialog sequences did appear within the film on the laser disc.  The best ‘new’ scene has Rooney and Hackett in the airplane, flying upside-down.

Also featured are the two trailers and the excellent 61-minute retrospective documentary, Something a Little Less Serious, which corrals a of number stars from the film, including Edie Adams, Berle, Caesar, Hackett, Lewis and others, along with behind-the-scenes personnel.  Kramer also speaks extensively.  There is a consistency in the descriptions of the set by the cast members that, in a good natured way, makes the whole group sound like a bunch of kids having fun.  Although the program does not dive too deeply into the film’s technical complexity, it does emphasize the movie’s chief strength, its glorious population, and gives the viewer an opportunity to savor the performers just a little longer.

DVD Geek: Source Code

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

An inspired variation of the Groundhog’s Day gimmick, Source Code, from Summit Entertainment, is about an Air Force pilot placed in the body of a teacher on a commuter train and charged with finding out who planted the bomb on the train before it explodes, and replaying the same ride again and again until he solves the puzzle.  There is a romantic component to the story, naturally, and more than one life affirming, love affirming conclusion, leaving a viewer feeling both happy and satisfied, several times, after a stimulating and exciting ride.  Jake Gyllenhaal stars, with Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, and Jeffrey Wright.  In that the film also evokes aspects of Quantum Leap, there is a cleverly chosen cameo appearance by Scott Bakula.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  The opening montage of Chicago on a bright, sunny day, before the plot even gets started, is so beautifully executed it is well worth playing over several times itself.  The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has some reasonably good separation effects and a decent amount of power.  There is an alternate Spanish audio track in 5.1 Dolby, optional English and Spanish subtitles, a generalized and sporadic trivia subtitle track, 35 minutes of passable interview featurettes with the cast and crew that effectively build in detail as they advance, and a decent 7-minute overview of the scientific and technological concepts being tweaked within the story.

There is also a fairly good commentary track featuring Gyllenhaal, director Duncan Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley.  They do talk a lot about the story, but in an informative manner, discussing everything from its ‘train of thought’ development to its metaphysics.  They also speak about the performances, Jones’ challenge to make the repeated sequences not feel redundant, and the excellent production designs (Gyllenhaal:  “I love searching through things, I just have to say.  There is something as an actor.”  Jones:  “There were a lot of metal edges on this set.”  Gyllenhaal:  “That’s true.”  Jones:  “I think you cut your hands up so many…”  Gyllenhaal:  “That is so true.  Duncan agreed to do the movie and it was 4 months later that we were making the movie and so the train, occasionally, due to the speed at which we made the movie, and really how the movie moves, too, it sort of mimics itself.”  Jones:  “Jake’s hands looked like sliced bacon by the end of the shoot.”  Gyllenhaal:  “I do grab onto a lot of really sharp edges that don’t look sharp but are.  I had bloody hands.”  Jones:  “We had a very busy nurse on set.”  Gyllenhaal:  “And different hand inserts, because Duncan didn’t like the bloody hands.”).

DVD Geek: Hobo With a Shotgun

Tuesday, August 9th, 2011

Of the two possibilities open to the filmmakers who chose to call their movie, Hobo with a Shotgun, the first was to make a realistic revenge thriller of some sort, like the dozens of others that carry the same basic premise, which would be that a villain in a position of power underestimates the resolve of the seemingly insignificant hero.  The second possibility, however, is the one the filmmakers actually went with in the Magnolia Home Entertainment release, which is to concoct a wildly exaggerated gore spectacle and assume that the title is so precise that viewers will be in on the joke from the start.  The 2011 feature is a deliberate send up of exploitation films from the Eighties.  The bad guys are dressed like Tom Cruise in Risky Business, and there are many other visual allusions to Seventies and Eighties exploitation features, accompanied by a purposefully grating, era-appropriate electronic musical score.  The technology depicted in the film is also of the Eighties.  As for the plot, well it does follow the expected template.  Hauer’s character wanders into a town where anarchy seems to reign, and when he has the temerity to defend a prostitute from abuse, he incurs the wrath of the powers that be.  The performances are as exaggerated as the gore, and the narrative holds no surprises.  Running 86 minutes, some viewers may enjoy the grotesquely silly tone, but most will be disappointed, especially since it appears that a serious movie, featuring the nicely aged Hauer, could have been a great deal more satisfying.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  The film’s colors have an unusually strong, Technicolor-like glow (meant to evoke Dario Argento’s old Technicolor thrillers) that becomes a deliberate part of the image design, though the effect ends up feeling more like one more absurd, dead-end idea than something intrinsic to any potential artistic or emotional achievement.  There are times, as well, when the colors become so intense that the image gets a little fuzzy.  The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound gives the shotgun a reasonable kick, but with that musical score you really aren’t going to want to raise the volume too greatly.  There are optional Spanish subtitles and there is English captioning.  Featured as well are 106 minutes of production clips, with an emphasis on executing the gore effects, which can be accessed during the film’s unspooling when prompts appears on the screen, or separately in the Special Features with a ‘Play All’ option. 

There are two commentary tracks, both of which feature the young director, Jason Eisener.  On the first track, he sits with Hauer and they talk all about how they roped the actor into the film and about what went on during the shoot.  Often, Eisener was in a bit over his head and they readily admit that Hauer would contribute, giving advice to the other actors, stepping up to do a stunt and otherwise making himself useful beyond the call of duty.  Hauer also acknowledges that the film has revitalized his career.

On the second track, Eisener is joined by writer John Davies, producer Rob Cotterill and a friend of Eisener’s who was the inspiration for Hauer’s part, David Brunt (a speculative trailer that Eisener made for the film, using Brunt as the star, is part of the production featurettes).  The three filmmakers go into more detail about how locations were secured, how various effects were achieved, what the cast was like, and why their girlfriends were willing to appear topless in the film.  Brunt is quite a character and you can hear echoes of Hauer’s performance in the way that he speaks and what he chooses to focus upon.  He seems generally tickled by all of the attention, and takes it in his stride.

DVD Geek: Red Riding Hood

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

“From the director of Twilight,” is the smartly placed promotional message at the top of the Warner Home Video Alternate Cut Blu-ray jacket for Red Riding Hood, and indeed, Catherine Hardwicke’s 2011 fantasy thriller is a worthy cousin of the monster hit she spawned.  Set in an imaginary Middle Ages village nestled in the British Columbian woods, the citizens are being terrorized by a werewolf that has suddenly stopped accepting their livestock sacrifices and taken to snacking on the sacrificers.  Two hunky guys are in love with the heroine, played by Amanda Seyfried.  She likes one of them more than the other, but when she is threatened by the wolf, they stop fighting over her and join forces to protect her.  Except that one of them may be the werewolf.  Yes, along with being one of those dreamboat supernatural romantic dramas, the 100-minute film is also a ‘who’s the werewolf?’ mystery, with a clever, under the radar but totally logical wolf in sheep’s clothing, as it were, killer.  When it comes to setting up ideas or executing conflicts within a scene, Hardwicke sometimes plays too obvious a hand, but she is always working toward a worthwhile goal, so such technical shortcoming are entirely forgivable.  If they gave out awards for Best Use of the Color Red, the film would have a lock on 2011, and its cozy little fantasy world makes the film visually compelling even when the heroine doesn’t feel the need to keep her shoulders warm.  The story is satisfying, the performances are mostly serviceable, the performers are quite attractive, there is a decent amount of excitement in the various action scenes, and to top it all off, despite the obvious echoes of Twilight, Beowulf, The Beast Must Die and plenty of other precedents, the film nevertheless qualifies as being something out of the ordinary and not the typical assembly-line concoction.  It is a pleasing movie that some viewers want to condemn because it is being a little adventurous in ways that films usually aren’t adventurous, but that sort of enhanced freshness is all the better to entertain you with.

Both the original theatrical version and the Alternate Cut are presented on the BD.  There is only a half-minute’s difference between them, the most significant being the final shots in Alternate Cut before the credits start to scroll, which add a little something to the story’s conclusion, although, truth be told, the theatrical version is better.  The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1.  Even with the Blu-ray perfections, the contrasts around some of the effect shots are a bit weak.  The shots in the woodsy snow, however, watching the heroine from behind in her crimson cape, are worthy of posters and screen savers, and look flawless.  The DTS sound is terrific, with some creepy directional effects and plenty of dimensional punch.  The theatrical version has alternate French, Spanish and Portuguese language tracks, while the Alternate Cut is in English only.  Both versions have English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitling.  The BD comes with a second platter that features a DVD presentation of the film as well as a version that can be downloaded onto handheld viewing devices.

The film is accompanied by 27 minutes of good production featurettes (best moments—a musician records a drumbeat on a watermelon floating in a bucket for the musical score; and a rehearsal of a dancing scene that is hot as all get out even though the performers are just in their sweats), 7 minutes of interesting audition tapes, 4 minutes of deleted scenes (all of which should have been left in), a slapstick-heavy 3-minute blooper reel and two very sexy music videos.  There is also a commentary track that is presented with a generally pointless video insert, unless you think the stars are worth watching in their civvies, dance rehearsals notwithstanding.  Hardwicke and Seyfried are joined by co-stars Shiloh Fernandez and Max Irons.  They talk a little bit about specific late nights or staging challenges, and heap praise upon the skills of veteran cast members Julie Christie, Gary Oldman and Amy Madigan, but the insights they have to offer are limited and there are gaps in the talk near the end.

DVD Geek: Tracy & Hepburn The Definitive Collection

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

You would have to turn to the stage to find a comparable accomplishment to the films that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made together across a quarter of a century.  The movies will always have their ‘screen couples,’ from Greta Garbo and John Gilbert to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, but capturing the soul of the off screen romance and transcribing it to a consistent body of onscreen character interaction is far more difficult and can often take a wrong turn, such as when the tempestuous relationship between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor turned their movies from compelling dramas to ultra-high camp.  Other screen couples have had no off screen relationship to speak of, such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or William Powell and Myrna Loy, but their work fits more into the mold of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, succeeding with inspired iterations of a single formulaic concept. 

Most of the Tracy & Hepburn movies were comedies, but not all of them, and the pair exhibit just as much familiarity and instinctive timing in their serious films as they do in their less than serious films.  They both had prominent individual careers, as well.  She was younger, but a prodigy whose work was so well established that by the time the two did come together as film stars, they were, in every sense of the word, equals.  It is this equality that is communicated so readily in their work together.  Even when their roles veer into gender stereotypes, the sense of respect and collaboration in the nuances of their performances convey to viewers a subliminal defiance of the patterns their characters are being forced to conform with.  Often times, the plots will revolve around a rebellion against that conformity, and again it is because of the palpable strength of the emotional bond between the performers that the play of these conflicts is magnified with an unusual and unique maturity.  They are grownups, and even their silliest films and their best moments of slapstick (both were superb at the art) are tempered for the better by grownup sensibilities.

Warner Home Video has done a grownup thing, too, welcoming the contributions of several other home video companies in order to put together the aptly titled ten-platter set, Tracy & Hepburn The Definitive Collection, featuring all of the films the two stars made together.  Each movie appears on a separate platter and all are either available on DVD separately as well, or have been in the past, except for Hepburn’s documentary The Spencer Tracy Legacy, which was included in Warner’s previous and smaller collection of comedies, Tracy & Hepburn The Signature Collection.

Tracy and Hepburn were first paired in the 1942 MGM production, Woman of the Year, directed by George Stevens.  Tracy is a sports columnist and Hepburn is a worldly political columnist for the same newspaper.  The 114-minute feature charts their relationship as they meet and fall for one another, marry, and then start to have troubles with their conflicting schedules and interests once the initial spark of passion has subsided.  Although seeming to embrace the idea of an independent career woman, the film, catering to the accepted wisdom of the times, tends to ridicule the ineptitude of Hepburn’s character when it comes to ‘female’ responsibilities, such as cooking.  Rescuing the film and making it an enduring classic, however, is the real electricity the two have between them.  When they’re in love, you believe it, and whey they’re mad at each other, you see that the anger comes from the frustrations of love.  If the film’s gender bashing is a little dated, its physical comedy is timeless and performed to perfection, and in place of its false lessons, there is a real understanding of the conflicts couples face when they try to merge their independent lives into a shared lane.

The presentation is identical to the earlier DVD.  The full screen black-and-white picture has some minor speckles and scratches, but is in workable shape and the monophonic sound is okay.  There are alternate French and Spanish tracks, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, and a trailer.

A poor career move but still a very entertaining movie, the pair’s second film together, the 1942 MGM production, Keeper of the Flame, is a gothic mystery.  Directed by George Cukor, Tracy is a newspaper reporter looking to write the biography of a widely admired statesman after the man is killed in an automobile accident on his estate.  Hepburn is his widow, and for most of the film, she and Tracy’s character have a vaguely antagonistic relationship.  The more Tracy’s character attempts to investigate the man’s final hours, the more of a runaround he gets from the man’s family and associates.  People will look at the era-appropriate preachiness at the film’s end and dismiss the entire movie as a trifle, but while you are sitting through it, it is anything but that.  Tracy’s performance is warm and inviting, and the movie’s atmosphere is wonderful.  Running 100 minutes, you spend most of those minutes hanging on every move Tracy makes and having no idea whatsoever how the story will unfold or what will happen next.  Although the pair never have the opportunity to share their frisky interaction the way they do in the romantic comedies, it is readily apparent that the movie would be much, much worse if they were not there to keep their characters in a precise balance of attractiveness and ambiguity.

The full screen black-and-white picture looks lovely, with crisp contrasts and deep blacks.  Evidence of wear is minimal.  The monophonic sound is reasonably strong, too.  There are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, a trailer, a 10-minute MGM color Tex Avery cartoon from 1942 entitled Blitz Wolf that is a sendoff on The Three Little Pigs, and an 11-minute black-and-white MGM Our Gang short from 1942 entitled Going to Press in which the kids make and distribute a newspaper until young extortionists try to get a piece of the action.

Returning to the more trusted genre, Without Love is a romantic comedy directed by Harold S. Bucquet in which Tracy is a scientist (they call him that—he appears to be more of an engineer) working on a wartime project, and Hepburn is the widowed owner of the house/mansion where he has set up shop.  They like each other and decide to marry, even though—and this is kind of the sticking point to the 1945 feature—they’re not interested in sex, just companionship.  And then the rest of the 110-minute film is about them realizing that they want sex, too.  There are a few tired devices—Tracy’s character sleepwalks, and Hepburn does her exaggerated ‘putting on airs’ bit—that are nevertheless amusing specifically because the talented pair can deliver even the dumbest routines and make them work.  It is also clear that they bring out the best in one another.  Hepburn seems much more relaxed than she is in films where Tracy isn’t involved, and Tracy seems more confident.  On the whole, the movie is one of the weaker efforts in the Collection, but as a portion of their finitely shared resume, it provides an opportunity to savor their magic and should not be missed.

The full screen black-and-white picture looks very nice overall, with crisp details and only a few stray instances of speckles and scratches.  The monophonic sound is fine.  There are optional English and French subtitles, a trailer, an 8-minute 1945 MGM color Tex Avery cartoon, Swing Shift Cinderella, about a wolf, a hot Red Riding Hood, and a wolf-starved grandma, and a 20-minute black-and-white MGM Crime Does Not Pay short, Purity Squad, about busting a pharmaceutical company that has manipulated data in order to boost sales.  If only taking down the real pharma giants were so easy!

A western, and an Elia Kazan western at that, The Sea of Grass is the only film in the group where the two stars play characters who have deep emotional troubles with one another.  The 1947 feature is set out West, but it is really a soap opera.  Tracy’s character is a rancher and Hepburn—whose character matures deftly over the story’s two decades—begins the film as his young bride.  When farmers move into the area, Tracy’s character becomes combative and this causes a marital split that is then acerbated by other circumstances.  Melvyn Douglas co-stars.  The 123-minute MGM film contains a rather surprising plot turn for its era, and the two characters spend too much time apart from one another for the movie to really take advantage of the magic they exude when they are together.  Kazan’s direction is uneven as well, with some shots or sequences in the movie being highly dynamic and involving, while other scenes are blandly staged and unevenly executed.  Like any of the weaker films in the group, however, the movie is strengthened greatly by its inclusion in the Collection.  The scenes that Hepburn and Tracy do have together have a magnified importance that would not be there if the film were seen on its own, and so you pay more attention to the nuances and the silent exchanges, and feel the dilemmas of the characters all the more vividly. 

The plot also has a number of similarities to East of Eden, and it is questionable that Kazan would have achieved quite as much greatness on that film if he hadn’t have practiced on this one beforehand.  The full screen black-and-white picture looks very nice, and Kazan’s John Ford-like shots of the western landscapes are thrilling.  The image is sharp and wear is minimal.  The monophonic sound is fine.  There are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, a trailer, a 7-minute MGM color Tom and Jerry cartoon from 1946 entitled Cat Concerto (it won the Oscar) in which the mouse messes with the cat’s piano during a concert, and a 21-minute black-and-white MGM Theatre of Life short from 1947 entitled Give Us the Earth, about teaching Mexican peasants to farm better and use modern conveniences so they won’t be so poor.

The title, State of the Union, refers to the film’s premise, that Tracy’s character, an industrialist, is being groomed by a newspaper chain for a presidential run, but it also refers to his character’s strained relationship with his wife, played, naturally, by Hepburn.  The 1948 film, which was directed by Frank Capra, is rich with stars, including Van Heflin, Adolphe Menjou and Angela Lansbury (as Hepburn’s seemingly demonic rival, a ‘career’ woman), and that is what prevents the viewer from tuning out the populist political gobbledygook (set in the relatively real state of the early 1948 race for the Republican nomination), but more importantly, the movie is a wonderful showcase for the pair’s performance relationship.  It is incredibly natural.  At one moment, Hepburn kicks Tracy on the leg in the course of a friendly banter.  It’s a throw away action that passes unnoticed and even Tracy’s character barely acknowledges it, but it is such a free, ‘real’ impulse, it represents the essence of not only why the movie is still appealing, but why the two stars worked so well together.

A Universal title, the full screen black-and-white picture is in beautiful condition, with crisp, smooth contrasts and spotless, shiny blacks.  The monophonic sound is solid.  The 123-minute program has optional English subtitles.

The pair play married lawyers who end up on opposite sides in a criminal case in George Cukor’s delightful 1949 MGM comedy, Adam’s Rib.  Tracy is the prosecutor on a case where a woman has attempted to shoot her husband, and Hepburn is the defense attorney.  Judy Holliday, Jean Hagen and Tom Ewell co-star.  Adapted from a stageplay, Cukor keeps the pace rolling quickly, with overlapping dialog and relatively fast editing, all of which supports the marvelously witty performances by everyone in the cast.  While Holliday, in particular, comes close to stealing the show, it is ultimately the psychically timed banter between Tracy and Hepburn that cements the film’s humor and its clear but always welcome symbolism of matrimonial conflict.  Running 100 minutes, the presentation is identical to the Warner DVD, with a spotless full screen black-and-white picture, an alternate French track, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, and a trailer.

Where Adam’s Rib holds onto a darker vision of male-female relationships even as it celebrates their spirited equality, Cukor’s Pat and Mike, an MGM production from 1952, is a frothier effort with more joviality and less symbolic weight.  There are villains, but they are a comical bunch (including Charles Bronson—Chuck Connors also shows up, as a cop) and hardly a threat to anything.  Tracy has great fun playing a sports promoter with ties to mobsters, who takes on Hepburn’s character as a client when he discovers her proficiency in both tennis and golf.  She does fall apart, however, whenever she notices her fiancé in the stands.  Hepburn tends to overplay that idiosyncrasy, but there is probably no way around it, since everything else in the film is overplayed as well.  It takes a long time for the two main characters to recognize the romantic aspect of their mutual attraction, but the friendship they develop is just as engaging and the 95-minute feature never seems to have a slow moment or an unappealing turn.  Like Adam’s Rib, the DVD is identical to the initial Warner release, again with a pristine full screen black-and-white picture, optional English and French subtitles and a trailer.

After the brisk dialog exchanges and busy screen movement in Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike, much of Desk Set, a 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Studio Classics title, can feel le­thargic.  Unlike the former films, the actors actually wait for each one to fin­ish a line of dialog before reciprocating.  Directed by Walter Lang, Tracy is a computer designer in charge of installing a new machine in the research de­partment of a TV network.  Hepburn runs the department (with Joan Blondell and Dina Merrill), and Gig Young his her not-in-a-hurry-to-get-hitched boy­friend.  Despite the 2.35:1 letterboxed image, the staging is static, with little more than a couple of sets.  There are sequences where Tracy and Hepburn manage to breakaway from the shackles of conventional staging being imposed upon them, and the film’s charms pick up considerably when they do so, but outside the context of their teaming, the movie has very little to offer.

The color transfer looks gorgeous and the sound, or at least the music, has a mildly stereophonic dimensionality.  The 104-minute program has an alternate Spanish track in mono, optional English and Spanish subtitles, a trailer, a nice collection of production photos in still frame, and a minute-long black-and-white newsreel promotion that presents the movie’s costumes in a ‘fashion show.’  Film scholar John Lee supplies a commentary, intercut with reminiscences by Merrill (there are longish gaps in the film’s second half).  Lee has some arcane trivia to share (“Although directors have occasionally employed real alcoholic beverages on movie sets in search of verisimilitude, more inert substances are commonly employed to substitute for liquor.  Tea for whisky and brandy, and ginger ale for champagne.”) but otherwise sticks to the basics about the backgrounds of the cast and crew, and how the film was conceived and executed.  Merrill talks about her entire career (as on her talk in What Makes Sammy Run?, she has some nasty things to say about John Frankenheimer) and shares some great stories about the generosity and work ethic of Tracy and Hepburn.  “They were so comfortable with each other.  That was the main thing, and they used to go home and stage these scenes at night between the two of them.  They’d come in the morning and say, ‘Now Walter, this is what we’re going to do.’  And he did nothing there.  He didn’t have a chance to do anything.”

It is with the freshness of all these other movies in mind that you can then turn to the 1967 Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and be totally knocked out by the pair’s presence.  You barely even notice Sidney Poitier.  What you pick up on, instead, are the little things that the two do, physically and mentally, in their exchanges.  While their performances may be exaggerated to suit the tone of something like Pat and Mike, they have a remarkable emotional realism and contemporary sensibility in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.  Hepburn is amazing, and you might not even notice it if you didn’t have her other performances as a context to appreciate the subtlety and realistic detail she brings to her character’s feelings and actions.  It is an incredibly textured performance, and adds so much more to a viewer’s understanding of her character than the dialog alone can hope to do.  Tracy was near dying, and yet his performance has so much energy at times you fear for his life there on the screen.  It is easily Tracy’s greatest performance, a sophisticated mix of paternalism and emotional confusion, but that is not because he got better, but because cinema itself had finally matured enough to meet his true talent.  And when the two of them are together on the screen, it is like they’ve never been apart.

The film, directed by Stanley Kramer, is an interesting snapshot of the American racial psyche just before the assassination of Martin Luther King blew things open.  In the context of the collection, the film is greatly strengthened, because it becomes less about the racial arguments and more about what it really is about, which is the parents worrying not that their daughter is marrying some black guy (who she met in Hawaii, nudge, nudge), but that she has jumped into the relationship too quickly.  While the 107-minute film works essentially as a stageplay, mixing and matching the various characters for emotional and intellectual exchanges (the parents of Poitier’s character also arrive to meet their potential in-laws), it is in far more ways a timeless exploration of the concerns parents have for their children than it is a dated representation of a specific era.  Again, the reason for that comes straight from the performances of all the cast members, who consistently find and communicate the eternal truths beneath the social decorations and manners of their times.

The film was first released by Columbia TriStar and then reissued by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment as a two-platter 40th Anniversary Edition, and it is the first platter of that set is included in the Collection.  The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  Not only has the stray speckling from the earlier release been eliminated, but the colors, which looked great before, have an even stronger and crisper definition.  The image looks fantastic, and brings a real sense of classiness to the drama’s proscenium.  As with the previous release, the sound is in 3-channel stereo, with slight but pleasing dimensional touches.  In any case, the audio is clear and smooth.  There are alternate French and Spanish tracks in mono, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, and 9 minutes of testimonials to Kramer.

The 1986 Spencer Tracy Legacy features, in a sense, a performance by Hepburn—the film is subtitled A Tribute by Katherine Hepburn—in which she uses the demeanor of her own frailty and diminishing health to emphasize how important the project of summarizing Tracy’s life and career in an 86-minute film is to her.  She also coerced—and probably didn’t have to work too hard to do so—many other normally aloof individuals into sharing their memories and insights, including Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Poitier, Kramer and many others.  The picture is presented in full screen format.  Clips of widescreen films are usually cropped and sometimes faded.  The interview footage, however, is fresh looking, and the monophonic sound is clear.  There is English captioning.  It is only a shame that Warner wasn’t able to grab whatever got left on the cutting room floor to include as some kind of special feature.  Nevertheless, with the stars, the marvelous film clips of Tracy’s work, and the descriptions of Tracy’s personality and presence, the documentary is a highly captivating program, and having just sat through all of those other movies in the Collection only makes it that much more fascinating and compelling.

The DVD Geek: The Black Swan

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

Darren Aronofsky has made several obnoxious, tedious films about madness and metamorphosis, seeming not to understand that there has to be something approaching an appealing human being in the center of such a story for a viewer to care about what happens next.  Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake has also been considered obnoxious, for its overly sweet melodic structures and its iconic presentation of women as birds, as if that were the penultimate expression of dancing.  So, can one obnoxiousness cancel out the other?  That would seem to be the case with Aronofsky’s cross between The Red Shoes and Repulsion, Black Swan, released on Blu-ray by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.  About a ballerina, played by Natalie Portman, who is having a psychic meltdown while practicing for her big break in the leading dual role of Swan Lake, Aronofsky resorts at times to his annoying images of grotesque growths and wounds, but he always gets reeled in by the beauty of the music and the nobility of the dancing.  And as much as a plain, straightforward presentation of Swan Lake would make a potentially lovely Blu-ray, using the ballet as a backdrop (and an excuse to awash the audio at times with Tchaikovsky’s haunting themes) for a rich dramatic exploration of artistic pressure, vocational dedication and emotional sacrifice is a much richer intellectual experience.  Whether it would beat out Swan Lake as entertainment would depend upon the dancers and choreographers at hand.  Aronofsky tends to disguise the dancing a bit too much, avoiding Portman’s legs and feet whenever possible, but that is only noticeable if seeing Swan Lake live has trained you to never take your eyes away from that part of the dancers’ bodies.  Otherwise, it is a deft and believable sleight of hand.  Portman, who seemed positively busty in Attack of the Clones, is petite and gaunt, while never losing the requisite muscularity that her character would require to ply her trade.  Barbara Hershey plays her rather scary mother, although you don’t really know how much of Hershey’s character is imagined and how much is real.  That basically goes for everything in the movie, but to give Aronofsky credit, the beats of the finale are perfect, and rescue a drama that could just have easily gone off the deep end.  Viewers are to be warned, however, that along with his penchant for gore, Aronofsky is very frank when it comes to the sexuality of his characters.  This is not the dance movie you want to show your eight-year old who dreams of becoming a ballerina.  Or maybe it is.

The 2010 production runs 108 minutes.  The presentation is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1.  There is a natural grain in the cinematography that is preserved, for better or worse, in the image transfer.  In that the entire world of the heroine may be crumbling about her, the grain seems appropriate, and after the first few minutes, it is no longer a bother.  The DTS sound mix is excellent, and the directional effects are often chilling.  There is a French track in 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and English and Spanish subtitles.  A second platter is included with the set that contains a copy of the film that can be downloaded onto handheld viewing devices.  Along with a trailer, the BD contains 92 minutes of production featurettes and interviews, which reveal how some of the more clever moments were accomplished as well as conveying a decent sense of how the film was conceived and executed.


More than 11,500 DVD reviews by Douglas Pratt are available on the CD-ROM, DVDs by Douglas Pratt.  For more information, email