Selected BLU-RAY REVIEWS
(Many originally published in the High Plains Reader in print and/or on-line)
Across the Universe
The Big Country
The Black Shield of Falworth
Body and Soul
A Christmas Carol
Dark City (1950)
Escape to Athena
The Four Hundred Blows
Gone With the Wind
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The Greatest Story Ever Told
Guys and Dolls
The Horse Soldiers
Interview With a Vampire
The Ipcress File
Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary?
Kansas City Confidential
King of Kings
Kiss Me Deadly
Last Year at Marienbad
The Loves of Pharaoh
The Man Who Could Cheat Death
The Most Dangerous Game
My Wife’s Lodger
The Naked Kiss
The Pink Panther
Sands of Oblivion
Saturday Night Fever
The Sound and the Fury
Stagecoach / Bucking Broadway
The Ten Commandments
Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies
Wages of Fear
The Wayward Bus
We Were Soldiers
The Wizard of Oz
Yojimbo / Sanjuro
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE (2007)
A recent film that does a superlative job of recreating the atmosphere of the 1960s is Julie Taymore’s audacious experiment in musical romantic drama, Across the Universe (2007). Her plot and characters, well acted and sung by Evan Rachel Wood and Jim Sturges, among others, are ingeniously created from lyrics of numerous songs by The Beatles. Set against the Vietnam War and student unrest going on when the music was composed, the songs actually seem written for the film instead of the other way around.
An excellent Blu Ray release to show off picture and audio quality, it’s a must-have for any fan of the Beatles’ music or for anyone interested in the decade of the 1960s, and comes across as a sort of alternately realistic and heavily stylized rock opera. The disc includes a director’s commentary and a nice selection of behind-the-scenes featurettes, plus some of the artwork created for the film, all in high-definition.
ACROSS THE UNIVERSE on BluRay:
Movie A+ / Video A+ / Audio A+ / Extras A-
In fall of 2008, the experimental documentary Baraka (1992), carefully restored from its original 65mm film negative with an extra-high-definition transfer, came out in a BluRay edition. The film itself is a mesmerizing, nonlinear and non-narrative journey around the world, presenting a vivid slice of life across numerous cultures and geographic landscapes. Only the BluRay format on a large full-HD screen can do justice to the film, unless you happen to have a 70mm film projector in your house.
This disc can serve as a demonstration for the format’s image sharpness and audio clarity. Even BluRay can’t reproduce all the detail in a 70mm film print, but this disc shows just how impressive it can be. Baraka’s sound is recorded in a 96-kHz uncompressed digital track with higher audio standards than most home stereo systems can reproduce (more than double the range of a CD). Extras are modest but interesting, including a behind-the-scenes documentary that runs over an hour and a 7-minute featurette on the film’s restoration.
BARAKA on BluRay
Movie: A Video: A+ Audio: A+ Extras: C
Richard Burton has the title role opposite Peter O'Toole as King Henry II in Peter Glenvile's effective and Oscar-winning (for Edward Anhalt's script) version of Jean Anouilh's play, produced by veteran Hal Wallis. The two-and-a-half-hour length never seems long, thanks to the script and the performances. The plot is about two close friends who become estranged after the king appoints Thomas Becket Archbishop of Canterbury and Becket takes the new position seriously. It's truly an actor's film, full of great lines delivered well, with Burton and O'Toole both nominated for Best Actor and John Gielgud getting a Supporting Actor nomination as King Louis of France. While some have complained that O'Toole chews the scenery throughout, his performance is an acting choice that fit the character quite well -- a king who is always "on stage" in front of his subjects. When he's alone with Becket, he is much more subdued, as Burton is throughout in comparison. Geoffrey Unsworth's beautiful Panavision cinematography and Anne Coates' effective editing both earned Oscar nominations (the film had 12 in all, but won only for Adapted Screenplay). The story's basic theme of separation of church and state seems unexpectedly timely in today's world political climate, but its story of a friendship destroyed by political and philosophical differences is timeless.
The film's recent restoration by the Motion Picture Academy looks very nice, with rich, stable colors and no visible wear, but the unfortunately HD transfer for the MPI Blu-ray is rather soft, with film grain highly reduced if not completely erased, similar to the Blu-ray editions of Spartacus and The Thomas Crown Affair. It looks marginally sharper than a good standard DVD, but does not reveal the detail and textures that a Blu-ray is capable of (as in such earlier films as Quo Vadis, An American In Paris, The Third Man, The Maltese Falcon, The General, Gone With The Wind, or The Mikado, to name just a few). The stereo soundtrack is Dolby Digital rather than lossless, but still sounds very good. There are some nice, though not extensive extras, all standard-definition, including 2007 interviews with editor Anne Coates and composer Laurence Rosenthal, a 4-minute trailer and 30-second TV spot, plus a 47-image high-definition image gallery of stills, lobby cards, pressbooks, and posters. There's also a fairly interesting audio commentary with Peter O'Toole.
BECKET on Blu-ray
Movie: A- / Video: B+ / Audio: A / Extras: B+
THE BIBLE (1966)
John Huston's motion picturization of major stories from the Book of Genesis is attractive to look at (thanks to Giuseppe Rotunno's fine 65mm widescreen cinematography), but its episodic, sometimes tedious pageant-like nature (narrated by Huston) takes a toll on dramatic cohesiveness and viewer involvement in the characters, particulary on the first half. Still, Huston is entertaining as Noah, and the logistics needed to film the ark and the flood sequence remain impressive. After the intermission (about an hour and 26 minutes into it) and a brief episode of the Tower of Babel, the film suddenly comes to life with the intertwined stories of Abram/Abraham and Lot, starring George C. Scott as Abraham. This much longer (about 80 min. on its own) and more dramatically interesting segment redeems the overall film, thanks largely to its more traditional plot structure but just as much to Scott's strong screen presence and a nice performance by Ava Gardner as his wife.
Sound quality is very good, but on a big screen the picture quality is a bit disappointing, especially for a film shot in 65mm. It looks better than a DVD (and looks fine on a small 720p TV set), but some softening of film grain, especially in the first half, removes the crispness from all the textures that should spring off the screen in any film print or a superior Blu-ray transfer projected on a large screen (as they do in Fox's South Pacific and 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still Blu-rays. The only bonus feature on this disc (besides a menu and chapter stops) is a standard-definition trailer for the film, encoded so that older players display it as a tiny picture in the upper left corner of the screen (an increasingly common anomaly on many recent Blu-rays).
THE BIBLE on Blu-ray
Movie: B- / Video: A- / Audio: A / Extras: D-
THE BIG COUNTRY (1958)
Certain movies received widespread critical acclaim when they were first released, but later reappraisals in video guides are much less enthusiastic if not downright dismissive of the same films. After watching them on TV for oneself, it can be easy to wonder why the film’s reputation was once so positive. How could critics and audiences have been so overwhelming in their praise for something that now seems relatively tedious, only a few years or perhaps a generation or two later? Have moviegoers’ tastes and standards shifted that drastically in such a short time? Did an otherwise outstanding director just happen suddenly to use bad judgment throughout one production?
Of course great directors do sometimes have duds from time to time, and audience tastes do change to some degree. But a large part of a film’s success depends on its presentation in the form it was originally intended, and Hollywood movies are created with the assumption that they will be projected onto a large theatre screen, usually with a good-sized audience. Later reviews and viewer reactions, based solely upon watching television broadcasts or home video versions on VHS or DVD, simply cannot evaluate the film that the director expected the audience to see.
While the practice of “letterboxing” can at least allow different image formats to fit within a TV set’s fixed picture shape, the small size and low image quality of standard-definition TVs mean that without frequent close-ups, viewers cannot see actors’ facial expressions that would be clearly visible on a theatre screen running the original film. This explains why so many TV shows rely on numerous close-ups and medium-shots, whereas films made for theatres have many more long shots and extreme long shots, especially films made in the first few decades of widescreen – the 1950s through 1970s.
The Academy-Award-winning The Big Country (1958) is a perfect example. The recent Motion Picture Academy restoration of William Wyler and Gregory Peck's independent production was released on a bargain Blu-ray from Fox/MGM in 2011 that finally permits the film’s reputation to be re-established. On Blu-ray and a very large full-HD screen, it no longer seems to be a few memorable scenes buried within an overlong and clunky chronicle, but instead becomes an engrossing panorama of people and place.
Peck stars as a retired sea captain in the late 19th century who travels west to marry the daughter (Carroll Baker) of a wealthy and powerful ranch owner (Charles Bickford) who has been feuding for years with a neighboring rancher (Burl Ives) he despises for the family's rough, "trashy" lifestyle. Charlton Heston plays Bickford's no-nonsense foreman and Chuck Conners is Ives' crudely violent son, while Jean Simmons is a schoolteacher who just happens to own the ranch in the middle that supplies water to the two feuding families.
Of course personalities clash, romances ebb and flow, secrets come to light, and tensions all around gradually build to an exciting climax over the course of this sprawling 165-minute epic. Basically a story of the conflict that results when a strong but deliberate man of peace suddenly finds himself in a culture of knee-jerk violence, it's a western action film for people who prefer character dramas and a character drama for people who prefer western action. Peck's character in some ways calls to mind his role in The Gunfighter, and the western setting can easily be seen as an allegory about today’s times.
There are times when the pacing might be tightened, but those parts are more likely to seem objectionably slow when the film is viewed on a standard TV set. The Big Country is definitely a film designed for the big screen, and while the strong characterizations and fine performances (Ives won the Oscar for Supporting Actor) make for a compelling story, much of its impact comes from the vastness of the rural western environment that can only be appreciated with a picture as large and detailed as possible. Longer takes (with resultant slower pacing) and close attention are required to notice the richness of details crammed into the many long distance shots. Without recognizing those details, an evaluation of the movie’s effectiveness might easily drop one or two letter grades or from, say, 8 or 9 out of 10 to 5 or 6 out of 10.
The Big Country was filmed in Technirama, a high-resolution horizontal 35mm format comparable to VistaVision but using the 2.35:1 "scope" aspect ratio, with a picture area double the size of standard film so it will look good on extra-large screens. The excellent high-definition transfer on the new Blu-ray restores the details and textures that could never be seen on TV. On a large 1080p screen viewed from less than two screen-widths away, this makes the many long shots and wide-angle views dramatic and involving rather than distancing and dull. The opening credits with their optical work seem a bit soft compared with the rest of the crystal-clear transfer, which would deserve an A+ rather than an A if not for some periodic but pervasive faint color flickering that may be due to original lab work or slight deterioration of the negative over the years.
Oddly for such a big production, the film has only mono sound. It would have been nice if separate magnetic dialogue / effects / music masters or at least original multi-track recordings of Jerome Moross' impressive Oscar-nominated score had survived. Nevertheless, the sound is certainly adequate, with the Blu-ray's DTS-HD Master Audio presenting decent but not outstanding frequency range.
Bonus features are sparse, but hard to complain about on a bargain $10 Blu-ray. There's the original trailer in HD, a standard-definition black-and-white TV promo for the ABC Sunday Night Movie presentation, and a peculiar but quaintly fun short promotional film (also black-and-white and standard-definition) with Jean Simmons describing how the cast and crew play cards and chess with each other between scenes. There are also five alternate language dubbed soundtracks and optional subtitles in ten languages. As usual for recent MGM/Fox Blu-rays, there is unfortunately no main menu, so all features can only be accessed through a pop-up menu.
THE BIG COUNTRY on Blu-ray:
Movie: A / Video: A / Audio: A- / Extras: D
BLACK NARCISSUS (1947)
Black Narcissus is an odd but reasonably compelling melodrama that is aided immensely by the outstanding Technicolor cinematography of Jack Cardiff and its lush settings that reproduce a castle in the Himalayas and the surrounding landscape of India.
The plot deals with the emotional and personal conflicts of a small group of Anglican missionary nuns assigned to set up a school and hospital in a remote mountain village. The completely foreign atmosphere, the fact that their new convent was formerly used to house the local sultan’s harem, and the handsome but worldly local British official, only serve to heighten the sisters’ isolation and loneliness, and eventually take a toll on their sense of discipline as they start to recollect their lives before joining the order.
Deborah Kerr is very good as the superior Sister Clodagh, with strong support from Kathleen Byron as her chief adversary, Sister Ruth, and David Farrar as the cynical Mr. Dean. Indian star Sabu is fine as a general’s son who falls for the charms of exotic and sensual beggar girl Jean Simmons.
The region-free ITV disc and the “Region A” Criterion disc both have the uncut 100-minute British release of the film. By the end of 1947, several minutes were deleted from the American release due to censorship concerns about the image of religious life it presented. The BluRay shows off the Oscar-winning cinematography and art direction with a magnificent film-like hi-def transfer that brings out the luxuriant colors and textures of everything in the scene and preserves the fine grain of the film. Other than one or two brief color fluctuations, it looks like it could have been shot and released this year. The audio is good for its age, and may benefit from boosting the bass slightly during playback.
The only extras on the ITV BluRay from Britain are a lovely hi-def transfer of the film’s original British trailer (which plays fine on American BluRay players), plus a brief documentary about the film that is unfortunately in the standard-definition PAL format, and thus may show a distorted image, audio with no image, or nothing at all on some American Blu-ray players. A virtually identical-looking American BluRay release of Black Narcissus is available from Criterion with additional extras, all in the NTSC format.
BLACK NARCISSUS on the British ITV BluRay:
Movie: B / Video: A+ / Audio: A- / Extras: C- (ITV release) or B+ (Criterion release)
THE BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH (1954)
2009 was a notable year for BluRay technology -- its adoption by consumers, its decreasing prices, and especially for its greatly expanded selection of titles available. Unfortunately there are a substantial number of interesting films released to BluRay that are not for sale in North America, but can be found in Europe. Many are region-locked and need a special player to view them, but quite a few are region-free, including some American classics released by the British Eureka video label. Especially notable recent releases are F. W. Murnau’s all-time classic Sunrise (1927), the only film ever to win an Oscar for “artistic quality of production,” and the sometimes campy medieval family adventure, The Black Shield of Falworth (1954), Universal Pictures’ very first film in the new CinemaScope widescreen format. These can easily be ordered on line through Amazon.co.uk (and anyone with an existing Amazon account does not need to open a new account to order from England). Orders typically arrive within a week of shipping, often faster than U.S. orders.
A few days before Christmas, I had a couple of people over to watch The Black Shield of Falworth (1954) on the new Eureka BluRay (preceded by a standard DVD of a Universal “cartune,” Convict Concerto, a well-above-average Woody Woodpecker title released to theatres a couple of months after the feature). We all found both the short and feature quite entertaining. My guests were amazed at the clarity of the 8-foot-wide CinemaScope picture, commenting that the textures were so vivid it was "like you could reach out and pet the horses!"
The opening titles are a little soft in the center but the rest of the film is consistently crisp, except for the few seconds before and after any optical transition like a dissolve or fade (a property of the duping process used for transitions by almost all films of that era). Colors are very strong, not quite as rich as 1940s Technicolor, but still well-saturated, especially the night scenes. Unfortunately Universal did not use the original 4-track magnetic stereo soundtrack, but the optical mono track used for the BluRay is very good quality and was likely heard in many theatres.
Rudolph Maté’s The Black Shield of Falworth is a classic example of a major studio period adventure movie that seems aimed primarily at the Saturday-matinee audience of 1950s kids (especially boys about 8-12), with enough tongue-in-cheek dialogue, action-intrigue, and production values to appeal to adult viewers and win broad family audiences. Rather harshly treated by many serious critics of the era and afterwards, the film has remained largely underrated except by a core of fans of medieval swashbucklers, and oddly never got an official DVD release in the U.S. Amazon is still selling old VHS copies of the “fullscreen” version at prices from $30-$50, yet the brand new BluRay from Amazon.co.uk was only $16 plus shipping!
The young Tony Curtis takes a while to warm up in the role but does just fine for the most part as a late teen/early 20-something boy raised as a peasant, who trains to be a knight and learns he's really the son of a knight who had been unjustly condemned for treason so a rival could seize his property. All of this is going on during the reign of Henry IV (Ian Keith), with a major subplot of that same villain's plot to get rid of the apparently dissolute future Henry V (Dan O'Herlihy) and seize the throne. Meanwhile, of course, impetuous Tony meets and falls for Janet Leigh, daughter of his noble patron Herbert Marshall. A very pretty Barbara Rush plays Curtis' sister.
It may actually be the script and direction as much as Curtis's acting that take a while to get going (or at least for the audience to become accustomed to). The first half-hour or so of the film, with the right crowd of people, could easily be viewed as high camp of "Rocky Horror" proportions, just begging for audience members to talk back to the characters or recite lines in unison. It's hard to believe the screenwriter didn't know how laughable some of the early dialogue exchanges were and may well have done it intentionally to entertain parents who may have accompanied their kids (who would take everything seriously).
Once Curtis gets into his military training, however, the plotting becomes more involved, the acting improves, the film picks up in pace considerably, and it remains highly enjoyable despite the predictable melodrama through its conclusion. Torin Thatcher is great as the crusty one-eyed Sir James, Curtis' medieval drill-sergeant. It's no Adventures of Robin Hood by any means, but it's all a lot of good clean Hollywood fun from the days before bloody decapitations became the norm for historical action films.
The Black Shield of Falworth is also very nice to look at for its effective use of the full width of its CinemaScope frame in almost every single shot. It may be way too overlit in all of the interior shots (the standard Hollywood style of the 50s and 60s), but it's always meticulously composed on the screen. The art direction is quite respectable, and much more noticeable in high definition (and some of the decorative little pennants on the horses certainly look like they're made of plastic!).
The BluRay looks and sounds very impressive, despite no "restoration" being apparent. The original print had been kept in pristine condition. Unfortunately they did not use the original stereo soundtrack for whatever reason, so the sound is mono only, and there are also absolutely no extra features on the disc, unless you consider chapter stops as a bonus. The copyright warning, unlike the ominous red-background US text screens, is simple white letters on black and its wording is quaintly civil, entreating viewers not to copy the film if they value having more movies like this being made available.
THE BLACK SHIELD OF FALWORTH on BluRay:
Movie: B / Video: A+ / Audio: A- / Extras: F+
BODY AND SOUL (1947) 104m ****
Robert Rossen’s noirish portrait of a small-time fighter who works his way up to champion and becomes addicted to success is one of the best films about boxing to come out of Hollywood. It’s really a modern-day variation on the Faust story. Abraham Polonsky’s Oscar-nominated script creates a vivid character study of a man so desperate for fame and fortune as he literally fights his way to become champion, that he gets to the point where to stay on top he’s willing to sell out (to the mob rather than the Devil, in this case). The temptation to betray his personal values and relationships with his girlfriend, mother, manager, and friends, becomes irresistible. But ever the tragically flawed hero, he remains tormented about whether he should go through with it, leading to a suspenseful climactic boxing match. Told largely in flashback, the passage of time is not dwelt upon, but is obviously a decade or more and adds something of an epic feeling to the story as the characters age and their situations change, while the boxing syndicate goes on as it always has.
Similar themes in Polonsky’s self-directed script Force of Evil (also on a beautiful-looking Blu-ray from Olive) are far more preachy and heavy-handed. All of the actors in Body and Soul are outstanding, especially John Garfield’s Oscar-nominated performance in the lead, and fine supporting turns by William Conrad, Lilli Palmer, and the rest of the cast. Equally impressive is the stark black-and-white cinematography by the masterful James Wong Howe and the Academy Award-winning editing. The fight scenes are most notable, and appear to be an obvious influence on Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. Body and Soul belongs on any list of the greatest boxing films, up there with Golden Boy, The Set-Up, Rocky, and Raging Bull (the latter two of which are also available on outstanding Blu-rays). This independent production was originally released through United Artists and is now part of the Republic Pictures collection owned by Paramount and licensed by Olive Films.
The HD transfer on Olive’s Blu-ray is simply stunning, with deep blacks and whites and a wide contrast range that brings out all the textures and details, looking like a mint 35mm print. The sound quality is fine, in lossless two-channel mono that sounds best mixed down to the center speaker and a subwoofer. As is typical for Olive releases, there are no extras except for a main menu and a chapter menu.
BODY AND SOUL on Blu-ray --
Movie: A / Video: A+ / Audio: A / Extras: F
BUGSY MALONE (1976)
Better known for Midnight Express, Fame, Mississippi Burning, and others, director Alan Parker came up with an audaciously clever concept for his first theatrical feature -- a musical gangster film set in the 1920s starring kids in all the roles. It now seems to be a cult favorite in Britain but almost unknown in the U.S. I recall Bugsy Malone (1976) having played here theatrically but missed it during its short run. I remember seeing it on HBO in the late 70s and I think it was on VHS but never made it to DVD, let alone BluRay on this side of the Atlantic.
Besides the fact that neither the 1920s nor musicals have been in vogue for some time, the film's biggest obstacle for most viewers is likely that the entire cast is between the ages of about 10 and 15 (including a young Scott Baio and Jodie Foster)! Stealing the show, however, is Florrie Dugger as "Blousey." The dancers are all impressively self-assured and professional, especially considering their ages, but all the singing appears to be lip-synched to somewhat older voices (including songwriter Paul Williams himself, and what sounds very much like Bernadette Peters, among others).
Paul Williams contributed a fun, bouncy score that is reminiscent of the 1920s with a 1970s Broadway flavor, and fits the quirky concept perfectly. It's all an affectionate tribute to classic Hollywood as a kid might imagine himself or herself showing up in a formula gangster film. What makes the film work is that the director and cast play everything straight, rather than camping it up.
A few odd choices threaten to push it into farce, such as the pedal-cars and especially the whipped-cream gun blasts, but once one can accept them as a kid-friendly and non-bloody convention, they actually work in the context. The only exception is some apparent changing of the "rules" during the final free-for-all, but what would Hollywood be without a happy ending? Overall the movie is a lot of fun for any movie buff and fan of classic musicals.
The picture looks very good indeed in high-definition, its 1.78 image half-way between the 1.66 that would have been seen in Europe and the 1.85 that was seen in the U.S. The 5.1 stereo soundtrack is also very nice. This disc is region-free so its high-definition content (the feature film) plays with no problem on Region A BluRay players. There is a very good director's commentary track as a bonus feature. Unfortunately the other bonus features are not merely standard definition but are all in the PAL format, so many American BluRay players will either not play them at all, may display a distorted picture, or may play only the audio.
BUGSY MALONE on BluRay:
Movie: B+ / Video: A- / Audio: A- / Extras: A- (if the PAL features will play, otherwise B-)
A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1951)
The 1951 version of A Christmas Carol, starring Alastair Sim as Scrooge (Scrooge was the film’s original title when it was released in England), belongs on the shelf of every home video library. The new BluRay edition from VCI entertainment also includes a regular DVD of the film in the package, making it perfect for people not quite ready to switch to HD or for those who might want to use the standard DVD for their kids or in their car DVD players.
This British production of Dickens’ classic novel is one of the best of the numerous versions produced over the decades. It is very well-mounted, beautifully photographed, and wonderfully acted by a distinguished cast of character actors, including Michael Hordern and a very young Patrick MacNee. It’s one of the few versions that is able to go beyond the standard and predictable dramatization of the familiar story to achieve moments that remain truly moving after multiple viewings.
VCI’s BluRay transfer is visually magnificent, restored from the original 35mm film negative and a finegrain print, reproducing the rich contrast of inky blacks, bright whites, and all the grayscale in between. The picture has a crisp clarity of every detail and the original film grain visible in its 1080p, 24fps presentation. There is a remixed 5.1 stereo audio track that is full of annoying echo effects, but at least there’s the option of the original mono soundtrack, which sounds reasonably good and is far preferable. Theres also a quite interesting audio commentary recorded in 2005 with actor George Cole, who played the young Scrooge in the flashbacks. There are high-definition copies of the original British and American trailers included, along with a brief promo for other VCI releases. The only other bonus item is an optional popup trivia track that provides background tidbits superimposed over the bottom right of the picture.
The enclosed DVD includes one additional audio track with description of the action for the visually impaired, as well as an extra copy of the complete film cropped to the 16x9 format for widescreen TVs (for people who’d rather miss part of the image because they don’t like pillarboxing for 4x3 movies and dont understand the zoom functions on their widescreen TV sets).
All in all, its a great BluRay release of a great film, with only a few minor digital glitches in the encoding (unless it was my player) that make the picture occasionally appear to skip frames, and a couple of times do very brief but odd-sounding things to the soundtrack.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL on BluRay
Movie: A+ / Video: A- / Audio: B / Extras: C+
CITY GIRL (1930)
A perfect example of the value of film preservation is the case of legendary German director F. W. Murnau, renowned for Nosferatu, Faust, The Last Laugh, Sunrise, and Tabu. Murnau was brought to Hollywood to help raise the artistic reputation of American films. The first result was his timeless and Oscar-winning visual parable Sunrise (1927), now available on DVD in the U.S. and on BluRay from Great Britain. His next film, Four Devils (1928), was critically acclaimed and a success at the box office, but no longer survives in any form except for the original screenplay and some production stills.
In 1929 Murnau made his next film, a lyrically romantic yet often grimly realistic look at the clash between rural and urban America, City Girl, set largely on a Minnesota farm. A hard-headed old farmer’s naïve son travels to Chicago to sell the family crop, and returns with a new wife -- a world-weary young waitress who longs for the peaceful, pastoral life she’s seen in nature paintings. The father is suspicious of a “city woman” and the wife soon realizes that farm life is much tougher than she’d imagined.
A triumph of silent cinematic storytelling, it was produced during the turbulent period when Hollywood was switching to sound film production. The studio took over the film, hastily re-shot the ending with talking sequences, and released it in 1930 as a part-talkie that was quickly forgotten and later destroyed in a vault fire.
For decades City Girl was considered a lost film until amazingly the original silent director’s cut was discovered in 1970, but it remained difficult to see until Fox Video included it in a lavish 2008 DVD box set of several films made by Murnau and director Frank Borzage at the studio during the 1920s-30s. The butchered theatrical release of City Girl and its sound track remain lost.
Earlier this year, Eureka Video’s Masters of Cinema Series released Murnau’s original silent cut of City Girl on a region-free BluRay, with the effective new 2008 music score composed by Christopher Caliendo for the DVD set. The high-definition transfer is a superb rendition of what the well-preserved 35mm print actually looks like, with rich blacks, grays, and whites, and no artificial digital enhancements or grain reduction. As a result, occasional minor scratches and dirt show up, but this is not distracting in the least with such a sharp picture. The music score is presented in a choice of either a good Dolby Digital 2.0 recording or an excellent 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
There are few bonus features, but one is an excellent audio commentary by a film scholar and the other is a nice 28-page illustrated booklet with a critical evaluation and credits for both the film and the DVD.
The City Girl BluRay makes the perfect complement to Eureka’s earlier BluRay release of Murnau’s Sunrise, and many modern critics actually consider it the better film.
CITY GIRL on BluRay:
Movie: A / Video: A / Audio: A+ / Extras: B
Mexican director Guillermo del Toro is best-known among mainstream American moviegoers for his genre action-horror pictures Mimic (1997), Blade II (2002) and Hellboy (2004) and broke through to more sophisticated audiences with the multi-Oscar-nominated Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). His very first feature, however, the Mexican-made Cronos (1993), is a thoughtful, mulit-layered metaphoric horror-fantasy that remains arguably his best and certainly deserves wider recognition. Cronos came out on Blu-ray in December 2010 from Criterion.
Cronos deals with such themes as time (hence the title), decay and death, the desire for immortality, greed, addiction, self-sacrifice, the complexity of human relationships, religious ritual, and more, all in the guise of what is essentially a vampire film, although it never uses the word “vampire.” Like the recent Let Me In and its Swedish source, Let the Right One In, it focuses on characters more than thrills, meticulously establishing details of their lives and their surroundings that reinforce the motifs symbolizing various issues the director brings up. Some of those are direct references in the plot and others are evoked through careful control of color, props, and image composition.
The basic plot concerns a medieval alchemist’s invention of an insect-shaped device that is able to prolong life, and the accidental discovery of that device centuries later by an aging antiques dealer and his quiet, alienated little granddaughter. Unfortunately a wealthy, dying industrialist is ruthlessly searching for the device, leading to the film’s few action sequences. Ron Perlman stars as the industrialist’s crude American nephew who does his dirty work and is ironically named Angel de la Guardia. The cast is uniformly excellent, as for his first picture del Toro was able to get legendary Spanish-language stars Federico Luppi and Claudio Brook.
An amazingly dense film (the director was only 21 when he started writing the script and 28 when he filmed it), Cronos is less a horror film than it is an adult fairytale, an approach del Toro continued in Pan’s Labyrinth. The film is an engrossing exploration of human nature with a pervasive gothic, melancholy mood, but an ultimately satisfying (though certainly non-Hollywood) resolution. Cronos was a huge hit in Mexico, winning numerous awards there and at various international festivals (including Cannes), but never managed to achieve much success in the United States.
Criterion’s high-definition transfer to Blu-ray is superb, supervised by the director and cinematographer, and it has a fine DTS-HD stereo soundtrack in Spanish and some English, with English subtitles. There is a very good array of bonus features, including two audio commentaries (recorded in 2002 for the 10th-anniversary DVD), interviews with the director and stars, a stills gallery, a trailer, a featurette with del Toro conducting a tour of his horror-fantasy memorabilia collection, and an amusing 1987 short horror-fantasy he shot as a teenager but finally finished last year. There’s also a 44-page booklet with cast, credits, an appreciative analytical essay, and excerpts from del Toro’s preproduction notes he made to explain the characters’ backstories and symbolic visual motifs for the cast and crew.
Possibly his most personal film to date (the director’s commentary reveals many connections to his childhood and his general philosophy), Cronos also displays themes and motifs that show up in del Toro’s later work. It’s essential viewing for devotees of horror and of artistic self-expression.
CRONOS on Blu-ray
Movie: A / Video: A+ / Audio: A / Extras: A
THE CROWDED DAY (1954)
Volume 3 in the British Film Institute’s collection of films from the low-budget Adelphi Studios features The Crowded Day and Song Of Paris, two early 1950s films by John Guillermin (best known for his Hollywood work including The Towering Inferno, Death On The Nile, The Blue Max, and the 1976 King Kong).
A generally pleasant drama with touches of comedy and a few darker episodes in the "Grand Hotel" mode, The Crowded Day follows the lives of a variety of department store employees from early morning to late night on a single day during the Christmas season.
It remains an impressive film overall, with strong acting and reasonably interesting characters with believable problems. It's also a good glimpse into the life of everyday people, their customs, and attitudes in mid-1950s Britain. Guillermin's sure direction of the multiple overlapping story lines, some striking cinematography, and a large cast of veteran actors as well as rising stars, place it on solid footing with the more prestigious British studios.
THE CROWDED DAY on Blu-ray:
Movie: B+ / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: D+
DARK CITY (1950) 98m *** ½
This is easily the best of the four pictures in the Olive Films Film Noir Collection Volume One, and is the closest to a real film noir even though there’s no archetypal femme fatale. There are small-time professional gamblers, a damaged ex-boxer, a sad, aging lounge singer, a disturbed vet with a more-disturbed brother, and a hard-nosed cop. The troubled, flawed characters live in a seedy, dangerous, and unpredictable urban world where they’re haunted by the past, allegiances can easily shift, and hasty schemes to make a buck can quickly backfire. Events they can’t control may quickly change their livelihoods or even threaten their lives. This is the world of film noir.
William Dieterle directs a powerhouse cast in a decent script produced by Hal Wallis, effectively scored by the great Franz Waxman (actually, perhaps a bit overscored at times), and gorgeously shot by Victor Milner. Charlton Heston is excellent in his Hollywood debut as a disillusioned college grad with a mysterious past that has led him to run a (Chicago?) bookie joint, closed down in the opening sequence when new police captain Dean Jagger raids the place. Two of Heston’s low-life sidekicks are, of all people, Jack Webb as the extra-cynical and mercenary one and Harry Morgan as the amiable if slow-witted one with a heart, plus Ed Begley as the worried one with an ulcer. Lizabeth Scott is the singer willing to stick by Heston no matter what. They arrange to con a very naïve visiting L.A. businessman (Don Defore) into a high-stakes poker game, which leads to the main thrust of the film after he’s found dead in his room the next day and the gamblers learn that his psychopathic brother (Mike Mazurki) is now after all of them. During the process, Heston travels to Los Angeles hoping to romance Defore’s widow (Viveca Lindfors) to get information, and eventually goes to Las Vegas, where the final action takes place and we have a certain amount of personal redemptions and resolutions not often found in classic noir. It’s a great noir trip along the way, however.
The HD transfer on Olive’s Blu-ray seems to be excellent, and much of the picture looks excellent, but there are also many scenes with some regular slow pulsating flicker (perhaps the initial stages of decomposition on the negative?) and a few scenes that appear to show a weird warping effect. The audio is good, although a few scenes have some background noise. The only extras, as usual for Olive, are a main menu and chapter menu.
DARK CITY on Blu-ray –
Movie: A / Video: B+ / Audio: A- / Extras: F
Every so often an independent filmmaker lucks out and gets a couple of recognizable stars to like his script, which then attracts enough investment money to shoot on 35mm film with a full crew and even special effects. Of course adequate promotion and distribution to find its proper audience can still be a problem after the film is completed. Such is the case with Deadline, an above-average little suspense-thriller by Sean McConville, starring Brittany Murphy and Thora Birch. It was shot in 2008, made the rounds of festivals and film markets about a year ago, came out on video late last year, and got some international theatrical showings earlier this year after the untimely death of Murphy.
Deadline is the first writing and directing credit for McConville, a former prop man who originally planned to shoot his movie on mini-DV for around $50,000 until the stars and money materialized for a more ambitious effort. In true indie-script fashion, the script calls for only four characters, one of whom is seen only at the beginning and end, and two of whom are a parallel story-within-the-story viewed on video.
McConville’s years in film art departments certainly paid off in his atmospheric mise en scene. He also is effective at directing this fairly formulaic genre picture, and some sketchy plot elements are often made up for by the mostly strong performances of Murphy and Birch.
The film appears to be a standard ghost story set in an old dark house and will call to mind any number of other films. Murphy plays a screenwriter who has had a nervous breakdown and wants the isolation of this remote house so she can finish her current project by the deadline. Of course weird things start to happen in the house and she soon discovers a box of camcorder tapes left by the previous residents a young couple whose recorded lives reveal unhappy and unsavory secrets. How those secrets relate to her own life and present situation are the key to unraveling various layers of plot.
The vast majority of viewers who have reacted on the imdb were bored, confused, and/or generally dissatisfied with the film, having expected more thrills and shocks instead of the emphasis on moody atmosphere and psychological twists. Its only 85 minutes long, most of that devoted to Murphy’s character wandering through the house or watching the videos she’s found. Perhaps another five or ten minutes could have made things more clear, but could just as easily have overexplained the character relationships with no room for ambiguity.
There are obvious comparisons to the film The Secret Window, among others, but Deadline is closer in spirit to Mulholland Drive without David Lynch’s perversely disturbing sense of humor or audio-visual audacity. Like a Lynch film, it may take a repeat viewing to recognize various clues planted about what is really going on. Murphy’s real-life death within weeks of the video release gives an even eerier sense to watching the film (as well as to its uncomfortably prescient cover art).
The BluRay of Deadline can be found in the modest $12 to $16 price range, making it worthwhile for fans of off-beat thrillers and indie films or either of the two stars. The hi-def transfer of both the image and sound is first-rate, preserving the film look and the bleak, dark environment with plenty of background music and sound effects to help tell the story (as there is very little dialogue). The only bonus features are a brief but interesting making-of documentary, a trailer, and previews to a few other Firstlook Studios releases, all in standard-definition.
DEADLINE on BluRay:
Movie: B / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: D+
DR. STRANGELOVE (1964)
The Cold War was still raging in the 60s, and Stanley Kubrick’s masterful dark satire Dr. Strangelove (1964) made its BluRay debut the summer of 2009. The film is an actors’ showcase, especially for Peter Sellers in his multiple roles, for George C. Scott, ad for various character actors like the unforgettable Slim Pickins. It’s got some good featurettes but all are standard-definition, and there is no commentary (though there’s a booklet and an interesting picture-in-picture background info option).
DR. STRANGELOVE on BluRay:
Movie A- / Video A / Audio A / Extras B+
THE EGYPTIAN (1954) 140m ** ½
This Michael Curtiz historical epic is widely dismissed as a dull sword-and-sandal soap opera about dull characters with dull performances. Some have called THE EGYPTIAN one of the worst films of all time or at least the worst film of 1954. While it’s true the film has a lot of problems, not the least of which include some miscasting, sluggish pacing, disconcerting plot gaps, and way too many lengthy, over-written, heavy-handed moralistic speeches, there’s still a lot to appreciate. In fact there are viewers who count it among their favorites. Admittedly tedious at times, the film seems to have a sincere heart in its attempt to dramatize the always-timely life-long search for a sense of self-worth, inner peace, and understanding of human nature. However, it tries just a little too hard to make obvious parallels even more obvious between the revolutionary ancient Egyptian reign of the fanatic monotheistic Pharaoh Akhenaten and the Judeo-Christian tradition that would arise some 1300 years later. As a result it may come off as a pseudo-Biblical parable aimed at Sunday-school classes rather than popular entertainment made for mass audiences.
Loosely inspired by actual historical incidents, ancient records, and ancient Egyptian literature, the film does an admirable job of recreating a reasonably accurate surface impression of life in ancient Egypt, despite the sizable number of errors, anachronisms, and “artistic license” that no historical movie can avoid completely. The film’s acting performances actually are not bad – they’re just often so underplayed and introspective that it’s difficult to become involved in the characters. In other words, they’re almost the complete opposite of the stylized high melodrama of Lubitch’s DAS WEIB DES PHARAO or the larger-than-life heroic and villainous archetypes in the historical epics of DeMille and his imitators.
The plot is designed as a flashback recounting the adventures and observations of a now-aged Sinuhe (Edmund Purdom) during the reign of Akhenaten (Michael Wilding). As a youth he studies to become a physician while classmate Horemheb (Victor Mature) trains to be a soldier. Starting his career as a naïve idealist, Sinuhe soon becomes rather inexplicably entranced by a notorious Babylonian courtesan called Nefer (Bella Darvi) who rapidly drives him to shame and financial ruin. Eventually realizing the error of his blind passion, Sinuhe becomes a cynical wanderer traveling the known world and becoming more and more disgusted by the pettiness and injustice of humanity. Meanwhile the single-minded pacifistic policies of Akhenaten have driven Egypt’s reputation into the ground and sparked widespread grumblings of rebellion, and Sinuhe returns home only to become involved in an assassination plot. Meanwhile the sensible tavern-girl Merit who has always loved him (Jean Simmons) has not only borne him a son (Tommy Rettig) but has converted to Akhenaten’s monotheistic cult. After two hours of pageantry and meandering plotlines, the film finally comes to a climax with some action sequences when Horemheb and the “evil priests” begin their active revolution and persecution of Akhenaten’s gentle, peace-loving followers.
Standouts in the cast are Jean Simmons, who deserved much more screen time, and Peter Ustinov as Sinuhe’s rascally one-eyed servant, who easily steals every scene he’s in. Though his plot function is subservient to that of Sinuhe, Mature is fine as Horemheb, who in this story is the one to overthrow Akhenaten (there were actually a couple of other pharaohs, including the famous Tutankhamen, in between their reigns). Gene Tierney is also strong (and also sadly under-utilized until the ending) as Akhenaten’s fiercely masculine half-sister who wants to rule in his place. Purdom is really not bad as the central character of Sinuhe, but lacks the screen charisma that a Tyrone Power or Marlon Brando might have breathed into the role. Dirk Bogarde and Farley Granger had turned down the part, but may well have played it much as Purdom does. Brando had actually been signed, but quit after meeting Bella Darvi (and wound up playing Napoleon in DÉSIRÉE to fulfill his contract). Darvi is attractive and adequate as the courtesan but either she or Curtiz (or both) is unable to make the audience believe she’s somebody Sinuhe would be unable to resist. Tierney or Simmons or someone like Joan Collins could have been far more seductive if they’d had her part. Marilyn Monroe (who reportedly wanted that role) might have been an interesting choice with the right direction. Wilding plays Akhenaten as if he’s in his own little world without much complexity to his character, and perhaps that’s intentional but it also tends to lose him the sympathy that the script and end title cards seem to expect the audience to have for him. Veteran character actors like Henry Daniell, John Carradine, Judith Evelyn, Mike Mazurki, Michael Ansara, and others round out the cast with solid support, making their scenes memorable.
The spectacular CinemaScope cinematography (which earned Leon Shamroy an Oscar nomination) and elaborate art direction help give viewers something to look at when they become tired of the performances (although the many uses of matte shots are obvious, whereas DAS WEIB DES PHARAO had used full-size sets and even larger crowds of extras). There’s also a fine music score by Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann, as well as effective use of directional dialogue in the stereo soundtrack. Seeing this in high quality on a big screen with a good sound system makes up for many of the film’s dramatic deficiencies. It’s really an entirely different experience from trying to sit through it on TV.
The HD transfer on Twilight Time’s Blu-ray (that company’s very first release in the Blu-ray format) is truly superb, with brilliant colors, crisp textures, fine details, and natural film grain preserved beautifully. The original four-track stereo is effectively mixed into a lossless DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack that sounds great. Bonus features include an 8-page illustrated booklet with an appreciative essay on the film by Julie Kirgo, an interesting audio commentary by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini (departing from their usual film noir specialty), an isolated music score track, and the original theatrical trailer (albeit in standard-def). THE EGYPTIAN was released to Blu-ray and DVD in limited 3000-copy editions. While it may not appeal to a wide audience, it belongs in the collection of any Egyptophile, fans of historical epics, and devotees of early CinemaScope productions and/or 1950s Hollywood.
THE EGYPTIAN on Blu-ray –
Movie: B- / Video: A+ / Audio: A / Extras: B-
ESCAPE TO ATHENA (1979)
Escape to Athena (1979) is an international production filmed on location on the Greek island of Rhodes that’s a diverting World War II action adventure prison camp picture with an all-star cast. It does not seem to be available in the U.S., only as a Region 2 PAL DVD and as this region-free BluRay from Britain's ITV.
The plot's sort of a "Great Escape" meets "Kelly's Heroes" (the latter of which is now on a nice BluRay) with assorted other familiar elements that sometimes vary wildly from heavy and disturbingly serious melodrama to smart satire to broad slapstick. David Niven plays a British archaeologist in a German prison camp run by Austrian officer Roger Moore(!), both of whom would rather be collecting antiquities than fighting a war. Meanwhile Telly Savalas is in the head of the local Greek underground, aided by Claudia Cardinale as a madame of the local House of Eros.
Other prisoners include Richard Roundtree (the token Black sergeant) and Sonny Bono (as an Italian), joined by the recently captured USO entertainers Stefanie Powers and Elliott Gould. There's even a cute throwaway prison camp cameo by William Holden (star of the classic Stalag 17). Eventually they come up with a plan to seize some priceless gold artifacts and escape with the help of their commandant!
Of course there's lots of action and things don't always go according to their plans. While not particularly memorable, it's all competently done and provides a good two hours of entertainment if you're in the WWII adventure-comedy-drama mood (i.e., a perfectly good "program picture," especially at a bargain price). This disc has the 119-minute European cut rather than the 125-minute version shown in England, or the 101-minute American release (which often gets further trimmed for local TV station broadcasts).
The movie looks pretty good overall, with a few soft spots here and there in the widescreen image that I'm not sure if are due to the transfer, a warped print, or the film's lower budget not permitting retakes. The sound is mono but certainly adequate if you turn up your subwoofer response a bit. There's over an hour of cast interviews as bonus material, but unfortunately it's all in the PAL format, so some American players may show nothing but a black screen with audio that sometimes jumps around. There's no audio commentary. At least the original trailer is presented in full 1080p, so it shows up quite nicely on a big screen.
ESCAPE TO ATHENA on BluRay:
Movie: B- / Video: B+ / Audio: C+
Extras: C (or a B if you can play the PAL content)
THE FOUR HUNDRED BLOWS (1959)
Low-budget independent filmmaking has co-existed with studio-financed mass-market movies for over a century. But almost exactly 50 years ago it suddenly gained international respectability after a group of film critics, theorists, and self-professed movie fanatics in France decided to start making their own films the way they wanted to make them about the subjects they wanted to treat. The result became labeled as the French New Wave, a movement that was not afraid to experiment with new cinematic techniques (as often as not due to budget limitations), and that considered the director as the primary author, or auteur of the finished film.
A few of these films debuted in 1957-58, but in 1959 a virtual explosion of them hit theatre screens, winning festival awards and critical acclaim, films like Breathless, Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Black Orpheus, and The Four Hundred Blows, from directors Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Marcel Camus, and François Truffaut, respectively. Many more followed throughout the next ten years. All had a strong influence upon a new generation of Hollywood filmmakers starting their careers in the 1960s, such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola. Their impact continues to this day with yet another generation of independent-minded directors. For decades these films were often seen in grainy 16mm dupes or murky video copies with any widescreen productions having the sides of their images lopped off. In March 2009 the Criterion Collection released Truffaut’s The Four Hundred Blows on BluRay in a sparkling new high-definition transfer from a 35mm master fine-grain print and with its original 2.35 to 1 aspect ratio intact.
The Four Hundred Blows was the first feature-length film by François Truffaut, yet won him Best Director at Cannes that year, Best Foreign Film from the New York Film Critics, and an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. The film’s title is a translation of a French idiom that means something to the effect of “Raising Hell” or “Running Wild.”
The story covers a few months in the life of Antoine (in an amazing performance by Jean-Pierre Leaud), a troubled 12 to 13-year-old boy who is an only child alienated from his loveless family, his authoritarian teachers, and all but one of his disinterested classmates. His one friend helps him skip school, sneak into movies, run away from home, steal a typewriter, and get into other trouble, until Antoine is finally sent away to a reform school, from which he again tries to escape. What in the hands of Hollywood producers might become either a scathing social commentary or a feel-good story of triumph over adversity, is presented by Truffaut as a matter-of-fact, unsentimental portrait of an average boy dealing with whatever life throws at him. The film focuses on details of daily life rather than carefully organizing cause-effect relationships into a typical and predictable self-contained plot. Many if not most of the incidents were thinly disguised episodes from Truffaut’s own childhood, and like a number of films by Steven Spielberg it depicts the children’s point of view throughout. Part of the films power comes from its documentary-like style, largely a by-product of its low budget that required using black and white film, actual locations, improvised dialogue, post-dubbed audio, and then-unknown actors. The gray skies and stone buildings, accentuated by the monochromatic image, contribute greatly to the feeling of the characters gray moral sense, yet the film never becomes morose.
In his first film, Truffaut also tried to follow the advice of his friend and mentor, film theorist André Bazin, who complained that excessive editing destroyed films potential for realism. Thus there are many long takes that allow the viewer to explore the mise en scene in the carefully composed widescreen images, so each cut tends to make a much stronger dramatic impact than films whose shots average only a few seconds each. This style tends to make portions of the film drag in pacing, but it is a good fit for the story Truffaut is telling and helps intensify both the mood and the performances of the actors. The very long take at the end of the film, and especially its concluding freeze-frame and optical zoom into young Antoine’s ambiguous expression, became copied in countless films and TV commercials over the next twenty years. Truffaut, unfortunately died at age 52 in 1984, but managed to make about two dozen features, five of which starred Léaud in the continuing saga of Truffaut’s alter-ego Antoine over a period of twenty years.
Watching Criterion’s Blu Ray edition of The Four Hundred Blows is like taking a trip back in time. Dirt and scratches on the film were digitally removed and the audio was also digitally cleaned up for the uncompressed PCM soundtrack. Finally American audiences have the chance to experience what the film looked and sounded like when it was new.
There are several interesting bonus features on the disc, although only in standard-definition and nothing new for this edition. They include screen tests by some of the child actors, newsreel footage of young Jean-Pierre Léaud attending the films Cannes showing, fascinating interviews with Truffaut from 1960s TV programs, the original trailer, plus two different audio commentaries and a printed flyer with program notes. One of the commentaries is an informative combination of critical analysis and background history by a film professor, and the other is a charmingly nostalgic interview of Truffaut’s childhood friend Robert Lachenay.
Anyone interested in independent or foreign films needs to see The Four Hundred Blows, and many will probably want to own a copy.
THE 400 BLOWS on Blu Ray:
Movie: A- Video: A Audio: A Extras: B+
GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)
Gone With the Wind, a legendary film from the height of the Hollywood studio era, made its world premiere over 70 years ago, in December 1939. Since that time, the epic saga adapted from a best-selling novel of a family just before, during, and after the American Civil War has become as much a part of our culture as the war itself. It’s basically another soap opera of characters personal problems against the historical backdrop. But it’s also a vivid recreation of a way of life gone with the wind as nostalgically imagined by the descendents of the generation that lived it, a collective oral history re-enacted on the screen through memorable characters that continue to touch an emotional core.
The movie, quite simply, is an American classic that is able to overcome a variety of flaws and appeal to later generations in a way nearly as timeless as such masterpieces as The Wizard of Oz or Its a Wonderful Life. Scarlett and Rhett’s story resists the remake syndrome, and was regularly re-released theatrically through the 1990s. Warner Home Video, current owners of the film, have gone back to the original camera negatives to restore the picture and sound digitally in such a way that the BluRay actually looks better than many if not most of the 35mm film prints shown in theatres.
The 70-year-old sound quality may not be quite up to 21st-century recording standards, but sounds amazingly good, and is tastefully remastered for stereo surround, with the original mono track as an available option (not to mention numerous foreign-dubbed versions, and a very good audio commentary by historian Rudy Behlmer, full of information on the production, personnel, and historical background).
The picture quality is actually better than BluRay transfers of some films made today, both in clarity and in color. People who have never seen Gone With the Wind in a theatre, especially if they’re used to the image of old movies on numerous poor video copies, may have a hard time believing that it was actually filmed in 1939.
The deluxe limited-edition anniversary box set, designed for the hard-core GWTW fan, is lovingly packaged in a red velveteen cardboard box with hardcover book of color photos, a miniature reproduction of the original theatre program, a CD of the soundtrack, watercolor painting reproductions, and more. There’s also another BluRay disc that contains over eight hours worth of documentaries going behind-the-scenes, reflecting on its success, describing its restoration, chronicling the amazing list of memorable movies released in1939, along with a 1980 telefilm dramatizing the casting difficulties, an historical short film about The Old South and a trailer gallery. A separate DVD has a 6-hour documentary on the MGM studios (the same one included as a bonus with The Wizard of Oz BluRay edition). The only disappointment is that all bonus features are standard-definition.
The BluRay box set is a bit pricey at $85 list (when it came out in 2009), but well worth it to die-hard fans of the film, and as low as $40 through Amazon, the same or less than the standard DVD set is often selling for in stores. Those who want just the movie without the extras could find it exclusively at Target stores at first, for about $40, sometimes discounted to about $35. By late 2010 it could often be found for the more popular pricing of $10-$20.
GONE WITH THE WIND on BluRay:
Movie: A / Video: A+ / Audio: A- / Extras: A-
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966)
The American Western is no longer the staple of Hollywood cinema that it once was, but had a huge impact on international filmmakers whose re-imagining of them have become major influences upon today’s directors, notably Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, among others. One of the most influential filmmakers of the past half-century is Italian director Sergio Leone, who almost single-handedly changed the cinemas approach to making westerns with his “Dollars” trilogy in the mid-1960s. Ennio Morricone’s memorable music changed the scoring of westerns forever, and even became a pop hit on record charts.
The third and perhaps most popular of Leone’s key films, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, premiered in Italy at about three hours in 1966, but was cut by close to half an hour before its original American release the following year. An earlier DVD of the 161-minute longest U.S. version (there was also one at 148 minutes) included 14 minutes of deleted scenes copied from an Italian print as bonus features, since there had never been an English-language soundtrack made for them.
In 2002-03, MGM/UA restored all the missing scenes that could be located from the original negatives, got back Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach to dub in their dialogue, and remixed the audio elements to create a 5.1 stereo soundtrack befitting the films epic scope.
The restored 179-minute version of Il Buono, il Brutto, e il Cattivo (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) was scheduled to be the closing-night feature at Il Cinema Ritrovato (The Rediscovered Cinema) film festival in Bologna, Italy the fourth of July of 2009. However, American movie fans can now see this complete version on an impressive new Blu-Ray disc released in May 2009.
A simple story of three men struggling to find a cache of hidden gold became in Leone’s hands an epic and timeless tale of greed and mans inhumanity to man. For the masses, he blended grand, action-oriented melodrama with dark comedy, yet dealt with anti-heroes and incorporated a fair amount of ambiguity, which had become more popular in European films. Although its three main characters are merely fortune-hunters, Leone used the American Civil War as a major plot element and political statement on war in general.
When the film first came out it was a hit with audiences but critics and many viewers found it disturbingly violent, compared to Hollywood films of the time and especially to what they expected from traditional westerns. Today its violence appears relatively moderate, and what stand out are Leone’s carefully composed widescreen images, many inspired by noted artists or Civil War photographs of Matthew Brady, as well as his trademark style of long takes and contrasting extreme close-ups with extreme long shots.
The old DVD of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly looked pretty good, especially all the close-ups, but the BluRay (as one should expect) is substantially sharper, getting as much picture information as possible from the original Techniscope negatives. Its sharp enough that a number of slightly out-of-focus close-ups are now more obvious than they had been on the standard definition DVD. Overall the picture is quite good, with the film grain preserved intact and occasional but minor film wear visible. Leone’s numerous panoramic extreme long shots benefit the most from the high definition transfer.
The old DVD had only mono soundtracks in English, French, and Spanish. On the Blu-Ray, the original 1960s mono soundtrack is included for purists, in its English version and Italian version. The remixed 5.1-channel stereo track sounds quite good, without quite the range of a new film but with a substantial amount of dialogue nicely directionalized across the screen, plus a few slightly enhanced sound effects to fill out the bass and surrounds, with music ambience also coming through the surrounds. The English stereo track is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio recording, the German 5.1 track is regular DTS, while the Spanish, French, and Portuguese tracks are all 5.1 Dolby Digital.
Even though the box cover says the film runs 161 minutes, it’s really 178 minutes. Since the deleted scenes have been put back with new English soundtracks, there’s no need for them as bonus items except in one case where the original negative had been too badly damaged to include every shot. The torturing of Tuco in the prison is in the restored print, but a slightly longer version copied from a rare surviving Italian release print is included for comparison. There’s also a lost scene reconstructed from stills and brief trailer clips.
Several other bonus items (unfortunately all standard-definition), include three interesting featurettes on the film itself, one on its restoration, another on the actual Civil War general and battle referred to in the story, plus an audio essay about the composer and his score, the original American trailer, and the original French trailer. Two audio commentaries repeat some of the same information but elaborate and expand upon much more. The commentary by historian Christopher Frayling is the most interesting and informative, but the one by film critic Richard Schickel is also worth listening to.
While The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is not quite the masterpiece that Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America are (both also now on Blu-ray), it’s far more influential and the Blu-ray makes a valuable addition to any film buff’s library.
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY on Blu Ray
Movie: A- Video: A- Audio: A- Extras: A-
GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946)
Both Great Expectations and Black Narcissus won the Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction the same year, at a time when the awards were still split into Black & White and Color categories. Great Expectations was also nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay (and probably should have won at least one of those awards, as well). Interestingly, both films feature the late Jean Simmons in early prominent roles while she was still a teenager.
Great Expectations was actually made in 1946 but got to the U.S. in the summer of 1947. Director David Lean’s meticulous adaptation is one of the best films made from any Charles Dickens novel. It captures the style and atmosphere of Dickens perfectly, expertly condensing the densely detailed story and coming up with a satisfying conclusion that is a bit different from either of the books two alternate endings.
A superlative cast is led by John Mills as Pip (with Anthony Wages remarkable as the young Pip), along with Finlay Currie, Francis L. Sullivan, Martita Hunt, Valerie Hobson (as the older version of Jean Simmons more memorable Estella), and a young Alec Guinness.
The high-definition transfer for the region-free British BluRay is nothing short of spectacular, reproducing the rich grayscale of the film stock and the fine textures of both the mise en scene and film grain with a vividness that would make you swear you were watching an original 35mm film print. There are a few sporadic moments where minor film wear shows through, light black or white lines and specks inherent in the surviving material, which otherwise looks as though it is brand new.
The audio is the original mono track and sounds fine for the era, although some may wish to boost the bass on their sound systems. This wonderful disc’s only drawback is the complete lack of any extra features, unless one counts a main menu and chapter stops as a bonus. Still, Great Expectations is a film that belongs in every serious BluRay collection.
GREAT EXPECTATIONS on BluRay:
Movie: A+ / Video: A+ / Audio: A- / Extras: F+
THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD (1965)
George Stevens has a slightly different approach on most of the same material covered in Nicholas Ray's KING OF KINGS (1961), with some interesting ambiguities and a few odd choices here and there. It cuts and changes a few things and adds a lot more, including Donald Pleasance as a "Dark Hermit" who stands in for Satan at various times without appearing overly supernatural. Charlton Heston is just as effective as John the Baptist as Robert Ryan was in KING OF KINGS, but here the Salome material is pushed into the background. The film's total running time is 199 minutes, again including Overture, Entr'acte, and Exit Music, but at least this time over a black screen, making it easy for ambitious home theatre owners to employ curtain cues if desired (except for a spurious MGM video logo tagged on before the brief overture). Intermission comes at almost exactly two hours.
The second act, strangely, does not have quite the dramatic drive of the first act, despite the obvious intensity of the subject material. This may be due to eliminating the parallel plot of Barabbas and the insurgents, and clouding the motivation of Judas as more of hurt jealousy that he's not getting enough attention or being taken seriously (or any other subtext one might care to read into it). The cast definitely looks more ethnically appropriate overall than that of KING OF KINGS, but there are still several distracting early 1960s haircuts and more blue eyes than there probably should be (including Max von Sydow's Jesus).
Cinematography and art direction are excellent, blending careful and moody Hollywood lighting with far more realistic settings than in KING OF KINGS. Still, Stevens frequently tries to recreate familiar religious artworks and like many Biblical films, numerous scenes still seem like covering as many bases as possible rather than examining characterizations to any great degree. The crucifixion is obviously shot on a soundstage rather than location (paradoxically, despite its primitive editing and even less character development, the 1912 Kalem version FROM THE MANGER TO THE CROSS still stands out as one of the most authentic film recreations in this and many of its scenes). Like Ray's KING OF KINGS, Stevens' GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD is one more decent addition to the canon of "life of Christ" films. John Wayne's cameo as the centurion is the only really distracting part of the film's all-star cast.
The Blu-ray's video quality is a huge disappointment for a film having been shot in Ultra Panavision 70 with the extra-wide aspect ratio of 2.75:1, and originally presented in Cinerama. Sadly, the picture looks equivalent to an old 1970s-era local TV station's film-chain transfer from a 16mm print (although it's got the letterboxed full picture width), heavily marred by electronic "sharpening" and edge enhancement that puts a light outline or halo around all objects, especially their right edge. This processing also gives a thick layer of video noise that completely obliterates fine details and any film grain (although some people might mistakenly interpret the video noise and digital compression artifacts as film grain).
Although on a small screen or from a distance of more than a screen-width or two it appears reasonably crisp, up close it's really no sharper than a decent DVD, and actually is not as sharp as a really good DVD transfer made from an HD master and run through an upscaling player. In fact the two standard-definition bonus featurettes generally look just as sharp as the feature and the 1080 24p trailer is a much sharper transfer (unfortunately made from less sharp original elements a generation or two further from the camera negative than the print used for the feature). The feature's lossless DTS 5.1 stereo surround soundtrack is quite good, with numerous examples of the directional dialogue that used to be popular in the first decade or two of films with stereo sound.
There is no commentary and are only a few bonus items, but they're reasonably interesting. One is a half-hour "making-of" featurette from the time the film was in production. There's also a 15-minute 2001 documentary using some archival interviews of some of the cast and crew from the 1980s. A brief alternate crucifixion sequence made for Europe shows Judas holding a noose as he commits suicide (he holds no rope in the American cut), but the audio for that clip has difficulty playing on several different Blu-ray players. Then there's a trailer in HD, much of which consists of printed critics' quotes before showing any clips. This seems apparently transferred from an old 35mm CinemaScope trailer that's a bit contrasty and shows some wear.
THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD on Blu-ray
Movie: B / Video: C+ / Audio: A / Extras: C+
GUYS AND DOLLS (1955) 150m ***
Loveable Damon Runyon gangsters form the basis for a number of classic films, including Lady for a Day (now also on Blu-ray), Little Miss Marker, The Lemon Drop Kid, and more, mostly set during the Prohibition era. In 1950 a couple of his stories were adapted into a hit Broadway musical, and the 1955 film of Guys and Dolls keeps the flavor of the 1930s but updates it to the 1950s. The plot revolves around finding a location for a floating crap game in the face of a heavier than usual police crackdown. To get enough money to pay off the owner of a potential site, Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) bets gambler Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) that he can’t get mission worker Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) to fly to Havana with him. Meanwhile Detroit’s long-time showgirl fiancée Adelaide (Vivian Blaine, recreating her Broadway role) keeps pressing him to give up gambling and get married. Of course everyone eventually finds love, with plenty of music and comedy along the way.
The catchy score is among the best of 1950s musicals, although the film cuts out a few songs and the original composer Frank Loesser wrote some new songs just for the film. The Goldwyn film version, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, is able to open up the stage play a bit, but remains highly stylized, using elaborate studio soundstages. Many of the dance numbers are recreated from the stage production, with the fluidly moving camera adding greatly to their impact. Marlon Brando gets a chance to show he could be more than a brooding method actor, coming off quite well in the role that Sinatra would have preferred to be playing (and singing). Brando does his own singing, and while he may not have perfect pitch, his voice fits his character naturally, even if he doesn’t have the style or experience of Sinatra. Simmons also does her own singing, and quite well. Sinatra, of course, is Sinatra.
The Warner Brothers Blu-ray is good but not perfect. The picture shows the full 2.55:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio and looks very good, if just a bit soft, likely due to a bit too much Digital Noise Reduction that smooths out the grain slightly. Colors are rich, but perhaps just a bit on the warmish, yellowish side (in contrast to a crisp but slightly faded 35mm print I once saw in which most of the yellows had faded almost away). The stereo sound is wonderful, with many directional uses of singing and dialogue spaced across the extra-wide screen. Very high frequencies, however, do seem somewhat muted so that it’s not quite as crisp as one might expect, possibly from minor magnetic wear on the masters used for the transfer. There is a nice selection of bonus features, mostly two good retrospectives plus about eight minutes of extra interviews apparently cut from one or the other of the documentaries. There’s also a trailer and a half-dozen individual clips of songs, although sadly all bonuses are in standard-definition and there’s no audio commentary.
GUYS AND DOLLS on Blu-ray –
Movie: A- / Video: A- / Audio: A- / Extras: B
An obvious film for watching in late October is John Carpenter’s original Halloween (1978). Stylish and suspenseful, it made a star of Jamie Lee Curtis and almost single-handedly kick-started the cycle of bloody psychotic-slasher films that continue to this day, although ironically it showed very little blood itself. Perhaps a bit dated, it’s still effective, thanks to its combination of moody cinematography and music with skillful editing.
The BluRay of Halloween is generally a good transfer, but since the film was low-budget to begin with, a number of scenes seem accidentally a bit too soft-focus. Audio is good if not particularly outstanding. There is a nice audio commentary with the director, star, and producer. A halfway decent featurette (in standard-def) and trailers round out the modest bonus features.
HALLOWEEN on BluRay --
Movie: B+ / Video: B+ / Audio: B+ / Extras: B+
HIGH NOON (1952) 85m ***
One of the all-time classic American Westerns, often making lists of top 100 American films, High Noon was directed by German-born Fred Zinnemann. He used the familiar trappings of the Western to dramatize a timeless inner human struggle, that between following one’s moral convictions to do one’s civic duty or to follow one’s personal desires for love and safety, as well as the urging of friends to take the easy way out.
Iconic western hero Gary Cooper stars as a sheriff about to retire, get married and settle down, but on his wedding day he gets word that a killer he’d sent to prison has just been pardoned and is coming back for revenge with two of his cohorts. The Sheriff’s new anti-violent Quaker bride (Grace Kelly) and the townspeople all want him to leave town before the killer, who still has friends in town, shows up. He believes a showdown is necessary, however, and tries to raise a posse to face the gang, but everyone he contacts has some reason not to participate, including his disgruntled deputy (Lloyd Bridges) who is upset he wasn’t chosen to be the next sheriff. Naturally things build to a predictable but memorable showdown with a few surprises. The powerhouse cast of numerous noted character actors and future stars including Thomas Mitchell, Katy Jurado, Lon Chaney, Jr., Harry Morgan, Jack Elam, and Lee Van Cleef are able to suggest a far deeper backstory than what is dramatized in the script. Subtly symbolic art direction, expertly composed cinematography by Floyd Crosby (father of singer David Crosby), tight editing, and Dmitri Tiomkin’s effective music intensify the dramatic performances. They also help point out the film’s unusual approach of playing out the plot in almost exactly the 85 minutes it takes to watch on the screen, rather than condensing and expanding time like most movies
Films like The Gunfighter (1950) were already exploring the psychology of familiar Western character types rather than focusing on action, and “High Noon” continued the trend. But due to the early 1950s timing of the film’s production, and its screenwriter being the soon-to-be blacklisted Carl Foreman, many were quick to see the story as merely a metaphor about the unfriendly witnesses at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings being deserted by their friends because they refused to compromise their principles. While the similarities are obvious, the themes are much deeper than its contemporary political overtones, getting down to basic human nature, personal ideals, and will for survival. High Noon was nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay, and Gary Cooper won the Oscar for Best Actor. The film also won Academy Awards for its editing, music score, and song, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling.”
The 60th Anniversary Blu-ray from Olive Films has outstanding picture quality, with crisp film-like details and contrast range. The audio is also very strong. Rather atypically for Olive Films, this disc includes a couple of bonus features (though both are in standard-definition): the theatrical trailer and an interesting 20-year-old documentary retrospective discussing the film’s making and legacy.
HIGH NOON on Blu-ray –
Movie: A- / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: B-
When it came out, horror writer Clive Barker’s directing debut Hellraiser (1987) was one of the most disturbing films released to mainstream theatres, and indeed may have helped inspire today’s trend for body piercing. Most horror films are sadly lacking in both writing and acting, but Hellraiser was a definite step above average for the genre, never matched by its sequels. Revisited today, it remains memorable, despite having been copied so often since (the curse of any bursts of originality).
Someone notes in one of the bonus interviews on the disc that the script was trying to be more like Ibsen with monsters than the standard action-effects oriented gorefest, and of course the story and characters are what still set it apart from the rest. The visual and makeup effects hold up quite well against today's horror schlock, despite and perhaps because of the traditional use of makeup/props/animation in the years before CGI special effects.
The music, too, is quite effective for its relatively low budget, reminiscent of John Williams blended with Bernard Herrmann and Danny Elfman. Hellraiser’s only real drawback is a sometimes campy performance by Andrew Robinson (better remembered as the psychotic killer in Dirty Harry) as its all-too-earnest lead.
Picture quality is exactly as I remember seeing it in the theatre, and audio quality is also very good. There is a fine selection of extras, including a good (but 7-year-old) commentary track and a number of interviews with various cast and crew members (unfortunately all standard-def).
HELLRAISER on BluRay
Movie: A- Video: A Audio: A Extras: B+
THE HORSE SOLDIERS (1959)
The Horse Soldiers may not rank among legendary director John Ford’s most memorable work, but it is a solid action adventure based on an actual incident, with good iconic roles for John Wayne and William Holden. It is also Ford’s only feature film dealing with the Civil War (except for his brief episode in How the West Was Won, on Blu-ray from Warners).
Wayne plays a Union colonel leading a raid south into Mississippi to destroy Confederate supplies and railroad connections. Holden is a physician reluctantly assigned to the mission, often at odds with official military policies, some of Wayne’s decisions, and war in general. When they make camp at a plantation run by spunky young southern belle Constance Towers (in her first major screen role), they discover she has overheard their plans and force her to accompany them on the rest of the raid so she can’t contact the Confederates. Naturally, the mutual distrust and disgust between her character and Wayne’s gradually develops into mutual respect, understanding, and more.
Wayne is fine in his familiar persona and Holden’s performance is very reminiscent of his role in The Bridge On The River Kwai (on Blu-ray from Sony) filmed two years earlier. Though she never became a major boxoffice name, Towers makes an impressive starring debut, hinting at some of the edgier characters she’d get to play a few years later in Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss (both on Blu-ray from Criterion).
Although much of the film is predictable and it tends to drag at times, the script does a good job setting things up in logical progression, while revealing character background that enriches the story beyond Hollywood formula. Ford’s direction handles everything nicely with his trademark blend of drama, action, humor, and social commentary, particularly some potent and poignant observations on war and human nature.
The Blu-ray has an overall excellent HD transfer at 1.66:1, with rich colors and a sharp, crisp image throughout. In a very few sections optical duplication in the original print softens the picture slightly (mainly titles and dissolves). The original mono sound is very strong. Once again, this MGM/Fox disc has no main menu and no bonus features other than the original trailer (in HD), chapter stops, and multiple language and subtitle tracks, all accessible only through a popup menu.
THE HORSE SOLDIERS on Blu-ray
Movie: A- / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: F+
Hollywood movie biographies are rarely noted for their historical accuracy, and Houdini is no exception, but this fictionalized saga of the famed magician and escape artist is still fun to watch. Directed by George Marshall and produced by George Pal, the film touches on the most memorable aspects of Houdini’s legendary life. The on-screen chemistry between Tony Curtis and his then-wife Janet Leigh (in their first film together) helps tie the episodic script together and drive the action. Strangely, the film omits any mention of Houdini’s (admittedly sporadic) film career.
This title is is one of several licensed from Paramount that small distributor Legend Films has released as Blu-ray double-features (in this case with the 1969 Tony Curtis film, Those Daring Young Men In Their Jaunty Jalopies). The picture, pillarboxed to 1.33:1, has very good quality overall, with beautifully saturated color, although the print more often than not looks a bit soft and the three-strip Technicolor records are not always in perfect registration. It may appear to look better on a small 720p monitor than projected in 1080p onto a large screen. The mono audio is reasonably good. There is a main menu but absolutely no extras other than chapter stops (not even subtitles or any foreign language tracks).
HOUDINI on Blu-ray --
Movie: B / Video: B+ / Audio: A- / Extras: F
INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE (1994)
Vampire movies are again in vogue, but one of the best was Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (1994), adapted by Anne Rice from her own best-selling novel. An excellent condensation of her extremely literate and literary book, it captures the vampires melancholy and philosophical fate as few films ever have (other than Werner Herzog’s 1979 Nosferatu or the recent Swedish film Let the Right One In and its surprisingly effective American remake Let Me In). Like the book, the film version of Interview with the Vampire also incorporates moments of wickedly dark comedy.
Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise immerse themselves in their roles of Louis and Lestat, and young Kirstin Dunst is absolutely amazing as the vampire child Claudia. Rice’s metaphoric revisionism of the vampire myth made her series of novels hugely popular and inspired other variations on the genre. It’s unfortunate the same cast and director never attempted any of the sequels, which expanded Lestat’s character to cult hero proportions (he’s mainly an antagonist in this first of the series).
The BluRay has a beautiful picture quality, fine audio, but disappointing extras. The decent audio commentary almost makes up for the very cursory introduction mini-documentary that precedes the feature, a brief featurette, and a trailer, all in standard-def.
INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE on BluRay
Movie: A / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: B-
THE IPCRESS FILE (1965)
Pretty much everyone is familiar with the James Bond films as a series of light-hearted spy adventures, and is aware it started with Sean Connery in films like Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger. Most people have likely seen at least photos if not clips or the entire films from those or other 1960s Bond pictures. If not, many are now on BluRay in painstakingly restored editions that look as if they were shot yesterday.
Spy movies have again become popular with recent franchises like the “Mission Impossible” films and the Bourne series, all serious-minded, taut, techno-thrillers. At the height of the Cold War, the Bond films were all satiric, tongue-in-cheek and often over-the-top comic sendups of heroes and villains and technology (and remained so until Daniel Craig’s recent more serious-minded Bourne-like reimagining of the iconic spy), and inspired many more spy comedies like James Coburn’s Our Man Flint pictures, and TV series like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, and others.
Fewer people are probably familiar with the Harry Palmer spy film series starring Michael Caine, which was also produced by Harry Saltzman, the man behind the first three Bond movies. Whereas Connery’s Bond was a suave, sophisticate who could fight, kiss, or talk his way out of just about anything, a fantasy hero for teenage boys, Caine’s Harry Palmer was his antiheroic antithesis. He was an average guy, an army sergeant with a shady past who found himself trying to redeem his reputation as a secret agent in Berlin up against much more disturbingly believable villains.
The first and arguably best of three films featuring Caine’s Harry Palmer was The Ipcress File (1965). While there is a definite irreverent and sarcastic attitude to Palmer, he’s not the glib punster of Connery’s Bond. And although he also has a taste for women (without Bond’s impeccable sense of style), Caine’s character is very much a realist who must rely more on his wits than on fancy gadgets or superhuman fighting abilities to survive his various ordeals and uncover what’s really going on. The cast is uniformly excellent.
The Ipcress File was aptly billed in its original advertising as “the thinking man’s Goldfinger,” and won three British Academy awards when it came out, including Best Film, Best Art Direction, and Best Cinematography. The cinematography is indeed striking, with artful lighting and clever camera angles almost to the point that it looks like an indie artfilm rather than a studio-made spy thriller. It’s available in a nice BluRay edition from Britain’s ITV DVD that is region-free, so it will play in all BluRay players.
Since it was shot in the “Techniscope” widescreen format, which uses half-height frames on the film, it naturally had more visible film grain, especially in the many low-light scenes that needed a faster emulsion. This grain comes through intact in the fine high-definition transfer to BluRay, and is most noticeable during the first half-hour or so of the film, as the later portions apparently used finer-grain film stock.
The soundtrack has been remixed well to Dolby Digital 5.1, but there’s also a 2.0 track available. Unfortunately the only extras are the British theatrical trailer and a brief stills gallery. It’s a bargain-priced disc, however, costing in the $15-20 range plus shipping from England (which typically takes about a week).
THE IPCRESS FILE on BluRay:
Movie: A / Video: A- / Audio: A / Extras: D+
IS YOUR HONEYMOON REALLY NECESSARY (1953)
Maurice Elvey was an extremely prolific British director from 1913 through 1957, especially noted for his 1927 classic Hindle Wakes. Diana Dors was an ebullient blonde starlet often called a British Marilyn Monroe for both her film career and often stormy private life. The second Adelphi disc in the British Film Institute’s collection of that low-budget studio’s films features two fine examples of Dors' work directed by Elvey, My Wife’s Lodger and Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary. They’re a fascinating glimpse into everyday life in postwar Britain, with an earthy blend of cheerful cynicism and low humor rather than the more polished and urbane wit of, say, the Ealing comedies.
Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary (1953) is the main feature, a vehicle for the comedic talents and physical attractions of the 21-year-old Dors, then a rapidly-rising star who would soon be out of the price range of the small Adelphi Studios. The plot of this saucy bedroom farce may be familiar (something of a variation on the Cary Grant-Irene Dunne hit My Favorite Wife and its later Doris Day-James Garner remake Move Over, Darling), but the fine timing and execution keep it fresh and entertaining throughout.
Several years after World War II an American officer (Bonar Colleano) arrives in England with a brand-new wife (Diana Decker), while wartime buddy Hank (Sidney James) keeps gleefully recounting the times they used to have with his wildly vivacious and curvaceous first wife, Candy (Diana Dors). Within hours, Candy shows up at their apartment claiming that his California divorce is not valid in England so they're still legally married. He immediately calls his mild-mannered lawyer (David Tomlinson) to fix things, but they all wind up spending his honeymoon night in the same apartment trying to hide the facts of the dilemma from the confused and frustrated new bride.
Though certainly no Cary Grant, Colleano does a respectable job as the harried husband, and Dors shines as the sexy ex-wife who revels in her effect on men, particularly the shy lawyer she'd previously dropped to marry the handsome American serviceman. Tomlinson (best-known to American audiences as the father in Mary Poppins) is also excellent, and Sidney James as the no-nonsense friend is the usual endearingly blunt persona he'd develop further in the "Carry On" films. Decker is quite good as the new wife, and stage actress Audrey Freeman (Tomlinson's real-life wife) is a delight in her only screen appearance as a love-hungry housemaid.
Picture and sound quality are extremely good, and there’s an interesting booklet as the only extra (other than a main menu and chapter stops).
IS YOUR HONEYMOON REALLY NECESSARY on Blu-ray:
Movie: A- / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: D+
KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952)
This taut and nicely-plotted film noir involves an intricate heist, a disgruntled ex-cop, several crooks-at-large, and a nice-guy ex-con who is framed and must find out who really pulled the job to clear himself (especially since he's fallen for a beautiful law student). John Payne stars with Preston Foster, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, Coleen Gray, and Neville Brand, fine performances all around.
The Blu-ray is among the first in what may be a wave of Public Domain films to be put out by low-budget distributors to cash in on the hi-def craze. The good news is that the picture quality is well above the stereotype of PD DVDs. In fact the distributor even did a fair amount of digital restoration to eliminate dust and scratches on the 35mm preprint (and included a brief before/after demo to prove it). The print looks very clean indeed in the video transfer, with an amazingly rich depth of blacks, grayscale, and whites that really show off the excellent noir cinematography. That said, there is still just enough digital noise reduction to soften the grain so that on a very large screen in full 1080p the textures of things like fabrics, wood, dirt, etc. never quite pop off the screen like they do in superior transfers. It still looks quite good, however, and on a 720p set, smaller monitor, or more than two screen-widths away the picture is extremely impressive. The audio defaults to a completely unnecessary 5.1 simulated stereo soundtrack, but there is an optional 2.0 mono track that sounds reasonably good.
There are no bonus features except for the very short restoration demo and a home-made half-minute trailer edited from highlights of the film. Overall this is a very respectable Blu-ray that is welcome addition to the slowly growing number of classics available in HD (very little of which fall into the noir category). It certainly cannot compare with Criterion's THE THIRD MAN, but it can hold its own against many of the hastily-released bargain-priced catalog titles from Universal and MGM/Fox that look good but could have been just a little better. Still, the "HD Classics" Blu-ray from Film Chest is well-worth the $10-$12 it typically sells for. The same company also has Orson Welles' THE STRANGER on Blu-ray, but the screen captures I saw posted on Blu-ray.com were so distractingly soft-looking that I never bothered ordering it, despite the nice range of deep blacks and extensive grayscale. KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL is just soft enough to be frustrating without being completely disturbing (and as I said, should look extremely good on a smaller 720p screen, or if projected, from about two screen-widths away where the grain would not be easily apparent anyway).
KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL on Blu-ray
Movie: B+ / Video: B+ / Audio: A- / Extras: F+
KILLER MOVIE (2008)
Besides being an overall better film than Midnight Movie, with which it is often bundled, this second picture in the package will have a special appeal for movie fans from this region. Killer Movie is supposed to be taking place in the hockey-obsessed border town of White Plains, North Dakota, and there’s even a tabloid newspaper called the White Plains Reader!
The geography depicted doesn’t quite mesh with what we know North Dakota to look like, and as it turns out, Killer Movie was actually filmed in Minnesota. Perhaps North Dakota sounded funnier than Minnesota to writer-director Jeff Fisher. This film not only has stronger acting, a larger cast, and a slicker, more polished look than Midnight Movie, but also a distinct tongue-in-cheek attitude that helps counteract the expected bloody murders (which are neither supernatural nor quite as over-the-top in kinky goriness as the other film).
The premise this time is that a reality TV program has been assigned to shoot video in a small and isolated town because its high school hockey team finally has a chance to make the playoffs. The Hollywood crew naturally (and amusingly) must adjust to extreme culture-shock, including no Starbucks and lack of cell phone performance, besides their own personality clashes. You’ll also want to freeze-frame the closeup of the Dakotan Tribune to read all the headlines that are throwaway gags.
The plots conflict begins when the new director realizes his bitchy producer is using the heartwarming hockey story as a cover to connect the sordid details of a teenagers recent gruesome death to a recently released convict who used to be the hockey coach. He’s also assigned a temperamental tabloid-fodder starlet as his production assistant because she wants to do research for a serious film role.
The 91-minute Killer Movie does a good job at building up character relationships of the TV crew and the townspeople, and in developing a plausible story. While often quite funny, it doesn’t resort to playing its familiar plot for obvious laughs or farce, but rather maintains believable suspense amidst the satiric banter of the characters and dark humor of some of its situations. It also comes to a conclusion that’s more satisfying and certainly more logical than the other film. Part of its success is that it’s primarily a well-plotted murder mystery about serial killings instead of merely a clever excuse to depict gore effects on screen.
Unfortunately the only extras are a brief but interesting featurette and a trailer.
KILLER MOVIE on BluRay:
Movie: B+ / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: D+
KING OF KINGS (1961)
Nicholas Ray's “King of Kings” is not DeMille, but has its own advantages and flaws. His 171-minute version of the life of Christ is, however, an interesting take on the familiar material, sometimes as much for what it leaves out as for what it includes and expands upon. Once one accepts that this was a major Hollywood studio film aimed squarely at middle-America in the mid-20th century, it's not difficult to find much of the film a reasonably involving historical drama with an inspirational message. Like all such films, it needs to be viewed in context as a part of the larger body of similar but often very different works (just as the various Gospels, canonical and otherwise).
Warner Home Video's high-definition transfer is excellent, a strong upgrade from the old DVD, now with crisp details and textures as well as a fine film grain clearly visible. The DTS-HD 5.1 stereo audio is also very good, with occasional directional dialogue noticeable. There are few bonus items, all in standard definition of various quality: just a trailer, an old featurette and two newsreels of the premiere.
KING OF KINGS on Blu-ray
Movie: B+ / Video: A+ / Audio: A / Extras: C-
KISS ME DEADLY (1955)
A pair of mid-1950s Robert Aldrich films came out separately on Blu-ray the summer of 2011, VERA CRUZ and KISS ME DEADLY. Each entertaining in its own way, and with both of them blending the popular styles and genres of their times with subject material and an approach a decade or more ahead of their times, they make for interesting viewing back-to-back.
Arguably Aldrich's masterpiece, KISS ME DEADLY turns Mickey Spillane's popular Mike Hammer detective novel into a combination gritty film noir and modern paranoid apocalyptic thriller. Hammer (Ralph Meeker) is driving down the highway at night and swerves to avoid hitting a girl wearing nothing but a trenchcoat (Cloris Leachman). She tells him to forget her if he drops her at the nearest bus station, but to remember her if they don't make it there. Soon after, they're run off the road, she's tortured and killed while he's knocked unconscious, and they're both put back into his car which is then pushed over a cliff. Of course Hammer barely escapes and decides to investigate, against the wishes of the police, the FBI, and a bunch of other people. The mystery has international repercussions beyond simple criminal activity that Hammer, with the help of devoted secretary/lover Velda (Maxine Cooper) very gradually begins to unravel as things become more and more dangerous for him and everyone he comes into contact with.
The screenplay by A. I. Bezzerides changes the "McGuffin" from drug dealing to atomic secrets, partly due to censorship concerns. It was also notorious for inverting Spillane's brutal right-wing vigilante detective into a brutal self-absorbed nihilist who was supposedly as reprehensible as those he was up against, and ominously depicting the official forces of law and order as no better than either. Although denounced for its violence even before it was released (based on the novel's reputation and the script), most of the violence actually occurs off-screen. The film was either excoriated or ignored by mid-1950s American critics, but was lavishly praised as "the thriller of tomorrow" by the left-wing French critics who would soon form the French New Wave and became a cult arthouse hit.
Now over a half-century later, the film appears to have it both ways, playing upon both traditions and fears of its time while anticipating themes trendy two generations after its release. Thanks to effective directing and acting (though Gaby Rodgers as "Lily Carver" is a bit weak at times), it makes Hammer a more complex antihero than perhaps it intended, it incorporates the dangerous femme fatale, yet it also depicts a strong, independent-minded woman who is on the side of the protagonist (who may certainly have "issues," but like Meeker's Hammer, is not completely unsympathetic). Velda may actually be the film's most sympathetic character. Reflecting McCarthyism and the Cold War, the government is depicted as both uncomfortably menacing yet worthy of respect. The film today ironically fulfils the sociopolitical fears and expectations of both the left and the right, and fits easily into modern concerns about international terrorism vs. private greed. The same fear of big government it depicts as a leftest issue in the 1950s is now a pet issue of the right. Interestingly, Spillane disliked the film for many years because of its distortion of his novel, but later changed his mind and felt Meeker was the best of all the screen versions of Mike Hammer. The strong supporting cast includes Jack Elam, Jack Lambert, and others who also appeared in VERA CRUZ, as well as a young Strother Martin and the ubiquitous Percy Helton.
Picture quality, as usual for Criterion Collection releases, is very good to excellent, mostly the latter, with a crisp 1.66:1 high-definition image that is consistently film-like and shows the fine grain of the film and the textural details of settings and costumes, along with rich deep blacks and bright whites. This is especially effective in the strikingly shot noir night scenes (black and white film of the period being inherently sharper to begin with than 1950s color film stocks). Audio also is very good. Bonus features are up to the Criterion standard, including a nice booklet with essays by J. Hoberman and Aldrich himself (all cleverly designed in the style of a 1950s men's magazine), a good audio commentary by noir specialists Alain Silver and James Ursini, featurettes about the film, its locations, its screenwriter, and a documentary about Spillane. There's also the original theatrical trailer (in HD) and an alternate shortened ending that was on the film for many of its TV showings until recently.
KISS ME DEADLY on Blu-ray
Movie: A- / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: A-
THE LADYKILLERS (1955)
“The Ladykillers” (1955), released in the US in 1956, is an entertaining black comedy with a typically British flavor, marking the end of the Ealing era. The cast is superlative and the comic caper story is droll, and though I've never quite liked it as much as, say “The Lavander Hill Mob,” I'd say it's at least as good as “The Man in the White Suit.”
Alec Guinness stars as the head of a motley gang that takes refuge in the home of a sweet little old lady.
This BluRay is from Lionsgate rather than Criterion, and the picture quality is good, but far from the standard set by BluRays of slightly older films like “Black Narcissus,” “The Third Man,” “Great Expectations,” “An American In Paris,” et al. or Warners' amazing restorations of “The Wizard Of Oz” and “Gone With The Wind.” Scratches and dirt have been digitally erased, but on this film there seems to have been issues with the three-strip color registration beyond the budget for fixing, as a faint color fringe softens the otherwise very clear image. The picture is presented in its original 1.37 ratio rather than cropped to 1.66, 1.78, or 1.85, and seems to look best that way even though it also appears "protected" for a certain amount of cropping for widescreen (while providing the option for people to crop it themselves through their TV sets or projector settings if they prefer the widescreen look). Sound quality is decent, though not what one would call memorable.
There are some very
good Criterion-like bonus features, including an introduction by Terry Gilliam,
an audio commentary, a variety of taped interviews, a somewhat contrasty but very sharp transfer of the original British
trailer in HD, and an illustrated booklet with quite an interesting essay on
the film's history and interpretation.
THE LADYKILLERS on BluRay:
Movie: B+ / Video: B / Audio: A- / Extras: A
LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1960)
Alain Resnais enigmatic “Last Year at Marienbad” (L’année dernière à Marienbad) is a half-century old, yet is a cinematic experiment that is still ahead of its time in the way it handles story material. Resnais collaborated closely with modernist novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet, who wrote the screenplay as a challenge to traditional linear, chronological, narrative storytelling.
The story situation is a familiar love triangle. A man attempts to seduce a woman away from the man she is currently with, trying to convince her that they met the year before and shed promised to run away with him after a year. The way this is turned into a film, however, plays around with Robbe-Grillet’s understanding of the difference between mental time and real time, of past, present, and future in thoughts, dreams, or suggestions.
Robbe-Grillet believed the cinema, with its constant depiction of an immediate present whether events were actually happening, had happened already (in flashback), would happen soon (in flash-forward), might have happened, might happen, or were real or imagined was an ideal medium for exploring his concepts of storytelling. No character is named, as names are not important when its the situation, mood, and techniques that are to dominate. Director Resnais found Robbe-Grillet’s ideas intriguing and an ideal backdrop for exploring his own very visual sense of storytelling, an exercise in style that focuses on details, poses, lighting, and other elements of mise en scene, with music and repetitive voiceovers to accentuate the mood. He uses the camera and setting as a primary means to convey information to the viewer, rather than traditional obvious causes and effects or coherent continuity.
Even after such recent variations in traditional storytelling as Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Pulp Fiction, watching Last Year at Marienbad may be confusing, incomprehensible, or infuriating for viewers unprepared for its unusual approach. It had a decidedly mixed reception when first released, as well. It was not accepted at the Cannes Film Festival, but after some initial audience derision it went on to win the Venice Film Festival and during its 1961 U.S. release earned an Oscar nomination for its screenplay. It divided both audiences and critics, who proclaimed it a modern masterpiece or denounced it as pretentious self-indulgence. Others recognized its dazzling, even hypnotic visuals, but found its content trivial or pointless which was exactly Robbe-Grillets point, that the form itself WAS the point, and is what makes cinema an art.
The BluRay disc has a beautiful, director-approved high-definition transfer of the meticulously composed widescreen black-and-white image. While there is no audio commentary, helping explain the film are three new sets of interviews with Resnais, with some of the other filmmakers (including Volker Schlondorff), and with a film scholar, totaling about an hour and a half, and all in high-definition. Also on the disc are two short and interesting documentaries Resnais made in the 1950s. All the Memory of the World (1956) is about the National Library of France, but in many ways a precursor in style and content to Marienbad. In a very different vein is The Song of Styrene (1958), a poetic depiction in color and CinemaScope of how plastic is manufactured. The package also contains a 48-page booklet with photos, film credits, and several illuminating essays about the film, including Robbe-Grillet’s introduction to the published version of his screenplay.
LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD on BluRay:
Movie: B+ / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: A
THE LOVES OF PHARAOH (DAS WEIB DES PHARAO) (1922) 98m ***
Ernst Lubitsch’s second-to-last German production, filmed in 1921, is one of the lavish historical epics he was noted for in Europe before his Hollywood career, where he switched to primarily the sophisticated sex comedies he’s remembered for today. The plot of DAS WEIB DES PHARAO (literally “The Woman of the Pharaoh”) is an operatic melodrama of doomed love, power struggles, and overbearing personal pride. It’s the ideal material for an Emil Jannings film, and Jannings plays the Pharaoh Amenes with a greater flamboyance than he’d given his Louis XV in Lubitsch’s MADAME DUBARRY the previous year, but more controlled than his over-the-top performance for Lubitsch in DIE AUGEN DER MUMIE MA a couple years before that (both also featuring Harry Liedke as the romantic lead, as he is here). Jannings’ Pharaoh foreshadows elements in his portrayal of OTHELLO the following year, as well as hints of future characterizations in films like THE LAST COMMAND, THE BLUE ANGEL, and others -- the confident person of position and respect who becomes reduced to a pitiful shadow of his former self. Here, however, his character is not particularly sympathetic at the start, somewhat undercutting the powerful concluding scenes.
In this story, the wealthy, powerful, ruthless, and self-obsessed Pharaoh (Jannings) has ordered construction of a massive treasury to secure his possessions, and considers a political alliance with Samlak, the King of Ethiopia (Paul Wegener) through marriage to his daughter Makeda (Lyda Salmonova). During her trip to Egypt, however, Ramphis (Harry Liedtke), son of Pharaoh’s master builder (Albert Bassermann), happens upon her Greek slave girl Theonis (Dagny Servaes), immediately falls in love and steals her away, greatly annoying the Ethiopians. When the couple is captured and brought before Pharaoh, however, he too falls for Theonis and plans to marry her instead of Makeda. Naturally, this leads to a war between the kingdoms. Various other complications develop as well, after Theonis is walled into the treasury while Pharaoh goes off to battle and Ramphis is condemned to the quarries but escapes when war begins. Needless to say, there’s plenty of high melodrama and dramatic irony throughout the film’s six acts, much of it revolving around the age-old concept of “all for love,” with rulers willing to sacrifice their kingdom for true love. There is also some interesting and timely (then and now) political subtext about national pride vs. personal pride, ruthlessness of dictators and their manipulation by underlings, and the power of the people and/or the army to make or break its leaders on fairly short notice. The film originally concluded at a happy ending point for the American release but in European editions continued on another five or ten minutes for a classically tragic ending.
Aided by American backing from Paramount Pictures, who distributed THE LOVES OF PHARAOH in the U.S., the production values are very high. The film’s art direction, with massive sets, numerous props, and huge crowds of costumed extras, is sometimes overwhelming in its scope. It suits the larger-than-life story well and does quite an effective job of giving a reasonable impression of ancient Egypt that’s far more accurate than most films of its era (and still more than a year before Tutankhamun’s tomb was discovered). The dramatic use of high-contrast lighting calls to mind DeMille’s famous “Rembrandt” look, as well as later German Expressionism. The actors do tend to look rather more Teutonic than Egyptian, Ethiopian, or Greek, but that is fairly easy for most audiences to ignore. Some modern viewers might be distracted, amused, or put off by the stylized acting. A few moments (mainly during the playful romantic scenes between Ramphis and Theonis, and the vain preening of Makeda) are actually intended to be funny, and have the famed “Lubitsch touch.” The rest is high melodrama with carefully calculated movements, gestures, and facial expressions that are far removed from the low-key subtlety of Lubitsch’s American films just a few years later. For those who can adjust to the intentional artifice, however, especially in combination with Eduard Künneke’s excellent original music score adapted and conducted by Frank Strobel, the performances and staging of the actors have a graceful, ballet-like intensity that is very much like an opera without the singing and no less expressive in conveying raw emotion. Künneke, in fact, had composed operas before being commissioned to score this film in 1921.
The Blu-ray from Alpha-Omega (the same company responsible for the film’s amazing digital restoration) has a lovely HD transfer, with picture quality that varies from good to excellent, depending upon the condition of the source footage. Color tints reproduce the colors that were on surviving release print fragments. The film was reconstructed from two large chunks held in two different archives, several fragments from other archives, with still photos and title cards to bridge what is still missing. Blue lettering is used for original titles with white lettering for the reconstructed titles and explaining plot gaps. A couple minutes of explanatory titles introduce the restoration before the movie begins. Rather than having a superimposed subtitle option, viewers can choose the title cards to be displayed in any one of ten languages. (Egypt’s modern language of Arabic is one of the choices, but it would have been fun to have an option for Ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphic title cards, although that might have been a bit too esoteric.) The audio recording of the score is excellent, available in either DTS-HD 5.1 or PCM 2.0 stereo.
There are only a few bonus features, but they’re all interesting. A 20-page illustrated booklet in German and English gives a good background on the film. On the disc a fascinating half-hour documentary (in German with English subtitles) recounts the film’s rediscovery and reconstruction, demonstrating just how incredible the final picture quality turned out, compared to the heavily damaged and poorly duplicated film elements previously available. There is also a full-length HD video recording of the orchestra doing a live performance of the score for an audience (from Sept. 14-15, 2011), which is very enjoyable in its own right with occasional cuts to the movie playing on the screen in the background to remind you where the storyline is, although the director doesn’t always cut to the instruments being featured at any given time (he gets better towards the end). In addition there is a brief trailer promoting the restoration’s 2011 re-premiere in Hollywood, a gallery of stills, and page scans of the film’s original program booklet.
THE LOVES OF PHARAOH on Blu-ray –
Movie: B+ / Video: A- / Audio: A+ / Extras: B-
German director Fritz Lang fled Nazi Germany for Hollywood in the 1930s, where he made mostly modest-budget crime dramas over the next two decades, including film noir masterpieces like Scarlet Street, Woman in the Window, Clash by Night, The Big Heat, and others. The highest achievements of his career, however, he created during his German period, films such as his massive two-part national folk epic The Niebelungen (1924), his visionary science-fiction allegory Metropolis (1926), and his first sound film, the proto-noir study of the search for a serial killer, M (1931).
M, newly released to BluRay in May 2010 by the Criterion Collection, has long been a favorite for film textbooks to illustrate the innovative use of sound (and lack of it) to complement the visuals artistically and symbolically rather than simply to record what is happening. Many scenes use off-screen sounds to enlarge the screen space in the mind of the viewer. Others use only limited or no sound effects at all instead of a modern-style multi-layered effects track. Lang reasoned that when were concentrating on something we mentally block out all other sounds, and designed his first soundtrack accordingly.
The film’s plot, inspired by recent headlines in Germany about a child-molester terrorizing the city until he was finally caught and executed, and its themes have an eerily modern edge despite the 1931 setting. Lang presents an almost documentary-like chronicle of the events unfolding, rather than creating mystery or suspense. The child-killer (Peter Lorre in his first and star-making screen role) is revealed early on, appearing first as a shadow against a wanted poster as he talks to a little girl. The police, and then members of the underworld (some played by real-life criminals) frantically try to identify and locate the killer, the police to restore peace of mind to the population, the criminals to remove the reason for the increased police activity that’s now objectionably intruding into their way of life. Lang’s heavily detailed storytelling does tend to drag things out longer than they need to be, especially in this restored 110-minute edition, but his striking visual sense, interesting use of sound, and his underlying sociopolitical subtext keep the film interesting.
For decades M has only been available in a shortened 99-minute version, mostly in murky copies of copies. In the early 1990s, the film was restored to the 110-minute running time (it had been 117 minutes at its premiere), but using a variety of sources that were not all in the best of condition. Shortly after that version came out on DVD, the original camera negative was rediscovered (although well-worn and missing a reel) and yet another restoration was done. That is what can now be seen with incredible clarity on Criterion’s BluRay edition. The worst occurrences of scratches, dirt, and picture damage have been digitally removed, but some does still remain so as not to obliterate the film grain and image integrity.
The picture overall looks amazing, and the audio sounds fairly good for such early optical sound recording technology. As usual, Criterion has included an excellent group of bonus feature, including an illustrated 36-page booklet, a fine, insightful audio commentary by two scholars, a fascinating 50-minute interview with Fritz Lang filmed in the 1970s by director William Friedkin, a recent hi-def video interview with the son of the producer, a 25-minute series of film clips accompanied by classroom discussions by the films editor, a short remake of M made by French director Claude Chabrol as an homage, a very interesting documentary on the history of M from its production through various revised versions and the new restoration (including clips from the French-language version produced at the same time), as well as a gallery of numerous high resolution production photos, sketches, and advertising materials.
But that’s not all. Criterion’s disc also includes the full-length and newly discovered English language version of the film, part of which had been dubbed and part of which had been reshot with English speaking actors and the talented Lorre delivering his climactic monologue in English (as he had in French for the French version). This version looks nowhere near as sharp as the original German version, and appears more like the previous film and video editions available of the German version. However, the 92-minute running time and some different editing choices keep the pacing of the English version much brisker and more energetic (albeit at the sacrifice of eliminating some very nice character bits and visual atmosphere). Like the French version, it also tags on a more upbeat ending of children playing happily after the ultimate trial scene, and omits the sobering plea of the victims’ mothers for audience members to take better precautions for their children’s safety.
Fritz Lang’s M had and continues to have a lasting influence on crime films made ever since it was released. Every student of film needs to see it at least once, and many will want to revisit it or study it in greater depth with Criterion’s first-rate BluRay edition.
M on BluRay:
Movie: A- / Video: A- / Audio: A- / Extras: A+
MAD DETECTIVE (2007)
Mad Detective (2007), directed by Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai, was a smash hit in Hong Kong, played at film festivals around the world, but had a disastrous U.S. release in just one New York theatre for two weeks in July of 2008. Its only available on video as an imported DVD through Amazon (at about $25), but can be bought on BluRay direct from Amazon.co.uk for only about $20 plus shipping.
The region-free BluRay releases of Mad Detective and Tokyo Sonata are numbers 2 and 3 respectively from Britain’s well-respected Eureka! Masters of Cinema series (number 1 was F. W. Murnau’s 1927 silent classic Sunrise and number 4 is Jean-Luc Godard’s 1964 stylish avant-garde Une Femme Mariée).
Mad Detective at first glance may seem more accessible to western audiences, with a standard and often violent murder mystery formula of police partners investigating what may be internal department corruption. However, Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai give it so many off-beat twists and layers of plot that it may easily take multiple viewings to figure out all that is going on. In fact the audience response for its abortive American theatrical release gave it only 16.6.% combined A and B rating, and a 75% F rating.
A Hong Kong detective has the unique ability to see the other sides to people’s personalities as individual people, which helps him solve tough crimes but ultimately drives him insane. To’s style involves constantly shifting points of view between the insane title character and his partner, so it takes a while before the viewer can recognize whats really happening and what is only in the mind of the disturbed Detective Bun. His former partner decides to ask this mad detective for help on his latest case, leading to a fast-moving but odd, complex, and very intriguing plot for those who can follow it.
The Eureka BluRay looks very good and has a fine soundtrack with the original Chinese dialogue and optional English subtitles. It has a few bonus features, including interviews with the director and cast members shot at various European film festivals, the original U.K. trailer, and a 16-page booklet with an excellent analytical essay by Wisconsin film professor David Bordwell.
MAD DETECTIVE on BluRay:
Movie: A / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: B
MAN-TRAP (1961) 93m ***
Absolutely no relation to the classic Clara Bow silent, this Man-Trap is a tightly-scripted, slickly-made, and well-acted heist thriller based on a 1952 hardboiled pulp novel by John D. McDonald. It was made just after the heyday of film noir but retains many aspects of the genre, chronicling the seedy and decadent suburban life in L.A., working both the Korean War and a Latin American revolution into the plot, and shot in expressive black-and-white but utilizing a wide Panavision image. It’s the second of only two films directed by Edmond O’Brien, better-known as an actor in the noir classic D.O.A. and others. Jeffrey Hunter stars as the troubled protagonist talked into helping an old war buddy (David Janssen) steal a $4 million mob payoff up in San Francisco. Of course things don’t go exactly as planned. In the classic film noir era of the 40s and early 50s, the leads might have been given more edge by the likes of Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, Alan Ladd, Dick Powell, or Sterling Hayden, among others, but Hunter and Janssen do just fine in the more modern 60s milieu. Especially impressive is Stella Stevens’ wild yet sensitive performance as Hunter’s promiscuous, alcoholic, heiress wife, among the best roles of her career. Her character and various subplots would likely have been toned down drastically had the film been made just a few years earlier.
The plot begins during the Korean War, showing a small battle in which Hunter saves Janssen’s life but is then badly wounded, with Janssen in return saving him. The action then picks up nearly a decade later with Hunter as a dissatisfied building contractor working for his rather shady father-in-law, dealing with his beautiful but severely troubled wife, and hating the middle-class superficiality and moral decadence of his neighbors (one of whom is played by Bob Crane). One day Janssen shows up after having worked inside a Central American dictatorship under an alias, explaining a sure-fire plan on how to earn a quick million, that is actually money intended for illegal arms smuggling, money being tracked by the revolutionaries who will stop at nothing for their cause. Except for a few nighttime scenes, the picture is brighter than most noir films, but nevertheless incorporates the oppressive sense of doom and several cynically ironic plot twists. Overall it’s quite an interesting social commentary coming from early 1960s Hollywood, besides being a reasonably effective crime thriller and unexpectedly biting domestic melodrama. If it's no Touch of Evil or Out of the Past, it's got enough going on to stand on its own.
Picture quality is beautiful on Olive’s Blu-ray of this Paramount Picture, with lots of fine details and textures visible, and the mono sound is decent. As usual for Olive, there are no bonus features beyond a main and chapter menu.
MAN-TRAP on Blu-ray –
Movie: B+ / Video: A / Audio: A- / Extras: F
THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH (1959)
This Hammer production, released by Paramount in the U.S., is a nice low-key amalgam of “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” “Jack the Ripper,” “Mystery of the Wax Museum,” and “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” among other horror classics. Set in late 19th-century Paris, the familiar plot elements are an earnest pastiche, however, and the occasionally-talky dialogue is unexpectedly literate at times, betraying its stage origin. Still, the strong cast led by Anton Diffring, Hazel Court, and Christopher Lee and good direction by Terence Fisher keep it from becoming stale. Genre fans should find it well worth their while and a good companion to its co-feature in the same box, The Skull (see below).
The 1.66:1 high-def transfer for Legend’s Blu-ray is very good, although it seems just a bit softer than it might be, and what looks like grain may sometimes be a slight bit of video noise. The British Technicolor photography comes through well, and is effectively used. The audio is good but has some faint surface noise. The only extras are a main menu and chapter stops.
THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH on Blu-ray
Movie: B / Video: A- / Audio: A- / Extras: F
MIDNIGHT MOVIE (2008)
Low-budget independent filmmakers often choose the horror genre, partly because the required special effects are not as elaborate, numerous, or pricey as for Hollywood epics, but largely because there always seems to be a built-in fan base for thrills and/or gruesomely bloody effects. Midnight Movie and Killer Movie, two films from 2008 that follow the standard slasher formula with varying success, came out on BluRay individually in October 2009, and have been packaged together as a bargain double-feature. Distributed by the small label Phase 4 Films, both discs boast fine HD transfers, but both unfortunately have very awkward menu interfaces. Nevertheless, horror fans will want them for sure, and others may still find them worth taking a look at.
Midnight Movie has an irresistible premise for old movie buffs and for anyone who has worked in a movie theatre. A writer-director-star of a 1969 cult horror film went insane shortly after its release, and decades later disappeared after a bloody massacre at the mental hospital where he was institutionalized. Now a rundown old movie house has planned a midnight show that’s the first screening of his infamous film in almost 40 years.
The tiny audience is joined by a persistent detective and psychiatrist who both fear and hope that the missing lunatic will make an appearance. Needless to say, after the killings begin on screen, the audience members and theatre employees soon start disappearing. The innovative twist in Midnight Movie is that they don’t just get slaughtered by a madman in the theatre. Instead, they somehow find themselves in the movie itself, tracked and killed by the movie’s villain on the screen as their friends watch helplessly from their theatre seats.
Midnight Movie has reasonably believable acting, some effective thrills, and won Best Feature and Best Cinematography at the 2008 Chicago Horror Film Festival. It starts out very promisingly as it sets up the characters and situation, but as things develop, the supernatural element moves from cool and spooky to incoherent. It never is fully explained, and ultimately things start to happen that simply don’t make enough sense, even for a fantasy like this. The film also descends for several minutes into a more extreme form of gore-porn that clashes uncomfortably with what we’ve been watching to that point.
Another strike against it that will be spotted immediately by anyone who’s seen a projection booth, is that the film-within-the film is being run from a single 20-minute reel on a portable projector instead of from multiple reels on a pair of theatre projectors or from the more likely platter system. The film used as a prop is also obviously modern film stock with digital sound plus a cyan analog soundtrack, which were not in use when it was supposedly produced. (At least it’s 35mm film!)
While Midnight Movie moves along briskly in only 80 minutes of running time, and has some nice character touches, it would have benefited from some additional trimming and especially from more rewrites of the last half hour.
There are several interesting behind-the scenes featurettes, deleted footage, outtakes, and trailers as bonus items, all standard definition. Though the box claims there’s a director’s commentary, there is none on the disc.
MIDNIGHT MOVIE on BluRay:
Movie: C+ / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: B-
THE MIKADO (1939)
Among the many audience and performer favorites for high school and college musical productions are the comic operettas by the nineteenth-century team of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Their biggest hit, “The Mikado,” remains a perennial of drama departments, music departments, and amateur theatre groups ever since its stage premiere in 1885 by the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company.
The first movie version of any Gilbert and Sullivan shows finally happened with 1939’s “The Mikado,” filmed in England by American director Victor Schertziger with the participation of the D’Oyly Carte company. Sixty years later, British director Mike Leigh wanted to do a film about the general process of artistic creativity, and decided to dramatize specifically how Gilbert and Sullivan came to write and stage “The Mikado” in his 1999 film “Topsy-Turvy.” The Criterion Collection has released both “The Mikado” (1939) and “Topsy-Turvy” (1999) to Blu-ray.
“The Mikado,” like all Gilbert and Sullivan, is a light-hearted and literate satire of British manners, society, and politics, marked by delightfully silly romantic plots, naïve and pompous characters, and incredibly catchy tunes. This time the quintessentially British story was disguised as a stylized fantasy version of feudal Japan, but with scrupulously accurate costuming. World trade with Japan had only recently opened up and the show helped create an international craze for things Japanese.
American pop singer Kenny Baker does a decent job as the emperor’s son trying to escape an arranged marriage and pretending to be a wandering minstrel, who falls in love with the fiancée of the Lord High Executioner. D’Oyly Carte veterans Martyn Green and Sydney Granville are naturally solid in the key roles of Koko and Pooh-Bah, and the rest of the cast is quite good as well. The show is slightly shortened for the film version (reducing much of Katisha’s singing and bantering), but plays just fine with a nice pantomimed prologue setting up the plot to the strains of the orchestra (which often has a livelier tempo than some stage productions).
The Blu-ray’s high-definition, film-like picture transfer is superb, showing off the delicate British-style pastel approach to Technicolor that fits this story so beautifully. A few very brief color fluctuations are excusable as inherent in the original. The audio is quite crisp and clear but has a more pronounced "boxiness" than many 1939-era films and a low but constant layer of background audio noise inherent in old optical elements, not quite as cleaned-up as some of the other 1930s films on Blu-ray. It's preferable to hear them the way they are, however, rather than have too much tampering that might damage the sound. It's still a decent audio transfer.
As usual, Criterion includes several worthwhile bonus features. Although there’s no audio commentary, there are high-definition presentations of a deleted scene (with the topical “little list” song), new interviews with “Mikado” experts (including Mike Leigh), and a 1926 silent but color-tinted promotional film made for the D’Oyly Carte’s stage production, plus fascinating all-too-brief audio excerpts from 1939 radio broadcasts of two different all-black Broadway productions, “The Hot Mikado” and “The Swing Mikado,” and also an illustrated booklet.
THE MIKADO on Blu-ray
Movie: A- / Video: A+ / Sound: B+ / Extras: B+
THE MISFITS (1961)
Perhaps most famous as the final film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, John Huston’s “The Misfits” can stand on its own as a poignant character drama about the conflict between ideals and reality, about memories of the past and hopes for the future while struggling to survive in changing times. Arthur Miller’s script is a thoughtful exploration of a variety of always-timely personal issues. His dialogue takes on an even more touching tone with the knowledge that both Gable and Monroe would soon be dead and that Clift would die only five years later at age 45.
Gable’s fatal heart-attack at only 59, before “The Misfits” was even released, was likely due to the strain of performing his own stuntwork in this film. Ironically, except for the rodeo and the climactic horse-capturing sequence, the film is largely dialogue-driven with little physical action. Gable gives one of the best performances of his career as the stubbornly free-spirited modern cowboy whose ideas and rough edges soften after meeting a beautiful but sad young divorcee. He brings a believable complexity and growth to the sometimes paradoxical character.
As the philosophical and emotionally sensitive ex-stripper, Monroe demonstrates that she could be a powerful dramatic actress, and not just a ditzy sex goddess in light romantic comedies. Monroe died at 36 halfway through filming “Something’s Gotta Give” in 1962, yet another sex comedy but one with a more mature edge to her character.
Eli Wallach and Montgomery Clift also are memorable as Gable’s old sidekick and a reckless rodeo competitor, each with his own troubled past, and character actress Thelma Ritter lends her typically lovable cynic to the mix.
The Blu-ray has a fine high-definition 1.66:1 transfer of Russell Metty’s stark black and white cinematography and a good mono soundtrack. The bare-bones disc has no bonus features except the original trailer (in high-def), chapter stops, alternate dubs in six other languages, and optional subtitles in eight languages including English. Like other recent MGM discs, there is no main menu, and all features must be accessed through a popup menu while the movie is running.
THE MISFITS on Blu-ray
Movie: A / Video: A / Audio: A- / Extras: F+
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932) 63m *** ½
This classic pre-code adventure filmed on the sets of KING KONG with some of the same cast and music composer (Max Steiner) remains the definitive version of the story about a sadistic madman with refined tastes, who hunts humans for pleasure on his remote jungle island. Joel McCrea and Fay Wray star with Robert Armstrong opposite villain Leslie Banks and henchman Noble Johnson. Banks revels in the high melodrama and milks his scenes for all he can get out of them. The story appears to start out slowly on board a ship, suddenly picking up at the time of the shipwreck, and then slowing down again at the island castle until the evil Count Zaroff (Banks) reveals his “game” and its stakes. From then on it’s action-packed all the way, with Steiner providing one of the best scores of his career to intensify the action.
Most people have probably seen this, very likely on one of the many cheap Public Domain copies around, or Criterion’s pretty-good DVD, but Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray is now the definitive edition to watch. Picture quality is overall quite good on this HD transfer from a 35mm finegrain, and with a projector it’s nice to notice that the entire frame area has been recorded but with no window-boxing (so on a big screen you might actually want to zoom out the picture or pull in the masking to cover a half-inch or so all around). Clarity and contrast are excellent with very little visible wear. The shark attack is printed as a positive as originally intended. The image often seems just a hair soft, but is still better than Criterion’s DVD (and without the digital compression artifacts), and it’s also not as grainy as the Warner Blu-ray of KING KONG (which was apparently a generation or two further removed from the camera negative). Some faint jitter in the film gate can be noticed in the closing credits. The PCM lossless audio quality is decent considering the age of the film, comparable to that on KONG and drastically better than the soundtrack on Kino’s otherwise nice-looking Blu-ray of BIRD OF PARADISE from the same studio the same year. Bonus materials include a worthwhile commentary that complements Criterion’s commentary while repeating some of the same information, an audio interview with producer Merian C. Cooper accompanied by still photos on the disc, and a brief statement by Cooper in the enclosed pamphlet, which also contains production credits.
THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME on Blu-ray --
Movie: A / Video: A- / Audio: A- / Extras: B-
MY WIFE’S LODGER (1952)
The second feature on the British Film Institute’s volume 2 of Adelphi films (with “Is Your Honeymoon Really Nessessary”), Maurice Elvey’s “My Wife's Lodger” (1952) is a very British film that’s a wry comic variation on some of the working-class themes treated much more seriously in any number of dramatic films. Its approach to family strife is also strongly reminiscent of material handled by W. C. Fields. It follows the adventures of a hapless middle-aged WWII veteran who returns home to find his children now independent-minded teens and his always-critical wife apparently enthralled by the smarmy lodger (named Roger) who now shares their house.
Dors lights up the screen in the supporting role of the daughter, but the film really belongs to writer-star Dominic Roche, who based most of his career on his "Willie Higgenbottom" persona. It’s often a surprisingly dark situation comedy, but various plot developments gradually build to an appropriate climax and a rather unexpected resolution. Dors even gets to sing near the end.
Picture quality is very good and sound quality is fine for its era. Like the other films in the BFI’s Adelphi Collection, the only bonus (besides a main menu and chapter stops) is a nice illustrated booklet with photos and background on both films included on the disc.
MY WIFE'S LODGER on Blu-ray:
Movie: B / Video: A / Audio: A- / Extras: D+
THE NAKED KISS (1964)
Samuel Fuller’s “The Naked Kiss” gets off to a rousing start with a subjective hand-held camera switching viewpoints back and forth as a prostitute is beating up her crooked pimp. Constance Towers stars as a high-class prostitute who moves to a small town and decides to start a new life for herself, getting a job taking care of crippled children at a local medical center instead moving into the brothel across the river. The cynical local cop (Anthony Eisley) questions her motives, especially when she falls for the rich playboy who is the town’s financial benefactor (Michael Dante), but she persists and even helps disillusioned young nurse friends avoid taking up her former career. Of course, unexpected complications suddenly change the direction of the plot completely for its final act when she’s arrested for murder.
Throughout “The Naked Kiss” there is a stronger literary sense, with a variety of allusions to classical literature and music, as well as occasional in-jokes referencing Fuller’s own previous work (including “Shock Corridor”). The story is in some ways more conventional than “Shock Corridor” but is perhaps even more powerful in exploring its characters’ confrontation with narrow-minded prejudice and preconceived conclusions from “respectable” citizens. Towers’ fine performance, a complex interpretation by Eisley, and brief but solid supporting roles by Hollywood veterans Patsy Kelly, Betty Bronson, and Virginia Grey do much to give the film a depth beyond a simple noir melodrama or the more obvious thrills and social commentary of “Shock Corridor.” The layers of plot and character are far richer than the drive-in or grindhouse fare that its trailer implies. And despite the sometimes brutal rawness of the story material, Fuller manages to keep the language within the genteel standards of the early 1960s.
Both films have excellent hi-definition transfers with strong mono audio. Unfortunately neither has an audio commentary, but each includes a roughly 30-page illustrated booklet with a critical essay and excerpts from Fuller’s autobiography. Each disc also has an interesting (though standard-def) half-hour interview with Towers about the particular film, plus a hi-def trailer for the film. “Shock Corridor” includes a good hour-long documentary about Fuller, whereas “The Naked Kiss” has over an hour’s worth of extracts from three interviews with Fuller made for European television.
THE NAKED KISS on Blu-ray
Movie: A / Video: A+ / Audio: A / Extras: B
OUR HOSPITALITY (1923)
“Our Hospitality” shows Keaton’s early skill at constructing a solid story around which to develop comic gags and episodes, instead of the other way around as many other movie comics then worked. It could easily be a serious melodrama, with a young man traveling west by train in 1830 to claim inherited property only to find himself in the middle of a generations-old family feud with the father and brothers of his new girlfriend. Keaton plays some sections of the film straight, undermines the seriousness at other times with his typically dry humor, and occasionally throws in moments of broader slapstick that usually involve elaborate, often dangerous physical stunts.
Much of the humor deals with the contrast between its early American time period and modern-day “roaring 20s” attitudes. A fascinating element of “Our Hospitality” is how many comic episodes involving the film’s quaintly primitive train are dry runs for “The General,” which he’d film three years later. Just as fascinating is one of the disc’s bonus features: a recently discovered early cut of the film entitled simply “Hospitality.” While there are no alternate scenes, this version runs 25 minutes shorter and concentrates on the plot structure rather than the comedy, re-arranging the film’s prologue so that it appears as a flashback about nine minutes into the film.
Kino’s “Our Hospitality” has a very fine HD transfer to Blu-ray, if not quite as spectacular as “The General” or “Sherlock Jr.” transfers. The slightly lower visual quality is partly because the print displays more wear on the original negative in the form of dirt and light white scratches, but also because it is just a tiny bit less sharp than those other two films even though the film grain is still apparent. The audio includes a choice between two different music accompaniments, a wonderful 5.1 DTS-HD full orchestra score composed by Carl Davis, fitting the action quite closely, and a nice bouncy small-orchestra score compiled about 15 years ago by Donald Hunsberger using period music that might have been played when the film was first shown, recorded in 2.0 stereo.
There is a decent though not extensive selection of bonus features. Most notable is the alternate cut, which unfortunately survived only in a poor quality 16mm copy made from an already-decomposing nitrate print. A highly enjoyable bonus short is “The Iron Mule,” a 19-minute short made in 1925 using the same train Keaton had built for “Our Hospitality.” Keaton even does some uncredited bit parts in the Al St. John comedy directed by his friend Roscoe Arbuckle. There’s also an informative new 26-minute documentary on Keaton’s shift from shorts to features and the making of “Our Hospitality,” as well as a selection of 64 rare behind-the-scenes photos in two well-organized galleries that allow direct access instead of merely clicking through each picture.
OUR HOSPITALITY on Blu-ray
Movie: A / Video: A- / Audio: A+ / Extras: B
OUTLAND (1981) 109m ***
When director Peter Hyams wanted to make a Western, the genre was no longer fashionable, and Hollywood studios were reluctant to finance a Western when modern crime stories and science fiction seemed more profitable. As a result, Hyams wrote his next script to appear on the surface as a sci-fi thriller, and filmed it to look like a film noir murder-mystery about high-level crime coverups, but in actuality it was a parable about contemporary corporate greed with the last half becoming a fairly close remake of High Noon. The film’s original title of Io (the moon of Jupiter where it’s set, pronounced “Eye-Oh”) being rejected because executives kept reading it as “Ten.”
Sean Connery plays a marshal assigned to head security at a remote mining colony on a moon of Jupiter. When he arrives he learns there has been a series of mysterious deaths that no one wants him to investigate. Once he’s able to trace the deaths to drug use with the help of the local doctor (Frances Sternhagen), and then discovers high-level involvement, he finds himself on a hit list with hired assassins on their way to make sure his meddling is permanently stopped. Just as in High Noon, he is unable to find allies to face these killers. Of course he must confront them on his own and a suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse plays out in the exotic sci-fi environment (nicely shot in widescreen), again predictable in many ways but also incorporating several surprises.
Picture quality on Warner Brothers’ Blu-ray is better than the old DVD, but still a disappointment. The film is intentionally dark to begin with, pointing up the grimy, sordid life led by the rough miners, but in this copy many of the shadows have a muddy contrast that loses detail. Brighter scenes generally fare better, especially near the beginning and end of the film, but the film also suffers from a slight soft-focus problem throughout most of the middle hour or so, as if the anamorphic CinemaScope lens wasn’t completely focused when it was copied. Audio, on the other hand, is excellent, with good stereo and wide range of frequency and dynamics. Bonus features are limited to a trailer (in SD) and a director commentary.
OUTLAND on Blu-ray –
Movie: A- / Video: B / Audio: A / Extras: C+
THE PINK PANTHER (1964)
“The Pink Panther” (1964) is certainly one of the high points of Blake Edwards' directorial career. It’s a brilliant demonstration of how to stage action for the wide CinemaScope (actually Technirama in this case) aspect ratio, a leisurely but often hilarious heist comedy, and a valuable artifact of 1960s culture.
Peter Sellers certainly made Clouseau an iconic character in a way that Peter Ustinov, originally intended for the role, probably wouldn't have, although in this first of the series it's easy to imagine Ustinov doing most of the same lines and sight gags. David Niven is his usual suave self, and his Raffles-like jewel thief is actually the main character of this film. While a fun film, I still prefer the first sequel, “A Shot In The Dark,” and hope that one makes it to BluRay soon and in as high a quality as this edition.
Picture quality is absolutely stunning on this (the horizontal Technirama negative giving a double-size image area), with the original film grain comparable to 70mm of its era and modern fine-grain 35mm, all of it nicely preserved in this beautiful transfer. The soundtrack is available in its original mono or remixed for 5.1 DTS Master Audio with nice stereo reproduction of the excellent Henry Mancini score and a few directional sound effects.
There's a very interesting commentary track by Blake Edwards, giving behind the scenes background and such unexpected information as the fact that Claudia Cardinale's voice was entirely dubbed by someone else (with a similar voice quality) since she did not yet speak English well enough. There are also some fairly interesting featurettes.
THE PINK PANTHER on BluRay:
Movie: B+ / Video: A+ / Audio: A / Extras: A-
PRINCE VALIANT (1954)
European distributors continue to release interesting foreign and American classics to BluRay that are unavailable in the U.S., some unfortunately region-locked for European players, but quite a few that are either combined region A and B or region-free that will play anywhere.
I received the new Eureka region-free BluRay of Prince Valiant (1954) just in time so I could watch it on my birthday. The BluRay format currently has so few films made before 1970, and especially before 1960, that I couldn’t resist ordering it the week it came out. Interestingly, except for a mediocre release of the original Japanese cut of Godzilla, by May 2010 the only films from 1954 on BluRay had to be ordered from Britain, even though they're American productions. And the only way to insure that classic, foreign, and independent films continue to receive BluRay releases is to buy those that are released. The first US BluRay of an American film from 1954 was the June 2010 release of Warner Brothers restoration of the Judy Garland version of A Star Is Born, but several more have come out since then, including White Christmas, Romeo and Juliet, Vera Cruz, and The Egyptian..
Prince Valiant is a medieval costume movie that’s definitely juvenile adventure formula fluff, but is much better than I expected, and a bit better both dramatically and in production values than The Black Shield of Falworth (1954), which came out on BluRay in England late in 2009.
The cast and credits of Prince Valiant are first-rate, with a script by Dudley Nichols, Henry Hathaway directing, fine CinemaScope cinematography by Lucien Ballard, and a rousing score by Franz Waxman. James Mason has fun as the shady Sir Brack, Robert Wagner is earnest in his first starring role as "Val" the title character, Janet Leigh and Debra Paget don't have a lot to do but are nice to look at, Sterling Hayden is rather campy as Sir Gawain, Victor McLaglen is a lot of fun as the rambunctious Viking Boltar, and the other leads are well-rounded out by Hollywood veterans Donald Crisp as King Aguar and Brian Aherne as King Arthur.
Fox obviously put a lot of effort and talent into what's really a glorified kiddie show for Saturday matinees, but what's also an obvious attempt to sell the studios new miracle of CinemaScope (you see it without special glasses) and "the wonder of stereophonic sound." In fact the trailer stresses those elements repeatedly and to amusing excess.
The plot is based on the newspaper comic strip, about an exiled Christian Viking king and his family given protection by the Christian King Arthur. Naturally the pagan Vikings now in power try to hunt them down, while one of Arthur’s knights is secretly plotting to overthrow his throne, the Black Knight terrorizes the land, and the Viking prince (Valiant) begs to train to become a knight of the round table. (We can only hope that Monty Python and the Holy Grail gets to BluRay soon!) There are also the usual romantic subplots fraught with rivalries and misunderstandings.
The BluRay of Prince Valiant is a lovely transfer overall, with just a little side-to-side weave showing up, especially in the beginning. A number of on-line reviews have warned about disappointingly erratic picture quality. However, it's quite obvious from what they say that they're simply not familiar with the technological artifacts inherent in optical printing or aging color film, as the only noticeable color shifts are during dissolves and a few optical effects.
This is a byproduct of splicing in opticals from a dupe negative between the scenes printed directly from the original negative. In other words, it might have looked more consistent in 1954 but that's the way it would look on any new theatrical print, as the film stock used for effects usually fades faster than the original negative. The print is incredibly sharp throughout most of it (again softer in the dissolves and a bit soft in the opening credits), and it looks beautiful projected to eight feet wide in its original 2.55 to 1 aspect ratio.
This BluRay does include the stereophonic sound, but only in a 2.0 version rather than the 3.0 or 4.0 that I would have expected. It's also a bit weak on the low frequency response, sounding a bit tinny when running with normal default settings, but by turning up my amplifier's bass control to +10 (I normally keep it set at 0 or +2), it sounded much more natural. Even with only right and left channels and no center channel, the stereo was quite nice throughout, with good fullness to the music. Typical of early stereo sound films but less common today, quite a few scenes have very directional dialogue (one person on each edge of the screen and the sound coming from the appropriate speaker), and a few have sound effects panning across the screen to follow the action.
Sadly there are no bonus features other than the original theatrical trailer, and that is only standard-definition. Still, Prince Valiant is a fun movie that looks great and is worth getting for any fans of medieval adventures or 1950s early widescreen films, especially when it's only about $16 plus shipping to order it from the U.K. Not only that, but my order from amazon.co.uk arrived just five days after placing it with the normal shipping option -- roughly $12, or an extra $2 per movie since I ordered six at a time.
PRINCE VALIANT on BluRay:
Movie: B+ Video: A- Audio: B+ Extras: D
RAN (1985) 162m *** ½
Akira Kurosawa's reworking of Shakespeare's "King Lear" into a tragic epic of feudal Japan starts a bit slowly in its setup but soon becomes an incredibly powerful study of human nature, sibling rivalry, family loyalty, the fragility of the mind, and the inevitability of war as basic to the human condition. Actors' performances, staging of actors and large groups of extras, uses of color, music and sound, all are outstanding. There are long segments with no dialogue, and at least one long lyrical battle sequence with music only and no sound effects until a key moment. Ran (which is Japanese for "chaos") is the elderly Kurosawa's late-career masterwork, as good as or better than Kagemusha from five years earlier.
Sadly, the supposedly "HD" transfer from Studio Canal on the Lionsgate Blu-ray is a bitter disappointment, looking mostly like an upscaled DVD, and very often worse than a good DVD as far as image sharpness and overuse of edge-enhancement. The movie is so engrossing that the very soft to softish picture quality seems to get better as it goes along (or maybe it actually does get slightly better in some scenes), but the crispness of fine details and textures that is the selling-point of Blu-ray in the first place is completely missing. It's certainly watchable, possibly even impressive (thanks to its vivid colors) on a small TV set, or maybe from the back row of a home theatre, but then so is a standard DVD. The lossless DTS-HD 5.1 stereo soundtrack, on the other hand, is very good. While there's no audio commentary, there is a decent selection of bonus features including four documentaries running about 40-70 minutes each and a trailer, although all in standard-definition and in French with English subtitles, plus a Criterion-style booklet with a nice essay about the film and several fuzzy color production stills.
If you can find this used or on sale for under $10 it might be worth it, simply because the movie itself is so outstanding, but Studio Canal's mediocre picture quality makes the Lionsgate Blu-ray something to avoid at its regular price of over $20. (And Lionsgate's Blu-ray of the Studio Canal transfer of Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt is even worse, with horrible color and some shots that look like non-upscaled VHS bootlegs! The now out-of-print Criterion DVD looks drastically better than Lionsgate's Blu-ray in that case and in the case of Ran Criterion's old DVD probably looks at least as good.)
RAN on Blu-ray --
Movie: A / Video: C+ / Audio: A / Extras: B+
Polish-born director Roman Polanski is best-remembered today for Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown and for a controversial personal life that led to his fleeing the United States, but his fifty-year filmmaking career includes a variety of interesting and off-beat works. After an impressive feature-film debut in his native Poland with Knife in the Water, his first English-language feature was the low-budget but groundbreaking British production, Repulsion, which came out on BluRay in 2009 from Criterion.
Repulsion (1965) is a dark psychological thriller that is sometimes labeled as a horror film and often compared with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. French actress Catherine Deneuve is excellent in one of her first screen roles, the beautiful but disturbed young manicurist who gradually loses her sanity. Polanski takes his time building up her character, skillfully getting the audience to see the world more and more through her eyes as the film goes on, yet always keeping a sense of cool detachment that parallels her own relationship to the real world.
The BluRay disc has a beautifully sharp transfer, preserving the films original 1.66 to 1 aspect ratio as well as its effective use of film grain and blend of scenes with both low and high contrasts. There is an audio commentary with both Polanski and Deneuve (recorded 15 years ago individually, not together) recalling the films production and giving insights into the story and character. Besides original theatrical trailers, the disc also has a very good and relatively recent (2003) British documentary on the making of the film, as well as a fascinating 1964 French TV documentary filmed on the set during its production. In the box is a 16-page pamphlet with an essay by a film scholar and a listing of disc credits.
REPULSION on BluRay:
Movie: B+ / Video: A / Audio: A- / Extras: A-
Robocop (1987) came to BluRay in 2007. Another pop cultural classic of its time, Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi crime thriller is a darkly satiric vision of the future that holds up amazingly well on several levels. Its ambivalent depiction of the wonders of modern technology and computers, of a government-dependent populace addicted to sexually exploitive TV shows and infotainment newscasts, of corporate greed disguised as public service, of rampant crime that requires vigilante justice, remains in step with the likes of Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and V for Vendetta. Its implicit fear of technology malfunctions and conflicting software directives is right out of 2001: a space odyssey.
Made before the days of CGI, Robocop’s special effects are remarkably effective, its stop-motion robot miniatures more creepily believable than todays flashy computer-generated variety. And while the film’s hard-R graphic violence almost received an X rating in 1987, in today’s context it’s more of a soft R bordering on PG-13.
The BluRay’s picture quality is generally good, although many of its dark scenes appear to suffer from digital manipulation that distorts and softens the image with video noise. The film’s original 1.66:1 picture is cropped here to the more common 1.85 ratio. The audio is excellent, with the original 4-channel stereo track as well as a remixed 5.1 track. Extras are almost non-existent, however, with only a trailer (in HD, at least), and trailers to a couple of other films.
ROBOCOP on BluRay
Movie: A Video: B Audio: A Extras: D
Rome was a short-lived historical soap opera/proto-mafia melodrama that aired from 2005-2007, set during the last years of the Roman Republic and the first years of the Roman Empire, the period of Julius Caesar and young Octavius, later Augustus Caesar. The 22 hour-long episodes of the two seasons come on 10 BluRay discs, containing a modest but interesting selection of bonus materials, including audio commentaries on 13 of the episodes, nine featurettes, and interactive on-screen background data. Many of the commentaries are by co-creator and frequent screenwriter Bruno Heller, often accompanied by co-producer and historical consultant Jonathan Stamp, and several others are by cast members or directors of various episodes.
The series itself has excellent production values and acting throughout, its cast led by Ciaran Hinds as Caesar, Kevin McKidd as Lucius Vorenus, Ray Stevenson as Titus Pullo, Polly Walker as Caesar’s niece Atia, and Lindsay Duncan as his mistress Servilia, mother of Brutus (Tobias Menzies). Noted British filmmaker Michael Apted directed the first three episodes and was a consulting producer on the first season. Rome is a much bigger-budget prequel of sorts to the landmark BBC-TV miniseries I, Claudius, and even more explicit in its depiction of the Romans earthy vulgarity, sexual hang-ups or lack thereof, nudity, and casual, self-serving violence.
The political machinations, high-level corruption, and conflicts of idealism with pragmatism are inextricably woven with the sex lives of the major movers, and the world of ancient Rome is seen to be not really too far removed from modern politics, if often a bit more frequently bloody. Likewise the variety of attitudes and philosophies held by individuals toward their country, their leaders, and their own lives.
Two soldier characters (Vorenus and Pullo), loosely inspired by two actual soldiers known from Caesar’s army, serve to root the events in the everyday world of common people, instead of focusing only on the privileged ruling classes the way many historical epics tend to do. Their stories are beautifully woven into the historical context, helping to mitigate a number of dramatically effective but historically questionable changes from surviving ancient records.
And although Rome had a high budget by TV standards, it had nowhere near the resources of the recent Hollywood blockbusters set in the ancient world. While there is one well-staged (and very graphic) gladiator fight in a small arena, and a brief but reasonably effective storm at sea, fans of movies like Gladiator, King Arthur, Alexander, Troy, and 300 may be disappointed that its battles and major action scenes are done on a very small scale or more often conveniently take place between episodes.
The overall historic accuracy may have flaws but is better than most movies and TV shows of its type, the liberties with actual events and characters excusable for dramatic effect in the limited time available to tell the story. Even at 22 hours, much is drastically condensed, altered, or eliminated, and there are also a number of scenes setting up events that were originally planned to develop over three more unproduced seasons.
The show is at its best in the vivid glimpse it provides into the social structure, customs, concerns, and day to day life of ancient Rome in the first century B.C., the meticulous art direction and textures of its scenery, fabric, and flesh made all the more tangible in the crisp, high-definition image on the BluRay edition. The picture is so sharp that occasional out-of-focus shots that might pass unnoticed on a standard definition TV set are now easy to pick out.
Rome the complete series is a worthwhile addition to any video library, especially in the beautiful BluRay release. Its $130 list price is typically discounted to between $80-$90, and has been as low as $60 from Amazon.
ROME on BluRay
Movie: A- / Video: A / Audio: A+ / Extras: B+
SANDS OF OBLIVION (2007)
What’s with these BluRays showing up for only like $6.99? Is that a misprint? Aren’t BluRays normally $15-$20, if not $30 or $40? And what are some of these titles that budget labels like Anchor Bay are coming out with, anyway? Many of them, it turns out, are horror thrillers originally made for TV. Others made it into a few film festivals but never quite got their hoped-for theatrical releases and went straight to video. Genre pictures can always sell, and some of them aren’t that bad.
I’d heard of Sands of Oblivion (2007) but never saw it on the Sci-Fi channel. It came out on BluRay in December 2009 and has recently shown up on some store shelves. For only $6.99 it was hard to resist after reading the blurb on the back of the box, explaining how Cecil B. DeMille mysteriously buried the ancient Egypt sets for his silent film of The Ten Commandments after the production, and now modern archaeologists trying to dig it up have unleashed a horror that cannot be stopped.
The good news is, the part of the movie set in 1923 is a lot of fun. The bad news is, the horror they unleashed is the rest of the movie, which ranges from adequate to mediocre to not very good at all (and I actually like that kind of story). Its only 94 minutes but seems more like two hours.
The movie begins in ancient Egypt, much like the 1999 Mummy remake and the moderately diverting 2005 TV movie Curse of King Tut’s Tomb, but here the acting, production values, and plot points really show their TV budget cheesiness. Luckily that part is the shortest section of the film.
The next part jumps to 1923 when Cecil B. DeMille is just finishing his desert footage for The Ten Commandments. Dan Castellaneta, better known as the voice of Homer Simpson, makes a great DeMille, looking vaguely like him and capturing his vocal inflections perfectly. He's running a bit over budget, and oops, somebody gets mysteriously killed one night before they're done.
We can only wish this sequence had lasted more than a few minutes, because it has the greatest attention to details and feeling for its period. The film might have been far more impressive if this part was closer to half the total length instead of just setting up the intriguing situation before jumping up to the present day, where it immediately shifts to a distinctively TV movie-of-the-week glorified prime-time soap feeling.
In the present we have a Hollywood-attractive archeological team (naturally with the female PhD in charge wearing a crop-top and short-shorts) racing to dig up the set on the California beach before shifting tides (due to an oil company, of course) put that stretch of sand underwater forever.
Meanwhile an Iraq vet and his elderly grandfather are trying to locate an Egyptian-themed time capsule the old man had buried as a child on DeMille’s set. And the egotistic and adulterous soon-to-be-ex-husband of the excavation team leader is a noted Egyptologist who insists on getting involved in the dig when some of the artifacts they unearth appear to be authentic ancient Egyptian rather than Hollywood imitations.
Naturally, something happens that accidentally lets loose a murderous ancient spirit that starts killing off people until they can no longer pass it off as tragic coincidence. And then it devolves into even more routine and painfully slow formula horror thriller mode through the inevitable end. At least there’s an innovatively interesting CGI fight scene near the end, where the paintings come off the wall (as flat, paperdoll-like people) to fight the hero.
The script sets up some nice premises and periodically attempts to flesh out characters beyond the usual flat caricatures, and works in a few fun old-movie references, but the directing is so pedestrian that we're just waiting for the next thing to happen.
The acting overall (Castellaneta and a few others in the 1923 segment excepted) is not even up to most TV movies or soap operas, and looks more like something from a no-budget indie film (and I ought to know!). Morena Baccarin is passable most of the time as the too-beautiful archaeologist, but Adam Baldwin is simply awful as her husband and Victor Webster as the Iraq vet looks like he wishes he were in a better film most of the time. Even poor George Kennedy looks like he's walking through his part as the grandfather like it was a favor for somebody he wasn't too thrilled to be doing.
The Starz/Anchor Bay BluRay transfer looks and sounds pretty good, although not especially outstanding and the audio is only a compressed Dolby Digital track. The disc itself is an even lower-budget affair than the film, as there are absolutely no bonus feature at all, not even a menu! The movie simply starts playing as soon as it loads into your player, and then repeats from the beginning as soon as it's done. There are chapter stops, at least, but they're all at arbitrary spots exactly 10 minutes apart.
Horror fans will likely be underwhelmed by film's few gory parts and almost non-existent suspense. For a film buff or Egyptophile, the movie is still probably worth buying on BluRay at only $7 but not much more.
Substantially better made-for-TV fare in the supernatural Egyptian genre on ultra-bargain BluRay is the silly, way overlong, but far more entertaining and better-acted B-grade adventure-fantasy, The Curse of King Tut’s Tomb. And a bit more fun in the old movie and old movie theatre horror genre is the okay low-budget feature Midnight Movie (2008), sometimes packaged with the even more fun movie production-themed horror comedy Killer Movie (2008).
SANDS OF OBLIVION on BluRay:
Movie: C / Video: A- / Audio: A- / Extras: F
SONG OF PARIS (1952)
Song Of Paris gets second-billing to The Crowded Day on the British Film Institute’s double-feature disc of John Guillermin films for its series of Adelphi Films, but it may be the most entertaining film yet released in the collection. Financed and released by Adelphi, it was actually made by another British B-production company, the Vandyke Picture Corporation, co-starring French actress Anne Vernon and Russian-born American comic Mischa Auer, with archetypal Englishman Dennis Price leading the British contingent of the cast.
Song Of Paris is a screwball romantic comedy (plus a few songs by Vernon) that's very reminiscent of Hollywood comedies from the 1930s and 40s. Price plays the strictly-business head of a London company that manufactures stomach pills, who must reluctantly travel to Paris to learn why French sales have fallen off. There he inadvertently gets involved in a publicity stunt with a beautiful cabaret singer (Vernon) who has been trying to fend off the unwelcome romantic attentions of a persistent but penniless and highly jealous count (Auer). Not long after Price gets safely back to his London office, Vernon shows up looking for a job, leading to the obvious misinterpretations by his staff, friends, and family about what all went on during his brief visit to Paris. Price gradually learns to loosen up and defy his domineering mother (a highly amusing Hermione Baddeley) with the help of his sister (Joan Kenny) and the very willing Vernon. Of course the count soon shows up to complicate things even further.
Besides the American-style screwball comedy situations, Song of Paris revels in poking fun at both British and French stereotypes. Baddeley has a great line about how good the family business sales will remain, because a new British restaurant is opening "so they'll need plenty of stomach pills." And there are plenty of knowing winks and asides when the staid Price tries to find a secluded apartment for Vernon so the count won't be able to track her down.
Picture quality on The BFI’s HD transfer from the original negative is superb, with a few very minor scratches in the original film more than made up for by the incredibly sharp image. Sound is very good, although some low-frequency rumble will be noticeable with a subwoofer turned up too loud. The informative booklet enclosed with the disc is the only bonus feature.
SONG OF PARIS on Blu-ray:
Movie: A- / Video: A+ / Audio: A- / Extras: D+
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977)
In May of 2009 Paramount released to BluRay the movie that made a star of John Travolta and helped make the disco craze into an emblem of the late 70s/early 80s, Saturday Night Fever (1977). Despite its reputation as a dance movie, however, the film is actually a relentless and surprisingly bleak slice of life in working class New York that is as much a portrait of the era as Marty and Rebel Without a Cause were for the 1950s.
The Blu Ray disc reproduces the look and sound of the film admirably (its BeeGees-laden soundtrack now remixed for 5.1 stereo), and includes a directors commentary plus a generous selection of extras, mostly in HD.
The more catalog classics the studios mine from their vaults for BluRay releases, the more people can realize that high-definition pictures have really been around for over a century on something called film. HDTV and BluRay have approximately the picture resolution of a good 16mm film negative or a typical 35mm film release print. If original film negatives have survived in good condition, a BluRay edition of any movie made over the past 85 years or so can look just as good as most movies made today and may even look better.
SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER on BluRay
Movie: B+ Video: A Audio: A Extras: A
THE SHINING (1980)
Stanley Kubrick’s film of Stephen King’s The Shining (1980) is another iconic horror thriller from the past 30 years. It has a very leisurely pace, especially during its first half, but Kubrick’s slow, deliberate approach tends to be more moodily disconcerting than off-putting. The basic premise of the mental strain caused by being isolated in the middle of a quiet, lonely winter may have even stronger resonance with people from North Dakota and Minnesota. Jack Nicholson is at his best when he goes insane, a truly immortal moment from American cinema.
The picture quality is lovely, the audio is fine, and there are some good featurettes and an audio commentary.
THE SHINING on BluRay
Movie: B+ / Video: A / Audio: A- / Extras: A
SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963)
Samuel Fuller, who died in 1997, would have turned 99 or 100 in 2011 (depending on which source you check). Criterion has released to Blu-Ray “Shock Corridor” (1963) and “The Naked Kiss” (1964), two of his most influential films on such current filmmakers as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, and Tim Robbins) as well as European directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Wim Wenders. The latter film features substantial supporting roles for former silent actresses Betty Bronson, Patsy Kelly, and Virginia Grey. Although issued on Blu-ray separately, these two films make an ideal double-feature, and the bonus-features give an interesting crash-course in Fuller's career and approach to filmmaking.
Fuller was a crime reporter in the 1920s who turned to writing stories and screenplays in the 1930s, and eventually got into directing in the late 1940s by telling a low-budget producer he’d sell him his script if he could direct it himself at no extra fee. To achieve personal control with little studio interference, he learned to thrive on the challenge of tighter budgets and shorter deadlines, more concerned with grabbing the audience’s attention and giving them something they’d remember than with lavish sets and the biggest stars.
Never shying away from controversial social issues, writer-producer-director Fuller’s success at turning out profitable films on modest budgets quickly earned him regular work at major studios like Fox, Universal, Columbia, and Warners during the 1950s and early 60s, but by the early 60s the traditional studio system was falling apart. To make the films he wanted he suddenly found himself an independent searching for backers, but he continued making films until 1982 in the U.S., plus a couple more in France during the 1980s. He even acted in a few for other directors.
While dismissed by some as sordid, tabloid-mentality exploitation films, “Shock Corridor” and “The Naked Kiss” are considered by many critics among Fuller’s best and most personal work, possibly second only to his Oscar-nominated crime-spy thriller “Pickup On South Street” (1953). And even those who appreciate both films often diverge on whether “Shock Corridor” or “The Naked Kiss” is a superior, artistic film or merely an interesting exercise in the director’s typical subject material. Both are rough-edged stories that treat topics rarely handled by mainstream Hollywood productions, and both are expertly photographed by Stanley Cortez, who shot Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons” and Charles Laughton’s “Night of the Hunter.”
“Shock Corridor” follows the experiences of an ambitious reporter (Peter Breck) who goes to unusual extremes in hopes of getting a story that will win him a Pulitzer Prize. To solve a murder in an insane asylum, he pretends to be a sex pervert, enlisting his stripper-girlfriend (Constance Towers) to pose as his concerned sister, and has himself committed so he’ll be able to befriend the inmates who witnessed the crime. Naturally, things do not go exactly as he’d planned and the experience begins to threaten his own sanity.
During the course of the reporter’s investigation, however, Fuller uses the conversations with patients as a vivid and often moving means to explore political hypocrisy in American attitudes towards communism and collaborators, racism and integration, and nuclear war, not to mention sexual hang-ups and abuse of the institutionalized. In keeping with his occasionally experimental techniques, a few brief dream/fantasy sequences are in color in the otherwise black and white film. A good film, it sometimes shows its low budget and occasionally seems a bit overly contrived in its daring approach. Some may also find its obvious social commentary a bit heavy-handed at times, but it was likely far more shocking and unexpected in 1963 and the metaphor of America as a madhouse may still find a lot of resonance today. The film actually won awards from humanitarian and religious groups.
SHOCK CORRIDOR on Blu-ray
Movie: B+ / Video: A+ / Audio: A / Extras: B
THE SKULL (1965)
This effective low-budget adaptation of a Robert Bloch story has the feeling of a Hammer horror film and many familiar cast members (including Patrick Wymark, Nigel Green, Patrick Magee, and Michael Gough), but was an Amicus production released in the U.S. by Paramount. Freddie Francis directed Peter Cushing as a researcher obsessed with the occult who becomes possessed by the evil spirit of the Marquis de Sade after he buys a stolen skull with mystical powers. Christopher Lee is the artifact’s former owner who warns Cushing he should get rid of it, but of course he can’t and the skull forces him to do things he normally wouldn’t.
Seeing this movie on TV as a pre-teen was an incredibly frightening experience, mainly due to its supernatural concept seeming potentially plausible to an impressionable kid, much more terrifying than a human and mortal villain. All these years (and many horror films) later, it retains a certain creepiness that transcends the cut-rate special effects, though is now more interesting for its genre conventions, cast, and director. (It’s also great to finally see it in color and scope!)
Legend’s Blu-ray is quite sharp (so sharp you can now see the threads holding the floating skull), although the Techniscope widescreen photography is naturally grainer than the CinemaScope and Panavision processes. Colors are strong but not as saturated as other Technicolor. As usual, there are no bonus features besides a menu and chapter stops, but as one of a double-feature on a disc with The Man Who Could Cheat Death, it’s an easy purchase for fans of classic British horror.
THE SKULL on Blu-ray --
Movie: B+ / Video: A- / Audio: A / Extras: F
THE SOUND AND THE FURY (1959) 115m ***
This may have been intended as one of its major prestige pictures by 20th Century Fox, but the film’s disastrous reception by critics who were outraged at its radical departure from the William Faulkner novel, combined with lukewarm audience response, allowed it to fall into obscurity. More inspired by than adapted from the book, Martin Ritt’s film of The Sound and the Fury stands on its own as an effective piece of Southern Gothic family character drama, owing perhaps as much to Tennessee Williams and other southern writers as to Faulkner. The central character is a rebellious illegitimate teenage girl named Quentin (Joanne Woodward), who despite her intentional disobedience seems oddly attracted to her strict and pragmatic guardian (Yul Brynner), the family’s relatively young patriarch who is struggling to maintain the family’s respected position in the community despite various intermarriages and the now dissolute lives of the original heirs.
The wide CinemaScope screen effectively presents the colorful atmosphere of the town and the decaying estate. Woodward delivers a fine performance although she’s a bit old for the role. Brynner is mannered but effective as Jason, the overbearing head of the family who himself seems to have strangely conflicting feelings towards Quentin. Margaret Leighton is excellent as Caddy, Quentin’s disgraced prodigal mother who had abandoned her as a child to follow her fickle heart and the kindness of strangers, but years later suddenly shows up at the family mansion hoping for a place to stay. Stuart Whitman, Ethel Waters, and Jack Warden are notable in supporting roles respectively as a sleazy fast-talking carney worker hoping to run off with Quentin and some of her family fortune, as the long-suffering family maid, and as the mentally deficient but ever-observant son the townspeople may alternately ridicule or fear. Covering only a week or less in time, the film's plot may not quite be Faulkner’s epic story, but it is beautifully mounted and has its own peculiar charm.
The HD transfer on Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is excellent, extremely sharp with beautiful color that again really adds to the appreciation of the story, especially on a very large screen. The sound is good, but it’s sometimes hard to tell whether the 2.0 DTS-HD MA lossless track is stereo or slightly expanded mono, as it does not decode particularly well into 4-channel surround, sounding better out of just the left and right speakers. The disc includes an isolated track of Alex North's music score, and a nice illustrated pamphlet with an interesting essay by Julie Kirgo.
THE SOUND AND THE FURY on Blu-ray –
Movie: A- / Video: A+ / Audio A- / Extras: C-
SOUTH PACIFIC (1958)
In April 2009, the 1958 movie version of South Pacific came out on Blu Ray, a lovingly prepared double-disc set that some online critics were already proclaiming as the BluRay release of the year.
It is quite interesting to watch the movie version of the groundbreaking interracial romance set during World War II so soon after seeing the stage production, and not only for the slightly different interpretation of the roles. The film is very faithful to the stage show, having been directed by Joshua Logan, who not only co-wrote the original stage version but directed the Broadway premiere production.
The film’s cast is uniformly excellent, a blend of movie stars and stage veterans. Mitzi Gaynor makes a wonderful Nellie Forbush, and Rossano Brazzi is a fine Emile. Juanita Hall is the only Broadway cast member to recreate her role on film (Bloody Mary) and Ray Walston, who played Luther Billis on the London stage, is great in the film role.
The film opens up many scenes, expanding locations and doing cross cutting impossible to do on stage, especially the war sequences. It also expands or contracts several scenes and rearranges others to different places in the plot. The film, however, displays the restraints of 1950s censorship, as some of the plays salty language that is now acceptable even on a high school stage (mainly the word bastard) had to be reworded for sensitive 1950s film audiences, and extra care had to be taken in depicting the unmarried romantic relationships in a more ambiguous, nonsexual way.
The independently produced South Pacific won the Academy Award for Best Sound but lost its nominations for Cinematography and Music Score to MGM’s Gigi, which swept the Oscars that year with eight wins including Best Picture. Gigi, incidentally, has also just come out on a beautifully prepared BluRay disc, but is easily surpassed in picture quality (and arguably in dramatic and musical quality) by South Pacific.
A still-controversial aspect of the film South Pacific is no longer its language or its pioneering plea for racial tolerance, but the cinematographer’s experimental technique of using rotating color filters over the lens during certain scenes to intensify the mood and/or to indicate a stylized break from the crisp reality of its location shooting. Most musicals were still shot in carefully controlled studio soundstages at the time, but South Pacific not only shot outdoors but took its cast and crew to Hawaii for an authentic look. The intentional color shifts were an attempt to apply theatre techniques to film without sacrificing the realism of actual locations.
One reason South Pacific looks so good today is that it was shot in the Todd-AO process, which used wide 65mm film instead of the 35mm standard, giving double the picture area. The crystal-clear high-definition transfer actually looks sharper than BluRay copies of many films released today. The soundtrack was also recorded in multi-channel stereo sound, and the original four-track mix still sounds impressive today. The BluRay includes a modernized 5.1 mix that gives a slightly richer feeling but also exaggerates some of the original stereo effects.
The two-disc set comes with the 157-minute popular theatrical release version on one disc in high definition (complete with overture and intermission music) and the original 172-minute road show version on the other but only in standard definition. Unfortunately the original negative survives only for the cutdown version. The full-length version is reconstructed from several surviving, but color-faded prints, so those parts later deleted are immediately obvious. Each of the two versions, however has a different audio commentary, explaining many different facts about the production.
A generous selection of mostly high-definition bonus material includes an hour-and-a-half making of documentary, an original 1950s behind the scenes documentary, a Mitzi Gaynor screen test, clips from the original Broadway cast performances, a TV interview with author James Michener, and more.
Anyone who likes musicals will want to spend many hours with the BluRay 50th Anniversary Edition of South Pacific (while the road show premiered in fall of 1958, most cities played the theatrical version in 1959, making 2009 the half-century mark of the hi-def version on the BluRay).
SOUTH PACIFIC on Blu Ray
Movie: A- / Video: A+ / Audio: A / Extras: A+
STAGECOACH (1939) and BUCKING BROADWAY (1917)
An increasing number of older films and genuine classics have been released in the high-definition BluRay home video format over the past year, with more on the way over the next year. Already its possible to put together a good 20-30 or more titles on BluRay that give a representative cross-section of American and international cinema from the influential half-century spanning the 1920s through the 1960s. A large percentage of those BluRays come from the Criterion Collection, with a substantial number from Warner Home Video and a growing list from smaller companies like Kino Video and European labels like Eureka.
One of the most iconic American films of the 20th century made its BluRay debut May 25th, 2010 from Criterion. John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) is sometimes credited with changing the movie Western from routine low-budget action-adventure formulas aimed at young boys into a higher-quality, serious genre for adults. Its also the film that turned John Wayne into a major star and won an Oscar for character actor Thomas Mitchell (who the very same year played Scarlett OHara’s father in Gone With the Wind, the cynical press secretary in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and notable supporting roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Only Angels Have Wings).
Stagecoach incorporates all the usual stereotypes of Westerns, the good outlaw, the kind-hearted prostitute, the wise marshal, the comic sidekick, the Indian attack, the shootout on Main Street, and more. But Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols turn the plots wide variety of characters into human archetypes, giving each a depth far beyond the norm for a genre movie, especially a western. The characters don’t merely go through the motions of the plot, but are affected by them, changing their own outlooks and preconceived notions by the end.
The plot that seems simple on the surface a group of disparate passengers travel across hostile desert for various reasons is both literally and figuratively a journey for all involved. The period Western story becomes merely a framework for multiple layers of contemporary social criticism, ranging from moral hypocrisy to class snobbism to unjust legal systems to racial attitudes to the stifling oppressiveness of urban life over the freedom of the wilderness and the unknown.
Even the expected use of Native Americans as faceless antagonists to the white settlers is subverted by Ford with low-angle close-ups of tribal elders and warriors that give them a powerful dignity, and an implicit understanding that it is the whites’ intrusion into Indian territory and breaking treaties that is responsible for the uprising. Mexican-American relations likewise get a sympathy that belies apparent stereotypes.
The film can be considered a textbook of plot structure, character development, and cinematic technique, all in the service of telling a crowd-pleasing story while conveying personal attitudes to the audience. Numerous critics have analyzed Ford’s expert use of setting, camera, and editing in Stagecoach, and Orson Welles claimed to have run it over 40 times before making Citizen Kane.
Stagecoach has been available on an adequate DVD from Warner Home Video for some time, but Criterion’s new BluRay is now the definitive version. Unfortunately the original camera negative has been lost, and until now all copies have been several generations from the original, made from beat-up old TV prints or from a dupe made off John Wayne’s personal 35mm print.
Criterion was able to locate a duplicate negative from the 1940s that preserves most of the clarity that is lost in muddy shadows on other copies. There is still a noticeable amount of film wear, scratches and dirt in various sections, mainly the beginnings and ends of reels. Criterion wisely allowed it to remain, rather than applying excessive digital cleanup that would also have softened the overall picture and eliminated details. Audio quality is generally quite good, restored from multiple sources and presented in its original mono.
Criterion’s edition excels in its bonus features, making this an excellent disc for self-directed study of the film, of John Ford, and of movie Westerns. Most notable is the inclusion of a delightful and rare early feature by Ford, his 54-minute 1917 silent Western Bucking Broadway, starring long-time Ford favorite Harry Carey. This film was restored from a copy discovered in Europe with picture quality that’s only mediocre, often overly contrasty and sometimes choppy. However, a superb musical accompaniment by Donald Sosin has been added and the rollicking romantic melodrama is quite entertaining. Carey plays Cheyenne Harry, a Wyoming cowboy who falls for his boss’ daughter, and then must rescue her after a sleazy city slicker cons her into coming to New York with the promise of marriage. Plot elements, (especially the cheerful brawl near the end), photographic compositions, and editing touches already show director Ford’s trademark style well-established by 1917.
Stagecoach has a good audio commentary by an expert on Westerns. There’s an excellent video essay on Ford’s style, an illuminating uncut 1968 interview with Ford filmed for the BBC, home movies of John Ford narrated by his grandson, and several other interesting video featurettes on Ford, the locations, and the stunts, all in high definition. There’s also a copy of the original trailer (a bit beat-up and dupey-looking) and the 1949 radio dramatization with John Wayne and Claire Trevor repeating their roles, as well as a 36-page booklet with a critical essay and a reprint of the original short story that inspired the film.
The BluRay of Stagecoach is a must-buy for any film buff or fan of Westerns or director John Ford.
STAGECOACH on BluRay
Movie: A / Video: A- / Audio: A- / Extras: A+
BUCKING BROADWAY on BluRay:
Movie: A / Video: C+ / Audio: A+ / Extras: N/A
The nominations for the 2010 Oscars ceremony were announced the first week of February, and for the first time since 1943 they had ten nominees for Best Picture. The very first Oscars divided the Best Picture into two categories of three contenders each: Outstanding Picture and Unique and Artistic Picture, but that was reduced to a single category of five contenders for the next three years, and expanded to between eight and twelve nominees from 1932-1943 (often considered the golden age of Hollywood). For the 1944 releases, they cut back to five nominees, which it remained through last year.
The first and only film ever to win the Academy Award for Most Artistic or Unique Production was the Fox film, Sunrise, which also picked up Oscars for Best Actress (Janet Gaynor) and Best Cinematography (Charles Rosher and Karl Struss). Art director Rochus Gliese was also under consideration, but lost to William Cameron Menzies’ designs for The Dove and Tempest. Since its release in 1927, Sunrise has made numerous critical lists of top 10 and top 100 films of all time.
Even in his own time, German director F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu, Faust) was recognized as one of the worlds major filmmakers, and had been brought to Hollywood to help raise the standards of American films. His first American project was Sunrise. One would expect such a prestigious film to be a natural for home video release, but it has been difficult and/or expensive to get hold of.
Sunrise came out in a nice DVD edition in 2003 with lots of great bonus features; however, it was first available only by sending in proof-of-purchase from three other titles in 20th Century Fox’s classics series, then only in a four-disc set. Five years later Sunrise was included in Fox’s magnificent 12-disc box set of films directed by F. W. Murnau and Frank Borzage, and this time included an alternate European cut discovered in Prague, as well. That version is 15 minutes shorter and often uses different takes, but the original 1927 print of it survived with higher picture quality than the American release, whose original negative was destroyed in a 1937 fire. Thus all copies had to be made from other copies.
Now both versions of Sunrise are available on BluRay in a wonderful high-definition transfer, but only through Britain’s Eureka! label in their Masters of Cinema series. Luckily it’s an all-region disc that can play on BluRay players worldwide, and its bonus materials are all compatible with America’s NTSC video format. The BluRay of Sunrise can easily be ordered through Amazon.co.uk. with the cost converted automatically to American dollars.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is an intimate, emotional story of love lost and regained, complicated by disenchantment with a once-idyllic rural life, temptation to murder, regret, renewal, with and an unexpected intervention of nature to complicate things. A simple farmer falls prey to the charms of a city woman who convinces him he should kill his wife, sell the farm, and move to the city with her for a more exciting life.
Far more than a trite love triangle, the film constantly contrasts good and evil, light and dark, innocence and guilt, country and city, peasant and bourgeoisie, traditional and modern. Using elements of German Expressionism, Murnau deliberately distorts settings and actors movements to a certain extent, in order to emphasize his themes visually and to give them a timeless setting rather than tying them to a specific period and location. The stylization may seem quaint at first to viewers unfamiliar with silent film conventions, but despite occasional excesses, the film rewards the time it may take to see it for what it is.
Sunrise was made near the end of cinema’s silent era, and requires very few titles to explain action or dialogue. In 1927, Fox studios recorded a soundtrack of music and sound effects to accompany the film in theatres that had already installed sound equipment. That track was restored and is included with both versions here (condensed to match the shorter Czech release), with an alternate new orchestra score in digital stereo on the American version.
Because the surviving American version of Sunrise looks slightly soft, the BluRay’s hi-def upgrade shows only a marginal improvement over the DVD release, but does reveal slightly more of the lower image area than the DVD. However, the BluRay’s picture quality on the Czech version is incredibly crisper and clearer, as sharp as a film copy would be. Although a quarter-hour shorter, the Czech version doesn’t really delete any scenes. Some scenes are slightly shorter, and others are missing shots or frames, or have different takes or angles, occasionally in a different order. Because it was a silent print, it also has the full 1.33:1 picture width, whereas the American version has the nearly square 1.2:1 ratio that resulted when the soundtrack was added.
Bonus materials are essentially the same as were on the DVD, including a very informative and appreciative analytical commentary by Hollywood cinematographer John Bailey. The trailer, showing some alternate takes of some shots, and a selection of outtakes (also with commentary) are fascinating, as is the 40-minute featurette reconstructing Murnau's lost film Four Devils from stills, titles, and production art. A new 20-page booklet has photos and discusses the films restoration and the different versions.
Because few people have BluRay drives in their computers, Eureka has put downloadable files of the original Four Devils and Sunrise scripts on their website (www.mastersofcinema.org), as well as a pdf scanned from the actual Sunrise scenario with notations by Murnau in German, plus a pdf of a 39-page critical essay on the film by Dudley Andrew. These are invaluable for in-depth study of the film, especially with the two alternate cuts available for comparison. The Sunrise BluRay is a must for any serious video collection.
SUNRISE on BluRay:
Movie: A / Video: A- / Audio: B (original score) A+ (new score) / Extras: A
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956 and 1923)
Cecil B. DeMille's remake of his silent epic is the epitome of lavish Hollywood spectacle. Amazingly, it manages to inject enough character and sincerity into its poetic dialogue and nearly four-hour high melodrama to be simultaneously morally inspiring and campy fun, besides showing off eye-popping Technicolor and VistaVision visuals, effective early stereo surround sound, wonderful art direction, and still impressive special effects.
The first two-and-a-quarter hours follow Moses from his birth, through his rise as a prince of Egypt and rivalry with Ramses, discovery of his Hebrew origins, and exile into the desert. After the intermission (at the end of disc one) there's just an hour-and-a-half left to go, as he returns to Egypt to lead his people to the promised land. There has never been a Moses to equal Charlton Heston nor a Ramses like Yul Brynner.
The 2010 restoration is nothing short of spectacular on Paramount’s 2011 Blu-ray, quite possibly the best transfer of any film yet issued on the medium, old or new, a superb representation of the original film. Except for some bluescreen and composite shots that look much more obvious with the higher quality than they ever did on standard definition video, the film looks as though it was shot yesterday. Details and textures are visible that could never be seen on DVD, VHS or even ABC-TV’s hi-def broadcast Easter weekend, and colors look more vivid than the theatrical reissue some 20 years ago. The lossless 5.1 DTS sound is likewise impressive, clearly revealing details of dialogue by extras during crowd murmurs previously hard to make out. In short, “The Ten Commandments” looks and sounds better than it ever did since its premiere in 1956.
The deluxe gift set has a cleverly designed, if somewhat awkward box that literally parts the Red Sea to open, revealing a plastic replica of the ten commandments tablets, which themselves contain the six discs in the set (three Blu-rays and three DVDs). Then there's a nice little hardcover commemorative book about the film, a replica of the original souvenir program booklet, and several reproductions of various memorabilia connected with the film (telegrams, a commissary menu with sketches on it, costume designs, etc.).
The most welcome of the Blu-ray extras is the complete 1923 version in full HD (on Blu-ray disc 3, which is missing from the cheaper 2-disc Blu-ray edition), and there are the same excellent audio commentaries that were on the 2006 DVD release. There's a new and very good 73-minute documentary about the film's history, an informative 1953 10-minute promotional featurette of DeMille discussing the film, newsreel footage of the film's premiere, and trailers. Perhaps the most unexpected bonus is that all of the extras are also in fine 1080p transfers, not merely upscaled or ported-over standard-definition transfers from earlier DVD editions.
Silent film fans may consider the 1923 film as the main feature in the deluxe edition, with the 1956 remake as the bonus. DeMille's original version is two films in one, the first 50 minutes following Moses through the Exodus and parting of the Red Sea, to getting the 10 commandments. The last 86 minutes are a heavily allegorical modern 1920s morality play as only DeMille could tell it, with every melodramatic stop pulled out (greatly intensified by the thundering pipe organ score, also with every stop pulled out).
Great drama or powerful social statement it's not, but valuable social document of 1920s pop culture and highly entertaining hokum it most certainly is! Bonus materials for the silent version include a fine commentary, 20 minutes of color-tinted footage showing the Exodus sequence, part of that same sequence with two-color Technicolor footage, and a stills gallery, all in full-HD.
THE TEN COMMANDMENTS on Blu-ray
Movies: A / Video: A+ / Audio: A+ / Extras: A+
THE TERMINATOR (1980)
“The Terminator” (1984) was among the very first group of films released on BluRay back in 2006. James Cameron’s unexpected hit became a cultural icon of the decade, made a star of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and spawned much higher budget hi-tech sequels that continue to this day. The literate script makes the most of its limited means by concentrating on its intriguing post-apocalyptic time-travel premise, its central characters, and memorable imagery.
Picture quality is far better than the DVD version, but not quite up to what newly mastered BluRay discs usually deliver. The originally mono soundtrack was effectively remixed for stereo surround. There are few bonus features on the disc, unfortunately, just a couple of featurettes and some deleted scenes, all in standard definition.
THE TERMINATOR on BluRay:
Movie: A- Video: B+ Audio: A Extras: C-
THOSE DARING YOUNG MEN IN THEIR JAUNTY JALOPIES (1969)
In 1965, British director Ken Annakin made the popular all-star epic comedy about 1910-era airplane racing, “Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines.” Four years later he tried to repeat that hit with this similar epic slapstick comedy about 1920s-era car racing, including a couple of the same cast members. It didn’t get the same success, but it’s still quite entertaining and sporadically hilarious. Tony Curtis plays an American who has won a half-share in the British car company that slime-ball Terry-Thomas has just inherited and wants all to himself. They agree to enter the Monte Carlo endurance race, and that the one who finishes first will own the whole company. Curtis meets lovely Susan Hampshire enroute, who first succeeds in slowing him down but becomes his invaluable assistant. The film cuts back and forth among the adventures of several competing teams from across Europe including a French woman doctor, an Italian Lothario, a German jewel smuggler, and the funniest of them all, two British ex-officers played by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.
The Panavision picture is letterboxed to 2.35 on the Blu-ray, despite the box saying it is 1.78. Although there is some minor dirt and occasional light wear, the high-definition transfer is so beautifully sharp that it’s barely noticeable. The audio sounds fine, but the two-channel stereo track does not decode well into full 5.1. As with Legend’s other bargain double-feature Paramount catalog titles, there is not a single special feature other than a main menu and chapter stops.
THOSE DARING YOUNG MEN IN THEIR JAUNTY JALOPIES on Blu-ray
Movie: B+ / Video: A / Audio: A- / Extras: F
“Topsy-Turvy” is Mike Leigh's biopic of Gilbert & Sullivan, but focusing only on the period when they came to compose, rehearse, and stage "The Mikado" (though scenes from various earlier Gilbert & Sullivan shows are also depicted). Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner as Gilbert and Sullivan, respectively, lead the excellent cast that includes Timothy Spall as major D’Oyly Carte actor Richard Temple.
The film’s historical recreation of the late Victorian era is painstakingly detailed, as is the ever-timeless representation of how a stage show is created, with all the backstage intrigues, personality issues, etc. Anyone who has ever done any theatre, whether acting or on the stage crew, needs to see it (as well as the bonus features that explain the amazing and unconventional way Leigh came up with his script).
“Topsy-Turvy” is a perfect companion piece to watch just after or before the 1939 “Mikado,” and both discs' bonus features also tie in beautifully with each other (new 2010 HD interviews of Leigh obviously taped at the same time). The one on this disc runs 38 minutes and includes music director Gary Yershon giving valuable insight into the characters, the production, and the period it covers. There’s also a featurette with cast members from the time the film was made, a half-hour short by Leigh written by Broadbent, three deleted scenes, a 1999 audio commentary by Leigh, and of course a nice illustrated booklet.
Interestingly, the picture quality, while very sharp, seems to look a touch less film-like than the gorgeous “Mikado” transfer (a film made sixty years earlier), although “Topsy-Turvy’s” stereo audio is excellent.
TOPSY-TURVY” (1999) on Blu-ray
Movie: A / Video: A / Audio: A+ / Extras: A
TOKYO SONATA (2008)
“Tokyo Sonata” (2008), directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) won the Jury Prize “Un Certain Regard” at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival. The film premiered in Japan that September, and played in the U.S. throughout most of 2009 in a very limited release that never reached more than 10 theatres at a time. It is actually scheduled for a US DVD release in 2010 at $25 from the Koch Vision label, often noted for mediocre transfers, but is already available as a DVD import from YesAsia in the $15-$20 range, and can be found on BluRay for about $21 plus shipping through Amazon.co.uk.
“Tokyo Sonata” is a low-key and very moving domestic drama from Kiyoshi Kurosawa, better-known for his horror films like “Cure” and “Kairo” (the latter remade as “Pulse” in the US). It is a very straightforward story of a middle-class family whose father is laid off from his long-time office job, but to avoid embarrassment, he pretends he is still working as he attempts to find new employment.
Kurosawa’s camera lingers leisurely over carefully composed, delicately staged scenes of everyday life in a style that is reminiscent of the classic works of Yasujiro Ozu. We observe the strained family relationships resulting from lack of interpersonal communication, from ingrained tradition vs. the fear of starting over from scratch. Powerful performances all around let us identify with the inner struggles of the father, the mother, and each of the two very different sons, one a young musical prodigy and the other a sullen slacker who hopes to join the American army as a way out of economic distress.
This film managed a 36% combined A and B audience rating during its US release, but still had a 50% F rating, apparently either too slow-moving for Americans or merely too uncomfortable to watch for viewers insecure with their own jobs. Its world-wide critical acclaim testifies to “Tokyo Sonata’s” universal story about individual dignity and human relationships amidst today’s uncertain economic climate.
“Tokyo Sonata” looks and sounds great on Eureka’s BluRay, with optional English subtitles. Extras include an hour-long “making-of” documentary, interviews and discussions with the stars and director at the Tokyo premiere, and the original UK trailer, plus a 28-page booklet with a good essay by Brooklyn writer-filmmaker B. Kite.
TOKYO SONATA on BluRay:
Movie: A / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: B
VERA CRUZ (1954)
About ten years after the Civil War, Gary Cooper is a quick-witted but slow-talking former Louisiana colonel who's been driven off his plantation, and Burt Lancaster is an outlaw leader of a band of renegades as fast with his mouth as he is with his gun. Both are in Mexico looking for adventure and for money, just as the peasants are uniting under Juarez to overthrown the emperor Maximilian. Being both cynical and mercenary, they naturally can't resist the financial offer of a charming marquis played by Cesar Romero instead of joining the revolutionaries (including beautiful peasant girl Sarita Moneil). Maximilian hires them to escort a beautiful countess (Denise Darcel) to a port city so she can return to Paris, not revealing that her carriage actually contains three million in gold intended to finance European military aid against the revolutionaries. Of course Lancaster, Cooper, and Darcel all discover the truth and devise their own plots together and individually to obtain the gold for themselves, with none of them trusting the other.
The result is an entertaining if sometimes predictable action film with lots of intrigue, double-crosses, romantic attachments feigned and real, a few surprises, and of course being a Robert Aldrich film, there’s plenty of violence that's more on a 1960s or 70s level than the 1950s. The characterizations, attitudes, and various plot elements bear certain similarities to films like THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, THE WILD BUNCH, and even the recent COWBOYS AND ALIENS. Among Lancaster's gang are such familiar character actors as Ernest Borgnine, Charles Bronson, and Jack Elam, adding to the fun. Though Lancaster helped produce the film and hams up his anti-heroic role with gusto, it's Cooper who's the real star and most sympathetic character. VERA CRUZ makes interesting screening immediately after or before KISS ME DEADLY, directed by Aldrich the following year and featuring several of the same character actors in supporting roles (see review above).
The picture quality is generally good with vivid colors (especially the red opening titles), but since this was shot in the low-budget non-anamorphic widescreen format of SuperScope (now called Super 35), cropping and blowing up the image to a 2:1 ratio makes the picture obviously grainier than a standard format film, especially whenever there's a night scene that required faster film, or an optical effect like a dissolve (both of which happen frequently and sometimes together). The high-definition Blu-ray transfer reveals all the graininess of these scenes, but also shows how sharp the SuperScope image could be in straight scenes in bright daylight. The mono audio is fine, although not particularly memorable. The only bonus feature on the disc is the original trailer (in high-definition), although there are chapter stops, Spanish and French-dubbed soundtracks, and optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles. Once again, as with recent MGM/Fox Blu-rays, there is annoyingly no main menu, only a popup menu.
VERA CRUZ on Blu-ray
Movie: B / Video: A- / Audio: A- / Extras: F+
THE WAGES OF FEAR (1953)
Sometimes-controversial French director Henri-Georges Clouzot is noted mainly for his Hitchcockian thrillers Diabolique (1955) and The Wages of Fear (Le Salaire de la Peur) (1953), the latter of which came out on BluRay from Criterion in April 2009.
Clouzot began preparations for The Wages of Fear by 1949 and shot it under difficult conditions in 1951 and 1952. The original 155-minute version won Best Picture at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival and British Academy Awards, but its American distributor cut nearly an hour for the 1955 U.S. release that circulated for years, mainly from its first half. Even the 105-minute version was denounced by many 1950s American critics as both anti-American and unacceptably bleak, besides suggestions of a distasteful homosexual subtext. A restored 147-minute edition was finally released in 1991 and that is the version now on BluRay.
The Wages of Fear begins very slowly and deliberately, lingering on details and beautifully-composed shots that establish the poverty-stricken Central American village and its diverse collection of seedy, international (and multi-lingual) ne’er-do-wells who struggle to maintain a precarious and sordid existence. The town’s main source of income derives from an American oil company that relies on villagers for dangerous and low-paid labor.
When an oil well catches fire, the company shows up to hire truck drivers to transport loads of nitroglycerine to the site across bumpy, perilous rural roads. The last half of the film is one of the most tension-packed sequences in cinema history as two pairs of volunteers attempt to make the trip without exploding along the way. Throughout all the nail-biting suspense, the characters continue to develop and evolve.
The film has influenced many other directors, notably Sam Peckinpah in his opening shots of The Wild Bunch. In 1977, American director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) remade the story under the misleading title Sorcerer.
The BluRay disc has a superb high-definition transfer of the striking black-and-white image in its original 1.37 to 1 aspect ratio, with very good sound. As usual, Criterion includes a 16-page pamphlet with an essay about the film, and several interesting disc supplements, this time unfortunately all in standard definition. There is no audio commentary, but there are some recent interviews with an assistant director and a biographer of Clouzot, plus a 1988 interview with star Yves Montand. There’s a good 2004 feature-length French documentary on the life and career of Clouzot, and a brief documentary that details the cuts made for the films first American release.
THE WAGES OF FEAR on BluRay:
Movie: A- / Video: A+ / Audio: A / Extras: B+
Notable classic, foreign, and independent films are continuing to show up on BluRay. In late April of 2010, Kino Video released a fine BluRay version of the restored Russian silent, Battleship Potemkin (1925), which they’d already put out on a very nice standard DVD a couple of years earlier. In May 2010 Criterion came out with not only John Ford’s iconic western Stagecoach (1939), but BluRay upgrades of Fritz Lang’s memorable crime drama M (1931) and Nicolas Roeg’s stunningly beautiful and multi-layered allegory Walkabout (1971), all of them staples of film societies and film classes. All of these are must-see, if not must-own titles for anyone into film.
Roeg was a British cinematographer who turned to directing, sometimes shooting his own movies himself. Walkabout, his first solo film as a director looks on the surface like a basic story of survival and coming-of-age, as well as a visual tour across Australia. A British teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her little brother (Lucien John, Roeg’s 10-year-old son) find themselves abandoned in the Australian outback and must find their way back to civilization.
In the desert they meet a teenage aborigine boy (David Gulpilil) who is going through the native rite of passage known as Walkabout, proving he can survive on his own. Despite not speaking the same language, they become for a while a small family as the aborigine boy helps the girl and her brother to survive. Of course, two adolescents of opposite sexes develop their own natural tension.
Roeg’s richly colorful cinematography and often daringly unconventional editing present a vivid portrait of the abundant life in the supposedly barren outback, contrasting the human struggle against the natural elements. Shot entirely on location, it’s obviously a metaphor comparing the man-made emotional deserts and regimentation of modern urban life with the literal, physical desert and very different rituals of existence in untouched, unspoiled natural surroundings.
The film is also a parable about the lack of communication between cultures, races, sexes, generations, and people in general. On yet another layer it is a wistful modern dramatization of the Garden of Eden story from “Genesis” -- the loss of paradise after a loss of innocence.
Criterion’s old DVD looked good, but their new high-definition transfer is a wonderful representation of the film’s image. A few shots on the BluRay seem to look slightly lighter, but both transfers were approved by Roeg himself and the BluRay is noticeably sharper through a hi-def projector, and still preserves the original film grain. The soundtrack is presented in its original mono, digitally cleaned up to eliminate hiss and pops in the old optical print.
The BluRay includes the same interesting audio commentary by the director and star as on the DVD, but adds several more bonus materials. There’s a new 20-minute interview (in hi-def) with Luc Roeg, now a movie producer himself, reminiscing earlier this year about the film and his fathers career. There’s also a 20-minute standard-def interview with Jenny Agutter done in 2008, a 50-minute documentary on actor David Gulpilil and his importance to cinematic portrayals of aboriginal people (also standard-def), and a 28-page color illustrated booklet. The U.S. theatrical trailer had also been on the DVD, but on the BluRay it is now in hi-def (although its much grainier than the film itself).
The only problem with the disc is that the first pressing had problems playing on certain models of BluRay players. A few would not load it at all and others would freeze up and/or skip at certain points. (One of my players ran the disc fine, whereas the other one of the same brand but a different model would not play the bonus features all the way and the menu would sometimes freeze.) Criterion is planning replacements that can be obtained by contacting them through their website.
WALKABOUT on BluRay:
Movie: A+ / Video: A / Audio: A- / Extras: A-
THE WAYWARD BUS (1957) 89m *** ½
This all-but-forgotten film was adapted from a best-selling but almost equally-forgotten John Steinbeck novel published a decade earlier. Loosely inspired by Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” it’s one of those journey stories with a group of travelers representing a symbolic microcosm of society, going through a variety of experiences together and in smaller subsets of the group as we (and they) learn a bit about each other in the process. In Southern California a Mexican-American bus driver (Rick Jason, future star of TV’s “Combat”) has a stormy relationship with his alcoholic, penny-pinching wife (Joan Collins) that builds to a boiling point as he is about to take eight passengers to San Juan on his broken-down old bus just when a severe storm and landslides close the highway, forcing a more perilous route on an old road. There’s an irascible old man, a teenage girl and boy, a fast-talking salesman (Dan Dailey), a cynical but sensitive exotic dancer (Jayne Mansfield), and an uptight middle-aged couple taking their rebellious daughter on a trip to keep her out of trouble, although she keeps trying to come on to the driver. Everyone’s got personal relationship problems of some sort, and throughout the course of the journey, most of them work out for better or for worse with a reasonably satisfying yet not completely resolved conclusion (that’s nevertheless more detailed and “Hollywood” than the ambiguous ending in the book). The strong current of sexual tension pervading the story is presented mainly through suggestion and implications, due to the loosening but still-powerful Production Code regulations, but it’s sometimes surprising just how frank it is allowed to become for the period (especially in its trailer).
During the ten years the project was in development before it was finally filmed, it had been planned as a bigger prestige production with stars like Marlon Brando, Anthony Quinn, Robert Mitchum, Jennifer Jones, Joanne Woodward, Susan Hayward, Richard Widmark, and Gene Tierney attached or under consideration for the cast, and major directors George Stevens and Henry Hathaway planned to direct at different times. As it turned out, the film became the first American feature for obscure Russian-born French director Victor Vicas. Though it never found a large audience at the time, today it may actually be more effective with its lesser-known actors allowing the characters to become the focus rather than famous faces and star mannerisms distracting viewers from the story. The ensemble cast is very strong, and it’s especially nice to see Collins and Mansfield in unusually dramatic roles instead of the sex-symbol stereotypes they’re best known for. This was two years after Collins’ campy vamp in LAND OF THE PHARAOHS, six months after Mansfield’s airhead in THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT and just two months before her wacky bimbo in WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER. Fans of those films must have been shocked if they saw Collins and Mansfield in THE WAYWARD BUS where both give powerful, often poignant performances. The moody black-and-white CinemaScope camera work by veteran Oscar nominee Charles G. Clarke is truly outstanding, making the most of dramatic lighting effects and placement of actors across the widescreen frame and bringing out the textures of the effective settings. The film should have done for Mansfield what BUS STOP did for Marilyn Monroe, and though it earned slightly more than its budget it never really clicked with critics or audiences, perhaps seeming too “common” in its subject material. Today, however, THE WAYWARD BUS stands out as a well-made and well-acted human drama that presents a valuable glimpse into the mindset of its era.
Picture quality on Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is beautiful projected four feet tall and roughly nine-and-a-half feet wide, and the original mono sound is very good. Bonuses include an illustrated pamphlet, an isolated music track, the original theatrical trailer (in standard-def, unfortunately, but which makes the film appear much more salacious than it actually is), plus a very fine commentary by film historians Alain Silver and James Ursini (better known for their commentaries on various film noir DVDs) giving a perceptive story and character analysis as well as interesting production background.
THE WAYWARD BUS on Blu-ray --
Movie: A- / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: B
WE WERE SOLDIERS (2002)
For movies on BluRay about the 1960s and the Vietnam War experience, a good complement to Across the Universe is Randall Wallace’s We Were Soldiers (2002), starring Mel Gibson and Greg Kinnear. Avoiding the clichés and outright militaristic propaganda of John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968), it is instead an unflinching and unrelenting soldier’s point of view of young men’s first experiences fighting in the first battles of the Vietnam war. The war’s waste of lives and the unpreparedness of Americans’ military training for their situation become far more intense than the stylized but nevertheless moving emotional abstractions of Across the Universe. Extras include a commentary, a hi-def trailer, a featurette and ten short deleted scenes all in standard-def. Best of all, it’s available for only $10-$15!
WE WERE SOLDIERS on BluRay:
Movie A- / Video A+ / Audio A+ / Extras B+
WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954)
“White Christmas” will probably be the best choice of the several classic Christmas films now on Blu-ray for viewers who have recently upgraded to full 1080p HDTV sets. Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye star with Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen in the story of two army buddies who become a popular song-and-dance team after the war and join a sister act to put on a show at a remote Vermont inn that happens to be run by their old army general.
While its sentimental story is often hackneyed and predictable, the classic Irving Berlin songs and breezy performances remain an attraction. And now this lushly restored edition has an extremely impressive upgrade in picture quality over any previous video version. With its vibrant colors and crisp transfer it looks as sharp as any new movie on Blu-ray. This is due partly to the fact it was the first film made in the VistaVision widescreen process, whose larger image area gave double the picture resolution of other films of the time.
Paramount has reworked the audio into a pleasing 5.1 stereo track and also restored the original mono sound for audio purists. There is a generous selection of bonus features, including a commentary by Clooney and numerous new retrospective featurettes produced in HD.
WHITE CHRISTMAS” on Blu-ray
Movie: B+ / Video: A+ / Audio: A / Extras: A
THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
Although the BluRay format uses a substantial amount of digital compression, a properly done transfer of a film to high-definition video, using well-preserved original film elements, can reproduce details that have always been there but were never visible in previous video formats.
Many video collectors and a surprising number of video reviewers seem genuinely shocked at how sharp an old film from even the 1990s, let alone the 1930s or 40s or 50s or 60s, usually looks in a new BluRay edition, apparently never having seen older films actually projected on film. The more studios decide to release on BluRay the films of the past that made them great, the more it can demonstrate just how much sharper film has always been, compared with television standards.
The Wizard of Oz is a perfect example. Most people are familiar with the 70-year-old film from countless TV airings or from numerous video releases on VHS and DVD. If they’re lucky, they may have seen one of a few theatrical reissues, which may or may not have had a film print in good condition and projected in focus, or may have had a hastily-made kiddie matinee print that was pale, washed-out, possibly beat-up, and no true representation of what it was supposed to look like.
For the BluRay edition (and even for the 2005 DVD), the original camera negative was scanned in high definition, yielding more detail than many typical 35mm theatrical prints. The color scenes, especially, are sharper because Technicolor used three separate black and white negatives, one for each color (and thus immune to the fading that often plagues color films from the 1950s through the 1980s), and modern computerized registration was able to recombine them much more precisely than Technicolor’s original mechanical color printing process. The result is truly stunning and very film-like.
For The Wizard of Oz, the studio was lucky enough to have preserved separately mixed soundtracks of the music, sound effects, and dialogue, allowing it to be remixed in stereo without artificial electronic extractions to simulate stereo. The BluRay has a tastefully done and quite effective 5.1 lossless stereo track, as well as including the original mono soundtrack in English and five other languages.
This time, Warner Bros. heeded consumer complaints about 2008’s Casablanca collectors edition having no moderately-priced movie-only alternative. The Wizard of Oz release had a variety of $55-$65 box sets with special premiums and collectibles, a $35 three-disc Emerald Edition exclusive to Target stores that had only the BluRay of the movie and the two bonus discs, plus a $20 one-disc BluRay release initially available only at Walmart. By late 2010, the movie-only BluRay of The Wizard of Oz could be found for as low as $10.
Thanks to the storage capacity of BluRay discs, the one main disc still has a fair amount of bonus materials, including an audio commentary, featurettes, audio sessions and more. The three-disc edition includes a new documentary on director Victor Fleming, a frustratingly fuzzy copy of a 1990 TV movie dramatizing author L. Frank Baum’s life, four complete full-length silent feature films based on Oz stories and produced by Baum himself, a 1910 short Oz film, and a 1933 cartoon. The cartoon is in fair condition but all five silent films have quite good transfers (notably the 1925 one starring Larry Semon and Oliver Hardy), though unfortunately all are in standard definition, and two of them have no musical accompaniment and are presented with no soundtracks. The third disc is a standard DVD with a six-hour documentary on MGM studios (also included in the Gone With the Wind box set). The box sets include a fourth disc with a lower-resolution “digital copy,” as well as reproductions of memorabilia and other collectibles.
One of the BluRay editions of The Wizard of Oz should be considered a must-buy for anyone who has a high-definition television set.
THE WIZARD OF OZ on BluRay:
Movie: A+ / Video: A / Audio: A / Extras: A
Neither the popular 1960s play “Hair” (nor its 1970s film version) is nowhere close to recreating the era as vividly as it was captured in the 1970 documentary Woodstock, an amazing record of the 1969 rock concert held 40 years ago this weekend. The mere word Woodstock quickly became a symbol of a certain segment of a generation.
The expanded 1994 director’s cut of Woodstock came out on BluRay in early summer of 2009. The movie itself is interesting from several standpoints. Most obvious, of course, are the musical performances--a pleasing variety of folk, blues, classic rock, and hard rock, from a capella and acoustic to heavy electric sounds, and from Joan Baez to Sha Na Na to the Who, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix. The audio recording was of a very high standard, especially for a documentary shot live on location as it happened, showing just how effective analog sound can be with good multitrack equipment. The film has a nice stereo mix, notably during split-screens.
As well as demonstrating effective use of multi-image editing (a monumental effort in pre-computer days, with over 100 hours of footage shot on five cameras), portions show how sharp that often-grainy 16mm film can be when blown up to 35mm and converted to high-definition video.
The wide theatrical screen sometimes contains the almost square original image in the middle, right, or left, and sometimes zooms that image out to make it look wider and emphasize the size of the crowd. Along with push-processed night footage, this is where the graininess of the 16mm film is most evident. Most often the screen holds two or three side-by-side simultaneous views of the action filmed from different angles. At other times one image is in the center with a second view shown in mirror-images on each side, much as French filmmaker Able Gance did for segments of his 1927 epic Napoleon.
But besides its impressive technical and musical aspects, Woodstock is a vivid document of a period and an attitude. It is not merely a concert film. It depicts a peaceful crowd of nearly half a million people gathered in one place, enjoying themselves, not getting into much trouble, and making a generally favorable impression on the local residents whose lives were disrupted for that weekend. It shows people coming together to make something happen, then adapting to the situation and not letting things get out of hand when it becomes much more than anyone bargained for or even dreamed of.
Woodstock is a film that calls out to be seen on as large a screen as possible with the sound turned up as loud as the system will bear. While it runs on for nearly four hours (with an Interf*****gmission near the two-hour mark), for fans of the music and/or era its easy to lose track of the time.
The BluRay edition, like the theatrical release, is in the 2.4:1 CinemaScope aspect ratio with split-screens letterboxed to 2.66:1, and the 1.33:1 bonus performances are windowboxed to fit their full height in the 1.78:1 TV image.
Among the numerous bonus materials (mostly HD) are an informative 90-minute 2009 retrospective on the film’s genesis and production (making up for the lack of a commentary track) plus over two hours of musical performances that did not make it into the final cut of the film. A special collectors’ edition throws in a bunch of memorabilia reproductions.
WOODSTOCK on BluRay:
Movie A+ Video A- Audio A Extras A-
YOJIMBO (1961) and SANJURO (1962)
The Criterion Collection has long been noted for releasing high-quality home video editions of interesting and influential films from around the world, both modern and classic. They’re slowly but surely adding BluRay titles to their already impressive and eclectic catalog of DVDs and now long out-of-print Laserdiscs.
While the long career of legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is well-represented on DVD from Criterion, they’ve had only his 1980 epic Kagemusha on BluRay, and Lionsgate recently released a pretty good BluRay version of Ran, his 1985 samurai variation on “King Lear.” In March 2010, however, to mark Kurosawa’s 100th birthday, Criterion came out with one of his most entertaining and influential films, Yojimbo (1961), both individually and as part of a double-disc set with its sequel, Sanjuro (1962).
Yojimbo (whose title means The Bodyguard) stars Japanese superstar and long-time Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune as the title character who says his name is Sanjuro (Thirty) but explains he’s really almost forty. He’s a wandering, out-of-work samurai warrior in the late 1800s who stumbles into a village torn by violence between two competing families of racketeers.
Naturally, with his cocky self-confidence, personal code of honor, and supreme skill with his weapon of choice, he decides he’s just the person to clean up the town. He plays the two gangs against each other, with plenty of intrigue, action, and violence before the climactic showdown and satisfying conclusion.
Plot sound familiar? Maybe like something Clint Eastwood or Bruce Willis might do? Or some old cowboy movie? Kurosawa loved American westerns, and adapted their formula and some of their style to historical Japan, and American filmmakers reciprocated the honor. His 1954 film The Seven Samurai (scheduled for BluRay in late 2010) was remade as The Magnificent Seven in 1960 (now on BluRay), and his breakthrough film Rashomon (1950) was also turned into an American western, The Outrage (1964).
Yojimbo was so popular that it was very quickly and very closely remade as a traditional western, but shot in Spain by Italian director Sergio Leone. As A Fistful of Dollars (1964, also now on BluRay) it made an international star of Clint Eastwood. Later action star Bruce Willis liked the script so much that he remade it as a 1930s American gangster film under title Last Man Standing in 1996. And it’s not all that far removed from the cathartic vigilante attitude of the two “Boondock Saints” movies.
Mifune is at his best in Yojimbo, and it is easy to see how Eastwood and Willis enjoyed taking his cool, cynical, wisecracking character and adding their own mannerisms. The often extreme martial arts violence was a bit shocking in its day, and there’s a memorable shot of a scraggly dog walking down the dusty street with a human hand in its mouth. But the brutality and bloody swordplay is tempered by a consistent darkly comic attitude and some outright comedy bits another trademark adopted by Eastwood and Willis, and of course the “Boondock Saints” films. Interestingly, Last Man Standing made it to BluRay in July of 2010 and Fistful of Dollars came out in June, so you can now do a high-definition triple-feature comparison.
YOJIMBO on BluRay:
Movie: A+ / Video: A / Audio: A- / Extras: A-
Sanjuro finds Mifune’s character coming across a group of brash young samurai worried about internal power struggles and corruption in their clan. Naturally, our hero points out the flaws in their analysis of the situation and especially in their plans to remedy it. They’re not happy with his assessment, but some disastrous incidents and lucky escapes eventually convince them of his wisdom.
In Sanjuro there is much more talk and much less action than Yojimbo, with the comedy tending more to dry wit than broad slapstick. Part of this may be due to criticism of all the violence in the first film. In fact a couple of characters seem to be comic allusions to this as they constantly urge against bloodshed and make comments on how beautiful various flowers are.
At 96 minutes, its about a quarter-hour shorter than Yojimbo, but may actually seem longer due to the different approach. Of course Mifune’s pent-up energy has to be released in a spectacular bloodbath or two somewhere, but it’s never quite as graphic until the very end this time, and even then it’s countered by a comment on how the most effective sword should remain in its sheath.
The meticulously composed CinemaScope widescreen photography of both films comes across beautifully in these BluRay editions, a substantial upgrade from Criterions previous DVD version. The rarely heard original 3-channel Perspecta stereo soundtrack has also been restored for the BluRay of each film, and is included with an option for the more common mono soundtrack. Both sound good, although there seems to be occasional muffled distortion in the stereo track at times. Perspecta was a low-cost optical directional mono simulated alternative to the more expensive discretely recorded 4-track magnetic stereo.
Both discs also have a generous selection of bonus features including a scholars commentary track, trailers, good documentaries on the making of the films (standard-definition, unfortunately), stills galleries, and illustrated booklets with additional background.
SANJURO on BluRay:
Movie: B+ / Video: A / Audio: A- / Extras: A-
Quite a few interesting films have been released on BluRay only in Europe in the past couple of years, and luckily some of them are region-free discs that can be played in US BluRay players. All three of these came out in 2008 and were recently selling for the equivalent of just $14 each from Amazon.co.uk (not including shipping).
Zulu (1964) is an epic of British colonial power and native rebellion based on an actual incident that is sort of Britain's version of "Custer's Last Stand" or The Alamo, with a few major variations. Despite a relatively low budget, it has excellent production values, spectacular South African location shooting, and powerhouse performances. Stanley Baker not only starred in but produced Zulu with expatriate American director Cy Endfield for their own brand-new production company, thanks to the backing of Joseph E. Levine.
Michael Caine got his first major role as a young British officer, and Jack Hawkins plays against type as an alcoholic missionary. Unlike most war films, it manages to be a patriotic, moving portrait of personal and national heroism at the same time it undercuts official military policies and makes a powerful anti-war statement. Endfield pulls off a delicate balancing act of making an exciting war picture that glorifies military discipline and bravery while vividly dramatizing its tragic devastation and questioning its ultimate value (and keep it within a PG rating). During the troubled era of the American Civil Rights movement and the South African Apartheid battles, he also dared to depict both the dignity and bravery of the Zulu warriors besieging the lonely British outpost.
For some reason I don't recall ever having seen this film in its entirety before this, only excerpts on TV or pan & scan VHS. I had gotten a cheap DVD that at least was letterboxed, but the picture was so soft I finally gave up on watching the whole film. The BluRay from Paramount-UK is an audio-visual revelation, including the original stereo soundtrack and incredibly crisp widescreen picture (even though the audio quality is not quite up to modern standards). Unfortunately there is just a little too much digital noise reduction that keeps most of the detail but completely obliterates the film grain. In my basement theatre, this was barely noticeable if I sat in the third or fourth row instead of the first or second, and people two or more screen-widths away from their screens probably won't notice it.
I'd held off ordering this disc for some time, fearing its standard-definition bonus materials would be unplayable on a U.S.-region machine. As it turns out, all four featurettes and two trailers are in the NTSC format so they play perfectly, and all are quite informative. There's also a good audio commentary with a film historian and the film's second unit director.
ZULU on BluRay:
Movie: A / Video: B+ / Audio: B+ / Extras: A-