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DVD Geek: Hail, Caesar!; House Of Cards; It Came From Outer Space; Independence Day: Resurgence

Tuesday, December 6th, 2016

With Hail, Caesar!, Joel and Ethan Coen again prove that the Bros. do not make normal movies. This delightful film is another classic in the movies about moviemaking genre and improves considerably with each viewing. The kneejerk pairing would be to play it with Barton Fink, but its real spiritual twin in the Coen world is The Hudsucker Proxy, for along with being about the film business and, less demandingly than A Serious Man, about faith, it is about Capitalism vs. Communism.

Josh Brolin is the head of a studio in the 1950s coping with problems on the studio’s production. The centerpiece is the star of a biblical epic (George Clooney), who is kidnapped by a group of writers who belong to the same communist cell and don’t believe they’re being paid enough for their work. In the secondary story, a charming cowboy hero, played by Alden Ehrenreich, is miscast in a sophisticated musical. Other problems arise, and a better but more mundane job offer tempts Brolin’s character. Tilda Swinton has a marvelous dual bit as competing, twin gossip columnists, and the exquisite performances include Frances McDormand in a bit part as an editor who gets her tie caught in an editing machine, nearly strangling herself. While there is steady contrast between big ideas, not limited to “faith,” “profit” and “duty,” the movie’s biggest idea, “love,” is never tarnished, because it is not about love between human beings. Rather, the film is about the love of movies and moviemaking, demonstrating how eternal that love will remain.

House of Cards The Complete Third Season

“House of Cards” has reached a plateau. At the end of the second season, there was no more “up” for the characters to go, so the third and fourth seasons are very different from the initial years. The central characters, played by Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, achieve their career goals at the end of the second season, and the third season action has a major downshift. Spacey’s character is no longer murdering mistresses or blackmailing billionaires. Instead, he deals with the petty, day-to-day irritations of the job he has inherited. While it does involve Frank Underwood interacting with the Russian premier and manipulating presidential primary candidates with his usual Machiavellian flair, the show is more reserved and more cloistered than it was in the initial two seasons. Frank stops talking to the camera, as well. Oh, there is a token bit now and then, but you don’t get the real Richard III skinny he was giving you in the first two seasons. It is a different entertainment, which some fans may embrace while others may not. The more realistically an alternate universe drama such as this attempts to imitate the real political arguments and crises of the day, the more embarrassing it can be, especially as time takes reality on a different course. And then there is reality. In olden days, “The West Wing” was held up as an idealized version of what our nation’s political leaders could be like; now everyone would just be happy if they were as cooperative and sensible as the folks in this show. But if you just accept the fact that everyone is play-acting, and enjoy the characters for their own complexities, strengths and flaws, then many of the pleasures that made the show so successful to begin with can still be savored.

The third season is entertaining, but it is especially worth sitting through because the fourth season is exceptional. By then, a viewer will have acclimated to the show’s fantasy and settle in with the characters as they make audacious choices and race to hold onto their power against an accelerating mass of revealed secrets. Spacey even starts talking to the camera again, although sporadically. It is also worth noting that Ellen Burstyn delivers an exceptional and powerhouse performance as the mother of Wright’s character. The series seems to find the right balance in its own measure of how much ‘realism’ (how the White House operates, how the president interacts with other people, how the new media reacts to things, and so on) can be blended into its drama without distracting a viewer from the narrative. Along with the basic appeal of the characters and the sweep of the drama, the show’s strength comes from its overpowering analogy of marriage with politics. Everything that happens on a personal level between the two leads reflects upon the power struggles of the nation, and everything that happens in the nation reflects upon the psychology and emotional tapestry of the two leads. That’s the real problem with politics. There’s no escaping it, ever.

IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE

Written by Ray Bradbury, produced by William Alland and directed by Jack Arnold, the 1953 sci-fi thriller, It Came from Outer Space, is one of the finest examples of the Fifties alien encounter genre. Made three years before Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the creepy plot has the aliens ‘taking over’ local humans, who walk around in a zombie-like state gathering materials to repair a spaceship and perhaps conquer the world. Set in the Arizona desert, Richard Carlson is an astronomer who sees the ship crash and tries to sound the alarm, only to be met with skepticism, disbelief and ridicule. Running 80 minutes, the film is spare and methodical, and is blessed with Bradbury’s final plot twist, which endures as a breath of fresh air amid alien paranoia. Barbara Rush, Charles Drake and Russell Johnson co-star—there is also a marvelous, single-scene performance by Kathleen Hughes, who can’t resist checking out the hero after her own boyfriend has gone missing.

Arnold made one of the greatest 3D movies ever, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and It Came from Outer Space was an earlier 3D production, with a smaller budget. The Blu-ray contains both the 2D version and the 3D version of the film. The 3D effects do not have the same thematic power they had in Creature from the Black Lagoon, nor are they as consistent. But the 3D presentation of the film is still a great deal of fun. Not only are there shots, such as a rock slide, that will have you ducking left and right, but there is an enhanced atmosphere of terror, decent framings of the desert landscape and the cheaply furnished interiors, and some pretty good frights, as the tentacles and who knows what of the aliens reach out of the screen to take over your own soul.

The presentation has an Intermission, and the full screen black-and-white picture is spotless. Some of the cinematography, particularly the stock shots, is a little soft (and distinctly lacking in dimensionality), but everything else is crisp. The remastered 3-channel DTS sound is strong and clear, with a general but engaging dimensionality. There are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, a standard trailer, a joyful 3D trailer and a 32-minute retrospective documentary that places the film in the context of Universal’s sci-fi traditions (i.e., selling other Universal product). The segment talks about all aspects of the film, including its electronic musical score and the utilization of 3D.

Film historian Tom Weaver supplies a comprehensive commentary track, going over the backgrounds of most of the cast and crew, breaking down the process by which the script was developed (and sharing some lyrical Bradbury dialog passages that were dropped), explaining how the special effects were created, identifying the location and studio work, and just sharing generally witty or informative insights, such as, “At Universal, the scientist heroes all look like tennis pros.” Weaver also points out that almost all of the aliens in early post-War sci-fi films were benign, until George Pal’s blockbuster, War of the Worlds, was released and it became clear what sort of approach audiences responded to the most. Which brings us to…

Putting the 3D effects in It Came from Outer Space next to the 3D effects on the 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment Blu-ray 3D + Blu-ray + Digital HD release, Independence Day Resurgence, is like parking a Model T next to a brand new Cadillac. The Model T will probably attract more attention and, for that matter, more affection, but it definitely comes from a different age. There are no deliberate at-your-face shots in Resurgence. Instead, there is just a vast and complex dimensional landscape in shot after shot, and action scenes that become more exciting when the full location and juxtaposition of objects and characters are clarified. As for the 2016 film, it was clearly intended as a necessary set up to what might have been a very interesting and different sequel, where the heroes would advance into outer space to pull a surprise attack on the aliens before they have time to organize another volley at Earth. Because the film didn’t do all that well at the box-office, however, the fate of such a sequel is in doubt. Nevertheless, Resurgence is a viable spectacle. The story is pretty much a repeat of the first film—and a surprising number of the cast members return, with the notable exception of Will Smith; Brent Spiner is a particular surprise and gives a witty performance)—though with one important difference. In the 20 years since the initial attack depicted in the first Independence Day film, mankind has adapted quite a bit of alien technology and integrated it with their own rebuilding. So, from the movie’s opening shot, especially in the sweeping depth of 3D, its extensive (and undoubtedly costly) vision of the future is completely dazzling. From there, the film journeys (or, rather, hops) to the moon and then inside of the alien spaceship and elsewhere. The finale is set on an endlessly flat desert—not all that far from where the aliens in It Came from Outer Space landed—but even then, the positioning of the vehicles and the people in 3D gives the images a greater sense of reality and a feeling that you’ve been dropped into the future, with everything zipping over you and crashing down around you.

The film still has the same flaws that Independence Day had, but with less finesse in covering them up. There are wild and unlikely coincidences that bring characters who know one another or are related to one another together after they begin on opposite sides of the continent, and the efforts to milk sentimentality out of the reunions are clunky and bland. The attempts to drum up patriotism may also seem like the series has gone to the well one or more too many times, while on the other hand, the efforts the first film made to convey the sense of an international crisis is given no more than a token acknowledgement. This film is about saving America, and if the rest of the world gets saved, too, well, okay. Science-fiction fans were so excited and remain so excited about the first Star Wars movie. It had all of these great special effects, and its plot wasn’t stupid. But most science-fiction movies like this one coming from Hollywood are stupid, and that is just something that fans have to put up with in order to thrive upon the spectacle of what science and technology can bring us and has brought us, now with the intricate and dazzling integration of three-dimensional detail.

The supplement on the standard Blu-ray includes 8 minutes of mostly unnecessary deleted scenes, although the alternate opening is appreciably wonky, along with 9 minutes of what one could term ‘prequels.’ One, an imaginary TV report about what has happened to the world in the ensuing years since the first film, is worth watching before the movie, but the other, showing the antics of a couple of the characters on a talk show, is a waste of time. Also featured is a 55-minute promotional documentary that shares a lot of behind-the-scenes footage and includes interviews with many members of the cast and crew, 6 minutes of uninteresting bloopers, a very good collection of preliminary and conceptual artwork in still frame, two trailers and a TV commercial.

The film’s director, Roland Emmerich, provides a commentary track over the film and the deleted scenes on the standard Blu-ray (there are nine more subtitling tracks for the commentary, including English), mostly reacting to what is on the screen, but, in addition to reiterating the story, explaining how various sequences were staged and how the special effects were integrated with the action. “Now comes one of my favorites shots here. Look, here, all CG, even the bus. See, this is not a real bus, and that’s the thing you learn, that you can sometimes create easier and more convincing in a computer now, than when you would kind of like do it in real. And real naturally means you have to have a huge crew out in the salt flats, and it’s just simpler [using CG]. It’s a little nerve-wracking because you rely on other people, but the results are great. I think in the future this will be more and more done like that. Figure out ways to shoot these movies fast and simple. It’s also for the actors much better because they don’t have to endlessly wait around for stuff. Imagine how much of a relief this is for a director, because I would always come up with very clever ideas and I had sleepless nights about it, you know, how to shoot stuff like that. Actually, most of the time, I said, ‘Let’s not shoot it,’ because it’s too complex and too difficult. And now, you can shoot stuff like that.” He never mentions the 3D effects, which are not brought up in the promotional documentary, either.

And why are the aliens invading? Resurgence is rather specific about their need to drain the Earth’s molten core. Which makes them pretty dumb aliens. There must be billions of worlds with molten cores made up only or rock or, at the most, lichen, that they could drain without suffering the least bit of equipment and personnel loss. Why raid a beehive when you can just open a jar to get your honey? It was Bradbury, and Spiner’s old boss, Gene Roddenberry who understood what aliens would really want from humans, but as we learn on an almost daily basis, fear sells better than friendship.

DVD Geek: Valley of the Dolls, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, Vamp

Tuesday, November 29th, 2016

It started with “Peyton Place.” The book became a cultural milestone in the maturation of the American psyche through its acknowledgement that even in the heart of Middle America, sexual activity was rampant. Assigned to director Mark Robson, the movie adaptation of Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place changed the sexual activity in the story to guarded implications, to great success. By removing the sex, the story became a compelling romantic melodrama about American morality. The movie was so successful that it spawned a hit television series, a primetime soap opera in an era when no other evening television program had ongoing narratives. Like the book and the film, the series was set in New England, and although sex was off-screen, the results of such activities are what fueled the show’s continuing storylines of romantic complications and sexual scandals.

With the success of the Metalious book, other female authors began to mix real experience and sex—Helen Gurley Brown, for one bold example—but no one profited more than Jacqueline Susann, whose graphic roman à clef about women in the entertainment industry became an even bigger bestseller, and was picked up by Fox and assigned to Robson again. Not only that, but 1967’s Valley of the Dolls (Criterion Blu-Ray, September 27), featured one of the stars from the “Peyton Place” TV show, Barbara Parkins. It also opens on her character leaving the small New England town where she grew up to travel to New York and start a new life, just as Parkins herself was doing by moving over to movies. Joining Parkins was Patty Duke—whose character bears so many similarities to the experiences of Judy Garland that the film opens with a disclaimer—and Sharon Tate, leading a contemporary viewer to believe that a film made about the real lives of the actresses could have been every bit as salacious and tragic as the implied story in the film itself.

Valley of The Dolls is not as good as Peyton Place, lacking a moral center and a suspenseful narrative. Instead, the Robson simply takes delight in exposing the dark behind the Hollywood façade. It has a sort-of feminist attitude, with its strongest female characters those who are not bound to men. But it is also about how desperately the women react to the men in their lives regardless of their power. The film is also about popping pills, uppers and downers, to get through days of hard work—the “dolls” of the title are the heroines, yes, but also their meds. Parkins’ character is a legal secretary who becomes a successful model. Duke, who gives the most intense performance, is a talented singer who becomes such a big star that her schedule gets out of control. Tate’s character is a lesser actress who has to turn to roles involving nudity in order to support her ailing husband. Lee Grant (another “Peyton Place TV alum), Susan Hayward, Paul Burke, Tony Scotti and Martin Milner also provide flamboyant performances.

The story follows the ups and downs in the careers of each of the three women, until each reaches a defining point in life, interweaving the narratives as the characters occasionally bump into one another at parties and other social functions. The film has endured not just because it captured the height of mainstream 1967 stylistic expression, but because of the dishy way that it unravels the dreams and successes of each character, exposing the elevated emotions of those who sell an ideal of themselves for a career. If Peyton Place drew back the curtains on the American heartland, Valley of the Dolls showed that even Hollywood was just another Peyton Place.

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1. The color transfer looks gorgeous. The three-channel DTS sound has a vague dimensionality and a few directional effects, but delivers solid and clear tones. Since Duke’s character is a singer, the film is practically a musical, but its best known song, known as “Theme from Valley of the Dolls,” was performed by Dionne Warwick (who does not appear in the film) over the opening credits (it is also reprised during a couple of montages, and at the end), and has endured more than any other aspect of the movie, a ballad about starting out fresh and hopeful in the face of winter.

We learn in the 25-minute Hollywood: Backstories episode that opens the supplements is that Garland herself was originally cast in the Hayward role, and shot a couple of scenes before having a breakdown and refusing to go on. Those scenes are also included in the piece, along with costume tests and a press conference. Of equal interest is an excellent 22-minute interview with Susann biographer Amy Fine Collins, who explains not only how Susann came to write the novel, but also how the different characters were based both upon famous figures but also different parts of Susann herself. She also talks about Susann’s distaste for the film, even though it helped sustain the book’s popularity. A fantastic 51-minute documentary shot in 1967 about Susann is in pretty ragged condition, but nevertheless leaves one glued to every frame. Not only does it deliver a nice portrait of her life just as it has been engorged in fame, but it captures the era in a way few such programs have, right down to harumphy male critics arguing with her about the book’s eroticism. There is also a 28-minute collection of screen tests, including a lengthy segment in which Parkins reads for Duke’s part, which is almost impossible to comprehend if the film is fresh in your mind. The highlight of the screen tests, however, is a wonderful clip of Scotti singing the complete English language version of the title song from A Man and a Woman.

Also featured is a wonderful sixteen-minute clip of Duke attending a 2009 screening of the film in San Francisco at the Castro Theatre, and talking with emcee Bruce Vilanch (who loosens her up—he’s hysterical) about her experiences making the film (including working with Garland). Duke is in terrific humor and embraces what the film represents to her fans (“I don’t mean to pander, I really don’t want to do that, but this is the truth. I hated Valley of the Dolls. I hated everything about it—except Sharon Tate. I was mortified when someone would tell me that they had seen it. I would always say, ‘I’m sorry.’ But the Gay Community has brought me not only to like watching the movie, but love that it’s not serious.”).

Parkins’ honey-laced voice is ideal for the commentary track, in which an all-too-young cable gossip reporter, Ted Casablanca, prompts her. His name, with apparent legitimacy, is the same as a major supporting character from Susann’s book and the film. They have fun talking about what happens to the characters and also sharing tales about what went on behind the scenes, and it is an equal amount of fun to share the experience with them. Parkins is pragmatic about both her stardom and her career, and it is a shame she didn’t push harder to continue making movies, if only so there could be more of her preserved on celluloid. As for Dolls, she couldn’t be happier. “I love this film! If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t be here. I love this film, I mean, the chance to do this film, even though it became a cult film, and people laugh at it, you know, or enjoy it and revel in it, I mean I loved every minute of working on this film, even though, like I say, it was naive and there was no sensationalism in it and nobody talked about it afterwards, and we weren’t kind of ‘honored’ at the awards.

There is bad, and then there is really bad. Valley of the Dolls is a bad movie. The histrionics of the characters pass for drama, while simplified progressions of successes and failures, both in careers and in romance, pass for narrative. But the plot is coherent, and the acting, although pushing the edges of sensibility, is valid. Dolls is appealing as high camp, with its most indulgent performances and importune dialog being accepted after the fact as a comical alternative to the real world, especially because of its show business milieu.

BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS

Russ Meyer’s follow-up with Fox, the 1970 Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Criterion Blu, September 27), is not only over-the-top bad, it descends far into the valley on the other side. Scripted by a 28-year-old Roger Ebert, the romantic adventures of a female trio in a successful rock band are an incoherent mess. If the performances in Valley of the Dolls stretch the limits of emotional believability, the performances by the mostly unknown cast in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls have an opposite effect, being so stiff and confined it is as if the dolls have never been removed from their packages. The film attempts to be outrageous, mostly in its depiction of aggressive women chasing after sex, but also in its turn at the end to blood and gore. If Valley of the Dolls is the triumph of the Sixties, then Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is the revenge of the Seventies, in which all of the flower children became adolescents, stomping around the garden in boots and mashing everything in sight. The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1. The eye-popping colors look sharp and fabulous in all of their disorganized clutter. The monophonic sound is strong and solid, and, like Valley of the Dolls, the film’s music is one of its only components that are not an embarrassment.

Criterion has retrospective interviews, the screen tests, the trailers and the featurette, along with a fine 30-minute analysis of the film by John Waters (who believes that the film’s comedic intentions were always there), another eight-minute retrospective piece with a couple of the actors, an excellent 38-minute 1968 portrait of Meyer and his films from Channel 4’s “The Incredibly Strange Film Show,” and a great 49-minute Q&A with Meyer, screenwriter Roger Ebert, and a several cast members, before a live audience in 1992. The second commentary features Ebert, who tackles the film objectively, admitting that the nonsensical story is partially his doing, but consistently acknowledging its many shortcomings at the same time. The lead actress is challenged, for example, because there was no logic to her choices, just the impulses of the filmmakers. “From moment to moment, she has to undergo complete U-turns of emotions in order to explain how she’s behaving.” While he admits that the film was intended as a satire, he never flatly corroborates Waters’ claim that every flaw in the film was part of a deliberately conceived plan. He mostly does what DVD critics admonish commentators not to do, which is to regurgitate what is happening on the screen, but he does veer off to share stories about Meyer and about how they came to do the film. “Russ and I would talk things out, then I would type up more or less what we had decided on the night before. Russ’ approach to writing was curious. He felt that writing and typing were very much the same thing, and so he kept his office door open, and if he couldn’t hear my typewriter actually being used, he would shout, ‘What’s the matter?’ This was kind of in the spirit of the screenplay.”

Ultimately, though, Ebert cannot resist trying, at least, to justify the film’s creation, grasping at straws to come up with some sort of reason as to why the film is valid entertainment. “You’re really being challenged to decide what you think about the material and how you should respond to it, and it’s not often that movies are really that challenging to audiences. Most movies make it very clear what response is expected and this movie kind of dares you to respond.” He does, however, get to the heart of what separates a bad movie from a ‘bad’ movie. “Unlike a lot of movies, it doesn’t bore me.”

VAMP (1986)

Two snotty jocks grab a rich nerd who has a car and drive into the city to hire a stripper for a fraternity, but end up in a den of vampires. That’s the essence of the 1986 horror comedy, Vamp, resurrected on Blu-ray by Arrow Video (October 14). Although the heroes, played by Robert Russler and Chris Makepeace, are jerks, they are surprisingly sympathetic. The impulse to like them is rewarded, as the first time they bump into some real thugs downtown, they surprise everyone by confidently gaining the upper hand. Vamp is witty, sexy, exciting, and even charming. Dedee Pfeiffer plays a stripper who recognizes Makepeace’s character, even though he can’t place her and is unsure, up to the final shot, if she is legit or just cleverer than the other vampires. Gedde Watanabe co-stars as the nerd, Billy Drago is memorable as one of the thugs, Sandy Baron is one of the barkeepers and Grace Jones sizzles in a turn as a seductive vampire stripper. Richard Wenk directed, constantly poking around the familiar traps of genre clichés, but wittily springing each one without stepping in it. The dialog is often very amusing, there is plenty of action and gore, and the characters are developed with genuine care, so that viewers remain engaged not so much because of the wild things that go on, but because the growth and appeal of the heroes remains compelling throughout.

Evocatively colored and lit, the transfer is fresh and crisp, so the film often looks much slicker than its budget ought to have provided. It’s clear that Wenk took his time to stage the most important sequences, such as Jones’ mouthwatering striptease, and made up for it by being less picky about the transitional sequences, although with the basic green-red lighting scheme (inspired by After Hours, according to the supplement), even those passages are aesthetically stimulating. The presentation has a strong monophonic track, although we would have welcomed a stereo remix to free it up some. There are optional English subtitles; two trailers; seven terrific TV commercials; a nice collection of production photos in still frame; a six-minute blooper reel that includes stunts and nudity that didn’t make it into the film, as well as some specific amusements; a seven-minute clip of a rehearsal with Jones (and Wenk performing stand-in duties), intended to determine the best camera angles for a vampire biting sequence, which is as erotic as anything in the film and makes you wish you could make movies; a wonderful 44-minute retrospective documentary, catching up with all of the now-older actors. Jones is absent, although the stories about her are the best. Each performer has charming memories, such as what happened when Drago went into a 7-Eleven after work while still in costume. The gift was that there are good people in this business,” Wenk says, “and that if you look hard enough, you’ll find them, and those are the ones you want to work with.”

DVD Geek: Medium Cool

Monday, October 17th, 2016

8005_1In 1968, it was clear that something would happen on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. With Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler and his collaborators assembled a viable romantic story, a Cinderella Liberty tale where a news cameraman (Robert Forster), chases after a kid who steals his bag then winds up falling for the kid’s hardworking but struggling mother (Verna Bloom). But, along with sending his character to pre-Convention events, Wexler also got Forster press credentials and into Chicago’s International Amphitheatre as rules votes and other events were unfolding at the Convention. Although it makes me wince, Wexler also put Bloom onto the streets as cops were attacking protesters. So there’s this fictional story, but instead of being staged, like the burning of Atlanta, it happens right in the middle of real, live history. However trite the romance is—and it concludes in what would be a ridiculous manner if Jean-Luc Godard hadn’t done the same thing, twice—it becomes profound as a shadow to the marriage of fiction and non-fiction. At least, that is how it seems, watching the Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection with its even better image and sound transfer, and a greater array of supplements.

Along with a repeat of the commentary from the DVD, Criterion includes a commentary by film historian Paul Cronin, who was also responsible for an elaborate retrospective documentary about the film, from which 53 minutes of excerpts (a quarter of the complete work) have been included. Cronin’s thesis is that by capturing one of 1968’s watershed events, the film exposes the attempted suppression of social protest and the media’s collusion in that suppression, both of which are actually fighting a tide of technological progress that was charted so brilliantly by the visionary, Marshall McLuhan. Wexler denies that McLuhan had that prominent of an influence on his work—Godard was more materially his inspiration—but poets often draw from the subconscious and looking back at it now, the film’s allegorical depiction of the metamorphosis media was undergoing at the hands of portable cameras is undeniable. “What’s important to note is that [Forster’s character]’s attitude reflects those of many members of the media after the Convention in Chicago. During those days in August ’68, there’s no doubt that the press was singled out and targeted by police. Several journalists were beaten and, as Haskell himself witnessed, some police explicitly tried to crack open the many cameras on the streets and expose the film. The result was that some members of the Chicago press were, if not radicalized by their experiences, certainly able to see the police and other power structures in a new light.”

Cronin also deconstructs how Wexler put the film together, planning some things, reacting on the spur of the moment to others, and he reports upon what went on during the staging or shooting of each segment. The documentary includes interviews with many of the participants (including some of the figures who were ‘interviewed’ by Forster’s character) and more details that enhance, without redundancy, what he covers in the commentary. Medium Cool runs 110 minutes, but there was extra footage, and some of that is included in the documentary, as is footage of Warren Beatty at the Convention, which Wexler shot in exchange for floor passes.

Guided by a suggestion from Studs Terkel, which had led Wexler to visit the region and do documentary research, migrants from West Virginia had settled in a specific Chicago neighborhood, and Bloom’s character was one such migrant—it was a legitimate way to explore the social dynamics of poverty and oppression without complicating the narrative with race. Portraying Bloom’s son, the young actor Harold Blankenship had himself grown up in West Virginia and moved to Chicago. Although he is seen reading a book in the movie (as Cronin points out, his character is associated with the ‘Old World’), he was actually illiterate and fell off the radar after the movie was made. Cronin tracked him down in 2007, back in West Virginia, and there is a heartbreaking 16-minute interview in which the viewer quickly surmises that, although some of his children have apparently made it through school, his life remains mired in the poverty he knew as a child—he was not even accomplished enough to work in a coal mine. His one opportunity to break free of that fate—the film—came to nothing. Eerily, he brings out a snapshot of his own mother, who looks uncannily like Bloom.

Wexler supplies a retrospective interview from the 2013 Criterion DVD release, running 15 minutes, looking over his career a bit and pointing out specific aspects of Medium Cool, including the interviews with radicalized African-Americans, that represented the real core of what he wanted to get across, the sense that a social movement can only succeed if it can find an entrance to the public discourse. He also speaks about his passion for recording events on camera, and how that has defined his life.

Finally, remember the big protests that were held in Chicago in 2012 when the city hosted a NATO summit? The national media chose to ignore the demonstrations and gatherings that were accompanied by an equal number of security forces. Wexler was there, and filmed a 33-minute epilog, “Medium Cool Revisited.” He’s in the doc itself (he’s in Medium Cool, too, as the supplements show you how to spot him), but he also garnered footage from inside the summit, so that he could juxtapose the pomp and circumstance of the meeting with the chaotic displeasure being expressed outside. The piece is an old guy trying to relive the “80-yard run” glories of his youth, but the film is also a validation of his earlier feature: that what he captured the first time was not a random incident, but part of a pattern of governing beyond democracy that will remain America’s dirty little secret until more movies like this get made, and this one gets widely seen.

 

 

You would think that given the film’s documentary roots, there would not be that much of an improvement to the image, since the DVD was decently produced to begin with. But the picture is sharper and better detailed, with slightly improved colors, and the enhancements, along with the crisper monophonic audio track, improve the viewer’s concentration.

Along with a repeat of the commentary from the DVD, Criterion has included a commentary by film historian Paul Cronin, who was also responsible for an elaborate retrospective documentary about the film, from which 53 minutes of excerpts (a quarter of the complete work) have also been included. Cronin’s thesis is that by capturing one of 1968’s watershed events, the film exposes the attempted suppression of social protest and the media’s collusion in that suppression, both of which are actually fighting a tide of technological progress that was charted so brilliantly by the visionary, Marshall McLuhan. Wexler denies that McLuhan had that prominent of an influence on his work—Godard was more materially his inspiration—but poets often draw from the subconscious and looking back at it now, the film’s allegorical depiction of the metamorphosis media was undergoing at the hands of portable cameras is undeniable. “What’s important to note is that [Forster’s character]’s attitude reflects those of many members of the media after the Convention in Chicago. During those days in August ’68, there’s no doubt that the press was singled out and targeted by police. Several journalists were beaten and, as Haskell himself witnessed, some police explicitly tried to crack open the many cameras on the streets and expose the film. The result was that some members of the Chicago press were, if not radicalized by their experiences, certainly able to see the police and other power structures in a new light.”

Cronin also deconstructs how Wexler put the film together, planning some things, reacting on the spur of the moment to others, and he reports upon what went on during the staging or shooting of each segment. The documentary includes interviews with many of the participants (including some of the figures who were ‘interviewed’ by Forster’s character) and more details that enhance, without redundancy, what he covers in the commentary. Medium Cool runs 110 minutes, but predictably, there was quite a bit of extra footage, and some of that is included in the documentary, as is footage of Warren Beatty at the Convention, which Wexler shot in exchange for passes to get his people onto the floor.

Guided by a suggestion from Studs Terkel, which had led Wexler to visit the region and do documentary research, migrants from West Virginia had settled in a specific Chicago neighborhood, and Bloom’s character was one such migrant—it was a legitimate way to explore the social dynamics of poverty and oppression without complicating the narrative with race. Portraying Bloom’s son, the young actor Harold Blankenship had himself grown up in West Virginia and moved to Chicago. Although he is seen reading a book in the movie (as Cronin points out, his character is associated with the ‘Old World’), he was actually illiterate and fell off the radar after the movie was made. Cronin tracked him down in 2007, back in West Virginia, and there is a heartbreaking 16-minute interview in which the viewer quickly surmises that, although some of his children have apparently made it through school, his life remains mired in the poverty he knew as a child—he was not even accomplished enough to work in a coal mine. His one opportunity to break free of that fate—the film—came to nothing. Eerily, he brings out a snapshot of his own mother, who looks uncannily like Bloom.

Wexler supplies a retrospective interview from 2013, running 15 minutes, looking over his career a bit and pointing out specific aspects of Medium Cool, such as the interviews with radicalized African-Americans, that represented the real core of what he wanted to get across, the sense that a social movement can only succeed if it can find an entrance to the public discourse. He also speaks about his passion for recording events on camera, and how that has defined his life.

Finally, remember the big protests that were held in Chicago in 2012 when the city hosted a NATO summit? Of course you don’t, unless you lived there at the time. The national media chose to ignore the demonstrations and gatherings that were accompanied by an equal number of security forces, attempting to further suppress whatever vocalization was attempting to contradict NATO’s mandates. Wexler was there, however, and filmed a lot of it, creating a 33-minute epilog to Medium Cool, “Medium Cool” Revisited. He’s in the film itself (he’s in Medium Cool, too, as the supplements show you how to spot him), but he also managed to garner footage from inside the summit, so that he could juxtapose the pomp and circumstance of the meeting with the chaotic displeasure being expressed outside. On the one hand, the piece is about an old guy trying to relive the ‘80-yard run’ glories of his youth, but on the other hand, the film is a validation of his earlier feature, that what he had captured on film the first time was not just a random incident, but part of a pattern of governing beyond democracy that will remain America’s dirty little secret until more movies like this get made, and this one gets seen more often.

 

DVD Geek: Walking Dead Season Six

Friday, October 14th, 2016

“The Walking Dead” zombies probably should be identified as “classic Romero zombies.” The drama is  compelling because it uses a fantasy horror premise to magnify human conflicts and emotions that otherwise could not be so readily highlighted. And to this invigorating drama, there is the constant suspense of a zombie attack. You never know where or when it is going to happen. Unlike realistic suspense films, zombie films are freed from the burdens of character motivation. Zombies want to eat people, because that’s what they do. Until their heads are damaged, they can be wandering around, they can be stuck under the wheel of a car, they can be hanging from a noose, but they will still do their damnedest to lunge at any living human who passes too closely. Their otherwise decomposed or damaged figures bring additional gruesome joy to viewers who are not hiding under the couch. The point is that they can appear at any time—during a scene of peaceful, contemplative conversation or during a scene of desperate action—and it never gets old or repetitive, because each situation is new. The show’s action sequences also feel fresh because they play out of and adapt to the horror premise, so that while providing plenty of human interaction and emotional insight, the episodes are often exhilarating, and even more so now that the show’s popularity has loosened up its budget.

But, as countless films, good and bad, have proven, zombie shows are not really about the zombies, they are about the humans who have survived or are trying to survive. The major narrative arcs in “Walking Dead” have always been about humans getting along with other humans, after the zombie apocalypse has diminished civilization. Do you trade and cooperate with the neighboring encampment of survivors, or do you fight and take their stuff? The best moments in “Walking Dead” have been the personal dramas, particularly when one character sees a loved one killed or worse, ‘turned,’ but the greater story lines have always been about the different modes of governing that develop in small groups of desperate survivors, and how much or how little they remain human when they meet others like themselves.

The worst parts of “The Walking Dead The Complete Sixth Season,” an Anchor Bay Blu-ray, are the first and last episodes, but that does not negate how fully worthwhile and even outstanding the season is as a whole. At the conclusion of the fifth season, the heroes had found a genuinely peaceful community walled off from the horrors that infect the land. In the sixth season, they become integrated with that community, devise a plan to protect the community from an enormous influx of zombies who have been freed from a large-scale confinement by natural causes, and then begin to interact with other enclaves of survivors in the region. It is these latter interactions that are rendered so superbly in the sixth season, to the point where it becomes tough to assess whether the heroes are heroes, or whether their plight has turned them into monsters in human form. In other words, which ones are really “The Walking Dead”? These decisions don’t just affect the heroes, either—the viewer is forced to choose whether to support or reject their actions and is thus, under the safety of the entertainment, obligated to examine their own values and priorities in order to share in the accomplishments the characters achieve. The center part of the season is outstanding in its mix of action, horror, drama, emotion and moral introspection.

Nevertheless, it is the first and last episodes of a season that define it to many, and to those many, the season will come up short. The first episode is needlessly complicated, and discards too uncaringly the cliffhanger from the season before. Either problem on its own would probably be surmountable, but the combination of the two is deadly. The episode cuts backwards and forwards in time (conveniently rendering the flashbacks in black and white), but in doing so, does not explain clearly enough what is happening. The story proceeds into several subsequent episodes, and once those have been viewed, then the beginning is easier to understand. But that is where the flaw occurs—once you watch the segment a couple of more times to understand what is going on and see around the shortcuts the writers took to maintain their awkward storytelling format, the more you see how rapidly the excellent premise at the end of the previous season was immediately and almost uncaringly discarded. In essence, that premise does carry forward in the greater themes that the season is exploring, but the immediate satisfaction of the outstanding dramatic conflict, which was so intricately developed in the previous season, evaporates in a flash, and the frustration this causes distances the viewer from the show.

The problems with the last episode are simpler. The actual cliffhanger, essentially a reiteration of the cliffhanger from the fourth season, but without the net, is outstanding, and will continue to disturb the viewer until it is finally resolved with the beginning of the next season (let us hope there is no zombie apocalypse in the interim to upset this schedule). But build up to the cliffhanger, something that either should have been stretched out, or thought out more carefully, is compacted into the episode in such a rushed manner that, once again, the program’s dramatic integrity is challenged. Basically, the heroes, who up to this point have been brilliant tacticians, start behaving with utter stupidity, just as flagrant coincidences all start working against them. It is as lazy an entrance to a cliffhanger as the first episode was a lazy exit to one, and it can only be hoped that the pattern will not be repeated the next time around.

Originally broadcast in 2015 and 2016, sixteen episodes are spread across four discs, running a total of 754 minutes. There is a ‘Play All’ option. The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio around 1.78:1. Generally, the special effects are seamless, although once in a while, an explosion or background effect will look off kilter. The 7.1-channel Dolby sound is wonderful, with plenty of directional effects and shocks, and a very impressive bass for a TV series. There is an alternate French track in standard stereo, and optional English and Spanish subtitles.

Once again, Anchor Bay has done a poor job in designing the menu for the commentary tracks. As with the fifth season, there is no indication of the presence of a commentary track on an individual episode until you actually select and play that specific episode. Either the episode starts right up, or a prompt appears asking if you want to hear the commentary. For the record, the first and last episodes on each of the four discs is accompanied by a commentary, while the middle two episodes are not, except for the second disc, which just has a commentary on the last episode. Most of the talks have a mix of cast and crew members, and share stories about the production logistics, discuss the narrative and the characters, and provide other little tidbits about the show. And once in a while, they even get wrapped up in the show’s moral quandaries. “It goes back to, it sounds clichéd, but it’s the Anne Frank ‘believing in the good of people.’” “We had a long talk about whether people are fundamentally good, and [we] still have that disagreement, which is that I do believe they are fundamentally good. He does not.” “I could take it a step further. I would say that people fundamentally don’t want to hurt other people, but that doesn’t mean they’re good.”

A fifth disc with special features is also included, and again, the flaws of the previous season releases have been replicated. There are 90 minutes of production featurettes, all of which are informative and include behind-the-scenes material, but many of them are divided up to show what went on during the making of each episode, and there is no ‘Play All’ option. Lastly, the final episode is reprised with a running time that is a minute longer than the broadcast version that appears on the fourth disc. The show’s producers, perhaps to get it out of their system, shot the final cliffhanger scene almost exactly as it had been presented in the graphic novel, with all of the Samuel L. Jackson-style cursing that accompanied the horrific mental and physical abuse rained upon the heroes in tact. They then went again and shot the version they could show on AMC, because after all, it’s fine to broadcast images of people wandering around with body parts hanging loose and heads being smashed, but perish the thought that somebody is saying the ‘F word’ a bunch. In any case, the poetry of the scene is improved, and it would be worth the effort to stop watching the fourth disc after the third episode on that disc, and switch over to the fifth disc for the finale.

DVD Geek: Johnny Guitar

Wednesday, October 5th, 2016

Dispensing with archetypes that populated so many westerns, Nicholas Ray’s memorable 1954 Republic Pictures production, Johnny Guitar, released as an impressive Olive Signature Blu-ray is filled with vivid, unpredictable characters. From an action perspective, the film is rudimentary—there are a couple of fistfights, some gunplay and a chase or two—but the emotions of the characters make up for it. Sudden fiery bursts or sustained flares of feelings leap out of the characters, and are as exciting as any quick draw. The plot also benefits. It’s filled with gaps (a stage robbery in the opening scene is never resolved) and odd fantasies (a gang of men have a nice cabin on a hilltop that is somehow hidden from view and can only be reached by traveling under a waterfall), but it moves forward breathlessly on the interactions between the characters, and nothing else matters. Like Joan Crawford’s character, it is dressed in a western costume but something very different resides underneath.

Sterling Hayden Johnny Guitar, hired to play music at a casino built into a rock face by Crawford’s character, who is expecting that train tracks will eventually come close enough to start a town. (Most of the interiors are made of cozy-looking wood but the rear walls are boulders.) Another group is against progress, but have been worked into a tizzy because a rancher, played to furious perfection by Mercedes McCambridge, is jealous that one of the men from the gang in the cabin likes Crawford’s character and not her (or maybe that Crawford’s character likes him and not her, or both). Scott Brady, Ernest Borgnine, Ward Bond, John Carradine, Paul Fix and Royal Dano co-star.

The Blu-ray comes fromOlive’s most recent re-mastering of the film, which looks nicer than faded, grainy presentations of the past. The colors are vivid—especially Crawford’s outfits—and while the image is not as slick as it might have been if the film had been produced for a fancier studio, it looks good enough to keep you involved in the drama. The monophonic sound is quite clean, and the music is smooth. There are optional English subtitles, and a trailer.

The film has undergone all manner of critical deconstruction over the years, with good cause, and film critic Geoff Andrew in his commentary track conveys the essential ideas. In addition talking about the cast and crew, their history, and how they worked together, he points out the film’s Freudian undercurrents, the dynamics of the movie’s designs, the undermining of western traditions (“In this case, the women are driving the action, from start to finish.”), and other symbolic features. “One of the strange things about Johnny Guitar is that it works almost as an elemental story of very primal forces and primitive emotions, and Ray certainly pushes the symbolism of the elements quite a lot. At the beginning, we saw how there was a dust storm, as well as explosions, and, you know, the land was being whipped up by the wind, which was almost hurling people into [the] saloon. Fire and water also come into play.”

Along with a three-minute introduction by Martin Scorsese (“An intense, unconventional, stylized picture, full of ambiguities and subtext that rendered it extremely modern.”), the disc also contains a number of retrospective featurettes. The best is a 14-minute analysis of Ray’s film as an early feminist western, examining not only how some of the gender roles are switched in the movie, but how others are not switched, and how innovative the film was for its time in this regard. There is a good 10-minute piece that goes over the murky history of its screenwriting credits and examines important parts of its story as being analogous to the HUAC trials; another good six-minute summary of the history of Republic Pictures and how that relates to the production of the film; and an 11-minute segment about Ray’s late career, featuring interviews with people who worked with him on his final two films.

DVD Geek: Batman v Superman: The Dawn of Justice Ultimate

Saturday, October 1st, 2016

Zack Snyder’s script for the 2016 hit/flop, Batman v Superman The Dawn of Justice, isn’t all that bad. The villain tricks two superheroes into believing that the other has been a careless murderer, and if you think Superman could whoop Batman with his little finger, you’re forgetting Kryptonite. Snyder’s adaptation boasts an Old Testament undertone, set against a futuristic, yet present-day. Snyder’s execution, however, is ill-advised and lackluster despite the fact he made one of the finest comic book movies ever, Watchmen. This was a problem with the theatrical release, but the core flaws remain in the three-disc Blu-ray, Batman v Superman The Dawn of Justice Ultimate. The theatrical version, included on both the DVD and one of the BDs, runs 151 minutes, while the Ultimate Edition, featured on the other BD disc, runs 183 minutes. The additional footage brings more to the story, expanding scenes, adding action (and violence—Ultimate Edition was changed from ‘PG-13’ to ‘R’), and creating a better balance for the film’s pace.

BvS has been criticized for being humorless, and there are only three jokes or so in the entire expanded feature. As much as we thrive on the clever banter in many of the other superhero movies, a film can still entertain without that sort of thing if it achieves a compelling vision and delivers a strong dramatic conflict where you can see into the souls of the characters. Snyder fails to achieve that alternative. Henry Cavill carries over his Superman character from Man of Steel, a film I found to be very entertaining and satisfying. Since his character was already well established in that film, however, there is not much that can be added to his personality or psychology in this one. He still has more flair and humanity than Ben Affleck, who fills in stiffly as Batman. Affleck’s character is given very little depth, despite dream sequences that are supposed to show his emotional suffering. Normally, a director and actor can work around such limitations, since that is what good acting is supposed to be about, but Affleck offers nothing—no zeal, no introspection, no feelings at all. Christian Bale was probably smart to duck out on the part.

Near the end of the film, after a couple of teasing glimpses early on, Gal Gadot shows up as Wonder Woman.’Her entire presence reeks of a promotion for sequels and spin-offs. You know nothing about her other than she is hot, and has some kind of glowing lasso that can take down monsters. The personality will have to wait for another movie, and besides, she is overshadowed by the film’s one true saving grace, Amy Adams, who provides the spine of the film. Like the comic book series from so long ago, the film really should have been titled, “Lois Lane,” as Adams provides not only the movie’s heart, but its only identifiably normal persona. Without her, the film would be a complete waste of time, but with her, you’re willing to stick around and watch all the other stuff.

The villain is portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, who has been faulted, one supposes, for not bringing enough machismo to his part, something even Gene Hackman managed to do in his rendition of the role back in the Seventies, however much of a buffoon he otherwise was. Frankly, we don’t care as much about tradition as others, especially when it comes to comic books. Next to Adams, Eisenberg’s villain is the softest and most accessible character. Snyder fails him by not drawing a little more eccentricity out of his behavior, but his character growth is effective and by the end, he is the only one among the principals who shows real promise for whatever sequels may come.

And the rest is hardware and effects, which ought to be Snyder’s forte, but is reduced to the most common denominators and is rarely enlivening. All comic book movies these days suffer from competitive escalation—the big effect scenes have to be bigger and more amazing than the ones in other movies. One reason Ant-man succeeded was that it just kept to its own little thing, adding a few interesting and engaging visuals, but avoiding a grand spectacle. But with some movie entitled Batman v Superman, a grand spectacle is expected. That’s probably why Snyder got hired, for his abilities as a visionary, but those abilities failed him. A few of the action scenes are engaging, but none are memorable, and the big battle at the end, except for the sequences involving Adams, is neither original nor particularly inventive. Its level of spectacle was surpassed several years ago.

 

DVD Geek: A Taste of Honey, Miles Ahead, Love & Mercy, The Comeback, Miss Sadie Thompson 3D

Wednesday, August 31st, 2016

A Taste Of Honey

Criterion’s just released Tony Richardson’s 1961 black-and-white depiction of a young unmarried woman coping with her pregnancy, A Taste of Honey, with a lovely picture transfer. Rita Tushingham stars, with Dora Bryan as her mostly absent mother and Murray Melvin in a breakthrough role as a gay friend who moves in with her. Set in dreary Manchester—in one sequence, neighborhood children play by a pool of industrial waste—the film has a naturally depressing air, but, based upon a stage play, the dialogue and characterizations are vivid and consistently unexpected. Between the appeal of listening to the problems of a troubled friend, and creating a captivating replication of real dialogue and emotions in condensed dramatic form, the 100-minute feature is consistently engrossing.

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.66:1. The image is spotless, and the presentation has the texture of projected film. The monophonic sound is solid. John Addison’s musical score is overstuffed with children’s songs, but is otherwise beguiling. The famous tune, covered by The Beatles and Herb Alpert among others, has nothing to do with the movie. Extras include optional English subtitles; a fifteen-minute  audio interview with Richardson from 1962, set over clips and photos from his career up to Hone , where he talks mostly about the differences between working in theater and working in film. Contrary to what most directors say, Richardson claims that the film medium is an auteur medium, where all of the other artists are working to fulfill the director’s vision. There’s an 18-minute retrospective interview with Tushingham (she’d answered an ad for the role in a newspaper, essentially by chance); a 19-minute retrospective interview with Melvin, who played the role on the stage earlier (“I was Gay Pride of 1958!”) and recalls how the work was gradually streamlined and perfected Plus, a good 20-minute retrospective audio interview from 1998 with cinematographer Walter Lassally, accompanied by clips as he steps through his shooting strategies. Quite daringly, he mixed film stocks, depending upon the availability of light in a sequence. There’s also a great 15-minute black-and-white 1960 TV interview with the bubbly, chain-smoking playwright, Shelagh Delaney, who seems to have been an instinctive writer, free of self-analysis, talking about her writing and the differences between her and the establishment, as represented by the matronly interviewer (although she was very impressed with Graham Greene when he took her to dinner).

Additionally, there is a 21-minute documentary that Richardson made in 1956—his first film—with Karel Reisz, Momma Don’t Allow, a black-and-white performance by a British Dixieland jazz band at a dance club, augmented with clips of young working class couples going about their daily routines and then spending the evening at the club. The filmmakers catch the little dramas that can occur between young couples across an evening, but focus on the group intoxication that develops through the frenzy of dancing. Nothing like a little music to turn a dreary world into a happy one.

 

Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle not only portrays jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, he also directed the dramatized 2015 portrait of Davis, Miles Ahead (SPHE). Cheadle’s film construtcts a fictional 72-hour incident in Davis’ life, combining it with flashbacks that evoke the beginning, progress and dissolution of his marriage to a dancer played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, all of which is lusciously, edgily entwined with Davis’ music. Set in the mid-1970s, after a stretch of writer’s block, Miles Ahead is an entertaining and lively adventure (a car chase, shooting) into the spirit of one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest composer musicians. Ewan McGregor plays a reporter who wrangles his way into Davis’ townhouse and then helps him score and retrieve a set recording. Running a brisk 100 minutes, the film does not try to do anything more than present a memorable snapshot of Davis, but thanks to the performances and the freeflowing narrative, it conveys both his irascible personality and his music’s sweeping brilliance.

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The image is sharp and glossy. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has a lovely dimensionality and is reasonably sharp. Actual Davis tracks are used on much of the soundtrack. There is an audio track that describes the action (“The woman walks to a spiral staircase and climbs up. Miles stares after her with a frown. The glow around the room fades, leaving him alone in his dimly lit home. Limping across the living room, he takes a drag from his cigarette.”), alternate French, Spanish, Portuguese and Thai audio tracks, optional English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai and two types of Chinese subtitles, a trailer, a good 21-minute production featurette, and a 22-minute Q&A with Cheadle, McGregor, Corinealdi and co-star Keith Stanfield.

Cheadle and co-screenwriter Steven Baigelman provide commentary, describing how the film was shot, with Cincinnati as a stand-in for 1970s New York, how the new music and performances were shuffled in with the classic Davis tracks, how the fictional portions of the film were intended to evoke specific expressions of Davis’ spirit, and how Davis’ music remains such a sublime achievement. During one lovely sequence where Cheadle’s character and his combo playin a dark, smoky nightclub, it appears at one point that only Corinealdi’s character is present, as if they were serenading her alone. But something far less sultry was going on behind the scenes. “We’re doing this off the playback. Of course, we’re going to use the master’s music, especially on a track like this, but what’s actually happening in the background, because we have all the atmosphere, the smoke in the room, the smoke alarm is going off, the fire alarm is going off, and the fire department is rolling down the street full of sirens. So, it’s the antithesis to what’s happening inside here.”

Love & Mercy

Like some of the music it includes, the Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy (Lionsgate), is deceptively complex. Normally, if a film were to use equal portions of two adult movie stars playing the same historical character, cutting back and forth between them as this film cuts back and forth between the 1960s and the 1980s, it would seem like a failure brought on by mismatched performances and poor casting. The actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack, don’t even have the same earlobes, yet given that the 2014 film’s subject is the “schizophrenia” of the troubled Beach Boys genius, Brian Wilson, the use of two different actors to embody him cleverly reinforces the theme. And the director, Bill Pohlad, is cognizant of it. Cusack even appears as a different character, who may or may not be there, in a group scene with Dano, and at another point, through deliberately confusing camera angles and sound mixing, a female character appears to be talking to herself across a table in a diner. This theme also dovetails brilliantly into the music itself, as the film explores the composition of the Pet Sounds album, the incredibly multi-layered song, Good Vibrations (the deconstruction of its composition alone makes the film worthwhile), and Wilson’s over-the-edge shelved project, Happy. Dano is terrific, conveying both the enthusiasm and the fear that the Wilson character feels as his creativity impinges upon his sanity. Cusack is also terrific, portraying a completely broken man dominated by a corrupt doctor (one of the film’s villains, played by Paul Giamatti), until he is rescued by a sharp Cadillac saleswoman, embodied to perfection by Elizabeth Banks, the latter also providing the drama with an uplifting and very happy ending (including a perfect final frame). The film switches steadily between the hero’s edging his way toward madness, and his rescue from it, decorated with period designs and not just the Beach Boys music (the actors do an excellent job pretending to sing the genuine tracks), but many other Sixties classics. In that an entire generation seemed to go, schizophrenically, from carefree to materialistic in those same decades, the film is, in some ways, the story of us all.

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The colors from the 1960s sequences pop out accordingly, while the 1980s sequences have a smoother design scheme, all transferred with precision. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has fantastic separations and beautiful, clear tones. There is an alternate Spanish track; optional English and Spanish subtitles; seven minutes of excellent, enlightening and wisely removed deleted scenes; an insightful 11-minute production featurette focusing on the film’s designs “We watched them go from their Pendletons, to their thin stripes, to their kind of thicker stripes. Every single time it was accurate to the shirts they were wearing then,” we learn. “We were really alluding to sort of the commercialism, and this thing that represented youthfulness begins to look almost like jail bars, or something that’s imprisoning them. In fact, the last time you see the stripe shirts in the movie, they’re dark blue. They lose the red and they go into something a lot more somber. We’re watching the thing that liberated them become this thing that’s really holding them back.” There’s also a solid 26-minute promotional featurette, which includes interviews with Wilson and his wife.

Pohlad and producer Oren Moverman supply a good commentary track, talking about staging, how they managed on a tight budget and the actual story of Wilson’s struggles and his music. When a character suggests to Dano’s character in a recording session that he may have made an error in his composition, Moverman points out, “This is the line that we figured out that explains the movie. ‘Two bass lines, playing two different keys.’ That’s kind of the movie in a nutshell.” So to speak.

 

The Comeback

Almost all comedy involves humiliation, whether it is a joke teller going out on a limb in hopes the people will laugh, or the limb itself breaking and falling gracelessly to the ground, embarrassing whoever was hanging from it. Lisa Kudrow made an interesting little comedy series for HBO, The Comeback, which was based almost entirely upon the utter and constant humiliation of her character. Originally broadcast in 2005, it lasted for one season, and was released on HBO in a two-platter set as The Comeback The Complete First Only Season, but 9 years later, in 2014, the creators brought it back for one more season (the phones may be a little smaller, but generally it is hard to discern how much of a transition there has been until the story starts to unfold), both of which are presented in the HBO Video four-disk set (including the same two platters from the first set), simply entitled, The Comeback.

Kudrow plays a fading actress who was once in a popular sitcom and has landed a role as sort of a Norman Fell character in a new show, mostly about the sex lives of characters barely out of their teens, and targeted to an even younger audience. At the same time, her participation in the show is itself being recorded as a cross-promoted reality TV series. In the inspired second part, she “comes back” again, landing a role playing a version of herself in a dramatic sitcom based upon what was happening behind the scenes in the earlier sitcom, and has the reality cameras following her around again, ostensibly to produce a behind-the-scenes feature. And all the while, Kudrow’s character can never catch a break. Every success she has is undercut by some sort of indignity or insult, often due to her own character’s obliviousness to what is going on around her. The program spoofs many different aspects of the television business, especially sitcoms, reality shows, and cable programs. At first, the humor just seems discomforting, and the show does have a deadpan tone that remains fairly consistent through both seasons (the very end of the last episode, which breaks away from the “reality” video, has a happy, heartfelt conclusion), but gradually your resistance crumbles. Even viewers who find Kudrow irritating will appreciate the indignities that are beset upon her. Sometimes the show can be very funny or insightful, and if you aren’t entirely turned off by the masochistic sadism of the whole thing, then you’ll probably find it unique and amusing.

Each platter has a “Play All” option. There are twenty-one episodes on the combined version, running a total of 653 minutes. The first part is in full screen format and the second part is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The image transfer looks bright and crisp, and the stereo sound is centered. There is an alternate Spanish track, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, a so-so three-minute deleted scene, and a very funny six-minute piece about the aftermath of a disastrous Dancing with the Stars appearance.

Eight of the episodes have commentary tracks featuring Kudrow and show runner-co-creator Michael Patrick King. In one episode, Kudrow does the commentary by herself, “in character,” and in two, King speaks by himself. For the other five, they sit together and talk about everything that went into conceiving and executing the show. The commentaries give you a chance to really analyze the intricacies of Kudrow’s talent, especially when she does the one talk as her character. She sharpens her voice and removes the sensitivity that she has as a “real person” in the other talks. It’s not a blatant change, but it is enough that you recognize she is doing something specific to separate her character from herself, and then, when you watch the show again, you see how she allows the little attacks on her character to slip past those defenses and sting. As King points out in his first talk, when Kudrow’s character is doing a table read, “The great thing about Lisa is, she knew that line, and yet she realized [her character] had to look at the script before. That’s the thing about working with Lisa. It almost feels like it’s not acting, it’s just behaving.”

Miss Sadie Thompson 3D

Only a small subset of home video enthusiasts are 3D enthusiasts. I get that. 3D is thought of as having a limited number of advantages, which mostly boil down to making you duck when spears and stuff are thrown at the camera. There are other advantages, particularly when 3D reinforces a film’s thematic foundation. But there are also advantages even when a film’s dramatic content has no bearing whatsoever on its 3D effects. Instead, a film can be improved by the 3D format—indeed, a film can be rescued by the 3D format—entirely because it alters how a viewer observes the drama.

A case in point is the fantastic Columbia Pictures-Twilight Time Blu-ray release, Miss Sadie Thompson 3D. Rita Hayworth stars in the 1953 feature, based upon one of Somerset Maugham’s popular stories and directed by Curtis Bernhardt. The film is also available in 2D on the platter, and in both instances, the color transfer is super, with fresh hues and flesh tones, and not a speckle to be seen. The cinematography is not quite as admirable, but that is purposeful at times—Hayworth’s character is sharply focused when she is a party girl, but made overly soft and hazy when she converts, briefly, to a higher morality.

Set in the South Seas (a fair portion of the film was shot on location) immediately after World War II on an island still occupied by American servicemen, Hayworth’s character is stranded for a week until she can catch another boat to take her further west. Seeing her, the servicemen stuck on the island go nuts and have a great time basically celebrating her existence, but a huffy church guy with pull, played by Jose Ferrer, does his best to put a stop to it, and to send Hayworth’s character back to the States. Aldo Ray co-stars as the serviceman who gets the closest to her, and Charles Bronson, under his other name, also has a decent supporting part as one of Ray’s buddies. The thing is, this is Maugham. There are a couple of musical numbers, and an organic dance sequence, but it is melodrama most of the time. Running 91 minutes, the plotting is never completely alienating, but long stretches of the story are stale, and Hayworth can’t always be singing and dancing. The performances are great—Ferrer’s character may be utterly villainous, but as an actor he’s fearless with the part, and he’s the least appealing personality on the screen—but a lot of time is spent huffing and puffing about dilemmas that today’s viewers would brush aside without a care.

Ah, but in 3D, you’re not watching a movie. You’re watching a stage play. Hayworth, Ferrer and Ray are there in front of you, as real as rain. In a play, archaic emotional conflicts are acceptable, because the thrill comes from having live humans within a graspable distance from you, acting out those emotions, and 3D is the next best thing to them being alive, until we all get holodeck rooms in our houses. To see Ray, Bronson and the other actors in the opening scene, kicking around the beach in boredom, is a dazzling experience, because they have bulk, and they have three-dimensional space between them, and there are objects like trees and waves in front of them and behind them. And then after you’ve had a chance to savor that for a while, the legendary movie star, Rita Hayworth (still famous today thanks to The Shawshank Redemption), comes traipsing into the center of the stage, just an arm’s length away. She’s a little shorter than she seems in the movies, and she delivers an excellent performance, coming across at first like Lucille Ball in one of her serious roles, but opening herself up once she gets more comfortable with the guys around her.

The song and dance number is reasonably effective in 2D—Columbia used it to open the 2D trailer that has been included on the disc—but in 3D, it is a glorious, breathtaking moment. Hayworth is in a red dress that is sticking to her because of the humidity and passing storms outside. The bar is so crowded she barely has space to move, but space is made so that she can gyrate as she sings. And surrounding her (rather than simply circling her in 2D) is a mass of men with worn, olive green uniforms and grimy, sweaty flesh. She is a pulsing heart in the center of that mass, not so much what they want as what they live for. Later, under less populated circumstances, she relaxes on a bed with her head on a pillow and there is a shot that lingers on her long enough to give her the contours of a marble statue. Her performance has been vivid—relaxed and wisecracking with the men, confident about who she is regardless of how much attention she’s getting—but at this point you see what she has been hiding from the men with her easygoing persona. The men in the room probably aren’t aware of it, because they’re not in the shot, and again, in 2D, it’s only a shot, but in 3D, she seems so close that you could put your hand out and run it along her shoulder. She’s not sharing her sensuality with them, only with you.

The film has many other dimensional delights. The opening credits are suspended in the air, in front of palm trees swaying in the wind, until, near the end, a tree appears in the foreground and the lettering just about slips behind it. Ray’s back obscures half a shot rather awkwardly in 2D, but in 3D you feel his bulk viscerally and it adds to the sexual dynamics of the scene. The only ‘duck’ moment occurs when Ray breaks some bottles of perfume in anger and the glass goes flying all over the place. It might not have even been intentional that a piece comes flying your way, but that just makes you appreciate it all the more. Most of the scene transitions use dissolves, and in 3D, they are great fun, as you eagerly await for the new set or location to materialize out of the old one. But the most valuable contribution the 3D format brings to the film is that it preserves the drama’s existence for the ages. Tastes will change even more, people will forget what World War II was, and Maugham will become irrelevant, but so long as the film is available in 3D, the past can exist as the past and still have the vitality to mesmerize eager viewers.

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1. The monophonic sound is strong and worth amplifying. There are optional English subtitles and a viable 4-minute retrospective featurette narrated by Patricia Clarkson. Two film historians, David Del Valle and Steven Peros, supply a commentary track. They talk a bit about the production and the players, spend a little more time on Maugham (they read passages from his original short story), the previous adaptations of the tale, and the traditions of censorship surrounding the story (which is actually rather explicit for its time, much more so than, say, the vaguely similar Streetcar Named Desire), and then devote the majority of their time to talking about Hayworth, discussing not only the intricacies of her performance here, but her entire life and career. Until her early onset Alzheimer’s, which was mistaken at the time for alcoholism, she had a reputation as a dedicated worker who was free of the normal trappings of ego one associates with many movie stars. “I’ve done a lot of research on Rita Hayworth, and you can’t find one person who has a bad word to say about Rita Hayworth, or specifically working with her.”

 

DVD Geek: Only Angels Have Wings

Monday, August 22nd, 2016

So much happens in Howard Hawks’ 121-minute Only Angels Have Wings that it would be easy to overlook the outstanding production design in the opening scene: a boat arrives at a South American port to drop passengers and mail, and pick up bananas. Other than introducing a couple of characters, the segment seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the film, set at an airfield on the other side of town, as well in the air itself.  The production design is impressive there, too, integrating believable models with flying sequences, to the point where you can’t always tell what is shot practically and what was not.  ut the opening scene, as the ship negotiates the dock, teeming with workers and merchants, is a testament to how great the film is when you’ve forgotten it by the time the movie ends. Every element is impressive, and we’re only at the opening chord.

Our heroes have one more week to ‘earn a mail contract,’ and a pretty disastrous week it will be, with pilots dying and planes coming apart. But that is what great entertainment does, squeeze a lifetime’s worth of adventure into an afternoon’s interlude. Jean Arthur or Cary Grant stars, depending upon what perspective you want to take on the action and drama. Arthur’s character, fresh off the ship and not intending to stay, finds herself caught up in the camaraderie and intensity of the flyers’ world, and despite her intentions, but inevitably from the history of motion pictures, she falls for Grant’s character, the boss of the outfit. Grant’s character is intent upon getting the mail contract, not for the wealth it represents, but because he feels it is his responsibility to support the livelihood of his co-workers. He’s attracted to Arthur’s character primarily because she is more intelligent and anchored than the women he is used to being involved with, but his closest relationship is with his partner, played by Thomas Mitchell, who is, in essence, Arthur’s principal rival. And then? Rita Hayworth sashays into the film.

A classic production from the greatest year of classic American movies, 1939, the action scenes are terrific, not only because of realistic special effects, but because the editing is precise in its suspense, and the dramatic sequences are equally dazzling, with Hawks’ legendary overlapping dialog and complex yet organic character blocking. Criterion’s blu-ray release is spotless, and exchanges the softness of earlier DVDs for the texture of projected celluloid. The fog in the film’s fog sequences no longer looks phony, and you are absorbed by the movie’s images, regardless of how dark and stormy the environment becomes. The mono soundtrack is also stronger and crisper, with the film’s sound editing standing out. There are optional English subtitles, a trailer, a very good 17-minute analysis of the film’s artists and artistry by David Thomson, and a fascinating 21-minute piece about airplanes in Hawks’ movies and early aviation, along with some terrific original behind-the-scenes footage and a thorough analysis of how the flying sequences were achieved.

Peter Bogdanovich’s interviews with the famous film directors are always interesting—and valuable, now that they aren’t around any more—but the directors are often catty when discussing intentions or handling thematic queries.  But Hawks nswers every question Bogdanovich pitches his way in an excellent 20-minute audio-only interview clip, explaining how the film reflected his experiences working in planes during World War I, what it was like working with the individual actors and actresses (when Hayworth, who was just starting out, had trouble crying, he set the scene in a rainstorm so no one would notice), and more information on how they staged the flying sequences.

It is difficult to catch what has been cut in the excellent 57-minute abridgment presented as a radio play on Lux Radio Theatre in 1939, which has also been included on the BD. All of the principal cast members are on hand, and even Alan Ladd, before he became a star, has a couple of lines. Grant, as usual, is not as into it as the others, but Arthur is terrific and the program does quite a good job of conveying the story’s action while exploring its various themes about emotional bonding and responsibility. There is also, during an intermission, an excellent report about the first commercial flight across the Atlantic, which occurred shortly before the broadcast, as well as the usual plugs for Lux soap.

DVD Geek: Vacation

Thursday, August 11th, 2016

Only one test is necessary to judge a comedy—does it make you laugh?—and by the conditions of that test, the Warner Home Video release, Vacation, is a success. The slapstick, character humor and absurdist punctuations are plentiful, are linked by a coherent narrative, and are supported by a generally benign premise. There is hardly anything that is alienating about the 2015 feature, and plenty that is amusing. The one problem is that the film is a direct sequel to the original National Lampoon’s Vacation. That 1983 film, feeding a hunger for more movies like Animal House and more films from Saturday Night Live cast members, was a blockbuster, and this Vacation cannot possibly achieve the memories of humor (not necessarily the real humor, just the nostalgic memory for it—the movie itself even makes a direct meta-joke about that) the previous film represents.

Ed Helms stars as a commercial pilot who wants to take his family on a similar vacation to the one—depicted in the earlier film—he went on as a child. Christina Applegate plays his wife, and Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo have an extended cameo when the family stops off at the grandparents’ house. They have two sons, and one of the film’s consistently funny gags is that the younger son utterly dominates the older one, like a Chihuahua terrorizing a shepherd. They go on their trip, disastrous incidents occur, and they bond a little tiny bit from the experience.

The movie has also been issued as a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD, with more special features, which is the only real reason to consider it, although the best feature, 12 minutes of fully amusing deleted scenes, appears on both.  If the picture quality is a little sharper on the BD, and the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is a little stronger, that hardly matters.  There is an audio track that describes the action (“Rusty drives as everyone else sleeps.  He looks out his window to see a smoking hot blonde driving a red convertible in the next lane.  She smiles at him flirtatiously.  Rusty points to himself quizzically.  She seductively waves.  He waves back, then playfully points to his wedding ring.  She shrugs, then continues flirting.  Rusty nods with her.  She blows a kiss.  He catches it, then gives a salute.  She keeps flirting.  Rusty smiles bashfully.  He looks away as she changes lanes to the left.  She moves into oncoming traffic, and a huge semi-truck demolishes her.”), alternate French and Spanish audio tracks, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, and a 2-minute tourism plug for the state of Georgia, where the film was shot.  In addition to that, the BD has Portuguese audio and subtitles tracks, a 2-minute blooper reel with a couple of choice moments, and 28 minutes of promotional featurettes that include a lot of Chase and D’Angelo.

DVD Geek: Pan

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2015

You have to give the 111-minute Pan a good half hour to get started—and it’s a genuine challenge to get that far—but after disorienting beginnings, it picks up as a fantasy adventure, although it’s an ‘origin’ story that does its darnedest to turn Peter Pan into Harry Potter. In so blatantly aligning itself with the first Potter story, the film forgets what it is supposed to be about. Set during World War II, a young boy is lifted out of his orphanage one night by pirates in a flying sailing ship, who take him and a number of other orphans to an island, where he is used as slave labor in mines. He escapes with the help of an older prisoner known as ‘Hook,’ played by Garrett Hedlund, who tries hard to be Harrison Ford, and they team up to find a way back to the regular world and also help the island’s indigenous tribe, which is at war with the pirates. Hugh Jackman is the villainous pirate running the mine, Rooney Mara is one of the indigenous natives, and Levi Miller earnestly plays the young hero. After the dreary beginning, the fantasy images become more stimulating—there are flying sail boats all over the place—and the film is undoubtedly more rewarding in 3D than it is in its flat presentation. The action scenes are energetic and not too drawn out, and the special effects provide a stimulating spectacle. At the end, there is not even a hint at how Hedlund’s character would eventually become a villain, since he is arm in arm with Mara’s character, providing a surrogate family for Miller’s character, and so the movie isn’t really about explaining how the dynamics of the later Peter Pan story came to be, but is instead about the young hero learning to master his powers and uncover the secrets of his parentage.

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1. The color transfer looks nice, even when the image is overloaded with special effects. The Dolby Atmos audio track has lots of power and an effective dimensionality, with plenty of busy directional effects during the showiest action sequences. There is an audio track that describes the action (“Peter grabs the sword that Smiegel holds, then climbs to the top of the cable car. The pirates continue to crank the car’s pulley. Peter swings the sword at the car’s cable. It has no effect. He keeps whacking at the cable to no avail. The car pauses and Peter glances at the deep chasm below. He looks back at the cable, sees a hook and removes it. The cable car plummets into the mining canyon as one side of the cable snaps back towards the elevator tower. Hook holds onto his hat and Smiegel clings to the rails. Peter wraps himself around a pole on the top of the car. The car hurtles towards a floating ship and tears through its sails. The trio is tossed from the car, slides down the sails and lands on a pile of cargo on the deck. Peter, Hook and Smiegel scurry out of the car’s path, just before it crashes onto the deck.”), French, Spanish and Portuguese audio tracks, optional English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles, and 28 minutes of mostly good promotional featurettes, including one that delves effectively into the origins of James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan.

The film’s director, Joe Wright, supplies a decent commentary track, talking about constructing the film, working with the cast and other interesting technical details, such as managing the precision of the colors. “The grading of these things is quite delicate, because Rooney has this amazing translucent skin and if you bring in even the tiniest too much green or blue she can look rather like the undead.” He also explains how Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” found its way into the movie. “I had the whole pirate crew together for a week in rehearsals, so we could work out some kind of common language and behavior for the pirates. And, um, I felt I needed to get some music in to create an atmosphere, and I listened to kind of sea shanties and so on, and felt that they were all a bit, um, soft for my pirates. I wanted my pirates to be a bit harder, and a bit more punk, so we started playing some punk music in the rehearsal room, and soon as we put ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ on, the whole gang went nuts and started pogoing and singing along, and that was the moment where I kind of thought, ‘Well, how about if we have them all sing ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ um, which is a kind of crazy idea, and for some people, it really works, and for others it doesn’t. I really like it. The whole idea for the show is to be as eclectic as possible, and to create, you know, surrealist ideas by juxtaposing disparate references by putting them together and seeing what we could come up with.”

The DVD included in the set does not have quite as sharp a picture and the sound is less detailed. There is no commentary and no Portuguese, but otherwise all of the language options are carried over. There is only one six-minute featurette.

DVD Geek: Jamaica Inn

Monday, June 1st, 2015

Alfred Hitchcock himself would often speak disparagingly in interviews about his 1939 adaptation of the Daphne Du Maurier novel, Jamaica Inn, complaining about the star, Charles Laughton, and about costume films in general (he liked to say that nobody understood how people dressed in that manner went to the bathroom, and indeed, it is a bit of a curiosity if one were in a hurry). Critics, taking his lead, also speak dismissively of the film, but it is actually a very enjoyable effort. Maureen O’Hara, in her first major screen role (one of several where the wind machines are especially favorable to her), plays the orphaned niece of a woman who lives with a smuggler in the titular establishment, an isolated, ramshackle building filled with rooms and nooks, which sits amid the moors on the coast of Cornwall. She comes to the aid of a smuggler who is being hung, played by Robert Newton during a brief but appealing phase of being a dashing heroic lead, and the two must duck the other smugglers and try to prevent them from leading a ship to its doom on the rocky shore. The comically foppish Laughton is the local landowner and de facto law enforcement, which is unhelpful since he is also, as is revealed early in the film, the devious, secret head of the smuggling gang. The film is as full of suspense as any Hitchcock feature, and its dark atmosphere is greatly enhanced by its pre-technological early Nineteenth Century setting. Running 99 minutes, it is a wonderful, evocative thriller, and completely undeserving of the rejection it received by its creator (who quite pointedly did not do one of his cameos in the film).

Having long languished in the public domain, in a theater or on home video, I have never seen a presentation of the movie that looked even half as good as the absolutely gorgeous Cohen Media Group and eOne Entertainment Blu-ray release. The full screen black-and-white image is crisp and spotless, with deep, rich shadows and precisely defined contrasts. The monophonic sound is also relatively clean and strongly delivered. It is entirely possible that viewers treated to this version will find the film a great deal more appealing than those in previous years who have had to look past the speckling and the washed out or overly darkened image to understand the enormous pleasures of the film’s design. There is no captioning. Along with a new trailer, there is a decent 13-minute summary of the film’s history by Donald Spoto, and a more extensive commentary track that covers the same topics with much more detail, by film historian Jeremy Arnold. Arnold goes over the basics of the production, points out its artistry, and discusses the backgrounds of many members of the cast and crew. He also speaks about Du Maurier’s writing, going over the numerous films that were made of her novels. “The majority of her work, including Jamaica Inn, are not love stories, but very dark dramas. The movies tend to be so different from the books, injecting romance where none existed, that they have reshaped Du Maurier’s legacy quite inaccurately.”

As it happens, Acorn Media Group has released a 2014 miniseries version of the Du Maurier tale, also called Jamaica Inn, which Arnold mentions briefly in his commentary. The three 61-minute episodes are fit on a single platter, and there is a ‘Play All’ option. Letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback, the color cinematography is gorgeous, even though the show is every bit as dark and shadowy as Hitchcock’s feature. Jessica Brown Findlay, Matthew McNulty, Joanne Whalley and Sean Harris star. Having the 3 hours to work with, and free of feature film restrictions (Hitchcock was a great believer in TV for just that reason), the program is a more accurate and thorough adaptation of the Du Maurier novel, but that said, it reinforces what a fine job Hitchcock did in capturing the essence of the story for his film. The miniseries is a much darker work thematically and morally—although Hitchcock’s movie is hardly light, despite its comical touches—and it is the rich complexity with which the ethical conflicts facing the heroine are drawn out, added to the again wonderfully desolate atmosphere that seems to reflect the soul of every character, which makes the story so involving, holding onto the viewer’s curiosity as the fates of the characters seem to descend to a point where, in the best fashion of a well-written story, there appears to be no return.

The stereo sound has a very nice dimensionality and strong tones. There are optional English subtitles, which come in very handy at times, a minute-long montage of publicity photos, 26 minutes of decent cast-and-crew interviews (they never mention the Hitchcock film), and 9 minutes of interesting behind-the-scenes footage.

 

DVD Geek: Batman – The Complete Series

Thursday, March 5th, 2015

Under the mistaken assumption that it would teach me fiscal prudence, my parents limited my comic book purchases as a child to two magazines a month.  This was a wrenching dictum, because there were four or five that I enjoyed very much, and all of them came out monthly, but while I may have varied my second choice from one month to the next, the first choice never altered.  It was Batman.  Less ensconced in fantasy than most of the other comics I followed, I appreciated, subconsciously since I didn’t know about that stuff yet, the series’ film noir roots.  It was imaginative and playful, but its drama was serious, and without the deus ex machina of super powers, the stories were forced to be based more on logic and wit than the adventures of many of the other super heroes.  I was very excited when the television series adaptation of the comic was announced as a mid-season replacement, for the whole world would be able to share in my passion, and I sat down eagerly to watch its premiere on ABC in January 1966.

I was aghast at what I saw.  Rather than embracing the creative darkness of the comic book, it made fun of it.  The TV show’s individual episodes ran 25 minutes each and were presented in a half-hour time slot, and during the initial two seasons, each episode was presented in double length, the first part broadcast for a half hour on Wednesday nights and ending in a cliffhanger, and then the conclusion broadcast on Thursday nights.  Wasteland that television was in those days, I continued to watch the Thursday episodes, but on Wednesday I returned to my program of choice, the relatively more sophisticated Lost in Space.  Unfortunately, I had an annoying younger sibling.  This sibling was too young to see how blasphemous and stupid the Batman television show was, but was old enough to know darn well that it was broadcast on Wednesdays as well as Thursdays—and to insist, like the proverbial loudest baby bird, that we watch Batman on Wednesdays as well.  Like the proverbial mother and father birds, our parents usually awarded that sibling the worm, while I stewed quietly after some unwelcomed protests, and awaited the days of summer re-runs when I could finally take in the complete hour-long adventures of the space family Robinson.  This was in the days before iPads, before each child could curl up in a corner with his own entertainment and not be bothered or pestered by the wants and desires of others.  Instead, there was only one television in the house and, fiscal prudence apparently being a byword up and down the line, it was a black-and-white TV.

That the show was colorful was plenty evident in the magazine spreads and other promotional materials that caught my eye in the print media.  The 1966 feature film spin-off, which emphasized the show’s comedy, was eye-popping in its chromatic splendor.  And it is because of the colors and not because of any other nostalgic impulse that I forked over our child’s college tuition to obtain the Warner Home Video Blu-ray Limited Edition boxed set, Batman The Complete Television Series!  Within the boxed set, each of three seasons—the first and third are three platters long, and the second is six platters; another platter of special features is included, too—is offered up in a separate jacket.  There is nothing subtle about the show’s colors—there is really nothing subtle about the show at all except for some of its humor—they are solid, basic hues and on Blu-ray they are as stupendously colorful as I expected them to be.  Batman’s cowl is indigo, but his facemask is solid black, except for the nose, which in a humorous touch of inept design, is also indigo.  The joke probably passed over viewers when it was originally broadcast in the crude color replications of the day, but you can’t take your eyes off of it now.  Presented in full screen format, every episode of the series is spotlessly transferred.  If the show is to be at all appreciated, Warner has made a spectacular effort to facilitate that appreciation.  For hours and hours, the colors are fabulous, and every shot makes you wish that the real world could be as chromatically splendid as your TV screen.

The monophonic sound has been transferred with an equal interest in perfection, and therein lies the rub.  Half a century later, the show is still as irritating as all get out, and the audio does not help matters in the least.  Adam West and Burt Ward star as the show’s two heroes.  West’s character is a millionaire who uses his surplus income to work closely with the police as a disguised vigilante.  Ward is a non-blood relation teenager who lives with him and assists in his crime fighting.  Their relationship need not speak its name to spawn comedic insinuation every time they are together on the screen.  Their challenge in every episode is to combat a fancifully adorned villain played by a prominent guest star.  Frank Gorshin (as ‘The Riddler’), Cesar Romero (as ‘The Joker’), and Burgess Meredith (as ‘The Penguin’) all co-starred in the 1966 feature film after each portraying the guest villain in the first three episodes and returning fairly early on for second, third and subsequent appearances.  Almost all of the villains, including the other guest stars, act like they have ADD.  Gorshin acts like he has it ten times over.  Their voices are always loud, harsh and aggressive.  They are all, in effect, just like my annoying sibling, and in DTS sound, with the amplified audio effects and brashly simplistic musical score, they are even more obnoxious.

The Batman TV series has held up very well as a show for children.  It ought to be on Nickelodeon in prime time.  For adults wishing to reclaim the innocence and protected excitement of their childhood, however, while I can’t speak for my sibling, I suspect that most will lose patience with the series fairly rapidly.  It is best appreciated in extremely small doses, say an episode or two at a time with a lengthy break of days between that and the next, and preferably with companions so that any laughter can be fueled by camaraderie.  Given that the set has thirteen single-part episodes, forty-nine two-part episodes and three three-part episodes, you can stretch your appreciation, nostalgia and viewing parties out for several years.  Try to binge watch, on the other hand, and you’ll end up in Arkham Asylum, or at the very least, drive away anyone in your household who does not comprehend the fanaticism of your passions.

As I said, the show’s humor and its colors are its two saving graces.  The obvious slapstick reinforces the show’s loud aggressiveness, and more intellectually, the show is a lampoon of both the comic book superhero concept and society’s idealized platitudes that such superheroes used to reinforce.  But the comedy does not stop there, as the various writers toss in everything from witty literary allusions to really bad puns.  The constant alliteration in the dialog is likely unique to the history of television.  Twice the show stoops to using the, “It’s a bird, it’s a plane,” gag.  And quite often, the show goes to elaborate lengths simply to laugh at itself.  Searching for a clue on the parts of an automobile that have been wiped clean of fingerprints, West’s character discovers two small spots on the steering wheel.  “There’s a tiny green speck, and an even tinier red speck on it.  Robin, here, take a look at this.”  “What do you think it is, Batman?”  “The red speck appears to be chili, and the green speck is avocado.  Do you know what that means?  What restaurant serves the best chili and avocado dip in Gotham City?”  “Holy Guacamole!  The Adobe Hacienda Motel on the Inbound State Highway!”  Basically, the more friends you can have watching an episode at one time, the funnier it will seem.

If no other television show has ever had as much alliteration, no show has probably ever had as many Dutch angles, either.  The camera angles are deliberately wacky (though less so as the series advances), and the production designs, even when restricted by television budgets, are wonderful.  Meredith’s character employs umbrella traps that look like something Christo might have conceived.  From Romero’s green hair to the red light on the Batmobile, the show is a constant display of pop art at the height of pop art mania.  Set in ‘Gotham City,’ a metropolis apparently on the American east coast, but containing radio stations with ‘K’ call letters, the stock footage is always of New York, while the location footage is pure Los Angeles.  The mix is a deliberate part of the humor.  Ward’s character attends ‘Woodrow Roosevelt High School.’

The endearing Neil Hamilton, who portrays the police commissioner, can be seen in a couple of the earliest episodes barely holding back his laughter as West, whose performance throughout the series is masterfully crafted, delivers his impossibly idealized platitudes about civic duty.  The dynamic between West and Ward is carefully and competently sustained.  Ward’s character often contributes to the solutions West’s character is seeking, and, on the other side of the coin, Ward sets up some of the gags by saying something impulsively emotional that West’s character can humorously chastise.

For all of the inspired comedy and talented performances, however, the show’s writing is lazy and uncreative.  The screenwriters essentially gorge themselves on the low-hanging fruit—each villain is a gimmick—and don’t start focusing on actual stories until it is too late to rescue the show.  In the beginning, every episode follows the format of a cliffhanger serial.  The bad guys want to get something.  The good guys try to stop them, but fail, get captured and are on the verge of being destroyed at the break, but then escape, go through the whole process again, and win at the end.  Because the characters are so absurd, the show was able to coast on that template for quite a while.  The cliffhangers actually get better as they go along because they become more and more ridiculous.  At first, the writers attempt to find logical solutions to the dilemmas, but later on, they will just come up with something utterly inane—West’s character survives underwater for an hour by putting himself in a trance—and the humor of it more than compensates for the absurdity.  The fight choreography, famously supplemented with text exclamations, is tedious and repetitive.  Once in a while somebody will come up with a new move, and again, because of the absurdity of the show, it will seem unique, but it passes in a moment, lost in what is otherwise filler.  This is network TV.  The creators can’t take the time to sit down and really plan out two or three different, involving and exciting fights week after week, despite the handy presence of many wonderfully abstract props.  But there is barely an attempt to make it interesting.  It gets so that after a while, they don’t even try to sell the punches.

After their separate appearances in the first three episodes (Jill St. John co-stars in the first episode), Gorshin guest stars in three more episodes in the first season, while Romero and Meredith star in two more each.  Most of them conform to the standard format.  The one that is exceptional is a Gorshin episode with a motion picture theme, which was shot in part at old Hollywood locations and includes Francis X. Bushman in a supporting role.  The first Julie Newmar ‘Cat Woman’ episode is a blatant celebration of the show’s bondage undertones, and derives humor from presenting explicitly what was otherwise a vague constant in the show’s tone.  While the narrative is no different than the others in the first season, Newmar’s svelte demeanor and reserved phrasing are a welcome change from the wired, clownish antics of the male performers.  “At last, the plunder of a dozen galleons.  Diamonds, rubies, emeralds.  Never again to face depravation,” she purrs while pawing through a chest of treasure she has retrieved, “From now on, pussywillows galore.”  (“TTFN,” she says at another point and it takes a minute before you realize, ‘Wait a minute, that’s Tigger’s line.’  Newmar, however, used it first.)

George Sanders appears as the first of three different actors who would embody the villain, ‘Mr. Freeze,’ over the course of the series.  He goes through the motions but really doesn’t understand it and has none of the accoutrements or makeup one associates with the character.  There are some cheap special effects that are employed, however, which work really well in conveying the tone of the show.  Malachi Throne, who remains unidentified until the final credits of the second part, plays ‘False Face,’ a Sixties version of a shape shifter that essentially allows the other members of the cast to be the villain from one sequence to the next.  The narrative is a welcome relief, however, because of what the gimmick allows.  Also welcome are the oodles and oodles of literary references that accompany Roddy McDowall’s character, ‘The Bookworm,’ although the plot doesn’t have much else to offer and McDowall doesn’t completely click as the character.  While Anne Baxter would appear in the third season as a different character, she portrayed ‘Zelda the Great’ just once, in the first season, mesmerizing men—whose eyes enjoyably pop out when they are under her spell—to do her bidding.

David Wayne makes his first appearance as ‘The Mad Hatter,’ and is especially irritating, conforming to the requirements of the show by being loud and grating.  At least the plot has more meat than usual, as his character is working his way through the jury that previously convicted him.  Victor Buono also makes his first appearance as a character who would show up a number of times in both the second and third seasons, in ancient Egyptian regalia as ‘King Tut.’  Until the final couple of episodes, however, and despite his game performances, the shows are more concerned with the regalia than with the story.  It must be noted that in the final episode of the first season, a Meredith effort, there is a shot that must be seen to be believed, as his sexy cohort, played by Julie Gregg, is bending over ninety degrees, in profile, to read a gauge while behind her, in perfect alignment, two henchmen are working a gigantic bellows.  It is the sort of shot that in all likelihood passed over me the first time I saw the show, but explains why my father was always enthusiastically joining us when it came on.

The meat of the Batman series is the season that ran from 1966 into 1967, as the series carried over its physical format from the shorter first season and began to expand, though somewhat awkwardly at first, on its narrative concepts and story possibilities.  It doesn’t begin well.  Art Carney portrays a Robin Hood-type character, who mangles his archaic English vocabulary with a deadpan Ed Norton bluntness.  In concept, it is amusing, but Carney doesn’t completely understand how to embrace the clownishness of his part and the episode pretty much falls flat.  After another Newmar episode (Edy Williams has a supporting part), Van Johnson, singing Gilbert & Sullivan’s Wandering Minstrel, is the villain, a harbinger of a trend in the show to play to the retirement crowd rather than the lunchbox set.  In any case, it is another flaccid effort.  Army Archerd and Phyllis Diller have brief appearances.  Many of the cameos were used to promote other ABC series, such as the brief pop up of Van Williams and Bruce Lee, ABC’s Green Hornet characters, in an early Buono episode.

The narratives start to improve a tiny bit when Shelley Winters, who would later play Ma Barker herself, plays ‘Ma Parker’ in an amusing rural gangster spoof.  Newmar shows up briefly, as well.  Walter Slezak portrays ‘The Clock King,’ and while the narrative is somewhat confused and uninteresting, the fight scenes are reasonably creative.  And then, incrementally, the show really does start to get better.  Vincent Price is a wonderful actor for such material and, as usual, gives it his all portraying a character with a large hairless head who is known as ‘Egghead.’  Adding to the humor, Edward Everett Horton plays an Indian who owns the lease on Gotham City.  It’s not PC, but it is amusing.

In one of the show’s overall best episodes, the writers actually did some work on the episode that features Liberace playing twin brothers (for the tough one, he channels Sheldon Leonard, but then drops it after a couple of scenes; the other is his usual flamboyant self).  Edy Williams also shows up again, and there is some good slapstick mixed in with the clever plot.  That is followed by the Meredith episode that inspired Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, with the Penguin character running for mayor and, like most evil politicians, doing quite an effective job of it, especially when he has a do-gooder putz like Batman as his competitor.  Paul Revere and the Raiders do a number.

In the second iteration of the Mr. Freeze character, which gets a bit closer to the ideal, Otto Preminger plays the villain, and Marie Windsor is on hand as a reporter.  Cameo appearances by Van Williams again and Howard Duff provide promos for other ABC series in a fairly witty Romero episode, in which he has a box that can manipulate time.  In order to squeeze everything in, the lengthy recap of the first half is dropped from the beginning of the second half in favor of just presenting the cliffhanger, a change that would eventually become permanent.  The divine Carolyn Jones provides an alternative to Newmar as the ‘Queen of Diamonds, ’ divvying out love potions to have the men she meets do her crimes for her.  Woody Strode is cool as one of her henchmen, and for once, the cliffhanger does not involve physical peril but is, instead, about West’s character being on the verge of matrimony to the villainess.  How he escapes this fate worse than death is very clever.

Cliff Robertson stars in a cowboy spoof as ‘Shame.’  Although they work the Shane references to death, the show is still fairly humorous, and has an ending that is well worth noting.  A little boy who, throughout the episode, idolizes Robertson’s character, changes his allegiance in the final scene to West’s character.  Looking back, the moment truly marks a major paradigm shift in American childhood fantasies, from cowboys to super heroes.

The Meredith episode that follows is another one of the best in the series, as he repeatedly tries to get ‘into prison’ by committing blatant crimes and West’s character, realizing that something is up, refuses to follow through with the punishment.  Had the writing been this good from the beginning, the show might have lasted longer than it did.

Maurice Evans plays a variation on the Riddler called, ‘The Puzzler,’ infusing his clues with Shakespeare quotations, but whatever educational value the effort has to offer, it does not offer an equivalent of entertainment.  Newmar appears in a couple of episodes as her character becomes increasingly infatuated in a romantic way with West’s character.  In one, she steals the voices of the singing duo Chad & Jeremy, and in the other she is paired with Michael Rennie, who plays ‘The Sandman.’  Rennie cuts a fine figure, but neither episode amounts to much.

After a return of David Wayne as the Mad Hatter, Romero and Meredith are teamed for the first three-parter.  Its best moments are when the two stars play off against each other in a scene, but the story (they design their crimes around the zodiac) is back to the usual grind and has little to offer beyond the performances.  Rob Reiner has a small part.

And then something quite interesting happened.  I watched the next Newmar episode, which was pretty much a standard effort except that she was given a hot teen sidekick to seduce Ward’s character, played by Lesley Gore.  Not only does Gore do two numbers (including the lovely California Nights) in kind of a nightclub that Newmar’s character is running, but she also cuddles quite a bit with Newmar.  I didn’t pay too much attention except that, our house having more than one television set, I walked upstairs where my spouse was watching Gotham, in which Jada Pinkett Smith is running kind of a nightclub and is auditioning singers, ultimately making out in a very hot sequence with Makenzie Leigh.  It struck me immediately how far television entertainment has come in half a century, while at the same time had me gripped in wonderment at where it might go a half-century hence.

It is Jones, rather than Newmar, who finally gets to make out with West in the next three-parter, in which she is teamed with Meredith.  The story, while not monumentally plotted, has a decent thematic progression, as Meredith’s character pretends to be shooting a movie and ropes West’s character into being the star of the film.  The climax is very amusing and the many movie gags are inspired.

John Astin was brought in to replace Gorshin as the Riddler character, but he has a completely different style of comedy and is entirely ill suited to the part.  You feel embarrassed for him, because it really isn’t his fault.  That is followed by a basic but well executed Romero effort, in which he becomes a comic book publisher and then takes over a bank, and an equally witty and satisfying Newmar episode, which has a college theme.

Another highpoint of the series as a whole, Roger C. Carmel is the nominal villain, ‘Colonel Gumm,’ counterfeiting stamps, but he doesn’t even make the opening guest star billing.  That is reserved for Van Williams and Bruce Lee, who, as the Green Hornet and his sidekick, do an entire crossover episode with West and Ward.  You can’t take your eyes off Lee, who looks like he could slice Ward to pieces in the wink of an eye.  Nevertheless the episode is a refreshing change and also has a terrific cameo by Edward G. Robinson and fun supporting performances by Alex Rocco and Seymour Cassel as henchmen.

Lee Merriwether is quite amusing as a kidnapped heiress that Buono’s character believes is Cleopatra.  Less tiresome than most of the Buono episodes, Grace Lee Whitney and Tommy Newman co-star, and there is an initial reference to a character who does not actually appear until the third season.

For star power, you really cannot beat Tallulah Bankhead coming out of retirement to portray the ‘Black Widow’ in her final screen role.  She was and even still is a stellar personality, although even the biggest film enthusiasts would be hard pressed to name more than one movie that she appeared in, and so her presence has a great significance beyond the standard manipulations of the robbery plot.

Rounding out the second season, there is an inspired Romero episode about ‘modern art’ and Eli Wallach weighs in as the last and best iteration of ‘Mr. Freeze,’ which includes a nice supporting performance by Elisha Cook, and a wonderful bit by West in which he ‘talks to himself’ on two telephones, pretending on one to be Batman and on the other to be his alter ego, Bruce Wayne.

The third season dumped Madge Blake as the aunt of Ward’s character, and I didn’t even notice she was gone until an episode about halfway through the season in which she shows up for a final cameo.  The show was trimmed to a single half hour, although some episodes are extended to doubles and even a triple.  In Blake’s place, Yvonne Craig steps in as ‘Batgirl,’ the daughter of Hamilton’s character, whose identity is known only by Alan Napier’s butler character.  Her presence changes the entire dynamic of the show, as does the need to tell a complete story in 25 minutes.  She’s straight, so she sort of sucks the comedy out of a scene, regardless of how much West and Ward camp it up.  She’s very pretty, but she isn’t all that sexy. There’s no S&M vibe to her as there is with Newmar or Newmar’s replacement in the third season, Eartha Kitt (the show’s first and only African-American villain; there were only a couple of African-American henchmen, and a few more African-American extras appear as middle-class citizens going about their business).  On the other hand, Craig’s cheery spunk enlivens the flow of the narratives.  While the initial episodes in the third season are problematic, the writers eventually get a handle on how to get everything in during the half-hour slot, focusing more on a good concept and less on the monotonous fights and stunts (there is no more time for wall climbing, either).  Not knowing if it will be Batgirl, Batman or Robin who will fall into danger, or who will save the day as a plot jumps from one character’s contributions to the next enhances a viewer’s curiosity and anticipation.  Indeed, the final seven episodes of the season are among the show’s best, with fully conceptualized narratives that are less beholden to the show’s standard quirks and more concerned with following through on a clever premise or theme.

The third season ran from 1967 to 1968, and the cultural divide between 1966 and 1968 was a vast chasm that the series was ultimately unable to bridge.  Like Bankhead, Liberace and Johnson in the previous season, guest star villains such as Rudy Vallee, Milton Berle, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Ethel Merman were hardly playing to the audience that had initially embraced the series as a hip and irreverent contribution to the psychedelic zeitgeist.  Cameo appearances by personalities such as Art Linkletter didn’t help matters, either.  Fortunately, the show’s impulse for fanciful production design was unhindered by its budgetary cutbacks.  Commonly, the backs of sets are solid black, but the few dressings in front are inevitably creative and colorful.  Indeed, from a transfer standpoint, if it is at all possible, the third season is even more stunning than the previous two seasons, both in color clarity and chromatic intensity.  In the place of the cliffhanger, except during the carryovers for the multiple-episode segments, the villain for the following week’s episode is introduced during a teaser at the end of the episode at hand, as part of its epilog.  Sometimes the teasers are a direct beginning of the following week’s story, and other times they cheat a little.  Interestingly, the words, ‘The End,’ appear at the conclusion of the teaser in the next-to-the-last episode, and nowhere else.

Meredith appears in two single episodes and a two-parter, which he shares with Merman, a piece about a horse racing scam that is stretched out to fill the double slot.  Meredith’s first appearance is in the season opener, but the focus of that show is on Craig and it all rushes by very quickly.  The final Meredith episode, however, is one of the final seven and is quite clever (there is a gaping plot hole at the end, but that’s the comics for you), almost as satisfying as the ‘prison’ episode.  He devises a scheme to contaminate money, for which he and his gang (including Monique Van Dooren) have taken the only antidote.  Citizens are frightened, and throw all of their money out into the street, and then he just comes along and scoops it all up, but when he then tries to use the money to buy things, the same fear he initiated prevents anyone from taking his cash.  Similarly, Buono has one half-hour episode that is his usual tiresome shtick, but in one of the final seven he returns with a scheme to obtain a rare metal by burrowing under the hero’s mansion, inadvertently tumbling into the ‘Bat Cave.’  The episode also has a terrific unbilled cameo appearance by Henny Youngman (as a real estate agent).

Gorshin reappears one last time, coupled with Joan Collins (Mike Mazurki is also on hand), bringing energy back to his character, but there isn’t enough time in the half-hour slot to fool around much with the riddles and for the most part, the episode is a bust.  It is, however, a quasi-double episode, with the second part focusing exclusively on Collins’ character, whose high-pitched voice can make men do her bidding.  In the old days and old television sets, the audio tones they used for the numbing sound of her manipulation were innocently diffused, but if you’ve got the DTS track amplified to any degree, watch out!  Anyway, it is with the Collins episode that the writers finally start to adapt to the show’s revised parameters successfully.

Berle appears twice, as some sort of flower or perfume impresario.  Awkwardly, in both episodes he attempts to manipulate ‘hippies,’ understanding that someday, they will inherit the world and then he will control them.  Look outside and you may think he succeeded.  Anyway, the hippie stuff isn’t bad on a don’t-get-it level, but the flaccid nature of the narratives suggests that the writers didn’t know what to do with the concept.  On the other hand, Berle is Berle, and the time he is allowed to just chew on his cigar and react to things is choice.  Price returns for a double episode and then a final single episode, the latter not amounting to much.  In both, he is accompanied by Baxter, who is playing a different character than she did previously, a ‘Russian.’  Her accent and occasional Slavic phraseology are a delight, as is Price under any circumstances.  The double episode plays somewhat more like two singles, with the goal of the villains in the second being completely different than the goal in the first.  It is the second episode that is most worthwhile, as the two attempt to bring a dinosaur egg to life.  The finale is truly riotous.  Alan Hale, Jr. (as a character called ‘Gilligan’) and Adolph Green have nice, unbilled cameos.

Vallee appears with Glynis Johns in a three-parter that is set in ‘England,’ although except for a few inspired gags (the office of the head of ‘Ireland Yard’ is the exact same set that Hamilton uses, except for a couple of pointedly different decorations), the piece is drawn out and not all that interesting.  Even Johns doesn’t seem to be getting into it as much as one knows she could.  The Kitt episode goes by much too quickly, but she returns again for a double episode with Romero, and even though the double episode sort of conforms to the older series format, the two stars play off one another so well that it is worthwhile.  Romero has two other single episodes and both are well conceived and executed, one in which he ends up engaging with West’s character in a surfing contest, and the other, one of the final seven, in which he builds a flying saucer (including a shot that appears to copy, rather than lift, Invaders from Mars).

As for the other final seven, Robertson returns in one two-parter that is not as definitive as his initial episode, but still works well off the collision of comic books and westerns, particularly his final ‘showdown’ at the end with West’s character.  In what is the most audacious but also one of the most entertaining episodes of all, Barbara Rush plays a crook who manages to have herself named police commissioner, replacing Hamilton’s character.  She fires all of the male cops and hires females, so that when bank robbers and so on pull off their jobs, the police are more interested in gabbing about sales and cooking tips than stopping the crimes.  The blatant nature of its sexism may make Horton’s Native American seem like a model of racial sensitivity, but you can’t help laughing at the deliberateness of it.  Duff and Ida Lupino, made up kind of like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, use pills that turn them invisible to pull off robberies in the next-to-the-last episode, a good example of an efficient and engaging effort.  The same is true of the final show, in which Gabor, running a ‘spa,’ uses a head massager to lift secrets out of the brains of her wealthy clients.  But that’s the last of it.

If you press a little button on the side of the box jacket, you can hear the quintessential portion of the show’s theme song.  Along with the three seasons and a couple of colorful booklets, the set contains a nice little Matchbox version of the ‘Batmobile’ (not presented in scale on the jacket’s promotional artwork, but that, too, seems to capture the nostalgia the set is attempting to instill), and a replication of 44 ‘trading cards’ similar to ones that once appeared in inexpensive packages of bubble gum.  Each platter has a ‘Play All’ option.  Some of the episodes have alternate French, Italian and German audio tracks.  Those that don’t are marked as such on the individual episode menus.  The Italian and the French tracks are good fun, of course, but there is something absolutely ultra über about the German track.  Essentially, the sense of authority and seriousness that the tone of the German language conveys is so at odds with what is being presented visually that the effect is riotous even if you have no understanding of the language whatsoever.  You owe it to yourself to watch at least one half-hour that way, and don’t cheat by activating the English subtitling.  There is also French, Spanish, Italian and German subtitling.

A fourth platter is included with the third season that contains a wealth of special features.  A very nice 30-minute interview with West is integrated with older interview footage, tons of terrific archival material, and a brief, staged sequence depicting his childhood.  A 30-minute exploration of Batman collectibles includes interviews with several fanatics, one in conjunction with West, as the segment explores their Batman-themed collections and discusses not only the different pieces, but the emotional and psychic justification for possessing such items.  One collector not only compares gathering memorabilia about a television show based upon a comic book to sex, but details in a one-two-three manner how the two experiences are the same.  Okayyyyy.  A collector who makes functional, full-scale Batmobiles is also profiled.

A 30-minute retrospective appreciation of the show includes interviews with Ward and Newmar, as well as West, and with a number of the animators for Warner’s various modern animated series, although it is salted with plugs for other Warner Batman programs, along with a 12-minute segment that is fairly similar, featuring actors and creators from other Warner shows.  A group interview with West at a restaurant runs 45 minutes, discussing the show and its legacy with Kevin Smith, Ralph Garman, Phil Morris and Jim Lee of DC Comics.  At no time in any of these segments, fawning fans though they all are, does anybody ever mention Carolyn Jones.

The complete 60-minute first episode is replayed with cutaways to West, who shows the notes from his original script and talks about his initial acting choices.  There is too little of West to really justify the replaying of the entire episode, but he does share a few interesting anecdotes, such as how the crew cracked up laughing the first time he walked onto the nightclub scene, and offers at least a bit of the thought process that made him, for a few moments, a superstar.  “I see that I have a note to myself.  ‘Cape.  Use it.’  You know, you keep moving and keep that cape swirling, and the kids love that.”  Additionally, there is a terrific 2-minute interview with post-production supervisor James Blakeley explaining how he came up with the idea of using words like ‘Blam!’ and ‘Splat’ to hide the phony punches in the fight sequences, an 8-minute introduction/pilot to Batgirl in which she rescues Batman and Robin from a villain in a library, a 6-minute audition reel for Robin with West and Ward (billed as Burton Gervis) in which the charisma between the two actors is immediately apparent, and a 4-minute reel with two other actors doing the same material, Lyle Waggoner and Peter Deyell.  Deyell is awful, but Waggoner provides an intriguing look at what the show might have felt like without West’s game sense of humor.

 

DVD Geek: Snowpiercer

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Science fiction is a precarious form of entertainment. To some extent, it all verges on fantasy, but where features such as super hero movies have excessive components of make-believe, real science fiction at least pretends to be based on viable possibilities. But science isn’t the only factor that is required to justify the entertainment. The motion pictures have to work as drama (comedy seems to veer more readily into fantasy), and it should use the detail of its postulated environment to stimulate the viewer and amplify both the sense of wonder and the suspense. Star Trek First Contact is a good example of a great science-fiction movie. It has an absurd and barely believable premise that the heroes are able to go back in time, but allowing for that, the rest of the story is rich and exciting, with terrific, human characters, so that you don’t mind the fantasy propping up the science. There is big science-fiction feature playing in the theaters right now, on the other hand, that is studious in its application of science to its fiction, but the filmmakers blow the human aspect of the ending, so regardless of whether the film is scientifically valid or not, it’s a stinker. Which brings us to the 2013 cult science-fiction hit, released in a great, cult-oriented two-platter set by Anchor Bay Entertainment, Snowpiercer.

For viewers immune to its attractions, the film is simply ridiculous. It is about people riding on an endlessly looping train that is traveling across most of the continents after an ecological disaster has frozen the planet and killed everyone except those who made it onto the train. The ‘thousand car’ train has been on this journey for years. A microcosm of human society, those in the rear cars are fed a suspiciously uniform protein bar and are barely surviving, while those in the front cars live a life of luxury. The hero, in the rear car, organizes a revolt and works his way to the front. The film has a strong satirical element, which is bound to turn a lot of viewers off, and some rousing action scenes which, along with the imaginative special effects, is what will keep others intently involved for the entire 126-minute running time. The conclusion attempts to explain everything and then ends resolutely, with just a dash of hope. There are some aspects to the movie that are never elaborated upon—some of the people are clearly people, but others appear to actually be robots—and regardless of how deftly the filmmakers try to flit around it, if you do stop to think about the ecology of the train for more than a moment, it makes no sense whatsoever. But as the heroes work their way past the increasing challenges of each new car—like a video game, yeah—the film is so different and so energized that it can seem like something unique and exceptional.

So, the science is at best dubious, the drama, while engagingly performed, is hardly profound, and the story, even aside from the fantasy parts, is illogical and is a mad amalgam of genres. Why, then, is the movie so entertaining? The answer is simple: it’s a train movie. The subliminal but constant forward momentum of the setting itself keeps a viewer engaged, regardless of whatever turn the movie chooses to make or element it chooses to include. The film is crazy, but in a classy sort of way, with an international cast and a deliberate sense of audacity in its visions, and as it barrels down the tracks you can’t help but go along for the ride. Directed by Boon Joon Ho, the film stars Chris Evans, as rough hewn and flawed here as he is smooth and sculpted in the Captain America films. Jamie Bell, Song Kang Ho, Octavia Spencer (kicking butt), John Hurt, Clark Middleton, Alison Pill, Ed Harris and, as if she had just stepped out of Brazil, Tilda Swinton co-star.

The film appears on the first platter, in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The special effects are smartly applied, so you only ever see just glimpses of the train—the movie has been compared to all sorts of different films in vain attempts to define it, but Polar Express belongs in the mix—and the wintry landscape it is crossing, enough to make you desperate to see more without seeing so much that the movie’s moderate budget would become apparent. The image is sharp and, like everything else, the film’s color tones change unapologetically as the heroes work their way through the train. It would be nice if the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound were even stronger and more elaborately detailed, but the audio mix is functional, with the train sounds always lurking on the edges, and is delivered with enough power to be effective. There are optional English and Spanish subtitles.

In an interesting format that brings to mind rather immediately the connected cars of a railroad train, film critic Scott Weinberg supplies a commentary track. Basically, he starts off with his own talk about what is going on in the movie and then, sequentially, calls five of his movie critic friends (James Rocchi, William Goss, Drew McWeeny, Jennifer Yamato and Peter S. Hall) to get their input on the film. There are a couple of shortcomings to this format—he does not get to talk to Hall for too long because he runs over with the others and the movie is almost at its end; and after about the halfway point, he stops reacting specifically to what is on the screen to explore more generalized topics about the film. That’s fine, except we really wanted to hear what he had to say about the possibility that some of the characters were robots, and he never gets to it. Anyway, the format does enable him to discuss the film’s impact, and its backlash—because the first critics who saw it at festivals and such were so excited about it, the ‘second wave’ included viewers who felt the film had been too hyped. Like we said, the actual appeal of the film is very subtle, because if you’re looking for a definitive impact, you’ll probably be disappointed at first, except that you won’t forget the movie, either. He also talks about the various cast members, including major performers who are filling in bit parts, about the film’s other artistic components, and about the film’s marketing. The Weinstein Company has a long history of dumbing down movies by slashing them up for American audiences, and they wanted so badly to do the same for this one, but Ho held his ground (it’s a shame he wasn’t around for Cinema Paradiso or Like Water for Chocolate) and they were forced to manage the release with greater care, discovering, as a result, that a movie could gain theatrical legs after being released to Video On Demand, if it’s the kind of movie you want to go back and see on a bigger screen.

Snowpiercer is based upon the French graphic novel “Transperceneige,” conceived and written by Jacques Lob and drawn by Jean-Marc Rochette in the mid-1980s. After Lob passed away, Rochette and Benjamin Legrand created two more installments, but went on to other projects, and the works would probably have been forgotten, except that enterprising South Korean thieves put out a local-language edition without permission, and it caught Ho’s attention in a Seoul comic book store. The second platter of the DVD opens with an excellent 54-minute documentary that looks at the entire production through the eyes of Rochette and Benjamin, beginning with the story we described, and then going on to how the rights for the film were secured, and even to shooting the movie, since Rochette and Benjamin had cameo parts, as well as the film’s publicity push after it was finished. The movie has literally changed the lives of the two men, and the documentary, which is mostly in French with optional English subtitles, follows that journey while still focusing on the movie’s creation and execution.

Also featured on the second platter is a 5-minute, quasi-animated expansion of the prolog that explains the movie’s setting; a more traditional but effective 15-minute production documentary; two pieces on the cast running a total of 17 minutes; a very good 8-minute interview with Ho (“Until the film is complete and on my bookshelf as a DVD, I don’t feel a sense of comfort.”) at an outdoor screening of the film in Texas where the audience arrived at on a train; and a lovely collection of conceptual art and art that is used within the film (one of the characters draws events to record the train’s history, which were actually sketched, on the set and in the evening after a day’s shoot, by Rochette) in still frame.

DVD Geek: All That Jazz

Friday, September 5th, 2014

Not only Bob Fosse but screenwriter Robert Alan Aurthur died too young, doubly reinforcing the vivid spiritual premonition of All That Jazz, Fosse’s transfixing 1979 show business musical that blatantly anticipated his own death (eight years later) and Aurthur’s, who died before the film was finished, with Roy Scheider (who died 31 years later but still much too soon) in the autobiographical role of the stage and film director who smokes too much, ingests too much and works until he drops, creating brilliant art every step of the way. Produced by Twentieth Century Fox, the film’s cinematography is itself precarious, often teetering on the imperfections of grain or haze without actually succumbing, and the earlier home video transfer lacked the technological sophistication to support the challenges created by the source material.  The Criterion Collection, however, has issued a thrilling Blu-ray that stabilizes the movie’s image on the exact cusp of its true quality, eliminating the distractions that the unintended imperfections created, enhancing the hues, and allowing the viewer to become completely immersed in Fosse’s amazing creativity death dream, strewn, like discarded cigarette butts, with instinctively truthful vignettes about life during the pauses in development, rehearsal and performance.

The 3.0-channel DTS track is an even more welcome improvement.  The film’s stereo mix was primitive, coaxing a bit of dimensionality out of the music and little else.  The earlier DVD reflected that general concept, and the first number on the BD—the hit recording of George Benson’s cover of On Broadway, played over a lengthy ‘cattle call’ audition sequence—has the same sort of flatness, but that is because it is a record.  Later numbers gain more depth and clarity, when the music in the movie is ‘live.’  It is not a sudden, Cinerama-style aural explosion, but separation details become a bit more distinctive, and the experience a little more involving as a consequence.  When the music isn’t playing, the dialog and effects are significantly less tinny than they are on the Fox DVD.  Even the Criterion DVD that is included in the set is noticeably improved, although not as compellingly as the BD is.

Running 123 minutes, the film is laced with allusions to Fosse’s real life and career—Ben Vereen, one of the stars of Pippin, appears in a Pippin-like staging of Bye Bye Love—and the movie’s final third, its literal ‘last act,’ is a phantasmagorical and simultaneously uncomfortably real hospital sequence.  Fosse himself had heart problems, and yet could not alter his lifestyle sufficiently to avoid the inevitable.  All That Jazz may be as close to an ‘in denial’ suicide note as the movies ever created, and one that you can still sing along to, now in the full glory of Blu-ray playback.

Additionally, there are hours upon hours of special features presented on the BD platter, with many of them also relegated to a second DVD platter.  The pieces cover Fosse extensively, and reinforce how innovative and influential the film became, but one aspect is never mentioned in any of it—how the original stage version of A Chorus Line presaged All That Jazz (not just in the opening ‘cattle call’ sequence, but in the establishing of Ann Reinking as a worthy musical star) and how, as a consequence, All That Jazz stole every last bit of thunder A Chorus Line The Movie had hoped to muster when it finally appeared half a decade later.  Oh, and was there a cattle call for the ‘cattle call’ scene, and what was that like?

But everything else is addressed with great thoroughness.  The editor, Alan Heim, supplies a commentary track, explaining the choices that were made during the cutting of the film (and talking about the night he won the Oscar for doing so), but also speaking quite a bit about working with Fosse in general, the movie’s history (including why, though not mentioning him by name, Richard Dreyfus was dropped from the lead, causing the show to be shut down for an extended period of time), and how much the scenes and details within the movie mirror those in Fosse’s life, even though Fosse would get upset if Heim mentioned it.

Scheider had a fairly good commentary on the Fox DVD and Criterion has boiled down the best parts for a 35-minute segment over scenes from the film.  The 8-minute 1979 behind-the-scenes promotional featurette and 4-minute interview with Scheider that were included on that DVD have also been replicated, along with a trailer.

A number of the other special features were part of a later Fox DVD release, including the Heim commentary; a 23-minute reflection on the film’s choreography that has some great reminiscences by Sandahl Bergman, some good reflections by Liza Minnelli, and a general analysis of Fosse’s dancing style; an 8-minute piece on the movie’s music and how it reinforces the film’s themes; and a 4-minute interview with Benson about how he conceived his cover of On Broadway.

An additional 15-minute interview with Heim, talking about all of the work he did with Fosse, including (with clips) Lenny, but primarily providing the executive summary of his commentary, is original to the BD; along with a 21-minute interview with biographer Sam Wasson, who walks you through a biography of Fosse up to the end of All That Jazz, with clips from Sweet Charity, Cabaret, Kiss Me Kate and more; an excellent interview with Reinking and Erzsebet Foldi (who played the daughter of Scheider’s character) running 35 minutes and talking about Fosse, Scheider, Foldi’s experience (this was the only film she made, as she went on to become a dancer), and Reinking’s career; a fantastic 32-minute clip from a 1980 episode of the late night talk show, Tomorrow, featuring the now forgotten Tom Snyder (Dan Aykroyd’s imitation has outlasted him) with Fosse and Agnes de Mille, who joke around together and share some wonderful stories about Broadway musicals and everything else; a 1981 episode from the British interview program, South Bank Show, with Fosse exclusively, running 27 minutes and focusing on the film and Fosse’s career; and a fine Gene Shalit interview with Fosse from 1986 running 26 minutes, which in some ways is more superficial than the other two interviews, with sillier or more generalized questions, but makes a very good complement to them when the three are combined in a sitting.

 

DVD Geek: 12 Years a Slave

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

Marred only by the obnoxious casting and performance of Brad Pitt as the hero’s savior—the sequence should have been better written and thought out than it is, and Pitt ought to do something, anything, other than grin like an idiot—the 2013 Best Picture Oscar winner, 12 Years a Slave, available from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, is a superbly constructed historical film, exploring details of the antebellum South that are fresh and largely free of cliché, gathered within a strong emotional narration about a man separated from his family, a heartstring plot that justifies its time spent on getting the details of the past correctly.  Directed by Steve McQueen, who was also one of the film’s producers to receive a statuette, the film is a masterful blend of incident, texture, suspense and revelation.  Utilizing the classic ‘journey’ story to explore the anguish of the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans (millions of Africans were abducted from Africa, but most were sent to Central and South America), who escaped enslavement only by death, through the eyes of one individual, who was just unfortunate to have that horrific fate befall him for a modest period of his adult life (by and large, it is a true story, based upon an autobiography), the film deftly utilizes the exception to portrait the rule.  One of the two great scars that will forever blemish the American ideal—the second, of course, is the Native-American pogrom—slavery is such an overpowering subject for a drama that it requires an exceptional aesthetic approach, lest the narrative momentum become sodden in emotional reflex to the point of inertia.  How can the beatings rise to a crescendo without deafening a viewer’s sensitivities on the very first note?  How can the random displacement of humans being distributed as property sustain a consistent intrigue of character?  How can modern actors embody any of the characters, black or white, truthfully, without going insane?  McQueen oversees all of these challenges, creating a powerful, beautiful work—no more or less violent than many great films that have addressed violence—that is entertaining and exciting throughout its 134 minutes.  12 Years a Slave bears witness to a damned institution that was in place far longer than it has been out of place, and one that created social disparities which linger still.  It is not a final word on the topic of slavery, but it is a good word, and will enlighten all who pause to share in it.

The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback.  The image is smooth and sharp, and the cinematography is exquisite.  The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is also thrilling.  The cicadas, in particular, are magnificent.  There is an audio track that describes the action (“Solomon grimaces in pain, his mouth agape.  A barred window with an open wood shutter gives a view inside the darkened cell.  Behind the bars, Solomon brings his anguished face to the window.  Our view rises up the brick building’s outer wall.  Upon reaching the top, a view over the building’s roof gives us a glimpse of the Capitol Building in the distance.”), alternate French and Spanish tracks in standard stereo, optional English and Spanish subtitles, and 13 minutes of passable production featurettes about the crew supporting McQueen’s vision.  Chiwetel Ejiofor stars, with Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, and others.

DVD Geek: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Friday, December 6th, 2013

The Age of Great Video Disc Supplements is coming to an end. As consumers turn to video downloading, there will be less motivation for the home video companies to sell anything off line at all, and collector’s editions of movies will become as quaint as 16mm films. The vanities of filmmakers and the enthusiasms of genre fans will keep the format alive for a while, and promotional featurettes will continue to have a healthy livelihood on the Internet—their inclusions now on DVDs and Blu-rays have become something of an afterthought—but the ‘total package,’ where the film itself and all of the supplements supporting it follow a specific theme and thereby enhance the impact of the film’s entertainment, is already becoming a lost art, kept alive by an ever diminishing group of craftsmen.

And so, there is even greater reason than indulging oneself in the fantasy adventure to obtain the Warner Home Video Extended Edition Blu-ray release of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey. Not only is the film longer than the 2012 theatrical release, and not only does Jackson supply a commentary track, but there are 9 hours of production documentaries, all focused on the process of discovery that accompanied the making of the film. A film, by the way, that Jackson never expected to make. Although quite a bit of Jackson’s team was involved, since he was serving as screenwriter and producer, Guillermo del Toro was to be the director of the two-part motion picture adaptation of the J.R.R. Tolkien classic. It was only when one of the companies with an ownership share in the project, MGM, encountered unexpected financial difficulties, that a delay of undetermined length eventually motivated del Toro to move on to other projects, and left Jackson as the only logical leader to take the reins when the delays were finally resolved. He then had unexpected medical problems that caused more delays, but enabled the vegetation in the ‘Hobbiton’ set to overgrow naturally and give the location a perfect lived-in look, and also enabled other technicians to solve problems and improve their artistry.

The story of how two movies became three is likely being saved for the supplements in one of the later installments of the film. The Extended Edition runs 182 minutes, 13 minutes longer than the theatrical release. The ‘Scene Selections’ option indicates which chapters contain new or extended material. What has been added is mostly footage that is not relevant specifically to the narrative in An Unexpected Journey, but will embellish not only the play of the trilogy as a whole, but also its links to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. In any case, these touches never seem to slow the film down or feel out of place, and they continually enhance the movie’s sense of wonder. There is also a choice comedic sequence, showing the dwarves skinny-dipping in a sacred Elvin fountain.

What will probably be deemed the weakest of the six films, The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey has some minor shortcomings that will not seem as critical once its companion films strengthen its introductory concepts. One of the greatest aspects of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies was the astounding sweep and gripping nature of its action scenes. They were stupendous, as great as anything ever created for the cinema, and nothing in An Unexpected Journey comes close. There are many smaller moments that are joyful, and several scenes that are legitimately thrilling, but the movie is missing the tentpole moments that made the other three films so exceptional. The decision to shoot the movie in 3D means that the action scenes have been staged to take best advantage of the 3D effects. The grandest sequence—the chase in the goblin cavern—is a delight of dimensional effects, and even in 2D playback, its scope is impressive, but the personalities of the heroes and the villains are lost in the clutter of action. In choosing to stage the segment for its dimensional impact, Jackson lets go of what made the action scenes in all three of the Lord of the Rings films so involving, the constant monitoring of the specific experiences of each of the heroes within the pandemonium of the fights and battles. They are all just drab little objects, leaping from crumbling pathways and avoiding onslaughts of goblins, as such objects have done in so many other films.

Another chase sequence is outright misconceived, and Jackson seems to know it even though he gives it his best spin in the supplements. The heroes are on a vast, open field, strewn with rocks, and are being hunted down by villainous creatures and dog monsters. One of their number (using a delightfully conceived rabbit-drawn sled) takes off to distract the villains, so the heroes can slip away, with the idea being that he runs around so much in circles that he leads the bad guys right back to the heroes, and only their discovery at the last minute of a subterranean exit saves them. It is a weak and not very exciting idea to begin with, but it makes even less sense as it is staged and edited, again with too many distance shots that show the characters bobbing about but not really going anywhere.

The greatest challenge to the film was one that Jackson fully anticipated from the beginning, and whether or not he truly solved it will only be evident when all three films can be viewed. The hero, a ‘hobbit,’ played by the potentially wonderful but somewhat restrained Martin Freeman (the character was played by the elderly Ian Holm in the Lord of the Rings movies, who appears at the beginning of The Hobbit to set things up, while the actual story precedes by decades the story told in Rings), is coerced by a wizard, played by Ian McKellen (one of several actors whose character’s aging anomalies allows him to appear in all of the films), to accompany a group of a dozen or so dwarves on a quest to retrieve the dwarves’ birthright. The single dwarf character, played by John Rhys-Davies in the Lord of the Rings movies, stood out to great effect among the many taller characters in those films, but hobbits are about the same height as dwarves and so, as they gather, there is less that is unique about them in The Hobbit, and almost nothing, other than McKellen, to remind viewers of their diminutive stature. In one of the supplements, the many challenges of creating the individual dwarf characters are extensively addressed. With the exception of two or three, there is not much for their characters to do individually, and they don’t stand out in the way that the various characters in Lord of the Rings were readily differentiated.

Like the release of the theatrical version, Extended Edition is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1. The image transfer is excellent and even the most extensive computer animation sequences have textures and tones that are indiscernible from the ‘real’ components on the screen. The 7.1 DTS sound is greatly involving, with abundant energy and creative detail. There are French and Portuguese audio tracks in 5.1 Dolby Digital, and English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.

The film appears on one platter, accompanied by the same 7-minute travel promotional piece about the New Zealand locations that was included with the theatrical release. Jackson and co-screenwriter/producer Philippa Boyens supply the commentary track (there is only one commentary, unlike the four that appeared on each extended Rings film), an excellent and thorough narration of why different choices were made, what the reasons were for embellishing or altering the story in the novel, how the various technical problems were addressed (because of the 3D effects, they could not simply place McKellen closer to the camera as they did in the Lord of the Rings films to convey his difference in size from the others), who the various contributors were in front of and behind the camera (or both, in the case of Andy Serkis, who became the primary second unit director after finishing the scenes where he reprises his schizophrenic character), and the legacy that is being created. “When you’re doing films like this, you’re partly making the movie to be standalone, obviously, as an experience. You watch the films in the cinemas and you have to feel like you’re satisfied with the movie, but always, in the back of our minds, it is one of not even three, but it’s one of six films that we want, long after the theatrical life of these films is over, for decades, hopefully for a hundred years or more, that they’re going to be available as six movies to look at, and that is ultimately what we’re trying to create here.” Boyens points out that when all six movies are combined, Holm’s flashback scene in Lord of the Rings where he finds ‘The Ring’ does not have to be replaced with Freeman’s scenes in The Hobbit. “Textually, you could get away with it, because it’s his memory of finding it, and his story of how he found it, how it came to him, ‘evolved,’ shall we say, in the telling.”

“Hopefully,” interjects Jackson (at a later recording, from the sound of it), “We’ll get to package The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings together, in like an ‘ultimate’ set, and who knows what extra things we’ll be able to squeeze into that.” So maybe we’ll get to see Tom Bombadil yet.

The second and third BD platters included in the set are listed as The Appendices Part 7 and The Appendices Part 8, carrying forward the as­sumption that all six movies go together, even though this one would be the first and not the fourth if you were watching them in narrative instead of pro­duction order. For production order, however, this film is indeed the fourth, an exponential decade in technological advancement over its predecessors, bringing forth both new problems to be solved and new solutions to be ap­plied. Part 7, which runs 273 minutes, is a fully engrossing, chronological narrative of the film’s production, which includes interviews with del Toro and explains how the many delays the film encountered served to its advan­tage, even when Jackson became extremely ill (as we pointed out in our re­view of the Internet promotional segments included with the theatrical release, Jackson started putting back the weight over the course of the production that he had lost while making King Kong), or when Freeman had to take a hiatus to shoot the wonderful Sherlock Season Two. The program works its way through the various stages of the production, highlighting the film’s advance from one location or soundstage set to the next as the pieces are gradually gathered and combined, with appropriate digressions to the other work that is going on simultaneously, such as the elaborate stunts and throwaway inserts that Serkis is shooting. There is real drama—McKellan, who had to work in another room because of the effects requirements, could not see the actors he was responding to and had a temporary breakdown—but even when the events are simply filmmaking as usual, the lengthy program has been constructed in such a way that it is always interesting and entertaining, showing how the cast and crew bonded as the shooting advanced and they all became more confident in what they wanted to accomplish.

At first, Part 8, which runs 285 minutes, seems like it is just made up of outtakes from Part 7, but gradually, you come to realize that is retelling the story of the production again, from an entirely different perspective, focusing initially on the characters, and then moving to the settings, before wrapping things up with a segment on the music. Having the context of the film, the commentary and Part 7 to support it, Part 8, because it is so much about the individual artists and what they are contributing, not only enriches the supplement with its human perspective, it also enriches the film itself, by bringing a greater appreciation to its every component. As Jackson himself explains at one point, The Hobbit was seen by Tolkien as a children’s story—the ‘Goblins’ of The Hobbit became the much scarier ‘Orcs’ of The Lord of the Rings (Jackson sees them as different breeds of the same species)—and so the film is intentionally more playful and frivolous than The Lord of the Rings. Some viewers may feel that Jackson pushed that frivolity too far, but he claims that the trilogy will become more serious as it advances, and it is a claim most viewers will readily accept as they look beyond the film’s conclusion, expecting that however the adventure will be resolved, it is the journey itself that will be the reward.

DVD Geek: Pacific Rim

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

A grand celebration of Japanese monster movies and robot movies, with enough subwoofer action to create your own crater, Pacific Rim, has been released by Warner Home Video as a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD title.  Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy (his Anarchy co-star, Ron Perlman, is also featured, in a supporting role) stars as an expert giant robot operator who is called back to the fight several years after a tragedy, because humanity is losing to the monsters that are coming up through a hole in the ocean, like rats out of a toilet.  Running 131 minutes, the film, nevertheless, is brisk, with an engaging cast, smart special effects (there are a lot of monsters, but the views of them barely last microseconds at a time), meticulous design details, and a sense of joy accompanying the collateral destruction that will occur whenever giant robots and monsters fight.  The heroes are partnered, because it takes two to run a robot, thereby giving the movie a shorthand emotional credence that is integrated directly with the action.  Directed by Guillermo del Toro, the film will enthrall anyone who still has a fondness for the rubber-suits-and-miniatures monster movies of old, as well as most 10-year old boys, and if others don’t get it, or just think it is a big, loud mess, it’s their loss.

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.8:1.  The special effects go by so quickly there’s never a chance for them not to look convincing, and the details of the image are consistently crisp.  The 7.1 DTS track (the BD’s default is 5.1, you have to select the 7.1) may not be subtle in its application of surround effects, but it is a grand assault of crashes, roars and all things loud and thumping, and begs to be turned up as high as you dare.  There are French, Spanish and Portuguese audio tracks, and English, French, Spanish and Portuguese subtitles.  The 62 minutes of excellent production featurettes that accompany the film reveal how incredibly thorough del Toro was in overseeing the movie’s creation, which is why, boxoffice shortcomings or not, the film is going to be around for a very long time to come.  As he explains, “This movie was made by people who love giant monsters and robots, for people who love giant monsters and robots.”

He goes into even more detail on a commentary track, essentially providing an entire history of giant monster and robot movies, and why he wanted so badly to create one of his own.  He supplies a background history of the production and the basic logistics of the shoot (he came in so under his budget that he had the luxury of shooting three extra days of pick ups).  He also talks extensively about working with the actors, and about how each character served the narrative, but underneath everything is the abject enthusiasm he feels and expresses for what he is doing.

“This film is the most controlled, joyful exercise in image creation I’ve ever had in my life.

“When we go close, you go from textures and the big silhouette to a lot of little details that give it scale and volume.  The helicopters became very important in shooting this movie.  I’m lighting [this robot and monster fight scene] like a boxing match, with the light coming from above, almost evoking a boxing fight from an American Realism painting, you know?  In the digital moments of animation, [the animator] becomes our cinematographer.  And we start coding.  Again, form is content.  How do we give you scale?  Look at the way we layer the light on this fight scene.  There are two levels of light.  One is the above light, which is cool, and the bottom light, the tungsten light, which is warm, sort of acid yellow light, and that gives you scale.  You have the greens, the fluorescents and that allows you to see that these [monsters] exist at different heights, that are story[-sized] heights.  The bottom is going to be warm, and the top is going to be cool or in the greens, and then we use the helicopters.  We use the helicopters constantly to light them, like they become our little gaffers.”

The Blu-ray is a presentation of the film, but it is also a keepsake for the film’s fans, in which del Toro can share all of the things that he painstakingly included in the movie, but that could not possibly be seen by the viewer, even with a Still Step function and an enormous screen.  “We designed everything in this movie.  We designed the patches in the shirts and the uniforms, we designed the banners, the badges.  We designed the [robots] to the minimal detail, so if you zoom into the controls you would see electrical discharge warnings, you would see ladders, you would see places where you would connect, and to engineer the amount of detail is staggering.  We spent about a year texturing this world, and the accumulation of that mosaic of detail, design-wise, gives you the sense of a real world.  People think that a ‘world creation’ movie is the ‘big gestures,’ but it isn’t, it’s this small detail.”  Along with a DVD platter that has a less powerful 5.1 Dolby Digital track, the same language options except for the Portuguese, and, most importantly, although there are no other special features, the del Toro commentary track, the set also comes with a second BD platter of special features that share with the viewer the many designs and minutiae that fans, in particular, will savor.  Included is an ‘interactive’ presentation of del Toro’s notes, which include video segments and take about a half-hour to get through.  Within the film, there are rapid montages when the robot ‘pilots’ link up cerebrally to operate a robot, and these montages are imitated in a 5-minute segment that presents the biographical backstories of the main characters.  Additionally, there is a good 17-minute segment on developing the film’s digital effects, 4 minutes of deleted scenes that were sensibly removed but add a bit more character detail, an enjoyable 4-minute blooper reel, and a wonderful, extensive still frame collection of designs and images from the film.

 

DVD Geek: The Killing

Thursday, July 25th, 2013

More and more, movies seem like short stories and TV shows seem like novels. It took two ‘seasons’ (actually, each is a half-length season) for the murder mystery program, The Killing, to reach its highly satisfying conclusion. Set in Washington State, it is stocked with more red herrings than Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market. But if you sit down over a weekend and watch the whole two seasons at once, it is a wonderfully involving mystery with rich character development and nearly constant suspense. You know they aren’t finding the killer in the second episode, but that doesn’t stop you from thinking that they have.

The Killing: The Complete First Season, opens with an outright spoof of the opening of Twin Peaks and then proceeds along much the same lines, minus the close-ups of traffic lights, as a Seattle cop, played by Mireille Enos, continually postpones her retirement to investigate the murder of a high school coed. Sure enough, like Twin Peaks, at first the coed appears to be innocent and pure, but eventually it appears that she was hooking on the side at a nearby casino. Originally broadcast in 2011, thirteen 45-minute episodes (the last episode runs 48 minutes) are spread to four platters. Each episode represents a day in the investigation, and it seems like each opens with a new suspect that just has to be the one who did it, only to close with the focus shifting to someone else. Indeed, much to the consternation of fans but in keeping with its witty storytelling, the entire season ends just the same way. At the same time, there is a mayoral election approaching and the victim is discovered in the trunk of a car belonging to one of the campaigns. Enos is a little vague as the heroine, both as a detective and as a single mom, but Joel Kinnaman is terrific as her stoner partner and the program, as it leaps from suspect to suspect, is highly addictive. There is a substantial amount of time devoted to the grieving family, and the program does a good job at charting the arc of that grief. It also is always raining, which is different from the real Seattle, where it is always just drizzling (it actually rains more in New York), but is great for moody murder mysteries. Agnieszka Holland directed one of the episodes.

Each platter has a ‘Play All’ option. The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The color transfer looks fine, despite all the dark and rain. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is quite good, with a strong dimensionality and some nice directional effects. There are optional English, French and Spanish subtitles. The final platter contains a passable 17-minute production featurette (as usual with shows set in Seattle, most of the program was shot in Vancouver—and the cast members, including Enos, occasionally mispronounce local names), a 5-minute blooper reel and 13 minutes of wisely trimmed sequences, although there is one nice segment where the younger brothers of the victim get into a fight, and a little more elaboration to the season’s final minutes. The first and last episodes are also accompanied by commentary tracks featuring a couple of members of the cast and the crew. They talk about the aspects of the show that they feel are unique, a few of the challenges that confronted them (Enos was pregnant during some of the shoot) and how everybody wants to know who the murderer really is. “We were sworn to secrecy. We swore an oath of secrecy and I believe it’s only the writers in the room who know who the killer is and we had to talk to each other about keeping our faces passive when we spoke to cast members and people in the beginning would try to get it out of us. It’s like, ‘I’m sorry. Pain of death. I cannot tell you.’”

Demonstrating a bit of a lack of faith, Fox released The Killing The Complete Second Season directly onto the Internet as a Fox Cinema Archives title. Spread to three platters, there are another thirteen 43-minute episodes, and each platter has a Play All option. In keeping with the cost-cutting manner of its release, however, the sound is dialed back to a standard stereo mix that is not as pleasingly dimensional as the 5.1 mix on First Season, and there is no subtitling or captioning. The picture quality and format are commensurate with First Season. There is one special feature, a 5-minute video that was ‘shot’ by the victim.

First and foremost, Second Season, originally broadcast in 2012, picks right up where First Season left off, and brings the story, by the end, to a fully satisfying and resolute conclusion. Secondly, the rain continues. Some viewers may feel the story is stretched out, but that just makes the final few episodes leading up to the end all the more nail-biting, and the atmosphere along the way all the more succulent. The writers have a tough juggling act, telling the story in just four weeks or so, because the characters go through so much—one character is even shot and paralyzed, but is up and about in a wheelchair a couple of days/episodes later. The background of Enos’ character is developed a bit more, and she seems more comfortable in her part than she did in First Season, as her character’s desperation becomes more frustrated—her performance is outstanding in a psychiatric ward sequence.

 

DVD Geek: Cloud Atlas

Wednesday, June 5th, 2013

Every once in a while, somebody makes a really great movie that doesn’t become popular right away, but gradually becomes more popular than most of the other movies of its time.  Blade Runner comes to mind as an obvious example, and then there was the granddaddy of them all, Intolerance.  Well, Cloud Atlas will surely find its way into that group in a few years.  The film is just flat out too sophisticated for mass audiences to tolerate—heck, a lot of it is in two different forms of ‘future English,’ neither of which is translated—but if there is any justice in the halls of moviedom, popularity and obsession for Cloud Atlas will gradually spread across generations and across the globe now that Warner Home Video has issued the 2012 production on a Blu-ray + DVD + Ultraviolet Combo Pack.

Directed by the Wachowski siblings Lana and Andy, and by Tom Tykwer, the film, like Intolerance, is broken into different stories set in different eras, with dazzling editing that jumps from story to story like fingers sweeping down the keys of a piano.  The prominent cast members have multiple roles, figuring centrally in some stories and peripherally in others.  Tom Hanks is top billed, and his performances are no stunt—he’s really, really good in each of his highly varied manifestations.  Halle Berry, James Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw and Doona Bae also have central roles, with Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, Keith David, James D’Arcy, Zhou Xun and Hugh Grant appearing multiple times, as well.  The stories carry a common theme of freedom, with the ironic corollary that in order to be free, each individual is dependent upon others to achieve or sustain that freedom, and they are given a spiritual link through the shared cast, and through repeated quirks—some of the characters have the same distinctive birthmark, or pass objects and ideas along down the years.  One story is deliberately comedic, and two of them have elaborate special effects, including one that is, in a good way, a cross between Blade Runner and Soylent Green.  Running a grand 172 minutes, the film is dazzling and intelligent, and is never tedious or introspective.  It will take multiple viewings before people begin to recognize how elaborate its breakdown of religion is—how events that happen hundreds of years earlier change in the telling across the centuries while retaining the essence of their truth as an unmutable core—and just how plain satisfying its storytelling is as it whips you along from one situation to the next.  It is a thrilling movie, and is easily the best theatrical feature to come out of 2012, not only for its unrestrained entertainment, but for the boundaries it breaks as it advances the art of filmmaking.

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1.  The image quality is finely detailed, and the temptation to freeze frame after frame is difficult to resist.  The DTS sound has a full dimensionality and engaging directional effects.  There are French and Spanish audio tracks in 5.1 Dolby Digital, English, French and Spanish subtitles, and 55 minutes of excellent promotional featurettes that jump between clips from the film, a few behind-the-scenes shots and a group interview with the directors and novelist David Mitchell, in which they share many valuable insights about the movie and reveal details that would otherwise be missed, even after a dozen viewings.  The DVD included in the set has 5.1-Dolby sound that is not as enveloping or enrapturing as the BD’s DTS track.  The other language options are the same as the BD, and there is one of the featurettes, running a total of 7 minutes.

DVD Geek: Red Hook Summer

Friday, April 12th, 2013

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

 

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

 

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