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Special Report: Criterion’s Reconstruction of “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World”

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One of the most eagerly-awaited titles of this or any other year, Criterion’s new Blu-ray of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World offers a long-desired reconstruction of the film’s original roadshow version, a cut of the film not seen by anyone a few months after the movie’s November 7, 1963 premiere.

An epic, all-star comedy directed by Stanley Kramer, it’s as divisive as Hillary Clinton: people tend to either love or hate it. Indeed, some of the more extreme haters harbor an inexplicable resentment toward those who don’t share their opinion. I’m squarely in the other camp. I’ve adored and have been endlessly mesmerized by Kramer’s film since childhood. For me it never gets old, but I can also understand why it might not click with everyone who sees it. It helps to be familiar with the dizzying array of stars, supporting actor-comedians, and even bit players who populate it. It also plays better viewed cold, without any awareness of what’s to come, with no promises or expectations of a “comedy to end all comedies.”

It is, unquestionably, misunderstood by many. Though dominated by broad, large-scale slapstick, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World works as much for other reasons. The movie has an unusual structure, introducing a group of characters which it then breaks up into, eventually, six major groupings, cleverly intercutting their various adventures before they all meet up again at the climax, with additional characters picked up and encountered along the way. This cutting among the various sub-plots as they converge on a potential $350,000 jackpot several hundred miles away is a big part of the film’s charm. Structurally, a comparison to D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) is not inapt. That silent epic doesn’t make much of an impact when its multiple stories are viewed separately (as they frequently were), but intercut as Griffith intended that picture, like IAMMMMW, it becomes an entirely different viewing experience.

Some reviewers have also mistaken the film as some sort of tribute to silent comedy. Certainly its Harold Lloyd-like climax has elements of that, but overall the film is its own animal. It’s not an attempt at an old-fashioned tribute the way The Great Race (1965) later was. Despite Kramer’s reputation for socially conscious drama and despite IAMMMMW’s greed-driven plot there’s no  attempt at any social significance or a “message” of any kind. Despite the presence of comedians and comic actors drawn from silent films, Vaudeville, burlesque, nightclubs, radio, television, and other venues, William and Tania Rose’s screenplay brings these widely-varied performing styles into a solidly-plotted cohesive whole, though it does draw inspiration from various sources and gives each performer breathing room to ply their craft. (For me, parts of the film play like a more cynical Preston Sturges script, particularly in scenes featuring actor William Demarest, in all but name reprising his Officer Kockenlocker character from The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek.)

Mainly, this review will explore the 197-minute reconstruction – not “restoration” – of the original 202-minute roadshow version, what was put back and in what form, and how these added elements play against the more familiar and subsequent 163-minute roadshow/general release version.

If you’re reading this review you already probably know It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World backwards. If somehow you’ve made your way through life without ever seeing it, like audio co-commentator Mark Evanier I recommend that you first watch the shorter version of the film, then the longer cut some time later, and then come back to read this review.

To summarize: Trying to elude detectives hot on his trail, career crook “Smiler” Grogan (Jimmy Durante) spectacularly crashes his car in the Mohave Desert many miles north of Los Angeles. Before expiring he tells the five motorists who’ve stopped to help – dentist Melville Crump (Sid Caesar); Vegas-bound pals “Ding” Bell (Buddy Hackett) and Benjy Benjamin (Mickey Rooney); milquetoast seaweed entrepreneur J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle); and simple-minded furniture mover Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters) about $350,000 buried several hundred miles away at Santa Rosita Beach State Park, under what he describes as “ a big ‘W.’” (In a nice touch, Durante repeats this important clue for the audience’s benefit, looking straight into the camera, ensuring that they will be on the lookout, too.)

Joined by Russell’s straight-laced wife, Emmeline (Dorothy Provine), and domineering mother-in-law, Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman), and Melville’s wife, Monica (Edie Adams), the group quickly abandons any thought of calmly driving down to Santa Rosita together as a group and dividing the stolen money equally. As Benjy says, “it’s every man, including the old bag (Merman), for himself.”

Meanwhile, Chief of Detectives Capt. T.G. Culpepper (Spencer Tracy, top-billed) of the Santa Rosita Police Department closely monitors their actions. An honest cop four months away from retirement, Culpepper is equally anxious to close this 15-year-old case, believing that he can finagle its successful resolution into an upgraded pension so that he can “retire with honor.”

As the treasure hunters leave an awesome trail of destruction in their wake – “withholding information, causing accidents, failing to report accidents, reckless driving, theft, at least three cases of assault and battery…” – they pick up other strangers along the way, notably British army Lt. Col. J. Algernon Hawthorne (Terry-Thomas), unscrupulous con-man Otto Meyer (Phil Silvers), and Russell’s spaced-out brother-in-law, Sylvester Marcus (Dick Shawn)

It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World was filmed in Ultra Panavision 70, an anamorphic 65mm process, and originally exhibited as a road show, meaning that instead of saturation bookings on hundreds or thousands of movie screens simultaneously, the film rolled out across the country (and around the world) slowly, methodically. It typically opened in just one big downtown movie palace in each of the country’s biggest cities, playing on a reserved-seats basis for an average run of one year, then after that went into general release and neighborhood theaters and, eventually, drive-ins.

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The movie premiered at the Cinerama Dome Theater in Hollywood on November 3, 1963, and by mid-December had also opened in New York, Chicago, Boston, London, and Atlanta but few, if any, other theaters, partly because most Cinerama houses were still playing How the West Was Won to packed houses, and partly because theaters had to then be converted from the original three-strip Cinerama process to the more standard 70mm equipment needed to run IAMMMMW. By mid-December 1963 distributor United Artists, working with Kramer, decided to cut about 43 minutes of movie out of the long film which, taking into consideration its overture, intermission break, entr’acte, and exit music clocked in at nearly three-and-a-half hours.

And so it was the shorter, 163-minute version that played everywhere else, as a roadshow throughout 1964, in general release, during its 1970 rerelease, on network television, in syndication, and on home video. In 1991 MGM cobbled together its own 175-minute reconstruction, but that release was far from perfect: some of the footage was incorrectly integrated, and least one shot included in that release was apparently never part of any official version.

Criterion’s reconstructed Blu-ray version, supervised by Robert A. Harris, consists mostly of MGM’s HD transfer of the short version integrated with the same deleted footage included on the 1991 home video version, footage derived from 70mm theatrical print trims of the long version. For the 1991 laserdisc and VHS release, this footage retained the optical squeeze added to the extreme left and right sides of the frame so that, when projected onto Cinerama’s deeply-curved screen, the image would stretch back out to more or less normal. This has been optically corrected and properly integrated with the rest of the film. In the 22 years in-between these two home video releases, the color on the trims had faded so badly that the decision was made to layer the color from the 1991 transfer on top of the remastered-for-HD trims. Because the older transfer cropped the Ultra Panavision framing slightly, the area around the edges of the frame look almost monochrome. It’s noticeable, but not nearly as distracting as frame grabs of these scenes suggest. Because of where the magnetic soundtrack matching the action was placed on 70mm release prints, the audio drops out a second at the end of each cut. Harris has included these bits, using English subtitles so that viewers don’t miss any of the dialogue.

So, the vast majority of reinstated material consists of these trims, the same material integrated for that 1991 release. There is a bit of new material, though probably not as much as many were hoping for, and some of that has audio but no picture. The previously unreleased material with both picture and sound is easy to spot, as it’s the footage without the monochrome borders at the edges of the frame. There’s not a lot of this, but what’s there is worthwhile, most notably footage that expands the build-up to the intermission break, particularly at the Santa Rosita police station. The short version edits the build-up to the intermission extremely well, but the build-up in the long version is just as good, just a little different.

There are three short scenes in which there is sound but no picture: Sylvester’s theft of his girlfriend’s car, some more footage of the Crumps locked in the basement of a hardware store, and Culpepper’s telephone conversation with Jimmy the Crook (Buster Keaton, who in the short version has but one line and is onscreen for less than ten seconds).

Each of these three scenes offers a few surprises previously unknown to most Mad World fans: that Sylvester’s girlfriend is actually a married woman, for instance, and that it’s her car he steals. The telephone scene in one respect is almost heartbreaking: the audience hears Keaton’s voice but is denied the chance to actually see him and his reactions to Culpepper’s plotting.

But the sequence also completely changes one aspect of the film. In the short version it appears that Culpepper has suffered some sort of nervous breakdown. (“You know what I believe I’d like?” he asks his fellow cops. “A chocolate fudge sundae, with whipped cream and a cherry on top.”) In the short version, Culpepper’s decision to steal Smiler’s 350 Gs for himself isn’t made clear until very late in the film and comes as a genuine surprise, though there are clues earlier in the picture pointing to that.

In the reconstructed version all surprise is gone as made clear by that phone call to Keaton’s character. Further, Culpepper’s desire to have that chocolate fudge sundae is no longer the pathetic non sequitur of a broken man, but a ruse so that he can get out of the station and call Jimmy from a nearby drugstore. Nice as it would be to see and hear Keaton, the movie is better without that scene.

The brief audio-only footage of the Crumps in the basement is seriously damaged by one truly terrible decision. Unlike the other two audio-only scenes, which use publicity stills (possibly unreleased stills from contact sheets), this footage incorporates behind-the-scenes and set stills. In addition to Sid Caesar and Edie Adams, these stills make visible members of the film crew, including director Stanley Kramer himself, along with a massive Ultra Panavision camera in one shot. This has the effect of completely taking the viewer out of the movie. They’re interesting as photographs but they have no business in a reconstruction like this.

Likely no appropriate stills of the missing scene exist, but that was also true of some of the scenes missing from the 1954 A Star Is Born. In that Gold Standard of movie reconstruction, producer Ron Haver cleverly found ways around the problem, making those missing scenes play as seamlessly as possible. Clearly any evidence of the crew should have been cropped or matted out.

Overall, the long version has its advantages and disadvantages. Except for one early scene showing the mad motorists driving recklessly through a small desert community, with a few exceptions the cut footage mostly extends scenes from the short version and is no great loss without them. While some would argue the reinstated scenes merely make the long film even longer, in some ways it actually improves the pacing. In its short form the movie at times is a little schizophrenic and cuts too abruptly among the various subplots. The build-up in the longer version is more carefully and deliberately paced, in some respects making the payoffs that come later more satisfying. Interestingly, much of the cut scenes relate to the incredulous monitoring of the fortune-seekers by various law enforcement officers driving black-and-whites or riding in helicopters.

The cut footage also offers a short scene between Winters and Provine that provide Winters’s character with a selfless motive to want his share of the loot, a motive that’s completely absent in the short version. Moreover, there are a handful of great comedy bits the short version should have retained: Culpepper’s $5 bet with Police Chief Aloysius (William Demarest); Rancho Conejo air traffic controllers Carl Reiner and Eddie Ryder shaking hands, a last goodbye as Ding and Benjy’s out-of-control twin-engine plane is on a head-on collision course with their tower; a funny deleted line from cab driver Eddie “Rochester” Anderson near the climax.

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The cut footage also make sense of continuity issues created by the short version, which had left viewers familiar only with that version baffled for years. They explain that the silver mine Otto Meyer speaks of is the place where the character played by Mike Mazurki lives. (I never realized this.) The long version also explains just why Hackett’s character is soaking wet in a couple of shots.

If ever there was a special edition prompted by consumer demand, it’s this. Though a popular catalog title, MGM was loathe to spend the vast sums of money a restoration/reconstructed would have required back in the ‘80s-through-early 2000s. Like David Strohmeier’s Cinerama restorations, IAMMMMW is only possible now because of cost-effective computer technologies that, combined with MGM’s preexisting HD master of the short version, now make such a release cost-effective.

The transfer of the extra-wide Ultra Panavision process (65mm, at 2.76:1) is impeccable, but then again it already was when the beleaguered MGM transferred the short version to HD a couple years ago. Excerpt for the new scenes, this is a same transfer as that, with only minor tweaking. The 5.1 surround, adapted from the original 6-track magnetic stereo, sounds great, a more noticeable improvement from MGM’s earlier Blu-ray of the short version. In addition to the original overture, entr’acte, and exit music, this release incorporates audio-only “police calls” heard sporadically throughout the intermission. All of this is over black, no title card, and there’s a lot of dead air between these calls but, apparently, that’s how they were spaced back in late 1963.

Criterion’s release offers both cuts of IAMMMMW on two Blu-ray discs and three DVDs, the third SD disc consisting of the same extra features spread across the two Blu-rays. The foldout packaging is nice, incorporating Jack Davis artwork commissioned for the 1970 rerelease. Inside there’s a booklet featuring an essay by Lou Lumenick and details about the film and sound elements sourced. Also included is a colorful but impractical map identifying some of the film’s shooting locations (Google Earth comes in very handy here).

Supplements are voluminous though curiously missing the “Something a Little Less Serious” documentary made for the 1991 home video version. That documentary featured Kramer and many more original cast members, all in better health and in greater number than they appear in the newer extras included here. “The Last 70mm Film Festival,” for instance, literally wheels-on Jonathan Winters, Mickey Rooney and Marvin Kaplan (one of the two gas station attendants whose business Winters’s character destroys), with Winters in good spirits but clearly not long for this world. Hosted by Billy Crystal and also featuring other cast and crewmembers, it’s a bit rambling, but enjoyable. (It’s a shame there’s no good video of the American Cinematheque screening I attended some years earlier, which had more of these folks and in far heartier shape.) Also included is a long excerpt from AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs focusing on IAMMMMW.

Other extras include original and reissue trailers; Stan Freberg’s TV and radio spots, which Freberg himself introduces; a two-part CBC program documenting the movie’s giant press junket and premiere; one-sided press interviews from 1963, featuring Kramer and his cast; an excerpt from a 1974 talk show hosted by Kramer and featuring Caesar, Hackett, and Winters; short but enlightening featurettes about the reconstruction process and another about the film’s visual and aural effects, including some fascinating behind-the-scenes footage.

And, best of all, there’s an informative and cozily personal audio commentary track on the long version by “Mad World aficionados” (they’re much more than that) Mark Evanier, Michael Schlesinger, and Paul Scrabo. It’s worth all 197 minutes.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World rates:

Movie: Excellent

Video: Excellent

Sound: Excellent

Supplements: Audio commentary, trailers, radio spots, press interviews, 1974 TV reunion, 2012 cast and crew reunion, Mad World locations map, AFI 100 Years…100 Laughs excerpt, featurettes on the reconstruction, sound and visual effects, booklet.

Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES (for the general release version).

Criterion 1963 / Color / 2.76:1 Ultra Panavision 70 / 197 and 163 min. / Street Date January 21, 2014 / $49.95

Starring Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Dick Shawn, Phil Silvers, Terry-Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Edie Adams, Dorothy Provine and a Few Surprises.

Director of Photography Ernest Laszlo

Music Ernest Gold

Written by William and Tania Rose

Produced and Directed by Stanley Kramer

 

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DVD Review: “Admiral Yamamoto” (1968)

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Admiral Yamamoto (Rengo kantai shirei chokan – Yamamoto Isoroku, or “Combined Fleet Admiral – Isoroku Yamamoto,” 1968) is one of a long line of war epics produced by Japan’s Toho Studios featuring elaborate miniature special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, the man behind Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, et. al. This one, directed by Seiji Maruyama, is a bit different, functioning partially as a biopic of one of the few Japanese “heroes” of the Pacific War, a man whose reputation, at least among the Japanese, remains unimpeachable. Yamamoto, played in the film by the great Toshiro Mifune, vehemently opposed Japan waging war against the United States and the other Allies, recognizing America’s vastly superior industrial might against a Japan notably lacking in natural resources. Nonetheless, he was one of the architects behind the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and Japan’s early victories in late 1941 and early ’42.

Postwar Japanese movies about World War II generally fall into one of four categories. A tiny number, mostly confined to a handful of movies produced by Shintoho in the late 1950s and into 1960, whitewash Japan’s militarists and their culpability. Others, such as Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition (1959-61) trilogy, uncompromisingly depict the war as it truly was, a great tragedy during which Japan inflicted unimaginable harm on both foreign peoples and its own citizenry. A third type, exemplified by Kihachi Okamoto’s Desperado Outpost (1959) and The Human Bullet (1968), are grimly comical and cynical.

Toho specialized in the fourth type, large-scale epics full of romanticized action and spectacle similar to concurrent American-made war movies like The Longest Day (1962) and Battle of the Bulge (1965). However, these films temper iconography recognizable to western viewers with equal sobering doses of bitter reality, through protagonists recognizing the great folly that ultimately leaves Japan in ruins and a generation of men wiped out for nothing.

That particular sub-genre peaked with Shue Matsubayashi’s marvelous Storm Over the Pacific (also known as I Bombed Pearl Harbor, 1960), the biggest of these big-scale productions, and which co-starred Mifune. In that film he played a real-life admiral named Tamon Yamaguchi, though Mifune’s characterization was virtually indistinguishable from his later portrayal of Isoroku Yamamoto, a role he’d go on to play twice more (in Toho’s The Militarists, 1970, and the American film Midway, 1976). Matsubayashi had himself been an officer in the Japanese Imperial Navy, and brought to Storm Over the Pacific and his other war movies a verisimilitude lacking in almost all other films of this type. He’d been there, even aboard a ship sunk by Allied fighter planes. He saw these films as sad memorials to his fallen comrades.

By 1968, when Admiral Yamamoto was made, domestic box-office figures were plummeting fast industry-wide, mainly due to the growing popularity of television, in virtually every household since tuning in for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Undoubtedly Admiral Yamamoto was prompted partly by Akira Kurosawa’s widely publicized deal to co-direct the 20th Century-Fox financed Tora! Tora! Tora!, a long-in-gestation multi-million-dollar epic from which Kurosawa was notoriously fired shortly after filming began, and which, unfortunately for Kurosawa, brought the controversial production even more press.

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Toho’s decision to make Admiral Yamamoto amidst all this couldn’t have pleased Kurosawa, especially with longtime muse Mifune in the title role, to say nothing of the myriad other actors (Yoshio Tsuchiya, Masayuki Mori), writers (Shinobu Hashimoto) and others (composer Masaru Sato) with which Kurosawa was so closely associated.

Dramatically, Admiral Yamamoto is a mixed bag. It’s so damn reverential Mifune has little opportunity to be anything more than a God-like pillar of stoic and savant-like wisdom, but there are many nice moments throughout. The picture opens well, in 1939 Japan where Yamamoto, back in his hometown of Nagaoka, enjoys a leisurely boat ride along the local river at the height of cherry blossom season. He challenges the skilled boatman (Ryutaro Tatsumi) punting him downriver to bring him to shore while Yamamoto stands on his head. This attracts a lot of attention and the two men eventually end up in the drink, much to Yamamoto’s delight. This is neatly bookended late in the film when Yamamoto encounters the boatman’s son on the battlefield.

The movie integrates facets of the historical Yamamoto’s personality well: his love of gambling, his passion for (Japanese) calligraphy, in addition to his various successful and (mostly) unsuccessful naval strategies. What it does not show or ever even vaguely allude to is any aspect of Yamamoto’s private life. His wife and four children are never mentioned once, nor the Geisha mistress he reportedly kept (according to the wife). Quite possibly this was a deliberate decision for legal or other reasons (the film, after all, was made barely 25 years after Yamamoto’s death) but their absence hinders Mifune’s and the screenwriters’ efforts to humanize the character.

In other respects the movie soft-pedals Yamamoto’s personal contributions to Japan’s militarism. In one fascinating scene, it is Staff Officer Kuroshima (Yoshio Tsuchiya), one of Yamamoto’s adjuncts, who delivers and makes the case for Yamamoto’s proposal to attack Pearl Harbor rather than the admiral himself. This might be historically accurate, but it also seems a deliberate attempt to downplay Yamamoto’s culpability for what was a tremendously successful sneak attack with disastrous long-term consequences for Japan.

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As with virtually all other Toho war movies of this type, a significant amount of screen time is allotted to a younger supporting character, always played by a rising Toho star. In Storm Over the Pacific the role of the idealistic young pilot was played by Yosuke Natsuki; in Matsubayashi’s Wings Over the Pacific (also known as Attack Squadron!, 1963), also starring Mifune, it was Yuzo Kayama; and here it’s fresh face Toshio Kurosawa as 1st Lt. Kimura, a poor farm boy Yamamoto helped get into the Naval Academy. Here, with the focus squarely on Yamamoto, more than ever this subordinate character seems to exist solely because there had always been one like it in Toho’s past successes, and that the studio was loathe to tamper with a proven formula.

And, as in past Toho war films, virtually every male actor under contract to the studio, along with a few big independent names, appear in Admiral Yamamoto: Daisuke Kato, Yoshio Inaba, Seiji Miyaguchi (that’s three of Mifune’s Seven Samurai co-stars), Yuzo Kayama, Makoto Sato, Masayuki Mori, and Susumu Fujita, as well as talent familiar to kaiju eiga fans, including Akihiko Hirata, Akira Kubo, Kenji Sahara, and Yoshio Tsuchiya. Yoko Tsukasa and beautiful Wakako Sakai turn up in token female roles, and Tatsuya Nakadai narrates.

Declining attendance figures seems to have impacted the film’s budget. This may be the first Toho special effects feature to utilize extensive stock footage from earlier successes. Toho was already doing this to a lesser extent in its giant monster movies, but never to this extent. For Admiral Yamamoto, nearly all of the attack on Pearl Harbor and much of the Battle of Midway are special effects lifted from Storm Over the Pacific while footage from Wings Over the Pacific turns up elsewhere.

However, Eiji Tsuburaya and his Toho Special Effects Group team still came up with several impressive effects sequences. The first is involves an effort to drop barrels containing food, presumably rice, off the coast of Guadalcanal, hoping it will reach the starving Japanese soldiers marooned there. As the stranded men desperately swim toward the dropped barrels, enemy fighters arrive and begin strafing and bombing the light cruiser transporting the food, eventually sinking it while the doomed men frantically try to swim back to shore and the relative safety of the jungle. The effects shots are a complex mix of miniatures and well-executed mattes and represent some of the department’s best-ever work in a Toho war movie.

(Spoilers) For the film’s climax, Tsuburaya’s team recreated the downing of the bomber carrying Yamamoto over Bougainville. The sequence matches historical records of Yamamoto’s death pretty closely, and yet the miniature effects are almost poetic in the way they are photographed. Indeed, they’re more stylized and cinematic than all but a few of the live-action scenes.

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Admiral Yamamoto arrives on DVD from an unexpected source: Spain’s Tema label, which also released Storm Over the Pacific, Wings Over the Pacific and a few others simultaneously. The DVD is a real deal, just 8,25 Euros (USD $11.23) versus the usual $50-$65 Toho Video typically charges for its own domestic DVDs, and those are without English subtitles. Here, Admiral Yamamoto is presented in 2.0 Dolby Digital mono in both Japanese and Castilian Spanish, supported by Castilian Spanish and English subtitles. The English subtitles aren’t great, with their share of typos (e.g., “Scared War Unit” instead of “Sacred War Unit.” “Ensing Kimura” instead of “Ensign Kimura”) and a few lines of dialogue here and there aren’t subtitled at all, but overall it’s a decent job.

The region 2/PAL video transfer, 16:9 enhanced and thus preserving the original CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.35:1, is surprisingly good. Extras include a photo gallery and original trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Admiral Yamamoto rates:

Movie: Very Good

Video: Very Good

Sound: Good

Supplements: Photo gallery, trailer.

Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English and Spanish

Tema Distribuuciones

1968 / Color / 2.35:1 CinemaScope / 130 min. / Street Date April 9, 2013 / Euro 8,25

Starring Toshiro Mifune, Yuzo Kayama, Yoko Tsukasa, Toshio Kurosawa, Makoto Sato, Daisuke Kato, Masayuki Mori, Wakako Sakai, Koshiro Matsumoto..

Cinematography Kazuo Yamada

Art Director Takeo Kita

Music Masaru Sato

Written by Shinobu Hashimoto, Seiji Maruyama, and Katsuya Susaki

Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka

Special Effects Director Eiji Tsuburaya

Directed by Seiji Maruyama

 

Alan Partridge

Review: “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa” (2013)

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Rating: ****

It is good to see Steve Coogan back as inimitably quirky broadcast personality Alan Partridge in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013). The last time we got to see Partridge up close and personal was the 1997 BBC sitcom I’m Alan Partridge. Fans didn’t know if they would ever see our hapless hero again. When asked in 2004 if he’d ever revive the character, Coogan replied, “[H]e’s being cryogenically preserved next to Walt Disney. . . When the day comes that I feel like I need to do something else with him, I’ll defrost him and make him funny again.”  He has finally been defrosted and, I am glad to say, he is as funny as ever.

The Partridge character has a long and complex history. He once hosted a national television series for the BBC, but a disagreement with broadcast executives led to his ouster. He was forced to take a DJ job at small radio station in the quiet seaside town of Norwich. His latest adventure is set in motion when a giant media conglomerate purchases the station with the intent to change the format to attract a younger demographic. When Partridge discovers that the station owners are debating whether to fire him or fellow DJ Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney), he disparages Pat to a group of executives gathered together for a boardroom meeting. In perfect Alan Partridge style, he concludes his statements by flamboyantly scrawling “Just Sack Pat” on the boardroom’s flipchart. Anyone familiar with Partridge’s troubled past will know that this unkind gesture will inevitably bring our karmic fool an abundant helping of humiliation and defeat.

Trouble starts immediately.  Farrell, who is already distraught by the death of his wife, has a breakdown when he loses his job. He bursts into the station with a shotgun and takes the employees hostage. Partridge, who Farrell surprisingly trusts, becomes a mediator between the police and the hostage-taker. He is ecstatic to step outside of the building to speak to the police, which puts him in the full view of news cameras. The former television presenter comes to sees himself as “hosting the siege.”  The station manager is thrilled for the station to be receiving publicity.  He emboldens Partridge by telling him that he is “the face of the siege” (or “siege face” as Partridge brands himself). Phillip French of The Observer aptly described the film as “comic cross” between Ace in the Hole (1951) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975).

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Comedies today are generally loud and obnoxious. Nothing could be more loud and obnoxious than the roster of comedy films for 2013: The Heat, Identity Thief, Grown Ups 2, The Hangover 3, Scary Movie 5, Bad Grandpa, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and Movie 43. The logic behind these films is that the best way to make people laugh is to shock them. The shock is conveyed by rudeness, obscenity and, at worst, violence. These films do not trade on relatable human behavior and witty dialogue. Alpha Papa is different. The comedy in this film is natural and unassuming. It has to be the most subdued film about a siege that has ever been produced. Yet, the film is extremely funny.

The most indecent that the film gets is when Partridge loses his pants while climbing into a window and, later, when he hides inside a septic tank. The septic tank, which is attached to the bottom of a broadcast bus, breaks loose and carries Partridge at high speed into a curb. But, whether Partridge is baring his bottom or leaping out of a septic tank, the film remains a masterful character-driven comedy. Once he has freed himself from the septic tank, the ruffled Partridge feigns nonchalance by politely informing a startled spectator, “It’s a septic tank – you can have it if you want.”  Before he has time to take another breath, he vaults over a gate to flee the approaching gunman.

Coogan, who introduced the Partridge character on a BBC radio series in 1991, has had an extraordinary amount of time to perfect this thoroughly absurd character. Partridge has, in his 22-year existence, displayed a multitude of flaws. He is shallow, insecure, insensitive, self-absorbed, dimwitted, and socially inept. His awkwardness in social situations stands out among his flaws. He embarrasses himself every time that he opens his mouth. This is evident as he tells an overly personal story about a time that he experienced a panic attack while driving through a car wash. He has a lot in common with the blustery jerk that Danny McBride plays so well, but he’s more vulnerable and more endearing despite his less than ideal behavior. He is far more well-defined than another ignorant and egotistical made-up broadcaster, Will Ferrell’s Ron Burgundy. Partridge is the goofy loser that you can’t help but love.

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Farrell and Partridge take to broadcasting a radio show during the hostage crisis. They are excited to know that the situation is attracting a large audience, which is all that matters to a pair of broadcasters conditioned to obsess about ratings. Neither man seems to care about the heavily armed SWAT  team that has surrounded the building. But Farrell remains unpredictable and frightening. When he finds out that the station manager deleted his jingles, he becomes crazed and gathers the terrified hostages to record a new jingle. The idea that the lives of the hostages are dependent on the group producing an adequate jingle is just the type of absurdity that flows through the film from beginning to end.

Alan Partridge Alpa Papa (13)

The question remains if, by the end, Partridge will find a way to make it through his predicament and learn to be a better person.  Don’t count on it.

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Coogan no doubt will cryogenically preserve Partridge again. I hope that it isn’t long before the character is removed from subzero temperatures and thawed out for another misadventure.

 

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Blu-ray Review: “Many Wars Ago” (1970)

Many Wars Ago Blu-ray

Francesco Rosi’s hot-blooded Many Wars Ago (Uomino contro, “Men Against,” 1970) is probably forever destined to be compared to Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). The similarities aren’t superficial — by underlining the inhumanity and sheer absurdity of World War I trench warfare through a variety of carefully attuned formal techniques, both films arrive at a passionate, persuasive condemnation of war. With Paths of Glory, it feels like Kubrick is taking a less clinically detached approach to his material than in later works, but it never reaches the levels of overt, blistering anger that Rosi’s film does.

Many Wars Ago is a film where the fury of war is viscerally felt in scene after scene of pulsing movement and blasting sound. Rosi doesn’t shy away from launching a series of kinetic assaults on the senses, his close-up framing emphasizing chaos over any distinguishable moving parts. The approach is reminiscent of his earlier bullfighting drama The Moment of Truth (Il momento della verità, 1965), where movement becomes polemic by virtue of its visual forcefulness. In Many Wars Ago, Rosi does take time to focus in on individual characters, but many scenes deemphasize the humanity of the soldiers completely. In this world, you’re just a mass of flesh and metal. Attempts by soldiers to assert themselves as anything more than that generally result in a visit from the firing squad.

Source novel Un anno sull’altipiano (“A Year on the High Plateau,” 1938) was written by Italian soldier Emilio Lussu, based on his experiences in the Sassari Infantry Brigade in World War I. The film takes place during a series of skirmishes between the Italian army and Austro-Hungarian forces in mountainous terrain, and the Austrians seem to have the upper hand in almost every regard, their higher-ground positions and powerful machine guns cutting down any Italian plan before it has a chance of accomplishing anything.

The repeated futility is lost on Gen. Leone (Alain Cuny), a monstrously imperious leader, whose capricious leading style is more responsible for thinning out his own forces than anything the Austrians have planned. In matters of army motivation, he rules with an iron fist, demanding respect by having his own soldiers shot for the most minor of slip-ups. In matters of strategy, he’s something of a crazed lunatic, sending troops out on impossible missions to try to capture the enemy’s higher ground position. One of the film’s most strikingly absurd scenes has Leone outfit a group of soldiers in medieval-style armor and order them to re-attempt a failed gambit, as if this anachronistic tactic would render the hailing machine gun fire ineffective.

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In Rosi’s horrific vision of war, there is very little agency apart from Leone’s and the bureaucratic forces that underpin him. In one of Rosi’s shots of a teeming, anonymous mass of ground troops, Leone strides among the bodies, the only face in clear view. The film’s two de facto protagonists never stand a chance of overcoming this institutional behemoth; Lt. Sassu (Mark Frechette, in one of only two other roles after Zabriskie Point [1970]) seems to understand this, his world-weary, resigned demeanor contrasting sharply with his youthful features. Sassu is the stand-in for author Lussu, an upper-class young man whose support for the war drained away once he saw the horrors on the front line.

For Lt. Ottolenghi (Gian Maria Volonté), the possibility of mutiny keeps some hope alive, but his craftiness is ultimately useless. He tricks Leone into looking out through a pinhole viewing point that Austrian snipers have consistently fired on, but luck is not on his side. Leone walks away unscathed, while moments later, a bullet rips through a branch Ottolenghi places in the same spot. Moral order or even just a little ironic justice is absent here.

Many Wars Ago is a wearying, frustrating experience in both content and form. One is tempted to become numb to the repeated decimations of the Italian army, but Rosi’s nightmarishly constructed scenes of sound and fury on the battlefield prevent inurement. As a villain, Gen. Leone is hardly the subtlest of characters, but Leone is also not the object of Rosi’s venom; he’s merely the personification of a dehumanizing institution. This is one of the great, challenging, stomach-turning war films.

Raro Video gives Many Wars Ago its Region 1/A debut with its Blu-ray release (also available separately on DVD), and while there’s plenty to admire about the transfer, it’s been frustratingly framed in the non-theatrical 1.33:1 aspect ratio. It appears this is an open matte transfer, and the disc was approved by Rosi himself. Are we to assume the director prefers this framing? As far as I can tell, Raro’s old Region 2 DVD release of the film was presented in 1.66:1. As the film progressed, I wasn’t overly distracted by the framing, but some might find this a dealbreaker.

The 1080p high definition transfer was sourced from a reversal print belonging to the Italian National Film Archive, as the original negative has been lost. Taking this into consideration, it’s a pretty good-looking digital transfer, with a very clean image and reasonably high amounts of fine detail. Color consistency is another matter — fluctuation between tones is pretty common, sometimes so much so that the muddy browns and greens of one shot look almost like grayscale in the next. Flesh tones tend to look rather unnatural, and most of the time, the image has a faded appearance. Fortunately damage is mostly nonexistent and there doesn’t appear to be any of the excessive digital filtering that has affected some Raro Blu-rays.

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The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack does a nice job handling the wide range of volume. The piercing battle sound effects that Rosi pumps up can sound a little harsh, but that’s to be expected and kind of the point. English subtitles are optional.

Raro’s disc includes the following special features:

  • Interview with director Francesco Rosi (28 minutes) Rosi, now 91, is exceptionally sharp and engaging, recalling all sorts of specific details about the production of the film. He talks about wanting to make a film with a message after the fairy tale of More Than a Miracle (C’era una volta, “Once Upon a Time,” 1967), and discusses the contrasting reactions Many Wars Ago provoked, along with bits of production trivia.
  • Before and after restoration demonstration (2 minutes) Side-by-side comparison of select shots.
  • PDF of the original screenplay, only accessible on a computer with a Blu-ray disc drive.
  • 20-page booklet with an essay by Lorenzo Codelli, notes from Rosi, excerpts from positive and negative critical reviews and biographical information.

 

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Raro Video’s Many Wars Ago Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2

Film Elements Sourced: **1/2

Video Transfer: **

Audio: ***

New Extra Features: **

Extra Features Overall: **

 

Raro Video

1970 / Color / 1:33:1 / 101 min / $34.95

 

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

 

 

 

Jekyll Hyde Barrymore

Savant Blu-ray Review: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1920)

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One can’t get closer to the roots of modern horror than Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Predating modern psychology, Stevenson’s notion of a personality split along moral lines played well in Victorian times, as it rationalized the need for society to repress man’s baser nature. Freed from moral restraints, the benign Dr. Jekyll becomes a soulless hedonist. He defiles women, tramples children and murders men without guilt. The ‘innocent’ Jekyll cannot control his alter ego, who eventually takes over.

The book was almost immediately adapted as a London play by Thomas Russell Sullivan, who added a love interest and hyped Jekyll’s big transformation scene into a shocking showstopper. The popular stage star Richard Mansfield made Jekyll his signature role. Perhaps it was partially a publicity stunt, but Mansfield’s notoriety resulted in his being interviewed about the Jack the Ripper murders. A hundred years later, Armand Assante played Mansfield performing Jekyll & Hyde on stage in a TV movie, Jack the Ripper. Mansfield is seen using special makeup effects to pull off his transformation scenes.

The flashy role was a magnet for flamboyant actors. Eight films on the subject had already been produced when actor John Barrymore, “The Great Profile”, starred in the extremely popular 1920 Adolf Zukor version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Directed by John S. Robertson, this version is based on the Sullivan storyline. Barrymore’s performance retains the theatrical excesses that seem dated today, yet are still quite impressive. Using heavy makeup to give his hands a spidery appearance, Barrymore twists and stretches his face into a series of nasty smiles, glaring wide-eyed (even cross-eyed) at the camera. Additional makeup is added across camera cuts, until Barrymore’s Hyde is a hunched, straggle-haired fiend, with a horrid, half bald pointed head.

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Taken with a proper appreciation of the film’s age, Barrymore’s interpretation is startling and disturbing. The dull Jekyll tends to stare with a vacant, noble look on his face, while Hyde is a repulsive embodiment of evil. Modern impressions of the film have been affected by many parody versions, and the use of film clips out of context for comic purposes. One of the actor’s expressions, with his face stretched out and his eyes staring downward, pops up from time to time in the rubber-face schtick of popular comedians: Danny Kaye, Sid Caesar, Red Skelton, even Dick Van Dyke.

The story is the same as the more familiar later versions by Paramount and MGM, minus Rouben Mamoulian’s Pre-code sexuality and the bizarre Salvador Dali dream sequences in Victor Fleming’s tame remake. The conventional Dr. Lanyon (Charles Lane) warns Jekyll against pursuing “the wrong kind of science.” As in the book, attorney Utterson (J. Malcolm Dunn) drafts the document in which Jekyll bequeaths all of his worldly belongings to Hyde. In the film, Utterson serves double duty as a rival for the attentions of Millicent, Jekyll’s chaste sweetheart. Millicent’s hypocritical father Sir George Carewe (Brandon Hurst) goads Jekyll into sampling the seedy Soho nightlife, advising the innocent young doctor to sow his wild oats while he may. Carewe chats up a female guest at his own party, telling her that she “is Paradise for the eyes but Hell for the soul.” In the original novella Carewe is a Member of Parliament, has no daughter and is one of Hyde’s more mysterious victims.

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One story point neglected by all the screen versions is the question of what becomes of Dr. Jekyll’s benevolent charity ward. Even before the trouble starts, Jekyll is too busy with his research and his clinic work to properly woo Millicent. As in the other versions, it looks as if the ‘indispensible’ Jekyll leaves the poor children in his clinic to rot. Another basic inconsistency is the idea that the Dr. Jekyll character is inexperienced in sexual matters. In Victorian London, a doctor working in a clinic for poor people would soon know everything there is to know about human behavior, of all kinds.

Some of the supporting characters make strong impressions. Hyde’s elderly, cackling landlady is well played by an unbilled, toothless actress. Pug-faced Louis Wolheim (All Quiet on the Western Front) runs the low-class music hall, where performs the seductive dancer Gina. Jekyll is clearly aroused by her embrace. He turns away and excuses himself, but the flame has been lit. A title clarifies things: “For the first time in his life Jekyll had wakened to a sense of his baser nature.”

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The Dancer Gina is played by the legendary Nita Naldi, in her first film role. She’d very shortly become silent cinema’s “female Valentino” in Blood and Sand. Although Naldi wears a daringly low-cut costume, her character isn’t given equal time or billing with the “good” Millicent Carewe. Gina’s relationship with the domineering Hyde is barely suggested: we see no more than the frightened look on her face when they’re introduced. Later on comes a scene meant to depict the rock bottom of Hyde’s vices. He finds Gina in a low dive, compares her to another prostitute in a mirror, and then rejects both for a younger moll brought to him in the opium parlor next door. For 1920 it’s a fairly depraved set-up: while Hyde manhandles the women at the bar, a drug addict nearby hallucinates ants crawling over his body.

Eventually Jekyll’s transformations into Hyde begin to happen spontaneously, even against his will. One of them is handled with a simple, effective dissolve. The most weird by far employs a surreal effect: pure “evil” is manifested as a ghostly spider creature, which climbs onto Jekyll’s bed and merges with this body. The hairy abomination is genuinely disturbing.

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As with other stories about evil doppelgängers, Dr. Jekyll moves a mirror into his lab to assure himself that no Hyde characteristics peek through his mild-mannered normal form. He leads a double life and spends all of his energy hiding his ugly secret from his friends and Millicent. Although all believe Jekyll to be a saint, he is of course highly corruptible, and therefore not really an inverted image of Hyde. The morally delinquent Jekyll even says that his intention is to evade responsibility for his actions: “I propose to do it … to yield to every impulse but leave the soul untouched.” After the final act’s savage murder the guilty Jekyll cannot face being unmasked. As might be expected, Millicent has been kept in the dark about everything. When Lanyon and Utterson witness a transformation with their own eyes, they lie to Millicent for her own good. The last impression is of the handsome John Barrymore, lying still — in facial profile, of course.


The Kino Lorber Classics Deluxe Blu-ray of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a good new transfer and encoding of this 97 year-old gem, billed as the first serious American horror film. The primary source is a 35mm negative with a great many fine scratches, digs and minor damage built-in. The image is reasonably sharp and stable, but no digital cleanup appears to have been applied. We’re told that five minutes of missing footage have been incorporated back into the film. We see some introductory shots in the Carewe household that appear to come from another source, as well as an interesting flashback to the time of the Borgias, to explain how poison is hidden in a special ring. It is difficult to know exactly which scenes are new, if any. Kino’s previous (2004) DVD release carries the same extras. It has a shorter running time, but this 79-minute version may be longer by virtue of a more accurate, slower frame rate. However, it has been noted online that Kino’s edition may not be as complete as David Shepard’s edition, and specifically is missing footage after the intertitle introducing Brandon Hurst as Sir George Carew. The entire show is given color tinting in keeping with original prints.

The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra performs a full score compiled by Rodney Sauer. The music fits the show nicely, working up to some impressive melodramatic climaxes.

As the style of inter-titles changes more than once during the presentation, it’s a sure bet that multiple sources were used to reassemble the movie. Archivist David Shepard’s Film Preservation Associates is credited with the first extra, the 1912 James Cruze one-reel version of the story. Considering its brevity, it is very well made: in his Hyde makeup, future director Cruze looks like a crazed ghoul, with vampire-like fangs. In 1920 at least two copycat productions followed Barrymore’s film. F.W. Murnau’s German Der Januskopf starred Conrad Veidt, and is still considered lost. But Kino offers a 15-minute excerpt from Louis B. Mayer’s version, starring Sheldon Lewis. It’s a polished show in its own right.

“The Transformation” is an audio excerpt from 1909 that appears to be a recording of a stage act. Actor Len Spencer quotes passages from Robert Louis Stevenson as part of his dramatic buildup.

The final treat is a Stan Laurel farce from 1925 called Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride. Laurel’s spoof of Barrymore’s Hyde is very funny; he transforms while his gum-chewing girlfriend looks on, suitably unimpressed. Running loose in the streets, the mirthful “Mr. Pride” pulls off a series of infantile pranks.

Looking into the histories of the cast members, we find that more than a few were personal colleagues of the star. Barrymore apparently encouraged Louis Wolheim to become an actor, telling him that his face was made for the stage. But the story of beautiful Martha Mansfield is a forgotten chapter of silent movie horror. Three years later on the set of The Warrens of Virginia, the actress’s dress caught on fire. Mansfield was so badly burned that she died the next day. She was 24 years old.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Blu-ray rates:

Movie: Excellent

Video: Good

Sound: Excellent

Supplements: two other silent film interpretations of the story (see above), audio record “The Transformation”, Stan Laurel spoof short subject from 1925.

Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English

Packaging: Keep case

Kino Lorber Classics

1920 / B&W with tints / 1:33 flat Silent Aperture / 73 min. / Street Date January 28, 2014 / available through Kino Lorber / 34.95

Starring John Barrymore, Martha Mansfield, Brandon Hurst, Charles Lane, Nita Naldi, Louis Wolheim, J. Malcolm Dunn, George Stevens.

Cinematography Roy Overbaugh

Art Director Clark Robinson

Written by Clara Beranger from the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson

Produced by Adolph Zukor

Directed by John S. Robertson
Reviewed: January 10, 2014

 

 

DVD Savant Text Copyright 2014 Glenn Erickson
 

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Savant Blu-ray Review: “More Than Honey” (2012)

 

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If you don’t love honeybees already, you will after seeing Markus Imhoof’s fascinating documentary More Than Honey (2012), filmed on four continents and graced with gloriously beautiful macrophotography. The blurb associated with the title is from Albert Einstein: “If bees were to disappear from the globe, mankind would only have four years left to live.” The quote makes it sound as if Imhoof’s film is yet another alarmist docu, fanning the flames of apocalypse for man’s sin of trifling with Mother Nature. But the unusually even-handed Swiss production avoids that stance, and gives the impression that everything will work out for the better in the world of bees and their symbiotic relationship with the plant world.

More Than Honey is a valentine to the tradition of beekeeping as seen in the story of a 3rd-generation Alpine beekeeper working with a specific black bee acclimatized to the cold of higher altitudes. Throughout the show we see the clever ways bees are tricked into a win-win proposition for humans. They pollinate flowering plants on groves and farms large and small. The beekeepers then raid their prized honey, replacing it with sugar water. In a normal bee life cycle the hive replaces a spent queen by creating another and splitting into two hives. Beekeepers instead pluck healthy queens away, force the bees to create more queens, and then spread those out to multiply the colonies by a greater factor.

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The show teaches us a great deal about bees, in the process building respect for them. Excellent microphotography shows honeybees flying about with their furred bodies caked with yellow pollen, serving as cupid-like messengers for plants that cannot reproduce unassisted. The result is a beautiful illustration of nature’s positive attitude toward life. We also learn about the social structure and life cycles of the bees, that work as a kind of ‘multiple organism’ in an organization in which every bee has a function but no individual identity, including the queen. In a healthy hive hundreds die every day, to be replaced by hundreds of new members. Some drones live only to mate, and then perish. The colony is everything.

We watch researchers unlock secrets of the well known ‘bee dance’, discovering that individual bees are capable of making some decisions on their own. The fieldwork is fascinating, as foraging bees with tiny radar equipment glued to their backs ‘check in’ during their search for new sources of pollen.

In California we meet a busy beekeeping millionaire running an enormous company that maintains thousands of bee colonies. A single enormous almond grove has hundreds of hives to be maintained. Without the bees, this agriculture could not survive, but a wealthy grower tells us that he’s not worried that this one region supplies almost all of America’s almonds. We travel to China to observe an entrepreneur painstakingly collecting plant pollen, due to a lack of bees. The pollen is sold in packets like seed. Hundreds of miles away an army of workers move slowly through groves, painting flowers with bits of pollen. The work seems almost absurd… making it immediately obvious how much better the job is done by bees.

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All this suddenly becomes crucial because bees have been dying off, in an alarming trend that nobody has yet solved. The California beemaster ships his bees all over the country, only to see a goodly percentage of his hives wiped out. The colonies simply fail — activity stops and the larvae in the ‘brood’ areas of the hive turned to mush. Up in the Alps, the bewhiskered beekeeper prides himself in the purity of his colonies, which are kept free from pesticides, poisons, etc. Just the same, his entire bee house is wiped out by an infection that can’t be traced.

The docu gives us plenty of possible reasons for the worldwide bee die-off. Causes discussed are inbreeding, parasitic mites (these look horrible in the macrophotography), invasive worms, microbial diseases, pesticides, and strains placed on the colonies through forced interruptions of their natural life cycles. The California beemaster ships colonies more than halfway across the country to maximize their usefulness, and receives specially selected larval queens to build new colonies afresh. One argument is that a lack of genetic diversity is producing bees incapable of fighting off infections. But the forced diversity of mass-scale bee management seems to aid the spread of disease. Down in Australia, beekeeping researchers are establishing colonies on isolated islands, to maintain healthy strains should mainland bees suffer a catastrophic kill-off.

Yet no predictions of doom emerge. More Than Honey refuses to draw any particular conclusion, which may be wise considering the present incomplete nature of scientific knowledge. The upbeat final act introduces us to a beekeeper in the American Southwest and his adventures with the Africanized bees that have migrated North from Brazil.

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Almost everything we’ve been told about these ‘killer bees’ is false. They are no more deadly than other bees, and they pollinate plants and produce honey the same as normal honeybees. Africanized bees are more aggressive. The beekeepers that work among this new breed have been forced to wear protective overalls, gloves and veils at all times. The talkative beekeeper in the Southwest likes them, however. He has found them to be very hardy, and he believes they adapt to anything. The show also makes the Africanized bees seem resistant to domestication. The beekeeper’s colony soon abandons its hive. He finds that it has regrouped a mile away, halfway up a sheer rock cliff where nobody can get it at it.

If anything is off about More Than Honey, it’s that this beekeeper’s one opinion makes it seem like the world will be saved by the resilient Africanized bees. The truth is that scientists are still gravely concerned about the global bee kill-off and haven’t yet formulated a comprehensive theory for why it is happening. The anecdotal evidence in this picture encourages viewers to conclude that man’s interference in the life of bees, domesticating them on a massive scale and micromanaging their colonies for profit, may have affected the strains to the point that they’re more susceptible to disease and parasites. But the movie makes no direct statement to that effect.

What we instead get in More Than Honey is a marvelous overview of the world of bees, much of it up close and personal with the industrious, attractive insects. I haven’t seen anything on the subject as informative or as pleasant to watch.


Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray of More Than Honey is a gorgeous HD encoding of this digitally-shot documentary marvel, with macrophotography that allows us to penetrate into active colonies, and watch ultra- close-ups of details like the tiny bee tongue in its double sheath. Some flying scenes are special effects composites, but they do not detract from the docu’s realism — none claim to be air-to-air bee cinematography.

The director Markus Imhoof appears in a lengthy interview, explaining among other things that he himself comes from a family of beekeepers. A number of deleted scenes also appear, that flesh out specific areas of the movie for viewers that would like more detail. Two making-of programs are also quite impressive… it takes an expert with unlimited patience to get some of those shots.

The show is presented with two audio tracks, an original German version and an English language track in which actor John Hurt replaces the German narrator Charles Berling. Subtitles are provided, but only for German dialogue, which leaves hard-of-hearing viewers out of luck for a big chunk of the film’s running time.

Glenn Erickson has been reviewing film and video releases since 1997, for MGM, Turner Classic Movies and his own website DVD Savant. A member since 2001 of the Online Film Critics’ Society, Glenn has a background in special effects and film and video editorial, but is still at heart a starry-eyed UCLA Film Student. He’s done a number of audio commentaries for Warner, Fox and Criterion discs. His latest book is Sci-Fi Savant: Classic Sci-fi Review Reader


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
More Than Honey Blu-ray rates:

Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent

More Than Honey
Blu-ray
Kino Lorber
2012 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 91 min. / Street Date December 24, 2013 / 34.95
Supplements: Director interview, BTS featurettes, deleted scenes.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
NOT ENTIRELY; Subtitles: English, but only for German dialogue.
Packaging: Keep case
Narrators Charles Berling (German version); John Hurt (English version).
Cinematography Attila Boam, Jörg Jeshel
Film Editor Anne Fabini
Original Music Peter Scherer
Visual Effects Flame artist Thomas Lehmann
Written by Marcus Imhoof, Kerstin Hoppenhaus
Produced by Helmut Grasser, Markus Imhoof, Thomas Kufus, Pierre-Alain Meier
Directed by Markus Imhoof

Reviewed: December 23, 2013

 

 

DVD Savant Text &#169 Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson

Museum Hours 2

Blu-ray Review: “Museum Hours” (2012)

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It’s not the most academic way to consider a film, but for me, there are some works that you just want to go live inside of; their ideas are so rich, their characters so vivid, their surroundings so inviting that you wish you could traverse the barrier between the image and yourself. Jem Cohen’s sublime Museum Hours (2013), my favorite film of the year, is one of these films, and fortunately, it’s a work that’s very interested in blurring the line between art and life. Cohen owes little to what we think of as traditional naturalism, but Museum Hours is nonetheless an exceptionally lifelike film, blending city symphony and Chris Marker-style essay with a deep appreciation for meaningful art and meaningful relationships.

Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara) is a first-time visitor to Vienna, drawn there when a cousin falls into a coma and her name and contact information still match in an old address book. Anne begins to spend a great deal of time at the famed Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, where she strikes up a friendship with museum guard Johann (Bobby Sommer), whose warm, inquisitive and reflective narration punctuates the film. He becomes her interpreter, communicating with the hospital about her cousin’s stagnant condition, and her tour guide, showing her the spots in the city he loves.

Cohen’s camera drinks in deeply the sights of Vienna in shots that one might be tempted to think of as POV shots, except they’re not quite. Cohen turns his audience members into participants with these subjective shot choices, taking us along with Anne and Johann and allowing us to see the buildings, the monuments, the people, even the trash on the ground with as if with our own eyes.

This contemplative mood extends to the sequences inside the museum, where the camera lingers over the visages of statues and the textures of paintings. Cohen’s associative editing will occasionally draw parallels between the art and the real — museum visitors’ faces comingle with the statues, birds in a painting seem to dissolve into the real thing on a telephone wire outside, bits of refuse painted in the corner of an artwork look like the cigarette butts and wads of paper littered in the street. The associations sometimes take a beguiling turn; one of the film’s many delightfully playful moments occurs when a museum visitor on the edge of the frame suddenly turns and looks directly into the lens before Cohen quickly cuts away. The spectator of art has become the object of the audience’s gaze; is the distinction between life and art, between what’s on either side of the screen all that distinct?

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In the film, Johann’s favorite room of the museum is the one dedicated to Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and Bruegel’s inclusive, observant and deceptively radical paintings are mirrored by Cohen’s construction of Museum Hours. In the film, a guest lecturer (Ela Piplits) takes a tour group through Bruegel’s work, explaining his devotion to accurately chronicling peasant life and the way in which the ostensible subject of the painting — often a religious retelling, such as Paul’s conversion or Christ carrying the cross — wasn’t necessarily the focal point. Piplits’ passionate defense of the openness of art could apply to Museum Hours as well; here’s a film where you’re encouraged to let your gaze wander around the frame and your mind along with it.

Cohen, whose background is primarily in nonfiction, is obviously deeply invested in the parts of the film that more closely resemble documentary, but the film’s essayistic elements cohere perfectly with O’Hara and Sommer’s performances, somewhat scripted and somewhat improvised but wholly sincere no matter which is the case. There’s nothing rigid about the depiction of their blossoming friendship, no dramatic expectation that their interactions must play out in any sort of arc, and the result is some of the most honest and true depictions of thinking, feeling human beings I’ve seen on film. When Johann describes some of the museum’s paintings to Anne’s unconscious cousin, in the off chance that she might be able to hear, it’s less of a performance than a person’s innate passion that we see on the screen. Same goes for O’Hara’s lovely, elegiac songs.

Among its many ideas, Museum Hours posits that the art that means the most is the art that reflects some facet of life. By that standard, Museum Hours is an exceptionally meaningful film, the kind I greatly look forward to inhabiting the same space as many more times over the years.

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Cinema Guild’s Blu-ray release of Museum Hours presents the film in 1080p high definition and a screen-filling 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Cohen shot Vienna exteriors on 16mm and interiors digitally, and the transfer faithfully recreates the look of both formats. 16mm sequences feature a clean, prominent grain structure, while digital sequences are comparably smoother. Fine detail is apparent in both shooting formats; the textures and brush strokes of a number of paintings, captured in unhurried close-up, are especially tangible.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is a mostly front-channel affair, but the quiet track is noticeably immersive in museum sequences where the patter of footsteps and hushed whispers of observers make it seem as if you’re really there. Cohen’s use of nat sound is one of the film’s sensual pleasures, and the soundtrack here accurately captures that.

As is expected from their well-curated releases, Cinema Guild has lined up an excellent selection of contextualizing bonus features, including three short films. The extras on this release are:

  • Amber City (1999, 48 minutes) Cohen’s Marker-like 16mm documentary about an unnamed Italian city was commissioned by arts organization Ondavideo, and the verité visuals are paired with a wry, not totally factual narration track that describes a city thought to be on the verge of extinction, but that persists nonetheless.
  • Anne Truitt, Working (2009, 13 minutes) A black-and-white 16mm portrait of the minimalist sculpture artist, capturing her unconventional thoughts on art and her rapturous explanations of her use of color.
  • Museum (Visiting the Unknown Man) (1997, 8 minutes) A silent Super 8 film that presages Museum Hours in its reverent images of works of art in a museum.
  • Alternate English voiceover track. Sommer has recorded an English version of his German narration that plays in the original version of the film.
  • Theatrical trailer and festival trailer
  • 22-page booklet featuring an essay by critic Luc Sante and writings by Cohen about the production process, his conception of the film and various assorted notes.

 

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Cinema Guild’s Museum Hours Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ****
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ****
New Extra Features: ***1/2
Extra Features Overall: ***1/2

Cinema Guild
2013 / Color / 1:78:1 / 107 min / $34.95

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

Cinerama Holiday

Blu-ray Review: “Cinerama Holiday” (1955)

Cinerama Holiday Art

About 25 years ago I became fascinated with Cinerama after reading Robert E. Carr and R.M. Hayes’s book Wide Screen Movies. I began doing my own original research on the process and eventually I crossed paths with an eccentric former Cinerama projectionist by the name of John Harvey. Harvey lived in Dayton, Ohio, and through the years he spent a small fortune acquiring old Cinerama projectors and prints. He essentially gutted the interior of his modest ranch home to fulfill his dream of recreating the long-dead Cinerama process, a remodeling job that, he joked, had cost him his marriage.

In the early 1990s I was invited to several screenings there, to what was then one of only two places on the planet the public could experience Cinerama, the other being in the backyard of a like-minded Australian. From the outside, Harvey’s house looked like any other, but inside was a professional screening room that could seat no more than about 10 people; the rest of the house all but consumed by three tiny projection booths, sound equipment, wagon wheel-sized reels of films, and Cinerama memorabilia. The 146-degree deeply curved screen, curtained, of course, was about 10 feet in height, floor-to-raised-ceiling and more than twice as wide. There, on that initial drive down from my then-home in Ann Arbor, Michigan I first experienced How the West Was Won (1962), an unforgettable viewing experience.

The next time I went down there was to see Cinerama Holiday (1955), the second of Cinerama’s five original travelogues. The film follows the adventures of two couples: Swiss-born Fred and Beatrice Troller as they visit America, and Kansas City’s Betty and John Marsh on their journey to Europe. As if seeing this virtually lost film in its original form wasn’t enough, there was to be, one might say, an extra added attraction: Betty Marsh, since divorced from John, had come to Dayton to see Cinerama Holiday again for the first time since its original release. And else how could she have?

Seated next to the barely-changed Betty as the film unfolded, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like for her to see her younger self in this manner. It wasn’t exactly like pulling out the old Super-8 projector and looking at home movies projected on a kitchen wall. Watching Cinerama Holiday, even for me, was like stepping into a time machine and vicariously experiencing these couples’ Cinerama Holiday.

It takes about three-and-a-half hours to drive from Ann Arbor to Dayton, but if had taken 13-and-a-half hours I wouldn’t have hesitated. Cinerama Holiday, along with the other travelogues, effectively hadn’t been seen in their original form since the early 1960s and at the time the odds were heavily stacked against any chance that they’d ever be revived theatrically or released to home video.

A lot has changed in the more than 20 years since that screening. Several commercial venues in America and England occasionally show the original three-strip Cinerama process, and historian and reconstructionist David Strohmaier is seeing to it that the best surviving film elements are preserved and the original movies made available on Blu-ray, in high-definition.

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Cinerama Holiday, along with Cinerama South Seas Adventure (1958), are the latest Blu-ray releases from Flicker Alley. Last year the company released This Is Cinerama (1952), the first film, along with Windjammer (1958), made in the rival Cinemiracle process that was so similar to Cinerama the latter company eventually bought all rights to the film and released it in that format, too. Those first two releases, otherwise splendid, were a bit compromised because only 70mm conversion elements were available.

Fortunately, for both Cinerama Holiday and South Seas Adventure, Strohmaier had access to the original 3 x 35mm, six-perforations tall camera negatives, and thanks to computer technologies that didn’t even exist ten years ago, the results are staggeringly good. These results still aren’t quite true Cinerama, even on big screen TVs – the format can really only be fully appreciated in a properly equipped Cinerama theater – but it’s still an astoundingly good approximation, and the movies have untold values beyond their audience participation effects.

Like This is Cinerama, Cinerama Holiday begins with a black-and-white, standard 35mm prologue setting up the artificial but enjoyable premise: the Cinerama cameras follow the Marshes on their vacation to Europe and the Trollers on theirs in America. The curtains open (ingeniously recreated here) as the Marshes fly over the Swiss Alps and visit St. Moritz and enjoy winter sports their beautiful resort offers, later they ride the funicular railway to the Parsenn ski runs, travel to Paris where they visit the Louvre, visit with Art Buchwald, see a performance of l’Opera de Paris and visit the Lido nightclub, returning to America via Washington, D.C. and New York.

Meanwhile, the Trollers visit the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, ride the California Zephyr through the Rockies, are guests at the Absinthe House in New Orleans and go to a traditional New England fair in Deerfield, New Hampshire. Spectacularly but incongruously, the picture climaxes with a demonstration of the Navy’s famed Blue Angels jet pilots as they show off their aerial choreography and land on the aircraft carrier Lake Champlain. (A concession to ‘50s Cold War tensions, no doubt.)

This is no boring travelogue. Aesthetically a big improvement over the content-with-long-takes This Is Cinerama, producer Louis de Rochemont offers more visually spectacular eye candy in Cinerama Holiday while its contrived but effective premise, of inviting viewers to vicariously experience the adventures of the two couples, this at a time when international travel of prohibitively expensive for most Americans, gives the film a narrative through-line missing in the episodic This Is Cinerama.

Cinerama Holiday

As expected, there are numerous armchair-grabbing audience participation effects: a bobsled run, skiing the Alps and, course, riding along with the Blue Angels in their supersonic jets. But for me the real appeal of Cinerama Holday lay in how it captures 1950s America and Europe in ways more familiar black-and-white newsreel footage never could. The late Bob Carr used to compare watching conventional movies as looking through a window, while Cinerama was like sticking one’s head out a window, with one’s peripheral vision surrounded by the outside air. In this way the footage of a burgeoning Las Vegas and jazz-infused New Orleans are particularly thrilling. One gets a real sense of what those places were like back then and it’s almost like experiencing them for real. The European scenes capture the allure of foreign travel, 1950s-style, in places not so far removed from the previous century and certainly not gentrified and overrun with Starbucks and Pizza Huts like today.

All this was possible because Cinerama was unique even among wide screen technologies both technically and aesthetically. The process used three modified, synchronized 35mm cameras during production and three projectors during exhibition to produce an extraordinarily wide, wraparound image on screens curved at 146-degrees. The effect is often likened to the present-day IMAX process, but Cinerama was much more than a large, super-sharp image with outstanding directional sound. Because Cinerama’s cameras used short lenses approximating the human field of vision the impact was extraordinarily, disorientingly lifelike. “Cinerama puts YOU in the picture” said the ads.

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Cinerama Holiday‘s transfer is impeccable. The image is exceedingly sharp with startlingly rich color. The Smilebox formatting approximates what 1955 audiences saw and suggests the audience participation effects that wowed audiences then and which are still pretty impressive as presented here. (I found myself wishing I could have seen this via an HD projector on a really big screen.) Strohmaier’s restoration (in which all parties involved are generously credited and highlighted) expertly minimizes the join lines between the three panels, matching the color while eliminating unsteady panels, blemishes and other issues. The full roadshow version is here, with the original film’s overture, intermission break, entr’acte and exit music intact. The 5.1 STS-HD Master, adapted from the original 7-channel magnetic sound mix is extremely impressive. The disc is region-free.

The supplements are terrific, headlined by Strohmaier’s brief but extremely interesting overview of the restoration process. A Cinerama Holiday “breakdown reel,” exhibited when the extraordinarily complex system of exhibiting Cinerama went awry, is included. There’s also a brand-new documentary called “Return to Cinerama Holiday” featuring Betty Marsh and Beatrice Troller who, also with their husbands, appear in 1997 cast interviews. Betty Marsh looks at a 50-year-old scrapbook in another featurette, while co-director Robert L. Benedict’s 8mm home movies from the production are also offered. From Strohmaier’s Cinerama Adventure documentary are deleted scenes from the film, and a 28-page full-color reproduction of the original roadshow program caps the terrific extra features.

Given that this release marks the home video premiere of a film virtually unseen in more than half a century, that the transfer is stupendous and supported by great extra features, and that this is an entirely independent, independently-financed release, Cinerama Holiday stands one of the year’s major viewing events. Don’t miss it.

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
Audio: ****
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****

Flicker Alley
1955 / Color / Cinerama / 129 min / $39.95

 

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. He’s written nearly 2,000 reviews for the website DVD Talk.

Puppetoons 1

Blu-Ray Review: “The Puppetoon Movie” (1987)

George Pal = magic. A contemporary and in many ways equal of Walt Disney but minus Walt’s business acumen, producer-director George Pal is best remembered today for his pioneering efforts in the sci-fi/fantasy genre: Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), tom thumb (1958), The Time Machine (1960) and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) among them. But before all that, Pal made his name with the Puppetoons, one-reel shorts mostly employing the rare form of three-dimensional replacement animation. Unlike stop-motion, in which a single model is articulated one frame at a time, Pal’s Puppetoons involved carving and painting dozens upon dozens of heads and legs for a single character, reportedly upwards of 9,000 separate carvings in all for a single short. Replacing various body parts for each frame of film, the result was uncannily smooth and expressive facial reactions and motion, something like “liquid wood.”

Pal was born in Hungary, and began making Puppetoons in Europe, but established his official Puppetoons series at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, where he made about three-dozen shorts between 1940 and 1947. (Paramount originally gave them the inapt title “Madcap Models,” a moniker nobody remembers today.) Some years ago I attended a nitrate film festival at UCLA where several of the Puppetoons were shown. Audiences were enchanted, to say nothing of being flabbergasted by the rich color of these three-strip Technicolor films.

Criminally, the Puppetoons haven’t been the constant presence in the same way Disney’s and Warner Bros.’s cartoons have. Partly this may be due to the fact that there weren’t enough shorts to establish a regular television children’s show (though they were distributed for a while by U.M. & M TV Corp., sometimes, appallingly, only in black-and-white), and partly because many of the shorts fell victim to misguided political-correctness.

Producer and archivist Arnold Leibovit sought to restore Pal’s faded reputation first with the marvelous documentary The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal (1985) and then with the equally essential The Puppetoon Movie (1987).

The new 2-disc Blu-ray of The Puppetoon Movie, released independently and limited to 3,000 copies (available at www.b2mp.net), is really two feature films and bonus shorts all in high-def, plus The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal presented in standard-definition, along with myriad extra features. In addition to The Puppetoon Movie, which featuring ten unabridged Puppetoons plus newer material, the set also includes the high-definition premiere of The Great Rupert (1950), Pal’s first live-action feature. Bonus Puppetoon shorts included on The Puppetoon Movie’s original DVD release are present, but the real treat are seven additional bonus shorts being released for the first time in any home video format, shorts in high-definition licensed from Paramount and restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archives and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.
Awards.

Puppetoons 1

The Puppetoon Movie opens with a sweet and technically impressive prologue, done entirely in animation itself (supervised by Pete Kleinow). A fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex threatens a Bambi-like fawn, but the former turns out to be gentle Arnie the Dinosaur (voiced by Paul Frees, who died before the film’s release and to whom the film is dedicated), and advises the fawn to run away. A voice yells, “Cut!” as the entire scene is part of a movie being directed by Gumby (Dal McKennon) and assisted by his pal Pokey (Art Clokey). The not-so-terrible lizard explains he’s been a vegetarian ever since his days working for producer George Pal, where his inspiring, humanist Puppetoon shorts changed his ways. The foursome move into an editing room (decorated with one-sheet posters from Pal’s features) and look at some of Pal’s best shorts on a Moviola.

At this point the movie segues into what’s essentially a Puppetoon film festival featuring three pre-Hollywood shorts, Philips Cavalcade (1934), The Sleeping Beauty (1935), and Philips Broadcast of 1938 (1938) before moving on to seven Paramount Puppetoons, complete with their original main titles: Hoola Boola (1941), Tulips Shall Grow (1942), The Little Broadcast (1943), Jasper in a Jam, Together in the Weather, John Henry and the Inky-Poo (all 1946), and Tubby the Tuba (1947). The movie ends with a touching final tribute to the late producer (who died in 1980), with various stop-motion characters, including King Kong, The Pillsbury Dough Boy, and Alka-Seltzer’s Speedy making cameo appearances.

Though famed animators such as Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen worked on these shorts, Pal’s personal stamp and interests dominate. One of the best, Tulips Shall Grow, is a parable reflecting Nazi Germany’s invasion of Holland, where Pal worked prior to moving to London and then America. They reflect Pal’s love of classical and contemporary music; the Leopold Stokowski-like Mr. Strauss was a semi-regular in the shorts, and Tubby the Tuba, its title character bored with Oompah-Pah orchestrations and yearning to play a beautiful melody, is almost indescribably sweet.

The shorts vary widely among decidedly European-flavored takes on classic fairy tales like The Sky Princess and Jasper and the Beanstalk (included among the extra features, the latter featuring Peggy Lee’s singing voice), animated interpretations of modern jazz (Jasper in a Jam, Rhythm in the Ranks, and Date with Duke (the latter featuring Duke Ellington), there’s a particular interest in American folklore, and even early Dr. Seuss stories were adapted.

Pal was criticized then and long after the Puppetoons had ended for his occasional racial stereotypes. Jasper, the most popular among the Puppetoon characters, was a little black child Pal innocently saw as the “Huckleberry Finn of [African-] American Folklore,” but the character was attacked in publications like Ebony. While there’s no denying racial stereotypes reflective of the times are present, they are also resolutely without malice. Jasper, for his part, is really just an ordinary little boy who happens to be black. Indeed, in all-black shorts like John Henry and the Inky-Poo especially, Pal offered overwhelmingly positive portrayals of the blacks in all-black stories at a time when most of Hollywood relegated African-American characters to minor roles as maids, porters, and chauffeurs in stories completely dominated by whites.

The Puppetoon Movie’s 1.37:1 high-definition transfer sources a 35mm interpositive, with the original Puppetoons looking good-to-great and the prologue-epilogue especially fine. Surprisingly, this was originally mixed for 4-track stereo and has been remixed for DTS-MA 4.0 surround and 24-bit 48kHz stereo, all to good effect.

The additional high-definition shorts are Date with Duke (1940), Rhythm in the Ranks (1941), The Sky Princess (1942), The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1943), And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street (1944), Jasper and the Beanstalk (1945), and Rhapsody in Wood (1947). They look even better than the shorts in the main feature.

Twelve more shorts, originally included as an extra feature on the DVD of The Puppetoon Movie are here as well, albeit in standard-def: What Ho She Bumps, Mr. Strauss Takes a Walk, Olio for Jasper, Philips Calvacade, Jasper’s Derby, Hoola Boola, Ether Symphony, Aladdin and His Magic Lamp, The Magic Atlas, Jasper and the Haunted House, The Philips Broadcast of 1938, and The Ship of the Ether.

Puppetoons 2

The Great Rupert (1950), also in high-definition, was Pal’s first feature film, originally released by Eagle-Lion. A fantasy-comedy about an amazingly talented performing squirrel and the two families whose lives he innocently if profoundly impacts is a modest success.

The picture starts out wonderfully well, with struggling Vaudevillian Joe Mahoney (Jimmy Conlin) rehearsing with the little squirrel, whom he’s taught to dance a Highland Fling while dressed in full Scottish regalia. But Mahoney’s agent isn’t interested. Joe and Rupert are evicted for non-payment of rent, and Vaudevillian colleagues – juggler Louie Amendola (Jimmy Durante), his wife (Queenie Smith), and daughter, Rosalinda (Terry Moore) – move in, unaware Rupert has secretly moved back into the nest above their flat in a corner of the ceiling. Meanwhile, skinflint landlord Frank Dingle (Frank Orth) has come into money, monthly payments of $1,500. Rather than spend the dough on his family, he stashes it away behind a wall, unaware that he’s deposited it directly into Rupert’s nest.

Hard-up for cash, Mrs. Amendola prays for a miracle (“Lord, it’s so difficult to find a job for a human pyramid!”) just as Rupert, annoyed with all the unwanted cash, casually tosses it out, and Mrs. Amendola misinterprets the bills fluttering down from yon high as an answered prayer.

More than Pal’s later features, the movie resembles the early comedies of Preston Sturges, particularly Christmas in July (1940), which has a similar plot. The presence of Jimmy Conlin, part of Sturges’s stock company of character plays, adds to this, as does much of the humor and the story’s happy resolution.

Rupert (playing himself, according to the credits) is performed by a real squirrel some of the time, but about 50% of his footage was managed through stop-motion, animation so good and expertly integrated with the live-action many assumed he was a supremely well-trained animal.

The movie loses its way a bit when Rupert is forgotten about for most of the film’s second-half, but it also unmistakably bears Pal’s personal stamp and desire to create a warm, magical family film.

Pal’s sweet nature is also reflected in The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal, a more conventional but engaging documentary, with interview subjects like Alan Young, Russ Tamblyn, Ray Bradbury, Roy Disney and others attesting to both his incredible innovations as a filmmaker and great kindness as a human being. About 40 minutes worth of extended interviews are also included on the bonus disc.

Moreover, the Blu-rays also include an audio commentary on The Puppetoon with Leibovit and animation historian Jerry Beck, who also contribute insightful liner notes. There’s also footage of Pal at one of the Cinerama premieres for The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and on the set of Destination Moon.

The Puppetoon Movie and The Great Rupert, and The Fantasy Worlds of George Pal, and all the bonus Puppetoons and supplementary material) all add up to one the year’s best Blu-ray releases.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Puppetoon Blu-ray rates:

The Film (out of ****): ***1/2

Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2

Video Transfer: ****

Audio: ****

New Extra Features: ****

Extra Features Overall: ****
Arnold Leibovit Entertainment/B2MP
1987 / Color / 1:37:1 / 79 plus 88 min (feature films) / $49.98

Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart’s Cine Blogarama here.

Big Gundown

Savant Blu-ray Review: “The Big Gundown” (1966)

Big Gundown Blu

Collectors are well aware that the major studios have slowed releases of video discs to a crawl, and are instead licensing out more and more of their fan-coveted library titles to smaller DVD and Blu-ray labels. To give just a couple of examples, Olive Films is currently issuing movies from Paramount and Republic, and Twilight Time is offering a quality line of selected attractions from Fox, Sony, and soon, MGM. Just about the only major not outsourcing is Warner Bros., which now distributes older titles from Paramount as well, through their market-savvy Warner Archive Program. Even more confusing to the more dedicated collectors are the many American pictures now available exclusively from European labels, on region-coded discs that won’t play on normal American Blu-ray players. Collectors now scrutinize disc offerings on Amazon.uk and Amazon.it, hoping to find desired titles unavailable through normal channels in the United States.

With World Cinema Paradise offering its writers more latitude on what to write about, I hope to cover more titles available in (sometimes far more attractive) European Region “B” releases. This first review is of a new disc readily available in Region “A”, and playable in U.S. machines. I compare it to a German Region “B” released just last year.


Back in 1968, Americans talked about Spaghetti Westerns exclusively in terms of Clint Eastwood; the cult of Sergio Leone would take a few years to filter down to the kids with 8-track tapes of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) playing in their cars. More enthusiastic fans would follow the multitude of Italian westerns that flooded American screens, from scores of Django pictures to arty efforts like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence (Il grande silenzio, 1968), with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Klaus Kinski facing off in the snow.

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The general rule of thumb with Italo westerns is that everyone admires the impressive pictures of Sergio Leone, who leaves the rest of the sub-genre on a much lower plane. One small step below the Clint Eastwood ‘Dollars’ films is Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown (La resa dei conti; original Italian release year 1966). The stylish adventure was conceived as an immediate spinoff from the Leone oevure, a chance to feature the newly recognized star Lee Van Cleef. Young producer Alberto Grimaldi made an impressive multi-picture deal with United Artists, which he also expanded to include a number of projects by noted directors like Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Gillo Pontecorvo and Bernardo Bertolucci. The Big Gundown can boast the participation of some of Leone’s top collaborators, including cinematographer Carlo Carlini and designer Carlo Simi. The music score by Ennio Morricone, with a main theme sung by Cristy, may be the composer’s most exciting work in a western.

This is the first western by director Sergio Sollima, who like Sergio Leone followed the trend from sword ‘n’ sandal pictures to violent riffs on the American genre. Although not as inspired or talented as his predecessor, Sollima generates a sense of heightened drama that eludes most Italo oaters. The Big Gundown concocts a classy entrance for the respected lawman Jonathan Corbett (Van Cleef), who blasts down a trio of outlaws in the very first scene. Corbett is then enlisted by the burly, glad-handing railroad baron Brokston (Walter Barnes) to hunt down and kill Cuchillo (Tomas Milian), a Mexican accused of raping and murdering a little girl. As an added attraction, Brokston offers the lawman support for a Senatorial campaign. Chasing Cuchillo into Mexico, Corbett finds that capturing the wily bandit is a tall order. Along the way, the lawman learns more about the real motivations behind Brokston’s urgent manhunt.

With a plot idea concidentally similar to Richard Brooks’ The Professionals (1966), The Big Gundown shapes up as one of the earlier ‘political’ westerns. Italian filmmakers often made politics a major motivation for their work, but films directly addressing contemporary politics usually did not do well. ‘Committed’ directors instead put themes of social justice into more popular genre pictures. Director Sergio Corbucci would film several movies in which the Mexican Revolution commented on present-day political struggles. The biggest villain would typically be a Yankee capitalist, a function filled in this movie by the greedy, arrogant Brokston.

Gundown 2

Lee Van Cleef’s transformation from lower-case Hollywood bad guy to international star is well known; Leone signed him for For a Few Dollars More (1965) because he recognized him from small but memorable roles in a dozen classic westerns. Producer Grimaldi could hire him at a good price as well. Van Cleef’s earlier attempts to establish himself in substantial roles had stalled out at the low-budget level. Neither his Quisling scientist in Roger Corman’s science fiction thriller It Conquered the World (1956) nor his Eurasian Communist General in Sam Fuller’s China Gate (1957) garnered much serious attention. What had made Van Cleef so well known were his hawk-like facial characteristics and sinister, intense eyes. Leone had cast Van Cleef against type as a respectable character in For a Few Dollars More, and in The Big Gundown he graduated to full-on hero status. Despite a leg injury that made riding a horse painful, the actor prospered as a western hero. Turning his image around 180°, Van Cleef eventually played the role made famous by Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972).

The Big Gundown has fun with the exploits of Tomas Milian’s sandal-clad, earthy peasant Cuchillo, who lives by his wits and seems to have a girl friend in every town. Cuchillo tries to seduce a Mormon maid and is forced to fight a bull by some rough ranchers. He proves to be Corbett’s equal in the strategic doublecrosses favored by writer Sergio Donati, a vetern of the Sergio Leone pictures. As might be expected, the more Corbett learns about Cuchillo, the more he comes to respect him. The crown of villainy shifts to Brokston’s associate Baron von Schulenberg (Gérard Herter of Caltiki, il mostro immortale), a preening Prussian eager to challenge Corbett to a shooting match. Accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s soaring music score, The Big Gundown concludes in a series of duels with rifles, six-guns and a knife as weapons of choice. In the film’s most dynamic sequence, Cuchillo flees cross-country on foot, chased by a full mounted posse. The screen is electrified by Morricone’s electric guitar, which is followed by vocalist Cristy’s frantic song “Run, Man, Run”. Cuban-born Tomas Milian would return as Cuchillo in director Sollima’s follow-up feature, Corri uomo corri (1968), which for America was retitled Run, Man, Run.

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Grindhouse Releasing’s Blu-ray + DVD + CD of Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown is an excellent pressing mastered from prime sources apparently held by Sony Pictures: the show begins with a glorious Columbia logo. Fans of Lee Van Cleef, Ennio Morricone and Spaghetti westerns hardly need a recommendation to seek this title out, but some explanations are in order.

The Big Gundown was unavailable on Blu-ray until a year ago, when the German concern Explosive Media released an impressive Region B (Europe only) pressing, that collectors with all-region players are still buying. The big difference between that and Grindhouse Releasing’s Region A disc has to do with the versions of the film being offered. The original Italian release, entitled La resa dei conti (“A Settling of Accounts”) is a full 110 minutes long. It underwent drastic editing for foreign markets. Columbia’s American version cut out almost 25 minutes, dropping entire scenes and pieces of several others, especially in the first reels. The initial showdown between Corbett and the three outlaws seems rather rushed in the shorter cut, and speeds to a perfunctory conclusion. The impact is weakened considerably.

The difficulty in creating a definitive The Big Gundown on video is that everyone wants to see director Sollima’s superior full-length cut, but the distinctive vocal performance by Lee Van Cleef is available only on the shorter Columbia edited version. English dialogue tracks either weren’t recorded for the footage not seen in America,, or they were thrown away. The two Blu-ray releases address this problem very differently.

Last Year’s Explosive Media Blu-ray found a creative way to keep the full Italian cut for the English and German language options as well. The Italian audio track is of course intact and uncut. On the other two language options, whenever scenes come up for which English or German audio does not exist, the track reverts briefly to Italian with the appropriate subtitles. Thus the viewer can see The Big Gundown with (mostly) Van Cleef’s original voice, but also see it full-length. Initially it is rather odd to hear characters pop back and forth between languages in the middle of scenes, but it’s also an educational experience: we see exactly how Columbia sucked 25 minutes out of the film. The editors pulled isolated dialogue lines out of Brokston’s party sequence, yet still maintained full continuity. The Explosive Media package is a 3-disc set, with the feature on both Blu-ray and DVD;, a second DVD contains a generous helping of extras and an encoding of the entire Ennio Morricone feature soundtrack score.

For most American consumers, the new Grindhouse Blu-ray + DVD edition of The Big Gundown will be the way to go, simply because the purchasing of foreign Region B Blu-rays is practical only for fans willing to invest in multi-region equipment. Grindhouse’s transfer of the Techniscope feature has a bit of an edge for sharpness and color, and the framing finds a little more image on the sides. It’s also a four-disc set. Disc One contains the Columbia cutdown, extended to 95 minutes by adding three scenes from the long cut that have no dialogue, and therefore no language conflicts. The abbreviated pace is still very noticeable. Disc two in the Grindhouse set is the 110-minute original Italian cut, which has a polished audio mix that, of course, re-dubs Van Cleef in Italian. A third disc is a DVD of the 95-minute Columbia cut-down. The Grindhouse disc also has the entire The Big Gundown Ennio Morricone soundtrack album, but on a separate Compact Disc. About six years ago, I remember paying about $30 to have just this music on a GDM import CD.

The Grindhouse extras include a full commentary by Henry C. Parke and C. Courtney Joyner, who also contributes liner notes accompanied by music authority Gergely Hubai. Their discussion includes an analysis of the differences between the long and short versions of the movie. Exclusive interviews let Sergio Sollima, Tomas Milian and writer Sergio Donati speak about their work, and galleries of promotional art and stills, trailers and TV spots finish the package.


Glenn Erickson has been reviewing film and video releases since 1997, for MGM, Turner Classic Movies and his own website DVD Savant. A member since 2001 of the Online Film Critics’ Society, Glenn has a background in special effects and film and video editorial, but is still at heart a starry-eyed UCLA Film Student. He’s done a number of audio commentaries for Warner, Fox and Criterion discs, and his latest book is Sci-Fi Savant: Classic Sci-fi Review Reader


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Big Gundown Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent 
Grindhouse Releasing
1966 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 110 min. / Street Date December 10, 2013 / 39.95 
Supplements: Interviews, audio commentary, still galleries, artwork and TV spots, booklet with essays.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Two Blu-rays, One DVD and one CD in keep case
Starring Lee Van Cleef, Tomas Milian, Walter Barnes, Gérard Herter, Pietro Geccarelli, María Granada, Nieves Navarro, Luis Barboo, Benito Stefanelli.
Cinematography
 Carlo Carlini
Set Decoration Carlo Simi
Original Music Ennio Morricone
Vocals Cristy (Audrey Nohra)
Written by Sergio Donati, Sergio Sollima, Fernando Morandi, Franco Solinas 
Produced by Alberto Grimaldi
Directed by Sergio Sollima

Reviewed: December 11, 2013

Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson