L.A. Confidential (1997)

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4 stars out of 4. A near-classic reshaping of a sprawling crime novel that glorifies the spirit of a city none will ever truly understand.

 

A huge work of fiction about a city that exudes explanation. A period piece about cops in the 50’s teetering on the edge of the dream factory. That it believably stars two Aussies is a testament to director Curtis Hanson’s desire to consistently toe over the line of fiction vs reality.

What L.A. Confidential does so well is not simply recreate the period as many films of this type do, but to accurately craft its story amidst the characters so that the setting just seems to fall into place naturally. By keeping the style and photography naturalistic this avoids what is now the film noir cliché that has made the term one of derision instead of one of the great American art forms. We the audience are actually allowed inside the character’s motivations and thought processes so that their arcs become the story arc and intermesh with one another so by the final credits the true plot becomes visible and concise.

It remains a film that can be revisited and firmly enjoyed time and time again because it never once insults one’s intelligence. The sure handed quality to the production creates an atmosphere of confidence which then spills over into the film itself. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to relax and enjoy a well crafted adult picture for adults that isn’t afraid to take risks in order to better serve its source material. This is most defined by the insistence upon relatively unknown leads to better suit the roles as written instead of using star power to make it more studio approachable. The usage of stars is carefully controlled to both side and character parts so that it creates a perfect balance of performers in order to better shape the world onscreen, much like the classic studio stock companies of old.

However, my one caveat to this strong recommendation is that each time I come away a bit unsatisfied. Instead of the usual feeling of being left wanting more, I get a sense of not seeing the whole picture. This is likely due from jettisoning the majority of backstories and virtually over half the novel which actually takes place over a ten year span. Thus the narrative seems even more fractured than what it should be and when the pieces are fit together one still gets the feeling of things being left out. Admittedly this is a minor qualm, but it still hasn’t gone away after all these years so I cannot simply write it off as a necessity of adapting to the screen. I have not yet read the novel and know several characters turned out wildly different so it must be viewed as more of a companion piece to the film. Yet, I still can’t shake the feeling of incompletion. This is why I can never place L.A. Confidential in the pantheon of greats, because it isn’t quite seamless in its presentation or narrative.

Any time you make a film set in the LA of the past, you invoke all the classics that have gone before and a certain stylistic approach people have in their minds. Whether or not it has anything to do with them or the hardboiled fiction that were their inspiration is irrelevant. There is one picture that was able to make that jump to classic status by incorporating more modern techniques into a poetic and timeless synthesis with the past, and one that the audience is reminded of throughout L.A. Confidential. Chinatown is that picture and probably the one time anyone ever achieved something onscreen remotely close to the poetic weathering of humanity Chandler’s prose created. The great Jerry Goldsmith provides the score to both films and one cannot help but see the similarities that the similar musical touchstones weave together.

I can write all of that above and yet still enjoy the hell out of myself revisiting this murky slice of the past. What is the most striking nearly twenty years on is just how dedicated and complete the direction is and all without the over-reliance on technology or proven trends we have today. To be completely honest it was a lucky thing to get the film made in 1997 and would be a miracle to be made in today’s landscape. It may not be completely perfect or seamless in its presentation of 1953 LA, (A number of shots can’t help but scream the 90’s.) but its well-drawn characters delving into the eroded humanity that is inherent to the city of angels is a refreshing breath of fresh air to this day.

EDITIONS:

Released on VHS, Laserdisc and DVD. The LD had a Dolby Surround mxidown and 5.1 ac3. The DVD was good for the time with DD 5.1 but suffered from noise and edge enhancement. It wasn’t updated until the simultaneous DVD SE and Blu-ray release from WB. The Blu-ray is a welcome improvement in every way. Picture quality dramatically increases with a nice natural look, good color and no visible edge enhancement. Sound is carries in the Dolby TrueHD lossless codec in the same 5.1 track. The sound is very subtle and the surrounds typically carry the scenes and only kick into high gear during the few action moments or more bombastic score cues. I did notice a slight bit of noise in one scene but overall this is a great improvement to the DVD’s lossy rendering.

Had now for a few bucks under the Fox label, this one is a steal. There is a Japanese release with slightly improved specs but likely not worth the import cost.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review

Ronin (1998)

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4 stars out of 4. Immortal film. Final masterpiece from the legendary John Frankenheimer.

The best action-adventure film or spy thriller made in the past few decades.

 

Don’t you see? I never left.”

 

Three little words. So small, so minute and so seemingly insignificant that they could not possibly have any real impact on a story. Yet in Ronin they form the entire crux upon which the film and its deeply nuanced worldly characters are based. To have a film in this day and age so perfectly poised, so perfectly balanced on a razor’s edge and yet filled to the brim with great performances helmed by one of the great directors at the top of his game firing on all fronts is practically impossible to even fathom. That is has at least been remembered for one thing is some small consolation. Ronin is the only modern entry in the very small list of great car chases that include Bullitt, The French Connection, The Seven-Ups and To Live and Die In L.A..

Yet separating that one fact from the film as a whole does it a major disservice as it has long deserved a major revisiting as not only a modern classic but a great film. This is not because of its car chases, action sequences or the fact that it practically capped off the Eurothriller movement that was so prevalent in the 90’s. No, the reason is because it is a film that given a chance never leaves the mind fully.

“If there is any doubt then there is no doubt.”

How can this be, people will ask me. The film’s storyline is so threadbare and downplayed that it becomes a non-entity. The plot is essentially that various ex-government agents and foreign mercenaries are gathered together to steal a mysterious briefcase for an unknown party. Innumerable reversals, betrayals and plot twists ensue but the reason for the film’s staying power is its commitment to both reality and a heavy prevailing sense of world weariness. These characters are real people who are burdened with such a huge lifetime’s worth of pain, loss, bloodshed and that particular brand of absolute loneliness known only to spies and the devoted readers of espionage fiction.

Deep weight is conveyed in every single moment of character interplay, as the slightest glance or action can speak volumes. The dialogue is sparkling and note-perfect, stemming from a rewrite by an uncredited David Mamet. This gives the film’s world outlook such a beautiful layered sense of poetry that is most perfectly outlined in the defensive retorts of the ex-CIA man, known only as Sam, portrayed by Robert DeNiro in what is to date his last great screen role before he went into an endless string of forgettable pictures.

DeNiro’s Sam is a picture in himself. The audience can instantly tell that this man has been through it all and seen it all, much like an American version of LeCarre’s Alec Leamas. DeNiro brings a definite energy to his trademark low-key style that in a certain light reflects his fantastic turn in Midnight Run. The film’s opening has long been criticized for being overdrawn and slow but if examined closely perfectly sets up both the DeNiro character with practically no dialogue but also the dark and shadowy world of the film itself. All in a few minutes of silent exposition.

Sam is not only the lead character but in a way what the picture is really about. Never mind that the briefcase is the suggested goal-Sam’s pursuit of it invokes something other than money despite his continual claims to the contrary. We can get a sense of something else much larger behind his actions motivating them, perhaps something much greater than money. This reflects most in his relationship with the team’s equipment man, Vincent (Jean Reno, who has probably never been better-certainly not in any English language production) the Frenchman. That the others are practically only known by nationality adheres to their strict business-like code of work.

The film is a cryptic labyrinth of motivations and betrayals. These characters are forced to hedge all their bets not to mention their lives on the single turn of an event, with one insignificant miscalculation proving fatal. It is an absolute delight to see something in the espionage genre that actually has a working brain behind it. So long have we been bombarded with absolutely mindless and trivial spy thrillers that to come across one so perfectly formed and honest to the world it creates is beyond a breath of fresh air; it is mesmerizing. And behind such a grounded and multifaceted plot is a master perfectly working the controls. Ronin’s greatest strength is Frankenheimer’s seamless grasp of proper and classical filmmaking techniques. The picture is effortless and seamlessly constructed. It was the major return to form for Frankenheimer after several extremely strong television productions and sadly proved to be his own swan song in this regard. (The less said about the troubled Reindeer Games the better.)

The car chases deserve their legendary status. Nothing since has ever topped the sight of a BMW and Peugeot tearing through Paris reaching speeds of over one hundred miles per hour…in single takes….with the actors inside the cars…and everything being done one hundred percent practically! That Frankenheimer himself was a car nut is obvious. His trademark low to the ground car POV shots from Grand Prix (1967) return with an even greater degree of suspense which heightens every last nail biting moment of the film’s several chases. The realism is so incredible that only moments in Bullitt and Popeye Doyle’s furious pursuit of the EL train in The French Connection hold up as well.

Released with a number of CCE prints which heighten the silver content and minimize color, Ronin is a strikingly cold and dark picture to look at. The photography was conducted in Super35 which uses the spherical lens focus superiority to provide truly staggering trademark multicharacter focus shots the Frankenheimer so adored-and all without the obvious fakery of a split focus diopter. This also allowed for good usage of deep focus technique, which is truly a lost art. The sound mix, released originally only in DTS, is exceptional for the time and when properly represented still holds up very well today.

That Frankenheimer knew France and knew Paris like the back of his hand comes into play practically as soon as the film starts. Only someone who had both lived in and loved the country for years could make a picture that truly delves right into the back alleyways of many of the nation’s great cities. He was also thus able to get a number of permits for shooting that most would never be allowed to have in this day and age. This only aids the blending of reality with the so-called Eurothriller style, giving Ronin an edge over virtually every action thriller made since.

The alternate ending Frankenheimer wanted, is included on disc and would have given a poetic noir-ish ending had it been left in. However UA wasn’t so much of a fan and it works well without the extra scene, just perhaps not as completely as planned.

But again, it is the perfection of film technique which makes the film so incredibly strong. Frankenheimer trusts us to not have to be guided and respects the audience for actually having a brain thus not holding back from trusting us to follow the story. At no time are we ever spoken down to, nor is anything being spoon fed. This is why the film has become a cult favorite and appears on many late night cable channels, because its replayability is infinite.

The film opens with a small bit of text which explains the title. Ronin are masterless samurai, whose master has been killed thus throwing them back out into the world completely devoid of meaning or purpose. The mercenaries are thus modern day masterless samurai and must find their own purpose whatever worthless exercise it may be. The concept that these various operators are exactly like the Ronin of old Japan is an absolutely perfect metaphor for their continued existence: whatever may be left of it.

A true qualified masterpiece in every sense of the word. A forgotten and undervalued motion picture that has NEVER gotten the reception it so deserves; as the last great work of a master.

EDITIONS:

Released on Laserdisc and a DTS edition, DVD, CE 2 disc DVD and Blu-ray.

The DVDs are practically identical, stemming I presume from the LD master. The 2 disc version changes the color timing however a slight bit, has some infrequent combing artifacts, and is marginally sharper. The old disc includes a open matte copy that reveals more frame information from the Super35 production. The Blu-ray is a MPEG-2 transfer and is extremely outdated. It also reverts the color scheme to something more basic in the skintones losing the DVD’s slightly colder look which I attributed as being closer to the original CCE prints ordered by Frankenheimer. I think it is based on the CE master that had already been worked on in the 2000’s and appears very old.

Audio is best heard on the Blu-ray which at least gives us a lossless DTS-HDMA rendering. It comes across a slight bit canned and harsh in the upper ranges at times along with some dialog sounding a bit mono. I hope to soon check the LD audio of which the DTS track might outperform the lossless rendering due to the older format utilizing mainly untouched theatrical audio mixes.

All extras are on the 2 disc CE DVD and not on the Blu-ray as is typical of MGM held titles. Thus, you must obtain the DVD to watch them and for primarily fluff they are actually not bad at all. Best is Frankenheimer’s commentary which is a very detailed and frank discussion about the process and making of the film. Hearing it makes it even sadder that this proved to be his piece de resistance.

Verdict: BD and 2 disc CE DVD for extras.

EDIT 9/2017:

Arrow Video has released their own 4K sourced new Blu-ray special edition worldwide. The film negative was scanned at 4K and supervised by the cinematographer. The new master is breathtaking and far more detailed than the old outdated master. The particular color design is far more correct than the old MGM disc which had introduced pinkish skin tones. Arrow generated a new interview with the cinematographer which is a great watch and included all of the previously exclusive to DVD extras. The sound is presented in 5.1 dts-hdma and nearly identical to the MGM track which had a marginally higher bitrate. A 2.0 track is also included which is matrix encoded and thus replicates the original matrixed 35mm optical track and PCM of the Laserdisc. The original poster art is on a reversible sleeve with the newly commissioned cover. I have written to Arrow as to inquire if CCE prints were consulted.

A dream release that I thought would never happen. Grab it immediately.

 

You’re worried about saving your own skin?

–Yeah I am. It covers my body.

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, Immortal Films, John Frankenheimer

Theatrical and Video History of The Star Wars Trilogy…for beginners

This began as a simple bit of information I started putting together for those who asked. Then I quickly realized that I should reshape it to provide a nice information source for beginners and those new to the ongoing saga of trying to recover the original unaltered trilogy.

Abbreviations defined: SW-Star Wars, ESB-Empire Strikes Back, ROTJ-Return of the Jedi

 

The quick..or maybe not so quick rundown on Star Wars:

The original feature was primarily shown in Eastman 35mm, and is a bit contrasty and very grainy due to the heavy number of effects shots combined with both the 70’s stock used and heavy reprinting. The reissue in 1981 and some later ones generated LPP prints which are far more stable overall and better present the film as it was shot.

A handful, and I mean very few prints were struck in the UK using Technicolor’s IB three strip dye transfer process. These are absolutely breathtaking, and have much deeper levels and color saturations overall. The grain is lessened resulting in a much finer and completely more “filmic” image that is both warm and more pleasing to the eye. These were only done in the UK as the US labs had stopped after Godfather II in 1974, and SW was the last done at the UK labs. Also, due to the nature of the process no two prints in IB were ever exactly alike and the different labs made different aesthetic choices. The UK lab was generally more prone to favoring color range and a colder look, while the US was much more vivid and gained the moniker of “Technicolor red” etc. on their bolder looking prints.

All these got the 35mm Dolby stereo mix on the analog track, which was of course the film to break it to the masses. It plays very well matrixed out as designed. Some received the 35mm mono mix, discussed below.

The 70mm blowups were limited engagements and premieres. All these were Eastman and blown up to large format-cropped to 2.21:1. The 6 track magnetic audio for 70mm was converted to Dolby’s new process of taking the front Left-Center and Right-Center speakers and making them “baby booms” to accentuate and only playback the low end and in the process essentially creating the first .1 in any system. This is why people talk about the low rumble of the opening Star Destroyer or of nearby stores having their windows blown out. The 70mm mix from all we know is identical in content to the 35mm Dolby Stereo, but discretely presented without the constraints of matrixing and with the improved low end reproduction.

Last was the 35mm Academy mono mix, done by George Lucas and Ben Burtt while the 70mmm premieres were going on. This was intended as the definitive final mix, as it was believed that no one would adopt Dolby, and that the film would not be successful. So they put a large amount of effort into making the mono definitive, placing all sorts of tweaks, fixes to gaffes and mistakes etc. so that the film could play in the middle of nowhere or at a drive-in and work properly.

16mm prints stuck either have the mono or a folddown of the stereo mix. They come in a mix of cropped flat prints or scope ones.

ESB had a few variations in the 70mm premiere cut, but was conformed to the 35mm general release. Audio mix is largely identical for 35mm and 70mm but some reported a few things which turned up in the 16mm mono custom mix. The mono again has numerous tweaks and differences. The main 35/70 mix is largely stereo oriented and has less information going on in the center/surround. This was done so that in case the extra channels or matrix went out, the audience could still get a great experience in plain stereo without missing anything essential.

ROTJ should be identical in 35 and 70 for audio but there is no hard evidence as of yet. It is unknown whether there is a custom mono track.

In 1981 the Ep. IV A NEW HOPE title was added to the opening crawl and has been on everything released since.

Now..we get to video.

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JSC-Japanese Special Collection. In 1985, the Japanese Special Collection Laserdiscs were released. This was the first widescreen release of the trilogy and all feature Dolby surround matrix PCM audio. All have good color and detail and were reputedly from good interpositives. ESB and ROTJ’s audio seem to be the theatrical mixes, but SW got a custom remix from Ben Burtt which took the ’77 theatrical stereo and reduced the dynamic range along with cutting back on the high end. It also adds 3P0’s tractor beam line from the mono audio. They are full CAV format with the 1985 home video remixes in Dolby surround PCM. Note: they do have hardcoded Japanese subtitles in the letterboxing.

SWE-Fox Special Widescreen Laserdiscs released in 1989-1991. These are ports of the JSC and were the first major widescreen release in the US. Their audio is also the 1985 remix, but appears to be better encoded than the JSC. Due to an error, Star Wars has a shrinking aspect ratio that isn’t terribly noticeable. This was corrected in a later limited pressing just before the Definitive Collection.

When ported to LD stateside, they had to crop the Japanese subtitles from the bottom letterbox. On SW they goofed and the image ratio actually shrinks very slightly across the feature. When notified they quietly fixed it in 1993 and reissued it.  One of these hard to find corrected pressings was issued by the smaller Technidisc plant. For some unknown reason they made their own transfer and did not simply reissue the old one corrected. Their source is superior and produced the best official release of Star Wars on home video to date. Unfortunately the disc suffers from some crosstalk issues and is CLV only. That said it is absolutely worth searching out if you have a good player. Note: the only way to find one is by identifying the disc stamper codes on the inner ring.

Note: All video copies across formats were sourced from this master until the Definitive Collection in 1993.

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Definitive Collection: This set was done in 1993 for Laserdisc. All three films in full CAV fully remastered with extras. Only downside is that this was done by state of the art technology…circa 1993. These were struck from Interpositives that may have been a bit faded. In any case they are nearly drained of color and that is nowhere near the end of their problems. Grain was smoothed out by early processes-particularly an early form of DNR which also results in horrible motion smearing artifacts. Additionally the sound was remixed on all three and features both new and missing effects. It is presented in PCM Dolby surround, but information suggests that the source for SW was in fact the fabled 70mm Dolby mix. And they suffer from heavy rotting across pressings. The first copy had to be recalled for cutting a few seconds of Leia welding onboard the Falcon in ESB.

Faces-Reissues of the Definitive, with the covers featuring the faces of Vader, Stormtrooper and Yoda. They are CLV copies without any rot issues. Later copies pressed by Kuraray may have been encoded for SuperNTSC video.

Note: All video copies from 1993 to the 1997 Special Edition were from the Definitive across formats.

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SE-Special Edition. The 1997 SE came from a photochemical restoration and then additional CGI effects were done at 1K and 2K. SW was intended to match Lucas’s own Tech IB print. The audio remixes were very dynamic and matched the intent of the original mixes. They went to the master tapes and remixed in elements from some of the mono tracks as well. The eventual VHS and LD releases though had several fluctuations and do not fully represent the 35mm prints made. They are on the whole very good and have better color than the Definitive master. But they do have some DNR and edge enhancement. Also SW has many of the Tatooine sequences pink shifted in the telecine. The sound mix was a fresh remix done in both 2.0 and 5.1 from the original elements and adding differentiations from the monos. Only issued on LD and VHS.

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In 2004 a 1080p master was stuck from the 97 SE and then completely destroyed by apparently some who either were unknowing of the eventual result or who simply did not care. It appears that many hands were on deck but the transfer wasn’t given the care and treatment it truly deserved. The process was reportedly not the most refined or properly timed, but numerous changes were implemented across all three that virtually wreck the films. Even further changes were made for the DVD issue, and the matrixed 6.1 audio is a horrendous reworking of the otherwise perfect 97 mixes.

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The 2006 “original edition” bonus DVD release was merely a copy of the Definitive collection LD master. So the video quality was better than LD but still stuck in that era. Additionally it was non-anamorphic letterbox and the remixed audio was heavily compressed to DVD standard Dolby Digital 2.0. However, someone did go back and scan the original SW crawl minus the ANH title and insert it into the DVD. How or why this occurred is anyone’s guess.

This became known as the GOUT or “George’s Official Unaltered Trilogy”.

Later HDTV airings began appearing using higher res versions of the 1080p scan. The reveal even more flaws of the 2004 work.

The 2011 Blu-rays use this same master, but with EVEN MORE changes, alterations and general mucking about, in addition to ruining the audio even further. They are slightly better than the previous DVD/HDTV in terms of proper contrast/saturation levels in some ways but then just as bad if not worse in others.

 

So there you have it. If you are to enjoy the films at all officially…buy a Laserdisc player or go back in time. Dead serious.

If so inclined the Fox SWEs are dirt cheap and can be had for a few bucks each. The 1985 mixes are largely great and very close if not largely identical to the original theatrical stereo matrix counterparts.

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Filed under Star Wars, Uncategorized, Video editorial

The Quiet American (2002)

A lovely and striking homage to the 1999 Flame Girl advance poster for The World is Not Enough.

A lovely and striking homage to the 1999 Flame Girl advance poster for The World is Not Enough.

4 stars out of 4. One of the best films released since the new millennium.

Great novels rarely translate to the screen well. It is usually only done in a way that gives an audience an impression of the original points being made, or by merely replicating the book scene for scene. It is the rare exception that makes for a moving film adaptation of a moving novel. But it is the truly exceptional picture that serves to accentuate, enhance and truly enlighten a great work of literature and at the same time enlighten some part of our nearly incomprehensible world. In this 2002 adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, director Phillip Noyce is finally able to build upon the promise shown in feature after feature throughout his tenure at the major studios in the 1990’s.

It is not an easy film because it is not an easy story total. Greene wrote often of the erosion of man’s soul, typically from man’s own inherent weaknesses and frailties. This vision is set against the backdrop of Vietnam in the early 1950’s as the Communists waged a bitter war against the French for the nation’s independence. An aging British expatriate reporter named of Fowler reports the news in his own detached way by neither taking a side nor involving himself in much of anything besides his young Vietnamese lover, Phuong, who may or may not be the key to his heart still beating. Into this routine comes a white washed slightly bumbling American by the name of Pyle. Pyle becomes attached to Phuong and falls in love with her much to the concern of Fowler. This love triangle plays out against the festering conflict surrounding Saigon. Pyle is ostensibly part of an American medical team providing aid to the impoverished, but as the underlying natures of America’s political machinations in foreign non-democratic nations becomes apparent in Vietnam, Pyle may not be exactly what he seems.

Greene wrote this novel based upon his own experiences as a reporter in 50’s Saigon. It is partially autobiographical and completely from Greene’s detached, distrustful and deeply moving point of view. His cynicism and Fowler’s are one and the same, much as he and Fowler are the same. Pyle in the novel is less of a character than a catalyst and physical representation of all that Greene hated and mistrusted about America. What this film so masterfully does is weave a greater narrative sense into Greene’s story and allow the pages to breathe onscreen as in life so that the author’s original point is allowed to work freely through real flesh and blood characters.

This is no more apparent than in Michael Caine’s performance as Fowler. As always Caine readily inhabits his character in order to blur the lines between fiction and a feeling of impassioned reality. But as Fowler he adds an inherent degree of sadness that so completely adds that last necessary punctuation to Greene’s characterization. Caine’s Fowler is a woefully incomplete man who has come to some sort of terms that he is roughly an empty shell. His love for Phuong provides physical and emotional outlets for whatever remains of his drive and passion for life but it is again something that he cannot explain or define. He knows that she has become his whole existence, but in trying to explain this bond its very permanence would be destroyed. This deep set knowledge lies at the heart of Fowler’s sadness and leaves a lasting impression of finality in Caine’s eyes in every scene of the film.

Contrasted is Brendan Fraser’s performance as the titular American Pyle. Known and typed as the stud-ish B or C actioner and plagued by far too many dumb comedies, Fraser here uses his typical physical aloofness to an innate advantage as the outsider. His love for Phuong may be one element of humanity, but the rest of everything we see takes a backseat to his real reason for being in Vietnam. The outer appearance of an all-American is merely a front to the more devious operative beneath who allows the outer shell to blind him to what his actions will and are causing.

The meddling of the United States in overseas affairs during this era has never and will never be fully understood as much of it is still so secretive. In Vietnam, Pyle represents the formulation of a third front to challenge and supplant both the French and Communist forces by arming, training and supplying a separate faction under the leadership of a rogue commander. By playing these sides against one another the death toll rises with disastrous results. The fact that we began with a simple love triangle adds a governing layer to this revealed story so that the central conflict is human at its core and between two ever so different people.

To tell such a rich, languorous, dark and relatively true story in this day and age takes much guts. It takes even more to get someone to back it, let alone finance a faithful adaptation of a Greene novel. This project kicked around for years without gaining much traction, and had already been filmed in1958 as a disastrously butchered pro-American propagandist piece of garbage publicly denounced by Greene. After many years of attempts, Noyce became attached and brought his usual rounded efforts to create the picture he had had in him for many years. Throughout middling action-thrillers like Patriot Games and The Saint, Noyce had always shown a remarkable level of control and precision. He made thinking man’s thrillers that while never as developed narratively as they could have been, were so well made and properly told that you didn’t care as much as you should have. Here, he faithfully represents what Green wrote on the page by filming on primary location in Saigon and attempting to rightly place that mystical sense of atmosphere found only on the edge of war.

In a time where so much importance is being placed upon immediacy and a lack of technique, to see such careful and meticulous attention to construction, design and character is much like the feeling one gets while ill the moment a hot bowl of soup arrives. It is a genuine breath of fresh air and easily one of the best pictures to be released post 2000.

It almost wasn’t released at all. At Caine and Noyce’s repeated insistence, Mirimax finally allowed some festival showings and a limited 2002 release for Oscar consideration. They sat on it for some time, thinking that audiences would not react well to it in aftermath of September 2001. For box office this was correct reasoning, but it did not mean that they should roughly abandon the picture in its eventual 2002-2003 release or in its Oscar campaign. Caine gives one of his finest performances and arguably if not certainly should have finally won the golden statuette. But due to Mirimax not even deigning to send screeners to many voters, few ever saw the film neither in the Academy nor in the US theatrically. The film died a very early death and was sorely forgotten much too quickly.

EDIIONS: The DVD is fin, with a decent 16:9 transfer for its time. A few extras are included, the best being a commentary with Caine, Noyce and others. The sound is in both Dolby and DTS 5.1 with the DTS as always being a bit more forceful. A Blu-ray was released in the UK that had a DTS-HDMA 5.1 lossless audio track, but a woefully poor video transfer that seemed to be an upscale of a very old master. There has been no word of a US Blu-ray release, and one is sorely needed to faithfully reproduce the look and feel of this remarkable film, shot by the same cinematographer as many of Wong Kar-Wai’s films.

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The Fleischer Studios/Famous Studios Superman theatrical cartoons (1941-1943)

Fleischer-superman

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film.

“Look up in the sky—it’s a bird—it’s a plane—it’s Superman!”

It is not often that a definitive adaptation of a character or work comes around. Almost always it is left up to each individual’s preference, but in the case of Superman there is a clear beacon that so hugely affected the character that he was never the same again.

The Fleischer theatrical serials were and are unlike anything to come out of Hollywood animation before or since. They are completely self-contained miniature movies that perfectly encapsulate the appeal of superheroes while absolutely enthralling the mind due to their sheer imagination, breathless excitement, stunning visuals and absolutely brilliant staging. Fast, bold, vibrant, unbound by story convention and so wonderfully executed and constructed that one quickly forgets they are mere 10 minute or less theatrical serial cartoons.

This was Superman before Kryptonite, before all the woes about the character’s inherent clichés and not fitting in a modern world, before he was invincible. And it is all filled with that wonderful 30’s-40’s rhythmic snap even down to the dialogue where Lois Lane more closely resembles Torchy Blane than a damsel in distress. This has all of the excitement and adventure that has been so lacking in many modern adaptations. These cartoon shorts truly bring the character to life and brought about many of the touchstones that we now take as common parts of the Superman character.

With the Flesicher shorts, we were given so many elements that weren’t present in the comics of the time that are now trademarks of Superman: the power of flight, x-ray vision and the famed opening that still sends shivers of excitement down my spine:

“Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! The infant of Krypton is now the Man of Steel—Superman! To best be in a position to use his amazing powers in a never-ending battle for truth and justice, Superman has assumed the disguise of Clark Kent mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper.”

The famed usage of the phone booth for quick changes and the usage of “This looks like a job for..Superman” (the line originating in Clark Kent’s voice and shifting to Superman’s more authoritative tone) make their appearances to create what is essentially is true classic version of the character onscreen that does not try to make amends for being a pulp adventure hero. Also beneficial is the production taking place in the early 1940’s so that the elements of the snappy 1930’s world in which Superman was created is maintained. The characters thus speak and act like real people, more as if they are in a Pre-Code film than a later Hollywood film, doubled by the fact that most cartons of the era still played to their audiences despite this new form of censorship.

The usage of rotoscoping further sets these cartoons apart in that not only do the stories resemble the comics and engage our fantasies, but that it also looks realistic to the point of actual believability. Combined with an intense usage of light and shadow, the world of Superman leaps off of the pages of Action Comics and onto the screen with all the direct power of a radio show.

For decades these shorts have proven immensely influential to other animators, filmmakers and storytellers. They were the primary inspiration for the legendary Batman: The Animated Series, not to mention the wonderful Superman: The Animated Series, and serve as the template for which every superhero story should be trying to achieve.

But halfway through the run of shorts, the Fleischer studio was taken over by Paramount and the series was carried over to Famous Studios. These cartoons are typically regarded as being inferior to the Fleischer studio episodes and are typically written off because of the inherent and obvious racist overtones that feature prominently in several episodes. This is an extreme disservice to cartons that are no more offensive than other propaganda at the time due to our entry into WWII and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It is regrettable that so many things were produced with this inherent but it should not be used as an excuse to simply write off more of these wonderful cartoons.

Admittedly, the stories began a general shift from the science-fiction elements of the Fleischer produced shorts to a more wartime espionage and general fantasy theme, much as the comics themselves shifted to tones like these throughout the 1940’s. But hey, sometimes Superman just needs to fight off some reanimated giant mummies or a underground colony of mutant birdmen.

But what is most striking, most important and the chief reason to why the cartoons still work after all this time is that they absolutely nail the character and his mission. They are absolutely passionate and human whilst retaining that defining element that inspired superheroes in the first place, the desire for betterment and to escape the daily horrors of an unjust life where striving for good did not always mean good would be returned. Superman at his core symbolizes this ideal, just as he was written originally in Action Comics no. 1 in June 1938.

And by god, you really do believe a man can fly.

EDITIONS: Falling into the public domain decades ago, the Fleischer/Famous Superman has long been seen in terrible condition with most tape and disc copies being sourced from dupes of dupes of dupes of faded 16mm reduction prints. There are only two official releases worth owning, as other slap on new sound effects and lack any restoration whatsoever.  The first is the recent Warner Bros. Max Fleischer’s Superman which uses brand new restored versions from the 35mm elements in the WB vault. The image is stunning full of the robust color unseen since their 1940’s debut, but the set is plagued with audio errors that come from using the wrong score and cue elements. (All the errors on the Warner release are quite jarring. “Never ending battle for truth and justice” is now presented as “for truth-justice”.)

For the best presentation of the shorts, one must turn to the DVD from Bosko Video, The Complete Superman Collection Diamond Anniversary Edition. This uses the old Bosko-Image Laserdisc source, re-transferred for DVD and accurately carries over the look and feel of the 35mm prints. There are some inherent defects in the audio but these are minor. Sadly this does not have the color of the Warner transfer but was done long before digital tools were available. The only downside is that Terror on the Midway is heavily damaged and that at the beginning of each short, the initial release date is superimposed for a few frames.

Consider only these two releases. (Or the bosko/image Laser.) All others are to be avoided at all costs. The shorts are also available on YouTube and the Internet Archive in varying quality.

Best version on YouTube, from the Warner transfer of the first installment:

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Filed under 4 stars, Film Review, Immortal Films, Superman

Man of Steel (2013)

With a poster this cold and distant, it doesn't bode well for the planet's adopted son.

With a poster this cold and distant, it doesn’t bode well for the planet’s adopted son.

1.5 stars out of 4.

Are truth, justice and the American way still relevant in 2013? This is the central question behind Man of Steel that of the singular most iconic superhero’s worth in this post-modern world. Can the inherent Kryptonian Boy Scout make a difference anymore? In this Christopher Nolan produced vision it comes at the cost of the character.

The film is an exasperatingly frustrating thing to sit through. Sure the story elements are upfront, but in fact they may be too upfront at the cost of seeming redundant. Superman (Henry Cavill) comes across as more of a reactionary figure being prodded along by the plot than Earth’s lone protector. Inherent are many problems which recall those of Watchmen, a film dedicated entirely to replicating a graphic novel to the point of inducing sleep in its audiences because the presentation was so completely overdone and lacked the story’s impact.

Whoever decided Zack Snyder was the appropriate choice to direct a Superman film should have their head examined. Watchmen was a film so far away from Superman in energy, tone, characterization, plotting, length and presentation that you couldn’t have done worse if you tried. The relative backlash against the ill-fated Superman Returns (Though it made nearly $400 million for the studio, it was deemed a failure) as a quasi-sequel to Superman I and II has led to an extremely dull and relatively witless sci-fi post-modern actioner.

And this is truly a dull picture. The film opens with Kal-el’s birth, supposedly the first live Kryptonian birth in centuries because Krypton is now suddenly a dystopic sci-fi nightmare. The opening shots of this new Superman film are extremely lingering close-ups of Lara in childbirth. Yes, because this is how we need to open a Superman film after seven years. To make a longer story short (and this runs somewhere around twenty minutes or so, presumably to cram in a few more action set pieces and give Russell Crowe time in action.) Krypton is about to implode due to over harvesting of resources, nobody ever believes Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and General Zod (Michael Shannon, in a low-key role is a poor substitute for Terrence Stamp) comes on his bid for conquest, now under the guise of attempting to save the planet (which gets very tired very quickly) whilst in actuality placing himself as sole ruler. Jor-el manages to escape and places the infant Kal in a space pod, but only after spending time in another action sequence to steal a codex containing Kryptonian genetics to send with Kal in order to preserve Krypton or somehow or perhaps to serve the plot later….

In short, Kal is finally sent off into space, Zod and his insurrection are sent to the Phantom Zone  but not before Zod declaring his vengeance against Kal-el (Does this really make any sense?) and finally if not mercifully Krypton explodes.

The pod lands on Earth, and instead of receiving any sort of conventional origin story either detailed or abbreviated, we are told in brief flashbacks whilst the young Clark Kent is drifting around the world in search of himself. (In one of many obvious and unnecessary elements stolen directly from Batman Begins, which in turn lifted from Batman: Year One.) For some reason the current trend of revealing a character’s childhood backstory in multiple short flashbacks throughout the course of the main narrative is continually re-used despite being absolutely disjointing and extremely ineffective.  (Think of the abomination that was Speed Racer.) This sets up Clark’s childhood in Smallville, living as the child of Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane, both horribly underused) and struggling to come to terms with his strange differences from everyone else.

After several sequences of his trying and dull nomadic episodes and their eventual payoff by revealing his superhuman abilities, Clark infiltrates a government expedition where we first meet Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and finds an abandoned Kryptonian scout ship. After rescuing Lois form the ship’s defenses, we are greeted by the obligatory scene in these films of the dead-father-hologram-explaining-who-Clark-Kent-really-is-and-what-he-is-supposed-to-do.

Lois recovers and sets out to track down this mystery man who she firmly believes is an alien. After a few days research, she actually manages to do this and arrives at the Kent farm, where Clark recounts his adoptive father’s death. Jonathan Kent’s death is another moment in Man of Steel that throws a monkey wrench into the proceedings in that it sets up a situation that is extremely contrived and also very easy for Clark to overcome while not revealing himself. Originally Kent dies of a heart attack and it is Clark’s inability to prevent his death that torments him with a sense of guilt and greater responsibility that forms a central touchstone of the character’s identity.

After more unnecessary exposition Zod announces his bid for world destruction unless Kal hands himself over. After some debate, Clark hands himself over to the military in the Superman guise, and we are finally told the plot that we already knew was coming thirty minutes in. It is now a Mano- e-Mano battle between Superman and Zod’s army, bent on the destruction of Earth in order to create a new Kryptonian world to rule.

Things blow up. Buildings crumble, a city becomes a veritable wasteland of debris, all while the human race watches dumbfounded. After a few minutes you cease to care as the images are so disjointed and monotonous that the audience is immediately distanced from the story once more. This is a film where the actors are clearly giving it their all, but are continually dragged down by the unyielding mass of junk around them. It is virtually impossible to tread water in this for longer than an hour. The film lasts nearly two and a half hours.

The most problematic element besides the cliff notes script is the camerawork that should have never been deemed releasable. There are incessant artificial snap zooms in and out of the frame that are so completely disorienting that you simply want to leave the auditorium. The action is so constant and dull that I found myself disconnected from the movie frequently, and struck more by things like the film grain visible. (The film was mercifully shot on 35mm, and the grain visible in the DI is very pleasant.) In contrast, the camerawork in the dialogue scenes is marred often by some truly horrid shakycam that absolutely wrecks the scenes in question.

The bland visuals do not help either. This film, like its modern brethren are shot in a very cold harsh light, and timed in the edit suite to be extremely harsh, devoid of any real color. It is an unpleasant film to look at. As for the sound mix, it was rather dull and all over the place. The Dolby 7.1 surround is too loud in the action at the expense of detail and too soft in the quiet moments, as was Dark Knight Rises.

Man of Steel is a picture that is no fun. I was interested in the characters, in what was going on with them and how they reacted to one another. The actors are really trying with what material they have, but are continually dragged down by the surrounding movie.

We all get it. The studio wanted a Dark Knight Superman. Supposedly, Superman is so out of place in 2013 that he isn’t allowed to exist anymore as he has since 1938, and must be heavily modified to suit modern tastes. Man of Steel is a film that stars Superman, but at the cost of mild-mannered Clark Kent. There is none of the Superman we have come to know and respect after 75 years. And yes, I know that this is supposedly an origin story. It is as lacking of the titular hero’s character as the Nolan Bat-films which feature so little of Batman’s identity that they can hardly be considered Batman films any longer.

And top all of this off by simply reusing the already tread plot elements of Superman I and II but dumbed down for a “best-of” condensation. Man of Steel had multitudes of paths to travel down, and yet for some reason it was decided to return to the same ground already tread by Richard Donner in the 1978 and 1980 films. It isn’t as if there aren’t decades of Superman stories to pull from.

What I missed most from Man of Steel was the humanity. There’s no life in the picture. There’s no spark, no vitality, no energy to really pull us into the story. Comics are all about imagination. Superman was the product of the Depression, a dream figure to inspire minds to escape their daily horrors. Despite having their flaws the reason why the the Donner films, in particular the first film, are still genuinely moving is because they have both spirit and properly motivated drama. Along with Batman (1989), Superman: The Movie began and created the pathway that all superhero films must tread. Man of Steel goes in the opposite direction. Ultimately the film is a frustrating experience along the lines of Superman Returns. It just happens to be for many of the opposite reasons.

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Filed under 1.5 stars, Film Review, Superman

The Hangover Part III (2013)

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Zero stars out of 4.

The success of the Hangover pictures is built entirely on the premise of seeing the members of the “Wolfpack” find themselves in the weirdest and deepest of hot water while attempting to find their way back to reality. In the first sequel this involved running through Bangkok in a textbook exercise of mimicking a hit first film to the letter minus any character development. Thankfully for this third installment a new direction was established…or perhaps I’m getting too far ahead of myself.

Hangover 3 resembles not the earlier pictures or a narrative at all. What Hangover 3 is instead of a series of increasingly debaucherous mishaps is merely the beginnings of a narrative first act. This is one of the biggest doses of filler to come out of a studio in some time. What the film resembles is a contractually obligated sequel where those involved were out of ideas and did not want to return. So they decide to shake things up after the criticism over repeating themselves.

The problem is that they had nothing to go on. The story has our protagonists come under the thumb of a cartoonish drug lord (John Goodman) who kidnaps the always kidnapped Doug (Justin Bartha) in exchange for the Wolfpack finding the ever snakelike Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong).  What follows is a long uneventful series of setups with no payoff whatsoever. The entire premise of this franchise that should have never been is the mishaps that occur after one long and beyond rowdy night of partying. That is the reason why the audience shells out the money for admission. And instead of giving them what they want or truly doing something different, Hangover 3 merely does nothing.

This is a dark comedy that forgets to include either the darkness or the comedy. Nor is there any real drama or characterization beyond the names and faces. What is additionally off-putting is that the overall tone is extremely mean without any context.  The first two pictures had their moments of tension but this sequel seems to want to go down a darker path, yet leaves out any reason or meaning for doing so. If one were to remove all of the instances where variations of the most used phrase “What the f***?”  are uttered, this already overlong 100 minute waste would be a far more manageable ten minutes if even that long.

There is only one standout sequence, and a horribly short one at that. The boys have discovered Mr. Chow is hiding in the penthouse suite atop Caesar’s Palace and devise an insanely stupid plan to break in via bedsheet rope from the roof. The sequence is executed with enough thought to actually invoke some participation from one’s mind which has been on bored autopilot up to this point, and give some more than badly needed characterization to people we no longer give a damn about. Once inside there is some energy to the editing which lasts for all of 30 seconds and then we descend back into stupid pointless zone for the rest of this beyond tired exercise. (While managing to waste the usage of what may be the best ever Black Sabbath song. )

You would find it hard for a sequel to be any more tasteless or dumb than Hangover 2, but Hangover 3 manages to accomplish this goal by the simplest means possible. There is no inspiration in any shot of this waste of an hour and forty minutes of one’s life.

As if to make up for this, a small coda is inserted into the credits. This of course is the obligatory scene of the guys waking up hungover in a room full of weird articles, things on or done to themselves and struggling to stand up. And so, Hangover 3 begins and ends in the end credits.  The film essentially is two minutes long with a 95 minute tediously dull setup.

Why bother? Supposedly this is the final film, but the mere franchise name will guarantee enough box office returns for a sequel. Hopefully by that time they may have come up with something, but at that point who will still care?

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Filed under Film Review, Zero stars