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MGM Blu-Ray Wrap-Up

Some Like It Hot

I’m not sure why, but apparently I had to reach a certain age to fully appreciate Billy Wilder’s movies. As an aspiring movie nerd I, of course, made an effort to see his most celebrated works – The Apartment, Sunset Boulevard, Sabrina – but didn’t really ‘get it’ until I started revisiting them on cable television more recently. Some Like It Hot is a special case – a movie that was funny the first time, and gets funnier every time I see it. Since the AFI already voted it ‘Greatest American Comedy of All Time’ (a spot I’d reserve for Dr. Strangelove myself), and readers likely to watch the film already have, I’m devoting this quick review to talking a few disbelievers into scratching this one off their never ending must-see list.

I’m guessing that most uninitiated folks take one look at the poster/DVD/Blu-ray artwork and say, ‘Oh, Marilyn Monroe and some dudes in drag, I guess I’m in for outdated cross-dressing jokes’. Well, there are some outdated cross-dressing jokes, yes, but besides the fact that the vast majority of the humour has aged incredibly well (save some of Joe E. Brown’s shtick), Some Like It Hot is actually one of the better gangster movies of its era. There’s a really rough edge to the violence that never ceases to surprise given the year it was released, and its screwball/romantic comedy-based intentions. Okay, it’s mostly cross-dressing jokes, but this is ground zero for most of the tropes, and still features plenty of healthy belly laughs. Wilder is often credited for his writing and work with actors (there are simply too many great lines here to quote just one), but let’s not forget that he’s also the man that directed Double Indemnity. Some Like It Hot stands as a solid technical achievement without being particularly showy (minus that auteur-level opening car chase). Wilder is comparable to Howard Hawks, John Ford and even Alfred Hitchcock in his innate ability to point his audience’s attention in very specific places without being too obvious about it. Both Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon have been better (just barely), but this is Marilyn Monroe’s best performance, even better than her previous work with Wilder on Seven Year Itch, and the perfect arena for her very specific talents.

I’ve never seen Some Like It Hot on standard definition DVD, so I’m not able to make upgrade comparisons, but I can make some guesses. Overall this is a solid 1080p transfer, but like many black and white HD transfers, the lack of colour cuts down a bit on the wow factor. Details are hit and miss, and grain and digital artefact thickness comes and goes (occasionally shuttering to genuinely upsetting levels during outdoor shots), but there are only a few hunks of print damage, and a hint of edge enhancement. Everything is a bit darker than I’d prefer, but not so much so that it becomes a real issue. Funnily enough the sharp details give away all the super soft focus shots of Monroe, which, in my opinion, only adds to the charm. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound is more impressive than expected. Music is an important element, and gets the most attention in the surround remix, while the rest of the soundtrack remains pretty much centered – as it should be. On my check disc there was a bit of a digital flip out around the 66:00 mark, and I’d be curious to know if the release discs have the same issue. Extras include a commentary track made up of cast and crew interviews, ‘The Making of Some Like It Hot’ (25:00, SD), a solid little behind-the-scenes featurette, ‘The Legacy of Some Like It Hot’ (20:20, SD), a more retrospective continuation of the first featurette, ‘Nostalgic Look Back’ (31:10, SD), featuring Leonard Maltin and Tony Curtis, ‘Memories from the Sweet Sues’ (12:00, SD), interviews with the women that filled out the backing band in the film, a virtual hall of memories, and the original theatrical trailer.

MGM Blu-Ray Wrap-Up

The Manchurian Candidate

Even those rare folks who haven’t actually seen John Frankenheimer’s film version of Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate will probably feel as if they have thanks to pop culture’s obsession with revisiting and spoofing it. From Star Trek to The Venture Bros, and every election year newscast and official Jonathan Demme remake in between, more or less everyone of us has seen some homage to the iconic tale. Most of The Manchurian Candidate’s legacy is rooted in its compelling story, Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury’s performances, and its political fortitude (it’s strange to see such stereotypical and simplistic Communist villains set against a well hidden anti-McCarthyist slant), but its severe look is what sticks with me outside of historical motion picture relevance. Frankenheimer’s almost psychotic camera placement and blocking has a huge and lasting psychological effect, and he isn’t afraid to delve head-first into the nightmarish qualities of the story. The actual nightmare flashbacks are more obviously rich in frightening imagery, but the whole movie is claustrophobic, and there’s a sinister subtext like fingernails across a chalkboard. Those who have seen the film might want to give it a second look by making a double feature out of it and Hitchcock’s original Psycho. The two films are spiritual siblings – they both break mainstream feature taboos, deal in Freudian and Oedipal themes, feature Janet Leigh in a major role, based their ad campaigns on not entering the theater late, and were filmed in black and white for aesthetic reasons rather than budgetary reasons. If you hate yourself, you’ll double feature the remakes directly afterwards.

This 1080p transfer more or less matches the Some Like It Hot transfer. It’s a black and white film, which limits the possibilities a bit, but thanks to Frankenheimer and cinematographer Lionel Lindon’s harsh lighting schemes and use of wide-angle lenses leads to a series of complex compositions that are better served by a lack of compression. Details aren’t super-sharp, but it’s easy to pick out elements in each dense frame. Clarity is inconsistent, but mostly satisfactory, with grain and minor digital artefacts coming and going from shot to shot. The bigger concern is the occasional dirt and film damage, which is most noticeable between what I’m assume are reel changes. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack isn’t particularly impressive, likely due to The Manchurian Candidate being originally mixed in mono, and generally not featuring a lot of noise outside of performances, incidental foley work, and occasional musical stings. There are a handful of stereo and surround effects (the gunshot that turns into thunder is very impressive) that are not musically related, but for the most part this track is very true to its simple, centered roots. Overall this is only a minor upgrade over the special edition DVD release, but certainly worth buying for those that won’t be double dipping. Extras include a commentary with Frakenheimer, exclusive interviews with Sinatra, George Axelrod and Frankenheimer (8:00, SD), ‘Queen of Diamonds’ (13:20, SD), an interview with Angela Lansbury, ‘How to Get Shot’ (1:00, SD), ‘Phone Call’ (:30, SD), a gag with director William Friedkin, and the original trailer.

MGM Blu-Ray Wrap-Up

The Misfits

The Misfits – John Huston and Arthur Miller’s ultra-melodramatic tale of a disillusioned divorcee (Marilyn Monroe) and her adventures in the company of an aging horse wrangler (Clark Gable), a slightly dimwitted rodeo rider (Montgomery Cliff), and a lovesick, widowed mechanic (Eli Wallach) – is a difficult movie to recommend. The entire film is manhandled with heavy hands, highlights aggressive and outdated social metaphors, and often devolves into droning emotional repetition, but it’s somehow still an entertaining, even occasionally moving experience. Overall this exploration of midlife crises and overstated subtext is a beautiful mess that shines all the brighter in the context of its painful birth. There’s no single famously tortured film production that can be directly compared to The Misfits – it’s more of a mishmash of failure, accidents, bad choices, and all other manner of tribulation. Most notable was a bit of life imitating art, that culminated in the dissolving of Marilyn Monroe and screenwriter Arthur Miller’s marriage, which itself was another symptom of Monroe’s spiraling depression and drug abuse. Clark Gable, who would die of a heart attack 10 days after filming completed, was consistently uncomfortable around the rest of the cast, and insisted on doing his own stunts out of boredom. The film went way over budget (it’s often considered the most expensive black and white film of all time), and was released to disappointing box office receipts (though it did garner enough of a cult following over the years, and was immortalized when the name became the inspiration for a classic ‘80s punk band). The real tragedy of the entire piece is how overlooked Eli Wallach’s performance. Wallach isn’t even featured on much of the film’s production artwork, including this Blu-ray’s cover. Rumors state that Monroe herself noticed how incredibly good Wallach was, and conspired to have some of his scenes cut for fear of being upstaged.

I happened to have caught an MGMHD channel showing of The Misfits a few days before this Blu-ray arrived, and once I got past the rather dull opening titles was generally impressed with the detail and contrast levels. This 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer follows suit, but doesn’t feature the same digital compression problems the TV airing did. Of the three black and white films I reviewed for this group review this is the most impressive, featuring the cleanest and most consistent image from scene to scene, and the purest black and white levels. There’s plenty of grain, and a few minor artefacts (most of the dirt and print damage is delegated to wide exteriors), but the majority of the shortcomings are inherit in the film, like rough exterior lighting (Huston goes for a very natural look, and without colour the desert just kind of looks grey and flat), and the awkward soft focus used for most of Monroe’s shots (she had just been released from the hospital for drug issues). The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono soundtrack is just fine considering the films flat aural landscape. The majority of the sound is based around dialogue and minor set recorded audio, with a few bits of Alex North’s score slipped in for good measure. My only problem has to do with the compression, which leads to a generally quiet experience. The disc is free of extras save a trailer. I’m disappointed considering the rich behind the scenes tapestry, but there is a PBS documentary called Making the Misfits that can be found free on the internet, so it’s not the end of the world.

MGM Blu-Ray Wrap-Up

The Terminator

Remember the good old days when James Cameron made movies that ran on plot, he found creative ways to use low budgets, and he cut them tight and sharply? No? Well, I don’t blame you, following decades of Cameron breaking his own budgetary records, and bloating his runtimes to epic proportions. I’m not saying he makes bad movies (PS: Avatar is a bad movie), he just makes very (excuse the pun) mechanical movies. The Terminator, though not actually Cameron’s first feature as director (he took over for Miller Drake as writer/director on Piranha II: The Spawning), is his first real introduction as a valued filmmaker. Though the plot line isn’t exactly an original in the realms of sci-fi storytelling (Orion was successfully sued by Harlan Ellison for an acknowledgement credit, and has also been compared to Chris Claremont’s ‘Days of Future Past’ X-Men series, along with other classic science fiction shorts and novels), Cameron crafts a lean, fat-free script, which itself would be mimicked structurally for decades to come. Cameron’s threadbare direction and closed-fist editing are the real stars, however. The Terminator’s dynamic, simplistic momentum sets it high among chase flicks, and despite its action pedigree, I’d actually mark it among the better horror films of the 1980s. I will, however, always wonder what could’ve been if Cameron would’ve gone with his original concept and chosen an everyman like Lance Henriksen to play the Terminator. Perhaps this is the approach the people looking to reboot the series (again) should take, rather than sticking to the thread-bare mythology. Just a thought.

This disc is, sadly, just a re-release of the same cruddy transfer MGM’s been pushing out since the advent of Blu-ray discs. In the transfer’s defense Terminator is a delightfully rough little motion picture, and works as ugly and grainy, but there’s really no excuse for a 1080p transfer this bad. Just about everything that can go wrong with a transfer does here, starting from the negative, which was apparently cleaned with corn syrup and razor blades, and move on to heavy grain, compression artefacts, fuzzy details, flat colours, dull blacks, etcetera. Turns out those reviewers that claimed this transfer was no better than the special edition DVD release weren’t leaking hyperbole after all. The uncompressed PCM 5.1 soundtrack is another source of controversy with purists who never wanted the film to be remixed into 5.1, which coming from mono would require a lot of tinkering with addition sound effects not present in the original film. This logical complaint aside, this is one of the better mono to 5.1 remixes out there, featuring aggressive surround elements that actually work directionally speaking, and don’t stand out as particular artificial. The surround-ifying of the musical track is questionable, but I find I grudgingly enjoy it for the most part. Occasionally dialogue and incidental effects are lost in the hustle, but overall I’m kind of a fan. Unfortunately, unlike the special edition DVD, there is no original Mono track. Extras include ‘Creating The Terminator: Visual Effects and Music’ (13:00, SD), ‘ Terminator: A Retrospective’ (21:30, SD), seven deleted scenes (SD), and a trailers for other MGM Blu-rays. Missing from the DVD is the ‘Other Voices’ featurette, Cameron commentary on the deleted scenes, Easter eggs, and all the advertising material.

MGM Blu-Ray Wrap-Up

The Usual Suspects

Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects was released at more or less the precise moment I personally began to realize how important movies were to me. As such, the film became a regular part of my life, including multiple viewings of a bootlegged VHS copy, endless quoting, and even an obsessive use of sound clip quotes when I made mix tapes. By the time I saw the film theatrically at a university outing some time around 1998, my obsession had left me oversaturated, and I barely even found the energy to buy the film on DVD when it was finally released. Looking back at the film after at least seven years away I’m not awe struck by how good it continues to be, but also am not finding anything particularly unsavory either. Besides a few slightly forced lines, and the fact that the story only works so many times through, The Usual Suspects has aged quite well without awkwardly standing out of time. It is a dated film, but it’s dated in the same graceful way The Third Man and Taxi Driver are dated. I can’t think of a better example of  ‘90s Hollywood noir, apart from maybe David Fincher’s Seven, and Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs ( Pulp Fiction is informed by noir, but I wouldn’t consider it noir). The utter ‘90sness of the exercise extends from the style, and is even more apparent in the cast. When was the last time you saw Stephen Baldwin, Gabriel Byrne, Chazz Palminteri, Kevin Pollak, or Peter Greene in leading roles on hit releases? Even Spacey ended his meteoric rise some time around 2000 when he accepted his second Academy Award for American Beauty. Only Benicio del Toro’s career maintained its trajectory into the ‘00s, though I’d hardly call him a heavy hitter. Sadly, despite directing Apt Pupil and helping to usher in the latest generation of superhero movies with X-Men and X-Men 2 (which may be my favourite superhero film), Singer hasn’t yet returned to the hard edged, endlessly quotable cinema that made him famous.

This is another MGM/Fox reissue of a less than great early MGM release, like Terminator and Robocop, so unless you’re really in to the book shaped case, there’s no real reason to double dip even your special edition DVD release. The video quality is generally not good, and most of the problems could likely be alleviated with a pretty simple trip back to the original negative, and a MPEG-4 instead of a MPEG-2 compression. The image is sharper than the DVD (especially in close-up), but just barely, and it’s fuzzy with compression noise. The film grain looks more like blurry water driblets than grain, and there are edge halos over the whole film. At the very least, I suppose, the artefacts and lack of sharpness is consistent. Usual Suspects continues to be a great looking film, like all Singer’s films shot with cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (who has actually made even better looking films with George Clooney and David O. Russell), and there are advantages to the high definition enhancement, mostly in terms of colour quality and vibrancy. Del Toro’s flamboyant get-ups are a continuous source of wowie, and in general I’d say the bright, warm hues are pretty clean. The DTS-HD Master Audio features nothing super remarkable, and sounds about as compressed as the DVD special edition’s Dolby Digital track, but occasionally steps up thanks to John Ottman’s indelible, Herrmann-esque score, some cracking gunfire, and some massive explosions. There are no extras on the disc outside of trailers. Lame.

MGM Blu-Ray Wrap-Up

The Long Riders

I end this collected review with the disc I’m most excited to have in my hands – Walter Hill’s The Long Riders. I’ve discussed Long Riders several times in other reviews, specifically I bring it up any time Hill comes up. The film belongs in a small collection of modern revisionist westerns that don’t get too caught-up in politics or historical accuracy. Most post-‘70s westerns (an era defined by ultra-violence, loss of innocence and anti-establishment aspirations) seem to fit into either the Kevin Costner ‘important’ cinema mould, or the almost anachronistic popcorn mould. These more lighthearted, usually ensemble westerns begin some time around Lawrence Kasdan’s Silverado[I], and include Sam Raimi’s [I]The Quick and the Dead and George P. Cosmatos/Kurt Russell’s Tombstone. With the possible exception of The Driver[I] (which you could convince me is an arthouse film), Hill’s filmography fits snuggly into the ‘popcorn’ category ([I]Wild Bill attempts to straddle the line between Costner’s westerns and popcorn westerns), and Long Riders represents possibly his ‘purist’ attempt at the western genre he constantly adjusted to fit more modern trappings. Hill would later become an integral part of the HBO TV series Deadwood, which is a sort of re-revisionists’ western (taking the deconstructionist approach of Peckinpah and Leone, and reconstructing the darker aspects into something driven by history and character), and in some ways a sequel to Wild Bill, and a prequel/contemporary of Long Riders.

Those not obsessed with memorizing who directed what film (I find it hard to believe anyone under 25 gives a crap concerning the subject of who the hell Walter Hill is), or with remembering ‘80s westerns that were never particularly popular in the first place, may remember Long Riders as the ‘movie with all the brothers’. Hill co-produced the film with two of its writers and lead actors – Stacy and James Keach. Apparently Hill thought it’d be a good idea to stuff the cast with other famous siblings, including Christopher and Nicholas Guest (filling in for the Bridges, who couldn’t commit), Dennis and Randy Quaid, and David, Robert and Keith Carradine. This is, without a doubt, a gimmick, but it’s a fun gimmick, and the entire cast outside of the Keaches appears to be having a blast (Stacy and James, who play Frank and Jesse James, take the whole thing a little too seriously), and their fun is contagious. There actually isn’t a lot else outside of Ry Cooder’s score to set The Long Riders apart from similar genre output, but I don’t necessarily consider this a bad thing. I love Unforgiven and Once Upon a Time in the West as much, if not more than the next guy, but my love of the genre extends to the less groundbreaking films as well. The Long Riders, along with Hannie Caulder, Soldier Blue and The Hunting Party, was a film I discovered on my own – a diamond in the rough with simple, but not stupid thrills. It also happens to be pretty gory, which is right up my alley (Hill utilizes a whole lot of Peckinpah-esque super slow-mo). The script (which Hill worked on, minus credit) is more or less a straight ahead retelling of the James-Younger Gang myth. Despite featuring strong performances, and delving into some of the more complex relationships between the characters, there’s no mistaking this version of the story for Andrew Dominik’s lyrical, and more emotionally focused The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (the two films do make a very interesting double feature). The bottom line here is Hill’s awesome action direction, which I’d argue he hasn’t matched since.

There’s no mistaking the upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray here, but given Hill and cinematographer Ric Waite’s naturalistic tendencies the differences aren’t wide enough for fans with smaller sets to bother. There doesn’t appear to have been any additional remastering since the anamorphic 480p release. There’s not an excess of grain, but there are plenty of print damage artefacts, mostly chucks of dirt, minor mould, and small singes (the scene where David Carradine and James Remar knife fight has seen better days). There isn’t a lot of consistency to the transfer, which I’ve noticed has been an issue on every Hill Blu-ray I’ve reviewed, so I assume the increase in grain and/or slight blurring from scene to scene is just his ‘thing’. The increase in detail from the DVD is decent, and there’s very little in the way of compression artefacts. The best part of the upgrade is the vibrancy of the colours, which are warmer here, excepting the greens, which are delightfully lush. The soundtrack is uncompressed, but only present in a DTS-HD Master Audio mono form. The original mix is listed as mono, but this particular film could really do with a bit of widening, even if just into stereo surround for the sake of the music and the extended, slow motion failed robbery sequence (every crippling bullet hit is prefigured by the appropriate sound effect played backwards). There are many moments where the single channel sound is overwhelmed with noise, and usually dialogue quality is lost. A prime example is the scene in which the gang meets the Ford brothers. The music here is supposed to muffle the dialogue a bit at the end of the interaction, but almost the entire discussion is lost in the rush that is Ry Cooder’s toe-tapping traditional blue grass score. Extras include…a trailer. Sad.