Twilight Time: Cover Girl

Cover Girl is reviewed from screener graciously provided by Twilight Time. Per the usual for the label, the release is a limited run of 3000, and is available for purchase exclusively through ScreenArchives.com.

While not exactly my area of expertise I must admit to having a bit of a soft spot for classic Hollywood musicals, particularly those wise enough to enlist the likes of Busby Berkeley, Al Jolson, Fred Astaire or, as is the case here, Gene Kelly. While my reaction was lukewarm at best to the only other musical reviewed here, 1957′s Sinatra / Hayworth / Novak vehicle Pal Joey (coincidentally also out on Blu-ray from Twilight Time), Charles Vidor’s Cover Girl is more my speed. A shining example of the feel-good cinema that thrived in the wartime ’40s, Cover Girl also boasts a top-flight production and lush Technicolor photography from aces Rudolph Maté (The Passion of Joan of Arc, When Worlds Collide) and Allen M. Davey (A Song to Remember). The film was a smash hit and made a bona fide star of young Gene Kelly, and the level of control he was allowed over certain aspects of the production gave audiences their first real taste of that Kelly style, later to be immortalized in classics like An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain.

Chorus girl Rusty (Rita Hayworth, reaching the height of her Columbia career) is happy with her lot in life as the star attraction of boyfriend Danny’s (Gene Kelly) small-time nightclub – happy, at least, until she chances into mega-stardom courtesy of a cover-girl contest put on by magazine mogul John Coudair (Otto Kruger, The Colossus of New York). Rusty’s newfound fame opens the usual doors and attracts the usual callers, and of them none are more persistent than Noel Wheaton (Lee Bowman,Buck Privates), who, by way of a proposal, casts her in a musical extravaganza and makes her the toast of Broadway. With Danny too sore about losing his star and his girl in one fell swoop to do anything about getting either back, it’s up to stage jokester Genius (MSgt. Bilko himself, Phil Silvers) and Rusty’s own (belated) good sense to set things right.

Packed with the usual emotional ups and downs but careful to keep audience anxieties to a bare minimum, Cover Girl is quintessential war-time Hollywood fare that invites viewers to wrap themselves in a manufactured conflict whose cheerful resolution is never in doubt. Screenwriter Virginia Van Upp is as calculating as Capra when it comes to eliciting a potent “feel good” whallop, even if she never lets her characters slip so close to perdition as the latter’s – with war raging on two fronts the romantic antics here were doubtless deemed dour enough.

While earthy verisimilitude it may lack, Cover Girl certainly isn’t left wanting in the production department. For aficionados of grand old-school Technicolor the picture is aces, courtesy of format directors Natalie Kalmus (Gone With the Wind) and Morgan Padelford (The Adventures of Robin Hood), art directors Lionel Banks (His Girl Friday) and Cary Odell (Cool Hand Luke), and the aforementioned directors of photography, Allen M. Davey and the legendary Rudolph Maté. More impressive still is the sheer scope of the thing – star Rita Hayworth was never given a more beautiful opportunity to demonstrate her considerable performance talents.

Still, brightly as Hayworth shines it is Kelly who really steals the show, crafting (with frequent co-conspirator Stanley Donen, Saturn 3) a few breakout dance numbers that elevate the film (and perhaps a whole genre) well above its former stage-bound limitations. Most memorable by far, and most indicative of the wonders Kelly was to achieve half a decade hence, is the late-film duet / tap-dance-off between Kelly and a literal mirror image of himself on a deserted city street that’s very Singin’ in the Rain indeed. A concept that might have been unforgivably bungled in less capable hands, the scene instead becomes an exercise in expert choreography and technical precision, a hell of a thing in its own right and the number one reason to search the film out. For those 4 minutes Cover Girl bursts towards the stratosphere, leaving its humble entertainment aspirations behind on its way to becoming high art – little else from the time can compare.

There’s an even-better-than-usual Sony restoration backing Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray of Cover Girl, with the result that it’s easily one of the best looking classic film releases of the year. Presented in 1080p at the accurate full-frame ratio of 1.33:1, the image here leaves precious little for even persnickety reviewers like myself to complain about. The practically blemish-free transfer belies what was surely a substantial effort on the part of Sony’s ace restoration team, but the transparency of their work is perhaps its own reward. Cover Girl looks camera fresh, with brilliant Technicolor saturation and contrast to match. The appearance is lush, if not exactly razor-sharp, and those allergic to grain manipulation will find none to distract here – the film’s texture is alive and well, and blessedly unperturbed.

Technically this is one of Twilight Time’s less robust efforts, with the 107 minute feature and minimal supplements occupying just a single layer BD25, but any adverse effects are negligible. The video is well represented by an Mpeg-4 AVC encode at a nice average bitrate of 26.4 Mbps, and aside from a bit of posterization briefly glimpsed in a few of the flat color backdrops to the title music number I noted nothing untoward. Audio is a simple unboosted DTS-HD MA 1.0 monophonic track that sounds quite magnificent, bearing in mind the age of the production (nearly 70 years!), and is accompanied by optional English SDH subtitles. While it’s unusual for a Twilight Time release to boast much supplemental content Cover Girl takes the issue to the extreme, offering no on-disc extras whatsoever (not even the usual isolated score). Another excellent essay by Julie Kirgo helps make up for the limitation, as does the modestly lower price point - Cover Girl retails for $29.95.

I’m well out of my depth when it comes to much of anything musical, and Cover Girl is no exception, but strong showings from Hayworth, Kelly, an excellent cast of supporting players (Kruger, Silvers, and the wonderful, underrated Eve Arden as no-nonsense secretary Cordelia “Stonewall” Jackson) and a similarly excellent roster of production personnel won me over handily. For those keen on classic musicals Cover Girl is a must-see, and even with its paucity of extras Twilight Time’s Blu-ray delivers the goods. Recommendations don’t come much easier.

Blu-ray screenshots:

All screenshots were captured as native resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Daimajin Trilogy on Blu-ray from Mill Creek in September

Fans of giant monsters and jidaigeki alike should mark your calendars for September 18th, as that’s the date Mill Creek will unleash Daiei’s inimitable Daimajin trilogy on domestic Blu-ray. Those who want a primer on the films should check out our article here. Each and every of them is a long-time favorite of mine, and needless to say, I’m excited.

Quoting from Mill Creek:

In 1966, the Daiei Motion Picture Company – the studio behind Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON and the Gamera series – released a trilogy of films that combined elements of the popular daikaiju (giant monster) and jidaigeki (period drama) genres.  Set during Japan’s “Warring States” era, the Daimajin movies told the story of Majin, a giant statue of an angry god that would come to life in times of desperation to punish evildoers. But when Majin’s rage was unleashed, it could be directed at both the wicked and innocent, alike.

Acclaimed for their serious tone and spectacular special effects, DAIMAJIN, RETURN OF DAIMAJINand the rarely-seen DAIMAJIN STRIKES AGAIN present a unique take on a monster who is both savior and devil.

CONTENTS:

1. DAIMAJIN 
2. RETURN OF DAIMAJIN
3. DAIMAJIN STRIKES AGAIN

Bonus Features – All New English language track for DAIMAJIN STRIKES AGAIN

Mill Creek’s Daimajin 2-disc Blu-ray collection streets September 18th with a retail price of $24.98, and is currently available for pre-order through Amazon.com.

Twilight Time Takes a Road Less Traveled: John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus

directed by Victor Vicas
1957 / 20th Century Fox / 88′
written by
Ivan Moffat from the novel by John Steinbeck
original music by Leigh Harline
cinematography by Charles G. Clarke
starring Joan Collins, Jayne Mansfield, Dan Dailey, Rick Jason, Betty Lou Keim, Dolores Michaels
released June 12th, 2012 by
Twilight Time
video: 1080p / 2.35:1 / B&W / Mpeg-4 AVC
audio: DTS-HD MA 1.0 Mono (English)
subtitles: none
discs: single layer BD25 / Region A (B, C untested)
supplements: Original Theatrical Trailer, Isolated Score (DTS-HD MA 2.0)
The Wayward Bus is released as part of the Twilight Time limited edition series (only 3000 copies), and is available through ScreenArchives.com.

My last Twilight Time article was a bit of a mope-fest, pondering the implications of the appearance of recent big-Hollywood schmaltz on a niche label’s release roster, but those worried about a repeat performance with regards to the company’s second June offering can rest easy. Far from prompting any kind of sky-is-falling revelation, this limited edition issue of John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus instead serves as an exemplary reminder of why labels like Twilight Time, Olive Films and the like have become so important (at least in my estimation) to the contemporary home video marketplace. Whether justifiably neglected, criminally undervalued, or somewhere in between, there is a literal mountain of cinema that, thanks to the prevailing “new or nothing” sentiment of the majors, has no good probability of seeing Blu-ray release at their hands. Twilight Time and even the recently prolific Olive Films will never be enough to pick up all that slack, but at least they have the gumption to try - I shudder to think of the state of my Blu-ray shelf without them.

As for the film, one would be hard-pressed to describe John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus as any kind of classic – the fact that it’s been wholly absent from video circulation until now, even with Jayne Mansfield headlining and Steinbeck attached, isn’t entirely unjustified. Yet the film is not without its charms. Adapted by Ivan Moffat (Giant) from the eponymous bestselling 1947 novel, though with what level of veracity I don’t know, and directed by the little-known Victor Vicas (who would go on to have a substantial career in French television), The Wayward Bus is ultimately less a literary odyssey than a twisting, turning excursion into high Hollywood hokum that punctuates its predominating emotional conflicts with landslides, wash-outs, and all the subtlety of a kick to the groin. Still, somehow it compels, and I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the ride.

The Wayward Bus chronicles a particularly eventful bus ride from a bleak California crossroads to a terminal in San Juan, and if the title doesn’t offer enough ominous portend then an early radio warning about “stormy weather” certainly makes up for it. Stormy weather indeed, as in addition to the patently theatrical flash and crash and a whopper of a backcountry deluge, there’s a marriage headed for the rocks as well. The Chicoys have enough on their hands even before the death-defying antics of the day, with the distractions of running both a bus line and a crossroads convenience stop, not to mention wife Alice’s perennial alcoholism, proving just too much for their love life (interrupted early by the proverbial fly in the pudding) to stand. As Johnny ushers the day’s load of malcontents to their various fates, wondering all the while what direction to take his own, Alice stays behind, searching for the importance in her life through the bleary filter of Scotch.

The less said about Ivan Moffat’s screenwriting, with its drama poured on so thick it could choke a guy, the better, though it does offer any number of fine moments for The Wayward Bus‘ oddball ensemble. The beautiful Joan Collins is out of her element as the nigh-bipolar Alice, but she certainly makes an impression, hunched drunken over a cash register or judging her disheveled looks in the chrome of a cigarette dispenser – and those eyes! The fated Jayne Mansfield also shines in one of her few roles of any depth, here as a jaded showgirl looking for a way out (and finding it in salesman Dan Dailey, an itinerant peddler itching to settle down). Properly stealing the show is relative newcomer Dolores Michaels (The Fiend Who Walked the West), playing the sultry and oversexed daughter of a sleazy businessman (Larry Keating, mastermind of the Space Ark in George Pal’s When Worlds Collide) – Michaels’ acid delivery is almost worth the price of admission in and of itself. The fine special effects, credited to reliable Fox artisan L.B. Abbot (Journey to the Center of the Earth), are plenty memorable themselves, and the sight of the film’s rickety namesake creeping along a flood-ravaged bridge is of indelible stuff indeed.

John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus works itself to no satisfying conclusion (I was left with the sense that Johnny and Alice’s relationship is of a Sisyphean sort, doomed to repeat in the same manner again and again), though at least it does so quickly – the sleek CinemaScope production clocks in at a trim 88 minutes, and is really all the better for it. Though no classic by a long shot, The Wayward Bus is still engaging enough in its own strange way to warrant a grudging recommendation from this reviewer. If for Dolores Michaels alone, it’s worth a watch.

Working once again from Fox’s variable high definition elements, Twilight Time present John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus in an edition that’s entirely acceptable, if imperfect – a fitting turn for the film in question.

Presented in 1080p in its intended 2.35:1 CinemaScope, The Wayward Bus shows its age (55 years!) with a bit of flicker and minor damage, but looks quite good all told. My only major complaint is with the light sharpening that has been applied, which leads some textures (the patterns of some clothing) to pop unnaturally in motion and leaves the sharper imagery marked by tell-tale edging artifacts. The effect is slight enough to be no deal breaker in my estimation, though those more sensitive to the issue may wish to take note. Otherwise The Wayward Bus offers lovely contrast and a nice level of detail, and leaves very little to complain about. The usual Twilight Time encoding standards have been modestly altered for this single-layer BD25 presentation, but the Mpeg-4 AVC video encode (at a strong average bitrate of 29.3 Mbps) shows no obvious deficiencies for the trouble. Beyond the sharpening, which would have been applied well before Twilight Time ever got their hands on the material, I’ve no complaints.

The original 4-track stereo elements for John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus appear to have fallen by the wayside in the decades since it was made, but the offered 1.0 monophonic track, presented here in lossless DTS-HD MA, does the job just fine. Dialogue is clear and intelligible, as are the cues from Disney alum Leigh Harline – the isolated score is offered as an extra, and presented in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo. I must admit that my patience is wearing thin with Fox’s continued reticence to provide subtitles for those titles they license to Twilight Time. With sad predictability, none are provided here. An original theatrical trailer for the show (2 minutes, SD) rounds out the supplemental content, and the disc comes packaged with another fine set of liner notes from Julie Kirgo.

John Steinbeck’s The Wayward Bus isn’t exactly the best of the best from Twilight Time, but much like the film, this Blu-ray will do. It perhaps stands best as an example of the label’s willingness to think outside the box, and present audiences with something they’ve, in all likelihood, never had the opportunity to see before. If for that alone I applaud it.

Screenshots were captured as native resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Twilight Time Gives as Good as it Gets

As Good as it Gets
directed by James L. Brooks
starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, Greg Kinnear, Cuba Gooding Jr., Skeet Ulrich, Shirley Knight
released June 12th, 2012 by
Twilight Time
video: 1080p / 1.85:1 / Color / Mpeg-4 AVC
audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround (English)
subtitles: English SDH
discs: dual layer BD50 / Region A (B, C untested)
supplements: Original Theatrical Trailer, Isolated Score (DTS-HD MA 2.0)
As Good as it Gets is part of the Twilight Time limited edition series (only 3000 copies), and is available through ScreenArchives.com.


My apologies for the briefer than usual article, but the fact is that the brand of schmaltzy, saccharine drama represented by As Good as it Gets just isn’t my cup of tea, never has been, and I fear never will be. Rather than torment myself and bore you all to tears in an attempt to squeeze 1000 words out of a film that completely disinterests me, I’ll be sticking to the video review this go around.


In its way As Good as it Gets may be the most disheartening addition yet to the ever-expanding Twilight Time Limited Edition Blu-ray catalog, not in terms of content but in what it says about the current state of the video industry in America. With their earlier Fright Night (a cult favorite with big appeal, and Twilight Time’s only sell-out to date) came similar concerns with regards to a lack of studio confidence in their own libraries, but this is a further step down the rabbit hole. As Good as it Gets was released to rave reviews and Academy Award nominations (and wins) just 15 years ago, and its cast offers enough name recognition to ensure broad appeal for a mainstream video release even now. With Sony’s past cult releases (like Night of the Creeps) performing below expectations the move of Fright Night into niche label territory was neither surprising nor particularly unforgivable, but that a film so recent and mainstream as As Good as it Gets is being sub-licensed as well speaks sad volumes about the future of big-studio video releases, and in particular of just how poorly we can expect library titles to be represented by them.1

But enough doom and gloom – whether or not the industry as we know it is in its death throws, dammit, we’re here to discuss video! In that respect there’s nothing in the least bit discouraging about As Good as it Get‘s Blu-ray debut, which stands as another fine representative of the quality of presentation Twilight Time has come to be known for.

Produced only a decade and a half ago, and as such all but immune to the age-related concerns so often raised in my articles, As Good as it Gets makes for a splendid HD presentation. There are a handful of opticals peppered throughout (a view of a marina from a hotel window, the opening and closing credits) that show the odd speck or two and the thickness of multiple layers of film, but otherwise this is a remarkably clean show. Grain-a-phobes should be pleased by the modesty of the film texture (the light grain is never overpowering), while those allergic to digital mitigation efforts will find none to bemoan here – this transfer is sublimely filmic. In addition to the texture of the medium, the level of detail improves markedly in the bump to HD. Close-ups offer an impressive range and photographed textures (cloth patterning and so on) are tight. The predominantly warm color scheme is very well rendered, bolstered by healthy contrast and natural light levels throughout. Despite the dubiousness of their licensing practices, Sony have left little to complain about here – this is another grade-A high definition transfer from the company.

Twilight Time stick to the standards that have marked so many of their recent releases, and that’s just fine by me. Spread comfortably over a dual layer BD50, the 2-hour-plus As Good as it Gets receives a strong Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at an average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps (with a maximum bitrate of 38.0 Mbps) and the results are, for all intents and purposes, flawless – those sensitive to encoding artifacts will find nothing of distraction here. Aside from a bit of screaming As Good as it Gets isn’t especially impactful on the sound front, but Sony’s 5.1 surround mix (in lossless DTS-HD MA) gives it superior technical support just the same. Hans Zimmer’s buoyant score (also available in its own isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track) shines through nicely, and the rest of the dialogue-heavy production’s recording is perfectly clear and intelligible – optional English SDH subtitles are included, so I’ve no complaints. An original theatrical trailer (2 minutes, HD) rounds out the on-disc content, and the package arrives with another fine booklet of liner notes from Julie Kirgo.

As Good as it Gets remains about as wide of my area of expertise (and interest) as a film can get, and the less I say about it here the less I’m apt to embarrass myself, but even a lukewarm reaction to the feature wasn’t enough to dull my senses to Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition. This is another excellent video presentation, the likes of which should really be the norm for the format, and those keen on the production are encouraged to indulge.

Screenshots were captured as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

1 And still, As Good as it Gets is far from the worst news regarding Sony’s catalog confidence – the company recently made a 250 picture deal with bargain bin megalith Mill Creek, which says plenty about how much they currently feel their library is worth. At this point I suppose I should just be happy that there are still independent distributors out there who are able and willing to pick up the big-studio slack.

Twilight Time: Swamp Water

Swamp Water is available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time in a limited edition of 3000, and is offered exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment and their Amazon storefront.

Dana Andrews goes looking for Trouble (with a capital “T”) and finds it deep in the Okefenokee in 1941′s Swamp Water, expat director Jean Renoir’s first American film and his only for Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox. When his appropriately-named hound goes missing in the 440-thousand acre swampland Ben (Andrews, looking uncharacteristically youthful in the second year of his career) makes up his mind to find him. What he tracks down instead is wrongly-convicted murderer Tom Keefer (Walter Brennan), scrounging a living for himself in the Okefenokee five years after his escape from the law.

Though at first confrontational, Ben soon strikes up an unlikely alliance with Keefer, and takes to trapping in the Okefenokee as a means of supporting himself and Keefer’s daughter Julie (a wonderful, feral Anne Baxter), whom Ben takes to courting after falling out of favor with town belle Mabel (Virginia Gilmore, who would co-star with Andrews in the following year’s Berlin Correspondent). It isn’t long, however, before his attention to Julie and trapping success in the swamp lead the townspeople to suspect that Ben is in cahoots with the murderer-on-the-run, and when Ben fails to tell them of his whereabouts (after a bit of backwoods waterboarding) he finds himself ostracized by all but his kindly stepmother Mrs. Hannah (Mary Howard) and rough-edged father Thursday (Walter Huston).

Adapted by Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach) from Vereen Bell’s eponymous tale of small-town injustice, Swamp Water is ripe with studio influence (from the casting of Ford stock players like Brennan, John Carradine, and Russell Simpson to the post-production concoction of a conventionally happy Hollywood ending) yet manages, in spite of it all, to remain uniquely Renoir’s. The film is marked by his long, uninterrupted takes and fluid photographic direction (dual DP’s J. Peverell Marley, House of Wax, and Lucien Ballard, True Grit, lens the show beautifully), and his location shooting in the Okefenokee Swamp, limited by Zanuck to just a handful of crew and star Dana Andrews, takes on a fantastical and mythic quality. As the philosophical Keefer ruminates, “Living alone in this swamp is just like living on another star.” Indeed, Swamp Water presents its star location in a manner that’s appropriately other-worldly, rendering small and insignificant the human characters who dare wander among its ancient mangroves and treacherous peat bogs.

In line with its mythical presentation (its borders are grimly marked by a submerged cross topped with a human skull) the primordial landscape pulls double duty as both a purgatory for the unjustly hunted Tom Keefer and a hell for those ultimately discovered to have committed the murder for which he was convicted. When the real murderers show themselves, intent on stopping Ben and Keefer before they can share the truth with rotund Sheriff McKane (Friar Tuck himself, the great Eugene Pallette), the swamp rises as a formidable deliverer of cosmic justice, devouring one of the guilty men outright. The other, in a satisfying twist of fate, is condemned to troll its cottonmouth and gator-infested wilds forever with the knowledge that nothing but a hangman’s noose awaits them on the outside.

Beyond its central tale of cold injustice and righteous retribution, Swamp Water also offers its share of enduring human developments. Huston is as fantastic as ever as Thursday, evolving from a hard-hearted authority figure, determined to keep his head-strong (or as he says, “butt-headed”) son under his thumb, into a caring, understanding father when Ben is really put in harm’s way. The beautiful Anne Baxter blossoms as Julie, shedding the skin of a ragged social outcast with a moonlit dance both joyous and elegant, and made all the more so by contrast to the awkwardness that came before. Walter Brennan bolsters the fantastical undertone of the piece in rising from the sure-death of a cottonmouth bite, rendering Ben’s funeral arrangements blessedly unnecessary. Consequently, Ben’s eulogy (necessary or not) makes for one of the film’s most sincere and touching moments. “I ain’t gonna hold nothing against him, Lord, not even his trying to steal old Trouble. So if you want to go easy on him for killing Jim Collins it’ll be alright with me.”

Swamp Water has been released in numerous other territories on DVD, but this limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time (just 3,000 pressed, the norm for the label) marks its domestic premiere on digital video. There aren’t nearly enough of these classic Academy ratio black and white productions out in high definition for my tastes, but Twilight Time’s presentation of Swamp Water (sourced from the latest 20th Century Fox restoration of the film) can stand toe-to-toe with the best of them.

The worst that can be said for the film as presented here is that it sometimes shows its age (can it really be 71 years?), presenting with mostly frame-specific specs and scratches, but occasionally leaving a few more persistent vertical lines to contend with. That said, this is an absolutely beautiful transfer, with as fine a clarity of detail as can be expected of the production and pitch-perfect contrast throughout. There’s a fine layer of grain in evidence, and rendered well enough that it holds its own even at excessive magnification (with the image zoomed in 4-5x its native resolution). That one-of-a-kind 35mm allure is alive and well here, and makes for a tremendously satisfying viewing.

With just the 90 minute feature and its accompanying audio tracks to contend with Swamp Water only occupies a single layer BD-25, but this proves to be more than enough. The 1080p 1.33:1-framed image receives a healthy Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 29.4 Mbps, and the results are impossible to argue with. Encoding flaws, if any, are so negligible as to go unnoticed, and I suspect the image could be presented theatrically without issue. This is another reference level presentation from Twilight Time and 20th Century Fox, and it just doesn’t get any better than that.

Screenshots were captured as full 1920×1080 resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Audio is presented in lossless DTS-HD MA 1.0 monophonic, and while it doesn’t impress so much as the visuals of the film it sounds perfectly accurate to the original recording. Sound effects and dialogue are clear as a bell – the odd element out is, strangely enough, the score from David Buttolph, which presents with a notable warble at times. The disc’s only supplement, an isolated score track in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0, does not present with this issue, and sounds very good given the age of the recordings (pre-cue noise, like band members coughing and the cue number being read, has been delightfully retained in some cases). Unfortunately there are no subtitles, making it clear again that Sony are providing sub tracks for these Twilight Time discs while Fox are, for whatever reason, not.

Swamp Water is another fully-functional Blu-ray disc, complete with non-generic chapter stops (12 of them) and a pop-up menu accessible during feature playback. In terms of design this may be my favorite yet of Twilight Time’s releases, with a superb cover illustration that reflects the film’s indelible first shot. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes again prove indispensable. Several insightful quotes from Renoir himself are included, along with some lovely behind-the-scenes production stills of the director at work with his top-flight cast.

What can I say, I loved Swamp Water, from its ominous opening shot straight through to its somewhat dubious conclusion. Huston, Andrews, Baxter, and Brennan are each in top form, and Renoir’s touch is unmistakable. There’s very, very little to complain about with Twilight Time’s Blu-ray presentation, which ranks as one of my favorite classic film releases of the year thus far. Highly recommended!

Twilight Time: The Egyptian

The Egyptian is available on Blu-ray (and DVD) in a limited edition of 3000, and is offered exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment and their Amazon storefront.

It may come as something of a surprise to the most frequent readers of this site to find that if this humble non-believer has a soft-spot for any one genre of cinema, it’s the grandiose religious epic that flourished in the mid-20th century. I grew up enraptured by airings of Samson and Delilah, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur and so on, and even in my more jaded adulthood it’s impossible for me to pass on anything baring the names of Wyler or DeMille. Adapted from the novel by Mika Waltari and released in late 1954 as a giant-sized thematic follow up to the earlier success of The Robe (which received its own direct sequel in the same year’s Demetrius and the Gladiators, which is due from Twilight Time next month) Michael Curtiz’s The Egyptian is a religious epic of another color entirely, and though it may be concerned with the workings of a civilization long before the time of Christ that doesn’t keep it from being preoccupied with the faith born of him.

Taking place during ancient Egypt’s brief experiment with monotheism, The Egyptian tells the story of an orphaned child Sinuhe (Edmund Purdom) who, under the tutelage of his adopted father, grows to be a skilled physician. Sinuhe struggles to find success until a chance encounter lands him in the good graces of the new Pharaoh Akhnaton (Michael Wilding), a worshiper of the sun god Aten who uses his newfound position to promote his faith. As quickly as the young doctor finds acceptance he goes astray, his obsession with Babylonian temptress Nefer (Bella Darvi) leading him to be banished from the kingdom for shirking his responsibilities. Accompanied by the sly but loyal Kaptah (Peter Ustinov) Sinuhe finds a fortune, but little fulfillment, abroad, and after years in exile returns to an Egypt in turmoil. His childhood friend Horemheb (Victor Mature), now commander of the armed forces, has his eyes on the thrown, and with the backing of the high priests seeks to violently oppress the practice of Atenism…

As was Waltari’s source novel, The Egyptian is as concerned with drawing parallels between the practice and purging of Atenism and the plight of the early Christians as it is with convincingly portraying Egypt during the 18th dynasty, and the combination of the two make it one of the more unusual of the classic religious epics. The Chrstian allusions are obvious, with the Ankh serving as a surrogate for the cross and the intricacies of Sinuhe’s story hinting strongly to that of Moses from the Old Testament. Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the production is its focus on the tenets of the faith as opposed to the incidents of its history, and it offers messages of forgiveness in favor of the usual violent spectacle.

In terms of production this is another top-flight effort from the legendary Darryl F. Zanuck, marked by stunning color CinemaScope production design (at the original extra-wide 2.55:1) and bolstered by one of the best scores of its kind – contributed by not one but two of the medium’s greatest composers, Alfred Newman (The Robe) and Bernard Herrmann (Cape Fear). Still, its a handful of key supporting performances that really make the film so memorable. Jean Simmons is as enchanting as ever as a tavern maid selflessly devoted to Sinuhe – even the sultry Darvi is no match for Simmons’ understated elegance – while John Carradine makes a memorable bit appearance as a philosophical grave robber. Best of all may be the late great Peter Ustinov (Quo Vadis), whose wry, dry portrayal of the charming one-eyed vagabond Kaptah effectively steals the show. “Alas, no physician can restore my eye,” he says to Sinuhe, with as much humor as tragedy. “My first master put it out when I drank a jar of beer and refilled it in a manner which displeased him.”

The Egyptian was a box office disappointment upon release, and unlike its CinemaScope predecessors, The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators, has dwelt in relative obscurity in the near 60 years since. As such its home video presence has been rather limited, and up until now dominated by a pricey letterboxed laserdisc edition from the early ’90s. Thanks are deserved to Twilight Time for making the film newly available for the digital age (and doubly deserved for graciously providing me with a review copy so long after the fact), and in an edition that’s as definitive in its quality as I imagine possible.

Twilight Time were offered Fox’s latest restoration of The Egyptian for their Blu-ray release, the label’s inaugural venture into HD, and the visuals here are, for all intents and purposes, flawless. Detail improves modestly but appreciably over the limitations of SD, but, as I find myself saying so often of these classic releases, its the texture of the thing that really impresses. The image is alive with unspoiled grain rendered with such precision that the filmic feel of it is retained even under the closest of scrutiny. Indeed, the image is deserving of the highest compliment one can pay to such a release – this doesn’t look like video, it looks like film. I’ve no idea as to the condition of the elements at the time Fox undertook their restoration, but if it was anything short of pristine then their efforts do nothing to belie it. The ravages of age are kept well at bay and the DeLuxe color seems impossibly vivid, making this one of the most attractive images I’ve ever had the pleasure of reviewing.

For the technically minded, The Egyptian is presented in its original 2.55:1 aspect ratio via an AVC-encode that just flat out kills. The feature and audio (three tracks) is spread comfortably across a little over 40 GB of a dual layer BD-50, with a lofty average bitrate of 34.7 Mbps dedicated to the video alone. Encoding deficiencies, if any, are negligible, and I noticed absolutely nothing untoward in my examination. This is another of those discs that could be played theatrically with no one being the wiser – high praise indeed.

The only feature audio is a robust DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix (the original presentation would have been in 4-track stereo). The Egyptian is dominated by its drama, with very little of its 139 minutes devoted to outright action, and as such it is the magnificent score from Herrmann and Newman that really benefits from this lossless encoding. You’ll hear no complaints from me on that front, and the rest of the dialogue and effects come through perfectly well. There are no subtitles.

In terms of supplements this is the best of the bunch for Twilight Time’s releases, and includes an excellent feature commentary track from historians Alain Silver and James Ursini (a duo who have provided such commentaries for a good number of other classic film releases). Otherwise you have the option to listen to Herrmann and Newman’s isolated score – presented in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo. The only other on-disc extras are a rough original theatrical trailer (SD) and similarly rough trailers for a few of Twilight Time’s other DVD releases. The package is fine looking all around, dominated by the poster image featuring all three of the film’s leading ladies (Simmons, Darvi, and the previously unmentioned Gene Tierney), and comes with another superb booklet of liner notes from Julie Kirgo.

The Egyptian is certainly a strange film, but a good one, and far less concerned with the sensationalism that preoccupies so many of its ilk. For shear looks its expansive 2.55:1 CinemaScope production design is tough to beat. The only real drawback for Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is its price – $39.95 retail, still a sight less than the old laserdisc – but if you can bite that bullet you’ll have a terrific release on your hands. Recommended!

The Roots of Heaven

dir. John Huston
1958 / 20th Century Fox / 126′
written by Romain Gary and Patrick Leigh-Fremor
from the novel “Les Racines du ciel” by Romain Gary
director of photography Oswald Morris
music by
 Malcolm Arnold
starring Trevor Howard, Juliette Greco, Errol Flynn, Friedrich Ledeber, Edric Conner, Herbert Lom and Orson Welles
The Roots of Heaven is reviewed here from a screener provided by Twilight Time, and is available on Blu-ray exclusively through ScreenArchives (and ScreenArchives by way of Amazon)

“My duty is to protect all the species, all the living roots that heaven planted into the earth. I’ve been fighting all my life for their preservation. [...] The oceans, forests, the races of animal, mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven at its roots and the tree will wither and die, the stars will go out, and heaven will be destroyed…”

Playing as a sort of thematically-reversed companion piece to Huston’s earlier epic Moby Dick 1958′s The Roots of Heaven is a film perfectly in keeping with the director’s usual disposition towards eccentric characters and the obsessions that drive them. Based upon the bestselling Prix du Goncourt-winning novel by Romain Gary, Roots counters Melville’s Ahab with a man consumed by a passion not to destroy the great things of the Earth, but to save them. While the film’s focus on the issue of environmental conservation puts it in league with cinematic brethren more than a decade yet to come, films like Silent Running, the bizarre No Blade of Grass and so on, an A-list cast of players and a penchant for sprawling CinemaScope adventure elevate it to another class entirely. What’s that, Mr. Flynn – you say the elephants need saving? Where do I sign!?

Roots follows the Sisyphean efforts of expat Englishman Morel (a terrific Trevor Howard), whose imaginings of the free-roaming herds of Africa helped to see him through his stint in a Nazi POW camp, to abolish the wholesale slaughter of elephants by the ivory trade as well as their trapping by the callous providers of zoo specimens and circus attractions. When his early attempts at beating up freelance hunters and pushing petitions across all French Equatorial Africa fall on deaf ears Morel abruptly changes tact, becoming one of film’s first ever eco-terrorists (albeit of a strictly non-lethal variety – “You can never teach a man anything by killing him,” he quite logically notes).

When a bit of violent activism against a boisterous American television personality (Orson Welles) unexpectedly lands Morel the respect of the same his hopeless task is given wings, and oddball sorts looking to lend their support for their own ideological reasons join the fold. Most dangerous among them is wannabe revolutionary leader Waitari, who seeks to use Morel’s elephants as a rallying point for a popular uprising. Others, like a Dutch naturalist looking to save the “roots of heaven” and a learned Baron who refuses to speak until mankind has civilized its violent tendencies, are merely devoted, if a bit strange, while the cheerfully alcoholic Forsythe (Errol Flynn!), who turned informant after being captured during the war, is just looking to do a good deed to ease his conscience. Together they distribute printed materials and crash the party of an aristocratic huntress, achieving popular success among those reading of their exploits abroad while the French colonial government tries, in vain, to derail their operations.

Throughout The Roots of Heaven peripheral players attach various personal justifications to Morel’s impassioned quest for pachyderm rights, a trend that leads to some of the film’s most thought-provoking elements. Forsythe lends the narrative a Cold War timeliness, casting Morel as a man out to better his fellow man, rather than just trying to save elephants, at a time when the threat of “Sputniks” and atomic obliteration are dangling overhead. It’s a thought reverberated frequently in the screenplay (penned by Patrick Leigh-Fremor and later revised by Romain Gary1 himself) as well as in one particularly obvious visual flourish, a close-up of a magazine page declaring “Nuclear scientists predict ‘End of Mankind’ unless Atomic Race Halted”. Then there’s Waitari, who sees parallels between Morel’s quest to free elephants and his fellow Africans’ desire to free themselves from colonial rule.

For his part Morel’s motivations seem quite simple, but wonderfully personal. After the elephants helped him to maintain an internal freedom while imprisoned during the war he simply wishes to return the favor, though on a scale tremendously greater. He finds a kindred spirit in Minna (Juliette Greco), a bar hostess with a past – she found herself forced into prostitution by the Nazis only to later be “liberated” again and again by the Allied forces at war’s end. Minna seems to understand Morel’s humanity more so than his quest, and supports him all the more for that reason, trekking deep into no-man’s land (with Forsythe along for the ride) to deliver much-needed supplies and medicine to his rag-tag gang of activists. She also offers the most concise, and perhaps accurate, variation on his motivations. When berated by reporters as to just why Morel is doing what he’s doing, she glibly responds,  “Did it ever occur to you that he just might be fond of elephants?”

Shot largely on location in Chad (as well as at Studios de Boulogne in France), The Roots of Heaven was, by all accounts, a nightmare to film, with the production constantly hampered by debilitating heat and illness. In retrospect it may be a minor miracle that it was accomplished at all, and as such I find its occasional weaknesses easier to forgive than I might otherwise. Much maligned by critics at the time of release was the film’s chaotic third act, and not without justification. The final half hour or so sees Morel and his company astray in the African wilderness, battling a literal army of ivory hunters and playing the willing subjects to the neurotic advances of an American news photographer (a wonderfully absurd Eddie Albert, who literally crashes into the picture). A climactic elephant stampede featuring some legitimately impressive second unit footage of hundreds of the creatures in the wild provides some nice grounding action (and some of Trevor Howard’s finest moments), but is overshadowed by a couple of grim narrative developments that just feel nasty rather than necessary.

But The Roots of Heaven shuffles right along, to a conclusion that’s concerned more with inspiring hope than really resolving anything. Huston musters some classic Hollywood-style movie magic for the build-up to the emotionally charged finale, the defeated Morel gradually realizing that all’s not lost for mankind as a few, then tens and eventually hundreds of locals gather just to catch a glimpse of the man who’s become a folk legend. However artificial it can feel in context it’s a moment that works as pure cinema, bolstered by Malcolm Arnold’s triumphant themes and beautifully captured by Oswald Morris’ (The Guns of Navarone, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold) DeLuxe ‘Scope photography.

In a way it’s a moment evocative of the film as a whole. Despite its fair share (and more) of issues The Roots of Heaven still works, writ large, and has enough meat on its bones besides to inspire conversation about any number of issues still perfectly relevant today. It’s also a hell of a production, and may be worth seeking out for the cast alone, which is a still-impressive lot of name talent (even if many are relegated to minor roles). Where else might you find Herbert Lom stinking up a bar as a slimy aristocrat, Orson Welles livening up the airwaves, Errol Flynn talking to his pet jumping bean, and Friedrich Ledeber – Queequeg himself – waxing philosophical about creation, all in one film?

1 According to Hedda Hopper (writing Feb. 27, 1958 in the Los Angeles Times – Trevor Howard has Lead in ‘Roots’), Gary completed those revisions in just nine days. Huston would later lament that there hadn’t been more time to spend on the screenplay.

disc details:
released January 17, 2012 by Twilight Time
disc:
dual layer BD-50
video: 1080p | 2.35:1
audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0 English
subtitles: none
supplements: isolated score track
retail price:
$29.95
available exclusively through ScreenArchives.com (and ScreenArchives by way of Amazon)

If I’m not mistaken this Twilight Time Blu-ray edition marks the domestic home video debut (on any format) of The Roots of Heaven - a cause for minor celebration in and of itself. The latest restoration of the film provided by 20th Century Fox isn’t quite so pristine an affair as the simultaneously released Picnic, a product of Sony’s inimitable preservation department and one of the best classic film transfers I’ve ever seen, but I’m hard pressed to find anything demonstrably wrong with it. If there’s a quibble to be had it’s with the damage that crops up from time to time, mostly minor specs and blemishes but occasionally in the form of noticeable scratching and (very) infrequent negative damage. There’s nothing here that struck me as excessive for a film now fifty-four years old, and while Fox certainly could have put more time, money and effort into sprucing things up the results of their work are still pretty keen.

Twilight Time present The Roots of Heaven in an excellent 1080p transfer at the intended 2.35:1 CinemaScope ratio. Texture is again a key factor here, and a big part of the show’s appeal – this is another of those transfers that feels like film. The well-saturated DeLuxe color is dominated by the subdued hues of the scorching African shooting locations, with abundant shades of brown and tan, but can have some pop when given the chance (interiors, foliage, clothing and so on). Contrast and detail are at healthy, natural levels, and in motion the sum experience of it all is quite impressive. In terms of technical specifications this is nigh identical to Picnic - the two-hour feature is spread comfortably over a dual layer BD-50, with the video robustly encoded in AVC at an average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps. The grain in evidence throughout (heavier in some of the second unit photography and predictably coarser during the infrequent opticals – fades, credits, etc.) is deliciously rendered and free of artifacts, and the image is bereft of any undue digital manipulation.

The Roots of Heaven may not have quite the same wow factor as some of the other CinemaScope epics of its day, but it does have a rough-and-tumble grandeur all its own. Fox have captured the sense of it perfectly with their high definition transfer, and Twilight Time’s ace presentation supports it beautifully. Fans should be very pleased.

Screenshots were taken as full 1920×1080 resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 95% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Complementing the fine video presentation is a DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo track in the original English. It’s worth noting that The Roots of Heaven was originally a 4-track stereo presentation, something that no doubt benefited the climactic elephant stampede, and while it’s a shame that original mix hasn’t been restored here this track certainly gets the job done. Malcolm Arnold’s tremendous score is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the lossless encode, displaying some decent dynamic range and depth despite the lack of LFE oomph. Otherwise the vintage sound effects and dialogue come across perfectly clearly, and I’ve got no complaints. Less fortunate is the fact that Fox, again, seem to have snubbed viewers on the subtitle front, as no options have been made available in that regard.

Supplements are, again, light – the only on-disc extra is the isolated Malcolm Arnold score, presented in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0. This is another fully functional Blu-ray disc complete with pop-up menu and non-generic chapter stops (sixteen of them). Twilight Time’s packaging is solid work once again, topped off by a booklet of liner notes from the ever-informative Julie Kirgo (here quoting quite a bit from Huston himself). I’ve found myself reaching for the booklets first with these Twilight Time releases as of late, rather than my usual knee-jerk habit of hurling discs towards players in a flurry of shredded cellophane. High praise, I assure you.

The Roots of Heaven is an undeniably peculiar film, an eccentric character drama by way of a sprawling conservation adventure, but it remains suprisingly timely. Indeed, that so many of the issues the film raises still plague us today, from endangered species to pollution to nuclear proliferation, makes it as relevant now as it ever was. Fans should be pleased that Twilight Time have served this Huston curio up right with their new Blu-ray edition, and it gets another easy recommendation from me.

Picnic

dir. Joshua Logan
1955 / Columbia Pictures / 115′
written by Daniel Taradash
from the play by William Inge
cinematography by James Wong Howe
music by
 George Duning
starring William Holden, Kim Novak, Susan Strasberg, Betty Field, Cliff Robertson, Arthur O’Connell and Rosalind Russell
Picnic is reviewed here from a screener provided by Twilight Time, and is available on Blu-ray exclusively through ScreenArchives.com

A star-studded big-studio production with oodles of old-Hollywood appeal, Joshua Logan’s Picnic, from Columbia Pictures in 1955, is a terrific film that still holds up more than a half century on. Adapted with some alteration from the award-winning play of the same name, which Logan had also directed on Broadway, Picnic expands well beyond its theatrical origins, resisting any temptation to be just a play-on-screen and becoming an indelible cinematic experience in its own right. Superb Technicolor production design and ace CinemaScope photography from veteran James Wong Howe (Sweet Smell of Success) infuse William Inge’s (by way of screenwriter Daniel Taradash) small-town drama with an unexpectedly epic quality. Logan took his production on location in Kansas to secure the necessary middle-American atmosphere, and his effort pays off wonderfully – there’s a distinct believability to Picnic‘s fictional heartland community, despite all the big-name talent occupied there.

Taking place over the course of a single 24-hour period and dominated by the Labor Day event alluded to in the title, Picnic concerns itself with the passions and jealousies that boil up from under an anonymous small-town veneer when a rugged drifter arrives with the morning freight. Hal Carter (Holden) is that rugged drifter, a boisterous but good-natured bum who conceals a lifetime worth of insecurity beneath an extroverted All-American facade. With nothing to his name but the clothes on his back and a pair of his father’s oversize boots, Hal takes to doing odd-jobs for room and board and soon becomes acquainted with the Owens family, a single mother and daughters Millie (Strasberg) and Madge (Novak) – the latter of whom is attached to the son of the local grain tycoon and Hal’s former fraternity brother, Alan (Robertson).

Hal finds himself invited along for the holiday’s festivities as Millie’s date, and his hearty personality proves well-suited to a day of pie-eating contests, three-legged races and amateur talent shows. Alan, excited to see the return of an old friend, even offers Hal a job shoveling grain in one of his father’s plants. For a moment Hal clings to the hope of starting over, but as the sun sets passions rise and a night of dancing devolves into an explosive public exposé of frustrated desires, anger and jealousy…

Though originated by the underrated Ralph Meeker (Kiss Me Deadly, Paths of Glory) on Broadway, in retrospect it’s difficult to imagine that any actor other than Holden could have played the part of Hal Carter on the big screen. Years of heavy drinking had already taken a toll on Holden (Sunset BoulevardThe Wild Bunch) by the mid-50s, and by the time Picnic rolled around his golden boy image had given way to a more ragged, tortured handsomeness. His appearance alone speaks volumes for the character – an aging college football star steadily slipping past his prime – with his athletic build and potent sex appeal balanced by a human vulnerability that’s very much the actor’s own. It’s a mix that might have worked for the material even if Holden hadn’t had the acting chops to back it up, but it’s good fortune that he did. As his shirtless torso is ogled by Picnic‘s female players (a boundless mix of middle-aged spinster schoolteachers, divorcees, and younger women just entering their sexual prime) Hal’s unease is palpable – whatever his boisterous personality and compensatory bragging might imply he’s clearly not comfortable being the center of attention.

Neither, for that matter, is Madge, the pretty girl in town and Hal’s feminine equivalent. Taking over for the Broadway production’s Janice Rule is the ever capable Kim Novak (Vertigo, Strangers When We Meet), who slips effortlessly into the role of a woman who’s fed up with just being “the pretty one”, but distressed at not having the talent to be much else. Though she lords her physical superiority over her younger sister Millie, a brilliant young Susan Strasberg (Psych Out, Rollercoaster), Madge is actually deeply jealous of her intelligence – and the four year college scholarship that comes with it. It’s an opportunity that a beauty queen working the counter at the five-and-dime could never hope for. Meanwhile Millie is similarly resentful of being forever cast as “the smart one”, a designation that’s inspired a rebellious tomboy streak that’s only further removed her from the attentions of the men she, at age seventeen, has begun to take a keen physical interest in.

And thus we arrive at the crux of the picture. To quote from Julie Kirgo’s liner notes, “Sex [...] seems to be at the root of Picnic‘s every discontent,” and indeed, from the moment Hal’s kindly old landlady insists that he remove his shirt (so that she can wash it, of course!) right through to the end Picnic and its players have sex on the brain. Perhaps I’m just not watching the right big Hollywood movies, but the discussion on the topic heard here struck me as being remarkably frank for a major release in 1955, particularly when Madge’s mother suggests that she should grin and bear an unsatisfying sex life for the sake of achieving greater social status, stopping just short of demanding that her daughter give in to Alan’s desires at that night’s picnic. Other instances are far less disturbing, as when Millie calls her big sis’ a “slut” or tries to sneak a peak at Hal in the raw – “Hey, kid. You better get away from this wall or you’re liable to get educated!” It’s this up-front approach to the sexuality of its characters that, in part, helps keep Picnic from feeling so old-hat. Some things never change.

Given its proclivities I suppose it’s no surprise to that Picnic‘s most memorable moments are also it’s most sexually charged. Hal and Madge’s impromptu riverside courtship dance still sizzles, illuminated by the soft glow of Chinese lanterns and set to a sublime marriage of George Duning’s wistfully romantic theme and a sumptuous arrangement of the ’30s standby “Moonglow” – it’s one of cinema’s indelible romantic moments. What follows is less than enchanting but no less enthralling, as the passions of boozed-up middle-aged high school teacher Rosemary (Rosalind Russel, His Girl Friday) get the better of her and tensions erupt in an ugly public confrontation. Hal finds himself in the literal spotlight, every bit as vulnerable as when he first arrived, but his frenzied flight to somewhere, anywhere, instead lands him by the river with Madge at his side…

Picnic was a popular and critical success upon release, garnering six nominations and two wins (for best color art-and-set design and best film editing) at the 1956 Academy Awards, and it’s easy to see why. Loaded with rich performances (including one from the delightful Arthur O’Connell, of Anatomy of a Murder fame) and beautifully produced besides, this is powerful stuff that hooks you in a way that only classic Hollywood can. Highly recommended!

disc details:
released January 17, 2012 by Twilight Time
disc:
dual layer BD-50
video: 1080p | 2.55:1
audio: DTS-HD MA 5.1 / 2.0 English
subtitles: English SDH
supplements: theatrical trailer, isolated score track
retail price:
$34.95
available exclusively through ScreenArchives.com

I found myself unexpectedly wowed by Picnic as presented on Blu-ray from Twilight Time, here working once again from an ace restoration by Sony Pictures’ archive team. Indeed, wowed may actually be an understatement. I don’t bring up words like “perfect” or “reference quality” very often in my reviews, but here they certainly apply. Yes, Picnic‘s Blu-ray debut is that good.

Picnic has undergone extensive restoration over the past two decades and the end result is a film that looks practically new, as though it had aged not a day in the 57 years since it was made. Presented in all its vintage Technicolor glory at the intended extra-wide CinemaScope ratio of 2.55:1 and bolstered by a rock-solid encode spread comfortably over a dual layer BD-50, this easily ranks as one of the most satisfying Blu-ray experiences I’ve had to date. Detail (healthy as it is) doesn’t impress so much as the overall texture of the thing, and the image is lush, positively alive with that elusive filmic allure. A fine grain is evident throughout, and all the character of James Wong Howe’s color ‘Scope photography is deliciously preserved. The aesthetic at work here is so strong that you can practically feel it, and it’s easy to forget that you’re watching a film from disc at all.

In terms of drab, technical assessment Picnic is still a tremendous affair. The feature and accompanying audio occupy the better part of a dual layer BD-50, with the AVC video encode trucking along at a high average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps. Picnic is not just free of distracting digital artifacts, but of digital artifacts all together, and the image holds up under the closest of scrutiny. Physical defects have been seen to as well – Sony’s restoration team must have worked overtime picking out all those decades of grit. Even the infrequent opticals (fades, credits) appear virtually pristine, noticeable only by a shift in film density and the degraded source resolution and coarser grain that comes along with it. Projected in a theatrical setting I doubt there’d be anything to give this edition of Picnic away other than just how good it looks, and you can’t ask for much better than that.

Screenshots were taken as full 1920×1080 resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 95% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Originally released in 4-track stereo, Picnic arrives on Blu-ray with a new DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix that’s as restrained as it is effective. Though punctuated with some louder effects – like the opening bellow of a train horn – this is a mostly sedate affair, and the new surround mix admirably supports the original intentions. As with Twilight Time’s earlier Mysterious Island it’s really the score, backed with some occasional LFE punch, that benefits the most here. Duning’s work sounds terrific throughout, and its more dynamic moments have real impact. Twilight Time have also included a robust DTS-HD MA 2.0 stereo option, and the feature is complemented by a set of optional English SDH subtitles.

Supplements are limited, as expected, but Picnic is hardly a barren affair. Fans of the film’s tremendous score will find plenty to love by way of an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 music track that appears to encompass pretty much everything, including the various Labor Day picnic “Talent Show” vocals. Otherwise the disc offers only the original theatrical trailer, presented in lovely 1080p AVC with DTS-HD MA 1.0 audio. Those who have found Twilight Time’s previous Blu-rays lacking in functionality will be pleased to find that Picnic comes with both a pop-up menu and a set of 12 non-generic chapter stops (as opposed to the ten minute breaks seen in past efforts). The disc’s packaging even becomes a selling point courtesy of Julie Kirgo, the indispensable print-voice of Twilight Time, who contributes another fine set of liner notes on the production.

There’s very little else to say here. Picnic is a terrific film, one of the best I’ve seen in a while, and its Blu-ray edition from Twilight Time is, for all intents and purposes, flawless. Needless to say, we recommend.

Rapture

Year: 1965  Company: 20th Century Fox / Panoramic Productions   Runtime: 104′
Director: John Guillermin   Writers: Ennio Flaiano, Stanley Mann, Phyllis Hastings
Music: Georges Delerue   Cinematography: Marcel Grignon
Cast: Patricia Gozzi, Dean Stockwell, Melvyn Douglas, Gunnel Lindblom
Disc company: Twilight Time   Video: 1080p 2.35:1   Audio: DTS HD-MA 1.0 English
Subtitles: None   Disc: BD25 (All Region)   Release Date: 12/13/2011
Rapture is available for purchase exclusively through ScreenArchives.com
Reviewed from a screener provided by Twilight TIme.

Young Agnes, an adolescent malcontent struggling to reconcile her childish nature with her budding desires, lives in isolation in her widowed father’s modest seaside estate. One day, after her father (himself obsessed with ruminations on “compassionate justice”) dashes her favorite doll on the coastal rocks in a fit of misplaced rage (“You’re not a child!” he screams), Agnes decides to construct a new companion for herself – a scarecrow made from one of her father’s old suits. A few days later Agnes, her father and their housekeeper witness the violent escape of a jailed man. When one stormy night that same man arrives in the family shed, having stolen the clothes from the scarecrow to hide himself from the authorities, Agnes becomes convinced that her manufactured companion has come to life.

The stranger-on-the-run is welcomed into the presumed safety of the home by the father, the housekeeper, and especially Agnes, though each for very different reasons. The promiscuous housekeeper takes him on as a lover, while the father uses him as a testing ground for his legal theories. Agnes, meanwhile, remains convinced that he is hers alone, and after throwing off his plans for escape (both from the police and the home) develops a more intimate relationship with him.

It’s rare anymore that I see a film so uniquely its own that it leaves me with no starting point from which to discuss it, but such a film is Rapture, director John Guillermin’s bleak yet sumptuous adaptation of Phyllis Hastings’ novel Rapture in my Rags. Transposed from the novel’s English countryside to the Brittany Coast to sate 20th Century Fox executive Darryl F. Zanuck’s taste for young French talent Patricia Gozzi, who would soon disappear from the film business all together, and produced by a largely French crew with American actors Melvyn Douglas and Dean Stockwell and Swede Gunnel Lindblom filling out the leading roles, Rapture is a film of strange international pedigree. That it was directed by a man (fittingly an Englishman of French lineage) best known for his contributions to the super-productions of mega-producers Irwin Allen (The Towering Inferno) and Dino De Laurentiis (King Kong and the much maligned King Kong Lives) only makes it stranger still.

Of course it’s not just the cultural diversity of the production that makes this film so unique, as good an initial indicator of such as that might be, but its substance and artifice as well. Ostensibly a coming-of-age drama about a confused young woman and the father whose misplaced anger threatens to obliterate their tenuous family ties, but with darkly fantastic overtones, a penchant for forbidden romance and art-house panache to spare, Rapture never comes across as being the usual cinema fare. Indeed, from the opening shots of a giggling bride on the way to her wedding ceremony to the final closing fade, I’m still not at all sure what to make of it, though it’s certainly a film I’ll never forget.

Portrayed magnificently by Patricia Gozzi, who was just fifteen at the time, Rapture‘s Agnes is the very embodiment of bewildered adolescence, and struggles to find herself under the domineering auspices of a father who at once demands she behave as a woman while treating her as though she were a child. Having spent most of her life out of school and in social isolation, with the threat of a nearby loony-bin forever looming, Agnes is predictably unprepared for the outside world. Her brief encounters with modern France, both during an early wedding and a later elopement, are claustrophobic, nightmarish affairs, with the trappings of metropolitan life (buzzing neon, busy streets, and dense, impenetrable crowds) skewed into horrific sights and sounds by her maladjusted perspective. By contrast her life on the depopulated French coast is appropriately rapturous, dysfunctional family dynamics aside, and spent splashing in the waves and reaching out for the greater freedom of the gulls fluttering above. Still the specter of her father (a troubled turn by the veteran Melvyn Douglas) lurks, omnipresent, waiting to lash out at her for any petty grievance.

With a torrent of lightning and rain (and a bit of overt Christian symbolism) the escaped prisoner Joseph (an enigmatic Dean Stockwell, who plays his cards close) arrives, signalling change for the conflicted family whether it’s prepared for it or not. Though he compells the father to contemplate that which torments him, and the roots of his revulsion for his youngest daughter, it is with Agnes herself that the change becomes most obvious – and disquieting. Joseph’s tryst with the housekeeper (Gunnel Lindblom in a hefty supporting role) inspires a fit of jealous rage in the teenager, who takes to her presumed competition with a shovel in hand and a homicidal gleam in her eye. The housekeeper survives, but wastes no time in seeing herself out of her job, and it is with her exit that things take a turn for the uncomfortable.

Agnes becomes romantically entangled with Joseph, a man twice her age (literally in the case of Stockwell), and takes up the outward trappings of womanhood (curling her hair, and dressing up and so on). While the sexual aspect of the relationship, however tastefully restrained in its conveyance, is undeniably disturbing, I found Agnes’ sudden transformation into a homemaker to be even more so. Though clearly unprepared for such a development, Agnes runs away with Joseph to an oppressive one-room downtown hovel in which she dutifully takes up her domestic responsibilities. It’s a depressing development made none the less so by its transience, and as Joseph piles more and more relationship burdens on Agnes (like handling the couple’s finances) it becomes quite horrifying. Guillermin and director of photography Marcel Grignon capture the experience with uncomfortable, inorganic angles and aggressive montage that makes us long for the wide-open seclusion of the seaside every bit as much as Agnes, even though we know as well as her that, after all that’s transpired, things can never be the same as before.

Meticulously photographed in black and white CinemaScope and related in an intense, personal manner, Rapture is about as far removed from Guillermin’s big-money spectacles as I’d imagine possible. It also speaks more for the director’s not inconsiderable talents than any of his better known films. Rapture practically oozes art-house appeal, and with that in mind it’s difficult for me to believe that the film, largely ignored upon its initial release, hasn’t garnered more of a reputation in the 46 years since. Far be it from me to say whether it’s great film making or not – coming-of-age dramas, however strange, aren’t exactly my area of expertise, and I’m still scratching my head over this one – but it’s certainly something different, and a beautiful something at that. Given the present era of over-hyped mediocrity that’s more than enough for me.

The second of Twilight Time’s limited edition Blu-ray series to be culled from the archives of 20th Century Fox, Rapture has finally received the quality home video presentation that has so long eluded it. Before I get into the technical details it’s worth noting that Rapture, like the rest of the Twilight Time catalogue, has been released as a limited pressing of 3000 and is available for purchase exclusively through ScreenArchives.com.

Once again I’m left with very little room to complain. Rapture makes its high definition debut in a glorious 1080p transfer at the original CinemaScope aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and though only single layered I can’t say that things suffer much for it. Marcel Grignon’s ace photography is wonderfully replicated here, with all its lush 35mm texture blessedly intact. There’s a wide variety of imagery to take in, from the most expansive of landscapes to the closest of faces and everything in between, and all of it is delivered in that true-to-film fashion I crave. Yes, there is some damage, unobtrusive printed white marks and a bit of dirt here and there, and even a smattering of very minor encoding artifacts, there’s a lot of grain for an encoder to digest here and with some rare exception the AVC video encode at 24.5 Mbps average handles it quite well, but all things considered this disc looks very, very good. I’ll let the screenshots do the rest of the talking for this one. Bravo, Twilight Time!

Blu-ray screenshots were taken as uncompressed .png at full resolution in Totem Movie Player, and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 95% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Audio for the Rapture is presented in English via a simple and effective DTS-HD MA 1.0 track that perfectly replicates the film’s original monophonic recording. The sound design for Rapture is as memorable as the imagery in my mind, with crescendos in sound effects – not music – building up to its most impacting moments. Georges Delerue’s rich, oddly romantic score sounds quite good throughout, given the limitations of the original mix, but the accompanying isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 score track – the disc’s sole supplement – is a revelation. If there’s a complaint to be made then its with Rapture‘s lack of a subtitle track, SDH or otherwise. Both Mysterious Island and Fright Night (review coming soon, I promise!) have subtitles, and I can only assume that none were provided by 20th Century Fox for this release.

Rapture is the sort of release that really drives home the importance of independent labels like Twilight Time, which are finally allowing some of the real surprises of the big studio libraries to see the light of day on home video. This Blu-ray is another quality package from the company, with a fine transfer, a great isolated score, and a superb set of liner notes from Julie Kirgo (some perspective on Rapture is really a must, and Kirgo does an admirable job providing it), and another easy endorsement from me.

in conclusion
Film: One of a kind  Video: Very Good +  Audio: Excellent
Supplements: Isolated Georges Delerue score track
Packaging: Standard Blu-ray case with booklet of liner notes.
Rapture is available for purchase exclusively through ScreenArchives.com

Tokyo Sonata

Year: 2008  Company: Fortissimo Films / Entertainment Farm   Runtime: 120′
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa   Writers: Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Max Mannix, Sachiko Tanaka
Cinematography: Akiko Ashizawa   Music: Kazumasa Hashimoto  Cast: Teruyuki Kagawa, Kyoko Koizumi,
Yu Koyanagi, Kai Inowaki, Haruka Igawa, Kanji Tsuda, Kazuya Kojima, Koji Yakusho, Jaosn Gray
Disc company: Eureka! / Masters of Cinema Series   Video: 1080p 1.85:1
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 2.0 Japanese,  DTS-HD MA 2.0 Japanese, Dolby Digital 2.0 Japanese
Subtitles: English   Disc: BD50 (All Region)   Release Date: 06/22/2009
Available for purchase through Amazon.com

Note: Due to the Sony DADC warehouse fire in London earlier this month the majority of the back-stock for Tokyo Sonata was destroyed.  Eureka / Masters of Cinema are in the process of repressing this, along with many of the other titles whose stock was lost, as combination DVD / Blu-ray editions.  Ignore any indications you may find of this title being out of print (including exorbitant Amazon and eBay marketplace prices1) – it will be back.

There’s one brilliant moment among the many in Tokyo Sonata that stands out to me on every viewing.  As the unemployed businessman father of the story’s central family waits in line at a work placement center, his similarly unemployed businessman friend turns to him and confesses that his wife, from whom he has been hiding his joblessness, is beginning to suspect.  ”I have to find a way to make her trust me2,” he says, before concocting a faked business dinner to bolster the illusion that his life is continuing as usual.  The thought of telling her the truth, and thus accepting his own condition, never crosses his mind.

This brief scene is the crux of Tokyo Sonata, to date the last film from Kiyoshi Kurosawa (best known in the West for his allegorical horror features Cure and Kairo), a film that inhabits a world all too familiar, in which familial communication has broken down and mistrust is the order of the day.  Kurosawa’s knack for developing a lurking sense of unease serves him well here, where he effortlessly transposes it onto the mundane verisimilitude of a traditional family drama.  It’s easy to separate oneself from the surreal threats posed by homicidal mesmerists or ghostly blotches of human grease, but Tokyo Sonata dwells on the far less sensational horrors of everyday life, and is all the more affecting for it.

Set contemporaneously and reflecting a time of growing threats to the family unit (a global economic recession, the war on terror, and the age-old problem of career centrism), Tokyo Sonata follows the implosion and subsequent transcendental rise of the Sasaki family.  One stormy morning father Ryuhei (the excellent Teruyuki Kagawa, Serpent’s Path) is unceremoniously ejected from his administrative position, the price of the outsourcing of his department to nearby China.  Finding himself suddenly astray, with the career upon which he built his identity only a memory, Ryuhei desperately attempts to keep up appearances, spending his regular hours waiting in the long lines at the local work placement center and taking charity lunches alongside the city’s homeless population.

At home Ryuhei’s veneer of authority begins to crack, as his relationship with both his wife and two children continues a steady deterioration set in motion long before his job was lost.  Housewife Megumi (Kyoko Koizumi) itches to express herself from beyond the confines of her daily routine, while wayward older son Takashi (Yu Koyanagi) tries to find his place in life through a series of dead-end jobs.  Meanwhile younger son Kenji (Kai Inowaki in his acting debut), failing to find a place for himself in a traditional school system in which he and his instructor are constantly at each other’s throats, develops an unexpected interest in learning to play the piano.  With his social position lost and the possibility of matching his former position practically non-existent, Ryuhei takes out his frustrations on those from whom he should be seeking support.  He ignores his wife, argues with Takashi and categorically denies Kenji’s request to learn the piano, driving the three of them further and further from him in the process.

  
  
  

As Ryuhei’s attempts at domination increase each of his family members begin their own private rebellions against it.  Takashi, in seeking a direction for his life, joins the military and becomes embroiled in a conflict in the Middle East.  Megumi earns her driver’s license, an expensive privilege, and begins window shopping for both a car and an escape.  Kenji finds a dysfunctional keyboard in a garbage heap and learns to use it as best he can, and stashes his monthly lunch allowance away for secret piano lessons.  All the while tension between the four is growing, and Ryuhei, finding himself trading administrative work for the degrading position of shopping center janitor, seems poised for a violent outburst…

Tokyo Sonata comprises some of the most absurdly horrifying imagery of Kurosawa’s career, imagery whose impact is heightened by the uncomfortable reality it represents.  As Ryuhei wanders through the streets of Tokyo he finds a whole disaffected population of the similarly lost, hordes of former businessmen who have defined themselves by their careers and who now waste away the working hours in public libraries, city parks and charity lunch lines.  The impact of the visuals here is near universal – who can’t relate to losing a job, and the sense of “what now?” hopelessness that so often comes along with it?  Tokyo Sonata also plumbs the unsettling depths to which that hopelessness can drag us all, from the development of self-destructive personalities to the grim finality of suicide.  It is in these moments, in which the lows are at their lowest, that the film proves most unsettling.  As Ryuhei becomes overtly abusive the final thread that holds his family together is ripped away – Kenji attempts to run away, but falls afoul of the law, while Megumi turns an attempted home invasion into an unlikely opportunity for escape…

But with the future at its most uncertain and the Sasaki family in its darkest hour, the sun both proverbially and literally rises – the Kurosawan equivalent of “…tomorrow is another day!”.  The reconciliation of Tokyo Sonata never feels cheap or manipulative, and avoids the happy family cliches of similar efforts.  Instead, at the height of their irresponsibility, the individual members of the Sasaki find themselves, and realize in no uncertain terms that which they are at risk of losing.  Ryuhei and his wife cease to strive for happiness in what they don’t have, and instead find contentedness in what they do, while son Kenji offers a moment of uncompromising beauty – a soulful piano recitation of Debussy’s Claire de Lune.  It’s the concept of mono no aware in action, a fleeting moment of transcendental bliss that’s all the more impacting for the ugliness that preceded it.

There are those who tout Tokyo Sonata as Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s masterpiece, and given the wealth of awards and praise it has garnered I can hardly argue with them.  It is certainly his most accessible film to date, presenting a universal story of familial progression with neither the ambivalence or ambiguity that has marked so much of his prior work.  And while the existential themes familiar to his career are present and accounted for, from the obscure nature of identity to the issues of communication posed by modern society, the end results are all together different.  Bleak as the world of Tokyo Sonata may be, the sun still rises on it and the birds still sing, and its ugliness, like all things, is transient.

  
  
  

Limited to DVD-only editions both domestically and in its native Japan, Kiyoshi Kurosawaw’s award-winning Tokyo Sonata has been given its due respect in a phenomenal Blu-ray edition courtesy of Eureka! Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema series.  Though produced in the United Kingdom I’m pleased to report that this edition of the film is ALL REGION compatible, with even the standard definition supplements rendered in a globally digestible NTSC format, leaving nothing in the way of excuses for why anyone shouldn’t have it in their collection.

Presented in full 1080p for the first time anywhere in the world, Tokyo Sonata is granted a properly framed 1.85:1 transfer and a healthy AVC encode (average video bitrate is 29.4 Mbps) in its Blu-ray debut.  The two hour feature is spread across just over 30 Gb of a dual layer BD50, and the results are both impressive and honest.  After toying with digital filming technology in Doppelganger, Bright Future and Loft, Kurosawa and ace director of photography Akiko Ashizawa have returned to 35mm photography, and I couldn’t be happier.  The imagery here is rich in both real world detail and the untouched texture of the medium itself, a 1-2 combination that I can’t help but love.  Contrast is at healthy levels throughout, as is the intentionally limited color palette.  This won’t be the most vibrant or demo-worthy transfer you’ve seen, and there’s even some printed film damage (specks and a few larger marks) to contend with, but the image remains honest to the source photography throughout.  I suspect this is a reference-level transfer for the title in question, and it retains its deliciously filmic qualities even when the image is zoomed-in to 200-300% its intended size.  Those looking for complaints will find none here today – this one looks precisely as it should.

Eureka present Tokyo Sonata with not one but two HD audio choices in the original 2.0 Japanese – a variable bitrate Dolby TrueHD track at around 600-800 kbps, and a DTS-HD MA option at around 1.7 Mbps.  Though I suspect the DTS-HD MA track, with more than double the bitrate, should be technically stronger, I found it impossible to discern a difference between the two.  Like the majority of Kurosawa’s work, the sound design here is quite subtle and restrained, with occasional punctuation from louder effects and minimalist soundtrack cues.  Dialogue is crisp and intelligible throughout, with no undue technical flaws – not that I was expecting any from this very recent production.  As with the visuals, I’d say the audio here is precisely as it should be.  A lossy Dolby Digital 2.0 Japanese option is also included for the sake of completeness.  The optional English subtitles that accompany the feature are clear and legible, appear quite well translated, and don’t suffer the sparsity evident on some translations.  As an uncultured American I did muse at some of the verbage – “smartarse” jumps to mind.  Again, I’ve no complaints.

Supplements appear to duplicate those that appear on the Japanese DVD edition, and with the exception of the UK trailer for the feature (3 minutes, HD) are all presented in 480p SD.  You get a Making Of documentary (61 minutes) that covers literally every aspect of the production and features plenty of behind-the-scenes footage, a Q & A Session (12 minutes) and other footage (15 minutes) from the September 2008 premiere in Tokyo, as well as a discussion of the benefits of seeing the film on DVD from the cast and director (9 minutes).  I enjoy the respectful and appreciative tone of these pieces more than those of their American counterparts, which are typically no more than studio fluff.  The humility of all those involved is not lost on this reviewer, and I look forward to seeing more from all of them.  Rounding things out is a thick 28 page booklet that features a brief director’s statement from Kiyoshi Kurosawa and a excellent original essay by B. Kite.

I really can’t recommend Tokyo Sonata enough, whether you’re a fan of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s brand of cinema or not.  This is certainly a standout piece in his impressive oeuvre, and well deserving of the attention it has received.  This was my first import Blu-ray, as well as my first experience the Masters of Cinema series, and I was duly impressed on both counts.  MoC have put together a stellar high definition release, from the basics of the transfer right on up, and one that no self-respecting cinema buff should be without.  You’ll not find a higher recommendation from me than here – this is must-have stuff.

1 Case in point: At the time of this writing a certain eBay seller has DVDs of the Masters of Cinema series edition of The Burmese Harp listed at a whopping 381 pounds sterling – more than $600!  It’s an exceptional release of an exceptional film, to be sure, but that level of faux-crisis price fixing is shear insanity.
2 Emphasis mine.
in conclusion
Film: Excellent  Video: Excellent  Audio: Excellent   Supplements: Excellent
Harrumphs: None.
Packaging: Standard Blu-ray case, 28-page booklet.
Final Words: Everyone has there favorite director, but for me there’s nothing quite like the K. Kurosawa touch.  Tokyo Sonata is brilliant filmmaking through and through, and easily the director’s most accessible film to date.  There’s nothing at all wrong with the Masters of Cinema series Blu-ray edition of this title, except perhaps that you don’t own it.  A must have!