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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

Back to Part One

Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

The Christmas Column (continued)

Worthy Gifts, Recommended... for Musical Fans

The Wizard of Oz: Three-Disc Collector's Edition

The Wizard of Oz: Three-Disc Collector's Edition (1939)
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on October 25th, 2005)

Film Rating: A+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A+/A/A+

It's hardly necessary to say anything about the film itself. Any self-respecting classic fan is already aware of its magic and its timeless entertainment value, and probably has numerous copies of it in various video incarnations including the estimable laserdisc box and the nice-looking previous DVD version, both of which had numerous supplements as well as very fine image transfers. Now Warners has stepped up to the plate again and slugged a grand slam homerun to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. Applying its Ultra Resolution process to the three-strip Technicolor film, it delivers the ultimate transfer for the film (at least until HD is fully upon us) - brighter, more colourful (but not excessively so), and more fully detailed than any previous version. Nor is the sound overlooked with both the original mono track and a nicely-enveloping Dolby Digital 5.1 effort provided. A French mono track and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also included.

This new release really shines in the area of supplements with a carry-over of the material from the previous DVD version supplemented by a wealth of additional features. Among the highlights in the latter are a new audio commentary featuring film historian John Fricke; a featurette covering the restoration process; a documentary on the film's imaginative effects focusing on music, costuming, art direction, and make-up; a documentary on the film's legacy; a Lux Radio Theater adaptation of the film; and various features focusing on the story's creator L. Frank Baum. All the Baum material is contained on the third disc, including a new documentary on Baum and five previous filmed versions of the Oz story (including the 70-odd minute long 1925 silent filming). Finally the package includes two cardboard portfolios containing reproductions of 1939 Kodachrome publicity art (ten portraits and on-set photographs) in one and in the other, reproductions of the premiere program for the Grauman's Chinese Theatre showing on August 15, 1939, MGM's Studio News edition celebrating the film's release, Photoplay Studies (a scholastic guide) in honour of the film, a page from the publicity campaign book, and facsimiles of the premiere invitation and ticket for the Grauman's showing. Very highly recommended.

The Sound of Music: 40th Anniversary Edition

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Sound of Music: 40th Anniversary Edition (1965)
(released on DVD by Fox on November 15th, 2005)

Film Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/A-/A

Fans of this film will recall its previous DVD release, which was riddled with edge effects that provided an annoying distraction from one's enjoyment of the film. Fox has now carried out a new restoration of the film that has resulted in a substantial improvement. The film itself is long (174 minutes) and saccharine, but is redeemed by its marvelous musical numbers and wonderful performances from Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. It purports to tell the story of the Austrian Von Trapp family who managed to avoid incarceration by the Nazis at the time of Germany's occupation of Austria. The film improves substantially on the musical stage version upon which it was based, adding some edge to its story as well as integrating its songs more logically into the plot, and of course benefiting from the magnificent Austrian scenery.

Fox's new 2.20:1 anamorphic transfer removes most of the objectionable edge effects and offers a fairly crisp image with very good colour fidelity. There are a few soft sequences, particularly the nighttime ones in the gazebo. The image has been cleaned of significant scratches and nicks although a few stray speckles still remain. A Dolby Digital 5.0 surround track provides a nice sense of envelopment mainly due to front separation as surround effects are subtle at best. An English stereo track as well as Spanish Mono and French 2.0 Dolby Surround are included as are English and Spanish subtitles. The supplementary content on this two-disc set is substantial and for the most part new with much of it introduced by Julie Andrews. There is an all-new mainly cast and crew audio commentary highlighted by Andrews and Christopher Plummer, as well as a second commentary by director Robert Wise carried over from the previous DVD release. Disc Two features a new and extensive retrospective making-of documentary, new featurettes showing Plummer and Andrews in conversation, the Austrian locations used in the film, a reunion of the seven actors who played the Von Trapp children in the film, and highlights of a Singalong event at the Hollywood Bowl. The disc also includes the A&E Biography program on the real Von Trapp Family, as well as screen tests, trailers, photo galleries, and a restoration comparison. Recommended.

... for Western Fans

Seven Men from Now: Special Collector's Edition

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Seven Men from Now: Special Collector's Edition (1956)
(released on DVD by Paramount on December 20th, 2005)

Film Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/A

Many of Randolph Scott's westerns of the 1950s are highly regarded and rightly so. They are compactly told, tightly directed, characterized by good action, and aside from Scott's fine portrayals, cast with a fine assortment of the best western supporting players of the time. With time, Seven Men from Now has come to be among the most highly regarded of the Scott westerns. Beautifully directed by Budd Boetticher, it really benefits from a fine script by Burt Kennedy - one that in 78 minutes tells an effective tale of retribution featuring four well-developed characters. Scott provides a nicely nuanced performance of a former sheriff looking for vengeance on seven others responsible for killing his wife during a robbery, yet knowing it was something he might have been in a position to prevent had it not been for his own great pride. Lee Marvin is marvelous as the chief antagonist and Gail Russell stands out in her role as a woman who must choose between her husband and Scott. It's one that transcends the standard western love-interest role partly because of how well it's written.

The film's action sequences are stylishly staged by Boetticher and he effectively cuts away from showing actual shootings at their climactic moments, preferring to focus on the reactions rather than actions of the principals involved. The ending is also impressive for its sense of ambivalence. Seven Men from Now has more depth in an hour and a quarter than most current films manage in over two hours.

Paramount's DVD is the latest in its series of Batjac production releases, the first that did not star John Wayne. The film was completely restored by Batjac and the disc is very good looking. The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is crisp and clear with very good image detail. The colour has good fidelity for the most part, although some sequences look less vibrant than they might. This is perhaps reflective of the shortcomings of WarnerColor. The mono sound is clear and free of distortion. English sub-titles are provided. The disc's supplements are impressive beginning with an excellent audio commentary by James Kitses, film historian and author of "Horizons West: Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, Sam Peckinpah". There is a fine seven-part documentary on Budd Boetticher and the making of the film that lasts about 50 minutes. While it tends to be top heavy with talking heads, it certainly covers the ground in detail. Other supplements include a focus on the Lone Pine area of California where the film was shot, a profile on Gail Russell, a photo gallery, and the original theatrical trailer. Highly recommended.

The Magnificent Seven: The Complete First Season

The Magnificent Seven: The Complete First Season (1998)
(released on DVD by Sony [MGM] on December 6th, 2005)

Program Rating: A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B+/F

This TV series consisted of 21 episodes plus the pilot show aired over the 1998-2000 period. The pilot (Ghosts of the Confederacy) essentially provided the series' take on how the Seven got together. Rather than helping a Mexican village threatened by a marauding gang of bandits as was the case in the original 1960 feature film version, the group is put together by Chris Larabee to protect an Indian village threatened by a gang of ex-Confederate soldiers. Thereafter, in the series' first season, the Seven remained in the local town where they served as protectors at the behest of the territorial judge (played by Robert Vaughan, in a nice nod to the original film). Michael Biehn (Tombstone) stars as Chris with the likes of Eric Close and Ron Perlman as other members of the Seven. Although the series didn't have a long run, it did have a faithful following and rightly so. The writing was above average and there was good chemistry among the various players. Good use was made of traditional western locations and sets (Old Tucson and Melody Ranch, for example) and production values were generally high. Action sequences were well staged. The eight episodes in the first season, along with the pilot, allowed a decent story arc and character interactions to develop, although each show can easily be viewed and enjoyed without watching the others. The series doesn't have the depth and bite of Deadwood, but it does entertain on an adult level.

Sony's MGM component has released the series' first season (and the pilot show) on a two-disc box set. The presentation is full frame as originally telecast and looks quite nice. Colour is a bit muted at times, but image crispness and detail are good. The Dolby 2.0 Surround track is in fine shape, offering clarity and some measure of dynamicism in the action sequences. English and French subtitles are provided, but there are no supplements. Recommended.

... for Animation Fans

Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume Three

Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume Three
(released on DVD by Warner Bros. on October 25th, 2005)

Program Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/B+/A

I well remember the excitement with which the first volume of Looney Tunes was welcomed to DVD just two years ago. Now it seems we've become blasé, as the third volume arrives with little fanfare. It's not that the package offers any less. After all, we get another 60 cartoons, all advertised as restored, remastered, and completely uncut and uncensored, and supplemented with a great array of extras as before. Perhaps it's the realization that at the current rate, it'll take more than a decade more before we have all these great cartoons on DVD.

This year's offering follows the same format as in the past with each disc offering cartoons with a particular theme or character and a subset of the volume's extras. Disc One focuses on Bugs Bunny with cartoons from the 1942-1953 period: Hare Force, Hare Remover, Hare Tonic, A Hare Grows in Manhattan, Easter Yeggs, The Wabbit Who Came to Supper, Bowery Bugs, Homeless Hare, The Case of the Missing Hare, Acrobatty Bunny, Wackiki Wabbit, Hare Do, Rebel Rabbit, Hillbilly Hare, and Duck! Rabbit! Duck!. Disc Two features Hollywood Caricatures and Parodies from 1935-1961: Daffy Duck in Hollywood, Hollywood Capers, The Coo-Coo Nut Grove, Porky's Road Race, The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos, She Was an Acrobat's Daughter, The Film Fan, Speakin' of the Weather, Thugs with Dirty Mugs, Goofy Groceries, Swooner Crooner, Wideo Wabbit, The Honey-Mousers, The Last Hungry Cat, and The Mouse That Jack Built. Disc Three focuses on Porky and the Pigs from 1938-1958: I Haven't Got a Hat, Porky's Romance, Porky's Party, Porky in Egypt, Porky and Teabiscuit, Pigs Is Pigs, Pigs in a Polka, Porky Pig's Feat, Daffy Duck Slept Here, Bye, Bye Bluebeard, An Egg Scramble, Robin Hood Daffy, The Windblown Hare, Claws for Alarm, and Rocket Squad. Disc Four's theme is All-Star Cartoon Party (1938-1963): Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur, Super Rabbit, Daffy Duck and Egghead (1938), A Gruesome Twosome (1945), Draftee Daffy (1945), Falling Hare (1943), Steel Wool (1957), Birds Anonymous (1957), No Barking (1954), Rabbit Punch (1948), An Itch in Time (1943), Odor-Able Kitty (1945), Walky Talky Hawky (1946), Gonzales Tamales (1957) and To Beep or Not to Beep (1963).

All these cartoons look great, scoring highly in terms of crispness, image detail, and colour fidelity and brightness. Nicks and scratches have been cleaned up with only the occasional speckle in evidence. The mono sound is also clear and virtually hiss-free. French mono sound and English, French, and Spanish subtitles are provided. Supplements include audio commentaries on selected cartoons; "Behind the Tunes" featurettes with animators, historians, and voice artists profiling specific cartoons, characters, and creators; two documentaries - 1989's Chuck Amuck and 1990's What's Up Doc? A Salute to Bugs Bunny; bonus rarities from the vaults including early studio black-and-white and wartime shorts; and music-and-effects-only tracks on various cartoons. Additionally, Whoopi Goldberg (apparently a Looney Tunes enthusiast) provides an introduction to the set and gives some historical perspective on the stereotyping that will be found in some of these cartoons. This perhaps presages inclusion in future sets of some of the "censored 11" cartoons that have the really extreme stereotyping. Very highly recommended.

... for War Film Fans

Battle of Britain: Collector's Edition (1969)
A Bridge Too Far: Collector's Edition (1977)
(both released on DVD by Sony [MGM] on October 25th, 2005)

Film Rating (Battle of Britain): B+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A/A-/B+
Film Rating (A Bridge Too Far): A-
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B+/B+

Battle of Britain: Collector's EditionA Bridge Too Far: Collector's Edition

Enhanced for 16x9 TVsEnhanced for 16x9 TVs

Two very enjoyable World War II films previously available on DVD in fairly barebones versions have finally been given their due with new two-disc collector's editions. The Battle of Britain's subject matter is self evident from the title and it's a film that has grown on me with time. Originally, I found just about everything in the film second-rate compared to the aerial sequences and the musical score. While I still find that true to some extent, I'm more excepting of the various human interest subplots and the wealth of cameo performances by well-known stars (particularly Laurence Olivier). Perhaps, it's just that compared to so much of contemporary film-making, the film as a whole looks now like an Oscar-caliber effort. A Bridge Too Far documents the Allies' launching of Operation Market Garden, an attempt to slice quickly through northern Holland to secure vital bridges over the Rhine and bring an early end to the war by smashing Germany's war plants. The film also uses a large assemblage of stars in various small parts, but does so more effectively than does Battle of Britain. The film is a massive production that effectively documents the events of the offensive and clearly shows how a combination of politics, faulty intelligence, bad luck, and poor weather doomed it. The likes of Sean Connery, Dirk Bogarde, and Anthony Hopkins shine in the production, but much of the credit for the film's effectiveness must go to director Richard Attenborough.

The previous DVD release of Battle of Britain looked very good and I see little if any difference in the new version. The image is bright, clear, and offers good colour fidelity. Blacks are deep and shadow detail is very good. There are some minor edge effects on occasion, but overall, the 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation is very pleasing indeed. I don't have the previous release of A Bridge Too Far for comparison, but the new version is merely okay. The 2.35:1 anamorphic image is occasionally soft, suffers from excessive grain (so that some of the darker sequences are quite murky), and is characterized by plenty of scratches and speckles. Both releases sport new Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes and they work well, particularly enhancing the Battle of Britain's music score. Generally, on both, dialogue is crisp and clear while action sequences offer an effective surround feeling (although somewhat more pronounced on Battle of Britain). A French 5.1 track is offered on both films as are English and French subtitles (also Spanish on Battle of Britain). The supplements on Battle of Britain consist of an informative and generally interesting audio commentary by director Guy Hamilton, aerial sequence director Bernard Williams, and historian Paul Annett; a 50-odd minute documentary on the making of the film; shorter featurettes on the aerial sequences and the film's intent and its reception; a short featurettes of reminiscences by an RAF squadron leader who actually took part in the Battle; an animated photo gallery; the optional William Walton score for the film in 5.1 Dolby Digital (Walton's effort was replaced by another score by Ron Goodwin for the film's actual release); and the film's theatrical trailer. A Bridge Too Far includes an audio commentary by screenwriter William Goldman with comments from various other cast and crew interspersed. There is also a pop-up trivia track that relates some of key actual historical aspects of the events on screen. The other supplements include a 40-odd minute making-of documentary; some reminiscences by director Attenborough; reminiscences by veterans in the actual offensive, although the fact they're only Americans vets reduces the featurette's effectiveness; an extensive photo gallery; and the theatrical trailer. Both are recommended.

... for Silent Fans

Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film

Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film (1894-1941)
(released on DVD by Image on October 18th, 2005)

Program Rating: A
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B/C

Collected here on seven discs comprising some 19 hours of material are 182 films made by American filmmakers working in the United States and abroad up until the time of America's entry into the Second World War. The assemblage of material is the work of Bruce Posner who has extended the definition of avant-garde to include the broadest spectrum of experimental works "made by professionals and amateurs and the development of film language dating from the very beginnings of cinema in the 1890s". In association with the likes of the British Film Institute, Deutsches Filmmuseum, George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, and The Museum of Modern Art, Posner assembled a collection of such works that went on tour in 2001. Now in association with Bruce Shepard of Film Preservation Associates, the collection is available on DVD.

The range of material included is breath-taking in its inclusion of both the obscure and the familiar, with well-known mainstream names such as D.W. Griffith, Orson Welles, Busby Berkeley, Robert Flaherty, and Robert Florey being represented as well as a wealth of lesser-known ones. Many of the items presented have been known by aficionados of the avant-garde only by reputation (for example, several works by Joseph Cornell), so their wide availability now in this set is truly significant.

The collection is organized thematically by disc:

Disc One - The Mechanized Eye: Experiments in Technique and Form (22 films including work by early cinematographers James White, Billy Bitzer, and Frederick Armitage, as well as experimental efforts by photographer Walker Evans, painter Emlen Etting, and musician Jerome Hill)

Disc Two - The Devil's Plaything: American Surrealism (18 films from the likes of early professional filmmakers such as Edwin Porter, James Cruze, and Robert Florey, and later amateurs such as Joseph Cornell)

Disc Three - Light Rhythms: Music and Abstraction (32 films focusing on the abstract qualities of light, including pioneer films by Ralph Steiner, Mary Ellen Bute, and Douglass Crockwell and Hollywood montages created by Ernst Lubitsch and Busby Berkeley)

Disc Four - Inverted Narratives: New Directions in Storytelling (20 films developing the language of cinema narrative from the likes of D.W. Griffith, Lois Weber, Charles Vidor, Theodore Huff, Josef Berne, and David Bradley)

Disc Five - Picturing a Metropolis: New York City Unveiled (29 films depicting scenes of New Yorkers among the skyscrapers, streets, and night life of Manhattan during a half century of progress)

Disc Six - The Amateur as Auteur: Discovering Paradise in Pictures (19 homemade films covering the intimate [Joseph Cornell's Children Trilogy] to large scale [James Hughes' A Day in Santa Fe])

Disc Seven - Viva La Dance: The Beginnings of Cine-Dance (42 films celebrating dance from the experimental [Norman McLaren's Stars and Stripes] to commercial [excerpt from Busby Berkeley's Wonder Bar]

The material on these seven discs (mastered from newly preserved and restored 35mm and 16mm prints) looks remarkably good, given its age and provenance. Certainly there are scratches and speckles and missing frames, but the images are mostly quite sharp with at times very fine image detail. There is a mixture of black and white, tinted, and colour footage generally as appropriate to the original projection of the films. Sound reproduction, where intended, is also quite good particularly where new recordings of original music or new film scores have been prepared (generally in stereo). Supplements include on-screen film notes and/or filmmaker biographies prepared by more than three dozen film historians and scholars such as Kevin Brownlow, David Curtis, Bruce Posner, David Shepard, and Scott MacDonald. Bruce Posner also contributes a 15-page essay introducing the material, which is included as a separate pamphlet in the box set. There's no doubt that this box set is a special interest item that will not appeal to all, but for those interested in early American film, it stands beside the previous two boxes of Treasures from American Film Archives as a must-have item. Recommended.

Unknown Chaplin

Unknown Chaplin (1983)
(released on DVD by A&E on November 29th, 2005)

Program Rating: A+
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/B

For a time, it was feared that some of the work of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill might not make it to DVD because of rights issues, but happily that now appears not to be the case. Unknown Chaplin and the Hollywood series were the two programs in question, but now we have Unknown Chaplin in hand and Hollywood will be made available in Region 2 at least in 2006.

Unknown Chaplin consists of three programs, each about 50 minutes long, narrated by James Mason that delve into much of the background behind the films that Chaplin created. The programs rely on numerous reels of footage and outtakes shot by Chaplin in the course of his filmmaking that reveal a great deal about his creative process. This was material that Chaplin never expected to see the light of day, but it was gathered together by Raymond Rohauer and later accessed by Brownlow and Gill for this series.

In the first program (My Happiest Years), it is fascinating to see how an initial idea for a gag or sequence got changed into the finished product that we've become so familiar with (parts of The Cure and The Immigrant are highlighted), particularly in those instances where the metamorphosis was so complete that virtually nothing of the original conception remains. The second program (The Great Director) focuses on Chaplin's features such as The Kid, The Gold Rush, and City Lights again delving into Chaplin's creative process using rare footage but also utilizing new interviews with original cast members Jackie Coogan, Lita Grey, Georgia Hale, and Virginia Cherrill. The third program (Hidden Treasures) reveals further unknown footage, especially the original extended opening sequence for City Lights and lengthy footage from The Professor, a film that Chaplin abandoned although he later worked some of its ideas into Limelight. The attraction of this documentary series on Chaplin is that it tells us something we didn't know about before, instead of rehashing old ground or providing yet another standard biography. Along with Charlie Chaplin: The Forgotten Years (previously reviewed here), it goes far to fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge of this great film clown.

The disc's full frame transfer is correctly framed and given the limitations of many of the clips included in the programs, looks very nice with remarkable detail at times. Some of the more recent interviews are merely okay in comparison. The stereo audio is clear and transmits both James Mason's authoritative tones and Carl Davis's music well. Supplements on the disc include a making-of documentary that is mainly an interview with Kevin Brownlow (about 15 minutes) and two shorts - The Making of "The Count" and Chaplin Meets Harry Lauder (the great British Music Hall star). A Chaplin text biography rounds out the disc. Highly recommended.

On to Part Three

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