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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Classic Reviews Round-Up #1 (continued)

This Property Is Condemned (1966)
(released on DVD by Paramount on December 2nd, 2003)

This Property Is Condemned is a good example of Hollywood eye candy circa mid-60s. It's as though art direction, costume design, and make-up were in control and the director and actors just went along for the ride. The story, though slight (based on a one-act play by Tennessee Williams), could have been quite interesting. It takes place mainly in Depression-era Dodson, Mississippi - a small railroad junction town. Owen Legate (Robert Redford) comes to town to issue lay-off notices to the rail yard employees and finds himself slowly drawn to local beauty Alva Starr (Natalie Wood). Alva, who lives with her younger sister and mother in an old boarding house that her mother runs, longs to leave Dodson behind and sees her chance in Owen. Her mother has other plans and the clash of wills between her and Alva lead to a surprising result and a trip out of town under circumstances other than Alva might have hoped for.

This Property Is Condemned

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What lets the story down is the air of unreality that surrounds the whole film. Neither the set nor the costumes ring true and for all the complaining about the heat, neither Redford nor Wood look particularly sweaty during the whole 110-minute running time. The latter is an issue too. The plot can't support almost two hours of screen time and the New Orleans segment at the end just seems as though it's been tacked on to open up the somewhat stage-bound feel of the preceding 90 minutes. And yet . . . it's not a completely hopeless exercise. No one can deny the star power of Redford and Wood, unreal though they may be in their parts here. Director Sydney Pollack so caresses them with the camera that you forget all the unreality and just revel in how damned good they look together. In Natalie Wood's case, I can't think offhand of a film in which she looked better. As for the rest of the cast, the only real acting done in the film is by Kate Reid who plays Alva's scheming mother to perfection. The casting of Charles Bronson and Robert Blake as rail yard workers seems quite appropriate, but the fact that they look uncomfortable and out of place is simply another testament to the film's air of unreality.

The film may not be great, but Paramount's 1.85:1 anamorphic release looks wonderful. Colours are richly saturated; blacks are absolute; shadow detail is excellent; edge effects are non-existent; and there's just a hint of natural grain - all adding up to a very film-like experience. The mono sound is clear and undisturbed by age-related hiss. English sub-titles are provided. There are no supplements. If you're a real Redford or Wood fan, this one's worth seeing just for the fine transfer. All others are likely to have a more difficult time.

Planet of the Apes: 35th Anniversary Edition (1968)
(released on DVD by Fox on February 3rd, 2004)

Fox has taken the opportunity of Planet of the Apes's 35th anniversary to reissue the film on DVD in a spiffy new two-disc collector's edition. What with the original film's numerous previous video incarnations, its four sequels, a 1998 feature-length documentary on the making of the various Apes films, and the 2001 remake by Tim Burton (or re-imagining as I believe he referred to it), I'm pretty sure virtually everyone is quite familiar with the story, the film's background, and its players (principally Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, and Kim Hunter). Suffice it to say that in my opinion (coming from a person who's read a lot of science fiction and seen a lot of unsatisfactory science fiction films), this remains one of the better science fiction films made to date - thoughtful and entertaining at the same time. So rather than go into the details of the film itself, I'll concentrate on the rather comprehensive DVD package that Fox has come up with.

Planet of the Apes: 35th Anniversary Edition

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Fans will recall that Planet of the Apes was first released on DVD in May 2001 in a widescreen, non-anamorphic edition. The new 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is a distinct improvement in terms of overall clarity and in background detail. Blacks are deep and whites are clean while colour fidelity appears excellent with accurate flesh tones. There are a few instances of noticeable grain, but there are no edge effects. High marks to Fox on this one! Both Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 sound tracks are provided although there is little to choose between them. The sound is concentrated across the fronts, with only occasional contributions from the surrounds. The latter are most in evidence in the music score by Jerry Goldsmith. While the results do not rival current day aggressive mixes, the impact here is substantial and makes the film sound as good as it ever has. French Dolby surround and Spanish mono tracks and English and Spanish subtitles are included.

The supplements are spread over both discs. The first one includes two audio commentaries, one by actors Roddy McDowall, Natalie Trundy, Kim Hunter, and make-up artist John Chambers (separate comments edited together, and somewhat sporadic in coverage), and the other by composer Jerry Goldsmith. Author Eric Greene ("Planet of the Apes as American Myth") provides a text commentary. The second disc contains the bulk of the supplements. It's divided into five sections. "Exploring the Apes" contains the very comprehensive, over two-hour-long 1998 documentary Behind the Planet of the Apes hosted by Roddy McDowall, as well as a promo for the documentary, home movies taken by Roddy McDowall, and Planet of the Apes dailies and outtakes with no audio. There are also several original featurettes including a couple featuring directors Don Taylor and J. Lee Thompson working on the sequels. "Publicity" includes trailers for all five films in the series, various text reviews of the film, and images of the various posters used in North America and abroad. "Galleries" includes original sketches by costume designer Morton Haack and an extensive stills gallery. "Ape Phenomenon" contains images of ape merchandise and ape costumes and props in various private collections. Finally "DVD-ROM" reveals an extensive Apes chronology. If you've been waiting for an appropriate DVD tribute to this movie, it is at hand. Highly recommended.

The Great Gatsby (1974)
(released on DVD by Paramount on December 2nd, 2003)

Only once in my life so far have I walked out of a film showing and it was for this 1974 version of The Great Gatsby. So when Paramount's DVD version arrived on my doorstep, I was looking forward to seeing what my reaction would be this time. I must report that though I persevered to the end in the cause of journalistic integrity, I was sorely tempted to do as I had done 30 years ago. The Great Gatsby is a marvelous looking film, but for the most part, it's sure mighty boring.

The story is F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age classic about Jay Gatsby who had once loved the beautiful Daisy, but then lost her to the rich Tom Buchanan. When Gatsby mysteriously becomes rich himself, he sets out to win Daisy back. Events unfold through the eyes of Nick Carraway who is living for the summer in a modest cottage next door to Gatsby's opulent mansion on Long Island.

The Great Gatsby

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Let's face it; the beauty of the novel lies in its wonderful prose, not its plot or its sometimes annoying characters. It's virtually impossible to translate the novel's greatest strength to the screen, which is why there has never been a successful film adaptation. There was a silent version in 1926 (Warner Baxter as Jay Gatsby?) and in 1949, Paramount made a passable effort with Alan Ladd in the title role, but it's been downhill ever since. Recently, in 2001, there was a stunningly bad A&E television effort that, had it been playing in a theatre, would have been my second film to walk out of, except that I'd have done it sooner than for the 1974 version. At least the 1974 version looks and sounds great (although its sense of period seems more posed than realistic), and it has a well-cast if somewhat bemused-looking Robert Redford playing Gatsby. Sam Waterston is also effective as Nick. On the down side, however, Mia Farrow is just an annoying whiner as Daisy and Bruce Dern is miscast as Tom. Director Jack Clayton draws this bloated sausage of a film to almost two-and-a-half hours and the beauty of John Box's production design, Theoni Aldredge's costumes, and Nelson Riddle's music (both of the latter won Academy Awards) are not enough to compensate.

Paramount's DVD capitalizes on the film's strengths. The disc is sumptuous looking. Colours are bright and accurate, and the 1.85:1 anamorphic image is very crisp and clean looking. There are some occasional instances of grain; edge effects are minor. The film's original score is presented in both a new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix and in mono. The new mix achieves a reasonable improvement in fidelity over the mono and certainly provides some obvious if subtle uses of the surrounds. The disc has English subtitles. There are no supplements whatsoever.

Frasier: The Complete Second Season (1994-95)
(released on DVD by Paramount on January 6th, 2004)

Lest you think I live entirely in the past, I'm taking this opportunity to look at an item much more contemporary in nature - the latest Frasier box set. I justify this on the basis of what I consider the series' classic nature (as in a classic of television comedy). Fans of the series will recall that the Season One set arrived late last May and we got to visit once again with the ensemble cast that kicked off the show so successfully. That first season introduced all the main characters (Frasier himself, his brother Niles, their dad and his dog Eddie, their dad's therapist Daphne, and Frasier's producer Roz), as well as a few of the secondary ones (Bob "Bulldog" Briscoe, for example). Its focus tended to be on Frasier's relationship with his dad who had to come to live with him unexpectedly. The interaction between Frasier and Niles showed excellent potential and it is to that that much of the second season's focus was shifted. That proved to be a good decision, for the second season improved on what was already a successful formula. Of the 24 episodes, there are few misfires and a number that are among the series' very best ever.

Obviously I don't have to sell Frasier to anyone who's already a fan, but for the few who may not be familiar with the series, Frasier is one of the more intelligent, sharply written, and well-cast comedy programs available on television. Certainly that was the case in most of its early years. Inevitably, the passage of time has dulled the series' impact over the past year or so. Happily, however, on DVD we're only dealing with the early years so far, so the material is well worth picking up. The second season contains such memorable episodes as:

Frasier: The Complete Second Season

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The Matchmaker (Frasier invites his new boss over for dinner to meet Daphne, but the boss, who's gay, interprets the invitation as a date with Frasier), The Botched Language of Cranes (Frasier suggests a patient move away from the depressingly rainy atmosphere of Seattle, thus alienating much of the city), Roz in the Doghouse (Frasier manages to anger Roz to the point where she switches to working as the producer on Bulldog's sports show), The Club (Both Niles and Frasier try to become members of an exclusive men's club), Daphne's Room (No matter what he does, Frasier seems to end up in Daphne's bedroom), An Affair to Forget (Niles takes up the sword to defend his honour when he believes his wife Maris is having an affair with a fencing instructor), and The Innkeepers (Frasier and Niles think they can succeed where others have failed when they try to run a restaurant).

Paramount's DVD package for Frasier: Season Two is quite similar to its Season One effort. There are four discs in a fold-out digipak. Each disc contains six episodes and some special features. The episodes are presented full frame as originally broadcast and look quite decent. They're definitely better looking than how they appear as television broadcasts, but not as sharp as the best film transfers. There's some grain and softness from time to time, but otherwise colour fidelity and image detail are good. The audio is a Dolby Digital stereo mix that is unremarkable. Supplements consist of information on the celebrity voices that portray Frasier's phone-in guests, an audio commentary on The Matchmaker episode by director David Lee and writer Joe Keenan (informative though seemingly lacking in enthusiasm), and a series of short, forgettable featurettes mainly focusing on series' various characters one by one. Despite the lackluster supplements, the show's the thing, however, and this set is highly recommended.

Barrie Maxwell
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