Blu-ray Review: A Letter to Three Wives

Starring: Ann Sothern, Kirk Douglas, Linda Darnell
Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

letter-to-three-wives 1It’s hard now not to see shades of Desperate Housewives and the goings-on on Wisteria Lane in this sparkling comedy from the Joseph L. Mankiewicz. A trio of suburban housewives learn that disaster has struck and that one of their husbands has run off with their fellow suburbanite Addie Ross. But which husband?

Just like Mankiewicz’s All About Eve, A Letter to Three Wives has a flashback structure, a witty, sophisticated script and a keen understanding of the female psyche. Even before she starts stealing husbands, the glamorous, accomplished Addie – who also happens to be the film’s acidulous narrator – is a baleful presence to the other wives because she represents their menfolk’s ideal woman, from which they all fall short in one way or another, at least in their own minds.

In the film this is compounded by an awareness of the changing status of women, most obviously in the case of Rita (Ann Sothern), who, as a writer of radio soaps, earns more than her schoolteacher husband George (Kirk Douglas, belying his muscleman image by seeming thoroughly at home in this milieu) and who harbours social ambitions that her husband lacks. One of the comic highlights of the film is when Rita invites her philistine bosses to dinner, with, as George puts it, “all the pomp and hysteria usually reserved for coronations”.

But there are signs of changing times all around. The quiet Deborah (Jeanne Craine), who longs only to fit in, is the perhaps most revolutionary of them all, having served in the Navy during the war (a twist on the returning soldier motif that was a recurring theme of ’40s film noir).

This being a Mankiewicz movie, these issues emerge through effervescent dialogue and entrancing comic set-pieces. Arguably, the film could have done with a slightly more robust storyline, but why quibble when you can sit back and enjoy the various wise-cracking turns on show, especially the wonderful Thelma Ritter as Rita’s uncouth maid and cook (“Soup’s on!”)? 8/10

TRANSFER
The glossy b/w cinematography has a lovely contrast and a wide spectrum of greys. letter-to-three-wives 2The exteriors look especially crisp and fresh, for example the shot of Lora Mae pulling up at the pier in her car and then standing there in her white coat. But there’s no shortage of detail in the interiors too – in the dinner party sequence, for instance, you can see very clearly the ribbed, sparkly fabric of Mae’s top. 9/10

EXTRAS
Old newsreel of Mankiewicz collecting an Oscar. ~ Two radio adaptations of the film (ironic that these should even have been made, given the movie’s many jokes at the expense of the medium). ~ Scholarly audio commentary with Mankiewicz’s son Christopher, and film historians Kenneth Geist and Cheryl Power – this offers plenty of insights (especially from Lower) about the changes in American society reflected in the film, as well as background info about the cast. 7/10

Blu-ray review: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

Starring: Bertie Carvel, Eddie Marsen, Marc Warren

strange-and-norrell 1This enthralling tale of rival magicians, adapted from the novel by Susanna Clarke, has to be the best thing the BBC has made in years. Elegantly unfolding over the course of seven episodes, it sees supernatural doings returning to a sceptical Georgian England locked in a struggle with Napoleon, and sends its protagonist on a compelling arc from mild-mannered dilettante to wild-eyed visionary.

The first episodes, in particular, are enormously enjoyable, as Strange heads to the Peninsula to meet Wellington and become the army’s unwilling Merlin, and Norrell tries to establish himself in London, his longing for vainglory at odds with his natural reclusiveness. It’s hard to imagine a better Norrell that Eddie Marson – he brilliantly captures the feeling of a man ill at ease in his own skin and driven to acts of meanness by timidity and curdled low spirits. Just as good, in his own way, is Enzo Cilenti as Norrell’s servant Childermass, who has all the menace and commanding presence that Norrell lacks. And then there’s Marc Warren’s delicious turn as The Gentleman, with his voice from the grave, his wide baleful eyes and his stiff, Nosferatu-like posture – after a standout performance like that, his phone will doubtless be red hot with offers from Hollywood to play super villains.

A great cast is supported by a lyrically literate script and first-rate production design andstrange-and-norrell 2 FX – the splashy magical set-pieces, of course, but also the loving evocations of 1800s London and York. Arguably the Lost Hope scenes are a little underpowered, and Norrell isn’t given enough to do is the middle episodes, but so much else in this show has gone magnificently right that it seems pointless to cavil. Okay, BBC, now more of the same, please. 10/10

EXTRAS
A well-made and informative 25-min “making of”, with the actors, scriptwriter and director talking about securing the rights, adapting the book and bringing its key themes to the forefront. Marc Warren reveals that his silver wig was inspired by Sting’s look in Dune.~ Various sequences showing how the FX were composited. ~ 11 mins of deleted scenes, including several Napoloenic ones, which are particularly nice to have. 6/10

Blu-ray Review: Chimes at Midnight – Restored Edition

Starring: Orson Welles, Keith Baxter, Norman Rodway
Director: Orson Welles

chimes-at-midnight 1Visually, Orson Welles’ valedictory tribute to Merrie England is a triumph. Shot out of the studio on various live locations in Spain, it combines Bruegelesque earthiness and chilly grandeur in a way that still seems fresh and invigorating. As you’d expect with Welles, the camerawork is virtuoso, but perhaps more surprisingly given the meagre resources he was dealing with, the battle scenes are full-blooded, with a trick or two learned from Kurosawa in their array of flapping banners, glittering chainmail and swirling mists.

In other respects, however, Chimes at Midnight now seems rather rough around the edges. For starters, the acting doesn’t always gel convincing. Keith Baxter delivers a credible take on Prince Hal – beneath his high spirits, a cold fish like his father – and Norman Rodway makes an outstanding Harry Hotspur: perhaps the best scene in thechimes-at-midnight 2 whole film is the wonderfully relaxed, informal one where he’s taking a bath and chatting excitedly about the future with his wife Kate (Marina Vlady). But as Henry IV, John Gielgud seems to be in an entirely different, much stagier film. As for Welles, there’s no doubt that physically he fitted the part of Falstaff to a T, but his mumbling approach to Shakespeare’s lines makes this a performance to look at rather than listen to.

Given how lively and immediate the camerawork is, it’s also a shame that the impact of the film is deadened to some extent by the very obviously post-synched sound, especially in the case of poor Fernando Rey, who finds himself dubbed with an incongruous English accent (a fate which befell him again in The Immortal Story).

For these reasons, Chimes at Midnight hasn’t worn as well as, say, Touch of Evil, but it still manages to be visually striking and plangently melancholy, the more so as it was the last major film that Welles completed. 8/10

EXTRAS
This restoration has just a few tiny scratches, but is otherwise extremely clean in attractive silvery tones. The attempted robbery in the woods has a crisp wintry glare, and all of the scenes in Mistress Quickly’s bawdy house have a lovely depth of field and are wrapped in an almost sculptural directional light – in the sequence where Falstaff pretends to King Henry, the saucepan on his head now looks gleamingly bright. The audio is also clear and resonant. All in all, it’s impossible to imagine this film looking or sounding better. 10/10

Also available to buy separately:

THE IMMORTAL STORY

immortal-story 1Made for TV and based on a story by Isak Dinesen, this late work by Welles sees him playing the last in a long line of hollow figures of authority. Mr Clay is an ailing and possibly mad business based in Macao who decides to bring to life an oft-repeated sailor’s yarn about a young tar being bedded by a beautiful young woman, but the actors he enlists have ideas of their own about their roles and anyway aren’t necessarily what they seem.

As so often with Welles’ later works, The Immortal Story is flawed by tight budget, but itimmortal-story 2 also gains from some nice location photography and an intense performance from Jeanne Moreau as the woman of ill repute who finds herself cast as a dewy young innocent.. The slow pacing and heavy use of narration make it feel less like a movie proper than a piece of armchair theatre, but, reflecting as it does cynically on the role of the film director, the story conjures up a powerful mood of futility tinged with voyeurism. The DVD transfer we saw was a little soft and blurry, but with nice mellow colours. 6/10

TOO MUCH JOHNSON

too-much-johnson 1This is a work print of an unfinished film created by Welles’ Mercury Theatre. Although made in 1936, well into the sound era, it’s shot in the idiom of a silent movie and set back in the 1910s/20s. Joseph Cotton plays a young man romancing a girl of loose morals, but when another one of her lovers turns up and flies into a jealous rage, a frantic chase ensues.

In the early scenes, the young Welles seems to be channelling Eisenstein and Un Chien Andalou, with brilliant and visually arresting results – the lovers’ early cavortings are expressed in a breathless montage of surprisingly louche imagery. Later on, as the two men engage in various Harold Lloyd-style antics, clambering over rooftops, the story loses its way and eventually peters out, but not before you see many glimpses of the future – the absurdist humour that drives The Trial and the keen eye for period detail apparent in The Magnificent Ambersons are both very much in evidence, and there’s an overhead shot of a maze of crates that seems to foreshadow Citizen Kane. The print quality is excellent, with just a little damage but mainly clean and sharp. 6/10

DVD Review: Bleach Season 15 – Part 2

Bleach-series15_PART2 1The second half of the fifteenth season of this long-running demon-busting shows finds Ichigo and his fellow soul reapers very much on the back foot. They’re trying to protect mystery girl Nozomi from the clutches of evil genius Kagerosa, but it’s tough going as they square up against a whole load of super-powered soul reaper doppelgangers and end up repeatedly getting knocked on their kimono-clad asses for their pains. Meanwhile, eager to be of help, Nozomi discovers that she too has dormant powers and is determined to awaken them.

It’s all pretty edge-of-the-seat stuff then, barring one or two blemishes. For starters, Kagerosa, who has the ability to absorb and mimic his enemies’ powers a la Sylar in Heroes, is so indestructible it’s easy to get a bit fed up as he lays waste to the good guys time and again. Then there’s a whole lot of noise and arm-waving from cuddly toy Kon, who never shuts up except when someone is stamping on his face. Also, when will Ichigo and his pals learn to work as a team and follow orders? You can’t help feeling sorry for Head Captain Yamamoto, who could probably sort out the whole thing himself if the others didn’t keep on getting in his way.

Such minor grumbles aside, there’s plenty to enjoy in this latest box set, with some decent banter and no end of furious dust-ups across the rooftops and green spaces of Ichigo’s home town. A big cast of supporting characters get to show their moves, and there are some particularly enjoyable scenes with stripy-hatted Kisuke, the cunning strategist who forms a counter-plan to put Kagerosa in his place. As for the animation, it can be a little ragged in some of the quieter scenes, but when it comes to the set-piece throwdowns, expect to be treated to an array of sizzling fireballs, energy beams and mushroom clouds. Ichigo might be having trouble with his energy levels recently, but the series as a whole still packs a spirited punch. 7/10

DVD Review: RWBY Season 1

rwby 1This American-made anime (from webseries maestros RoosterTeeth) centres around a character named Ruby Rose, who rocks a demure Little Red Hiding Hood outfit but who has an ungirlish passion for large, deadly weapons, her favourite being an oversized scythe-cum-sniper rifle that goes everywhere with her. Together with her older sister Yang, she’s packed off to a special academy where she can learn to hone her fighting prowess, and a good thing too, as all kinds of social discontent and criminal activities are brewing in the background.

The story is solid, if not very original. Once at the academy, the students are divided into teams and sent on training missions, a la Naruto, with a tournament or two for good measure. Battling gigantic monsters, the students have to cease bickering and get in some serious team bonding, while Ruby has to stop being such a weapon geek and become more of a people person. It’s a tale zestfully told, however, with voice acting and music both above average, and the series is given a real lift by the quality of the wise-cracking dialogue and the liveliness of the subsidiary characters, such as class bitch and know-it-all Weiss and Jaune, a hapless wimp who suffers from motion sickness and a lack of confidence but who gets taken in hand by Xena-type warrior girl Pyrrha.

Ultimately, though, how much you enjoy RWBY will depend upon whether you can take rwby 2the show’s 3D CG animation, which has a decidedly cheap and cheerful look – stiff shoulders and banana fingers are the order of the day. Still, if you can get past that, there’s a lot to enjoy in this bright, good-humoured series. 6/10

EXTRAS
2-mins of footage of some cosplayers dressed up as the characters. ~ 7-min behind-the-scenes with the director, writers and producers, with some insights into the thinking behind the show, its development through the script stage and the 3D modelling. ~ 2 audio commentaries, one with the director and writers, the other with some of the voice cast – both are chatty and lively, although with the amount of in-jokes and laughter, it’s a bit like eavesdropping in on a private conversation in a bar. 7/10

DVD Review: Red Vs Blue Season 11

red-vs-blue 1Machinima phenomenon Red Vs Blue returns for an eleventh outing, and this time the ill-fated grunts have crash-landed on a remote alien planet, where the two teams set up separate camps and are then left with nothing to do but get on each other’s nerves. Actually, that’s not quite fair – the long-suffering Washington tries to fix the radio and keep his team in check, the depressed Caboose gets himself a pet attack droid called Freckles, and Sarge – who seems to be growing more senile and unreasonable by the minute – discovers a passion for interior design.

At first glance Red Vs Blue can seem like a bit of a one trick pony, getting repeat laughs from the incongruous sight of the heavily armoured marines losing it, falling out, bickering like children and being prone to all kinds of foibles. But the show’s writers keep the wisecracks coming thick and fast, and the tone of the humour – knowing, wry, with an undertone of existential melancholy – is very cool and engaging, reminiscent at red-vs-blue 2times of the old John Carpenter classic Dark Star. Plus, as well as the various absurdist situations which occur, there’s a slow-burning plot of sorts which eventually erupts in a genuinely exciting way. All in all, a season that should delight fans and promises plenty more enthralling colour-coded misadventures to come. 6/10

EXTRAS
7 mins of jokey extras with the Red and Blue teams. ~ A brief (5-min) but interesting behind-the-scenes, in which the creative team discuss their approach to the series, and you get to hear the actors speaking in their normal voices. ~ An audio commentary with the writer/director and cast, with some technical chat about making the show and using graphics from Halo. 7/10

Blu-ray review: Forty Guns

Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, Barry Sullivan
Director: Samuel Fuller

forty-guns 3“She’s a high ridin’ woman with a whip…” The spicy theme song, plus the film’s plethora of double entendres (“May I feel it?” Barbara Stanwyck asks of Barry Sullivan’s six shooter. “It may go off in your face,” he warns her) has earned Forty Guns (1957) a reputation as a lurid, kitsch horse opera in much the same mould as Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. Actually, it’s a far more thoughtful and considered film, the closest thing director Samuel Fuller came to making a Hawksian western.

Stanwyck plays Jessica Drummond, a tough, formidable businesswoman who dresses up like Elizabeth I when she’s at home and who is the de facto governor and tax collector of Cochise County. Alas, she’s let down by the stupid and corrupt goons who work for her and her drunken good for nothing of a younger brother. Forced to clean up after them, she’s put on a collision course with visiting marshal Griff Bonnell (Sullivan playing Wyatt Earp in all but name). This is all the more tragic as she and Griff feel an instant connection when they meet.

The dialogue emphasis an element of crackling sexual tension, but actually, the way theforty-guns 2 two leads play it, it’s more of a sweet-tempered Autumn romance, a question of an Alpha male and an Alpha female suddenly finding their soulmate late in life – and they do have a great deal in common: they’re both survivors, shaping the land they live in, and their both have siblings whom they fret about. The fact that both Sullivan and Stanwyck were showing their age by this stage of their career only adds to the charm and pathos of the pairing.

As you would expect with Fuller, the whole thing is told in an urgent, compressed style full of virtuoso camerawork, but it’s in the warmth of its characterisation and the thoughtfulness of its gender politics that Forty Guns really impresses and endears. 9/10

TRANSFER
Fuller’s striking b/w ‘Scope compositions come up very nicely in this silvery-toned transfer, with no grain and plenty of detail. Early on, you can clearly see the dust caked forty-guns 1on the faces of Griff and his brothers as they trundle into town, and the tracking shot of Barney carrying buckets to the bathhouse, with the mining town spread out behind him, has a crystal clear depth of field. Later on, the dust-storm scene has an eerie, dreamlike beauty. Fuller fans will be delighted. 9/10

EXTRAS
16 min featurette in which a French critic places the film in the context of what was happening in Hollywood in the ’50s and the decline of the western, points out its use of well-researched period details and explains how the original bleak, downbeat ending was substituted for a softer, more romantic one. ~ Audio-only interview with Samuel Fuller recorded in 1969, which serves in the place of a conventional audio commentary. The director tends to wander around the point, but eventually tells some amusing, jokey anecdotes about his start in the film business as a writer, explaining how his early scripts drew on his background in journalism. 6/10