Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Politics of War Examined in Stanley Kubrick's "Paths of Glory"

Politics may lead to war but when war becomes little more than a political ploy to protect those in charge the average soldier ends up as the victim sacrificed to ego. Stanley Kubrick's first masterpiece "Paths of Glory" focuses on a colonel (Kirk Douglas) who defends his men on the charges of cowardice when they fail at carrying out a mission that his superiors knew to be impossible. Douglas gives one of his finest performances in Kubrick's film and the top notch supporting cast includes Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, Richard Anderson, and George Macready.

Kubrick's film is a study in the hypocrisy and gap that exists between waging war and the politics of war, it's impact on our humanity and the often absurd lengths that those in charge will go to as a means of keeping the their world neat and tidy. It also sums up an entire generation of those who feel entitled using murder as nothing more than a means to bolster their ego and protect their station. It's the ultimate method to punish someone else for your mistake(s) so that we can trust those who lead even as they lead us into a dead end.

Based on the novel by Humphrey Cobb and written for the screen by Calder Willingham (the earliest drafts), Kubirck and Jim Thompson (who rewrote the script adding despite Willingham later claim about 50% new material to the script), Kubrick already demonstrates his expertise at setting up and executing complex sequences just as well as his smaller intimate moments of character conflict.

The Criterion edition of the film (this review is for the Blu-ray)is the ultimate edition. It has the correct aspect ratio. The transfer has been lovingly restored from the best elements available and detail, depth and blacks are remarkable throughout the presentation. This is a huge step up from the original DVD. "Paths of Glory" is beautifully rendered on Blu-ray. The mono audio sounds quite good with dialogue quite clear.

Be aware however that there is a jump cut in this restoration where a few frames are missing and UCLA/MGM which restored the film were unable to find adequate source for that footage. It lasts only a second at about 56:04.

As with all Criterion films this comes with a book featuring an essay on the making of the film by film critic/scholar James Naermore, a 1966 audio interview with Kubrick about the making of the film (a bit of trivia--Kubrick "suggested" a less bleak ending in hopes that he could keep the dark ending that is IN the film much as Hitchcock used to bluff the Hayes commission by putting things in his script and sometimes film that he KNEW he would never end up using in the final product), a 1979 interview with star Douglas and new interviews with producer Jan Harlan and James B. Harris as well as actress Christiane Kubrick. We also get a vintage French TV special on the inspiration for the film as well as the original theatrical trailer. The audio commentary by Gary Giddins is quite good providing insight into the filmmaking process as well as themes later elaborated in other Kubrick films.

As with all of Criterion latest Blu-ray releases (and their latest DVD releases as well), this is a top notch highly recommended version of the film. Yes, it is expensive but if you don't want to pay the full retail price wait for a two-for-one Criterion sale (as I did).

While Kubrick directed noteworthy films before "Paths of Glory" this film provided him with the opportunity to step up to bigger, more elaborate productions and demonstrated the themes that would preoccupy for the remainder of his career as a film director. Highly recommended.

Our Crippled Healthcare System

Health care continues to limp on in the United States. We are ranked 46th out of all the Top 50 nations for health care in the world. Part of the issue is that health care is run like any other business and yet it isn't truly a business--profiting on someone's else's health or denying coverage for a pre-existing condition (or stating that a technique is experimental when, in fact, it isn't so as to deny coverage and keep the patient alive)is a form of gambling but it gambles with people's lives which makes it Wendell Potter worked for what he would probably characterize as the "enemy" now for over twenty years. As a PR executive he would weave lies into a positive "truth" for the company he worked for (Cigna) making it appear that they were always doing the right thing for their patients. Using statistics to lie is one thing (for example dropping people off the unemployment rolls that are reported to make it appear that the nation is covering when it isn't)but PR people like Wendall Potter would often twist the truth or help craft messages to appeal to middle America to scare the public from reform in health care.

Wendall Potter's book DEADLY SPIN takes us behind the curtain to reveal that our make shift healthcare system continues continues to fall apart because the magical Wizard of Oz continues to con us into believing their illusions: the illusion that we have great healthcare; the illusion that reform is bad; the illusion that universal healthcare that the nations ranked 1 through 10 on the list of exceptional care are somehow substandard; the illusion that tying organizations that provide healthcare to profits and that profitability of a healthcare company will give us the quality that we need to survive in the 21st century. The CEO magpies of Aetna, Cigna and other health insurance giants continue to profit from illness, death and disease making them nothing more than one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Hooper came to his senses and realized he worked for unethical charlatans who were descendants of the rainmakers that populated the dust bowl during the Great Depression.

One day Potter had an awakening and realized what he was doing was wrong leaving the industry that had nurtured him and becoming an advocate for proper health care and a government based system to force corporations to play fair. He just couldn't stomach hiding greed behind the veneer of double speak falling into a rabbit hole with language that only George Orwell would recognize. He chronicles his rise in the industry and his disillusionment and how the media is manipulated, patients, government to make decisions that are profiting major corporations at the cost of our health and lives. This is as much the story of his awakening as it is about the PR manipulation of the public around health care issues.

Potter's exceptional book "Deadly Spin" takes us behind-the-scenes into the wheeling and dealing that goes on with multiple PR flacks that try and spin doctor any change that threatens their profit as bad for the average consumer. Potter gives us a history of the PR game to help us understand WHY and HOW this delibunethical.

The health care industry from health plans to pharmaceuticals have for too long had access to lawmakers (using the money that we pay them) to push forward their own agenda and "buy" politicians in Washington; that's nothing new it just just become more blatant than before. Using misinformation, front groups to suggest that any sort of reform is bad, these organizations have been directing America down a path with overgrown foilage and rough terrain where the patient must always suffer. Potter's book takes the curtain that these companies hide behind and let's us see the thought process, innner workings and how misinformation manipulates the public to make the wrong choices while allowing politicians to make those choices knowing they are wrong without ramifications.

Is "Universal Healthcare" the way to go? I don't know but I do know that the insurance industry is scared of it. Perhaps the enemy of our enemy could be our friend and perhaps that friend SHOULD scare the healthcare industry. Maybe they'll shape up and move in an ethical direction where Orwellian doublespeak doesn't dominate their time and caring for humanity will. It's a nice dream. The dream can only come true though if made practical and removing profit as an incentive. Potter points out how people like him would manipulate the media and politicians to paint Universal Healthcare as "communist" or "socialist" in nature to taint any and all intelligent discussion about the positives and negatives scaring people away before dialog had even begun. Is it communism or socialism to want to live long, healthy lives? I would state that this is an essential element of a caring democratic society.

Potter suggests that having some sort of system like this in place would be helpful in redefining the way we take care of our health. The recent changes with Obama Care he points out aren't perfect but is a step in the right direction (--his complaint was that corporate America shaped it (this is Potter's opinion mind you I don't know that I agree with him on this point but it is food for thought).

I don't know that I agree with all of Potter's suggestions (for example I think that given our economy Obama Care should have been a lower priority--right in the middle of the worst economic downturn in ages-- and when it did become a priority it was so badly compromised that the changes--small as they were and some positive--are meaningless in the over all big picture)but I have to admire him for waking up from the money inspired opiate-like dream that has entranced everyone else in his former industry. I also feel that Potter would have done better to give us more indepth examples of why the system breaks down consistently but what we do get makes me embarrassed to be an American because of the self centered greed of those in charge.

Regardless of where you stand on healthcare-- if you believe or don't believe in universal healthcare--Potter's book is essential reading for understanding the flaws in our system and how corporate greed and profit continues to manipulate who gets coverage, who doesn't and why we are ranked so poorly compared to other nations when it comes to health care.


The Southern Gothic World of Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter"

"The Night of the Hunter" (Blu-ray)
Genre: Suspense
Review by Wayne A. Klein
Release Date: 11/16/10
Studio: Criterion
Special Features: Commentary, documentaries, outtakes, photos, essays
Rating: Unrated
Combining elements of Southern Gothic with German Expressionism Charles Laughton's "The Night of the Hunter" remains an unusual classic. It manages to combine suspense, broad elements of satire, and a dollop of compassion. This is an influence of D. W. Griffith's stylized dramas. Laughton even went so far as to cast Griffith regular Lillian Gish in a pivotal role that echoes her work for Griffith from the silent era. Laughton tells a story that Faulkner or O'Connor might have although with a slightly less populist touch. Featuring an amazing performance from Robert Mitchum that is, at turns, sincere, evil, psychopathic and just south of over-the-top, actor Laughton ("The Hunchback of Notre Dame", "Mutiny on the Bounty")was in his 50's when he made his first film in collaboration with director of photography Stanley Cortez ("The Magnificient Ambersons")and acclaimed writer James Agee ("The African Queen" the Pulitzer Prize winning novel A DEATH IN THE FAMILY)but it's clear that he paid attention on all of those movie sets. A box office dud when it was released the audience at the time didn't know what to make of Laughton's film. Laughton never directed a film again. Luckily audiences rediscovered this stylized film which is as droll as it is sincere and suspenseful.

There is no doubt that "The Night of the Hunter" is an acquired taste like some of Hitchcock and Welles' films but for those who appreciate the film this is the ultimate edition and essential. The film like Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" and Welles' "The Magnificient Ambersons" focuses on how we saw ourselves in the era the film is set not necessarily on how we really WERE at the time. There is a stylized, theatrical quality to the film that wasn't unnatural for the era. Unlike a contemporary film Laughton wasn't trying to create something that reflects the real world but like the Southern Gothic origins of the story tell a story that reflects the myths, legends and stories of the south that were often told as parables to entertain, enlighten and frighten.

While Laughton didn't have the free reign to adapt the film including all of the darker elements of the novel (the Code was still in effect and all scripts had to be submitted for review prior to production and release) resulting in a film that often has a number of surreal moments that don't exactly fit the needs of the narrative. Laughton pared down Agee's script cutting a fair amount of material to make the film as concise as possible adding to the mystery of the film at times; we don't know why the Preacher behaves the way he does we just know that he is completely crazy. In many respects Mitchum's Preacher reflects every crazy con man that drifted through the south during the Great Depression trying to fleece those that were barely surviving and justifying his "mission" to some funhouse mirror reflection of God.

How does it look? Having seen the MGM release of "The Night of the Hunter" on DVD (and in Meltnitz at UCLA)I can state that Criterion's Blu-ray (and I'm sure the DVD since it was prepared from the same 2K high definition master)looks the best it ever has on home video. That doesn't mean for those you of you raised on digital video without film grain that the grain has been removed--the fine grain and textures of the film are intact and give the film the marvelous ominious quality it had when it played in theaters removing the murky blacks that were a hallmark of the MGM DVD.

The story based on the novel by Davis Grubb (who contributed sketches and comments to Agee and Laughton in pre- production)focuses on a traveling preacher Harry Powell (Mitchum)who is after the money a bank robber (the late Peter Graves)stole to help his wife (Shelly Winters) and children. Cellmates in prison Powell goes on the hunt for the money after the money of the robber after his execution. He woos and weds the widow of his cellmate terrifying her children while playing the pious minister as he searches for the money suspecting that the children are the only ones who know where it is hidden.

As with all Criterion discs you pay a lot for this BUT you get a lot in return if you are a fan of the film and a film buff. We get a deluxe 28 page booklet with essays about Laughton and writer Agee by Terrence Rafferty and Michael Sragow with plenty of production and behind-the-scenes photos from the film. As film critic F. X. Feeney and assistant director Terry Saunders point out in their excellent commentary track the film was made on the studio lot with a budget of around $700,000 and Laughton spent an exhausting amount of time with his actors to get the best performances he could including the children in the film (Feeney and Saunders point out that Robert Mitchum's biography which suggested that HE directed the child actors is nothing more than fantasy--perhaps he did some time as an actor coaching them but Laughton despite his dislike of children spent the time with them he needed to coach them)going to far as to scrap ALL the footage with one actor and reshooting them with a new performer.

We also get an excellent interview with actor/writer and Laughton biographer Simon Callow ("Five Weddings and A Funeral")focusing on Laughton's career and the making of the film. An excerpt from "The Ed Sullivan Show" is included where the cast perform a deleted scene from the film as well as archival interviews with Mitchum and Cortez. The big attraction though is the new documentary on the making of the film that includes new interviews and on the second disc "Charles Laughton Directs 'The Night of the Hunter' a two and a half hour compilation of behind-the-scenes footage, stills, and outtakes from the movie.

Robert Gitt of the UCLA Archives who provided the print used for this restoration also appears in an interview with Film Historian and critic Leonard Maltin discussing the "Charles Laughton Directs" special feature on disc two. Gitt a long time fixture of the archives has helped shepherd hundreds of films from being swallowed by the mist of history. The work that the archive has done in collaboration with MGM, Criterion and other studios/production companies has been essential in maintaining our cultural history on film. Without them we would have had the disaster that occurred with many silent films disintegrating during the early sound era of the 20th century. During that time frame (from the 30's until the 60's) transferring silent movies was a low priority and many of them either were destroyed in disasters or by the time studios got around to recognizing that silent films were assets were far too gone to do anything with them. We're lucky that films such as "Metropolis" have managed to survive in private collections enabling the reconstruction of missing footage. I fear for the digital era movies that we have coming out because unlike film itself once the data is gone reconstruction may be impossible.

If you've never seen "The Night of the Hunter" I would probably recommend renting it first to see if it is a movie that appeals to you. Laughton's unusual tone and approach to the material makes "Hunter" a film that not everyone appreciates. If you love the film I would definitely pick up the Criterion edition because although it IS expensive, it has an exhaustive catalog of special features covering almost every aspect of the film.

It's a pity that Laughton was so discouraged by the reception of this film as his next project was an film of "The Naked and the Dead" and based on "Hunter" I imagine film fans would have been in for a treat.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The subtly of evil and how it can flourish in the wake of science

The "banality" of evil has drifted into cliche. Evil isn't banal like everything that we humans do, evil takes many forms from larger-than-life prouncements where we scream and pound podiums to the quiet afterthought of a denied medical benefit that reduces our quality of life ultimately leading to death. Evil may be the color of money but we find it doesn't confine itself to money (although evil does discriminate if you have any doubt about that take a look at the history of the jews, Kurds and any other group that finds itself the scapegoat of political and economic  disorder caused by those who insist on becoming the ruling class).

Evil as portrayed in film has moved far beyond the black hats of sinister looks of depression era movies. Hitchcock paved the way portraying evil as charming and often the work of intelligent people some of them the movers and shakers of industry. All one has to do is to look to our current economic crisis and see the subtle impact of evil in the form of greedy Wall Street investors who are only working towards their self interest never realizing that self interest remains the altar where the essence of our humanity dies gutted by those who never meant to be evil, never meant to harm others but leave victims in their wake. Sometimes those same people DO know what they are doing but substitute the word "business" for evil as they evict people from their homes. That's not to suggest that we don't set ourselves up for the triumph of evil--often we do by buying into the marketing messages force fed to us on the internet and by multimedia conglomerants which by their nature represent the base building blocks of evil--anonymity, lack of responsbility, etc.

The perfect place to examine evil and its impact is religion. Why? Because there has been as much damage caused by religion which continues to be politics by another name as the good that religion has done. Often the evil of our society comes gift wrapped with positive messages fooling us that it's OK to unwrap this bomb that does so much damage to our world, our community.

In the arts the best place to examine the nature of evil outside of literature is film. Hitchcock, Welles, Renior and others gave us a much more complex view of how we can dip into this poisoned well and how it can contaminate our souls. As horror films moved beyond the exploitative elements that gave birth to them, the filmmaker embraced the potential to understand the nature of evil and how it informs our humanity. "The Exorcist" released in 1973 gives us a broad canvas to give us a glimpse into evil and how science can explain it away and, in the process, rob us of the ability to see it for what it truly is--a parasite that tears at who we are making us into something other than who we want to be.

There was a time when horror flicks thrived on creating tension and actually had some character development in addition to the shocks and chills of the genre. While exploitation horror flicks have always been around, director William Friedkin ("The French Connection", "Sorceror", "Cruising", "To Live and Die in L.A.") and writer/producer William Peter Blatty tucked elements of those films into a film examining the issues of faith, science and the cost of redemption with "The Exorcist". Much like Roman Polanski with "Rosemary's Baby", Friedkin and Blatty chose to use the horror film to dig into human behavior as much as they shock us.

The new 2 disc Blu-ray gives us both the original theatrical cut and the 2000 "Extended Director's Cut" that Friedkin reworked adding in a couple of scenes, shuffling the order of a few scenes and editing out a few others in his pursuit of perfection. Both versions have their merits and both look marvelous in a stunning (for a 1973 film) transfer that doesn't betray the grainy look of the original film while still capturing the film with sharpness only hinted at in the previous DVD releases. As to which you prefer, that'll be your call. As much as I enjoy the addition of the show stopping "spider walk" sequence (and it does, indeed, stop the movie cold as the screen briefly goes to black)and some of the editing/digital tricks up Friedkin's sleeve, the original film resonates more for me and allows our imagination and the psychological terror a bit more free rein. The original film runs 122 minutes while the "Extended Director's Cut" runs about 132 minutes.
Be aware though that Friedkin has tinkered with the 2000 "Director's Cut" that appeared on DVD removing some flash images of demons, etc. that evidently he felt might have been a bit cheesy in retrospect. Nevertheless, this is, largely, that 2000 DVD release with the exception of these minor differences. There isn't any additional footage beyond that edition included in the film that I could tell.
The sound is marvelous throughout with a 5.1 mix that adds a wallop to the impact of the film. There's also a featurette on the different versions of "The Exorcist" that is quite interesting and an insightful commentary from director William Friedkin (although Friedkin occasionally falls into the bad habit of telling us what we're seeing he usually comes up with some interesting insight in the process). These are located on the first disc which features the "Director's Cut" from 2000.

The second disc features the original cut of the film, two commentaries one with Friedkin and one with Blatty as well as the 1998 "The Fear of God: The Making of The Exorcist" from the original DVD release. We also get the interview gallery featuring various members of the cast and crew discussing everything from the original ending intended for the film to the meaning of the film. Friedkin's introduction of the 1998 DVD is included here as well.There is, of course, the original ending of the film which differs subtly from the final version with a bit more ambiguity.

The film comes complete with a three part documentary on the making of the film which reveals a lot of the difficult issues that dogged the production both prior to release and after it hit theaters where many religious groups condemned the film which is ironic given the themes that are at the heart of the film.
The first edition of this also comes with a handsome looking booklet looking like a hardcover book with biographies of the cast members, behind-the-scenes and production stills as well as a one sheet with thoughts on the film by the director.

Warner has done a brilliant job of transferring the film to Blu-ray (although some may quibble a bit with the choices by Friedkin and his DP in regards to color saturation--but it IS their film)and have brought over all the extras from previous editions as well as adding a three part documentary on the making of the film.
Is "The Exorcist" the scariest film ever made? That's for you to judge--it all depends on whether or not you like your horror served hot or cold (i.e., shock value exploitation type horror or a mixture of that with psychological character driven suspense) either way Warner has once again done a brilliant job of creating the ultimate Blu-ray of the film for home video.

Friedkin and Blatty managed to make a horror film that touched on our deepest, darkest fears AND also managed to deal with a number of major themes all while giving us complex, interesting characters an accomplishment that very few directors have managed when creating a horror film (Ridley Scott's "Alien" also does much the same thing) that is psychologically claustrophobic.

While Friedkin and Blatty may take the road more commonly traveled (it is the Devil that caused all the damage) they also use the Devil and evil as a device to examine the darkness that tears at our own souls and how we can either shed light on that darkness or continue to walk into that basement as our own light is extinguished in the process. Someone has to protect that single solidary flame and sometimes, in the process, our protector also becomes our victim.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

With superfriends like these...

“Super Friends! Season One, Volume Two”
Review by Wayne Klein
Studio: Warner Home Video
Release Date: 7/14/10
Special Features: Trivia game
Rated: NR
---Review: Before cartoons became dark and violent in the 1970’s Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and others were part of the “Super Friends” which was the OTHER extreme—lame, weak stories highlighted by poor 70’s limited animation. The good news is that the design for the characters looks quite sharp and captures the look of the characters from the original comic books although the detail wasn’t quite there. The difficulty facing the producers and writers was creating conflict and action without violence and they had to carry “messages”, i.e., pollution is bad, conservation good. While messages are important I’ve never felt that the sole purpose of cartoons was to educate kids and have some sort of message. Message is inherent in the medium and the way the story is told. That somehow escaped the network that was facing pressure from advertisers and the FCC.
***That said the folks that grew up on the “Super Friends” will enjoy digging into the past to a simpler time but also may find themselves bored silly. Aside from the superheroes hanging out at the Hall of Justice as if it is a glorified Starbucks, occasionally dealing with the invading alien or bad guys that demonstrate no ability to reason—which makes you wonder HOW they rose to the top of the class for bad guys—you have a series that would have been ripe for parody on an animated version of “Mystery Science Theater 3000”.
---Image & Sound: Bright, colorful and surprisingly good looking for a nearly 40 year old TV show. Detail is dicey at time but overall decent. There are the occasional artifacts such as edge enhancement but overall the show looks pretty decent.
***Audio sounds quite good with the mono highlighting the dialogue (and, of course, the nicely intoned voiceover by the late actor Ted Knight) which is how it should be.
---Special Features: Extras? We have the SUPER FRIENDS we don’t need any extras. OK, well, we do get a trivia game for a truly trivial show from the 70’s. Seriously, there are other animated shows that deserve to come to DVD ahead of “Super Friends” (which amazingly ran for 7 years despite the increasing indifference by its aging audience) and WHY they haven’t come out ahead of this is beyond me.
---Final Words: If you’re part of the increasingly small crowd that remembers this show fondly, you’ll find that memory quickly brought into the cold light of reality; “Super Friends!” was hardly entertaining and really was no more than a glorified babysitter for parents that wanted to sleep in on Saturdays.

Classic Altman film finally arrives on DVD

“Brewster McCloud”
Review by Wayne Klein
Studio: Warner Archive Home Video
Release Date: 7/14/10
Special Features: Trailer
Rated: PG
---Review: There truly was nothing in Robert Altman’s previous films to prepare one for “Brewster McCloud”. After the success of “M*A*S*H” Altman was given the keys to the store and allowed to do whatever project he wanted to do. Altman’s film about a boy who lives in the Houston Astrodome and longs to fly was a box office disaster earning either scathing or puzzled reviews but little appreciation by anyone. It features all the hallmarks of an Altman film from the overlapping dialog to the often off-beat humor that filtered through even into his most serious projects.
***McCloud (Bud Cort of “Harold and Maude”)spends his days working on a set of wings that will allow him to escape the world. His guardian Louise (Sally Kellerman) wants Brewster to succeed keeping a close tab on the young man. A subplot involves a police officer Frank Shaft (Michael Murphy) as he tracks a serial killer. Brewster finds himself distracted by a young tour guide (Shelly Duvall)as he struggles to complete his dream project.
***Written by Dora William Canon who also wrote Otto Preminger’s odd film “Skidoo” and penned a acclaimed TV adaptation of “Brave New World”, “Brewster McCloud” remains amusing and the strangest thing directed by Altman. Unfortunately, Canon’s career petered out in 1980 a quarter century before her death in 2005. It’s clear that some of the quirky nature of the film came directly from the writer and other elements from Altman and his cast improvising on the set. Either way, this is an oddly enjoyable film that still has plenty of Altman in it.
---Image & Sound: As with all of the Warner Archive releases very little beyond trying to find a clean pristine copy of the film was done to restore “Brewster McCloud”. The film looks solid if not spectacular. Detail is good if and image quality varies a bit from soft to fairly sharp. Depth isn’t as good as it could be but, again, considering the age of the film it’s a solid if unspectacular presentation.
***The mono audio track is decent as well.
Special Features: It’s a pity that Warner sat on this for so long as since this was a favorite of Altman’s he might have participated in some special materials for a special release with him gone, it would have been nice if Warner had put together a deluxe edition. I realize that this film would have cult appeal but, perhaps, after this Warner could license this out to a small house that could assemble some outtakes (if they exist) and a retrospective featurette with Kellerman, Duvall and Cort. All we do get is a trailer.
---Final Words: A cult classic “Brewster McCloud” finally arrives on a decent looking DVD-R from Warner Archive. It’s a solid looking DVD but it could be better. That shouldn’t prevent you from getting this because I doubt we’ll see a better re-release immediately.

Welcome to retromovies at retroactivemovies

“Hamlet” (1996) Blu-ray
Genre: Drama
Review by Wayne Klein
Studio: Warner Home Video
Release Date: 08/17/10
Special Features: Commentary track, featurettes, theatrical trailer
Rating: PG-13
---Review: The play’s the thing quite literally in Kenneth Branagh’s film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s tale of murder set within the royal court of Denmark. Hamlet (Branagh) suspects that his uncle Claudius (Derek Jacobi) murdered his father the King of Denmark in order to wed Hamlet’s mother (Julie Christie) and ascend to the throne. When the ghost of his father (Brian Blessed) appears Hamlet is convinced he must expose his step-father/uncle for his duplicity. His mother worries about Hamlet’s behavior believing that he has gone mad (“I am but mad north - north-west” a nonexistent heading providing the title for a classic Hitchcock film and also cluing us in that Hamlet is ANYTHING but mad). Hamlet schemes to use a traveling group of actors (led by the late Charlton Heston) to put on a play portraying the murder of his mother and plans on watching Claudius’ reaction. Unknown to Hamlet Claudius who suspects has plans of his own for his nephew.
The best and most complete film version of Shakespeare’s plan receives the most imaginative and colorful (and cinematic) presentation ever. Making director Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 imaginative version seem like a pale shadow of THIS version. Even Lawrence Olivier’s 1948 version pales in comparison with Branagh’s ambitious interpretation where he visually interpolates elements implied in the original and revised portfolios of the play neatly providing us with a subplot that adds tension to already rich plot. Branagh often transposes lines of dialog to compliment other scenes adding subtext and enriching the work of the Bard as only an exceptional director can. If you add in the brilliant visual interpretation of the play (where Branagh moves the action up to the early 18th century allowing the brilliant production designs by Tim Harvey and cinematography of Alex Thomson to shine, you have a deeply ambitious cinematic work that manages to stay true to the original roots of the play AND become a cinematic masterpiece.
---Image & Sound: A rich, colorful film “Hamlet” provides a stark contrast between text and subtext of the play with its varied, intricate look and what is occurs in the film itself. The transfer looks sharp with a nicely rendered transfer the film. The presentation isn’t flawless however as the bit rate is relatively low (with all 244 minutes of the film plus extras crammed on to one dual layered Blu-ray disc) resulting instances where detail isn’t quite as good as it could be in some darker scenes. There’s also the issue of the pink hue to faces throughout of the film. I recall the skin tone being a bit more natural in the theatrical presentation I saw years ago. Truly the film should have been presented over two discs to capture the rich look of the film. One of the few films shot in Great Britain in 70 millimeter in the late 20th century, this blu-ray edition looks good but could have looked brilliant. I would have gladly traded the book-style presentation of the film (with some nice stills included) for a two discs special edition with the film broken up over two discs.
***That said the film doesn’t suffer from the overuse of DNR I was afraid of when I first heard that this was going to come to Blu-ray. So while the film doesn’t get its definitive presentation here, it looks good if not exceptional.

***Audio is equally impressive with an immersive 5.1 mix. Although NOT an action film Branagh actively and imaginatively uses the sound to convey the tension in the court. The lossless presentation sounds marvelous with dialog up front when it needs to be.
--- Special Features: Director/star Branagh and Shakespeare expert Russel Jackson (who worked as a consultant on the film)appear on the commentary track ported over from the 2007 DVD presentation. The two discuss everything from the framing of shots, shooting conditions to the editing of the film. We learn quite a bit of trivia about the play as well and the history of various versions through the years in addition to the production here.
***“To Be On Camera: A History of Hamlet” gives us a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the production which gives us information on everything from the casting (and the decision to put American actors such as Billy Crystal, Robin Williams and Jack Lemmon in the production with the British actors) to why Branagh felt he needed to adapt the entire 4 hour version of the play.
***We also get an “Introduction by Kenneth Branagh” and we get a vintage promo from the Cannes premiere that is carried over from the 2007 edition of the film plus the theatrical trailer (the latter two presented in standard definition). While there wasn’t an effort to add material for this Blu-ray edition (it might have been interesting to include alternate versions of various scenes for example), the whole package is quite nice.---Final Words: A brilliant, outstanding achievement, Branagh’s “Hamlet” remains true to the Bard but transcends its stage-bound origin making it a brilliant film that outpaces every other film version done to date. Although one could argue with some of the casting (and the inconsistent accents due to the mix of American, French and British actors), the overall impact of the play, the brilliant cinematography and the sharp direction (and performances) make this truly the ultimate (and best) version of Shakespeare’s classic work. Highly recommended.