2/26/2009

TV on DVD: Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares: Complete Series One (U.K. Version; 2004)


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Guess Who Isn't Coming to Dinner...

Although he's been bestowed with an incredible twelve Michelin stars-- I'll tell you one thing for certain-- Chef Gordon Ramsay will never be allowed near my humble kitchen.

The world renowned f-bomb dropping culinary master would have a field day amidst my collection of frozen entrees, packaged dinners, prepared foods, and a wide array of takeout menus from restaurants that have probably never even heard of Michelin... aside from the fact that there's a tire by the same name.

While I'm definitely not a foodie, I do love food and Ramsay is his own one-man restaurant version of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, if-- you know-- you were dealing with an ego-maniacal straight guy who re-engineers menus and kitchens instead of introducing a man to couture and better dating etiquette.

Upon first glance-- the easiest comparison of the man unable to suffer fools and completely unfamiliar with the idea of a "filter" that prevents your mouth from saying the exact thing you're thinking at any given moment would probably be to compare Ramsay to American Idol's fellow U.K. nightmare judge Simon Cowell. However, that's too one-dimensional, for the major difference is--while Cowell simply wants to hear himself talk-- Ramsay's confrontations are done with the best of intentions.

Like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, he's unafraid of metrosexual beauty products like Ty Pennington's admiration for hair gel and way too prone to going shirtless with little prompting (changing countless times in front of the camera) but unlike Pennington's show that exploits people for ratings, Ramsay wants to get in the dirt, brave food poisoning, cockroaches, ugly purple buildings, and chefs who can't even get the bread right to try and up the chances a restaurant will survive in a market that finds two thirds of all culinary establishments closing within their first year.

Bringing the original U.K. series to American audiences in the show that launched Ramsay long before he became part of Fox's Hell's Kitchen, this BBC reality-based, award-winning series contains the four episodes that comprised the first season along with the Kitchen Nightmares Revisited follow-up episodes which finds him returning to the scene of the (hopefully) former culinary disasters.

While the show's recurring theme and its title refers to the nightmare kitchens Ramsay inserts himself into including Silsden, West Yorkshire's Bonapartes, Ambleside, The Lake District's The Glass House, Abergavenny, Wales' The Walnut Tree and Esher, Surrey's Moore Place-- Ramsay proves within moments to those he comes into contact with that he can be a kitchen's worst nightmare himself.

Delivering profanity laced soliloquies and insults worthy of Mamet-- to say Gordon Ramsay puts things bluntly would be an understatement as in the first episode he takes on a naive twenty-one year old chef who not only has no idea how to make a proper omelet but can't even taste whether or not his food is burnt and nearly makes the lad cry within seconds.

Revealing the need for communication between the head chef and management but also-- as in his visit to The Walnut Tree-- realizing that a stubborn owner who's way too involved in the dealings of the kitchen can be disastrous, Ramsay offers advice and tries to bully everyone into self-confidence. He does so by changing menus to suit the talents of those involved, adjusting to the needs of the community as he takes to the streets to poll passersby about the location, arguing about the importance of establishing a theme for the place, treating the customer as the most important part of the restaurant, and also ensuring that it's aesthetically appealing.

From dealing with severe health code violations of rotted food left in a fridge that can contaminate everything else to poaching two staff members of The Glass House when he finds some he likes to helping hire in a brand new chef to help save a restaurant that will lose its forty year old Michelin star and trying to turn a stuck in the '70s purple eyesore of a golf club dining room into a friendly, American styled word-of-mouth cafe-- we're consistently amazed by Ramsay's ability to address each and every problem that comes his way.

For, he moves effortlessly from one nightmare to the next as he rearranges plants to ensure customers find the dining room better and even puts his beloved name on the line by trying to prove two young chef's worth by pretending he cooked some meals so that their stubborn boss will understand how talented his workers are.

While his manner is brash and I can't imagine anyone wanting to be on the receiving end of one of his profanity fueled tirades that usually goes along the line of "are you truly bloody stupid?"-- the hyper, always moving man (who gives off the impression that he'd be unable to sit still for more than a second) spends the entire week in full force trying to rescue a restaurant to the point that halfway through the series, I began wondering what his blood pressure must be like.

Much like an athlete, Ramsay's modus operandi seems to assume that for chefs much like athletes-- they play better when they're angry so he gets them on the defensive very quickly so they'll prove him wrong and step up their game. And while more often than not, it works-- one thing he seems unable to comprehend is that some individuals simply don't work that way and they either close down or become so focused on the negative that they're unable to handle the pressure.

While of course, pressure and quickness is a job requirement in juggling a multitude of tasks while running a kitchen-- not everyone can adjust to Ramsay's speed limit and road rules and we understandably witness some crashes and burns as he continually must have the last word and never allow himself be made to look the fool.

Amazingly impressive and intuitive when it comes to knowing just how exactly to make a restaurant work as Ramsay's business sense and savvy rivals his culinary expertise-- while he proves he can be quite the kitchen nightmare himself, he constantly reminds us it's for the greater good by trying to up the playing field and help struggling business owners avoid bankruptcy, lawsuits, and losing the homes they've sold in pursuit of their dreams.

In a crisp digital transfer from Acorn Media, the set which also contains subtitles for the deaf and/or hearing impaired so that you can savor each and every f-bomb or count them if one was so inclined (as he seems to use it as a filler word, the way some people say "like" or "um")-- the quality of the 2-disc set is astounding.

However, a major drawback that Ramsay would've never stood for himself is the overly confusing menus which models itself on the frequently confusing menus of Blu-ray discs by dividing each disc into a top menu and sub-menu for the Nightmares and Nightmares Revisited episodes so that you have to jump back and forth between them and furthermore, go to another place altogether to watch only the footage of his return.

A bit of a challenge to get the hang of and it's sure to frustrate viewers unaccustomed to this style of menu as it even took me a few minutes to master (and I review scores of discs every month)-- despite the confusing set-up, the quality of the work is undiminished as it's terrific fun and highly engrossing, whether or not you can manage to cook an omelet yourself.

Although, I must say I'd hesitate to view it right before venturing off to work or into polite society just in case you've been so compelled and passively digesting his foul language that you slip into f-bombs yourself as casually as Ramsay tries to pull a Matthew McConaughey and nonchalantly change his shirt at least once or twice in any given episode.


Blu-ray Review: The Boondock Saints (2000)



In the Name of the Father:
Troy Duffy's Cult Crime Favorite

Applies for Blu-ray Sainthood




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A few years ago, I was chatting about '60s and '70s cinematic antiheroes with one of my favorite film professors. And while we both shared a love of the ambiguity and ironic endings of what could very well be the two most influential decades of filmmaking around the globe-- we also noted the way some of the most prominent characters, plot-lines, and sub-genres have been recycled again and again over the decades.

Our conversation ran the gamut and included first Quentin Tarantino's cinematic mix-tape movies like Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction which made a wild cocktail consisting of elements of French New Wave, American revenge thrillers, and '70s blaxploitation movies by also impressively weaving in some elements of vintage film noir (of the '40s and '50s). Then we moved onto other works that borrowed heavily from the forefathers of the Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, De Palma, Bogdanovich, and Friedkin era.



Sure enough, some of these films broke the mold and became instant '90s classics as -- (in addition to the aforementioned Tarantino works)-- we were faced with Luc Besson's The Professional, Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects, and Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Filled with impressive camera trickery, antiheroes, a little of the old Kubrickian ultra-violence and an over-usage of the "f-bomb," these films were repeated again and again and by the time we reached Ritchie's Lock, Stock-- the fingerprints of Tarantino and those who'd come before him were evident from the start.



Blending all of these elements together into a wicked formula-- you can essentially break down The Boondock Saints into recipe form as follows:

1) A seasoning of Tarantino for trying to hang with the cool kids.

2) Two parts Coppola for the mixture of Catholicism and violence.

3) One part Scorsese: Imagine if Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle had gone to the seminary instead of the adult movie theatre.

4) A generous helping of Besson, since Gary Oldman's character from The Professional as well as the "no women, no kids" line of dialogue is basically implanted directly into the script.

5) One part Ritchie as visually it's like four video games being played simultaneously by a hyper kid on Ritalin.



Nonetheless, Troy Duffy gets points for ambition. Furthermore, there's two exceedingly inventive scenes that were so cinematically audacious that they found my breath catch (more on that later). Yet ultimately we're faced with yet another stylish and hyper aware work of gunplay and revenge that would've made Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson in Death Wish call out for merciful asylum.



Earning the type of Donnie Darko-like cult status which my former professor noted found at least one student bringing in Duffy's film to show portions of in a Contemporary Cinema presentation each and every semester-- the making of The Boondock Saints is actually so fascinating in its own right that it garnered a documentary on the topic.

To give you the Cliffs Notes version, the volatile Duffy blew a generous deal with Miramax and then went through independent channels to ensure ultimate control (even so much that his band would be included in the film). The result was that eventually it crept into a minimal theatrical run following the horror of the Columbine Massacre before-- as Duffy has argued-- Blockbuster saved his film from the waste pile by making it one of their "Exclusive" titles and a phenomenon was born.



Reuniting every cast member except for Willem Dafoe-- who is being replaced by Julie Benz-- for a forthcoming 2010 theatrical sequel by 20th Century Fox, The Boondock Saints which has been served up in a multitude of DVD formats is finally being given the Blu-ray treatment no doubt to help increase momentum for the sequel.



Set in South Boston and opening on St. Patrick's Day, the film centers on two twin brothers who begin to question their life working at a scuzzy meatpacking plant after they engage in a bar fight that leads into the death of Russian mobsters in self-defense.



However, instead of being thrown in jail, Connor and Murphy MacManus (Sean Patrick Flannery and Norman Reedus) are dubbed saints by the local press. The crime and the young men catch the interest of the organized crime expert and FBI agent Paul Smecker played by Willem Dafoe in an overly hammy performance as a flamboyantly gay investigator who-- much like Gary Oldman in The Professional-- appreciates classical music with opera replacing Beethoven.

Believing their first foray into crime was a sign that God's law is higher than that of man, the two launch into a career as full time vigilantes, describing themselves as operating much like 7-11 in that even when they're not doing business, they're always open or in this case, looking for more sinners to kill. After going shopping for the deadliest of supplies in a way that takes a fetishistic look at weaponry the way that Sex and the City did for Carrie Bradshaw's beloved shoe addiction, the brothers decide to take on murderers, mobsters, and Boston's most notorious villains.

Uniting with a lower level Italian mobster David Della Rocco a.k.a "The Funnyman," they become a trio of gun-blazing Charles Bronsons in a series of escalating crimes so filled with bullets and blood that soon mobsters realize they must bust the ruthless hitman "Il Duce" (Billy Connolly) out of prison to take on the Boondock Saints.



Heavy on the gore and somehow managing to persuade Willem Dafoe to don drag for an excruciatingly embarrassing finale for the Oscar nominee-- the film tries to dress up its thrill kill nature with biblical overtones. To this end, Boondock Saints is infused with endless prayers and Catholic dogma throughout as the boys find themselves tattooed with "Aequitas" (justice) and "Veritas" (truth) in exacting brutal revenge since they believe that-- much like their monsignor, the worst crime is apathy as referenced in an opening monologue citing the notorious case of Kitty Genovese who was murdered in plain sight in front of countless witnesses.

Yet, no matter how much Duffy wants to recall the same mixture of blood and religion and the dual nature of good and evil that Coppola used throughout The Godfather trilogy, in the end, it's all just an excuse to see some action and on that front Boondock Saints delivers, especially with the full force of Blu-ray sound behind it as we can hear every bullet fired and casing hit the ground.



To its benefit, the film features some extraordinary camerawork by cinematographer Adam Kane who also filmed the first episode of Heroes; Chapter One: Genesis before the show jumped the shark. And in the running time, the film separates itself from the pack of Tarantino and Ritchie rip-offs in two over-the-top but remarkable sequences worthy of study for those interested in the art of filmmaking.



The first finds Duffy adhering to Hitchcock's oft-discussed belief of holding off on showing something for as long as one possibly can to increase suspense. This occurs when the brothers turn themselves in for their initial crime in self-defense and in explaining the circumstances to Dafoe, we're shown a bravura work of incredible action choreography as Flannery finds himself handcuffed to a toilet, only to break free and figure out how to save his brother from death at the hands of mobsters. While definitely his jump from the fifth floor of a building seems a bit too Crouching Tiger to be believed-- the craftsmanship is first rate with all departments firing on all cylinders.



In the earlier scene, it's the editing and camerawork that jumps out at you in yet later on, it's the bravery of Duffy to mess with traditional narration that transforms yet another routine orgy of violence hit by the MacManus brothers into a work of art. Avoiding the need to show something twice or do so traditionally, we watch in awe as the crime scene master Dafoe is able to walk the rest of the Boston officers through an entire complicated crime scene to direct the action that is shown.



However, instead of simply intercutting his narration with back and forth edits, Duffy goes for something original to perhaps illustrate the way our FBI man is beginning to side with the crooks by having him explain the entire incident as it happens, walking with the trio of vigilantes, pretending to shoot, dropping down to the ground, identifying how things went down in a way that makes the entire scene fresh. Admittedly, this technique of calling attention to itself as a film is far from original as it was used when Ray Liotta's Henry Hill climbed off the witness stand in a courtroom at the end of Goodfellas to speak directly to the camera and lead us into the epilogue. Yet, when Duffy dares to try something different instead of borrowing so pointedly from other films that we're able to call them out as we watch as if it was an interactive game for movie buffs, that's when Boondock Saints truly seems worthy of its loyal and rabid fanbase.



With a bullet filled menu as each selection rings out in the sound of a gunshot-- you're able to choose from the original theatrical cut (which was trimmed due to sensitivity regarding the Columbine attacks) and Duffy's extended cut along with commentary on the theatrical cut from either Duffy or actor Billy Connolly. Also sharing outtakes and deleted scenes-- two of the cooler features for Boondock fans and action junkies is Fox's D-Box Motion Control option to get you right into the action as well as an opportunity to explore Duffy's screenplay.

Following some previews for similar Fox titles like Babylon A.D. and Max Payne-- viewers are able to jump directly into the menu for the version they wish to watch (original or extended). However, I did find there was a bit of a hiccup with the disc as it didn't offer the ability to bookmark and the menus took extraordinarily long to load even on a new Sony Blu-ray player so much so that I had to restart the film a few times just to reach the main menu. My advice to avoid the wasted time and repetition is to recommend you either watch it straight through, ensure your firmware is up-to-date (as I did right away and learned it was), and go in aware that it could take a few minutes to find the menu ready to explode before your eyes in a mixture of veritas and violence.


DVD Review: The Sidney Poitier Collection (Edge of the City; A Patch of Blue; Something of Value; A Warm December) -- 4 Discs

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An Introduction

"Yes, life is tough. It offers no guarantee that one road will lead to another, no promise that we won't get lost. And when we do, as surely we will from time to time, be advised that we'll stand alone.

"...When we have no place to run, no place to hide, and our hearts scream in anguish for rescue, relief, salvation, we are left with only instinct for guidance and trial and error for judgment.

"But the tools for meeting life head-on, as I see it, are acquired knowledge, belief, and hope. No one knows all there is to know.... The task is to learn as much as you can about as much as you can; the great disease of mankind is ignorance."




It seems as though the history of African-American cinema can be broken down into two categories-- Before and After Sidney Poitier.

Prior to Poitier's big breakthrough portraying a doctor no less treating the bigoted racist Richard Widmark in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1950 film No Way Out-- when black actors appeared onscreen, they were most often given degrading one-dimensional roles. These included parts as servants, chauffeurs, waiters, or maids who cracked a joke here, dropped a "yes'm" there as they carried a tray, ironed laundry or held a door, and were sometimes forced to tap-dance or act ridiculously for the camera to cater to a white director's whims as if they were simply "objects" rather than human beings.



While there were a couple of notable exceptions of course as African-Americans were actually producing some of their own films (in a sadly unexplored topic) and some actors did receive recognition including Gone With the Wind's Oscar winning Hattie McDaniel (again as a "Mammy") yet they were few and far between. However, when the handsome, soft-spoken Poitier arrived, he signaled that a change was coming to American cinema and it's all the more inspiring since it occurred at the very height of the racial attacks, struggle to fight against segregation during the era of Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X.



Although he never used a soapbox or staged a march, Poitier's revolution was in defying the odds in a series of remarkable performances in films that suddenly dared us to confront our own prejudices and attitudes as a nation. Despite this, nonetheless, he was critiqued by some for not being revolutionary enough as Turner Classic Movies cites that, "Poitier's ascension to stardom in the mid-1950s was no accident... in this integrationist age Poitier was the model integrationist hero. In all his films he was educated and intelligent... His characters were tame, never did they act impulsively, nor were they threats to the system ... And finally they were non-funky, almost sexless and sterile."

And honestly, even Poitier himself agreed as he was quoted by Aram Goudsouzian in the biography Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon that he "complained about his screen sexuality," in the late '60s when he noted "Either there were no women, or there was a woman but she was blind, or the relationship was of a nature that satisfied the taboos. I was at my wits end when I finished A Patch of Blue" (241).



Yet, while there are definitely double standards throughout those films, they're still extraordinary in that they helped predict what was to come for African-American cinema. In this brand new set-- The Sidney Poitier Collection, which released in late January from Warner Brothers Studios-- WB serves up a four film, slim cased packaging of Poitier's work (nicely maintaining the studio's devotion to use classic poster art and boast original trailers) including my own personal favorite A Patch of Blue and three other films that are making their DVD and/or Home Video debut according to the press release.

Yes, granted, you'll want to rush out and track down his other great turns in films like The Defiant Ones, To Sir With Love, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, A Raisin in the Sun, No Way Out, Blackboard Jungle, Paris Blues, Lilies of the Field, Sneakers, In The Heat of the Night, and many, many more, but this is still a great overview of his range and evolution from actor in 1957 to actor/producer/director (A Warm December) in 1973.



Edge of the City
(1957)



"Logic and reason grow out of the experience of interacting with the world, with daily life, out of the instinct for the recognition of logic and reason in oneself, and out of the feeling that logic and reason need to and should be applied in one's best interest. In the part of the world where I came from, most people without an education didn't know what the word logic meant. Reason is another such word...

"Nonetheless, survival requires the use of logic and reason."


An underrated work that boasts the filmmaking debut of former blacklisted television director Martin Ritt-- who would go on to helm The Long Hot Summer, Hud, Norma Rae, Murphy's Romance, The Great White Hope, Sounder, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Stanley and Iris, Hombre and many others-- Edge of the City further solidified the early Poitier paradigm in that it's essentially a buddy film with the black Poitier and a white costar as the two prove that friendship can defy race.



This time around instead of Tony Curtis, Paul Newman, or Rock Hudson, he worked with the incredibly talented John Cassavetes whom Peter Bogdanovich noted in in Who The Hell's In It would become one of Poitier's closest friends throughout his life (451) as Cassavettes became an independent filmmaker in his own right (Shadows, Faces).



He chose City to follow up his Oscar nominated turn in The Defiant Ones and by the time of its release, Poitier was revered by critics including Variety's acknowledgment that Edge of the City was "a milestone in the history of the screen in its presentation of an American Negro," (Goudsouzian, 119).

Actually dubbed the "first American film mainly concerned with an interracial friendship," by David Shipman in The Story of Cinema (as quoted by Warner Brothers)-- this gritty film centering on dockworkers exploited by their brutal boss seems additionally to be-- at least in my estimation-- the blacklisted Ritt's response film to Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (which was an allegorical work defending his decision to name names before the House of the Un-American Activities Committee hearings by Joseph McCarthy).



Again centering on the corruption on the New York docks with a final showdown greatly reminiscent of Brando's in Kazan's film-- Ritt's Edge of the City is another 1950s social consciousness work but one that benefits mostly because instead of preaching as some of the films of the era did-- it put characters first.

When the troubled newcomer Axel North (Cassavetes) arrives on the dock run by crooked Charlie Malik (Jack Warden), he's offered work if you give him a portion of your salary, which he holds over Axel's head by upping the take when he realizes the young man is on the run from something. Insecure, nervous, and shy-- Axel is taken under the wing of Poitier's strong Tommy "T.T." Tyler-- possibly sensing a kinship as a fellow outsider since he's the only black worker in the lot.

Palling around with Axel as he begins to confess what's led him to New York, T.T. helps steer him towards a more promising future by introducing him to a young woman, inviting him over to his family's home and trying to make the man realize that it's not a crime to have pride and want to fight the injustice of Malik.

While-- as often the case in '50s message movies-- it ends tragically, it's an arresting work of integrity and morality that celebrates Poitier's tenants of logic and reason and one that was championed by "representatives from the NAACP, Urban League, American Jewish Committee, and Interfaith Council" for its "message of racial brotherhood," (Goudsouzian, 119).

And quickly Poitier's on-screen characterization seemed to blur the edges of the celluloid frame and make it into the presses as the media began to argue that T.T. and Poitier were one in the same as Dorothy Marsters penned in New York Daily News that "Sidney only had to be himself... a philosopher who has arrived at an excellent adjustment to the world," (Goudsouzian, 122).

While of course, being typecast as a "saint" had its advantages as Poitier kept being offered roles and could afford-- as always-- to be quite choosy in the type of work he took on never wanting to play something subservient or detrimental to the fragile cinematic image of the African American as it was beginning to change after decades of prejudice-- the double-edged sword was that he was never going to get the girl and would specialize in being the type of "minister," "teacher," and "philosopher" that we still see black actors routinely offered today in helping show whites the way from Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost to Don Cheadle in The Family Man.



Yet, Poitier handled these ups and downs beautifully and poured a great deal of effort into a film he hoped would be more of a romance and less of yet another "racially" aware film-- 1965's A Patch of Blue which has been one of my personal favorite Poitier works for years.


A Patch of Blue
(1965)



"We all have a capacity for love, for kindness, for passion. We also have a capacity for the opposite, but love is infinitely more effective in the world than hate, although they exist as equal opposites. So I reject hate and choose to explore the nature of love, both emotionally and philosophically."

Based on Elizabeth Kata's novel Be Ready with Bells and Drums-- A Patch of Blue foreshadowed-- (at least to an extent before ultimately racial "sensitivity" trumped it), the groundbreaking interracial romance film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner that, much like In the Heat of the Night, is nearly synonymous with Poitier's name.

Thus, it's just a pity that in the actor's extraordinary career and aside from the Best Supporting Actress Oscar given to Shelley Winters and newcomer Elizabeth Hartman's receipt of the Most Promising Newcomer Golden Globe Award associated with the film-- very few people have seen it or discuss it as much as his other work.

A subtle love story and one that Poitier had wished wouldn't have been quite as subtle when he initially expressed interest-- A Patch of Blue is a work that defies not only racial stereotypes but disabled ones as well as the film finds the middle class good-natured Gordon Ralfe (Poitier) meeting Selina (Hartman) as the young woman sits stringing beads for money in the park.

Quickly becoming friends-- although once again we have Sidney as the savior as we learn about the girl's tragic existence living with a promiscuous mother and drunken grandfather where she's kept ignorant, out of school, and treated like a slave-- he helps instill in Selina a sense of independence and confidence as he teaches her how to cross a street, find a restroom, and dial a telephone.

Spending increasing amounts of time meeting up with the girl who's deposited nearly daily in the park, soon their friendship moves rather inevitably into the beginning of an attraction which-- while especially notable from Selina's point of view-- is one that Poitier's Gordon tries to deny from his far more militant and outspoken brother and prejudiced strangers who give him the evil eye as he helps Selina along a sidewalk.

And despite the fact that Selina envisions Gordon to be her knight in shining armor, she has no idea that her particular knight is black and after sharing a tale about her bigoted mother's separation of Selina from her only other friend in the world-- a young black girl with whom she played as a girl-- Gordon is understandably hesitant to reveal his race.

While the tag-line has a few different meanings with its promise that "love is color-blind," given not only the racial issue but Selina's blindness as well-- aside from one chaste kiss that does lead to a more romantic kiss in his kitchen before Gordon pulls himself away (which was cut in some of the theatrical prints sent to theatres but included in the disc) which proved to be "Hollywood's first interracial kiss," nonetheless the entire scene as Goudsouzian notes is "frought with ambiguity," (241).

For, despite his mutual attraction and the fact that for the first time in Poitier's career "his isolated position or marital status precluded romance, his character has sexual opportunities in A Patch of Blue," but he has to "personally reinforce racial taboos by exhibiting Victorian restraint," which ultimately "refined Poitier's neuterdom," (241). And the film-- which did surprisingly well even in Southern states-- was divided in its critical reception.

Cruelly, some likened him to a "one man stereotype" or "caricature of the Negro as a Madison Avenue sort of Christian saint" that's essentially "tiresome and, at bottom nearly as patronizing as the cretinous figure that Stepin Fetchit used to play," in a work that some felt "simultaneously insult[ed] the Negroes and the blind," which found them drawing comparisons to Uncle Tom's Cabin (241-242).

However, on the flip-side, it drew raves and broke barriers in others including myself who (despite regretting the racial censorship) see it as overwhelmingly a complicated film that avoids preaching, shortcuts, easy answers, and condescension but creating two fully realized people of the time period. Additionally, it boasts a remarkable tour de force by its young newcomer that helped raise awareness of double-standards for disabled individuals as well and contains one of Poitier's most underrated portrayals of his career.

Possibly damned because it had followed too many of his Lilies of the Field-esque works so that critics judged Poitier the man (again mistaking him for his characters as though he and each character were one in the same a la Woody Allen the character and Woody Allen the person) rather than viewing it as a singular work worthy of a second look at its remarkable quality.

A film that MGM and Poitier were especially passionate about as MGM producer Pandro Berman said, "if I don't have Sidney Poitier... I don't want to make this picture," and Poitier who wanted to make a work that instead of leaning "very heavily on the nature of race," should've focused on the relationship which he told executives embodied "the kernel and the seed and it's from there you can build an extraordinarily touching, warm, humorous, tender, human story" (239).

Devoting himself to trying to retool the racial politics of the script, A Patch of Blue as Goudsouzian stated was yet another milestone in African-American cinema in that it gave Poitier the chance to sculpt "a film's politics to a degree unprecedented in his fifteen-year career" (240).


Something of Value
(1957)



"The good wars are the ones we fight in the name of children, in the name of the poor, in the name of those oppressed by overwhelming odds or forces beyond their control... We fight good wars when we refuse to allow injustice to be done to others. We fight good wars when we oppose hate, bigotry and ignorance.

"...Racial, religious, and sexual bigotry must be your enemies. Go for the jugular when you encounter the principal adversary: ignorance."

While Poitier would go on to shape the politics of Patch of Blue a number of years following this film which finds him working once again with his Blackboard Jungle director Richard Brooks-- when it comes to Something of Value, the politics and moral of the story are transparent from its opening prologue throughout the entire work.

Still shockingly violent for its time period, the film made an uneasy move for this reviewer from days of studying Poitier as the classy sophisticate to suddenly a Kenyan native in this adaptation of Robert Ruark's fictitious spin on the Mau Mau uprising against the barbaric and tyrannical European settlers.

And on the surface, much like Edge of the City, Paris Blues and countless others-- it gives Poitier a "white buddy." In Value, it's Rock Hudson as a friend he grew up alongside playing together as boys but one he must now serve as his master when they become adults and it opens with a pointedly demeaning portrayal of the dominant settlers abusing the Kenyan natives including Poitier.

While Brooks specialized in gritty realism based features such as his masterpiece In Cold Blood based on the book by Truman Capote-- Something of Value to me seemed a bit overly staged and far too predictable with characters who seemed as though they were cardboard cut-outs who must stop every so often to give a speech.



And although, the message delivered in the prologue in a quote from Winston Churchill that rightfully argues that "the problems of East Africa are the problems of the world," and this seems especially timely today and there's some terrific opportunities for all involved to shine (despite Hudson's under-written role that moves uneasily back and forth as he understands both sides of the conflict), overall, it's a work that doesn't stand out among Poitier's best and in the collection sticks out as much as the awkward final offering.


A Warm December
(1973)



"Heroes and role models are important, especially because when you think of them they have the ability to buoy your spirits and ignite your energies to move you onward."


By the 1970s, Sidney Poitier had become a hero in his own right-- moving from actor to director. In a film that opens like a spy movie and then evolves into a romance, Sidney Poitier's second outing as a director-- A Warm December-- marks the first release from Poitier's independent First Artists Production Company he formed alongside Paul Newman, Barbra Streisand, and Steve McQueen.

As widowed doctor Matt Younger who travels to London with his young daughter for a much needed break and a chance to do some dirt-biking (yeah, that doesn't quite seem to fit to me either), Poitier finally gets the chance to make an unabashed romance in the vein of the late '60s and early '70s tearjerker date movies like Love Story and countless others.



Struck by the beauty of Catherine (Esther Anderson)-- a stranger being followed by suspicious looking men on the streets of London-- Younger gets involved both by an instant attraction as well as to fulfill his overwhelming curiosity of just whom the tall, waif-like contemporary beauty could be.

A ceremonious flop-- Poitier switches gears uneasily from what he described as "an old-fashioned love story" (Goudsouzian, 342) for African-American audiences as the two leads develop an instant sexual attraction that sizzles onscreen to instead a supreme downer and medical awareness movie.

Additionally, it's one that's filled with uneven plot segues about the problems in Africa juxtaposed with African cultural celebrations in England that seem to call far too attention to themselves thereby interrupting the film's plot for a "political aside" here and there.

And while you can applaud Poitier's film as an intelligent diversion to the wave of blaxploitation cinema that emerged in the '70s, overall A Warm December comes off as pretentious and stoic in its aspiration to try to tell essentially four different stories at once.

Despite this lackluster finale, cinema will always owe a great debt to Sidney Poitier and-- much like he shares in his letters to his great-granddaughter which I've quoted throughout, luckily generations to come will be able to experience that heroism firsthand left behind with an incredible body of work.


2/24/2009

DVD Review: Bottle Shock (2008)



This Rare Cinematic Vintage
Of Sophistication & Charm Is
Now Available to Own From Fox DVD



Related Titles for the Wine Enthusiast
(Note: They Go Equally Well With Red or White)







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There's a moment in Bottle Shock when Six Feet Under and Ugly Betty star Freddy Rodriguez manages to steal the entire film while giving a fiercely passionate speech arguing that in order to make truly great wine, you must have it in your blood.


Granted, he is eventually proven wrong by the film's underdog hero in the form of his boss Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman)-- a gifted new vintner in this retelling of one of the most astounding feats of wine-making in American history as Napa vineyards were put on the map when they managed to outperform in competition with the celebrated French varietals during a blind taste-test. However, ultimately what Rodriguez's Gustavo is arguing for is above all having the utmost respect for the grape which begins with the rich soil that one must live and breathe in order to master their craft.


A picturesque tribute to California's wine version of paradise-- husband and wife team Randall Miller and Jody Savin's sublimely beautiful retelling of Barrett's 1976 landmark Time Magazine reported and Smithsonian Museum historical success which opened the doors to varietals from all around the globe seems to have been made with the same level of integrity, teamwork, craftsmanship, and devotion to the ultimate offering that makes one think that if they were to ever seek a second career, Miller and Savin may become quite successful as vintners in their own right.


The soil in this case was not only the original source material but Ross Schwartz's original screenplay which centered on the now forgotten Paris tastings that set the stage for the modern day California wineries celebrated in 20th Century Fox's 2004 Oscar winning release Sideways (which has incidentally been released on Blu-ray and made available in DVD form as a "Perfect Pairing" two film pack along with Shock back on 2/3/09).


Reworking the script to fashion it to their own tastes by staying as close to the facts as possible (as far as the real life characters were concerned), they added in two great female roles including Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Eliza Dushku as a strong-willed bartender and Transformers' Rachael Taylor as a beautiful intern who comes between Gustavo and Jim's son Bo (Chris Pine). Additionally, Savin and Miller tended to their "grape" by ensuring they had the best collaborators involved by surrounding themselves with a large number of cast and crew they'd worked alongside in their two previous independent films, Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School and Nobel Son.


Soon after quickly penning "twenty pages over a few days" of the Bottle Shock script to present to their Nobel Son star Alan Rickman-- the actor signed on as well as two other Nobel players Pullman and Dushku. Thus, the film found its two ultimate "outsider" anchors in both America and France respectively as the British Rickman plays struggling Parisian wine shop owner Steven Spurrier who (given the table closest to the kitchen at events and with a nearly empty shop) concocts the idea to stage the blind taste-test as a publicity stunt to raise revenue and Pullman portrays an attorney who'd left his job after his wife left him and married his boss to run a vineyard.

While on the surface, the two men couldn't be more different as Rickman excels as playing the ultimate snob and Pullman infuses his part with the same good-natured blue-collared heart he's used in numerous performances-- after awhile, it becomes very apparent that they're much more alike than they realize as both are stubborn individuals who feel insecure in their professions, don't exactly fit in in their surroundings and are staking their livelihood on their passionate dream.

While the characterization of Jim's son Bo Barrett (Chris Pine)-- a hippie slacker surfer dude who squanders all he has-- initially grates on the nerves especially upon the arrival of Taylor's gorgeous Sam who catches the eye of both Bo and Gustavo and we find ourselves rooting against Bo for a majority of the film because of this fictionalized plot, it's highly rewarding to see the way he gets himself together to help his father in the end.

Gorgeously shot by Michael J. Ozier who made an effort to "maximize the magic hour" just before sunset as "the whole crew would go into shooting overdrive" to get the "golden hue" tinge that's most apparent during Northern California's harvest time as director Randall Miller notes in the press release-- the film's exceptional beauty makes your breath catch, especially on a DVD up-convert or Blu-ray player and although the transfer to DVD is gorgeous, I for one would love to see this film (as well as the new version of Sideways) on Blu-ray.


Although Bottle Shock was filmed over the period of a month and a half after securing the permission of Sonoma's town counsel and relocating to the film's location two months prior "with the production financing still only partially in place," (again echoing the economic struggle and endless bank loans Barrett needed to turn his winery into a success back in 1976, the film's breakneck pace isn't apparent at all in its roving picturesque final cut.

Amazingly completed just two days before it debuted at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival to a standing ovation (after obtaining a special exception to submit their film for acceptance even though photography began following the cut-off date), their gorgeous indie sleeper which earned some critical raves and a few far too predictable comparisons to not only Sideways but Fox's other indie that could Little Miss Sunshine and the '70s era underdog epic Rocky-- sadly flew under the radar upon its limited national release.


Although you do wish that a few of the plot-points involving Pine's less-than-identifiable Bo would have been reworked and find yourself especially taken in by the film's subplot featuring Rodriguez's Gustavo-- it's a highly satisfying feel-great film that's sophisticated, stylish, smart and well-worth tracking down whether or not you can tell a Cabernet from a Merlot or a Chardonnay from a Pinot Grigio (although if this is the case, you may want to keep that to yourself).


Shock features the DVD standards of deleted scenes and audio commentary with the cast and crew. However, two of the best gems included are An Underdog's Journey: The Making of Bottle Shock which offers some engaging comments from supporting players like scene stealer Dennis Farina as Rickman's sole customer in Paris and a mini-documentary on Chateau Montelena: One Winery's Search for Excellence. For, just like the making-of-featurette, it introduces us to the real Bo and Jim Barrett and seems to indicate-- much like Savin and Miller's passion for cinematic storytelling, the Barretts also seem to have their craft in their blood.


New on DVD & Blu-ray for the Week of 2/22/09

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