**/**** Image A Sound A Extras A+
starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Pamela Brown
screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman
directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
ELE DVD - Image A Sound A Extras B
Superbit DVD - Image A Sound A
starring Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif
screenplay by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson
directed by David Lean
**/**** Image A Sound A (DD)/A+ (DTS) Extras A-
starring Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo
screenplay by Stephen Sommers
directed by Stephen Sommers
by Bill Chambers Cleopatra, meet T.E. Lawrence. Now allow me to introduce the two of you to...Rick O'Connell?
Epics--they ain't what they used to be. Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, and the 1999 remake of The Mummy do have something in common, though: they each reflect Hollywood's colonial compulsion to decorate the sandy, cosmic emptiness of the desert. While Freud could have a field day with that, the opulence of the these films lacks any sensuality (although those who see Lawrence of Arabia's torture scene as homoerotic are not wrong). I'm disappointed to be saying this about Cleopatra, the most infamous home-wrecker in cinema's history, after finally seeing it for myself on DVD, but Lawrence of Arabia is probably too perfect to be sexy. The Mummy, meanwhile, is further proof that the digital world is not yet a rich, tactile one.
In their 1963 review, the NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE denounced Cleopatra "a monumental mouse," and of all the headlines the production generated over the course of three or four years, that was the pithiest. The Joseph Mankiewicz film, in its 248-minute 'roadshow' state (a restoration of the six-hour, two-part rough cut is still planned), is a talky starfuck with a self-defeating design: the camera is enslaved by sets so decadent, so meticulous, that even intimate moments (of which there are plenty) are shot from afar to facilitate awe. Combined with what seems like reluctance on the part of the cast to interact with their environment for fear of chipping the expensive china, it all becomes too stiff to bear; they could've performed the film in front of a bluescreen to similar effect.
The scabrous wit that writer-director Mankiewicz brought to his Oscar-winning pictures All About Eve and A Letter to Three Wives is nowhere to be found in Cleopatra. Since his comic perception, not his literal eye, was Mankiewicz's vision, what's really disheartening about Cleopatra is its politeness, the way entire conversations unfold between faintly ridiculous historical figures without a single barb exchanged. The film is your standard tin-eared toga-and-sandals yarn, the best dialogue cribbed from George Bernard Shaw's play "Caesar and Cleopatra", the real humour coming in seeing prima donna Taylor as her ancient counterpart. (Worsening matters, Mankiewicz denies us "the money shot": Caesar's voice drops out upon reciting, "Et tu, Bruté?")
I hope I don't sound illiberal in admonishing Mankiewicz for attempting, like so many of his peers had, a costume drama, but it's only in artists' minds that we demand range and versatility from them. Cleopatra is not a total defeat besides--the queen's procession is a thing of elephantine, if tacky, beauty, and Roddy McDowall delights as the conniving Octavius, a sort of pre-ratings board Caligula variant. And, hey, if not for Cleopatra, we wouldn't have the documentary Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood, a feature-length, tag-team effort from Fox and American Movie Classics.
Sharing the third platter (encased in a booklet sleeve) of a three-disc Cleopatra set with such bonus rarities as 1963's fluffy "The Fourth Star of Cleopatra", this retrospective tells the complex behind-the-scenes story of the movie's unmaking with such clarity that we barely notice Taylor's personal absence. Here, Cleopatra, which fast bloated from a Fox programmer to an Elizabeth Taylor comeback vehicle (coming back, that is, from her scandalous marriage to Eddie Fisher, the best friend--himself wed to Debbie Reynolds--of her deceased husband, Mike Todd), is depicted as the Apocalypse Now of its day, plagued by rain delays, health problems, personnel changes, and a continually-evolving script.
Mankiewicz, we're told, was a reluctant, high-paid replacement for Rouben Mamoulian, at Taylor's behest, and he toiled to undo Mamoulian's handiwork as Taylor recuperated from pneumonia and general diva-itis. (We see her smoking in stills, her tracheotomy scar still fresh.) Surviving executive David Brown, who would go on to form his own company with the son of studio head Daryl Zanuck, admits that Fox should've cut their losses when Mamoulian walked, but with the tabloids having made a mountain out of the molehill project (mainly because of Taylor's unprecedented $1-million payday), Cleopatra became "an obsession" for the company.
Better than its subject, Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood nevertheless stumbles now and again. Some of what it encourages us to infer is dubious, such as the juxtaposition of the scene in which soldiers refuse to fight Marc Antony with recollections of cost-shearing measures--one is likely irrespective of the other. As well, the feature ends on Brown saying Cleopatra now has sufficient distance from its creation that modern audiences will judge it on its own merit, a last-minute sop that contradicts everything preceding it. The on- and off-camera sagas of Cleopatra are, at least for this lifetime, inextricably linked, regardless of one's knowledge of the specifics.
Also rendered with care and difficulty, Lawrence of Arabia is such a superior piece of storytelling that we've forgotten all but this piece of gossip about it: screenwriters Michael Wilson and Robert Bolt weren't exactly encouraged to stick to the facts. What else is new? In an eight-minute rumination (moderated by fanboy supplementalist Laurent Bouzereau) exclusive to Lawrence's DVD debut, Steven Spielberg, maybe the movie's biggest fan, disavows its responsibility to the truth, and by the same token admits he'd be the first to raise hell over an irresponsible representation of the Holocaust. I know what he's saying, fundamentally, and for the brevity of the interview, I'll let it slide.
Except to say that it's important not to get too apples-and-oranges about whitewash. I'm just not versed enough in either England or Egypt's past to decode the complex (or, perhaps, complacent) racial politics of Lawrence of Arabia. Heck, the sight of a motorcycle momentarily surprises me whenever I start the film--I forget that it's a turn-of-the-century invention, predating the automobile. For what it's worth, Lean's Lawrence, essayed by Peter O'Toole with equal parts suavity and remoteness, is a good tour guide: he doesn't stop, not for water, not for exhaustion. His developing identity crisis results in something of a picaresque populated by characters who reflect and refract his burgeoning consciousness. He stands out physically, too, the only character Lean drapes in white--a beacon in the sand. Perhaps the bigger challenge, at which Lean excels, laid in maintaining eye pathways to Lawrence during palatial exterior and embassy interior settings, where he's often engulfed by the ornate trappings of the monarchy.
Freddie Young's impossibly sharp cinematography transports the viewer to another world; Lawrence of Arabia is escapism in the least pejorative sense. It's a rousing spectacle that has naturally led to excess emulation from would-be David Leans, including Spielberg himself on the Indiana Jones trilogy (...Last Crusade composer John Williams went so far as to crib passages of Maurice Jarre's enduring score), and because it's not uncommon for frequent imitation to dilute the impact of the imitated, another factor has to have kept these images fresh. If you ask me, Anne V. Coates's editing is responsible.
Thanks to Coates, Lawrence of Arabia doesn't feel like some prefab classic. Influenced and encouraged by the French New Waves shedding of traditional scene transitions (dissolves, mainly, and fades), which were really as much a budgetary consideration as an artistic one, she and Lean tried straight, bold cuts, giving the classical adventure a new-fashioned feel, balancing out the sweep with an unorthodox starkness that captivates until the biopic formula wrests hold of the material for a sluggish conclusion. Lawrence of Arabia has retained edginess, unconventionality, and authenticity (in that very little optical trickery was employed to create the sense of grandeur) for nearly forty years. It remains everything that 1999's The Mummy, directed by second-rate Spielberg Stephen Sommers (which I guess makes him a third-rate Lean), never was, despite Sommers's requisite "cutting-edge" approach.
After two smashing bits of post-prologue business (a contemporary (well, 1932) battle and some immaculately-timed Rube Goldberg slapstick in a library), The Mummy, based on a static but atmospheric Karloff/Universal horror, finds room for the kitchen sink by abandoning the element of surprise. Though co-star Rachel Weisz brings a tea-and-crumpets ditziness to her role as the bookworm love interest that's bewitching enough to hang a franchise on, Brendan Fraser's Rick O'Connell is the assigned hero, alas. The actor is game yet bland, and the movie follows suit. Admittedly adrenalizing the Boris Karloff starrer, it's still no The General Died at Dawn (Lewis Milestone's pre-serial artifact noir), and Industrial Light & Magic's computer manipulations are neither realistic enough nor stylized enough to suspend disbelief.
Ironically, that same not-quite-special effects work elevates the The Mummy's Ultimate Edition DVD reissue to must-own status for inveterate CINEFEX and STARLOG readers. Somewhere along the line, ILM wizard John Berton takes over this package, going so far as to break down a handful of sequences (such as the opening establishing shot of Thebes) pixel-by-pixel in the second platter's multi-layered demo. Disc 1's "Building a Better Mummy" (50 mins.) belongs exclusively to Berton (looking a little like American Movie's Mark Borchardt) and his team of imagineers--and in that sense, it's a letdown, as the title hints at the remake's musical chairs journey: Sommers inherited The Mummy from a long list of auteurs, zombie impresario George Romero among them. He made a crowd-pleaser that's already starting to rot.
We can practically hear Sommers struggling to keep a straight face on his commentary track with talkative, informative editor Bob Duscay. Actors Oded Fehr, Kevin J. O'Connor (unrecognizable on screen as fez-topped conman Benny), and Arnold Vosloo have a more useful rapport going on in their dedicated track, in which they essentially interview one another. Quiet Fraser gets a third feature-length commentary to himself (for the ladies, I presume), and it's fun to flip back-and-forth between his and Sommers's accounts of the leading man's knock on heaven's door (a hanging stunt that went awry): Sommers and Duscay are somewhat glib about it, adding that they got tired of hearing Fraser retell the story on the talk-show circuit.
Additionally complementing a flawless, 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer and thudding Dolby and DTS 5.1 mixes (note that the DTS audio draws gratifying attention to the surrounds) on this Ultimate Mummy are a pair of wisely-deleted scenes; brief lessons in Egyptology and pharaoh lineage; full-motion split-screen storyboard-to-final film comparisons; an extraneous montage of production stills; what appears to be the Electronic Press Kit for this summer's The Mummy Returns; trailers for The Mummy and its upcoming sequel (in Dolby 5.1); cast and crew bios (plus notes); and the following DVD-ROM links to: a soon-to-be live webcast from the premiere of The Mummy Returns; Sommers's script; screen savers; The Mummy's PC game demo; and The Mummy Returns' official website. These DVDs' 'ultimate' purpose might be to advertise a summer blockbuster, but I doubt that fans--especially those who didn't bother to purchase the single-disc Collector's Edition back in '99--will feel ripped-off.
Lawrence of Arabia is perpetually collectible. Allow me only to confirm that Columbia TriStar's just-released double-DVD is as good as if not better-looking than any previous home video release of the film, although the main-title sequence could be sharper, and the (gorgeous) colours are rumoured to go against Lean's restoration mandate. (The film has been transferred to DVD with an approximate aspect ratio of 2.2:1, and the overture, intermission, and entr'acte are intact, albeit accompanied by a disclaimer.) What blew me away about this version is the loud and intricate 5.1 Dolby mix; I don't remember it sounding this...recent...when I saw it in an IMAX auditorium. Was it sweetened? I'm leery of overpraising a revisionist soundtrack.
I wouldn't hesitate to call the beautiful mock hardcover Lawrence's platters come in an extra, nor the enclosed souvenir booklet, but supplements proper consist of the aforementioned Spielberg chat, an enjoyable hour-long making-of consisting largely of recycled interview footage (O'Toole's discussion is dated 1989), four 1962 promotional featurettes (three of them black-and-white, they're fascinating arcana, given their unhurried pace and redundant voice-overs), DVD-ROM-housed photo and advertising archives, an interactive map of the Middle East, and a newsreel document of the New York premiere.
Cleopatra unearths clips from its New York and Los Angeles premieres and you don't need a DVD-ROM drive to explore its P&A helpings. Too, this "Five Star Collection" set boasts a THX-approved presentation. Only the gloriously intense saturation betrays the film's age, while the 5.1 Dolby sound is shockingly full. Little information occupies the surrounds except for weather-related ambience or crowd noise, but an awful lot of percussion is directed to the LFE channel. A quartet of speakers (Martin Landau, Jack Brodsky, Tom and Chris Mankiewicz--Joseph's sons) contributes non-screen-specific commentary, one right after the other, with Tom (the one with a screenwriting career of his own) getting off the best anecdotes. In the end, however, a great deal of what's said in Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood is repeated here, and so Cleopatra tries our patience yet again. Originally published: April 23, 2001.
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA - SUPERBIT
Given the tireless efforts of Robert Harris--who spent two years restoring David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia to its full length and vibrancy prior to Lean's death in 1991--to convince Columbia TriStar to release a DVD edition of Lawrence more definitive than their colour-botched 2-disc set from 2001, it would be politically incorrect of me not to endorse the Harris-supervised Superbit version--at least over the previous release. So I shan't, but I do find the green tinge that's been added back to the film sort of sickly in comparison (see above) and think the only marked improvement of the Superbit transfer is that it looks better compressed, a zoom-in on frozen images yielding cleaner edges, if an increase in haloes around small objects. A tiny amount of screen information has also been restored to all four sides of the frame, but at what price? As with Warner's recent Once Upon a Time in America, the film's intermission falls on the second platter, abruptly interrupting the film on the first disc before its organic halftime. The Superbit Lawrence drops, of course, all of the negligible extras of the beautifully-bound 2001 DVD, but it does add a DTS configuration of the picture's six-track (i.e., 5.1) mix that helps Maurice Jarre's score retain a certain lushness it loses to Dolby Digital's substandard mastering techniques. Truth be told, Lawrence of Arabia hasn't sounded this grand to me since I saw it theatrically, though Superbit quality is no match for 70mm scale. Originally published: September 17, 2003.