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Cleopatra

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    Ian Jane
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  • Cleopatra



    Released by: 20th Century Fox
    Released on: May 28, 2013.
    Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
    Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison
    Year: 1963
    Purchase From Amazon

    The Movie:

    How could this one go so wrong? Joseph L. Mankiewicz is a fine director with some impressive credits to his name, Fox assembled a cast of A-list talent and the subject matter was ripe for cinematic interpretation. Throw a whole lot of money at it, let these guys do what they do best… and boom - you've got a surefire blockbuster, right? It made perfect sense that Fox would want to launch Cleopatra and throw some serious cash at the filmmakers to make sure they got it right, it probably looked on paper as if failure were an impossibility. And so production began, originally with Rouben Mamoulian directing though he quit. Leading lady Elizabeth Taylor got sick and everything came to a halt. The production moved from England to Italy, cast members dropped out, sets were tossed and money was quickly being flushed. Taylor and Burton got involved, the uninvolved, then involved again, making them difficult to deal with. There were strikes from the extras, sets had to be built and rebuilt and rebuilt again, and once principal photography was finally done, Mankiewicz butted heads with studio execs all over the place.

    The end result? A finished product is rumored to have caused Elizabeth Taylor to have vomited upon first viewing. Cleopatra, despite all of its sets and costumes and ridiculous spectacle, all of its wonderfully talented cast members and despite its fantastic score and gorgeous production values, is a fairly awful movie.

    Originally envisioned by Mankiewicz as two separate three hours movies, the material was cut from six hours to four and because of the publicity surrounding Burton and Taylor's affair, the movie was released as one four hour epic. It's still too long. The movie tracks the rise and fall of the infamous Queen of Egypt, the first half of the film detailing Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and his relationship with Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) before the second half brings about the torrid affair that took place between Cleopatra and Mark Antony (Richard Burton). Along the way relationships are forged and destroyed and the Roman Empire is founded. The performances from Harrison and Roddy McDowell as Octavio are both strong, Harrison getting an Oscar nomination for his work, and Taylor looks amazing here, even if she seems distant at times. The pacing is rough but the production values just as good as you'd hope. This one is all about spectacle, spectacle and more spectacle and so it's not surprising that the movie received raves for its accomplishments on the technical side of things and for its rousing score.

    The problem with all of this is that it's a boring film. It's melodramatic and at times reminiscent of a bad soap opera. This makes it a chore to get through in spite of the fact that every second of every minute of the film's four hour running time is loaded with eye candy. It's pretty to look at but an absolute chore to get through, a relic of an era in which stars and sets mattered more than storytelling but a fairly fascinating disaster in its own strange way.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Cleopatra has been beautifully restored by Fox and looks amazing presented here in 2.20.1 widescreen in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. The colors in the film are stunning, the level of detail outstanding and the overall clarity of the image is more or less perfect. Grain is intact but never overbearing and print damage is never an issue. The healthy bit rate (Fox has wisely put the movie in two parts on two separate Blu-ray discs) eliminates any serious compression issues and there are no obvious problems with noise reduction, edge enhancement or filtering. Skin tones look nice and natural while texture, particularly as it appears in the costumes and backdrops, is never less than amazing. This is a reference quality transfer, the people at Fox who worked their magic on this should take a bow.

    The primary audio option is an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track but you'll also find an English Dolby Digital 4.0 track, Spanish and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks and French and Spanish DTS 5.1 tracks, Subtitles are provided in English (SDH), English, Spanish, French, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian, Portuguese, Swedish, Hebrew, Icelandic and Chinese.

    The audio quality is just as good as the transfer, spreading out the epic score very nicely while keeping the dialogue sounding nice and natural. Effects sound good, levels are well balanced and there are no issues with any hiss or distortion to note. Once again, reference quality work.

    Extras begin with a commentary track in which Chris and Tom Mankiewicz are joined by Martin Landau and Jack Brodsky to discuss the history and making of the picture. This track is spread across both parts of the movie and so it spans both discs. It covers the troubled production history, the development of the sets, the difficulties of directing a movie of this scope and of course the contributions of the cast and crew. It's informative and interesting and pretty comprehensive.

    DISC ONE:

    The extras on the first disc include an eight minute featurette entitled Cleopatra Through The Ages: A Cultural History which is, as the title implies, a look at how Egypt's most famous female has been represented and interpreted throughout various pop culture takes on her story. The eight minute Cleopatra's Missing Footage is a fascinating, albeit somewhat tragic, piece that covers the rumors that there's up to eight hours of footage for this film out there somewhere. Given that Fox tossed loads of elements back in the seventies, it stands to reason that if this material exists it's with collectors and not in the Fox archives. The half hour Fox Movie Channel Presents Fox Legacy With Tom Rothman is a basic but interesting documentary that serves as a production history piece covering pretty much all of the 'need to know' bits and pieces of trivia and background information relating to the feature, The Cleopatra Papers: A Private Correspondence is a collection of letters sent back and forth between various parties involved in the production while it was being worked on - this is actually a lot more interesting than it sounds as it lets you see firsthand what some of the many issues encountered on the set were really all about.

    Disc TWO:

    The second disc kicks off with the massive two hour long documentary, Cleopatra: The Film That Changed Hollywood. If you don't feel like doing the entire commentary over the movie, watch this featurette instead. It covers much of the same ground and is loaded with interviews and archival clips, enough so that it paints a ridiculously detailed portrait of the history and subsequent issues that plagued this picture. Fascinating stuff. The Fourth Star of Cleopatra is a nine minute vintage featurette made as a promotional tool that focuses on the production design elements of the film. Rounding out the extras is a selection of Fox Movietone News clips, some Archival Footage Of The New York Premiere, some Archival Footage Of The Hollywood Premiere and a collection of Theatrical Trailers. Menus and chapter stops are provided on both discs.

    The Final Word:

    As gorgeous as this film may be to look at and as impressive as the cast is at times, it's obvious that the productions many difficulties had a negative impact on the picture and it's easy to see in hindsight why this bombed the way it did. Cleopatra is, quite simply, a bad movie. Despite the remarkable gloss and sheen over top, it's plodding and has serious scripting issues that can and do make it a chore to sit through. With that said, it's one you should see at least once, as it really does look amazing and Fox have really rolled out the red carpet for this 50th Anniversary Blu-ray special edition. The extras are plentiful and interesting and the audio and video quality is basically perfect. An excellent package for a fascinating train wreck of a film.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!































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