Friday, March 24, 2017

BLOW-UP: Blu-ray (Premiere Productions, 1966) Criterion Collection

Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) is a movie about a sex-crazed/emotionally vacuous fashion photog who, in his spare time, snaps some fascinating pictures in the park that may or may not reveal a murder in progress. Or is it? Anyone having seen any of Antonioni’s Italian masterpieces (Le Amiche, 1955, L’Avventura, 1960, La Notte, 1961, L’Eclisse, 1962) will be inclined to disagree, or rather, knows better. Antonioni’s movies always go farther than mere plot: the director’s screenwriting skills, more intelligently focused on getting under the skin, and most intriguingly of all, between the scabs of humanity’s foibles – sifting through the puss and marrow of our communally resonating and singularly felt social angst, self-pity and disillusionment. The rancidness in this critique extends well beyond the journey at hand; tearing Antonioni’s protagonists apart as they aimlessly tumble into their emotional labyrinth, outwardly expressed by a dystopian maze of modernity, fraught with endlessly bad and occasionally very wrong life choices; all of them leading to an inescapable malaise of the mind, body and spirit. Unhappily ever after, the characters in an Antonioni movie are never more than two steps away from expiring in a lethargic quicksand of passionless regrets they have neither the social skills nor wherewithal to escape, much less understand. Once described as a “postreligious Marxist and existentialist intellectual” Antonioni’s perspective on life is perhaps more succinctly summarized by the master himself, who considered the age of ‘reason and science’ a straight-jacket of “rigid…stereotyped morality”, making cowards of us all via our “sheer laziness” to break out of the ensconced mold. For the record, Antonioni despised the notion of ‘morality’, adding “When man becomes reconciled to nature, when space becomes his true background, these words and concepts will have lost their meaning, and we will no longer have to use them.”
Despite his critical successes then, and, the renown and esteem he so rightfully holds today, Antonioni’s scrubby form and aimless characters have had their share of admirers and detractors over the years. While such emissaries in the movie world as Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick were mesmerized and perhaps even influenced by his work, others like Orson Welles and Ingmar Bergman thought Antonioni pretentious, dull and self-promoting of a personal style at the expense of his character-driven drama; the detached and dreamlike quality of his work, translating to less than profound revelations as tragically vacant as the characters who populate the decaying urbanity in these ethically bankrupt landscapes. Considered a ‘mod masterpiece’ in its day, Blow-Up really does not hold up as well as some of the director’s other aforementioned movies, even as it remains a touchstone of the endemic disenfranchisement of youth spreading like wildfire across America in the 1960s; ironic too, as the movie is set in London, England, looking marvelously decrepit.
For certain, Antonioni’s gratis exploitation of base human sexuality is Blow-Up’s chef de oeuvre and arguably the reason for its enduring fascination with movie historians today. Neither impinged upon nor impugned by the code of censorship, for so long stifling film makers’ visions, and then, even more shockingly frank, titillating and, perhaps a tad gratuitous, simply because it dared to fly in the face of convention, Antonioni has pushed decency about as far left of center as is deemed ‘permissible’; veering dangerously close to establishing Blow-Up as ‘art house’ – code for pornography. Interestingly, there is no sex in the movie per say; none that would satisfy this latter proclivity for smut beyond the occasional flash of some supple breast. For all his anti-neorealist ambitions, and, even more impressive on a $1.8 million dollar budget, Antonioni has brought Hollywood’s preconceived and long-standing template for prudence to a shudder, and, perhaps most impressive of all, to the nose-thumbing tune of $20 million at the box office; by far, his most profitable attempt at becoming ‘main stream’ – arguably, never his goal, though a necessary evil to remain relevant in the ever-changing and extremely volatile picture-making biz, particularly under attack in Hollywood then.
Blow-Up is an unvarnished critique of sacrificed sensations; swinging London, the epicenter of an imploding societal holocaust strewn in real human wreckage, browbeaten, back-stabbed and eventually submarined by its own constant bombardment of synthetic imagery; simulacrum substituted, then robotically ascribed to, and finally, even more disturbingly, retreated to with an almost coma-like ennui and acquiescence as the standard-bearer of the present generation. In a decade where ‘love’ (free or otherwise) was frequently the Band-Aid answer to all deeper inquiries, the real revelation in Blow-Up is just how dull and dissatisfying it can be: Antonioni’s spellbindingly offering us a glimmer beyond the hippie-infused trance of his main character, Thomas (David Hemmings) the fashion photog, briefly awakened by an adrenaline rush for the existential murder mystery seemingly at the crux of Blow-Up’s plot, yet never entirely reconciled, either in the movie or in Thomas’ own mind. Did he really photograph a murder in Maryon Park? Unimportant – at least, for Antonioni or, if actor, Ronan O’Casey (who plays Jane’s lover in the park) is to be believed, denied its denouement after Antonioni went ‘seriously over budget’. Indeed, the latter might be true, as MGM was in steep decline at the time Blow-Up went into production. Refused approval by the MPAA to distribute the picture in the U.S., MGM instead released it through a subsidiary – Premiere Productions and, however briefly, was once again able to reap the benefits of being at the forefront of a ‘new movement’ in movie-making. At this point in their sad implosion, Metro was hardly in a position to call the shots; rather, writing checks to cash for up-and-coming creative geniuses as well as old-time masters, now toiling far away from their once galvanized leadership, and, by the mid-1960's, wearily nervous, if still very watchful eyes; praying for a miracle to save the studio from sinking more deeply into the red.          
Blow-Up’s plot is suspiciously simple and very loosely inspired by the lifestyle of swingin’ London’s resident shutterbug, David Bailey: reconstituted herein as a day in the life of wildly popular fashion photog, Thomas; a really ruthless and arrogant piece of work; prick with a capital ‘P’ immediately comes to mind. Thomas arrives hours late to his studio for a prearranged shoot with supermodel, Veruschka (Veruschka von Lehndorff, posturing in two strips of slinky black fabric loosely masquerading as a dress). She is tart and coy with him, presumably miffed for having been kept waiting. Thomas is his usual sly and petulant self, critically studying her visage before cruelly inquiring, “Who were you with last night?” – a query, barely to illicit a brittle ‘hmph!’ The shoot quickly escalates from sex-kittenish eroticism to a quasi-sexual assault; Thomas getting right up and into his subject’s personal space, straddling her as she contorts on the floor, his camera lens – a Freudian phallus – almost pressed against Veruschka’s face. It’s all done ‘matter of fact’; just another day at the office, as far as Thomas and his assistant, Reg (Reg Wilkins) – who casually reloads the cameras – are concerned. Thomas’ whole day has been put into a tailspin by this unlikeliest of watershed moments; the seemingly endless parade of pretty faces he is forced to photograph leaving him utterly deflated. He makes a quick pit stop at the home of artist, Bill (John Castle) and his live-in, Patricia (Sarah Miles). She quietly offers Thomas a pint in a comfortable chair, gingerly massaging his temples with her slender fingers. Without suggesting any explanation for his actions, Thomas simply disappears, returning to his studio to discover two aspiring models (Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills) waiting.
Instead, he callously drives off, pausing to peruse an antiques shop. With his camera still strapped about his neck, Thomas next takes an aimless stroll through Maryon Park where he spies on and, from a distance, takes photos of two lovers in their clandestine meeting. The woman, Jane (Vanessa Redgrave) is furious for having the affair exposed. As nervous as a cat, she miserably attempts to bargain with Thomas for the film; then, tries to bite him to retrieve it. He forces her into retreat. However, seemingly excited by this encounter, Thomas returns to the antique shop, this time confronting its owner (Susan Brodrick) with an adamant bid for a rather large boat propeller. Unable to tote it in his sleek sports convertible, Thomas leaves the owner in the street, rather erotically clinging to the propeller; yet another of Antonioni’s phallic symbols. Next, Thomas meets his agent, Ron (Peter Bowles) for lunch. Antonioni is, in fact, a master at crafting meaning from these seemingly disparate sequences; on the surface, very much disjointed or perhaps even nonsensical. The hypnotic combination of Carlo Di Palma’s cinematography and Antonioni’s sparsely constructed dialogue (co-written by Tonino Guerra) leaves the viewer with just enough tantalization to sell each moment as an intricate piece in a much larger and ostensibly never-to-be-completed puzzle.
The plot thickens, or rather, continues to expand and unravel as Thomas takes notice of a mystery man (Dyson Lovell) snooping around his convertible. He abandons Ron, seemingly without rhyme or reason; Antonioni indulging Thomas in his flagrant despondency and contempt for contemporary society. London is depicted as a decaying and isolated ramshackle of tightly woven, but generally empty streets; foot traffic practically non-existent, except for the occasional picketing peace protester, mime and isolated group of fez-wearing Afrikaners Thomas nearly mows down as he hastily speeds home.  Not long thereafter, Jane makes her not-so-impromptu visit to Thomas’ studio. Thomas is again cruelly mischievous; first, denying; then, promising Jane the film. He takes a phone call from his estranged lover whom we never meet, implying he is in the middle of a ‘delicate’ matter with some other woman. It’s an insidious game, fraught with sexual tension, confusion and, finally, acquiescence on Jane’s part. Both she and Thomas strip to their waists. He offers her a canister of film – not the one she is after, mind you; and she incessantly flirts with him, using the excuse of ‘the time’ to avoid consummating their casual assignation. He asks for her number. She gives him a phony and bolts for the door.
Afterward, Thomas sets about developing the actual roll of B&W film he shot in the park; becoming intrigued when the resultant images reveal a moment previously passed him by – a queer expression on Jane’s face and the sight of a possible killer lurking behind a tall tree, gun in hand. Unable to contain his exhilaration at having unearthed and foiled a crime, Thomas telephones Ron. Disturbed by a knock at his door, Thomas discovers his ‘birds’ - the pair of aspiring models - returned with a new inducement. As with most of Antonioni’s explorations of human sexuality, what follows is a bit of a blur and widely opened to interpretation. While the brunette hints at being a virgin, the blonde willingly strips to her waist to try on some designer clothes. Thomas accosts her, toppling the racks of clothes and angrily paws at her. Her shrieks and look of absolute terror, combined with his beady-eyed satisfaction dovetails into a sort of pseudo-rape, inexplicably turned playful; then, bizarrely grotesque. The trio romp and wrestle in the studio, Thomas even more ravenously assaulting the girls who, in turn tear at one another’s stretch pants until each is completely nude. Thomas is not particularly serious about pursuing the matter; it ends, rather abruptly with his insincere promise to each girl to photograph them both ‘tomorrow’. 
Obsessed with the photographs he has taken in Maryon Park, Thomas makes several blow-ups that appear to reveal the extremely blurry outline of a body lying in the tall grasses. Can it be? Did he really witness a murder? Now approaching dusk, and without his camera, Thomas hurries to Maryon Park where he does, in fact, discover a body in the same proximity to the location featured in his pictures; frightened off by the sound of a snapping twig in the underbrush that may or may not suggest he is not alone, or has been followed, or that the murderer has returned to cover up the evidence. Hurrying to Bill and Patricia’s flat, Thomas finds the front door unlocked and the couple in the throes of heated passion, making love in their bedroom. Although Patricia sees Thomas clearly, she keeps his presence a secret from Bill. Racing home to grab his camera, Thomas soon discovers his studio has been ransacked; all evidence of the crime – save one exceptionally grainy photo – gone. On the hunt for clues, Thomas telephones Ron; then, spies Jane waiting outside the Permutit; a swinger’s club where The Yardbirds are performing.  A buzz in lead singer Beck’s amplifier causes him to throw a temper tantrum and wreck his guitar, tossing its shattered neck into the audience. Thomas greedily retrieves it as a souvenir. But only moments later, he discards it on the pavement outside the club. A passerby examines the relic, but also sees no reason to keep it.
Now, Thomas hurries to Ron’s fashionable house on the Thames; the scene of a drug-drenched orgy where Veruschka, who lied to him earlier about going to Paris, and higher than a kite now, blatantly suggests she is in Paris.  Unable to convince Ron of his discovery, Thomas gradually succumbs to the wanton revelry, awakening hours later in a half stupor, only to return to Maryon Park and realize someone has removed the corpse. Disillusioned, Thomas quietly observes as a jeep-load of mimes, who first appeared at the start of the movie – jovial and frenetic, participating in the ‘rag’ (a charity-raising ritual popularized in Britain) now enter a nearby caged tennis court to perform an impromptu match with imaginary balls and rackets. At some point, the mimes direct Thomas to fetch their imaginary ball, presumably played out of bounds. He obliges, and the sound of a real tennis ball is heard as the pretend match resumes.  Antonioni concludes with a high overhead shot: Thomas, a mere speck on the grassy knoll, isolated, quite alone, and wholly inconsequential. In these final moments, Antonioni exposes our antiheroic protagonist for the pointlessness of his superficial lifestyle; emasculated and ultimately disposable; Thomas, fading into obscurity (literally) and obliterated by the words ‘the end’ on the screen.
Blow-Up’s finale feeds into Antonioni’s reoccurring theme of humanity’s incapacity to find pleasure outside of its collective avarice for material wealth. In this regard, Antonioni is almost Shakespearean in his storytelling, the lives of his characters ‘full of sound and fury’ or humanity’s mad inhuman noise, as unimportant in man’s evolutionary process and most certainly ‘signifying nothing’ in the end. The bleakness that saturates virtually all his movies, but most succinctly is represented with hyper-intensity herein, is counterbalanced by Antonioni’s elliptical and open-ended narrative; the vacuity of our emotional content in general, and, lovers in particular, illustrating precisely how isolated, fragile, jaded and lost humanity has become in modern times. It is this theme that remains as relevant, if not more so, today. Despite centuries of interaction we are no closer to understanding each other, and even more obscure, ourselves or purpose in this godless and abysmally unattractive world of our own design. Curiously, despite its effectiveness in conveying this absence, and, even more shocking in lieu of its social relevance amplified with each intervening decade since, and further still, because of the avalanche of critical acclaim it received back in 1966, Blow-Up is rarely discussed, not only outside of filmdom’s contemporary discourse but also from within.  
It is too simplistic to suggest the times have merely changed: that Blow-Up no longer references or resonates with humanity’s collective nervous breakdown, social angst and self-pity the way it did for the navel-gazing sixties; a counterculture it both reflected and, in some ways, helped to kick start and expose.  And Antonioni has so cleverly, if very loosely, situated his story around the conventions of the Hollywood thriller; if nothing else, a selling feature for those seeking ‘only’ plot-driven narratives to satisfy their more narrowly construed movie-going appetites.  Whether the murder is real or imagined, or perhaps, covered up by Jane, who may or may not be part of it, is inconsequential as far as Antonioni is concerned. If Blow-Up contains the kernels of a classic whodunit, it easily assuages the notion that a neat and tidy summation for the crime will follow. Rather, Antonioni’s filmic quest is for answers to other questions: about people struggling to make meaning about and for themselves in a world of unplanned and negligible variables. Thomas is neither driven my ambition, per say, nor deep enough to recognize his own thoroughly disgusting and self-destructive deficits as a human being. But he is obsessed by his muse and driven – nearly half-mad – in his pursuit to deconstruct meaning, using his craft. Under the rubric – and time-honored cliché, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’, both Thomas and Antonioni illustrate the power and sway modern art possesses –  in photographic stills, and via the moving image – this potency gets reaffirmed, then muddled again, even in these inexplicable temples of half shadow and light.   
Blow-Up finds its way to Blu-ray via Warner Home Video’s licensing agreement with the Criterion Collection and the results could not be more pleasing. Sourced from an original camera negative, with a few inserts from an IP, what’s here (outside of the main titles, sourced from a dupe) is simply stunning. Prepare to be dazzled as Blow-Up’s restored 4K master represents the swingin’ sixties palette in richly textured psychedelic colors. There is some discrepancy about framing: the theatrical release was in 1.66:1. This Blu-ray is in 1.85:1. Hmmm. Contrast is perfect, as is film grain - very indigenous to its source. The overall image is slightly darker than previous SD incarnations, and, with slightly warmer flesh tones. Yeah, baby – this one is ‘fab’!  Criterion’s PCM 1.0 audio perfectly captures the mono theatrical release, with subtly balanced ‘wind effects’ in Maryon Park creating a truly haunting sense of taut aural isolation. Curiously, we get NO audio commentary to accompany the feature. But fear not: extras are rather extensive and otherwise welcome, beginning with a five and a half minute excerpt from Michelangelo Antonioni: The Eye That Changed Cinema. Personally, I would have preferred the whole 2001 documentary. In lieu of this, we get a fairly comprehensive hour long documentary by Valentina Agostinis from 2016. We also get two interviews with actor, David Hemming: the first, running 5 min. from 1968, the other, a 20 min. conversation with Brian Linehan from 1977. There is a 45 min. conversation piece recorded late last year, featuring Vanessa Redgrave; 9 min. from a 1989 interview with Jane Birkin and two ‘exclusives’ produced for Criterion about Antonioni’s artistry: Antonioni's Hypnotic Vision; cumulatively, clocking in at just under an hour. Finally, we get the teaser and theatrical trailer, and liner notes by David Forgacs and Stig Björkman: also, the 1959 short story by Julio Cortázar on which Blow-Up is very loosely based. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

DIRTY DANCING: 30TH ANNIVERSARY: Blu-ray reissue (Vestron Pictures 1987) Lionsgate Home Video

“One of a handful of crowd-pleasing flicks that are seemingly impervious to criticism…and while those just stumbling upon the film today without being wrapped up in the warm glow of nostalgia may end up wondering what all the fuss was about, taken on its own terms, 'Dirty Dancing' is still an immensely likable (if terribly clichéd) tale of first love.”
-        Peter Bracke
Can it really be 30 years since the late Patrick Swayze and now virtually unrecognizable, Jennifer Grey took to the mambo in Emile Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing (1987)? Okay, now I feel old, having been a part of the original theatrical experience that absolutely mesmerized and dazzled an opening night audience; Swayze’s breakout role as the tight-fitted greaser with the proverbial heart of gold, Johnny Castle bringing Grey’s wall-flowered ingénue, Baby Houseman to her sexual prime with the now, iconic line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” still ringing in my ears. A minor programmer from then fledgling – and now defunct – Vestron Pictures, Dirty Dancing became an iconic part of the puff pastry, eighties pastiche for ‘feel good’ fluff Hollywood today has completely forgotten how to make. More shocking, at least then, the picture made dancing permissible again for men – the sissifying of the art ever since Gene Kelly hung up his taps, brought to a full-throttle, pulsating sexual throb by the sight of a shirtless Swayze, up to his rippling waistline in decidedly frigid lake water, hoisting Grey overhead to teach Baby the proper balance during a dance lift. Swayze, classically trained as a dancer in his teens at his mother’s studio, regrettably, never fulfilled his dream to costar with his wife in a ‘Fred and Ginger’-esque musical of his own. Regardless, he is forever etched into our movie-land culture as the epitome of this sinewy hunk du jour. It helped that, two years earlier, the actor had played a pivotal part in one of television’s seminal mini-series; North and South, reprising the role of soft-spoken southern gentleman, Orry Main in the second installment of the franchise, on TV just before Dirty Dancing debuted. And Swayze, for all his tough-as-nails posturing and dark sun-glasses male machismo at the beginning of Dirty Dancing (my favorite line of his, actually directed at Max Cantor’s scummy waiter, Robbie Gould: “You just put your pickle on everybody's plate, college boy, and leave the hard stuff to me.”), cannot help but to remain the grandee of old school manly finesse: a sort of homespun toughness, as infectious and even more rarefied in movie studs from any vintage, though particularly, the eighties.
Dirty Dancing really is Patrick Swayze’s show; marvelous too for its Svengali-esque re-conceiving of Grey’s awkward and gawky ugly duckling with a Toucan Sam profile, miraculously transformed into a graceful swan in Johnny’s eyes, and, of course, through his expert tutelage in the bedroom and on the dance floor. Swayze and Grey possess that elusive spark of on-screen chemistry; as intangible as it is essential to make all the quirky comedy in Eleanor Bergstein’s screenplay click. Bergstein based the story largely on her own childhood as the younger sibling in a Jewish family whose doctor/father preferred to vacation in the Catskills.  Ever since the ‘erotic’ dance sequence she had scripted for 1980’s It’s My Turn had been left on the cutting room floor, Bergstein had become hell-bent on doing a ‘dance’ movie. Four years later, with success, she pitched the idea to MGM’s Eileen Miselle and producer, Linda Gottlieb; basing Baby’s character on herself and modeling Johnny Castle on Catskill’s dance instructor, Michael Terrace (on whom Bergstein herself had had a crush). For inspiration, Bergstein handpicked choreographer, Kenny Ortega, a disciple of Gene Kelly. As the Catskills had long since ceased to be a favorite retreat for affluent vacationers, Lake Lure, North Carolina and the Mountain Lake Hotel near Roanoke, Virginia were substituted as locations.
By now, Dirty Dancing’s featherweight plot should be predigested and regurgitated as part of North America’s cultural DNA; the summer of ’63 transformed into an idyllic coming of age story about seventeen year old Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman (Jennifer Grey); the favorite daughter of dad, Dr. Jake Houseman (Jerry Orbach) and by far the most introspective and forgiving of this family brood. Baby is vacationing at the fashionable Catskill’s resort, Kellerman’s; its avuncular owner/host, Max (Jack Weston) a close friend of her father’s. Baby’s distant plans include attending college in the Fall to study economics. Her more immediate plans…well. She’s bored and disillusioned, and, truth be told, a wee sexually frustrated too. Her life has not exactly been enriched by her family’s affluence; her superficially prettier elder sister, Lisa (Jane Brucker) more interested in preening and teasing her hair than expanding her mind. 
Max rather hopes to inveigle Baby in a summer romance with his goofy-looking son, Neil (Lonny Price) whom he is grooming to take over the family business. Instead, Baby develops an almost immediate crush on the resort’s butch dance instructor, Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), leader of the proletariat entertainment staff. Housed in a crooked line of squalid shacks on an adjacent properly, Johnny and his brood are generally frowned upon by Max as a ‘necessary evil’ to keep the middle-aged female clientele ‘happy’ – a word of varied meaning. Bored by the pre-arranged ‘event coordinated’ pabulum meant to amuse guests, Baby wanders off in the woods at dusk, encountering Johnny’s cousin, Billy Kostecki (Neil Jones). Offering to help him tote a pair of weighty watermelons to the staff quarters, Baby is introduced to the real life of this party; a bump and grind to the primal beats of rock n’ roll. Johnny is not amused, but he does give Baby her first lesson: dance as sweat-soaked/straight-up sex with their clothes on. Baby is mildly embarrassed and withdraws from the all-night bender, but later, discovering Johnny’s jaded dance partner, Penny Johnson (Cynthia Rhodes), pregnant by Kellerman’s waiter, Robbie Gould (Max Cantor), magnanimously offers to get the necessary funds to help them both out of this very sticky situation.
Fearing his parental judgment, but knowing her cache as ‘daddy’s little girl’ will get her what she wants, Baby does not tell Jake for what the money is to be used. The more prescient problem: what to do about Johnny and Penny’s prearranged professional engagement at the nearby Sheldrake Hotel. To forfeit the money is not an option. So, with time running out, Baby suggests she might substitute as Johnny’s partner. Penny is game and Johnny very reluctantly agrees. Although Baby proves an extremely awkward pupil, she nevertheless invests everything into learning the necessary dance steps to perform the mambo. In the meantime, Billy agrees to take Penny for her abortion and look after her until Johnny and Baby return. Fate intervenes. Setting aside her anxiety, Baby takes notice of an elderly couple, the Schumachers (Alvin Myerovich and Paula Trueman): guests of Kellerman’s, curiously found their way to the Sheldrake. Returning to Kellerman’s after midnight, Johnny is informed by Billy that Penny’s backroom abortion was badly bungled. She is feverish and hemorrhaging. While everyone begins to panic, Baby rushes back to her suite, awakening Jake in the middle of the night. His medical expertise saves Penny’s life. Alas, he has mistakenly assumed Johnny to be the father, and furthermore, has lost all faith in Baby’s ability to make sound judgment calls. Vowing to keep the entire evening a secret from his wife, Jake plans to leave Kellerman’s immediately. But Lisa dissuades her father from this hasty departure because of her insidious desire to be the center of attention at the hotel’s planned ‘talent’ competition.
Embarrassed by Jake’s prejudice, Baby returns to Johnny’s cabin to apologize. Penny is grateful for her intervention, however, and Johnny has already begun to recognize her courage. Moreover, he has fallen in love with Baby. The two engage in a dance that segues into passionate love-making. Knowing Robbie was responsible for Penny’s pregnancy, and moreover, he is infamous for whoring around with the middle-aged female clientele at the hotel, Baby does everything she can to dissuade Lisa from ‘going all the way’ with him. Assuming Baby is merely jealous, not only of her ‘friendship’ with Robbie but also of the fact she has suddenly become ‘daddy’s favorite girl’, Lisa scoffs at Baby’s suggestion. Against Jake’s direct orders Baby continues to see Johnny on the sly, but sheepishly pulls him aside when she sees her father approaching. Believing Baby to be like all the rest, ashamed to ‘go slumming’ but just as readily hypocritical to use him, Johnny and Baby have their first argument. Having witnessed their tiff, Robbie confronts Johnny. The men scuffle and Johnny knocks Robbie to the ground.
Not long thereafter, one of Kellerman’s notorious ‘bungalow bunnies’, wealthy middle-aged viper, Vivian Pressman (Miranda Garrison) attempts to engage Johnny for a ‘private lesson’ – code for an afterhours sexual rendezvous. Reformed by Baby’s love, Johnny turns Vivien down. So she indiscriminately takes Robbie to bed instead (after all, any young stud will do); a scene accidentally witnessed by Lisa who has skulked off to throw herself at Robbie’s head, erroneously believing she has found true love. Alas, when Vivien leaves Robbie’s cabin at dawn she also witnesses Baby departing Johnny’s room. Not long thereafter Max and Neil reveal to the Housemans Moe Pressman’s (Garry Goodrow) wallet is stolen while he was playing poker with a few of the other guests. Driven by jealousy, Vivien accuses Johnny of the crime. As a few of the more well-heeled patrons at Kellerman’s have recently discovered their moneys and other valuables gone missing, Max, along with Neil, too keen to assume the worst about Johnny, immediately dismiss him. To spare Johnny his job, and unaware her confession will nevertheless result in his dismissal for ‘other reasons’, Baby confesses in front of the Kellermans and her own family Johnny could not have stolen Moe’s wallet because at the time of the crime she was with him in his bungalow and remained there all night.
Although Johnny is exonerated after the Schumachers are exposed as a pair of pro con artists, he is nevertheless dismissed from the hotel for this ‘fraternizing’ affair. At the end-of-season talent show, Jake is more disillusioned than ever. He cannot forgive Baby her indiscretion. Unaware of Robbie’s indiscretions, Jake offers to give the boy an endorsement for medical school. Believing Jake already knows the truth about him from either Lisa or Baby, Robbie now casually confesses to having impregnated Penny. Thoroughly insulted, Jake withdraws his offer in disgust. Despite having been ordered off the property, Johnny suddenly appears at the Houseman’s table. He challenges Jake’s classicism and liberates Baby from her corner seat, taking center stage to perform the closing ‘dance’ against the Kellerman’s objections. Sensing the couple’s infectious romance, the auditorium erupts into thunderous applause as patrons – young and old - decide to partake of this eclectic dance explosion. Jake accepts Johnny as Baby’s boyfriend; the couple’s future uncertain as everyone enjoys one final spin around the dance floor.
It all looked good – on paper – except that a management shakeup at the perennially flailing MGM forced the project into turnaround.  Free to shop her script elsewhere, Bergstein was soon to discover zero takers on the outside, except for the fledgling Vestron Pictures. In a series of ‘firsts’; Dirty Dancing would be Vestron’s entre into picture-making and herald the debut of its director, Emile Ardolino, who had never made a feature before, but had won an Oscar for 1983’s documentary, He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’. At a time when the average feature cost $12 million, Dirty Dancing’s paltry $5 million budget seemed like a safe investment to Vestron’s President Jon Peisinger; not enough to sink the newly amalgamated studio if the picture flopped, and just enough to lend credence to a possible sleeper hit, should Bergstein’s hunch play itself out. Casting Dirty Dancing proved a minor ordeal as Ardolino was adamant about filling the two leads with dancers who could act, rather than actors who could learn to dance, or worse, flat-foots requiring a double, lit in half shadow, to conceal the switch. Jennifer Grey was first to be cast. An experienced dancer and the daughter of 1972’s Cabaret gris eminence, Joel Grey; her hiring created a minor difficulty when Ardolino announced his decision to costar Patrick Swayze. Swayze and Grey had not gotten on during the filming of Red Dawn (1984). And actually, Billy Zane had already tested for Johnny Castle, proving the right ‘type’ – physically, but quite unable to keep up with the more vigorous dance moves during his audition.
Reluctantly, Grey agreed to ‘test’ with Swayze; the pair amicably finding their détente on the dance floor in an audition Bergstein would later describe as ‘breathtaking’. While Gottlieb and Bergstein were over-the-moon to hire Swayze, he received minor opposition from his well-intentioned agent who advised him not to accept the part. Swayze, however, loved the role and vetoed his agent. Of the various other casting choices, only two would remain a constant during Dirty Dancing’s preliminary phase: Broadway actor, Jerry Orbach (who had made himself familiar to TV audiences with a reoccurring character part on Murder She Wrote) and Jane Brucker (as Baby’s vacuous elder sister, Lisa). Bergstein’s initial plan to hire close friend and sex therapist, Dr. Ruth Westheimer to play Mrs. Schumacher fell through when Westheimer learned her character was a kleptomaniac (Paula Trueman eventually filling the role). Bergstein was also to recast the part of Kellerman’s social director, Stan with Wayne Knight, and Mrs. Houseman with Kelly Bishop, after the original actress signed for this latter role, Lynne Lipton suddenly fell ill and was forced to withdraw. As Bishop had already been hired to play Kellerman’s resident oversexed rich bitch, Vivian Pressman, Bergstein coaxed Dirty Dancing’s assistant choreographer, Miranda Garrison to accept this part in her stead.
To suggest Dirty Dancing’s shooting schedule was tight is an understatement; two weeks of rehearsals followed by a mere 44 days of principle photography, with cast and crew sequestered at the Mountain Lake Lodge and Lake Lure Inn and Spa. Shot after Labor Day, 1986, cast and crew were exposed to some inhospitable weather; staggering 105 °F heat, stifling humidity and impromptu showers. As temperatures soared, casualties were incurred; fainting spells and bouts of dehydration. The production was also delayed when Patrick Swayze, having repeatedly tumbled while performing the ‘balancing scene’ on a log, suffered a knee injury that required immediate hospitalization. As the shoot moved into late autumn, Ardolino and his set designers were forced to spray-paint the turning foliage green; the unpredictable temperatures toggling from stifling heat to just above freezing. While crew were shielded from these radically fluctuating conditions, allowed to wear whatever clothes they required to keep warm, Swayze and Grey were forced to strip down to light summer attire in order to perform their now iconic ‘lake rehearsal’ scene. Inspiring a sense of community as well as friendship, Bergstein encouraged fraternizing on the set; the line between actors and the characters they were playing, effectively blurred when after work gatherings turned into off-the-cuff disco parties, both dancers and non-dancers honing their terpsichorean skills in a spirit of playfully erotic interaction. Alas, Swayze and Grey were to reestablish their old mutual animosity as production wore on; Bergstein forcing them to re-watch their screen test to regain that aura of ‘positive’ chemistry for their love scenes. Despite these delays, Ardolino wrapped his movie on Oct. 27th, on-time and on-budget.
Interestingly, the director’s rough assembly and sneak peek impressed no one; not even Ardolino and certainly not Vestron’s executives, who believed they had a formidable turkey on their hands. Almost half of the test audience failed to grasp the movie’s abortion subplot, while producer, Aaron Russo is rumored to have sarcastically suggested to Vestron exec, Mitchell Cannold “Burn the negative, and collect the insurance.” Instead, Vestron began shopping the film for a sponsor. Acne cream manufacturer, Clearasil offered a tie-in until they learned of the abortion subplot. As Bergstein unequivocally refused to cut this out to satisfy the sponsorship, Clearasil withdrew, leaving Vestron to promote Dirty Dancing alone. As Vestron was primarily a video distributor, the plan now was to quickly premiere the picture for a weekend and then quietly pull it from circulation with a direct-to-video release shortly thereafter. Given the initial reaction from Vestron, Gottlieb’s sentiments and level of expectation ebbed low as the official premiere on August 16, 1987 fast approached. With heavy hearts, Vestron, Ardolino and the rest of the cast and crew prepared to accept their raspberries in public. Ironically, they had absolutely nothing to fear. Audiences fell in love with the picture almost instantly, Dirty Dancing doing repeat business, with word-of-mouth catapulting the box office into the stratosphere; $170 million worldwide, making it one of the highest grossing movies of 1987. 
Fueled by its pop-chart topping soundtrack, that not only included the Jennifer Warnes/Bill Medley crowd-pleaser, ‘The Time of My Life’ (weirdly, the third most popular song to be played at funerals forever after?!?) but also Swayze’s singing debut, ‘She’s Like the Wind’, Dirty Dancing’s dreaded Hiroshima-sized implosion with audiences never happened. The critics were more or less forgiving, their reviews ping-ponging from over-the-moon ebullience (The New York Times called in “a metaphor for America in the summer of ’63 – orderly, prosperous, bursting with good intentions; a sort of Yiddish-inflected Camelot”) to downright insidious and scathing (Chicago’s Roger Ebert eviscerating the “idiot plot” as “tired and relentlessly predictable.”).  And Dirty Dancing would continue to break records: the first VHS cassette to sell a million copies at a rate of approximately 40,000 a month. As of 2005, in its various home video incarnations, Dirty Dancing continues to sell roughly a million copies per annum, listed in Britain's Sky Movies as the #1 most-watched video of all time; well beyond figures touted for the Star Wars trilogy, Grease, The Sound of Music, and Pretty Woman.
Good press and clever marketing can greatly enhance a picture’s reputation. But not all movies are worthy of the hype. Some calculably survive it. Placed in its proper context, Dirty Dancing remains a modest and enjoyable programmer, elevated in status by Patrick Swayze’s reputation that would continue to soar and acquire even more cache in the intervening decades as an amiable and very popular leading man. Above all else, Swayze had personality plus to recommend him; and class too. It goes a long, long way. He left us much too early; dead of pancreatic cancer at the age of 57. In viewing the picture again, it speaks to his incredible vitality as both a dancer and a true artist whose acting style was as unaffected, natural and well-meant as the man himself. Emile Ardolino, who only directed a handful of movies, among them, Chances Are (1989) and Sister Act (1992) would never scale such heights again. Spun off into a tragically underwhelming TV series in 1988 (that lasted only 11 episodes) and a rather unprepossessing prequel, Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (released in 2004 but set in 1958), like most any example one would care to ascribe, it’s the original that counts here. Dirty Dancing remains a cultural touchstone from the whack-tac-u-lar eighties; a decade fraught with fun and fabulous ‘feel good’ flicks that made one glad to be alive and optimistic about the future. Viewed from our present day dystopian movie culture, Dirty Dancing is still exuberant, energetic and amply endowed entertainment, with good solid talent working both in front of and behind the camera.  
Perhaps it’s time to have the time of one’s life all over again. Ah…not quite. Certainly, Lionsgate Home Video thinks as much – or as little – with this 30th anniversary re-re-re-reissue. Dirty Dancing has to be one of the most obscenely milkable sacred cows in the home video industry with multiple reissues to make even the likes of Disney Inc. blush. We could almost jump for joy, except Lionsgate has done absolutely nothing to update the tired and sincerely flawed 2010 1080p transfer, still sporting thick and rather unnatural grain that sporadically appears more digitized than indigenous to its source. Colors tend to clot, or rather, look muddy and inconsistent. Daytime photography yields some impressive fine detail, but Jeffrey Jurs’ moodily lit interiors are bland and boring; flesh tones pasty and pinkish; the whole image wanting for that colorful oomph it ought to have. Increasingly I am impatient with video-mastering companies recycling old transfers with new swag as their only supposed selling feature; that, and the fact the old Vestron Pictures logo remains lopped off at the start of the movie. If it’s a rights issue, get the rights! Period! We do get a new 7.1 DTS soundtrack, adding new life to these time-honored classic rock tunes interpolated throughout. But dialogue still sounds tinny and frontal by comparison.  
Okay, we get a newly produced 30-minute retrospective with Bergstein and original cast members, Bonnie Timmerman, Miranda Garrison, Doriana Sanchez, Jesus Fuentes, Jane Brucker, Kelly Bishop and some of the Broadway musical revival’s cast weighing in on the ‘timeless’ magic of the original. There’s also 90 minutes of archival interviews with Patrick Swayze, Bergstein, Jennifer Grey, and, choreographer, Kenny Ortega, who was rumored to be first in line to direct a remake that, mercifully, has since fallen by the waste side.  Two optional commentaries enlighten further: Bergstein’s the better of the two; the other, misguidedly fluffy and featuring Ortega, Garrison, Jur and Production Designer David Chapman and Costume Designer Hilary Rosenfeld. None of the aforementioned really goes beyond the self-congratulatory gushing phase in their praise of the movie.  Nearly two-dozen deleted, extended or alternate scenes, some screen tests, and, three horrendously tacky music videos pad out the extras. Monumentally disappointing, the old tributes to Swayze and Jerry Orbach have been excised; also, the rather silly, but fun ‘trivia track’. The Limited Edition Collector’s Set delves deeply into some A-list swag; including a rather handsomely produced set of ‘lobby cards’; a fake map to Kellerman’s resort, a ‘Do Not Disturb’ door tag and hall key, a poster reproduction and ‘Arthur Murray-esque dance map to illustrate how to do the mambo. I like swag, but not at the expense of a properly remastered hi-def transfer. Bling is bling – not the thing to make me want to double dip for this pointless reissue.  If you already own Dirty Dancing on Blu-ray steer clear of this set.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

WOMAN OF THE YEAR: Blu-ray (MGM 1942) Criterion Collection

Hollywood's bygone dream merchants were savvy businessmen to be sure. But they were also blessed with an inborn creativity, essential for recognizing the next ‘big thing’ in an industry that today, tragically, is almost entirely hell-bent on producing pre-processed cookie-cutter carbon copies of better talent seen elsewhere.  One of the most enduring ghost flowers from that mythical ‘golden age’ is the creation of magnificent ‘screen teams’; perfect pairs of thoroughly gifted actors apart that, together, became icons of our shared movie-going experience and boffo box office besides. Audiences looked forward to seeing these familiar faces doing familiar things, but always in new and interesting stories. Over the years there have been many such alliances; Greer Garson and Walter Pigeon, William Powell and Myrna Loy, Clark Gable and Joan Crawford, Gable and Lana Turner, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and, of course, who can forget Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney? But if you had to pick just one screen team to exemplify the template, I have a sneaking suspicion the vote would be unanimously cast for Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
By the time they made their debut together in George Stevens’ razor-sharp kitchen comedy, Woman of the Year (1942), each had already become something of a household name, working steadily - if unevenly - in the movie biz for more than ten years. Their respective bodies of work apart made them easily identifiable. So it might appear, at least in hindsight, as though their coming together was inevitable. Both had box office cache, although Tracy's was more secure than Hepburn’s in 1942. If, apart, they held their own (and, they did!), then jointly they were nothing less than dynamite; the quintessence of a sort of congenially caustic martial perfection, witnessed at the height of the unassuming ‘family comedy’ in 9 movies made between 1942 and 1967, the year of Tracy's untimely passing. The truth, of course, was far removed from this idyllic on-screen portrait. Tracy, a devote Catholic, was already married to Louise with two children of his own, while Hepburn, a divorcee, had since managed a string of highly publicized affairs – including one with Howard Hughes - that, like her movie career, had seen more downs than ups.
Professionally, it seemed to be all over for Hepburn by 1938 when, after a string of flops at RKO, Variety branded her ‘box office poison’; a moniker that forced her into a momentary retreat from the movies; resurfacing in the surefire smash on Broadway for playwright, Philip Barry; The Philadelphia Story. Years later, asked to qualify the reason for her meteoric tumble from grace at the box office (indeed, she had run off the rails after winning the Best Actress Oscar for 1934’s Morning Glory and, for a brief wrinkle, having been considered a contender for the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, with other memorable parts peppered throughout her RKO tenure, including A Bill of Divorcement 1932, Little Women 1933, Alice Adams 1935, and the now legendary screwball comedy, Bringing Up Baby 1938), Hepburn was quick to reply – “Dull pictures!” Yet perhaps Hepburn had been her own worst enemy; that indomitable New England spirit, married to those impossibly un-sexy (at least by Hollywood’s standards) angular features, a rather awkward drawl and raspy voice, and that astutely forthright sense of self, impossible to mask (not that Hepburn ever even tried), even behind the overblown accoutrements of glamorous Hollywood-ized femininity.
Again, years later and this time, rather infamously Hepburn, when idiotically pressed by Barbara Walters to apologize for preferring pants to skirts instead crisply replied, “I have one, Miss Walters…I’ll wear it to your funeral” Hepburn, resetting the tone in her favor for being a no-nonsense gal with both guts and brains, still flying generously in the face of midtown prudery and big city degradation.  Put bluntly, Hepburn took crap from nobody. There is another fascinating story about Kate Hepburn that bears mentioning; her initial ‘cute meet’ in life with Spencer Tracy, exiting the commissary at MGM with Joseph Mankiewicz and awkwardly acknowledging their difference in height, to which Mankiewicz rather nonchalantly replied, “Don’t worry about it, Kate. He’ll cut you down to his size!”  The grand amour that followed in life from their on-screen antics appeared, at least to the public, to be genuine. And Kate, while never considering marriage or children ahead of her career, was, for all intent and purposes, to become the main staple in Tracy’s mid to later years; his rock as well as his lover; easing him away from his periodic alcoholic binges that had interrupted his life and career during those formative years in Hollywood. When Tracy died, it was at the home he shared with Hepburn. 
And yet, for all her love and affection for him, or perhaps because of it, Hepburn was to abstain from attending Spence’s funeral at which Tracy’s wife and family were present. “He was a difficult man to know,” Hepburn would later reflect, “He certainly didn’t want to talk about his problems.” To this end, Hepburn remain incredulously silent, agreeing to read out loud, the letter she had composed to her beloved almost eighteen years after his death, still teeming with admiration, bewilderment and wounded affection for this man she had shared so much in life, yet still felt so isolated from in the end, “Why the escape hatch…always open…the getaway from the remarkable you? What was it, Spence’? I meant to ask you. Did you even know what it was? What…what did you say? I can’t hear you.”
Woman of the Year finds Tracy and Hepburn at the beginning of their unusual, and, not always ‘happily ever after’ affair to remember – both, on the screen and in life; Ring Lardner Jr. and Michael Kanin’s screenplay (with an assist from John Lee Mahin) an escalation and, in some ways, total departure from the oft bastardized, and even more rarely sublime rom/com, delving into virtually every commitment and counterproductive strife the promise of love can bring. Woman of the Year is a picture that typifies, I think, the sort of tradition Hollywood peddled in throughout the thirties and forties; clear-eyed and frankly funny, gingerly exploring human foibles, or rather, the juncture where aged prejudices and well-cured, though perhaps still youthful, optimisms collide. Hence, it remains a radiant exemplar of the ageless comedy; peerless in the hallmarks of its studio-bound eclecticism; earthy and genuine, thanks mostly to Kate and Spence’s wonderful sparring; the sparks really flying between them. Neither manufactured nor over-embellished in its precepts and timber, Woman of the Year excels at drawing an immediate parallel between its fictional characters - political columnist (and woman of many 'un-womanly' virtues) Tess Harding and brass tacks sports writer, Sam Craig - and exactly the sort of affair de coeur Tracy and Hepburn would chart for themselves after the cameras stopped rolling. He finds her mildly irritating and somewhat pretentious; she chooses to see his ‘salt of the earth’ as charming…well…sort of.  
The picture begins inside the New York Chronicle, a fictional news outlet that employs both Tess and Sam. Socially speaking, they are polar opposites; Tess, who is educated, speaks several languages fluently and is well-travelled, is a true renaissance gal, navigating the rough seas of world politics; a female progressive long before the notion was either main stream, much less fashionable. By contrast, Sam is a no-nonsense sports writer who prefers the vibrant, bullying company of the lowbrow to Tess’s more chichi, pinkies-up hoi poloi, whom he increasingly finds intolerably showy, particularly Tess’ social secretary, the too-too officious and rather effete, Gerald Howe (Dan Tobin). The Lardner/Kanin screenplay presents the challenges facing Tess and Sam from a multitude of perspectives, stemming from their disparities in class, gender-biases and finally, emotional needs. Tess is amused by Sam and sees him as a ‘work in progress’; someone she can shape into her own image of the ideal suitor and keep, merely as another appendage added to her already cluttered lifestyle. In comparison, he initially sees her as someone who could use a good dressing down, put in her place, or rather, the ‘place’ where all womanly women ought to remain…yep, in the arms of their guy and, of course, in the kitchen…the one area of expertise where dear ole Tess is decidedly not the expert. 
Tess and Sam’s confrontationally charming ‘cute meet’ arises because of a feud in their respective columns over baseball, Tess suggesting the sport should be abolished for the duration of the war; a casual faux pas first expressed during a radio interview overheard by Sam at his local watering hole managed by Pinkie Peters (William Bendix). In response, Sam pens a column that blatantly suggests Tess is so self-absorbed in her pontifications, telling the American people what they should be doing that she has forgotten what it is like to have a meaningful conversation with anyone outside of her own isolated clique. Well aware of their built-up animosity, the Chronicle’s editor, Clayton (Reginald Owen) attempts a reconciliation. He will brook no nonsense amongst his staff. Both Sam and Tess are absorbed by this turn of events; also, almost immediately attracted to one another. To set Tess straight, Sam invites her to a baseball game where she inadvertently rewrites the unspoken ‘men only’ rule of the press box. Mildly confused and wholly unfamiliar with the finer points of the game, Tess nevertheless smartly picks up both its lingo and rules in a single afternoon, enjoying herself immensely and gaining the respect of the fellas, who initially had looked upon her as an interloper. Sam is impressed. Moreover, he has begun to think a smart woman might be exactly what he needs in his life.
All evidence to the contrary when Tess extends the proverbial olive branch in the other direction, inviting Sam to her fashionable apartment for dinner. He mistakenly believes this to be the beginnings of a ‘hot date’ when in reality Tess has brought Sam to meet a gaggle of her more socially affluent and upwardly mobile friends, come for a ‘meet and greet’ after one of her nightly broadcasts. The dinner party proves a disaster for Sam who can never seem to fit into this milieu. Unable to converse in any language other than English, Sam finds his lack of social graces and other shortcomings increasingly awkward; the proverbial goldfish dropped into the Sahara as it were, and quite unable to make inroads. The next afternoon, Sam finds a bottle of wine on his desk; an apology from Tess. Charmed by the gesture, he attempts to engage her in her office; momentarily dissuaded by Gerald into ‘waiting his turn’ while Tess irons out the details of a planned political détente with Cuban President Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar in Havana. Again, Sam tries to play the amiable suitor; again, he is sideswiped by Tess’ more prescient slate of passion projects. She suggests a late afternoon get-together after her speech on women’s rights at Riverside Hall, settling their differences during a quick cab ride to the airport as she prepares for another trip to Washington. Inadvertently, Sam stumbles into the midst of her all-female lecture; the all-woman panel and audience tickled by the sudden appearance of a man, decidedly out of his element and forced to take his awkward seat next to the greatest progressive among them; Ellen Whitcomb (Fay Bainter, sadly forgotten today), who also happens to be Tess’ aunt.
Time has obscured the origins of this character, but Ellen Whitcomb might just as easily been the on-camera surrogate for Hepburn’s own mother, Martha Houghton Hepburn who took up the cause of women’s suffrage as a social reformer long before either feminism was in vogue or actually could be classified as ‘a movement’. And Bainter’s portrait of Ellen is both plainspoken and clear-eyed, perhaps ever so gingerly hinting that no woman can have it all, while any who dare try are similarly doomed to loneliness or sacrifices made to keep up the illusion of absolute success in both a public and private life. Yet, one of the curious oversights in traditional feminism is the myth that men throughout history have somehow occupied an enviable possession of ‘having it all’ while women were merely expected to fill in the gaps their counterparts had neither the time nor inclination to master. While it is nevertheless true certain opportunities for men were more readily available to men than for women before the dawn of the 20th century, so were the grave responsibilities, insurmountable challenges and level of societal expectation for them to be self-sustaining simply because they were men; masculinity hard won, rather than a right automatically ascribed on the basis of sex alone.
At first intimidated by Ellen, Sam soon discovers he has absolutely nothing to fear. Ellen is a candid woman, but she has also seen enough of life to know a real woman’s place in it is where she can find her own happiness and not necessarily shake up the status quo, merely to prove her points. Sam and Ellen hit it off. Fundamentally, they are two very genuine and sincerely lonely people. Moreover, Ellen possesses a real woman’s heart; something Tess has momentarily set aside. Only having met him, Ellen nevertheless confides in Sam a few family stories to better help him digest the reasons why Tess is so driven to succeed; how Ellen ventured to China where Tess was born after her own mother died; a maiden aunt, left to rear a child while Tess’ diplomat father, Senator Harding (Minor Watson) took care of the business of business. Sam tells Ellen he enjoys his work, writing about people most other people would consider as ‘unimportant’, referring to himself as the most inconsequential of them all. But Ellen sees Sam more clearly as a great man for the common man; moreover, perhaps exactly the tonic her niece needs to realize being a woman of the world is not all it is cracked up to be. Henceforth, Woman of the Year moves into the first ever Tracy/Hepburn love scene; unconventional as the actors portraying it because it seeks to investigate the core of a not-so-obvious mutual admiration about to boil over into an epic love story. Taking advantage of Tess’ mild inebriation after a few drinks shared at Pinkie’s bar, Sam confides his love for her in the back of a taxi. “You mean you love me even when I’m sober?” she astutely inquires, to which he even more generously admits, “…even when you’re brilliant.”
In short order, Sam and Tess are married by a Justice of the Peace; Senator Harding almost missing the ceremony because of his meeting with the President. “Since when is the President more important than I am?” Tess half-jokingly/half-seriously inquires. “Since 1789!” her father replies. Sen. Harding is most openhanded in welcoming Sam into the family. But only a few moments after the ceremony, Tess is called away by a quick byline concerning a Yugoslav diplomat, Dr. Lubbeck (Ludwig Stossel) whose whereabouts have been unknown since a political coup in the Balkans. On the home front, it takes Tess’ maid, Alma (Edith Evanson) a little time to adjust to referring to her employer as Mrs. Craig. Alma suggests Sam take up residence in the spare bedroom. Tess, however, plans for a grand seduction just as soon as Alma has gone home for the night; quickly changing into her silken nightgown and sprawling across her bed in wait for Sam’s return. Instead, Alma sneaks in Dr. Lubbeck, who has newly arrived in America after a perilous journey and escape out of Europe. Sam is not amused. After all, he hardly expected to share his honeymoon with a European dissident.
Sam is, at first, mildly put off by Tess’ inability to fit him into her busy schedule; suggesting it is time they amalgamated their lifestyles into a singular endeavor as one couple rather than two separate people merely living together under the banner of ‘holy matrimony’. Quite frankly, Tess does not really get what Sam is after, believing their current arrangement is equitable. Thus, and increasingly, Sam begins to realize the place he occupies in his new bride’s life is relatively inconsequential to her other priorities. As time passes and Tess allows circumstances to intrude upon virtually every private aspect of their lives, Sam begins to resent Tess and the couple grows apart. While Sam’s work/home balance is firmly affixed to an understanding both fronts must be satisfied if either is to succeed, Tess misguidedly believes her total investment in work will merely be tolerated by Sam once he settles in and because of his innate love for her. Senator Harding offers Sam some very solid advice; suggesting that his own life has been filled with activity masquerading as one driven by purpose. He confides in Sam that for fifteen years he made a similar mistake. It cost him Ellen’s love; his political aspirations ahead of being happy with someone to stand by his side.
Perhaps partly to disprove Sam’s point about her lack of feminine warmth, Tess agrees to look after a Greek refugee. Through a slight misdirection, Sam believes Tess to be pregnant, and then becomes indignant she has decided to introduce ‘another man’ into their lives without his consent. Alas, the six year old boy, Chris (George Kezas), just like Sam, quickly becomes just another accessory in Tess’ life, rather than the focus of it. Unable to converse with the child in his native tongue, Sam nevertheless can empathize with Chris’ sense of abandonment, and steadily, a gentle bond forms between them. Tess has modeled herself largely on her aunt or rather the way she perceives Ellen has lived her own life less ordinary. But Tess fails to see how unhappy and alone Ellen really is; a situation rectified when Ellen and Sen. Harding finally take each other as man and wife; a decision that blows Tess’ mind. Meanwhile, Sam returns Chris to the orphanage without Tess’ knowledge; not from spite, but out of respect for the boy as well as the fact that every child needs a real mother and a real father; not two people as diametrically driven to succeed, who look upon ‘parenting’ as simply another status symbol or ‘false front’; play at being ‘the happy family’ without actually being one.
Bewildered by the marriage of her progressive aunt to her politico father, and the sudden downturn in her own crumbling marriage, Tess prepares to accept an award as ‘America’s Outstanding Woman of the Year’; still unaware Sam has already taken Chris back to the orphanage and decided also to recuse himself from the life to which he never truly belonged. Tess is wounded by this abandonment and makes a half-hearted attempt to reclaim Chris. But the child is not so easily fooled and sincerely refuses to return with Tess again. Faced with her latest photo-op - a puff piece on a day in the life of a worldly woman – Tess arrives back at the apartment to discover Sam has already cleared out his closet. Unnerved by this betrayal, Tess carries on with the interview. But her heart is set on getting Sam back. To this end, Tess decides to sneak into Sam’s rented digs in New York while he is still asleep; playing the part of the devoted domestic she believes he wants. Alas, lacking even the necessary basics to cook a simple breakfast, Tess’ entre into the culinary arts is a complete and riotous disaster; the waffle maker oozing runny pancake batter, the coffee pot, bubbling over with thick goo, the toaster incinerating its bread, and the kitchen cast into disarray. Sam awakens to this mess, utterly charmed by Tess’ desire to please him on his terms. She really does love him after all. Gerald intrudes upon their scene of domestic tranquility run amok; Sam, finally standing up to this thorn in his proverbial side by ‘launching’ Gerald out the front door when he suggests the latest political crisis is more important than Sam and Tess’ life together. The picture ends with the couple locked in a solid embrace; their appetite for one another and verve for a healthy marriage restored.
Woman of the Year is the sort of romantic comedy Hollywood wouldn’t even know how to conceive these days, much less execute with half as much erudite good humor, wit and sophistication.  For starters, it treats its adults as adults; with a frank and unvarnished attitude for the mistakes that can be made but, just as easily, rectified when ‘love’ is the answer to all other inquiries. The picture’s reflections are so vast and multifaceted, repeat viewings only ripen its overall appeal as a very astute ‘battle of the sexes’. Woman of the Year touches upon class distinction and social prejudices, the value of a woman’s contributions, both professionally and in the home, and, ultimately, provides a template and a time capsule for a way of American life that, in many ways has been irrevocably altered by the times and yet, most fundamentally of all, has not advanced all that much since 1942.  The story outline was actually developed by Garson Kanin, a close personal friend of Hepburn’s, before being sold to Joseph L. Mankiewicz at MGM for a paltry $250,000.00; half that amount going to pay for its star. Only three years earlier it looked as though Hepburn might never see the inside of a sound stage again. Now, she was decidedly in the driver’s seat; thanks to the smashing success of The Philadelphia Story; the play to which she bought and refused to relinquish the movie rights, forcing L.B. Mayer (who was hot to produce it) to take on the project on her say-so and okay. For Woman of the Year, Mayer proved even more generous, granting Hepburn script, directorial and co-star approval. She approved of George Stevens and Spencer Tracy. And thus, as Kanin was off fighting in WWII, his brother Michael, together with Ring Lardner and Hepburn herself, ironed out both the wrinkles and the details of the final polished screenplay.  
The first of their nine on-screen sparring sessions, Woman of the Year remains one of Hepburn and Tracy’s best. And yet, the ending – Tess’ fouled up entre into quaint domesticity – remains a rather weak addendum to an otherwise brilliant and introspective romantic comedy. The reason for the kerfuffle might best be summed up thus: Mayer disliked the original finale – a hunch proven when sneak prevue cards also tested negatively. Hence, he ordered Mankiewicz and Stevens to do a rewrite on the double. Kanin returned for the trims, but Hepburn was left out of the loop and nonplused by their intervention, reluctantly shooting the new ending but disavowing it as ‘silly tripe’. The original ending ought to have had Sam skip out on his duties as a sports columnist to take up French and Spanish lessons; presumably to become a more worldly figure in Tess’ life. To spare him a missed deadline, Tess skulks off to cover the boxing match and writes his column for him. When he reads it in print he is incensed, for it bears the hallmarks of an amateur. But when he learns Tess did it out of love, Sam softens and the two are reconciled.  In 2002, Ring Lardner, Jr. reasoned that “(Hepburn) had to get her comeuppance for being too strong in a man's world…some of the worst lines we rewrote, but we couldn’t really fix it – fundamentally.” Very loosely remade by MGM in 1957 as Designing Woman, costarring Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall, Woman of the Year is a brassy, classy comedy with heart, guts and the inimitable Tracy/Hepburn magic on full display. They certainly don’t make ‘em like they used to anymore. Permit us to worship.
Worship is a good way to describe the exemplary PQ of Criterion’s new to Blu; with a 2K restoration performed by WB that leaves Warner’s own DVD in the dust.  Not only is the image crisp and subtly nuanced, but contrast is bang-on perfect with some extraordinary gray scale tonality and a light smattering of film grain looking very indigenous to its source. Fine details pops. The extraordinary clarity truly impresses. A few vertical scratches persist, but overall this is a pristine presentation with virtually no complaints. Typical, Criterion has preserved the original 2.0 mono soundtrack as PCM. It’s flat, unremarkable and completely acceptable as a vintage track with virtually no hiss or pop. Best of all is Criterion’s extras: six minutes with George Stevens Jr. recorded exclusively for this release just this past January. We also get an archival interview with Stevens Sr. from 1967 lasting almost 20 minutes and 15 minutes with Stevens’ biographer, Marilyn Ann Moss. Another 20 minutes from journalist, Claudia Roth Pierpont, recorded in Dec. of last year, weighs in on Woman of the Year’s significance in establishing Hepburn as a feminist icon.
Vintage extras include 1984’s feature-length documentary, George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey, a comprehensive look at the director’s legacy with wonderful stuff from Frank Capra, John Huston, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy and a host of other luminaries. Not finished yet: we get the eighty-six minute tome to Spencer Tracy - Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn. It should be pointed out that these extras have had multiple reissues on DVD, the latter, a part of the Tracy/Hepburn DVD collection released via Warner in 2007; including reflections from Stanley Kramer, Joseph Mankiewicz, Sidney Poitier, and, of course, Hepburn herself. Finally, critic, Stephanie Zacharek provides us with some eloquent liner notes; more introspection and critique and well worth the read. Bottom line: Woman of the Year is box office gold. Criterion has put together a fairly impressive package of extras ported over from various sources. You get the picture.  Woman of the Year on Blu-ray is a must have. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Sunday, March 12, 2017

CINEMA PARADISO: Blu-ray (Miramax 1988) Arrow Academy reissue

Anyone who truly loves movies must adore Cinema Paradiso (1988); director, Giuseppe Tornatore’s astonishingly affectionate and wistful romance of celluloid about a lonely boy’s life-long love affair with post-war Italy’s movie culture. I don’t know what I find more sublime and stirring about Tornatore’s masterpiece; the effortless way he gingerly massages three extraordinarily gifted actors of disparately handsome looks and equally as abundant acting styles (Salvatore Cascio, Marco Leonardi, Jacques Perrin) into one seamless and perfectly singular, transitional pièce de résistance about our titular hero, Salvatore 'Totò' Di Vita – orphaned in the war and raised by a careworn, though nevertheless devoted matriarch (Antonella Attili in his youth; Pupella Maggio, in her emeritus years); or Philippe Noiret’s Alfredo, a big and lovable, gentle teddy bear of a man, prematurely aged and blinded in a fateful accident inside his projection booth, and finally, composer, Ennio Morricone’s haunting and heartrending score; an affecting miracle of loveliness, never devolving into saccharine, serving both the remarkably subdued images on the screen - informing on each characters’ emotional content – and yet just as easily absorbed as a symphonic magnum opus apart from the movie. Irrefutably, Cinema Paradiso is Tornatore’s treasure, bequeathed to film lovers all over the world; a stunning achievement and very sincere reminder of the communal impact and reflection all truly inspired art possesses, particularly when unfurled from reels at our local Bijou.
Twice, our Totò is love-struck by this proverbial ‘thunderbolt’; first, as an impressionable child, skipping school and shirking his duties as an altar boy to skulk off to the unprepossessing movie house in his tiny village; later to be rebuilt as the lux-lined ‘Paradiso’ by the town’s wealthiest patron, Spaccafico (Enzo Cannavale). The Paradiso fast becomes the hub of the village; an oasis risen from the rubble and squalor of their bombed out lives in the hamlet of Giancaldo. Transparently, it serves a purpose, to unite a community devastated by the war’s fallout. As an impressionable child, Toto is as absorbed into these shimmering illusions set before him, eventually censured by Father Adelfio (Leopoldo Trieste) who is sternly concerned about the movies’ impact on the moral welfare of his community. Aldelfio liberally applies his own brand of Catholic censorship to even the remotest hint of passion as innocuously represented on the silver screen by a singular embrace or ardent kiss. Ah me…what dear old Adelfio would have said about today’s cinema…hoo, boy! But I digress. Much to his mother’s chagrin, the artifice of the movies serves a real ‘reel’ purpose in Toto’s education and shapes the enduring passions in life as well as his aspirations for the future: above all else his unquenchable thirst to parallel his life with these celluloid daydreams; more real to him than anything in life. Begrudgingly, Toto’s mother condescends to allow him to apprentice with the Paradiso’s projectionist, Alfredo; a surrogate for the father lost to him in the war. And although this mentored friendship will remain paramount and stationary throughout Toto’s life, as he segues into adolescence as a raven-haired handsome young man, Toto’s heart is stirred by the purity of a grander amour with Elena Mendola (Agnese Nano); the daughter of a wealthy family briefly vacationing in his village.
From Italy’s sun kissed beaches to its moonlit and rain-soaked cobblestone byways by night, theirs is an extraordinary affaire du coeur; eloquently handled by Tornatore with a lithe appreciation for the fragility of young love, unaccustomed to these pulsating rhythms of premature separation and ultimate heartbreak. Cinema Paradiso is really two epics tightly pressed up against each other with an occasional overlap; the passage of time and the ephemeral quality of life itself intruding upon Toto and Elena’s window of opportunity for authentic ardor. Only capable of a more robust reflection in the sunset of middle-age, Toto’s panged affections for Elena in his youth staggers the mind as it so cruelly tears at his heart. While the maxim ‘life doesn’t always give us what we want…though it very often lends us what we deserve’ seems to apply; the penultimate finale to the original cut of Cinema Paradiso is actually more prescient and forgiving to these illusions of perfection originally ensconced in Hollywood’s movie-land culture; the proverbial ‘happy ending’ eroded both by changing audience tastes and Toto’s mature reflections, eluded to at the beginning of the movie as his aged mother writes her estranged adult son, now a famous Fellini-esque film maker in Rome, a letter to inform him of Alfredo’s passing. In Toto’s youth, Alfredo was the boy’s steady rock; the only influential male figure in his life. After his life-altering accident, with Toto becoming Alfredo’s eyes – literally – their bro-mantic relationship only deepened; centered on their innate love of the movies. Yet, after Toto’s conscripted stint in the army, and furthermore, suspecting his heartbreak over losing Elena will derail a young man’s future, Alfredo self-sacrificing, sets aside his genuine affection for this son he never had, cruelly making Toto promise he will never look back, either in anger or regret; the ramifications of these tearful goodbyes at a railway station not yet entirely understood.
It is only when an unmarked canister of film arrives at Toto’s fashionable apartment in Rome decades later, that the exiled past comes flooding forth; Alfredo, having squirreled away virtually every piece of censurable footage excised over the years, now lovingly edited into a tear-jerking tapestry of reflection. As Toto spent most of his childhood and youth bitter sweetly daydreaming inside the Paradiso, these long lost apparitions appear to him now almost as the missing pages of his own life – or rather – the imaginary one he would have hoped for; reality again eclipsed by this most perfect of comparative reflections, yet as incongruous of journeys. It all suddenly makes perfect sense; the past come full circle to enrich and inform the present, and hopefully, to direct a wounded soul through the labyrinth of middle-aged loneliness; movie art, the penultimate liberation from all Toto’s stagnated and lingering doubts. I’ve said it before, so I will state it again: You can learn an awful lot from the movies. This is, or rather was the supremely satisfying message and finale to Cinema Paradiso as it existed in 1988.          
But then, in 2002m an inexplicable – and I would sincerely argue – unforgiveable alteration occurred. Unable to leave well enough alone, and perhaps nagged by the fact he had shot so much more footage than ever was used, Giuseppe Tornatore elected to revisit Cinema Paradiso with a ‘director’s cut’ – erroneously marketed as ‘the New Version’ by Miramax distribution. In an era where it had become something of the fashion for virtually all directors to suggest their movies as initially screened were decidedly not as they intended, I would like to take a moment herein to suggest to all directors as misguided as this, that whatever your second guessing after the fact, the movie first released to the public should always be considered your ‘director’s cut’. If not, than no self-respecting director has the right to slap his name on it, simply to acknowledge the investiture of time and effort put forth to make it in the first place; a sort of ‘hold’ until more time and moneys becomes available to supposedly re-envisioning the project: already conceived, and more importantly, embraced by the public at large.
Personal opinion of course, but I do not really care to see any movie re-envisioned, re-edited or, in the most appalling cases, bastardized by directors who, having acquired stature and clout since the original theatrical release, with their perspectives grown saltier, now gauche enough to consider their originals as grotesquely naïve and in desperate need of a new, though hardly improved Band-Aid fix; indiscriminately cutting out a communally cherished moment here, adding a new snippet or sound bite from some undisclosed archival bits, never intended for public consumption; remixing, redubbing, and, in the most egregious cases, populating their cinema landscapes with altered CGI trickery from the new and ever-expanding toy box of play tools to ‘enhance’ their visual milieu, as to equally piddle upon our collective golden memories of their original craftsmanship. George Lucas, you are not listening! But I digress.
Tornatore’s re-imagining of Cinema Paradiso is one of those egregious and indefensible rewrites; presumably made to satisfy nothing except the ego of its director, quite suddenly and inexplicably dissatisfied with having created an irrefutable chef-d'oeuvre the first time out of the gate. For the 2002 release of Cinema Paradiso substitutes a sort of rank ‘show and tell’ of the ‘missing pieces’ from Toto’s life, utterly to deprive the audience of that mystery and wonderment stitched into the original’s well-formulated poetic license, having then deliberately omitted portions while perfectly preserving our hero’s memories of his own past for the rest of us. Fifty minutes of footage is ‘restored’ in the official 2002 ‘Director’s Cut’; another whole ‘half’ of a movie. Yet it achieves very little, except to extend, rather than augment, this simple story. A few carelessly inserted sexual encounters between the young couple are offset by the ridiculousness of almost thirty-eight minutes applied to the last act. These additions propel the narrative forward into an entirely unrealized and utterly pointless third act. Toto, having wept warm tears inside the screening room and later, while attending Alfredo’s funeral in Giancaldo – is reunited with ‘remnants’ from his nearly forgotten past. Betraying Alfredo’s promise to never look back, Toto now begins to see false Elenas popping up all over the place; or rather, just one he repeatedly keeps bumping into in Rome. The girl, a spitting image for the one denied him so many decades earlier, is actually Elena’s daughter; Elena herself (now played by Brigitte Fossey) living in quiet desperation with her more prominent husband.
Toto and Elena are reunited, briefly. They share a rather passionless indiscretion while the husband and daughter are away. Yet, unable to come to terms with pretty much anything, they are parted once more, only this time on mutually amicable terms, and presumably, for all time, recognizing with an even more maudlin clarity that the past cannot be recreated or even rekindled for either of them in the present; decidedly, not for the future. There is a very good reason why imperfect love affairs endure; particularly at the movies, and, more importantly, in our minds. Consider: do we really need to see Ilsa and Victor Lazslo arrive safely in America at the end of Casablanca or learn what actually happened to Scarlett and Rhett in Gone With the Wind after he ‘frankly’ stopped ‘giving a damn?’ The answer is, no – because ultimately it is only in the mind’s eye where true love - imperfectly perfect: real (reel) or imagined, is sustained; faultlessly encapsulated and even more affectionately recalled through rose-colored lenses of false memory; easily corruptible by self-deluding idealism. No trice in life is excellence itself – no kidding. But if we skew any reminiscence through the miscellanies of a reverie, it can remain dishonestly venerated as ‘the one that got away’. And for better or worse, sometimes that lie is more potently fulfilling than the truth. Tornatore’s new finale plays merely as more ‘lost and found’ than ‘gone, but never to be forgotten’ and it insincerely wounds, if not entirely dismantles the more eloquent reflections put forth more succinctly in the original. It also alters the affinity audiences have for the original vision.  Put bluntly, we get ‘more’ without getting ‘better’.
My best advice to anyone never having seen the director’s cut of Cinema Paradiso is to avoid it entirely. Your life, as well as your respect for this movie will not be enriched by the viewing experience. You will, however, be able to discover nirvana of a kind in Arrow Academy’s ‘new’ release of Cinema Paradiso; both cuts included on Blu-ray. It has taken an obscene amount of time for Tornatore’s sublime tome to reach these sunny shores in North America. In 2013, Arrow made Cinema Paradiso available on Blu-ray in the U.K. Another aside; I am generally appalled by how much deep catalog gets sidetracked and released to Blu-ray only in Europe but never finds its way to North America where, arguably, an even larger market exists for its conspicuous consumption. But now, at long last the wait is over. It has been over for five years already for those with ‘region free Blu-ray players’; frankly, an insult to the rest of us who have been patiently awaiting a better incarnation than the slap-dash hi-def effort released by Miramax Home Video from 2006.
Arrow’s North American incarnation appears to have been sourced from the same immaculate 35mm negative used to restore and remaster its U.K. release; both the DC and TC housed on separate discs and properly framed in 1.67:1. The original negative, scanned in 2K resolution, has been given the Tiffany treatment – an exclusive restoration overseen by James White at Deluxe Digital Cinema – EMEA in London: professional color grading augmented by a frame-by-frame eradication of virtually all age-related dirt, scratches and debris for a pristine image with no untoward DNR applied. Where the Miramax release suffered from sporadic gate weave and weaker than anticipated shadow definition, the Arrow is rock solid and stunningly detailed; preserving the sun-baked richness of Blasco Giurato’s gorgeous cinematography. There are variations between the TC and DC cuts. In brief, the reinstated footage looks as immaculate as everything else. However, color grading on the DC favors a distinctly warmer tonality; neither distracting or merely ‘off’, but decidedly ‘different’ from the theatrical cut. The reason? Hmmm. No one’s talking. Image clarity for both is bar none outstanding as is the subtle preservation of film grain looking very indigenous to its source.  This is a reference quality release with absolutely NOTHING to complain about.
Arrow has gone the extra mile in the audio department too: featuring a cleaned-up 2.0 stereo PCM and 5.1 DTS remaster. The 2.0 is as close as possible to the original release of Cinema Paradiso. Still, it is hard to quibble over the subtle, but exacting precision inherent in this carefully re-purposed 5.1 soundtrack. Everything from Morricone’s score to the subtlest grunts and/or dialogue has acquired a richer sonic depth. The theatrical version features a fascinating blended commentary with Giuseppe Tornatore and Italian critic, Millicent Marcus. Disc A also contains Dream of Sicily; a near hour-long 2000 documentary on the film, and, two featurettes: at nearly a half hour, A Bear and a Mouse in Paradise, and the less than ten minute, The Kissing Sequence. We also get the original trailer.  Disc B’s only extra is the re-issue trailer. Ho hum.  Lost in the shuffle were a pair of featurettes’ included on the 2006 Miramax release: Exploring a Timeless Classic, and, Little Italy Love Story: Cinema Paradiso Style, plus Cucina Paradiso: the Food Network’s tribute. None of these sloppily put together junkets was particularly appealing and hence, none are missed herein. Bottom line: Arrow’s release of Cinema Paradiso is, from top to bottom, a quality affair deserving of a hallowed space on your movie shelves, but more importantly, in your heart. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)