Wednesday, April 23, 2014

GET CARTER: Blu-ray (MGM 1971) Warner Home Video

Michael Caine is the proverbial pit bull in Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (1971); a brazenly nihilistic crime/thriller  – often salacious in its exposé through the seedy undercarriage of Britain’s swinging, sex-crazed counterculture. Arguably, the role of cold, calculating hit man, Jack Carter is Caine’s finest hour. Without a doubt, it marks a turning point in the actor’s career. Caine had begun his journey into stardom playing variations on the loveable bastard. In Get Carter he drops the ‘loveable’ part for a purely acidic turn as the ruthless and maniacal anti-hero in what is ultimately a spiraling revenge/tragedy with one of the most shocking dénouements in screen history. Mostly set in the perpetually dank working class dystopian landscape of ‘then’ contemporary Newcastle and Gateshead, Get Carter doesn’t thunder across the screen with jet-propelled action sequences, but rather quietly builds to its decidedly ill-fated climax.
This, of course, is in keeping with Hodges’ desire to make a ‘realistic picture’“an autopsy” of contemporary societal ills. This would capitalize on the public’s recent fascination with crime after the tabloid-esque media circus surrounding the conviction of the Kray Twins – Ronald and Reginald; a pair of thugs who literally dominated East End London’s organized crime syndicate throughout the 1950’s and early 60’s.  Get Carter is a deliciously dark and uncompromising view of this seedy and scandalous netherworld. Hodges adapted his screenplay from Ted Lewis’ 1969 novel, ‘Jack’s Return Home’, with producer Michael Klinger approaching the beleaguered Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for financing and distribution. Get Carter really is the end of the line for MGM; a studio once holding dominion over the world’s popular entertainment. But by 1971, various disastrous corporate restructurings and the advent of television had broken the company down to bedrock. Indeed, the year after Get Carter’s release, MGM shuttered its Borehamwood Studios for good as it prepared for its own final takeover and take-down, as it were, by Las Vegas financier, Kirk Kerkorian.   
Fueled by pianist/composer Roy Budd’s uncomfortably jazzy riffs, a theme since become iconic, Get Carter is a relatively subdued affair – at least, by today’s standards. Nevertheless, it retains some of its gristle and shock value. In its time, the film earned a notorious R-rating from the MPAA and X-rating in its native Britain for what was then considered ‘indecent’ content: a few quick flashes of co-stars Brit Ekland, Geraldine Moffat and Rosemarie Dunham’s breasts, a brief (and artfully shot) masturbation sequence featuring Ekland, and, some ‘overt violence’. This amounted to Caine’s vengeful reprobate exacting payback on the parties responsible for his brother Frank’s murder, also in involving Frank’s teenage daughter, Doreen (Petra Markham) in C-grade porn; manhandling the affluent Cliff Brumby (Bryan Mosley), then later, tossing him off the roof of a six story parking garage, and, fatally stabbing a former associate, Albert Swift (Glynn Edwards) in the gut several times in a back alley.
Cinematographer, Wolfgang Suschitzky drew inspiration from Hodge’s insistence he use long-distance lenses, creating a very documentarian feel, particularly during the crowd scenes. Viewing Get Carter today, one is immediately struck by the purity of Suschitzky’s work; a lot of over the shoulder shots, partially obscured by the back of somebody’s slightly ‘out of focus’ head and shoulders; areas of deep shadow mixed with penetrating streams of stark and wholly unflattering gray light; interesting angles that deliberately cut the tops or sides off of people’s heads (with other action taking place in the not so distant background). From a purely visual perspective, Get Carter is far more ‘art house’ than mainstream; less of a venture put forth by a major studio, and much more the little ‘independent’ that could. This sort of departure from the norm would never fly with movie audiences today. And yet it works spectacularly in Get Carter; holding up remarkably well even with the passage of time.
Despite an unexpected strike the first week of shooting, and Klinger’s firmness on Hodges using John Trumper as his editor (the two did not get on, even though Hodges recognized Trumper’s immense contributions on the film), Get Carters principle photography went smoothly. It could have gone the other way. After all, Michael Klinger was known as a very ‘hands-on’ producer, who nevertheless, on this occasion, left Hodges and Suschitsky mostly to their own accord. Klinger’s ‘suggestion’ for a climactic car chase was vetoed by Hodges, who convinced Klinger such a sequence would most likely draw an unfair comparison between Get Carter and Peter Yates’ iconic car-race in Bullitt (1968). 
Hodges’ flat fee of £7,000 to adapt Lewis’ novel was well-deserved; the writer/director retaining the book’s essential structure, but also introducing some minor changes along the way; heavily influenced by the crime fiction of Raymond Chandler and – stylistically – by the B-noir thriller, Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Lost in translation from page to screen were Jack Carter’s back story and a voiceover narration, as well as proposed flashbacks to crystalize the relationship between Jack and Frank. Hodges also chose to rework the story so both Brumby and Carter die – dispelling the assertion that just because Carter is the ‘moral agent’ of the piece it does not stand his penultimate satisfaction will denote a triumph of his relative ‘goodness’ over pure evil. In fact, Get Carter’s shocking end - the assassination of Jack Carter - dovetails perfectly into Hodge’s ‘eye for an eye’ morality play. Hodges’ excisions/revisions may have streamlined the plot. Yet, in retrospect, these also tend to convolute the essential elements of the story for the first-time viewer.
As Get Carter gets underway we’re not entirely certain where the story is headed; the introduction of our eponymous anti-hero and his discovery of Frank’s body, his queerly flirtatious interactions with Doreen, never identified as Frank’s daughter (and thereby Jack’s niece) until much later, feeding into the movie’s underlying smut and prostitution subplot with far more vexing ramifications later on. Lost in the shuffle is the significance of Jack’s choice of weapon – a double barrel shotgun, meant to reference happier times when he and Frank used to hunt together. We also lose the association between the Carter brothers and gangland goon, Albert Swift, as well as Jack’s bitter rivalry with gangster, Eric Paice (Ian Hendry), merely suggested in the movie. In Lewis’ novel, Eric brutalizes Jack’s lover, Audrey (rechristened Anna in the screenplay and played by the frisky – if forgettable - Britt Ekland).
Undeniably, one of the defining characteristics of Get Carter is its’ overbearing, morally bankrupt, socially course and environmentally depraved locations; Newcastle with its grayed out concrete and iron jungles, its sparse vegetation and cracked cobblestone streets; its tenements cast in a shadowy pall of sooty, smog-laden foothills behind a colliery; Gateshead, dominated by Trinity Square – a poured concrete monolith, representational of that postmodernist architectural brutality imposed upon this traditional landscape of cottage-styled housing and quaint ramshackle of independently owned shops; the apocalyptic, windswept Blackhall Beach near Hartlepool, with its steely-gray, imposingly mechanized colliery towers and conveyors. All of these superbly chosen locales greatly contribute to the overall sense of hopelessness and foreboding in the movie.   
Get Carter opens with a discombobulated shot of Caine’s Jack, immaculately suited, looking bored through a high rise window; the camera zooming in until the dimly lit interior fills our frame of reference. Jack is entertaining…well…sort of. In the days before home video, organized crime overlords, Gerald (Terence Rigby) and Sid Fletcher (John Bindon) are amusing themselves with a pornographic slideshow. Jack works for these brutes. But he is despondent and not amused by their party. In fact, Jack already knows his brother, Frank is dead. But has he been murdered? Gerald and Sid advise him to leave well enough alone. Instead, Jack takes the first train from London to his old stomping grounds in Newcastle; Roy Budd’s palpitating theme music kicking in for the ride home.
Jack has been bedding Gerald’s plaything, Anna for some time. In fact, Jack toyed with the idea of making a clean break with Anna to parts unknown in South America. But then, Frank died. As they say, blood is thicker than water – or semen, in this case. The story that Frank died in a drunk-driving accident doesn’t wash with Jack; neither with Frank’s daughter, Doreen, who turns Jack onto her father’s evasive mistress, Margaret (Dorothy White) for a few clues into the mystery. Margaret isn’t exactly forthcoming, despite Jack’s forcefulness. Later on, the implication arises that Jack – not Frank – might actually be Doreen’s father.  Jack is empathetic toward Doreen, tossing her a few bucks and encouraging her to come with Anna and him to South America. She’s not particularly interested in this latter prospect, but takes his money just the same.
Jack’s next port of call is the Newcastle Racecourse, where he hopes to put pressure on Albert Swift – an old acquaintance with underworld connections. Seeing Jack approaching, Albert ducks out. But Eric Paice is also at the races, presently employed as Albert’s chauffeur.  Eric artful dodge leaves Jack to tail the pair back to the country estate of their crime boss, Cyril Kinnear (John Osborne); who has even more ice water running through his veins than Jack. Knocking one of Kinnear’s goons unconscious, Jack bursts in on Kinnear and the Fletchers in a heated poker game. Inebriated sex kitten, Glenda (Geraldine Moffatt) flirts with Jack, almost passing out on his shoulder. The game is played on several levels, Jack realizing there is nothing to be gained by partaking in the swindle. But a short while later Jack is paid an unwelcome visit by three of Kinnear’s goons; Keith (Alun Armstrong), Eddie (Godfrey Quigley) and Thorpe (Bernard Hepton), the latter encouraging Jack to get in their car, suggesting he has been sent as an escort to get him out of town.
Jack sabotages the moment, and then their escape, kidnapping Thorpe and dragging him up to his rented apartment at the Las Vegas rooming house where he tortures Thorpe until he gives up the name ‘Cliff Brumby’.  Brumby’s a businessman with a chichi spread and a wayward daughter who throws wild parties for her friends when the folks are away. Despite being an arrogant bastard, Brumby isn’t who Jack is looking for…at least, not yet. Returning to the Las Vegas, Jack attempts to quell the proprietress, Edna’s suspicions by taking her to bed; easy target/very easy lay. But the next morning, Jack gets a rude awakening when Keith and Eddie return – sent by the Fletchers to collect him. Instead, he escapes, meeting up with Margaret a short while later. She is still closed lip. Fletcher’s goons reappear, forcing Jack to hotfoot it to relative safety and a waiting car driven by Glenda.
The plot thickens as Glenda drives at a breakneck speed up six flights of a parking garage to a rooftop restaurant still under construction. Brumby is waiting for them, along with his two effete architects (John Hussey and Ben Aris).  Brumby fingers Kinnear as Frank’s killer, explaining how Kinnear is trying to muscle in on his business. Knowing what Jack is, Brumby offers him a handsome £5,000 to kill the crime boss. Instead, Jack gets insulted, storming off in a huff; collected at the base of the parking garage by Glenda, who now takes him back to her place for a little badinage on the side. Afterward, she decides to take a bath, leaving Jack to peruse her collection of 16mm homemade porn; one of the movies featuring Glenda and Margaret and a rather unseemly forced sexual encounter between Albert and Doreen. Shedding a few unlikely tears, Jack rushes up the stairs and into the bathroom in a rage. He holds Glenda’s head beneath the water for a few moments of contemplation, until she confesses the movie was Kinnear’s idea.
Half naked and barely conscious, Glenda is tossed into the boot of her car by Jack, who hunts Albert down inside a sleazy betting shop. Cornered in the back alley, Albert confesses he told Brumby Doreen was Frank’s daughter. It was Brumby who showed Frank the snuff movie, thus inciting him to call the police on Kinnear. Eric, who had arranged for Doreen to be in the movie, then orchestrated two hit men to take care of Frank. With nothing to lose, and very little left to gain, Jack knifes Albert to death in the alley. But Eric has played his cards very close to his chest; setting up Jack with the Fletchers by revealing his affair with Anna to Gerald. Keith and Eddie pursue Jack to a ferry. Jack shoots Eddie dead while Eric and Keith make their escape, pushing Glenda’s car over the edge of the docks while she is still trapped inside the trunk. Jack has had enough skulking around. It’s time for action; and he finds plenty of it by posting the 16mm snuff movie to the Vice Squad at Scotland Yard; also by returning to Brumby’s restaurant, beating him senseless and then tossing him off the sixth story of the parking garage.
As they say, payback’s a bitch. So, Jack now abducts Margaret, telephoning Kinnear and lying about having the porn movie in his possession; negotiating a straight exchange to presumably buy his silence and get what he wants. Jack wants Eric. But he also wants Kinnear. Nothing modest will do. Jack forces Margaret to strip at gunpoint in an isolated field, giving her a lethal injection and planting her corpse inside Kinnear’s home before telephoning the police, who raid the house shortly thereafter and arrest Kinnear. In the meantime, Eric arrives at Blackhall Beach for his penultimate showdown with Jack. However, unbeknownst to Jack, Eric has also hired his own hit man to dispose of his adversary once and for all.
Revenge comes too little/too late for Eric, forced by Jack to consume a whole bottle of whisky, in effect, recreating the frame-up of Frank’s ‘accidental death’. Jack beats Eric to death with his rifle butt, depositing the bloody remains into one of the colliery conveyor dumps, carrying it past a few pylons, before dumping its contents into the turbulent waters. It might have been divine retribution, except the sniper hired by Eric now takes Jack down with a clean bullet to the brain. As Jack collapses in the sand, the tides slowly roll in, soon to carry his corpse out to sea.
Get Carter is an unapologetic, bleak movie. Arguably, its’ ending is much more effective today than it was in 1971; our contemporary cynicism yielding a queerly perverse satisfaction - witnessing this ultimate assassin get his own before the credits roll. Caine is the superior presence that makes this movie click as it should. Initially, producer Klinger had been encouraged by MGM’s hierarchy to consider Telly Savalas in the lead – an American name above the title to help bolster box office. Savalas had yet to break ground on his iconic alter ego – TV’s Kojak – but was a formidable presence in a few high profile movies throughout the 1960’s; most notably The Dirty Dozen (1967), On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970).  
Certainly, Get Carter would have benefited from Savalas’ inimitable blend of insane cruelty and courtly culture. But Michael Caine brings something else to the part; an intangible mercilessness, nevertheless, firmly grounded in a sense of upstanding propriety. He knows what he is, or rather, the level to which he has sunk and it doesn’t matter. Caine’s Carter isn’t out for personal salvation – just revenge – begun out of love for a lost brother and pity towards the child who may or may not actually be his.
Kismet prevents Get Carter from being a truly great movie. First, and foremost, is the absence of instantly recognizable faces – at least in America – to compliment Caine’s trend-setting sinner. While the British cast gives competent to exceptional performances throughout the movie, Get Carters ever-evolving roster of gritty goons and gals are largely forgettable. The screenplay never allows any of them to achieve the sort of standout moment that might have truly distinguished them from each other. Second, is Hodges’ screenplay; uneven and spotty at best, and downright confusing to follow for a good solid hour. Get Carter is a marvelous claptrap of iniquity for its first third, a traditional British mystery at its core or middle, segueing into a perilous revenge/tragedy as it moves with reinvigorated tenacity into its last act finale. Hodges, arguably, knows these characters, their motivations and the storyline inside and out; having lived with his own clear-eyed picture of how it all comes together. But he isn’t entirely successful at conveying these secret thoughts in visual terms; the big reveals blunted by the audience’s mounting sense of frustrating confusion.
What the story lacks in narrative continuity is, therefore, left to be made up by Wolfgang Suschitzky’s cinematography, unremittingly dark and oppressive. In essence, Suschitzky’s work gives the audience an illusion; like peeling away the bruised skin of an old banana, only to discover more rot and decay beneath its surface as our hero descends into an inescapable emotionless abyss. Jack Carter’s demise is very much a fitting end to his apocalyptic world view – or rather, his narrow-minded impressions of that tiny corner he currently occupies but would rather escape from. He doesn’t belong here – or anywhere, for that matter; the original displaced person barely able to function in a scenario he neither desires nor, in fact, might have pursued, if not for his brother’s untimely murder.      
Get Carter was not immediately recognized for its’ gritty realism; MGM’s limited marketing campaign doing little to promote the movie state’s side, while in the U.K., critics were begrudgingly appreciative of the film’s technical proficiency, but rather put off by the complexity in Hodges’ intrigues, what was then considered ‘excessive violence’ and ‘amorality’, and, in particular, Jack Carter’s universal lack of contrition. Overlooked at Oscar time, Get Carter faded from view, though arguably, not from memory – acquiring a cult following to sustain its reputation, despite its absence on home video until 1993. Today, one can see more clearly Hodges’ and Caine’s vision for the movie. Indeed, by 1999, Get Carter had risen through the ranks of the BFI as the 16th most iconic British movie made in the 20th century.  The following year saw an Americanized remake starring Sylvester Stallone (a painful experience to get through).
Certain movies come suitable to a time. In an era of social/moral decay and decline, the 1971 Get Carter played to an audience desperate to eschew their own cascade of bad fortune and despair. Arguably, the world has only grown more remote and isolated since that time, despite the proliferation of the internet – initially meant to unite us via its instant connectivity. Viewing Get Carter today, one is immediately teleported to another time, one unimpeded by environmental protection concerns and a far more laissez faire attitude toward promiscuity, drowning in its overabundance of filthy corruption and murderous deceit. Ah me, the 1970’s. You had to be there! Thankfully, Get Carter’s time capsule reveals how far we’ve come from this grisly snapshot – and just how similarly occupied we continue to be by the same wants and desires caught in the shadow from it. While styles have changed, Get Carter’s thematic elements remain as relevant as ever. Crime doesn’t pay. It’s exciting and distracts, perhaps. But it always exacts a human price much too high in exchange for its ill-gotten monetary gains.
Warner Home Video has given us Get Carter in a competent 1080p transfer.  Wolfgang Suschitzky’s cinematography was never going to impress with ravishing colors or startling amounts of razor-sharp clarity. The movie’s shoestring budget and Hodges’ and Suschitzky’s adherence to a documentarian style, shot under natural and low lighting conditions, ensures a harsher visual presentation. Still, colors can look just a tad faded at times; particularly flesh tones adopting a pinky hue, more so at the beginning of the movie. Grain is exaggerated during the initial optical zoom on Carter staring out the high rise window. Herein, the grain doesn’t look indigenous or film-based, but in fact, digitally harsh.
Thankfully, the overall quality of both the grain and the visuals in general vastly improves immediately following the main title sequence. Contrast seems solid enough – no crushed blacks or light bleeding around the edges. I do have to say, Get Carter on Blu-ray appears fairly accurate to me. Notice, I didn’t say impressive.
For although there are moments peppered throughout this transfer when I was moved to reconsider the image (as in Frank’s funeral procession, revealing a startling amount of clarity; the shiny tops of the black limos perfectly complimented by the dense green foliage at the cemetery, and, several close-ups of Michael Caine showed a spectacular amount of fine detail and exquisite tonality in Carter’s sad-eyed visage), on the whole this presentation is just a shay up from middle of the road. The 1.0 DTS accurately reproduces the aural limitations of this vintage audio. Extras are limited to an audio commentary by Hodges with inserted reflections offered by Michael Caine and Wolfgang Suschitzky – not the most cohesive commentary I’ve heard, but insightful nonetheless. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, April 21, 2014

NIGHT OF THE DEMON/CURSE OF THE DEMON: Blu-ray (Columbia 1957) Wild Side Home Video

One of the most fascinating and ambitious, yet ultimately flawed horror movies of its generation, Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon/Curse of the Demon (1957) is vintage film noir meets grand guignol, superbly photographed by Edward Scaife. If only the machinations ironed out by screenwriters, Charles Bennett and Hal E. Chester had lived up to either Bennett’s original draft or Montague R. James’ novel, ‘Casting the Runes’ – a plot-twisting minor masterpiece steeped in the occult and demonic possession – then the film might have truly lived up to its name (Nightin the U.K./‘Curse’ in the U.S. because producers, Chester and Frank Bevis thought ‘Night would confuse audiences with ‘Night of the Iguana, then in general release). Instead, Night/Curse of the Demon founders almost from the beginning; its narrative loopholes repeatedly salvaged at the last possible moment with some bone-chilling sequences. These promise to improve the overall tenor of the piece, but wind up as mere – if compelling – vignettes, that never quite come together as the anticipated, heart-pounding roller coaster ride. 
Charles Bennett owned the rights to James’ book, but sold his stake in the project to Chester before departing for America. It was a decision he later, and forever thereafter, much regretted, particularly when the rechristened Night/Curse of the Demon wound up as the bottom half of a double bill, then quickly disappeared off the marquee altogether. The story of a fairly intrepid skeptic, Dr. John Holden (played with lazy charm by Dana Andrews), who becomes the next intended victim of a wealthy cultist, Dr. Julian Karswell (tremendously accomplished in all his otherworldly menace by Niall MacGinnis), definitely had potential. But the narrative waffles between Holden’s prerequisite exculpatory investigation of Karswell (utilizing some spectacular locations, including the British Museum, Stonehenge and Brocket Hall) and a rather perfunctory ‘romance’ between Holden and laconic eye candy, Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins); daughter of the recently deceased, Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham), whom Holden has come to England to meet for a seminar on the supernatural.
Given Holden’s involvement on this project, he curiously lacks any ‘faith’ to believe in the paranormal. However, his powers of observation will be tested – and soon. For it seems Henry Harrington died a horrible, mysterious death; badly burned and mutilated after his car struck a telegraph pole near his home one dark and foggy night. Director Tourneur kicks off his story with this big reveal; Harrington pursued by a vengeful demon, inflicted upon him by Karswell, despite Henry’s pleas to Karswell to call off this winged vapor from hell. It seems Harrington had earlier accused Karswell of practicing the ‘black arts’ as the leader of a demonic cult. The allegation made all the papers and created quite a scandal for Karswell who, at least on the surface, leads a supremely pleasant, laid back existence as a middle-age bachelor, living with his mother (Athene Seyler) on his sprawling country estate, Lufford Hall.
Of course, Holden knows none of this beforehand. And so, Tourneur and the Chester/Bennett screenplay spends an interminable amount of time setting up this back story for Holden’s benefit rather than ours: his cute meet with Joanna aboard a plane from New York to London (his repeated attempts to get some sleep, thwarted by her need to move around while making notes); Holden’s quick consultation with professors, Mark O’Brien (Liam Redmond) and K.T. Kumar (Peter Elliott) – who seem rather oddly devout and united in their unscientific fear of the unknown (arguably, counterbalance to Holden’s own abject dismissal of the paranormal as pure nonsense); Holden stumbling into Karswell at the British Museum while he is researching the history of witches and demons (and having Karswell immediate put a curse on him); and finally, ‘cute meet #2’ – Holden bumping into Joanna at her father’s funeral, finally making the connection; she is Henry’s daughter.
A short while later, the pair winds up at Holden’s hotel suite. Joanna initially sees this as a meeting of the minds, even bringing along her father’s journal to read a few of his notations about Karswell. Holden would much rather get to know Joanna socially. Only, he goes about it the wrong way; inadvertently insulting her intelligence by dismissing her father’s diary as pure tripe and trouncing Joanna’s own curiosity as grossly unwarranted silliness. Nevertheless, Holden really cannot explain away what he has been feeling since his accidental encounter with Karswell at the British Museum; dizzy spells and a strange ‘insect-like’ screech (the actual noise the demon makes before materializing) rattling inside his head. 
To appease Joanna – and perhaps, to get to the bottom of things – Holden has Joanna drive him out to Lufford Hall; intruding on an afternoon’s delights – Karswell in clown makeup, entertaining a group of local children with a bit of ‘innocent’ magic. Holden and Joanna separate, Karswell suggesting his mother might take her inside for some ice cream while he and Holden go for a stroll about the grounds. Holden questions Karswell about his ‘interest’ in the ‘black arts’; Karswell making no apology for dabbling in both the ‘black’ and ‘white’ arts of witchcraft. Holden is rather flippant in his rejection of ‘magic’ as anything except a grand hoax, illusions and slights of hand. To prove his point, Karswell conjures a violent thunderstorm, forcing everyone into the house. The mood between Karswell and Holden turns adversarial after Karswell informs Holden he has a mere three days left to live. In the U.K. version, this scene segues to a brief exchange between Karswell and Joanna, whom he instructs to go home and prepare for Holden’s demise. But in the U.S. version, the plot merely leaps ahead - to later that evening - Joanna begging Holden to take his fate or, at least, the one designed for him by Karswell - more serious.
Holden refuses to buy into this hysteria. However, when he discovers parallels between Henry Harrington’s death (pages torn from both their day planners, a sinister parchment slipped into his briefcase by Karswell with ancient symbols scrawled) Holden becomes a tad more suspicious. Even so, when the parchment jerks from Holden’s hand and attempts to leap into the nearby fireplace (prevented only by its decorative grate), Joanna is convinced some ethereal darker force is at work, Holden blames the parchment’s ‘escape’ on the wind. Nevertheless, upon returning to his suite at the Savoy, Holden once again hears the demon’s insect-like call coming from the end of the hallway; interrupted by Kumar and O’Brien, who welcome Holden into their suite to discuss the pending examination of one Rand Hobart (Brian Wilde); a ‘nonbeliever’ too who has since slipped into a state of catatonia.
In the U.K. version this moment is followed by Holden driving out to a remote hovel on the windswept moors, attempting to broker favor with the rest of the Hobart clan to examine Rand. Mrs. Hobart (Janet Barrow) reluctantly gives her consent, but not before Holden’s parchment attempts another escape – this time, from his wallet. The Hobarts are easily spooked and Mrs. Hobart declares Holden has been ‘chosen’. His fate is sealed. Holden next makes his pilgrimage to Stonehenge, discovering the same Runic symbols from his parchment chiseled into one of its mysterious stone pylons. Returning home hours later, Holden receives a rather cryptic message from Joanna to meet him at the house of Mr. Meeks (Reginald Beckwith). It turns out the pair have been summoned there by Mrs. Karswell who, ever-fearful of her own son’s influence, is attempting to intervene on Holden’s behalf to save his life. Together with Mrs. Meeks (Rosamund Greenwood), Holden, Joanna and Mrs. Karswell engage in a séance; the spirit of Henry Harrington forewarning Holden of imminent doom, using Mr. Meeks as his medium.
Given Holden’s scholastic interest, he is all but arrogant and quite dismissive of Meeks’ abilities to contact the dead, laughing it off as a lot of fakery put on for their amusement. As Joanna and Holden depart, Mrs. Karswell is taken into Julien’s custody back to Lufford Hall. Joanna thinks Holden terribly foolish. To prove his point, Holden agrees to drive out in the dead of night to Lufford Hall, break in and search for the rare manuscript on witchcraft and demons stolen from the British Museum and now in Karswell’s possession.  Leaving Joanna at the gates, Holden skulks through the woods. He discovers an open window on the second floor of Lufford Hall, climbing a rickety trellis; then, slinking downstairs into Karswell’s study to begin his search. Unbeknownst to Holden, Karswell is following his every move. Karswell stops just short of entering his study, instead using his occultist powers to conjure a leopard from the common housecat to attack Holden in the library. It’s a rather ridiculous moment in the movie; one reminiscent (and far more effectively staged and apropos to Cat People, Tourneur’s ghoulish horror/suspense masterpiece from 1942).
The leopard assault is cut short herein by Karswell, who bursts into the room and turns on the lights; the panther instantly transformed back into his unobtrusive black house kitty. Given the severity of the conflict, Holden shows no outward signs from the attack – not even a few well-placed scratches. Karswell orders Holden from his house; Mrs. Karswell begging her son to call off whatever mystical mischief he has invoked. But as Holden makes his way back to Joanna’s car the all-too familiar sound of the demon grows strong; a puff of smoke manifesting into the very same winged gargoyle that claimed Harrington’s life. Holden flees this apparition, and manages his awkward escape. The next afternoon, under medical supervision at an insane asylum, Hobart is brought out of his catatonic state with an injection of sodium pentothal. Under hypnosis, he reveals how Karswell’s parchment is the key to the curse. Whoever possesses it must die. It’s all rather riveting melodrama, except that Hobart suddenly and quite unexpectedly begins to rave of persecution, leaping off the examination table and falling to his own death through an open upstairs’ window. 
In the meantime, Karswell kidnaps Joanna, intent on fleeing London by train. Holden pursues Karswell, slipping him the same parchment Karswell gave him at the British Museum. Realizing what Holden has done, Karswell attempts to perform the exchange once more. But the parchment escapes his grasp, flying down the railroad tracks. As Holden and Joanna look on, Karswell races toward an oncoming train; their view of him momentarily obstructed. The parchment bursts into flames. The demon manifests itself in Karswell’s presence and tears him apart. After the train has passed, Holden and the station master (Leonard Sharp) find Karswell’s smoldering body near the tracks; Holden shielding Joanna from this gruesome discovery and adding “Perhaps it is best not to know.”
Night/Curse of the Demon is unquestionably a very bizarre movie. Valiant attempts have been made to treat its subject matter with seriousness and integrity. But on the whole, the story devolves into just another spook story about one man’s mangling of the unexplained. In either its U.K. or U.S. incarnation, the plot never entirely gels for more than a few intermittent moments of suspense cobbled together in between fitful bouts of melodramatic tedium. Where the story is supposed to mesmerize, it merely amuses, and when it aims to unhinge our nerves, it barely manages a mild ruffle of our collective curiosity. There’s a lot of style here, but precious little substance. Dana Andrews and Peggy Cummins are not a terribly engaging ‘couple’; his American ease in constant conflict with Cummins’ clipped British resolve. The best performance comes from Niall MacGinnis; the queerly cordial menace of the piece. MacGinnis’ Julian Karswell is a sinister conjurer of the black arts; a man who could just as easily smile his way into the bowels of hell as he remains adept at amusing an impressionable brood of children with his less satanic slights of hand.
Arguably, the real star of the picture is Edward Scaife’s cinematography. Night/Curse of the Demon would be nothing at all without his chiaroscuro lighting techniques. These transform even the benign luxury of Karswell’s Lufford Hall into an eerie den of foreboding. Viewing the two alternate cuts of this movie side by side reveals how expertly fitted Tourneur’s staging of the action is – the excisions really not affecting the overall pace or narrative structure. Night/Curse of the Demon is not a remarkable film. But it is an exceptionally competent one with a few clever twists peppered in for good measure. Tourneur had not wanted to show the audience the demon; a decision vetoed by producer, Hal E. Chester.
When effects genius, Ray Harryhausen proved unavailable, the assignment of conjuring a demon from hell was handed to George Blackwell instead. Blackwell’s incarnation is part winged gargoyle/part horn and hooved wildebeest with some smoke effects tossed in.  As Tourneur predicted, showing the demon as bookends to the story diffused the movie’s suspense rather than augmenting it. Done properly, the implied is always infinitely more successful than the concrete. The real issue ought to have been does Karswell possess a command of the black arts, or is he merely able to instill hysteria into the hearts and minds of his intended victims – thus, in effect, they bring about their own demise through his powers of suggestion. Night/Curse of the Demon leaves nothing to interpretation.
In his wiry goatee and dark suit, Karswell is the devil’s emissary on earth; his power genuine; his demon, physically manifested to do his bidding with relish.  Does it work? Partly – though without ever instilling a genuine sense of dread. Creepy in spots, but failing to leave us shattered at our core, Night/Curse of the Demon is a mostly forgettable and below par movie – especially from Jacques Tourneur, who gave us such memorable classics as the aforementioned Cat People (1942), I Walked With A Zombie (1943) and Out of the Past (1947).
In yet another curious alliance, Sony Home Video has allowed Wild Side Home Video to release Night/Curse of the Demon only in France: a very handsome package, indeed. This set comes with both DVD and Blu-ray, containing both versions of the movie. The DVD is PAL and therefore can only be played in Europe or on region free players. But the Blu-ray (reviewed herein) is region free and can thus be played anywhere. Both versions of Night/Curse of the Demon have undergone a considerable restoration effort. Yet, ‘Curse’ is noticeably sharper, sporting a more refined grain structure than its U.K. counterpart. Both renderings have good solid contrast. But the U.S. version (shorter) looks superior by virtue of its vast amount of fine detail popping as it should in 1080p.
Furthermore, ‘Night’s’ DTS audio seems ever so slightly muffled when compared to the U.S. cut of the film. They’re both very watchable, but discrepancies in the visuals and audio do exist and bear mentioning herein. There is another curiosity to consider. The disc’s menus leave no room for the removal of the French subtitles. However, by clicking the ‘subtitles’ button on one’s remote control a message immediately appears on screen about ‘this option is not available’. Nevertheless, the subtitles are removed. Odd. Silly. Arguably, even more so than the movie.  Finally, this deluxe set comes with a phenomenal book – not a booklet – written by Michael Henry Wilson: 144 pages of essay, illustrations, publicity art and stills from the movie; all of it regrettably only translated in French. As I never bothered to learn the language, this leaves me at a disadvantage to discuss the merits of the text. But I have to say, without question, the inclusion alone of such a comprehensive work to accompany such a minor film is impressive. Bottom line: for those who love this movie – and can read French – this one comes highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, April 18, 2014

GILDA: Blu-ray (Columbia 1946) Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

A shyster plagued by an attack of conscience - and an even worse bout of sexual frustration; the erotically-charged flame of desire he once gave up, but now is forced to accept as the wife of his boss, and a suave, strangely asexual mobster, dangling the proverbial carrot in front of both their noses, even as he continues to pull their strings like the supreme puppet master: it all makes perfect sense in Charles Vidor’s Gilda (1946); a peerless thriller  - half noir/half woman’s picture and so sultry and seductive, one can easily overlook its’ dis-satisfactory conclusion and move on, only to recall the myriad of pleasures along the way. These continue to tantalize from the peripheries of our collective imaginations long after the houselights have come up. To the world-weary postwar generation, Gilda must have acted like a tonic; Stephen Goosson and Van Nest Polglase’s production design, conjuring a sublime and escapist South American paradise, sumptuously lit and moodily photographed by Rudolph Maté.
Apart from Rita Hayworth’s obvious attributes, Gilda is a supremely gorgeous movie to look at; its palatial casinos, wrought-iron corralled manor houses, complete with palm and fountain-spewing courtyards, are the epitome of forty’s chichi grand living that most suffering through the malaise of wartime rationing could only daydream. And yet, for all its grandeur, there is a pervasive and unsettling sense of danger permeating from beginning to end. Gilda is another world entirely; one populated by salacious playthings resting their satin-haired heads, glycerin tears and crocodile smiles affixed, on the arms of men who’ve bought and paid for the privilege. Marion Parsonnet’s screenplay (from a story by E.A. Ellington, and adaptation by Jo Eisinger – with an unaccredited assist from Ben Hecht) sparkles with villainous charm, all of it quietly observed through the unvarnished clarity of the hotel’s washroom attendant, Uncle Pio (Steven Geray), who sees right through the hypocrisies of the hoi poloi rather unapologetically.
Central to one’s appreciation is Rita Hayworth’s perennially electric performance as Gilda Mundson Farrell; the gal most likely to succeed with any man in long pants, and, who manages to needle her way back into the rather stubborn good graces of American gambler, Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford). Her, decent?  Hardly. But Gilda has guts – and class – even if she chooses to scabbard this latter virtue in a faux iniquity. How Gilda ever expects to win Johnny back using this flawed charade is questionable. Stirring his jealousy is one thing. Making him see her as the twenty-cent tart who can only be redeemed by his reclamation is quite another.
Hayworth is undeniably the sparkling gem of this piece. If, as Columbia Pictures press declared “there never was a woman like Gilda” then it’s equally certain Hayworth was never more exotic, enticing, or maliciously exuberant than herein.  That it all works out in the end for Gilda and Johnny is a wee too cockeyed and optimistic for most tastes. Gilda pretends at being a sybarite. But actually, she’s just a homespun girl, spurned and chagrined, whose thoughts have been twisted towards jealousy and revenge. Hayworth’s smoldering sensualist ought to have been the femme fatale of the piece; but in Gilda she’s the good girl – faking bad to win back the affections of the one man who ought never have let her go in the first place. Okay, we’ll accept that…I guess. After all, until this penultimate letdown, Gilda remains one of the most fantastical, dream-like and nightmarish love affairs ever experienced; masterfully cobbled together and infectiously malignant yet appealing.
Gilda’s other strength is the two men who dance around her maypole, bumped out in all the right places: the laconic, embittered and impoverished Johnny Farrell, and, dangerously aloof, but affluent, Ballin Mundson (George Macready). Johnny’s a bum. But Ballin gives him a new start in life as his croupier; recognizing his rare gifts for managing the rough trade as well as the international jet-setting scammers, out to rob his casino of its assets. Takes one to know one, I suppose.  But Ballin’s not a very patient man…or, perhaps, is – biding his time and giving Johnny and his own new bride just enough rope to tie the noose around both their necks. After their first adversarial ‘cute meet’ Ballin informs Johnny “She doesn’t like you.”  But that’s just it. Gilda likes Johnny. She likes him very much - too much, in fact, to mask the art of her deception in cruel barbs and daggers aimed in his direction.  Playing the bitch is a good show. But it doesn’t wash with Ballin. Or does it?
But back to Ballin and Johnny for just a moment: a very ‘queer’ pair indeed, this master and his mate – one owing the other everything, but refusing to pay out, and ultimately, betraying the ‘kindness’ to get what he wants – namely Gilda! There’s an asexual quality to Ballin and Gilda’s marriage; a sense she’s merely a beard for this rather smooth-shaven, impeccably quaffed and mannered, but decidedly effete Ballin; acquired to shield his own reputation from hushed whispers and scrutiny, even as he procures a more interesting ‘relationship’ with Johnny – one going well beyond mentor/apprentice or even father/son. After all, why should this interesting cross between devil-may-care bon vivant and steely-eyed businessman take on a rat like Johnny, hustling it in the gutters for a few measly dollars, and make him his second in command?
Does he really see Johnny’s innate abilities to manage his casino at a glance, only later proven, or is Ballin attracted to this shiftless gambling bum’s more obvious attributes.  Pitted against George Macready’s Mercurian phantasm of masculinity, Glenn Ford emerges as the strapping, dark-haired Adonis of the piece, regrettably, not so easily corruptible by his Svengali, but made sullen and sexually frustrated by Galatea. Johnny doesn’t perhaps see Ballin’s truest intensions at first, but they’re there just the same. Superficially, the penultimate return of Ballin in the final reel, merely to pick off Johnny, is meant to solidify and explain away Ballin’s jealousy. Subliminally, however, it positively reeks of homoerotic subtext.  After all, killing Johnny means Gilda can’t have him either.
Viewed in another light, Gilda adheres to the time-honored precepts of the traditional noir thriller; her willful deconstruction of Ballin and Johnny’s ideal buddy/buddy friendship, momentarily mislabeling her as the supreme femme fatale. Yes, Hayworth’s vixen is responsible for the creeping malaise of anxiety and betrayal slowly dividing these two men. But, the movie’s rather hopeful and decidedly ‘too perfect’ conclusion, (Uncle Pio stabs Ballin in the back, using his ‘trick’ cane, presumably to keep Johnny’s virtue intact; also to satisfy the Hollywood censors - which absolutely forbade a murderer walking away from the scene of the crime), is further diffused after the arrival of Det. Maurice Obregon (Joseph Calleia), who informs everyone that since Ballin faked his own death earlier, and has been legally declared dead, no murder has actually been committed now, despite the presence of a body; hence no one is going to jail.
Gilda also obeys another noir tradition; the ‘first person’ narration. It’s Johnny’s story we’re hearing – straight from the horse’s mouth…partly. Newly arrived in Buenos Aires, Johnny quickly lands himself in a heap of trouble; attempting to cheat some hardcore river rats out of their ill-gotten gains during a game of craps. He’s only spared having his throat slit – or worse - by the quick-thinking intervention of a complete stranger, Ballin Mundson. Here again, it becomes necessary to question why Ballin – a man of obvious wealth and culture, should be out near the wharf at such an ungodly hour; perhaps, trolling for some fresh meat down by the docks. Johnny certainly fits this bill; a handsome diamond in the rough. Ballin gives the slick reprobate some good advice – not to try his illegal flimflam at the nearby high-priced casino. But is this good advice? Or does Ballin instinctively know Johnny will be tempted by his backhanded invitation.
Sure enough, a short while later, Johnny saunters into the casino, cheats at blackjack and is caught by a pair of goons, who take him upstairs to meet the big boss – none other than Ballin Mundson. This ought to have spelled disaster for Johnny, as Ballin is hardly the forgiving sort – rather, a high-rolling underworld mob boss who cloaks his vindictiveness under a very thin veneer of courtly finesse. And yet, something about Johnny defies Ballin inflicting his revenge. Perhaps, ‘revenge’ was never the point of their second ‘cute meet’. It ends with Ballin hiring Johnny to oversee the daily operations of his posh gambling house. In short order, Ballin not only gives Johnny a job, but a fashionable place to live and stylish clothes to wear; benevolent patriarch or sugar daddy biding his time…hmmm. Despite Johnny’s shining up like a new penny, washroom attendant, Uncle Pio remains cynically unimpressed. A mule in horse’s harness is still a mule, as far as Pio is concerned. In fact, despite Johnny’s newfound authority (he practically runs the place), Pio has no compunction about labelling him “a peasant” to his face.
The plot thickens after Ballin disappears for a short while, leaving Johnny in charge of the whole works. Only when he returns, it’s with a most unwelcomed surprise nobody expected: Gilda – his newly acquired trophy wife. There’s an immediate love/hate chemistry brewing between Gilda and Johnny, questioned by Ballin, but vehemently denied by each of its adversarial participants.  While Johnny plays dumb, Gilda baits her ex on the very real prospect his own future hangs in the balance, predicated on his being nice to her. Sometime later, Johnny and Gilda have it out in her boudoir. She’s all too eager to remind how easily she could get him fired. But Johnny elucidates for Gilda that Ballin isn’t exactly the type to treasure used/damaged goods. While it seems unlikely Ballin would be completely obtuse about their mutual past history, he nevertheless entrusts Gilda to Johnny’s care in his absence – presumably, knowing something of her wild streak and penchant for luring attractive young men to her bedroom.
Gilda does everything in her power to complicate Johnny’s second career as her chaperone; running off with various young studs, disappearing for hours, and attempting a seductive – and very public - striptease in her slinky black gloves and cocktail dress inside the casino’s ballroom, cooing “Put the Blame on Mame”. As one might expect, this really turns the temperature up a degree, incurring Johnny’s wrath. After escorting Gilda away from the cheering crowds, Johnny strikes her across the cheek. As her attempts to embarrass him grow more vile and obnoxious, Johnny becomes more spiteful and abusive. 
We momentarily diverge from this lover’s triangle; interrupted by the arrival of two spurious ‘businessmen’ (Ludwig Donath and Jean De Briac) – actually Nazis – to whom Ballin owes his entire existence. Ballin is part of their secret society, used to finance a tungsten cartel. As part of their agreement, all of this secret organization’s assets have been entrusted to Ballin to shield the other two in their complicity. This arrangement places all of the responsibility on Ballin’s shoulders. If he is caught, it is his neck alone that is on the line. However, on the flip-side, it also affords Ballin absolute power over some formidable assets he is quite unwilling to relinquish after the men return; having decided it is safe for them to take over once again. In the meantime, Argentine government agent, Det. Obregon has become suspicious of Ballin’s casino operations, suspecting them as a front for much more nefarious activities. During a lavish New Year’s Eve masked ball given at the casino, the businessmen threaten Ballin. This time, they mean business. Instead, Ballin, wearing a disguise, manages to murder one of the men in the ballroom as the lights dim for the countdown to the New Year.
There’s no going back. Ballin must take everything he can get his hands on and flee the country. Regrettably, he arrives home just in time to discover Gilda in Johnny’s arms. The couple pursues Ballin, as does Det. Obregon, to a remote landing strip where Ballin manages his daring escape, piloting a private plane over the ocean. Informed by Obregon that the plane likely doesn’t have enough fuel to complete the journey, Johnny explains he doesn’t believe Ballin is trying to escape – merely commit suicide. Sure enough, moments later the plane explodes over the open waters, its fiery wreckage plummeting into the sea. Unbeknownst to anyone, Ballin has planned the incident perfectly, having parachuted to safety and a hidden lifeboat.  Now, he must bide his time and remain out of sight. During an interim of several long months, the mood between Gilda and Johnny turns rancid. He is racked with guilt and determined – if not in life, than certainly in death – Gilda will remain faithful to the memory of her late husband. It’s a bizarre turn of events; Johnny marrying Gilda out of spite, then making her a veritable slave in their apartment; forcing her to attempt various extramarital affairs, only to realize all of her would-be lovers are actually house detectives working for Johnny, designed to satisfy Johnny’s own perverse sexual starvation of his new bride. If ever there was a moment to suggest Johnny and Ballin were more the real couple in love, this montage of failed in flagrante delicto definitely hints at the possibility.
Regrettably, this prison of his own design begins to unravel, preying upon Johnny’s own sexual frustrations as well. Oh, how Johnny could use a woman like Gilda right about now. Or perhaps, ‘use her’ he does, in committing them both to this celibate purgatory from where no viable escape seems possible. She would kill him too, if only still waters didn’t run quite so deep. You see, despite Johnny’s repugnant behavior, Gilda can’t help but lust after her man. Uncle Pio makes Johnny see the light. Besides, there’s no future for either of them in Buenos Aires. Gilda inheriting Mundson’s estate and assets means neither of them will ever be free of the police investigation into Ballin’s counterfeit activities that could land them both in prison as accomplices after the fact. Johnny and Gilda reconcile. He urges her to pack in haste. Perhaps, there’s still time. Only, as the pair enjoys a farewell drink at the bar with Uncle Pio, they are surprised by Ballin – back from the dead.
He’s come for his money; also, to put a period to Gilda and Johnny’s happiness together once and for all. It’s the end of the line. However, in holding Gilda and Johnny at gunpoint, Ballin has forgotten he’s left his special walking stick with a retractable knife on the bar, leaving Uncle Pio to stop his former employer with a fatal stab wound to the back. Obregon arrives too late to prevent the murder. Both Johnny and Pio attempt to convince Obregon they have killed Ballin. Obregon listens to their lies, pleasantly amused, before reminding everyone that Ballin was declared legally dead months ago. A man cannot die twice. Besides, there is such a thing as justifiable homicide.  Johnny gives Obregon the incriminating documents from the safe, exposing the Nazi crime syndicate, and, Johnny and Gilda surrender all of their open hostile toward one another for good.  
From a purely psychoanalytic perspective, Gilda is beguilingly flawed character study; its WWII themed espionage mere icing on an already exceedingly decorative cake. Rita Hayworth is the ravishing cherry on top; an edifying star turn as the malevolent vixen, positively oozing sex appeal out of every pore. Yet, Hayworth’s performance goes well beyond mere titillation. The golden rule in Hollywood has often obfuscated the fact that just because an actress is beautiful it stands to reason she has absolutely nothing going on in her head. Hayworth’s Gilda is the exception; one among many, in fact, and utterly stimulating in all its complexity. When she sings “‘Amado Mio’…love me forever, and let forever begin tonight,” Hayworth’s mannerisms and intonations reveal a hint of sadness; perhaps, even abject surrender of the truly damned, her willowy arms caught in silken smooth undulations. These seem to beckon, yet simultaneously grasping for anyone to throw her drowning self-esteem a life-preserver.
Is she a fallen angel, a divisive manipulator or a wounded child? Perhaps a little of all three bottled up into one explosive package, simplistically mislabeled as ‘sex appeal’. The innate tragedy Hayworth stirs from within transforms what could so easily have been yet another variation on the ‘I am a bad woman’ stock cliché into a delicious confection; made sweet/then sour by all the venomous hurt, spite, bizarre empathy, self-loathing and seething rage welling up from inside. Rita Hayworth was already well-established in Harry Cohn’s pantheon of stars by the time she made Gilda. Indeed, around the back lot she was frequently referred to as the ‘Columbia lady’; her box office alone keeping the studio fiscally in the black. It is primarily for Gilda that Hayworth is remembered today: an enduring, eye-catching, emotionally supercharged powerhouse, likely to endure as long as there are memories of that Eden lost to us all, but strangely rekindled each time Hayworth cocks her head to the side, auburn tresses lazily falling back as her mood turns from elation to contempt within a matter of seconds and those dark and flashing eyes produce daggers of morbid self-pity that could stop any man in his tracks. Put the blame on Mame, if you must. But let’s hear it once again for the gal who knows how to spark, peak and maintain our interests: an enthrallingly blemished creature of shadow and light.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment continues its rather annoying trend of releasing many a longstanding classic from their vaults only in the European marketplace. Thankfully, Gilda on Blu-ray is region free and thus, easily imported to any household in the world via This hi-def mastering effort utilizes archival elements preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in cooperation with Sony Pictures, The Library of Congress, and The National Film and Television Archive in the U.K. Gilda looks very fine in 1080p; good solid depth and clarity with robust contrast, nuanced grays and organic film grain, all accurately preserved. Better still, it does not appear as though any DNR or undue sharpening have been applied to this image. There are some fluctuations in grain distribution, the occasional age-related artifact, and, some minor light fading apparent. Otherwise, you are going to love this disc.
The audio is a minor disappointment: no DTS, but the 2.0 mono Dolby Digital sounding very good nonetheless.  Sony has cleaned up this audio, stabilizing its dynamic range and minimizing noise levels down to a very slight hiss during quiescent moments.  The real insult here is a near complete absence of extras. We get the very same/very brief and superfluous commentary fluff piece by Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann and that’s it. For shame! Bottom line: we could poo-poo Sony’s shortsightedness. But this disc looks so darn good, it’s hard not to simply smile and say thank you – even if it was a hassle getting our hands on a copy in North America. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

REALITY BITES: Blu-ray (Universal 1994) Universal Home Video

The abject tedium of day to day living is enough to get anyone down. Dissatisfaction with direction in life – or rather, lack thereof; the disillusionment that comes from knowing one has played by the rules, only to be trounced by the status quo; realizing – despite best intentions, there may be no proverbial ‘light’ at the end of a tunnel…what can I tell you? Reality Bites, or so it would seem, according to director/star, Ben Stiller and his scathingly on-point Generation X dramedy from 1994. 

Gen-X has since become the ‘catch-all’ for a cohort of then ‘young adults’ – now entering middle age – who, try as they might, seemed doomed, discarded and forgotten in their own time. In retrospect, we’ve all become Gen-Xer’s since; world events and homegrown dilemmas conspiring to rob the nation of its once blind-eyed optimism, faith, and place of relative safety. In many ways, Reality Bites prefigures the beginning of ‘end times’ for this spend/spend, and, 'life’s good' period in America’s cultural renaissance (now, in steep decline), though fondly recalled with warm, fuzzy affections as the 1980’s; a decade of profound enthusiasm for the future.
All that is gone now. But in 1994, it was yet a distant memory and Stiller’s film, despite seeming preciously cynical then, has since managed, rather effectively, to tap into this growing malaise and pessimism.  It bears a brief reprise herein; that any great society is judged – not by its technological/scientific and/or political demarcations, but rather – its contributions to the world of art (music/literature/theater/movies and television). Art informs, reflects and inspires. But it can also condemn, stifle, cripple and brutalize the audience; creating its own normalcy along the way, thereafter adopted – nee absorbed – into our cultural fabric. Yes, art is that powerful and the movies – in their ability to saturate the human frame of reference with towering, cleverly-composed images, designed to manipulate and mimic reality – arguably, remain the most influential cursor of them all. 
Only in retrospect can we truly see Reality Bites as an ominous predictor of how far American culture has spiraled out of control; the implosion ingeniously wrapped inside the paradox of a romantic/comedy – arguably, without the proverbial happy ending. Yes - lovers, Lelaina Pierce (Winona Ryder) and Troy Dyer (Ethan Hawke) meet in the middle of their flawed relationship before the final fadeout. But there’s no future in it for either of them; this lost waif and her scuzzy Lochenvar, who looks as though he would benefit from a bath in Varsol.  No, Lelaina is drifting – given up on a promising future – twice – first, as the backstage gofer on a popular daytime variety TV show, tyrannically mismanaged by its ensconced and curmudgeonly host, Grant Gubler (John Mahoney), then again – trading in a hopeful alliance with waspish MTV-inspired producer, Michael Grates (Ben Stiller) for a very dubious future involving Hawke’s unemployable and very bitter street poet.
Into this mix, come the unwitting family: Lelaina’s mom, Charlane McGregor (played with motivational decapitating precision by Swoozie Kurtz) and her bumbling second husband, Wes (Harry O’Reilly), Lelaina’s equally obtuse father, Tom (Jo Don Baker): and well-intended friends; Vickie Miner (Janeane Garofalo) and Troy’s introspective book work, Sammy Gray (Steve Zahn), whose closeted homosexuality serves as a burgeoning subplot, never entirely resolved by the end of our story.
Depending on one’s point of view, Reality Bites is either a sad epitaph to the 1980’s or a remarkably clear-eyed prologue, heralding the cultural perspectives we have adopted today; scornful, bored with life, and utterly lacking in any sort of impetus to jerk ourselves free from the societal malady.  The characters populating Reality Bites are not ambitious. Arguably, they’re not even marginally motivated, but beaten in their initiatives and thoroughly careworn before their time. Point blank: Lelaina and her friends have given in and given up. What’s the point? In fact, there doesn’t seem to be any. In some ways, Reality Bites is the Seinfeld of movies; a show about nobodies doing nothing spectacularly well; or as Lelaina puts it “masters at the art of time suckage.”  

Only in retrospect, can we see just how farsighted Reality Bites is: self-mocking and iniquitous; a story about people who not only have lost their will to dream, but perhaps to whom the concept of dreaming itself is tragically foreign. Mediocrity, rather than exceptionalism has become the new standard. Arguably, it was always the norm. It is perhaps a bit much to claim Reality Bites for this foretelling. But there’s little to deny the film its prophetic gesture; putting a period to one era, while punctuating the start of another.
Reality Bites begins with commencement – the real beginning of the end for Lelaina Pierce, an aspiring videographer, honor roll student and class valedictorian, attempting to disseminate her own brand of self-appointed prophetic wisdom to the graduating class. Alas, her cue cards get jumbled at the most inopportune moment, her rhetorical inquiry as to how her generation will face the moral/social/political and economic challenges of tomorrow, resolved with a rather deflated “I don’t know.”  We advance to an undisclosed period in the immediate future; Vickie and Lelaina living together in a cramped apartment in Houston. Lelaina is working for obnoxious Grant Gubler who, to the public at least, remains the genial, Cheshire-grinning co-host of Good Morning Grant! – an utterly vacuous TV variety show. Lelaina’s repeated attempts to improve the program are met with Gubler’s abject contempt. He even threatens to fire her if she persists in her endeavors to elevate the overall tenor of the talk show.
As retribution, Lelaina decides to sabotage Grant’s cue cards. Since Grant never bothers to pre-screen his cards, he dives headlong into his own embarrassment on live television, reading Lelaina’s words that brand him a pedophile while interviewing a guest about little girl’s self-esteem. It’s an amusing vignette to be sure, but a lethal blow to Lelaina’s career. For very soon, she discovers jobs are not plentiful in her line of work. Her misguided mother, Charlaine attempts to put a positive spin on her unemployment situation, suggesting she get hired at Wal-Mart where they even hire “the retarded”.  
In the meantime, Vickie decides to move an old college pal, Troy Dyer, into their apartment to help with expenses. After a round of debilitating job interviews, Lelaina quickly realizes how inept and unsuitable she is for just about every other line of work. She is inadvertently rear-ended by producer, Michael Grates who isn’t paying attention to the road, but wrapping up a big deal on his cell phone. After an initial exchange of telephone numbers – for insurance purposes – Michael decides to ask Lelaina out.
It’s an awkward call, but a really good first date. Both discover they have much in common. Michael offers to present some of the raw footage Lelaina has been working on in her spare time for a documentary about her friends, to executives at ‘In Your Face’ TV. Having an ‘in’ with Michael could really boost Lelaina’s chances for landing the career of her dreams. Alas, advancing Lelaina’s prospects doesn’t bode well for Troy’s chances with Lelaina.  As far as Troy is concerned, Lelaina doesn’t need money to make her happy. She just needs him. She, instead, admonishes Troy for being chronically unemployed, for lacking the initiative to even go out and look for a job, and for getting fired from various part-time jobs he’s temporarily held. The irony, of course, is that Lelaina has yet to recognize Troy is more her speed than Michael.  She’s the same type of screw up as Troy; one who would rather have wrecked her reputation in the industry she professes to aspire to with a silly prank (the cue card fiasco) than diligently work around the obstacles to get where she thinks she ought to be.  
Troy isn’t exactly a patient man. Okay, he’s a fairly cruel pragmatist, forcing Lelaina to accept him with a deliberate and rather vindictively systematic attempt to ruin her chances with Michael. For example, after Lelaina and Michael’s first kiss, Troy condescendingly inquires, “Did he dazzle you with his extensive knowledge of mineral water, or was it his in-depth analysis of Marky Mark that finally reeled you in?” After Troy and Lelaina sleep together, Troy is even more pitiless, “You can't navigate me. I may do mean things, and I may hurt you, and I may run away without your permission, and you may hate me forever, and I know that scares the living shit outta you, 'cuz you know I'm the only real thing you got.” 
The Troy/Lelaina relationship is, in fact, the most fascinating aspect of Reality Bites; what sets it apart from just another cornball fluff piece about oversexed twenty-somethings bumping uglies in the night. Troy and Lelaina are so right for each other it’s unpleasant to watch as they tear at one another – or rather, tear down the barriers and artificial role-playing between them to get to the heart of the matter. Or perhaps, ‘heart’ is the wrong word. These two have a whole ‘cerebral/sexual’ thing going on and it’s delicious to watch.
Vickie, a sales associate, recently promoted to manager of The Gap, is rather laissez faire on the dating scene. Her promiscuity forces her to face the very real risk she has contracted HIV – a fear narrowly averted when her AIDS blood test comes back negative. Meanwhile, Sammy – everybody’s even-keeled friend – has remained celibate to hide from his conservative parents the fact he is gay.  As Helen Childress’ screenplay progresses, everyone is forced to come to terms with the crises and dilemmas presently afflicting their lives.
Vickie convinces Sammy to tell his parents he is gay. They are distraught, angry and hurt by his revelation. But the confession allows Sammy to move on with his life. Vickie decides to clean up her act after her encouraging blood test results. The imperfect solution to Michael and Lelaina’s relationship persists. She is utterly humiliated when her documentary about all of their lives – a labor of love with social significance – is butchered in the editing process by the exec’s at Michael’s network; her serious reflections distilled into a sort of extended Saturday Night Live comedy skit, intermittently interrupted with pop-tune infused nonsense. 
Storming out of the premiere, Lelaina is ripe for the picking and Troy wastes no time encouraging a mutual seduction. This leads to one hot night of passion. However, in the morning things look very different.  Commitment-shy to a fault, Troy nervously scurries away – and this, after professing his undying love the night before. Shortly thereafter, Troy all but disappears from Lelaina’s life; the death of his own father forcing him to realize how important Lelaina is to him.
Michael returns, attempting to reconcile with Lelaina at the coffee house where Troy performs. Sensing Lelaina is about to discard him for Michael, Troy indulges in an impromptu vamp, dedicating the song to her (with very crude lyrics that reveals for Michael the specifics of Troy and Lelaina’s one night stand). Disappointed, frustrated and humiliated, Michael leaves the bar, chasing after Lelaina. He is too late to catch her and Troy and Lelaina eventually reconcile.  The movie’s improbable and uncertain ending is interrupted midway through the end credits where we are treated to a brief tag, featuring two characters ‘Laina’ and ‘Roy’ – transparent parodies of Lelaina and Troy – having a very shallow/severely scripted argument about their sinking relationship. As the faux credits to this ‘episode’ roll, we discover Michael is the producer, suggesting he has turned his own failed relationship with Lelaina into a hit spinoff for his network.   
Reality Bites was the inspiration of producer, Michael Shamberg who, after reading a screenplay by Helen Childress, became obsessed with the idea of making a movie about real people in their twenties struggling to make a name and a life for themselves. As it turns out, Childress was largely cribbing from her own experiences as well as that of her friends, working through their own post-graduate angst and uncertainties during the recession to find their niche, their purpose and their futures. Shamberg persisted. Three years and seventy drafts later, Reality Bites began production; Ben Stiller’s fame on The Ben Stiller Show ensuring his participation as co-star and director. Stiller’s involvement necessitated several rewrites. It also changed the organic chemistry of the subplot involving Vickie and Sammy’s characters; their more detailed back stories reduced to mere cameo at Stiller’s behest, to concentrate on the lover’s triangle between Troy, Lelaina and Michael instead.
Every studio balked at the project, including TriStar – who had initially agreed to fund Reality Bites, then promptly reneged and put the film into turnaround.  Stiller and Childress, along with producer Stacey Sher, managed to convince Texas’ film commission to pay out of pocket for location scouting. Ultimately, however, it was Winona Ryder’s involvement that opened the doors over at Universal; her request of Ethan Hawke to co-star, willingly granted by the powers that be. Universal had heavily campaigned to cast Gwyneth Paltrow as Vickie. But Ben Stiller, had worked with Janeane Garofalo on his own show, and pushed for her involvement on the project instead.
Ultimately, Universal gave in, after the revised script severely pared down the part. On a relatively brief 42 day shoot in Houston and Los Angeles, and a budget of $11.5 million, Reality Bites went on to gross $20,982,557; a sizable hit by most any standard. I’ll confess – numbers don’t really impress me, and rarely, do they tell the whole story. Twenty years later, Reality Bites has not dated; its message of an imploding society and misanthropic youth, destined to perpetuate and expedite its downfall, still rings loud and clear. The film is blessed with good solid chemistry between its three ‘stars’ – Winona Ryder doing the doe-eyed/angst-ridden ingénue best.
For all his involvement behind the camera, Ben Stiller’s Michael really takes a backseat to Ethan Hawke’s Troy. Personal opinion – but I’ve always found it difficult, if not entirely impossible, to appreciate Hawke as a leading man. He’s a competent enough actor, but not very easy on the eyes. However, in Reality Bites, Hawke’s dressed-down, arrogant, bong-smoking trailer trash/drugstore cowboy anti-heroism doesn’t wear thin at all. Hawke gives us a wounded soul – warts and all – and doesn’t hold anything back for a moment. He’s gloriously tainted though never pathetic, and belligerently clear-eyed to a fault without ever becoming overbearing. Stiller’s Michael is, of course, meant to be the counterpoint; clean-cut, respectful, altruistic in his romantic pursuits and sadly, out of his league. In this instance, it really is true: nice guys do finish dead last.
Alas, Helen Childress’ screenplay never promises her audience the proverbial ‘rose garden’. Hence, we don’t really mind it all that much when we get more thorns than blooms along the way. In fact, one of the movie’s salvations is its razorback dialogue; adversarial, ironic and tremendously funny.  In the final analysis, Reality Bites refreshingly lives up to its namesake. This isn’t a movie about perfect people or even imperfect ones finding true love the first, second or third time around. It’s the story of misfits, fools, and people who know better but cannot help themselves. In short, it’s about someone you know intimately – maybe even yourself.  
Universal Home Video’s Blu-ray is a fairly nice treat. Reality Bites divides its run time between Emmanuel Lubezki’s film-based footage and a simulated VHS quality/faux documentarian style; both accurately captured on this hi-def 1080p transfer. Colors are solidly balanced with great-looking flesh tones. Occasionally, we get some startling clarity to boot and fine detail revealed even during scenes shot under low lighting conditions. There’s a good smattering of grain too, rendered with accuracy. Everything looks as it should, except for contrast – which does seem just a tad weak. Not a deal breaker, in my opinion, but not stellar either. The DTS 5.1 audio vastly improves on the old DVD which, let’s be honest, wasn’t all that hard to best. For a 20th Anniversary release, Universal has stacked the extras – deleted scenes, a retrospective, Lisa Loeb’s ‘Stay’ music video and a somewhat meandering commentary from Ben Stiller and Helen Childress. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)