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)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

DOUBLE INDEMNITY: Blu-ray (Paramount 1944) Universal Home Video

The wise-cracking, surly chump, the smooth-talking, wicked woman, and, the devious murder plot that goes hopelessly awry: few film noirs can begin to hold a candle to Billy Wilder’s influential Double Indemnity (1944); an excursion into that rancid underbelly of betrayal, lust and unbridled greed. There’s no getting around it; Double Indemnity is a tale of disreputable, lowlifes conducting themselves with base and vial disregard for the sanctity of life itself. Even the show’s lone virtuous voice in the cesspool, hardcore insurance adjuster, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson), has seen too much. He’s a white-knuckled, hard-bitten realist with few redeeming qualities apart from the fact he can spot a flimflam in less than twenty paces and redirect his own venom to puncture its balloons of hypocrisy.
Too bad for Keyes he’s too close to the latest scam to see the proverbial forest for the trees. Edward G. Robinson, who had begun his stardom playing career criminals over at Warner Bros. was to bear witness as his reputation as the squat – if dapper – scumbag in movies like Little Caesar and Five Star Final (both made in 1931) turn to mush after the imposed code of Hollywood censorship made his particular brand of pugnaciousness unfavorable – though, arguably, never unfashionable.  It is one of Hollywood’s ironies that the flat-faced Robinson - diminutive and chronically sneering - became code for an uncouth reprobate; that persona so unlike Robinson himself; in life, a genial, refined gentleman and art lover, who appreciated the finer things in life. Robinson is in a transitional phase in Double Indemnity.
There are still flashes of his former self; the veneer, at times, tissue paper thin. But Robinson, apart from being a seasoned pro, is also something of a loveable ham; a sort of wise-cracking precursor to Peter Falk’s Columbo; his ‘just one more thing’ leading to that bittersweet revelation and unraveling of a crackpot scheme to defraud his company; the ruse perpetuated by the one man Keyes thinks of as his white knight and friend; amiable insurance salesman, Walter Neff (played with spectacular cynicism by Fred MacMurray). Like Robinson, MacMurray used Double Indemnity to reinvent his movie persona. Only a decade before, MacMurray had been considered solid, second-string leading man material in movies like Alice Adams (1935), Maid of Salem (1937) and Too Many Husbands (1940). Arguably, this was a dead-end career.
But in Double Indemnity, MacMurray flips to the other side; an easily corruptible knight sent on one errand only to transgress and become the unmitigated fop of another more perilous and self-destructive journey. Interestingly, MacMurray was not Wilder’s first choice, nor even his tenth to play the part. Only after some of Hollywood’s heaviest hitters had all turned it down, did Wilder suddenly realize his malleable misanthropist required an actor who could play both cynic and good guy turned bad all at once. Double Indemnity excels for many reasons, though primarily because both MacMurray and Robinson are being transformed into people we only thought we knew. Too many actors are typecast for life as either the hero or the villain with narrowly a chance to flip-flop from one side to the other. But both actors herein achieve the near impossible, employing the eloquent Barbara Stanwyck as the maypole around which each is forced into their adversarial dance.  
Stanwyck is Phyllis Dietrichson, undeniably one of the most salacious and sinful femme fatales ever to grace a film noir. In a word, she’s delicious. In her cheap blonde wig, dark shades and anklet, Stanwyck’s tramp is both sublimely sexy and tastelessly raunchy, rubbing Neff’s fur the wrong way and getting more than his dander up in the process.  Vixen, harlot, slut, murderess – pick your poison. Phyllis is more potent than arsenic and strychnine put together.  And Walter’s just the rat to find himself caught between her cat-like clutches. At first, Stanwyck (always Wilder’s first choice) was not entirely certain she wanted to play such an awful mantrap, believing it would hurt her reputation in Hollywood. Wilder appealed to Stanwyck’s professionalism and the deal was struck. Years later, Stanwyck would acknowledge her gratitude to Wilder for his faith in both her and the project.
Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler’s screenplay picks apart the bones of James M. Cain’s gritty, dark novella, maintaining the acidic, hard-edged drama of the original, while making concessions to honor the ensconced production code. The screenplay benefits from Wilder’s acerbic wit and construction; also from Chandler’s superb penchant for double entendre and punch-packing dialogue.  It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Cain had based his novella on an actual 1927 New York case. First published in 1935, Double Indemnity began making the rounds in Hollywood shortly thereafter. However, like his other trend-setting crime/thriller – The Postman Always Rings TwiceDouble Indemnity would be delayed from reaching the screen for almost another decade; the circumstances depicted in the novel considered un-filmable by the Breen and Hays Offices. 
Joseph Breen had, in fact, killed initial interest in Cain’s novella, shared by virtually all the major studios competing to pay $25,000 for the rights, by citing the story’s “general low tone and sordid flavor” as “thoroughly unacceptable”.  Screen censorship often gets a bad rap. Yet, it is interesting to note from our present-day absence of it, just how much of Breen’s concerns seem, not only warranted, but sadly come to pass; his prediction - that any depiction of such disreputable human behaviors – would have a “hardening” effect on the audience; particularly those with “impressionable minds” seems to mirror the malaise currently inflicted by our movie ‘art’ – as well as reflecting the general tenor of modern society.
In the eight long years intervening between Cain’s publication and the movie version, Double Indemnity’s reputation had considerably grown. Nevertheless, by the time Paramount bid on the property, its price tag had slipped to the relatively paltry sum of $15,000. Nevertheless, the project was shot down a second time by the Breen Office. Undaunted, Paramount proceeded, executive producer Joseph Sistrom placing the project’s future in Wilder and co-writer, Charles Brackett’s hands. Somewhere along the way, Brackett decided the material was too crude and unmanageable for his own artistic sensibilities and bowed out; Paramount bringing in Raymond Chandler to collaborate with Wilder and polish their draft.
In a relatively short turnaround, Wilder and Chandler submitted an intelligent script for reconsideration; one almost immediately approved by the censors, with minor caveats and revisions to be incorporated. A proposed gas chamber sequence was dropped, and, the length and girth of the towel worn by Stanwyck for Phyllis Dietrichson’s initial cute meet with Walter Neff were amplified. But perhaps the most influential revision Wilder made was in having Phyllis and Walter mortally wound one another (in Cain’s novel they commit suicide together); the idea these two social pariahs would devour themselves, satisfying the Production Code’s essential edict that criminals must pay for their transgressions.
The Wilder/Chandler alliance was tempestuous at best. In fact, the director was rather disappointed to discover the man behind such hard-boiled crime thrillers, despite being a recovering alcoholic, shared more the continence of a mild-mannered accountant than a bona fide crime solver. Wilder was also unimpressed by Chandler’s initial misunderstanding he alone would be writing the screenplay; a gesture immediately quashed after Chandler submitted roughly eighty pages Wilder openly criticized as “useless camera instruction.”  Initially, Wilder had wanted to keep as much of Cain’s original dialogue in the movie as possible. Chandler disagreed, and proceeded to do a complete rewrite much to Wilder’s dismay.
To prove his point, Wilder then hired a pair of contract players to read whole passages from Cain’s novella aloud. But to Wilder’s chagrin, Chandler’s assessment of Cain’s prose proved genuine and Wilder begrudgingly realized if the movie was to function at all, then Chandler’s stichomythia would have to prevail. From this tenuous détente, the alliance between Wilder and Chandler only continued to disintegrate. At one point, Chandler even begged to be released from his contract. Wilder stuck it out, believing their tumultuous discord could only enhance the final product. Besides, he genuinely admired Chandler’s immeasurable gifts as a brilliant wordsmith. 
Chandler’s embittered lot on Double Indemnity would cause him to publish a rather scathing critique of Hollywood’s respect (or lack thereof) for the writer after production wrapped. But the Chandler/Wilder brouhaha is also rumored to have been the inspiration for Wilder to make The Lost Weekend (1945); the tale of a drunken writer’s recovery from the bottle; in essence, Wilder making the film to explain Raymond Chandler to himself. As for James M. Cain; the author had nothing but good things to say about Double Indemnity when it premiered, complimenting Wilder on his revisions and even suggesting Wilder had improved on his own narrative construction.
Double Indemnity is also noteworthy for its eerie, all-pervasive mood since come to be known as California Gothic; typified by a queer oppressiveness looming large and beyond the sun-drenched atmosphere of that traditionally warm and idyllic backdrop.  In some cases, cinematographer John F. Seitz simply amplified the contrast; creating mysterious pools of bleached out light or enveloping crevices of overpowering darkness. To capture the unsettling atmosphere of danger inside the Dietrichson home, Seitz blew handfuls of talc and aluminum particles into the air, creating the illusion of thin airborne veils of dust settling about the room. He also insisted on filtering his light through slats (usually Venetian blinds), mimicking the uncanny illusion of prison bars. The contrast between these gloomy interiors and starkly saturated outdoor settings gave Double Indemnity its stylish noir look, almost immediately adopted and copied in countless movies throughout the 1940’s.    
Double Indemnity opens with a prolonged and suspenseful introduction of one of our three stars – Fred MacMurray – returning to his place of employment in downtown L.A. hours before it is ready to conduct business. Only after Walter Neff has let himself into his private office and slumped back in the chair behind his desk do we take notice of the hemorrhaging gunshot wound to his shoulder. Employing what would become a time-honored cliché of the noir style, we get the story firsthand from Walter, narrating the particulars into his Dictaphone; the sordid tale unraveling in heavy, sustained gasps as we regress in flashback to the point where Walter’s undoing began. Walter and his boss, curmudgeonly claim adjuster, Barton Keyes, are debating the finer points of a scam being perpetuated on their insurance company. Keyes has been at this sort of racket far too long. He sees corruption everywhere. Truth be told; his hunches are usually right on the money.  
Keyes amuses Walter with his abject cynicism. In fact, Keyes considers Walter a brilliant cohort to bounce ideas off; better than just one of the boys and a clear-eyed guy who thinks even worse of the human race than he does. So much for business. Besides, who has time to get all wrapped up in a scheme when there’s real work to be done? For Walter, it’s business as usual, or so he thinks as he arrives at the Dietrichson household to pitch a renewal of an auto insurance policy to its owners. Mr. Dietrichson (Tom Powers) is out. But his wife, Phyllis is definitely in, and into some such mischief, greeting Walter in nothing more than a towel after some nude sunbathing on an upstairs balcony. There’s an immediate chemistry – or perhaps, friction is a more apt description of the generated sparks between them. Walter makes Phyllis aware of the advantages of renewing their policy, perhaps as yet unaware just how much any of the pros will turn into deadly cons by the end of their conversation. Phyllis inquires how she might take out an accident insurance policy on her husband without his knowledge.  Deducing Phyllis is up to no good; Walter becomes glib and condescending, telling her he wants no part in whatever her gruesome plans may be.
Regrettably – and to his own detriment – a short while later, Walter reconsiders his decision after Phyllis arrives at his apartment and seduces him. The two concoct a clever plan to off Mr. Dietrichson and collect the insurance money. These things must be done delicately so as not to draw skepticism. Walter knows the ropes as well as the loopholes. But he also knows Keyes will stop at nothing to investigate and debunk any death as a scam. So, Walter devises a plan to have Mr. Dietrichson take a tumble off a moving train, thus triggering the life insurance policy to pay out its ‘double indemnity’ claim – twice the policy’s value.
Luring Mr. Dietrichson into signing the policy, after he has already accidentally broken his leg, Walter conceals himself in the backseat of Dietrichson’s Packard. As Phyllis drives her husband to the train depot for his planned college reunion trip to Palo Alto, Walter springs into action and strangles the man. Herein, Billy Wilder choses the infinitely more tantalizing perspective, focusing on Phyllis, a thin grin curling about her pallid cheeks as she continues to drive on; the sound of life being squeezed from her husband’s body causing her infinite pleasure as the car nears the depot. Posing as Dietrichson, Walter boards the observation car, stepping onto its open platform; presumably setting up for the real Dietrichson’s ‘accidental’ tumble onto the tracks. Regrettably, another man named Jackson (Porter Hall) is already there, taking in the fresh air. Walter manages to encourage Jackson to go inside for a moment, jumping off the moving train at precisely the spot where Phyllis had already driven to dump her husband’s body onto the tracks.
It’s all worked out exactly as planned…or so it would seem. A short while later, Walter quietly observes as Mr. Norton, the company's chief, tells Keyes he believes Dietrichson’s death was an obvious suicide. Keyes discounts this scenario however, firing off statistics about the improbability of any suicide attempt made by jumping off a slow-moving train. To Walter’s great relief, Keyes does not suspect foul play – at least, not at first. But then Keyes begins to break down the series of events leading up to Dietrichson’s untimely death. Why did he not claim his broken leg? Perhaps, because he did not know he had such a policy. And if Dietrichson didn’t know and Phyllis did, then perhaps she was also instrumental in arranging her husband’s demise – along with an, as yet unknown, accomplice. Ah yes, the pieces of this puzzle are beginning to fit together.
Walter has already begun to break a sweat; his nervousness compounded after Dietrichson’s teenage daughter, Lola (Jean Heather) confronts him with her suspicions that her stepmother wanted her father dead. Lola explains to Walter about her real mother, an invalid, who died under spurious circumstances while under Phyllis’ care. To diffuse the situation, Walter begins to see Lola – at first to quell her doubts and discourage her from going to the police. But pretty soon, Walter is racked with guilt over his complicity in the crime. In fact, it’s eating him alive. In the meantime, Keyes has located Jackson who informs him the man he had the exchange with on the train’s observation platform was at least fifteen years younger than the one in the archival photo identified as Mr. Dietrichson. Believing he has Phyllis right where he wants her, Keyes decides to suspend the claim and refuse the payout. The only way Phyllis will ever get her hands on the money is if she sues.
Walter steps in, telling Phyllis she cannot take the insurance company to court without facing the very real prospect of revealing her complicity in their crime of murder. Walter also informs Phyllis about Lola. In the meantime, Lola has uncovered a love affair between her own boyfriend, Nino Zachetti (Byron Barr) and her stepmother. Putting two and two together and coming up with twenty-seven, Lola now suspects Nino and Phyllis of conspiring to kill her father. Keyes seems to concur with Lola. After all, Nino has been repeatedly spotted coming and going from the Dietrichson’s late at night, and he’s something of a hothead too with a minor rap sheet down at police headquarters. Yes, Nino’s ripe for the picking.
Even Walter can see this. Nino is his way out. In a remarkably stupid gesture, Walter confronts Phyllis about her affair and guesses she planned for Nino to kill him so they could run off together. Walter now reveals he plans instead to murder her and pin the blame for both homicides on Nino. Phyllis shoots Walter in the shoulder with a concealed gun. He stumbles, but does not fall, instructing her to shoot him again. But Phyllis really loves Walter…or rather, cannot imagine her life without him. They’re two of a kind – bad apples destined to be together for all time. Too bad for Phyllis, Walter doesn’t see things her way. After a brief repudiation of her killer instincts, Phyllis gives Walter her gun and embraces him. It ought to be the perfect beginning, except Walter meant what he said. He doesn’t love Phyllis and has no compunction about shooting her twice to prove it, coldly whispering “Goodbye, baby” before pulling the trigger.
Walter waits for Nino in the bushes just outside, advising him not to enter the house, but instead go to the woman who truly loves him - Lola. At first reluctant, Nino agrees and leaves. Walter drives to the insurance company in the dead of night, staggers upstairs to his office and starts speaking into his Dictaphone. We have come full circle to the movie’s opener as, Keyes sneaks up to the half open door unnoticed, hearing Walter’s confession. It all but breaks Keyes’ heart – if only he still had one left to break. Walter informs Keyes he is going to Mexico to escape the gas chamber. Instead, he collapses on the floor near the elevator and Keyes, ever sympathetic, though unwilling to allow any murderer to get off Scott-free, paternally pats Walter on the arm, whispering “Walter, you’re all washed up.”
Double Indemnity is an extraordinary film noir; buoyed by superb performances and a taut script whose killer instincts to enthrall never miss a trick or a beat. Wilder’s direction is superb. He moves his lovers in almost the concentric and constricting circles of a spider’s web; their fates drawing closer together even as the plot continues to unravel and tear them apart. A text book example of the noir thriller; Double Indemnity’s pervasive distillation of evil, eventually trapped by its own methods, is utterly captivating. At some level, the film is a fascinating character study of misguided principles getting in the way of the perfect crime, perhaps never more astutely summarized than in Walter’s confessional, “Suddenly it came over me that everything would go wrong. It sounds crazy, Keyes, but it's true, so help me. I couldn't hear my own footsteps. It was the walk of a dead man.”
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray both give iconic and career-altering performances. But Double Indemnity’s most impressive bit of acting, undeniably, goes to Edward G. Robinson, who is given some of the most complex and lengthy monologues in movie history. These he brilliantly recites with razorback clarity. Consider just one; Keyes confrontation of his boss’s theory Dietrichson committed suicide.  “You know, you ought’a take a look at the statistics on suicide some time. You might learn a little something about the insurance business... Come now, you've never read an actuarial table in your life, have you? Why they've got ten volumes on suicide alone; suicide by race, by color, by occupation, by sex, by seasons of the year, by time of day. Suicide, how committed: by poison, by firearms, by drowning, by leaps. Suicide by poison, subdivided by types of poison, such as corrosive, irritant, systemic, gaseous, narcotic, alkaloid, protein, and so forth; suicide by leaps, subdivided by leaps from high places, under the wheels of trains, under the wheels of trucks, under the feet of horses, from steamboats. But, Mr. Norton, of all the cases on record, there's not one single case of suicide by leap from the rear end of a moving train. And you know how fast that train was going at the point where the body was found? Fifteen miles an hour. Now how can anybody jump off a slow-moving train like that with any kind of expectation that he would kill himself? No. No soap, Mr. Norton. We're sunk, and we'll have to pay through the nose, and you know it.”
As fine as Stanwyck and MacMurray are (and they are both very fine indeed) it’s Robinson’s contributions that drive Double Indemnity’s narrative with all the forcefulness of a steam turbine about to explode under pressure. Without Keyes’ intervention we have just another ‘who done it?’ gussied up with chiaroscuro lighting and exquisitely chosen locations, stamped in that distinguishable mark of quality inherent in all Billy Wilder’s contributions.  In the final analysis, the film is Robinson’s show and he carries it off as an exceptional presence. The rest doesn’t mean much without him and Wilder knows it. Despite being third billed, it’s Robinson who is the real star of Double Indemnity. The weight of the film rests upon his diminutive shoulders and Robinson proves he is more than up to the heavy lifting. Seventy years later, Double Indemnity endures because of his contributions – perhaps, not singularly, but primarily, with MacMurray and Stanwyck bringing up the rear in very strong support. 
Double Indemnity finally gets a hi-def release from Universal Home Video in Region 1. Region 2 has long enjoyed the Masters of Cinema transfer. Between these two versions, the Universal’s exhibits considerably less grain, some movement revealing more information within the frame, and, superior black levels. DNR doesn’t appear to have been excessively applied – no waxy imagery. The European release has what I would consider more accurately reproduced film grain. But Universal’s looks more accurate in its darker contrast. Universal’s also has some additional grading and cleanup, but otherwise it looks like the same elements were used to master both. So, which is preferred? Hmmm.  I think I’ll stick with Universal’s because of the deepened contrast, although I’m torn because it lacks the more obvious grain structure of the MOC.  As with Universal’s Touch of Evil, the DTS mono audio on Double Indemnity is a shay heartier than the MOC, noticeable only on higher end sound systems.
Extras are all ported over from Universal’s 2006 SE DVD, and include a pair of informative audio commentaries; one featuring Richard Schickel, the other showcasing a wealth of information from screenwriter Lem Dobbs and Twilight Time’s Nick Redman. 2006’s Shadows of Suspense documentary, featuring Eddie Muller, James Ursini, Alain Silver, Drew Casper, William Friendkin and many more is also included, as is the rather tepid 1973 TV incarnation of Double Indemnity starring Richard Crenna; badly done, if you ask me.  Some junket materials are included; also the ability to download to a portable device, but otherwise Universal hasn’t augmented this disc with any previously unreleased ‘must haves.’ Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, April 12, 2014

TOUCH OF EVIL: Blu-ray (Universal 1958) Universal Home Video

The last act of Orson Welles’ life is a very strange, sad epitaph; reduced to peddling mid-grade plonk in commercial endorsements for Paul Masson’s winery, recording a prologue for the television series, Moonlighting, and becoming the frequent brunt of Johnny Carson’s glib monologues on The Tonight Show. Welles not only observed his reputation as the cinema’s enfant terrible erode into something of a laughing stock; he had also, to some extent, contributed to this malaise in his reputation. In his prime, Welles was a man of varying bombast; a perfectionist with a penchant for morose excesses in food, drink and late night carousing.  He was a bitter, self-loathing artist, arguably deprived of his first love – directing – but given the opportunity to perform in projects of varying quality – the system exploiting his obvious talents to their own purposes. If only his movies had acquired a greater respect they so rightfully deserved, Welles might have risen through the ranks to become a legend in his own time. As it stands, he remains something of a legend untapped; a visual artist who gave us, arguably, the greatest movie of all time – Citizen Kane – before becoming a disappearing shadow of his former self. 
Before this implosion, however, Welles was given one last opportunity to direct. Based on Robert Wade and William Miller’s Badge of Evil, Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) has long since acquired a reputation as a classic film noir. In its day, however, the movie was misperceived by executives at Universal Studios as little more than a gritty melodrama, unceremoniously dumped on the market as the bottom half of a double feature and all but ignored by audiences. Viewing the studio’s cut it’s easy to see why. In the editing process, conducted after Welles had already been removed from the project, Touch of Evil was ruthlessly butchered, given a score by Henry Mancini (which Welles abhorred) and a linear narrative that, curiously, convoluted the story rather than draw out its clarity.
Disgusted by their meddling, Welles rattled off a memo to Universal – an in-depth step-by-step critique with suggestions on how to improve it before the general release. Welles’ ideas were ignored. For decades, Touch of Evil remained a grand disappointment for Welles who, in the intervening decades, made several valiant attempts to convince Universal to reinstate his original vision and re-release the film. Sadly, it was not until after Welles’ death in 1985 that a more concerted effort got underway to honor his wishes. But by then the damage seemed permanent. Universal had saved none of the outtakes, edits or trims; all of this extemporaneous material junked a long time ago. Miraculously, however, all was not lost.  
There are two theories as to how Welles came to direct Touch of Evil. Co-star Charlton Heston has claimed after learning Welles would be in the movie, he insisted that if Universal wanted him they would have to agree to Orson as its director. There is some merit to Heston’s claim. By 1958, Charlton Heston’s reputation was clearly the more pronounced and respected in Hollywood. His box office cache alone could easily have coaxed Universal into accepting his terms for participation. There is, however, another tale to tell; this one involving producer Albert Zugsmith; a longtime admirer of Welles’ gifts who gave him a stack of scripts to choose from; Orson’s wily genius accepting the challenge to make something unique out of the worst in the batch: Badge of Evil.
In Touch of Evil, Welles is barely recognizable, buried under a mountain of prosthetics and body armor to portray the disreputable Capt. Quinlan; a once admirable cop, long since gone to seed. Drawing on a parallel between his character and that of Ramon Vargas – played by Heston as the forthright officer of the law – Welles’ performance in Touch of Evil remains both tragic and bone-chilling; a sort of self-effacing spiral into oblivion from which neither Quinlan’s reputation in the film, nor Welles’ own in Hollywood, survived. Viewing Touch of Evil today, one is immediately reminded of the caliber of Welles as a performer, utterly wasted long before his emeritus years; Welles – a superior to practically all who toiled alongside him, tragically made the workhorse enslaved by someone else’s vision of his talents.
As originally intended, Welles opens Touch of Evil with a justly famous and fascinatingly complex three and a half minute dolly shot. A bomb is placed inside the convertible of an American couple driving through a Mexican border town (actually Venice Beach, Ca.). The car passes interracial newlyweds, Ramon Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his bride, Susan (Janet Leigh) before bursting into hellish flames. From here, the plot diverges into two parallel (and later, converging) narratives; the first involving Vargas, who is called in to assist in the investigation, much to the discontent of Police Chief Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Quinlan’s bigotry and rage are directed at Uncle Joe Grandi (Akim Tamiroff); the head of a local Mexican crime syndicate.
Quinlan’s right hand, Pete Menzies (Joe Calleia) is also a close friend who would do just about anything to ensure Quinlan’s one-time sterling reputation remains intact – even frame the innocent Manelo Sanchez (Victor Millan) for the crime of murder. But Vargas smells a rat. Furthermore, he is not onboard with Quinlan’s theories about the crime and decides to slowly explore the investigation from a different angle. Meanwhile, Susan has been left to her own accord at the remote Mirado Motel, run by its hapless and fearful manager (Dennis Weaver). Using Susan as leverage against Vargas, Uncle Joe sends his posse of delinquent youth, fronted by nephew Risto (Lalo Rios) and a lesbian cohort (Mercedes McCambridge) to the Mirado Motel. In a rather shocking (then) and still very potent scene of implied gang rape, forced drug abuse and lesbianism, Susan is taken hostage to conceal the fact Grandi and Quinlan have been working together. She awakens from her stupor a short while later, in a seedy bordello with Grandi’s dead body lying next to her; the latest victim in Quinlan’s cover-up.
This being a noir thriller of a certain period and ilk, Quinlan is eventually found out by Vargas, who isolates and confronts him as to the charges; the whole conversation broadcast and recorded for posterity by a hidden microphone. Touch of Evil is a potent melodrama, but at some level it fails to live up to Welles’ reputation as a cinematic genius. The story is compelling – in spots – and Russell Metty’s bold cinematography augments what is, in fact, a very pedestrian crime story with considerable visual panache. But somehow, Touch of Evil remains a fractured masterpiece – if ever a masterpiece it, in fact, was.  There is more than one irony at play in the film: Heston’s star on its meteoric ascendance even as Welles’ own is exiting the stratosphere like a supernova; the padded appearance of a slovenly Welles in makeup shockingly foreshadowing his own formidable girth in later years; the film punctuating the end of Welles’ Hollywood career on a decidedly dower and undistinguished note – the visionary reduced to making a standard noir melodrama.    
Welles amassed an impressive roster of pop talent and veterans to appear in Touch of Evil; including Zsa Zsa Gabor as the madam of a border-city bordello and Joseph Cotten, playing a good-humored police officer. Undeniably, the outstanding cameo belongs to Marlene Dietrich as Tanya; Quinlan’s one-time lover who now runs a washed-up fortune-telling racket that Quinlan frequents to remind him of his bygone youth. Realizing he is about to be caught by Vargas, Quinlan asks Tanya to tell him his future. “You haven’t got any,” she coldly replies, “Your future’s all used up.” Dietrich is at her careworn best in this scene, just another tired castoff who nevertheless, remains higher up the proverbial food chain than Welles’ Quinlan, as she cruelly deprives him of his last possible respite from the world and his own incarceration. Dietrich is masterful as this world-weary temptress. In Touch of Evil, she’s quietly allows herself to go to seed; just not enough to lose all self-respect. Besides, her Tanya has accepted the ever-evolving parade of youth and beauty having abandoned her own time, unlike Quinlan, who is left to thirst after his former glories.  
Despite its boundary-pushing exploration of subject matter long taboo under Hollywood censorship, Welles’ rough cut of Touch of Evil failed to impress execs at Universal who found the narrative confusing. They opted to excise almost 25 minutes from Welles’ final cut; adding and re-shooting several key sequences in an attempt to draw clarity from the story. In response, Welles fired back a 58 page memo that included numerous ways to improve the film while remaining faithful to his own vision. Virtually all Welles’ ideas were ignored by the studio. Although Universal’s 98 min. cut did have its admirers in Europe, in America it was immediately dismissed and quietly forgotten. Then, in 1976, Universal discovered it had in its possession a 108 min. preview version of Touch of Evil. Misrepresented as Welles’ definitive version (when, in actuality, the preview cut included footage shot after Welles’ European departure), Universal re-released Touch of Evil to good reviews.
Then, in 1998, Touch of Evil was sent back to the editing room once more – this time under the supervision of Walter Murch, who used Welles’ original memo to Universal as his guideline. Since many of the damaging cuts made by Universal in 1958 no longer existed, this latest revision represents only an approximation of what Welles might have hoped for. Nevertheless, it is this cut that represents Touch of Evil as closely aligned to Orson Welles’ original intent. Touch of Evil was released as a Collector’s Edition by Universal several years ago – disappointingly without any extras and minus all but the 1998 version of the film. Universal then rectified these oversights with Touch of Evil: the 50th Anniversary Edition.
Now we get Touch of Evil: the Blu-ray. Like the aforementioned anniversary edition, the Blu-ray contains all three edits of the film, allowing the home video consumer to judge which is best.  All three versions are presented in anamorphic widescreen. The theatrical and preview versions contain the overlay of credits and extemporaneous music written by Henry Mancini. But the restored version reinstates Welles’ original concept for this prologue, laying in various organic tracks of music and effects and without a main title sequence.
Universal has seamlessly-branched all three versions on a single Blu-ray disc. The bit rate isn’t quite what I had hoped for, but there is a discernable amount of more information on the left and top edges of the screen. In Europe, Masters of Cinema (MOC) has a competing release of Touch of Evil out for some time. It is Region B locked. The Universal is region free (which all Blu-ray discs ought to be by now!). MOC’s edition exhibits more noticeable grain than the Universal, which also appears ever so slightly softer overall than its predecessor. So, which do I prefer? Hmmm.
Universal’s effort is very strong, but contrast appears slightly bumped, especially when compared to the MOC side by side.  Blacks are understandably richer/deeper on the Universal.  I still think the MOC looks more refined than the Universal – the grain structure more genuine to film-sourced material; the Universal’s looking far too smooth and also less sharp. The MOC edition does not appear to have been edge-enhanced, leading me to suspect Universal’s lower bit rate is responsible for its overall softer appearance. Finally, Universal’s DTS audio is slightly more refined than the MOC edition; very subtle differences in timber and overall spatiality – more noticeable on higher end sound systems.  
Universal has ported over virtually all of the extra features from their anniversary edition DVD, including commentaries - on the ‘reconstructed version’ from Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, and producer, Rick Schmidlin; the ‘theatrical version’ from writer/filmmaker F.X. Feeney, and the ‘preview version’ featuring Welles’ historians, Jonathan Rosenbaum and James Naremore. Also revived is ‘Bringing Evil to Life’, just over 20 minutes on the ‘making of’ and Evil Lost and Found, a 17-minute featurette about the restoration efforts.  Neither featurette has been upgraded, but rather presented in inferior 480i. We also get a booklet featuring Welles’ original memo to the studio.
Parting thoughts: I have to admit I’m not all that keen on Universal’s transfer quality. It bests the DVD – which is never hard to do – but it still seems to lag behind the efforts Universal has proven it can achieve when time, care and money have been spent correctly. Low bit rates on a format that can offer so much more is just a waste of Blu-ray’s capabilities. To what purpose and end? Your guess is as good as mine.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

Friday, April 11, 2014

ROOSTER COGBURN: Blu-ray (Universal 1975) Universal Home Video

In horticulture, a ‘sport’ is a bud or flower that somehow deviants and distinguishes itself from all the others. In life, we label ‘sports’ the overachievers. In Hollywood, they simply call them ‘stars’. John Wayne and Katherine Hepburn remain two of the biggest in the cinema firmament. Each has had enviable longevity; beloved amongst the movie gods and goddesses. But it took Stuart Millar’s Rooster Cogburn (1975) to bring them together. If nothing else, the film embraces the time-honored cliché, ‘an irresistible force’ (stalwart missionary woman, Eula Goodnight) meeting that ‘old immoveable object’ (Reuben J. ‘Rooster’ Cogburn).
Wayne had, in fact, played the curmudgeonly, patch-eyed Cogburn in 1969’s True Grit – an iconic western that eased his ensconced public persona into its emeritus years. In the scant six years separating these two pictures, time had indeed written its own history across the Duke’s weather-beaten visage. In retrospect, Rooster Cogburn is book-ended by Wayne’s 1964 bout with lung cancer, and subsequent death from stomach cancer in 1979. The Duke had only one more film in him before retiring after a staggering run -184 movies. Now, that is a body of work!
In Rooster Cogburn, Wayne ingeniously assuages feisty heroism with a lighter side of sexism via comedy. This had become something of his stock in trade throughout the early 1960’s; harmless enough, though nevertheless incurring the wrath of some outspoken feminists. At the same time, Wayne’s reputation was also being tested by the anti-war movement, in conflict with his own conservative pro-war stance on Vietnam. To both factions, the Duke must have seemed something of a relic. Yet, to his fans, he could do no wrong. And in pitting Wayne’s galvanized western he-man against the formidable woman’s libber – Kate Hepburn – it must have appeared as though one would give the other that proverbial ‘run for their money’.
Truth to tell: Hepburn and Wayne are an endearing combination; the determined law man stupefied by this resolute spinster, who harbors a quiet, but growing attraction to this burnt out shell of a man. Eula Goodnight cannot abide Rooster Cogburn’s ‘shoot to kill’ principles. After all, they fly in the face of her Bible-fearing ‘turn the other cheek’ philosophies. Here is a character Kate the great Hepburn was born to play. When we think of Katherine Hepburn today, we tend to remember, and perhaps confuse her own forthright, no-nonsense, New England blue nose with such characterizations: the unrelenting and self-reliant gal who wouldn’t take guff from arguably, even the good Lord - much less any man. 
Rooster Cogburn would be nothing at all without its peppered exchanges between these two stalwarts of the American cinema, beginning with their not so cute meet; Cogburn informing Eula he intends to take her, either willingly or by force, to the nearby village for her own safety. Herein, the film crackles with robust dialogue, as when Cogburn admonishes Eula by suggesting “That shows you know more about the Lord and His Good Book than you know about men!” to which Eula proudly rectifies, “That's my good fortune. I know enough about men to steer clear of them.”
Of course, first impressions being what they usually are in the movies – Eula’s are bound to change – and do; profoundly, in fact, as she bids Cogburn farewell in the final reel; admitting, “Reuben, I have to say it. Livin' with you has been an adventure any woman would relish for the rest o' time. I look at you, with your burned-out face and your big belly and your bear-like paws and your shining eye, and I have to say you're a credit to the whole male sex, and I'm proud to have you for my friend.” True to Hepburn’s built-in persona, Eula doesn’t wait for his reply.
After all, this isn’t a romantic comedy, but a parting of the ways for two people so utterly right for one another, yet somehow destined to spend the rest of their days quietly apart. “I'll be damned if she didn't get the last word in again,” Cogburn mutters with a smile as Eula rides off and the credits role. They’ve said all they need to each other and the film bravely preserves the duality in their personalities instead of concocting a forced romantic pas deux for this pair in the sunset of their lives.
In Rooster Cogburn we’re not getting characterization so much as an extension of Wayne and Hepburn’s own selves, affectionately feeding off each other’s creative energy and the sheer joy of working together for the first and only time. It’s plainly obvious the two enjoyed the experience; Wayne allowing Cogburn’s mask of caustic bitterness to slip into spells of genuine humility and even, admiration. Stars of Wayne or Hepburn’s caliber are no more, and more’s the pity too, because our present-day movie culture continues to struggle at a deficit in their absence.  Writing under the pseudonym ‘Martin Julien’, screenwriter Martha Hyers doesn’t terribly concern herself with a tight narrative, relying on these stellar personages alone – and, oh yes, cinematographer, Harry Stradling Jr.’s sumptuous vistas to buoy the rather straight-forward tale of a U.S. Marshal out to get his man…or rather – men.
The scenario is clumsily hacked together; starting with Cogburn’s removal from office – stripped of his tin star by Judge Parker (John McIntire) for having ‘gone to seed’ and using the law to put a bullet into four desperados he was supposed to bring back alive. The Judge, however, has immediate second thoughts after a union wagon of nitroglycerin is ambushed by Hawk (Richard Jordan) and his motley crew of outlaws, who intend using it to rob a bank. Hawk’s entourage includes Breed (Anthony Zerbe), Luke (Paul Koslo), Red (Jack Colvin) and Leroy (Lane Smith). Breed is their lookout. Hawk rules by fear rather than loyalty and has absolutely no compunction about killing his own for even the slightest infractions. Cogburn accepts the Judge’s assignment to apprehend Hawk and his banditti, passing by Bagby’s (Warren Vanders) general store on the way to the frontier. A short while later, we catch up to Hawk, terrorizing a small missionary outpost run by the decrepit Reverend Goodnight (Jon Lormer) and his aged spinster daughter, Eula. 
Eula attempts to preach the gospel to Hawk, who responds by firing several rounds directly at her feet in an attempt to frighten her away. Instead, Eula holds her ground without fear, reciting the 23rd Psalm, effectively rattling Hawk’s determination and causing him to momentarily withdraw. That evening, however, Hawk provokes a brawl amongst the Indian community who live around the mission, setting fire to their wigwams and killing several of the menfolk, including Rev. Goodnight and the father of a heroic young Native American named Wolf (Richard Romancito). Hence, when Cogburn arrives at the mission the next morning, he finds Wolf and Eula saying prayers over the graves of the newly deceased. Cogburn explains his mission. Eula is, at first, skeptical, spouting Biblical passages to illustrate the wayward nature of man. But she soon elects, along with Wolf, to accompany Cogburn on his quest, determined to see justice served for those who were murdered.
Cogburn is understandable miffed by their accompaniment. He was prepared for a posse (one that never materializes). But an old maid and a young buck out to make his bones? They’re more a liability to him than anything else…or so it would seem. However, Rooster has grossly underestimated Eula. In short order, both she and Wolf prove their merit, after Cogburn stages a daring ambush on Hawk and his men, confiscating the wagon of nitroglycerin under the pretext they are surrounded by a posse. Hawk retreats. But a short while later, he regroups and pursues Cogburn, Eula and Wolf with a vengeance; momentarily taking Wolf hostage. The boy bravely escapes Red’s clutches at knifepoint and Red is later wounded by Breed, then murdered by Hawk who has absolutely no use, or respect for a dying man.
Cogburn, Eula and Wolf next encounter McCoy (Struthers Martin); a very tetchy prospector-type who owns a raft Cogburn commandeers in the name of the law to take them down river, sailing the nitroglycerin and his human cargo to safety. Hawk and his men make several attempts to stop the trio as they navigate the rough currents down river. But they are kept at bay by Eula who – despite her ‘thou shall not kill’ ethics, nevertheless operates the raft’s gatling gun like a pro.  Hawk sends Breed and Luke on ahead to keep an eye on Cogburn while he plots his ambush several miles down the river. Luke decides instead to rig a trap, snagging the raft with a thick cord of rope barely submerged beneath the water. As Cogburn attempts to cut the raft loose, Luke takes dead aim. Instead, Breed shoots Luke dead, explaining to Cogburn he once saved his life. That debt is now paid in full. Returning to Hawk’s camp, Breed lies that Cogburn killed Luke. But Hawk doesn’t trust Breed and wounds him in the shoulder. Breed loses his footing and plummets off the side of a steep cliff to his death. 
Cogburn, Eula and Wolf proceed down river. The raft enters some violent rapids and Wolf is thrown into the water; rescued at the last possible moment by Eula tossing him a rope. Seemingly in answer to her prayer, the waters suddenly calm and Cogburn and Eula give their thanks – Cogburn declaring he has decided to give up drinking. Unhappily, Hawk and his remaining posse are waiting for the trio down river. Cogburn sets several crates of nitroglycerin afloat, concealing Eula, Wolf and himself behind the rest, fooling Hawk into believing they have not survived the rapids. As Hawk attempts to corral the wayward floating crates, Cogburn emerges with his gun drawn, exploding the nitro and killing Hawk and his men. Back in court, Eula defends Cogburn’s actions to Judge Parker. After it is understood Cogburn will be allowed to keep his badge, Eula and Wolf depart for their new mission, Eula declaring she finds the Marshal a fine man whom she deems it a great honor having known.   
Rooster Cogburn is a mildly charming western/adventure. Its best moments are undeniably the slightly adversarial exchanges between John Wayne’s outwardly astringent law man and Hepburn’s genial missionary, equally as determined to have her own way. The film satisfies both characters’ intensions and thus, fans of its stars, who arguably expected no less. Rooster Cogburn was produced by the legendary Hal B. Wallis – a work horse at Warner Bros. then later, Paramount, and whose uncanny knack for overseeing some of the most memorable entertainments of all time, yielded an impressive canon of 376 movies; this one being his last.  Wallis’ inimitable stamp of quality is all over the production; from Laurence Rosenthal’s understated, but lyrical score, to E. Preston Ames’ impressive art direction.  Rooster Cogburn may not be in the same league as True Grit (the first Wayne/Wallis alliance that introduced this character to movie audiences), but it nevertheless provides a sort of satisfactory and penultimate epitaph to the character and Wayne’s movie career, more bitter-sweetly capped off in The Shootist (1976).
Rooster Cogburn arrives on Blu-ray via a fairly impressive transfer from Universal Home Video. Colors are not altogether as vibrant as one might expect, and occasionally the image can appear ever so softly focused, but otherwise, this is a fairly film-like 1080p presentation that will likely not disappoint. Contrast is solid and film grain has been accurately reproduced. Age-related artifacts are nonexistent. There are two very brief instances of edge enhancement, but these do not distract. The 2.0 DTS mono is well represented, with crisp dialogue. Obvious limitations exist within this dated sound field. But these have been faithfully reproduced without undue distortions. The film sounds about as good as it looks. Universal hasn’t favored us with any extras – save a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (Smokehouse/Weinstein 2013) E-One Home Video

It is one of life’s cruel ironies that the ties that bind can also become the ones to tear us apart. The chief problem with John Wells’ August: Osage County (2013) is that it has been mis-marketed as a ‘black comedy’ instead of astutely being critiqued for what it actually is; a darkly unsympathetic, unvarnished glimpse into playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts’ idea of the traditional Southern family gone to seed: the Westons - one of the most dysfunctional bloodlines ever to walk God’s green earth. The Westons are a sort of American Gothic meets Tennessee Williams, with a dash of Jerry Springer on the side. There’s virtually no soft center to this hard-candied treat; riveted together by some powerhouse performances and a spectacular ensemble cast.
August: Osage County plays out like some hallucinogenic and Freudian demagoguery with a Southern twang. But I think it exceptionally tragic and grossly unfair most critics have chosen to attack the film as just another “star-studded loopy melodrama: brash, foul-mouthed, self-consciously offensive, intermittently insightful (but with) a gaping hole where its heart should be.” August: Osage County is about real people at war with one another; a lifelong conflict whose casualties continue to mount, the bittersweet betrayals only amplified with the passage of time. The film is intensely scripted, and even more penetratingly acted by its stellar roster of A-list stars.
Based on Lett’s Pulitzer prize-winning play, August: Osage County isn’t a waste of time: although, arguably, it isn’t the movie everyone expected to see – certainly not the one I was gearing up for on a Tuesday night.  But I have a news flash for anyone who thinks this movie is peppered in “implausible plot twists and overcooked dialogue”. August: Osage County is closer to the truth for more kinfolks than you think. This may be the saddest indictment yet on the status of the American family at large; but it does speak clearly enough, undeniably resonating with unvarnished realities that continue to afflict, confine and brutalize the human condition.
There is nothing remotely funny, much less endearing about Meryl Streep’s Violet Weston; a pill-popping, razorback gargoyle intent on depriving her children of every last shred of dignity and their chance at happiness, just so they can all occupy the same soulless and emotional vacant purgatory together. Violet is the matriarch from hell; willful, self-destructing and corrosive to the sanity of her extended family. So, she’s suffering from cancer. So what?  Her divisive barbs have grown multiple tumors on the hearts and minds of the Weston clan; time-released with the cruelest of intentions to maximize their negative impact. Violet revels in these merciless attacks (referring to them as truths), enjoying the view as her three daughters come to blows and to grips with the most mesmerizingly awful family secrets.
These generational nuggets have been allowed to fester for quite some time. They’ve already ruined eldest daughter, Barbara Weston-Fordham (Julia Roberts) marriage to Bill (Ewan McGregor); a somewhat priggish professor, whose semantics pale to the emasculating vitriol brutally inflicted on him by his own wife. The two share a daughter – Jean (Abigail Breslin); a wounded, pot-smoking adolescent, already well on her way to creating her own victimization. What’s wrong with this family?
Plenty: from Aunt Mattie Fae Aiken’s (Margo Martindale) wilful vindictiveness toward her son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), to middle daughter, Karen’s (Juliette Lewis) self-medicating naiveté, choosing to throw herself at the head of any middle-aged man with a flashy sports car who treats her like poor white trash (her current lover, three-time divorcee/loser, Steve Huberbrecht (Dermot Mulroney) has a predilection for very young girls – and his eye presently on Jean) to youngest daughter, Ivy’s self-inflicted martyrdom, already begun to erode her sense of purpose into brittle resolve (think Violet: Part Four), the Weston clan are about to face their greatest challenge yet – forcibly brought together, though ultimately internalizing things apart from the fray and pandemonium, with only their own steel-trapped minds and fervid rage as their emotionally scarred chainmail of self-defense.  Hate is the most powerful weapon and/or coping mechanism in their arsenal of hard knocks. Contempt fills in the gaps where even the most basic tolerance ought to reside.
August: Osage County takes time to hit its stride. I confess; the opening scene where patriarch, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) is interviewing Native American, Johnna Monevata (Misty Upham) for a position as the family’s cook and housekeeper – rudely interrupted by an obviously high and frightfully gaunt Meryl Streep, spewing racial slurs and cackling like Margaret Hamilton’s wicked witch from The Wizard of Oz (1939) – had me thinking I’d made the wrong decision to blind-purchase this movie. And fair enough, what played as three hours of riveting tragi-comedy stagecraft has been somewhat distilled into just under two hours of contemptuous revelations, never entirely reaching their Shakespearean plateau. But August: Osage County does delve into some fairly weighty material – occasionally through humor; though even most of it is more scathingly sarcastic than laugh-out-loud funny.
Beverly’s suicide – the pivotal moment of escape for this beleaguered/belittled shell of a man – draws all of the narrative threads in the Westons’ familial tapestry into a very tight and constricting knot, destined to unravel. Violet has been dangling the specter of her cancer over the family for far too long. Pity the poor sufferer, she says. But is it really sympathy Violet’s after – or merely another tool used to manipulate, malign and drag her children through the mud; shaking them free from their last vestiges of humane empathy. Violet’s a bitter woman, somehow unable to identify her own grotesque complicity in the dismantling of her family, even as she continues to see herself as the only injured party.
Barb’s had enough, and why not? Children should never be exposed to adult stupidity. But Barb has had a front row seat to this train wreck for more years than she would care to remember. It’s ruined her chances for a life apart from the fold. Bill is desperately running out of reasons to stay married to her. She holds his fleeting indiscretion with a young girl over his head like an anvil; blaming his complacency in their marriage for Jean’s pot smoking, while making demands he assume a more proactive role as her father.
On the other end of the spectrum is Mattie’s cuckolded husband, Charles (Chris Cooper); unable to fathom his wife’s vial disdain of Little Charles, who is actually not his son (although Charles does not know this), but the result of an affair Mattie had with Beverly many years ago. Violet knows this dirty little secret; a revelation soon to wreak havoc on Ivy’s plans to run away with Little Charles; the two having begun a secret love affair, believing they are first cousins – not brother and sister. After the funeral, Violet becomes belligerent once again; challenging her children’s bitterness on the pretext they know absolutely nothing about real suffrage.
Recognizing that her mother is heavily under the influence of prescription drugs - and absolutely refusing to have this proverbial ‘pot calling the kettle black’ anymore - Barb wrestles Violet to the carpet as the family looks on with stultifying disbelief, forcible removing the bottle of tranquilizers from her hand and declaring herself in charge.  A short while later, Barb, Karen and Ivy raid the house, discovering multiple vials of prescription medications their mother has been chronically abusing. Barb flushes their contents down the toilet (not very environmentally friendly), before confronting the family’s physician, Dr. Burke (Newell Alexander) with the prospect of a lawsuit if he ever deigns to write another scrip’ for Violet again.  
But ‘clean and sober’ will be neither as ‘clean’, nor as ‘sobering’ as anyone anticipates. After all, Violet plays dirty and clearing her mind of its drug-induced haze only makes her more vicious. Retiring to the nearby screen-covered gazebo, Barb, Karen and Ivy briefly contemplate putting their mother in a home – possibly even a mental hospital. Their discussion breaks up when the sisters quickly realize how far they have grown apart. Ivy confesses she is in love with Little Charles. She also admits to having a hysterectomy after a bout of cervical cancer the previous year. Barb is appalled Ivy never told anyone until now. But Ivy points out that Barb has hardly been a devoted sibling. She also tells Karen and Barb that when the summer is over – and ‘come what may’ - she intends to leave Violet to her own devices.
In the meantime, Johnna spies Steve attempting a moonlit seduction of Jean after getting her high on some of his private stash of marijuana. Instead, Johnna attacks him with a shovel from the front porch; wounding Steve in the arm, but exposing his truer intentions to the family. Barb would prefer to claw his eyes out. And Bill’s admonishment of Jean’s burgeoning sexuality (she’s only 14, remember?) is met with a snide comment by Jean; that like Steve, dad prefers them rather young. Karen and Steve elect to leave immediately. But Karen – despite her faux naiveté – is no fool. She knows she’s picked another dog with flees as her ever-lovin’ man, but leaves with Steve back to New York anyway. 
The onus for looking after ma’ now rests with Barb; especially after Bill announces he has finally decided to file for divorce, taking Jean with him. The last to be destroyed is arguably the most innocent of the lot: Ivy suddenly discovering Little Charles is her brother – not her first cousin – thus, shattering her stored up dreams for their life together, but not enough to dissuade her from leaving Osage County and Mommie Dearest; presumably, forever. Left to her own accord, and deprived of the necessary audience to inflict her reoccurring miseries, Violet slips back into temporary madness; comforted by Johnna as Barb drives away for parts unknown – her own future equally uncertain and arguably, overcast.  
August: Osage County is fairly downbeat and depressing. This isn’t a movie to enjoy as pure entertainment, but rather one to be heeded as a cautionary tale. The Westons are D-grade human beings, expertly played by A-list talent, each orbiting a sort of utterly tragic and undeniably, heart-breaking - if incurable - cruelty toward one another. It’s high time we realized some situations cannot be fixed: some people too. Violet Weston is a lost cause; destructive to her own wellbeing as well as others. She loves to hate. Arguably, hate has kept her alive these many years. But it’s also kept her isolated and apart from the people who might otherwise have come to her aid in this hour of need. Does Violet need anyone? Debatable. Certainly, she doesn’t seem to think so.
Meryl Streep gives a disturbingly original and unapologetic performance as this filthy harridan. Violet Weston should never have raised kids – just cobras. Her offspring are both the benefactresses and the casualties of her despicable tutelage. Julia Roberts is the other heavy-hitter in the cast; long ago having transgressed against her ‘Pretty Woman’ image and wildly veering left of this side of Erin Brokovich for this outing. Roberts can definitely hold her own with Streep; a different kind of maturity emerging from under the seething venom and salty tears. Juliette Lewis is the dark horse, running a very close third in her scene-stealing moments. The men who populate the story really are the weaker bunch; particularly Benedict Cumberbatch – all but wasted in the role of the ineffectual son, enfeebled by his own mother’s abject humiliations. In the final analysis, August: Osage County is a compelling character study about people we would rather not know, or, perhaps, even acknowledge as existing. It hits hard and doesn’t play fair – either with the characters’ emotions or the audience’s for that matter. But it is potent – in spots – and revealing in ways that suggest more investigation is needed to truly appreciate all of the subtext going on behind these very angry words.
E-One’s 1080p transfer is consistently film-like but suffers from infrequently soft image quality with only light grain apparent throughout. Has undue DNR been liberally applied? Hmmmm.  Adriano Goldman’s low lit, naturalistic cinematography looks marvelous, particularly sequences photographed in daylight and bathed in a light bronze hue with occasional splashes of color – like Steve’s flaming red sports car. Still, the overall palette isn’t quite as bold as one might expect, favoring greens, burnt yellows and very orange sunsets. Flesh tones look accurate, but occasionally suffer from jaundice pallor in the lower lit indoor scenes. Contrast is quite solid with velvety deep blacks and fine detail popping as it should – except in the aforementioned softer sequences.
The DTS-HD 5.1 audio is fairly aggressive. August: Osage County is primarily a dialogue-driven movie, but the overall sound field is incredibly nuanced and robust; Gustavo Santaolalla’s underscore and pop tunes featuring Kings of Leon, Eric Clapton and John Fullbright among others. Extras are nicely put together, including a making of featurette that is more comprehensive than most and an informative audio commentary featuring director John Wells.  Good stuff for only a so-so movie with some solid performances to boot. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)