Saturday, July 4, 2015

TWISTER: Blu-ray (Warner Bros./Amblin 1996) Warner Home Video

Jan de Bont’s Twister (1996) is a one premise wonder – two hours into the oft’ thoughtless and occasionally mind-numbing stupidity of a particular group of storm chasers obsessed with getting up close and personal with Mother Nature’s most awesome forces of destruction.  And yet, in hindsight, and particularly in lieu of the dreck being peddled in America’s cinemas today as ‘action’ entertainment, it could almost pass as high art. America’s ‘tornado alley’ is a perennial nightmare for its mid-western residents, stretching from northern Texas, through Oklahoma, Kansas and into Nebraska; an ominous, if seemingly uninspired stretch of flat rural plains, occasionally dotted with the imposing wood-framed farmhouse or modern day metal-constructed barn; neither particularly weather resistant against the howling F-5 wind tunnels barreling through town when the barometer suddenly falls and the toxic clash of cool dry air mixes with a warm body of humidity traveling south.
Okay, big surprise; you’re not watching a movie like Twister for plot. And yet, the narrative loosely strung together by screenwriters, Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Martin in between hellish touchdowns is not as bent on clichés as one might expect. Oh sure, we still have the feuding love/hate thing happening between butch weather guy, Bill Harding (Bill Paxton) and his tart-mouthed soon (never to be) ex, Dr. Jo Harding (Helen Hunt). There is even more foreseeable male chest-thumping concerning Bill – ostensibly retired from the fray and thus considered something of a sell-out and figure of fun - and rival storm chaser, Dr. Jonas Miller (Carey Elwes) – an anemic egghead who fatally relies on scientific instrumentation rather than intuition to pursue his kicks. Finally, and, of course, we get a lovable assortment of ragamuffins, played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (looney tune, Dustin Davis), Lois Smith (as Jo’s aunt/I-Mother Earth metal artist, Meg Greene) and Jami Gertz (a basket case psychoanalyst – and Bill’s fiancée, Dr. Melissa Reeves). No one could ever accuse Twister of being the new ‘Gone with the Wind’ (pun intended), even if this is the mother of all gales taking Dorothy back to Kansas. Even so, director, Jan de Bont has come up with a summer blockbuster that, so many years later, continues to divert, entertain and numb the senses; just the sort of caliginous claptrap of CGI and melodrama one might expect from a TNT movie of the week/Weather Channel hybrid.
I may sound like I’m bashing Twister, but actually, upon renewed viewing I have discovered – much to my own shock and amazement – its cornball idiocy and then state-of-the-art special effects hold up rather nicely, even under my jaded scrutiny. Miraculously, the plot (such as it is) is more than sustainable. Like so many summer blockbusters that were to follow and less successfully copy it, Twister is not a narrative movie per say (although there is something of a ‘story’ to be had between funnel clouds). But in hindsight, Twister is merely an excuse for digital effects artists to show off some of the uber-clever tricks in their CGI toolbox. And, having seen enough truly awful CGI since to know the difference, I have to say what’s here is fairly competently rendered; the digital world colliding rather succinctly – and invisibly – with the live action and dumb show from our actors.  The Crichton/Martin screenplay plays it safe, distilling the science of storm chasing into bare bones factoids so as not to bore the audience. Instead, we are left with the occasionally stomach-churning and usually woeful and pedestrian lamentation of a severely flawed lover's triangle, relying almost entirely on star personalities to carry the menial dialogue sandwiched between harrowing sequences of gale force annihilation.
Twister isn’t high art or even high concept; just a good ole-fashioned schlock yarn for which de Bont has gleaned the well-established principles of the classic disaster epic and streamlined the process somewhat to include less star-power and more bits of catastrophic destruction. And de Bont makes no bones about the real star of his picture; the raw unpredictability of Mother Nature; the opening credits swept away by a few threatening bars of composer, Mark Mancina’s underscore, dissolving to an unhealthily still late evening sunset in rural Kansas and then, the deluge; young Jo Thornton (Alexa PenaVega) hurried into a storm cellar as her family, (Rusty Schwimmer and Richard Lineback) race on foot to escape a midnight twister tearing up the farmland directly behind them. Dad doesn’t make it out alive, and this becomes the impetus for adult Jo’s fascination with storm chasing. We flash ahead to the present, de Bont giving us the lay of the land – literally – with an exhilarating helicopter shot across the flat landscape, zeroing in on a Ford pickup catapulting down a dirt road, Bill and his fiancée, Melissa, hurrying to catch up to Jo and her storm chasing team. It’s been months since Bill served Jo with divorce papers she has yet to sign. This delay basically serves as the crux for the rest of the movie’s plot; Jo, outwardly agreeing to the divorce but somehow never getting around to affixing her signature to make it official. Refreshingly, and despite being something of scatterbrain, Melissa is not the cliché of the evil – or at the very least, possessively demanding – ‘other’ woman. She loves Bill and is fairly sympathetic toward Jo too. But she really has no concept of what or why storm chasers do what they do and this leads to some friction along the way.
Jo shows Bill ‘Dorothy’ – a prototype weather satellite they designed while still together but built with funds accrued after their split; a means to measure wind velocity inside the core of a tornado. Bill is enthralled to realize his pipedream has become a reality. Leaving storm chasing for the relatively safe profession of becoming a weatherman was one reason why he and Jo split. But now ‘Dorothy’ seems to have brought the couple together; Bill, with Melissa’s complicity, electing to follow Jo and her team toward the site of a brewing natural disaster. Unprepared for what lies ahead when man confronts nature, Melissa is mildly shell-shocked as debris and a wayward cow float through space between a pair of waterspouts spawned by a natural depression. A short while later, while stopping at a nearby truck stop for some coffee and lunch, we are introduced to Dr. Jonas Miller – a fairly snarky windbag who once considered Bill his competition, but now quaintly thinks on him as little more than a sell-out and has-been. After another confrontation with Mother Nature, in which Bill and Jo narrowly escape an unpredictable funnel, forced to drive into a ditch and seek refuge under a rickety wooden bridge, Jo elects to take everyone to her Aunt Meg’s for a home-cooked breakfast and a little TLC. Meg is devoted to Jo. Moreover, she has always believed Bill and Jo were meant to be together.
Twister’s middle act is predictable in the extreme. There is never any doubt Jo and Bill are on the way to reconciliation; that poor, cosmopolitan Melissa is destined to go home alone, and the pompous usurper, Jonas, will meet with an untimely end. And so, Melissa becomes the first casualty by her own design, graciously bowing out after another late night tornado all but decimates a small town where Bill, Melissa, Jo and the rest are forced to take refuge inside a mechanic’s garage, narrowly escaping an F-3 monster. We move into the penultimate search and rescue after Meg’s farm is rocked by the wind and Meg is buried alive inside the crumbling remains of her house. Jonas sets his team on a collision course with the F-4, trusting his instrumentation that predicts the funnel will pivot away from them. Instead, it engulfs and carries off his truck; the vehicle crash landing a short distance away as Jo and Bill look on in horror. Jo is now more obsessed than ever to launch Dorothy. Driving toward an F-5, Jo promises Bill this will be the last time for her. It’s time to settle down and get serious about life, especially since it is now quite obvious Bill has decided to remain at her side and forsake the divorce proceedings.
Sending Dorothy into the vortex, along with Bill’s truck (a thorough waste of a perfectly good F-150), Jo and Bill are forced to flee for their lives as the F-5 hellcat turns with a vengeance, seemingly to stalk them. The couple takes refuge inside a flimsy pump house, strapping themselves against its metal groundwater beam just as the funnel strikes. Bill and Jo get an inside view of this monstrous wind tunnel before it dissipates into thin air; the nightmare over for Jo as she quietly observes the family of a nearby farmhouse – mother, father and young daughter – emerging from their storm cellar unscathed. Time to focus on the more important things in life: love, family and the luxury of having survived a thoroughly impossible weather scenario.
Twister won’t win any awards, but this was never its intent. It’s a disaster movie – cribbing from fairly standardized clichés and straight-forward to a fault. There’s just enough tangible melodrama in between the touchdowns and narrow escapes to keep the audience mildly amused and focused. De Bont has made a formidable popcorn muncher. It can still rattle the nerves in increments and distract from the fact it’s not an outstanding achievement in the cinema firmament. Not every move has to be Gone with the Wind. But each should at least strive to be the best of its kind. Twister isn’t the best. But it doesn’t miss this mark by all that much either. The characters – cartoony in spots and painted in very broad brush strokes throughout – are nevertheless engaging; I suspect more so because it is Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton we are invested in - not their fictional alter egos. Even more gratifying: de Bont and his cameraman, Jack N. Green have resisted the urge to overdo the whole ‘hand-held’ camera jitteriness that continues to plague far too many contemporary action movies; instead, relying on some classic and stable long shots, evenly paced set-ups with a few jump cuts to get the adrenaline pumping; thus proving (as though proof were needed) you can still make a competent (even good) thrill ride and not offset the audience’s equilibrium to the point of nausea.  There are enough discombobulating SFX on tap in Twister without any help from a cameraman suffering from an artistic attack of faux Parkinson’s.  
Fair enough, the meandering subplot involving rival storm chaser, Jonas Miller is a bit too timid to be believed and far more predictable in its outcome; de Bont playing up Miller’s high tech gadgetry as no match to copycat Bill's earthy gut feelings; the egghead vs. the sensual man, so to speak. Alas, this rivalry is not nearly antagonistic enough; Cary Elwes entirely the wrong type – physically – to pull it off. Beefy Bill Paxton could mop the floor with Elwes’ ghost of a man given half the opportunity. But we never get this ‘gloves off’ altercation; just an interminable amount of Elwes simpering and plotting, eventually resting on his bony haunches and following Bill’s lead like a lap dog. The one time he deviates from this indecision gets him killed, proving to the audience who the real he-man is of our story. A shame too we don’t get more of Bill’s relationship with Melissa. She is exceedingly patient, compassionate and understanding to a fault. In any sane life scenario, Mel’ would win her man. She clearly represents the more loving choice. Then again, Bill’s toxic decision to discard Mel’ in mid-plot and slink back to his seriously damaged relationship with Jo, arguably, never having worked in the first place, is decidedly in keeping with his own flawed character.    
Twister is improbable, silly, good fun. The epic winds are all computer generated, hurling farm machinery, tankers, people, homes and even a cow about the vast flat plains while the principles react with faux conviction and awe. But De Bont knows how to build dramatic tension. He cleverly starts us off with an invisible colossus; an F-2 unseen under the cover of night, whetting our appetites to strain and learn more as he gradually unleashes bigger and more graphically illustrated funnel clouds. Twister is more expertly crafted than practically any disaster flick currently playing at your local cinema. So, get ready to swing and careen around the room; experiencing this ‘dark ride’ and its inevitable conclusion. Twister is diverting. But it also holds up rather nicely; a prelude to the summer storms yet to come and, I suspect, an ominous aide-mémoire of how cruel Mother Nature can be for those living in the real-life disaster belt.  The irony of Twister is there is not a whole lot to recommend it and yet, it entertains. Mid-westerners will likely wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, they can see the real thing for free. But for those unaccustomed to 'tornado alley' Twister delivers movie excitement without the messy post-storm clean-up.  There is enough voyeurism here to satisfy the adventurist, settling in for a night in the relative safety of his/her living rooms…leave the cows outside.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is fairly impressive.  Colors pop. The 1080p image excels with crystal clarity and a lot of gorgeous fine detail. The storm sequences have all been rendered digitally. Nevertheless, they appear plausible and satisfying throughout. There is enough suspension of disbelief in the artifice to recognize it isn’t real, the fakery washing over without too much obviousness getting in the way of the entertainment value. There’s not much else to say about the image except it will surely not disappoint. The audio is an aggressive 5.1 Dolby Digital – not DTS, alas, but nevertheless really giving the speakers a workout. The subwoofer and rear channels will rattle both the rafters and the floor. Good stuff. Dialogue is crisp and Mark Mancina’s score is appropriately magnificent. Extras include a behind-the-scenes film documentary and a History Channel special on storm chasers, a director’s audio commentary and music video from Van Halen. Bottom line: recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Thursday, July 2, 2015

YANKEE DOODLE DANDY: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1942) Warner Archive

“Ladies and gentlemen…you can only be as good as the other fella thinks you are or…I might add…as bad. And it seems that quite a number of people have thought a good job has been done…and that makes me very happy. And just one added thought, I might say, it was a pretty good part. Thank you.”
-   James Cagney upon accepting his one and only Best Actor Academy Award
Hollywood really did things up right with Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942); an exuberant portrait of what is today rather infrequently referenced as American exceptionalism but really boils down to peerless professionalism in the entertainment industry; the grandiosity that was golden age Hollywood, aping an even more opulent and iconic period in America’s illustrious past. Then, artists plied their craft to offer audiences a daily diet of showmanship plus. Yankee Doodle Dandy is by far the most rewarding and undeniably heart-felt of the classy and clever star-studded biopics that were so prevalent throughout the 1940’s and early 50’s; its ebullience is contagious, tapping into national pride during a very dark chapter in U.S. history. In an era where America’s politicians feel the need to chronically marginalize and apologize for such awe-inspiring greatness, as though it were a sin or disgrace rather than a source of unadulterated pride, movies like Yankee Doodle Dandy are no longer made; as stars of James Cagney’s caliber have long since become ghost flowers fondly recalled from another vintage entirely – set aside, sorely missed, but destined never to be entirely forgotten.
But such was the iconography American movies once seared into our collective consciousness; the sheer charisma of its performers and the product peddled as art that, once seen, is impossible to dismiss. It is this blueprint of both the American movie and the American movie star – a rare creature sadly devalued today, yet known primarily for the work presented on screen, while relatively guarded from public view in their private affairs (both real and concocted as part of studio PR) – that has since wholly vanished from our present age and appreciation. We have become poorer still in their absence. But James Cagney and Yankee Doodle Dandy are perennial reminders of how beloved each remains in our hearts and minds; how much has been lost to us since their passing, and, how neither can ever truly be neglected; the legend and the legacy of all that thousand kilowatt stardust and magic brilliantly wrought and defiantly to endure.
Yankee Doodle Dandy is really the brainchild of George M. Cohan – an immortal figure in Vaudeville and on Broadway in his day but who, perhaps in looking beyond to the horizon, began to harbor a faint uncertainty as to how history would come to regard him; if, in fact, it chose to remember him at all. Cohan had been a jack of virtually all the creative arts and the undeniable master of a goodly sum. As a family of performers, the Cohans once had been Broadway royalty. But by 1942, George M.’s lengthy list of achievements; his proficiency at several musical instruments, his perfecting a unique style of dance, and, his ability to write popular plays, short stories and music aplenty (frequently resurrected in concert halls); these touchstones increasingly had been set aside in the public’s estimation with the rise in popularity of ‘movie culture’.
So Cohan shamelessly shopped around the idea for a movie biography based on his life. He even had a completed script of a stage show bearing his name tucked under his arm. At one point, Columbia studio president (and good friend), Harry Cohn thought the project splendidly suited for Fred Astaire. Astaire, however, remained unconvinced and eventually bowed out. All, however, was not lost. With a nose for success, Jack L. Warner recognized the potential in retelling Cohan’s life story as a musical and agreed to make a film – only, perhaps not exactly the one Cohan would have preferred. Cohan did impose several restrictions on the project before the ink had dried on his contract. Paramount was that his life story should be told with ingratiating reverence to his second wife – Agnes – whose middle name just happened to be Mary; a convenience exploited by screenwriter, Robert Buckner in concocting the movie’s ‘Mary Cohan’; a fictionalized amalgam of Cohan’s two wives. Also, Cohan requested approval in the casting of the picture. Finally, his endorsement was required on the final cut – virtually unheard of in Hollywood back then. Without batting an eye, Jack Warner willingly signed away these rights – perhaps assuming Cohan would simply fade into the backdrop once filming got underway.
But Cohan was immediately skeptical of Warner’s decision to cast James Cagney, even though at 5ft. 6 inches the actor bore a striking resemblance to Cohan – a man Cagney, in fact, revered and sought to emulate while still a hoofer in Vaudeville. Cohan reluctantly agreed to allow Cagney at least the opportunity to prove his mettle. Perhaps Cohan’s opinion of the star was colored by Cagney’s pedigree as a movie-land gangster.  Then forty-two, Cagney was hardly a young man. Investing himself body and soul in the part, Cagney assimilated Cohan’s gestures, movements and mannerisms into his singing and dancing, but reverted back to his own inimitable charisma for the dramatic elements; sound logic that bode well for both the part and the film.
Cagney had another, more prescient reason for proving Cohan wrong. In 1941, the actor had been indicted, along with other stars, as having a communist slant in his political views; an allegation Cagney vehemently denied. Despite his impassioned appeal to the Martin Dies Committee (a precursor to HUAC) and eventual exoneration from all charges, Cagney remained wary of what this contention had done to his public image; instructing his brother, William – who had been his agent for quite some time – to search for a real patriotic flag-waver that could firmly reestablish his sense of patriotism in the public’s mind. In this regard, Yankee Doodle Dandy fit Cagney’s ambitions like a glove; moreover, he seemed the quintessence of James M. Cohan in motion without becoming slavish to, or a mimic of, the man himself.
Screenwriter, Robert Buckner had penned a superior first draft, though more acutely in tune with the strengths of a melodrama than a musical. Undaunted, Jack Warner hired the Epstein brothers (Julius J. and Philip G.) to spruce up the dialogue and find humor within the story; also to seek out places where Cohan’s immortal contributions as a songwriter could be effectively integrated as part of the narrative. Cohan, who had never relinquished his rights to either the story or his back catalog of music, made no bones about exercising his creative control on every aspect of the film. Daily, blue pages of revised script were handed to the actors to memorize and insert into the shooting schedule; a constant evolution that kept everyone on their toes and occasionally flustered the usually unflappable Michael Curtiz – who became the de facto go-between Cohan, Cagney and the studio.  Both Cagney and Cohan wanted things their own way. However, each man was gracious enough to recognize the other’s strengths on the project.
Shooting was interrupted by a grave turn of events; President Roosevelt’s declaration of war immediately following news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Listening via radio, Curtiz gathered his cast and crew for a moment of silence into which Cagney interjected a prayer. From this moment on, Yankee Doodle Dandy acquired a prescience of truth to its retrospective tale; book-ended by rousing sequences, presumably, taking place inside the present day White House. Today, it is perhaps difficult to fully grasp the severity of world events surrounding the making and debut of Yankee Doodle Dandy. But the advent of WWII was only one of several seismic shifts in the public consciousness to rattle America’s isolationism to its core and plunge the nation into its collective darkness.
At the start of America’s involvement in the European conflict things were not going according to plan. Indeed, U.S. forces were taking a considerable beating half way around the world, while on the home front Hollywood – and fans everywhere – were still reeling over the loss of actress, Carol Lombard, whose plane had crashed while on national war bond tour. The public’s reaction to Yankee Doodle Dandy was immediate and, in retrospect, was to prove a most gratifying boost to the national morale; enriching war bond coffers by $5,000,000.00 during its theatrical release. Moreover, the movie sparked a common thread of flag-waving patriotism felt half way around the world; the audaciousness of that self-esteem casting a very definite shadow on the Axis powers pillaging and pummeling the European landscape.
And Cagney’s Cohan illustrated, yet again, that his little dynamo could conquer even the most hardened New York critics; Cagney’s sterling performance as the underdog who makes good winning virtually all the major awards. Only Cohan remained unconvinced. In fact, he refused to give his approval after privately screening the final cut, glibly whispering into Michael Curtiz’s ear, “Brilliant. Whose life is it anyway?” Perhaps, Cohan was missing the point of the exercise. For Yankee Doodle Dandy was never intended as a definitive testament to George M. Cohan; rather, a vivacious fiction encapsulating the legacy – nee, essence of the man. In hindsight, the film has proven a renewable and timeless epitaph. But Cohan’s outright rejection of the picture then left Jack Warner with a movie he could not release without incurring a lawsuit. So, Cohan proposed a truce. If his wife, Agnes enjoyed it he would acquiesce to its release.
With more than a modicum of apprehension and sweaty palms, Jack Warner screened the movie again; this time for Mrs. Cohan. When Agnes emerged from the projection room dewy-eyed and pleasantly pleased, Warner could breathe a sigh of relief. He had won the battle. But so did Cohan. In failing health by the time Yankee Doodle Dandy had its Broadway debut, Cohan had his chauffeur repeatedly drive him past the Warner Theater, bewitched - and perhaps, a tad perplexed - observing the lengthy line ups of patrons clamoring to see the movie. Recognizing the strengths of its sentiment, Cohan reportedly smiled. He had achieved his own objective – immortality - too.
Yankee Doodle Dandy opens with an exuberant George M. Cohan (Cagney) offering a disarmingly jovial impersonation of Franklin D. Roosevelt in his latest stage success, ‘I’d Rather Be Right’. Backstage he receives the summons of his life, to appear at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and regale the president with the particulars of his success. This query leads us into the film’s lengthy flashback to a much simpler time; July 4th, 1878 – Cohan’s actual birthday; born to proud parents Jerry (Walter Huston) and Nellie Cohan (Rosemary DeCamp).  After the birth of his sister, Josie (played by Cagney’s real life sister, Jeanne), the Cohans embark upon a Vaudeville career with George as Peck’s Bad Boy. At thirteen he’s a star. There’s no place to go but down. Hence, a fallow period follows; one unable to curb George’s passion for performing as he quickly acquires a reputation for being difficult.
While drowning his sorrows in a saloon, George overhears Sam H. Harris (Richard Whorf) conversing with wealthy financial backer Schwab (the irrepressibly lovable S.Z. Sakall). Sam thinks George’s play ‘Little Johnny Jones’ is a honey of an idea. Convincing Schwab doesn’t prove too difficult either and with the show quickly establishing itself as a mainstay on Broadway Cohan is back on top. He meets Mary (Joan Leslie) backstage, the girl who one day will become his wife. George doesn’t waste much time courting Mary and she becomes his ever-devoted confidant and behind-the-scenes collaborator. George’s formulaic approach to show biz produces a perennial wellspring of successes. The family grows rich and prosperous. Josie marries and George and Mary become engaged. After staging a rousing salute to ‘The Grand Old Flag’ Nellie and Jerry decide to retire and enjoy their golden years on a farm.
George takes time out to make at ambitious stab at serious melodrama – ‘Popularity’ – a project that miserably fails. Yet its cataclysm is eclipsed by news that German U-boats have sunk the Lusitania. The U.S. goes to war. Alas at 39, George is considered too old to become a soldier.  Committing himself to the war effort the only other way he knows how, by writing an inspirational song - ‘Over There’ - George tours the American soldier camps with Francis Langford – drawing strength from the fighting men who, in turn, embrace his music. As is so often the case in life, tragedy begins to take its toll. Josie dies in childbirth. Her death is followed by Nellie’s a short while later and finally Jerry – perhaps the most poetic and heart-wrenching of the lot. As, on his death bed, Jerry quietly reveals his immense sense of pride in George, George quietly evokes the familiar lines he has used numerous times to thank an opening night audience, “My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. My sister thanks you…and I thank you.”
Mary encourages George to retire on the farm, and although he willingly embraces the idea at first, he quickly tires of this bucolic respite away from the spotlight. Recognizing her husband’s place will forever be on the stage, Mary is instrumental in coaxing George to accept an offer from Sam to star in ‘I’d Rather Be Right’ – the penultimate highlight in George’s stage career.  We return to the present; George awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his songs ‘Over There’ and ‘It’s a Grand Old Flag’. George taps his way down the grand White House staircase to a reprise of Yankee Doodle Dandy, emerging at street level where a passing parade of soldiers is heard singing ‘Over There’ as they march off to fight in WWII. George cannot contain his satisfaction, joining these gallant men – suddenly realizing his patriotic contributions to the world of entertainment will forever endure.
Yankee Doodle Dandy is a peerless contribution to Hollywood’s wartime propaganda (perhaps, the greatest of the lot), a mellifluous compendium of Cohan’s immortal songs and dances and an enduring, as well as endearing groundswell of popular entertainment that elevates Cagney’s stature from filmdom’s favorite gangster-land thug to the top tier echelons of musical/comedy stars.  The Buckner/Epstein’s screenplay carefully balances the lighter moments with well placed, and even more expertly played moments of drama that truly get to the heart of the story and make Yankee Doodle Dandy a movie musical quite unlike any other of its vintage or ilk.
I have gushed enough about Cagney; but it also behooves me to mention the superb contributions of the rest of the cast; particularly Joan Leslie, Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp; actors of more than merit, each of whom offer something of themselves to their performance – their genuineness soaring high above what could so easily have devolved into rank sentimentalism for a bygone era. Instead, what we have is a moving tableau that all but resurrects this bygone generation; a glowingly astute and loving family portrait celebrating the highest morality and ideals, regrettably oft’ referred to today as ‘schmaltz’. Herein, I’ll simply paraphrase composer, Richard Rodgers who, when asked about ‘schmaltz’ admirably pointed out “What’s wrong with sweetness and light? They’ve been around for an awful long time!”
Yankee Doodle Dandy is not all ‘sweetness and light’ but what it continues to possess – despite changing times and audience’s tastes – is an infectious allure to satisfy with its mind-boggling professionalism. It retains that elusive screen magic and does more than merely placate or distract. It reaches deep into the definition of what it means to be an American and elevates the stature and importance of a great nation. Furthermore, this ‘reach’ is never gratuitous or overbearingly. In the end, we celebrate much more than a lingering ‘feel good’ for the story. We come away with a renewed regard for nationalistic pride. Although the line is never uttered in this film, when the houselights come up there is really only one great sentiment that immediately comes to mind – “God Bless America!”
Yankee Doodle Dandy in hi-def is a reference quality disc in every regard and one that should easily become a best seller for the Warner Archive – fast becoming the best apparatus for releasing impeccable 1080p classics to home video. There is a glorious silver sheen to the hi-def image. It sparkles with an exceptionally refined gray scale. This disc is an exemplar of what vintage catalog on Blu-ray ought to be by now. Grain, that appeared somewhat inconsistent on the DVD, has been accurately reproduced on the Blu-ray; dissolves and fades meticulously cleansed of their age-related artifacts. Honest and true: Yankee Doodle Dandy is practically perfect on Blu-ray and what a joy to see it looking this supremely beautiful in hi-def!
The audio is DTS mono as originally recorded and everything one could hope for from a vintage soundtrack.  Warner has wisely ported over all of the shorts, documentaries, cartoons, isolated audio recordings, audio commentaries, outtakes and featurettes from its lavishly appointed 2-disc DVD release; the best being the ‘making of’ documentary, featuring Joan Leslie and John Travolta; also, Travolta’s hosted reflections on meeting his idol, Cagney. Bottom line and without question, Yankee Doodle Dandy on Blu-ray belongs on everyone’s top shelf. Buy with confidence and buy today! And yes, “God bless America!”
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Monday, June 29, 2015

AMERICAN SNIPER: Blu-ray (WB/Village Roadshow/Malpaso Productions 2014) Warner Home Video

What is the truer measure of heroism; the man who fights to defend what is his, or the one who recognizes and accepts the most unconquerable of all, is the battle to discover the truer self from within? Whatever this barometer, typifying the struggle to come out on top is American sniper, Chris Kyle. Too much has been politicized about Kyle’s reputation as a highly decorated Navy SEAL, sporting the most impressive ‘confirmed kills’ while defending his fellow soldiers in Iraq. Intermittently, Kyle has been liberally referred to as a ‘coward’, a ‘murderer’ and ‘inhumane’; the incalculable cruelty of these comments, chiefly made by people who never knew the man, much less deigned to shake his meaty palm, speaks to a level of thoroughly misguided intolerance amongst many contemporaries today who would likely bend to break on the battlefields if ever faced with even one tenth the level of intense insurrections Kyle repeatedly starred down with a clear eye, a cool head and the dedication of an authentic patriot. Those suggesting otherwise would also have us believe wars can be conquered without bloodshed; that an open mind and a skewed slant toward diplomacy can resolve most any issue herein resolved with pin-prick precision at the point of gun.
I have read too much on Chris Kyle that speaks to this level of postmodern disdain - nee abject hatred – for gallant men and women fighting our battles half way around the world on some nearly forgotten plateau of sand and blood; the memory of every soldier – fallen or still in it to win it - somehow made just a little more disreputable and unsavory by these comments; the public’s appetite for a ‘good clean fight’ with zero casualties on either side, eclipsing the reality that any man or woman who invokes their right to protect and serve is placing their bodies – but far more importantly – their spirit and morality in harm’s way so that others might possess freedom; even the luxury to bash their purpose and chosen profession. Frankly, it’s disgusting. Chris Kyle was a shining example of American military might doing what is necessary to make the world safe for democracy. He did it without malice, with pride and with a sense of proportion he fought like hell to regain, then maintain upon returning home to his wife and children. Perhaps because he so embodied that template of the American soldier – body, mind and spirit – he has, by some warped and frustrated standards of today become the perfect whipping boy for the leftist pacifist, who neither grasps the concept of conflict, nor entirely understands exactly what he/she finds particularly offensive about Kyle, except that he was very good at his job.
Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014) approaches Kyle’s best-selling autobiography with all the reverence and trepidation of a master storyteller, intent on getting to the heart and soul of the man behind the rifle. Who could have foreseen when the project was first begun with Kyle’s participation that the resultant movie would serve as a controversial epitaph to the man himself; Kyle - seemingly unstoppable abroad - meaninglessly gunned down in his home town, along with fellow SEAL and friend, Chad Littlefield by Eddie Ray Routh; a deranged act of cowardice the media has since reframed as the sad actions of a mentally disturbed individual suffering from ‘personality disorders’; pitying the psychotic, while casting aside the victim. While Routh, who also served in the military without distinction, never officially offered any answers as per his motivations for this double homicide, both men were shot in the back, with Kyle also sustaining the added indignation of being shot once in the face, suggesting – if anything – these killings were far more a ‘hate crime’ or act of ‘jealousy’ than a case of pure insanity run amuck. Wisely, Eastwood’s movie leaves this penultimate and very bizarre last chapter to Kyle’s life an enigma; the focus remaining on the fallen instead of the ne'er-do-well who survived.  
Barely recognizable beneath a week’s scruff and seriously packed-on muscles, Bradley Cooper, in one of the most awesome and impressively immersive transformations recalled in recent cinema history, allows Kyle’s stoicism, mental anguish, and, ultimate dedication to discharge his duties as ascribed, to shine through. The majesty in Cooper’s portrayal lies in the subtler, uncanny nuances; the inflections and mannerisms he has adopted – more richly Kyle than a mime’s performance. The level of integrity Cooper has invested in this portrait speaks to his own impeccable humility. There are moments in American Sniper where he completely disappears, replaced by an eerie facsimile. And Cooper lets the pain show; the impossible nature of combat, forcing men to lay down their life while dedicating themselves to the ruthless sacrificing of others. But the situation is even further complicated in American Sniper by the fact the foot soldiers on the other side are comprised, not of highly trailed militia, but of brainwashed townsfolk operating as terrorists, blindsided by their archaic adherence to a backward religion and who think nothing of using women and children, some barely old enough to walk, as mules to carry their bombs, grenades and rifles; another aspect of the Middle-Eastern conflict no media outlet seems willing to broadcast.
Make no mistake – this is still, a soldier’s story, some idiotically referencing American Sniper as “a complicated movie about an uncomplicated man”. To suggest as much is fairly insulting to Kyle’s memory, his widow and children – not to mention the U.S. military forces in totem. Soldiers are not mindless killer clones. They are people, highly skilled and staggeringly professional. Clint Eastwood, cribbing from a superlative screenplay by Jason Hall, has valiantly avoided the predictable pitfalls of distilling Kyle’s autobiography into a one-dimensional recap of his book, co-authored by Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice; the soldier merely glorified as a rigorously trained go-getter with all the killer’s instincts of a shark. No, American Sniper is instead a critical meditation on the incredible perils facing the functionality of a soldier’s creed: trained to sacrifice when he must, to endure all he can and beyond, and somehow – inexplicably - remain ‘above it all’; enough to be able to put down his weapon in peace time and presumably set aside the hell he has lived through: a tall order to which many are called but few can subsist without sacrificing their souls to the nightmare.
And just so we are clear: neither the movie nor Kyle’s book have deified the man. Kyle’s widow would be among the first to suggest Chris was not an easy man to understand. He was, however, above all else, equally as dedicated to his family as his profession; a man of high-functioning moral character, rare qualities that made him an incredible asset to the military and possessing strong convictions that served his own emotional core well upon his return home. Cooper’s performance and Eastwood’s principles, as that rare conservative voice in a Hollywood miserably drowning in its own liberalized crapulence, has lent American Sniper an air of tragic valor. To some extent we lose a little of Chris Kyle; the notorious prankster and six foot tall gentle giant best known to his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller, doing a drop dead/bang on incarnation of the widow Kyle); the couple’s first ‘cute meet’ anything but ‘cute’ as the filmic Taya admonishes what she initially misperceives as just another ‘yahoo’ disreputably ramped up on his own male ego and a philanderer’s nature to break her heart.
Again, this isn’t a perfect story about beautiful people; rather, a misshapen nod that gets very up close and personal with individuals who are earthy and alive, who can love, laugh and resonate with one another on a deeply human level; without guile or pretend and with a certain disregard for the niceties of which, arguably, they know all too little about. Even when Clint Eastwood zeros in on Kyle’s calculated pursuit of former Olympic sharpshooter turned Iraqi insurgent, dubbed the ‘Butcher of Fallujah’ (Mido Hamada), his camera lens expresses a brutal absence of the guns-blazing machismo one might expect to dominate; Kyle’s obsession for taking out the competition simply defined on his unwavering commitment to protect as many American lives as is humanly possible. Flashbacks fill in the blanks on Chris’ upbringing: his father, Wayne’s (Ben Reed) tough love approach to rearing two boys into real men; Eastwood perhaps drawing a tad too heavily on the ole ‘Deer Hunter’ imagery as Chris (played as a child by Cole Konis) and younger brother, Jeff (Luke Sunshine as a boy, Keir O’Donnell as an empathetic adult sibling, following in his brother’s footsteps) are taken into the woods for their first hunting experience.
Yet, here too, and in all the flashbacks briefly to follow, Eastwood is sharply unsentimental, immensely effective and entirely uncomplicated; shifting to Kyle’s days as a rodeo bronco buster, caught in a dead end painfully subpar relationship with a trailer park gal pal who would rather be screwing her brains out with somebody else. To some extent, the early middle act of American Sniper stumbled into a predictable montage; the uncompromising depiction of boot camp and Navy SEAL basic training, its incumbents writhing through frigid waters and buried up to their eyeballs in ooze and mud, vaguely reminiscent of Richard Gere’s similarly themed ordeals in Taylor Hackford’s An Officer and a Gentleman (1982).    
Yet, on the whole, Eastwood’s movie gets it right. He pays homage to the dead. He doesn’t desecrate their memory by second-guessing the job they were trained and sent to do. The real Chris Kyle could have expected no finer a tribute and, I suspect, would have been overwhelmed by the air of authenticity Bradley Cooper gave to his life’s work; tragically, also to embody the totality of his life’s story. Indeed, screenwriter, Jason Hall was to discover the merits of Kyle’s immediate and very outward distaste for disingenuousness; also, the real Kyle’s sense of fair play, allowing Hall to prove his mettle in his chosen profession. A cruder author and director might have gone for the Top Gun approach in re-telling Kyle’s story. Aside: Kyle was not above his own embellishments. But Eastwood refrains from adding flourish, no groundswell of background underscore or centralized flag-waving; no chest-thumping powwows as the returning company gather around their makeshift bonfires after an endless and interminable barrage of slo-mo battle sequences, heavy on the exploding squibs. No, American Sniper just seems very real, unrelentingly grim when needed, but mostly unapologetic about its subject.
Personal opinion, of course, but frankly, I have had it with the stunted adolescents who have reviewed American Sniper as an incomplete and abhorrent exultation of the violence that men do in the name of honor. Eastwood’s saga, his best in a very long time, is thought-provoking, evenly paced and well-intended from the first to last frame – period! Moreover, and even more miraculous in lieu of the way things end, it is an oft’ lyrical and life-affirming entertainment, the likes of which the war genre in particular and Hollywood movies in general of late have rarely dared to reexamine without a jaundiced and highly critical view of the military or fervent need to muddy the waters with a certain affliction for making every fictional character – but especially the ones we are supposed to be rooting for – an anti-hero.
American Sniper is book-ended by the real Chris Kyle’s aftermath; Eastwood regressing us to Kyle’s childhood, his father instilling the principles of true manliness: be neither a sheep (easily led and unwilling to defend what is rightfully yours), nor a wolf (the scourge of humanity), but a sheepdog (a.k.a. God’s shepherd on earth, with an impassioned desire to serve and protect the innocent). The message is lost – marginally – in adolescence. It always is: Chris meandering aimlessly as a would-be rodeo star before enlisting in the Navy. Basic training is hellish to say the least; grueling physical activity married to what most any of us would consider physical abuse; being sprayed with pump hoses while doing calisthenics or repeatedly forced ‘face down’ in the clammy mud to test one’s endurance. What these exercises actually instill is a sense of community and loyalty amongst the enlistees. United they stand, divided they fall. Flash ahead to Chris and Taya’s first meet; she ruthlessly emasculating a would-be suitor just prior to Chris’ arrival on the scene, then forcefully telling him to step off and find himself another target for the evening.
As fate, and movie clichés, would have it, such an odious beginning inevitable leads to love. Chris and Taya are married and he and his company are shortly thereafter deployed to Iraq, following the 911 attacks. Chris becomes embattled in a war that ostensibly the United States cannot win; the catacombs and corridors of these crowded streets honeycombed with traitors. As Taya is expecting their first child, Chris telephones to hear the sound of her voice. Terrorists attack the convoy and Chris’ cell phone is lost; Taya made to experience the sniper fire while not knowing whether or not Chris has survived. From this moment forward, a terrible tug of war begins; Chris returning from each tour of duty a little less responsive to Taya’s increasing concerns that the man she married is slipping away. Chris endures three more tours; Taya becoming pregnant again, but threatening to leave if Chris does not make sacrifices for his new family.
Herein, the screenplay, Eastwood’s direction and Bradley Cooper’s monumentally affecting performance superbly illustrate the strange and disturbing elixir that war presents to men like Chris Kyle: the opportunity to save many with the actions of a few while sacrificing their own personal happiness. This is Chris’ drug of choice, not because he fancies himself a great warrior or suffers from egotism and a ‘hero’ complex. Rather, he is living up to his father’s potential as a defender of the right and good. Besides, Kyle is at the top of his skill, picking off nearly every potential threat as his division makes a sweep of Fallujah is search of the ‘butcher’.  Kyle is particularly keen at recognizing one of their ground informants (Ayman Samman) as a double operative, concealing weapons for the enemy.  On his fourth tour, Chris’ outlook begins to change, particularly after his assignment to kill Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) unravels into abject chaos; Chris and his engineers barricaded on the rooftop and spared only by the advent of an epic sandstorm. Recognizing that his private life has outgrown his singular responsibilities to the military, Chris affectingly telephones Taya to say he is coming home. Alas, once on American soil an inexplicable sense of shame begins to creep in; Chris overestimating the threat a playful dog presents at a backyard barbeque and nearly killing the animal as a result. Kyle is haunted by the memory of soldiers he was unable to save. Taya suggests he reach out to other ailing veterans recuperating at the nearby hospital.  The Veterans Affairs psychiatrist (Robert Clotworthy) makes inquiries into Chris’ state of mind, encouraging him to help amputees get their confidence back on the shooting range.
Helping others, Chris helps himself; his relationship with Taya and his young children growing stronger by the day. It seems the impossibly hellish road back from his tour’s end is at last beginning to level off. Regrettably, the hospital sets Chris up to meet a shell-shocked soldier. The penultimate moment of realization, that something is very wrong, comes too late for Chris; Taya quietly, though ever so slightly reluctant to close the door as Chris and the soldier head off together for the shooting range. It will be the last time Taya Kyle sees her husband alive; a slow dissolve and titles explaining Chris’ fate. This is immediately followed by stock footage of the roadside processional carrying Chris Kyle’s body, hundreds lining the streets and highway with flags draped on route to the memorial service at the Cowboy’s Stadium, attended by thousands more.
Even before Chris Kyle’s senseless murder, American Sniper was already a story that needed to be told; a wake-up call about the perils facing America’s troops in the Middle East without the clichés and flourish so often ascribed such cinematic outings. Eastwood’s undisturbed vision of Kyle’s sobriquet, ‘Legend’ guides this film through a labyrinth of narrative landmines, never to shy away from the excruciating, and arguably, meaningless price of honor; a chest full of medals or a flag-draped casket; the hero’s homecoming as bittersweet and tormented as that inevitable loss of conscience.  On every level American Sniper is both satisfying and sobering. Inadvertently, it takes on something of the flavoring of a flag-waver too; almost unintentionally and never with the presumption this was always Eastwood’s intension.
Warner Home Video’s 1080p Blu-ray is predictably, a triumph; serving Tom Stern’s de-saturated cinematography exceptionally well. Razor-sharp textural nuances are married to a rich spectrum of hues, precisely rendered; the burnt sandy tones of the desert contrasted with the sundrenched Texan landscape back home. My one regret is the sparsely used digital effects in American Sniper tend to look even more cut-and-paste on this Blu-ray, particularly the heavy sandstorm that takes place near the end. Here, the image just seems to momentarily become unnecessarily thick, the camera artificially out of focus, presumably to obscure the CGI, though actually drawing more undue attention to it as a direct result. Nevertheless, contrast levels throughout are superbly rendered. Blacks are deep and solid. A lot of American Sniper is shot through a pseudo-sepia tint, leaving true white values a rather moot barometer for measuring image quality. There are one or two instances where the image looks a tad flat, or thick and pasty. Not sure what to attribute these shortcomings to, if, in fact, they are shortcomings.   
The Blu-ray is encoded with Dolby Atmos (core Dolby True HD 7.1), a superior aural presentation that excels on all levels. The sonic resonance during battle scenes is remarkable and precise; ditto for explosions, guaranteed to rattle your subwoofer, offering a truly enveloping sound field; in short, a reference quality presentation. Interestingly, we get no audio commentary, rather, two very comprehensively produced ‘documentaries on the making of the movie; the first: ‘One Soldier’s Story’ covering the real Chris Kyle’s life and legacy, the other, ‘The Making of American Sniper’ providing a blow-by-blow of Eastwood’s arduous journey from page to screen. Bottom line: with the approaching July 4th weekend it would behoove us all to pause for a moment and reconsider the definitions of both ‘freedom’ and ‘valor’. American Sniper is an exceptionally fine way of marking this Independence Day. Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, June 28, 2015

THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS (Universal 1982) Universal Home Video

Sex and politics: were there ever two more perfectly attuned commodities, except perhaps, prostitution and politics – the parallel between the two astutely pointed out in Collin Higgin’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982): both, screwing people for money. Beginning life as a book by Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, itself based on a real-life incident taking place at an old established bordello in La Grange, Texas, the Broadway incarnation would also include an ebullient score by Carol Hall; setting the precepts and preconceptions of public morality on end with a self-effacing ‘nothin’ dirty goin’ on’ pie-eyed attitude about the life of a small town madam and her most ardent client, the beloved sheriff, Ed Earl Dodd.  With its shameless razzamatazz featuring high-stepping young bucks and bell-kicking broads leaping across the proscenium, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas on stage was proof positive even the most seemingly ‘unseemly’ subject matter could set toes tapping, enough to appeal to the secularist and more ‘morally high-minded’ among us. As if more proof were needed, the original 1978 Broadway spectacle, starring veteran actress Alexis Smith as the flamboyant Miss Mona and directed by Masterson, ran for a whopping 1,584 performances. As such, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood took an interest.   
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas really falls under the old rubric of ‘truth being far stranger than fiction’; the tale of a civic-minded madam and her rocky romance with the ever-devoted town sheriff, the stuff of legend, prominently featured in a 1970 Playboy magazine article; the story first brought to light by white-haired muckraking sensationalist, Houston’s KTRK-TV ‘watchdog’ reporter, Marvin Zindler. The real Chicken Ranch had a history perhaps even more ridiculous and striking than its filmic incarnation. The name derives from the ‘ranch’s need to accept live poultry in trade for services rendered during the Great Depression, the ranch’s income supplemented by selling surplus chickens and eggs – or, as the film’s opening narration charmingly puts it “one bird, one lay.” 
Established in 1844, this house of ill repute achieved a new level of renown when its second proprietress, Miss Jessie Williams took over operations in 1908. From 1917 onward, Williams proudly advertised the Chicken Ranch as a respite for visiting servicemen. Outwardly, it resembled nothing more than a large farmhouse, its whitewashed siding frequently added on to handle the steadily increasing foot traffic. To ensure the safety of her clientele and her girls, Williams would patrol the hallways at night with an iron baton in hand, ready to strike if she heard murmurs of some ‘spurious’ activity threatening the welfare of her prostitutes from beyond the closed doors. In the evenings, local sheriff, Will Loessin would pay a ‘friendly call’ on Williams, gaining valuable insight into guests who often felt free to brag about their complicity in local crimes. Inadvertently, the brothel was responsible for decreasing the overall crime rate in La Grange and Fayette County.
In 1946, T.J. Flournoy assumed the role of sheriff, installing a direct line so he could pursue his predecessor’s policy of gaining information without actually driving out to the ranch. By the time Williams’ favorite working girl, Edna Milton assumed control of the property in 1961, the Chicken Ranch was one of Texas’ most profitable ‘institutions’, drawing a yearly income of $500,000 while blissfully flying under the radar of local law enforcement. It was also generally tolerated by the citizens of La Grange. Milton, in fact, became something of a respected business woman, supporting local charities, providing generous donations to the hospital fund and supplying the little league baseball club with its necessities to operate. She also maintained a strict set of rules for ‘her girls’; paying all of their living and medical expenses, plus a small stipend afforded each as spending money. Williams’ rules were simple: every girl working at the ranch would be a lady: no drinking, carousing or visits to bars. No tattoos either: brands belong on cattle! Each girl was fingerprinted and underwent an extensive background check, and every last one was required to submit to regularly administered health exams. A lot of this history is covered in the prologue to the movie version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and in the song ‘Twenty Fans’ that serves as a historical montage and bridge for the Chicken Ranch’s varied history.
Alas, Milton and her brothel were much too public to remain a secret for very long. Indeed, by the time Zindler broke his story, the Chicken Ranch had played host to scores of politicians; a nearby military base readily taxiing its personnel back and forth for ‘recreational purposes’ by helicopter, while Texas A&M University marked an annual tradition by sending its freshmen, graduating class and winning football teams there for exclusive ‘celebrations’.  Despite Milton’s claim in later years, that the only part of this history the movie ‘got right’ was that ‘there was a chicken ranch in Texas’, a lot of the screenplay, co-written by the play’s originators, Larry L. King and Peter Masterson, with an assist from Colin Higgins, remains faithful to this vibrant memoir and lamentable downfall; adding music and comedy to its tapestry of life, while fabricating a ‘romance’ between its rechristened main characters, madam, Miss Mona (Dolly Parton) and Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd.
Perhaps Milton took umbrage to these artistic embellishments because they seemed so clearly to mirror Marvin Zindler’s flamboyant and ongoing exposé that had toppled her empire. Zindler had attempted to draw an amorous causal link between Williams and Flournoy, also suggesting to Govenor Dolph Briscoe that Williams was rolling in millions and heavily mobbed up with organized crime. Flournoy readily denied either he or his deputies had received payoffs or bribes to look the other way or to keep the peace at the Chicken Ranch. Despite his best efforts, Zindler was never able to prove any of his accusations; merely, exposing to the nation at large the ‘great shame’ of a bordello in operation for more than a hundred years. This, it seems, was enough to force Briscoe’s hand. He ordered the Chicken Ranch immediately shut down, despite Flournoy arriving at his offices with a hand-signed petition of 3,000 signatures to counter the closure.       
Director/writer, Colin Higgins had seen The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas on Broadway; enchanted by its lighthearted approach to telling this tall tale. Higgins, who earned a Masters of Fine Arts from UCLA and had a pair of sizable hits under his belt with 1971’s Harold and Maude and 1980’s 9 to 5 would see his final flourish of success co-writing and directing The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas; a promising career cut short by the AIDS virus in 1988. In 1982, Higgins endured the slings and arrows of a more conservative mindset; the word ‘whorehouse’ actually considered an obscenity in parts of the U.S., necessitating the film’s title being changed in some print ads to ‘The Best Little Cathouse in Texas’. To help bolster public appeal, Higgins went for the high-gloss treatment; signing Burt Reynolds, Dolly Parton and Dom DeLuise to helm the picture.
Even so, it became necessary for all three stars to go on an aggressive PR campaign to explain their participation on the project; Parton, the most outspoken of the group, saying “I think it’s a big responsibility we have to protect the public. So, I gave it a lot of thought. I talked to my folks…I saw it as a story about life…these people, have personalities and reasons for being who and what they are. I think I know what my audience wants from me. I depend on the audience a lot.” Both Reynolds and DeLuise backed up their decision by basically initiating the cliché that ‘hookers are people too’; Reynolds, drawing on remembrances of his own father, who was a Southern law man, in particular, defended Sheriff Dodd as a ‘moral man’ who cannot bring himself to propose to the woman he loves because of his own conflicted morality regarding her chosen profession – the second oldest one in the world! In reality, Reynolds’ apprehensions while making the picture had more to do with his lack of skills as a singer. His previous foray into musicals, 1975’s At Long Last Love, had been an unmitigated disaster. Yet, on The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, he almost pulls off the illusion of being a musical/comedy star; studying with a vocal coach for nearly two months who taught him to half-speak his lines on pitch, much in the way Rex Harrison had done for My Fair Lady.
In transposing the property from stage to screen, director, Colin Higgins thinned out Carol Hall’s song catalog considerably. He also made alterations to the remaining score, chiefly to ‘clean up’ its explicit and sexually charged references to avoid the dreaded ‘X’ rating; coming up with even more cleverly masked and subliminal double entendre and innuendo. Gone was the ‘prologue’, the song ‘Twenty Fans’ serving as the film’s opener, married to ‘A Lil' Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place’; both numbers providing a musical bridge to cover a vast spectrum of time and provide a lay of the land soon to be covered in greater detail. Also lost were several ballads including, ‘Girl, You're a Woman’ meant as a tender moment between Miss Mona and her girls, and ‘Twenty Four Hours of Lovin’ – another female bonding moment, between Mona’s cook, Jewel (Theresa Meritt) and the girls. The rambunctious ‘Watch Dog Theme’ and ‘Texas Has A Whorehouse in It’ were combined into a single number for Melvin P. Thorpe’s television broadcast.
Two more novelty songs, ‘Doatsy Mae’ and the ‘Angelette March’, plus Miss Mona’s introspective, ‘The Bus from Amarillo’ were left on the cutting room floor; Higgins showing no mercy to the slower paced ‘No Lies’ and ‘Good Old Girl’; the former a charmer featuring Mona, Jewel and the girls, the latter a farewell counterpoint to the triumphant ‘Aggie’s Song’ as A&M’s football seniors lament the passing of an era with the enforced shut down of the Chicken Ranch. To compensate for these omissions, Dolly Parton contributed four new songs to pad out the film’s score; one of which was a reprise of her 1974 smash single, ‘I Will Always Love You’. Another, ‘Down at the Chick-Chick-Chicken Ranch’ would be used for the film’s trailer only. Ultimately, ‘Sneakin’ Around’ was the only ‘new’ song to appear in the film, Parton’ s other contribution, ‘Where The Stallions Run’ recorded and filmed by Burt Reynolds but cut from the final print for time constraints before the general release.
Ironically, when the American censors had their way with the televised broadcast of the movie some years later, this latter song was reinstated into the picture to make up for the ruthless discrepancies in editing that had whittled down the movie’s 2 hr. run time to barely 88 minutes. For the cast album, contractual obligations necessitated the re-recording of two songs; a more complete rendition of ‘I Will Always Love You’ and a repurposed ‘Hard Candy Christmas’, featuring only Dolly Parton’s vocals. In the film, this latter number is sung by Parton’s Miss Mona and the departing prostitutes awaiting the bus to take them to parts unknown.
The Best Little Whorehouse is a charmingly bucolic piece of cinema escapism, beginning with its opener, relocated to the town of Gilbert, Texas. Deputy Fred (Jim Nabors) leads us through the movie’s prologue, touching upon some of the little house’s history already mentioned in this review. We’re introduced to Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Burt Reynolds), a beloved authority figure who likes himself just a wee too much. We also meet Miss Mona Stangley (Dolly Parton), the buxom proprietress of the bordello, her devoted cook and housekeeper, Jewel (Theresa Merritt) and ‘the girls’; an eclectic ensemble of taut bodies, peroxide blondes, raven-haired brunettes, and henna-colored harlots, wearing a stunning assortment of feather boas, halters, sequined panties and other sundry costuming, designed by Theodora Van Runkle that leave very little to the imagination.
Deputy Fred informs us of his predecessor’s quandary; namely, Ed Earl’s enduring passion for Mona. The two are having an affair. On the flipside, the sheriff is admired by café owner, Dulcie Mae (Lois Nettleton); a widow with a young son (Bobby Fite). Ed Earl enjoys being a weekend daddy to the boy. But he doesn’t love Dulcie Mae. And he is commitment shy too, fearing what marrying Miss Mona might do to his future ambitions to pursue a career in the state legislature. The town is quite contented to have Miss Mona and her girls living on the outskirts of their small hamlet. After all, most of the menfolk frequent the bordello. The girls are respectable and generate revenue by frequenting the shops and restaurants. And Miss Mona is a civic-minded and very generous philanthropist; even buy uniforms for the town’s little league baseball team.
Trouble arises when the town’s council gets wind of a news story about the Chicken Ranch to be broadcast from Houston as part of Melvin P. Thorpe’s (Dom DeLuise) Watchdog Report telecast. Ed Earl promises to make Melvin see things his way. Indeed, despite their hurried meeting inside Melvin’s dressing room as he prepares for the telecast by stuffing a sock down his underpants and strapping his formidable stomach girth into a girdle, Melvin seems to be a very congenial and accommodating sort; explaining the awesome power of TV as able to ‘get the mayor’s own children to throw rocks at him’, while promising Ed Earl he will be firm, but kind, in his assessment of the Chicken Ranch: all evidence to the contrary as the broadcast begins. Melvin turns on Ed Earl, whom he has ushered into the sponsor’s booth clearly visible by the audience, pointing a violent finger of blame and shame on him and the Chicken Ranch as blights on the good name of Texas.
A few days later, Melvin arrives in Gilbert to pursue a live follow-up. Ed Earl has had quite enough of Melvin, threatening him with his gun and sending the newscaster frantically scrambling for the relative safety of his truck after causing him to slip and fall in the town square’s lily pond. That evening, Melvin eviscerates Ed Earl’s reputation on air, heavily censoring the raw footage shot in Gilbert to present Dodd as a foul-mouthed dictator. Tensions mount as Texas A&M Aggie football game approaches. The seniors have already been promised a party at the ranch if they win. But Ed Earl encourages Mona to shut down for a few days – at least until the fervor created by Melvin’s broadcast can blow over. Mona agrees, but then remembers her commitment to the team and Senator Charles Wingwood (Robert Mandan) whom she has known for years. Electing to merely close the brothel to local traffic, but still entertain the Aggies; Mona’s decision proves fatal when Melvin assails the Chicken Ranch in the dead of night with his television crew, filming the footballers and Wingwood in various stages of undress and in the comfort of Mona’s girls; gleefully shouting, ‘Senator…the eyes of Texas are upon you’ and ‘Miss Mona? Gottcha!’
Ed Earl arrives too late to prevent the deluge, later confronting Mona about her betrayal of the promise she made to him to remain closed for a few days. As push turns to shove, Mona admonishes Ed Earl’s dreams for the legislature as just that – dreams – never to be fulfilled because Dodd is just a ‘chicken-shit sheriff in a chicken-shit town.’ “Maybe so,” he cruelly admits, “But it’s a hell of a lot better than being a whore.” Their personal relationship severed, Mona is wounded by Ed Earl’s accusation precisely because she has not been with any other man since having fallen in love with him. He, of course, does not know this. And she will also remain in the dark about his deep regret over their heated exchange; also, Ed Earl’s impassioned plea to the Governor (Charles Durning); filing a counter petition to keep the Chicken Ranch open. Alas, the Governor is dictated by the polls; the numbers suggesting more of Texas’ citizenry want the bordello shuttered for good.  Ed Earl telephone’s Mona with the news without ever telling her of his valiant trip to Austin. Instead, she learns the truth from one of her girls. As each prepares to depart, Mona bids a bittersweet farewell to the lives they have all known with the film’s second-most potent ballad, ‘Hard Candy Christmas’.
After the bus leaves, Mona and Jewel prepare the house, selling off the fixtures and furniture, except for the few meager belongings they intend to take with them as they prepare to move in together in another place in another town. These plans are thwarted with Ed Earl’s arrival. He proposes marriage. Mona confesses her enduring love for him but also confides she has known all along Ed Earl’s aspirations for the legislature were feasible, if only he would forsake their romance and move on. We hear the most poignant ballad in the reprise of ‘I Will Always Love You’ – the song, Dolly Parton made famous in 1974. It would again rise in the top ten on the billboards after The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ debut. Ed Earl interrupts Mona. He does not give a damn about the future if she is not there to share it. Sweeping Mona off her feet – literally (in a chivalrous and spontaneous gesture that actually gave Burt Reynolds a hernia), Ed Earl carries Mona to his waiting truck, tossing her luggage into the back and tearing off across the open field toward parts unknown. In a voiceover narration, we learn from Deputy Fred that Ed Earl made it to the state legislature and that he and Miss Mona were eventually married – presumably, living happily ever after; marking an end to the legend of the Chicken Ranch.
In spite of its ‘R’ rating, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas went on to gross $69,701,637 in its initial release, a sizable hit for Universal who had initially tread very reluctantly on the project, despite Colin Higgin’s passion to direct it. Production designer, Robert F. Boyle’s quaint recreation of the sprawling farmhouse subbing in for the real Chicken Ranch has long since been a part of Universal’s studio tour, appearing slightly redressed in episodes of TV’s Murder She Wrote, The Ghost Whisper and Providence, as well as prominently featured in several movies shot on the backlot. The house is as much a character in this film as its flesh and blood inhabitants; a multi-room, cozily lit and welcoming series of interiors with a crooked staircase rising to its second floor of bedrooms. In the final analysis, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas lives up to its trailer’s invitation for ‘slick talkin’, quick walkin’ sexy good fun’; the lyrics to Parton’s song encouraging viewers to ‘come on down and get them some’…her final declaration in the actual movie, ‘Y’all come back now, y’hear?’ serving as a perennial RSVP to partake in its cheerful idiocy and countrified charm. As the original poster art suggests “With Burt and Dolly this much fun can’t be legal.”
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas ought to have found its way to Blu-ray by now. But no – we’re still plagued by Universal’s utterly lackluster DVD; suffering from wan colors and weaker than anticipated contrast levels. Honestly, this is an ugly, murky mess that belies William A. Fraker’s sumptuous cinematography. Age-related artifacts are everywhere and the image infrequently wobbles from side to side. The elements are in rough shape and Universal has not done a thing to spiffy them up for home video. It’s about time the studio got behind this catalog title to produce a restored hi-def master. The audio is an abysmal 2.0 Dolby Stereo and virtually unremarkable. It desperately needs a new 5.1 DTS. Extras are limited to something Universal calls a ‘making of’ – actually a press junket slapped together at the time Higgins was shooting the movie to promote its upcoming release. We also get a few hilarious outtakes; the cast flubbing their lines, plus, the exceptionally badly worn trailer incorporating Dolly Parton’s unused song ‘Down at the Chick-Chick-Chicken Ranch’ initially planned as the musical prologue to the actual movie. Bottom line: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is a joyously obtuse and highly enjoyable trip to the backwoods for a little R&R. This DVD transfer doesn’t do the film or that journey justice. We’ll sincerely wait in the hope of better things!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)