NIXPIX - DVD & BLU-RAY Reviews

Sunday, September 24, 2017

BRIGADOON: Blu-ray (MGM 1954) Warner Archive

Ah me, “once in the highlands…the highlands of Scotland”…or a reasonable facsimile. Director, Vincente Minnelli marked his 10th year anniversary as MGM producer Arthur Freed’s point man in movie musicals with Brigadoon (1954); an escapist fantasy, photographed in the then relatively new-fangled expanses of Cinemascope (and regrettably, ANSCO-Color). Based on the Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe Broadway smash, Brigadoon was a project begun with high hopes on Minnelli’s part and even higher expectations from the new studio brass. It quickly devolved into a headache for all concerned.  Co-collaborator and star, Gene Kelly desperately wanted to shoot Brigadoon amidst the authentic mists and heather on a hill in Scotland. Denied such luxury, Minnelli was perfectly contented to give Brigadoon its due on locations somewhere in California. In the end, neither had his way; MGM’s newly appointed President, Dore Schary slashing both budget and schedule, forcing the entire production onto sound stages. Interestingly, we can see the merits (as well as the vices) to both sides of this argument; the artifice, while transparent, nevertheless expertly crafted by MGM’s art department to fill the cavernous interiors on Stage 15 with a breathtaking 360 degree cyclorama, its forced perspective of papier-mâché hills bedecked in miles of sumac (dressed as heather) and an assortment of quaint thatched roof cottages, neatly arranged along winding country paths.
To the untrained eye, it all looks rather moodily magnificent – fake, yet thoroughly in keeping within the confines and precepts of creating ‘Hollywood-styled’ musical movie-land magic of the highest order. As for Schary; his only concern was the budget. Never mind Scotland’s chronically inclement climate, certain to cause delays if cast and crew were to traipse off to Europe. By 1954, Schary had become acutely aware he had inherited not only MGM’s mantle of prestige from the prematurely ousted Louis B. Mayer on approval from Loew’s Incorporated President, Nicholas Schenk, but also the anticipated authority to turn the studio’s steadily declining fortunes around. Only in hindsight would Schary’s executive appointment to Metro, first as its VP in Charge of Production in 1948, then, after Mayer’s unceremonious heave-ho, set atop its lumbering edifice as overseer (though never monarch), prove an unwise business decision. Schary, who had thrived at RKO, reveling in the ‘smallness’ and ‘experimentation’ derived from being his own boss and making his beloved ‘message pictures’, had been courted to join Metro; given carte blanche at the biggest and then most profitable ‘dream factory’ in all of Hollywood. Yet, almost from the outset he seemed destined never to fit in; unappreciative of MGM’s star system (he would increasingly regard stars as ‘top heavy’ liabilities rather than assets) and Metro’s designation as the leader of the musical as a viable genre. Nevertheless, even Schary could see Metro had had a long, distinguished – and most of all – profitable track record with the Hollywood musical under Arthur Freed and Joseph Pasternak’s auspices.
During Mayer’s dominion Freed in particular had enjoyed unprecedented autonomy to pursue most any project he desired. Like Mayer, Freed loved musicals and made his twice yearly pilgrimage to New York to acquire new properties. Perhaps realizing he knew just enough to know he did not know everything, Schary allowed Freed to carry on as he might have after Mayer’s exit.  However, by the mid-1950’s it was increasingly obvious to Freed this new exec was something of a wily ‘yes man’ for the New York front offices; also, a number cruncher who made sense of the movies through spread sheets and stock holder dividends. Schary had artistic ambitions too. But they conflicted with MGM’s motto of ‘ars gratia artis’ (art for art’s sake); a tug-o-war steadily creeping into the mix as Schary, testing his new authority, repeatedly trimmed Freed’s projected budgets, sometimes even while the Freed Unit was in the middle of shooting a movie, funneling this extra cash into his own passion projects (minor programmers with dark themes, usually lacking the star power associated with the usual glittery Metro product). The irony, of course, is that precisely at this juncture when the movies were getting ‘bigger’ (at least in their ever-expanding canvas of visual presentation – Cinemascope, Cinerama, VistaVision et al.) the industry, on the whole, was suffering from a sort of ‘loose stool’ chaos and its first real financial entrenchment since the early 1930s.
Once, in a long while, Schary would permit Freed his extravagances. Yet, more often than not, these were frowned upon as simply that – ‘extravagances’ Metro could not, or perhaps ‘should not’ afford. By the mid-fifties, Hollywood in general, and MGM in particular was fighting a two-fisted losing battle on the home front against television. With belt-tightening came the bitter acknowledgement the studio era as that all-pervasive national drug of choice in popular entertainments had suddenly and seemingly inexplicably come to an end. Mayer’s misguided logic had mirrored Hollywood’s initial reaction on a whole; pretend it’s not happening and it will eventually go away. But by 1954 it was impossible to ignore that ‘little black box’ in everyone’s living room. Local theater attendance had dried up; the once opulent movie palaces shuttered and/or converted to some other usage for which they were never originally intended. Schary’s approach was somewhat different; to challenge the audience with what he deemed as ‘more adult’ stories; leaving MGM’s expansive roster of musical talent to cool their heels. After all, why spend moneys to erect a Technicolored artifice for the musical/comedy star when one could get all this high-priced talent for free, warbling tunes or performing skits on any of the tube’s weekly variety shows?  Oh sure, an Elvis musical could still draw in the crowds. And Bing Crosby too…maybe. But on the whole TV had killed the intimate movie musical, MGM’s bread-n’-butter throughout the 1940’s. Seen in this light, and additionally, with production costs skyrocketing, and furthermore, from a perspective of longevity rather than legacy, Schary’s re-imagining of Metro’s fortunes appeared, at least on the surface, to be all about sound economics: a trimming of the unnecessary fat meant to ensure the goose could continue to lay its golden eggs. In the long run however, Schary’s edicts would have a devastating effect on MGM, splintering the loyalties of its alumni as well as badly needed studio’s profits, and, ultimately be revealed as a matter of conflicting personal tastes; Schary hoping to reinvent Metro as merely a larger version of the studio he had left behind.
And into this grave uncertainty came Arthur Freed, Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly to pitch Brigadoon to Schary; exactly the sort of lavishly appointed ‘on location’ big budget musical extravaganza he deplored. Oh, what Brigadoon might have been if these three musketeers had their way. If only Mayer had stuck around to see the day.  And yet, in acquiring the property wholesale, Freed had gone against even the grain of his own precepts. MGM’s outpouring of musical hits throughout the 1940’s owed very little to Broadway; Hollywood far more interested in putting on homegrown product to rival the ‘legitimate’ theater and, in many ways, even better its stagecraft. Alas, by 1950 the trims at MGM had cut so deep into its creative stock company of behind-the-scenes personnel it was easier for Freed to buy up a Broadway show than commission something original. The problem here too was money. Freed, basically afforded unprecedented autonomy by Mayer to buy whatever he wanted, now had to get approval from Schary to make his bid stick. While the haggling between Freed and Schary persisted other producers at other studios came along with deeper pockets to satisfy. Thus, Freed was to lose out on two huge deals from the decade; the first, to indie-producer, Samuel Goldwyn (ousted from partaking in the newly amalgamated MGM all the way back in 1927), buying the rights to Broadway’s zeitgeist, Guys and Dolls and making a colossally successful movie version in 1955. The second misfire involved 2oth Century-Fox and Michael Todd’s Magna Corp.; again, beating Freed to the finish line, acquiring the rights to co-produce the Rodgers and Hammerstein mega hits, Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and later, The King and I and Carousel. If Mayer had been in charge there is little doubt these shows would have come to MGM via Arthur Freed. Now, all Freed could do was stand by as the competition repeatedly took advantage of the artistic malaise increasingly enveloping Metro’s backlot.
In the shadow of these missed opportunities was Brigadoon; Lerner and Loewe’s melodic masterpiece; good for 581 stage performances along the Great White Way and another 685 at London’s West End during the 1946-47 seasons; no slouch in good press or solid box office – if correctly handled. And Freed, whose personal esteem for Lerner had made MGM’s acquisition of Brigadoon practically a foregone conclusion, equally neglected to pursue Finian’s Rainbow – the other big hit caught in this Celtic crossfire. On stage, Brigadoon had been an affecting bit of the blarney about a Scottish village materializing out of the highland mists once every hundred years; a curse or salvation (depending on one’s point of view) foisted upon its small community by a priest’s pact with God to spare his village from outside influences. Forevermore to afflict the inhabitants, who remain ageless in their suspended animation and thus impervious to the ever-advancing social ills of the world at large, the spell is challenged some 200 year into the future with the arrival of a pair of malcontents from the big city or, as the Lerner/Loewe score more eloquently puts it, just “two weary travelers who have lost their way” – both literally and figuratively. The culture clash is immediate and fraught with devastating consequences on both sides as jaded ad man, Johnny Albright (played in the movie by then forty-two year old Gene Kelly) and his even more jaundiced best friend, Jeff Douglas (deliciously cynical Van Johnson) stumble upon this ‘one in ninety-nine years’ fantasy land; the former becoming smitten and amiably pursuing an impossible romance with the luscious Fiona Campbell (Cyd Charisse); the latter, comically pursued by the boy-crazy Scots-tart, Meg Brockie (Dodie Heath). Fiona’s father, Andrew (Albert Sharpe) is about to marry off his youngest, Jean (Virginia Bosler) to the handsome and strapping Charles Chisholm Dalrymple (Jimmy Thompson) in a ceremony planned for later that day. Alas, the serenity of Jean and Charles’ vows – and, in fact – the very certainty of the village of Brigadoon is threatened when spurned suitor, Harry Beaton (Hugh Laing) resolves to flee beyond the ascribed boundaries of the ‘blessing’; thus, ending the village’s dreamlike state, presumably, with catastrophic repercussions for all. 
Inspired by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and Carousel, Lerner and Loewe undertook to create a musical with a dramatic love story at its core. Almost immediately Lerner’s inspiration was brought into question when the New York Times politely suggested he had ‘borrowed’ the idea for his modern fairy tale from an ancient story by German author, Friedrich Gerstäcker, later translated into English by Charles Brandon Schaeffer. Incensed, Lerner publicly denied ever having any prior knowledge of the aforementioned literary work and subsequently stuck to his guns, suggesting any similarities between the two were pure ‘unconscious coincidence’.  In reexamining the Gerstäcker text, obvious similarities are present. Nevertheless, Lerner managed to avoid a suit for copyright infringement. After all, it is possible for two geniuses to come up with similarly themed narratives. Lerner may have ‘invented’ the name Brigadoon as a riff on the well-known Scottish landmark Brig o' Doon, a.k.a. Bridge of Doon (the movie, in fact, opens with a shot of the dawn cresting over a modestly cobble-stoned footbridge, complete with babbling brook beneath it), or he might have been inspired by the Celtic derivative; ‘briga’ (meaning ‘town’) and Gaelic dùn (or ‘fort’). 
Whatever the case, on stage, Brigadoon had followed the tried and true trajectory perfected by Rodger and Hammerstein; focusing on librettists to carry its pop-score and backed by an entourage of classically trained dancers to express its more balletic sentiments while the principles retired off stage to a quick change in preparation for the next scene. This structure proved problematic for the film version, primarily because Freed had cast Gene Kelly and (eventually) Cyd Charisse as his leads; par excellence dancers with limited vocal capabilities. While Freed and Kelly were conspiring to either shoot Brigadoon in Scotland or near California’s Big Sur, the initial contract Arthur Freed ironed out with Metro’s soprano, Kathryn Grayson elapsed. In her stead, Freed fought like hell to get ballet dancer, Moira Shearer to be his Fiona. Since her debut in Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 escapist fantasy/drama, The Red Shoes the red-headed Scot was in very high demand. However, the Sadler Wells Ballet Co. to which her contract belonged, fearing a lengthy movie shoot to interrupt its own pending season of live performances, absolutely refused to allow Shearer to partake of this exercise.
For prestige, Freed added the esteemed premiere danseur, Hugh Laing to the cast; a move to stick in Gene Kelly’s craw, as he was increasingly opposed to sharing the screen with male competition. Kelly’s clout would prove devastating to Laing’s performance; virtually emasculated, consigned to all but a handful of cutaways: Laing’s Harry Beaton dashing in and out of the penultimate and dramatically executed ‘chase’. Others in Freed’s hand-picked roster included Albert Sharpe (who had appeared in 1951’s Royal Wedding), and Finian’s own Welsh-born Barry Jones, as Brigadoon’s prolific sage, Mr. Lundie. While Freed mostly had his way with this ‘front of house’ talent, the backstage was largely entrusted to Minnelli’s forte – albeit, with Freed’s presiding approval; Irene Sharaff for the costumes, and, Preston Ames and George Gibson to visualize the sets. Even as their collaborative efforts pleased his own artistic sensibilities, what irked Minnelli considerably were the technological restrictions placed on the production beyond Freed’s control. Like it or not – and Minnelli decidedly did not – Brigadoon would be photographed in Cinemascope; the elongated 2.35:1 proportions of the screen reasoned by its director as only suitable for exhibiting funeral processions and snakes.
Worse for Minnelli’s creative spontaneity, he was required to shoot Brigadoon twice; in a process MGM dubbed ‘Wide Screen’ (roughly 1.75:1) to accommodate theaters that had yet to retool for the unique projection requirements of Cinemascope. It should be noted shooting in these competing formats could not be resolved simply by aligning both camera setups side by side to photograph the same scene at the same time. Rather, each scene had to be methodically laid out and uniquely staged to fill the vast expanses of Cinemascope; then, reconfigured to accommodate the other camera setup, achieved under alternate lighting conditions; the actors composited to fit within the decidedly more square parameters of the ‘Wide Screen’ format. At one point during this tedious back and forth co-star, Van Johnson reasoned he was making ‘two’ movies for the price of one and marched into Dore Schary’s office to protest his single salary for what amounted to twice his usual workload. Schary’s reply, “That’s right, Van. You’re making two movies and you’re getting one salary…and be very glad that you are,” sent Johnson away chagrined, never again to question this executive logic.
Two – or rather, three other misgivings evolved to quietly knock the wind out of Minnelli’s enthusiasm; first, the studio’s decision to shoot Brigadoon in the less expensive Ansco Color, producing muddier tones than Technicolor, mostly offset by cinematographer extraordinaire, Joseph Ruttenberg, who proved adaptable to the challenges, counteracting some with more extreme concentrations of light to illuminate the set and thus provide the visual richness one expects from an MGM musical. Brigadoon would also mark Minnelli’s debut in true stereophonic sound; not so much a hindrance as it added to the cost of the production, forcing Minnelli to cut corners elsewhere. For time constraints, two numbers already shot by Minnelli – both ballads – were eventually dropped from the final cut. The first, ‘There But For You Go I’ is a rather unprepossessing poem, suffering from Gene Kelly’s thin vocalization; Kelly, obviously straining to hit the high notes. But the second, ‘Come to Me, Bend to Me’ is a distinct loss; Jimmy Thompson, convincingly lip-syncing to John Gustefson’s immaculate countertenor as Charles Dalrymple pleads with his betrothed to allow him entry to her bridal chamber before the wedding; a permission repeatedly denied.  Prior to these cuts, Minnelli and Freed had already made the decision to pare down the musical program, thus consolidating a two and a half hour stagecraft into a 108 minute movie. To some extent, the choices made were preordained by Hollywood’s self-governing body of censorship, disavowing two songs, ‘The Love of My Life’ and ‘My Mother’s Wedding Day’ (both sung by Meg Brockie – a character barely glimpsed in the movie) on the grounds the lyrics were ‘too provocative’. Furthering these trims was Minnelli’s decision to pass on ‘From This Day On’ (another ballad, its’ sentiments already expressed in the retained ‘The Heather on the Hill’) and finally, ‘The Sword Dance’ – a lengthier ensemble piece immediately to have followed the arrival of the clans. It too fell on the cutting room floor.
But the genuine disappointment for Minnelli on Brigadoon was Gene Kelly; intractable and virtually ignoring all of his subtler suggestions. Minnelli and Kelly had worked with such creative symbiosis on the Oscar-winning An American In Paris (1951) it never dawned on Minnelli anything but smooth sailing lay ahead of them this time out. Alas, in the interim, Kelly had ostensibly grown as an artiste – or rather, his ego had. Apart from making demands to pare down Hugh Laing’s performance (mostly to keep it from competing with his own) Kelly increasingly viewed Brigadoon as an off kilter hybrid of his performance in An American in Paris and something of a highland western in dance. Interestingly, there are moments in the picture to mimic this earlier success; most transparently in Kelly’s solo ‘Almost Like Being in Love’ staged almost verbatim to Paris‘S’wonderful’. Minnelli preferred to think of Brigadoon as a Flemish fantasia, more visually understated and lyrical. However, as he quickly deduced he had lost his ability to influence Kelly to try things his way, within weeks into the shoot Minnelli simply gave up even trying to be persuasive; concentrating his efforts on performers more receptive to his ideas. The net result: Kelly’s Tommy Albright emerges from Brigadoon as a spurned sourpuss; Tommy’s inner innocence never revived, except perhaps in Kelly’s immaculate pas deux with the leggy Cyd Charisse. Not surprisingly, the two best sequences in Brigadoon – the village’s reawakening and the arrival of the clans – have absolutely nothing to do with Tommy and Fiona. Each of these numbers is an undiluted tour de force exalted to a distinct level as abstract tableaux by Minnelli’s keen camera eye.
Despite such moments, the elusive spark of true and intangible cinema magic eludes Brigadoon on the whole; the characters as fake as the backdrops; George Gibson’s dioramas cluttered and static instead of moodily magnificent with a few light and dewy touches lingering for effect. Hence, when the artificial ‘sun’ peers through the filtering mists, instead of reaching to the back of the house with its haunted, penetrating invitation meant to beckon the audience into this abyss unknown, striking instead against transparently cardboard facades; exposing the petrified trees and stiffening long grasses as carefully laid out as an anthropological exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History.  And the tone of the piece is further hampered by Minnelli’s placement of his actors to fill every inch of the Cinemascope frame for fear of the dreaded ‘dead space’ on either side of his principals. Occasionally, this ‘congestion’ of extras is effective; as in ‘I’ll Go Home With Bonnie Jean’; as Kelly and Johnson’s strangers in this highly stylized and very strange land are caught up in the ebullience of Jimmy Thompson’s declaration of love; locking arms with the locals as they toggle from right to left, back and forth across the screen. But the effect is stifling elsewhere. As example: Cyd Charisse (lip-syncing to India Adams for ‘Waiting For My Dearie’) sashays about the relative confinement of her quaint family cottage, forced to flit in and out of the furnishings as a female chorine artfully scurries to get out of her way.  
To some extent, Brigadoon’s lithe spirit is as obscured by Vincente Minnelli’s incapacity to warm to the ‘mail slot’ proportions of the Cinemascope frame. For decades prior to its introduction, the movies had achieved what no stage show could; drawing their audiences into the screen with punctuated close-ups; the effect meant to be shared as a proletariat’s ‘front and center’ experience; the audience absorbed into their make-believe. Yet herein, Minnelli and Cinemascope conspire to accomplish the exact opposite; Brigadoon’s massive panoramas dwarfing the principals on every occasion while pushing the audience away from its spectacle. We never get to see the faces of our stars in anything more distinct than a medium two shot; the edges of the frame cramped in interesting bric-a-brac to draw our attention more to the milieu than the moment. This effect is only amplified by composer/conductor, Johnny Green’s bombastic six track stereo orchestrations of the vibrant Lerner and Loewe score, sweeping choral arrangements pouring in on all sides without ever achieving musicalized intimacy. In an effort to reassert Cinemascope’s claim the movies are bigger and better than ever, the effect herein is not so much complimentary as it frequently seems terribly at odds, particularly with the subtler material. Thanks to Joseph Ruttenberg we get exquisitely lit compositions. Alas, Minnelli has become too enraptured in his quest to evoke the Flemish masters. While Brigadoon frequently bears the hallmarks of a vintage Rembrandt, it lacks the cinematic precision of an iconic Minnellian fantasy, more reminiscent of Minnelli’s own Yolanda and the Thief (1945); another misfire for which more style than substance had been applied. 
Beyond these artistic shortcomings, there remains something distinctly off-putting about Brigadoon’s fantastical suspension in disbelief. As with Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, here too our protagonists are presented with a terrible contemplation: surrendering every last vestige of life as it is known in their own time for an uncertainty with few – if any - short-term redeemable virtues. Tommy’s love for Fiona affords him two unique opportunities to remain within Brigadoon’s boundaries forever – should he choose. He does, but is talked out of the first of these impromptu decisions at the last possible moment by Jeff, who angrily orders his usually level-headed friend to shake the daydreams and wishing wells from his reckless euphoria. To enter Brigadoon as a citizen is to abandon everything for perhaps only a chance. It behooves us to reconsider the inhabitants of Brigadoon have not been given eternal life in this magical pact with God; merely the natural progression of the aging process prolonged over centuries of time. However, since this suspension of time is spent mostly in slumber and thus imperceptible to those under its spell, not even the trajectory of time itself can be enjoyed; unlike the mythic boundaries of Shangri-La in Lost Horizon, that at least deliver on a promise of fossilization in the aging process, allowing inhabitants to live well beyond several hundred years in their otherwise natural allotment of earthly time. Conversely, to become a resident of Brigadoon is to purchase a one-way ticket to ‘forever’, as Jeff points out, in the longest running ‘forever’ on record. Once having crossed this threshold there can be no place for Tommy Albright in whatever world awaits to collide with Brigadoon’s one hundred year anniversary the next time.
In retrospect, a goodly number of fantasy films from the 1930s right on through the late 1950s are imbued with this undercurrent of ‘be careful what you wish for’ moralization. Consider that we really do not know what the future holds for Tommy Albright after he has consigned himself to the enveloping highland mystique of Brigadoon. Perhaps he has found nirvana on earth – or perhaps not. But he will not and cannot return from whatever state of consciousness has afflicted him once he leaves the only real world he has ever known far behind. Fantasy films of this particular vintage, from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Lost Horizon, right on through to Brigadoon challenge their protagonists’ notions about the proverbial ‘grass’ being ‘greener on ‘the other side’ of their misaligned somewhere over the rainbows. Ultimately, in each of these ‘cautionary’ scenarios the decision is made, either a return to normalcy as per that life previously escaped (as in, say Kansas over Oz), nevertheless, now made sweetly familiar and edifying by the friendships cultivated along the way, or, contrariwise, to seek out the illusory catnip of these fantastical holidays into Pan’s purgatory, hoping for something better on the other side. This latter endeavor, it should be pointed out, is merely a ‘hope’ not a ‘promise’; particularly for the participant who knows too well the discrepancies between the world he/she has left behind without fully to comprehend the ramifications involved in the one about to become the newly adopted home.
If, as the old cliché suggests, ‘change is good’, can it also be of mutual benefit to the new arrival and to the indigenous peoples with whom daily interaction is now inevitable?  Lastly, what if Tommy should change his mind a hundred years from now? Could he, without breaking the spell for all? Since Tommy Albright was not part of Mr. Forsythe’s master plan is he afforded a way out denied the others, and, to leave it for what, as most assuredly the fundamentals of that life he once knew have been vastly altered, neither to reflect his core values nor suit even his casual tastes. This pondering over eternity and fate is not immediately apparent when viewing Brigadoon for the first time. And yet, they linger, eventually to become unearthed in the mind later on, leaving the first-time viewer uniquely unsettled, perhaps more than those contemplations made at the end of Lost Horizon: Capra’s mythical Himalayan hybrid and sojourn into Shangri-La, as Brigadoon proper, currently God’s protectorate (or Eden without end) comes with the ramifications of defying His enlightenment its due course, quite possibly resulting in catastrophic returns.
The premise for Brigadoon’s salvation teeters on the absurd, but maintains an even more disquieting creepiness, steadily to pervade, misalign and finally severe Johnny and Jeff’s life-long friendship. Brigadoon is under a spell; an incantation yielding to an even more frail logic and maxims imposed upon all. For this, the kindly cleric, Mr. Forsythe (never seen for obvious reasons) sacrificed his own life. Yet, in his ‘benevolence’, having achieved this pact with God, Forsythe has doomed his congregation into a perpetual zombie-like stupor from which none can escape, in some ways, playing to the strengths of sci-fi and horror much more than lithe musical comedy. It also brings into question the conformity in faith. There is no ‘free will’ in Brigadoon; as exhibited in the scene where Fiona becomes paralyzed with trepidation when, during her euphoric gathering of fresh heather for her sister’s bridal bouquet, Tommy suddenly directs her attention to a more luscious outcropping of the prized blossoms on a nearby hill beyond these artificially spellbound boundaries.  Again, one is immediately reminded of the moment in Capra’s Lost Horizon as the character of Maria (Margo), having disobeyed the High Lama and ventured beyond the relative safety of Shangri-La, is suddenly withered from her youthful bloom into a mummified corpse 200 plus years advanced in its decomposition. Might a similar fate befall the lovely Fiona?
Brigadoon opens with the village’s reawakening from its hundred-year slumber; a series of Flemish inspired tableaux; Minnelli’s use of light, shadow and color, a superb evocation of the old masters. We are introduced to Tommy Albright and Jeff Douglas, two weary travelers who have lost their way amidst the flora and fauna of the misty Scottish highlands. Tommy is a realist. But Jeff is a cynic, believing only in what he can touch, smell, and taste. Faith, either ethereal or in his fellow man, is an intangible Jeff has absolutely no use for if, indeed, it exists at all. Much to their great salvation and surprise, the pair notice a village not far off that somehow each has overlooked only the moment earlier; a place, curiously, not on their map and populated by an interesting assortment of tartan and kilt-wearing locals, queerly out of step with the present – and, for good reason as Tommy and Jeff are soon to discover. Along the road they also meet Fiona Campbell who directs them into McConnachy Square – the hub of Brigadoon. Tommy offers to pay for food and drink with a few pieces of silver. But the inhabitants are dumbstruck by the date on the coins. Only Charles Dalrymple is forthcoming with immediate friendship; offering to buy these visitors some heather ale to celebrate his pending marriage. A bit of confusion over which Campbell sister is to be wed leads Tommy to regret his inexplicable stirrings of love at first sight for Fiona, though he entertains them with an impromptu trip to her cottage, and later, in a complete abandonment, falls madly for her while gathering heather for Jean’s wedding.
‘The Heather on the Hill’ is, in fact, one of the rare instances in Brigadoon where the screen wondrously comes alive; Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse pirouetting about the artificial landscape as though imbued with Hermes wing-footed stealth. Kelly and Charisse are magnificent together, her balletic gestures perfectly offset by his robust athleticism. The dancers race up and down these papier-mâché embankments, zig-zagging between plywood trees; suggestively, almost to collide – yet never – to completely embrace; the towering Charisse, in toe-shoe flats, raised up in Kelly’s strong arms to offset their difference in height. Nowhere else in Brigadoon do we get such a moment of passionate release; not in Kelly’s posthumous declaration of ‘Almost Like Being in Love’ nor in Charisse’s coy ‘Waiting for My Dearie’; each, a delayed reaction to an emotion neither completely understands; ‘The Heather on the Hill’ an exuberant release of these pent-up temptations.
Yet, this moment of elation is brutally cut short when Tommy suggests more abundant ripe heather is growing on a nearby hill beyond Brigadoon’s invisible boundaries. Fiona is stricken with a look of sheer fright, begging Tommy not to move beyond his present position either. Having already unearthed several unsettling anomalies about the village – as example, the date of Jean’s birth in the family Bible is listed as 1732 – Tommy reverts to his realist roots, abruptly shaken from his euphoria and demanding answers. Unable to provide them, Fiona directs his inquiries to the sage, Mr. Lundie. Accompanied by Fiona, Tommy and Jeff learn of the spell cast upon Brigadoon; a blessing to all except the sullen Harry Beaton who planned to go away to university in Edenborough and pursue Jean as his wife; both ambitions denied him now and seemingly for all time. As the sun sets, the various clans gather for Jean and Charles’ wedding; another tour de force for Minnelli, who uses the artifice of a cathedral’s ruins to create a stunning, yet moody torch-lit procession. But the couple’s terpsichorean bliss is intruded upon by Harry Beaton who first tries to take advantage of the bride; then, threatens Charles with his dagger. Harry is subdued by various clansmen before escaping to the top of one of the turrets, declaring he intends to leave Brigadoon immediately; henceforth dooming the entire village to a fate worse than the purgatory thus far endured.
The clan begins its manhunt for Harry Beaton; Tommy stirred to partake by the prospect of losing Fiona forever. Given the relatively limited parameters of the village, and the enormity of the army set to apprehend Harry, it is more than a little ironic no one except Tommy is able to unearth his secret hiding locations in the underbrush. The men spar for a moment or two on the footbridge before Tommy is beaten unconscious by Harry, who now climbs into a nearby tree to avoid capture. Jeff, who has been indulging in strong drink all afternoon, and pursuing wild grouse with his rifle, fires the accidentally fatal shot into the branches. Harry’s body plummets to the earth, recovered by his grieving father and carried back to the village by several clansmen. The murder, however unintentional, instantly sobers Jeff. Unaware, Tommy confesses to Jeff he loves Fiona and will not be leaving Brigadoon. Full of venom and contempt, Jeff orders Tommy to give his head a good shake. Brigadoon is an anomaly rather than a way of life. It was fun while it lasted. But now the midnight hour is drawing near and with it, the village’s exile into the highland fog for another hundred years; plenty of time for Tommy to forget Fiona Campbell and return to the snowy streets of Manhattan. Conflicted, Tommy retreats. Fiona and Brigadoon are vanquished in the encroaching mists and Tommy returns to Jane Ashton (Elaine Stewart) the horridly superficial fiancé he left behind in New York.
Knowing nothing of his experiences abroad, and frankly, disinterested in anything but herself, Jane begins to outline the details of their future together. Unbeknownst to Jane, her plans are constantly intruded upon by Tommy’s daydreams of Fiona. Breaking off his engagement, Tommy orders Jeff to accompany him back to Scotland. He has to see for himself if Brigadoon is still there waiting for him. Alas, no – the pair quietly poised near the same precipice from which they first observed the small gathering of thatched roof cottages, now replaced by a lonely wilderness of trees. Disillusioned and full of despair, Tommy prepares to leave when he suddenly hears the faint reprise of Lerner and Lowe’s melodic title tune; the mist suddenly lifted to reveal the sleepy village beneath its veil. Jeff is thoroughly haunted by the illusion, but Tommy is rapidly drawn into its sway. Awakened from their slumber, Fiona and Mr. Lundie hurry to McConnachy Square, startled to discover Tommy waiting there, reaffirming a rather appallingly simple-minded edict put forth by Mr. Lundie earlier; that when one is in love “anything is possible.” Thus, Brigadoon’s spell has claimed its first inhabitant from the outside world.
While Brigadoon’s cinematic debut was met with considerable indifference, an irrefutable asset of the production is its surviving score; one of Lerner and Loewe’s most melodic, dramatic and varied. Indeed, the cast album in true stereo is a sumptuous aural feast. If only the pleasantly concocted plaid-clad visuals had managed to triumph on equal footing, Brigadoon might have readily achieved its dreamlike suspension of disbelief. Periodically it does precisely this, the staginess set aside, the fairy-tale-esque quality of love eternal sustained, though never entirely without Minnelli’s puppet-like plying of the strings; gingerly tugging at a moment of realization here or a bit of deliciously cynical dialogue over there. The most enjoyable performance in the picture is owed to Van Johnson whose rank cynicism is cause for some razor-bitten romantic comedy opposite the exuberant Dodie Heath as Meg Brockie, overtly woos Jeff as “a right winning lad” and can feel “wee tadpoles leapin’ in her spine” at the mere sight of him; a metaphor Jeff finds thoroughly repulsive, inquiring why a stranger in a strange land might ever be even remotely attracted to “a mighty strange woman” like Meg. In paring down the plot of the stage show Alan Jay Lerner relegates Heath’s performance to this one exuberantly funny exchange of dialogue; a genuine loss of a throughout charming secondary character that might have counterpoised Brigadoon’s steadily advancing ennui. Alas, the magic here is muted to grievously gloomy levels.
In the end, Brigadoon’s worldwide gross of $3,275,000 narrowly recovered its hefty $2,352,625 investment; proof positive for Dore Schary of two things; first, Arthur Freed’s autonomy at MGM would have to be reevaluated, and second, that musicals in general were no longer the robust profit center they had once been for the studio a decade earlier. Schary might have first considered how his own insistence to confine an outdoorsy musical to the claustrophobic interiors of artificially lit sound stages had impacted the production. And yet, Schary could also point to MGM’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, considered a relatively ‘minor’ musical put into production on an even more restrictive schedule and budget, at roughly the same interval, and released to unanimous critical claim and respectable box office the same year as Brigadoon. Despite his meddling, ‘Brides’ managed to succeed under similar circumstances where Brigadoon had ostensibly failed. But then Schary would have had to admit the Hollywood musical was not yet ready to fade completely into obscurity. And Schary, despite his thorough disinterest in the genre, was nevertheless a bean counter at heart, trying to make sense of the vast assortment of Metro’s physical assets over which he now presided by juggling the figures. Seven Brides balanced the books against Brigadoon’s more costly outlay and tepid returns. So, the MGM musical would live on – alas, with more restrictions imposed, and only the occasional triumph to be had; High Society (1956), Silk Stockings (1957) and Gigi (1958), the silver-star winners of what was, in retrospect, the very sad decline of Metro’s unimpeachable reign as Hollywood’s ‘king of features’.   
The Warner Archive (WAC) has at long last resurrected Brigadoon on Blu-ray. Were that we could also have them work a little magic on High Society and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Warner Home Video’s DVD was a middling effort. The Blu-ray is decidedly a cause for celebration, looking far more vibrant and subtly nuanced than vintage Ansco Color as a right to.  Top to bottom then, Brigadoon has been given the TLC it deserves. We are still denied the ‘wide screen’ version of this movie. What’s here is, of course, the Cinemascope edition, in 2.35:1 and lovingly preserved. Despite its shortcomings, the Ansco Color hues are vibrant. Reds, while lacking the true and velvety blood red quality of a movie shot in Technicolor, are nevertheless intense if slightly leaning towards an orange bias. Flesh tones are very natural looking. The image favors earthy browns, beige and cornflower yellows. Check out the lemon shawl Cyd Charisse wears. Wow! Contrast is markedly improved over the DVD. There is absolutely nothing to complain about. The 5.1 remastered DTS audio is gorgeous.  Extras have been ported over from the DVD and include a brief featurette hosted by Cyd Charisse, musical outtakes and the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Brigadoon in 1080p is wonderful. A blind purchase, if you ask me.  Now, can we please get WAC to give us the rest of MGM’s musical gems: Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, High Society, The Student Prince, Holiday in Mexico, Cabin in the Sky, For Me and My Gal, Royal Wedding, That Midnight Kiss, Showboat, Nancy Goes to Rio, The Toast of New Orleans, The Great Caruso, Million Dollar Mermaid, Bathing Beauty, Easy to Love, etc. et al. Too many great movie musicals still MIA. 
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5
EXTRAS

2.5

GOODFELLAS: 4K UHD Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1990) Warner Home Video

Three decades of mob rule gets aired out in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), a hard-hitting yet stylish retelling of famed writer, Nicholas Pileggi’s non-fiction book, ‘Wiseguy’; the unvarnished biography of professional mobster, Henry Hill.  In retrospect, Scorsese’s milieu has been the gangster picture; almost a throwback to the fast-paced/ripped from the headlines approach that made the fledgling Warner Bros. studios famous back in the 1930’s; albeit, this time with Scorsese’s penchant for adding a patina of gloss, humanity and excruciating attention to detailed brutality, populating his landscape with colorful characters (and even more flamboyant actors to portray them); also, ratcheting up the violence to truly cringe-worthy standards. Right off the bat, Scorsese gives us the lay of the land, a close-up on the trunk of a big ole Pontiac careening down a darkened road with our three antagonists, Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), Jimmy ‘the gent’ Conway (Robert DeNiro) and Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci) nervously riding in silence. A few thumps echo from the boot, necessitating Henry pull over. Alas, the stoolie they have abducted and beaten to a pulp is still very much alive; Tommy angrily plunging a carving knife several more times into the dying man’s chest and stomach before Jimmy joins in with choice shots from his revolver.
It’s been 25 years since this unsettling prologue shattered our preconceived notions of what a ‘mob movie’ ought to be. In the interim, other like-minded fare has come and gone; even Scorsese’s own, and arguably, equally as brilliant, Casino (1995). And yet, Goodfellas remains the benchmark by which all contemporaries are judged. Whereas the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Sergio Leone, in their respective opus magnums, The Godfather (1972) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984) created a sort of Grecian theatricality, even elegance to the tales they told, Scorsese’s great gift to cinema has always been his ability to juxtapose the most profane moments of ultra-violence with a compelling narrative that diffuses its gratuitousness into truly compelling, edge-of-your-seat storytelling.  In this regard, Scorsese’s ace in the hole is undeniably Nicholas Pileggi’s page turner, gleaned from first-hand accounts by the real Henry Hill. The voice over narrations delivered by Ray Liotta are pure Hill, lending an earthy patina to Scorsese’s slick storytelling. Often, voice overs merely bridge a narrative gap – an economical way to carry the audience from one disparate sequence into another and still have it all make sense. However, Scorsese employs them to introduce us to the flavorful language of these wise guys; the cadence in their lingo painting an immediate impression of the world we are about to enter and inhabit for the next two and a half hours. 
Goodfellas is, in fact, the ‘true’ story of Henry Hill; a mob-wannabe who, even as a boy, knew the good life was not to be had in the lower east side Brooklyn slum he lived in with his family, but in the compelling netherworld of dapper dons unfolding just across the street at Tuddy Cicero’s (Fran DiLeo) cab stand where these spurious elite conglomerate in their flashy suits. Of course, the cab stand is a front and, even more obviously, our Henry (played as a youth with great conviction by Christopher Serrone) simply has to be a part of it. After all, what is there about his own home life to inspire him? So, Henry enters a life of crime as the ingénue, the whole operation fronted by Paulie Cicero (Paul Sorveno); a stoic mountain of a man, instilling fear and respect in his cronies and providing protection to his friends while keeping up the appearance of being just an average Joe; bribing local authorities on the side with illegal cigarettes and other choice luxury items stolen from customs and excise at New York’s Idlewild Airport.
In the meantime, Henry (now played by Ray Liotta) and Tommy (Joe Pesci) grow into two of the most lucrative operators working for the mob; front men who enjoy the good score and their nights spent schmoozing with cheap broads and expensive liquor at the Bamboo Club. However, when Tommy smashes a champagne bottle across the proprietor, Sonny Bunz’s noggin (Tony Darrow) over a $7,000 bar tab, Bunz turns to Paulie for ‘protection’, suggesting it wouldn’t be a bad idea if Tommy just disappeared. The notion is hateful to Paulie, who very reluctantly agrees to go into business with Bunz for a time. The restaurant is deliberately run into the ground and then torched for the insurance money. A short while later, Henry and Tommy pull off the ‘Air France’ job. A considerable heist of $400,000, it earns Henry a place of honor on Paulie’s team and also affords him the opportunity to pursue a romantic relationship with Karen (Lorraine Bracco); a girl he initially met through Tommy, but had virtually zero interest in pursuing. Alas, before long nature pulls in a predictable direction, the pair growing inseparable, even as Karen finds some of Henry’s behavior uncouth to downright belligerent and frightening.
Jimmy and Henry shake down local toupee merchant, Morris Kessler (Chuck Low) for the money he borrowed from Jimmy to start his business.  At the same time Karen telephones Henry to tell him how a former acquaintance, Bruce (Mark Evan Jacobs) has attempted to take advantage of her. In reply, Henry pistol-whips Bruce in the driveway of his home, instructing Karen to hide the bloody gun. We jump ahead to Karen and Henry’s wedding; Karen’s parents not entirely pleased with this arrangement – even less so, when Henry and Tommy stay out all night on a drunken binge, incurring their wrath. Karen has reason to be concerned after attending a hostess party thrown by Jimmy’s wife, Mickey (Julie Garfield). Here, gossip runs rampant with lurid stories told by these big-haired, badly dressed and pock-skin princesses wearing far too much makeup: tales about delinquent children, extramarital affairs and husbands gone to prison. It scares Karen, a virgin to the ways of the Mafia. Henry assures his newlywed bride nothing like that will ever happen to them – famous last words, indeed. Henry is solid with Paulie. Moreover, he carefully plans his heists. Only those sloppy with their lifestyle are doomed to fall on hard times - an ominous prelude of things yet to come.
June 11, 1970: a seminal date in the movie’s timeline because it marks the beginning of a downward spiral, destined to undo the organization. The moment begins innocuously when a returning Mafioso, Billy Batts (Frank Vincent) playfully chides Tommy about his past as a shoeshine. Such reminiscences mildly embarrass Tommy in front of his friends. He asks politely for Billy to lay off his reputation. Alas, Billy doesn’t get the hint. And Tommy, whose fuse is short already, decides to make an example of Billy, returning to the club after hours and beating him to a pulp with an assist from Jimmy. We regress to the scene that opened Scorsese’s gangland tour de force, only now with a complete understanding of the severity of the situation; disposing of Billy’s remains with the aid of a carving knife. Afterward, the trio stops off at Tommy’s mother’s (Catherine Scorsese) house to establish an alibi. Months pass. But the heat Paulie incurs over Billy’s disappearance remains unbearable. In the meantime, Henry, who is seemingly happy in his home life, nevertheless takes a mistress, Janice Rossi (Gina Mastrogiacomo). Henry sets Janice up in a cushy apartment not far from the home he shares with Karen. It doesn’t take long for Karen to figure out something is remiss in their relationship.
At a poker game, Tommy shoots Spider (Michael Imperioli), the kid who has the same job Henry once did as the ‘fetch n’ carry’ for the wise guys. Spider’s foot wound is superficial. Not long thereafter Tommy, Jimmy, Henry and Anthony Stabile (Frank Adonis) get together for another round of cards. Spider limps over to their table, wearing an oversized cast. Tommy makes a few jokes about how stupid and crippled Spider is and Spider, believing he is in the right, tells Tommy to go ‘f_ck himself.’ In reply, Tommy opens fire and murders Spider in cold blood. His overreaction to a benign situation disgusts Jimmy, who tells Tommy he will be digging the hole to bury Spider without any help. Henry, however, has begun to harbor sincere misgivings about the laissez faire attitude the wise guys have toward killing. There was a time when murder was committed to prove a point; because someone double-crossed somebody else or to settle an old score. But now, murder is just a means to an end; a mode of self-expression, grotesquely perpetrated on those who neither deserve such vengeance nor are in any position to defend themselves. Bottom line: the unwritten code of honor is no more.
Meanwhile, Karen takes it upon herself to track down and confront Janice at her apartment. She then aims Henry’s gun at his head while he sleeps, the threat narrowly averted when Henry weakens her resolve. The two wind up in a disgruntled heap on the floor. Sometime later, Paulie and Jimmy decide to corner Henry at Janice’s apartment. Things have gone from bad to worse, they tell him. Karen’s hysterics have created ripples throughout the entire extended family. Paulie comes up with a solution. He decides to send Henry off to Tampa with Jimmy to rough up a bookie (Peter Onorati). Paulie also acts as an intermediary in Henry’s marriage to smooth things over on Henry’s behalf with Karen on the understanding her husband’s affair with Janice is over. Alas, the bookie’s sister works for the FBI. By the time the plane lands at J.F.K., Jimmy and Henry are picked up on assault charges, indicted and convicted by a federal grand jury and sentenced to ten years in the penitentiary. Paulie goes to the big house too, on a year’s conviction for contempt of court. Upon their release, with time served and probation, the boy’s embark on a lucrative drug trafficking enterprise without Paulie’s knowledge. This quick n’ dirty/sexy money affords Henry and Karen a lavish lifestyle. Alas, before long Henry becomes his own best customer, snorting cocaine with Sandy (Debi Mazar), who is already a chronic junkie.
The boys pull off a daring Lufthansa heist at J.F.K worth $6 million. Too bad nobody heeds Jimmy’s advice to lay low. Stacks (Samuel L. Jackson), the getaway driver leaves prints on an easily traceable van, necessitating Tommy arriving early one morning at his apartment to put a bullet in the back of his head. Jimmy is ecstatic when Paulie is given the go-ahead to make Tommy a ‘made man’ – the highest rank in the mafia. But Morris proves the proverbial fly in the ointment, refusing to remain silent about his cut from the heist and demanding immediate restitution be paid.  Jimmy has other plans. One by one, the men responsible for the heist begin to turn up in dumpsters, frozen solid in the back of a meat packer’s truck or bludgeoned to death, along with their wives, as they sit in their automobiles.  The proverbial wrench is thrown into Jimmy’s best laid plan when the mob decides to whack Tommy. From this moment on, the situation becomes dire.
Henry’s drug abuse gets the better of him and he starts getting sloppy. He fears Paulie will find out about his lucrative sideline, as does Jimmy, who knows it would not take much for Paulie to have them both toe-tagged rather than put the entire organization in jeopardy. Before anything can happen Henry and his drug-smuggling operation are busted by the NARC’s. Paulie ostracizes Henry from the mob. It’s tantamount to a death warrant and Henry knows it; weighing the option of turning state’s evidence to topple the mob. He lays everything on the line for Karen. It’s over. They are pariah now. If they stay, Paulie will surely have them killed. Karen doesn’t believe it at first. She appeals to Jimmy behind Henry’s back. But when Jimmy sends her to a supposed empty store front to collect a package, Karen begins to suspect she is being set up to be murdered. She hurries home to Henry instead, the couple immediately cooperating with the Feds to put away Paulie and Jimmy. In the film’s epilogue we learn Henry and Karen were placed in the witness protection program, virtually disappearing into thin air overnight. Both Paulie and Jimmy were convicted. Alas, Paulie died only a year into his sentence of a respiratory infection while Jimmy remains in prison, serving 20 years for murder. In 1987, Henry was convicted in Seattle, Washington on drug charges but granted probation once more. In 1989, he and Karen ended their 25 year marriage.    
Goodfellas endures as a watershed American mob movie; Scorsese maturing audiences’ expectations beyond the well-ensconced Hollywood tradition. In some ways, Goodfellas runs true to form here; Scorsese, relying on the ancient premise of a young man’s rise and inevitable fall from grace. Reportedly, Scorsese read Pileggi's book while wrapping up production on The Color of Money (1986), becoming immediately transfixed by its subject matter. It must be said that here is a world Scorsese intuitively understands, Pileggi having penned an unsentimental, yet riveting history. Scorsese’s fervent desire to tell such a story about flawed humanity, simply and plainly, pivots on his own ability to make us love these characters at a first casual glance. Despite the fact our initial glimpse of Henry, Jimmy and Tommy is as a trio of reluctantly nervous killers we cannot help but align our sympathies with these wise guys from the moment Scorsese moves in on a close-up of an unapologetic Ray Liotta in freeze-frame and his voice over admits, “For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster.”  Sounds good. Sounds like a plan.
Scorsese spends the first third of his movie illustrating all the compelling reasons why every man should want to aggressively pursue a life of crime; the immediate fame and, more importantly – respect – garnered during this impressionable age of youth; the sense of community and belonging so absent from Henry’s own ‘legitimate’ home life; and finally, the seemingly un-quantifiable riches to be had for the price of being gutsy and divisive. One could do worse than emulate and admire these innocuous-looking tough guys and ‘made men’, or so it would seem. Ah, but then Scorsese strips away the playful badinage with a moment of sheer brutality; a startling rape of our collective admiration: Tommy’s inexcusable assassination of Spider without as much as a second thought. Until this moment, Tommy has been the foul-mouthed figure of fun (“what? I’m a clown? I amuse you?” – he does), exuberantly portrayed by Joe Pesci. Despite a few minor infractions attesting to his hot-headed temper, Tommy at least seemed like a fairly congenial fellow; bossy, arrogant and demanding, but otherwise just a ‘good fella’ infrequently suffering from the proverbial short-man’s complex. Spider’s death does more than simply alter our impressions of Tommy. It serves as the moment where the pendulum in Scorsese’s fairly breezy tale has decidedly begun to swing in the other direction.
Scorsese directorial mastery provides for this steadily advancing avalanche of misfortune, metaphorically at least; the snowball transformed into a line of cocaine.  The machinery behind the organization, the backbone of Pileggi’s novel, is chiefly what motivates Scorsese narrative; the mechanics of ‘who’, ‘how’ and ‘what’, asked and answered with an absorbing camaraderie to neatly tie all the action together. Goodfellas is not an action movie, or perhaps even a drama, but an intimate backstage pass to the mob: the most dysfunctional family in human history. Henry’s adopted family has its favorite sons and uncles, its nags and nattering aunts, wives and lovers. Only, in this family album the skeletons are not in the closet but readily buried in the backyard or left in the back of a Cadillac to rot in the summer sun. It remains Scorsese’s ability to present the mob as common and flawed ‘every day’ folk that holds the real appeal for us. 
Pileggi’s book essentially followed a linear narrative, functioning as a prolonged, ongoing ‘interview’ with his informant, Henry Hill. Scorsese wisely chooses to shake things up a little by beginning in the middle – the murder of Billy Batts kicking off our story with a decidedly gruesome thrust into this blood-soaked mafia life. Like the spokes of a wheel, all narrative threads extend from this central hub; our regression into Henry’s past and his future destiny with the mob. There is no half way in the criminal underworld. Nor would Henry have it any other way. And Scorsese punctuates this fact with close-ups on hands always doing something; unlocking doors, inserting a key between a few sheets of folded paper, frantically pressing on the call buttons inside an apartment lobby, or, reaching for the grip of a pistol. Symbolically, these shots represent the restlessness of the ‘made’ man’s world. He is never able to relax, the smoke screen of fashionable parties and flashily illicit monetary gains to feather some very tacky nests; all of it proving little more than diversions on which a very high price is extracted. There are only two ways to successfully leave the mafia: death or by going to jail.      
Scorsese and Pileggi collaborated on the screenplay; each agonizing over its lengthy gestation in no less than twelve drafts. From the outset, Scorsese was set on Ray Liotta as his protagonist. DeNiro’s ‘name above the title’ secured the necessary funds and a commitment from Warner Bros. to release the picture. Liotta’s involvement took some convincing; producer, Irwin Winkler delaying the inevitable because he felt Liotta entirely the wrong type. Arguably, Liotta’s appeal for Scorsese is precisely what soured Winkler on his participation; Liota’s autonomy.  Prior to Goodfellas, the actor had appeared in only four movies – all of them inconsequential and unable to break his name into the big time. In the end, Liotta won over Winkler’s approval with an impassioned plea, although as Winkler would later suggest, he would have likely granted Scorsese pretty much anything on blind faith alone. Still, Liotta would later recall how his initial meeting with Scorsese seemed to come to not; Liotta left dangling for a solid nine months before being told he had the part.
As some of the mafia bosses depicted in the film were still very much living, Scorsese agreed to slightly alter their names in the film. Hence, Tommy ‘Two Gun’ DeSimone became Tommy DeVito; Paul Vario/Paulie Cicero, and Jimmy ‘The Gent’ Burke, Jimmy Conway. Director and screenwriter agreed to rename their movie, ‘Goodfellas’ as there had already been a 1986 comedy called Wise Guy, directed by Brian De Palma; also, a highly successful TV series starring Ken Wahl that ran from 1987-1990.  In preparing for their respective roles, both Ray Liotta and Robert DeNiro approached their characters differently. At Scorsese’s request, Liotta staved off the urge to meet the real Henry Hill, instead listening to hours of tape-recorded interviews Pileggi had conducted, to capture the essential cadence in Hill’s speech patterns. Meanwhile, DeNiro relentlessly grilled Pileggi about the particulars of Jimmy’s mannerisms; taking into consideration even the slightest nuance (how to hold a ketchup bottle or flick the cinders from his freshly lit cigarette, as example) and adopting these bits of business with chameleon-like precision. 
Budgeted at $25 million, Goodfellas was Martin Scorsese’s most expensive picture to date. At a sneak preview, Scorsese counted forty walk outs, leaving Warner executives slightly unhinged about the picture’s potential. Scorsese absolutely refused to take out or even re-edit Spider’s murder. He did agree to tightening the film’s third act with his editor, Thelma Schoonmaker adopting the freneticism of the ‘French New Wave’ to create a sense of unease to heighten Henry’s chronic paranoia and anxiety, brought about by his cocaine addiction.  In the final analysis, Warner Bros. had absolutely nothing to fear. Despite mixed critical reviews, Goodfellas was an immediate sensation with audiences, doubling its initial outlay with box office returns of $46,836,394 in the U.S. alone. If anything, the picture plays better today than it did in 1990; Scorsese’s then groundbreaking re-introduction of the traditional mafia hood since having adopted more than a kernel of verisimilitude to be endlessly reincarnated, regurgitated and lampooned.
Warner Home Video has gone back to the well yet again for their true 4K release of Goodfellas.  For although it reports to derive from the same ‘brand new’ 4K elements struck for the standard Blu-ray 1080p release to mark the film’s 25th anniversary, the unnatural push to a bluish tint on the Blu-ray, touted as Scorsese’s original inspired palette for the look of the transfer then, is absent here; colors far more nuanced with the blue tones in check. Goodfellas is not a movie one might anticipate would benefit immensely from a reissue in UHD 4K and the upgrade is not so much a revelation as a modest improvement on the aforementioned 4K standard Blu-ray release. Goodfellas’ image is subdued rather than vibrant. I saw it at the theater when it was first released, but I’ll be damned if I can remember if this disc replicates the theatrical experience or a revision on the experience altogether. Overall, the image harvest sports impressive clarity, sharpness and palpable, if not miraculous color density. Black levels and contrast are, as expected, excellent. Ironically, the new 4K master resembles more closely the color palette of the original Blu-ray release, not its 25th anniversary reissue. Is this a good thing? Hmmmm.  There is little to doubt the UHD 4K bests the 25th anniversary in every way. The image is grainier than before, but with a very organic structure surely to please. While the movie and its audio commentaries are housed separately, the extras are re-represented on standard Blu-ray disc.
Goodfellas audio has also been given the necessary upgrade. The picture was released theatrically in Dolby Surround, later remixed to Dolby Digital 5.1 for the DVD: that mix merely carried over for the 2007 Blu-ray (which justifiably angered a lot of audiophiles). The 4K release is a carry over of the 25th Anniversary audio, spruced up to DTS 5.1. Dialogue is crisp and refined, perfectly integrated with the SFX and pop-tune background music. Bass impact during key moments of violence penetrates the ear with startling clarity. Apart from the ‘all new’ hour long retrospective on the movie and its cultural impact, virtually all the extras have been imported from the old DVD and Blu-ray. The newer documentary has the participation of good many of the film’s alumni, although minus Joe Pesci and including a bizarre anomaly – Leonardo Di Caprio. I don’t really see the point to Di Caprio’s participation herein. He doesn’t add to the discussion and frankly, is Scorsese’s wan muse, compared to DeNiro who, despite having entered his emeritus years, is nevertheless ten times the actor and commentator. The older extras involve a fascinating backstory on the making of this movie; Getting Made, Made Men, The Workaday Gangster, Paper is Cheaper Than Film; alas, all are presented in less than perfect 720p. Warner Home Video has also chucked in a few ‘gangster related’ vintage short subjects and the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Goodfellas in 4K is new, though only marginally improved. Nevertheless, it comes highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
4.5
EXTRAS

4.5

Friday, September 22, 2017

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND: 4K UHD Blu-ray (Columbia 1977) Sony Home Entertainment

“In my early years with Noel Coward, he said, ‘My dear, always come out of a new hole.’ But we don’t come out of any new holes today, do we? We go back and come out again and again - out the same hole: parts one, two, three and so on. And I think it’s terribly sad. Looking at the list of recipients, everyone was an innovator, a path finder. They found new things to do. And we all thrive on new things. Okay - do parts one, two, three. But don’t make them the staple diet! We’ll sink if we do.
This business lives on creative pathfinders…I terribly miss somebody like Irving Thalberg. He had a foot in both camps – creatively and with the money. We’re in terrible danger. I think there are some wonderful new picture makers. But please, you chaps in the money department…remember what they are.  Thalberg once said, ‘the studio has made a lot of money…and it can afford to lose some!’ I think the time has come where the money people can once again afford to ‘lose some’ by taking risks with new film makers.  If they get a break, get encouragement…we are all going to come up and up. Anyhow, wish them luck. I certainly do.”
-        David Lean (accepting his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award, 1990)
In more recent times, director, Steven Spielberg has gone on record as saying contemporary filmmaker's “have forgotten how to tell stories.” I quite agree. Spielberg was, and remains, one of the last of the more ‘painterly’ masters of his craft; someone so transparently influenced by the true artists from Hollywood’s golden age. It would behoove us all to reconsider how movies have digressed into a sort of frenetically energized spectacle since David Lean’s speech at the AFI. Today’s movies owe more to the nucleus of a badly drawn-out music video or overblown video game than what Hitchcock once termed ‘pure cinema’. Alas, too few, toiling behind the camera are intuitively qualified – or even in possession of such daring – merely to take the time and set up a master shot, positioning the camera to allow for the audience to fall in love with their images. I will go Spielberg a step further and blame the handheld Steadicam for this digression. Like all the creative tricks in the filmmakers’ toolbox, the Steadicam has its place. Alas, it should never be considered the crutch to rely upon. Ditto for ‘green screen’ compositing: this has made a generation of filmmakers lazy in their study of light and shadow, wholly relying on digital matte process to achieve an artificial mood.
Even more fatal to the enduring appeal of American movies, today’s cinematographers have somehow managed to homogenize their art into abject copycat. There was a time when the search for visualized distinction was the Holy Grail. Now, the goal seems to be to make every movie vaguely – if not directly – resemble the one released just before it. Action and science fiction movies are particularly guilty of this: a sort of uber-monochromatic ‘look’ with simplified, washed out color palettes, blown out contrast levels, jittery handheld camerawork, and, in rapture for the John Woo chop-shop editing style that has made visual mincemeat of most every scene in a contemporary movie. For some time, this ‘way’ of making movies has been rather erroneously sold as the new 'style'. Yet, upon careful consideration it is not ‘style’ so much as ‘technique’ – at least, of a kind – and decidedly not even the best of all options, ideally suited for telling stories on film. The argument peddled in its defense is that “no one will sit through a 'slow' paced film these days”; frankly, an insult to both the intelligence and patience of the avid film goer. Worst of all, it has degraded American movies; made them disposable and unmemorable – tapping into the popular zeitgeists of the immediate moment but without any thought for longevity; either, of a particular movie’s staying power or, and cumulatively, of the art form itself.
I would like to extend a challenge to my readership and to up and coming film makers. Name me a movie made this past year, likely to celebrate golden anniversaries seventy-five or even fifty years later, beloved in the same way as a Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz or The Sound of Music. Give me an example of one movie within the last ten years to have gripped and shaken its audience to their core with prolific and enduring messages, as The Bridge on the River Kwai or Network. Show me a single picture from the last twenty years as profoundly humanistic as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, How Green Was My Valley or The Song of Bernadette. Provide an example of a comedy from the last decade to rival the remarkable razor-backed sincerity of The Americanization of Emily, The Apartment or Annie Hall. I’m not greedy. One title will do. Pitifully, even the ‘best’ Oscar-nominees from the last two decades have lacked such staying power.
On a personal note, as a devotee of cinema art, I increasingly get bored watching the 'new style' unravel my innate love for ‘the movies’ into frenetically visualized apoplexy. I don’t want to be disappointed sitting there in the dark, though, frequently, I am. My expectations are high - yes. But if you have not been thoroughly entertained – I would suggest you ask for your money back. Movies are meant to fill up our leisure. This should always remain their paramount function. Two hours of life I can never get back ought to never be wasted on an endeavor that is merely ‘okay’. Consider how the cinema artists of yesteryear were working from a grave technological deficit. Yet they gave us art of the highest (and occasionally, lowest) order. Regardless, there was an innate striving – not only for getting things done – but for doing them well and much better, in competition with the next fella.
The Leans, Hitchcocks, Cukors, Wylers, Wilders, etc. shared a passion for revealing unique truths, exploiting that rareness only the medium of film can provide to illustrate deeper realities about the human condition. I don’t see a lot – if any – of such ‘verisimilitude’ happening in my movies these days. Objectively, I do not think I am alone in this. The genre being discussed is irrelevant because the effect today is virtually the same; barely passable, or even subpar movie-land product being peddled as anesthetizing, rather than ‘enriching’ entertainment. When the dream factories retired their B-serials in the mid-1950’s they also forfeited the right to feed us B-grade shlock masquerading behind an A-list budget, taken over by clumsy editing, inferior acting and ever-clever special effects. So, I say to all: Expect More From Your Movie-Going Experiences! Do not settle for second best.
This lengthy dissertation may seem a very longwinded way to reintroduce Spielberg’s own Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) as the extraordinary achievement in science-fiction it remains to this day. But such an example reminds us of a more leisurely pace in hand-crafted movie magic. There was, to be sure, nothing relaxing about the breakneck swiftness with which Spielberg directed the picture; a back-breaking schedule, buffeted by setbacks and budgetary constraints. In 1977, Spielberg was already the peerless master of his craft: sci-fi long neglected by the money merchants as mere Saturday matinee trifles for the kiddies. But Spielberg had a far better understanding of what science fiction could become; both, its precepts as well as its hallmarks. Perhaps only in retrospect can we see Close Encounters as a Master’s class in elevating sci-fi to a finely honed art form. Revisiting it again, I remain thunderstruck by Spielberg’s comprehension and insightfulness; his deft handling of the anamorphic visual space, calculating every moment for its maximum impact.
The awesome discipline exhibited by Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind has, arguably, never been duplicated since in the sci-fi genre, though it was generally overlooked by most critics of the day as ‘dopey Hollywood mysticism’ with Spielberg’s ‘tinker-toying it together (to) make it enjoyable, mildly funny and -- in one sequence -- even credible.’ Even as many of these same critics enjoyed their experience – or at the very least, their blood sport in writing about it – back then, they failed to give Spielberg his due for providing the amusement fully formed and seemingly, effortlessly.  Yet, in Close Encounters we can clearly see, not only the sheer brilliance and undiluted purity of the work itself, but also, the wheels of its’ director’s mind intelligently deconstructing the alien-abduction mythology. Spielberg illustrates his great respect for his audience by affording them the opportunity to indulge and methodically digest his interwoven stories – never encumbered by flashes of surround sound or snippets of light and shadow, passing phantom-less, mindlessly, with only feverishness before our eyes. Indeed, Spielberg knows how to tell a story on celluloid. Regrettably, he has become the minority in Hollywood these days. Thematically, at least, Close Encounters tips its’ hat to two sci-fi classics without whom this intergalactic sojourn might never have existed: 1956’s Forbidden Planet (that sought to intellectualize laser beams and robots with its nod to Shakespeare’s The Tempest) and 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick’s probing, explorative search for human truths in both outer and inner space).
Unabashedly optimistic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is of this rarefied ilk: a keenly observed demystification of the mysteries beyond our stratosphere, meant to satisfy – or, at the very least, ignite – our insatiable thirst for grasping at the infinite and unknown. In latter day reflections, Spielberg has acknowledged Close Encounters as ‘a young man’s dalliance with that ‘what if’ fantasy about alien life’. In retrospect, the movie is even more directly a precursor to Spielberg’s own E.T.; The Extra Terrestrial (1982). Yet, despite its’ superbly handled optical effects (completed in record time by Douglas Trumbull and Carlo Rambaldi, with impeccable production design by Joe Alves – Spielberg’s collaborator on Jaws), Close Encounters steadily evolves into a ‘discussion’ piece about humanity’s willingness to embrace its own place within a community of the cosmos. 
In the summer of ’77, Close Encounters reaped the whirlwind of the public’s obsession with outer space; at $288 million in worldwide box office receipts, easily Columbia Pictures most successful movie of all time to date. Those too quick to dismiss Close Encounters as simply an expression of Spielberg’s own “benign, dreamy-eyed vision” for alien lifeforms were ignoring its rather transparent Judeo-Christian analogies – or perhaps, merely setting aside the fact that until Close Encounters, alien creatures in the movies were generally perceived as life-threatening intergalactic invaders, destined to do us harm.  Far from imbuing his movie with pie-eyed optimism, Close Encounters is both Spielberg’s homage to the likes of such turn-of-the-century visionaries as Jules Verne and Georges Méliès, even as it has since attained the status of a cultural touchstone on par with its other relevant cinema contemporaries and made significant contributions to the wellspring of prolific writers like Carl Sagan and Ray Bradbury.
Like all truly inspired artistry, Close Encounters defies any superficial interpretations; its references – either accidental or intended – leaning toward youthful spirituality, post-Cold War paranoia, and finally, our collective obsession for otherworldly contact; a premise foreshadowing Chris Carter’s small screen phenomenon, The X-File (1993-2003).  Spielberg has since gone on record with hindsight as a husband and father, to say that if he were to remake the picture today, the film’s ‘hero’ – Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) would never be allowed to leave his fictional family for the ‘mothership’ from another world. And yet, it is this penultimate farewell, made after an arduous quest to make sense of an early ‘brief encounter’ of the first kind, that truly satisfies: Roy, arguably, never having belonged to the human world, suffocated in his traditional lower-middle class suburban existence, suddenly liberated by making the ultimate sacrifice for mankind. Such parting in ‘sweet sorrow’ has not lingered in the cinema firmament since Gene Kelly bid Van Johnson a spooky goodbye at the end of Brigadoon (1954) to escape into the ether of a mythical highland village with the raven-haired, 200 year old girl of his dreams – Cyd Charisse.
In its early stages, Close Encounters seemed destined either to be made as a documentary, consisting mostly of interviews with ‘real life’ alien abductees, or just another B-grade sci-fi thriller. Initially, it was pitched to 2oth Century-Fox. Barring their rejection, Columbia took up the slack with producers, Julia and Michael Phillips signing on almost immediately. Spielberg had wisely deduced no ‘legit’ sci-fi movie could be made for under $2.5 million. Throughout the many permutations that would follow, Close Encounters (under the working title, Project Blue Book) would be pitched to Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz: its’ premise, of flying saucers landing in West Hollywood, an idea that Katz particularly abhorred. Mercifully, Spielberg became embroiled with difficulties and setbacks while making Jaws (1974), his pipe dream repeated delayed, ostensibly ordained to fail. Kismet would afford Spielberg the opportunity to do Close Encounters his way; the mega success of Jaws catapulting his cache in Hollywood into the stratosphere. Meanwhile, in the interim, Spielberg had also commissioned another draft of the screenplay; this one by Paul Schrader – deemed unusable and completely thrown out.  After another draft by John Hill, heavily edited, screenwriter, David Giler was brought in, with Spielberg’s friends, Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, adding to the convolution of plots, subplots and plot twists. U.S. military pilot, Allen Hynek was also hired to legitimize the more fantastic elements with credible UFO-documented experiences, putting his own career in the United States Air Force on the line, particularly after USAF and NASA put pressure on Hynek and the production to cease, vehemently declining all opportunities to partake in the exercise themselves.
From the start, Spielberg had endeavored to shoot the entire movie within the confines of the studio, a particularly impossible request, given the scope of the project. Eventually, he relented to lens the penultimate ‘contact’ at Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower; an ominous buttress of craggy, hanging rocks. As production advanced, Spielberg would wind up shooting apparently everywhere except from a home base; a few interiors in Burbank; also, inside two abandoned World War II airship hangars at Brookley Air Force Base in Mobile and Fairhope, Alabama, as well as Louisville and Nashville Railroad depots in Bay Minette. To simulate the Gobi Desert Spielberg shot in Dumont Dunes, California. The logistics of pulling off such a feat in record time caused Spielberg to label Close Encounters as the most unwieldy, arduous and expensive shoot of his young directorial career.  At the height of his exacerbation, Columbia Pictures, plagued by mounting debts incurred elsewhere in their film-making empire, balked at the ever-escalating costs incurred on Close Encounters. Original spit-balled by Spielberg at a cost of $2.7 million, Close Encounters budget would eventually balloon to well over $19.4 million. Somewhere in the middle of all this frenzy, Spielberg also had to contend with firing co-producer Julia Phillips due to a volatile cocaine addiction. Sometime later, she would write a fairly scathing tell-all account of this experience, blaming her ‘problem’ on Spielberg’s perfectionism.
Meanwhile, Spielberg and his editor, Michael Kahn lamented over the last 25 min. of the picture; their decisions brought to bear on Ralph McQuarrie and Greg Jein’s superbly crafted models of ‘the alien mothership’ a magnificent array of metal and plastic tubes deliberately designed to resemble the apocalyptic landscape of an inverted oil refinery and lit from within with hundreds of fiber optic lights. This impressive creation also contained the movie’s singular and deliberate ‘in joke’: an R2-D2 droid clinging to its undercarriage.  Under the pressure of time constraints, much of this final sequence was shot, not by Close Encounters’ cinematographer, Vilmos Zsigmond (who had departed on another project), but John A. Alonzo, László Kovács, and Douglas Slocombe, all of them brought in to help Spielberg cobble together his finale. Meanwhile, composer, John Williams toiled on more than 300 five-tone leitmotifs to be used in the climactic ‘contact’ sequence before Spielberg signed off on the now iconic five chords. Spielberg had hoped to interpolate a few bars of ‘When You Wish upon a Star’ into this moment, but was ultimately vetoed the rights to this classic song by the very territorial regime helming Disney Inc. Undaunted, John Williams ever so slightly altered that classic song’s signature melody, clearly – if briefly – heard as Roy Neary prepares to board the mothership. After Close Encounters’ first preview, Spielberg would trim an additional 7 ½ minutes from the film to tighten the impact of these final moments. Interestingly, Williams’ score for Close Encounters lost the Oscar race to his other monumental contribution of that same year – Star Wars – while nevertheless, scooping up two Grammys for Best Original Film Score and Best Instrumental Composition.
Close Encounters opens with a cryptic array of sightings. In the Sonoran Desert, French scientist, Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) and his American interpreter/mapmaker, David Laughlin (Bob Balaban), along with other government-based scientific researchers discover Flight 19; a squadron of WWII Grumman TBM Avengers – intact and still operational – presumed to have vanished into thin air – literally – some thirty years before. Punctuated by the sound and fury of a raging sandstorm, the moment is fraught with menacing overtones as an old man claims to have witnessed an event where ‘the sun came out at night, and sang to him.’ Not long thereafter, Lacombe and his team unearth the remains of the S.S. Cotopaxi; a cargo ship thought to have been lost at sea, now restlessly moored in the middle of the Gobi Desert. In Indianapolis, air traffic controllers listen intently as two jumbo jets narrowly avoid a mid-air collision after each apparently witnesses a UFO. In Muncie, Indiana; an average child, Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey) is stirred from his slumber when electro-magnetic impulses from an unseen force cause his battery-operated toys to become animated on their own. Fascinated, he toddles from his bedroom down to the kitchen, discovering an unidentified ‘presence’ lurking near the fridge. Spielberg cleverly delays showing us the alien entity while feeding into the cliché of ill-omen events yet to follow. But almost immediately, he diffuses these presumptions by focusing on Barry’s reactions; an angelic smile as the boy playfully runs out the back porch and into the rural fields that surround, causing concerned single mother, Jillian (Melinda Dillon) to chase after him.
In the first of Close Encounters iconic moments, Spielberg shifts focus yet again; this time to Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), an electrical lineman investigating a series of large-scale power outages in the boondocks of Indiana. Lost on an isolated county road in the middle of the night, Roy pauses a moment in his utility truck near a railway crossing to pull out his maps, quite unaware the approaching lights from behind – mimicking the headlamps of an off road truck - actually belong to an alien spacecraft.  In the seconds that follow, Roy experiences a miraculous electromagnetic storm as the alien craft rises overhead in a dazzling ceremony of lights; its cast off radiation causing his skin to exhibit overexposure akin to bad sunburn. As the ship pulls away, power is restored to Neary’s vehicle. He immediately becomes aware from a cacophony of messages flooding his CB radio reporting ‘strange lights’ in the sky. Now, Neary races after his UFO. Nearby, three police cars are in hot pursuit. Along the isolated and winding highway, bystanders, including Barry and Gillian, have gathered. Roy narrowly avoids running Barry over; one of the police cruisers driving off the embankment in its desire to ‘apprehend’ or at least get a better look at the flying saucers playfully looming overhead.
For Roy, this moment becomes a watershed; his life’s ambitions completely consumed by the experience, much to the dismay of his rather impatient and highly skeptical wife, Ronnie (Terri Garr). As the neighborhood looks on, Roy becomes a veritable recluse in his home, spending the days in his pajamas, tears up his living room, carting buckets and wheelbarrows full of wet earth and plant life to build a replica of Devil’s Tower. Meanwhile, Jillian has begun to experience visions of the famed natural monument; the walls of her home covered in sketches of its unique-looking geological formation. Alas, not too long afterward, Jillian is terrorized by a more intimate alien encounter; the house shaken to its foundation and Barry kidnapped by these unseen forces.  Barry’s abduction is the second seminal moment in the movie Spielberg calling upon all his creative fortitude to usher in an utterly spooky sequence, capped off by a frantic Jillian trying in vain to keep these alien visitors at bay. Once again, Spielberg taps into the ‘authentic self’ of childhood to provide a signpost to his audience that will do more than signify where this incredibly heart-palpitating sequence is headed. Unlike Jillian, who is reduced to a near state of catatonia, paralyzed with fear, Barry elation at seeing these otherworldly visitors return; even running to greet them while shouting ‘toys’, wholly unafraid of what lies beyond the menacing orange lights smoldering from under his front door, affords the audience their twinkling of contemplation. After all, how could any director allow an unsuspecting child to walk into his own death?
The middle act of Close Encounters is its weakest, which is not to suggest it is without merit. However, after building up the characters of Roy and Jillian, Spielberg momentarily loses himself in a return to Lacombe and Laughlin who, along with a rather large contingent of United Nations UFO ‘experts’, have launched a very aggressive investigation of these strange supernatural re-occurrences. From witnesses in Dharamsala, India, Lacombe and Laughlin learn the unidentified spacecraft made a distinctive five-tone musical phrase as they soared overhead. However, the scientists are baffled when their reciprocation of this same musical phrased, projected into outer space, return a meaningless series of numbers (104 44 30 40 36 10) back to them. With his background in cartography, Laughlin deduces these numeric signifiers are actually geographical coordinates, pointing to Devils’ Tower near Moorcroft, Wyoming. Now, Lacombe and a contingent of U.S. military and scientific personnel converge on the site, planting a false report in the media of a toxic train wreck forcing the evacuation of local residents. Inadvertently, the TV broadcast of this bogus news story causes Roy to realize his compulsion to build Devil’s Tower in his living room – a natural wonder he has never seen, and therefore knows not why he has become obsessed with it – results in him making an impromptu pilgrimage, despite the falsified reports of a devastating toxic nerve gas leak.
While most of the civilians inexplicably drawn to Devil’s Tower are eventually apprehended by military patrols, Roy manages a daring escape after being interrogated by Lacombe and Laughlin. Remembering Jillian from his first evening’s encounter Roy now takes her along as the two make their way secretly to the footprint of Devil’s Tower under the cover of a starry night. Creeping along the base of this imposing natural edifice, the pair discovers a massive communication outpost set up by the government to make contact with the alien mothership. As Roy and Jillian look on in awe, a portentous cloud encircles the apex of the tower; a mind-boggling array of lights emerging to form a spacecraft so titanic in size it dwarfs virtually everything in its path. Using a large electric billboard as a musical synthesizer, Lacombe and his scientists are able to form a very rudimentary bond of communication with the mothership. It eventually hovers low to the ground, allowing its massive loading bay doors to open and release over a dozen adults and children from virtually all walks of life: farmers, soldiers, a little girl in pigtails, the missing pilots from WWII, the sailors from the Cotopaxi, and even, Barry, who is tearfully reunited with Jillian. Miraculously, none of these abductees has aged since the hour they were taken from the earth; some, missing more than fifty years. As a sort of trading experiment, the government puts forth their own contingent of viable candidates willing to return to the mothership. Ultimately, only Roy is selected by an alien mediator. The diminutive and waxen creature communicates with a smile and primitive hand gestures; Lacombe using Curwen hand signs to express himself. Roy willingly accepts his lot and boards the mother ship as it ascends into the galaxy – his future unknown.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is so patently Spielberg’s struggle to revisit the wonderment, sheer joy and excitement of his own youthful movie-going experiences; bringing the classical style of Hollywood’s narrative story-telling into the unlikeliest of genres, generally not noted for such sustainability. Close Encounters is by far a more richly satisfy and profound than George Lucas’ intergalactic soap opera, Star Wars (both movies premiered in this same year).Perhaps, comparisons are unfair, as Spielberg’s movie, if anything, remains the antithesis of those fantastical spheres in that other galaxy ‘far, far away’. Collecting his thoughts and hand picking his cast from an envious roster (including legendary filmmaker/author, Francois Truffaut), Spielberg ultimately was forced to cut a few corners to meet Columbia’s deadline for a Christmas release. While he would lament a few of the technical compromises, Columbia’s gamble inevitably paid off. Close Encounters was a colossal financial and critical success. Having pulled the beleaguered Columbia back from the brink, the studio rewarded Spielberg with the go-ahead to rethink these visuals three years later and a new re-release of Close Encounters: the Special Edition.
Alterations to the original movie ranged from excising scenes Spielberg felt had performed awkwardly the first time around (as example, gone is the sequence where Roy Neary digs up his entire front yard for raw materials to build his living room replica of Devil’s Tower), reinstating scenes originally shot in 1977, inexplicably left on the cutting room floor (the reinstatement of Gobi Desert sequence; also the moment where Neary rather violently confronts Lacombe and Laughlin with his psychic compulsion) and finally, the inclusion of brand new scenes for which cast and crew were reassembled three years later. Spielberg also endeavored to tighten the tempo of the picture with minor tweaks made throughout. Unfortunately for Spielberg, Columbia’s ‘free hand’, came with one stipulation. And Spielberg would soon consider it unforgiveable - the penultimate scene with Roy seen inside the mothership, observing its cathedral of pulsating lights, moments before the ship rises majestically into outer space.  Finally, in 2007, Spielberg was given the chance to re-release yet another version of Close Encounters…for the third time (and as we all know, 'third time' seems to be the charm for Spielberg) - this time with no strings attached. This third stab remains Spielberg’s preferred Director’s Cut; basically, excising the aforementioned sequence, while retaining all the other SFX updates and edits from the Special Edition. Regardless, in any of its three incarnations, Close Encounters of the Third Kind must qualify as and out and out of this world masterpiece.
We must sincerely doff our caps and give immeasurable thanks to Sony Home Entertainment for possessing both the fortitude and clairvoyance to include all three versions of Close Encounters of the Third Kind on their newly released 4K Ultra Hi-Def Blu-Ray. I have seen far too many ‘revised’ versions of beloved movies make their way to this ‘newest’ format with a complete thoughtlessness in executive logic to exclude ‘original versions’ from the remastering effort that were already a part of other box set releases. Cost-cutting for the launch of 4K…bad idea, folks: Warner’s Blade Runner UHD release being a prime example. For shame! But I digress. Sony’s UHD Blu-Ray is predictably immaculate. No other major studio has shown a commitment to its back catalog as much as Sony.  We again pay our respects here to Mr. Grover Crisp, whose custodianship of the old Columbia library is as commendable as it remains a peerless exemplar all rival studios ought to be following. Regrettably, none are.  
Prepare to be dazzled, because Close Encounters has never looked this good on home video. The image is more richly textured and color fidelity across all three versions included in UHD is exceptional. Flesh tones appear quite natural. Optical shots retain their slightly degraded visual characteristic inherent in their indigenous matte and SFX processes. But this disc manages to refine even these problematic effects shots while subtly masking their more obvious photographic tricks. Film grain has been retained with far greater consistency. In projection, this UHD Blu-ray gave me the distinct pleasure of believing I might actually be watching a Panavision print master – not a disc. Kudos to Mr. Crisp again – and his talented team for their quality control in these remastering efforts. ‘Wow’ and sincerest thanks. The soundtrack on all three versions has been remastered in DTS – no small feat, considering how few original preservation elements have survived - and using the best possible source materials for an enigmatic 5.1 mix. This is how an ‘anniversary’ edition of a beloved movie ought to be handled – with attention paid to every last detail. A real class act!
Extras? Sony has definitely gone the extra mile here too. We get all three movies on regular Blu-ray but – get this – not simply the tired ole Blu’s from a decade ago, but new remasters also derived from these 4K elements. So, gone is the baked in edge enhancement that was present in the old Blu-ray release, with a marked improvement in both color fidelity and contrast. Sony has also produced two new to Blu featurettes for this re-issue: a 22 min. retrospective with Spielberg and directors J.J. Abrams and Denis Villeneuve, and, a nearly 6 min. compendium of Spielberg’s home movies and outtakes while making the movie. Unlike Disney Inc., Sony has elected to port over virtually all of the extras featured on their old DVD and Blu-ray releases; ergo, it’s a comprehensive package with Laurent Bouzereau’s exquisite 101 min. documentary front and center, plus Watch the Skies vintage 1977 featurette, Spielberg’s 30th anniversary ‘look back’, nearly 20 min. of deleted scenes and over 20 min. of storyboard to film comparisons; a massive photo gallery, the original trailer and the SE edition trailer.
All of these goodies are presented in hi-def! No ‘Strange Days’ slapdash DVD offerings here! For those so inclined, Sony has made Close Encounters available as both the aforementioned disc only set and a deluxe gift set. The packaging of the gift set is ‘gimmicky’; a 2-piece lenticular hologram that actually lights up and plays the iconic ‘five tones’ from the mothership. But the swag doesn’t really add up to the inflated price tag – especially since you are getting virtually everything except the booklet and cool packaging from the basic set. Judge and buy accordingly. Bottom line: very highly recommended! We love Sony at Nix Pix. We just do. There are many, many reasons why. Close Encounters of the Third Kind in UHD is just one of them. This is a must own UHD release. We champion it and hope for more of the same.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
5+
VIDEO/AUDIO
5+
EXTRAS
5+