Sunday, March 22, 2009

PRETTY WOMAN - Blu-Ray (Touchstone 1990) Buena Vista Home Video

Gary Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990) is a fable that could only have been made palpable to film audiences at the end of the 1980s; a decade revered for its improbable comedies (The Breakfast Club, The Secret of My Success, Mannequin, Weird Science, Bachelor Party, Big etc).

Transforming then relative unknown Julia Roberts into a megastar, Pretty Woman became one of the most celebrated romantic comedies of its time and a colossal money maker for Disney’s Touchstone apparatus – a Cinderella story set in modern day Beverly Hills, between a Hollywood Blvd. prostitute and a romantically frigid corporate raider in desperate need of a lover’s makeover.

Yet, viewed from the vantage of over 20 years removed from that decade of featherweight pulp, and in particular, with the ominous socially mobile framework of dark and more brooding social critiques that currently occupy our filmic landscape, Pretty Woman seems a little worse for the wear; its premise pure soap and treacle, its characterizations mindless and from another planet, rather than another time.

Even given that the company's penchant for producing ‘family entertainment’, Vivian Ward (Roberts); a Hollywood hooker minus the vices of many a working girl (drug addiction, bastard children, STDs, etc.) seems strange bedfellows (pun intended!). Make no mistake, Pretty Woman is still a fairytale with the princess distilled into a nice girl with a heart of gold who just happens to also be a real whore in bed.

The screenplay by J.F. Lawton opens with Edward Lewis (Richard Gere), an emotionless shell of a man who lives, eats and breathes corporate raiding. Unable to pry his limousine from the juggernaut of party guest’s cars at the home of his attorney Philip Stuckey (Jason Alexander), Edward borrows Stuckey’s Lotus Esprit, instead. But his attempt to make it back to the Beverly Wilshire prove a disaster. Edward can neither successfully drive a stick shift nor navigate the streets of Los Angeles. Instead, he quickly finding himself on Hollywood Blvd. after hours where he meets Vivian working her corner with fellow hooker, Kit De Luca (Laura San Giacomo).

Asking for directions, Edward gets more than he bargains for when Vivian offers to drive him back to the Beverly Wilshire. As Edward has just broken up with his current girlfriend, Jessica, he invites Vivian upstairs to his penthouse suite – entirely uncertain what his next move with her will be. Slowly, an unlikely romantic bond begins to develop between these two. Edward decides to have Vivian stay the week with him at the Wilshire. He needs a girl on his arm to close an attractive deal, but one without romantic illusions.

The hotel's manager, Barney Thompson (Hector Elizondo) confronts Vivian about the reasons for her staying in the penthouse. "Things that happen at other hotels don't happen at the Beverly Wilshire," he reminds her. Nevertheless, Barney has a heart. After Vivian breaks down in his office he decides to help her achieve her goals for the week; to dress and behave like a lady of culture.

Vivian works her magic on the new men in her life, easily winning Edward and Barney’s respect along the way. Barney trains Vivian in the social etiquette of fine dining for her first big night out with Edward and rival businessmen, James (Ralph Bellamy) and David Morse (Alex Hyde-White). But the meeting turns sour after Edward makes it clear that he hopes to acquire and then dismantle James’ company through a hostile corporate takeover.

Meanwhile, Philip begins to sense that Edward’s infatuation with Vivian is growing into a love that may have softened his partner’s usual ruthless business savvy. All this needless worrying is, of course, mere window dressing. The fairytale prevails, with Edward conquering his fear of heights to scale Vivian’s fire escape and ask her to be his wife by the final reel.

What is particularly naïve about the narrative in retrospect is how all the elements of living dangerously have been excised from the subtext. A hooker’s life is presented as good natured, and curiously sexless, romantic fun with more than a hint of glamour associated to the art of the trade.

In the extended cut of Pretty Woman – not seen in theaters but previously released by Buena Vista Home Video for the ‘Anniversary Edition’ – the character of Carlos (Billy Gallo) the pimp was modestly fleshed out in a key sequence to present at least something of a serious threat to Vivian and Kit’s welfare and safety. He threatens Edward in the alley behind ‘The Blue Banana’ – a club frequented by Vivian and Kit. *This scene does not appear on the Blu-ray.

Even the death of ‘Skinny Marie’ a fellow prostitute addicted to crack at the beginning of the film is dolled up for sheer comic relief The body is never shown. Instead, a man and woman are seen taking pictures of the alley cornered off by police. Asked by the presiding detective (Hank Azaria) if they are from the media, the woman casually replies,
“No, we’re from Orlando.”

Pretty Woman is a showcase for Julia Roberts and she works it like a pro. Her performance sustains the film with sincerity, heart and a frank understanding. Richard Gere’s stoic and near expressionless corporate raider is another matter. As an actor, Gere has two expressions to draw from; mediocre and mediocre plus. Ironically, the mileage he gets from this limited range is rather impressive – perhaps because the character of Edward Lewis demands little else.

Hector Elizondo is the most charming edition to the cast; a sort of 'fairy Godmother' who finds something unique and enchanting in the girl from the wrong side of the tracks and thereafter does all he can to sprinkle a little pixie dust over the film's inevitable ‘hearts and flowers’ conclusion.

In the final analysis, Pretty Woman represents Touchstone Pictures at its most slickly packaged. Throughout the 1980s, the company produced many less than perfect entertainments that nevertheless caught the public fancy and box office dollars; Adventures in Babysitting, Can’t Buy Me Love – both in 1987, Beaches 1988 among them. Pretty Woman represents the last of this breed, today belonging more in a time capsule than definitive history of American movie making.

Buena Vista Home Video’s Blu-Ray release of Pretty Woman is sure to infuriate fans of the film on several levels. First, after providing the consumer with the extended cut on DVD, Buena Vista has decided to limit its Blu-Ray release to only the theatrical cut. The limited ‘special features’ that were included on the extended cut – including Natalie Cole’s ‘Wild Women Do’ music video and a meandering audio commentary by Garry Marshall – are the only extra features regurgitated on this outing and presented in 480i – not 1080p. But perhaps the biggest oversight on this release is the studio’s failure to go back to original source masters for the film's 1080p upgrade.

The image is virtually identical to the previously issued ‘Anniversary Edition’ on standard DVD – its only marginal improvements coming from Blu-Ray’s superior bit rate that results in a tighter image with ever so slightly more vibrant colors. The differences between the DVD and the Blu-Ray are negligible at best and frankly, a let down.

Several scenes appear softly focused with a considerable loss of fine detail. The audio is uncompressed DTS – thank heaven. Other extras include a blooper reel and vintage production featurette from 1990. Big deal!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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