Tuesday, February 10, 2009

BEING THERE: Deluxe Edition (Warner Bros. 1979) Warner Home Video

Based on Jerzy Kosinski’s quirky novel, director Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979) is, in retrospect, the last great Peter Seller’s comedy; a bizarre, often unsettling examination of an ethereal innocent cast adrift in a sea of mortal corruption. The film opens and closes with a death, both disruptive experiences for Chance, the gardener (Sellers).

To label either the book or film as mere black comedy is too much of a simplification of where the story takes us. Kosinski – who also wrote the screenplay – infuses his tale with rather cryptic references to the Bible and manages to convey a sense of the supernatural throughout, even as his subject seems all too grounded in the daily confusions of earthly mire.

The story begins with the death of Chance’s elderly employer. A gardener residing in the ‘old man’s’ cramped, if tranquil, townhouse, Chance’s entire life experiences are anchored to his perceptions of daily programming on television. He knows nothing of the world beyond these walls and thinks even less about what he sees on TV. His only confident, house maid Louise (Ruth Attaway) willingly abandons Chance after the old man dies in his sleep, while attorney for the estate, Jeffrey (Ernest McClure) promptly informs Chance that he is to vacate the premises by noon the following day or face a very prompt forced eviction.

Rather than fight the bureaucracy, Chance bravely ventures beyond the walls of the only home he has ever known, only to realize that the world outside is foreboding, full of danger and mischief. Unable to quantify what he sees, Chance flounders in his interaction with other people; that is, until he catches sight of his own image projected onto a large format storefront television screen; then accidentally wedges his leg against the chauffeur driven automobile of Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine).

Presuming him a gentleman – and one whose leg she has nearly broken – Eve offers to drive Chance to a nearby hospital to avoid a lawsuit. However, Eve thinks better of her initial offer and instead invites Chance to her home; a sprawling estate where her very sick husband, Benjamin (Melvyn Douglas) is being cared for by a private physician; Dr. Robert Allenby (Richard Dysart).

From here on in, misinformation seems to be the order of the day with Benjamin taking an instant liking to Chance – whom he rechristens as Chauncey Gardiner – while misinterpreting all of Chance’s garden references as being witty metaphors about the state of the U.S. economy. After an informal meeting with the President of the United States (Jack Warden), Benjamin launches plans for an economic task force that he hopes Chance will consider helming.

Meanwhile, the President uses one of Chance’s garden references in a televised speech, casting an immediate and very direct spotlight of public scrutiny on Chance. Who is he? Where did he come from? How is he involved in government affairs? To answer these questions, the media interviews Chance on a ‘Tonight Show’ styled talk show, then hounds his every move. Unaware of his inflated importance, Chance maintains a calm sense of bearing – yet again, misperceived by the press as being cagy and cool and playing his cards close to his chest.

Meanwhile, Benjamin senses a special bond developing between Eve and Chance. Knowing that his death is inevitable, Benjamin gives his blessing to a romance between Eve and Chance; a romantic circumstance fraught with comedy as Chance seemingly does not know, or even understand, what sex is. For example: Chance’s inference to Eve that “he likes to watch” – meaning television - is misperceived by Eve as a kinky invite for her to masturbate in his presence.

Meanwhile the President’s top aids are powerless to uncover any records or personal history on the mysterious man of the hour leading to yet another misperception: that Chance has had his life history expunged by both the CIA and FBI. At a state dinner, Chance wows the Russian Ambassador, Vladimir Skrapinov (Richard Basehart). Now, more rumors abound that he is in fact a world diplomat of the highest order.

Up till now, the story has been about Chance – a character no one knows anything about. The final scenes in this story, however, bear more fruitful analysis. Benjamin succumbs to his illness and dies in the presence of Dr. Allenby and Chance without ever completing his final thought –
“Tell Eve…”

Chance, who had shown no emotion when his former employer died, now seems genuinely touched by this loss. As Benjamin’s board of directors quietly assess that the future of Rand Enterprises will be best managed by Chance, he wanders away from the funeral procession and, in the final moments of the film, casually walks across a lake of very deep water on the estate as the President proclaims in his eulogy that
“living is a state of mind.”

In essence, Chance is a blank slate upon which those who come in contact with him write their own misperceptions down as part of his personal history. He migrates in the public estimation from lowly gardener to A-list political celebrity – transformed by lies, innuendo and rumors over which he has no control and has not helped to evolve or spread.

As the audience we are as guilty – if not more so – than the characters who place their blind speculation in Chance by making such snap analyses. We see Chance as a rather lost, childlike and somewhat mentally challenged individual who has been overwhelmingly lucky to encounter the kindness of total strangers within a world that might otherwise have swallowed him alive.

Director Ashby and writer Kosinski lead us down this path of misdirection. However, in the final few moments Chance reveals himself to be something much greater. His act of walking on water is at once startlingly Christ-like and yet, unsettling alien to us, begging the question: Have we been indulging in farce with a figure of fun, or are we witnessing the second coming?

Warner Home Video’s ‘Deluxe Edition’ DVD is a remastering effort and, in general, an upgrade from the original disc released in 1999. Colors are more vibrantly rendered on this outing, though flesh tones seem to have adopted a severe reddish hue. Interior scenes photographed at North Carolina’s Biltmore Estate continue to suffer from lower than adequate contrast levels and a rather fuzzy patina of slightly out of focus film grain that renders many sequences with a considerable loss of fine detail. With all these shortcomings, the overall image quality on this remastering effort is rather lackluster at best.

The audio is Mono as originally recorded, with inherent limitations retained. Owing to the moniker of ‘deluxe’ edition, one might expect a litany of extra features to accompany this re-release. Tragically, no such delights are forthcoming. A scant 15 min. featurette with actress Illeana Douglas (Melvyn’s granddaughter) whimsically reminiscing is all that we get, plus a theatrical trailer. What a sham!

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



Sunday, February 1, 2009

THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (Universal 1967) Universal Home Video

In 1967, director George Roy Hill’s Thoroughly Modern Millie must have seemed like foolhardy folly at best: the rather bizarre and featherweight slapstick tale of a scatterbrain 1920s flapper who, with her equally obtuse friends, foils a white slavery ring in New York’s old China town is a strange amalgam of stylistic elements and movie genres. Yet, the screenplay by Richard Morris never wanes in its conviction of selling this claptrap as legit.

Better still; the entire cast seems to believe the essence of the story, putting forth the most remarkably implausible assortment of narrative bits like a great jigsaw puzzle of utter hilarity with complete conviction. As a result, the film scores on almost every level. It is a great piece of escapist entertainment.

Fresh from Kansas, Millie Dillmount (Julie Andrews) is renting a room at a hotel for 'women only' run by the treacherous Mrs. Meers (Beatrice Lillie). Although a farm girl at heart, Millie’s eye is on the prize of snagging herself a wealthy husband. To this end she bobs her hair, raises her skirt and takes up employment in an insurance office run by Trevor Graydon (John Gavin) – a handsome potential suitor. Millie is instantly smitten with Trevor although he is somewhat of a stuffed shirt who fails to take advantage of her obvious charms and even more obvious advances.

New arrival to this homestead, Dorothy Brown (Mary Tyler Moore) is presumably an orphan, utterly green in the ways of the world and quickly taken under Millie's wing. At a hotel dance party the two women are introduced to spunky Jimmy Smith (James Fox); a rather forward fellow who delights the entire room by inventing a dance called the Tapioca. Millie is attracted to Jimmy from the start. But she resists her own feelings to pursue Trevor, all the while oblivious to the fact that Trevor and Dorothy have fallen in love.

Jimmy invites Millie and Dorothy for a weekend at the fashionable Long Island home of a wealthy socialite, Muzzy (Carol Channing). When Millie tells Muzzy about her plans to marry rich, Muzzy forewarns that a marriage without genuine passion is no life at all. Millie agrees. Recognizing that she is in love with Jimmy – and not Trevor – Millie makes plans for a midnight rendezvous in Jimmy’s bedroom.

However, upon sneaking down the hall toward Jimmy’s room, Millie witnesses Jimmy take Dorothy by the hand in her negligee and lead her into his bedroom instead. Heart sore, Millie goes back to her job and pursuing Trevor until Jimmy, thoroughly confused and jilted, scales the office building and climbs into Millie’s window to demand an explanation.

In the meantime, female roomers continue to come and go – or rather, disappear - from Mrs. Meer’s hotel. Unbeknownst to everyone, Mrs. Meers and her two accomplices (Jack Soo and Pat Morita) are running a white slavery ring; drugging unsuspecting boarders in their bedroom and shipping them off to a brothel in the Far East. A pit stop along the way is a fireworks factory in Old China Town.

After Dorothy suddenly breaks their engagement, Trevor becomes suspicious and encourages Millie and Jimmy to go undercover and learn what has become of the girl he would like to marry. In drag, Jimmy is drugged by Mrs. Meers, stuffed into a trunk and hauled off to the fireworks factory. Millie, who has managed to tail the laundry truck used in the getaway, accidentally discovers the whereabouts of Jimmy and Dorothy when she tosses a lit cigarette through an open window at the factory, thereby setting off a chain of events leading to the complete evacuation of the brothel.

Thoroughly Modern Millie is a sublime screwball comedy with musical numbers thrown in for good measure. The score is hardly trend-setting but it is highly enjoyable. Julie Andrews is given the bulk of the songs to sing and does so in perfect pitch. Despite the fact that we rarely get to see complete musical numbers from start to finish (most are usually interrupted with bits of dialogue or simply end abruptly) the choreography is swift and brilliant at capturing the ‘who the hell cares’ attitude of the flapper ‘20s. Jean Louis’ costumes strike just the right note of garish decadence with Howard Bristol’s set decoration a winning compliment. In the final analysis, Thoroughly Modern Millie offers us a thoroughly enjoyable good time.

Universal Home Video’s anamorphic DVD leaves something to be desired. Although the image is generally bright with bold colors, many scenes contain more grain than expected. When the image is smooth it is very smooth with nicely realized flesh tones. Unfortunately, these are not always consistently rendered. Under the main title, skin appears as very pasty beige. Elsewhere it is sometimes pink and at other moments quite orange.

Dissolves, fades and other transitions between scenes exhibits a decided downgrade in visual quality with muddy colors and a lot of grain resulting from the dupe processing. Finally, Universal’s chapter index inexplicably leaves no listing for the very first scene in the film. One either has to sit through the preceding Overture or flash forward to the Main Title sequence – omitting the first abduction sequence in the film. The audio is Dolby Surround but very strident in spots. There are NO extras.

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