Tuesday, February 15, 2011

RAIN MAN: Blu-ray (UA 1988) MGM/Fox Home Entertainment

Autism has been referred to as the 'loneliest' of human conditions. Whether one considers that loneliness from the perspective of the savant - who exists, for all intensive purposes, in a world of his/her own creation - or the isolation endured by the families who struggle to care for an autistic individual without ever knowing if their love and attentions are understood by the savant, autism is both a crippling mental disease, yet - if one is so inclined to view it as such - also a miraculous gift of quantitative clarity. 

Both perspectives are on display in director Barry Levinson's Rain Man (1988); the film that first brought autism to a global public consciousness. Barry Morrow and Ronald Bass' screenplay draws its inspiration directly from personal experiences with real life savants thereby avoiding the usual clich├ęs associated with Hollywood and the 'medical' drama. As such, the film is true to life - a faithful mirror of representation into a world that until Rain Man was shrouded in public isolation and numerous misconceptions.

For starters, many - though not all - savants are not mentally retarded but high functioning, their level of innate genius impeded by an interruption in the brain that makes it impossible for them to socially relate on a level for the 'average' human being, while yielding extraordinary abilities to catalogue dates, numbers and events as a human encyclopaedia might.
The film opens large at the Los Angeles port where four Ferrari's are being lowered from a freighter's cargo hold. These luxurious automobiles are temporarily the property of con artist, Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise), a roughish hot shot who, in his personal relationships, proves to be just as isolated from society as his autistic brother, Raymond (Dustin Hoffman). The only difference is that Charlie has chosen his isolation.
After the death of Sanford Babbitt, his estranged father, Charlie is told by Sanford's attorney, John Mooney (Jack Murdock) that the entire estate, worth in excess of $3 million has been left to an undisclosed trustee. Locating the name of this individual becomes Charlie's obsession. The search eventually leads Charlie and his girlfriend, Susanna (Valerie Golino) to a secluded sanatorium where Charlie discovers that he has an autistic brother named Raymond.
For Charlie, this revelation opens up a wellspring of repressed childhood memories. It's effect, however, is very short lived. Charlie is after his father's money and sees Raymond as simply a means to an end. Charlie's first attempt is to finagle a deal between himself and the sanatorium's Dr. Bruner (Jerry Molen) to siphon money from his father's account. After Bruner refuses such an arrangement, Charlie kidnaps Raymond from the hospital, determined to hold him hostage back in California while he negotiates the release of funds in trade for Raymond's safe return.
Throughout the first half of the story, Charlie is unconscionably ruthless, greedy and uncaring; all vices that Susanna eventually decides to divest herself of. She breaks her engagement to Charlie, leaving him to care for his brother alone.

Remarkably, this abandonment leads to a fortuitous bonding between the brothers - one stubbornly forged against Charlie's will as he struggles to look after Raymond - a full time job he is ill prepared to handle. After a small town doctor (Kim Robillard) diagnoses Raymond's extraordinary mathematical abilities, Charlie decides to take Raymond on a road trip to Vegas. 
His plan is quite simple: use Raymond to count his cards at poker. The rouse works beautifully and Charlie and Raymond win a large sum of money at the tables - enough to pull Charlie out of his present financial hole. However, the casino management are no fools and encourage the brothers not to extend their stay.
At this point, Susanna returns to Charlie's side and is amazed by how genuinely attached he has grown to Raymond. With Susanna's help, Charlie decides to set up house where he believes he will be able to care for the brother he has never known. Regrettably, left to his own devices even for a moment, Raymond nearly burns down their home, forcing Charlie to admit a heartbreaking reality: that his world and that of Raymond's creation can never coincide in any lasting peaceable way.
Charlie has finally realized what it means to love another human being - an emotional attachment that arguably Raymond can never comprehend. In the bittersweet finale, Charlie releases Raymond to Dr. Bruner's care – the only place where he now realizes Raymond's limited sense of belonging will ever endure.
Rain Man is compelling entertainment with a high concept educational message buried beneath its poignant melodrama. Following the film's release and overwhelming critical and financial success, the term 'Rain Man' became mainstream and interchangeable with the terms 'autistic' and 'savant'. Yet, an important distinction remains; not all diagnosed as autistic are also high functioning.
Dustin Hoffman’s ability to immerse himself in character is startlingly effective. Cribbing his performance from interaction with two real life savants, Hoffman shapes his character with deeply wrought, multi-dimensional nuances that make Raymond truly unique and memorable. His is the standout and justly awarded Oscar-winning turn in the film.
In his shadow, Tom Cruise has often been overlooked by the critics. While Cruise in no way compares to Hoffman's stellar emoting, he does, in fact, provide a weighty counterbalance. As the spoiled sibling who eventually discovers a way to heal his own emotional scars, Cruise delivers a competent and underrated performance worthy of the film.
If Rain Man does have a flaw it develops during the second act of Morrow and Bass' screenplay where the story suddenly becomes quite episodic. Charlie struggles to win back Susanna while dealing with Raymond's curious rigidity and infrequent emotional outbursts. We are treated to drawn out road trip sequences brimming in beautifully composed John Seale's cinematography, but precious little else as Charlie works out his frustrations. 
This middle act undeniably belongs to Cruise and it is saying much that, although far less engaging than the first or finale, the middle nevertheless does not drag on enough to harm the story's continuity or dramatic effect.

MGM/Fox Home Video's Blu-ray release is a definite upgrade from its previously issued standard DVD. Given the Blu-ray's high bit rate, it's little surprise to find the image tightened up considerably. Background information that appeared blocky or out of focus on the DVD suddenly reveals itself as quite intensely sharp and detailed.
Colour fidelity seems to be the biggest hurdle that the Blu-ray never entirely overcomes. For starters, flesh tones exhibit a very dated orangey patina. Colours on the whole are very warm. During the title sequence colour fidelity is at its weakest, with the blood red Ferrari paint looking very ruddy and even dull at times.
The image on this Blu-ray is often remarkably sharp with fine details emerging at a level of refinement never before seen. However, long shots tend to appear slightly soft. Interior scenes do not exhibit the sort of spatial dimensionality usually associated with 1080p remastering efforts. Film grain is present but is represented herein as grain rather than digitized grit - a definite plus!
The audio is a DTS repurposing of the 5.1 tracks used on the DVD. Extras include two engaging featurettes, one on the making of the film, the other on understanding autism, two separate audio commentaries and the film's theatrical trailer. Recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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