Saturday, August 31, 2013

FLASHDANCE: Blu-ray (Paramount 1983) Warner Home Video

In 1697 famed French author Charles Perrault wrote an endearing and enduring fable about a scullery girl who marries a prince. In the roughly 300+ years since, that tale has been told countless times and in a myriad of permutations. Today, Perrault’s Cinderella is alive and well. Disney built an entire empire on its legacy. But the sentiment behind the dream that is a wish the heart makes can equally apply to both sexes and, in fact, never entirely leaves us in the twilight of our youth. Perhaps this, above all else, remains the strength in Perrault’s escapist fantasy; the allure that at any moment we might achieve the impossible with just a little faith, guidance and perpetuation of belief in ourselves. It’s a powerful notion, that miracles can and do occur; unearthed from the most graceless profession, location and time; in the case of Adrian Lyne’s Flashdance; exotic dancing, Pittsburgh and 1983; the latter a period in which the American movie culture – thought to be on its death bed a scant three years earlier – had quite inexplicably and joyously begun to experience its own extraordinary resurrection.
For one reason or another, audiences who had all but shunned movie culture throughout the 1970s began to fall in love with the movies all over again throughout the 1980s, the renaissance in Hollywood partly owed to Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Reagan had, of course, been an actor during Hollywood’s golden era and had watched as the merciless cost-cutting and government interventions of the mid-1950s had systematically conspired to reduce a once indestructible and uniquely American industry to its bedrock. By 1971, the movie business was hardly something desired to get into, but, in fact, was readily looking upon as something get out of. While the pundits began to pen their dirges and eulogies to Hollywood, suggesting an era not too far off when society would look back on going to the movies with quaint fondness, Reagan passed into legislation a reversal of the 1950 Consent Decrees; effectively allowing studios to once more begin acquiring other holdings. Now unimpeded, the surviving majors dug in their heels as perhaps never before, building rosters and conglomerates. Regrettably, for some this salvation came too late – particularly MGM and United Artists.
But an even more phenomenal revivification was afoot in 1983; the return of the audience into theaters and the worldwide debut of the home video market which took off as few in the industry might have guessed it would. Perhaps in their decade-long abstinence the audience had suddenly realized what had almost been lost to them for all time, returning to the fold in ever-increasing numbers and raising the demand for more and more studio-grown product. Of all the studios that had survived the mid-70s deluge, perhaps none was more primed for a comeback than Paramount – the studio that had once played host to the likes of Cecil B. De Mille, Billy Wilder and Ernest Lubtisch among others, but had effectively slid into ninth place amongst its competitors just prior to Robert Evan’s being instated as its production chief in 1970. Evans took risks – ones that paid off handsomely and by 1980 Paramount was on very solid ground. If a dream is indeed a wish the heart makes, then Evan’s wishes had been amply granted and the studio’s upswing continued under newly instated production chief Don Simpson.
Flashdance is the Cinderella-esque tale of a defiant welder/part-time exotic dancer who has steadfast dreams of making it big in the seemingly irreconcilable world of professional ballet. The improbability of this scenario mattered not to audiences back in 1983. In fact, it helped to stir the precepts of the Cinderella fable anew for a generation jaded by senate probes, wage freezes, oil embargoes and a foundering middle class plagued by chronic unemployment. Setting Flashdance at the epicenter of this bewildered/disillusioned and very depressed pop culture gave the story not only real intensity but also an immediate believability. Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals) is not Central Casting beautiful; but earthy, blue collar, exceptionally gifted and essentially real – all necessary qualities for the transformation to take hold within our collective hearts. This transformative quality is precisely what brought audiences into theaters in 1983; the very promise that with a little willful passion and an awful lot of penetrating effort one could rise above circumstances to attain greatness on individual terms and without sacrificing personal integrity to make the achievement stick.  
Flashdance was first brought to the attention of producer Linda Obst by screenwriter Tom Hedley. Hedley had written a story based on the experiences of woman who danced in bars in Vancouver: the distinction made was that these women did not dance to strip, but toiled in the exotic dancing profession with aspirations of becoming legitimate dancers elsewhere. Obst, who had been unhappily toiling at Casablanca Films took a leap of faith, sharing the project with producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Obst saw Flashdance as a woman’s empowerment piece. Bruckheimer pursued Adrian Lyne to direct – an assignment Lyne was less than enthusiastic about. Indeed, Bruckheimer concurred that the script needed work and so Rolling Stone writer, Joe Esterhas was brought in to juice up the scenario. Six months later Lyne was contacted again and was much impressed by the reshaping, but even more so with Don Simpson’s overwhelming passion for the projection. In one, nine hour phone session the terms were agreed upon and Flashdance began its two week location shoot in Pittsburgh. Lyne exploited the town’s postmodern apocalyptic landscape of abandoned factories to stunning effect; his keen artistic sense relishing the urban decay; creating a sort of contemporary ‘love among the ruins’ between Alex Owen and Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri).
Nouri’s participation on the project was kismet. He had contemplated The Osterman Weekend for director Sam Peckinpah, a deal practically signed when Flashdance was brought to his attention. In viewing Flashdance today one is immediately struck by Nouri’s stillness; his ability to convey so much while appearing to do so little; his rectitude and introspection the perfect counterbalance to Jennifer Beals’ fiery disposition. Beals was just seventeen at the time; an accidental stay over in New York after her luggage had been lost on a return trip from Europe placing her at the right place at the right time to audition for the part. Adrian Lyne was immediately struck by Beals’ ability to simultaneously convey vulnerability and yet great determination. From the moment he set eyes on her, Lyne was most enthusiastic to have Beals in the movie. It took Bruckheimer a little longer to warm up to the idea. Only after several other actresses – including Cynthia Rhodes - had been tested, and, in fact, Michael Eisner had intervened, did Beals get the part.
From the onset it was apparent that Beals lacked the precision of a trained dancer. Thus, much of her routine’s in the movie were an ingenious amalgam of Beals shot in close-up, and at least two other dancers and a gymnast – one male – cleverly shot in silhouette or half-shadow and skillfully edited in such a way as to be virtually imperceptible to the naked eye. In the meantime, Lyne went about crafting the visual look of the movie from a patchwork of principle photographed lensed in Pittsburgh and L.A. and sets expressly built for the production at Paramount, including Mawby’s Bar – the hub for so many of the story’s pivotal moments and virtually all except for two of its memorable dance routines.
Flashdance begins with a few bars of ‘What A Feeling’ – the iconic Giorgio Moroder pop tune sung with genuine passion by Irene Cara – laid under a montage as welder Alex Owens (Jennifer Beals) bicycles through the gritty downtown street of Pittsburgh in the steely blue-gray of dawn on her way to work. To her coworkers at the construction site Alex is just one of the guys. Indeed, she even goes unnoticed by her boss, Nick Hurley (Michael Nouri) until he turns up one evening at Mawby’s Bar – a blue collar watering hole where the mostly male clientele come to watch supple young women perform exotic dances. Alex is just one of the headliners at this club, performing a stunning routine with cascading water backlit to accentuate the splash effects and fairly setting Nick’s heart on fire in the process.
The next day Nick makes a play for Alex during her lunch break at the construction site. She’s polite but adamant about not entertaining his romantic ideas; repeatedly turning him down for lunch and dinner engagements and making it quite clear that she has no intentions of getting involved with the boss. Nick’s persistent, however, and congenial to a fault. Alex, on the other hand, is a spitfire. Her best friend is Jeanie Szabo (Sunny Johnson), an insecure waitress at the club who becomes disillusioned and self-destructive after her boyfriend, wannabe comedian, Richie (Kyle T. Heffner) makes an impromptu decision to go to Hollywood without her in his vein attempt to make it big.
Alex’s mentor is Hannah Long (Lilia Skala), an ex-Ziegfeld girl turned seamstress who sews all of Alex’s costumes, but senses the girl’s deeper passion to belong to another world. Hannah takes Alex to the ballet and encourages her to audition for the local repertory company. In the meantime, local hustler, Johnny C. (Lee Ving) has his eyes on Alex and Jeanie, hoping to lure them away from Jake Mawby’s (Ron Karabatsos) bar into his seedy underworld of sex trade prostitution. Alex is not interested and neither is Jeanie at first. But Johnny chips away at Jeanie’s self-respect after Richie leaves town and particularly after her own dreams of becoming a professional skater are dashed in a disastrous performance on the ice.
In the meantime, Alex has decided to allow Nick to pursue her. Taking Nick back to her place – a makeshift apartment converted from an industrial loft – Alex seduces Nick on her own terms and the two become lovers. Everything seems to be going just fine until Alex accidentally observes Nick leaving the ballet with a blonde. Riding her bicycle back to Nick’s house, Alex hurls a rock through his picture window before peddling off in a rage. The next day at work she confronts Nick who confesses to attending the ballet with his ex-wife, Katie (Belinda Bauer) because both are members who sit on the artist’s committee. Adrian Lyne’s direction is rather ambivalent about whether or not Nick took Katie home with him. But Nick’s explanation of events seems to satisfy Alex who rather sheepishly forgives him.  
To prove his loyalty Nick decides to pull a few strings on the art’s council, thus ensuring that Alex will be invited by the committee to audition for the ballet despite her lack of formal training. Alex knows nothing of Nick’s philanthropy and is elated when the letter of admittance arrives, immediately sharing her good news with Hannah who could not be more pleased. To celebrate, Nick takes Alex to a fashionable restaurant where the two are confronted by Katie. The moment is fraught with friction, diffused only after Alex stands her ground and reveals to the ex that she is currently having an affair with Nick. It is a near perfect triumph until Nick lets it slip on the car ride home that he knew about Alex’s invitation before she did, thereby exposing his hand in securing her the audition.
Embittered by the realization that she has not accomplished anything on her own, Alex storms off in a rage, striking Nick and rushing to Hannah’s for guidance only to discover from her landlady (Ann Muffly) that Hannah has died. Rescuing Jeanie from Johnny C.’s seedy nightclub - a lifestyle that could only lead to self-degradation and despair - Alex decides to grasp at the brass ring of success by auditioning for the committee. Nervous, Alex flubs her first attempt, but valiantly regroups, girding her resolve to perform a stunning routine; an eclectic mix of traditional ballet, exotic expressionism and even break-dancing (then on the cusp of becoming mainstream). The audacity and sheer energy imbued in her performance dazzles the committee. Emerging from the audition invigorated, and with the understanding that today begins her life anew, Alex finds Nick waiting for her with roses. Alex removes a single long stem from his bouquet and giving it back to Nick, her gesture of gratitude for his having changed the circumstances of her own life for the better.
Flashdance is a ‘feel good’ times ten; having lost none of its charm in the intervening decades. At times, Adrian Lyne’s direction becomes just a tad episodic with several sequences degenerating into lengthy montages linked solely by the movie’s chart-topping soundtrack that includes Cycle V’s ‘Seduce Me Tonight,’ Michael Sembello’s ‘Maniac’, and Joe Esposito’s memorable love ballad, ‘Lady, Lady, Lady’ among other instantly recognizable hits from the 1980s.
There’s a genuine, if extremely volatile, sexual chemistry brewing between Jennifer Beals and Michael Nouri. It’s hard to believe Beals was only seventeen when she made this movie; her demeanor suggesting a woman of the world well beyond her actual age. As a couple, Beals and Nouri emit some fairly potent sparks; the trick of it being that almost none occur in the usual clichéd ‘sweating up the sheets’ garden variety that Hollywood so readily relishes in exposing. With the exception of a few cutaways of the pair lying next to each other in bed, almost all of Alex and Nick’s tempestuous liaisons are played vertically – rather than horizontally – leaving most of what went on behind closed doors enough of a mystery for the audience to fill in the blanks.
Michael Kaplan’s stripped down wardrobe of cutoff sweatshirts, leotards, leggings and leg warmers created something of a minor fashion trend upon the movie’s release. It’s the clothing, and perhaps the hairstyles, that dates Flashdance as a product of the 1980s. But otherwise it is refreshing to see a thirty-three year old motion picture continue to hold up so well; particularly from today’s jaded vantage and scrutiny. I suspect that Flashdance continues to work its magic because at its heart its precepts are very much aligned with Charles Perrault’s Cinderella – timeless source material likely to remain undiminished by the passing parade of youth and lifestyle, unencumbered by the evolution of style itself and ever-changing trends, and perennially appealing in its perpetuation of the hope, the promise and the dreams that eternally make up our more intuitive desire; fueling inspiration to the human condition. What a feeling, indeed!
Warner Home Video’s release of this vintage Paramount title is extremely impressive. Paramount gets the kudos for this remastering effort; a flawless video presentation with HD extras to boot. Where to begin? The movie looks spectacular. Colors pop, with vibrant, deeply saturated reds, earthy brown and very natural flesh tones. Contrast is superb with velvety rich blacks and very crisp whites. Grain is appealing. Fine details abound. We get to see textures in brick and foliage and hair and skin that add another layer to the grittiness of the story: truly, a superior remastering effort. The audio is equally impressive with Irene Cara’s iconic ‘What a Feeling’ billowing forth in stimulating sonic waves. Dialogue sounds quite natural and the pop soundtrack thunders with an intensity unheard – except, arguably, during the movie’s theatrical release. Better still, Paramount’s extras produced in 2007 have all been imported to this Blu-ray in HD: five featurettes produced by Laurent Bouzereau, whose distinguished career has given us some very fine supplemental material over the years. His featurettes for Flashdance provide fairly comprehensive coverage of the movie’s making with input from Bruckheimer, Lyne, Nouri and other cast and crew. Top marks! Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, August 30, 2013

THE PRESIDIO: Blu-ray (Paramount 1988) Warner Home Video

There is a lot of smoke but virtually no fire to Peter Hyam’s The Presidio (1988), a diamond-smuggling caper thinly disguised as a military ‘who done it?’ and costarring Sean Connery with Mark Harmon riding shotgun. One is playing the part of a man; the other is the real McCoy. I will leave it to the first time viewer to deduce which is which. Difficult to say where the bulk of the blame for this misfire should reside – in Larry Ferguson’s tragically flawed screenplay that introduces then jettisons key characters without so much as a ‘huh? What happened?’ or in Hyam’s rather pedestrian handling of the story – such as it is. The Presidio is a story that could have been told anywhere – and in fact, is – once the initial set up of a murder on that famed San Franciscan military base is dealt short shrift, culminating in a particularly exhilarating car chase down the steep and rolling inclines, ending with a thoroughly implausible and very fiery crash.
But blowing things up doesn’t make for great storytelling, and this we quickly realize once we’re introduced to police detective Jay Austin (Mark Harmon); a Johnny Dollar without a clue who disarms Howard Buckely (Don Calfa) a whacked out druggie inside his precinct after Howard has already knocked a fellow officer unconscious and stolen his gun in an attempt at escape. Regrettably, ‘butch’ isn’t Harmon’s bag. He’s more petulant than pugnacious, less interested in getting to the truth than being right all the time. That sort of egotism gets tiresome fast – particularly when the actor playing the part doesn’t really buy into it either. Ego would work if Jay wasn’t so insincerely obtuse to just about everything that’s going on around him. At one point he tells Connery’s Lt. Col. Alan Caldwell, “How am I supposed to know about that? That’s classified military s_ _ t!”  True, but Harmon is playing a detective, remember? Someone who should be more on the ball, have instincts of his own and powers of deduction at the very least; doing something more than begrudgingly riding the coattails of a man he so obviously despises. 
Harmon doesn’t do the ‘tough guy’ thing well at all and increasingly he just seems to be sulking and skulking rather than sleuthing and deducing. By the time Jay has figured out diamonds are being smuggled in bottled water shipments from the Philippines, Caldwell’s already connected the dots and so has the audience – having been tipped off by Hyams’ direction – thus making Jay look even more sloppy and incompetent. Perhaps ol’ Jay’s been thinking with his other head – the one currently being turned and polished by Caldwell’s daughter, Donna (Meg Ryan). But this ‘good cop/great sex’ subplot doesn’t enhance the story. Instead, it divides the film’s runtime and our interests along two competing storylines – one a would-be cloak and dagger thriller/the other a syrupy soap opera – neither narrative bloodline converging until the proverbial clichéd Hollywood happy ending.
At the start of his investigation, Caldwell informs Jay that he’s been cut some slack to play out his ‘Dirty Harry’ knock-off – a telling bit of exposition that will continue to inform our understanding of just how idiotic and out of his depth Jay Austin is; his sledgehammer approach to police work so archaic that it borders on a short man’s complex run disastrously amuck. Where to begin? Well, I suppose at the Presidio on a foggy night when Patti Jean Lynch (Jenette Goldstein), a former lover of Jay’s assigned base patrol stumbled upon a jimmied door at the Officer’s Club and decides to investigate. Bad luck all around that she bursts in on something we never get to see and takes a pair of slugs in the chest for her efforts. Enter Jay, tricked out in his baseball jacket, snakeskin boots and blue jeans, looking more Bull Durham than Dirty Harry as he struts past the crime scene and into a confrontation with Caldwell. We learn that Jay used to be a cadet but left the military under a cloud – one that continues to loom between him and Caldwell.
Given their mutual animosity and Jay’s thorough lack of investigative prowess (he literally shows up, has words with Caldwell, then goes home without even looking for clues), Jay thinks better on his haste, or perhaps realizes he needs Caldwell’s help, and shows up at his home the next afternoon. Caldwell’s out but his daughter, Donna is definitely in. The flirtation between the two is mutual, obvious and so formulaic that there is never any doubt Donna and Jay will become lovers. The shock of it is perhaps just how quickly they get around to sweating up the sheets. Moments before Caldwell comes home Jay asks Donna out. She eagerly accepts. Caldwell tells Donna he doesn’t want her to get involved. A snappish father/daughter scene ensues before Donna runs off to meet Jay for dinner. But only moments into their rendezvous she suggests they just cut to the chase and have great sex.
Another spirited car chase: this one as foreplay with Donna driving like a fiend and damn near causes two, three car pile ups in the downtown sector. The couple reunites in front of Jay’s apartment. He’s all set to give her a piece of his mind. Only that’s not the piece Donna’s particularly interested in; knocking Jay back against the trunk of her vintage Corvette, tearing open his shirt and attempting to take him right then and there. Disgruntled sex in public places isn’t really Jay’s thing. So he carries Donna, who has straddled his waist, up a steep incline of stairs to his apartment, momentarily dropping his gun, then reaching for it with a pair of handcuffs loosely dangling from his fingertips – Hyams’ ultra-feeble attempt to foreshadow a kinky consummation yet to follow. Flash forward to their post-coital embrace; Jay’s eagerness to know more about Donna met with a sudden, inexplicable reticence that it will take Jay the rest of the movie to decipher. Horizontally he may be a very fast worker, but he’s very slow on his feet.  
Aside: I’ve always found the American film industry’s aversion to the sex act rather intriguing. We’re okay with gratuitous foreplay, hot sweaty kisses and flashes of bouncing breasts barely sheathed in tight-fitting cleavage-exposing outfits, but when it comes to actual penetration its every voyeur for himself.  Personally, I don’t think the sex act has any place in legitimate Hollywood movies. You want flesh? Watch porn. But we’re all adults beyond a PG rating and we know damn well what goes on between a heterosexual man and a woman left to their own accord when the sparks of mutual attraction ignite. Given the film industry’s obvious desire to go that extra mile in ‘show and tell’ it’s always baffling that after the big build up the camera blushes to a jump cut exposing nothing except the aftermath, and, in The Presidio’s case, not even successfully but in front of the clichéd roaring fire; that universally accepted movies’ Freudian code for illicit hot-blooded passion.
The real plot advances – barely. We learn that Jay and the late Patti Jean were once partnered MPs; Caldwell their superior who did not back up a bust Jay made of Colonel Paul Lawrence (Dana Lawrence). Jay’s ego was bruised then and he decided to get a discharge rather than put in the good fight. But now the murder investigation has come full circle to Lawrence when Jay discovers Patti Jean was killed with a Tokarev – a rare Russian pistol Lawrence claims he lost in a poker game.  Jay also traces the stolen car used in the police chase to an importer/exporter named Arthur Peale (Mark Blum). Sizing each other up, Jay’s investigation of Lawrence is impugned by Caldwell while Lawrence’s questioning of Peale is cut short by Jay, the latter claiming that he ran a background check beforehand. “I don’t like him, but he’s clean!” Jay admits.
The handling of these scenes is so perfunctory in its ‘round up the usual suspects’ that we really are given nothing more than cardboard cutouts to go on. Nothing adds up and the clues – such as they are and have been presented – become frustratingly dull and rather inconsequential. We toggle back to the romance between Jay and Donna – playful until she learns Jay has begun to have genuine feelings for her. Whoops! That’s more reality than our nymphomaniac had planned on. Instead, Donna sets up a dinner at the Officer’s Club, spending most of the night in other men’s arms and causing the jealous Jay to insult and then assault one of the military on the dance floor. It all makes for a very lovely ‘mine’s bigger than yours is’ scene, indeed.
Meanwhile, recognizing that part of his case is under Caldwell's jurisdiction, Jay begrudgingly lets him in on the case. Caldwell takes notice of some Vietnam paraphernalia in Peale's office and through his connections identifies Peale as former CIA; a spy who was in Nam at the same time Lawrence was there serving as an officer. It now becomes quite clear to Caldwell – although arguably no one else - that Lawrence and Peale knew each other. In the meantime, Jay decides to confront Lawrence about the Tokarev after ballistics match a slug taken from the Presidio’s firing range to another dug out of Patti Jean – both belonging to Lawrence’s presumably ‘stolen’ gun. Another fight, another chase – this one on foot through the twisted streets of Frisco’s Chinatown and pretty much distilled into Lawrence throwing roadblocks in Jay’s path (everything from vendor’s clothing racks to the vendors themselves) in a ridiculous escape attempt that ends with Lawrence becomes the victim of a hit and run; Jay left bloody-lipped but otherwise unscathed to incur Caldwell’s wrath.
Caldwell confides specifics of his investigation to an old army friend, retired Sergeant Major Ross Maclure (Jack Warden), who presently gives grade-school tours of the Presidio's war museum. We learn that Maclure saved Caldwell’s life in Nam and received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor extraordinaire. In the meantime, Caldwell and Jay both come to a similar conclusion; that the purpose for the break-in at the Officer’s Club was to retrieve a bottle of natural spring water delivered earlier that day by mistake.  The pair tracks down George Spota (James Hooks Reynolds), the delivery man who Caldwell remembers served under Lawrence in Vietnam and Jay, upon tracking Spota to his home later on discovers the same car – newly spray-painted and parked in Spota’s driveway - that ran Lawrence down during their foot chase.  
As the plot begins to thicken (or rather congeal) Caldwell ties Spota to the Black Mountain natural spring water company owned by Peale. After tailing Spota on his deliveries, Jay and Caldwell find themselves on Travis Air Force Base where Spota exchanges one of Black Mountain’s bottles for another that has just been flown in from the Philippines. What occurs next is the feeblest of tie-ins between Spota, Lawrence and Peale; the three involved in a diamond smuggling enterprise, the hot ice virtually invisible in the water. On one of these routine water runs Spota accidentally delivered the bottle containing the diamonds to the store room of the Officer’s Club at the Presidio. When he figured out his error he went back after hours to retrieve it, broke into the club, but was ambushed by Patti Jean whom he had no choice but to kill.
Caldwell and Jay quietly observe as Maclure drives up to the Black Mountain Co., thus providing the necessary linchpin in the caper; Mclure’s overseas contacts the perfect cover for the smuggling operation. But Maclure has had a change of heart. He attempts to hold Peale and his men at gunpoint but is knocked unconscious. Just then Caldwell and Jay break into the bottling plant setting off its security alarm. In the resulting chaos and gunfire Peale and his men are assassinated in true clichéd Hollywood style and Mclure dies heroically, attempting to do the right thing. Caldwell asks Jay to bury his report on Mclure until the military can afford him the proper burial. Caldwell’s tearful eulogy brings him a penultimate realization; that there should never be secrets between the people one truly loves. Thus, Caldwell buries the hatchet with Jay and Jay and Donna are reunited, the trio strolling hand-in-hand past the cemetery markers.
The Presidio is perhaps the pluperfect example of a terrible idea made even more inarticulate and silly in its execution. The last act is over the top, so woefully mismanaged in its ‘showdown’ scenario – with Peale and his battalion of gunmen suddenly appearing out of nowhere, toting semiautomatic weapons inside the abandoned spring water manufacturing plant. Ferguson’s screenplay is a mishmash of regurgitated action sequences from other movies loosely strung together by a thoroughly confusing set of circumstances that, in the end, are rendered to an even more oblivious conclusion. The transitioning of Caldwell and Jay from tempestuous adversaries to buddy/buddy crime solvers, both with an invested interest in Donna’s ultimate happiness, is too easily resolved. Ditto for Donna’s resistance to Jay on the grounds that she is afraid to let anyone near for fear of being hurt; a thoroughly flawed premise given its thirty-second due in a scene where Donna bitterly accuses her father of driving her mother away.
But the real problem with The Presidio is that the film has absolutely nothing to do with that famed military outpost for which the movie has been named. Hyams opens the movie with a travelogue of San Francisco under the credits and thereafter takes us on a Cook’s tour of that city by the bay. It all looks very appealing, stylishly lensed by Hyams too. A lot of movies use location to the advantage of their story. But Hyams choices seem to be merely based on looking for interesting things to shoot. Whether or not they are in service to the story is an entirely different matter, and arguably, The Presidio could have been shot anywhere and still have functioned as a modestly entertaining, though hopelessly flawed action/thriller.
The toggling between the Jay/Donna romance and the central detective plot is problematic in that no parallel is ever drawn between these two scenarios except that Donna is Caldwell’s daughter – hence, generating some mild familial friction. But Ferguson’s screenplay never competently weaves together these various narrative threads. Instead, everything’s compartmentalized; the net result being that whenever Hyams tires of one plot point he simply switches to the other, the ping-pong effect growing more dull and obvious from moment to moment. There’s also an unintentional soap opera quality to the romance; very Dynasty/Dallas in its clichéd emotional unhappiness all too easily resolved in the final moments of our story.
It is difficult to fault Meg Ryan or Sean Connery or even Jack Warden for their roles. Each makes the most of what they’ve been given even though it ain’t much! But Mark Harmon’s performance is a hurdle that arguably is never overcome.  He’s sluggish and ineffectual, his Jay Austin swagger far too rehearsed and reaching; harboring an insecurity that is perhaps more a part of Harmon’s own failings as an actor than it has anything to do with subtext belonging to the character as written. He’s out of his league and depth next to Sean Connery, whose cache as James Bond has dogged his reputation as an actor ever since. But it has also served Connery’s post-Bond career particularly well, informing the audience that he is a man of decision and action; someone who can handle himself in any situation.
The movie’s opening sequence, where Jay confronts Howard at the precinct is screenwriter Ferguson’s misguided attempt to show Harmon as a tough guy who doesn’t need to use force to diffuse a potentially volatile situation.  It sort of works, except that the rest of the film negates this character trait by presenting Jay Austin as a loose cannon with a very short fuse – a man who carries his grudge against Lawrence like an elephant and who isn’t afraid to accost a military man in the middle of a dance hall just to prove he’s swinging a rather large pair between his legs. Unfortunately, Harmon remains cocky and brash and rather befuddled; his interaction with people exploitative and never going beyond the necessary machination of the plot. We never get any real sense of who Jay Austin is, except to say that even Mark Harmon isn’t quite certain. Again, that might work for a younger man in a coming-of-age story. The Presidio demands more of Harmon, however. Whatever that is, he remains grossly inadequate to deliver.   
The Presidio arrives on Blu-ray via Paramount’s arrangement with Warner Home Video. While Paramount is still responsible for the mastering efforts, their usual attention to perfection seems to be lacking herein. The opening credits are softly focused, as are a good many of the scenes that follow. Having never seen The Presidio during its theatrical run I am unqualified to comment whether this is in keeping with the way the film originally looked in projection. But it does seem as though undue DNR has been applied throughout this transfer. Fine details never pop as they should and infrequently colors appear more muted than vibrant. Overall, the image just looks off, never achieving that ‘wow’ factor we have come to expect from hi-def. Take the scene immediately following Caldwell and Jay’s first meeting with Peale in his office; the image suddenly appears quite blurry and slightly out of focus as Connery and Harmon walk back to the car. Is this a fault of the original film elements or a flub in the video mastering – I cannot really say in good faith. My vote is for the latter, however, given that The Presidio was a big-budget/high concept production afforded all the luxuries in expenses to make it at least look good. The 5.1 DTS is fairly aggressive, particularly during the action sequences, although on occasion dialogue seems to be presented at a lower than adequate listening level. The only extra is a badly worn trailer. Bottom line: not recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Thursday, August 29, 2013

AIRPLANE: Blu-ray (Paramount 1980) Paramount Home Video

 In the 1970s disaster movies were all the rage. In the 1980s they increasingly became rife for self-parody. In retrospect, Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and David Zucker’s Airplane! (1980) kicked off this decade-long affinity to poke fun at just about any and everything. With its ridiculous homages to Universal’s Airport franchise (1970-79), Jaws (1975), Saturday Night Fever (1975) and, most directly, William Wellman’s The High and the Mighty (1954, from whence it derives almost all of its premise), Airplane! remains a self-indulgent mixture of whimsy and wickedness, its waspish jabs, gratuitous violence and even more gratuitous nudity, rank slapstick and at times grotesque burlesque made to order and hopefully tickle our collective funny bones. That much of the film no longer seems nearly as edgy or even as outlandish, but more a series of tepid skits strung together from a vintage episode of Saturday Night Live, particularly in its meandering social commentary, is perhaps a sad indictment on today’s movie culture that has become mired in such inarticulate fluff and silliness, turning a jaundiced eye to virtually any and all aspects of life less deserving of our wink-nudge mentality. 

Originally the Zuckers and Abraham could find no one to produce Airplane! Turning to director and friend, John Landis, the trio was encouraged to pursue a movie adaptation of their Kentucky Fried Theater review instead. Only after that movie’s moderate success were they given a green light to write, direct and produce Airplane! Arguably, one does not watch a movie like Airplane! for continuity, although in hindsight there is a shocking lack of it in this 87 min. feature. Jerry Zucker has openly admitted that in conceiving the…uh…story they were pressed to find 87 minutes of comedy to string together; the trio writing in, then tossing out, gags and scenarios, the movie very much linked together by its episodic skit format. The plot is, in fact, so woefully threadbare it can be summed up in a single byline: a shell-shocked war pilot is forced to fly a commercial DC-10 after its crew is befallen by a virulent bout of food poisoning. What comes in between is often crass, tacky, bawdy and brazen; much of it getting the prerequisite thirty-second laugh without straining the audience to commit to anything more – or better – than a stand-up routine run away with the conventional Hollywood narrative.
I can recall seeing Airplane! back when it had its premiere and finding just about everything in it hilarious. You forget, I was ten years old back then. But in hindsight the comedy has dated rather badly, the premise so wafer-thin that not even its all-star cameos can save the movie from becoming cornball and klutzy. Patrick Kennedy’s editing is perfunctory at best. He merely cuts away when the actors have run out of gags. Continuity also seems to be of little to no consequence. When the airplane is in the sky it is plagued by intense fog and a perilous thunderstorm with periodic lightning strikes, both somehow vanishing in the final moments as our hero, Ted Striker (Robert Hays) manages to land the Trans-American DC-10 relatively safely on the runway, despite engine burnout and a complete failure of his landing gear which causes the plane to skid down the runway in a trail of sparks without ever catching fire. I get it: laughs are the point of the story. If you’re looking for anything else besides you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. But the episodic quality is too benign to be accepted at face value. The pauses – nee, breaks - between scenes are so obvious and patched together with pedestrian ennui that one can almost believe the Zuckers and Abrahams had written Airplane! for commercial interrupted television.
The ongoing gags are perhaps the most tedious; a prime example being passengers chronically approached by hippie members of the Religious Consciousness Church (RCC) who attempt to sell daisies for dollars. It’s a slam against Hare Krishna and indeed, the movie takes the farce a step further by having two members of Hare Krishna (David Leisure and John-David Weber) being confronted by the RCC, glibly informing them, “No thanks…we gave at the office.” But the comedy, more readily than not, is unpolished – appealing to the lowest common denominator as in “I can’t believe they just did that!” That has its place in well-parceled out quantities lightly distributed throughout an otherwise clever farce. It also happens to work well in a half-hour sitcom. But stretched to 87 minutes it damn near wears out its welcome. Still, the Zuckers and Abrahams seem to be throwing everything at the screen in an abysmally second rate attempt to see what will stick, the lily not merely gilded by, in fact, dipped in tin masquerading as 24kt platinum from which even the most basic chuckles increasingly appears to be disingenuous rather than feather-weight and amusing.
Stephen Strucker’s Paul Lynd knock-off Johnny shouting obtuse one-liners; Barbara Billingsley’s jive-talking granny trading in on her fondly remembered June Cleaver, Jimmy Walker’s clumsy mechanic falling off the nose of the plane, Lorna Patterson’s guitar-singing stewardess unaware that she has disconnected the intravenous lifeline of a young heart transplant patient, Maureen McGovern spoof of Helen Reddy’s nun from Airport 75; an obligatory nudie shot of an unidentified, though exceptionally well endowed female with bouncing breasts (Kitten Natividad) filling the camera lens for a brief moment after everyone has been told no one is flying the plane; these are glimpses into a rather insidious insincerity that plagues rather than augments Airplane! – the shock value diffused, the jokes more dumb than dynamic.
Airplane! works on the most superficial level as a mindless travesty dedicated to progressively lowering one’s I.Q. from the moment the credits have rolled, or perhaps even before as we hear a pair of loudspeaker attendants segue from providing directions to boarding passengers into having a frank discussion about their extramarital affair and subsequent plans to have an abortion. We meet Ted Striker (Robert Hays); young handsome one-time hot shot pilot who suffers from near-crippling anxiety because of a near-fatal crash during his combat days. Ted’s driving a cab now, and not too successfully either. We also meet Ted’s lover, stewardess Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty) who emphatically informs him that their romance is over. “What a pisser!” Ted informs the audience, as he abandons his taxi for a seat on Trans-America’s DC-10.
In the meantime we are introduced to Capt. Clarence Oveur (Peter Graves) who is perusing the latest edition of Modern Sperm magazine from the ‘whacking material’ section of the sell-through rack in the airport’s gift shop when he receives word that a young girl on his flight must reach Boston to have a heart transplant. The heart, having become impatient, is currently bouncing about the desk of specialist Dr. Brody (Jason Wingreen). Once aboard, we meet the rest of the crew, copilot Roger Murdock (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), head stewardess Randy (Lorna Patterson) and third in charge, Victor Basta (Frank Ashmore). Unable to convince Julie of his love, Ted turns to telling his story virtually to anyone who will listen. In flashback we see how Ted and Julie met, in a seedy wanna-hump-hump bar that Ted describes as “worse than Detroit”. (Aside: I wonder what he would say about the Motor City today?) The bar is miraculously transformed into a discothèque, Ted impressing Julie with his John Travolta dance moves. The mood is broken however by a pair of adult girl scouts (Sandra Lee Gimpel and Paula Marie Moody) who start a brutal bar room brawl, smashing liquor bottles over each other’s heads and rolling around on the floor.
Returning to the plane, we see that the old woman (Ann M. Nelson) whom Ted was telling his story to has since hung herself to avoid having to listen to him. Similarly, an East Indian man (Jesse Emmett) douses himself in gasoline and is prepared to set himself on fire merely to escape Ted when Randy arrives in the nick of time to inquire whether or not Ted knows how to fly a plane. Earlier, Capt. Clarence had invited a young boy, Joey (Rossie Harris) to tour the cockpit. “Ever been in a cockpit before, Joey?” he asks. “Gosh I’ve never been in a plane before,” Joey admits. “Ever see a grown man naked?” Joey further makes a nuisance of himself by identifying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and then proceeding to tell him what a slouch he is on the basketball court. None of these moments really go anywhere – the gags about pedophilia done in the poorest of taste and played out for their gut-punching effect before moving on to another equally inane line or pithy comeback. Only now it seems that the Captain, Murdoch and Victor have all been struck down with a coma-inducing bout of food poisoning.
The plane is put on autopilot – an inflatable man who attempts to grope Julie. In the meantime, the airline’s director, Steven McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) orders his best pilot, Rex Kramer (Robert Stack) to report for duty at the airport to help Ted land the plane safely. Kramer and Ted are bitter enemies; some sort of fallout from their years as combat pilots never entirely disclosed. Kramer accidentally forgets to release the transmitter in his hand before telling McCroskey that the situation is virtually hopeless. Ted hears this and momentarily agrees, abandoning the cockpit to return to his seat, content to let the plane crash. In the meantime, Randy leads the passengers in a musical spiritual, while savvy grandma attempts to talk some sense into a pair of jive dudes (Al White and Norman Alexander Gibbs) who are otherwise inarticulate – their conversation supplemented with subtitles.
An eleven year old boy in a three piece suit (David Hollander) attempts to flirt with a young girl (Michelle Stacy) who informs him that she prefers her coffee black…like her men. Oh brother! While in another part of the cabin a seemingly forthright spinster (Norma Meerbaum) suddenly breaks out a mirror to do a few lines of cocaine. After experiencing extreme turbulence Ted returns to the cockpit, takes control of the plane, defies Kramer’s instructions and brings the DC-10 to a successful landing on the runway. As passengers disembark, Ted and Elaine reconcile. Despite the fact that Ted has completely mangled the landing gear, the plane suddenly begins to roll down the runway, piloted by the inflatable auto pilot who has discovered an inflatable Mrs. to accompany him on his private trip into the wild blue yonder.  
Airplane! is ridiculous in the extreme and yet, in retrospect, it does not go far enough down that rabbit hole to be truly considered an all-out farce. Again, that’s part – if not all – of its charm, and I must confess to finding certain moments in the movie more than mildly amusing. But the writing as a whole is not all that clever. Being crude is not the same as being funny and Airplane! is far more vulgar than it is humorous; even more often just plain silly rather than wickedly satirical. Robert Hays gets by on his relative congeniality. But Julie Hagerty’s bubble-headed sexpot tends to grate on one’s nerves. There’s no good reason why her Julie should dump Ted at the start only to reconcile with him after he has saved the day. Heroism doesn’t cut it, since Ted is reduced to a sweat-soaked bundle of nerves moments before the plane actually makes its crash landing. The ‘look who’s here’ cameos are fairly juvenile; Peter Graves, Robert Stack and Leslie Nielsen being among the most thoughtlessly included in this claptrap. In all, Airplane! is both tepid and turgid. If you’re looking for a stupid comedy to fill up your leisure then, by golly, you have surely found it.
Paramount’s Blu-ray is first rate, as are all the titles Paramount has committed to hi-def. Airplane! was released just prior to their licensing of 600 catalogue titles to Warner Home Video. The 1:85.1 transfer is crisp, exhibiting a dated '80s characteristic with thickness and grain well supported and colors that are faithfully vintage to the indigenous film elements. There are a few brief instances where age-related artifacts are noticeable – particularly during the ‘flashback’ sequences and double-exposures. But otherwise, the film looks marvelous. Ditto for its 5.1 DTS audio that is both crisp and clean.  Extras are limited to a meandering audio commentary and a thoroughly annoying ‘long haul’ feature (it certainly is). Activating this feature interrupts the movie with deleted scenes, outtakes and a thoroughly superficial conversation chopped up into soundbytes from the Zuckers, Abrahams, Robert Hays and other members of the cast. Honestly, by activating this alternative track the movie is interrupted so frequently and arbitrarily why couldn’t they have just put all of this material together and come up with a pair of featurettes and/or a documentary? Dumb idea, badly executed, doesn’t enhance your viewing experience in the least.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Sunday, August 25, 2013

THE GREAT GATSBY: Blu-ray (Village Roadshow, Bazmark, A&E, Red Wagon 2013) Warner Home Video

There’s no two ways of getting around it; Baz Luhrmann’s misappropriation of The Great Gatsby (2013) is a befuddled synthesis of fanatical pomposity: ostentatious and disgraceful; even more infrequently a stylized bastardization hacked together by editors Jason Ballantine, Jonathan Redmond and Matt Villa with all the finesse of an angry music video (albeit, one executed by a break-dancing chicken) and unreservedly absent of the concept of grand tragedy marking F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary masterwork. There has never been a superior movie made of The Great Gatsby, I suspect because Fitzgerald’s novel about the epic implosion of the American Dream is much more a testament to the conflicted emotional content of its seriously flawed characters (always difficult to express in visual terms) while the movies have all succumbed in one way or another to retelling the tale from a perspective of vintage kitsch. But at least at some base level all previous attempts strove to tap into the essence and central theme of the novel. Luhrmann’s tryst with the Long Island rich simply plays out like a mentally disturbed party guest having outstayed its welcome.
With maximum spectacle but a complete lack of comprehension for the novel’s dramatic intensity, Luhrmann has given us something that faintly smells like, periodically looks like, but never truly is like the roaring 1920s; a whirling dervish for the wretched post-postmodern generation and silliness about an obtuse carousel of wax mannequins who never come to life. DiCaprio’s moon-faced, glowering Gatsby isn’t conflicted so much as he chronically suffers from some angst-ridden constipation, while his paramour, Daisy Buchanan (played with ineffectual poutiness by Carey Mulligan (who fancies herself a dreadful crossover from Theda Bara to baby-cooing knock off of Marilyn Monroe – she’s neither) has been so heavily rewritten by Luhrmann and screenwriter Craig Pierce as to make her appear almost as much the victim as Jay Gatsby. As with the 1974 version of this immortal love triangle, the most fascinating characters in this embarrassing remake are those standing just off to the side: Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) and Myrtle Wilson (Isla Fisher) – and possibly, Amitabh Bachchan who manages to capture at least a bit of the oily slickness of Meyer Wolfsheim.
Luhrmann’s complete inability to grasp the period beyond Catherine Martin/Karen Murphy’s production design – itself, an appalling display of bobbed-hair, spangle-clad bodies writhing to the incongruously mismatched, eardrum-abusing techo/rap being pumped out by the likes of Jay Z, Beyonce, Green Light and Fergie (to name but a handful) strips the vintage appeal down to its most gruesome, monotonous and fairly obscene cabaret show – glitzy but gutless, and presented as thought-numbing tedium. If Fitzgerald’s prose remain the crown jewel of high literary art then Luhrmann’s Gatsby can only be described as the cubic zirconium of cheap cut-glass imitators; tricked out in 3D (and not even successfully at that, with some very obvious ‘green screen’ work adding to the artificiality in unconvincing ways) and shot by Simon Duggan whose camera seems to be suffering from acute bouts of epilepsy. No, The Great Gatsby has slipped so far down the rabbit hole into rank vulgarity that it doesn’t even realize how woefully trashy it is; completely missing its mark thematically.  
We’ve all seen what can happen when Baz Luhrmann attempts to do serious – Australia (2008) anyone?  Yet, herein the straddling of that chasm between integrity to Fitzgerald, ergo seriousness and, his own idiosyncratic verve for turning everything he touches into another Moulin Rouge (2001) is ineffectual herein in the extreme. Add to this already half-baked and overweening fantasia the stifling trickery of 3D as camouflage for a ‘good story gone bad’ and Gatsby becomes the cinematic equivalent of a fruit salad disingenuous to its leafy greens; the tale completely robbed of its derivation. Luhrmann is a bad fit for Fitzgerald.  So is 3D. The movie plays like a ‘Baby Einstein’ version of the author’s luminous prose. Without Tobey McGuire’s expository reflections, cribbing whole passages excised directly from the novel (and some inexplicably rewritten by Luhrmann and Pearce), The Great Gatsby devolves into epicurean sensory overload; the doomed romance capsized by its nauseous camerawork and an anachronistic soundtrack; enough to anesthetize but never enthrall. The virtuosity of Fitzgerald’s original tale is that it quietly shrouds its generation of ‘go to hell’ tea dance/bathtub gin/rum runner and gangster-plagued optimists in a veil of embalming introspection, gleaned through hindsight. As such Fitzgerald’s novel has not only come to epitomize the period but also foreshadows its glittery demise. That Luhrmann totally fails to grasp this concept marks his Great Gatsby a flagrant claptrap, a missed opportunity and an absolutely purposeless adaptation. The party sequences, with their dizzying array of flailing bodies clad in lurid Color-form cutouts showered in a torrential downpour of confetti are the best moments in the film from a purely visual perspective.  But these parties are not the crux of the story – or rather, shouldn’t be: instead, that the life of the party, Jay Gatsby, is an insecure, love-struck fraud.
This Great Gatsby has found its audience among those who care not or know next to nothing of Fitzgerald’s novel and will never aspire to read it (I feel sorry for them), think Leo - in anything - is sexy times ten (that one’s always baffled me) or believe Baz Luhrmann to be an iconoclastic genius (he’s not). Luhrmann has merely ripped a page from his already trademarked playbook. It’s the same page we’ve seen him exploit to better effect elsewhere in his repertoire. Merely reapplying the precepts of a Moulin Rouge! with the broadest of strokes to Fitzgerald’s finely wrought and intricately balanced eloquence doesn’t gild the lily of Gatsby’s literary pedigree but, in fact, deadheads its flourish. The novel is ‘prime’; the movie merely primed and prone to extravagances.  
Just because Luhrmann can-can-can, and did-did-did, doesn’t mean that he should-should-should! But he has-has-has and now we’re stuck-stuck-stuck with another forgettable and disenfranchised version of The Great Gatsby. The good news is that this one won’t last. The bad news: The Great Gatsby, like his alter ego in the movie, remains an enigma difficult – if not impossible - to explain       in visual terms.   
I wanted to like The Great Gatsby because I absolutely adore the novel. But from the moment Luhrmann introduces us to his CGI overview of Long Island, the camera is in a constant state of visual distress looking for something intelligent to light on before settling for garish glimpses across the moneyed lawns and behind the boudoirs of the decadent rich. There’s just no build up, no evolution to that style. It’s ‘in your face’ and instantly overwhelming, with Toby Maguire’s Nick Caraway seduced into self-destruction; the camera bobbing and weaving through this Manhattan-esque labyrinth with a shake, rattle and roll mentality.   
Former Yale graduate and WWI veteran Nick Carraway (Maguire) is recovering from alcoholism in a sanatorium, his mind a steel trap of mumblings about a man named Gatsby. As therapy, Nick sits down to write the story of his friendship with the infamous Long Island recluse. None of this opener is indigenous to Fitzgerald’s novel. We regress to the summer of 1922 (a scant three years earlier) – but somehow an infinitely more prosperous time imbued with American optimism. Surprise, surprise: Nick’s a bond salesman – and sober. He’s rented a cottage in West Egg adjacent the uber glamorous palatial digs of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). One weekend Nick motors to East Egg for dinner at the home of his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), an old college acquaintance.  Nick also meets Jordan Baker (Elizabeth Debicki), a pro golfer cynical beyond her years who Daisy plots a romantic entanglement.
Jordan lets the cat out of the bag – Tom has a mistress; Myrtle (Isla Fisher), the wife of gas pump jockey and garage owner, George Wilson (Jason Clarke). The next afternoon Tom shamelessly takes Nick to meet Myrtle, the three indulging in a rendezvous at the apartment Tom has set up for Myrtle in town. Myrtle decides to throw a party; the mood turning from playfully bizarre to absolute rot after an inebriated Myrtle berates Tom about Daisy. Tom breaks her nose, but not her heart. Nick is appalled by his glimpse into these private lives. Yet he continues to move in the same social circles, presumably because the elixir of wealth is just too potent to pass up. Then, one afternoon he receives a hand-delivered invitation to one of Jay Gatsby’s lavish outdoor parties; a glittering assemblage of sycophants and sinners – none of whom know anything except the name of their host.
Rumors abound. Nick meets up with Jordan and together they inadvertently are introduced to Gatsby; too young for a billionaire, too aloof to be a playboy – the enigma framed against a backdrop of exploding bombshells and gyrating revelers. As the party winds down Jay lures Nick upstairs for a private audience, taking an instant liking to him. A short while later Gatsby introduces Nick to Meyer Wolfshiem (Amitabh Bachchan), a racketeer who fixed the 1919 World Series. To quell Nick’s curiosities about Wolfsheim, Gatsby spins a yarn: that he was born to old money back east, his parents now dead, his money inherited and his record during the war impeccable. In fact, most of what Gatsby tells Nick is a lie, although it will take Nick the better half of the story to discover he’s been duped.
Nick, Gatsby and Wolfshiem run into Tom during lunch, Gatsby growing impatient and uncomfortable by the moment in his presence. Through Jordan, Nick discovers that Gatsby and Daisy were desperately in love. But that was 1917 – a lifetime ago to the flapper set. And Daisy was not about to marry Gatsby then. After all, he was penniless. Gatsby takes Nick into his confidences, pleading for a rendezvous with Daisy at his cottage. Nick willingly agrees and Daisy arrives without being told first that Gatsby will be there. After a queerly painful reunion, Gatsby and Daisy resume their passionate love affair. But Gatsby is rather dismayed when Daisy asks him to run away with her far from the moneyed playgrounds they presently occupy.  Observing this disconnect between Daisy and Gatsby, Nick tries to explain to Gatsby that the past cannot be repeated.
As Gatsby is unwilling to accept this, he instead lays off most of his servants and stops throwing lavish house parties to devote all of his time to convincing Daisy that everything they need to make their love endure is right here. Frustrated by his stalemate, Gatsby makes an impromptu telephone call, asking Nick and Jordan to attend him at the Buchanans’ where he has decided to confront Tom with the news of his wife’s infidelity. But Gatsby’s nerve weakens. All through lunch he casts adoring glances in Daisy’s direction. Naturally, this infuriates Tom.  At just about the moment when Gatsby has finally worked up the guts to make his confession stick, Daisy interrupts on an absurd notion they should all go into town for drinks at the Plaza Hotel. Frustrated, Tom drives Gatsby’s car with Nick and Jordan while Daisy rides in Tom’s car with Gatsby.
On the way Tom stops at Wilson’s garage for some gas, George informing him that he has decided to pull up stakes and move out west with Myrtle. In actuality, George knows that Myrtle is having an affair, although not even he suspects Tom as her suitor. Tom, already bitter and suspicious, arrives at the Plaza looking to pick a fight. Having hired a private investigator earlier, Tom decides to reveal the truth about Gatsby’s past to everyone; that he had no money but, in fact, made his mark in bootlegging and managing other illegal activities for Meyer Wolfshiem. Gatsby isn’t a gentleman. He’s not even of their class. He’s just thug muscle for the mob. Refusing to believe Tom, Daisy leaves the Plaza in a huff with Gatsby trailing after her – this time, in his car – with Nick, Jordan and Tom departing some time later.
On the road back to West Egg Myrtle is run down by Gatsby’s car wildly careening down the darkened street. Tom, Nick and Jordan arrive much later to survey the crowd of onlookers; Tom becoming incensed.  As payback, Tom lets it be known to George the car that killed his wife belongs to Gatsby. But even he cannot fathom that Daisy – not Jay – was in the driver’s seat. Gatsby decides to tell Nick the truth about what happened and also to come clean about his background; that he was born James Gatz – an impoverished scrapper who clawed his way up from nothing by the only means available to him, yet seemingly for altruistic reasons…nee, true love. Nick is sympathetic. But the next day while he is at work Jay is brutally gunned down by George who then takes his own life.
Nick makes the funeral arrangements, disgusted when Daisy does not attend, but instead has decided to go on a little holiday with Tom and their daughter. Reporters crash the burial and Nick angrily chases everyone away. Fueled by rumors and innuendo the press pillages Jay’s reputation for their headlines: that Gatsby was Myrtle’s lover, who ran her down in a fit of rage and was then assassinated by her jealous husband. Insulted, but unable to stem the tide of this speculation with the truth Nick takes one last long look about Gatsby’s one-time fashionable mansion – the house and all its gaiety and superficial glitz suddenly a very cold, impersonal mausoleum. Nick departs New York. We regress to the present with Nick, now bleary-eyed but perhaps liberated from his own pitiful demons, concludes his memoir, titling it, The Great Gatsby.
It is virtually impossible to envision a movie adaptation of The Great Gatsby less in keeping with the contemplative spirit of Fitzgerald’s prose than this preposterously glossy twaddle. Luhrmann cannot resist the urge to turn Nick Caraway into a veritable repository; a sort of retrofitted Dorian Gray knock-off.  In its purest form, that being the novel, The Great Gatsby is a bittersweet Valentine to a bygone generation Fitzgerald knew all too well. Reconstituted by Baz Luhrmann, the story entirely lacks in this overriding sense of doom and ultimate sacrifice. What we get instead is an encumbered and caliginous affair, neither satirical nor subversive, but brutally faithful to Fitzgerald’s plot without ever scratching the surface of his deeper themes that make for some brilliant storytelling. None of the novel’s subtle nuances have endured. Instead, like a record that is spinning too fast, everything is sledge-hammered home by Luhrmann with all the noisy aplomb of a defiant declaration made from the pit of the elders.
Only DiCaprio’s central performance survives the deluge of this magnificent misfire – partly. But DiCaprio’s is a little long in the tooth to be playing Fitzgerald’s tormented adult as an inquisitive man-child. Carey Mulligan’s Daisy is rather hopeless, not entirely the actress’ fault, but Luhrmann’s, for remaking Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan as the unwitting and rather witless victim when in reality she has been the architect of Jay Gatsby’s solemn demise. Joel Edgerton’s Tom is a snore – more turgid and ineffectual than the ‘hulking brute’ Daisy makes him out to be, while Elizabeth Debicki entirely lacks Jordan Baker’s exquisite languor to be anything more than sly eye candy. This brings us to Toby McGuire’s entirely forgettable deus ex machine; a careless/careworn reconstitution of the novel’s Nick Caraway and much too morose and dispensable besides.
The movie (as well as the actors) is robbed of the realities of the physical space both occupy; the world of this Jay Gatsby heavy-handedly realized in postproduction with a ton of CGI. In the briefest of moments when location work remains generally unfettered by those zeroes and ones the competency of its star performances rises from wan to wondrous. Tragically, there are all too few of these aforementioned moments in the actual film. As such, the only real depth derived from this version of The Great Gatsby comes from its gimmicky use of 3D: the story as one-dimensional as any yet conceived for the big screen. 
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray release is more promising on all levels; its’ 2.40:1 image eye-popping. All of the absurdities in Simon Duggan’s cinematography are faithfully represented herein, the synthetic quality of the image that is intentionally artificial and looking just that in hi-def. Colors explode, contrast is superb and film grain accurately resurrected.  The 3D version and the 2D version are fairly similar – the gimmick used sparingly and really adding nothing to the overall appeal of the movie. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you don’t need artificially induced depth perception to tell a good story and in the case of The Great Gatsby, neither version is particularly good. The 5.1 DTS audio will rock your speakers with consistently intelligible dialogue, bombastic outbursts of music and directional effects.  In short – perfect.
Extras: we get featurettes devoted to virtually every phase of production. The Greatness of Gatsby has Luhrmann waxing about Fitzgerald’s novel and his collaboration with screenwriter Craig Pearce. Within and Without with Tobey Maguire is a video journal kept by Maguire during the shoot, self-congratulatory and dull. The Swinging Sounds of Gatsby is an attempt by Luhrmann and composer Craig Armstrong to justify their bastardization of the period with contemporary music sandwiched between the traditional jazz.  It still doesn’t work for me. Others may disagree. The Jazz Age contains excerpts from Ken Burns’ PBS documentary interrupted by Luhrmann’s own commentary, while Razzle Dazzle: focuses on the film’s costume design. There’s also Fitzgerald’s Visual Poetry where Luhrmann makes a real leaden attempt to explain his concept of “poetic glue” – translation: how I mucked around with Fitzgerald’s prose and came up with gumbo.
Warner has also padded this disc with a bunch of specific ‘behind the scenes’ junkets – even more superficial than the actual movie: Gatsby Revealed features five scene breakdowns and three deleted snippets with an intro by Luhrmann. Bottom line: The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald is a sublime masterpiece. The Great Gatsby by Luhrmann is an atrocity that won’t even do the favor of putting you to sleep.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Saturday, August 24, 2013

TO BE OR NOT TO BE: Blu-ray (Alexander Korda 1942) Criterion Home Video

When it was released in 1942 Ernest Lubtisch’s To Be Or Not To Be was considered in poor taste; its wicked satire about a troupe of Polish actors masquerading as Adolph Hitler and his high-ranking Nazi stooges completely going over the heads of most critics, perhaps understandable in light of America’s looming involvement in the European conflict that had engulfed half the hemisphere in flames. That the film has acquired something of a cult following over the years is a testament to Lubitsch’s brilliant handling of the material which could have so easily devolved into rank cornball comedy or even immature slapstick. It does neither.
Rather, Lubtisch uses the glitz and froth of the sophisticated European romantic comedy – undeniably his forte – to create a brilliant burlesque; as deliciously devious in its premise as it scathingly flies in the face of Hitler’s tyranny. Such indictments of Nazi Germany were unthinkable only a few years earlier, until Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) debuted; Hollywood’s appeasement largely predicated on keeping their foreign distribution markets open just a little while longer.  
But by 1942, Europe had bigger issues to contend with than what was playing at the local Bijou on a Saturday night – if, in fact, anything was playing there at all. Hence, the Hollywood machinery did an about face, flooding the market with anti-Nazi wartime propaganda and patriotic flag-wavers. These became all the rage and arguably, the norm.
Yet upon further analysis, To Be Or Not To Be is quite unique for its time. Indeed, I cannot think of another movie that so completely defies Hitler’s might with an intellectual smite of its own. First, it dares to reincarnate the scourge of Europe as a misguided mania set into motion by buffoons, enterprisingly thwarted in its penultimate triumph by a troupe of arguably cruddy actors fronted by an A-1 ham (played to mellifluous perfection by Jack Benny). Second, it treats neither the occupation nor the conflict as anything but grand amusement; the jesters wily and spirited, their Nazi counterparts, mere victims of a silly farce. Perhaps the creative choices made by Lubitsch and screenwriter Edwin Justus Mayer were deliberately designed to blunt the ruthless realities of the war for audiences back home in 1942: negating a Nazi Germany that was cold, calculating and determined to exterminate one third of the population under its absolutism.   
But I have always believed that Lubitsch had a more ingenious purpose in mind; namely to debunk the myth of Nazi Germany as an unstoppable mechanized force and to bolster support and morale for the Allied Forces.  You can get away with a lot using comedy to tell a more revealing truth; in effect sugar-coating what was then a very bitter pill for Britain and America to swallow; the tide of the war not yet having turned in either’s favor. And To Be Or Not To Be is perhaps the pluperfect illustration of that inefficiency – nee, rank evilness of Nazism – reflected as nothing better than common stupidity run amuck; ergo, easily penetrable and ultimately doomed to defeat.   
Our story begins under a thoroughly brilliant and absolutely false premise; Adolph Hitler’s arrival in Warsaw, Poland; screenwriter Edwin Justus Mayer’s reflection on world events already taken place but yet to occur within the context of the actual film; thus, foreshadowing the clever deceptions yet to follow. However, the Hitler that crops up in front of a delicatessen in downtown Warsaw is actually Bronski (Tom Dugan) a second-string actor cast as Der Fuhrer in the Polish repertory company’s planned spoof, Gestapo, currently in rehearsals. Told by his stage manager that his performance is entirely unconvincing, Bronski decides to take to the bustling streets in full Nazi regalia, convinced he will be accepted by the crowds. At first the hoax seems to be working. Fearful onlookers gather as Bronski strikes an intimidating pose on the street corner. But then a young girl cautiously approaches to ask for his autograph, adding “Thank you, Mr. Bronski.”
All of this is merely prologue. For our story really isn’t about Hitler or the looming invasion of Poland, but actually a takeoff of spousal infidelity inadvertently turned into international espionage. We meet the feuding Tura’s; Joseph (Jack Benny) and Maria (Carole Lombard). He’s a ham actor with an invidious jealous streak. She’s a minor diva who takes her art more serious. Joseph needs constant reassurances that he is a fine actor – perhaps because he’s not - his ego intermittently placated by Maria who arguably doesn’t believe any of the accolades she affords him. 
The transparency of their love is tested when Maria decides to invite Lieut. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), a handsome flyer, backstage during Joseph’s Hamlet’s soliloquy, the line “to be or not to be” becoming their code for Sobinski to exit the theater for another flirtatious rendezvous with Maria backstage. Sobinski’s departure rattles Joseph’s fragile sense of self-importance. But he needn’t worry about Maria’s fidelity.
In point of fact, Maria isn’t serious about Sobinski and proves it when he suggests they break the news of their being “mad about each other” to Joseph and she informs him that there is absolutely nothing to tell. Meanwhile, rehearsals for Gestapo are delayed, then indefinitely suspended when the government intervenes, suggesting that a satire of Hitler would not only be lacking tact but may further incur Der Fuhrer’s wrath. War is declared and Sobinski is recalled to the RAF in England where he meets Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) who announces to the men under his training his own intentions to return to his beloved Poland. 
The flyers all give Siletsky the names of their friends and family that they would like him to contact upon his arrival. But when Sobinski asks Siletsky to get in touch with Maria Tura, using the code ‘to be or not to be’ as his message, he takes distinct notice that the Professor does not know who she is, suggesting to Sobinksi that Siletsky has not been in Warsaw before or at least for some time and that his trip to Poland now is predicated on ulterior motives.
Sure enough, imparting this discovery to his superiors, Sobinski learns that Siletsky is working for the Nazis. In haste, Sobinski rushed back to Warsaw to forewarn the resistance, the city already under siege from Hitler’s blitzkrieg. After parachuting behind enemy lines, Sobinski barely escapes the Nazis, hurrying to Maria’s apartment. She agrees to carry his message to the nearby bookseller (Wolfgang Zilzer) - also working for the underground - by slipping a photo of Siletsky with an explanation inscribed on the back between the pages of a copy of Anna Karenina. Siletsky sends two Nazi soldiers to collect Maria and bring her to the hotel he is staying at, actually a stronghold commandeered by the Nazis. Fearful that she has been found out, Maria realizes Siletsky’s motives are of a more lascivious nature and decides to play along for the sake of deflecting her involvement in the resistance.
Meanwhile, Joseph returns to his apartment to discover Sobinski fast asleep in his wife’s bed. Assuming the worst, Joseph confronts Sobinski just as Maria returns with news that Siletsky has invited her to dinner. Dressing her best for the part, Maria entertains Siletsky’s overtures to a point; even allowing him to kiss her. But just then Rawitch (Lionel Atwell), another member of the theatrical troupe decked out in Nazi finery, arrives at the hotel, declaring that Siletsky is needed immediately at headquarters.  
Instead, Rawitch takes Siletsky to the theater where Joseph, disguised as Nazi Colonel Ehrhardt, is waiting to confiscate Siletsky’s documents; thus preventing them from falling into the wrong hands. At first Joseph’s subterfuge works and Siletsky hands over his attaché. However, as the two continue to awkwardly wax about future fortifications, Siletsky becomes increasingly suspicious of Joseph. When Siletsky suggests that he should return to his hotel because he is planning to seduce Maria, and furthermore, divulges that a Polish flyer also gave him a message, ‘to be or not to be’ to give to her, Joseph flies into a rage, revealing his true self and forcing Siletsky to hold him at gunpoint.
Attempting an escape through the theater, Siletsky is gunned down by Sobinski on the stage. Returning to Siletsky’s hotel on a mission to destroy the rest of his detailed documentation about the resistance still contained inside one of his trunks, Joseph, in an impeccable disguise is instead met by the real Col. Ehrhardt’s adjutant, Captain Schultz (Henry Victor). Schultz’s orders are to immediately escort Siletsky to the real Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman). Passing himself off as Siletsky, Joseph attends Ehrhardt and learns of Hitler’s pending arrival in Warsaw the next afternoon.
Unfortunately, the next morning the Nazis discover the real Siletsky’s body hidden in the theater they hoped to use for Hitler’s evening reception. Ehrhardt sends for Maria and informs her of the murder. She feigns astonishment and sorrow, but then rushes back to forewarn the theatrical troupe that the jig is up. Unfortunately, she arrives too late. Joseph, disguised as Siletsky, is already well on his way to a rendezvous with Ehrhardt prearranged from the night before.
Smelling a rat, Ehrhardt plays along with Joseph but then pretends to be interrupted with an important communiqué from Berlin and asks if Joseph would not mind waiting in the next room until the matter is resolved. Joseph agrees and quickly discovers Siletsky’s body propped in an armchair. Realizes he has walked into a trap, Joseph regroups with a brilliant plan. 
He shaves Siletsky of his real goatee and then affixes the spare of his own fake he carries around in his pocket for emergencies to Siletsky before recalling Ehrhardt and his men into the room with an air of confidence to declare that Siletsky is the imposter. Removing the fake goatee to prove his point, a befuddled Ehrhardt apologizes to Joseph. It is a near-perfect swindle until Rawitch and other members of the resistance barge into the room dressed as high-ranking Nazi officials, unmasking Joseph and pretending to place him under house arrest. Rawitch threatens Ehrhardt that Hitler shall hear of his incompetence; an ongoing gag leading Ehrhardt to chronically blame Schultz instead.
Regrettably, Rawitch’s intervention is only partly successful. For having revealed Joseph as a fraud to Ehrhardt he cannot now escape aboard the plane Ehrhardt had arranged for Siletsky and Maria. Since it is only a matter of time before the entire resistance is exposed, the actors band together for one last coup. On the eve of Hitler’s arrival at their theater, Bronski – once more disguised as Hitler, hides in the men’s bathroom together with Joseph and the rest disguised as Nazis while another from their group, Greenberg (Felix Bressart) slips into the women’s bathroom and pretends to be an Allied spy. 
Emerging at just the right moment, Greenberg is apprehended by real Nazi soldiers who are there to guard the real Hitler, but interrupted in their interrogation by Joseph and his men. Believing that Bronski is actually Hitler the soldiers release Greenberg into Joseph’s custody. Everyone hurries downstairs to get into the entourage of vehicles that brought Hitler and his men to the theater in the first place.
Joseph loses his fake moustache in the car, ergo he cannot return to the hotel to collect Maria.  Bronski agrees to go in his stead. In the meantime, Ehrhardt, still believing that Maria is on their side, has come to her apartment to make his own romantic overtures known. Maria informs him that she is waiting for another man. But he is relentless until Bronski’s arrival as Hitler. This leaves Ehrhardt completely flabbergasted. Maria escapes with the rest of the actors aboard the plane arranged by Ehrhardt. Once in mid-flight, Bronski orders the Nazi pilot (Helmut Dantine) to bail out. Believing this to be a direct command the pilot obliges and Sobinski takes the controls to charter everyone to freedom. Bronski parachutes down over Scotland, a pair of farmers amazed to discover him still dressed as Hitler. In the final moments, Joseph is seen performing Hamlet on a stage in England, his line ‘to be or not to be’ prompting a handsome RAF pilot seated directly behind Sobinski to suddenly hurry away – presumably for his own rendezvous with Maria, much to both men’s chagrin.     
To Be Or Not To Be is an exceptional wartime comedy. But it also remains a very sad farewell to Carol Lombard; the actress killed in a plane crash on Jan. 16, 1942 while on a war bond mission. Lombard’s on-screen image as a much cherished madcap is more subdued herein, her moments of comedic brilliance derived from an almost intuitive understatement and the occasional improvisation.  It is, of course, just an act. Lubitsch tirelessly coached both Lombard and Jack Benny in their performances. 
Benny always gave Lubitsch full credit for his and in point of fact has never been better in the movies. Sig Ruman and Felix Bressart are old pros; both giving their characters their all, particularly Bressart, whose impassioned delivery of Shylock’s speech from The Merchant of Venice (‘Hath a Jew not eyes...etc., etc., etc.’) that his character Greenberg always hoped to play on the stage now becoming a pivotal and, indeed, impassioned moment of introspection in the movie after he is apprehended at the theater.
Criterion unveils To Be Or Not To Be is a stunningly handsome transfer, its 1.37:1 B&W image derived from original camera negatives. With the exception of two or three brief scenes, the image is razor sharp, with exceptional contrast and accurately reproduced grain. Warner Home Video released To Be Or Not To Be to DVD back in 2002. But then the image suffered from age-related artifacts and an annoying gate wobble during the last third. All of these aforementioned shortcomings have been corrected on Criterion’s HD release. The transfer is clean and sparkling. So too has the mono sound greatly improved from its predecessor with crisp dialogue and exceptional clarity between dialogue and effects.
Historian David Kalat gives us one of the best audio commentaries heard in a very long time, supremely detailed on the film’s production as well as world history, and also, making clear and concise comparisons to other WWII movies that really crystalize the reasons why To Be Or Not To Be is such an exemplar of the genre. Criterion also gives us Lubitsch le patron: a near hour long tribute to the director from 2010 that is fairly comprehensive. We also get Pinkus’ Shoe Palace; a 1916 German silent not only directed by Lubtisch but also stars him as well.  Two Screen Guild Theater radio broadcasts round out the extras. There’s also a 25-page booklet featuring solid insight from historian Geoffrey O’Brien. Bottom line: given the quality of the transfer and the extras this time around, this is the definitive rendering of To Be Or Not To Be on home video It belongs on everyone’s top shelf!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)