Wednesday, July 30, 2014

SAVE YOUR LEGS: Blu-ray (Madman Entertainment 2012) Twilight Time

History rarely gives us heroes. Thank heaven, then, for the movies; a medium to turn life into rank sentimentality and transform ordinary people into deified creatures worthy of our praise.  Okay, now for the kicker: Boyd Hicklin’s debut movie, Save Your Legs (a.k.a. Knocked for Six, 2012) isn’t about heroes or hero worship. In fact, it takes a very personal – and very flawed history and morphs it into heartwarming/life-affirming plunk, dedicated to the brotherhood of cricketers. All hail the clumsy reprobates! The Aussies have arrived! Save Your Legs does two things spectacularly well. First, it disregards the actual Abbotsford Anglers devastating 6 to 1 losing streak in favor of a mostly fabricated story about triumphant underdogs – telescoping their knockabout tour of India into a victorious showdown against the completely fictionalized rival team: Bollywood Magic. Second, it reconstitutes the actual participants as reasonable facsimiles of themselves, but with totally different names and identities. 
In doing so, Save Your Legs winds up owing absolutely nothing to history. It’s not a biopic per say about this little known – and even less regarded – 2001 match up in a sport rarely seen and even less acknowledged on this side of the Atlantic; rather, a cart blanche escapist ‘feel good’ with a sports twist. The veneer is occasionally semi-transparent. But it never goes beyond this gray area into pseudo-reality. We get colorful culture clash; fanciful and farce-laden. Remember, Brenden Cowell’s screenplay isn’t principally motivated by the facts. It’s probably just as well. Save Your Legs somehow functions better as ‘a story’ exposed, than a truth revealed.  
For those uninformed – yours truly included – the art of cricket remains baffling; the game held together by a few arcane ground rules that seem to go out the proverbial window once the matches get underway; mimicking American baseball and/or crocket only on the most superficial level. This is a problem for anyone living outside the U.K. or Australia. How do we invest ourselves in the Anglers if we don’t understand what the hell is going on? Thankfully, director, Hicklin is well aware of this global shortsightedness. As such, an innate love of cricket is not required to appreciate the film’s comedic value; Hicklin spending much more of his run time getting to know these characters while deftly handling the games as necessary action only, much in the same way Penny Marshall gave us baseball in A League of Their Own (1992); a movie reporting to be about women’s baseball, but actually directing our attentions to a specific group of women who played it.
At its crux, Save Your Legs is a fish-out-of-water midlife crisis bromance; the Anglers in love with the sport as a means to bond with each other. Brendan Cowell’s screenplay is heavy on culture shock clichés (don’t drink the water in Mumbai or you’ll wind up chronically crapping your pants). Yet, the film clings together, chiefly because the actors appear genuinely invested. They perform on the field – if not well – then, most definitely, as a team; as though there is a history between them; an intuitive weight to these relationships forged in the name of good, ‘incompetent’ sportsmanship. Sincerity permeates every frame; also a sad-eyed valor as middle-aged team captain, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Brown (Stephen Curry) struggles with a mind-numbing epiphany: the Anglers are coming to the end – not only of their failed tour of India, but in their lifelong associations with one another; for too long the all-consuming cause of their collectively stunted adolescence.
Screenwriter, Brendan Cowell has a fairly good handle on one of the great societal afflictions of the latter half of the twentieth century and beyond; men who don’t want to grow up but inevitably realize they must. Only thirty years ago, such sports-centric camaraderie between middle-aged men would have appeared vaguely silly to downright fanatical. Alas, today, much of what we see in Save Your Legs gets a pass under the rubric of being ‘a guy thing’.  But Save Your Legs does more than simply display such juvenile navel-gazing: it addresses the fallout full on and with honesty.  We begin with Teddy Brown – a sports store clerk barely able to sustain himself (he lives in the garage of fellow teammate, Stavros (Damon Gameau) and virtually eats, breathes and dreams cricket. Teddy’s even mounted the athletic supporter worn by his cricket-playing idol, Sachin Tendulkar – stolen from the locker room – into a sort of false prophet he daily worships.
Confidentially, Stavros is looking to motivate Teddy into moving out of his garage. Meanwhile, his teammate, batsman/party-hog Rick (Brendan Cowell) is in for his own fitful awakening after he discovers his dalliances with a girlfriend are about to make him an expectant father. Stavros’ aspires to nothing better than playing the field as an amiable playboy, using cricket as his prototypical chick magnet. Finally, there’s Mark (Brenton Thwaites), a wet-behind-the ears pubertal probee – hired by Teddy to keep Stavros in line –but who, even at his impressionable age and vantage of relative inexperience in all things, can plainly see cricket ought to be more a hobby than a way of life.
The other Abbotsford Anglers - The Prince (David Lyons), Gobba (Ryan O’Kane), Shadow (Eddie Baroo) –all have their issues. But the plot is basically focused on the aforementioned foursome - and primarily on Teddy’s growing self-doubt over what life might have in store for him once he’s bitterly retired his dream of playing pro; or rather – playing like a bad parody of one. The Anglers really are a motley brood; about as disciplined as mud caught in a slide. Practice? What for? Technique? They have none. Their plan? Wing it – and have fun besides. There is, of course, a Peter Pan element to Cowell’s plot; these Neverland ‘lost boys’ forced to discover life beyond the game; Cowell, inspired to write his fiction after shooting a legitimate documentary on the real-life Anglers in 2008. And while the Anglers would likely be hard-pressed to see themselves in the physical embodiment of their alter egos; Cowell has captured the essence of these blue/gold and maroon uniformed ragamuffins to a tee.
Save Your Legs boasts some very impressive visuals. Paddy Reardon’s lavish production design includes a Bollywood finale with all the absurdly colorful bells and whistles one might expect, complimented by Cornel Wilczek’s heart-pounding score and Mark Wareham’s very slick and stylish cinematography.  Ultimately, the film is dependent on Brendan Cowell’s screenplay: getting off the ground like a prolonged TV commercial; all voiceover narration, infrequently interrupted by some dizzying graphics with animated title cards. This cribs from the Quentin Tarantino school of film-making: expedited intros with no plot development. In more recent times, this has become something of a standard. It really doesn’t mean much, however; although it has its ‘charm’ in a movie like Save Your Legs which, after all, isn’t meant to be taken seriously.
There is an episodic, TripTik quality to the story; Hicklin chronically employing highlighted maps to acclimatize the viewer where we are on the Angler’s tournament itinerary. We move from the team’s first brutal defeat; decimated by the Madras Cricket Club in Kolkata (Calcutta), on to the spiritual city of Varanasi, where Teddy discovers – and, predictably, misinterprets spiritual enlightenment under the influence of ganga – contracting a particularly nasty stomach bug that leaves him physically depleted. This also becomes the source of some gross-out humor; Stavros discovering Teddy having vomited in a puddle of his own diarrhea. Yes, it is as nasty as it sounds.
In actuality, the Abbotsford Anglers tour of India included confrontations with six regional teams; the Madras, the Tramway Co., Toyshop XI, Junkyard Dogs (whom the Anglers defeated by only two points, giving them their only win), the Mumbai Percept XI, and finally, the Streetwise Sachin XI. We lose all of this in Cowell’s reinvention of the tale; instead invested in a 3-match rivalry against arrogant and dapper, Rai Tusshar (Sid Makkar); a Bollywood movie star who also happens to be the captain of the Bollywood Magic cricketers.
Between games, Teddy and Tusshar vie for the affections of Anjali (Pallavi Sharda), the incredibly sultry daughter of the Abbotsford reluctant sponsor, Sanjeet Thambuswamy (Darshan V. Jariwalla), whom Teddy convinces to sub in after he has temporarily suspended Mark from playing; Sanjeet suffering a mild heart attack on the playing field as a result. This, of course, incurs Anjali’s wrath. What was Teddy thinking, putting her aged and out of shape father into the game? The answer, of course, is Teddy was only thinking of the game. That’s all he’s ever thinking about. It’s what, in fact, he dreams and lives for; the very reason for every fiber in his being. Anjali begins to realize just how all-consuming an obsession cricket is with Teddy. He’s a boy in a middle-aged man’s body. Despite their mutual affection, Teddy and Anjali begin to drift apart.
In some ways Teddy is the Anglers’ divining rod and moral compass, also their inspiration as a self-admitted ‘cricket tragic’ – a.k.a. diehard fan. Hence, Teddy’s fall from grace, succumbing to the wiles and whims of ancient mysticism and temporarily losing himself, as well as his faith in the game, is momentarily disturbing to his fellow teammates; especially stat expert, Colin (Darren Gilshenan). It seems Sanjeet’s blind faith in the Abbotsford Anglers has been thoroughly misplaced, especially after Teddy – suffering from days of dehydration – staggers into a rather posh outdoor nightclub bathed in ritual colors; making a spectacle of himself in front of Sanjeet, Anjali and the private club’s president, Shri Subhash (Prithvi Zutshi), who also happens to be the pumpkin-haired sponsor of Bollywood Magic. Tusshar delights in playing Teddy for a fool. After all, what chance do the Anglers really have? India may not be the home of cricket. But it certainly maintains the beat at a pulsating nationalized frenzy as its heart.
The last act of Save Your Legs is pure hokum too conveniently repackaged as ‘the moral of the story’; Teddy attempting to head back home in disgrace and alone; dissuaded at the last possible moment and reinvigorated to bring his team together in a victorious close match against Bollywood Magic – much to Tusshar’s chagrin; the Angler’s celebratory chant giving rise to an atypical Bollywood ‘production number’ with Teddy and Anjali rekindling their love. Again, Save Your Legs isn’t meant to mirror or even embrace the real Angler’s story. If anything, we get contrivances aplenty and diversions to anesthetize and counteract the seriousness of life’s lessons learned the hard way. Stavros tells Teddy he didn’t mean it about his moving out of the garage. Even Mark, who has been feverishly working toward a lucrative career as batsman for the rival team, returns to the fold; calling out Shri Subhash as an absurd old fool.
Interestingly, Save Your Legs plays very much like an 80’s sport’s themed rom-com; 1988’s Bull Durham immediately comes to mind. It has that pedigree of wicked silliness feathered with more sincere and life-affirming messages to recommend it. And it is well served in its approach of taking a D-grade motley crew of underdogs to the semi-finals of an international sport (Bad News Bears 1976 – remade in 2005). Co-produced by Nick Batzias - one of the original Anglers - Save Your Legs pivots on its solid performances. Curry, Cowell, Gameau, Thwaites are engaging teammates, while Sid Makkar proves a very strong, pleasingly sarcastic nemesis.  Don’t look for too much truth between the often predictable one liners in this arrested development dramady – a potpourri of ball-busting and male machismo run playfully amuck - and you will make out just fine. Save Your Legs gives us the vapors off a sweaty jock. But it is tinged with tangible whiffs of a more cerebrally motivated message: that it’s never too late to realize your dreams – even if you have to grow up to achieve them. You’re meant to enjoy this one with the proverbial grain of salt. At varying degrees, a whole box might help.
You can get excited for other reasons too; because Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is reference quality. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer has absolutely zero flaws; the image crisp with richly saturated colors showing off Mark Wareham’s lush cinematography to its best advantage. The color palette is stylized. But flesh tones always appear bang on perfect; ditto for contrast. No crushed blacks and a light smattering of film grain consistently handled. Again, what’s to complain about? Absolutely nothing! The 5.1 DTS audio gives your speakers a real workout; dialogue nicely integrated with SFX and the bass-pumping techo/India underground underscore.  Belly dance, anyone?
Special features include an informative audio commentary from director Boyd Hicklin, who is obviously having a jolly good time reminiscing with producers, Robyn Kershaw and Nick Batzias, also actors Stephen Curry, Brendan Cowell and Damon Gameau. In addition to the isolated score, TT also gives us Hicklin’s nearly hour long documentary on the real Abbotsford Anglers; fascinating in its own right. There’s also a hilarious ‘Bound 4 India with Ted & Col’ featurette with Darren Gilshenan explaining the legitimate reasons for stocking up on meds when traveling abroad to a very reluctant, Stephen Curry. Bottom line: highly recommended with a wink and a nudge!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

BRANNIGAN: Blu-ray (UA 1975) Twilight Time

John Wayne brings his own rugged brand of American justice to the U.K. in Douglas Hickox’s Brannigan (1975); a crime/thriller with the 6ft. 4 inch Wayne as the proverbial fish out of water, and towering over his diminutive costars, Judy Geeson and Richard Attenborough. Part of Brannigan’s charm is its retro clash of ethnicities. The screenplay is a mangled morass of deftly executed action sequences and some very bad puns written by Christopher Trumbo, Michael Butler, William P. McGivern and William W. Norton, who seem to revel in their interminable references to our protagonist hailing from Chicago; a proverbial hotbed for vigilantism. Indeed, Chicago had received such a bad rap on the popular TV series, M Squad, that mayor Richard Daley basically imposed a citywide moratorium on any production shooting within its borders – Brannigan being the exception to that rule.
However, Lieutenant Jim Brannigan doesn’t play by the rules. Arguably, he doesn’t even know what they are – and frankly, doesn’t care. Such myopic pursuit of the criminal element is, on the one hand, highly commendable. For Brannigan is like the proverbial pit bull who just won’t let up once he’s managed to sink his determination and his heels into an investigation. On the other hand, he does tend to register like the elephant in the room – a glaring social outcast who typifies what’s wrong with ‘the Yanks’: as Judy Geeson’s Det. Sergeant Jennifer Thatcher playfully puts it, “oversexed, overpaid and over here!”
The other half of Brannigan’s charm derives from its breathtaking usage of locations – some barely recognizable today. Except for a few brief inserts shot at Shepperton Studios – and a prologue taking place in and around Chicago’s old Terminal 1 at O’Hare airport – Brannigan is a joyous romp around London – looking luminously lush and uncluttered - with some spectacular action sequences lensed in Piccadilly, Battersea and Wandsworth; the best, probably Brannigan’s hot pursuit of Charlie-the-Handle (James Booth) in a canary yellow Ford Capri that jumps the half-raised Tower Bridge before getting lodged atop a construction pylon on the other side; just a little too James Bond for my tastes – and no surprise given stunt coordinator, Peter Brayham also worked on two of the superspy’s most memorable outings: Goldfinger (1964) and Live and Let Die (1973). The difficulty herein is Wayne’s elder statesman is no James Bond, nor is he as agile to pull off a reasonable facsimile; Wayne’s ‘man of action from the American west’ having considerably slowed after his bout and temporary recovery from the cancer soon to claim his life. Indeed, John Wayne had only a pair of pictures left in him after Brannigan.
However, no movie with John Wayne in it is ever entirely a waste of time, and Brannigan certainly has its moments. That these fail to come together as anything more substantial than a highly disposable action/adventure yarn (one that, quite frankly, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at times) is something of a disappointment; ditto for Dominic Frontiere’s heavy-handed underscore; a bizarre blend of atypical seventies ‘twinkle-twinkle/get down’ and bombastic traditionalism; its orchestral themes meant to foreshadow danger and daring do but, on the whole, grotesquely overpowering the gritty combat. About the action: it’s typically destructive. Nothing impresses more than bombs going off inside toilets, sports cars bursting into impossibly hellish fireballs and exchanges of gunfire photographed in slow-mo.  There’s even a barroom brawl – in spirit and execution, wholly excised from any one of Wayne’s vintage Hollywood westerns, but probably having its closest counterpart to the comical free-wheeling exchange Wayne shared with costar Stewart Granger in 1960’s North to Alaska; an infinitely superior film.   
Homage is one thing. Struggling for a moment of purpose – quite another. Finding instances of originality – again, something more. Too often, Brannigan seems to be desperately searching for purpose and originality, falling back on moments customarily earmarked as vintage John Wayne-esque. Alas, John Wayne is not a ‘plug n’ play’ kind of actor but an ensconced figure in cinema mythology. He requires the perfect setting to click, and Brannigan isn’t it. Yet, despite the miscasting – and some badly scripted dialogue (Jim Brannigan’s calling card is a dumb “Knock. Knock” joke) – Wayne’s inimitable charm, his sparse acting style and his laid back presence – all conspire to make Lieutenant Jim Brannigan quite an engaging fellow; sort of like an American patriot cut and pasted into a Victorian novel.
In some ways, Brannigan seems a natural extension of Wayne’s inborn gifts as a man of integrity and accomplishment; the western superman trading in his chaps and horse – though not his holster – for a V-6 and plaid sports jacket – also a pair of unlikely compatriots: Det. Sergeant Jennifer Thatcher and crotchety Scotland Yard Commander Sir Charles Swann Bart (Richard Attenborough); Wayne’s ancient law man ever so slightly morphing into the tough cop of today, still walking tall and carrying a very big stick. Brannigan actually beats Chicago counterfeiter, Julian (Barry Denan) over the head with a two by four at the start of the picture – a very big stick, indeed. Wayne had resisted this change of venue for some time, turning down director, Don Siegel for Dirty Harry (1971). In the wake of Dirty Harry’s trail-blazing popularity and overwhelming box office success, Wayne – slightly chagrined, and perhaps, wary of the fact he had suddenly become a dinosaur – took a leap of faith with John Struges’ McQ (1974). While McQ was decidedly a dower and downbeat excursion into the heart of abject cynicism, Brannigan returns Wayne to more light-hearted film fare.
Given the stature of Wayne’s costar, Richard Attenborough, concessions were made to film a brief scene inside the usually restricted Garrick Club dining room. Attenborough, a member of the actor’s club in good standing, worked out these details: also the bit where Brannigan is forced by the club to borrow a tie in order to get past the front door. The tie becomes a sight gag that pays off later on, when Swann informs Brannigan he wants him to surrender his firearms – referring to Brannigan’s weapon only as ‘that item’, Wayne casually tossing Swann the necktie instead. The point made: Brannigan isn’t about to hand over the one prop that makes him uniquely American. But he’ll gladly put on – then give up – the monkey suit of ‘old school’ traditions. Despite the casting of Attenborough, and another heavy hitter, Mel Ferrer – also John Vernon (something of a seventies film fave for playing the baddie), Brannigan is Wayne’s show all the way; a vitrine for his star power whose magnitude we just don’t see anymore.
Our story begins in Chicago with the aforementioned bad ‘knock-knock’ joke, as Irish-American Lieutenant Jim Brannigan kicks down a door to expose small-time hood, Julian’s counterfeiting operation. In short order, Brannigan beats Julian over the head with a loose two by four and binds his hands behind his back. Actually, Brannigan’s after a bigger fish: Ben Larkin (Vernon) whom he quickly discovers has fled his jurisdiction and, in fact, the country. Taking a plane to London, Brannigan is soon introduced to Det. Sergeant Jennifer Thatcher, who spends most of her time fending off Brannigan’s male chauvinism. Wayne’s ‘you sure are a fine looking gal, Jenny’ is a page ripped straight out of his own playbook as the macho western hero. It doesn’t really make for flirtation though; what, with the vast discrepancies in their respective ages, and, pretty soon, Brannigan adopts a more avuncular approach to their burgeoning friendship.
In the meantime Larkin meets with his attorney, Mel Fields (Ferrer), ordering him to do something about Brannigan. Larkin would like nothing better than to see his arch nemesis sporting a toe tag. So, he tells Fields to hire a hit man to take care of Brannigan; the New Orleans’ assassin – Gorman (Daniel Pilon) – arriving on the same plane as Brannigan and thereafter cropping up in the most unlikely places – waiting for just the right opportunity to strike. Larkin realizing his time is short; Scotland Yard only too willing to hand over a known felon to the ‘proper authorities’ state’s side. Alas, it is not to be; Larkin, chloroformed and smuggled in a portable steam bath by a pair of goons; Charlie-the-Handle (James Booth) and Angell (Arthur Batanides). Chagrined, Scotland Yard’s Commander Sir Charles Swann Bart is forced into a joint investigation with Brannigan.
The pair start off on a fairly adversarial note; Sir Charles ordering Brannigan to surrender his firearms because he is in violation of Britain’s gun laws. Brannigan, of course, refuses, putting Swann in an impossible situation. To arrest Brannigan is to pointlessly delay the search for Larkin and stale Swann ridding himself of two men he would rather see aboard a British Airways flight bound for the U.S. So, Swann makes Brannigan promise he won’t use his gun while in England. Oh yeah, like that’ll work!
Brannigan has more success befriending Jenny, who confides some personal details about her life. It all makes for some cozy buddy-buddy bonding, meant as filler between the disjointed action sequences. But what of Larkin? Where is he and who kidnapped him? Alas, the screenplay momentarily leaves everyone in the dark; the plot meandering as Larkin’s ring finger is snapped off and mailed to Sir Charles by the kidnappers as an obvious threat. Just in case, Swann has the digit fingerprinted. It is Larkin’s. Enter Mel Fields under the auspices of wanting to pay the ransom before any more pieces of his former employer get Fed-Exed to the police. A money drop is arranged at Piccadilly Square; Brannigan, Jenny, Swann and Inspector Traven (John Stride) all quietly observing as Fields drives his Rolls-Royce up to a Royal Post mail box and dumps several large envelopes, presumably densely packed with ransom money, into the slot. Still, nothing happens.
The mail is picked up and taken to a nearby post office, a courier on motorcycle (Tony Robinson) retrieving the parcels and driving to the docks, pursued by Brannigan and the rest. When the courier tosses the parcels into the Thames, Brannigan asks if he can swim before pitching the courier into the water to fetch the loot. However, upon inspecting the contents, Brannigan discovers the envelopes are stuffed with strips of newspaper – not money.  Returning to the mail receptacle at Piccadilly Square, Brannigan deduces it has a false bottom – the money stolen right from under their noses and exported via the sewage tunnels beneath the city.
Later, at his rented apartment, Brannigan suspects his front door has been booby-trapped; setting off the rigged double-barrel shotgun behind it. The blast brings Jenny racing up his front steps. A few moments later, Brannigan deliberately triggers another bomb, this one hidden in his loo; the blast, so powerful, it takes out an entire wall to reveal a stunning view of the Albert Memorial. Jenny offers to put Brannigan up in her flat. Discovering from Jimmy the Bet (Brian Glover) a man named Drexel (Del Henney) is Charlie-the-Handle’s contact, Brannigan and Swann set up a good cop/bad cop sting operation inside a local pub; the scene devolving into a free-for-all when Brannigan triggers a fight on the pretext of being Drexel’s drinking buddy.
If Brannigan – the movie – has a weak spot, it is this saloon-styled kerfuffle; sort of an homage or kooky send-up to the western milieu with John Wayne and Richard Attenborough throwing some very theatrical punches that quite obviously fail to connect with their intended victims. Director Hickox doesn’t get close enough to the action to make it work, relying on a terribly disengaged overview instead. While Swann has Inspector Traven run in the whole lot of drunkards, he deliberately allows Brannigan and Drexel their escape relatively unscathed. Drexel takes Brannigan back to his flat where Brannigan pretends to follow Drexel’s lead by getting properly pissed. Unbeknownst to Brannigan, they have been tailed by Charlie-the-Handle, who wastes no time putting a bullet in Drexel’s back with a silencer while Brannigan isn’t looking. Brannigan then commandeers a nearby car and makes chase after Charlie across London. Alas, it ends badly for Brannigan at the Tower Bridge; his car narrowly making the jump across its raised drawbridge before becoming lodged atop a construction pylon on the other side.
That evening, Brannigan is looking over his case files in Jenny’s apartment, remembering he left a particularly important folder in his car. Jenny offers to retrieve it, unaware Gorman is patiently waiting outside to riddle the car with bullets. In the pouring rain, Gorman mistakes Jenny for Brannigan (more on this ridiculous case of mistaken identity in a moment). Realizing Jenny’s life is in great danger, Brannigan breaks the upstairs window and blindly fires at Gorman’s advancing sports car; the exchange of gunfire narrowly missing Jenny, who at least has the presence of mind to duck in the backseat. The part of Jennifer Thatcher had originally been intended for Vanessa Redgrave who was, in fact, almost John Wayne’s height. Hence, in a trench coat and fedora, seen from a distance on a poorly lit street at night – and, through dense foliage and a heavy downpour – one might forgive Gorman his inability to discern one from the other. But at five foot two inches, not even Helen Keller could mistake Judy Geeson for the six foot four Wayne.
Brannigan and Swann deduce Mel Field is behind everything, including the kidnapping – bluffing their way through a second money drop in the hopes of gaining a confession from him. But Field is slick and not about to incriminate himself, although he momentarily becomes ruffled when Swann suggests Scotland Yard is very close to apprehending Charlie-the-Handle, who will undoubtedly break under pressure and expose the whole lot. A second ransom drop is planned, Field wise to the tracking device hidden in his car and managing to affix it to a nearby van heading in the opposite direction.  Arriving at the docks, Field is immensely pleased with himself; addressing the kidnappers by their Christian names – Charlie-the-Handle and Geef (Don Henderson) - causing Larkin to momentarily believe Field might be in on their plan to do away with him. Instead, Field assassinates Charlie and Geef, hurrying to free Larkin from his restraints. Alas, their victory is short-lived, the pair discovering too late a second homing device hidden in the ransom money.
Brannigan and Swann burst in and apprehend Field and Larkin without a struggle. As the police take the pair into custody, Gorman shows up in his sports car, determined to finish off Brannigan. It’s a moot showdown at best, with Jennifer needlessly placing herself in harm’s way; spared being run over by Brannigan, who shoots Gorman through the windshield and in the eye, causing him to lose control and drive his car off the edge of the docks; the impact from his overturned vehicle striking shallow water, inexplicably causing it to burst into flames. In the final moments, Jenny bids Brannigan a fond farewell at the Tower Hotel; her sweet peck on the cheek curiously tinged with a faint whiff of romance as Brannigan departs for the airport.
Despite its engrossing and colorful vistas of London, lensed by Gerry Fisher, Brannigan is a fairly unexceptional crime thriller. It sacrifices good solid actors to a mediocre story, buffeted by Dominic Frontiere’s utterly painful underscore. Listening to Frontiere’s musical claptrap is to be instantly teleported into a 70’s sitcom time warp, complete with generic cues and a central theme rarely complimenting the story or the action. Honestly, this sounds like it was scored for a light romantic comedy or worse – an episode of The Love Boat: not a seventies’ thriller.
It’s fairly obvious John Wayne is still recovering from his own smite at having turned down Dirty Harry. Wayne gives us Jim Brannigan as a very cool customer; also, something of a joke. Indeed, there are moments throughout where Wayne can barely contain his own amusement, perhaps in a sort of ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this…aw, what the hell?’ attitude that retains its ability to be ever-so-slightly coy and occupying for the rest of us. As a star of the first magnitude, John Wayne can, in fact, get by on his good – if aged – looks; also his charisma riding gunshot; a lopsided grin or raised brow able to insinuate with volumes of subtext. We don’t need John Wayne to be anything more or better than himself even if the material is fairly pedestrian.
Wayne has excellent rapport with Richard Attenborough and Judy Geeson; but the friendships cultivated in the Trumbo/Butler/McGivern/Norton screenplay are rudimentary at best. Worse – the film’s dialogue is missing the necessary bon mots to make us care what happens to Brannigan – or anyone else, for that matter.  The lighter moments (and there are many) are joyless and flat; the action sequences, hacked together with the most elementary understanding of how to incrementally build a chase or shootout to its satisfactory conclusion. It’s difficult to discount Brannigan as an out and out failure. It does, after all, have John Wayne to recommend it. And costars Geeson, Attenborough, Mel Ferrer and John Vernon are giving this their all. Ultimately, the movie falls apart because of its’ uncomfortable obviousness and fairly preposterous succession of overly stylized and unnecessarily complicated vignettes. Brannigan is a film for die hard John Wayne fans – period. The rest need not risk this opportunity to see the Duke fumbling around for something more eloquent to say or more meaningful to do.
The Fox/MGM Blu-ray via Twilight Time has its issues. On the surface, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this hi-def transfer. Alas, nothing to distinguish it either. Gerry Fisher’s cinematography looks clean and crisp in certain scenes, and softly focused – even occasionally blurry – in others, suffering from some noticeable color/space fluctuations. Flesh tones veer dangerously close to piggy pink, and several interior sequences adopt a curiously rosy and/or yellowish tint. Exteriors are vibrantly executed; night scenes, duller by comparison. But fine detail, contrast and film grain levels, while hardly stellar, are nevertheless consistent. The source for this 1080p transfer must have been in exceptional condition because there are no age-related anomalies; no digital manipulations either.
For a DTS 1.0 mono, Brannigan’s audio is remarkably robust. Dialogue is crisp and sound effects roar to life; Dominic Frontiere’s swingin’ score sounding just fine. Twilight Time provides us with two noteworthy extras: their usual isolate score – in 5.1 and lots of fun to listen to without the visuals – and a fairly entertaining audio commentary hosted by TT’s Nick Redman and featuring Brannigan co-star, Judy Geeson; a real class act. We also get Geeson’s home movies on the making of the film. Finally, there’s the original trailer to appreciate, plus Julie Kirgo’s essay. Bottom line: Brannigan isn’t a dog, but it isn’t a winner either; it’s middling effort marginally elevated by John Wayne’s presence.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Monday, July 28, 2014

RADIO DAYS: Blu-ray (Orion 1987) Twilight Time

Woody Allen continues his New York love affair with an ambitious, affectionate – though only occasionally affecting – tribute to the golden age of radio with Radio Days (1987). The film is a very loose series of ruminations cribbed from Allen’s own fertile childhood memories. These are made misty-watered and rose-colored with the inevitable passage of time. All of them involve the radio in one way or another; the power of memory to be clouded by art and vice versa playing a big part in Allen’s opus magnum dedicated to this far simpler time. Woody Allen’s film-making is so irreproachable in so many ways it almost seems sacrilegious to pick apart Radio Days failings; chiefly, its queer inability to linger in the mind once the houselights have come up. But it just doesn’t have the staying power of a bona fide Woody Allen classic.
Like all of Allen’s New York fairy tales, Radio Days does appear genuine and autobiographical – Allen’s nostalgic memoir gleaned from a rich and varied tapestry of personalized reflections he so clearly regards as more intimate and meaningful than the present, and, using his own particular brand of self-deprecating Yiddish humor to palliate even uncomfortable reminiscences. Creative geniuses working in the cinema are rare. But Allen has proven the most prolific from the latter half of the 20th century. The challenge for Allen in Radio Days is to visualize a non-visual medium. Alas, he never quite licks it, perhaps because Allen has chosen to remain omnipotent in this loving valentine as its narrator; Seth Green, his prepubescent alter ego – Joe – never able to capture the essence of Allen’s own persona as the gawky, perennially befuddled and disillusioned social outcast.
In fairness to Green, he doesn’t have much of a part in this ensemble piece; Joe chronically relegated to the back of the line; getting beaned in the head by his otherwise benevolent father (Michael Tucker), nasally sounding, mother (Julie Kavner) and even the bitter and dictatorial, Rabbi Baumel (Kenneth Mars). It’s a thankless part, meant to illustrate for the audience the Freudian roots of Allen’s own emasculated sense of self. But Radio Days is starved by Allen’s absence. Without his tangible presence, there is no central character to follow, much less root for from beginning to end. Mia Farrow’s hapless cigarette girl and aspiring radio personality, Sally White is meant to provide this narrative continuity; Allen returning to White’s mindless plight time and again. But even Sally infrequently gets lost in Allen’s cavalcade of remembrances; having nothing to do with Joe’s family and fragmenting Allen’s already severely episodic claptrap even further.
There’s nothing wrong with the vignettes as vignettes, per say: young Joe and his pals pretending to collect charitable contributions for Palestine, but instead using the money to buy secret compartment rings as advertised on the radio by his favorite personality - the Masked Avenger (Wallace Shawn); Sally’s brief flagrante delicto with radio ham, Roger (David Warrilow) atop a nightclub, only to be locked on the rooftop in a thunderstorm; cousin Ruthie’s (Joy Newman) charming lip-synch to Carmen Miranda’s Tico Tico; Uncle Abe’s (Josh Mostel) confrontation with the neighbors who disregard the holiest of Jewish holidays by playing the radio too loud, result in a crisis of faith and a hilariously imagined heart attack; Joe and his schoolmates using a carrot to make an anatomically correct snowman in front of the school, and later, ogling a naked woman through an open window with binoculars, only to meet her the next day – with her clothes on – as their substitute teacher, Miss Gordon (Sydney A. Blake).
No kidding, Radio Days is an ensemble piece. But the characters who populate this story – or rather, ‘stories’ are mostly undefined – or rather, under-defined; a curious cross section of distracting, though weirdly unsympathetic eccentrics. Mia Farrow’s trusting nightclub doll cum radio wit is the most prominently featured; Allen habitually deferring to Sally White’s rumored past for sheer amusement whenever he paints himself into a narrative corner. White begins as a bored and put upon cigarette girl at a swank art deco nightclub, the plaything of self-appointed radio ham, Roger - of Irene (Julie Kurnitz) and Roger fame.  Later, Sally inadvertently witnesses the murder of her boss, pitied by mafia hit man, Rocco (Danny Aiello) who takes her back to his mother’s (Gina DeAngeles) for a ‘last supper’ as it were’ as mum and sonny boy openly discussing where to dump Sally’s body. Alas, Rocco’s heart isn’t in it. So Sally lives to become a USO singer, and later, a prominent radio gossip columnist, exposing tidbits about Hollywood’s hoi poloi. Interpolated with Sally’s fantastic tale of succession is Allen’s more intimate portrait of home life in Rockaway Beach; herein depicted as perpetually rainy, gray and windswept; echoing Joe’s family, who have apparently gone to seed.
Joe’s aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest), as example, is a star-crossed frump and daydreamer whose ever-changing high standards keep her a spinster. Bea has the most deplorable taste in men: like Mr. Waldbaum (Hy Anzell) who leaves her stranded in a car out of gas and six miles from home (in a dense fog no less), after panicking while listening to Orson Welles’ broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. There’s also dapper Fred (Robert Joy), who breaks down in the kitchen and confesses to Bea he is still mourning the loss of his beloved spouse – Leonard! Joe’s uncle, Abe has a ‘fish’ fetish, while Joe’s teenage cousin, Ruthie is addicted to eavesdropping on the neighbor’s party line; learning all sorts of salacious scraps about their communist activity and the wife’s hysterectomy. Joe’s family is, in fact, a lovable circus to behold.
Too bad Radio Days isn’t about any one of these characters in particular, or even all of them put together. It’s Woody Allen’s homage to the golden era of radio quiz shows, soap operas and the big band sound that so permeated, enlivened and enriched American culture throughout the 1940’s.  That’s problematic, because Allen wants us to reinvest and align ourselves with his concept and understanding of this grand and glorious past; a memory only he intimately knows to be true, while philosophizing it as art, but without ever building up any of these characters to make them real and truthful for the rest of us. The audience simply has to take both the story and Woody Allen at face value. Had Allen actually committed to being in this movie it might have worked – or at least, helped. Without his presence – even as the proverbial time traveler, Radio Days starts off as disembodied and thereafter becomes increasingly unsustainable.   
For a certain generation, Radio Days will remain a fond evocation of a time sadly no more – mostly because Allen illustrates how the power of imagination – gathering around a dimly glowing green light in the front parlor – gave form to people and places only existing inside our heads. The movies – and later, television – showed us concrete representations of how we aspired to live. But radio made us think it could actually happen; the glamor and celebrity palpable and attainable only from inside our daydreams.  Astutely, Allen places a child at the center of this idol worship. No mind is more impressionable than Joe’s. He begins by relaying a story of a neighborhood break-in; the robbers (Mike Starr and Paul Herman) answering the telephone and winning the random caller portion of ‘Name That Tune’ – their victims reaping rich rewards the next day as the grand prizes are delivered to their ransacked home.  
From here on, Radio Days bounces around a lot; personal history mingling with the collective memories of a generation hooked on radio programming; Woody Allen showing us how truth can become confused, manipulated and clouded over by fiction. Obviously, the dreamlike quality of radio served a purpose back then; our adolescent woolgatherer able to abscond from his working-class neighborhood into the uber-swank radio realm of a wholly imagined Manhattan. Perhaps, Allen presumes too much, however – jumping back and forth from fable to fact - each more vibrant, but only from the vantage of growing up and leaving it all behind. Fair enough, Allen isn’t particularly interested in creating a linear narrative. Radio Days begins and ends on an element of uncertainty, perhaps to reawaken the adult Joe to the only reality: that time moves incrementally, while memory remains cyclical - made even more perennially appealing when revisited.
Woody Allen has always had a yen for vintage songs, mostly to augment and punctuate his plots.  But in Radio Days the robust 40’s milieu – from Tommy Dorsey to Sinatra and Carmen Miranda – serves an entirely different purpose; mostly to provide cohesion where none might otherwise exist as Allen moves through his series of entertainingly silly back-stories. Almost instinctually, Allen knows which characters to shadow in this overflowing ensemble – able to pick up a storyline at will, then just as easily discard it for another, picking it up again at some undisclosed point in the future. Admirably, Radio Days plays like the trick of memory itself – the irretrievable past book-ended by iconic vintage pop tunes. But memory is a curious thing; prone to nostalgia – decidedly never anything less than idealized. We tend to forget all the ugliness and unhappiness gone before yesterday and what resurfaces is fond verisimilitude. In our absent-mindedness visions of family, sexual experience, local folklore, public scandals and religious piety can intermingle like the various decorative threads dangling from a child’s mobile.
Perhaps as part of his nostalgia, Radio Days naturally evolves into a cornucopia of Woody Allen favorites from days – and movies – gone by. Everyone from Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton to Tony Roberts, Dianne Wiest and Jeff Daniels make an appearance; Allen also corralling surviving stars from radio’s golden age - Kitty Carlisle and Don Pardo - to add authenticity and charm plus: the all-important Tiffany setting of his piece. It’s hard to argue with Radio Days as an audacious slice of Woody Allen’s wistfulness for another time and place. Increasingly we all begin to hunger for the past with age, somehow assuming it was better than our own immediate present. And in the luxuriant ambiance of forties kitsch and coo, Allen has an almost inexhaustible wellspring to draw upon and exploit to his own advantage and purposes.
The film’s climax is both poignant and solipsistic; Sally White – now an accomplished radio star, returns to her old haunt to ring in the New Year with a gaggle of fair-weathers whom she takes to the same rooftop where years before she had indulged Roger’s proclivity for a quick one. Allen uses the strange unbalance of anticipation and sadness we all feel on New Year’s Eve to turn the page and close the book on his little pastiche; the characters reluctantly moving away from the old to welcome in the new with giddy uncertainty. But as Allen has pointed out time and again in Radio Days; none of what really happened back then matters; only how we choose to remember it for always in our hearts.   
Radio Days gets a fairly robust Blu-ray transfer from MGM/Fox via Twilight Time. Aside from the occasional age-related speckle this hi-def transfer captures the essence of Carlo Di Palma’s warm-hued cinematography. There is a counterbalance of color at play herein; interiors teeming with vibrant canary yellows burnt reds, wood browns and pumpkin oranges while exteriors are mostly cold gray/blue and desaturated. Contrast is solid and film grain has been naturally reproduced without any undue signs of digital manipulation.  The DTS 1.0 mono soundtrack is crisp.  TT gives us another isolated music and effects track, plus the original theatrical trailer. Julie Kirgo’s essay extols Radio Days many virtues. While I cannot fault or deny her persuasive arguments, in the final analysis Radio Days just doesn’t resonate as profoundly, the way a lot of Woody Allen’s best movies do – and all movies in a perfect world should. Recommended; although I hardly consider this Woody Allen at his best.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


BORN YESTERDAY: Blu-ray (Columbia 1950) Twilight Time

William Holden’s sagging movie career may have been resurrected by Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, but it was forever writ in forty-kilowatt stardust thereafter with George Cukor’s Born Yesterday. Both films, made and released in 1950, heralded the return of Bill Holden as an A-list talent. Interestingly, the formula for bringing Holden back from the dead was to cast him opposite two uniquely talented powerhouse female stars. While Sunset Boulevard was, undeniably, a vehicle for costar, Gloria Swanson, Born Yesterday became a sparkling champagne cocktail of screwball comedy, made to order for the comedic genius of charismatic, Judy Holliday; her alter ego - Billie Dawn – the quintessence of a bubble-headed tart about to get a clue under Holden’s expert tutelage.
Many today forget Holden and Holliday were hardly considered top tier talent when Garson Kanin’s smash Broadway hit, Born Yesterday came to the attention of Columbia studio chief, Harry Cohn. Despite the fact Holliday had created the role on the stage (and won a Tony for it), Cohn considered her an unknown and untested quantity. More or less, Holliday was lacking star cache – that intangible calling card to filmdom fame and fortune. What it took to get Holliday in front of the camera involved more than a little cajoling from director, George Cukor; also the conspiratorial maneuvers of Cukor, Spencer Tracy and Kate Hepburn to cast Holliday in her first role: a plum supporting part in MGM’s Adam’s Rib (1949).
As for William Holden; he had graced a series of largely forgettable movies as the male ingénue; a would-be heartthrob whose debut in the boxing classic, Golden Boy (1939) had been salvaged in the eleventh hour by leading lady, Barbara Stanwyck. In the interim, Holden had managed to make the least of his landmark debut, cresting out of favor and aging gracefully, but aging nonetheless and beyond that lucrative category reserved for young men of more obvious talents. But who can argue with Holliday and Holden’s jubilant chemistry in Cukor’s deftly handled romantic comedy of errors? And who can think of two more radiant personalities to carry it off?
Born Yesterday is simply premised: a neatly packed ditz gets wise to the fact she is being used by her overbearing sugar daddy, Harry Brock (Broderick Crawford). The joy and the trick of it is to observe the proverbial light bulb going off inside Holliday’s head; her bleached curls yielding to a more fertile gray matter with all the neurons already begun to fire right under Harry’s nose. Like all truly gifted clowns, Judy Holliday’s great strength is she can move us as easily to tears as to laughter; her genius and technique suddenly – and often quite unexpectedly - gingerly plucking at our heartstrings.  The dumb blonde had been a staple of Hollywood for decades. But Holliday’s dippy dames are an intricate balance of complex joys and immeasurable sadness intermingled; Holliday’s vocal intonations alone, tapping into lost undercurrents and hidden anxieties – each fraught with unearthed subtext.
“A world full of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in,” Paul suggests to Billie, a quote ringing more ominously true with each passing year since Born Yesterday had its splashy premiere. The axiom ‘born yesterday’ denotes someone unprepared in their understandings of the world at large. Ah, but Billie Dawn is about to prove she is nobody’s fool. In the intervening decades, Holliday’s persona has been reclassified as everything from an embarrassment of brassy naiveté to a doll-like teeter-totter: all dimples and squeakily voiced.  It’s a shame too, because Holliday was highly intelligent and thoroughly gifted; a great gal for whom the word raconteur might very well have been coined and embodying the old adage ‘it takes a sophisticated person to play a stupid one’.  
I have yet to mention director, George Cukor in this review, perhaps because Cukor’s style – nee, his personal imprint – tends to become cloaked by the veil of entertainment, so much as to render it outwardly invisible. What is Cukor’s style? Well…it changes from movie to movie and star to star; Cukor’s sensitive nature granting his talent unprecedented access to the inner workings of his own adaptable mindset. But Cukor remains a virtuoso whose body of work ought to have long since made his name as distinguishable and praiseworthy as the likes of a John Huston, Hitchcock or Billy Wilder. In his heyday, Cukor was irrefutably an actor’s director, deciphering every nuance of the camera to complement each character’s POV; but always in service to the story.  It’s a style we don’t see in movies anymore; absent of the more obvious legerdemain and swagger. Yet, it is anything but unsophisticated. And Cukor’s range is masterly and purposeful. He never gives more than he should and instinctually, he knows when to let a scene run long or cut it to punctuate the sincerity in a turn of phrase or moment of revelation.
Born Yesterday affords Cukor carte blanche to ‘open up’ the original stagecraft. Yet, herein, Cukor relies almost entirely on Garson Kanin’s revised screenplay, deferring his screen credit to Albert Mannheimer; Harry Cohn’s hand-picked writer. By Cukor’s own account, Mannheimer’s screenplay was scarcely perfect. Together with Kanin’s help, Cukor meticulously toiled to uphold as much of the original’s charm; Kanin’s embryonic idea to make Washington D.C. its own distinct ‘character’. Hence, Billie Dawn’s scholastic awakening is conceived in the cradle of liberty; Paul as her guide and our éminence grise through this travelogue of easily identifiable backdrops. It’s a clever device; using setting to augment plot beyond its more obvious function as backdrop for a story that could ostensibly take place virtually anywhere.
Our story begins with Harry Brock’s arrival at Washington’s Hotel Statler. Brock’s a blowhard – a thug in a three piece who made his money via crooked junk dealing. Automatically, he believes a wallet full of cash means he has arrived in polite society; worthy of others to take notice. There’s certainly nothing remotely polite or even couth about Harry Brock – the proverbial bull in the china shop. Brock’s entourage includes his brother-in-law, Eddie (Frank Otto), his mouthpiece, attorney at law, Jim Devery (Howard St. John) and Billie Dawn; Harry’s…well… Cukor ran into all sorts of censorship snags over Garson Kanin’s unapologetic depiction of Billie as a kept woman – and by a much older man, no less; the movie getting around the play’s inferences to adultery by having Billie skulk in and out of Harry’s suite using the back door instead.
After giving Sanborn (Grandon Rhodes), the hotel manager the most loutish brushoff, Harry is informed by Jim he is to be interviewed by a member of the press. Disinterested in the extreme, Harry asks why he needs more publicity. Jim astutely explains, “Listen…to get by in this town takes power – you got some; takes money – you go plenty; but above all it takes judgment and intelligence – that’s why you pay me a hundred thousand a year!” In short order, we meet Paul Varell (William Holden), something of an acquaintance of Jim’s. Paul is mildly amused by Harry’s primitiveness – at first. He’s much too inebriated by his own self-importance to be believed, but treacherous enough to be genuinely feared. Perhaps, Harry’s just a victim of circumstance; born in Plainfield, New Jersey, working out his junk dealer’s swindle during his formative years and parleying his con into a lucrative business. Harry’s self-made. He also happens to be a crook.  “Never bull a bull artist,” Harry explains, “I can sling it with the best of them!”
But Harry’s also a brute; belittling his cronies, manhandling Jim and controlling Billie, right down to how much she drinks and when. Unable to understand why he has no friendships, except those cultivated with strong-armed tactics, Harry dives headstrong into his first meeting with Congressman Norval Hedges (Larry Oliver) and his wife, Anna (Barbara Brown): a disaster when sparks fly between Billie and Harry – resulting in Billie becoming standoffish. Harry makes Jim a bet he can convince Paul to undertake the reeducation of Billie Dawn; a crash course in social etiquette. It won’t be easy. Billie’s more than just a diamond in the rough; she’s an ex-chorine (whose real name happens to be Emma) with a mouth and an attitude; a very lethal combination. Worse, she’s frank about her immediate sexual attraction to Paul; something he finds nervously diverting at first and doesn’t readily discourage. “It’s only fair,” Billie explains, “We’ll educate each other!”
After Paul leaves, Harry engages Billie in a game of gin rummy; Cukor moving us into a sublime vignette: Billie’s compulsive and chronic reorganization of her mitt full of cards, beating Harry at every hand. Here is a scene straight from the silent era, played almost entirely without dialogue; Billie, in her sparkling white sequin pant suit, fixated on her winning streak as Broderick Crawford’s befuddled boor helplessly looks on – his mounting confusion matched only by an even more cacophonous outburst of frustration. The scene ends with Billie forcing Harry to pay her $55.60 – immediately.  Cukor’s camera never moves from this two shot; Holliday and Crawford doing their utmost to entertain us with their delicious dumb show. It’s a riveting two and a half minutes of comedy and it never fails to impress.
Not long after Harry storms off to bed, Paul arrives with the early editions of the morning papers, instructing Billie to read up on world events; also to put a circle around anything she doesn’t understand. Her reaction is, of course, priceless, but it concludes in a most unlikely and spontaneous embrace; Paul excusing himself from their passionate kiss. The next afternoon, Paul arrives to find Billie in a slinky black negligee, still in bed – reading; her second attempt at seduction thwarted when he clarifies for her their situation is complicated enough already. “I ought’a take this pencil and put a circle around you,” Billie glibly replies.  
But from here on in, Billie’s eyes will be opened to more than love; Paul strengthening her cultural points of interest, beginning with the Capital Building and the rotunda. When next we see our Miss Dawn, she is sporting a pair of thick reading glasses. In fact, while Billie’s wardrobe (a truly fabulous series of ensembles designed by Jean Louis) remain flashy, her entire demeanor and carriage has begun to change; more bookish and introspective - Paul’s influence already taken hold. The next day’s trek yields even richer rewards; Billie discovering the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights – sharing her new finds with Paul, who treats her to a chocolate ice cream. Inquiring whether or not Billie has had any time to read his latest piece, Billie sincerely declares “I think it’s the best thing I ever read…I didn’t understand a word!”
Paul takes Billie to hear an outdoor classics concert. Alas, he has begun to have conflicted feelings about their working relationship. Billie isn’t dim-witted. But she’s utterly misinformed; denied the opportunities to blossom and discover herself for herself.  It’s no use. She’ll never make a Washington society matron. But she still might make a very good woman. Billy regales Paul with a letter she received from her father still living in New York; the first contact she’s had with him since running off with Harry eight years ago. Embarrassed by the confidences she’s shared, Billie asks to hear the story of Paul’s life to which he smugly replies, “Oh no…much too long – and mostly untrue.”
The next day at the National Gallery, Billie renews her affections for Paul. Although their tour of the city’s monuments continues on a purely platonic level, the tug o’ war between their minds and bodies has already begun; Paul explaining to Billie he hates everything Harry stands for, and yet, still cannot bring himself to despise the man himself. Billie is confused – more so than usual, Paul explaining the purpose of learning is to grow bigger – not become smaller. However, Paul’s natural disdain for Harry leads to unanticipated repercussions; Billie raising questions about Harry’s business deals – also questioning the way she has been exploited by Harry – with Jim’s complicity – to act as a buffer in Harry’s business holdings.
Harry gradually becomes displease with Paul’s tutelage – particularly after he attempts to show off his own knowledge of sports figures in front of Billie; his inquiries diffused by Paul who charmingly flaunts his deft superiority here too. “Take you on separately,” Paul suggests, “I’ve a special course for backward millionaires!” The snub goes over Harry’s head. But it’s already begun to impress Billie. Paul is twice the man Harry can never even hope to aspire to be. Thus, when Billie hears Harry mistreating Congressman Hedges, she pulls Hedges aside to sincerely inquire why he takes such abuse from a ‘no account junk dealer’. The way Billie sees it, pushing Norval around is like bullying the few hundred thousand constituents who voted for the congressman in the first place.    
Later, when Jim casually instructs Billie to sign more business documents, he is met with inquisitive obstinacy. She’ll sign – perhaps, but only after she’s had the opportunity to thoroughly read through what’s in them. Harry becomes enraged, ordering Billie to affix her signature on the dotted line. In reply, she explains how gradually her awe of him has devolved, first to disappointment – but now, displeasure. “I used to think you were a big man, Harry,” she tells him, “I’m beginning to see you’re not. All through history there’ve been bigger men – and better – now too!”  When Harry asks her to name one, Billie reasons “My father!” Their altercation reaches a fevered pitch when Harry realizes Billie has yet to commit her name to paper. Lacking the art of persuasion, Harry strikes Billie several times; her reaction implying this isn’t the first time she has endured his abuse. Moreover, Harry has had enough, ordering Billie to leave and for good. They’re through.
Even so, Harry confides in Jim that he loved ‘that broad’. In the meanwhile, Billie spends the afternoon revisiting all the monuments she and Paul enjoyed together; Harry ordering Eddie to find Billie and bring her back to his hotel suite. Instead, she arrives on Paul’s arm, their plan: to keep Harry preoccupied while Paul skulks around the apartment to learn the truth behind Harry’s illegal operations. When Harry proposes – not out of love, but to do as Jim has instructed (because a wife cannot testify against her husband) Billie turns him down. “Who are you to say no to me?” he belligerently inquires. “Don’t knock yourself out,” Billie eludes, “You got a lot of surprises coming!”  
Billie explains the situation in language even Harry can understand. Paul’s taken the evidence needed to expose Harry’s spurious dealings with Congressman Hedges. Moreover, Billie’s in love with Paul and vice versa. Billie isn’t through. She’s through with Harry and good riddance to him. Besides, Harry will never get his way, either with Billie or Paul. When he finally realizes this, Harry attempts to strangle Paul; a murder narrowly averted as Jim intercedes, tossing Harry to the floor.
The last act of Born Yesterday plays just a tad too heavy-handed as a pro-American manifesto against government graft and corruption; with Billie Dawn the crusader for high-minded ideals. Of course, Harry doesn’t understand a word. But Paul is smitten. Billie is the only girl for him. Moreover, Billie makes Harry an offer he can’t refuse.  She wants no part of his spurious business dealings. So, she’ll sign everything – all of his holdings - back to him; only not altogether, just one at a time. Thus, Harry will be beholding to her for his livelihood; ordered to behave himself in the meantime or else face the very real prospect of going to jail for life. It’s a sobering and very satisfying moment; the ogre put back in his cave; Jim gleefully accepting defeat with a toast to all the ‘dumb broads’ and ‘chumps’ who make it nearly impossible for crooks like he and Harry to thrive. The movie ends with Paul and Billie pulled over by a traffic cop, revealing they’ve just been married.
Born Yesterday is supremely entertaining; Garson Kanin’s slickly packaged prose, mildly distilled and reconstituted by Albert Mannheimer, but still retaining much of their charm. The underlying theme of crooked politics in both the play and the movie, regrettably, has not dated. More refreshing on all accounts is Judy Holliday’s Oscar-winning performance; the personification of abject idiocy on the verge of becoming utterly brilliant. And let’s not forget Holliday’s Billie Dawn beat out Gloria Swanson’s deranged gargoyle in Sunset Boulevard and Bette Davis’ towering viper - aging actress, Margo Channing - in All About Eve (the Best Picture of 1950). There’s never a false note with Judy Holliday; raucousness doled out in tandem with delightfully obtuse observations about concepts her Billie Dawn admittedly doesn’t immediately grasp, though nevertheless manages to get to the heart of using her own inimitable powers of deduction.
Broderick Crawford – fresh from his own Oscar win in All The King’s Men (1949) gives us an even more viscous antagonist this time around; the combination of ignorance and arrogance utterly believable – terribly funny, yet utterly terrifying in the same instance. We get more than ‘a mug’ in Crawford; this reprobate who, as part tyrant/part buffoon, becomes the perfect comedic fop and foil. We must also tip our hats to William Holden; scrumptious as the handsome newshound destined to elevate and transform his passing fancy into a love affair of girth and merit. Finally, to George Cukor, whose specialization never makes the audience aware the exercise is more theatrical than cinematic.
Born Yesterday is a play translated to film – remember? Dialogue is great. But too much can often be the kiss of death for movies. Situations become stilted; words more punctuated than necessary. Yet, Cukor avoids virtually any and all of these pitfalls; a master craftsman, intuitively feeling his way through the material and making the most of his blocking and staging. The actors never seem rehearsed in their movements; the narrative advancing at an incrementally even pace; Cukor building on clever setups until his joyous denouement.  Born Yesterday is a prime example of why Cukor endures as a great director – also, why he continues to go largely unnoticed in the pantheon of great directors.  The piece is so perfectly crafted we think of Born Yesterday as Billie Dawn’s story – and it is, though undeniably, not her own doing – something Cukor’s covert style makes us completely overlook. Joseph Walker’s cinematography augments Harry Horner’s cozy production design and William Kiernan’s set decoration. But it’s all in service to Cukor’s preponderant vision, artfully orchestrated to mask his involvement.
Columbia had a lot riding on Born Yesterday, Harry Cohn reportedly paying a record $1 million for the rights to produce it. He was well repaid when the film proved a smash hit and Judy Holliday became Hollywood’s latest overnight sensation. Cohn could breathe easy his first choices for the part, including Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner, Paulette Goddard and Ida Lupino?!? did not make Cukor’s final cut. Judy Holliday is clearly the real deal here. Without her, Born Yesterday is just a nice little comedy about a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who gets a clue and runs with it to her own satisfaction and purpose. With Holliday as its star, Born Yesterday registers as undiluted movie magic; a palatable romantic comedy gem. They don’t make movies like this anymore. I’m not even certain they know how.
Born Yesterday gets a superior 1080p transfer from Sony via Twilight Time. You can retire your old Columbia Classics DVD. Again, we tip our hats to Grover Crisp, his technical wizards and the studio’s overall commitment to remastering their back catalog with the utmost care and proficiency.  True, Columbia’s catalog is considerably smaller than most studios. But small or not, whatever Sony continues to release, bears the stamp of impeccable attention to every last detail. Such care needs to be readily pointed out and praised – because, it is a rarity among the majors pumping out ‘old movies’ in hi-def.
The B&W image herein is reference quality. Prepare to enjoy. Fine detail pops as it should. In close-up we can even appreciate minute amounts of hair, makeup and clothing fibers. There are several brief instances of softness, mostly during moments of rear projection and/or inserted stock footage. Otherwise, you are going to LOVE this transfer. The audio is DTS mono; perfectly adequate for a dialogue-driven movie with only the briefest of underscore provided by Friedrich Hollaender. Twilight Time gives us Hollaender’s score on an isolated track, and, of course, Julie Kirgo’s in-depth liner notes – always much appreciated.  Sony adds the original theatrical trailer. The old Columbia DVD contained some vintage advertising and talent files. We lose these on the Blu-ray. But what we gain in terms of image and sound quality dearly compensates.  Bottom line: very highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, July 27, 2014

VIOLENT SATURDAY: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1955) Twilight Time

Hitchcock once pointed out that simply by walking down any street in the world one was apt to pass within feet of a sadist, a philanderer or a murderer. Not exactly a comforting thought, but one apropos when considering Richard Fleischer’s Violent Saturday (1955); aspiring to be ensemble film making at its finest. The beefy family man; the unhappily wed/wealthy couple teetering on the brink of divorce; a desperate-for-money librarian who turns to thievery to save herself; a doting/sex kitten of a nurse who spends more time raising the blood-pressure of this amiable male population than tending to the sick, and the seemingly button-down banker, frittering his afterhours free time stalking her. Add to this eclectic mix, an Amish patriarch, stirred to action against his faith in the face of real danger from three very mean/fairly conflicted bank robbers, come to wreak havoc on this small mining community and voila – Violent Saturday is teeming with the sort of raw and salacious, headline-grabbing fiction, better suited for the starkly lit forties film noir than the expansive DeLuxe-colored canvas of fifties Cinemascope. Never mind: the acting is solid, the drama deftly scripted by Sydney Boehm, cribbing for inspiration from William L. Heath’s novel.
In the mid-1950’s Hollywood turned hopefully – or, perhaps, desperately – to sex and violence; two commodities fairly under-exploited in Hollywood (except in long shot or cutaways to a roaring hearth as the lover’s embrace) to counteract the onslaught of television’s popularity. Today, it seems inconceivable the befuddled old-time moguls would struggle to concede this little black box in everyone’s living rooms had severed theater attendance by almost half within the first two years of its debut. In hindsight, the majors ought to have jumped feet first into this burgeoning new medium to hedge their bets. But Hollywood’s opinion of TV back then was rather bourgeois; the moguls still believing movies would remain as the sole purveyors of mass entertainment despite all evidence to the contrary. TV was third class in much the same way Broadway had once considered the movies as lowbrow popcorn fodder, unworthy to share the great white way with their flesh and blood live theater creations.
Indeed, Violent Saturday appeals to this lowest common denominator; humanity’s generalized, inquisitive thirst for scandal marginally satisfied by this peep show of oddities, the circumstances justified by a return to relative normalcy. Ergo, the philandering wife surrenders her ten year stretch of youthful dalliances to be with her husband – alas, martyred in the botched stickup; the voyeuristic banker confesses his sins to the object of his desire, and the robbers all get what’s coming to them; and I don’t mean a weekend in the country living stylishly off their ill-gotten gains. Today, a film like Violent Saturday would likely be drawn out to exhaust every possibility in its blood and guts spectacle; a showcase for mind-numbing stunt work, a few car chases, some gratuitous nudity and a hailstorm of bullets; the special effects wizards finding new ways to explode their litany of squibs for maximum grotesqueness.  
Director Richard Fleischer knows better and proves it with his fairly laid back approach to the material; building ever so slightly on the inner tensions already brewing among the locals, and, showing us the instinctual moral decay enveloping these lives we’re supposed to care about, long before the external seeds of death arrive in town.  It’s a kind of film-making we don’t see anymore, and, at first, it’s somewhat disconcerting – even off putting, given the film’s incendiary title. The violence suggested as permeating the entire story actually only happens within the last twenty minutes of this hour and a half programmer, tricked out in Charles G. Clarke’s luminous Cinemascope photography.
But when it does occur, it creates a sensation quite unlike any experienced by the ludicrous in-your-face tabloid approach to film-making today. The audience is not brutalized; the film’s ‘crime must pay’ epilogue mollifying any genuine threat; making the audience secure in the film’s mythology: people are basically good and humane with just a few bad apples weeded out by the local gentry, rising up in the eleventh hour to counteract and neutralize their influences. Even the God-fearing/peace-loving Amish take up arms. Clearly, God helps those who choose to help themselves.  
Violent Saturday is rather stylishly produced by the formidable, Buddy Adler; Charles G. Clarke’s moodily lit interiors ripping a page from the B&W film noir textbook and willing it into color and widescreen. In 1955, Violent Saturday was generally panned by the critics for its “unedifying spectacle” of violence; an opinion now more quaintly out of touch to downright ridiculous; perhaps merely a sad indictment on how far audiences have fallen in their collective expectations to be ‘entertained’ by such rank and creatively anesthetizing ferocity depicted on their movie screens.
Indeed, popular opinion has since shifted in praise of Violent Saturday; considered “the reigning king of Southwestern noir” and “great, nasty fun” by some. In retrospect, Violent Saturday attempts the impossible; to straddle a chasm between being an intelligently scripted critique of small town hypocrisies, book-ended by the trappings of the conventional crime story. We are expected to be more invested in the outcome of these nondescripts that populate this sleepy town. Today, our sentiments would side on the success or failure of the killers. I shudder to think what that says about society now!
But back to Violent Saturday: a film of considerable weight, even if its story does tend to unravel into a rank shoot ‘em up in the last reel. Director Fleischer gets some fair mileage out of William L. Heath’s novel, considerably cleansed and condensed to placate Hollywood’s then reigning button-down conservatism and censorship. There’s some smoke but little fire – apart from the 55’ Chevy that gets flame-broiled by the bank robbers in their desperate and misguided attempt to regain control over their hostages.  
What Fleischer is left with then, are the machinations of this isolated sect of basically good people, momentarily turned by disillusionment, bitterness, sexual frustration and other self-destructive behaviors, yet not so far gone as to be able to return to quote - ‘normalcy’ – unquote. Hence, here is a story where tramps reform, a morally forthright man copes with his philandering spouse by hitting the bottle (and momentarily hitting on the most attractive girl in town), and, hired guns confide their insecurities in heartfelt tête-à-tête, over a few cigarettes and sleepless nights.
Violent Saturday opens on that prerequisite panoramic vista all early Cinemascope movies have in common, to take full advantage of its sprawling screen dimensions; an underground explosion detonated in the apocalyptic landscape of the local copper mine, presumably meant to punctuate the pugnaciousness it will take the better half of its 90 minutes to revisit; the screen emblazoned with red and yellow title credits to whet our anticipation. 
We’re plunged into rank domesticity in Bisbee, Arizona; a small community of tightly woven, sparsely treed streets. Like all communities, this one runs the gamut from the socially affluent to the not so well off; the former represented by mine owner, Boyd Fairchild (Richard Egan), his wayward wife, Emily (Margaret Hayes), and his associate, Shelley Martin (Victor Mature) who is happily married to Helen (Dorothy Patrick) and has a devoted son, Steve (Billy Chapin). The latter is embodied by careworn librarian, Elsie Braden (Sylvia Sidney), who steals a purse while on her book rounds in order to pay her outstanding debts to the local bank, run by Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan); a seemingly aboveboard milquetoast, harboring an unrequited – and fairly unhealthy – yen for nurse, Linda Sherman (Virginia Leith); the only attractive/unmarried girl in town.
Harry stalks Linda around town, under the pretext of walking his dog; waiting outside her apartment late at night and watching from the shadows as she undresses in full view of her open window. Ironically, during one of these late night peep shows, Harry observes Elsie ditching the stolen purse in a back alley garbage can. Honestly, couldn’t she have simply buried it somewhere in her own backyard, or ditched it on the outskirts of town where no one would have been the wiser. But, I digress. 
Harry and Elsie have words. She threatens to expose Harry’s ‘sick fetishism’ to his wife (whom we never see) if he ever breathes a word to anyone about her kleptomania. Alas, Violent Saturday isn’t really concerned with these intersecting lives; just one in a series of brief back stories meant to hold our attention while the real story continues to evolve: ditto for the heart sore machinations surrounding Boyd and Emily; she having taken up with local golf pro, Gil Clayton (Brad Dexter) and Boyd briefly considering a tryst with Linda too.
There’s also a subplot involving Shelley’s boy, Steve, who gets into an afterschool skirmish with his ex-best friend, Georgie (Richey Murray) in defense of dear old dad, considered something of a coward by the locals for never having served in the army during WWII. Steve believes in Shelley; an enduring faith to be richly compensated at the end of our story; a son’s hero-worship ever so slightly diffused by Shelley’s attempt to explain there is no great satisfaction in killing one’s fellow man – even in self-defense; a sentiment echoed more sincerely by Stadt (Ernest Borgnine); the farmer who refuses to defend himself against the criminal element until they wound his son in the shoulder. Hell hath no fury like the Amish scorned! 
The plot is intriguingly centered on none of these lives, but rather the pending robbery plotted by a trio of professionals come to knock off the bank: mastermind, Harper (Stephen McNally) hooking up with steely-eyed Chapman (J. Carrol Naish) and goony, Dill (Lee Marvin), who continues to psychosomatically snort his nasal inhaler because he was once married to a woman prone to giving him her colds. It’s an interesting bit of business, fleshed out by Dill’s midnight conversation with Harper; neither able to get rested on the eve prior to their big heist. 
The day of the robbery goes badly; Harper carjacking Shelley; forcing him to drive to Stadt’s farm where he, Stadt and Stadt’s wife, Martha (Ann Morrison) and family – son, David (Kevin Corcoran) and daughter, Anna (Noreen Corcoran) are bound, gagged and blindfolded; left in the barn to be guarded by a fourth accomplice, Slick (Boyd 'Red' Morgan). Harper, Dill and Chapman invade the bank just before closing time. Emily, having decided she truly loves her husband, has also come to the bank to take out $5000 in traveler’s checks for their planned trip around the world.
Earlier, Emily was confronted by Linda, informed of her own designs on Boyd. He’s all man and definitely Linda’s ideal, much to Harry’s chagrin. Drunk and depressed, Boyd later flirted with Linda at the local watering hole at Harry’s behest, presumably to deflect the town’s suspicions he is lusting after Linda too. Now, trapped inside the bank, Harry gets the itch to be cavalier, reaching for his gun inside his desk drawer as the robbers prepare to loot the safe. Instead, Chapman brutally shoots and wounds Harry, another bullet instantly killing Emily.
The trio’s ironclad plan of escape is foiled by Shelley, who has already managed to free himself and the Stadt family from their restraints and has killed Slick by dropping a barrel on him from the barn loft. Seizing Slick’s shotgun, Shelley becomes a one man vigilante, killing Chapman and Harper in short order. Dill isn’t so easily dispatched, however, cleverly ducking under a truck loaded with hay – their planned getaway vehicle – and shooting Shelley in the leg. In response to Dill wounding David in the shoulder, Stadt sneaks up from behind, plunging his pitchfork into Dill’s back. 
Fast forward to the aftermath: we discover Harry has survived, sheepishly confessing his voyeurism to Linda. She’s actually more flattered than surprised or even disgusted; but afterward, she turns to Boyd to comfort him in his loss; also, likely, to pursue a relationship now that Emily is out of the picture. Our story ends with Steve inviting Georgie and a group of school boys into his father’s hospital room; these impressionable minds whirling in awe of this man they once regarded as the town coward.
Violent Saturday isn’t a terrible movie. On the other hand, it isn’t an altogether prepossessing one either; director Richard Fleischer struggling for cohesion with all these disjointed narrative threads. Lest we forget, this isn’t a melodrama – or rather, doesn’t report to start off as one – although its first two acts are much more drama than action. As a melodrama, Violent Saturday might have worked, except, intermittently Fleischer is forced to differ to the noir-styled crime story without actually fleshing out the bad guys beyond anything more substantial than cardboard cutouts. Harper, Dill and Chapman are here to rob the bank – period! J. Carrol Naish and Lee Marvin make their mark – mostly because each is a strong personality. But Stephen McNally disappears into the woodwork. We won’t even count Slick in their scenario, because he seems to pop up out of nowhere – a local or an independent, who arranges to have the heist money smuggled inside bales of hay and driven across state lines in his truck. 
In his 1955 review, noted critic, Bosley Crowther called Ernest Borgnine’s performance ‘a joke’, and I must confess, its’ a fairly accurate assessment; Borgnine’s talents all but wasted playing the bearded hypocrite who refuses to fight based on his religious beliefs until, of course, his only son is shot by one of the killers; the old 'eye for an eye' taking precedence thereafter.  Victor Mature is top billed in Violent Saturday. But actually it’s Richard Egan who gets the most screen time; rather effective too as the humiliated hubby who cannot bring himself to hate the woman he wed even though theirs has been an open marriage almost from the moment each said ‘I do’. Egan is at his best as the self-deprecating drunkard, clumsily wooing Linda at the bar, or pouring out his heart near the end after Emily’s death, asking Linda to turn away while he indulges in a good manly cry.
Violent Saturday has its moments, but they become bogged down in these not so 'sunshine sketches' of a little town where middle-class morality has derailed and run amuck. Emily’s tryst with Gil on the golf green, the ignoble way he chooses to manipulate her already waning affections for him; Harry’s creepy pursuit of Linda – who knows she is being followed but seemingly doesn’t mind his adoration from afar because she has already astutely assessed Harry is more the ‘look - don’t touch’ harmless variety of freak; Steve’s undying patriarchal love, reaffirmed when Shelley breaks out the big guns in the eleventh hour. It all makes for some interesting back story. Unfortunately, Violent Saturday never seems to move beyond any of these narrative machinations, merely meant to delay and mark time until the whole point of the story – the botched robbery – can take place. In all fairness, at 90 scant minutes there's really no time to explore any of these plot devices beyond superficial talking points. But there are better crime stories out there on celluloid, and better ways to tell this one in particular.
But there is definitely nothing to complain about in Fox Home Video’s stunning 1080p Blu-ray transfer, released as a limited edition via Twilight Time. Ah, now here is a hi-def rendering to truly live up to the claim of perfect picture and sound. Violent Saturday is obviously the benefactor of some major restoration efforts. What’s not to love?: a robust palette of colors that pop, razor-sharpness revealing every last fine detail in Charles G. Clarke’s deep focus cinematography, and superbly rendered contrast and film grain levels. Even the transitional fades and/or dissolves between scenes – something of a shortcoming in early Cinemascope features – are smoothly rendered herein with narrowly a hint of that awkward momentary bump in grain and simultaneous loss in color fidelity.
The DTS 5.1 audio delivers a real kick. Aside: I am always impressed by the acoustics of 4-track Westrex vintage audio. In some ways, the clarity and spatiality is even more impressive when one considers the absolute technological crudeness these artists were working with back then. We also get Twilight Time’s usual commitment to providing an isolated score, plus the added benefit of listening to Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo affectionately wax and trade histories on the making of this film on a separate commentary. Bottom line: I can’t say I really appreciated the film, but I absolutely adored this transfer.  By those standards, and particularly if you are a fan of this movie, then this is the absolute best presentation on home video.  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)