Wednesday, April 8, 2015

FOR THE BOYS: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1991) Starz/Anchor Bay

Martha ‘the big mouth’ Raye fought producer, Bonnie Bruckheimer hammer and tong to prevent the release of Mark Rydell’s For The Boys (1991) because she believed the character of USO chanteuse, Dixie Leonard was based primarily on some less than flattering accounts surrounding her own life. Although based on an original screenplay by Marshall Brickman, Neal Jimenez and Lindy Laub, there was little to deny a lot of what emerged from this nearly 2 ½ hour turgid homage to the war years and their aftermath did, in fact, parallel Raye’s own back catalog. The tart-mouthed Raye, who had pioneered a new kind of less-than-womanly comedienne (occasionally referenced as the female Bob Hope) and had had her share of scandals, principally when testing the boundaries of ‘permissible’ behavior under Hollywood’s self-governing code of ethics, was frankly appalled by this quasi-bio-pic. Unhappily, the film proved to have enough of a fictional slant; the judge presiding over Raye’s lawsuit eventually ruling against her and dismissing the charges. Interestingly, there were no legal protests regarding James Caan’s Eddie Sparks – perfunctorily modeled on Bob Hope and, if anything, even less sycophantically caressed as a womanizing, two-faced and manipulative bastard.
For The Boys comes at the tail end of Bette Midler’s second big screen renaissance; produced by her company ‘All Girl’ for 2oth Century-Fox. Only once before had Midler attempted the pseudo-biography, playing a Janis Joplin-esque rocker in The Rose (1979), also directed by Mark Rydell. To many, it must have seemed ‘old home week’ for this team. Sadly, the results this time out were anything but inspired. For during the interim separating these two efforts Midler had departed from her self-styled ‘revue’ format (that had initially caught the public’s fascination with Divine Madness, 1980, and Jinxed, 1982, but then, almost immediately, fizzled out), seguing into undiluted comedy in films like Ruthless People (1986) and Outrageous Fortune (1987).  Gradually, the rougher edges to Midler’s screen persona were smoothed out so that by the time she appeared in Beaches (1988) little remained of her trademarked crudeness except mere affection with only the pretense of being uncouth to recommend it. 
Midler’s success as a singer has always baffled me. Certainly, no one could confuse her thin and straining vocals as classically trained. Stuck in a sort of faux forties time warp, her affinity for the big band sound infrequently yielded a popular toe-tapper like ‘Miss Otis Regrets’. In the 80's, Midler’s repertoire was marginally expanded by two contemporary super-sized chart-toppers; Wind Beneath My Wings (maudlin anthem to the deliberately hammy tearjerker, Beaches) and a stand-alone single, From A Distance; meant to capitalize on Midler’s shifting ‘I Mother Earth’ career focus. 
By all accounts, For The Boys was meant to mature Midler’s screen persona further, even as it proved something of a throwback to her younger years. It ought to have been right up her alley too; except director, Mark Rydell and his screenwriters could never quite figure out if the movie was leaning toward a musical mélange about the war or an intimate – if cloying – melodrama, depicting one woman’s extraordinarily tragic life. As such, the feint from this semi-patriotic witches brew was one part sing-along (with Midler interpolating time-honored 40’s hit parade standards, like Hoagy Carmichael’s Billy-A-Dick and 60’s sad-eyed pop/rock dirges to peace; John Lennon/Paul McCartney’s In My Life) to two parts heavy-handed sob story; most of it falling flat on its face, rather than stopping the show. In fact, a good many of the songs featured on the CD soundtrack – released a few weeks before the movie – never made it into the final edit.
Midler is Dixie Leonard, an aged icon, living out her last year comfortably in seclusion in a private bungalow surrounded by her memories.  Some months early, Dixie had accepted an invitation to appear at an awards benefit honoring her wartime contributions. But now, it seems, she is having second thoughts; the prospect of sharing the stage with her one-time/long-time partner, Eddie Sparks, souring the occasion. To say Dixie and Eddie parted less than amicably is putting things mildly.  But even menial grunt/escort, Jeff Brooks (Arye Gross) has underestimated the depth of her animosity. Arriving in a stretch limo in his tuxedo, Brooks is told to go to hell and forget it. Placating Dixie with high praise is cheap and she immediately sees through this ploy. However, Brooks is not about to give up so easily, claiming his mother once said his hands could mend anything except a broken heart. To prove this, Brooks offers to fix Dixie’s old gramophone, testing one of her recordings on its turntable. The song regresses us back to 1942; Dixie, in a recording studio when interrupted by a cablegram from the War Department. This can only mean one thing: her husband, Michael, a sergeant in the army, is probably dead. In fact, what it does mean is Dixie’s uncle, Art Silver (George Segal) has finagled a career-making deal for his niece to appear opposite Eddie Sparks’ on his famous USO tour presently entertaining the troops in England.
Dixie’s debut across the channel is a smash. She raises the rafters, particularly after an impromptu power failure causes her to go it alone without the band in a meaningful solo, ‘P.S. – I Love You’, backlit only by the men’s flashlights. But her contriving ‘an outfit’ from the top half of a sergeant’s uniform (after her floor length dress is unexpectedly torn just as she is about to go on), plus her inability to conceive how some rather risqué humor might be misconstrued as a series of ‘dick and ass’ jokes - especially by Eddie, whose rage is exponential to the men’s elation at having a real live wire depart from their scripted badinage, leaves Dixie feeling deflated at precisely the moment she should be on top of the world. Although Eddie’s initial reaction is to fire Dixie before the tour can proceed, he’s no fool when it comes to spotting talent. Dixie has a rare quality – untamed and precious. He could certainly use her in his show. Art pleads with Dixie to reconsider. A short while later, Art reunites Dixie and Eddie at the Savoy. Neither is willing to budge an inch and apologize until Eddie decides to turn the moment into one of his hammier soliloquies before a live audience. Unaware of everything that has transpired before this moment, the crowd is mildly amused. Gradually, so is Dixie. The tension between them is broken and the tour proceeds.
Eddie realizes Dixie’s husband is stationed not far off from the spot where their latest command performance is to take place. Without telling either one what it’s all about, Eddie sneaks Michael into the show for an extemporized reunion. Predictably, this proves tearful. So far, For The Boys has been an evenly paced, if slightly maudlin affair; director, Mark Rydell keeping the tempo moving and Midler holding up her end of the bargain as a crass foil to James Caan’s obtusely dull and embarrassingly sub-par male Prima Donna. Alas, the show begins to derail immediately following this blissful reunion. We dissolve to Arlington National Cemetery, Dixie presented with the American flag draped across Michael’s casket by the Honor Guard; their young son, Danny (Jameson Rodgers) refusing to leave his fallen father’s side as the small flock of gathered friends dissipates; Eddie eventually coaxing the child’s grief along.
We flash forward to a TV skit being prepared for Dixie and Eddie’s popular television hour; Dixie’s improvising of a scripted line causing the censors to balk at its suggestiveness.  Dixie is infuriated to learn Danny (played as a twelve year old by Brandon Call) has been cutting school on a regular basis, forging her signature on a series of ‘excuse’ notes to avoid the truancy laws. Dixie and Eddie come into conflict about how best to rear the boy into manhood; Eddie suggesting Dixie’s approach will turn Danny into a mama’s boy. But is Eddie a better, or even a good influence as a role model? Certainly, he dotes on the boy as though he were his own son. Danny obviously fills a need, as Eddie has only three daughters from his marriage to Margaret (Shannon Wilcox). Alas, Eddie has hardly been father of the year to his own children or a proper husband to Margaret. She cannot trust him to remain faithful to her with any degree of certainty. Passing off James Caan as the chambermaid’s delight – a guy who, by Dixie’s own evaluation, screwed anything in a skirt from London to Yokohama – is one of the movie’s more woefully silly premises.  In his reddish brown dyed toupee, and wearing a series of heavily shoulder-padded plaid dinner jackets – James Caan is about as virile and/or desirable to the female sect of the show’s fan base as a dead flashlight battery in a very cold vibrator.
Nevertheless, when Eddie proposes yet another USO tour abroad during the Korean conflict Dixie elects to follow him halfway around the world on nothing more than a promise Asia is an exotic paradise. What it turns out to be is an impoverished and inhospitable hell hole, complete with disorganized fleeing peasantry and violent militarized ambushes that have all but crippled U.S. forces in their ability to hold down the nearby outpost. After the army truck they are travelling in is commandeered to transport the wounded, Dixie momentarily plays nurse to a seriously injured young man who eventually dies from his injuries. Art and Eddie’s manager, Sam Schiff (Norman Fell) are also travelling with Dixie and Eddie, as is rabid gossip columnist, Luanna Trott (Rosemary Murphy, so thinly disguised as the infamous Hearst gossip maven, Louella Parsons, it seems a grotesque misfire in the film not to simply refer to her as such). Art comes in conflict with Luanna when she suggests the Koreans have ‘no pride’. “Lady, they got no shoes!” Art bitterly points out. When Luanna hints Art would be more contented if the communists won the war, Art reasons America should share their military strategies with them instead. Surely then, the communists would lose! Eddie reminds Art of Luanna’s power in the press. She could use it to bring his political convictions into question.
Not long afterward, at a Christmas dinner where Art is to play Santa Claus, Eddie learns from his show’s producer, Shephard (Patrick O’Neal) the sponsors are threatening to pull out if Art remains on the payroll. Clearly, Luanna has done a hatchet job on Art’s reputation back home, spelling the kiss of death for his career during the McCarthy era ‘red scare’ and witch hunts. Eddie’s attempts at preventing Art from making a scene go unheeded and Art, removing his Santa beard, gives Eddie his cherished typewriter with a note; “Dear Eddie…I wrote my first joke for you on this.” 
Enraged her beloved uncle should be falsely accused as a communist sympathizer, Dixie turns the moment into a disastrous confrontation, accusing Luanna of sedition and Eddie of the ultimate betrayal for allowing it to happen. She reveals to all, the ongoing affair she has been having with Eddie while Margaret has quietly turned into a drunk from the stress. Dixie now orders Danny to come to her side.  Alas, Danny’s loyalties are torn. After Dixie pushes Eddie, causing him to slip and fall on the pastry table, Danny rushes to Eddie’s aid as the only father figure he has ever known in his young life.
We advance to the present; Brooks’ perfunctory inquiry “so what happened then?” met with a brief summarization of events by Dixie. These regress into yet another flashback. Dixie, now the middle-aged proprietor of a quiet little jazz club, where old friends and new social drinkers come to schmooze and booze while listening to a sedated quartet, is confronted by Art, who informs her Eddie is not doing well. It seems the sponsors did pull out of Dixie and Eddie’s weekly TV show. While Dixie struggled to remain on her feet afterward the scene she made in Korea all but spelled the end to Eddie’s career and his marriage. Now, Art wants Dixie to accompany Eddie to Vietnam for another USO tour; Eddie entering to pitch the idea with a caveat sure to clinch the deal: Dixie can see Danny (now played by Christopher Rydell), who has since joined the army and is stationed abroad. Alas, the reunion between mother and son proves all too bittersweet. Danny explains how the weight of the conflict has caused the men under his command to resort to bizarre behaviors merely to stay sane.
The Vietnam show is a disaster; the lewd and unkempt soldiers accosting the young Nancy Sinatra-inspired go-go dancer Eddie has brought along to tempt and tease. Dixie diffuses this situation from going too far with a poignant rendering of ‘In My Life’ – raising her fingers in a symbolic gesture of peace that brings out the better half in all these young men. Too bad, the Vietcong launch a counteroffensive. In the resulting mayhem, Danny is killed as Dixie helplessly looks on. As she coddles his bullet-riddled and bloody remains in her arms we see the last vestiges of respect she may have had for Eddie turn to dust and leave her heart.  Again, a return to the present: the aged Dixie, overcome with emotion, cradling her head in her hand; told by Brooks to take all the time she needs as he goes to the limo to telephone the show’s producer, Stan Newman (Steven Kampmann) and explain why Dixie will be unable to attend the reunion benefit. However, in the brief span it takes for Brooks to return to the bungalow, Dixie has had a change of heart, dressed and pressed in her new Balenciaga.
Stan, who is really only interested in the show’s ratings, is elated to see Dixie. But she insists on seeing Eddie in private before their big televised reunion, even as the prologue to their AFI-inspired tribute has already begun upstairs, playing to a packed live audience. Below stairs, Dixie orders Eddie’s entourage out of his dressing room. Time has not mellowed her. She tells Eddie about her dream the night before; having died and gone to heaven to ask God why he took both Michael and Danny from her. Dixie explains to Eddie how God presumably told her ‘girlie, there are no free lunches in life’; the implication being she betrayed both her late husband’s memory and her son by becoming involved with Eddie; the two of them complicit in Danny’s death by encouraging him to enlist in the army and go off to war to be killed. Eddie is incensed by the suggestion he would have deliberately murdered Danny to satisfy his own ego. He admonishes Dixie and hurries off to accept the Presidential Award, Dixie calling after him, “I hope it was worth it.”
On stage, the crowd is understandably confused to see only Eddie. But as he begins to read off his scripted acceptance speech he is caught unawares by the depths of his own emotions about Danny, stammering to relay the story of the ambush in Vietnam that claimed his life. Touched by his sincerity, Dixie emerges from behind the curtain; her presence bringing the audience to their feet. She explains for the audiences’ benefit, tongue firmly in cheek, how she taught Eddie everything he knows – even how to behave like a human being. Unaware of the subtext to her comments, the audience is mildly amused; Eddie devolving the poignancy of this moment by suggesting even after all these years, Dixie is still a very ‘sexy broad’. He proposes the two retire to his hotel room immediately to rekindle old times. She plays along, adding, “You and me? We go to your room? We take off all our clothes {loaded pause}…and then what?” The crowd loves it and Eddie and Dixie perform a reprise of the trademarked closer to their TV show, ‘I Remember You’. At the end of the song it was always customary for Eddie to select one person from the audience he would, presumably, never forget. However, when it comes time to institute this gimmicky farewell, Eddie instead chooses Dixie as the one whom he will always cherish. The two old hams toddle off as a gigantic placard of their former selves in their prime comes down in the foreground.
For The Boys is an ambitious, though severely flawed attempt at illustrating the unanticipated poignancy of a very public life privately shared between two warring individuals who, undeniably, care for each other but can never live as one. There are nuggets of truthful sentiment to be mined from this tedious excursion. Alas, not enough of them to salvage the story as a whole. James Caan is incapable of sentimentality, leaving his Eddie Sparks a very shallow and unsupportive lame duck indeed. His barbs are littered in spite. Worse, here is a cured ham whose own disingenuousness toward virtually every ‘friend’ he’s ever had makes him incapable of feeling anything outside of a good plug for his show. On the other end of the spectrum is Bette Midler’s Dixie Leonard; too deeply the victim of her own emotions so as to be quite unable to see how her mistakes have conspired to bring both she and Eddie to the brink of never reconciling their differences. Holding Eddie accountable for Danny’s death is grossly unfair. Indeed, and although Dixie and Eddie remarkably differ in their approach to respecting each other, both shared in their love and pain over Danny’s loss.
If only director, Mark Rydell could have made up his mind which story he wanted to tell. There are not enough songs in For The Boys, staged with anything more than token haste, to classify it as a musical. It’s certainly not a comedy, despite the few and varied attempts made to have Midler fall back on her former laurels as the ‘divine’ espouser of vulgarities and double entendre. No, For the Boys is, in fact, a dramatic mutt, infrequently intruded upon by these lighter snippets and sound bites, and marginally diffused in its dramatic impact by the inclusion of its song catalog. About the songs: the most impressive of the expressly written for the film, the Dave Grusin, Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman ballad, Dreamland – and prominently featured on CD soundtrack – is never sung in the finished film; a few bars rather badly croaked by Midler’s Dixie as she leans over her young son’s bed to sing him to sleep. Without accompaniment, Midler is laughably off key here. The other new song, Every Road Leads Back to You, written by Diane Warren, is heard only under the end credits, truncated to accommodate a reprise of Billy-A-Dick and marginalized at the end. It defies being included at all.
Despite criticizing Bette Midler’s range, it is not without its merit and following and For The Boys might have been an opportunity for her to shine in a big and splashy musical revue. Instead, she seems barely able to carry off any of this vintage treacle with a straight face. Even her flashlight vigil, ‘P.S. – I Love You’ evolves into a sort of artificial homage to better torch singers from the war era, done with decidedly far less affectation elsewhere. Midler gives us the brassiness of the big band sound, but virtually deprives it of its soft-candied center. Here was a period in American history when songs had meaning as well as flash for replay on the hit parade. Midler has the ability to make these songs memorable. Regrettably, all she does herein is sing them into the rafters, staged with some amateur theatrics that hold up even less convincingly under retrospective scrutiny. In the final analysis, For The Boys fails in its recreation; perhaps, because its two stars lack any sort of on screen chemistry to make their performances more profound or even marginally better than highly stylized and heavily rehearsed/canned shtick.  
Starz/Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray is genuinely disappointing.  First off, I want to put my foot down on the general effort – or lack thereof – in more recent times to give us Blu-rays that do not adhere to the advantaged technological capabilities of the format. This means getting back to the basics of authoring/mastering 101. Like how about a menu and chapter stops for starters? Remember when digital technology promised more easy access to favorite scenes. Starz/Anchor Bay’s disc boots up and begins to play almost immediately. There is no menu. Chapters stops have been inserted arbitrarily at ten minute intervals, only accessible by hitting the ‘advance’ button on one’s remote control. If you do not remove this disc from your player at the end of playback it will simply reboot and replay continuously. What a crock and a sham!
How does it look: predictably, like a vintage Fox catalog title culled from less than stellar video elements and barely given the necessary consideration to make it sparkle as it should. Good new? Age-related artifacts are not an issue. The image is clean. Film grain? Well, did I say the image is clean? Perhaps, a tad too clean. There’s more grain in the dimly lit sequences taking place in the then present, and occasionally some solidly recreated grain sporadically cropping up throughout this 1080p transfer. But it’s hardly consistent and that is my biggest complaint herein. Heavy, to light, to none is not an option, folks! Kindly take the time to render what’s on the original camera negative and balance it when transferring everything to hi-def.
Colors? Disappointing. The patriotic blood reds in the American flag look faded or garishly leaning towards a deep pink; navy blues in the stars and stripes are also weaker than anticipated. Flesh tones are frustratingly pinkish throughout, leaving the age-applied makeup to Caan and Midler looking as though both were latex puppets. Fine details are more fully resolved in close-up. But long shots retain an unusual softness. Personal guess – I don’t think this one’s a new scan; just some old existing digital files bumped to a 1080p signal. The 5.1 DTS audio is another hurdle to overcome. While songs and SFX laden scenes generally explode with uncharacteristic power across all five channels, frequently, the quieter moments, whispered dialogue, etc. are hard to hear; words sounding garbled rather than subtly nuanced. Extras? Come on – Starz/Anchor Bay couldn’t even provide chapter stops and you were expecting what else from them?!? Bottom line: pass on this one and be glad you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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