Friday, April 3, 2015

TROOP BEVERLY HILLS: Blu-ray (Weintraub 1989) Sony Home Entertainment

In retrospect, Shelley Long’s post-Cheers movie career has been prolific though hardly distinguished; a genuine shame, since given half the chance and the right vehicle, Long proved she could ford the invisible barriers between TV star and movie actress to her advantage. In Shelley Long we have a primary example of ‘the little dynamo that could’; whose charm stems from a somewhat nagging personality trait - far too plucky and pliable to be liked for herself. Indeed, much of the impetus for friction between Long’s Diane Chambers and Sam Malone (Ted Danson) on TV’s perennially revived and beloved sitcom, Cheers (1982-1993) derives from Long’s own innate sugary-sweet pleasantness; naïvely charismatic to audiences because she seems genuine, but a real pain in the ass for the other more cynical characters inhabiting her space. To some extent, Long would carry Diane Chambers across the threshold into her movie-land stardom, I suspect, because in her heart she really is as deliciously magnetic, if devilishly affable in real life.  
Long’s first three movies, after saying farewell to the regulars at Boston’s most famous pub – where everybody knew her name (and would again, when she resurfaced for the show’s 1993 finale) – were, in hindsight, stepping stones to a career of even greater prominence, mysteriously fizzled out shortly thereafter. Despite working steadily since those halcyon days, Long’s tenure hasn’t exactly set movie screens afire and, at least in hindsight, it now seems her best work can be summed up in three pictures rounding out the decade with a splash of playfulness and good humor. Touchstone Pictures gave Long two of her biggest hits; the first, costarring opposite sassy Bette Midler in Outrageous Fortune; the other, playing homespun mommy-type to Sela Ward’s sultry home wrecker in the transcendental comedy, Hello Again (both made and released in 1987). The formula for each picture relies heavily on Long’s ‘cheery’ disposition, perfectly at odds with Midler’s crass ne’er-do-well and Ward’s scissor-legged vixen.  
However, keeping Shelley Long’s buoyant personality afloat takes some effort in Jeff Kanew’s Troop Beverly Hills (1989). Cast as Phyllis Nefler, a pampered princess/soon to become the proverbial fish out of water, Long is thrown into the deep end of the pool, forced to assume control as den mother of her daughter’s demoralized Wilderness Girl Scout unit. Interestingly, Girl Scouts of America wanted no part of the Pamela Norris/Margaret Oberman’s screenplay (based on a story idea by Ava Ostern Fries); a tragic oversight, since the emerging movie not only deifies the communal bond young girls discover within the surrogate ‘Wilderness Girl’ organization, despite the meddling efforts of rival den mother, Velda Plendor (Betty Thomas), but they also learn some valuable life lessons worth noting herein. First, to move out of one’s comfort zone does not mean having to sacrifice personal tastes, opinions or personality traits simply to fit in; second, conformity is a bad thing, and, perhaps most important of all, genuine friendship trumps professional competition any day of the week. In short, do your own thing; do it well, and the merit patches will follow. Be sincere, try hard, express yourself and reap the rewards of your own individualism. Not a bad mantra for any movie angled at impressionable young girls.
Not that Velda Plendor, the stone-hearted authoritarian would agree. But hey, this is a Shelley Long movie and sure to illustrate the strength of sentiment over character development. Not that Phyllis Nefler isn’t a character – one, in fact, straight out of caricature-ville. But that’s part of the problem. In retrospect, there’s a hollowness to Long’s alter ego, whose personal interests include ‘community affairs’ – literally, dishing the dirt on rumored trysts and other salacious tidbits – and who lists personal skills on her Wilderness Girl application as honest, trustworthy and thrifty, simply because she haggled a $5600 evening gown down to five thousand!  Yes, Phyllis Nefler is supposed to be superficial. She lives in Beverly Hills, after all; an enclave dedicated to the deification of trivialities that leave her hubby cringing each time he opens the envelope of another Platinum Visa bill. But the Norris/Oberman screenplay is a fairly tepid affair – even for an 80’s flick – not going far enough into either the back story or current trajectory of Phyllis’ lifestyle to make us appreciate just how epic a transformation is about to occur. Here is a woman who, by her own account, coupon-clipped her husband’s way through a law degree he never embraced thereafter, because it was easier for him to become Fred Nefler (Craig T. Nelson) – the Muffler Man – and whose big-haired best friend, Vicki Spratz (Stephanie Beacham) takes questionable umbrage when Phyllis suggests she has lost her will to shop.   
With its cursory TripTik through some of the moneyed finer sights, including telling ghost stories around the hearth inside a posh bungalow at the famed Beverly Hills Hotel, selling cookies to fans gathered outside Giorgio’s, and sharing in a mani/pedi at Christophe’s salon, plus partaking of boxed lunches under the famed Hollywood sign, not to mention hilarious cameos from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon, Pia Zadora, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Cheech Marin, Ted McGinley and Robin Leech (among others), Troop Beverly Hills is a very odd time capsule. Even for someone who lived through the 1980’s and saw this film theatrically when it was first released, Troop Beverly Hills’ odes to such devastating opulence now seem shockingly gauche; less about extolling the joyfulness of this spend-spend decade than rubbing our noses in its disgusting decadence: even more horrendous, despite such grotesque affluence, these artificial fairy tale surroundings do not necessarily make any of these characters better people or even, at a more base level, brings them lasting happiness. I’ve always held true to the notion the man who said ‘money cannot buy happiness’ was obviously never poor. And while the Norris/Oberman screenplay seems to attest to the idea, money can never solve one’s problems, I would sincerely argue enough of it helps to stave off the general anxiety most of us – including yours truly – daily suffer from by never having enough of it! I know better. I just can’t afford it. These Beverly Hills princesses can, yet they're still dissatisfied. Go figure.  
Despite the enduring claim from people who reside in Beverly Hills – that, it’s just another sleepy and close-knit enclave with a small town appeal (albeit, with some pretty famous name plates affixed to its fancy-shmancy mailboxes) – Troop Beverly Hills also has Theadora Van Runkle’s perversely profligate costuming to recommend it…well, sort of; a potpourri of imperishably fantastic and occasionally just awful haute couture. Only a film from the 80’s, even in its’ last ‘glory days’ gasp of affectation, could have conceived such a despairingly vulgar fashion parade. Here is an assault on the eye like no other from period; even more distortedly fictitious than Bob Mackie’s dizzying designs for TV’s Dynasty; ultra-shoulder pads fanning out with cobra-back precision, a delirious march of feathered caps and sun bonnets, flaming boas and tri-colored ruching, astutely summarized by Robin Leech as ‘khaki dreams and cookie wishes’ (a subtle homage to his tenure on TV’s popular ‘Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous’) all of it leaving one to ponder the believability such a culture, where money categorically undermines good taste, could have ever survived – much less, flourished.  Van Runkle’s creations swamp this little fable; the story basically a chapter from Ava Ostern Fries’ own life story.
So, how does one get a semi-biographical episode made into a movie? Sleep with the boss of a big talent company. It worked for Fries, then a divorcee, courting the amour and sponsorship of Charles William Fries, the American film and television producer.  After some initial haranguing, a deal was struck with the Weintraub Entertainment Group to make Troop Beverly Hills. The talent assembled includes Craig T. Nelson, Mary Gross and Dynasty alumni, Stephanie Beacham. Sharper eyes will also spot a brunette and pigtailed Tori Spelling in the crowd, as well as Jenny Lewis, Carla Gugino, Emily Schulman, Ami Foster, and, Kellie Martin. All would go on to bigger and better things once puberty took hold. Strangely, the cast isn’t part of the problem, although none – not even Shelley Long – is particularly tested by this threadbare story line. But Troop Beverly Hills is a bit of a mess on the whole; the Weintraub Co. throwing everything at the screen to create its patina of ostentatiousness. It all looks as it could rather than it should. But the milieu is distracting instead of complimentary to our story.  
After a bouncy main title cartoon sequence, fleshed out by some creative visuals by Calabash Animation (arguably, the best thing in the movie) and set to The Beach Boys ‘Make It Big’, our story begins on the last day of school in 1988; the Wilderness Girls contemplating the fate of ‘Troop Beverly Hills’. Since its inception, this chapter in the venerable organization has been unsuccessful at keeping up morale. Their current enrolment is down to just six girls; equestrian rider, Chica Barnfell (Carla Gugino), whose parents are too self-involved to take an interest in, beyond writing the necessary checks to keep their daughter out of their hair; Emily Coleman (Kellie Martin), whose father, Ross (Ed ‘Kookie’ Byrnes) is a washed up Hollywood has been, unable to shell out even $7.50 for her Wilderness Girl merit badges; Tiffany Honigman (Emily Schulman), a sort of bookie/blackmailer and card shark, holding dear ole dad’s (David Wohl) wallet hostage, but with the proverbial heart of gold; Jasmine Shakar (Tasha Scott), who takes ‘black power’ just a tad too seriously with some major attitude, stifling a white cop who pulls her prize-fighting father over for speeding; Tessa DiBlasio (Heather Hopper), a preppie who knows far too much about human neuroses, having practically lived in psychoanalysis since birth; and finally, Hannah Nefler (Jenny Lewis); the true blue daughter of our soon to be inaugurated troop leader.
These girls will be alright, if only they can find someone to take a sincere interest in them. Wilderness Girl organizer, Frances Temple (Audra Lindley) believes Troop Beverly Hills has found a new leader in Phyllis Nefler, a woman recently separated and looking for a cause to fill her spare time. While Phyllis is desperately aiming at reconciliation with hubby, Fred, he is pursuing a meaningless relationship with his leggy and buxom realtor, Lisa (Karen Kopins). Left unfulfilled and pouting, Phyllis throws herself headstrong into become Troop Beverly Hills den mother. Alas, such a transformation will not be easy. Phyllis’ is a self-professed shopaholic who believes ‘roughing it’ means hiring Abbey Rents to set up a tent and catered buffet for the girls’ camp night under the stars. The first test of endurance Velda Plendor orchestrates is a disaster after an impromptu thunder shower sends Phyllis and her troop scurrying to the relative safety and creature comforts of a bungalow retreat at the nearby Beverly Hills Hotel. Gathered around the fireplace, the girls’ indulge in some benign horror stories; Phyllis’ contribution, a silly little trifle about having her hair done by a novice working for Christophe, who accidentally ‘perms her’.
The next morning, Velda, accompanied by her lap dog, Annie Herman (Mary Gross) intrudes upon the girls, vowing to Phyllis to put an end to her chichi excursions and disband the troop for good. This too, however, will not be easy. For, despite her unorthodox approach, Phyllis has demonstrated to Frances she can hold her own against Velda’s criticisms. Moreover, she has gained the girls’ trust and illustrated an unwavering commitment to their well-being as a surrogate mother/friend and confidant. Even Fred begins to take notice of his ex-wife’s dedication and hard work. One of the reasons for their breakup had been his overwhelming disappointment at the way this optimistic go-getter he married had turned out. “You had so much energy,” Fred once told Phyllis during a heated argument, “You were so creative. I couldn't wait to see what you'd do with it. See, now I know what you did with it. You went shopping!” However, now Fred is most impressed with the way Phyllis and her girls have turned out. During a merit badge presentation ceremony Phyllis orchestrates aboard a yacht, Lisa is thrown overboard, Fred’s panic quelled when Phyllis insists she’ll be alright. After all, “silicon is buoyant.”
In the meantime, Annie is assigned by Velda to ingratiate herself to Phyllis as a co-counsellor. Actually, her job is to spy on Phyllis with a hidden camera and expose the delinquencies that will get her broomed from the organization. Too bad Annie’s heart is not in this espionage. She’s complied, but only after Velda dangles the threat of sending her back to her former cashier’s position at K-mart. Without the necessary ammo to send Phyllis packing, Velda now sets her sights on outperforming Phyllis, thereby neutralizing the troop’s morale and forcing Phyllis to quit because she is a failure. The first challenge is a cookie sell-off. Phyllis proposes a ‘cookie telethon’ instead of the usual door-to-door sales. Naturally, Velda vetoes this plan. But to truly defeat Troop Beverly Hills, Velda assigns her own daughter, Cleo’s (Dinah Lacey) ‘Red Feathers’ troop to infiltrate the country club sect, selling cookies outside of their assigned zone before Phyllis and her girls have the same opportunity. In retaliation, Phyllis gathers the girl’s wealthy parents for a powwow in her living room. Before long, the girls have a front row stage erected in front of Rodeo Drive’s Giorgio, singing their way into rich patron’s hearts with the Tina Turner-esque inspired ‘Cookie Time’ and successfully pitching their boxed treats to the heavyweight and out of shape on the corner just outside Jane Fonda’s Workout gymnasium.
Velda is forced to admit temporary defeat. But the true test of endurance is yet to come; the yearly jamboree – a two-day wilderness hike and competition Velda has personally mapped out so her daughter’s Red Feather troop can win with ease. Alas, frightening by a water moccasin, and later, a skunk, Troop Beverly Hills picks up their pace. Despite the Red Feathers’ meddling with their directional markers, Troop Beverly Hills cuts a swath through the bushes and makes it back to base camp ahead of the Red Feathers by mere seconds, winning the first half of the jamboree. The next day, Velda resorts to cheating to win. She fires Annie as the troop’s co-counsellor, thus forcing Phyllis to ford on alone and sends the Red Feathers’ troop leader home – presumably, with a head cold – but actually, to assume control of her daughter’s regiment herself; an unfair advantage, considering she is the one who mapped out the endurance course. But after observing Troop Beverly Hills advancing on the concourse, Velda elects to take a shortcut. Fate intervenes and Velda breaks her ankle. Determined to win at any and all costs, Cleo abandons her mother with a few rations while she leads the Red Feathers on toward victory.
Coming across Velda lying helpless on the ground, Phyllis and her girls make a momentous decision; to uphold the motto of helping a fellow Wilderness Girl in distress, thus sacrificing their chances to win the jamboree. Sure enough, the Red Feathers make it to base camp ahead of the rest of the troops. However, as Frances Temple points out, the troop cannot claim its first place prize because the rules specifically state all members of the troop must return together.  Cleo, however, has other thoughts, pushing Frances out of the way and running off with the trophy in hand; a shallow victory at best. Over the horizon, Phyllis and her girls appear, dragging Velda behind them on a makeshift stretcher. The crowd begins to cheer and Frances declares that despite the lack of a trophy, Troop Beverly Hills has won the competition and the right to be next year’s poster troop for recruitment purposes. Velda is outraged and storms off in a pathetic huff. Fred, who has quietly ditched Lisa and is now more determined than ever to get back together with Phyllis, joins the other parents in cheering on Troop Beverly Hills. In the movie’s epilogue we see Velda working a register at K-mart, calling into a microphone, “Attention K-mart light special. Aisle 13…cookies!”     
Troop Beverly Hills won’t win any awards for great storytelling or great film-making, but it has its charm and its moments. And, if not ‘laugh out loud’ hilarious, it is, nevertheless, good clean fun likely to appeal more to youngsters than adults hoping for another Shelley Long comedy. Reportedly, Long chose this project over several others, ‘falling in love’ with the story and its ‘family values’. There is little to deny the film its ‘fresh-faced’ appeal.  Made at the tail end of a decade usually presenting young America as oversexed, brazen and disrespectful toward its elders, reveling in getting into trouble and unapologetically determined to a ‘win at all costs’, Troop Beverly Hills instead extols the virtues of helping one’s fellow man – or woman, as this case may be – instilling virtue as its own reward and proving, against seemingly insurmountable odds, that on occasion, sometimes good gals can finish first!  It is hard to argue with those precepts. If only the Norris/Osterman screenplay had been a little defter, Troop Beverly Hills might have had more lasting appeal. Instead, it’s something of a quaint – and marginally idiotic – time capsule, illustrating a way of life that, outside of Beverly Hills, really doesn’t have all that much relevancy anymore.
Strange as it may seem now, there was a brief wrinkle in time (the 80’s) when this devil-may-care glam-bam looked like the epitome of social chic; something superfluous and supercilious to strive for and indulge in unapologetically, seemingly, without a care for what might happen tomorrow. What did happen is 9-11 and the stock market crash of 2008. In its wake, the American attitude decidedly shifted away from the hopeful promise of Ronald Reagan toward a more ominous cynicism; nervous too, perhaps, but abiding the severity of more uncertain times.  Troop Beverly Hills is an artifact from these happier/carefree days. Again, having lived through the ‘80’s I can only offer the reader who has not an assessment:  it was one hell of a good time had by most. For a moment, at least, the life had an even cadence – spirited, and well worth getting up for in the morning. Our aspirations may not have ascended beyond such materialisms depicted in this movie. Then again, they somehow, and rather incongruously, managed to typify the notion it was possible to be contented with less – especially if one was willing to make the most of the myriad of treasures they already possessed.
Sony Home Entertainment has finally released Troop Beverly Hills to Blu-ray; mastered in 4K, though viewable only in 1080p.  Remember, ‘mastered in 4K’ does not mean ‘presented in 4K!’ However, as is usual for Sony, the results on this transfer are spectacular. Grover Crisp’s archival program has long since remained the benchmark. True enough, Sony’s back catalog is smaller than most, and certainly, Sony has the advantage, having led the hi-def charge from its inception. But Sony has remained a top-tier player, never content merely to fall into the habit of giving us whatever condition existing elements are currently in. No, Troop Beverly Hills, although hardly a classic in its own right, has been given the same utmost consideration as the studio’s Lawrence of Arabia or Bridge on the River Kwai; a new image harvest to show off hi-def technology to its very best advantage. So prepare to be VERY impressed with these results.
The image exhibits a startling amount of clarity, solid, bold and richly saturated colors, superbly rendered contrast and film grain accurately reproduced. These visuals are also free of age-related artifacts: in short, a reference quality disc. The 5.1 DTS audio isn’t as much of a revelation because the original soundtrack always had a very canned and tinny ring to it, lacking in tonal bass. These shortcomings have been lovingly preserved. No more could have been done or expected.  Better still, Sony has elected to give us a pair of new to Blu featurettes; Shelley Long reminisces in the first, the other has Ava Ostern Fries explain how she came up with the concept for the movie. These are brief, but informative. Sony has also given us deleted scenes and a trailer. While I could think of a few movies still MIA in Sony’s back catalog more deserving of the ‘full monty’ Blu-ray treatment (1994’s Little Women, You’ll Never Get Rich, The Talk of the Town, The Awful Truth, You Can’t Take It With You, among them) I have nothing but high praise for Sony’s level of commitment – period! The studio takes pride in its cinematic heritage and it definitely shows.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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