Tuesday, June 28, 2016

AMERICAN GIGOLO: Blu-ray (Paramount 1980) Warner Home Video

Richard Gere puts on the dog, but frequently wears precious little other than his man’s pride in Paul Schrader’s fizzler of a thriller, American Gigolo (1980), heavily influenced by director, Paul Bresson’s 1959 French classic, Pickpocket. It is either a very brave or very foolish man who would attempt to emulate this existentialist ‘new wave’ classic. My vote leans toward the latter. Interestingly, American Gigolo was not a success when it came out; perhaps, too dark in its underlying threads of sadism and fatalism running concurrently in a conspiracy to prematurely snuff out luscious male escort, Julian Kaye – sinfully handsome and worldly in the ways of a cheap trick, tricked out in Armani, but utterly naïve and unprepared for the insidious plot to frame him for a murder he did not commit. Julian is, in fact, an elegant rube; just a guy who ought to have stayed in the Midwest, except his tastes lean more toward fine linens and silks than dungarees. Los Angeles can be a very tantalizing den of iniquity for a guy with Julian’s pro forma. He knows his way around Rodeo Drive and the ladies; older broads with plenty of dowager’s inheritance to spend having a better than average time with the young buck. Class will out. Alas, a hick – even one as good-looking as Julian, is still a hick. Julian has come a long way in a very short while, thanks to his alliance with Swedish meatball, Anne (Nina van Pallandt); his…um…manager? Agent? Pimp? Anne knows a hard man is good to find, and frequently sets Julian up on very high-profile ‘dates’ with some of her most discerning clientele. But it is Julian’s after hours pick-ups; ‘favors’ occasionally done for extra cash and low rent scum-bucket, Leon (Bill Duke)that will soon prove his undoing.
Herein, we must doff our caps to Paul Schrader who wrote and directed what is, in hindsight, one of the most iconic – if now, absurdly dated – cultural artifacts from the 1980’s. With its trendy techno score by Giorgio Moroder and Blondie belting out the smash single, ‘Call Me’  - every self-respecting male prostitute’s anthem - American Gigolo all but ushered in a decade of spend/spend like there’s no tomorrow, soon to permeate and catapult the eighties into veritable excesses of the distinctly capitalist ‘American’ pleasure-seeking ilk. And yet, what is often overlooked in quick critique is the film’s ability go beyond bottling this zeitgeist with an ingeniousness turning asunder our preconceptions of the ‘sex thriller’ (a sub-genre reaching its zenith in 1986’s 9 ½ Weeks).  There is a queerly unsettling glamour to this piece of American super kitsch; California’s sun-filtered frolics, half naked, perky-bosom playthings, and Julian’s frequent trips to upscale, haughty and exclusive watering holes where the social elite meet, gradually giving way to earthy, then utterly seedy cesspools, populated by cruisin’ for a bruisin’ deviants; couples into pain and enterprising gay twinks.    
Arguably, Schrader’s métier is not the ‘kink’ factor. Nor is the focus of his movie the sex – good, bad or just plain creepy. Given its title and subject matter, ironically there is not a single kiss in close-up; Gere’s cynical con much too sophisticated to be caught lip-locked with or without reprisals. Setting aside American Gigolo’s rather laissez faire attitude towards prostitution; fancifully presented as highly sanitized and profitable for only a few hours work, without even the hint of STD’s, Schrader’s dog and pony show starts off as a guilty pleasure with a lot of eye-candy on tap. Schrader leads his audience down the primrose with the power of suggestion built into his title; our titular hero, offering up some escapist beefcake as he practices Swedish in his snug-fitting Jockeys, hoisting weights and doing inversion exercises, dangling muscly, bare-chested and Nair-ed from his gravity boots.  
American Gigolo…it’s about prostitution for money gone wrong – right? Wrong! It’s about a guy fallen into a trap by his own design…with a little help. Julian Kaye does what he does because it’s his business. Even so, he has grown tired of the heavy lifting. Despite equally as hefty payouts and a lot of perks (an enviable ride, expense account, a closet-full of designer suits and shirts) Julian’s bored with ‘the scene’. Sex to Julian is a commodity he can peddle but cannot market without Anne and Leon’s help. Okay, I’ll bite: it’s tough to be hot and hired out like a prized Shetland. And truer still, it is a young man’s game with no future. After all, looks do fade; ability on the wane with the inevitable progress of time.
What American Gigolo does spectacularly well is to expose the sex trade for what it is; work and not necessarily with as many advantages as one might expect. Schrader might have had a genuinely sincere take on the ‘downside’ that comes from being a stud for hire. Except he cannot help but muck around with the premise, inserting a formulaic romance, as Julian falls for scissor-legged Michelle Stratton (Lauren Hutton in a role originally pitched to Julie Christie, then Meryl Streep), and later, a ‘who done it?’; presumably to spice up the mix, fast becoming more a gumbo than soufflé. It’s all fun and games until Julian is framed for the murder of Judy Rheiman (Patricia Carr); a gal he sexually brutalized against his better judgment, but with her complicity, and, at her husband’s (Tom Stewart) request. Everyone walks away from this encounter – a little hair and fibers rubbed off around the collar and cuffs, but otherwise unharmed. Afterward Julian is disgusted, telling Leon he is not into S&M. The Rheimans were his first to last. Too bad, Judy Rheiman is found asphyxiated and handcuffed after another apparent rough trade encounter; the kind for which Julian has expressed no stomach, and furthermore, with which he had absolutely nothing to do. Try convincing LAPD Detective Joe Sunday (Hector Elizondo) of as much.
The ‘sex’ in American Gigolo is remarkably subdued. Either running true to the convention of the times or Schrader’s artistic sensibilities, mercifully, we never bear witness to Julian’s encounter with the Rheimans after his initial promise to ‘take care of’ Judy; all the better, frankly, since the vicissitude of the moment suddenly shifts beneath Julian’s feet as Mr. Rheiman orders him to paddle-whack his practically comatose wife in her unmentionables. Schrader does this moment proud, more than suggestive of the orgy to follow it, but without actually brutalizing the audience with even more 'show and tell' of the situation getting wildly out of control. 
Bondage for money aside, the passionate pas deux between Julian and Michelle is as deftly handled by Schrader to evoke a sense of genuine uncomfortableness. We are shown body parts in close-up, mostly arms and legs wrapped around each other, chests tightly pressed together, hands strategically placed to shield from a raw glimpse of breast tissue. As something of an afterthought, we do get to see Lauren Hutton’s perky cleavage, neither heaving nor fondled; rather lazily unguarded during a casual post-coital conversation. Interestingly, Schrader is sheepishly circumspect about showing us the female form divine. But he has virtually no compunction regarding male anatomy; Richard Gere posed in front of a window for an interminably long take, full frontal for his ‘confession’ to Michelle about taking nearly three hours to ‘get off’ another client.  Yet, even the sight of Gere’s twig and berries has not been designed by Schrader to ‘get off’ the audience. In fact, there is something unwholesomely antiseptic and ‘matter of fact’ about the scene. Schrader doesn’t ‘go for the crotch’ even as we see the full flourish of Gere’s manhood.
Richard Gere’s star power received a minor boost from appearing as the hot-headed young con in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978); a performance heavily edited by Malick into a series of impressionistic vignettes to evoke its rather insidious lover’s triangle. There is something to be said of Malick’s technique. It masks one of Gere’s glaring shortcomings; namely, that he cannot act – or rather, act convincingly. With American Gigolo, Gere emerged a full-fledged ‘star’ – the sort of anti-heroic, turbo-charged sexpot; hitting a plateau usually reserved for women of the casting couch – not men. The movie also established Italy’s Giorgio Armani as a premiere designer of men’s suits in America. Interestingly, Gere had not been Schrader’s first choice for the role that ultimately made him a household word; actor, Christopher Reeve, first to shy away from tarnishing his ‘image’ as the Teflon-coated ‘man of steel’; then, John Travolta exiting stage left after already having shot a few scenes in his tailored wardrobe. Travolta’s sudden departure presented Armani with a minor quandary; having created Julian Kaye’s tailor-fitted suits to Travolta’s six foot slender build; now, forced to re-imagine and recreate an entirely different set of threads for Gere’s more stocky 5 ft. 11 inch muscularity.
In hindsight, Richard Gere owes considerably more of his career to John Travolta’s inability to perceive a winner; Travolta turning down not only Days of Heaven and American Gigolo, but also, An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) and Chicago (2002). Gere has since gone on record saying what intrigued him most about taking on the part of Julian Kaye was American Gigolo’s ‘gay subtext’; interesting, considering how little homo-erotica there is in the finished film. While Leon is frequently trying to embroil Julian in mixed couple scenarios – with Julian staunchly refusing to do ‘fag tricks’ – and, apart from the rather tacked on finale, exposing a teen gay hustler to have ultimately committed the murder of Judy Rheiman at Leon’s behest in order to deliberately frame Julian; thus, getting one of L.A.’s most prominent escorts out of circulation; homosexuality is a non sequitur.  As for Lauren Hutton; having built a reputation as a super model, at age 35, she was ready to cash in on the end of one career to kick-start another as the desirable face and figure. Intensely nervous, Hutton allowed herself to be guided by Gere’s already established presence in the industry. “There's a reason stars are called stars,” Hutton would later admit, “It's this incandescent quality that surrounds them. Richard has that. There was a real trust between us on set. We're still friends because of it.”
American Gigolo begins with establishing shots of Malibu and Beverly Hills, Gere’s cock of the walk, male escort Julian Kaye, unknowingly zooming along in his Mercedes-Benz convertible toward destiny as he shops Kurt Geiger of Bond Street to add to his hope chest of expensive fashion accessories. Clothes do make the man, and Julian has had plenty of experience getting in and out of his. With too much ego and too little taste, Julian’s Westwood apartment is riddled in an eclectic yard sale of expensive home furnishings he has neither the time nor the interest to properly display with as much attention as is paid to his immaculate wardrobe. We might look back on Julian Kaye as the first metrosexual, long before the phrase was coined; unapologetically acquisitive, self-absorbed and posturing to a fault. A quick pit stop at Anne’s to collect the dossier on his latest fling; a wealthy dowager from Charlottesville, Mrs. Dobrun (Carole Cook), and Julian is off again; negotiating a 60/40 split of the $2000 to squire Dobrun around town.  “You want 50/50, go get Mike or one of those high school dropouts you’re so fond of,” Julian cruelly tells Anne. Indeed, Julian fancies himself above this pay grade and Anne, reluctantly – very reluctantly – agrees to his terms. After all, Julian is not your average boy toy and proves it by turning down Leon’s repeated offers to inveigle him in some quick and dirty cash for rough trade gay sex with clients only too eager and willing to pay. Julian does not need the pall or taint of Leon’s low-budgeted sex-capades to improve his fiscal solvency. Besides, he is in training for one of Anne’s biggest clients yet; soon to arrive from Sweden without speaking a word of English and, inevitably, looking for one hell of a good time.
Acting as Dobrun’s chauffeur, Julian drives the moneyed prune to The Beverly Hills Hotel; bungling his introduction to the services he can provide by offering Dobrun a tour of her bungalow. Next, he proposes to pop the cork off her complimentary champagne bottle; the inference a little too ‘on the nose’ for Dobrun, who subtly assures Julian, in her own uber-sophisticated way, she is a sure thing. Afterward, Julian hastens to change his mood in the Hotel’s lounge. From across the bar, he encounters Michelle Stratton seated alone and seemingly lonely. Assuming from her exchange with the waiter she speaks only French, Julian strikes up a conversation. However, Stratton is not French at all, but waiting for a friend who is helping her bone up on her old college French for a planned trip to Europe. Curiously, the friend never turns up, and Julian quickly discovers Michelle is the wife of prominent California senator, Charles Stratton (Brian Davies). Presumably, like most middle-aged women aligned to successful men who are never home, Michelle is not happy in her married life, playing the part of the devoted woman behind the throne, but secretly longing for a little excitement and a lot more passion to ignite her inner youth. Julian wisely assesses she is ripe and looking for an outlet.
After several awkward ‘cute meets’, Julian and Michelle become lovers; not what either imagined. Julian is tender and Michelle falls head over heels for him. In the meantime, Julian agrees to do ‘a favor’ for Leon; resulting in his S&M badinage with the Rheimans. Mr. Rheiman is a gross pig of a human being; a moneyed degenerate who can think of no better way to get his rocks off than by quietly observing as some other stud ravages his wife on his commands. Julian is appalled by this arrangement, but nevertheless complies. What else can he do? The Rheimans have paid for their show. It’s their party and he is just the featured ‘guest star’ expected to sing for his supper. Afterwards, Julian informs Leon he will not do any more rough trade for freaks who are into kink. But it is already too late. Julian has established his presence at what is soon to become the crime scene. Judy Rheiman is discovered strangled to death. Det. Sunday traces the last hours of her life back to Julian, thanks to some carefully planted evidence meant to infer Julian was the very last person to see Judy Rheiman alive; a sadomasochistic ‘good time’ had by all, gone horribly awry and ending unexpectedly, or perhaps deliberately, in death.
Julian attempts to fluff off Michelle, suggesting he is neither part of her problem, nor the answer to her prayers. Any alliance they might form can only end in tears, rejection, dismay and chaos. Michelle does not believe him. Moreover, and rather typical of a woman in lust, she buys into Julian’s newfound nobility meant to protect her from the scrutiny of prying eyes. Increasingly, Michelle begins to lean on Julian for emotional support. Unexpectedly, Julian finds himself reciprocating these affections. Although, Julian has an alibi for the night of the murder; another middle-aged client, Lisa Williams (K Callan), she absolutely refuses to corroborate his whereabouts to Det. Sunday, fearing her husband’s discovery of their ongoing affair. Previously, Lisa was seen with Julian at a Sotheby’s estate auction; Julian – rather badly – faking an effete fashionista’s persona to disguise the purpose of their rendezvous. Worse for Julian, someone has planted Judy Rheiman’s jewelry in his Mercedes. Sunday refuses to take Julian’s claim, that he is being framed, seriously.  Frantically, Julian decides to rent a car and incognito go in search of the person responsible for the frame-up.  What else can he do? His source of income – Anne – has dried up. With his celebrity as a suspected murderer, Anne cannot set Julian up on any more high-profile client calls. L.A.’s hottest trick in shoe leather has suddenly become persona non grata overnight. Even in the seedy underworld of paid escorts, Julian Kaye is considered a pariah.
After tracking Leon down at a gay nightclub and begging to be set up for any tricks – gay, straight, S&M, etc. et al, and being cruelly denied, daylight begins to glimmer for Julian. Leon is being paid by Rheiman; the pair orchestrating the perfect frame-up with the complicity of a third man; a gay hustler (Gordon Haight) who actually committed the murder and helped cover it up. Determined, though quite unprepared for the consequences, Julian goes to Leon’s fashionable high rise condo to confront him. He finds the blond hustler there; Leon, gloating over Julian’s near foolproof demise. There is nothing left for Julian Kaye. The police are connecting the dots to the crime with even more evidence planted in and around Julian’s Westwood apartment. It is only a matter of time before he takes the fall for Judy Rheiman’s murder. Realizing how low he has sunk, Julian assaults Leon on the patio of his high rise; Leon going over the edge and dangling precariously, with only Julian to prevent his imminent fall. Alas, Julian cannot stave off the inevitable. Despite his desperate attempts to hang on to Leon, his legs slip from his grasp. Leon plummets several stories to his death.
In a gracious whim of fate, a maid witnesses the fall and vouches for Julian’s attempts to save Leon. Thus, the police incorrectly assume Leon was in the process of taking his own life when Julian intervened. Too bad for Julian they have more than enough evidence to indict him for Judy Rheiman’s murder. In prison awaiting trial, Julian receives a visit from Michelle, the only friend he has left. She offers to pay for his defense. Julian refuses. Without his complicity, Michelle secretly hires a high-priced mouthpiece (Peter Turgeon), paying for the attorney’s fees under the table, and presumably, under the radar of both her husband, and, popular public opinion that has already tried and convicted Julian Kaye as a cold-blooded killer. Julian refuses to help in his own defense.  Besides, if it ever comes out Michelle and Julian were lovers it would utterly destroy her marriage as well as her reputation in ‘polite society’. But Michelle will not allow an innocent man to go to jail.
And so, she confesses to Lieutenant Det. Curtis (David Cryer) the only unknown fact about the case certain to exonerate Julian. Julian Kaye could not have killed Judy Rheiman because on the night in question he was miles away from Palm Springs, servicing Michelle in an all-night passionate rendezvous. To this, Michelle is willing to testify in a court of law. A short while later, Michelle sits across from Julian in the visitor’s gallery, staring with panged adoration through the glass separating them. She can never go back to her former life as the senator’s wife. The press has already begun to swirl around the scandal, ravenously wanting to know more – to know it all. And yet, somehow, none of this matters anymore; Julian, humbled by the strength of sentiment, as Michelle presses her hand against the glass, leans his forehead against the other side, yearning for the moment when they can be physically reunited on the outside with no secrets, lies or false pretenses left between them.  
American Gigolo is an intriguing deviation on the traditional thriller…with a little sex tossed in – very little. Paul Schrader’s slick direction gives the movie what little ballast it has; the performances, in general, unprepossessing and dull. Richard Gere has the lion’s share of intelligently written dialogue, but does the least with it; a sort of world-weary cynicism overtaking his every gesture. We are meant to believe in Julian Kaye as an oily snake in the grass, suddenly knocked down by outside forces conspiring against him. But the premise for the frame-up is woefully thin to the point of becoming utterly nonsensical – Mr. Rheiman, a jealous pervert, desiring to be rid of his nondescript and flaxen-haired wife, presumably reveling in her sexual humiliation, all the while insidiously plotted as prelude to a murder. Shortly before his untimely death, Leon informs Julian his motive for complicity in the Rheiman murder scenario was to put an end to Julian’s competition in the sex trade marketplace. Leon tried to buy Julian. He couldn’t be bought. So, instead, he set about to destroy him. Yet, the clientele Julian services under Anne’s management – the severely clichéd middle-aged ‘rich bitches’ of hoity-toity Beverly Hills and Bel Air – are of a different league apart from the what the market will allow with Leon’s teen and twenty-something rough trade sex workers, catering to street-level riffraff in the gay community.  So, professional jealousies aside, there is really no point to any of the intrigue, except to say, it serves a loose purpose in this movie-land lore established by Schrader for the sake of telling his convoluted yarn. Does it work? No. Not at all, and even less convincingly upon repeat viewings.
Moving on: Lauren Hutton is a rather obtuse deus ex machina. She toggles between hot-blooded cougar on the prowl and virgin-esque savior or patron saint to the fallen. Hutton is convincing enough in a role never stretching her abilities beyond soft-spoken sincerity. At her most base, she is the redeemer of Julian’s lost soul; a Christ-figure resurrecting Julian’s soiled reputation as Lazarus from the dead. She can offer him freedom, security, salvation and love; the latter, the only commodity Julian Kaye has repeatedly denied himself for far too long, and, according to Schrader’s screenplay, exactly what Julian needs to be rescued from the brink of his self-imposed and piteous despair. In fits and sparks, the love affair unexpectedly blossoming between Julian and Michelle feels genuine, if fractured. After all, how can two drowning people save each other? Despite her accomplished façade as the senator’s wife, Michelle is as distraught, fragile and lost as Julian later becomes; the balance of power shifting from his arrogance to her compassion; embers of passion singed with blind devotion.
There are some competent and seasoned performers scattered throughout American Gigolo; Hector Elizondo, Bill Duke, K Callan and Carole Cook. None ever go beyond the ‘hook and worm’ stage of Schrader’s fishing expedition into this secretive netherworld lurking just beneath the surface of L.A.’s superficially glossy glam/bam. Schrader’s ‘murder mystery’ is the sideshow that becomes the whole circus. But it is fraught with some nice touches, sun-drenched and later, moodily lit by cinematographer, John Bailey. In the end, the picture’s sheen is just that and far less revealing as all the pieces predictably fall into place. The narrative tautness increasingly relies more – if less refined – on the level of puppy-dog pang and panic caught in Richard Gere’s eyes; the unconvincing counterpoint to that cocky confidence evaporated in an instant as the biggest name in the sex trade underworld is reduced to a quivering and fearful mass of contradictions, begging for even the smallest scrap of his former life denied him.  American Gigolo won’t win any awards for high art. Even so, it has lasted as an intriguing ‘time capsule’, strangely impervious to changing times and cinematic tastes. Gere’s ‘drop dead’ handsomeness holds up even when his performance does not; a sort of elegant mannequin beholding to a certain type of masculine ideal that, for the briefest wrinkle in time, became all the rage to emulate in American pop culture, circa 1980-89; big-haired, broad-shouldered and immaculately tailored.
Never assume: American Gigolo comes to us via Paramount Home Video – or rather, a Paramount Home Video 1080p transfer from a very dated archival source, distributed via Warner Home Video. It appears to be an identical transfer to the European region free release kicking around for at least a half dozen years…and looks it too! I suspect this hi-def mastering effort to be from the old regime at Paramount, before the studio began taking Blu-ray seriously. For there can be no other reason as to why this disc is so inconsistently rendered and marred by a litany of age-related artifacts. It would have been gratifying to see a little more effort poured into this release. Colors on the whole have a decidedly dated characteristic; flesh tones looking slightly pasty pink or ruddy orange. There are no true reds here; a telltale sign of an older master being employed. The opening credits are softer than the rest of the feature, presumably due to the opticals being used for the main titles.
Close-ups sport some fairly impressive fine detail, but the image falls apart in medium and long shots; softly focused, moderately fuzzy and with film grain adopting an ever so slight digitized look. The image harvest here is most likely derived from a print rather than an original camera negative; the generational loss in sharpness and overall lack of image clarity, compounded by inconsistently rendered colors belying the original source. The 5.1 DTS is equally disappointing, exporting limited range; music cues, the biggest recipient of the upgrade. As with its Euro counterpart, this North American Blu-ray contains NO extra features: Paramount once again gone the quick and dirty route.  Bottom line: if you like the movie, this Blu-ray cannot help but satisfy and disappoint in tandem. It marginally improves on the tired old DVD, but where it should have popped with bold – if dated – eighties colors, it otherwise fizzles and flops with a homogenized appearance of an up-converted and very tired video master. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN: Blu-ray (MGM 1964) Warner Archive

In 1912, the ill-fated maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic created two cultural touchstones that have resonated with the world ever since. Undeniably, the first is the actual sinking; an awe-inspiring maritime calamity, likely to echo throughout the annals of human history – and folly – for many centuries yet to come. On that fateful April 15th, Titanic instantly departed the realm of fact and became the stuff of incomprehensible legend and tragedy.  But the second icon to emerge from this disaster would rise like a phoenix from its watery grave, perhaps, in part because she survived the hell and, unlike contemporaries of her sex, took it upon herself to instill faithful confidence, hope and courage in the other survivors of Lifeboat No. 6, when all three were in exceptionally short supply. That woman was Margaret Tobin Brown, sometimes called ‘Maggie’, but affectionately known as ‘Molly’. She would enter the history books as ‘The Unsinkable Molly Brown’; thanks in large part to the musical genius of Meredith Wilson who, together with Richard Morris, launched a successful musical revue on Broadway in 1960, glamorizing the life and times of this relatively unknown Denver socialite and philanthropist.
It is important to note the legend of Molly Brown would have been nothing at all if Margaret were not something of a tomboy; born to extremely modest beginnings in Denkler’s Alley, near the Mississippi River in Hannibal, Missouri, but fortuitously moving to Leadville, Colorado when she was just eighteen. The musical Molly is arguably more uncouth than her counterpart from history – at least, at the beginning; thus, making her transition into ‘polite society’ more of a contrast while adding spit, instead of polish, to the eye of Denver’s Sacred Thirty-Six. The stage’s Molly starts as a foul-mouthed scrapper and, at least in the movie version, is shown to have survived a devastating Colorado flood at the tender age of six months: interesting fiction, except for the timeline, as the flood referenced in the movie occurred in 1890, which would have made Molly only twenty-two at the time she heroically urged her fellow passengers to vigorously row in search of survivors from the Titanic. The real Molly Brown was pushing forty-five. Nevertheless, the artistic license taken by Wilson is effective at foreshadowing the real-life catastrophe Brown would survive.
What a smite to the bluebloods and nosegays Molly Brown must have been then; nouveau riche to boot and lacking the pedigree of a good family name, or even more distinctly, the proper social graces necessary to satisfy, former Southern belle, Louise Sneed and her hoity-toity sect, known as the ‘Sacred Thirty-Six’. In the movie, a compassionate cleric, Monsignor Ryan (George Mitchell) explains to a wounded Molly (Debbie Reynolds), “Denver is not New York or Chicago. The veneer is thin. You are a painful reminder of where these people come from.” Indeed, Denver then was a haven for a few established families, more renowned for their ancestral lineage of inheritance transplanted from elsewhere. Perhaps to avoid a lawsuit, or merely to muddle the integrity of history a little further for the sake of a good yarn, both the play and the movie concoct a counterpart to Sneed as Molly’s nemesis; Sneed once referred to by the real Molly Brown as “the snobbiest gal in Denver”: her fictionalized stand-in, Mrs. Gladys McGraw (played with austere upper-crustiness by Audrey Christie).
At least the fiction gets Molly’s marriage right…well, mostly. Despite her protestations and plans to marry a rich man, Molly would fall madly in love with impoverished miner, James Joseph Brown; rechristened Jonny for the fiction and played both on stage and in the film by brawny baritone, Harve Presnell. In one of those ‘happy ironies’ that always gels with Hollywood’s need for the proverbial ‘happy ending’; Molly and J.J. came into great wealth in 1893 after Brown’s engineering of the ‘Little Jonny Mine’ for his employers, Ibex Mining Co. yielded one of the richest strikes in history. Elevated to a seat on the board, and, enriched by 12,500 shares of company stock (a formidable sum), J.J. and Molly became the Beverly Hillbillies of their generation; moving uptown to ‘swell central’ in 1894, into an ostentatiously decorated, $30,000 Victorian manor on Pennsylvania Avenue. To say the Browns were immediately welcomed into Denver Society is more than a tad overreaching. The Sacred Thirty-Six (a society to which Molly aspired, but would never be allowed to join) thumbed their noses at her various entreats to join their influential social circle. Undaunted, the stubborn Molly instead dug in her heels, becoming a charter member of Denver’s Woman’s Club. Not merely contented to simply throw money toward a good cause, Molly would entrench herself even further in a crash course of the social graces; becoming well-immersed in the arts and fluent in no less than five languages – a very ambitious lady, indeed. If she nevertheless ‘improved’ her mind, it was not at a sacrifice or expense to her clear-cut duty to humanity or her sense of humor. On stage and in the movie, Molly’s determination to reinvent her husband’s life creates a temporary rift in their marriage; a plausible excuse for Molly to sail to Europe and revisit friends she had made during their first trip abroad in 1904. In reality, Molly and J.J. would not reconcile after 1909 although there is evidence to suggest their separation was amicable. Yet, Molly had conquered both sides of the Atlantic with her charitable works by then, even taking a run at the U.S. Senate in 1914; a campaign ended when she made the about-face decision to return to France and work with the American Committee for Devastated France during WWI.
As a Broadway show, The Unsinkable Molly Brown enjoyed a two year run at the Winter Garden Theater, starring Tammy Grimes in her Tony-Award winning role as this irrepressible maven. In Hollywood, Debbie Reynolds aggressively campaigned to play the title role, despite early press from gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper intimating Doris Day was all but set to star in the big screen adaptation. In truth, the lead had already been slated for Shirley MacLaine. But no sooner had she signed on the dotted line, then independent producer, Hal Wallis, claimed MacLaine was still under contract to him and thus, unable to make her own decisions on the matter. Legality having thus intervened, producer, Lawrence Weingarten thought better of the rumors and also, much more of Debbie Reynolds. At the age of 32, Reynolds, while far too young and pretty to play the matronly Mrs. Brown, nevertheless, took the play’s more bawdy affectations a step beyond mere caricature, toggling back the ‘larger-than-life’ legacy into a manageable creature of flesh and blood. Regrettably, MacLaine took the loss personally, publicly blaming Reynolds for undercutting her price. While it is nevertheless certain Debbie Reynolds was paid far less to play the part, MacLaine’s real stumbling block was Wallis – not Reynolds – and a potential lawsuit MGM could not afford to face. In hindsight, Reynolds would avoid MacLaine’s more formidable wrath, reserved for The Hollywood Reporter’s columnist, Mike Connolly. Having reported MacLaine’s loss in print before anyone had had the opportunity to inform the star first, MacLaine hauled off and slugged Connolly.
It might have been smooth sailing for Debbie Reynolds thereafter, except that director, Charles Walters had his heart set on directing Shirley MacLaine. Even after negotiations with Wallis stalled and fell through, and, the ink on Reynold’s contract to replace her had dried, Walters went to bat for MacLaine, doing everything in his power to convince Reynolds to back out of the project. When Reynolds called Walters out on his deliberate stalling, he suggested, “You’re much too short for this role” to which Reynolds pertly replied, “Why? How short is the part?” As cast and crew prepared to go on location in Colorado, Walters’ reluctance regarding Reynolds persisted. “He really was unhappy with me at the start,” Reynolds later mused, “Just did not want me at all. He offered me no direction, no insight into the character or how I should play her. After a few weeks of this I took my problems to Lillian Burns (the acting coach). She was a great help.”
Returning to the relative safety of Culver City, Walters made an even more disastrous decision: to cut the movie’s big production number, ‘He’s My Friend’ – claiming MGM’s cost overruns on Doctor Zhivago (1965) had irrevocably forced him to trim the fat off his production.  Reynolds fought for the number’s inclusion – and won, learning the necessary dance steps in record time and shooting the entire 7 ½ minute spirited routine in only two takes; the action captured simultaneously by two separate camera set-ups; a common practice when shooting television programs – not movies – at the end of which one of her dancing partners, Grover Dale, collapsed from exhaustion. When the film had its’ premiere, Time Magazine gave Reynolds a well-deserved rave, “All charm. All bounce. All spirit and all fun! It is impossible not to admire her!”  In hindsight, The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) is likely the last great musical to emerge from MGM during a tumultuous decade in which the studio was steadily sinking under the weight of its own elephantiasis. Musicals in general had all but fallen out of fashion with most critics and audiences, rare megahits like My Fair Lady (1964) or The Sound of Music (1965) keeping hope alive another blockbuster was waiting just around the corner to invigorate the genre. Sadly, more often than not, musicals sank like stones at the box office.  
And, at least in hindsight, The Unsinkable Molly Brown distinctly bears the cross of Metro’s cost-cutting desperation.  E. Preston Ames and George W. Davis’ art direction for Molly and Johnny’s Denver mansion, gaudily decked out in varying shades of red, is a veritable art gallery of oddities borrowed from the studio’s vast warehouse of props; sumptuously photographed by Daniel L. Fapp. Exteriors for Denver were shot mostly on the back lot ‘St. Louis’ street, built for MGM’s Meet Me In St. Louis (1944); with its gingerbread architecture and familiar facades plainly visible. But even more damaging sacrifices were made when staging Johnny and Molly’s trip to Europe; the couple seen doing a spirited two-step across matte-painted promenades depicting London, Paris and Rome. Flawed too is the actual sinking of the Titanic, borrowing stock shots, tinted in Metrocolor from 1958’s A Night To Remember; the model work even more transparent in Panavision; the cutaways to close-ups of a horrified Molly, clinging to the ship’s upper decks as a cascade of ice from the ill-timed berg sheers away, landing only a few feet from her toes, not altogether convincing and, in fact, making short shrift of one of the movie’s pivotal plot points.  None of this seemed to matter back in 1964, The Unsinkable Molly Brown becoming the third highest grossing picture of the year, nominated for six Academy Awards, including a Best Actress nod to Reynolds.  
Immediately following the iconic MGM trademark roar of Leo the Lion, we open on the Colorado prologue; a runaway cradle, carrying the infant Molly down rapids: the child seemingly oblivious to the dangers involved before being jostled from her seat and momentarily struggling to pull herself from the waters. An segue into the ebullient main title and then a jump cut to Molly Brown (Debbie Reynolds) eighteen years later; scruffy, tomboyish and riding on the back of a wagon with her two boyhood friends, Jam (Grover Dale) and Joe (Gus Trikonis); her father, Shamus (Ed Bagley), punting the horses alongside his good friend, Murphy (Brendan Dillon). Joe playfully shoots Molly in the buttocks with a stone from his slingshot, inciting a minor riot that turns into an all-out brawl. Afterward, Shamus confides that perhaps he did Molly an injustice, raising her as self-sufficient as any man. For now, a maid of eligible marrying age, she is more a competitor than a potential mate for any boy who might have her. Empathetically, Molly quells her father’s fears. He did alright. She isn’t muddle-headed or boy crazy. And she is determined to do more than dream of the day she will leave the squalor of this farm life to marry a rich man. Shamus knows what can come of wishing for things too hard, especially when ambition drives strongly. “Serve the Lord,” he encourages Molly, “…and a hot breakfast. Then you can look for your Irish Catholic man with the roof that don't leak.” When Molly suggests the man who will win her will have to be more than Catholic, Shamus bewilderingly inquires what more there could possibly be to satisfy her. “Well, if he’s goin’ to crawl in next to me, he’d better be the richest Irish Catholic next to the Pope!” she emphatically replies.
The next day, Molly sets out for her dream – to find the town of Leadville. Meanwhile, in another part of Colorado, miner, Johnny Brown is ‘hollering in the mountain’, enjoying the sound of his reverberating echoes throughout the canyons. He comes upon Molly bathing in a nearby river. At first oblivious to his presence, she emerges nude from the sump to dry off, only then realizing she is not alone. “How long you been standing there?” Molly curtly inquires. “Long enough,” Johnny flippantly replies. After a brief series of loaded exchanges, Johnny offers Molly some stew and a place to rest at his cabin. She is standoffish, but hungry and eventually follows Johnny home, showing him a postcard written by her good friend, Katie Spinner; a girl since risen to prominence and living on Pennsylvania Ave. in Denver. “That’s where the rich folks live,” Johnny points out. This ignites Molly’s courage to hurry along to Leadville, the first stop on her journey.  Alas, Leadville is no Denver, but a squalid little mining village with a saloon run by the congenial Christmas Morgan (Jack Kruschen). Morgan desperately needs a piano player to liven up his place and lure some of the paying clientele away from the Golden Nugget brothel across the street.
Professing to know how to play the piano, Molly is hired by Morgan on the spot; then, spends the rest of the afternoon and night learning to play the basic chords. Her rambunctiousness earns her the respect and admiration of the thirsty menfolk whom she encourages to belly-up to the bar. Johnny arrives and offers to teach Molly how to read. A romance begins to blossom; Molly resisting Johnny’s charms because he is a no-account miner who lazily takes what he needs from his claim, but does not aspire to come into any great wealth. To please Molly, Johnny builds a brand new cabin on his land, fulfilling all of her limited, if fanciful daydreams about ‘being rich’. She is touched by his sentiment and the two are married. But almost immediately, Molly begins to have her doubts. These lead Johnny to wild distraction. He sells his claim for a sizable $300,000. Again, in figuring out the best place to hide the money from potential thieves, Molly chooses the stove in the kitchen as the last place anyone would look. Tragically, her hunch proves right on the money – literally – as Johnny returns from his bath, slightly chilled, and lights a fire in the stove to warm himself. Their fortune gone up in smoke, Johnny heads right back into the wilderness with pickaxe in hand to find another claim. Quite by accident, he stumbles upon a rich gold reserve he christens ‘The Little Jonny’; the millions netted from it affording the Browns the opportunity to leave Leadville and move into a fashionable – if ostentatiously decorated – Pennsylvania Ave. mansion.
Alas, Molly is unprepared for her debut into high society – and vice versa – alienating Gladys McGraw (Audrey Christie) – the head of Denver’s Sacred Thirty-Six – with her frank good humor. Recognizing her desperate need to belong, Monsignor Ryan (George Mitchell) takes an interest in Molly. She has spirit and heart. Moreover, she is sincere and kind – qualities lost on Gladys who is even ashamed of her own mother, Buttercup Grogan (Hermione Baddeley), soon to develop a romantic yen for Shamus. Unable to persuade Denver society of her honorable intensions, on Monsignor Ryan’s advice, Molly takes Johnny on a whirlwind tour of Europe; subjecting them both to art history and elocution lessons – a crash course in a smattering of culture that leaves Johnny flat, but invigorates Molly to befriend some of the crown heads of Europe, including Baron Karl Ludwig von Ettenburg (Fred Essler), Prince Louis de Laniere (Vassili Lambrinos) and Grand Duchess Elise Lupavinova (Martita Hunt). Unlike Denver’s stuffy socialites, these heads of state embrace Molly and Johnny for their unspoiled vivaciousness. Johnny begins to suspect Prince Louis has a crush on his wife. Moreover, he is homesick. Molly decides for them both. They will return to Denver, but bringing along their new friends to show off.
Gladys, accompanied by Denver newspaper society columnist, Malcolm Broderick (Hayden Rorke) attends the party, shocked to discover her former manservant, Roberts (Anthony Eustrel) now working for the Browns. The party is a smashing success – at first; Molly subtly snubbing Gladys by exercising her grasp of several languages; also, her newly acquired artistic skills. Too bad Johnny has invited all of their old friends from Leadville; Christmas Morgan striking up a spirited barroom number that encourages Molly to take to the floor with Jam and Joe. The crown heads are enchanted by the joyousness of it all. But Gladys’ offhanded comment, smugly thinking the moment more suited to a brothel, and Broderick’s equally glib retort, “My dear, that’s how she made her living!” causes Morgan to assault Broderick. A brawl breaks out between the society swells and Molly and Johnny’s Leadville crowd; the crown heads partaking in Molly’s defense. Afterward, the Brown’s residence is a shambles. “Molly sure knew what she was doing when she had the place painted red,” Shamus proudly declares, “The blood don’t show!”
Broderick’s column smears the Brown’s good name in the tabloids. Molly, more determined than ever to succeed, elects to return to Europe. But Johnny has had quite enough of turning himself inside out for people he wisely deduces have no interest or respect for him. Refusing to accompany Molly across the Atlantic, she makes the journey alone. Months pass and Molly, now, has become the paramour of Prince Louis. Yet, she cannot reconcile what she has gained, in terms of wealth of culture, with what she has lost – the love of a good man without whom none of this would have been possible in the first place. During an anniversary gathering, surrounded by her European friends, Molly is driven to humiliate the Prince and confront Gladys, who is on vacation. Gladys is unresponsive, forcing Molly to admit – if only to herself- that in her bid to become a lady she has very much gone down in her aspirations to remain a good person.  A short while later, Molly books her fateful transatlantic crossing on the RMS Titanic. The ship sinks, but Molly mobilizes the crew of her lifeboat, keeping up everyone’s spirits with colorful stories from her youth. Returning to Denver, she is hailed ‘the unsinkable Molly Brown’; Gladys finally coming around to declare, “You’re quite a woman.” Entering the mansion she once shared with Johnny, Molly casually peruses the empty rooms, climbing the stairs to her bedroom to change, but surprised to discover the old brass bed from her unassuming cottage in Leadville installed in place of the stately mahogany monstrosity that once filled the room. Suddenly, a familiar hat lands on the bedspread. Molly pulls back the door, discovering a repentant John Brown waiting for her behind it. The couple embraces and the screen fades to black.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown is so obviously a star vehicle for Debbie Reynolds. Only one other movie in Reynold’s repertoire – 1957’s Tammy and the Bachelor – allows her such latitude to completely dominate the screen with fresh-faced effervescence and unapologetic spunk. Interestingly, both movies are about a backwards babe in the woods determined to improve their prospects with the love of a good man. Where The Unsinkable Molly Brown differs is in its third act; Reynolds made up to appear harsher – physically; lit to accentuate her tightly pulled back hair; sheathed in sumptuous period gowns designed by Morton Haack, somehow made ugly, or perhaps subservient to Molly’s entrenched resolve; a damning effect on the character as it goes against the grain of the Debbie Reynolds we all know and love. Yet, Reynolds plays this key moment for all its worth, unafraid not to be liked; seizing a torchiere from the corner, placing its lamp shade upon her head and proclaiming herself ‘Queen of the lard bucket’; a very embittered figure of fun, catering to a roaring crowd of uber-chic sycophants. She emasculates Prince Louis, ordering him to bow in her presence. He does so, perhaps partly out of shock and disbelief at being asked to do so, but moreover to placate her anger. Molly is neither assuaged nor amused. She does, however, find an unlikely soft spot for Gladys, the woman who disparaged her arrival in Denver, and, in this same scene, still looks upon her as an uncouth little bug to be vigorously squashed.  Refusing to appease the show off, Gladys’ stubbornness is something Molly can recognize in herself and, in fact, admire. The epiphany, she has become the person she once despised, shatters her art of make-believe. In retrospect, it is impossible to imagine any other actress capably pulling off this moment of conceit; then, resurrecting the old Molly from its ashes; the gal with a genuine heart and blind faith in all human frailty.
It should also be pointed out Reynolds – while undeniably the focus – is nevertheless, not the ‘whole show’; ably abetted by the sadly underestimated Harve Presnell. Presnell ought to have become one of Hollywood’s brightest musical talents. Certainly, he possessed the looks and charisma of a leading man. Alas, his timing was all wrong – the last gasps of the musical as a viable genre leaving no place for his particular brand of overtly masculinized eloquence. He is, I think, unbearably excellent as the perfect counterpoint to Reynold’s boisterous Molly; his Johnny, a man in love, though not impugned by his wife’s desire to ‘make good’; intuitively knowing from whence he has come and acknowledge there is no shame in it - something Molly only realizes after faced with a thought-numbing crisis – one real (the Titanic); the other, of conscience, mirroring the wreck itself. And Presnell is enigmatic in this part besides; unafraid to poke holes in his impossibly butch he-man; bright enough as an actor to know his own mind, but smart enough to translate these complex emotions into his characterization.
The Unsinkable Molly Brown was a colossal hit for MGM; arguably, the last of their ‘golden era’ musicals, long after the age itself had dwindled. Critics and novices alike often ponder whatever became of this ancient ghost flower in American picture-making, when raw talent, readily prized and put on display, required no distractions in chop-shop editing and/or glittery digital effects to sell its wares. The answer is rather complex; owing to changing times and tastes, the introduction of television (depriving the studios of nearly half their viewing audience) and the falling off of Hollywood’s founding fathers – men, who by sheer willpower, the strength of their convictions; also, an intuitive knack for repeatedly picking a winner, dominated as purveyors of the popular entertainments of their day. Employing raw intimidation to keep stars in check, these moguls wielded unprecedented authority. Such individuals do not exist in Hollywood today, replaced by the MBA graduate and bean-counter, interested exclusively in immediate profits and relying almost exclusively on clever marketing to dictate choices being made. What has happened to Hollywood today is a rather sad homogenization of its product and people; movies looking like other movies, and, celebrities aping the iconography popularized by a handful of legends. The perennially youthful and optimistic Debbie Reynolds is, at the writing of this review, 83 years young. But when she passes from this world into the next, the void left behind as an iconic and easily identifiable ‘star’ of the first magnitude will unlikely be replaced by anyone even remotely able to resemble this great lady. No, Hollywood today is rife with copycats. Originality is rare.  As an interesting aside, Reynold and MacLaine patched up their differences, MacLaine, with Debbie’s blessing, playing a part loosely based on Reynolds for 1990’s Postcards from the Edge; a celebratory tale of mother/daughter friction penned by Reynold’s daughter, Carrie ‘Princess Leia’ Fisher.
The Warner Archive Blu-ray of The Unsinkable Molly Brown is exactly what you would expect – in a word: superb. Shot in glorious Panavision, the image is an exquisite reference quality offering with deep, rich and fully saturated colors. The lush outdoorsy greenery and blood reds employed to decorate Molly Brown’s Denver mansion in particular, are lush and very vibrant. Flesh tones – pitch perfect. Contrast is solid and fine details pop in a way that make it easy to appreciate E. Preston Ames and George W. Davis’ production design; ditto, for Morton Haack’s absolutely gorgeous costumes. The whole affair is luminously photographed by Daniel L. Fapp, whose artistry is beyond reproach. Despite MGM’s cost-cutting efforts, The Unsinkable Molly Brown looks every bit the A-list grand and gargantuan Panavision spectacle you would expect from the studio that practically invented, and quite easily perfected the Hollywood musical in its heyday, and, in 1080p it is a sheer wonderment to behold. What a joy to see the film looking like this again. Hey, we ain’t down yet!  The Warner Archive’s remastered DTS 5.1 is breathtaking, capturing the opening night splendor of the movie’s original magnetic stereo audio. Bass tonality is greatly advanced and the score will leave you tapping your toes as never before. Extras are limited. We get the vintage featurette: The Story of a Dress – promoting Morton Haack’s costuming and a vintage trailer. Bottom line: one of the greatest of all movie musicals, and a tour de force for Debbie Reynolds, now comes to exhilaratingly to life as never before. This is what Blu-ray mastering is all about and once again, we doff our caps to the Warner Archive for preserving their 20th century’s cultural heritage for decades yet to follow. A no-brainer/must have purchase. Buy today. Treasure forever.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, June 19, 2016

JAWS 3: Blu-ray (Universal, 1983) Universal Home Video

Right off the bat, I sincerely warn the reader of this piece my blood pressure is presently boiling. I am not going to spend a lot of time on Jaws 3 (1983) in 3-D (or 2D for that matter), if for no other reason than Universal Home Video’s complete lack of appreciation for remastering catalog has reached a new all-time low with this Blu-ray, absent in any sort of quality control that would make me even remotely want to recommend this disc to my readership. Abject disgust is the best way I can officially describe what I am seeing here; digitized film grain, so harsh and unappealing, it all but renders practically every scene photographed at night virtually unwatchable. If you are viewing Jaws 3 in 3D, then the amplification of this digitized grain is absurdly and inexplicably more pronounced in the right eye than the left. But if you are viewing the flat version, then the all-around image quality is an unmitigated mess. This anomaly – I repeat – ‘this anomaly’ IS NOT the result of the over-and-under 3D system employed; the standard 35mm film frame split down the middle to create two separate and slightly misaligned images, reconfigured during projection in theaters to mimic the illusion of a ‘third dimension in terror’. Rather, Universal Home Video has been horrendously remiss in their remastering efforts. What a crock and a sham – advertising ‘Jaws 3 in 3D’, and, in HD with theater quality sound without adding the word ‘bad’ in front of it.  
To repeat yet again, if ad nauseam, it is NOT in the nature of any film-based elements to so inexplicably alternate between normal ‘obvious’ grain patterns to dense as sand grit imagery; especially as both the left and right images are presumably culled from a single ‘split’ frame of exposed camera negative. But herein, it is as though the left eye elements went through some sort of digital clean-up, while the right eye’s were all but ignored and/or given no consideration. Even more lethal, is the vertical misalignment of the two images when viewing the 3D version, causing disturbing – and headache-inducing halos of color. The question then remains, why release Jaws 3 – either in 3D or 2D – if time, attention and moneys were not to be allocated to ensure even a base level of quality control. Few Blu-ray releases of this past decade have so completely outraged me. And Jaws 3, for all its wonderment and woes, is hardly the idiotic turkey most critics have come to regard it over the last few generations. Unquestionably, the production suffers from some tedious special effects. I mean, the palsy-stricken shark, approaching SeaWorld’s central command post during the climactic showdown, is not even wagging its dorsal or tail fins; the moment taken to the height of absurdity by a slow-mo reaction shot of the principal cast attempting to flee, seconds before shards of window pane glass and a flood come hurtling at the audience. Virtually every stereoscopic shot of the great white gives immediate recognition to some very sloppy model and matte work.  Point blank: it’s impossible to take any of it seriously.
That said, at least by 1983 standards, the cheese – laid rather thick from end to end – is salvageable; the tone of the piece suggesting a good time was had by most of the cast, even if story elements are a wafer-thin retread of everything that has transpired in the first two movies. Indeed, David Brown and Richard Zanuck, the apparent custodians of this franchise, had absolutely no part in this mangled third bite at the box office; Brown and Zanuck each proposing to Universal they gird their creative loins to make a riotous satire rather than another serious movie to scare the hell out of their audiences. In hindsight, Brown and Zanuck unintentionally got their wish; director, John Alves quite unable to do anything more or better than occasionally fill the screen with some truly grotesque bloodletting. While Jaws and Jaws 2 could effectively be classified as PG-rated ‘suspense’ movies, with a little bit of horror seeping in from the peripheries, Jaws 3D is an unabashed feeding frenzy, delving deep into every horror movie cliché run amuck. Still, as transparently realized ‘camp’, it’s not all that bad and, on occasion, still manages to entertain.  
No, I am not one of those who continue to attest to ‘the greatness’ of the picture, citing such things as the shark’s deliberately calculated propensity, manifested with the psychological complexity of a serial killer. Rather than simply attacking its victims to feed its insatiable base hunger, this great white systematically picks off its prey in new and truly horrifying ways. It skins one man alive, severs another in two and to the bare bone, and, precisely chews on another it has only just swallowed whole until the victim is crushed to death and simultaneously drowned, left lying in half-bloodied repose on the big fish’s soft palette, clearly visible by another targeted victim who narrowly escapes a similar wrath. The great white threat in Jaws 3D is diabolically villainous; a trait generally not ascribed to…well…fishies in the sea; although expertly inculcated in humanity’s overall impressions as well as nature’s design of the beast itself; those dead ‘doll’s head’ eyes pointing left and right; that massive line of crooked, razor-sharp teeth; its cadaver grey outer skin with silent breathing gills to make it virtually undetectable beneath the surface of the water until it is much too late to do anything except scream, have an accident in one’s swimming trunks and ruthlessly perish. Within the human psyche there are few perils to so completely haunt and upset as effectively as the thought of being devoured by a thirty-five foot really ugly sea monster. Now, juxtapose this elemental fear with a location of sheer tranquility and escapism, a place where we are meant to assume nothing bad could ever happen, and you have some idea as to where the makers of Jaws 3 are prepared to take their audience. Think Disney World and alligators. Or don’t, if you would rather not lose any more sleep over the possibilities. 
We could almost forgive Jaws 3 its innumerable artistic foibles; except, a few are just too awful to recall without a mild chuckle. Paramount among these delectable misfires is Dennis Quaid’s delirious meltdown after being called in to examine the gruesome remains of Sea World’s muscleman, Shelby Overman (Harry Grant), severed, gutted, wormy and missing an eyeball; generally mutilated in all other manners befitting a homicidal maniac. Quaid is cast as Mike Brody, despite the fact he in no way resembles the physical contents of character actor, Mark Gruner, who assumed the role of Chief Brody’s eldest in Jaws 2. Nevertheless, it is Quaid we have to contend with; almost tossing his cookies before commandeering a popcorn go-cart and hurtling like a diarrhea-stricken mad man desperately in search of the loo, whizzing past thoroughly confused bystanders, tearing up a stage platform and wrestling the microphone away from an MC playing host to a garishly staged hoedown; screaming at the top of his lungs for the water skiers sailing past the platform to get out of lagoon before it is too late. I suppose we must cut dear ole Dennis some slack here, because he is, after all, playing a guy thoroughly shell-shocked by the events preceding this movie; quite enough to leave most anyone as clammy as a mackerel tossed from the surf and left to bake and suffocate in the noonday sun.
Until the release of this Blu-ray, Jaws 3 was something of a hallucinogenic anomaly on home video; its various sequences specifically crafted to take full advantage of the stereoscopic process, never able to be fully appreciated in the comfort of one’s living room.  And Alves, knowing full and well he is making a 3D movie, is perversely determined to give the audience what they have paid good money to see – a screen filled with projectile objects, some more inanimate than others – careering from the screen, or, even more disturbingly, trapped and looming in this ethereal third-dimension, like the disemboweled head of a catfish, barely a minute into the main titles, the fish itself snapped in two by the unseen shark, the head left floating in a bloody pool of guts with its reflexive motor functions still opening and closing its mouth. Without the benefit of 3D, Jaws 3 is a 90 minute odyssey into the gaping, and cadaver encrusted mouth of madness. With it, one can better see – or perhaps even appreciate – the proverbial forest for its kelp, the entire movie preying upon a cacophony of human fears: confinement in tight spaces, drowning, being eaten alive, and quite transparently, death – premature or otherwise, and, in whatever manner the reaper may choose to hasten us into an early grave.
Alas, all of the existentialist nonsense in Richard Matheson and Carl Gottlieb’s screenplay, cribbing from an atrocious story idea by Guerdon Trueblood, and with ineffectual dialogue added by Michael Kane (that could have equally come from inspiration gleaned while sitting on the toilet as exercising his creative muscles via real concentration), is obfuscated by shoddy hi-def mastering on Universal’s new Blu-ray. Even so, Matheson was hardly pleased with the results back in 1983; Jaws 3 incongruously shot mostly at SeaWorld Orlando, a landlocked water park, with the illusion cobbled together from inserts of Florida’s Navarre Beach, to suggest a more coastal locale, thus allowing the great white direct access from the ocean to the theme park without having to take the shuttle bus. Universal imposed restrictions upon Matheson; first, that Jaws 3 would continue as the saga of the Brody boys - Michael and Sean (John Puth), now all grown up and ready to become entangled in even ‘fishier’ romances; Michael with forthright marine biologist, Dr. Kathryn ‘Kay’ Morgan (Bess Armstrong), and Sean, brought out of his shell (so to speak) by Kelly Ann Bukowski (Lea Thompson) – a water-skiing tart, all fizz and bounce, with zero substance. Matheson was also ‘requested’ to write a custom-tailored part for Mickey Rooney. This proved utterly pointless after it was discovered Rooney was unavailable to partake. Assessing Jaws 3 shortly after its debut, Matheson had practically nothing good to say. “I’m a good storyteller…if they had done it right and if it had been directed by somebody who knew how to direct, I think it would have been an excellent movie. Jaws 3-D was the only thing Joe Alves ever directed… a very skilled production designer, but as a director - no. It was a waste of time!”
Production notes indicate Jaws 3 began shooting in StereoVision (traditional 3D since the fifties), but then switched over to using ArriVision lenses, virtually untested and therefore unreliable. The difficulties of shooting in 3D were compounded by the heavy use of green screen matte work, the decision to shoot Jaws 3 anamorphically, and, also by special considerations for its underwater photography, necessitating endless retakes. At the time of production, Alves employed two 3D consultants; Chris Condon and Stan Loth, each promoting their own system of 3D. In the trades, Alves went about endorsing Arrivision as the superior 3D; the process employing a special twin-lens adapter fitted to the camera, thus splitting each standard 35mm film frame down the middle; one half capturing the left-eye image, the other, the right-eye. This allowed the studio to keep costs down, as traditional 3D employed a two-camera/two projector setup, each running the left and right eye exposures independently, though perfectly synced to create the stereoscopic illusion. Alas, because the image captured for Jaws 3 was only half the traditional width of standard 35mm; its grain structure was amplified in direct correlation to a loss in overall picture resolution; creating roughly the equivalent image integrity found on an 18mm print master. 
StereoVision’s lenses may have been more fragile than Arrivision, but they produced a more refined image on the whole. Throughout Jaws 3 image quality toggles between a few very crisp and impressive shots inserted here and there, while most of the movie regrettably registers less than, and, on occasion, of a ridiculously poor grade, also slightly out of focus. It is impossible to know for sure (without access to Universal’s private archives) which scenes were shot in StereoVision vs. Arrivision. But there is little to doubt the visual discrepancies, transparently on display throughout Jaws 3. The most disconcerting aspect of Jaws 3 in 3D when projected from its current Blu-ray source is an untoward magnification of onscreen parallax. Actors in extreme foreground have substantial negative parallax, their upper bodies suspended far out into the theater space; while people and objects behind them have virtually none at all and extreme background information has wide positive parallax separation. The effect is both uncanny and unnatural and, I am not entirely certain, inherent to the original source elements. The Blu-ray mastering amplifies these convergence issues. Bottom line: the result is a highly unattractive and artificial-looking 3D image with ringing to the extreme left and right of center; frequently, with the added hindrance of ever so slight misalignment, resulting in messy halos of color. Want a headache? Watch Jaws 3 in 3D. But get your Tylenols out first!
Jaws 3 is basically an extended press junket for the then newly designed SeaWorld theme park, with its underwater caverns playing host to the film’s climactic showdown between man and leviathan. There is not a whole lot of exposition to sink one’s teeth into, but our story begins as yet another great white follows a team of water skiers from their dress rehearsal in the open waters back into the artificially controlled conditions of the park’s man-made lagoon. Distracted by the brawny grace of musclebound scuba diver, Shelby Overman, skier Kelly Ann Bukowski inadvertently causes their water-skiing pyramid to collapse; flailing arms and legs cast downward into the sea. The great white is nearby, but unable to catch up as the skiers are rescued and taken back to the relative safety of SeaWorld. Nevertheless, the shark manages to enter the paddock moments before its security gates are closed, resulting in some minor damage, but otherwise virtually undetected. The construction of this impressive water park has been overseen by Mike Brody, an engineer desperately in love with marine biologist, Dr. Kathryn Morgan. Mike’s just been offered a new gig overseas, Kathryn troubled by the prospect of losing him for eighteen months abroad – later, electing to give up her career instead. 
The park’s president, Calvin Bouchard (Louis Gossett Jr.) is too self-involved with the debut of SeaWorld's latest attraction, a series of glass-enclosed underwater tunnels, to be concerned with minor ‘safety’ issues.  Besides, he has hired high-profile photographer, Philip FitzRoyce (Simon MacCorkindale) – something of a spare-time mercenary precursor to the Crocodile Hunter – to preserve the occasion for posterity.  Hence, Bouchard all but ignores the warning signs his tourist destination is about to become a very fertile feeding ground for a great white shark. First of the victims is Shelby, ordered by Mike to repair a loose-fitting safety mesh below the water line. Aside: is it just me, or are an awful lot of such repairs and other extracurricular activities vital to the park’s operation inexplicably conducted after dark at SeaWorld when visibility beneath the water’s surface is low to impossibly murky? But I digress. Shelby suits up and dives in for closer inspection. But before he can deduce the cause of the mesh’s malfunction, Shelby is made a midnight snack by the shark. The next day, Shelby’s gal pal, Charlene Tutt (Dolores Starling) demands to know the whereabouts of her stud, suspecting he has run off with Kelly Ann. Mike and Kay are perplexed and more than a little concerned. After all, Shelby did not show up for work. So, they elect to take a submersible to the last place where Shelby was seen. While they find no trace of Shelby, the pair is assaulted near the wreck of the Spanish galleon by the great white, narrowly escaping with the aid of Kay’s benevolent and well-trained dolphins, Cindy and Sandy.
Meanwhile, what’s left of Shelby Overman’s brutalized, half-eaten and rotting remains are loosened from the shark’s hiding place, drifting past the windows of the underwater cavern and causing a general panic from the unsuspecting audience to ensue. The grotesquely mangled corpse is brought to the surface for inspection. Bouchard elects to allow FitzRoyce and his second in command, Jack Tate (P.H. Moriarty) a crack at this contemptuous sea monster; FitzRoyce, preparing himself with some homemade grenades. Mike intervenes. He is not about to let FitzRoyce turn his architectural achievement into a demolition site, simply to kill a very large fish. FitzRoyce reluctantly obliges. After some harrying moments underwater, the shark is subdued with a crossbow and tranquilizers. Kay hopes to make it SeaWorld’s proudest attraction – the only great white in captivity in the world. Mike is dead set against it, but gradually comes around, though mostly, to placate his girlfriend. Alas, Bouchard cannot wait for the fish to become properly acclimated to its new surroundings. He orders it moved to a new observation tank. Without proper care, the great white suddenly turns over on its belly and dies. Meanwhile, Shelby’s autopsy confirms some rather disturbing truths. The captured shark could not have killed Shelby Overman. The bite radius is too small. Instead, Kay reasons, its mother did. Before the point can be debated, the great white materializes; larger and meaner than Bouchard had anticipated.
Reacting more out of panic than reason, Mike sprints across the concourse towards the lagoon where the water skiers’ program is already in progress.  One of the skiers swerves to avoid the shark’s dorsal fin, creating a chain reaction that topples all the skiers into the water. Miraculously, no lives are lost. But the shark now turns its attentions on the underwater caverns, striking at their glass suspension bridges and rupturing the watertight compartments. A small group of tourists becomes trapped inside one of these observation hubs, forcing Mike to order immediate repairs to the compromised structure. FitzRoyce and Jack attempt to lure the great white into one of the drainage sewers, trapping it inside. Alas, FitzRoyce’s plan backfires. He is swallowed whole by the vicious creature, crushed inside its soft pallet before he can detonate his hand grenade. Now, the shark turns on SeaWorld’s central command post; Bouchard unable to fathom the audacity of this perfect killing machine as it breaks through the glass, flooding the room and killing his nephew, Fred (Alonzo Ward). Narrowly escaping the deluge, Bouchard and an assistant flee for their lives, leaving Kay and Mike to play a dangerous game of chicken with the shark. As the monster opens its mouth, Kay sees FitzRoyce’s remains loosely bobbing about inside; his arm still clutching the hand grenade. Using a metal hook, after several failed attempts Mike manages to pull out its pin. Kay and Mike take cover under a sunken desk moments before the shark is blown to bits. Unharmed by their ordeal, Kay and Mike swim to the surface, accompanied by Cindy and Sandy.
Jaws 3D is a benign actioner at best with some truly hokey bits inserted to anesthetize the senses. As a serious third installment to the franchise, but especially as a 'horror movie', it miserably flops and flounders. However, as minor camp with some truly horrific examples of blue-screen/matte process work as inarticulately stitched together with stereoscopic SFX, it has both its place and pleasures to be had. One can find a soft spot – either in the heart or head – for such truly awful movies, chiefly because all the participants are pulling together rather desperately to make everything work. Louis Gossett Jr.’s performance is so dim-wittedly over-the-top, one can easily forget that here was an actor destined to win an Oscar for his role as the crusty drill sergeant in 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman. Oh, how the mighty have fallen! From a purely narrative perspective, Jaws 3 is a total washout. The brotherly bond between the Brody boys is rendered moot midway through the movie. In fact, the Matheson/Gottlieb screenplay rather unceremoniously tosses Sean back into the sea, or rather, beached off to the sidelines, as the arc of tension shifts to Mike and FitzRoyce’s various booby-hatched plots to put an end to this underwater killer.
After only a few bromantic sequences, a cute meet with Kelly Ann, and, one moonlit swim and make-out session in his underwear, the movie completely forgets this younger Brody even exists. It’s probably just as well; John Puth isn’t much of an actor or even a presence. The least successful is Dennis Quaid; suffering an attack of the ‘stud factor’; attempting to harness the reins of his supposed ‘authority figure’ as Jaws 3’s ‘big man on campus’; arguably, misguided in believing his own PR as the picture’s (choke!) leading man. Silly boy – it’s the shark they have come to see! I honestly do not get why Quaid has had a career. He never rises above a rank and very bland incarnation of himself in anything I have ever seen him in; Jaws 3 about par for the course of his proficiency – or lack thereof – as an actor. Stardom is often built on far less, but in Quaid’s case I will make the exception. He is nothing like a good actor or a memorable movie star. The most underrated in this piece is Bess Armstrong; an all but forgotten and discarded actress, despite a steady list of credits, relegated mostly to cameo parts; she showed infinitely more promise in Jaws 3 than almost any of her stilted male counterparts. Badly scripted, ill-conceived, and utterly relying on the gimmick of 3D as a crutch to draw in the audience and generate its thrills, Jaws 3D is sickeningly bad with very few redeemable qualities to recommend it. Oddly enough, I still fondly recall the movie as a highlight of my own Saturday matinee experiences growing up; then, as an impressionable eleven year old, exactly the sort of navel-gazing rube for which such drivel was designed and would marginally appeal as diverting fluff, if a very – very - poor excuse to go into the theater.
It is criminal what Universal has done to this Blu-ray transfer. Just when you thought it was safe to buy Blu-rays from Universal Home Video again comes this monumentally atrocious effort; so completely bungled, I am obliged to offer up the following advice – do not waste your moneyperiod! For all of the aforementioned reasons discussed, Jaws 3D is a painful experience to muddle through. The plot is excusable. The quality issues are not. Graininess aside, it is the over-processed image, suffering from hideous amounts of pixelization, and encumbered by some genuinely flawed misalignment, further marred by age-related artifacts and other anomalies not inherent in the original film elements that lead me to so completely reject this disc as anything better than a Frisbee. Fling – into the ash can with you. The 5.1 DTS audio is average and passable. But the image quality, either in 3D or 2D, is so overly processed, so utterly digitized and so woefully substandard to anything I have seen in a very long while, I simply cannot recommend it. DO NOT BUY THIS DISC! Enough said.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)