Tuesday, September 18, 2018

SHAMPOO: Blu-ray (Columbia Pictures, 1975) Criterion Collection

Warren Beatty shags a bevy of high-strung beauties to his own detriment in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975), a movie co-written by Beatty and Robert Towne. In an era before the celebrity culture of Hollywood hairdressers became world-renown, Shampoo taps into the story of a disreputable lady’s man who exploits the innate intimacy of his profession, rather desperately to leverage his cocksmanship and blow-drying techniques for the ultimate gamble – to become his own man. The picture, set in and around the stunningly superficial paradises of Beverly Hills and Bel Aire, creates its own artifice in hyperactive sex appeal. One could easily drive a Bugatti full of Playboy bunnies through George Roundy’s awkwardly mangled character flaws. He cannot keep his appointments or stories straight. Beatty’s flamboyantly goony quaff (why any woman would subject herself to George’s scissor-skills, if only to be judged by his perpetually disheveled bouffant) and thoroughly idiotic wardrobe (consisting of painted-on jeans, frilly, unbuttoned tuxedo shirt, and, leather vest too sizes too small, even for Beatty’s anemic frame) somehow translated into the epitome of the atypical Californian stud that every amiable actress, teenage nympho, middle-aged housewife and fag hag could find acutely desirable at a glance.   
And Beatty (a.k.a hair stylist extraordinaire, George Roundy), badly bungling his way through the moneyed playgrounds of his exotic clientele, manages, at once, to be fiercely masculine yet infuriatingly vulnerable; seducing mother/daughter, Felicia (Lee Grant) and Lorna Karpf (Carrie Fisher as a bra-less nymphomaniac), his dizzy and insecure gal pal, Jill Haynes (Goldie Hawn), and up-and-coming actress, Jackie Shawn (Julie Christie), while able, at carefully parceled intervals, to muster a lament for Jill over his rake’s lack of progress, weeping truly genuine tears on Jackie’s well-tailored shoulders over the thought of losing her to wealthy businessman and political backer, Lester Karpf (Jack Warden).  Shampoo is well above par of what passed for comedy in the seventies. The Beatty/Towne screenplay is peppered in scintillating and frank exchanges of dialogue, unapologetic in bandying the word ‘fuck’ around, but in such a way as it registers more utilitarian than gratuitous or shamelessly vulgar. In the pre-AIDS decade of laissez faire sexuality – and, furthermore, within this idyllically perverse enclave devoted to mind and body broadening experimentation – a la California weirdness – we find a goodly sum of couples, threesomes – even foursomes – engaged in nude hot-tubing and the mellow art of smoking pot, casually navigating a cluttered house party, wearing all manner of explicit attire. Aside: the nipple-exposing blonde in the otherwise stretch-green latex bodysuit gets my vote for freak of this ‘to be seen’ scene.  
For all its dated pastiche (is this really the way we – or at least some of us - were?!?!), Shampoo is a fascinating time capsule, if not outright a condemnation of the post-modern/liberalized decline of western civilization, then, most definitely, a stirring critique into its hedonistic mindset, slavishly devoted to this ‘seen and be seen’ lifestyle that, even now seems permissibly genuine, generally jovial, and yet, somehow, slightly tragic and, at moments, very – very – sad. In spite of their affluence – or, in George’s case, his very close proximity to what can never be his - nobody in Shampoo is leading ‘the good life’.  Indeed, George would not know the good life if it reached out and tagged him on the crotch, as predictably, it does several times throughout this movie; from his loyal, yet clear-eyed girlfriend, Jill, who can recognize George is drowning in the mire of his own image as the stylist/stud du jour, or in George’s on again/off again detente with actress, Jackie Shawn. Interestingly, Jackie’s eye-candy sex appeal masks a far more intelligent creature lurking beneath the surface, so obviously in love with George, she would even risk her lucrative relationship with Lester’s sugar daddy by getting drunk and publicly going down on George during a Presidential fundraiser.
Shampoo kicks off on the eve of Richard Nixon’s election. George Roundy is a Beverly Hills’ hairstylist, much in demand and very much the object of many, many women’s affections. George is a star…well, sort of, constantly under the thumb of his boss, salon manager, Norman (Jay Robinson), who considers him no more than a necessary evil to keep his paying female clientele happy.  George could have it all.  If only he did not allow his ego to intervene and, even worse, lead with his crotch, instead of his brain. But George is not about to let a good wash n’ set go to waste. So, he presently finds himself the sex object of three women: his needy and insecure girlfriend, Jill, the wealthy, if unhappily married cougar on the prowl, Felicia, and, ostensibly, the girl he should have pursued above all others – accomplished and sexy, Jackie.  To all three – and many more – George plies his light touch and craft, both inside Norman’s salon and, more personally, in the bedroom.  Even with all his success and attention paid, George is increasingly dissatisfied with his professional life.  After all, he is working for somebody else…and, an ingrate. George would like nothing better than to tell Norman to go to hell and open his own rival salon. Problem: George is pretty much penniless. He does not even have the necessary credit to apply for a bank loan.
Turning to the wealthiest of his current lovers, Felicia offers George a leg up by encouraging her unsuspecting husband, Lester to bankroll his shop. George's first meeting with Lester is anything but smooth. Lester thinks – or rather, hopes – George is gay, as he suspects Felicia’s interests in George go beyond mere philanthropy. George plays it cagey, but stumbles when he discovers his on again/off again lover, Jackie, is actually Lester’s current mistress. Meanwhile, Jill begins to suspect George’s infidelities have gone beyond a mere indiscretion or two.  Her suspicions are confirmed by George. Rather sincerely, he openly admits to being a cad. To make George jealous, Jill lines up a date with her loyal agent, Johnny Pope (Tony Bill), as an escort to a swank Republican Party fundraiser. George too has been invited as a chaperone for Jackie by Lester, who is attending with his wife. Over the next few days, things reach a heady pitch as Lester nearly walks in on Jackie and George making love on the floor in her bathroom. The couple fake an impromptu ‘house call’ hair appointment that seems to buy back George’s credibility with Lester as a homosexual. But then, hurrying to Felicia’s to do her hair just prior to the big night out, George encounters the Karpf’s promiscuous daughter, Lorna, who openly confronts him about her suspicions of an affair between her mother and him. George, again, plays it safe, but is caught off guard when Lorna invites him to bed.
Taking advantage of the girl, George is discovered by Felicia exiting Lorna’s private bathroom. To assuage her anxieties about what might have transpired just moments earlier, Felicia drags George to her bedroom and forces herself on him. At the Republican gathering, George is introduced around the room by Lester, who is still quite oblivious to the fact his wife, mistress and daughter have all had him in bed. Encouraged by Lester to squire Jackie, because she is apt to drink too much and make a fool of herself, George quickly loses control of his charge. Jackie gets drunk and goes down on George right at the table. Embarrassed, Lester asks George to leave and Jackie accompanies him to a posh counterculture party in the Hollywood hills. Disgusted by her husband’s behavior, for it is now quite clear he and Jackie have been having an affair, Felicia drives off, leaving Lester stranded. Jill and Johnny offer to drive him home. But first, they too arrive at the same unhinged and hedonistic house party where eager twenty-somethings are indulging in rampant drugs, alcohol, and promiscuity.
While Jill and Johnny get to know one another better on an intellectual plain, Lester is invited by a trio of hot tubers to strip bare and join in. Told he can find clean towels up at the pool house near the tennis courts, Lester sneaks off and discovers Jill and Johnny already there, quietly having a conversation. They are distracted by more primal grunts coming from just inside, the door on a nearby refrigerator becoming ajar – its dim light revealing Jackie and George having passionate sex on the floor.  Outraged, Jill throws a deck chair through the plate glass window. Lester storms off, as do Jill with Johnny in hot pursuit. George makes a desperate attempt; first, to catch up to Jill. He fails. George then tries to return to Jackie who, having already dressed, drives off in a huff before he can catch up to her. The next day, Lester invades George’s home with a trio of hired thug muscle to rough him up. But first, Lester wants to hear George’s side of the story. To this inquiry, George simply admits that women have always been desirable to him. They are curious creatures, however, and, as much a mystery even as he gets to know them intimately. Lester cannot argue with George’s assessment and leave him unharmed. Too little/too late, George realizes Jackie is his only love. He pursues her from her bungalow to a nearby hilltop and proposes with great sincerity. Alas, Jackie reveals she has already agreed to marry Lester, whom she does not love, but will take advantage of because he is rich. George’s pleas for reconsideration fall on deaf ears. After Jackie acknowledges her enduring love for him too, she nevertheless returns to her bungalow where Lester is waiting with flowers and two plane tickets to Acapulco. As George observes from a distance, Lester’s limo drives off with Jackie in tow. And although Lester has forgiven him his indiscretions, even still offering to float his dreams for a posh salon in Beverly Hills, can George find it in his heart to forgive himself? After all, he has sacrificed everything for nothing?
Shampoo actually asks a lot more questions than it answers about human desire and the fragility of male/female love in a society, perhaps too free and open in its sexuality for its own good. Moving at an elevated cadence in its promiscuity, arguably than most outside of Southern California, Shampoo nevertheless addresses a fundamental human tragedy that is highly relatable: two people, meant for each other, yet destined never to actually live up to the promise of their status as soul mates. Lost in the shuffle between carnal lust and rank ambitions is real love. Where is it? Not found among Hollywood’s hoi poloi, apparently. The epic void left behind by this ‘change partners’ daisy chain leaves a chasm impossible for any of our ensemble to cross. Part of what makes the story work so spectacularly well (it really is more than a farce-laden sex comedy) is Warren Beatty’s soulful performance as the hapless and hopelessly misunderstood, even more uniquely vulnerable hairstylist. George Roundy can cut hair. Too bad he cannot get the tangles out of the mess that is his own life. Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn distinguish themselves in parts that allow for an exercise of their finely-honed acting chops as well as their exquisitely toned bodies. Jill’s confronting George about his infidelities is a real tour de force for Hawn who shows great depth and unusual intensity. Christie’s moment of triumph comes right at the end; Jackie’s tearfully acknowledgement of George’s affections, only to cruelly disappoint him by running off with Lester instead. In support, Lee Grant and Jack Warden are adequate in roles that never tax their formidable range. A very young Carrie Fisher startles us with her forthright adult jadedness. In the end, a good time is had by all…or, at least those viewing Shampoo, a foamy mixture of sex, sorrow and smiles – laughter through tears, and sadness that rings too true for too many.
Criterion’s Blu-ray is advertised as deriving from a new 4K scan. Never having seen Shampoo theatrically, I suspect the 35mm elements were as thickly textured and heavily grain-laden. Colors are not punchy, as László Kovács’ cinematography is going for the B-vintage earthy ‘of the moment’ feel that was very fashionable in movies made throughout the 1970’s. This is accurately reproduced in 1080p with a dense grain structure that, at intervals, can almost be a little too heavy for its own good – especially, during sequences photographed at night. Even so, Shampoo on Blu-ray looks very film-like.  We get two soundtracks: Criterion’s verve for preserving the original mono in PCM, and a re-designed DTS 5.1 courtesy of Sony – the studio responsible for this remastering effort – another quality affair. The big disappointment for me here is the extras. I think I have probably been spoiled by Criterion packing on the goodies – in some cases, with hours and hours of well-informed extra content. But no. We get no audio commentary and only 2 video supplements: a half hour tête-à-tête with critics, Mark Harris and Frank Rich (who also supplies liner notes) that is deeply informative, and, at barely 12 min., an all too brief 1998 excerpt from Warren Beatty’s appearance on The South Bank Show. Bottom line: Shampoo is a frank, unapologetic and absorbing dramedy that will surely find new fans with this Blu-ray release. Good stuff here and well worth your coin.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, September 16, 2018

THE PRINCESS BRIDE: Blu-ray reissue (Act III Communication/2oth Century-Fox, 1987) Criterion Collection

With the passage of time, Rob Reiner’s The Princess Bride (1987) has acquired a reputation that, ostensibly, it does not deserve. For some odd reason I have distinct recollections of seeing this one at the Odeon Theatre. Yet, even as a teenager, thoroughly unschooled in film scholarship, I thought the plot was more than a little bit episodic, the characters, buffoonish at best, and the romantic chemistry between Cary Elwes’ love-struck would-be swashbuckler, Westley and Robin Wright’s glacial, if stunning Princess Buttercup more dead-in-the-water than grand amour. William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay as well as the book on which it is based, seems to have fallen too much in love with recreating his fairytale for the screen. He has a lot of raw materials at his disposal: stunningly handsome location work shot all over England, lush and romanticized through cinematographer, Adrian Biddle’s lens; Norman Garwood’s superior production design, and, Mike Knopfler’s exotic underscore, capped off by Willie DeVille’s Oscar-nominated rendition of ‘Storybook Love’“It’s as real as the feelings I feel.” So, for me anyway, it has always been something of a downer, and a real mystery, that The Princess Bride becomes increasingly flimsy and sedated as it wends its way through every cliché of a tale told by the Brothers Grimm. Even the climactic rescue of ‘our hero’, Westley is luke warm and tinged in a sort of perfunctory ennui. While everything undeniably looks gorgeous, even Reiner’s direction creeks under the quaintness of the exercise rather than elevating the fanciful into the sort of grandly sophisticated tomes we know he is capable at his best.  
It is even more curious, as Reiner’s passion for Goldman’s book was stirred early on after his father, Carl bequeathed him a copy. It’s painful, actually, because Reiner desperately wants to do The Princess Bride justice. Even as he was wrapping production on 1986’s Stand by Me, Reiner envisioned The Princess Bride as his next big project. Alas, Paramount did not share in Reiner’s verve. He was also informed several major studios, including 2oth Century-Fox, had vied for the rights in the past with less than hearty success. Fox had actually paid Goldman a cool half million, both for the rights and to produce a screenplay in 1973. It almost happened, with Richard Lester directing. But then a management shake-up at Fox sent everything into the dreaded ‘turn-around’ from whence few projects are ever revived. Disgusted, Goldman bought back the film rights. As years passed, such note worthies as Francois Truffaut, Robert Redford, and Norman Jewison all made their pitch to direct. After his success in Superman: The Movie (1978) even Christopher Reeve expressed a desire to partake as the Westley du jour. Still, nothing happened. But Reiner had an ace in the hole: producer, Norman Lear, with whom he had established a winning rapport since his days playing the harried son-in-law, Mike ‘Meathead’ Stivic on Lear’s trail-blazing TV sitcom, All in the Family (1971-79).
In the days before Cary Elwes began to taint his career objectives, chronically cast as the disreputable bastard everyone loves to hate, he was considered matinee idol/leading man material, thanks to his stunning breakout performance in Lady Jane (1986). Like many seated in the audience then, Reiner had taken notice of Elwes ‘heartthrob’ potential, flying to Munich to interview the actor, and departing with Elwes firmly committed to the role. Casting Princess Buttercup proved a greater challenge. Reiner launched a Scarlett O’Hara-styled search for the ideal girl, interviewing scores of fresh-faced English lasses, only to come away from the experience deflated and with no clear choice in view. Meanwhile, learning of the auditions, Robin Wright’s agent coaxed the shy girl into a chance meeting with Reiner and his casting director, Jane Jenkins. Impressed by Wright, the pair invited her to meet Goldman at his home. According to Jenkins, the door opened, and, in the breezeway, there stood the winsome reincarnation of Goldman’s heroine in a white summer dress, “backlit by God.” Reportedly, Goldman took one look at Wright and said, “Well…that’s what I wrote. It was the most perfect thing.”
Meanwhile, Mandy Patinkin – always a front-runner, and, Wallace Shawn were hired: Shawn, as the wily Vizzini, primarily to contrast in stature to André the Giant as Fezzik. Initially, Jenkins had been informed by the World Wrestling Federation of a conflict of interests – a match already set in Tokyo – precluding André’s participation. Jenkins then turned to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Lou Ferrigno, and Carel Struycken. Mercifully, none of these alternates panned out. When the bout in Tokyo was unexpectedly canceled, Jenkins was granted access to André and his services secured. Despite his formidable girth, André – towering at 7 ft. 4 in. and weighing a staggering 520 lbs. – indeed, one of the colossuses of the wrestling world - had undergone major back surgery to prevent him from performing his own stunts. Hence, in scenes where he was expected to carry co-star, Cary Elwes on his back, various SFX were employed to create this illusion – Elwes, suspended on wires for a fight scene, and hidden on specially built ramps just out of camera range for the close-ups. In wide shots, a double was employed. As pre-production got underway, Reiner rented a house on location where he staged frequent casual get-togethers for cast and crew; a chance to mingle, relax and get to know fellow cast members, creating a sense of familial camaraderie that carried over on the set.  Cary Elwes and Mandy Patinkin were required to fence. Under the expert tutelage of professional instructors, Bob Anderson and Peter Diamond, the actors were put through the rigors of how to hold their weapons; also, the intricacies of fight choreography. In their respective careers, Anderson and Diamond had been Olympian fencers, had worked with the likes of Errol Flynn and Burt Lancaster during Hollywood’s golden age, and, cumulatively contributed their art and craftsmanship to the James Bond and Lord of the Rings franchises, with noteworthy efforts exerted on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Star Wars (1977).
With all this attention paid to detail, The Princess Bride ought to have been a better movie. To be sure, there are moments peppered throughout it that work a spell of sheer delight. But on the whole, the picture lacks both the cohesion and immediacy of a classic romantic swashbuckler. It has oft been stated that the strength and validation of our heroes is in direct counterpoint to the intensity of their arch nemeses. Regrettably, the villain in The Princess Bride, Chris Sarandon’s Prince Humperdinck, is a weak-kneed and simpering fop at best. The Prince’s effete cohort, Count Rugen (Christopher Guest) makes up somewhat for this dearth in menacing but is hampered by the more slapstick elements that continually diffuse his potency. Aside: on set, Guest’s impromptu striking of Elwes on the head – ‘for real’ at Elwes’ request – briefly sent the actor to hospital with a dizzy spell. Despite its deficits, over the years I have watched with general amazement as prepubescent audiences everywhere continue to be awe-struck and warmed by The Princess Bride’s quaint, and at intervals, queer ‘charm’. I confess, looking back on it now, the picture is more rewarding for the cuddly warm afterglow of its cameos (Andre the Giant, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Peter Falk) and, of course, to hear co-star, Mandy Patinkin regurgitate the revenge-laden cliché of a good/bad line, “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” Still, I think it is important to note that The Princess Bride was not a big hit in 1987, either from a box office or critical standpoint. It made money, but not much of a splash; its star-attraction then, an Oscar nod for Best Original Song Billy DeVille lost to ‘I’ve Had the Time of My Life’ from Dirty Dancing.
Plot wise: the entire story is conjured to life in the mind of a nameless ‘grandson’ (Fred Savage) after his as analogous ‘grandfather’ (Peter Falk) elects to keep the ailing boy company with a good yarn. From the relative safety of a modern-day child’s bedroom we regress to the sun-filtered rolling English landscapes of another time and place, far, far removed from the present. We meet the sublimely beautiful, Buttercup, who lives on an idyllic farm in the fictional country of Florin. The girl is, at first, somewhat dismissive of her impoverished farmhand, Westley whom she daily commands with chores. To each and every task, he simply replies, “As you wish” and this, Buttercup soon realizes, is Westley’s way of promoting his never-waning love and affection for her.  Eventually recognizing her love for him is just as strong, Westley vows to depart into the world at large to seek a fortune worthy of the woman he has chosen to be his wife. Alas, almost immediately word reaches the farm that the ship Westley was sailing on has been pillaged by the Dread Pirate Roberts with all aboard believed dead. Buttercup is heartsore. Five years pass. Reluctantly, Buttercup accepts a proposal of marriage from Prince Humperdinck, heir to the throne of Florin. But before the ceremony, she is taken prisoner by three outlaws: Vizzini, a diminutive Sicilian, in command of the dim-witted Fezzik, an enormous wrestler from Greenland, and, a Spaniard, Inigo Montoya, seeking revenge against the six-fingered assassin who murdered his father. Simultaneously, this foursome is pursued by a masked man, and, the Prince with a small contingent of his soldiers.
Through his cunning, the man in black is the first to catch up to the outlaws on the Cliffs of Insanity. Deftly, he dispatches with Inigo in a duel, briefly knocking him unconscious. The man chokes Fezzik until he blacks out, and actually tricks Vizzini into consuming a poison. With Buttercup now as his prisoner, the mysterious man is prevented his escape by a narrow precipice. Incorrectly assuming he is the Dread Pirate Roberts, Buttercup seeks to avenge Westley’s murder and shoves him down the gorge. As he tumbles, presumably to his death, the man shouts, “As you wish!” Realizing her rescuer is, in fact, Westley, Buttercup flings herself after him. Miraculously, the former lovers are reunited unharmed.  But all will not go smoothly as, having passed through the mystical Fire Swamp, Buttercup and Westley are captured on the other side by Humperdinck and his gloating six-fingered vizier, Count Rugen. Buttercup agrees to wed Humperdinck in exchange for Westley’s life spared.  Outwardly, Humperdinck agrees to these terms, but secretly orders Rugen to torture Westley to death. Presumably to appease his ailing bride-to-be’s sadness, Humperdinck promises to restore Westley to her. Actually, he is plotting a war with Guilder – a neighboring principality he plans to frame for Buttercup’s murder.
Inigo and Fezzik are reunited in the forest. Now, Fezzik informs Inigo that Rugen is responsible for his father’s murder. Determined to avenge this injustice, Inigo realizes they will need Westley’s help to enter the castle. Alas, Humperdinck has already tortured Westley to death. Discovering his body, Inigo and Fezzik spirit Westley away to a dotty folk healer, Miracle Max (Billy Crystal), who reasons Westley’s love for Buttercup has preserved an ounce of life in him. Through Max’s weird incantations, Westley is brought forth from his ‘heavy paralysis’ and restored to health. Westley, Inigo, and Fezzik invade Humperdinck’s fortress. Expediting his nuptials, Humperdinck further plots to be rid of his new bride and these unwelcomed intruders. Instead, Inigo avenges his father’s murder, killing Rugen in a duel. Westley prevents Buttercup from suicide, then bluffs his way out of a duel with Humperdinck, owing to his still partial paralysis. Predictably, Westley and Buttercup ride off into the sunset, leaving Inigo, and Fezzik to speculate about the future. We regress into the present. ‘The grandson’, thoroughly captivated by the tale, pleads with his ‘grandfather’ to begin anew again. With a twinkle in his eye, the grandfather replies, “As you wish.”
The Princess Bride is a mediocre romance at best and an infuriatingly silly swashbuckler; more cartoonish than anything else. It’s target audience is likely children as, predictably, this is where its fan base has continued to ferment and grow over the years with each new generation rediscovering it. But Reiner’s uneven melding of the more roguish and playful elements has not aged well. One gets the sense from Cary Elwes he would like nothing better than to break away from the rather sedated stud he has been asked to play and go for the full-tilt testosterone, male chest-thumping swordsman to which he likely could have/and should have lent more credence and charm. The picture equally lacks the timelessness of a bona fide fairy tale, its make-believe, when viewed today, very much a byproduct of the eighties. Goldman’s screenplay is rather heavily laden down with its ‘true love conquers all’ scenario, dedicated more so to Westley and Buttercup, mooning at one another, with intermittent, tongue-in-cheek departures into ribald slapstick.  By the time Reiner introduces us to Westley’s torture and death, the picture has gone so far into farce that the grotesqueness in this episode teeters into the edicts of schlock B-grade horror; the resurrection, a sort of ‘we were only foolin’/matter of fact dénouement to satisfy Reiner and Goldman having painted the plot into an inescapable corner. In the end, The Princess Bride lumbers about with excellent production value, some fun cameos, but a truly disheartening lack of passion.
In 2009, MGM/Fox released a Blu-ray of The Princess Bride that left much to be desired, suffering from dated colors and weaker than anticipated contrast. Over the next decade, the studio repackaged this one ad nauseam, always with the same flawed 1080p presentation. Now, we get Criterion’s new 4K digital restoration. Is it worth it? Well, yes – partly. The color palette has marginally shifted, with less piggy pink flesh tones. The shift is also noted in navy blues, now appearing more blackish than blue, and, oranges, transformed into deeper shades of tangerine. Colors on the whole are more fully saturated. This is all to the good. Contrast is noticeably deeper too, and film grain looks very indigenous to its source. So, what me worry? Well, the image is still not as punchy as one might expect. Indeed, it looks just a little better than average in projection; whites, never truly white or pristine, and blacks, sometimes milky instead of enveloping and velvety dark. Image sharpness appears on par with the previous Blu-ray release. So, no untoward DNR or other digital tinkering that can be obviously detected. As there was nothing inherently wrong with it, the DTS 5.1 audio herein is identical to that previously featured on the old MGM/Fox release.
Criterion’s supplements are a mixed offering, cribbing from the MGM/Fox release. We get Rob Reiner and William Goldman’s 1996 audio commentary (actually produced for Criterion’s Laserdisc) with comments by producer, Andrew Scheinman, Billy Crystal and Peter Falk, as well as Reiner’s audio book reading of Goldman’s novel. Also regurgitated: 3 featurettes, on makeup, fencing and fairy tales.  Cary Elwes’ on set video diary gets a reprise too, with five behind-the-scenes videos.  New to Blu is a 17-minute discussion piece on Goldman’s screenplay with Loren-Paul Caplin and an all too brief puff piece about a tapestry Goldman made, based on his novel. Finally, art director, Richard Holland discusses his efforts. Two trailers and four TV spots, and liner notes from Sloane Crosley sumptuously wrapped in a cloth-bound booklet, round out the extras. Bottom line: If you absolutely love The Princess Bride, Criterion’s reissue will be a no-brainer and likely, the definitive hi-def incarnation of this beloved flick, likely to captivate many generations yet to come.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Wednesday, September 12, 2018

John Carpenter's CHRISTINE: 4K Blu-ray (Columbia, 1983) Sony Home Entertainment

Christine (1983) is the recipient of two formidable talents working at the peak of their powers: the first is author, Stephen King; the latter, director, John Carpenter, each a master of suspense in their respective medium; Carpenter, an undeniable artisan in crafting the spooky good chill. In an era before horror movies devolved into graphic illustrations of how many gruesome ways one deranged individual could split another deranged individual’s head open with an axe, Carpenter launched a valiant coup in defense of the genre he obviously loves so well; proving to its pundits that ‘horror’ could be legitimatized, even elevated, to a fine, spine-tingling art, terrifying without turning off or bathing the front row theater seats in buckets of blood. For too many years before and since, the horror genre has endured unprecedented indignation from the B-meisters of schlock and silliness. After Universal’s initial introduction of the supernatural in the early 1930’s, even the studio that ostensibly ‘invented’ horror for the movies chose to turn simple fright into abject revulsion in order to perpetuate and promote its product. After Val Lewton’s cycle of success at RKO, psychological horror also took a backseat to the Hammer franchises of the late 1960’s; over-the-top grand guignol with a touch of Edgar Allen Poe or H.P Lovecraft thrown in for good measure. But by the early 1980’s, John Carpenter was facing even stiffer competition from the ‘slasher’ vein of horror; audiences tuning into the salaciousness of increasingly bloodier special effects to satisfy their appetite for fright.
Christine is the absolute antithesis of the slasher and quite possibly the last of its ilk, Carpenter holding tight to the precepts established in his Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980); sustained bone-chilling excursions; herein, with less obvious, though no less exhilarating scares. Working from a screenplay by Bill Phillips, Carpenter’s changes to Stephen King’s monumental literary shocker are mostly made for concision. We lose the backstory about Christine’s possession; in the novel, the car harbors the evil spirit of her deceased first owner, Roland D. LeBay. But in this movie, Christine is simply imbued with an omnipotent demonic presence from day one of her inception; the only candy-apple red 1958 Plymouth Fury to roll off the assembly line from an otherwise uninspired lineup of ‘buckskin’ beige-finned beauties. As the real 58’ Fury was a rare breed, Carpenter and his Production Designer, Daniel A. Lomino turned to retrofitting 1957 Belvederes and Savoys to portray the malignant Plymouth. In all, twenty cars would be convincingly ‘made up’ to look the part. Only two would survive the many perils put forth by Christine’s arduous shoot.
Christine perfectly illustrates two maxims that most, toiling in the horror genre today, completely overlook; first, what you don’t see, eerily emerging in half-shadow, is far more effective at stirring unease, fear and loathing, than what is graphically revealed from a multitude of frenetically edited angles; and second, mood trumps action any day of the week. Christine is largely a series of impressions made in the editing process to evoke a looming sense of dread; Carpenter actually getting us to believe in an inanimate object with a soul – albeit, a malevolent one. Consider Carpenter’s handling of the murder of teen tyrant, Buddy Repperton (William Ostrander), chased down a darkened backroad by Christine, recently engulfed in a hellish explosion at a gas station. A lesser director might have sent this raging automobile catapulting down the abandoned highway, giving us Repperton’s wild screams and a hideous cacophony of breaking bones as the ole girl rolls over her victim.
Instead, Carpenter plies us with the gut-wrenching dread of the inevitable; effectively phasing out all sound effects except his unnerving, evenly paced and almost monochromatic stalking anthem (shades of Michael Myers’ music cues from Halloween), cutting from the lanky Repperton, fleeing on foot in his tight-fitted jeans and cowboy boots while gradually bringing up the orangey flicker of flames licking at his heels from out of the darkness along the tarmac as Christine steadily advances. She is inescapable; Repperton knows it, and so do we. She gains on him, but at a biding pace, perhaps even with a queerly feline indulgence; Carpenter cutting from a close-up of Repperton’s wide-eyed terrorization to a long shot of Christine casually passing by, the sudden appearance of a corpse emerging from beneath her fireball chaste and quietly sizzling on the asphalt, even more disturbing as she drives off without even so much as a hint of acceleration.  It’s the inexorableness of such sequences – and there are many in the movie – that make Carpenter’s excursion excruciating, if not impossible to sit through without at least a few hairs standing on end. Christine will destroy all who oppose; even more disturbingly, not out of hatred or a perfunctory sense of revenge, but an even more sightless loyalty – nee, love?!? – for her present owner, Arnie Cunningham (Keith Gordon).
If nothing else, Christine turned America’s love affair with the automobile – and its nostalgia craze for the fabulous fifties – on end; the sentiment given its death knell in the final moments of the movie as surviving cast members, Dennis Guilder (John Stockwell), Leigh Cabot (Alexandra Paul) and Det. Rudolph Junkins (Harry Dean Stanton) quietly observe her trash-compacted wreckage exhibiting minor vibrations of life. “God, I hate rock and roll!” says Leigh. What is most impressive about Christine is Carpenter’s cleverly timed and released escalation of these anxious moments, achieved with just a few light touches and very limited special effects; Christine’s miraculous resurrection after Buddy and his motley crew of ne’er do wells have taken their sledgehammers and box-cutters to her, mostly done by shooting the destruction in reverse, then playing the film backwards (very effective) or the scene in which Repperton’s gang-banger wannabee, Moochie (Malcolm Danare) is cornered, then crushed to death by Christine inside a loading dock (staged by having the front end of a mockup strapped to a jitney); the event preceded by a rather blood-curdling moment of realization, as Moochie stumbles upon Christine inside a parking garage, disquieting echoes of Thruston Harris’ ‘Little Bitty Pretty One’ filling the night air as her V-8 engine stirs to a quiet rumble. It’s the build-up that counts; Carpenter intuitively acknowledging that without it the payoff, - the murders themselves – don’t mean a thing.
If not for its supernatural elements of chrome-plated demonic possession, one could almost classify Christine as a suspense-laden thriller; Dennis and Leigh’s slow unraveling of the mystery behind the car and its hypnotic sway over Arnie (transformed from geek to sex object seemingly overnight by the car’s possessive jealousy and sycophantic adoration) playing very much like a traditional detective story with a fetishistic slant toward ménage à trois.  Much of Carpenter’s inspiration undeniably derives from Stephen King’s prose; the author’s cerebral descriptions of this possession of the car, a real page-turner. But such literary descriptions rarely equate to affecting competency on the movie screen. And yet, at some primal level, Carpenter manages to invite his audience into Christine’s ‘thinking processes’; the car as much a character as any derived from flesh and blood, and increasingly meant to dominate the movie’s landscapes with an unerring sense of tortuous trepidation. Wisely, Carpenter shoots a good deal of Christine under the cover of night. The effect is uncanny as, when witnessed by day, innocuously parked near the edge of a football field with Arnie, newly reincarnated as a pseudo-fifties greaser, she appears as little more than a very fine piece of vintage machinery from another bygone era in the evolution of the American automobile, when artistry in design counted for something.  It is only after dusk, with her headlamps piercing the perpetual fog loosely hanging in the air; her spooky green-glowing dashboard pulsating with an almost nuclear fission-esque radiance, that we can see – or rather, interpret – something is terribly wrong. This car has a mind and a will of its own.
Unlike Stephen King’s novel, our story begins in the present; high school pals, jock – Dennis Guilder and nerd, Arnold Cunningham having formed the unlikeliest of friendships. Under the extra football padding and cleats, Dennis is just an ordinary guy, empathetic to Arnie’s plight; his inability to fit in or get dates; constantly the brunt of a tortuous initiation by high school tough guy and greaser, Buddy Repperton and his gang of hooligans, who turn every shop class into a nightmare. Arnie is convinced his prospects would change if only he had a sweet ride; a chic magnet. But what Arnie becomes attracted to is Christine; a rotted-out shell of a ’58 Fury, rusting in the overgrown backyard of George LeBay (Robert Blossoms). We get the Cole’s Notes overview of the car’s history from George; his late brother, Roland’s mad obsession with the car, even after the death of his wife and daughter inside it; his unerring devotion to Christine until he too was discovered dead in her front seat. It is an ominous precursor and a very bad omen. Only now, will she even start? Dennis doesn’t think so. But against Dennis’ better judgement, Arnie spends every last dollar to buy the car. He is promptly told by his overbearing mother and father Christine can’t stay in their driveway. So Arnie leases a bay at Will Darnell’s (Robert Prosky) Garage; a junkyard overflowing in spare parts Arnie takes advantage of these to restore Christine to her original brilliance. For Arnie, it is a labor of love; one Darnell mildly discourages, unless – of course, the kid is willing to put in some time after school and do chores around the garage.
At the homecoming football game, Dennis and Arnie are both drawn to head cheerleader, Leigh Cabot. Dennis becomes distracted during the final run and, as a result, gets tackled, cracking a few ribs. Meanwhile, Arnie and Leigh become an item. It is not lost on Dennis that Arnie has managed not only to resurrect Christine from the junkyards, but has also morphed himself from four-eyed nerd to a confident greaser with a macho attitude. That evening, Arnie takes Leigh for a ride in Christine to the local drive-in. It is pouring outside. Truth be told, Arnie isn’t particularly interested in watching the movie anyway. But his attempt at a seduction goes badly – or rather, awkwardly. Arnie is sincerely patient. But Christine is severely jealous. So, after Arnie leaves the car to buy some drinks, Christine – through supernatural powers never entirely explained away – attempts to cause Leigh to choke on her burger as Arnie helplessly watches; presumably, mimicking the fates befallen Roland LeBay’s wife and daughter. However, at the last possible moment, Leigh is saved from suffocating by a concerned stranger. Stunned after the incident, Leigh makes Arnie take her home.
However, Buddy Repperton and his boys are not about to let Arnie’s hard work and Christine’s miraculous transformation go quietly into the night. Breaking into Darnell’s Garage after Arnie has gone home for the night, Buddy and his gang lay waste to Christine with their sledgehammers, box-cutters and chains; slashing her carefully restored upholstery, shattering her headlamps, and decimating her transmission and tires. When Arnie arrives to take Christine out for a spin the next day with Dennis and Leigh in tow, he is wounded beyond all consolation either friend can provide. However, a short while later, while still mourning Christine’s loss, Arnie is stirred to notice the car calling to him. In response, Arnie stands before Christine and declares, “Show me.” The car rejuvenates before his very eyes; Christine reborn, only this time with a streak of revenge to exact against all who betrayed her.
A short while later, one of Repperton’s gang, Moochie Welch, is let off near an underpass after hitching a ride on a lonely road. He hears music echoing from a nearby underground garage and notices Christine, in showroom condition, parked nearby with her headlamps turned off. Nervously calling out to Arnie, the car instead revs its engine, pursuing Moochie to an isolated truck loading depot, forcing the front end of her grill into the bay and severing Moochie in half. In the novel, the act is much more vividly described. But John Carpenter has taken his cue, not from Stephen King, or even the Hammer horror films of yore, or even the burgeoning slasher market of ‘then’ today – rather, from the master of suspense; Alfred Hitchcock. We get the implication of a horrific death without actually being forced to squirm through it with blood and guts spewing into our laps. The next day, the school is agog with gossip about Moochie’s death; Arnie callously fluffing it off as just deserts. His cold-hearted pleasure is unsettling to Dennis, who suspects Arnie is perhaps responsible in some way. Challenging his friend, Dennis is somewhat relieved when Arnie confesses he had nothing to do with Moochie’s demise. In point of fact, he probably has not. For Christine is now feeding off of an energy charge more devilish than her obsessive love for Arnie.
Enter Police Det. Rudolph Junkins, suspicious of Arnie and Christine and applying pressure to get a rise out of Arnie. Alas, Arnie has an alibi for the time of Moochie’s murder – much to Dennis’ relief. Junkins isn’t buying it, however. The next night, while Junkins is keeping tabs on Arnie, Christine leaves Darnell’s Garage on her own power and pursues Buddy and his entourage, Richie Trelawney (Steven Tash) and Don Vandenberg (Stuart Charno) as they leave a bar and speed down a lonely highway. At some point, Buddy realizes they are being tailed and attempts to outrun the car, unaware it is Christine. His clumsy escape plan leads them to a dead end at an out-of-the-way filling station. Getting out of his car, Buddy is incensed, realizing the vehicle is Christine. With her windows blacked out, he naturally assumes Arnie is behind the wheel and threatens him with bodily harm. Now, Christine rams Buddy’s car, killing his two cohorts instantly and causing a gas main to rupture. The fuel ignites and the station blows up in a hellish ball of flame. Buddy cannot believe his eyes; more so, as Christine emerges from the firestorm as a ball of flame and pursues him down the open road, eventually catching up to, and running him over.
Sometime later, Christine returns to Darnell’s Garage, smoldering from her near incineration. Darnell witnesses her pulling into the bay. Touching the driver’s side door handle, Darnell is momentarily burned by the heat, but still elects to open the door with the aid of a rag; discovering the interior virtually unscathed by the flames that have blackened the still sizzling exterior paint. He sits in the driver’s seat. Christine’s radio springs to life and Darnell’s body is crushed between the seat and steering wheel. The next day, Arnie discovers Det. Junkins and the police investigating Darnell’s suspicious death; the body still slumped in the front seat, only now, with Christine’s paint job as good as new, showing no ill after effects of her explosive previous night’s excursions. Once again, Arnie cannot be directly implicated in the crime. But Junkins is beginning to formulate a picture of what has been going on.
So, has Dennis, who informs Leigh of his plan to save Arnie from himself. Christine must be destroyed. The plan set, Dennis and Leigh make their way to Darnell’s Garage where Dennis hotwires a bulldozer he intends to use to crush Christine. The plan is for Leigh to wait in Darnell’s office and shut the loading bay door after Christine arrives. Alas, the car has outsmarted the humans; already present and lying in wait under a pile of camouflaged junk. As Leigh approaches the office, Christine lunges toward her. Leigh barely escapes being run over and Christine smashes her front fender against one of the garage’s sturdy cement pillars. While she rejuvenates, Dennis tries to get the bulldozer to spring into action. His difficulties in jump-starting the vehicle allow Christine a second try for Leigh. She plows into Darnell’s office only moments before Leigh manages an escape. Arnie is thrown from Christine’s windshield onto her hood, seemingly unconscious.
However, as Leigh approaches, Arnie suddenly rises up to grab her by the hair. Only then, do both of them realize Arnie has been mortally impaled on a protruding shard of glass from Christine’s windshield. He dies and Leigh, believing the ordeal is at an end, stumbles from the office toward Dennis and the bulldozer. However, Christine is now angrier than ever and determined to kill both Leigh and Dennis. Her attacks are thwarted as Dennis manages to get the bulldozer up and running. While pinning Christine in her place, Dennis rides over her with his heavy treads, effectively crushing the Fury to death. We cut to a shot of Christine emerging from a compactor at Darnell’s junkyard, crumpled and compressed into a cube. Alas, as Arnie, Leigh and Det. Junkins look on, a loose piece of metal begins to creak and separate from the cube, perhaps suggesting Christine is not finished with her reign of terror yet.
At its core, Christine taps into our fundamental curiosity and need to explore the realms of anthropomorphism, once traditionally ascribed only to other living creatures, but more recently accredited to non-animate objects in our modern and post-modern extensions of the horror genre. Christine’s closest cousin is actually TV’s utterly silly and short-lived sitcom, My Mother, The Car (1965-66); highlighting the possession of a 1928 Porter by the new owner’s late matriarch. Interestingly, the parallels between Christine and My Mother, The Car goes eerily beyond this passing reference; the male protagonist in both instances, inexplicably drawn to a dilapidated vehicle rusting away in a junkyard, taken over by a decidedly overbearing female presence who then proceeds to create havoc in his life. In the case of My Mother, The Car, the situations derived are strictly for laughs, perhaps, only mildly unsettling to the man’s romantic ambitions. In Christine’s case, the car’s female presence will not rest until her male owner has been absorbed by her jealousy.
I have read far too many movie reviews about the implausibility of Christine. In its defense, lest we forget it is a horror movie. Name me a single offering from this genre that makes sense; the bulk of our post-modern mangled horror movies perversely relying on the over-simplified premise of scantily clad college coeds and/or oversexed teens fit to be Ginsu-ed by a homicidal maniac with a knife, a power drill, a sledgehammer, a chainsaw…yada, yada, yada; take your pick of flesh and bone dislocating implements. As such, I have the deepest admiration for John Carpenter’s early works in general, and Christine in particular. If nothing else, it is a welcomed departure from the norm. With Christine, Carpenter bucks a trend he ostensibly started with Halloween, The Fog, and, The Thing (1982). Carpenter’s vintage horror is always far more intelligently conceived, emerging with allegoric undertones that most critics casually – and rather callously – overlook, perhaps, because it is too easy – and even more fashionable – to simply dismiss horror in totem as gauche. Yet, in Christine we get a rather ominous foreshadowing of man’s dependence on technology; his inability to conceive evil in a form he, himself, has willed out of steel and spark plugs on the assembly line; the master unknowingly at the mercy of the machine he has created – shades of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. For what is a car, if not stitched and soldered together from spare parts?
And Carpenter has managed to give the twenty some inanimate automobiles used in the filming of Christine a singular and wicked comportment. To do this, he needs an audience able to project menace filtering from Christine’s glowing headlamps; our capacity to sense her demonic soul lurking beneath the hood, almost whispering in hypnotic tongues and voices from under the revving hum of her V-8 engine. Yet, only part of Christine’s manifestation can be credited to our own imaginations. Rather, it is Carpenter who plies us with a rather terrific and fairly concrete sense of some otherworldly apparition trapped within this metal shell. His ability to define evil in tangible terms; to parcel it off in deliberate properties with calculating menace while maintaining equilibrium and legitimacy, is enviable; both to Stephen King’s novel, even as it taps into our collective fear of the unknown. Hitchcock similarly took flocks of innocuous and commonplace seagulls and crows in The Birds (1963) and remade them the epitome of our own internalized dread and transgressions against nature. With Christine, Carpenter illustrates a similar contempt for man’s casual disregard of the classic American automobile, herein simply a hunk of metal with seats and a steering column to get us from points ‘A’ to ‘B’. To this inoffensive and utilitarian vehicle by design, Carpenter applies Stephen King’s intangible precepts of demonic possession in such a way as to allow the invisible to become fairly translucent – if not, entirely solid – on the movie screen. Why do we fear Christine? It’s still just a car with brighter than average headlamps and a slight bit of steam emanating from under the hood. Why is this scary? Perhaps, because Carpenter, unlike King in all his lurid prose, has lured the intangible improbability of demonic possession from its shapeless, dark recesses. The car lives, is dangerous, and, hell-bent on controlling the hand that built it.
There is also a sexual underlay to this prospect, as yet discussed; the buffing, waxing, caressing that goes into a true car aficionados’ primary care; the proper feeding of its internal combustion with the right oil and premium gas; the implied sensuality achieved with the turning of heads to admire a well-looked after roadster, cruising smoothly down the boulevard.  Carpenter gives us all of these fetishistic amours that most any guy, even one casually interested in fast cars, can instantly relate to with the vehicle of his choice. The trick is in tearing all that fastidiousness and respect for an elegant ride asunder; Carpenter affording us the minor rumblings of something more hellacious afoot before unleashing the terror in parceled off increments that steadily ratchet up our loathing for even the concept we could ever ‘become attached’ to a car – as though it might one day be able to turn around and love us back. With Christine, love turns to obsession with a twist of the key in the ignition. In Christine, changing hands equates to death and murder and obsessive lust – the car warped to seduce its human element to satisfy…what? A need? Again, what does a car need except the occasional wash and wax, and, frequent trips to the gas pump and lube station to keep her roadworthy? In Christine’s case, there remains a highly unconventional attachment to the strong hand at the wheel; or rather, a weak hand easily manipulated into believing in its own authority and ownership, long enough to be exploited by the car for her own purpose. In this revelation, Carpenter’s Christine is as much an exploration of one-sided control in any relationship and the unhealthy exertions that result when one partner is unwilling to let the other go without a fight to the finish, or in Christine’s case – the scrapyard.
Christine has had a long, and somewhat convoluted evolution on Blu-ray. It began when Sony, in their infinite wisdom that occasionally baffles, decided to release the movie to ‘limited edition’ third-party distributor, Twilight Time. Fans were disheartened, and both companies thoroughly amazed when Christine sold out its 3000 copy first run in only 48hr. leaving a good many fans disgruntled they could not take advantage and collect this one for themselves. Then, scalpers became involved…as they always do, and copies of Christine began to fetch upwards of $150 to $400 on Ebay, Amazon and the like. So, Sony again pulled the trigger – allowing TT another 3000 run nearly a year later. It too, predictably, flew off the shelves in less than 24hr. with far too many horror aficionados still left out in the cold. So, Sony did the unthinkable, and re-issued this one under their own banner – sans the ‘limited edition’ status. It sold so well Sony licensed Christine out to U.K. distributor, Indicator/Powerhouse for yet another ‘limited edition’ – this one with more bells and whistles (new interviews, audio commentaries, etc.). And now, comes Christine in 4K. Predictably, the image quality this time around improves in all departments, although, not with as much of a quantum leap as one might anticipate – proof positive, Sony hi-def mastering has always been ahead of the game, taking great pains and care to do right by their deeper catalog titles.
So, how does Christine in 4K actually look. Well, film-like, for starters. Colors are predictably punchier. Christine’s fire-engine red gloss has never been more fully saturated than here. The HDR has improved colors, with flesh tones looking just a tad more ‘flesh like’. The other predominant color in the spectrum, that moody ‘blue’ Carpenter is so adept at exploiting to render night scenes spookily lit with a sense of foreboding, is as potently represented. Fine detail pops as it should. The one slightly off-putting aspect of this new 4K transfer: contrast.  Shadow detail seems to fall into a curiously indistinguishable mid-range. There is a slight ‘flatness’ to the darkest scenes with no real inky blacks.  It’s not a deal breaker, in my opinion. But, having spun this 4K disc on two different set-ups, it just doesn’t seem to have the ‘oomph’ or perhaps, ‘layering’ is a better way to describe it. The new Dolby Atmos will astonish in subtle ways, enveloping without being obvious or strained. It offers a truly immersive aural experience. No new extras. Everything from the old Blu-ray gets ported over on ‘the old Blu-ray’ also included in this 4K reissue, including a ‘making of’ and audio commentary.  Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Sunday, September 9, 2018

TUCKER - THE MAN AND HIS DREAM: Blu-ray (Paramount, 1988) Lionsgate Home Video

In that never-ending Bizarro-land universe of ‘what if?’ scenarios it is rather fascinating to reconsider where Francis Ford Coppola’s career might have gone had it not been for The Godfather (1972); his seminal masterpiece that, not unlike George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) seems to have colored critical reception to virtually all of Coppola’s latter-age film projects. Coppola’s diversity as a screenwriter/filmmaker is a rarity in present-day Hollywood. That he should have suffered more than his fair share of financial failures since The Godfather, including the implosion of his much-beloved ambition to recreate the enterprise that ‘was’ old Hollywood with his own studio (the ill-fated American Zoetrope) seems perfectly to align him with his subject matter in Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) – the story of another visionary under siege from the establishment and fate, destined to deny a great man his true legacy. Under Coppola’s tutelage, Tucker: The Man and His Dream emerges as a lovingly concocted, fondly evoked, vintage Kodachrome homage to Ypsilanti-born/would-be auto manufacturer, Preston Tucker. Tucker’s endowment – cut short by bureaucratic red tape, underhanded political intervention, the shortsightedness of America’s ‘Big 3’ automakers, and, a ridiculously concocted trial, engineered to derail his professional reputation with the public – ended his dream cruise for a stream-lined series of automobiles with a decided thud, though an inheritance for quality to far outweigh and outlast any real plans he might have pursued in life.
Coppola’s affinity for the Tucker automobile evolved from childhood recollections; seeing the Tucker Torpedo prototype and remembering its massive PR campaign launched to promote ‘the car of tomorrow…today’. That this promise would remain unfulfilled only fueled Coppola’s fascination with both Tucker and his fanciful creation.  While in film school at UCLA, Coppola began to evolve the genesis of an idea eventually to become this ‘dream project’ bio-pic. After the box office success and international acclaim of The Godfather Part II (1974) Coppola announced official plans to commence Tucker as an American Zoetrope production, with himself as writer, producer and director, casting Marlon Brando as his man of vision. Purchasing the rights from the Tucker Estate two years later, Coppola next approached Jack Nicholson and Burt Reynolds to partake. Still, nothing crystalized. Even more wildly creative, Coppola had large-scale plans to make Tucker as a weird musicalized hybrid of Citizen Kane (1941), Kabuki theater and the works of Bertolt Brecht; the narrative, ballooning into a multifaceted account of genius denied, with Preston Tucker as its Cartier-styled centerpiece, in a pantheon of other inventor greats, including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Harvey Samuel Firestone, Andrew Carnegie and Nikola Tesla.
During this early gestation, Coppola approached luminaries from the musical genre, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Gene Kelly. All were enthusiastic for it.  Alas, the fiscal implosion of American Zoetrope, leveled by the epic failure of Coppola’s other elaborate musical, One from the Heart (1982), and, his constant feuding with Paramount over his costly desire to make a musical from The Cotton Club (1984, but emerging as a straight drama, despite Coppola having already shot the musical sequences), forced Coppola to momentarily abandon Tucker. Instead, he took an offer to direct the ill-fated Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) for Columbia/Tri-Star. From here, Coppola’s career entered a fallow period; his chance reunion with dear friend and former Zoetrope alumni, George Lucas on the set of Michael Jackson’s prolonged music video, Captain EO (1986) reviving Tucker, with Lucas to serve as its executive producer. Lucas also offered Coppola a free hand of his film-making companies, Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic. As the musical had since fallen out of favor, Lucas coaxed Coppola to re-envision Tucker as an homage to Frank Capra; the doomed ‘American Dream’ narrative offset by Dean Tavoularis’ candy-flossed production design, Alex Tavoularis’ nimble art direction, Armin Ganz’ finely detailed set decoration and Milena Canonero’s evocative costuming; all of it, exemplars and shown off to their best advantage by Vittorio Storaro’s richly saturated cinematography.
Viewing Tucker: The Man and His Dream, one is instantly and magically teleported back into the late 1940’s. Were that every movie, set in a different time period from its own, could receive such meticulous attention. Apart from its spectacular use of the widescreen aperture (Cinemascope, and most assuredly Panavision, did not exist in 1948), Tucker just feels like a movie made in the forties and, even more miraculously, in vintage Technicolor, expertly lit and supremely staged with one eye-catching composition layered onto the next. Buoyed by enthusiastic support from Tucker’s children and grandchildren, excitement for the project dampened when screenwriter, Arnold Schulman was forced by the WGA to share co-authoring credit with David Seidler who, by Coppola’s admission, “did not write a single word of the script I actually used to make the movie.” The other snag for Coppola was getting any major studio to fund Tucker, budgeted by Coppola and Lucas at $24 million. Universal, Disney, TriStar and Paramount all balked, urging Coppola to pare it down to $15 million. Distributors also questioned Lucas’ participation after his back-to-back commercial and critical failures: Labyrinth and Howard the Duck (both made and released in 1986). In response, and owing to his lifelong friendship with Coppola, Lucas elected to write a blank check to cover the entire cost himself.  
In hindsight, a sense of family permeates every frame of Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Tucker’s children were interviewed extensively by Coppola for the project, the siblings affording star, Jeff Bridges unprecedented access to home movies of their father; also, the loan-out of Preston Tucker’s black pearl ring and cufflinks to sport as part of his wardrobe. Bridges’ performance epitomizes Tucker’s ebullience and frustrations; a real man’s monumental ability to overcome adversity and emerge, if not victorious – then decidedly, unbowed by the daunting forces conspiring against him. On an entirely different level, Coppola felt an even deeper sense of loyalty towards Tucker’s descendants. His father, Carmine, had been an original investor in the Tucker Corp. and had even owned one of its first cars. Lastly, the director’s dedication “To Gio, who loved cars” proved a bittersweet epitaph for Coppola, whose eldest son was gruesomely decapitated in a Memorial Day boating accident in 1986. Astonishingly, 47 of the 51 Tucker automobiles built in 1948 have survived the passage of time – lovingly preserved by a group of concerted preservationists. Even more ironically, they remain in exceptional working condition – disproving Preston Tucker’s pundits, and, erroneous claims made by the press at the time of his trial he had built his prototypes from a caliginous heap of junkyard scrap. Of these, 21 cars were reunited, on loan from members of the Tucker Automobile Club. Three were actually used to depict the raceway crash in the movie; the rollover stunt performed by a modified Studebaker. While professing to take place across America – including Michigan, New York and Chicago, and to keep costs in line, virtually all of Tucker was shot in California. Eager to secure Coppola’s participation on a third ‘Godfather’ picture, Paramount sweetened the deal by reimbursing Lucas and covering the rest of Tucker’s production costs.  
Reigning his artistic license, Coppola’s reinterpretation of this nearly forgotten chapter in history is basically authentic to Preston Tucker’s life and times, taking liberties only in its compression of time, while using the ambiance of Tucker’s own marketing campaigns to bookend and frame the various vignettes with Tucker’s can-do spirit, simultaneously to omit most of his more privately held hardships. For sticklers who profess a love of film, only to deconstruct it and count the mistakes, historical inaccuracies do exist. For instance, Tucker had five children. We only see four in the movie. The real Tucker never had an assembly line. The movie’s condensed timeline takes place over one heady year of meteoric highs and disastrous lows. In reality, Tucker’s odyssey took four years to implode. The Tucker Company’s president, Robert Bennington was actually on the creator’s side. As Coppola felt the movie needed a more concrete villain, Dean Goodman’s reincarnation of Bennington became sly, enterprising and in cahoots with the dark political forces about to unravel Tucker’s organization from the inside. Conversely, the real Alex Tremulis (on screen played by Elias Koteas), and who also served as this movie’s historical consultant, was the Tucker Torpedo’s stylist, not its chief engineer, the contributions of fellow designer, Philip Egan, totally ignored. While one may argue against such alterations as slander to the reputations of certain real-life participants, it is pretty hard to ignore or under-appreciate how Coppola’s ‘finessing’ of the truth has crystalized Tucker’s sheer entertainment value. This Tucker is a glowing/flowing tribute to the cockeyed optimist in all of us.
Tucker: The Man and His Dream begins earnestly with a prologue loosely based on one of the Tucker Corp.’s newsreels. We find Detroit engineer, Preston Tucker (Jeff Bridges) a bon vivant in the best tradition of the ostentatious and uniquely American visionary. He races through the country byways in his military-styled armored tank, merely to take his family on a trip into town for ice cream, and, brings back a litter of full-grown Dalmatians overflowing from the backseat of his new convertible.  Despite the War Department’s rejection of his tank – as being ‘too fast’ for modern warfare – Tucker has made a mint, building gun turrets for the U.S. Air Force inside his modest ‘barn/laboratory’.  The Tuckers are inspired to succeed by their patriarch; Pres’ ever-devoted wife, Vera (Joan Allen) and their eldest son, Preston Jr. (Christian Slater) thoroughly entrenched in whatever adventure he plans to indulge. And what an adventure it will prove to be.  At war’s end, Tucker proposes going into business building ‘the car of tomorrow…today’; the Tucker Torpedo – revolutionary in its rear-engine design and safety features, including seat belts, disc brakes, swivel head lamps, and, pop-out shatter-proof windshield. Aside: virtually all of Tucker’s innovations – then denounced by his competition as scatterbrain – have been implemented into modern-day automotive design.
To envision such an automobile is one thing, to build its prototype, quite another. Tucker will need more than a dream to will his plans into a reality. So, he hires designer, Alex Tremulis, newly discharged from the army. Tucker also enlists New York financier, Abe Karatz (Martin Landau) to work out the contracts and money. Tucker can overlook Karatz’s past – he has a prison record for embezzlement. Raising the necessary funds through a stock issue, Tucker and Karatz acquire the idled Dodge Chicago Plant and rechristen it their hub for manufacturing. Abe also hires Robert Bennington as President of the newly amalgamated Tucker Corporation. Bennington’s participation will be fraught with inner-office conflict as his alliance with the company’s aged Board of Directors results in an outright rejection of Tucker’s original blueprints. While Bennington would have Tucker believe his dreams are too impractical, the implication is Bennington has already been bought and paid for in some way by political and business interests conspiring to do in the Tucker Corp. even before it can get off the ground.
Nevertheless, Tucker marches headstrong into this quagmire, going over Bennington’s head and whipping up mass hysteria through clever marketing and a nationwide tour to promote an automobile he has yet to actually build. Working around the clock to meet the official debut of the Tucker Torpedo, last-minute setbacks, including leaky oil valves and a small gasoline fire backstage, narrowly threaten to derail the big day. The press sneak backstage and capture this chaos for posterity, eager to emasculate Tucker’s big moment with their downright contempt for both the man and his automobile.  Their point is moot because the public in attendance that afternoon absolutely goes wild over what they see. Despite all of the setbacks that led to this glorious moment, and the flaws still inherent in the design of his dream car, the Torpedo is a massive and instant hit with the public. Still unsure of Tucker’s ability to pull off the technical and financial specs of his campaign, but also quite certain they want no part of his planned evolution in automotive engineering – especially if it succeeds – Detroit’s Big Three automakers engage Michigan Senator Homer S. Ferguson (Lloyd Bridges) to keep a watchful eye on the upstart in their midst; also, to set up every possible legal roadblock to further delay and even prevent Tucker from achieving his dream.  Mercifully, during this stalemate, visionary recluse, Howard Hughes (Dean Stockwell) embraces Tucker, sending his private plane to bring him and his youngest son, Noble (Corin Nemec) to his aircraft manufacturing site for a quirky consultation. Hughes gives Tucker several solid pieces of advice: first, to purchase air-cooled motors that can sustain the steel Tucker needs; second, to employ small but powerful helicopter engines to refuel his power plant.
Informed by sorrowful Abe, but Cheshire-grinning Bennington, all of the creative decisions in the Tucker organization are now under his control, Tucker nevertheless modifies a new engine and builds the car he promised the public in his private tool and die shop. This prototype is rigorously tested, deliberately to failure. Even its crash proves successful, as the driver is not thrown, nor even injured in the rollover. Alas, Ferguson now lowers the boom on Tucker. A story is leaked to the press that the Torpedo is an engineering failure, and worse; that Tucker has used government funds secured for the manufacture of his automobile for personal, lavish living expenses. Vera and the family rally to Tucker’s aide, collecting their itemized receipts to prove every last cent afforded the Tucker Corp. by the government has actually gone into the engineering of the car. Nevertheless, Tucker is confronted with allegations of stock fraud by Ferguson and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.  Realizing his past will likely be used to discredit the company, Karatz resigns. But Tucker discovers a loophole in the proceedings. If he can provide a minimum of 50 Tucker Torpedoes before the loan is called in he will have met the basic requirements for manufacturing. The SEC cannot take away his company. Having already built 47 at the time of his indictment, Tucker now encourages Preston Jr., Alex Tremulis and his chief mechanic, Jimmy Sakuyama (Mako) to feverishly complete the quota in time in order to save the company.
The press’ jaundiced view of Tucker’s reputation slowly takes hold and taints popular opinion against him. Judiciously defended by his attorney, Kirby (Jay O. Sanders), Tucker watches as the prosecution paints a picture of rank abuse of power and, with even broader strokes, smears Tucker’s name as a man teetering - not on the cusp of genius, but shifty-eyed insanity.  At some point, this tidal wave of unfounded accusations shifts in Tucker’s favor. After the prosecution tries to silence Tucker for speaking the truth, the jury’s foreman (Al Nalbandian) demands the case be heard on both sides to better inform the verdict. Only Ferguson has had the documentation altered so it appears as though Tucker did not meet his quota of 50 cars before the legalities of his deadline were up, thus ensuring whatever the outcome at trial, Tucker has already lost his company. In reply, Tucker orders all 50 Torpedoes to the courthouse on the last day of his trial; proof he never intended to defraud either the government or the public of anything. Against Kirby’s wishes, Tucker stands in as his own defense, making an impassioned speech to the jury about the promise of ‘free market enterprise’. Theoretically, it was put into place precisely to bolster entrepreneurs like him.
Tucker further suggests that if ‘big business’, in an effort to preserve itself, continues to stymie true visionaries, it will eventually stagnate American ingenuity and bring the nation’s best hope for prosperity to a screeching halt. Tucker now speaks of an age when America’s former enemies will dictate its future in consumer goods and services; a message all too ominously to have come to fruition since. The eloquence in stating his ethics to the jury is enough to sway them in his favor. Having lost the war, Tucker has at least managed to preserve his dignity. Ebullient at the outcome of his exoneration, Tucker invites the entirely courtroom to partake of a victory lap in one of his 50 Tucker Torpedoes parked outside. The public line the curb to catch a glimpse of ‘the car of tomorrow – today’.  Even Judge Igoe (Joseph Miksak) is impressed by the sight of so many Tuckers lining the curb. The movie concludes with a re-invigorated Tucker and his family leading this processional of Tucker Torpedoes down Chicago’s Main Street, crowds cheering his personal victory on all sides. In the movie’s epilogue we learn Tucker never achieved his dream of mass producing the Torpedo. His company in ruin, Preston Tucker would die of lung cancer a mere seven years after this exuberant day.
Tucker: The Man and His Dream represents Francis Ford Coppola at his extraordinary film-making best. That the picture miserably failed to recoup its outlay upon release – barely grossing $19 million – was perhaps less devastating to Coppola then, as he had weathered many such storms. In hindsight, Coppola’s post-Godfather movies were the victims of critics’ expectations he would simply continue to make more of the same.  Any deviation was judged as somehow inferior. How sad. Today, artistry in film is in very short supply – an absence amplified by Hollywood’s nervous obsession to make nothing but ‘guaranteed hits’. Hence, remakes, sequels, prequels and franchise film-making have taken over the industry, and, at the expense of advancing any project that would even hint of the proverbial gamble. Yet, Tucker: The Man and His Dream is a story about just such a gamble – and, even more ironically – one, never to pay off.
Even so, the picture is about so much more than its budding mogul and his pet project. It is a cause celebre, made by a director old enough to recall, and with fondness, a ‘rose-colored’ affinity for a way of life a ‘once upon a time’ America naively enjoyed without actually appreciating for its uniqueness in its own time. Tucker: The Man and His Dream is a celebration of good ole-fashioned American ‘know-how’, long since replaced in today’s bean-counting business model with complacency, and, most lethally of all, a quaintness to discount the way it was as somehow hopelessly flawed and utterly mistaken in its viewpoint. Under today’s heavy-handed liberalism, cultural diversity has been propped up as ‘the better’ to this heady quest for the best and brightest; a condemnation against any individual can-do spirit, hungry to succeed in life on its own terms; to be bold and attempt something never before tried, or, to actually pursue ‘life, liberty and happiness.’ Tucker: The Man and His Dream is a picture about such an individual: like Ford, or Edison or even Walt Disney – men who knew their own minds and used them for the betterment of all…in spite of ourselves.
Tucker: The Man and His Dream arrives on Blu-ray via Lionsgate in a 1080p transfer that positively glows and, like the movie, is pitch perfect from start to finish. There is really nothing more to add: colors – bold and fully saturated, show off the exquisiteness of Vittorio Storaro’s cinematography. Contrast – absolutely bang-on, with clean whites, pristine blacks and an astonishing level of fine detail revealed throughout. Film grain – looking indigenous to its source and ideally realized. No hints of edge enhancement. No undue DNR applied. In short, a reference quality disc. The audio…hmmm. While I detected no dropouts, there are several occasions where dialogue is presented at such a low whispered hush I could barely discern it at regular listening levels. Also, there are a few instances where music and SFX seem to be competing with, rather than augmenting the dialogue. For the most part, and in 5.1 DTS, it sounds just fine, if hardly extraordinary. Extras include a brief introduction from Coppola, as well as an audio commentary, a rough assembly of stock footage rechristened as a ‘making of’, and a vintage Tucker newsreel to promote the actual car. Virtually all of these extras were part of Paramount’s DVD release in 2004. Aside: it has taken far too long for Tucker: The Man and His Dream to come to Blu-ray. But now it has, and, in a hi-def reincarnation worthy of your coin. A great stocking stuffer for the pending holiday season, suitable for anyone who loves old cars, old movies, geniuses in general or just America itself. God bless and buy with confidence. Now, might we also encourage Paramount to get busy remastering The Greatest Show on Earth, Ordinary People, Six Weeks, The Carpetbaggers Roman Holiday, and many others still MIA from Blu-ray? Bottom line: very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)