Tuesday, October 21, 2014

AGAINST ALL ODDS: Blu-ray (Columbia Pictures 1984) Image Entertainment

A few rarely seen exotic locations, two uber-steamy sex scenes with co-stars, Rachel Ward and Jeff Bridges, their tanned, taut and very naked flesh pressed up against one another, and the prerequisite super-duper car chase, played out with a flaming red and midnight black Ferrari attempts to mask the artistic vices in Taylor Hackford’s Against All Odds (1984); a misguided, undernourished and narratively convoluted remake of Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), itself a variation on Daniel Mainwaring’s gritty crime novel, Build My Gallows High. At the very least, Tourneur’s adaptation had retained Mainwaring’s overall dramatic arc, infusing the film with all the vintage trappings of an elegant film noir. Superficially, Hackford has kept his remake a fairly stylish affair; somewhat dated now in all its California-noir accoutrements; the sun-scape of Mayan hovels, photographed in Chichen Itza, and their even more exotic ancient temples at Tulum, juxtaposed with slick, big-haired creature comforts, populated by mindless sex kittens and preening yuppie trust fund babies, cavorting inside L.A.’s Palace nightclub or tossing sweaty volleyballs along the sand-baked peninsula of California’s Manhattan Beach. It all looked absolutely ravishing; with cameos for Jane Greer and Paul Valentine; alumni from Tourneur’s decidedly scaled down original. Alas, in the final analysis, Against All Odds lacks the one essential ingredient to make everything click: star power.
Tourneur’s film was blessed with Robert Mitchum - a commanding presence, Kirk Douglas – showing off the sort of beady-eyed criminality that would become his stock and trade for nearly a decade, and finally, Jane Greer as the deliciously kitten-faced, but cat-clawing minx, set to ensnare and devour both men in her web of lies. Hackford’s remake placed its bets on setting instead of character. It also makes several egregious misfires along the way; Eric Hughes’ screenplay deviating too much from Tourneur’s classic to become one in its own right. Mitchum’s world-weary gumshoe is replaced in the remake by Jeff Bridges’ arrogant dinosaur, Terry Brogan; a star quarterback with a bum shoulder and razor-back attitude, showing more brawn than brain where Rachel Ward’s pouty princess, Jessie Wyler is concerned. Looking every inch the leading man (thanks to a crash course diet and exercise regime that shed nearly 20lbs., turning pudge into beefcake) Bridges nevertheless cannot muster up enough of the intangible ‘stud quality’ to make the illusion stick for very long; resorting to a series of pithy, wounded retorts after discovering Jessie has gone back – or rather, been reeled in by the oily racketeer, gambler and nightclub owner, Jake Wise (James Woods).
Donald E. Thorin’s cinematography gives the film its edgy appeal; transforming the Yucatán peninsula, Isla Mujeres, and Cozumel, Mexico into steamy enclaves of tropical eroticism. His splendid camerawork also lends an air of foreboding to the Hollywood/L.A. locations dominating the second half of the picture. In retrospect, Hackford is trying too hard to evoke a narrative and visual style that by 1984 had not been seen on the screen since the 1940’s; the look of a vintage noir, a queer fit for the glossy go-go eighties; its steel and concrete jungle never quite adopting that tangibly haunted pang of urban decay feeding off its humanity.  
Still, another blunder is the lover’s triangle. In Tourneur’s classic, Kathy Moffat (Jane Greer) is a grotesquely unsympathetic femme fatale; her paralytic stare as she pulls the trigger to dispense with an unwanted inconvenience, a truly vicious act of cold-blooded murder. Greer’s unrepentant mantrap is, in fact, one of the irrefutable highlights of Out of the Past. Against All Odds suffers from the absence of such a strong character; Rachel Ward’s sweat-stained harpy, looking decidedly unrefreshed from her most recent flagrante delicto with Terry inside a Mayan temple, seemingly incapable of emitting anything greater than spoiled, sulking greed and abject panic as she plugs Terry’s best friend and mentor, Hank Sully (Alex Karras) with his own gun.
It isn’t entirely Ward’s fault, though it remains a little hard to think of The Thorn Birds’ Meggie Cleary capable of killing anyone – even with her more warrior-like stance and severely chopped tresses showcased in Against All Odds. Yet, the screenplay’s attempt to transform Ward from fiery vixen to wiry, conflicted sex kitten is not altogether successful.  Ward actually seems rather clumsy and uncomfortable throughout most of the movie, tossing off her lines with a low stammer or tear-stained visage. Like Jeff Bridges, Rachel Ward looks every inch the star – or, at least, what was expected of one back in the 1980’s. Naked or sheathed in Michael Kaplan’s costumes, these two make for some fairly striking eye candy. The tragedy, of course, is that neither seem to be able to act their way out of the proverbial paper bag; Bridges holding his own but never rising to a level beyond mere competency. His petulant love-struck puppy, licking wounds after Jessie has gone back to Jake, reeks of adolescent fancy denied, rather than full-blooded mature masculinity, brutalized and emasculated by this revelation.
It’s this sort of ‘wet behind the ears’ take on human sexuality, the act itself procured between decidedly improper strangers, that really weighs the movie down as we segue into the convoluted third act; Hackford apparently aware he is in trouble, puffing out the piece with an ill-timed big and splashy production number, ‘My Male Curiosity’ – featuring a zoot-suited Kid Creole (a.k.a. Thomas August Darnell Browder) and his ‘Coconuts’ (a trio of big-haired pseudo-Rockettes, who should have paid a little more attention to the unshaved hair dangling from their exposed pits than their teased and tweezed bleached blonde tresses shaped like spikey haired football helmets).  Taylor Hackford is a fine storyteller, as movies like 1982’s An Officer and a Gentleman and 1995’s Dolores Claiborne attest. But with wooden performances from his central cast and the unnecessary insertions of a few needless – if chart-topping – pop tunes (Phil Collin’s ‘Take A Look At Me Now’ becoming the movie’s anthem) Hackford isn’t cutting the mustard on Against All Odds - or even the cheese, for that matter – the odor left behind, one of quiet desperation.
On a $13,000,000 budget, Against All Odds grossed $25,000,000 domestically; a marginally impressive money maker for Columbia Pictures. Alas, the film has no staying power; its cardboard cutout stick figures, utterly disposable and easily purged from the memory once the houselights have come up; the movie’s incessant cling to then trending pop tunes badly dating it ever since. And the story, such as it is, makes no sense at all. We’re not talking about John Huston’s The Big Sleep (1946); a classic noir in which none of the pieces fit and yet everything seems to click anyway; primarily because of the sensual on-screen chemistry between co-stars Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. And lest we forget that Bogie and Bacall turn up the heat without shedding a single strip of clothing! If only to have had the good fortune of such kinetic attraction between Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward there might have been something in Against All Odds to pin the movie’s smoldering mantra of distasteful sex in a place where not only the janitors could admire it.
Hackford does give us some marvelous set pieces; Jophery Brown and Bill Burton’s doubling for Bridges and Woods in the harrowing car chase down the narrow, winding corridors of Beverly Hills, is a first-rate tour de force; Hackford placing himself in harm’s way in the camera car, the triage of vehicles careening in and out of oncoming traffic and truly raising the blood pressure more than a notch or two. In another sequence, stunt man extraordinaire (but then novice) Carl Ciarfalio (doubling for a deceased Alex Karras) performs a dead fall off a seventy-five foot precipice into a murky lagoon; the belly flop knocking him momentarily unconscious, but nevertheless earning him his stripes to rise to the top of his profession. For what it’s worth, the Kid Creole production number, clumsily hacked together and frequently interrupted with inserts of Terry and Jake at each other’s throats, is mildly amusing for its audacious display of hairy female armpits and misappropriated James Brown moves; Creole, looking as though he’s raided Cab Calloway’s wardrobe for the evening.
However, there are too many loose ends left at the end of the movie; too many good performers utterly wasted and/or lost in the shuffle. There is, for example, no good reason to draw our attention to the likes of Terry’s controlling matriarch, Mrs. Wyler; Jane Greer – looking surprisingly youthful and vibrant (despite her gray hair) – but given short shrift in a walk-on part any B-grade middle-aged actress could have filled without drawing attention to herself: ditto for Richard Widmark’s truncated appearance as the family’s looming attorney, Bill Caxton. Greer and Widmark are old hams with more to deliver than what they’ve been offered. The appearance of Swoozie Kurtz – as a frizzy-haired ‘his gal Friday’ – and Saul Rubinek - the disreputable pseudo-villain/fop, Steve Kirsch – do little to augment the story. Both are making their movie debut in Against All Odds. But neither makes much of a ripple; more distraction than solid, integral characters needed to propel the story along.    
Hackford has trouble breaking into the point of his story. In Out of the Past, the narrative flashback structure greatly benefited from Robert Mitchum’s voice-over narration; one of the main staples of film noir. Hackford opens on a series of cryptic visuals; Terry Brogan driving through the streets of Cozumel, confronting its citizenry on foot with a snapshot taken of Jessie Wyler seated next to Jake Wise. He’s unsuccessful at learning the whereabouts of this mysterious heiress; Hackford regressing into a clumsy and prolonged flashback to explain away the particulars. We see Terry Brogan as the high paid quarterback for L.A.’s Outlaws – a team that hasn’t won a single game all season. The owner, Mrs. Wyler isn’t pleased. Actually, she’s not even concerned; her interests presently invested in a new housing development project met with considerable resistance from local Greenpeacers, fronted by activist, Bob Soames (Allen Williams). All this is back story of a kind; ditto for the head coach (Bill McKinney) putting Terry through the ringer with a tackling dummy. Just come off a fresh and supposedly career-ending shoulder injury, Terry is asked to prove himself. But assistant trainer, Hank Sully is a good friend. He hates to see Terry ruin his chances for a comeback this way.
There’s a light skirmish of words between Hank and Bill Caxton, the latter, a mouthpiece for Mrs. Wyler. Terry is unceremoniously cut from the team without explanation, barging into Steve Kirsch’s office for some answers – or, at least, sound legal advice – after Steve refuses to take any of Terry’s phone calls. Kirsch’s secretary, Edie, attempts to do some damage control. Actually, she’s a groupie with a severely transparent crush on Terry who, even out of his shoulder pads and spandex, cuts an impressively handsome figure. It’s no use, however. Terry has revenge on his mind. It won’t keep either. In the meantime, an old ‘friend’, Jake Wise offers Terry a chance to make a cool $30,000; chump change compared to what he was being paid to play for the Outlaws, but a definite means to an end to shore up his ailing cash flow and keep his lavish lifestyle afloat. It seems Jake’s girl, none other than Mrs. Wyler’s spoiled daughter, Jessie, has run off to parts unknown after stabbing Jake in the leg with a letter opener. Jake’s a notorious racketeer with his fingers stuck in too many pies; his latest endeavor – The Palace nightclub – a hip and trendy place where the elite meet to compete.
After a perilous game of cat and mouse through the congested streets, Jake proposes to send Terry in search of Jessie; not to avenge the wound that has left him dependent on a cane for the time being, but because he wants her back in his bed. Terry isn’t interested – at first. But then he thinks of how such an investigation might place him in closer proximity to Mrs. Wyler and Caxton; using their accidental/on purpose ‘chance meeting’ at the country club to beg for his old job back. Too bad, Mrs. Wyler makes it perfectly clear how disposable she considers him. She doesn’t need another aging football star. As far as she’s concerned, Terry’s best days as a player are behind him. But she will sweeten this bitter pill to swallow by offering Terry twice Jake’s stipend if he will bring Jessie back to L.A. for her. Words are exchanged, and Terry allows his arrogance to overtake and ruin his chances to take Mrs. Wyler’s money instead of Jake’s.  Sully forewarns that accepting Jake’s wager can only end in tears – possible, worse.  Sully campaigns to find Terry a coaching job. But Terry bungles this too, showing up to Mrs. Wyler’s fund raiser and assaulting Kirsch; tossing him into the bandstand after the two have words about Steve’s betrayal of their friendship. Again, all this is back story to the actual plot – and most of it fairly inconsequential to what will follow it. Terry storms off in a rage, informing Sully he has decided to take Jake up on his offer.
We return to the present – or rather, the point where we were when the credits first rolled: Terry locating Jessie in Cozumel. However, Terry’s ‘I’m too sexy for my shirt’ routine doesn’t win him any points with Jessie. She’s cold and aloof and becoming more suspicious by the moment. His offer to take her to dinner is dismissed outright. Now Terry asks if Jessie’s aversion is to football players, tacos or beer. “I like tacos and beer” she dispassionately explains before speeding away on a motor scooter. The next day Terry tries to wear down Jessie’s resolve once again. His ill timing is compounded when he fails to meet the ferry leaving with Jessie on board for a remote island getaway; Terry chartering a speed boat posthaste to make chase across the open waters. He finds Jessie perched atop the Mayan ruins and flirts with her again. She is belittling and belligerent, and Terry – having had enough – tells her what she can do with herself in no uncertain terms.
Nothing excites a woman like Jessie like rejection. And so, a short while later a shirtless Terry is surprised to find Jessie tapping on his hotel door. The two verbally spar again, but this time it leads to an invitation from Jessie; to her private hideaway where she’s been staying ever since leaving America. In this remote tropical oasis the two become lovers; Jessie confiding her fears about going home and Terry promising to protect and cover for her. He lies to Jake about not having located Jessie just yet, but then confides in Jessie, how Jake knows about his shaving points off an important game to cover a gambling debt. Jessie and Terry share a few blissful weeks together, spending long hours naked in each other’s arms. Ah, but then Sully arrives; another stooge involved in Jake’s sports syndicate and sent by Jake to investigate; catching the lovers in their latest bump and grind inside a darkened temple at Chichen Itza. Wielding a pistol, Sully demands Terry turn Jessie over to him. Terry attempts to chivalrously defend Jessie’s honor. But Sully’s an old pro with at least thirty solid pounds on him. The men spar, Terry losing badly until Jessie seizing the discarded pistol. She fatally shoots Sully, who dies in Terry’s arms. Terry insists they go to the police, but Jessie shrieks about how naïve Terry is and what will become of them if they confess their complicity to a murder. No one, least of all the corrupt local officials, will believe it was self-defense.
So, Terry reluctantly carries Sully’s corpse to a nearby lagoon, weighing the body down with a heavy rock and tossing him over the edge of a high precipice. Returning to his hotel suite, Terry discovers Jessie has fled. He returns to L.A. without her, ready to tell Jake his trip abroad was not a success. Too bad for Terry, Jake already knows this. How? Why from the horse’s mouth; Jessie having returned to his side.  Jake now orders Terry to break into Kirsch’s office and steal some incriminating documents for him; Kirsch also a part of the points-shaving enterprise. Alas, this too is a setup, Terry discovering Kirsch already dead in his office; planted there by a security guard hired to shoot Terry, presumably for committing the murder himself. Instead, Terry manages a daring escape; hiding Kirsch’s body and hooking up with Edie at a nearby local watering hole. He confides what has happened and she tells him about a secret box in Kirsch’s office. This contains the incriminating documents about the entire syndicate.  In one of the clumsiest entanglements, Terry forces Edie to return with him to Kirsch’s office to retrieve these files; encountering a pair of corrupt security guards, but managing yet another successful escape with the files in tow.
Terry now confronts Jake at The Palace nightclub, seemingly for no other reason than for director, Hackford to stage the aforementioned production number with Kid Creole; also to show off the cleverness in Richard Lawrence’s production design; effectively combining Jake’s office set with inserts of Creole’s performance, repeatedly glimpsed through a frosted art deco two-way mirror. In Hackford’s original edit, there ought to have been a scene to follow this in which Terry jealously observes through a window as Jake makes love to Jessie; waiting for Jake’s post-coital departure before bursting into the bedroom to ravage Jessie himself. Apparently, to avoid an R-rating, Hackford was forced to cut Terry’s tawdry observations, the scene (as it exists in the film) incongruously switching from the nightclub confrontation to the moment where Jessie – already alone – is confronted by Terry, who takes his liberties as he pleases. It should be pointed out that the sex scenes in Against All Odds are handled with a general and marginally cruel distaste for the nudity: the…uh… passion, played with the venom of two feral cats, recklessly forcing themselves on each other. There’s even more contempt at play during the aforementioned final encounter; the mutual craving almost devolving into a pseudo-rape; Jessie given to her hunger to possess Terry for what will ultimately be their last time together.
Jessie professes her love for Terry, confiding in Caxton her intimate knowledge of Jake’s spurious racketeering, also his complicity in Kirsch’s murder. What Jessie is unaware of is Caxton is actually the puppet master of the whole syndicate. Caxton sets up a midnight rendezvous with Terry at Mrs. Wyler’s construction site where he intends to murder Terry and make it look like an accident. Instead, Terry manages to disarm Caxton’s henchman, former assistant coach and Jake’s thug muscle, Tommy (Dorian Harewood). Terry barters Jake’s life for the files. When Caxton suggests it would be a fair trade, Jake pulls a gun on Jessie, forcing Terry to emerge from his hiding place and drop his gun. Jessie seizes the opportunity and murders Jake instead. Blackmailed by Caxton for Jake and Sully’s murders, Jessie is forced to return to her mother’s side or face the prospect of going to jail.  A short while later, Terry attends the inaugural of Mrs. Wyler’s construction project; casting flirtatious glances at Jessie from across the way, much to Mrs. Wyler’s chagrin. It seems she has been instrumental at providing Terry with an offer to play pro football in Miami.  “Remember, Brogan,” Caxton reminds Terry, “You’re out of her life.” But Terry knows better, replying, “I figure that's up to her. You're not going to control us forever.”
Against All Odds has its’ moments, but they never quite come together, perhaps because sex and car chases are poor substitutes for substance, regardless of the stylish nature by which each is brought to the big screen. Classifying Taylor Hackford’s efforts as an ‘erotic thriller’ doesn’t give the movie cache, class or star power; the latter absolutely necessary to make the enterprise click as a whole. The biggest transgressor against making any of it memorable is the performances. There’s not a standout among them; the players going through mere motions. The most that can be said of the chemistry between Jeff Bridges and Rachel Ward is they look good when pressed up against one another, like a pair of peel and stick dolls from a Colorforms play set; perhaps one that only Fredericks of Hollywood would approve. In the role originated by Kirk Douglas, James Woods – though a generally fine actor – is a wan ghost of his predecessor. Pasting Woods’ gaunt frame into a skin-hugging black wife-beater during the moment of confrontation between Jake and Terry only serves to exaggerate the meagerness of his physicality. True, like Douglas’ Whit in Out of the Past, Woods’ Jake Wise is meant to be ‘lesser than’. He rules by fear. But unlike Douglas, Woods isn’t believable in the part; the penultimate showdown at the construction site revealing a scared little man, cowering when pushed into a dead end situation.
The other big mistake for this remake is keeping both Jessie and Terry alive to rue the day they ever met, but to continue to be stirred by the remnant sting of their obnoxious lust for one another. Jacques Tourneur’s classic wisely dispatched every ne'er-do-well to their untimely – but justly deserved – end. Hackford’s finale is as impossibly unsatisfying as one might expect; Terry going off to wreck his body for another team as its organ grinder’s monkey – albeit, a high-priced one – and a tearful, and seemingly reformed, Jessie left to lament the loss of the only man who could show her a good time and really mean it; her doleful gazes caught across a crowded room and played to the syrupy strains of Phil Collin’s ‘Take A Look At Me Now’. Concluding the movie on this pop ballad, played under the end credits, leaves a truly sour note behind; the song’s twang ‘upbeat’ promise of hope and love springing eternal, possibly made renewable somewhere in the near future (most likely after Jessie has managed to pump another bullet into Caxton or drive his car over the edge of a cliff and poison her own mother with some arsenic-spiked herbal tea), is much too plucky and promising to cap off these terrible peoples’ truly sordid lives. Not only is it untrue to the original film, but it is essentially unconvincing to the remake.
There ought to have been no light at the end of this darkened tunnel; something Tourneur understood in Out of the Past. The original movie begins and ends under the cover of night. Against All Odds betrays its noir roots by starting and finishing in the stark pall of California sunlight. Have we been teased into the proverbial happy ending or merely betrayed by Hackford into thinking Jessie and Terry will have a future together someday; one that doesn’t require sandy beaches, swaying palms or perpetually love-making to satisfy and sustain them? Interestingly, Rachel Ward’s enterprising film career was cut short by her marriage to Bryan Brown (her costar in The Thorn Birds); evidently, the two contented to start and raise a family; the couple still happily married – a Hollywood rarity, indeed. Both Taylor Hackford and Jeff Bridges have gone on record, stating Brown seemed to have no problem with his then newlywed wife performing some fairly scandalous nude scenes in the movie. Perhaps Brown was merely confident he had married the right girl. But Ward spends an awful lot of the film completely nude; Donald E. Thorin’s artful placement of the camera and co-star, Jeff Bridge’s limbs providing a sense of false modesty.
Against All Odds debuts on Blu-ray via Image Entertainment in a stunning 1080p transfer licensed from Sony Home Entertainment. This has to be one of the most impressive offerings from Image which, in more recent times, has devolved into a company with a really spotty track record in providing us with such exemplars in the hi-def format. Against All Odds is a reference quality disc. There is absolutely nothing to complaint about: a pluperfect mastering effort, typified by exquisite color reproduction – richly saturated, gorgeous flesh tones, superbly rendered contrast, naturalistic film grain and a complete eradication of age-related artifacts. Wow, and thank you! If you are a fan of this movie then you are going to love this disc. The 5.1 DTS stereo is equally superb; yielding remarkable bass for a vintage 80’s flick. Larry Carlton and Michel Colombier’s score sounds fantastic. We get a pair of audio commentaries; one featuring Taylor Hackford, Jeff Bridges and James Woods, who spend the bulk of the track waxing about superfluous points of only marginal interest. More satisfying on the whole is the secondary track with Hackford and his screenwriter, Eric Hughes. As a matter of interest, the famous poster for Against All Odds (also depicted on the front of this Blu-ray case) depicts a moment never seen in the finished film. This, along with other excised portions, is included as deleted scenes. We also get a theatrical trailer. Bottom line: while I have my doubts about the movie, this Blu-ray is very highly recommended for quality: a fantastic effort!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Monday, October 20, 2014

THE CHINA SYNDROME: Blu-ray (Columbia Pictures 1979) RLJ/Image Entertainment

When it premiered in 1979, James Bridges’ The China Syndrome was met with open hostility from the nuclear power industry; labeled ‘sheer fiction’ at best, and a gross ‘character assassination on the entire industry’ at its worst. A scant twelve days later, Three Mile Island put a decidedly different spin on this snap assessment, leaving nuclear power commissioners to rally their wagons around a homegrown crisis. Those left scratching their heads at the commission were forced to admit a cruel verisimilitude at work. Anxious to avoid any hint of seeming exploitative, Columbia Pictures pulled The China Syndrome from theaters; a bizarre epitaph for a project tenaciously begun by competing interests.
Throughout the 1970’s, either out of spite for having its own imperious temples of entertainment raided by monolithic business concerns (that, in point of fact, knew absolutely nothing about running film studios, except into the ground), or merely to satisfy the liberal biases of their own creative personnel, Hollywood steadily pursued a policy for coming down hard on big business. Whether critiquing cost-cutting measures that doom the world’s tallest skyscraper to a fiery blaze (The Towering Inferno, 1974) or challenging the interment of employees toiling under inhumane conditions in the garment industry (Norma Rae, 1979), the movie mandarins cast steely-eyed aspersions on a whitewash against capitalism’s ‘best practices’. Arguably, some of it was well-deserved. And certainly, the timely fate of Three Mile Island helped to propel the public’s fascination for The China Syndrome. Yet, this too was cut short by Columbia’s sudden attack of cold feet about having a hit movie that dared to make a quick buck on a ‘real life’ disaster; despite the fact The China Syndrome happened first.
What spares The China Syndrome from becoming just another anti-capitalist bash is its character-driven drama. Yes, the movie is still about the prospects of a nuclear holocaust laying waste to unsuspecting communities grown up around its reactor facilities. But the screenplay is heavily devoted to the people behind the peril – some placed before it against their will. As such, we invest ourselves in Michael Douglas’ frustrated champion for a ‘truly’ free press. We can empathize with Jack Lemmon’s woeful plant supervisor – the ‘true believer’ suffering an epiphany about his misplaced loyalties to the company. The story remains relevant too, if for no other reason than the threat of another nuclear meltdown is ever-present in our energy-dependent landscape.
The final film was actually the brainchild of competing interests: Michael Douglas – newly christened as Hollywood’s fair-haired son after his monumental success as a producer on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and, Bruce Gilbert and Jane Fonda, already involved in solidifying a deal with Columbia. Douglas, who had left the safety net of a lucrative television series – The Streets of San Francisco (1972-77) – had yet to make inroads as a movie star, and this in the days when it was more difficult (if not impossible) to graduate from TV to movie stardom. Indeed, it was rare, if not uncommon, for such a crossover to occur. But Douglas’ success as a producer had come with a level of expectation. As such, the actor began searching for a property he could independently produce, but with a meaty role in it for him this time around.
Douglas had read a first draft screenplay by T.S. Cook and Mike Gray (who also wanted to direct); sincerely impressed by its intensity as a potential ‘monster movie’; the horror derived from that unwieldy leviathan of nuclear fission turning on its masters. For authenticity, Cook and Gray had consulted a pair of disenchanted former G.E. executives, to help flesh out the particulars of an emergency scenario (SCRAM).  Douglas was also responsible for wooing Jim Bridges to the picture. Initially, Bridges showed little interest. His filmmaker’s strengths were more aligned telling stories with strong characters, as he had already proven with his multi-Oscar-nominated The Paper Chase (1973). Douglas had also conceived a costarring role for himself alongside Richard Dreyfuss; the two, a pair of gutsy reporters out to scoop a story about a potential accident inside a nuclear facility. 
At the same instance, Jane Fonda was aggressively pursuing a similarly themed project with Bruce Gilbert. Fonda’s strong political activism, also her participation on the campaign for economic democracy, prompted the film’s scenario to take on a very anti-nuclear agenda. Fonda was inspired by Karen Gay Silkwood, a chemical technician and labor union activist involved in exposing a cover-up at Kerr-McGee; the company she worked for, that manufactured plutonium pellets for nuclear reactor fuel rods. Silkwood had been killed in a mysterious ‘car accident’ while on her way to be interviewed by New York Times journalist, David Burnham. Although Fonda aspired to actually play Karen Silkwood (a part eventually made concrete by Meryl Streep in the 1983 movie, Silkwood), legal wrangling and the threat of a lawsuit then precluded the actual retelling of Karen’s life story.
Roz Heller, then an executive at Columbia, and well aware of Michael Douglas’ pet project, suggested that perhaps he and Fonda might pool their ideas, resources and talents on a single ambition. It was an inspired notion, one immediately and passionately embraced by director James Bridges, who set about crystalizing the Gray/Cook screenplay with a rewrite; also, by becoming heavily involved in the picture’s casting.  From the earliest days, Michael Douglas had sought Jack Lemmon for the part of Jack Godell; a shift supervisor at the fictional Ventana nuclear power plant, who has a change of heart and loyalties after he narrowly averts an all-out disaster, only to quickly discover the company intends to throw his reputation under the proverbial bus as their scapegoat. Lemmon, as unwavering in his anti-nuclear stance as Jane Fonda, loved the concept immediately and agreed to do the part without question. Alas, it would be nearly two years before this opportunity would arise.
In the interim, Michael Douglas encountered several stalemates; chiefly, in Hollywood’s cold feet to produce any movie where the energy tsars of nuclear power were depicted as devious and greedy. Although the Trojan Nuclear Power Plant was used as the template for George Jenkin’s production design (in fact, a litany of still photographs were taken inside their control room and reactor facilities), The China Syndrome shot mostly on elaborate sound stages built back at Columbia Studios; with only a few brief exteriors and interiors actually lensed on location – and even then, not at any of California’s nuclear power plants. In the editing process, director, Bridges would skillfully combine this footage with some realistic miniature models and matte paintings designed by Arthur Jeph Parker.
The China Syndrome is, at once, a proactive critique of the undisclosed perils of nuclear energy, an examination of the political intrigues involved in pushing forward plans to dominate America’s energy dependence, and finally, a critical examination of the backroom machinations that threaten, stifle and eventually quash freedom of the press. If anything, The China Syndrome comes down rather hard on the media’s complicity in keeping silent; their abject irresponsibility toward serving the public’s right to know, more powerfully explored in Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976). As in Network, The China Syndrome depicts the absence of objective news coverage, ‘hard news’ devolving into the sort of pop-u-tainment/light human interest stories.
Fonda’s Kimberly Wells is an ‘info-babe’ doing puff pieces as filler at her local affiliate, but thirsty for an opportunity to cover the beat by doing some hard-edged journalism. Her cohort, hot-headed cameraman, Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) is her compatriot in this endeavor. Richard is passionate about getting to the truth in investigative journalism. Hence, when the pair, along with their soundman assistant, Hector Salas (Daniel Valdez), experiences a minor upset that quickly escalates into a major crisis at the fictional Ventana Nuclear Power Plant, while doing their series on ‘clean energy’ alternatives, Richard is the first to disobey the network’s protocol by surreptitiously filming the entire ‘incident’ through the plate glass visitor’s observation deck. And it’s a dynamite story too; one that could put Kimberly over the top and really bring Richard’s reputation back from the dead.
Alas, no one will ever know. Upon returning to the network with their raw footage, Kimberly informing her boss, Mac Churchill (James Karen) she inadvertently has ‘the lead story’ for their six o’clock telecast. Instead, the footage is screened – then yanked – by network president, Don Jacovich (Peter Donat). Already contacted by Ventana’s public relations man, Bill Gibson (James Hampton) with a not altogether cordial ‘request’ to kill the story; Jacovich complies to minimalize the severity of what took place at the plant. Richard is outraged, cutting Jacovich a new hole and storming out of the office in an arrogant huff; blaming Kimberly for her weak-kneed inability to take a stand against the bureaucracy. Kimberly and Richard have a momentary falling out; Kimberly attending Jacovich’s house party, but pleading for the opportunity to do hard news; also, to keep Richard as her cameraman.
In the meantime, Ventana’s shift supervisor, Jack Godell comes under fire during a closed hearing/investigation. His honest assessment of the situation, also his prudence in suggesting the plant delay returning to operations – at least, until a more thorough assessment can be made regarding Ventana’s structural safety – inadvertently brands him the company’s scapegoat; though Jack is not aware of this as yet. It seems a stuck coolant gauge was responsible for dangerously low water levels in the reactor’s core. 
Engineer, Ted Spindler (Wilford Brimley) also comes under fire, siding with the plant’s superintendent, Herman De Young (Scott Brady) who is determined nothing will come in the way of their scheduled restart.  However, during a routine inspection, Jack discovers high levels of radiation in a puddle of water that has apparently leaked from a defective pump. It’s no use. Ventana requires a serious investment of time and money to ensure the public’s safety. On the surface, Ted and Jack disagree. But actually, they’re of one mindset. It’s just that Ted is terrified of losing his job. But not even he can fathom the extent Ventana’s board is prepared to go to make certain the ‘incident’ remains under wraps.  
Investigating on his own, Jack comes to an ominous conclusion; the radiographs taken to verify the integrity of welds on the leaky pump are identical; the contractor having submitted the same picture over and over again to cut costs. What if Ventana is unsafe? Could the plant sustain another full-power SCRAM? It’s a terrifying prospect, and one Jack is determined to avoid at any and all costs. He proposes to Herman the plant be shuttered until a full inspection can be completed. Herman, however, explains that new radiographs would cost at least $20 million. Taking matters into his own hands, Jack challenges D.B. Royce (Paul Larson), an employee of Foster-Sullivan, the construction company who built the plant, to explain the radiographs, as it was he who signed off on them in the first place. Royce resents the implication…or rather, recognizes his shortcutting has been uncovered. Jack informs Royce he intends to go to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission with his findings. In retaliation, Royce threatens Jack with some thug muscle parked outside of his home.
Meanwhile, Richard swipes the developed film he shot at Ventana from the network’s vaults, showing it to a pair of experts, Dr. Lowell (Donald Hotton) and Greg Minor (Michael Alaimo). Both reach the same conclusion: that Ventana came perilously close to ‘the China Syndrome’; a phrase well known to nuclear engineers, typified by a complete meltdown inside the reactor’s core; releasing radioactive steam into the groundwater with disastrous contamination of the surrounding area for miles. Backed by the overwhelming data that something rotten is decidedly afoot, Kimberly and Richard confront Jack at his home with their findings. He nervously confides to them that during the SCRAM he felt a vibration. This could have signaled the plant’s overall instability. He also explains about the falsified radiographs. Kimberly and Richard urge Jack to testify at the upcoming NRC hearings being held at Point Conception; a hotbed of activity for protestors lobbying against Foster-Sullivan’s latest plans to erect another nuclear plant in their own backyard.  Jack agrees to obtain copies of the falsified radiographs, passing them along to Hector.
Alas, the thug muscle Foster-Sullivan has watching Jack’s house, stalk Hector after he has gathered the evidence, forcing his car off the road in a near fatal accident and retrieving the files before the police and ambulances can arrive. Unaware of Hector’s demise, and without the necessary data for Dr. Lowell to present at the conference, Kimberly implores Jack to testify on their behalf. Jack agrees. But as he races down the highway toward the convention center, Jack becomes acutely aware he is being tailed. A high-spirited chase ensues, ending only after Jack manages to elude his pursuers and make his way to the plant, stealing a security guard’s pistol and taking refuge inside Ventana’s control room; determined to keep the plant from its full-powered restart.  Herman and the others attempt to storm the facility, but to no avail. It’s under emergency lock and key; its doors and glass windows bulletproof. Jack makes his demands: to have Kimberly and Richard do a live remote from Ventana so he can make the public aware of the plant’s potential threat.
But only a few minutes into the broadcast, technicians deliberately rig a SCRAM to thwart Jack’s big reveal. Induced to react, Jack attempts to bring Ventana back on line. SWAT teams invade the control room. Power is cut and Jack is assassinated to prevent the truth from getting out. As he dies in Richard’s arms, Jack mutters he can feel vibrations occurring underfoot once again. True to his predictions, the plant experiences an unanticipated SCRAM for real, the control room rocked by powerful vibrations that terrify all; the system only brought back on line by the plant’s automatic failsafe.  Having witnessed the first few moments of Jack’s broadcast before the live feed was cut, members of the press have gathered outside the plant to get the real scoop on what’s happened. Herman and the company’s president, Evan McCormack (Richard Herd) paint Jack as a manifestly disturbed and disgruntled employee. But knowing better, Kimberly presses Ted Spindler to make his testament before a live audience; Ted coming to the aid of his fallen friend by declaring Jack a hero. A tearful Kimberly signs off on her story, the TV signal abruptly interrupted by color bars, perhaps suggesting the cover up at Ventana will endure.
The China Syndrome comes to Blu-ray via RLJ /Image Entertainment. Having acquired the old Image brand doesn’t seem to have improved or sustained the old Image brand quality. In fact, the Image logo does not actually precede this presentation, despite the fact it appears – diminished - in the bottom right corner of the back packing of this disc. Sony – owners of the old Columbia movie catalog have licensed The China Syndrome to RLJ for this hi-def release. It’s obviously an older transfer, the overall image quality bright and occasionally colorful, though hardly as robust as one might expect. Fine detail is wanting in long shots; close-ups too, though to a lesser extent. It isn’t that The China Syndrome on Blu-ray is a disaster (pardon, the pun). It’s just that it fails to reach the anticipated levels of 1080p exceptionalism .
It’s nevertheless consistent; film grain non-obtrusive, solid contrast and some moments of smartly rendered color – particularly the bilious greens inside the nuclear plant. But flesh tones are decidedly wanting; veering toward orange and artificial. Disappointing. The image is free of age-related debris; a definite plus! The DTS 5.1 audio is aggressive in spots, but lacks bass; dialogue occasionally sounding looped and, on rare occasions, with a muffled characteristic. We must recall that The China Syndrome was originally released in mono – not stereo. So, such shortcomings in an upconversion to 5.1 are, if not entirely acceptable to discerning ears, then at least, tolerable, given the sources used in the remastering effort. RLJ imports two featurettes that were included on the old Columbia SE DVD; cumulatively totaling just under 40 min.; rich in backstory, vintage content, and with interviews from stars, director and crew.  Nicely put together. Bottom line: recommended for content…and transfer too…I suppose. But, like the Ventana plant, the latter isn’t entirely up to spec either.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

THE AGE OF INNOCENCE: Blu-ray (Columbia 1993) Sony Home Entertainment

Filmed twice during the late silent era, Edith Wharton’s novel about the manners and mores of blue-blooded New York society at the turn of the last century, The Age of Innocence, was already a cultural touchstone by 1923; a sort of scandalous stripping away of all the courtly hypocrisies of, then, contemporary life. On the surface, propriety commanded a rigid set of dictates to harness and keep steadfast and pure the behaviors of its gentry.  However, as Wharton’s novel was to illustrate, there was duplicity in this exercise. Using a traditional lover’s triangle, Wharton bared an undercarriage of sexual intrigues; in essence, a real bodice-ripping exposé on her time and class. Not that Wharton would have considered the novel as such. In fact, Wharton had penned The Age of Innocence as a minor apology for The House of Mirth, her fourth novel; far more scathingly critical about such things.
The Age of Innocence is essentially a tale of one man - gentleman lawyer and heir apparent, Newland Archer (Daniel Day Lewis) - dominated by the two women in his life; the first, his seemingly naïve ingénue of a bride, May Welland (Wynona Ryder, who will prove more enterprising in her own desires to anchor him to the social conventions of their caste) and her cousin, the more free-spirited Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer), who brutalizes Newland’s lust for her; first, by willingly offering it up to his infatuated caprice, then by cruelly denying him more than a faint reminiscence of their brief time together; thereby driving him to wild distractions. The women, each aware of what the other is up to, spar on an intellectual plain, their battle of temperaments causing occasional friction in Newland and May’s marriage and all but wrecking any chance Newland might have had to remain happily ensconced in this caste of traditions without the nagging thought he has probably settled in his marriage at the expense of finding truer happiness elsewhere.
In adapting the novel for the screen this third time around, director Martin Scorsese has assumed a monumental task; The Age of Innocence (1993) receiving an all-star and decidedly lavish treatment – alas, less narratively compelling, if mesmerizingly beautiful. The screenplay, co-authored by Jay Cocks and Scorsese slavishly adheres to the novel; excising whole passages with a voiceover narration provided by Joanne Woodward (who does not appear in the film) designed to expedite our various introductions to these characters. Visually at least, Scorsese’s film is a masterpiece; Michael Ballhaus’ luminous cinematography married to some opulent period recreations: Dante Ferretti’s production design, Speed Hopkins art direction and Robert J. Franco and Amy Marshall’s set decoration, perfectly complimented by Gabriella Pescucci’s costuming. Point blank: The Age of Innocence is an A-list super production of immense scope and infinite style. That it somehow lacks the impetus of an absorbing melodrama is a tad perplexing, and most certainly something of a letdown; the actors delivering their schematic dialogue with grace and polish, but strangely, with an antiseptic inability to breathe the necessary life into these words. As such, The Age of Innocence quickly devolves into a clinical exercise rather than an astute regression from, and observation of, the period.  
In hindsight, Scorsese was, perhaps, the wrong director for such an ambitiously high concept. His approach to the romanticized drama is low key. There’s a complete absence of the director's more famous verve for gripping action; Scorsese’s métier undeniably centered on contemporary tales about organized crime.  Scorsese’s direction herein is quite unlike what we expect from him. It’s fairly obvious he is heavily invested in making The Age of Innocence a resplendent period picture; showcasing all of the intricacies of the gilded age. There is, in fact, a sublime joy to be gleaned from Scorsese’s complete immersion into culture; meticulously composed moving portraits of a bygone era; Scorsese’s resurrection of ‘the age’ itself fairly reeking of his consummate professionalism as a film maker. Edith Wharton would be right at home in the grand majesty of Scorsese’s turn of the century New York. And yet, there exists more than a faint whiff of embalming fluid emanating from the peripheries of the screen; a sort of veiled reminder that what we see is, in fact, a museum-inspired antiquity or animated waxworks, instead of a suspension of disbelief in the illusion itself.
The oddity is that neither Scorsese nor the actors can entirely be blamed for this fault. It isn’t easy to pinpoint the lack of spark, perhaps because The Age of Innocence prodigiously excels in so many facets of its production. The weakest performance of the lot is Wynona Ryder’s giddy green girl; interminably wrinkling her nose and letting out with a squeak to suggest her joyful bemusement at allowing Newland his more amorous affection; a peck on the lips in public, as example. Alas, it’s all just an act; Ryder’s May Welland, a devious little peacock, incrementally tugging on the yolk about her husband’s neck until he is resigned to surrender all hope of ever being his own man; or, at least, Ellen’s illicit lover.  No, that void in the unhappy countess’ life will be filled by Julius Beaufort (Stuart Wilson), the Teflon-coated, middle-age bon vivant and notorious womanizer.
The Age of Innocence is, in fact, the story of morally corrupt, manifestly irresponsible and devilishly manipulative individuals, putting on their priggish airs while playing a rather delicious game of seduction. Apart from the aforementioned three principle players, the picture is extremely well cast: Geraldine Chaplin as May’s fussing mama; Richard E. Grant as Larry Lefferts – the foremost proponent and social commentator on style and form; Alec McGowan as elder statesman, Sillerton Jackson – a veritable magpie of gossip; Miriam Margolyes as the invalided, though enterprising dowager of half of New York’s ‘polite society’, Mrs. Mingott; Carolyn Farina, as Newland’s younger sister, Janey Archer, and, Siân Phillips as their mother; Norman Lloyd, Mr. Letterblair, an elder partner in Newland’s law firm and finally, Jonathan Price as Rivière; the social secretary to Madam Olenska’s estranged husband, the Count. Scorsese is working with some heavy-hitting talent here. Alas, the central focus on the love triangle makes short shrift of all the aforementioned players; mere – if supremely elegant and accomplished – window dressing.
Immediately following a stunning main title sequence designed by Elaine and Saul Bass (calligraphy letters matted onto fine lace and a time lapse of various flower buds ripening before our eyes; symbolic of the flurry of passion, presumably about to unfurl),The Age of Innocence begins at the New York Opera House, gathering place for the hoi poloi. Newland Archer is in his box, along with Larry Lefferts and Sillerton Jackson; the wily old coot far more intrigued by the presence of the Countess Ellen Olenska, seated across the auditorium in a box with Mrs. Welland and May. It seems the Countess has fled a marriage where she is rumored to have been mistreated badly. While Jackson and Lefferts slyly debate the possible intrigues, Newland skulks off to May’s box; formally introduced to the Countess. She reminds him of their playful youth together and he is amused by how unchanged she seems; her joy at the opera his first real taste of the woman who will come to challenge his own sense of morality before too long.
Regina Beaufort (Mary Beth Hurt) departs the opera ahead of everyone else. As one of the matrons of New York society she must make ready the elegant home she shares with Julius for the annual ball. Newland attends, as does May and her mother. Either from a sense of propriety, or perhaps mere concern she will be branded a social outcast, Ellen elects to abstain; lying to May about her dress not being “smart enough.”  Julius arrives late to his own party, the implication being he has been off somewhere consummating an extramarital affair.  Newland is quite obtuse to this notion. Indeed, the following evening as he, his sister Janey and their mother entertain Sillerton at dinner, the conversation inevitably shifts to the Countess; Sillerton only too jovial to pry and probe with innuendoes of impropriety. Newland questions why any woman trapped in a bitter marriage should be condemned for wanting to better her prospects elsewhere. His cool resistance to Sillerton’s criticisms of Ellen translates into our first faint glimmers of a more tangibly eroticism brewing from within. 
Mrs. Mingott offers to give a part in honor of the Countess. The crème de la crème of New York are invited to this soiree – but decline the invitation, citing ‘prior commitments’. The insinuation, however, is painfully clear. Anyone who welcomes the Countess Olenska will be shunned. Newland is outraged, appealing his case to Henry van der Luyden (Michael Gough) and his wife, Louisa (Alexis Smith). As leaders of polite society no one would dare question their authority should they choose to accept the Countess into their genteel circle of friends.  The van der Luydens are empathetic and agree to host a fashionable dinner engagement, expressly to welcome the Countess. The occasion is a success, but Newland is strangely drawn to Ellen in a way he did not anticipate. She politely questions his fidelity to May; Newland steadfast to his bride-to-be, but increasingly becoming distracted by impure thoughts about the Countess. Newland offers to act as a broker to find Ellen a house. As she intends to remain in New York – and is May’s cousin – surely no one will think anything of his philanthropic gesture.
Regrettably, Newland grows distant, then jealous, when the Countess begins seeing Julius Beaufort on the side. His sexual frustrations are manifested in a plea to May; to expedite their long-term engagement. Mrs. Mingott approves. But Newland has already begun to question his motives in marrying May, and increasingly discovers his love has insincerely cooled since Ellen’s arrival. At the same instance, the Countess makes plans to divorce her husband – an absolutely unheard of occurrence, and one sure to send shockwaves of impending scandal across the bow of both households. Mr. Letterblair approaches Newland with a request; to an indefinite postponement of the divorce. Newland is appalled by the suggestion. But his own feelings for the Countess are now painfully transparent.
Placed into an impossible situation, Newland professes his love to Ellen, she reciprocating it, but then becoming modestly unsettled by how it will impact May. The Countess agrees to an awkward truce: to remain in America, though still married to the Count. This sort of marital imprisonment is hateful to both Ellen and Newland. But it also serves as a buffer. So long as Ellen abides by its edict, Newland should not consider their consummating their love for one another. In the meantime, May sends a telegram agreeing to wed Newland well before the period of courtship has run its natural course. From this moment forward, The Age of Innocence will prove a hell set in the heavenly trappings of a not one, but two sham marriages. For Newland no longer loves May; forever poisoned by his strong desires to possess Ellen. Nevertheless, he and May marry; their honeymoon, a grand tour of Europe where they inadvertently meet Rivière, the Count’s secretary. Rivière informs Newland that Count Olenska has expressed an urge for his wife’s return. Newland is outraged but impotent to suggest any alternative without making his true feelings known.
Upon their return to America, Newland and May attend Mrs. Mingott at her summer home in Rhode Island. In the late afterglow of a warm summer afternoon, Mrs. Mingott sends Newland down to the docks to fetch Ellen. He obliges, but then hesitates when Ellen is near, casually staring off across the open waters. Newland makes himself a promise: only if Ellen turns around will he gesture to her. She does not, however, and Newland returns to Mrs. Mingott’s; lying he could not find Ellen to bring her back. Time passes. But Newland’s carnal thirst for Ellen only seems to ripen in her absence. He fantasizes about a reunion, despises himself for being untrue to his wife – if only in his thoughts – but cannot help be short-tempered with May.  Having reached an impossible stalemate, the family cuts off Ellen’s allowance – presumably to force her return to her husband. Instead, she departs for New York City to nurse her ailing grandmother. Mrs. Mingott accepts Ellen’s need to be rid of her husband and reinstates her stipend, thereby affording her financial independence to do as she wishes. Newland is wildly distracted by this prospect. Perhaps now he and Ellen can find some way to be together. 

Unfortunately, the lady is unwilling – even to become his mistress. Newland’s pursuit of Ellen is rather insidious and predicated on fulfilling no one’s gratification except his own; the Cocks/Scorsese screenplay illustrating the transgressive quality of his lust. Ellen relents to Newman’s demands. But she then elects to return to Europe with all speed. Incensed, Newland decides to tell May he is in love with her cousin, intending to leave May at the earliest possible moment. Instead, she interrupts his declaration with an announcement she is pregnant, also revealing to Newland she deliberately told Ellen about the baby nearly two weeks earlier, even before she was certain of it. The insinuation is May has known all along of Newland’s passion for Ellen but is determined to anchor him to his sense of duty toward her – whatever the cost and/or manipulation.
Realizing Ellen’s decision to return to her husband is predicated on May’s revelation does not soften this blow, as Newland cannot leave the woman who is carrying his child without erecting a scandal of epic proportions, certain to blacken his own family’s status in the social register for generations yet to follow. Years pass: twenty-six all told. May dies of fever, thinking the world a fine place. Newland is left to rear their two children. Their adult son, Ted (Robert Sean Leonard) encourages Newland to take a trip abroad to Paris, informing his father he has tracked down the Countess Olenska. She has, in fact, agreed to see them. However, as the men stroll toward her fashionable atelier, Newland cannot but acknowledge how time has withered him. No doubt, Ellen has changed this much too.
At the last possible moment, Newland declines the invitation, leaving Ted to go up alone. As he had done on the pier many years earlier, Newland plays a game in his own mind: that if Ellen looks out her open window he will join Ted upstairs to reminisce about old times. Alas, not long after Ted has left to go upstairs, the window to Ellen’s apartment is closed shut by a maid’s hand; the sun’s reflection blinding a moment or two without Ellen’s appearance at the window. Newland realizes too much time has elapsed. He is not the same man. Perhaps the only place he and Ellen can ever truly coexist is within the memories of his heart. He turns and walks away, destined to never see her again.
In these penultimate moments of surrender, The Age of Innocence attains a sort of tragic clarity about love, desire and destiny; the triage in Newland’s life pursuits disentangled, perhaps for the very first time since his first glimpse of Ellen at the opera. He is no longer possessed by fickle passion; perhaps, even able to retain his respectability without the nagging doubt he has sacrificed his entire life to a dream remembered. There’s a supremely satisfying sense of finality to these final moments; an exquisite decay lain waste to the people they once were, perished in each other’s absence and denied their unsaid farewells. Daniel Day Lewis’ glance is both world-weary and edifying; a revelation of the queer dictates tugging within the human heart. Newland’s desire for Ellen remains intact; colored by the passage of time into something more finely ripened, yet unattainable. Preserving Ellen’s memory will have to sustain Newland now.
The Age of Innocence was hardly a hit. In fact, it grossed only $2 million more in the U.S. than its $30 million budget. Yet, the movies’ lack of popularity cannot entirely be blamed on Martin Scorsese. Certainly, none of the artistic decisions he has made in bringing Wharton’s novel to the screen have wrecked its chances for success. Perhaps, audiences in general, and fans of Scorsese in particular, were anticipating an edgier affair. Indeed, The Age of Innocence is hardly taut or even tantalizing; its narrative tension sustained by subtle glances across a crowded drawing room; no violent fits or outburst, no wildly careening camera movements.  Without Scorsese’s screen credit, The Age of Innocence is quite unlike anything the director has committed to film. And without his acknowledged contribution, The Age of Innocence plays very much like a courtly English drawing room comedy of errors – something from the Ealing Studios, albeit with a far grander cost. We must also reconsider the aftereffects and fervor created by the multi-Oscar-nominated production of E.M. Forrester’s Howards End (1992) and Merchant/Ivory’s superb follow-up; The Remains of the Day (released the same year as The Age of Innocence) each, a beacon or ‘how to’ make period costume dramas. In competition with these superiorly scripted stories, the former having taken artistic liberties with Forrester’s novel, Scorsese’s unoriginal faithfulness to Wharton’s text exposes the chinks in any ‘literal’ literary adaptation for the movie screen.
The Age of Innocence would have been better had Scorsese afforded himself the luxury to experiment; to be passionate about the art of film-making and depart from the authoress’ prose; if only to illustrate how he might have ‘improved’ upon an already iconic masterwork. Instead, we get 2hrs. and 19 min. of Wharton incarnate; deftly executed, but minus Scorsese’s ability to enthrall and captivate an audience as only he distinctly can when inspired to dabble and mesmerize us with his ballsy creativity.  Yet, it’s difficult to condemn the movie outright as a failure. Artistically, it remains on very highborn ground; its technical merits unsurpassed, its meticulous attention to setting and place arguably unparalleled. This is, in fact, a ravishing exaltation of the period in which Wharton lived; a breathtaking movie to behold; alas, one that also fails to ignite or excite an audience. It wholly lacks even a spark of dramatic tragedy, despite its sublime techniques.  Like its visuals, The Age of Innocence score by Elmer Bernstein is ravishing. Yet, here too, it blunders into grandiosity; providing a sense of the gilded age without ever foreshadowing the more ominous overtones of promiscuity behind closed doors. The implications of closeted sexual desires are not enough to propel the story forward. In the end, we are left with a cast of mostly impotent ne'er do wells who think naughtier than they do – or perhaps, are.
Sony appears to have forsaken the North American market where their catalog Blu-ray is concerned, because The Age of Innocence is available virtually everywhere except on this side of the pond. Thankfully, this import (from Hong Kong, no less) is region free and with English packaging to boot! All of the European derivatives have cover art translated into various foreign languages. I hesitate to slam Sony for their absence in North America, particularly since I lack the particulars as to why they continue to neglect potential dollars here, but I will maintain very high marks for Grover Crisp’s commitment to ensuring virtually all Sony catalog comes to hi-def Blu-ray looking immaculate and head-and-shoulders above its SD predecessors. The Age of Innocence is no less impressive.
This 1080p image is stunning; razor-sharp crispness without untoward edge effects, richly saturated colors; superior amounts of fine detail that pop with unexpected dimensionality, exquisite contrast levels and film grain looking natural as it should. Flesh tones are accurately rendered; and greens, reds and blacks look spectacularly rich and appealing. One minor quibble: as Newland Archer arrives at the Beufort’s ball, Scorsese’s impressive long tracking shot is momentarily marred by some age-related artifacts; an oddity indeed, since the rest of the print used in this mastering effort is virtually blemish free. Otherwise, you are going to love this disc. The audio is DTS 5.1 and as impressive; yielding an unanticipated richness in its bass. One renewable regret: no extras. The Age of Innocence has never been given consideration in this regard: a pity. Bottom line: for fans – very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

YANKEE DOODLE DANDY: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1942) Warner Archive

“Ladies and gentlemen…you can only be as good as the other fella thinks you are or…I might add…as bad. And it seems that quite a number of people have thought a good job has been done…and that makes me very happy. And just one added thought, I might say, it was a pretty good part. Thank you.”
-   James Cagney upon accepting his one and only Best Actor Academy Award
Hollywood really did things up right with Michael Curtiz’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942); an exuberant portrait of what is today rather infrequently referenced as American exceptionalism but really boils down to peerless professionalism in the entertainment industry; the grandiosity that was golden age Hollywood aping an even more opulent and iconic period in America’s illustrious past. Then, artists plied their craft to offer audiences a daily diet of showmanship plus. Yankee Doodle Dandy is by far the most rewarding and undeniably heart-felt of the classy and clever star-studded biopics that were so prevalent throughout the 1940’s and early 50’s; its contagious ebullience tapping into the nation’s pride during a very dark chapter in U.S. history. Movies like Yankee Doodle Dandy are no longer made; as stars of James Cagney’s caliber have long since become ghost flowers fondly recalled from another vintage entirely – set aside, sorely missed, but destined to never be entirely forgotten.
Such was the iconography American movies once seared into our collective consciousness; the sheer charisma of its performers and the product peddled that, once seen, is impossible to dismiss. It is this blueprint of both the American movie and the American movie star – a rare creature valued and known primarily for the work presented on screen, while relatively guarded from public view of their private affairs (both real and concocted as part of studio PR) – that has since wholly vanished from our present age and appreciation. We have become poorer still in their absence. But James Cagney and Yankee Doodle Dandy are perennial reminders – of how beloved each remains in our hearts and minds; how much has been lost to us since their passing, and, how neither can ever truly be neglected; the legend and the legacy of all that movie magic so brilliantly wrought defiantly endures.
Yankee Doodle Dandy is really the brainchild of George M. Cohan – an immortal figure in Vaudeville and on Broadway in his day but who, perhaps in looking beyond to the horizon, began to harbor a faint uncertainty as to how history would come to regard him; if, in fact, it chose to remember him at all. Cohan had been a jack of virtually all the creative arts and the undeniable master of a goodly sum. As a family of performers, the Cohans had been Broadway royalty. But by 1942, George M.’s lengthy list of achievements; his proficiency at several musical instruments, his perfection of a unique style of dance, his ability to write popular plays, short stories and music aplenty (frequently resurrected in concert halls); these touchstones had increasingly been set aside in the public’s estimation with a rise in popularity of ‘movie culture’.
So Cohan shopped the idea for a movie biography about his life, and even a completed script of a stage show bearing his name, around Hollywood. At one point, Columbia studio president (and good friend) Harry Cohn thought the project splendidly suited for Fred Astaire. Astaire, however, remained unconvinced and eventually bowed out. All, however, was not lost. With a nose for success, Jack L. Warner recognized the potential in retelling Cohan’s life story as a musical and agreed to make the film. Cohan imposed several restrictions on the project before the ink had dried on his contract. Paramount was that his life story should be told with ingratiating reverence to his second wife – Agnes – whose middle name just happened to be Mary; a convenience exploited by screenwriter, Robert Buckner in concocting the movie’s ‘Mary Cohan’; a fictionalized amalgam of Cohan’s two wives. Also, Cohan requested approval over the casting of the picture. Finally, his endorsement was required on the final cut – virtually unheard of in Hollywood back then. Without batting an eye, Jack Warner willingly signed away these rights – perhaps assuming Cohan would simply fade into the backdrop once filming was underway.
But Cohan was immediately skeptical of Warner’s decision to cast James Cagney even though at 5ft. 6 inches the actor bore a striking resemblance to Cohan – a man Cagney, in fact, revered and sought to emulate while still a hoofer in Vaudeville. Cohan reluctantly agreed to allow Cagney at least the opportunity to prove his metal. Perhaps Cohan’s opinion of the star was colored by Cagney’s pedigree as a movie-land gangster.  Then forty-two, Cagney was hardly a young man. Investing himself body and soul in the part, Cagney assimilated Cohan’s gestures, movements and mannerisms into his singing and dancing, but reverted back to his own inimitable charisma for the dramatic elements; sound logic that bode well for both the part and the film.
Cagney had another, more prescient reason for proving Cohan wrong. In 1941, the actor had been indicted, along with other stars, as having a communist slant in his political views; an allegation Cagney vehemently denied. Despite his impassioned appeal to the Martin Dies Committee (a precursor to HUAC) and eventual exoneration of the charges, Cagney remained wary of what the allegation had done to his public image; instructing his brother, William – who had been his agent for quite some time – to search for a real patriotic flag-waver that could firmly reestablish his sense of patriotism in the public’s mind. In this regard, Yankee Doodle Dandy fit Cagney’s ambitions like a glove; moreover, he seemed the quintessence of James M. Cohan in motion without becoming slavish to, or a mimic of, the man he was emulating.
Screenwriter, Robert Buckner had penned a superior first draft, though more acutely in tune with the strengths of a melodrama than a musical. Undaunted, Jack Warner hired the Epstein brothers (Julius J. and Philip G.) to spruce up the dialogue and find humor within the story; also to seek out places where Cohan’s immortal contributions as a songwriter could be effectively integrated as part of the narrative. Cohan, who had never relinquished his rights to either the story or his back catalogue of music, made no bones about exercising his creative control on every aspect of the film. Daily, blue pages of revised script were handed to the actors to memorize and insert into the shooting schedule; a constant evolution that kept everyone on their toes and occasionally flustered the usually unflappable Michael Curtiz – who became the defacto go-between Cohan, Cagney and the studio.  Both Cagney and Cohan wanted things their own way. Yet, each man was gracious enough to recognize the other’s strengths on the project.
Shooting was interrupted by a grave turn of events; President Roosevelt’s declaration of war immediately following news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Listening via radio, Curtiz gathered his cast and crew for a moment of silence into which Cagney interjected a prayer. From this moment on, Yankee Doodle Dandy acquired a prescience of truth to its retrospective tale; book-ended by rousing sequences, presumably, taking place inside the present day White House. Today, it is perhaps difficult to fully grasp the severity of world events surrounding the making and debut of Yankee Doodle Dandy. But the advent of WWII was only one of several seismic shifts in the public consciousness that rattled America’s isolationism to its core and plunged the nation into its collective darkness.
At the start of America’s involvement in the European conflict things were not going according to plan. Indeed, U.S. forces were taking a considerable beating half way around the world, while on the home front, Hollywood – and fans everywhere – were still reeling over the loss of actress Carol Lombard, whose plane had crashed while on national war bond tour. The public’s reaction to Yankee Doodle Dandy therefore took on immediacy and, in retrospect, was to prove most gratifying; enriching war bond coffers by $5,000,000.00 during its theatrical release. Moreover, the movie sparked a common thread of united flag-waving patriotism felt half way around the world; America’s sense of pride in its own past accomplishments now casting a very definite shadow on the Axis powers presently pillaging and pummeling the European landscape.
And Cagney’s Cohan illustrated, yet again, that his little dynamo could conquer even the most hardened New York critics; Cagney’s sterling performance as the underdog who makes good winning virtually all the major awards. Only Cohan remained unconvinced. In fact, he refused to give his approval after privately screening the final cut, glibly whispering into Michael Curtiz’s ear, “Brilliant. Whose life is it anyway?” Perhaps, Cohan was missing the point of the exercise. For Yankee Doodle Dandy was never intended as a definitive testament to George M. Cohan; rather, a vivacious fiction encapsulating the legacy – nee, essence of the man. In hindsight, the film has proven itself a renewable and timeless epitaph. But Cohan’s outright rejection of the picture then left Jack Warner with a movie he could not release without incurring a lawsuit. So, Cohan proposed a truce. If his wife, Agnes enjoyed it he would acquiesce to its release.
With more than a modicum of apprehension and sweaty palms, Jack Warner screened the movie again; this time for Mrs. Cohan. When Agnes emerged from the projection room dewy-eyed and pleasantly pleased, Warner could breathe a sigh of relief. He had won the battle. But so did Cohan. In failing health by the time Yankee Doodle Dandy had its Broadway debut, Cohan had his chauffeur repeatedly drive him past the Warner Theater, bewitched - and perhaps, a tad perplexed - observing the lengthy line ups of patrons clamoring to see the movie. Recognizing the strength of its sentiment, Cohan reportedly smiled. He had achieved his own objective: immortality.
Yankee Doodle Dandy opens with an exuberant George M. Cohan (Cagney) offering a disarmingly jovial impersonation of Franklin D. Roosevelt in his latest stage success, ‘I’d Rather Be Right’. Backstage he receives the summons of his life, to appear at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and regale the president with the particulars of his success. This query leads us into the film’s lengthy flashback to a much simpler time; July 4th, 1878 – Cohan’s actual birthday; born to proud parents Jerry (Walter Huston) and Nellie Cohan (Rosemary DeCamp).  After the birth of his sister, Josie (played by Cagney’s real life sister, Jeanne), the Cohan’s embark upon a Vaudeville career with George as Peck’s Bad Boy. At thirteen he’s a star. There’s no place to go but down. Hence, a fallow period follows; one unable to curb George’s frustrations as he quickly acquires a reputation for being difficult.
While drowning his sorrows in a saloon George overhears Sam H. Harris (Richard Whorf) conversing with wealthy financial backer Schwab (the irrepressibly lovable S.Z. Sakall). Sam thinks George’s play ‘Little Johnny Jones’ is a honey of an idea. Convincing Schwab doesn’t prove that difficult either and with the show quickly establishing itself as a mainstay on Broadway Cohan is back on top. He meets Mary (Joan Leslie) backstage, the girl who one day will become his wife. George doesn’t waste much time courting Mary and she becomes his ever-devoted confidant and behind-the-scenes collaborator. George’s formulaic approach to show biz is a perennial wellspring of success. The family grows rich and prosperous. Josie marries and George and Mary become engaged. After staging a rousing salute to ‘the Grand old flag’ Nellie and Jerry decide to retire and enjoy their golden years on a farm.
George takes time out to make at ambitious stab at serious melodrama – ‘Popularity’ – a project that miserably fails. Yet its cataclysm is eclipsed by news that German U-boats have sunk the Lusitania. The U.S. goes to war, but at 39 George is considered too old to become a soldier.  Committing himself to the war effort in the only other way he knows how, but writing an inspirational song - ‘Over There’ - George tours the American soldier camps with Francis Langford – drawing strength from the fighting men who, in turn, embrace his music. As is so often the case in life, tragedy begins to take its toll. Josie dies in childbirth. Her death is followed by Nellie’s a short while later and finally Jerry – perhaps the most poetic and heart-wrenching of the lot. As Jerry quietly reveals the immense sense of pride he feels for George on his death bed, George quietly evokes the familiar lines he’s used to thank an opening night audience, “My mother thanks you. My father thanks you. My sister thanks you…and I thank you.”
Mary encourages George to retire on the farm, and although he willingly embraces the idea at first, he quickly tires of a life away from the spotlight. Recognizing that her husband’s place will forever be on the stage, Mary is instrumental in coaxing George to accept an offer from Sam to star in ‘I’d Rather Be Right’ – the last highlight of George’s stage career.  We return to the present. George is awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his songs ‘Over There’ and ‘It’s a Grand Old Flag’. George taps his way down the grand White House staircase, emerging at street level where a passing parade of soldiers heard singing ‘Over There’ as they march off to fight in WWII. George cannot contain his pride, joining the line up with these gallant men – suddenly realizing that his patriotic contributions to the world of entertainment will forever endure. 
Yankee Doodle Dandy is a peerless contribution to Hollywood’s wartime propaganda (perhaps, the greatest of the lot), a mellifluous compendium of Cohan’s immortal songs and dances and an enduring, as well as endearing groundswell of popular entertainment that elevates Cagney’s stature from filmdom’s favorite gangster-land thug to the top tier echelons of musical/comedy stars.  The Buckner/Epstein’s screenplay carefully balances the lighter moments with well placed, and even more expertly played moments of drama that truly get to the heart of the story and make Yankee Doodle Dandy a movie musical quite unlike any other of its vintage or ilk.
I have gushed enough about Cagney; but it also behooves me to mention the superb contributions of the rest of the cast; particularly Joan Leslie, Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp; actors of more than merit, each of whom offer something of themselves to their performance – their genuineness soaring high above what could so easily have devolved into mere rank sentimentalism for a bygone era. Instead, what we have is a moving tableau that all but resurrects that past generation; a glowingly astute and loving family portrait celebrating the highest morality and ideals, regrettably oft’ referred to today as schmaltz. Herein, I’ll simply paraphrase composer Richard Rodgers who, when asked about ‘schmaltz’ admirably pointed out “What’s wrong with sweetness and light? They’ve been around for an awful long time!”
Yankee Doodle Dandy isn’t all ‘sweetness and light’ but what it continues to possess – despite changing times and audience’s tastes – is an infectiously toe-tapping allure to satisfy us with its mind-boggling professionalism. It retains an illusive screen magic that does more than merely placates or distracts. It reaches deep into the definition of what it means to be American and elevates the stature and importance of a great nation. The reach to instill such lavish quantities of patriotism is never gratuitous or overbearingly. In the end, we celebrate much more than a lingering ‘feel good’ for the story. We come away with a renewed regard for nationalistic pride. Although the line is never uttered in the film, when the houselights come up only one great sentiment immediately comes to mind – “God Bless America!”
Warner Home Video has taken its sweet time getting around to a Blu-ray release of this beloved classic. I won’t bother to question the logic behind releasing so obviously a patriotic flag-waver before the Christmas holidays. 4th of July would have suited this one better. But the delay has so obviously been well worth it. Yankee Doodle Dandy in hi-def is a reference quality disc in every regard and one that should easily become a best seller for the Warner Archive – fast becoming the best apparatus for releasing impeccable 1080p classics to home video. There is a glorious silver sheen to the image. It sparkles with an exceptionally refined gray scale. This disc is an exemplar of what vintage catalog on Blu-ray ought to be by now. Grain, that appeared somewhat inconsistent on the DVD, has been accurately reproduced on the Blu-ray; dissolves and fades meticulously cleansed of their age-related artifacts. Honest and true: Yankee Doodle Dandy is practically perfect on Blu-ray and what a joy to see it looking this beautiful in hi-def!
The audio is DTS mono as originally recorded and everything one could hope for from a vintage soundtrack.  Warner has wisely ported over all of the shorts, documentaries, cartoons, isolated audio recordings, audio commentaries, outtakes and featurettes from its lavishly appointed 2-disc DVD release; the best being the ‘making of’ documentary, featuring Joan Leslie and John Travolta; also, Travolta’s hosted reflections on meeting his idol, Cagney. Bottom line and without question, Yankee Doodle Dandy on Blu-ray belongs on everyone’s top shelf. Buy with confidence and buy today! And yes, “God bless America!”
FILM RATING (out of 5 -  5 being the best)