Wednesday, March 5, 2014

FAR AND AWAY: Blu-ray (Universal/Imagine Entertainment 1992) Universal Home Video

“What they needed was a country big enough for their dreams”…what they found was a variation on the grand narrative that used to be taught in schools as a chapter on the ‘immigrant experience’. From its rather intricately woven soap opera about a spirited/spoilt Irish lass of noble birth meets fiery Fenian scrapper, seemingly of little brain, though of exceptional brawn (ah me, will opposites never cease to attract?…at least in the movies), to its Cimarron-styled Oklahoma land grant, race to the finish finale (breathtakingly realized in 70mm by cinematographer, Mikael Salomon), Ron Howard’s Far and Away (1992) reports to be a testament to that lifeblood of the proverbial ‘melting pot’ cultural tapestry of the United States, when migrant peasantry were arriving in droves to stake their claim on a new life with visions of even greater prosperity dancing in their heads.
Scripted by Bob Dolman (who also co-produced) and Ron Howard, Far and Away is more than a tad optimist about the ‘immigrant experience’; this, of course, assuming all immigrants had virtually the same experience coming to America, or at least variations based loosely on a central theme (strife, hardship, struggle and success – the latter always key to perpetuating the nation’s ‘milk and honeyed’ mythology. At times, our story veers dangerously into Douglas Sirk country, complete with grand histrionics; the wilful Shannon Christie (Nicole Kidman) simultaneously drawn to, yet defiantly pushing away from her romantic ideal, Joseph Donnelly (Tom Cruise cast as the perpetually angry young man). Oh, gee whiz…and get a room. And they do, after arriving in New York - circa 1892, leaving behind their beloved Ireland for very different reasons. 
For Shannon, the decision is predicated on an even bigger movie cliché; cold feet over her betrothal to wealthy prig, Stephen Chase (Thomas Gibson). For Joseph, it’s all about escaping the oppressions of the wealthy landlords, particularly after he has threatened the life of a prominent citizen, Daniel Christie (Robert Prosky) – Shannon’s father – as revenge for the untimely death of his own (Niall Toibin, in an all too brief performance); also to escape persecution/prosecution for his blundered murder attempt, and, to cast off the stifling threat of perpetual poverty beyond which he knows absolutely nothing.
The blood feud between Stephen and Joseph is a festering wound that cuts deep; almost from the moment the former elects to serve notice on the grieving scrapper on the very day of his father’s burial (the eviction firmly placed atop his rosewood casket) then, burning to the ground Joseph’s modest family house for unpaid rent on the property, and finally, coming to the realization that Shannon is Stephen’s girl…well…sort of…though not really. As sure as Stephen has attempted to take everything away from Joseph, he – Joseph – will have the heart of that girl to whom a life of servitude as ‘the little woman’ is utterly repugnant. It is this optimism, inbred in both Joseph and Shannon, to make something of a brand new beginning in a strange new land – those distant shores beckoning from across the glistening Atlantic – that fuels our story. But like all dreams contemplated, though yet to be lived, the reality behind this one is decidedly not up to snuff.
There are three ‘cute meets’ between Shannon and Joseph, screenwriter Dolman’s exceptionally awkward way of breaking into the ‘love story’ that will propel the rest of his 142 min. narrative. In the first, Shannon stabs Joe in the thigh with a pitchfork to prevent his assassination attempt on her father. But then, mortified by her actions, she flees – predictably, screaming from the barn. Love at first sight? The second is an even more precious exchange in an upstairs bedroom of the family’s estate, regarding Shannon’s infectious curiosity as to what is underneath the rather large bowl placed, presumably for modesty, over Joe’s naked crotch. You know what they say about curiosity. Joe stirs from his unconsciousness, threatening Shannon’s life, and later, knocking Stephen to the ground to spit in his eye. Brave…stupid fool. After Stephen chivalrously declares that there will be pistols at dawn to avenge this indignation, Shannon decides she must make a break from her family’s expectation, that she will marry the arrogant fop. Instead, Shannon sneaks into the same upstairs bedroom for ‘cute meet’ #3; outlining her plan of escape to the new world while emphatically suggesting Joseph come along as her (wait for it) servant boy. Oh yeah, the violin heartstrings are playing!
It’s always been a source of rabid curiosity in the press that the real life alliance of Kidman and Cruise utterly failed to generate genuine sparks of hot-blooded romance in any of their infrequent pairings on film. Far and Away is no exception to this rule. There is a queerly platonic relationship at play herein that bodes well for the first third of the movie – when the naïve Shannon has little regard for Joseph, except to exploit his equally gullible brawn to escape her own family’s cloistered oppressions on a young girl’s unmanageable heart. Shannon’s intervention in the duel between Stephen and Joseph is played strictly for laughs – forced rather than genuine – as he chickens out at the last possible moment to jump into the back of her carriage; the two speeding off into the dense morning fog as her father and mother, Nora (Barbara Babcock) perplexedly look on.
On board the liner that will carry them to America, Shannon reminds Joseph she paid for both their fares, and thus, has bought his loyalty as her servant. The pair is introduced to the Bostonian gentleman, McGuire (Barry McGovern), who inform on all their inquiries regarding the America that awaits them on the other side. Arriving in Boston Harbor, Shannon and Joseph part company as friends. It doesn’t last for very long. For McGuire turns out to be exactly what Joseph suggested; a roué who has attempted to make off his Shannon’s valuable collection of silver spoons that she had intended on hocking to pay for her journey to Oklahoma. McGuire is shot dead in the streets, presumably for some other previous indiscretion.
Shannon and Joseph find themselves being led by a procurer into the boxing club where ward boss, Mike Kelly (Colm Meaney) is indulging in a bit of fisticuffs. Shannon’s shriek, after a bit of blood spray from Mike’s sparring partner (Clay Lilley) lands across her face, distracts Mike who is subsequently knocked down, though hardly unconscious. To subdue Mike’s wrath and avoid a scandal, Joseph lies about Shannon being his sister, and Mike – a leader in this Irish community – offers to find them both lodgings and jobs. They’ll have to share – one room and one bed. Oh, oh…the plot…uh…romance…thickens. We briefly regress back to Ireland; the Christies narrowly escaping an uprising, their estate torched by its angry tenants, and Stephen departing with the elderly couple for America in search of Shannon.  
Joseph becomes one of Mike’s boxers. Although relatively diminutive compared to his opponents, the scrapper has merit and heart as far as Mike is concerned. Actually, Mike’s a spurious fellow, involved in all sorts of illegal activities, and perhaps commanding a presence in his community no better (and in some ways much worse) than the landlords Shannon and Joseph left behind. The breadth of Mike’s nefarious exploitation is not immediately felt by either; particularly since Joseph continues to win his bouts. However, the monies coming to him are a mere trifle compared to the loot Mike collects for betting on his best boy. Joseph succumbs to the pitfalls of his new found status and meager wealth; buying new suits of clothing with his winnings that ought to have been scrimped and saved so that both he and Shannon could pay for their way to Oklahoma to take part in the land race.
Her admonishment of his motivations brings out the devil in Joseph. The proverbial shoe is now, most decidedly, on the other foot. He is earning more money than Shannon ever dreamed of and deserving of the right to spend it any way he pleases. Determined to prove Joseph wrong, Shannon agrees to become one of Mike’s burlesque dancers (nee prostitutes), Hence, when Joseph arrives for his bout with an Italian boxer (Carl Ciarfalio) his is immeasurably distracted by the sight of Shannon prostituting herself on the stage.  Attempting to intervene, Joseph is coaxed into the boxing match with the promise of $200. Shannon, who previously disdained Joseph’s ‘profession’, now encourages him to accept the wager. After all, it would be more than enough to see them to Oklahoma. Accepting the fight on those terms, Joseph begins to win the bout until he catches a glimpse of one of the men in the audience groping Shannon. The jeering crowds force him back into the ring, his toe accidentally crossing the line before he is ready to resume the match. The Italian takes advantage of this, sucker punching Joseph, who loses as a result.
As retaliation, Mike ostracizes both Joseph and Shannon, evicting them from their room, reclaiming the modest earnings Joseph has managed to save (now tucked away in his trousers) and declaring to all that this pair shall no longer be harbored in any establishment or face the wrath of his organized thug muscle. Mike’s henchmen pummel Joseph in the street to punctuate Mike’s threat. It’s winter. Where will they go? How will they ever survive? Stumbling about the snow covered streets Joseph and Shannon come upon an estate. Seemingly abandoned, they break in, she pretending to be the grand lady of the maison; he, playfully indulging her whims momentarily, cast in the familiar role as her servant. She elevates his standing to that of her pretend husband.
One thing ought to have led to another, except that the owners of the house prematurely return. Discovering the fleeing pair and assuming the worst, they blindly fire a gun, wounding Shannon in the back. In desperation, Joseph carries Shannon’s lifeless body into the streets, begging for someone to help him. Coincidentally (too coincidentally, in fact) he comes upon 6the house Stephen and the newly arrived Christies are renting. Stephen restores Shannon to health and Joseph, seemingly deflated by the loss of the one woman he might have loved, abandons his own dead dream to get a job building the railroad.  We witness some of this back-breaking work, briefly at least, until Joseph learns of a passing boxcar headed for the Oklahoma land rush. Ironically, Joseph and Shannon’s paths cross yet again, Joseph arriving ahead of the Christies and Stephen who have also come to stake their claim and start anew – both with their eyes on the same parcel of land.
Riding a spirited colt bought expressly for the land race after his own horse has died, Joseph is determined to outrun Stephen. The race begins, full of pomp and vigor; Mikael Salomon’s cinematography excelling at some very fine compositions that exquisitely capture the exhilaration of the moment. Having astutely surmised that they can never win fairly, Daniel stakes Nora in the underbrush ahead of time, prompting her to plant their flag into the land at precisely the moment the raging caravan passes them by. However, Stephen is out for blood, pursuing Joseph across the wild tundra. Joseph beats Stephen to the same parcel of land he had hoped to claim as his own, declaring himself a landowner now. In retaliation, Stephen charges on horseback.
Joseph, who has already dismounted, struggles with his adversary for a moment before Stephen’s horse falls on top of him. Declaring to Shannon that he is dying, the movie’s penultimate victory is purely fantastic; the camera assuming the position of Joseph’s departing soul, rising higher and higher into the clouds, only to be brought back to earth by Shannon’s bittersweet tears. The pair now rises from the brush with Joseph’s flag jointly in hand, both plunging it into the ground as an act of joyful unity. They are one and have won the right to start anew in America – the promised land; John Williams towering orchestral score enveloping the audience as ‘The End’ is writ larger than life across the screen.
At a considerable cost of $60 million, Far and Away’s meager domestic gross of $58, 883,840 was decidedly a disappointment, though the worldwide receipts ($137,783,840) pushed the movie into the black. Still, Far and Away was not what the winning team of producer Brian Grazer and director Ron Howard had hoped. In hindsight, it also was a signal to some that Cruise’s box office clout, first solidified in 1986 with the release of Top Gun, had decidedly begun to wane. Viewed today, one can appreciate the movie for its merits, while quietly excusing, if not setting aside, its obvious misfires: Jack Senter’s art direction, Allan Cameron and Jack T. Collis’ production design, and, Joanna Johnston’s costuming are exemplars in period recreation. Mikael Salomon and John Williams’ contributions have already been discussed. And, apart from the principals, the acting throughout is uniformly good if not exactly great.
What becomes increasingly problematic is the miscasting of Tom Cruise. No one is denying the cache this diminutive in stature only megawatt star once wielded in Hollywood. But Cruise is quite unable to assimilate into any period (complete with forced Irish accent) other than his own. He’s just not the Renaissance man we might wish him to be. To a lesser extent, the same is true of Kidman. The period costuming wears her performance, not the other way around. Again, together Cruise and Kidman lack spark – nee, even the most basic sex appeal to be convincing as a couple on screen. One might also rather bitchily suggest the same was true in their failed private lives. Whatever the reason; this ‘then’ couple of the moment in Hollywood is best served in Far and Away when they are at each other’s throats, or defying their character’s obvious emotions in favor of some concocted détente to live their lives apart.  But in the final analysis, Far and Away is just another ‘we shall overcome’ fairy tale offering about the immigrant experience; neither truthfully nor exceptionally well told.
It’s getting harder to get excited about Universal Home Video’s catalogue coming to Blu-ray; especially after viewing the rather tepid results on Far and Away. Here is a movie that was photographed in the startling clarity of large gauge 70mm. But here is a hi-def rendering that only slightly improves upon the image quality of the old DVD. If Universal has made any effort to update their digital files, then it’s a marginal effort at best.  Colors are bolder, and occasionally richer. But fine detail isn’t nearly as snappy as expected and contrast, on the whole, seems weak. There are also instances of age-related artefacts; light scratches and chips that ought to have been corrected prior to scanning in the original film elements – if, in fact, this was ever done.
Does this disc look better than the DVD? Well, obviously – yes! Is this a faithful rendering of what the 70mm engagement looked like? Decidedly, not! The 5.1 DTS audio is a marked improvement as it should be; John Williams’ hearty score and the SFX really give your speakers a work out. Regrettably, there isn’t much else to consider. No extras except for a trailer. Ho-hum. The beat goes on. While those unfamiliar with 70mm quality will be pleased with this presentation, Far and Away on Blu-ray is hardly indicative of all that it could have been on home video this time around. Pass.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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