Sunday, August 30, 2015

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP: Blu-ray (Pan Arts 1982) Warner Archive Collection

In Shakespeare’s time, John Irving's fourth novel, The World According to Garp (an existentialist tragicomedy that became a publishing phenomenon in in 1978) would have been quaintly referenced as that proverbial ‘tale told by an idiot’ – albeit, an extremely articulate and intellectually perplexed and probing one – though no less ‘full of sound and fury…signifying nothing.’ Even the mostly respectful book reviews of the year felt the need to take sides in the arguments as presented by Irving with terrific irony. Was the novel and the character, T. S. Garp (brilliantly conceived for the movie by Robin Williams in his film debut) pro- or anti-feminist; for or against modern marriage? The genius in Irving’s textually dense ramblings, devoted to this somewhat emasculated fop, chronically overshadowed by the women (and one surrogate transgender gal) in his life; the spawn of a demented Margaret Sanger-esque nurse’s biologically, proto-feministic and highly unorthodox need to procure a child without actually tolerating a husband; queerly never offered us an opinion – merely a series of vignettes travelling through various time periods, from which the reader might glean a variety of perspectives.
The whimsy in Irving’s apparently ‘straight-forward’ style to concocting his alternative reality gave it its’ impetus as a bizarre reflection on then contemporary society; the Ellen James Society being the most perversely acknowledged as a counterpoint to 70’s radical feminism. Here is a cult of pseudo-militants, incapable of relating to the world, or perhaps even each other through the gift of articulate speech; chained to a cause after having their tongues surgically removed in a thoroughly misguided show of support for a young rape victim – Ellen James – whose own tongue was removed via her male attacker to keep her silent. Using this intolerably violent act as their crutch, the ‘society’ – arguably, comprised of a bunch of man-hating lesbians – perverts one woman’s grief into a national campaign in order to eradicate masculinity from the earth – or rather, keep it at bay and away from their cloistered gathering.  
As a reflection of modern American life back then (and its continuing spiral into anarchic oblivion since), The World According to Garp remains prophetically disturbing and desolate; the implosion of middle-class morality, and, escalation of random acts of violence, foreshadowing our present epoch with eerie and exacting precision, right down to John Lithgow’s Roberta Muldoon; a transgender former sports celebrity (Caitlyn Jenner, anyone?).  As with all great works of literature, Garp’s purpose – perhaps, somewhat unclear to the rest of us not possessing the author’s far-reaching vision of a future – was generally misconstrued as densely packed intellectual ‘clutter’. Nevertheless, it places the reader in the driver’s seat to formulate opinions about truth and virtue while searching with Garp for a place of solace within this dystopian nightmare. There is little to deny Jenny Fields (realized with nonsensical empathy by Glenn Close) her crippling influence on the natural development of her son’s emotional psyche; a woman so enamored with marching to the beat of a different drum that she sets about to reshape the external influences of life itself, and Garp’s in particular, to assert them as fundamental truths about life and men in general.
Jenny’s grotesque canonization as a leading figure in the 70’s feminist movement is disquieting.  For here is a woman who, by her own rather unapologetic admission first, to her parents (Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy in the film) – then later, Garp, and finally, anyone else who will listen or read her ‘tell all’ novel – has cruelly denied her child a father (even a father-figure, although Roberta does marginally serve as this bridge, straddling the two sexes); having taken advantage of an unconscious and brain-damaged technical sergeant while working as a nurse in the military hospital, simply to harvest his sperm for her own selfish needs. The baby grows up to be T.S. Garp; ill-equipped and even less likely to investigate the basic mechanics of what it means to be a man. According the novel and the movie – ambitiously directed by George Roy Hill – puberty is a curse, as is all male sexual desire. One cannot escape the natural evolution of the former or stave off the frustrated urges of the latter. Without a real man to point out the fundamental truth – that all human beings are dictated by their passions – cerebral and physical – young Garp’s (James McCall) sex education is extremely limited to Jenny’s ideas of ‘dirty male lust’ and reoccurring prepubescent experimentations with the town’s trollop, Cushie (Jillian Ross as a child/Jenny Wright as an adult). A reprieve of sorts arrives during Garp’s college years; a chance meeting and instant infatuation with fellow student, Helen Holm (Mary Beth Hurt).
Garp wants Helen in the sort of cheaply erotic way Jenny finds disgusting and yet simultaneously fascinating. Helen, however, is not interested in jocks, something Garp has since become, thanks in part to his joining the wrestling team against Jenny’s wishes. She would have preferred him to take up basketball.  Locker room shenanigans aside, Garp finds the company of men – or rather, boys of his years – stimulating. Despite being attracted to Helen, Garp also continues to see Cushie on the side; Cushie’s introverted sister, Pooh (Brenda Currin) exposing Garp and Cushie’s love-making on the grassy knoll to Helen, who thereafter avoids Garp like the plague. In the meantime, Garp has been working very hard to impress Helen as the writer she pledges to marry upon graduation. After their breakup, Garp decides to go to New York and become a real writer to spite her. Unwilling, as yet, to loosen the maternal yoke, Jenny quits her job as school nurse and moves in with Garp.
During their initial arrival to the Big Apple, Jenny becomes aware of Garp’s casual glances directed at a prostitute (Swoozie Kurtz). Partly meant to embarrass Garp, but also to learn more about his concept of desire – presumably, for which she has no stomach or extracurricular experience, Jenny is gripped to unearth this hooker’s particular back story regarding the world’s oldest profession. Mother and son befriend the reluctant prostitute. Jenny buys her a cup of coffee and then pays for Garp’s ‘first time’ with a professional. Later, Jenny will offer the hooker a safe haven at her family’s seaside retreat – converted into a sort of misfit’s oasis and respite for the socially stunted. But for now, as Jenny has momentarily retired from nursing, she takes up Garp’s passion to write; penning the bizarre memoir – Sexual Suspect. Inadvertently, it becomes a controversial best seller, embraced by the feminist movement.
Jenny’s overnight celebrity is an anathema to Garp’s carefully crafted proses; his first novella – richly supported by publisher, John Wolfe (Peter Michael Goetz) though receiving little exposure or praise beyond the literati. Garp returns to Helen and proposes marriage. She accepts, recognizing his talents as a brilliant writer. Nevertheless, the rest of the world knows Garp only from his mother’s novel as the ‘bastard son of Jenny Fields’. Garp’s marriage to Helen is hardly without its hiccups. After giving birth to two sons, Duncan (Nathan Babcock) and Walt (Ian McGregor), Helen – now a college professor at Reardon Academy – takes up with one of her graduate students, Michael Milton (Mark Soper). In the meantime, Jenny has established a sort of feminist refuge on the sprawling New England compound once owned by her parents, bequeathed to her after her father’s death. Garp meets ‘Roberta Muldoon’ – a transgender and devout convert of Jenny’s methodologies. Roberta is empathetic to Garp’s inability to accept his mother’s constant and controversial meddling in all their lives. Their unlikely friendship will ultimately ease Garp through some very tough times ahead.
Having discovered Helen’s ongoing infidelities with Michael, Garp confronts her over the telephone, flying into a rage. He takes Duncan and Walt out for dinner and then a movie to clear his head. But his anger incrementally festers as the night wears on. Earlier, Garp has illustrated his passion to fly by turning off the engine of his Packard on the decline leading to their house, allowing gravity to send the car coasting to an abrupt stop in the family’s driveway.  Now, under the cover of night, as rain begins to fall, Duncan and Walt implore him to repeat this trick. Alas, they are unaware Michael has parked his car in the driveway, having coaxed Helen into performing fellatio on him in the front seat. In the resultant smash up, Walt is killed and Duncan loses an eye. Later, we learn Helen also bit off Michael’s penis in the accident, breaking her jaw; Garp cracking his neck and jaw, having his mouth wired shut for a time. The family retires to Jenny’s familial home to convalesce. But Garp’s ire remains unabated. Unable to speak, he nevertheless makes his disgust for Helen known to all, causing Jenny to take Helen’s side.  Roberta comforts Garp.
Sometime later, Helen and Garp are reconciled; their marital bond strengthened by their shared grief at having lost a son. They decided to have another child. Garp writes a politically loaded novel condemning the Ellen James Society. It incurs the organization’s wrath, but garners him sincere praise from the critics and an anonymous note of thanks, presumably written by the reclusive rape victim. Jenny, accompanied by Roberta, leaves for New York to support a woman candidate (Bette Henritze) running for governor. Regrettably, the outdoor venue is patronized by a sniper who performs a public execution as Jenny takes the stage. Garp’s grief turns to scorn when the Ellen Jamesians organize a public funeral for Jenny meant to exclude him from attending. Roberta helps Garp in a disguise as a woman in order to partake in the services. But his presence is exposed by Pooh who has since become a member of the cult.
Spirited away by Roberta down a back alley to avoid a scene, Garp comes face to face with the reclusive Ellen James who holds up a copy of his novel, mouthing the words ‘thank you’ for his honesty, before helping Garp escape the militants in hot pursuit by hurrying him into a waiting taxi. A short while later, we find Garp has given up writing, having come home to coach the college wrestling team. Regrettably, Pooh is also on campus. Masquerading as a nurse, she fires several gun shots into Garp. As Garp is air-lifted by medical helicopter, he quietly peers out the window at the landscape, turning to a tearful Helen and adding, “Look…I’m flying, Helen. I’m flying.” We cut away to the image of a happy baby, Garp, being tossed into the air; the infant joyously smiling now. Is this merely childhood memory unearthed by the adult Garp as he drifts in and out of consciousness, or a recap meant to mark his life at its end?  
As with most artists, The World According to Garp is a far more personal reflection of John Irving’s own heart; an intimate portrait grafted onto fictional counterparts, the veneer thin and stemming from Irving’s own obsession to draw a vicarious clarity out of being denied access to his own birth father. In reality, Irving’s mother never gave up information about his origins, just as Jenny baits Garp with a single ‘scripted’ story of his conception that leaves him feeling deflated, yet bursting inside with even more unanswerable questions. The novel’s view – that sex equates to death or, at the very least, is a harbinger to all sorts of dissatisfactory and emotional disfigurement, torturous and cruel – is carried over into the movie; ambitiously so, given the climate in American movies back in 1982; screenwriter, Steve Tesich choosing to explore some, if not all, of Irving’s ‘hang-ups’ via Garp’s repeatedly thwarted exploration of his own sexual feelings – rechristened as ‘lust’ by Jenny – without reprisals.  In the novel, Jenny takes the young Garp to Vienna as an escape from American provincialism. In Austria, she and Garp encounter the prostitute. For budgetary and logistic reasons, this intercontinental venue was changed to New York instead. In both cases, this chance encounter that ought to have expanded Garp’s understanding of sex and love, is instead usurped and mined by Jenny as a chapter for her memoir, ‘Sexual Suspect’.  
Interesting – and gutsy – of Irving to cast the fictional Jenny Fields as the empathetic organizer of the Ellen Jamesians – a self-mutilating cult of voiceless women, protesting the rape of a young woman – when, by her own admission, Jenny has raped a comatose and dying technical sergeant merely to conceive Garp. Ultimately, Tesich’s reconstitution of Garp’s marriage to Helen distills what, in the novel, had been multiple affairs with many singles and other married couples, into two separate indiscretions; Garp’s seduction of Duncan and Walt’s teenage babysitter (Sabrina Lee Moore) and Helen’s affair with her graduate student, Michael. This makes the couple’s later reconciliation more palpable and convincing; the audience able to excuse a ‘single’ indiscretion on both sides, recognized by both offending parties as an obvious lapse in judgment, though just as unlikely to embrace any married couple whose morality and attitudes toward marriage are laissez faire to non-existent. The inextricable link between sex and death, even murder, is less darkly drawn in the film than in the novel; the one exception being Walt dying from injuries sustained in the car wreck that causes Michael to lose his manhood between Helen’s clenched teeth after she agrees to fellatio as a parting gesture in their affair. The movie retains John Irving’s wickedness for combining a macabre sense of the perverse and silly, but even further lightens this mood by tipping the scales toward a sort of merciless sardonicism.
It helps that the novel and the movie are set in the afterglow of the fabulous forties; a decade then, as yet, untapped in the movies for its sexual explicitness. There is a great tendency among the young to look upon previous generations, particularly those in the early half of the 20th century, as harbingers of a sort of sexless glamor; women of virtue married to men of valor, everyone doing their part to remain congenially ‘above it all’ where love, lust and sex is concerned. To a large extent, this common view by the novice has been nurtured via the entertainments then in vogue; songs professing unrequited kisses left on a pillow and movies in which a brief interlude of mostly chaste clenches leads to a swift walk down the isle in a flourish of strewn rose petals and groundswell of underscore to punctuate the proverbial ‘…and they all lived happily ever after’ – sleeping in separate beds, preferably, in separate bedrooms, with one foot firmly planted on the floor. But by 1982, the American movies’ fairytale about life as a couple had fallen on crasser times; the graphic nature of sex exorcised in countless ‘love scenes’ that had very little to do with satisfying our cerebral vestiges for a ‘good time’.  
The world, at least, according to Garp, is misshapen, imperfect, dissatisfying and frequently harmful. Here is a man unable to find even the remotest satisfaction in most any relationship he chooses to cultivate; though chiefly, with the women in his life. Ironic, given his aversion to homosexuality in general, Garp’s most cherished and enduring friendship is with the transsexual, Roberta – likely derived from his remembrances of her when she was still a robust footballer, playing professionally for his favorite team. There are shades of the buddy/buddy picture at play in the scenes where Garp and Roberta narrowly escape a psychotic truck driver (Matthew Cowles), whom Garp threatens with a crowbar after he is caught recklessly speeding through their residential neighborhood.  And later, Roberta and Garp are seen sharing a game of touch football, engaging Walt and Duncan in an afternoon’s make-believe of war and conquest, with Roberta as their damsel in distress. And it is Roberta to whom Garp turns in hours of genuine need; a sincere comfort after Jenny’s assassination and Garp and Helen’s recovery from their near-fatal car wreck. 
As a novel, The World According to Garp remains densely packed with scenarios that frequently border on grand guignol; sexual encounters that end badly or scenarios where women struggle to discover themselves from under the postmodern feminist fallout, instead frequently find themselves the victims of an insidiously monolithic patriarchy that even embraces political assassination to remain in control. Deconstructing the novel’s stories within stories takes the reader into a complex netherworld of stumbling social situations and intricately woven character studies, frequently bleak and often quite horrifying. In the book, the fatalistic nature of its protagonist is exhaustive and exhausting. The movie is salvaged from becoming a real downer by screenwriter, Steve Tesich’s refusal to go all the way down this rabbit hole; also, by Robin Williams’ miraculously restrained performance, void of his usual need to take over virtually every scene in which he appears. Instead, we are given a kinder, gentler Garp – still cynical, world-weary and occasionally imbued with Irving’s sense of animosity toward feminists in particular and women in general. But on the whole, Williams’ Garp is a probing, nurturing and soul-searching drifter through life. He discovers his path through the wilderness of angst, self-pity and regrets; albeit, too late to truly appreciate all the meandering misfires as part of the learning curve in the journey gone before it. The intractable nature of Irving’s prose is not so much reinterpreted by Tesich, but played verbatim like a moving tableau of the text, with minor artistic license taken along the way.
The movie, however, lives entirely within its moments, eschewing Irving’s overriding arc of sublime nihilism. As a movie, The World According to Garp is director George Roy Hill’s counterculture folklore to Hollywood’s nationalized whitewash in candy-flossed entertainments. In increments, it’s grim, sour, and excoriating showbiz. But oh, what a show; the bits of business appropriately disturbing to their core; odd people do unsettling things to each other in the spirit of professing to be just normal Average Joes. Overlapping the ostensibly indivisible chasms of politicking and madness, the twain frequently runs a parallel course, unexpectedly meeting right down the middle with nerve-jangling results. As such, The World According to Garp is often wintry and abrasive in its storytelling, yet always with something relevant to say about the modern implosion of suburban life. 
The Warner Archive Blu-ray has been remastered in 2k from a newly created interpositive. The results are impressive but slightly imperfect. Miroslav Ondrícek’s understated cinematography looks gorgeous for the most part, although there are still a few obvious hints of age-related damage scattered throughout this transfer; a speckle here, a fleeting scratch there. The subdued color palette, particularly during outdoor scenes, has been very accurately reproduced. Scenes shot indoors under natural lighting conditions tend to adopt a slightly thicker patina of grain (as they should) but with flesh tones ever so slightly leaning toward an unnatural orange.  Overall, the image is finely detailed and generally film-like, untouched by unpleasant digital manipulations. But it doesn’t really impress. Okay, The World According to Garp is not a movie meant to overwhelm. It’s an earthy, alive and gritty main stream product that plays more like experimental art house. The visuals on this Blu-ray support this assessment. Let’s leave it at that. The original mono audio is presented in 2.0 DTS and is surprisingly robust with good solid clarity.  WAC's Blu-ray is a first-rate presentation of this tenaciously idiosyncratic story. For those willing to invest in the tale being told, there are formidable riches to be mined and treasured forever. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Friday, August 28, 2015

FATAL ATTRACTION: Blu-ray (Paramount 1987) Paramount Home Video

The movie that made every married man even contemplating an extramarital affair cringe, Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (1987) subverts the male fantasy of taking a mistress to bed without reprisals. Instead we get every man's worst nightmare – discovering the gal on the side is both insane and pregnant with his child. In retrospect, Fatal Attraction is a far more insidious thriller than critics of its day gave it credit. Indeed, the premise, that a happily married man could stray even from the perfect wife and mother, simply to satisfy an itch while she is away feathering his nest, and then, be forced to face the consequences of his betrayal with a near death experience, served to ignite a powder keg of feminist debate in 1987.  Militants picketed the movie wherever it played, charging Lyne and screenwriter James Dearden had made a public attack on the decade’s power broker female executive. Why, they inquired, did a highly successful career for women, equate to one becoming a raving psychotic, driven by her hormones?   Fair enough, the film’s Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), a seemingly normal and enterprising go-getter, working as legal counsel for a publishing firm, slips in her lust for attorney at law, Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) into a raving and obsessed gargoyle; stalking him, taking his daughter hostage, murdering the family pet and causing Dan’s wife, Beth (Ann Archer) to suffer injuries in a horrific car wreck. But did either Lynne or Dearden consider Alex Forrest a representative of the ‘working woman’?  
In retrospect, it is a thoughtless argument, and one basically asking the wrong question - 'what more could Mrs. Gallagher have done to keep her man?' - when the onus ought to have zeroed in on critiquing just what in the hell was wrong with her man; a guy who could so easily and callously shrug off his marital commitments, simply because she was out of town for the weekend. Ultimately, Lyne and Dearden made no judgment calls or, in fact, gave us any explanations to suffice and quell all the inhuman noise and controversy surrounding the picture. Such is life; rarely, what we would hope it to be or as neatly defined and bookended with reasons, and quite often sneaking up from behind to assault our senses and good name when we least expect it. On the flipside, the emotional castration Dan suffers at Alex’s hand seemed to satisfy at least some, a sort of all-encompassing divine retribution for every husband’s philandering ways. Yet, the punishment inflicted upon Dan by his jilted lover turned enemy spills over to terrorize his wife, Beth (Anne Archer) and their young daughter, Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Latzen); the impact of his actions possessing far-reaching ramifications that almost tear apart a family, or at least cause them to reassess their loyalties to one another.
Fatal Attraction is unquestionably a harrowing thriller; yielding to that moment when intense passion crosses the line into a dangerous downward spiral of psychotic obsession. In today’s cynical climate, Lyne’s movie perhaps appears marginally tamer than it did in 1987; its melodramatic arc and somewhat clichéd ‘villainess’ ending, bordering on pure camp. There is no denying screenwriter Dearden paints these characters in very broad brushstrokes: Dan, our wayward cock of the walk, with an egotistical sense of manly attractiveness being brought into question by his own looming mid-life crisis. Beth is his doe-eyed, faithful-as-a-bird-dog Suzie Cream Cheese, desiring to drag her man back to the affluent suburbs. She cannot fathom her man’s wandering eye has already led them all into a den of iniquity soon to rupture with all the violent underpinnings of the San Andreas fault. And Alex is remarkably transparent as the bunny-boiling, 'I am a bad woman, hear me roar' being thrust upon this clan. What salvages the writing are the performances by Michael Douglas, Ann Archer and particularly Glenn Close; the latter giving a brilliant interpretation of the lost - though hardly soulless – creature, who refuses to be dumped like garbage once the man has had his fun.
It is all quite good up to the end; Lyne falling back on the traditional ‘hell hath no fury showdown’ to wrap up the story. The ending to Fatal Attraction was, in fact, forced upon Lyne by the studio after he had already conceived a much more diabolical last act finale - Alex taking a butcher knife to her own throat, the same utensil Dan had handled in an earlier scene; thus, his fingerprints left to be discovered by police, who thereafter assume the 'obvious' - that he has murdered his lover to shut her up: the ultimate betrayal come home to roost and inflict one final devastation on the Gallagher family. Reconsidering Lyne’s finale, one is rather immediately struck by the fact it too doesn’t quite work. Alex, strong-willed, her mental acuity even further askew by hormonal imbalances brought on by her pregnancy, taking her own life and that of her unborn child. Only a few scenes before, she had sent Dan an audio recording, vowing to make him pay for their mistake for the rest of his life. Hell hath no fury…remember; and yet, Alex’s suicide get Dan off the hook in the long run; the police sure to discover, via Beth’s alibi, that Dan was nowhere near Alex’s apartment when the throat-slashing began; the fingerprints easily explained away, since Beth already knows about her husband’s affair, and Dan, now free of both Alex and the bastard child he never wanted in the first place.
For its day, Fatal Attraction trod some particularly tawdry ground in an unexpectedly cheap and tawdry way. The film was ground-breaking in its representation of marital infidelity. Dan’s wife, as example, is not presented to us as the cause of his marital angst. In fact, she is sweetly innocent and utterly charming; better still, a most forgiving and patient spouse. Even more curious, given his ultimate betrayal, Dan thinks so too. And the impetus for the affair is not some growing infatuation between colleagues at work, but carnal-based, sweat-soaked passion, invested on a spur of the moment; a consensual whim, made by two apparently reasonably-minded, well-rounded and consenting adults – both intelligent and old enough to know better. Again, the onus of responsibility here is on Dan – the guy with everything to lose after spending himself on a male ego-driven dare one rainy afternoon. Instead, the focus gradually shifts from Dan to Alex – manipulative, unstable and finally – just plain vanilla nuts. It is to Glenn Close’s credit, she never allows her character to slip completely down this rabbit hole into blow-job/knife-wielding lunacy without alluding to something far more sinister and demonic behind the eye. Clearly, Alex is troubled. But she is also enterprising, her revenge conceived with a systematic determination to inflict maximum anxiety on her casual lover; baiting him with visits to his apartment on the ruse she is house-hunting, introducing herself to Beth, and later, befriending Ellen as a pseudo-maternal influence.   
Adrian Lyne’s approach to this straightforward material is fairly sophisticated; his subtle introduction of Beth and Dan, seen in their idyllic – if slightly cramped – New York apartment, preparing to attend a work-related book-signing with their best friends, Jimmy (Stuart Pankin) and Hildy (Ellen Foley); the perfect segue to Dan’s first casual introduction to Alex. The contrast between these two couples cannot be overstated; Beth’s fragile elegance pitted against Hildy’s more gregarious repartee; Dan’s self-professed peacock, seemingly the straight man to Pankin’s bulbous sidekick.  When first set up, Beth and Dan are clearly the power-brokering pair, exploiting Hildy and Jimmy as their appendages; figures of fun for amusing nights on the town. Lyne gives us glimmers of the unanticipated volatility to follow; Jimmy hitting on Alex at a business mixer, only to be shot down by her murderous stare. This look of absolute glacial hatred melts when Dan attempts a subtler approach to their ‘cute meet’; alas, soon to turn out neither ‘cute’ nor casual. Here, Lyne provides insight into each’s motivations and foreshadows the future crossed paths that will lead a devoted husband and father astray. The genius remains in the casting of Glenn Close; not only for the obvious reason – that she is a superior actress, but equally, because in terms of physical appeal alone, she pales to Anne Archer’s gazelle-like beauty.
Lyne breaks us of the Hollywoodized misconception that a man’s straying is purely motivated on ‘trading up’ his female companion, solely based on her looks. Archer is not only clearly the forerunner, but the winner. Alas, she is also ‘wife’ and ‘mother’ – Lyne exploiting the conventions of these signifiers to suggest Dan could never indulge in the sort of tasteless sexual escapades with a woman he so obviously respects – at least, enough to have put a ring on her finger. That was then. And yet, happier times have persisted – the bloom of love not yet having worn thin when Dan meets Alex. The betrayal is thus all the more unnatural and shocking, because it is not prompted or preceded by anything Beth Gallagher does; her biggest ‘transgression’ – kicking Dan out of their marital bed for one night after he returns from taking the dog for a walk to discover their daughter, Ellen has crawled into bed and fallen asleep next to his wife. And there are no stressors at work either; none that would suggest or support Dan’s need to blow off a little extramarital steam while Beth is away in Connecticut, house-hunting. In fact, Dan is about to be made partner at his law firm.
Casting Michael Douglas as the pivotal maypole around which both women do their dance is inspiring. Beth’s martyrdom is pitted against Alex’s aggressive passion. Both bring about a deeper suffrage. But it is a stretch to suggest Alex seduces Dan. Rather, he willingly allows his virtue to slip, presumably, only for one ‘harmless’ weekend tryst.  Dan gets more than he bargains for as Alex inveigles him in an increasingly well-plotted, if maniacal and harrowing, game of blackmail; the insidious stealth with which she suddenly infects and affects all that is good and decent in all their lives, creeping with all the voracity of an untamed kudzu to entangle this ‘perfect marriage’. But Douglas makes his portrait of this straying ‘family man’ not merely palpable, also queerly sympathetic. In the first act, we cannot help but find Dan Gallagher a reprehensible cad; Douglas conveying an assured bravado and selfishness that naïvely believes he can have both a dutiful wife and a mistress at his beckoned call. However, it is in the middle act where Douglas illustrates a superior interpretation of the oft witnessed ‘cheating spouse’; avoiding not only the more transparent clichés, but even the subtler ones. Douglas gradually peels back the façade of Dan’s male ego to reveal a rather boyish anxiety; being found out escalating into abject fear and then, even more uncharacteristically, stripped down to an honest and empathizing remorse-filled regret for his actions.
Lyne’s last act finale, foisted upon him by the studio, remains something of a minor betrayal to each character’s driving principles - especially Beth’s. She is, after all, the grotesquely injured party in this equation, having endured, not only the indignation in discovering her perfect partner has gone astray; also, survived the emotional roller coaster of Ellen’s faux kidnapping, a near fatal car accident, and, in the finale, almost being murdered at knifepoint by Alex in an upstairs bathroom. Yet, it is Beth who gets Dan off the hook for his extramarital affair by shooting his psychotic lover dead. Sweet revenge or self-defense? We are never entirely certain; the calculating look on Beth’s face as she rescues her husband from being Ginsued by his illicit paramour, registering subliminal satisfaction at being the one to ‘put down’ this rabid hellcat. Lyne’s finale completely eschews the fact Alex is pregnant with Dan’s baby at the time of her murder. Audiences in 1987 did not seem to mind this. But feminists decried Beth’s actions as an assault on the proverbial sisterhood, particularly as it is in defense of the male responsible for both hers and Alex’s emotional misery.
Only in retrospect does Dan’s wounded chivalry, flying up the stairs at the first sound of Beth’s frantic screams, and, expending his rage to disarm Alex of her butcher knife by forcing her head beneath the steaming bath waters, seem, not only less chivalrous, but even more enterprisingly desperate; a means to silence Alex once and for all, thereby –literally – washing away his carnal sins. And, of course, Alex herself is compromised; having begun the story as an intelligent, sane, even playful and forgiving lover, she gradually unravels into the cinema’s tradition of the ‘bad woman’ – very bad, indeed – killing Ellen’s beloved pet rabbit and allowing its boiled remains to be discovered by Beth in a stock pot on the stove; pouring acid on Dan’s BMW, mailing threatening audio tapes to his place of business, and finally turning up uninvited at his apartment, and later, the Gallagher’s newly purchased country home to exact her penultimate revenge.
It is unclear what Alex’s motivations are in the finale as it exists in the film today. Clearly, her plan is to kill Beth. But could she genuinely expect Beth’s murder to liberate Dan into rekindling their affair? While the argument can be made Alex is quite obviously not playing with a full deck; her scenarios are nevertheless flawed and ill-plotted. At least, Lyne’s original ending, Alex committing suicide with the malignant intent to frame Dan for her ‘murder’, is in keeping with the character’s vengeful ambitions to never let him go. Even in death, she would have destroyed his chances for a happy home. As this never occurs in the final cut, we are left with a somewhat unsatisfactory denouement; the family Gallagher, disjointed, shell-shocked and unlikely ever to return to its original state of unity.    
Fatal Attraction opens with the Gallaghers at home; Dan, listening to a deposition in his underwear on the couch as his young daughter, Ellen quietly watches television at his side. Beth has already begun to put on her face for a publishing gala they are expected to attend later in the evening. After leaving Ellen with a babysitter (Jane Krakowski), the couple is joined by good friends, Jimmy and Hildy. Jimmy is feeling his oats, drawn to Alex Forrest who is poised in a slinky gown at the bar. But Jimmy’s harmless flirtation is met with a daggered glare; our first ‘fleeting’ glimpse of the Medusa lurking just beneath. After Jimmy bows out, Dan casually engages Alex in conversation. She is more receptive to him, but still thinks him a ‘naughty boy’ for flirting, particularly as Beth is in another part of the room. The next day, Dan bids Beth and Ellen goodbye as they drive off to spend a weekend at her parents’ Joan (Meg Mundy) and Howard Rogerson (Tom Brennan) in Connecticut. Arriving at the publishers a short while later, to negotiate a contract with a female author whose scandalous exposé about a real affair she had with a senator is threatening a lawsuit, Dan is amused when the client’s legal counsel is none other than Alex.
At negotiations’ end, Dan and Alex agree to share a taxi because it is pouring rain. Instead, they wind up at a nearby bistro where each reveals bits from their past; Alex, inquiring about Dan’s wife and child. When Dan suggests his marriage is ‘good’, Alex comes back with “If it’s so good what are you doing here with me?” Ironically, her directness does not set off any red flags for Dan. He has already decided he won’t be going back to an empty apartment tonight. And so, Fatal Attraction begins to slip into the mire of a heated weekend sex-capade; complete with elevator blow-jobs and some fairly hardcore acrobatics in the bedroom and kitchen. Afterward, Alex takes Dan dancing to her favorite Latin-American club. As Alex lives in a walk up near the meat packers’ district, no one pays attention to their comings and goings at all hours. The next afternoon, Alex coaxes Dan to play hooky from his work-related responsibilities; the two engaging in a spirited game of touch football in Central Park. When Dan fakes a heart attack, he causes Alex to momentarily become panicked. Revealing his sick little prank, she admonishes him with a fake story of her own, about her father dying right before her eyes when she was barely five years old. As Dan suddenly feels guilty about his stupid prank, Alex bursts into laughter, revealing to him her father is not dead but living in Arizona. Like most things Dan comes to know about Alex, this too will later be proven as a lie.
But for now, the two share more intimate stories about their youth; more spaghetti and sex and opera music (Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, to be exact – a prophetic choice, given Lyne’s original ending). But by now, it’s Sunday. Beth will be coming home soon. Dan’s attempt to disentangle himself from their weekend tryst leads to a disastrous moment;  first, of violent refusal, as Alex claws at the buttons on his shirt, tearing apart the fabric in a rage; then, in her plunge into suicide, slicing open her wrists and smearing Dan’s face in the blood from her open wounds. He manages to bind her cuts and put her to bed before slinking home like a penitent drunkard. When Beth arrives, Dan feigns a boring weekend at home. She tells him about her restful weekend – of Ellen’s desire to have a pet rabbit and of the beautiful cottage, not far from her parents; possibly, the ideal place for them to have a real ‘fresh start’ at last. Dan resists at first.  But then Alex begins to stalk him at home; mysterious phone calls in the middle of the night, ending in hang-ups when Beth answers, or thinly veiled threats made when Dan picks up the receiver. To put an end to the harassment, Dan agrees to meet Alex publicly in the subway, whereupon she confides she is carrying his child. Dan offers to pay for an abortion. But Alex insists she will carry the child to term.
Under duress, Dan agrees to buy Beth her dream cottage in Connecticut. While Dan, Beth, Jimmy and Hildy celebrate, Alex is seen, huddled on the floor of her apartment, turning the light in her bedroom on and off as she weeps real tears listening to Madam Butterfly.  More confrontations ensue. Dan attempts to stand his ground with Alex, when, in reality he knows he doesn’t have the proverbial ‘leg’ to stand on – except, perhaps, the one that got him into trouble in the first place. “You're so sad. You know that, Alex? Lonely and very sad,” he tells her. “Don't you ever pity me, you smug bastard,” she threatens. “I'll pity you because you're sick,” he challenges, to which she astutely summarizes “Why? Because I won't allow you treat me like some slut you can just bang a couple of times and throw in the garbage?” A short while later, Dan and Beth move into their new home.  Alex is anything but out of the picture. In fact, she deliberately douses Dan’s Beamer in battery acid; then, tails him as he rents a car to drive himself home. Observing the ‘happy family’ through the window, Alex becomes disturbed and throws up in the bushes.
The next afternoon, the family returns home to a gruesome discovery. As Ellen and Dan race to the backyard to play with Ellen’s pet rabbit, Beth enters the house; discovering her stock pot boiling on the gas stove. Knowing she has not left anything cooking on the stove, Beth approaches the pot with trepidation, discovering the rabbit’s mutilated remains cooking inside. After putting a distraught Ellen to bed, Beth suggests Dan telephone the police. Instead, he confesses the truth to her; of his affair with Alex, the possibility she is carrying his love child and the likelihood she is responsible for the bunny boiler. Beth is outraged, ordering Dan from the house. He moves out. But Alex is not about to leave the family alone. Alex befriends Ellen; picking her up from school and taking her to a nearby amusement park where they ride the roller coaster. When Beth arrives at the school she is informed by Ellen’s teachers, the child is gone. Believing the worst, Beth drives like a maniac through the streets, frantically looking for her daughter, eventually causing a terrible car wreck that puts her in the hospital. Meanwhile, Alex has dropped Ellen off at home unharmed.
When Dan learns of the accident he storms Alex’s apartment, perhaps intent on murdering her. The two struggle in the various rooms, Dan wrestling a carving knife loose from Alex’s grip. She seems erotically pleased to have surrendered the knife to him; again, director, Adrian Lyne’s original scenario (to have Alex slit her own throat, but with a knife covered in Dan’s fingerprints) would have borne out this plot twist. Instead, Dan returns to Beth and begs her forgiveness. She recognizes his remorse as genuine and allows him to move back into the family home. But on her first night’s return to take a soothing bath, Alex breaks into the house and confronts Beth at knife point in the upstairs bathroom. Dan is none the wiser for this intrusion until Beth screams for help. He charges up the stairs, bursts into the room and attacks Alex. She violently slices the air in retaliation, the blade superficially wounding Dan in the chest. As he forces her head below the surface of the bathtub water, Alex fakes drowning. Dan loosens his grip and reclines on the edge of the tub, presuming the ordeal is over. However, Alex has one last trick up her sleeve. She leaps from the bath, knife in hand and ready to stab Dan in the back, only to be fatally shot by Beth with the gun the family bought for self-defense earlier.  As police swarms the house in an aftermath of sirens and questioning, the camera casually pans to a silver-framed photograph in the foyer; the Gallaghers, smiling blissfully.
In retrospect, Fatal Attraction is a watershed in American cinema; Adrian Lyne’s direction and the performances of these three principles in the ill-fated lover’s triangle, managed to generate holocausts and hell fires as no other intimate drama/sex thriller ever had before it. Viewed today, a lot of the precepts and pacing in Fatal Attraction has become diluted and formulaic from our seeing too many like-minded adulterous melodramas, leaving contemporary audiences to wonder what all the fuss was about with Lyne’s movie. It is important to recall virtually none of these machinations were ‘old hat’ when Fatal Attraction debuted. And today, the movie still holds a hallowed place as shocking, yet tasteful cinema.  Despite the feminist backlash the picture endured, Fatal Attraction was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic; Lyne resisting immediate offers to do ‘another Fatal Attraction’ – although, subsequent movie projects like Indecent Proposal (1993) and his lackluster remake of Lolita (1997) would prove variations on a theme. In 2002, Lyne relented to visiting the same well twice, and almost verbatim, with Unfaithful; the roles reversed. This time, it was Diane Lane’s bored housewife who took a penniless artist and bookseller to bed, leaving her husband apoplectic and eventually turned secret killer of her lover. But by then, the salacious machinations on display had been distilled to one-dimensional and mechanical intrigues. Yet these, quite simply, failed to excite.
Arguably, Fatal Attraction could have been better had Paramount not balked at Lyne’s more understated conclusion, forcing him to cobble together the ‘evil villainess’ scenario as it plays today. This ending is undeniably heart-pounding. But it is also structurally flawed. For example; how is it that no one in this small community of country houses sees Alex approaching the property or entering the house? Dan sets the alarm while Beth retires upstairs to take her bath. How long has Alex been in the house and, more importantly, given her murderous impulsiveness, what is she waiting for? Furthermore, once Beth and Alex begin to struggle for the knife in the upstairs bathroom – with Beth, at first, shrieking several times for help – why does no one, including Ellen (who is sleeping only a few feet away) immediately rush to her aid? Lyne uses the shrill piercing sound of a whistling kettle to presumably ‘drown out’ Beth’s screams. But we are not talking about an expansive estate with many rooms; rather a cozy cottage-styled home with few nooks and crannies in which to hide. One gets the sense from earlier scenes played out inside the home that even the slightest creaking of the stairs would alert everyone to an intruder. Yet, on this night, ‘a kettle’ stifles cries for help and voices shouting in an upstairs bath. Finally, although it is Dan who attempts to drown Alex in their bathtub, it is actually Beth who murders Alex with a fatal gunshot, leaving Dan – more or less – the emasculated victim of this penultimate assault.
None of these glaring oversights mattered to audiences in 1987. When Fatal Attraction hit theaters it became an instant sensation, either intentionally or unintentionally setting off that powder keg for outraged feminists, who denounced it as masochistic tripe. Curiously, this only made the public want to see it more. It has become something of a sport with movie-goers ever since to defy negative publicity and indulge an even more disturbing fascination; to see a ‘good picture’ that is supposed to be bad. In retrospect, Fatal Attraction is an artful entertainment, Adrian Lyne plucking at the chords of the audience’s curiosity, contempt and fear to tell a simple story about the darkest inhibitions to which man and woman can succumb without much effort or resolution. Howard Atherton’s cinematography and Maurice Jarre’s understated score conspire to bolster this understated critique of self-destructive nature, unable to leave well enough alone and driven by the most primal urges, despite centuries of striving for a more cultured set of moral principles by which to live. There have been other erotic thrillers before and since Fatal Attraction, arguably, none so skillfully ricocheting between moments of fitful passion and unadulterated obsession. This is what makes Fatal Attraction much more an artistic masterpiece than a commercial colossus; although, in the summer of ’87 it proved to be both.  
Paramount’s Blu-Ray rectifies many sins committed on previous DVD incarnations of Fatal Attraction. For some reason, previous regimes at the studio never bothered to revisit original camera negatives, but used imperfect print masters to slap their movies to disc format. The result: an image ultimately lacking in fine detail, with some slight variances in color density and balancing and, at least three generations removed from fine grain sources, sporting a barrage of age-related artifacts. But now we get the Blu-ray: a true 1080p transfer from original elements and virtually free of debris and damage. You’ll be hard-pressed to find fault with this disc. The Blu-Ray sports refined and very vibrant colors, true to life and the period in which the movie was photographed. Shadow and contrast have been beautifully rendered for a very sharp – though not artificially enhanced – smooth transfer. Indigenous grain has been well-preserved. Here is an early contribution by Paramount to do right by its own catalog in the years before it suddenly decided to sell-off ‘grazing rights’ to its back catalog to Warner Home Video. Since that time, we have seen very few quality transfers coming down the pipeline. The DTS stereo audio will impress. Extras include featurettes previously a part of Paramount’s Special Collector’s Edition DVD; most presented in HD herein, including the original trailer. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Thursday, August 27, 2015

MGM: WHEN THE LION ROARS (Turner Pictures 1992) Warner Home Video

In 2009, I reviewed Frank Martin’s monumental three-part/six hour documentary, MGM: When The Lion Roars (1992) as an ambitious, behind-the-scenes, backstage pass into the magic and majesty that was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. I find since a need to revise this feeble assessment and reconsider Mr. Martin’s efforts, not simply as Herculean, but of such an exquisite and rarified ilk, that to label them the finest exploration into any Hollywood film studio’s history isn’t so much my clumsy attempt at hyperbole as an exercise in summarizing such well-deserved praise. Hosted by Patrick Stewart, MGM: When The Lion Roars is perhaps the most comprehensive look at a Hollywood dynasty yet conceived. Few studios can boast a history as rich in lore, legend and legacy as Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the studio once home to “more stars than there are in heaven.” But Martin’s unravelling of this complex and intricately woven tapestry of talents and temperaments is a marvel in concise writing, even as it remains densely packed with interviews from – then – surviving talents, both in front of and behind the camera.
Herein, Martin has also incorporated a myriad of vintage interviews, press junkets, and excerpts from virtually every major movie made at the studio; all of it tied to an riveting commentary, also written by Martin, and even more eloquently expressed with emphasis and feeling by Patrick Stewart. MGM: When The Lion Roars is a documentary that goes well beyond those ‘artifacts of quality’ the studio created; delving more deeply into the real back story, political intrigues, rumors and legends to deconstruct the mystique that was MGM; gleaning insight from such luminaries as June Allyson, Samuel Marx, Lew Ayres, Helen Hayes, Ricardo Montalban, Maureen Sullivan and Richard Chamberlain, to name but a handful of the incredible talents on tap.  I have seen far too many glossed over ‘histories’ about other Hollywood studios that barely scratch the surface of the movies, much less probe into the lives of the artistic personnel toiling behind the scenes or inviting the casual viewer – novice and film buff alike – to dig for the hidden treasures in an untapped archive.
MGM: When The Lion Roars covers the girth of the studio’s formidable heritage and its cultural impact on mass entertainment. You are going to see a lot of great scenes from some thought-numbingly professional examples in movie-making – and not simply the iconic bits that made the studio great, gave it class and entertained us for more than a century (although, these too are very well represented). But MGM: When The Lion Roars also reveals the oft’ tempestuous corporate alliances between founding father, Louis B. Mayer and boy genius, Irving G. Thalberg; along the way, touching upon Mayer’s scorn for New York boss, Nicholas Schenck, and Thalberg’s marriage to MGM star – and queen of the back lot – Norma Shearer. Inside these hallowed walls we are also privy to the great romances that happened after the cameras stopped rolling; Garbo and silent legend, John Gilbert; Jean Harlow (dead from eremic poisoning at the tender age of twenty-six) and Clark Gable, and later, William Powell; Kate Hepburn’s chance meeting with Spencer Tracy on the steps of the Executive Building, eventually leading to an affair truly meant to be remembered. 
I am not exactly certain by what enchanted properties of osmosis Frank Martin is functioning, but in the relatively brief span of six hours he manages to convey comprehensiveness par excellence, straddling six decades of production and virtually introducing us to hundreds of lives and thousands of films. And they’re all here, not merely referenced, but vividly brought to life in reflections put forth by historians and old timers alike, illustrated with rare and occasionally unseen footage, snippets and sound bites from the stars and directors, and famous sequences from the movies too. As the audience, privy to these time-travelogues, we vicariously walk the concourse and byways of MGM’s fabled backlot, peak inside those cavernous soundstages, and sneak into the ‘iron lung’ executive suites of the Thalberg Building; enjoying the experience, not simply as a trek into antiquity, but as a past regression into this vibrant netherworld of make-believe; celebrated and resurrected by someone who truly recalls what all the excitement was about.  And Martin is unafraid to meander away from this central narrative on occasion, if always with a grand plan to bring us full circle and back to these legendary stomping grounds where prancing unicorns and wishing wells intermingled, and, where the dreams they all dared to dream really did come true.    
Dividing the girth of Metro’s real estate and heritage into three, 2 hr. installments affords Frank Martin the luxury of indulging in a wealth of unearthed material, interviews archived and nearly forgotten, many given renewed life to the creative personnel long since deceased. Even more fascinating are the candid outtakes and newsreels, stitched together to provide a cohesive living/moving tableau of what life must have been like behind these studio gates. Part One: The Lion’s Roar, takes us inside the Irving Thalberg era. We witness the amalgam of the studio’s fledgling assets, accrued on the west coast by Mayer and Thalberg, managed by Marcus Loewe, and arguably, later mismanaged by the likes of Nicholas Schenck in New York; men responsible for infusing MGM with its frothy excesses, stardom and glamour.
We learn about Samuel Goldwyn, whose name is neatly sandwiched between the call letters of Metro Pictures Corp. and Louis B. Mayer Productions; unceremoniously ousted from this merger and basically barred from participating in the triumphs that followed. Maureen Sullivan, Samuel Marx, Helen Hayes and a host of others expound upon the virtues and vices of the studio system. We relive the real-life backstage romance between Thalberg and Norma Shearer, learn new truths about producer, Paul Bern's untimely suicide/murder scandal, and, relish in the virtual creation and transformation of Teflon-coated personalities like Lucille LeSeur, remade as Joan Crawford. Finally, Frank Martin has corralled a veritable stadium-full of character studies attesting to the conflict between Thalberg and Mayer and, perhaps more importantly, Mayer and his New York boss, Nicholas Schenk. Between these compelling private intrigues we are treated to the real reason most consider MGM’s legacy peerless and irreproachable: its movie heritage. Johnny Weissmuller swings into action from vines as Tarzan, Norma Shearer denounces her husband’s philandering in The Divorcee, Clark Gable forces Mary Astor to shoot him in Red Dust, Garbo utters her trademark “I want to be alone” in Grand Hotel and the pigmies make mincemeat of white explorers in Trader Horn.
Part One concludes with the sudden and very tragic death of Irving Thalberg; a sickly youth, who stubbornly rose like a phoenix to accomplish feats in the industry still being talked about with hushed reverence today; Thalberg – dead at the age of thirty-six. Here was the real ‘man behind the curtain’; the real genius whom even Mayer leaned upon and entrusted with the day-to-day operations of the studio; Thalberg - who devoted a whole portion of his considerable efforts to ensure his wife’s movie career remained an enviable cornerstone within the yearly output of MGM’s classic movies, while juggling so many outstanding literary adaptations and newly created projects. Thalberg was, as Grand Hotel’s authoress, Vicki Baum, once labeled him: “The little dynamo.” “He died of genius,” actress and close friend, Helen Hayes declares with bittersweet remembrance. Hayes, of course, had her impressions of Mayer too, “He wasn’t a bully…on the surface. He wasn’t anything bad…on the surface. But he was evil.” 
Part II of Martin’s epic - The Lion Reigns Supreme is a glittering homage to MGM’s unmatched supremacy as purveyors of popular entertainment throughout those terrible years of WWII. With Thalberg’s demise, Mayer assumes absolute control and sets about to shift the studio’s focus from literary adaptations to more congenial – and less expensively produced - family films. Younger, more malleable talent comes in: Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Freddie Bartholomew and Jackie Cooper among them. Garbo retires after the disappointing performance of her second comedy – Two-Faced Woman (1940), leaving behind an aura of greatness unparalleled to this day. The exodus continues as Norma Shearer realizes her supremacy at the studio is at an end following her husband’s death. She is no longer considered ‘queen of the lot’. Joan Crawford negotiates a new contract to retain a toe-hold in her future at Metro. But even this is short-lived.  Under Mayer’s aegis, the studio basks in the afterglow of its most costly super-production to date: The Wizard of Oz (1939); Mayer, also reveling in his ‘deal of the decade’: distribution of the independently-produced zeitgeist, Gone With The Wind (1939).  Metro in the 1940s was an untouchable paradise, its movies and stars the envy of the world; its box office clout rivalling all the other studios’ combined revenues.
In this age of Andy Hardy, Mayer’s kingdom reigned uppermost and herein, Mickey Rooney waxes affectionately about those halcyon years and the homespun father and son movies; also, his relationship with L.B. and Judy Garland – the great love of his life. Ricardo Montelbaum reminds us of Metro’s commitments to Latin America and the studio’s zest for ultra-chic good taste: a fictitious glamour that, as Van Johnson admits, he “hated to leave behind each night…because what I was leaving – to me – was the real (reel) world!” Johnson’s career is one of the most celebrated of the war years; his destiny, to become the male pinup in absence of Gable, James Stewart and other male talent who joined the war effort and made their contributions abroad – perhaps, to the detriment of their enduring popularity back home.
The lion’s share of memorable movie moments fondly recalled today makes up the bulk of the references in Part II. MGM’s musicals are in vogue: the elephantine ‘A Pretty Girl is Like A Melody’ number from The Great Ziegfeld; Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the Mouse in Anchors Aweigh and Judy Garland making her pilgrimage down the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz. At war’s end, L.B. Mayer believes MGM is headed toward a return to the even more profitable years before it began. But the ground beneath his feet is about to shift in a most unexpected way, leading to all sorts of shake-ups in the executive boardroom and the eventual, slow demise of this legendary Camelot.  Part III: The Lion In Winter begins in earnest with a celebration of producer, Arthur Freed’s career at MGM. Freed, who was embraced by Mayer and made an untouchable during the early talkies; whose contributions to the movie musical – first, as a composer of some very popular songs (Singin’ in the Rain, and, Wedding of the Paper Doll, among them) – then, later, as a full-fledged producer of the musicals themselves, is given carte blanche under Mayer’s auspices. Freed is likely the individual one thinks of when movie musicals in general are discussed. His itinerary of mega successes is, frankly, humbling: Meet Me In St. Louis, Cabin in the Sky, Babes on Broadway, The Barkleys of Broadway, Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, Brigadoon, Gigi among them. Metro’s pioneering ingenuity in this genre is also explored, particularly in its celebrated showcase of Esther Williams’ aquacades; Williams also lending her inimitably glib commentary to these reflections.
Alas, the overall tenor in this third installment begins to turn sour. Mayer is ousted from power by Nicholas Schenck; his replacement, Dore Schary – ambitious, though miscast, rocking the creative boat with B-budgeted ‘message pictures’ clashing against MGM’s ultra-sophistication. Vintage interviews with directors, Vincente Minnelli and Richard Brooks, also, actress Katharine Hepburn, as well as retrospective critiques provided by Roger Mayer take us through Metro’s ‘silver age’. As television eats away at badly needed profits, we witness MGM’s mad dash to outdo that little black box in everyone’s living room with a final flourish of lavishly appointed spectacles. A pair of Biblical epics - Quo Vadis (1950) and Ben-Hur (1959) – bookend the fabulous fifties: a decade that sees the likes of Hitchcock, John Frankenheimer and Stanley Kubrick making indelible imprints on the studio’s history. Tragically, even their formidable contributions are unable to stave off the studio’s decline, as is David Lean’s superbly realized and perfectly timed Russian epic, Doctor Zhivago.
As MGM enters the 1960’s it falls victim to an ever-revolving roster of New York appointed exec’s, who understand the film-making industry only a little and MGM’s particular place in it even less; all of them bent on producing fewer movies, dubbed ‘landmark’ pictures: over-produced and terribly expensive. The strain of their losses will eventually deplete the studio’s coffers. The star system ends and Schary is relieved of his command. Without a strong mogul to helm Metro, the studio founders badly; rife for a corporate takeover. In 1974, Las Vegas financier, Kirk Kerkorian digs in to stay, buying up and selling off all of MGM’s assets in order to raise capital for his casino/hotel on the strip. In his wake, MGM becomes ‘a hotel company, and a relatively insignificant maker of motion pictures’.  
Ted Turner attempts damage control, but is only successful at acquiring Metro’s formidable library of movies to help propel his newly inaugurated cable TV empire. The studio is sold back to Kerkorian, who liquidates its props and costumes in an epic sell-off; then bulldozes the back lot acreage to make room for residential development. Lorimar buys up the production facilities and the MGM trademark is removed from the back lot. Interestingly, Frank Martin’s documentary skirts through these sad final days. He makes no reference to the pictures MGM acquired after the mid-1960s and continued to distribute and occasionally finance; nor does he bother to touch upon the tragic fire in Vegas that destroyed Kerkorian’s MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in 1980, killing 174 guests and making it the third most tragic hotel blaze in U.S. history. Arguably, there is a fourth part – as yet to be made – about this sad last act.
Mercifully, Martin ends his documentary on a high note; a montage of Metro’s most celebrated faces and films set to the semi-romanticized strains of ‘Over the Rainbow’. In these penultimate moments, Martin’s documentary reminds us of several tragedies all at once: chiefly, that MGM – the studio Mayer and Thalberg co-founded - exists no more; also, how much of the studio’s incredible output of classic movies remains MIA on Blu-ray since having been acquired under Warner Home Video’s umbrella.  But MGM: When the Lion Roars is a potent reminder of Metro’s importance in shaping what we laughingly refer to today as ‘movie culture’. I have the deepest respect and admiration for those ole-time industry titans who came to a little known and seemingly uninhabitable hot spot on the California landscape, known then as ‘Hollywoodland’, transforming it into this starlit mecca and, in the process, creating iconic and indelible moments of screen magic that have remained cultural touchstones in an industry since too far gone and self-absorbed in the present to astutely pay well-deserved homage to its past.  
Martin’s documentary is jam packed with nostalgic; it is a stroll, bursting at the seams with secret tales, memorable movies and the just deification of its legendary personnel who gave Hollywood its luster and made certain the magic endures to this day with a mind-boggling amount of professionalism. Watching MGM: When The Lion Roars reminds us all of this era of quality. It also serves as something of a terrible, inescapable reality: that the stunning compendium of talent and genius – the men who made the movies – no longer exists. In their stead, have come a line of MBA graduates, bean counters and advertising boys who know only of the ‘bottom line’ and how best to exploit it for instant returns. The movies showcased in Martin’s documentary are not disposable relics of their time, but timeless and enduring works of art meant for all time – alas, too few of them readily made available to the viewing public today. Happily, a good many of Metro’s byproducts – the movies – remain a part of our collective consciousness. As Charlton Heston comments in the final moments of Part III: “I’m glad of that.” I’ll second the notion, Chuck. Me too!
Warner Home Video has really bastardized Frank Martin’s monumental documentary on DVD. They haven’t even bothered to release it as three separate discs, properly divided according to episode. Instead, they’ve managed to cram the entire documentary on a DVD-18 flipper disc; dividing Part II down the middle so that half plays on Side A, the other half on Side B. Ugh! Would it have broken the bank to spend another ten to twenty cents per DVD to effectively separate and restore these episodes to their original broadcast length? Really, Warner? Would it have?!? Personally, I’d like an answer. To make matters worse, the powers that be seem to think Martin’s contribution to documentarian film-making ought to be handed out like PEZ candy. To date, MGM: When The Lion Roars has appeared as a virtual appendage to every Blu-ray box set put out by the studio; albeit, still slapped to a flipper disc and presented in squalid 720i, without the benefit of any clean-up for preservation. MGM: When The Lion Roars is a testament, chocked so full of history and art it remains an embarrassment of riches to be mined over and over again by film scholars and casual movie fans alike. And yet, both the image and sound quality on this disc is abysmal.
As many of the clips incorporated into this documentary have since been restored, it would have behooved Warner to go back and do a refreshed image harvest, because even the newly recorded ‘interviews’ exhibit chronic video noise and color bleeding. The entire image could also do with some basic video stabilization. Of course, Warner has given none of the aforementioned consideration to these elements. So, what we have here is an Award-winning documentary, arguably, the best archival compendium of MGM’s luminous history, presented to us looking like VHS quality dreck. Badly done! Very badly done, indeed! I strongly endorse this documentary. I cannot stand behind this DVD incarnation of it, however.  Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

AMADEUS: Blu-ray (Saul Zaentz/Orion 1984) Warner Home Video

“When you finish a film, before the first paying audience sees it, you don't have any idea. You don't know if you’ve made a success or a flop. And in the '80s, with MTV, we were having a three-hour film about classical music, with long names and wigs and costumes. Don't forget that no major studio wanted to finance the film for these reasons.”
Milos Forman
History vs. Hollywood’s fictionalized tradition of ‘inventing the truth’…and never the twain shall meet. Milos Forman’s Amadeus (1984) is about two people who never actually met in real life; the gifted musical prodigy, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, brilliantly reconstructed by Tom Hulce as oafish punster, and, insanely jealous court composer with daggers in his heart, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham). Throughout the better half of this three hour colossus, Salieri employs oily charm to ingratiate himself into Mozart’s confidences. Yet Salieri’s envy, all-consuming with devastating results, is well known to seemingly everyone except Mozart, who trusts the serpent with his own ambitions and, tragically, his life. The artist's wife, Constanze (Elizabeth Berridge) recognizes Salieri’s darker purpose. Still, the trusting and naïve Mozart cannot bring himself to see the deceiver. Salieri presents himself as friend and mentor, all the while plotting the young composer’s demise. As they used to say, ‘the truth (may) set you free. Alas, it rarely makes for good melodrama. And so, virtually none of Peter Schaffer’s screenplay adheres to the life and times of this brilliant man; Schaffer instead embracing the precepts of an original off-Broadway play, and endeavoring to transform what on the stage had been a series of conversations and altercations, into a sweeping epic with exotic locales, the likes of which Hollywood then had not witnessed in nearly fifty years.
There is nothing new in Schaffer’s level of deception when delving into the bio-pic. Throughout the 1940s, Hollywood was enamored with exploiting the back catalog of famous composers, mostly to regale audiences with a loosely strung together fiction sandwiched between elaborately staged and glossy musical numbers, designed to show off a studio’s cavalcade of their brightest and biggest stars. Every life, from Frédéric Chopin’s (A Song to Remember, 1945) to Jerome Kern’s (Till the Clouds Roll By, 1946) was prone to this Technicolor fantasia into pure escapism. But like all other Hollywood-devised formulas, this too would run its course, fizzling in the mid-fifties. Changing times and tastes, not to mention the implosion of the ‘star system’ and severe budgetary restrictions thereafter, eventually crushed all future prospects for resurrecting this sub-genre. And truth be told, Amadeus is not harking back to these all-star spectacles, but remains something more of a kissing cousin to the ‘art house’ experiment, shot without the benefit of ‘stars’ and made for the relatively inexpensive budget of $18,000,000 – with every dollar showing up on the screen.  
Shot in Prague, Kroměříž and Vienna, Amadeus greatly benefits from these sumptuous European backdrops. Indeed, Forman was able to lens various sequences inside Count Nostitz’ Theatre where Mozart’s Don Giovanni and La clemenza di Tito had actually debuted two centuries earlier. And yet, there is a decided disconnect between these opulent and authentic surroundings, ably abetted by Miroslav Ondrícek’s stunning cinematography, Karel Cerný’s superb art direction and Theodor Pistek/Christian Thuri’s costuming, and, the cast, comprised almost entirely of American talent. The performances in Amadeus are simply that – performances; highly theatrical, with some more skillfully executed than others. Schaffer’s screenplay plays to the strengths in Tom Hulce’s adolescent reinterpretation of this boy genius; dictated to by a stern patriarch, Leopold (Roy Dotrice) and patronized by the Emperor, Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones – a dead ringer for his alter ego). Our Wolfgang – rechristened ‘Wolfie’ by Constanze – is both a scamp and a brat, not above informing admired court composer, Salieri that his melody created in Mozart’s honor “doesn’t quite work” and suggesting to the Italians that their renaissance knows absolutely nothing about ‘love’. He’s also a bit of a deviant, over-sexed and prone to dirty jokes, farting in public, and, wanton revelries that fly in the face of his father’s Teutonic outlook on life. 
Apart from registering as pure and magnificent entertainment, Amadeus is a film queerly absent of fact, yet wholly excelling in its alternative verisimilitude. Director, Milos Forman assumed a daunting task with this motion picture: how best to capture the essence of a relationship between two men where no relationship ever existed. Mercifully, the historical record has Salieri's own claim to chew on; made in a fit of madness while convalescing in an asylum; that he orchestrated the demise of this musical genius. And so, our story opens many years after Mozart’s death, with the aged and half-crazed Salieri attempting suicide by slitting his own throat. He is taken to a mental hospital where he begins to confess his sins to a priest (Herman Meckler). From here, the tale regresses to Salieri’s days as court composer for Emperor Joseph II. Considered an authority on composition, Salieri’s supremacy is all but ended with Mozart's arrival – a one-time child prodigy out on his own, in an ambitious spree and lark to take the world of music by storm; laughing hysterically and breaking wind on cue to punctuate his general contempt for authority. One can, in fact, empathize with Salieri during these initial scenes; the jaded stately popinjay forced to kowtow to this upstart, scornful of practically any human thought outside his own limited understanding of the world.
Sex with an improper young lass seems to have turned Mozart’s head – both of them – Constanze seen as a sort of enterprising interloper, disparaged by Leopold, who disavows his son of his inheritance upon learning of their secret marriage.  At least the movie gets most of this subplot right. The real Mozart’s marriage to Constanze was considered mildly scandalous, insofar as he had courted her while boarding with her family, was asked to leave by them – did – but took Constanze’s affections with him; the two eventually engaging in illicit rendezvous inside Mozart’s apartment. This prompted Constanze’s sister, the Baroness von Waldstätten to threaten an intervention based on the mores and laws of decency then in place. To prevent a full-blown scandal, Mozart married his sweetheart almost immediately, quelling any allegations of indecency, but very much incurring ire from both Constanze’s family as well as his own. Although this vignette from Mozart’s life might have fueled enough tension to sustain an entire movie, Amadeus is not particularly invested in exploring the turbulent union, except as backdrop to an even more treacherous and downward spiral in Wolfgang’s fortunes – and misfortunes – presumably, compounded by his unsuspecting good nature toward Salieri; the man who (at least, according to Schaffer’s designs) will push him into an early grave.
Mozart and Salieri get off to a rough start; Mozart illustrating his mastery of composition by instantly memorizing, then re-composing the welcome march written in his honor by Salieri, but bumbled rather badly at the keyboard by the Emperor.  Mozart’s ability to simply ‘pick up at tune’ impresses both the Emperor and his court cronies; all except Kappelmeister Bonno (Patrick Hines) who regards Mozart as an evil little bug to be squashed. Thus, when Mozart insists his first opera under Joseph’s patronage be in German, rather than traditional Italian, he incurs Bonno’s considerable opposition. Mozart compounds this displeasure at court by seducing Katerina Caveleri (Christine Ebersole) – the operatic diva whom Salieri has lusted after for quite some time. Salieri pretends to be unimpressed by Mozart’s efforts, when, in reality, he is seething with jealousy. When it is announced Mozart will marry Constanze instead, Katerina flies into a rage. In Salzberg, news of his son’s hasty marriage to this lowly girl all but breaks Mozart’s father, Leopold’s (Roy Dotrice) heart. Even after paying a visit to the happy couple, Leopold cannot contain his displeasure. Instead, he departs the city, the rift between father and son never entirely healed. News of Leopold’s death shortly thereafter leaves Mozart tormented and fearing his father’s ghost will forever haunt him.
From here, Salieri begins to deliberately plot a richly satisfying and extremely vial, well-orchestrated plan of revenge – first, to tarnish Mozart’s good standing with the Emperor; then, to pretend to be Mozart’s confidante in order to steal his latest composition; a requiem Salieri has secretly commissioned, but meant to drive this young zeitgeist into his early grave. Constanze, who had left Mozart in a marital quarrel over monies owed them by Emanuel Schikaneder (Simon Callow) several months before, now returns to discover Salieri’s ruse too late. Salieri has been driving her ailing husband, bedridden and delirious, to finish his requiem. Recognizing the terrible strain this work has put on his health, Constanze gathers the pages of Mozart’s unfinished composition and locks it away in a nearby cabinet, ordering Salieri from the house at once. Alas, in their moment of heated exchange neither has yet to realize Mozart has already died, presumably, from heart failure brought about by extreme exhaustion.
Mozart’s burial in an unmarked pauper’s grave is heartbreaking (and untrue); just one in a heap of nameless bodies committed to the same hole in the earth without fanfare or even a faint remembrance of the musical genius that once occupied his corruptible flesh.  In reality, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was laid to rest in a ‘commoner’s plot’ with a private headstone – merely, denoting he was neither a member of any royal house or even the aristocracy. Again, we regress to the asylum where the aged Salieri has survived his suicide attempt; his confession to the priest taken as fact; his sins destined to condemn him for eternity. As Salieri is wheeled back to his cell, he gleefully passes an entourage of unfortunates; mad, filthy, lost in their own tortuous thoughts and chained to the walls or restrained in straightjackets; smiling and absolving them of their sins, the sudden echo of Mozart’s infectiously juvenile laughter, piercing his mind and causing Salieri to wince in extreme mental anguish.  
In these final moments, Amadeus almost degenerates into a sort of moralizing grand guignol. The asylum is a house of oddities. Yet, within its walls of yowling despair we glean the nucleus of Peter Schaffer’s exercise; his decision to illustrate how revenge is never as sweet or as satisfying as the avenger might at first anticipate. In murdering that which he secretly loved and desired to become – though, publicly condemned, and, swore to destroy as a rebuke of God’s purpose and presumed curse on his own willful talents – Salieri condemns himself to a fate worse than death. He is void of love – ethereal or otherwise – and plagued by a vengeance far more self-destructive and enduring than the swift end to which he has sent Mozart. In 1984, the Academy simply could not decide who had given the better performance; electing to nominate both F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce as Best Actor and let the voting members of AMPAS decide. They chose Abraham who, in his acceptance speech declared, “Only one more thing could have made this evening complete…to have had Tom Hulce standing by my side” to which Hulce, from his seat in the auditorium, mouthed the words ‘thank you’ in reply. If animosity and competition between Salieri and Mozart was the order of the day, it was anything if nonexistent between Abraham and Hulce throughout the shoot, and particularly absent on this Oscar night.
In retrospect, Amadeus is very much a product of its time, disinterested with virtually all particulars when creating any authenticity outside its own marvelously achieved falsehoods. Hulce’s performance is especially of the moment – that moment very much catering to the social mores and mannerisms of youth circa, 1984; or as the studio’s clever marketing then declared, “the man…the madness…the music…the murder…everything you’ve heard is true!” Hulce’s own genius resides in conveying a sort of timeless aura of puckishness; the high-pitched cackle of a virtuoso, drunk on his own success and contemptuous of all those who would dare question its legitimacy; his awkward inability, unable and unwilling to assimilate into the culture of court life – farting on cue and engaging in ‘blue-humored’ parlor games that would make even a lowly scullery maid blush, much less the rigidly cultured boors who populate Joseph II’s court. And yet, Hulce shows great restraint in never going all the way with this performance. It so easily could have devolved into cheaply orchestrated ridiculousness, pantomime and/or rank parody.
The more subtly nuanced of the two is, of course, F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri; an enviable and sustained blend of simmering wrath and mildly amusing comedy. Like all truly magnificent villains who endure in our collective memory, Abraham’s court composer is infectiously mischievous as well as ill-advised. His evil stems from the core of a very sad and lonely individual. We can truly empathize with the way the cocoon of authority he has struggled to construct around himself is almost immediately questioned and all but dismissed by the young upstart, presumably poised to eclipse even his greatest personal triumphs. Here is a man who prayed to God for his talent – limited as it may be, compared to Mozart’s – but to have it recognized as such. For this wish, Salieri has sacrificed much and will, ultimately, give everything over to a devil’s sin as his devotion is turned asunder to avenge God’s betrayal of this promise he wholeheartedly believed was made in good faith and exclusively to him. Mozart’s death seals two fates – God’s little dynamo on earth destroyed – and Salieri’s chance to ever be redeemed into the gates of heaven. It is this sobering self-destruction that continues to linger as the houselights in the theater come up. It is also largely for this reason that Amadeus – the movie – has endured.
Milos Forman’s skilled direction of these dramatic sequences is counterbalanced by cosmetic interludes of lavishly appointed musical excerpts from Mozart’s operas, including whole portions from Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro and Abduction from the Seraglio. Far from simply interrupting the story for an orchestral respite, the music inserted augments the emotional core of the drama it bookends. In hindsight, Amadeus is a prestige production in an era unaccustomed to the concept: Miroslav Ondricek's cinematography, a vibrant tapestry that typifies the stately grandeur of ole Vienna. Patrizia von Brandenstein's production design is a minor miracle, immeasurably aided by Theodor Pistek's costumes. Amadeus may have absolutely nothing to do with reality, but it remains a superbly crafted revision of that life itself, a superior adaptation of a beloved stage work and ultimately, an exceptionally engaging entertainment besides - truly, one for the ages.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-Ray is of Forman’s director’s cut adds another 23 minutes of girth to the film’s already weighty runtime. In 1984, Forman removed this footage for the sake of the movie’s success – perhaps, understanding that any story about classical music was a stretch in the first place, and, the unlikeliest of candidates to catch the public’s appetite. The irony, of course, is that Amadeus did just that; raking in more than $51,973,029.00 in the U.S. alone. The imposition of these cuts to the movie’s theatrical release is forgivable; especially since the newly reinstated scenes on home video only serve to augment and enrich our movie-going experience with insightful embellishments.  Warner’s Blu-Ray – one of their very first releases in hi-def – continues to be a standard bearer in the format, easily besting the original 2-disc collector’s set on DVD. In the days before Warner simply went for extravagant packaging, but scrimped on actual remastering, Amadeus in hi-def is a both vibrant and true to the theatrical experience. Color fidelity and saturation are superb; ditto for contrast levels, fine detail and a light smattering of indigenous film grain looking extremely natural. Flesh tones are particularly satisfying, as are reds - blood red – the overall image, more eye-popping and spectacular than ever.
Another revelation is the 5.1 PCM Dolby Digital audio. It is perhaps a minor regret, Warner never bothered to upgrade the experience to DTS. Nevertheless, what’s represented here accurately recaptures the acoustics of the theatrical release. Extras include an extensive look back at the making of the film, directly ported over from the 1996 deluxe LaserDisc release, an audio commentary from Forman and the film’s theatrical trailer; all of it contained in a handsome digipak design with an audio CD sampler of portions of the soundtrack, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)