Friday, May 27, 2016

TRUMBO: Blu-ray (Universal/Bleecker Street 2015) Universal Home Video

Hollywood loves telling stories about itself. But part of the problem with Jay Roach’s Trumbo (2015) is it is so slavishly devoted to the exoneration of its subject, screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) it cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees; namely, Trumbo’s innocence. John McNamara’s screenplay quickly devolves into a series of vignettes loosely strung together; a rather turgid textbook of the blacklist with myopic focus on one of the infamous ‘Hollywood Ten’ at the expense of minimizing the other nine lives directly impacted. I would like to impart on contemporary film makers that there is a fine line of distinction between telling a good story, telling a factual story, and telling one for which the impressions of life would best be served by forgoing a modicum of truth in service to ‘artistic license’. Trumbo is not a biopic of the man; McNamara’s script cobbling together the incidents of Trumbo’s flawed defiance during the Red Menace with a badly fumbled documentarian’s ambition, leaving Cranston’s perpetually whiskey-soaked and Benzadrine-popping curmudgeon preciously too little room to maneuver and/or deviate from espousing keynotes in the Communist manifesto or spitting pithy platitudes to unsettle members of Congress while ruffling the plucked plumage of arch nemesis, nationally syndicated gossip columnist, Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren). Alas, this is a narrative misfire from which this movie never entirely recovers.
The other eminent weakness here is casting. Apart from Cranston’s rather histrionic central performance, at times veering dangerously close to becoming the clichéd clown of the piece - all mismanaged and badly bungled Marxist buffoonery – the rest of the stars who populate this rigidly structured antiquity are little more than set dressing. Looking for scapegoats and a clear-cut villain on which to hang its liberalized cause célèbre, Helen Mirren’s maven of mirth hurriedly federalizes into a doggedly toxic gargoyle; drunk on the measly mirage of her veiled threats, oozing from the ink of her poisoned pen; enough to accost MGM’s raja, L.B. Mayer (Richard Portnow) as a skirt-chasing ‘kike’. While no one can know for certain; this probably never happened, as Mayer was still a good three years away from being ousted from his untouchable seat of authority and could have – and distinctly would have – squashed the venomous Hopper like a bug. Hedda had guts. But Mayer had power…real power. And Hopper’s deliriously ribald bitch is the best of the lot in Trumbo. The other performances, from David James Elliott’s glowering and ultra-wooden caricature of John Wayne to Dean O'Gorman’s prepubescent and edgy, Kirk Douglas, are so uniformly bad, they bear mentioning only as examples of how ridiculous this sort of retrofitted ‘history’ can get when time and attention are not closely paid to truly resurrecting people as well as the period. There is a fine line between emulation and parody, particularly when embarking on the fool’s errand to recreate iconic legends of the silver screen, filling their immortal shoes with actors who neither tower in their own stature – as any actor of merit must – nor remotely resemble – physically, or in manner and deportment – the larger-than-life figures they are attempting to embody and rival.  
In the back catalog of unique talents, vying for acceptability as their alter egos, I am immediately reminded of Sissy Spacek’s monumental incarnation of first lady of country music, Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980); kudos to Beverly D'Angelo’s haunting portrait as Patsy Cline from this same movie; or Paul Sorvino’s uncanny channeling of Henry Kissinger for Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) and Albert Finney’s bone-chilling renaissance to Winston Churchill in 2002’s The Gathering Storm. In the shadow of these memorable homages is Michael Stuhlbarg’s Edward G. Robinson in Trumbo; a grotesquely sentimental, yet queerly unsympathetic, and utterly painful attempt by a minor talent to ape a legendary one. Has Struhlbarg ever seen Edward G. Robinson: not just at the movies but giving an interview?!? At least if he had physicality down pat, as say Robert Sacchi in The Man with Bogart’s Face (1980), then suspended plausibility could be applied in moments where bad acting creates an obvious disconnect between truth and verisimilitude. Struhlbarg is hardly alone in his flawed gentrification of a big name star. We have already mentioned David James Elliott and Dean O’Gorman as a pair of unprepossessing fakes; the former, in flashes, coming close to sounding like ‘Duke’ Wayne if still looking more like a robotic ‘Jag’ knock-off with too much starch in his britches; and O’Gorman, favoring the physical shading and limited acting range of a William Baldwin, wholly lacks the versatility and chutzpah of a dynamo like Kirk Douglas. Others in this fractured mélange do not fare any better. John Goodman’s Frank King has the physical girth, but lacks the bearing of King’s own summer stock version of the indie showman a la Michael Todd. Christian Berkel does a wicked lampoon of the oft’ maniacal, brilliant bastard/director, Otto Preminger (oh well, at least he has the accent). Rick Kelly is a ridiculous falsification of J.F.K. whom I kept expecting to suddenly depart from his cameo and shout out, ‘Vote Quimby’ (to any fan of The Simpsons this reference will immediately ring true).
Let us get honest here for just a moment. Thanks mostly to Production Designer, Mark Ricker and Costume Designer, Daniel Orlandi, Trumbo has the visual patina of late forties/early fifties Hollywood to recommend it. But this is not enough of an incentive to see the picture, nor is stock-piling its’ roster with middling actors who cannot hold a candle to their incandescent counterparts. Aside: I noticed no one deigned attempt a carbon copy of Audrey Hepburn, as example (how could anyone even begin to suggest Hepburn’sthe luminosity anyway?) – mercifully using inserts from the real ‘reel’ classic, Roman Holiday (1953) to fill in this gap. And wasting credible ones like Diane Lane, in a part any fledgling starlet could have (and should have) performed, with little more training than a horn-tooting seal at SeaWorld, is not the route to go either. So, if Hollywood today cannot even recapture the inviolate grandeur of its outwardly halcyon and rose-colored past – all studio-sanctioned banana oil, slickly packaged in highly controlled junkets and heavily concocted glam-bam magazine puff pieces, then perhaps it is high time the industry stopped trying to rewrite itself as anything more disingenuous. 
John McNamara’s screenplay goes to great pains to canonize Dalton Trumbo as the patron saint of all minorities in danger of being swallowed whole by that ultra-conservatism that bred fear, loathing and panic during the Truman/McCarthy era; foregoing – or rather – minimizing the fact Trumbo was a fairly outspoken card-carrying member of the Communist Party; a real disconnect between the perceived Commi, threatening to topple American idealism with the stroke of his pen, and Trumbo’s own seemingly autonomous position within the corporate structure of Hollywood itself, as the highest paid personage in his chosen profession, equally presumed too big to fail, whatever his convictions. The real Dalton Trumbo would likely have approved of such exoneration, though arguably, not of the results achieved herein on his behalf.  For although the movie resonates with Trumbo’s sharp-tongued introspection, the character, as conceived and amalgamated by McNamara and actor, Bryan Cranston, begins to fall apart under the strain of such platitudes and cheaply sentimentalized familial dreck – embodied in several key scenes scattered throughout the latter half of the picture, prominently featuring Elle Fanning as the writer’s daughter, Nikola who has her own mind, social causes to champion, and, increasingly resents her father’s myopic view of sly revenge that supersedes the family’s need to live from under such microscopic dissections. Yet, even as dime store melodrama, Trumbo disappoints; the snippets and sound bites stitched together in all too brief wan ghost-flowered impressions of the man, his purpose and his plight.  
Trumbo’s elitism is at odds with his communist propaganda; McNamara’s screenplay attempting rather unsuccessfully a buddy/buddy relationship between Trumbo and fellow chain-smoking/cancer-ridden writer, Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.). Hird doesn’t much approve of Trumbo living high on the hog on a serenely pastoral farm. After all, how does this bode with Marx’s theorized collective sacrifice? Well, okay – it doesn’t. Trumbo as hypocrite? Not, entirely. Lest we forget Marx’s utopian ‘cure all’ for capitalism was not implemented as written and certainly never was to see the true light of day in Soviet Russia. Like far too many movies being made with a disingenuous political slant in America these days, America itself – or, at the very least, its’ government – and definitely its heroes of yore – are being viewed through the lens of even more insidiously misguided uber-liberal/communist empathies as the worst kind of enemy; Robert Taylor’s infamous HUAC testimony, “I think they should all be sent back to Russia” inserted yet again to prove a point – both of arrogance and nationalized propensity to infer ‘patriotism’ as the real boogie man. There are distinct cracks in this Liberty Bell, however, Trumbo, attempting to have his point of view heard – if not respected – confronting America’s Teflon-coated iconography of itself, then best embodied in the grandee John Wayne. Trumbo’s point is, in fact, exceptionally well placed, suggesting to Wayne, “If you’re going to talk about World War II as if you personally won it, let’s be clear where you were stationed - on a film set, shooting blanks, wearing makeup, and if you're going to hit me, I'd like to take off my glasses.”
Poor Trumbo. He has made rather a bad enemy of the vigorous maverick of the western/war movie; also, the treacherous Hedda Hopper who has no compunction about blackmailing MGM’s L.B. Mayer into letting Trumbo out of his contract or else made to endure the onslaught of idiotic accusations and innuendoes surely to tarnish, if not entirely dismantle, his empire.   Trumbo is one of ten screenwriters singled out and subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), presided over with an iron fist by former New Jersey stockbroker cum politico, J. Parnell Thomas (James DuMont), who later turns out to be guilty of corruption; the proverbial ‘pot’ calling ‘the kettle’ black. Trumbo encourages a small contingent of his contemporaries, including Hird to stand their ground. While they might be held in contempt of Congress for refusing to testify and ‘name names’, Trumbo is comforted in the knowledge the liberal majority on the Supreme Court, who abhor HUAC on principle alone, will never allow any such conviction to stand.
In the meantime, close personal friend, Edward G. Robinson, an ardent supporter of their cause, sells his Van Gogh Portrait of Père Tanguy to raise money for the Hollywood Ten’s legal defense fund. However, standing in the shadow of some very unsettling times; the conviction of the Rosenbergs, the ascendency of Joseph McCarthy, and, the Communist witch hunts cutting a swath through Hollywood’s artistic community with a scorched earth policy, Robinson breaks under pressure and the very real threat he will never work again. Given the choice, he fingers Trumbo as a communist. The wounds from this betrayal will never heal. But Trumbo has equally underestimated the strength of his own cunning; also what the unexpected death of Justice Wiley Rutledge will do to his chances of getting a fair appeal. Instead, Trumbo and his brethren go to prison; eleven months all told in Texarkana; Trumbo striking a rather tenuous partnership with convicted murderer, Virgil Brooks (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) to ease his daily duties.
Newly released, Trumbo reasons time served behind bars equates to time served in the court of public opinion. Alas, old friends – or perhaps, merely fair-weather ones – like producer, Buddy Ross (Roger Bart) have turned their backs on him, seemingly for good; forcing Trumbo to sell his farm and move into a modest but comfortable bungalow in town. Even in the heart of suburbia he is scrutinized, now by a bigoted neighbor who leaves dead birds and debris in his backyard pool and spray paints ominous threats on his fence. Blacklisted and desperate to work, Trumbo writes Roman Holiday for Paramount, allowing good friend, Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk) to take screen credit; Trumbo generously agreeing to split the money. The irony? The screenplay is honored with an Academy Award. But this is gossipy Hollywood at its zenith, and rumblings immediately stir that Hunter is a front for Trumbo; Hedda, quite unable to conclusively unearth the truth from Trumbo’s own whiskey-stained lips but thereafter, making it her passion to ruin him completely. Now, Trumbo goes to work for the King Brothers, Frank and Hymie (Stephen Root) – a C-grade production company, pumping out pulpy serials for the matinee crowd. Trumbo wisely deduces the King Corp. could do with a bit of classing up. And Frank, who openly admits he is only in the picture-making biz for ‘the pussy and the money instantly recognizes he can get quality prose dirt cheap to enhance his credibility in the business.
On the home front, the strain of churning out script after script begins to involve Trumbo’s marriage. His wife, Cleo and their teenage children all assume roles as his secret couriers, Trumbo demanding they put all of their lives on hold to perpetuate the ruse. Eldest daughter, Nikola accepts her part in this magic lantern farce, but steadily comes to resent her father’s myopic distortion of their home life. They’re a family, damn it. Not his employees. Trumbo has greater luck getting his alienated brethren in Hollywood to write even more scripts for the King Brothers; their finest achievement yet, The Brave One (1956) – a powerful tale of an unlikely friendship between a Spanish boy and a bull. The screenplay, very personal to Trumbo, wins him his second uncredited Academy Award – accepted on his behave by the mysterious Robert Rich – a pseudonym for a fellow who actually does not exist. Hedda is incensed. But Frank King will not be threatened into firing his most profitable writer. Amidst this hullabaloo, Arlen Hird dies of lung cancer, hopelessly destitute and leaving behind two young sons whom Trumbo refuses to take money from after their father’s wake. 
Suspicion mounts and rumors swirl that Trumbo has become a one-man ghostwriting phenomena. Recognizing the transparency of his talent on the screen, actor, Kirk Douglas recruits Trumbo to adapt Spartacus (1960). For decades, the real Kirk Douglas has maintained he was responsible for defying the blacklist by demanding Dalton Trumbo’s name be given its proper screen credit for this movie. But Trumbo – the movie – would have us believe Douglas intended Trumbo to remain anonymous as before; pressured even by Hedda to ensure this would happen, yet as determined to outfox the industry after director, Otto Preminger, who hires Trumbo to translate Leon Uris’ sprawling novel into a screenplay for his movie version of Exodus. Playing both sides against the middle, Trumbo tells Preminger he is too busy writing Spartacus to partake – implying it will be the first movie to bear his name in the credits. Preminger asserts he would be willing to give Trumbo a screen credit too if he accepts the new assignment; Trumbo returning to Douglas with this ‘news’ and thus forcing Douglas to beat out Preminger’s offer by only a few months between the two theatrical releases that will both carry Trumbo’s name.  With President Kennedy’s endorsement during a private screening, the blacklist is irreversibly shattered. Trumbo concludes with a foreshadowing of things to come. Hedda Hopper’s days in Hollywood are at an end.  We flash ahead to 1970, Trumbo accepting accolades long overdue and speaking out against the victimization of the blacklist: a terrible chapter in American politics that ruined far too many lives, distorted reality and decimated a good many Hollywood careers.
This penultimate speech ought to have been a stirring, if sad-eyed invective; a dramatic summarization of the more informal torment inflicted upon creatives in the entertainment industry. After all, the blacklist was ultimately a discredit and a hypocrisy having very little to do about ending communism in the United States. Instead, Bryan Cranston’s inflections prove polemic than anemic in reassessing the weighty fallout that actually occurred. In Dalton Trumbo’s case, turning the camera lens on this historically ugly chapter in American politics as one man’s plight against its machinery has not humanized the saga at all, so much as transformed it into a scant and terribly unprepossessing TripTik through history, better evolved in author, Bruce Cook’s biography on which this movie is based. Cranston’s portrait of Trumbo is subtly nuanced, and arguably, the best thing in it. Yet, it is hampered by John McNamara’s interpretation of the source material; also, by director, Jay Roach’s inexcusable boredom, his complete inability to sustain any scene beyond a few loaded barbs, given short shrift before cutting away to the next scene and then the next, and the next, with a complete lack of finesse for building dramatic irony or even mounting tension. Either might have sustained and nourished his rather pedestrian sense of cinema storytelling.  But at 124 minutes, Trumbo drags. To be sure, there is a more compelling narrative yet to be told within. But it is to be discovered elsewhere. I cannot stress enough my dismay with a good many contemporary film makers endeavoring to paint their own impressions over the past in broad brush strokes only to succumb to the stringency of remaining ‘true’ to history itself and thereafter sacrificing virtually every last vestige of artistic license, while introducing – intentionally or not – new biases into the mix. Tell the truth or tell us a fairy tale. But please – please – do not bastardize the precepts of either in your feeble attempts to homogenize these two irreconcilable worlds as one.
If remaining true to history is, in fact, Roach’s mantra, he would have done better to make a documentary about Trumbo rather than a reenactment. I have stated as much before, but reality is oft’ depressing and unprepossessing. Movies are, as some brilliant minds have long since pointed out, life - with all the dull parts cut out. Trumbo is life with a lot of the dull parts left in! It misses the mark by not being able to capture the luridness, immediacy and danger of a very real threat to American civil liberties that was, at least for a time, perpetuated by its own government in the name of democracy. That message is lost, buried, bungled or set aside in Trumbo; presumably to give us a more intimate portrait of one man’s blow back. It is therefore rather disheartening to discover the characters inhabiting Dalton Trumbo’s private life as cardboard cutouts; soulless stick-figures with little distinction or opportunity to shine and virtually nothing to make the audience care one way or the other about them. It doesn’t work, at all and Trumbo – the movie – falls flat: as a melodrama, an entertainment or even an overly simplified history lesson.
Trumbo on Blu-ray isn’t all that exciting either. Universal’s effort is competently rendered, but not much pop or punch to the image. Trumbo’s 1080p transfer is solid, if unremarkable. It also occasionally lacks crispness; the fine details in Jim Denault’s cinematography getting lost under a thin murky haze. Colors can be robust; Helen Mirren’s wildly amusing assortment of bonnets and chapeaus exhibiting some frothy forties and early fifties Kodachrome-esque tones. Skin tones adopt a ruddy California sun-kissed tint and contrast, overall, is good. Film grain also looks quite natural. The 5.1 DTS audio is adequate with crisp dialogue and a few nicely placed sound effects and music cues to sustain. Extras are limited to a junket produced to promote the movie; also, an original theatrical trailer covering a lot of the same ground. Honestly, I could have watched the trailer and been thoroughly satisfied. Bottom line: pass and be glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

GRANTCHESTER - Season One: Blu-ray (Masterpiece/Lovely Day/Shine International 2014-2015) ITV/PBS Home Video

“What the Dickens?!?”
What do you get when you cross a sensual, jazz-loving redhead with a battered old salt? Need a clue? It won’t take more than just one. James Norton is Anglican vicar, Sidney Chambers; the uber-totty, if socially, philosophically and, morally conflicted man of the cloth whose post war bromantic chemistry heats to a boil after he discovers a penchant for spare-time sleuthing with a religiously ambiguous middle-aged and crusty, Detective Inspector, Geordie Keating (Robson Green). We’ve seen it all before – the young man/old man, unlikeliest of buddy/buddy alliances; each in search of his own truth as he skulks about the dark (metaphorically, speaking) with or without those post-war Victorian hang-ups and counterintuitive burgeoning of a social conscience and personal angst. Borrowing every virtue and vice from the Britcom crime-solving dramedy playbook, occasionally with shameless rip-offs of Agatha Christie, Inspector Morse, Midsomer Murders and, Father Brown (among too many others to list herein), Grantchester (2014-present) nevertheless offers a sustained and refreshing effervescence beneath its highborn/high-starched collars and cuffs; moodily elegant as a pseudo-noir, and, with oodles of post-war nostalgia to boot. In only six episodes, Grantchester manages a minor coup; to establish its principles, characters and gain widespread acceptance on two continents – and – with Season Three already in the works – quite likely poised as an enriched substitute for our collective Downton Abbey withdrawal; a viable reason to fall in love all over again with a new assortment of cleverly homogenized, upper-crusts for whom homegrown homicide is much more about old-fashioned ‘locked room’ ‘who done it’s’ and far less involved with those grizzly copper/capers of our present age where the corpse gets splayed, decapitated or otherwise gruesomely disemboweled and put on public view to repulse; the crime itself, clinically dissected by a pair of rumpled and self-pitying dicks.
It is sincerely heartwarming to see a cops n’ capers melodrama made today that does not rely on the jittery hand-held camera and chop-shop styled editing to achieve its discombobulating thrills; better still, to wallow in Julian Court and Kieran McGuigan’s supremely edifying and lushly staged period cinematography. There is a pictorial gorgeousness to Grantchester that defies its contemporaries and for which Brit-born entertainment in general has long embraced an affinity, bucking the trend for fast-paced/cut-up performances, I suspect, primarily because in Britain they still train actors to command a scene on skill and stage presence alone without the trickery and camouflage of heavy-handed editing to confuse and anesthetize the audience. Grantchester demands its audience pay attention to even the smallest nuance and detail – the clues, neatly laid out for anyone possessing the intellectual wherewithal to solve a crime. Our Sidney Chambers is a very bright bulb indeed; at least ten steps ahead of the local constabulary and occasionally more than two preceding his counterpart. Geordie Keating is not a dull man; but he has become somewhat complacently jaded by his years on the force – careworn and stifled in his ability to seek out, embrace and engage the imaginative criminal mind.  
The crimes we encounter in Grantchester are highly personal to at least one of these participants coming in after the fact; Sidney Chambers, serving as spiritual counsel to this very gossipy village just outside Cambridge, sternly managed by his otherwise devoted housekeeper, Mrs. Maguire (Tessa Peake-Jones), received in friendship by underling, curate, Leonard Finch (Al Weaver), while, working through his itching passion for two exotic women, each of whom decidedly outclasses him; long-time gal pal and heiress, Amanda Kendall (Morven Christie), who is about to be married to Guy Hopkins (Tom Austen), another member of the ruling class (simply because he asked!!!), and, German ex-pat, Hildegard Staunton (Pheline Roggan). Sidney Chambers is a lucky sod; Geordie acknowledging that his cleric’s collar has done absolutely nothing to diminish his animal magnetism radiating with the opposite sex.  Apparently, however, it is exceedingly difficult to be a stud in Grantchester – what, with the locals chronically mindful of Sidney’s dalliances with Amanda, scornful of his ‘part-time’ hobby, fast beginning to dominate his sense of proportion and duty to his chosen profession; insidiously opposed to his burgeoning romantic prospects with Hildegard, and, Sidney himself, all but submarining these by indulging in a one-night indiscretion with smoldering jazz chanteuse, Gloria Dee (Camilla Beeput).
It’s taken five directors (Tim Fywell, Harry Bradbeer, Jill Robertson, Edward Bennett, David O'Neill), and four writers (Daisy Coulam, James Runcie, John Jackson, Joshua St. Johnston) to bring Runcie’s collection of short stories – The Grantchester Mysteries – to life. Arguably, the results have been well worth the effort. Grantchester is tautly scripted, succinctly acted, and magnificently tricked out in post-war period costuming by Sam Perry and Emma Fryer. Composer, John Lunn (whose lush orchestrations greatly contributed to the flavorful patina of Downton Abbey) hasn’t exactly outdone himself this time around. While Grantchester’s score is complimentary, the musical program lacks an iconic ‘theme’ for its main title – each episode simply beginning without fanfare, and then a brief musical arc to connect between the prologue and the scenes yet to follow it; the end titles cue sounding more like a toss-away from the aforementioned series, than a new standalone for this fledgling detective drama.  Aside: I do sincerely hope more attention is paid to this as Grantchester appears to be shaping up as another solid hit for the BBC.
A lot can happen in the middle of this otherwise outwardly bucolic enclave; all lush wisteria, cobblestone byways, thatched roofs and stucco facades, winding country lanes leading through tightly knit neighborhoods and centuries old farms, with enough period architecture to serve as mere window-dressing and backdrop for these truly intriguing mystery/adventures.  Six of Runcie’s short stories make up Season One. The first episode is rather inauspiciously not very indicative of where the series is headed; the first-time ‘cute meet’ between Sidney and Geordie delayed while the writer’s cover a bit of back story; first, the lazily romantic double entendre between Sidney and Amanda; the two seen enjoying long picnics and a clumsy mid-afternoon swim – the latter, unintentional, as the rope Amanda is using to swing out over the lake suddenly snaps from its tree branch, sending her headlong into the freezing waters and Sidney, chivalrously diving in after her. Shortly, we will get more back story than we bargain for – Sidney, haunted by bygone nightmares from the battlefield and pressed to grapple with his heart-sore emotions, as Amanda has just announced her engagement to Guy, “…because he asked me…” Amanda reasons. Oh, now there’s a good reason, and how fickle is woman.
On the home front, Sidney has bigger fish to fry, his vicarage under constant inspection from the prudish villagers, headlined by crotchety groundskeeper, Mr. Brandt (Chris Bearne); the lot attending Sunday mass partly to hear the word of God, but mostly to observe and make sly comment on Sidney’s evolution as their moral compass; his household managed by the morally inflexible Mrs. Maguire, who finds his commitments to the church torn asunder by his love of jazz (the devil’s music), his predilection for strong drink (the devil’s tool), and, his manly lust for woman beyond his grasp in the social register. Sidney’s new hobby – crime-solving – will not fare much better with Mrs. Maguire’s respects. “You need looking after, Mr. Chambers,” she repeatedly reminds him. And indeed, Sidney could do worse than to have a housekeeper as stringently and singularly devoted to satisfying his every need – even if she rarely approves of at least half of them.
Things begin to sizzle in the present when Sidney is called upon to deliver the benediction and panegyric for the late Stephen Staunton (Eoin McCarthy) whose wife, Hildegarde is somewhat ostracized for being German (and therefore, equally suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer) during the traditional wake at a local pub. There, vamp-ish Pamela Morton (Rachel Shelley) confides in Sidney her suspicions that her husband’s business partner did not commit suicide by blowing his brains out as originally believed, but actually murdered. The question remains; by who? The firm’s secretary, Annabel Morrison (Michelle Duncan) adored Stephen, regarding him as the better half of a somewhat tawdry partnership. Pamela’s husband, Clive (Andrew Woodall) knew nothing of her affair with Stephen. And Pamela herself would have no cause to stir up an investigation if she had jealously pulled the trigger. Or would she? Part of the exquisiteness of Grantchester revolves around the writers’ ability to introduce us to ostensibly unrelated characters – the payoff in these intros revealed, in some cases, several episodes on. According this clever planning, we also meet Annie (Sia Berkeley) the prostitute, exploited for comic relief in Episode 1 as she rather humorously tells Geordie to ‘bugger himself sideways’, but later provides a pivotal clue to another puzzler in the series.
The initial ‘cute meet’ between Sidney and Geordie is anything but cordial. Geordie has just had some rather disheartening news – no, not about another case, but a soccer match in which his team lost. We also meet Geordie’s wife, Cathy (Kacey Ainsworth) who will figure more prominently in an upcoming episode. Again, the writing sets up the particulars of each man’s invested interests in life. We get to know something – a lot, actually – about these people that is not on the menu of a straight-forward ‘who done it?’; such deviations to the central plot only serving to thicken and enrich the on-going bromantic chemistry that becomes the most enduring and endearing thread woven into the tapestry of their lives. Barking up the wrong tree will become something of a habit with Sidney, who, after reluctantly being brushed off by Geordie as trudging through ‘murky waters’, proceeds to take matters into his own hands by investigating the widow Staunton. Sidney’s unbiased approach ingratiates him to Hildegarde.  But along the way, clues are planted by Sidney, with Geordie’s complicity, to deliberately snuff out a killer. And, predictably, one emerges before the end of Episode 1; although, perhaps not the one anticipated.  
In Episode 2, Sidney reluctantly agrees to attend Amanda’s engagement party with his sister, Jennifer (Fiona Button) and her boyfriend, Soho jazz club manager-in-training, Johnny Johnson (Ukweli Roach); the swank affair staged at a pastoral country estate. Amanda’s father, Sir Edward Kendell (Pip Torrens), atypically toffy-nosed and condescending to intrusions made by the lower classes, does not approve of their invite – even if he tolerates it somewhat on his daughter’s behalf, still unaware of the depth of Amanda’s affections for Sidney. Amanda’s beau, Guy is in attendance; also psychology lecturer, Daphne Young (Pippa Nixon) as well as Guy’s best friend, politico, William Calthrope (Harry Hadden-Paton) and his rather shrewish wife, Lilian (Carolina Main) who, very shortly will become the corpse de jour of this unintentionally heated house party – the gathering distracted by the sudden disappearance of Amanda’s engagement ring and a wild accusation made by Guy that Johnny is the thief…and quite possibly, a murderer – simply, because he is black.  In Episode Three, Sidney takes on a new curate at the vicarage; introverted, Leonard Finch whom Geordie quickly pegs ‘a pansy’.  Guy asks Sidney to officiate his pending marriage to Amanda at Grantchester, seemingly unaware of how deep even the thought of it wounds Sidney and makes Amanda extremely uncomfortable. At the same time, Sidney is drawn into another marital quagmire when a middle-aged Lothario and serial polygamist, using the alias Arthur Evans (Kieran O'Brien), is accused of poisoning Daisy Livingston (Jean Marsh), the invalided mother of his latest fiancée/victim, Lucy (Lucy Black) who had strong misgivings about their marriage.  However, when Lucy’s aunt is also found dead under spurious circumstances, Sidney begins to suspect the doctor (Mark Bonnar) presiding over Daisy’s cancer treatment of foul play.
Arguably, Grantchester hits its stride in Episode Four; ironically, one of two episodes not based directly on The Grantchester Mysteries short stories; the characters by now firmly ensconced in our memory; the writing as taut and compelling as serialized TV gets; each character’s personal traits begun to take on a life of their own as we follow this ensemble through even more heart-rending intrigues, beginning with Sidney’s chivalrous dawn rescue of affluent socialite, Marion Taylor (Flora Montgomery) from a burning mansion. Caretaker, Tobias Hall (Struan Rodger) is a dark horse, unsympathetic to his master, Dominic (Lee Williams); perhaps, shielding a more insidious family secret, rife for blackmail and involving local gas station pump jockey, Ben Blackwood (Rory Fleck-Byrne), who has been carrying on a notorious homosexual flagrante delicto with Dominic, unbeknownst to Ben’s father, Vic (Wayne Foskett). This episode pulls no punches; introducing us to the homophobic aspects of 1950’s English police officers; DC Atkins (Joe Claflin) harassing, assaulting and arresting suspects on mere suspicion of ‘buggery’; Sidney and Geordie divided in their opinions while pursuing the proper course of investigation.  Lest we forget homosexuality was considered a crime in England, punishable under the law until 1967. This episode is also noteworthy for its superb subplot; Geordie, distracted by his infant son’s near fatal bout of pneumonia; his inexcusable absence, leaving Cathy to tend to the ailing child while he increasingly grows more sullen, morose and occasionally violent with drink and his blind pursuit of Dominic’s murderer.
Episode Five returns our bromantic crime solvers to more familiar territory. Having invited Hildegarde to move into the vicarage to teach piano, Sidney decides to encourage Geordie to partake of a London outing to the Straight 8; a jazz club managed by Johnny’s brutish father, Archie Johnson (Peter Egan). We also meet, Johnny’s sister, Claudette (Natasha Cottriall); alas, not long for this world – heinously bludgeoned to death in the alley behind the club on her way to meet lover, Walter Sterling (Nakay Kpaka), deemed an undesirable by Archie. The club’s bouncer, Tommy (Andy Beckwith) is suspicious of Archie’s chauffeur, Justin (Ted Reilly), confessing to Geordie and Sidney that some years ago, Archie allowed his temper to get the better of him, murdering one Charlie Rush, the man Archie suspected of having an affair with his wife. Since that time, Archie has held this affair against his own children.  At Claudette’s wake, Johnny confronts his father, suggesting he might have killed his own daughter. But Sidney suspects a far more insidious plot afoot.  Meanwhile, Scotland Yard DCI Jacob Williams (Nicholas Sidi) is unimpressed by Geordie and Sidney’s meddling. He orders the pair to return to Grantchester at once. Defying this edict, Sidney remains behind in London. Separated from Geordie and on a bender after being reunited with Amanda at the Straight 8, resulting in Guy’s revelation his fiancée has deep-rooted affections for the vicar of Grantchester, Sidney falls prey to a momentary lapse in character. He awakens the next morning in singer, Gloria Dee’s boudoir; the two having shared a passionate evening of which Sidney is able to recall very little. Returning to Grantchester riddled with guilt, Sidney lies to Hildegarde, but later, with Leonard’s guidance and compassion, will eventually confess his indiscretion to her.
Episode Six, also not based on Runcie’s book, offers us a future glimpse into Sidney’s deep and abiding respect for Geordie. Investigating the murder of a Cambridge police detective, Jones (Matthew Jure), Sidney is reunited with the prostitute, Annie, who saw a man conversing with the deceased cop moments before he was shot; the name ‘Merlin’ mentioned in their lethal conversation.  After Geordie is near fatally wounded while pursuing a suspect in an abandoned warehouse, Sidney takes up the case alone; discovering ‘Merlin’ is not a person, but a corporation managed by a rather thuggish land developer, James Heath (Adam James). Among his many indiscretions, Heath beats his wife, Grace (Natasha O'Keeffe). Sidney learns that Jones and another murder victim, Thomas Langshaw, both served in the military under Heath. However, when he asks Heath to provide him with a complete list of the men who were in his squadron, Sidney is instead promptly shown the door and told not to return. Stymied in his endeavor to avenge Geordie’s near death, and suffering from too much drink, Sidney crashes Amanda’s engagement luncheon with a misguided and thoroughly belated declaration of love. He is promptly refused, manhandled by Guy and escorted out by Amanda’s father. Sidney is haunted by Geordie’s last word ‘heart’ before slipping into a coma. Grace leaves an envelope for Sidney containing a list of the men who were in his squadron, implying to Sidney he was a violent man before and during the war too. Eventually, Sidney tracks down Robert Miller (Paul Hilton) on his farm, an erratic ex-G.I., tormented by the memory of being ordered by Heath to cold-bloodedly assassinate three captured German soldiers during the war; Miller’s inability to do so, branding him a yellow-bellied coward by Heath and the rest of the men in his squad.
Miller tells Sidney he believes Heath is murdering these men so that his war crimes are kept secret. However, as Sidney waits for Miller to go with him to the local authorities he discovers in a photograph that Miller has a rather prominent tattoo of a heart on his forearm. Miller shot Geordie. In the ensuing tussle, Miller momentarily subdues Sidney before fleeing the farmhouse. Telephoning for help, Sidney pursues Miller into the fields. As the police close in, Miller takes his own life with the same gun he used to shoot Geordie rather than face incarceration. The incident stirs a memory for Sidney that he confesses to Geordie, who has awakened from his coma. During the war, one of his soldiers was ambushed by a German officer in the woods. As the man lay dying in his arms, Sidney put a bullet into him as no amount of medical attention would have saved his life. In the spirit of candor, Sidney returns to Hildegarde and makes his one night stand with Gloria Dee known. Having once been betrayed in marriage, Hildegarde cannot forgive Sidney and leaves the vicarage with a broken heart. In the final moments of Season One, Sidney is reunited with Amanda in the art gallery where they first met. Although Guy has magnanimously afforded him an invitation to their wedding, Sidney will not attend. Amanda reasons this is for the best and the two part company as friends. In montage, Grace Heath displays bruises sustained by her husband’s vicious abuse to his investors, thereby destroying his credibility as a businessman. Hildegard begins a new romance as Amanda walks down the aisle. Surrounded by his extended family, Sidney and Geordie enjoy a picnic together; Sidney, hopeful about the future, even as Geordie teases him about finding a wife who enjoys listening to Bechet as much as he does.
Grantchester Season One is a deliciously understated and tasteful affair; easily one of the most unassuming and engaging ‘new’ dramas on television today.  James Norton and Robson Green have wonderful chemistry. Their friendship is slightly unbalanced by the series focus on Norton’s waffling vicar. If a flaw can be found in Grantchester, it is that the buddy/buddy formula of the piece occasionally suffers in Green’s absence; Geordie often coming in at the last minute to help Sidney solve another one, using his badge to add a note of officiousness to standardize the morality of this atypical police procedural melodrama. Grantchester is a lot more than that, however, and intriguingly, we do not seem to lose the momentum of its crime-solving badinage, despite the fact there is so much more going on behind the scenes. The supporting cast is uniformly solid, if underused. Given the limitations of six, one hour episodes, it will be interesting to see if Season Two rectifies some of these shortcomings with more involved story lines. Bottom line: Grantchester is top-tier ole-fashioned entertainment in the best sense and tradition. You have to look long and hard to find other serialized dramas as wittily written. Faith, love, and, murder: heaven help us!
Part of the Masterpiece Mysteries series line up, Grantchester looks pretty spiffy on Blu-ray from ITV and PBS Home Video. The widescreen image is stunning and practically flawless, utilizing a subdued color palette that bodes well for its stylized Kodachrome-ish post-war fifties patina. There is really nothing at all to complain about here; a flawless effort with six episodes spread over two discs; solid contrast, crisp detail and generally desaturated hues to mimic an older vintage, yet still thoroughly please contemporary sensibilities.  It is one of the oddities of PBS Home Video that they continue to master their discs in 1080i rather than 1080p; for what reason and to what purpose, I am sure I do not know. Grantchester was shot digitally, so a true 1080p rendering ought to have become standard practice by now. The audio is rich and enveloping, John Lunn’s score leading the charge with clear dialogue also benefiting. Extras are a tad disappointing; a lot of junkets strewn together to suggest a ‘making of’ when in actuality they can be distilled into little more than self-aggrandizing sound bites. Not a fan of these to be sure, as they offer virtually nothing to augment one’s appreciation for the monumental talents represented both in front of and behind the camera. Talking heads saying silly things is a very poor substitute for a quality ‘behind the scenes’ look into the particulars of how such a series is put together. Oh well, it’s the series itself that matters. Grantchester Season One comes highly recommended. We are sincerely looking forward to Season Two! So should you.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


Thursday, May 19, 2016

VICTOR/VICTORIA (MGM/UA 1982) Warner Home Video

Is she a woman pretending to be a man, pretending to be a woman? Or is he a man, pretending to be a woman, pretending to be a man?
Such is the disingenuousness proposed in Blake Edward's hilarious gender-bending musical farce, Victor/Victoria (1982), placing the transparently feminine Julie Andrews at the heart of the query. And it is saying a great deal of Ms. Andrews, that despite her instantly recognizable fresh-faced innocence she managed to summon something of the impersonator’s hauteur and more than an ounce of androgyny in her pantomime; enough, at least, to carry off this supremely wicked masquerade in spite of her soprano vocalizations of the deliciously dreamy Henry Mancini/Leslie Bricusse score.  At a time when movie musicals were generally considered ‘box office poison’, Edwards proved that with the right vehicle and star at his disposal the results could still be magical and profit-making; dusting off an old, and all but forgotten 1933 German film, ‘Viktor und Viktoria’ while only ever so slightly tweaking the particulars of its hermaphroditic dilemma. There is a studio-bound elegance to this exercise; Edwards, contented never to leave the sound stages, enveloped by quaint cycloramas, and, save a few back lot facades, remaining deliberately ensconced in the artifice of making a classic – and very classy – old-time entertainment. While Julie Andrews has more epic musicals in her repertoire, Victor/Victoria shines like a gemstone from another era entirely; Edwards blending the leitmotifs, risqué naughtiness and pseudo-European sophistication of a pre-code dazzler a la Ernest Lubtisch with his own tongue-in-cheek tease from 1963’s The Pink Panther. Even in 1982, there was something quaint about Victor/Victoria, though in the very best sense, as well as the tradition for adapting great theater to the cinema screen. And the results have held up remarkably well in the thirty plus years since its debut; the picaresque quality of its cabaret-styled gay-liberation only becoming more seasoned and sassy with age.
It is to Edwards’ credit the film’s deliberately ‘camp’ elements, and Robert Preston’s breakout performance as the flamboyant Toddy, are tempered with equal dollops of style and substance as well as sexual titillation; Edwards, expertly avoiding the crass and witless didacticisms; too easily, the fallback to transform such lithe specimens into a tedious yawn. We must reconsider that in 1982 AIDS was yet to be misconstrued as interchangeable and synonymous with the gay lifestyle; the epidemic to follow its diagnosis and outbreak casting a pall on the already ‘closeted’ overview of homosexuality in general. Yet, Edwards is not particularly interested in taking the familiar approach in treating homo-erotica as either dangerous and/or counterculture; nor in making it obvious and spitefully silly for which a slew of 80’s comedies are guilty.  Instead, cribbing from Hans Hoemburg’s original concept, later fleshed out by Reinhold Schünzel in the original movie, Edwards’ screenplay is a mostly adult affair that runs the gamut from tender clichés of the ‘old queen’ to astutely empathic depictions of gays as people too; different, but equal and undeniably resilient as contributors to this artistic milieu.  In Victor/Victoria’s case, this unfamiliar territory is dotted with some sparkling slapstick. Largely green lit on Edwards’ reputation, a sort of pledge of good faith by the studio and nod to his hit-making track record, Victor/Victoria emerges as an escapist fantasia of sublime comedy, superbly photographed by cinematographer, Dick Bush (whose name alone is rife for blatant double entendre, sincerely abstain from, given the subject matter at hand. But draw your own conclusions…smile – and relax).
It was, in fact, a big year for cross-dressing at the cinema; Sidney Pollack doing as much for ‘straight’ comedy with Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, released just a few months earlier. Like Pollack’s non-musical, Victor/Victoria is a tale of necessity as the mother of invention – literally. In this case, Victoria Grant, a young woman of great talent but virtually no opportunities – and worse, no money – is taken under the wing of an aging homosexual impresario and nightclub performer, thus remade into drag queen extraordinaire, Count Victor. As Victor, Victoria vamps the part of an erstwhile cabaret entertainer that catches the eye of a celebrated ‘butch John’ – played with magnanimous severity by James Gardner. Confusing, I know – but devilishly satisfying as an exercise in misappropriated gender traits and biases. Clever too, in Edwards’ own slick and stylish rewriting; shaking up the ensemble with the overt ‘girlie-girl’ (Leslie Ann Warren as the proverbial ‘dumb bitch’ in gold digger’s frilly lace panties), and, Alex Karras – playing against his own image as an ex-footballer/pro-wrestler cum actor; herein, the least likely man one might expect of harboring latent homosexual tendencies.
Edwards is, of course, cribbing from a rich – if slightly one-dimensional stereotype; that to appreciate musical/comedy one has either to be female or of the gay persuasion; hence, his emphasis on the gayness of the piece progressively evolves with a wink and a nudge. Critics in 1982 were rather unkind to condescending, carpet-hauling Edwards’ efforts as a deliberate and/or artificial miscalculation. In the wake of Edouard Molinaro’s more naturalistic approach in La Cage Aux Folles (1978), perhaps there was a point to be made – idiotically so – but made nonetheless. Besides, in Reinhold Schünzel's 1933 original, Renate Müller had cross-dressed her way to celebrity as a stand-in for a genuine female impersonator, Hermann Thimig, while London Lochinvar, Adolf Wohlbrück (having astutely found her out) indulged in a tortuous initiation to get Müller to confess the truth before professing his love for her. This situation is uproariously subverted in Victor/Victoria; the male stud of the piece, King Marchand (James Garner) made to suffer and question his sexuality; quite unable to reconcile his usual tom-catting with bubble-headed gun molls with an inexplicable attraction to someone who gives every indication of possessing the same anatomical bits as he. Naturally, this unusual attraction rootles deep into his masculine conceit and ego. Thus, King is determined to understand it by getting to know the Count better.
Edwards’ succès de scandale is capped off by an inspired ‘big reveal’: making the butchest bloke, Marchand’s rotund bodyguard, ‘Squash’ Bernstein (ex-footballer and future Webster co-star, Alex Karras) the real closeted queer, later to be satisfied with an invitation to Toddy’s bedroom. Still, the most outlandish of the lot in this sex-confused milieu is Lesley Ann Warren’s scene-stealing/disgustingly uncouth, Norma Cassidy; an overwrought buxom trophy, draped like the proverbial cheap suit across King’s arm. In a sort of Jean Harlow-esque homage, a la Marilyn Monroe, and, a little Mamie Van Doren mixed in, Warren’s sex-crazed viper is un-apologetically light-headed and giggly; an uber-erotic sex kittenish foil. While Julie Andrews’ central performance is chronically restrained – though never hampered – by the fact she must temper her desire to be a lady – except, of course, when her nightclub act permits the ‘illusion’ of as much – Warren’s brassy bombshell is estrogen-nutty shock therapy with no compunction to indulge in the froth and frilliness of being an undulating sexpot. And while in life there are undoubtedly female impersonators who practice their craft so flawlessly as to create the seamlessness of being ‘real women’, Victor/Victoria’s tour de force is in the art of knowing more than the characters do; Andrews making us buy into her drag queen nonsense while still knowing it’s all just an act. Herein, we really must tip our hats to Julie Andrews; clever enough to recognize her reputation as America’s favorite nun/nanny precedes her; sharp enough in her perceptions to tweak, mimic and occasionally convince us into at least enjoying the gender-bending conundrums that follow. Thus, the bright-eyed comedy comes from a rather buoyant contemplation on how absurd we are when we take sex too seriously.
Fair enough, the film would be nothing at all without Julie Andrews’ at the top of her form, belting out a great Henry Mancini/Leslie Bricusse score. But equally as integral to this highly stylized exultation of Paris is the character of Toddy, the self-professed ‘old queen’, quizzically reflecting on a failed relationship with sycophant lover, Richard DiNardo (Malcolm Jamieson), before investing in Victoria’s sham. This puts a new ‘oo-la-la’ in his step. And Robert Preston, who initially had misgivings about accepting the role, proves a sheer delight on par with Andrews; whether philosophically contemplating his flawed life’s pursuits, buoyantly embracing/promoting the reputation of his slickly packaged Polish cross-dressing Count, or, in the exuberantly raw ‘Shady Lady from Seville’; unconvincingly masquerading as Victoria herself, begrudgingly turning on his sabotaging male chorus with clenched teeth - “You bitches!”, Preston’s performance as the old campaigner is ripe with endearing recollections of the elegant bon vivant – a sort of gay Maurice Chevalier who knows all the tricks and is decidedly unafraid to use every last one in his great stab at immortality.
Ultra-sophistication is the order of the day. Director, Edwards is cribbing from a long line of ersatz European escapisms a la Ernest Lubitsch, herein ever so delicately folded into a mélange of sly innuendoes a la Billy Wilder: quite the cinematic soufflé.  And let us not overlook production designer, Rodger Maus’ glittery and transparently theatrical sets, a veritable potpourri of très gay Bohemian chic, circa 1934. Plot wise: Andrews is Victoria Grant – a failed chanteuse auditioning for Labisse (Peter Arne) the proprietor of Chez Lui – an artsy Parisian nightclub. From the corner of the café, Carroll ‘Toddy’ Todd quietly admires. Alas, he has no say in the matter and Labisse shows zero interest in advancing the girl’s career. She is classically trained. But he needs a torch singer with sex appeal. Hungry and desperate, Victoria is cornered by her wily middle-age hotel manager (Michael Robbins) who would consider working off the rent in her boudoir. Too bad Victoria is a woman of principles…well, sort of. After rejecting his advances and being cast into the street, she decides to perpetrate a fraud; treating herself to a fabulous meal – or rather, ‘meals’ inside a fashionable restaurant, quite aware she cannot pay for any of it, and thus, resigned to go to jail afterward. In the meantime, Toddy has just been given the old heave-ho by his lover, Richard. Let us be fair, though honest, when assessing Richard’s motives in latching onto Toddy. It was never grand amour. 
Traversing the streets alone and forlorn, Toddy spies Victoria indulging in her feast. The two comfort one another in their sorrow – each confessing they are penniless and slightly depressed. Victoria explains her plan; to release a cockroach held captive in her purse into her salad, thereby declaring the restaurant unsanitary and refusing to pay for the meal. It might have worked, except the head waiter (Graham Stark) is no stranger to this careworn moocher’s trick. And, the trick itself is spoiled when the cockroach, having prematurely escaped Victoria’s bag, winds up in the salad of a nearby patron, who wastes no time becoming hysterical at its discovery. Her panicky cries incite a riot in the restaurant. In the ensuing chaos, Toddy and Victoria manage their bungled escape, Toddy taking Victoria back to his apartment to commiserate. Since Victoria’s eviction has left her without an immediate change of wardrobe, Toddy offers her the run of his closet, encouraging her to try on some of Richard’s clothes.  When Richard arrives to collect his things, he discovers Victoria hiding in the closet wearing in his trousers and shirt. Believing he will harm Toddy, Victoria attacks Richard, punching him in the eye and literally kicking him out of the apartment down a flight of stairs into a waiting car of his fair-weather friends. Richly amused by Victoria’s uncanny masculine predisposition, moreover tantalized by the fact Richard has fallen for it too, Toddy proposes an ‘angle’ to salvage Victoria’s career; why not pretend to be Europe’s greatest female impersonator? It seems too fantastic to work…at first. But what has Victoria to lose? Answer: absolutely nothing. And so, a new twist on the old Pygmalion transformation begins to take shape under Toddy’s expert tutelage. Victoria is given a new name, ‘Count Victor’ and pitched with aplomb by Toddy to nightclub impresario, Andre Cassell (John Rhys-Davies).
Cassell implicitly accepts Victoria as the gay Polish Count Victor Grazinski, Toddy assuming a dual role as the Count’s agent/boyfriend. After a few weeks’ rehearsals, Cassell lines up an impressive opening night. All the glitterati attend; among them, King Marchand, an enterprising American gangster whose chain of upscale speakeasies are the envy of Chicago, thanks to backing from the mob. King’s appendage du jour is the rapacious, Norma Cassidy (Lesley Ann Warren), a dim-witted floozy King has managed to elevate to queen of the burlesque back home. King is also flanked by his devoted bodyguard, Squash Bernstein. Victoria’s sexual orientation is kept a mystery until the end of her opening number, ‘Le Jazz Hot’, whereupon she strips off her elaborately beaded headdress to reveal a mannish crop of reddish hair underneath. The crowd is completely fooled and elated. However, King, who felt an immediate sexual attraction when he had correctly assumed Victoria to be a woman, is now wildly befuddled to outright wounded he could so easily be fooled.
From this moment forward the ‘love affair’ to blossom between Victor and King will increasingly suffer more rascally roadblocks. Victoria must not reveal who she really is, lest her cover be blown and she and Toddy both face going to prison for fraud. On the other hand, Victoria is attracted to King. Unable to put these variables together, Norma is incensed when King endeavors to unravel the truth, quietly assuming King has begun to harbor legitimately gay tendencies toward Count Victor.  The thing is – King is not yet entirely convinced Victoria is a woman. Thus, his early sexual frustration boils over – culminating in a failed launch to reassert his manhood by consummating his dwindling romance with Norma. Unable to perform in bed, King sends Norma packing to America while he fastidiously commits himself to discovering Victor’s true identity. Sneaking into Victoria and Toddy’s suite, King observes her disrobing to take a bath. Satisfied there is nothing doubtful about his own sexual proclivities, King decided to keep Victoria’s secret for the time being, inviting her, Toddy and Cassell to Chez Lui. Labisse coaxes Victoria and Toddy into an impromptu performance of ‘You and Me’. In the audience are Richard and his friends. Toddy uses the number to goad Richard and make him jealous. At the end of the song, a brawl ensues and Labisse is forced to summon the police. Squash and Toddy are arrested. But King’s quick thinking ensures both he and Victoria escape the deluge. This is exactly what he has been waiting for; a moment alone to profess his love. Pretending he does not care about Victoria’s gender – when, in fact he already knows the truth – King seduces her. Newly released from jail, Squash catches the couple in bed. While King tries to explain the particulars to Squash, he receives the shocker of his life when Squash explains he too is gay.    
Still reeling from the damage inflicted by the nightclub brawl, Labisse hires private investigator, Charles Bovin (Herb ‘Sherloque’ Tanney) to unearth the truth about Count Victor. Labisse is already quite certain there is something suspiciously familiar about the Count. In the meantime, the strain of pretending to be involved with a female impersonator eventually gets the better of King. He breaks off their relationship for his own vanity’s sake. Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Norma spreads the rumor King is pinch-hitting for the other side. Naturally, this revelation does not sit well with King’s Mafia contact, Sal Andretti (Norman Chancer), who promptly flies to France, ordering King to divest himself of their partnership. Squash intercedes, explaining to Victoria, King will be publicly humiliated and financially wiped out if the deal goes through. Having already decided she would rather be with King than remain the toast of Paris, Victoria interrupts their rendezvous and reveals herself to all as a woman. Norma is outraged and ultimately the one who is humiliated and carted back to America. Alas, later that evening Cassell informs Toddy and Victoria, Labisse has filed a formal complaint against ‘Victor’ for perpetrating a fraud. Last minute quick thinking narrowly prevents everyone’s incarceration. Toddy pretends to be Victor, inviting the police inspector (Geoffrey Beevers) into Victor’s dressing room where he illustrates – unequivocally – he is a man. As the nightclub’s Master of Ceremony’s cues up the performance, it is Toddy who appears on stage in Victoria’s place, badly mangling her signature number, ‘The Shady Lady from Seville’. Amused by this debacle and quite aware of the bait and switch, the gay male chorus deliberately sabotages the act; causing Toddy to repeatedly trip and fall. The audience, many never having seen the act before, finds this bumbling campiness enchanting. At the end of his performance, Toddy announces his retirement from the stage. From their seats in the nightclub, King, Cassell and Victoria – at last, allowed to appear as she is – rise to their feet in unanimous applause. 
Victor/Victoria is a delicious charade; director, Blake Edwards taking the magical romantic chemistry so eloquently evoked in such classic outings as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and The Pink Panther (1963) to their lithe extreme of champagne cocktail effervescence. In a decade buffeted by cynicism and crass sex comedies, Victor/Victoria harks back to another vintage in regal elegance. It’s still an ‘80’s ‘sex comedy’ per say, and undoubtedly one of the first to frankly treat homosexuality and homosexuals with respect, not merely as subtext, backdrop or figures of fun.  And Edwards – apart from parlaying the premise of the 1933 German movie into a financially successful remake/reboot/update for the then beleaguered MGM/UA, has also managed a minor artistic coup; making it a musical at a time when musicals were sincerely dreaded. In hindsight, one might ask how such an enterprise could fail with Julie Andrews and Robert Preston at the helm. Yet, this is a last hurrah for both these talents – tragically so for Andrews, whose supposedly routine throat surgeries have since deprived us of her miraculous vocal gifts. The Henry Mancini/Leslie Bricusse score has its moments; particularly ‘Le Jazz Hot’ – a sizzler with Andrews seemingly effortlessly popping out ascending and descending octaves.  Andrews also acquits herself of the sad-eyed and oddly dreamy, ‘Crazy World’; a luscious ballad. She and Robert Preston are the epitome of mirth, locked at the elbow as they warble, ‘You and Me’, while Preston gives us the very Cole Porter-esque ‘Gay Paree’ with all the debonair grace of a classy showman.
Robert Preston had not appeared in a big and splashy Hollywood musical since 1974’s disastrous and costly, Mame. Certainly, he had not known success in the genre after his Oscar-winning turn in 1962, reprising his stage role as everyone’s favorite con, Prof. Harold Hill in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man. Herein, Preston is having an indubitably ‘good time’; his caricature never mean-spirited or over the top. His is a genuine, if very ‘hot’ Toddy indeed; a twinkle of petty larceny caught in his eye, supremely satisfying as he gesticulates with arms spread wide; a vivacious ‘old queen’. And Preston and Andrews have that illusive, infectious and curiously bromantic spark of onscreen chemistry. Whether they’re embracing the implied subtleties of ‘gay Paree’ or simply exchanging loaded barbs from Edward’s brilliantly nuanced screenplay, together they crackle with airy wit and smart sophistication; a pair of hams sufficiently cured to carry the premise off without a hitch. Less successful is Leslie Ann Warren’s grating gun moll. At times, she seems to be channeling Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont from Singin’ in the Rain (1952), albeit, with far less charm than silliness. Her one solo number, ‘Chicago, Illinois’ is a garish display of sex appeal turned rancid and antagonistic; the sly stripping down of Norma to her unmentionables becoming an intolerable striptease that neither teases nor titillates, but rather makes one sincerely wish she would simply get dressed and get off the stage. Yes, it is meant to be ‘camp’ and it is. But there is decidedly a difference between good ‘camp’ and bad. Perhaps, the number’s biggest flaw is its transparent hetero-arousing counterpoint to all the homoerotic badinage going on everywhere else. Victor/Victoria could have easily done with this moment.  There is no subterfuge to it. In hindsight, the song adds very little – if anything – to the movie, except run time; a genuine shame too, because when Warren reels in her culture-clashing homage to Harlow and Monroe she occasionally becomes a devilishly obtuse and smashing sexpot. Ultimately, it’s the heavy-handed nature of her performance that adds clunk to the clamor in her taps and submarines its success. 
Warner Archive has announced Victor/Victoria is coming to Blu-ray. Frankly, we cannot wait and even more frankly – it’s about time! Mercifully, the DVD is rather spectacular so one can only anticipate what a treasure we are in store for when the hi-def Blu-ray hits the streets. Colors herein are warm, rich and vibrant. A few very brief scenes appear softly focused, but overall the image is solid and sharp without appearing digitally harsh. There’s no untoward edge enhancement either.  Contrast levels are bang on deep and solid. When the Blu-ray arrives, we’ll expect to see more natural film grain. The DVD looks rather artificially smooth; and of course, lots more fine detail in clothes, fabric, skin, etc. et al. The mastered 5.1 Dolby Digital thunders during the musical sequences and exhibits minor ambiance in its dialogue. Again, when the Blu-ray arrives the Mancini/Bricusse score is sure to tickle and tantalize as never before. Get ready – it’s coming. Herein, we get an audio commentary from Edwards and Andrews that is being carried over to the Blu-ray too. Alas, it’s fairly dull and rambling and gets very old very fast! Bottom line: recommended! But we just cannot wait for the Blu-ray. Soon, folks. Very soon!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


Monday, May 16, 2016

THE HATEFUL EIGHT: Blu-ray (Weinstein Company, 2015) E-One Home Video

Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015) squanders whatever potential it might have had to be a truly great western on a series of miscalculations that gradually devolve it into a bloody, race-baiting diatribe; full of the sort of mentally ill sensationalist muckraking that has fast become a cliché instead of trope in Tarantino’s cinematic style. Carrying over his infantile fascination with the word ‘nigger’ (and no, if Tarantino is unashamed to bandy it about ad nauseam some 60+ times in this movie, I certainly have no quam about marking it once for this review) – perhaps, the most loaded and incendiary word in the English language, and, thoroughly mined until there is literally no ‘shock value’ left in it in Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), herein, Tarantino takes ‘that word’ to new lows of casualness; to what purpose…ah, now there is a point. Or is there? Throughout The Hateful Eight I found myself waiting for a more prolific movie to emerge; my level of expectation, too lofty for Tarantino to satisfy. In essence, The Hateful Eight is Reservoir Dogs (1992) all over again, tricked out in the frontier milieu with a sidestep into 70mm; that glorious, though tragically defunct widescreen format, yielding exceptional image clarity. Thanks to cinematographer, Robert Richardson, The Hateful Eight has at least pictorial value to recommend it; the starkly surreal depictions of its snowy Coloradan landscapes (subbing in for Wyoming) with their epic natural splendor lending genuine scale and scope to this otherwise wafer-thin and unprepossessing showdown that owes more to the modern pulp crime actioner.
By now most everyone has either heard about or read of ‘the guitar incident’ – Tarantino derailing virtually all future relations between the Martin Guitar Museum and any film production company hoping to feature their product; allowing his star, Kurt Russell to destroy an 1870’s antique on loan out in good faith, smashed to bits against a wooden pillar for a pivotal scene. Evidently, Russell was unaware the guitar he was dismembering was not a prop; while co-star, Jennifer Jason-Leigh became utterly horrified in the moment; Tarantino pleased to have achieved ‘the reaction’ preserved for posterity on celluloid, even if it alienated professional relations with the museum for good; Martin Guitar’s Director, Dick Boak understandably revoking all usage of any of their prized possessions after the maimed remnants of this instrument were returned to him with an insurance claim remunerating the full value for this antique. Alas, no dollar amount can effectively compensate for the willful ruination of cultural heritage; something for which Tarantino seems to possess an almost maniacal resolve and relish to dismantle.
In only 8 films, it now becomes rather apparent Tarantino’s sole purpose for making movies is to satisfy his own inarticulate grey matter, hell-bent, all-consuming and, as it turns out, predicated on a measly and self-devouring, gauche and gargantuan ego masquerading as ‘style’. Even the briefest TripTik through his work illustrates how niggardly and transparent his modus operendi has become, unremarkably distilled into a litany of foul-mouthed vituperations, spewing forth from the mouths of virtually every character populating his skewed perspective on mankind in general. There are no heroes in a Tarantino movie; arguably, no ‘normal’ people either. Add to this about 40 quarts of red dye number two, indiscriminately splashed about until virtually every set dressing in its path is bathed and dripping in simulated blood and guts, and, Tarantino’s overweening sadism is gratified – even championed – as ‘art’; a very sad state of affairs.  Personally, and apart from his one shining moment of true inspiration – Pulp Fiction (1994) – I do not consider Quentin Tarantino a great film-maker. I keep returning to his films in the hopes he will come around to possessing such inventiveness again. But I have marked him previously, and will do so again herein, as a ‘one hit wonder’ merely making, and then re-making, the same damn movie over and over again.
The innate value of a true artisan becomes self-evident when his body of work is compiled to be forever thereafter studied and re-evaluated both on the merit of its individual achievements and the collective maturation of his filmmaker’s technique. This latter appreciation can only be surmised with the passage of time. But even with the narrowest of timelines from 1992’s Reservoir Dogs to The Hateful Eight, it has become increasingly transparent Tarantino’s goal is neither to excite nor entertain; merely to startle, repulse and disgust his audience. It really is a dead end pursuit; a race to the bottom with varying degrees of immediate popularity afforded him in the present, but with everlasting detriment done to the longevity of his reputation. With each subsequent movie, Tarantino, in absence of genuine originality, has deduced that any old debasement of history, steeped in appalling levels or sexism and racism, will suffice to sell tickets. And, in this regard, Tarantino has not been wrong. His movies are generally ‘well received’, make money, and have acquired a following that teeters on branding him an auteur. Even as I make mention of this I can sense the likes of Hitchcock, Cukor, Ford, Wyler, Wilder, Minnelli, and others, collectively rolling over in their graves.
The Hateful Eight is a ravenous beast of a movie, its motley crew of disreputable and blood-soaked hags and homicidal brutes sub-par for the course. Tarantino cleverly masks his perversions by getting together an all-star cast to peddle his putrefied wares. Star power aside, The Hateful Eight has very little going for it apart from its gimmick to stage a sixties styled roadshow, complete with overture, intermission and entr’acte. Over the course of Tarantino’s ascendancy in Hollywood he has proven both a passion and contempt for golden age Hollywood; The Hateful Eight, his latest ‘homage’ and/or sacrifice on his altar. Let us be fair in reassessing Reservoir Dogs as not so much a revisionist’s take on the classic ‘caper/heist’ gone hopelessly awry (a la the likes of The Italian Job 1969); or Jackie Brown (1997) as a bloodletting revamp of the Blaxploitation cycle that performed a rather tasteless phallatio on the American cinema of the mid to late 70s (Cotton Comes to Harlem, (1970), Foxy Brown (1974), and Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2; cheaply disguised erotica, using the patina of that same decade’s affinity for the kung-fu/karate flicks. Inglourious Basterds (2009) was Tarantino’s historical revision of WWII, reconstituted as a Nazi-fied anti-Semitic harangue, making Jews the blood-thirstier of its perpetrators; and finally Django: Unchained – watering down the severity of radical racism with its’ over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek exchange in loaded insults.
And now, drum roll, please – The Hateful Eight; a sort of compendium of all of Tarantino’s derisory venom, consolidated under the roof of one expansive trading outpost in the middle of a snowy nowhere. No one gets out of this one alive and Tarantino wouldn’t have it any other way – his theater of death completely imploded in the final reel. I will venture a guess there is not much he can do as a director except to go in a completely opposite direction from this point onward. I mean, Tarantino has given us just about all of the exploding heads, blasted out innards, blood-disgorging, castrating, ball-bashing, ultra-sadistic dismemberment of not only human bodies but equally distorted perceptions on the human condition – that which supposedly makes us ‘humane’ and ‘superior’ beings in the food chain. But Tarantino has devalued just about every principle that ought to make life worth living, his screen violence gone so far beyond what we used to consider as ‘permissible’ to now appear as though he were smearing feces across our movie screens with mocking insolence, as with the degenerate immunity of a mad creator, drunk on his own misguided sense of genius, though tragically suffering from some inbred, nipple-sucking melancholia. Even the most basic primates have more aptitude and intuition than this.
And yet I never ceased to be amazed by the warped and frustrated elements that surfaces to the top of Tarantino’s toilet bowl with the nagging resolve of that last piece of excrement refusing to get flushed from my consciousness after the houselights have come up. Tarantino suffers from an affliction that is by no means exclusive to him; that of the equally dumb and lucky fatalist who, having outfoxed and made money for the bean counters presently in charge of Hollywood’s dream factories – some might argue, by articulating a popular rage - now fancies himself as its jack of all trades, when time and again, he has simply proven to be the master of none. If Tarantino would only focus on one element of what he remarks to be his all-encompassing virtuosity, leave directing to the directors, or writing to the writers, and most definitely, acting to the actors, he might unearth a new precedent that could both delight and entertain without indoctrination. But his approach to storytelling is so sledgehammer-heavy and so densely packaged around the most contemptuous tone of an enraged middle-aged kid who never grew into his long pants - and thus isn’t quite sure if they fit - he holds the rest of us in the balance of his very tightly clenched fists, determined to pummel our sense of morality – so transparently casting judgment on it as idiotic and/or just plain wrong. If we are to be fair and tolerant in assessing The Hateful Eight on its merits as well as its misfires, it is high time Tarantino quit talking down to his audience and relinquish his mind-warping insolence to make the rest of us see the world with its inherent ugliness amplified all out of its natural proportion.    
Part of the problem I have with The Hateful Eight is that it perversely feeds upon the new American standard in degenerate race relations; Samuel Jackson, doing a variation on Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winnfield as Major Marquis Warren. Jackson is a very fine actor – with enough cachet to exalt his rank to that of a ‘premiere’ among his contemporaries. It is Jackson’s superb delivery of the lines he has been given to regale us with a sordid flashback of abject humiliation (Chester Charles Smithers (Craig Stark), forced at gunpoint to trek across the frozen tundra naked, orally raped, then murdered by Warren as retaliation for his father, Gen. Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern) cold-blooded execution of black union soldiers at the Battle of Baton Rouge) that carries the ballast of this scene’s dramatic tension. Alas, unable to resist showing us everything, we get momentary flashes of Warren’s beady-eyed elation, head cocked into the steely glint of winter’s light, as he savors the breaking down to bedrock of a man’s character and soul. Revenge is indeed a dish best served cold, Warren denying Chester the bodily warmth of a blanket earlier promised, then cruelly executing him in a manner to mimic his own father’s butchery.  And yet, for all its ruthlessness, this moment just seems very jejune at best; merely the axis on which all of the blood-laced carnage yet to follow will pivot.  
The Hateful Eight begins several years after the Civil War with some truly majestic landscapes to recommend it; Colorado (substituted for Wyoming), a stark, yet compellingly pristine backdrop draped in winter white on which Tarantino intends to let the rivers run red with the blood of virtually his entire cast. In nobler times, this would be considered a very Shakespearean pursuit. Alas, there are no noblemen in Tarantino’s entourage; no tragic voices of reason to be pitted and prematurely snuffed out in their prime and, thus, no character for the audience to relate to or truly haunt us with their epic sense of loss; the cornerstone of all iconic works of tragedy since Medea.  No, we are deprived such luxury and satisfaction, replaced by a den of repugnant and vicious bottom feeders, permitted the run of the play with their contracts written in blood. We meet Major Marquis Warren on this snowy path to Red Rock, Wyoming.  Warren, a bounty hunter transporting three corpses on which he intends to collect, is the subject of cruel fate; or is it divine comeuppance?; his horses half-frozen and dead, leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere with an advancing blizzard licking at his boots.
The wagon master, O.B. Jackson (James Sparks) alerts Warren that his fare is not the obliging sort; and in short order Warren realizes as much when he is met with the point of a rifle. Inside the carriage is another of Tarantino’s uncouth brethren, bounty hunter, John Ruth (Kurt Russell) aptly nicknamed ‘the hangman’, transporting captured fugitive, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh, utterly wasted in a thankless part, the literal punching bag of the piece) to see her dangling from the end of a rope in Red Rock. While suspicious of Warren at first, the Major’s reputation has preceded him, as has Ruth’s with Warren; the two men regarding one another with edgy admiration. Ruth becomes enamored by Warren’s claim he has a personal letter from President Abraham Lincoln. As any man able to call himself a ‘friend’ of the President can likely be trusted. So Ruth allows Warren to accompany them on their journey. While Ruth takes the letter shown him by Warren at face value, Daisy spits on it as an obvious forgery; causing Warren to physically assault her. Not long thereafter, the stagecoach encounters another lost soul along these deserted parts; militiaman, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who reports to be on his way to Red Rock to assume duties as its new sheriff. Mannix, an unrepentant racist, and Warren, unwilling to back down, almost come to blows over each other’s controversial war records.
The stagecoach is threatened by the advancing storm; its passengers forced to take refuge inside Minnie's Haberdashery, a nearby trading outpost. Curiously, the proprietress, Minnie Mink (Dana Gourrier), a familiar face to Ruth, is nowhere to be seen. Instead, everyone is cautiously greeted by Bob (Demián Bichir); a Mexican who claims Minnie has departed to comfort her ailing mother, and thus, having left him in charge. Bob’s story does not ring true, his immediate refusal to allow Warren to tend to the stages’ horses inside the nearby barn, and later, the discovery of a wayward pink jellybean tucked between the floorboards, suggesting something of a violent nature has caused Minnie to disappear. Or has she already been picked off by Bob and the other lodgers; Oswaldo Mobray (the morbidly underused Tim Roth); a.k.a. ‘English Pete Hicox’ – a.k.a. ‘the little man’; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen); a.k.a. Grouch Douglass – a.k.a. ‘the cow puncher’, who when pressed by Ruth, reports to be on his way to visit his own mother for Christmas, and finally, Sanford Smithers, a retired and very prickly Confederate General. Almost immediately, Ruth astutely recognizes the only way to trust these curious gatherers, is to disarm everyone except Warren. Ruth is well aware Daisy’s gang might be on the prowl and plotting her daring escape.
Inexplicably, the tone of this tension shifts from the strangers in their midst to Warren’s own credibility; Mannix surmising Warren’s Lincoln letter is a forgery, thus forcing Warren to admit as much, but, in his own defense, claiming it buys him leeway with otherwise racist whites. The old General is very much of this ilk – perverse in his hatred of blacks until Warren suggests he knew Smithers’ son, Chester, since found dead and buried in a wilderness grave nearby. Warren offers to regale the General with the particulars of Chester’s demise; a story that quickly reveals how Warren unabashedly delighted in the abject humiliation, oral rape and murder of Chester; considering his interpretation of frontier justice hearty recompense for Smithers’ execution of black soldiers at the Battle of Baton Rouge. Having left his unloaded pistol on the table nearest Smithers now, the old man’s eyes welling up with tears of disbelief, anger, sorrow and pain; Warren goads the General to attack him. Smithers takes this bait and is executed by Warren, who thereafter claims ‘self-defense’ and/or justifiable homicide as his only recourse.  In all the chaos no one, except Daisy, notices someone has poisoned the newly brewed coffee.
Again, Tarantino, ever the egotist than the clever filmmaker, cannot resist the urge to insert himself into this tall tale and show us how uber-clever he has been. The Hateful Eight is ridiculously divided into ‘Chapters’ like a novel; Tarantino pausing to pontificate in a recap of the previous scene’s highlights; as though to mock his audience for not ‘getting it’ the first time. A more effective reveal might have come from either better staging of the previous sequence (to let the audience figure this one out for themselves) or in the staging of a flashback (soon to be employed by Tarantino to even more obvious effect for yet another trick up his sleeve). But no; we get Tarantino’s voice-over instead, haughty and reveling in having pulled the wool over our eyes. Too late Ruth and O.B. realize they have been poisoned, spewing fountains of thick bloody vomit as they crumple in agony and collapse to the floor. The expiring Ruth attempts to strangle Daisy. However, in his weakened condition he is overtaken and murdered by her instead using his own gun. Warren manages to disarm Daisy before she can free herself of Ruth’s handcuffs. Now, Warren assesses the situation with an almost Sherlock Holmesian proficiency for tying up all of Tarantino’s remaining loose ends. He deduces Mannix is innocent of the crime of poisoning the coffee, having almost taken to swig of it himself. Warren also ingeniously reconstructs the murders of Minnie Mink, her husband Sweet Dave (Gene Jones), fellow employee, Gemma (Belinda Owino) and another wagon master, Six-Horse Judy (Zoë Bell doing a Calamity Jane knock-off), innocently responsible for bringing these bandits to the haberdashery.
To expose the identity of the poisoner, Warren now aims his gun at Daisy’s head. Joe confesses. Alas, no one has anticipated that perhaps they are not alone; Warren realizing too late another plotter is lurking beneath the floorboards. This mystery man shoots Warren in the crotch. Oswaldo and Mannix wound each other in an exchange of gunfire.  Joe is shot by Warren who now orders the hidden assassin to reveal himself or Daisy will die. Enter Jody Domergue (Channing Tatum), Daisy’s mercenary brother who, having learned of his sister’s capture planned for a showdown with Ruth in Red Rock. Alas, the same blizzard that thwarted Ruth’s journey into town, earlier resulted in Jody and his entourage’s detour at Minnie’s; their execution of this trading outpost clan, sparing Gen. Smithers to use as window-dressing for their diabolical plot.  
Alas, either Jody has underestimated Warren’s resolve to be just as ruthless a butcher, or we, as the audience, have not seen enough Tarantino movies to recognize almost immediately how this one will end. Warren brutally blows Jody’s head apart with his pistols, the tidal wave of blood and grey matter showering a horrified Daisy who now angrily claims Jody has amassed an even bigger rescue party sure to descend on Minnie’s at daybreak and assassinate anyone who stands in the way of her freedom. Daisy tempts Mannix. If he will only kill Warren, she will promise him immunity from their wrath at dawn and even let him claim the bounties on all of these piled up corpses – a formidable sum. Oswaldo echoes Daisy’s suggestion, briefly contemplated by Mannix before Warren shoots both Daisy in the foot and Oswaldo in the leg. More bullets, more bodies and a brief respite from the carnage as Mannix temporarily blacks out from blood loss; regaining consciousness just in time to seriously wound Daisy. In honor of Ruth’s commitment to see her hanged in Red Rock, the dying Warren encourages Mannix to help him string up Daisy from the rafters. As she expires, her neck slowly twisting, then, breaking, the two men contemplate what their own lives have been worth; Mannix mildly amused by Warren’s forged Lincoln letter, reading from it aloud.
The Hateful Eight is brainless, bloated and self-indulgent to a fault; curious too of Tarantino to stage his Agatha Christie-ish locked room murder mystery in the ultra-widescreen 70mm process; a contradiction between format and subject matter. Arguably, Tarantino knows how to write dialogue. There is a lot of exposition in The Hateful Eight. But he cannot resist to unravel his solid prose with loaded four-letter barbs and a repetition of ‘that word’ until both have effectively lost all potency to shock and revile.  The vices far outweigh the virtues of this piece and, in the end we are left with a fizzling, hair-trigger pseudo-western/noir, populated by grotesques left virtually unrecognizable – even as stereotypes to the audience or archetypes gleaned from another Tarantino movie. There is no narrative arc, per say, other than to cage the cast like a pack of unwieldy animals and then let the lowest common denominator of their collected villainy, rather than nature, run its course. Tarantino’s view of humanity continues to depress. Lacking a denouement, or at least one to suggest there was anything better or more to this story than the devolution of man into beast, The Hateful Eight elevates nihilism to a finite craft, though never an art. You could easily do without seeing this one. I could sincerely do without any more such debauched outings from Tarantino – period!
The Hateful Eight on Blu-ray is an enigma. Tarantino has denied home theater viewers the ‘luxury’ of experiencing the full breadth of his depraved wish fulfillment. We get only the ‘theatrical cut’ and not the roadshow. Honestly, it’s a silly decision; one made arbitrarily by Tarantino to suggest the only ‘real’ way to experience the movie in its complete form is at the cinema. We lose the overture, intermission and entr’acte, plus a few choice bits of dialogue that otherwise expands the run time without enlarging either the vocabulary or the impact of the story itself. The Blu-ray’s image is immaculate, as expected; capturing the subtlest nuances in Robert Richardson’s low-lit interior cinematography. From a pictorial standpoint, the best parts of The Hateful Eight take place outside – a pity these represent less than a third of the run time. But the establishing long shots lensed by Richardson are of a magnitude as exhilarating as anything created for a David Lean epic; smooth, steady master shots of the mountainous terrain looking positively ravishing under a blanket of undisturbed snow.  
Once we move indoors, the effect of 70mm is greatly subdued; Tarantino expertly filling the vast expanses of the screen with interesting details, and blocking the action with meticulous craftsmanship. As I stated at the beginning of this review – there’s nothing wrong with the ‘look’ of the picture; only the picture itself, and this 1080p presentation will surely not disappoint. Rich color saturation, natural flesh tones, exquisite amounts of fine detail, beautifully textured film grain and superior contrast.  The DTS 5.1 audio is equally impressive. Frankly, from a movie made only last year, we expected no less. Extras are disappointing: a brief ‘making of’ featurette and a self-aggrandizing look at the 70mm process hosted by Samuel L. Jackson, as though he were heralding the coming of the next The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Alas, only ‘the ugly’ is presented for us herein. Bottom line: pass and be glad that you did.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)