MCN Columnists
Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com

DVD Geek: A Taste of Honey, Miles Ahead, Love & Mercy, The Comeback, Miss Sadie Thompson 3D

A Taste Of Honey

Criterion’s just released Tony Richardson’s 1961 black-and-white depiction of a young unmarried woman coping with her pregnancy, A Taste of Honey, with a lovely picture transfer. Rita Tushingham stars, with Dora Bryan as her mostly absent mother and Murray Melvin in a breakthrough role as a gay friend who moves in with her. Set in dreary Manchester—in one sequence, neighborhood children play by a pool of industrial waste—the film has a naturally depressing air, but, based upon a stage play, the dialogue and characterizations are vivid and consistently unexpected. Between the appeal of listening to the problems of a troubled friend, and creating a captivating replication of real dialogue and emotions in condensed dramatic form, the 100-minute feature is consistently engrossing.

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.66:1. The image is spotless, and the presentation has the texture of projected film. The monophonic sound is solid. John Addison’s musical score is overstuffed with children’s songs, but is otherwise beguiling. The famous tune, covered by The Beatles and Herb Alpert among others, has nothing to do with the movie. Extras include optional English subtitles; a fifteen-minute  audio interview with Richardson from 1962, set over clips and photos from his career up to Hone , where he talks mostly about the differences between working in theater and working in film. Contrary to what most directors say, Richardson claims that the film medium is an auteur medium, where all of the other artists are working to fulfill the director’s vision. There’s an 18-minute retrospective interview with Tushingham (she’d answered an ad for the role in a newspaper, essentially by chance); a 19-minute retrospective interview with Melvin, who played the role on the stage earlier (“I was Gay Pride of 1958!”) and recalls how the work was gradually streamlined and perfected Plus, a good 20-minute retrospective audio interview from 1998 with cinematographer Walter Lassally, accompanied by clips as he steps through his shooting strategies. Quite daringly, he mixed film stocks, depending upon the availability of light in a sequence. There’s also a great 15-minute black-and-white 1960 TV interview with the bubbly, chain-smoking playwright, Shelagh Delaney, who seems to have been an instinctive writer, free of self-analysis, talking about her writing and the differences between her and the establishment, as represented by the matronly interviewer (although she was very impressed with Graham Greene when he took her to dinner).

Additionally, there is a 21-minute documentary that Richardson made in 1956—his first film—with Karel Reisz, Momma Don’t Allow, a black-and-white performance by a British Dixieland jazz band at a dance club, augmented with clips of young working class couples going about their daily routines and then spending the evening at the club. The filmmakers catch the little dramas that can occur between young couples across an evening, but focus on the group intoxication that develops through the frenzy of dancing. Nothing like a little music to turn a dreary world into a happy one.

 

Miles Ahead

Don Cheadle not only portrays jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, he also directed the dramatized 2015 portrait of Davis, Miles Ahead (SPHE). Cheadle’s film construtcts a fictional 72-hour incident in Davis’ life, combining it with flashbacks that evoke the beginning, progress and dissolution of his marriage to a dancer played by Emayatzy Corinealdi, all of which is lusciously, edgily entwined with Davis’ music. Set in the mid-1970s, after a stretch of writer’s block, Miles Ahead is an entertaining and lively adventure (a car chase, shooting) into the spirit of one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest composer musicians. Ewan McGregor plays a reporter who wrangles his way into Davis’ townhouse and then helps him score and retrieve a set recording. Running a brisk 100 minutes, the film does not try to do anything more than present a memorable snapshot of Davis, but thanks to the performances and the freeflowing narrative, it conveys both his irascible personality and his music’s sweeping brilliance.

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The image is sharp and glossy. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has a lovely dimensionality and is reasonably sharp. Actual Davis tracks are used on much of the soundtrack. There is an audio track that describes the action (“The woman walks to a spiral staircase and climbs up. Miles stares after her with a frown. The glow around the room fades, leaving him alone in his dimly lit home. Limping across the living room, he takes a drag from his cigarette.”), alternate French, Spanish, Portuguese and Thai audio tracks, optional English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai and two types of Chinese subtitles, a trailer, a good 21-minute production featurette, and a 22-minute Q&A with Cheadle, McGregor, Corinealdi and co-star Keith Stanfield.

Cheadle and co-screenwriter Steven Baigelman provide commentary, describing how the film was shot, with Cincinnati as a stand-in for 1970s New York, how the new music and performances were shuffled in with the classic Davis tracks, how the fictional portions of the film were intended to evoke specific expressions of Davis’ spirit, and how Davis’ music remains such a sublime achievement. During one lovely sequence where Cheadle’s character and his combo playin a dark, smoky nightclub, it appears at one point that only Corinealdi’s character is present, as if they were serenading her alone. But something far less sultry was going on behind the scenes. “We’re doing this off the playback. Of course, we’re going to use the master’s music, especially on a track like this, but what’s actually happening in the background, because we have all the atmosphere, the smoke in the room, the smoke alarm is going off, the fire alarm is going off, and the fire department is rolling down the street full of sirens. So, it’s the antithesis to what’s happening inside here.”

Love & Mercy

Like some of the music it includes, the Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy (Lionsgate), is deceptively complex. Normally, if a film were to use equal portions of two adult movie stars playing the same historical character, cutting back and forth between them as this film cuts back and forth between the 1960s and the 1980s, it would seem like a failure brought on by mismatched performances and poor casting. The actors, Paul Dano and John Cusack, don’t even have the same earlobes, yet given that the 2014 film’s subject is the “schizophrenia” of the troubled Beach Boys genius, Brian Wilson, the use of two different actors to embody him cleverly reinforces the theme. And the director, Bill Pohlad, is cognizant of it. Cusack even appears as a different character, who may or may not be there, in a group scene with Dano, and at another point, through deliberately confusing camera angles and sound mixing, a female character appears to be talking to herself across a table in a diner. This theme also dovetails brilliantly into the music itself, as the film explores the composition of the Pet Sounds album, the incredibly multi-layered song, Good Vibrations (the deconstruction of its composition alone makes the film worthwhile), and Wilson’s over-the-edge shelved project, Happy. Dano is terrific, conveying both the enthusiasm and the fear that the Wilson character feels as his creativity impinges upon his sanity. Cusack is also terrific, portraying a completely broken man dominated by a corrupt doctor (one of the film’s villains, played by Paul Giamatti), until he is rescued by a sharp Cadillac saleswoman, embodied to perfection by Elizabeth Banks, the latter also providing the drama with an uplifting and very happy ending (including a perfect final frame). The film switches steadily between the hero’s edging his way toward madness, and his rescue from it, decorated with period designs and not just the Beach Boys music (the actors do an excellent job pretending to sing the genuine tracks), but many other Sixties classics. In that an entire generation seemed to go, schizophrenically, from carefree to materialistic in those same decades, the film is, in some ways, the story of us all.

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The colors from the 1960s sequences pop out accordingly, while the 1980s sequences have a smoother design scheme, all transferred with precision. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound has fantastic separations and beautiful, clear tones. There is an alternate Spanish track; optional English and Spanish subtitles; seven minutes of excellent, enlightening and wisely removed deleted scenes; an insightful 11-minute production featurette focusing on the film’s designs “We watched them go from their Pendletons, to their thin stripes, to their kind of thicker stripes. Every single time it was accurate to the shirts they were wearing then,” we learn. “We were really alluding to sort of the commercialism, and this thing that represented youthfulness begins to look almost like jail bars, or something that’s imprisoning them. In fact, the last time you see the stripe shirts in the movie, they’re dark blue. They lose the red and they go into something a lot more somber. We’re watching the thing that liberated them become this thing that’s really holding them back.” There’s also a solid 26-minute promotional featurette, which includes interviews with Wilson and his wife.

Pohlad and producer Oren Moverman supply a good commentary track, talking about staging, how they managed on a tight budget and the actual story of Wilson’s struggles and his music. When a character suggests to Dano’s character in a recording session that he may have made an error in his composition, Moverman points out, “This is the line that we figured out that explains the movie. ‘Two bass lines, playing two different keys.’ That’s kind of the movie in a nutshell.” So to speak.

 

The Comeback

Almost all comedy involves humiliation, whether it is a joke teller going out on a limb in hopes the people will laugh, or the limb itself breaking and falling gracelessly to the ground, embarrassing whoever was hanging from it. Lisa Kudrow made an interesting little comedy series for HBO, The Comeback, which was based almost entirely upon the utter and constant humiliation of her character. Originally broadcast in 2005, it lasted for one season, and was released on HBO in a two-platter set as The Comeback The Complete First Only Season, but 9 years later, in 2014, the creators brought it back for one more season (the phones may be a little smaller, but generally it is hard to discern how much of a transition there has been until the story starts to unfold), both of which are presented in the HBO Video four-disk set (including the same two platters from the first set), simply entitled, The Comeback.

Kudrow plays a fading actress who was once in a popular sitcom and has landed a role as sort of a Norman Fell character in a new show, mostly about the sex lives of characters barely out of their teens, and targeted to an even younger audience. At the same time, her participation in the show is itself being recorded as a cross-promoted reality TV series. In the inspired second part, she “comes back” again, landing a role playing a version of herself in a dramatic sitcom based upon what was happening behind the scenes in the earlier sitcom, and has the reality cameras following her around again, ostensibly to produce a behind-the-scenes feature. And all the while, Kudrow’s character can never catch a break. Every success she has is undercut by some sort of indignity or insult, often due to her own character’s obliviousness to what is going on around her. The program spoofs many different aspects of the television business, especially sitcoms, reality shows, and cable programs. At first, the humor just seems discomforting, and the show does have a deadpan tone that remains fairly consistent through both seasons (the very end of the last episode, which breaks away from the “reality” video, has a happy, heartfelt conclusion), but gradually your resistance crumbles. Even viewers who find Kudrow irritating will appreciate the indignities that are beset upon her. Sometimes the show can be very funny or insightful, and if you aren’t entirely turned off by the masochistic sadism of the whole thing, then you’ll probably find it unique and amusing.

Each platter has a “Play All” option. There are twenty-one episodes on the combined version, running a total of 653 minutes. The first part is in full screen format and the second part is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.78:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The image transfer looks bright and crisp, and the stereo sound is centered. There is an alternate Spanish track, optional English, French and Spanish subtitles, a so-so three-minute deleted scene, and a very funny six-minute piece about the aftermath of a disastrous Dancing with the Stars appearance.

Eight of the episodes have commentary tracks featuring Kudrow and show runner-co-creator Michael Patrick King. In one episode, Kudrow does the commentary by herself, “in character,” and in two, King speaks by himself. For the other five, they sit together and talk about everything that went into conceiving and executing the show. The commentaries give you a chance to really analyze the intricacies of Kudrow’s talent, especially when she does the one talk as her character. She sharpens her voice and removes the sensitivity that she has as a “real person” in the other talks. It’s not a blatant change, but it is enough that you recognize she is doing something specific to separate her character from herself, and then, when you watch the show again, you see how she allows the little attacks on her character to slip past those defenses and sting. As King points out in his first talk, when Kudrow’s character is doing a table read, “The great thing about Lisa is, she knew that line, and yet she realized [her character] had to look at the script before. That’s the thing about working with Lisa. It almost feels like it’s not acting, it’s just behaving.”

Miss Sadie Thompson 3D

Only a small subset of home video enthusiasts are 3D enthusiasts. I get that. 3D is thought of as having a limited number of advantages, which mostly boil down to making you duck when spears and stuff are thrown at the camera. There are other advantages, particularly when 3D reinforces a film’s thematic foundation. But there are also advantages even when a film’s dramatic content has no bearing whatsoever on its 3D effects. Instead, a film can be improved by the 3D format—indeed, a film can be rescued by the 3D format—entirely because it alters how a viewer observes the drama.

A case in point is the fantastic Columbia Pictures-Twilight Time Blu-ray release, Miss Sadie Thompson 3D. Rita Hayworth stars in the 1953 feature, based upon one of Somerset Maugham’s popular stories and directed by Curtis Bernhardt. The film is also available in 2D on the platter, and in both instances, the color transfer is super, with fresh hues and flesh tones, and not a speckle to be seen. The cinematography is not quite as admirable, but that is purposeful at times—Hayworth’s character is sharply focused when she is a party girl, but made overly soft and hazy when she converts, briefly, to a higher morality.

Set in the South Seas (a fair portion of the film was shot on location) immediately after World War II on an island still occupied by American servicemen, Hayworth’s character is stranded for a week until she can catch another boat to take her further west. Seeing her, the servicemen stuck on the island go nuts and have a great time basically celebrating her existence, but a huffy church guy with pull, played by Jose Ferrer, does his best to put a stop to it, and to send Hayworth’s character back to the States. Aldo Ray co-stars as the serviceman who gets the closest to her, and Charles Bronson, under his other name, also has a decent supporting part as one of Ray’s buddies. The thing is, this is Maugham. There are a couple of musical numbers, and an organic dance sequence, but it is melodrama most of the time. Running 91 minutes, the plotting is never completely alienating, but long stretches of the story are stale, and Hayworth can’t always be singing and dancing. The performances are great—Ferrer’s character may be utterly villainous, but as an actor he’s fearless with the part, and he’s the least appealing personality on the screen—but a lot of time is spent huffing and puffing about dilemmas that today’s viewers would brush aside without a care.

Ah, but in 3D, you’re not watching a movie. You’re watching a stage play. Hayworth, Ferrer and Ray are there in front of you, as real as rain. In a play, archaic emotional conflicts are acceptable, because the thrill comes from having live humans within a graspable distance from you, acting out those emotions, and 3D is the next best thing to them being alive, until we all get holodeck rooms in our houses. To see Ray, Bronson and the other actors in the opening scene, kicking around the beach in boredom, is a dazzling experience, because they have bulk, and they have three-dimensional space between them, and there are objects like trees and waves in front of them and behind them. And then after you’ve had a chance to savor that for a while, the legendary movie star, Rita Hayworth (still famous today thanks to The Shawshank Redemption), comes traipsing into the center of the stage, just an arm’s length away. She’s a little shorter than she seems in the movies, and she delivers an excellent performance, coming across at first like Lucille Ball in one of her serious roles, but opening herself up once she gets more comfortable with the guys around her.

The song and dance number is reasonably effective in 2D—Columbia used it to open the 2D trailer that has been included on the disc—but in 3D, it is a glorious, breathtaking moment. Hayworth is in a red dress that is sticking to her because of the humidity and passing storms outside. The bar is so crowded she barely has space to move, but space is made so that she can gyrate as she sings. And surrounding her (rather than simply circling her in 2D) is a mass of men with worn, olive green uniforms and grimy, sweaty flesh. She is a pulsing heart in the center of that mass, not so much what they want as what they live for. Later, under less populated circumstances, she relaxes on a bed with her head on a pillow and there is a shot that lingers on her long enough to give her the contours of a marble statue. Her performance has been vivid—relaxed and wisecracking with the men, confident about who she is regardless of how much attention she’s getting—but at this point you see what she has been hiding from the men with her easygoing persona. The men in the room probably aren’t aware of it, because they’re not in the shot, and again, in 2D, it’s only a shot, but in 3D, she seems so close that you could put your hand out and run it along her shoulder. She’s not sharing her sensuality with them, only with you.

The film has many other dimensional delights. The opening credits are suspended in the air, in front of palm trees swaying in the wind, until, near the end, a tree appears in the foreground and the lettering just about slips behind it. Ray’s back obscures half a shot rather awkwardly in 2D, but in 3D you feel his bulk viscerally and it adds to the sexual dynamics of the scene. The only ‘duck’ moment occurs when Ray breaks some bottles of perfume in anger and the glass goes flying all over the place. It might not have even been intentional that a piece comes flying your way, but that just makes you appreciate it all the more. Most of the scene transitions use dissolves, and in 3D, they are great fun, as you eagerly await for the new set or location to materialize out of the old one. But the most valuable contribution the 3D format brings to the film is that it preserves the drama’s existence for the ages. Tastes will change even more, people will forget what World War II was, and Maugham will become irrelevant, but so long as the film is available in 3D, the past can exist as the past and still have the vitality to mesmerize eager viewers.

The picture is letterboxed with an aspect ratio of about 1.85:1. The monophonic sound is strong and worth amplifying. There are optional English subtitles and a viable 4-minute retrospective featurette narrated by Patricia Clarkson. Two film historians, David Del Valle and Steven Peros, supply a commentary track. They talk a bit about the production and the players, spend a little more time on Maugham (they read passages from his original short story), the previous adaptations of the tale, and the traditions of censorship surrounding the story (which is actually rather explicit for its time, much more so than, say, the vaguely similar Streetcar Named Desire), and then devote the majority of their time to talking about Hayworth, discussing not only the intricacies of her performance here, but her entire life and career. Until her early onset Alzheimer’s, which was mistaken at the time for alcoholism, she had a reputation as a dedicated worker who was free of the normal trappings of ego one associates with many movie stars. “I’ve done a lot of research on Rita Hayworth, and you can’t find one person who has a bad word to say about Rita Hayworth, or specifically working with her.”

 

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What’s up with your people mover shot, where it seems like people are kind of floating along?
Oh, my signature shot? That’s just a new way for people to move! It’s really become my Alfred Hitchcock cameo. I did not invent that shot, but Ernest and I did it on the set of Mo Better Blues, when Shorty had to walk [through the park], and I thought, “Let’s try it.” But after that, we tried to have a reason for it. For example, that wonderful sequence in Malcolm X where you hear the great song, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The final scene is like that, Malcolm floating along to his destiny. In 25th Hour, after Philip Seymour Hoffman has kissed Anna Paquin, we did a shot like that, and it shows his state of mind. In Inside Man, after Denzel thinks he’s witnessed the murder of a hostage, we did the floating shot there.

So you just like the way it looks?
Yeah!
~ Spike Lee To Matt Zoller Seitz

“I never accepted the term contrarian. I think that’s offensive, frankly. And my response to that is: if I’m a contrarian, what are other reviewers? What I strive to do is be a good critic, not somebody who simply accepts the product put in front of me. I guess it scares people to think that they don’t have any originality; that they don’t have the capacity to think for themselves.

“There’s a line a lot of reviewers use that I don’t like at all. They say ‘accept the film on its own terms.’ What that really means is, ‘accept the film as it is advertised.’ That’s got nothing to do with criticism. Nothing to do with having a response as a film watcher. A thinking person has to analyze what’s on screen, not simply rubber-stamp it or kowtow to marketing.”m

“To me, everything does have a political component and I think it’s an interesting way to look at art. It’s one way that makes film reviewing, I think, a politically relevant form of journalism. We do live in a political world, and we bring our political sense to the movies with us – unless you’re the kind of person who goes to the movies and shuts off the outside world. I’m not that kind of person.”
~ Armond White to Luke Buckmaster