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Following the sudden dissolution of her marriage, clinical psychiatrist Dianne Cruise (Talia Shire) wants to look back in order to go forward. Her strategy: travel around the country to check in on a trio of her exes, each of which had some sort of emotional significance for her. There's Jeff (Richard Jordan), the documentary and commercial filmmaker who asked her to marry him three times; Eric (John Belushi), the high school boyfriend who emotionally manipulated her and made her life hell afterward; and Lewis, her first serious boyfriend -- and, as it turns out, a casualty of the Vietnam War, leading Dianne to connect with his emotionally stunted younger brother Wayne (Keith Carradine) instead.
Old Boyfriends began life as Old Girlfriends, co-written by Paul Schrader and his brother Leonard. Sensing a shift in the zeitgeist, Paul re-configured it for a female lead, and when he was unavailable to direct, Joan Tewkesbury, writer of Robert Altman's Nashville, stepped in, doing further rewrites to soften some of Schrader's darker edges...at least, to a point. Although Old Girlfriends is never as brutal or haunting as Taxi Driver or Bringing Out the Dead, Dianne has some of the hallmarks of a Schrader type: she's obsessive and driven by an existential anxiety, searching for a kind of emotional connection that helps soothe that loneliness. Current debates tend toward the binary, and thus the battle over likable/unlikable female characters can become a pendulum. The combination of the Schraders' premise and Tewkesbury's rewrites prevent Dianne from fitting cleanly into either box.
Of course, Tewkesbury is blessed to have Shire as Dianne, who pulls off the impressive feat of always being interesting while remaining mysterious. Naturally, it seems like keeping the viewer at arm's length from what's going on in the protagonist's head would be a problem, but Shire's earnest, oddball magnetism gives each scene an electrifying unpredictability. The key to this is the way Shire's eyes are always studying, always taking in, always considering each sentence in a conversation. Dianne is going through something that the viewers are catching up with as the movie progresses, but even when we don't understand what she wants out of an interaction, she's never a wall or a blank slate. Shire's powerful emotional earnestness serves as the guide to how close Dianne is getting to her intended goal.
The "boyfriends" are also well-cast. Belushi is the biggest curiosity factor, a suggestion that apparently came from Schrader. His instincts were right on the money: the casting leverages Belushi's natural charisma in a subversive way, and Belushi plays the role just right (plus, fans might appreciate seeing him perform "Jailhouse Rock" in a movie a year before The Blues Brothers -- with Murphy Dunne on piano to boot). Carradine gets the longest appearance, and has the most complicated role to play, with Dianne recklessly (some might argue callously) playing with his complex emotions about the death of his brother. Their conversations have an appealingly unusual energy, with both characters talking slightly past one another, or at right angles with one another. The best of all is Jordan, who has a real understated warmth and relaxed attitude that create a really unique kind of charisma. Jeff's chemistry with Dianne is palpable, and the dynamic between Dianne and Jeff's daughter (played by Jordan's own daughter) is warm. In addition, there is a fun single-scene cameo from Buck Henry as a private investigator, and a decidedly less fun (but equally good) appearance by John Houseman, as a psychiatrist.
For a first film, Tewkesbury seems very assured. The film opens with an unexpected car chase, and there are some impressively complex flourishes, such as a scene in a bathroom that uses mirrors and camera moves to interesting ends. Most importantly, she's clearly done a good job getting all of her performers on the same wavelength, helping to create the feeling of years between each of her former partners and basking in the atmosphere that each pairing naturally generates. Tragically, Tewkesbury has yet to direct a second feature -- it's a shame that between writing Nashville and directing Old Boyfriends, she has not been able to direct one of her own screenplays.
Old Boyfriends makes its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Kino Lorber Studio Classics, which, as usual, has reformatted one of the film's theatrical posters to use as cover artwork. The other poster design that comes up on Google kind of looks like a horror film, with the title written in red (lipstick?) across Shire's mirror, but I think the concept of Shire looking at the photos of her exes pinned around the vanity is better than the design used here, in that the illustration of Shire looks more like Carrie Fisher, and the images of the exes are not as well-integrated. The back cover adheres to KLSC's traditional black-and-white template, with a couple of photos from the film. The one-disc release comes in a Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Kino is advertising the 1.85:1 1080p AVC transfer on this disc as a new 4K master, but do not provide any other details. The new StudioCanal logo attached to the beginning of the movie suggests it's part of the spate of 4K remasters that StudioCanal has done, which include other Kino releases, such as Narrow Margin and Arrow's Flash Gordon 4K UHD. While many of Kino's recent 2K and 4K remasters have looked great, the best explanation for the appearance of this presentation is that StudioCanal was unable to use the original negative, on top of whatever limitations the film's $3 million budget placed on the cinematography and/or film stock. Aside from a couple of nicer-looking sequences (the first shots right after the credits, a scene with Shire and Belushi in a car, and some of the scene at the end where Dianne is visited at her apartment), the picture is noticeably soft throughout, with textures and other fine details often just out of reach. Colors tend to feel accurately represented, although they can vary from shot-to-shot, with low-light sequences heavily affected by blue flecks. At no point does the picture offer the depth and dimension that one expects from a new 4K master. There is also a minor amount of print damage. Personally, I do think there is a consistency to the appearance of the presentation as a whole (stability, the better color saturation, the appearance of film grain) that set it apart from the older masters that are often offered to boutique labels, which are often washed out, feature more crush, and have chunkier grain/noise, so I would be hesitant to say it was mislabled, but fans of the film who have heard "new 4K master" should certainly set their expectations accordingly.
Another reason I might wonder what kind of materials were available for Old Boyfriends is the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track. Obviously, some of the distance and natural intrusion of background noise in the dialogue has more to do with the limitations of the original production rather than this track, although there is what I would describe as a "canned fringe" around the lines that indicates the age of the film. That said, none of it gets in the way of enjoying the movie. English subtitles are also included.
Kino Lorber has produced two new audio commentaries for Old Boyfriends. The first track includes director Joan Tewkesbury and filmmaker Douglas Hosdale. Tewkesbury has plenty of great insights on the making of the movie, and Hosdale is a relaxed moderator, feeding her various questions whenever there is a pause or hold. Her observations about shooting the scene in the attic with Shire and Carradine are very interesting, as are her stories about John Belushi. The only shame (not the fault of the participants!) is the discussion of deleted scenes, which, unsurprisingly, are lost to time. The second track is a solo affair, featuring film critic Peter Tonguette. Tonguette, as a historian with no one to bounce off of, is more factually-oriented, with the track serving as a journey through well-researched details of the film's evolution from script to screen, the histories of the cast and crew, with a reserved helping of his own opinions of the movie.
Trailers for Continental Divide, The Landlord, and A Thousand Clowns are accessible under the special features menu. Unfortunately, no trailer for Old Boyfriends is offered.
Old Boyfriends is not easily categorized -- it can be warm and funny, but it is not a comedy or a romance, nor is it the dark revenge drama that Schrader apparently envisioned. Those looking for something more conventional (the premise sounds like it could be a straight-up comedy) will probably struggle, but those looking for a rough-around-the-edges, idiosyncratic drama should enjoy this for the atmosphere and the performances. Kino's disc has been stuck with an underwhelming new 4K master, but the PQ is still decent, and the commentaries (especially Tewkesbury's) are very good. Highly recommended.
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