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Moonstruck - The Criterion Collection
All genres have a formula, but the romantic comedy is one of those genres, like the inspirational sports movie, where the formula is so elemental, so well-known, that it takes real effort to invigorate that formula with fresh and interesting ideas. The audience knows that the protagonists are probably going to fall in love -- that's what they came to see -- but there are roughly 90 to 120 minutes to fill before that can happen. So many movies invent artificial ways to keep their characters apart, and try and fill the time with side characters and B-threads that have little or nothing to do with the romance at the center. Moonstruck, now part of The Criterion Collection, is possibly a perfect example of a romantic comedy where the journey feels justified, and every piece of the ensemble resonates with humor or truth both individually and as part of the whole.
Loretta Castorini (Cher) says she doesn't believe in curses, but her actions betray her. Her boyfriend, Johnny Cammareri (Danny Aiello) has just proposed to her (with some corrections by Loretta), and she's accepted. The only problem: she doesn't love Johnny, and she knows it. Years earlier, she married a man she loved, and he was killed in a bus accident before they could have a child, and this time she's being pragmatic. Johnny's proposal comes the night he's flying off to Italy to tend to his ailing mother, and he has one request for Loretta: invite his estranged brother Ronny (Nicolas Cage), who she has never met before, to the wedding. Upon meeting him, she discovers that Ronny blames his brother for his failed engagement and the loss of his hand in a meat-cutting accident. At a glance, he seems unhinged, but Loretta understands him instantly, and his fiery passion stirs a romantic longing in her that she had almost decided to forgo.
Many romantic comedies, even great romantic comedies, are driven less by romance and more by wit and chemistry. Two characters who are funny and likable, and who have a good rapport with one another, and who the audience wants to see end up with each other -- call it the When Harry Met Sally model of romantic comedies (and that's not a complaint). Moonstruck, however, is unabashedly driven by passion, by feeling, by gut instinct, and it's that element that makes the movie special. In two perfectly-written scenes, Loretta and Ronny express this perfectly: in the first, she pegs him as "a wolf without a foot," a man who subconsciously let his own hand go in order to get out of a marriage he knew he wouldn't be happy in, and in the other, Ronny gives a little speech about how "love don't make things right." In these moments, the characters really speak to one another, communicating not through banter, but by actually assessing each other or themselves, while also speaking to the soul of John Patrick Shanley's excellent screenplay.
It's possible to imagine a version of Moonstruck where the relationship forged between Loretta and Ronny is enough (that old adage about "three good scenes and no bad ones"), and yet Shanley finds ways to expand the philosophies of love explored in their relationship across an entire ensemble cast. Loretta's mother, Rose (Olympia Dukakis), and her father, Cosmo (Vincent Gardenia), are on their journeys, with Cosmo sneaking off to have a fling with another woman, Mona, and Rose, suspicious of this possibility, reassessing her own feelings for Cosmo. Dukakis, who would win an Academy Award for her performance (one of several taken home by the film), has a great series of scenes with a college professor named Perry (John Mahoney), who dates his students until the relationships end in disaster. On top of even this, there's Loretta's aunt Rita Cappomaggi (Julie Bovasso) and uncle Raymond Cappomaggi (Louis Guss), who have their own romance rekindled through a story from Raymond about a gigantic moon he once saw while Cosmo was courting Rose. Even Cosmo's father (Feodor Chaliapin Jr.), who has no partner, has his own ideas about love and the importance of the moon that fit perfectly into the film's structure, and Shanley finds a funny and clever way to wrap up Johnny's thread in the film's final, wildly entertaining scene.
On top of having recruited the perfect cast, director Norman Jewison finds exactly the right tone, which blends operatic elegance and scenes that border on screwball comedy with incredible ease. Opera plays a big part in the backdrop of Moonstruck, as a form that, like the love she feels for Ronny, Loretta worries she cannot understand but ultimately grasps on an instinctual level (the film's opening credits, which show the stage being erected and signs being put up at NYC's Lincoln Center, feels like a witty little meta joke on either Jewison or Shanley's part). Despite their age difference and odd pairing, Cher (another one of the film's Oscar winners) and Cage are excellent together, with Cage's eccentricities as a performer dovetailing nicely with Ronny's pent-up emotions. There are times when his behavior is awkward or strange, but Loretta understands him, and ultimately gives herself over to the passion he stirs in her. In some ways, her journey is the same as the viewer's: you can't just watch Moonstruck, you have to surrender yourself to it.
Moonstruck has been issued many times on DVD and Blu-ray, and although the art has been redesigned each time, the core theatrical poster image of Cher, arms held up in celebration, in front of the moon, has managed to endure as part of the design all the way from MGM's 1998 DVD through to this 2020 Criterion Blu-ray edition. For this iteration (which appears to be the work of designer Raphael Geroni), the moon itself has been shrunk and the entire backdrop has been changed so that Cher is framed in sort of a doorway, walking down a patterned path. The one-disc release comes in Criterion's usual Scanavo Blu-ray case, with an image of Cher staring at the moonlight through Venetian blinds on the reverse of the sleeve. There is, of course, a booklet, this one in the fold-out pamphlet style, with an essay by Vox critic Emily VanDerWerff, and a blue Special Edition sticker affixed to the front of the plastic wrap (although the package says the presentation was approved by director Norman Jewison, this is not considered a "Director's Approved" edition, and thus there is no image of Jewison's autograph on the sticker).
The Video and Audio
Moonstruck returns to Blu-ray with a gorgeous new 4K-remastered transfer. MGM has produced a number of 4K transfers recently that have gone to sublabels, and this 1.85:1 1080p AVC transfer continues their winning streak. After an opening shot of the moon that made me wonder if I was in for a teal-tinted experience, the rest of the movie exhibited beautiful primary colors that breathe new life into the movie. Fine detail and depth are both outstanding. Grain is surprisingly minimal, although it can be seen if one is looking for it, and the absence of grain has not created any smearing or waxy faces. The picture is accompanied by a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. I have no idea if this is the same 5.1 track that appeared on MGM's Blu-ray of Moonstruck, but in any case, it sounds as good as the picture looks. Dialogue is crisp and balanced, and the music, from the non-diagetic soundtrack to the opera that Loretta and Ronny attend, all have a beautiful richness that fills the room, and the heart of the viewer. English subtitles are also included.
Extras-wise, Moonstruck was treated decently by MGM, so three major extras have been carried over from their DVD and Blu-ray editions. They consist of a 1998 audio commentary by director Norman Jewison, writer John Patrick Shanley, and Cher, and two 2006 retrospective featurettes, "At the Heart of an Italian Family" (25:30) and "The Music of Moonstruck" (6:25). Note that the 2006 special edition the two featurettes are culled from also featured an "interactive tour of Little Italy," which contained about 36 minutes of video content, so if you liked those, you will have to retain that disc (it would not surprise me if they were not Moonstruck-centric -- they all appear to be about food).
The next chunk of the extras are new to disc, but are also all archival pieces. They kick off with a 2013 introduction (11:58) done by Cher and Leonard Maltin, recorded in front of a live audience for AFI Night at the Movies. Inessential, but fun. Interviews from around the time of the film's release include Norman Jewison on the Canadian TV program "City Lights" (33:15), "Today" show bits with Cher (2:31) and Nicolas Cage (and Jewison) (4:20) on set and an in-studio chat with Olympia Dukakis and Vincent Gardenia (6:20), a clip of Danny Aiello (11:37) taken from AFI's "100 Years...100 Passions," and John Patrick Shanley (36:36) via an audio recording of his 1989 AFI Harold Lloyd Master Seminar. The "Today" show clips are pretty puffy and sort of skippable, but cool from an archival standpoint. Best of the bunch is the Aiello interview, with the actor sharing some really funny and interesting memories of auditioning for Jewison, his thoughts on the character, working on the film's climactic scene, and more (and with no overlap between his stories here and the one in the 2006 featurette). The Shanley intereview is also good, kicking off with an interesting story about giving an early version of the screenplay for Moonstruck to Sally Field, and touching on his writing process, his view of the way to help younger writers develop, and the ideas that went into Moonstruck (especially in the development of the characters). Jewison's clip is interesting, but only tangentially related to Moonstruck, with the filmmaker talking more about what it's like to direct the Oscars.
Finally, there are a couple of brand-new interviews. The first is with John Patrick Shanley (16:18), who talks about his career as a writer, starting with a college course where he and the professor were learning at the same time, writing plays, and then finally graduating to screenplays. It's a nice little piece, and it's actually kind of a plus that it isn't overly focused on Moonstruck, given he goes into detail about the making of the movie in other extras on the disc (there is a very tiny amount of crossover with the Harold Lloyd Master Seminar audio clip). The other is a piece with scholar Stefano Albertini (12:02), who talks about the history of La Boheme, Puccini, and how the themes of the play tie into Moonstruck. All things considered, a pretty great package -- the only shame is that no new interviews with Cher or Nicolas Cage could be obtained.
An original theatrical trailer for Moonstruck is also included.
Although streaming services are doing their best to try and revive the mid-budget romantic comedy, the craft in the script and the characters frequently isn't there. Moonstruck is rich and layered (would it be cliche to compare it to a lasagna?), with each character serving their own function in Shanley's Swiss-watch script. Criterion's Blu-ray features a new transfer that blows MGM's out of the water and a host of great extras. DVDTalk Collector's Series.
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