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Blue Sky (Blu-ray Review)

4 May, 2015 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, Blu-ray $29.95
Rated ‘PG-13’
Stars Jessica Lange, Tommy Lee Jones, Powers Boothe, Chris O’Donnell.

Welcome to a messy but fun-to-watch oddball in which Jessica Lange’s Southern bombshell offers proof that her Virginia breeding apparently wasn’t far enough north to stave off a proclivity for the vapors. And if you want to see Tommy Lee Jones before the crag completely took over, he looks — though let’s not go overboard on this count — almost young here.

The non-Lange headline, though, is one of the more interesting production backstories of its era. For a company that produced consecutive best picture Oscar winners (Dances With Wolves, The Silence of the Lambs) during its final struggle not to go under, Orion Pictures had so many bankruptcy problems in the early 1990s that its backlog of unreleased pictures — that is, finished projects still on the shelf — kept swelling. Completed in 1991 as its director (Tom Jones’s Tony Richardson) was dying, Sky was far from the only Orion release that fell into this category, but its release delay was among the distributor’s most protracted. Eyeballing the schedule as entertainment writers always do, I used to marvel at how Sky would go from having a projected fall premiere in one year to a spring opening the next to a fall release that same second year to …

Well, you get the idea. By the time it finally came out in 1994, Richardson was long dead, and thus he never got to see a film that had been gathering dust on the shelf end up winning Lange an Oscar after more than a decade of super-stellar work by the actress — her first in the lead category, though she’d previously won a supporting award for 1982’s Tootsie. Common wisdom is that it was kind of a “default” award because there was no consensus choice; there were also performances that some felt deserving but had failed to secure nominations that year. On the other hand, Lange had previously finished second in National Society of Film Critics voting and won the L.A. Critics’ citation outright. My own opinion: Though I usually don’t go for acting wins where the actor was disproportionately better than the movie itself (i.e. the Forest Whitaker/Last King of Scotland syndrome), this is a case where you just couldn’t have the movie without Lange. The role calls for a performer who can act up a storm and have the voluptuous natural tools that drive men of all ages wild — which eliminates about 99% of the performing pool before the production can even get out of the gate.

Set in the early 1960s in the kind of army base milieu that would have made Sky a natural pairing with John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye back in my repertory programming days, it deals with a major who’s already on the outs with superiors because he doesn’t tow the company line (or at least his immediate superiors’ line) on the dangers of radiation. Basically portrayed as a nerd-with-glasses who nonetheless can throw a punch, this major (played by Jones) is probably not the kind of guy who, speaking in career terms, needs a flashy and possibly just-short-of-crazy wife who sunbathes half naked on the beach and flashes her breasts to incoming army helicopters heading for the landing strip. This opening-scene behavior, in fact, gets them transferred from a posh Hawaiian setting to a Dixie hellhole — and when one of the commanders notes to Jones that maybe his wife will like it because she was raised in the south, Jones notes with weariness that well, she actually ran away from home.

Once ensconced in new and rundown dwellings with two daughters (one of them a hormonally typical teen), mom proceeds to make the other wives on the base nervous. Usually, Lange’s bi-polarity enables her to stop herself after taking flirting/teasing to the brink, but Jones’s new commander (Powers Boothe) is something of a predatory force, and one thing leads to another at a time when the mostly understanding Jones (he and the Mrs. have a kind of co-dependent relationship) is already mired in a base cover-up with which he disagrees. At this point, we begin getting into spoiler territory, though it’s not giving anything away to note that the story starts spinning out of control. Continuity gets a little choppy, and the use of dissolves makes one suspect that this was a movie somewhat tough to patch together); the result isn’t short on individual merit, but in terms of what really matters, this one’s all Lange.

Here’s another of Olive’s barebones transfers, though one certainly better than the old DVD; more vivid color intensity does make something of a difference in how the garb that Lange wears has an emotional effect on the viewer (and the other military wives, who suddenly come off even more drably). King Kong was right in ’76 when most critics (though not Pauline Kael) were wrong: Lange always had it from the beginning.

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