Summertree: Martini Movies
R1 - America - Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Ethan C. Stevenson (7th September 2009).
The Film

It must be nice to have a father who, when you get kicked off of a play, tells you it doesn’t matter and buys you a movie to star in instead. I personally wouldn’t have any experience with that scenario but Michael Douglas certainly does. Kirk Douglas didn’t just buy any movie; he bought the rights to the film version of the play that his son was fired from.

1971’s "Summertree" has a story that will surely not surprise fans of films from the late 60's and early 70's; it’s got most of what you expect: social commentary on the Vietnam War, a young college aged character and an adulterous affair between said college student and an older woman, but, even if it isn’t completely original, the film tries to be sincere and features a young Douglas in a heartfelt performance. At times I kind of liked it, but, at others, I couldn’t get past the fact that it really is a poor film. Low budget, essentially independent, I’m not surprised one bit that it disappeared for years – never released on VHS and only now making it’s way to DVD. In the end it’s dated, tired and mostly a bad movie; said undesirable qualities make it a perfect fit for Sony’s “Martini Movies” line, which I’ve so far been less than impressed with. The distributor seems to be using this line as a means of releasing titles simply to retain rights, not because fans are salivating for (or even consciously requesting) their debut.

Based on the acclaimed play by Ron Cowen, and adapted for the screen by Edward Hume, the film follows Jerry (Michael Douglas), a wavy-haired 20 year-old college student torn between doing what is expected of him (finishing school with a degree) and what he really wants to do (dropout and play his guitar). Jerry falls for an older woman, Vanetta (Brenda Vaccaro), a nurse whose husband is in Vietnam. He also takes a young inner-city kid, Marvis (Kirk Callaway), under his wing. Jerry fights with his parents about what he wants to do with his life; particularly with his father (Jack Warden) – the gruff all-American who continually pushes his son, telling him that he should be entering the military to fight for freedom, proclaiming that it is his duty. Warden is a high point of the film; always dependable he gives a believable, taught performance and his interactions with the young Douglas are easily the best scenes in “Summertree.”

Jerry has reservations about dropping out of school after he learns that if he does, he’ll be drafted and shipped to the front the next day. Rather than go to Vietnam, he does the responsible thing and tries to change majors – unfortunately it doesn’t work out and again he’s forced to either: stay in school and do something he hates, or head off to die in a war he doesn’t want to fight. Jerry chooses secret door number three and decides to flee to Canada. His plans are foiled and in the end (spoiler alert) Jerry not only goes to Vietnam, but is fatally wounded when he gets there. The film concludes on a somber note, which, personally, I think is good – you have an anti-war movie that isn’t entirely beat-you-over-the-head with the topic but hits home with the realities of war just before credits roll. This is refreshing – it isn’t often that filmmakers (or, I guess as this is based on a play, playwrights) are willing to go out on such dark terms.

So, at its base we have a decent movie… or, the potential for a decent movie. But, the product is so poorly handled that any of the films redeeming qualities are grossly overshadowed by its numerous deficiencies. The script is unbalanced and sometimes a bit too preachy for its own good; the subplot with the inner-city kid is entirely a fabrication of the screenwriter (it was not part of the original play) and the film is all the worse for this narrative invention. The moments of time devoted to “Jerry the Mentor” distract from the far more interesting aspect of the film – the struggling young adult trying to find himself. The dialogue with Marvis is, of course, trying to add to Jerry’s journey – and without it, one pivotal plot point wouldn’t be discussed – but ultimately the subplot reeks of faux sentimentality and takes the film into dangerous “after school special” territory. And, Certainly not helping matters is rookie director Anthony Newley at the helm; unsteady with his camera, far too reserved and unsure most of the time, but sporadically handling the job like a total pro. I’m not surprised that this was Newley’s last directorial feature (he previously only had one picture to his name as director), as his odd duality makes for some strange tonal shifts in the narrative and quality varies wildly by consequence.

Also of note is the fact that Hume makes the love interest far older in the film than she is in the play. In the stage version the two characters (Jerry and Vanetta) are contemporaries, both struggling with similar issues. The film takes the relationship and puts this odd Mrs. Robinson spin on it. For some reason, this span of 5 or 6 years of film has numerous examples of writers creating stories where older women and younger men engage in “scandalous” affairs. Perhaps they want to try and capture some of the Mike Nichols magic that preceded their less notable films?

The film certainly has its fans – a quick look on IMDB will reveal that there are a few who remember this film fondly…. but I have to wonder if part of their praise is not stemmed from rosy nostalgia. I’ve definitely seen worse films but "Summertree" is hardly top rung either – it’s not even a slightly above average film. I would still recommend it for the curious as it captures one of Michael Douglas’ earliest leading roles and he’s good in it (as are a few others), but this is just another disappointing 90 minutes of Martini Time.

Video

Sony’s 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer isn’t a standout, even for a catalog release, but it’s much better than I would have expected. The print is clean and free of any overt defects; it wouldn’t surprise me if the film were remastered from an original 35mm source. Colors stay solid throughout and grain is, if a bit inconsistent, at least nicely rendered for standard definition DVD. Detail is mediocre to good, not great (the film was fairly low budget and, as a product of the 70's, already a somewhat soft affair) but for the era, not disappointing. The DVD is far stronger than I thought it would be. An average, acceptable catalog but only just, "Summertree" should please its limited fan base.

Audio

The film is presented in English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono sound. It’s serviceable but uninspired. Dialogue is plain but clear. The source is free of any nefarious damage – no hissing, popping, cracking, etc. The track is mostly flat and confined to the front stage (as you would expect with no rear channels encoded in the mix). Like all of the “Martini Movies,” the included soundtrack is perfectly harmless but also nothing special.
English subtitles are also included.

Extras

All of the discs in the third wave of Sony’s “Martini Movies” collection have no extras of consequence. The DVDs aren’t completely bare – there are a few theatrical trailers, even one that is relevant to the feature film, but nothing else. It’s unfortunate that Sony couldn’t cull through the archives and find a vintage featurette or take the time to produce a new commentary track or documentary, but as I’ve said, the lack of extras speaks volumes about the distributors real motives with this series.

The original theatrical trailer for "Summertree" is included in anamorphic (1.85:1) widescreen. Runs 2 minutes 33 seconds. The trailer is bad; it makes the film look even worse than it actually is by playing up the love story-angle of the screenplay.

Three bonus trailers are included offering previews for:

- "The Norman Lear Collection" runs 2 minutes 3 seconds.
- "The Three Stooges Collection" runs 1 minute 10 seconds
- "Columbia Classics" runs 3 minutes 34 seconds.

Packaging

All of the “Martini Movies” come packaged in Viva Eco-boxes with some wickedly hideous cover art – seriously, who ever designed the artwork for this series has very little (quite possibly no) taste.

Overall

The Film: D+ Video: C Audio: C- Extras: F Overall: C-

 


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