Svengali Review

I first met Jonathan Owen a couple of years ago when I was working on Cass Pennant’s documentary debut Casuals, he was one of the many interviewees who helped to tell the history of the Mod and Casual fashion scene.

svengali-viral

As many have testified Jonny is genuinely one of the nicest fellows you’re likely to come across, especially in the entertainment industry, and his winning charm is at the heart of the success of the Svengali project that he has been working on since the first viral debuted on YouTube back in 2009.

svengali-evans-mcgee

The original series of webisodes came to the attention of Mod culture and music fans alike and was hailed by the London Evening Standard as the “best thing on the Internet” at the time.  Featuring a smattering of cameos from the world of Rock, including real-life ‘Svengali’ Alan McGee and Carl Barât of The Libertines, it charts the arrival of former Welsh postman Paul ‘Dixie’ Dean in London with high hopes of promoting the raw and rowdy band The Premature Congratulations to the topper-most-of-the-popper-most.

svengali-barat-owen

Whilst the five minute virals focused primarily on Dixie’s naivety and his relationship with his old Valley’s oppo Brian Horse(y) now a successful A&R man, whose contacts include all the leading lights of the British music biz, the feature film expands his world turning the spotlight on his long-suffering fiancée Shell played by the redoubtable, BAFTA award winning actress, Vicky McClure.

svengali-dixie-shell

Along with the central romantic plot line we also finally get to see The Prems as well as an insight into Dixie’s Welsh roots; particularly effective is the scene where his father played by the late Brian Hibbard tells Dixie that he’s not long for life and they share a poetic moment of pure cinematic gold.  I come back to this scene time and again, not only has it been made more poignant by Hibbard’s own death not long after the film was completed, but because I can’t tell if it’s totally written or completely improvised, either way it’s a marvelous acting tour-de-force by the two men.

svengali-owen-hibbard

The key thing that the film manages to reveal in far greater depth is the fundamental difference between Dixie and Horsey who, on paper, could be considered two sides of the same coin.  Both hail from the same humble beginnings but one has completely reinvented himself cocking a snook at his past, whilst the other totally embraces it.  It’s a shame that Roger Evans’ performance as Horsey seems to have been largely overlooked by the critics, barely being mentioned in most of the mainstream reviews that I’ve read, he is the necessary Yin to Dixie’s Yang and the understated combination of embarrassment, envy and bemusement he displays on screen is one of the movie’s core strengths.

svengali-horsey-freed

Svengali manages to be at once a satire of the music and fashion scene, with Martin Freeman’s Mod-Elite record store owner and Matt Berry’s outrageously intimidating record label boss providing many of the laughs, but it’s also a romantic comedy, a rags to riches story and a buddy movie; this sounds disjointed but it actually holds together very well.  This is no doubt due to Jonny Owen’s central performance as Dixie, on screen almost all of the time his warmth, generosity and sincerity ooze off the screen.

svengali-the-prems

In one of the best scenes an exposed Horsey, who spends all of his time with yes men, cut-throat media types and prostitutes, ponders on what Dixie has that he doesn’t and whilst he narrowly focuses on how he is able to spot musical talent it is apparent that the major thing that Paul Dean has over Brian Horse in his life is love; both familial and romantic.  Dixie has kept true to himself and where he has hailed from so consequently, despite walking away from everything he aspired to he retains his dignity and his passion for life.

svengali-dixie-train

Svengali has proven that it is possible to make a quality low budget, independent film in the UK that doesn’t have to fit a cookie-cutter mold to reach its audience.  The film’s journey echoes Dixie’s spirit in every frame and it’s a testament to everyone who believed in it and worked on bringing it to the big screen over the years.  I am very excited to see what Root Films, the joint venture between Jonny Owen and producer Martin Root, do next and I wish them continued success.

root-films

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Alice in Wonderland: 60th Anniversary Edition

I think Disney’s 1951 version of Alice in Wonderland is not only my preferred adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories but probably my favourite cartoon from the studio’s “Golden Age” of colour animation feature films which began with Snow White in 1937; although it could so easily have been different for more than a decade before and prior to the creation Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney and his founding partner Ub Iwerks produced their first short film Alice’s Wonderland (1923) which started a series of live action and animated one-reelers known simply as the “Alice Comedies”.

The success of the “Alice Comedies” allowed Disney to relocate from Kansas City to Hollywood and before they ended in 1927 he had already started developing a feature version which would be shelved and returned to several times before emerging as the studio’s 13th feature in the Animated Classics series.  What struck me most when I first saw it as a child was how much more stylised it was than the standard bucolic Disney fair such as Pinocchio or Bambi and this more abstract, almost cubist style conceived by background artist Mary Blair intrigued and appealed to me.

Whilst there had been surreal moments in previous Disney film’s such as Fantasia and the hallucinogenic Elephants on Parade sequence in Dumbo the visual mayhem was never sustained quite like it is when Alice falls into the rabbit hole and enters the topsy-turvy world of Lewis Carroll who was in turn inspired by the avant-garde Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in Victorian England who were known to dabble with mind-altering recreational drugs such as laudanum and absinthe; although as the son of a clergyman and Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University the chaste Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) would never dream of  indulging himself.

As with all of their Blu-ray releases this Disney 60th Anniversary Edition despite the age of the source material is demonstration quality.  I had always thought that Alice in Wonderland looked pretty sharp on DVD but the colour saturation, vibrancy and clarity of the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is breathtaking.  The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with the option of replacing the black side bars with very subtle matching artwork which I must admit I prefer.  The 5.1 DTS HD-MA mixing is well balanced maintaining clear dialogue whilst improving the sound effects, songs and incidental music with spatial surround sound which helps to immerse modern viewers.

This single disc contains all the features included on the DVD release most of which have been upscaled to HD, including the wonderful Mickey Mouse short Thru the Mirror inspired by Through the Looking-Glass, and what Alice Found There as well as the original silent short Alice’s Wonderland and a wealth of other deleted material.  However the best HD exclusive is Through the Keyhole: A Companion’s Guide to Wonderland which expands the picture-in-picture concept into a holistic “making of” that runs concurrently with the original movie, providing a wealth of background information on the production and the life and times of Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell the little girl who was the inspiration for the Wonderland stories.

Disney have never missed a trick at remarketing their back catalogue but the quality of these high definition releases continue to amaze me and it’s hard to imagine that what we’re seeing now won’t remain as the definitive versions of these timeless classics, I am eagerly awaiting Peter Pan the next instalment.

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter was the directorial debut of legendary British actor Charles Laughton although due to the largely negative response from both the cinema going public and the critics during its original release in 1955 it was to be his only film behind the camera.  Clearly, the movie was years ahead of its time and is now considered one of the standout classics of film noir and amongst the mostly strikingly photographed films ever made.

Set in a small midwestern town in depression era America Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is driven to commit a hold-up in which two people are killed, on the run he leaves the $10,000 spoils of the crime with his two young children, swearing them never to reveal the location of the money which they hide in his daughter’s toy doll.  Whilst in prison waiting to be hanged Harper shares a cell with a phoney preacher, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who is serving a 30 day stretch for stealing a car.  Powell overhears Harper talking in his sleep about the robbery but he wakes up refusing to reveal the location of the cash, a secret he takes with him to the gallows.

On his release Powell visits Harper’s home town and makes a play for his widow Willa (Shelly Winters) who works at the local Soda Fountain, she is struggling to look after her children and feels tainted by the sins of her husband; coaxed both by public opinion that no woman should raise a family alone and the hope that being the partner of a preacher will lead her on the path to salvation she concedes to the will of Harry Powell and marries him.  It becomes clear all too soon that Powell is only interested in finding the loot and he puts pressure on the kids to reveal their secret.

Robert Mitchum who is known for his typically tough and taciturn performances is outstandingly mischievous yet menacing as the devilish false profit Powell and in his key scene uses the tattoos of LOVE and HATE on his knuckles to tell a modern day parable of the battle between good and evil; an indelible movie moment that was brilliantly quoted in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing 30 years later.  When Powell murders Willa and the children flee for their own lives taking a boat down the Mississippi, the film becomes a metaphorical journey from darkness into the light when they reach the end of the river and find sanctuary with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) an old woman who takes in waifs and strays.

Whilst the story is relatively simple the film scores highly for its incredible sense of suspense and the stunning visual imagery provided by renowned cinematographer Stanley Cortez taking his inspiration from the great German Expressionists Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau; the children’s trip down the river is peppered with unusual camera angles and deep focus shots that include various wildlife creatures frolicking by the banks.  The use sound and music is just as striking and surreal, particularly effective is the two-part singing between the children and Rachel Cooper and later when Harry Powell takes the counterpoint.

The Criterion Collection Blu-ray release sports a miraculous picture transferred directly from the original 35mm negative to a full 1080p/AVC MEPG-4 encode and presented for the first time in the correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio.  The monochrome photography has never looked so sharp with perfect contrast between ebony blacks and radiant whites which are showcased by the shots containing prominent shafts of light and the shadows that encroach on Willa’s bedroom as Harry Powell looms over her.  The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is uncompressed and totally appropriate for a movie of its age, so often the attempts to create a 5.1 surround approximation lose the directness, particularly when it comes to dialogue.

The Night of the Hunter has undoubtedly been an influence on the works of Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and the Coen Brothers to name but a few and this hidef release will ensure its unique spellbinding magic will continue to inspire generations of filmmakers yet to come.

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Mr. Nice

The rights to make a film of Mr. Nice were sold to the BBC by Howard Marks when the landmark autobiography of perhaps the most sophisticated drug baron of all time topped the best seller lists in 1996.  15 years later and his vivid memoir has finally been brought to the big screen by the iconic writer/director Bernard Rose (Immortal Beloved) who faithfully captures the rambling, often comic, nature of the original book aided by an outstanding performance from Rhys Ifans in the title role.

In researching this article I have found many prominent discrepancies between the reported facts, their fictionalised account in the original Marks book and the way in which they are presented by Rose in his screenplay.  This opaque concept of reality has helped to give “Mr. Nice” his legendary outlaw status with comparisons drawn to Robin Hood and Butch Cassidy to name but two.  Whilst this lack of absolute veracity might irritate some, to my mind it only serves to heighten the movie as a work of art in its own right.

In trying to echo the essence of an autobiography Bernard Rose elected to take on most of the important technical roles behind the camera, not content with writing the script and directing the performances, he is also the cinematographer (operating a handheld 35mm camera to capture the requisite period look) as well as being the film’s editor.  This singular vision provides a necessary counterpoint to the force of nature that is Rhys Ifans who dominates almost every scene in the movie.

Ifans actually got to know Marks back in the day when he was singing with the fledgling Welsh psychedelic rock combo Super Furry Animals, prior to the huge success of the book the two became firm friends and a deal was struck that Rhys should play Howard if a film was ever made of his life.  This long standing amicable association provides the movie with a heart that would have most likely been missing with anyone else in the lead role, Ifans admiration for Marks is demonstrable as is his compassion, particularly in the Terre Haute Penitentiary scenes.

The film opens from behind theatrical curtains with Howard Marks addressing a favourable crowd during one of his live shows, after the book’s success he became a popular speaker on the raconteur circuit.  It then flashes back to his early life in a small Welsh coal-mining village near Bridgend, the black and white film stock shrinks to a 4:3 ratio giving the feeling of a kitchen sink drama of the period, the young Howard is also played by Rhys Ifans; a surreal device recollecting the televised plays of Dennis Potter.

Marks was the first of his family to attend university after earning a scholarship to study at Balliol College, Oxford, in the mid-1960s.  Like many of his generation during his undergraduate years he was exposed to a variety of recreational drugs including LSD but his drug of choice was cannabis, in particular hashish; as he takes his first toke the scope of the picture widens and dramatically shifts from monochrome to vivid colour, reminiscent of Dorothy’s entrance into Oz.

After Howard graduates from Oxford with a degree in Nuclear Physics, he heads back to Wales, gets married and starts a family, this is the version of events unique to Rose’s film as this is not how Marks recalls it in his book nor is it true to documented accounts but it makes perfect dramatic sense.  He takes a steady teaching job to make ends meet and for a while leads a sober yet boring existence, until he attends a party thrown by his old college chum Graham (Jack Huston) who seems to be doing incredibly well for himself by selling hash.  Howard is readily seduced back into the hippy culture when he meets and shares a joint with Judy (Chloë Sevigny), embarking on a long love affair with her and the weed.

When Graham is arrested while attempting to smuggle a large haul out of Germany, Howard agrees to courier the remaining stash back to the UK where he is quickly baptised into the machinations of big time drug dealing; turning a quick profit and agreeing to collect further shipments from the Pakistani supplier, Saleem Malik (Omid Djalili).  This whirlwind period in Howard’s life brings him into contact with the colourful character of Jim McCann, the Irish freedom fighter allegedly kicked out of the IRA for drug trafficking played full tilt by David Thewlis.  Marks engages McCann’s Provo contacts at Shannon Airport to covertly import drugs from the European mainland.

In a surreal twist straight out of the pages of Ian Fleming or John le Carré, Howard is approached by another old chum from Baillol, Hamilton “Mac” McMillan, played by the wonderful Christian McKay (Me and Orson Welles), who now works for MI6 and wishes to recruit Marks as his eyes and ears in various cases relating to narcotics or terrorism in return for a level of protection from the law.

Between the late 70s and early 80s Howard Marks amassed a complex network of connections controlling at one point 10% of the global hashish market and by the mid-80s he had 43 aliases, 89 phone lines, and 25 companies trading throughout the world.  True to the book the film tries to suggest that his fateful decision to move into the American market was his ultimate undoing and that Judy, who by this time he had 3 childen with, tried to discourage the US expansion and pull Howard back to reality and the commitment of family life but the temptation to make even greater piles of cash proved too much.

Bernard Rose employs a clever stylistic device to convey the 25 year time period covered in the course of movie, he takes actual filmed stock footage backgrounds and then digitally superimposes Marks over the top matching the grain, whilst the effect is an obvious artifice dismissed by some critics as simply amateurish and cheap it actually serves as a striking visual quirk that reflects Howard’s constant state of expanded consciousness.  It also reminds me of the back projection shots favoured by Alfred Hitchcock in his golden Hollywood period, notably Marnie in 1964.

The original soundtrack by minimalist composer Philip Glass amounts to nothing more than incidental mood music echoing the sort of thing he did for the Errol Morris documentaries of the 80s starting with The Thin Blue Line, nonetheless it does help to bring about a sense of cohesion to the piece. For this level of attentive detail Rose should be commended, he has managed to make a visually unique movie and a wonderful star vehicle for Rhys Ifans out of a stoned shaggy dog story that will help maintain Howard Marks’ mythic stature as he continues his vigorous campaign for the legalisation of recreational drugs.

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Black Swan

Director Darren Aronofsky’s award winning film Black Swan is a dark and disturbing, psychological thriller, reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, focusing on the highly competitive and pressurised world of the New York City Ballet.

Natalie Portman plays Nina Sayers an immature and unworldly, aspiring prima ballerina who gets her big break when she is surprisingly cast in the lead role by the company’s director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) an enfant terrible whose vision for Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is to have one artiste dance both the virtuous ‘White Swan’ and her evil twin, the ‘Black Swan’, conventionally two separate parts.

Nina resides with her overbearing mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey) herself a failed ballet dancer who tries to live out her former ambitions vicariously through her daughter’s drive and dedication. The seemingly chaste Nina is a natural choice to play the ‘White Swan’ but her relationship with her mother becomes strained when her sexual curiosity is awoken by her attempts to get in touch with the seductive traits of the ‘Black Swan’.

The chauvinistic Leroy, who had a fling with the recently retired leading dancer Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), thinks he can coax Nina into character by flirting with her and encouraging her to masturbate in order to loosen up and explore her sexuality, using the example of the new girl Lily (Mila Kunis) as a role model and potential rival for the part if she fails to deliver the goods.

Desperate to succeed and prove herself Nina goes against her mother’s wishes and lets Lily take her out for the evening, they end up in a club where she allows Lily to spike her drink so she can lose her inhibitions with a view to understanding what it feels like to be the ‘Black Swan’.  Aside from accurately aping the plot of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, the film is a clever metaphor for feminine struggle with sexual awakening, identity, and freedom; if a woman is to attain “perfection” she can’t just be the innocent ‘White Swan’ or the erotic ‘Black Swan’, according to Thomas Leroy she must be both saint and sinner, Mary and Magdalene.

Natalie Portman thoroughly deserved the Best Actress Oscar for portraying Nina’s descent into madness as she tries to come to terms with years of living with an overprotective and possessive parent, as well as the immense physical and emotional strain of training for the life of a premier ballet dancer, an existence which allows for very little outside of it.  Nina’s mental breakdown is dramatically illustrated through her painful bodily transformation into the ‘Black Swan’ which culminates in a final flourish of feathered wings sprouting from her shoulders.  Just like her character in the ballet story the ‘White Nina’ is cheated out of love by the ‘Black Lily’ who unable to steal her coveted role seduces the man she desires instead, driving her to suicide.

Cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, elected to shoot with a combination of digital 1080p/24 source HDCAM and analogue Super 16 cameras, giving the film the dual feel of both docudrama and surreal fantasy equally stunning on the Blu-ray release, particularly the climatic staged performance of Swan Lake with the fine detail on the jet black feathers looking particularly impressive.  The DTS-HD master audio soundtrack is of a similar standard with demonstrable dynamic range between Tchaikovsky’s classical score and the suspenseful sound effects which help to heighten the incredibly tense psychological drama.  There is also a strong suite of extras all presented in HD, the focus of which is the hour long documentary Black Swan Metamorphosis which explores each facet of the production, including in-depth discussions with Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman.

Black Swan is a very satisfying adult oriented thriller, it’s complex but compared to Aronofsky’s earlier movies it’s not so dense as to make it obscure or inaccessible to general audiences and consequently this relatively low budget movie, produced by Mike Medavoy’s new independent film company Phoenix Pictures, has enjoyed a healthy return at the box office and garnered many awards.

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Cléo from 5 to 7

From the opening credits of Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, you know this is going to be a stylish and important film of the French New Wave, a period of Cinema history dominated by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.

In the colour credit sequence Cléo (Corine Marchand), a young and beautiful Parisian, is having her future told and the Tarot cards confirm her worst fears as she awaits the results of a medical to detect whether she is suffering from an incurable disease.

The photography switches to the crisp monochrome, hand-held style that is typical of French films of the period.  Varda creates an almost documentary feel as we spend the next 90 minutes following Cléo, a famous pop singer, around the chic streets of  ’60s Paris in real time.

Cléo is very superstitious and sees omens of death everywhere, her maid encourages this, advising her not to wear the new hat she bought because it’s a Tuesday, not to drink coffee and to avoid cats!  That’s not all; the film is split into 13 chapters so it really looks as though her fate is doomed!  Still, she tries to look on the bright side musing, “Ugliness is a kind of death.  As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive.”  How very French.

We soon discover that Cléo’s songs are going out of fashion, and despite efforts of Michel “Windmills of Your Mind” Legrand (who makes a cameo as her songwriter) to provide a new hit, she is sick of success and her empty existence.  Her current lover briefly visits her but their busy lives don’t allow them enough time to even kiss!

 

Corine Marchand is excellent as the spoilt but tragic rich girl and gives a poignant performance bringing great depth to lines like, “Everyone spoils me – no one loves me!”  Throughout, her tragedy is put into context by the conflict in Algeria; she is not the only person facing imminent death.

Don’t be put off by the gloomy subject matter; Cléo from 5 to 7 is an exuberant and very stylish film that benefits from many lighter moments.  Not least a fantastic Silent Comedy parody, where a man wearing dark sunglasses thinks he’s seen his lover knocked down by a car, only to find that due to his obscured vision he’s looking at the wrong girl, “Damn dark sunglasses, make everything look so black!”  Indeed.

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Network

At the 2011 Academy Awards Aaron Sorkin said in his acceptance speech, “It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to be handed the same award that was given to Paddy Chayefsky 35 years ago for another movie with ‘network’ in the title.”  It was his first Oscar win for adapting The Social Network and he was referring to the unexpectedly prescient satire Network directed by Sidney Lumet in 1976.

You don’t have to look very far for Chayefsky’s influence on Sorkin’s writing, not just in the awe-inspiring speeches throughout The West Wing but more specifically in his follow up series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a behind the scenes focus on putting on a live light entertainment television show which draws directly from the milieu of Network.
 

Peter Finch stars as news anchorman Howard Beale who is about to “retire” after 25 years on the air due to a fall in ratings, during the corporate takeover of a fictitious national television network UBS.  In a moment of madness Beale announces to camera his intention to blow his brains out in his final broadcast on live television and is immediately fired until long-time friend and producer Max Schumacher (William Holden) is persuaded by the company’s President to allow him back a final time to apologise and bow out gracefully.

However, once Beale is back on air his psychotic state causes him to launch into a candid tirade claiming that “life is bullshit”; ironically this strikes a chord with the public and fledging producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) who has been looking for edgier material suggests to Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), the chief executive appointed by the conglomerate who have acquired the station, that Howard Beale be given his own show so he can sound off on whatever topics he likes.

Network is an outrageously believable black parody that is at once very funny yet deeply biting, years ahead of his time Chayefsky predicts not only reality TV but also the theory of the New World Order run by one massive ‘ecumenical’ holding company.  In the film’s touchstone scene during one of Beale’s televised rants on the night of an electrical storm, he manages to rouse his viewers to get up and go to their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” which not only became the movie’s tagline but is now an oft-quoted, indelible moment in cinema history.

Despite looking its age in terms of costume and set design Network fares remarkably well on Blu-ray, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is displayed in the original aspect ratio 1.85:1 showing off the film’s impressive use of stylised lighting particularly in the memorable monologue where the chairman of the corporation (Ned Beatty) evangelises his global capitalism to Howard Beale, appearing like a haloed vision of God in a starry night sky.  The DTS-HD master audio mix of the original mono soundtrack is perfect for a film which is reknowned for its exceptional dialogue.

There are a wealth of extras on the disc, including an in-depth “Behind the Story” analysis of the movie as well as a rare interview with writer Paddy Chayefsky recorded at the time of the film’s original release and an hour long episode of Private Screenings with director Sidney Lumet where he discusses in detail his substantial body of work recorded in 2005 after he was awarded the honorary life time achievement Oscar which, for fellow cinephiles, is worth the price of the disc alone!

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sherlock Holmes

I grew up watching the constant reruns of the Universal Studios series of Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone as the ace detective and Nigel Bruce as his exceedingly bumbling confident Doctor Watson, back in the day when black and white movies were still shown on terrestrial television.  I graduated to the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories as bedtime reading and became somewhat of an aficionado in my late teens.  My father who was also a boyhood fan encouraged me to join the Sherlock Holmes Society which, in the pre-Internet era, sent out a copy of The District Messenger, a single page newsletter produced by Roger Johnson roughly once a month since 1982.

Whilst there have been some excellent Holmesian television adaptations, most notably the Granada ‘Adventures’ series starring Jeremy Brett whose performance is on a par with David Suchet’s long running portrayal of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, the more recent film versions have been less than satisfying; the last decent outing was probably Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Stephens donning the renowned deerstalker.  So, it was in trepidation that I ventured out to the cinema with my wife to see director Guy Ritchie’s action-packed Legendary Pictures reboot with the unlikely pairing of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as the sleuthing duo.

Any fears were quickly allayed as the script (whose storyline was meticulously researched by Lionel Wigram, co-producer and author of the graphic novel on which the film is based) not only captures the celebrated Conan Doyle creations but screenwriter Michael Robert Johnson has faithfully fleshed them out, presenting them afresh for the sensibilities of the 21st century motion picture audience.  To some the plot may seem episodic and, at times, convoluted and it contrives to set up the forthcoming sequel in the final reel, but none of that is at odds with the spirit of the original Strand Magazine publications of the 1890s, which thoroughly exploited the cliff-hanger.

If there was ever any doubt about Robert Downey Jr.’s rehabilitation as an out and out movie star then Sherlock Holmes puts pay to that, the role cries out for the diamond-cut precision and razor’s edge synonymous with his recent performances; I can’t imagine anyone else bringing this particular Holmes to the screen with such alacrity, intuition and intelligence.  Somewhat surprisingly, Jude Law also scores highly as the long suffering Doctor, bringing a hitherto unseen charm and dynamism to his John Watson, which lends itself more convincingly as to why Holmes craves his approval and friendship, an aspect so often missing when he’s simply depicted as an inept half-wit.

Thankfully Guy Ritchie’s handwriting is missing from the script’s dialogue but his trademark searing visual style is ever present on the screen.  The use of an extreme slow motion camera technique allows us to perceive both Holmes’ rapid intellect and incredible physical dexterity at work in miniscule detail, it is not over used but is particularly powerful in the bare knuckle boxing match; the additional brainpower allowing Ritchie to knock out Brad Pitt’s fight sequence from his earlier movie Snatch.

The attention to period detail is also remarkable, particularly the construction of London’s Tower Bridge which provides the location for the film’s final battle between Holmes and the villain of the piece, Lord Blackwood imbued with biting humour and vengeful menace by Ritchie/Vaughan regular heavy Mark Strong, in the closing moments we discover that all along he’s been a pawn of the shadowy figure of Professor Moriarty who is going to be played by Jared Harris in the sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

The Warner Bros. high definition release sports a shiny 1080p/VC-1 encode of immense clarity, both the picture and DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack are demonstration quality.  There are a wealth of extras included which can be watched separately or throughout the film by selecting the unique Maximum Movie Mode presented by Guy Ritchie, this serves as both a commentary and a feature length ‘making-of’ documentary and is superior to the more common Picture-in-Picture Blu-ray feature.

Sherlock Holmes was one of the best nights at the cinema I’ve had in many a year and I regularly enjoy sharing the movie with friends at home, it’s one of the few film franchises that I’m eagerly awaiting the next instalment of and can only hope it will be as solidly entertaining and authentic as the first adventure.

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Disney’s A Christmas Carol

Disney’s A Christmas Carol might have been better titled Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as screenwriter/director Robert Zemeckis has very faithfully adapted the classic short story by blending the original text, as set similarly in the outstanding 1951 version starring Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, with the exhilarating visual style achieved through the digital motion-capture animation technique that he established with The Polar Express in 2004.  This time, instead of Tom Hanks, we have the rubber-faced, Jerry Lewis-esque, comedian Jim Carrey playing the various ages of Scrooge, as well as all three of the ghosts of Christmas who visit him.  

I am not a fan of the default Carrey performance in the kind of broad, slapstick comedy films that made him a household name but here he proves, as he has done before with The Truman Show, Man On The Moon and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that he is in fact a very facile character actor capable of bringing great depth and nuances to his roles not only physically and vocally but also emotionally; his Scrooge is totally believable and wryly humorous plus his transformation, even for one as familiar as I am with the tale, manages to lift the spirits and imbue one with the joy of Christmas.  

Co-stars Colin Firth who plays Scrooge’s cheerful nephew Fred and Gary Oldman who plays the ghost of Scrooge’s dead partner Jacob Marley, his long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit and Cratchit’s ailing son Tiny Tim, also make the most of the motion-capture technology giving supporting performances of great subtlety with a level of detail and range of expression infinitely greater than seen before in The Polar Express; the snowy street scenes of Victorian London are particularly well rendered as are the candlelit interiors.  I did see the film in 3D at the cinema when it was released last year but I much prefer seeing it at home in 2D, as I am yet to be convinced by the merit of home 3D systems and find the depth of field depicted in the standard Blu-ray presentation more than sufficient.  

Zemeckis has proven he has integrity both with The Polar Express which is equally true to Chris Van Allsburg’s original book illustrations and A Christmas Carol by presenting an exceedingly authentic Dickensian version, albeit updated slightly by the inclusion of some spectacular action sequences, this easily could have been far more Disneyfied as the title would suggest.  

This authenticity dispelled any doubts I initially had when I heard that he was working on a motion-capture remake of the cult Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine and I am very disappointed to hear that it has now been abandoned.  I shall put that thought aside and settle down for another viewing of Disney’s A Christmas Carol, a merrier Christmas Carol than we have seen for many a year!

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

The Social Network

As a devotee of the landmark American serial drama The West Wing which ran for 7 years and focused on the day to day activities of the Oval Office and the loyal support staff who serve at the pleasure of fictional President Josiah Bartlet played effortlessly by the ever charismatic Martin Sheen, when I learnt that the show’s creator and chief writer Aaron Sorkin had adapted Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires which charted the founding of the now ubiquitous social website Facebook, despite my scepticism of the cinematic scope of the subject matter I knew that the quality of Sorkin’s writing would make this compelling viewing.

The opening scene of The Social Network is textbook Sorkin, fast-paced, exceptionally literate dialogue punctuated with witty barbs leading to an increasing amount of tension as the disquieting banter between cerebral computer geek Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) ends with her dumping him and delivering the shattering coup de grace “You’ll go through life thinking girls hate you because you’re a geek, but it’ll be because you’re an asshole!”.  If nothing else the rest of the movie is an examination of whether Zuckerberg is actually an asshole or if his dubious actions are the direct result of a massive inferiority complex.

True to the book the film is preoccupied with the explosion of the social networking phenomenon which was born in the college campuses of America and spread around the world like wildfire at the turn of the millennium.  Whilst at Harvard Mark Zuckerberg manages to crash the network in 4 hours by creating the Facemash website which hacked into all the college databases raiding pictures of the female fraternally, randomly pitting two of them against each other asking the visitor to determine which was “hotter”.  This notoriety lead him to be approached by two Varsity rowing athletes, the twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss through the marvels of digital technology both played by Armie Hammer, asking him to program the code for their website idea the Harvard Connection which took the principle of MySpace but added the exclusivity of requiring an @harvard.edu email address to sign up.  Zuckerberg agrees to help and then stalls them indefinitely whilst he rushes to launch his own take on the concept, the fledgling version of Facebook.

The Winklevoss twins provide a lot of the movie’s trademark Sorkin humour as they deliberate between themselves whether it’s sportsmanlike behaviour for two gentleman of Harvard to take Zuckerberg to court.  Facebook is taken up nationally by the big college campuses, including Stanford which brings it to the attention of Napster founder Sean Parker an impressive star turn by Justin Timberlake, who decides he wants a piece of the action and seduces Zuckerberg to relocate to California providing the movie’s second act, should Mark let ambition overtake his loyalty to his best friend and founding partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) who so far has invested $19,000 in setting up the site.  Whilst at the Henley Regatta the Winklevoss twins learn that Facebook is now being used by Oxbridge students and this last straw determines them to proceed with litigation.

The Social Network as with all of Sorkin’s work is ultimately a rather theatrical talk piece but despite that director David Fincher, who elected to shoot on HD video as opposed to celluloid, has crafted a taut and visually impressive feature which manages to grip the audience right from the start.  When it was first released there were comparisons drawn to Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane largely due to the similarities between print and online media monopolisation and the notion of selling one’s soul in order to prosper.  The problem is, unlike Charles Foster Kane, Mark Zuckerberg isn’t depicted as the out and out villain of the piece and if the script has one serious flaw it’s that it lacks a clearly defined antagonist, however as a character study and an essay on the frailty of the human condition it scores highly.

As it was shot in HD it looks superb on Blu-ray and the picture is crisp and vibrant in full 1080p.  The incredibly clear DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack ensures you never miss a word of Sorkin’s famously fast-paced dialogue and showcases the original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.  The exclusive extras include a feature-length making of documentary entitled “How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Facebook?” sporting in-depth interviews with all the key personnel.  I would challenge anybody to try and claim after seeing this film that celluloid is superior to digital processing when playing back on high definition equipment.

The beautiful irony of The Social Network is that the man who created Facebook appears to have lost his only friend battling over its financial success.  In the final scene after Zuckerberg has been ordered to award the Winklevoss twins $65 million compensation his junior council concludes “You’re not an asshole, Mark.  You’re just trying so hard to be one.” leaving him alone with his laptop, in desperation he sends a request to ex-girlfriend Erica Albright hoping she’ll accept him as a friend, he sits there repeatedly hitting the refresh key.  Final Curtain.

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments