The Mission

The Mission was the last screenplay by Robert Bolt, the writer responsible for such epic, historical movies as A Man for All Seasons and Lawrence of Arabia.  Director Roland Joffé has made a film equally ambitious in its scale, featuring breathtaking cinematography by Chris Menges, deeply moving performances from stars Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro, and a soulful award winning score from Ennio Morricone.

Set in the 1750s and focusing on the true story of the Mission of San Miguel built at the summit of the massive Iguazu Falls and founded to shelter the indigenous Guaraní tribe who lived there; protecting them from slave traders during the on-going wars of Spanish Succession fought against the Portuguese over territories on the frontiers of Paraguay and Argentina.

Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel, a fervent Jesuit who single-handedly scales the perilous falls and wins the trust of the natives with his enchanting oboe playing and devotion to his faith.  Robert De Niro is Captain Rodrigo Mendoza, a mercenary who kidnaps the Guaraní and sells them to both Portuguese and Spanish plantation owners; whose Roman Catholic King opposes slave trading.

When Mendoza’s fiancée Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi) confesses that she’s in love with his younger brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn) he becomes consumed with jealously and later when he discovers the couple in bed together, the two brothers fight a duel in which Felipe is killed.  Mendoza is wracked with guilt and falls into an inconsolable depression, his remorse leads him to accept a penance from the Jesuit order to atone for his sins.

Father Gabriel convinces Mendoza to journey with him to the top of the falls, burdened further by dragging his heavy armour behind him as part of his punishment.  Once they reach the top the Guaraní recognise the man who has hunted them and initially react with hostility but the priest assures them that the former slaver’s penitence is in earnest and he is accepted as one of the brethren.  All is well until the Portuguese put pressure on the Spanish to cede the missionary land in accord with the Treaty of Madrid.  The Papacy sends an Emissary, Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally) to act as a mediator and determine their fate.

Altamirano, a former Jesuit himself, has to choose what he believes to be the lesser of the two evils; if he favours the colonists then the natives will be forced into slavery but if he allows the missions to remain then the Portuguese will condemn the Jesuit order and risk fracturing the Catholic Church in Europe.  Despite being impressed with the beauty and success of the missionary community, Altamirano rules in favour of their closure. 

The Jesuits defy the Cardinal’s decision promising to stay and protect the Guaraní from the colonial forces, ever the pragmatist Mendoza, now an ordained priest himself, argues with Father Gabriel on how they should go about defending themselves from imminent attack.  Bolt’s script very cleverly explores the duality of man; Gabriel is unshakeable in his belief that an act of violence is a crime against God, whilst Mendoza is prepared to break his vows in order to defend the Mission by force if necessary.

Both Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro give accomplished performances and the film, produced by David Puttnam, went on to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.  25 years later the film looks absolutely stunning on Blu-ray, the full 1080p transfer is displayed in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio with a remarkably sharp image and lush colour palette most notable in the ample shots of verdant foliage.  The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack perfectly mixes the dialogue with Morricone’s unforgettable Oscar winning original score.

The Mission is an intelligent and meticulously well written movie whose resounding themes are still relevant today and whilst the final images are rather harrowing they in no way detract from the sheer technical brilliance that went into capturing such a beautiful spectacle on film.

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

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, in the frame 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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Woody Allen

Woody Allen has been writing and directing a new film project each a year for the last half a century, he has also acted in many of them, although in recent years he usually takes a smaller role, providing the comic relief or simply doesn’t appear at all.  Even from behind the camera you know it’s a Woody Allen movie from the opening black and white titles, traditional jazz soundtrack and first lines of dialogue brimming with neurosis and one-liners filled with existential angst about balancing love and life in urban cities, predominately New York.

I had just turned 14 when my parents allowed me to stay up late on a school night to experience my first Woody Allen film.  It was 1985 and we had yet to own a video recorder so this meant watching everything live or missing it.  Around the same time I had discovered the films of the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Peter Sellers, Mel Brooks and Monty Python so I watched Sleeper for the first time with an appreciation of parody, spoof and satire but had never seen the Woody Allen persona before and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect but I quickly warmed to Miles Monroe as he tried to come to terms with futuristic life after being cryogenically frozen for 200 years. 

Sleeper, like Bananas before it, had a very thin plot, involving a cowardly klutz who ultimately wins the day and the girl, on which to hang gags of all shape and sizes.  It wasn’t until 1975’s Love and Death that Allen started to introduce the philosophical themes for which his films would become synonymous, although its main concern is provoking laughs as it pokes fun at the great works of Russian literature from the Napoleonic era; it remains my favourite of his ‘early funny films’.

Whilst the influences of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini are always apparent in Allen’s films he managed to create his own unique cinematic style with Annie Hall and Manhattan, between the ages of 15 and 18, I must have watched both of these films at least once a month; their focal point of not quite finding the ideal partner whilst keeping alive a romantic spirit provided me, as a somewhat bookish teenager going through a string of unrequited adolescent crushes, with real solace.  With Manhattan began my own love affair with New York City and the pulsating tunes of George Gershwin and crisp, black and white photography of Gordon Willis still give me a rush whenever I revisit it.

Of Allen’s many films if I had to take one with me on a desert island I think it would be 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors here he manages to blend comedy and romance with a serious essay on crime and punishment, packing a dramatic punch reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.  Opthalmologist Judah Rosenthal, a towering performance from Martin Landau, was raised in a strictly orthodox Jewish family.  He believes the eyes of God see everything so when he uses his disreputable brother Jack’s mob connections to ‘rub out’ his blackmailing mistress, who’s threatening to destroy his world, he expects to receive divine retribution, however he doesn’t, in fact he prospers and is never linked to the death which is dismissed by the police as the result of a burglary; a serious subject but an equally funny and touching film, for me Allen at his best.

In the coming weeks I shall review Woody Allen’s movies in greater detail and I am hoping that financially troubled film studio, MGM, finalise a salvage deal with Warner Bros. and start to release his back catalogue on Blu-ray because these great movies deserve to be seen in hidef by a fresh audience.

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

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 , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Alfred Hitchcock

In a single decade between 1954 and 1964 Alfred Hitchcock would Produce and Direct a dozen perfect movies, most notably Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho, The Birds and Marnie.  Although only accounting for a third of his career, this would be his “Golden Period” and with each decade that passes these films seem to get better and better.

I remember one Christmas, 1988 I think, BBC 2 had a short season of Hitchcock films scheduled between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, I circled them in red marker pen in the Radio Times so not to miss them and bought three brand new 180 minute, highest quality, Scotch Video Tapes.  I would sit with the video player set in pause and record ready to capture these great works of art.  I was 17 years old at the time and I recall wearing those tapes out viewing and reviewing these cinematic gems over and over again.

I intend to review each of these films individually, starting with North by Northwest and Psycho, the only two Hitchcock films released on Blu-ray to date.  I am hoping that Rear Window and Vertigo shall follow swiftly, although I am a tad perplexed that Vertigo hasn’t materialised sooner as it was digitally restored for DVD fairly recently.

Hitchcock believed in what he called “pure cinema”, that is a story that can be conveyed entirely through images and, as someone who trained at the UFA film studio in Germany during the silent era, this is not surprising.  The studio was responsible for the classics of Fritz Lang, Metropolis and F. W. Murnau, Faust and whilst there Hitchcock directed The Pleasure Garden.

Hitchcock returned to Britain making two early classics for producer Michael Balcon, the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps the first film to use what Hitchcock referred to as the ‘MacGuffin’ which basically was a plot device, usually a search for an object or person that propels the narrative but itself is of little significance to the outcome of the story.  Hitchcock recounted this in a recorded conversation with François Truffaut, which is included as an extra on the recently released 50th Anniversary Blu-ray edition of Psycho.

There are two men sitting in a train going to Scotland and one man says to the other, ‘Excuse me, sir, but what is that strange parcel you have on the luggage rack above you?’, ‘Oh’, says the other, ‘that’s a MacGuffin.’, ‘Well’, says the first man, ‘what’s a MacGuffin?’, The other answers, ‘It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’, ‘But’, says the first man, ‘there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.’, ‘Well’, says the other, ‘then that’s no MacGuffin.’

Hitchcock was wooed to work in America by legendary producer David O. Selznick, the man responsible for such classics as King Kong and Gone With The Wind.  They were to make three films together, Rebecca, starring Laurence Oliver as the mysterious Max de Winter, followed by Spellbound and The Paradine Case both with Gregory Peck.  The best, for my money, is Spellbound not least for the dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali, and for Ingrid Bergman’s intelligent portrayal of the psycho-analyst who for falls for her colleague, Peck, whom she discovers has a murderous secret identity.

Now a permanent US resident Hitch produces and directs Notorious, the first of four films to star Cary Grant, including Suspicion, To Catch A Thief and culminating with the Hitchcock film that seems to, at once, parody but still top his others, North By Northwest.  Before making home at Universal Studios, Hitch delivered a string of films for Warner Brothers, most notably Strangers On A Train which explores the notion of sanity when two men undertake to murder each other’s victims to avoid detection.  This brings us to Rear Window and the start of the unbroken golden period ending with Marnie.

There is so much I feel I can write about Hitchcock, that to attempt to do so here would be overlong and unfocused.  I shall, instead, examine his themes and style in detail, discussing the films with illustrative examples.  Hitchcock, must be, without a shadow of a doubt (see what I did there!) the single most influential film Director of all time and it’s impossible to imagine the medium without his staggeringly consistent body of work.

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

Citizen Kane

I was inspired to write this online journal by a line from Citizen Kane, arguably the best film ever made, or is it just the best American film ever made these days? Anyway, the young Charles Foster Kane writes to his guardian Walter Parks Thatcher, that he “thinks it would be fun to run a newspaper” and whilst most of us couldn’t dream to be able to afford the costs involved in running an actual newspaper like Kane’s New York Daily Inquirer we can effectively do just that courtesy of Word Press and the World Wide Web.

I am holding off watching Citizen Kane again on DVD to inform this brief review as I am eagerly awaiting it’s 70th Anniversary release on Blu-ray next year, you will soon discover that I have a passionate fervour for the Hi Def format and will be a constant advocate for it here.  I have, however, seen Citizen Kane many times than I care to remember in my forty years on the planet.  I seem to recall my first viewing was around my 14th birthday, at that time I was convinced that I was destined for an Actor’s life and I was drawn like a moth to a candle by the robust screen presence of Orson Welles, although up until that point I had no concept of what was going on behind the camera. 

Kane was probably the first film that forced me to question why is the camera doing that, that’s a funny angle, the lighting seems almost theatrical surely this isn’t supposed to be realistic?!  And so began my interest in cinematic style, direction and particularly those films that attempted to be removed from reality as we know it.  This enlightenment was mirrored by my exposure to the surrealist painting of Salvador Dali, which in turn would lead me to an appreciation of the films of Luis Buñuel and David Lynch. 

The expressionistic style of Kane is anchored by the more conventional trope of an investigative journalist, our narrative entry into the life of Charles Foster Kane, as he attempts to research the great man’s obituary.  We soon discover, through flashback and interviews with those that knew him, that Kane was not so great.   I was riveted by this as a teenager and fell hook, line and sinker for the ‘Rosebud’ enigma, or what Alfred Hitchcock would simply call the MacGuffin (I shall go into detail about that in a Hitch-related post). 

Over the years I have tried to share with friends, relatives and lovers my passion for Welles and inevitably this leads to a screening of Citizen Kane and the reception is usually the same, initial intrigue which gives way to mild boredom as the pacing feels a little slow by today’s standards and the stilted, slightly stagey dialogue doesn’t help hold the viewer’s attention.  However, nobody can doubt the bravura titular performance and marvel at the old age make-up that transforms the 26 year old Orson Welles’ to his late 70s. 

I think the biggest reason that modern audiences fail to truly appreciate Citizen Kane, especially outside of America, is a lack of common knowledge about the real life of William Randolph Hearst who’s vast media empire attempted to burn the film before its release as it was clearly based on him (I shall venture into this more thoroughly in an upcoming review of RKO 281).  Unlike Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator made a couple of years earlier, everybody knew of the monstrous leader of the Third Reich, and the physical similarities between the Little Tramp and Adolf Hitler were remarkable.  A modern audience appreciates the satire and the pleas for humanity made by Chaplin but the same is not true of the nature of the Hearst Machine and the lives it destroyed. 

Citizen Kane shall always be remembered for its visual impact, although most of its supposed ground-breaking techniques, like deep-focus photography and Dutch camera angles, had been seen before, this was a summation of all that talking pictures could do at this point and will serve as a practical course in cinematic possibilities for all time.

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

Kick-Ass

Having heard the controversy surrounding Kick-Ass due to its portrayal of graphic violence involving a minor I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I sat down to watch it for the first time.  I’d actually delayed watching it over Christmas with the family as my father-in-law is particularly squeamish when it comes to the spilling of blood and guts.  Not surprisingly the outcry by the film’s few detractors is pretty unfounded when you consider the highly stylised violence in the broader context of the film, which clearly has a moral compass intent on telling the bizarre tale of Dave, a bullied teenage geek and would-be “Good Samaritan” who takes on the roll of a Costumed Vigilante to protect the innocent and exact revenge for those whose lives have been destroyed by an evil drug lord.

Kick-Ass is based on an 8 volume graphic novel written by Mark Millar and drawn by John Romita Jr. it was adapted for the screen by the film’s director Matthew Vaughan and Jane Goldman who also co-wrote Vaughan’s previous film the fantasy Stardust which was based on the Neil Gaiman book of the same name.  Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is a typical comic book superhero fan who is regularly mugged for his lunch money.  He muses over the question why has nobody ever tried to be a superhero in real life and becomes convinced that it’s his destiny to become a masked crusader.  Having ordered a diving suit online and armed with only 2 batons he takes to the streets as “Kick-Ass” and attempts to fight crime rather unsuccessfully after he is knifed by an assailant and then hit by a car requiring metal implants to repair his numerous broken bones.

Undeterred by his hospitalisation Dave goes back to being a superhero and with little skill but plenty of courage he manages to fend off a group of 3 heavies who are beating up an individual as a crowd looks on, one of them films the incident on their mobile and uploads it to the Internet causing Kick-Ass to become an overnight sensation bringing him to the attention of a former cop who was framed by the drug kingpin he had been investigating; whilst he’s in prison his devastated pregnant wife takes an overdoes but the doctors are able to deliver the unborn child before she dies.  On his release the ex-cop takes custody of his now 5 year old daughter and vows to get their revenge by adopting the secret identities of “Big Daddy” and “Hit Girl” and taking down the gangsters one at a time.      

As Big Daddy Nicolas Cage apes the legendary Adam West’s Batman but outside of the costume he is a doting father to Mindy (Chloë Moretz) and their onscreen chemistry and dialogue provide the film’s most bizarre comic moments, but they also supply the heart and soul needed to contextualise the devastating intensity of their violent actions.  These are desperate acts driven by loss and they illustrate the fact that victims of crime are not always compensated by an indifferent legal system and it seems that only vigilante action will mete out the rightful justice deserved by likes of Frank D’Amico, played by the incredibly adept Mark Strong.

Kick-Ass is a very funny and at times touching send up of society’s notion of the “superhero”, it is also a visual tour de force and for my money without a doubt Matthew Vaughan’s finest film to date.  The Blu-ray edition looks gorgeous in full 1080p with an oversaturated colour palette befitting a movie based on a comic book, the blacks are deep and inky and the copious amount of scarlet never look washed out.  The audio is also exemplary with a DTS-HD 7.1 mix which showcases the film’s eclectic soundtrack, one of the highlights for me was the truly inspired use of Elvis Presley’s 1970s recording An American Trilogy which reworked the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to cue Kick-Ass’ arrival by jetpack to save Hit Girl creating a priceless, sublime, cinematic moment that actually gave me goosebumps!  I’m not sure whether there is much more ground to be covered by the sequel but I’m looking forward to seeing Kick-Ass 2: Balls to the Wall next year.

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

Fantasia


When Fantasia was first released on home video tape back in November 1991 I was working in a retail Video shop and I was actively involved in its promotion, I think we must have played it 4 times a day for the best part of 3 months and the sales were phenomenal; in fact it sold 15 million copies worldwide during that initial release.  I can remember people buying a copy to watch and another copy to keep wrapped in mint condition; I had never seen anything quite like that before or again since and consequently the movie is embossed in my memory. 

Making the sales figures even more remarkable was the fact that the only portion of the 50 year old film known to the public was the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence starring Mickey Mouse, that aside there are long periods of dissonant music, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, music critic Deems Taylor’s dry commentary and the silhouetted rear view of conductor Leopold Stokowski on the podium.  Nonetheless, it would appear that when Mickey Mouse shook Stokowski’s hand the barriers between high and low culture were dismantled and modern audiences appreciated Walt Disney’s experiment to create an ongoing, animated promenade concert series.

However, the movie-going public of 1940 were not so convinced and instead of becoming the perennial release introducing new material, whilst keeping the Sorcerer’s Apprentice as a core performance that Disney had imagined, it would be 60 years before Fantasia 2000 would revive the concept to cinema audiences.  So now, 10 years on, both films have been re-released in high definition, the original version has been extended to a 124 mins running time by getting a voice-artist to dub Deems Taylor’s commentary restoring the cuts in these passages and returning the 15 minute intermission section which includes a Jazz jam session.

The Special Edition Blu-ray release featuring both films looks immaculate, sporting a full 1080p MPEG-4 video quality picture and an incredibly rich 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack which invigorates the classical programme significantly.  Surprisingly for a major Disney classic title like Fantasia the supplements initially felt a little thin, a short featurette per film presented by Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller,  focusing on the new Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and a piece examining the notebook of Herman Schultheis, special effects wizard who was responsible for many of the revolutionary techniques developed at the Disney Studio, including the multi layered glass pane system used to give great depth of field to the intricate background tracking shots.

However, the extras on Fantasia 2000 more than make up for it starting with Musicana which explores in detail Disney’s original concept for Fantasia being an ongoing classical music presentation and focuses on an attempt in the 1970s by some of the surviving ‘Nine Old Men’ to revive the project and whilst excellent it is topped by the totally unexpected, remarkable feature length documentary Dali & Disney: A Date with Destino which explores the collaboration between Salvador Dali and Walt Disney in exhaustive biographical detail and culminates with the final realisation of abandoned Fantasia segment Destino which was brought to fruition by Walt’s nephew Roy Disney in 2003 and is presented finally on this disc making it a must have for movie, music and art fans alike.

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

Oliver Stone

I was a teenager when I first became aware of Oliver Stone’s movies but I remember taking very little notice of either Platoon or Wall Street at the time.  I appreciated that they were well-crafted films that won awards for writing and direction, featuring actors that I respected, Charlie and Martin Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Michael Douglas and the sublime John C. McGinley. 

However, for my taste, they were just too realistic to be of interest; instead, as a budding actor, I was obsessed by the highly stylised, absurdist theatre of Harold Pinter and Steven Berkoff.  It wasn’t until I saw both The Doors and JFK whilst touring America in 1991 that Oliver Stone emerged as one of my most treasured filmmakers.  In his extensive film commentaries he reveals a passion not just for cinema but classical history, politics and truth as an ideal; even if it’s a subjective truth. 

There was a lot of hype surrounding The Doors on its opening weekend, I was lucky to see it in Santa Monica, California, where a massive turnout of the band’s local, loyal fan base attended the movie as if they were going to an actual rock concert, whenever Val Kilmer took to the stage imbued by the spirit of the ‘Lizard King’ himself, the audience would get up out of their seats; it was an astonishing spectacle to observe as a young Brit on his first visit to the United States!   

Whilst Kilmer’s portrayal of Jim Morrison is uncanny it goes beyond mere imitation, there is genuine emotional turmoil in his ‘heavy’ scenes.  The supporting cast of Kyle MacLachlan (keyboardist, Ray Manzarek), Frank Whalley (lead guitarist, Robby Krieger) and Kevin Dillon (drummer, John Densmore) are equally superb and bring to the band both the dynamism and camaraderie of good friends making music together, in contrast to Jim Morrison’s death-driven need for it to be something so much more profound than that.  The only one who feels out of place amongst all this is Meg Ryan, who Stone admits in his commentary is just a bit too straight-laced and clean-living to be truly convincing as Jim’s common-law wife, Pamela Courson. 

Aside from the acting and the music performances, the look of the film is also fantastic with Stone’s regular cinematographer, Robert Richardson on hand to provide an authentic psychedelic look and feel, the striking time-lapse sequences and hallucinogenic dissolves and jump cuts that punctuate the Californian desert vistas.  It also features one of cinema history’s best drunken/stoned sequences as we follow Morrison through The Factory in search of Andy Warhol played with creepily, camp detachment by Crispin Glover; this must be steadicam operator, J. Michael Muro’s finest hour. 

For his second feature film of 1991 Stone focuses on the only criminal trial brought about in the case of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.  Kevin Costner stars as Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney whose pursuit of local businessman, Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) involved subpoenaing the Zapruder film from Life magazine 6 years later, which had not been seen by the general public up to that point.  Costner’s Garrison is a mixture of Gary Cooper’s Mr. Deeds and James Stewart’s Mr. Smith as Stone dollops a large portion of Capracorn on the film’s family oriented scenes, although this sentimentality doesn’t reduce the overall visceral impact of the movie.

Whilst many criticised Stone for misrepresenting key witness accounts in order to suggest a secret government backed Coup involving the CIA, Cuban exiles and the Mafia with the prime objective of extending the war in Vietnam, a focal theme in almost all of Stone’s movies, an objective audience cannot help but come to the conclusion that the official inquiry as documented in the Warren Commission Report was clearly an inadequate representation of the facts and as a direct result of the film’s popularity the Assassination Records Review Board was formed in 1992 to review previously classified documents pertaining to the case and making all evidence available to the general public by 2017.  JFK’s prevailing theme is the quest for truth and as a modern morality play it endures as one of Stone’s most engaging movies.

If JFK could be compared to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar then 1995’s Nixon plays more like King Lear with Anthony Hopkins taking the title role and investing it with self-doubt, survivor’s guilt, petty jealousy, and, ultimately, pathos; here is a man who had the potential to be great, but who wasn’t.  I love showing JFK to new audiences but privately I prefer to revisit Nixon as there is something more dramatically satisfying about the grand tragedy inherent in Hopkins central performance that isn’t matched by the humble heroism of Costner’s Jim Garrison, who always seems to be punching above his weight.

We are fortunate that most of Oliver Stone’s films are already available on Blu-ray and in the coming weeks I shall be providing thorough hidef reviews of The DoorsJFKNixonWorld Trade Centre and W. in anticipation of his latest cinematic release Savages starring Aaron Kick-Ass Johnson.

I’m pleased to announce that @TheOliverStone is now on Twitter.

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

Some Like It Hot

Some Like It Hot marks the Blu-ray debut for screen legend Jack Lemmon and illustrious writer/director Billy Wilder, this was the first in a 7 film partnership and I anticipate 20th Century Fox shall be releasing the other Mirisch Company titles that they’ve recently acquired from struggling MGM Studios including The Apartment, Irma La Douce, The Fortune Cookie and Avanti! which I will review as soon as they become available.

I stated in my previous Jack Lemmon article that Some Like It Hot was a touchstone film for me when I first saw it as a 12 year old about to be bitten by the acting bug.  It started my fascination with the craft for which, like many, I felt that Lemmon was the master.  This view was not shared by my schoolmates who ribbed me constantly for what seemed to them as an inappropriate obsession with a comical figure from a bygone age and I was often asked why I wasn’t fanatical about serious actors from my own era, such as Jack Nicholson or Robert De Niro?  Obviously, I now have a tremendous amount of admiration for both those performers but at the time studying Lemmon was almost a sacred pursuit for me.

I actually made a short documentary film about Jack in my last year at school in which I interviewed the students and teachers asking them to name their favourite Lemmon movie and, not surprisingly, Some Like It Hot was the overwhelming response; which makes reviewing it somewhat of a thankless task as almost everyone on the planet has seen this film at least once in their lives and it was voted by the American Film Institute as the funniest comedy of all time.  It’s safe to say that its popularity is not limited to the fact that it contains Marilyn Monroe’s best performance, although that has obviously helped to maintain audiences interest over the decades.

Billy Wilder left Austria during the rise of Adolf Hitler and travelled as a journalist via Paris ending up in Hollywood in 1933 where he took the job of a studio staff writer.  He very quickly attained the reputation of an author of bitingly cynical yet exceedingly funny screwball farces like Ball Of Fire and Ninotchka and graduated to directing his own scripts in the 1940s which were often ‘noirish’ dramas like Double Indemnity or The Lost Weekend, culminating with scathing satires of his chosen professions Sunset Boulevard (Cinema) and Ace In The Hole (Journalism) in the early 1950s.

In 1957 Wilder collaborated with another writer, I.A.L. Diamond (Izzy to his friends) on the screenplay for the romantic comedy Love In The Afternoon marking the start of a successful collaboration the high point of which is arguably Some Like It Hot, made in 1959 and originally conceived as a star vehicle for Tony Curtis cast as Joe the struggling saxophonist and dogged lady’s man whose co-stars were set to be Frank Sinatra as Jerry and Mitzi Gaynor as Sugar.  Fortunately, Wilder was not entirely comfortable with Sinatra’s involvement, expecting difficulties from his notorious mob connections given the film’s depiction of murderous gangsters, and when he needed another big name star he turned to Marilyn Monroe for Sugar which opened the door for relative newcomer Jack Lemmon to take the role of Jerry.

The premise of Some Like It Hot seems pretty tame to a modern audience, two down at heel musicians having to flee in drag after witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, but in 1950s America the studios were still very much answerable to the League Of Decency a Catholic lobby group that condemned the film for depicting excessive violence and promoting transvestism and homosexuality.  Wilder convinced United Artists to put the movie out without a rating in defiance of the attempts to censor it by the church authorities; this was a watershed period which lead to the abolishment of the much feared Hays Code which had been present since the early 1930s and dictated ridiculous regulations such as in bedroom scenes couples should keep one foot on the floor at all times and that toilets could never be shown on screen!

It seems futile to list the many high points of the film as most readers are no doubt familar with them and I would rather not spoil it for those who have yet to see them; suffice to say that those seeing Some Like It Hot for the first time on this Blu-ray release are in for a massive treat.  MGM/UA did a magnificent job in restoring the film in 2006 and this hidef upscale is a further improvement; the 1080p/AVC encode offers an immaculately spotless picture showing off the crisp, perfectly balanced, monochromatic photography and stylish lighting particularly effective at exhibiting Marilyn Monroe’s abundant charm; she also benefits significantly from the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack remaster of her 3 showcased songs, whilst the dialogue is maintained front and centre so not to miss a word of Wilder and Diamond’s textbook screenplay.

It’s a minor disappointment that there are little in the way of new extras presented here, the previous DVD release included both the Making of Some Like It Hot plus the Nostalgic Look Back discussion between film historian Leonard Maltin and Tony Curtis at the Formosa Café on Santa Monica Boulevard, a regular celebrity hangout in the 1950/60s prominently featured in director Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential.   Hanson is also on hand here presenting the Legacy of Some Like It Hot serving as a tour guide of the Paramount Pictures backlot, where Billy Wilder had an office for 20 years, and reminisces over the movie’s massive creative influence.  There is also a patchwork audio commentary featuring a discussion between I.A.L. Diamond’s son, Paul and the writing duo of Lowell Ganz and Marc ‘Babaloo’ Mandel, their work on classic 1970s sitcoms like Happy Days lead them to pen the script for Ron Howard’s Splash, and they seem as surprised at their involvement in the proceedings as we are; luckily the track is liberally peppered with contributions from Lemmon and Curtis.

Some Like It Hot is a very welcome Blu-ray release and it’s always encouraging to see that classics are getting the high definition upscale they deserve, it simply never looked any better and this will help preserve its memory for future generations and continue to inspire new writing talent.  It’s just a shame the extras are a little thin on the ground as I think there is enough material to justify a newly minted feature length documentary presented in HD still, as the film’s closing line attests, “Nobody’s perfect!”

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