It’s A Wonderful Life

Director Frank Capra explored the theme of the innate goodness of the young at heart, as personified by James Stewart, overcoming the evil schemes of black-hearted older men once before in 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, a scathing attack on corruption and misuse of power as demonstrated by the Taylor machine; a combination of local government, private industry and the mass media to manipulate public opinion and steam-roll the political affiliations of crooked magnate ‘Boss’ Jim Taylor.

Both Capra and Stewart served in World War II and their first film together in peacetime would be 1946’s It’s A Wonderful Life which takes the ideals of Mr. Smith and blends them with elements of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to examine the life of George Bailey, a man who sacrifices his personal ambitions for travel and adventure for the better of those around him in the sleepy town of Bedford Falls which he yearns to escape.

The film also recapitulates the homespun wisdom and family values offered in Capra’s first star vehicle for James Stewart, 1938’s You Can’t Take It With You in which he plays Tony Kirby the idealist son of wealthy and snobbish parents who disapprove of him dating the daughter of the highly eccentric neighbouring Sycamore family who don’t share the Kirby’s respect for money.

All three films are great but Capra and Stewart’s collaboration reaches maturity with It’s A Wonderful Life and structurally, on balance, it is the better film.  In fact the movie’s plotting is what makes it so remarkable, a less ambitious director would have started at the scene where George Bailey reaches the end of his tether on Christmas Eve and contemplates suicide, as he is convinced his life insurance policy makes him of more value to his family dead than alive, and then flash back to reveal his past.  Instead we arrive at this point a good hour into the film after we have observed the course of George’s life from a young age courtesy of Clarence Oddbody’s orientation as his Guardian Angel; if Clarence’s mission to save George is successful it will earn him his wings.

This episodic plot device allows us to become very familiar with the folks who live in Bedford Falls and discover how the Bailey family Building and Loan Association founded by George’s father, allowed so many of them to afford their own homes and escape the clutches of the merciless landlord Mr. Potter who owns the slums in which so many of them are forced to rent at extortionate prices.  George has always hoped to leave the small town and pursue a life of adventure but we see how at potentially life changing moments he puts his own aspirations aside for the sake of his family and when his father dies circumstances see to it that he stays once more to take over the day to day running of the Building and Loan firm. 

George marries his childhood sweetheart Mary and in a key scene they manage to avoid a mass panic after a run on the Bedford Falls bank leaves the Building and Loan in danger of collapse, they calm the local investors by issuing them all with bailouts from their $2,000 honeymoon fund; they settle in the town and raise a family and when he’s unfit for duty in WWII George accepts his fate and he and the Building and Loan prosper.  Until one Christmas Eve, while George is dealing with a company audit, his forgetfully Uncle Billy mislays $8,000 on route to deposit it at the bank and the money ends up in the hands of Henry Potter who grasps at the chance to fatally wound the Building and Loan and rid himself of the troublesome Bailey clan altogether.

George is at his wits end when he is unable to trace the missing funds and fears prosecution, shame and scandal and decides his only option is end it all by jumping off a bridge when Clarence the Angel materialises and jumps first before George gets the chance.  This is where the film’s ingenious plotting comes to fruition, inspired by the spirit of a Dickensian Christmas this twist allows George to go back to Bedford Falls and see what things would have been like had he never lived.  All the selfless good deeds that George did growing up are all undone and the town is a much worse place for it.  James Stewart’s raw emotional performance is totally authentic, unlike his naive Jefferson Smith’s clumsy but heartfelt filibustering, we have shared George Bailey’s life experiences and we know his sacrifices and disappointments and it makes his breakdown all the more believable, we can all empathise with this character and share in his realisation in begging to live again.

George runs home to Mary and the children and is greeted by all of the townspeople who he has helped and who have prospered by the Building and Loan over the years and between them they more than cover the $8,000 deficit and as the Christmas morning bells chime Clarence the Guardian Angel finally gets his wings.  It’s A Wonderful Life has never looked more wonderful than on Blu-ray, the film which had suffered from some very ropey home video releases in the past, finally has a majestic 1080p transfer and a crackle free, albeit mono, digital soundtrack.  There are no extras unfortunately and the only additional inclusion is the colourised version of the film, a practice I do not approve of and whilst it has been done very tastefully it only detracts from the power of the original black and white photography.

Frank Capra is too easily dismissed as a sentimental filmmaker, earning the derisive term Capracorn which was often attributed to his pictures by unfavourable critics.  However, his movies are rich, technically brilliant, cleverly scripted and superbly acted, usually by a repertory company including James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold.  I sincerely hope that It’s A Wonderful Life will not be the only Capra Blu-ray released as both You Can’t Take It With You and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington ought to be preserved for future generations to enjoy.

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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!

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Taxi Driver: 35th Anniversary Edition

There are very few films that have had such an impact on me as Taxi Driver, I was in my first year at college doing A-Levels and had a lucky couple of gaps in my timetable that gave me periods off in the afternoon.  I was studying Drama and English Literature and had got into the habit of buying videos blind to take home and watch on my own whilst my parents were at work and my sister was in school, one such movie was Taxi Driver which I selected solely on the strength of its star Robert De Niro, unaware at that point who the director was.

I remember it was a bright summer’s day and I closed the curtains to darken the room, submerging myself into the mire of 1970s New York street life for the best part of two hours, completely unprepared for the terrifying but cathartic bloodbath that punctuates the film’s climax.  I had seen on-screen violence in gangster films like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather or Brian De Palma’s Scarface but they were very removed from my reality and depicted in an operatic or comic book fashion.  Here Martin Scorsese’s carnage is all the more shocking because it’s so matter-of-fact, almost mundane and yet somewhat arbitrary that you can’t help but imagine this just might happen in real life.

Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, the ultimate pathological loner, a Vietnam veteran who is so dislocated from society and unable to sleep at night that he takes to working long shifts as a cab driver, a job that leads him to witness the excessive, heinous, underbelly of urban life, two decades before Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “Zero Tolerance” policy cracked down on crime and cleaned up inner-city New York making it a much safer place for both commerce and tourism.

Whilst off-duty Travis fantasises about Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) a young woman who works at the presidential campaign offices of Senator Charles Palantine, he pictures her as a vision in pure white in stark contrast to the many prostitutes he sees working the streets at night, and yet when he finally gets the opportunity to take her out they go to see a Swedish sex education film showing in a porno theatre; illustrating how socially inept and insular he has become, as if his intractable solitude is dictating behaviour hell-bent on ensuring his isolation.

Bickle refers to himself in his journal, which serves as a narrated voice-over, as “God’s Lonely Man”, quoting from the essay by Thomas Wolfe, “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”  Screenwriter Paul Schrader said that he set out to write about the experience of circumstantial loneliness, after he left his wife for another woman who in turn quickly left him, but instead discovered that seclusion was a disease for which we must actively seek a cure.

Betsy rejects Travis and he loses the one image of chastity which he held above the filth and depravity that’s rife on the streets.  Before, when Senator Palantine took a ride in his taxi, he had suggested that somebody should clean up the crime and pollution but now he decides that he must take direct action; reverting to his Marine-trained mentally, he arms himself and targets the presidential candidate, primarily because of his association to Betsy.  However, Travis fails to assassinate Palantine and turns his attentions instead to Iris (Jody Foster) a child prostitute who jumped into the back of his cab one night, he makes it his mission to liberate her from her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel) an incredibly violent act of vigilantism which is ironically misconstrued by the press as heroic.

Taxi Driver is one of those rare ‘Gestalt-like’ moments in cinema history where a writer, a director and an actor come together and the resulting synergy unexpectedly explodes onto the screen; add to that Michael Chapman’s resourceful cinematography, given the movie’s low budget and short schedule on real locations, and the last score of legendary Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann and you have the perfect motion picture hard to conceive how it could be improved in any way.

Not surprisingly Sony Pictures have gone to town with the 35th anniversary Blu-ray edition, presenting Taxi Driver in a full 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that restores vibrant colour to the neon lit night scenes contrasted, with exceptional clarity, to the inky-black, smoke-filled streets of New York.  On its original cinematic release Scorsese was asked to desaturate the blood to avoid an X-certificate, here the shades of red are gloriously restored.  The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is also a marked improvement, showcasing Bernard Herrmann’s rich jazz score with its unsettling use of harps but maintaining dialogue quality which was always somewhat muffled on previous DVD versions.

All the extras that were available on prior releases are presented here but upscaled to HD, along with some brand new material including a feature length commentary from writer Paul Schrader, a recent interview with director Martin Scorsese, a suite of short featurettes focusing on different aspects of the production, the best of which is Influence and Appreciation: A Martin Scorsese Tribute presented by Oliver Stone who was a student of Scorsese’s at NYU.  There is also an interactive script-to-screen option which allows you to follow the original screenplay in detail as the film plays.

Taxi Driver is a visceral and enduring film which was the “coming of age” for three of the most distinctive voices of the 1970s boom-time in American independent cinema, they were to reach their peak and close the decade with another remarkable movie Raging Bull but that, as they say, is another story.

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show: 35th Anniversary Edition

The Rocky Horror Picture Show has always been something of a guilty pleasure dating back to my days as a teenager appearing in am-dram musical revues inspired by it because the performing rights were always strictly reserved for professional productions until March 2000. 

The original stage show opened in London in the summer of 1973 at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs which ironically only seated 63 people as the subsequent 1975 film adaption has the record of the longest-running theatrical release in cinema history and now must have been seen by audiences of countless millions worldwide ensuring its on-going cult following.

Having watched the film religiously as a kid on worn out video tape and owning at least 3 versions of the soundtrack on vinyl by the time it came out on DVD marking its 25th Anniversary in 2001 I had turned 30 myself and now held it somewhat in contempt, a dirty little secret from my past that I was ashamed to have invested so much time in; Simon Pegg articulated my feelings exactly in the second episode of Spaced – “It’s boil-in-the-bag perversion for sexually repressed accountants and first-year drama students” and for the best part of a decade I have put it out of my mind.

However, my wife is an occasional Glee watcher and by chance I saw the recent Rocky Horror Show themed episode marking its 35th Anniversary and release on Blu-ray and I found my interest curiously reawakened enough to want see whether a hidef revamp would radically improve the notoriously low-budget, almost home movie quality of the film.  I also wished to revisit it to gauge whether it really was morally unfit for the saccharine sweet and virginal members of Glee Club as the series producers would have you believe or whether this was merely an affectation in an attempt to preserve its ‘kinky kudos’ for future generations of camp devotees.

I am happy to report that the 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encode is remarkable, bearing in mind the last time I saw Rocky Horror was on video; the thing that always strikes me most is the impact of the reds and Patricia Quinn’s now trademark lips in the opening credits have never looked so succulent.  The DTS-HD 7.1 soundtrack doesn’t fare quite so well, whilst it marvellously showcases the songs the dialogue in comparison seems thin and tinny but luckily there is also a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track which I found to be preferable.

It’s worth noting the wealth of extras here, a fine commentary from writer/star Richard O’Brien (Riff Raff) and all of the featurettes from the 25th Anniversary DVD are included, but the stand out hidef exclusive is the Picture-in-Picture ‘shadowcast’ who re-enact the entire show shot in glorious 1080p/24 HDCAM with the option to toggle the inset to fill the screen; this is what the Glee episode should have been like instead of an insipid homage that seemed to miss the entire point of the original by replacing the more risqué lines from the songs with banal alternatives.

I hope the Glee version inspires new audiences to discover what it was about The Rocky Horror Picture Show that appealed to me as a teenager, it encapsulates both a sexual awakening and a loss of innocence and if nothing more encourages young, inquiring minds to think outside the box and embrace diversity, in short to live by the pithy end refrain “Don’t dream, Be it”. 

It also captures Tim Curry’s outstanding charismatic star turn as the gender bending alien Dr. Frank-N-Furter and benefits from the inclusion of Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon as the naïve All-American couple, Brad Majors and Janet Weiss.  I suspect it’s yet another symptom of hitting 40 but having spurned it for so long I did feel a genuine warm glow of nostalgia whilst watching but not enough to make me want to get up and do the ‘Time Warp’ again.

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Rango

With Rango, his first completely animated feature film, co-writer/director Gore Verbinski returns to the anarchic spirit of his movie debut Mousehunt as he follows the existential quest of hapless hero Lars, a chameleon voiced by the ever quixotic Johnny Depp.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the suitably of the film for younger children, it has been rated PG and I think that speaks for itself.  If it had wished to be marketed specifically for family audiences it would have strived for a U certificate like the Pixar and Dreamworks movies it’s being unduly compared to.

Rango actually marks the foray of the George Lucas foundered special effects company Industrial Light & Magic into feature length animation; working under the guidance of the Coen Brothers regular cinematographer Roger Deakins they have crafted quite simply one of the most detailed, breathtaking and genuinely beautiful CGI pictures seen to date.

When we meet Lars he is stuck in a hermetically sealed world of his own imagining; an aspiring actor with an identity crisis, confined to a tiny terrarium he improvises scenes of would-be heroics, bouncing lofty dialogue off his inanimate inmates, a clockwork toy fish, a dead insect and a headless Barbie doll.

As Lars has the sudden realisation that the reason his life lacks definition is due to the absence of any real conflict his world is launched into space as the camera pulls back to reveal it’s being carried by a car hurtling at high speed along the freeway which has been sent into a tailspin after hitting an armadillo attempting to cross to the other side.

Despite having a deep tyre tread across his thorax the armadillo (Alfred Molina) doesn’t seem at all fazed by the accident as if it’s a regular occurrence; his metaphysical musings set Lars on a journey far off the beaten path, across the wasteland to the desolate town of Dirt where he shall glean self-knowledge and meet the ‘Spirit of the West’.

Before setting off on his epic quest the film doesn’t miss an opportunity to have Lars nearly run off the road by Johnny Depp’s character from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the delusional paranoiac, Raoul Duke the first in a litany of iconic cinematic references that raise the movie above and beyond the expectations of mainstream entertainment.

On the outskirts of Dirt, Lars meets the outlandishly named Beans (Isla Fisher), the daughter of a recently deceased prospector, who suspects foul play is the cause of the town’s diminishing water rations.  Much is made of the fact that Lars struggles with the physiognomic changes you’d typically expect from a chameleon, this serves as a metaphor for his personality disorder which manifests itself in his efforts to constantly re-invent himself as a heroic figure.

During an extended improvisation the lizard takes on the persona of a fearless gunslinger in order to impress a local bar room crowd, he brags about killing the notorious Jenkins Brothers – all seven of them – with one bullet!  Taking the name of ‘Rango’ from a bottle labelled ‘Made in Durango’ his exalted reputation is confirmed accidently when he takes out a menacing hawk by chance; the townsfolk of Dirt are so in need of something to believe in that they appoint him as the new Sheriff.

Rango is a post-modernist comedy co-written by John Logan (Sweeney Todd) which manages to pay homage to every great Western from the Gary Cooper classic High Noon to the ‘Spaghetti’ variety of Sergio Leone; not content with celebrating cinematic cowboys it also borrows the Valkyrie sequence from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and a mysterious watery plot direct from Polanski’s Chinatown with the malfeasant Mayor of Dirt (Ned Beatty) being a dead ringer for John Huston.

It’s worth mentioning the quartet of Mariachi owls who also act as a chorus in the classical Greek sense whilst serenading the audience with amusing little ditties proclaiming the hero’s imminent death.  Rango sticks to its six shooters and brings the whole metafictional tale full circle with Lars finally arriving on the other side of the freeway to find the ‘Spirit of the West’ embodied by Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name (Timothy Olyphant) from whom he learns that attaining self-knowledge is the ultimate heroic act and that we are all the stars of our own stories.

Despite being every bit as odd as it sounds the film is consistently entertaining and easily held my son’s attention without him needing to be au fait with the many in-jokes or countless movie references.  Rango was obviously conceived as a star vehicle for Depp’s quirkier sensibilities by Pirates of the Caribbean director Verbinski and the pair are clearly relishing the refreshingly surreal sabbatical and have crafted a landmark work of startling originality in the process.

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David Lynch

I discovered the art of David Lynch entirely by accident, although I had shown a keen interest in films from a relatively young age, I usually arrived at them by way of the star appearing in them.  As a budding actor I wanted to study the best and through watching the likes of James Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Peter Sellers and Robert DeNiro, I became aware of the writers and directors behind the camera.  Stewart led me to Alfred HitchcockLemmon to Billy Wilder, Sellers to Stanley Kubrick, DeNiro to Martin Scorsese and so on; all great artists but, by and large, part of the acceptable face of “Off Hollywood”.

I was extremely lucky to be a teenager during the 1980s boom of home video and within a 10 minute walk of my parents’ house was a small independent video rental store with a fairly eclectic collection which, in one school summer holiday, I started to work my way through.  The store owner was quite lax about the age certification and, at 16, I was able to rent 18 certificate movies without too much difficulty.  He also must have had more than a cursory knowledge of the titles because on one shelf he had stacked in order Young Frankenstein, The Elephant Man, EraserheadRiver’s EdgeBlue Velvet and Dune, I believe, I watched them in that order.  

In 1990, whist I was studying A-Level English & Drama, I went to see Wild At Heart at the cinema 3 times during the first week of its release and later that year Twin Peaks was on television and I knew that this was unlike anything I had ever experienced in the mainstream before.  As Lynch went on to make Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive and my knowledge of cinematic history deepened I could trace influences of Hitchcock and Kubrick in Lynch’s work and recognise that Twin Peaks owed something to Patrick McGoohan’s seminal, cult TV series, The Prisoner.

After training as a painter at the Pennsylvania Academy Of Fine Art and experimenting with short stop motion films like The Grandmother, Lynch relocated to Los Angeles and was awarded a grant by the American Film Institute to make his first feature length film, Eraserhead.  The movie was to take the best part of 7 years to complete and contains visual images that were to reoccur regularly in Lynch’s subsequent works; most notably stark electric lighting, industrial ambient sound, and a startling appearance of Jack Nance, as Henry, the father of the mutant baby which preoccupies the film.

Lynch, who famously avoids giving specific interpretations of his work, acknowledges that Eraserhead was a visual poem inspired by his life as a student in Philadelphia and unexpectedly becoming a father at the age of 22.  The film was a favourite of Stanley Kubrick who used to screen it privately to guests, and on the basis of viewing it, producer Mel Brooks was to offer David his next directorial project, The Elephant Man, starring John Hurt in the title role, Anthony Hopkins and Brooks’ wife, Anne Bancroft.  The film revealed Lynch’s ability to engage an audience on an emotional level and not just be a conjurer of surrealist imagery.

The critical success of The Elephant Man saw Lynch almost directing the 2nd (or 5th if you were born in 1990s!) film in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga but instead he was assigned to the Dino De Laurentis epic Dune, a big-budget adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sprawling Sci-Fi chronicles.  The film was not a financial success and personally for Lynch it was a traumatic experience because he didn’t have final cut, but from the ashes of Dune was born what many feel to be Lynch’s masterpiece, Blue Velvet, again produced by the De Laurentis company.

In Blue Velvet Lynch further explores one of his key themes, life in “Small Town, USA” and the dark underbelly of the American Dream.  Lumberton is a far cry from the surreal, industrial waste land of Eraserhead; this is a dreamlike re-imagining of the Midwestern towns Lynch grew up in and a forerunner to Twin Peaks.  Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is a stand in for Lynch, the young Eagle Scout from Missoula, Montana, he is also the namesake of L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies from Hitchcock’s Rear Window, only this Jeff doesn’t spy from the safe distance of his bachelor apartment but from within the proximity of a bedroom closet.  I can’t do justice to these films in this introductory post but I shall return to review each of them thoroughly.

Wild At Heart takes the first book in Barry Gifford’s series of tales about Sailor And Lula as its starting point and then blends it with The Wizard Of Oz filtered through Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.  It’s an out and out American Fairytale in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm and it contains dynamic, raw performances from Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern as the star-crossed lovers Sailor and Lula, and an exceedingly creepy Willem Dafoe, last seen playing Jesus in Scorsese’s Last Temptation Of Christ, as the lawless Angel of Death, Bobby Peru.

When I heard that David Lynch intended to work on a TV serial with Hill Street Blues creator, Mark Frost, I was sceptical to say the least.  What transpired though was Twin Peaks and it captivated audiences with its surreal blend of daytime Soap Opera and esoteric Police Procedural.  For a time it seemed that everybody on the planet wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer, unfortunately once that questioned was finally answered the mystery at the heart of the story vanished along with large amount of the show’s viewers, leading to its eventual cancellation after 29 episodes.  The series was followed by the feature film prequel Fire Walk With Me, which successfully manages to lie to rest Laura’s spirit and provide the show’s remaining, loyal fans with some sort of closure.

Lynch collaborated on the script for Lost Highway with Wild At Heart author Barry Gifford, producing a very dark story about a jazz saxophonist, Bill Pullman, who finds himself in the electric chair for murdering his wife and then metamorphoses into younger Balthazar Getty to avoid the death penalty.  This film marked the turning point in Lynch’s work where it became clear that the apparent literal meaning of the narrative was only window dressing for the subtext at its heart and Lynch exploited this style further in Mulholland Drive, again I shall save my detailed analysis, drawing comparisons to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for a later post.

David Lynch’s most recent film Inland Empire was shot entirely using digital video cameras and with it he has gone on the record stating that “For me, film is dead”.  Whilst many cinematic purists view this as heresy, I have to say that I found the end results very liberating and if working digitally ensures an ongoing output from Lynch then more power to his elbow.  However, despite his claims that working on DV is much faster and cheaper than celluloid, it’s been 4 years since the release of Inland Empire and some of us are beginning to wonder if the amount of time he’s recently devoted to proselytising Transcendental Meditation could be much better spent.

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Sucker Punch

It infuriates me that Sucker Punch has been universally demonised in the mainstream press for being the one thing that it clearly isn’t and anyone with a modicum of intelligence will appreciate that this is not a movie that sets out to further objectify or exploit women. Unfortunately such vehement negative press will undoubtedly put a lot of people off seeing it and drawing their own conclusions and this worrying trend in film criticism is tantamount to censorship in my opinion.

So why was Sucker Punch so reviled?  I think the main reason is that people expect a Zack Snyder film to be a throw-away experience, they’re not looking for anything other than escapist action and they certainly aren’t expecting a frank and disturbing allegory on gender politics.  Whilst there are plenty of fantasy battle sequences that can be watched purely as disposable fun there is an overarching subtext that deals with the rape, prostitution and psychological abuse of women that would be more at home in a David Lynch movie.

Despite its popcorn-friendly packaging Sucker Punch is full of unflinching feminist themes depicting the gamut of women’s experience throughout the course of the 20th century that the average viewer didn’t sign up for and were unprepared to take on-board in this context so they rail against the movie accusing its writer/director of the exploitation they’re witnessing, rather than recognise they are part of the society ultimately responsible; Zack Snyder is merely holding a mirror up to it.

The film opens with a montage backed by a new recording of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) to set up the back story of Babydoll (Emily Browning) the film’s protagonist.  When her mother dies Babydoll and her younger sister become wards of their stepfather whose physical and sexual abuse escalates to the point where she tries to shoot him but misses accidentally killing her sister for which she is committed to an insane asylum.  Sucker Punch takes place in a stylised version of the 1960s, a period where many women were institutionalised usually as the result of an unquestioned accusation of insanity from a significant male relation and, like Babydoll, were threatened with irreversible lobotomy as the final solution to their supposed mental illness.

The resident psychiatrist at Lennox House for the Mentally Insane is Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) who practices the methods of Freud and Jung, encouraging her female patients to re-enact the circumstances of their abuse in order to confront their shadow selves.  This focus on the subconscious allows the film’s layered fantasy structure to emerge, Babydoll retreats into a dreamlike state where the austere asylum is replaced by the image of a louche bordello in which she and her inmates are transformed into dancers in the employ of the club’s owner/pimp, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) who in reality is the head orderly who accepted a large bribe from Babydoll’s stepfather to forge Dr. Gorski signature to authorise her lobotomy.

In the brothel fantasy Vera Gorski is transformed into a choreographer-cum-madam figure that encourages the virginal, porcelain like Babydoll to muster up the courage to express herself through a highly personal erotic dance, this triggers the second layer of fantasy sequences in which she becomes a Warrior Princess who, under the guidance of the Wise Man (Scott Glenn), accepts a quest to retrieve 4 talismans that will lead her to understand the identity of the mysterious 5th object that will secure her freedom.

This mystical scavenger hunt enables Zack Snyder to film 4 equally incredible stylised battle scenes against many disparate foes such as giant Samurai, steam-powered Nazi zombies, a baby dragon and its protective mother, and a horde of killer glass robots.  The individual sequences are stunningly rendered and impeccably executed with the precision of a frenetic modern ballet and with each battle the camaraderie between Babydoll and her cohorts, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) grows and you get the impression of a genuine bond between the friends as they fight for their lives.

The central conceit of the film is that these women are forced to use their sexuality as the only weapon available to them in order to manipulate the men who control their miserable existences and that this “empowers” them, yet they spend the entire film scantily clad which gives rise to the charges of objectification.  The theatrical cut of the film was given a 12 certificate but many critics claimed it ought to have been rated 18, why?  There is no nudity, no sex scenes, little bad language, stylised violence and no bloodletting; what seems to upset the largely conservative critics is the implied rape and pervasive subtext which depicts the harsh reality of being a woman in a man’s world.

The appalling thing about this attempt to censor Sucker Punch is the outright hypocrisy of it all, as if this film is the only current example of female exploitation and objectification, as if it isn’t apparent in every music video shown throughout the day on MTV, as if it’s not omnipresent in every reality TV show, not to mention that only recently we’ve seen the return of Burlesque as an acceptable form of mainstream entertainment.  It would appear that the film’s critics are saying we’re absolutely fine with scantily clad, gun toting girls and we’ll even buy into this myth of “empowerment” but don’t then ruin it all by making us conscious of the fact that ultimately these women are the victims of deplorable acts of sexual violence.

As the west continues to fight a war against Islamic fundamentalism often in the name of freeing repressed women from the burqa or the yashmak, it seems ironic that the supposed free women of the western world are equally imprisoned behind their fetishized painted faces, parading in hot pants or micro skirts.  This irony is not lost on Zack Snyder or the cast of Sucker Punch, the film doesn’t degrade women or explicitly claim to be “empowering” them but, along with a recent spate of movies that acknowledge feminism’s third wave (Black Swan, the remake of True Grit, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), it shines a light on a dark aspect of the human condition and is clearly one of the most original and challenging movies in recent memory; Babydoll will, in no doubt, eventually emerge as a cult figure in cinema history.

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Tamara Drewe

It seems that 2010 will be remembered as a boon year for movies derived from comic strips what with Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the various Marvel and DC Comic franchise exploits there was also Tamara Drewe based on the graphic novel of the same name by Posy Simmonds which in turn was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and set in the fictional, sleepy Dorset village of Ewedown.

The story centres on a country retreat for writers run by Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam), a smug, successful, adulterous crime novelist and his loyal, doting wife Beth (Tasmin Grieg) their largely eccentric guests include Glen McCreavy an American academic who’s struggling to finish his latest book which, to echo the source material, is on the works of Hardy.  When Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton) inherits her mother’s house she returns to the village where she grew up and was known as a troubled ugly duckling, now working as a journalist with a popular column she’s had a nose job and the remarkable change in her appearance stirs interest in the village’s male population.

 

Tamara enlists the help of Andy (Luke Evans) the odd job man to renovate the house for sale, ironically Andy’s family once owned the property but they fell on hard times, a further twist is that she lost her virginity to him back in the day and he clearly still has feelings for her.  Tamara on the other hand doesn’t know what she wants and embarks on a wild fling with Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper) drummer and teenage heartthrob who she meets while reporting on the local rock festival and within days he proposes marriage.

Nicholas Hardiment is a serial philanderer and his long suffering wife has taken him back on numerous occasions.  Things take an unexpected turn when Jody and Casey two teenaged girls with massive crushes on Ben Sergeant conspire to bring him back to the village when his relationship with Tamara turns sour whilst they’re staying in London for Christmas.  Jody’s cockamamie plan involves sneaking into Tamara’s house whilst Andy, incidentally Casey’s Uncle, is decorating and secretly sending an email from Tamara’s computer to Ben asking him to come back for the “biggest shagging of his life”.  Casey being the more sensitive of the two girls warns Jody not to send it, but Jody is undeterred and for some perverse reason adds Nicholas and Andy as recipients.

Chaos ensues; Ben is furious and breaks off his engagement to Tamara, Andy is disappointed that Tamara’s taste in men extends to the rapacious Hardiment but doesn’t realise that as a girl who hardly knew her own father she had harboured a secret crush on ‘Nicholarse’ whose fame as a writer she aspired to and somewhat inevitably the two of them now end up in bed together.  The American Professor has found new inspiration for his book whilst falling for Beth Hardiment and when she discovers her husband’s fling too far with Tamara he is there to support her pursuit for a divorce.

As you can tell the plot is a suitably convoluted homage to Hardy’s late 19th century romantic potboilers, fuelled by unrequited love and repressed sexual passion and handled with great skill by director Stephen Frears who manages to keep it light and frothy but tackle some tough themes head on, such as spouse choice, infidelity and the lonely pursuit of an artful life; I won’t spoil the surprise ending but it’s fair to say all’s well that ends well.

Tamara Drewe is a refreshing British romantic comedy that’s both smart and funny, the hidef release has a sharp and vibrant 1080p transfer that lends itself to comic strip imagery, the rich greens of the countryside are balanced by the earthy browns and inky blacks evidently on show here, skin tones are also superb; Sony Pictures never miss an opportunity to show off the capabilities of Blu-ray and the 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack is equally impressive.  If for nothing more it will be remembered as Gemma Arterton’s best acting role since her breakout performance as Bond girl Strawberry Fields in the ghastly Quantum of Solace.

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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.

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Wild At Heart

When Wild At Heart was released at the cinema in 1990 I went to see it 3 times in the first week, this was the height of a strangely cool David Lynch mania that had gripped the planet since he posed the question “Who killed Laura Palmer?” in the groundbreaking, primetime TV series Twin Peaks

Whilst this hidef release is very welcome its budget price belies a bare bones edition, obviously another example of the failing MGM Studio selling off its back catalogue.  Nethertheless the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, MPEG-4 AVC transfer in full 1080p is a massive improvement on the Collector’s Edition DVD previously on offer, which suffered from an incredibly soft picture.  Equally enhanced is the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack which vastly improves the clarity of the dialogue and upscales both Randy Thom’s intricate sound design and Angelo Badalamenti’s original score. 

Unfortunately none of the extras contained in the DVD version have been reproduced here, in fact this is the most basic Blu-ray menu I have ever seen, and reminiscent of Universal’s early DVD releases this is just the movie and nothing more.  However, a great movie and one that deservedly won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and despite being 20 years old it is still a raw, racy, irreverent and impassioned celebration of the notion of true love conquering all.

Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) are in the dizzy heights of blind love but Lula’s mother, Marietta played by Dern’s own mother Diane Ladd, does not approve of her daughter’s choice of lover as she suspects he knows too much about her shady past so she pays for him to be murdered.  However, Sailor defends himself and kills his assailant for which he serves a two year prison sentence.  On his release it is obvious that the star-crossed lovers still intend to be together and they set out on a road trip bound for New Orleans to escape Marietta’s wrath.

Hot on their heels is Private Detective Johnny Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) who follows them to a remote town called Big Tuna where the couple have stopped to rest as Lula is suffering from morning sickness.   Lynch very cleverly blurs the visceral authenticity of the lover’s plight with stylistic touchstones to heighten the reality of their idealism, such as using the character traits of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe as short hand for Sailor and Lula and the Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West to represent Marietta’s insane jealously.  Lynch also employs rainbow tints during Sailor and Lula’s sex scenes and has Glinda the Good Witch (Sheryl Lee) visit Sailor when he’s about to give up, imploring him not to turn his back on love.  In lesser hands this pick and mix of popular culture might have seemed trite or mawkish but Lynch manages to weave all these contrasting elements into cinematic gold.

Wild At Heart contains an incredible vignette in which Sailor and Lula whilst on the road, come across a car accident and a fatally wounded girl played by Sherilyn Fenn.  In this scene Lynch turns the audience’s emotions upside down by playing it initially for comedy; the girl seems unaware of her severe head injury and is more concerned with finding her purse to fix her make-up, but then as it becomes apparent that we are about to see her die in front of us he pulls the rug right from under our feet.  Badalamenti’s score adds to the emotional turmoil here and this resonates as a key scene in Lynch’s canon and he performs similar flips in his other work, possibly most notably in Betty’s audition scene in Mulholland Drive which I shall review soon.

For the most part Wild At Heart plays like a modern American Fairytale and it wouldn’t be complete without a larger than life, malevolent villain and Willem Dafoe delivers one in spades with Bobby Peru, the ‘black angel of death’ who intends to come between Sailor and Lula; he is at once frightening and incredibly charismatic and provides a lot of the film’s sardonic humour making it totally unique in Lynch’s oeuvre as an uplifting, raucous road movie with an unmitigated happy ending, albeit ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek.

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The Baader Meinhof Complex

The Baader Meinhof Complex attempts to chronicle in its 150 minute running time the entire decade which saw the rise and fall of the Red Army Faction (RAF), Germany’s most notorious terrorist group.  The film is produced and co-written by Bernd Eichinger whose Constantin Film company was also responsible for the excellent Downfall the study of Hitler’s final days for which he also furnished the screenplay.

Director Uli Edel shares the writing credit although the film is based on the book of the same name by the former Der Spiegel editor-in-chief Stefan Aust, first published in 1985 and now considered to be the definitive text on the subject.  Consequently the movie is somewhat of a hybrid and the two styles often seem at odds with each other, whilst striving for documentary realism it also presents a lot of the film’s violence in the style of a Hollywood action thriller.

The film opens amidst the much publicised visit of the Shah of Iran, his wife and entourage of goons, to the Deutsche Opera in West Berlin, a large group of left-wing students have turned out to protest against the oppressive Iranian regime and the Shah’s henchmen attack the youths with sticks; in the resulting riot one student, Benno Ohnesorg is shot and killed by a German police officer without incitement.  This incident became a rallying point for the socialist movement and political journalists like Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) were so outraged by the events of 2nd June 1967 that she wrote a condemnatory open letter to the Shah’s wife in left-wing Konkret magazine.

11th April 1968 (less than a year later) the assassination attempt on Rudi Dutschke, the leader of the student union who’s outspoken protest against West Germany’s support of American foreign policy in particular the use of local U.S. Air Force Bases to escalate the carpet bombing of Vietnam, served as a further catalyst for the left-wing youth movement who felt that their parents’ generation passively sat back and let Adolf Hitler seize power; keenly aware that many former Nazis held prominent positions in the current western imperialist government.

Whilst Ulrike Meinhof practices the maxim that the pen is mightier than the sword, Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) believe in direct action and retaliate to the Ohnesorg murder by fire-bombing a department store in Frankfurt for which they are prosecuted.  Meinhof, who is covering their trial, interviews Ensslin and is impressed by her radical principles and activist zeal.  Whilst on parole the couple flee to Italy to avoid a prison sentence but are tracked down by their left-wing lawyer who urges them to return to Germany because he has access to funds that will allow them to start a revolutionary organisation.

In one of the film’s less authentic sequences we see Baader and Ensslin seducing a group of youths into joining the fledgling RAF by cruising in stolen cars backed by The Who’s My Generation in a sexed-up scene reminiscent of George Lucas’ American Graffiti which espouses the very ethos we’re supposed to believe they’re railing against.  However, it’s not long before Baader is pulled over for speeding and sent straight to jail.

At this point Ulrike Meinhof has become disillusioned with the power of journalism to bring about real political change and is enticed by Ensslin into a plan to spring Baader from prison; this involves Meinhof pretending to research a book on the RAF and for Ensslin to pose as her publisher to avoid detection.  It is in this breakout that the group take their first blood and that Meinhof’s fate becomes forever entwined with the Bonnie and Clyde-esque Baader and Ensslin.

Despite some military training arranged for them by their lawyer with Palestinian rebels in Jordan, Baader’s approach remains undisciplined his focus seems to be on robbing a series of banks to appropriate funds for the group.  In a spectacular Butch and Sundance style shoot-out during one such escapade Baader and fellow RAF member Holger Meins are captured and soon after Ensslin, Meinhof and Jan-Carl Raspe are also arrested and held in custody at the austere, maximum security Stammhein Prison in Stuttgart awaiting a high profile show trial.

The film’s tone shifts at this point, the first act strived to show the persuasive charisma that the founding young members of the RAF had in order to recruit both respectable left-wing figures like Ulrike Meinhof as well as radicalising the disenfranchised student movement.  The second act is more solemn and introduces the character of Horst Herold, the head of the West German Police Force who has been tasked with eradicating the RAF who along with splinter groups like Black September are conducting various acts of terrorism, including the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics and subsequent plane hijacking, in attempts to get the founding members released.  Herold (Bruno Ganz) realises the need to psychologically profile the terrorists in order to understand their motivation, there is a danger of the imprisoned members becoming martyrs when Holger Meins dies from hunger strike and Ulrike Meinhof hangs herself in her cell.

The Baader Meinhof Complex is an electrifying film, impeccably performed by a passionate cast and directed with incredible attention to period detail by Uli Edel; for the most part it succeeds in presenting a highly inflammatory period of recent history where heinous atrocities were regularly carried out by people who ostensibly believed they were acting both morally and for the good of the human race but through the escalation of the violent, bloody process tragically lost their own humanity.

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Chitty Chitty Bang Bang

A great advantage of parenthood is having the wonderful opportunity to revisit the movies you loved when you were growing up and experience them afresh through your child’s eyes.  Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is one of those timeless family films that still captivate generation-spanning audiences and its bonnet has never looked shinier than on this high definition Blu-ray release.

Loosely based on Ian Fleming’s children’s story of the same name and scripted by Roald Dahl, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was produced by long term James Bond franchise mogul Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and released in time for Christmas 1968 in between You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  The film stars Dick Van Dyke as Caractacus Potts, a Heath Robinsonesque crackpot inventor and widowed father of two young children for whom he builds a “Fantasmagorical Motorcar” in which they have fairytale style adventures.

The James Bond connections don’t end there; weapons expert “Q” (Desmond Llewelyn) has a cameo as Mr. Coggins the scrap merchant whom the Potts children implore their father to save the wrecked car from and arch-villain Auric Goldfinger played by German actor Gert Fröbe gets a chance to use his circus training in the physical role of Baron Bomburst ruler of the kingdom of Vulgaria where all children are banished and are forced into hiding in underground caves.  Legendary production designer Ken Adam provides the stunning set interiors and also was the draughtsman for the car’s unique special features.

Whilst playing truant the Potts children have a near miss car accident, the driver is Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes) the daughter of a sweet factory tycoon (James Robertson Justice) concerned for their education and general well-being she takes them home to their father and despite acknowledging an attraction to her he dismisses her as a do-gooding busy-body.  They meet again when Potts take his accidental ‘Toot’ sweets (dog-whistle like candy) for evaluation by Truly’s father, providing one the movie’s outstanding set pieces culminating with 100s of canines rampaging through the set.

The children invite Truly out for the car’s maiden voyage, a trip to the beach and this allows a genuine love-interest to develop between her and Caractacus when the four of them are cut off when the tide comes in.  From here on the film embarks on a massive fantasy subplot involving Bomburst’s attempt to capture the car and the Potts family’s efforts to liberate the children of Vulgaria.  The car has been equipped with the ability to drive on water and fly through the air (not unlike some of the trademark Bond vehicles) and this allows for some frenetic chase sequences.

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is peppered with good supporting performances with Lionel Jeffries on hand as the children’s eccentric Grandfather and Benny Hill convincing in his understated performance as the Royal Toymaker.  However, it’s ballet dancer Robert Helpmann’s utterly terrifying turn as the exceedingly creepy Child Catcher that will leave an indelible mark on younger viewers and still manages to make me feel uncomfortable over 30 years on!

The film makes great use of the exterior of Schloss Neuschwanstein which Walt Disney based the Sleeping Beauty castle on and became their prominent company logo; it also benefits from a marvellous musical score from the Sherman Brothers who are also associated with Walt Disney Pictures providing the songs for Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book and Bedknobs and Broomsticks.  The title song, along with Toot Sweets, Truly Scrumptious and Hushabye Mountain have all become popular favourites and continue to expose lyricist Richard Sherman’s penchant for convoluted wordplay.

I’m disappointed that so many critics dismiss Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as overlong, shoddy and forgettable and can only assume they were adults when they first saw it and therefore were unaffected by its magic, which perhaps can only really be enjoyed when viewed through the eyes of a child as I had done and now my son has.  One thing for sure the film is far from shoddy as this Blu-ray edition demonstrates with a glorious 1080p video transfer and 7.1 DTS-HD soundtrack, I am confident that this high definition remastering will preserve the film long enough to be enjoyed by my grandchildren.

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