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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Black Swan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Network

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sherlock Holmes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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The Social Network

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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Paul

There is little doubt that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost intended Paul to be an enjoyable romp through the collective memory of all the classic Science Fiction feature films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and if nothing else it succeeds in being a heartfelt love letter to the extra-terrestrial, however as an original comedy from the pedigree of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz it does feel a little underwhelming.

That’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable or that it doesn’t play to its strengths; it does, although there is such a sense of prevailing familiarity about the whole proceedings that it fails to totally grip you or draw you in. Still, you’re more than happy to take the proverbial ride over again because the leads are so amiable and the swift moving plot never attempts to be taxing.

Illustrator Graeme Willy (Pegg) along with his childhood friend and collaborator ‘the writer’ Clive Gollings (Frost) have decided to round off their visit to San Diego’s Comic-Con convention by taking a road trip navigating America’s most famous UFO hotspots, including Area 51, The Black Mailbox and Roswell.  Whilst driving their RV through the night a car pulls out, swerves off the road and explodes right in front of them.  The duo stop to help and are confronted by ‘Paul’ (Seth Rogen), an extremely laid-back and uncouth alien who convinces them that he’s been held prisoner on Earth for the last 60 years and needs their assistance to get home.

In hot pursuit is Special Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) aided by two inept FBI tenderfoots (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) who track them down at the ‘Pearly Gates RV’ park where they learn that the trio have absconded with the proprietor’s daughter Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a devout, one-eyed, Creationist Christian who believes that the Earth is 4000 years old and could only have been created by intelligent design.  It transpires that during Paul’s captivity he has been aiding the government in a wide variety of scientific endeavours; he’s even influenced popular culture, and in an amusing telephone cameo Steven Spielberg enthusiastically receives research material to develop E.T. from him.

It appears that Paul has imparted all his otherworldly secrets and that the government were planning to dispose of him before he escaped, what they don’t know is that he has a series of special abilities including thought transference and the power of healing.  In a key scene he restores Ruth’s bad eye and then telepathically shares all of his experiences with her thus bringing about the sudden shattering of her faith and amusing transformation as she learns to curse and do all the naughty things her zealous father had hitherto forbidden; this evolutional debate is as meaty as Paul gets and given the otherwise broad nature of the humour it feels somewhat at odds with the tone of the picture.

The last reel directly parodies E.T. as Paul arranges to meet the Mothership that’s taking him home near the landmark Devil’s Tower featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; it also unmasks the guest villain of the piece, the ‘Big Guy’ (Sigourney Weaver) who Special Agent Lorenzo Zoil (groan) reports to.  Paul mockingly remarks as he boards the spacecraft that everyone has learnt something from the experience, “Be yourself, speak from the heart, some shit like that?” and the lads nonchalantly admit that they do feel “a bit different” but the coda which plays out over the closing credits is far more telling.
It shows Willy and Gollings being heralded by their hero, the Sci-Fi novelist Adam Shadowchild (Jeffrey Tambor) as the creators of the award winning book “Paul” based upon their exploits and it would seem that this desire for a popular and commercial success is what the movie Paul is ultimately all about.

Regrettably Paul is the victim of its own budgetary requirements in order to create the extremely convincing computer generated titular character the film caves in to the necessary surfeit of titty, pot and fart gags at the cost of genuine wit, real suspense and authentic mystery.  Having said that I can’t blame Pegg and Frost for wanting a big box office hit to cement their Hollywood careers and despite the script’s short comings their onscreen chemistry is undeniable.

The Universal Pictures Blu-ray release is presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a full 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer.  Not only is there an incredible amount of detail in Paul’s eyes and elongated fingertips but the high definition brings great depth to the wide American landscapes that set the backdrop.  The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is as crisp and dynamic as you’d expect from a modern Sci-Fi movie, the sound really travels most notably when Paul displays his special ability of thought transference.  There is also a mass of extra material which we’ve come to expect from previous Big Talk Productions, the best of which is Between the Lightning Strikes: The Making of ‘Paul’ which contains extensive interviews with the principal cast and creative team.

Paul isn’t a bad film but given Pegg and Frost’s track record it could have been a truly great one.  I don’t mean to detract from the solid work of either director Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) or diminish David Arnold’s (current James Bond composer) original score, nevertheless one just can’t help imagining how much better it could have been with the team’s regular director Edgar Wright behind the camera and a lovingly tongue-in-cheek John Williams theme tune!

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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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True Grit (2010)

It’s uncertain whether Joel and Ethan Coen set out to make their most commercially successful film in a 30 year career by electing to remake the classic John Wayne Western True Grit as their 15th feature, however it has been by far their biggest grossing domestic picture to date, taking twice as much at the box office than their previous Oscar winner No Country For Old Men which kick-started their partnership with Paramount producer Scott Rudin a few years back.

Having never been much of a Western fan, aside from the superior ‘Spaghetti’ variety of Sergio Leone especially the “Dollars Trilogy” which propelled Clint Eastwood to international stardom, I wasn’t the first in line to see this new version despite it being the latest offering from the Coen Brothers.  Admittedly, I tend to prefer their original comedies but I was intrigued to see this primarily for the acclaimed performances of Jeff Bridges as ‘Rooster’ Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross both of whom earned Academy Award nominations.

When her father is brutally murdered in Fort Smith, Arkansas by the cowardly outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), 14 year old Mattie Ross comes to town to collect his body and hire a U.S. Marshal to track down the killer and bring him to justice.  Out of the Sheriff’s recommendations she selects ‘Rooster’ Cogburn as he has the reputation of being the most ruthless.  Mattie is exceptionally astute for her years and has a commanding knowledge of the laws of business enabling her to run rings around the local inhabitants outwitting them in a series of trades over her late father’s effects, raising sufficient money to bankroll her revenge.

There aren’t that many structural differences from the Hal Wallis production, both are true to the spirit of the Charles Portis novel.  Jeff Bridge’s Cogburn is clearly a cold-blooded slayer and a broken man; much less avuncular or amusingly soused than John Wayne and without his immediate warmth or charm.  Hailee Steinfeld is the same age as her character and despite her smarts she is obviously still a vulnerable young girl, whereas Kim Darby was 21 when she played a hardier, tomboyish Mattie Ross in the 1969 original.

Although the biggest difference in casting is Matt Damon in the role of the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf who hopes to claim the bounty out on Chaney for killing a State Senator.  The part initially played by country singer Glenn Campbell was very much a cameo whereas the Coens have transferred a lot of the affability from the Duke’s take on Cogburn to Damon’s LaBoeuf making him more sympathetic thus transforming the story from a basic two-hander into a more complex triangle.

The Blu-ray edition reveals the huge visual accomplishment achieved by the Coen Brother’s regular cinematographer Roger Deakins.  The colour palette is distinctly different to the previous version which was bathed in California sunshine so typical of Westerns made at the time; instead we have bitter cold, steely blue skies starkly contrasted with delicate snowflakes.  The 1080p picture sports faultless clarity and high detail particularly noticeable in hair and skin tones, whilst the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack crackles with the ambient sounds of the great outdoors, wind and water are well represented and the surprisingly few gunshots deeply resonate.

It’s also worth mentioning Carter Burwell’s disarmingly simplistic score which riffs around the two spiritual tunes “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “Lean On Jesus” which were first used to striking effect in Charles Laughton’s classic film noir The Night of the Hunter, clearly a massive influence on the Coen Brothers.  There is a small selection of fairly standard extras the one exception being the 30 minute documentary Charles Portis: The Greatest Writer You’ve Never Heard Of… which profiles the life and work of the author and compares both film versions to the original text.

True Grit is a milestone picture for the Coen Brothers that not only provides them with their first unabashed box office hit but demonstrates an assured maturity and artistic commitment which is no longer confined to the low budget obscurity that prevented so many of their significant early films from reaching justifiably larger audiences.

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