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.

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:19:27.

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Gainsbourg

To be honest I wasn’t quite sure what the movie Gainsbourg was going to be like, surprisingly it’s not the straight forward, reverential biopic that I was half expecting. In fact it’s a startling work of originality as it’s the debut feature of Joann Sfar, the renowned graphic artist of the Franco-Belgian comic new wave, as with his notable comic series The Rabbi’s Cat he examines his Jewish heritage in telling the story of Lucien Ginsburg’s rise to fame, the world would come to know him as the popular singer songwriter and hugely influential 1960s cultural icon Serge Gainsbourg; played uncannily by Eric Elmosnino.

The film opens with the young Lucien Ginsburg growing up in Nazi-occupied Paris, his Russian-Jewish parents hailed from a musical background and his father taught him to play the piano, giving him a grounding in the classical repertoire but Lucien was less interested in music but passionate about drawing and so he is sent off to study at the Montmartre College of Art.  Clearly Lucien’s childhood experiences deeply affected him, not least the stigma of being forcibly labelled a Jew by having to wear a yellow star but also the appearance of his outsized ears and nose which made him painfully self-conscious.

The film is based on director Joann Sfar’s own graphic novel Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) and he obviously identifies closely with the subject both culturally and artistically; cleverly blending animated fantasy sequences depicting Gainsbourg’s early paintings and the visualisation of a dark character who appears in the gothic fairy story that Lucien would tell to his school chums as a way of transcending his complex about his looks; the creepy “Professor Flipus” who emerges when a Freudian projection of his head with exaggerated features swells to immense proportion and then explodes leaving behind this Nosferatu-esque puppet figure who becomes Ginsburg’s alter ego, embodying all of his least desirable characteristics from that moment on.

Professor Flipus is convincingly brought to life by the performer Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth) engaging the adult Lucien Ginsburg in a Faustian pact, promising in exchange for abandoning art and concentrating solely on music to make him a massive star, and so “Serge Gainsbourg” is born; this devilish doppelganger is a convenient device allowing him to elude any real blame for his erratic and irresponsible behaviour, particularly the poor treatment of the many women who come and go throughout his life; he abandons his first wife and their 2 children early on in the movie.

At the height of his fame Gainsbourg had a celebrated affair with starlet Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) who was married to the playboy Gunther Sachs at the time, they collaborated together and he wrote Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus for her which they recorded but wasn’t heard until 1986; instead the controversial original release featured Gainsbourg’s next big romance who went on to become his longest-suffering wife, the English actress Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon). They were together for almost 20 years and during that time Gainsbourg was to sink deeper into nicotine and alcohol dependency, reinventing himself as a counter-culture figure notorious for burning a 500 Franc note on stage and recording an ironic reggae version of La Marseillaise; drawing attention to the barbaric lyrics which enthusiastically encourage the patriotic slaughter of women and children.

The Blu-ray edition provides a showcase for the film’s highly stylised visual design.  The picture is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a full 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encode boasting a wonderfully vibrant colour palette which evokes both the spirit of the swinging 60s and the internal musings of Gainsbourg’s wandering imagination, best illustrated by the ever-present glowing eyes of the surreal Professor Flipus.  The DTS-HD master audio soundtrack encapsulates the informal moments of Gainsbourg’s piano tinkering in smokey nightclubs as well as the iconically lush orchestrated hit recordings and maintains dialogue clarity throughout.

The very brief extras are the only disappointment in this package; it seems Optimum Home Entertainment missed a massive opportunity by not including a documentary featuring film footage and interviews with the real life Gainsbourg by way of a comparison.  Nethertheless, Joann Sfar has created a breathtaking film debut which seems far less concerned with presenting facts or telling truths about his hero than creating a bizarre, whimsical world for him to inhabit; existing at arm’s length from his destructive demons and leaving space for Eric Elmosnino’s towering central performance to dominate the movie, he portrays both the essence of Lucien Ginsburg and the mannerisms of his mercurial stage creation Serge Gainsbourg effortlessly.

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:19:03.

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The Sound of Music: 45th Anniversary Edition

The Sound of Music was not one of my parents’ favourite things so, consequently, I do not have any fond childhood memories of it as I have for the Wizard of Oz or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which were always Christmas perennials in our house.  As a teen I can remember whenever the film came on television the channel being changed rapidly before Julie Andrews belted out the first line of the title song.  It’s easy to understand why because The Sound of Music did not look good in pan and scan on a 24 inch screen and it certainly didn’t sound good through small Mono speakers.

It’s safe to say that the film is often readily dismissed as being too schmaltzy and terribly outdated even for the time it was made in 1965, after all the stage show had first been a hit in 1959 and it would be Rodgers & Hammerstein’s last together.  When I finally got around to seeing it all the way through in my early 20s I had the advantage of seeing it on DVD on a 32 inch widescreen TV and I was totally enthralled by it.  Director Robert Wise, who edited Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, managed to tell the story of the Von Trapps with all of the songs but none of the saccharine.  He also captured the reality of The Anschluß without preaching or oversimplifying the politics of Nazi Germany and its occupation of Austria in 1938.

Now we come to the 45th Anniversary Blu-ray edition and I am totally bowled over by the movie again and this time I have the benefit of watching it with my son who is 5 and I am amazed that he sits enraptured by the whistle-stop tour of Salzburg that is Do-Re-Mi, the stunning 70mm digitally restored print filling the 50 inch Plasma screen with a glorious 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer which has to rank amongst the best I have ever seen.  Each note resonating clear as crystal in immaculate 7.1 DTS-HD quality and you realise that what you saw squeezed onto old TV sets growing up in the 1980s could never do the 1965 Best Picture Oscar winner justice and must be partially responsible for the bad reputation the film had for so many years.

The package comes with a second Blu-ray full to the brim with extras the best of which, for my taste, is Rodgers & Hammerstein: The Sound of Movies a feature length retrospective charting the entire history of their successful creative collaboration hosted by the original stage Maria Von Trapp, Mary Martin.  There is also a long interview with screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who also wrote Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, in which he recounts the process of bringing his vision of The Sound of Music to cinema audiences, he is largely to thank for removing a lot of the sentimentality from the libretto and injecting it with authenticity and genuine wit.

I hope that now it has been restored to its former glory future audiences will have the fortuity of growing up with this wonderful story of one family’s struggle through song to journey over the Alps and far beyond the clutches of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich featuring some of the best popular songs written in the 20th century; not only the title song and Do-Re-Mi but also My Favourite Things, Lonely Goatherd and Edelweiss replete with standout performances from the indefatigable Julie Andrews and dryly humorous turn as the stern patriarch from the redoubtable Christopher Plummer.  The Sound of Music looks as sharp and bright as a new pin on Blu-ray and as a testament to its lasting appeal, my son has asked me to put Do-Re-Mi on every day this month!

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:19:04.

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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.

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:19:02.

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Frost/Nixon

Director Ron Howard’s film version of Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon effectively captures the original stage performances of both Michael Sheen, as maverick reporter David Frost and Frank Langella, as ostracised former US President Richard Nixon.

The drama cleverly explores the foibles of both leading characters as they meet head to head for a series of intimate televised interviews.  David Frost, the Cambridge University graduate turned media wunderkind whose ground breaking satirical show That Was The Week That Was (or TW3 for short) launched his television career making him a house hold name in Britain and quickly extended his fame across the Atlantic where he presented the more conventional David Frost Show, is now globetrotting with progressively pap programmes like Frost Over Australia and determined to prove that he still has what it takes to be a serious journalist capable of obtaining the ever elusive scoop.

Richard Nixon, having the dubious honour of being the only President to resign from office, is out in the political wilderness negotiating deals for his upcoming memoirs through the notorious wily Hollywood literary agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar (Toby Jones) who gets wind of Frost’s desire for an exclusive, candid, one-to-one, filmed interview and tables a meeting for the two men to agree terms.  Lazar persuades Nixon that Frost, who has the reputation of being a bit of a light-weight only used to sucking up to celebrities, would be the perfect person to go up against as he’ll have no problem controlling the conversation and steering clear of more sensitive topics such as the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal.

Both sides assemble teams of researchers to second guess the questions and prepare the answers; Frost has the partnership of Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) seasoned investigative journalists in the mode of Woodward and Bernstein, who are set on exacting a confession from the President who they believe escaped justice.  Nixon has his current Chief of Staff, the former Marine Colonel, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) who perceives the frothy Frost to be of little threat and is confident he can pull off a media coup with military precision.

In the first two of three planned recording sessions Frost seems flummoxed by Nixon’s effortless ability to evade the prepared questions and ramble at length on trivial, autobiographical reminiscences; so much so that Reston lambasts Frost for not being able to ask the “difficult questions” tapping into his biggest fear that he really isn’t up to the job.  Nixon admits to Frost in a late night drunken phone call before the last interview that despite feeling a kinship to him through both coming from what he calls “humble beginnings” that he intends to emerge from the process as the victor.  This spurs Frost on to remove the kid gloves in their final bout and tackle the issue of culpability over Watergate head on, to which Nixon concedes and comes as close as he ever did to issuing an apology to the American people who voted for him.

Director Ron Howard fully aware of the piece’s theatrical roots builds the tension between the two men very tightly and keeps it from flagging, at times approaching the pacing of the cuts almost like a boxing match.  Michael Sheen and Frank Langella’s performances are central to the film’s success and they’re reinforced by the talented supporting cast of familiar faces.  The Universal Studio Blu-ray release benefits from a pristine 1080p/VC-1 transfer in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a remarkable level of detail, contrasting the rich 1970s period design with black and white archive footage.  The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack more than adequately captures all of the dialogue crisply and is complimented by Hans Zimmer’s percussive score which heightens the suspense.

The most notable extra is a picture-in-picture documentary that charts the making of the film which runs almost constantly through its duration.  There is also an audio commentary from Ron Howard who is an affable and enthusiastic communicator and he gives a broad insight into the history that lies behind the story.  Frost/Nixon is an accomplished movie which throws a new light onto both its title characters who ultimately recognise and respect each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:18:54.

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Quick Q&A with Terry Jones

Phoenix Pictures the company that produced Black Swan is also the home for Terry Jones first feature film as director since his wonderful retelling of The Wind in the Willows in 1996.  I recently got a chance to catch up with the incredibly busy and exceedingly diverse Welshman and ask him a few questions.

Steve: I’ve found it quite a helpful tool in life to gauge whether I’m going to get on well with someone if they express a liking for Monty Python those that don’t, or look at me blankly, I usually don’t click with.  Have you ever found your Python fame to be an obstacle or has it always been a door opener?

Terry: Well it’s usually been a door-opener.  But I suppose when Erik The Viking came out everyone was expecting another Monty Python film and with Python you never suspend your dramatic disbelief – whereas for Erik you had to.

Steve: I recently read your book Who Murdered Chaucer? aside from the ‘Whodunnit’, or as you say ‘Wasitdunnatall’ central to the intrigue, the real eye-opener for me was the extent of the censorship under Henry IV; particularly with regards to the negative spin on the reputation of Richard II, the cousin who he usurped and had murdered.  Do you think that despite the Internet and 24 hour news networks that we’re suffering from “information overload” and all the more susceptible to spin and misinformation?

Terry: Well I guess it’s nowadays easier for those who do the spinning to spin.  In the Middle Ages you had to think “How do I get people to hear anything?”  Not that it stopped them.  They did everything they could to create propaganda. ~But it’s a bit easier now.

Steve: Unfortunately I missed The Doctor’s Tale but the idea utterly fascinates me, what was it like to write and direct your first opera and is it something you could see yourself doing again?

Terry: Well I really enjoyed the experience.  It wasn’t really my first go at directing opera – Evil Machines was something of an opera – in that it was pretty well all sung.  But yes I’d very much like to write an all-sung popular show…

Steve: I am among the many eagerly anticipating your return to the director’s chair with the Sci-Fi movie comedy Absolutely Anything, you let slip to me of Charlie Sheen’s involvement, is this going to be the true “winning” move that kick-starts his serious comeback?  What more can you tell me about the film?

Terry: Well Phoenix Pictures have now decided that the villain being a US Army Colonel was putting investors off, so we’ve changed the villain into a Frenchman.  So I’m not sure it’s going to kick start anything for Charlie.

I’m pleased to announce that Terry is now twittering @PythonJones

Absolutely Anything was released in the summer of 2015 starring Simon Pegg and Kate Beckinsale.

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And now for something completely different…

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:18:29.

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Alice in Wonderland: 60th Anniversary Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:18:15.

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Carnivàle

When Carnivàle premiered on BBC TV in the autumn of 2003 I eagerly anticipated it as the trailer had suggested that the show was going to share more than just the appearance of dwarf actor Michael J. Anderson in the regular cast with landmark surreal series Twin Peaks which had its run just over a decade before.  Unfortunately, as was the fate of many US series aired by the BBC at the time it was forever being shifted around by the schedulers making it impossible to pre-empt the exact day or time to set the video and consequently I missed too many crucial early episodes and was forced to abandon it.

The series met the same end as Twin Peaks when it was cancelled by the network midway through its second season and to the best of my knowledge it has not been repeated on UK television since.  Fortunately I recently discovered it available to download from HBO’s Apple TV channel and have just spent the best part of two weeks addictively working my way through the entire 24 hour long episodes and whilst the door is left open for a continuing series there is a satisfying enough conclusion that doesn’t leave one feeling cheated when the final credits roll.

The story is set in America during the 1930s Great Depression and focuses on the members of a travelling carnival as they journey south through the drought stricken plains of the Dust Bowl most famously recorded by John Steinbeck in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath.  The troupe come across 18 year old protagonist Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) burying his dead mother as his home is bulldozed by the landowners; he is persuaded to join the carnival by its diminutive organiser Samson (Michael J. Anderson) who reports directly to the deeply mysterious “Management” hidden behind a small curtained annex at the back of  his trailer.

The carnival folk soon discover that the troubled Ben is not just a farmhand but an escapee from a chain gang and a fledgling faith healer who is just discovering his powers and wants to learn how to harness them.  The plot is concurrently driven by the actions of a California Preacher, Reverend Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown) and his sister Iris (Amy Madigan) who are founding a Methodist Ministry for the undesirable migrants who have fled theBlack Blizzards” of Oklahoma.  From the first episode it appears that Brother Justin is potentially possessed when he catches a vagrant woman stealing from the congregation plate and the resulting confrontation leads to her coughing up copious amount of coins.

Creator and principal writer Daniel Knauf conceived Carnivàle as an overarching good-versus-evil story propelled by two gradually converging plot threads; Ben Hawkins’ quest to find his estranged father Henry Scudder (John Savage) and Brother Justin’s mission to build his grand Temple of Jericho.  The two characters emerge via dreams and visions to be set on a path of destruction, maintaining tension and ambiguity as to which of them is a “Creature of Light” and which a “Creature of Darkness” well into the second season. The show covers topics as diverse as Tarot Divination, Radio Evangelism, The Knights Templar and Religious Avatars and includes characters like the catatonic fortune-telling Apollonia and her tarot-reading daughter Sophie (Clea DuVall) along with the blind mentalist Professor Lodz (Patrick Bauchau) who appear to be more than merely circus acts but truly gifted seers whose spirits transcend far beyond the present reality.

Carnivàle grips you from the first moments and never let’s go, it’s riveting, exquisitely written and performed; don’t let it’s weighty religious themes put you off as it never sinks into solemnity, there are plenty of lighter scenes and witty dialogue to ensure that each episode leaves you eager for more.  Clancy Brown brings both an effortless charm and a demonic fervour to his magnetic performance as Brother Justin and Nick Stahl convinces as the reluctant hero Ben Hawkins.  If you enjoyed Twin Peaks and have never seen Carnivàle then it comes highly recommended, it’s unlikely to ever get a Blu-ray release but both seasons are available on DVD.

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:18:10.

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Mr. Nice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:18:04.

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Arizona Dream

Almost 20 years before the overhyped Inception focused on the phenomenon of dreaming Emir Kusturica directed Johnny Depp in the surreal comic fantasy Arizona Dream.  The movie was produced by Claudie Ossard (Delicatessen/Amélie) and is typical of the sort of strange art-house films that Depp used to regularly appear in before finding mainstream appeal as a Disney Pirate.

The plot, such as is it, follows the dreamlike escapades of Axel Blackmar (Depp) a drifter who has taken the obscure job of tagging fish for the New York State Department of Fish and Game.  His cousin wannabe actor Paul Leger (Vincent Gallo) turns up announcing that their Uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis) plans to marry his Polish fiancé Millie (supermodel Paulina Porizkova) a girl more than half his age and that he wishes for Axel to be his best man; reluctantly Axel accompanies Paul back to their Arizona hometown.

In his best role since playing a version of himself in Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy, Jerry Lewis is outstanding as Axel’s Uncle Leo; a successful, infectiously upbeat Cadillac salesman and living testimony to the “American Dream” paradoxically wracked with survivor’s guilt from causing the crash that killed Axel’s parents, he persuades him to stay on after the wedding and try his hand at selling cars.   

Axel’s first potential customers are eccentric widower Elaine Stalker (Faye Dunaway) and her suicidal step-daughter Grace (Lili Taylor) their brazen arrival sparks the interest of both Axel and cousin Paul who’s gift of the gab ensures an invitation to dinner at the Stalker’s home that evening; here screenwriter David Watkins (Novocaine) delivers one of the most flabbergastingly funny surprise scenes I have witnessed and from here on in I was totally hooked.

Axel embarks on an affair with Elaine and despite their madcap behaviour and slim grasp on reality this May to September romance is convincing and genuinely moving to watch, especially his attempts to build the flying machine she has always dreamt of.  The film’s theme of the pursuit of dreams in the face of reality is explored thoroughly; Uncle Leo dreams of stacking Cadillacs high enough to reach the moon, Grace dreams of being reincarnated as a turtle and Paul aspires to be a great actor by reproducing his favourite movie scenes, providing one of the bizarre set pieces when he re-enacts the entire crop duster sequence from the Hitchcock classic North by Northwest for a local talent show.

Kusturica is clearly a master filmmaker and he manages to maintain a dreamlike feel throughout the movie’s 142 minute running time, it is consistently funny but also has a haunting mystical quality making it compelling viewing and fortunately the French Blu-ray release contains a DTS-HD 5.1 English audio master track with enforced subtitles only for the excerpts from Raging Bull and The Godfather: Part II, the full 1080p picture quality is gorgeous and 20 minutes that were cut from the theatrical release have been totally restored.

Arizona Dream is impeccably acted and although it’s obvious that an element of improvisation has gone on the story and script are strong and stay true to their purpose in evoking the absurdist, surreal quality of dreams, an element totally lacking in Christopher Nolan’s Inception the same could be said for laughs of which there is also an abundance here making it a must for fans of Depp’s earlier work.

Originally posted 2015-09-09 14:38:36.

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