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.

svengali-the-prems

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

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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.

root-films

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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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Some Like It Hot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Oliver Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bloody London

Bloody London Logo

I met up with writer and producer Paul de Vos to discuss an interesting new horror portmanteau film that he’s working on.  Paul and his writing partner Kornel Brzezinski have written one of the sections and acted as story editors for the other four episodes which show the capital as it’s never been seen before, spinning a terrifying tale of a taxi driver who discovers what really happens when the sun goes down…

Bloody London Skyline

Bloody London is from the stable of  leading British film producer Julie Baines, whose company Dan Films previously made such films as Creep, Severance and Triangle; she describes it as “a very original horror movie that’s not just scary but also moving – it’s like a horror version of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, because it tells several interlocking stories taking place over one night in London.”  Visual effects wizard Darren Wall is the film’s third producer and his Planet Jump Productions company has provided animation and artwork for an impressive roster of clients.

Bloody London is being directed by some of the UK’s leading horror directors, including Tom Shankland (Ripper Street, The Children), Johnny Kevorkian (The Disappeared) and Steven Sheil, director of the highly controversial Mum And Dad.

Bloody London Dragon

Special make-up effects will be by Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning Nick Dudman, whose credits include Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter.  The film’s executive producer is Alan Jones, the UK’s authority on horror films and co-founder of leading European film festival Frightfest, which takes place in Leicester Square every August.  Jones comments, “Over my forty years in the film industry I have been asked many times to become involved in films as a producer but I have always said no – until now.  It was the many qualities of Bloody London that made me decide that this was something I really wanted to get involved in.”

Bloody London Tunnel

Bloody London will be the first in a series of horror films, with future films to include Bloody Paris, Bloody New York and Bloody Bangkok.  So this could be the birth of a new film franchise – in the greatest capital city in the world.

The producers are currently closing the finance for the film and are working with the crowd funding platform Seedrs – if you want to get involved and grab a piece of the Action!

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Chaplin: 15th Anniversary Edition

Director Richard Attenborough is the first to admit that his epic biopic Chaplin was a difficult film to finance and consequently the producers made demands upon him which lead it to be not as “profound a picture” as he would have liked.  Nethertheless its one massive saving grace is Robert Downey Jr.’s miraculous performance as Charlie Chaplin.

Although based on Chaplin’s 1964 autobiography and critic David Robinson’s book Chaplin: His Life and Art the screenplay, initially adapted by Attenborough’s long term business partner and publicist Diana Hawkins, was subject to many re-writes by luminaries such as Bryan Forbes (The Angry Silence), author William Boyd (The Blue Afternoon) and legendary screenwriter and script doctor, William Goldman (All the President’s Men). 

Starting with Chaplin’s humble beginnings in Lambeth, London born to a Music Hall family his father was an alcoholic and disappeared very early on in his life leaving him with his singing mother, Hannah whose career was ended suddenly by a larynx condition resulting in Charlie taking to the stage in her stead.  Hannah, played by Chaplin’s real life daughter Geraldine, suffered a mental breakdown and Charlie and his half-brother Sid (Paul Rhys) were taken to the workhouse.

Whilst honing his clowning skills in Vaudeville Charlie meets his first love, Hetty Kelly an Irish showgirl who he proposes to just before leaving for America with Fred Karno’s touring troupe along with Stan Laurel.  Uncertain as to whether Charlie would return she refuses to marry him and dies later in the flu epidemic of 1918 which has a devastating effect on Chaplin and he remains obsessed with her memory, putting versions of her as the heroine in many of his films.

On arriving in the United States his reputation as a great physical comedian reaches Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd) whose Keystone Studios pioneer highly successful, silent slapstick films, he offers Chaplin a salary of $150 a week to come and work for him and within a month Charlie creates the character which goes on to make him the most famous man in the world and the first performer to earn $1,000,000 a year, ironically the impoverished Little Tramp.

It’s hard to imagine in our celebrity obsessed age, where people with seemingly very little talent can become incredibly well known overnight, just how meteoric Chaplin’s rise was and by co-founding United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford he not only had immense popularity he was also able to take total artistic control over his work and express views which led him to be perceived as an “outsider” and a threat to the American establishment, resulting in him being branded a Communist and forced into exile in Switzerland when he was refused re-entry in 1952 after a brief visit to England.

Political controversies aside Chaplin also had a reputation as a ladies man with a penchant for young girls, starting with his marriage to the child actress Mildred Harris who was only 16 at the time he had a string of apparently inappropriate relationships spawning many paternity cases and it wasn’t until his 50s that he would settle down with Oona, the 18 year old daughter of renowned playwright Eugene O’Neill, with whom he produced 8 children and remained married to until his death.  To emphasise their special bond Oona is also played by Moira Kelly who is first seen playing his doomed childhood sweetheart Hetty.

The Blu-ray release of Chaplin could be better, suffice to say that the subtitle the “15th Anniversary Edition” pretty much confirms that this is merely an upscale of the DVD released in 2007; it’s a shame that Lionsgate couldn’t have waited another year to remaster a definitive 20th Anniversary Edition.  Nonetheless the 1080p picture quality is a marked improvement especially in the colour palette with hitherto greyish reds appearing more vibrant, the DTS-HD 2.0 soundtrack is far superior particularly when showcasing the late John Barry’s original score.  The extras are short and sweet, primarily it’s a candid interview with Richard Attenborough who is surprisingly self-effacing but honest about the film’s flaws.

I saw Chaplin in the cinema when it came out and despite the script issues, particularly the inclusion of the fictional character of George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins) to serve as Charlie’s biographer and act as a narrator allowing jumps between the key moments in what was a long and eventful life, you still leave the theatre utterly convinced by Robert Downey Jr.’s remarkable presence; his substance abuse and brushes with the law were highly publicised at the time and it’s truly incredible that he manages to immerse himself so totally in the role and pull off such a controlled and moving performance, confirming himself as one of the most versatile actors of his generation.

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Wild At Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show: 35th Anniversary Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Casuals

After the phenomenal success of independent publishing house Pennant Books with its stable of football fan culture, sporting legends and true crime titles regularly topping the best seller lists, the indomitable Cass Pennant has reinvented himself once again by forming Urban Edge Films which releases its debut feature length documentary Casuals this month with Pennant himself at the helm as writer and producer.

The film was originally conceived as a 25th anniversary follow-up to co-producer Ian ‘Butch’ Stuttard’s seminal Hooligan documentary which first aired on television in 1985 and charted the turbulent period of Pennant’s life as a prominent leader of West Ham United’s notorious Inter City Firm.  The idea of “Hooligan Revisited” was to focus less on the violent rivalry of the terraces but emphasise the street fashion the gangs created that would ultimately unify them and seep out to a wider consciousness across the country as a whole; establishing Casuals as the last working class male street fashion coming from the UK, following in the tradition of Mods, Teddy Boys and Punks.

Pennant is no stranger to movies and has served as a consultant on many of the major motion pictures concerning both football violence and fan culture including the original version of The Firm and Green Street, along with the television series The Real Football Factories.  In 2009 his vivid autobiography Cass was successfully transferred to the big screen so this transition to film production was almost inevitable.

It is obvious from the first moments of Casuals that this is going to be the definitive documentary and that Pennant and director Mick Kelly have meticulously interviewed all the leading authorities on the subject from Southern Mods to Northern Soul Boys.  One of the enduring questions is exactly where did the Casuals movement have its roots?  There is no easy answer but this extraordinary and insightful film strips away the myths and tells the truth about an indelible faction which revived the fashion industry to leave a lasting influence on today’s label-crazy youth.

Mindful of the North/South divide both sides are equally represented with the likes of Garry Bushell recalling his days as a music journalist for Sounds magazine, commenting on the Casual band Accent’s 15 minutes of fame when they played to the crowds at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground and Peter Hooton lead singer of Liverpudlian band The Farm, who also started the fanzine The End in the early 80s which was the first publication to regularly report on the Casual scene and has just been reissued by Sabotage Times in a single book volume; Hooton also voices the film’s compelling narration.

With over 50 individuals interviewed the filmmakers had to make some cuts for time but luckily there is over an hour’s worth of additional interviews that are included on the DVD as extras.  Of the many passionate experts featured, author of the pictorial book A Casual Look and avid collector Nick Sarjeant probably sums it up best “It’s not just about what you were wearing, but also how you wore it.  Not just your clothes but your hair and even the ‘manner in which you walked’.  You had to have that ‘attitude’, saying like ‘Here I am’.” an attitude that is evident in every frame of this film as it tours the country meeting the key people for whom this was never simply a fad of fashion but a way of life.

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Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick started his career as a photographer for Look magazine in New York in the 1940s.  His most famous photo captured the look of utter devastation on the face of a newsvendor the day of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death.  He left Look in 1950 to embark on his film career making family financed, low-budget, B-Movies such as Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss.

In 1955 he formed Harris-Kubrick productions with young, savvy, producer James B. Harris, their first feature was the heist picture The Killing which later would provide one of the key influences for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.  1957’s Paths of Glory starring Kirk Douglas was a biting indictment of the French Officer Class who continually sent their troops out on suicide missions during World War I.  The meticulous tracking shots in the trench battle sequences hint at what was to become Kubrick’s trademark visual virtuosity and painstaking attention to detail.

When Kirk Douglas fell out with veteran director Anthony Mann on the set of Spartacus, he turned to Kubrick to take over, directing screen legends such as Laurence Oliver and Charles Laughton along with handling the logistics of the massive crowd scenes featuring 1000s of extras, he was only in his 30s which, unlike today, was considered exceedingly young to be in charge of a Hollywood Blockbuster production; this was a true baptism of fire which, combined with the box office success, would earn him final cut on all of his future films.

In 1962 Kubrick moved to England to work on Lolita his adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel about a college professor who gets romantically involved with the overtly flirtatious teenaged girl of the title.  James Mason’s portrayal of Humbert Humbert is magnetic and he nails the jealous insecurities that eat away at him as he obsessively struggles to keep the interest of his young nymphet lover.  Peter Sellers delivers a star turn as Clare Quilty the supposed film producer who seduces Lolita away from Humbert with the promise of a career in Hollywood.

Kubrick was so impressed with Sellers that he offered not 1 but 4 roles in his next movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a farcical satire on the cold war and the threat of accidental first strike nuclear attack.  Sellers plays Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a typically Goonish stiff upper lip RAF Officer who is seconded to the US Air Force Base where General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) gives the order to launch a pre-emptive attack on the Soviet Union.

Sellers also plays US President Merkin Muffley a wonderfully understated performance of stifled hysteria and social embarrassment best expressed in the groveling Red Phone apology to the Russian Premier, “I am as sorry as you are, Dimitri.  Don’t say that you are more sorry than I am, because I am capable of being just as sorry as you are.”

Kubrick also wanted Sellers to play the Gung-ho Texan Major “King” Kong part, which ultimately went to Slim Pickins.  Sellers felt he was already stretched with 3 roles and was eventually excused by Kubrick when he sprained his ankle during a take in the enclosed cockpit scene.  He more than makes up for this with his madcap, psychotic turn as the titular character; the weapons expert and inventor of the ‘Doomsday Device’ (which will automatically destroy all life on Earth in the event of a nuclear strike) who’s confined to a wheelchair and has a seemingly possessed gloved hand that is determined to perform a Nazi salute!

2001: A Space Odyssey is considered by many to be Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece; it’s an epic science fiction event movie which has influenced every Sci-Fi feature that followed it.   Based on Arthur C. Clarke’s short story The Sentinel the movie is preoccupied with an enigmatic obelisk that first appears on Earth at the ‘Dawn of Man’, then turns up in the future buried in a crater discovered by a team of astronauts on the ‘Jupiter Mission’ and reappears in the final reel of the film that takes place ‘Beyond the Infinite’.  I shall save a deeper appreciation and in-depth review for a future post as it has been remastered for a hidef Blu-ray release.

 A Clockwork Orange is Kubrick’s most controversial and misunderstood movie, there is a popular misconception that the film was censored and withdrawn by the UK government at the time due to a spate of copy-cat violent attacks.  However, the truth is that Stanley Kubrick asked Warner Bros. to recall the film and prevented it from being screened in Britain for 27 years because of death threats that he and his family had received at the time of its initial release.  It wasn’t until Kubrick died in 1999 that it was re-released both in the cinema and on home video formats.

Malcolm McDowell gives an inspired, career defining, performance as Alex; he is equally charming and menacing allowing the film’s key theme of dehumanisation to resonate.  What is still shocking about A Clockwork Orange is that it reminds us that despite 2,000 years of so-called ‘civilisation’ human beings are inherently violent creatures.  The procedure Alex undergoes at the hand of the State to subdue his violent tendencies also removes his humanity and this still touches a raw nerve with modern audiences.

It was at this point that the time between Kubrick’s new films started to widen, 4 years between A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon and another 5 years between Lyndon and The Shining.  The press started to report Kubrick as being a half-crazed recluse who demanded countless retakes and micro-managed in infinitesimal detail even the most mundane aspects of his day to day life.

The truth is that he was an extremely private family man who had no interest in the trappings of fame. He also felt that so much time and money was spent getting a film into production why then would you rush the process of making the movie, to him that seemed totally illogical.  Whilst his films seemed to take years to complete he always delivered them on budget and this earned him unquestioned support from Warner Bros. who promised him a life-time contract and final cut of all of his work; totally out of character for a major Hollywood studio.

1980’s The Shining is probably my personal favourite of Kubrick’s movies, adapted from Stephen King’s horror story of the same name; it explores the themes of isolation, madness and extra sensory perception but plays down the more conventional supernatural elements of the original book.  Instead the focus is on Jack Nicholson’s deteriorating state of mind as he struggles with his failings as both an author and a father, whilst acting as caretaker for a remote, snow-bound hotel for the winter season. 

His son, Danny, has a gift he shares with the hotel’s cook (Scatman Crothers) they both are able to see traces of the past and hints of the future, it’s known as shining and also includes the power of telepathy.  The film is genuinely scary but also incredibly funny and, ultimately, extremley surreal as it would seem that so much of it takes place in Jack’s mind . . . or does it?  The outstanding steadicam tracking shot, that follows Danny’s point of view as he explores the hotel on his tricycle, was revolutionary and has since been much imitated.

It was 7 years before Kubrick would release his only other film of the 1980s, Full Metal Jacket; his take on the Vietnam war, although he claims it’s not an anti-war story, he felt he’d already done that with Paths of Glory, this was rather a portrait of what is was like to take part in a war and the camaraderie between the grunts.  It’s notable for the breakout performances of Matthew Modine (Joker) and Vincent D’Onofrio (Leonard ‘Gomer’ Pyle) and the unforgettable Lee Emery as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman.

It would be over 10 years before Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman would materialise, he died only 4 days after screening the final cut to his family.  It is a fitting ‘Swan Song’ exploring the jealousy that comes between a couple and the emotional power that women ultimately seem to have over the men that seek to dominate them.  Visually it’s a firecracker of a movie and features some of Kubrick’s most striking sexual and dreamlike imagery.

Despite only making 11 feature films in 40 years the quality easily outweighs the quantity and they remain amongst the most respected and influential movies ever made.  I have deliberately included more stills in this article than I usually would because, above all, Kubrick was a visual filmmaker and whilst his stories are immaculately plotted and brimming with witty dialogue it’s the image that mattered most to him. 

I would like to end with my favourite Kubrick quote, “How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: ‘The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover.’ This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don’t want this to happen to 2001.”

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Spike Lee

After I returned from my tour of America in 1991 I took a job working in a retail Video shop and this presented me, as an avid movie fan, with two key benefits; the first was the opportunity to preview any tape outside of opening hours, the second was the generous staff discount that allowed me to grow my own film collection.  It was at this time that I discovered the work of Spike Lee, starting with his debut feature She’s Gotta Have It for which he was dubiously dubbed “the black Woody Allen” by some for the use of monochrome cinematography in a New York setting and his credits as writer, director and actor in the role of Michael Jordan obsessed, Mars Blackmon, which he reprised for a series of adverts he made for Nike also featuring the basketball star. 

His second film, School Daze, produced by David Putnam, was a confusing blend of Animal House style fraternity comedy, equal parts Hollywood musical and biting satire on the notion of black identity in modern America.  However, it was his next film Do The Right Thing that really put Lee on the map, taking place on the hottest day of the year in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighbourhood, it focuses on the mounting racial tension between the white family inhabitants of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria and it’s predominate black clientele, headed up by Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) who insists that Sal (Danny Aiello) gets some brothers up on the wall, instead of the “Wall of Fame” consisting entirely of famous Italian-Americans, or they will boycott his restaurant.  

Lee plays Sal’s delivery boy, Mookie, who is trying to balance his life as a young father, his relationship and the perceived conflict of working for a white boss by his friends.  The animosity reaches a peak at the end of the day when Sal destroys regular customer, Radio Raheem’s (Bill Nunn) boombox leading to a riot, in the ensuing violence the police throttle Raheem to death whilst trying to arrest him, to dispel the vengeful crowd Mookie throws a garbage can through the pizzeria’s window resulting in it being razed to the ground.  This action is deliberately ambiguous, the audience are left pondering whether Mookie did the right thing and I’ve found my own response to this can change with each viewing.

The next Spike Lee Joint was Mo’ Better Blues his valentine to the Jazz music of his father, Bill Lee, starring Denzel Washington as the trumpeter and band leader, Bleek Gilliam, who we see as young boy in the opening shots of the film practising scales religiously whilst his friends wait for him to come out to play.  The movie cleverly explores the life of an artist having to choose between two muses, one a glamorous and ambitious singer, Clarke (Cynda Williams), the other a teacher, down to earth and maternal, Indigo (Joie Lee), yet ultimately it’s his music that he is wedded to.  It also depicts the struggle of egos within a band when saxophonist, Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) vies with Bleek for leadership, the etiquette of solos versus grandstanding, and having to deal with an ineffective, gambling, manager, Giant (Spike Lee), who happens to be your best friend.

The film is heavily stylised and Lee’s regular cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson, provides a rich, saturated colour palette giving the musical sequences at the Underdog Club almost a cartoon look and feel.  The score, composed by Bill Lee, is performed by the Branford Marsalis quarter, featuring Terrance Blanchard on trumpet and it remains one of my most listened to soundtrack albums.  Ultimately, Giant’s gambling debts catch up with him and Bleek sacrifices his music for their friendship, Shadow takes over both as Clarke’s lover and leader of the band; fate forces Bleek to choose Indigo to save his life and in the long montage featured in the last reel, synchronised to John Coltrane’s Love Supreme, they settle down, get married and have a son, Miles, who also learns the trumpet and so we have come full circle.

Possibly my favourite Spike Lee film is 1992’s Malcolm X, in this movie he displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Cinema providing references from a myriad of influences including the D. W. Griffith silent classic Birth Of A Nation, Billy Wilder’s film noir Ace In The Hole, Vincente Minnelli’s musical The Band Wagon, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and countless other movies; it is truly astounding how many visual treats he is able to cram in to what so easily could have been a standard, po-faced, biopic.

Denzel Washington excels in the title role and is on screen almost constantly for the film’s epic 3½ hour running time.  Befitting the Herculian directorial task Lee takes a smaller acting role as Shorty, Malcolm’s barbershop buddy who first straightens his hair and then runs with his gang on a petty crime spree that leads to a lengthy prison sentence.  Whilst inside Malcolm is exposed to the teachings Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam and converts to the Muslim faith taking the name Malik Shabazz.

The early part of the film owes a lot of its look and style to Mo’ Better Blues with Malcolm and Shorty running around in Zoot suits, it has a lot of lighter comic moments which perfectly balance the tone of the second half of the film which is more or less preoccupied with the false promises, corruption and separatism that beleaguers the Nation of Islam and its leadership.  Culminating with Malcolm X’s assassination at the Aubadon Ball Room in 1965 and closing with Ossie Davis reading his original eulogy from his funeral, which reminds me very much of Oliver Stone’s Nixon; here Spike Lee proves he is not just a marginal, independent filmmaker but among the finest of his generation.

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