Svengali Review

I first met Jonathan Owen a couple of years ago when I was working on Cass Pennant’s documentary debut Casuals, he was one of the many interviewees who helped to tell the history of the Mod and Casual fashion scene.

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As many have testified Jonny is genuinely one of the nicest fellows you’re likely to come across, especially in the entertainment industry, and his winning charm is at the heart of the success of the Svengali project that he has been working on since the first viral debuted on YouTube back in 2009.

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The original series of webisodes came to the attention of Mod culture and music fans alike and was hailed by the London Evening Standard as the “best thing on the Internet” at the time.  Featuring a smattering of cameos from the world of Rock, including real-life ‘Svengali’ Alan McGee and Carl Barât of The Libertines, it charts the arrival of former Welsh postman Paul ‘Dixie’ Dean in London with high hopes of promoting the raw and rowdy band The Premature Congratulations to the topper-most-of-the-popper-most.

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Whilst the five minute virals focused primarily on Dixie’s naivety and his relationship with his old Valley’s oppo Brian Horse(y) now a successful A&R man, whose contacts include all the leading lights of the British music biz, the feature film expands his world turning the spotlight on his long-suffering fiancée Shell played by the redoubtable, BAFTA award winning actress, Vicky McClure.

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Along with the central romantic plot line we also finally get to see The Prems as well as an insight into Dixie’s Welsh roots; particularly effective is the scene where his father played by the late Brian Hibbard tells Dixie that he’s not long for life and they share a poetic moment of pure cinematic gold.  I come back to this scene time and again, not only has it been made more poignant by Hibbard’s own death not long after the film was completed, but because I can’t tell if it’s totally written or completely improvised, either way it’s a marvelous acting tour-de-force by the two men.

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The key thing that the film manages to reveal in far greater depth is the fundamental difference between Dixie and Horsey who, on paper, could be considered two sides of the same coin.  Both hail from the same humble beginnings but one has completely reinvented himself cocking a snook at his past, whilst the other totally embraces it.  It’s a shame that Roger Evans’ performance as Horsey seems to have been largely overlooked by the critics, barely being mentioned in most of the mainstream reviews that I’ve read, he is the necessary Yin to Dixie’s Yang and the understated combination of embarrassment, envy and bemusement he displays on screen is one of the movie’s core strengths.

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

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

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Svengali has proven that it is possible to make a quality low budget, independent film in the UK that doesn’t have to fit a cookie-cutter mold to reach its audience.  The film’s journey echoes Dixie’s spirit in every frame and it’s a testament to everyone who believed in it and worked on bringing it to the big screen over the years.  I am very excited to see what Root Films, the joint venture between Jonny Owen and producer Martin Root, do next and I wish them continued success.

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Kick-Ass

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

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

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

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

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

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Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut

It’s been 10 years since Richard Kelly’s admirable and ambitious directorial debut Donnie Darko was released to an unsuspecting cinema audience with its blend of teenage angst and paranoid schizophrenia it has become a cult movie for anyone familiar with the 1980s zeitgeist.

In his breakout performance Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie Darko a psychologically disturbed high-school student who sleep walks and has visions of a demonic rabbit called Frank, who tells him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.  Although he is prone to aggressive and bizarre behaviour Donnie is still a typical teenager with conservative Republican parents who are supportive and concerned for his well-being.  In a freakishly random aviation accident the engine of a jet which has mysteriously vanished hits the roof of the Darko’s house taking out Donnie’s bedroom although luckily due to his sleep walking he has wound up on one of the greens at the local golf course; at this point the story flashes back 28 days charting the lead up to Armageddon.

Despite regularly seeing a psychiatrist (Katherine Ross) and undergoing hypnosis Donnie’s visions of Frank get more frequent requesting him to carry out random acts of violence, inspired by Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors” a favourite of his liberal English teacher (Drew Barrymore); firstly he floods the school leaving an axe in the head of the bronze statue of the school’s mascot “The Mongrel” and then, exhibiting his revulsion for phonies a quality he shares with Holden Caulfield the hero of J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”, he sets fire to the mansion of a local motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) exposing him as a fraud and a sexual deviant.

Donnie starts dating the new girl in school Gretchen (Jena Malone) who had to relocate and change her identity when her emotionally disturbed father stabbed her mother; she empathises with Donnie and provides comfort for his growing anxiety.  In an attempt to avoid Frank’s prediction Donnie starts to investigate the possibility of altering the future and his science teacher (Noah Wyle) explains Stephen Hawking’s wormhole theory that could lead to a portal to a parallel universe, he also gives him a book called “The Philosophy of Time-Travel” by a former teacher at the school, Roberta Sparrow who now lives a hermit like existence and is known by the local kids as “Grandma Death” because each day she goes to check her post box and stands in the way of oncoming traffic.

At this point the film shifts from psychological drama to Sci-Fi fantasy as Donnie becomes absorbed with Roberta Sparrow’s book and with the assistance of Frank seemingly masters the ability to bend time.  In the film’s climatic sequence on the final day of the world Donnie’s mother and younger sister are flying so she can take part in a dance competition.  Donnie and his elder sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) decide to throw a Halloween party during which he sneaks out with Gretchen to explore Roberta Sparrow’s cellar.  They are jumped by two of the school’s thugs and held at knife point, in the struggle Gretchen is knocked into the middle of the road and her unconscious body is run over by a car being driven by someone wearing Frank’s bunny suit.

Donnie realises the devastating effect his actions have had on those he loves and turns back time so that he is in his room when the jet engine hits.  It’s suggested that his mother and younger sister are on the plane as it plummets out of the sky but I am unsure how undoing Donnie’s actions entirely avoids their fate but they are all present when his body is taken from the house, which seems to suggest that perhaps it has all just been one big paranoid delusion. Gretchen passes by and has to ask a neighbour who it is on the stretcher so it seems that Donnie has sacrificed himself in order to save her.

Richard Kelly is clearly influenced by the films of David Lynch, especially Blue Velvet and genre bending films like Being John Malkovich which play with the conventions of linear narrative.  The Blu-ray marks a radical improvement in the picture quality which is presented in full 1080p 2.35:1 transfer, unfortunately the 5.1 DTS-HD mix whilst great at showcasing the 80s music especially Gary Jules hit cover of the Tears For Fears song “Mad World”, has left the dialogue comparatively low in the mix.

It’s fair to say that Donnie Darko is a superb apprentice piece but that the overly convoluted plot gets somewhat muddled even in the revised 2004 Director’s cut.  It amuses me that the idea behind the 6ft bunny Frank seems to be undoubtedly inspired by the James Stewart enduring black farce Harvey, the invisible friend of Elwood P. Drood; although Richard Kelly claims he wrote the script long before he ever saw the 1950s classic.  We have yet to see anything as dazzlingly original from him so as time passes Donnie Darko may well be remembered as his flawed masterpiece.

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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!

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The Baader Meinhof Complex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Woody Allen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Svengali Cinema Release

It has been a long time coming but the moment has finally arrived – you can see Svengali in the cinema from today!

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Don’t worry if it’s not showing at a cinema near you because it can be downloaded from iTunes right now!

You can also pre-order the DVD or Blu-ray and buy the incredible Soundtrack album from Amazon.

 

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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.

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The Night of the Hunter

The Night of the Hunter was the directorial debut of legendary British actor Charles Laughton although due to the largely negative response from both the cinema going public and the critics during its original release in 1955 it was to be his only film behind the camera.  Clearly, the movie was years ahead of its time and is now considered one of the standout classics of film noir and amongst the mostly strikingly photographed films ever made.

Set in a small midwestern town in depression era America Ben Harper (Peter Graves) is driven to commit a hold-up in which two people are killed, on the run he leaves the $10,000 spoils of the crime with his two young children, swearing them never to reveal the location of the money which they hide in his daughter’s toy doll.  Whilst in prison waiting to be hanged Harper shares a cell with a phoney preacher, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) who is serving a 30 day stretch for stealing a car.  Powell overhears Harper talking in his sleep about the robbery but he wakes up refusing to reveal the location of the cash, a secret he takes with him to the gallows.

On his release Powell visits Harper’s home town and makes a play for his widow Willa (Shelly Winters) who works at the local Soda Fountain, she is struggling to look after her children and feels tainted by the sins of her husband; coaxed both by public opinion that no woman should raise a family alone and the hope that being the partner of a preacher will lead her on the path to salvation she concedes to the will of Harry Powell and marries him.  It becomes clear all too soon that Powell is only interested in finding the loot and he puts pressure on the kids to reveal their secret.

Robert Mitchum who is known for his typically tough and taciturn performances is outstandingly mischievous yet menacing as the devilish false profit Powell and in his key scene uses the tattoos of LOVE and HATE on his knuckles to tell a modern day parable of the battle between good and evil; an indelible movie moment that was brilliantly quoted in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing 30 years later.  When Powell murders Willa and the children flee for their own lives taking a boat down the Mississippi, the film becomes a metaphorical journey from darkness into the light when they reach the end of the river and find sanctuary with Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) an old woman who takes in waifs and strays.

Whilst the story is relatively simple the film scores highly for its incredible sense of suspense and the stunning visual imagery provided by renowned cinematographer Stanley Cortez taking his inspiration from the great German Expressionists Fritz Lang and F. W. Murnau; the children’s trip down the river is peppered with unusual camera angles and deep focus shots that include various wildlife creatures frolicking by the banks.  The use sound and music is just as striking and surreal, particularly effective is the two-part singing between the children and Rachel Cooper and later when Harry Powell takes the counterpoint.

The Criterion Collection Blu-ray release sports a miraculous picture transferred directly from the original 35mm negative to a full 1080p/AVC MEPG-4 encode and presented for the first time in the correct 1.66:1 aspect ratio.  The monochrome photography has never looked so sharp with perfect contrast between ebony blacks and radiant whites which are showcased by the shots containing prominent shafts of light and the shadows that encroach on Willa’s bedroom as Harry Powell looms over her.  The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is uncompressed and totally appropriate for a movie of its age, so often the attempts to create a 5.1 surround approximation lose the directness, particularly when it comes to dialogue.

The Night of the Hunter has undoubtedly been an influence on the works of Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and the Coen Brothers to name but a few and this hidef release will ensure its unique spellbinding magic will continue to inspire generations of filmmakers yet to come.

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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.

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