Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

The original television airing of Twin Peaks in 1990 coincided with my recent interest in the films of David Lynch after renting a copy of Blue Velvet on video and the break between the first and second seasons also saw the release of Wild At Heart at the cinema which launched a sudden and unexpected wave of Lynch mania that swept across both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Around the same time I visited America for the first time, landing in Los Angeles in January 1991 I couldn’t wait to pick up a copy of the L.A. Reader so I could see Lynch’s notorious cartoon strip The Angriest Dog in the World with my own eyes!

Twin Peaks has recently been celebrating its 20th Anniversary and is back in the public conscious with current shows like Psych reuniting some of the original cast members in the Dual Spires tribute episode which revolves around a Laura Palmer style copycat murder. After the initial distribution rights battle which prevented the second season being released on DVD for years, CBS Paramount have now released the entire show in its David Lynch approved Gold Box set and it’s even available to download on iTunes in HD which has sparked talk of a potential Blu-ray edition to follow.

When I met my wife-to-be one of the first things we did was sit through the original series, she was instantly hooked and we watched the pilot and all 29 episodes back to back followed by Fire Walk With Me within the space of one long weekend. To mark our recent Wedding Anniversary we have just watched them all again for the first time in 5 years and it remains an astonishing landmark in the annals of mainstream television history; all credit is due to creators Mark Frost and David Lynch as few programmes can claim to have been as groundbreaking or influential as Twin Peaks.

The show was cancelled in the middle of the second season due to falling viewing figures once Laura Palmer’s killer had been revealed and a spate of weak, largely comic subplots failed to fill the void despite a tour de force performance from Kenneth Welsh as Agent Cooper’s former partner and Nemesis, Windom Earle and the introduction of a Sci-fi element with the Project Blue Book investigations into the local Black and White Lodge mythology; there was still much to enjoy in the show and many questions were left deliberately unanswered in the final episode which is very reminiscent of the end of Patrick McGoohan’s seminal 1960s series, The Prisoner.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was released in cinemas during 1992; a year after the bemusing final episode had left Agent Dale Cooper trapped inside the Black Lodge. The film serves as both a prequel, as it examines the death of Killer Bob’s first victim Teresa Banks and the last 7 days of Laura Palmer’s life leading up to her murder providing psychological insights into the deranged mind of her father Leland, and a sequel as it clarifies the fate of Agent Cooper, expands the Dugpas back-story and lays to rest Laura’s troubled spirit in the closing moments. For many unfamiliar with David Lynch’s darker movies this was a total shock as the show’s amusing supporting characters were not present to offset the deeply disturbing secret that had always been at the heart of the series and it was actually booed by hostile audiences at the Cannes Film Festival premier.

There is no getting around the fact that there are some gut wrenching scenes in the film that deal head on with the psychological pain of acknowledging that stripped bare of all of its fanciful mystery this is the story of the long term physical abuse of a teenage girl by her father and this is something that Lynch had felt had been long forgotten by the end of the second season and he had remained troubled by the character of Laura Palmer. Actress Sheryl Lee who had only got to play Laura in stylised flashbacks or her lookalike cousin Maddy in the TV show wanted to truthfully bring her to life and give her doomed existence an element of closure.

There are many Hitchcockian influences in Lynch’s work the obvious one here is the name of Maddy Ferguson, a nod to Vertigo in which Kim Novak had a dual role; she plays Madeleine who Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart) falls madly in love with and also Judy who Scotty meets after witnessing Madeline’s apparent suicide and whilst in a psychotic state he re-styles Judy in Madeline’s image, changing her hair and clothes to conjure up the woman he is morbidly obsessed about.

When Hitch was asked if he could cut the “rape” scene from his 1964 film Marnie by hired screenwriter Evan Hunter who felt that it would make the character played by Sean Connery unsalvageable at least in the eyes of the female members of the audience, Hitchcock refused explaining that the only reason he wanted to make the movie in the first place is because of that one scene and replaced Hunter with renowned feminist playwright Jay Presson Allen who reworked the screenplay keeping the “non-consensual sex” scene between Connery and Tippi Hedren firmly in place. Likewise, I believe the only reason Lynch wanted to make Twin Peaks was due to the abusive father/daughter relationship at the core of the story and Fire Walk With Me is his way of emphasising that point.

French distributor MK2’s Blu-ray release of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is never going to be the definitive edition, whilst the full 1080p picture quality is a marked improvement on the DVD version and the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is solid and fixes the infamous mixing problem in the “Red Room” sequence which was subtitled due to the excessive volume of the club’s live music; on the previous DVD release the music had been turned right down so you could clearly hear all the dialogue rendering the onscreen subtitles ludicrous.

I am pleased to report that after almost 25 years the entire mystery has been released in one Blu-ray boxset, including the much coveted 90 minutes of deleted scenes!  Not for the feint hearted and probably only really for true fans of Lynch’s oeuvre as a whole Fire Walk With Me is a fitting footnote to a landmark television series and a cathartic release and appropriate closure to a story steeped in the indignant suffering of its central character, it also marks the end of a period when for a fleeting moment David Lynch was the coolest cat on the planet.

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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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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.

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Sondheim! The Birthday Concert

So, I’m going to be turning 40 in 2011!  I’m not alone in this, among the luminaries joining me are Ewan McGregor, Mark Wahlberg, Winona Ryder, Mariah Carey and Sacha Baron Cohen, not that this makes me any happier about the prospect.  Still, as this year’s lavish 80th birthday bash for Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim revealed he commenced a decade of his best work when he turned 40, starting with the groundbreaking concept musical Company in 1970 which surprised audiences looking for escapism by holding a mirror up to them in a series of vignettes about Bobby, a single New Yorker unable to commit to a steady relationship.

Company was followed by Follies in 1971 about a fading Broadway theatre scheduled for demolition allowing the resident troupe to look back at their lives.  Then came A Little Night Music in 1973 the show, that features Sondheim’s most recognised song Send in the Clowns, is partially based on Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night and explores the romantic lives of several couples over the course of one weekend.  The aloof and esoteric Pacific Overtures opened in 1976, focusing on the gradual westernisation of Japan it seemed an obscure subject for a Broadway show, presented in Kabuki style it closed in under 200 performances.

Sondheim ended the 1970s on a high note with what many consider his masterpiece Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a macabre musical thriller in the Grand Guignol tradition, the initial Broadway production ran for nearly 600 performances and featured Len Cariou as Sweeney Todd and Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett.  The show has had numerous revivals and benefitted from Tim Burton’s authentic feature film adaptation starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.  The productions from this challenging yet inspirational decade were directed by Harold Prince and his work with Sondheim usually produced a Marmitesque response, audiences were divided between those that loved the brash deconstructionism of cosy Broadway and those that resisted it preferring a less disquieting night out at the theatre.

I was exposed to the world of musical theatre and classical composition one Christmas in my teens when the BBC screened Leonard Bernstein’s Harvard Lectures; a natural communicator and infectious teacher Bernstein covered the history of western musical theory at lightning speed and I was instantly hooked.  I wanted to listen to anything that had his name on it and this brought me to West Side Story and consequently Stephen Sondheim who cut his teeth as a lyricist on that show in 1957.  I read up on Sondheim and did try to get into Sweeney Todd but my ears were not ready, to me at the time it seemed too dissonant, which I find astonishing now as melodies like My Friends, Johanna and Pretty Women sound totally irresistible to me and I wonder how the teenaged me failed to be wooed by them; is this a symptom of turning 40?!

To celebrate his 80th birthday at New York’s Lincoln Centre a host of Broadway stars gathered including Elaine Stritch, Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin and Joanna Gleason.  The evening was recorded for the Public Broadcasting Service network and released on region free Blu-ray by Image Entertainment.  As far as I am aware this has not been screened on UK television yet so this home release is very welcome.  The Master of Ceremonies for the evening is Frasier’s Niles, David Hyde Pierce and not only does he provide witty repartee and nuggets of note from Sondheim’s illustrious career, he also manages to sing Beautiful Girls from Follies in a dozen different languages!  All of the Hal Prince shows are well represented here; including Sweeney Todd which features two of Broadway’s Sweeneys who spar wonderfully with each other.

One unforgettable highlight of the show is a song-cycle featuring Sondheim’s various leading ladies in stunning red dresses, apart from Elaine Stritch, who sports red slacks and a peaked cap, this allows for a bit of barbed banter from Patti LuPone when she sings Ladies Who Lunch the song Stritch originated in Company, LuPone emphasises the line “Does anyone still wear a hat?” and gives Stritch a sly look, but the 85 year old trooper is undeterred and gives a marvellous rendition of I’m Still Here a song from Follies that she’s made her own since her Tony award winning one-woman show At Liberty.  The show ends with the entire cast singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Sondheim and he takes to the stage, unfortunately he doesn’t make a speech but he is clearly overwhelmed by the occasion.

The Blu-ray release is pretty basic, there are no extras to speak of, but the picture quality is faultless in 1080p and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by long-time Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignani really shine on the crystal clear DTS-HD soundtrack.  I thoroughly recommend this release for any fan of musical theatre, even those unfamiliar with the shows will be surprised by the accessibility of the songs selected here; all are eclectic gems outstandingly performed by artistes at the top of their game who clearly owe a debt of gratitude to Stephen Sondheim.

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Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

I came to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World on Blu-ray without prior knowledge of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s 6 volume digest size graphic novel and whilst it appears that the 2nd volume in the series shares the film’s title writer/director Edgar Wright worked with O’Malley to incorporate the key elements contained in all 6 volumes into the screenplay.  I am not an avid reader of graphic novels, in fact the only time I have been compelled to read them is after seeing film adaptations, namely Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, this is not a prejudice against comics per se, I just find I have less time to indulge in recreational reading than I did before the pressures of work and parenthood, for shame! 

I am, however, predisposed to admire graphic novels and their cinematic counterparts as I enjoy the telling of fantastic stories primarily through the use of images.  This is why my favourite films tend to be by predominantly visual directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and, indeed, Edgar Wright who directed the groundbreaking TV comedy series Spaced and subsequent feature films Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz which, by breaking the structured genre norms, have helped to revitalise the landscape of British Cinema.

Scott Pilgrim is a slacker and bassist with local Toronto band Sex Bob-omb the first obvious nod to the video games of my youth, the Bob-ombs were the little meandering bombs that would stumble into Mario in various editions of the Nintendo Mario Bros. franchise.  Scott is drifting from band practice to band practice and dating Knives Chau a 17-year-old Chinese-Canadian High School girl who he hasn’t kissed yet; he’s been in shock since his ex-girlfriend Natalie ‘Envy’ Adams dumped him and became the lead singer of Sex Bob-omb’s biggest rivals The Clash at Demonhead who have been on a successful tour of New York.

Scott has a dream vision of a delivery girl on roller skates who he believes literally when he wakes up is the ‘girl of his dreams’.  When she appears in real life to deliver his order from Amazon he instantly falls in love with her and loses interest in Knives and the up-and-coming Battle of the Bands contest that Sex Bob-omb had entered.  Ramona Flowers played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, has recently moved to Toronto from New York, she is moody and mysterious but she genuinely seems interested in Scott and continually surprises him by turning up for their dates.  On the night of the first leg of the band competition Ramona comes to see Scott play and whilst on stage he is attacked by Matthew Patel the first of Ramona’s 7 Evil Exes who he must defeat in turn if he wants to be with her.   

Edgar Wright and co-author of the screenplay Michael Bacall, have cleverly blended elements of the original O’Malley artwork, 8-bit jingles from classic console games, multiple references from popular film and television (my favourite being the musical sting from Seinfeld) and extensive fight sequences drawn directly from Tekken or Street Fighter to create an entirely unique visual style for this extremely surreal movie. 

It’s not a case of style over substance though as Michael Cera’s central performance as Scott is totally convincing and the audience truly empathise with his hapless existence and the quest that leads him to exorcise his hang-ups over Envy, end his relationship with Knives maturely and avoid become yet another of Ramona’s evil exes.  Wright has built on the success of his previous collaborations with Simon Pegg and created something profoundly original and invigorating in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World putting him at the pinnacle of Hollywood’s A-List of directorial talent, I eagerly await his next project and hope it shall be every bit as exhilarating.

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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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Frost/Nixon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rango

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Poirot: Murder On The Orient Express

David Suchet has been playing Hercule Poirot on television for 20 years, almost every story has been filmed and finally one of the most anticipated has marked Poirot’s debut on the hidef format; Murder On The Orient Express is considered by many to be the definitive Hercule Poirot story, and perhaps the best-known Agatha Christie work of all time.

The story was famously filmed, during Christie’s lifetime, in 1974 by legendary director Sidney Lumet, starring Albert Finney as the diminutive Belgian Detective and a host of Hollywood guest stars including, Sean Connery, Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins and Ingrid Bergman.  This frothy, yet intricate and sumptuous version was much-loved by the author that, for many years after her death in 1976, the Christie Estate was reluctant to grant permission to make alternative versions.  However, with almost all of the 33 novels and 51 short stories featuring Poirot to Suchet’s credit, it seemed inevitable that he would eventually get to do it.

It’s interesting to chart the progress of the Poirot franchise; it began as a modest, relatively low-budget TV series in 1989, the focus of which was the original collections of short stories featuring Poirot, his associate Captain Arthur Hastings, his secretary the inscrutable Miss Lemon and the regular Scotland Yard presence of Chief Inspector Japp.  Whilst the house-style was light and charming the attention to period detail, characterisation and authenticity in keeping to the original Christie plots was exemplary and to extend the series the production was expanded to also include feature-length adaptations of the Poirot novels, starting with Peril At End House in 1990 and ending with Murder In Mesopotamia in 2001.

The brand was re-launched in 2003 with Five Little Pigs but not featuring the regular extended cast or the now synonymous Christopher Gunning theme music and reduced to a stringent 90 minute running time.  For the most part these subsequent feature length adaptations have been solid, but they often lack charm or humour and, in recent years, the writers have sought to dramatically alter the original storylines and, largely due to the shorter duration, spend much less time in drawing believable supporting characters on which the resolution of the plots so often depend; the one lasting mark of quality is David Suchet’s leading performance.

I have to admit that Murder On The Orient Express is not my favourite Agatha Christie story, it’s not even my favourite Poirot story; however as a child the 1974 film gave me some of the most vivid nightmares I care to remember and as an adult, appreciating Lumet’s entire oeuvre, I have a very soft spot for it.  The Suchet version decides to be more faithful to Lumet’s film than to Christie’s original book, which is largely taken up with a series of repetitive face to face interviews between Poirot and the 12 suspects and is hardly the most riveting read in the world.

Where Orient Express does score highly is in its setting, cast of exotic characters and morbidly engaging subject matter, inspired by the real life kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh Baby in 1932.  It also differs significantly with its surprise resolution to Christie’s other more traditional whodunits.  The 1080p HD video quality is used to full effect in both the early Turkish scenes, the breathtaking train journey and snow-bound scenes in Belgrade, the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack and expressive score are also outstanding.  The film opens with Poirot observing both the suicide of a young British Army Officer whilst he cross-examines him and the stoning of an adulterous Muslim woman thus sowing the thematic seeds of crime and punishment, retribution and redemption; developing significantly Suchet’s notion of Poirot’s devout Catholicism.

Poirot’s first release on Blu-ray is much welcomed and contains the excellent David Suchet on the Orient Express (HD 47 mins) examining the exotic 100 year history of the train itself.  I am glad that Acorn Media are dedicated to releasing the entire collection upscaled to high definition.

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