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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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, in the frame almost all of the time his warmth, generosity and sincerity ooze off the screen.


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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Disney’s A Christmas Carol

Disney’s A Christmas Carol might have been better titled Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as screenwriter/director Robert Zemeckis has very faithfully adapted the classic short story by blending the original text, as set similarly in the outstanding 1951 version starring Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, with the exhilarating visual style achieved through the digital motion-capture animation technique that he established with The Polar Express in 2004.  This time, instead of Tom Hanks, we have the rubber-faced, Jerry Lewis-esque, comedian Jim Carrey playing the various ages of Scrooge, as well as all three of the ghosts of Christmas who visit him.  

I am not a fan of the default Carrey performance in the kind of broad, slapstick comedy films that made him a household name but here he proves, as he has done before with The Truman Show, Man On The Moon and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that he is in fact a very facile character actor capable of bringing great depth and nuances to his roles not only physically and vocally but also emotionally; his Scrooge is totally believable and wryly humorous plus his transformation, even for one as familiar as I am with the tale, manages to lift the spirits and imbue one with the joy of Christmas.  

Co-stars Colin Firth who plays Scrooge’s cheerful nephew Fred and Gary Oldman who plays the ghost of Scrooge’s dead partner Jacob Marley, his long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit and Cratchit’s ailing son Tiny Tim, also make the most of the motion-capture technology giving supporting performances of great subtlety with a level of detail and range of expression infinitely greater than seen before in The Polar Express; the snowy street scenes of Victorian London are particularly well rendered as are the candlelit interiors.  I did see the film in 3D at the cinema when it was released last year but I much prefer seeing it at home in 2D, as I am yet to be convinced by the merit of home 3D systems and find the depth of field depicted in the standard Blu-ray presentation more than sufficient.  

Zemeckis has proven he has integrity both with The Polar Express which is equally true to Chris Van Allsburg’s original book illustrations and A Christmas Carol by presenting an exceedingly authentic Dickensian version, albeit updated slightly by the inclusion of some spectacular action sequences, this easily could have been far more Disneyfied as the title would suggest.  

This authenticity dispelled any doubts I initially had when I heard that he was working on a motion-capture remake of the cult Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine and I am very disappointed to hear that it has now been abandoned.  I shall put that thought aside and settle down for another viewing of Disney’s A Christmas Carol, a merrier Christmas Carol than we have seen for many a year!

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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!


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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Apocalypse Now: Full Disclosure

It has got to be one of the most eagerly anticipated Blu-ray releases of all time and finally, almost 5 years since the hidef format launched, Apocalypse Now has been released almost a year to the day after The Godfather: Coppola Restoration collection.  The Full Disclosure package is every bit as impressive, if not more so, as it includes both the original cut and the ‘Redux’ extended version of the film plus Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse which I saw when it was released at the Cinema in 1991 and then wore out the VHS tape, but this is the first time it has ever been released in a digital format in the UK.

Firstly, let me confirm that all 3 discs included in the Full Disclosure edition are Region Free and boast full 1080p resolution and a DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack.  The first disc contains both the 1979 theatrical cut (153 mins) and 2001’s controversial ‘Redux’ version that restores the 49 mins of cut scenes, including the lavish French Plantation sequence.  I think both cuts of the film are valid, on balance I prefer the ‘Redux’ version although I agree that it changes the pacing of the film but it also helps expand it beyond the confines of the Vietnam war and leans more towards the source material of Joseph Conrad’s story, Hearts of Darkness, on which the film is based.  The 2nd disc is packed full of additional material, most notably two recent hour long filmed discussions by Francis Coppola with writer John Milius and star Martin Sheen, an interview by Roger Ebert at the Cannes Film Festival premier of the ‘Redux’ version, Orson Welles’ Mercury Radio production of Hearts of Darkness and Marlon Brando reading the full version of T.S. Elliot’s poem The Hollow Men.

The 3rd disc features the hidef version of Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse which is superb.  I had worried because there were rumours that it might be cut to remove some of the more uncomfortable moments of anguish that Coppola had to endure whilst making, what many beleive to be, his masterpiece; instead there is an audio commentary track, featuring both Francis and his wife Eleanor who made the documentary, providing a wistful, fresh perspective to some of the insanity that transpired whilst shooting in the Philippines.  This is one of the most engaging documentaries ever made about the cinematic process and worth the price of ownership alone!  Also included are numerous photos, storyboards, posters and other marketing material, along with a 57 page extract of the first draft by John Milius containing Coppola’s hand written notes which (if you sit close enough to the TV!) makes interesting reading.

To complete the package is a 48 page book containing an introductory letter from Francis Ford Coppola outlining the contents in detail.  My only criticism so far, as I’ve yet to wade through all of the supplements, is that there is no discrete chapter list for the ‘Redux’ version, which means you can’t go straight to the restored sequences; a forgivable oversight to an otherwise perfect collection.  I have owned more versions of this film than I care to remember and this is, without doubt, the best I have ever seen Apocalypse Now look on the small screen.  Let’s just hope that Coppola’s American Zoetrope cohort takes heed and releases the Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies on Blu-ray in the near future.

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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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As a film about football and, in particular, football hooliganism I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy Cass very much; as a rule it would be the sort of low-budget, grubby British film that I would usually seek to avoid.  Thankfully, it isn’t at all what I expected and in no way typical of its genre which is quite fitting as by all accounts Cass Pennant, on whose memoir it is based, has led a remarkable life.

Pennant’s biological mother left Jamaica whilst pregnant for the UK in 1958; 6 weeks after he was born he was abandoned and rehomed by Dr. Barnados with a middle-aged white couple from Slade Green.  Pennant had been christened Carol (a common West Indian boy’s name) and that, along with being the only black kid in the neighbourhood, ensured that he was the target of constant bullying and regular beatings.

Whilst at school Pennant adopted the name of ‘Cass’ inspired by his boxing hero Cassius Clay and made firm friends with Freeman (Leo Gregory) and Prentice (Gavin Brocker).  As devoted followers of West Ham United the 3 teenagers drifted into football violence, becoming members of the notorious Inter City Firm.  During the early 1980s Cass Pennant emerged as one of the most prominent leaders of the ICF.

Set against the back drop of mass unemployment, the miners’ strike and the general malaise of Margaret Thatcher’s “Me” generation the film authentically recreates the period and is especially attentive to the fashions of the day.  Le Thugs Nouvelle, as the tabloids sometimes referred to the football hooligans, dressed impeccably for the terraces in Pringle or Lyle & Scott jumpers and Fila or Sergio Tacchini tracksuit tops; evolving the Mod style and establishing the distinctive Casuals look that’s undergoing a major revival today.

Cass always strived to ensure that the ICF were perceived as the most efficient, most formidable and most stylish mob which he measured by the number of front page headlines devoted to their exploits that were planned with both an enterprising and military flare. Cass had calling cards printed that simply stated “Congratulations. You have just met the ICF.” and after one savagely executed revenge attack on the Newcastle United gang Pennant was arrested for grievous bodily harm and causing an affray; historically he was the first football hooligan to be served with a prison sentence.

Whilst in Wormwood Scrubs Cass shared a cell with a Rastafarian who challenged him to examine his Afro-Caribbean roots, in one of the movie’s more intriguing sequences Cass articulates that he was “fighting because of the colour of his skin again only this time the hate was coming from another direction” and that the only heritage he ever felt he had was with West Ham.  During his time in jail Cass started to write his autobiography only to have his many notebooks confiscated on his departure.

Cass received a hero’s welcome and was reunited with his adoptive parents, Doll (Linda Bassett) and Cecil (Peter Wright) who reluctantly told him that his biological mother had been writing to him via Dr. Barnados, much to Doll’s relief Cass maintains they are his real family and agreed to try keep out of trouble and settle down.  He started dating Elaine (Nathalie Press) and although he promised that his violent life was behind him he was drawn back in after a vicious razor blade attack on Prentice by Arsenal supporters left him with multiple scars to the face.

During the retaliation Cass sustained a knife wound and retreated to his flat to be confronted by Elaine who dropped the bombshell that she was pregnant but unwilling to raise a child with a father whose violent lifestyle would likely get him killed.  Cass decided to change and contacted an old prison friend who owned a chain of nightclubs and offered to run the security on all his doors; it appears his violent past found an appropriate outlet and when business was booming his family life also blossomed and he and Elaine had a second child.

The past came back to haunt Pennant when he was shot 3 times at close range and whilst recovering from the attack he was told the news that his mother has died.  During this period of recovery Cass suffered from post-traumatic stress and contemplated further acts of bloody retaliation against the Arsenal mob that attempted to kill him.  Ultimately his story is a redemptive one, when stood in front of his would-be murderer, holding a gun inches from his assailant’s face, Cass was unable to pull the trigger and walked away, reflecting on the fact that his own poor choices had brought these acts upon himself.

Cass Pennant went on to write his autobiography along with a slew of books on the subjects of football hooliganism, sports and fashion, he founded his own publishing firm Pennant Books along with a production company Urban Edge Films which is all set to release its debut documentary Casuals this year.  In a recent discussion with Cass he was telling me how the movie of his life came about.  He met director Jon S. Baird while he was a consultant for Green Street, another film about football violence; Jon was the associate producer.  From chatting on the set Cass knew that Jon was hungry to direct his first feature film and at the movie’s wrap party Jon suggested that Cass ought to write a book on his life, to which Cass replied he already had.  Usually he carried a copy of his autobiography in his bag but not this time, so he made an excuse to go to the bathroom and then ran next door and bought a copy of his own book to hand to Jon to read.

According to Cass within an hour Jon had called him saying he had to make the film.  Cass coolly replied call me back when you’ve actually read the book and within a couple of days Jon confirmed his convictions.  Cass is a wonderfully rich and layered debut feature, it would have been far easier and cheaper to skip the boyhood scenes and get straight to the ICF period.  Instead by focusing on Pennant’s relationship with Doll and by including passages of narration direct from the book it avoids being just another football violence film and becomes a genuine story of a man’s life; easy to relate to even if you have no interest in the beautiful game.

The film’s success is largely due to the towering performance from Nonso Anozie as Cass Pennant, a Shakespearian actor who manages to capture the nuances of speech and physical mannerisms in such a remarkable way that you find it hard to imagine the same performer in the role of Othello for which he received rave reviews.  Cass sparkles with quality in every aspect of the production and deserves a much wider audience that with any luck this Blu-ray release will bring.

I want to close with an anecdote that Cass related to me which I think reveals his character somewhat.  On the night of the film’s premier at London’s Odeon Leicester Square Cass, who has an office above a pub in SoHo, came down to the bar to find a successful film director had bought him a bottle of champagne and invited him to sit down and drink it with him.  Cass has the reputation of being a bit of a workaholic but the director insisted, going on to ask if he was familiar with the list of 100 Great Black Britons and that was he aware that his name didn’t appear on the list?  Cass had looked through the list, which is primarily comprised of great sporting, entertainment and public figures, and he wasn’t exactly surprised not to be included as a former football hooligan!  The director pointed out that despite that not one of the 100 people listed have had a film made about their lives and that he should be extremely proud and should stop and raise a glass to savour the moment; Cass the movie is a suitable celebration.

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The Social Network

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Arizona Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Me and Orson Welles

When I heard that teenage heartthrob Zac Efron was going to star in Richard Linklater’s film based on the novel by Robert Kaplow about a fledgling actor who gets his lucky break playing Lucius in Orson Welles’ legendary Mercury Theatre Broadway debut production of Julius Caesar in 1937, I was a little uneasy yet undeterred due to my enduring fascination with Welles it was always going to be compulsory viewing.

Having sat through at least two of the High School Musical movies my expectations were set suitably low, however much to my surprise Efron acquits himself rather well here as his easy looks and effortless charm are a perfect fit for the role of Richard Samuels, an indefatigable stage-struck romantic who forms a rapport with the celebrated iconoclast Orson Welles played with startling verisimilitude by newcomer Christian McKay.

The film is set just after Orson and producer John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) had their admirable run in with the government over the censorship of the musical The Cradle Will Rock due to writer Marc Blitzstein’s affiliation to the Communist Party.  This was a Federal Theatre Production; the project was one of FDR’s New Deal initiatives aimed at giving jobless men practical work during the Great Depression, however Blitzstein’s play had a pro-unionist message that did not sit well with the presiding administration and the theatre was locked and all the props seized provoking Welles and Houseman to hire an alternative venue out of their own pockets to stage an impromptu performance requiring some of the cast to deliver their lines from seats in the audience; the cause célèbre was documented in Tim Robbins’ 1999 movie of the same name.

After the incident both Welles and Houseman resigned from the Federal Theatre and formed the Mercury Players starting a repertory company including Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) many of whom would feature in most, if not all, of Welles future productions on stage, radio and screen.  Their debut show was to be a modern dress version of Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar drawing a comparison to contemporary Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini; adapting the key scene featuring Cinna the Poet and having him brutally murdered not by an angry mob but a secret police force.

One of the film’s great strengths lies in showing a working theatre from both sides of the curtain.  It also shines a light on Welles’ eccentric working methods, particularly the way in which he handled his fellow actors, seducing or inciting their very best performances out of them.  It also depicts his dedicated dashing from one radio show to another, lending his vocal talents at the drop of a hat either as The Shadow or another random character part, to fund his own productions; apparently he hired an ambulance to beat the New York traffic as there was no law saying you had to be ill to travel in one!

Whilst it’s fair to say that due to Welles’ massive persona Christian McKay steals every scene he is in, Zac Efron and Claire Danes still have ample screen time to explore their mutual attraction in a series of well played “meet-cute” wisecracking scenes reminiscent of the screwball farces of the period.  Director Linklater does remarkably well with a relatively low-budget and no-frills approach, the obvious area in which there has been no scrimping is in the script’s marvellous attention to historical detail, taking its time and never underestimating the attention span of the audience. 

Given Zac Efron’s bankability there must have been a huge temptation to make creative compromises in order to reach a wider market, luckily the producers elected to make the movie in the Isle of Man, a tax haven, allowing them far greater artistic control but unfortunately limiting the distribution options and consequently the film has been seen by few people which is a great shame.

The initial home video releases in the UK were strictly limited to one supermarket chain and it has yet to emerge in high definition, although fortunately the German Blu-ray release has a full 1080p VC-1 picture resolution and an optional DTS-HD 5.1 English audio soundtrack, without forced subtitles.  I can imagine how hard it is, given the subject matter, to get a movie like Me and Orson Welles made at all, so praise is due to Richard Linklater and I hope in time the film finds the audience it truly deserves.

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