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.
I discovered the art of David Lynch entirely by accident, although I had shown a keen interest in films from a relatively young age, I usually arrived at them by way of the star appearing in them. As a budding actor I wanted to study the best and through watching the likes of James Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Peter Sellers and Robert DeNiro, I became aware of the writers and directors behind the camera. Stewart led me to Alfred Hitchcock, Lemmon to Billy Wilder, Sellers to Stanley Kubrick, DeNiro to Martin Scorsese and so on; all great artists but, by and large, part of the acceptable face of “Off Hollywood”.
I was extremely lucky to be a teenager during the 1980s boom of home video and within a 10 minute walk of my parents’ house was a small independent video rental store with a fairly eclectic collection which, in one school summer holiday, I started to work my way through. The store owner was quite lax about the age certification and, at 16, I was able to rent 18 certificate movies without too much difficulty. He also must have had more than a cursory knowledge of the titles because on one shelf he had stacked in order Young Frankenstein, The Elephant Man, Eraserhead, River’s Edge, Blue Velvet and Dune, I believe, I watched them in that order.
In 1990, whist I was studying A-Level English & Drama, I went to see Wild At Heart at the cinema 3 times during the first week of its release and later that year Twin Peaks was on television and I knew that this was unlike anything I had ever experienced in the mainstream before. As Lynch went on to make Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive and my knowledge of cinematic history deepened I could trace influences of Hitchcock and Kubrick in Lynch’s work and recognise that Twin Peaks owed something to Patrick McGoohan’s seminal, cult TV series, The Prisoner.
After training as a painter at the Pennsylvania Academy Of Fine Art and experimenting with short stop motion films like The Grandmother, Lynch relocated to Los Angeles and was awarded a grant by the American Film Institute to make his first feature length film, Eraserhead. The movie was to take the best part of 7 years to complete and contains visual images that were to reoccur regularly in Lynch’s subsequent works; most notably stark electric lighting, industrial ambient sound, and a startling appearance of Jack Nance, as Henry, the father of the mutant baby which preoccupies the film.
Lynch, who famously avoids giving specific interpretations of his work, acknowledges that Eraserhead was a visual poem inspired by his life as a student in Philadelphia and unexpectedly becoming a father at the age of 22. The film was a favourite of Stanley Kubrick who used to screen it privately to guests, and on the basis of viewing it, producer Mel Brooks was to offer David his next directorial project, The Elephant Man, starring John Hurt in the title role, Anthony Hopkins and Brooks’ wife, Anne Bancroft. The film revealed Lynch’s ability to engage an audience on an emotional level and not just be a conjurer of surrealist imagery.
The critical success of The Elephant Man saw Lynch almost directing the 2nd (or 5th if you were born in 1990s!) film in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga but instead he was assigned to the Dino De Laurentis epic Dune, a big-budget adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sprawling Sci-Fi chronicles. The film was not a financial success and personally for Lynch it was a traumatic experience because he didn’t have final cut, but from the ashes of Dune was born what many feel to be Lynch’s masterpiece,Blue Velvet, again produced by the De Laurentis company.
In Blue Velvet Lynch further explores one of his key themes, life in “Small Town, USA” and the dark underbelly of the American Dream. Lumberton is a far cry from the surreal, industrial waste land of Eraserhead; this is a dreamlike re-imagining of the Midwestern towns Lynch grew up in and a forerunner to Twin Peaks. Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is a stand in for Lynch, the young Eagle Scout from Missoula, Montana, he is also the namesake of L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies from Hitchcock’s Rear Window, only this Jeff doesn’t spy from the safe distance of his bachelor apartment but from within the proximity of a bedroom closet. I can’t do justice to these films in this introductory post but I shall return to review each of them thoroughly.
Wild At Heart takes the first book in Barry Gifford’s series of tales about Sailor And Lula as its starting point and then blends it with The Wizard Of Oz filtered through Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. It’s an out and out American Fairytale in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm and it contains dynamic, raw performances from Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern as the star-crossed lovers Sailor and Lula, and an exceedingly creepy Willem Dafoe, last seen playing Jesus in Scorsese’s Last Temptation Of Christ, as the lawless Angel of Death, Bobby Peru.
When I heard that David Lynch intended to work on a TV serial with Hill Street Blues creator, Mark Frost, I was sceptical to say the least. What transpired though was Twin Peaks and it captivated audiences with its surreal blend of daytime Soap Opera and esoteric Police Procedural. For a time it seemed that everybody on the planet wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer, unfortunately once that questioned was finally answered the mystery at the heart of the story vanished along with large amount of the show’s viewers, leading to its eventual cancellation after 29 episodes. The series was followed by the feature film prequel Fire Walk With Me, which successfully manages to lie to rest Laura’s spirit and provide the show’s remaining, loyal fans with some sort of closure.
Lynch collaborated on the script for Lost Highway with Wild At Heart author Barry Gifford, producing a very dark story about a jazz saxophonist, Bill Pullman, who finds himself in the electric chair for murdering his wife and then metamorphoses into younger Balthazar Getty to avoid the death penalty. This film marked the turning point in Lynch’s work where it became clear that the apparent literal meaning of the narrative was only window dressing for the subtext at its heart and Lynch exploited this style further in Mulholland Drive, again I shall save my detailed analysis, drawing comparisons to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for a later post.
David Lynch’s most recent film Inland Empire was shot entirely using digital video cameras and with it he has gone on the record stating that “For me, film is dead”. Whilst many cinematic purists view this as heresy, I have to say that I found the end results very liberating and if working digitally ensures an ongoing output from Lynch then more power to his elbow. However, despite his claims that working on DV is much faster and cheaper than celluloid, it’s been 4 years since the release of Inland Empire and some of us are beginning to wonder if the amount of time he’s recently devoted to proselytising Transcendental Meditation could be much better spent.
When Fantasia was first released on home video tape back in November 1991 I was working in a retail Video shop and I was actively involved in its promotion, I think we must have played it 4 times a day for the best part of 3 months and the sales were phenomenal; in fact it sold 15 million copies worldwide during that initial release. I can remember people buying a copy to watch and another copy to keep wrapped in mint condition; I had never seen anything quite like that before or again since and consequently the movie is embossed in my memory.
Making the sales figures even more remarkable was the fact that the only portion of the 50 year old film known to the public was the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence starring Mickey Mouse, that aside there are long periods of dissonant music, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, music critic Deems Taylor’s dry commentary and the silhouetted rear view of conductor Leopold Stokowski on the podium. Nonetheless, it would appear that when Mickey Mouse shook Stokowski’s hand the barriers between high and low culture were dismantled and modern audiences appreciated Walt Disney’s experiment to create an ongoing, animated promenade concert series.
However, the movie-going public of 1940 were not so convinced and instead of becoming the perennial release introducing new material, whilst keeping the Sorcerer’s Apprentice as a core performance that Disney had imagined, it would be 60 years before Fantasia 2000 would revive the concept to cinema audiences. So now, 10 years on, both films have been re-released in high definition, the original version has been extended to a 124 mins running time by getting a voice-artist to dub Deems Taylor’s commentary restoring the cuts in these passages and returning the 15 minute intermission section which includes a Jazz jam session.
The Special Edition Blu-ray release featuring both films looks immaculate, sporting a full 1080p MPEG-4 video quality picture and an incredibly rich 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack which invigorates the classical programme significantly. Surprisingly for a major Disney classic title like Fantasia the supplements initially felt a little thin, a short featurette per film presented by Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller, focusing on the new Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and a piece examining the notebook of Herman Schultheis, special effects wizard who was responsible for many of the revolutionary techniques developed at the Disney Studio, including the multi layered glass pane system used to give great depth of field to the intricate background tracking shots.
However, the extras on Fantasia 2000 more than make up for it starting with Musicana which explores in detail Disney’s original concept for Fantasia being an ongoing classical music presentation and focuses on an attempt in the 1970s by some of the surviving ‘Nine Old Men’ to revive the project and whilst excellent it is topped by the totally unexpected, remarkable feature length documentary Dali & Disney: A Date with Destino which explores the collaboration between Salvador Dali and Walt Disney in exhaustive biographical detail and culminates with the final realisation of abandoned Fantasia segment Destino which was brought to fruition by Walt’s nephew Roy Disney in 2003 and is presented finally on this disc making it a must have for movie, music and art fans alike.
I was a teenager when I first became aware of Oliver Stone’s movies but I remember taking very little notice of either Platoon or Wall Street at the time. I appreciated that they were well-crafted films that won awards for writing and direction, featuring actors that I respected, Charlie and Martin Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Michael Douglas and the sublime John C. McGinley.
However, for my taste, they were just too realistic to be of interest; instead, as a budding actor, I was obsessed by the highly stylised, absurdist theatre of Harold Pinter and Steven Berkoff. It wasn’t until I saw both The Doors and JFK whilst touring America in 1991 that Oliver Stone emerged as one of my most treasured filmmakers. In his extensive film commentaries he reveals a passion not just for cinema but classical history, politics and truth as an ideal; even if it’s a subjective truth.
There was a lot of hype surrounding The Doors on its opening weekend, I was lucky to see it in Santa Monica, California, where a massive turnout of the band’s local, loyal fan base attended the movie as if they were going to an actual rock concert, whenever Val Kilmer took to the stage imbued by the spirit of the ‘Lizard King’ himself, the audience would get up out of their seats; it was an astonishing spectacle to observe as a young Brit on his first visit to the United States!
Whilst Kilmer’s portrayal of Jim Morrison is uncanny it goes beyond mere imitation, there is genuine emotional turmoil in his ‘heavy’ scenes. The supporting cast of Kyle MacLachlan (keyboardist, Ray Manzarek), Frank Whalley (lead guitarist, Robby Krieger) and Kevin Dillon (drummer, John Densmore) are equally superb and bring to the band both the dynamism and camaraderie of good friends making music together, in contrast to Jim Morrison’s death-driven need for it to be something so much more profound than that. The only one who feels out of place amongst all this is Meg Ryan, who Stone admits in his commentary is just a bit too straight-laced and clean-living to be truly convincing as Jim’s common-law wife, Pamela Courson.
Aside from the acting and the music performances, the look of the film is also fantastic with Stone’s regular cinematographer, Robert Richardson on hand to provide an authentic psychedelic look and feel, the striking time-lapse sequences and hallucinogenic dissolves and jump cuts that punctuate the Californian desert vistas. It also features one of cinema history’s best drunken/stoned sequences as we follow Morrison through The Factory in search of Andy Warhol played with creepily, camp detachment by Crispin Glover; this must be steadicam operator, J. Michael Muro’s finest hour.
For his second feature film of 1991 Stone focuses on the only criminal trial brought about in the case of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Kevin Costner stars as Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney whose pursuit of local businessman, Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) involved subpoenaing the Zapruder film from Life magazine 6 years later, which had not been seen by the general public up to that point. Costner’s Garrison is a mixture of Gary Cooper’s Mr. Deeds and James Stewart’s Mr. Smith as Stone dollops a large portion of Capracorn on the film’s family oriented scenes, although this sentimentality doesn’t reduce the overall visceral impact of the movie.
Whilst many criticised Stone for misrepresenting key witness accounts in order to suggest a secret government backed Coup involving the CIA, Cuban exiles and the Mafia with the prime objective of extending the war in Vietnam, a focal theme in almost all of Stone’s movies, an objective audience cannot help but come to the conclusion that the official inquiry as documented in the Warren Commission Report was clearly an inadequate representation of the facts and as a direct result of the film’s popularity the Assassination Records Review Board was formed in 1992 to review previously classified documents pertaining to the case and making all evidence available to the general public by 2017. JFK’s prevailing theme is the quest for truth and as a modern morality play it endures as one of Stone’s most engaging movies.
If JFK could be compared to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar then 1995’s Nixon plays more like King Lear with Anthony Hopkins taking the title role and investing it with self-doubt, survivor’s guilt, petty jealousy, and, ultimately, pathos; here is a man who had the potential to be great, but who wasn’t. I love showing JFK to new audiences but privately I prefer to revisit Nixon as there is something more dramatically satisfying about the grand tragedy inherent in Hopkins central performance that isn’t matched by the humble heroism of Costner’s Jim Garrison, who always seems to be punching above his weight.
We are fortunate that most of Oliver Stone’s films are already available on Blu-ray and in the coming weeks I shall be providing thorough hidef reviews of The Doors, JFK, Nixon, World Trade Centre and W. in anticipation of his latest cinematic release Savages starring Aaron Kick-Ass Johnson.
Some Like It Hot marks the Blu-ray debut for screen legend Jack Lemmon and illustrious writer/director Billy Wilder, this was the first in a 7 film partnership and I anticipate 20th Century Fox shall be releasing the other Mirisch Company titles that they’ve recently acquired from struggling MGM Studios including The Apartment, Irma La Douce, The Fortune Cookie and Avanti! which I will review as soon as they become available.
I stated in my previous Jack Lemmon article that Some Like It Hot was a touchstone film for me when I first saw it as a 12 year old about to be bitten by the acting bug. It started my fascination with the craft for which, like many, I felt that Lemmon was the master. This view was not shared by my schoolmates who ribbed me constantly for what seemed to them as an inappropriate obsession with a comical figure from a bygone age and I was often asked why I wasn’t fanatical about serious actors from my own era, such as Jack Nicholson or Robert De Niro? Obviously, I now have a tremendous amount of admiration for both those performers but at the time studying Lemmon was almost a sacred pursuit for me.
I actually made a short documentary film about Jack in my last year at school in which I interviewed the students and teachers asking them to name their favourite Lemmon movie and, not surprisingly, Some Like It Hot was the overwhelming response; which makes reviewing it somewhat of a thankless task as almost everyone on the planet has seen this film at least once in their lives and it was voted by the American Film Institute as the funniest comedy of all time. It’s safe to say that its popularity is not limited to the fact that it contains Marilyn Monroe’s best performance, although that has obviously helped to maintain audiences interest over the decades.
Billy Wilder left Austria during the rise of Adolf Hitler and travelled as a journalist via Paris ending up in Hollywood in 1933 where he took the job of a studio staff writer. He very quickly attained the reputation of an author of bitingly cynical yet exceedingly funny screwball farces like Ball Of Fire and Ninotchka and graduated to directing his own scripts in the 1940s which were often ‘noirish’ dramas like Double Indemnity or The Lost Weekend, culminating with scathing satires of his chosen professions Sunset Boulevard (Cinema) and Ace In The Hole (Journalism) in the early 1950s.
In 1957 Wilder collaborated with another writer, I.A.L. Diamond (Izzy to his friends) on the screenplay for the romantic comedy Love In The Afternoon marking the start of a successful collaboration the high point of which is arguably Some Like It Hot, made in 1959 and originally conceived as a star vehicle for Tony Curtis cast as Joe the struggling saxophonist and dogged lady’s man whose co-stars were set to be Frank Sinatra as Jerry and Mitzi Gaynor as Sugar. Fortunately, Wilder was not entirely comfortable with Sinatra’s involvement, expecting difficulties from his notorious mob connections given the film’s depiction of murderous gangsters, and when he needed another big name star he turned to Marilyn Monroe for Sugar which opened the door for relative newcomer Jack Lemmon to take the role of Jerry.
The premise of Some Like It Hot seems pretty tame to a modern audience, two down at heel musicians having to flee in drag after witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, but in 1950s America the studios were still very much answerable to the League Of Decency a Catholic lobby group that condemned the film for depicting excessive violence and promoting transvestism and homosexuality. Wilder convinced United Artists to put the movie out without a rating in defiance of the attempts to censor it by the church authorities; this was a watershed period which lead to the abolishment of the much feared Hays Code which had been present since the early 1930s and dictated ridiculous regulations such as in bedroom scenes couples should keep one foot on the floor at all times and that toilets could never be shown on screen!
It seems futile to list the many high points of the film as most readers are no doubt familar with them and I would rather not spoil it for those who have yet to see them; suffice to say that those seeing Some Like It Hot for the first time on this Blu-ray release are in for a massive treat. MGM/UA did a magnificent job in restoring the film in 2006 and this hidef upscale is a further improvement; the 1080p/AVC encode offers an immaculately spotless picture showing off the crisp, perfectly balanced, monochromatic photography and stylish lighting particularly effective at exhibiting Marilyn Monroe’s abundant charm; she also benefits significantly from the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack remaster of her 3 showcased songs, whilst the dialogue is maintained front and centre so not to miss a word of Wilder and Diamond’s textbook screenplay.
It’s a minor disappointment that there are little in the way of new extras presented here, the previous DVD release included both the Making of Some Like It Hot plus the Nostalgic Look Back discussion between film historian Leonard Maltin and Tony Curtis at the Formosa Café on Santa Monica Boulevard, a regular celebrity hangout in the 1950/60s prominently featured in director Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential. Hanson is also on hand here presenting the Legacy of Some Like It Hot serving as a tour guide of the Paramount Pictures backlot, where Billy Wilder had an office for 20 years, and reminisces over the movie’s massive creative influence. There is also a patchwork audio commentary featuring a discussion between I.A.L. Diamond’s son, Paul and the writing duo of Lowell Ganz and Marc ‘Babaloo’ Mandel, their work on classic 1970s sitcoms like Happy Days lead them to pen the script for Ron Howard’s Splash, and they seem as surprised at their involvement in the proceedings as we are; luckily the track is liberally peppered with contributions from Lemmon and Curtis.
Some Like It Hot is a very welcome Blu-ray release and it’s always encouraging to see that classics are getting the high definition upscale they deserve, it simply never looked any better and this will help preserve its memory for future generations and continue to inspire new writing talent. It’s just a shame the extras are a little thin on the ground as I think there is enough material to justify a newly minted feature length documentary presented in HD still, as the film’s closing line attests, “Nobody’s perfect!”
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.
After I returned from my tour of America in 1991 I took a job working in a retail Video shop and this presented me, as an avid movie fan, with two key benefits; the first was the opportunity to preview any tape outside of opening hours, the second was the generous staff discount that allowed me to grow my own film collection. It was at this time that I discovered the work of Spike Lee, starting with his debut feature She’s Gotta Have It for which he was dubiously dubbed “the black Woody Allen” by some for the use of monochrome cinematography in a New York setting and his credits as writer, director and actor in the role of Michael Jordan obsessed, Mars Blackmon, which he reprised for a series of adverts he made for Nike also featuring the basketball star.
His second film, School Daze, produced by David Putnam, was a confusing blend of Animal House style fraternity comedy, equal parts Hollywood musical and biting satire on the notion of black identity in modern America. However, it was his next film Do The Right Thing that really put Lee on the map, taking place on the hottest day of the year in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighbourhood, it focuses on the mounting racial tension between the white family inhabitants of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria and it’s predominate black clientele, headed up by Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) who insists that Sal (Danny Aiello) gets some brothers up on the wall, instead of the “Wall of Fame” consisting entirely of famous Italian-Americans, or they will boycott his restaurant.
Lee plays Sal’s delivery boy, Mookie, who is trying to balance his life as a young father, his relationship and the perceived conflict of working for a white boss by his friends. The animosity reaches a peak at the end of the day when Sal destroys regular customer, Radio Raheem’s (Bill Nunn) boombox leading to a riot, in the ensuing violence the police throttle Raheem to death whilst trying to arrest him, to dispel the vengeful crowd Mookie throws a garbage can through the pizzeria’s window resulting in it being razed to the ground. This action is deliberately ambiguous, the audience are left pondering whether Mookie did the right thing and I’ve found my own response to this can change with each viewing.
The next Spike Lee Joint was Mo’ Better Blues his valentine to the Jazz music of his father, Bill Lee, starring Denzel Washington as the trumpeter and band leader, Bleek Gilliam, who we see as young boy in the opening shots of the film practising scales religiously whilst his friends wait for him to come out to play. The movie cleverly explores the life of an artist having to choose between two muses, one a glamorous and ambitious singer, Clarke (Cynda Williams), the other a teacher, down to earth and maternal, Indigo (Joie Lee), yet ultimately it’s his music that he is wedded to. It also depicts the struggle of egos within a band when saxophonist, Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) vies with Bleek for leadership, the etiquette of solos versus grandstanding, and having to deal with an ineffective, gambling, manager, Giant (Spike Lee), who happens to be your best friend.
The film is heavily stylised and Lee’s regular cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson, provides a rich, saturated colour palette giving the musical sequences at the Underdog Club almost a cartoon look and feel. The score, composed by Bill Lee, is performed by the Branford Marsalis quarter, featuring Terrance Blanchard on trumpet and it remains one of my most listened to soundtrack albums. Ultimately, Giant’s gambling debts catch up with him and Bleek sacrifices his music for their friendship, Shadow takes over both as Clarke’s lover and leader of the band; fate forces Bleek to choose Indigo to save his life and in the long montage featured in the last reel, synchronised to John Coltrane’s Love Supreme, they settle down, get married and have a son, Miles, who also learns the trumpet and so we have come full circle.
Possibly my favourite Spike Lee film is 1992’s Malcolm X, in this movie he displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Cinema providing references from a myriad of influences including the D. W. Griffith silent classic Birth Of A Nation, Billy Wilder’s film noir Ace In The Hole, Vincente Minnelli’s musical The Band Wagon, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and countless other movies; it is truly astounding how many visual treats he is able to cram in to what so easily could have been a standard, po-faced, biopic.
Denzel Washington excels in the title role and is on screen almost constantly for the film’s epic 3½ hour running time. Befitting the Herculian directorial task Lee takes a smaller acting role as Shorty, Malcolm’s barbershop buddy who first straightens his hair and then runs with his gang on a petty crime spree that leads to a lengthy prison sentence. Whilst inside Malcolm is exposed to the teachings Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam and converts to the Muslim faith taking the name Malik Shabazz.
The early part of the film owes a lot of its look and style to Mo’ Better Blues with Malcolm and Shorty running around in Zoot suits, it has a lot of lighter comic moments which perfectly balance the tone of the second half of the film which is more or less preoccupied with the false promises, corruption and separatism that beleaguers the Nation of Islam and its leadership. Culminating with Malcolm X’s assassination at the Aubadon Ball Room in 1965 and closing with Ossie Davis reading his original eulogy from his funeral, which reminds me very much of Oliver Stone’s Nixon; here Spike Lee proves he is not just a marginal, independent filmmaker but among the finest of his generation.
In 1990 I was the resident videographer at Bowes Lyon House, a youth centre and arts venue in my home town of Stevenage that would transform once a week into TheeKlub Wiv No Name attracting artists such as The Ragga Twins, The Bleach Boys and The Cranberries, I was tasked with capturing the live performances on tape.
At the time I was an active member of The Bancroft Players a renowned drama society based at the Queen Mother Theatre in the neighbouring market town of Hitchin. Mike Lukey, my best friend from my early school days, was the keyboardist and songwriter for local band Budadada, now known as the New Town Centres.
The pair of us had tried in vain to make the eponymous Ex & Lukes: The Motion Picture on Super 8 cine film whilst we were still at school and we hit on the notion that we could borrow the camcorder from Bowes Lyon and use it to finally get a movie made and within a couple of weeks we had knocked up a script, gathering a small cast of friends from the theatre group and the band together, many of whom had never acted before.
The plot revolved around the exploits of two supposed pillars of society, Reverend Laurence Dressing (Ex) and Doctor Paul Toombes (Lukes) whose twenty year friendship had seen them descend into corruption leading to murder, incest and ultimately, for the Doctor at least, suicide. It was thought that in order to help me age for the role of the Vicar my curly locks should be bleached white, however due to the natural amount of red in my hair the best the barber could manage was straw yellow, which appeared either orange or green under different light, leaving us no choice but to present the film in black and white.
Whilst the themes were dark the subject was treated as a black comedy, satirising the privatisation policies of the Thatcher government of the day and pondering what might have happened had the Church of England been subject to stringent, commercial, market pressures; enter Archbishop Dorsal Fine played by the stalwart of the Bancroft Youth Theatre Julian Newman Turner, he gives the Vicar one last chance to turn around the fortunes of the church of St. Kilroy before it’s listed for demolition and the land redeveloped.
Reverend Dressing has a more sinister motive for saving the church, for walled up in its belfry is the corpse of a fallen lady from his past who took to blackmail when she fell pregnant by him. The Vicar called upon his good friend and hypnotist Doctor Toombes to discretely dispose of the troublesome woman. If the church is torn down their little secret would be discovered giving them no alternative but to revitalise the church coffers in the easiest way possible by generating an increased demand for funerals and the copious costs that accompany them.
We were actually allowed to film in St. Nicholas church in Old Stevenage on the pretext that this was a community story about a group of local people trying to save the parish church. With the same cunning we were able to convince the Director of Bowes Lyon to let us keep the camera over the course of one weekend (usually we had to return it before the offices closed) and this single exception provided the chance to shoot the requisite spooky night scenes in the woods; no self-respecting, low-budget movie would be complete without them!
Once the Doctor had dispensed with the bulk of his regular patients thus filling St. Kilroy’s graveyard, the second act introduces the character of Georgina played by Claire Garvie, who had recently starred as Sandy in the Lytton Players production of Grease at the Gordon Craig Theatre. Georgina worked at the local nursery and was involved in a fatal car accident resulting in the death of a young child for which she held herself responsible. During a visit to Reverend Dressing for spiritual guidance his dog collar slips once more and he embarks on a May to September fling with Georgina that quickly escalates to talk of marriage; perhaps the clergyman believes he can find salvation by rescuing the young, troubled girl.
Georgina also visits the clinic of Doctor Toombes for counselling and whilst under hypnosis it’s revealed through flashbacks that perhaps he isn’t completely evil after all; whilst he did-away with the pregnant woman from his pal’s past, he managed to save the baby and delivered her to the Salvation Army where she was fostered. Once he realises that the Vicar is about to marry his own daughter unwittingly, this tragedy of Greek proportions is too much for the Hippocratic practitioner to bear and the guilty knowledge sets him in a tailspin of depression and madness culminating in death by his own hand.
Grave Misconduct was originally shot on a Panasonic M10 VHS camera and edited in the linear fashion direct to U-Matic Beta-SP master tape over the course of two days. The equipment available at the time didn’t allow for complex effects, transitions or sound montage and the original now feels a little tired and slow by today’s standards.
Lukes did a very short edit which played more like a trailer to commemorate the film’s first decade but I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to produce a brand new edition to celebrate the film’s 21st anniversary using my new found skills with Final Cut Pro X. I wanted to remove a lot of the glitches from the original that have bothered me over the years whilst keeping the storyline and key performances intact; by cutting 21 minutes of footage and introducing an alternative soundtrack I have injected much more pace and energy into it and I now consider this to be the definitive version.
I grew up watching the constant reruns of the Universal Studios series of Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone as the ace detective and Nigel Bruce as his exceedingly bumbling confident Doctor Watson, back in the day when black and white movies were still shown on terrestrial television. I graduated to the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories as bedtime reading and became somewhat of an aficionado in my late teens. My father who was also a boyhood fan encouraged me to join the Sherlock Holmes Society which, in the pre-Internet era, sent out a copy of The District Messenger, a single page newsletter produced by Roger Johnson roughly once a month since 1982.
Whilst there have been some excellent Holmesian television adaptations, most notably the Granada ‘Adventures’ series starring Jeremy Brett whose performance is on a par with David Suchet’s long running portrayal of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, the more recent film versions have been less than satisfying; the last decent outing was probably Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Stephens donning the renowned deerstalker. So, it was in trepidation that I ventured out to the cinema with my wife to see director Guy Ritchie’s action-packed Legendary Pictures reboot with the unlikely pairing of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as the sleuthing duo.
Any fears were quickly allayed as the script (whose storyline was meticulously researched by Lionel Wigram, co-producer and author of the graphic novel on which the film is based) not only captures the celebrated Conan Doyle creations but screenwriter Michael Robert Johnson has faithfully fleshed them out, presenting them afresh for the sensibilities of the 21st century motion picture audience. To some the plot may seem episodic and, at times, convoluted and it contrives to set up the forthcoming sequel in the final reel, but none of that is at odds with the spirit of the original Strand Magazine publications of the 1890s, which thoroughly exploited the cliff-hanger.
If there was ever any doubt about Robert Downey Jr.’s rehabilitation as an out and out movie star then Sherlock Holmes puts pay to that, the role cries out for the diamond-cut precision and razor’s edge synonymous with his recent performances; I can’t imagine anyone else bringing this particular Holmes to the screen with such alacrity, intuition and intelligence. Somewhat surprisingly, Jude Law also scores highly as the long suffering Doctor, bringing a hitherto unseen charm and dynamism to his John Watson, which lends itself more convincingly as to why Holmes craves his approval and friendship, an aspect so often missing when he’s simply depicted as an inept half-wit.
Thankfully Guy Ritchie’s handwriting is missing from the script’s dialogue but his trademark searing visual style is ever present on the screen. The use of an extreme slow motion camera technique allows us to perceive both Holmes’ rapid intellect and incredible physical dexterity at work in miniscule detail, it is not over used but is particularly powerful in the bare knuckle boxing match; the additional brainpower allowing Ritchie to knock out Brad Pitt’s fight sequence from his earlier movie Snatch.
The attention to period detail is also remarkable, particularly the construction of London’s Tower Bridge which provides the location for the film’s final battle between Holmes and the villain of the piece, Lord Blackwood imbued with biting humour and vengeful menace by Ritchie/Vaughan regular heavy Mark Strong, in the closing moments we discover that all along he’s been a pawn of the shadowy figure of Professor Moriarty who is going to be played by Jared Harris in the sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
The Warner Bros. high definition release sports a shiny 1080p/VC-1 encode of immense clarity, both the picture and DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack are demonstration quality. There are a wealth of extras included which can be watched separately or throughout the film by selecting the unique Maximum Movie Mode presented by Guy Ritchie, this serves as both a commentary and a feature length ‘making-of’ documentary and is superior to the more common Picture-in-Picture Blu-ray feature.
Sherlock Holmes was one of the best nights at the cinema I’ve had in many a year and I regularly enjoy sharing the movie with friends at home, it’s one of the few film franchises that I’m eagerly awaiting the next instalment of and can only hope it will be as solidly entertaining and authentic as the first adventure.
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.