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, on screen 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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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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At the 2011 Academy Awards Aaron Sorkin said in his acceptance speech, “It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to be handed the same award that was given to Paddy Chayefsky 35 years ago for another movie with ‘network’ in the title.”  It was his first Oscar win for adapting The Social Network and he was referring to the unexpectedly prescient satire Network directed by Sidney Lumet in 1976.

You don’t have to look very far for Chayefsky’s influence on Sorkin’s writing, not just in the awe-inspiring speeches throughout The West Wing but more specifically in his follow up series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a behind the scenes focus on putting on a live light entertainment television show which draws directly from the milieu of Network.

Peter Finch stars as news anchorman Howard Beale who is about to “retire” after 25 years on the air due to a fall in ratings, during the corporate takeover of a fictitious national television network UBS.  In a moment of madness Beale announces to camera his intention to blow his brains out in his final broadcast on live television and is immediately fired until long-time friend and producer Max Schumacher (William Holden) is persuaded by the company’s President to allow him back a final time to apologise and bow out gracefully.

However, once Beale is back on air his psychotic state causes him to launch into a candid tirade claiming that “life is bullshit”; ironically this strikes a chord with the public and fledging producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) who has been looking for edgier material suggests to Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), the chief executive appointed by the conglomerate who have acquired the station, that Howard Beale be given his own show so he can sound off on whatever topics he likes.

Network is an outrageously believable black parody that is at once very funny yet deeply biting, years ahead of his time Chayefsky predicts not only reality TV but also the theory of the New World Order run by one massive ‘ecumenical’ holding company.  In the film’s touchstone scene during one of Beale’s televised rants on the night of an electrical storm, he manages to rouse his viewers to get up and go to their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” which not only became the movie’s tagline but is now an oft-quoted, indelible moment in cinema history.

Despite looking its age in terms of costume and set design Network fares remarkably well on Blu-ray, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is displayed in the original aspect ratio 1.85:1 showing off the film’s impressive use of stylised lighting particularly in the memorable monologue where the chairman of the corporation (Ned Beatty) evangelises his global capitalism to Howard Beale, appearing like a haloed vision of God in a starry night sky.  The DTS-HD master audio mix of the original mono soundtrack is perfect for a film which is reknowned for its exceptional dialogue.

There are a wealth of extras on the disc, including an in-depth “Behind the Story” analysis of the movie as well as a rare interview with writer Paddy Chayefsky recorded at the time of the film’s original release and an hour long episode of Private Screenings with director Sidney Lumet where he discusses in detail his substantial body of work recorded in 2005 after he was awarded the honorary life time achievement Oscar which, for fellow cinephiles, is worth the price of the disc alone!

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Sondheim! The Birthday Concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Mission

The Mission was the last screenplay by Robert Bolt, the writer responsible for such epic, historical movies as A Man for All Seasons and Lawrence of Arabia.  Director Roland Joffé has made a film equally ambitious in its scale, featuring breathtaking cinematography by Chris Menges, deeply moving performances from stars Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro, and a soulful award winning score from Ennio Morricone.

Set in the 1750s and focusing on the true story of the Mission of San Miguel built at the summit of the massive Iguazu Falls and founded to shelter the indigenous Guaraní tribe who lived there; protecting them from slave traders during the on-going wars of Spanish Succession fought against the Portuguese over territories on the frontiers of Paraguay and Argentina.

Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel, a fervent Jesuit who single-handedly scales the perilous falls and wins the trust of the natives with his enchanting oboe playing and devotion to his faith.  Robert De Niro is Captain Rodrigo Mendoza, a mercenary who kidnaps the Guaraní and sells them to both Portuguese and Spanish plantation owners; whose Roman Catholic King opposes slave trading.

When Mendoza’s fiancée Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi) confesses that she’s in love with his younger brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn) he becomes consumed with jealously and later when he discovers the couple in bed together, the two brothers fight a duel in which Felipe is killed.  Mendoza is wracked with guilt and falls into an inconsolable depression, his remorse leads him to accept a penance from the Jesuit order to atone for his sins.

Father Gabriel convinces Mendoza to journey with him to the top of the falls, burdened further by dragging his heavy armour behind him as part of his punishment.  Once they reach the top the Guaraní recognise the man who has hunted them and initially react with hostility but the priest assures them that the former slaver’s penitence is in earnest and he is accepted as one of the brethren.  All is well until the Portuguese put pressure on the Spanish to cede the missionary land in accord with the Treaty of Madrid.  The Papacy sends an Emissary, Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally) to act as a mediator and determine their fate.

Altamirano, a former Jesuit himself, has to choose what he believes to be the lesser of the two evils; if he favours the colonists then the natives will be forced into slavery but if he allows the missions to remain then the Portuguese will condemn the Jesuit order and risk fracturing the Catholic Church in Europe.  Despite being impressed with the beauty and success of the missionary community, Altamirano rules in favour of their closure. 

The Jesuits defy the Cardinal’s decision promising to stay and protect the Guaraní from the colonial forces, ever the pragmatist Mendoza, now an ordained priest himself, argues with Father Gabriel on how they should go about defending themselves from imminent attack.  Bolt’s script very cleverly explores the duality of man; Gabriel is unshakeable in his belief that an act of violence is a crime against God, whilst Mendoza is prepared to break his vows in order to defend the Mission by force if necessary.

Both Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro give accomplished performances and the film, produced by David Puttnam, went on to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.  25 years later the film looks absolutely stunning on Blu-ray, the full 1080p transfer is displayed in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio with a remarkably sharp image and lush colour palette most notable in the ample shots of verdant foliage.  The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack perfectly mixes the dialogue with Morricone’s unforgettable Oscar winning original score.

The Mission is an intelligent and meticulously well written movie whose resounding themes are still relevant today and whilst the final images are rather harrowing they in no way detract from the sheer technical brilliance that went into capturing such a beautiful spectacle on film.

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