Poirot: Murder On The Orient Express

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In The Bin

After their recent appearance on BBC 6music, The New Town Centres have launched a brand new, pretty decent, website and on it you can find their latest video which I throughly recommend you watch straight away and let them know what you think of it!

 

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FULL BODIED PRODUCTIONS

Please check out the various projects in the pipeline at FULL BODIED PRODUCTIONS by clicking on the logo below.


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Citizen Kane

I was inspired to write this online journal by a line from Citizen Kane, arguably the best film ever made, or is it just the best American film ever made these days? Anyway, the young Charles Foster Kane writes to his guardian Walter Parks Thatcher, that he “thinks it would be fun to run a newspaper” and whilst most of us couldn’t dream to be able to afford the costs involved in running an actual newspaper like Kane’s New York Daily Inquirer we can effectively do just that courtesy of Word Press and the World Wide Web.

I am holding off watching Citizen Kane again on DVD to inform this brief review as I am eagerly awaiting it’s 70th Anniversary release on Blu-ray next year, you will soon discover that I have a passionate fervour for the Hi Def format and will be a constant advocate for it here.  I have, however, seen Citizen Kane many times than I care to remember in my forty years on the planet.  I seem to recall my first viewing was around my 14th birthday, at that time I was convinced that I was destined for an Actor’s life and I was drawn like a moth to a candle by the robust screen presence of Orson Welles, although up until that point I had no concept of what was going on behind the camera. 

Kane was probably the first film that forced me to question why is the camera doing that, that’s a funny angle, the lighting seems almost theatrical surely this isn’t supposed to be realistic?!  And so began my interest in cinematic style, direction and particularly those films that attempted to be removed from reality as we know it.  This enlightenment was mirrored by my exposure to the surrealist painting of Salvador Dali, which in turn would lead me to an appreciation of the films of Luis Buñuel and David Lynch. 

The expressionistic style of Kane is anchored by the more conventional trope of an investigative journalist, our narrative entry into the life of Charles Foster Kane, as he attempts to research the great man’s obituary.  We soon discover, through flashback and interviews with those that knew him, that Kane was not so great.   I was riveted by this as a teenager and fell hook, line and sinker for the ‘Rosebud’ enigma, or what Alfred Hitchcock would simply call the MacGuffin (I shall go into detail about that in a Hitch-related post). 

Over the years I have tried to share with friends, relatives and lovers my passion for Welles and inevitably this leads to a screening of Citizen Kane and the reception is usually the same, initial intrigue which gives way to mild boredom as the pacing feels a little slow by today’s standards and the stilted, slightly stagey dialogue doesn’t help hold the viewer’s attention.  However, nobody can doubt the bravura titular performance and marvel at the old age make-up that transforms the 26 year old Orson Welles’ to his late 70s. 

I think the biggest reason that modern audiences fail to truly appreciate Citizen Kane, especially outside of America, is a lack of common knowledge about the real life of William Randolph Hearst who’s vast media empire attempted to burn the film before its release as it was clearly based on him (I shall venture into this more thoroughly in an upcoming review of RKO 281).  Unlike Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator made a couple of years earlier, everybody knew of the monstrous leader of the Third Reich, and the physical similarities between the Little Tramp and Adolf Hitler were remarkable.  A modern audience appreciates the satire and the pleas for humanity made by Chaplin but the same is not true of the nature of the Hearst Machine and the lives it destroyed. 

Citizen Kane shall always be remembered for its visual impact, although most of its supposed ground-breaking techniques, like deep-focus photography and Dutch camera angles, had been seen before, this was a summation of all that talking pictures could do at this point and will serve as a practical course in cinematic possibilities for all time.

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Kick-Ass

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

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

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

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

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

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Fantasia


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.

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Oliver Stone

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 DoorsJFKNixonWorld Trade Centre and W. in anticipation of his latest cinematic release Savages starring Aaron Kick-Ass Johnson.

I’m pleased to announce that @TheOliverStone is now on Twitter.

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Some Like It Hot

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!”

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Spike Lee

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.

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TWIN PEAKS: The Return | “It Is Happening Again!”

We’ve waited 25 years, 11 months and 11 days and now it is finally happening again!

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Grave Misconduct: 21st Anniversary Edition

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 Thee Klub 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.

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