Svengali Review

I first met Jonathan Owen a couple of years ago when I was working on Cass Pennant’s documentary debut Casuals, he was one of the many interviewees who helped to tell the history of the Mod and Casual fashion scene.

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As many have testified Jonny is genuinely one of the nicest fellows you’re likely to come across, especially in the entertainment industry, and his winning charm is at the heart of the success of the Svengali project that he has been working on since the first viral debuted on YouTube back in 2009.

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The original series of webisodes came to the attention of Mod culture and music fans alike and was hailed by the London Evening Standard as the “best thing on the Internet” at the time.  Featuring a smattering of cameos from the world of Rock, including real-life ‘Svengali’ Alan McGee and Carl Barât of The Libertines, it charts the arrival of former Welsh postman Paul ‘Dixie’ Dean in London with high hopes of promoting the raw and rowdy band The Premature Congratulations to the topper-most-of-the-popper-most.

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Whilst the five minute virals focused primarily on Dixie’s naivety and his relationship with his old Valley’s oppo Brian Horse(y) now a successful A&R man, whose contacts include all the leading lights of the British music biz, the feature film expands his world turning the spotlight on his long-suffering fiancée Shell played by the redoubtable, BAFTA award winning actress, Vicky McClure.

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Along with the central romantic plot line we also finally get to see The Prems as well as an insight into Dixie’s Welsh roots; particularly effective is the scene where his father played by the late Brian Hibbard tells Dixie that he’s not long for life and they share a poetic moment of pure cinematic gold.  I come back to this scene time and again, not only has it been made more poignant by Hibbard’s own death not long after the film was completed, but because I can’t tell if it’s totally written or completely improvised, either way it’s a marvelous acting tour-de-force by the two men.

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The key thing that the film manages to reveal in far greater depth is the fundamental difference between Dixie and Horsey who, on paper, could be considered two sides of the same coin.  Both hail from the same humble beginnings but one has completely reinvented himself cocking a snook at his past, whilst the other totally embraces it.  It’s a shame that Roger Evans’ performance as Horsey seems to have been largely overlooked by the critics, barely being mentioned in most of the mainstream reviews that I’ve read, he is the necessary Yin to Dixie’s Yang and the understated combination of embarrassment, envy and bemusement he displays on screen is one of the movie’s core strengths.

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Svengali manages to be at once a satire of the music and fashion scene, with Martin Freeman’s Mod-Elite record store owner and Matt Berry’s outrageously intimidating record label boss providing many of the laughs, but it’s also a romantic comedy, a rags to riches story and a buddy movie; this sounds disjointed but it actually holds together very well.  This is no doubt due to Jonny Owen’s central performance as Dixie, on screen almost all of the time his warmth, generosity and sincerity ooze off the screen.

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In one of the best scenes an exposed Horsey, who spends all of his time with yes men, cut-throat media types and prostitutes, ponders on what Dixie has that he doesn’t and whilst he narrowly focuses on how he is able to spot musical talent it is apparent that the major thing that Paul Dean has over Brian Horse in his life is love; both familial and romantic.  Dixie has kept true to himself and where he has hailed from so consequently, despite walking away from everything he aspired to he retains his dignity and his passion for life.

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Svengali has proven that it is possible to make a quality low budget, independent film in the UK that doesn’t have to fit a cookie-cutter mold to reach its audience.  The film’s journey echoes Dixie’s spirit in every frame and it’s a testament to everyone who believed in it and worked on bringing it to the big screen over the years.  I am very excited to see what Root Films, the joint venture between Jonny Owen and producer Martin Root, do next and I wish them continued success.

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Quick Q&A with Terry Jones

Phoenix Pictures the company that produced Black Swan is also the home for Terry Jones first feature film as director since his wonderful retelling of The Wind in the Willows in 1996.  I recently got a chance to catch up with the incredibly busy and exceedingly diverse Welshman and ask him a few questions.

Steve: I’ve found it quite a helpful tool in life to gauge whether I’m going to get on well with someone if they express a liking for Monty Python those that don’t, or look at me blankly, I usually don’t click with.  Have you ever found your Python fame to be an obstacle or has it always been a door opener?

Terry: Well it’s usually been a door-opener.  But I suppose when Erik The Viking came out everyone was expecting another Monty Python film and with Python you never suspend your dramatic disbelief – whereas for Erik you had to.

Steve: I recently read your book Who Murdered Chaucer? aside from the ‘Whodunnit’, or as you say ‘Wasitdunnatall’ central to the intrigue, the real eye-opener for me was the extent of the censorship under Henry IV; particularly with regards to the negative spin on the reputation of Richard II, the cousin who he usurped and had murdered.  Do you think that despite the Internet and 24 hour news networks that we’re suffering from “information overload” and all the more susceptible to spin and misinformation?

Terry: Well I guess it’s nowadays easier for those who do the spinning to spin.  In the Middle Ages you had to think “How do I get people to hear anything?”  Not that it stopped them.  They did everything they could to create propaganda. ~But it’s a bit easier now.

Steve: Unfortunately I missed The Doctor’s Tale but the idea utterly fascinates me, what was it like to write and direct your first opera and is it something you could see yourself doing again?

Terry: Well I really enjoyed the experience.  It wasn’t really my first go at directing opera – Evil Machines was something of an opera – in that it was pretty well all sung.  But yes I’d very much like to write an all-sung popular show…

Steve: I am among the many eagerly anticipating your return to the director’s chair with the Sci-Fi movie comedy Absolutely Anything, you let slip to me of Charlie Sheen’s involvement, is this going to be the true “winning” move that kick-starts his serious comeback?  What more can you tell me about the film?

Terry: Well Phoenix Pictures have now decided that the villain being a US Army Colonel was putting investors off, so we’ve changed the villain into a Frenchman.  So I’m not sure it’s going to kick start anything for Charlie.

I’m pleased to announce that Terry is now twittering @PythonJones

And now for something completely different…

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Michael Clayton

Fresh from the success of furnishing the scripts for the extremely lucrative Bourne franchise, Tony Gilroy was given the rare opportunity to make his directorial debut with his own original screenplay Michael Clayton, an intricate, character-driven suspense story which finally confirms George Clooney to be one of the most distinguished screen actors of his generation.

Clooney plays the title role, a ‘fixer’ with a prestigious New York City law firm; he is an opaque figure who, as a former criminal prosecutor, is uniquely gifted at his job which usually involves finding legal loopholes exonerating high paying clientele from their dubious actions as typified by his late night call to a wealthy businessman (Denis O’Hare) who has just been involved in a hit and run accident.

You can tell from the opening moments of Michael Clayton that it’s going to be a thoughtful film, methodically paced but exceedingly tight, reminiscent of the conspiracy thrillers made by Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View) or Sydney Pollack (Three Days of the Condor)  in the 1970s.  Not surprisingly Gilroy enlisted the help of Pollack who appears here, in one of his last roles in front of the camera, as Clayton’s boss and the firm’s senior partner Marty Bach.

Michael is a complex character with a history of gambling, he is currently in debt to a loan shark due to a failed restaurant venture with his drug-addicted brother and he is being put under great pressure to come up with the money.  The firm are currently defending a class-action lawsuit filed against fictional pharmaceutical giant U-North and their leading attorney Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has a mental breakdown during a deposition, stripping off his clothes and declaring undying love for one of the key witnesses.

It transpires that Arthur has been diagnosed bipolar and it’s not the first time Clayton has been called in to salvage the mess caused by the disorder whilst he’s off his medication.  U-North’s general counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) has Edens put under surveillance and discovers that he’s in the possession of a report proving their latest product is carcinogenic and that he’s about to ‘go rogue’ and expose this publically just as they’re closing in on a settlement deal.

Michael Clayton is “total cinema” at its very best; woven of a semi-byzantine plot line and meticulously framed cinematography, steeped in the thought processes and actions of acutely convincing central characters, the usually buoyant Clooney really bares his soul in this film like no other, whilst Wilkinson and Swinton deliver unshakable supporting performances.  In many ways it’s the antithesis of the Bourne movies yet despite lacking outright action sequences it still clutches audiences, bringing them to the edge of their seats.

I am gratified that I went to see Michael Clayton at the cinema when it first came out in 2007; I know I am amongst a minority who managed to catch it as it appeared on very few screens for only a brief stint.  I am willing to go out on a limb and claim that in time it will likely be remembered as the film of its decade and I’m hopeful that the Blu-ray release will introduce it to a wider audience. 

There is nothing flashy about the 1080p VC/1 transfer, the soundtrack is a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and apart from an informative audio commentary from writer/director Tony Gilroy and his brother John, also the movie’s editor, there are no extras to speak of, no matter because Michael Clayton is exactly the kind of cinematic gem that doesn’t need a deconstructive light shined on it in order to be appreciated but rather should be wallowed into in the dark, with the comforting knowledge that from time to time they do make them like this anymore (sic).

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Monty Python’s Life of Brian

I was first exposed to Monty Python whilst I was at school; I got one of their albums Monty Python’s Previous Record out of the local library and was instantly hooked.  However, it would be over a decade before I got the opportunity to see the entire 4 seasons of the ground breaking Monty Python’s Flying Circus series in total and even then I had to shell out a small fortune to import the 14 disc DVD ‘Mega Set’ that was only available from the Arts & Entertainment television network in the US at the time.  I’m envious of the current generation of Python neophytes who can download their entire oeuvre direct from iTunes instantly.

Although the TV series was unavailable on home video in the UK throughout my teens I was fortunate to be able to get all three of the feature films on tape to watch over and over again.  After the box office success of the low budget Monty Python and the Holy Grail the Python’s got the financial backing of Beatle George Harrison’s fledging HandMade Films and spent two weeks in a Caribbean beach retreat writing the script that would become their recognised masterpiece Monty Python’s Life of Brian, an epic literally of biblical proportions.

Whilst Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones had shared the directorial reigns of Holy Grail somewhat frustratingly, this time out Gilliam focuses on the production design leaving Jones to concentrate squarely on directing the performances.  The end result is that Life of Brian is the most cinematic Python movie, looking less like a comedy and every bit like the Hollywood Biblical Epics that it parodies.  Graham Chapman stars as Brian Cohen, a young Jewish man who lives a parallel life to Jesus Christ and is often mistaken for the Messiah.

The production benefitted from filming in Monastir, Tunisia where Franco Zeffirelli had recently shot the lavish miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, they were also able to re-use various costumes which helped add to authenticity the team were striving for, as Terry Jones says in the audio commentary “there is no reason why a comedy can’t look beautiful” and Life of Brian certainly looks incredibly sharp on this Sony Pictures Blu-ray release.

Despite being banned throughout the world’s more strictly Christian countries, including Scotland, for being blasphemous the film actually treats Christ played by Kenneth Colley with great respect, it isn’t claiming to be the life of Jesus after all.  In fact if the movie could be accused of anything it would be heresy as the obvious target of its biting satire is the rigid dogma and hypocrisy of the various churches that can’t seem to agree on the exact meaning of the teachings of Christ despite over 2,000 years of often calamitous debate.

It also takes a side swipe at the political infighting in separatist factions like the “People’s Front of Judea” or the “Judean People’s Front” and challenges the unthinking devotion of the masses who long to see acts of God in the most banal everyday incidents, as depicted by the unwanted gourd that Brian acquires in the market.  Above all else Life of Brian is packed full of the wonderfully absurd wordplay that you come to expect from the Monty Python team and each member is given an opportunity to shine in many memorable performances; they even get a chance to play a scene with their Goon Show idol, Spike Milligan, who was commemorating a battlefield in North Africa at the time and spent a day on the set.

Animator Terry Gilliam takes an opportunity to do a full-blown, incongruous, action sequence in the middle of the film when Brian is being chased by the Roman Centurions he is picked up by a randomly passing alien spaceship which allows for a fleeting send-up of George Lucas’ Star Wars.  The movie reaches a climax with the sardonic sing-along of Eric Idle’s song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” by those sentenced to death by crucifixion alongside Brian, an iconic image to close the film.

The hidef release contains most of the material from the Criterion Collection DVD release, including the two feature length audio commentaries, one featuring Michael Palin and John Cleese and the other Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Terry Jones, which both offer a wealth of background information.  There is also the entire audio read through of the screenplay by the team which has been set to the typed script and excerpts of the original storyboard.  The hour long Story of Brian is a detailed documentary which charts the controversy and subsequent banning of the film.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian is the most cohesive of all their movies, it’s not only one of the funniest comedies ever made it’s also an insightful probing of the history of organised religion and a cautionary tale about the dangers of blind faith and the loss of individualism.

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The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

Luc Besson came to prominence as the writer/director responsible for some of the most iconic French films of the Cinéma Du Look period including Subway, The Big Blue, Nikita and Léon.  His career faltered with the release of The Fifth Element, the overblown and unhinged Sci-Fi saga starring Bruce Willis.  Since then his output has been largely hit and miss, concentrating his efforts more as a writer/producer for the action oriented Taxi and Transporter franchises.

Besson recently returned to direct the heartfelt live-action/animated “Minimoys” trilogy based on a series of fantasy novels he wrote for children featuring Freddie Highmore as the hero Arthur battling his arch-nemesis Maltazard on each occasion voiced by David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed respectively along with a host of Hollywood elite lending their vocal talents to supporting roles.  The films all proved to be massive hits with my 5 year old son, who happily returns to each of them on a regular basis.

When I first heard that Besson’s next movie The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec was based on the 1970s comic book series by Jacques Tardi about the adventures of an “Indiana Jones” style heroine, I had assumed that it was also primarily aimed at children and would get an English language release.  However, I would suggest that subtitles aside the themes and leisurely pace of the film would probably fail to engage a pre-teen audience even if it were dubbed.

Besson has adapted the script from Tardi’s most popular comics Adèle and the Beast and Mummies on Parade set in turn of the century Paris focusing on the exploits of an intrepid, independent young journalist and adventurer Adèle Blanc-Sec (Louise Bourgoin), who uses her acerbic wit and exceptional resourcefulness to run rings around her opposition, the Professor Dieuleveult (Mathieu Amalric).  Tardi conceived his female protagonist in contrast to the overtly sexualised Barberella, whose titillating escapades in outer space dominated Franco-Belgian comic culture at the time, setting the stories in the early 1900s further emphasised Adèle’s emancipation.

By employing the mystical powers of the strange and reclusive Professor Espérandieu (Jacky Nercessian), Adèle hopes to revive the mummified remains of Ramesses II’s doctor in the belief that he will be able to cure her sister whose current condition remains a mystery for the greater part of the film.  Whilst Adèle is away in Egypt excavating the Pharaoh’s tomb Espérandieu practices his resuscitation technique on a 135 million year old Pterodactyl egg which hatches and goes about terrorising the city and suburbs of Paris.  The beast is eventually tracked down by the bumbling and insatiable, Inspector Caponi (Gilles Lellouche) and the Professor is arrested awaiting execution.

The film cleverly employs the episodic quality of the serialised adventure films of the 1930s but amidst the many action set pieces, amusing subplots and colourful supporting characters you never lose the key narrative thread of Adèle’s quest to revive her sister who has been in a catatonic state since a bizarre tennis accident involving a hat pin for which she feels responsible; her guilty suffering and dogged determination provide the movie with an emotional core and Louise Bourgoin’s layered performance prevents it ultimately from being forgettable fluff.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec is Luc Besson’s finest movie in a long time and the intriguing end scene of Adèle embarking the Titanic for a well-deserved vacation suggests to me that there may be more instalments to come for which I would be exceedingly grateful.  There will be clamours for an English language version but there is no doubt that this is an extremely watchable subtitled movie and I’m of the belief that the distinctive French flavour enhances the overall enjoyment of the piece.

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Sucker Punch

It infuriates me that Sucker Punch has been universally demonised in the mainstream press for being the one thing that it clearly isn’t and anyone with a modicum of intelligence will appreciate that this is not a movie that sets out to further objectify or exploit women. Unfortunately such vehement negative press will undoubtedly put a lot of people off seeing it and drawing their own conclusions and this worrying trend in film criticism is tantamount to censorship in my opinion.

So why was Sucker Punch so reviled?  I think the main reason is that people expect a Zack Snyder film to be a throw-away experience, they’re not looking for anything other than escapist action and they certainly aren’t expecting a frank and disturbing allegory on gender politics.  Whilst there are plenty of fantasy battle sequences that can be watched purely as disposable fun there is an overarching subtext that deals with the rape, prostitution and psychological abuse of women that would be more at home in a David Lynch movie.

Despite its popcorn-friendly packaging Sucker Punch is full of unflinching feminist themes depicting the gamut of women’s experience throughout the course of the 20th century that the average viewer didn’t sign up for and were unprepared to take on-board in this context so they rail against the movie accusing its writer/director of the exploitation they’re witnessing, rather than recognise they are part of the society ultimately responsible; Zack Snyder is merely holding a mirror up to it.

The film opens with a montage backed by a new recording of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) to set up the back story of Babydoll (Emily Browning) the film’s protagonist.  When her mother dies Babydoll and her younger sister become wards of their stepfather whose physical and sexual abuse escalates to the point where she tries to shoot him but misses accidentally killing her sister for which she is committed to an insane asylum.  Sucker Punch takes place in a stylised version of the 1960s, a period where many women were institutionalised usually as the result of an unquestioned accusation of insanity from a significant male relation and, like Babydoll, were threatened with irreversible lobotomy as the final solution to their supposed mental illness.

The resident psychiatrist at Lennox House for the Mentally Insane is Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) who practices the methods of Freud and Jung, encouraging her female patients to re-enact the circumstances of their abuse in order to confront their shadow selves.  This focus on the subconscious allows the film’s layered fantasy structure to emerge, Babydoll retreats into a dreamlike state where the austere asylum is replaced by the image of a louche bordello in which she and her inmates are transformed into dancers in the employ of the club’s owner/pimp, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) who in reality is the head orderly who accepted a large bribe from Babydoll’s stepfather to forge Dr. Gorski signature to authorise her lobotomy.

In the brothel fantasy Vera Gorski is transformed into a choreographer-cum-madam figure that encourages the virginal, porcelain like Babydoll to muster up the courage to express herself through a highly personal erotic dance, this triggers the second layer of fantasy sequences in which she becomes a Warrior Princess who, under the guidance of the Wise Man (Scott Glenn), accepts a quest to retrieve 4 talismans that will lead her to understand the identity of the mysterious 5th object that will secure her freedom.

This mystical scavenger hunt enables Zack Snyder to film 4 equally incredible stylised battle scenes against many disparate foes such as giant Samurai, steam-powered Nazi zombies, a baby dragon and its protective mother, and a horde of killer glass robots.  The individual sequences are stunningly rendered and impeccably executed with the precision of a frenetic modern ballet and with each battle the camaraderie between Babydoll and her cohorts, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) grows and you get the impression of a genuine bond between the friends as they fight for their lives.

The central conceit of the film is that these women are forced to use their sexuality as the only weapon available to them in order to manipulate the men who control their miserable existences and that this “empowers” them, yet they spend the entire film scantily clad which gives rise to the charges of objectification.  The theatrical cut of the film was given a 12 certificate but many critics claimed it ought to have been rated 18, why?  There is no nudity, no sex scenes, little bad language, stylised violence and no bloodletting; what seems to upset the largely conservative critics is the implied rape and pervasive subtext which depicts the harsh reality of being a woman in a man’s world.

The appalling thing about this attempt to censor Sucker Punch is the outright hypocrisy of it all, as if this film is the only current example of female exploitation and objectification, as if it isn’t apparent in every music video shown throughout the day on MTV, as if it’s not omnipresent in every reality TV show, not to mention that only recently we’ve seen the return of Burlesque as an acceptable form of mainstream entertainment.  It would appear that the film’s critics are saying we’re absolutely fine with scantily clad, gun toting girls and we’ll even buy into this myth of “empowerment” but don’t then ruin it all by making us conscious of the fact that ultimately these women are the victims of deplorable acts of sexual violence.

As the west continues to fight a war against Islamic fundamentalism often in the name of freeing repressed women from the burqa or the yashmak, it seems ironic that the supposed free women of the western world are equally imprisoned behind their fetishized painted faces, parading in hot pants or micro skirts.  This irony is not lost on Zack Snyder or the cast of Sucker Punch, the film doesn’t degrade women or explicitly claim to be “empowering” them but, along with a recent spate of movies that acknowledge feminism’s third wave (Black Swan, the remake of True Grit, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), it shines a light on a dark aspect of the human condition and is clearly one of the most original and challenging movies in recent memory; Babydoll will, in no doubt, eventually emerge as a cult figure in cinema history.

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Inland Empire

I was going to get around to reviewing Inland Empire on Blu-ray at some point but have been inspired to do so with a little more urgency by some surprisingly disparaging comments about it at, of all places, the Twin Peaks Gazette an online community dedicated to the seminal TV show and David Lynch’s oeuvre moreover.  The general opinion is that this is a dog’s dinner of a film and that it has single-handedly killed his cinematic career.

I couldn’t disagree with these sentiments more vehemently, in my opinion it could very well be the crowning glory to a body work of great distinction.  I admit it was never going to be to everybody’s taste, even those who have championed his more commercial efforts might well struggle with its epic running time and the fact it isn’t shot on celluloid but retrograde digital video cameras, operated entirely by Lynch himself.  The film is both a showcase for the acting talents of long-standing muse Laura Dern and her intense, multifaceted performance eats up the screen, as well as a serious attempt to push the envelope of the cinematic medium as art

The film’s detractors argue that it has no coherent plot and that the characters aren’t defined well enough to want to spend so much time with them.  However, Dern’s stand out performance as Nikki Grace, a Hollywood starlet about to take on the female lead in drama steeped in adultery and murder only to find that it isn’t an original script, as she first thought, but a remake of an abandoned Polish movie that was believed to be ‘cursed’ according to the new film’s director, played with twinkling comic subtlety by Jeremy Irons.  The former movie’s romantic leads died in mysterious circumstances and it would appear that the folk tale on which the plot is derived also has a horrifying history; benefitting from a masterfully dark central performance from the marvelous Peter J. Lucas.

The director urges Nikki and her leading man, Devon (a welcome return of Mulholland Drive’s Justin Theroux) not to panic as they will be perfectly safe; but as they rehearse the scenes the lines between the film’s story, the folk lore and the fate of the original couple transgress their own reality.  Whilst this is familiar Lynch terrain it is in no way predictable, quite the opposite.  The menacing mood and exceedingly surreal imagery, most notably a corny sitcom starring actors with rabbit heads complete with canned laughter, is intercut adding to the mounting disquiet and tension as Nikki is drawn deeper into the mystery.

I agree that there are elements of commonality between Inland Empire and Lynch’s previous film Mulholland Drive but no more than there were with its own predecessor Lost Highway, which was equally criticised when it first came out for being too dark and confusing, yet is now widely acclaimed as a Lynch classic.  This is where the ‘art’ world vastly differs to the world of cinema where audiences expect a director’s new movie to be entirely different from their last.  However, with both painting and music it is quite common for an artist or composer to do ‘variations on a theme’ throughout their careers.

Whilst I recognise that Inland Empire is the least accessible film David Lynch has made to date I think it is all the better for that and emerges as a true ‘work of art’.  This is the type of expression we should expect from an artist who has been freed from the confines of budget, time and the interference of studio executives by embracing the digital medium.  To try and compare Inland Empire even to Mulholland Drive, the first two thirds of which initially formed the pilot for TV series and therefore comes from a commercially aware sensibility, is like comparing apples and oranges.  The only other film that comes close to it in Lynch’s canon would be Eraserhead and I’ve come to understand that when he said he was “done with film” he wasn’t simply meaning the medium in preference to digital; he was also referring to the limitations that commercial film distribution imposes on a creative artist and it’s a testament to the French, who have a true respect for ‘auteur’ cinema, that Canal+ continue to release David Lynch’s work. 

It is probably wrong to even attempt to review Inland Empire, it is a film that should just be experienced with as little preconception as possible, perhaps it needs to be approached as one would a visit to an art gallery, wandering through it at a leisurely pace not quite expecting what will be around the corner or what surprise might be in the next room.

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Be Kind Rewind

Sometimes you think you know exactly what a film is going to be like that you overlook it initially and as time passes and you never get around to watching it, you convince yourself that it doesn’t really matter because you knew what is was going to be like anyway so you haven’t really missed much; well, this is exactly what happened with me and writer/director Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind.

I knew from the trailer that it was a comedy starring Jack Black and Mos Def and I was aware that it involved them having to shoot camcorder versions of classic movies and that mayhem ensues but that’s about it and although I intended to see it at the cinema I never did and despite being a fan of Gondry’s previous films written by Charlie Kaufman, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I didn’t get around to making the home video purchase of Be Kind Rewind until now with the 20th Century Fox Blu-ray release.

Suffice to say I was taken aback when the opening credits started to recount the life and times of one Thomas “Fats” Waller, the larger than life stride pianist, all-round entertainer and prolific composer of popular songs such as Ain’t Misbehavin’, Honeysuckle Rose and This Joint Is Jumpin’ with long time lyricist Andy Razaf; there wasn’t even a hint of any of this in the trailer?!  The point is that I have been a devotee of Waller since my early teens when I was given an old compilation LP of his by my Grandfather, it was simply called Handful of Keys, taking its name from the title of his staggering instrumental tour de force, just one of the many outstanding tracks included on the album; a record which hardly ever left my turntable.

The film, which is set in the New Jersey neighbourhood of Passaic, lays claim to be the birthplace of Fats Waller; actually it’s the proprietor of the rundown community video store, Mr. Fletcher played by Danny Glover who’s perpetuated the myth that Waller was actually born in his building which is due to be demolished to make way for a new development unless he can raise enough money to renovate the place.  Fletcher is taking a short trip to honour Waller’s memory on the anniversary of his death and he leaves his young assistant, Mike (Mos Def) minding the store but warns him never to let his eccentric and accident prone friend Jerry (Jack Black) inside while he’s away.

Mike fails to heed the counsel of his boss and opens the door to Jerry after he accidentally becomes electrically charged in an attempt to sabotage the local generator which he believes is being used as a conduit to control his thoughts.  The magnetic field emanating from Jerry manages to wipe the store’s entire collection of tapes and when the regular customers complain the disastrous duo come up with the hare-brained scheme of shooting their own homespun versions, the first of which is Ghostbusters, hoping that nobody will notice the difference; this is the part that does feature prominently in the trailer and whilst it’s a novel laughable notion it never really felt robust enough to fulfil a feature film’s running time.

Without wanting to give too much more away, because I would like first time viewers to undertake the same journey of discovery that I did, what transpires is that Be Kind Rewind manages to be three things at once, a very funny modern comedy, an old-fashioned ‘buddy picture’ and a heart-warming ‘Capraesque’ story of community spirit overcoming corporate tyranny.  Mos Def and Jack Black are exceedingly amiable in their roles; somewhat surprisingly the latter who, despite being a gifted comic actor, has a habit of playing irritating characters.  Michel Gondry does a fantastic job directing his own script, embellishing it with wonderful visual nuggets such as the interference that skews the picture whilst Jerry is magnetised.

The Blu-ray is presented in full 1080p in its original 2:35.1 aspect ratio and aside from Mike and Jerry’s “sweded” VHS movies the picture quality is uniformly sharp and pleasingly vibrant.  The soundtrack gets an even more luscious upscale, an impressive DTS-HD 7.1 mix showing off the soundscape of the busy Passaic streets and the tracks especially recorded by Booker T. Jones and his M.G.’s, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn and Steve Cropper who last appeared on-screen together when Jake and Elwood put the band back together in The Blues Brothers.

There are some extras of note contained on the disc including an insightful feature focusing on the Booker T. recording sessions with director Michel Gondry on the drums, a flippant discussion between Gondry and Jack Black captured at the time he was shooting Tropic Thunder and my favourite the full 12 minute version of the Fats Waller Was Born Here documentary of which only half actually appeared in the final cut.  Be Kind Rewind is a rare, timeless movie that delivers belly laughs whilst making a serious point about the nature of ‘art’ and the power of communal loyalty.

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Tetro

I was given Tetro on Blu-ray as a Christmas present but I had delayed watching it as with Francis Ford Coppola’s previous release Youth Without Youth I was actually expecting to be very much disappointed by it, luckily this was not to be the case and its clearly his best entirely original screenplay since The Conversation and his most personal film since Apocalypse Now, I engaged with it so much that I wished it had another 30 minutes running time.

The premise for Tetro is actually very slight Bennie a waiter on a cruise liner, decides to look up his long lost older brother Angelo whilst on shore leave in Buenos Aires.  He discovers him living with his common law wife Miranda (Maribel Verdú) only now he calls himself ‘Tetro’ and claims he no longer wants anything to do with his real family.  Angelo and Bennie are the sons of a celebrated concert conductor although they had different mothers; Angelo’s was an opera singer and died in a car crash whilst he was at the wheel and that, along with another incident between him and his father over a mutual lover, has left him mentally and emotionally scarred.

What struck me immediately about Tetro is how good it looks, I had my doubts as I knew it was shot totally digitally but Mihai Malaimare Junior’s 1080p/24 source HDCAM photography is stunning, shot predominately in monochrome using a 2.35:1 aspect ratio but electing to use a smaller ratio for 1960s home movie style, washed out colour flashbacks and full “Technicolor” for the Powell and Pressburger inspired fantasy ballet sequences.  There is obviously no loss in quality when transferring this to Blu-ray and the film’s visuals are demonstration material and further proof that there will be life after celluloid in this medium.

Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich is a revelation as Bennie, there aren’t many young actors who could hold their own in their screen debut opposite the force of nature that is Vincent Gallo who embodies the damaged Tetro with equal measures of egotistical charm and severe self-loathing; the acting across the board is faultless as with most Coppola productions he insists on a large amount of read-through, rehearsal and improvisational time before shooting and it always pays off in the camera.

Bennie cannot understand why Tetro appears so cold towards him, especially after leaving him a note claiming that he would return to collect him from New York at some point. Both brothers have aspirations to become writers but Tetro along with his past has abandoned his great work, an unfinished play about their father, but when Bennie discovers it in a dusty suitcase he sees not only an opportunity to finish the story but by staging it at the local cafe theatre where Tetro works the lights he can force him to confront his demons.

In the few scenes where he appears Klaus Maria Brandauer brings great presence to the dual role of the elder Tetrocini brothers and Coppola reveals just enough for us to understand the dynamics between the rival siblings; as the maestro Carlo he is effortlessly charismatic, his fame and fortune seducing his son Angelo’s girlfriend, and as Alfredo you see an older man forced to live in the shadow of his younger brother’s success.  These themes are echoed in the future generation of Tetrocini brothers with Angelo envying Bennie’s acclaim when his finished version of his play entitled “Wander Lust” is shortlisted for the top prize at the Patagonia Festival gaining the approval of the mysterious critic “Alone” played by Pedro Almodóvar’s muse Carmen Maura; Tetro had once been her protégée but they had a falling out over artistic differences.

I shan’t spoil the film’s climatic twist which occurs in the extended Patagonia sequence which many critics have dismissed out of hand as self-indulgent without one I’ve read bothering to comment that stylistically it’s very obviously an homage to Federico Fellini and no doubt aware of its unreal quality.  I want to say that Tetro could well be the best film of the decade but I know that I’d be stretching it, however it is certainly Francis Ford Coppola’s best film in a very long time and as such it should be regarded as he is one of the true artists working in cinema today.

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North by Northwest: 50th Anniversary Edition

After his intensely personal psychological thriller Vertigo received mixed reviews due to its length and obsessive attention to detail Hitchcock set out to follow it with a fast paced, action packed, stylish, comic, chase picture to end all chase pictures.  Screenwriter Ernest Lehman wonderfully parodies and trumps all of Hitch’s previous films of the 1950s making North by Northwest the quintessential ironic comedy thriller. 

The success of the film is largely due to the effortlessly charming and hilarious star performance by Cary Grant as the hapless Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger Thornhill, a bachelor approaching middle age and stuck in a rut, juggling a routine job between lunch dates with his doting mother and the worry of gaining a few extra pounds each year, he is cruising through life unencumbered by real responsibility or commitment; that is until he is mistaken for a government agent by a gang of foreign spies headed by the suavely sinister Phillip Vandamm played by James Mason.

What ensues is the prototype Hollywood action comedy in which we see the reluctant hero Thornhill’s comfortable life turned upside down as he is chased across America.  Cary Grant plays the part with such utter bemusement that you empathise totally with his predicament, however he is also able to subtly send up his own on-screen persona which heightens the comedy.  The scene where the bad guys force him to drink a whole bottle of whisky and then put him behind the wheel of a car is a case in point, as is Thornhill’s attempt to sober up and try to explain what’s going on to the police.

Eva Marie Saint provides the love interest as Eve Kendall, an undercover agent who appears to be Vandamm’s lover but seduces Thornhill on a train bound for Chicago in a scene packed with double entendre and repressed sexuality.  Eve’s true allegiances help to propel the narrative as we realise that Thornhill has fallen in love with her and finally found someone to commit to and take responsibility for but then inadvertently blows her cover to Vandamm and puts her in jeopardy setting up the final chase across Mount Rushmore and specifically President Lincoln’s nose, a set piece Hitchcock had been dying to film for many years.

North by Northwest looks incredibly good for its 50 years on Blu-ray sporting a pristine full 1080p/VC-1 encoded vibrant picture and a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack which, surprisingly for a film of its age, are demo quality especially in the iconic Crop Duster sequence.  The movie’s appeal will long endure because of the universal themes of mistaken identity, innocence overcoming evil and love prevailing in the face of adversity, delivered with plenty of good humour and genuine wit; it may not be Hitchcock’s most complex thriller but it’s certainly one of his most entertaining.

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The King’s Speech

Despite taking the top awards at the 2011 Oscar Ceremony, or perhaps because of that, I was in no hurry to see director Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, although I had thoroughly enjoyed his previous film The Damned United written by Peter Morgan and starring Michael Sheen as the renowned bombastic soccer manager Brian Clough.  For some reason I had supposed that it would be a typically turgid period piece but after watching the Blu-ray release I was pleasantly surprised to find it terribly gripping and incredibly well written and performed by a marvellous ensemble cast.

Colin Firth is not an actor I’ve ever tended to warm to in the past and I’ve always felt he usually appears to be playing himself on screen, here however, not only is he portraying a notable historic figure, Prince Albert Duke of York, the future King George VI the present Queen’s father, but also he is encumbered with a pronounced stammer which Firth captures in excruciating detail.  You would think that such a severe speech impediment would handicap an actor’s ability to communicate with the audience but, on the contrary, Firth is able to convey so much more through his palpable frustration and outbursts of temper as the irascible Albert than he’s ever been able to display in his largely predictable romantic lead roles.

It’s hard to imagine that the part of Lionel Logue could have been written for anyone other than Geoffrey Rush but again one has to remember that this isn’t a fictional character; the real life Logue was indeed a Shakespeare enthusiast and amateur actor, these elements weren’t simply concocted by writer David Seidler in order to play to Rush’s strengths as a performer.  Logue was a former elocution teacher in Australia who treated the returning soldiers from WWI whose impaired speech was a result of shell-shock.  He emigrated to England with his family in 1924 and started a speech defect practice in Harley Street which was recommended to Albert’s wife Elizabeth, played by Helena Bonham Carter.  Despite being demoralised from the experience of many failed cures the Prince reluctantly agrees to try the treatment.

The film charts Logue’s unconventional methods of healing the future King, insisting that during the consultations that they are equals and that he shall call him nothing but ‘Bertie’ an intimate family pet name.  Initially Albert meets Logue with querulous defiance, he never expects to be crowned King as his older brother David (Guy Pearce) is the natural heir to the throne, however matters beyond his control are shaping his destiny; close advisers including Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin (Anthony Andrews) and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall) are speculating on Hitler’s ambition to conquer Europe and believe that war is inevitable.  When King George V (Michael Gambon) dies in January 1936, David ascends the throne as Edward VIII but his reign only last 10 months as his commitment to marry the American divorcee Wallace Simpson is at conflict with the constitution leaving him no choice but to abdicate.

As King George VI ‘Bertie’ is required to make public addresses which means persevering with Logue, the only man whose approach has achieved demonstrable improvement in his ability to speak.  The strength of the film lies in the scenes between them as they develop an unlikely friendship despite being from completely different social backgrounds; one reticent and self-doubting the other outspoken and assured.  After coaching the King successfully through his coronation Logue’s biggest challenge is to prepare him for his first radio speech to be broadcast around the world after the declaration of war with Germany, he has to provide the nation with resolute and reassuring words at a time of conflict.

Visually the film is very well put together from the attention to detail on display in the exquisite 1930s production design to the choice of an unusual, almost ‘fish-eye’ lens to illustrate Bertie’s feelings of isolation and constriction which are echoed in the use of fog in the few exterior shots.  The image is presented in full 1080p with strong contrast and plenty of detail visible in hair and skin tones, although occasionally the colour palette seems unnecessarily muted.  The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack perfectly balances the prominent dialogue and accompanying musical score, much of which is comprised from a selection of classical works, the most effective being the use of the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony to support the King’s climatic radio transmission.

The King’s Speech is a deserved award-winning historical drama and a rare one in that it fails to be boring or sentimental, particularly evident in its depiction of the Wallis Simpson affair which is more often than not simply presented as a fairy tale romance in screen adaptations.  Both Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush are outstanding in their central lead roles and they are well supported by a uniformly assured company of character actors.  David Seidler’s script is not only impeccably researched but solidly dramatised; he and director Tom Hooper have transformed what could have just been two men talking in a room into compelling cinematic viewing.

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