Chaplin: 15th Anniversary Edition

Director Richard Attenborough is the first to admit that his epic biopic Chaplin was a difficult film to finance and consequently the producers made demands upon him which lead it to be not as “profound a picture” as he would have liked.  Nethertheless its one massive saving grace is Robert Downey Jr.’s miraculous performance as Charlie Chaplin.

Although based on Chaplin’s 1964 autobiography and critic David Robinson’s book Chaplin: His Life and Art the screenplay, initially adapted by Attenborough’s long term business partner and publicist Diana Hawkins, was subject to many re-writes by luminaries such as Bryan Forbes (The Angry Silence), author William Boyd (The Blue Afternoon) and legendary screenwriter and script doctor, William Goldman (All the President’s Men). 

Starting with Chaplin’s humble beginnings in Lambeth, London born to a Music Hall family his father was an alcoholic and disappeared very early on in his life leaving him with his singing mother, Hannah whose career was ended suddenly by a larynx condition resulting in Charlie taking to the stage in her stead.  Hannah, played by Chaplin’s real life daughter Geraldine, suffered a mental breakdown and Charlie and his half-brother Sid (Paul Rhys) were taken to the workhouse.

Whilst honing his clowning skills in Vaudeville Charlie meets his first love, Hetty Kelly an Irish showgirl who he proposes to just before leaving for America with Fred Karno’s touring troupe along with Stan Laurel.  Uncertain as to whether Charlie would return she refuses to marry him and dies later in the flu epidemic of 1918 which has a devastating effect on Chaplin and he remains obsessed with her memory, putting versions of her as the heroine in many of his films.

On arriving in the United States his reputation as a great physical comedian reaches Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd) whose Keystone Studios pioneer highly successful, silent slapstick films, he offers Chaplin a salary of $150 a week to come and work for him and within a month Charlie creates the character which goes on to make him the most famous man in the world and the first performer to earn $1,000,000 a year, ironically the impoverished Little Tramp.

It’s hard to imagine in our celebrity obsessed age, where people with seemingly very little talent can become incredibly well known overnight, just how meteoric Chaplin’s rise was and by co-founding United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford he not only had immense popularity he was also able to take total artistic control over his work and express views which led him to be perceived as an “outsider” and a threat to the American establishment, resulting in him being branded a Communist and forced into exile in Switzerland when he was refused re-entry in 1952 after a brief visit to England.

Political controversies aside Chaplin also had a reputation as a ladies man with a penchant for young girls, starting with his marriage to the child actress Mildred Harris who was only 16 at the time he had a string of apparently inappropriate relationships spawning many paternity cases and it wasn’t until his 50s that he would settle down with Oona, the 18 year old daughter of renowned playwright Eugene O’Neill, with whom he produced 8 children and remained married to until his death.  To emphasise their special bond Oona is also played by Moira Kelly who is first seen playing his doomed childhood sweetheart Hetty.

The Blu-ray release of Chaplin could be better, suffice to say that the subtitle the “15th Anniversary Edition” pretty much confirms that this is merely an upscale of the DVD released in 2007; it’s a shame that Lionsgate couldn’t have waited another year to remaster a definitive 20th Anniversary Edition.  Nonetheless the 1080p picture quality is a marked improvement especially in the colour palette with hitherto greyish reds appearing more vibrant, the DTS-HD 2.0 soundtrack is far superior particularly when showcasing the late John Barry’s original score.  The extras are short and sweet, primarily it’s a candid interview with Richard Attenborough who is surprisingly self-effacing but honest about the film’s flaws.

I saw Chaplin in the cinema when it came out and despite the script issues, particularly the inclusion of the fictional character of George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins) to serve as Charlie’s biographer and act as a narrator allowing jumps between the key moments in what was a long and eventful life, you still leave the theatre utterly convinced by Robert Downey Jr.’s remarkable presence; his substance abuse and brushes with the law were highly publicised at the time and it’s truly incredible that he manages to immerse himself so totally in the role and pull off such a controlled and moving performance, confirming himself as one of the most versatile actors of his generation.

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Wild At Heart

When Wild At Heart was released at the cinema in 1990 I went to see it 3 times in the first week, this was the height of a strangely cool David Lynch mania that had gripped the planet since he posed the question “Who killed Laura Palmer?” in the groundbreaking, primetime TV series Twin Peaks

Whilst this hidef release is very welcome its budget price belies a bare bones edition, obviously another example of the failing MGM Studio selling off its back catalogue.  Nethertheless the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, MPEG-4 AVC transfer in full 1080p is a massive improvement on the Collector’s Edition DVD previously on offer, which suffered from an incredibly soft picture.  Equally enhanced is the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack which vastly improves the clarity of the dialogue and upscales both Randy Thom’s intricate sound design and Angelo Badalamenti’s original score. 

Unfortunately none of the extras contained in the DVD version have been reproduced here, in fact this is the most basic Blu-ray menu I have ever seen, and reminiscent of Universal’s early DVD releases this is just the movie and nothing more.  However, a great movie and one that deservedly won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and despite being 20 years old it is still a raw, racy, irreverent and impassioned celebration of the notion of true love conquering all.

Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) are in the dizzy heights of blind love but Lula’s mother, Marietta played by Dern’s own mother Diane Ladd, does not approve of her daughter’s choice of lover as she suspects he knows too much about her shady past so she pays for him to be murdered.  However, Sailor defends himself and kills his assailant for which he serves a two year prison sentence.  On his release it is obvious that the star-crossed lovers still intend to be together and they set out on a road trip bound for New Orleans to escape Marietta’s wrath.

Hot on their heels is Private Detective Johnny Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) who follows them to a remote town called Big Tuna where the couple have stopped to rest as Lula is suffering from morning sickness.   Lynch very cleverly blurs the visceral authenticity of the lover’s plight with stylistic touchstones to heighten the reality of their idealism, such as using the character traits of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe as short hand for Sailor and Lula and the Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West to represent Marietta’s insane jealously.  Lynch also employs rainbow tints during Sailor and Lula’s sex scenes and has Glinda the Good Witch (Sheryl Lee) visit Sailor when he’s about to give up, imploring him not to turn his back on love.  In lesser hands this pick and mix of popular culture might have seemed trite or mawkish but Lynch manages to weave all these contrasting elements into cinematic gold.

Wild At Heart contains an incredible vignette in which Sailor and Lula whilst on the road, come across a car accident and a fatally wounded girl played by Sherilyn Fenn.  In this scene Lynch turns the audience’s emotions upside down by playing it initially for comedy; the girl seems unaware of her severe head injury and is more concerned with finding her purse to fix her make-up, but then as it becomes apparent that we are about to see her die in front of us he pulls the rug right from under our feet.  Badalamenti’s score adds to the emotional turmoil here and this resonates as a key scene in Lynch’s canon and he performs similar flips in his other work, possibly most notably in Betty’s audition scene in Mulholland Drive which I shall review soon.

For the most part Wild At Heart plays like a modern American Fairytale and it wouldn’t be complete without a larger than life, malevolent villain and Willem Dafoe delivers one in spades with Bobby Peru, the ‘black angel of death’ who intends to come between Sailor and Lula; he is at once frightening and incredibly charismatic and provides a lot of the film’s sardonic humour making it totally unique in Lynch’s oeuvre as an uplifting, raucous road movie with an unmitigated happy ending, albeit ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek.

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The Rocky Horror Picture Show: 35th Anniversary Edition

The Rocky Horror Picture Show has always been something of a guilty pleasure dating back to my days as a teenager appearing in am-dram musical revues inspired by it because the performing rights were always strictly reserved for professional productions until March 2000. 

The original stage show opened in London in the summer of 1973 at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs which ironically only seated 63 people as the subsequent 1975 film adaption has the record of the longest-running theatrical release in cinema history and now must have been seen by audiences of countless millions worldwide ensuring its on-going cult following.

Having watched the film religiously as a kid on worn out video tape and owning at least 3 versions of the soundtrack on vinyl by the time it came out on DVD marking its 25th Anniversary in 2001 I had turned 30 myself and now held it somewhat in contempt, a dirty little secret from my past that I was ashamed to have invested so much time in; Simon Pegg articulated my feelings exactly in the second episode of Spaced – “It’s boil-in-the-bag perversion for sexually repressed accountants and first-year drama students” and for the best part of a decade I have put it out of my mind.

However, my wife is an occasional Glee watcher and by chance I saw the recent Rocky Horror Show themed episode marking its 35th Anniversary and release on Blu-ray and I found my interest curiously reawakened enough to want see whether a hidef revamp would radically improve the notoriously low-budget, almost home movie quality of the film.  I also wished to revisit it to gauge whether it really was morally unfit for the saccharine sweet and virginal members of Glee Club as the series producers would have you believe or whether this was merely an affectation in an attempt to preserve its ‘kinky kudos’ for future generations of camp devotees.

I am happy to report that the 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encode is remarkable, bearing in mind the last time I saw Rocky Horror was on video; the thing that always strikes me most is the impact of the reds and Patricia Quinn’s now trademark lips in the opening credits have never looked so succulent.  The DTS-HD 7.1 soundtrack doesn’t fare quite so well, whilst it marvellously showcases the songs the dialogue in comparison seems thin and tinny but luckily there is also a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track which I found to be preferable.

It’s worth noting the wealth of extras here, a fine commentary from writer/star Richard O’Brien (Riff Raff) and all of the featurettes from the 25th Anniversary DVD are included, but the stand out hidef exclusive is the Picture-in-Picture ‘shadowcast’ who re-enact the entire show shot in glorious 1080p/24 HDCAM with the option to toggle the inset to fill the screen; this is what the Glee episode should have been like instead of an insipid homage that seemed to miss the entire point of the original by replacing the more risqué lines from the songs with banal alternatives.

I hope the Glee version inspires new audiences to discover what it was about The Rocky Horror Picture Show that appealed to me as a teenager, it encapsulates both a sexual awakening and a loss of innocence and if nothing more encourages young, inquiring minds to think outside the box and embrace diversity, in short to live by the pithy end refrain “Don’t dream, Be it”. 

It also captures Tim Curry’s outstanding charismatic star turn as the gender bending alien Dr. Frank-N-Furter and benefits from the inclusion of Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon as the naïve All-American couple, Brad Majors and Janet Weiss.  I suspect it’s yet another symptom of hitting 40 but having spurned it for so long I did feel a genuine warm glow of nostalgia whilst watching but not enough to make me want to get up and do the ‘Time Warp’ again.

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Casuals

After the phenomenal success of independent publishing house Pennant Books with its stable of football fan culture, sporting legends and true crime titles regularly topping the best seller lists, the indomitable Cass Pennant has reinvented himself once again by forming Urban Edge Films which releases its debut feature length documentary Casuals this month with Pennant himself at the helm as writer and producer.

The film was originally conceived as a 25th anniversary follow-up to co-producer Ian ‘Butch’ Stuttard’s seminal Hooligan documentary which first aired on television in 1985 and charted the turbulent period of Pennant’s life as a prominent leader of West Ham United’s notorious Inter City Firm.  The idea of “Hooligan Revisited” was to focus less on the violent rivalry of the terraces but emphasise the street fashion the gangs created that would ultimately unify them and seep out to a wider consciousness across the country as a whole; establishing Casuals as the last working class male street fashion coming from the UK, following in the tradition of Mods, Teddy Boys and Punks.

Pennant is no stranger to movies and has served as a consultant on many of the major motion pictures concerning both football violence and fan culture including the original version of The Firm and Green Street, along with the television series The Real Football Factories.  In 2009 his vivid autobiography Cass was successfully transferred to the big screen so this transition to film production was almost inevitable.

It is obvious from the first moments of Casuals that this is going to be the definitive documentary and that Pennant and director Mick Kelly have meticulously interviewed all the leading authorities on the subject from Southern Mods to Northern Soul Boys.  One of the enduring questions is exactly where did the Casuals movement have its roots?  There is no easy answer but this extraordinary and insightful film strips away the myths and tells the truth about an indelible faction which revived the fashion industry to leave a lasting influence on today’s label-crazy youth.

Mindful of the North/South divide both sides are equally represented with the likes of Garry Bushell recalling his days as a music journalist for Sounds magazine, commenting on the Casual band Accent’s 15 minutes of fame when they played to the crowds at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground and Peter Hooton lead singer of Liverpudlian band The Farm, who also started the fanzine The End in the early 80s which was the first publication to regularly report on the Casual scene and has just been reissued by Sabotage Times in a single book volume; Hooton also voices the film’s compelling narration.

With over 50 individuals interviewed the filmmakers had to make some cuts for time but luckily there is over an hour’s worth of additional interviews that are included on the DVD as extras.  Of the many passionate experts featured, author of the pictorial book A Casual Look and avid collector Nick Sarjeant probably sums it up best “It’s not just about what you were wearing, but also how you wore it.  Not just your clothes but your hair and even the ‘manner in which you walked’.  You had to have that ‘attitude’, saying like ‘Here I am’.” an attitude that is evident in every frame of this film as it tours the country meeting the key people for whom this was never simply a fad of fashion but a way of life.

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Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick started his career as a photographer for Look magazine in New York in the 1940s.  His most famous photo captured the look of utter devastation on the face of a newsvendor the day of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death.  He left Look in 1950 to embark on his film career making family financed, low-budget, B-Movies such as Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss.

In 1955 he formed Harris-Kubrick productions with young, savvy, producer James B. Harris, their first feature was the heist picture The Killing which later would provide one of the key influences for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.  1957’s Paths of Glory starring Kirk Douglas was a biting indictment of the French Officer Class who continually sent their troops out on suicide missions during World War I.  The meticulous tracking shots in the trench battle sequences hint at what was to become Kubrick’s trademark visual virtuosity and painstaking attention to detail.

When Kirk Douglas fell out with veteran director Anthony Mann on the set of Spartacus, he turned to Kubrick to take over, directing screen legends such as Laurence Oliver and Charles Laughton along with handling the logistics of the massive crowd scenes featuring 1000s of extras, he was only in his 30s which, unlike today, was considered exceedingly young to be in charge of a Hollywood Blockbuster production; this was a true baptism of fire which, combined with the box office success, would earn him final cut on all of his future films.

In 1962 Kubrick moved to England to work on Lolita his adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel about a college professor who gets romantically involved with the overtly flirtatious teenaged girl of the title.  James Mason’s portrayal of Humbert Humbert is magnetic and he nails the jealous insecurities that eat away at him as he obsessively struggles to keep the interest of his young nymphet lover.  Peter Sellers delivers a star turn as Clare Quilty the supposed film producer who seduces Lolita away from Humbert with the promise of a career in Hollywood.

Kubrick was so impressed with Sellers that he offered not 1 but 4 roles in his next movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a farcical satire on the cold war and the threat of accidental first strike nuclear attack.  Sellers plays Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a typically Goonish stiff upper lip RAF Officer who is seconded to the US Air Force Base where General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) gives the order to launch a pre-emptive attack on the Soviet Union.

Sellers also plays US President Merkin Muffley a wonderfully understated performance of stifled hysteria and social embarrassment best expressed in the groveling Red Phone apology to the Russian Premier, “I am as sorry as you are, Dimitri.  Don’t say that you are more sorry than I am, because I am capable of being just as sorry as you are.”

Kubrick also wanted Sellers to play the Gung-ho Texan Major “King” Kong part, which ultimately went to Slim Pickins.  Sellers felt he was already stretched with 3 roles and was eventually excused by Kubrick when he sprained his ankle during a take in the enclosed cockpit scene.  He more than makes up for this with his madcap, psychotic turn as the titular character; the weapons expert and inventor of the ‘Doomsday Device’ (which will automatically destroy all life on Earth in the event of a nuclear strike) who’s confined to a wheelchair and has a seemingly possessed gloved hand that is determined to perform a Nazi salute!

2001: A Space Odyssey is considered by many to be Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece; it’s an epic science fiction event movie which has influenced every Sci-Fi feature that followed it.   Based on Arthur C. Clarke’s short story The Sentinel the movie is preoccupied with an enigmatic obelisk that first appears on Earth at the ‘Dawn of Man’, then turns up in the future buried in a crater discovered by a team of astronauts on the ‘Jupiter Mission’ and reappears in the final reel of the film that takes place ‘Beyond the Infinite’.  I shall save a deeper appreciation and in-depth review for a future post as it has been remastered for a hidef Blu-ray release.

 A Clockwork Orange is Kubrick’s most controversial and misunderstood movie, there is a popular misconception that the film was censored and withdrawn by the UK government at the time due to a spate of copy-cat violent attacks.  However, the truth is that Stanley Kubrick asked Warner Bros. to recall the film and prevented it from being screened in Britain for 27 years because of death threats that he and his family had received at the time of its initial release.  It wasn’t until Kubrick died in 1999 that it was re-released both in the cinema and on home video formats.

Malcolm McDowell gives an inspired, career defining, performance as Alex; he is equally charming and menacing allowing the film’s key theme of dehumanisation to resonate.  What is still shocking about A Clockwork Orange is that it reminds us that despite 2,000 years of so-called ‘civilisation’ human beings are inherently violent creatures.  The procedure Alex undergoes at the hand of the State to subdue his violent tendencies also removes his humanity and this still touches a raw nerve with modern audiences.

It was at this point that the time between Kubrick’s new films started to widen, 4 years between A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon and another 5 years between Lyndon and The Shining.  The press started to report Kubrick as being a half-crazed recluse who demanded countless retakes and micro-managed in infinitesimal detail even the most mundane aspects of his day to day life.

The truth is that he was an extremely private family man who had no interest in the trappings of fame. He also felt that so much time and money was spent getting a film into production why then would you rush the process of making the movie, to him that seemed totally illogical.  Whilst his films seemed to take years to complete he always delivered them on budget and this earned him unquestioned support from Warner Bros. who promised him a life-time contract and final cut of all of his work; totally out of character for a major Hollywood studio.

1980’s The Shining is probably my personal favourite of Kubrick’s movies, adapted from Stephen King’s horror story of the same name; it explores the themes of isolation, madness and extra sensory perception but plays down the more conventional supernatural elements of the original book.  Instead the focus is on Jack Nicholson’s deteriorating state of mind as he struggles with his failings as both an author and a father, whilst acting as caretaker for a remote, snow-bound hotel for the winter season. 

His son, Danny, has a gift he shares with the hotel’s cook (Scatman Crothers) they both are able to see traces of the past and hints of the future, it’s known as shining and also includes the power of telepathy.  The film is genuinely scary but also incredibly funny and, ultimately, extremley surreal as it would seem that so much of it takes place in Jack’s mind . . . or does it?  The outstanding steadicam tracking shot, that follows Danny’s point of view as he explores the hotel on his tricycle, was revolutionary and has since been much imitated.

It was 7 years before Kubrick would release his only other film of the 1980s, Full Metal Jacket; his take on the Vietnam war, although he claims it’s not an anti-war story, he felt he’d already done that with Paths of Glory, this was rather a portrait of what is was like to take part in a war and the camaraderie between the grunts.  It’s notable for the breakout performances of Matthew Modine (Joker) and Vincent D’Onofrio (Leonard ‘Gomer’ Pyle) and the unforgettable Lee Emery as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman.

It would be over 10 years before Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman would materialise, he died only 4 days after screening the final cut to his family.  It is a fitting ‘Swan Song’ exploring the jealousy that comes between a couple and the emotional power that women ultimately seem to have over the men that seek to dominate them.  Visually it’s a firecracker of a movie and features some of Kubrick’s most striking sexual and dreamlike imagery.

Despite only making 11 feature films in 40 years the quality easily outweighs the quantity and they remain amongst the most respected and influential movies ever made.  I have deliberately included more stills in this article than I usually would because, above all, Kubrick was a visual filmmaker and whilst his stories are immaculately plotted and brimming with witty dialogue it’s the image that mattered most to him. 

I would like to end with my favourite Kubrick quote, “How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: ‘The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover.’ This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don’t want this to happen to 2001.”

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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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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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