True Grit (2010)

It’s uncertain whether Joel and Ethan Coen set out to make their most commercially successful film in a 30 year career by electing to remake the classic John Wayne Western True Grit as their 15th feature, however it has been by far their biggest grossing domestic picture to date, taking twice as much at the box office than their previous Oscar winner No Country For Old Men which kick-started their partnership with Paramount producer Scott Rudin a few years back.

Having never been much of a Western fan, aside from the superior ‘Spaghetti’ variety of Sergio Leone especially the “Dollars Trilogy” which propelled Clint Eastwood to international stardom, I wasn’t the first in line to see this new version despite it being the latest offering from the Coen Brothers.  Admittedly, I tend to prefer their original comedies but I was intrigued to see this primarily for the acclaimed performances of Jeff Bridges as ‘Rooster’ Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross both of whom earned Academy Award nominations.

When her father is brutally murdered in Fort Smith, Arkansas by the cowardly outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), 14 year old Mattie Ross comes to town to collect his body and hire a U.S. Marshal to track down the killer and bring him to justice.  Out of the Sheriff’s recommendations she selects ‘Rooster’ Cogburn as he has the reputation of being the most ruthless.  Mattie is exceptionally astute for her years and has a commanding knowledge of the laws of business enabling her to run rings around the local inhabitants outwitting them in a series of trades over her late father’s effects, raising sufficient money to bankroll her revenge.

There aren’t that many structural differences from the Hal Wallis production, both are true to the spirit of the Charles Portis novel.  Jeff Bridge’s Cogburn is clearly a cold-blooded slayer and a broken man; much less avuncular or amusingly soused than John Wayne and without his immediate warmth or charm.  Hailee Steinfeld is the same age as her character and despite her smarts she is obviously still a vulnerable young girl, whereas Kim Darby was 21 when she played a hardier, tomboyish Mattie Ross in the 1969 original.

Although the biggest difference in casting is Matt Damon in the role of the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf who hopes to claim the bounty out on Chaney for killing a State Senator.  The part initially played by country singer Glenn Campbell was very much a cameo whereas the Coens have transferred a lot of the affability from the Duke’s take on Cogburn to Damon’s LaBoeuf making him more sympathetic thus transforming the story from a basic two-hander into a more complex triangle.

The Blu-ray edition reveals the huge visual accomplishment achieved by the Coen Brother’s regular cinematographer Roger Deakins.  The colour palette is distinctly different to the previous version which was bathed in California sunshine so typical of Westerns made at the time; instead we have bitter cold, steely blue skies starkly contrasted with delicate snowflakes.  The 1080p picture sports faultless clarity and high detail particularly noticeable in hair and skin tones, whilst the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack crackles with the ambient sounds of the great outdoors, wind and water are well represented and the surprisingly few gunshots deeply resonate.

It’s also worth mentioning Carter Burwell’s disarmingly simplistic score which riffs around the two spiritual tunes “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “Lean On Jesus” which were first used to striking effect in Charles Laughton’s classic film noir The Night of the Hunter, clearly a massive influence on the Coen Brothers.  There is a small selection of fairly standard extras the one exception being the 30 minute documentary Charles Portis: The Greatest Writer You’ve Never Heard Of… which profiles the life and work of the author and compares both film versions to the original text.

True Grit is a milestone picture for the Coen Brothers that not only provides them with their first unabashed box office hit but demonstrates an assured maturity and artistic commitment which is no longer confined to the low budget obscurity that prevented so many of their significant early films from reaching justifiably larger audiences.

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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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Alfred Hitchcock

In a single decade between 1954 and 1964 Alfred Hitchcock would Produce and Direct a dozen perfect movies, most notably Rear Window, Vertigo, North By Northwest, Psycho, The Birds and Marnie.  Although only accounting for a third of his career, this would be his “Golden Period” and with each decade that passes these films seem to get better and better.

I remember one Christmas, 1988 I think, BBC 2 had a short season of Hitchcock films scheduled between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, I circled them in red marker pen in the Radio Times so not to miss them and bought three brand new 180 minute, highest quality, Scotch Video Tapes.  I would sit with the video player set in pause and record ready to capture these great works of art.  I was 17 years old at the time and I recall wearing those tapes out viewing and reviewing these cinematic gems over and over again.

I intend to review each of these films individually, starting with North by Northwest and Psycho, the only two Hitchcock films released on Blu-ray to date.  I am hoping that Rear Window and Vertigo shall follow swiftly, although I am a tad perplexed that Vertigo hasn’t materialised sooner as it was digitally restored for DVD fairly recently.

Hitchcock believed in what he called “pure cinema”, that is a story that can be conveyed entirely through images and, as someone who trained at the UFA film studio in Germany during the silent era, this is not surprising.  The studio was responsible for the classics of Fritz Lang, Metropolis and F. W. Murnau, Faust and whilst there Hitchcock directed The Pleasure Garden.

Hitchcock returned to Britain making two early classics for producer Michael Balcon, the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and The 39 Steps the first film to use what Hitchcock referred to as the ‘MacGuffin’ which basically was a plot device, usually a search for an object or person that propels the narrative but itself is of little significance to the outcome of the story.  Hitchcock recounted this in a recorded conversation with François Truffaut, which is included as an extra on the recently released 50th Anniversary Blu-ray edition of Psycho.

There are two men sitting in a train going to Scotland and one man says to the other, ‘Excuse me, sir, but what is that strange parcel you have on the luggage rack above you?’, ‘Oh’, says the other, ‘that’s a MacGuffin.’, ‘Well’, says the first man, ‘what’s a MacGuffin?’, The other answers, ‘It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.’, ‘But’, says the first man, ‘there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands.’, ‘Well’, says the other, ‘then that’s no MacGuffin.’

Hitchcock was wooed to work in America by legendary producer David O. Selznick, the man responsible for such classics as King Kong and Gone With The Wind.  They were to make three films together, Rebecca, starring Laurence Oliver as the mysterious Max de Winter, followed by Spellbound and The Paradine Case both with Gregory Peck.  The best, for my money, is Spellbound not least for the dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali, and for Ingrid Bergman’s intelligent portrayal of the psycho-analyst who for falls for her colleague, Peck, whom she discovers has a murderous secret identity.

Now a permanent US resident Hitch produces and directs Notorious, the first of four films to star Cary Grant, including Suspicion, To Catch A Thief and culminating with the Hitchcock film that seems to, at once, parody but still top his others, North By Northwest.  Before making home at Universal Studios, Hitch delivered a string of films for Warner Brothers, most notably Strangers On A Train which explores the notion of sanity when two men undertake to murder each other’s victims to avoid detection.  This brings us to Rear Window and the start of the unbroken golden period ending with Marnie.

There is so much I feel I can write about Hitchcock, that to attempt to do so here would be overlong and unfocused.  I shall, instead, examine his themes and style in detail, discussing the films with illustrative examples.  Hitchcock, must be, without a shadow of a doubt (see what I did there!) the single most influential film Director of all time and it’s impossible to imagine the medium without his staggeringly consistent body of work.

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Sondheim! The Birthday Concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

I came to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World on Blu-ray without prior knowledge of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s 6 volume digest size graphic novel and whilst it appears that the 2nd volume in the series shares the film’s title writer/director Edgar Wright worked with O’Malley to incorporate the key elements contained in all 6 volumes into the screenplay.  I am not an avid reader of graphic novels, in fact the only time I have been compelled to read them is after seeing film adaptations, namely Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World, this is not a prejudice against comics per se, I just find I have less time to indulge in recreational reading than I did before the pressures of work and parenthood, for shame! 

I am, however, predisposed to admire graphic novels and their cinematic counterparts as I enjoy the telling of fantastic stories primarily through the use of images.  This is why my favourite films tend to be by predominantly visual directors like Alfred Hitchcock, Federico Fellini, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam and, indeed, Edgar Wright who directed the groundbreaking TV comedy series Spaced and subsequent feature films Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz which, by breaking the structured genre norms, have helped to revitalise the landscape of British Cinema.

Scott Pilgrim is a slacker and bassist with local Toronto band Sex Bob-omb the first obvious nod to the video games of my youth, the Bob-ombs were the little meandering bombs that would stumble into Mario in various editions of the Nintendo Mario Bros. franchise.  Scott is drifting from band practice to band practice and dating Knives Chau a 17-year-old Chinese-Canadian High School girl who he hasn’t kissed yet; he’s been in shock since his ex-girlfriend Natalie ‘Envy’ Adams dumped him and became the lead singer of Sex Bob-omb’s biggest rivals The Clash at Demonhead who have been on a successful tour of New York.

Scott has a dream vision of a delivery girl on roller skates who he believes literally when he wakes up is the ‘girl of his dreams’.  When she appears in real life to deliver his order from Amazon he instantly falls in love with her and loses interest in Knives and the up-and-coming Battle of the Bands contest that Sex Bob-omb had entered.  Ramona Flowers played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, has recently moved to Toronto from New York, she is moody and mysterious but she genuinely seems interested in Scott and continually surprises him by turning up for their dates.  On the night of the first leg of the band competition Ramona comes to see Scott play and whilst on stage he is attacked by Matthew Patel the first of Ramona’s 7 Evil Exes who he must defeat in turn if he wants to be with her.   

Edgar Wright and co-author of the screenplay Michael Bacall, have cleverly blended elements of the original O’Malley artwork, 8-bit jingles from classic console games, multiple references from popular film and television (my favourite being the musical sting from Seinfeld) and extensive fight sequences drawn directly from Tekken or Street Fighter to create an entirely unique visual style for this extremely surreal movie. 

It’s not a case of style over substance though as Michael Cera’s central performance as Scott is totally convincing and the audience truly empathise with his hapless existence and the quest that leads him to exorcise his hang-ups over Envy, end his relationship with Knives maturely and avoid become yet another of Ramona’s evil exes.  Wright has built on the success of his previous collaborations with Simon Pegg and created something profoundly original and invigorating in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World putting him at the pinnacle of Hollywood’s A-List of directorial talent, I eagerly await his next project and hope it shall be every bit as exhilarating.

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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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Frost/Nixon

Director Ron Howard’s film version of Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon effectively captures the original stage performances of both Michael Sheen, as maverick reporter David Frost and Frank Langella, as ostracised former US President Richard Nixon.

The drama cleverly explores the foibles of both leading characters as they meet head to head for a series of intimate televised interviews.  David Frost, the Cambridge University graduate turned media wunderkind whose ground breaking satirical show That Was The Week That Was (or TW3 for short) launched his television career making him a house hold name in Britain and quickly extended his fame across the Atlantic where he presented the more conventional David Frost Show, is now globetrotting with progressively pap programmes like Frost Over Australia and determined to prove that he still has what it takes to be a serious journalist capable of obtaining the ever elusive scoop.

Richard Nixon, having the dubious honour of being the only President to resign from office, is out in the political wilderness negotiating deals for his upcoming memoirs through the notorious wily Hollywood literary agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar (Toby Jones) who gets wind of Frost’s desire for an exclusive, candid, one-to-one, filmed interview and tables a meeting for the two men to agree terms.  Lazar persuades Nixon that Frost, who has the reputation of being a bit of a light-weight only used to sucking up to celebrities, would be the perfect person to go up against as he’ll have no problem controlling the conversation and steering clear of more sensitive topics such as the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal.

Both sides assemble teams of researchers to second guess the questions and prepare the answers; Frost has the partnership of Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) seasoned investigative journalists in the mode of Woodward and Bernstein, who are set on exacting a confession from the President who they believe escaped justice.  Nixon has his current Chief of Staff, the former Marine Colonel, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) who perceives the frothy Frost to be of little threat and is confident he can pull off a media coup with military precision.

In the first two of three planned recording sessions Frost seems flummoxed by Nixon’s effortless ability to evade the prepared questions and ramble at length on trivial, autobiographical reminiscences; so much so that Reston lambasts Frost for not being able to ask the “difficult questions” tapping into his biggest fear that he really isn’t up to the job.  Nixon admits to Frost in a late night drunken phone call before the last interview that despite feeling a kinship to him through both coming from what he calls “humble beginnings” that he intends to emerge from the process as the victor.  This spurs Frost on to remove the kid gloves in their final bout and tackle the issue of culpability over Watergate head on, to which Nixon concedes and comes as close as he ever did to issuing an apology to the American people who voted for him.

Director Ron Howard fully aware of the piece’s theatrical roots builds the tension between the two men very tightly and keeps it from flagging, at times approaching the pacing of the cuts almost like a boxing match.  Michael Sheen and Frank Langella’s performances are central to the film’s success and they’re reinforced by the talented supporting cast of familiar faces.  The Universal Studio Blu-ray release benefits from a pristine 1080p/VC-1 transfer in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a remarkable level of detail, contrasting the rich 1970s period design with black and white archive footage.  The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack more than adequately captures all of the dialogue crisply and is complimented by Hans Zimmer’s percussive score which heightens the suspense.

The most notable extra is a picture-in-picture documentary that charts the making of the film which runs almost constantly through its duration.  There is also an audio commentary from Ron Howard who is an affable and enthusiastic communicator and he gives a broad insight into the history that lies behind the story.  Frost/Nixon is an accomplished movie which throws a new light onto both its title characters who ultimately recognise and respect each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

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Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

The original television airing of Twin Peaks in 1990 coincided with my recent interest in the films of David Lynch after renting a copy of Blue Velvet on video and the break between the first and second seasons also saw the release of Wild At Heart at the cinema which launched a sudden and unexpected wave of Lynch mania that swept across both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Around the same time I visited America for the first time, landing in Los Angeles in January 1991 I couldn’t wait to pick up a copy of the L.A. Reader so I could see Lynch’s notorious cartoon strip The Angriest Dog in the World with my own eyes!

Twin Peaks has recently been celebrating its 20th Anniversary and is back in the public conscious with current shows like Psych reuniting some of the original cast members in the Dual Spires tribute episode which revolves around a Laura Palmer style copycat murder. After the initial distribution rights battle which prevented the second season being released on DVD for years, CBS Paramount have now released the entire show in its David Lynch approved Gold Box set and it’s even available to download on iTunes in HD which has sparked talk of a potential Blu-ray edition to follow.

When I met my wife-to-be one of the first things we did was sit through the original series, she was instantly hooked and we watched the pilot and all 29 episodes back to back followed by Fire Walk With Me within the space of one long weekend. To mark our recent Wedding Anniversary we have just watched them all again for the first time in 5 years and it remains an astonishing landmark in the annals of mainstream television history; all credit is due to creators Mark Frost and David Lynch as few programmes can claim to have been as groundbreaking or influential as Twin Peaks.

The show was cancelled in the middle of the second season due to falling viewing figures once Laura Palmer’s killer had been revealed and a spate of weak, largely comic subplots failed to fill the void despite a tour de force performance from Kenneth Welsh as Agent Cooper’s former partner and Nemesis, Windom Earle and the introduction of a Sci-fi element with the Project Blue Book investigations into the local Black and White Lodge mythology; there was still much to enjoy in the show and many questions were left deliberately unanswered in the final episode which is very reminiscent of the end of Patrick McGoohan’s seminal 1960s series, The Prisoner.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was released in cinemas during 1992; a year after the bemusing final episode had left Agent Dale Cooper trapped inside the Black Lodge. The film serves as both a prequel, as it examines the death of Killer Bob’s first victim Teresa Banks and the last 7 days of Laura Palmer’s life leading up to her murder providing psychological insights into the deranged mind of her father Leland, and a sequel as it clarifies the fate of Agent Cooper, expands the Dugpas back-story and lays to rest Laura’s troubled spirit in the closing moments. For many unfamiliar with David Lynch’s darker movies this was a total shock as the show’s amusing supporting characters were not present to offset the deeply disturbing secret that had always been at the heart of the series and it was actually booed by hostile audiences at the Cannes Film Festival premier.

There is no getting around the fact that there are some gut wrenching scenes in the film that deal head on with the psychological pain of acknowledging that stripped bare of all of its fanciful mystery this is the story of the long term physical abuse of a teenage girl by her father and this is something that Lynch had felt had been long forgotten by the end of the second season and he had remained troubled by the character of Laura Palmer. Actress Sheryl Lee who had only got to play Laura in stylised flashbacks or her lookalike cousin Maddy in the TV show wanted to truthfully bring her to life and give her doomed existence an element of closure.

There are many Hitchcockian influences in Lynch’s work the obvious one here is the name of Maddy Ferguson, a nod to Vertigo in which Kim Novak had a dual role; she plays Madeleine who Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart) falls madly in love with and also Judy who Scotty meets after witnessing Madeline’s apparent suicide and whilst in a psychotic state he re-styles Judy in Madeline’s image, changing her hair and clothes to conjure up the woman he is morbidly obsessed about.

When Hitch was asked if he could cut the “rape” scene from his 1964 film Marnie by hired screenwriter Evan Hunter who felt that it would make the character played by Sean Connery unsalvageable at least in the eyes of the female members of the audience, Hitchcock refused explaining that the only reason he wanted to make the movie in the first place is because of that one scene and replaced Hunter with renowned feminist playwright Jay Presson Allen who reworked the screenplay keeping the “non-consensual sex” scene between Connery and Tippi Hedren firmly in place. Likewise, I believe the only reason Lynch wanted to make Twin Peaks was due to the abusive father/daughter relationship at the core of the story and Fire Walk With Me is his way of emphasising that point.

French distributor MK2’s Blu-ray release of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is never going to be the definitive edition, whilst the full 1080p picture quality is a marked improvement on the DVD version and the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is solid and fixes the infamous mixing problem in the “Red Room” sequence which was subtitled due to the excessive volume of the club’s live music; on the previous DVD release the music had been turned right down so you could clearly hear all the dialogue rendering the onscreen subtitles ludicrous.

I am pleased to report that after almost 25 years the entire mystery has been released in one Blu-ray boxset, including the much coveted 90 minutes of deleted scenes!  Not for the feint hearted and probably only really for true fans of Lynch’s oeuvre as a whole Fire Walk With Me is a fitting footnote to a landmark television series and a cathartic release and appropriate closure to a story steeped in the indignant suffering of its central character, it also marks the end of a period when for a fleeting moment David Lynch was the coolest cat on the planet.

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Rango

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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