The Sound of Music: 45th Anniversary Edition

The Sound of Music was not one of my parents’ favourite things so, consequently, I do not have any fond childhood memories of it as I have for the Wizard of Oz or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang which were always Christmas perennials in our house.  As a teen I can remember whenever the film came on television the channel being changed rapidly before Julie Andrews belted out the first line of the title song.  It’s easy to understand why because The Sound of Music did not look good in pan and scan on a 24 inch screen and it certainly didn’t sound good through small Mono speakers.

It’s safe to say that the film is often readily dismissed as being too schmaltzy and terribly outdated even for the time it was made in 1965, after all the stage show had first been a hit in 1959 and it would be Rodgers & Hammerstein’s last together.  When I finally got around to seeing it all the way through in my early 20s I had the advantage of seeing it on DVD on a 32 inch widescreen TV and I was totally enthralled by it.  Director Robert Wise, who edited Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, managed to tell the story of the Von Trapps with all of the songs but none of the saccharine.  He also captured the reality of The Anschluß without preaching or oversimplifying the politics of Nazi Germany and its occupation of Austria in 1938.

Now we come to the 45th Anniversary Blu-ray edition and I am totally bowled over by the movie again and this time I have the benefit of watching it with my son who is 5 and I am amazed that he sits enraptured by the whistle-stop tour of Salzburg that is Do-Re-Mi, the stunning 70mm digitally restored print filling the 50 inch Plasma screen with a glorious 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer which has to rank amongst the best I have ever seen.  Each note resonating clear as crystal in immaculate 7.1 DTS-HD quality and you realise that what you saw squeezed onto old TV sets growing up in the 1980s could never do the 1965 Best Picture Oscar winner justice and must be partially responsible for the bad reputation the film had for so many years.

The package comes with a second Blu-ray full to the brim with extras the best of which, for my taste, is Rodgers & Hammerstein: The Sound of Movies a feature length retrospective charting the entire history of their successful creative collaboration hosted by the original stage Maria Von Trapp, Mary Martin.  There is also a long interview with screenwriter Ernest Lehman, who also wrote Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, in which he recounts the process of bringing his vision of The Sound of Music to cinema audiences, he is largely to thank for removing a lot of the sentimentality from the libretto and injecting it with authenticity and genuine wit.

I hope that now it has been restored to its former glory future audiences will have the fortuity of growing up with this wonderful story of one family’s struggle through song to journey over the Alps and far beyond the clutches of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich featuring some of the best popular songs written in the 20th century; not only the title song and Do-Re-Mi but also My Favourite Things, Lonely Goatherd and Edelweiss replete with standout performances from the indefatigable Julie Andrews and dryly humorous turn as the stern patriarch from the redoubtable Christopher Plummer.  The Sound of Music looks as sharp and bright as a new pin on Blu-ray and as a testament to its lasting appeal, my son has asked me to put Do-Re-Mi on every day this month!

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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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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

Absolutely Anything was released in the summer of 2015 starring Simon Pegg and Kate Beckinsale.

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And now for something completely different…

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Alice in Wonderland: 60th Anniversary Edition

I think Disney’s 1951 version of Alice in Wonderland is not only my preferred adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories but probably my favourite cartoon from the studio’s “Golden Age” of colour animation feature films which began with Snow White in 1937; although it could so easily have been different for more than a decade before and prior to the creation Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney and his founding partner Ub Iwerks produced their first short film Alice’s Wonderland (1923) which started a series of live action and animated one-reelers known simply as the “Alice Comedies”.

The success of the “Alice Comedies” allowed Disney to relocate from Kansas City to Hollywood and before they ended in 1927 he had already started developing a feature version which would be shelved and returned to several times before emerging as the studio’s 13th feature in the Animated Classics series.  What struck me most when I first saw it as a child was how much more stylised it was than the standard bucolic Disney fair such as Pinocchio or Bambi and this more abstract, almost cubist style conceived by background artist Mary Blair intrigued and appealed to me.

Whilst there had been surreal moments in previous Disney film’s such as Fantasia and the hallucinogenic Elephants on Parade sequence in Dumbo the visual mayhem was never sustained quite like it is when Alice falls into the rabbit hole and enters the topsy-turvy world of Lewis Carroll who was in turn inspired by the avant-garde Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in Victorian England who were known to dabble with mind-altering recreational drugs such as laudanum and absinthe; although as the son of a clergyman and Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University the chaste Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) would never dream of  indulging himself.

As with all of their Blu-ray releases this Disney 60th Anniversary Edition despite the age of the source material is demonstration quality.  I had always thought that Alice in Wonderland looked pretty sharp on DVD but the colour saturation, vibrancy and clarity of the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is breathtaking.  The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with the option of replacing the black side bars with very subtle matching artwork which I must admit I prefer.  The 5.1 DTS HD-MA mixing is well balanced maintaining clear dialogue whilst improving the sound effects, songs and incidental music with spatial surround sound which helps to immerse modern viewers.

This single disc contains all the features included on the DVD release most of which have been upscaled to HD, including the wonderful Mickey Mouse short Thru the Mirror inspired by Through the Looking-Glass, and what Alice Found There as well as the original silent short Alice’s Wonderland and a wealth of other deleted material.  However the best HD exclusive is Through the Keyhole: A Companion’s Guide to Wonderland which expands the picture-in-picture concept into a holistic “making of” that runs concurrently with the original movie, providing a wealth of background information on the production and the life and times of Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell the little girl who was the inspiration for the Wonderland stories.

Disney have never missed a trick at remarketing their back catalogue but the quality of these high definition releases continue to amaze me and it’s hard to imagine that what we’re seeing now won’t remain as the definitive versions of these timeless classics, I am eagerly awaiting Peter Pan the next instalment.

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It’s A Wonderful Life

Director Frank Capra explored the theme of the innate goodness of the young at heart, as personified by James Stewart, overcoming the evil schemes of black-hearted older men once before in 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, a scathing attack on corruption and misuse of power as demonstrated by the Taylor machine; a combination of local government, private industry and the mass media to manipulate public opinion and steam-roll the political affiliations of crooked magnate ‘Boss’ Jim Taylor.

Both Capra and Stewart served in World War II and their first film together in peacetime would be 1946’s It’s A Wonderful Life which takes the ideals of Mr. Smith and blends them with elements of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to examine the life of George Bailey, a man who sacrifices his personal ambitions for travel and adventure for the better of those around him in the sleepy town of Bedford Falls which he yearns to escape.

The film also recapitulates the homespun wisdom and family values offered in Capra’s first star vehicle for James Stewart, 1938’s You Can’t Take It With You in which he plays Tony Kirby the idealist son of wealthy and snobbish parents who disapprove of him dating the daughter of the highly eccentric neighbouring Sycamore family who don’t share the Kirby’s respect for money.

All three films are great but Capra and Stewart’s collaboration reaches maturity with It’s A Wonderful Life and structurally, on balance, it is the better film.  In fact the movie’s plotting is what makes it so remarkable, a less ambitious director would have started at the scene where George Bailey reaches the end of his tether on Christmas Eve and contemplates suicide, as he is convinced his life insurance policy makes him of more value to his family dead than alive, and then flash back to reveal his past.  Instead we arrive at this point a good hour into the film after we have observed the course of George’s life from a young age courtesy of Clarence Oddbody’s orientation as his Guardian Angel; if Clarence’s mission to save George is successful it will earn him his wings.

This episodic plot device allows us to become very familiar with the folks who live in Bedford Falls and discover how the Bailey family Building and Loan Association founded by George’s father, allowed so many of them to afford their own homes and escape the clutches of the merciless landlord Mr. Potter who owns the slums in which so many of them are forced to rent at extortionate prices.  George has always hoped to leave the small town and pursue a life of adventure but we see how at potentially life changing moments he puts his own aspirations aside for the sake of his family and when his father dies circumstances see to it that he stays once more to take over the day to day running of the Building and Loan firm. 

George marries his childhood sweetheart Mary and in a key scene they manage to avoid a mass panic after a run on the Bedford Falls bank leaves the Building and Loan in danger of collapse, they calm the local investors by issuing them all with bailouts from their $2,000 honeymoon fund; they settle in the town and raise a family and when he’s unfit for duty in WWII George accepts his fate and he and the Building and Loan prosper.  Until one Christmas Eve, while George is dealing with a company audit, his forgetfully Uncle Billy mislays $8,000 on route to deposit it at the bank and the money ends up in the hands of Henry Potter who grasps at the chance to fatally wound the Building and Loan and rid himself of the troublesome Bailey clan altogether.

George is at his wits end when he is unable to trace the missing funds and fears prosecution, shame and scandal and decides his only option is end it all by jumping off a bridge when Clarence the Angel materialises and jumps first before George gets the chance.  This is where the film’s ingenious plotting comes to fruition, inspired by the spirit of a Dickensian Christmas this twist allows George to go back to Bedford Falls and see what things would have been like had he never lived.  All the selfless good deeds that George did growing up are all undone and the town is a much worse place for it.  James Stewart’s raw emotional performance is totally authentic, unlike his naive Jefferson Smith’s clumsy but heartfelt filibustering, we have shared George Bailey’s life experiences and we know his sacrifices and disappointments and it makes his breakdown all the more believable, we can all empathise with this character and share in his realisation in begging to live again.

George runs home to Mary and the children and is greeted by all of the townspeople who he has helped and who have prospered by the Building and Loan over the years and between them they more than cover the $8,000 deficit and as the Christmas morning bells chime Clarence the Guardian Angel finally gets his wings.  It’s A Wonderful Life has never looked more wonderful than on Blu-ray, the film which had suffered from some very ropey home video releases in the past, finally has a majestic 1080p transfer and a crackle free, albeit mono, digital soundtrack.  There are no extras unfortunately and the only additional inclusion is the colourised version of the film, a practice I do not approve of and whilst it has been done very tastefully it only detracts from the power of the original black and white photography.

Frank Capra is too easily dismissed as a sentimental filmmaker, earning the derisive term Capracorn which was often attributed to his pictures by unfavourable critics.  However, his movies are rich, technically brilliant, cleverly scripted and superbly acted, usually by a repertory company including James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, Lionel Barrymore and Edward Arnold.  I sincerely hope that It’s A Wonderful Life will not be the only Capra Blu-ray released as both You Can’t Take It With You and Mr. Smith Goes To Washington ought to be preserved for future generations to enjoy.

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Disney’s A Christmas Carol

Disney’s A Christmas Carol might have been better titled Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as screenwriter/director Robert Zemeckis has very faithfully adapted the classic short story by blending the original text, as set similarly in the outstanding 1951 version starring Alistair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge, with the exhilarating visual style achieved through the digital motion-capture animation technique that he established with The Polar Express in 2004.  This time, instead of Tom Hanks, we have the rubber-faced, Jerry Lewis-esque, comedian Jim Carrey playing the various ages of Scrooge, as well as all three of the ghosts of Christmas who visit him.  

I am not a fan of the default Carrey performance in the kind of broad, slapstick comedy films that made him a household name but here he proves, as he has done before with The Truman Show, Man On The Moon and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, that he is in fact a very facile character actor capable of bringing great depth and nuances to his roles not only physically and vocally but also emotionally; his Scrooge is totally believable and wryly humorous plus his transformation, even for one as familiar as I am with the tale, manages to lift the spirits and imbue one with the joy of Christmas.  

Co-stars Colin Firth who plays Scrooge’s cheerful nephew Fred and Gary Oldman who plays the ghost of Scrooge’s dead partner Jacob Marley, his long-suffering clerk Bob Cratchit and Cratchit’s ailing son Tiny Tim, also make the most of the motion-capture technology giving supporting performances of great subtlety with a level of detail and range of expression infinitely greater than seen before in The Polar Express; the snowy street scenes of Victorian London are particularly well rendered as are the candlelit interiors.  I did see the film in 3D at the cinema when it was released last year but I much prefer seeing it at home in 2D, as I am yet to be convinced by the merit of home 3D systems and find the depth of field depicted in the standard Blu-ray presentation more than sufficient.  

Zemeckis has proven he has integrity both with The Polar Express which is equally true to Chris Van Allsburg’s original book illustrations and A Christmas Carol by presenting an exceedingly authentic Dickensian version, albeit updated slightly by the inclusion of some spectacular action sequences, this easily could have been far more Disneyfied as the title would suggest.  

This authenticity dispelled any doubts I initially had when I heard that he was working on a motion-capture remake of the cult Beatles cartoon Yellow Submarine and I am very disappointed to hear that it has now been abandoned.  I shall put that thought aside and settle down for another viewing of Disney’s A Christmas Carol, a merrier Christmas Carol than we have seen for many a year!

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Carnivàle

When Carnivàle premiered on BBC TV in the autumn of 2003 I eagerly anticipated it as the trailer had suggested that the show was going to share more than just the appearance of dwarf actor Michael J. Anderson in the regular cast with landmark surreal series Twin Peaks which had its run just over a decade before.  Unfortunately, as was the fate of many US series aired by the BBC at the time it was forever being shifted around by the schedulers making it impossible to pre-empt the exact day or time to set the video and consequently I missed too many crucial early episodes and was forced to abandon it.

The series met the same end as Twin Peaks when it was cancelled by the network midway through its second season and to the best of my knowledge it has not been repeated on UK television since.  Fortunately I recently discovered it available to download from HBO’s Apple TV channel and have just spent the best part of two weeks addictively working my way through the entire 24 hour long episodes and whilst the door is left open for a continuing series there is a satisfying enough conclusion that doesn’t leave one feeling cheated when the final credits roll.

The story is set in America during the 1930s Great Depression and focuses on the members of a travelling carnival as they journey south through the drought stricken plains of the Dust Bowl most famously recorded by John Steinbeck in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath.  The troupe come across 18 year old protagonist Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) burying his dead mother as his home is bulldozed by the landowners; he is persuaded to join the carnival by its diminutive organiser Samson (Michael J. Anderson) who reports directly to the deeply mysterious “Management” hidden behind a small curtained annex at the back of  his trailer.

The carnival folk soon discover that the troubled Ben is not just a farmhand but an escapee from a chain gang and a fledgling faith healer who is just discovering his powers and wants to learn how to harness them.  The plot is concurrently driven by the actions of a California Preacher, Reverend Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown) and his sister Iris (Amy Madigan) who are founding a Methodist Ministry for the undesirable migrants who have fled theBlack Blizzards” of Oklahoma.  From the first episode it appears that Brother Justin is potentially possessed when he catches a vagrant woman stealing from the congregation plate and the resulting confrontation leads to her coughing up copious amount of coins.

Creator and principal writer Daniel Knauf conceived Carnivàle as an overarching good-versus-evil story propelled by two gradually converging plot threads; Ben Hawkins’ quest to find his estranged father Henry Scudder (John Savage) and Brother Justin’s mission to build his grand Temple of Jericho.  The two characters emerge via dreams and visions to be set on a path of destruction, maintaining tension and ambiguity as to which of them is a “Creature of Light” and which a “Creature of Darkness” well into the second season. The show covers topics as diverse as Tarot Divination, Radio Evangelism, The Knights Templar and Religious Avatars and includes characters like the catatonic fortune-telling Apollonia and her tarot-reading daughter Sophie (Clea DuVall) along with the blind mentalist Professor Lodz (Patrick Bauchau) who appear to be more than merely circus acts but truly gifted seers whose spirits transcend far beyond the present reality.

Carnivàle grips you from the first moments and never let’s go, it’s riveting, exquisitely written and performed; don’t let it’s weighty religious themes put you off as it never sinks into solemnity, there are plenty of lighter scenes and witty dialogue to ensure that each episode leaves you eager for more.  Clancy Brown brings both an effortless charm and a demonic fervour to his magnetic performance as Brother Justin and Nick Stahl convinces as the reluctant hero Ben Hawkins.  If you enjoyed Twin Peaks and have never seen Carnivàle then it comes highly recommended, it’s unlikely to ever get a Blu-ray release but both seasons are available on DVD.

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Mr. Nice

The rights to make a film of Mr. Nice were sold to the BBC by Howard Marks when the landmark autobiography of perhaps the most sophisticated drug baron of all time topped the best seller lists in 1996.  15 years later and his vivid memoir has finally been brought to the big screen by the iconic writer/director Bernard Rose (Immortal Beloved) who faithfully captures the rambling, often comic, nature of the original book aided by an outstanding performance from Rhys Ifans in the title role.

In researching this article I have found many prominent discrepancies between the reported facts, their fictionalised account in the original Marks book and the way in which they are presented by Rose in his screenplay.  This opaque concept of reality has helped to give “Mr. Nice” his legendary outlaw status with comparisons drawn to Robin Hood and Butch Cassidy to name but two.  Whilst this lack of absolute veracity might irritate some, to my mind it only serves to heighten the movie as a work of art in its own right.

In trying to echo the essence of an autobiography Bernard Rose elected to take on most of the important technical roles behind the camera, not content with writing the script and directing the performances, he is also the cinematographer (operating a handheld 35mm camera to capture the requisite period look) as well as being the film’s editor.  This singular vision provides a necessary counterpoint to the force of nature that is Rhys Ifans who dominates almost every scene in the movie.

Ifans actually got to know Marks back in the day when he was singing with the fledgling Welsh psychedelic rock combo Super Furry Animals, prior to the huge success of the book the two became firm friends and a deal was struck that Rhys should play Howard if a film was ever made of his life.  This long standing amicable association provides the movie with a heart that would have most likely been missing with anyone else in the lead role, Ifans admiration for Marks is demonstrable as is his compassion, particularly in the Terre Haute Penitentiary scenes.

The film opens from behind theatrical curtains with Howard Marks addressing a favourable crowd during one of his live shows, after the book’s success he became a popular speaker on the raconteur circuit.  It then flashes back to his early life in a small Welsh coal-mining village near Bridgend, the black and white film stock shrinks to a 4:3 ratio giving the feeling of a kitchen sink drama of the period, the young Howard is also played by Rhys Ifans; a surreal device recollecting the televised plays of Dennis Potter.

Marks was the first of his family to attend university after earning a scholarship to study at Balliol College, Oxford, in the mid-1960s.  Like many of his generation during his undergraduate years he was exposed to a variety of recreational drugs including LSD but his drug of choice was cannabis, in particular hashish; as he takes his first toke the scope of the picture widens and dramatically shifts from monochrome to vivid colour, reminiscent of Dorothy’s entrance into Oz.

After Howard graduates from Oxford with a degree in Nuclear Physics, he heads back to Wales, gets married and starts a family, this is the version of events unique to Rose’s film as this is not how Marks recalls it in his book nor is it true to documented accounts but it makes perfect dramatic sense.  He takes a steady teaching job to make ends meet and for a while leads a sober yet boring existence, until he attends a party thrown by his old college chum Graham (Jack Huston) who seems to be doing incredibly well for himself by selling hash.  Howard is readily seduced back into the hippy culture when he meets and shares a joint with Judy (Chloë Sevigny), embarking on a long love affair with her and the weed.

When Graham is arrested while attempting to smuggle a large haul out of Germany, Howard agrees to courier the remaining stash back to the UK where he is quickly baptised into the machinations of big time drug dealing; turning a quick profit and agreeing to collect further shipments from the Pakistani supplier, Saleem Malik (Omid Djalili).  This whirlwind period in Howard’s life brings him into contact with the colourful character of Jim McCann, the Irish freedom fighter allegedly kicked out of the IRA for drug trafficking played full tilt by David Thewlis.  Marks engages McCann’s Provo contacts at Shannon Airport to covertly import drugs from the European mainland.

In a surreal twist straight out of the pages of Ian Fleming or John le Carré, Howard is approached by another old chum from Baillol, Hamilton “Mac” McMillan, played by the wonderful Christian McKay (Me and Orson Welles), who now works for MI6 and wishes to recruit Marks as his eyes and ears in various cases relating to narcotics or terrorism in return for a level of protection from the law.

Between the late 70s and early 80s Howard Marks amassed a complex network of connections controlling at one point 10% of the global hashish market and by the mid-80s he had 43 aliases, 89 phone lines, and 25 companies trading throughout the world.  True to the book the film tries to suggest that his fateful decision to move into the American market was his ultimate undoing and that Judy, who by this time he had 3 childen with, tried to discourage the US expansion and pull Howard back to reality and the commitment of family life but the temptation to make even greater piles of cash proved too much.

Bernard Rose employs a clever stylistic device to convey the 25 year time period covered in the course of movie, he takes actual filmed stock footage backgrounds and then digitally superimposes Marks over the top matching the grain, whilst the effect is an obvious artifice dismissed by some critics as simply amateurish and cheap it actually serves as a striking visual quirk that reflects Howard’s constant state of expanded consciousness.  It also reminds me of the back projection shots favoured by Alfred Hitchcock in his golden Hollywood period, notably Marnie in 1964.

The original soundtrack by minimalist composer Philip Glass amounts to nothing more than incidental mood music echoing the sort of thing he did for the Errol Morris documentaries of the 80s starting with The Thin Blue Line, nonetheless it does help to bring about a sense of cohesion to the piece. For this level of attentive detail Rose should be commended, he has managed to make a visually unique movie and a wonderful star vehicle for Rhys Ifans out of a stoned shaggy dog story that will help maintain Howard Marks’ mythic stature as he continues his vigorous campaign for the legalisation of recreational drugs.

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Arizona Dream

Almost 20 years before the overhyped Inception focused on the phenomenon of dreaming Emir Kusturica directed Johnny Depp in the surreal comic fantasy Arizona Dream.  The movie was produced by Claudie Ossard (Delicatessen/Amélie) and is typical of the sort of strange art-house films that Depp used to regularly appear in before finding mainstream appeal as a Disney Pirate.

The plot, such as is it, follows the dreamlike escapades of Axel Blackmar (Depp) a drifter who has taken the obscure job of tagging fish for the New York State Department of Fish and Game.  His cousin wannabe actor Paul Leger (Vincent Gallo) turns up announcing that their Uncle Leo (Jerry Lewis) plans to marry his Polish fiancé Millie (supermodel Paulina Porizkova) a girl more than half his age and that he wishes for Axel to be his best man; reluctantly Axel accompanies Paul back to their Arizona hometown.

In his best role since playing a version of himself in Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy, Jerry Lewis is outstanding as Axel’s Uncle Leo; a successful, infectiously upbeat Cadillac salesman and living testimony to the “American Dream” paradoxically wracked with survivor’s guilt from causing the crash that killed Axel’s parents, he persuades him to stay on after the wedding and try his hand at selling cars.   

Axel’s first potential customers are eccentric widower Elaine Stalker (Faye Dunaway) and her suicidal step-daughter Grace (Lili Taylor) their brazen arrival sparks the interest of both Axel and cousin Paul who’s gift of the gab ensures an invitation to dinner at the Stalker’s home that evening; here screenwriter David Watkins (Novocaine) delivers one of the most flabbergastingly funny surprise scenes I have witnessed and from here on in I was totally hooked.

Axel embarks on an affair with Elaine and despite their madcap behaviour and slim grasp on reality this May to September romance is convincing and genuinely moving to watch, especially his attempts to build the flying machine she has always dreamt of.  The film’s theme of the pursuit of dreams in the face of reality is explored thoroughly; Uncle Leo dreams of stacking Cadillacs high enough to reach the moon, Grace dreams of being reincarnated as a turtle and Paul aspires to be a great actor by reproducing his favourite movie scenes, providing one of the bizarre set pieces when he re-enacts the entire crop duster sequence from the Hitchcock classic North by Northwest for a local talent show.

Kusturica is clearly a master filmmaker and he manages to maintain a dreamlike feel throughout the movie’s 142 minute running time, it is consistently funny but also has a haunting mystical quality making it compelling viewing and fortunately the French Blu-ray release contains a DTS-HD 5.1 English audio master track with enforced subtitles only for the excerpts from Raging Bull and The Godfather: Part II, the full 1080p picture quality is gorgeous and 20 minutes that were cut from the theatrical release have been totally restored.

Arizona Dream is impeccably acted and although it’s obvious that an element of improvisation has gone on the story and script are strong and stay true to their purpose in evoking the absurdist, surreal quality of dreams, an element totally lacking in Christopher Nolan’s Inception the same could be said for laughs of which there is also an abundance here making it a must for fans of Depp’s earlier work.

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The King’s Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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