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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Psycho: 50th Anniversary Edition

In 1959 Alfred Hitchcock signed a deal with Universal Studios allowing him to make any picture he liked as long as the budget was under $3 million.  He still owed Paramount Pictures a movie under contract so, inspired by the box office success of maverick B-Movie producer/director Roger Corman, he decided to make a very low-budget feature in black and white using the TV crew who worked on his popular Alfred Hitchcock Presents series. 

Psycho: 50th Anniversary Edition on Blu-ray is very impressive both in terms of picture and sound quality and also a banquet of bonus material.  The video is presented in a 1080p/VC-1 transfer with lossless DTS-HD 5.1 master audio soundtrack both radically improving on the previous DVD release.  Equally improved is the quality of the print, the blacks are exceedingly deep and all the defects that marred the DVD release are gone leaving a spotless, pristine image as good as any modern day release which is pretty remarkable for a film that’s half a century old.

It’s hard to imagine now how much impact Psycho must have had on its first audiences, the marketing campaign which refused admittance to the cinema after the programme had started and the personalised appeal from Hitch not to reveal the surprise ending really paid dividends.  These days the name of Norman Bates is synonymous with serial murder, matricide and schizophrenia but in 1960 audiences were completely taken in by Anthony Perkins hen-pecked, stammering but disarmingly charming Motel proprietor.

Thought by many to be the archetypal Hitchcock thriller in actual fact Psycho bears little resemblance to any of the Director’s previous suspense features which had in common big budgets, lavish Technicolor photography of tourist spots and grand interiors, glamorous leading men and women in designer garments who, whilst they courted danger, the audience knew they would live to tell the tale; Marion Crane’s fate would be entirely different altogether.    

In casting Janet Leigh as Marion Crane Hitchcock played a very clever trick on his audience, he knew they would totally sympathise with Marion’s doomed romantic interludes with a married man who couldn’t afford to leave his wife and entirely support her dubious decision to make off with $40,000 of her firm’s funds rather than deposit them at the bank.  Even though I have seen the film countless times I am still taken in by the setup and totally believe that this is going to be Marion’s story and it’s a testament to the playing of both Leigh and Perkins that it’s still a shock when you realise it’s not about her, it’s actually about him.

This pivotal turning point is driven home by the unforgettable shower scene, a montage of 50 individual shots, intricately cut together to the startling sounds of Bernard Herrmann’s string motif creating one of the most iconic moments in cinema history.  From here on the audience who has vested all their emotional support in Marion now transfer these feelings to Norman, believing him to be an innocent, browbeaten Mother’s boy who’s simply trying to cover up her jealous crimes of passion.

It is fair to say that Psycho is somewhat uneven and I do not enjoy the scenes with Marion’s sister (Vera Miles) and her boyfriend (John Gavin), although the moment where Miles discovers Mrs. Bates mummified skeleton in the cellar is visually striking; yet for the most part their scenes feel prescribed and a little wooden.  Equally the tacked on scene at the end with the psychoanalyst might have felt necessary in 1960 but by today’s standard it seems a trite and prosaic explanation of Norman’s condition.  These minor criticisms do not detract from the overall power the film still has to enthral and shock modern audiences.

I was glad to find amongst the numerous extras the ‘Making Of’ documentary from the US Collector’s Edition DVD; this feature length, comprehensive account written and directed by Laurent Bouzereau is packed with interviews with the cast, including Janet Leigh and Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia along with contributions from screenwriter Joseph Stefano.  I hope this series will appear in subsequent Universal releases as I have yet to see them bettered and a lot of the key technical and creative personnel who regularly worked with Hitchcock are no longer alive to comment.  I cannot conceive of Psycho looking any better than it does in this hidef presentation and I hope that Rear Window, Vertigo, The Birds and Marnie follow it without an unnecessary hiatus.

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The Conspirator

As soon as I heard that Robert Redford was directing a film about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln I wanted to see it, more so than the long awaited Steven Spielberg biopic which has been put back yet again; this time until after November 2012’s Presidential elections ostensibly to avoid it becoming “political fodder” but more likely to maximise its Oscar potential for 2013.

I recently became fascinated with the Lincoln assassination after listening to the original Off-Broadway cast recording of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, particularly The Ballad of Booth which explores the psyche of John Wilkes Booth (Victor Garber) and examines Abraham Lincoln’s legacy in light of the Abolition of Slavery and the American Civil War.

The Conspirator is the debut feature of the newly founded American Film Company which has taken up the remit to produce historically accurate, entertaining movies based on great stories from the USA’s collective past; in this case the account of Mary Surratt the owner of the boarding house where Booth regularly met with his fellow conspirators one of which was Mary’s own son, John.

In its opening scene The Conspirator quickly establishes the character of Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) a decorated hero of the Union Army who now works as a trial lawyer in immediate post-war Washington.  It also succinctly depicts the scope of the assassination plot which targeted not only the President but Vice President, Andrew Johnson and the Secretary of State, William Seward; with the intent of rallying the diehard Confederate troops who had not surrendered into a revived attack.

Whilst John Wilkes Booth was killed resisting capture the rest of the conspirators were arrested and charged with treason, among them Mary Surratt whose son, John remained on the run.  The War Secretary Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) determined that a military tribunal should swiftly convict the conspirators despite controversial elder statesmen Reverdy Johnson’s (Tom Wilkinson) view that the constitutional principles of the Founding Fathers were under threat if civilians are not given a fair trial by jury.

Convinced that she was merely being used as a pawn to coax her son out from hiding Johnson approaches Aiken asking him to defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) as he feared his own reputation since advocating on behalf of southern slave-owners in the infamous Dred Scott lawsuit would only serve to further prejudice the case against her.  As a staunch Yankee Aiken is reluctant to come to Surratt’s aid but agrees to meet with her although after a series of prison interviews he remains unconvinced of her innocence.

Aiken faces a lot of hostility and comes under increasing pressure from Union friends and colleagues to resign as Surratt’s council.  In the face of such adversity he digs deeper into the evidence and it becomes apparent that key witnesses are being paid for favourable testimonies.  In addition the accused is not permitted to testify on her behalf and almost all of Aiken’s objections are summarily dismissed by the tribunal made up entirely of Union Generals all who served as pallbearers at Lincoln’s funeral.

Inevitably Mary Surratt is found guilty by the court but they deliberate over sentencing her to death as she is a woman.  However, in order not to appear weak for fear of encouraging intransigence in the remaining Confederate troops, Edwin Stanton overturns the decision and Mary is hanged despite an 11th hour writ of habeas corpus drafted by Aiken and indorsed by Supreme Court Judge, Andrew Wylie.

The Conspirator is an engaging historical drama in the courtroom tradition, solidly acted by a flawless ensemble cast.  James McAvoy gives a sincere performance and Robin Wright remains the epitome of stoicism throughout.  There are some obvious parallels drawn to the present era, especially since the passing of the Patriot Act which allows for suspects to be detained without charge, but Redford admirably resists pat comparisons or overwrought sentimentality in presenting Surratt’s tragic case.

An ironic coda reveals that 18 months after Mary was sentenced to death, John Surratt was apprehended and tried by a jury of his peers only to be acquitted on the grounds of insufficient evidence for his part in the conspiracy; an irrefutable case against capital punishment extremely timely in the light of the recent Georgia State execution of Troy Davis for the murder of a police officer despite inconclusive ballistic evidence.

Finally I was surprised to read that Frederick Aiken went on to edit the Washington Post the newspaper synonymous with Robert Redford since his landmark performance as celebrated reporter Bob Woodward in Alan J. Pakula’s iconic film version of Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate exposé All The President’s Men.

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Tamara Drewe

It seems that 2010 will be remembered as a boon year for movies derived from comic strips what with Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the various Marvel and DC Comic franchise exploits there was also Tamara Drewe based on the graphic novel of the same name by Posy Simmonds which in turn was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and set in the fictional, sleepy Dorset village of Ewedown.

The story centres on a country retreat for writers run by Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam), a smug, successful, adulterous crime novelist and his loyal, doting wife Beth (Tasmin Grieg) their largely eccentric guests include Glen McCreavy an American academic who’s struggling to finish his latest book which, to echo the source material, is on the works of Hardy.  When Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton) inherits her mother’s house she returns to the village where she grew up and was known as a troubled ugly duckling, now working as a journalist with a popular column she’s had a nose job and the remarkable change in her appearance stirs interest in the village’s male population.

 

Tamara enlists the help of Andy (Luke Evans) the odd job man to renovate the house for sale, ironically Andy’s family once owned the property but they fell on hard times, a further twist is that she lost her virginity to him back in the day and he clearly still has feelings for her.  Tamara on the other hand doesn’t know what she wants and embarks on a wild fling with Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper) drummer and teenage heartthrob who she meets while reporting on the local rock festival and within days he proposes marriage.

Nicholas Hardiment is a serial philanderer and his long suffering wife has taken him back on numerous occasions.  Things take an unexpected turn when Jody and Casey two teenaged girls with massive crushes on Ben Sergeant conspire to bring him back to the village when his relationship with Tamara turns sour whilst they’re staying in London for Christmas.  Jody’s cockamamie plan involves sneaking into Tamara’s house whilst Andy, incidentally Casey’s Uncle, is decorating and secretly sending an email from Tamara’s computer to Ben asking him to come back for the “biggest shagging of his life”.  Casey being the more sensitive of the two girls warns Jody not to send it, but Jody is undeterred and for some perverse reason adds Nicholas and Andy as recipients.

Chaos ensues; Ben is furious and breaks off his engagement to Tamara, Andy is disappointed that Tamara’s taste in men extends to the rapacious Hardiment but doesn’t realise that as a girl who hardly knew her own father she had harboured a secret crush on ‘Nicholarse’ whose fame as a writer she aspired to and somewhat inevitably the two of them now end up in bed together.  The American Professor has found new inspiration for his book whilst falling for Beth Hardiment and when she discovers her husband’s fling too far with Tamara he is there to support her pursuit for a divorce.

As you can tell the plot is a suitably convoluted homage to Hardy’s late 19th century romantic potboilers, fuelled by unrequited love and repressed sexual passion and handled with great skill by director Stephen Frears who manages to keep it light and frothy but tackle some tough themes head on, such as spouse choice, infidelity and the lonely pursuit of an artful life; I won’t spoil the surprise ending but it’s fair to say all’s well that ends well.

Tamara Drewe is a refreshing British romantic comedy that’s both smart and funny, the hidef release has a sharp and vibrant 1080p transfer that lends itself to comic strip imagery, the rich greens of the countryside are balanced by the earthy browns and inky blacks evidently on show here, skin tones are also superb; Sony Pictures never miss an opportunity to show off the capabilities of Blu-ray and the 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack is equally impressive.  If for nothing more it will be remembered as Gemma Arterton’s best acting role since her breakout performance as Bond girl Strawberry Fields in the ghastly Quantum of Solace.

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Jack Lemmon

I hadn’t planned to write about actors specifically, as my intent was to focus on certain key films and directors.  However, as this is also a personal journal it should reflect its author to some extent and those who knew me in my teens surely thought I had an unhealthy obsession with this particular Hollywood star, but with hindsight I would say that it marked the apex of my calling as an actor, which transmogrified by puberty was almost a religious fervour with me in those days.

John Uhler Lemmon III was born in Boston in 1925 to middle class parents, his father was the president of a doughnut company and his mother, in early life, had followed aspirations as an actress in comedy and light opera.  Jack was their only child and from the age of 8 he was convinced that he would become the next George Gershwin and the world’s greatest actor.

Lemmon studied at Harvard majoring in War Time Sciences, he was a member of the Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps. and served as an Ensign after graduation.  Whilst at Harvard he was also active in theatrical pursuits and was the president of The Hasty Pudding Club, a long-standing tradition of which was to put on a Christmas show in drag.

After his brief spell in the Navy Lemmon took himself to New York and worked as a piano player in a beer hall, he started auditioning and got regular work on radio and in off-Broadway productions eventually leading to appearances on live television shows like TV Playhouse and Kraft Theatre.  In 1954 he did a screen test for Columbia Pictures and was offered a contract by legendary tough movie mogul Harry Cohen, with the proviso that he change his name from Lemmon to Lennon.  Thinking on his feet, and determined to keep his own name, he played to Cohen’s business-savvy by suggesting that people might mistake it for Lenin and associate that with Communism, a serious problem for the American entertainment industry in the McCarthy era.

Lemmon made his big screen debut opposite Judy Holliday in It Should Happen To You, a likeable romantic comedy that lightly satirises the concept of celebrity.  The film was lifted by the sure hand of veteran Gone With The Wind director George Cukor, who also had hits with screwball comedies starring Katherine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story and Adam’s Rib.

Whilst cutting his teeth on the Columbia lot Lemmon would meet two young writer/directors, whom he would work with more than once.  Richard Quine was a very solid director with a gift for comedy, he liked to shoot outdoors in real locations.  He made a total of six films with Lemmon, My Sister EileenOperation Mad BallBell, Book & CandleIt Happened To Jane, The Notorious Landlady and How To Murder Your Wife, each one well-crafted with a strong narrative and solid performances from a good ensemble cast, often including Ernie Kovacs, Kim Novak and Dick York.

Blake Edwards, who would famously go on to make the Pink Panther series with Peter Sellers, worked as a writer on Quine’s Operation Mad Ball and The Notorious Landlady and after making his directorial breakthrough feature Breakfast At Tiffany’s he teamed with Lemmon and they turned their focus to a serious subject matter in Days Of Wine And Roses, a poignant and powerful character study of young newly-weds whose social drinking escalates into soul-destroying alcoholism, earning both Lemmon and his co-star Lee Remick Academy Award nominations.  Ironically, at the time of shooting, Lemmon, a self-confessed alcoholic, was teetotal.

Edwards and Lemmon teamed up again shortly after to make the epic comedy The Great Race, dedicated to Laurel & Hardy.  Whilst I enjoy Lemmon’s malevolent performance, as the dastardly Victorian villain, Professor Fate (complete with twirly moustache) and the Prisoner Of Zenda detour allowing him to camp it up in the dual role of the lush Crown Prince Hapnik, the movie is overlong, lacks real charm, and is nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is.

The first Lemmon film I remember watching, and the one that convinced me, aged 12, that I was going to be an Actor, was Some Like It Hot, now regarded by the American Film Institute as the funniest comedy ever made.  The simple notion of two down at heel musicians having to flee in drag after witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, tapped into my sense of the absurd and I marvelled at Lemmon’s incredibly facile performance both as Jerry and his feminine alter ego, Daphne.

This was the first of several films by Austrian émigré, writer/director, Billy Wilder, the others most notably were The Apartment and The Fortune Cookie which first teamed Lemmon with his life-long friend and co-star Walter Matthau.  I shall go into each of those, along with Avanti! which I have a particular soft spot for, in greater detail in future posts.

I was extremely fortunate that my passion for Lemmon’s work coincided with two events both in 1986.  The first was a season of his films at the British Film Institute where I was, not only, able to see some of his greatest films, including The Odd Couple, for the first time, but also saw him interviewed live in the theatre by Jonathan Miller, who was directing Lemmon’s London stage debut Long Day’s Journey Into Night, co-starring Bethel Leslie and newcomers Kevin Spacey and Peter Gallagher.  I was 15 at the time and I am very thankful that I shared these experiences with my Father who died a few years later, I shall always treasure these fond memories.

Most people only associate Lemmon with his comic work but he also made some superb dramas including The China Syndrome, Missing and Save The Tiger for which he won an Best Actor Oscar in 1973.  In later life he would make tour-de-force performances in David Mamet’s screen version of his 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross and Oliver Stone’s JFK.  He was a lifelong Democrat and follower of liberal causes just as much as he was a devotee of golf.

I shall be writing in more detail about Lemmon’s movies, specifically those directed by Billy Wilder, who probably summed it up best when he said, “Happiness is working with Jack Lemmon”.

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Apocalypse Now: Full Disclosure

It has got to be one of the most eagerly anticipated Blu-ray releases of all time and finally, almost 5 years since the hidef format launched, Apocalypse Now has been released almost a year to the day after The Godfather: Coppola Restoration collection.  The Full Disclosure package is every bit as impressive, if not more so, as it includes both the original cut and the ‘Redux’ extended version of the film plus Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse which I saw when it was released at the Cinema in 1991 and then wore out the VHS tape, but this is the first time it has ever been released in a digital format in the UK.

Firstly, let me confirm that all 3 discs included in the Full Disclosure edition are Region Free and boast full 1080p resolution and a DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack.  The first disc contains both the 1979 theatrical cut (153 mins) and 2001’s controversial ‘Redux’ version that restores the 49 mins of cut scenes, including the lavish French Plantation sequence.  I think both cuts of the film are valid, on balance I prefer the ‘Redux’ version although I agree that it changes the pacing of the film but it also helps expand it beyond the confines of the Vietnam war and leans more towards the source material of Joseph Conrad’s story, Hearts of Darkness, on which the film is based.  The 2nd disc is packed full of additional material, most notably two recent hour long filmed discussions by Francis Coppola with writer John Milius and star Martin Sheen, an interview by Roger Ebert at the Cannes Film Festival premier of the ‘Redux’ version, Orson Welles’ Mercury Radio production of Hearts of Darkness and Marlon Brando reading the full version of T.S. Elliot’s poem The Hollow Men.

The 3rd disc features the hidef version of Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse which is superb.  I had worried because there were rumours that it might be cut to remove some of the more uncomfortable moments of anguish that Coppola had to endure whilst making, what many beleive to be, his masterpiece; instead there is an audio commentary track, featuring both Francis and his wife Eleanor who made the documentary, providing a wistful, fresh perspective to some of the insanity that transpired whilst shooting in the Philippines.  This is one of the most engaging documentaries ever made about the cinematic process and worth the price of ownership alone!  Also included are numerous photos, storyboards, posters and other marketing material, along with a 57 page extract of the first draft by John Milius containing Coppola’s hand written notes which (if you sit close enough to the TV!) makes interesting reading.

To complete the package is a 48 page book containing an introductory letter from Francis Ford Coppola outlining the contents in detail.  My only criticism so far, as I’ve yet to wade through all of the supplements, is that there is no discrete chapter list for the ‘Redux’ version, which means you can’t go straight to the restored sequences; a forgivable oversight to an otherwise perfect collection.  I have owned more versions of this film than I care to remember and this is, without doubt, the best I have ever seen Apocalypse Now look on the small screen.  Let’s just hope that Coppola’s American Zoetrope cohort takes heed and releases the Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies on Blu-ray in the near future.

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Kick-Ass

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

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

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

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

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

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Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut

It’s been 10 years since Richard Kelly’s admirable and ambitious directorial debut Donnie Darko was released to an unsuspecting cinema audience with its blend of teenage angst and paranoid schizophrenia it has become a cult movie for anyone familiar with the 1980s zeitgeist.

In his breakout performance Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie Darko a psychologically disturbed high-school student who sleep walks and has visions of a demonic rabbit called Frank, who tells him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.  Although he is prone to aggressive and bizarre behaviour Donnie is still a typical teenager with conservative Republican parents who are supportive and concerned for his well-being.  In a freakishly random aviation accident the engine of a jet which has mysteriously vanished hits the roof of the Darko’s house taking out Donnie’s bedroom although luckily due to his sleep walking he has wound up on one of the greens at the local golf course; at this point the story flashes back 28 days charting the lead up to Armageddon.

Despite regularly seeing a psychiatrist (Katherine Ross) and undergoing hypnosis Donnie’s visions of Frank get more frequent requesting him to carry out random acts of violence, inspired by Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors” a favourite of his liberal English teacher (Drew Barrymore); firstly he floods the school leaving an axe in the head of the bronze statue of the school’s mascot “The Mongrel” and then, exhibiting his revulsion for phonies a quality he shares with Holden Caulfield the hero of J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”, he sets fire to the mansion of a local motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) exposing him as a fraud and a sexual deviant.

Donnie starts dating the new girl in school Gretchen (Jena Malone) who had to relocate and change her identity when her emotionally disturbed father stabbed her mother; she empathises with Donnie and provides comfort for his growing anxiety.  In an attempt to avoid Frank’s prediction Donnie starts to investigate the possibility of altering the future and his science teacher (Noah Wyle) explains Stephen Hawking’s wormhole theory that could lead to a portal to a parallel universe, he also gives him a book called “The Philosophy of Time-Travel” by a former teacher at the school, Roberta Sparrow who now lives a hermit like existence and is known by the local kids as “Grandma Death” because each day she goes to check her post box and stands in the way of oncoming traffic.

At this point the film shifts from psychological drama to Sci-Fi fantasy as Donnie becomes absorbed with Roberta Sparrow’s book and with the assistance of Frank seemingly masters the ability to bend time.  In the film’s climatic sequence on the final day of the world Donnie’s mother and younger sister are flying so she can take part in a dance competition.  Donnie and his elder sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) decide to throw a Halloween party during which he sneaks out with Gretchen to explore Roberta Sparrow’s cellar.  They are jumped by two of the school’s thugs and held at knife point, in the struggle Gretchen is knocked into the middle of the road and her unconscious body is run over by a car being driven by someone wearing Frank’s bunny suit.

Donnie realises the devastating effect his actions have had on those he loves and turns back time so that he is in his room when the jet engine hits.  It’s suggested that his mother and younger sister are on the plane as it plummets out of the sky but I am unsure how undoing Donnie’s actions entirely avoids their fate but they are all present when his body is taken from the house, which seems to suggest that perhaps it has all just been one big paranoid delusion. Gretchen passes by and has to ask a neighbour who it is on the stretcher so it seems that Donnie has sacrificed himself in order to save her.

Richard Kelly is clearly influenced by the films of David Lynch, especially Blue Velvet and genre bending films like Being John Malkovich which play with the conventions of linear narrative.  The Blu-ray marks a radical improvement in the picture quality which is presented in full 1080p 2.35:1 transfer, unfortunately the 5.1 DTS-HD mix whilst great at showcasing the 80s music especially Gary Jules hit cover of the Tears For Fears song “Mad World”, has left the dialogue comparatively low in the mix.

It’s fair to say that Donnie Darko is a superb apprentice piece but that the overly convoluted plot gets somewhat muddled even in the revised 2004 Director’s cut.  It amuses me that the idea behind the 6ft bunny Frank seems to be undoubtedly inspired by the James Stewart enduring black farce Harvey, the invisible friend of Elwood P. Drood; although Richard Kelly claims he wrote the script long before he ever saw the 1950s classic.  We have yet to see anything as dazzlingly original from him so as time passes Donnie Darko may well be remembered as his flawed masterpiece.

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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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The Baader Meinhof Complex

The Baader Meinhof Complex attempts to chronicle in its 150 minute running time the entire decade which saw the rise and fall of the Red Army Faction (RAF), Germany’s most notorious terrorist group.  The film is produced and co-written by Bernd Eichinger whose Constantin Film company was also responsible for the excellent Downfall the study of Hitler’s final days for which he also furnished the screenplay.

Director Uli Edel shares the writing credit although the film is based on the book of the same name by the former Der Spiegel editor-in-chief Stefan Aust, first published in 1985 and now considered to be the definitive text on the subject.  Consequently the movie is somewhat of a hybrid and the two styles often seem at odds with each other, whilst striving for documentary realism it also presents a lot of the film’s violence in the style of a Hollywood action thriller.

The film opens amidst the much publicised visit of the Shah of Iran, his wife and entourage of goons, to the Deutsche Opera in West Berlin, a large group of left-wing students have turned out to protest against the oppressive Iranian regime and the Shah’s henchmen attack the youths with sticks; in the resulting riot one student, Benno Ohnesorg is shot and killed by a German police officer without incitement.  This incident became a rallying point for the socialist movement and political journalists like Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) were so outraged by the events of 2nd June 1967 that she wrote a condemnatory open letter to the Shah’s wife in left-wing Konkret magazine.

11th April 1968 (less than a year later) the assassination attempt on Rudi Dutschke, the leader of the student union who’s outspoken protest against West Germany’s support of American foreign policy in particular the use of local U.S. Air Force Bases to escalate the carpet bombing of Vietnam, served as a further catalyst for the left-wing youth movement who felt that their parents’ generation passively sat back and let Adolf Hitler seize power; keenly aware that many former Nazis held prominent positions in the current western imperialist government.

Whilst Ulrike Meinhof practices the maxim that the pen is mightier than the sword, Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) believe in direct action and retaliate to the Ohnesorg murder by fire-bombing a department store in Frankfurt for which they are prosecuted.  Meinhof, who is covering their trial, interviews Ensslin and is impressed by her radical principles and activist zeal.  Whilst on parole the couple flee to Italy to avoid a prison sentence but are tracked down by their left-wing lawyer who urges them to return to Germany because he has access to funds that will allow them to start a revolutionary organisation.

In one of the film’s less authentic sequences we see Baader and Ensslin seducing a group of youths into joining the fledgling RAF by cruising in stolen cars backed by The Who’s My Generation in a sexed-up scene reminiscent of George Lucas’ American Graffiti which espouses the very ethos we’re supposed to believe they’re railing against.  However, it’s not long before Baader is pulled over for speeding and sent straight to jail.

At this point Ulrike Meinhof has become disillusioned with the power of journalism to bring about real political change and is enticed by Ensslin into a plan to spring Baader from prison; this involves Meinhof pretending to research a book on the RAF and for Ensslin to pose as her publisher to avoid detection.  It is in this breakout that the group take their first blood and that Meinhof’s fate becomes forever entwined with the Bonnie and Clyde-esque Baader and Ensslin.

Despite some military training arranged for them by their lawyer with Palestinian rebels in Jordan, Baader’s approach remains undisciplined his focus seems to be on robbing a series of banks to appropriate funds for the group.  In a spectacular Butch and Sundance style shoot-out during one such escapade Baader and fellow RAF member Holger Meins are captured and soon after Ensslin, Meinhof and Jan-Carl Raspe are also arrested and held in custody at the austere, maximum security Stammhein Prison in Stuttgart awaiting a high profile show trial.

The film’s tone shifts at this point, the first act strived to show the persuasive charisma that the founding young members of the RAF had in order to recruit both respectable left-wing figures like Ulrike Meinhof as well as radicalising the disenfranchised student movement.  The second act is more solemn and introduces the character of Horst Herold, the head of the West German Police Force who has been tasked with eradicating the RAF who along with splinter groups like Black September are conducting various acts of terrorism, including the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics and subsequent plane hijacking, in attempts to get the founding members released.  Herold (Bruno Ganz) realises the need to psychologically profile the terrorists in order to understand their motivation, there is a danger of the imprisoned members becoming martyrs when Holger Meins dies from hunger strike and Ulrike Meinhof hangs herself in her cell.

The Baader Meinhof Complex is an electrifying film, impeccably performed by a passionate cast and directed with incredible attention to period detail by Uli Edel; for the most part it succeeds in presenting a highly inflammatory period of recent history where heinous atrocities were regularly carried out by people who ostensibly believed they were acting both morally and for the good of the human race but through the escalation of the violent, bloody process tragically lost their own humanity.

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