Sucker Punch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Inland Empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Be Kind Rewind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tetro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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North by Northwest: 50th Anniversary Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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The King’s Speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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