Fantasia


When Fantasia was first released on home video tape back in November 1991 I was working in a retail Video shop and I was actively involved in its promotion, I think we must have played it 4 times a day for the best part of 3 months and the sales were phenomenal; in fact it sold 15 million copies worldwide during that initial release.  I can remember people buying a copy to watch and another copy to keep wrapped in mint condition; I had never seen anything quite like that before or again since and consequently the movie is embossed in my memory. 

Making the sales figures even more remarkable was the fact that the only portion of the 50 year old film known to the public was the Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence starring Mickey Mouse, that aside there are long periods of dissonant music, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, music critic Deems Taylor’s dry commentary and the silhouetted rear view of conductor Leopold Stokowski on the podium.  Nonetheless, it would appear that when Mickey Mouse shook Stokowski’s hand the barriers between high and low culture were dismantled and modern audiences appreciated Walt Disney’s experiment to create an ongoing, animated promenade concert series.

However, the movie-going public of 1940 were not so convinced and instead of becoming the perennial release introducing new material, whilst keeping the Sorcerer’s Apprentice as a core performance that Disney had imagined, it would be 60 years before Fantasia 2000 would revive the concept to cinema audiences.  So now, 10 years on, both films have been re-released in high definition, the original version has been extended to a 124 mins running time by getting a voice-artist to dub Deems Taylor’s commentary restoring the cuts in these passages and returning the 15 minute intermission section which includes a Jazz jam session.

The Special Edition Blu-ray release featuring both films looks immaculate, sporting a full 1080p MPEG-4 video quality picture and an incredibly rich 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack which invigorates the classical programme significantly.  Surprisingly for a major Disney classic title like Fantasia the supplements initially felt a little thin, a short featurette per film presented by Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller,  focusing on the new Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and a piece examining the notebook of Herman Schultheis, special effects wizard who was responsible for many of the revolutionary techniques developed at the Disney Studio, including the multi layered glass pane system used to give great depth of field to the intricate background tracking shots.

However, the extras on Fantasia 2000 more than make up for it starting with Musicana which explores in detail Disney’s original concept for Fantasia being an ongoing classical music presentation and focuses on an attempt in the 1970s by some of the surviving ‘Nine Old Men’ to revive the project and whilst excellent it is topped by the totally unexpected, remarkable feature length documentary Dali & Disney: A Date with Destino which explores the collaboration between Salvador Dali and Walt Disney in exhaustive biographical detail and culminates with the final realisation of abandoned Fantasia segment Destino which was brought to fruition by Walt’s nephew Roy Disney in 2003 and is presented finally on this disc making it a must have for movie, music and art fans alike.

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Paul

There is little doubt that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost intended Paul to be an enjoyable romp through the collective memory of all the classic Science Fiction feature films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and if nothing else it succeeds in being a heartfelt love letter to the extra-terrestrial, however as an original comedy from the pedigree of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz it does feel a little underwhelming.

That’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable or that it doesn’t play to its strengths; it does, although there is such a sense of prevailing familiarity about the whole proceedings that it fails to totally grip you or draw you in. Still, you’re more than happy to take the proverbial ride over again because the leads are so amiable and the swift moving plot never attempts to be taxing.

Illustrator Graeme Willy (Pegg) along with his childhood friend and collaborator ‘the writer’ Clive Gollings (Frost) have decided to round off their visit to San Diego’s Comic-Con convention by taking a road trip navigating America’s most famous UFO hotspots, including Area 51, The Black Mailbox and Roswell.  Whilst driving their RV through the night a car pulls out, swerves off the road and explodes right in front of them.  The duo stop to help and are confronted by ‘Paul’ (Seth Rogen), an extremely laid-back and uncouth alien who convinces them that he’s been held prisoner on Earth for the last 60 years and needs their assistance to get home.

In hot pursuit is Special Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) aided by two inept FBI tenderfoots (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) who track them down at the ‘Pearly Gates RV’ park where they learn that the trio have absconded with the proprietor’s daughter Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a devout, one-eyed, Creationist Christian who believes that the Earth is 4000 years old and could only have been created by intelligent design.  It transpires that during Paul’s captivity he has been aiding the government in a wide variety of scientific endeavours; he’s even influenced popular culture, and in an amusing telephone cameo Steven Spielberg enthusiastically receives research material to develop E.T. from him.

It appears that Paul has imparted all his otherworldly secrets and that the government were planning to dispose of him before he escaped, what they don’t know is that he has a series of special abilities including thought transference and the power of healing.  In a key scene he restores Ruth’s bad eye and then telepathically shares all of his experiences with her thus bringing about the sudden shattering of her faith and amusing transformation as she learns to curse and do all the naughty things her zealous father had hitherto forbidden; this evolutional debate is as meaty as Paul gets and given the otherwise broad nature of the humour it feels somewhat at odds with the tone of the picture.

The last reel directly parodies E.T. as Paul arranges to meet the Mothership that’s taking him home near the landmark Devil’s Tower featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; it also unmasks the guest villain of the piece, the ‘Big Guy’ (Sigourney Weaver) who Special Agent Lorenzo Zoil (groan) reports to.  Paul mockingly remarks as he boards the spacecraft that everyone has learnt something from the experience, “Be yourself, speak from the heart, some shit like that?” and the lads nonchalantly admit that they do feel “a bit different” but the coda which plays out over the closing credits is far more telling.
It shows Willy and Gollings being heralded by their hero, the Sci-Fi novelist Adam Shadowchild (Jeffrey Tambor) as the creators of the award winning book “Paul” based upon their exploits and it would seem that this desire for a popular and commercial success is what the movie Paul is ultimately all about.

Regrettably Paul is the victim of its own budgetary requirements in order to create the extremely convincing computer generated titular character the film caves in to the necessary surfeit of titty, pot and fart gags at the cost of genuine wit, real suspense and authentic mystery.  Having said that I can’t blame Pegg and Frost for wanting a big box office hit to cement their Hollywood careers and despite the script’s short comings their onscreen chemistry is undeniable.

The Universal Pictures Blu-ray release is presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a full 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer.  Not only is there an incredible amount of detail in Paul’s eyes and elongated fingertips but the high definition brings great depth to the wide American landscapes that set the backdrop.  The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is as crisp and dynamic as you’d expect from a modern Sci-Fi movie, the sound really travels most notably when Paul displays his special ability of thought transference.  There is also a mass of extra material which we’ve come to expect from previous Big Talk Productions, the best of which is Between the Lightning Strikes: The Making of ‘Paul’ which contains extensive interviews with the principal cast and creative team.

Paul isn’t a bad film but given Pegg and Frost’s track record it could have been a truly great one.  I don’t mean to detract from the solid work of either director Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) or diminish David Arnold’s (current James Bond composer) original score, nevertheless one just can’t help imagining how much better it could have been with the team’s regular director Edgar Wright behind the camera and a lovingly tongue-in-cheek John Williams theme tune!

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David Lynch

I discovered the art of David Lynch entirely by accident, although I had shown a keen interest in films from a relatively young age, I usually arrived at them by way of the star appearing in them.  As a budding actor I wanted to study the best and through watching the likes of James Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Peter Sellers and Robert DeNiro, I became aware of the writers and directors behind the camera.  Stewart led me to Alfred HitchcockLemmon to Billy Wilder, Sellers to Stanley Kubrick, DeNiro to Martin Scorsese and so on; all great artists but, by and large, part of the acceptable face of “Off Hollywood”.

I was extremely lucky to be a teenager during the 1980s boom of home video and within a 10 minute walk of my parents’ house was a small independent video rental store with a fairly eclectic collection which, in one school summer holiday, I started to work my way through.  The store owner was quite lax about the age certification and, at 16, I was able to rent 18 certificate movies without too much difficulty.  He also must have had more than a cursory knowledge of the titles because on one shelf he had stacked in order Young Frankenstein, The Elephant Man, EraserheadRiver’s EdgeBlue Velvet and Dune, I believe, I watched them in that order.  

In 1990, whist I was studying A-Level English & Drama, I went to see Wild At Heart at the cinema 3 times during the first week of its release and later that year Twin Peaks was on television and I knew that this was unlike anything I had ever experienced in the mainstream before.  As Lynch went on to make Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive and my knowledge of cinematic history deepened I could trace influences of Hitchcock and Kubrick in Lynch’s work and recognise that Twin Peaks owed something to Patrick McGoohan’s seminal, cult TV series, The Prisoner.

After training as a painter at the Pennsylvania Academy Of Fine Art and experimenting with short stop motion films like The Grandmother, Lynch relocated to Los Angeles and was awarded a grant by the American Film Institute to make his first feature length film, Eraserhead.  The movie was to take the best part of 7 years to complete and contains visual images that were to reoccur regularly in Lynch’s subsequent works; most notably stark electric lighting, industrial ambient sound, and a startling appearance of Jack Nance, as Henry, the father of the mutant baby which preoccupies the film.

Lynch, who famously avoids giving specific interpretations of his work, acknowledges that Eraserhead was a visual poem inspired by his life as a student in Philadelphia and unexpectedly becoming a father at the age of 22.  The film was a favourite of Stanley Kubrick who used to screen it privately to guests, and on the basis of viewing it, producer Mel Brooks was to offer David his next directorial project, The Elephant Man, starring John Hurt in the title role, Anthony Hopkins and Brooks’ wife, Anne Bancroft.  The film revealed Lynch’s ability to engage an audience on an emotional level and not just be a conjurer of surrealist imagery.

The critical success of The Elephant Man saw Lynch almost directing the 2nd (or 5th if you were born in 1990s!) film in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga but instead he was assigned to the Dino De Laurentis epic Dune, a big-budget adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sprawling Sci-Fi chronicles.  The film was not a financial success and personally for Lynch it was a traumatic experience because he didn’t have final cut, but from the ashes of Dune was born what many feel to be Lynch’s masterpiece, Blue Velvet, again produced by the De Laurentis company.

In Blue Velvet Lynch further explores one of his key themes, life in “Small Town, USA” and the dark underbelly of the American Dream.  Lumberton is a far cry from the surreal, industrial waste land of Eraserhead; this is a dreamlike re-imagining of the Midwestern towns Lynch grew up in and a forerunner to Twin Peaks.  Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) is a stand in for Lynch, the young Eagle Scout from Missoula, Montana, he is also the namesake of L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies from Hitchcock’s Rear Window, only this Jeff doesn’t spy from the safe distance of his bachelor apartment but from within the proximity of a bedroom closet.  I can’t do justice to these films in this introductory post but I shall return to review each of them thoroughly.

Wild At Heart takes the first book in Barry Gifford’s series of tales about Sailor And Lula as its starting point and then blends it with The Wizard Of Oz filtered through Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe.  It’s an out and out American Fairytale in the tradition of the Brothers Grimm and it contains dynamic, raw performances from Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern as the star-crossed lovers Sailor and Lula, and an exceedingly creepy Willem Dafoe, last seen playing Jesus in Scorsese’s Last Temptation Of Christ, as the lawless Angel of Death, Bobby Peru.

When I heard that David Lynch intended to work on a TV serial with Hill Street Blues creator, Mark Frost, I was sceptical to say the least.  What transpired though was Twin Peaks and it captivated audiences with its surreal blend of daytime Soap Opera and esoteric Police Procedural.  For a time it seemed that everybody on the planet wanted to know who killed Laura Palmer, unfortunately once that questioned was finally answered the mystery at the heart of the story vanished along with large amount of the show’s viewers, leading to its eventual cancellation after 29 episodes.  The series was followed by the feature film prequel Fire Walk With Me, which successfully manages to lie to rest Laura’s spirit and provide the show’s remaining, loyal fans with some sort of closure.

Lynch collaborated on the script for Lost Highway with Wild At Heart author Barry Gifford, producing a very dark story about a jazz saxophonist, Bill Pullman, who finds himself in the electric chair for murdering his wife and then metamorphoses into younger Balthazar Getty to avoid the death penalty.  This film marked the turning point in Lynch’s work where it became clear that the apparent literal meaning of the narrative was only window dressing for the subtext at its heart and Lynch exploited this style further in Mulholland Drive, again I shall save my detailed analysis, drawing comparisons to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, for a later post.

David Lynch’s most recent film Inland Empire was shot entirely using digital video cameras and with it he has gone on the record stating that “For me, film is dead”.  Whilst many cinematic purists view this as heresy, I have to say that I found the end results very liberating and if working digitally ensures an ongoing output from Lynch then more power to his elbow.  However, despite his claims that working on DV is much faster and cheaper than celluloid, it’s been 4 years since the release of Inland Empire and some of us are beginning to wonder if the amount of time he’s recently devoted to proselytising Transcendental Meditation could be much better spent.

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True Grit (2010)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quick Q&A with Terry Jones

Phoenix Pictures the company that produced Black Swan is also the home for Terry Jones first feature film as director since his wonderful retelling of The Wind in the Willows in 1996.  I recently got a chance to catch up with the incredibly busy and exceedingly diverse Welshman and ask him a few questions.

Steve: I’ve found it quite a helpful tool in life to gauge whether I’m going to get on well with someone if they express a liking for Monty Python those that don’t, or look at me blankly, I usually don’t click with.  Have you ever found your Python fame to be an obstacle or has it always been a door opener?

Terry: Well it’s usually been a door-opener.  But I suppose when Erik The Viking came out everyone was expecting another Monty Python film and with Python you never suspend your dramatic disbelief – whereas for Erik you had to.

Steve: I recently read your book Who Murdered Chaucer? aside from the ‘Whodunnit’, or as you say ‘Wasitdunnatall’ central to the intrigue, the real eye-opener for me was the extent of the censorship under Henry IV; particularly with regards to the negative spin on the reputation of Richard II, the cousin who he usurped and had murdered.  Do you think that despite the Internet and 24 hour news networks that we’re suffering from “information overload” and all the more susceptible to spin and misinformation?

Terry: Well I guess it’s nowadays easier for those who do the spinning to spin.  In the Middle Ages you had to think “How do I get people to hear anything?”  Not that it stopped them.  They did everything they could to create propaganda. ~But it’s a bit easier now.

Steve: Unfortunately I missed The Doctor’s Tale but the idea utterly fascinates me, what was it like to write and direct your first opera and is it something you could see yourself doing again?

Terry: Well I really enjoyed the experience.  It wasn’t really my first go at directing opera – Evil Machines was something of an opera – in that it was pretty well all sung.  But yes I’d very much like to write an all-sung popular show…

Steve: I am among the many eagerly anticipating your return to the director’s chair with the Sci-Fi movie comedy Absolutely Anything, you let slip to me of Charlie Sheen’s involvement, is this going to be the true “winning” move that kick-starts his serious comeback?  What more can you tell me about the film?

Terry: Well Phoenix Pictures have now decided that the villain being a US Army Colonel was putting investors off, so we’ve changed the villain into a Frenchman.  So I’m not sure it’s going to kick start anything for Charlie.

I’m pleased to announce that Terry is now twittering @PythonJones

And now for something completely different…

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Alfred Hitchcock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sondheim! The Birthday Concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wild At Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Frost/Nixon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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