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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Gainsbourg

To be honest I wasn’t quite sure what the movie Gainsbourg was going to be like, surprisingly it’s not the straight forward, reverential biopic that I was half expecting. In fact it’s a startling work of originality as it’s the debut feature of Joann Sfar, the renowned graphic artist of the Franco-Belgian comic new wave, as with his notable comic series The Rabbi’s Cat he examines his Jewish heritage in telling the story of Lucien Ginsburg’s rise to fame, the world would come to know him as the popular singer songwriter and hugely influential 1960s cultural icon Serge Gainsbourg; played uncannily by Eric Elmosnino.

The film opens with the young Lucien Ginsburg growing up in Nazi-occupied Paris, his Russian-Jewish parents hailed from a musical background and his father taught him to play the piano, giving him a grounding in the classical repertoire but Lucien was less interested in music but passionate about drawing and so he is sent off to study at the Montmartre College of Art.  Clearly Lucien’s childhood experiences deeply affected him, not least the stigma of being forcibly labelled a Jew by having to wear a yellow star but also the appearance of his outsized ears and nose which made him painfully self-conscious.

The film is based on director Joann Sfar’s own graphic novel Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) and he obviously identifies closely with the subject both culturally and artistically; cleverly blending animated fantasy sequences depicting Gainsbourg’s early paintings and the visualisation of a dark character who appears in the gothic fairy story that Lucien would tell to his school chums as a way of transcending his complex about his looks; the creepy “Professor Flipus” who emerges when a Freudian projection of his head with exaggerated features swells to immense proportion and then explodes leaving behind this Nosferatu-esque puppet figure who becomes Ginsburg’s alter ego, embodying all of his least desirable characteristics from that moment on.

Professor Flipus is convincingly brought to life by the performer Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth) engaging the adult Lucien Ginsburg in a Faustian pact, promising in exchange for abandoning art and concentrating solely on music to make him a massive star, and so “Serge Gainsbourg” is born; this devilish doppelganger is a convenient device allowing him to elude any real blame for his erratic and irresponsible behaviour, particularly the poor treatment of the many women who come and go throughout his life; he abandons his first wife and their 2 children early on in the movie.

At the height of his fame Gainsbourg had a celebrated affair with starlet Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) who was married to the playboy Gunther Sachs at the time, they collaborated together and he wrote Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus for her which they recorded but wasn’t heard until 1986; instead the controversial original release featured Gainsbourg’s next big romance who went on to become his longest-suffering wife, the English actress Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon). They were together for almost 20 years and during that time Gainsbourg was to sink deeper into nicotine and alcohol dependency, reinventing himself as a counter-culture figure notorious for burning a 500 Franc note on stage and recording an ironic reggae version of La Marseillaise; drawing attention to the barbaric lyrics which enthusiastically encourage the patriotic slaughter of women and children.

The Blu-ray edition provides a showcase for the film’s highly stylised visual design.  The picture is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a full 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encode boasting a wonderfully vibrant colour palette which evokes both the spirit of the swinging 60s and the internal musings of Gainsbourg’s wandering imagination, best illustrated by the ever-present glowing eyes of the surreal Professor Flipus.  The DTS-HD master audio soundtrack encapsulates the informal moments of Gainsbourg’s piano tinkering in smokey nightclubs as well as the iconically lush orchestrated hit recordings and maintains dialogue clarity throughout.

The very brief extras are the only disappointment in this package; it seems Optimum Home Entertainment missed a massive opportunity by not including a documentary featuring film footage and interviews with the real life Gainsbourg by way of a comparison.  Nethertheless, Joann Sfar has created a breathtaking film debut which seems far less concerned with presenting facts or telling truths about his hero than creating a bizarre, whimsical world for him to inhabit; existing at arm’s length from his destructive demons and leaving space for Eric Elmosnino’s towering central performance to dominate the movie, he portrays both the essence of Lucien Ginsburg and the mannerisms of his mercurial stage creation Serge Gainsbourg effortlessly.

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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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Casuals

After the phenomenal success of independent publishing house Pennant Books with its stable of football fan culture, sporting legends and true crime titles regularly topping the best seller lists, the indomitable Cass Pennant has reinvented himself once again by forming Urban Edge Films which releases its debut feature length documentary Casuals this month with Pennant himself at the helm as writer and producer.

The film was originally conceived as a 25th anniversary follow-up to co-producer Ian ‘Butch’ Stuttard’s seminal Hooligan documentary which first aired on television in 1985 and charted the turbulent period of Pennant’s life as a prominent leader of West Ham United’s notorious Inter City Firm.  The idea of “Hooligan Revisited” was to focus less on the violent rivalry of the terraces but emphasise the street fashion the gangs created that would ultimately unify them and seep out to a wider consciousness across the country as a whole; establishing Casuals as the last working class male street fashion coming from the UK, following in the tradition of Mods, Teddy Boys and Punks.

Pennant is no stranger to movies and has served as a consultant on many of the major motion pictures concerning both football violence and fan culture including the original version of The Firm and Green Street, along with the television series The Real Football Factories.  In 2009 his vivid autobiography Cass was successfully transferred to the big screen so this transition to film production was almost inevitable.

It is obvious from the first moments of Casuals that this is going to be the definitive documentary and that Pennant and director Mick Kelly have meticulously interviewed all the leading authorities on the subject from Southern Mods to Northern Soul Boys.  One of the enduring questions is exactly where did the Casuals movement have its roots?  There is no easy answer but this extraordinary and insightful film strips away the myths and tells the truth about an indelible faction which revived the fashion industry to leave a lasting influence on today’s label-crazy youth.

Mindful of the North/South divide both sides are equally represented with the likes of Garry Bushell recalling his days as a music journalist for Sounds magazine, commenting on the Casual band Accent’s 15 minutes of fame when they played to the crowds at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground and Peter Hooton lead singer of Liverpudlian band The Farm, who also started the fanzine The End in the early 80s which was the first publication to regularly report on the Casual scene and has just been reissued by Sabotage Times in a single book volume; Hooton also voices the film’s compelling narration.

With over 50 individuals interviewed the filmmakers had to make some cuts for time but luckily there is over an hour’s worth of additional interviews that are included on the DVD as extras.  Of the many passionate experts featured, author of the pictorial book A Casual Look and avid collector Nick Sarjeant probably sums it up best “It’s not just about what you were wearing, but also how you wore it.  Not just your clothes but your hair and even the ‘manner in which you walked’.  You had to have that ‘attitude’, saying like ‘Here I am’.” an attitude that is evident in every frame of this film as it tours the country meeting the key people for whom this was never simply a fad of fashion but a way of life.

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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 Mission

The Mission was the last screenplay by Robert Bolt, the writer responsible for such epic, historical movies as A Man for All Seasons and Lawrence of Arabia.  Director Roland Joffé has made a film equally ambitious in its scale, featuring breathtaking cinematography by Chris Menges, deeply moving performances from stars Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro, and a soulful award winning score from Ennio Morricone.

Set in the 1750s and focusing on the true story of the Mission of San Miguel built at the summit of the massive Iguazu Falls and founded to shelter the indigenous Guaraní tribe who lived there; protecting them from slave traders during the on-going wars of Spanish Succession fought against the Portuguese over territories on the frontiers of Paraguay and Argentina.

Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel, a fervent Jesuit who single-handedly scales the perilous falls and wins the trust of the natives with his enchanting oboe playing and devotion to his faith.  Robert De Niro is Captain Rodrigo Mendoza, a mercenary who kidnaps the Guaraní and sells them to both Portuguese and Spanish plantation owners; whose Roman Catholic King opposes slave trading.

When Mendoza’s fiancée Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi) confesses that she’s in love with his younger brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn) he becomes consumed with jealously and later when he discovers the couple in bed together, the two brothers fight a duel in which Felipe is killed.  Mendoza is wracked with guilt and falls into an inconsolable depression, his remorse leads him to accept a penance from the Jesuit order to atone for his sins.

Father Gabriel convinces Mendoza to journey with him to the top of the falls, burdened further by dragging his heavy armour behind him as part of his punishment.  Once they reach the top the Guaraní recognise the man who has hunted them and initially react with hostility but the priest assures them that the former slaver’s penitence is in earnest and he is accepted as one of the brethren.  All is well until the Portuguese put pressure on the Spanish to cede the missionary land in accord with the Treaty of Madrid.  The Papacy sends an Emissary, Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally) to act as a mediator and determine their fate.

Altamirano, a former Jesuit himself, has to choose what he believes to be the lesser of the two evils; if he favours the colonists then the natives will be forced into slavery but if he allows the missions to remain then the Portuguese will condemn the Jesuit order and risk fracturing the Catholic Church in Europe.  Despite being impressed with the beauty and success of the missionary community, Altamirano rules in favour of their closure. 

The Jesuits defy the Cardinal’s decision promising to stay and protect the Guaraní from the colonial forces, ever the pragmatist Mendoza, now an ordained priest himself, argues with Father Gabriel on how they should go about defending themselves from imminent attack.  Bolt’s script very cleverly explores the duality of man; Gabriel is unshakeable in his belief that an act of violence is a crime against God, whilst Mendoza is prepared to break his vows in order to defend the Mission by force if necessary.

Both Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro give accomplished performances and the film, produced by David Puttnam, went on to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival.  25 years later the film looks absolutely stunning on Blu-ray, the full 1080p transfer is displayed in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio with a remarkably sharp image and lush colour palette most notable in the ample shots of verdant foliage.  The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack perfectly mixes the dialogue with Morricone’s unforgettable Oscar winning original score.

The Mission is an intelligent and meticulously well written movie whose resounding themes are still relevant today and whilst the final images are rather harrowing they in no way detract from the sheer technical brilliance that went into capturing such a beautiful spectacle on film.

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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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Oliver Stone

I was a teenager when I first became aware of Oliver Stone’s movies but I remember taking very little notice of either Platoon or Wall Street at the time.  I appreciated that they were well-crafted films that won awards for writing and direction, featuring actors that I respected, Charlie and Martin Sheen, Willem Dafoe, Michael Douglas and the sublime John C. McGinley. 

However, for my taste, they were just too realistic to be of interest; instead, as a budding actor, I was obsessed by the highly stylised, absurdist theatre of Harold Pinter and Steven Berkoff.  It wasn’t until I saw both The Doors and JFK whilst touring America in 1991 that Oliver Stone emerged as one of my most treasured filmmakers.  In his extensive film commentaries he reveals a passion not just for cinema but classical history, politics and truth as an ideal; even if it’s a subjective truth. 

There was a lot of hype surrounding The Doors on its opening weekend, I was lucky to see it in Santa Monica, California, where a massive turnout of the band’s local, loyal fan base attended the movie as if they were going to an actual rock concert, whenever Val Kilmer took to the stage imbued by the spirit of the ‘Lizard King’ himself, the audience would get up out of their seats; it was an astonishing spectacle to observe as a young Brit on his first visit to the United States!   

Whilst Kilmer’s portrayal of Jim Morrison is uncanny it goes beyond mere imitation, there is genuine emotional turmoil in his ‘heavy’ scenes.  The supporting cast of Kyle MacLachlan (keyboardist, Ray Manzarek), Frank Whalley (lead guitarist, Robby Krieger) and Kevin Dillon (drummer, John Densmore) are equally superb and bring to the band both the dynamism and camaraderie of good friends making music together, in contrast to Jim Morrison’s death-driven need for it to be something so much more profound than that.  The only one who feels out of place amongst all this is Meg Ryan, who Stone admits in his commentary is just a bit too straight-laced and clean-living to be truly convincing as Jim’s common-law wife, Pamela Courson. 

Aside from the acting and the music performances, the look of the film is also fantastic with Stone’s regular cinematographer, Robert Richardson on hand to provide an authentic psychedelic look and feel, the striking time-lapse sequences and hallucinogenic dissolves and jump cuts that punctuate the Californian desert vistas.  It also features one of cinema history’s best drunken/stoned sequences as we follow Morrison through The Factory in search of Andy Warhol played with creepily, camp detachment by Crispin Glover; this must be steadicam operator, J. Michael Muro’s finest hour. 

For his second feature film of 1991 Stone focuses on the only criminal trial brought about in the case of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.  Kevin Costner stars as Jim Garrison, the New Orleans District Attorney whose pursuit of local businessman, Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) involved subpoenaing the Zapruder film from Life magazine 6 years later, which had not been seen by the general public up to that point.  Costner’s Garrison is a mixture of Gary Cooper’s Mr. Deeds and James Stewart’s Mr. Smith as Stone dollops a large portion of Capracorn on the film’s family oriented scenes, although this sentimentality doesn’t reduce the overall visceral impact of the movie.

Whilst many criticised Stone for misrepresenting key witness accounts in order to suggest a secret government backed Coup involving the CIA, Cuban exiles and the Mafia with the prime objective of extending the war in Vietnam, a focal theme in almost all of Stone’s movies, an objective audience cannot help but come to the conclusion that the official inquiry as documented in the Warren Commission Report was clearly an inadequate representation of the facts and as a direct result of the film’s popularity the Assassination Records Review Board was formed in 1992 to review previously classified documents pertaining to the case and making all evidence available to the general public by 2017.  JFK’s prevailing theme is the quest for truth and as a modern morality play it endures as one of Stone’s most engaging movies.

If JFK could be compared to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar then 1995′s Nixon plays more like King Lear with Anthony Hopkins taking the title role and investing it with self-doubt, survivor’s guilt, petty jealousy, and, ultimately, pathos; here is a man who had the potential to be great, but who wasn’t.  I love showing JFK to new audiences but privately I prefer to revisit Nixon as there is something more dramatically satisfying about the grand tragedy inherent in Hopkins central performance that isn’t matched by the humble heroism of Costner’s Jim Garrison, who always seems to be punching above his weight.

We are fortunate that most of Oliver Stone’s films are already available on Blu-ray and in the coming weeks I shall be providing thorough hidef reviews of The DoorsJFKNixonWorld Trade Centre and W. in anticipation of his latest cinematic release Savages starring Aaron Kick-Ass Johnson.

I’m pleased to announce that @TheOliverStone is now on Twitter.

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Citizen Kane

I was inspired to write this online journal by a line from Citizen Kane, arguably the best film ever made, or is it just the best American film ever made these days? Anyway, the young Charles Foster Kane writes to his guardian Walter Parks Thatcher, that he “thinks it would be fun to run a newspaper” and whilst most of us couldn’t dream to be able to afford the costs involved in running an actual newspaper like Kane’s New York Daily Inquirer we can effectively do just that courtesy of Word Press and the World Wide Web.

I am holding off watching Citizen Kane again on DVD to inform this brief review as I am eagerly awaiting it’s 70th Anniversary release on Blu-ray next year, you will soon discover that I have a passionate fervour for the Hi Def format and will be a constant advocate for it here.  I have, however, seen Citizen Kane many times than I care to remember in my forty years on the planet.  I seem to recall my first viewing was around my 14th birthday, at that time I was convinced that I was destined for an Actor’s life and I was drawn like a moth to a candle by the robust screen presence of Orson Welles, although up until that point I had no concept of what was going on behind the camera. 

Kane was probably the first film that forced me to question why is the camera doing that, that’s a funny angle, the lighting seems almost theatrical surely this isn’t supposed to be realistic?!  And so began my interest in cinematic style, direction and particularly those films that attempted to be removed from reality as we know it.  This enlightenment was mirrored by my exposure to the surrealist painting of Salvador Dali, which in turn would lead me to an appreciation of the films of Luis Buñuel and David Lynch. 

The expressionistic style of Kane is anchored by the more conventional trope of an investigative journalist, our narrative entry into the life of Charles Foster Kane, as he attempts to research the great man’s obituary.  We soon discover, through flashback and interviews with those that knew him, that Kane was not so great.   I was riveted by this as a teenager and fell hook, line and sinker for the ‘Rosebud’ enigma, or what Alfred Hitchcock would simply call the MacGuffin (I shall go into detail about that in a Hitch-related post). 

Over the years I have tried to share with friends, relatives and lovers my passion for Welles and inevitably this leads to a screening of Citizen Kane and the reception is usually the same, initial intrigue which gives way to mild boredom as the pacing feels a little slow by today’s standards and the stilted, slightly stagey dialogue doesn’t help hold the viewer’s attention.  However, nobody can doubt the bravura titular performance and marvel at the old age make-up that transforms the 26 year old Orson Welles’ to his late 70s. 

I think the biggest reason that modern audiences fail to truly appreciate Citizen Kane, especially outside of America, is a lack of common knowledge about the real life of William Randolph Hearst who’s vast media empire attempted to burn the film before its release as it was clearly based on him (I shall venture into this more thoroughly in an upcoming review of RKO 281).  Unlike Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator made a couple of years earlier, everybody knew of the monstrous leader of the Third Reich, and the physical similarities between the Little Tramp and Adolf Hitler were remarkable.  A modern audience appreciates the satire and the pleas for humanity made by Chaplin but the same is not true of the nature of the Hearst Machine and the lives it destroyed. 

Citizen Kane shall always be remembered for its visual impact, although most of its supposed ground-breaking techniques, like deep-focus photography and Dutch camera angles, had been seen before, this was a summation of all that talking pictures could do at this point and will serve as a practical course in cinematic possibilities for all time.

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Monty Python’s Life of Brian

I was first exposed to Monty Python whilst I was at school; I got one of their albums Monty Python’s Previous Record out of the local library and was instantly hooked.  However, it would be over a decade before I got the opportunity to see the entire 4 seasons of the ground breaking Monty Python’s Flying Circus series in total and even then I had to shell out a small fortune to import the 14 disc DVD ‘Mega Set’ that was only available from the Arts & Entertainment television network in the US at the time.  I’m envious of the current generation of Python neophytes who can download their entire oeuvre direct from iTunes instantly.

Although the TV series was unavailable on home video in the UK throughout my teens I was fortunate to be able to get all three of the feature films on tape to watch over and over again.  After the box office success of the low budget Monty Python and the Holy Grail the Python’s got the financial backing of Beatle George Harrison’s fledging HandMade Films and spent two weeks in a Caribbean beach retreat writing the script that would become their recognised masterpiece Monty Python’s Life of Brian, an epic literally of biblical proportions.

Whilst Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones had shared the directorial reigns of Holy Grail somewhat frustratingly, this time out Gilliam focuses on the production design leaving Jones to concentrate squarely on directing the performances.  The end result is that Life of Brian is the most cinematic Python movie, looking less like a comedy and every bit like the Hollywood Biblical Epics that it parodies.  Graham Chapman stars as Brian Cohen, a young Jewish man who lives a parallel life to Jesus Christ and is often mistaken for the Messiah.

The production benefitted from filming in Monastir, Tunisia where Franco Zeffirelli had recently shot the lavish miniseries Jesus of Nazareth, they were also able to re-use various costumes which helped add to authenticity the team were striving for, as Terry Jones says in the audio commentary “there is no reason why a comedy can’t look beautiful” and Life of Brian certainly looks incredibly sharp on this Sony Pictures Blu-ray release.

Despite being banned throughout the world’s more strictly Christian countries, including Scotland, for being blasphemous the film actually treats Christ played by Kenneth Colley with great respect, it isn’t claiming to be the life of Jesus after all.  In fact if the movie could be accused of anything it would be heresy as the obvious target of its biting satire is the rigid dogma and hypocrisy of the various churches that can’t seem to agree on the exact meaning of the teachings of Christ despite over 2,000 years of often calamitous debate.

It also takes a side swipe at the political infighting in separatist factions like the “People’s Front of Judea” or the “Judean People’s Front” and challenges the unthinking devotion of the masses who long to see acts of God in the most banal everyday incidents, as depicted by the unwanted gourd that Brian acquires in the market.  Above all else Life of Brian is packed full of the wonderfully absurd wordplay that you come to expect from the Monty Python team and each member is given an opportunity to shine in many memorable performances; they even get a chance to play a scene with their Goon Show idol, Spike Milligan, who was commemorating a battlefield in North Africa at the time and spent a day on the set.

Animator Terry Gilliam takes an opportunity to do a full-blown, incongruous, action sequence in the middle of the film when Brian is being chased by the Roman Centurions he is picked up by a randomly passing alien spaceship which allows for a fleeting send-up of George Lucas’ Star Wars.  The movie reaches a climax with the sardonic sing-along of Eric Idle’s song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” by those sentenced to death by crucifixion alongside Brian, an iconic image to close the film.

The hidef release contains most of the material from the Criterion Collection DVD release, including the two feature length audio commentaries, one featuring Michael Palin and John Cleese and the other Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Terry Jones, which both offer a wealth of background information.  There is also the entire audio read through of the screenplay by the team which has been set to the typed script and excerpts of the original storyboard.  The hour long Story of Brian is a detailed documentary which charts the controversy and subsequent banning of the film.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian is the most cohesive of all their movies, it’s not only one of the funniest comedies ever made it’s also an insightful probing of the history of organised religion and a cautionary tale about the dangers of blind faith and the loss of individualism.

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