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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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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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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Me and Orson Welles

When I heard that teenage heartthrob Zac Efron was going to star in Richard Linklater’s film based on the novel by Robert Kaplow about a fledgling actor who gets his lucky break playing Lucius in Orson Welles’ legendary Mercury Theatre Broadway debut production of Julius Caesar in 1937, I was a little uneasy yet undeterred due to my enduring fascination with Welles it was always going to be compulsory viewing.

Having sat through at least two of the High School Musical movies my expectations were set suitably low, however much to my surprise Efron acquits himself rather well here as his easy looks and effortless charm are a perfect fit for the role of Richard Samuels, an indefatigable stage-struck romantic who forms a rapport with the celebrated iconoclast Orson Welles played with startling verisimilitude by newcomer Christian McKay.

The film is set just after Orson and producer John Houseman (Eddie Marsan) had their admirable run in with the government over the censorship of the musical The Cradle Will Rock due to writer Marc Blitzstein’s affiliation to the Communist Party.  This was a Federal Theatre Production; the project was one of FDR’s New Deal initiatives aimed at giving jobless men practical work during the Great Depression, however Blitzstein’s play had a pro-unionist message that did not sit well with the presiding administration and the theatre was locked and all the props seized provoking Welles and Houseman to hire an alternative venue out of their own pockets to stage an impromptu performance requiring some of the cast to deliver their lines from seats in the audience; the cause célèbre was documented in Tim Robbins’ 1999 movie of the same name.

After the incident both Welles and Houseman resigned from the Federal Theatre and formed the Mercury Players starting a repertory company including Joseph Cotton (James Tupper) and Norman Lloyd (Leo Bill) many of whom would feature in most, if not all, of Welles future productions on stage, radio and screen.  Their debut show was to be a modern dress version of Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar drawing a comparison to contemporary Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini; adapting the key scene featuring Cinna the Poet and having him brutally murdered not by an angry mob but a secret police force.

One of the film’s great strengths lies in showing a working theatre from both sides of the curtain.  It also shines a light on Welles’ eccentric working methods, particularly the way in which he handled his fellow actors, seducing or inciting their very best performances out of them.  It also depicts his dedicated dashing from one radio show to another, lending his vocal talents at the drop of a hat either as The Shadow or another random character part, to fund his own productions; apparently he hired an ambulance to beat the New York traffic as there was no law saying you had to be ill to travel in one!

Whilst it’s fair to say that due to Welles’ massive persona Christian McKay steals every scene he is in, Zac Efron and Claire Danes still have ample screen time to explore their mutual attraction in a series of well played “meet-cute” wisecracking scenes reminiscent of the screwball farces of the period.  Director Linklater does remarkably well with a relatively low-budget and no-frills approach, the obvious area in which there has been no scrimping is in the script’s marvellous attention to historical detail, taking its time and never underestimating the attention span of the audience.

Given Zac Efron’s bankability there must have been a huge temptation to make creative compromises in order to reach a wider market, luckily the producers elected to make the movie in the Isle of Man, a tax haven, allowing them far greater artistic control but unfortunately limiting the distribution options and consequently the film has been seen by few people which is a great shame.

The initial home video releases in the UK were strictly limited to one supermarket chain and it has yet to emerge in high definition, although fortunately the German Blu-ray release has a full 1080p VC-1 picture resolution and an optional DTS-HD 5.1 English audio soundtrack, without forced subtitles.  I can imagine how hard it is, given the subject matter, to get a movie like Me and Orson Welles made at all, so praise is due to Richard Linklater and I hope in time the film finds the audience it truly deserves.

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Sgt. Pepper 50th Anniversary

The Beatles’ seminal swinging sixties album Sgt. Pepper turned fifty this week and it’s getting better all the time!

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Michael Clayton

Fresh from the success of furnishing the scripts for the extremely lucrative Bourne franchise, Tony Gilroy was given the rare opportunity to make his directorial debut with his own original screenplay Michael Clayton, an intricate, character-driven suspense story which finally confirms George Clooney to be one of the most distinguished screen actors of his generation.

Clooney plays the title role, a ‘fixer’ with a prestigious New York City law firm; he is an opaque figure who, as a former criminal prosecutor, is uniquely gifted at his job which usually involves finding legal loopholes exonerating high paying clientele from their dubious actions as typified by his late night call to a wealthy businessman (Denis O’Hare) who has just been involved in a hit and run accident.

You can tell from the opening moments of Michael Clayton that it’s going to be a thoughtful film, methodically paced but exceedingly tight, reminiscent of the conspiracy thrillers made by Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View) or Sydney Pollack (Three Days of the Condor)  in the 1970s.  Not surprisingly Gilroy enlisted the help of Pollack who appears here, in one of his last roles in front of the camera, as Clayton’s boss and the firm’s senior partner Marty Bach.

Michael is a complex character with a history of gambling, he is currently in debt to a loan shark due to a failed restaurant venture with his drug-addicted brother and he is being put under great pressure to come up with the money.  The firm are currently defending a class-action lawsuit filed against fictional pharmaceutical giant U-North and their leading attorney Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has a mental breakdown during a deposition, stripping off his clothes and declaring undying love for one of the key witnesses.

It transpires that Arthur has been diagnosed bipolar and it’s not the first time Clayton has been called in to salvage the mess caused by the disorder whilst he’s off his medication.  U-North’s general counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) has Edens put under surveillance and discovers that he’s in the possession of a report proving their latest product is carcinogenic and that he’s about to ‘go rogue’ and expose this publically just as they’re closing in on a settlement deal.

Michael Clayton is “total cinema” at its very best; woven of a semi-byzantine plot line and meticulously framed cinematography, steeped in the thought processes and actions of acutely convincing central characters, the usually buoyant Clooney really bares his soul in this film like no other, whilst Wilkinson and Swinton deliver unshakable supporting performances.  In many ways it’s the antithesis of the Bourne movies yet despite lacking outright action sequences it still clutches audiences, bringing them to the edge of their seats.

I am gratified that I went to see Michael Clayton at the cinema when it first came out in 2007; I know I am amongst a minority who managed to catch it as it appeared on very few screens for only a brief stint.  I am willing to go out on a limb and claim that in time it will likely be remembered as the film of its decade and I’m hopeful that the Blu-ray release will introduce it to a wider audience. 

There is nothing flashy about the 1080p VC/1 transfer, the soundtrack is a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and apart from an informative audio commentary from writer/director Tony Gilroy and his brother John, also the movie’s editor, there are no extras to speak of, no matter because Michael Clayton is exactly the kind of cinematic gem that doesn’t need a deconstructive light shined on it in order to be appreciated but rather should be wallowed into in the dark, with the comforting knowledge that from time to time they do make them like this anymore (sic).

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Network

At the 2011 Academy Awards Aaron Sorkin said in his acceptance speech, “It’s impossible to describe what it feels like to be handed the same award that was given to Paddy Chayefsky 35 years ago for another movie with ‘network’ in the title.”  It was his first Oscar win for adapting The Social Network and he was referring to the unexpectedly prescient satire Network directed by Sidney Lumet in 1976.

You don’t have to look very far for Chayefsky’s influence on Sorkin’s writing, not just in the awe-inspiring speeches throughout The West Wing but more specifically in his follow up series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a behind the scenes focus on putting on a live light entertainment television show which draws directly from the milieu of Network.
 

Peter Finch stars as news anchorman Howard Beale who is about to “retire” after 25 years on the air due to a fall in ratings, during the corporate takeover of a fictitious national television network UBS.  In a moment of madness Beale announces to camera his intention to blow his brains out in his final broadcast on live television and is immediately fired until long-time friend and producer Max Schumacher (William Holden) is persuaded by the company’s President to allow him back a final time to apologise and bow out gracefully.

However, once Beale is back on air his psychotic state causes him to launch into a candid tirade claiming that “life is bullshit”; ironically this strikes a chord with the public and fledging producer Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) who has been looking for edgier material suggests to Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall), the chief executive appointed by the conglomerate who have acquired the station, that Howard Beale be given his own show so he can sound off on whatever topics he likes.

Network is an outrageously believable black parody that is at once very funny yet deeply biting, years ahead of his time Chayefsky predicts not only reality TV but also the theory of the New World Order run by one massive ‘ecumenical’ holding company.  In the film’s touchstone scene during one of Beale’s televised rants on the night of an electrical storm, he manages to rouse his viewers to get up and go to their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” which not only became the movie’s tagline but is now an oft-quoted, indelible moment in cinema history.

Despite looking its age in terms of costume and set design Network fares remarkably well on Blu-ray, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is displayed in the original aspect ratio 1.85:1 showing off the film’s impressive use of stylised lighting particularly in the memorable monologue where the chairman of the corporation (Ned Beatty) evangelises his global capitalism to Howard Beale, appearing like a haloed vision of God in a starry night sky.  The DTS-HD master audio mix of the original mono soundtrack is perfect for a film which is reknowned for its exceptional dialogue.

There are a wealth of extras on the disc, including an in-depth “Behind the Story” analysis of the movie as well as a rare interview with writer Paddy Chayefsky recorded at the time of the film’s original release and an hour long episode of Private Screenings with director Sidney Lumet where he discusses in detail his substantial body of work recorded in 2005 after he was awarded the honorary life time achievement Oscar which, for fellow cinephiles, is worth the price of the disc alone!

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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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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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Svengali Review

I first met Jonathan Owen a couple of years ago when I was working on Cass Pennant’s documentary debut Casuals, he was one of the many interviewees who helped to tell the history of the Mod and Casual fashion scene.

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As many have testified Jonny is genuinely one of the nicest fellows you’re likely to come across, especially in the entertainment industry, and his winning charm is at the heart of the success of the Svengali project that he has been working on since the first viral debuted on YouTube back in 2009.

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The original series of webisodes came to the attention of Mod culture and music fans alike and was hailed by the London Evening Standard as the “best thing on the Internet” at the time.  Featuring a smattering of cameos from the world of Rock, including real-life ‘Svengali’ Alan McGee and Carl Barât of The Libertines, it charts the arrival of former Welsh postman Paul ‘Dixie’ Dean in London with high hopes of promoting the raw and rowdy band The Premature Congratulations to the topper-most-of-the-popper-most.

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Whilst the five minute virals focused primarily on Dixie’s naivety and his relationship with his old Valley’s oppo Brian Horse(y) now a successful A&R man, whose contacts include all the leading lights of the British music biz, the feature film expands his world turning the spotlight on his long-suffering fiancée Shell played by the redoubtable, BAFTA award winning actress, Vicky McClure.

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Along with the central romantic plot line we also finally get to see The Prems as well as an insight into Dixie’s Welsh roots; particularly effective is the scene where his father played by the late Brian Hibbard tells Dixie that he’s not long for life and they share a poetic moment of pure cinematic gold.  I come back to this scene time and again, not only has it been made more poignant by Hibbard’s own death not long after the film was completed, but because I can’t tell if it’s totally written or completely improvised, either way it’s a marvelous acting tour-de-force by the two men.

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The key thing that the film manages to reveal in far greater depth is the fundamental difference between Dixie and Horsey who, on paper, could be considered two sides of the same coin.  Both hail from the same humble beginnings but one has completely reinvented himself cocking a snook at his past, whilst the other totally embraces it.  It’s a shame that Roger Evans’ performance as Horsey seems to have been largely overlooked by the critics, barely being mentioned in most of the mainstream reviews that I’ve read, he is the necessary Yin to Dixie’s Yang and the understated combination of embarrassment, envy and bemusement he displays on screen is one of the movie’s core strengths.

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Svengali manages to be at once a satire of the music and fashion scene, with Martin Freeman’s Mod-Elite record store owner and Matt Berry’s outrageously intimidating record label boss providing many of the laughs, but it’s also a romantic comedy, a rags to riches story and a buddy movie; this sounds disjointed but it actually holds together very well.  This is no doubt due to Jonny Owen’s central performance as Dixie, in the frame almost all of the time his warmth, generosity and sincerity ooze off the screen.

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In one of the best scenes an exposed Horsey, who spends all of his time with yes men, cut-throat media types and prostitutes, ponders on what Dixie has that he doesn’t and whilst he narrowly focuses on how he is able to spot musical talent it is apparent that the major thing that Paul Dean has over Brian Horse in his life is love; both familial and romantic.  Dixie has kept true to himself and where he has hailed from so consequently, despite walking away from everything he aspired to he retains his dignity and his passion for life.

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Svengali has proven that it is possible to make a quality low budget, independent film in the UK that doesn’t have to fit a cookie-cutter mold to reach its audience.  The film’s journey echoes Dixie’s spirit in every frame and it’s a testament to everyone who believed in it and worked on bringing it to the big screen over the years.  I am very excited to see what Root Films, the joint venture between Jonny Owen and producer Martin Root, do next and I wish them continued success.

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