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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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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With Rango, his first completely animated feature film, co-writer/director Gore Verbinski returns to the anarchic spirit of his movie debut Mousehunt as he follows the existential quest of hapless hero Lars, a chameleon voiced by the ever quixotic Johnny Depp.

I don’t want to dwell too much on the suitably of the film for younger children, it has been rated PG and I think that speaks for itself.  If it had wished to be marketed specifically for family audiences it would have strived for a U certificate like the Pixar and Dreamworks movies it’s being unduly compared to.

Rango actually marks the foray of the George Lucas foundered special effects company Industrial Light & Magic into feature length animation; working under the guidance of the Coen Brothers regular cinematographer Roger Deakins they have crafted quite simply one of the most detailed, breathtaking and genuinely beautiful CGI pictures seen to date.

When we meet Lars he is stuck in a hermetically sealed world of his own imagining; an aspiring actor with an identity crisis, confined to a tiny terrarium he improvises scenes of would-be heroics, bouncing lofty dialogue off his inanimate inmates, a clockwork toy fish, a dead insect and a headless Barbie doll.

As Lars has the sudden realisation that the reason his life lacks definition is due to the absence of any real conflict his world is launched into space as the camera pulls back to reveal it’s being carried by a car hurtling at high speed along the freeway which has been sent into a tailspin after hitting an armadillo attempting to cross to the other side.

Despite having a deep tyre tread across his thorax the armadillo (Alfred Molina) doesn’t seem at all fazed by the accident as if it’s a regular occurrence; his metaphysical musings set Lars on a journey far off the beaten path, across the wasteland to the desolate town of Dirt where he shall glean self-knowledge and meet the ‘Spirit of the West’.

Before setting off on his epic quest the film doesn’t miss an opportunity to have Lars nearly run off the road by Johnny Depp’s character from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the delusional paranoiac, Raoul Duke the first in a litany of iconic cinematic references that raise the movie above and beyond the expectations of mainstream entertainment.

On the outskirts of Dirt, Lars meets the outlandishly named Beans (Isla Fisher), the daughter of a recently deceased prospector, who suspects foul play is the cause of the town’s diminishing water rations.  Much is made of the fact that Lars struggles with the physiognomic changes you’d typically expect from a chameleon, this serves as a metaphor for his personality disorder which manifests itself in his efforts to constantly re-invent himself as a heroic figure.

During an extended improvisation the lizard takes on the persona of a fearless gunslinger in order to impress a local bar room crowd, he brags about killing the notorious Jenkins Brothers – all seven of them – with one bullet!  Taking the name of ‘Rango’ from a bottle labelled ‘Made in Durango’ his exalted reputation is confirmed accidently when he takes out a menacing hawk by chance; the townsfolk of Dirt are so in need of something to believe in that they appoint him as the new Sheriff.

Rango is a post-modernist comedy co-written by John Logan (Sweeney Todd) which manages to pay homage to every great Western from the Gary Cooper classic High Noon to the ‘Spaghetti’ variety of Sergio Leone; not content with celebrating cinematic cowboys it also borrows the Valkyrie sequence from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and a mysterious watery plot direct from Polanski’s Chinatown with the malfeasant Mayor of Dirt (Ned Beatty) being a dead ringer for John Huston.

It’s worth mentioning the quartet of Mariachi owls who also act as a chorus in the classical Greek sense whilst serenading the audience with amusing little ditties proclaiming the hero’s imminent death.  Rango sticks to its six shooters and brings the whole metafictional tale full circle with Lars finally arriving on the other side of the freeway to find the ‘Spirit of the West’ embodied by Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name (Timothy Olyphant) from whom he learns that attaining self-knowledge is the ultimate heroic act and that we are all the stars of our own stories.

Despite being every bit as odd as it sounds the film is consistently entertaining and easily held my son’s attention without him needing to be au fait with the many in-jokes or countless movie references.  Rango was obviously conceived as a star vehicle for Depp’s quirkier sensibilities by Pirates of the Caribbean director Verbinski and the pair are clearly relishing the refreshingly surreal sabbatical and have crafted a landmark work of startling originality in the process.

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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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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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Some Like It Hot

Some Like It Hot marks the Blu-ray debut for screen legend Jack Lemmon and illustrious writer/director Billy Wilder, this was the first in a 7 film partnership and I anticipate 20th Century Fox shall be releasing the other Mirisch Company titles that they’ve recently acquired from struggling MGM Studios including The Apartment, Irma La Douce, The Fortune Cookie and Avanti! which I will review as soon as they become available.

I stated in my previous Jack Lemmon article that Some Like It Hot was a touchstone film for me when I first saw it as a 12 year old about to be bitten by the acting bug.  It started my fascination with the craft for which, like many, I felt that Lemmon was the master.  This view was not shared by my schoolmates who ribbed me constantly for what seemed to them as an inappropriate obsession with a comical figure from a bygone age and I was often asked why I wasn’t fanatical about serious actors from my own era, such as Jack Nicholson or Robert De Niro?  Obviously, I now have a tremendous amount of admiration for both those performers but at the time studying Lemmon was almost a sacred pursuit for me.

I actually made a short documentary film about Jack in my last year at school in which I interviewed the students and teachers asking them to name their favourite Lemmon movie and, not surprisingly, Some Like It Hot was the overwhelming response; which makes reviewing it somewhat of a thankless task as almost everyone on the planet has seen this film at least once in their lives and it was voted by the American Film Institute as the funniest comedy of all time.  It’s safe to say that its popularity is not limited to the fact that it contains Marilyn Monroe’s best performance, although that has obviously helped to maintain audiences interest over the decades.

Billy Wilder left Austria during the rise of Adolf Hitler and travelled as a journalist via Paris ending up in Hollywood in 1933 where he took the job of a studio staff writer.  He very quickly attained the reputation of an author of bitingly cynical yet exceedingly funny screwball farces like Ball Of Fire and Ninotchka and graduated to directing his own scripts in the 1940s which were often ‘noirish’ dramas like Double Indemnity or The Lost Weekend, culminating with scathing satires of his chosen professions Sunset Boulevard (Cinema) and Ace In The Hole (Journalism) in the early 1950s.

In 1957 Wilder collaborated with another writer, I.A.L. Diamond (Izzy to his friends) on the screenplay for the romantic comedy Love In The Afternoon marking the start of a successful collaboration the high point of which is arguably Some Like It Hot, made in 1959 and originally conceived as a star vehicle for Tony Curtis cast as Joe the struggling saxophonist and dogged lady’s man whose co-stars were set to be Frank Sinatra as Jerry and Mitzi Gaynor as Sugar.  Fortunately, Wilder was not entirely comfortable with Sinatra’s involvement, expecting difficulties from his notorious mob connections given the film’s depiction of murderous gangsters, and when he needed another big name star he turned to Marilyn Monroe for Sugar which opened the door for relative newcomer Jack Lemmon to take the role of Jerry.

The premise of Some Like It Hot seems pretty tame to a modern audience, two down at heel musicians having to flee in drag after witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, but in 1950s America the studios were still very much answerable to the League Of Decency a Catholic lobby group that condemned the film for depicting excessive violence and promoting transvestism and homosexuality.  Wilder convinced United Artists to put the movie out without a rating in defiance of the attempts to censor it by the church authorities; this was a watershed period which lead to the abolishment of the much feared Hays Code which had been present since the early 1930s and dictated ridiculous regulations such as in bedroom scenes couples should keep one foot on the floor at all times and that toilets could never be shown on screen!

It seems futile to list the many high points of the film as most readers are no doubt familar with them and I would rather not spoil it for those who have yet to see them; suffice to say that those seeing Some Like It Hot for the first time on this Blu-ray release are in for a massive treat.  MGM/UA did a magnificent job in restoring the film in 2006 and this hidef upscale is a further improvement; the 1080p/AVC encode offers an immaculately spotless picture showing off the crisp, perfectly balanced, monochromatic photography and stylish lighting particularly effective at exhibiting Marilyn Monroe’s abundant charm; she also benefits significantly from the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack remaster of her 3 showcased songs, whilst the dialogue is maintained front and centre so not to miss a word of Wilder and Diamond’s textbook screenplay.

It’s a minor disappointment that there are little in the way of new extras presented here, the previous DVD release included both the Making of Some Like It Hot plus the Nostalgic Look Back discussion between film historian Leonard Maltin and Tony Curtis at the Formosa Café on Santa Monica Boulevard, a regular celebrity hangout in the 1950/60s prominently featured in director Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential.   Hanson is also on hand here presenting the Legacy of Some Like It Hot serving as a tour guide of the Paramount Pictures backlot, where Billy Wilder had an office for 20 years, and reminisces over the movie’s massive creative influence.  There is also a patchwork audio commentary featuring a discussion between I.A.L. Diamond’s son, Paul and the writing duo of Lowell Ganz and Marc ‘Babaloo’ Mandel, their work on classic 1970s sitcoms like Happy Days lead them to pen the script for Ron Howard’s Splash, and they seem as surprised at their involvement in the proceedings as we are; luckily the track is liberally peppered with contributions from Lemmon and Curtis.

Some Like It Hot is a very welcome Blu-ray release and it’s always encouraging to see that classics are getting the high definition upscale they deserve, it simply never looked any better and this will help preserve its memory for future generations and continue to inspire new writing talent.  It’s just a shame the extras are a little thin on the ground as I think there is enough material to justify a newly minted feature length documentary presented in HD still, as the film’s closing line attests, “Nobody’s perfect!”

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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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Bloody London

Bloody London Logo

I met up with writer and producer Paul de Vos to discuss an interesting new horror portmanteau film that he’s working on.  Paul and his writing partner Kornel Brzezinski have written one of the sections and acted as story editors for the other four episodes which show the capital as it’s never been seen before, spinning a terrifying tale of a taxi driver who discovers what really happens when the sun goes down…

Bloody London Skyline

Bloody London is from the stable of  leading British film producer Julie Baines, whose company Dan Films previously made such films as Creep, Severance and Triangle; she describes it as “a very original horror movie that’s not just scary but also moving – it’s like a horror version of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, because it tells several interlocking stories taking place over one night in London.”  Visual effects wizard Darren Wall is the film’s third producer and his Planet Jump Productions company has provided animation and artwork for an impressive roster of clients.

Bloody London is being directed by some of the UK’s leading horror directors, including Tom Shankland (Ripper Street, The Children), Johnny Kevorkian (The Disappeared) and Steven Sheil, director of the highly controversial Mum And Dad.

Bloody London Dragon

Special make-up effects will be by Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning Nick Dudman, whose credits include Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter.  The film’s executive producer is Alan Jones, the UK’s authority on horror films and co-founder of leading European film festival Frightfest, which takes place in Leicester Square every August.  Jones comments, “Over my forty years in the film industry I have been asked many times to become involved in films as a producer but I have always said no – until now.  It was the many qualities of Bloody London that made me decide that this was something I really wanted to get involved in.”

Bloody London Tunnel

Bloody London will be the first in a series of horror films, with future films to include Bloody Paris, Bloody New York and Bloody Bangkok.  So this could be the birth of a new film franchise – in the greatest capital city in the world.

The producers are currently closing the finance for the film and are working with the crowd funding platform Seedrs – if you want to get involved and grab a piece of the Action!

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Chaplin: 15th Anniversary Edition

Director Richard Attenborough is the first to admit that his epic biopic Chaplin was a difficult film to finance and consequently the producers made demands upon him which lead it to be not as “profound a picture” as he would have liked.  Nethertheless its one massive saving grace is Robert Downey Jr.’s miraculous performance as Charlie Chaplin.

Although based on Chaplin’s 1964 autobiography and critic David Robinson’s book Chaplin: His Life and Art the screenplay, initially adapted by Attenborough’s long term business partner and publicist Diana Hawkins, was subject to many re-writes by luminaries such as Bryan Forbes (The Angry Silence), author William Boyd (The Blue Afternoon) and legendary screenwriter and script doctor, William Goldman (All the President’s Men). 

Starting with Chaplin’s humble beginnings in Lambeth, London born to a Music Hall family his father was an alcoholic and disappeared very early on in his life leaving him with his singing mother, Hannah whose career was ended suddenly by a larynx condition resulting in Charlie taking to the stage in her stead.  Hannah, played by Chaplin’s real life daughter Geraldine, suffered a mental breakdown and Charlie and his half-brother Sid (Paul Rhys) were taken to the workhouse.

Whilst honing his clowning skills in Vaudeville Charlie meets his first love, Hetty Kelly an Irish showgirl who he proposes to just before leaving for America with Fred Karno’s touring troupe along with Stan Laurel.  Uncertain as to whether Charlie would return she refuses to marry him and dies later in the flu epidemic of 1918 which has a devastating effect on Chaplin and he remains obsessed with her memory, putting versions of her as the heroine in many of his films.

On arriving in the United States his reputation as a great physical comedian reaches Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd) whose Keystone Studios pioneer highly successful, silent slapstick films, he offers Chaplin a salary of $150 a week to come and work for him and within a month Charlie creates the character which goes on to make him the most famous man in the world and the first performer to earn $1,000,000 a year, ironically the impoverished Little Tramp.

It’s hard to imagine in our celebrity obsessed age, where people with seemingly very little talent can become incredibly well known overnight, just how meteoric Chaplin’s rise was and by co-founding United Artists with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford he not only had immense popularity he was also able to take total artistic control over his work and express views which led him to be perceived as an “outsider” and a threat to the American establishment, resulting in him being branded a Communist and forced into exile in Switzerland when he was refused re-entry in 1952 after a brief visit to England.

Political controversies aside Chaplin also had a reputation as a ladies man with a penchant for young girls, starting with his marriage to the child actress Mildred Harris who was only 16 at the time he had a string of apparently inappropriate relationships spawning many paternity cases and it wasn’t until his 50s that he would settle down with Oona, the 18 year old daughter of renowned playwright Eugene O’Neill, with whom he produced 8 children and remained married to until his death.  To emphasise their special bond Oona is also played by Moira Kelly who is first seen playing his doomed childhood sweetheart Hetty.

The Blu-ray release of Chaplin could be better, suffice to say that the subtitle the “15th Anniversary Edition” pretty much confirms that this is merely an upscale of the DVD released in 2007; it’s a shame that Lionsgate couldn’t have waited another year to remaster a definitive 20th Anniversary Edition.  Nonetheless the 1080p picture quality is a marked improvement especially in the colour palette with hitherto greyish reds appearing more vibrant, the DTS-HD 2.0 soundtrack is far superior particularly when showcasing the late John Barry’s original score.  The extras are short and sweet, primarily it’s a candid interview with Richard Attenborough who is surprisingly self-effacing but honest about the film’s flaws.

I saw Chaplin in the cinema when it came out and despite the script issues, particularly the inclusion of the fictional character of George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins) to serve as Charlie’s biographer and act as a narrator allowing jumps between the key moments in what was a long and eventful life, you still leave the theatre utterly convinced by Robert Downey Jr.’s remarkable presence; his substance abuse and brushes with the law were highly publicised at the time and it’s truly incredible that he manages to immerse himself so totally in the role and pull off such a controlled and moving performance, confirming himself as one of the most versatile actors of his generation.

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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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