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!

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Spike Lee

After I returned from my tour of America in 1991 I took a job working in a retail Video shop and this presented me, as an avid movie fan, with two key benefits; the first was the opportunity to preview any tape outside of opening hours, the second was the generous staff discount that allowed me to grow my own film collection.  It was at this time that I discovered the work of Spike Lee, starting with his debut feature She’s Gotta Have It for which he was dubiously dubbed “the black Woody Allen” by some for the use of monochrome cinematography in a New York setting and his credits as writer, director and actor in the role of Michael Jordan obsessed, Mars Blackmon, which he reprised for a series of adverts he made for Nike also featuring the basketball star. 

His second film, School Daze, produced by David Putnam, was a confusing blend of Animal House style fraternity comedy, equal parts Hollywood musical and biting satire on the notion of black identity in modern America.  However, it was his next film Do The Right Thing that really put Lee on the map, taking place on the hottest day of the year in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighbourhood, it focuses on the mounting racial tension between the white family inhabitants of Sal’s Famous Pizzeria and it’s predominate black clientele, headed up by Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito) who insists that Sal (Danny Aiello) gets some brothers up on the wall, instead of the “Wall of Fame” consisting entirely of famous Italian-Americans, or they will boycott his restaurant.  

Lee plays Sal’s delivery boy, Mookie, who is trying to balance his life as a young father, his relationship and the perceived conflict of working for a white boss by his friends.  The animosity reaches a peak at the end of the day when Sal destroys regular customer, Radio Raheem’s (Bill Nunn) boombox leading to a riot, in the ensuing violence the police throttle Raheem to death whilst trying to arrest him, to dispel the vengeful crowd Mookie throws a garbage can through the pizzeria’s window resulting in it being razed to the ground.  This action is deliberately ambiguous, the audience are left pondering whether Mookie did the right thing and I’ve found my own response to this can change with each viewing.

The next Spike Lee Joint was Mo’ Better Blues his valentine to the Jazz music of his father, Bill Lee, starring Denzel Washington as the trumpeter and band leader, Bleek Gilliam, who we see as young boy in the opening shots of the film practising scales religiously whilst his friends wait for him to come out to play.  The movie cleverly explores the life of an artist having to choose between two muses, one a glamorous and ambitious singer, Clarke (Cynda Williams), the other a teacher, down to earth and maternal, Indigo (Joie Lee), yet ultimately it’s his music that he is wedded to.  It also depicts the struggle of egos within a band when saxophonist, Shadow Henderson (Wesley Snipes) vies with Bleek for leadership, the etiquette of solos versus grandstanding, and having to deal with an ineffective, gambling, manager, Giant (Spike Lee), who happens to be your best friend.

The film is heavily stylised and Lee’s regular cinematographer, Ernest Dickerson, provides a rich, saturated colour palette giving the musical sequences at the Underdog Club almost a cartoon look and feel.  The score, composed by Bill Lee, is performed by the Branford Marsalis quarter, featuring Terrance Blanchard on trumpet and it remains one of my most listened to soundtrack albums.  Ultimately, Giant’s gambling debts catch up with him and Bleek sacrifices his music for their friendship, Shadow takes over both as Clarke’s lover and leader of the band; fate forces Bleek to choose Indigo to save his life and in the long montage featured in the last reel, synchronised to John Coltrane’s Love Supreme, they settle down, get married and have a son, Miles, who also learns the trumpet and so we have come full circle.

Possibly my favourite Spike Lee film is 1992′s Malcolm X, in this movie he displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Cinema providing references from a myriad of influences including the D. W. Griffith silent classic Birth Of A Nation, Billy Wilder’s film noir Ace In The Hole, Vincente Minnelli’s musical The Band Wagon, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and countless other movies; it is truly astounding how many visual treats he is able to cram in to what so easily could have been a standard, po-faced, biopic.

Denzel Washington excels in the title role and is on screen almost constantly for the film’s epic 3½ hour running time.  Befitting the Herculian directorial task Lee takes a smaller acting role as Shorty, Malcolm’s barbershop buddy who first straightens his hair and then runs with his gang on a petty crime spree that leads to a lengthy prison sentence.  Whilst inside Malcolm is exposed to the teachings Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam and converts to the Muslim faith taking the name Malik Shabazz.

The early part of the film owes a lot of its look and style to Mo’ Better Blues with Malcolm and Shorty running around in Zoot suits, it has a lot of lighter comic moments which perfectly balance the tone of the second half of the film which is more or less preoccupied with the false promises, corruption and separatism that beleaguers the Nation of Islam and its leadership.  Culminating with Malcolm X’s assassination at the Aubadon Ball Room in 1965 and closing with Ossie Davis reading his original eulogy from his funeral, which reminds me very much of Oliver Stone’s Nixon; here Spike Lee proves he is not just a marginal, independent filmmaker but among the finest of his generation.

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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.

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jack Lemmon

I hadn’t planned to write about actors specifically, as my intent was to focus on certain key films and directors.  However, as this is also a personal journal it should reflect its author to some extent and those who knew me in my teens surely thought I had an unhealthy obsession with this particular Hollywood star, but with hindsight I would say that it marked the apex of my calling as an actor, which transmogrified by puberty was almost a religious fervour with me in those days.

John Uhler Lemmon III was born in Boston in 1925 to middle class parents, his father was the president of a doughnut company and his mother, in early life, had followed aspirations as an actress in comedy and light opera.  Jack was their only child and from the age of 8 he was convinced that he would become the next George Gershwin and the world’s greatest actor.

Lemmon studied at Harvard majoring in War Time Sciences, he was a member of the Navy Reserve Officers Training Corps. and served as an Ensign after graduation.  Whilst at Harvard he was also active in theatrical pursuits and was the president of The Hasty Pudding Club, a long-standing tradition of which was to put on a Christmas show in drag.

After his brief spell in the Navy Lemmon took himself to New York and worked as a piano player in a beer hall, he started auditioning and got regular work on radio and in off-Broadway productions eventually leading to appearances on live television shows like TV Playhouse and Kraft Theatre.  In 1954 he did a screen test for Columbia Pictures and was offered a contract by legendary tough movie mogul Harry Cohen, with the proviso that he change his name from Lemmon to Lennon.  Thinking on his feet, and determined to keep his own name, he played to Cohen’s business-savvy by suggesting that people might mistake it for Lenin and associate that with Communism, a serious problem for the American entertainment industry in the McCarthy era.

Lemmon made his big screen debut opposite Judy Holliday in It Should Happen To You, a likeable romantic comedy that lightly satirises the concept of celebrity.  The film was lifted by the sure hand of veteran Gone With The Wind director George Cukor, who also had hits with screwball comedies starring Katherine Hepburn, The Philadelphia Story and Adam’s Rib.

Whilst cutting his teeth on the Columbia lot Lemmon would meet two young writer/directors, whom he would work with more than once.  Richard Quine was a very solid director with a gift for comedy, he liked to shoot outdoors in real locations.  He made a total of six films with Lemmon, My Sister EileenOperation Mad BallBell, Book & CandleIt Happened To Jane, The Notorious Landlady and How To Murder Your Wife, each one well-crafted with a strong narrative and solid performances from a good ensemble cast, often including Ernie Kovacs, Kim Novak and Dick York.

Blake Edwards, who would famously go on to make the Pink Panther series with Peter Sellers, worked as a writer on Quine’s Operation Mad Ball and The Notorious Landlady and after making his directorial breakthrough feature Breakfast At Tiffany’s he teamed with Lemmon and they turned their focus to a serious subject matter in Days Of Wine And Roses, a poignant and powerful character study of young newly-weds whose social drinking escalates into soul-destroying alcoholism, earning both Lemmon and his co-star Lee Remick Academy Award nominations.  Ironically, at the time of shooting, Lemmon, a self-confessed alcoholic, was teetotal.

Edwards and Lemmon teamed up again shortly after to make the epic comedy The Great Race, dedicated to Laurel & Hardy.  Whilst I enjoy Lemmon’s malevolent performance, as the dastardly Victorian villain, Professor Fate (complete with twirly moustache) and the Prisoner Of Zenda detour allowing him to camp it up in the dual role of the lush Crown Prince Hapnik, the movie is overlong, lacks real charm, and is nowhere near as funny as it thinks it is.

The first Lemmon film I remember watching, and the one that convinced me, aged 12, that I was going to be an Actor, was Some Like It Hot, now regarded by the American Film Institute as the funniest comedy ever made.  The simple notion of two down at heel musicians having to flee in drag after witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day massacre, tapped into my sense of the absurd and I marvelled at Lemmon’s incredibly facile performance both as Jerry and his feminine alter ego, Daphne.

This was the first of several films by Austrian émigré, writer/director, Billy Wilder, the others most notably were The Apartment and The Fortune Cookie which first teamed Lemmon with his life-long friend and co-star Walter Matthau.  I shall go into each of those, along with Avanti! which I have a particular soft spot for, in greater detail in future posts.

I was extremely fortunate that my passion for Lemmon’s work coincided with two events both in 1986.  The first was a season of his films at the British Film Institute where I was, not only, able to see some of his greatest films, including The Odd Couple, for the first time, but also saw him interviewed live in the theatre by Jonathan Miller, who was directing Lemmon’s London stage debut Long Day’s Journey Into Night, co-starring Bethel Leslie and newcomers Kevin Spacey and Peter Gallagher.  I was 15 at the time and I am very thankful that I shared these experiences with my Father who died a few years later, I shall always treasure these fond memories.

Most people only associate Lemmon with his comic work but he also made some superb dramas including The China Syndrome, Missing and Save The Tiger for which he won an Best Actor Oscar in 1973.  In later life he would make tour-de-force performances in David Mamet’s screen version of his 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Glengarry Glen Ross and Oliver Stone’s JFK.  He was a lifelong Democrat and follower of liberal causes just as much as he was a devotee of golf.

I shall be writing in more detail about Lemmon’s movies, specifically those directed by Billy Wilder, who probably summed it up best when he said, ”Happiness is working with Jack Lemmon”.

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Apocalypse Now: Full Disclosure

It has got to be one of the most eagerly anticipated Blu-ray releases of all time and finally, almost 5 years since the hidef format launched, Apocalypse Now has been released almost a year to the day after The Godfather: Coppola Restoration collection.  The Full Disclosure package is every bit as impressive, if not more so, as it includes both the original cut and the ‘Redux’ extended version of the film plus Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse which I saw when it was released at the Cinema in 1991 and then wore out the VHS tape, but this is the first time it has ever been released in a digital format in the UK.

Firstly, let me confirm that all 3 discs included in the Full Disclosure edition are Region Free and boast full 1080p resolution and a DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack.  The first disc contains both the 1979 theatrical cut (153 mins) and 2001′s controversial ‘Redux’ version that restores the 49 mins of cut scenes, including the lavish French Plantation sequence.  I think both cuts of the film are valid, on balance I prefer the ‘Redux’ version although I agree that it changes the pacing of the film but it also helps expand it beyond the confines of the Vietnam war and leans more towards the source material of Joseph Conrad’s story, Hearts of Darkness, on which the film is based.  The 2nd disc is packed full of additional material, most notably two recent hour long filmed discussions by Francis Coppola with writer John Milius and star Martin Sheen, an interview by Roger Ebert at the Cannes Film Festival premier of the ‘Redux’ version, Orson Welles’ Mercury Radio production of Hearts of Darkness and Marlon Brando reading the full version of T.S. Elliot’s poem The Hollow Men.

The 3rd disc features the hidef version of Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse which is superb.  I had worried because there were rumours that it might be cut to remove some of the more uncomfortable moments of anguish that Coppola had to endure whilst making, what many beleive to be, his masterpiece; instead there is an audio commentary track, featuring both Francis and his wife Eleanor who made the documentary, providing a wistful, fresh perspective to some of the insanity that transpired whilst shooting in the Philippines.  This is one of the most engaging documentaries ever made about the cinematic process and worth the price of ownership alone!  Also included are numerous photos, storyboards, posters and other marketing material, along with a 57 page extract of the first draft by John Milius containing Coppola’s hand written notes which (if you sit close enough to the TV!) makes interesting reading.

To complete the package is a 48 page book containing an introductory letter from Francis Ford Coppola outlining the contents in detail.  My only criticism so far, as I’ve yet to wade through all of the supplements, is that there is no discrete chapter list for the ‘Redux’ version, which means you can’t go straight to the restored sequences; a forgivable oversight to an otherwise perfect collection.  I have owned more versions of this film than I care to remember and this is, without doubt, the best I have ever seen Apocalypse Now look on the small screen.  Let’s just hope that Coppola’s American Zoetrope cohort takes heed and releases the Star Wars and Indiana Jones trilogies on Blu-ray in the near future.

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Baader Meinhof Complex

The Baader Meinhof Complex attempts to chronicle in its 150 minute running time the entire decade which saw the rise and fall of the Red Army Faction (RAF), Germany’s most notorious terrorist group.  The film is produced and co-written by Bernd Eichinger whose Constantin Film company was also responsible for the excellent Downfall the study of Hitler’s final days for which he also furnished the screenplay.

Director Uli Edel shares the writing credit although the film is based on the book of the same name by the former Der Spiegel editor-in-chief Stefan Aust, first published in 1985 and now considered to be the definitive text on the subject.  Consequently the movie is somewhat of a hybrid and the two styles often seem at odds with each other, whilst striving for documentary realism it also presents a lot of the film’s violence in the style of a Hollywood action thriller.

The film opens amidst the much publicised visit of the Shah of Iran, his wife and entourage of goons, to the Deutsche Opera in West Berlin, a large group of left-wing students have turned out to protest against the oppressive Iranian regime and the Shah’s henchmen attack the youths with sticks; in the resulting riot one student, Benno Ohnesorg is shot and killed by a German police officer without incitement.  This incident became a rallying point for the socialist movement and political journalists like Ulrike Meinhof (Martina Gedeck) were so outraged by the events of 2nd June 1967 that she wrote a condemnatory open letter to the Shah’s wife in left-wing Konkret magazine.

11th April 1968 (less than a year later) the assassination attempt on Rudi Dutschke, the leader of the student union who’s outspoken protest against West Germany’s support of American foreign policy in particular the use of local U.S. Air Force Bases to escalate the carpet bombing of Vietnam, served as a further catalyst for the left-wing youth movement who felt that their parents’ generation passively sat back and let Adolf Hitler seize power; keenly aware that many former Nazis held prominent positions in the current western imperialist government.

Whilst Ulrike Meinhof practices the maxim that the pen is mightier than the sword, Andreas Baader (Moritz Bleibtreu) and his girlfriend Gudrun Ensslin (Johanna Wokalek) believe in direct action and retaliate to the Ohnesorg murder by fire-bombing a department store in Frankfurt for which they are prosecuted.  Meinhof, who is covering their trial, interviews Ensslin and is impressed by her radical principles and activist zeal.  Whilst on parole the couple flee to Italy to avoid a prison sentence but are tracked down by their left-wing lawyer who urges them to return to Germany because he has access to funds that will allow them to start a revolutionary organisation.

In one of the film’s less authentic sequences we see Baader and Ensslin seducing a group of youths into joining the fledgling RAF by cruising in stolen cars backed by The Who’s My Generation in a sexed-up scene reminiscent of George Lucas’ American Graffiti which espouses the very ethos we’re supposed to believe they’re railing against.  However, it’s not long before Baader is pulled over for speeding and sent straight to jail.

At this point Ulrike Meinhof has become disillusioned with the power of journalism to bring about real political change and is enticed by Ensslin into a plan to spring Baader from prison; this involves Meinhof pretending to research a book on the RAF and for Ensslin to pose as her publisher to avoid detection.  It is in this breakout that the group take their first blood and that Meinhof’s fate becomes forever entwined with the Bonnie and Clyde-esque Baader and Ensslin.

Despite some military training arranged for them by their lawyer with Palestinian rebels in Jordan, Baader’s approach remains undisciplined his focus seems to be on robbing a series of banks to appropriate funds for the group.  In a spectacular Butch and Sundance style shoot-out during one such escapade Baader and fellow RAF member Holger Meins are captured and soon after Ensslin, Meinhof and Jan-Carl Raspe are also arrested and held in custody at the austere, maximum security Stammhein Prison in Stuttgart awaiting a high profile show trial.

The film’s tone shifts at this point, the first act strived to show the persuasive charisma that the founding young members of the RAF had in order to recruit both respectable left-wing figures like Ulrike Meinhof as well as radicalising the disenfranchised student movement.  The second act is more solemn and introduces the character of Horst Herold, the head of the West German Police Force who has been tasked with eradicating the RAF who along with splinter groups like Black September are conducting various acts of terrorism, including the massacre at the 1972 Munich Olympics and subsequent plane hijacking, in attempts to get the founding members released.  Herold (Bruno Ganz) realises the need to psychologically profile the terrorists in order to understand their motivation, there is a danger of the imprisoned members becoming martyrs when Holger Meins dies from hunger strike and Ulrike Meinhof hangs herself in her cell.

The Baader Meinhof Complex is an electrifying film, impeccably performed by a passionate cast and directed with incredible attention to period detail by Uli Edel; for the most part it succeeds in presenting a highly inflammatory period of recent history where heinous atrocities were regularly carried out by people who ostensibly believed they were acting both morally and for the good of the human race but through the escalation of the violent, bloody process tragically lost their own humanity.

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

David Lynch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 28 Comments

Mr. Nice

The rights to make a film of Mr. Nice were sold to the BBC by Howard Marks when the landmark autobiography of perhaps the most sophisticated drug baron of all time topped the best seller lists in 1996.  15 years later and his vivid memoir has finally been brought to the big screen by the iconic writer/director Bernard Rose (Immortal Beloved) who faithfully captures the rambling, often comic, nature of the original book aided by an outstanding performance from Rhys Ifans in the title role.

In researching this article I have found many prominent discrepancies between the reported facts, their fictionalised account in the original Marks book and the way in which they are presented by Rose in his screenplay.  This opaque concept of reality has helped to give “Mr. Nice” his legendary outlaw status with comparisons drawn to Robin Hood and Butch Cassidy to name but two.  Whilst this lack of absolute veracity might irritate some, to my mind it only serves to heighten the movie as a work of art in its own right.

In trying to echo the essence of an autobiography Bernard Rose elected to take on most of the important technical roles behind the camera, not content with writing the script and directing the performances, he is also the cinematographer (operating a handheld 35mm camera to capture the requisite period look) as well as being the film’s editor.  This singular vision provides a necessary counterpoint to the force of nature that is Rhys Ifans who dominates almost every scene in the movie.

Ifans actually got to know Marks back in the day when he was singing with the fledgling Welsh psychedelic rock combo Super Furry Animals, prior to the huge success of the book the two became firm friends and a deal was struck that Rhys should play Howard if a film was ever made of his life.  This long standing amicable association provides the movie with a heart that would have most likely been missing with anyone else in the lead role, Ifans admiration for Marks is demonstrable as is his compassion, particularly in the Terre Haute Penitentiary scenes.

The film opens from behind theatrical curtains with Howard Marks addressing a favourable crowd during one of his live shows, after the book’s success he became a popular speaker on the raconteur circuit.  It then flashes back to his early life in a small Welsh coal-mining village near Bridgend, the black and white film stock shrinks to a 4:3 ratio giving the feeling of a kitchen sink drama of the period, the young Howard is also played by Rhys Ifans; a surreal device recollecting the televised plays of Dennis Potter.

Marks was the first of his family to attend university after earning a scholarship to study at Balliol College, Oxford, in the mid-1960s.  Like many of his generation during his undergraduate years he was exposed to a variety of recreational drugs including LSD but his drug of choice was cannabis, in particular hashish; as he takes his first toke the scope of the picture widens and dramatically shifts from monochrome to vivid colour, reminiscent of Dorothy’s entrance into Oz.

After Howard graduates from Oxford with a degree in Nuclear Physics, he heads back to Wales, gets married and starts a family, this is the version of events unique to Rose’s film as this is not how Marks recalls it in his book nor is it true to documented accounts but it makes perfect dramatic sense.  He takes a steady teaching job to make ends meet and for a while leads a sober yet boring existence, until he attends a party thrown by his old college chum Graham (Jack Huston) who seems to be doing incredibly well for himself by selling hash.  Howard is readily seduced back into the hippy culture when he meets and shares a joint with Judy (Chloë Sevigny), embarking on a long love affair with her and the weed.

When Graham is arrested while attempting to smuggle a large haul out of Germany, Howard agrees to courier the remaining stash back to the UK where he is quickly baptised into the machinations of big time drug dealing; turning a quick profit and agreeing to collect further shipments from the Pakistani supplier, Saleem Malik (Omid Djalili).  This whirlwind period in Howard’s life brings him into contact with the colourful character of Jim McCann, the Irish freedom fighter allegedly kicked out of the IRA for drug trafficking played full tilt by David Thewlis.  Marks engages McCann’s Provo contacts at Shannon Airport to covertly import drugs from the European mainland.

In a surreal twist straight out of the pages of Ian Fleming or John le Carré, Howard is approached by another old chum from Baillol, Hamilton “Mac” McMillan, played by the wonderful Christian McKay (Me and Orson Welles), who now works for MI6 and wishes to recruit Marks as his eyes and ears in various cases relating to narcotics or terrorism in return for a level of protection from the law.

Between the late 70s and early 80s Howard Marks amassed a complex network of connections controlling at one point 10% of the global hashish market and by the mid-80s he had 43 aliases, 89 phone lines, and 25 companies trading throughout the world.  True to the book the film tries to suggest that his fateful decision to move into the American market was his ultimate undoing and that Judy, who by this time he had 3 childen with, tried to discourage the US expansion and pull Howard back to reality and the commitment of family life but the temptation to make even greater piles of cash proved too much.

Bernard Rose employs a clever stylistic device to convey the 25 year time period covered in the course of movie, he takes actual filmed stock footage backgrounds and then digitally superimposes Marks over the top matching the grain, whilst the effect is an obvious artifice dismissed by some critics as simply amateurish and cheap it actually serves as a striking visual quirk that reflects Howard’s constant state of expanded consciousness.  It also reminds me of the back projection shots favoured by Alfred Hitchcock in his golden Hollywood period, notably Marnie in 1964.

The original soundtrack by minimalist composer Philip Glass amounts to nothing more than incidental mood music echoing the sort of thing he did for the Errol Morris documentaries of the 80s starting with The Thin Blue Line, nonetheless it does help to bring about a sense of cohesion to the piece. For this level of attentive detail Rose should be commended, he has managed to make a visually unique movie and a wonderful star vehicle for Rhys Ifans out of a stoned shaggy dog story that will help maintain Howard Marks’ mythic stature as he continues his vigorous campaign for the legalisation of recreational drugs.

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Cass

As a film about football and, in particular, football hooliganism I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy Cass very much; as a rule it would be the sort of low-budget, grubby British film that I would usually seek to avoid.  Thankfully, it isn’t at all what I expected and in no way typical of its genre which is quite fitting as by all accounts Cass Pennant, on whose memoir it is based, has led a remarkable life.

Pennant’s biological mother left Jamaica whilst pregnant for the UK in 1958; 6 weeks after he was born he was abandoned and rehomed by Dr. Barnados with a middle-aged white couple from Slade Green.  Pennant had been christened Carol (a common West Indian boy’s name) and that, along with being the only black kid in the neighbourhood, ensured that he was the target of constant bullying and regular beatings.

Whilst at school Pennant adopted the name of ‘Cass’ inspired by his boxing hero Cassius Clay and made firm friends with Freeman (Leo Gregory) and Prentice (Gavin Brocker).  As devoted followers of West Ham United the 3 teenagers drifted into football violence, becoming members of the notorious Inter City Firm.  During the early 1980s Cass Pennant emerged as one of the most prominent leaders of the ICF.

Set against the back drop of mass unemployment, the miners’ strike and the general malaise of Margaret Thatcher’s “Me” generation the film authentically recreates the period and is especially attentive to the fashions of the day.  Le Thugs Nouvelle, as the tabloids sometimes referred to the football hooligans, dressed impeccably for the terraces in Pringle or Lyle & Scott jumpers and Fila or Sergio Tacchini tracksuit tops; evolving the Mod style and establishing the distinctive Casuals look that’s undergoing a major revival today.

Cass always strived to ensure that the ICF were perceived as the most efficient, most formidable and most stylish mob which he measured by the number of front page headlines devoted to their exploits that were planned with both an enterprising and military flare. Cass had calling cards printed that simply stated “Congratulations. You have just met the ICF.” and after one savagely executed revenge attack on the Newcastle United gang Pennant was arrested for grievous bodily harm and causing an affray; historically he was the first football hooligan to be served with a prison sentence.

Whilst in Wormwood Scrubs Cass shared a cell with a Rastafarian who challenged him to examine his Afro-Caribbean roots, in one of the movie’s more intriguing sequences Cass articulates that he was “fighting because of the colour of his skin again only this time the hate was coming from another direction” and that the only heritage he ever felt he had was with West Ham.  During his time in jail Cass started to write his autobiography only to have his many notebooks confiscated on his departure.

Cass received a hero’s welcome and was reunited with his adoptive parents, Doll (Linda Bassett) and Cecil (Peter Wright) who reluctantly told him that his biological mother had been writing to him via Dr. Barnados, much to Doll’s relief Cass maintains they are his real family and agreed to try keep out of trouble and settle down.  He started dating Elaine (Nathalie Press) and although he promised that his violent life was behind him he was drawn back in after a vicious razor blade attack on Prentice by Arsenal supporters left him with multiple scars to the face.

During the retaliation Cass sustained a knife wound and retreated to his flat to be confronted by Elaine who dropped the bombshell that she was pregnant but unwilling to raise a child with a father whose violent lifestyle would likely get him killed.  Cass decided to change and contacted an old prison friend who owned a chain of nightclubs and offered to run the security on all his doors; it appears his violent past found an appropriate outlet and when business was booming his family life also blossomed and he and Elaine had a second child.

The past came back to haunt Pennant when he was shot 3 times at close range and whilst recovering from the attack he was told the news that his mother has died.  During this period of recovery Cass suffered from post-traumatic stress and contemplated further acts of bloody retaliation against the Arsenal mob that attempted to kill him.  Ultimately his story is a redemptive one, when stood in front of his would-be murderer, holding a gun inches from his assailant’s face, Cass was unable to pull the trigger and walked away, reflecting on the fact that his own poor choices had brought these acts upon himself.

Cass Pennant went on to write his autobiography along with a slew of books on the subjects of football hooliganism, sports and fashion, he founded his own publishing firm Pennant Books along with a production company Urban Edge Films which is all set to release its debut documentary Casuals this year.  In a recent discussion with Cass he was telling me how the movie of his life came about.  He met director Jon S. Baird while he was a consultant for Green Street, another film about football violence; Jon was the associate producer.  From chatting on the set Cass knew that Jon was hungry to direct his first feature film and at the movie’s wrap party Jon suggested that Cass ought to write a book on his life, to which Cass replied he already had.  Usually he carried a copy of his autobiography in his bag but not this time, so he made an excuse to go to the bathroom and then ran next door and bought a copy of his own book to hand to Jon to read.

According to Cass within an hour Jon had called him saying he had to make the film.  Cass coolly replied call me back when you’ve actually read the book and within a couple of days Jon confirmed his convictions.  Cass is a wonderfully rich and layered debut feature, it would have been far easier and cheaper to skip the boyhood scenes and get straight to the ICF period.  Instead by focusing on Pennant’s relationship with Doll and by including passages of narration direct from the book it avoids being just another football violence film and becomes a genuine story of a man’s life; easy to relate to even if you have no interest in the beautiful game.

The film’s success is largely due to the towering performance from Nonso Anozie as Cass Pennant, a Shakespearian actor who manages to capture the nuances of speech and physical mannerisms in such a remarkable way that you find it hard to imagine the same performer in the role of Othello for which he received rave reviews.  Cass sparkles with quality in every aspect of the production and deserves a much wider audience that with any luck this Blu-ray release will bring.

I want to close with an anecdote that Cass related to me which I think reveals his character somewhat.  On the night of the film’s premier at London’s Odeon Leicester Square Cass, who has an office above a pub in SoHo, came down to the bar to find a successful film director had bought him a bottle of champagne and invited him to sit down and drink it with him.  Cass has the reputation of being a bit of a workaholic but the director insisted, going on to ask if he was familiar with the list of 100 Great Black Britons and that was he aware that his name didn’t appear on the list?  Cass had looked through the list, which is primarily comprised of great sporting, entertainment and public figures, and he wasn’t exactly surprised not to be included as a former football hooligan!  The director pointed out that despite that not one of the 100 people listed have had a film made about their lives and that he should be extremely proud and should stop and raise a glass to savour the moment; Cass the movie is a suitable celebration.

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Social Network

As a devotee of the landmark American serial drama The West Wing which ran for 7 years and focused on the day to day activities of the Oval Office and the loyal support staff who serve at the pleasure of fictional President Josiah Bartlet played effortlessly by the ever charismatic Martin Sheen, when I learnt that the show’s creator and chief writer Aaron Sorkin had adapted Ben Mezrich’s book The Accidental Billionaires which charted the founding of the now ubiquitous social website Facebook, despite my scepticism of the cinematic scope of the subject matter I knew that the quality of Sorkin’s writing would make this compelling viewing.

The opening scene of The Social Network is textbook Sorkin, fast-paced, exceptionally literate dialogue punctuated with witty barbs leading to an increasing amount of tension as the disquieting banter between cerebral computer geek Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara) ends with her dumping him and delivering the shattering coup de grace “You’ll go through life thinking girls hate you because you’re a geek, but it’ll be because you’re an asshole!”.  If nothing else the rest of the movie is an examination of whether Zuckerberg is actually an asshole or if his dubious actions are the direct result of a massive inferiority complex.

True to the book the film is preoccupied with the explosion of the social networking phenomenon which was born in the college campuses of America and spread around the world like wildfire at the turn of the millennium.  Whilst at Harvard Mark Zuckerberg manages to crash the network in 4 hours by creating the Facemash website which hacked into all the college databases raiding pictures of the female fraternally, randomly pitting two of them against each other asking the visitor to determine which was “hotter”.  This notoriety lead him to be approached by two Varsity rowing athletes, the twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss through the marvels of digital technology both played by Armie Hammer, asking him to program the code for their website idea the Harvard Connection which took the principle of MySpace but added the exclusivity of requiring an @harvard.edu email address to sign up.  Zuckerberg agrees to help and then stalls them indefinitely whilst he rushes to launch his own take on the concept, the fledgling version of Facebook.

The Winklevoss twins provide a lot of the movie’s trademark Sorkin humour as they deliberate between themselves whether it’s sportsmanlike behaviour for two gentleman of Harvard to take Zuckerberg to court.  Facebook is taken up nationally by the big college campuses, including Stanford which brings it to the attention of Napster founder Sean Parker an impressive star turn by Justin Timberlake, who decides he wants a piece of the action and seduces Zuckerberg to relocate to California providing the movie’s second act, should Mark let ambition overtake his loyalty to his best friend and founding partner Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) who so far has invested $19,000 in setting up the site.  Whilst at the Henley Regatta the Winklevoss twins learn that Facebook is now being used by Oxbridge students and this last straw determines them to proceed with litigation.

The Social Network as with all of Sorkin’s work is ultimately a rather theatrical talk piece but despite that director David Fincher, who elected to shoot on HD video as opposed to celluloid, has crafted a taut and visually impressive feature which manages to grip the audience right from the start.  When it was first released there were comparisons drawn to Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane largely due to the similarities between print and online media monopolisation and the notion of selling one’s soul in order to prosper.  The problem is, unlike Charles Foster Kane, Mark Zuckerberg isn’t depicted as the out and out villain of the piece and if the script has one serious flaw it’s that it lacks a clearly defined antagonist, however as a character study and an essay on the frailty of the human condition it scores highly.

As it was shot in HD it looks superb on Blu-ray and the picture is crisp and vibrant in full 1080p.  The incredibly clear DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack ensures you never miss a word of Sorkin’s famously fast-paced dialogue and showcases the original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.  The exclusive extras include a feature-length making of documentary entitled “How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Facebook?” sporting in-depth interviews with all the key personnel.  I would challenge anybody to try and claim after seeing this film that celluloid is superior to digital processing when playing back on high definition equipment.

The beautiful irony of The Social Network is that the man who created Facebook appears to have lost his only friend battling over its financial success.  In the final scene after Zuckerberg has been ordered to award the Winklevoss twins $65 million compensation his junior council concludes “You’re not an asshole, Mark.  You’re just trying so hard to be one.” leaving him alone with his laptop, in desperation he sends a request to ex-girlfriend Erica Albright hoping she’ll accept him as a friend, he sits there repeatedly hitting the refresh key.  Final Curtain.

Posted in Cinema | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments