Be Kind Rewind

Sometimes you think you know exactly what a film is going to be like that you overlook it initially and as time passes and you never get around to watching it, you convince yourself that it doesn’t really matter because you knew what is was going to be like anyway so you haven’t really missed much; well, this is exactly what happened with me and writer/director Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind.

I knew from the trailer that it was a comedy starring Jack Black and Mos Def and I was aware that it involved them having to shoot camcorder versions of classic movies and that mayhem ensues but that’s about it and although I intended to see it at the cinema I never did and despite being a fan of Gondry’s previous films written by Charlie Kaufman, Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I didn’t get around to making the home video purchase of Be Kind Rewind until now with the 20th Century Fox Blu-ray release.

Suffice to say I was taken aback when the opening credits started to recount the life and times of one Thomas “Fats” Waller, the larger than life stride pianist, all-round entertainer and prolific composer of popular songs such as Ain’t Misbehavin’, Honeysuckle Rose and This Joint Is Jumpin’ with long time lyricist Andy Razaf; there wasn’t even a hint of any of this in the trailer?!  The point is that I have been a devotee of Waller since my early teens when I was given an old compilation LP of his by my Grandfather, it was simply called Handful of Keys, taking its name from the title of his staggering instrumental tour de force, just one of the many outstanding tracks included on the album; a record which hardly ever left my turntable.

The film, which is set in the New Jersey neighbourhood of Passaic, lays claim to be the birthplace of Fats Waller; actually it’s the proprietor of the rundown community video store, Mr. Fletcher played by Danny Glover who’s perpetuated the myth that Waller was actually born in his building which is due to be demolished to make way for a new development unless he can raise enough money to renovate the place.  Fletcher is taking a short trip to honour Waller’s memory on the anniversary of his death and he leaves his young assistant, Mike (Mos Def) minding the store but warns him never to let his eccentric and accident prone friend Jerry (Jack Black) inside while he’s away.

Mike fails to heed the counsel of his boss and opens the door to Jerry after he accidentally becomes electrically charged in an attempt to sabotage the local generator which he believes is being used as a conduit to control his thoughts.  The magnetic field emanating from Jerry manages to wipe the store’s entire collection of tapes and when the regular customers complain the disastrous duo come up with the hare-brained scheme of shooting their own homespun versions, the first of which is Ghostbusters, hoping that nobody will notice the difference; this is the part that does feature prominently in the trailer and whilst it’s a novel laughable notion it never really felt robust enough to fulfil a feature film’s running time.

Without wanting to give too much more away, because I would like first time viewers to undertake the same journey of discovery that I did, what transpires is that Be Kind Rewind manages to be three things at once, a very funny modern comedy, an old-fashioned ‘buddy picture’ and a heart-warming ‘Capraesque’ story of community spirit overcoming corporate tyranny.  Mos Def and Jack Black are exceedingly amiable in their roles; somewhat surprisingly the latter who, despite being a gifted comic actor, has a habit of playing irritating characters.  Michel Gondry does a fantastic job directing his own script, embellishing it with wonderful visual nuggets such as the interference that skews the picture whilst Jerry is magnetised.

The Blu-ray is presented in full 1080p in its original 2:35.1 aspect ratio and aside from Mike and Jerry’s “sweded” VHS movies the picture quality is uniformly sharp and pleasingly vibrant.  The soundtrack gets an even more luscious upscale, an impressive DTS-HD 7.1 mix showing off the soundscape of the busy Passaic streets and the tracks especially recorded by Booker T. Jones and his M.G.’s, Donald ‘Duck’ Dunn and Steve Cropper who last appeared on-screen together when Jake and Elwood put the band back together in The Blues Brothers.

There are some extras of note contained on the disc including an insightful feature focusing on the Booker T. recording sessions with director Michel Gondry on the drums, a flippant discussion between Gondry and Jack Black captured at the time he was shooting Tropic Thunder and my favourite the full 12 minute version of the Fats Waller Was Born Here documentary of which only half actually appeared in the final cut.  Be Kind Rewind is a rare, timeless movie that delivers belly laughs whilst making a serious point about the nature of ‘art’ and the power of communal loyalty.

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Donnie Darko: The Director’s Cut

It’s been 10 years since Richard Kelly’s admirable and ambitious directorial debut Donnie Darko was released to an unsuspecting cinema audience with its blend of teenage angst and paranoid schizophrenia it has become a cult movie for anyone familiar with the 1980s zeitgeist.

In his breakout performance Jake Gyllenhaal plays Donnie Darko a psychologically disturbed high-school student who sleep walks and has visions of a demonic rabbit called Frank, who tells him that the world will end in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds.  Although he is prone to aggressive and bizarre behaviour Donnie is still a typical teenager with conservative Republican parents who are supportive and concerned for his well-being.  In a freakishly random aviation accident the engine of a jet which has mysteriously vanished hits the roof of the Darko’s house taking out Donnie’s bedroom although luckily due to his sleep walking he has wound up on one of the greens at the local golf course; at this point the story flashes back 28 days charting the lead up to Armageddon.

Despite regularly seeing a psychiatrist (Katherine Ross) and undergoing hypnosis Donnie’s visions of Frank get more frequent requesting him to carry out random acts of violence, inspired by Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors” a favourite of his liberal English teacher (Drew Barrymore); firstly he floods the school leaving an axe in the head of the bronze statue of the school’s mascot “The Mongrel” and then, exhibiting his revulsion for phonies a quality he shares with Holden Caulfield the hero of J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”, he sets fire to the mansion of a local motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) exposing him as a fraud and a sexual deviant.

Donnie starts dating the new girl in school Gretchen (Jena Malone) who had to relocate and change her identity when her emotionally disturbed father stabbed her mother; she empathises with Donnie and provides comfort for his growing anxiety.  In an attempt to avoid Frank’s prediction Donnie starts to investigate the possibility of altering the future and his science teacher (Noah Wyle) explains Stephen Hawking’s wormhole theory that could lead to a portal to a parallel universe, he also gives him a book called “The Philosophy of Time-Travel” by a former teacher at the school, Roberta Sparrow who now lives a hermit like existence and is known by the local kids as “Grandma Death” because each day she goes to check her post box and stands in the way of oncoming traffic.

At this point the film shifts from psychological drama to Sci-Fi fantasy as Donnie becomes absorbed with Roberta Sparrow’s book and with the assistance of Frank seemingly masters the ability to bend time.  In the film’s climatic sequence on the final day of the world Donnie’s mother and younger sister are flying so she can take part in a dance competition.  Donnie and his elder sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) decide to throw a Halloween party during which he sneaks out with Gretchen to explore Roberta Sparrow’s cellar.  They are jumped by two of the school’s thugs and held at knife point, in the struggle Gretchen is knocked into the middle of the road and her unconscious body is run over by a car being driven by someone wearing Frank’s bunny suit.

Donnie realises the devastating effect his actions have had on those he loves and turns back time so that he is in his room when the jet engine hits.  It’s suggested that his mother and younger sister are on the plane as it plummets out of the sky but I am unsure how undoing Donnie’s actions entirely avoids their fate but they are all present when his body is taken from the house, which seems to suggest that perhaps it has all just been one big paranoid delusion. Gretchen passes by and has to ask a neighbour who it is on the stretcher so it seems that Donnie has sacrificed himself in order to save her.

Richard Kelly is clearly influenced by the films of David Lynch, especially Blue Velvet and genre bending films like Being John Malkovich which play with the conventions of linear narrative.  The Blu-ray marks a radical improvement in the picture quality which is presented in full 1080p 2.35:1 transfer, unfortunately the 5.1 DTS-HD mix whilst great at showcasing the 80s music especially Gary Jules hit cover of the Tears For Fears song “Mad World”, has left the dialogue comparatively low in the mix.

It’s fair to say that Donnie Darko is a superb apprentice piece but that the overly convoluted plot gets somewhat muddled even in the revised 2004 Director’s cut.  It amuses me that the idea behind the 6ft bunny Frank seems to be undoubtedly inspired by the James Stewart enduring black farce Harvey, the invisible friend of Elwood P. Drood; although Richard Kelly claims he wrote the script long before he ever saw the 1950s classic.  We have yet to see anything as dazzlingly original from him so as time passes Donnie Darko may well be remembered as his flawed masterpiece.

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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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Psycho: 50th Anniversary Edition

In 1959 Alfred Hitchcock signed a deal with Universal Studios allowing him to make any picture he liked as long as the budget was under $3 million.  He still owed Paramount Pictures a movie under contract so, inspired by the box office success of maverick B-Movie producer/director Roger Corman, he decided to make a very low-budget feature in black and white using the TV crew who worked on his popular Alfred Hitchcock Presents series. 

Psycho: 50th Anniversary Edition on Blu-ray is very impressive both in terms of picture and sound quality and also a banquet of bonus material.  The video is presented in a 1080p/VC-1 transfer with lossless DTS-HD 5.1 master audio soundtrack both radically improving on the previous DVD release.  Equally improved is the quality of the print, the blacks are exceedingly deep and all the defects that marred the DVD release are gone leaving a spotless, pristine image as good as any modern day release which is pretty remarkable for a film that’s half a century old.

It’s hard to imagine now how much impact Psycho must have had on its first audiences, the marketing campaign which refused admittance to the cinema after the programme had started and the personalised appeal from Hitch not to reveal the surprise ending really paid dividends.  These days the name of Norman Bates is synonymous with serial murder, matricide and schizophrenia but in 1960 audiences were completely taken in by Anthony Perkins hen-pecked, stammering but disarmingly charming Motel proprietor.

Thought by many to be the archetypal Hitchcock thriller in actual fact Psycho bears little resemblance to any of the Director’s previous suspense features which had in common big budgets, lavish Technicolor photography of tourist spots and grand interiors, glamorous leading men and women in designer garments who, whilst they courted danger, the audience knew they would live to tell the tale; Marion Crane’s fate would be entirely different altogether.    

In casting Janet Leigh as Marion Crane Hitchcock played a very clever trick on his audience, he knew they would totally sympathise with Marion’s doomed romantic interludes with a married man who couldn’t afford to leave his wife and entirely support her dubious decision to make off with $40,000 of her firm’s funds rather than deposit them at the bank.  Even though I have seen the film countless times I am still taken in by the setup and totally believe that this is going to be Marion’s story and it’s a testament to the playing of both Leigh and Perkins that it’s still a shock when you realise it’s not about her, it’s actually about him.

This pivotal turning point is driven home by the unforgettable shower scene, a montage of 50 individual shots, intricately cut together to the startling sounds of Bernard Herrmann’s string motif creating one of the most iconic moments in cinema history.  From here on the audience who has vested all their emotional support in Marion now transfer these feelings to Norman, believing him to be an innocent, browbeaten Mother’s boy who’s simply trying to cover up her jealous crimes of passion.

It is fair to say that Psycho is somewhat uneven and I do not enjoy the scenes with Marion’s sister (Vera Miles) and her boyfriend (John Gavin), although the moment where Miles discovers Mrs. Bates mummified skeleton in the cellar is visually striking; yet for the most part their scenes feel prescribed and a little wooden.  Equally the tacked on scene at the end with the psychoanalyst might have felt necessary in 1960 but by today’s standard it seems a trite and prosaic explanation of Norman’s condition.  These minor criticisms do not detract from the overall power the film still has to enthral and shock modern audiences.

I was glad to find amongst the numerous extras the ‘Making Of’ documentary from the US Collector’s Edition DVD; this feature length, comprehensive account written and directed by Laurent Bouzereau is packed with interviews with the cast, including Janet Leigh and Hitchcock’s daughter, Patricia along with contributions from screenwriter Joseph Stefano.  I hope this series will appear in subsequent Universal releases as I have yet to see them bettered and a lot of the key technical and creative personnel who regularly worked with Hitchcock are no longer alive to comment.  I cannot conceive of Psycho looking any better than it does in this hidef presentation and I hope that Rear Window, Vertigo, The Birds and Marnie follow it without an unnecessary hiatus.

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Stop Making Sense: 25th Anniversary Edition

Like most teenagers of my generation I became fanatical about music, obsessive even, and at the high point I was acquiring an average of 4 record albums a week.  It’s hard to imagine a world before iTunes or even the Compact Disc where you had to search shops for recordings of your favourite artists and a lot of my most treasured albums were obtained second hand as they were out of print.

Collecting records was an active pursuit, often involving train journeys to London or Cambridge and on the way home I’d read every single printed word on the album cover and the record sleeve in anticipation.  I’m not saying I appreciate the music that I download in a mouse click now any less but the pride one had in physically building your own “record collection” has gone.

It was on one such record buying trip to London that I stumbled across a copy of Stop Making Sense on video in HMV.  I already had a couple Talking Heads albums on vinyl although I was not familiar with the entire set list but I was intrigued to read on the cover that it was photographed by Blade Runner cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth and directed by Jonathan Demme and whilst this was before Silence of the Lambs, I had seen his films Something Wild and Married to the Mob and I’d recently seen Spalding Gray’s incredible monologue Swimming to Cambodia on television which Demme had directed; that was pedigree enough for me to buy this sight unseen.

Nothing could prepare me for Stop Making Sense as I had only heard Talking Heads on record and seen them in the Road to Nowhere video and whilst I had read an interview with David Byrne in a Rolling Stone magazine anthology I had got as a Christmas present that year, he had come across as a completely sane individual.  As you can imagine, once the familiar Pablo Ferro titles (as seen in the classic Stanley Kubrick satire Dr. Strangelove) fade and Byrne walks out and places a tiny cassette player on the stage and announces “I’ve got a tape I want to play” staring direct into the camera, singing Psycho Killer and accompanying himself on his acoustic guitar in his strange staccato-like manner, I did a massive double-take!

I’d never heard this strange song before and I’d never seen Byrne, or anyone else for that matter, perform like this before.  Add to that the deconstructive technique of slowly assembling the set, adding the band members, their instruments and the lights one by one until the entire ensemble are on stage lit for the concert performance; I knew I was watching something unique, something important that was going to be remembered for years to come.

The 25th Anniversary Blu-ray edition of Stop Making Sense has been remastered from a 35mm interpositive print and it is vastly superior to the previous DVD release.  As so much of the stage action takes place in stark lighting the DVD suffered from intense grain and washed out colour so to see such rich flesh tones and the deep reds and blacks is a radical improvement.  There are even more striking audio enhancements in the two 5.1 DTS-HD soundtracks, one of the original live recording and a studio mix which was made by the band for the DVD release which is definitely worth listening to as it was the first concert film that was recorded digitally.

Apart from the bizarre David Byrne self-interview that was also on the initial DVD release the exclusive Blu-ray extra is an hour long press conference featuring all the band members recorded to mark the 15th anniversary of the film in 1999.  Whilst it’s not broadcast quality video the discussion is vibrant and it’s good to see Byrne reunited with Chris Franz, Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison and hear their first hand perspective on working on the film and marvel at the landmark that it has become.

I could happily watch Stop Making Sense once a week, perhaps even once a day, and never tire of it, be in no doubt that this is the definitive concert movie and it’s of little surprise that there hasn’t been a concert film since that holds a candle to it, now does anybody have any questions?!

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Stanley Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick started his career as a photographer for Look magazine in New York in the 1940s.  His most famous photo captured the look of utter devastation on the face of a newsvendor the day of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death.  He left Look in 1950 to embark on his film career making family financed, low-budget, B-Movies such as Fear and Desire and Killer’s Kiss.

In 1955 he formed Harris-Kubrick productions with young, savvy, producer James B. Harris, their first feature was the heist picture The Killing which later would provide one of the key influences for Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.  1957’s Paths of Glory starring Kirk Douglas was a biting indictment of the French Officer Class who continually sent their troops out on suicide missions during World War I.  The meticulous tracking shots in the trench battle sequences hint at what was to become Kubrick’s trademark visual virtuosity and painstaking attention to detail.

When Kirk Douglas fell out with veteran director Anthony Mann on the set of Spartacus, he turned to Kubrick to take over, directing screen legends such as Laurence Oliver and Charles Laughton along with handling the logistics of the massive crowd scenes featuring 1000s of extras, he was only in his 30s which, unlike today, was considered exceedingly young to be in charge of a Hollywood Blockbuster production; this was a true baptism of fire which, combined with the box office success, would earn him final cut on all of his future films.

In 1962 Kubrick moved to England to work on Lolita his adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel about a college professor who gets romantically involved with the overtly flirtatious teenaged girl of the title.  James Mason’s portrayal of Humbert Humbert is magnetic and he nails the jealous insecurities that eat away at him as he obsessively struggles to keep the interest of his young nymphet lover.  Peter Sellers delivers a star turn as Clare Quilty the supposed film producer who seduces Lolita away from Humbert with the promise of a career in Hollywood.

Kubrick was so impressed with Sellers that he offered not 1 but 4 roles in his next movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a farcical satire on the cold war and the threat of accidental first strike nuclear attack.  Sellers plays Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, a typically Goonish stiff upper lip RAF Officer who is seconded to the US Air Force Base where General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) gives the order to launch a pre-emptive attack on the Soviet Union.

Sellers also plays US President Merkin Muffley a wonderfully understated performance of stifled hysteria and social embarrassment best expressed in the groveling Red Phone apology to the Russian Premier, “I am as sorry as you are, Dimitri.  Don’t say that you are more sorry than I am, because I am capable of being just as sorry as you are.”

Kubrick also wanted Sellers to play the Gung-ho Texan Major “King” Kong part, which ultimately went to Slim Pickins.  Sellers felt he was already stretched with 3 roles and was eventually excused by Kubrick when he sprained his ankle during a take in the enclosed cockpit scene.  He more than makes up for this with his madcap, psychotic turn as the titular character; the weapons expert and inventor of the ‘Doomsday Device’ (which will automatically destroy all life on Earth in the event of a nuclear strike) who’s confined to a wheelchair and has a seemingly possessed gloved hand that is determined to perform a Nazi salute!

2001: A Space Odyssey is considered by many to be Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece; it’s an epic science fiction event movie which has influenced every Sci-Fi feature that followed it.   Based on Arthur C. Clarke’s short story The Sentinel the movie is preoccupied with an enigmatic obelisk that first appears on Earth at the ‘Dawn of Man’, then turns up in the future buried in a crater discovered by a team of astronauts on the ‘Jupiter Mission’ and reappears in the final reel of the film that takes place ‘Beyond the Infinite’.  I shall save a deeper appreciation and in-depth review for a future post as it has been remastered for a hidef Blu-ray release.

 A Clockwork Orange is Kubrick’s most controversial and misunderstood movie, there is a popular misconception that the film was censored and withdrawn by the UK government at the time due to a spate of copy-cat violent attacks.  However, the truth is that Stanley Kubrick asked Warner Bros. to recall the film and prevented it from being screened in Britain for 27 years because of death threats that he and his family had received at the time of its initial release.  It wasn’t until Kubrick died in 1999 that it was re-released both in the cinema and on home video formats.

Malcolm McDowell gives an inspired, career defining, performance as Alex; he is equally charming and menacing allowing the film’s key theme of dehumanisation to resonate.  What is still shocking about A Clockwork Orange is that it reminds us that despite 2,000 years of so-called ‘civilisation’ human beings are inherently violent creatures.  The procedure Alex undergoes at the hand of the State to subdue his violent tendencies also removes his humanity and this still touches a raw nerve with modern audiences.

It was at this point that the time between Kubrick’s new films started to widen, 4 years between A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon and another 5 years between Lyndon and The Shining.  The press started to report Kubrick as being a half-crazed recluse who demanded countless retakes and micro-managed in infinitesimal detail even the most mundane aspects of his day to day life.

The truth is that he was an extremely private family man who had no interest in the trappings of fame. He also felt that so much time and money was spent getting a film into production why then would you rush the process of making the movie, to him that seemed totally illogical.  Whilst his films seemed to take years to complete he always delivered them on budget and this earned him unquestioned support from Warner Bros. who promised him a life-time contract and final cut of all of his work; totally out of character for a major Hollywood studio.

1980’s The Shining is probably my personal favourite of Kubrick’s movies, adapted from Stephen King’s horror story of the same name; it explores the themes of isolation, madness and extra sensory perception but plays down the more conventional supernatural elements of the original book.  Instead the focus is on Jack Nicholson’s deteriorating state of mind as he struggles with his failings as both an author and a father, whilst acting as caretaker for a remote, snow-bound hotel for the winter season. 

His son, Danny, has a gift he shares with the hotel’s cook (Scatman Crothers) they both are able to see traces of the past and hints of the future, it’s known as shining and also includes the power of telepathy.  The film is genuinely scary but also incredibly funny and, ultimately, extremley surreal as it would seem that so much of it takes place in Jack’s mind . . . or does it?  The outstanding steadicam tracking shot, that follows Danny’s point of view as he explores the hotel on his tricycle, was revolutionary and has since been much imitated.

It was 7 years before Kubrick would release his only other film of the 1980s, Full Metal Jacket; his take on the Vietnam war, although he claims it’s not an anti-war story, he felt he’d already done that with Paths of Glory, this was rather a portrait of what is was like to take part in a war and the camaraderie between the grunts.  It’s notable for the breakout performances of Matthew Modine (Joker) and Vincent D’Onofrio (Leonard ‘Gomer’ Pyle) and the unforgettable Lee Emery as Gunnery Sergeant Hartman.

It would be over 10 years before Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman would materialise, he died only 4 days after screening the final cut to his family.  It is a fitting ‘Swan Song’ exploring the jealousy that comes between a couple and the emotional power that women ultimately seem to have over the men that seek to dominate them.  Visually it’s a firecracker of a movie and features some of Kubrick’s most striking sexual and dreamlike imagery.

Despite only making 11 feature films in 40 years the quality easily outweighs the quantity and they remain amongst the most respected and influential movies ever made.  I have deliberately included more stills in this article than I usually would because, above all, Kubrick was a visual filmmaker and whilst his stories are immaculately plotted and brimming with witty dialogue it’s the image that mattered most to him. 

I would like to end with my favourite Kubrick quote, “How could we possibly appreciate the Mona Lisa if Leonardo had written at the bottom of the canvas: ‘The lady is smiling because she is hiding a secret from her lover.’ This would shackle the viewer to reality, and I don’t want this to happen to 2001.”

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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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Inland Empire

I was going to get around to reviewing Inland Empire on Blu-ray at some point but have been inspired to do so with a little more urgency by some surprisingly disparaging comments about it at, of all places, the Twin Peaks Gazette an online community dedicated to the seminal TV show and David Lynch’s oeuvre moreover.  The general opinion is that this is a dog’s dinner of a film and that it has single-handedly killed his cinematic career.

I couldn’t disagree with these sentiments more vehemently, in my opinion it could very well be the crowning glory to a body work of great distinction.  I admit it was never going to be to everybody’s taste, even those who have championed his more commercial efforts might well struggle with its epic running time and the fact it isn’t shot on celluloid but retrograde digital video cameras, operated entirely by Lynch himself.  The film is both a showcase for the acting talents of long-standing muse Laura Dern and her intense, multifaceted performance eats up the screen, as well as a serious attempt to push the envelope of the cinematic medium as art

The film’s detractors argue that it has no coherent plot and that the characters aren’t defined well enough to want to spend so much time with them.  However, Dern’s stand out performance as Nikki Grace, a Hollywood starlet about to take on the female lead in drama steeped in adultery and murder only to find that it isn’t an original script, as she first thought, but a remake of an abandoned Polish movie that was believed to be ‘cursed’ according to the new film’s director, played with twinkling comic subtlety by Jeremy Irons.  The former movie’s romantic leads died in mysterious circumstances and it would appear that the folk tale on which the plot is derived also has a horrifying history; benefitting from a masterfully dark central performance from the marvelous Peter J. Lucas.

The director urges Nikki and her leading man, Devon (a welcome return of Mulholland Drive’s Justin Theroux) not to panic as they will be perfectly safe; but as they rehearse the scenes the lines between the film’s story, the folk lore and the fate of the original couple transgress their own reality.  Whilst this is familiar Lynch terrain it is in no way predictable, quite the opposite.  The menacing mood and exceedingly surreal imagery, most notably a corny sitcom starring actors with rabbit heads complete with canned laughter, is intercut adding to the mounting disquiet and tension as Nikki is drawn deeper into the mystery.

I agree that there are elements of commonality between Inland Empire and Lynch’s previous film Mulholland Drive but no more than there were with its own predecessor Lost Highway, which was equally criticised when it first came out for being too dark and confusing, yet is now widely acclaimed as a Lynch classic.  This is where the ‘art’ world vastly differs to the world of cinema where audiences expect a director’s new movie to be entirely different from their last.  However, with both painting and music it is quite common for an artist or composer to do ‘variations on a theme’ throughout their careers.

Whilst I recognise that Inland Empire is the least accessible film David Lynch has made to date I think it is all the better for that and emerges as a true ‘work of art’.  This is the type of expression we should expect from an artist who has been freed from the confines of budget, time and the interference of studio executives by embracing the digital medium.  To try and compare Inland Empire even to Mulholland Drive, the first two thirds of which initially formed the pilot for TV series and therefore comes from a commercially aware sensibility, is like comparing apples and oranges.  The only other film that comes close to it in Lynch’s canon would be Eraserhead and I’ve come to understand that when he said he was “done with film” he wasn’t simply meaning the medium in preference to digital; he was also referring to the limitations that commercial film distribution imposes on a creative artist and it’s a testament to the French, who have a true respect for ‘auteur’ cinema, that Canal+ continue to release David Lynch’s work. 

It is probably wrong to even attempt to review Inland Empire, it is a film that should just be experienced with as little preconception as possible, perhaps it needs to be approached as one would a visit to an art gallery, wandering through it at a leisurely pace not quite expecting what will be around the corner or what surprise might be in the next room.

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The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec

Luc Besson came to prominence as the writer/director responsible for some of the most iconic French films of the Cinéma Du Look period including Subway, The Big Blue, Nikita and Léon.  His career faltered with the release of The Fifth Element, the overblown and unhinged Sci-Fi saga starring Bruce Willis.  Since then his output has been largely hit and miss, concentrating his efforts more as a writer/producer for the action oriented Taxi and Transporter franchises.

Besson recently returned to direct the heartfelt live-action/animated “Minimoys” trilogy based on a series of fantasy novels he wrote for children featuring Freddie Highmore as the hero Arthur battling his arch-nemesis Maltazard on each occasion voiced by David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed respectively along with a host of Hollywood elite lending their vocal talents to supporting roles.  The films all proved to be massive hits with my 5 year old son, who happily returns to each of them on a regular basis.

When I first heard that Besson’s next movie The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec was based on the 1970s comic book series by Jacques Tardi about the adventures of an “Indiana Jones” style heroine, I had assumed that it was also primarily aimed at children and would get an English language release.  However, I would suggest that subtitles aside the themes and leisurely pace of the film would probably fail to engage a pre-teen audience even if it were dubbed.

Besson has adapted the script from Tardi’s most popular comics Adèle and the Beast and Mummies on Parade set in turn of the century Paris focusing on the exploits of an intrepid, independent young journalist and adventurer Adèle Blanc-Sec (Louise Bourgoin), who uses her acerbic wit and exceptional resourcefulness to run rings around her opposition, the Professor Dieuleveult (Mathieu Amalric).  Tardi conceived his female protagonist in contrast to the overtly sexualised Barberella, whose titillating escapades in outer space dominated Franco-Belgian comic culture at the time, setting the stories in the early 1900s further emphasised Adèle’s emancipation.

By employing the mystical powers of the strange and reclusive Professor Espérandieu (Jacky Nercessian), Adèle hopes to revive the mummified remains of Ramesses II’s doctor in the belief that he will be able to cure her sister whose current condition remains a mystery for the greater part of the film.  Whilst Adèle is away in Egypt excavating the Pharaoh’s tomb Espérandieu practices his resuscitation technique on a 135 million year old Pterodactyl egg which hatches and goes about terrorising the city and suburbs of Paris.  The beast is eventually tracked down by the bumbling and insatiable, Inspector Caponi (Gilles Lellouche) and the Professor is arrested awaiting execution.

The film cleverly employs the episodic quality of the serialised adventure films of the 1930s but amidst the many action set pieces, amusing subplots and colourful supporting characters you never lose the key narrative thread of Adèle’s quest to revive her sister who has been in a catatonic state since a bizarre tennis accident involving a hat pin for which she feels responsible; her guilty suffering and dogged determination provide the movie with an emotional core and Louise Bourgoin’s layered performance prevents it ultimately from being forgettable fluff.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec is Luc Besson’s finest movie in a long time and the intriguing end scene of Adèle embarking the Titanic for a well-deserved vacation suggests to me that there may be more instalments to come for which I would be exceedingly grateful.  There will be clamours for an English language version but there is no doubt that this is an extremely watchable subtitled movie and I’m of the belief that the distinctive French flavour enhances the overall enjoyment of the piece.

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Taxi Driver: 35th Anniversary Edition

There are very few films that have had such an impact on me as Taxi Driver, I was in my first year at college doing A-Levels and had a lucky couple of gaps in my timetable that gave me periods off in the afternoon.  I was studying Drama and English Literature and had got into the habit of buying videos blind to take home and watch on my own whilst my parents were at work and my sister was in school, one such movie was Taxi Driver which I selected solely on the strength of its star Robert De Niro, unaware at that point who the director was.

I remember it was a bright summer’s day and I closed the curtains to darken the room, submerging myself into the mire of 1970s New York street life for the best part of two hours, completely unprepared for the terrifying but cathartic bloodbath that punctuates the film’s climax.  I had seen on-screen violence in gangster films like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather or Brian De Palma’s Scarface but they were very removed from my reality and depicted in an operatic or comic book fashion.  Here Martin Scorsese’s carnage is all the more shocking because it’s so matter-of-fact, almost mundane and yet somewhat arbitrary that you can’t help but imagine this just might happen in real life.

Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, the ultimate pathological loner, a Vietnam veteran who is so dislocated from society and unable to sleep at night that he takes to working long shifts as a cab driver, a job that leads him to witness the excessive, heinous, underbelly of urban life, two decades before Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s “Zero Tolerance” policy cracked down on crime and cleaned up inner-city New York making it a much safer place for both commerce and tourism.

Whilst off-duty Travis fantasises about Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) a young woman who works at the presidential campaign offices of Senator Charles Palantine, he pictures her as a vision in pure white in stark contrast to the many prostitutes he sees working the streets at night, and yet when he finally gets the opportunity to take her out they go to see a Swedish sex education film showing in a porno theatre; illustrating how socially inept and insular he has become, as if his intractable solitude is dictating behaviour hell-bent on ensuring his isolation.

Bickle refers to himself in his journal, which serves as a narrated voice-over, as “God’s Lonely Man”, quoting from the essay by Thomas Wolfe, “The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.”  Screenwriter Paul Schrader said that he set out to write about the experience of circumstantial loneliness, after he left his wife for another woman who in turn quickly left him, but instead discovered that seclusion was a disease for which we must actively seek a cure.

Betsy rejects Travis and he loses the one image of chastity which he held above the filth and depravity that’s rife on the streets.  Before, when Senator Palantine took a ride in his taxi, he had suggested that somebody should clean up the crime and pollution but now he decides that he must take direct action; reverting to his Marine-trained mentally, he arms himself and targets the presidential candidate, primarily because of his association to Betsy.  However, Travis fails to assassinate Palantine and turns his attentions instead to Iris (Jody Foster) a child prostitute who jumped into the back of his cab one night, he makes it his mission to liberate her from her pimp, Sport (Harvey Keitel) an incredibly violent act of vigilantism which is ironically misconstrued by the press as heroic.

Taxi Driver is one of those rare ‘Gestalt-like’ moments in cinema history where a writer, a director and an actor come together and the resulting synergy unexpectedly explodes onto the screen; add to that Michael Chapman’s resourceful cinematography, given the movie’s low budget and short schedule on real locations, and the last score of legendary Hitchcock composer Bernard Herrmann and you have the perfect motion picture hard to conceive how it could be improved in any way.

Not surprisingly Sony Pictures have gone to town with the 35th anniversary Blu-ray edition, presenting Taxi Driver in a full 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that restores vibrant colour to the neon lit night scenes contrasted, with exceptional clarity, to the inky-black, smoke-filled streets of New York.  On its original cinematic release Scorsese was asked to desaturate the blood to avoid an X-certificate, here the shades of red are gloriously restored.  The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is also a marked improvement, showcasing Bernard Herrmann’s rich jazz score with its unsettling use of harps but maintaining dialogue quality which was always somewhat muffled on previous DVD versions.

All the extras that were available on prior releases are presented here but upscaled to HD, along with some brand new material including a feature length commentary from writer Paul Schrader, a recent interview with director Martin Scorsese, a suite of short featurettes focusing on different aspects of the production, the best of which is Influence and Appreciation: A Martin Scorsese Tribute presented by Oliver Stone who was a student of Scorsese’s at NYU.  There is also an interactive script-to-screen option which allows you to follow the original screenplay in detail as the film plays.

Taxi Driver is a visceral and enduring film which was the “coming of age” for three of the most distinctive voices of the 1970s boom-time in American independent cinema, they were to reach their peak and close the decade with another remarkable movie Raging Bull but that, as they say, is another story.

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