The Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tetro

I was given Tetro on Blu-ray as a Christmas present but I had delayed watching it as with Francis Ford Coppola’s previous release Youth Without Youth I was actually expecting to be very much disappointed by it, luckily this was not to be the case and its clearly his best entirely original screenplay since The Conversation and his most personal film since Apocalypse Now, I engaged with it so much that I wished it had another 30 minutes running time.

The premise for Tetro is actually very slight Bennie a waiter on a cruise liner, decides to look up his long lost older brother Angelo whilst on shore leave in Buenos Aires.  He discovers him living with his common law wife Miranda (Maribel Verdú) only now he calls himself ‘Tetro’ and claims he no longer wants anything to do with his real family.  Angelo and Bennie are the sons of a celebrated concert conductor although they had different mothers; Angelo’s was an opera singer and died in a car crash whilst he was at the wheel and that, along with another incident between him and his father over a mutual lover, has left him mentally and emotionally scarred.

What struck me immediately about Tetro is how good it looks, I had my doubts as I knew it was shot totally digitally but Mihai Malaimare Junior’s 1080p/24 source HDCAM photography is stunning, shot predominately in monochrome using a 2.35:1 aspect ratio but electing to use a smaller ratio for 1960s home movie style, washed out colour flashbacks and full “Technicolor” for the Powell and Pressburger inspired fantasy ballet sequences.  There is obviously no loss in quality when transferring this to Blu-ray and the film’s visuals are demonstration material and further proof that there will be life after celluloid in this medium.

Newcomer Alden Ehrenreich is a revelation as Bennie, there aren’t many young actors who could hold their own in their screen debut opposite the force of nature that is Vincent Gallo who embodies the damaged Tetro with equal measures of egotistical charm and severe self-loathing; the acting across the board is faultless as with most Coppola productions he insists on a large amount of read-through, rehearsal and improvisational time before shooting and it always pays off in the camera.

Bennie cannot understand why Tetro appears so cold towards him, especially after leaving him a note claiming that he would return to collect him from New York at some point. Both brothers have aspirations to become writers but Tetro along with his past has abandoned his great work, an unfinished play about their father, but when Bennie discovers it in a dusty suitcase he sees not only an opportunity to finish the story but by staging it at the local cafe theatre where Tetro works the lights he can force him to confront his demons.

In the few scenes where he appears Klaus Maria Brandauer brings great presence to the dual role of the elder Tetrocini brothers and Coppola reveals just enough for us to understand the dynamics between the rival siblings; as the maestro Carlo he is effortlessly charismatic, his fame and fortune seducing his son Angelo’s girlfriend, and as Alfredo you see an older man forced to live in the shadow of his younger brother’s success.  These themes are echoed in the future generation of Tetrocini brothers with Angelo envying Bennie’s acclaim when his finished version of his play entitled “Wander Lust” is shortlisted for the top prize at the Patagonia Festival gaining the approval of the mysterious critic “Alone” played by Pedro Almodóvar’s muse Carmen Maura; Tetro had once been her protégée but they had a falling out over artistic differences.

I shan’t spoil the film’s climatic twist which occurs in the extended Patagonia sequence which many critics have dismissed out of hand as self-indulgent without one I’ve read bothering to comment that stylistically it’s very obviously an homage to Federico Fellini and no doubt aware of its unreal quality.  I want to say that Tetro could well be the best film of the decade but I know that I’d be stretching it, however it is certainly Francis Ford Coppola’s best film in a very long time and as such it should be regarded as he is one of the true artists working in cinema today.

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Oliver Stone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Citizen Kane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monty Python’s Life of Brian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Carnivàle

When Carnivàle premiered on BBC TV in the autumn of 2003 I eagerly anticipated it as the trailer had suggested that the show was going to share more than just the appearance of dwarf actor Michael J. Anderson in the regular cast with landmark surreal series Twin Peaks which had its run just over a decade before.  Unfortunately, as was the fate of many US series aired by the BBC at the time it was forever being shifted around by the schedulers making it impossible to pre-empt the exact day or time to set the video and consequently I missed too many crucial early episodes and was forced to abandon it.

The series met the same end as Twin Peaks when it was cancelled by the network midway through its second season and to the best of my knowledge it has not been repeated on UK television since.  Fortunately I recently discovered it available to download from HBO’s Apple TV channel and have just spent the best part of two weeks addictively working my way through the entire 24 hour long episodes and whilst the door is left open for a continuing series there is a satisfying enough conclusion that doesn’t leave one feeling cheated when the final credits roll.

The story is set in America during the 1930s Great Depression and focuses on the members of a travelling carnival as they journey south through the drought stricken plains of the Dust Bowl most famously recorded by John Steinbeck in his Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Grapes of Wrath.  The troupe come across 18 year old protagonist Ben Hawkins (Nick Stahl) burying his dead mother as his home is bulldozed by the landowners; he is persuaded to join the carnival by its diminutive organiser Samson (Michael J. Anderson) who reports directly to the deeply mysterious “Management” hidden behind a small curtained annex at the back of  his trailer.

The carnival folk soon discover that the troubled Ben is not just a farmhand but an escapee from a chain gang and a fledgling faith healer who is just discovering his powers and wants to learn how to harness them.  The plot is concurrently driven by the actions of a California Preacher, Reverend Justin Crowe (Clancy Brown) and his sister Iris (Amy Madigan) who are founding a Methodist Ministry for the undesirable migrants who have fled theBlack Blizzards” of Oklahoma.  From the first episode it appears that Brother Justin is potentially possessed when he catches a vagrant woman stealing from the congregation plate and the resulting confrontation leads to her coughing up copious amount of coins.

Creator and principal writer Daniel Knauf conceived Carnivàle as an overarching good-versus-evil story propelled by two gradually converging plot threads; Ben Hawkins’ quest to find his estranged father Henry Scudder (John Savage) and Brother Justin’s mission to build his grand Temple of Jericho.  The two characters emerge via dreams and visions to be set on a path of destruction, maintaining tension and ambiguity as to which of them is a “Creature of Light” and which a “Creature of Darkness” well into the second season. The show covers topics as diverse as Tarot Divination, Radio Evangelism, The Knights Templar and Religious Avatars and includes characters like the catatonic fortune-telling Apollonia and her tarot-reading daughter Sophie (Clea DuVall) along with the blind mentalist Professor Lodz (Patrick Bauchau) who appear to be more than merely circus acts but truly gifted seers whose spirits transcend far beyond the present reality.

Carnivàle grips you from the first moments and never let’s go, it’s riveting, exquisitely written and performed; don’t let it’s weighty religious themes put you off as it never sinks into solemnity, there are plenty of lighter scenes and witty dialogue to ensure that each episode leaves you eager for more.  Clancy Brown brings both an effortless charm and a demonic fervour to his magnetic performance as Brother Justin and Nick Stahl convinces as the reluctant hero Ben Hawkins.  If you enjoyed Twin Peaks and have never seen Carnivàle then it comes highly recommended, it’s unlikely to ever get a Blu-ray release but both seasons are available on DVD.

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Svengali Interview

The lovely people from Root Films have let me share this exclusive interview with Svengali director John Hardwick.

Enjoy!

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Svengali Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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North by Northwest: 50th Anniversary Edition

After his intensely personal psychological thriller Vertigo received mixed reviews due to its length and obsessive attention to detail Hitchcock set out to follow it with a fast paced, action packed, stylish, comic, chase picture to end all chase pictures.  Screenwriter Ernest Lehman wonderfully parodies and trumps all of Hitch’s previous films of the 1950s making North by Northwest the quintessential ironic comedy thriller. 

The success of the film is largely due to the effortlessly charming and hilarious star performance by Cary Grant as the hapless Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger Thornhill, a bachelor approaching middle age and stuck in a rut, juggling a routine job between lunch dates with his doting mother and the worry of gaining a few extra pounds each year, he is cruising through life unencumbered by real responsibility or commitment; that is until he is mistaken for a government agent by a gang of foreign spies headed by the suavely sinister Phillip Vandamm played by James Mason.

What ensues is the prototype Hollywood action comedy in which we see the reluctant hero Thornhill’s comfortable life turned upside down as he is chased across America.  Cary Grant plays the part with such utter bemusement that you empathise totally with his predicament, however he is also able to subtly send up his own on-screen persona which heightens the comedy.  The scene where the bad guys force him to drink a whole bottle of whisky and then put him behind the wheel of a car is a case in point, as is Thornhill’s attempt to sober up and try to explain what’s going on to the police.

Eva Marie Saint provides the love interest as Eve Kendall, an undercover agent who appears to be Vandamm’s lover but seduces Thornhill on a train bound for Chicago in a scene packed with double entendre and repressed sexuality.  Eve’s true allegiances help to propel the narrative as we realise that Thornhill has fallen in love with her and finally found someone to commit to and take responsibility for but then inadvertently blows her cover to Vandamm and puts her in jeopardy setting up the final chase across Mount Rushmore and specifically President Lincoln’s nose, a set piece Hitchcock had been dying to film for many years.

North by Northwest looks incredibly good for its 50 years on Blu-ray sporting a pristine full 1080p/VC-1 encoded vibrant picture and a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack which, surprisingly for a film of its age, are demo quality especially in the iconic Crop Duster sequence.  The movie’s appeal will long endure because of the universal themes of mistaken identity, innocence overcoming evil and love prevailing in the face of adversity, delivered with plenty of good humour and genuine wit; it may not be Hitchcock’s most complex thriller but it’s certainly one of his most entertaining.

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The Conspirator

As soon as I heard that Robert Redford was directing a film about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln I wanted to see it, more so than the long awaited Steven Spielberg biopic which has been put back yet again; this time until after November 2012’s Presidential elections ostensibly to avoid it becoming “political fodder” but more likely to maximise its Oscar potential for 2013.

I recently became fascinated with the Lincoln assassination after listening to the original Off-Broadway cast recording of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, particularly The Ballad of Booth which explores the psyche of John Wilkes Booth (Victor Garber) and examines Abraham Lincoln’s legacy in light of the Abolition of Slavery and the American Civil War.

The Conspirator is the debut feature of the newly founded American Film Company which has taken up the remit to produce historically accurate, entertaining movies based on great stories from the USA’s collective past; in this case the account of Mary Surratt the owner of the boarding house where Booth regularly met with his fellow conspirators one of which was Mary’s own son, John.

In its opening scene The Conspirator quickly establishes the character of Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) a decorated hero of the Union Army who now works as a trial lawyer in immediate post-war Washington.  It also succinctly depicts the scope of the assassination plot which targeted not only the President but Vice President, Andrew Johnson and the Secretary of State, William Seward; with the intent of rallying the diehard Confederate troops who had not surrendered into a revived attack.

Whilst John Wilkes Booth was killed resisting capture the rest of the conspirators were arrested and charged with treason, among them Mary Surratt whose son, John remained on the run.  The War Secretary Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) determined that a military tribunal should swiftly convict the conspirators despite controversial elder statesmen Reverdy Johnson’s (Tom Wilkinson) view that the constitutional principles of the Founding Fathers were under threat if civilians are not given a fair trial by jury.

Convinced that she was merely being used as a pawn to coax her son out from hiding Johnson approaches Aiken asking him to defend Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) as he feared his own reputation since advocating on behalf of southern slave-owners in the infamous Dred Scott lawsuit would only serve to further prejudice the case against her.  As a staunch Yankee Aiken is reluctant to come to Surratt’s aid but agrees to meet with her although after a series of prison interviews he remains unconvinced of her innocence.

Aiken faces a lot of hostility and comes under increasing pressure from Union friends and colleagues to resign as Surratt’s council.  In the face of such adversity he digs deeper into the evidence and it becomes apparent that key witnesses are being paid for favourable testimonies.  In addition the accused is not permitted to testify on her behalf and almost all of Aiken’s objections are summarily dismissed by the tribunal made up entirely of Union Generals all who served as pallbearers at Lincoln’s funeral.

Inevitably Mary Surratt is found guilty by the court but they deliberate over sentencing her to death as she is a woman.  However, in order not to appear weak for fear of encouraging intransigence in the remaining Confederate troops, Edwin Stanton overturns the decision and Mary is hanged despite an 11th hour writ of habeas corpus drafted by Aiken and indorsed by Supreme Court Judge, Andrew Wylie.

The Conspirator is an engaging historical drama in the courtroom tradition, solidly acted by a flawless ensemble cast.  James McAvoy gives a sincere performance and Robin Wright remains the epitome of stoicism throughout.  There are some obvious parallels drawn to the present era, especially since the passing of the Patriot Act which allows for suspects to be detained without charge, but Redford admirably resists pat comparisons or overwrought sentimentality in presenting Surratt’s tragic case.

An ironic coda reveals that 18 months after Mary was sentenced to death, John Surratt was apprehended and tried by a jury of his peers only to be acquitted on the grounds of insufficient evidence for his part in the conspiracy; an irrefutable case against capital punishment extremely timely in the light of the recent Georgia State execution of Troy Davis for the murder of a police officer despite inconclusive ballistic evidence.

Finally I was surprised to read that Frederick Aiken went on to edit the Washington Post the newspaper synonymous with Robert Redford since his landmark performance as celebrated reporter Bob Woodward in Alan J. Pakula’s iconic film version of Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate exposé All The President’s Men.

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