After their recent appearance on BBC 6music, The New Town Centres have launched a brand new, pretty decent, website and on it you can find their latest video which I throughly recommend you watch straight away and let them know what you think of it!
After their recent appearance on BBC 6music, The New Town Centres have launched a brand new, pretty decent, website and on it you can find their latest video which I throughly recommend you watch straight away and let them know what you think of it!
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 Hitchcock, Lemmon 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, Eraserhead, River’s Edge, Blue 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.
It infuriates me that Sucker Punch has been universally demonised in the mainstream press for being the one thing that it clearly isn’t and anyone with a modicum of intelligence will appreciate that this is not a movie that sets out to further objectify or exploit women. Unfortunately such vehement negative press will undoubtedly put a lot of people off seeing it and drawing their own conclusions and this worrying trend in film criticism is tantamount to censorship in my opinion.
So why was Sucker Punch so reviled? I think the main reason is that people expect a Zack Snyder film to be a throw-away experience, they’re not looking for anything other than escapist action and they certainly aren’t expecting a frank and disturbing allegory on gender politics. Whilst there are plenty of fantasy battle sequences that can be watched purely as disposable fun there is an overarching subtext that deals with the rape, prostitution and psychological abuse of women that would be more at home in a David Lynch movie.
Despite its popcorn-friendly packaging Sucker Punch is full of unflinching feminist themes depicting the gamut of women’s experience throughout the course of the 20th century that the average viewer didn’t sign up for and were unprepared to take on-board in this context so they rail against the movie accusing its writer/director of the exploitation they’re witnessing, rather than recognise they are part of the society ultimately responsible; Zack Snyder is merely holding a mirror up to it.
The film opens with a montage backed by a new recording of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) to set up the back story of Babydoll (Emily Browning) the film’s protagonist. When her mother dies Babydoll and her younger sister become wards of their stepfather whose physical and sexual abuse escalates to the point where she tries to shoot him but misses accidentally killing her sister for which she is committed to an insane asylum. Sucker Punch takes place in a stylised version of the 1960s, a period where many women were institutionalised usually as the result of an unquestioned accusation of insanity from a significant male relation and, like Babydoll, were threatened with irreversible lobotomy as the final solution to their supposed mental illness.
The resident psychiatrist at Lennox House for the Mentally Insane is Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) who practices the methods of Freud and Jung, encouraging her female patients to re-enact the circumstances of their abuse in order to confront their shadow selves. This focus on the subconscious allows the film’s layered fantasy structure to emerge, Babydoll retreats into a dreamlike state where the austere asylum is replaced by the image of a louche bordello in which she and her inmates are transformed into dancers in the employ of the club’s owner/pimp, Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) who in reality is the head orderly who accepted a large bribe from Babydoll’s stepfather to forge Dr. Gorski signature to authorise her lobotomy.
In the brothel fantasy Vera Gorski is transformed into a choreographer-cum-madam figure that encourages the virginal, porcelain like Babydoll to muster up the courage to express herself through a highly personal erotic dance, this triggers the second layer of fantasy sequences in which she becomes a Warrior Princess who, under the guidance of the Wise Man (Scott Glenn), accepts a quest to retrieve 4 talismans that will lead her to understand the identity of the mysterious 5th object that will secure her freedom.
This mystical scavenger hunt enables Zack Snyder to film 4 equally incredible stylised battle scenes against many disparate foes such as giant Samurai, steam-powered Nazi zombies, a baby dragon and its protective mother, and a horde of killer glass robots. The individual sequences are stunningly rendered and impeccably executed with the precision of a frenetic modern ballet and with each battle the camaraderie between Babydoll and her cohorts, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) grows and you get the impression of a genuine bond between the friends as they fight for their lives.
The central conceit of the film is that these women are forced to use their sexuality as the only weapon available to them in order to manipulate the men who control their miserable existences and that this “empowers” them, yet they spend the entire film scantily clad which gives rise to the charges of objectification. The theatrical cut of the film was given a 12 certificate but many critics claimed it ought to have been rated 18, why? There is no nudity, no sex scenes, little bad language, stylised violence and no bloodletting; what seems to upset the largely conservative critics is the implied rape and pervasive subtext which depicts the harsh reality of being a woman in a man’s world.
The appalling thing about this attempt to censor Sucker Punch is the outright hypocrisy of it all, as if this film is the only current example of female exploitation and objectification, as if it isn’t apparent in every music video shown throughout the day on MTV, as if it’s not omnipresent in every reality TV show, not to mention that only recently we’ve seen the return of Burlesque as an acceptable form of mainstream entertainment. It would appear that the film’s critics are saying we’re absolutely fine with scantily clad, gun toting girls and we’ll even buy into this myth of “empowerment” but don’t then ruin it all by making us conscious of the fact that ultimately these women are the victims of deplorable acts of sexual violence.
As the west continues to fight a war against Islamic fundamentalism often in the name of freeing repressed women from the burqa or the yashmak, it seems ironic that the supposed free women of the western world are equally imprisoned behind their fetishized painted faces, parading in hot pants or micro skirts. This irony is not lost on Zack Snyder or the cast of Sucker Punch, the film doesn’t degrade women or explicitly claim to be “empowering” them but, along with a recent spate of movies that acknowledge feminism’s third wave (Black Swan, the remake of True Grit, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), it shines a light on a dark aspect of the human condition and is clearly one of the most original and challenging movies in recent memory; Babydoll will, in no doubt, eventually emerge as a cult figure in cinema history.
It seems that 2010 will be remembered as a boon year for movies derived from comic strips what with Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the various Marvel and DC Comic franchise exploits there was also Tamara Drewe based on the graphic novel of the same name by Posy Simmonds which in turn was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd and set in the fictional, sleepy Dorset village of Ewedown.
The story centres on a country retreat for writers run by Nicholas Hardiment (Roger Allam), a smug, successful, adulterous crime novelist and his loyal, doting wife Beth (Tasmin Grieg) their largely eccentric guests include Glen McCreavy an American academic who’s struggling to finish his latest book which, to echo the source material, is on the works of Hardy. When Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton) inherits her mother’s house she returns to the village where she grew up and was known as a troubled ugly duckling, now working as a journalist with a popular column she’s had a nose job and the remarkable change in her appearance stirs interest in the village’s male population.
Tamara enlists the help of Andy (Luke Evans) the odd job man to renovate the house for sale, ironically Andy’s family once owned the property but they fell on hard times, a further twist is that she lost her virginity to him back in the day and he clearly still has feelings for her. Tamara on the other hand doesn’t know what she wants and embarks on a wild fling with Ben Sergeant (Dominic Cooper) drummer and teenage heartthrob who she meets while reporting on the local rock festival and within days he proposes marriage.
Nicholas Hardiment is a serial philanderer and his long suffering wife has taken him back on numerous occasions. Things take an unexpected turn when Jody and Casey two teenaged girls with massive crushes on Ben Sergeant conspire to bring him back to the village when his relationship with Tamara turns sour whilst they’re staying in London for Christmas. Jody’s cockamamie plan involves sneaking into Tamara’s house whilst Andy, incidentally Casey’s Uncle, is decorating and secretly sending an email from Tamara’s computer to Ben asking him to come back for the “biggest shagging of his life”. Casey being the more sensitive of the two girls warns Jody not to send it, but Jody is undeterred and for some perverse reason adds Nicholas and Andy as recipients.
Chaos ensues; Ben is furious and breaks off his engagement to Tamara, Andy is disappointed that Tamara’s taste in men extends to the rapacious Hardiment but doesn’t realise that as a girl who hardly knew her own father she had harboured a secret crush on ‘Nicholarse’ whose fame as a writer she aspired to and somewhat inevitably the two of them now end up in bed together. The American Professor has found new inspiration for his book whilst falling for Beth Hardiment and when she discovers her husband’s fling too far with Tamara he is there to support her pursuit for a divorce.
As you can tell the plot is a suitably convoluted homage to Hardy’s late 19th century romantic potboilers, fuelled by unrequited love and repressed sexual passion and handled with great skill by director Stephen Frears who manages to keep it light and frothy but tackle some tough themes head on, such as spouse choice, infidelity and the lonely pursuit of an artful life; I won’t spoil the surprise ending but it’s fair to say all’s well that ends well.
Tamara Drewe is a refreshing British romantic comedy that’s both smart and funny, the hidef release has a sharp and vibrant 1080p transfer that lends itself to comic strip imagery, the rich greens of the countryside are balanced by the earthy browns and inky blacks evidently on show here, skin tones are also superb; Sony Pictures never miss an opportunity to show off the capabilities of Blu-ray and the 5.1 DTS-HD soundtrack is equally impressive. If for nothing more it will be remembered as Gemma Arterton’s best acting role since her breakout performance as Bond girl Strawberry Fields in the ghastly Quantum of Solace.
From the opening credits of Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, you know this is going to be a stylish and important film of the French New Wave, a period of Cinema history dominated by François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard.
In the colour credit sequence Cléo (Corine Marchand), a young and beautiful Parisian, is having her future told and the Tarot cards confirm her worst fears as she awaits the results of a medical to detect whether she is suffering from an incurable disease.
The photography switches to the crisp monochrome, hand-held style that is typical of French films of the period. Varda creates an almost documentary feel as we spend the next 90 minutes following Cléo, a famous pop singer, around the chic streets of ’60s Paris in real time.
Cléo is very superstitious and sees omens of death everywhere, her maid encourages this, advising her not to wear the new hat she bought because it’s a Tuesday, not to drink coffee and to avoid cats! That’s not all; the film is split into 13 chapters so it really looks as though her fate is doomed! Still, she tries to look on the bright side musing, “Ugliness is a kind of death. As long as I’m beautiful, I’m alive.” How very French.
We soon discover that Cléo’s songs are going out of fashion, and despite efforts of Michel “Windmills of Your Mind” Legrand (who makes a cameo as her songwriter) to provide a new hit, she is sick of success and her empty existence. Her current lover briefly visits her but their busy lives don’t allow them enough time to even kiss!
Corine Marchand is excellent as the spoilt but tragic rich girl and gives a poignant performance bringing great depth to lines like, “Everyone spoils me – no one loves me!” Throughout, her tragedy is put into context by the conflict in Algeria; she is not the only person facing imminent death.
Don’t be put off by the gloomy subject matter; Cléo from 5 to 7 is an exuberant and very stylish film that benefits from many lighter moments. Not least a fantastic Silent Comedy parody, where a man wearing dark sunglasses thinks he’s seen his lover knocked down by a car, only to find that due to his obscured vision he’s looking at the wrong girl, “Damn dark sunglasses, make everything look so black!” Indeed.
When Wild At Heart was released at the cinema in 1990 I went to see it 3 times in the first week, this was the height of a strangely cool David Lynch mania that had gripped the planet since he posed the question “Who killed Laura Palmer?” in the groundbreaking, primetime TV series Twin Peaks.
Whilst this hidef release is very welcome its budget price belies a bare bones edition, obviously another example of the failing MGM Studio selling off its back catalogue. Nethertheless the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, MPEG-4 AVC transfer in full 1080p is a massive improvement on the Collector’s Edition DVD previously on offer, which suffered from an incredibly soft picture. Equally enhanced is the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack which vastly improves the clarity of the dialogue and upscales both Randy Thom’s intricate sound design and Angelo Badalamenti’s original score.
Unfortunately none of the extras contained in the DVD version have been reproduced here, in fact this is the most basic Blu-ray menu I have ever seen, and reminiscent of Universal’s early DVD releases this is just the movie and nothing more. However, a great movie and one that deservedly won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and despite being 20 years old it is still a raw, racy, irreverent and impassioned celebration of the notion of true love conquering all.
Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) are in the dizzy heights of blind love but Lula’s mother, Marietta played by Dern’s own mother Diane Ladd, does not approve of her daughter’s choice of lover as she suspects he knows too much about her shady past so she pays for him to be murdered. However, Sailor defends himself and kills his assailant for which he serves a two year prison sentence. On his release it is obvious that the star-crossed lovers still intend to be together and they set out on a road trip bound for New Orleans to escape Marietta’s wrath.
Hot on their heels is Private Detective Johnny Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) who follows them to a remote town called Big Tuna where the couple have stopped to rest as Lula is suffering from morning sickness. Lynch very cleverly blurs the visceral authenticity of the lover’s plight with stylistic touchstones to heighten the reality of their idealism, such as using the character traits of Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe as short hand for Sailor and Lula and the Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch of the West to represent Marietta’s insane jealously. Lynch also employs rainbow tints during Sailor and Lula’s sex scenes and has Glinda the Good Witch (Sheryl Lee) visit Sailor when he’s about to give up, imploring him not to turn his back on love. In lesser hands this pick and mix of popular culture might have seemed trite or mawkish but Lynch manages to weave all these contrasting elements into cinematic gold.
Wild At Heart contains an incredible vignette in which Sailor and Lula whilst on the road, come across a car accident and a fatally wounded girl played by Sherilyn Fenn. In this scene Lynch turns the audience’s emotions upside down by playing it initially for comedy; the girl seems unaware of her severe head injury and is more concerned with finding her purse to fix her make-up, but then as it becomes apparent that we are about to see her die in front of us he pulls the rug right from under our feet. Badalamenti’s score adds to the emotional turmoil here and this resonates as a key scene in Lynch’s canon and he performs similar flips in his other work, possibly most notably in Betty’s audition scene in Mulholland Drive which I shall review soon.
For the most part Wild At Heart plays like a modern American Fairytale and it wouldn’t be complete without a larger than life, malevolent villain and Willem Dafoe delivers one in spades with Bobby Peru, the ‘black angel of death’ who intends to come between Sailor and Lula; he is at once frightening and incredibly charismatic and provides a lot of the film’s sardonic humour making it totally unique in Lynch’s oeuvre as an uplifting, raucous road movie with an unmitigated happy ending, albeit ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek.
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.
A great advantage of parenthood is having the wonderful opportunity to revisit the movies you loved when you were growing up and experience them afresh through your child’s eyes. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is one of those timeless family films that still captivate generation-spanning audiences and its bonnet has never looked shinier than on this high definition Blu-ray release.
Loosely based on Ian Fleming’s children’s story of the same name and scripted by Roald Dahl, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was produced by long term James Bond franchise mogul Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and released in time for Christmas 1968 in between You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The film stars Dick Van Dyke as Caractacus Potts, a Heath Robinsonesque crackpot inventor and widowed father of two young children for whom he builds a “Fantasmagorical Motorcar” in which they have fairytale style adventures.
The James Bond connections don’t end there; weapons expert “Q” (Desmond Llewelyn) has a cameo as Mr. Coggins the scrap merchant whom the Potts children implore their father to save the wrecked car from and arch-villain Auric Goldfinger played by German actor Gert Fröbe gets a chance to use his circus training in the physical role of Baron Bomburst ruler of the kingdom of Vulgaria where all children are banished and are forced into hiding in underground caves. Legendary production designer Ken Adam provides the stunning set interiors and also was the draughtsman for the car’s unique special features.
Whilst playing truant the Potts children have a near miss car accident, the driver is Truly Scrumptious (Sally Ann Howes) the daughter of a sweet factory tycoon (James Robertson Justice) concerned for their education and general well-being she takes them home to their father and despite acknowledging an attraction to her he dismisses her as a do-gooding busy-body. They meet again when Potts take his accidental ‘Toot’ sweets (dog-whistle like candy) for evaluation by Truly’s father, providing one the movie’s outstanding set pieces culminating with 100s of canines rampaging through the set.
The children invite Truly out for the car’s maiden voyage, a trip to the beach and this allows a genuine love-interest to develop between her and Caractacus when the four of them are cut off when the tide comes in. From here on the film embarks on a massive fantasy subplot involving Bomburst’s attempt to capture the car and the Potts family’s efforts to liberate the children of Vulgaria. The car has been equipped with the ability to drive on water and fly through the air (not unlike some of the trademark Bond vehicles) and this allows for some frenetic chase sequences.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is peppered with good supporting performances with Lionel Jeffries on hand as the children’s eccentric Grandfather and Benny Hill convincing in his understated performance as the Royal Toymaker. However, it’s ballet dancer Robert Helpmann’s utterly terrifying turn as the exceedingly creepy Child Catcher that will leave an indelible mark on younger viewers and still manages to make me feel uncomfortable over 30 years on!
The film makes great use of the exterior of Schloss Neuschwanstein which Walt Disney based the Sleeping Beauty castle on and became their prominent company logo; it also benefits from a marvellous musical score from the Sherman Brothers who are also associated with Walt Disney Pictures providing the songs for Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book and Bedknobs and Broomsticks. The title song, along with Toot Sweets, Truly Scrumptious and Hushabye Mountain have all become popular favourites and continue to expose lyricist Richard Sherman’s penchant for convoluted wordplay.
I’m disappointed that so many critics dismiss Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as overlong, shoddy and forgettable and can only assume they were adults when they first saw it and therefore were unaffected by its magic, which perhaps can only really be enjoyed when viewed through the eyes of a child as I had done and now my son has. One thing for sure the film is far from shoddy as this Blu-ray edition demonstrates with a glorious 1080p video transfer and 7.1 DTS-HD soundtrack, I am confident that this high definition remastering will preserve the film long enough to be enjoyed by my grandchildren.
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.
There is little doubt that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost intended Paul to be an enjoyable romp through the collective memory of all the classic Science Fiction feature films of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and if nothing else it succeeds in being a heartfelt love letter to the extra-terrestrial, however as an original comedy from the pedigree of Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz it does feel a little underwhelming.
That’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyable or that it doesn’t play to its strengths; it does, although there is such a sense of prevailing familiarity about the whole proceedings that it fails to totally grip you or draw you in. Still, you’re more than happy to take the proverbial ride over again because the leads are so amiable and the swift moving plot never attempts to be taxing.
Illustrator Graeme Willy (Pegg) along with his childhood friend and collaborator ‘the writer’ Clive Gollings (Frost) have decided to round off their visit to San Diego’s Comic-Con convention by taking a road trip navigating America’s most famous UFO hotspots, including Area 51, The Black Mailbox and Roswell. Whilst driving their RV through the night a car pulls out, swerves off the road and explodes right in front of them. The duo stop to help and are confronted by ‘Paul’ (Seth Rogen), an extremely laid-back and uncouth alien who convinces them that he’s been held prisoner on Earth for the last 60 years and needs their assistance to get home.
In hot pursuit is Special Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) aided by two inept FBI tenderfoots (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) who track them down at the ‘Pearly Gates RV’ park where they learn that the trio have absconded with the proprietor’s daughter Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a devout, one-eyed, Creationist Christian who believes that the Earth is 4000 years old and could only have been created by intelligent design. It transpires that during Paul’s captivity he has been aiding the government in a wide variety of scientific endeavours; he’s even influenced popular culture, and in an amusing telephone cameo Steven Spielberg enthusiastically receives research material to develop E.T. from him.
It appears that Paul has imparted all his otherworldly secrets and that the government were planning to dispose of him before he escaped, what they don’t know is that he has a series of special abilities including thought transference and the power of healing. In a key scene he restores Ruth’s bad eye and then telepathically shares all of his experiences with her thus bringing about the sudden shattering of her faith and amusing transformation as she learns to curse and do all the naughty things her zealous father had hitherto forbidden; this evolutional debate is as meaty as Paul gets and given the otherwise broad nature of the humour it feels somewhat at odds with the tone of the picture.
The last reel directly parodies E.T. as Paul arranges to meet the Mothership that’s taking him home near the landmark Devil’s Tower featured in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; it also unmasks the guest villain of the piece, the ‘Big Guy’ (Sigourney Weaver) who Special Agent Lorenzo Zoil (groan) reports to. Paul mockingly remarks as he boards the spacecraft that everyone has learnt something from the experience, “Be yourself, speak from the heart, some shit like that?” and the lads nonchalantly admit that they do feel “a bit different” but the coda which plays out over the closing credits is far more telling.
It shows Willy and Gollings being heralded by their hero, the Sci-Fi novelist Adam Shadowchild (Jeffrey Tambor) as the creators of the award winning book “Paul” based upon their exploits and it would seem that this desire for a popular and commercial success is what the movie Paul is ultimately all about.
Regrettably Paul is the victim of its own budgetary requirements in order to create the extremely convincing computer generated titular character the film caves in to the necessary surfeit of titty, pot and fart gags at the cost of genuine wit, real suspense and authentic mystery. Having said that I can’t blame Pegg and Frost for wanting a big box office hit to cement their Hollywood careers and despite the script’s short comings their onscreen chemistry is undeniable.
The Universal Pictures Blu-ray release is presented in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a full 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer. Not only is there an incredible amount of detail in Paul’s eyes and elongated fingertips but the high definition brings great depth to the wide American landscapes that set the backdrop. The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is as crisp and dynamic as you’d expect from a modern Sci-Fi movie, the sound really travels most notably when Paul displays his special ability of thought transference. There is also a mass of extra material which we’ve come to expect from previous Big Talk Productions, the best of which is Between the Lightning Strikes: The Making of ‘Paul’ which contains extensive interviews with the principal cast and creative team.
Paul isn’t a bad film but given Pegg and Frost’s track record it could have been a truly great one. I don’t mean to detract from the solid work of either director Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) or diminish David Arnold’s (current James Bond composer) original score, nevertheless one just can’t help imagining how much better it could have been with the team’s regular director Edgar Wright behind the camera and a lovingly tongue-in-cheek John Williams theme tune!