After the phenomenal success of independent publishing house Pennant Books with its stable of football fan culture, sporting legends and true crime titles regularly topping the best seller lists, the indomitable Cass Pennant has reinvented himself once again by forming Urban Edge Films which releases its debut feature length documentary Casuals this month with Pennant himself at the helm as writer and producer.

The film was originally conceived as a 25th anniversary follow-up to co-producer Ian ‘Butch’ Stuttard’s seminal Hooligan documentary which first aired on television in 1985 and charted the turbulent period of Pennant’s life as a prominent leader of West Ham United’s notorious Inter City Firm.  The idea of “Hooligan Revisited” was to focus less on the violent rivalry of the terraces but emphasise the street fashion the gangs created that would ultimately unify them and seep out to a wider consciousness across the country as a whole; establishing Casuals as the last working class male street fashion coming from the UK, following in the tradition of Mods, Teddy Boys and Punks.

Pennant is no stranger to movies and has served as a consultant on many of the major motion pictures concerning both football violence and fan culture including the original version of The Firm and Green Street, along with the television series The Real Football Factories.  In 2009 his vivid autobiography Cass was successfully transferred to the big screen so this transition to film production was almost inevitable.

It is obvious from the first moments of Casuals that this is going to be the definitive documentary and that Pennant and director Mick Kelly have meticulously interviewed all the leading authorities on the subject from Southern Mods to Northern Soul Boys.  One of the enduring questions is exactly where did the Casuals movement have its roots?  There is no easy answer but this extraordinary and insightful film strips away the myths and tells the truth about an indelible faction which revived the fashion industry to leave a lasting influence on today’s label-crazy youth.

Mindful of the North/South divide both sides are equally represented with the likes of Garry Bushell recalling his days as a music journalist for Sounds magazine, commenting on the Casual band Accent’s 15 minutes of fame when they played to the crowds at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground and Peter Hooton lead singer of Liverpudlian band The Farm, who also started the fanzine The End in the early 80s which was the first publication to regularly report on the Casual scene and has just been reissued by Sabotage Times in a single book volume; Hooton also voices the film’s compelling narration.

With over 50 individuals interviewed the filmmakers had to make some cuts for time but luckily there is over an hour’s worth of additional interviews that are included on the DVD as extras.  Of the many passionate experts featured, author of the pictorial book A Casual Look and avid collector Nick Sarjeant probably sums it up best “It’s not just about what you were wearing, but also how you wore it.  Not just your clothes but your hair and even the ‘manner in which you walked’.  You had to have that ‘attitude’, saying like ‘Here I am’.” an attitude that is evident in every frame of this film as it tours the country meeting the key people for whom this was never simply a fad of fashion but a way of life.

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:21:16.

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Peter Greenaway

I turned 18 the year that Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover was released, I saw its opening at the Lumiere Cinema in London and it blew me away.  Around the same time Channel 4 screened his previous films, which they also co-produced via their Film Four funding arm, The Draughtsman’s Contract, A Zed & Two Noughts, Belly Of An Architect and Drowning By Numbers. Each featuring memorable Michael Nyman scores and striking, exquisitely lit, photography by veteran nouvelle vague cinematographer, Sacha Vierny; who notably shot Alan Resnais seminal, 1961 work, L’Année Dernière à Marienbad.  At the time of its release Greenaway was studying at the Walthamstow College of Art, specialising in murals. 

After graduating in 1965 he took a job at the Central Office Of Information making short documentaries on various banal subjects, such as Trees or Trains.  This would lead him to make more experimental, personal projects, allowing him to blend fact with fiction, culminating with The Falls in 1980; a 195 minute mock documentary focusing on 92 survivors of a fictitious global catastrophe, known as the “Violent Unknown Event” or VUE, whose names begin with the letters F-A-L-L.  The film also featured original music by minimalist composer, Michael  Nyman, marking the start of their long collaboration. 

Greenaway’s first totally dramatic feature was 1982’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, financed primarily by Channel 4 which launched the same year.  It was the first new terrestrial UK television station for 20 years and its remit was to represent the arts and minority groups.  The film is a 17th century whodunit, a young artist is hired to produce a series of landscape drawings of a country estate, the errant owner’s wife agrees to provide the arrogant draughtsman with sexual favours as part of his contract to undertake the work.  He also gets physically entwined with the lady of the house’s married daughter until the absent lord of the manor turns up dead in the moat. 

The film is packed with visual symmetry, puns and deliberate anachronisms, underscored by Michael Nyman’s scintillating soundtrack, inspired by Henry Purcell, accompanying the 12 landscape sketches.  It’s a tightly woven cloth and the film’s success established Greenaway as an original and exciting auteur and his follow up feature was eagerly anticipated. 

A Zed & Two Noughts, recently released on Blu-ray by the British Film Institute, is an amalgamation of 3 filmic notions; the first is examination of Darwinism, the second a study of the nature of twins and the third is a cinematic history of the use of light as inspired by the Dutch master painter Vermeer and, despite all of this, it manages to be an engaging and amusing black comedy.  I shall review the Blu-ray in detail in a future post. 

Greenaway’s next film was Belly Of An Architect, starring the American character actor Brian Dennehy.  It’s a study of the work of the 18th Century Romanesque architect, Etienne-Louis Boullée.  The connection with Rome is further explored as Dennehy becomes obsessed with Caesar Augustus who was poisoned by his wife, Livia.  As Dennehy suffers from increasing stomach pains, he suspects his wife is attempting to do the same.  I found that this film lacks the charm and humour of Greenaway’s other features and I have never particularly warmed to it. 

1988’s Drowning By Numbers could well be my favourite of all of his movies.  The combination of humour, intrigue, emotion and game playing is perfectly balanced and you never feel that the style outweighs the substance as I had with his previous film and his work post The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.  3 generations of women with the same name, Cissie Colpitts, in turn drown their husbands for various reasons, with the help of  Madgett, the local coroner, brilliantly played with comic subtlety by Bernard Hill.  Throughout the film Greenaway has secretly placed the numbers 1 to 100, serving as both a parlour game for us, the audience, to spot but also signifying our place within the narrative with 50 marking the halfway point, for example.  

I particularly enjoy the younger characters, Smut, the Coroner’s son, who counts the surreal, random road-kills that adorn the scenery, and his unrequited paramour, the mysterious ‘Skipping Girl’ who always counts the stars each night.  The film has a wonderous, mystical charm and subdued sadness about it, without ever becoming morose; it’s a joy from start to finish (or 1 to 100).  The film also contains my favourite Michael Nyman score, taking short phrases from the 2nd Movement of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, the cues are lyrical and haunting, their mesmeric looping perfectly accompany the film’s obsession with counting.  

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is Greenaway’s most lavish production and it’s hard to convey this to those who haven’t seen it on the big screen.  This film is crying out for a Blu-ray release and I am hoping that the BFI follow this month’s A Zed & Two Noughts fairly swiftly with the rest of his catalogue.  The plot, as the title suggests, is concerned with the lives of the characters aforementioned, particularly the cuckolding of Spica, the thief, played with a swaggering vulgarity by Michael Gambon; whose ill-gotten gains allow him to dine at the swankiest of restaurants.  

His wife, Georgina, played by Helen Mirren, has been having an affair with nondescript, bookshop owner, Alan Howard, a regular diner who she seduces in the restaurant’s toilets.  Once Spica discovers the identity of his wife’s lover he takes his vengeance by having him killed by force-feeding him pages from his books.  Georgina discovers the body and has the restaurant’s Chef serve it as a special dish for her husband,  forcing him to eat his victim at gun-point before shooting him in the head.

Whilst the plot is fiendishly simple the film’s visuals are sumptuous and stunning, the long tracking shots from left to right, displaying the restaurant’s decor and nouvelle cuisine in primary coloured palettes, took my breath away and will remain as one of the best experiences I have ever had at the cinema.  Unfortunately Greenaway’s recent work doesn’t hold a candle to this unbroken run of bold and brilliant movies, however he is just the sort of surprising artist who could yet pull his biggest and brightest rabbit out of his surrealist cocked hat!

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:21:14.

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True Grit (2010)

It’s uncertain whether Joel and Ethan Coen set out to make their most commercially successful film in a 30 year career by electing to remake the classic John Wayne Western True Grit as their 15th feature, however it has been by far their biggest grossing domestic picture to date, taking twice as much at the box office than their previous Oscar winner No Country For Old Men which kick-started their partnership with Paramount producer Scott Rudin a few years back.

Having never been much of a Western fan, aside from the superior ‘Spaghetti’ variety of Sergio Leone especially the “Dollars Trilogy” which propelled Clint Eastwood to international stardom, I wasn’t the first in line to see this new version despite it being the latest offering from the Coen Brothers.  Admittedly, I tend to prefer their original comedies but I was intrigued to see this primarily for the acclaimed performances of Jeff Bridges as ‘Rooster’ Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross both of whom earned Academy Award nominations.

When her father is brutally murdered in Fort Smith, Arkansas by the cowardly outlaw Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), 14 year old Mattie Ross comes to town to collect his body and hire a U.S. Marshal to track down the killer and bring him to justice.  Out of the Sheriff’s recommendations she selects ‘Rooster’ Cogburn as he has the reputation of being the most ruthless.  Mattie is exceptionally astute for her years and has a commanding knowledge of the laws of business enabling her to run rings around the local inhabitants outwitting them in a series of trades over her late father’s effects, raising sufficient money to bankroll her revenge.

There aren’t that many structural differences from the Hal Wallis production, both are true to the spirit of the Charles Portis novel.  Jeff Bridge’s Cogburn is clearly a cold-blooded slayer and a broken man; much less avuncular or amusingly soused than John Wayne and without his immediate warmth or charm.  Hailee Steinfeld is the same age as her character and despite her smarts she is obviously still a vulnerable young girl, whereas Kim Darby was 21 when she played a hardier, tomboyish Mattie Ross in the 1969 original.

Although the biggest difference in casting is Matt Damon in the role of the Texas Ranger LaBoeuf who hopes to claim the bounty out on Chaney for killing a State Senator.  The part initially played by country singer Glenn Campbell was very much a cameo whereas the Coens have transferred a lot of the affability from the Duke’s take on Cogburn to Damon’s LaBoeuf making him more sympathetic thus transforming the story from a basic two-hander into a more complex triangle.

The Blu-ray edition reveals the huge visual accomplishment achieved by the Coen Brother’s regular cinematographer Roger Deakins.  The colour palette is distinctly different to the previous version which was bathed in California sunshine so typical of Westerns made at the time; instead we have bitter cold, steely blue skies starkly contrasted with delicate snowflakes.  The 1080p picture sports faultless clarity and high detail particularly noticeable in hair and skin tones, whilst the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack crackles with the ambient sounds of the great outdoors, wind and water are well represented and the surprisingly few gunshots deeply resonate.

It’s also worth mentioning Carter Burwell’s disarmingly simplistic score which riffs around the two spiritual tunes “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and “Lean On Jesus” which were first used to striking effect in Charles Laughton’s classic film noir The Night of the Hunter, clearly a massive influence on the Coen Brothers.  There is a small selection of fairly standard extras the one exception being the 30 minute documentary Charles Portis: The Greatest Writer You’ve Never Heard Of… which profiles the life and work of the author and compares both film versions to the original text.

True Grit is a milestone picture for the Coen Brothers that not only provides them with their first unabashed box office hit but demonstrates an assured maturity and artistic commitment which is no longer confined to the low budget obscurity that prevented so many of their significant early films from reaching justifiably larger audiences.

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:21:13.

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Jack Lemmon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:21:12.

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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.

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:21:11.

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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.

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:21:10.

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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.

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:21:09.

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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.

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:21:08.

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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.

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:21:07.

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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?!

Originally posted 2015-10-29 02:21:06.

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