Grave Misconduct: 21st Anniversary Edition

In 1990 I was the resident videographer at Bowes Lyon House, a youth centre and arts venue in my home town of Stevenage that would transform once a week into Thee Klub Wiv No Name attracting artists such as The Ragga Twins, The Bleach Boys and The Cranberries, I was tasked with capturing the live performances on tape.

At the time I was an active member of The Bancroft Players a renowned drama society based at the Queen Mother Theatre in the neighbouring market town of Hitchin.  Mike Lukey, my best friend from my early school days, was the keyboardist and songwriter for local band Budadada, now known as the New Town Centres.

The pair of us had tried in vain to make the eponymous Ex & Lukes: The Motion Picture on Super 8 cine film whilst we were still at school and we hit on the notion that we could borrow the camcorder from Bowes Lyon and use it to finally get a movie made and within a couple of weeks we had knocked up a script, gathering a small cast of friends from the theatre group and the band together, many of whom had never acted before.

The plot revolved around the exploits of two supposed pillars of society, Reverend Laurence Dressing (Ex) and Doctor Paul Toombes (Lukes) whose twenty year friendship had seen them descend into corruption leading to murder, incest and ultimately, for the Doctor at least, suicide.  It was thought that in order to help me age for the role of the Vicar my curly locks should be bleached white, however due to the natural amount of red in my hair the best the barber could manage was straw yellow, which appeared either orange or green under different light, leaving us no choice but to present the film in black and white.

 Whilst the themes were dark the subject was treated as a black comedy, satirising the privatisation policies of the Thatcher government of the day and pondering what might have happened had the Church of England been subject to stringent, commercial, market pressures; enter Archbishop Dorsal Fine played by the stalwart of the Bancroft Youth Theatre Julian Newman Turner, he gives the Vicar one last chance to turn around the fortunes of the church of St. Kilroy before it’s listed for demolition and the land redeveloped.

Reverend Dressing has a more sinister motive for saving the church, for walled up in its belfry is the corpse of a fallen lady from his past who took to blackmail when she fell pregnant by him.  The Vicar called upon his good friend and hypnotist Doctor Toombes to discretely dispose of the troublesome woman.  If the church is torn down their little secret would be discovered giving them no alternative but to revitalise the church coffers in the easiest way possible by generating an increased demand for funerals and the copious costs that accompany them.

We were actually allowed to film in St. Nicholas church in Old Stevenage on the pretext that this was a community story about a group of local people trying to save the parish church.  With the same cunning we were able to convince the Director of Bowes Lyon to let us keep the camera over the course of one weekend (usually we had to return it before the offices closed) and this single exception provided the chance to shoot the requisite spooky night scenes in the woods; no self-respecting, low-budget movie would be complete without them!

Once the Doctor had dispensed with the bulk of his regular patients thus filling St. Kilroy’s graveyard, the second act introduces the character of Georgina played by Claire Garvie, who had recently starred as Sandy in the Lytton Players production of Grease at the Gordon Craig Theatre.  Georgina worked at the local nursery and was involved in a fatal car accident resulting in the death of a young child for which she held herself responsible.  During a visit to Reverend Dressing for spiritual guidance his dog collar slips once more and he embarks on a May to September fling with Georgina that quickly escalates to talk of marriage; perhaps the clergyman believes he can find salvation by rescuing the young, troubled girl.

Georgina also visits the clinic of Doctor Toombes for counselling and whilst under hypnosis it’s revealed through flashbacks that perhaps he isn’t completely evil after all; whilst he did-away with the pregnant woman from his pal’s past, he managed to save the baby and delivered her to the Salvation Army where she was fostered.  Once he realises that the Vicar is about to marry his own daughter unwittingly, this tragedy of Greek proportions is too much for the Hippocratic practitioner to bear and the guilty knowledge sets him in a tailspin of depression and madness culminating in death by his own hand.

Grave Misconduct was originally shot on a Panasonic M10 VHS camera and edited in the linear fashion direct to U-Matic Beta-SP master tape over the course of two days. The equipment available at the time didn’t allow for complex effects, transitions or sound montage and the original now feels a little tired and slow by today’s standards.

Lukes did a very short edit which played more like a trailer to commemorate the film’s first decade but I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to produce a brand new edition to celebrate the film’s 21st anniversary using my new found skills with Final Cut Pro X. I wanted to remove a lot of the glitches from the original that have bothered me over the years whilst keeping the storyline and key performances intact; by cutting 21 minutes of footage and introducing an alternative soundtrack I have injected much more pace and energy into it and I now consider this to be the definitive version.

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Sherlock Holmes

I grew up watching the constant reruns of the Universal Studios series of Sherlock Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone as the ace detective and Nigel Bruce as his exceedingly bumbling confident Doctor Watson, back in the day when black and white movies were still shown on terrestrial television.  I graduated to the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories as bedtime reading and became somewhat of an aficionado in my late teens.  My father who was also a boyhood fan encouraged me to join the Sherlock Holmes Society which, in the pre-Internet era, sent out a copy of The District Messenger, a single page newsletter produced by Roger Johnson roughly once a month since 1982.

Whilst there have been some excellent Holmesian television adaptations, most notably the Granada ‘Adventures’ series starring Jeremy Brett whose performance is on a par with David Suchet’s long running portrayal of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, the more recent film versions have been less than satisfying; the last decent outing was probably Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes with Robert Stephens donning the renowned deerstalker.  So, it was in trepidation that I ventured out to the cinema with my wife to see director Guy Ritchie’s action-packed Legendary Pictures reboot with the unlikely pairing of Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as the sleuthing duo.

Any fears were quickly allayed as the script (whose storyline was meticulously researched by Lionel Wigram, co-producer and author of the graphic novel on which the film is based) not only captures the celebrated Conan Doyle creations but screenwriter Michael Robert Johnson has faithfully fleshed them out, presenting them afresh for the sensibilities of the 21st century motion picture audience.  To some the plot may seem episodic and, at times, convoluted and it contrives to set up the forthcoming sequel in the final reel, but none of that is at odds with the spirit of the original Strand Magazine publications of the 1890s, which thoroughly exploited the cliff-hanger.

If there was ever any doubt about Robert Downey Jr.’s rehabilitation as an out and out movie star then Sherlock Holmes puts pay to that, the role cries out for the diamond-cut precision and razor’s edge synonymous with his recent performances; I can’t imagine anyone else bringing this particular Holmes to the screen with such alacrity, intuition and intelligence.  Somewhat surprisingly, Jude Law also scores highly as the long suffering Doctor, bringing a hitherto unseen charm and dynamism to his John Watson, which lends itself more convincingly as to why Holmes craves his approval and friendship, an aspect so often missing when he’s simply depicted as an inept half-wit.

Thankfully Guy Ritchie’s handwriting is missing from the script’s dialogue but his trademark searing visual style is ever present on the screen.  The use of an extreme slow motion camera technique allows us to perceive both Holmes’ rapid intellect and incredible physical dexterity at work in miniscule detail, it is not over used but is particularly powerful in the bare knuckle boxing match; the additional brainpower allowing Ritchie to knock out Brad Pitt’s fight sequence from his earlier movie Snatch.

The attention to period detail is also remarkable, particularly the construction of London’s Tower Bridge which provides the location for the film’s final battle between Holmes and the villain of the piece, Lord Blackwood imbued with biting humour and vengeful menace by Ritchie/Vaughan regular heavy Mark Strong, in the closing moments we discover that all along he’s been a pawn of the shadowy figure of Professor Moriarty who is going to be played by Jared Harris in the sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

The Warner Bros. high definition release sports a shiny 1080p/VC-1 encode of immense clarity, both the picture and DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack are demonstration quality.  There are a wealth of extras included which can be watched separately or throughout the film by selecting the unique Maximum Movie Mode presented by Guy Ritchie, this serves as both a commentary and a feature length ‘making-of’ documentary and is superior to the more common Picture-in-Picture Blu-ray feature.

Sherlock Holmes was one of the best nights at the cinema I’ve had in many a year and I regularly enjoy sharing the movie with friends at home, it’s one of the few film franchises that I’m eagerly awaiting the next instalment of and can only hope it will be as solidly entertaining and authentic as the first adventure.

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TWIN PEAKS: Fire Walk With Me

The original television airing of Twin Peaks in 1990 coincided with my recent interest in the films of David Lynch after renting a copy of Blue Velvet on video and the break between the first and second seasons also saw the release of Wild At Heart at the cinema which launched a sudden and unexpected wave of Lynch mania that swept across both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Around the same time I visited America for the first time, landing in Los Angeles in January 1991 I couldn’t wait to pick up a copy of the L.A. Reader so I could see Lynch’s notorious cartoon strip The Angriest Dog in the World with my own eyes!

Twin Peaks has recently been celebrating its 20th Anniversary and is back in the public conscious with current shows like Psych reuniting some of the original cast members in the Dual Spires tribute episode which revolves around a Laura Palmer style copycat murder. After the initial distribution rights battle which prevented the second season being released on DVD for years, CBS Paramount have now released the entire show in its David Lynch approved Gold Box set and it’s even available to download on iTunes in HD which has sparked talk of a potential Blu-ray edition to follow.

When I met my wife-to-be one of the first things we did was sit through the original series, she was instantly hooked and we watched the pilot and all 29 episodes back to back followed by Fire Walk With Me within the space of one long weekend. To mark our recent Wedding Anniversary we have just watched them all again for the first time in 5 years and it remains an astonishing landmark in the annals of mainstream television history; all credit is due to creators Mark Frost and David Lynch as few programmes can claim to have been as groundbreaking or influential as Twin Peaks.

The show was cancelled in the middle of the second season due to falling viewing figures once Laura Palmer’s killer had been revealed and a spate of weak, largely comic subplots failed to fill the void despite a tour de force performance from Kenneth Welsh as Agent Cooper’s former partner and Nemesis, Windom Earle and the introduction of a Sci-fi element with the Project Blue Book investigations into the local Black and White Lodge mythology; there was still much to enjoy in the show and many questions were left deliberately unanswered in the final episode which is very reminiscent of the end of Patrick McGoohan’s seminal 1960s series, The Prisoner.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was released in cinemas during 1992; a year after the bemusing final episode had left Agent Dale Cooper trapped inside the Black Lodge. The film serves as both a prequel, as it examines the death of Killer Bob’s first victim Teresa Banks and the last 7 days of Laura Palmer’s life leading up to her murder providing psychological insights into the deranged mind of her father Leland, and a sequel as it clarifies the fate of Agent Cooper, expands the Dugpas back-story and lays to rest Laura’s troubled spirit in the closing moments. For many unfamiliar with David Lynch’s darker movies this was a total shock as the show’s amusing supporting characters were not present to offset the deeply disturbing secret that had always been at the heart of the series and it was actually booed by hostile audiences at the Cannes Film Festival premier.

There is no getting around the fact that there are some gut wrenching scenes in the film that deal head on with the psychological pain of acknowledging that stripped bare of all of its fanciful mystery this is the story of the long term physical abuse of a teenage girl by her father and this is something that Lynch had felt had been long forgotten by the end of the second season and he had remained troubled by the character of Laura Palmer. Actress Sheryl Lee who had only got to play Laura in stylised flashbacks or her lookalike cousin Maddy in the TV show wanted to truthfully bring her to life and give her doomed existence an element of closure.

There are many Hitchcockian influences in Lynch’s work the obvious one here is the name of Maddy Ferguson, a nod to Vertigo in which Kim Novak had a dual role; she plays Madeleine who Scotty Ferguson (James Stewart) falls madly in love with and also Judy who Scotty meets after witnessing Madeline’s apparent suicide and whilst in a psychotic state he re-styles Judy in Madeline’s image, changing her hair and clothes to conjure up the woman he is morbidly obsessed about.

When Hitch was asked if he could cut the “rape” scene from his 1964 film Marnie by hired screenwriter Evan Hunter who felt that it would make the character played by Sean Connery unsalvageable at least in the eyes of the female members of the audience, Hitchcock refused explaining that the only reason he wanted to make the movie in the first place is because of that one scene and replaced Hunter with renowned feminist playwright Jay Presson Allen who reworked the screenplay keeping the “non-consensual sex” scene between Connery and Tippi Hedren firmly in place. Likewise, I believe the only reason Lynch wanted to make Twin Peaks was due to the abusive father/daughter relationship at the core of the story and Fire Walk With Me is his way of emphasising that point.

French distributor MK2’s Blu-ray release of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is never going to be the definitive edition, whilst the full 1080p picture quality is a marked improvement on the DVD version and the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack is solid and fixes the infamous mixing problem in the “Red Room” sequence which was subtitled due to the excessive volume of the club’s live music; on the previous DVD release the music had been turned right down so you could clearly hear all the dialogue rendering the onscreen subtitles ludicrous.

I am pleased to report that after almost 25 years the entire mystery has been released in one Blu-ray boxset, including the much coveted 90 minutes of deleted scenes!  Not for the feint hearted and probably only really for true fans of Lynch’s oeuvre as a whole Fire Walk With Me is a fitting footnote to a landmark television series and a cathartic release and appropriate closure to a story steeped in the indignant suffering of its central character, it also marks the end of a period when for a fleeting moment David Lynch was the coolest cat on the planet.

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Gainsbourg

To be honest I wasn’t quite sure what the movie Gainsbourg was going to be like, surprisingly it’s not the straight forward, reverential biopic that I was half expecting. In fact it’s a startling work of originality as it’s the debut feature of Joann Sfar, the renowned graphic artist of the Franco-Belgian comic new wave, as with his notable comic series The Rabbi’s Cat he examines his Jewish heritage in telling the story of Lucien Ginsburg’s rise to fame, the world would come to know him as the popular singer songwriter and hugely influential 1960s cultural icon Serge Gainsbourg; played uncannily by Eric Elmosnino.

The film opens with the young Lucien Ginsburg growing up in Nazi-occupied Paris, his Russian-Jewish parents hailed from a musical background and his father taught him to play the piano, giving him a grounding in the classical repertoire but Lucien was less interested in music but passionate about drawing and so he is sent off to study at the Montmartre College of Art.  Clearly Lucien’s childhood experiences deeply affected him, not least the stigma of being forcibly labelled a Jew by having to wear a yellow star but also the appearance of his outsized ears and nose which made him painfully self-conscious.

The film is based on director Joann Sfar’s own graphic novel Gainsbourg (Vie héroïque) and he obviously identifies closely with the subject both culturally and artistically; cleverly blending animated fantasy sequences depicting Gainsbourg’s early paintings and the visualisation of a dark character who appears in the gothic fairy story that Lucien would tell to his school chums as a way of transcending his complex about his looks; the creepy “Professor Flipus” who emerges when a Freudian projection of his head with exaggerated features swells to immense proportion and then explodes leaving behind this Nosferatu-esque puppet figure who becomes Ginsburg’s alter ego, embodying all of his least desirable characteristics from that moment on.

Professor Flipus is convincingly brought to life by the performer Doug Jones (Pan’s Labyrinth) engaging the adult Lucien Ginsburg in a Faustian pact, promising in exchange for abandoning art and concentrating solely on music to make him a massive star, and so “Serge Gainsbourg” is born; this devilish doppelganger is a convenient device allowing him to elude any real blame for his erratic and irresponsible behaviour, particularly the poor treatment of the many women who come and go throughout his life; he abandons his first wife and their 2 children early on in the movie.

At the height of his fame Gainsbourg had a celebrated affair with starlet Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) who was married to the playboy Gunther Sachs at the time, they collaborated together and he wrote Je T’aime… Moi Non Plus for her which they recorded but wasn’t heard until 1986; instead the controversial original release featured Gainsbourg’s next big romance who went on to become his longest-suffering wife, the English actress Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon). They were together for almost 20 years and during that time Gainsbourg was to sink deeper into nicotine and alcohol dependency, reinventing himself as a counter-culture figure notorious for burning a 500 Franc note on stage and recording an ironic reggae version of La Marseillaise; drawing attention to the barbaric lyrics which enthusiastically encourage the patriotic slaughter of women and children.

The Blu-ray edition provides a showcase for the film’s highly stylised visual design.  The picture is presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a full 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encode boasting a wonderfully vibrant colour palette which evokes both the spirit of the swinging 60s and the internal musings of Gainsbourg’s wandering imagination, best illustrated by the ever-present glowing eyes of the surreal Professor Flipus.  The DTS-HD master audio soundtrack encapsulates the informal moments of Gainsbourg’s piano tinkering in smokey nightclubs as well as the iconically lush orchestrated hit recordings and maintains dialogue clarity throughout.

The very brief extras are the only disappointment in this package; it seems Optimum Home Entertainment missed a massive opportunity by not including a documentary featuring film footage and interviews with the real life Gainsbourg by way of a comparison.  Nethertheless, Joann Sfar has created a breathtaking film debut which seems far less concerned with presenting facts or telling truths about his hero than creating a bizarre, whimsical world for him to inhabit; existing at arm’s length from his destructive demons and leaving space for Eric Elmosnino’s towering central performance to dominate the movie, he portrays both the essence of Lucien Ginsburg and the mannerisms of his mercurial stage creation Serge Gainsbourg effortlessly.

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The Social Network

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

It’s surprisingly reassuring when a recent mainstream movie release based on source material from yesteryear actually transpires successfully to capture the original’s essence and intent without being reduced or reworked in order to pander to modern audiences.  Tim Burton’s screen version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is boldly faithful to the 1979 Tony Award winning Broadway musical and will, no doubt, be largely responsible for capturing the ears of the next generation of Sondheim devotees.

Johnny Depp stars as Benjamin Barker, an accomplished barber whose life is destroyed by the lascivious, malfeasant Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman) when he rapes his wife Lucy, has him falsely sentenced and deported to Australia and takes custody of his young daughter Johanna when her mother is committed to an asylum. On his eventual return 15 years later Barker assumes the alias of Sweeney Todd and takes a room above a ramshackle pie shop run by Mrs Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter) who misleads him to believe that his wife is dead.

Todd gets a chance to prove his prowess with the blade when he decries the ersatz Italian confidence trickster ‘Signor’ Adolfo Pirelli (Sacha Baron Cohen) of hawking fake hair tonic and they go head to head in a public shaving contest which is presided over by Judge Turpin’s sycophantic sidekick the Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall).  Todd is declared the winner and his skills are duly noted by the Beadle who later recommends that the unkempt Judge pay him a visit; providing Sweeney with a fleeting opportunity for retribution that’s interrupted by Anthony, a young man who is infatuated with Johanna and plans to free her from the clutches of the evil Judge.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a grotesque revenger’s tragedy in the Grand Guignol tradition, perfectly suited to the team of Burton and Depp whose previous movies Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow are equally steeped in this particular brand of goofy Gothicism.  When Todd fails to take vengeance on Turpin he goes on a maniacal killing spree, striking up an enterprising relationship with Mrs Lovett providing her with the much needed meat for her notorious ‘worst pies in London’.  The film manages to blend the operatic heights of Sondheim’s score with hair-raisingly stylised images of gore, as copious amounts of ruby red blood spurt from the slashed throats of the various victims whose fate brings them to an abrupt end in barber’s chair.

The Warner Bros. Blu-ray release features an exemplary 1080p/VC1 transfer maintaining the original theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  Burton’s penchant for high contrast blacks and opulent scarlet tones is evident here, unlike the excessive picture crush that marred the Paramount hidef release of Sleepy Hollow.  It’s no surprise for a film that contains 85% songs and recitative that all the stops have been pulled out in presenting the soundtrack, a TrueHD 5.1 mix of exceptional clarity featuring a massive orchestra of 78 musicians, compared to the customary 27 used in theatrical productions, and an immersive use of the vocal channels.

Along with the usual ‘EPK type’ material are three standout extra features, the first is an historic look at the title character who started life in the Victorian ‘Penny Dreadful’ serial publications and grew into a legendary villain of stage and screen, the second an introduction to French Horror theatrics of the Grand Guignol and the third (and my personal favourite) is an all-too-brief but compact, contemporary interview with Stephen Sondheim; charting the genesis of the original musical and his close participation in realising Tim Burton’s movie treatment of it.

Sweeny Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is an unexpected delight and I am now eagerly anticipating the film version of Sondheim’s Follies whose marvellous score is set to benefit from a fresh Aaron Sorkin screenplay.

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Frost/Nixon

Director Ron Howard’s film version of Peter Morgan’s play Frost/Nixon effectively captures the original stage performances of both Michael Sheen, as maverick reporter David Frost and Frank Langella, as ostracised former US President Richard Nixon.

The drama cleverly explores the foibles of both leading characters as they meet head to head for a series of intimate televised interviews.  David Frost, the Cambridge University graduate turned media wunderkind whose ground breaking satirical show That Was The Week That Was (or TW3 for short) launched his television career making him a house hold name in Britain and quickly extended his fame across the Atlantic where he presented the more conventional David Frost Show, is now globetrotting with progressively pap programmes like Frost Over Australia and determined to prove that he still has what it takes to be a serious journalist capable of obtaining the ever elusive scoop.

Richard Nixon, having the dubious honour of being the only President to resign from office, is out in the political wilderness negotiating deals for his upcoming memoirs through the notorious wily Hollywood literary agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar (Toby Jones) who gets wind of Frost’s desire for an exclusive, candid, one-to-one, filmed interview and tables a meeting for the two men to agree terms.  Lazar persuades Nixon that Frost, who has the reputation of being a bit of a light-weight only used to sucking up to celebrities, would be the perfect person to go up against as he’ll have no problem controlling the conversation and steering clear of more sensitive topics such as the war in Vietnam and the Watergate scandal.

Both sides assemble teams of researchers to second guess the questions and prepare the answers; Frost has the partnership of Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) seasoned investigative journalists in the mode of Woodward and Bernstein, who are set on exacting a confession from the President who they believe escaped justice.  Nixon has his current Chief of Staff, the former Marine Colonel, Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) who perceives the frothy Frost to be of little threat and is confident he can pull off a media coup with military precision.

In the first two of three planned recording sessions Frost seems flummoxed by Nixon’s effortless ability to evade the prepared questions and ramble at length on trivial, autobiographical reminiscences; so much so that Reston lambasts Frost for not being able to ask the “difficult questions” tapping into his biggest fear that he really isn’t up to the job.  Nixon admits to Frost in a late night drunken phone call before the last interview that despite feeling a kinship to him through both coming from what he calls “humble beginnings” that he intends to emerge from the process as the victor.  This spurs Frost on to remove the kid gloves in their final bout and tackle the issue of culpability over Watergate head on, to which Nixon concedes and comes as close as he ever did to issuing an apology to the American people who voted for him.

Director Ron Howard fully aware of the piece’s theatrical roots builds the tension between the two men very tightly and keeps it from flagging, at times approaching the pacing of the cuts almost like a boxing match.  Michael Sheen and Frank Langella’s performances are central to the film’s success and they’re reinforced by the talented supporting cast of familiar faces.  The Universal Studio Blu-ray release benefits from a pristine 1080p/VC-1 transfer in the original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a remarkable level of detail, contrasting the rich 1970s period design with black and white archive footage.  The DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack more than adequately captures all of the dialogue crisply and is complimented by Hans Zimmer’s percussive score which heightens the suspense.

The most notable extra is a picture-in-picture documentary that charts the making of the film which runs almost constantly through its duration.  There is also an audio commentary from Ron Howard who is an affable and enthusiastic communicator and he gives a broad insight into the history that lies behind the story.  Frost/Nixon is an accomplished movie which throws a new light onto both its title characters who ultimately recognise and respect each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

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Alice in Wonderland: 60th Anniversary Edition

I think Disney’s 1951 version of Alice in Wonderland is not only my preferred adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories but probably my favourite cartoon from the studio’s “Golden Age” of colour animation feature films which began with Snow White in 1937; although it could so easily have been different for more than a decade before and prior to the creation Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney and his founding partner Ub Iwerks produced their first short film Alice’s Wonderland (1923) which started a series of live action and animated one-reelers known simply as the “Alice Comedies”.

The success of the “Alice Comedies” allowed Disney to relocate from Kansas City to Hollywood and before they ended in 1927 he had already started developing a feature version which would be shelved and returned to several times before emerging as the studio’s 13th feature in the Animated Classics series.  What struck me most when I first saw it as a child was how much more stylised it was than the standard bucolic Disney fair such as Pinocchio or Bambi and this more abstract, almost cubist style conceived by background artist Mary Blair intrigued and appealed to me.

Whilst there had been surreal moments in previous Disney film’s such as Fantasia and the hallucinogenic Elephants on Parade sequence in Dumbo the visual mayhem was never sustained quite like it is when Alice falls into the rabbit hole and enters the topsy-turvy world of Lewis Carroll who was in turn inspired by the avant-garde Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in Victorian England who were known to dabble with mind-altering recreational drugs such as laudanum and absinthe; although as the son of a clergyman and Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University the chaste Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) would never dream of  indulging himself.

As with all of their Blu-ray releases this Disney 60th Anniversary Edition despite the age of the source material is demonstration quality.  I had always thought that Alice in Wonderland looked pretty sharp on DVD but the colour saturation, vibrancy and clarity of the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode is breathtaking.  The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio with the option of replacing the black side bars with very subtle matching artwork which I must admit I prefer.  The 5.1 DTS HD-MA mixing is well balanced maintaining clear dialogue whilst improving the sound effects, songs and incidental music with spatial surround sound which helps to immerse modern viewers.

This single disc contains all the features included on the DVD release most of which have been upscaled to HD, including the wonderful Mickey Mouse short Thru the Mirror inspired by Through the Looking-Glass, and what Alice Found There as well as the original silent short Alice’s Wonderland and a wealth of other deleted material.  However the best HD exclusive is Through the Keyhole: A Companion’s Guide to Wonderland which expands the picture-in-picture concept into a holistic “making of” that runs concurrently with the original movie, providing a wealth of background information on the production and the life and times of Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell the little girl who was the inspiration for the Wonderland stories.

Disney have never missed a trick at remarketing their back catalogue but the quality of these high definition releases continue to amaze me and it’s hard to imagine that what we’re seeing now won’t remain as the definitive versions of these timeless classics, I am eagerly awaiting Peter Pan the next instalment.

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Carnivàle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mr. Nice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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