UK Cinema Releases: Friday 30th September 2011

NATIONAL RELEASES

Abduction (Lionsgate UK): A thriller about a young man (Taylor Lautner) who sets out to uncover the truth about his life after finding his baby photo on a missing persons website. Directed by John Singleton, it co-stars Lily Collins, Alfred Molina, and Jason Isaacs. [Nationwide / 12A]

The Debt (Universal): In 1965, a group of Mossad agents (Sam Worthington, Jessica Chastain) on a mission to kill a Nazi war criminal. Thirty years later, one of the agents (Helen Mirren) learns that the Nazi may have resurfaced in the Ukraine. Directed by John Madden, it co-stars Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson. [Nationwide / 15]

What’s Your Number? (20th Century Fox): Comedy about a woman (Anna Faris) who looks back at the past twenty men she’s had relationships with and wonders if one of them might be her one true love. Directed by Mark Mylod and co-starring Chris Evans, Matthew Bomer and Zachary Quinto. [Nationwide / 15]

Shark Night 3D (Entertainment Films): Horror about people on holiday in the Louisiana Gulf who are terrorised by fresh-water shark attacks. Directed by Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin, it stars Sara Paxton, Alyssa Diaz, David R. Ellis and Chris Carmack [Nationwide / 15]

ALSO OUT

Melancholia (Artificial Eye): Two sisters (Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg) find their relationship challenged as a nearby planet threatens to collide into the Earth. Directed by Lars Von Trier, it co-stars Kiefer Sutherland and John Hurt. [Selected cinemas / 15]

Red State (E1 Films): Director Kevin Smith’s latest film, which is a dark departure for him. Set in Middle America, a group of teens receive an online invitation for sex, though they soon encounter some sinister fundamentalists. Stars Melissa Leo, John Goodman and Matthew-Lee Erlbach. [Selected cinemas / 18]

The Green Wave (Dogwoof): Documentary by Ali Samadi Ahadi that follows the Iranian green movement during the disputed re-election of Mahmud Ahmadinejad in June 2009. [Selected cinemas]

Red White and Blue (Trinity Filmed Entertainment): Revenge thriller about a woman in Austin, who comes across two mysterious people. Directed by Simon Rumley, it stars Amanda Fuller, Noah Taylor and Marc Senter. [Selected cinemas / 18]

> Get local cinema showtimes at Google Movies or FindAnyFilm
Recent UK DVD & Blu-ray releases including Ben Hur, Airplane! and Manhunter

Ingmar Bergman in Dallas, 1981

In 1981 Ingmar Bergman paid a visit to the Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Somebody filmed  a press conference he gave and it was recently posted on the web:

He also did a one-on-one interview with Bobbie Wygant where he talked about Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and the recent attempt on President Regan’s life, the ratings system in Sweden and his personal life around the time of Persona (1966).

Coming at the tail end of his illustrious career, it makes for interesting viewing.

> More on Ingmar Bergman at Wikipedia
> Atombomb.tv Vimeo channel

Blu-ray: Ben-Hur

One of the most important Blu-ray releases of the year is this impeccable restoration of William Wyler’s 1959 Roman epic.

Depicting the adventures of a Jewish prince (Charlton Heston), it charts his rich life in Judea, subsequent fall into slavery and rise as a champion charioteer in Rome.

Along the way we see his encounters with his mother (Martha Scott), sister Tirzah (Cathy O’Donnell), Roman rival (Stephen Boyd), former slave (Haya Harareet), a naval commander (Jack Hawkins) and even Jesus Christ.

A blockbuster release of its time, it was one of the most ambitious film projects ever attempted up to that point.

Adapted from Lew Wallace’s best-selling novel, it had previously reached the screen in 1907 and 1926, but by the 1950s Hollywood were under threat from the rapidly growing medium of television.

MGM were in financial trouble and decided to mount a biblical epic along the lines of Cecil B DeMille‘s Samson and Delilah (1949) and The Ten Commandments (1956), which were both huge box office hits.

In addition to tapping in to this hunger for ancient religious stories, the major studios came up with various technical innovations to lure audiences away from their television sets.

Various larger film formats were introduced to create a bigger and more expansive image on the screen.

This culminated in epics such as The Robe (1953), the first film in the widescreen process known as CinemaScope, and The Ten Commandments, which utilised the greater resolution of Paramount’s VistaVision format.

With Ben Hur MGM decided to shoot in a new process known as ‘MGM Camera 65’ (later known as Ultra Panavision 70), which meant that it has an unusual aspect ratio of 2.76:1, making it one of the widest films ever made.

This was appropriate because they also spent a huge amount on creating a vast epic at a cost of $15m – then a huge amount – and over 300 sets, including a spectacular Roman amphitheatre at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios.

MGM’s gamble to stave off bankruptcy succeeded, with Ben Hur becoming the highest grossing film of 1959 (making $90m worldwide) and winning 11 Oscars, a feat only equalled since by Titanic (1998) and The Return of the King (2004).

Its critical reputation suffered during the 1960s, as a new generation of directors and critics reacted against the expense and spectacle of the previous decade.

Director William Wyler was even quoted as saying:

“Cahiers du cinéma never forgave me for the picture.”

Perhaps he was too versatile to be pegged as an auteur in the way that Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock were, or maybe after winning three Best Director Oscars he was too much of an ‘establishment’ figure for young guns like Truffaut and Godard to re-evaluate and champion.

However, although these large scale biblical epics were scorned by certain cinephiles of the day as an expression of the stifling conformity of the 1950s, they can also be seen as coded parables which echoed the concerns of writers during the era.

When Messala demands that Ben-Hur either stand with him or against him, he not only echoes the Manichean cry of McCarthyism but also the world view of more recent administrations (the following year Spartacus – scripted by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – would take this theme even further).

But what makes this restored version of Ben Hur fascinating to revisit is that Hollywood now is undergoing a similar kind of seismic change that it went through fifty years ago.

Instead of television wreaking havoc with the established order we now have the Internet and whereas once we had studios looking for salvation in biblical epics, now they turn to large scale fantasies from the church of Marvel or DC.

Even the 3D craze of the 1950s has updated itself in recent years with a newer, digital form.

However, this Blu-ray represents a pleasing collision of both worlds, as digital technology has been used to present the best ever home version of the film.

The Warner Bros restoration team have preserved the ethos of the original MGM production, which was to create a stunning spectacle on screen.

Whilst we can’t go back in time to the fresh print 70mm presentations back in November 1959, this represents the next best thing.

[UPDATE: Actually the next best thing is to see the 8K digital cinema print that screens at the New York Film Festival this Saturday – can Warner Bros arrange for a UK screening?]

It is easily one of the best restorations I’ve seen in the Blu-ray format and is up there with Warner Bros’ previous outstanding transfers of Dr. Zhivago (1965), North By Northwest (1959) and Gone With the Wind (1939).

Presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.76:1, the action frequently looks breathtaking due to the care and attention that was put into the original production (production design, costumes, location, visuals and sound) and the painstaking restoration process.

This was originally slated for a 50th anniversary release but Warner Bros took their time, due to the complexities involved.

Speaking to Hollywood Elsewhere back in June, Jeff Baker of Warner Home Video stressed why they didn’t want to rush the release:

“At WB we are more than acutely aware of the age of Ben-Hur — i.e., 52 in 2011. It was our intention to release this film in Blu-ray in 2009, but the film restoration was complex, and the 8K scan was the optimal solution vs. 2K or 4K, therefore we took our time and did it right to deliver the best possible resolution for the consumer. Therefore we are celebrating the 50th anniversary in 2011, and considering that it is more than 50 years, we do not see this as being disingenuous, particularly due to the circumstances surrounding this restoration. After all, we are not advancing the clock and celebrating the 55th or 60th.”

As noted in the same piece, this is one of the most precise and detailed restorations of a classic Hollywood movie:

“The Ben-Hur restoration, just to be clear, was completed from an 8k scan of the original 65mm camera negative, with a 6k finish making this the highest resolution restoration ever completed by Warner Bros.”

Another bonus is that this three hour film has been spread over two discs, preserving the quality of the film by using up as much space on each one, with nearly all the extras appearing on the third.

The image quality is stunning and all the expense that was poured into making this one of the most epic films ever staged really pays off in its transfer to HD.

Of particular note are the compositions, as Wyler and cinematographer Robert L. Surtees created shots and sequences which really used the wide frame – interior locations (such as the prison sequence) and exterior vistas are brilliantly captured.

Intimate shots of actors faces also look tremendous, with some sequences making clever use of them in lower light conditions.

The sound is also outstanding: the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is immense, preserving Miklós Rózsa’s famous score, whilst the chariot race sequence feels more intense than ever before.

A landmark film in Hollywood history, Ben Hur also establishes a new gold standard for Blu-ray restorations.

SPECIAL FEATURES

Most of the extras have been ported over from the 2005 2-disc DVD set but there are a couple of notable new features that have been added for the Blu-ray.

They break down like this:

  • Audio commentary by T. Gene Hatcher with Charlton Heston: This commentary from the film historian Hatcher is relatively informative, but Heston’s comments are more valuable. However, they were recorded separately and are more sparse but do offer valuable background information about about the production and his time filming in Rome.
  • Music Only Track of Mikos Rózsa’s score: This is probably for more specialist tastes but given that Rózsa’s score is of considerable historical interest it is a valuable option to be able to listen to it separately, even if it is in Dolby Digital 2.0 and not a lossless audio.
  • Trailers (14:15)
  • Charlton Heston and Ben-Hur: A Personal Journey (1:18:06): This new HD featurette made especially for the Blu-ray mixes interviews with Heston’s wife Lydia, son Fraser and daughter Holly Ann, along with various people who have worked with the late actor. Heston documented the production of Ben Hur with a detailed journal (from which his son reads extracts) and a wealth of 16mm footage filmed by Lydia which include a lot of material shot in and around Rome.
  • The 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur (2:23:06): The full version of the older, silent version of Ben Hur is included and it makes for an interesting comparison. A hugely ambitious production in its own right, it acted as a kind of template for Wyler’s version, especially the set pieces involving the sea battle and the chariot race. This version is restored with a score by Carl Davis.
  • Ben-Hur: The Epic That Changed Cinema (57:46): This 2005 documentary that accompanied the 2-disc DVD release is a useful place to begin for newcomers and is a good introduction to the film’s place in cinema history. Various directors (Ridley Scott, George Lucas), cinematographers (Janusz Kaminski, Ernest Dickerson), production designers, and historians discuss the movie and the elements that make it such an enduring classic.
  • Ben-Hur: The Making of an Epic (58:15): A 1994 made for television documentary goes for a more conventional behind-the-scenes exploration of the film. Narrated by Christopher Plummer, it looks as past adaptations but mainly stays with Wyler’s version, offering a steady stream of on-set photographs, footage, and interviews with key players.
  • Ben-Hur: A Journey Through Pictures (5:09): A montage of production photos set to Rózsa’s famous score.
  • Screen Tests (29:18): The real jaw-dropper here is to see Leslie Nielsen’s screen test for the role of Messala (which eventually went to Stephen Boyd). Also keep an eye out for I, Claudius star George Baker as he auditions for the title role at MGM studios in Borehamwood whilst answering some questions from what appears to be a very posh English casting director.
  • Newsreels (9:45): Easily one of the standout extras, this assortment of newsreels documents the various premieres of the film and what a big deal it was as it premiered in New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Tokyo. My favourite bit is Heston signing autographs and serving coffee to New Yorkers in the queue for tickets at Loew’s State Theatre.
  • Highlights from the 1960 Academy Awards Telecast (9:47): Although the audio is patchy, the ceremony that year was broadcast in black and white from the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles and marked a record 11 Oscars for the film. Perhaps the most notable moment is when producer Sam Zimbalist’s widow Mary comes on to collect the Oscar for Best Picture after her husband had passed away during filming.

Amazon Kindle Fire Launches

Amazon launched their new tablet computers yesterday with the Kindle Fire and Kindle Touch.

So far only Apple and Amazon have managed to make serious inroads into tablet computing.

They have done it through being very good at different approaches to the form.

Apple has built the best mobile browsing experience with the iPad out of the touch-based operating system they established with iPhone and iPod Touch.

With the iTunes store they have mastered the art of making online media consumption easy for the mainstream user by encasing it in attractive, premium hardware.

A more cost-effective option has been created by Amazon with the eBook device called the Kindle, which has quietly become a serious rival to the iPad.

The hardware isn’t as expensive and its E Ink display means it is easier on the eye and a better device for reading longer form articles in newspapers and magazines.

Until now they have served relatively different markets – iPad users browse and consume content on relatively expensive hardware, whilst Kindle users read text on a relatively cheaper alternative.

But with the launch of the Kindle Fire it seems that Amazon want to cut into the iPad’s territory in a big way.

Part of the reason Android tablets have failed so far is that they haven’t been as good as the iPad and Apple’s head start (remember Steve Jobs admitted the iPad concept actually predates the iPhone) has meant that rivals manufacturers been unable to price their devices competitively.

Who is the only company in the world who has created a best-selling tablet device and has a customer base to rival the iTunes store?

Step forward Amazon.

They recently announced the Kindle Fire in New York which went on sale for $199 and featured the following features:

  • Amazon’s version of the appstore
  • New cloud-accelerated web browser
  • Over 18 million movies, TV shows, songs, magazines, and books etc,
  • Free cloud storage for all your Amazon content
  • Color touchscreen display
  • Powerful dual-core processor
  • Amazon Prime members will get enjoy unlimited, instant streaming of over 10,000 popular movies and TV shows

TWiT covered the launch event with this in-depth special:

The Fire got most of the media attention, partly because the mainstream media are addicted to Apple and want to write about ‘the iPad rival’.

There is some truth in this as Amazon, with their vast library of content, pose the first serious threat to the iPad and it marks another evolution in how we buy and experience movies, music, games and other forms of media.

Apple and Amazon’s stores really have no equal in terms of registered users with paying credit credit cards.

(Quick aside: who do you think has more registered customers? I say Amazon, even if Apple make more money per user).

Both have innovated in the technology of mobile computing.

We all know about Apple’s touch interface but Amazon’s cloud-powered browser looks like it will be making effective use of both their web services and vast customer data.

But is the Kindle Touch the bigger deal?

It is an improved model at a cheaper price and features the following:

  • 30% lighter weight
  • 18% smaller body, with the same 6″ screen size
  • More advanced E Ink display
  • Built-in Wi-Fi
  • Faster page turns

It doesn’t have 3G but, apart from web browsing on the go, I don’t see that being a problem for most users.

The price of the earlier versions of the Kindle were competitive but now they have an improved device (no more keyboard) which sells at $89.

More importantly it represents a cheaper version of the kind of device which will replace dead tree print.

The model for daily print newspapers is essentially over unless you want them bankrolled by rich owners who want to sink more money on outdated distribution costs.

Weekly magazines that are smart with good content and metered paywalls – like The Economist – will survive but the march to digital will only intensify.

The Kindle model represents the most compelling publsihing ecosystem yet for the digital age – it offers a wide variety of articles for readers and a publishing platform for writers.

Even though the current Kindle isn’t perfect, it is the best e-Reader so far and it will be interesting to gauge sales in the run up to Christmas.

The question is who is going to break the duopoly that Amazon and Apple have on tablet computing?

> Engadget and Techcrunch on the Amazon Fire
> Mashable on the Kindle Touch
> More on the Amazon Kindle at Wikipedia

The Evolution of the Hitchcock Trailer

Once he was established as a Hollywood director Alfred Hitchcock cleverly used his persona as a major promotional tool for his films.

Although he is rightly regarded as one of the great directors in cinema, the marketing of his movies reveal a lot about how he managed to combine his artistic sensibilities with commercial instincts.

Charlton Heston was once quoted as saying:

“The trouble with movies as a business is that it’s an art, and the trouble with movies as art is that it’s a business”.

Perhaps more than any other director, Hitchcock managed to solve this conundrum and we can see his mastery of the movies as both an art and a business by looking at the trailers to several of his films.

For his breakthrough US work Rebecca (1940), the trailer played up the fact that it was a David O’Selznick production as much as an Alfred Hitchcock film and that it was also “the most glamorous film of all time”:

At this point, despite his experience, he was essentially a director for hire and had yet to become the portly icon of later years.

Notorious (1946) goes for the ‘big fonts proclaiming big things’ approach to trailers and Hitch is still nowhere to be seen, although it is worth noting that he is referred to as ‘the master of suspense’.

A sign that Hitchcock was more talented than the average Hollywood director was the ambition of Rope (1948), a film which had the illusion of being mostly shot in one take, although it was actually a string of set pieces cleverly stitched together.

The trailer was partly narrated by Jimmy Stewart’s character and didn’t feature the director, although the form of the film played an important part in establishing his reputation as more than just a director for hire.

The 1950s saw Hollywood embrace all kinds of technical innovations (e.g. Cinemascope, 3D) to stave off the threat of television, but Hitchcock was embracing it both as a form in itself and seizing the opportunity to become a familiar face to great swathes of Americans every week.

In 1949 one million Americans owned TV sets and by the end of the decade this number had sky-rocketed to over 50 million, so here was a director clearly in touch with both his audience and the emerging trends of the time.

By 1955 Hitchcock had his own TV series – Alfred Hitchcock Presents, later to become The Alfred Hitchcock Hour – which became famous for his opening monologues.

This is the first episode, where he addressed the audience in his own inimitable way:

On the burgeoning medium of television during this period it provided invaluable publicity for his career as a movie director.

It was ironic that in an age of chiselled movie stars he would become such an American cultural icon, especially after a childhood in England crippled by shyness and obesity.

But perhaps there was a conflicted showman inside the director.

What else could explain his famous cameos throughout his career, which were a simultaneous expression to stay hidden and be noticed?

By The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), which saw him remake his own film, his reputation was established but for the trailer it was Jimmy Stewart who again who addressed the audience to describe the making of the movie.

The same year Hitchcock made his first notable appearence in a trailer, talking about himself in the third person no less, whilst narrating the outline for The Wrong Man (1956):

A vitally important film for the director both in content and style, it seems appropriate that he would make an early marketing appearance here.

Perhaps his promotional performances every week on TV in front of millions of viewers had convinced the studio bosses he not only had a reputation but could be trusted to sell to the audience directly?

For Vertigo (1958) however, Hitchcock took a back seat to a conventional narration guy.

Was it because the story of an obsessive man who forces a reluctant brunette to become an icy blonde was a bit too personal for him?

After the relative commercial failure of this hypnotic film – which would mushroom in critical esteem decades later – he returned with his most commercial project to date.

North By Northwest (1959) was a pretty big deal for MGM and they let Hitchcock completely take over the trailer, using his dry wit to play up the humour in the material and guarantee they would be in for a ride.

Can you imagine any modern studio or contemporary director approve a trailer like this?

His next film was less obviously commercial, based on a novel with grisly real life influences, and was to be filmed in black and white with his TV crew.

The project began life at Paramount, who were so put off by the material that they originally refused to make it and sold off key rights to Universal and the director (even today it is often mistakenly thought of as a Universal movie).

Psycho (1960) certainly presented a marketing challenge and Hitchcock responded with perhaps his most famous trailer, which was this 6 minute promotional short.

It was a shrewd move as the director’s trademark humour let viewers know that the film wasn’t as dark as they may have heard.

That being said, the sudden climax at the end, complete with Bernard Herrman’s violins hinted that there was something dark and sinister within the main attraction.

Not only did Psycho represent the high watermark of the director’s artistic and commercial career, is also saw him reach a plateau as a marketing genius.

Hitchcock persuaded cinemas not to allow audiences in if they were late, which intensified the must-see factor and also provided the film with valuable extra publicity.

Who did audiences see in the foyer of their local cinema?

The director pointing at his watch and telling them that if they were late they had to attend the next showing of the film.

Whilst the public loved it, critical reaction was decidedly cooler with The Observer’s critic embarrassing themselves by not even staying until the end (I’m happy to report that their current critic Philip French always stays until the end credits of each movie he sees).

For The Birds (1963), the director repeated the trick with another witty short.

Note how the dry humour again deflects from the dark subject matter, which could have proved a commercial turn off.

By this point Hitchcock was a major cultural personality due to both his movies and TV shows, which first aired on CBS from 1955 to 1960, and then on NBC from 1960 to 1962.

This was then followed by The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, which lasted from 1962 to 1965 and such was the director’s longevity that even after his death in 1980, NBC and USA Network even revived the show for four seasons in the late 1980s.

If you think of each TV introduction as free publicity for his films, it also ranks as one of the longest and most cost-effective marketing campaigns in movie history.

The Marnie (1964) trailer continued the concept of the director as master showman.

Such was Hitchcock’s elevated status at this point – note how he literally ascends from a lofty position at the beginning – that he could refer to his previous films with the expectation that the general audience would know what he was talking about.

Perhaps one of his most interesting films, the trailer captures the changing social attitudes of the 1960s as Hitchcock is being less coded about sex and uses his dry, comic prudishness to neat effect.

One can almost imagine the team from Mad Men working on the campaign for this movie, and although Cary Grant in North By Northwest is often rightfully cited as an influence on Matthew Weiner’s show, Sean Connery’s character in Marnie seems like a more accurate touchstone for Don Draper.

In retrospect, the film is a fascinating collision of two cinematic icons as the ‘Master of Suspense’ cast James Bond in a major role – the commercial side of Hitchcock’s brain wanted a star in Sean Connery, but the artist knew his screen presence would add an extra dimension to the film.

However, the explosive success of the Bond franchise may have had an adverse effect on Hitchcock’s films as the mid-60s craze for Cold War spy films led him to make two films which saw him go somewhat astray.

Torn Curtain (1966) was beset by production difficulties and reflected the uneasy reality that was dawning on directors like Hitchcock and studios such as Universal.

Stars like Paul Newman and Julie Andrews were becoming increasingly important and the days when the men in suits could order them around like cattle were beginning to change.

This is reflected in the trailer which plays up Hitchcock’s brand name but places greater emphasis on the two leads, violence (‘Shock! Intrigue!’) and the Cold War intrigue which had gripped pop culture.

Topaz (1969) saw the problems of his previous film multiply and is rightly considered one of his weakest.

Again we have a Cold War spy thriller, although this one is even more muddled.

We briefly see Hitchcock at the beginning saying that it is ‘a story of espionage in high places’, before a self-consciously groovy montage of split-screen techniques which seems to reflect the messy, fragmentary nature of the film.

In creating his own worlds he was often a master, but in this period he was less successful in crafting suspense out of the complexities of the Cold War, when actual news stories could be more shocking than anything in his imagination.

Frenzy (1972) saw Hitchcock return to his home country of England and is by far his most interesting later work.

The trailer sees him return to centre stage with a monologue which seems to reference his extended promotional short for Psycho – which is appropriate as both films revolve around a sinister murderer (Mrs. Bates/The Necktie Murderer) and a single location (Covent Garden/Bates Motel).

This film saw the director’s career come full circle, as he returned to the murder-mystery genre after his unsuccessful espionage movies and it was set and shot around Covent Garden, where his father used to make a living as a greengrocer.

It is hard to watch the bit where Hitchcock spots his tie without thinking of the childhood story the director once told about being sent to a police station as a boy, or the William Friedkin anecdote about when Hitch questioned his young apprentice for not wearing a tie whilst shooting the final episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

The trailer for his swan song Family Plot (1976) sees the director make his final appearence in a trailer.

The quality of the film and his customary dry wit seem to betray the fact that he had one eye on retirement.

What do all these trailers say about Hitchcock?

In them we can see the evolution of a director who managed to use the very commercialism of the Hollywood system to his artistic advantage.

By cultivating a showman persona, he enticed audiences into cinemas and once they were there he usually surprised them in strange and imaginative ways.

> More on Alfred Hitchcock at Wikipedia
> The Hitchcock Wiki
> Hitchcock TV