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DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

The Outsiders

Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 adaptation of S.E. Hinton’s novel didn’t scale the heights of his best work, but provided an interesting showcase for actors who would go on to stardom in the ensuing decade.

What happened to Coppola after his dizzying creative heights of the 1970s?

After making some of the greatest films in the history of American cinema with The Godfather I & II, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, his work in the 1980s represents a mixed bag to say the least.

One from the Heart (1982) was a creative and financial disaster, but his following project had an unusual genesis, where a group of Fresno school children wrote to him requesting that he adapt their favourite novel.

That was Hinton’s coming-of-age story which she wrote as a teenager in the late 1960s about a group of friends in Tulsa, Oklahoma known as ‘Greasers‘ and their battles with the richer Socs (pronounced “soashes” – short for ‘social’).

The story focuses on the lives of Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell), his two brothers (Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze), as well as friends Cade (Ralph Macchio), Dally Winston (Matt Dillon), Two-Bit Matthews (Emilio Estevez), Steve Randle (Tom Cruise) and an out of reach girl (Diane Lane).

Looking back it was an extraordinary cast, filled with actors who would go on to bigger things, although the focus is largely on Howell, Macchio and Dillon and future stars like Cruise and Swayze remain tucked away in supporting roles.

Shot on location in Oklahoma, the period is impressively evoked by Coppola and his production designer Dean Tavalouris and the performances are all believable, effectively bringing Hinton’s world to life.

The widescreen visuals by cinematographer by Stephen H. Burum are not up to the iconic work of Gordon Willis on The Godfather or Vittorio Storaro’s work on Apocalypse Now, but they are often elegantly framed and look as good as they’ve ever done on this Blu-ray release.

However, there’s something about the film that lacks the magic ingredient to make it truly special and three years later Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me (1986) would capture a similar period with much more weight and charm.

It seems Coppola never fully recovered from the arduous production of Apocalypse Now and the personal hell of that period perhaps meant he wasn’t prepared to go to the creative extremes that he had previously.

That said, this Blu-ray is interesting as it features the special DVD cut which came out in 2005 after the director decided to reinsert scenes which were omitted for commercial reasons first time around.

Part of Coppola’s deal after the huge success of The Godfather was ownership (or part-ownership) of his work and one of the benefits is that his company Zoetrope keeps the negatives in decent condition.

The 1080p restoration presented in its proper aspect ratio of 2:35 is excellent and makes the period come alive in a way that earlier formats didn’t allow, with the colours and tones looking resplendent.

A new 5.1 DTS HD Master audio track is also solid, boosting the dialogue and early 1960’s soundtrack.

SPECIAL FEATURES

  • Director’s cut Version with 22 minutes of new footage: Given that this has never been shown that much on UK TV in recent years, perhaps some viewers here won’t remember the original cut. If you listen to the cast commentary they sometime express surprise at a scene or musical cue that wasn’t in the original. Given that the film was inspired by fans writing a letter to Coppola and that distributor Warner Bros. persuaded him to make it shorter, it is appropriate that he should put back those missing scenes for this version.
  • Introduction and New audio Commentary by Francis Ford Coppola: As with Coppola is an engaging presence on the commentary track describing his aims with the film and sharing production stories. Listen out for his paternal pride when his daughter Sofia makes a cameo.
  • Audio commentary by Matt Dillon, C. Thomas Howell, Diane Lane, Rob Lowe, Ralph Macchio and Patrick Swayze: One of the nice things that Coppola does when he revisits a film for the DVD or Blu-ray versions is to do some ‘reunion’ interviews with cast members. In 2005 he assembled C. Thomas Howell, Diane Lane, Ralph Macchio and Patrick Swayze for dinner and afterwards they sat down to watch the film and their commentary was recorded. Matt Dillon and Rob Lowe’s commentary was dubbed in later, although the transitions are pretty seamless, and it is a little like a high school reunion with the good vibes coming across nicely.
  • Staying Gold – A Look Back at The Outsiders: A nice retrospective documentary with interviews from cast and crew. Coppola’s use of the then new technology of video to record rehearsals makes for some interesting footage of the young cast.
  • S.E. Hinton on Location in Tulsa: The author takes around the locations which inspired the novel and became places where they later filmed sequences for the movie.
  • The Casting of The Outsiders: Producer Fred Roos became famous earlier in his career for casting Petulia (1968) and his eye for emerging actors came in especially handy with The Outsiders. It became famous as a showcase of actors who would go on to have significant careers.
  • 7 cast members read extracts from the novel: Another nice touch as Lowe, Swayze, Howell, Dillon, Macchio, Garrett and Lane read extracts from the novel like it was a radio play (it was recorded in 2005).
  • NBC’s News Today from 1983 The Outsiders: A news report from around the release of the film highlighting the story of the school children who wrote to Coppola requesting that it become a film.
  • Started by School Petition: A short feature on the origins of the project.
  • Six deleted or extended scenes
  • Trailer from 1983
The Outsiders is out now on Blu-ray from Studiocanal
> Buy The Outsiders on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK
> Find out more about the original novel at Wikipedia
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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Tyrannosaur

A stunning directorial debut from actor Paddy Considine features some of the best acting you’ll see all year.

It explores what happens when an angry widower (Peter Mullan) stikes up a relationship with a Christian charity worker (Olivia Colman), who is married to a stern husband (Eddie Marsan).

Expanded from Considine’s 2007 short Dog Altogether, on the surface this may seem like another British exercise in urban misery.

But this is a film that manages to rise above expectations and is one of the most impressive dramas in recent years.

A brutal opening scene sets the mood that this isn’t going to be a barrel of laughs, but it blends its darker elements with an impressive sense of place and time.

Shot on location in Leeds with a piercing but humane eye for the murkier details of urban Britain, it presents a riveting tale of violence and redemption.

Part of its raw power is down to the astonishing performances, which rank amongst the best you’ll see this year.

Mullan has his best part since My Name is Joe (1998), channeling the rage and regret of his character with an honest conviction that is extraordinary to watch.

Olivia Colman makes for a compelling foil, managing to create that rarest of things on screen – a genuinely good, selfless person.

It is an astonishing performance filled emotion and nuance that ranks amongst the best given by any actress in years.

The chemistry between them is something to behold and the development of their relationship is as convincing as it is surprising.

Marsan has less screen time but still manages to create a completely chilling character, made scarier because he is as plausible as he is malevolent.

Like The Interrupters – another outstanding film out this year – it presents violence as a disease that spreads and infects people from all walks of life.

Touching upon issues of class, it is a distressing film to watch in places but an intenseley rewarding one, building up to a climax which is richly earned.

Considine previously starred in Jim Sheridan’s In America (2002) and had supporting roles in Cinderella Man (2005) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), but this is an extraordinarily assured directorial debut.

Not only are the dynamics between the characters handled with compassion and subtlety, but he doesn’t shy away from the harshness of the violence, which is never gratuitous but deeply affecting.

The understated score by Chris Baldwin and Dan Baker, featuring heavy use of acoustic guitars, provides an effective contrast to the bouts of violence which occasionaly erupt.

Cinematographer Erik Alexander Wilson presents the action with deceptively simple lighting which feels wholly appropriate for the subject matter.

In between the darker scenes, there is an uplifting humanity to the film which is down to a combination of sharp writing and the emotion the actors bring to their roles.

In some ways it marks a progression from the tougher films of Shane Meadows, with humour and observation mixed in with the harsher realities of daily existence.

There are numerous little details which are expertly done, ranging from Mullan’s relationships with his neighbours and ill friend and a moving speech which explains the film’s title.

Although it is about violence, the film doesn’t present it irresponsibly and instead draws a believable picture of where it can come from.

A remarkable and deeply affecting portrait of people struggling to cope with their demons, it promises a great deal for Considine’s future career behind the camera.

> Tyrannosaur at the IMDb
> Official Facebook page

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DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

The Conversation

Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful thriller forms an important part of his incredible run of films during the 1970s.

Surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is recruited to track and record a young couple (Cindy Williams and Frederic Forrest) in San Francisco’s crowded Union Square.

A loner by nature, he gradually begins to suspect the motives behind the man who hired him to do the job (Robert Duvall) and becomes obsessed with a piece of audio that may (or may not) hold the key to his concerns.

Beginning with a stunning opening sequence that is a master class in cinematography, sound and editing, this is a slow-burn film about paranoia and technology, whose relevance has only increased over time.

Back in the mid-1970s it seemed eerily prescient as the Watergate scandal unfolded around the time of release and it has a new topicality now in an era where much of modern life is recorded and put online.

Coppola’s other films in the 1970s were amongst the greatest of the New Hollywood era: The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974) and Apocalypse Now (1979) are not just masterpieces of the time but also landmark films in American cinema.

The Conversation opened in April of 1974 and although it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, in retrospect it has always been overshadowed by the success of The Godfather sequel, which opened around Christmas of that year.

At the 47th Academy Awards, both films competed against each other, with his gangster epic becoming the first sequel ever to win Best Picture.

An extraordinary feat, the only downside was that The Conversation has slightly suffered in retrospect, which is a shame as it reveals as much about power as the Godfather films did.

Gene Hackman gives one of his greatest performances as a haunted man who knows only too well that the technology he employs to snoop on people can be used against him.

Methodical yet dignified, he creates a compelling protagonist in a role which in other films would be the part of the token technical geek, but here becomes something else.

Coppola and Hackman combined to show that it is often the technical people who wield the real power and responsibility in society, and the unbearable tension this can create inside of them.

Other roles are expertly cast: look out for a young Harrison Ford as the sinister assistant to Robert Duvall; Jon Cazale as Hackman’s assistant and Teri Garr as the distant girlfriend.

But the real stars of the film are behind the camera and repeat viewings reveal the masterful technical work by Coppola, DP Bill Butler and editor/sound designer Walter Murch.

Coppola was heavily influenced by Antonioni’s Blow-up (1966) and wanted to do for sound recording what that film had done for photography.

Featuring one of the most intricate and accomplished sound designs of the 1970s, Murch really cemented his reputation with some stunning work on this film as supervising editor and sound designer.

Not only are the sounds we hear crucial to the plot, but the overall construction creates a sense of uncertainty which effectively lends us the ears of the central character.

Coppola made sound an integral part of the narrative and in some ways laid the ground for the innovations on Apocalypse Now, which was effectively the first film to have a 5.1 surround mix.

On the Bu-ray, the uncompressed audio is a joy to behold and gives it the carefully crafted sound mix the attention it deserves.

In fact this disc offers the film’s original mono track in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, but also a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix, which has been crafted with considerable care and attention (this is probably down to the fact that Coppola still co-owns distribution rights to the film).

David Shire’s restrained but haunting score also adds to the melancholy mood and sounds wonderful in the new mixed audio.

The visuals are another story. Originally Coppola hired Haskell Wexler after his pioneering work on Medium Cool (1968) but they soon fell out after completing the opening sequence.

San Francisco provided a memorable backdrop for Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Coppola seems to play on that film’s themes of obsession and cruelty.

He also draws on some of the subjects explored in The Godfather films, such as Catholicism, crime and power, despite the different period and context.

The transfer here may appear grainy at times but as Coppola explains in the commentary track, he wanted to use different film stocks and zoom lenses in order to give the film a verite vibe and the feel of a surveillance video, which explains the odd camera movements at certain moments.

Other than that, it looks great with the colours, clarity and contrast looking great and as good as it ever has in the home.

At the time there was a lot of press speculation that the bugging technology used in the film was similar to that used in the Watergate break-in, even though Coppola admitted that this was coincidental.

But this fact reveals the film’s lasting power as a parable for man’s manipulation of tools in order to achieve certain ends: then it Nixon sanctioning the illegal bugging of political opponents; in recent years, it was Bush signing the Patriot Act to snoop on citizens.

So despite the period setting, the core themes give it a lasting relevance and there’s much that happens that makes it ideal for home viewing, with many elements not immediately apparent on a first watch.

Keep your eyes and ears open for the use of colour, musical motifs, carefully written dialogue and the surprising sympathy we feel for the central character.

We come to connect with a professional eavesdropper who becomes vicariously involved people he’s never met.

Isn’t that a brilliant metaphor for watching a movie?

EXTRAS

  • Feature Commentary with Writer-Director Francis Ford Coppola: An outstanding audio commentary, filled with useful detail, in which Coppola provides the context for the film and his specific influences and aims. He covers an impressive range of subjects including casting, filming and editing with his usual insight and intelligence.
  • Feature Commentary with Editor Walter Murch: Coppola’s creative partner in so many of his key movies deserves his own track as the film is so dependent on editing and sound. An essential listen for those curious about the craft of constructing the audio landscape of a film he
  • Close-Up on The Conversation (8:39): An archive promotional featurette showing Coppola and Hackman on set.
  • Cindy Williams Screen Test (5:02): This shows the actress reading for the part that actually went to Teri Garr.
  • Harrison Ford Screen Test (6:45): Ford’s audition for the part that Frederic Forrest ended up playing makes for an interesting ‘what if’ clip.
  • “No Cigar” (2:26): A short 1956 student film by Coppola, which the director feels was an early influence on the character of Harry Caul.
  • Harry Caul’s San Francisco – Then And Now (3:43): A slideshow look at several locations from the film as they were in 1973 and as they appear now.
  • David Shire Interviewed by Francis Ford Coppola (10:57): Shire talks about scoring the film and how important music was to setting the film’s melancholy mood.
  • Archival Gene Hackman Interview (4:04): An interview with Hackman on the set of the film.
  • Script Dictations from Francis Ford Coppola (49:23) Great audio feature where Coppola dictates the screenplay, playing along to typed versions of the pages and clips from the film.
  • Theatrical Trailer (HD; 2:50)

> Buy The Conversation on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK
> Screenshots of the Blu-ray at DVD Beaver

 

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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Anonymous

The very idea of Roland Emmerich making a movie about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays is enough to spark laughter, but the end result is a handsomely staged period piece.

For those not familiar with the Shakespeare authorship question, it goes a little something like this: how could a man who didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge write some of the greatest works of literature of all time?

Throw in the fact that little is known about certain aspects of his life and you have a vacuum into which a well-oiled conspiracy can grow, the principal one being that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays, which this film uses as a dramatic device.

For me, this has always been the literary equivalent of the people who think Paul McCartney died in 1967 or that the US government was somehow involved in 9/11.

But like those ideas it has an alarmingly large number of supporters, including Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud and even actors like Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, who both have small roles in this film.

Although not an expert on the period, I have yet to see any compelling evidence that proves Shakespeare didn’t write the works attributed to him and tend to trust scholars such as Stanley Wells, Stephen Greenblatt and Jonathan Bate, who have written and spoken at length about how the man from Stratford did actually write the famous plays and poems.

Which brings us to Roland Emmerich’s new film, which arrived in UK and US cinemas this weekend amidst a predictable blizzard of stories about the ‘controversy’ surrounding this film with several critics scoffing loudly at it.

In fact Sony Pictures seemed to have staged a deeply misguided marketing campaign, baiting those upset with the premise of the film.

As of this weekend it hasn’t worked as early tracking suggests younger audiences have more problem with the ambitious jigsaw puzzle script than they do with the authorship question.

This has meant that they have scaled back the release of the film and their hopes of award season success seem limited to the technical categories.

All of this is a shame because Anonymous is a highly accomplished film, even if the phony debate surrounding it leaves a lot to be desired.

How did a project like this come about?

It goes back to the script John Orloff first wrote in the 1990s, which was originally shelved because of the success of Shakespeare in Love and later postponed in 2005 when Emmerich was going to direct it.

By this point he had earned enough money for the studio system with his apocalyptic blockbusters – Indpendence Day (1996), The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009) – to attempt a pet project like this.

He’d always been an admirer of the script, which cleverly fuses Elizabethan literary and political conspiracies, whilst simultaneously reflecting very Shakespearean themes such as appearence and reality, the passage of time and the realities of power.

Opening with a modern day prologue (like Henry V) which takes the premise that Shakespeare was a fraud, it employs an ambitious flashback structure that goes between the succession crisis at the end of the Elizabethan era and the earlier events which led to the creation of plays which reflected both the politics of the time and would burn brightly for centuries to come.

Although it is hard to describe the narrative without venturing into major spoiler territory, but it revolves around Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) and the conceit that he not only wrote the plays of Shakespeare, but did so as part of an elaborate political conspiracy involving Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave), playwright Ben Jonson (Sebastian Armesto) and Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex (Sebastian Reid).

It is vital to remember that like Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) and Shakespeare’s play Richard III, this is a version of history, which plays around with history for dramatic effect and further discussion.

Forget the provocative device that the movie has been sold on and enjoy the way in which it weaves the subjects and themes of Shakespeare into an Elizabethan conspiracy thriller.

The way in which elements of Shakespeare’s plays are woven into the material is masterful – Henry V, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet are just some of the plays that are referenced throughout, leading up to a climax which makes you want to watch the story all over again.

For those curious about Emmerich’s involvement, he manages to use his considerable technical skills as a big budget director to help shape a stunning depiction of Elizabethan England.

The production design, costumes and visual effects work wonders in creating a believable world – probably the best ever recreation of this period – even though the events which happen in it are wildly speculative.

It is this duality which makes Anonymous interesting – a film which uses the latest filmmaking technology is also an engaging depiction of the power of words in both politics and art.

There is also some stellar acting going on, most notably Rhys Ifans in the main role. After a wildly fluctuating career, he gives a performance of great depth and power, which is as welcome as it is surprising.

In supporting roles there is the neat trick of casting the mother and daughter team of Redgrave and Joely Richardson as Elizabeth I (both are excellent) and other reliable British thespians like David Thewlis in key roles.

The major flaw in terms of the characters is (ironically) the presentation of Shakespeare (Rafe Spall) as a total dolt, which is a failed attempt to position him in the traditional fool role – although any student of the plays knows it is often the fools who provide the insight and wisdom.

As for the failed joke in the otherwise excellent script about actors and playwrights, it didn’t prevent actors like Moliere and Pinter from becoming decent writers.

However, the presentation of the plays within the film is excellent – if a little inaccurate – and is probably the most advanced recreation of the Globe Theatre on film, showing how the audience were an important part of the experience (which also mirrors the political importance of the stage at the time).

The digital visuals by cinematographer Anna J. Foerster look incredible, with the darker candlelit interiors captured with amazing depth and clarity.

Shot on Arri’s (relatively) new Alexa camera, some scenes may be used as a benchmark test for what can be achieved using modern digital cameras.

For Emmerich this may be a glorious one-off before he goes back to the blockbuster realm – so good in fact, that future audiences might think he didn’t actually direct it.

> Official site
> Reviews and links about Anonymous from MUBi
> More on the Shakespeare Authorship Question at Wikipedia

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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Ides of March

A wonkish but highly efficient political drama provides George Clooney the chance to pay tribute to his favourite era of filmmaking.

Adapted from Beau Williams’ stage play Farragut North, the basic story is a cocktail loosely inspired by the skulduggery of recent US presidential primaries.

It focuses on a young, ambitious strategist (Ryan Gosling) who is assisting his campaign boss (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in getting an inspirational Democratic candidate (George Clooney) elected.

With the Republican field bare, the primary takes on extra significance, especially when a rival campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), a journalist (Marisa Tomei) and an intern (Evan Rachel Wood) start to pose ethical and moral dilemmas.

With a script credited to Williams, Clooney and Grant Heslov, it seems to be a deliberate attempt to apply the weary but wise tone of classic 70s cinema to recent times.

It offers up an approach that seems to draw on the best work of directors such as Alan Pakula and Sidney Lumet, with moral ambiguity, composed framing and a considered use of long takes all adding to the atmosphere.

Clooney has admitted that he delayed making this film until the brief tidal wave of hope that got Obama elected subsided and there is no doubt that this is trying to capture the dynamics of modern politics with an eye to the past.

It even appears to draw from some of the drama of the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, as well as its 2004 predecessor in which Williams worked for presidential hopeful Howard Dean.

Throughout the film is peppered with neat little political references, be it the Shepherd Fairey Obama poster, Eisenhower’s campaign slogan (‘I Like Ike‘ crosses party lines to become ‘I Like Mike’) and there is a great line about an ‘unofficial rule’ for Democratic candidates (which I wont spoil here).

It seems the writers and crew have been absorbing documentaries as D.A. Pennebaker’s The War Room, reading dishy campaign books such as Race of a Lifetime by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, whilst blending them in with current disillusionment about the US political system.

For non-political junkies, this occasionally veers into territory that some might consider arcane, with operatives discussing strategies, insider websites and how a story might be killed or resurrected (then killed again), which might leave some audience members cold.

The original title of the play refers to a Washington metro station near to where veteran campaign operatives ‘retire’ to create lucrative political consulting firms.

But Clooney has opted to widen the scope of the material: the new Shakespearean title (which both refers to Julius Caesar and Super Tuesday) and the emphasis on themes of loyalty give it a relevance beyond a particular campaign or country.

One of the most immediately pleasurable aspects of the film is the pacing of the narrative, which starts off brisk and then sucks you into the unfolding drama, courtesy of the script and Stephen Mirrione’s brisk, efficient editing.

Shooting on location in Ohio and Michigan has paid off handsomely, as the bleak wintry landscapes not only feel realistic but seem an appropriate backdrop for the actions of the central characters.

This is probably one of the most dazzling Hollywood ensembles in quite some time: Gosling is believable as the brilliant but naive protagonist; Clooney exudes the charm and ambition of a serious candidate; Seymour Hoffman and Giamatti excel as the weary but wise campaign managers and Wood and Tomei are convincing in small but key roles.

If there is a flaw with the casting, it is that actors of the quality of Jeffrey Wright and Jennifer Ehle are limited to very minor roles.

Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael skilfully channels the desaturated look of 70s dramas like Three Days of the Condor, The Conversation and to create a strong visual palette for the movie.

One particular influence appears to be Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, which starred Robert Redford as a hopeful Democratic candidate: it would make an interesting double bill with this film.

As an actor-director making serious movies inside the Hollywood system, Clooney is in some ways a modern day Redford and both films present fascinating depictions of ends justifying the means, both in politics and art.

Another film that offers an interesting comparison with this is Michael Clayton, a 2007 corporate thriller which itself was heavily indebted to Pakula’s conspiracy trilogy of the 1970s, only in The Ides of March it is Clooney in the Sydney Pollack (or maybe Tom Wilkinson?) role and Gosling in the Clooney part.

This isn’t quite on the same level as Tony Gilroy’s film, let alone its 70s forebears,  but it nonetheless offers us a darker-than-usual depiction of power, politics and the reality of grasping the White House from your ideological enemies .

The score by Alexander Desplat is suitably brooding and atmospheric, without ever overpowering the action on screen and combined with some clever sound editing, makes for some highly effective moments.

If The West Wing represented a fantasy of what the Clinton presidency could have been (and oddly predicted the Obama candidacy), The Ides of March perhaps represents a more realistic depiction of where American politics is at on the eve of the 2012 presidential election.

After Obama’s historic win of 2008, the country is more bitterly divided than ever: tea party lunacy fuelled by internet nonsense jostles with Wall Street occupiers feeling betrayed by the faith their Baby Boomer parents put in the governments of the last 30 years.

With both political parties and the current system seemingly paralysed by an inability to reform the financial system, a drama like this feels weirdly appropriate for the current times in which we live.

By showing the compromises and skulduggery on the campaign trail, it mirrors the bleak reality of politicians once they are in actually in power and the crushed dreams of the present era.

> Official site
> Reviews from Venice and Toronto at MUBi and Metacritic
> More on the play Farragut North at Wikipedia (Spoilers)

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Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews Thoughts

LFF 2011: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Director Lynne Ramsay’s return to films after nine years is a dazzling and disturbing adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel.

Cleverly adapting the epistolary form of the book with a flashback structure, Ramsay and co-writer Rory Kinnear have crafted a bold and unsettling drama that borders on horror.

It depicts the fears and anxieties of a middle class American mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton) as we see her disturbing relationship with her son over a number of years.

There is the doubtful pregnancy, where she seemingly regrets the loss of independence motherhood brings, and the different stages of Kevin.

We see the young toddler (Rocky Duer), the creepy 6-8 year old (Jasper Newell), the malevolent teenager (Ezra Miller) and the period after where Eva must shape a new life for herself.

Along the way, we see how events affect her husband (John C. Reilly) and younger daughter (Ashley Gerasimovich) as things spiral out of control.

It isn’t an exaggeration to describe this as a kind of horror movie, as it not only channels classics of the genre such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Omen (1976) but homes in with laser-like precision on the darkest fears of motherhood.

It’s effectiveness is such that I would warn expectant mothers to realise that this may do for parenthood what Psycho (1960) did for showering in remote hotels or Jaws (1975) did for swimming on a beach.

Nonetheless, this only speaks to the skill with which the book has been visualised for the big screen and the core themes and questions are all still here.

How much do the formative early years of childhood shape a character? Is it possible for evil to be an innate characteristic? Do ambivalent mothers somehow transmit their feelings to their offspring? Do parents and children pick sides in a family?

It is to Ramsay’s great credit that she has dealt with these uncomfortable concepts with such verve, whilst preserving the ambiguous, tantalising details which continually make us question characters and their actions.

The film looks stunning with the director and her cinematographer Seamus McGarvey opting for carefully composed widescreen images, which not only isolate Swinton’s protagonist but accentuate the little details which make up the visual fabric of the film.

Opting to use the colour red at every conceivable opportunity, the film seems to be referencing a similar visual motif from Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1971), an idea made more intriguing when you realise Luc Roeg (Nic’s son) is one of the producers.

We Need to Talk About Kevin plays like a weird contemporary reversal of that film: instead of the death of a child bringing tragedy upon a family, it is the birth of one that causes all the problems.

The intricate look is augmented by a rich audio design by Paul Davies, which brilliantly accentuates key sounds such as Kevin’s collicky screams against a builder’s drill or the grotesque eating of food to create a memorable ‘second layer’ to the film.

There is also the editing by Joe Bini (a veteran of Werner Herzog’s documentaries) which delineates between the different periods with consummate grace and also provides the film with a narrative drive as it circles around a key, revelatory event.

Jonny Greenwood’s atmospheric score isn’t quite up to the level of his work on There Will Be Blood (2007) but it does give the film a discordant quality, which syncs nicely with the rest of the film.

Despite the excellence of its construction, the film is dependant on a key lead performance from Tilda Swinton who more than delivers as Eva, reflecting the doubts, fears and weary disappointment of a woman caught in a living nightmare.

It is a very tricky character to play, by turns sympathetic and cold, but she delivers some of the best acting of her career here, which given her past roles is really saying something.

The supporting cast suffer a little from Swinton’s domination of the screen: John C Reilly feels a little miscast and Ezra Miller at times overdoes the demonic act to the point where some scenes feel like he’s auditioning for Damien: Omen II.

If there is a problem with the film, it may be that it is too effective for its own good.

Due to the collapse in the upscale indie market since 2008, Ramsay and the producers had to rework the script and budget in order to get the final financing in place.

I’m glad they did because this is a film that will stand the test of time, but as for its commercial prospects one can only wonder what the core audience for this film will think.

It could be that they appreciate the skill with which Shriver’s book has been adapted but also appalled at the way it burrows into their deepest fears and then explodes like an emotional dirty bomb.

I’ve already heard a couple of reactions to this film where members of the audience seemed viscerally angry with the way it dealt with a topic in a way which is probably still taboo.

Perhaps for some it will be too much and in the current recessionary climate its box office probably won’t be reflective of the sheer quality on display.

But over time I suspect it will be gain a certain status as a daring film and in the privacy of their own home many parents will sneakily watch it in the same way they used to sneakily observe horrors their parents banned them from seeing.

This is a unconventional family movie played as a tangible waking nightmare: there are Kevin’s out there and sometimes they happen to the best of parents.

> Facebook page
> Reviews of We Need to Talk About Kevin at MUBi

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Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2011: The Descendants

A comedy-drama set in Hawaii marks a triumphant return for director Alexander Payne after a seven year absence and provides George Clooney with arguably his best ever role.

Adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemming, it explores the thorny emotional dilemmas facing landowner Matt King (George Clooney) after his wife is involved in a serious boating accident.

He also has to deal with his two young daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) and the lucrative sale of ancestral land but when secrets emerge about the recent past he is forced to reexamine his life.

It seems odd that after all the critical and awards success of his last film, Alexander Payne should take seven years to make another, but the late 2000s indie collapse may have played a part.

I’m happy to report that The Descendants maintains his remarkable run of films that begun with Citizen Ruth (1996) and continued with Election (1999), About Schmidt (2002) and Sideways (2004).

Like those it masterfully blends sharp wit with heartfelt emotion, exploring the nuances of family relationships with an intelligence rarely seen in mainstream US cinema.

This has been a Payne trademark but the setting here provides a distinct visual flavour as well as an integral feature of the story, whilst the ensemble cast is outstanding.

Clooney in the lead role gives arguably his best ever performance, dialling down his natural charm to convey the confusion of a husband and father confronted with some harsh emotional truths about those he loves and – most importantly – himself.

Reminiscent of his best acting work in Out of Sight, Solaris, Michael Clayton and Up in the Air, he conveys a certain vulnerability whilst delivering the comic moments with consummate skill.

He is ably supported by what is one of the best supporting casts in recent memory.

The young actresses who play his immediate family members are terrific.

Woodley is a convincingly tempestuous but wise teenager, Miller as her younger sister is believably innocent and Clooney’s familial chemistry with them form the bedrock of the film.

There are also memorable turns from Robert Forster as a gruff father-in-law, Beau Bridges as a relaxed relative (seemingly channelling his brother Jeff as a Hawaiian Lebowski), Nick Krause as one of the daughter’s boyfriend, Matthew Lillard as an opportunistic real estate agent and Judy Greer as his loving wife.

None of these finely tuned performances would be possible without the screenplay by Payne (with credited co-screenwriters Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) which laces the gravity of the central situation with some brilliantly executed humour.

The way the central dramatic scenario is blended with the characters and the wider themes of inheritance and time feel like a masterclass in screenwriting.

Payne’s directorial execution is exemplary.

He has always demonstrated a keen eye for small, revealing details: the ballot papers in Election, the letters in About Schmidt or the TV clip of The Grapes of Wrath in Sideways.

Similarly, The Descendants is also filled with wonderful, human flourishes.

Payne sprinkles them throughout the film with relish and without giving away spoilers, particular highlights feature a swimming pool, a black eye, a sneaky kiss and a farewell speech.

Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is reminiscent of his work on Sideways, creating interesting interior compositions and contrasting them with some gorgeous widescreen exterior work.

Hawaii isn’t always presented here as a picture postcard paradise – an opening monologue shrewdly debunks its glamour (“Paradise can go f**k itself”) – but nonetheless it forms a beautifully telling backdrop to the narrative as the climax nears.

Payne has admitted that he spent months editing the film with Kevin Tent and it pays off as the comic and dramatic beats are timed to perfection, whilst the Hawaiian flavoured musical score gives the film a distinctive mood and texture.

It is also an interesting depiction of the Aloha state, drilling deeper into the heart of the place than TV shows which have used it as a backdrop (e.g. Hawaii Five-O or Magnum P.I.) and even more recent movies such as Punch-Drunk Love (2002), which was partly set there.

His early work often focused on his home state of Nebraska, but he has always managed to find universal truths within particular locations.

This is the case in his latest film as the family dilemmas are at once specific and yet embedded within the culture of America’s newest state.

Mainstream cinema often can’t resist clichĂ© whatever the genre, so it is doubly satisfying to find a filmmaker who excels in combining light and shade whilst using intelligent humour to enhance the gravity of the central narrative.

Strangely, it also plays like a reverse Michael Clayton: both lead characters are lawyers with relationship issues, but have to deal with very different financial circumstances.

Payne has long been a fan of classic 1970s cinema and where Tony Gilroy’s film channelled the spirit of Alan Pakula, this goes for a more bitter-sweet vibe reminiscent of Hal Ashby.

With strong reviews on the festival circuit and the marketing skills of Fox Searchlight behind it, The Descendants is likely to be a major player in the end of year awards season, but it is much more than just token Oscar bait.

In what happens to have been a year filled with remakes and sequels from the mainstream studios, this shows that Hollywood can still produce work which appeals to the brain as well as the heart.

The Descendants screens at the London Film Festival on Sunday (23rd) and Monday (24th) before opening in the US on November 18th and in the UK on January 27th

> Official site
> Festival reviews of The Descendants at MUBi

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DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer

The controversial 1986 drama gets a welcome re-release on Blu-ray with added extras and a solid transfer.

It is highly unusual that films get released to acclaim four years after they were made, but John McNaughton‘s feature debut is an interesting example of a film that eventually found its audience after initial problems with ratings boards in the US and the UK.

In the early 1980s McNaughton worked for Chicago production company MPI ran by Malik and Waleed B. Ali and directed two relatively successful documentaries, which both used public domain footage.

When they offered him just over $100,000 to make a horror film with a ‘plenty of blood’ the director hatched an ingenious idea – instead of making a horror with expensive creatures or make-up he decided to make a low-budget, but ultra-realistic film about a serial killer.

Opting to shoot guerilla-style in real life locations in the Windy City and based on a real life murderer Henry Lee Lucas, the end result was one of the most resourceful productions of its era and even today makes for disturbing viewing.

Depicting the wanderings of Henry (Michael Rooker) and his room-mate Otis (Tom Towles), the story follows them as they murder people at random and film them on videotape, as well as their relationship with Becky (Tracy Arnold) who happens to be Otis’ sister.

This might sound like kind of low-rent slasher film, but the clinical, detached way the murders are depicted make it a genuinely unnerving experience, unlike any film of its era.

Part of the strength of the film is how it subverts the conventions of movie killings: often in mainstream cinema we are invited to cheer the hero in a morality tale as he dispatches evil villains and faceless henchman whilst not worrying too much about the piles of corpses that litter the screen.

This often applies to many genres: western, war film or crime drama.

But what about a film that places us firmly inside the very world of a serial killer, focusing relentlessly on a man who murders innocent people?

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is just that film.

The genre is still blurry – Wikipedia calls it a ‘crime-horror‘, whilst around the release McNaughton described it simply as a ‘character study’.

Whatever the label, he shrewdly made a virtue of shooting on the streets and shady areas of Chicago, lending the film an added authenticity, whilst the use of video footage – Henry films and re-watches his murders – gives it an unsettling voyeuristic feel.

In some ways, the film was a hybrid of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, both haunting portraits of isolated loners in a hostile, urban environment.

Although Michael Rooker has gone on to have a decent career – mostly in supporting roles – he has never really bettered his methodical and relentless performance as Henry.

He cuts a much scarier figure than a later movie serial killer like Hannibal Lecter, who in the shape of Anthony Hopkins eventually became a kind of stylised anti-hero.

The connection with Thomas Harris’ creation is an interesting one because his 1981 novel Red Dragon was adapted by director Michael Mann into the film Manhunter at around the same time as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

By the mid-1980s the notion of the serial killer was forming in the American psyche and Harris’ novel was influential on the films, which – coincidentally – both shot in 1985.

Whilst the two directors opted for different stylistic approaches, they share a certain realism in how they depict a serial killer and helped lay the groundwork for the pop culture interest in them in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Both took an interesting approach to the genuine horror of serial murder – by taking two killers and stripping them of any supernatural trappings and placing them in the real world make them more believably creepy.

(Note how urban settings are favoured over remote rural backwaters such as Friday the 13th or Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies)

There are strange parallels between the two films: Mann’s adaptation was a stylish cop thriller which depicted a haunted FBI agent chasing a serial killer who works in a photo processing lab, whilst McNaughton’s is about the reality of the serial killers who film their exploits on videotape.

The killers also have intriguing similarities: Dollarhyde (played by Tom Noonan) and Henry have an attraction to a kind woman; film their victims; and seem to represent a darker side of Regan’s America.

Whilst Mann’s film was a commercial disappointment that became influential and rediscovered over time, McNaughton’s had its own lengthy battles with various ratings boards as it struggled to get a release both at the cinema and on home video.

In fact the release struggle of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is one of the most interesting case studies in film censorship of the last thirty years.

After screening at the Chicago Film Festival in 1986, distributors were interested in buying it but were put off by the X rating that the MPAA gave it, which essentially means commercial death as advertisers and cinema chains would refuse to touch it.

According to McNaughton, they were deeply troubled by the ‘general tone’, as well as certain scenes.

It wasn’t until Errol Morris caught a specially arranged midnight screening in New York that the film’s fortunes began to change, as he invited it to the 1989 Telluride Film Festival in Colorado, where the documentarian was serving as guest director.

People in the industry saw it and its battles with the MPAA – who still refused to change the X rating to an R – now added to the buzz surrounding the film, with the producer boasting that the film was “too disturbing”.

It what was a pioneering independent release strategy, the production company MPI opted to show the film unrated at cinemas around the US, taking the print around the country on a city-by-city basis.

The film was and remains disturbing, precisely because it rejects conventional movie violence: people are killed in a variety of ways but interestingly the censors often had a problem with the corpses we see after they have been killed off-screen.

This was the case with the British censors the BBFC, who had multiple issues with the film.

Whilst they seemed to acknowledge the film was not just a gratuitous of seeing a dark but thoughtful film they baulked at some scenes – especially one scene set inside a domestic home – before it was allowed a cinema release in April 1991.

For the home video release other cuts were made, with BBFC director James Ferman particularly objecting to one scene involving the watching of a murder on television, which was ironic as it destroyed the serious point it was making.

In the last decade the film has still had issues on its UK release in various home formats until 2003 when Optimum Releasing (now StudioCanal) finally secured a fully uncut version for classification for home video release.

The late 1990s had seen a more open minded attitude at the BBFC with ‘problem films’ such as The Exorcist being cleared for release in the home but the struggle to get Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer release perhaps hints at the genuine power of the film as well as the outdated thinking of our censors.

In particular, the most notorious sequence plays around with the very notion of watching a murder, as the audience observe killers reliving their deeds via a television set.

Dreadfully unsettling it may be – especially when watched in a home – but it is part of the overall construct of the film.

In fact, you could argue that it is the very essence of the film.

It is doubly ironic that censors treated the film as though it actually was the blood-drenched slasher the producers originally envisioned – not only did the repeated cuts help boost its profile, but McNaughton’s laudable artistic aims helped the film find favour with critics and discerning audiences.

Originally shot on 16mm, the transfer is surprisingly good, which is perhaps a testament to the durability of the format and the care with which the original film was shot.

Filmed in and around Chicago, often without official permission, the film has a suitably raw and grimy vibe which probably wouldn’t have been achieved if they had opted for a more ‘professional’ approach.

Eagle-eyed viewers might note that a key sequence is filmed in the same road – Wacker Drive – that Christopher Nolan would memorably use in The Dark Knight over twenty years later.

The extras on the disc feature some which were on the 2003 Optimum disc, but are boosted by a lengthy making of documentary and the 20/20 programme that originally gave McNaughton the idea for the film.

EXTRAS

  • Portrait: The Making of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer: Very comprehensive making-of-documentary which explores the history of the production.
  • The Serial Killers: Henry Lee Lucas: TV documentary about the real life inspiration for Henry.
  • Interview with Director John McNaughton: Lengthy interview with McNaughton about his career and the creation of the film.
  • John McNaughton in conversation with Nigel Floyd: Another lengthy interview, with greater focus on the censorship problems the film faced, especially in the UK with the BBFC.
  • Censorship History: Interactive timeline of the films troubled history with ratings boards.
  • Deleted Scenes and Outtakes with commentary by John McNaughton: Nigel Floyd and McNaughton discuss the scenes which caused particular problems with censors.
  • Stills Gallery
  • Original storyboards
  • Trailer
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is released on Blu-ray by StudioCanal on October 24th
> Buy Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon UK
> Find out more about Henry Lee Lucas at Wikipedia
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Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews Thoughts

LFF 2011: The Artist

An ingenious love letter to the silent era of Hollywood is executed with an almost effortless brilliance.

One of the surprise hits on the festival circuit this year has been a black and white French film shot in Los Angeles with two relative unknown actors in the lead roles.

You might think that this was some kind of strange experiment designed exclusively for cinephiles, but is actually one of the most charming and audience-friendly films to be released this year.

Opening in 1927, the story charts the fortunes of a silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardjin) and a rising young actress (Berenice Bojo) as the introduction of sound into cinema threatens to disrupt the established order.

As an box office star Valentin is dismissive of the new audio technology despite warnings from the key people (and animals) in his life: a cigar-chomping studio mogul (John Goodman), frustrated wife (Penelope Ann Miller), driver (James Cromwell) and a loyal dog (Uggie).

The key trick which director Michel Hazanavicius brilliantly pulls off is that the film itself is a silent movie (with some crucial exceptions) that manages to simultaneously pay homage to and have fun with a now distant era of the medium.

Not only has he clearly done his research on the period, using modern technology to recreate older techniques, but he brings in a sense of fun that could make this an unlikely cross over hit with open-minded audiences.

Cinematographer Guillaume Schiffman, production designer Laurence Bennett and costume designer Mark Bridges all combine to impressively recreate the 1920s, even if they slightly hold back on certain elements for effect.

Shot in the Academy ratio of 1:33, the use of music and inter-titles give it an authentic feel, but Hazanavicius has a lot of fun with this world, sprinkling sequences with a sophisticated but heartfelt humour.

There’s also lots of lovely touches such as spinning newspapers, exaggerated facial expressions and even a dog who seems to have a natural gift for comedy.

The lead performances are outstanding: Dujardin is every inch the silent matinee idol (heavily modelled on Douglas Fairbanks), whilst Bejos makes a charming foil.

Without using their voices – one of the essential tools of modern acting – their physical expression through their bodies and faces works beautifully and blends seamlessly with the intricately crafted world of the film and – even better – the films within the film.

In supporting roles, Goodman and Cromwell especially stand out, although special mention must go to Uggie (trained on set by Sarah Clifford and his owner Omar Muller), who is the most memorable screen dog since Flike in Umberto D. (he even won this year’s Palme Dog award).

There is so much intelligence and charm packed into The Artist that I’m reluctant to reveal too much, but I will say that sequences involving a movie premiere, a nightmare and a house fire provide more satisfaction and humour than most contemporary comedies do in their whole running time.

It doesn’t just riff on the silent era but also appears to have many references to classical Hollywood movies: Citizen Kane, A Star is Born and Vertigo are just some of the many movie easter eggs that discerning audience members will delight in spotting.

There is also the ingenious conceit that lies at the heart of the project: the film both is a recreation and pastiche of a silent-era melodrama, with much of the film mirroring both the classical style of the period and the actual film-within-a-film scenes.

If all this sounds a bit too clever for its own good, don’t be alarmed – it blends this sophistication with a suprisingly light touch and injects plenty of inventive physical humour into almost every sequence.

Hazanavicius is best known for his spy pastiches OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies and OSS 117: Lost in Rio but this film marks a new chapter for him as a director, even though he is using familiar elements (Dujardin and Bejo both worked in his previous films).

Whilst it shares the cunning craftsmanship and wry humour of his previous work there is something more audacious here in venturing to Hollywood in order to remind it of the wonder of cinema, which France invented and America exported around the world.

A contemporary French production baked in its love of older American movies, it is an unusual beast: sophisticated but accessible; nostalgic yet contemporary – the end result is almost a filmic representation of those two cultures shared passion for the movies.

There are many fascinating parallels with the present day: as Hollywood undergoes a painful but necessary transition to digital technology, roughly equivalent to the advent of sound, the film may have an unexpected resonance with contemporary filmmakers and audiences.

The fact that the economic difficulties of the Great Depression closely mirror those of the current climate will only add to its lustre, following in footsteps of silent icons like Chaplin and Keaton.

A late addition to this year’s lineup at Cannes, I can now see why Parisian sales company Wild Bunch and The Weinstein Company (who acquired distribution rights for several territories back in May) were so bullish about this film: on paper it sounds eccentric, but in front of an audience it works like magic.

Although it lost out on the Palme d’Or, Harvey Weinstein must surely be rubbing his hands with glee.

Not only does this film resemble last year’s unexpected hit The King’s Speech (a well crafted, feel-good period film) but it is also the kind of foreign language title he excelled in marketing to Oscar voters back in the 1990s heyday of Miramax (Il Postino and Life is Beautiful are just two titles which spring to mind).

Veteran Academy members and actors (the largest voting branch) will find much to feast on.

Not only is it an inventive, loving tribute to their industry and town, but it also deals with the fears and hopes of performers in the same way that an Oscar favourite like All About Eve managed to do (although that used Broadway as a substitute for Hollywood).

The main challenge will be getting audiences outside of the art-house realm to see it, but the word of mouth on this could potentially spread like wildfire once people experience the film’s heady charms for themselves.

Not only does the genuinely uplifting mood and sparkling invention make it attractive to audiences in depressing times, but the silent movie aspect means it could potentially translate across several continents and cultures.

A glorious and highly inventive tribute to cinema, its playful cleverness and uplifting tone often hide the considerable invention it took to craft what is easily one of the best films of 2011.

The Artist screens at the London Film Festival tonight (Tues 18th) and Saturday (22nd) before opening in the US on November 23rd. The UK release date is TBC

> Official site
> Collected reviews of The Artist at MUBi
> Find out more about the silent era of Hollywood at Wikipedia

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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn

Steven Spielberg’s long cherished dream of bringing Herge’s famous character to the screen utilises cutting edge visual effects to create a delightful adaptation.

Although as his first animated film it marks new technical territory for the director, the globe-trotting nature of the narrative closely resembles his Indiana Jones movies and he weaves something fresh and exciting out of a much loved character.

The story blends elements of the first three Tintin books – The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure – and centres around an intrepid reporter (Jamie Bell) and his loyal dog Snowy as they come across a valuable model boat.

They soon discover that various other people are interested in it and their investigation sees them come across various characters, including: enigmatic Sakharine (Daniel Craig), drink-soaked Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis) and twin Interpol agents Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg).

Using a similar 3D motion capture process that James Cameron pioneered on Avatar, Spielberg shot the actors on a stage with a virtual camera and then producer Peter Jackson’s visual effects company Weta Digital essentially animated over the performances and created the world in which they inhabit.

It should be noted that Jackson was closely involved in the project – he is even credited as 2nd unit director – and will probably co-direct a sequel, if this one meets commercial expectations.

The end result is visually stunning, a rich and immersive depiction of Herge’s world filled with impressive detail and colour.

Spielberg especially seems energised by the new process, exploring visual angles and movements that wouldn’t be possible in a conventional live action film.

Various action sequences utilise the virtual locations extremely well and the filmmakers really squeeze the excitement out of different spaces, be they streets, ships or deserts.

Nowhere is this more apparent in the character of Snowy – an integral part of Tintin’s world – who simply wouldn’t have been possible in a live action process (unless they found a ridiculously talented dog).

The motion-capture process also gives the main characters bodies a greater sense of weight and their movement a greater believability, although it is still early days in the technology when it comes to the detail of the face.

A slight sense of weirdness comes when there are facial close ups, as they are so rich in detail that they venture into uncanny valley territory, but overall this isn’t too much of a problem as the look has been carefully designed on pre-existing source material and isn’t meant to duplicate real people.

It perhaps isn’t a surprise that the stand-out performance comes from Serkis, now the most experienced motion-capture actor in the world after his pioneering work in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong and Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Not only is his character engaging and hilarious, his performance is the most complete hybrid of voice and movement in the cast, setting a new benchmark in this new technical zone of acting.

That said the other main performances – especially Bell – help bring their characters to life and unlike recent Robert Zemeckis films that have used motion capture (such as A Christmas Carol) they feel more complete and polished.

The recreation of light, be it from lamps on a ship or direct sunlight, is remarkable and matched by the tricky business of water (which is similarly impressive) giving scenes which combine them a real wow factor.

Mainstream audiences are likely to be dazzled by the overall look and some of the visual transitions, which explain potentially tricky plot elements, are done with such finesse and joy they suggest Spielberg was thoroughly enamoured with his new digital tool kit.

Is it too much of a stretch to suggest his love of shooting on celluloid and editing on a Steenbeck could be waning in the face of the possibilities afforded by digital? (Michael Kahn has confirmed that they edited the upcoming War Horse on an Avid)

Spielberg has always stated that he’s going to shoot on film stock for live action movies, but the screening of this in very week that Panavision and ARRI announced they would stop making traditional film cameras in favour of digital models seems like some kind of portent.

But whatever the future holds, this is probably Spielberg’s most purely enjoyable film since Minority Report as he handles the action and characters with effervescent aplomb, each sequence snapping easily into another.

Much of the solid foundation of the film lies in the witty, respectful script by British writers Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, who have wisely focused on getting the fundamental characters right and letting everything flow from there.

Fans of the books and a whole new audience will find much to enjoy in Snowy’s persistence, Tintin’s fearlessness and Haddock’s drunken wisdom, whilst enjoying the mix of playful humour and genuine excitement.

The eagle eyed will notice the loving references to Herge’s world and what seemed to me like Easter egg references to each of the first three Indiana Jones movies – I won’t spoil what they were, but keep an eye out for a van, a plane and a motorbike side-car.

In some ways, there are parallels to Raiders of the Lost Ark as that was an adventure film heavily influenced by existing source material (the serials of the 1930s and 40s) and Secret of the Unicorn sees Spielberg flex similar creative muscles, with its mix of fast-paced action, humour and globe-trotting adventure.

Perhaps the best credit you can give the filmmakers is that it seemed like they had a blast making it and that infectious enthusiasm – a classic trait in Spielberg’s best work – transmits to the end result.

As for the 3D, the filmmakers and distributor seem to have taken into consideration the problem of brightness levels, which has bedevilled recent releases such as Captain America: The First Avenger and the final Harry Potter movie.

Although the colours are distinctive to begin with, the brightness level on the cinema screen I saw (the Odeon Leicester Square in London) was amongst the best I’ve seen in a 3D screening and Spielberg also makes intelligent use of the sense of space that the medium offers.

As for the director’s usual collaborators, Michael Kahn’s editing helps give the film an energy and smooth sense of movement, whilst the score from John Williams – whilst not one of his most immediately melodic – forms a similar function and never overpowers the visuals.

Given the nature of the production, which involves digital rather than traditional photochemical cinematography, regular DP Janusz Kaminski has performed a different role as a ‘visual consultant’ but seems to have played a role in the realisation of Herge’s drawings and the virtual lighting and camera moves.

Unusually for a major release, this will be released in Europe almost two months before America, presumably to build buzz and anticipation in the continent where the characters are most familiar.

There was a lot that was unconventional about this project, as two major directors have teamed up for a franchise that is being released by a pair of major studios, with Paramount distributing in Europe and Sony in America.

It is ironic that the latest digital filmmaking technology has been utilised to bring such a traditional character to the big screen, but it says a lot that Spielberg and his team of collaborators have kept faith with the core characters and look of the source material.

The end result has a beautiful charm and simplicity to it which should appeal to a wide spectrum of audiences around the world, possibly paving the way for an enduring franchise.

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn opens in the UK on October 26th and in the US on December 19th

> Official Tintin site, Facebook and Twitter
> Find out more about the Tintin books at Wikipedia

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Cinema Festivals London Film Festival Reviews

LFF 2011: Shame

Steve McQueen‘s second feature is a stunning depiction of sexual compulsion.

Set in contemporary New York, it explores the life of an advertising executive (Michael Fassbender) who is struggling to cope with an addiction to sex and a needy sister (Carey Mulligan) who has just arrived to stay.

Like his astonishing debut, Hunger, this is bold filmmaking centred around an incredible central performance from Fassbender who manages to convey the pleasure and pain of a man in the throes of an all-consuming impulse.

Essentially a portrait of an addict enabled by the modern world (e.g. promiscuity, internet porn) the main character comes across as an unlikely combination of George Clooney in Up in the Air (surface charm hiding an inner emptiness) and Robert De Niro in Raging Bull (inner rage finding an expression through physical activity), with a dash of Christian Bale in American Psycho (only without the blood).

Fassbender manages to balance the fleshy demands of the role (which go near the boundaries of what is accepted in mainstream cinema) with an impeccable surface charm and is completely believable as a modern day sexual vampire.

Mulligan provides a compelling counterweight as a messy, needy sibling and the carefully calibrated chemistry between them hints at a dark past, which may (or may not) explain their present behaviour.

It says a lot that despite their strange, unusual actions, these characters feel utterly authentic and their worlds utterly defined.

Visually, Shame is almost a companion piece to Hunger as McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbit fill the screen with some stunning widescreen imagery.

Not only is there impeccable framing and the now signature long takes, including a breathtaking street sequence, but the use of lighting is also unusual – one night-time scene goes to the very limits of lighting and photography to great effect.

Despite the innate heaviness of the subject matter, there is also a surprising amount of charm and humour – after all the protagonist is someone who is necessarily seductive – and separate scenes involving a restaurant and an infected computer provide some clever light relief.

McQueen and Abi Morgan have written a screenplay which feels like a blue-print for a more visual style of storytelling, although some sequences – especially a telling, claustrophobic argument – are sharply scripted and allow the images on screen to say much more than words ever could.

The use of music is appropriately sombre and simultaneously epic, with Harry Escott‘s score channeling Hans Zimmer’s music to the The Thin Red Line (1998) – one signature piece is very reminiscent of Journey to the Line – whilst the use of Bach in places is restrained but highly effective.

New York provides an interesting metropolitan backdrop, as McQueen deliberately downplays the usual visual cliches (Empire State building, Statue of Liberty etc) to depict an urban environment which could actually be any modern city.

Apparently the filmmakers chose the Big Apple over London because it was easier to research sex addiction there, but it also provides a hauntingly sterile backdrop.

Production designer Judy Becker helps create interiors which match the emptiness of the characters, whilst the location filming brilliantly utilises trains, nightclubs and streets: all of the highs and lows of city living are displayed, with a visual attention to detail that is often jaw-dropping.

In the same way that Hunger used the 1981 IRA hunger strike to indirectly comment on modern day torture and incarceration, Shame could be seen as a telling metaphor for the soulless nature of urban living, fuelled by a self-destructive brand of capitalism.

In a month which has seen part of the city occupied by a younger generation puzzled and appalled by a global financial crisis partly engineered by their Baby Boomer parents.

Shame is a curiously timely film, even if its makers didn’t intend it to be.

There has already been considerable buzz about it on the festival circuit, due to the graphic sexual content and sheer quality of the acting and direction but, again like Hunger, it seems unlikely that this will break out of the urban art-house realm.

That being said, Fox Searchlight have acquired it (major kudos and respect to them) and are likely to make a big push for Best Actor for Fassbender.

Make no mistake, this is a performance that actors (the biggest voting block in the Academy) will be dazzled by.

After his breakthrough roles in Hunger and Inglourious Basterds, he has already demonstrated a remarkable command of screen acting: his physicality, voice and presence are something to behold.

Even if he doesn’t become a major A-list star that producers and agents clearly want him to be, who cares when he gives performances like this?

Older Oscar members might have a coronary at some of the sex scenes and those explicit, but never gratuitous, sequences are likely to pose an interesting dilemma for the distributor and the MPAA ratings board – many have predicted an NC-17 for this film in the US as the racier scenes are difficult to edit around, due to the way they have been shot.

Given that NC-17 spells commercial death for a film (it means reduced mainstream advertising and refusal of some multiplex chains to screen it) maybe it is time the ratings board grew up and gave this an R with no cuts?

After all, we live in an age when the most sadistic, violent junk is given the green light by the US ratings board but shots of a naked body are deemed to be immoral or unacceptable.

Or we would know this for sure if the MPAA was an open, accountable body, rather than the secretive shambles it currently is.

Despite the American setting, it is interesting to note that this is a home grown British production, with See-Saw Films teaming up with Film4 and some funding from the now defunct UK Film Council.

It is interesting to note that homegrown British films have undergone something of a renaissance in a terrible economic climate since 2008, compared to the Lottery funded disasters of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Is it an uncomfortable truth that bad social times lead to risk-taking directors with something to say?

Where Steve McQueen goes from here career wise is hard to call because I doubt he wants to take on the next big studio comic-book franchise, but if he can keep making films like this then discerning audiences will have much to be grateful for.

Shame screens tonight (Friday 14th) and tomorrow (Sat 15th) at the London Film Festival, opens in the US on December 2nd and in the UK on January 13th

> Shame on Twitter
> Reviews from Venice, Telluride and Toronto at MUBi

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Reviews

Blu-ray: Manhunter

The first screen appearence of Hannibal Lecter proved an important early film for Michael Mann and still ranks amongst his finest work.

In the mid-1980s Mann was coming off an acclaimed debut with Thief (1981) and the most glaring anomaly on his directing CV, the bizarre World War II horror fiasco The Keep (1983).

The critical and commercial failure of that film probably led to him returning to his old stomping ground of network television, where he served as show runner and executive producer on Miami Vice (1984-89) and Crime Story (1986-88).

Both of those shows seemed to recharge his creative batteries and provided a template of sorts for his adaptation of Thomas Harris’ 1981 novel Red Dragon.

Focusing on talented FBI agent Will Graham (William Petersen), it explores his attempts to catch a serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan) and the various people he has to deal with as he tries to stop the murders.

These include his superior (Dennis Farina), an incarcerated killer Hannibal Lektor (Brian Cox), a sleazy journalist (Stephen Lang), his long suffering wife (Kim Griest) and an innocent woman caught up in the hunt (Joan Allen).

During the 1980s producer Dino De Laurentiis was not exactly known for making high art, but in 1986 he scored a spectacular double bill by financing by two important films by great American directors.

David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) was a landmark classic, whilst Mann’s Manhunter was unfairly overlooked and a box office disappointment, despite growing in acclaim in the years since then.

A wonderfully controlled thriller, it anticipates Mann’s future work – especially Heat (1995) – with its stunning widescreen compositions, moody electronic score and portrait of obsessive loners in a criminal world.

Although rightly celebrated for his visuals and meticulous research, Mann also frequently elicits powerful performances from his actors and William Petersen is outstanding as the haunted protagonist.

An unusual character for the cop genre, he is both vulnerable (recovering from a mental breakdown as the story opens) and brilliant – note how much of the film involves Graham sitting around and empathising with a killer, in order to catch him.

Petersen has never been better here and the supporting cast is filled with strong actors: Farina, Noonan, Lang and Allen are all excellent and it was important early exposure for many of them.

It was overshadowed five years later when Jonathan Demme adapted Thomas Harris’ follow up novel, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), which was a major box office and Oscar triumph which saw Anthony Hopkins make Lecter into an iconic screen villain.

There are many intriguing comparisons between the two films: Mann went for a more stylised approach than Demme, with cinematographer Dante Spinotti crafting some beautifully precise compositions that utilise the full frame; Tak Fujimoto opted for a more restrained style, which often favours close-ups and point of view shots.

Compare how differently the directors interpret Lecter being questioned in jail: Mann opts for a white, antiseptic environment, whereas Demme goes for a dirtier, almost Gothic sensibility.

The differing approaches are also reflected in how Cox and Hopkins played Lecter: the Scottish actor exudes a certain blank charm, whereas Hopkins opts for a more mannered approach – like their directors, both are equally effective in different ways.

Another odd legacy of the film is how years later Petersen eventually became the star of the TV blockbuster show CSI (2000- ), which in some ways is a more commercial reprise of his work on Manhunter.

Mann’s emphasis on the procedural aspects of police investigation has also arguably influenced shows such as The X-Files (1993-2002) and films like Seven (1995).

It says a lot about the quality of his 1986 film that it still holds up extremely well: this Blu-ray is taken from the restored version and offers the choice of the original Theatrical Version or Director’s Cut.

The extra footage on the director’s cut was obviously taken from an inferior source – so those extra scenes are a little degraded – so it’s only of interest to those wanting to see some of the scenes filled out a little more.

However, the image quality on the main version is excellent and the special features are also solid.

SPECIAL FEATURES

  • Trailer: The original theatrical trailer for Manhunter. In English, not subtitled. (3 mins)
  • Inside Manhunter: Solid featurette from the DVD version in which various cast members recall their contribution to the film. (18 mins)
  • The Manhunter’s Look: Cinematographer Dante Spinotti discusses the framing, lighting and use of colour seen in the film. (11 mins).
  • Director’s Cut: Option to view the director’s cut of of the film. In English, not subtitled. (120 min).
  • Director’s Cut With Audio Commentary: Director’s cut of Manhunter with an audio commentary by director Michael Mann.

> Buy Manhunter on Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> More on the film at the IMDb
> Michael Mann at Wikipedia and MUBi

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DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

DVD & Blu-ray: Quatermass and the Pit

The third and most interesting film in the famous British sci-fi franchise gets a worthy transfer to DVD & Blu-ray, along with some solid extras.

Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass TV series subsequently led to a follow-up film series: The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), Quatermass 2 (1957) and a decade later Quatermass and the Pit (1967), which was called Five Million Years to Earth in the USA.

Although better known for their horror films during this time, the character of Quatermass was something of a money spinner for Hammer at this point and proved very popular with audiences, who were both scared and fascinated by the possibilities of science.

This film begins with the discovery of a mysterious alien ship beneath London and the subsequent investigation which sees Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir) called in by the British army to offer an explanation as to what it is about.

Director Roy Ward Baker was probably best known at this point for directing A Night To Remember (1958) – the ‘other’ film about the Titanic – and during the 1960s was also directing TV shows such as The Avengers, The Saint, The Persuaders! and The Champions.

He keeps things tight here and despite a couple of dated visual effects, the film is surprisingly ambitious in its ideas: unlike the little green men of 1950s US sci-fi, we are presented with the radical concept that man might have evolved from alien creatures and that we could be psychically connected with them.

Coming after a decade when alien invasion movies were essentially Eisenhower-era metaphors for communism, this was pretty radical stuff.

Quatermass is often seen as a weary Oppenheimer figure in opposition to the complacent military and its worth remembering that it was made and released at the height of the Vietnam War and a time of great social change.

Often genre films are ignored for their political subtext, but it is precisely because of this that they can be trojan horses for more serious themes – the Quatermass franchise reflects the fear and promise of science and this one is especially interesting as it seems to reflect an uncertainty and mystery.

As with a lot of the better sci-fi material in the 1960s (Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K Dick) it relied on the strength of its own ideas rather than epic scale and there is something quietly radical about a mainstream films questioning the historical origins of man.

Although sci-fi movies would take a quantum leap the following year with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Quatermass and the Pitt marked out its own little corner of the genre and, like Kubrick’s film, was also shot at MGM British Studios in Elstree.

Even though it stays in roughly the same location, Arthur Grant’s visuals and Kenneth Ryan’s art direction give it a more detailed look than one might expect and the Nigel Kneale screenplay skilfully juggles ideas with tension.

Keep an eye out too for Julian Glover as an army officer and compare his fate with the Nazi deaths at the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); then ponder his casting in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) as he also features here.

Was Spielberg a fan of this film, or was it just coincidence?

While some visual effects are not up to scratch – some alien bodies look like cardboard terrapins dipped in green paint – the difficulties of doing optical effects back then was a major handicap.

Despite this there is enough of here to interest fans of the film and genre, whilst Optimum have done a sterling job with the Blu-ray transfer, releasing this as a double play edition.

SPECIAL FEATURES

  • New UK exclusive interviews with Julian Glover, Mark Gatiss, Judith Kerr, Kim Newman, Joe Dante and Marcus Hearne
  • Audio commentary with Nigel Kneale and Roy Ward Baker
  • World of Hammer – Sci-Fi Episode
  • UK and US trailers

> Buy the DVD & Blu-ray Dual edition from Amazon UK
> More about the Quatermass character at Wikipedia

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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Melancholia

Despite a Cannes premiere overshadowed by controversy, director Lars Von Trier has returned with arguably his finest film.

It explores the relationship between two sisters at a large country house: Justine (Kirsten Dunst), recently married to Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who along with her husband (Kiefer Sutherland), has organised the wedding and reception.

Split into two parts, the first involves an extravagant wedding reception, filled with misery; whilst the second focuses on the two sisters as they stay in the same location, as a large blue planet called Melancholia threatens to collide with the earth.

Opening with a stunning slow-motion overture, set to Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, it blends intimate drama with grand, apocalyptic disaster and the end result is a stylish and – unusually for Von Trier – heartfelt film.

In the past the director’s sneaky, contrarian could be both a blessing and a curse, making his films boldly inventive, exasperating, or sometimes both.

His last film Antichrist (2009) displayed some of his undoubted gifts as a director before collapsing into a ludicrous orgy of violence and hysteria, which scandalised the audiences at its world premiere in Cannes.

After the climactic scene of the film – which was one of those genuine ‘is Von-Trier-taking-the-piss?’ endings – a bizarre dedication appeared to Andrei Tarkovsky.

Why? I’m not exactly sure, other than the Danish director seems like a big fan.

But strangely, it is his latest that bears the touch of the great Russian director.

Here he seems to be channelling two very different films: Solaris (1972), with its exploration of a ‘living’ planet affecting human emotions, and The Celebration (1998), Thomas Vinterberg’s hellish depiction of a family gathering, which still stands as the highpoint of the Dogme movement Von Trier helped create.

But Melancholia has its own unique charms and manages to capture the Dane at his very best – he never takes the material too seriously, but also isn’t afraid to indulge in big, bold strokes.

The wedding section is filmed with his puckish sense of humour that often drives his detractors crazy: not only do the happy couple struggle to even reach the party in their limousine, but when they get there, discover that no-one is really happy anyway.

Opting for a handheld shooting style, after the slow-motion imagery at the beginning, the director has a lot of fun with the tacky misery of the event: the meaningless counting of beans, unhappy relationships and fruitless driving around in golf carts create a tangible atmosphere.

Rarely has despair been so joyously captured on screen.

But there is something more here than Von Trier just having a cheap dig at the shallow pretensions of the rich: he is making a wider point about human emotions, our capacity for self-delusion and the wisdom of despair. Speaking of emotions, according to Cine Vue some films are able to make us smell scents and feel other sensations apart from the audio-visual experience.

If we are going to die and life is meaningless anyway, surely it is the natural condition?

As the second half of the film progresses, Christine appears to grow stronger as her misery gives way to a higher wisdom about her situation and that of the planet.

This could have been what he was aiming for in Antichrist, in which nature was a chaotic force that ‘reigned’ over the humans.

But here he seems a little more focused as wider cosmic forces in the shape of a rogue planet come to affect the central characters – but instead of shrill hysteria and genital mutilation we get a richer reflection on life and existence.

Both films could be seen as a therapy double-bill for the director – who has talked about his battles with depression over the last few years – but with Melancholia he seems to be taking his foot off the accelerator and his work feels all the better for it.

Coming across as a darker, more subversive version of Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married (2008), it is a perfectly pitched antidote to the traditional ‘movie wedding’ (frequently a virus-like staple of US romantic comedies) and sprinkled with a pleasingly arch mood.

This is matched by some great locations and production design: the use of Tjolöholm Castle in Sweden is inspired, providing a visually interesting backdrop, with its immaculately tendered golf course, claustrophobic interiors and frequently stunning exteriors, which revolve around atmospheric night scenes of the ever encroaching blue planet.

Dunst gives a career-best performance, convincingly showing her character’s descent into depression and subsequent stoic acceptance of impending global doom, whilst Gainsbourg is equally strong as a more naïvely empathetic character.

Their chemistry as sisters is physically unlikely, but emotionally believable and as the film progresses they provide some of the best acting in a Von Trier film since Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves (1995).

Although he often gets criticised for torturing his female characters, he frequently manages to draw emotionally brave performances from them, unlike many directors working in the mainstream.

In the supporting cast, John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling have small but juicy roles as bickering parents whilst Kiefer Sutherland brings considerable depth to his delusional rich, husband who struggles to keep up the veneer that everything will be OK.

The film could be seen as an extended metaphor for the depressed artist (namely Von Trier himself), in that no-one really believes Justine when she is ill and her advertiser bosses are always asking what her next project might be.

That is one valid interpretation, but its hard not see the film as Von Trier pointing out the craziness of polite society (ironically the people who go to see his films) and how it is the seemingly unhinged who cope the best when truly bad things happen.

Given that there is no evolutionary reason for depression, an ailment which often leads to self-destruction, perhaps it is a painfully valuable reminder of our mortality?

Such heady ideas are expressed with considerable skill as Von Trier interchanges a rough and ready visual style, with some stunningly beautiful sequences, which include helicopter shots and slow-motion tableau.

It almost provides a snapshot of his own career, as the rough Dogme aesthetic of his earlier work blends with a lush beauty that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro assists with some stunning digital images throughout – this was one of the first films to shoot on Arri’s Alexa camera – whilst the visual effects of the encroaching planet supervised by Peter Hjorth evoke an appropriate sense of wonder and awe.

All this marks a highpoint in Von Trier’s career, which is all the more shame that he undid a lot of that hard work by making some foolishly ill-placed jokes at the launch of the film in Cannes.

He clearly wasn’t being serious when he jokingly called himself a Nazi, said he understood Hitler and made some inappropriate remarks about Susanne Bier, as well as ‘planning a hardcore porn movie’ with Dunst and Gainsbourg.

But given the particular sensitivities still felt in France about the Holocaust and the instantaneous nature of modern news, it was an ugly episode in which Von Trier’s bad-boy act came back to haunt him as he was banned from the festival.

Typically, Von Trier has since played up his persona non grata status, but forget the off-screen nonsense and enjoy what is an unexpectedly beautiful vision of the apocalypse.

 

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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 cinĂ©ma 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 MiklĂłs RĂłzsa’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 RĂłzsa’s score: This is probably for more specialist tastes but given that RĂłzsa’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 RĂłzsa’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.
> Buy Ben Hur on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK
> Find out more about Ben-Hur at Wikipedia
> William Wyler profile at TSPDT
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Cinema Reviews

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

This impeccably crafted adaptation of John le Carre’s Cold War thriller finds new resonance in an era of economic and social crisis.

Set in the murky world of British intelligence during the 1970s, retired agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is hired to find out the identity of a Soviet double-agent inside ‘the Circus’ (in house name for MI6) and solve a looming crisis.

Along with his new partner Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and an agent in hiding (Tom Hardy), Smiley focuses on a group of suspects whom their former boss (John Hurt) had given nicknames: Percy ‘Tinker’ Alleline (Toby Jones); Bill ‘Tailor’ Haydon (Colin Firth); Roy ‘Soldier’ Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Toby ‘Poor Man’ Esterhase (David Dencik).

Rather than comparing it to the acclaimed 1979 TV series with Alec Guinness as Smiley, it is better to think of this as fresh adaptation of the original novel, as it not only skilfully compresses the action into 127 minutes but also introduces some clever changes which establish a fresh version of le Carre’s world.

The screenplay by Peter Straughan and the late Bridget O’Connor moves things around, but preserves the essential story inside a clever flashback structure, which along with a key Christmas party scene (not in the book) neatly fuses the themes and plot.

But it is the hiring of Swedish director Tomas Alfredson and his cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema that proves the real masterstoke.

Fresh from the success of Let The Right One In (2009), they convey the slow burn tensions of the time with a piercing outsiders eye.

The framing of shots and muted colour palette are accomplished with laser like precision, whilst the the drab horror of the Cold War and the incestuous, Oxbridge world of UK intelligence is evoked with remarkable aplomb.

This is augmented by some wonderful production design from Maria Djurkovic and costumes by Jacqueline Durran, which convincingly depict an era which can be prone to kitsch or parody.

Also worth noting is the impressive sound design by John Casali, which seems to be channelling Walter Murch’s work in The Conversation (1974) – another film where a weary protagonist tries to process a world in which appearances can be deceiving.

Alberto Iglesias’ score lends the film a distinctive mood with its sparse piano and mournful strings, whilst some of the musical choices are judged to perfection, especially a memorable montage sequence involving a Julio Igelsias version of ‘Le Mer’.

The action frequently involves a patient Smiley quietly venturing between the strange, slang-infected world of ‘the Circus’ and meeting various people with whom silence is frequently more telling than the words that come out of their mouth.

Gary Oldman is vital in making this approach work, with his tangible screen presence and deliberately restrained performance. Marking a pleasant change from the raw energy of his earlier career, he imbues Smiley with a weary, quiet dignity.

The supporting cast is crammed with stellar British acting talent: Colin Firth, John Hurt, Mark Strong and Benedict Cumberbatch are particularly excellent in smaller-than-usual roles in an ensemble which snaps together like a particularly satisfying jigsaw puzzle.

Two key supporting characters are shrewdly never shown in this version even though their presence is keenly felt. They gain greater meaning via their absence, especially as it impacts on Smiley and further stokes the themes of trust and deception.

In his writing career, le Carre managed to mine his own Cold War experiences to create lasting depictions of the simmering intrigue and tensions of a period when the world flirted with nuclear annihilation.

George Smiley has proved his most memorable character and it is striking that such a particular novel as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy can find new resonance in an era of economic disaster, intractable wars and disillusionment with established institutions.

But is this film version too good for its own good?

Upscale audiences hungry for quality fare in a cinema landscape dominated by sequels and animation will eat this up and help power it to BAFTA and Oscar recognition.

The question mark hanging over it is whether a younger audience – for whom the Cold War is ancient history – will respond to its slow pace, opaque slang and considered editing style.

For viewers weaned on a diet of quickly edited action movies or CGI-fuelled comic-book morality tales, this may seem like something from another planet.

Whilst that will come as a relief to some, it may spell problems at the box office.

But whatever its commercial fate it is true to the source material: le Carre has often provided a steady corrective to the brightly coloured fantasies of James Bond.

Where Ian Fleming gave us escapist Cold War fantasies, Le Carre provided sobering reflections on the dark secrets that power human conflict.

The story of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy drew upon the Cambridge Five spy ring and the shattering realisation that the British establishment had been deeply infiltrated by the KGB from within.

The airing of the TV serial in 1979 coincided with the shocking revelation that not only was Anthony Blunt a spy but that the British Government had been keeping this a secret for 15 years.

Some critics may resent Le Carre for what they see as a distorted version of British intelligence, though I suspect whatever the precise accuracy of his novels, they provide a telling metaphor for the closeted hypocrisies of a nation unable to deal with its diminished global status during the post-war years.

In a similar way, this film adaptation feels timely after public anger at the deceptions used to justify two wars, a banking crisis – which may still trigger an economic apocalypse – and an insular political class which seems bereft of solutions.

Alfredson’s film is a brilliantly realised version of Le Carre’s book, but whether cinema goers want to be reminded that the world is often a dark and horrible place is the kind of question which would have given George Smiley a sleepless night.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy opens in the UK on Friday 16th September and in the US on December 9th

> Official site, Facebook page and Twitter feed
> Find out more about John Le Carre, the original novel and the Cold War at Wikipedia
> Early reviews of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy after its Venice premiere
> Radio 4 interview with John le Carre about the film
> BBC News on the realism of le Carre’s world (Warning: Spoilers)

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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Jane Eyre

An exquisitely realised adaptation of Charlotte BrontĂ«’s novel injects new life into the much filmed text.

Opening with a key flash-forward sequence, the story depicts the struggles of a young woman (Mia Wasikowska) in 19th century England as she survives a tough childhood, before eventually working at a country house owned by the moody Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender).

Along the way Jane encounters an uncaring aunt (Sally Hawkins), a cruel teacher (Simon McBurney), a sympathetic parson (Jamie Bell) and an amiable housekeeper (Judi Dench).

There is also the matter of her own emotions, which are considerably stretched by her enigmatic new boss who not only has his own feelings for her, but seems to embody the 20th century phrase “it’s complicated”.

Often British literary costume dramas can be lifeless museum pieces but BBC Films and Focus Features made the wise choice of hiring director Cary Fukunaga to adapt an elegant script by playwright Moira Buffini.

His stunning debut Sin Nombre (2009) depicted a wildly different exterior world to Bronte’s England, but the interior emotional terrains are surprisingly similar.

Part of what makes this adaptation so striking is the stylish, unfussy way in which Fukunaga shoots the characters and their environment.

Every drab, visual clichĂ© of the British period film – be it the moors, country houses or costumes – is revamped to create a believable world which feels richly alive.

Along with cinematographer Adriano Goldman, Fukunaga uses realistic lighting – with some night scenes lit by fireplaces and candlelight – and smooth, composed framing to create a striking visual look.

The use of the Derbyshire locations is also interesting (and not just because they are standing in for Yorkshire), as they retain the darkly gothic vibe of the book but are also subtly augmented with lighting and visual effects.

This is all helped by some terrific production design by Will Hughes-Jones and period costumes by Michael O’Connor (although Fukunaga has admitted they skipped a decade because dresses in the 1830s made women look like ‘wedding cakes’).

But the beating heart of this film lies with Wasikowska and Fassbender, who both lift the film on to another emotional level with their depiction of the central, slow burning relationship.

Jane is complex and iconic female role but Wasikowska impressively conveys her quiet determination and emotional longing, whilst Fassbender demonstrates again why he is already one of the most sought after actors working today, as his Rochester feels believably human, whilst maintaining the air of mystery that surrounds him.

Together they form a deeply moving couple as two lost souls struggling to realise that in each other they have found the possibility of love and understanding.

Hollywood insiders, casting directors and cultural tastemakers are currently obsessed with these two young actors, but on the evidence of this film it is easy to see why.

The supporting cast is also excellent, especially Judi Dench who is cleverly cast against type as Mrs. Fairfax: her warm housekeeper provides a welcome contrast to her sterner roles in the Bond series or countless Miramax period movies.

Composer Dario Marianelli wisely keeps away from melodramatics, using a subtle blend of violin, piano and strings to create a rich musical foil to the emotions on screen.

Part of the enduring appeal of the novel is that depicts decent people struggling to find happiness in a cruel and inhospitable world.

Perhaps out of reverence, the previous eighteen film adaptations cautiously trod around the novel and merely prodded at its emotional centre.

Although this excises some of the religious material of the book – perhaps for time or contemporary relevance – this is the best screen version of Jane Eyre so far, as Fukunaga’s outside American eye manages to unlock the deeper themes inside of it.

> Official site
> Reviews of Jane Eyre at Metacritic
> Find out more about the original novel at Wikipedia

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Reviews

DVD: My Voyage to Italy

Martin Scorsese’s classic 1999 documentary on Italian cinema gets a welcome release on DVD this month.

In addition to being one of the great directors of his generation, Scorsese has long been a passionate advocate for cinema itself by making documentaries and helping create the World Cinema Foundation.

In 1995 he made the four hour A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, which examined key films up to 1969, focusing on directors such as D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Elia Kazan, Nicholas Ray and Stanley Kubrick.

Four years later he took a similar journey into the heart of Italian cinema and explored the films which had such an effect on him and his relatives growing up in New York.

Scorsese was born to parents who both worked in the Garment district and his father’s parents had emigrated from the province of Palermo in Sicily.

As a boy his parents and older brother would take him to the movies but he would also catch Italian films of the post-war era on the emerging medium of television.

In those days television was still in its infancy and the fledgling stations needed programming which they often filled with Italian movies.

As sets were quite rare, relatives and friends would gather round to watch films in his family apartment in 253 Elizabeth Street.

It was whilst watching movies dealing with the pain of post-war Italy that Scorsese saw his grandparents (who hardly spoke English) powerfully affected by what was on screen.

In that was born a desire to see more Italian cinema and this four hour documentary charts the landmark films and directors of that era, including Vittorio de Sica, Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Roberto Rosselini and Michelangelo Antonioni.

Scorsese introduces various segments and through judicious use of clips and an informed, eloquent voiceover takes us on a journey of the following films:

Given his wealth of knowledge and infectious passion, just watching this DVD is like attending a the best film class you never had and it’s worth remembering that after attending NYU, Scorsese remained there as a teaching assistant and eventually a professor of Film.

Incidentally, amongst his students at this time was a young Oliver Stone, who may have been an influence on the central character of Taxi Driver (1976).

He knows what he’s talking about and gives precise, eloquent descriptions of each movie, using his years of experience in front of a screen as well as behind the camera.

Part of what makes My Voyage to Italy so special is that Scorsese brings the same passion and intelligence to describing these films as to those he has made.

Unlike some directors, he’s always retained his enthusiasm as a viewer which triggered his desire to make films.

There are numerous astute observations laced throughout, including:

  • How Rome, Open City (1945) essentially led to the birth of Italian neo-realism
  • The impact of L’Amore (1948) on US cinema after it led to a key Supreme Court decision which stated film was a form of artistic expression protected by the First Amendment
  • The influence of Chaplin on Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D (1952)
  • How a complex shot of a controversial battle in Luscio Visconti’s Senso (1954) led to the studio burning the negative elements of those scenes
  • How the term ‘paparazzi‘ became a popular term after the name of a character in La Dolce Vita (1960)
  • The slow burn appeal of Journey to Italy (1954) and how it was championed by French New Wave directors such as Godard and Truffaut.
  • The elliptical appeal of L’avventura (1960) and Antonioni’s precise use of the frame
  • The dream-like appeal of Fellini’s 8Âœ (1963) which is like a ‘visual stream of consciousness that keeps the audience in a constant state of surprise’ and how it is the ‘purest expression of love for the cinema’ that Scorsese knows of.

These films might seem to some like ancient cinematic history, but their treatment of social issues have a new relevance in the current recession as people struggle with harsh economic conditions.

Modern versions of the young boy in Germany, Year Zero, the father and son in Bicycle Thieves and the lonely old man in Umberto D can probably be found in any modern city just some of the characters struggling to survive in a cruel world.

But most of all this is 246 minutes of one of the great US directors imparting his passion about some of the most important films of the 20th century.

If you care about the medium, then it is an essential purchase.

My Voyage to Italy is released on DVD by Mr Bongo Films on September 26th

> Buy My Voyage to Italy on DVD from Amazon UK
> Find out more about Italian neo-realism at Green Cine
> Martin Scorsese at Wikipedia
> Scorsese talking about the documentary on Charlie Rose in 1999

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Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Drive

This ultra stylish LA noir not only provides Ryan Gosling with an memorable lead role but cleverly takes a European approach to an American genre film.

When an enigmatic stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) decides to help out his neighbour (Carey Mulligan) and her family, he finds himself caught up in a dangerous game with a local businessman (Albert Brooks).

Hollywood driver by day and getaway driver at night, the nameless protagonist finds his spartan existence threatened by his emotions and an increasingly tangled web of criminality.

The opening sequence sets the mood as we hear the Driver explain his code of rules and then assist in a getaway which shows both his mastery of cars and the backstreets of Los Angeles.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn shoots the city with a coolly detached European eye: his images are steady, composed and artful, whilst jolts of violence and sparse dialogue make it feel like a modern day update of a Leone western or a Melville crime drama.

Adapted from a 2005 novel by James Sallis by screenwriter Hossein Amini, it was originally going to be a bigger budget film with Hugh Jackman in the lead and Neil Marshall directing.

However, the decision to rebuild the project as a sleeker, lower cost model has proved inspired as it manages to successfully combine satisfying genre elements within a stylish European exterior.

Attired in a satin jacket, Gosling is borderline iconic in the lead role, channelling the likes of Steve McQueen in Bullit (1968) and Alain Delon in Le Samurai (1967), but also displaying an undercurrent of emotion as he quietly seeks human intimacy.

In a male-dominated crime story Mulligan is given less to do, although she has a tangible screen presence, and in a minor supporting role Christina Hendricks feels almost unrecognisable from Mad Men.

Brooks has the stand out supporting role as a wily crime boss and he’s brilliantly cast against type, injecting the role with just the right blend of geniality and menace, whilst Bryan Cranston, Ron Perlman and Oscar Isaac offer solid support.

Refn often opts for enigmatic silence or music, instead of clumsy dialogue to reveal emotions: sequences involving drives, hallways or lifts are expertly handled and the help connect the dazzling visual artifice with a deep emotional core.

The pacing is lean and mean, without a scene being wasted as the narrative plays around with the heist movie form; establishing, overhead shots of LA unusually focus on the cars and there are some genuinely surprising moments sprinkled amongst the genre elements.

Newton Thomas Siegel‘s widescreen cinematography paints a striking vision of LA as a neon-soaked den of crime but also frames the domestic interior and driving sequences in fresh and interesting ways.

Using the digital Arri Alexa camera, the LA night time visuals are strikingly alive (superior in quality to the digitally-shot Collateral back in 2004) and the tasteful, considered compositions feel like gulps of fresh air in an era of chaotic action visuals.

The sound design by Lou Bender and Victor Ray Ennis also really sells the action, be it the squeak of Gosling’s driver gloves, the roar of his car engine or the cracking of bone, even though conventional set-pieces are kept to a minimum.

A dramatic car chase stands out not only because it is expertly put together but because in an age of over reliance of green screen trickery, the filming of real cars on actual roads seems to be a dying art.

The soundtrack blends tracks from the likes of Kavinsky, College and Desire with Cliff Martinez‘s pulsating electronic score, creating a rich sonic backdrop which chimes in perfectly with the visuals.

This all provides the best musical backdrop to an LA crime movie since Heat (1995), where Michael Mann recruited Elliot Goldenthal to provide a dramatic score, whilst utilising invaluable contributions from Brian Eno, Michael Brook and Moby.

The film builds on the noble tradition of European directors filming crime movies in California: Point Blank (1967) and Bullit (1968) are obvious touchstones, but there is also a strong American influence of films such as The Driver (1978), To Live and Die in LA (1985) and Manhunter (1986).

This blending of European and American sensibilities is what makes Drive such an intoxicating mix: like the central character, it is stylish creation of few words but has a lasting impact on those who see it.

It is no wonder the audience at the Cannes premiere were beguiled by the fusing of transatlantic sensibilities which have fuelled the festival since its inception.

The question mark that hangs over the film is whether or not US distributor FilmDistrict can get people to go and see it: some may be put off by the flashes of violence but if art house and mainstream audiences keep an open mind, this could be a richly deserved hit.

Drive opens in the UK on September 23rd and in the US on September 16th

> Official Facebook page
> Reviews of Drive at Metacritic
> Reactions to Drive at Cannes 2011
> Excellent Cinema-Scope interview with Refn on the making of Drive

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Kill List

Despite some intriguing twists this horror film suffers from many of the problems that afflict homegrown British cinema.

The story explores what happens when two hit men, Jay (Neil Maskell) and Gal (Michael Smiley), are hired for a job which becomes ever more sinister and mysterious.

It is hard to discuss the plot without giving away major spoilers, but it also depicts the emotional fallout on Jay’s wife, Shel (MyAnna Buring), Gal’s enigmatic new girlfriend (Emma Fryer) and various other characters including a mysterious client (Struan Rodger) who they meet up with in a hotel.

To the credit of director Ben Wheatley, who co-wrote the screenplay with Amy Jump,  many of the twists are well handled and an ominous atmosphere is skilfully evoked as the hit men gradually uncover details of their new assignment.

Using the suburbs of Sheffield as a main location, though the precise setting is kept ambiguous, the blandness of Britain actually forms a grimly effective backdrop to the events that transpire.

For the most part the main characters are believable and have a natural chemistry with each other in their professional and personal lives.

But as the story progresses Kill List suffers from a kind of split personality disorder, as domestic drama mixes uneasily with more obvious genre elements.

Certain scenes smack of undercooked, improvised dialogue and some of the darker elements of the film (though often well executed) are no more than cheap pandering to slavish horror fan boys turned on by violence.

Similar problems affected Wheatley’s debut film Down Terrace (2009), which involved a lot of people sitting indoors talking about things and pointless scenes where characters light up cigarettes for no real reason.

Whilst Kill List is a more interesting story, both suffer from looking like television: a chronic disease which afflicts many homegrown British films. Is it too much to ask for something cinematic when we actually go to the cinema?

But the biggest drawback of the film is the lead character as played by Neil Maskell, who is almost a parody of the cockney criminal stereotype that has littered British film since the late 1990s.

A brief glance at his acting C.V. suggests he’s been increasingly trapped in Brit movie hell: Bonded by Blood (2010), Doghouse (2009), Rise of the Footsoldier (2007) and The Football Factory (2004) are just some of the dire films he’s been in.

To be fair, this is a film that tries to escape that particular ghetto but when the protagonist is such a jarring cliché it deflates everything around it.

Given that this was shot on a relatively low budget, the technical aspects are solid: the HD camerawork by Laurie Rose, sound design by Martin Pavey and music by Jim Williams all contribute to a believable mood of dread and menace.

Watching this in a decent screening room with excellent visuals and sound was a reminder of how digital projection and distribution can benefit lower budget films like this.

Whether this can break out an be a decent-sized success at the UK box office is another question – there are elements which will put off some audiences but word of mouth at the twists and ending might create good buzz.

Produced by Warp X and Rook Films, with backing from Film4, the U.K. Film Council and Screen Yorkshire, it looks certain to make a decent profit given its relatively low cost.

Sales agent Protagonist Pictures is looking to repeat their trick of last year, when they sold a similar micro-budget film – Monsters (2010) – after making waves at SXSW in Austin, where Optimum nabbed UK distribution and IFC Midnight picked up U.S. rights.

There is also a similar pattern surrounding this film: it will screen at Fright Fest in London and lots of horror bloggers – and some mainstream outlets – will fan the flames of hype surrounding it.

Although ultimately just a watchable horror film, Kill List will no doubt have a decent life on home video (both disc and VOD) and horror aficionados will enjoy the parallels to a certain cult classic of the 1970s.

British micro-budget genre films such as this could be on the rise during the recession, as companies look to capitalise on lower cost, higher value filmmaking techniques and buzz out of festivals like SXSW which attract breakout genre titles.

Although such a trend is likely to produce some talented filmmakers, audiences should be wary of the hype.

> Official site
> Ben Wheatley at the IMDb

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DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

DVD: The Panic in Needle Park

The film which provided Al Pacino with his breakout role is also a vivid glimpse into the drug culture of New York in the early 1970s.

‘Needle Park’ was the nickname given to an actual location in New York’s Upper West Side, located near 72nd Street and Broadway, where real-life junkies congregated in Verdi and Sherman Square.

The ‘panic’ refers to the period of time when there weren’t a lot of drugs on the market, due to other factors such as suppliers being busted, and the subsequent desperation felt by users as they searched in vain for their next fix.

A drama set amongst a group of heroin addicts in this area, the story pivots around the relationship between a small-time hustler (Al Pacino) and a drifting woman (Kitty Winn).

It was notable for the cluster of talented people involved in bringing it to the screen: photographer-turned-director Jerry Schatzberg had established himself in features with Puzzle of a Downfall Child (1970); Dominick Dunne produced whilst his brother John Gregory Dunne co-wrote the screenplay with Joan Didion.

The commitment to realism isn’t surprising, given that the writers were two acclaimed journalists, and the film was adapted from a 1965 Life magazine piece, and subsequent book written by James Mills.

Schatzberg was part of the New Hollywood generation influenced by the techniques and style of the French New Wave, which emphasised immediacy and utilised new camera technology to depict reality on location, rather than the grand sound stages of Hollywood.

Perhaps the most obvious American comparison is with Midnight Cowboy (1969), which also depicted lost souls struggling in the poorer side of New York.

It is not a coincidence that both films share the same cinematographer, Adam Holender, who shoots with a raw vérité style, featuring terrific use of real New York locations, including the park of the title and hotels in the surrounding area.

Avoiding the usual establishing shots of the New York skyline and utilising long lenses to film on actual streets, the film captures the energy of the city and the characters trying to survive within it.

Absolutely rooted in the time it was shot, it also has a striking fidelity to the subject matter: not only does the central relationship feel convincing, but the unflinching depictions of drug use have even caused problems with UK censors.

The graphic scenes of people shooting up, the matter-of-fact approach to dealers as well as the wider heroin and drug culture is pervasive, giving it a jolting ring of authenticity.

The production even used a location that attracted the attention of real life drug-dealers and prostitutes, who greeted them as equals (!), which was perhaps a testament to the actors and filmmaker’s commitment to realism.

Lacking a conventional score (or indeed any music at all) also gives everything a special atmosphere, with no audio cues to guide us as to what we should think or feel.

Pacino is fiery and convincing, displaying the young charm and energy which marked out his early work – it isn’t hard to see why Francis Ford Coppola wanted to cast him in The Godfather (1972) after seeing this.

Kitty Winn is equally strong with a performance, full of feeling and raw innocence which later won her the Best Actress Award at the Cannes film festival.

Although she had a supporting role in The Exorcist (1973) it is sad that she retired from acting relatively early.

Unlike conventional Hollywood narratives, the central relationship is interesting as they fall in love early in the film and their addiction seems to be to each another, as much as it is to heroin.

Films depicting characters from different social backgrounds run the risk of phoniness, but to the credit of the actors they really sell the central relationship.

Their day-to-day existence is well evoked because it blends the rough with the smooth – despite the grim world they inhabit, the film bravely doesn’t shy away from the synthetic highs of drug use and the natural high of love.

Richard Bright is well cast as Pacino’s brother – a burglar who just happens to wears a suit – and Raul Julia has a small but key role as Winn’s former artist boyfriend.

There is also an interesting little role for Arnold Williams, who you might remember as one of the cab drivers in Live and Let Die (1973), and a cameo from Paul Sorvino as a man being questioned in a police station.

Cops and detectives are played by the likes of Alan Vint and Joe Santos as unsentimental foot soldiers just doing their job.

Although the general air of the film is bleak, it is refreshing to see an American film with such a European vibe, unafraid to take its time and really spend time with characters and their surroundings.

The camera work is highly effective, as the steady, unfussy compositions depict events with an unerring eye: one wordless scene showing how heroin is prepared in a makeshift factory has a calm, almost sinister quality to it.

Indeed, the graphic scenes of drug use – as junkies inject needles into scarred arms – are more likely to put off potential users than encourage people to shoot up.

One memorable line of dialogue neatly captures the seedy nihilism of this world, when one addict says that death is the “best high of all”.

Also take note of the scenes in which dialogue is kept to a minimum, as the images are eloquently used by Schatzberg to reveal a great deal.

There are also some little touches which stick out in retrospect: the little dog called Rocky, which Pacino’s character says “sounds like a prizefighter” (Sylvester Stallone’s boxing film was a few years off) and a ferry scene has shades of Pacino’s later turn in Insomnia (2002).

Further movie connections are also hard to resist: Pacino is buying drugs from the same New York dealers who Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) was trying to bust in William Friedkin’s The French Connection (1971); Pacino and Hackman would go on to star up in Schaztberg’s next film, Scarecrow (1973), whilst Winn would star in Friedkin’s subsequent movie, The Exorcist (1973).

Commendably, the ending doesn’t feature a pat moral lesson and feels brave, even for a film made in an era where American directors weren’t afraid of being bold and experimental.

Look out too for an interesting final shot, reminiscent of a certain Bob Dylan album cover (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan), although not the one Schatzberg actually took as a photographer (Blonde on Blonde).

Although a significant film of the New Hollywood era, the grim milieu has perhaps prevented it from wider cultural recognition outside of the cinephile realm.

It isn’t a film that often crops up on television, possibly because it was an independent production picked up by a major studio, which means there may have been rights issues or it is just regarded as a bleak oddity by commercially minded TV schedulers.

Although it has been available on VHS and DVD before, there is no Blu-ray release, which is a shame as it is a snapshot of an era when US films could take greater risks with form and subject matter.

Schatzberg is still revered in Cannes, as earlier this year his photo of Faye Dunaway adorned the Croisette as the official image of the 64th festival, ahead of a screening of his first film.

As the 1970s progressed, he would go on to make acclaimed films such as Scarecrow (1973) but as the 1980s arrived his sensibility was at odds with the prevailing commercial climate in Hollywood and US cinema.

Despite this The Panic in Needle Park holds up remarkably well: not only was it an early gathering of significant artistic talents, but it remains a powerful depiction of life on the margins of city and the daily struggle of people who get ignored.

EXTRAS

Panic in the Streets of New York (24.20): Director Jerry Schatzberg and cinematographer Adam Holender discuss the making of the film. Among the interesting things they talk about include:

  • The producers did a deal with Fox, who didn’t like the idea of Pacino in the lead.
  • Robert De Niro was also up for the Pacino role but Schatzberg felt Al was more a kid of the streets.
  • Cinematographer Adam Holender was influenced by The Battle of Algiers and its approach to shooting reality.
  • They wanted to shoot an ‘enhanced reality’ on the streets of New York, by using long lenses (400 and 600 mm lenses) which meant that actors were sometimes two blocks away (no video assist in those days).
  • This visual style compressed the actors on the street and gave them a freedom to move even on a location.
  • Pacino and Schatzberg had direct experience of people with drug problems
  • Needle Park came into being because addicts could buy and shoot up drugs there without going up to Harlem

Writing in Needle Park (08.52): Writer Joan Didion describes the background to the story, the production and her subsequent career.

  • Didion was not in the WGA at the time and developed the project without knowing much about how a movie was made.
  • The Upper West Side was considered ‘beyond the pale’ then – very different to the gentrified area it has become.
  • Filming on location influenced the way it was shot and the actors were cramped into real places.
  • AVCO Embassy (under famed financier/producer Joe Levine) optioned it and sold it as ‘Romeo and Juliet on junk’
  • The writers originally saw the female character as the lead
  • It didn’t really make any money but was acclaimed in Cannes and well received in the business.

The Panic in Needle Park is released on DVD on September 5th by Second Sight

> Pre-order the DVD here on Amazon UK
> The Panic in Needle Park at the IMDb
> Jerry Schtazberg at MUBi
> The original 1965 article that led to the book and film
> Life magazine on the drug movies of the early 1970s

Categories
Cinema Documentaries Reviews

Project Nim

The life of a chimpanzee raised like a human makes for a rich documentary, which is assembled with considerable skill and intelligence.

After the success of their previous film Man On Wire (2008), director James Marsh and producer Simon Chinn came across another story that has its roots in New York of the 1970s.

In November 1973, a professor at Columbia University began an experiment to raise a chimpanzee like a human being in order to explore how this would affect the his communication skills with humans.

The chimp was named Nim Chimpsky after Noam Chomsky, the linguist whose thesis stated that language is hard-wired to humans only, and the experiment became a practical exploration of communication.

If Man on Wire played like an unlikely heist movie, this film is more like Frankenstein or a genre film where scientific breakthroughs have unintended consequences.

But as it progresses, the film is more than just about a curious scientific exercise as it peels away the different layers of the story to become something profound and unsettling about the relationship between humans and animals.

The opening section explores the behavioural psychologist who supervised the experiment, Professor Herbert Terrace, and his various assistants during the 1970s who treated Nim like a human child – a period which saw him introduced to human breast milk, alcohol and marijuana.

This makes for some eye-opening comedy in places, which is brilliantly augmented with interviews, period photographs and various other media from the time.

Part of the virtues of choosing a scientific project as the subject of a documentary is that the original observational materials can be incorporated into the film, as well as contemporary TV reports and magazine covers.

But the film really hits another plateau when we follow what happened to Nim when he left the supervision of Professor Terrace and his various surrogate mothers.

The story then becomes a darker tale which gradually holds up a mirror to the humans involved with Nim’s life.

Without going in to too much detail, it says a lot that the person who emerges with the most credit is Bob Ingersoll, a pot-smoking Grateful Dead fan who seemed to have Nim’s best interests at heart.

The second half of the film has some genuinely surprising twists and if you aren’t familiar with the real-life events I would recommend going in cold.

Part of what makes the film so effective, is the overall journey of Nim’s extraordinary life, which is presented with a meticulous care that is rare, even for a documentary.

Whilst the scientists depicted in Project Nim held up a mirror to a chimpanzee, the film also holds up a similar mirror to the audience about their relationship with animals and themselves.

On one level the film powerfully depicts the growing pains of a chimpanzee, but as this journey grows messy and painful, it is hard not to see the human parallels – we share 98.7% of our DNA but also a range of emotions and experiences as we age.

Marsh develops this material in such a way that it never feels simplistic or sentimental and along with his editor Jinx Godfrey have managed to whittle the story down to something that is both specific and universal.

Whilst the story of Nim is about an experiment from another era, the film of Nim is a vivid document of the humans who conducted it.

In a week which sees the UK release of an expensive reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, it is ironic that the chimpanzee film made for a fraction of the budget should have more drama and surprise.

But then this year has been a very strong one for documentaries with films like Senna, The Interrupters and now Project Nim prove that real stories told well can provide the drama that expensively produced fiction simply cannot match.

Project Nim is out at selected UK cinemas from Friday 12th August

> Official website
> Reviews of Project Nim at Metacritic
> James Marsh at the IMDb

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Whilst pushing boundaries in visual effects, the latest instalment of the Planet of the Apes franchise is less successful at old fashioned elements like story and character.

Pierre Boule’s 1963 novel about a world where apes are the dominate species inspired a franchise of five films from 1968 to 1973, the most notable being the original Planet of the Apes (1968) starring Charlton Heston.

After an unwise big-budget remake from Tim Burton in 2001, 20th Century Fox have decided to revive the series by going back to the present day and exploring the early origins of intelligent apes.

The story begins when a San Francisco scientist (James Franco) develops a possible cure for Alzheimer’s Disease and over a period of several years notices the remarkable effects of his new drug on a chimpanzee named Caesar (Andy Serkis), who gradually begins to rebel against his human masters.

Essentially a prequel very loosely based on the original films, the main aim here was to create a summer blockbuster in which the main attraction is not a movie star or character but the visual effects.

Employing Weta Digital, the main effects company behind The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Avatar, the film does indeed break ground in the field of performance capture technology.

Having Andy Serkis play the lead ape via performance capture technology certainly gives his character a sense of believability and depth, that a purely digital version created from scratch would not.

Not only do the faces of the apes feel more authentic but their movement and interplay with live action characters is about as impressive as the current technology will allow.

The basic storyline of the apes rising also builds on the powerful metaphor that has made the franchise endure over several decades as a kind of riff on Frankenstein and the arrogance of mankind.

However, the film also cuts corners in vital areas, with the human drama weakened by undercooked writing and an overreliance on digital effects.

The main actors are woefully underwritten and simply going through the motions: Franco walks through the film in a haze (much like he did whilst presenting the Oscars), Frieda Pinto as his partner is merely a cipher, John Lithgow is only intermittently engaging as Franco’s father and David Oyelowo is given an utterly ridiculous role as the token corporate villain in a suit.

Also popping up in curiously underdeveloped roles as ape-keepers are Brian Cox (who is shamefully wasted) and Tom Felton, who appears like he’s on a sabbatical from the Harry Potter franchise.

This all makes the interaction between the two species less effective because it is hard to care about apes rising when the humans are such one-note dullards.

The visual scope is also limited by director Rupert Wyatt using a lot of interior locations: houses, labs and cages dominate much of the film and even when it ventures outside for the big finale, one of the most iconic locations in America is clearly an alternative bridge augmented by green screen effects.

As a studio Fox has become very fond of shooting major releases on an efficient budget in places such as Canada, like The A-Team (2010), or Australasia, such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).

This obviously pleases the studio accountants but reduces the scale and overall visual feel of films on the big screen and Rise of the Planet of the Apes does not benefit from this penny-pinching approach.

Given that the main selling point is the visual effects, the film also suffers from an intriguing paradox – in that as they get more detailed and realistic, they become more noticeable to the human eye.

The most impressive aspect are the close up shots of Caesar’s basic interaction with human beings, but when they try to do flashy ‘one take’ shots of him swinging around the house or climbing trees, the realism is diminished.

One of the supposed advances in this film is that advanced visual creations are seen in real life locations, but that is actually part of the problem.

Watching this on an unforgiving big screen, one can see the digital joins in certain scenes which make the technically ‘inferior’ old school approach of ape make-up – as used in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or the 1968 and 2001 versions of The Planet of the Apes – seem more believable.

But whilst the film is a decidedly mixed bag, there may be a strong appetite for a big release that isn’t an animated feature or a film based on a comic book character.

Fox have been keeping this film under wraps until the last week, which they claim was a result of working the visual effects up to the last possible minute.

I suspect it was part of a more carefully planned marketing strategy, as the selling point of this film is that the creepy Frankenstein narrative gives it a different tone to the good versus evil stories that have littered the multiplexes this summer.

This film could mark the resurgence of a franchise whose apocalyptic atmosphere may chime in with current fears of an economic collapse, but it also shows the limits of even the most advanced visual effects, if traditional elements are found wanting.

Aside from having one too many the’s in the title, the film is almost a metaphor for itself: advanced technology (CGI) is used to create super apes (on screen) but only ends up showing how shallow humans are.

> Official website
> Reviews at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes
> Find out more about the Planet of the Apes franchise at Wikipedia
> Popular Mechanics interview Andy Serkis about the motion capture process

Categories
Cinema Documentaries Reviews

The Interrupters

The latest documentary from Steve James is a riveting examination of a community group tackling urban violence in Chicago.

Inspired by a 2008 article by Alex Kotlowitz in the New York Times Magazine, it explores the work of CeaseFire, a program which adopted ‘The Violence Interrupter’ concept, which uses people with experience of violent crime in order to prevent it.

The brainchild of epidemiologist Gary Slutkin, the interrupter concept treats urban violence like an infectious disease – if you go after the most infected, then you can stop the infection at its source.

Shot over the course of a year in Chicago, it focuses on three interrupters: Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams and Eddie Bocanegra, who all have lives shaped by past violence on the streets.

But the fascination of the film lies is the way it combines the history of the interrupters with their practical application of Slutkin’s theory.

CeaseFire utilises whatever nonviolent means possible to prevent violence: interrupters listen to the chatter on the streets and intervene when something is about to go wrong.

We see the power of ‘interruption’ in practice as Ameena, Cobe and Eddie apply it in the streets, using their contacts, negotiating skills and quick wits to diffuse potentially volatile situations in areas blighted by poverty and crime.

This means that in order to be effective, they have to exercise a special brand of street diplomacy, which can involve anything from talking out issues on a porch to an impromptu trip to the local food joint.

Ameena draws on her own background as the daughter of a notorious gang leader to befriend and mentor a girl who reminds her of her younger self; Cobe uses his experience of loss and time in prison to disarm people with his charm and good nature; whilst Eddie’s empathetic work with young children is driven by his own haunted past.

Each of these narrative strands could potentially provide the basis for a gripping feature film, but Steve James weaves them skilfully into a documentary which tackles a deep problem with considerable insight and human drama.

Returning to the same city that formed the backdrop of his landmark film Hoop Dreams (1994), the film is refreshingly candid about the problem of urban violence and mercifully free of the fake inspiration of mainstream TV documentaries.

The cameras here capture some extraordinarily raw scenes: a quick-witted doorstep negotiation with an angry man bent on revenge; a dramatic apology delivered to the owners of a barbershop; an interrupter lying on a hospital bed; and a school girl describing the effects of violence, are just some of the most affecting things I’ve seen this year.

But their power comes from the extensive groundwork laid out by James and Kotlowitz, who shot over 300 hours of footage and took time to earn the trust of their interviewees and the communities where they filmed.

This means that what we see on screen is filled with the kind of genuine surprises, narrative suspense and inspiring actions that only real life can provide.

Perhaps the most lasting aspect of The Interrupters is that it serves as a welcome counterblast to traditional ways in which the issue of urban violence is framed.

Hollywood favours improbable stories of mavericks beating the odds, whilst mainstream media such as CNN and Fox devote plenty of time to the gory outcome of murder whilst ignoring the root causes.

James and Kotlowitz (who served as co-producer on the film) adopt a slower and more considered approach which reaps rich dividends in exploring the complexity of human beings and the environment they inhabit.

In a sense, the film stays true to the long form journalism that inspired it, as research and a careful fidelity to the facts and issues at hand provide the backbone to the film.

According to the filmmakers, the minimalist production values and aesthetic were partly a product of making their subjects feel comfortable on camera, but it also emphasises the human factor well, which after all is what the film is really about.

The real genius of The Interrupters is that it immerses us in a particular situation but ultimately achieves a universal significance in depicting human struggle and redemption.

It also acts as a valuable document of a time when Chicago was brought into the national spotlight through the death of Derrion Albert in September 2009, and almost became a symbol for the violence across US cities.

After an acclaimed run at film festivals including Sundance, Sheffield and South by Southwest, it is very hard not to see this as an early Oscar frontrunner for Best Documentary.

At Sundance its running time was 164 minutes, but will open in the UK at a more audience-friendly running time of around two hours.

This means its commercial theatrical prospects have been improved – and it is a film I would urge you to see at a cinema – but presumably there is enough raw material for an extended cut on DVD or even a mini-series.

Like Hoop Dreams, the achievement here is immense and the film shines a valuable light on an issue which affects not just Chicago but every city suffering the human cost of violence.

The lasting legacy may be that practical, grass roots activism can provide relief from even the most intractable urban problems.

In what is already a very strong year for documentaries, this is one of the very best.

The Interrupters opens in the UK on August 12th and you can find a list of cinemas showing it here

> Official website
> Official Facebook and Twitter
> Reviews of The Interrupters at Metacritic
> Original NY Times article by Alex Kotlowitz that inspired the film

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Cowboys and Aliens

An uneasy blend of Western and science fiction is another reminder of the dangers of pandering to the Comic-Con mentality.

Based on a 2006 graphic novel by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, the story begins in 1873 when the enigmatic Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the Arizona desert with no memory and a mysterious device around his wrist.

On entering the local town he discovers a local lawman (Harrison Ford) is after him, but when mysterious alien forces attack, people soon realise this stranger might hold the key to their salvation.

The easiest way to describe the premise of Cowboys and Aliens is that it plays like an unholy mix of Unforgiven (1992) and War of the Worlds (2005), although it never really works as a western or an alien invasion movie.

Ultimately the biggest problem is that it never rises above its goofy high-concept premise and simply lurches from one set-piece to another, whilst scrambling to find coherence in half-baked clichés.

It’s a difficult film to fully analyse without giving too many plot spoilers away, but the twists range from the predictable to the ridiculous and the presence of five credited screenwriters is revealing.

The huge gaping holes in the story are compounded by thinly written roles: Craig is uneasy as the mysterious loner; Ford hams it up as the cranky lawman; Wilde is utterly wasted in a curious role; and the supporting cast (including Sam Rockwell) is treated little better.

This is not to say that the film is a total write off.

Director Jon Favreau shoots the Western elements with some skill, making great use of the New Mexico landscapes and, in some scenes, cinematographer Matthew Libatique brings the same visual pop  that made Iron Man (2008) so vibrant.

The look of the period is convincingly realised with the production design by Scott Chambliss and costumes by Mary Zophres, whilst the visual effects by ILM (supervised by Roger Guyett) are generally first-rate.

Whilst the cowboys are watchable, the aliens are walking clichĂ©s that we’ve seen before in many movies, with the same physical attributes, spacecraft and vague motives that characterise the sci-fi genre.

Although the opening is intriguing, by the end there is very little audiences haven’t actually seen before, including: token memory flashbacks, gruff characters learning to become nice, and traditional enemies joining forces against a common enemy.

At one point, there also appears to be a deeply questionable visual reference to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

After a protracted development history over fourteen years, it bears the hallmarks of an idea that has been prodded and embellished with the sole intention of getting geeks excited at Comic-Con.

In fact, a quick look at the history of this project reveals that’s exactly what happened.

After the success of Iron Man, perhaps Jon Favreau felt he owed something to the fans that went nuts about the project at Comic-Con in 2007 as that film worked and gave a boost to his career.

But Iron Man 2 (2010) and Cowboys and Aliens are casebook studies of the perils of pandering to the fans: both surfed a wave of pre-release hype, but were proved inferior films when they finally came out.

Last year may have marked a watershed for the major studios and Comic-Con: both panels for Cowboys and Aliens and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World got people excited in the fevered atmosphere of Hall-H, but baffled mainstream audiences.

Scott Pilgrim bombed and although it is still early days for Cowboys and Aliens, which opens in the US this weekend, the early signs aren’t good and it may even suffer the ignominy of being beaten by The Smurfs movie this weekend.

One of the early marketing problems it faced was that some people mistakenly thought the premise was comedic, which although not true, does actually speaks volumes about the deficiencies of the film.

The final film feels like the result a studio pitch-meeting that geeks were invited to (“Cowboys and aliens? Awesome!”).

But the Comic-Con mindset is all bout celebrating what a movie could be, rather than what it actually is: in recent years list of Comic-Con flops grows ever longer (Sucker Punch perhaps being the ultimate example) as the hype of Hall H fades into the reality of the multiplex.

Maybe its time for the studios to allow filmmakers to focus on making better films rather than whipping up hype at conventions several months before it has even been released.

There is a director who has managed to do this very successfully. His name? Christopher Nolan.

> Official site
> Reviews of Cowboys and Aliens at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes
> More on the original graphic novel at Wikipedia

Categories
DVD & Blu-ray Reviews Thoughts

Blu-ray: Conan the Barbarian

The film that established Arnold Schwarzenegger as a box office star stands up surprisingly well on Blu-ray.

It is one of the great mysteries of modern cinema: how on earth did an Austrian body builder become one of the biggest movie stars on the planet?

The answer lies in Conan the Barbarian, a sword and sorcery epic which came about at just the right time for the former Mr Universe.

After an illustrious career in bodybuilding Schwarzenegger gradually made the movie into movies by appearing in The Long Goodbye (1973), Stay Hungry (1976), the docudrama Pumping Iron (1977) and The Villain (1979).

Meanwhile, a screenwriter named Oliver Stone was struggling to get people interested in a movie of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and when he and producer Edward R. Pressman eventually sold the idea to Dino De Laurentis, the famed producer subsequently hired John Milius to re-write and direct.

Milius was, and remains, an interesting figure: although he was coming off the commercial failure of his personal surfer movie Big Wednesday (1978), his writing contributions to classic 1970s cinema were considerable.

Not only did he come up with some of the most memorable ideas in Apocalypse Now (1979), including the classic helicopter attack set to Wagner, but he also made telling contributions to Dirty Harry (1971) and Jaws (1975).

A self-described ‘Zen anarchist’, he also went on to join the board of the National Rifle Association and inspire the character of Walter Sobchak (played by John Goodman) in The Big Lebowski (1998).

Conan the Barbarian represented an opportunity for Milius to indulge his passion for medieval fantasy and Nietzschean ideas about the will to power, and for Schwarzenegger was a perfect role for someone of his physique.

Set during a fictional prehistoric age, the story is about a young boy named Conan who witnesses the death of his parents at the hands of sinister warrior Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones).

Later as a grown man he embarks on revenge, along with two fellow warriors Subotai (Gerry Lopez), Valeria (Sandahl Bergman) and the wizard Akiro (Mako), when a King (Max von Sydow) recruits him to rescue his daughter from the clutches of Doom.

I hadn’t seen Conan in many years and was surprised at how well it holds up as a fantasy romp, even though closer inspection of its underlying ideas might lead one to suspect that Milius identifies with the politics of Genghis Khan (the Mongol leader is even loosely quoted by the lead character at one point) .

Opening with an introductory quote by Nietzsche (“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”) we are quickly thrust into a world of beheadings, slavery, killer dogs, gladiatorial combat, orgies, cannibalism and people who worship large snakes.

By modern standards, it is refreshingly dark for a mainstream film and would probably struggle to get financed today in an era where major studios favour PG-13 entertainment.

Schwarzenegger fits the title role like a glove and his relative inexperience as an actor actually works in his favour, as the character of Conan feels more authentic due to his striking physicality and one-note acting.

Apparently on set Arnold told Milius that he would take directions like a trained dog and this actually makes perfect sense – not only did allay his worries about being a lead actor but it allowed him to focus on becoming a convincing medieval warrior.

The actors who play his cohorts (Lopez and Bergman) also suit their roles well and the presence of Earl Jones and Von Sydow in more intimidating roles lends a certain gravitas to proceedings.

Perhaps most memorable of all is the stunning use of various locations in Spain, using locations in Andalusia favoured by spaghetti westerns, which are augmented by some splendid production design, the centrepiece being a giant staircase built on a mountainside.

Then there is the enduring score by Basil Poledouris, which provides a rousing and wonderfully rich audio backdrop to the film – it proved so influential that it was subsequently used in many trailers for other movies.

It looks surprisingly sharp on Blu-ray (despite traces of grain) and although I don’t think the film has been fully restored, this is almost certainly the best it has ever looked.

There has been some controversy over how the BBFC have cut the film in the past.

The UK censor has a low tolerance policy for scenes showing animals getting hurt and Conan is an example of a film shot before more stringent production standards were adopted regarding the welfare of animals on set.

Some sequences where horses fell for real were cut by the BBFC for the home video release but fans of the film feel this screws up the continuity of some scenes, especially during one of the climactic fights.

However, UK viewers can access the uncut French version of the film by simply selecting that version on the root menu of the disc.

The commentary track featuring Milius and Schwarzenegger (originally recorded for the DVD release) is hilarious and filled with wonderful rambling anecdotes about the production and the ideas behind the film.

The extras are as follows:

  • UK Theatrical Version (triggered from English Menu’s only)
  • Commentary by Director John Milius & Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Deleted Scenes Sequence
  • Conan Unchained: The Making of Conan
  • Conan – Rise of the Fantasy Legend
  • Special Effects Split Screen Video
  • The Conan Archives
  • Theatrical Trailers
  • New Extra: Art of Steel: The Blacksmith & Swordsman: Examines the making of and significance of Conan’s Sword. (10mins)
  • New Extra: Conan; From the Vault: Newly discovered interviews shot in 1982 with Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Milius, James Earl Jones and Sandhal Bergman. (10mins)

> Buy Conan the Barbarian on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK
> Conan the Barbarian at the IMDb
> Find out more about the Conan character at Wikipedia

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Captain America: The First Avenger

The latest Marvel character comes to the big screen in a period fantasy which has its moments but is ultimately diminished by being part of a wider comic book narrative.

Ever since 2008, Marvel Studios has been on something of a roll.

Previously, major Hollywood studios had licensed Marvel properties such as Spider-Man, X-Men and Fantastic Four and reaped huge commercial rewards in the resulting movies.

With Iron Man (2008) the comic book company decided to finance a movie themselves – with major studio just distributing -and monetise their properties more effectively than they had done before.

The resulting film was significant as it was not only a huge hit which rejuvenated the career of Robert Downey Jnr, but the beginning of a connected franchise of films involving Marvel characters.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (it has its own Wikipedia page) includes: The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and The Avengers (2012).

Captain America’s story begins with a present day discovery in the Arctic, before flashing back to the 1940s when a plucky Brooklyn weakling named Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is recruited to be part of a secret program headed by expatriate German scientist (Stanley Tucci).

He becomes part of a ‘super-soldier’ program under the command of a Colonel (Tommy Lee Jones) and British officer (Hayley Atwell), whilst in Europe his evil German counterpart Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) has a contrasting transformation into the villainous Red Skull.

What follows is a standard superhero origin story, but the screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely deftly pokes fun at the patriotic origins of the character whilst at the same time largely delivering the action movie goods.

Unlike Iron Man, it is hard to imagine a modern incarnation of Captain America in an age where US foreign policy has angered so much of the world, but the period setting is a smart move, as it allows us an ironic distance from the character and the story.

Director Joe Johnston was presumably recruited because he made The Rocketeer (1991), another period superhero film set around World War 2, and to a degree that pays off, as the old fashioned look, witty dialogue and romantic angles are well realised.

But there are some underlying problems to this version of Captain America, which stem from the underlying blandness of the character, the uneasy mix of period design and CGI, and the creeping familiarity of the Avengers universe.

Steve Rogers is still a fairly one-dimensional hero and although there are nice recurring motifs (such as his use of a shield), he’s still the archetypal loner surrounded by characters who initially doubt and then come to respect him.

The actors do their best: Chris Evans has a steady, innocent charm in the lead role and Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones are also good value, but the underlying material doesn’t really provide them with anything truly substantial.

The production design by Rich Heinrichs features some good use of sets and real world locations (with various UK places standing in for Brooklyn and World War 2 Europe) but for many of the more expansive action sequences CGI is used in a distracting way.

This is a problem that plagues many modern action films and in crucial sequences the mix of real actors and CGI enhanced backgrounds just doesn’t look right.

The 3D compounds the problem as it not only reduces the brightness of the film, but the post-conversion process used here doesn’t provide images of sufficient depth or detail.

In contrast, the sound design supervised by Howell Gibbens is first rate and gives the action sequences a real kick, especially in the action sequences and the moments involving Captain America’s iconic shield.

Alan Silvestri’s old fashioned score also adds the appropriate lift to the proceedings.

But the wider Avengers universe is always hovering in the background: we see Tony Stark’s father (Dominic Cooper) and there’s a climax involving the now obligatory cameo from a certain S.H.I.E.L.D agent, along with a post-credits scene for hardcore fans.

This is all part of leading up to next year’s Avengers movie, which will combine the characters of Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America, but the whole approach of the franchise so far has made the Marvel films up to this point feel like watered down prequels rather than standalone movies.

Captain America: The First Avenger has its moments but ultimately makes you pine for a superhero movie which has a proper resolution and doesn’t feel part of some brightly coloured, never-ending franchise.

But don’t panic: The Dark Knight Rises is out next summer.

Captain America: The First Avenger opens in the UK on Friday 29th July

> Official site
> Reviews of Captain America at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes
> Find out more about the Captain America character at Wikipedia

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

The final chapter of the highest grossing film franchise in history will delight fans and presumably break box office records, even though the final book shouldn’t have been split in two for the big screen.

Opening with a brief snippet of the climax to Part 1 (intriguingly before the studio logo), the final Potter extravaganza deals with Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) finally confronting his destiny and taking on his wizard nemesis Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) as the forces of darkness surround Hogwarts.

For those that aren’t Potter experts here is a brief summary of the film series so far:

  • Philosopher’s Stone (2001): Harry enrols at Hogwarts, a school for wizards headed by Professor Dumbledore, where he makes friends with Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger. We learn Harry’s parents were killed by the evil Lord Voldemort, who wants to become human and kill him too.
  • Chamber of Secrets (2002): Returning to Hogwarts, Harry learns about a series of attacks on students and a secret chamber where he has to kill a large serpent and defeat Lord Voldemort’s ‘memory’, which is in an enchanted diary.
  • Prisoner of Azkaban (2003): Harry hears an escaped murderer named Sirius Black is after him but realises Black was framed and is actually his godfather.
  • Goblet of Fire (2005): Harry enters the Triwizard Tournament at Hogwarts and witnesses the return of Lord Voldemort to human form.
  • Order of the Phoenix (2007): Harry forms a secret student group after Hogwarts comes under the influence of a new teacher and ends up having to fight Voldemort’s followers (Death Eaters) at the Ministry of Magic.
  • Half-Blood Prince (2009): Harry learns how Voldemort has been using special artefacts (‘Horcruxes’) to become immortal and sees his mentor Dumbledore killed by Severus Snape, a teacher at Hogwarts who Harry has had suspicions about.

In the The Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010), Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) followed clues left by the late Dumbledore and went in search of Horcruxes  (magical artefacts) to help them kill Voldemort, whilst avoiding the clutches of his followers.

Part 2 opens with Voldemort in possession of Dumbledore’s wand, whilst Harry and his gang have to get back to Hogwarts to destroy more Horcuxes and fight off the forces surrounding their school.

Now, did any of these plot details make your head spin?

One of the problems in writing anything about the Potter films is that it’s like reporting from a large foreign country – people know it exists but can get confused by the local details.

In many the Harry Potter phenomenon is the Star Wars of its generation – a franchise which recycles previous tales of good and evil, repackages them with special effects and places them within a detailed fantasy world.

When the films began in 2001, there was already a generation of children obsessed with the books (by then the fourth had been published to record breaking sales), so there was already a built-in audience.

But Warner Bros were smart to preserve J.K. Rowling’s vision and even if you are not a fan, these films are faithful to the books and technically well made.

Since David Yates started directing the films with The Order of the Phoenix (2007), there seems to have been a ramping up of the films in terms of scale and effects, even though they weren’t exactly small to begin with.

With this, the decision to split the final book in two was presumably made because the source material was longer than before and the studio was getting two blockbusters for essentially the price of one (albeit large) production.

Although this story is fast-paced, it feels like the third act of a previous film spread too thinly and perhaps the correct way for fans to see it is to experience it as a double-bill with Part 1.

Experienced in isolation, this film moves a bit too fast, whereas the previous film was a bit too slow.

At a running time of 131 minutes, Part 2 is essentially a war film in the wizarding universe as Hogwarts is under siege from Voldemort’s hordes: this means some key developments (especially involving two major characters) don’t really get the screen time they deserve and are drowned out by the clash of magical armies and characters brandishing wands.

Voldemort isn’t as scary now either, which is a bit of a let down considering the whole series has been leading up to this confrontation.

The best narrative pay off involves Severus Snape (Alan Rickman), who has a flashback montage that shows new sides to his character.

By coincidence I happened to see this on the same day as watching Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and was struck by certain bizarre similarities: there is an extended flashback sequence involving trees, flowing water and an idealised red haired woman, plus there is also a sequence which touches upon issues of mortality.

Despite obvious differences with Malick, it is unusually bold territory for a children’s franchise to venture.

But part of the main appeal of the film franchise over the past decade is how they have provided a showcase for the latest in visual effects and cutting edge CGI.

The Yates films have been especially impressive at spectacle and here DP Eduardo Serra, the VFX crew under John Richardson and production designer Stuart Craig all work wonders in integrating CGI with real world locations and sets.

One of the more positive by products of the Potter series has been the growth in UK effects houses such as Double Negative, MPC, Cinesite and Framestore, who all sign off the franchise with absolutely sterling work.

The decision to make this 3D is a nakedly financial one that adds little to the visual impact of the film and the 2D version may be preferable for general  audience (For the record, I saw it in 3D).

A final coda suggests there is room to expand the franchise if Rowling and Warner Bros wanted to, although whether that would be wise is another question.

With each new film over the last decade, the series has become something of a slog to those not addicted to the books, as you try to recap previous events and characters, so there is something satisfying that it is all finally over.

So, the final chapter is doubly satisfying: for fans it delivers the visual spectacle and reverence to the books, whilst for general audiences it is a last chance to experience the franchise before getting sick of the boy wizard and his pals.

> Official site
> Find out more about the Harry Potter series at Wikipedia
> Reviews at Metacritic

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Tree of Life

UK cinemagoers can now finally see Terrence Malick’s latest film but how does it hold up after all the buzz and anticipation?

Ever since his debut Badlands (1973) screened to acclaim at the New York Film Festival nearly 40 years ago, a Terrence Malick film has become something of an event.

One of the most audacious directorial debuts in US cinema was followed five years later with Days of Heaven (1978), a troubled production which fortunately yielded one of the most visually remarkable films of the 1970s.

Then there followed a twenty year period where Malick didn’t make any movies, a time which stoked his legend and made people revisit the extraordinary beauty and craftsmanship of his work and cemented his place in the canon of American cinema.

Just when it seemed he would become the J.D. Salinger of US cinema, in the mid-90s it emerged that he was actually returning with an adaptation of the World War II novel The Thin Red Line (1998), which has the distinction of being one of the greatest and most unusual war films ever released by a major studio.

Six years later he made The New World (2005), a retelling of the Pocahontas story which contained the same slow-burn ecstasy as his previous work along with some breathtaking use of imagery and music.

Malick remains an enigma as his refusal to do any publicity or play by conventional Hollywood practice is matched by an extensive network of admirers and supporters throughout the very system he flouts.

Up to this point his forty year career has been highly singular.

Not since Stanley Kubrick has a filmmaker achieved such creative control nor inspired such reverential awe amongst his peers and true cineastes.

Financing for this film was presumably a bit trickier than his last two, but River Road Entertainment and producer Bill Pohlad managed to raise the reported $32 million budget and followed the recent Malick formula of casting a big star alongside talented newcomers.

The production was three years in the making, with the bulk of photography taking place in 2008 and various other elements stretched out until it eventually premiÚred at Cannes back in May.

One of the most hotly anticipated festival screenings in years, it seemed to divide initial reaction at the festival (it was both booed and cheered at the press screening in the morning), but with high praise from experienced trade critics, the film was rapturously received at the evening premiere and went on to win the Palme d’Or.

Malick was actually spotted at the festival, but the producers accepted the award on his behalf and there was a wonderful symmetry to The Tree of Life winning a trophy of golden leaves.

Over the last few weeks Fox Searchlight have given it a platform release and amongst discerning film goers it has become one of the must-see events of the summer.

After all, this is a work by one of America’s most revered directors featuring one of the biggest movie stars on the planet.

But exactly is The Tree of Life all about?

It charts the memories of an architect (Sean Penn) as he remembers his childhood growing up in 1950s Texas, with two contrasting parents: his stern father (Brad Pitt), loving mother (Jessica Chastain) and two brothers.

At the same time, there is an extended sequence which explores the beginnings of creation and the development of life.

But the surprising aspect of the film is how these seemingly disparate strands do actually mesh.

Whilst it may divide opinion, there is nothing here that should perturb anyone with a genuinely open mind.

It is difficult to discuss specific story points without spoilers, but this is not some kind of art house indulgence but an inspired meditation on human existence and memory.

The signature Malick motifs are here: internal monologue voiceover, magic hour visuals and elliptical editing, and it follows themes he has previously explored, such as life, death and the nature of man.

Here Malick explores how life began but also asks the more pressing question of how death affects how we live our lives: should we embrace the selfish instinct to merely survive or a more compassionate approach to appreciate the present?

These two ways are embodied in the characters of the father and mother but also relate to any living thing in the history of the world, which is why the inclusion of Malick staples such as creatures and plants is not only appropriate but significant.

That the film relates these to the story of Penn’s character and his memories of childhood is part of its particular wonder: it is almost as if Malick was born to make this.

Parallels have been drawn to the director’s own life story and there is no doubt that this is an acutely personal film which I suspect has been brewing inside of him for a very long time.

Some viewers of a particular experience may find certain sequences hit home with an almost unbearable emotional intensity.

But the lasting power of The Tree of Life is how manages to find the universal within the particular.

Viewers may be jolted by the juxtaposition of the cosmic with the domestic, but aren’t experiences of childhood and our later memories filled with such existential questions?

Is there a creator? Why are we born in order to die? What happens in the afterlife?

These are pretty big questions and the fact that Malick tackles them head on with an admirable lack of detachment is actually amazing in this day and age of recycled narratives and endless sequels.

Cinema is a medium wonderfully suited to getting inside people’s thoughts and feelings and Malick is a past master at capturing both the internal and external landscapes of the human experience.

That he does so again here with his impeccable artistry is to be richly savoured as the technical achievements of The Tree of Life are extraordinary.

For the Texas sections, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki creates stunning images with a fluid intimacy that captures both the wonder of growing up and the internal emotions and memories of the major characters.

He used natural light and Steadicam to amazing effect in The New World (2005) and here he repeats the ecstatic brilliance of that film with photography that is appropriately transcendent.

The actors respond with considerable distinction: Pitt captures the simmering frustration and deep love of a stern but loving father; Chastain is magnetic as the ethereal mother; whilst the child actors – Hunter McCracken, Tye Sheridan and Laramie Eppler – fully convince. (Incidentally, Eppler looks uncannily like Pitt, although they aren’t related).

Pitt is cursed with a celebrity that often overshadows his acting work, but his performance here is quietly brilliant: his changing moods and inner conflicts are powerful to watch and this is his best work since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007).

Penn has a much smaller role but he is a key presence and powerfully depicts a haunted, introspective man reflecting on his life. His role is brief in terms of screen time, but he is an important lynchpin for what happens.

Malick fans may like to note that Penn’s sequences are the only one Malick has ever set in the present – all of his previous films have been period pieces and there is a weird jolt at seeing mobile phones and skyscrapers here.

Past vs. Present
The Tree of Life at MOVIECLIPS.com

As for the scenes involving the rather large subject of the creation of mankind, they not only convince but provide something of a master class in the visual effects work of the last forty years.

Supervised by Dan Glass, they are genuinely awesome blend of high-resolution optical photography, modern CGI and unspecified trippy stuff which looks like nothing I’ve ever seen on a cinema screen.

The presence of VFX pioneer Douglas Trumbull on the effects team is obviously going to invite comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) but I suspect his own film Brainstorm (1983) may have also been an influence in hiring him (although a forgotten sci-fi thriller it has sequences which visualise similar themes).

There is a grand sweep to the creation sequences which involves spectacular footage of natural phenomena, both in space and on earth: planets, meteors, volcanic eruptions, waterfalls, microscopic cells, jellyfish and even dinosaurs are all used.

Careful viewers may actually notice how they link to the Texas story, as there appear to be subtle visual and thematic clues between the creation of life and the individual lives depicted on screen.

Some stunning sound work throughout the film also helps anchor two seemingly disparate worlds, as the rumblings of nature and space are contrasted with the carefully constructed scenes of the family at home. (Malick aficionados might want to listen carefully for a particular recurring sound that also appears in the The Thin Red Line).

Although Alexandre Desplat worked on a score, Malick has opted to go for a score filled with classical composers, such as Bach, Berlioz, Smetena, Mahler, Holst, GĂłrecki and John Tavener.

Again there may be comparisons to Kubrick, but Malick has his own style and edits to music like no other filmmaker working today, including some exhilarating sequences as the young boys grow up.

The period feel of 1950s small-town Texas is expertly captured by production designer Jack Fisk and the costumes by Jacqueline West give it a vivid period feel, which neatly evokes the power of childhood memories.

The Tree of Life is not a film that will be embraced by everyone and I suspect some may resent the fact that this is pure, distilled Malick with no compromise to conventional Hollywood storytelling clichés.

It is unashamedly ambitious and emotional, which are two qualities that put some audiences immediately on the back foot.

But there is a compelling story here, which is clearer than one might initially think – it just happens to be told in an unconventional way.

Malick has always made films built to last, even if recurring themes and motifs have vexed some viewers of his most recent work.

But the mere existence of this film in 2011 is almost as miraculous as the mysteries depicted within it.

A sublime work in the truest sense of the word, its beauty, vastness and grandeur make it quite something to behold.

It will probably be debated and thought about for a long time, which is entirely appropriate as it both reflects the questions and feelings of life itself.

> Official site and Tumblr blog
> Reviews of The Tree of Life at Metacritic
> Find out more about Terrence Malick at Wikipedia

Categories
Cinema Documentaries Reviews

Countdown to Zero

Lucy Walker’s campaigning documentary is an absorbing warning about the dangers still posed by nuclear weapons, even though its optimism blurs the wider issues.

Did you know that the world teetered on the brink of a nuclear apocalypse in January 1995, when Russia mistook a Western weather satellite for a US strike?

This is just one of the startling facts in Countdown to Zero, produced by Lawrence Bender and co-funded by Participant Media and the World Security Institute, which explores how the nuclear threat has stayed with us ever since the Cold War ended.

Interviewing a variety of political leaders (Mikhail Gorbachev, Pervez Musharraf and Jimmy Carter) along with experts in the field (Joseph Cirincione) it paints a sobering portrait of a persistent, yet still largely hidden, menace.

Since the dangerous days of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 or the Able Archer incident in 1983, it seemed that the collapse of the Soviet Union signified a new era where the superpowers relented from their deadly game of brinkmanship.

The film shows through inventive graphics and research, the newer threats have emerged over the last 20 years: how states such as Pakistan and North Korea have acquired nuclear capability; the problems of enriched uranium on the black market; the near-miss incidents caused by human error and the prospect of terrorists using a dirty bomb.

Aside from the aforementioned incident in 1995, there are documented cases involving shocking lapses within the US military and the elusive figure of Dr. A.Q. Khan, the shadowy scientist mostly responsible for Pakistan (and maybe others) getting the bomb.

Director Lucy Walker didn’t originate the project, so it perhaps lacks the personal touch of her other recent film Waste Land, but she handles the information and interviews with efficiency and intelligence.

Where the film falls down slightly, is in the campaigning edge which creeps in too often: we sees pointless vox pop interviews where members of the public around the world are asked about nuclear weapons.

Is it really a shocker that most people aren’t experts on this?

There is also a disconnect between the premise of the film, which is the noble aim of reducing global nuclear stocks to zero, and the dark side of humanity which it reveals.

After watching it you may be more convinced than ever that zero nuclear weapons is necessary but virtually impossible, so long as nation states continue to have them or pursue them.

In the last decade US foreign policy in the Middle East has probably helped accelerate proliferation, with states such as Iran seeing it as a necessary deterrent to what they regard as Western aggression (Tony Blair’s presence in the film only accentuates this point).

The example given in the film of South Africa dismantling their programme is misleading, as it remains hard not to conclude that the racist Apartheid regime simply didn’t wanting the incoming ANC government to have it.

The fact that Israel officially deny the existence of their nuclear weapons program (which conveniently allows them to opt out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) shows the extent to which even developed countries are literally in a state of denial about them.

One of the paradoxes of a nuclear arsenal is that countries feel safer with deadly weapons that they cannot use, as to do so would trigger their own destruction.

This dilemma still haunts governments today and even though President Obama has in theory pledged that zero is an option for the US, the current state of world affairs suggests it may remain a distant dream.

Speaking of which, at one point we see Osama bin Laden on screen and watching this film just days after his death was an interesting (if chilling) experience, which highlighted a pressing problem documentaries face in depicting current affairs.

This film premiered at Sundance in January 2010 and screened to acclaim at Cannes later in May of that year, but has taken over a year to reach British cinema screens.

In that time we have seen such seismic global events as the Wikileaks revelations, the Arab Spring and the death of the world’s most wanted terrorist (the latter may indeed have grave implications for US/Pakistan relations).

As it happens the core of Countdown to Zero is still relevant, but in this day and age why does it take so long for a documentary like this to come out and risk being out of date?

Perhaps a multi-platform release around the buzz of opening at festivals might be an option for more arthouse films like this.

That being said, despite the ambitious optimism of the film’s campaign, this is still one that demands to be seen as it is an alarming reminder of the dark, self-destructive impulses of mankind.

> Official site
> Reviews of Countdown to Zero at Cannes 2010
> Find out more about countries with nuclear weapons at Wikipedia

Categories
DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Blu-ray: Don’t Look Now

Nicolas Roeg’s classic 1973 film gets re-released on Blu-ray with a wonderful transfer and some interesting new extras.

Based on the short story by Daphne du Maurier, it is about an architect, John (Donald Sutherland) and his wife Laura (Julie Christie), who relocate to Venice after a family tragedy.

There they meet two elderly sisters, one of whom (Hilary Mason) appears to be psychic and claims that their recently deceased daughter has been trying to warn them about something from beyond the grave.

A work of startling power and originality, it formed part of Roeg’s brilliant run of films in the 1970s which began with Performance (1970), co-directed with Donald Cammell, Walkabout (1971), The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) and Bad Timing (1980).

Like those pictures, its reputation has increased considerably over time and it rewards repeated viewings, which reveal remarkable depths to Roeg’s technique and storytelling style.

The opening sequence is perhaps one of the greatest in post-war cinema, almost a film-within-a-film, and forms a stunning prologue to the action which later unfolds in Italy.

Wintry Venice is captured with remarkable authenticity – it was nearly all shot on location – and wisely the filmmakers opted to explore the less famous back alleys of the watery city.

This distinctive feel is boosted by the astonishing cinematography by Anthony Richmond and masterful editing by Graeme Clifford, which combine brilliantly to give the film its unique flavour.

Clifford has remarked that Roeg wanted this to be his “exercise in film grammar” and it is a visual feast for those prepared to look beyond the surface (as Sutherland’s character says early on “nothing is what it seems”).

Keep an eye out for the colour red, water, breaking glass and how they are sprinkled throughout with some highly inventive editing.

Perhaps most impressive is how Roeg uses these technical elements to accentuate the emotional core of the story, which centres on love, death, fate and grief.

Indeed, it is rare to find any film that mixes thought, feeling and style in the way Don’t Look Now does.

This is aided by wonderful performances from Sutherland and Christie, who do some of the best work of their careers and make a very convincing married couple, which is a surprisingly rare thing on film.

The memorable score is by Pino Donaggio, who was a Venetian singer and songwriter previously best known for his song “Lo Che Non Vivo” (later covered by Dusty Springfield in 1966 as “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me”).

It was his first experience working on a film and his rawness worked wonders, with his piano pieces, flute and strings providing a rich aural backdrop for what we see on screen.

An independent British and Italian co-production, the film was generally well received by critics on its initial release, although the US opening was hampered by an undeserved X-rating, due to the famous love scene.

Although comparatively tame by today’s standards, the censorious attitudes of the US censors to sex (still a problem even today) almost certainly dented the film’s commercial prospects in America, where cinemas and advertisers refuse to touch X-rated films.

For those interested in more back story to the US release, Peter Biskind’s recent biography of Warren Beatty claimed US distributor Paramount may have pressured the ratings board into giving the film an X-rating.

Why would they do this? Reportedly it was done as a favour to a certain movie star and may even be what Sutherland refers to on the extras to this disc when he talks of ‘famous’ and ‘nefarious’ influences on the film’s American release.

Despite this, its reputation has blossomed in the years since, so much so that it is now rightly considered a classic, coming eighth in a 1999 BFI poll and even topping Time Out’s list of the best British films of the 20th century earlier this year.

The original materials must have been in good shape as this restoration (overseen by Roeg and Tony Richmond) looks stunning: although there are traces of natural film grain, the clarity of the images on screen is stunning and probably a testament to the care in how it was originally shot and put together.

EXTRA FEATURES

Some of the extras have been ported over from the 2006 DVD re-release but are well worth revisiting and the new material centres around a batch of interviews with various cast and crew.

* Note that some extras feature heavy spoilers, so if you are new to the film be sure to watch them after your first viewing *

  • Audio Commentary by Nic Roeg: The director is joined by film critic Adam Smith for a highly informative commentary. Perhaps because the film is so visually rich, they opt for a wide ranging discussion triggered by certain scenes rather than try to keep up with everything we see on screen. Roeg is a fascinating talker and the conversation varies between production stories, the themes of the story, the difficulty of shooting on location on Venice and details about key moments.
  • Introduction by Alan Jones (7:12): This video introduction provides a little bit of context although it might have been improved with some visual elements, as it is basically a man talking to a camera.
  • Looking Back (19:31): A substantial featurette with interviews from Roeg, DP Anthony Richmond and editor Graeme Clifford. They all discuss various aspects of the film including the recurring imagery (water, the colour red, breaking glass), the themes of fate and coincidence, the fragmentary approach to visuals and the difficulty of shooting in Venice. The eloquent insights into the film might even surprise seasoned viewers. (N.B. Roeg is interviewed in a church and you might want to keep an eye on the background)
  • Death in Venice: Interview with Pino Donaggio (17:36): An essential element of the film is Pino Donaggio’s remarkable music. In this featurette the Italian composer describes his background and how Roeg hired him, despite the fact that he had never scored a film before. He was better know until then as a successful singer and songwriter and one startling fact is that Dusty Springfield’s 1966 hit “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” was actually a cover of his song “Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te)”. Roeg encouraged him to avoid certain conventions and combined with Donaggio’s rawness, made for an unusual and unforgettable score. Donaggio describes his use of music for certain sequences, such as the opening, the love scene and the climax. He also talks about how his work here led to him working with Brian De Palma on several films.
  • Trailer (2:32): This seems to be the original UK trailer and is notable for the quick cutting style, which gives it a surprisingly contemporary feel.

Newer special features include these series of interviews, along with an archive featurette:

  • Danny Boyle (15:10): The director of Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting is a massive fan of Roeg and Don’t Look Now, which he describes as “one of the masterpieces of the 20th century”. He also talks about Roeg’s unique directorial style and how, along with David Lynch, he is rare in exploring the ‘enigma’ of cinema. The fascinating and illuminating chat also covers how the director uses the persona of actors, a particular shot he copied for Trainspotting and a compressed version of the film (also included on the disc) that he made for a BAFTA tribute.
  • Allan Scott (14:31): The screenwriter discusses his amazing double life as a writer and businessman, his approach to screenwriting, the changes from the Daphne Du Maurier short story, the process of working with Nic Roeg (he did other projects with the director) and the film’s legacy.
  • Tony Richmond (23:48): The DP describes how he got into the industry, his background in music documentaries, the symbolism in Don’t Look Now, shooting the opening scene in Hertfordshire, the difficulties of shooting in Venice, using the newer Panavision cameras, natural light, shooting the love scene quickly and secretly and the uniqueness of Roeg’s style.
  • Donald Sutherland (23:14): The actor talks about how he was cast, his early thoughts on the script (which Roeg quickly shot down), his fear of vertigo and drowning, doing his own stunts, the power of the story, working with Julie Christie and the technical innovations of the film. He also discusses how ‘famous’ and ‘nefarious’ influences may have had a part in US distributor Paramount cutting out 25 minutes, the enduring power of the famous sex scene (and the difficulties of filming it) and he also has a fantastic anecdote about an actor friend (who wasn’t in the film). Sutherland also makes a fairly astounding admission about watching his own movies.

Also new are these two featurettes:

  • Compressed version of Don’t Look Now made by Danny Boyle for BAFTA tribute (4:31): Although interesting I’m not sure how I feel about the inclusion of this. One can only assume that it was made with the best of intentions (it was for a BAFTA Roeg tribute night after all) but the music track is totally out of whack with the images and the scenes from the film lose a lot of power when stripped from their original context.
  • Excerpt Sex and Death from documentary “Nothing Is As It Seems” (15:37): This excerpt from a TV documentary (shot in what appears to be the late 1970s) on grief features Dr. Colin Murray Parkes, a psychiatrist and expert on bereavement, discussing the issue in relation to Don’t Look Now. Skilfully intercut with clips from the film, it provides an interesting scientific counterpoint to the paranormal ideas presented in the film.

In what has been a great year for classic 1970s cinema on Blu-ray, with notable re-releases of Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now, and now Don’t Look Now.

An essential classic of 1970 cinema, it has never looked better and is an essential purchase both for new and seasoned viewers.

Don’t Look Now is released on Monday 4th July by Optimum Home Releasing

> Buy Don’t Look Now on Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> Find out more about Don’t Look Now at the IMDb and Wikipedia
> Features on Nic Roeg at IndieWire and Senses of Cinema
> Observer feature on Don’t Look Now from 2006
> Nicolas Roeg’s Top 10 films at The Criterion Collection
> BAFTA Tributes to Nic Roeg in 2009 featuring Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan, Kevin MacDonald, James Marsh, Guillermo Del Toro, Mike Figgis and Paul Greengrass
> BBC interview with Nic Roeg
> Listen to our interview with DP Anthony Richmond and his work with Nic Roeg on Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell To Earth

Categories
DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Blu-ray: The Cruel Sea

This new Blu-ray release of The Cruel Sea is a good opportunity to experience this unusually gritty 1953 drama depicting life during the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II.

Based on the best-selling novel by Nicholas Monsarrat, it tells the story of life on board a Naval corvette led by Captain Ericson (Jack Hawkins) and his inexperienced crew, who include Lockhart (Donald Sinden), Ferraby (John Stratton), John Morell (Denholm Elliott) and Hallam (Virginia McKenna).

Directed by Charles Frend and produced by Leslie Norman (father of Barry), it was a commendably frank depiction of the hardships of warfare.

The sense of realism is impressive for a film of the time: using a mixture location shooting, studio shots and model work, life on board the ship is portrayed with an admirable attention to detail.

We never fully see the enemy German U-boats and the effect keeps the tension high, whilst the stormy Atlantic is almost presented as a dangerous enemy of a different kind.

The hardships and moral dilemmas of World War II are also well presented, making the characters feel like real people struggling with life during wartime and not one-dimensional heroes.

Nominated for one Oscar (Best Screenplay) and three BAFTA Awards (including Best British Film and Best British Actor), it established Hawkins as a star and greatly boosted the careers of Sinden, Elliot and McKenna.

Sinden is especially worth watching, as he invests his role with considerable depth, which may come as a surprise for those more familiar with his later work in UK television.

It remains one of the better British depictions of World War II and still stands up well nearly sixty years on from when it was released.

This re-release from Optimum Home Entertainment has been digitally restored and is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1: the 1080p transfer is impressive and wisely no digital corrections have been added to remove the natural grainy look of the film.

As with any film of this age there some slight imperfections but overall this looks very good for a film of this age, with the close ups of characters looking especially good.

The LPCM 2.0 audio track is handicapped by the original source material (often a problem with films of this age) but despite that, the dialogue is clean and easy to follow, whilst the action and overall ambience is fine.

The extras feature the following:

  • Interview with Donald Sinden (33 mins): The star recalls recalls how he got cast; how certain scenes were shot; his experiences on set; the problems filming romantic scenes and legacy of the film.
  • Trailer (4 min): The original theatrical trailer for the film In English, not subtitled.
  • Behind the Scenes Stills Gallery: A collection of photos from the filming of The Cruel Sea.

The Cruel Sea is out now on Blu-ray from Optimum Home Entertainment

> Buy The Cruel Sea on Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> The Cruel Sea at the IMDb
> Find out more about The Battle of the Atlantic at Wikipedia

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

Super 8

A loving homage to the early work of Steven Spielberg, Super 8 mixes genres to create an unusual but enjoyable summer movie experience.

Set in Ohio during 1979, it tells the story of a teenage boy named Joe (Joel Courtney) and his group of friends who accidentally discover strange things happening in their small town whilst making a movie using a Super 8 camera.

After witnessing a spectacular train crash, quickly covered up by the US army, Joe has to deal with his lawman father (Kyle Chandler), his filmmaking buddies led by Charles (Riley Griffiths), a classmate named Alice (Elle Fanning), and a series of increasingly mysterious events.

In a summer filled with remakes and sequels, this singular project sees director J.J Abrams blend his love for the original series of The Twilight Zone with the Spielberg films that enchanted him as a young man.

For a major studio like Paramount, this is an unlikely summer tent-pole release as it isn’t based on a pre-existing property (or is it?) and there are no star names attached.

With a relatively cheap production budget of about $50 million, it is being sold on the central concept of ‘what if Steven Spielberg made Cloverfield in 1979?’

The end result is an entertaining love letter to the era in which Abrams grew up but also to the movies and TV shows which inspired him to become a storyteller.

Whilst the bedrock is a coming-of-age tale, it also mixes sci-fi and family drama with the kind of mystery and wonder that Abrams and Spielberg have both specialised in during their careers in film and television.

Spielberg is a producer on the film and reportedly had significant creative input into the script and final movie (it is even co-produced under his iconic Amblin’ banner), which is kind of like Paul McCartney teaming up with a Beatles tribute band.

Indeed, Super 8 is so intentionally marinated in Spielberg tropes that it is almost difficult to categorise.

Is it a homage? A cinematic mashup? Perhaps one analogy would be to say that it is a filmic remix of Spielberg’s greatest hits by Abrams.

It certainly draws deeply from Spielberg’s early blockbusters but also on other films he wrote and produced in that period when he established himself as Hollywood’s boy wonder.

Like Jaws (1975), it deals with a sinister threat to a small town; like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), ordinary people are caught up in extraordinary events; like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), innocent children are contrasted against guilty adults; like Poltergeist (1982), a family struggles against dark, underground forces and like The Goonies (1985), a band of friends bond on an adventure.

(Spielberg fans will have fun spotting many other little details and references to his work)

Some people might level the accusation that Abrams and Spielberg have combined to just rip off and revisit the latter’s movies, but it is to their credit that they have actually crafted something new, whilst remaining respectful to those original works.

Perhaps the neatest trick of Super 8 is that it remembers that despite their spectacle, Spielberg’s early films had a rich vein of emotion that flowed from memorable characters.

Opening with an scene of eloquent sadness, the film is grounded in real life and even if some fantastical things later happen, it is all about how these events affect the characters and their relationships.

A good deal of this comes from the two young actors who anchor this film brilliantly.

Newcomer Joel Courtney has just the right amount of innocence and spirit in what is essentially the lead role, whilst his chemistry with Elle Fanning is both believable and charming.

She too is really quite something, conveying complex emotions with an ease rare for actors her age. One sequence early on, as she rehearses a scene for the Super 8 film-within-the-film, has shades of Naomi Watts’ audition in Mulholland Drive (2001).

The other actors round out the film nicely, with Riley Griffiths, Zach Mills, Gabriel Basso and Ryan Lee making up an engaging patchwork of friends and budding filmmakers.

In the token adult roles, Kyle Chandler as Joe’s police officer father and Toby Emmerich as the military commander are OK without bringing the house down, but perhaps that’s a by product of having so much focus on the kids.

It is also worth noting that for all his obsession with sci-fi spectacle Abrams (like early Spielberg) is deft at handling the little character touches, whether it be an extra talking on a payphone or revealing background visual details.

His recent reboot of Star Trek (2009) worked wonderfully because of this kind of attention to character and place and the same is true of Super 8.

The production design, cinematography and tone are all remarkably authentic to the vibe of the period and DP Larry Fong creates widescreen images that seem to curb his director’s occasional instincts to frame the action like he’s still working in television.

On the downside, Abrams penchant for lens flares becomes distracting – they are even on the poster! – even if the visuals overall work well. Some shots of awestruck kids and depictions of small-town suburbia nicely reference Allen Daviau’s cinematography in E.T and Vilmos Zsigmond‘s work in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Ben Burtt’s sound design is also very effective, especially during the action set-pieces, which simultaneously keeps things real whilst also giving certain scenes a requisite fantastical lift.

One major caveat is that the visual effects sometimes feel overdone for key scenes, but that could be a case of the production needing to spend its allocated budget.

This is especially true as the film enters its final act and the compulsion to introduce big set-pieces threatens to drown out the carefully constructed tone of the film.

But even here Abrams deploys his secret weapon in composer Michael Giacchino, who is fast becoming one of the best of his generation after establishing himself with TV shows such as Lost and winning awards for his work on Pixar movies like Up.

As you might expect his work here deliberately channels Spielberg’s regular composer John Williams, but he also manages to weave in his own blend of melodies, which give the final sequences a special emotional kick.

It is difficult to discuss much of the plot without giving away spoilers, but despite some problems with the latter stages, it was very hard not to exit the film smiling.

Some might feel this whole project is simply an exercise in nostalgia, but it manages to be more than just a retread of Spielberg’s work by tapping in to the essence of what made them successful.

By mining the magic of a previous era, Super 8 reminds us that the simple pleasures of summer movies, like character and emotion, are often the most rewarding.

Super 8 is out now in the US and opens in the UK on Friday 5th August

> Official site
> Find out more about J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg at Wikipedia
> Reviews of Super 8 at Metacritic

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

The Beaver

Jodie Foster’s first film as a director in 16 years is a curious drama laced with surreal comedy.

Opening with the depressed head of a toy company (Mel Gibson) being kicked out of the family home by his wife (Foster, who also stars) and explores how he seemingly turns his life around by talking to people through a beaver hand puppet.

Loved ones and co-workers are bemused but initially welcome him back, with the exception of his angry teenage son (Anton Yelchin), who strikes up a relationship with a classmate (Jennifer Lawrence) who also has issues of her own.

Kyle Killen’s script was hot property back in 2008 and part of the appeal might have been the way it mixes a striking concept within a conventional setting, whilst providing a showy lead role for the central character (Steve Carrell was attached early on).

The resulting production had a rocky joureny to cinemas, as a much publicised voicemail scandal involving its star (on the back of other well-documented problems) led to its release being delayed by several months.

With this all in mind there is poignancy to the finished film, as the parallels between Gibson and his character are painfully apparent.

But if you put all that pre-release baggage to one side, how does the finished film stand up?

It turns out that the film isn’t bad at all and has surprising levels of emotion if one treats it as a drama, which happens to be sprinkled with humour.

Gibson gives a surprisingly nuanced performance in the lead role, which is no mean feat given that for most of the film he’s talking like Ray Winstone through a hand puppet (for some reason, the beaver has a British accent).

This leads to some bizarre scenes that strain credibility, but given his position of power at work and the relief of his loved ones to have him back home, it just about works.

The scenes where Gibson’s character talks through his puppet actually work pretty well, given that they could have been utterly ridiculous.

In the supporting roles, Foster convinces as an exhausted but loving wife, whilst Yelchin and Lawrence do their best with teenage roles that feel a little underwritten.

Although she hasn’t directed in a long time (her last film was 1995’s Home for the Holidays), Foster has mixes the contrasting tones in a way that you don’t often see with Hollywood productions.

The tasteful widescreen lensing by DP Hagen Bogdanski (who also shot The Lives of Others) gives it a nice visual polish and the slick editing by Lynzee Klingman keeps things moving well, whilst skilfully intercutting the main plot of the father with the parallel subplot of the son.

On film, the mentally ill are often depicted as either psychotic killers (e.g. Psycho) or underdog geniuses (e.g. Rain Man) but to her credit Foster avoids these cliches, focusing with a good deal of empathy on how regular families grapple with the pain and uncertainty of having a loved one suffering from a psychological ailment.

Furthermore, it floats the idea that traditionally accepted treatments might not work for everyone, which contrasts with films which routinely dish out the subtext that everything will be OK in the end.

Not everything works here. Two significant strikes against the film are Marcelo Zavros’ jaunty score, which belongs in another film entirely, and a key plot development late on which feels too melodramatic.

As I write this, The Beaver has died a death at the US box office, which suggests Gibson and Foster are no longer the box office stars they were and that audiences were baffled by the story and tone.

Parts of the preview audience I saw it with seemed to be laughing at certain scenes in a derisory way (never a good sign), but to sneer at this film (as some may do), is to ignore its empathetic heart, even if in places it doesn’t fully work.

Some of the influences here appear to be Magic (1978), the drama starring Anthony Hopkins as a ventriloquist and American Beauty (1999), with its dissection of suburban angst.

One recent film it closely resembles is Lars and the Real Girl (2007), which also featured a troubled, yet sympathetic, lead character with a bizarre fixation.

Like that film it may struggle to find a wide audience, but if you are prepared to go with it, The Beaver is a film with unusual depths that lie beneath its goofy premise.

> Official site
> IMDb entry
> Reviews for The Beaver at Metacritic

Categories
DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

DVD: Inside Job

One of the best documentaries in recent years was Charles Ferguson’s devastating examination of the financial crisis.

In just under two hours, Inside Job takes us on a journey through the full horror of how a deregulated Wall Street, aided and abetted by a compliant political system, wreaked havoc on the world.

Using interviews, graphics, editing and narration from Matt Damon, the film explores the causes of the current economic meltdown and speaks to a variety of experts and policy makers including Nouriel Roubini, George Soros, Eliot Spitzer, Barney Frank and Christine Lagarde.

After premiering at Cannes 2010, it was quickly acclaimed as one of the best reviewed films of the festival and eventually won the Oscar for Best Documentary back in March.

At the ceremony Charles Ferguson gave a pointed critique of Wall Street and the financial industry:

 

This DVD release will probably be the best opportunity for a wide audience to see the film and it hasn’t lost any of its power since coming out at cinemas.

Perhaps most depressingly, the financial and political systems examined by the film seem to be in denial about the corruption and short-term thinking that led to disaster in 2008.

The highlight of the extras on this disc is probably the audio commentary by Ferguson and his producer Audrey Marrs, which is an informative guide to not only the content of the film but how they put it all together.

There is also a 12-minute featurette called “Behind the Heist: The Making of ‘Inside Job'” that features Ferguson discussing the context of the film in more depth.

The deleted scenes feature outtakes of nine interviews with people featured in the film: Charles Morris (5m), Dominique Strauss-Khan (7m), Eliot Spitzer (8m), Gillian Tett (4m), Jerome Fons (2m), Lee Hsien Loong (1m), Satyajit Das (9m), Simon Johnson (1m) and Yves Smith (3m).

These outtakes could perhaps have delved a bit deeper, but it seems Ferguson’s aim was for the film itself to be clearest explanation of the financial crisis.

If you didn’t see this at cinemas, it is a film I would urge you to see, as it remains the most concise and powerful explanation of a key issue of our time.

Ferguson gave some interesting interviews around the release of the film which included this 35 minute discussion with Katie Couric:

 

Then there is this 15 minute chat with Charlie Rose:

 

There is also this hour long discussion Ferguson did with the Commonwealth Club in March:

 

Inside Job is out now on DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

> Buy Inside Job on DVD from Amazon UK
> Listen to my interview with director Charles Ferguson
> Read my full review of Inside Job from LFF 2010
> Official site
> Find out more about the late 2000s financial crisis at Wikipedia

Categories
DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Blu-ray: Apocalypse Now

One of the greatest films of the 1970s gets a worthy Blu-ray release which ranks amongst the finest ever in the format.

The reputation of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War drama has enhanced considerably since its release in 1979 and it looks stunning in this restored version, which includes the original cut, the 2001 redux version and Hearts of Darkness, the 1991 documentary about the making of the film.

Part of the joy of seeing Apocalypse Now in high-definition is that the original film set new standards for visual and audio presentation, whilst at the same time remaining a relevant story about the corrosive horrors of war.

It really is a case of new technology reminding you of the brilliance of a timeless classic.

The pristine high-definition transfer was personally overseen by Coppola and it isn’t an exaggeration to say that it almost looks like a contemporary release.

Presented at long last in the film’s original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the 1080p image is stunning and the details and colours look sublime.

Long-time fans of the film will geek out at so many of the memorable set-pieces such as the opening, the helicopter attack set to Wagner and the climax but a younger generation of viewers used to CGI-fuelled epics might also find the film a revelation.

The film is rightly famous for its pioneering approach to audio and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is simply on another level.

Coppola and Walter Murch essentially pioneered what would become known as 5.1 sound with Apocalypse Now and the use of sound in the film is astonishing.

The masterful blend of helicopter rotors with hotel fans in the opening sequence and the innovative synthesised score by Carmine Coppola are just some of the aural elements that are presented on the lossless audio track with sparkling fidelity.

Aside from the quality of the film and its HD presentation, this 3-disc package comes with an abundance of extras, which break down as follows.

DISC ONE

Two versions of the film are included on disc one: the original 1979 theatrical cut (2h 27m) and Apocalypse Now Redux (3h 16m).

Although the Redux cut is interesting I much prefer the original theatrical cut, which has more punch and narrative drive.

My advice is to watch the original version before viewing the Redux edition, as it does contain some interesting scenes, notably a lengthy sequence on a plantation and a different introduction to Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall).

Coppola recorded a separate commentary for each edition and they are worth listening to as he describes his reasons for excluding the scenes which were later inserted into the Redux edition.

DISC TWO

Most of the extras are found on this and although some of it has appeared on previous DVD editions, Coppola has recorded three special interviews especially for this release.

  • A Conversation with Martin Sheen (59:26): This fascinating chat between the director and his leading man sees them discuss the casting process (Harvey Keitel was the original choice for Willard), the arduous shoot (Sheen had a heart attack during filming) and various anecdotes from the set. Both seem to have a genuine affection and respect for one another and for fans of the film it is a rich conversation and an essential watch.
  • An Interview with John Milius (49:45): As Coppola freely acknowledges during this interview, screenwriter John Milius was the man behind many of the central ideas and scenes in the film. The title, the notion of basing it on Hearts of Darkness and the helicopter sequence set to Wagner were all his ideas, even though the film evolved during filming. Perhaps most fascinating are the early, experimental roots of the project, which was to shoot it in Vietnam with George Lucas shooting it in black and white (during the actual war!). By the way, fans of The Big Lebowski might like to note that the character of Walter Sobchack (played by John Goodman) is inspired by Milius.
  • Fred Roos: Casting Apocalypse (11:44): One of the most interesting aspects of Apocalypse Now is the casting process, some of which we actually see courtesy of various sessions which were filmed. In this interview casting director Fred Roos talks about the hundreds of actors who tested for different parts.
  • Mercury Theater Production of ‘Heart of Darkness’ (36:34): A neat inclusion is the audio of the Mercury Theatre’s radio production of Conrad’s novella, which features Orson Welles and his regular acting troupe just a week after infamous ‘War of the Worlds’ broadcast.
  • The Hollow Man (16:57): An impressionistic featurette with scenes from the film and production set against Brando reciting T.S. Eliot’s poem.
  • Monkey Sampan Deleted Scene (3:03): A deleted scene which fans of The Doors might appreciate as it sees natives singing ‘Light My Fire’ (Jim Morrison went to film school with Coppola)
  • Additional Scenes (26:28): There are around 12 deleted scenes included here (some are time coded), of which perhaps the most interesting is the one involving Scott Glenn appearing at Kurtz’s compound.
  • Destruction of the Kurtz Compound (6:06): The precise ending of the film has been the subject of much debate as it has changed throughout the years. Although the proper ending is presented on this version of the film, Coppola explains why a final credits sequence was used for various theatrical and TV showings of the film and how it got misinterpreted over time.
  • The Birth of 5.1 Sound (5:54): An short but highly illuminating featurette in which Ioan Allen of Dolby explains why Apocalypse Now brought about a revolution in cinema sound and indirectly led to the birth of the now standard 5.1 sound.
  • Ghost Helicopter Flyover (3:55): Keeping on the sound elements of the film this explores the surround sound design for a particular sequence.
  • The Synthesizer Soundtrack (Text): A reprint from Keyboard magazine which examined the then innovative use of synths on the soundtrack.
  • A Million Feet of Film: The Editing of ‘Apocalypse Now’ (17:57): A lot of the production of Apocalypse Now was filmed for posterity and this look at editor Walter Murch working on the film is fascinating.
  • Heard Any Good Movies Lately? The Sound Design of ‘Apocalypse Now’ (15:22): Another fascinating glimpse in to the sound design of the film that uses footage from the Zoetrope archives, showing how films were constructed in the pre-digital era.
  • The Final Mix (3:09): The studio setup used to achieve the final mix looks like something out of an old sci-fi film but this featurette shows how the amazing final mix was achieved in an analogue world.
  • ‘Apocalypse’ Then and Now (3:44): Brief discussion of the differences between both versions of the film.
  • 2001 Cannes Film Festival: Francis Ford Coppola (38:35): Lengthy interview at the American Pavilion during Cannes 2001 (as the Redux version was premiered) between Roger Ebert and Coppola as they discuss various aspects of the film, including the original Cannes premiere in 1979.
  • PBR Streetgang (4:09): Profiles from 2001 where the actors playing Willard’s crew – including Laurence Fishburne and Timothy Bottoms – talk about their experiences on the film.
  • The Color Palette of ‘Apocalypse Now’ (4:06): Another 2001 supplement which discusses how the visuals were restored for the Redux version using the three strip dye transfer Technicolor process.

DISC THREE

  • Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1h 36m): The real highlight of the supplements is this extraordinary 1991 documentary that details the long and painful production of the film. Directed by Fax Bahr and George Hickenlooper, it uses footage shot on set by Coppola’s wife Eleanor and features interviews with key cast and crew to paint an unforgettable portrait of how a Hollywood classic came to the screen. Possibly the best ever ‘making-of’ film ever made (closely followed by Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams), it remains the most compelling look at the mammoth challenges facing the director and his crew during production. Not only did Coppola invest a large chunk of his personal wealth into the film, but he had to deal with firing his original leading man days into filming, tropical storms which destroyed sets, Martin Sheen having a heart attack, and Marlon Brando and Dennis Hopper refusing to use the script. Eleanor Coppola gave her on-set footage to Bahr and Hickenlooper, who then filmed the new interviews, which were then cut edited together with her previous material. Much of it is absolute gold for fans of the film, but what makes this version particularly fascinating is the addition of audio commentaries by Francis and Eleanor which provide new and interesting perspectives on both the production and the documentary. Francis claims that it painted a darker portrait of him than was actually the case as Eleanor wasn’t filming always on set and that there were times when the shooting went smoother than people seem to remember. That said, both come out with considerable credit as Francis’ financial and creative gamble with the film and Eleanor’s documenting of what it took to make it ultimately paid off.

The other supplements on this disc include:

  • John Milius Script Selections with Notes by Francis Ford Coppola (Text):
  • Storyboard Gallery
  • Photo Archive
  • Marketing Archive, featuring the original 1979 trailer, theatrical program, radio spots, press kit photos and a poster gallery (look out for the Japanese poster).

Overall this is the best looking version of the film and the plentiful extras make it an essential purchase.

> Buy Apocalypse Now on Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> Read my longer thoughts on revisiting Apocalypse Now
> Apocalypse Now at the IMDb, Wikipedia and MUBi

Categories
Cinema Documentaries Reviews Thoughts

Senna

Asif Kapadia’s documentary about the life and career of Ayrton Senna is a riveting portrait of the F1 driver.

Using only archive footage alongside voiceover contributions from those who knew and wrote about him, it constructs a compelling story of a sporting icon.

Beginning with his early career in Europe, it charts his rapid ascent to Formula One where he joined the McLaren team in the late 1980s and quickly established himself as a precocious rival to reigning world champion Alain Prost.

Exploring his extraordinary feats on the track and the joy his three world titles brought to his native Brazil, it then covers his tragic early death at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994.

With judicious use of archive footage, which really comes alive on the big screen, it also covers the murkier politics off the track with former FIA boss Jean-Marie Balestre coming across as another rival to be beaten.

Although this will be devoured by motor racing fans, it also works as a fascinating introduction for those who know little or nothing about Senna and his impact on the sport.

Part of what makes it so exciting is his life story, which whilst not a rags-to-riches tale (he was from a wealthy Brazilian family), feels like the subject of an epic novel filled with memorable touches.

His iconic yellow helmet, loving and devoted parents, faith in God, millions he donated to charity, glamorous girlfriends and the driving skills which established him as one of the greatest racing drivers of all time are just some of the rich details which make up the story.

The film contains many of his greatest moments: his amazing F1 debut at Monaco in 1984; his victory at the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix to clinch his first world title and his electrifying win at the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1991.

Assembled from hours of footage from various broadcasters and the F1 archives, the editing is frequently inspired, providing an unusual level of excitement for a documentary.

At one point we see some especially prophetic comments from Prost (“Ayrton Senna has a small problem, he thinks he can’t kill himself because he believes in God and I think that is very dangerous for other drivers”) as well as footage from family home videos.

Some of the internal F1 videos of driver meetings are an eye-opening glimpse into the world of a dangerous sport and Senna’s pleas for more safety add to the tragic irony of his untimely demise.

There are also astute voiceover contributions from journalist Richard Williams, F1 doctor Sid Watkins and racing commentators GalvĂŁo Bueno and John Bisignano which explain and illuminate his impact on the sport and his home country.

For director Asif Kapadia this marks a change from his previous feature films (such as The Warrior and Far North) but he seems to have a natural feel for the drama of real life and of the intense highs which sport can deliver to both participants and fans.

A subtle but atmospheric use of music augments the film nicely and the use of internal F1 footage of the drivers observing the horrific accidents during that fateful weekend in 1994 brings a new perspective to what would be a turning point the sport as a whole, as major safety changes were brought in following the crash that killed Senna and Roland Ratzenberger.

Although the exact cause of Senna’s crash at Imola still remains a mystery, it seems an unlikely confluence of events was ultimately to blame: the new rules imposed on the Williams car that season, an engineering fault, a previous crash at the start of the race and bad luck in how the car actually crashed on impact.

On paper this might sound like a film just for devoted F1 fans, but perhaps its greatest achievement lies in how it not only makes the races truly thrilling but finds universality in the details of a sportsman’s life.

After scoring major buzz at Sundance earlier this year, Universal and Working Title will be quietly confident that it finds a deserving audience hungry for engaging factual entertainment.

With the summer movie season fuelled by comic book fantasy, Senna provides a welcome injection of real-life drama and excitement.

> Official site
> Find out more about Ayrton Senna at Wikipedia
> Follow Asif Kapadia on Twitter
> Follow the film on Facebook and Twitter

Categories
DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Blu-ray: Taxi Driver

The restored version of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 classic is one of the best Blu-rays of the year.

Taxi Driver won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, received several Oscar nominations, became a box office hit and became an established classic of 1970s cinema.

A drama about an isolated New York cab driver (Robert De Niro), it explores his relationships with fellow drivers (Peter Boyle), a political campaign volunteer (Cybil Shepherd) and a young prostitute (Jodie Foster), as he starts to see violence as a solution to his loneliness.

This Blu-ray is taken directly from the new 4k restoration supervised by Sony’s Grover Crisp, and approved by Scorsese and cinematographer Michael Chapman.

Great effort has been made to keep the look of the original film intact and this is easily the best looking version of the film I’ve ever seen.

The detail and contrast of the visuals mark a major step up from the last DVD release in 2007 and the audio is equally good with the DTS-HD MA 5.1 lossless soundtrack sounding tremendous.

Hearing Bernard Herrman’s classic score set to some of the indelible images from the film at this quality is great for admirers of this mid-70s classic.

EXTRA FEATURES

The extras are also another major bonus of this release, featuring a raft of interesting supplementary material.

Original 1986 Commentary with Director Martin Scorsese and Writer: Perhaps the highlight is the inclusion of the 1986 audio commentary Scorsese and Schrader recorded for the Criterion LaserDisc. Although 15 years old, it is brilliantly informative and a fantastic resource for fans and students of the film. Scorsese talks about stylistic influences, shooting in New York and various production details whilst Schrader discusses the inspiration for the story, the themes and his take on the film. They are recorded separately but edited together with a moderator who provides even more background information.

Interactive Script to Screen: This feature shows the script on-screen as the film plays and you sync the script with the film or look at it independently from the film. Perhaps of most interest to film students, it also provides an interesting bridge between how a script looks on page and how it translates visually to the screen.

Audio Commentary by Robert Kolker: The film professor from the University of Virginia provides a highly informative commentary that delves into many facets of the film. From detailed discussions of the visuals to the overall history and impact of the film, it is well worth listening to.

Audio Commentary by Paul Schrader: The screenwriter does another full commentary, this time on his own, and discusses the inspiration for his script, the differences between page and screen, the acting and his feelings about the finished film. Given his personal connection with the material, it makes for an illuminating perspective on the film.

Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver (16:52): An interview with the director where he discusses the background to the film, his career up to that point, how he got hired, Paul Schrader’s script, shooting in New York during 1975, how he related to the central character, the European influences on the film and where it sits in his career.

Producing Taxi Driver (9:53): Producer Michael Phillips speaks about his role in getting the film made, his earlier Oscar-winning success with The Sting (1973), how the dark script was initially a problem with the studio, working with Scorsese and De Niro and the legacy of the film.

God’s Lonely Man (21:42): A piece on the character of Travis Bickle, which sees Paul Schrader discuss how his own personal problems influenced the character and how he became a figure people identified with.

Influence and Appreciation: A Martin Scorsese Tribute (18:30): A piece featuring interview with Oliver Stone (a student of Scorsese’s at NYU in the 1970s), Paul Schrader, Roger Corman, Robert De Niro, Robert Kolker and others as they speak about the director and his films through the lens of Taxi Driver.

Taxi Driver Stories (22:23): Interviews with various cab drivers as they discuss what it was actually like to work in New York during the 1970s.

Making Taxi Driver (1:10:55): A comprehensive documentary from the early 1990s that covers the production and legacy of the film. Featuring interviews with key cast and crew it is a fascinating look at how it was made. There is some overlap from the other material on the disc, but for fans of the film this is a great overall look at the film.

Travis’ New York (6:16): Cinematographer Michael Chapman and former New York Mayor Ed Koch discuss what New York was actually like during the era in which Taxi Driver was shot on location there.

Travis’ New York Locations (4:49): A split-screen comparison of nine clips from the film along side the very same New York locations as they were in 2006.

Intro to Storyboards by Martin Scorsese (4:32): The director talks about the importance of storyboarding and how he used it whilst making the film.

Storyboard to Film Comparison (8:21): Various scenes are juxtaposed with the storyboards, which makes for a fascinating comparison of the two as some sketches are remarkably faithful to the finished shots.

Galleries (9:28): The image galleries feature photos of Bernard Herrmann’s sheet music for his iconic score, the crew on location (featuring some great black and white shots of Scorsese and De Niro), the original publicity materials and Martin Scorsese at work during the film.

Taxi Driver is out today from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

> Buy Taxi Driver on Blu-ray from Amazon UK
> Revisiting Taxi Driver (my longer thoughts on the film)
> The Digital Bits interview Grover Crisp of Sony about the new 4k restoration process
> Taxi Driver at the IMDb
> Martin Scorsese at MUBi
> Scorsese and Schrader discuss the restored version in a Q&A last month

Categories
DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Blu-ray: Midnight Cowboy

The latest release of this groundbreaking 1969 drama is a reminder of the film’s power and charm.

Based on the novel by James Leo Herlihy, it begins with a young Texan named Joe Buck (Jon Voight) quitting his job and travelling to New York to become a hustler.

Once there he struggles until he forges an unlikely friendship with conman Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), who had at first tried to trick him.

An oddball couple who do their best to survive in the big city, they come across various characters, including religious fanatics, rich middle age women and disciples of Andy Warhol.

Although dated in some respects (the sexual content which shocked back then, seems relatively tame now) it is still a moving depiction of outsiders making a connection with each other as they join forces to survive in a harsh metropolis.

Director John Schlesinger had already made a name for himself in England during the 1960s with films such as Billy Liar (1963) and Darling (1965), but this was his first in America and he shoots with the keen and curious eye of an outsider.

The flashbacks and jump cuts, which are central to the narrative, appear to be influenced by the French New Wave and the depiction of urban squalor seems to be a hat tip to the Italian neo-realist directors of the 1940s and 50s.

Using actual locations and a raw, shooting style gives everything a feeling of authenticity which is more than matched by the central performances.

A breakout film for Voight, who is charmingly innocent in the title role, it also showed a different side to Hoffman who had only recently become a star with The Graduate (1967).

Both manage to carve out memorable characters and it is their unlikely chemistry that still powers the emotional heart of the film.

Coming at the tail end of the 1960s, Midnight Cowboy almost certainly struck a chord with audiences who empathised with the rural innocence of Joe and the urban opportunism of Ratso.

But it was the frank approach to modern, urban existence – especially sex – which marked it out as a film to watch and one that reflected a reality other mainstream cinema had ignored up to that point.

On a deeper level, it is a powerful parable showing how the perpetual optimism of the American dream can be undermined a darker American reality.

Joe’s flashbacks hint of a dark past in rural Texas (involving rape and cruelty), whilst Rizzo is trapped by the very city his friend has dreamt about.

It isn’t a coincidence that both chase for the dream of another place, whether it be the streets of New York or the sunshine of Miami.

There is also the comic contrast of Joe’s politeness with the rather sordid things he gets up to, whilst Rizzo reveals unexpected depths beneath his sleazy exterior.

Screenwriter Waldo Salt had had some lean years after being blacklisted during the 1950s but he brings some nice touches to the screenplay: notice the bookending of the story by key bus journeys, the clever use of non-verbal action and his empathy with outsiders. (Look out for his daughter Jennifer in a key role).

The use of music, supervised by John Barry, is also highly effective from Nillson’s song ‘Everybody’s Talkin’ over the opening credits to the sublime melodies of the Florida fantasy sequence.

Revisiting the film today, it may be hard to appreciate the impact it had in 1969 but it came at a time when the major studios were deeply confused at what younger audiences wanted.

The success of films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) flummoxed the old school studio executives who were still living in a previous era.

Even at the enlightened folk at United Artists – a studio who mixed commercial nous with artistic integrity – weren’t fully convinced by what Schlesinger was doing until they saw the finished film.

On its release in May 1969 it became a massive success (despite negative reviews from high profile critics such as Judith Crist and Pauline Kael) and went on to be the fourth highest grossing film of that year.

Given that it was awarded an X-rating by the MPAA, preventing it from being shown in certain markets, this was some achievement, even though it probably boosted the must-see aura surrounding the film.

When it triumphed at the Oscars a few months later, it famously became the only X-rated film to win Best Picture, along with trophies for John Schlesinger (Best Director) and Waldo Salt (Best Adapted Screenplay).

Look out for the startling coincidence in the actual film when Rizzo talks about his father in a graveyard and remarks that his tombstone should have ‘one big lousy X’.

A further eerie moment happens in the scene where Hoffman and Voight argue about the latter’s cowboy outfit and actually mention Wayne by name.

Both Hoffman and Voight were up for Best Actor awards that year (as this LIFE magazine profile shows), which may have split the vote, as it went to none other than John Wayne for True Grit.

I can only imagine how Duke felt when he saw this:

The image quality on this Blu-ray release is good without being great. Whilst probably the best this film has ever looked, it has a grainy appearance and doesn’t appear to have been given a full and proper restoration.

After some controversy over previous transfers to DVD, I can only assume this is due to the legacy of titles made under United Artists, a studio which has undergone various owners since the end of the 1970s.

After the fiasco of Heaven’s Gate (1980) the ownership of their library has been a turbulent one and even today the company remains in financial trouble despite ownership of key franchises including James Bond and The Hobbit.

This may account for benchmark titles like this not getting the kind of high-def restoration we see with other classic titles from the same period such as The Godfather (1972) or The Exorcist (1973).

The extras seem to have been ported over from the 2004 DVD release and include three making of featurettes, the most substantial of which is ‘Celebrating Midnight Cowboy’, a 30 minute documentary featuring interviews with actors Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, producer Jerome Hellman, actress Jennifer Salt, DP Adam Holender and music supervisor John Barry.

Despite these drawbacks, this is still a classic title worth seeking out and it is still a key film which marked a watershed period in Hollywood history.

Midnight Cowboy is out now from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

> Buy Midnight Cowboy on Blu-ray or DVD from Amazon UK
> Midnight Cowboy at the IMDb

Categories
Cinema Reviews Thoughts

X-Men: First Class

The Marvel franchise finds new energy and charm with a stylish 1960s period setting, well staged action and fine performances from an impressive ensemble cast.

Opening with the same scene as the 2000 film, an extended prologue explores the formative years of Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence), as they discover their special powers.

Moving forward to the early 1960s, we see how the original X-Men group come together as a CIA agent (Rose Byrne) recruits Xavier and a team of mutants to help them fight the mysterious Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), who seeks to exploit Cold War tensions for his own gain.

Along the way they recruit Lehnsherr (for whose deeply personal reasons for joining the mission) and several other mutants (Nicholas Hoult, Caleb Landry Jones and Zoë Kravitz), whilst Shaw has his own team of cohorts (including January Jones, Jason Flemyng).

The most striking thing about the film is the way it erases the bad memories of the shambolic Wolverine prequel – X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) – and the unsatisfactory third film – X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) – which both suffered from the absence of director Bryan Singer (who went off to do Superman Returns instead).

He was back on board as producer here and although the screenplay is credited to four writers, director Matthew Vaughn wisely taps into the vibe of Singer’s first film, which effectively blended issues, emotions and action.

That in turn reflected the original comics, which were forged in the social tumult of the 1960s, so there is something appropriate about seeing these characters brought to the screen in the decade which gave birth to them.

Despite the large ensemble cast, the heart of this film is the relationship between Eric (the future Magneto) and Charles (the future Professor X) and the casting of Fassbender and McAvoy is inspired.

Making the roles their own, they bring surprising levels of gravitas and emotion to their superhero bromance, elevating the material above most comic book adaptations and providing a solid foundation for the wider story.

The supporting cast is also good, with Lawrence (as the future Mystique) standing out in particular and there is a nice smattering of veteran actors from genre movies in cameo roles, including Rade Serbedzija, Ray Wise, Michael Ironside and James Remar.

Moving at a healthy pace, the story takes its cues from classic Bond, with globe-trotting action set-pieces linked to a narrative involving a super-villain, which ends up in a climactic showdown.

Although the action and visuals are handled well, it says a great deal about the film that the most effective thing is the relationships that lie at the heart of the film.

The villains are a little one note at times (especially January Jones) and Bacon too much like a Bond villain for comfort.

But overall the conflicts are well played, whilst the ethical dilemas of the mutants (should they join or fight a suspicious society?) hover effectively in the background.

It doesn’t approach the heights of X-Men 2 (2003), still the best of the series, but fans of the franchise might notice the narrative parallels between this prequel and Singer’s first two films: a rouge outsider joins forces with other mutants to fight a common enemy; and opposing mutants band together despite their differences.

My main reservation plot wise was something that happens at the climax (which I can’t reveal for spoiler reasons), suffice to say that a particular character develops a bit too early.

The period detail is impressive, although in keeping with a stylised fantasy version of the 60s, and the production design effectively channels the Cold War era, with films such as Dr. Strangelove (1964) and You Only Live Twice (1968) being a marked influences on the design.

There is a distinct influence of Mad Men in the air with casting of Jones, the 1960s setting and the resulting costumes, although it never overpowers the material itself.

Blending the Bond influence with the events of Cuban missile crisis also feels appropriate given how often 007’s adventures were inspired by Cold War intrigue.

As you might expect for a film of this scale, the production design, costumes and visual effects are impressive, although at times (especially the climax) the CGI is a little over used.

Plus, for a film so faithful to the original trilogy there appears to be a continuity error so glaring, I’m assuming it must be deliberate (email me for further details, as it is firmly in spoiler territory).

In an age of prequels, sequels and remakes, perhaps the best thing about X-Men First Class is that it feels like a fresh spin on the comic book formula.

There is enough here for both the mass audience and experienced comic book geeks to enjoy (one ‘Easter Egg’ cameo is sure to bring the house down).

When this project was first announced, it seemed like Fox was just rehashing a cash-cow franchise, but credit must go to the studio for trusting filmmakers to revisit the essence of the original comics and translate them into a deeply satisfying summer movie.

X-Men First Class opens on Wednesday 1st June

> Official site
> Reviews at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes