September 1, 2012

Orson Welles… the quest for perfection

“A film is never really good unless the camera is an eye in the head of a poet” – Orson Welles

Of course I’m sure you’ve heard the news this month that the latest Sight And Sound Magazine poll unseated Orson Welles’ first movie 1941’s ‘Citizen Kane’ from it’s half-century as the semi-official “Greatest film of all time”Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film ‘Vertigo’ now sits at the top and I’m looking forward to its imminent re-release at the cinema and onto Blu-Ray but for me ‘Citizen Kane’ still stands far above it.  For one thing I’d rate Orson’s own ‘Touch Of Evil’ as a better film from 1958 and for another ‘Citizen Kane’ is a film where every sound, every edit, every angle and every composition invented a new cinematic language.  Where as in comparison Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ is just one great thriller in a career heaving with such great thrillers.

I’m a little saddened by ‘Citizen Kane’s fall to second place because Welles’ filmography still needs attention focused on it.  All but the most obscure of Hitchcock’s films are widely available in every high street in superior editions (With a Hi-Def box set in the pipeline) but to obtain even sub-mediocre versions of Welles’ films requires time, money and dedication.  Some of his work like the still unreleased 1976 film ‘The Other Side Of The Wind’ remain stuck in legal limbo and unless fans around the world keep on shouting… it may never be released.  The rest of his work is unavailable to the average shopper, even his acknowledged masterpiece ‘Citizen Kane’ is only sporadically available in a extremely poor quality bargain-basement edition.

So for Welles’ collectors like myself obtaining his complete filmography for home viewing is an ongoing quest for perfection.  A quest that requires lengthy research, reading of reviews, weighing up of opinion and then searches of the catalogues of many distributors and the sites of Amazon and Ebay.  I’ve already traded up or double purchased several of his films as newer and better versions become available.  So it was the other week that I decided to place an order with Amazon for three of the latest versions of Welles’ first three films on import from the US:

The Warner 70th Anniversary Blu-Ray Boxset Of Citizen Kane – A truly astonishing set packaged with postcards, replica telegrams, two feature-length films about the making of ‘Citizen Kane’, a hardback book and even a facsimile of the budget report.  The level of detail on the screen is simply gorgeous, click on the comparison shot I’ve done below to see the upgrade from my Special Edition Universal UK DVD.  I’ve noticed new things like the snowglobe being in the background of Susan’s apartment the first time she meets Kane or the reflection of the Rain in the marble desk of Mr Bernstein.  Like Eureka! Video’s Blu-Ray of ‘Touch Of Evil’, this is only the second Welles’ release that I cannot imagine looking any better.

The Film Chest ‘Remastered’ Blu-Ray Of The Stranger – Of my three new imports the Blu-Ray of ‘The Stranger’ has the greatest increase in quality but also is the weakest looking, which says it all about the shoddy way Welles’ films are often released (Click image below for comparison).  The image has more detail, clarity, stability and contrast but looks like digital smoothing has been used to excess in a misplaced effort to reduce some of the pops and scratches.  I adore the noirish thrills of ‘The Stranger’ but it’s not held in the same critical esteem as Welles’ other works, so this will probably be the best it’s gonna look for a long while.

The Warner Restored DVD Of The Magnificent Ambersons – I first saw ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ at The BFI and sat open-mouthed at the visual beauty of their pristine 35mm print so naturally I had to get a copy to watch at home.  When I purchased the Universal DVD I was so disappointed by the blurry image quality that I just couldn’t bring myself to sit through it.  So the new Warner restoration comes as a revelation and a godsend allowing me to enjoy this film any time I like.  In particular I was struck anew by the gliding poetry of Welles’ camera work during the party scene.  I was unable to capture a still comparison that really showed the huge upgrade in picture quality as my original was not only blurry but unstable (Look at the detail in the dress in the lower right).  It’s only a shame that it comes unaccompanied by any features or that it wasn’t a Blu-Ray.

I thought it might be helpful to other Welles’ fans out there to publish what is in my opinion the best editions available throughout the world of his movies (By ‘Best’ I mean best, which is not the same as good!).  I’ve included Amazon links for your convenience:

1941 Citizen Kane (Warner 70th Anniversary US Blu-Ray Boxset + UK Universal DVD (Great special features))
1942 The Magnificent Ambersons (Warner US DVD)
1946 The Stranger (Film Chest US Blu-Ray)
1947 The Lady From Shanghai (Universal UK DVD)
1948 Macbeth (Second Sight UK DVD)
1952 Othello (Leevision Korean DVD)
1955 Mr. Arkadin (Criterion US DVD Boxset)
1958 Touch Of Evil (Eureka UK Blu-Ray + Universal 50th Anniversary US DVD (Great special features))
1962 The Trial (Studio Canal UK Blu-Ray… coming soon)
1965 Chimes At Midnight (Mr Bongo UK DVD)
1974 F For Fake (Eureka! UK DVD)

As it stands the available releases of Orson’s two mid-career ingenious shoestring Shakespeare adaptations ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Othello’ are most in need of serious restoration.  I’m sure there are others out there that will gladly part with the cash if only they could be made available.  Of course my collection will never be complete without a copy of the legendary ‘The Other Side Of The Wind’ or perhaps the ultimate cinematic holy grail… the lost original Welles cut of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’.  But really what I want to see is for Welles films to be widely available in every high street so new generations can enjoy his work.  Hopefully this day will come but then again, remember what the fellow said…

“I think an artist has always to be out of step with his time” – Orson Welles

(Finally, click below to watch the award winning feature length documentary ‘The Battle Over Citizen Kane’)

July 30, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises (2012 – Cinema)

“Theatricality and deception, powerful agents for the uninitiated. But we are initiated, aren’t we Bruce?”

I saw ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ a week ago but I thought I had to give it a week and a second viewing to form an opinion. I felt that I had so many expectations that I couldn’t enjoy it properly. I was over analysing every scene which was unfortunate as I found it lacking in several areas.  Christopher Nolan has woven many sleight of hand twists of character and plot into the film but I found I could see all of them coming from at least 30 minutes away. This started in the first 5 minutes when he uses exactly the same reveal-gag as in ‘The Dark Knight’ (Note the irony of my quote from the film above). Perhaps he thought that the plot was sufficiently convoluted that these would escape our notice. In fact in at least 3 or 4 points the characters pause for whole scenes to explain the plot and the character motivations, which is always unpleasant.

The characters themselves seemed lost despite the film’s 2 3/4 hr running time with Batman barely featuring (To the point where the audience I was with cheered when he finally showed up!). Alfred is relegated to a few brief scenes often simply to deliver information to camera. Gary Oldman’s magnificent portrayal of Jim Gordon also felt underused (But that’s probably because I could go for a whole trilogy devoted just to him). Anne Hathaway’s cat woman was pretty good but she only gets one decent one liner. Plus (After her seductively dangerous appearance in Nolan’s own ‘Inception’) I’d already cast co-star Marion Cotillard as Selina Kyle in my head, so to me Hathaway looked like a wrong choice in comparison.

So I left the first screening a little deflated but with a sneaking suspicion I was being over critical. Indeed on the second viewing last night much of the irritations I ‘ve expressed faded into the background (Although they were still there). I found I could enjoy the many good things about ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ with fresh eyes. Chiefly Tom Hardy’s take on Bane, which is predictably outstanding. He’s come up with a distinctive evil voice that’s part John Merrick, part Dr Evil and part Darth Vader. Imagine Hardy’s Bane saying the line “I am not an animal Mr Powers, I am your father” and you’ll get what I mean.  Also the opening set piece is astounding to behold, especially as you know that Nolan will have done it for real, eschewing CGI shortcuts. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a welcome addition to the cast as grim-faced rookie Cop Blake and I suspect an action hero film career beckons.  In the end the underlining strength of the dark vision Nolan has built across the first two movies means that the faults never overwhelm the movie.  In fact I enjoyed this second viewing much more and might even give ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ a third go when IMAX tickets become available.

July 24, 2012

Anonymous (2011 – Blu-Ray)

“All art is political, Jonson, otherwise it would just be decoration… and all artists have something to say, otherwise they’d make shoes… and you are not a cobbler, are you Jonson”

The idea of making a movie positing the idea that it wasn’t really Shakespeare that wrote all those plays was a fun idea. But somehow it never quite tempted me to catch 2011’s ‘Anonymous’ at the cinema but during bouts of watching the Beeb’s superb new ‘The Hollow Crown’ Shakespeare film quartet I fancied giving it a go.

First off here’s the negatives; The whole film was shot 90% green-screen à la George Lucas and despite ebullient comments by Director Roland Emmerich on the Blu-Ray extras, you can tell a mile off. Some of the illusions to Shakespeare are a bit clunking, such as having the pale-faced baddie walk around dressed in black sporting a hunch simply so when ‘Richard III’ ‘Drops’ it can be framed as immediate political satire. This also leads onto the chief problem, that the idea that the plays are being released to stir up a revolution being barely credible.

On the plus side; Emmerich made the wise choice to have the great Sir Derek Jacobi book end the film with a Shakespeare style address to the audience, giving everything in between an RSC air of authority. Star Rhys Ifans gives a powerful performance as the troubled Earl of Oxford, the supposed true author of the plays.  The best thing though is the staging of the plays’ key scenes being some of the most visceral, full-blooded performances of the bard’s work ever committed to the screen.  These qualities make ‘Anonymous’ well worth catching despite its many flaws.

July 23, 2012

The Hunter (2012 – Cinema)

“It’s probably better off extinct, if it’s alive people will always want to find it, hunt it down”

From the trailer, subject and its enigmatic star Willem Dafoe, I was expecting ‘The Hunter’ to be all about cold isolation, looming death and mysterious nature. Those themes are definitely explored but it was more about the opposites of tender friendship, fragile life and warm humanity.  The exploration of all these themes is woven around the initially simple story of Hunter Martin David who is sent into the mountains of Tasmania to hunt down the legendary ‘Tazzie-Tiger’ (Thylacine), an animal thought extinct for some 80 years.

Martin makes his base camp with a damaged yet free-spirited family whose father has mysteriously gone missing in those very same mountains. He becomes a surrogate father and protector to the two children as they are surrounded by dangers coming from all directions. From the suspicious locals, to angry employees of the logging company, to distrusting eco-warriors and most dangerous of all, the powerful BioTech corporation that is paying Martin.  ‘The Hunter’ is melancholy yet life affirming and breathtakingly beautiful. I urge you to catch a screening.

Here’s the last known footage of a Thylacine:

July 18, 2012

Maniac Cop (1988 – Blu-Ray)

“You always take a leak with a gun in your hand? That’s a good way to blow your balls off!”

I wanted to see 1988’s ‘Maniac Cop’ since it featured on the back-page ads of Judge Dredd The Megazine back when I was a kid. The impact of the title, the cracking tagline “You have the right to remain silent… forever!” and the totally trashy, garish and scary looking poster had my young mind excited by a film that my parents would never possibly allow me to see.  I was hoping for one of those “It’s soooo bad it’s good” experiences. For the most part it was… but a few elements like the hideously clunky wedges of exposition were just genuinely bad (It’s a fine line folks). Of course the casting of B-movie maestro Bruce Campbell gives it instant trash glamour but the woefully miscast Laurene Landon as his pneumatic love interest is simply awful. However the towering presence ofthe 6’2″ Robert ‘The Chin’ Z’Dar as the title character brings real power.

The thrilling action car-chase climax is the sort of thing they sadly don’t make anymore. The modern movie producers’ reasoning seems go thusly: Why spend pence on crashing real cars together in a thrilling, exploding, clash of metal when you can spend millions on a high concept fake-looking CGI showdown?  Sadly Arrow Videos presentation of ‘Maniac Cop’ is the sanitised UK theatre cut instead of the full blooded US X-rated version. However Arrow’s restoration of the print is lovely and overall ‘Maniac Cop’ is a schlocky blast.

July 14, 2012

Killer Joe (2012 – Cinema)

“I heard y’all talking about killing mama… I think it’s a good idea”

To begin with ‘Killer Joe’ is good, it’s very, very good. This is great as it restores my faith in Director William Friedkin who has recently fucked me off for two reasons. Firstly I bought ‘The Exorcist’ Blu-Ray and his commentary consisted of him literally describing what was happening on-screen. Now I love great commentaries from commentary masters like Coppola, Scott and Jackson, so spending two hours listening to Friedkin’s nasal whine impart nothing of interest wasn’t great. Secondly I purchased his ‘Personally restored’ HD presentation of ‘The French Connection’. It is the worst looking Blu-Ray ever released (As others will tell you) but he apparently did this deliberately to give the film a scuzzy, grungy period feel! It looks as if he soaked the negative in bleach then ran it through a giant belt sander instead of the usual 4k scanner. So like I said, after spunking about £30 of my money away on Friedkin films I was looking for a good return on my £10 ticket when sitting down to his new movie ‘Killer Joe’.

It is a dark, twisted, blackly comic misanthropic masterpiece reveling in all the central characters’ deliciously duplicitous, self-obsessed natures. The reprehensible redneck family that hire the titular character are so bad that they almost make sadistic murderer Joe look good! This is helped by Matthew McConaughey looking ice-cold dressed all in black like a devilish Johnny Cash in aviator shades. But as the film goes on it slowly becomes clear just how dangerous Joe is. This family is already in hades and they’ve just made a pact with Satan. I would usually associate McConaughey with godawful rom-com sludge so I can scarcely believe he’s just turned in what could be performance of the year.  ‘Killer Joe’ is scary, fascinating and shocking (No more so than in the unbearable creepy tension of the now infamous KFC based finale) so I can see why it’s dividing audiences but I’m resolutely in the “Finger-lickin’ good” camp.

July 8, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012 – Cinema)

“You seriously think I’m a cop in a skin-tight red and blue suit?”

I disliked the Toby Maguire Spider-Man series, minted ten years ago when Hollywood studios were just finally finding their feet with the cinematic language of comic book adaptations. Director Bryan Singer had scored an early perfect hit with his ‘X-Men’ adaptation in 2000 setting the standard for how to do it convincingly with integrity while still bringing in the blockbuster bucks.  But these where still the first faltering steps as awful films like 2004’s ‘Catwoman’, 2003’s ‘Daredevil’ and Ang Lee’s misjudged 2003 ‘Hulk’ all attest.  Horror legend Sam Raimi’s 2002 ‘Spider-Man’ movie was superior to those films but for me it was still disappointingly average.  It was light, colourful, predictable and inoffensive fluff that spawned two profitable sequels of vastly differing quality.  But despite all this I was quietly excited by the prospect of the newly rebooted 2012 ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, as new star Andrew Garfield is one my favourite young actors.  He’s already got several great performances under his belt from projects like ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’, ‘Red Riding’ and ‘The Social Network’ so I knew he’d do something interesting with Peter Parker.

First off, the good (Of which there is plenty); The cast are all fantastic and yes Garfield is magnificent.  He brings a fragile, troubled flavour to the role of the teenage super hero aided by well written scenes that you genuinely believe would happen if a confused young kid found he had superpowers. The chemistry between Garfield and his love interest played by Emma Stone is electric.  Rhys Ifans brings devastating emotional weight and perfectly nuanced ambiguity to his portrayal as the big villain. The CGI sequences of Spider-Man gracefully swooping between buildings is so beautifully shot and edited that its like a breathtaking aerial ballet.  The Spidey-Fu street level fight scenes are visceral, exhilarating and bone crunching (For both Peter and his opponents).

Now onto the bad; The great chemistry of the romantic leads is somewhat wasted as Emma Stone’s character is underwritten and poorly woven into the fabric of the film, feeling like a tacked on love-interest.  The whole high-school drama subplot is so tired and formulaic that to call it cliqued is an insult to cliques.  Rhys Ifans’ powerful character is underused and had me feeling that it had been heavily cut in the edit, especially towards the end.  As I said before, the early punchups are so good that the big expensive showdown at the end actually felt anti-climactic in comparison.  However these aren’t fatal flaws as they are more about a lack of focus than actual miss-steps (Nothing that couldn’t be sorted out with a re-cut). All the basic elements are there for a thrilling new franchise, so with a little luck the inevitable sequels will really sing!.

July 2, 2012

Mr. Arkadin (1955 – DVD)

“I knew what I wanted. That’s the difference between us. In this world there are those who give and those who ask. Those who do not care to give… those who do not dare to ask. You dared. But you were never quite sure what your were asking for”

In 1958, at a time when Orson Welles was perhaps being forgotten, french magazine ‘Cahiers Du Cinéma declared that Orson’s then new film ‘Mr. Arkadin’ was one of the greatest movies ever made. This was meant as a bold provocative statement designed to raise debate and awareness of a Director they loved. After a weekend emersing myself in an imported copy of The Criterion Collection’s triple DVD exploration of ‘Mr. Arkadin’ I can see elements of truth in their declaration. I love the film despite or because of its little flaws and eccentricities.  The plot follows the mysterious eponymous millionaire (Played with aplomb by Welles himself) and jaded investigator Guy Van Stratten (Played by Robert Arden) who is hired to research Arkadin’s murky past. Arkadin claims this is because he suffered from amnesia and is simply curious… but does he have a darker motive?

Like ‘Citizen Kane’ this is a film about conflicting memories, dark motivations and intrigue told piece-by-piece like a cinematic jigsaw. The fact that like many Welles projects this was interfered with in the edit by the studio was a tragedy. This resulted in several versions being released or later discovered, variously called ‘The Corinth Version’, ‘The Spanish Version(s)’ and most infamously the butchered ‘Confidential Report Version’. This version changed the title and removed the complex flashback structure that underpinned Welles’ vision. Also included on the set is Criterion’s own ‘Comprehensive Version’ combining elements from all the cuts to create the most complete and longest possible cut available. While this version is interesting to view I found ‘The Corinth Version’ to be the most pleasing to digest. It closely follows Welles wishes while having superior image and sound quality with the dodgy lip-synching (That sometimes plagued Welles’ ingenious piece-meal European productions) kept at a minimum.

In ‘Mr. Arkadin’ Welles’ typical eye for framing and mood is absolutely exquisite as every angle and composition seem designed to disorient the viewer. He employs swirling camera work, quick edits, skewed angles, extreme close-ups and deep focus to unsettle the eye. One famous shot is set up like a magic trick of the light, in such a way that as a character runs from the camera his shadow remains the same size.  This puzzle like movie demands to be seen repeatedly to even begin to unlock its secrets so the multiple cuts available on The Criterion edition make it the only way to go.  So get yourself onto the Criterion site and order a copy of this fantastic set.

July 2, 2012

Rolling Thunder (1977 – Blu-Ray)

“Why do I always get stuck with crazy men?… ‘Cause that’s the only kind that’s left”

I’ve read many times (Including on this Blu-Ray’s cover art) that 1977’s ‘Rolling Thunder’ is one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite movies.  So I was excited to watch the new UK HD transfer of this largely forgotten yet quietly infamous Noir thriller.  It’s a film that seems to have got lost between writer Paul Schrader’s two big Scorsese films; 1976’s ‘Taxi Driver’ and 1980’s ‘Raging Bull’.  Perhaps this is because it shares so much DNA with ‘Taxi Driver’ leading to unfair comparisons.  But judged on its own merits ‘Rolling Thunder’ is a darkly compulsive exploitation revenge film.  The doom laden aftermath of Vietnam hangs heavy all over this nihilistic shattering of the American dream.  William Devane plays returning Vet Major Charles Rane who can’t reconnect with his small-town Texas life after seven years of torture in a Hanoi prison camp.  But when hoodlums maim him and attack his family it all becomes clear as he packs up an arsenal of weapons and sets out for vengeance.

Sadly for film purists like myself this release seems to be a sanitized version of the original cut that was apparently so violent that Fox actually sold the rights to another studio.  This was after a disastrous test screening in which the audience apparently “Got up and tried to physically abuse the studio personnel present among them”.  From what I understand this was mainly due to the scene where Rane and his family are attacked.  In the cut I’ve seen it’s left to your imagination what happens when a man’s hand is forced into a grinder!  God knows what was in the original to illicit such a response from the audience.  But what makes it extra disturbing is that Rane seems to get an almost sexual pleasure from this torture bringing back memories of his last seven years of hell where it was all so simple… just to withstand the pain and survive.

I can’t comment on whether this cut of ‘Rolling Thunder’ is better or worse than the original full length version but I can still highly recommend it!

June 24, 2012

Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai (2011 – DVD)

“Each man has his honour”

Ever since viewing the awe-inspiring, beautiful yet devastatingly violent juggernaut that was Takashi Miike’s ’13 Assassins’ I’ve been looking forward to his follow-up. Like that masterpiece, ‘Hara-Kiri: Death Of A Samurai’ is also a remake of an early 1960s black and white Chambara classic. But in this case I’ve already seen the original thanks to the eye meltingly gorgeous Blu-Ray restoration of Masaki Kobayashi’s 1962 ‘Harakiri’ last year from Eureka entertainment. So I can’t help but make comparisons…

The first obvious difference is that Miike has shot his film in rich and vibrant colour. The palette of the film changes subtlety with the seasons and the mood of the characters who are at the mercy of the winds of fate. The performances are devastatingly real and totally heartbreaking and legend Ryuichi Sakamoto’s score is of course evocative. The problem is that Miike’s film is very, very similar to the original but not quite as good, by a mere fraction. It just hasn’t got the same windswept gothic splendour of the original monochrome ‘Harakiri’. Watch the final wordless showdown below and tell me the last time you saw anything so powerful.

For some strange reason Miike’s film is only available as a bog-standard DVD but at the affordable price of £7.99 I’d highly recommend it, especially as the original 60s film retails for close to £20.