Archive for January, 2012

January 31, 2012

La Grande Illusion (1937 – DVD)

“Out there, children play soldiers. In here, soldiers play like children”

While browsing the window of my local Entertainment Exchange I saw a mint condition 7 DVD Jean Renoir boxset for just £20, the same set that usually retails in the £40-£70 range (If you can find a copy at all!).  Needless to say I snapped it up and my first dip into the set is WWI POW Drama ‘La Grande Illusion’.

The simplest was to describe the film is as the French ‘Great Escape’.  Firstly because 1963’s ‘The Great Escape’ is clearly heavily inspired by ‘La Grande Illusion’ (To say the least!) and secondly because Renoir’s film is tonealy French in comparison.  Where as the later American film has Steve McQueen doing Motorcycle jumps, the earlier French film focuses on complex studies of character, class and comradeship.  To put things in context, ‘La Grande Illusion’ was released in 1937, two years before Hitler invaded Poland.  So the sympathetic portrayals of the German guards are refreshingly unburdened by the baggage of a post Holocaust world.  The cinematography and direction haven’t aged a day unlike American films of the period such as 1942’s ‘Casablanca’ which while wonderful looks very stylistically dated.  I know that I’m going to watch this again and again and still be finding new things in this powerful anti-war masterpiece.

Here is an interesting vintage clip of Renoir introducing a restored print to cinema audiences:

January 29, 2012

The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933 – DVD)

“You can always do so much more with mercy than you can with murder”

I’m having a bit of a Golden-Age-Hollywood 30s/40s binge at the minute and have recently watched 1941’s ‘The Lady Eve’ and 1944’s ‘Double Indemnity’.  Both these films feature deliciously cynical and smart performances from Barbara Stanwyck so I was thrilled when I spotted a 6-DVD Stanwyck Boxset secondhand for a tenner in Berwick Street.  Among the six films is Frank ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ Capra’s 1933 film ‘The Bitter Tea Of General Yen’.

Let’s get one thing out the way first, since it was made in 1933 it does feature the odd bit of outdated un-PC dialogue about “Chinamen” and does feature Nils Asther in full makeup as the title character (Although Asther and the makeup team where clearly at great pains to achieve realism). However it is actually staggeringly ahead of its time with wonderfully complex performances from the two lead actors. They portray an interracial love affair between the Chinese General Yen and naive American missionary Megan Davis, a subject way to controversial for audiences at the time. This and the films dark unflinching tone assured it’s commercial and critical failure. For example a memorable early scene has General Yen halting the mass execution by firing squad of hundreds of prisoners for no other reason than because the loud bangs are upsetting Megan. The enforcement of the strict Hays moral code in Hollywood just after this film’s release ensured that Hollywood Directors wouldn’t be allowed to tackle such subjects for decades after. The atmospheric cinematography, sumptuous costumes and detailed sets  just add to this masterpiece. ‘The Bitter Tea Of General Yen’ is simply one of the finest films I’ve ever seen and is ripe for re-discovery, re-release and (Fingers crossed!) HD restoration.

I thought while I was watching that it would make a brilliant double-bill with Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1988 masterpiece ‘The Last Emperor’. Both movies depict China in roughly the same period and both explore the same theme of an almost unknowably exotic and ancient culture clashing with the brutal expediency of modern times.

A kindly person has uploaded the film on YouTube in two parts here:

January 28, 2012

Doubt (2008 – DVD)

“Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty. When you are lost, you are not alone”

With Meryl Streep’s powerhouse performance in the majestic ‘The Iron Lady’ currently deviding audiences across the UK it was a good time for me to view her in 2008’s ‘Doubt’. It’s written and Directed by John Patrick Shanley from his own Pulitzer Prize winning play. ‘Doubt’ takes place in a Catholic school in 60s New York and concerns the battle of wills between strict and fearsome Headmistress Sister Aloysius (Streep) and the newly appointed, progressive and empathetic Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Sister Aloysius firmly believes Father Flynn is abusing one or more of the schoolboys and sets out to destroy him.  But is he guilty?

Amy Adams (Soon to be seen in the eagerly awatied Muppets film) plays the young Nun who, like we in the audience, are left to decide who to believe.  To reveal anymore of the plot would be to spoil the film (It’s called ‘Doubt’ afterall).  As a viewer you are left hanging on every nuance of Hoffman and Streep’s incredible performances to try and sort fact from gossip. ‘Doubt’ is a totally captivating watch.

January 28, 2012

Tangled (2010 – Blu-Ray)

“To me, that’s part man-smell, and the other part is really bad man-smell. I don’t know why, but overall it just smells like the color brown”

I’ve been hooked on watching Disney Blu-Rays since I got ‘Beauty & The Beast’ last Christmas.  The care they put into restoring their films on the format is a blessing and a curse.  Because while the images are so beautiful that you can see the very brush strokes of the artists this also means that older releases on the format are a long time coming.

However, ‘Tangled’ (Essentially the story of ‘Rapunzel’) is one of the recent releases so is readily available and of course looks spectacular.  Being Disney’s 50th official animated feature the film is intended as a celebration of the studios fairytale past.  The creators envisioned the look of the film to be a blend of CGI and the painterly look of the classic Disney films.

I found the films two romantic leads to be a tad dull but thankfully the supporting cast of characters is on top form.  Donna Murphy’s vocal performance as Rapunzel’s evil Step-Mother(Ish) is so gloriously wicked that I was actually rooting for her to win.  The animators behind the horse ‘Maximus’ deserve plaudits for making his every moment on-screen a comedic delight.  I’ve recently seen Spielberg’s underwhelming ‘War Horse’ in which the horse was real and therefore almost totally lacking in personality.  I’m thinking it was perhaps grand foley on the great directors part in not making the film as a harrowing animated film ala ‘Watership Down’.  But I digress, I would recommend renting ‘Tangled’ for the two mentioned performances alone but I wouldn’t necessarily want to own it.

Here’s Maximus’ greatest hits (A tribute to the animators art):

January 28, 2012

Ken Russell: A Bit Of A Devil (2012 – TV)

“Reality is a dirty word for me, I know it isn’t for most people, but I am not interested. There’s too much of it about”

I’ve just watched Alan Yentob’s BBC4 documentary on the career of the Britain’s notorious director Ken Russell who died just two months ago.  It was a captivating portrait of maverick and eccentric man whose work I’ve been largely unfamiliar with.  This is largely due to me watching his adaptation of The Who’s ‘Tommy’ at a young age on a grainy VHS.  I remember it being brash, vulgar and gaudy with Tina Turner and Elton John contributing particularly awful performances.  This was perhaps an unfortunate introduction since the Doc mainly focused on his earlier more measured but equally provocative work on the big and small screen.  I urge you to check it out before it drops off iPlayer.

Click here to watch the documentary on iPlayer until the 1st of Feb

I shall have to invest in some of his work to see what I’ve been missing.  Sadly ‘Tommy’ seems to be the only piece of his work given the Blu-Ray treatment as yet.  Although I like the look of the ‘Ken Russell At The BBC’ DVD Boxset that is available from America.

If you’re quick, iPlayer has Russell’s early ‘Elgar’ Film for the next couple of days

January 28, 2012

Red State (2011 – Blu-Ray)

“People just do the strangest things when they believe they’re entitled. But they do even stranger things when they just plain believe”

I skipped over Kevin Smith’s ‘Red State’ at the cinema since it seemed to have received luke-warm reviews from practically everybody.  So this week I decided to give it a punt on my LoveFilm rental list.  Oh boy was I missing out.

The basic plot is about three teenagers who get captured by a fundamentalist phycho-christian family lead by Tarantino veteran Michael Parks.  To mention any more of the plot would give away the surprise twists in plot, theme, tone and direction that Smiths throws at you.  On a number of occasions I had that “I know where this is going” thought in my head only to be slapped full force in the face with something totally unexpected.  This is an angry little film giving a big middle finger to the gay-bashing Religious right and the Orwellian attitudes of the post-911 American Government without flinching.

The cast is uniformly brilliant with special note to Michael Parks scary preacher and John Goodman’s conflicted ATF agent (Goodman seems to turn up in small roles in everything great that I’ve watched recently including ‘Treme’ and ‘The Artist’).  Ignore other reviewers, see this film.  It’s Kevin Smith’s masterpiece, dare I say it…      even better than ‘Clerks’?!?!

January 28, 2012

“What’s the film you’re showing now?”

“How do you do…”

I’ve been getting serious about film in the last year to the neglect of my old music blog ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard this One Before’.  I started to blog about film on that site but didn’t keep it up (I’ve archived a few of those movie posts on this site).  Today I’ve decided to start this new blog titled in tribute to a line from Michael Powell’s controversial 1960 masterpiece ‘Peeping Tom’.

Here’s the creepy scene in question:

I’m looking forward to flexing my blogging muscles on a new subject.

“…well, we warned you!”

January 28, 2012

Awesome Welles – Part 1

After enjoying Orson Welles’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ as mentioned in my last post, I decided to make the effort to view all his feature films (Considering their limited availability, I should emphasize the word ‘Effort’). He only shot ten or more full length films across three decades due to a lack of financing and support. I thought it would be interesting to view them chronologically but because they are so hard to come by, that hasn’t proved possible. So I began with the easiest to find:

The Stranger (1946)

‘The Stranger’ is the story of Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) a Nazi war criminal hiding in a little American town and Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), the man who is hunting him. The film was released just prior to the Nuremberg Trials and was the first movie to incorporate footage of the concentration camps.

After the disastrous release of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ Welles took the job to direct ‘The Stranger’ as a way to show he could make a mainstream successful thriller (This was the first job he could get after 4 years!). He succeeded brilliantly by making something thrilling and also a box-office hit while still squeezing in some memorable Welles flourishes. There’s the chilling scenes where Kindler lets his mask slip over dinner when he says Karl Marx “Wasn’t a German, Marx was a Jew” and the heartless look in his eyes when he resolves to kill those closest to him. Other interesting performances include the jolly but cheating drug-store philosopher Mr. Potter (Billy House) and Loretta Young’s role as Kindler’s duped American bride-to-be which at first seems weak but in the end she exemplifies the old saying “Hell hath no fury…”. The gothic conclusion staged in a broken clock tower seems to have influenced the endings of both ‘Back To The Future’ and Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’. The film has fallen out of copyright so is available to view in its entirety on YouTube bellow:

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

‘The Lady from Shanghai’ is a noir thriller about a rougeish Irish sailor Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) who is sucked into the twisted world of a rich couple. Welles agreed to direct the film if Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn wired him $55,000 to finance a stage production he was mounting. Being Welles, far from merely quickly fulfilling his contract he wrote, produced, starred-in and directed the film and even cast his then wife, the mega-star Rita Hayworth in it.

Welles got off to a shaky start, annoying the studio by having Hayworth’s world-famous long red-hair cut short and dyed Blonde. This decision was so controversial that it was blamed at the time for the films poor box-office performance (It’s difficult to understand since Hayworth looks jaw-droppingly seductive in the role!). The studio deemed the plot incomprehensible so they cut out an hour of footage. The 87 minute film that is left is certainly a bit hard to follow but then you’d imagine that a film so savagely trimmed would be! The joy of the film is more about the pervading air of danger and mystery that Welles creates. Standout scenes include the beautiful close-up of Hayworth singing to herself and the ingenious Hall-Of-Mirrors showdown that has been later ripped off in many films including ‘Enter the Dragon’ and ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’.

Macbeth (1948)

‘Macbeth’ has always been my favourite Shakespeare play since studying it at school. I’ve seen Antony Shear’s clever staging, I’ve watched films of Polanski’s brutal take and then McKellen & Dench’s sparse production but my favourite was always Nicol Williamson’s intimate 1983 adaptation. This was my first encounter with Welles’ dark brooding take on the play.

The dark magic of the play allow Welles free rein to create a fantastical film using daring composition, gothic shadows, ominous sound and reams of atmospheric mist. Again the film was not a success which the studio attributed to the decision that the cast should speak in fairly strong Scottish accents and the critics branded Welles’ cutting and re-ordering of Shakespeare’s text sacrilegious (A practice that is now the standard in film adaptations!). The studio re-cut the film, re-dubbed the sound with American accents and re-released it but thankfully I watched the wonderful fully restored version.

Touch of Evil (1958)

‘Touch Of Evil’ features a duel of wills and morals between honest Mexican agent Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and corrupt American police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) set against the seething amorality of a decaying border town.

By 1958 Welles hadn’t been allowed near an American production in ten years when he accepted the role of Quinlan. When Heston came on board the film still lacked a director so he voiced the blindingly obvious that the studio should ask Welles. Welles seized the chance and immediately completely re-wrote the script from scratch, most notably changing Heston’s part to a Mexican to alow the film to explore themes of Racism. The film’s opening 3 and a half-minute sweeping tracking shot was groundbreaking and Welles dedication to shooting everything on location was in contrast to Hollywood’s studio-bound techniques. The motel scenes (Notably involving Janet Leigh) seem to have inspired Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ to such a degree that it’s practically plagiarism! Welles’ performance as Quinlan is magnificent, creating a character so steeped in corruption that it’s rotting him from inside and out.

While shooting, the studio was very happy, particularly when Welles’ old Hollywood friends like Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Joseph Cotten turned up unannounced to film cameos. However when Welles’ turned in a rough 108 minute preview cut the studio’s attitude drastically changed. They took the film away from Welles and re-shot many scenes and cut it down to 95 minutes. Welles was horrified and wrote a 58 page memo detailing how he thought the film should be edited. This memo lay ignored until 1998 when Rick Schmidlin produced a cut of the film endeavoring to follow the memo to the letter. This restored/re-imagined version is Welles’ best film since ‘Citizen Kane’, perhaps even better than Kane.

F for Fake (1974)

‘F For Fake’ is a mesmerizing documentary film about forgery, fakery and film making. Part biography of art-forger Elmyr de Hory, part auto-biographical confessional and part masterly demonstration of the very possibilities of film editing itself.

Welles literally performs magic tricks and then does the same with his editing. The best scenes include one where he edits footage of the public to make it look as if they are drooling over his girlfriend Oja Kodar as she saunters down the street in a mini-skirt, another is when he re-creates his famous ‘March of time’ newsreel from ‘Citizen Kane’ to mock Howard Hughes (A scene that works on so many self-referential levels). ‘F For Fake’ would be his last released film so it is fitting that it was his most daring and original vision, birthing a new type of film altogether and showing that 3 decades after his first film he was still ahead of everyone else.

Welles has lamented that it would have been nice to not be ahead of his time and just be of-the-time, because he would’ve actually made a few dollars! But thankfully for generations to come he was cursed to always be a groundbreaking genius. In part two of my Welles odyssey I’ll be viewing films like ‘Othello’, ‘Mr. Arkadin aka Confidential Report’, ‘The Trial’ and ‘Chimes at Midnight’. I just have to track down DVDs of them first!

January 28, 2012

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942 – Cinema)

“Old times. Not a bit. There aren’t any old times. When times are gone, they’re not old, they’re dead. There aren’t any times but new times”

I adore the work of Orson Welles but outside of ‘Citizen Kane’ his filmography is difficult to come by, despite his fame. His career post Kane is a sad tale of studio interference and troubled productions. This has led to many of his films only being available on poor quality import DVDs featuring truncated cuts. This is the case for his second film based on a book by Booth Tarkington about the decline of a great American family set against the backdrop of the advent of the Automobile.

So I ceased the opportunity to see an aged but beautifuly sharp print of 1942’s ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ in a packed house at the BFI. The film I saw ran at 88mins but Welles’ original cut ran at an elegiac 148mins. The studio was unhappy with his cut so they mercilessly trimmed it while he was out of the country and later cruelly burned the negative (To save storage space!) denying future generations the chance to see it properly. Apparently the bulk of the cuts came from the end of the film and a new happy ending was filmed. This is obvious in the flow of the film, as it seems to splutter and die towards the end like the combustion engines it chronicles. What is left are an assortment of brilliantly funny and painfully sad scenes that can’t help but feel somewhat disjointed. They hint at the epic family saga ‘Gone With The Wind’ while also containing shades of the more intimate small-town portrait from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. If you get a chance go see it, but dreams of what might have been may leave you with a heavy heart.

Here’s a brilliant blog post going in to much more detail about the history of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’.

January 28, 2012

Apocalypse Now (1979 – Cinema)

“There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane” – Francis Ford Coppola, Cannes 1979

The opportunity to see Francis Ford Coppola’s newly remastered 1979 epic ‘Apocalypse Now’ on the big screen was one that could not be missed. The screening I saw at the BFI’s NFT1 featured crystal clear surround sound and a majestically large screen to witness the full-scale of this masterpiece. The film is presented exactly as it was shown in 1979 without any credits before or after, the lights simply go down as the sound of rota blades begin to swirl around your head and your journey into the “Heart of darkness” begins.

I must have watched my ‘Apocalypse Now’ DVD 30 times over the years, but now for the first time I saw it as it was meant to be seen, in the cinema. The final scene where Kurt’s army bow down to their new god had a dreadful power I’d never experienced before and seeing the film with an audience revealed how much dark humour there is. I was obviously excited to see the helicopter attack in all its Wagnerian glory and the deafening explosions and sweeping camera shots didn’t disappoint. This sequence highlights the profound conundrum Coppola placed at the film’s heart, that war is inhuman but it’s also thrilling on an primeval level.

Also, finally the super-deluxe Blu-Ray box set I’ve been drooling over from America is coming to Region 2 on the 13th of June. It features not only the original and extended cuts but also the award-winning ‘Hearts Of Darkness’ documentary and what looks like about 3 days of bonus materials chronicling the film’s arduous production.

Here’s a few of ‘Apocalypse Now’ related mp3s:

Nicky Wire – Break My Heart Slowly mp3
UNKLE – UNKLE (Main Title Theme) mp3
Flash Cadillac – Suzie Q mp3