Archive for April, 2012

April 28, 2012

Titanic / In Nacht Und Eis (1940 / 1912 – Cinema)

“An eternal condemnation of England’s quest for profit”

The story behind the 1940 German version of ‘Titanic’ turned out to better than the film itself. The film was supposed to be a propaganda piece showing the arrogance and greed of us Brits, supposed traits that lead to the sinking of the unsinkable. However the Nazi true believer Walter Zerlett-Olfenius who wrote ‘Titanic’s screenplay denounced his friend and director Herbert Selpin after he’d openly made some remarks about how Hitler was mishandling the war. The director was quickly replaced, imprisoned and was soon found dead in his cell from an obviously faked suicide at the hands of Propaganda Minister Goebbels. When the film was finally released the scenes of chaos and death were far too close to the nightly destruction that the population of Germany were facing from Allied bombing raids, so Goebbels had the film shelved and banned all further performances.

I imagined viewing the film now as part of the BFI’s ‘S.O.S Titanic’ season would be very interesting from a historical perspective, but the movie isn’t actually all that offensive on the propaganda side. An imaginary German central character cast as the lone voice of reason against an array of selfish British and American capitalists is about as strong as it gets. From a purely artistic perspective the movie pales in comparison to the British masterpiece ‘A Night To Remember’ but seems a clear influence on that film (‘A Night To Remember’ actually used some uncredited footage from ‘Titanic’).  It looks handsome enough but suffers from the same sort of deviations from the facts that weakened James Cameron’s 1997 ‘Titanic’.

To accompany the screening, the earliest surviving film about the disaster was shown beforehand. ‘In Nacht Und Eis’ is a short silent film released immediately after the real event in late 1212. This was accompanied by a wonderful live piano performance and the vibrantly colour-tinted print was pin-sharp (Remarkable for a film a century old) but sadly the acting wasn’t.  The wild gestures used by the characters (The first Officer in particular) as they gaze terrified at the sight of a small lump of polystyrene floating in a pond (Meant to represent the towering iceberg) elicited howls of laughter from the audience!

You can view the whole of ‘Titanic’ on YouTube here:

You can also view a poor quality and badly cropped ‘In Nacht Und Eis’ on YouTube here:

April 28, 2012

Lady & The Tramp (1955 – Blu-Ray)

“A human heart has only so much room for love and affection. When a baby moves in, the dog moves out”

Yay, another Walt Disney Blu-Ray to watch with the usual peerless perfection they bring to the format.  1955’s ‘Lady & The Tramp’ looks totally stunning and probably didn’t actually look this good back in the day, with every handcrafted detail of the animation up there in glorious detail, even the microscopic feint shadows between animation transparencies are occasional visible.  The plot follows ‘Lady’, a dog belonging to a well-to-do couple as she finds herself neglected when a baby arrives, resulting in her meeting carefree homeless dog ‘The Tramp’.

Like the African-American black crows from 1941’s ‘Dumbo’ this film is populated with dog characters based on mostly fairly harmless racial stereotypes.  Like a Scottish Highland Terrier, a Mexican Chihuahua and a cockney Bulldog all helping the central couple. However the song sequence featuring two evil Siamese cats with buck teeth and slanted eyes singing “We are Siameeeese, if you pleeeease” is jaw droppingly misjudged viewed half a century later.  This scene aside the movie is a charming romantic story with the silent sequences giving the animators full reign to tell the story through their artistry alone.  So much so, that it feels slightly disappointing that dialogue was used at all, since I’m sure the team behind this were clever enough to work without it.

April 27, 2012

The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985 – DVD)

“I just met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional but you can’t have everything”

As soon as I read about the plot of Woody Allen’s 1985 film ‘The Purple Rose Of Cairo’ I had to see it.  The story is set in the depression and follows an absent-minded waitress called Cecilia (Mia Farrow) who spends the little money her boorish husband doesn’t waste on booze and dice, on going to the movies.  Her local cinema shows a film a week and this week it’s called ‘The Purple Rose Of Cairo’, a film-within-a-film featuring an archaeologist character called Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels).  As her grim real life falls apart she retreats into the world of the film, viewing it every night after work, until one evening Tom Baxter literally steps out of the screen and takes her out on the town.

Interestingly Woody Allen treats this incident as no mere flight of fantasy but as a freak real life occurrence.  So we get to see what farcical things would happen if a movie character really did come to life, leading to some hilarious scenes.  Allen and his two stars play the tender romance to perfection bringing to mind the captivating magic of films like ‘Life Is Beautiful’ and ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’.  If you played ‘The Purple Rose Of Cairo’ alongside ‘Nuevo Cinema Paradiso’, you’d have powerful double bill about the transporting power of cinema.

Here’s a brief clip of Jeff Daniels talking about the film at the BFI:

April 27, 2012

Avengers Assemble (2012 – Cinema)

“How desperate are you, that you would call upon such lost creatures to defend you?”

The thought of making a tag-team film from most of Marvel’s recent superhero film characters sounded like a potentially awful idea, bringing to mind a huge confused, convoluted mess. Luckily the producers of ‘Avengers Assemble’ (aka ‘The Avengers’) called on the help of Screen-writer, Producer, Director and (Crucially) Comic-book writer Joss Whedon, the genius behind ‘Buffy The Vampire Slayer’ and his superb 2005 Sc-Fi flick ‘Serenity’ (Based on his cruelly cancelled cult TV show ‘Firefly’).  The fact that he can take this many characters from this many films and weave them together into a coherent film this good is testament to his skills.

Organising this movie must have been a herculean task involving months of negotiations between Producers, Agents and Actors.  Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson all reprise their roles with only Edward Norton being the party pooper by not returning as The Incredible Hulk.  Luckily Mark Ruffalo’s beautifully understated performance as the big angry green guy is outstanding, so Norton isn’t really missed.  Whedon took the clever decision to assume the audience have seen all the other Marvel films so pretty much dispenses with any character introductions and just gets on with the story.  Having to limit the characters on-screen time, Whedon wisely plays to the characters/actors strengths.  So Iron Man has all the snappy dialogue, Thor is just there to look generally god like and powerful, Hulk/Dr Banner provides some mystery and Captain America provides the moral compass.

There are some genuinely powerful scenes in there, the best being when evil god Loki has a crowd of frightened people cowering on their knees and delivers a speech proffering the argument that mankind secretly craves subjugation and the moral simplicity that a dictator like Hitler provides.  Then one elderly Jewish man in the crowd slowly stands up before him and defiantly talks back, facing almost certain death.  Without giving too much away, there is also a beautiful scene at the end when one of the heroes looks like they are gonna die, that had me literally biting my fingernails.  The last quarter of the film comprises what could have been a tediously long epic battle on the streets of New York, something we’ve all seen a hundred times before since 1996’s ‘Independence Day’, que collapsing buildings and yellow taxi-cabs flying everywhere.  But Whedon and his editors and special-effects wizards have crafted one of the all-time great action sequences.  The CGI destruction is jaw dropping while the camera is used in a visceral documentary style, with the characters never feeling lost amongst all the chaos.  Michael Bay take note from Joss Whedon, this sir is how it’s done!

April 22, 2012

The Bad & The Beautiful (1952 – Cinema)

“Don’t worry. Some of the best movies are made by people working together who hate each other’s guts”

I adore dark Hollywood films from the 50s so I went along for a sunday evening screening of Vincente Minnelli’s 1952 movie ‘The bad & The Beautiful’ at the BFI (The second half of a 50s double-bill mentioned in my last post). If you think Alexander Mackendrick’s ‘Sweet Smell Of Success’ or Billy Wilder’s ‘Sunset Boulevard’ are deliciously dark then check out the cavernous blackness of this film’s humour.

It’s structured a bit like ‘Rashomon’ in that the story is told by three characters in flashback, except in this case they all tell pretty much the same story. Movie producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) took them from nothing, befriended them, lavished time and money on them, finally betrayed them and then left them with everything. In one scene Shields is actually referred to as ‘The devil’ and we see him as not just a producer of movies but a producer of people. Remaking them into how he sees them and fulfilling their creative potential even if he destroys himself in the process.

Lana Turner gives a brutal performance as the alcoholic and suicidal actress Georgia, who is closet to Shields, sharing some of the same past demons. The cracking script is full of acidic lines and twisted humour while the sexual content must have had the 1950’s sensors hot under the collar. I’m getting this the instant it comes out on Blu-Ray, ‘The bad & The Beautiful’ is a masterpiece.

April 22, 2012

A Night To Remember (1958 – Cinema)

“We have dressed now in our best, and are prepared to go down like gentlemen”

I did a short story project for my English class when I was at secondary school about the sinking of the Titanic. Two sources of inspiration were a scrapbook with a detailed timeline of the facts and the other was Roy Ward Baker’s acclaimed 1958 movie ‘A Night To Remember’.  I’ve just watched it again as part one of a self-created sunday evening 1950s-double-bill at the BFI with Vincente Minnelli’s 1952 film ‘The Bad & The Beautiful’.

Seeing it again for the first time since then was a revelation. It was testimony to the actors and Baker’s eye that every shot seemed seared onto my brain as if I’d viewed it yesterday. For me the look on actor Frank Lawton’s face as he slips past an officer onto a lifeboat is one of the greatest performances ever captured on film. He never utters a word but we can see the unbearable mix of abject terror and shame in his eyes. The movie is crafted of such moments, the old couple choosing to die together, the doddering waiter cradling a lost child as they go under and the father kissing a final goodbye to his sleeping son. The film has Kenneth More as its defacto lead character but really this is an ensemble piece. Baker never attempts to try to show the passengers lives, you can imagine their whole existence based on how each person meets their death in the few seconds the camera is on them.

Apparently there is some little-known other 3D Titanic movie doing the rounds at the minute but I wouldn’t bother if I were you, they nailed it ’58, in black and white, in 4/3 and with a hundredth of the budget.

You can watch a controversial Nazi version of ‘Titanic’ uncut on YouTube here:

Also here is the trailer for ‘Titantic’ in SUPER3D!

April 22, 2012

Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind (2002 – Blu-Ray)

“You’re 32 years old, and you’ve achieved nothing. Jesus Christ was dead and alive again by 33. You better get crackin'”

I remember George Clooney’s directorial debut ‘Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind’ getting a few mixed reviews when it was released a decade ago.  In the light of his subsequent successes with last years ‘The Ides Of March’ and 2005’s sublime ‘Good Night, And Good Luck’ and not forgetting star Sam Rockwell’s ascendant star and a script from master craftsman Charlie Kaufman, I thought it high time to investigate.

The movie is based on the autobiography of maverick television producer Chuck Barris (The guy who invented ‘The Dating Game’ aka ‘Blind Date’ in the UK).  In his book, Barris had claimed that all the while he was working at ABC, he was also a top CIA assassin.  Clooney reveals on the DVD extras that he didn’t want to know if this claim was true or not, so he simply didn’t ask Barris, he just filmed the story as fact.  However his directorial eye lends proceedings an air of fantasy with the CIA scenes shot to look like a glamorous Spy movie complete with Julia Roberts as the archetypal James-Bonds-esque femme fatale.  Unfortunately I found these scenes to actually be a lot less interesting than the story of Barris’ exciting television career.  Spys have been done to death but a film about a lunatic TV producer who creates a surreal talent showcase called ‘The Gong Show’ for acts with no talent to actually showcase is a unique one.  Determined to use almost no digital effects, Clooney uses rotating sets and all manner of old-fashioned stage tricks to create a film look where TV fantasy blends with real life.  Sam Rockwell’s performance is outstanding, outlandish, and crazy yet with a dark mysterious depth.  To quote Cilla, ‘Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind’ is a lorah-lorah fun.

Here’s a ‘Best of’ the real Barris presenting ‘The Gong Show’:

And for comparison, here is Sam Rockwell’s hilarious screen test for ‘Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind’:

April 20, 2012

Henry V (1944 – Blu-Ray)

“Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France, or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?”

Another BFI top twenty Brit flick down in the shape of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 adaptation of Shakespeare’s play.  I rented it on Blu-Ray from LoveFilm knowing that it was a forties Technicolor film which I adore as they usually look eye-popping.  The radiant colours of the costumes do indeed look magnificent, especially the fiercesome reds and electric blues of the knights pageantry.  Unfortunately the image restoration seems to have employed a little too much smoothing, leading to a noticeably flat look on the actors faces in the mid ground shots.

The possibilities of Technicolor were used by Olivier to try to re-create the look of medieval illuminations moving in three dimensions, including their odd skewed perspectives.  This is mostly used in the second third of film creating some truly unique and magical images.  But I found this admittedly dazzling technique combined with the novel stage-bound intro to be interesting but ultimately alienating when trying to simply get involved with the story.  At the mid-point the style settles down a bit starting with a powerful scene following the king as he walks unrecognised through his nervous troops as they wait together for the dawn to come.  The light comes up almost imperceptibly during the extended sequence and the sun comes out on a new realistic looking landscape. Olivier populates this vista with what looks like thousands of soldiers and shoots the battle with huge sweeping camera moves and tracking shots of charging horses.  Olivier’s commanding delivery of the two big speeches are rightly praised and at the time it was released it must have delivered his desired uplifting patriotic message to war-weary brits. I’ll have to have a watch of Kenneth Branagh’s controversial 1989 version for comparison while this is still fresh in the memory.

April 15, 2012

Kes (1969 – Blu-Ray)

“I saw ‘er flyin’, she came like a bomb, about a yard off floor, like lightning”

A few weeks ago, I viewed Ken Loach’s powerful 1969 polemic ‘Kes’ for the first time on a DVD from MGM.  I loved the story but the image quality was like that of a battered old VHS that had been dropped into a puddle and the sound would’ve been captured better on a wax cylinder.  Knowing that my new Sony-Vaio laptop with Blu-Ray drive was in the post, I was aware that I could now view imported American Blu-Rays.  So I decided to make my first purchase a copy of the Criterion Collection’s restored HD version of ‘Kes’ and hold back writing my review until after I’d watched it.

I can now say that the US Blu-Ray is a revelation, a totally different film experience from the UK DVD.  The cinematography now has the autumnal colour palette and romantic feel of a Rembrandt painting and you can bask in the splendour of the image clarity.  The sound is also improved to the point were you can detect the merest rustle of leaves and the clink of milk bottles in the restored original production audio track.  The final surprise was noticing that a massive chunk of the image was actually missing all around on the DVD I viewed!  To think that a film this good (Ranked the BFI’s seventh best Brit flick ever no less!) is only viewable to its native audience in the shoddy version I first saw, it is a crime against Cinema!

Here is a comparison I made of the picture quality.  Notice the huge missing sections of the image above and to the left (Click to enlarge):

The best thing about ‘Kes’ is the earthy poetry of the Barnsley dialect used by Loach’s cast of local unknown’s. Lines like “For another, they wouldn’t ‘ave a weedy little twat like thee” are almost akin the baudy prose of Shakespeare.  Acting wise, the late Brian Glover almost steals the show in one scene, with his gruff P.E. teacher character, cheating so he win over his pupils, imagining himself to be Bobby Charlton.  I said almost, because young David Bradley‘s lead performance as little Billy Casper is heartbreakingly real, a gifted boy ready to soar like his Kestrel named Kes if his spirit isn’t crushed by the deprivation of the world around him.  Loach shows Billy’s talents for ornithology, gymnastics and even lecturing but they go almost unnoticed by his family, his teachers and the education system in general.  ‘Kes’ deserves its place in the BFI’s top ten but it deserves better care from the studio that made it.

April 15, 2012

This Must Be The Place (2012 – Cinema)

“At this particular moment I’m trying to fix up a sad boy and a sad girl, but it’s not easy. I suspect that sadness is not compatible with sadness”

I suspect some people may have been put off by the poster for ‘This Must Be The Place’ by the image of Sean Penn with mad hair and lipstick. And not gone to see this rather sweet and often profound movie. But ironically his character’s appearance has the same effect on the world around him, distancing people from his shy persona.  The story follows retired goth-rock star Cheyenne who has spent twenty years hiding away in Dublin after two of his fans killed themselves. When he hears his estranged father is gravely ill he makes the journey to back to his home in New York. When he gets there, he is too late and instead finds a book of clues to track down a Nazi guard that his father has been looking for since he survived Auschwitz.

Penn’s whole physical portrayal of Cheyenne is as quirky and gentle as his characters almost whispered voice. Frances McDormand is wonderful, if underused as Cheyenne’s reassuringly normal and understanding wife.  The plot is intertwined with the beautiful lyrics of Talking Heads’ 1982 song ‘This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)’ so there is a brief cameo by David Byrne himself.  Byrne is one of the greatest artistic geniuses Scotland has produced, as a musician, a photographer, an opera and film composer and a sculptor, but in his brief cameo in this film, he unfortunately shows that acting isn’t one of his chief talents.

The film celebrates the unique little improbable moments that really do happen everyday.  As the camera drifts through Cheyenne’s life we see unexplained neighbours dressed as Batman, farmers looking like Hitler, ping-pong balls landing in glasses of ice-tea and strangest of all, the sight of Dublin’s gleaming glass Aviva Stadium towering like a giant space-craft over rows of pebble-dashed council houses.  ‘This Must Be The Place’ is a film that lingers long in the memory and I’m already wanting a second viewing to delve deeper into its quixotic charms.