Archive for May, 2012

May 31, 2012

Red Tails (2012 – Blu-ray)

“And you all thought what? You’d sign up, you’d get shiny boots, a uniform and that’d be the end of 100 years of bigotry? You’re colored men in the white man’s army. It’s a miracle you’re flying fighters in Italy and not mopping latrines in Milwaukee”

Despite a slew of luke warm reviews of ‘Red Tails’ from when it premiered in the US in January, I remained resolutely excited. This is because the aerial footage in the trailers looked breathtaking and because of extra interest kicked off by the controversy. I’ve already touched on that earlier in the year but it’s worth going into what went into the making of this Tuskegee Airmen biopic again.  ‘Red Tails’ has been a passion project for Producer George Lucas for two decades. But George’s desire to make it a huge $58 million war film always ran up against the timid/racist studios desire to not spend that much on a movie with an all-black cast. In the end George decided to fund it out of his own considerable pockets and turn the Directing duties over to ‘The Wire’s Anthony Hemingway who brought with him a roster of acting talent from the very same HBO series. He also brought in Spike Lee’s long-term musical collaborator, trumpeter Terence Blanchard who worked for HBO on Spike’s magnificent ‘When The Levees Broke’ documentary.  This is fitting as it was HBO who  first produced a celebrated TV movie about the Tuskegee Airmen in 1995 (Like ‘Red Tails’ it also starred Cuba Gooding Jr!)..

The movie tells the true story of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen who were a group of African-American pilots in WWII facing massive prejudice but who ultimately proved their worth by being the best of the best. They were so good that Bomber crews would request an escort from “Those planes with the red tails”, sometimes unaware that those planes had black pilots.  The only flaw I could find with ‘Red Tails’ was that it occasionally lurched into that kind of patriotic smaltz that American audiences seem to like but which to British ears sounds phony.  That aside, the performances are brilliant without exception including; R&B singer Ne-Yo’s charming turn as a mumbling Southern pilot with a love of music and chewin’ tobacco, Nate Parker and England’s own David Oyelowo forming the touching friendship at the core of the story and Terrence Howard’s performance was so intense that actor Bryan Cranston didn’t dare meet his steely gaze.  The dog-fighting footage will take your breath away, with the full possibilities of CGI being used to make the camera soar around the planes as they scream past your eyes and ears, it’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.  The ensemble cast of lovable roguish airmen reminded me of another WWII film, a favourite of mine, the much underrated 1990 movie ‘Memphis Belle’.

The other day I saw an American import Blu-Ray of ‘Red Tails’ in one of my favourite London haunts The Cinema Store and snapped it up. The transfer is gorgeous, the sound rich and loud and the disc is stuffed with extra features including a feature-length doc.  However it’s disappointing that a film with this much excitement, drama and spectacle should first sneak almost unnoticed onto these shores on the home market instead of as the thundering Cinema Blockbuster it’s meant to be.  A limited release in UK theatres is arriving next week so make sure you ignore the Lucas haters and find a Cinema that is showing Anthony Hemingway’s astounding ‘Red Tails’.

Here’s one of the featurettes featuring the real Airmen meeting the cast while the Director’s mum cooks:

May 27, 2012

Outland (1981 – DVD)

“If you’re looking for sterling character you’re in the wrong place”

A week ahead of the exciting release of Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ prequel ‘Prometheus’ I cast around for a similar slice of sci-fi to slake my impatient thirst.  I found the perfect film in Peter Hyams’ ‘Outland’ which was greenlit and released in the wake of ‘Alien’ (To which it owes a stylistic debt), it was also filmed in the UK, it also featured a chilly score by Jerry Goldsmith, it also was about a crew of space miners, it also had a novelisation by Alan Dean Foster and it was also produced by The Ladd Company… who would next be involved with Ridley Scott’s ‘Blade Runner’.  All those things combined with the whole gothic horror feel of the movie leaves you with the fun idea that it could easily exist in the same imagined universe as ‘Alien’.

Sean Connery plays a newly appointed Marshal in a corrupt mining town on the moon of Io.  Something is causing the miners to commit suicide but finding out who knows about it and how high up the corruption goes could cost him everything.  The tone lurches from melancholia to violent action with superb performances from all.  The compositing effects show their age a little but nothing too distracting.  I had fun spotting the familiar faces from 1980s/1990s UK sitcoms and dramas although it does feature a strong performance from American Clarke Peters (Lester Freamon from The Wire).  I felt that the admittedly action packed climax was a slight let down to the creeping tension that had built up during the rest of the movie but ‘Outland’ is still a fine piece of 80s Sci-Fi.

May 27, 2012

Being There (1979 – Blu-Ray)

“Shortchanged by the Lord, and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now! Yes, sir, all you’ve gotta be is white in America, to get whatever you want”

1979’s ‘Being There’ is my first encounter with the Director Hal Ashby’s unusual body of work and it’s a fitting swan song to chameleonic comedian Peter Sellers’ career.  He plays Chance, a gentle and perhaps autistic man who has spent his whole life secluded from the outside world in the walled garden of his rich employer.  When the elderly millionaire dies he is cruelly thrust homeless into the world with only the old man’s fine vintage suits and a suitcase.  This satire on American politics and culture really begins when Chance is mistaken for a business man and invited into the home a dying Senator.  Chances’ childlike musings on caring for his garden are taken by all he meets as profound metaphors on politics and economics and existence.

The satire is never as waspish or cutting as other films, it’s on a more profound level of criticism that stays with you long after the closing credits.  Sellers relentlessly pursued the role after reading Jerzy Kosinski’s 1971 book and for a man who said “I feel ghostly unreal until I become somebody else again on the screen” this story of a nobody who becomes all things to all men, must have been very close to heart.  Sadly Sellers would be dead within six months of the film’s release so the final scene of Chance walking away has an extra bittersweet edge.

It speaks of a man’s secret pain when he can only really be honest to an audience of millions and a frog:

May 27, 2012

Iron Sky (2012 – Cinema)

“All presidents who start a war in their first term get re-elected”

The idea of a film about the Nazis returning from their hidden base on dark side of the moon to invade earth with a giant flying saucer powered by an iPad sounds like a hilarious concept.  Thankfully 2012’s ‘Iron Sky’ doesn’t just drag this one joke out for 90 minutes, it positively crams in the gags and references to famous scenes in past films mocking the Nazis like ‘Dr. Strangelove’ and ‘The Great Dictator‘ and the recreation of a certain scene from ‘Downfall’ had the audience rolling in the aisles with one wobble of the spectacles.  The cast have great fun with their performances including exploitation cinema legend Udo Kier who revels in his role as the creepy lunar Führer. The makers clearly made ‘Iron Sky’ with a love of exploitation B-Movies in their hearts but with their eyes set firmly on A-Movie production values.  The huge space battle scenes easily rival anything George Lucas or James Cameron could cook up but these guys did on a thousandth of their budgets.

The UK release by distribution company Revolver has limited ‘Iron Sky’ to one day in the cinemas which has been condemned by the filmmakers (You can read about it here).  The exception comes from the wonderful Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester square which is running it all week, so go catch a screening. Give this Indie gem your support because as the trailer says “The battle for earth is gonna get Nazi!”.

May 26, 2012

The Seven Year Itch (1955 – DVD)

“What blonde in the kitchen? Wouldn’t you like to know! Maybe it’s Marilyn Monroe!”

I’m getting quite a taste for the films of Golden-Era Hollywood Director Billy Wilder after watching some of his early gothic Noir masterpieces. Now I fancy watching some of the light comedies that he’s also famous for. So I come on to 1955’s ‘The Seven Year Itch’, a sexy comedy starring Marilyn Monroe as a temptress known only in the script as ‘The Girl’. The title alludes to the period of time that supposedly elapses when a married man begins to look at other women. So when Richard Sherman’s (Tom Ewell) wife goes to Maine for the summer the neurotic Manhattan Advertising exec promises himself he will be faithful. That’s until he runs into his new neighbour upstairs, a younger jaw dropingly beautiful girl who is seemingly oblivious to the effect she has on men.

Of course this is the film with the iconic scene of Marilyn’s white dress getting blown up by air from a passing subway train rushing between her legs, a wildly suggestive idea. For 1955 this film is racy, naughty and even downright rude with scenes like the one featuring an obviously naked Monroe peeking out from the bushes and saying lines like “When it’s hot like this, you know what I do? I put my undies in the Ice Box!” to a flabbergasted Sherman.  Tom Ewell’s performance as Sherman seems to be channelling the pent-up energy and sexual frustrations of the archetypal Woody Allen leading character, only 15 years before Woody did it.  Throughout the movie poor Sherman has fevered dreams about the women in his life and by the end you are left wondering if ‘The Girl’ upstairs is entirely a figment of his overactive imagination.

May 25, 2012

The Raid (2012 – Cinema)

“Pulling the trigger is like ordering takeout”

‘The Raid’ is an action film built around introducing the ancient Indonesian Martial arts system Pencak Silat to a cinema audience.  The movie is a relentlessly paced, violent, brutal and thrilling ride with a very simple story line; Police raid a tower block full of gun-toting criminals and must fight to survive.  ‘The Raid’ left me totally exhausted by the end as the action barely lets up for even a second, with no romantic subplots and hardly any scenes pausing to dwell on character. By the end you feel as if you’ve been trapped in the block with the characters and subjected to a violent 101 minute physical and psychological assault.  The bone-crushing violence had me and the audience I saw ‘The Raid’ with audibly wincing and whispered exclamations like “Fuckin’ hell!” and “Holy shit!” could be heard as we watched the action unfold.  The breathtaking fights are performed by Silat stars like Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian . The movie is like a visceral blend of the jaw dropping martial arts fury of 2003’s Muay Thai flick ‘Ong-Bak’ and the choreographed Gun-Fu of John Woo’s 1992 Hong Kong classic ‘Hard Boiled’.  Unusually ‘The Raid’ is directed by Welsh-born lad Gareth Evans and it will be interesting to see what he does with a promised sequel.

Although it’s up against some stiff completion from films later in this year, at this point I’m naming ‘The Raid’ as my film of 2012.  However it may not be to everyone’s taste as, as 30 minutes into my screening a burly bald Essex bloke, no doubt vexed by the bewildering collision of images and subtitles stood up and shouted to the cinema “What a load of bollocks!” and stormed out.


May 25, 2012

Limelight (1952 – DVD)

“This has been a wonderful evening, I’d like to continue… but I’m stuck”

I’m still only half way through my Charlie Chaplin box-set and I’ve come onto 1952’s ‘Limelight’. It was released at a time when FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had revoked Chaplin’s American visa at the height of the McCarthy era forcing him to live in Europe. Seeing that the plot is about a forgotten tramp comedian called Calvero from the same area of London where Charlie learned his trade, you’d think it was filmed as a response to his troubles. But ‘Limelight’ was actually entirely filmed on the backlot in Hollywood and it was only when Chaplin travelled to the London premiere that he was informed he could not return to the country he had made his home for nearly forty years.

It’s a beautifully nostalgic and quietly tragic film dwelling on life, love, death and self belief.  Most of Charlie’s previous films are about optimistic characters who are larger than life but in ‘Limelight’ Calvero and the young ballet dancer (Claire Bloom) he befriends are lonely damaged souls that seem crushed by the weight of life.  Terry the dancer has a deep psychological problem that has convinced her she can’t walk and Calvero has turned to the bottle.  Most of the movie is confined to the claustrophobic set of Calvero’s flat with the two leads helping each other build up the courage to face the outside world that they are each hiding from.  The film climaxes with a Music-hall revue featuring Chaplin doing a side-splitting double act with his great silent film rival Buster Keaton, which is the only time they appeared together on-screen.  So far, from this box set, it seems that unlike a lot of Directors, Chaplin only got better with age.

May 21, 2012

The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp (1943 – Cinema)

“Dear old Clive, this is not a gentleman’s war. This time you’re fighting for your very existence against the most devilish idea ever created by a human brain… Nazism. And if you lose, there won’t be a return match next year… perhaps not even for a hundred years”

I’ve been counting down the days until the promised re-release of the newly restored print of Director Michael Powell and Screenwriter Emeric Pressburger’s ‘The Life & Death Of Colonel Blimp’. So when I saw that Pressbuger’s grandsons Kevin MacDonald (Award winning Director) and Michael MacDonald (Award winning Producer) were doing a Q&A after a screening at the Curzon Soho last Tuesday, I had to attend. While acknowledging his personal bias, Kevin MacDonald introduced the movie as “The greatest film ever made” which in my humble opinion is almost true, with the slight modification “The greatest British film ever made”. The brothers revealed that Martin Scorsese put his weight and finances behind the restoration as well as George Harrison’s widow, who put in a million. It is a meticulous restoration more than four years in the making but it was well worth it as previously unseen (Even on its original release in 1943) levels of detail and colour can now be enjoyed.

If you’ve never seen ‘Blimp’ before, the plot follows dyed-in-the-wool military man Clive Candy from a young and energetic VC winner in the Boer war to a loveable yet outmoded old Colonel during WWII. Candy is played by perhaps Britain’s greatest and least known actor Roger Livesey. The seamless way Candy ages across 40 years isn’t all down to the superb makeup, as Livesey somehow morphs his whole body shape to convey the ravages of time. Across ‘Blimp’s epic 3 hour running time, Powell and Pressburger take in the themes of honour, loyalty, loss, love and most prominently aging. It is a film made in, set during and about war but it is notable that it contains no scenes of conflict. It’s actually all about how these conflicts tragically effect the people in them, while never being anti-war. It simultaneously mourns the loss of British chivalry as ‘Total War’ dawns yet stridently criticises dogmatic and old-fashioned military concepts. The miraculous thing is that ‘Blimp’ weaves all these deep and contrasting themes together while always being a warm and humorous portrait of Britain.

The MacDonald brothers also revealed a few personal recollections after the screening. Their grandfather was a Jew who sought refuge in Britain from Fascism so it’s easy to see the auto-biographical elements in the writing of Anton Walbrook’s ‘Theo’ character. The scene in the immigration office is astounding and the long slow close up of Theo’s anguished face will be etched on your mind. They also touched on Churchill’s opposition to the equivocal tone of ‘Blimp’ at a time when he wanted a simple message given to a nation still reeling from Dunkirk. When Pressburger heard that Churchill wanted it banned, he was greatly hurt, as he idolised our wartime Prime Minister with his lone stand in the face of Nazism. It’s a film that in 1943 just asked far too many questions.

To conclude, I urge you to go see this magnificent elegiac film while it’s on the big screen, although I’m hopeful that a Blu-Ray release will be imminent so a wider audience can get to know it’s quixotic charms.

Here’s a clip of Scorsese introducing a screening of ‘Blimp’:

May 17, 2012

Chimes At Midnight (1965 – DVD)

“I know thee not, old man, fall to thy prayers… how ill white hairs become a fool and jester”

It’s been a long while since I started my mission to view all of Orson Welles feature films, after watching half of them I ran out of the more easily available DVDs but now I’ve finally acquired them all. So over the coming days and weeks I’ll be giving you my thoughts on 1952’s ‘Othello’, 1955’s ‘Mr. Arkadin’ and 1962’s ‘The Trial’. I already owned Orson’s 1965 Shakespeare adaptation ‘Chimes At Midnight’ aka ‘Falstaff’ on a DVD from Cornerstone Media but the image and sound quality were so bad that I decided to not even watch it, lest my first impression of this renowned masterpiece be mired. But the other day I saw the new DVD from Mr Bongo and thought I’d give it a punt. So back at home I pressed play while uttering a few prayers to the gods of cinema under my breath and was relieved to be greeted by this beautifully restored presentation.

‘Chimes At Midnight’ was Welles’ own personal favourite and although he died a full twenty years after it was released, it would sadly be his last completed full length narrative film. The script was based on a stage production that Welles had mounted in 1939 focusing on the story of Sir John Falstaff, the peripheral roguish character from a number of Shakespeare’s history plays. Welles himself plays the rotund Falstaff with all the growling, drunken corruption that he brought to his portrayal of Captain Quinlan in 1958’s ‘Touch Of Evil’ although Sir John is an entirely loveable, lecherous and boisterous character (Unlike the wicked Quinlan). Keith Baxter plays the young Prince Hal with a wonderfully cheeky air but also displays a mercilessly regal power as he gains the throne at the end. The coronation scene between a towering Baxter and a weeping Welles is one of the most powerful of all his films. The great Sir John Gielgud plays Henry IV and bestrides the screen like the seasoned RSC peacock he is, delivering several passionate monologues.

The composition of Welles’ shot are as immaculate as ever, ranging from intimate closeups capturing every nuance of his actors performance to huge scenes at the palace drenched in ominous shadow and angelic shafts of sunlight. The groundbreaking battle scene employs bewildering fast cuts and documentary camera techniques to convey the mud splattered confusion and animal savagery of medieval warfare, clearly inspiring films like Steven Spielberg’s ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and Ridley Scott’s ‘Gladiator’. I implore you to go get a copy of Mr Bongo’s release of ‘Chimes At Midnight’ and I urge the authorities to destroy all other available editions. Welles said of ‘Chimes At Midnight’, “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie, that’s the one I’d offer up”.

Here is an image of the Mr Bongo DVD… be warned, avoid all other editions!:

May 16, 2012

Fires Were Started (1943 – Blu-Ray)

“Alright Johnny, had a bad night?”

‘Fires Were Started’ is in my ‘1001 Movies To See Before You Die’ book and has a place in the BFI’s Top 100, so I bought a copy of the second volume in the complete Humphrey Jennings series.  The film is about a typical day in the life of a London firecrew during the Blitz featuring a cast made up entirely of the actual firemen and women themselves.  This lends the film a documentary feel and a neo-realist air with the minute and everyday detail being fascinating.  As such, the nervous performances leave a little to be desired in the first third of the film as we are introduced to the characters and the routines of the fire service. However this all changes as the night closes in and the bombers begin humming over head, the crew’s training kicks in and the grim horrors of countless other real nights become written in their expressions.  The steely gaze from one firefiighter (Pictured above) as he heroically holds the line to let his friend escape a burning warehouse will be etched on your mind.  It’s a powerful sequence now but it must have been positively harrowing to watch in a London cinema at the time, preceded by newsreels of the actual Blitz.

The sharpness of the image on this Blu-Ray is astounding but the negative was obviously scratched to buggery.  The amount of damage does sadly become a bit distracting during the night scenes but that can’t be helped.  Apart from ‘Fires Were Started’ the packed disc contains six other short films from Jennings chronicling life in 40s Britain.

Here’s a brief clip of the film:

Also here is a clip from a documentary by Kevin MacDonald about Jennings which covers ‘Fires Were Started’: