Archive for ‘Blu-Ray’

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’)

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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 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 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 17, 2012

The Guard (2011 – Blu-Ray)

“Who was up there firing that cannon?… The FBI lad, probably hadn’t had this much fun since they burned all those kids up in Waco”

‘The Guard’ turned up on my doorstep yesterday from LoveFilm after hearing many good things about it. Following many memorable character parts Brendan Gleeson gets the chance to attack a lead role with gusto. He found a character that fits him like a glove, that of argumentative, flippant, insubordinate and foul-mouthed Irish cop Sergeant Gerry Boyle who does his best to hide his intelligent and noble depths. Gleeson’s portrayal is so charming that it left me wanting to spend more time with this richly nuanced creation on a weekly prime time TV style basis.

Boyle is drawn into the hunt for a trio of drug smugglers by visiting FBI agent Wendell Everett, played by Don Cheadle. Everett is a professional, by-the-numbers man who essentially plays the straight man to Boyle and a whole cast of crazy characters. Cheadle does a fine line in exasperated expressions at the strange world he has landed in… the west of Ireland but it may as well have been mars. ‘The Guard’ is packed with huge belly laughs yet it’ll also bring a few tears to your eyes… a warm and stylish modern classic!

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

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 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’:

May 6, 2012

Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense (1984 – Blu-Ray)

“I got a girlfriend that’s better than this, but you don’t remember at all, as we get older and stop making sense, you won’t find her waiting long”

I’ve read a quote describing 1984’s ‘Stop Making Sense’ as “The Citizen Kane of the concert movies”.  Indeed Talking Heads front man David Byrne and Academy Award winning Director Jonathan Demme (‘The Silence Of The Lambs’) conceived the film as no mere live document but a unique artistic statement.  BAFTA award-winning Cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (‘Blade Runner’), acclaimed Graphic Designer Pablo Ferro (‘Dr. Strangelove’) and several members of Parliament-Funkadelic round out the impressive artistic rostra.

Some of the teams ideas included painting most of the equipment matt-black so it wouldn’t stand out on camera, only using white light, using muted tones for the ‘costumes’ so as not to distract from the action, shooting each song in a different style, using almost no audience shots and most striking of all, building the setup as the concert goes on.  So the movie opens with Byrne walking out all on his own with a guitar and a boom-box, onto a completely empty stage to perform ‘Psycho Killer’.  Then song by song, the road crew role out a new piece of equipment and one more member of the band arrives, until your watching a nine piece Punk-Funk supergroup, backed by huge projection screens.  The energy on display gets more frenetic as each song goes by, featuring the whole band jogging on the spot and Byrne doing laps of the stage and dancing with a lamp.  It all reaches a crescendo with a 12 minute double whammy of Al Green’s ‘Take Me To The River’ and the Talking Head’s classic ‘Crosseyed & Painless’.

This Blu-Ray transfer is a great improvement on my DVD with detail so sharp that you can see every bead of sweat flying through the air.  The extras are beefed up too with bonus songs, storyboards and interviews (See below).  The audio is also fantastic, featuring two different DTS-HD Master 5.1 mixes and a fascinating commentary to choose from.  This release seriously challenges ‘Queen Rock Montreal’ as the best music Blu-Ray I own.

You can watch a low quality video of the concert via YouTube here:

Check out this ‘David Byrne interviewing David Byrne’ clip featured on the Bu-Ray:

May 1, 2012

Days Of Thunder (1990 – Blu-Ray)

“I had sponsors in from all over the coast and I’m hugging, and holding hands, and praying for a good showin’. And what do we do? We end up looking like a monkey fucking a football out there!”

Renting a copy of the Tom Cruise vehicle ‘Days Of Thunder’ was a nostalgic treat, taking me back to my early teens playing 1994’s NASCAR on the PC with my friends and quoting lines from the film back at each other like “Rubbin’ ‘s racin’ son!” and “I’m droppin’ the hammer harry!”Tony Scott’s film took some flack back in the day when people dismissed it as merely “Top Gun with cars”, missing the point that the best bit about the film is that it’s like “TOP GUN WITH CARS!!!”.  Scott’s heat haze drenched shots of the gleaming bodywork of the Stockcars is almost like motor-porn and there are even a number of scenes where Robert Duvall’s character is actually lovingly whispering to his car alone in the garage before a race.  The way Scott has the camera seemingly inches away from the bumpers of the speeding vehicles is breathtaking, creating some of the best car footage outside of 1979’s ‘Mad Max’.

On the down side, the plot feels like some after-thought put in there to fill time until the next thrilling race, Nicole Kidman is laughable as a Cruise’s neurosurgeon/love-interest, and the great Cary Elwes is wasted as a cardboard cutout badguy.  However the bro-mance between driver Cole Trickle (Cruise) and race engineer Harry Hogge (Duvall) is wonderfully written and beautifully acted.  Hans Zimmer’s pulsating synthesiser score is also a definite highlight.  The picture quality of this transfer is great with a very sharp scan but none of the pops and dirt have been digitally removed (Which I actually don’t mind one bit).  If you want some turbo charged fun you can’t go wrong with ‘Days Of Thunder’.

This game still looks pretty good twenty years later: