Archive for ‘DVD’

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 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.

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.

June 23, 2012

Get Smart (2008 – DVD)

“How about Chuck Norris with a BB gun?”

The promise of a sequel to the legendarily funny ‘Anchorman: The Legend Of Ron Burgundy’ had me searching around for a hit of the same surreal goofery.  I plumed for 2008’s ‘Get Smart’, a spy spoof based on Mel Brook’s 1960s TV comedy of the same name.  It stars Steve Carell (From ‘Anchorman’) as frustrated desk-bound Intelligence-Analyst Max Smart who gets a chance to fulfill his dream of becoming a field agent accompanied by the beautiful and deadly Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway).

As with most modern Hollywood remakes of fondly remembered cult TV shows, sadly ‘Get Smart’ is louder, more action orientated and brasher than a light spoof of this kind really should be.  The fact that the Smart character is a genuinely intelligent, witty, deadly and often suave secret agent, yet somehow keeps on making Clouseau-esque mistakes is a bit of an odd mix (Director Peter Segal obviously isn’t over familiar with the “Cake and eat it” phrase).  Indeed the choreographed fight scenes are visceral enough to fit into any hard edged action flick. The creative team should have devoted more screen time to the gags which are actually very funny fueled by Carell and Hathaway’s cracking chemistry and comedy timing.  ‘Get Smart ‘ is a fun couple of hours, I just wish it had been more fun!

Here’s the first episode of the original TV series:

June 19, 2012

Black Caesar (1973 – DVD)

“As of today, we’re branchin’ out into new fields”

I haven’t seen that many Blaxploitation films but have spent a fair amount of time listening to their soundtracks by legends such as Bobby Womack, Curtis Mayfield and of course Isaac Hayes. The soundtrack to ‘Black Caesar’ is by none other than the godfather of soul James Brown and features his stone cold classic ‘The Boss’. He also recorded a soundtrack album for the sequel ‘Hell Up In Harlem’ which Director Larry Cohen didn’t use because he said it wasn’t “Funky enough”. Considering it features the outrageously funky ‘The Payback’, I’m eager to see that film and find out what could have possibly topped it!

‘Black Caesar’ chronicles the rise and fall of Harlem crime boss Tommy Gibbs, played with gleeful charm by Fred Williamson. Comparing this 70s classic to Ridley Scott’s 2007 film ‘American Gangster’ (Which tells a very similar story) it makes me think we’ve lost something in our polished modern cinema era.  Sure Scott’s biopic of Harlem hood Frank Lucas is beautifully shot and well acted but it doesn’t have the sense of rough-hewn fun that ‘Black Caesar’ has.  Larry Cohen’s film is wittier, more shocking, more politically hard-hitting and it’s also over an hour shorter than Scott’s movie, giving it a spritely machine-gun pace.  I might have to have a Blaxploitation binge including ‘Foxy Brown’, ‘Super Fly’, ‘Coffy’, ‘Truck Turner’ and the like.


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 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

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 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

Rumble In The Bronx (1995 – DVD)

“Don’t you know you are the scum of society!”

I rented Jackie Chan’s ‘Rumble In The Bronx’ a bunch of times on VHS from the video store on saturday afternoons back in the day. So it was with plenty of excitement that I watched it again this week. I wonder if this type of b-movie action flick exists anymore now that video stores have all but vanished.  The stunts and moves (All performed by Jackie himself) are typically astounding, inventive and lightning fast. From jumping through the back flap of a shopping trolley to battling a thug using a fridge and even spanking a villain’s bare ass with a car antennae.

What marks ‘Rumble In The Bronx’ out from the rest of his work, is the quality of the gags and the tongue-in-cheak fun to be had.  So we get audacious fun like a hovercraft chase through the streets of New York and the sight of a shocked woman left sitting on the toilet after a building has been torn down around her.  The astoundingly awful English Dub also adds to the comedy but I can never decide if this was simply carelessness or a deliberate extra layer of humour.  A final treat is to be had when watching the credits role as they feature behind-the-scenes footage (Cut to the rather appropriate ‘Kung Fu’ by Ash) of Charlie doing the dangerous stunts, including when he breaks his foot and carries on anyway in a plaster cast.

Here’s a link to a cheeky upload of the full movie on YouTube: