Sunday, 27 June 2010

Wong Kar-Wai's Blueberry Nights

When Lizzie (Norah Jones) discovers her ex boyfriend has moved on with another woman, she winds up at a cafe by owned Jeremy (Jude Law) who provides a sympathetic ear and blueberry pie. Deciding on a new career in a new town, Lizzie gets out of New York and heads south to Memphis and onto Las Vegas, swapping her sad story for someone else's - a depressed, alcoholic cop (David Strathairn) who can't accept the separation from his wife (Rachel Weisz); and a young woman (Natalie Portman) who works out her complex, strained relationship with her father by gambling...

Another meditation from Wong Kar-Wai on the impossibility of relationships, 2007's My Blueberry Nights is like the lip-smacking title, a treat. Its stylish, sexy and full of regular Wong Kar-Wai hooks - food, music (listen out for a mournful harmonica refrain of the main theme from In the Mood for Love), dazzlingly shot by Darius Khondji, (while Kar-Wai's perennial cameraman Christopher Doyle was away shooting a Gus Van Sant film) and featuring the director's signiture motion-blur technique, lending the film a dreamlike ambiance. Performances across the board are excellent - Norah Jones is impressive and like her music, is low-key and natural, while Natalie Portman in particular is marvellous to watch.

Some critics greeted the film with a lukewarm reception complaining that the film didn't have any of the playful, free-wheeling style of Wong-Kar Wai's previous films, and while there's some truth to this - there's no Ashes of Time style narrative trickery at work here, My Blueberry Nights is a thousand times more cool and sophisticated than anything currently coming out of Hollywood and for this alone, the film is one to savor.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Panic in Year '88 - Miracle Mile

One of the great secret gems of 80's Cinema, Miracle Mile (1988) begins with a fascinating premise - Harry a young jazz musician, (played by ER's Anthony Edwards) late for a midnight date answers a ringing pay-phone. Its a wrong number, but the stressed caller declares that a catastrophic nuclear missile strike on the US is imminent. Faced with the news that warheads are about to rain down on Los Angeles, Harry along with his date, Julie (Mare Winningham) attempt to make their way to a rendezvous point where a helicopter is waiting to take them away from the city and annihilation...

The enigmatically titled Miracle Mile (actually named after a district of LA) remains one of the best and most intelligent treatments on nuclear attack. The knockabout romantic comedy of the opening act fades to a very dark, absorbing thriller, that thankfully sees its way to its conclusion without blowing it. Its fast, beautifully paced and directed (by Steve De Jarnatt who has worked almost exclusively in TV), and impressively mounted - the eerie, depopulated streets of a sleeping city, give way to apocalyptic traffic jams and random violence as the film progresses. Well cast too, Edwards is especially good as the nerdish, boyish Harry, unwittingly thrust into the hero role, and there's good stuff from Mare Winningham, Mykelti Williamson (Heat and Ali) and Denise Crosby (of Star Trek, The Next Generation fame).

MGM's R1 DVD of Miracle Mile is typical of their treatment of marginal catalogue titles, its extras-free, but sports a very good clean transfer, sharp, colorful and with smooth blacks (most of the film takes place at night). Inexplicably, MGM have issued a fullframe transfer of the film, rather than presenting it in its original 1:85, but its a minor compromise and compositions are not affected. Audio is fine, and the excellent, urgent soundtrack by Tangerine Dream is well represented. Miracle Mile is deserving of the Criterion-treatment, however unlikely, so for now, the current DVD is highly recommended.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Obsession - the Films of Jess Franco

2011 should bring us Steve Thrower's much anticipated Jesus Franco biography (published by FAB Press, so you know its gonna be good) but in the meantime, Franco fans should seek out a copy of Obsession - The Films of Jess Franco, an exhaustive study of the legendary Spaniard's films. Quite simply, this is the kind of book Euro-Cult devotees need to have. The backbone of the book is a film-by-film walk through Franco's filmograhy, beginning in 1952 with some films Franco worked on in various roles, neatly divided into different eras ("The Harry Alan Towers Years", "The Porno Holocaust Years"). Each film is given a (pleasingly) short synopsis and critique. Following the filmography is a feature on Soledad Miranda, and interviews with Franco's closest collaborators, ending with a talk with the great man himself. As well as the intelligent, insightful commentary, the 256-page book is illustrated throughout with rare stills and poster art. Published in May 1993, Obsession - the Films of Jess Franco is sadly well out of print these days, and commands a high sum from marketplaces. Not to worry, some good soul out there has professionally scanned the entire the book and I've uploaded it at the link below. You'll need the free CDisplay Comic Reader program to read the book. Enjoy !

Reupped: Obsession - Films Of Jess Franco (Mediafire)

Friday, 18 June 2010

Andrei Rublev - the 1st Tarkovsky on Blu-Ray

I'm constantly surprised and excited by the sheer amount of cult and foreign language films hitting Blu-Ray. This is a great time to be a Film collector. One disc that has me really buzzing is the recently released English-friendly Russian Blu-Ray edition of Andrei Tarkovsky's monumental 1966 epic Andrei Rublev. The arrival of this disc almost harks back to the Communist era - the Blu is technically not for sale outside Russia for copyright reasons, but a few copies have defected to the West, and the word is good. This week, a member of the Criterionforums posted his comments:

I also received my copy of the Russian Blu-ray of ANDREI RUBLEV. I also think the transfer looks beautiful, though in some places I wonder whether the black levels couldn't have been stronger. Regardless, it's marvelous to see such fine detail in the image and a respectable amount of photographic grain...

Rather notoriously (at least among Tarkovsky scholars) Andrei Rublev can be seen in two versions - a 175-min version and a longer 205-minute version. While it would seem the longer cut would be the one to go for (and indeed it was this version that Criterion issued on DVD), the shorter cut contains some alternative shots, and edits and so remains essential. Its this shorter version that is now available on the Russian Blu-Ray. There's the hope that Criterion will add Andrei Rublev to their growing Blu-Ray series, but apparently they have not secured good quality materials to do so. So until Andrei Rublev gets a wider Blu-Ray release, the Russian disc is hugely tempting. Its up on eBay, and if you read Russian, try here

Postscript I've since picked up the Russian Blu-Ray and is reviewed here.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Ulysses

Today is Bloomsday, an annual commemoration of the life and art of James Joyce, and a celebration of the day, June 16th 1904, on which his most famous work, Ulysses takes place. Joyce's massive, modernist epic of the human condition may not readily lend itself to a cinematic adaptation, but in 1967 director Joseph Strick and screenwriter Fred Haines bravely stepped up to the mark and delivered an excellent film of Leopold Bloom's great odyssey around Dublin.

Putting the book aside for the minute, Strick's Ulysses, about an ordinary day in the life of an Irish Jew, is marvellous. It's witty, playful, adventurous and stylish. Strick's direction is fast and frenetic (it is after all about a man going places), shot in gorgeous, luminous black and white (in Cinemascope no less!) by Wolfgang Suschitzky (father of Cronenberg's favourite cameraman Peter Suschitzky) and scored with a fine, eccentric soundtrack by Stanley Myers.


For every adaptation of a novel for the screen, there is the question of how faithful the film stays to the book. It must have proved a huge challenge for Strick but thankfully most of the major episodes from Joyce's novel are retained for the film, although much of Joyce's leisurely divergences, over-lapping episodes and mind-bending literary experiments have been left in the book. Only in the surreal sequence where Bloom and Stephen Dedalus visit a whorehouse, does Strick attempt to import some of the more hallucinatory writing from the book, but otherwise a relatively accessible film has been fashioned from the text. Most importantly, the book's most celebrated section, Molly Bloom's monologue has been retained in all its glory, four-letter words and references to cock-sucking intact - the film shares a place in movie history with Michael Winner's I'll Never Forget What's 'isname (1967) for the Cinema's first utterance of the word "fuck". As Molly, Barbara Jefford, is magnificent, breathing life and sensuality into the character. So too are Milo O'Shea, as Leopold, and Maurice Roëves as Stephen Dedalus, and look out for a young Fionnula Flanagan giving Bloom a tantalizing peak at the holiest of holies!


Perhaps the most controversial split from the book is its setting. The story set at the beginning of the brave new world of the 20th century has been transported to a contemporary Dublin of the late '60's. Scholars of the book may scoff at this change but one of Joyce's wishes for the book was that if Dublin had been razed to the ground during World War I, the city fathers would be able to rebuild and restore the city straight out of the pages of Ulysses. So too, the film offers a tremendous testament to the places and faces of Dublin of 1967, and I think Joyce would have agreed with this notion of leaving a lasting portrait.

"His heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes"
Ulysses, is available on R2 DVD courtesy of Arrow. The 2.35 transfer is a revelation, sharp, beautiful and struck from a print free of damage. Audio is fine and clear and besides a booklet of notes which comes with the DVD, that's it for extras. Considering the book has a fearsome reputation for being a difficult read - there's a mini-industry of notes and study aids to assist readers wade through Joyce's labyrinth, Joesph Strick's Ulysses is a wonderful primer for the book, and is in my opinion one of the very rare instances where you should consider seeing the film before tackling the book. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Revisting the City on Blu

Just a quick post to report that I'm generally pleased with Arrow's Blu-Ray edition of City of the Living Dead. Debate rages across message forums about Arrow's Blu vs the Blue Underground edition, and while it seems that the Blue Underground is coming out the winner in terms of image quality, I can safely safe that both editions are highly recommended.

Watching the opening scene following the front credits had me a little worried with all the grain and softness, but the strength of the high-def emerges in the next sequence, the seance scene, which looks very sharp and pops alive with bold, bright colors. As for the grain and softness, this is entirely present in the original negative, it was a stylistic choice by Fulci, and really the film should have a credit for Smoke Machine Operator and Dust Wrangler for so much of it wafts before the camera. Audio wise, the experimental sound design is a powerhouse.

Bottom line, City of the Living Dead is worth the upgrade to Blu-Ray whether you go with Arrow or Blue Underground. Both editions feature extensive extras and the Arrow packaging is a beauty itself, with a booklet, postcards, a poster for the US Gates of Hell release and cool reversible artwork. High time to wallow in the gore, gunk and glory of Lucio Fulci's prodigal masterpiece.