June 13, 2011

Awesome Welles – Part 1

After enjoying Orson Welles’ ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ as mentioned in my last post, I decided to make the effort to view all his feature films (Considering their limited availability, I should emphasize the word ‘Effort’). He only shot ten or more full length films across three decades due to a lack of financing and support. I thought it would be interesting to view them chronologically but because they are so hard to come by, that hasn’t proved possible.  So I began with the easiest to find:

The Stranger (1946)

‘The Stranger’ is the story of Franz Kindler (Orson Welles) a Nazi war criminal hiding in a little American town and Mr. Wilson (Edward G. Robinson), the man who is hunting him.  The film was released just prior to the Nuremberg Trials and was the first movie to incorporate footage of the concentration camps.

After the disastrous release of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ Welles took the job to direct ‘The Stranger’ as a way to show he could make a mainstream successful thriller (This was the first job he could get after 4 years!).  He succeeded brilliantly by making something thrilling and also a box-office hit while still squeezing in some memorable Welles flourishes.  There’s the chilling scenes where Kindler lets his mask slip over dinner when he says Karl Marx “Wasn’t a German, Marx was a Jew” and the heartless look in his eyes when he resolves to kill those closest to him. Other interesting performances include the jolly but cheating drug-store philosopher Mr. Potter (Billy House) and Loretta Young’s role as Kindler’s duped American bride-to-be which at first seems weak but in the end she exemplifies the old saying “Hell hath no fury…”.  The gothic conclusion staged in a broken clock tower seems to have influenced the endings of both ‘Back To The Future’ and Tim Burton’s ‘Batman’. The film has fallen out of copyright so is available to view in its entirety on YouTube bellow:

The Lady from Shanghai (1947)

‘The Lady from Shanghai’ is a noir thriller about a rougeish Irish sailor Michael O’Hara (Orson Welles) who is sucked into the twisted world of a rich couple.  Welles agreed to direct the film if Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn wired him $55,000 to finance a stage production he was mounting. Being Welles, far from merely quickly fulfilling his contract he wrote, produced, starred-in and directed the film and even cast his then wife,  the mega-star Rita Hayworth in it.

Welles got off to a shaky start, annoying the studio by having Hayworth’s world-famous long red-hair cut short and dyed Blonde.  This decision was so controversial that it was blamed at the time for the films poor box-office performance (It’s difficult to understand since Hayworth looks jaw-droppingly seductive in the role!).  The studio deemed the plot incomprehensible so they cut out an hour of footage.  The 87 minute film that is left is certainly a bit hard to follow but then you’d imagine that a film so savagely trimmed would be! The joy of the film is more about the pervading air of danger and mystery that Welles creates.  Standout scenes include the beautiful close-up of Hayworth singing to herself and the ingenious Hall-Of-Mirrors showdown that has been later ripped off in many films including ‘Enter the Dragon’ and ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’.

Macbeth (1948)

‘Macbeth’ has always been my favourite Shakespeare play since studying it at school.  I’ve seen Antony Shear’s clever staging, I’ve watched films of Polanski’s brutal take and then McKellen & Dench’s sparse production but my favourite was always Nicol Williamson’s intimate 1983 adaptation. This was my first encounter with Welles’ dark brooding take on the play.

The dark magic of the play allow Welles free rein to create a fantastical film using daring composition, gothic shadows, ominous sound and reams of atmospheric mist. Again the film was not a success which the studio attributed to the decision that the cast should speak in fairly strong Scottish accents and the critics branded Welles’ cutting and re-ordering of Shakespeare’s text sacrilegious (A practice that is now the standard in film adaptations!). The studio re-cut the film, re-dubbed the sound with American accents and re-released it but thankfully I watched the wonderful fully restored version.

Touch of Evil (1958)

‘Touch Of Evil’ features a duel of wills and morals between honest Mexican agent Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and corrupt American police Captain Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles) set against the seething amorality of a decaying border town.

By 1958 Welles hadn’t been allowed near an American production in ten years when he accepted the role of Quinlan.  When Heston came on board the film still lacked a director so he voiced the blindingly obvious that the studio should ask Welles.  Welles seized the chance and immediately completely re-wrote the script from scratch, most notably changing Heston’s part to a Mexican to alow the film to explore themes of Racism.  The film’s opening 3 and a half-minute sweeping tracking shot was groundbreaking and Welles dedication to shooting everything on location was in contrast to Hollywood’s studio-bound techniques. The motel scenes (Notably involving Janet Leigh) seem to have inspired Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ to such a degree that it’s practically plagiarism! Welles’ performance as Quinlan is magnificent, creating a character so steeped in corruption that it’s rotting him from inside and out.

While shooting, the studio was very happy, particularly when Welles’ old Hollywood friends like Marlene Dietrich, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Joseph Cotten turned up unannounced to film cameos. However when Welles’ turned in a rough 108 minute preview cut the studio’s attitude drastically changed.  They took the film away from Welles and re-shot many scenes and cut it down to 95 minutes.  Welles was horrified and wrote a 58 page memo detailing how he thought the film should be edited.  This memo lay ignored until 1998 when Rick Schmidlin produced a cut of the film endeavoring to follow the memo to the letter.  This restored/re-imagined version is Welles’ best film since ‘Citizen Kane’, perhaps even better than Kane.

F for Fake (1974)

‘F For Fake’ is a mesmerizing documentary film about forgery, fakery and film making.  Part biography of art-forger Elmyr de Hory, part auto-biographical confessional and part masterly demonstration of the very possibilities of film editing itself.

Welles literally performs magic tricks and then does the same with his editing.  The best scenes include one where he edits footage of the public to make it look as if they are drooling over his girlfriend Oja Kodar as she saunters down the street in a mini-skirt, another is when he re-creates his famous ‘March of time’ newsreel from ‘Citizen Kane’ to mock Howard Hughes (A scene that works on so many self-referential levels). ‘F For Fake’ would be his last released film so it is fitting that it was his most daring and original vision, birthing a new type of film altogether and showing that 3 decades after his first film he was still ahead of everyone else.

Welles has lamented that it would have been nice to not be ahead of his time and just be of-the-time, because he would’ve actually made a few dollars!  But thankfully for generations to come he was cursed to always be a groundbreaking genius.  In part two of my Welles odyssey I’ll be viewing films like ‘Othello’, ‘Mr. Arkadin aka Confidential Report’, ‘The Trial’ and ‘Chimes at Midnight’.  I just have to track down DVDs of them first!

June 1, 2011

The Magnificent Ambersons (Cinema)

“Old times. Not a bit. There aren’t any old times. When times are gone, they’re not old, they’re dead. There aren’t any times but new times”

I adore the work of Orson Welles but outside of ‘Citizen Kane’ his filmography is difficult to come by, despite his fame. His career post Kane is a sad tale of studio interference and troubled productions. This has led to many of his films only being available on poor quality import DVDs featuring truncated cuts.  This is the case for his second film based on a book by Booth Tarkington about the decline of a great American family set against the backdrop of the advent of the Automobile.

So I ceased the opportunity to see an aged but beautifuly sharp print of 1942’s ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’ in a packed house at the BFI. The film I saw ran at 88mins but Welles’ original cut ran at an elegiac 148mins. The studio was unhappy with his cut so they mercilessly trimmed it while he was out of the country and later cruelly burned the negative (To save storage space!) denying future generations the chance to see it properly. Apparently the bulk of the cuts came from the end of the film and a new happy ending was filmed.  This is obvious in the flow of the film, as it seems to splutter and die towards the end like the combustion engines it chronicles. What is left are an assortment of brilliantly funny and painfully sad scenes that can’t help but feel somewhat disjointed. They hint at the epic family saga ‘Gone With The Wind’ while also containing  shades of the more intimate small-town portrait from ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’.  If you get a chance go see it, but dreams of what might have been may leave you with a heavy heart.

Here’s a brilliant blog post going in to much more detail about the history of ‘The Magnificent Ambersons’.

May 29, 2011

Apocalypse Now (Cinema)

“There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane” – Francis Ford Coppola, Cannes 1979

The opportunity to see Francis Ford Coppola’s newly remastered 1979 epic ‘Apocalypse Now’ on the big screen was one that could not be missed. The screening I saw at the BFI’s NFT1 featured crystal clear surround sound and a majestically large screen to witness the full-scale of this masterpiece. The film is presented exactly as it was shown in 1979 without any credits before or after, the lights simply go down as the sound of rota blades begin to swirl around your head and your journey into the “Heart of darkness” begins.

I must have watched my ‘Apocalypse Now’ DVD 30 times over the years, but now for the first time I saw it as it was meant to be seen, in the cinema. The final scene where Kurt’s army bow down to their new god had a dreadful power I’d never experienced before and seeing the film with an audience revealed how much dark humour there is. I was obviously excited to see the helicopter attack in all its Wagnerian glory and the deafening explosions and sweeping camera shotsdon’t disappoint. This scene highlights the profound conundrum Coppola placed at the film’s heart, that war is inhuman but it’s also thrilling on an primeval level.

Also, finally the super-deluxe Blu-Ray box set I’ve been drooling over from America is coming to Region 2 on the 13th of June. It features not only the original and extended cuts but also the award-winning ‘Hearts Of Darkness’ documentary and what looks like about 3 days of bonus materials chronicling the film’s arduous production.

Here’s a few of ‘Apocalypse Now’ related mp3s:

Nicky Wire – Break My Heart Slowly mp3
UNKLE – UNKLE (Main Title Theme) mp3
Flash Cadillac – Suzie Q mp3

May 29, 2011

Gil Scott-Heron 1949 – 2011

May 22, 2011

TT3D: Closer To The Edge (Cinema)

I finally managed to find a showing of ‘TT3D: Closer To The Edge’ that fitted into my plans (After a month of meaning to see it) at the Genesis Cinema in Whitechapel.

The documentary follows a number of motorbike riders as they prepare for and then compete in the legendary 2010 Isle Of Man TT.  The star of the film is motor-mouth Yorkshireman Guy Martin (Above), with his love of speed providing the drama on the course and his gob causing trouble back in the paddock. It’s a beautifully filmed doc with long composed shots of the thrilling racing and breathtaking scenery.

It’s a film about living life to the full knowing that the next corner could be your last.  If you don’t know the result of the 2010 race, I won’t give anything away (You can spoil it for yourself with a quick google search if you want to!) so you’ll just have to go see the film to see who wins and loses, lives and dies…

I haven’t listened to this song for ages:

The Rumble Strips – Motorcycle mp3

May 20, 2011

What I’ve Been Listening To, 20th May 2011

DELS’ album ‘GOB’ features guest appearances and production credits from luminaries like Joe Goddard, Kwes and Roots Manuva. Highlight ‘Capsize’ is an anthem for life in modern-day Britain featuring swipes at the Tories, Bankers and the Tabloids:

DELS – Capsize mp3

Focus’ 1972 appearance on The Old Grey Whistle test has long been one of my all time favourites. Watch below as Guitarist Jan Akkerman pisses himself laughing at the yodeling even as he plays some face melting guitar…

It was buying the box-set of the magnificent sitcom Saxondale (Focus provide most of the music) that lead me to check out their excellent ‘Best Of’. Focus dance a merry jig at the crossroads leading to Jazz, Metal, Prog and medieval Folk:

Focus – Hocus Pocus mp3

I’d heard Tyler, The Creator’s skills were impressive and his recent Camden show was nearly a riot. I’d also heard his rhymes had “The potential to offend”, to put it politely. All this is true and it’s up to you if you take his rhymes as irony i.e. genius or serious i.e. massively offensive (personally I’d go for the former). Here’s my favourite cut from his new LP ‘Goblin’:

Tyler, The Creator – Tron Cat mp3

Gablé’s 2nd long-player is an even crazier journey into tripped-out Folk, sampling and twisted lyrical imagery than his first. At one point a random polka sample cuts in, before the song carries on as if you just dreamt it. This is an album for lovers of ambitious experimental double LPs that take you on a journey (DO NOT listen on shuffle… experience it, er… man!?!):

Gablé – 0000 mp3

I’ve yet to see the new ‘Upisde Down’ documentary about the history of Creation records but I bought a copy of the soundtrack. Among the obvious cuts by Oasis, The Boo Radleys and Primal Scream are some less familiar gems to saviour:

The House Of Love – Shine On mp3
The Jazz Butcher – Girl Go mp3

Quite unaccountably I’ve never listened to note one of the B52’s before. I was missing out as their suave blend of angular New-Wave and 50’s Rock’n’Roll nostalgia is right up my street. Check out their faultless 1979 debut album for cuts like this:

The B-52’s – Planet Claire mp3

Ghostpoet’s wittily titled album ‘Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam’ is a landscape of sparse beats and introspective rhymes. There are many great tracks but for my money this the best:

Ghostpoet – Finished I Ain’t mp3

I’ve finally digested the free ‘Camden Crawl 2011′ Compilation issued to attendees. It’s got a fairly high hit rate, quality wise with the following being my favourites (Although I didn’t  actually see either of these acts, oh well):

Benjamin Francis Leftwich – More Than Letters mp3
RD – Do It Like Me mp3

‘D-I-Y’ is yet another interesting and well researched compilation from Soul Jazz Records. It’s aim is to dig out rare and essential post-punk independent music from back in the day. Standout tracks include:

SPB – All Your Life With Me mp3
Patrik Fitzgerald – Babysitter mp3

EMA’s musical world melds the hymnal noise of Spiritualized, The Velvet Underground’s more Avant-Garde moments and the beat-poetry of Patti Smith. ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’ is an album to listen to in the dark so you wallow in its rumbling, emotional soundscapes:

EMA – California mp3

May 16, 2011

The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adèle Blanc-Sec (Cinema)

I arrived at Rough Trade to see Tennessee band Mona do an in-store only to discover they hadn’t turned up. The guy at the counter said a sore throat meant they had to cancel the performance so they agreed to do a signing instead. Except they later decided they couldn’t be bothered with that either so cancelled that too. With Mona resolutely inked into my black books I cast around for something else to do…

‘The Extraordinary Adventures Of Adèle Blanc-Sec’ is the latest offering from the occasionally patchy hand of French Director/Visionary Luc Besson. Fortunately this movie is up there with his best work. It’s a comic-fantasy-adventure melding the quirky humour of ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, the excitement of ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’ and the fantastical vision of Besson’s own ‘The Fifth Element’ (I wonder if the Aziz in this film is the father of the “More light Aziz” character from The Fifth Element?!?!?). Since these are three of the greatest movies ever made I had allot of fun watching this. The CGI characters are lifelike and funny, Louise Bourgoin is heart-stoppingly gorgeous as Adèle and the cliffhanger that sets up a possible sequel is a masterstroke!

The film is based on the long running French Comic book by Jacques Tardi.  I will have to try and track down some copies of the few volumes that have been translated into English.

May 15, 2011

Hanna (Cinema)

The idea of sitting in a darkened room for two hours watching Keira Knightley try to act has never appealed to me, so consequently I’ve never seen a Joe Wright film. But I thought I’d give his new one ‘Hanna’ a try as it sounded like quite a departure from his previous costume-drama offerings and starred the sensational young Irish actress Saoirse Ronan. Saoirse will be familiar to anyone who’s seen Peter Jackson’s critically mauled ‘The Lovely Bones’ in which her subtle lead performance was by far the best element.  The supporting cast is magnificent too, with Cate Blanchett revelling in her wicked-witch CIA role, Tom Hollander as a deliciously creepy shellsuit wearing hitman and relative newcomer Jessica Barden is hilarious as a precocious teen. The Chemical Brothers provide a pumping Dance soundtrtack.

Without giving too much away about the plot, Hanna is a young girl who has spent her whole life living in a secluded wood-cabin with her mysterious father.  He has taught Hanna to be the ultimate assassin and only when she is ready will her mission start.  Her father has a few books including ‘Grimm’s Fairytales’ and encyclopedias with which he has educated her.  Of course when she ultimately encounters the outside world she finds the books have prepared her little for the buzzing of electricity, the beating of drums and the forging of friendships.

It is this dizzying baptism into real life that informs Wrights film.  One moment it’s a pulsating action flick then a road-movie, a coming-of-age drama, a trippy fairytale, a social study and a wickedly funny sitcom.  The audience I saw it with loved it, all laughing at different moments and gasping at the violence in others. I left feeling that I’d just watched 4 or five films together and all of them brilliant.

May 13, 2011

Dan Sartain – Legacy Of Hospitality / Dan Sartain Lives: The Motion Picture (Compilation CD/DVD)

This blog has long been singing the praises of Dan Sartain’s catalogue of Rock’a’Billy/Rock’n’Roll and Surf-Guitar Music (‘P.C.B. 98′ being declared the 23rd best song ever). His new rarities compilation ‘Legacy Of Hospitality’ contains extensive liner notes revealing that between 2006’s ‘Join Dan Sartain’ and 2010’s ‘Dan Sartain Lives’, Dan recorded a self-produced and unreleased LP called ‘Crimson Cinema Of Death’. However, his label One Little Indian thought that Dan could do better with the help of Garage-Rock production legend Liam Watson. It’s a matter of debate whether the rougher versions here are better or worse than the marginaly more polished versions on ‘Dan Sartain Lives’. But Dan has a history of releasing multiple versions of his tracks (Some of the cuts on this compilation are the fourth version I own), so the real reason to own this set is because each take he does has its own character, tension, dynamics and flavour.

The compilation includes tracks from ‘Crimson Cinema Of Death’ and a wealth of other material. 9 of the 21 tracks/versions included here have never been released before anywhere, while a further 6 have only previously been available on the excellent 2005 tour-only rarities compilation ‘Sartain Family Legacy’ (Which I’ve got a lovely handmade copy of). The other 7 tracks are culled from various independent 7″s and compilations. As a bonus there is a new documentary called ‘Dan Sartain Lives: The Motion Picture’ following the man performing live round the world.  The DVD also includes all his music videos so far.

Maybe after he’s done his next LP on his own I’d love him to cut a full LP with Jack White as I think the two songs he released on Third-Man are production wise, his best so far.

Here are a few of my favourite rare Sartain gems not included on this CD (Or anywhere else at the minute!):

Goodnight mp3 (From ‘Romance In Stereo’ LP)
K-Car mp3 (From ‘Romance In Stereo’ LP)
This Is How They Beat You Down (Demo) mp3 (Longer early version)
Not The Boy She Knew mp3 (From ‘Sartain Family Legacy’ Compilation)
When You See Me Coming mp3 (B-side of ‘Gun Vs. Knife’ 7″)
Thought It Over (Demo) mp3 (Gentler early version with some different lyrics)

May 9, 2011

13 Assasins (Cinema)

I just went to see Takashi Miike’s ’13 Assassins’ at the Curzon Soho. It’s a classically made Samurai film in the Kurosawa mold. The basic plot is that the successor to the Shogun is a psychotic monster and a group of Samurai is hired to kill him at any costs.

I’m an avid fan of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima’s epic ‘Lone Wolf & Cub’ Manga. This is the first film I’ve seen that fully captures the way of the Bushi with the same spirit as that great work. The film, like the comic has a deep reverence for the nobility of the Samurai in their strict devotion to Bushido even while exposing the absurd lengths to which it can lead it’s followers. Both works explore the notion that a true Samurai would fight to his last breath to protect his master, even if he despises his master with the very same breath.

Takashi slowly builds up the tension, scene by scene and character by character for the first two-thirds. Every rustle of silk, every wrench of leather and every drop of rain used in the masterful sound design adds to the suspense. In the final third it all explodes in a cathartic orgy of slicing Katanas. A lesser director would’ve shown a montage of the preparations for the showdown. But Miike shows you nothing, so like the terrified enemy you have no idea what the assassins have in store. The editing of this climactic battle is breathtaking, I never once lost track of the action even when the titular 13 assassins are all taking on 10 men a piece. Takeshi Miike… arigato.

On a sad final note it seems that 16 mins of footage was chopped out for the international cut I saw.  I’ve no idea where the trims were made, or even why they were made at all!?!?! Hopefully the Blu-Ray release will restore the full cut that Japanese audiences enjoyed last year.

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