Archive for ‘DVD’

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!

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)

April 4, 2011

Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (DVD)

I loved Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle when it aired back in march 2009. It stood in stark contrast to other stand-up program’s like Micheal MacIntyre Live At the Apollo. I only noticed it on Amazon the other week and snapped it up for a mere £6.

Each episode has great moments taking standup comedy down ridiculous alleyways. For example; Lee does a whole routine based on reading out the sleeve notes to a Franklin Ajaye LP, or he extrapolates a whole narrative from a found child’s ballet shoe, or he tells a comedy anecdote where it’s very subject begins to critique the standard of Lee’s own material.

If you’re the kind of person that likes siting down on a saturday night and watching Michael MacIntyre (Firstly take the time to reevaluate your whole life to find out how it went so terribly wrong) then get this DVD to feel the energy of something vital, intelligent and real.

The bonus material’s are generously stuffed across the 2 discs. The best bits are 6 ten minute interviews by fellow Comedy genius Armando Iannucci pretending to dissect each episode. They expertly satirize the kind of deadly-serious-in-depth-celebrity-interview that might usually be conducted by Pamela Connelly or Piers Morgan. The joy is watching the both of them just about manage to not corpse at the absurdity of Armando’s questions or the silliness of Stewart’s responses (This is worth the price alone). There are also six commentaries, and even the warm-up acts as an easter egg.

Here’s a clip featuring that Franklin Ayaye routine:

April 3, 2011

The Powell & Pressburger Collection (DVD Boxset)

Up to the point when I purchased this wonderful and affordable Boxset my total experience of the work of British filmmakers Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger (Together known as ‘The Archers’)was about 20 mins of 1947’s ‘Black Narcissus’ i’d spied once on BBC4. Recently I had begun to realise that having spent a full 30 years of my life in almost total ignorance of their renowned filmography was becoming a tad embarrassing. Once I’d turned over a mere £20 to Amazon I received this chunky 11 Film set running from 1941 to 1957.

My highlights are (In no particular order):

1948’s ‘The Red Shoes’ has inventive special effects that you can scarcely believe were possible for the time and Anton Wallbrook’s performance is monstrous and seductive. The cineamatography in ‘Black Narcissus’ is achingly beautiful, like a Pre-Raphaelite painted with light. ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ from 1946 is wonderfully bonkers featuring pilot David Niven arguing for his life with the celestial powers in what looks like a set from early Doctor Who. 1941 propaganda piece ’49th Parallel’ is a thought-provoking adventure only faulted by Laurence Olivier performing a French-Canadian accent so bad that he must rank along side Dick Van-Dyke. But 1943’s epic-nearly-3-hr ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’ is one of my new favourite films. It’s a sprawling meditation on life, death, love, friendship, memory and aging with the title part played perfectly (With seamless age makeup) by Roger Livesey.

The extras are very brief but the couple of mini docs are excellent. The visual and audio quality is variable ranging from murky to laboriously restored crispness. All the key films look fantastic but like me you might find yourself considering re-buying the best parts of this boxset on blu-ray. But for an introduction, this can’t be bettered.

Treat yourself to a part of British film history.