4 August 2014-08-04

Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet in Labor Day



Out in the UK This Week




Starred Up (Fox, cert 18, DVD/Blu-ray/digital)

Starred Up is a British prison drama, a phrase that usually strikes fear into the soul. But this one is an exception. Jack O’Connell isn’t the only reason for it, though he’s convincing as a young lag toughing his way to the top. The script pulls its weight too, with lots of tiny details – like our guy peeling off his top before some argy-bargy and dousing himself in baby oil so the screws can’t get a hold of him – and an awareness that a prison drama only has a certain number of places it can go (the showers, the top dog’s cell, the therapy session, the bent screw’s psyche), and then goes there with attitude. It’s boy to man stuff, brutal and brilliant, as a user review I’ve just spotted on the IMDb page succinctly has it. Yes, brutal and brilliant. Highly recommended.

Starred Up – at Amazon




The Double (StudioCanal, cert 15, DVD/Blu-ray/digital)

You’ll know Richard Ayoade from TV’s The IT Crowd and maybe from his first film, the geek romance Submarine. The Double sees him adapting Dostoevsky’s short story about a milquetoast whose world is invaded by his double. The double looks the same in every way but his supremely confident behaviour is a goad to the original, who becomes properly miserable when the interloper starts making eyes at his own heart’s desire. Ayoade has the cast – Jesse Eisenberg effortlessly good as both men, Mia Wasikowska again brilliant as the librarian and object of Simon/James’s desire. And he has the look – Terry Gilliam, Franz Kafka, David Lynch and Takashi Miike wriggling like puppies in a sack in this steampunk world of dead technology, alienation and dim-bulb lighting. He’s got the music too, insanely chirpy Japanese pop keeps bursting through the psychological disruption. It does all sound very quirky, doesn’t it? And if there’s a black mark to put alongside the one for The Double being a drama unsure how comic it wants to be, it’s its sense of straining a bit too hard. Just a teeny bit.

The Double – at Amazon




Black Narcissus (Network, cert U, Blu-ray)

I popped this on just to check how the restoration looked. The colour was flashing a bit here and there, as if the red gun was misfiring, though the sharpness of the image and the breathtaking imagery entirely compensated. If you don’t know it, it’s the 1947 Powell and Pressburger classic melodrama about nuns (including Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron) being driven crazy by sublimated lust out in the Himalayas, where they have gone to deliver god and charity to the poverty stricken populace. But, again, I stayed right to the end, noticing this time how the entire film is about disruption – no matter what good work or selfless deed the nuns try and do, some worldly imperative gets in the way. And the figure of David Farrar, as the local representative of the British Empire, coming and going on a tiny donkey like a latter-day Jesus, what a brilliant touch. Look closely and you can tell it’s all shot within a few miles of London: cumulonimbus clouds like that are a giveaway. And whether the red gun on my TV was clipping, the test disc I watched it on was a bit iffy (happens all the time) or, surely not, the restoration just got a bit patchy here and there, this is still hands down one of the best examples of cinematography ever – step forward Jack Cardiff.

Black Narcissus – at Amazon




Half of a Yellow Sun (Soda, cert 15, DVD/Blu-ray)

For his directorial debut, tyro playwright Biyi Bandele goes for the big one – Gone with the Wind – telling a story of love in a time of tumult in his adaptation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel. The film is at its most impressive in its depiction of a class of people who are almost never seen on film – optimistic, affluent, secular Nigerians keen for their country to have all the benefits of 1960s progress. Chiwetel Ejiofor and Thandie Newton are its embodiment, Odenigbo (Ejiofor) the technocrat teacher at a concrete and glass university, Olanna (Newton) the well-spoken daughter of a manufacturer of who’s done well for himself. Newton is oddly off in this film, never quite convincing in the way that Ejiofor is, though there are a whole raft of great performances down the pay grade – John Boyega as Odenigbo’s faithful servant, Onyeka Onwenu as his loudly superstitious and devious mother, Anika Noni Rose as Olanna’s brash, self-serving sister. The problem with the film, for all its many undoubted pluses, is that it’s all introduction and no main speaker – the civil war of Nigeria and the Biafra crisis barely registering when that, surely, is what it’s meant to be all about.

Half of a Yellow Sun – at Amazon




Labor Day (Paramount, cert 12, DVD/Blu-ray/digital)

Labor Day is probably going to be one of those The Notebook films. Slavishly worshipped by one constituency, derided by another. It’s the story of how a recluse single mother is brought back in touch with her intimate side after an escaped convict holes up in her house for the Labor day holiday weekend, tutoring her son in manly skills, fixing stuff around the place, generally being the ideal husband and father, as if beamed in by aliens. It’s nuts and it’s glorious at the same time, and it’s another example of Kate Winslet’s seeming single-handed attempt to resurrect the spirit of Joan Crawford in her Mildred Pierce era. Josh Brolin is the guy. Could anyone be better? It’s doubtful, and without these two stars the entire thing would be snortworthy. With them it still has its moments – the now notorious peach pie scene, reminiscent of the potter’s wheel in Ghost, plus the repeated shots of taps leaking, baths running over, water gushing… yes, we get it, a woman has her needs. Smutty? Not for a nanosecond. In fact the whole things aches with tastefulness – the exquisite lighting, the restrained decor, the elegant soundtrack. Some PhD student is probably already writing a thesis on it already, how it’s Bonnie and Clyde rewritten as a suburban psychodrama by Raymond Carver, or something. Which it kind of is, if you’re hyperventilating. And if you’ve watched it more than twice, you probably are.

Labor Day – at Amazon




Pioneer (Arrow, cert 15, DVD/Blu-ray)

This Norwegian thriller about the race in the 1970s to extract oil from Norway’s sea bed claims to have Wes Bentley as one of its stars. In fact he’s barely in it and could be removed entirely without changing the film in any way whatsoever, since we’d lose only about three minutes, and in any case Bentley has no bearing on plot, tone or other characters. Why’s he there then? To sell the film abroad, I suppose. Though to be fair to the producers, the film does need all the help it can get. And it starts so well too, with a whole series of atmospheric shots following two Norwegian divers in a bathyscape down to the bottom of the North Sea, where they are to make preliminary excursions to see whether a pipeline at such depths is feasible. In these early scenes there’s a tonne of fascinating technical detail, a genuine sense of trepidation and the men we’re following, played by Aksel Hennie (excellent in Headhunters, pretty good here) and André Eriksen, are worth rooting for. But then it abandons all this and devolves instead into a standard thriller that needs ten TV hours to get its story out in the sort of detail that would make it interesting. Edge of Darkness is the basic idea – big bad corporations messing with people’s lives – and if you haven’t seen the 1985 BBC series starring Bob Peck, or Utopia, Channel 4’s current counterpart, then you should. I wouldn’t bother with this.

Pioneer – at Amazon




Rio 2 (Fox, cert U, DVD/Blu-ray/digital)

Not being a fan of Rio 1, I wasn’t looking forward to Rio 2. Still, the sequel at least has a go at a kind of logical plot development, the two blue macaws who got together in the first animated adventure obviously not being able to do that again. So, the writers send them off to the jungle, for what looks like a re-run of Madagascar but turns out to be something far busier and worthier… saving the rainforest from loggers blah blah blah. As with Rio 1, Jemaine Clement is so good as the bad guy Nigel the cockatoo that he throws everyone else into the shade, voice artistes Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway not helping by making the leads, Blu and Jewel, a pair of drips. Nor are matters helped by the fact that Christine Chenoweth, voicing Nigel’s poisonous tree-frog sidekick and would-be amour, is the film’s second most interesting character. However, the music is an improvement on the first and there are a couple of enjoyable samba-heavy tunes, and the animation is psychedelic and full of incidental detail. Which is the film’s problem in a brazil nutshell – it’s all frame and no picture.

Rio 2 – at Amazon








© Steve Morrissey 2014






The Smell of Napalm, Now in Glorious Technicolor

apocalypse now by syn k

A brilliant restoration of Apocalypse Now means another fresh ride for Technicolor, the process behind some of cinema’s greatest artistic triumphs

Great news. Apocalypse Now has been restored and is back in cinemas and in pin-sharp Blu-ray, later in 2011. Yes, the “best Vietnam film, one of the greatest of all films” – according the revered Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times – is back.

And it’s back in Technicolor. So now a new generation can marvel as choppers swoop to the sound of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie, thrill at Robert Duvall’s “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” and stare in slack-jawed amazement at the sheer size of Marlon Brando.

Except that it isn’t. In Technicolor, that is. Not technically speaking, as any number of film geeks will tell you. The reason being… well, read on and all will be explained. What is interesting, though, is that director Francis Ford Coppola is tying the reputation of his film to a process that had already bitten the dust, in the USA at least, when he made his anti-war masterpiece.

In wanting to be associated with Technicolor, Coppola is merely lining up with many a great director of Hollywood’s golden era. All of whom worshipped the film process which delivers magic on the screen, rich, gorgeous grain-free images in hues that seem to heighten reality.

The Wizard of Oz was shot in Technicolor, as were The Adventures of Robin Hood, Gone with the Wind, Snow White, Singin’ in the Rain and Spartacus. In fact there’s a good chance that if it’s a bona-fide stone-cold classic Hollywood movie, it was shot in Technicolor. Or a British one. Lawrence of Arabia, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes were all shot in Technicolor too.

A gigantically costly, technically exacting and punishingly slow process, Technicolor’s three-strip system, as the name suggests, used three separate, differently filtered, black and white negatives in cameras the size of a fridge-freezer to produce a single finished image of exceptional depth of colour.

Look at the restored version of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood and you can see the effect. Even Friar Tuck’s brown habit has a richness and glow to it which you just don’t get anywhere else. Nothing can get the wrinkles out of Flynn’s green tights but their fizzy lime colour is like nothing on earth.

Studios were well aware of this effect, which was particularly pronounced at the red end of the spectrum. Technicolor films are full of red – lips, velvet curtains, fires. Which is why Dorothy is wearing ruby slippers in the film version of The Wizard of Oz when the original book called for silver.

This saturated colour came at a cost though. Technicolor film was very, very slow – as low as 5 ASA (good old summer-holiday film being maybe 160 ASA) – and it took an awful lot of light to get the silver nitrate in those three separate strips to react. This meant huge lighting rigs and temperatures up around 35 C (no fun if you’re dressed as a lion or a tin man). Burnt retinas were not uncommon. Hence sunglasses on set. A habit film stars have stuck with ever since.

At the other end of the process was the printing of the film. And this, too, was different, relying on a process called dye imbibition – each of the complementary filtered colours was laid over the other on a transparent film emulsion in much the same way you’d print a T shirt. The result was a positive print with no grain and great sharpness. And because you could always go back to the original three black and white negatives – technologically simple and astonishingly hard-wearing – Technicolor has great longevity too.

The other great cost was the Technicolor consultant. Technicolor kept tight control of the process, owned all the cameras and the processing labs. A studio shooting a Technicolor film couldn’t start running film through a camera until one of Technicolor’s consultants was on set. Most famous of them was Natalie Kalmus, the wife of Herbert Kalmus, who’d founded the Technicolor company, a woman whose name rarely cropped up in a sentence without “bitch” being somewhere in there too. Being kind, let’s just say she was opinionated. Natalie Kalmus was on set the day David O Selznick burnt down his 40-acre back lot, full of old sets going back to the days of silent movies, to simulate the torching of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind, a one-off event captured with every single Technicolor camera that existed in the USA. All seven of them.

Process 4, as the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation called it, reigned supreme from the early 1930s until the mid-1950s. Hollywood’s golden era, in other words. But as film audiences began to dwindle, the economics of producing Technicolor ceased to add up. And in any case Eastmancolor had arrived. Not as good, not as durable (ten years and it’s beginning to fade) but much cheaper.

In 1954 the Jane Russell western Foxfire became the last Hollywood movie shot with Technicolor cameras, though the dye imbibition process for making prints continued until 1974, when The Godfather: Part II became the last American film to be made that way.

As with the cameras, the labs were sold off to parts of the world where labour was cheap. Which is why the Italian Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) is in bloody Technicolor. And why the early movies of the Chinese master colourist Zhang Yimou – the lucky recipient of Britain’s redundant Technicolor equipment – were producing wows from the audience into the 1990s.

All of which helps explain Apocalypse Now. The geeks are right, it’s not a true Technicolor film because it was not shot using Technicolor cameras. Nor were the original projector prints made using Technicolor’s imbibition process. Those labs were in Italy helping Argento produce his most famous and brilliantly lurid horror film.

But new prints of Apocalypse Now were struck for the Redux version in 2001, using a dye imbibition process which Technicolor revived and which was used for only a few movies (Bulworth, Toy Story and Pearl Harbor among them) before disappearing again. And it’s these prints – rich with inky blacks and saturated colours – which have been used as the source for the digital prints you’ll be able to see in cinemas, or at home on the Blu-ray.

You lucky, lucky people.

Apocalypse Now is released in cinemas in May 2011.

A three-disc Blu-ray version containing original cut, Redux and the documentary Heart of Darkness is available here at Amazon.


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Ten Unmissable Technicolor Films



Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon
Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon


The Band Wagon (1953, dir: Vincente Minnelli)

No director had an eye for Technicolor like the former window dresser Vincente Minnelli (father of Liza). And in this brilliant musical Minnelli also had songs, a witty script and Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse (pictured above). Perfection.

The Band Wagon – at Amazon

The Wizard of Oz (1939, dir: Victor Fleming)

Judy Garland leaves boring monochrome Kansas behind and rides a tornado into a Technicolor Oz. Imagine the effect that this film had in Depression-era America.

The Wizard of Oz – at Amazon

Gone With The Wind (1939, dir: Victor Fleming)

“The most magnificent picture ever!” is how the posters described this cinematic landmark when it was released, now reckoned to be the most popular film ever. Yes, bigger than Avatar.

Gone with the Wind – at Amazon

A Matter of Life and Death (1946, dir: Michael Powell)

David Niven pleads for his life in a celestial court in this offering (also known as A Stairway to Heaven) from Brits Powell and Pressburger, which cheekily presents Heaven in black and white and Earth in Technicolor.

A Matter of Life and Death – at Amazon

Black Narcissus (1946, dir: Michael Powell)

A convent of nuns go slowly mad in the Himalayas in another great Powell/Pressburger film, so cunningly shot by cinematographer Jack Cardiff you’d barely guess it was made within half an hour of London.

Black Narcissus – at Amazon

Singin’ in the Rain (1952, dir: Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen)

Best musical ever? A witty satire on the end of the silent era in Hollywood. It’s got songs, dance routines, brilliant sets, jokes – and Donald O’Connor virtually eclipsing Gene Kelly with his “running up the wall” trick.

 Singin’ in the Rain – at Amazon

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, dir: Michael Curtiz)

Errol Flynn is the most famous incarnation of Robin Hood in a film colour-co-ordinated to bring out the full possibilities of Technicolor. Fabulous. Just don’t expect grungy realism.

The Adventures of Robin Hood – at Amazon

Lawrence of Arabia (1962, dir: David Lean)

Peter O’Toole is the star of this biopic of TE Lawrence but it’s Omar Sharif who gets its most iconic scene – a locked camera shot that focuses on an empty shimmering desert horizon and keeps staring as Sharif slowly, majestically arrives.

Lawrence of Arabia – at Amazon

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937, dir: David Hand)

Disney had exclusive use of Technicolor for a while, which encouraged them to advance from shorts to this, their first full-length movie. A decision which doesn’t seem to have done them any harm at all.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – at Amazon

Raise the Red Lantern (1991, dir: Zhang Yimou)

In 1920s China a young girl becomes wife number three of a rich old lord in one of the most famous films of Zhang Yimou, a master of colour and emotion and director of some of the last true Technicolor films ever made.

Raise the Red Lantern – at Amazon

© Steve Morrissey 2011