DVD Review

It Was 50 Years Ago Today! The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper & Beyond (2017)

There have been countless documentaries made about The Beatles. Martin Scorsese made a 3 and half hour film about George Harrison. George for fucksake. Ron Howard just released 8 Days A Week earlier this year, covering the US tour and Shea Stadium, and now It Was 50 Years Ago Today picks up in where Howard left off, though with a good half hour of overlap, focussing on the release of one of the most important albums of all time: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band.

Sketch show Portlandia had an episode parodying this idea, based around Fred Armisan wanting to make a Beatles documentary despite their being so many already and not having the rights to play any of the music. This joke becomes reality in 50 Years as no music was cleared and so you have to put up with a smattering of bored and boring talking heads.

With so much ground covered over and again, the film focuses on a short period of time in the life of The Beatles and examines it in great detail – this it does to an extreme for better or worse. It looks at the context from which this groundbreaking record was birthed: a concept album fronted by alter-egos, influenced by psychedelia and Indian mysticism as well as a kind of carnivalesque surrealism – there’s a lot to unpack here, and yet it does this without ever playing any of the music.

There is a great deal about the development of the album’s style and sound, to a microscopic level in some respects. Presumably this documentary is made for those who have a fondness for The Beatles equal to the filmmaker, having memorised the catalogue and wanting some broader understanding or interesting trivia. There are some really interesting bits of information that root some of the iconic imagery – McCartney’s growing of a moustache to cover a broken tooth that he got from a motorbike crash, or Pete Best’s lending of his medals for the album cover shoot.

It begins with territory well trodden but steers it into the more obscure showing revelry for the bands abilities and achievements leading to Sgt Pepper. In surprising fairness though, it shows the group coming undone in it’s wake – trying to reach outside their grasp with an apparent naiveté, from wanting to run a fashion boutique to their own school.

Despite these efforts the documentary appears limited to those who already have an obsession with The Beatles and don’t mind hearing an album meticulously described without hearing so much as a note.

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Taxi (1978 – 83)

Written for RAF News May 2016

When new hire Elaine (Marilu Henner) enters the grotty base of the Sunshine Cab Company in Taxi‘s first ever episode, she cuts to the heart of the atmosphere, asking why everyone here just a little angry.

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This small, tiny in the case of dispatcher Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito), but diverse group of part-time cabbies are united by their New Yorker attitudes, their sarcasm and bitterness, their incessant innuendos and quick-fire insults. Filmed in front of a live studio audience their constant quips keep the laughs coming, but the show never shied away from making a serious point, earning it the title of ‘morality play’.

Over it’s 5 series span in just as many years, Taxi would become iconic for it’s opening theme tune, it’s clownish character actors and its tendency to get a bit gushy at the end. Where Alex (Judd Hursch) would be seen as the fatherly figure of the group, the one true cabbie, episodes would often follow as he offered some of his learned wisdom to the others, or capping the show with a life lesson. But this sentiment could be found in the most cartoonish characters – the innocently idiotic foreign mechanic Latka (Andy Kaufman), lovable idiotic boxer Tony (Tony Danza), and joining from the second series the burnt out hippie and outright idiot Reverend Jim (Christopher Lloyd).

All the cast of the Sunshine Cab Company are larger than life, big voices with big gestures that really make the punchlines land. This is especially true for struggling actor Bobby (Kenickie himself, the late Jeff Conaway) and Devito’s Palma – who spends most of the show’s run in the dispatcher’s cage, where his petty tirades are delivered with such fury that it steals your attention, and though he is undeniably the most despicable character, he is hilarious and the centrepiece to the show.

A precursor to Cheers and even The Simpsons, Taxi is a time capsule of a sit-com, and of 70s New York, that can be reopened and revisited now that it is being released on DVD for the first time in the UK.

 

Against The Sun (2016)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News Feb 2016

Against the Sun tells the incredible true story of three US Navy airmen who were left stranded in the South Pacific near Japanese territory during WW2.

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Chief Harold Dixon (Garret Dillahunt, 12 Years a Slave), bombardier Tony Pastula (Tom Felton, The Harry Potter series) and radioman Gene Aldrich (Jake Abel) find themselves low on fuel and way off course, with no other option but to crash land their torpedo bomber into the ocean. It is only once they climb inside a life raft that they meet each other properly.

The remainder of the film takes place aboard this small but formidable life boat as the three men try to stay alive long enough to make it to shore. As it turns out the nearest islands are over 1000 miles away, which means weeks of travel if they can survive the journey. All of this they must do without food or water, without maps, flares or flashlights. If that wasn’t enough the two younger lads can’t swim and the waters are shark infested. The odds are stacked against them and yet the film maintains a tone of triumph, of sheer American optimism.

Remarkably similar to Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, the two films are different in scope and magnitude. Where Jolie’s dramatic story is on a much larger scale with glossy special effects, Against the Sun is stripped back to the bones. It is simple and unsensational by comparison – and more effective for it. But that’s not to say it’s too memorable either.

It feels as though there are countless missed opportunities to create tension but it holds its punches intentionally, even if the film suffers for it. This is a true story and measures are taken to capture the events accurately. On this small scale production the performances take focus and it is the dynamic between the minuscule cast that makes the film, but unfortunately the tone stays the same throughout – so while their story is unbelievable the film doesn’t do enough to leave a lasting impression.

Undercover Brother (2002)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News Nov 2015

Undercover Brother (Eddie Griffin) is a secret agent with soul, a superfly Austin Powers… Macy Gray with pork-chop sideburns.

Hired by an underground collective known as The Brotherhood, his mission is to find out why black military general and promising presidential candidate Warren Boutwell (Billy Dee Williams) has decided to drop out of the running and set up a chain of fried chicken restaurants.


Sharing a writer with Austin Powers you can see the similarity in the way that it plucks it’s sexually confident hero from a different time and uses him to parody a film genre, though change swinging 60s espionage for straight up 70s Blaxploitation – using music cues and editing to push home the point, much like the more recent Black Dynamite.

The film is full of one-liners, visual gags and slapstick – not leaving much room for anything else. It feels pieced together around a few sketches, but what it lacks elsewhere it makes up for in the sheer number of jokes so it doesn’t matter that they’re not all that funny.

The supporting cast all serve their purpose – Chris Katan as the villainous underling of The Man, Denise Richards as double agent White She Devil and fellow stand-up comedian Dave Chapelle as the stoner conspiracy theorist who finds racial arguments in a one word greeting. Everyone chips in with jokes but Griffin is the soul of the film and the funniest thing about it.

Undercover Brother is self-aware to the point of almost looking at the audience after each punchline (guilty of using a needle scratch multiple times). For the most part though it shows that the film is aware of it’s tackiness and embraces it as part of it’s tongue in cheek style. Overall it’s not great, a little dated but has style for sure.


The Exorcist (1973)

Halloween DVD Review – Written for Film and TV Now Oct 2015 (Available here)

It could be easy to dismiss The Exorcist as of its day. To think of it as a boundary pushing film at the time of release back in 1973, that generated hype and hysteria, and became more of a legend off-screen. You might think that it would have lost its edge, with more convincing special effects now and with audience sensibilities more jaded and depraved since the Saw franchise ushered in the torture porn genre. How could this film still hold weight considering that its iconic status means that people know the scariest moments before they even see it?

The Exorcist is much more than the few scenes it is remembered by. It is a true horror film that deals with something much bigger than a monster in the dark, or the devil in a young girl. It wrestles with deeper ideas which make it so much harder to dismiss as trashy or cheap. It is both scary and compelling, intensely dramatic but often very real.

The story centres around Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) and her 12 year old daughter Reagan (Linda Blair) who falls ill and starts behaving out of character. When the doctors struggle to identify what exactly is wrong, pushed to the limits of what science will allow, they offer an alternative solution – that Reagan has been ‘invaded by an alien intelligence – a spirit’. Out of sheer desperation, atheist Chris enlists the help of two priests to perform an exorcism to try and bring her daughter back – but they will all be tested to the extreme and witness the most ungodly acts as a once angelic girl becomes a demon.

The film actually begins in Northern Iraq, where we glimpse the foreboding mythology of the demon Pazuzu. Father Merrin, the eponymous exorcist, takes part in an archaeological dig where he discovers the beastly icon in stone. This role is significantly played by Max von Sydow, a man who struggled to find faith in God and challenged Death to a game of chess in Ingmar Bergman’s classic The Seventh Seal.

Already The Exorcist is bigger than one film – it taps into a wider network of meaning that makes its themes more potent, it’s monster more powerful. Adapted from the novel by William Peter Blatty, who was struggling with his own faith, and directed by agnostic William Friedkin, the film is really about faith, and the struggle of one priest, Father Karras (Jason Miller) whose belief in God is waning. It is a film about good versus evil as young Reagan is possessed and tortured by demonic forces in order to test him.

The first half of the film focusses on the relationship between Reagan and her mother, and also psychiatric counsellor-turned-reverend Karras and his mother, who he visits and cares for. They each show tenderness and loving affection until they are torn apart as Reagan is possessed and Karris’ mother dies, making him doubt his belief in God and whether he should change profession.

The dedication to developing these characters has a huge effect on the viewer, you find yourself caring more, invested in their situation. Friedkin draws on his documentary experience to make the characters more real and empathetic – actually favouring real priests over actors – this is before the second half of the film crashes into chaos, before the beloved little girl becomes Pazuzu.

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This is where the iconic moments bloom: from head spinning and puking green slime to Reagan’s spider walk down the stairs – which has been put back into the director’s cut. Every effort is taken to turn this girl into abject horror, utilising practical effects and detailed sound design which have a unique ability to unsettle. Linda Blair is extraordinary in portraying both the little girl and the demon within. Auditioning over 1000 girls for the part, they had to be careful that this very young girl could handle such extreme material, which she does with a flourish despite stating she didn’t understand everything she was doing.

Shot on location in Georgetown the grand architecture adds a gothic, religious tone which feeds into the themes of the film and actually play an important part in the story. The use of stairways become an underlying motif that reinforces ideas of ascension. In a dream Father Karras sees his mother descend down subway steps before he can get to her, this is before possessed Reagan taunts him with notions of his mother in hell. This demon is all knowing, all powerful and aims to challenge Karras’ faith.

The Exorcist immerses you in the world of its characters before plunging you into the depth of its darkness – it is beautifully composed and definitely worthy of its status as a classic.

Shopping (1994)

DVD Review – Written for RAF News Aug 2015

Paul W.S Anderson’s debut features a young Jude Law and Sadie Frost as ram-raiders in an urban wasteland – driving stolen cars through shop fronts and taking clothes from the fallen mannequins in a whole different kind of window shopping. A bit of the ol’ crash-and-carry.

Billy (Law) is a joy-riding adrenaline junkie fresh out of a prison. An adolescent rebel eager to impress Belfast punk Jo (Frost) and make a name for himself. Coming home to find his possessions boxed up and hearing that a rival gang is growing into a criminal empire, Billy is losing sight of his place in the world and his recklessness is starting to draw unwanted attention.

Shopping takes place in a dystopian near future, shot on location in London but carpet bombed with smoke making it look more like Tim Burton’s Gotham. Caught somewhere between Mad Max and Cronenberg’s Crash, the film falls short of compelling or unsettling. The acting is ropey throughout but Law brings a fresh-faced naiveté to Billy that works for his character, with occasional glimmers of his cocksure charm, and Sean Pertwee is impressive as rival gang leader Tommy. Produced on an extremely low budget, the chase scenes are impressive if not sparse. Unfortunately the film has not aged particularly well and is mired in the technology and fashion of its day.

This is the 90s and so our rebellious anti-heroes sport black leather jackets and listen to electronica on cassettes. At one point Jo routes through Billy’s tapes and mocks him when she finds Spandau Ballet – this is a nod to Frost’s life off-screen, she actually left Gary Kemp for Jude Law after meeting him on the set of this film, and so the chemistry between their characters may be very real.

Featuring a few of the Primrose Hill set, the North Londoners who rose to fame in the 90s, it is interesting to see these actors together for the first time, before classics Love, Honour and Obey and Final CutShopping is far more stark in comparison to these later more comedic films, and was actually banned from some cinemas for its glorification of crime – though it is definitely tame by todays standards. Now it is fully restored and being rereleased on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Whilst Paul W.S Anderson continues to make films based on videogames or in science fiction, this film is seen as his most serious and most impressive, though you can definitely see the through-line between this and his next film: Mortal Kombat.

Margin Call (2011)

Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) journeys into the belly of the investment banking beast in JC Chandor’s debut feature.

Having survived the culling of 80% of the workforce, Peter is handed a USB drive by his less successful boss as he is escorted out of the building along with two words of advice: Be Careful.

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Although Peter looks to be our guide through the story – through this world of hard-edged executives dealing intangible products and earning 7 figure bonuses – he speaks in a language that no one else understands. He is the audience surrogate but rather than have everyone explain what’s happening to him, and thereby us, he is the one with the answer who has to explain it to everyone else. With a PhD in physics this rocket scientist turned risk analyst has discovered some troubling data predictions for the company, and the sector, and, everyone really – this is the beginning of the financial crisis of 2008. The very beginning. The pin-point moment when it all fell apart seen through the eyes of those discovering it.

Completing his calculations late into the night whilst everyone else celebrates not being fired, Peter has to call his bosses back to the office (a gum-chewing straight-down-the-line Paul Bettany and an understated Kevin Spacey) to send this information up the chain – and so begins a series of dumbed down explanations attempting to communicate the scale of disaster fast approaching. Even CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), flown in via helicopter, needs it broken down for him: ‘speak as you might to a young child or a golden retriever’. The point here is that no-one in charge knows how it works – and though this series of explanations brings us closer to understanding the cause of the collapse, the focus is how these people will deal with the news and how they will ultimately escape unscathed.

Taking the economic catastrophe of recent history and looking at it from the perspective of those who where at the helm leaves you with a strange feeling. We are presented some likeable characters but you can’t help but feel complete disdain for these suits who will save themselves, who will evade the crisis and knowingly pass it on to regular people. This point is made clear in passing dialogue, distinguishing themselves from the ‘real people’ who will actually be affected.

The Wolf of Wall Street stirred some controversy when it showed ruthless stockbrokers benefitting from regular people’s losses without ever showing the victims. Margin Call‘s top bods don’t even consider the victims to go after them maliciously, they are interested in survival – for the company, for themselves. Their rationalised indifference is somehow more obnoxious than the overt manipulation of the wolves, and it feels like this could easily be a reality.

The film’s strength is in it’s writing. It allows the performances to be sharp and fast-moving, gifting each character with a brazen attitude and silver tongue. A boardroom meeting plays as a hyper-masculine battle of egos. Kevin Spacey’s performance is subtle, showing an internal moral conflict that he knows is futile. It feels like GlenGarry Glenn Ross but the dank room is now a Manhattan high-rise and Kevin Spacey is a touch more human thanks to his dying dog. Just a touch mind, these people are ruthless automatons and they know it.