Thursday, 11 June 2009


The Film:

Something mystical has happened to Clint Eastwood. Back in the eighties he was looked-upon as an ageing, increasingly-foolish has-been who was only worth a damn when packing a .44 Magnum. His habit of casting friends and, especially, lovers in his films made him a laughing stock and that was not greatly helped by his brief foray into local politics.

Every now and then he’d make a film like Pale Rider (1985) or Bird (1988), which would give everyone a moment of contemplative re-assessment, but it would then be followed by something like Heartbreak Ridge (1986) or The Rookie (1990) and he was right back there on everyone’s hit list.

Then came Unforgiven (1992), a film which won several Oscars (including Best Film and Best Director for Clint himself) and made both a popular and critical audience sit up and pay attention to him anew. Unforgiven looked back at the career of a violent man and counted the cost. It was, to most everyone’s mind, Eastwood nailing the coffin-lid on his own career as the death-dealing Man With No Name. It was his attempt at cleaning-up Dirty Harry, his shot at redemption and, as themes in Hollywood movies go, redemption is the biggy.

If his life were a movie, that would have been its final scene: Oscar acceptance speech, standing ovation, roll credits.

But his life isn’t a cliché-ridden movie and, remarkably, in the seventeen years since Unforgiven, as his early sixties rolled into his late seventies, where most directors and almost all actors would have hung up their spurs, he has gone on to do much of his best, most ambitious, most consistent and most personal work. He has finally proven that he’s vastly more versatile as a director than he ever was as an actor.

As with fifty-something directors like Spielberg and Little Ritchie Cunningham, seventy-nine year-old Clint has taken to making two films a year. Gran Torino is his second this year (and he already has his Nelson Mandela pic, Invictus in the can for next year).

Gran Torino is a story about … you guessed it … redemption … and it’s a Western. Yes, I know it’s set in modern-day urban Michigan, but its still a Western. Bear with me.

The film begins at the end … at the end of Walt Kowalski’s marriage, with him standing, statue-like at the side of his wife’s coffin, glaring disapprovingly at the family he simply doesn’t like. He sees what his granddaughter is wearing and growls. As his son observes: “There’s nothing anyone can do that won’t disappoint the old man.”

The truth is, he’s frightened and he’s alone and he responds to that like the old war-horse he is, by being aggressive. He glares despairingly at the Hmong Chinese family which have moved in next door to him and rumbles “Damn barbarians” not quite far enough under his breath for them not to hear. Yes, he’s a racist and yes, the fact that he’s of Polish extraction and therefore an immigrant himself, is significant.

His life revolves around his experiences in the fifties in Korea and now, without his wife to temper or distract him, the memories of the horrors he witnessed and perpetrated come back to overwhelm him fuelled, of course, by the Eastern faces he sees every time he glances over the lawn at his neighbours. As his padre ruefully comments, Walt knows more about death than life.

He also knows a lot about his 1972 Gran Torino which he never drives, save in and out the garage, and which sits on the drive where he can polish and admire it. It, like him, is a remnant of a different America. In this year or all years, when America finally wakes from its American Dream and puts a black man in The White House, when its automotive industry is experiencing the same meltdown as the rest of our economy, this wide-beamed gas-guzzler stands on Walt’s drive as a timely symbol of the passing of the ‘old’ vision of America.

As Walt comments, ruefully, he spent his entire post-military career building American cars (including the one he owns) and now his son sells Japanese ones. That encapsulates the generation gap in his family right there.

The culture gap between him and his neighbours is, surprisingly, an easier one to bridge. A scuffle on the Chinese family’s lawn spills over onto Walt’s and his response is pure Clint … the hairs go up on the back of the neck as he levels his rifle at the camera and growls out of one side of his mouth “Get off my lawn” a line which, delivered in that context, by the voice, accompanied by that squinty-eyed glare, will become another one of those Clint catch-phrases which develops a life of its own.

It’s a deliberate reference back to Unforgiven’s William Munny and, beyond that, to Josey Wales. It represents the way that the street gangs are something that Walt can identify with, a clear and present danger that he knows how to deal with. But this trademark, stereotypically Eastwoodian scene, will have repercussions because the boys he has shamed are the local gang. This matter will return to haunt him. But, meanwhile, the film shifts gear. The gratitude of the Chinese community and the sarcastic, honest intelligence of the neighbour’s daughter, Sue (Ahney Her), slowly melt the old man’s icy exterior and he slowly begins to realise that he has more in common with these “gooks” than with his own family.

This détente, through clever writing and intelligent performances, manages to stay just the right-side of daytime-TV-maudlin as the film’s middle act explores that age-old affinity between old-age and youth, between the old soldier and the grand-kids of the people he (almost) once fought.

The scenes Walt has with Sue and her shy brother, Thao (Bee Vang), are made all the better for the thin vein of humour that runs through them, which counterpoints the ominous shadow of Walt’s occasional coughing fits. Again, this stays just this side of melodrama because the dialogue is so economical and delivered with an unwaveringly wry, ironic tone. As I watched him in his tool-shed, affectionately patronising young Thao, I realised that Clint has turned into Walter Matthau, a loveable curmudgeon. Who’d’a’thought?

Walt’s wife’s last wish was for him to go to the church for Confession. But one has to be careful what one wishes for … because the redemption Walt has in mind is not what his wife, his priest or what we expect.

Like many a Western hero before him, he sits on the porch of his wooden house, with his dog, smoking and waiting for the bad-guys to turn up as, inevitably, they do. The build-up to the show-down is dealt with with an elegance and an eloquence of which John Ford would have approved. And, for a Western, however it dresses itself, I can think of no greater complement than that.

The Disc:

Who can tell …

And, for those easily distracted by shiny objects – I give this film a rating of: CCCC
Dir: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Nick Schenk, Dave Johannson
Stars: Grandad Clint, Ahney Her, Bee Vang, Christopher Carley
Dur: 116 mins
Cert: 15
Image © Warner Bros

Monday, 1 June 2009


The Film:
As you probably already know, this film tells the true story of the conspiracy to assassinate Adolph Hitler during the Second World War … but, the problem is, you probably also know how successful it was. Fair enough, knowing the ending at the beginning didn’t do Titanic (1997) any harm but, with that, the spectacular sinking of the ship was almost incidental to the simpering love-story and the presence of lovely Leo, which drew so many teenage girls to the film and left nary a dry seat in the house.

This historical re-enactment features lots of wrinkly old men in uniforms talking about killing someone of whom the typical GCSE History student has never heard. I can’t imagine that will do much for the Hannah Montana/Twilight crowd, somehow.

As we know, whenever the Americans want to cast boo-hiss bad guys, they look to the Brits; well this film is set in a nation of boo-hiss bad-guys. So they’ve raided every theatre they could to assemble a veritable army of British thesps. All the usual suspects are there: Lord Sir Kenny Branagh (would any depiction of officious cruelty be complete without him?) Dame Bill Nighy (as twitchy as a violin-bow, and about as thin), the dictionary-definition of ubiquity: Tom Wilkinson and none-other than … Eddie Izzard? Oh, okay. Branagh compares Germany to Sodom … a place that is redeemable, if only one good man can be found there. Step forward the towering presence of … Tom Cruise … as Colonel Claus Von Stauffenberg.

I wonder what the Germans make of the Americans attempting to rehabilitate their history entirely with Brits and Yanks (with the single conspicuous exception of Hollywood’s favourite rent-an-Aryan, Thomas Kretschmann)? With any luck, they’ll remake The Great Escape(1963) with the Germans playing the prisoners and Bruno Ganz in the Steve McQueen role, then we can find out how they feel.

The most effective scenes in the film are when we see Hitler himself – played by TV bit-part specialist David Bamber with a stab at a German accent (credit to him, no-one else bothered) because there is actually a real sense of threat as he sits there in his torture-chamber office, surrounded by the twisted freaks of his High Command.

Despite its trappings, this is definitely not a war film. After the first few moments, there are no battle-field scenes at all and, as such, it probably fairly reflects the war as it was experienced by the officers who ran it from behind their desks. So, it isn’t a hot-war film but it isn’t really an effective cold-war conspiracy thriller either because, ultimately, the suspense evaporates through our knowing more than the characters do. Worse, we simply don’t care about them because they are, without exception, stiff-necked, officious, middle-aged nazis. Grey people with grey morals in grey uniforms.

Clearly, director Singer and Co’s intention was to inform the world that there was resistance within the German elite. But, since we know their endeavours were futile and since we can’t care about any of them as people – because they are all one-dimensional soldiers – then this knowledge seems hollow and insignificant.

Maybe if Stauffenberg’s family weren’t side-lined so quickly by the film, maybe if we’d seen events from the perspective of the women and the children who were not responsible for the self-inflicted plight Germany was facing in the dying months of the war, maybe then we might have given a damn.

Maybe Singer should have funded the production of a proper documentary about Stauffenberg and got Cruise to narrate it, then he could have spent two years getting back to what he does best – making efficient, grow-up movies that do know which genre they occupy.
The Disc:
The short-comings of the film itself are more than compensated-for by the cornucopia of extras presented on the disc which are a pretty-exhaustive lesson in the reality of The Conspiracy.

Firstly, we have TWO entirely worthwhile audio commentaries:

Commentary One: Cruise / Singer /McQuarrie

This, in-keeping with the tone of all the extras, is a serious and collaborative commentary. It doesn’t fall into the sycophantic “Oh, he’s wonderful … she’s amazing” habit that many commentaries do, instead it’s all about the truth of the conspiracy and the efforts to retain that truth in the film-making process. Interestingly, Cruise views the film, at this point, from his perspective as the producer rather than as the actor.

Commentary Two: McQuarrie / Nathan Alexander

I love writer commentaries! I particularly love collaborative ones, where writers discuss the sculpting of a script, the moulding and remoulding to find the shape we now have. Here, they both talk about the truths behind the elements they included and discuss some of the elements they elected to leave out. Fascinating.

The Journey to Valkyrie – 16 mins

As with everything else on this disc, this documentary is more serious-minded and detailed than the usual making-of puff-pieces you can sometimes get on the more lazily-prepared discs. Say what you like about Cruise, no one will ever charge him with being lazy and, appropriately, there’s nothing lazy about this disc.

The documentary points out that Singer has dallied with war films in the past – given the background of Apt Pupil (1998) and the opening moments of X-Men (2000) but they weren’t war films and this isn’t either.

As you would expect, everyone sucks up to Cruise. I don’t know, maybe he genuinely does inspire and deserve this depth of affection and fealty in those he meets in person but for those of us who’ve never fallen under his spell, it still feels vaguely distasteful and deeply suspect.

For example, they do discuss the well-publicised problems that the production had when shooting in Berlin, but don’t even approach addressing the press’ allegations that this was because of Cruise’s religion. Inevitably, there’s no mention at all of the ‘S’ word … but then, the press stories could well be a lie, in which case - why should his religion be a matter of discussion? Well, because something that exists in the popular imagination needs addressing especially if it’s wrong. This isn’t.

All the behind-the-scenes interviews talk of their striving for authenticity – and the effort they went to is genuinely impressive – but, once again, the elephant in the room is the absence of German voices in the film. All that authenticity is completely undermined by the British and American cast.

The Road to Resistance – 9 mins

This guide to the real locations used in the film begins by reiterating the point which is made several times on this disc – that all Germans were not Nazis. They didn’t all join Hitler’s party, they didn’t all believe in his politics.

Point made, we have a brief travelogue, rather like something you might expect to see as a package on a magazine programme, where Stauffenberg’s grand-son gives us a guided tour of some of the real rooms The Conspirators met in, some of which are now museums, some of which the film actually used.

The point this short makes again and again is about how important it was for Berliners that this story be told right. Which brings me back, again and again, to my problem with them using Brits and an A-list American rather than genuine Germans. Surely, if they were so committed to the story, they wouldn’t worry about trying to turn it into summer block-buster and would have made it in German!

The African Front Sequence – 7 mins

This concentrates on the brief battle scenes at the film’s beginning, which I was amused to see were shot in The Mojave Desert (“Which look more like Tunisia than any place on Earth … except maybe Tunisia!”). This is ultimately about explosions, but has its place.

Taking to the Air – 7.30 mins

This short talks about the use of real vintage aeroplanes in the film’s opening moments, rather than the expected CGI planes added afterwards. Blah-blah-authenticity. Thing is … CGI is inevitably cheaper, so why did they go to all the time and trouble? Well, when you see trained-pilot Cruise actually landing one of the vintage Junkers and then walking around with a grin a mile wide, it all becomes clear … they were toys for Tom to play with. Bless.

Recreating Berlin – 7 mins

Part of the reason this film comes across as quite so cold and stark is because of the architecture and locations … which are, as often as not, genuine. The very walls around the actors exude the chilly reality of the period.

The film-makers admit that shooting in Berlin (rather than further East in the tax-advantageous ex-Soviet countries) cost more … but we already know why they made their decision.

Singer talks about how determined he was for his film to not look black and white but be vibrant with colour. I just wish he’d told his colour-grading staff that, because the film they produced is a subtle mix of blue, grey and green with the occasional shock of a red flag. Brrr.

The Valkyrie Legacy – 115 mins

The disc’s real surprise is this almost-two-hour film by prodigious making-of documentarian, Kevin Burns, which is hardly referred to on the packaging but is, in some ways, better argued than the case made in the main film itself.

Being an American documentary, it does feel the need to have music playing perpetually in the background because American documentarians seem to think that their viewers are incapable understanding verbal communication without a piece of music underscoring it to tell them how to feel about it.

Never-the-less, the film maintains a dispassionate tone and concentrates on the facts of the period, explaining the wider perspective of how Hitler came to power and why some of his own citizens might want him dead. Thankfully, it uses subtitles rather than dubbing the interviewees (another technique American documentaries are, unfortunately, likely to employ) and is altogether far more grown-up than the documentary channels of satellite TV have taught me to expect American documentaries to be.

This feature-length extra is better than the main feature and is the most compelling reason to buy this feature-packed disc.
92nd Street Y: Reel Pieces.

This is an on-stage interview between the 92nd Street Y Cultural Centre’s Annette Insdorf and Tom Cruise and Bryan Singer. Although Dr. Insdorf is clearly in the thrall of Cruise and directs the lamest of questions at him, as often as not Singer answers them.

As with everything else on this disc, the discussion does strive to be serous, with references to Truffaut establishing a certain level of cred.

In the interview, Singer makes the point that it was important to the real Conspirators – because they believed it would be important to Germany - that Hitler be brought to book by Germans. Well, surely, if that was the case, if they are truly honouring the memory of those conspirators … they’d have allowed Germans to be in their film.

Alright, point made. I’ll get off me soap-box now.
And, if you really need everything spoon-fed to you, I give this a Cellulord Rating of: Film: CC Disc: CCCC

Dir: Bryan Singer.
Stars: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson.
Dur: 121 mins

Cert: 12A

Sunday, 31 May 2009


The Film:

Darren Aronofsky is a director who isn’t scared to take risks. Hiring Mickey Rourke, when no one else would take his calls, that was a risk. It resulted in his promised budget evaporating to just $6 million.

Consequently, the aesthetic of The Wrestler is that of the cinema verité documentary, all hand-held-cameras and available-light in existing locations rather than beautifully-lit custom-built sets. Mixing real people in with the actors, that’s always a risk, because that can go either way. The set-piece scenes seem thrown hap-hazardly together as though the film were being assembled on the fly. Turns out a lot of it was. Now that’s very risky!

We spend an inordinate amount of time behind Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson (Mickey Rourke, on career-best form) as he stomps, huffing and puffing down poorly lit corridors. When he talks, his expressions range from pained to confused to just plain depressed and he genuinely seems to have no idea what he’s going to say next, which is, let’s face it, the defining characteristic of anyone not reading from a script. In fact, the only thing that this film lacks to make it a real documentary bio-pic is Nick Bloomfield deliberately getting himself in shot as much as possible.

No, unlike Mr Bloomfield, both Aronofsky and Rourke demonstrate an almost painful lack of vanity in this project. When Ram tells his daughter “I'm an old broken down piece of meat and I deserve to be all alone. I just don’t want you to hate me”, tears roll down his rough red-raw cheeks and you feel as though it is Rourke himself speaking to us, the viewers, from the heart.

Then we come to the careworn flower of Cassidy, as played by Marisa Tomei. Like Randy, she takes her clothes off to entertain others. She, like him, performs under a pseudonym. Their key connection is that they have both seen better days. Tomei, like Rourke, is perfectly cast. These are roles which have been waiting for these performers to be ready for them, which helps you see through the clichéd nature of the story because, after all, clichés are clichés for a reason … mostly because they are recognisable as truth!

I wonder, when he signed on the line, if Mickey Rourke knew quite what he was letting himself in for. Did he, in his heart, think this was his big shot at an Oscar? If nothing else, The Wrestler has offered Mickey Rourke the chance to successfully demonstrate to a cynical world that he really is the fighter he has always believed himself to be.

All of which brings us to the fight scenes themselves. These are clearly hard work for Rourke (who is now well into his fifties, let us not forget) but then that just adds to our empathy with the suffering of Ram.

But the film isn’t about the fighting, it’s about the fighters and we particularly feel for them during the rightly notorious ‘Hardcore Deathmatch’, where the combatants hit each-other with furniture and various house-hold implements, most of which are wrapped in barbed–wire.

This sequence is quite shockingly brutal. There is considerable bloodletting, reminding us of the visual and metaphorical similarity between fighters and raw-meat. What we have is the reality of the WWE-type pantomime we happily let our kids watch on TV. This is the brutality that exists one-step away from the TV cameras. These are the gladiators who are, quite literally, being sacrificed for our entertainment.

The Disc:

You get the film in dizzying 2.35 wide screen but I must mention that, being as it was shot under documentary conditions, it doesn’t really benefit all that much from the hi-def of Blu-Ray. The extras included aren’t numerous, but they are telling …

Within The Ring – 43 mins. A no-nonsense ‘making of’ made by Niko Tavernise, the stills photographer on the main film. It’s a genuine, honest behind-the-scenes document similar, in some ways, to Vivian Kubrick’s Making The Shining.

It features talking-head interviews with film-makers for whom the gloss of show-biz has worn off. They don’t want to maintain the pretence of glamour. They want to talk about shooting a film with no money in the depths of winter on New Jersey.

The real-life wrestlers who feature in the film are all erudite and softly spoken, in their tights and tattoos. “Necro Butcher” (sic) comes across as an affable sort of chap who will likely have a career in after-dinner speaking when he’s too rickety to be jumping off ladders onto people’s heads.

The main impression you get from watching this documentary is how important the subject of wrestling is to Aronofsky who, as a child, went to many matches with his dad. Film-making at this level should be personal and it should be passionate.

And speaking of passionate:

Mickey Rourke Interview – 15 mins. Rourke gave so many painfully honest interviews during The Wrestler’s extraordinary awards season that there’s very little in this one that’ll come as news but, as with all those interviews, he is shamelessly honest.

He talks about rewriting some of the key dialogue to make it more personal and then ruminates, quite movingly, on the lives of real sports people who, once their routine and career is over, are lost souls. Well, every moment of this disc tells you that Mickey Rourke’s soul is found.

And for those with attention-spans so short they can’t even be arsed to read the review – I give this a Cellulord Rating of: CCCCC

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky.
Written by: Robert Siegel.
Starring: Mickey Rourke, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood and John D’Leo.
Cert: 15
Dur: 109 mins

Images © Optimum Releasing in the UK.

Friday, 10 April 2009


“Whew, what they can’t do these days.” – Jiminy Cricket on the top menu of this Blu-Ray.

The Film:

I was recently given, as a gift, a pile of old magazines. Seems an odd gift, you might think, but I love rifling through old magazines and papers, looking at the ads, reading the articles, seeing the world from a different perspective. One article, from The Sunday Times Magazine November 22 1970, written by Tony Osman, looks forward to a near-future world without cinemas (something that did very-nearly come to pass in Britain in the late seventies) and asks where, then, people will see films: “ … the signs are that they may soon be able to amuse themselves with recorded programmes – the visual equivalent of LPs … A handful of companies think there may be a future in such programmes … Each of the systems will at least provide a cassette of recorded material and some way of ‘projecting’ it.”

Wow. How science-fictional that must have seemed … and how accurate history has proven it to be. Within fifteen years the VHS video-cassette had taken-over the cinema-going world, fifteen years after that the tape was supplanted by the disc and now, ten more years on, we have Blu-Ray and high-def digital video projectors.

I only mention this to put the year 1970 in context. Seen from the perspective of people who are used to watching films on demand on everything from a 52 inch plasma to a 2 inch iPod, 1970 must appear as The Dark Ages. Well, it was.

It was also the year I first saw Pinocchio.

I was five. This was my first ever trip to the cinema. Back then, in the early seventies, TVs were mostly black and white and Disney films never played on them. I would have seen clips on Disney Time and seen photos in my Donald & Mickey comic, but this would be my first chance to see the real deal. As well as being my first big-screen experience, this was almost certainly my first feature-length cartoon and definitely the first moving images I’d seen in colour.

Quite a momentous movie for me, then.

So it was only fitting that this be the first Disney disc I buy in the shiny-new domestic-big-screen format: Blu Ray.

This release has been given the meaningless appellation Platinum Edition but it is actually, more importantly, ‘The 70th Anniversary Edition’. A message cast forward through time from the world of 1940 to the world of today. If 1970 is The Dark Ages then 1940, well, that’s The Time of Legends. But, look a little closer: As Jiminy says, when he’s talking directly to the viewer in the early scenes “I bet a lot of you folks don’t believe in dreams come true …” For the first audiences to see this film, that was more than likely true. They were still emerging from the Recession against which all others are still measured and they looked across the water to see the rest of the world being consumed by the black clouds of a war that was getting ever-nearer; damn right they’d forgotten how to dream. That’s what they needed movies for. Seen in that context … is 1940 really so vastly different from 2009?

Something that definitely isn’t different … whether this film is unspooling in a glorious 1940s Picture Palace, a ramshackle 1970s flea-pit or at home on a flat-screen with 7.1 doo-hickeys … is the power of the story, the enchanting nature of the characters and the unparalleled artistic vision of the genius behind it … that is eternal!

Jesus, I sound like I’m trying to write a quote for the back of the box. Okay, so lets just say that I have a real soft spot for this movie, and move on.

It’s lovely to hear the sound sharp enough to cut glass and picture so clear you can see your reflection in it. In this new high-def presentation you can really appreciate the incredible attention to detail that had become the Disney hallmark. I’m thinking particularly about the range of clocks Geppetto has constructed, each of which has its own personality and tells its own story; but further, I’m impressed by the way that every story element, however insignificant, has been thought through and considered in relation to every other element around it. I noticed this particularly in the casting of shadows, someone had to sit down and work out where shadows would fall, how they would change from moment to moment and then animate them, by hand.

The film begins with some delicious scene and tone setting, played out very largely in mime, which continues for fully fifteen minutes before The Blue Fairy comes down and animates Pinocchio. Fifteen minutes? I seriously wonder if today’s children would have the patience to wait fifteen minutes for the story to get going … and whether or not today’s film-makers would have the nerve to make them wait.

And the colours … oh, the colours … a subdued autumnal palette lit, very much as the world was in the days before electric light, by waxy splashes of flickering yellow, all thrown into context by the vivid red of Pinocchio’s shorts, or the cool powder-blue of Jiminy’s top hat.

Then there are the gorgeous Multi-Plane tracking shots, leading us through the beautifully realised water-colour world, over roofs, through arches, in and out of shadow … all of which seems so much more elegant than the desperate ‘look-at-me-look-at-me’ gimmicks of pointing sharp objects at the viewer in the recent crop of 3D movies.

I don’t know if it’s a product of the greater clarity or my middle-aged cynicism that led to my noticing that the Honest John / J. Worthington Foulfellow sequence (“An actor’s life for me”) is artistically les accomplished than the scenes that surround it. The artwork is less fussy, less detailed, and the characters themselves – especially John’s side-kick Gideon – are quite derivative of the slapstick Marx Brothers type comedies of the period. Gideon is, of course, simply a re-working of Dopey, right down to the same dull smirk. They are animated in a style more befitting the more-anarchic shorts … indeed, some of their elasticated stunts foreshadow the work of Tex Avery.

Once we are introduced to Stromboli’s theatre, the dramatic colour palette and attention to detail returns. I remember, as a five year old, being completely mystified by all the cosmopolitan dancing puppets with their ethnic dances and strange foreign words. But then kids are accustomed to not understanding stuff. In this, my innocence mirrored Pinocchio’s own.

My first experience of pathetic fallacy will have been the lightning flashes which punctuate Pinoch’s realisation that he is a prisoner, symbolising his shock and panic at being locked into a cage and driven away from the loving arms of his father, who trudges despondently past, drenched and down-hearted in the equally symbolic torrential downpour.

This is, at heart, a very basic morality play. A simple treatise on the “Do do this, don’t do that” and “You’ve had your fun, now you’ve got to pay for it” theme, all perfectly presented to slide into the subconscious of any child. Hey, it worked on me, I never ran off to join the circus, after all. Admittedly, the worst excesses of Carlo Collodi’s novel have been smoothed away in a process that would become known, dismissively, as Disneyfication, but the images of the badly-behaved children at Pleasure Island turning into jack-asses and being herded into slave ships by amorphous humanoid blobs is plenty disturbing, thank-you very much.

A key part of the morality play, and something I have missed on previous viewings, is Jiminy’s sarcasm … he describes a conscience as “That still, small voice that nobody listens to” then, later, when Pinoch is part of Stromboli’s troupe “Wouldn’t hurt you to take orders from your conscience … if you had one”.

Cut to the sequence which lived in my imagination for decades: Monstro the Whale. Remember, I’d never seen a film on the big screen before, so I’d never seen anything in my life as vast as that cruel, frowning behemoth, bursting forth from the water, massive maw wide open, casting ocean and rocks before it in a single-minded drive to devour little Pinoch and his dad. Tiny Jiminy, contrasted in size to that vast, shiny, implacable eye-ball and those mountainous teeth. Imagine, if you can, how big a screen would have to have been to cater for an auditorium with 5,000 seats (that’s about ten times the seats in your average multiplex auditorium today), then imagine that screen filled with the fiercest, most terrifying creature my little five-year old brain could imagine. Needless to add, I didn’t run off to join the navy either.

As an adult I can take from this film a message which I would have been completely unaware of as a child, but no doubt just as susceptible to. It is simply that a child is like a puppet, completely dependant on the kindness of the adults standing over him holding the strings. Out in the world, Pinoch finds no kind adults, just greed, mendacity and abuse. Well, welcome to the world, kid. Of course a related, if slightly skewed, interpretation might say that the achievement of redemption and the reward of being transformed from wood to flesh … is to make Pinoch inherently less interesting. So, the reward for conspicuous good behaviour, is to disappear into ordinariness.

The Discs:

Okay, so let’s wade into a suitably rich stew of extras on this three-disc Blu-Ray and DVD set.

Firstly, let’s deal with the whole DVD question. Why have they included a DVD in with the Blu-Ray? What’s the point? Unless it’s so you can buy the big flash hi-def version for yourself and give the standard-def version to your kids so they’ll leave yours alone … Other than that, I’m at a loss. Everything we’ll discuss on Disc One of the Blu-Ray is here on the DVD, except the Pinocchio Knows game. I suppose, from the perspective of the completist, it’s interesting that the menus are different here.

So, on to:

Disc One:

Firstly you have to wade through no fewer than seven trailers to get to the main menu. I really feel that this is an insult to the purchaser, who should enjoy the privilege of getting to the film as soon as possible, especially since these same trailers are accessible through a sub-menu anyway. And, unlike many a DVD, you can’t just skip these and go straight to the menu.

Once you get to the ‘Total Menu’ you can choose to listen to a knowledgeable if slightly-too-reverential audio-commentary, featuring various animation experts and archival quotes from the film’s makers, all chaired by Disney’s pet crit, Leonard Maltin. This is never less than interesting and, thankfully, doesn’t simply reproduce the information presented elsewhere.

An additional feature allows you to jump to your favourite song, complete with karaoke lyrics, or you can watch an eyeball-meltingly-awful R&B rendition of Wish Upon A Star by Disney Channel clone Meaghan Jette Martin.

You can also watch the film with pop-up Matter of Facts trivia … but I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to spoil their view of the film with large orange signs popping up every few seconds telling them things any eight-year-old already knows.

Speaking of eight-year-olds, there is the Pinocchio Knows Trivia Challenge, which skips to clips from the film then asks you questions about it. I suppose the pop-up trivia could be considered preparation for this game.

Oh, and don’t forget the Sneak Peeks menu, where those trailers wait to be enjoyed yet again, if being forced to watch them once every time you put the disc in the player is insufficient for you.

Disc Two:

Now we get to the real treasure, the features that lift this edition right up there as among the best and most exhaustive I’ve seen in a long time, comparable, indeed to the Region 1 DVD release of Disney’s own 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea!

Firstly, for the kids: A couple more games. Pinocchio’s Puzzles is a simple jigsaw game for younger kids which features a most credible impersonation of Cliff Edwards’ Jiminy Cricket voice. Then there is the Pleasure Island Carnival, a suite of more demanding games for older, more game-savvy patrons.

I must note, at this point, that some of the features take an extraordinarily long time to load-up on my Sony machine but, if the warning screen at the beginning of the disc is anything to go by, this is considered normal. It’s almost as if the disc technology has already out-distanced the player technology.

Anyway, now to the features that make this old movie lag’s heart beat just that little bit faster …

Backstage Disney:

No Strings Attacked. 56 mins. The inevitable making-of documentary. Even at this duration it hurtles through the three-year production of the film. As pure information it is interesting and enlightening but comes across as a rather charmless piece of work; I’d have loved to have seen what a film-maker like Laurent Bouzereau could have done with this archive footage and this story. Still, at least it successfully avoids repeating the information contained in the commentary.

Deleted Scenes. 10.30 mins. All the deleted scenes are presented in story-board form only as none of them made is as far as actually being animated. The box of this release proudly trumpets that this disc includes an alternate ending. Well, technically, it does, but they are nothing more than a series of rough sketches which were obviously briefly discussed then discarded.

The Sweatbox. 6.30 mins. This highlights the day-to-day process of working with Walt Disney, shooting the story-boards, temp-voicing the dialogue the projecting the lot to Disney and the other animators for feedback. Ideas would be brain-stormed while a stenographer would struggle to write every word down. This was how Walt stamped his fingerprints on every frame of the films which bore his name. It’s a process which latterly John Lasseter has reproduced and which has, no doubt, had a definitive effect on the high quality of the product of Pixar. This little snap-shot of the Process is so fascinating, it could have done being longer. I’d love to know more.

Live Action Reference Material. 10.00 mins. Again, an absolutely fascinating look at The Process. This highlights the way Disney would have actors, in costumes, in sets, working with props, all based on the animator’s designs, all being filmed so that the animators would have real images to work from. Like roto-scoping and the multi-plane camera, this process was one of Disney’s industrial secrets, an idea which no one else in the business had developed. In principal, there is very little difference in this technique being used 70 years ago and the digital mo-cap technique employed by film-makers like Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson today. This riveting little feature is a text-book illustration of how far ahead of the game Disney was and how, even today, you can’t really improve on the best.

Production Illustrations. Hundreds of them. Sketches, designs, photos of reference material (including articulated puppets which Disney had built). These are really easy to navigate but, if your attention wanders given the exhaustive nature of the collection, this feature is actually quite difficult to escape from.

Trailers. From the original 1940 release and the 1984 and 1992 re-releases (sadly, not the 1970 release I saw). This an interesting demonstration of how the trailer-makers’ art has changed from one of tempting and teasing to one of delivering all the best bits in a bite-size form.

Honest John. This is a recording o the official merchandising – the spin-off record, sung by The Fox, containing such gorgeous lines as “He’s so crooked he’d pick his own pocket”. The fact that this track, which doesn’t feature in the film, was released clearly shows how they underestimated the value of Wish Upon A Star!

Geppettoes Then and Now. 10.00 mins. An odd little documentary-ette which starts off as a think-piece about traditional toy-makers, then quickly turns into an advert for Disney’s own Wall E toy line. So, the disc ends with a reminder to us about what the modern Disney Corporation has turned into … a very slick machine for selling merchandise. Still, with the back-catalogue of phenomenal movies they have at their disposal, even if they do only see them as commodities to flog, if they keep packaging them this well I, for one, will happily be flogged-to.

Directed by: Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen
Stars: Dickie Jones (Pinocchio), Cliff Edwards (Jiminy), Christian Rub (Geppetto).
Cert U
Dur: 88 mins


Sunday, 5 April 2009


Comebacks are big news these days. Some actors, like Julia Roberts for example, have hardly been away long enough to warrant calling their latest work a ‘comeback’. In the case of Jean-Claude Van Damme, he never even went away … we just stopped paying attention to him.

He’s been churning out straight-to-DVD films on a fairly consistent basis since he fell off the big screens round about the time of Maximum Risk (1996) As with Bruce Campbell’s My Name is Bruce (with which this film would make an entertaining double-feature) this is a B Movie Legend having a pre-emptive pop at his own work.

The film weaves together two narrative threads, one in the present tense and one in the past tense leading up to the present. In the flash-backs we see JCVD’s career on the rocks. He has lost custody of his young daughter and loses a film job to his arch nemesis, Steven Seagal. His misery is palpable and one feels the genuine heart-felt nature of this self-critique (well, until a spot of research reveals that ole J-C doesn’t have a daughter, just an adult son).

Against this rather glum background, he stops off at village post-office to draw out some money, is turned down by the teller and gets himself caught up in a heist. The police descend on the post-office, hotly pursued by the media, keen to cover the story of the disenfranchised movie-star who has gone off his rocker and taken hostages.

These early scenes, where we’re not sure quite what is going on, are deftly, teasingly handled and make the film most engaging. I don’t think it’s too shocking a spoiler to reveal that J-C isn’t really the bank-robber, but rather a hostage as well, one who his captors treat rather like a performing seal, getting him to perform his kicking-a-cigarette-out-of-your-mouth trick for their amusement. Throughout these scenes, J-C is passive, restrained, almost submissive … he is so depressed by where his life has taken him he doesn’t even have the will to fight two bad-guys whose collective intelligence is slightly lower than that of a sponge.

The lighting is cold and sullen, the music mournful and bluesy, the humour bitter. Essentially this multi-millionaire world-famous movie-star is asking we poor working stiffs to feel sorry for him. Well, at least he does have the common decency to parody his image and his own work but, as when Schwarzenegger did this with The Last Action Hero (1993) one feels compelled to wonder what his actual fans make of this “Sorry I’ve been taking your money and turning out such shit films all these years” confessional.

This movie is shot through with a knowing post-modern sense of self-analysis … never-more-so than in the much-talked-about soliloquy, where he turns to the camera and addresses the viewer directly, pouring his heart out in jumbled, incoherent, half-finished thoughts that were clearly un(der)rehearsed. This is a cry from the heart, with him bemoaning his betrayal of the simple, pure principals of his Martial Art, judging his achievements as being hollow and discussing the confusion he feels in just being himself. He is, in other words, having his mid-life crisis on screen.

Well, I wish he’d had it earlier because this is the most entertaining I’ve seen he being since Hard Target (1993) This is not a film in which he stars, it’s a film in which he acts. Despite all the doubt on show, he obviously knew what he wanted – and he got it – a chance to make his peace with himself and prove that he doesn’t have to keep making and re-making the same unambitious plodding action fodder.

The question is: where will his career go from here? Is this just an aberration before returning to the comfort, and guaranteed income of B-movies, or will he pursue this far-more experimental, far-more-interesting, doubtless far-less-lucrative path?

Myself, I hope it’s the latter, but a glance at IMDB suggests that his next film will be Universal Soldier 3 … Ah well. His comeback was nice while it lasted.
Directed by: Mabrouk El Mechri
Starring: Jean-Claude Van Damme & loads of other people of whom you’ve never heard.
Dur: 97 mins

Cert: 15