Haiku film review #075 – Bohemian Rhapsody

Farrokh Bulsara
Joins Queen, becomes a rock star
Changes name to Fred.

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Film review – Wonder Wheel (Woody Allen, 2017)

I’ve been a fan of Woody Allen since my late teenage years, when I chanced upon a film called ‘Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid To Ask)’, following the release of a similarly-titled compilation album by record label Twisted Nerve. It was a vignette film that made a huge impression on me, utilizing comedy in a way I wasn’t really familiar with at the time.  The final short ‘What Happens During Ejaculation?’, which featured Allen as a sperm ready for deployment but nervous about his chances, was a masterclass in absurdist comedy.

There’s still a lot of his work that I’m yet to see, but his most recent films are always a welcome joy and haven’t failed to impress me in recent years, even when they have been poorly received by critics.

‘Wonder Wheel’, Allen’s latest feature, is a solid entry into his filmography with all the charm you’d expect from a master of his craft. It’s inevitable that a pairing him with Kate Winslet in a lead role is a success. This is only improved by a brilliant supporting cast of Justin Timberlake, Jim Belushi and Juno Temple.

Set in the 1950s on Coney Island in New York, the story revolves around Ginny (Winslet), who works in a cafe on an amusement park. Her husband Humpty (Belushi) is a recovering alcoholic with anger issues. She is secretly having an affair with Mickey (Timberlake), a lifeguard on the Coney Island beach. The film opens with a 4th-wall-breaking monologue from Mickey, and we’re soon after introduced to Carolina (Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter who has shown up because she is on the run from her mobster husband.

This certainly feels like a play that’s been turned into a film, and with a few tweaks you’d only need three settings to stage this with no compromise to the story. It’s a classic four-person play, with each  getting plenty of character development. Bu in reality this is Winslet’s film and she is on top of her game from start to finish. Her character is desperate for her life to change and sees her affair as her way out. When this is compromised, the film starts to really draw you in and it allows Winslet to yet again prove she is one of the finest actors of her generation.

A recurring effect Allen utilises is in the colour washes used to reflect Ginny’s changing moods, reminiscent of a technique used by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (notably in 2015’s Journey To The Shore). Her emotions towards her husband tend towards a blue wash, whilst her dealings with Mickey are paired with brilliant oranges and blues to signify the hope and warmth she feels around him. It’s a simple technique that isn’t used subtly, but it’s very effective.

My only reservation is that it lets itself down with an ending that fizzles out rather than resolving itself either way, and the final scenes feel compromised somehow, like they rushed the writing and filming to meet a deadline. This doesn’t make it a terrible film, it just means it isn’t an excellent film.

This may prove to be the last regular entry into the Woody Allen filmography, with continued controversy discouraging actors to take part in projects headed up by Allen. His next, ‘A Rainy Day in New York’, is yet to have a release date. It appears unlikely that any more films will see the light of day. He has just celebrated his 83rd birthday.

I’m able to separate the allegations from the art, which is something I am aware sits uncomfortably with a great many people. For me it’s a shame that the final film may never be released and will inevitably serve as a tainted bookend to an illustrious career.

Film review – They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson, 2018)

Peter Jackson’s World War One documentary ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’ does a great job in telling the story of some of the front-line soldiers, from the outbreak, through training and joining the war effort and finally returning home. This is achieved partly through archive audio from the BBC, which is interesting in its own light, but not really what this film will be remembered for.

The really mesmerizing and memorable part of this film is the visual footage, which Jackson has sourced from the Imperial War Museum as part of their 14-18 Now initiative. The team working on this film have taken whatever was available and worked wonders. It now looks vibrant and sharp and immediate, with no signs of what was probably very grainy footage used as the source material. The claim that it would look like it was filmed last week rather than 100 years ago is perhaps a little too far-fetched, but it isn’t far off.

In most places, the footage is accompanied by audio dubbing from actors, reading lines as determined by expert lip readers and matched to the visuals. It is, literally, The Great War as you’ve never seen it before.

It only falls short near the end where it feels like they were running out of source material and needed to re-use some video footage – one shot appears four or five times in a short period. It doesn’t spoil anything; indeed it serves in part to underline how precious what little footage that remains is to the project and how lucky we are to see anything so beautifully restored. Whether that effect could have been achieved with fifteen minutes cut out of it is another question.

It’s not the best documentary I’ve seen recently, but it is technically one of the best restoration jobs I’ve ever seen. There will undoubtedly be a debate about whether he went too far – detractors will say he could have simply restored the footage rather than also enhancing it – but the detail and beauty it has revealed is more than worth the risk.

You can do much worse than allowing yourself to be absorbed into this masterpiece of restoration.

Zavvi Disney Steelbooks – An update

In February 2017, I published an article that criticised Zavvi’s policy on Disney steelbooks. I still stand what I said at the time, because the situation was dire and frustrating. There had been 35 brilliant releases from them, but the new items had started to dry up before dropping off a cliff. To make matters worse, they’d started re-releasing some of the more popular films again with lenticular cases.

Whilst the article was written out of anger, the result was something of a pleasant surprise. Lilo and Stitch was made available immediately after the article went out. Since then, we’ve seen a five further items hit the Zavvi online store:

Atlantis The Lost Empire

Meet The Robinsons

The Rescuers Down Under

Bolt

Basil the Great Mouse Detective

This is all fantastic news, giving the steelbook collectors hope that finally we’ll get a full set of Disney releases that are in the same format and with consistent packaging.

So what’s left? Well, there’s good news and bad. We’ll deal with the former first…

WHAT’S LEFT TO RELEASE AND CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY IN THE UK?

Fun and Fancy Free
Disney Classic #9
Originally released on September 27, 1947
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad
Disney Classic #11
Originally released on October 5, 1949
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
Disney Classic #22
Originally released on March 11, 1977
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Oliver & Company
Disney Classic #27
Originally released on November 18, 1988
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Dinosaur
Disney Classic #38 (US numbering)
Originally relased on May 19, 2000
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Home on the Range
Disney Classic #44 (UK numbering)
Originally relased on April 2, 2004
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Chicken Little
Disney Classic #45 (UK numbering)
Originally relased on November 4, 2005
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Wild
Disney Classic #46 (UK numbering)
Originally relased on April 4, 2006
Currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

WHAT DOESN’T CURRENTLY HAVE A UK BLU-RAY RELEASE?

Saludos Amigos
Disney Classic #6
Originally released on August 24, 1942
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Three Caballeros
Disney Classic #7
Originally released on December 21, 1944
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Make Mine Music
Disney Classic #8
Originally released on April 20, 1946
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Melody Time
Disney Classic #10
Originally released on May 27, 1948
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

The Black Cauldron
Disney Classic #25
Originally released on July 24, 1985
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK

Winnie the Pooh
Disney Classic #51
Originally released on July 15, 2011
Not currently available on Blu-ray in the UK, but is available in the US

WHAT NEXT?

So that leaves eight releases that Zavvi could realistically issue in the future. Given their rate of release recently, this could well happen in the next few months.

Where the issues will arise is with the remaining films that are yet to be issued in the UK on Blu-ray. 2011’s Winnie The Pooh reboot seems fairly attainable since we know there’s an HD Blu-ray transfer that is on sale in North America.

The remainder present a real issue, but what can be said is that it’s completely out of Zavvi’s hands. They can’t issue a special edition case for a release that doesn’t have a standard edition.

Interestingly, a gorgeous 55-disc boxset of all of the films has gone on sale at Zavvi. It lists five films as being unavailable on Bluray.

It also excludes entirely the 2011 Winnie The Pooh film, along with Dinosaur (which Kel Smith kindly pointed out is excluded in listings of Disney Animation Studios films in the UK), though it includes The Wild (Dinosaur’s replacement).

So, it’s a slightly confusing situation, but the current activity gives me hope that we’ll finally get as far as we can with the Zavvi steelbook collection.

Fingers crossed for the coming months.

Why Buster Keaton’s ‘One Week’ is still fresh 98 years on

On Wednesday 1st September 1920, a significant piece of cinematic history was made. It may not have seemed it at the time, but when ‘One Week’ hit cinemas, the world got its first glimpse of Buster Keaton in a leading role.

Indeed, it wasn’t simply his first starring role. Keaton co-wrote and co-directed the two-reeler as well (with Eddie Cline). Gone was the youthful and playful Keaton viewers had made note of in the earlier Arbuckle comedies, where he was only ever a supporting role. The world was seeing for the first time The Great Stone Face taking centre stage. Deadpan, stoic and always hilarious.

The two-reel film centres around a newly-married couple attempting to setup home over the course of a week. This allowed Keaton and Cline to split the story into seven short segments, with the starts of each marked by the turn of a day calendar.

The feeling one gets when watching is that Keaton had been biding his time with Arbuckle, waiting to star in a film so he could really go to town with his abilities as a physical performer. His abilities are nothing short of acrobatic.

The falling wall gag makes an appearance, less than a year after Arbuckle had done it in ‘Back Stage’ but quite a while before it made a reappearance more famously in Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928). It’s one of those gasp-out-loud moments in cinema where you know that if something went wrong, he’d be in real trouble.

At one point the entire house is revolving 360 degrees, while a separate shot inside the house had the camera revolving on a turntable as a storm takes hold of the house and its inhabitants. This is Keaton innovating as a filmmaker with the team around him, elevating the film from a simple set of stunts to something more full of ambition, hinting at what cinephiles would enjoy over the next two decades.

A further use of his interest in the mechanical stunt props includes an entire side of the house rotating around a central pivot, with Keaton and Sybil Seely (The Bride) effectively swapping positions between the top and bottom of the house. It’s another gasp-inducing moment, again with little room for error. Keaton’s love for the mechanical stunt grew from his background in vaudeville performance, and viewers would continue to see more of the same in his next short ‘Convict 13’ with an elasticated hanging rope.

I still don’t get how they did all of the stunts, but I’m happy to suspend my disbelief and simply enjoy the film.

‘One Week’ serves as a brilliant starting point for those wanting to get into Keaton’s shorts and feels as fresh today as it must have done in 1920.

So why is it so significant? Well, it was the start of one of the most prolific decades of any one film creator in the history of cinema. It’s incredible to conceive just how much he achieved in what would prove to be the heyday for silent film: 12 feature films and 19 two-reel shorts, all written by, starring and directed by Keaton (albeit some with a co-directing or co-writing credit). It’s similar to the output of The Beatles between 1962 and 1970; prolific and world class. Keaton’s career may have taken a turn for the worse from the start of the 1930s, but by that point his legacy had been realised.

As Orson Welles put it, Buster Keaton was “the greatest of all the clowns in the history of the cinema… a supreme artist, and I think one of the most beautiful people who was ever photographed.” It’s hard to think of higher praise.

Recommended podcast alert!

I love FilmFour. For those outside the United Kingdom, FilmFour is a channel available to all television license holders via Freeview channel 15, and supplies a thoroughly deep and diverse set of programming for everyone to immerse themselves in.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the FilmFour season on Studio Ghibli. Today they are screening Howl’s Moving Castle. Yes I have them all on DVD or Bluray and yes they have adverts in the middle, but I am currently in the middle of a house move so this is excellent timing.

Accompanying the scheduling is a brilliant podcast titled Ghibliotheque, which is run by Jake Cunningham (C4 Random Acts, Curzon Cinemas podcast) and Michael Leader (Sight and Sound, Little White Lies). Aside from the astonishingly simple name, which will make podcasters and bloggers around the world think “Why didn’t I think of that!?”, it is an excellent bite-sized podcast that serves as an introduction to each film.

Princess Mononoke is this week’s episode, ahead of its screening next Tuesday afternoon.

Check it out here.