Thursday 29 January 2015

Catching Up (1) - Rome Express

The first of what may be an intermittent series of short notes on recently watched J. Arthur Rank movies taped off ABC-TV late night screenings long ago and finally seen. For a full list of titles dealt with so far you can go to

Rome Express (Walter Forde, UK, 1932, 86 minutes, Gaumont-British Production)
Zipping along for its 86 minutes, most of the credit for the enjoyment in this movie probably should go to scriptwriter Sidney Gilliat who juggles a dozen characters and several train carriages into a rather smart detective story. The McGuffin involves a stolen Van Dyck painting and the half dozen or so people interested in acquiring it. These include Cedric Hardwicke as a parsimonious millionaire and Conrad Veidt as some sort of crooked thug (though its too early for him to play a Nazi). Then there are two cute blondes who hover on the edge of the action, Esther Ralston playing movie star Asta Marvelle and Joan Barry as Mrs Maxted.  The scene where the latter lady is semi-sprung while on a frolic with her lover, something she seems not to be enjoying that much, when her boyfriend is recognised by his next door neighbour and a a juggle of characters end of being seated at the same table with three of the four playacting different  roles for themselves is very smart indeed. Made in 1932 there is some clunk to it all but what does surprise is how much French is spoken without subtitles by the staff at the railway station, the porters, the stewards and cooks. Unfortunately the head of the Surete, M. Jolif, who happens to be on the train (!).  He takes charge of the investigation is played by a Brit (Frank Vosper) in a fashion that Peter Sellers perfected three decades and beyond later. When the train crosses into Italy we learn it only by the Italian police getting on and one of them saying “Andiamo!”  Pleasurable indeed.

An update on Napoleon and the Australian DVD

Belated apologies for the silence but a computer keyboard glitch prevented any activity. Following the earlier post on the DVD release in Australia, the only official DVD ever  issued anywhere in the world, cinephile and collector Neil McGlone writes:

  • Yes, the only legitimate home format release of the film is the Australian DVD featuring the much shorter version of the film with Coppola's father's score. There have been numerous Asian bootleg DVDs posing as official releases, butthey are of poor quality.
  • Coppola's company Zoetrope owned the rights to the 144min version of Napoleon that featured his father's score. The score issue was one of the main reasons in the litigation between Coppola and Brownlow. Carmine Coppola's score was synched to the movie running at 24 fps. When Brownlow did some additional restoration, found some additional footage and fought for the movie to run at his original frame rate, it was clear they couldn't use the Carmine Coppola score anymore and he asked Carl Davis to come up with something new. To honour the memory of his father, Coppola tried to block any showing of the improved Brownlow version, which is why there's no home video release of NapolĂ©on: either the publisher has to use a very dated copy, or they get a cease and desist mail by Zoetrope. 
  • The fact that in 2012 two screenings of Brownlow's version took place in Oakland (Coppola lives in San Francisco, just down the road) indicates that there has been a mellowing on Coppola's part. The film was then screened in various parts of Europe in 2014 using Brownlow's longer version with Davis' accompanying score.
  • Kevin mentioned to me last year on two occasions that Coppola's claim on the rights of the film was just that, a claim, with little foundation, when it came to Brownlow's restoration and new score intact. I suspect, and this is only my personal opinion, that if it did ever reach court that Coppola may have difficulty proving his right to a film that has since changed considerably from the version he originally owned the rights to. On this basis the film was being looked at by the BFI to release a DVD/Blu Ray of the film and work is believed to be in progress on this, but it will take a long time before we see the end results. The film is such a spectacle that trying to replicate the experience of seeing such an epic on the small screen is nigh on impossible, especially when you take into account the triptych sequence in the final act that takes up three large cinema screens alone! It will appear at some point, but who knows when. Criterion, I also believe, have first dibs on a US release!
Hope that gives a little more "meat on the bones" !

Tuesday 13 January 2015

Francesco Rosi, Italian master film-maker, dies at 93

Way back in the early sixties Charlie Palumbo ran a business called World Films out of a shopfront in Victoria Street, North Melbourne. He supplied films, in Melbourne at least, to several inner suburban cinemas. Several of those cinemas were run by the then Tony Zeccola (now Cav. Antonio Zeccola) and for awhile there they filled up each week with Italian immigrants and their children who came out to see the latest film starring Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren and lots of other pneumatic females, Toto or Franco Franchi & Ciccio Ingrassia among others. It was a profitable little enterprise for all concerned and lasted well into the seventies. Tony even acquired the mighty Hoyts Padua in Brunswick, a magnificent art deco masterpiece that seated over 2000 people, sited on the very top of the hill on Sydney Road and filled it up regularly. Almost all of the films were screened in their original Italian language without subtitles.

Except, for one film. (or so we thought). Somehow or other Charlie acquired the rights to Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano and first screened it out at Clifton Hill. He didn't show it to critics but somehow or other the word got round. By the time the discovery had been made, Charlie was showing something else. But Leon Boyle, the adventurous manager of the Australia Cinema, an art house in the heart of the city underneath the Australia Hotel in Collins Street, heard about it and was aware that the film had started to garner quite a reputation. He contacted Charlie and arranged to have some late night, irregularly scheduled screenings which attracted a bit of a crowd. I think Charlie may have been a bit perplexed by this, not knowing that the film was getting attention in what Andrew Sarris once termed, some quarters and quarterlies.

It probably wasn't the first Francesco Rosi film to screen in Australia. I wouldn't mind betting that Charlie had probably screened at least the director's earlier debut La Sfida (The Challenge, 1958 another expose of the seedy links between business and crime but I don't know that for certain. But Salvatore Giuliano surprised in more ways than one, most notably for the way it told the story of the Sicilian bandit of the title, for the way it implicated the authorities in the brutal suppression of what was seen by some as local banditry and by others as a revolutionary liberation movement.

From then on, Rosi's films moved out of the Italian language belt and into the art houses and the film festival programs. His films had major international distribution and attracted stars to his casts. My favourites include the Sciascia adaptation Caddaveri Eccellenti, his neo-realist adaptation of Bizet's Carmen, the splendid fairy tale More than a Miracle  and many others. His was a career of the first order, lasting some 50 years or more.

Rosi died a couple of days ago and there is splendid obituary for him on the Sight and Sound webpage if you google it. (Pardon but my control button has gone on the blink and I cant do links at the moment.) He was 93.

Monday 5 January 2015

PK stuns the box offices world wide

You can read in an earlier post below Adrienne McKibbins note about Aamir and his fellow Khans, the stars of Hindi cinema. The note was prompted by the huge opening here of PK, starring Aamir Khan as an extra-terrestrial. Now comes further proof of international success. Don Groves reports on that PK has grossed over $2 million in Australia, $US9.15 million in the US and become the highest grossing Bollywood (sic) movie in India ever, having raked in $US 65.2 million in three weeks.

A Christmas special - Gance's Napoleon on DVD

At Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato last year, sitting at a table with Neil McGlone and no doubt discussing the availability or otherwise on DVD of various titles essential to the cinephile’s lifetime goal of seeing every film deemed important, we were joined by the 75+ year old Kevin Brownlow. Conversation quickly turned to some of the matters that I suspect Kevin ponders quite frequently. One of them was the information that none of the goons lined up in perfect rows at Hitler’s Nuremberg rally, recorded in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (Germany, 1935), were allowed to slip off to the toilet for the entire six hours or so of the occasion. The perfect lines had to be and were maintained throughout. It was suggested that it would be impossible for every single man there to hold it in for the duration so alternatives would have been improvised on the spot, including simply pissing oneself.

Things moved on and somehow the conversation turned to Abel Gance’s Napoleon (France, 1926), a film for which Brownlow himself is credited for the reconstructions which have been offered since 1979.  Brownlow apparently worked on the reconstruction for twenty years. He has continued to work on it ever since. Back in 1979, When the first reconstruction was screened at the Telluride Film Festival, the version presented there ran for 4 hours 55 mins at 20 frames per second. A year or so later Francis Ford Coppola presented a version prepared/edited by him,so it is claimed although only on an extensive table included on the film's Wikipedia entry. This version was listed as four hours long at 20 frames per second and had a music score by Coppola’s father Carmine. It was this version which was presented by the showbiz entrepreneur Malcolm Cooke in Australia in 1982 to considerable success. (In Melbourne in screened at the Palais in the same fortnight as the 1982 Melbourne Film Festival!) Since Coppola did that edit, Brownlow has continued to revisit the film and since 2003 a version lasting 5 hours 32 minutes has played at a number of venues in Europe and the USA along with live accompaniment of music composed and frequently conducted by Carl Davis.  A short version of Brownlow’s lifelong obsession with the film was published in the Guardian a year or so ago before a recent London screening. The piece also has some recollections by composer Carl Davis as well.

Brownlow mentioned to Neil and I that it looked likely that the film, his full 5.32 version with the Davis score, would be released on DVD in 2015. Legal wrangles which had been going for decades had finally been sorted out. When I said, but it’s been out on DVD already, I was informed that this edition was known as ‘the Australian DVD’ and is the only DVD of the film ever issued. (I’m not sure whether this means that there are none in un-subtitled French editions or not.)

This information bobbled around in the back of my mind for months until, just yesterday, it caused me to get out my copy of the Coppola edit and look at it again. It’s the only version of the film I’ve ever seen so what can I say? Well...The disc runs 3 hours and 42 minutes according to my Sony Blu-ray player. Carmine Coppola’s score cobbles together what I would have thought as the standard silent film tropes of the day when the film was made. Much dipping into La Marseillaise occurs and there is a credit for organ music which borrows heavily from a handful of classical composers from earlier centuries. What’s missing I don’t know. What the near two hours longer most recent Brownlow versions contain I also don’t know. But maybe with the film once again reasonably fresh in the mind, if indeed there is a new DVD release it should, sometime in 2015, be possible to sort it out and, for the first time, hear the Carl Davis score.

Thursday 1 January 2015

A Correction

I am indebted to David Stratton, meticulous as always, in pointing out that Albert Finney made Charlie Bubbles, with the magnificent Billie Whitelaw in 1967, not 1970 as mentioned below. As David said, Charlie Bubbles is a particularly fine film and its regrettable that it's the only film Finney ever directed.  

An end of year success for Hindi Cinema

Back in the multiplexes and as per usual unnoticed by any of the critical fraternity and sorority, a Hindi film PK opened in 30 cinemas a week or so ago and, after ten days had taken $1.6 million. It stars Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan, formerly seen in Lagaan, among many others, and last seen by me at least in Dhoom3, a film which featured one astonishing dance number, a tap extravaganza choreographed by Aussie boy Dein Perry. Supercinephile Barrie Pattison sent in a quick note suggesting readers might like to know before inevitably, usually after three weeks max, the film comes off because people are buying $2 bootleg knockoffs all over town. Adrienne McKibbins, nonpareil Hindi cinema expert has sent in this note about the phenomena of the three Khans, the superstars of Hindi cinema

For those of the sub continent, or those dedicated to Hindi film the following will be well known. To others it may be of interest in light of a new Hindi film, called PK, recently released  worldwide on the 19th December. It made the Australian top ten box office at no 7 in the first week.

Hindi cinema is dominated by three actors named Khan. They are Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Salman Khan. They are not related.   In the case of Salman & Aamir they have been in the industry since the late 80s , for Shah Rukh Khan it was the early 90s. These three actors are as different in styles and approach as Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, George Clooney or Johnny Depp. What they have in common is a name, Khan, they are all in their late 40s, and they are forces to reckon with in Hindi cinema,  generating considerable  finance for the industry and themselves.  It was reported recently that Shah Rukh Khan was the second richest actor in the world after Jerry Seinfield. Although Khan has his own production house and earns substantially from endorsements, a comparison of the rupee and the dollar  would suggest this result very surprising. Shah Rukh Khan is also part owner of the Kolkata Knight Riders a very successful cricket team (in the last couple of years) in the IPL.

Aamir and Salman are both industry insiders, or children of the industry. Salman's father, Salim Khan was one of the writing duo the other, Javed Akhtar, who wrote many of Amitabh Bachchan's greatest films, establishing his " angry young man image" They also wrote SHOLAY one of Indian cinema's most famous films. Aamir's father was a producer and his  uncle a producer and director. He appeared as a child star in a couple of films.

On the other hand Shah Rukh Khan is the outsider, he came from Delhi with virtually no industry connections after working in theatre and then finding fame on television. Until recently Shah Rukh Khan has been the actor with the biggest overseas openings. His fan base is enormous outside India. It is also said that his following is almost double that of Tom Cruise at his peak. In terms of Hindi cinema there is no doubt that Shah Rukh Khan is indeed a phenomena, hence the often heard cliché " the most famous actor you have never heard of!"

However because of their names and their fame in India, the Indian press/media continually compares and pits them against each other. Every time a film is released from one of these stars it is compared in box office revenue against the last release of the other two. There have also been endless articles about who is the number one Khan. Something that seems a totally useless exercise as all three have their own very loyal audiences and on the whole not making comparable films.**

However, because of their individual positions of power at the box office, all three tend to have a favourite individual release dates. Aamir & Shah Rukh tend to make one big film per year, Salman is more prolific (but the quality is often lower). Shah Rukh Khan tends to release his film on the Diwale holiday each year as he did this year with Happy New Year.  Where usually there are 3 to 5 releases each week, there is rarely another release on the day SRK or Aamir releases their films, as no one wants to compete.  Salman releases his big film on the Eid holiday. In 2014 it was an extremely silly super hero film, KICK , in which Salman wore a mask that barely disguised him and jumped onto British double-decker buses from buildings in Poland. Nonetheless, the film did enormous business.

Aamir Khan's date is the Christmas holidays, last year it was number three in the Dhoom franchise Dhoom 3, which became one of the biggest money makers of Hindi cinema. That is until his Christmas release this year PK.

PK is now the biggest money maker of Hindi cinema. However it would seem that a lot of  box office calculations, do not take in the number of screens and prints released. PK occupied more screens in Australia and New Zealand than any previous Hindi film. Although Hindi films rarely market to an audience outside the Diaspora, who all know when the film is coming, the ante has been upped in recent years with considerably wider distribution and print numbers and saturation marketing inside and sometimes outside India.  Shah Rukh Khan did a substantial stage tour outside India with the cast and crew of Happy New Year prior to its release. Music from Hindi films is always released some time prior to the opening of the film. This often includes videos of songs specially edited for advanced screening.

PK, also had something else in its favour apart from it being a new Aamir Khan film. The film is directed by Raj Kumar Hirani a director with a track record of zero commercial or critical failure. His previous films include Munna Bhai MBBS 2003, Lage Raho Munna Bhai 2006, 3 Idiots 2009 (which also starred Aamir Khan), on all three films he was the director, writer and editor, on PK he is also credited as a producer along with Vinod Chopra.  Although not prolific, all his films have been enormously anticipated, particularly PK in which the topic of the film and the character Aamir was playing were very much a secret until the film's release. Even the trailer did not really give away the essence of the film. So the curiosity combined with the names of Hirani and Aamir were bound to give the film a bumper opening  in India as well as overseas.

It now remains to be seen how the next release of a Khan film will be upped in terms of hype, promotion and distribution. Shah Rukh Khan's Diwale release for 2015 has already been announced. Salman's Eid release was announced 1st January. A review of PK will be on the Hindicin webpage  shortly. It is still running in cinemas in Australia.