Category Archives: Reviews

Die Hard (1988)

“When they touch down, we’ll blow up the roof, they’ll spend a month sifting through rubble, and by the time they work out what went wrong, we’ll be sitting on a beach, earning twenty percent.”

Every year since 2014 I’ve visited The Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle to watch Die Hard at Christmas. It’s become something of an annual pilgrimage, one which I took great pride in repeating last night, despite some real changes having taken place in the previous four years. I actually ended up working at the Tyneside for a considerable period between 2014 and 2017; with me experiencing the night at other selected screenings as a member of staff.

This year also marked a change because of the newly “remastered” version of the film, leading to an increased drive in Blu Ray sales for Christmas, also meaning a fresh print of the movie in which we’re expected to be able to see a notable difference in picture and sound quality. But more on that later.

For those who don’t yet know the story, and every year seems to bring in an additional group of people who are watching this movie for the first time, Die Hard is set in Los Angeles on Christmas Eve. John McClane (Bruce Willis), a New York City cop, is visiting his estranged wife Holly at her new job. He’s hoping to take some time to reconnect with his family, and the sub current of the film – which doesn’t get explored much – is that effectively Willis is somewhat of a misogynist with a drinking problem who assumed Holly would come crawling back after a few weeks.

When Willis arrives at the party, and repeated viewings of this film will make you realise just how absurd some of the supporting dialogue in these opening scenes are, he surprises his wife just prior to the arrival of German “terrorists” led by Hans Gruber (played fantastically by the late Alan Rickman) who are ultimately working for the benefit of a third party never identified. Willis then has to fight as a “lone gunmen” against unsurmountable odds, involving the LAPD, the FBI and, ultimately, the media in his quest to continue a conversation with his wife.

The film was written adapted from the novel “Nothing Lasts Forever” and depending upon whose stories you believed, the rights are purported to have been originally owned by Frank Sinatra. Sinatra was 77 when Die Hard was filmed and was contractually obligated to have been approached for the lead role, as he’d previously stared in the novel’s original film. Another theory is that Clint Eastwood was to play his own version a few years prior, but both he, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger turned the film down.

One of the areas in which this film succeeds so well, although doesn’t receive much praise for doing so, is its supporting cast. Notable 80s actors like Paul Gleeson, William Atherton, Robert Davi and even a cameo from comedian Rick Ducommun make this film a directory for talent; yet Willis and Rickman, who themselves remain separate to each other for almost all of the film, remain in completely different locations than those outside. Part of this is rumoured to have been done owing to exhaustion, with Willis also filming Moonlighting during the same period, meaning more scenes involving the supporting cast had to be added.

The film, originally written to have a reveal towards the end between hero and villain, only avoided achieving that goal because of antics on set. The rumour goes that Alan Rickman was practicing an American accent prior to filming. Considered so good, director John McTiernan felt it was a perfect opportunity to have the pair meet without realising who the other one was. This scene was also unrehearsed, which upon re watching is phenomenal, showing just what depth of talent they had. This was also Rickman’s first day of shooting, and the actor effectively sprained his knee making the jump at the beginning of the scene.

Rewatching this film simply reminds you of how pivotal a role can be for an actor, and certainly it changed both Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman’s careers going forward. Reginald Johnson, the actor playing Al Powell however, never truly managed to find the same footing and his cameo appearance in the films sequel has been long since forgotten.

Picture wise I saw little difference in newly remastered print, with more continuity errors spotted, such as the shadow of the stage hand who knocks over the Christmas tree towards the films climax and the issues surrounding the filming of the final scene – which I’m unsure whether was now filmed earlier in the day than the preceding scenes during which Al shoots Karl and meets McClane. At the start of the film I was incredibly impressed with the colour of the sunsets, though note one scene in which the villain’s truck can be seen driving down the freeway. This truck seems to be filmed at a completely different time of day and weather condition to the rest of the film and such remasters make the print all the more obvious.

Crucially, though, the expanded light range is never taken so far that it looks unnatural or forced. Provided you’ve got a good HDR TV, you’ll see no clipping of detail in the newly invigorated light peaks, or crushing out of detail in the newly enriched dark scenes and image areas.

The 4K Blu-ray image is also a worthwhile upgrade over the HD Blu-ray when it comes to sharpness and detail. There’s a beautiful density and granular quality to the image that just isn’t present on the HD Blu-ray. Plus, you get far more texture and minutiae in everything from clothing to facial close-ups and the Nakatomi Tower’s stark combination of stylish and sterile environments.

Die Hard remains as riveting and engaging 30 years (and many viewings) on as it did when it first exploded into cinemas in 1988. The only difference now is that it looks unprecedentedly glorious in its new 4K and HDR clothes.

McBusted, Metro Radio Arena, April 2014

McBusted – The Ultimate Supergroup
Metro Radio Arena
April 28th 2014

“I’m Looking for Tom Fletcher – and a clean pair of pants!”

McBusted are, according to the PR displayed upon the Metro Radio arena site, the “ultimate super group” and consist of the merging of both Busted and McFly. Both bands have had a clear amount of success on their own but when forces are combined it leads to a nationwide arena tour in which tickets sell out in 300 seconds flat. My girlfriend has been screaming about this gig for weeks – she’s got McFly lyrics tattooed on her back – and she’s also a little bit cranky that I’ve just walked in for free!

Support tonight comes from three up and coming acts, up and coming because I’ve never heard of them before, which is a real shame as they all possess some serious talent – serious enough for me to give a considerable word count appearance to them all in my write up. Young Brando has a sound not unlike a young Pearl Jam meeting Elbow – a combination few will understand – but which nobody should ignore. E of E (featuring a Newcastle native on drums) take to the stage performing Nirvana’s “Smell’s Like Teen Spirit” quickly combined with the lyrics of Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” and the track works exceptionally well.

While E of E have a logo resembling Van Halen and a sound not unlike them either its “perfect crossover rock” is followed – well, perfectly – by 3 Dudes. This band is comprised of three young men who look like they’re probably not even young enough to drink their first beer here, never mind their native South Carolina. The crowd is getting fairly anxious and the band is unfavorably jeered by most of the young women in attendance tonight as they work their way through a cover of Blur’s “Song 2”. Their set – which goes in much too fast for my liking – finishes with an absolutely blinding performance of Sweet’s 1973 anthem “Ballroom Blitz” – it’s Life On Mars all over again as I look to be the sole person in this arena who gets the joke.

A swift turnaround later and McBusted are emerging onstage – a rather ingenious intro video cues a real life De Lorean to bring two of the band members to the podium and “Air Hostess” kicks in before a literal hurricane of female emotion screams the entire building down. In fact, while I won’t claim to be a hard man by any stretch of the imagination, I will tell you that neither fans of Slayer nor Pantera really quite terrified me just as much as these adoring females here tonight. At one point – quite possibly during the track “Sleeping with the Light On” – I’m punched in the back of the head by an overly excited fan that I just “got in the way of!”

There’s a lot of gimmickry and tongue in cheek antics tonight, one of the band members mentions that both Cheryl Cole and Ant & Dec are in attendance, but neither can be confirmed – and it’s clear that by the time a full sized UFO helps the band land “in the round” to play a short portion of the set towards the back end of the arena we’re seeing probably the most well oiled production touring in the UK at the moment.

References to Tom Fletcher’s wedding speech – a video which nicely cued up “Crash the Wedding” as one band member wore a wedding dress onstage – and Russell Crowe seemed to be taken well by the band. They poked fun at each other and attacked their own opinions but the realization was that these men are, whether you like it or not, rich beyond their wildest dreams and don’t mind taking the piss out of themselves in the name of revenue.

As I left the arena that night I felt a strange sense of entertainment – “All About You” and “Year 3000” are great Pop songs, even if I abhor the genre, and while it might not be my own personal taste – you can’t deny the skill of these five men to give those in attendance one of the best performances of their lives. And then repeat that process almost 35 times over for the rest of the dates.

Guys, I salute you.

Revolving World of Colour

Revolving World of Colour
Wayne Madden

Even though Colour Television was a staple of the American diet from 1958, the

UK had to wait until John Newcombe won the Men’s singles at Wimbledon nearly a decade later, before the first colour images were projected onto European TV screens.

John Logie Baird, the inventor of television, first demonstrated colour television in 1927 but despite its popularity, high prices and the resulting scarcity of colour programmes, the format was not as widely used in its initial outing. As time moved on, however, cheaper alternatives and formats were created in order to make the expansion of colour film a reality for all mediums and budgets.

Barry Sandrew, PHD, an internationally recognized entrepreneur, digital imaging expert and visual effects pioneer invented digital colourization in 1987. “I invented digital colorization in 1987 at my company, American Film Technologies, as an alternative to the very poor quality that was being delivered using the initial analogue process.”

But new technology is not necessarily always greeted with Universal acclaim. Back in the mid-80s, there was a well-known and controversial campaign to colourise classic movies which led to heated public debate. Ted Turner (the media mogul and founder of CNN) spearheaded a movement in which he believed classic films, among them Orson Welles “Citizen Kane” and Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life”, should be colourised for the benefit of future generations. He believed that classics such as these were being ignored by viewers in favour of colour film.

This is an argument that goes back to Thomas Edison, in the late 20th century, who colourised film by hand as he perceived that audiences would not enjoy his own black and white work. It’s a popular misconception; therefore, that colour film was a more modern cinema trait. Victor Fleming’s 1939 musical fantasy “The Wizard of Oz” is one of the most well-known pieces of the time to have been shot purposely in colour (using two tone Technicolor), although the basic technology had existed for almost 40 years beforehand, with the earliest examples going back to 1902.

Technology aside however, there were also plenty of examples where black and white films were colourised in pre-production. Howard Hughes and Alfred Hitchcock created films in black and white, only to remake them in colour, citing both artistic and financial reasons.

Kevin Shaw is a colourist, with over 30 years’ experience in the industry. He believes there is some truth in the notion of a stigma towards black and white on film. “There is a feeling that black and white is “missing” colour rather than being seen as an alternative medium,” says Shaw, “and I believe this inclination persists today.”

Sandrew argues the very objections to colourization is what made it popular. “The fact that colourization was a “hot button” issue actually helped AFT become more popular with both clients and fans of colourization,” says Sandrew. “If people didn’t like colourization they didn’t have to buy nor watch it. Guess what…they did both!” Before Turner, there had already been a counter argument that colour film was damaging to cinema. French director Francois Truffaut argued that colour should not be used at all, making a statement in 1978 that “colour has done as much damage to cinema as television.

It is necessary to fight against too much realism in the cinema; otherwise it’s not an art. From the moment that a film is in colour, it’s not cinema anymore.” Shaw agrees somewhat with Truffant’s statement. “A director has to have a good, artistic reason to use black and white, and that doing so invokes a particular meaning to the project, it is a genre in its own right so not appropriate for all concepts.” Certainly there are examples of this. Alfred Hitchcock shot “Psycho” purposely in black and white to meet what he felt was the required tone for the film, as did CBS Productions with Rod Sterling’s original “Twilight Zone” television series. In both cases colour was offered and refused as a medium.

In the 21st century, it’s perhaps hard to imagine a time when directors had such creative control over their own productions, especially productions with such important financial outcomes for their respective studios. Barry Sandrew agrees that films such as these are classics, which he says have been helped significantly by colourization. “The directors and actors were paid for their work,” says Sandrew, “that does not give them perpetual creative rights to the film. They do not own the film nor did they, in most cases, put up a dime to make the film. Colourization has actually served to subsidize the restoration and preservation of some of our most treasured public domain black and white feature films. In that regard, I believe that colourization has actually done a great service to these classics.”

Professor James O. Young, of the University of Victoria, wrote an academic paper entitled In Defence of Colourization in 1988 that stated once a work is modified it is no longer able to express its creators original intentions. His paper was written at a time when the first Turner produced colour films came under criticism, namely because low quality colourization, restricted by the technology of the day.
But Young still believes its possible colourization can have a negative effect on a film’s artistic merit. “Appropriation from earlier art ought not to be prohibited,” he says. “Artists frequently borrow from their predecessors in a variety of ways and do so (some of the time) with good aesthetic results.”

Shaw argues that, regardless of 21st century technology, the same rules of artistic filmmaking merit apply. “We design images to fit the concept, to be emotionally evocative and to be easier for an audience to interpret.
It is a creative decision that should be made at the creation stage.” It would seem that the image (and colour choice) of a film is therefore essential to its concept. Sandrew agrees with this up-to a point. “When I re-invented colourization in 2000 the film critics were no longer saying that the work looked shoddy or unrealistic. Instead they were saying that the colourization looked so natural. This raised a new concern from critics that the quality was too high and young people would never know what the film looked like in its original black and white format. So surprisingly, high quality colourization earned negative feedback as well!”

 

Ted Turner had the ability to spearhead a movement which, he personally felt, was of benefit to his consumer and made the business steps necessary to do this. But perhaps more ironically, as Young concludes, “the use of colourisation has increased the distribution of original black and white versions, since these are now often packaged with colour versions.”
Ironically, the greatest benefits come to those who feared their legacy might be jeopardized in the first place. While there’s no doubt life looks better in colour the facts seem to indicate that audiences would rather see them as they were originally intended, sparks of geniuses intact. Colourization, like everything else in Film, has its place.

Sunderland Shorts’ Film Festival 2017

Sunderland Short Film Festival 2017 – Sunderland One
Wayne Madden

Lights, Camera, Action.

Filmmakers and fans were elated in equal measure recently at the return of the popular Sunderland Short Film Festival earlier this month. The event, in its third year, was created in collaboration with ‘sister festival’ DC Shorts in America and provides a platform for filmmakers and enthusiasts to showcase their work on a national stage.

Creating a festival which celebrates the uniqueness and storytelling of short film, only films less than twenty minutes in length can be submitted for consideration, with screenings taking place over three days and each featuring a variety of shortlisted competitors.

Carys Watford, whose film ‘Theatreland’ screened at this year’s festival, spoke about the importance of an event like Sunderland Shorts, saying: “it’s always great to get your film seen in as many places as you can…if you can go to the festival which is screening it, all the better”. Bernie Mooney, whose seven minute drama ‘Thief’ tackles the topic of sex trafficking in the United Kingdom, was quick to add that “I’ve been at festivals before where nobody has turned up at all to watch your film…so to be here in Sunderland with a full audience like this is very gratifying”

As well as jury and audience based awards; films were nominated for several categories’ with a selection of the finalists films due to be shown to attendees in Washington at the DC Shorts festival this September. This offers locally based filmmakers the opportunity to have their work seen by an international audience and the offer is reciprocated when DC Shorts shortlist was screened on the last day of the festival in Sunderland. Finalists also received a free upload for their film courtesy of Modyst UK, an international digital platform and online cinema.

In 2006 Sunderland became the first and so far only city to sign a Friendship Agreement with Washington DC. This occasion was paramount to the establishment of Sunderland Shorts, as festival director Anne Tye explained. “Sunderland’s friendship status with Washington DC has brought about some real successes, and Sunderland Shorts Film Festival is chief among them.” adding further, “Learning from our friends in the US, and gleaning the knowledge they have gained over several years – growing their event from a standing start to one that is hugely popular and a key part of the city’s cultural programme – has allowed us to replicate this and quickly create a fantastic festival for Sunderland.”

In previous years, screenings occurred at various ‘pop up’ locations across the city, with each screening providing audiences a unique insight into both the artists work as well as a local venue they may never have visited. This year all screenings were localized centrally in ‘The Place’, a creative business hub in the city centre. Hannah Matterson, festival organizer, said: “Since the start of the festival in 2015, Sunderland Shorts has always had the aim of supporting local, small and medium sized businesses across the city.”

“We’ve been known to use coffee shops, art galleries and even boardrooms as cinemas in the past. By doing this we hope to encourage more young filmmakers to take up the art and to become the directors, cinematographers and producers of the future.”

As well as film screenings the event also presented several free workshops, delivered by established professionals in the industry, imparting advice and wisdom. Roar Motion’s Rob Parsons, who operated an informal showcase with business partner Matt Eyre told us: “It’s very important these workshops happen, when I was a student at University I would have loved to do something like this, get hands on with the technology in this way and see it all up close and in person, it’s invaluable”.

Councilor John Kelly, Sunderland City Council’s portfolio holder for public health, wellness and culture, said: “Sunderland is a very warm and friendly city and I’m certain this army of filmmakers, writers and actors will be afforded a fine Wearside welcome. Sunderland Shorts is helping put our city on the filmmaking map, and not only bringing exciting new talent in, but helping our city’s creative bight sparks showcase their own work to a whole new audience.”

Personal screen highlights included ‘Pebbles’, a drama from Jonathan Shaw which saw a woman return to the hotel where she spent her honeymoon fifty years hence. ‘Four Day Weekend’ was a superbly acted American drama about a married couple on a self imposed relationship break, animation ‘The Slow Lane’ was an incredible undertaking in both creation and design, a simple film about a tiny village and the damage of a fallen tree and the surreal ‘Dots’ was less than 91 seconds long, but also provided a unique interpretation into the genre of dance from filmmakers Jody Oberfelder and Eric Siegel.

As in previous years, winning films were announced on the last night of the festival, with Irish drama ‘Pebbles’ capturing both Best International picture and a Jury’s Choice award. Best North East regional film went to ‘Mordecai’, a truly original comedy drama from Benjamin Lee about two brothers at their father’s funeral, made with the permission and involvement of an orthodox Jewish community in Gateshead. There was also an audience choice award for James Cookson’s horror, ‘Panic’ while Best UK National film went to the picture that had proceeded it in that screening, comedy ‘Rhonna and Donna’ from director Diana O Pusic about two women conjoined at the hip.

“You make the film you feel passionate about” Carys’ told us, and this mantra can easily be transferred to the positive work Sunderland Shorts are doing making a festival in an area they truly feel passionate about.

“Each year, it is growing, and as we move into our third year, we look forward to creating something that is bigger and better than ever” Anne told me of this year’s event, “establishing a reputation of being ‘the friendliest festival’” making it obvious the team has no plans to slow down. “Short films aren’t an easy sell” Hannah confided, reflecting on the festival overall, “but we’re making steps forward each year to increase our audiences and to engage with more filmmakers from all over the world.”

With such a unique platform and a plethora of talent signing up, there’s no reason to imagine we’ll see the end of Sunderland Shorts anytime soon.

Mad Max; Black and Chrome, Film Review

When George Miller’s Fury Road first burst onto our screens in 2015, we were greeted with a novel concept, a truly likable post millennium film. In our cynical world we’d forgotten the beauty of a movie which doesn’t over think, looks artistically incredible and has a simple plot. Max is a drifter, captured by renegades who seek his blood, forced into servitude. A tyrannical dictator named ‘Joe’ keeps several women captive, hoping to conceive a suitable heir, their beauty and purity unmatched. Max and Joe collide, the women in both their lives suitably liberated and the pursuit is on.

At its heart, Mad Max is a road movie, everything from Max himself to the metal guitarist (now perhaps more infamous for refusing to help inaugurate Donald Trump) strapped firmly to a hood. In this new edition some 24 months later we’re treated to a picture entirely converted to black and chrome, something that creates a unique opportunity to have a revaluation of a modern blockbuster. While it’s impossible to say exactly what effect this monochrome effect has on modern film precisely, we can say that it looks incredible in its usage here, the darkness is more effective when it needs to be and there’s a sinister edge of horror comparable to the opening gambit of Mad Max 2. By removing the color from our screens the director has created a violently drawn image which we’re almost transfixed on. It’s art.

Like Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Stirling before him, Miller has purposefully chosen to avoid color, feeling that his choice of black and chrome may add that additional character the movie has been seeking. Miller calls this his superior version, and while I’m likely to agree, would remind viewers that the “original” version is just as good.