MILES AHEAD, Don Cheadle, director/Icon Few would argue that the most important jazz musician of the modern age was Miles Davis, and it is greatly to Don Cheadle’s credit that he created (and starred in) this unsparing and frank life of the trumpeter. As anyone who has read Miles’ own autobiography – or read about his unpleasant treatment of such key white musicians as Bill Evans who were important in his career — will be well aware that he was not the sweetest of individuals. So it is refreshing that Cheadle‘s Miles film is by no means a hagiography, presenting the trumpeter as a brilliant but difficult and aggressive individual. What’s more, Miles is shown at a very difficult time of his life when his flirtations with rock music moved him further and further away from jazz while creating a new fan base. The notion of a fictitious Rolling Stone reporter played by Ewan McGregor is more contentious, but serves a narrative function and make sense in that regard. It’s 1979 and the coolest jazz musician on the planet, Miles Davis, is in a desperate rut. He hasn’t appeared in public for six years and has not picked up a trumpet for three. His complete loss of musical inspiration, addiction to cocaine and alcohol, and chronic pain from a deteriorating hip have rendered him a virtual hermit, locked up in his wrecked Upper-West Side apartment in a deep depression. Despite all this, the record company to which Miles is signed are attempting to claim ownership of a mysterious tape in Miles’ possession, supposedly containing brand new unheard content, and they are prepared to go to great lengths to get their hands on it. Miles admirers may have preferred a focus on the trumpeter’s finest period – the 1960s and the classic Kind of Blue album — but Cheadle made a personal choice. A flawed but creditable job.
THE EMIGRANTS/THE NEW LAND Jan Troell, director/Criterion/Sony Blu-ray For years, admirers of quality cinema had heard of this remarkable two-film epic set in the mid-19th century from the director Jan Troell, but opportunities to see the duo of lengthy films were few and far between. Starring two of the director Ingmar Bergman’s most iconic stars, Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman, this is a powerful, moving and exquisitely photographed tale of poor Swedish farming families, their nightmare journey to America and their difficult efforts to make a new life in the New World. Those prepared to give themselves over to the lengthy running time will find one of the most rewarding experiences that Swedish cinema – or world cinema for that matter — has to offer, and it is a particular pleasure for this viewer to finally see this much-heralded work.
FEDORA, Billy Wilder, director/Eureka Blu-ray The irascible Billy Wilder, never a man to mince his words, was particularly irate about the reception of his last few films, complaining that ‘the beards’ (by which we assume he meant Steven Spielberg, Brian de Palma and George Lucas) had taken over Hollywood, and that there was little room left for his kind of witty and cynical films. But time has shown that such late works as the intriguing Fedora, a meditation on cinema itself, have staying power. Starring William Holden and Marthe Keller, it is almost (if not quite) as rewarding as many of his earlier films, and the very thing that it was criticised for upon its release – its attempts to echo one of his great films, Sunset Said Boulevard – can now be seen as one of the film’s virtues. It looks particularly fine in this new transfer.
THE OUT-LAWS, various directors/Arrow Those of us addicted to Scandinavian crime drama are always hungry for the latest manifestation of the genre. This one is something distinctly different, a black comedy, which is unlike most of the other entries in the genre. “The Out-Laws” are four sisters who had enough of their brother-in-law tormenting them and decide to kill their fifth sister’s obnoxious husband Jean Claude. Eva, Birgit, Veerle and Bekka develop elaborate plans to rid themselves of their spiteful brother-in-law, who seems to have as many lives as a cat. Whether or not you like this show will depend on how you respond to the loathsome husband, who is presented as such an unpleasant grotesque that there is only one possible reaction to him. Nuance is one of the characteristics of Nordic Noir, and, frankly, there is not much of that here.
POISON PEN, Paul L. Stein director/Network Starring Oscar-nominated Flora Robson and a typically eye-rolling Robert Newton, this is an unusual excavation from Network. Those who remember Clouzot’s film Le Corbeau and Otto Preminger’s American remake The Thirteenth Letter will know what to expect from this thoroughly involving tale of a poison pen letter writer who destroys lives in a small village and whose activities lead to violent death. While the piece is dated in its attitudes, it remains fascinating as a snapshot of British cinema at a particular time. If there is a fault, it’s the fact that even the slowest member of the audience will be well aware of who the writer of the poison pen letters is very quickly – as soon, in fact, as all the major characters have been introduced. Nevertheless, it remains very watchable.
THE SECRET OF SANTA VITTORIA, Stanley Kramer, director/Odyssey Video Despite winning a Golden Globe, Stanley Kramer’s large-scale comedy The Secret of Santa Vittoria, may whet the appetite of admirers of his spectacular comic classic It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, but they should be aware that this is a very different kettle of fish indeed. It’s a strange comedy in which shifts of tone are distinctly on the jarring inside — with serious sections about the Nazi occupation of Italy set against the scenery-chewing comic overplaying of Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani. But faults apart, it’s still an interesting piece, gleaning two Oscar nominations on its original release in 1969. The Secret of Santa Vittoria tells the story of small town Santa Vittoria where life revolves around the production (and consumption) of wine. Knowing the Germans intend to seize their wine, the mayor Italo Bombolini (Quinn), has devised a plan. Eventually German forces arrive in the town, and so begins a battle of wills between Bombolini and army commander Captain von Prum.
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, Anthony Asquith, director/Network/Blu-ray In recent years, theatregoers have been able to see such actresses as Maggie Smith in this immortal Oscar Wilde comedy, but there is little denying that the definitive performance was given by Edith Evans, thankfully captured on film in this worthy adaptation. Part of ‘The British Film’ collection, Asquith’s sumptuous adaptation of the play assembles one of the greatest casts ever seen in a British film and still remains the definitive screen adaptation; The Importance of Being Earnest is featured here in a new High Definition transfer from original film element. Two eligible bachelors, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, are in trouble. Jack’s unworthy habit of representing himself as his imaginary brother Ernest and Algernon’s adoption of an equally fictitious – and perpetually sickly – friend has allowed them both a latitude in their personal lives that they would otherwise have not enjoyed. Their respective deceptions start to unravel, however, when both chaps become mortally wounded by Cupid’s arrow – setting up a series of events which will change their lives forever.
WOODY ALLEN: SIX FILMS 1971 – 1978, Arrow Academy Blu-ray Admirers of modern cinema will need little persuasion to invest in this welcome box, particularly in light of the Blu-ray sprucing up that the films have received. Perhaps the earlier Allen films here now seem very broad given the subtlety of his later work, with their exponentially growing ambition and intelligence, but everything in this set is worth viewers’ attention.
MAN IN THE MOON, Basil Dearden, director/Network This SF satire stars Kenneth More and is directed by Basil Dearden, not a director noted for his skill with comedy. The piece is really carried by the likeable performance of More, one of the most reliable actors in British cinema, who gives the featherweight proceedings the grounding they need before he is encouraged to turn into a Norman Wisdom-style idiot.