The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector

Just weeks after his sentencing for the murder of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson, it was strange, sad and eerie to see Phil Spector’s flamboyant, bewigged and bizarrely charming figure up there on the big screen. And as its chief subject, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (screened without any hoo-ha, on Saturday June 6) provided a fascinating look at a troubled musical genius.

Acclaimed BBC filmmaker Vikram Jayanti got unprecedented access to the legendary producer/writer — for a total of six months, both during the first trial and prior to the second — and wisely opted to run one-on-one interview time, career retrospective and court proceedings simultaneously. While it proves a challenge to take in all three at once, the strategy works: you’re left with the image of a man whose talents also proved to be his demons, and who appears oblivious to the fate that lies ahead of him.

There are nagging omissions in the film: nothing about the time he stuck a gun to Leonard Cohen’s head in the studio, not a jot about holding John Lennon’s master tapes to ransom in 1973 (or nearly shooting him), nor a mention of the firearm threat allegedly directed at the Ramones, either. But, as the director is at pains to point out, the film doesn’t seek to pass judgement on the man, nor hypothesise on the precise events of that fateful night in 2003. Rather, the intention is to go inside the mind of a tortured soul.

“I’m fascinated with so-called troubled geniuses,” Jayanti told me after the screening. “What I didn’t expect was just how funny and charming he can be. You see it in the film. Do I feel for Phil? Absolutely. And I feel a hundred times more for Lana and her family. What happened is something straight out of Hollywood Babylon.”


Roman Polanski: Wanted and Dersired

Another not-too-dissimilar tale is the notorious 1977 statutory rape case against Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski. Having pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor, he fled to France before sentencing (imagine Phil Spector doing that today). The doco Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired not only shows another troubled genius with a tragic past, but uncovers forgotten facts about the case — facts that damn not Polanski, but the legal and media forces feeding off the trial.

Incarceration and popular culture are old bedfellows, of course, a case that this year’s festival inadvertently makes. Elsewhere, there’s been the excellent — and similarly engaging — drama Bronson, about the most violent man in Britain, Michael Peterson (who now goes by the name Charles Bronson, after his cinematic hero). Peterson went to jail for armed robbery for seven years — and has since spent a whopping 30 years in solitary confinement, in a bizarre attempt at celebrity. Think Chopper in England.

With such impressive nods to documentary filmmaking and dramatisation, I only wish the festival was highlighted out front, in bold type, at the George Street cinema complex (the secondary venue for the 2009 event). The ‘now showing’ marquee outside the cinema bears no mention of it whatsoever. And oddly, patrons who obediently arrive ‘at least 15 minutes prior to screening time’ (as ordered on the ticket) have to wait in line till kick-off time — rather like boarding a budget airline. Why not let punters take their seats as they arrive? That might put a smile on poor Mutley’s face.

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired screens Sunday June 14 at 12pm at the State Theatre, Market Street.

For full program details, head over to the Sydney Film Festival’s website

The year is beginning to get good for home video enthusiasts, with a band of notable new titles and Blu-ray releases to get your itchy fingers twitching. Add Guy Ritchie’s latest cockney caper to your collection (Rocknrolla), see Woody Allen’s awards season romance (Vicky Cristina Barcelona), immerse yourself in the real-life legal woes of one of modern cinema’s greatest directors (Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired), and pick up a Disney classic on her 45th birthday (Mary Poppins 45th Anniversary Edition). And who out there with a Blu-ray player can resist nabbing this week’s glorious HD offerings (The Bourne Trilogy, Zodiac Director’s Cut)?


1. RocknRolla — 59%

After debuting with 1998’s smashing Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, director Guy Ritchie hit upon a successful formula: tell stylized, twisty tales set in London’s criminal underworld in which a host of unsavory sorts double-cross one another on end. Genius! If only he hadn’t stuck so doggedly to that recipe. Ritchie claws his way back toward Fresh territory with yet another British crime caper, RocknRolla, in which a host of unsavory sorts double cross one another on end, among them Gerard Butler, Thandie Newton, Tom Wilkinson, and newcomer Toby Kebbell. While it’s not the second coming of Snatch, Rocknrolla is nevertheless a return to form for the cockney gangster genre master, and worth a rental for Ritchie fans. Pick up the Special Edition for a commentary track with Ritchie and star Mark Strong, which headlines a fairly sparse bonus menu.

Next: Vicky Cristina Penelope Scarlett

2. Vicky Cristina Barcelona — 81%

Fresh off its win for Best Comedy at the Golden Globes, Vicky Cristina Barcelona comes to DVD this week. Woody Allen’s sexy tale about two BFFs (Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall) embroiled in a love quadrangle with a Spanish artist (Javier Bardem) and his ex-wife (Penelope Cruz, Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actress) garnered kudos in limited release last year while steadily generating solid awards season buzz; at 82 percent on the Tomatometer, it’s Allen’s best-reviewed film since Everyone Says I Love You and Bullets Over Broadway, and his best collaboration with new muse Johansson (Scoop, Match Point). Vicky Cristina Barcelona is also one of Allen’s first Blu-ray titles (Scarlett and Penelope in High Def!), though all of that extra disc space is wasted thanks to exactly zero special features.

Next: Ed Norton and Colin Farrell in Pride and Glory


3. Pride and Glory — 34%

Edward Norton and Colin Farrell face off in Pride and Glory as good and bad members of a Boston cop family in Gavin O’Connor’s drama, co-written by Joe “Smokin’ Aces” Carnahan and co-starring Jon Voight. But clichéd Bostonian dialogue and silly-yet-generic writing turned this promising project into a turkey of a drama, and most critics agreed it was skip-worthy. A single featurette and a digital copy of the film can be found on the 2-disc Special Edition (what, no room for extras?), although said featurette is an hour-long documentary about the making of the film.

Next: Sam Jackson menaces in Lakeview Terrace

4. Lakeview Terrace — 48%

Samuel L. Jackson has proven that he can turn any silly premise into an exercise in badass-ness. But, snakes on airliners aside, is that enough to make even the most absurd of thrillers watchable? (We’re not even talking about Jumper.) Jackson stars in Lakeview Terrace as an LAPD officer who turns less than protective when an interracial couple moves in next door; directed by Neil LaBute, who’s had previous experience mining unintentional laughs from self-serious situations (Wicker Man, we’re looking at you), the film veers into ridiculous territory by the time the hills of Los Angeles get swept up in a heavily symbolic brush fire. Actress Kerry Washington and director LaBute appear in a feature-length commentary and commentary on deleted scenes, while three additional featurettes round out the special features.

Next: Adolescent hijinks in College

5. College — 6%

MSBNC.com’s Alonso Duralde called it one of 2008’s very worst films in our RT Tomatometer Critic poll; this week, judge for yourself as the puerile comedy College comes to DVD. In it, three high school seniors spend one hellish weekend at a college, where they hope to stumble into sex-filled party times, a la Harold, Kumar, Bluto Blutarsky, and everyone from American Pie. Instead, they find themselves humiliated — as are we, by proxy, for watching. The film’s unrated cut must be considered a “bonus” by some stretch, as no other features accompany the disc.

Next: The Rocker does not go to eleven

6. The Rocker — 39%

Rainn Wilson (The Office‘s Dwight Schrute) rocks out with his, uh, mullet out in this lame comedy about a has-been drummer who’s last chance for stardom is joining a high school garage band. Though its cast strains mightily to bring some enjoyment to their thankless roles, The Rocker‘s Christina Applegate, Emma Stone, and director Peter Cattaneo (The Full Monty) fail to turn this one up to eleven.

Next: Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

The story of auteur director Roman Polanski and his years-long exile from Hollywood is infamous; this documentary explores the behind-the-scenes tale in depth, from the loss of Polanski’s wife, Sharon Tate, to the legal firestorm that followed his fateful sexual encounter with a teenage model in 1977. Director Marina Zenovich focuses her lens on Judge Laurence Rittenband, the volatile justice whose personal crusade left an indelible effect on the legal proceedings, and consequently, on Polanski’s life. Interviews with Polanski associates and lawyers discussing the case — and the question of whether or not Polanski will ever return to the States — supplement this highly fascinating documentary.

Next: Kirk Cameron’s Christian indie, Fireproof

8. Fireproof — 39%

Though a handful of faith-based films make their way to theaters and DVD each year, Christian cinema got its biggest boost (that is, aside from Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ) with a small family drama starring former Growing Pains actor (and evangelical Christian) Kirk Cameron. The story of a firefighter struggling with marital problems is not for everybody; like many films with a specific genre, if you’re in its target demographic, you probably already know about it. Deleted scenes, filmmaker commentary, gag reels and many, many more features also comprise the release.

Next: Mary Poppins celebrates her 45th birthday

9. Mary Poppins 45th Anniversary Edition

One of Disney’s best-loved classics is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year. Pick up this remastered version of Mary Poppins to share the tale with a new generation, and to get lost in a bounty of bonus features surrounding the production and legacy of the film. If you already own one of the previously released Anniversary Editions, seeing the umpteenth featurette on songs like “Spoonful of Sugar” and even the deleted song, “Chimpanzoo,” may not seem so fresh; if you’re not yet a Mary Poppins owner, however, the 45th Anniversary edition should make an incredibly comprehensive addition to your collection.

Next: The Bourne Trilogy comes to Blu-ray!

10. The Bourne Trilogy Blu-ray

Finally, you can watch all three of Jason Bourne’s shaky rooftop chases in glorious HD! All three films — The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum — come to Blu-ray this week with an array of special features. While all contain their previously released “vintage” special features, you’ll also find new Blu-ray exclusive materials, including Picture-in-Picture interviews and cast snippets, “Spy Training” quizzes, and a pop-up trivia feature. All three also feature director commentary tracks.

Next: The Bourne Trilogy comes to Blu-ray!

Bonus: Zodiac 2-Disc Director’s Cut Blu-ray

Given Zodiac‘s underappreciated theatrical run back in 2007, it’s nice to think that David Fincher’s gripping retelling of the real-life serial killings can enjoy a second life of sorts on home video. Pick up this 2-Disc Director’s Cut for a five-minutes longer version of the film, which is about as lossless as they come; even the real 1980s San Francisco didn’t look as good as Fincher’s 1980s San Francisco. Tons of extras also abound here, including commentaries by Fincher, James Ellroy, Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr., and fantastic featurettes that reveal more details (and CG work) than you might have realized went into production.

The 14th Annual Critics’ Choice Awards were given on January 8, 2009, to honor the finest achievements in 2008 filmmaking. A list of nominees follows below, with winners in bold:

Best Picture:
Changeling
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Doubt
Frost/Nixon
Milk
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

Wall-E
The Wrestler

Best Actor:
Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino
Richard Jenkins, The Visitor
Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn, Milk
Brad Pitt, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke, The Wrestler

Best Actress (Tie):
Kate Beckinsale, Nothing But the Truth
Cate Blanchett, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Anne Hathaway, Rachel Getting Married
Angelina Jolie, Changeling
Melissa Leo, Frozen River
Meryl Streep, Doubt

Best Supporting Actor:
Josh Brolin, Milk
Robert Downey, Jr., Tropic Thunder
Philip Seymour Hoffman, Doubt
Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight

James Franco, Milk

Best Supporting Actress:
Penelope Cruz, Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Viola Davis, Doubt
Vera Farmiga, Nothing But the Truth
Taraji P. Henson, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Marisa Tomei, The Wrestler
Kate Winslet, The Reader

Best Acting Ensemble:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
Doubt
Milk

Rachel Getting Married

Best Director:
Danny Boyle, Slumdog Millionaire
David Fincher, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Ron Howard, Frost/Nixon
Christopher Nolan, The Dark Knight
Gus Van Sant, Milk

Best Writer:
Simon Beaufoy, Slumdog Millionaire
Dustin Lance Black, Milk
Peter Morgan, Frost/Nixon
Eric Roth, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
John Patrick Shanley, Doubt

Best Animated Feature:
Bolt
Kung Fu Panda
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa
Wall-E
Waltz With Bashir

Best Young Actor/Actress:
Dakota Fanning, The Secret Life of Bees
David Kross, The Reader
Dev Patel, Slumdog Millionaire

Brandon Walters, Australia

Best Action Movie:
The Dark Knight

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Iron Man
Quantum of Solace
Wanted

Best Comedy Movie:
Burn After Reading
Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Role Models
Tropic Thunder

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Best Foreign Language Film:
A Christmas Tale
Gomorrah
I’ve Loved You So Long
Let the Right One In
Mongol
Waltz With Bashir

Best Documentary Feature:
I.O.U.S.A.
Man On Wire

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired
Standard Operating Procedure
Young At Heart

Source: Broadcast Film Critics Association

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