Cast-Colin Firth, Ruth Gemmell, Neil Pearson
Nick Hornby, the gifted British author whose novels have been adapted into such wonderful films as High Fidelity and About a Boy, turned his obsessive love for football (or as we uncouth Yanks prefer to call it, soccer) and the Arsenal Football Club team into his first published book Fever Pitch. The 1992 publication was best known for inspiring a hit 2005 comedy directed by the Farrelly brothers and starring Drew Barrymore and future Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon, but eight years before Hornby's autobiographical tome provided the basis for a barely-seen feature from the U.K. starring Oscar winner (and your wife's fantasy boyfriend - sorry) Colin Firth.
Constructed as a series of essays charting the author's growing love for the sport and the disappointments that occasionally resulted from his devotion to Arsenal FC, Fever Pitch was adapted for the screen by Hornby himself and directed by David Evans in one of the few features he ever directed (Evans works mostly in television these days, having recently directed four episodes of Downton Abbey). The finished film barely saw a release outside of its native land though I can recall catching a few minutes of it on Cinemax over a decade ago. Now it makes its official home video premiere in the U.S. on this almost bare bones Blu-ray from Twilight Time.
In his screenplay adaptation Hornby has remolded himself into Paul Ashworth (Firth), a popular teacher of literature at a North London school and a rabid fan of the perennial losing team Arsenal FC. Paul has stood by Arsenal through one devastating loss after another ever since being introduced to the team and the sport by his rarely present father (Neil Pearson). His fellow teacher Sarah Hughes (Ruth Gemmell) doesn't quite understand his obsession with football but that doesn't keep the two of them from falling head over heels in love. Paul and many other Arsenal fans get knocked for a loop when their favorite team all of a sudden starts winning matches. Sarah tries to take an interest in the game for the sake of love but despite her best efforts she fails to get into the mindset of the most insanely dedicated Arsenal supporters, namely Paul. When the team on track to take home its first championship title in over two decades Paul has to decide once and for all if his loyalties are going to reside with the woman he loves or the football club he has rooted for since childhood.
If anyone knows how to write a witty and intelligent story of a man-child struggling to come of age belatedly in the face of love and his own carefully cultivated cultural obsessions it's Nick Hornby. He doesn't mine the territory because it's fun and his readers lose their shit over it, but because he used to be one of those guys who often serve as the heroes of his best-selling novels. I remember when the movie version of High Fidelity came out during my second year working for Tower Records and being amazed after my first viewing at how perceptive it was when it came to adult relationships and the difficult decisions we all face in regards to holding on to a vital piece of our youth. Fever Pitch was not written as a traditional narrative but as a series of essays each devoted to a different football match and how they all contributed to Hornby's prolonged maturation. Obviously this wouldn't translate to a feature adaptation very well so the author had to focus on one important season in his life as an Arsenal FC fan and take on the different form of charismatic schoolteacher Paul Ashworth. The role plays right into the superbly talented Firth's wheelhouse while giving the actor a rare opportunity to play a disheveled but well-educated working class type who would rather listen to the latest Arsenal game on the radio that carry on a conversation with his girlfriend, play with quiet charm and the patience and understanding of a saint by Ruth Gemmell (Storage 24).
Hornby's script nails down the relatable intricacies of relationships and the performances from Firth and Gemmell help to portray Paul and Sarah as a convincing on-screen couple. They each get their own best pal to share hilarious and often moving dialogue scenes with and reveal gentler sides of their respective personalities, Paul's being his friend and fellow Arsenal supporter Steve (Mark Strong, years before he became one of Hollywood's top cinematic heavies, in a rare comedic performance that works wonders) and Sarah's being her roommate Jo (Holly Aird, The Theory of Flight). The direction from Evans is unobtrusive and direct and allows for the acting and writing to take center stage, but he proves to be adept at handling both with true skill. The supporting cast is rounded out by small but winning turns from Ken Stott (The Hobbit trilogy), Neil Pearson (Bridget Jones' Diary), Lorraine Ashbourne (King Kong), and Stephen Rea in a fleeting cameo appearance. The music score works well with a soundtrack of memorable songs from The Pretenders, Van Morrison, The Smiths, The Who, and Fine Young Cannibals.
Fever Pitch is presented in its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio in a vibrant and detailed 1080p high-definition transfer that is light on grain and completely absent of print damage and is supported by a robust English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 audio track with no detectable traces of distortion and solid volume levels across the board. No subtitles have been included. Extra features are limited to a commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, an isolated score track in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0, and a catalog of other titles available from Twilight Time. Kirgo also contributes another entertaining and illuminating booklet of liner notes that compliments her commentary with Redman while adding some additional insights not shared before.
The Film: 4/5
Cast-Stanley Baker, Michael Caine, Jack Hawkins
Country of Origin-U.K.
"Know what this reminds me of? Rourke's Drift. A hundred men of Harlech, making a desperate stand against 10,000 Zulu warriors. Outnumbered, surrounded, staring death in the face and not flinching for a moment. Balls of British steel."
Being a huge fan of Neil Marshall's 2002 action-horror cult classic Dog Soldiers I have seen it enough times to memorize those words spoken by one of the film's heroic British troops at a crucial moment when all hope seemed lost. Cy Endfield's 1964 film Zulu, one of the greatest epic adventures in the history of cinema, tells the story of that battle with intelligence, soul, and a sweeping widescreen scope that enables this classic to counted among the era's most extravagant historical motion pictures. Marshall might have had his numbers confused though.
Any hope for a fragile peace between the Zulu tribes of South Africa and the occupying British military is flushed down the crapper following the crushing defeat of the British at the hands of native warriors at the Battle of Isandlwana. 4,000 of those Zulus are currently on the march to Rourke's Drift, a missionary station being used by the army as a supply depot and hospital for their forces fighting across the border. The only soldiers stationed there are a small company of the 24th Regiment of Foot lead by Lieutenant John Chard (Stanley Baker), an engineer who assumes command from infantry officer Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead (Michael Caine) when he receives news of the Zulu advancement despite his lack of battlefield experience. With a moderate amount of soldiers able to take up arms including the rebellious Private Hook (James Booth) and dutiful Colour Sergeant Bourne (Nigel Green), Chard and Bromhead mount a defense of Rourke's Drift against an enemy that has not just strength in numbers on their side but a willingness to fight to the bitter end. The mettle of both sides in this conflict will never again be underestimated.
One of the last truly great epic adventures of the genre's golden era, Zulu is as exciting and powerful today as it was when it was first release half a century ago. Director Cy Endfield (Mysterious Island), a victim of the black list who fled to England and made some of his best films, worked with underrated cinematographer Stephen Dade (Appointment in London) to give his film a majestic panoramic scope and an stunning eye for detail that rivals the finest achievements of John Ford, Akira Kurosawa, and David Lean. The story is built carefully around the brutal engagements between the outgunned British forces and the vastly superior Zulu warriors and allows the viewer enough time to become familiar with the most integral characters, from Baker's pragmatic engineering officer forced into a command position by dint of his rank to Caine's upper class lieutenant who comes across as a twit in the beginning but proves himself time and again over the course of the film to be a formidable opponent on the fields of battle.
Zulu has a rich ensemble of colorful characters brought to life by some of the finest actors from across Europe. Producer-star Baker (A Lizard in a Woman's Skin) brings the necessary stoic, unflappable grit and vigor to his untested commanding officer Chard, while Caine is a droll delight giving us an excellent taste of the star and acting talent he would become known for later in life. Zulu was Caine's first major film role and it turned out to be a star-making performance for him as he delivers some of the wittiest dialogue in the screenplay by Endfield and English journalist and historian John Prebble with quiet cool. Jack Hawkins (Lawrence of Arabia) impresses as a missionary who doesn't think the soldiers stand a fighting chance against the Zulus, as does James Booth (American Ninja 4) as the renegade grunt Hook who reluctantly becomes a leader in the thick of battle and the great Patrick Magee (A Clockwork Orange) as the resident overworked combat surgeon of Rourke's Drift. Swedish actress Ulla Jacobsson (Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night) lends the film some beauty and class as the daughter of Hawkins' character, and keep an eye out for Gary Bond, star of the harrowing Australian cult classic Wake in Fright, as one of the soldiers under Chard and Bromhead's command.
John Barry contributes a rousing orchestral score created in the finest epic traditions and incorporates the haunting but uplifting Welsh military anthem into one of the most memorable scenes in Zulu. Editor John Jympson, whose credits range from A Hard Day's Night to A Fish Called Wanda, crafts the exemplary footage from Endfield and Dade into a first-rate narrative that keeps up a great pace without seeming rushed and includes plenty of great character moments and enough space for the climatic battles to play out when respect to both sides of the conflict. The only flaw I have with Zulu is that though the natives are portrayed as honorable opponents instead of bloodthirsty savages we are never permitted time to get to know any of their leaders and warriors and understand their motivations and concerns as we are the British. Perhaps Endfield figured it would be enough for us to assume that the Zulus would want the English out of their country, which is perfectly explicit given that any native people would desire the same of any occupying force.
Twilight Time's limited edition Blu-ray release of Zulu features a strong and clean picture strongly identical to the restored print used for Paramount's excellent All-Region Blu-ray released in 2008. The film was shot by Dade in the Super Technirama 70 cinematographic process and released to theaters with 4-track stereo, 70mm 6-track, and mono audio depending what prints were being exhibited. Twilight Time presents Zulu in the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio remastered in 1080p high-definition and the results are outstanding. Skin tones are earthy and authentic, grain is kept to a minimum, and the magnificent cinematography looks better than ever. For audio options we are given English DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 and 2.0 soundtracks. The 2.0 is the best way to go as it carries less distortion, properly balanced volume levels, and everything sounds clear. English subtitles are also included.
The Paramount Blu-ray contained a commentary and several informative featurettes. Twilight Time didn't port any of those bonus features over for their Blu-ray and instead have tapped their resident film historians Lem Dobbs and Nick Redman for a fresh commentary that has its share of worthy observations about the film and the history behind its production. Barry's score gets its own DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 isolated track. The disc-based extras close out with a U.S. theatrical trailer for Zulu (3 minutes), a trailer for MGM's 90th Anniversary (2 minutes), and a catalog of other titles available from Twilight Time. Liner notes by Julie Kirgo are included with this disc.
The Film: 5/5
2 From Ken Loach (Riff Raff/Raining Stones)
Director - Ken Loach
Cast - Various
Country of Origin - U.K.
Written by Scott MacDonald
Ken Loach is a director whose work I have been meaning to view for some time. Criterion released a Blu-ray edition of one of his well known masterpiece Kes some time back, and Criterion sale after Criterion sale I tell myself to pick it up, and keep passing it up for some other title. Twilight Time in all their awesomeness, have seen fit to offer the perfect introductory course to film fans into the cinema of Loach in their August 2014 release schedule with not just one of his films, but a pairing of two of his better known early 90's features on a double feature Blu-ray disc.
The films are Riff-Raff and Raining Stones, and a perfect introduction to the Loach style of filmmaking. Both offer a great deal of drama, naturally played in environments that a viewer could easily relate to in situations that are easily identifiable. His characters aren't epic heroes and villains, rather they are average folks trying to make due with the hand that life has dealt them, and rather than glamorize normality, he shoots it in a stark fashion that brings the film closer to the viewer.
Riff-Raff follows Stevie played by Trainspotting's Robert Carlyle who as the film begins is a homeless drifter working on a construction site, with the help of his co-workers he finds an empty home to squat in, and soon after begins a relationship with an aspiring singer named Susan (Emer McCourt). The film follows the ups and downs of their relationship with drugs and career, and also Stevie's work life and friendships. The film feels more character based and situational than Raining Stones, which has more a typical story running through it.
Raining Stones tells the story of Bob, a dedicated Father whose daughter is on the cusp of her first communion. He wants her to have the best dress, and wants it to be new. Unfortunately, Bob doesn't have money, and must turn to illegal activities to raise money for the dress. The film is a mix of the harsh reality of Riff-Raff, and a sentimental comic piece.
The films are presented in a 1:33:1 and 1:66:1 1080p AVC encoded transfer respectively. The transfer are quite nice, and very natural looking with excellent fine detail, colors, and blacks, and of course, as would be expected with films like this a good dose of film grain. The audio presented in DTS-HD 1.0 and 2.0 English tracks is similarly suitable with dialogue and score coming through nicely. One point that did bother me (and this seems to be a commonality with TT's Film 4 releases) is the lack of a subtitle option. The extras as per TT usual is an isolated score for both films, and a booklet with liner notes by Julie Kirgo RECOMMENDED.
The Films (3.5/5)