Mona Lisa (US - BD RA)
Gabe finally watches Neil Jordon's British underground masterpiece...
Born loser George (Bob Hoskins) is released from prison after years inside, and immediately goes looking for work with his old employer, crime boss Denny Mortwell (Michael Caine). He’s given a simple, relatively responsibility-free job bussing high class call girl Simone (Cathy Tyson) from job to job at night. After developing a rather warm friendship together, Simone asks George to find a street walker friend during his daylight hours. George is then also asked by Mortwell to drudge up blackmail dirt on Simone’s clients. Both requests lead the simple man down dark roads.
Somewhere in the back of their mind all film geeks have a list of movies they swear they’re going to get around to watching someday. Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa has floated somewhere near the top of that list for a very long time (it’s been fluttering about the Netflix queue since Netflix got a copy of the Criterion DVD). I’m happy to report that the film doesn’t only stand up well to my quality expectations, it also takes on generally surprising narrative and tonal routes that really hadn’t been properly expressed in the dozens of glowing reviews I’d culled, which consistently refer to it as some kind of gangland hard case. The movie has its seedy corners and dark sides, but the more enduring qualities are touching, and occasionally downright sweet, even sentimental. I was not prepared to be delighted by the film’s affecting humanity, or for its warm-hearted, un-ironic humour. Of course the good natured comedy just makes the rough stuff smart a bit sharper, which is just good story telling.
I've also never read about any of the rather blatant similarities to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, though I'm sure I'm far from the first person to notice. In many respects George is the anti-Travis Bickle, but given similar plot elements to embrace/overcome he comes back from hardship (prison rather than War) to take a job driving people around a large city, he turns to paternal relationship protecting a prostitute (two or three in this case), and is involved with a (spoiler alert) rather violent climatic pimp slaughter (in different capacities, of course). The difference here is that George becomes entangled in violence and drama for, generally speaking, the right reasons, and despite being a little dim and impulsive, he isn’t a disturbed psychopath like Bickle. There’s also the constant subtext of George seeking a father/daughter relationship with the women in his life, whereas Bickle’s relationships stem from his irrational anger, paranoia, and need to be a hero. The similarities are likely mostly coincidental (this release features no commentary track), but make for interesting comparisons anyway.
Jordan isn’t in full-on visual feast mode just yet, so audiences on the lookout for the indelible graphic design of something like Interview with the Vampire will likely be disappointed. This isn’t even really a case of a expressionist struggling to find himself, Mona Lisa is actually a very assured naturalistic presentation, which goes out of its way to avoid drawing attention to technical aspects of production. The effect is similar to Scorsese's work on Taxi Driver, minus the longing slow motion shots, and some of the more avant-garde camera work. These stylistic choices come as somewhat of a surprise considering Jordan had just come off of a visual metaphor overload called The Company of Wolves (there is an otherwise unnecessary white horse and white rabbit here, I suppose), but the surprise is quelled when the light-hearted and fluffy nature of his next two films— High Spirits and We’re No Angels—is taken into account. I know, I didn’t remember he directed those either. I think he’d prefer it that way.
Even if it didn’t have a compelling story, or creative visuals, Mona Lisa would work through sheer will of the performances, and even if the supporting performances were weak (which they are not), Bob Hoskins is so utterly charming he could’ve carried the whole production. Hoskins has overdone this particular lovable dope (here he solves a mystery against his very nature as a relatively stupid guy) in the past several decades, but assuming you can look upon this performance with fresh-ish eyes I can’t imagine anyone not adoring George, and welling up a bit with him. Apparently this isn’t really news though, as Hoskins won the best actor BAFTA and Golden Globe, among others, and was nominated for the Oscar (he lost to old favourite Paul Newman for The Color of Money). Caine isn’t really given much room to shine, but Robbie Coltrane threatens to steal every scene he appears in from the already overwhelming Hoskins, and Cathy Tyson exhibits huge range of emotion without ever appearing unnatural. It’s tragic she didn’t have more of a post Mona Lisa career.
Here in the US we briefly had access to an anamorphic release of Mona Lisa thanks to Anchor Bay, but mostly fans were resigned to the non-amanorphic Criterion release. Image’s new Blu-ray release doesn’t look fantastic, but is an upgrade over a non-anamorphic disc any way you cut it. The vast majority of this transfer’s issues are related to the condition of the original material, rather than digital compression. There are plenty of flecks of print damage, dirt streaks, and chunks of artefact if you’re looking for them, but for the most part these are easily ignored. The grain is relatively heavy, but not oppressive. The whole film is lit in a low-key manner, so darker shots do feature an increase in grain, a loss in detail, and at their worse some minor ghosting effects, but once again this all appears to be inherent in the original material. The most expressive use of colour mostly revolves around the neon lit streets and clubs, and Robbie Coltrane’s ‘lair’, but the majority of the palette is reasonably muted and natural. The period insures that the costumes and cars feature some poppy acrylic hues, and the aforementioned neon lights create some overwhelming gel effects, that go a bit beyond the abilities of standard definition.
The box and my receiver both claim this is a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix, but my ears are hearing a perfectly acceptable, about 99% centred track. Image’s work here is comparable to Blue Underground’s recent 5.1 remixes, which really only use the stereo and surround options for musical highlights, and the LFE to round out the heavier bass. The stereo and surround channels here spike a tiny bit for crowd and street scenes, but really only impress themselves during the opening credit use of ‘Mona Lisa’ and Genesis’s ‘In Too Deep’ (bleh), both of which feature heavily and loudly in the front speakers and LFE channel. Dialogue is occasionally a bit tinny, and there are a few brief bits of misaligned lip-sync, but overall pretty natural for an older mono master.
The only extra is an extremely inappropriate US trailer.
I’m delighted by Mona Lisa, which may have just replaced Butcher Boy as my favourite Neil Jordan film. Years of glowing reviews didn’t do the film justice, not because it’s more fantastic than words can express (the ending is a bit abrupt and tied with too neat a bow), but because the descriptions that go along with those reviews seem to all completely miss how sweet and funny it is. Bob Hoskins has never been better, either. Those that own an anamorphic release might want to skip this version, which doesn’t look that much more impressive than a standard definition release, and the lack of extras is regrettable, but the price is right for the rest of us, and the film is worth revisiting.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality. They are taken from moviescreenshots.blogsport.com, and appear to be from the anamorphic UK DVD.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 24th August 2010
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH
Easter Egg: No
Director: Neil Jordan
Cast: Bob Hoskins, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane, Cathy Tyson
Genre: Comedy, Crime and Drama
Length: 104 minutes
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