Friday, December 29, 2006

Just a reminder...

... that DVD mini-reviews are appearing over on the new UK DVD Review blog rather than here. In the last few days I've added my thoughts on the DVD releases of Lost Season 2, Monster House, Renaissance and My Super Ex-Girlfriend.

I'll be posting quick reviews of the new Cinema Reserve edition of Tora! Tora! Tora!, the adrenaline-fuelled Crank, the Internet-hyped Snakes on a Plane, the 'gay art house' Ma Vrai Vie a Rouen, the surprisingly good American David Boreanaz vehicle Bones Season 1, the quintessentially English Driving Lessons and the political An Inconvenient Truth over the next few days

And a new HD-DVD Review blog will be kicking off with a review of the excellent World Trade Center HD-DVD in the new year (I'll post the URL for the HD-DVD review blog here as soon as the first reviews are available).

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas Break

So that was Christmas! And very enjoyable it was too. Quieter than normal on the day itself, with just me and Mum at her place in Southampton, where normally the whole family would gather at my sister's in Reading. But it felt much more relaxed and a lot less stressed than normal with just the two of us. Easy for me to say of course as I just ate and read while I was waited on all day long. That's the life!

The HD-DVD player got a bit of a work-out on the Saturday before I headed off to Southampton, and the only two disks with a Christmas theme that have been so far released were first up on the basis that their 'sell by' date was about to expire! Judging the HD-DVD format, or its content, based on just these two Christmas releases, is not the wisest of moves as tradition dictates that any Christmas-themed movie has to be dire by its very definition.

A Christmas Story is not a film I've ever heard of, although I gather it's up there with the likes of A Wonderful Life in the States, in terms of audience appreciation, and mainly for the same reasons (failure at the box office, followed by a growing audience that latched onto it after heavy rotation on American TV at Christmas). The HD-DVD cover is truly dreadful, giving the impression this is some sort of Home Alone kiddie-oriented fare, where in actuality it's a more adult-oriented gently nostalgic affair. Good fun to watch on Christmas Eve once you realise it's not so much the story the title implies, but a series of rather disjointed anecdotes about childhood, as told by an adult wallowing somewhat in nostalgia. The author has a James Herriott -like ability to tell a very simple story that strikes a chord at the time of viewing, albeit one that when viewed in the cold light of day doesn't really boil down to much at all. I can see why it's popular (especially Stateside) and its lack of sentimentality is a good thing, but it's certainly nowhere near the same class as A Wonderful Life.

Looking at the film in its HD-DVD incarnation the reviews of A Christmas Story have been somewhat 'mixed' - actually more like very unkind - which seems to me to be unfair. While outdoor scenes and some indoor classroom scenes look like 'reference standard' DVD (without a 1080p screen it's hard for me to judge it against anything else), indoor scenes are swathed in seemingly deliberate soft-focus sepia washed-out tones. It's an odd mix of 3D vibrant clarity one minute, and soft focus washout the next, and unfortunately the soft-focus 'family indoors' scenes make up most of the film's running time, earning it a thumbs down for the HD-DVD's picture quality rating in many quarters. I'm pretty sure the poor picture quality fault (design?) is in the original film-making rather than in the HD-DVD transfer itself. For my part, I thought the title was worth the asking price and didn't feel it merited the 'dishonourable mention' it got over at the highdef digest's review of the year!

A Christmas Story screencap

Alas, I followed A Christmas Story with National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation on HD-DVD. To read the reviews over at imdb you'd think this was one of the funniest films ever made. It's currently running an average score of 7.1 where it should have a rating of 2 or even less. This is an absolute turkey from the Ben Stiller/Will Ferrell 'why write proper jokes when you can just gurn endlessly' school of film-making. Nearly two hours of my life that I'll never get back, and a timely reminder for the new year that what used to be a great source for finding good movies that I might otherwise have missed based on ratings, has become completely unreliable as everything coalesces to the same meaningless 'average' score.

Christmas is an excuse to catch up on reading and the backlog of film magazines and SFX took up most of Christmas Day. Am I the only one who resents the way these magazines have just become inflated, pre-release advertising material for films that are months away?! The highlight was the most ridiculous Christopher Lee interview I've ever read (and let's face it there have been quite a few that could seemingly qualify for that title over the years). Mr Lee is promoting an album and genuinely appears to think he's a singer now. I laughed out loud at the pomposity of the man as he talked about his new 'career', his 'heavy metal' credentials and yet again endlessly blew his own trumpet on the one hand whilst putting the poor journalist in his place on the other, only to turn a few pages to find some whipper-snapper journalist talking about the dangers of using the 'Dracula' word when the ac-tor Mr Lee is around. I laughed so hard I spilt tea down my sweater, but suspect that even as I type legal threats are being sent in the direction of the SFX offices in Bath, which won't be funny for the poor recipient of course!

The XBox 360 UncloakedI also managed to finish The XBox 360 Uncloaked, a book I've been dipping into, a chapter at a time, over the last month or so, and which has been a fascinating read. I'm not a games player, and don't really care about the XBox 360 itself, but the book is a fascinating account of the politics and power-plays made in the games industry, and gives great insight into the way Sony and Microsoft run their businesses. It's also that rare thing in these days of 'pay the staff nothing because everybody wants to work in media and we can just copy all our material off the internet' celebrity-obsessed journalism - a very well researched book. Probably TOO well researched! At times there are too many tangents the author goes off on, and too many names and minor anecdotes, as he chases a subject obviously very dear to his heart.

Many years ago I read a book called The Soul of a New Machine, a ground-breaking 'behind the scenes' look at how DEC engineers built a new mini-computer, and the author of this XBox 360 book, Dean Takahashi, says he wanted to write a similar book about the XBox 360. I don't think he's succeeded because there are too many people involved here - it's a less 'human' book than I remember 'Soul of a New Machine' being, but one has to admire the end result nevertheless. Well worth a read if you're interested in finding out anything at all about how the games industry works.

The only telly I've seen over Christmas was the first part of Little Britain Abroad (which proved a media backlash against this 'comedic institution' is long overdue - it was consistently unfunny all the way through) and the Doctor Who Christmas special. This latter programme just proved what I've been saying all along - the series has no hope of achieving any of its potential while Russel T Davies is in charge of it. Not only was the infantile script yet another retread on his usual theme, but there were so many of his inappropriate 'flourishes' I swear he must be churning this stuff out through an automated computer programme. So yet again we got the deus ex machina ending and yet again we got the obligatory gay references (oh look two blokes kissing in the background at the wedding - how brave, and on a kids programme too! - yawnerama). But even worse than that was the cacophony of solid ear-to-ear 'orchestral' music loudly playing ALL THE WAY THROUGH IT. Somebody talking in a quiet, emotional way? Just drown it in cacaphonic orchestral music. A quiet pause between loud action scenes? Just drown it in cacaphonic orchestral music. I don't think I've EVER heard such a mess of a soundtrack, and the 'music' completely undid all the hard work David Tennant was putting in. As if he didn't have enough to contend with given Catherine Tate's rather weak attempts at 'proper' acting and a 'written by Russel, aged six of class 2B' script! Series 3 is now officially on my 'Don't watch it, no matter how strong the pull of nostalgia' list, with the exception of the Stephen Moffat -penned episode if I spot it in the schedules in time. An unopened copy of Torchwood Part 1 on DVD sits in front of me and I really don't know that I can be bothered to open it or invest any time at all in watching it now, despite assurances from friends that 'after a slow start it gets much better than awful Doctor Who'.

Well that's the 'fun' stuff out the way. Alas, from hereonin, it's study and work for the rest of the holiday. Arriving back in London my usual insomniac's sleep pattern has returned (woke up at 3.30am and couldn't get back to sleep) - it seems there really is something about country air being better for you since I had the best night's sleep I've had in a long time on Christmas Eve in Southampton. I've ended up mapping out the next few days in terms of study to be achieved, and it's frightening how full the next few days look with my hopes of making progress on several fronts being thwarted by the sheer lack of hours in a day. My schedule includes a daily movie 'reward' at the end of each day (and a backlog DVD review too as I've been very lax on these recently) and it's hit and miss as to whether it's the studying or the movie watching that will get bumped as the schedule starts to slip! The new year will be here before I want it, I just know it!

Friday, December 15, 2006

That's Christmas Sorted!

XBox 360 DVD drive and a stack of HD-DVDs

Still no word from Amazon, after their email promise to investigate the shambles that is their ordering system and get back to me about the XBox HD-DVD player I ordered from them at the beginning of October which has never been despatched. It's now two weeks since their promise that they were taking the matter seriously and would get back to me! So thank goodness for MovieTyme who have saved the day. The unit I ordered from the States only last Friday evening arrived at work today.

Alas, work is even more manic than usual at the moment which means I've got to go into work on Sunday (no fun). And I've gone down with a stinker of a cold so plan on spending as much of Saturday as I can in bed, recuperating. I'm also about half way through Lost Season 2 and hooked again(it works so much better without all the TV ad breaks), even if it is on boring old 'standard' definiton DVD, rather than shiny, sexy new high definition DVD.

So the new unit isn't going to get opened and tested until Christmas weekend.

I just hope it doesn't turn out to be a defective unit - I've got way too many HD-DVD movies stacked up ready to watch over the Christmas break, and don't want my plans for a lazy, laid-back break wrecked on account of broken hardware! Touch wood, Microsoft have saved my sanity over the last few weeks. The high-end Toshiba DVD player is STILL in the repair shop with no date for when it will be fixed, so I'm reliant on my old XBox player for watching DVDs, and now the XBox 360 add-on player for my HD-DVDs.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Six Questions For Amazon UK That They Refuse to Answer

1. Why have people who pre-ordered the XBox 360 HD-DVD on the 13th October been told "no drives before Christmas" while those who ordered after that date (on the 17th) received their orders?

2. Why have those customers given a tip off that if they changed their method of delivery from the free 2-3 day option to the expensive 'next day' express option they'd move to the head of the queue, been given priority on any new shipments of their pre-ordered goods, regardless of the date they ordered their item?

3. Why have several of those who emailed you to complain that they had to upgrade their method of delivery for the more expensive option to receive their pre-ordered goods been given a refund of the extra delivery amount and received their goods, while those not realising the games that could be played to jump the queue are still waiting and have no idea of when they will receive their pre-ordered goods?

4. Why no communication from you about your complete inability to deliver to the 'expected date' that you agreed and have rigidly maintained for the last 3 months but which has now long since passed?

5. Why when customers point out their anger and disgust at the way you have no proper priority system, no consistent 'story' for the customers who phone you to complain, no consistency in how you handle orders, do you apologise, say you are taking the matter very seriously, promise you will look into things and get back to those customers, but then consistently and repeatedly not do so? (it's more than a week since you sent promises to those who emailed you that you would 'get back to them')

6. Why have you not learnt the lesson from last year when customers who pre-ordered the XBox 360 from you (not me, thankfully!) found themselves in exactly the same situation with regard to misinformation, automated 'apologies', and assurances that these 'mistakes' would not happen again?

I've complained about Amazon UK on this blog before. I don't understand why so many people put so much business their way when their customer service is so appalling. I guess it's because we're British. We don't complain. We just put up with completely shoddy service and give those companies more business because it somehow appears more convenient.

The HD-DVD discs I've been collecting, in anticipation of the general shortage of the discs as well as the players, will hopefully get to be viewed in a few weeks time now that I've found an alternative import supplier at (£30 over the British price, which is gouging the market, given the cost in America of the unit, but they have a LOT of happy ex-Amazon customers). Needless to say my order placed with Amazon on 15th October has been cancelled and no matter how tempting their prices or delivery estimates might appear they won't get any new orders for so much as a CD or book from me.

Looking back, I don't think I've had a single item delivered by their so-called 'expected' delivery date in all my years of using them, even when such items are displayed as 'in stock'. But, being British, I've carried on using them regardless. Never again! People say I've just been 'unlucky'. My answer to that is that if you pop over to you'll see there's a hell of a lot of people who seem to have been just as 'unlucky' where Amazon are concerned. And must be very happy that their profits are soaring thanks to so many 'unlucky' Amazon customers!

Saturday, December 09, 2006

National Portrait Gallery - Philip Hoare on the Pet Shop Boys

On Thursday evening I went to a talk by Philip Hoare entitled 'Pet Shop Boys Catalogue' at the National Portrait Gallery.

Hoare is the co-author of the coffee-table book Catalogue that was released a few weeks ago. The book is pretty much what it says - a bulky lavish document paying homage to the imagery and product that the pop group have released over the last 25 years. The only other 'completist' PSB fan that I know (Hi Birdy!) thought the whole book idea redundant and pointless, and, having bought the book, I can sort of see where he's coming from. Do you really need a photographic record of all the product the group have put out when you already have that product anyway? The book was apparently intended to accompany a high profile exhibition in an American art gallery, which subsequently fell through. Nevertheless it's a lavishly produced item and fans will no doubt be happy with it. It's fun to dip into occasionally, if only to remind yourself of the quality and diversity of the band's work over the years.

Hoare will be hosting another event at The National Gallery in January, when he interviews Neil Tennant. It's a somewhat disappointing indictment of our 'cult of celebrity' society that while that event sold out almost immediately (I have a ticket so will no doubt have further things to say at the time), this one was delievered towards rather a lot of empty seats, particularly towards the front of what was a fairly small lecture theatre to start with. Maybe I'm being unfair as to why the Tennant talk sold out and the book author talk was so quiet, and the attendees stayed away because they got wind of what the talk would be like, because, frankly, I thought it was an hour of rambling and rather pretentious tosh. On the plus side there were some nice photo's projected on the big screen behind Hoare while he talked and the Q & A which followed the talk wasn't the usual 'Can I have your autograph?' nonsense that such fan events tend to quickly turn into.

Hoare's talk was centred mainly around the similarities and influence of Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde! Needless to say, I found it all extremely thin, like some school boy essay trying to justify something as being 'higher' art than it really and having no real content. Let's face it, the comparisons between these two rather camp stereotypes (Coward and Wilde) and Tennant when he's in plum-voiced, patronising, 'I'm delivering edicts from the philosophy of the Pet Shop Boys pop' mode are fairly obvious, but so what? Too much of the talk seemed to me to be 'stating the blooming obvious', and while the remainder of the talk at least gave a quick summary overview of the career of The Pet Shop Boys, given the fan boy audience, it all seemed somewhat redundant.

For me, the Q & A session after the talk was more interesting than the talk itself had been, with questions being pretty much serving as an excuse for Hoare to discuss 'what the band are really like' and pass on some gossip. Hoare, by his own admission, is not exactly discrete, and I know this makes me a bad person but I found the tittle-tattle about the two band members more interesting than any luvvie nonsense about what a great art institution (and geniuses to boot) the group are.

The other 'problem' I had with the event is my dislike of the whole 'hard core fan' thing (whatever the thing is that people are a fan of). The people around me seemed nice enough, but when everybody recognises everybody else (solely from fan-oriented events) and the conversations around you seem to be entirely about previous events, with the main theme being talk about days off work, travel and hotel booking for the next signing event from 'the boys', it all seems to err a little bit too much the wrong side of the thin line between being a fan and being stalkerish and scary. Particularly when, unlike say The Lord of the Rings fan base, with which I've become most familiar, the audience seem to be mainly 35-55 year old gay men!

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Separate DVD Review Blog Now Launched

I've finally copied all the DVD reviews from this blog to their new home at which means new DVD reviews are now being added to that blog:

UK DVD Reveiw blog

The new blog has launched with reviews for Cars, Joyeux Noel and Love in Thoughts. New reviews will be appearing one-per-day over the next week or so as I catch up with the backlog that's built up over the last two weeks.

You can subscribe to the RSS (Atom) feed of the new blog using this link. In the meantime, this Personal Blog isn't going away. I'll still be updating it with everything EXCEPT DVD (and when the players finally launch) HD-DVD reviews.

My 'hub' web site of hasn't been updated with links to the new reviews yet, but that's because it's about to become a real (ie programmed) site rather than a static one so that I can add things like Search functionality for different DVD reviews rather than having an ever-growing long list. So bear with me on that front (there just aren't enough hours in a day!)

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Pan's Labyrinth at the NFT

Pan's Labyrinth, the latest film from Mexican horror director, Guillermo del Toro, went on limited general release yesterday (Friday) and earlier this week I went to a screening of the film at the NFT that was followed by an interview/Q & A session with the director.

The film was introduced by film critic Mark Kermode as "the Citizen Kane of the fantasy world" which is a rather silly claim to make, but probably one to be expected from a critic who STILL seems to think that The Exorcist is the best film ever made. I enjoy Mark's review programme on Radio 5 (and downloadable via podcast) and his very individual style, but sometimes he can get somewhat carried away!

That being said, Pan's Labyrinth (actually called 'The Fawn's Labyrinth' in its native Spanish) is a wonderful film, albeit one that is extremely violent in places. I've very much enjoyed what I've seen of the director's previous work - Mimic and Hellboy, if we're being precise - but this was the first film I'd seen in the director's native language (it's an English subtitled movie) and which apparently he's been able to make without any external interferences. It's currently being advertised as a fairy tale for adults, and there's a danger that with the fantasy elements that are appearing in magazines and reviews, people will think this is a movie for children, which it most definitely isn't. I won't say any more because there are reviews everywhere, but suffice to say this is a powerful, affecting film that I think is genuinely deserving of the 'masterpiece' accolade that many critics are throwing at it.

The Q & A session I attended after the screening was a little disappointing, because it merely repeated everything that had already been covered in Kermode's article on the film that appeared in the December issue of Sight & Sound. I also felt that Kermode could have been better prepared and more focused with his questions, rather than adopting the 'Me, me, me!' lecturing style which works well on radio, but not so well when your job is to interview a guest. However Guillermo is always good value for money (I'd enjoyed hearing him speak at Comic Con in San Diego when he was promoting the upcoming Hellboy) and it was good to hear him speak directly about the film, and the nightmares of his past experiences in film-making. The special effects in the film are fantastic, and it's amazing to learn that the film only had a budget of 13.5 million Euro's - it looks like a far bigger budgeted movie.

After the screening I went for a bite to eat with friends Brian and David, and the meal had a couple of surprises (aside from the Christmas menu, featuring a Christmas pizza, that was already in place mid-November). We found ourselves on a table opposite Michael Palin and then an old friend/former work colleague from IBM that I hadn't seen for a year or so appeared from nowhere to say hi.

Pan's Labyrinth is apparently a 'sister movie' to Guillermo's earlier film The Devil's Backbone and I'm now seeking it out on DVD. But Pan's Labyrinth is a masterpiece in its own right and I encourage any readers over the age of 16 to go and see it. It's encouraging that in the homogenised world of the braindead 'blockbuster' (I saw Pirates of the Caribbean 2 last week - enough said!) there are still individual, independent film-makers out there able to make films as original and classy as this. Highly recommended!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Why no new reviews?

Apologies for the fact there have been no reviews for a while! I blame Google (who now run these blogs - aaarrrrggghhh!)

I'm migrating all the DVD reviews over to their new "Home" - but it's taking a lot longer than it should. If you post more than a certain number of entries in a day a "spam" filter kicks in and it becomes impossible to post.

The idea is that this blog really will become what was originally intended (ie a personal blog, with comments on books, movies, theatre, whatever's happening in life that has nothing to do with work) while all the DVD and HD-DVD stuff will get their own separate blogs over at and

Alas, there are a lot of problems because Google have a "new" set of beta blogging software (why is everything at Google called beta even months after it's gone live? Could it be because they never finish their software properly and so are attempting to explain this by having all their stuff permanently displayed to the public as "beta", as if it's something sexy and cool and that we should be proud of?) The help pages often bear no relation to the reality of the software as it performs, the problems you're having, or the fact you're locked out of posting. Which makes setting up a new blog a complete pain in the derriere.

I guess they'll update the "How do I?..." FAQ pages after they've squashed the many bugs with the new system that users are reporting over on the public blogger forums (am I overly-optimistic, or what?!! ;-)). In the meantime other bloggers are trying to help each other over on the public forums, so it's not all hopeless.

But needless to say I am NOT going to be in a rush to migrate THIS blog to the new format any time soon, despite the constant nagging every time I log in, telling me I really should migrate this forum to the "new" format. No thanks! Unlike the new software this "old" stuff still works (kinda!) - a bit like me, really!

In the meantime, the DVD watching has suffered a little because the flagship DVD player is still with Toshiba's official repair company. The "We'll phone you at the start of the week with an estimate to repair" turned into me phoning them at the end of the week to ask why nobody had phoned, only to be told "We're talking to Toshiba and will call you tomorrow" - they didn't! So I'm reviewing new DVDs on a noisy old XBox that gives a pretty good picture on a 50" plasma - "pretty good" considering the cheap price of the XBox and the fact it was never really meant to be a main DVD player - but frankly it isn't great when there's a lot of motion and it's hard to use it as any sort of measure of DVD picture quality.

In the meantime Toshiba have much egg on face owing to the fact that their high definition format (HD-DVD) players that were due in early November are now "officially acknowledged" as being delayed. It seems only a handful of lucky people will get the early basic player (Toshiba are launching two models) this side of Christmas. The expanded model with more features that was due at the end of November is now rumoured to be slipping to February - at the earliest! Way to stop Blu-Ray, you morons!

Blu-Ray have already won the media marketing war about new hi-def formats. Despite players that are broken and cost six times what anybody's prepared to pay, and disks that look rubbish despite the supperior technology because of the crappy codec and lack of software authoring tools Blu-Ray marketing is everywhere in the media! This is only the battle for what will take over after DVD in the average living room, so why should Toshiba care about their technically inferior format actually winning by having any sort of quality control? Or have customer support that has ANY kind of clue what it's talking about?

Maybe I shouldn't rant at Toshiba so much - after all, they've only had seven months since the US launch (where they started as the underdog but appear to be "winning" the great hi-def war at the moment) to get this right?! The whole of the European market for the next 10 years? Pah! Like I said, Way to go Toshiba!

The excuses from Toshiba for the delay have been hilarious and left right until the very last minute, varying from "They're here, but stuck in customs" (the same excuse used when their new LCD TVs were late back in May) to a final press release that announced "there's a very minor problem with one of the chips from an outside supplier but we care about quality blah-blah-blah". The signs were all there when they were trying to tell people at the What Hi Fi? show the player would be out in 2 weeks and had a 'smoke and mirrors' display that showed shells of the new players seemingly hooked up to the TVs on display. Behind the scenes the older American first generation players with big transformers to convert the voltage to UK 240 volts were what was actually being used.

It's enough to make you want to jump ship and deal with arrogant Sony and their seriously broken Blu-Ray format, if not for the fact that Microsoft seem to have come to the rescue with their HD-DVD add-on for the XBox 360 (albeit one in limited supply - thank God for Amazon pre-orders!)

Sad fact: I now have over 30 HD-DVD disks waiting to be watched/reviewed and still nothing to play them on. There's an important message in there about why you should NEVER become an early adopter!

Oh, and while I'm on the subject DON'T ever buy any UK-released HD-DVDs - there's no region differences any more (all HD-DVDs play on all HD-DVD players regardless of country) so the only reason for buying a UK-issued HD-DVD is (a) because you like paying twice the price for each film (b) you like cases that take up twice the room on your shelf and have annoying empty extra prongs for a non-existent booklet added to them (c) you don't care about getting vaguely decent films to watch (d) you are happy for the UK distribution companies to take off all the interesting extra's on the original US releases to make space for foreign language stuff instead just in case you ever decide you want to watch the film in any one of over 20 bizarre Eastern-European soundtracks at some point in the future. Enough said!

Anyway, as is usually the case with these mini-rants, I have digressed from the subject at hand: new DVD reviews! So here's the position....

I have a stack of NEW DVD reviews piled up waiting to go "Pirates of the Carribean: Dead Man's Chest" (lousy, lousy movie, great, great extra's), "Joyeux Noel" (wonderful World War I film), "Balls" (good feel-good 'gay football' comedy - who knew the Germans had a sense of humour?!! ;-)), "Pet Shop Boys - A Life in Pop" (great for fans, dull otherwise), and a few others I prefer to be a surprise waiting to be published. I guess they'll be appearing one-per-day on the new blog over the next week or two once I've caught up with moving the old reviews across.

I'll make a new post here when the new blog is ready!

Saturday, November 04, 2006

End of the Week Catch-up/DVD Reviews

A whole week off (or maybe not!)

I had the whole of next week booked off as a holiday. A chance to do some studying for exams and also hopefully to get through the 24: Season 5 DVD box set which is officially out on Monday. Alas, I went down with a stinker of a cold on Monday and although better by Thursday it made more sense to just count my "sick" week as the holiday (being self-employed I don't get paid when I'm sick) and go back to work on Monday. No fun! One side-effect of this was that I also missed Hollywoodland as part of the London Film Festival screenings, although thankfully I was better in time for the Thursday night closing gala premiere of Babel.

London Film Festival: Babel

I'm glad I was feeling better by the time Babel came around. It's not an easy watch, but very powerful nonetheless. The cast are uniformly excellent and the three separate stories that are intertwined, albeit with some juxtapositions of time, are powerful, if somewhat self-indulgent in the Japanese scenes. It's a film I'm still thinking about a couple of days later, which is always a good sign :). My friend Brian Sibley who came to the screening with me tells me that the film isn't officially released in the UK until January, which seems a bit far off, but this is one well worth watching out for. The only real downside to the presentation in Leicester Square was the volume of sound. Normally I struggle to hear the sound and I complain that they need to turn the volume up. With Babel I was desperately hoping they'd turn the volume down - way down - it was ridiculously deafening!

From Hi-Def to Very Low Def

I've started buying movies on High Definition DVD (HD-DVD), ready for the arrival of the first HD-DVD players in the UK. On Friday, against the doctor's advice ('stay in bed' had been the advice on Monday) I went to the What Hi-Fi? show to see some hi-def demo's. The show itself was disappointing and not worth the £15 (£13 with pre-booked online tickets) asking price but at least I got to see some of the new display devices and to see Blu-Ray and HD-DVD demonstrations. Neither of them really struck me as THAT much better than the best DVD disks, but since we're starting to see 'day and date' releases of DVD and HD-DVD titles I'm making the switch anyway rather than buying what will eventually become obsolete, inferior resolution formats. Alas on the day that Toshiba announced that the player I've been waiting on is being delayed to January (originally expected mid-November) my main DVD player has started throwing 'Check disk' errors and needs repairing. The new HD-DVD players can play both ordinary DVDs and the new format, but I can't wait until January for a DVD player. My existing player, a Toshiba SD-900E, is not a cheap model and although I have a cheap spare in my study it doesn't have the component output my plasma needs, so I'm reduced to watching DVDs on the plasma through an XBox player which gives a noticeably inferior picture. I decided to pay the no-doubt extortionate repair charge for the Toshiba SD-900E and sounded the nearest repair centre (10 miles away) about an estimate and arranged to take it to them. Except the car wouldn't start. The battery is completely dead and this is the highlight of owning a Mini Cooper S - leave it for more than a week or so and the battery dies - on this occassion it had REALLY died and wouldn't even display any of the electric data when the key was inserted. So no DVD player! The car is now running (thanks David!) but too late to get the DVD player to Toshiba until next Saturday (I wasted four hours today trying to get to them before they closed, but failed thanks to God-awful London traffic).

DVD Reviews On Hold

The DVD reviews are therefore on hold. To be honest I was looking at moving them elsewhere anyway as this blog had subtly changed from being Irascible Ian's Personal Blog to Ian's DVD Reviews and needs to somehow reflect that. I own the domain name but am not sure yet whether to use that domain name for a new HD-DVD blog, to use it for both HD-DVD and DVD reviews or to move reviews to another address. I'll post here when I make up my mind, probably not until the end of the year as software will take a while to write and spare time is one thing I never seem to have :(

Mini DVD Reviews

In the meantime I did get to see Entourage - The Complete Series 1 on DVD (officially out last Monday) and Doctor Who: Invasion (officially out next Monday) before the DVD player died. I was really disappointed with Entourage given the rave critical reviews. I didn't laugh once - I guess I'm just not of an age where I find four American brats talking about "ho's and bitches" funny, no matter how much it sends up Hollywood, or how well written it is. Not a bad show, just one that I feel promotes the sort of lifestyle that makes having any sort of dealing with today's youth a nightmare. Guess I am now officially old! The series is based largely on the experience of Mark Wahlberg, so I shouldn't be surprised. I've always thought him a tosser, probably because of his Marky Mark days where he performed with some homophobic 'Kill the batty boys' rap artist on The Word and refused to condemn or even disagree with his colleague when Mark Lamarr lost his temper with him for encouraging people to kill gays. Enough said! Nothing about Entourage made me think my initial judgement that Wahlberg is a dumb schmuck who just got lucky was in any way wrong, and to see a series glorifying a guy who treats women like shit as 'the nice one' says it all really!

Doctor Who: Invasion was more fun for me, coming from the old black and white Patrick Troughton era. Two of this seven-episode cybermen story are lost for good but the BBC still has sound recordings so they've animated the two missing episodes. I only have very vague memories of the original broadcast, and of course by modern standards, the story is way too slow moving, but far scarier than anything new Who (or even the disappointing Torchwood) is throwing at us. The two animated episodes work very well - in fact I prefer the cartoons to the televised episodes. An interesting curiosity and one, I suspect, that we'll see more of in future releases. The Beeb have a lot of 'lost' episodes, although they often still have the sound recordings, and this clever way of making the episodes releasable on a visual format really worked for me, so I'll be surprised if we don't see more of it in future.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

Oh! What a Lovely WarFans of Richard Attenborough's directorial debut, Oh! What a Lovely War have had to wait a long time for this fantasy-vs-reality musical to appear on DVD, apparently because of issues around obtaining the required World War I song rights.

But this famous anti-war film has arrived at last - with a stunning transfer, a rather lavish package comprising generous digi-pack with slip case, and a rock-bottom price to boot. What's not to like?

Well, quite a lot probably and I should point out right from the off that the film won't be to everyone's taste. Its attempt to tell the story of World War I as a sort of musical that keeps shifting from a theatrical presentation recorded mainly on Brighton pier, to a more realistic portrayal in the mud-drenched trenches, won't be to everyone's taste. This is in no way a 'normal' film, and it doesn't help itself with a long introduction which tries to give us the background to the start of the War. There are too many facts and figures - the latter respresented by the aristocracy of British acting talent - assaulting the viewer from all sides, making it hard to ease into the film. The fact that most of this is delivered on a single theatrical 'stage', rather than against a more cinematic backdrop, only adds to the confusion, and it takes about 20 minutes to settle into the odd rhythm of the film and the way it switches between theatrical fantasy and cinematic reality.

However, settle back and let the film work its not inconsiderable charms on you and the chances are you'll be won over by the end, which arrives with some poignancy 2 hours and 20 minutes later.

Putting aside the unusual musical nature of the film, it would be a 'must see' for any film enthusiast, if only for the cast list. The film features the veritable cream of the crop of British acting talent from the late 1960's: Laurence Olivier (ridiculously over-the-top as an upper-class idiot general), John Gielgud, John Mills, Kenneth More, Dirk Bogarde, Jack Hawkins,Maggie Smith seemingly all of the Redgrave clan,... and many more besides appear throughout. It's hard to remember seeing quite so much major league talent appearing in a single film.

The anti-war message of the film is one worth telling, albeit one we seem to keep ignoring, and there are some very clever transitions and machinations used to switch us between the fantasy and reality elements of the film. However, at times the film feels just a little TOO clever, and the message just a little TOO obvious, with the satire appearing well-thought-out, but dare-I-say-it a little dull and slow-moving in places? The artificie of using poppies to denote death and blood is cute, but over-used and there are times when one feels one is being hit over the head with a sledge-hammer with the basic message about the evils of War and class difference.

In a world of over-priced two disk DVD sets that contain little to justify a single disk let alone a second, this DVD release is a real treat, although I'm still trying to work out how they managed to squeeze so much onto a single disk without compromising the picture quality.

A comprehensive 16 page booklet is included, as is a commentary from director Richard Attenborough (his first!), and an interesting 70 minute documentary, foolishly presented as if it were three separate parts with titles that bear little relation to the actual contents. This latter feature, presented in anamorphic widescreen, features the director and a few of the remaining cast members sharing their reminisces about the film, although at times these are extremely thin. There are some extremely bizarre close-ups of those involved looking straight at camera for a few seconds towards the end and the subjects look almost as uncomfortable as we viewers feel wathcing it - what was the director thinking? Anybody whose seen those silly ITV trailers where key cast memebers are made to sit on podiums staring straight to camera as it circles them for no apparent reason, and lingering on them for far too long will know what I mean!

The commentary is a disappointing affair, with Attenborough spending almost the entire two hours talking about the war itself rather than the film, more often than not telling us what he's already made blindingly obvious on the screen as if we were dunces not able to follow the meaning of song lyrics or what we're seeing. But it's rather churlish to criticise given that the main feature here is the film, and the transfer is nothing short of stunning. I challenge anyone to find a single fleck of dust or speckle on this master copy. Occasionally the picture appears a little soft, but this appears to be down to the originally shot footage because at other times the picture is so clear it's like looking at 3D.

As I said in my intro, this won't be to everybody's taste, but if you're up for a fairly unique experiment in cinema, a cast list to die for, and some thoughtful direction with good cinematography this DVD comes recommended. And given its generous packaging and bargain basement pricing I'd say this one's definitely a purchase rather than a rental!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

London Film Festival: 'For Your Consideration' Screening

Had my first disappointment of the London Film Festival with the screening of For Your Consideration at the Odeon West End in Leicester Square.

In many ways this is my own fault. I love American TV comedy, which is usually far superior to our own British sit-coms, but so-called 'funny' movies leave me cold. The "brat pack" of the endlessly-gurning Saturday Night Live crowd (Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Owen whateverhisnameis) have me running a mile, and given the choice between watching Jack Black and his so-called 'wit' or watching paint dry for two hours I'd choose the latter every time. But director/writer Christopher Guest wrote Best in Show which I loved, and the idea of mixing his dry humour and satire with Hollywood oscar campaigns seemed too good an opportunity to miss

Alas, the jokes are pretty thin on the ground, and Guest's approach of 'let's improv around a very thin skeleton of a script' (ie any real jokes!) is risky. It's blatently obvious that nobody could be bothered to write any really funny or clever jokes, and the movie is mostly reduced to variations of what we've already seen in his previous movies

Even our own Ricky Gervaise resorts to reprising his David Brent character from The Office. There are some laughs here, mainly based around doing send-ups of existing American entertainment review programmes, but not enough to sustain a movie, and this all felt like a rather weak hour of American sit-com rather than a proper film.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was the appearance of the end credits just as the film seemed to be starting up. This is a VERY short film, which only added to the feeling of being generally ripped-off. At £12 admission and £6 for the tube fare each way (Ken Livingstone seems to be getting away with murder on underground rail pricing) this was an expensive trip for not much over 60 minutes entertainment.

I wasn't impressed with The Odeon West End either - although that may have more to do with the braying upper-class twit sat next to me, who seemed to think that every second sentence spoken needed him to rock backwards and forwards in hysterics, rather like an epileptic having a bad fit, so that the whole row of seats shook like a roller-coaster ride seat for most of the film's duration.

I'm not sure when For Your Consideration goes on general release, but when it does (IF it does!) I'd say give it a miss!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Hard Candy (2006)

Hard Candy.Good thrillers will have you on the edge of your seat all the way through. If you're male then Hard Candy will certainly have you doing that, but probably with your legs tightly crossed at the same time!

The 'gimmick' (as the producer calls it) is the story of predator and prey, and the tables being turned. Jeff, a thirty-two year old paedophile played by Patrick Wilson, appears to have 'groomed' fourteen year old Hayley, played by Ellen Page, on the internet over a period of a few weeks and the film starts with their first real life meeting. But Hayley isn't as innocent as she appears, and very soon the tables are turned with predator Jeff becoming Hayley's prey.

In the wrong hands the 'gimmick' could have been a disaster and, to be honest, the basic premise isn't one I can see appealing to a lot of the movie-going public. But what's important here is that the 'gimmick' is just a basic starting point for a film that is beautifully written, superbly acted and has a visual style and quality that totally belies its 'two people in a house for 100 minutes' indie origins. It's hard to discuss the film without giving anything away, but suffice to say it's a powerful film that will have you alternately sympathising with one character and then the other as each new reveal becomes apparent. It reminds me very much of the excellent The 28th Day, but done in a much more cinematic fashion, and one that belies its small budget.

The critics don't seem to have taken to the film as enthusiastically as one might expect. I think this is down to the unease about the subject matter. The paedophile seems a nice, laid back guy, and isn't villainised the way one would expect, at least not for the bulk of the movie. This is the paedophile as 'the nice man next door', not as some sort of media-charicatured monster. The film has sado-mashochistic horror echoes of films like SAW or Hostel, and one feels part voyeur to what happens, which is not pleasant, but ironically unlike these other films there's no real on-screen violence. It's a psychological thriller, with much of the violence merely suggested, but in such a way the viewer is convinced they've seen it. If the film has a problem it's that it assumes too much intelligence on the viewer's part, and is too subtle in the way it handles some of the reveals. It's not overly clear that the central violent torture in the middle act hasn't actually happened the way it might appear (a single whispered line 'I'm all here' and a video tape reveal are the only clues that the Jeff character - and we as an audience - have been cleverly deceived). And there's a scene kicking off the final act that seems a little implausible - but heck, this is 'the movies' and brilliantly constructed traps are allowed to happen without upset, in a way they wouldn't in the real world.

Ellen Page, last seen as Kittie Pryde in X-Men III: The Last Stand, is frankly amazing as the 'innocent' 14 year old (the actress is 19 years old in real life) who turns into a paedophile's worst nightmare. This is oscar-worthy acting and one doesn't expect that from an actress so young. Patrick Wilson shows he's an incredibly versatile actor, with a performance very different from those he gave in The Phantom of the Opera or the Emmy-award winning Angels in America TV series. He plays a difficult role so believably and 'guy next door' at the start that you automatically find yourself taking his side before witnessing the destruction of the man within, feeling his pain and anguish every step of the way. The final twist (if it is a twist) is likely to leave you thinking long and hard about what you've seen, and man's responsibility for his actions. I doesn't give pat answers, but it does supply enough of a resolution for the viewer to feel satisified at the end of the film. All-in-all I thought it was a very powerful film!

Director David Slade proves an impressive first-time feature film director. Everything about the film is perfectly crafted, from the colour palette, the set design and use of pans, long lenses and close-ups, and the use of music (a mere 9 minutes total including the opening and closing titles). It's staggering to find the whole thing was completed in just three weeks of filming. I can't wait to see more of Slade's work.

If you think the film's awkward to sit through, try the 50 minute 'Making of' documentary! Director David Slade is not a 'natural' performer and his constant twitchiness, and nervousness in discussing his work doesn't make for easy viewing. That being said, it does give good insight to the whole film-making process and subsequent marketing, without resorting to the usual marketing fluff. It's more a documentary than a featurette, which is a good thing! It's not often that featurettes this good accompany a low-budget film that's this recent.

Thankfully the director comes across MUCH better on the main commentary track, which he shares with the writer Brian Nelson, and it's a refreshing change to have a commentary track that isn't just an aural copy of the material we've already heard in the featurette. A second commentary features the two main leads discussing their experiences. It's a fun listen, if a little light on real insight. Rounding out the package are some extended/deleted scenes and a ten minute featurette, 'Controversial Confection' with the producer/director/cast discussing the subject matter of the film and some of the extreme reactions to it.

I'd be very surprised if, at the end of the year, this film wasn't in my 'Top Three Films of 2006'. Rent it or buy it but whatever you do try and see it, unless you're one of those people who are very squeamish and prefer your films to be light and fluffy and answer all the questions you might have by the time it finishes.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Little Fish (2006)

Little FishAny film starring Cate Blanchett is usually pretty much guaranteed to be a must-see, and with five Australian Film Awards behind it, and a pretty enthusiastic rating on the critics round-up site Rotten Tomatoes, Little Fish seemed like a sure-fire hit.

There's just one fly in the ointment - the British press were consistently luke-warm about the film, despite all those 'Australian oscars'.

Sadly I think the British press got it right. While there's a lot to admire here - the acting in particular - the cliched story of a recovering drug addict trying to do good but getting dragged down by family and friends is all a bit TOO familiar. Familiarity is sometimes OK, but in Little Fish comparisons don't do the film any favours. The biggest fault is that there are just too many characters introduced too quickly, and explanations of their relationships are only hinted at because the director thinks you shouldn't need to spell everything out. The problem is when you've thrown everything except the kitchen sink into the whole 'let's give the characters some back story' angle, but only leave subtle hints as to what those back stories are it all gets very confusing very quickly. Sometimes less is more when trying to give characters afflictions or problems by way of explaining what makes them act the way they do. And in a story this 'thin' adding ridiculous layers of back-story just smacks of desperation in the face of a lack of real story.

The often shaky hand-held camera-work, green-tinged colour, ridiculously long lenses as the film progresses, and deliberately unsettling 'music' all serve to irritate, in a 'Oh the director's sign-posting the fact this is a world cinema indie film dahling' way. It would have been better if he'd tried to give the film a more cohesive narrative structure. And then there's the film's final act - a real mess of a 'climax', and an unsatisfying one too.

Fortunately the world-class acting on display here saves things somewhat. Blanchett is a strong and convincing as she's ever been, playing Tracy, a hard-working, but downtrodden ex-junkie desperately trying not to get sucked back into the nightmare addiction she's escaped. After four years working in a video store she is trying to raise the capital to start her own business, but the world seems set against her. Despite her virtuoso performance she nearly has the film stolen from under her nose by Hugo Weaving playing the part of Lionel, a former football star but now a gay junkie and the 'father figure' for Blanchett's character. It's a million miles away from Matrix and The Lord of the Rings for this actor. In a beautifully crafted performance Weaving has you laughing out loud one minute, and then weeping in sadness the next, with a moving portrayal of a character who's not been strong enough to deal with what life's thrown at him, and has a 'good heart' underneath all the surface problems. Sam Neill too turns in a nice performance as a ruthless (and also gay) gangster who becomes involved with members of Tracy's family.

The transfer is excellent, although as a low-budget film this is not going to be a show-case in many of the big-screen stores. Tartan are pretty reliable in terms of the format of their DVDs and, as with previous releases, they provide a DTS sound-track as well as the usual Dolby Digital one, a low-budget but intelligent interview with the director and a chapter index leaflet that includes a two-page article on the film. Also included are a director's commentary (dull, dull, dull!) and a 20-minute 'Making of' that features all the main cast and manages to just about tread a thin line between being a fascinating documentary on one side and gushing , self-indulgent marketing fluff on the other. It's not great, but it'll do! There are also a few short deleted scenes with an optional director and writer commentary, as well as a trailer for the film.

Despite the extra's, the excellent cast, and the professional Tartan presentation, the film is ultimately a disappointment. Worth a rental, but having seen it it's hard to imagine anybody wanting to see it again. If 'real' working-class life is your thing, then Gary Oldman's Nil by Mouth did this sort of thing so much better a few years ago.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

London Film Festival: Great Expectations Restoration (1946)

Great ExpectationsLast night I went to the BFI screening of their new restoration of David Lean's Great Expectations from 1946, and I must say it turned out to be a treat.

The NFT policy of 'no food or drinks' really does help make the cinema experience an enjoyable one. Only two cinema trips in the last few years have been free of noise, interruptions and mobile phones going off - and both of them were the only two viewings I've had at the NFT. I suspect the lack of any children present on both occasions had something to do with it.

Anyway, the screening was preceded by a short intro from the director of the BFI and an account of the restoration from one of the chief restorers. I don't think I've seen the film in its entirety before (I have vague memories of the opening convict scenes from a childhood viewing on TV, but nothing more) and haven't read the book, so it was easy to be taken along by the story, and although I could see the misdirection with regard to who Pip's benefactor might be coming a mile away, there were plenty of other twists I didn't see coming. I loved the minor characters and the comedy, which still holds up today, and found the film quite enchanting and a bit of a revelation. I am starting to realise just how many true gems that were made before I was born I seem to have managed to miss out on over the years.

That being said, I'm not totally convinced John Mills was right for the part - too old by far given that we were expected to believe he'd grown from about 12 to 35 with just six years passing! But his acting, like that of all the cast, was excellent, and the film stood up incredibly well in comparison with today's efforts. The cinematography was particularly striking and made me realise how many of today's films just don't pay the attention to detail that Mr Lean and his crew did back in 1946. As for the restoration... well there were a lot of speckles (I don't understand why these aren't individually sorted out with the help of computer software tools!) but otherwise the print was fine, with plenty of detail and contrast, and the sound particularly impressed, with no hiss or crackle and dialogue that was clear at all times. No doubt this will be released on DVD along with the other Lean films the BFI are working on in time for an anniversary release in 2008.

There was supposed to be a reception after the screening, but no details were given out and most people just ambled out and found their way home. As did I. An enjoyable evening though and I suspect I'm going to be going to the NFT more frequently than I have done in the past, even when the London Film Festival is over.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Event Horizon (1997)

Event Horizon (Special Edition)Event Horizon rates as one of the most frustrating films I've ever seen. Everything that happens in the first hour is so right. Everything that happens in the last half hour is so wrong. Ultimately it's a film with a lot of style (mostly borrowed from The Shining and Alien, it must be admitted) but no substance.

The story is of a 'Haunted House in space' with a crew sent to find out what happened to the ship of the film's title which disappeared seven years previously after generating its own black hole to travel who-knows-where. The ship has suddenly returned... but where has it been? Where are the crew? And is there something alien aboard it?

Sam Neill stars as the scientist who designed the ship's revolutionary engine, still having nightmares over his wife's suicide which happened during one of his long trips away from home, and forced on the ship's reluctant crew as leader of the mission. Laurence Fishburne is the captain still haunted by the loss of a crew member on his watch some years ago and unhappy that he and his crew are missing out on their vacation for some half-baked mission. The rest of the crew played by actors with relatively minor roles, but pretty much all of whom will be familiar to most modern movie goers, especially Brits.

Director Paul Anderson starts off well, letting the story (and the terror) build up slowly. The cinematography and 'Notre Dame as a spaceship' sets are stunning, and shown to great effect on this stunning DVD transfer. Surround-sound is used to maximum effect, particularly in the DTS mix included in this special edition, and there are plenty of jump-a-foot-out-of-your-seat moments. The film has all the signs of being a classic. Unfortunately nobody really thought beyond the basic 'Haunted House' premise, and the last half hour throws away all the good done in the first hour, with a silly action-oriented blood-bath that just gets sillier and sillier without any kind of killer pay-off. Ultimately one ends the film feeling cheated - it's as if someone forgot to write a proper ending.

I'm generally against silly gimmicky-shaped boxes that make items like this hard to stack, but have to confess that this special edition represents great value for money in terms of the physical collateral it ships with. In a hinged, ornate, gothic case, not dis-similar from the sort of shape used for the first releases of the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series, the case for the DVD is a thing of beauty. Inside in a CD-sized digipack are a luxury booklet in a pocket sleeve and two DVDs - the first containing an incredibly good transfer of the film which at times looks like it's hi-def, the second containing a whole bunch of features, each clocking in at close to half an hour, built primarily around interviews with the director, producer and actor Jason Isaacs. A commentary from the producer and director can be skipped as it just repeats much of what's in the more interesting featurettes. There are also some deleted and extended scenes. In short, there's plenty here for the most obsessed fan.

The packaging is so lavish for the low price I was tempted to give this eight out of 10. Where it falls down is that, once again, we Brits get an inferior version of what has already been released in the States. The commentary track talks about the forthcoming film Troy which gives you an idea of when this package was prepared, and it's disappointing, given that this is a British production filmed at Pinewood, with all the extra's recorded here too that we've had to wait so long for this to get a British release. Worse, the American release included an extended version of the film - this British version doesn't, and yet the included booklet refers to the package contents as if it did. Someone's just taken the American material and not checked it for accuracy or relevance. I really am beginning to regret not sticking with 'Region 1 only' DVDs when we Brits get screwed as often as we do, paying twice the price for half the content of the equivalent American releases. With the region coding taken off the forthcoming HD-DVD format I wonder if the lazy, rip-off British suppliers realise just how little business they're going to be doing with their British releases if the HD-DVD format takes off (the first seven British HD-DVD titles have been announced - and they are a pathetic, lacklustre set when compared with US releases that include 'day and date' release of some high-profile DVD releases).

That being said, if you can't be bothered to import DVDs this represents good value for money when compared with similar offerings at the same price point that are on the shop shelves. This release seems to be rather hard to track down in the retail stores - the producers have clearly spent the money on the product rather than paying the backhanders necessary to the likes of HMV to ensure the release gets visibility in the 'New Releases' rack. If you're not too worried about a poor final act, and want something to show off your home cinema system then this is a 'purchase' rather than a 'rental', despite the fact that the film itself turns out to be a huge disappointment.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

London Film Festival: Of Mice and Men (1939)

Earlier this evening I went to the screening of a restored print of the 1939 film Of Mice and Men based on the novel by John Steinbeck, a film which I have not seen before.

It was one of the most enjoyable cinema experiences I've had in a long while - no rattling popcorn, no mobile phones, no annoying brats kicking your seat or talking loudly through the whole film. Bliss!

The film was prefaced by a short talk from Robert Gitt who'd been responsible for this new restoration from the UCLA. He gave some background to the film before going on to talk about the problems with sourcing material, replicating the sepia toning when the chemicals originally used were no longer available (too toxic apparently!) and the whole complex process of trying to get the film as close as possible in terms of quality to the version that would have been shown to the public in 1939.

I wasn't sure whether the film would be my cup of tea - I find pre-60s films very hit and miss, but this was a real gem. The cast were mostly excellent, especially a very young Burgess Meredith, and a surprisingly good Lon Chaney Junior (I say 'surprisingly' because I saw him a few weeks ago on a DVD of the original Wolf Man movie and found him very wooden and unconvincing). This came across mainly as a very wordy play transferred to film, although there was some nice photography in the film, and apparently it made cinematic history by being the first film to have a scene BEFORE the main titles! Cinematographically one scene really stood out for me: a long zoom out, taken sideways on, when Meredith is told some bad news and walks the length of some stables, showing the growing distance and emptiness he was experiencing. A very clever shot - the more so when you consider it was put together over 65 years ago!

I thought the film was very powerful and moving (several people were dabbing their eyes as the lights came up) but it was interesting to hear the restorer's comments (sat directly behind me) to his companion when asking her what she thought: "Some people love it, others really dislike it for its sentimentality.", he told her, before adding "I think I'm somewhere in the middle"

I wasn't, and didn't find it overly-sentimental at all. The film has whet my appetite for my next classic viewing as part of the festival - a special screening of a new, restored print of David Lean's Great Expectations on Tuesday evening for BFI Champion members, with a reception afterwards. Should be fun! :)

Ice Age 2: The Meltdown

Ice Age 2I should say right off the bat that although I own the DVD of the first Ice Age movie, it's one of the few DVDs where five minutes in I just ejected it, deciding it really wasn't my cup of tea. Nothing seemed to be happening and the animation just didn't seem up to scratch.

This time around I stayed to the end.

The film isn't bad, and there are a few smiles in it, but plot-wise it's a bit of a mess. A very thin story is used to hang a bunch of sketches off, and these sketches are mildly amusing, but nothing more.

The basic story is this: The ice is melting, the animals hear of a boat that will help them sail away and they head off to find the boat as the floods chase them away from the valley that was their home. The main narrative thrust involves what appears to be the last mammoth discovering a female mate who think she's a possum on the way. This is basically a 15 minute plot, stretched out to an hour with some 'Roadrunner' style cartoons (featuring a squirrel chasing an acorn) interrupting the action every quarter hour to ensure it has something approaching a normal film's running time.

Kids will love it, but this is not one of those 'can be viewed at two levels' films intended to keep the adults entertained too. The film also struggles with its basic plot which is about extinction. How do you have such a back-story without scaring the kids? An ill-thought out, but thankfully short, sequence introduces some bad-guy crocodile-type dragon creatures that track one or two of the creatures. When the death is played for laughs (a bird flies into the air, gets flamed and comes down to earth as a pot roast) it works fine, but in one scene the off-screen death of one creature is far too scary for the age-range the rest of the film is playing to.

More worryingly, from an adult viewer's point of view, the CGI just isn't very good. It looks too much like a computer game rather than a movie for most scenes. It's very hard to understand how this film could have cost $80 million - that's almost as much as Finding Nemo cost - when the 3D rendering is as poor and inconsistent as it is here. Background scenes often start out as true almost photo-realistic 3D and then suddenly shift to traditional cartoon drawing cell-animation 2D. It all feels like the come-down of watching one of those cheap Hanna-Barbera TV cartoons (where only the mouths move on the characters) having been spoilt by seeing a bunch of Disney cartoons at the cinema. Previous CGI movies have raised the bar of what we expect, but this just lowers it again to a level that I think is unacceptable. I come back to that Dustin Hoffman quote (yesterday's blog) where the accountants have taken over and bad work is applauded just because of the profits being made, where in the past someone somewhere would have said 'This just isn't good enough yet!' before inflicting it on a captive audience.

There's a strong set of character stereotypes here that should provide plenty of laughs and merchandising opportunities, but the CGI work is so obviously 'CGI that ran out of time' I can't see kids falling in love with these characters, the way they would naturally do with previous 'toon stars. On the vocal side Queen Latifah does a great job as the world's last, very ditzy, female mammoth, but George Clooney doesn't quite ring true as the strong, but kindly, sabre-toothed tiger and even characters like Sid the Sloth don't really stand out the way say Robin Williams did in Disney's Aladdin.

The first thing that should be said is that the transfer, as to be expected from a completely CGI source, is fantastic. Unfortunately this only serves to emphasise the low quality of some of the 3D rendering and the weird 'sometimes 3D, sometimes 2D' nature of the scene backgrounds. The DVD Amray case itself is packaged in a nice embossed outer cardboard sleeve, presumably to justify the 'luxury' pricing of this two disk special edition, because the truth is the second disk of this two disk set is VERY thin indeed and doesn't justify the claims made that this is a bumper DVD pack.

The DVD is generous in giving us two adult-oriented commentary tracks, although given that all the other extra's (like the film) are very obviously aimed at kids rather than parents, this seems a very odd choice, particularly since the extra's on the second disk could easily have been included on the first disk if the commentaries had been removed. One is forced to the conclusion that the commentaries are ONLY here to justify the bumper pricing that can be applied when extra's spill over to a second disk. I'm afraid I had so little interest in the film I didn't bother checking out the documentaries which are from the director (who looks about twelve - I think this means I'm now officially 'old') and then a separate one from the crew.

The packaging indicates a seeming deluge of extra's but don't be fooled! These many features are really a single 20 minute featurette masquerading as many more, with each being just one or two minutes long. The best extra by far is a new five minute 'digitoon' of the Road-Runner rip-off character 'Scrat' included on the first disk. Entitled 'No Time for Nuts' it features Scrat chasing his acorn through the ages thanks to a time machine he discovers. Five minutes of excellence that's better than the main film itself.

The rest of the extra's are mostly of the 'sleepy-eyed director and assistant forced into the office early on a Sunday morning explain who the characters are' variety, while a friend with a home video camera films them. Thankfully they are short in length because if you've seen the film you KNOW who the characters are and don't really want to sit through endless clips used to illustrate who the character is all over aagain. There are three 'How to get started' (actually split up so they look like there's more) videos for kids which are very good: one on sketching, one on sculpting, and one on voicing a cartoon. But again none are more than a few minutes long. There's also a 'sound lab' that shows a short scene from the film and allows the viewer to change the sound effects used on the clip from the basic 'Animals' sound effect to 'cars', 'human noises' (endless belches!) to musical instruments. It starts off well but gets more and more desperate and inappropraite to the visuals once you move past the first couple of options. There's also a music video from ex-Blue singer, Lee Ryan, that is embarrassing in the banality of its lyrics and lack of any kind of attempt at a melody or chorus - no wonder his career's considered over already if this is all his record company could get for him!

If you've got kids who liked the original movie this is a purchase. If you like more intelligent digitunes, something of the quality of Toy Story, Shrek or Finding Nemo, this most definitely isn't it and should be just a rental. Personally I think it should carry a sticker carrying the warning 'For young kids only'.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

London Film Festival: Dustin Hoffman Screen Talk

When I booked my ticket to hear Dustin Hoffman give an interview with Channel 5's Kirsty Young I wasn't quite sure what to expect. The actor has quite a reputation, and I particularly remember some scathing comments by screenwriter William Goldman that implied the last thing Hoffman would turn out to be is self-deprecating

As I got up to leave what turned out to be more than an hour and a half of talk from Hoffman I heard the lady behind me comment "That was pretty intense". And indeed it was! It was also intelligent.. and honest.. and emotional (Hoffman struggled to keep back the tears a couple of times). Most importantly of all it was very entertaining. The actor, by his own admission, has demons, and some of those were clearly on display at times, but his honesty about those demons was quite breath-taking. The time flew by and I came away more of a fan of the actor as a person than I expected to be when I went in.

Kirsty Young (barely recognisable - looking like she'd had botox and it had gone horribly wrong, but maybe it's just too long since I've seen her on TV?!) did a fantastic job as interviewer. She had obviously prepared well but Hoffman is one of those people who starts off talking reluctantly and then a thought triggers another thought and another and fifteen minutes later he's still telling great anecdotes. Young had the wit to realise what her role was, throw away the elaborate notes and detailed questions, and just steer Hoffman in the general chronoligical direction she wanted to go. A weaker interviewer wouldn't have thrown away her research and would have tried to impose her own agenda.

Alas the same couldn't be said of the audience questions. Thankfully far more intelligent than those at Comic-Con or other 'fan'-oriented events, and this was mainly a rather intense 'film luvvie' crowd, but why do people think that when they have the floor they have to repeat the question six or seven times interspersed with their own long rambling opinions as if they were at a private dinner party with the guest, rather than in a room full of people waiting to hear the actor speak?

Hoffman said too much to repeat here and I wasn't taking notes, but the overall event was one of him being very self-depracating and telling lots of good anecdotes about his career and the actors he'd worked with.

When asked what he'd like to achieve by his next birthday he was unusually brief and concise: " to direct a film, or at least finish directing a film. I started one but never finished it.", before going on to say "And I'd like to feel less guilty about my success". He also quoted Sir Ralph Richardson who, when asked the same question at the age of 80, had said something about wanting to learn "a bit more about acting."

He was very complimentary about most actors he'd worked with, commenting eg on how he expected Will Ferrell in his new movie Stranger than Fiction to give a 'performance rather than act' and found himself embarrassed when Ferrell was not only acting but showing him he needed to raise his game to be on the same level. And he reminded us of the lack of age difference between himself and Anne Bancroft in The Graduate. "I was thirty. She was thirty-five. That's good acting!" he paused, "... and very good lighting!"

There was lots of discussion about the Hollywood machine but I thought Hoffman made some great points about how although it was a different industry now things hadn't changed in the way actors and writers were treated. He quoted a Marx Brothers story where 'the best and most famous comedians in the world were doing a movie and yet the producers just kept complaining that a movie set in a department store wouldn't work'. He then went on to highlight one key difference today: "I don't think bad work got applauded the way it does today just because it makes money at the box office". As someone who reads the likes of Empire or Total Film and wonders how dreck like Pirates of the Carribean 2 or the last three Star Wars movies can get four or five star 'reviews', it's a sentiment I wholeheartedly agree with.

One anecdote he told, albeit in a 'probably much funnier when you were there hearing it from him' way, was about Sir John Gielgud and the story he'd heard about a play that the actor absolutely loathed, but couldn't get out of. Apparently one night he finally broke and in the middle of a speech stopped and, suddenly wheezing and sounding very hoarse asked 'Is there a doctor in the house?'. 'Yes. I'm a doctor', shouted a voice from the back. 'Doctor,', said Gielgud, 'Don't you think this play's a pile of shit?'.

All-in-all the talk was a real treat for movie fans, and a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon!

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Slither (2006)

SlitherThe term 'B-movie' is often used to describe a film that isn't really up-to-standard, but when applied to some of the classic science-fiction or horror movies of the past the term can be meant as a compliment, indicating a certain kind of camp sensibility, or a roller-coaster ride of a movie that isn't taking itself too seriously. Using the term in that sense I have no hesitation in saying that Slither is one of the best B-movies I've seen in a long time.

Director/writer James Gunn takes many of the cliches of the genre, and injects enough twists and turns that you don't feel you're watching a hackneyed retread where you know exactly what's going to happen next.

The plot is fairly straightforward: an alien lands in Hicksville, USA (or is it meant to be Canada? There's something very Fargo-esque about the place) and infects the husband of the heroine of the movie, taking his body over and turning him into a flesh-consuming monster that produces acidic spit and worm-like creatures that turn anybody they find into a walking zombie.

The film is basically a massive homage to horror classics like The Thing, The Living Dead, most of Peter Jackson's work and many other films besides, updated for 2006. If you're squeamish and don't like gore then this is not the film for you, but if you like a good scare coupled with a certain camp sensibility then you'll have a ball with Slither.

The film cleverly walks the line between horror and comedy so that you often find yourself laughing out loud, just seconds after you've jumped out of your seat and found yourself viewing the screen through gaps in your fingers. Most of the quality is there in the script, but the cast certainly help give it the pizazz it needs. Nathan Fillion, best known for his work on Serenity, impresses with a note-perfect performance as the hero police chief, albeit one not overly endowed with intelligence. Elizabeth Banks wins hearts and minds as the enchanting, if rather ditzy, woman torn between her love for her husband (albeit a husband now taken over by an alien), and her old school sweetheart (Fillion's character). Micahel Rooker chews up the scenery to great comedic effect as the husband Grant, turning on the pathos when it's needed which helps give the film some emotional depth.

The budget is pretty much all visible on screen, with some amazing prosthetics and some excellent CGI. Only one scene (where a deer attacks the police chief hero) really doesn't work, and for a movie this reliant on special effects and with a budget as low as this one had that's pretty impressive.

The term 'Saturday night popcorn movie' can often be used in a derisory way, but Slither reclaims the term as one meaning a great night out at the movies. The film is great fun in a good old-fashioned way and like the best fair-ground rides, will delivers squeals of horror and delight from its audience. As such it makes a great date movie for a Saturday night.

It would have been easy, given the fact the film was not a commercial success at the box office despite enthusiastic reviews, to have skimped on the DVD, but that's not the case here and with a typical online price of under £11 this is a bargain. The anamorphic transfer is excellent and there's good use of surround sound throughout, especially useful for the big scares that are intended to make you jump out of your seat.

The advertised 'director's commentary' actually turns out to be a joint commentary with lead actor Fillion, and is the better for it. The director and actor bounce off each other wittily with anecdotes, inside stories and facts and figures that are lively and entertaining for the whole 90 minute duration. The featurettes are quirky, profuse and great fun with the usual fairly serious 'Making of' featurette here being joined by gag reels, 'behind the scenes' featurettes made by cast members and crew, and inside joke featurettes that make it clear the cast and crew had a lot of fun making the movie and working with each other.

If you've ever enjoyed the old Hammer Horror or Universal monster movies you should definitely check out Slither - it's a great value, fun DVD. Rental or purchase, this comes highly recommended.

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

The Da Vinci CodeFriends who've read Dan Brown's bestseller tell me that it's a 'real page turner', but also that it's 'a very badly written' book, and since I'm not interested in reading badly written books I've managed to avoid the phenomenon that is The Da Vinci Code... until now.

You'd have to have been living on Mars for the last year not to know the broad brush strokes of the basic story (which is all about a modern day quest for 'The Holy Grail')... or to know that the critics hated it. To say the film received luke warm reviews would be putting it mildy (the 'Cream of the Crop' reviews are much lower than even the abysmally low 'overall' critics score of 24% summarised at Rotten Tomatoes). But the 'general public' reviews give it a much more generous 6.5 marks out of 10, so how good/bad/indifferent is it?

The bile aimed at the lead actors and director from many reviewers seems entirely misplaced. Yes, the film is long (too long!), but that's the fault of the source material, and when you're adapting something this 'complex' it's hard to see how you can reduce it down to something that narratively makes sense and also give the movie time to breathe. I thought Ron Howard's direction was fine, particularly in the early scenes where the self-flagellating priest scenes could so easily have just evoked howls of laughter, rather than a sense of genuine horror. Nor is there a problem with most of the acting. Tom Hanks, who I've never been a great fan of, if I'm honest, delivers a creditable performance that only felt like a 'Look! Tom Hanks playing Tom Hanks' performance in some early lecture scenes - if only the same could be said of most of the rest of his work! Ian McKellen more than delivers the goods, albeit in a performance that totally divided the critics who, if picked out at random, seemed to alternate between describing it as 'scene stealing' or 'hammy and totally unconvincing'. And Paul Bettany, who had arguably the most difficult role to play, never felt less than terrifying when he was on screen. Audrey Tatout on the other hand remained totally unconvincing, and whilst one can appreciate English is not her native language, for me her performance lacked any kind of sparkle or believability from the first minute she appeared on screen. Admittedly she wasn't given much to work with, but then again the same is true for most of the rest of the cast.

Unlike other critics I stayed with the film to the end, and, in truth, only the last half hour dragged because the story seemed to go on half an hour past its natural conclusion. So why the low 'red mark' rating for the film? Because I don't think I've ever seen such a load of poorly-written tosh presented on screen for a long time. For the first hour the film surprised me, and held my interest. But as each supposed twist and ridiculous 'puzzle' revealed itself as we moved into the second half of the film I became more and more distanced from the sorry mess of a story. Having succesfully avoided the book and any spoiler reviews I can't be the only one to have realised who/what 'The Holy Grail' was less than 30 minutes into the film, surely? And the machinations contrived at to make a very silly story appear complex just annoyed the hell out of me, so that I went from a summation of 'This is much better than people have given it credit for' mid-way in to a 'Pure and utter tosh - of the worst kind' by the end. If any friends or family are reading this please DON'T buy me the book for Christmas!

It's very hard to work out where the $125 million spent on this film went, because it certainly isn't visible on screen, if the DVD transfer is used as the judge. For a movie that made over $600 million profit before DVD sales are taken into account (Lord, have we become mindless drones for the marketing machine or what?!) the picture is annoyingly dark, murky, contrast-free, soft and, at times, impenetrable. The scenes look better on the footage shot for the extra's than they do for the main feature. This is not a film you're going to be using to show off your latest large high-definition screen.Thankfully the sound, (but no DTS sound track - why not?!), is far more impressive and at least shows where SOME of that high budget went in the production process.

The second disk of ten featurettes are, for the most part, glossy over-produced marketing fluff, which is to be expected, but I'd expected more depth given the profits made on the film and the interest in this release. Too many of the advertised featurettes turn out to be less than 5 minutes long and I question whether this release really needed two discs, other than as a marketing con to make people think they're getting more than the price on the box might indicate. That being said, if you are a fan of the book or film, you do get to hear most of the 'big names' involved sharing their (censored?) thoughts on the original book and the attempts to transfer it to film. The lack of any sort of commentary mark the release down too, although, frankly, maybe the producers realised that nobody was going to sit through the whole two and a half hour opus all over again, even if it would have been interesting to hear Ron Howard's thoughts given the critical mauling he received when the film was commercially released.

Definitely a rental, rather than a purchase, and even then only if you have a lot of time on your hands! There are a LOT of much better DVDs around, released over the last few weeks, that are far more worthy of your time. On the other hand there are also quite a few which are much worse. You pays your money and takes your choice, but given the huge profits this nonsense has already made I'd be happier if you looked elsewhere for your entertainment. Undernourished films like Wah-Wah are far more deserving of your rental coins!

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Wah-Wah (2005)

Wah-WahI've never really been a fan of Richard E Grant as an actor/celebrity, but if Wah-Wah is typical of what he can achieve as a writer/director then I'll be the first to say he's an under-estimated talent.

Wah-Wah,is named after the sound the rather snobbish Brits in the film make when they talk. They form the majority of the ex-pat community that is depicted in Swaziland where the film is set in what is a 'semi-autobiographical' account of Grant's life growing up in Africa.

I admired the film because it defies the conventions of most coming-of-age stories by not going for easy emotion, not forcing cliched characters that are either black or white and avoiding the easy narrative exaggeration that so many similarly-themed films have done in the past. It's a beautifully told, engaging film, thanks mainly to an excellent cast that includes Gabriel Byrne, Emily Watson, Julie Walters, Miranda Richardson and Celia Imrie amongst others.

Grant proves an accomplished director, with some nice visual flourishes, that avoid being so flash that you're taken 'out of the moment'. The story is essentially that of a teenager coming to terms with impending adulthood after his adulterous mother has abandoned him and his father has turned to drink. Admittedly, this is hardly an original plot, but it is gently told in a film that is never less than engaging, with a nicely depicted backdrop of the winding down of Empire in far-flung lands.

It's disappointing to see that the American critics, summarised over at Rotten Tomatoes were far less generous than the British critics in reviewing the film, and the box office, even in the UK, was disappointingly small. We don't get many movies like this that feature a mainly British cast, and certainly not of this calibre, and whilst the subject matter may seem rather depressing this is essentially an upbeat film, albeit one with a very moving ending.

The transfer is an excellent anamorphic one, as is to be expected given that it was only released in cinemas here a few months ago. The advertised extra's are a 'Making of' documentary, interviews with cast and crew, and a theatrical trailer. This is about par for the course for a film this new, although the lack of a director's commentary, given how vocal Grant was around the time of the film's theatrical release is a little disappointing

The 'Making of' proves a pleasant surprise. Clocking in at over an hour this is not the usual Hollywood fluffy marketing piece intended to pre-sell the movie. It's a bit rough and ready in the editing department, and despite being presented in anamorphic widescreen, comes across very much as an 'amateur film maker's attempt at a documentary' (it wasn't shot by Grant and his crew), but gives good insight into how the film was shot and features interview extracts from all the main cast.

The cast and crew interviews are longer versions of the highlights inserted into the main 'Making of' featurette, and are probably only of interest to the cast and crew and their immediate family, but I guess it's nice to have them if you do fall into that category.

I enjoyed Wah Wah far more than its pre-release publicity, which hinted strongly at a depressing, melancholic film, would have indicated, and it's fairly obvious throughout that this was very much a labour of love from Grant. Definitely worth a rental, and possibly even a purchase. Highly recommended.