Sunday, May 21, 2006

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KidPlans to catch up on some work were scuppered when I made the mistake of unwrapping the cellophane on the new Fox Cinema Reserve Edition of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This is the seventh release in the Cinema Reserve series - Fox's 'best possible version' series - packaged as two disks in an attractive, albeit susceptible to scratching, tin DVD case.

This third incarnation of the movie on DVD officially hits the stores tomorrow (22nd May). I've really enjoyed the releases so far in this Cinema Reserve series although if I'm honest, I probably purchased this title more to avoid a missing number in my collection than because I have fond memories of the original movie, which I haven't seen for probably 20 years. One of the nice features of this Cinema Reserve series is that you're guaranteed a booklet. That should be the norm of course but over the last twelve months 'Special Edition' has come to mean 'a disk with a few extra's on, an empty Amery case and a piracy advert you're forced to sit through before you can watch your legitimately purchased product.

The movie itself turned out to be a pleasant surprise - much funnier than I remember it, and beautifully acted and directed. I still find Burt Baccharach's "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head" musical interlude irritating (it's NOT raining so why interrupt the movie for a song with a bunch of lyrics that seem totally out of place with the visuals on screen?!) but other than that, there's little here to complain about.

Paul Newman and Robert Redford have real chemistry on screen and one wonders if Steve McQueen, originally intended for the role of the Sundance Kid until he quit over issues to do with who got the higher billing, regretted his decision given what it did for Robert Redford's career (Redford was a relative unknown until this movie)

The transfer is excellent and is yet again a reminder of why, if you have a decent home cinema system, it seems pointless these days making a trip to see a badly damaged print in a local fleapit where mobile phones and crunchy popcorn hold sway. The national press (I think it was 'The Guardian') earlier this week published an interesting article on why the small screen was killing cinema (the main thrust of the article was similar to my own blog posting about Nip/Tuck - that the quality of small-screen drama is so high there's no incentive to leave home to go to the cinema any more) and I hate to join the prophets of doom and gloom, but it's hard to see how things are going to get better at the box office when audiences are treated so cynically and shoddily by both the Hollywood film makers and the local cinema owners.

Anyway, back to the DVD release on Cinema Reserve, and there are some excellent extra's here. I listened to the second of two commentaries, featuring writer William Goldman. Goldman is always good value - I love his curmudgeonly, brutal but honest, comments about the Hollywood system as related in his books, and he doesn't disappoint here. That being said this is very much a cobbled-together commentary, with most of it actually having been 'cut and snipped' from the different documentaries that are included on the accompanying second DVD disk so with the benefit of hindsight I should have gone straight to the documentaries and given the commentary a miss.

Perhaps most fascinating is the original 'Making of' documentary - nowhere near as polished as today's marketing-oriented featurettes. The director, George Roy Hill, is surprisingly frank about his problems with his cast and the parts of the screenplay that he really detested. It's amusing to contrast this with the latest documentary (assembled last year) where the original cast and writer continually reminisce about how wonderful the whole shoot was, and how much fun everyone had, proving that Hollywood spin (or, possibly, our natural ability to rewrite history when something becomes successful) isn't necessarily a new phenomenon!

There's a wonderful 'History through the Lens' feature on the real life Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids where Butch Cassisy's sister gives some fascinating background on the real live anti-hero, and Goldman reveals that she and Newman remained friends after she visited the film set. It's trivia like this that make watching movies on DVD so much more of an experience than merely watching the film on TV or at the cinema, even if it does mean you write off the best part of a day that you'd intended to use to catch up on work!

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Fun with Dick and Jane

Fun with Dick and JaneAfter my last blog entry, I was wondering if I should just call this entry Fun With Dick (FX: rimshot - erm, on second thoughts perhaps I should rephrase that!) Moving swiftly on... two points need to be made about this film right upfront: Firstly, it's a remake of a 1977 movie that I haven't seen. Secondly, it stars Jim Carrey. For many (including me) this last point can be a 'make or break' on whether or not to give this movie 90 minutes of your viewing time. Carrey is one of those actors you either love or loathe, with most, in my experience, falling into the latter camp.

When he tones his performance down, Carrey can be a brilliant actor - see The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for some good examples. But when he's in 'full on' precocious show-off mode he quickly gets tiresome. Fortunately his less than laid-back performance style fits the material in Fun with Dick and Jane very well, although one has some sympathy for co-lead Tea Leoni, desperately trying to keep up with his antics. The plot, based around an Enron-style collapse (I'm still trying to work out if all the credits at the end of the movie for various Enron employees is some sort of 'in' joke or genuine!) that leads a respectable couple to a life of crime to pay off the bills, is a very basic skeleton to hang some good slapstick jokes on and, to my surprise given the luke-warm critical reception this movie had on release, I found myself laughing out loud not just once, but several times.

It's all good harmless, if slightly silly, Saturday night popcorn fun and certainly far funnier than the deluge of so-called 'comedy' releases from the same small cast of Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and co. The picture transfer is superb, and although the extra's are short in running time (there's some funny 'Best of the press junket' interviews, some deleted snippets of Carrey ad-libbing about and a 'gag reel' that's more of the same) that's probably a blessing as Carrey's humour can get very wearing after a while.

With humour that's not aimed purely at 14 year-old males with endless gross-out 'jokes' and four-letter words, this is good fun. Not necessarily worth a DVD purchase, but definitely worth a rental!

Walk The Line

Walk the LineMemory is a strange thing! Incidents that at one time were indelibly imprinted on your brain can seemingly vanish without trace, only to be revived, years later, by some seemingly random event that kick-starts the file retrieval system in the brain. The latest Hollywood biopoic Walk the Line, out on DVD on Monday, triggered one such retrieval suddenly, and without warning, as I watched it last night.

Cue strange Star-Trek -type glow as the lounge disappears and morphs into an outdoor set of stadium seats somewhere in London (Wembley?) in 1973.

1973! How can I be so sure of the date? Because I was in London with a small school group of Christians at an event called, rather catchily, SPREE '73 (SPiritual Re-Emphasis 1973) which helps pinpoint precisely when the events I'm about to recount occured. SPREE '73 was a few days (possibly even a week) of propoganda and nightly Billy Graham lectures.

Like most, I'd joined this Christian group not because I was in any way 'a believer', but because it was run by the 'hip' teacher at our school, Mr Scott, and also because I had friends who decided to join at the same time. Mr Scott looked like a singer of the time called 'Hurricane' Smith. You won't remember him unless you're of a certain age, but suffice to say he was not gifted with the best of looks, having long straggly hair to presumably try and cover what looked like a bag of marbles having erupted under the skin. He was an unlikely pop star and pretty much a one-hit wonder as I recall, and Mr Scott looked just like him. Except unlike Mr Smith he smelt permanently of hair lacquer. Very strongly of hair lacquer. Other teachers used to take great pleasure in coming in to his class room when he was out, belittling him, and opening the drawer to show us the stacked cans of hair spray - something which we kids derived great amusement from, even though part of our conscience was saying that teachers shouldn't be behaving like this towards other teachers, and there must be some reason behind this behaviour!

But the unattractive looks and hair lacquer didn't matter, because Mr Scott played in a band. A band with electric guitars. That made him cool. Especially when his band did cover versions at the school disco of stuff like Slade and (my own particular obsession at the time) T.Rex!

There were vague rumours that Mr Scott was a bit of a salacious character with 'a history' at another school, but nothing really concrete ever emerged from the schoolground gossip that centred around the young attractive girls who seemed to hang around him. Mr Scott ran a local Christian group at his flat, just round the corner from school, out of hours. To help he had a rather highly strung social worker (I don't remember her name, just the fact that as kids we all thought she was the last person on earth who should be giving any sort of advice - social or otherwise - to other people) and a former pop star called Terry Dene.

We had no idea who Terry was, just that he kept talking about the days when he was famous, carried an acoustic guitar everywhere, and sang songs that were quite catchy with memorable melodies, even if they were always about Jesus (the phrase 'One Day with The Lord is worth a thousand years, One Day with the King of Kings' is one that keeps looping in my mind as I type this!). We were an odd group of disfunctional adults and schoolkids, but SPREE '73 offered the chance to spend a week away from parents in London, camping out at a church hall, and was too good an opportunity to miss! Parents had no objections to something so obviously healthy, unlike that glitter and glam pop stuff (with its whiff of possible drugs) that we were otherwise enthralled by!

My memories of the event itself are very vague - the brain file retrieval system seems to have broken down in that area. As I recall, there were lots of evening lectures in Earls Court that rather arrogantly assumed we were all radical Bible bashers prepared to do anything we were told 'in the name of the Lord'. The lowlight of the whole week for me was being forced to go out in groups of two or alone, knocking on doors trying to 'convert' housewives over to Christianity. I kicked up a bit of a stink ('We're just kids and anyway, I haven't decided yet whether I'm a Christian or not'), but the psychological pressure at these events is such that by the end of the week I think I'd signed up to 'being a Christian' in that 'Don't embarrass yourself in front of a large group by being the only one who doesn't conform' way that these groups co-erce you into.

The hypocrisy, given all the moral lectures being directed our way, of the leaders was immense. It turned out that the female social worker was knocking off Terry (one of them, or possibly even both, were still married to other people at the time) and the infamous Mr Scott (since exposed, if friends can be believed, as a 'paedophile and pervert' in the Southampton local paper) was craftily sleeping in a separately curtained-off area of the Church Hall, with the best looking girl in our group in the same area. What's odd is how much of this didn't really register at the time - I was incredibly immature for my age (no change there then! ;-)) and emotionally and mentally much younger than my physical age would imply.

But I digress - back to the topic at hand: It's 1973 and I'm at a stadium, possibly Wembley, and I decide to take a dump before the main concert - the day's big event - starts. The loo's have queues (oh look, I'm a poet, and I didn't know it!) but I eventually get a free cubicle, sit down... and a hand pushes a note underneath the gap separating the cubicles.


Terrified (like I said, I was very immature for my age), I finish my doings as quickly as I can and the note is thankfully retrieved moments later. I run from the toilets in blind panic. Why did this person pick on me? Did he spot something specific about me that implied I might be homosexual? Did anybody else know I might be homosexual? Was it THAT obvious? In my naivety I thought I'd been specifically singled out.

Fear soon gave way to hatred. How DARE this person do this to me? The loo's had been packed. All those people around and he still wrote his little note. Even if I was 'out' did he seriously expect someone to just say 'Yes, I'll come into your cubicle'? At a packed religious event? By the time I got back to the stadium bench I was indignant with self-righteous anger and told my friends about the incident. 'It shouldn't be allowed', I cried. 'Someone should stop it'.

One of the group told our teacher, the afore-mentioned Mr Scott, who decided, in his wisdom, that I was the comedian of the group and was clearly making it all up. I don't know what was more hurtful - the idea that I'd been singled out as being obviously gay, or that I would lie about an experience that, at the time, I found quite terrifying (nowadays of course I'd probably be scribbling a reply 'Your place or mine?')

I wonder now about the person who pushed that note under my cubicle. Was he really depressed, as his note had implied? Was he sad and lonely? Or were events like this just rich pickings, with this being another bit of cottaging from a very happy homosexual? People sometimes wonder why, when I'm so 'out' in other areas of my life, I'm rather right-wing in my views about the age of consent and why I tend to shun people I regard as sexual predators of the young. Ultimately it all comes down to one's own prejudices and experiences of course. For me, even though I knew that I was gay at 16 (albeit in continued self-denial), I was still far too immature and vulnerable for the many predators that were around to take advantage of such immaturity. Such people tend to use physical maturity rather than mental or emotional maturity to justify their selfishness and self-gratification in my view, and the repercussions can have a tremendous impact on someone's life.

What has this rather perverse tale to do with the Walk the Line DVD review that you'd thought this was going to be a post about? The main headlining act at that concert was one Johnny Cash and his band. I remember that from our point of view we didn't understand the seeming fuss being made about his appearance (and how 'controversial' it was - because they were letting a former druggie perform at a big Christian event) - just that he was another 'old fart' who had little real meaning in our world of T.Rex, Slade, Sweet and David Bowie. Didn't he play that boring old American blues stuff? I also remember changing my mind half way through the set and thinking that actually the band really rocked and maybe all old music wasn't as bad as those tiresome scratched mono recordings from Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimi Hendrix and the like I'd heard on the radio had implied.

So for me, Walk The Line, proved an unexpected nostalgic trip - partly because of Mr Cash, but mostly, I suspect, because this is an extremely old-fashioned movie anyway. Last year's Ray has, in many ways, stolen its thunder and plaudits (I think 'Walk the Line' is a better film, but with the oscar buzz around 'Ray' last year it looks like a 'me too' movie) and the stories and time periods in both of these films are too similar for 'Walk the Line' to feel anything other than a repeat performance. Joaquin Phoenix is fine as Mr Cash, if not quite as convincing a Mr Cash clone as the movie reviews had indicated, but the big stand-out is Reese Witherspoon. I thought her rave critical reviews over-rated (especially for 'Legally Blonde') but she deserved her oscar for this movie. She delivers a stunning performance, with only her poor lip-syncing in an early 'live' performance spoiling the otherwise note-perfect performance.

I haven't watched the extra's yet (work beckons :( ) but this DVD - available as a single disk or extra's laiden two disk special - is well worth a purchase if you're looking for a good two hour plus biopic. Beautifully directed and with a great transfer, my only real criticism is that it feels a bit long in its 130 minute cut.

Not a great movie, but a good one. And I'm grateful to it for that until-now- forgotten cubicle memory where someone didn't just walk the line. I think they crossed it!

Thursday, May 18, 2006


One of the real benefits of DVD has been the ability to catch up on the best small screen drama from around the world.

British broadcasters seem happy to buy up the best series and then shift them needlessly around the schedules so that anybody with any sort of life or, God forbid, a job has no chance of seeing them.

There must be a reason why we're subject to endlessly naff, cheap-to-produce reality shows instead of quality drama at peak viewing times, but the only one that makes any sense is the one that says that all our license fee money and all the merchandising money from Doctor Who spin-offs (and it's a LOT, let me tell you) isn't enough. They want all that extra income from those 'phone our premium rate line now to win a few bob or vote for your favourite contestant' shows too!

We've had to suffer the indignity of seeing incredible shows like The X Files, The West Wing, Six Feet Under, Nip/Tuck shifted all over the schedules to the point where even the most die-hard fan can't keep track. Thank God for DVD!

I bring all this up partly because I'm just starting the wonderful second series of Battlestar Gallactica on DVD and partly because I've just finished watching the complete third season of Nip/Tuck on DVD.

This is a series I would have missed without DVD, and it's one well worth a few hours of your time. Like all the best American drama, it's wonderfully written, with strong, believable characterisation and a superlative cast that deliver every line to perfection. At times the plot is ludicrously over-the-top, and the desire to show it's cutting edge and 'controversial' sometimes seems a tad extreme - there's lots of sex, of the decidedly kinky variety, and lots of 'oh I can't look' close-ups of surgery - that one just knows has been placed there to provoke people. But one never comes away from an episode thinking 'that bit-part player couldn't act' or 'a child of five could have done a better job of writing an original script', the way one does with so many British drama series (oh, to heck with it, let's name names - why IS everybody giving 'Best Drama' awards to the unbelievably third-rate Doctor Who?!)

If you've missed Nip/Tuck (or West Wing, or Lost, or Prison Break or 24 or Rescue Me... well the list goes on and on and on!) you owe it to yourself to check it out. And then ask yourself why it is we need to pay an extortionate license fee to the BBC to 'maintain the quality of the TV that's offered', when the purely commercial fare from abroad is SO much better! If anybody needs a nip and a tuck, it's surely the television license fee and the number of reality shows they're peddling.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Breakfast on Pluto

With some generally disappointing critical reviews I'd nearly given Breakfast on Pluto, out this week on DVD, a miss. Then I heard my friend Brian Sibley's review on Parkinson's Sunday radio programme, noticed the average score of 7.4 on imdb and decided I really ought to ignore the critics.

It's not hard to see why they weren't impressed. The film is quite long and extremely episodic, with Cillian Murphy, playing the part of Irish transvestite 'Kitten', delivering quiet-spoken dialogue that's often hard to make out. This against-the-odds rites-of-passage story features pretty much every movie cliche in the book, and at times the plot reads like a 'do it by numbers' recounting of just about every biographical movie you've ever seen.

But in spite of all that, I finished watching this DVD with a big smile on my face, and consider it to be a real little gem.

Director Neil Jordan turns what could have been a very ordinary cinematic experience into a sublime one and, as is often the case, it's mainly down to casting. Cillian Murphy is becoming a name to look out for (I've already enjoyed his excellent performances in Red Eye, Batman Begins and 28 Days Later) and he's joined here by, amongst others, Liam Neeson giving an above-average performance as the very human Father Bernard and - would you Adam-and-Eve-it! - Brian Ferry in the role of a very sick kerb crawler.

On his Parkinson review Brian talked about this being "a rollercoaster of a movie", and that's a very accurate assessment. Primarily a "feel good" experience that lulls you into a false sense of security, the shocks are frequent and fast, as one would perhaps expect with the story set during the times of 'the troubles' in Ireland. But the overriding story is an upbeat one, as we witness the story through "Kitten's" optimistic eyes. "Kitten" may be annoyingly fey at times, but we see the story unfold with the truth of her character - a character that refuses to play the role of victim, constantly taking us by surprise as she takes on the role of hero instead.

There is some wonderful cinematography here, with great swirling aeriel shots as we view the main characters as if we were the robins, shown at the beginning of the film, in flight. At times the style is bizarre and quirky (the afore-mentioned robins top and tail the movie, with a gossipy performance where their tweeting is explained with subtitles), but it all somehow works. The music score comprising perky, upbeat pop songs from the late 70's is to die for, and ultimately it's hard not to get to the end of this two hour movie without a big smirk on your face.

Extra's wise there's a commentary from the director and lead actor (haven't listened to it yet), a very short 'Making of' that features sound bites from actor Cillian Murphy, director Neil Jordan and one of the producers, a trailer and some deleted/extended scenes.

Overall this comes recommended from me, and deserves that 7.4 rating on imdb, although the subject matter means it won't be to everyone's tastes.

Sunday, May 14, 2006


Last night I settled down to watch the DVD of Jarhead after watching the return of The Cybermen in Doctor Who (which was very disappointing with some piss-poor acting from many of the guests, a slow, plodding script that scored a big fat zero for originality, and far too many 'suspend all disbelief if you want this to make any sense' moments).

For once (it doesn't happen that often) I found myself agreeing with most of the critics on this movie. After director Sam Mendes' superb American Beauty and Road to Perdition (unfairly dissed by most of the critics), this came as something of a disappointment. Not a bad movie, just one that didn't live up to the expectations this director has previously set.

Jarhead is very much a movie in two halves, and whilst the first half works well - mainly because of the action and the humour - the second half seems to get lost, as if the cast were improvising while they were shooting and didn't know where to take the story.

I can't fault the acting. I've wondered whether Jake Gyllenhaal can really deliver a range of emotions based on previous screen appearances where he pretty much seems to play himself - but have no such doubts after his 'buffed up' and note-perfect performance here. Peter Sarsgaard and Jamie Foxx are also stand-outs in a particularly strong cast.

Nor can I fault the cinematography - except perhaps that it's following the current tiresome fad for bleaching out all colour from a film to make it more arty rather than using natural colours - very tiresome and I blame Ridley Scott for starting the whole mess (For the worst recent example of this see The Constant Gardener and admire the endless shots of Ralph Fiennes' green stubble!). Over-bleached 'desert simulation' colour criticisms apart, there are some very nice and very iconic shots in the movie.

The dialogue is very good too. So what's the problem? I really can't put my finger on it, except that the film doesn't really seem to go anywhere in the last half. This is of course meant to be the core theme of the movie - that war is boring for the most part and often nothing at all happens (in fact, after the very negative 'nothing happens' reviews, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of things that DID happen) - and yet, this could have been better conveyed without leaving the viewer thinkiing "Oh, is that it?!" as I felt at the end of this film.

Ultimately, Jarhead is an interesting film, and one worth seeing, but not the GREAT film it should have been.

On the DVD the extra's are a real disappointment (although at least there's a commentary). Originally there was going to be a single-disk and a double-disk release, as per the States (although the two-disk release over there was a limited edition that was very hard to get hold of). For some reason the film company panicked over the poor reviews (just as they had done with The Island) and pulled the two-disk release at the last minute. So the good stuff originally intended for the second disk has all vanished into thin air, leaving just the 'token gesture' deleted scenes from the originally planned 'cheap and cheerful one disk' release.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


I'm not usually one for celebrating birthdays - especially once you get past the age of 30 - but I have to admit I've enjoyed celebrating this one. Had a fantastic meal with friends Brian and David last night (they spoilt me rotten, as ever) and this morning cards and pressies arrived to create some excitement. I thought the cards were particularly inspired this year - from Mum's hand-made 'camera' offering to laugh-out-loud funny offerings from my brother Nigel and sister Lynda. But the highlight was probably getting a card from Mark's parents (Mark passed away in March 1996).

Brian is coming over tonight to watch Doctor Who (on TV) and Jarhead (on DVD) and tomorrow morning he'll be doing the Entertainment Review on Michael Parkinson's show on Radio 2 (tune in just after 11.30am). Amongst the material Brian's reviewing is the oscar-winning March of the Penguins, just issued on DVD, which coincidentally I watched yesterday afternoon.

The whole story of the Emporer penguins is fascinating and I thought the movie one well worth seeing (although the current imdb average score of 7.9 seems a bit over the top). The photography is stunning, but the narration didn't work for me. The text Morgan Freeman is given to read as narrator is too old-fashioned in this world of post-Dimbleby wildlife programmes, and we should have moved past presenting animals as if they were just like us humans.

At times the narration ascribes strong human feelings to the penguins that are pure conjecture. More interesting than the 80 minute film itself was one of the extra's on the DVD - a 55 minute 'Making Of' documentary showing how the film was made. The contrast between the film-makers and the penguins was fascinating, and there were some very strong scenes that had been cut from the main movie, presumably because American audiences don't want to see the harsh reality of Nature!

The DVD also had a painfully American dumbed-down National Geographic programme ("The Critter-cam" - God help us) about the Emporer Penguin and an odd Bugs Bunny cartoon also featuring one of "the critters" as National Geographic would like to call them. More of a rental than a purchase in my view, but a highly recommended rental at that.