Sunday, July 30, 2006

Romance and Cigarettes (2005)

Romance and CigarettesDennis Potter has a lot to answer for! His The Singing Detective featured an odd concoction of drama and lip-synced song and dance, that bordered on the surreal and was regarded, at the time, as ground-breaking. Romance and Cigarettes, released on DVD last week, is more of the same, but this time with the Coen brothers producing, and a lot of big name Hollywood stars chipping in.

In truth, this film isn't my kind of film. I suspect it's aimed at the crowd who loved Ferris Bueller's Day Out or The Big Lebowski - two films that have huge cult followings, but which left me stone cold wondering what on earth all the fuss was about. While I can admire the sentiment behind Romance and Cigarettes, and certainly the acting, every time you think you've got a hook on some sort of reality to it, it goes off in a ridiculously quirky direction that just had me looking at my watch, wondering how long there was left. Fortunately the 115 minutes running time advertised on the sleeve turns out to be more like 95 minutes in reality - I guess whoever produced the sleeve information just thought, like me, that it FELT much longer than it is.

The stand-out, for British viewers, is Kate Winslet, who is barely recognisable and plays strongly against type, as the foul-mouthed seductress of the main character, played by James Gandolfini of The Sopranos fame. The only problem is that some of the surprise of this performance has been taken away because it comes across as something of a reprise of her performance in Ricky Gervaise's TV series Extras. Gandolfini plays the bumbling, idiotic man in the middle of the love triangle. It's a good performance but, to be honest, it's just his Sopranos character all over again, but this time without the violence - torn between two women: his long suffering wife, and the afore-mentioned Winslet. His dysfunctional family provide the excuse for all sorts of oddities and musical numbers, and while the film has a serious message at its core about love and betrayal, that gets lost in the desire to be 'quirky' or 'surreal', which too often just seems contrived. Writer/director John Turturro comes close to creating a film that could have been written by his mentors and executive producers, The Coen Brothers, but somehow doesn't quite pull it off.

There are some great cameo performances from Christopher Walken (playing a character we've seen him play before), Steve Buscemi, Eddie Izzard, Susan Sarandon, Elaine Stritch and a strong supporting cast, but ultimately the film is just too self-aware to lead anywhere. The introduction of 'karaoke' song and dance numbers is signalled well before it should be, so that the plot seems to have been contrived around the songs, rather than the other way round - which is what made things work for Dennis Potter.

For most I suspect this will prove to be an interesting curiosity, and it's good to see a film-maker taking brave risks, but ultimately this is one risk that hasn't really paid off. I can see it being a huge cult hit with a certain segment of the American market, but not much else.

The quality of the transfer to DVD is excellent, but this is a 'vanilla' release, with absolutely nothing in the way of extra's. In this day and age that's pretty pathetic. All-in-all I'd say give it a miss unless you're a big Coen Brothers fan!

Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Crying Game (1992) (Special Edition)

The Crying Game (Special Edition)One can't help wondering what the criteria are that the film companies use when choosing whether or not a DVD release deserves to have the label 'Special Edition' applied. The Crying Game, previously available on a 'vanilla' release of a rather poor transfer from film, gets the 'Special Edition' moniker in a new DVD release out next week. However, it's a fairly basic release that looks a bit woeful when compared to some of the truly 'special' (usually two disk) editions we've had for other movies. What one gets here is a commentary track, a 30-40 minute 'Making of' set of interviews, a trailer, and a cardboard sleeve to wrap the DVD in (but no chapter index leaflet). After such a long wait I suspect I won't be the only person slightly disappointed at what Optimum seem to regard as 'special'.

The Crying Game is regarded as a classic in many quarters and the American critics in particular loved it, but like The Sixth Sense, I think too much of your like/dislike of the film will depend on whether or not you guess the twist. In the case of this film the twist occurs half-way through the movie rather than at the end, but the basic effect on the audience is pretty much the same. When I first saw the film some years ago, the 'surprise' seemed to me to be fairly obvious from the get-go, hadly surprising given where I was working at the time, so my opinions are probably coloured by that. In America where the film grew by word-of-mouth after a pretty disasterous British theatrical outing, audiences found themselves in such a state of shock, that they told all their friends to see it and the 'secret' was generally kept out of any reviews so as not to spoil the surprise. This mini-review will be no exception, but it does mean it's hard to discuss the film in any great detail.

Writer/Director Neil Jordan always turns in an interesting movie even when, as is the case here, there's not a lot of money available. Financing on the film was so problematic that the cast and crew were apparently living hand-to-mouth and using credit cards just to get it made. So The Crying Game, like all of Jordan's movies that I've seen, is undoubtedly a good film, but I don't think it's as much of a classic as its fans, and the producers, would have us believe. To me the movie feels rather dated and much more like an early 80's film than one made in the early 90's. The slow pacing, particularly for the first hour, and a story that seems just too dependent on 'the twist' are part of the problem I think. The rather stereotypical 'bad guys' are another. That being said, it's definitely a film worth seeing, as is usually the case when oscar nominations are flying around.

There are good performances from all the cast, and in particular from Stephen Rea in the role of an IRA man with a conscience. He has to portray the unbelievable, and somehow manages to do so and make it ALMOST believable. He starts the film involved in a group who capture a British soldier (a black American actor, Forrest Ackerman - go figure!) where a tragedy ensues, and feels such guilt about his role in it that he keeps a promise he made to the soldier to visit his wife in London. The last two-thirds of the film show this visit, and are basically a love story, albeit one with dark undercurrents. To say any more would be to ruin the film for those who haven't yet seen it, but it's a relief to say the ending isn't a cop-out the way it would have been if made in Hollywood (or if Channel 4 had gone with their original 'alternate ending').

Jim Broadbent gives an amusing cameo, and Jaye Davison gives an astonishing performance for someone who had no interest in acting, and a single appearance in Stargate (done solely for the ridiculous money on offer) aside, has shown no interest in returning to it after making this film.

The DVD transfer is good, if not exceptional - there are marks of wear and tear (white specks and the occasional scratch) which show that this hasn't been a frame-by-frame digital restoration. But by all accounts it's a much better transfer than the original 'vanilla' release of the film made a few years ago. The commentary track from the director is of the 'worthy but rather dull' variety, and as is becoming the norm with these things, mainly just repeats what the talking heads in the 'Making of' feature have already told us. The feature isn't 'special' at all, curiously split into four sections (or featurettes) that are mainly the producers/co-owners of the now defunct Palace Pictures talking about the history of the film, with a sudden break into some Irish politicians discussing what they did/didn't like about the politics of the movie. Each featurette ends very abruptly with no warning and it gives the impression that the maker didn't have the money to edit it all into a proper single feature (or even give us a convenient 'Play all' option) and just threw what they had onto the disc. There's an alternate ending of very poor quality, transferred from someone's personal VHS tape, apparently made on the insistence of Channel 4, the financial backers, and rightly loathed and hated by the writer and director. And there's a cardboard sleeve to hold the DVD and make it look 'special', and that's about it.

If you haven't seen the movie you should definitely check it out, but I'd avoid making any 'rent or buy' decisions until you know whether it's your cup of tea or not. Personally I think it's a 'see it once, you won't feel the need to see it again' movie, but your mileage my vary.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Inside Man (2006)

Inside ManBefore I launch into my tirade about how disappointing this DVD is (the first to go 'into the red' on the star rating front since I started this blog), I guess it's only fair to point out that the critics and the movie-going public in the States seemed to love this movie. Those ratings, summarised on the left, are astonishingly high. Either people have over-reacted to the fact that it's the first real 'mainstream' film from big name Spike Lee and, in classic 'Emporer's New Clothes' fashion, decided with his name on it all critical faculties should be left at the door, or I just can't spot a great film when it's staring me in the face.

Inside Man is a thriller-heist movie with some big names in it. Denzel Washington can always be relied on to give a solid, convincing performance, even if it's always the same one. As can Jodie Foster, who has a much smaller role here than the trailers had implied. Clive Owen can be very hit and miss. His good looks help a lot, but his range is not great and in some of the more adventurous films his performance can best be described as 'wooden'. No real problems here, but given that his looks are the best thing he's got going for him, it seems rather odd to give him a role where he spends most of his time with a mask and sunglasses over his face!

So, nothing too bad on the acting front. It's everywhere else that things fall down. The plot is far-fetched and ridiculous to the extreme. I'm as happy to suspend disbelief where it's required as the next man, but Inside Man really does take things TOO far. Add the dates and years up and we're supposed to believe that Christopher Plummer is 90? That Denzel Washington is so bright that he figures out things nobody else could possibly figure out from non-existent evidence one minute, while not realising a metal case he's been given by his main protagonist might contain bulky equipment recording his every command, the next? Give me a break!

Then there's the direction and pacing. It's all over the place. The movie keeps switching to events after the main heist is over - glimpses of the future that don't confuse or help - they just exist. And after a while they get very annoying - there's so many of them. It's almost as if someone said 'The movie's only got 90 minutes in, we need 2 hours - how do we pad things out?'. A totally bleached out film process (all deep blacks and glaring whites with nothing inbetween) is used to signal these 'future' scenes to us, but they serve no real purpose other than to annoy.

The sound mix, at least on my DVD and sound system, fluctuates to extremes that will have your neighbours banging on the walls in anger if you set the volume to a level that means you can actually hear the dialogue. You'll need your remote control close at hand to keep adjusting the volume levels. Key dialogue scenes are quiet as a whisper, invariably followed by other scenese with crashingly loud dialogue that actually have nothing to say.

Then there's the cinematography: it's all darky murky colours with no tonal contrast at all. This is NOT a DVD you'll be using to show off your big TV picture quality.

And finally there's the direction. It starts off well, with some nice scenes over the main titles, but then falls apart with either very dull, unimaginative shots, or, when the police arrive on the scene, whole long hand-held 'shakey camera work' scenes that were so jerky they had me feeling nauseous. If the effect on a 50" plasma is this bad I can't imagine what it was like on a big cinema screen! The transfer is OK but looks like it's been sourced from NTSC and badly converted to PAL - tell-tale thin horizontal lines ruin wording and many of the main scenes throughout.

OK, so the film just wasn't my cup of mead, what about the DVD? Well I'd like to discuss the extra's but I can't because there aren't any. Not so much as a trailer. Given the profits made on this film, and the price point of the DVD, even with online discounts applied, one might have expected Universal to have made at least a bit of an effort. But no - it looks like they've gone the 'double dip' route, and no doubt a 'Special Edition' with very basic extra's will be issued in about six months time.

This hadn't been on my original shopping list, particularly after reading Roger Ebert's review which, it now transpires, is one of the very few negative reviews (at least by his usual critical standards). Everybody else loves it. I just wish I could work out why!

V for Vendetta (2005)

V for VendettaIt seems somehow appropriate that in a week that started with me hearing the lines 'Remember, remember the 5th of November. Gunpowder, Treason and Plot' for the first time in many years (see previopus blog entry here), it should end with seeing the DVD release of V for Vendetta, which opens with the same words and a re-enactment of the original Guy Fawkes antics.

Based on Alan Moore's anti-Thatcherite comic-book of the 80's, this beautifully scripted film is a sort of '1984 for the modern world'. After the garbage that constituted the second and third Matrix movies, it's good to see The Wachowski Brothers back on track, even if original comic book author Alan Moore has insisted his name be removed from the credits (as he always does when a film of one of his creations is made).

This is a comic-book movie as rarely seen before - one with a message to tell, and a lot of dialogue to get across. The marketing men may have emphasised the violence and the story of a masked anti-hero to get the required demographic of teenage boys to part with their money at the box office, but make no mistake - this is a film that's intended as a feast for the mind, not just the eyes.

Not that there isn't something pretty to look at on screen. Natalie Portman is very easy on the eye, and in many ways this is a story told through her eyes. She's not a great actress, but she's good enough for the story that is being told here. Hugo Weaving, as the protagonist 'V', has a more difficult job of things, having to rely entirely on his spoken voice to get his feelings across. He delivers a strong performance, albeit one that is hindered considerably by his having to give it from behind a mask that has no moving mouth or visible eyes. Somehow the film feels far too static in the first scenes where so much is being said, but so little is physically happening on screen, and whilst it's hard to see how this could have been fixed without upsetting all the fan boys of the original graphic novel, it just doesn't feel natural.

Fortunately, director James McTeigue makes up for things visually elsewhere. This is a film with some nice visual ticks, lush cinematography, stunning 'action' scenes (especially a 'money shot' right at the end of the film), and a quality look and feel to it that has been transferred beautifully to DVD. None of this would matter, if there wasn't a half-decent plot, but the story is consistent, well told and keeps you thoroughly engaged throughout.

One of the highlights for us Brits is getting the chance to see some British talent in a big budget movie (big compared to the usual British TV budget at any rate). Stephen Rea, who makes another rare appearance as lead in next week's other big DVD release (The Crying Game Special Edition), delivers a solid performance, as does John Hurt, but it's the minor roles which feature such television stalwarts as Tim Piggot-Smith and Stephen Fry that make this film feel really British. That, and the locations. In many ways it's a shame the film has a '15' rating, or it would make the ideal souvenir of London for my friends from the States who are over here on vacation at the moment.

Sadly, the marketing folk have really screwed up this DVD release. The single disk DVD that is on general release features just a 15 minute 'Making of' featurette. There is a separate release that has a whole disk of other extra's, but it's only available through HMV. I resent being told by film companies where I should go to shop, and the silly practice of offering 'exclusive' covers through stores like HMV and Amazon has now been taken to an extreme that I find irritating to the extreme. That being said, the extra's on the HMV release apparently clock in at less than an hour and seem to mainly be documentaries about the original Guy Fawkes event rather than the movie itself, so non-HMV shoppers probably aren't missing out on much.

This is an excellent film, and one that surpassed my quite high expectations, but for now, I'd say this is a rental not a purchase - at least until we get the proper 'Special Edition' with the extra's we deserve, in a year or so's time!

Thursday, July 27, 2006

The Weather Man (2005)

The Weather ManWhat is it with Nicolas Cage and confectionary? When I reviewed his last movie, Lord of War, I complained that this was the first DVD in a collection of nearly 2000 that had forced a tawdry advert for Mars bars on me - an advert which cannot be skipped. DVDs are not cheap and to be forced to watch confectionary advertisements before viewing what you've paid for is disgraceful. A few months later I've hit the same situation with a second DVD - this time the unskippable advert is for M & M's, and it's on the DVD of The Weather Man - a film also starring Nicolas Cage.

It's not just the incredibly annoying adverts that The Weather Man, released on DVD this week, has in common with its predecessor. This is another 'character' movie, with the lead (Cage) narrating things from his point of view as events unfold on screen. With stars like Michael Cain and Hope Davis on board you might think this was a big Hollywood movie, especially since it is directed by Gore Verbinski, best known for The Pirates of the Carribean movies. However, this is more 'art house' than mainstream, and as such is likely to have a limited audience.

Not that it's a bad movie - it's skillfully done, and it's many, many years since I saw Michael Cain turn in as good a performance as he does here (I think he's seriously over-rated as an actor, so this came as a bit of a surprise). Nicolas Cage, in the lead role, is so good I'm almost wondering if I need to re-evaluate my impressions of him as a rather average actor. He plays the central role here with panache, subtlety, and a sort of resigned defeat that many of his Hollywood contemporaries wouldn't have the class to understand, let alone emulate.

In fact all the cast are excellent, but the story, such as it is, is very much what several critics have called 'a downer'. Cage plays 'The Weather Man' of the title, a loser if ever there was one. Even when he tries to do something right fate transpires against him, leaving him looking stupid and clueless. His marriage is falling apart. His father, a Pullitzer prize winning author, can't hide his disappointment in his son's job or personal life. His daughter is an overweight schoolgirl who is being bullied and who uses her homework money to buy illicit cigarettes. His son is in rehab for smoking pot, with a male counsellor who keeps buying him presents and finding any excuse he can for the child to take his shirt off. And Cage's character blames himself for all of this. It's an interesting character study, but ultimately Cage's character comes across as a bit of a bore - and it's hard to like bores! There is the odd spot of 'comic' relief, all of it featured in the trailer, but this is only a 'comedy' in the same sense that About Schmidt is (ie I wouldn't call it a comedy at all!)

The cinematography is striking, and at times beautiful, with its muted greys, greens and blues reflecting the blandness of 'The Weatherman' who can do nothing right. The music too works well with the piece. And the extra's, in the form of several featurettes making up a 30-40 minute 'Making of' are OK, without being exceptional (there is no commentary or deleted scenes, with only a trailer to add to the featurettes). I enjoyed 'The Weatherman', despite the quirkiness (which would usually have me running a mile), and ultimately I found it to be a fairly engrossing story about a man coming to terms with his lot in life. I think it's definitely worth a rental, but not necessarily a purchase.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

UK DVD Review

Most Sunday evenings I'm religiously downloading the latest weekly edition of William Gallagher's UK DVD Review Podcast, but with so much happening this weekend I only got round to hearing this week's episode tonight. And it was a nice surprise to hear William promoting this blog. It seems only fair to return the favour, and point out that at 5-15 minutes a podcast, William's weekly review is a great, succinct look at some of the week's new DVD releases. If you're a regular DVD purchaser and you're not already subscribed - well, why not?!

It's somewhat ironic that this publicity should happen just as the blog has diverted from its normal 'DVD Review' format for a few days, to a more personal account of a holiday visit from friends, but the DVD reviews will return shortly (I covered a couple of this week's new releases on Friday and Saturday if you look back) and next up on the 'to watch and review' list is Nicholas Cage's The Weatherman, which went on sale in the UK yesterday. Stay tuned....

Visiting the Houses of Parliament

One of the very cool free things you can do if you live in London is get a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament. You just contact your local MP, which can be done online, request a visit giving your preferred dates and times and, if my experience is typical, a special permit will arrive to give you the tour you've requested.

It's many years since I last did the tour, as a fairly young child that was part of a school party that had travelled up from Southampton. All I can really remember is that our local Tory representative James Hill MP came to meet us all (quite impressive given that we were all too young to vote) and then someone else showed us around on a rather long, history-laden tour that went on too long. My memory could be playing tricks on me because we appreciate different things as children and adults, but I don't remember there being much about it that was fun.

I'd booked the tour, which I did yesterday (Monday), for my American friends who are over here on vacation (getting four extra passes thankfully wasn't a problem) and had resigned myself to a dull morning experience for the sake of my friends. Fortunately, the tour was anything but, and unless my memory is playing tricks, things have been drastically improved since I last did the tour, probably close to 35 years ago (God, now I officially know I'm old when I start talking about events from 35 years ago as if they were yesterday).

This time round I didn't get to meet my local MP, but the tour itself turned out to be an excellent, entertaining 90 minutes. Our tour guide gave us some of the history I remember from that childhood visit, but it came much more alive because it was delivered, buried in lots of funny stories and anecdotes. We may just have been lucky because the guide - Bill Snaps was his name I think - was a retired former door keeper for the House of Commons, but I think they have learnt that they need to entertain on the tours as well as inform and hopefully all the tours will be up to the same high standard.

The House of Commons was MUCH smaller than I'd imagined and it was fun to stand where Blair usually stands for Question Time, and bang a fist on the little podium box, beautifully inscribed with a message saying it's a gift from the people of New Zealand. On the tour we learnt where the expressions "toe the line" and "it's in the bag" came from, that Dennis Skinner always goes to prayer when he has a question to ask - because that's the only way you can pre-book a seat in the House of Commons, and he knows which seats have the best positions for the TV cameras, and lots of other stuff besides. It's a definite highlight of all the different 'free stuff' that's available in London, so if you haven't done it I suggest getting online and asking your local MP for a tour.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Some Early Morning Good News

Some happier news this morning: the High Holborn pub rang to say they'd recovered my friends' stolen money-belt, albeit minus all the cash that had been in it. This has been a horrid start to the holiday for my friends and I'm sure they need to catch up on some sleep, but they will at least be able to take up the Houses of Parliament visit later this morning instead of spending the day at the U.S. Embassy trying to replace stolen passports. :)

Welcome to Britain!

Today should have been a really good day. Some very good friends from San Diego who've helped me out on all my 'Lord of the Rings' exploits, and put me up last year when I went to Microsoft PDC in September, arrived in London for a holiday they've been planning and saving for for three years. A home-swap scheme with a family in London proved almost impossible to arrange, so the originally planned three week vacation in London became a vacation in Paris, with a short three-day stay in a London hotel at the beginning and end of their holiday. Today was the the day my jet-lagged friends arrived in the UK and tomorrow (or rather later today) we had a Houses of Parliament visit arranged with my local MP, Katie Hoare, and a whole bunch of tourist activities planned. I'd taken a day off work to show my friends around - the least I could do after all the times they'd looked after me when in California.

The afternoon didn't get off to a great start when most of the hand-picked restaurants in my friends' guide proved to be either closed on a Sunday, or just not serving food any more or... well let's just say we got unlucky. Eventually after much walking around, exhausted and frustrated we settled for a Wetherspoons pub in Holburn. I warned my friends that the food, whilst cheap, would be rubbish - and I wasn't proved wrong. The 'Pedigree' beer on offer was one of the worst I've ever tasted. And the warning signs everywhere about watching out for pickpockets should have alterted us to the fact that this was a hangout for professional thieves.

We kept our bags with us at all times, but at 9pm we discovered that Susan's money bag, zipped inside a pocket in her bag that had been beside her all night long, in a pub that was not THAT busy, had been stolen. We still haven't worked out how they managed to so brazenly unzip the bag and steal the money belt from right under our noses. Unfortunately, the belt contained the passports the family need to get to Paris, theatre tickets and an assortment of credit cards.

Now all the plans for tomorrow (and the day after probably) have changed!

Tomorrow will be spent at the American Embassy desperately trying to arrange replacement passports for all four family members in time for Wedenesday morning. Most of the night that my friends should have been using to catch up on much-needed sleep after a very long flight, will be spent ringing up international phone numbers to ensure all the credit cards are cancelled. Luckily my friends have photocopies of their passports and all their credit card details with them which should help a little - how many other holiday visitors are so well prepared for the worst, I wonder?

The holiday the family have been saving up for over the last three years has got off to a very sour start and the London leg of their trip will pretty much have to be abandoned.

I'm embarrassed at my failure to warn my friends to leave their passports in the hotel safe and not to carry them around, and my naivety in thinking London was a fairly safe area. When guests have an American accent it seems they're automatically identified as tourists who are easy targets.

But most of all today I'm embarrassed by London. By the rude, surly, barely-able-to-speak-English staff we've encountered everywhere. By the dirt, grime and litter that's everywhere. By the lazy people who just throw litter around because they can't be bothered to to walk five yards to a litter bin. By the claustrophobic heat and power failures that hit many sections of our supposedly world class underground system while we were moving around today. By the expensive up-market hotel in the Strand, named after a certain salad, that eight hours after our check-in still doesn't have any air conditioning working in either of the rooms that were booked (despite assurances that maintenance would have problems sorted 'in the next hour').

But most of all I'm embarrassed by the sad excuse for a human being that sits in a pub waiting to prey on good people taking a well-earned and well-deserved break, causing them much upset, anguish, expense and loss of valuable and extremely limited leisure time.

It goes without saying that I took the photo below BEFORE the afore-mentioned theft. If only I could turn back time to the point where this photo was taken. I'd certainly choose another pub/eaterie. I'd give better advice on what to do with passports and credit cards. And I'd do more online research on favourite restaurants and their opening hours. Alas, I have no time travel machine :(

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Final Destination 3 (2006)

Final Destination 3The Final Destination movies have received surprisingly good reviews, given that the basic plot remains unchanged from one movie to the next. The formula is pretty well known by now: one of a group of teens gets a premonition of some fatal accident, acts so that his/her group of friends avoid the fatal accident, and then spends the entire movie watching those who cheated death get picked off by a malicious presence one-by-one, in increasingly elaborate showcase scenarios. This is the 'slasher' movie (critic Roger Ebert prefers the label 'teenage death') all over again, albeit with the new 'twist' that in the final reel the 'hero' (or 'heroin') usually gets picked off too.

It's a few years since I saw the first movie in the Final Destination franchise, and my initial impression was ultimately one of disappointment. While there was no doubt that the movie was well-made, once you got past the originality of the basic idea, there wasn't much to see as the film lurched from one set piece death to the next. I guess my main disappointment was around the fact that the first motion picture screenplay from James Wong (who also directs) and Glen Morgan had so little of the wit and intelligence they'd shown in their TV work. I'd expected more from the guys who wrote some of the best X-Files episodes, even if they had shown precedent by screwing things up so badly when they took over the second series of Chris Carter's Millenium and effectively killed off that show.

I gave Final Destination 2 a miss - after all it was just the same story as the first one (although apparently the 'teenage' angle was dropped for that one). However critics have been so generous to Final Destination 3, which outperformed the first and second movies at the box office, that I decided to give it a try this weekend. It's in the DVD stores tomorrow (Monday) in a rather lavish two disk set that belies the online asking price which has for some reason plumetted, just a couple of days before release, from £15 to around £11.50.

I have to say I enjoyed the film, albeit in a sneaky, perverse pleasure kind of way. Nothing's really changed since that first movie, except that the deaths are more intricately plotted, to a ridiculous extent at times, and one senses that the writers have probably played 'Mousetrap' way too often. But it's all done with a sense of fun, such that if you decide to enjoye the ride - and how appropriate that the showcase opening scene is set on a roller-coaster - you can have a lot of fun with it. The story may be getting a bit old by now, but when the directorial flair, the red herring -littered plot, and the pretty but believable cast are this good it's hard not to succumb to its charms.

The main feature has a rather gimmicky, but original, feature whereby you can choose one of two viewing modes - the original theatrical cut, or the 'You take control of the ride' cut where as the various death scenes approach you can choose between a couple of actions to try and cheat death for the on-screen character, by changing an action that they take. Of course it's impossible to cheat death with this franchise, and what you typically get as a result is an edited version of the original death with perhaps a couple of extra scenes thrown in (or taken out), dependent upon your choice. It's a surprisingly fun feature, given the basic limitations of the DVD 'select choice' mechanism.

For me, the second disk containing the extra's was more interesting than the first disk containing the main movie. Featuring close to two hours on the making of the film, in the form of a day-by-day diary, this is one of the best 'making of' documentaries I've seen. It's beautifully edited and gives a real sense of just how much work is entailed, and how fraught the whole movie making process can be. Watch this all the way through and you come away feeling you've really taken part in the making of the movie. All aspects of the film making process are covered, and even the little stories that didn't make the edited cut of this feature because they didn't quite fit in, are included in a separate 'severed cuts' featurette section of the DVD. Excellent stuff!

There's also a very good 25 minute documentary, featuring the afore-mentioned critic Roger Ebert, amongst others, discussing the whole 'dead teenager' genre of movies, with the obligatory clips from Nightmare on Elm Street, the Jason movies and the recent remake of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (which, the documentary proudly tells us, Ebert gave an unprecedented 0 marks out of 5 rating to). The main feature commentary that's included from Morgan and Wong is rather dull, and completely redundant given that the second disk features not only tell you everything you'd want to know about the movie, but show you it as it happens too. And rounding out the whole package is a rather odd tongue-in-cheek cartoon documentary about death and chance, entitled 'It's All around You'.

Make no mistake, New Line have pulled out all the stops on the extra's for this release, despite the fact that they are bad-mouthed pretty much throughout most of them! One comes away from this DVD set impressed by the movie makers' tenacity, if somewhat grateful that one doesn't have a day job that involves having to work with 'the suits' from that film making company.

The DVD set won't be to everyone's tastes - there's way too much guts and tomato sauce being thrown around the screen for that. But if you are in any way interested in 'teen death' movies, or the horror thrill genre as a whole, and the movie-making process behind these 'make them jump out their seats' movies, then this really is a MUST BUY for you.

Doctor Who: The Hand of Fear (1976)

Doctor Who - The Hand of FearFor many fans of the old Doctor Who series, one of the highlights of the recently transmitted new second series was the one-off guest appearance return of Elizabeth Sladen. Sladen was one of the original companions, appearing alongside both Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker in episodes of the series that were first broadcast 30 years ago. It therefore makes sense for the Beeb to cash in on the media storm of publicity and release Sladen's departure from the original series, in a four episode adventure called The Hand of Fear. It hits the stores tomorrow (Monday) at a typical online price of not much more than a tenner.

In truth, time has not been kind to the doctor's original adventures and 30 years is a long time in the history of TV broadcasting and the BBC. Too often the 'bleeding edge' of 1970's computer technology was far more 'bleeding' than 'edgey', and the show's appallingly low budget is all too apparent when looking back at these episodes. In this adventure we get the usual dodgy visual changes between outside broadcast film and in-studio video (it looked bad on original transmission - it looks even worse now), some glaringly obvious Colour Separation Overlay and model work (although a transition sequence involving a stone hand that comes to life stands up surprisingly well), and 'monsters' that appear to be just people wearing old duvets!

The main 'baddie' (pictured at the bottom of this blog entry) appears to have been totally 'influenced' (cough!) by the 1960's puppet series Stingray and probably burnt up most of the adventure's budget. Originality was never one of Who's strong points, at least not once it got past inventing the daleks and cybermen. Star Trek too, which was being made at around the same time, also had a habit of taking old stories and giving them a sci-fi spin, so I guess one shouldn't protest too loudly at the rampant plagiarism. An old 1930's horror movie apparently serves as the inspiration for this Hand of Fear horror story. Whilst it is not one of Who's best, there is at least always something happening and the whole thing feels neither rushed nor padded out, the way the modern series frequently does. Nor does it have a Russel T Davis 'deus ex machina' ending, thank goodness! In the extra's the producers reveal that the mantra of the show's producer, when contemplating its intended audience of children, was 'Let's frighten the hell out of the little buggers', and even 30 years on these episodes still have that sense of dread and foreboding that the new series has only really achieved with Moffat's wartime London two-parter that was broadcast last year. Where the new series can't make up its mind whether to play it for laughs or thrills - and ends up being neither funny nor thrilling, the old series never lets the humour, of which there is a fair amount, detract from the main directive of creating many Saturday night wet beds across the nation!

Somehow, despite the shakey sets and less than realistic acting, there are genuine scares here, and the tension doesn't let up - not for a second. That being said, because of the dated technology, shakey sets, and low budget these old episodes really should be considered as suitable only for those obsessed with nostalgia and reliving their childhood - the acting and general production standards DON'T stand up to the standards we've come to expect, nay demand, from TV drama today.

What DOES make the DVD sets of the old series worth purchasing are the extra's. The amount of detail and extra material the BBC are able to put into these releases is quite impressive. Compare what's available here with the meagre extra's one gets with whole season box sets from the big US franchise 'Star Trek' that was made around the same time.

The main item of interest on Hand of Fear is a 50 minute featurette which has 'talking head' interviews with all the key players, at least those that are still alive, and which gives some great background information on the writing, the acting, the politics and the behind-the-scenes problems the cast and crew had to deal with while working at the BBC.

Aside from the main featurette, we also get an interview of the series two leads, Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen, on Noel Edmonds' Swap Shop kids show (so cringe-inducing you'll want to hide behind the sofa!), interesting titbits of information displayed in caption format throughout the episodes, a PDF file of the series' annual for the year of transmission (1976), and continuity announcements of the time. This latter feature is very odd and I really can't quite see why anybody would have any interest in hearing post-transmission announcements for Bruce Forsythe's Generation Game!

The commentary track on these old Doctor Who reissues have been consistently disappointing, and, unfortunately, this release is no different. The cast and crew never seem to have been exposed to the episodes before entering the recording booth, and seeing something for the first time in 30 years invariably results in mindless descriptions of what is happening on screen which we can happily make out for ourselves. Fortunately Tom Baker features this time round, and his occasional eccentric comment or laugh-out-loud quip at least stop narcolepsy from totally taking over any would-be listeners. That being said, it's hard to imagine anybody other than the most train-spotterish of fans sitting all the way through 80 minutes of this rambling nonsense.

The Doctor Who Restoration Team have done their usual good job of cleaning up these old transmissions, and for fans who remember the original shows and want to revisit them, the DVDs represent good value for money with all the extra's that are on offer (even if at times they do tend towards the sort of thing that would only be of interest to the most obsessive fan boy).

Ultimately though what one gets from old adventures like this is (a) an impression of just how much the world has moved on in terms of production values (b) how much better and consistent the original series were in terms of scares and plotting when compared with the new 2005/2006 revivals. The truth is I'd sooner watch Hand of Fear, even WITH the wobbly sets and poor production values, than a Russell T Davis episode. The older series has far more mood, atmosphere and genuine scares than anything we've had broadcast with David Tennant's doctor over the last twelve months.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Transamerica (2005)

TransamericaTransamerica received a lot of publicity earlier this year when lead actress Felicity Huffman received an oscar nomination for her role in the film. Huffman, best known for her glamourous role on TV series Desperate Houseweives is a woman, playing a man who dresses and is about to have surgery to become a woman. Confused? I'm not surprised, and, in truth the whole transgender back-story is rather irrelevant to the main story, which is a gentle comedy about a nice lady on a road trip, trying to connect with the son she never knew she'd had.

Huffman is excellent, playing 'nice' to perfection, but don't let oscar nominations mislead you - this is light, rather far-fetched fluff of the 'feel good' date movie variety, and as such, instantly forgettable. Unfortunately, despite Huffman's involvement, and that of her husband (as exec producer) Bill Macie, this is a very low-budget movie, and most of that low budget is pretty obvious on screen. If you're looking for something to show of that new LCD display you bought, this isn't it. Contrast is poor, lighting is appallingly bad at times, and the direction is unimaginative to say the least. This looks like it was made for TV rather than the movie theatres. The writer/director claims he deliberately wanted a 'home movie' feel - well, I guess he got what he wanted with a film that is mainly filmed on hand-held 16mm.

It's a hard movie for me to review, because it's not my particular genre - heartwarming 'feel good' movies that aren't very believable just aren't my bag, but if Love Actually is your idea of a good night out, then this should be on your 'must see' list. Certainly Huffman is worth seeing, playing against type here in a career-best role, and she's joined by newcomer Kevin Zegers, as her estranged son. Zegers turns in a nice, subtle, punchy but vulnerable performance - expect to see more of him in the future.

Letting the writer direct his own story seems to me to have been a big mistake, given the lacklustre results we get on screen. On the commentary track, writer/director Duncan Tucker admits he never went to film school. Well duh! That's pretty evident! Too many of the acts follow the same repetitive formula - static sunset location shot then cut to the drama, with no visual flair to turn an above-average script into an above-average movie. But I guess the acting is first rate, and the basic done-to-death reconciliation 'road movie' story is at least given some new twists here. One thing I did find curious was the amount of nudity - most of it, quite honestly, gratuitous. This is a movie which, trans-gender backstory aside, seems to me to be primarily aimed at Middle America and the blue rinse brigade - just the sort of audience who will find the frontal nudity (both male and female) unnecessary or even offensive.

Extra's wise, the writer/director fares better on his enthusiastic commentary track than he does on the lengthy interviews with his two leads (separate pieces) where the gushing throughout is quite sick-making. There's a Dolly Parton video of the movie's main title track, and a short featurette on how she got involved and the recording of the song. There is also a short montage of out-takes, which are probably a nice souvenir for the cast and crew, but of little real value to the rest of us.

For me this is a rental, rather than a purchase, and I have to say that given all the good press, I was somewhat disappointed by the final film. I guess I came in with expectations set way too high. Your mileage may vary, particularly if your favourite brand of 'comedy' is the sort that is gentle and life-affirming rather than laugh-out-loud funny.

Tsotsi (2005)

TsotsiTsotsi, a tale of redemption, set in the shanty shacks and poverty of Soweto, won the oscar for best foreign film this year, but lost the BAFTA's it was nominated for. Watching the DVD that was released this week I think the American Academy got it wrong, and the British Academy got it right (The Beat That My Heart Skipped, which got the BAFTA, is a much better film)!

I had a horrid feeling the movie would turn into another Bullet Boy, a movie that had the sort of critics who'd run a mile from their nearest Council Estate, falling over themselves to praise it for 'keeping it real, innit' (yawn!). 'No acting required' roles performed by those actually living on the Estates, a script comprised almost entirely of four letter words, and film shot pretty much as home movie footage does NOT, at least as far as this viewer is concerned, constitute the rebirth of British cinema, as some ridiculous critics were hinting at, but does show that community projects are breaking out into the mainstream and can get good media coverage when it's needed. Whether it actually put bums on seats, or even warrants being viewed outside the Estates it was made on, is more of a moot point.

I had a horrible feeling, particularly given some of the more negative reviews that indicated it was a GOOD film but not a GREAT one, that Tsotsi would be another Bullet Boy - arguably worthy, but ultimately dull and actually something that promoted the violence it was supposedly protesting about. Thankfully, I couldn't have been more wrong. It's far slicker and far more imaginative than Bullet Boy was, and has all the gloss one would expect from a 'movie', as opposed to a low budget, made for British TV effort. The acting performances are strong, the cinematography lush, the direction imaginative, and the pacing is just right. It's a good film that holds the attention for all of its 100 minute running time.

But it shouldn't have got the oscar.

Why not? Because it's too far-fetched and unreal. And far too sentimental.

The movie starts with 'Tsotsi' ('thug') and three friends mugging a man and murdering him on a crowded tube train when things go wrong. The title character then steals a car, shooting the woman driver who tries to stop him, but finds he's accidentally kidnapped a baby. All good so far. But then we're asked to believe that this cold-blooded nihilistic killer undergoes a complete personality transformation as a result of looking in a baby's gooey eyes. It's all too fairy tale, given the 'keep it real' feel the movie has tried to project up to this point. And things slowly get more and more sentimental and contrived as things move on. Suddenly there's a stunningly attractive and beautifully dressed single mother who just happens to live in the same slums making a clearly signposted appearance as 'possible love interest' and... well, that's pretty much the film story told in a few short sentences. Don't get me wrong - this is a film worth seeing, and it has some very nice visual flourishes, but best foreign film of 2005? I think not!

The DVD is a good transfer of a beautifully shot film, with a lively, enthusiastic and informative commentary from writer/director Gavin Hood. The extra's are generous, if something of a mixed bag. The 'Making of' is less marketing-oriented than one would expect, albeit marred by the fact that all the interviews with the director and cast appear to have been conducted with the focus setting on the camera set incorrectly. The featurette is joined by a documentary on 'A day in the life' of a real-life Tsotsi (a schoolboy in Soweto) which is dull stuff that is crying out for a narration track and some decent editing. The three deleted scenes add some interesting back story, and the two alternate endings (actually more like continuations) show that the theatrical ending was a cop-out of stopping the film because the writer/director just couldn't work out which ending he wanted and preferred to leave the viewers arguing over what happened next. Three music videos are also included (shouty 'street' rap just isn't my thing!), but best of all is the director's previous anti-violence short film (just over 20 minutes) The Storekeeper which had a far more credible and, I think, more important story to tell than the main feature, but is disappointingly presented in non-anamorphic wide-screen format and the quality is not very good.

I'm glad I caught Tsotsi, and found it a much better cinematic experience than the afore-mentioned Bullet Boy. It's definitely worth seeing. But it's a rental not a purchase. And with so many other strong foreign films out there it really SHOULDN'T have won the 'Best Foreign Film' oscar.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The Proposition (2006)

The PropositionIf there was a DVD made to be watched now - for the UK, the hottest July day on record, at least since records began back in 1911, happened just a couple of days ago - it's The Proposition. On the accompanying commentary track to this DVD, released last Monday, it's revealed that many of the scenes were shot at night because the cameras wouldn't work during the heat of the day. And that heat shows. It seeps from every pore of this movie, and NOT just because the negative has been given a strong orange-yellow tint.

The film seriously under-performed at the box office, which is disappointing given the almost universal critical raves it received, and the quality that is evident on screen. For this movie to have made significantly less than 2 million dollars at the American box office is nothing short of a crime because the critics had it right - it's an absolute peach of a movie!

I guess it's not hard to see why people haven't flocked to it on commercial release. The basic story, about a 'good' brother hunting out his 'bad' brother to murder him in order to save his 'innocent' brother - is a bit of a tough sell, particularly when it's a package sold in a 'Western' format. I'm as guilty as everyone else in avoiding it at the cinema - I'm not, in general, a fan of Westerns, and this undoubtedly is a Western, albeit one set during the frontier days of Australia. Even putting the 'Western' tag aside, it's a tough, brutal, bloody film that certainly won't appeal to all tastes. Truth is, I was resigned to sitting through another 'worthy but difficult' viewing experience when I pulled apart the cellophane on this one. Thankfully there was nothing 'difficult' about watching it and it's an engrossing 99 minutes.

The truth is this is a classy, modern film that doesn't need to be approached with all the baggage that the word 'Western' usually implies, even if one of the leads IS played by Danny Huston (son of the legendary Western film director John Huston). The Proposition's director, John Hillcoat, uses all manner of visual and aural ticks to enhance and delight, so that this feels very much a movie of NOW rather than the past. Good characterisation is the secret of any really good Western that rises above the genre's stereotypes, and thankfully this one revolves around several very strong, and very individual, characters, played by the cream of the crop in the movie acting world. So even if the sight of a horse or some sand has you automatically reaching for the nearest sick bucket the cast alone should justify your sitting through this one! The good guys in this movie have a lot of bad in them, and vice-versa, so that the moral compass is never truly clear, and it makes for gripping viewing.

Where to start with the cast? Guy Pearce is one of those 'leading men' who has refused to take the easy Hollywood road to fame and fortune that his good looks (admittedly in decline over recent years - the man looks like he really needs to eat a decent meal!) should have guaranteed, and always turns in an interesting performance, with some very interesting choices of film behind him. As such he is always worth watching, even when appearing in dreck like the recent remake of The Time Machine. Given sufficiently strong material, as he is here, he positively shouts 'shoo-in for an oscar nomination', or would do if it were not for the fact that all his co-stars deliver equally strong performances, plus of course Hollywood prefers to support its own, rather some uppity foreigners from a land down under! John Hurt can often phone in his performance, and in a relatively minor role, might be expected to have done so here. Not a chance! He is mesmerising every second he's on screen and delivers one of the finest celluloid performances of his career. Ray Winstone, an actor I haven't really rated until now (I know I shouldn't pre-judge based on THAT Essex accent and 'I'm working class, me, not a poncey kind of actor' persona, but even so....). In this film he is surprisingly strong, and even manages to convince me that Emily Watson, playing the role of his prim and proper Edwardian wife, could be in love with him and have fallen for him - something I wouldn't have believed before I saw this film. I felt his 'historical lower-middle class British' accent slipped slightly into 'subtle Essex' (is there such a thing?) occasionally, but nothing that proved more than a very minor distraction on the couple of times it happened. Danny Huston turns in a mesmerising performance as the psycopathic brother who loves poetry and has a strong moral code about the meaning of family.David Wenham deserves special mention too - his clipped, prissy, measured vocal performance being even more impressive when one hears on the commentary track that all his scenes were filmed in a single day. Emily Watson doesn't have a lot of material to deal with here, but what she does have, she handles well and, in my view, she is proving to be a seriously under-rated actress who improves with each screen performance she gives. With such a high calibre cast the movie would be a 'must see', even if the script and everything else were crap - which, thankfully, they're not!

The brutality of the film has been a bone of contention for some critics, but it's justified by the story, is never gratuitous, and when it does appear only exists for the length of time it needs to in order to quickly and succinctly get the reality of how tough real life was back in those frontier days.

One would perhaps expect the music to be a bit special, given that writer Nick Cave is best known as a musician (he is most well known for his records with The Bad Seeds), but it's a long time since I saw a movie with a soundtrack so perfectly matched to its off-beat, make-the-audience-feel-ill-at-ease theme. The score alternates between being unsettling, emphasising and re-iterating the tension of every scene where it needs to, and just plain beautiful frequently. Most importantly it constantly informs and enhances what's on screen, without distracting from it, and that's what music in a movie SHOULD do. It's worth pointing out too that this is a great movie for showing off the surround sound system, with DTS and Dolby 5.1 soundtracks provided alongside the default Pro Logic one. The movie's budget may not have been large, but you'd never tell that from the soundtrack. That being said, I should perhaps point out that the opening scene, a brilliant 'grab the viewer immediately' scene that follow the gentle music and historical pictures that accompany the titles, does come across as uncannily similar to the classic Monty Python radio sketch of 'The Death of Mary Queen of Scots' if listened to in plain old stereo!

If the film does disappoint in any area, it's in the rather predictable and cliched tale it has to tell. The ending is pretty obvious from the opening set-up. One can argue, I suppose, that it's the 'telling' not the tale itself that's important, but in a movie that is so individual and so damned perfect in so many other regards, it's hard not to feel slightly let down by the predictability of the climax, which feels more like an anti-climax in many ways, no matter how perfectly it's performed. Whilst the average imdb score of 7.6 (at least at the time of my writing this) is a very good one, one suspects it's a score that might have been even higher if the scriptwriter/director had managed to surprise us at the film's climax. Nevertheless this is a minor criticism when a film as good as this is made, and on DVD it's been released in a flawless transfer, with some very decent extra's.

The extra's have, unfortunately, been mis-advertised on the packaging. The 118 minute 'Making of' actually clocks in at less than half an hour, and actually appeared on previous Tartan DVDs as a free advert for the movie around the time of theatrical release. To compensate the advertised 35 minutes of 'cast and commentary interviews' actually turns out to be an hour of cast and crew interviews followed by nearly an hour of 'behind the scenes' footage. There is a trailer, thankfully presented in full-screen rather than non-anamorphic wide-screen, and also a 'UK exclusive' interview with the director and lead actor - the exclusivity of which which seems odd given that this is a region 0 (ie region free) release. There is also a commentary: a continuous conversation between a 'determined to do the film justice' director and a 'clearly wanting to be somewhere else' screenwriter. Despite Cave's lack of enthusiasm this proves to be one of the better commentaries I've heard, in that it consists of not just 'behind the scenes' gossip and anecdotes, but real discussion about why certain editing decisions were taken, what the intention was that drove shots to be framed a certain way etc, and generally enhances the viewing experience. Certainly it's a commentary that will be of interest to any would-be film-makers.

The truth is we, or at least I, need MORE movies like this rather than the mindless 'tent pole' nonsense of movies like 'Pirates of the endless set piece action scenes with no coherent plot' that are becoming the only releases getting any media attention, even in the film magazines. So please check this one out on DVD. If you're not squeamish about 'real world' violence in the old West, then buy it, and tell your friends to buy it too! At £11.89 it's a steal!

The BMW Mini Saga Drags On

Since my last post on the subject the Mini saga has dragged on. The car has spent three more days with different BMW dealers, with a fourth scheduled for next Friday to finally fix the air conditioning problem that I was charged £211 for on its first visit.

I sent the link to the report on the car's first servicing in an email to BMW Battersea and BMW Customer Services. I never received a reply from either party, or had a return phone call from BMW Battersea. I decided to get the two problems - with the air conditioning and the satellite navigation system - fixed elsewhere and booked the car in with BMW Wimbledon. Alas, they told me they might have to charge me another £211 to even look at the A/C and that I really needed to return it to BMW Battersea who had supposedly effected the original 're-gassing' if I wanted to avoid a second charge. Sod's Law said that while they found the problem with the sat nav that BMW Battersea claimed to have fixed, it involved needing a complete replacement which wasn't in stock. So I scheduled another day for the car to go in and thankfully, after three days at various servicing departments, I now have a Sat Nav system that works. Hoorah! :)

Getting no reply to my phone call or email to BMW Battersea I drove there in person to speak to the service manager and explain that the single item I thought they MIGHT have fixed, and which I'd been charged a lot of money for, actually wasn't fixed. They claimed not to have received the email or voicemail phone message I left, but the sales manager was polite and courteous, apologised and agreed to take the car in today to fix the air conditioning properly. I'm pleased to report that they found a cracked pipe was the cause of the leak and that they've refunded (or will be refunding) my original £211 re-gassing fee since clearly this was only necessary because of a defect that should have been fixed under warranty.

It does make one wonder what all the claims about having tested the system with coloured dyes for leaks and found nothing, when justifying the 'not covered by warranty' regassing fee was all about, given that the gas appeared to have leaked out completely within hours of having been 'fixed'. Of course, yet again it turns out that the replacement part that is required is not 'standard' so yet another appointment will have to be booked. All these servicing centre visits are costing me a fortune in lost time at work, but fingers crossed it might actually get fixed this time. In the current weather driving without air conditioning is no fun.

My BMW 'TLC' warranty package officially ran out today. Should I pay the £540 for another year's cover when I use the car so little? Given the inconvenience of using BMW to fix what should have been two straightforward problems I think I'll pass, even though it's worrying that a car with so little usage (less than 9000 miles on the clock) should seem to need expensive components replacing so soon!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Casanova (BBC Mini-Series)

Casanova (BBC Mini-series)The BBC's mini-series on Casanova, comprising three 45-minute episodes, was released on DVD last year and sat on my 'to be watched when you have time' backlog pile that seems to be growing by the month. A fortuitous visit and recommendation from a friend meant that this moved to the top of the pile this week, and it's not hard to see why it was so critically acclaimed.

What's odd is that this features the same writer, the same lead (effectively playing exactly the same role), the same co-actors as the new Doctor Who, a series I regard as having completely lots its way? How can the same basic team produce something at polar ends of the "quality" scale?

Tennant's boyish charm, general gurning and knowing winks to the audience work well in Casanova, so they should work equally well for Who - why don't they? I think a large part of the problem has to be the writing. Where Who is infantile, inconsistent and poorly plotted , Casanova is witty, entertaining and sophisticated (when I say 'sophisticated' I should add that these things are of course all relative!) Some would argue that my comparison of the two series is unfair because Who is meant for children, but that's a poor excuse for woefully inadequate scripts - just because you're producing a show for children does NOT mean you can turn in a script that could be bettered by the average sixth former handing in a weekly assignment.

But I digress - we're supposed to be talking Casanova here, not Who. The script is witty, and modern, if very tongue in cheek, with our man Casanova not only bedding all the ladies, but inventing the lottery too and performing all manner of 'modern' mayhem along the way. Successfully switching between almost surreal self-reverential comedy one moment, and dramatic gravitas the next, the script hangs together really well. Of course it helps if you have an actor with the sheer acting chutzpah of Peter O'Toole, who after some recent disappointing work (maybe I shouldn't blame the actor for the mess that was Troy) is firing on all cylinders here. He's supported by an excellent cast, who for the most part have at least guested on that 'other programme' too. But why is it that here they are fine, but on that 'other programme' they come across as wooden and completely unbelievable. The music for Casanova works well too (unlike... oops! nearly slipped back into a Who rant mode again!) and the direction is genuinely innovative and imaginative. Something tells me this wasn't produced by BBC Wales! It's a really class production and a great two-three hours of entertainment.

That being said, there is one area where Doctor Who scores over Casanova, and that's on basic value-for-money of the DVD release. This is a vanilla release - not so much as sub-titles are provided. A 'vanilla' Who release of the same time and duration costs around £8.89 online. Casanova sells for £13.99 even with substantial discount. That's too much for something this bare. So, much though I loved the production, I'd have to say it's a rental, not a purchase!

Sunday, July 16, 2006

An Old Friend Drops By

It was good to see my old friend James Kearney, who came South of the River from Crouch End to return a DVD, swap his latest news, and grab a quick bite to eat this evening.

It's scary to think that I first 'met' James over 30 years ago. We were both fans of the BBC radio series of The Lord of the Rings and got in touch, I think, through The Tolkien Society. Some time after we started corresponding James made a legendary appearance on Jim'll Fix It where he met the LOTR producer Jane Morgan and got to work on a radio dramatisation of a Charles Dickens play as I recall. At the time I was living in Southampton and James in Northern Ireland. We became good pen pals, swapping great long letters discussing not just Tolkien but classical music and Lord knows what else. When I went to the Middle East James was kind enough to send me frequent 'care packages' of the best TV shows and bits and pieces I requested, and it was sad to hear on my return that his hearing had deteriorated to the point where he could no longer really hear the music he had so obviously and enthusiastically enjoyed as a youngster.

Anyway, James arrived this evening bearing a bottle of very pleasant wine (hic!) and gifts - always a lovely surprise, even if not at all warranted - and it was good to see him in such good health. Because I'm so anti-social and work takes up so many hours I make a lousy friend. Whole years can go past before I get the chance to hook up with people less than an hour's travel away, but fortunately when we do hook up it's as if there's been no time away at all, and James is no different in that.

It was sad to hear that my friend is yet another casualty of the great BBC love of wielding the big 'redundancy' stick every few months, and will be looking for a new job next year, but he remains as I always remember him: cheerful no matter what difficulties life throws at him. I envy him his naturally sunny disposition.

While he was here, we watched the first (of three) episodes of Casanova - not the movie, but the Russel T Davis mini-series from the BBC starring David Tennant in the lead role. It's amazingly well written and directed and, frankly, it's hard to believe this is from the same guy who's doing such an awful job with the scripts on Doctor Who. Since so many of the cast seem common to the two series one has to wonder why Who is so weak, when obviously the same key players can turn in something as wonderful as Casanova.

A full DVD review will follow when I've finished the series, but in the meantime it's worth pointing out that the BBC have put no real effort into the DVD release at all. Not only are there no extra's, but there aren't even subtitles for those, like James, who have hearing difficulties. Poor show BBC as this is one area you usually excel at!


ProofTo say that the critics were mean to Proof, when released in cinemas earlier this year (and out on DVD this week), is putting it mildly. Most of the reviews seemed to turn into personal attacks on its main star, Gwyneth Paltrow, and whilst I'm not a big fan of hers - I'm constantly reminded of that Empire review of the CGI movie Sky Captain where Jude Law was asked what it was like acting opposite a blank canvas..... 'or Gwyneth Paltrow as she's otherwise known' - I think she gives one of the best performances of her career in this movie.

The fact is that the actress attacked by the critics for her movie performance here, received rave reviews for her theatrical performance of the same part when it was a play in the West End. Could the two performances really be that different? And if the film really is as bad as the critics universally claimed, why does it, at the time of writing, have an average imdb score of 7.0?

In truth, it is a film with a lot of problems. While Paltrow is excellent, as is Hope Davis, playing her manipulative and over-organised sister, Jake Gyllenhaal is totally miscast as her supposedly brainy Maths student boyfriend, and Anthony Hopkins turns in a performance that can best be described as 'pedestrian'. He shambles through the movie on auto-pilot, reading the lines as if he really couldn't be bothered. None of that should matter too much, given the intelligence of the script, or, more accurately, the play - and therein lies the real problem with this film: it feels like a West End play not a movie.

Director John Madden tries to pull some cute visual tricks to convince us we're watching a film, but with most of the action taking place in one room, and with so many... words! ... watching this feels much more like a night out at the theatre than a night out at the movies. It was probably a big mistake having the director of the original West End play also take on the task of directing the film - someone less familiar with the theatrical play could probably have turned in a much more interesting film, at least in terms of involving a screenwriter to adjust the script to take advantage of what is a completely different medium.

That being said, Proof is not a totally dull 96 minutes, and the Pullitzer Prize winning script has some interesting things to say on the subject of mental health, father-daughter relationships, sibling rivalry etc. But ultimately one can't get away from the fact that this is really just a filmed version of a play, albeit a rather good play, and a rather weak film as a result.

The digital transfer is excellent, with not a fleck of grain, or random hair to be found, but the extra's included are disappointing. The obligatory From Stage to Screen is a short, fluff marketing piece that doesn't live up to its title and adds nothing to any understanding of the movie. It's the usual endless clips montage with the odd break to give an actor a sound bite to gush about how wonderful everyone else is. The director's commentary is even worse - dull, monotonous and with very little to say about the actual film-making process. After 90 minutes I learnt nothing I hadn't already learnt by watching the film, which is disappointing given that the director has been so involved with both the film and the original West End production!

Overall, this is definitely worth a rental, particularly if you're rather fed up with most of the brain-dead, popcorn action fare generally on offer, but essentially it comes over as very much a missed opportunity, despite Paltrow's excellent central performance.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Saturday at the National Portrait Gallery

Angus McBean: PortraitsAfter a horrid week (went down with some sort of flu-like virus on Tuesday - the day I had to get my car to and from Wimbledon for servicing - no fun!), the weekend at least got off to a good start, celebrating Brian's birthday, with me joining Brian himself, his partner David, and their friend Sophie. We went to the restaurant formerly known as The Black Pepper (note to self: try and remember the restaurant's new name next time) and the food was excellent, the staff friendly and fun, and the company even better.

I got to bed at 1am, slightly the worse for drink, but alas was woken up at 4.20am by a swearing shouting match from some pig-ignorant locals who thought it was amusing to just shout obscenites at the tops of their voices until they got someone from the block opposite to argue with them about having been woken up. It's my own fault for sleeping with the window open when I know I'm a light sleeper I guess! Alas, once I'm awake I'm awake and I ended up getting up and starting the day on just 3.5 hours sleep, which is not good for someone who tends to suffer if they don't get a full 7.5 hours of sleep a night.

I'd originally planned a morning of sunbathing, but alas the weather forecasts proved incorrect with cloudy skies that didn't clear until 11am (too hot by then!)so instead I went for 'Plan B': a trip to see the Angus McBean photographic exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I'm going through a phase of 'discovering' old movies from the 1940's at the moment (future blog post to reveal more!) and last week's British Journal of Photography magazine had featured a stunning portrait of Vivienne Leigh by Angus McBean on the cover (a badly scanned version of which appears at the top of this blog entry), advertising the new exhibition of his work. Portrait photography and movie stars together was too good an opportunity to miss, and the £5 admission fee wasn't going to break the bank.

It's a good few years since I visited the National Portrait Gallery, and I really should make a note to check back every six months, because it has some wonderful stuff on show, and admission, aside from a small charge for the odd special exhibition like the Angus McBean one, is free. In the heart of London's tourist area (between the Leicester and Trafalgar Squares) it's an oasis of air-conditioned calm and tranquility - a nice escape from the heat-soaked crowded streets that engulf it in the Summer.

The Angus McBean exhibition itself, if I'm honest, disappointed. Not because the photographs weren't good, but because the lighting was abysmally low and with time-aged pictures it was hard to make out the detail of many of the pictures. One of the highlights should have been the display of the annual McBean Christmas card, where the photographer/artist made himself the subject matter in surreal and fascinatingly inventive ways, but the area was so dimly lit it was hard to make out much of the detail. Madness!

I should add that I am an absolute phillistine when it comes to art, or even most forms of culture - I know what I like, but have no pretensions about my ability to spot great art or bad art - and the small group of luvvies looking at this part of the gallery seemeed to conform to an awfully charicatured stereotype that normally has me running a mile from museums and art galleries. Anybody who's seen John Cleese and his female companion admiring the TARDIS in an old Doctor Who episode (the one set in the Louvre in Paris with Tom Baker) will know what I mean! Two women getting on in years, and dressed rather 'theatrically', given their somewhat advanced years, seemed determined to hold everybody up as they stopped at each photo and gushed, seemingly for ever and a day, on how wonderful each piece was. Half the fun of the exhibition was watching people try and wait for them to move on, and then give up, overtake them and miss a couple of pieces in so doing.

The main gallery itself, which has no cover charge and can be viewed separately from the McBean exhibition, was actually much more interesting because there were no lighting problems, and had patrons that felt much more like my kind of people (which is a polite way of saying I like freeloaders, I guess!). There are several different sections and floors to the main gallery, with something for everyone here I'd have thought.

The main portrait gallery had the usual mixture of art and photographic portraits that would have one gaping in awe at the talent on display one minute, only to be followed by a piece of 'art' that looked like it had been painted by an untrained zoo animal with a brush, or taken by a 'photographer' with a disposable camera who hadn't worked out the basics of framing or focusing. I remember I'd thought much the same on my last visit and some things never change I guess!

I loved the huge colourful, almost 3D-like "National Health" photo's by a female artist with a double-barelled name I've forgotten (but why use highly reflective glass to show them off?), and enjoyed almost all of what was on display in the special 'BP Portrait Awards 2006' section. However I thought it amusing that the 'portrait' that attracted by far the most attention was a ridiculously gimmicky piece of work that featured a section that was a looping, moving film of someone's head embedded in a painting of the rest of their body. I think the piece was called 'Being Watched' or somesuch but I think it should have really been called 'Pretentious? Moi?'. Enjoyable in an odd sort of way, rather like the working exhibitions with buttons that they put in the Science Museum to stop the kids getting bored, but I'm glad it didn't win the BP prize for the portrait of the year!

Elsewhere the Beatles on the Balcony exhibition was interesting enough for fans of the band, if somewhat uninspiring for the most part, being largely dominated by old record sleeves or what I would call 'enlarged snapshots' of the band taken early in their career. I guess one has to provide populist fare to get people in the door, and it was fun to reminisce and admire one or two of the better photographs. A wonderfully staged pillow fight photo alone is worth the visit. If you're in London with not much to do, the Gallery should definitely be on your list of places to visit.

What ever happened to Baby Jane?

What ever happened to Baby Jane?I first saw What ever happened to Baby Jane? about 13 years ago, primarily because at the time I was producing a dance music newsletter, Prime Cuts, and had been introduced to someone who was releasing a KLF-influenced dance track, named after the film, and featuring classic sound samples from the movie.

The record was an interesting news story, not least for the fact that the record's producer, Mike Morgan, had obtained photo's for the sleeve from the film archives that hadn't previously been published. A year or so later I went on to work for Mike when my partner died and I decided to move from the music industry back into IT. Subsequent events taught me to take nearly everything Mike said with an extremely large dose of salt, so I have no way of knowing if these claims for originality were mere promotional puff or fact, but I do know that the record, and Mike's enthusiasm for the film that inspired it, became my introduction to a movie that I loved on first viewing. It's released in a two disk 'Special Edition' this coming Monday, so some years on from watching a VHS recording of a TV airing, this seemed a good chance to revisit it.

I don't think anybody would call the film a great movie in the traditional sense. It's rather too camp and obviously low budget - the opening 1917 scenes don't feel at all realistic for the time period - to be called 'great', but it is a wonderful trash movie that is worth seeing for its excellent leads: Joan Crawford playing the seemingly innocent straight lady to Bete Davis' scenery-chewing, and indeed everything-else-chewing, performance as the Baby Jane of the title. Think trash TV like Footballers' Wives, Bad Girls or Dynasty, and you've pretty much got the feel for whether you'd enjoy it or not!

Playing the part of Baby Jane very much as if it were written for an old drag queen well past her prime, Davis steals the show from her longtime rival, with a performance that is as close to perfection as it gets for those who love schlocky B-movie melodrama. In one of the accompanying documentaries Davis reveals that she played Baby Jane as the sort of woman who didn't wash each morning but just put on a fresh layer of make-up, and it shows. Some years back French and Saunders did one of their over-the-top comedy sendups of the characters, but they really missed the point - nobody could be more over-the-top than Davis herself was in the original. To see a classy actress so prepared to play as unglamorous a part as one could possibly imagine is sheer joy, for this viewer at least.

Released in black and white (somewhat surprising given its 1962 date) but full anamorphic widescreen format, the DVD transfer is almost impeccable, and this is a Warner Brothers DVD title that rates alongside the best of Fox's Cinema Reserve series because of the quality of the restoration and the extra's which, with one exception, are superb.

Let's get the exception out of the way first: what were Warner Brothers thinking when they hired two camp queens with little real knowledge to provide the commentary track for this film? I don't know if Charles Busch and John Epperson (Lypsinka) were hired because they impersonate the two leads as drag acts in real life (that's my guess having heard their nonsense whittering), or if there is a deeper reason, but knowledge of the movie or the ability to do even the most basic research before stepping into the recording booth clearly weren't part of the criteria used in selecting them. It's a very poor offering and an incredibly wasted opportunity on an otherwise superlative release.

The extra's kick off with a half hour documentary on the history of the two stars and their rivalry. Much of the initial success and subsequent appeal of the film is down to it being public knowledge that the two stars hated each other intensely. When Crawford left MGM to join Warner Brothers Davis is reported to have remarked that Crawford appeared to have slept with 'all the male stars at MGM with the exception of Lassie', and the knowledge of the two actresses ongoing feuds add an extra frisson of enjoyment to the film. How can you resist two high maintenance diva's, with a reputation for being total bitches in real life, playing against each other in roles that demanded they continually be at each other's throats? The documentary is a fun trawl through both actresses back catalogue, laying down the story of why the rivalry and dislike existed, and showing that while being very different actresses, the two actually had a lot in common too.

A 45 minute special All about Bette is even better. Compered by an incredibly glammed-up Jodie Foster, this recent documentary contains some wonderful chat show clips, with excerpts from This is Your Life also providing insight into what a formidable person Bette Davis could be. It's sad to see the change in appearance over these chat show appearances as they jump from her glamorous, if unconventional, appearance in the early years to a frankly terrifying, but still feisty, 'walking skeleton with perennial fag in hand' interview on Donahue recorded after she'd suffered a stroke and not long before she died.

One very bizarre extra is a 4 minute performance on The Andy Williams Show where an embarrassingly bad Davis sings her 'new record' which is named after the infamous movie. It goes beyond life imitating art as the ageing actress tries to dance and sing live a tune that has 'cheap cash-in written by somebody with no musical talent' stamped all over it. It's Baby Jane playing Bette Davis, rather than the other way round!

The half hour documentary on Joan Crawford is also a gem - taken from a black and white BBC television interview program with Phillip Jenkins, and shows a stark contrast with the interviews with her rival. Crawford comes across as polite and informative, but also, rather like Madonna on any chat show that she does, something of a primadonna who doesn't suffer fools gladly, with the interviewer terrified that one slightly incorrect remark will cause the diva to verbally tear him limb from limb or just get up and walk off set (which she almost threatens at one point). Where Davis is formidable, she is also totally indiscrete, and happy to field any impertinent questions thrown her way. Crawford, on the other hand, deftly pushes even the hint of a difficult question aside, almost as if she feels she is playing the role of the Queen of England having to suffer a peasant, albeit a rather too serious and obsequious peasant, poking questions at her. It's fascinating stuff, and a must see for any film fan of the Hollywood greats!

Monday, July 10, 2006

Doctor Who - Alternate Ending

After my rant about Doctor Who the other day, I was pleased to be sent this link to the alternate ending to the season finale. Much better! :)

Sunday, July 09, 2006


SyrianaSyriana should probably carry a sanity warning at the beginning of the film to the effect that if you let your attention drift for more than 30 seconds you're going to very quickly get confused and wonder what's going on in this movie.

This is probably one of the most hotly debated, if not exactly the most widely seen at the box office, films of the year, with audiences who HAVE seen it seemingly stuck between two extremes - those who found it an 'incomprehensible, tedious mess' and those who thought it the most 'intelligent, provoking and beautifully put together' film of the year. American critics Ebert and Roeper have both put the film in their Top 2 of movies of 2005, while others think it's the death of coherent and well-plotted film-making - it's a film that brings out extremes of view. So let me say, straight off the bat, that this will undoubtedly be in my Top 5 films of the year when I look back in December 2006!

Syriana tells a complex story about a complex situation - the oil business and the repercussions its importance has on all our lives. Essentially it's a movie about America's addiction to cheap oil, and how that has shaped the world we all live in. Told through several different strands that touch on each other, the basic assassination plot - set against a background of American involvement in foreign politics motivated by its desire to protect its oil interests - is not totally dissimilar to real events that occurred in Iran some years ago. What I loved about the film was the way the separate stories all helped explain the basic message without dumbing down for the audience. For example, on the surface, a scene with Clooney talking to his sullen son about his entrance to college seems rather out of place to the plot and entirely random, until one realises it's placed slap bang next to a scene of another father and son (the son later to become a suicide bomber) in the Middle East. What is conveyed here, albeit very subtly, is that although the surroundings and the culture of the two motherless families depicted may be very different, the people, the family situations, and the needs of such are virtually identical. The message I took away, admittedly influenced by my own experiences of working for nearly five years in the Middle-East, is that we have more in common that a simple initial analysis might indicate.

So far as the acting goes, there isn't a poor performance in the film. Leads George Clooneyand Matt Damon, ironically enough, are perhaps the weakest parts in the film, but only because they are well known and recognisable to us. Clooney put on a lot of weight and shaved back his hairline for the film, and it makes his role the more believable, but it's still very clear it's him. I think Alexander Siddiq, a seriously under-rated actor, deserves special mention for his portrayal as one of two Persian prince brothers, but really it's hard to single anybody out when the peformances from all the cast are as good as they are here. Director/writer Stephen Gaghan's filmic style might not be to everyone's taste, his hand-held camerawork giving a very clear 'documentary on the hoof' feel at times, but I thought it delivered on all required fronts, always cutting scenes short to leave the viewer to think thinks out for himself, instead of spelling everything out in tedious detail.

Extra's wise there's not much here. Three deleted scenes, filling in some of Clooney's character's back story, actually add nothing to the explanation of the story and one can understand the reason for their omission, with the film already running in at just over two hours. There's a 5-10 minute interview with Clooney, in his role as Executive Producer, which oddly seems to include clips of scenes that never made it into the film or the final cut (or the deleted scenes), and a fluff piece of about the same duration that consists of the main actors and producers acting as talking heads to promote the film. And aside from a trailer that's it! A film this long and this complex is crying out for a director's commentary, but alas, it looks like we might have to wait for the inevitable anniversary special edition to get that.

Over on imdb the biggest criticism, from those who managed to stay with the movie to the end rather than walking out in disgust 60 minutes or so in, seems to be the lack of a proper ending. I don't buy that criticism. The final montage, showing how various families across the globe have been impacted by the events we've been shown in the film, makes it cynically clear that there are no black and white's where trying to solve the Midle-East problem is concerned. The very last montage shot of the film shows one of the central characters, a lawyer with an alcoholic father who he has earlier turfed out of his home, accepting him back in and picking up the beer he had previously told him he wouldn't allow inside the house, from the front porch. The message, I think, is clear, and the alcoholic metaphor is straightforward - no matter how good the intents of the sons of those who perhaps helped create the world's biggest problem there is no solution in sight. At least not until we can cure ourselves and our loved ones of this addiction to cheap oil.

This is a powerful and thought-provoking film that really needs to be seen on DVD to pick up on the nuances that one might miss on a single viewing. I highly recommend it.