Thursday, August 31, 2006

Battlestar Galactica (Season 2) (2006)

Battlestar Galactica Season 2Excellent, as opposed to just plain good, films or TV series, are rather like the London 87 bus: you get nothing for a great long stretch of time and then all of a sudden a bunch show up all at once.

This week has seen the superb '9 out of 10' Crash and Odd Man Out released, but if I were only allowed a single 'must have' on DVD it would have to be this - the full second series (twenty 45-60 minute episodes), of Battlestar Galactica. And selling at a bargain price too!

I must admit I came to the series late. A remake of some third-rate 70's TV version of Star Wars didn't initially appeal, what with all those images of Lorne Greene and THAT hair from the original series. But buzz and continual critical acclaim (and a co-worker who forced the initial mini-series on me) forced me to investigate, and it became very clear, very quickly that this was a series with 'quality' stamped all over it. If you know and like The West Wing, Nip/Tuck, Lost, The Sopranos or any other of those Emmy award-winning drama series - well here's another one to add to the list.

For me there are strong reminders of Farscape in the series - a uniformly excellent cast, exceptional writing talent, an edgy shooting style, and a refusal to bow to the demands of syndication by actually have an ongoing series that assumes you've been following all along instead of never having anything change week-in, week-out. Of course this 'ongoing' story arc can prove problematic, as the cancellation of Farscape proved, but fingers crossed, not yet! Alas, the show also shares the invented 'four letter word beginning with f' that Farscape introduced to appear more adult - here it's 'frack' instead of 'frell' - but I guess a series has to have some irritations to survive. And it's not just a Farscape knockoff - unlike Doctor Who which had the temerity to steal not only the whole of the Farscape ship interior for the 'new' TARDIS interior, but even stole the show's logo too - there is genuine originality here too. If you haven't caught the show then you're missing out on one of the best drama shows being made today. Notice I say 'drama' and not 'sci fi', because the truth is that Battlestar Galactica simply uses the medium of sci-fi to tell its stories, rather than becoming enslaved to the genre the way so many ongoing sci fi series of the past have done with the law of ever-decreasing returns becoming very obvious very quickly.

Amazingly the series has ramped up more episodes each season, without quality suffering. Season 2, the longest season yet, maintains the quality throughout, and when even the weakest 'filler' episodes can outshine the best of recent Star Trek series like Voyager and Enterprise you know the show's got a lot going for it. Season 1 played it for shocks a lot of the time - the old 'you think you know what's coming next but we're going to totally mess with you' trick - and yet managed to stay fresh. Season 2 is more of the same, and yet one never feels one is being given a gimmick, or being stalled in answering the main questions the way one is with shows like Lost which start with a strong series, and then totally lose the plot in the second and third years. Battlestar Galactica's second year (its third if you count the mini-series - which we should) is, if anything, even better than its predecessors.

What I really like about the show is the way it is happy to introduce sensational new characters - as this season does midway through, with the introduction of a female captain of a new battleship, the Pegasus - only to have them written out immediately their immediate purpose to the plot is served. Weaker shows would have such strong characters appearing week-in, week-out until they become former shadows of themselves. And what other series would take risks the way Battlestar Galactica does with its story lines? Can you imagine any other show suddenly jumping forward a year in time half way through its season finale? Touch wood, the risks all seem to pay off, and long may they continue to do so.

The special effects on the show, given its limited budget, are nothing short of astounding, and the tone throughout is gritty, dirty and realistic. When the robotic cylons show up they look amazing - there's no cheap 'it doesn't quite come off' CGI work here, the way there is with each and every episode of Doctor Who. There is a lack of humour, which some have criticised the series for, but if the alternative is endless 'farting aliens', 'chav' and 'ipod' jokes at the expense of suspense and belief, then I'm all for the 'joylessness' of it all. The series' real strength is the way it provides political and social comment on current events, through its portrayal of an alternative society. There's comment on 9/11, Bush's Miami elections and the US/Iraq situation sprinkled liberally and intelligently through this second season. The downside is that this, unlike Trek and Who, is not a show for kids - it's far too adult for that.

The DVD is excellent value, but suffers from comparison with its Region 1 counterpart (which was split into two half seasons). The States get the originally 'truncated to fit the schedules' episode of the mid-season finale and an extended 'what we wanted to show' version too. We get just the extended version. That's not too disappointing, but the 'bonus disk of extras' is. The 'bonus disk' only features deleted scenes from the first half of the season, with nothing from the second ten episodes. The same is true of the commentaries - we get most of those that were made available on the US 'first half of season 2' release, but nothing from the second half (which is released in the States in a week or two). These are available separately for download over the internet, but there is plenty of room here to have included them on the disks, and invariably the hard core fans are ignoring the inferior Region 2 release, and going for the Region 1 release instead.

If you haven't caught up with this show, which isn't shown on terrestrial TV in Britain, then you owe it to yourself to catch it on DVD, but start with the mini-series, which is still available. If you start with this season, or even the first one, you may be confused as you're effectively starting the main story part-way in.

Too many well-written shows get sacrificed on the high altar of 'insufficient advertising revenue and viewing figures in the States'. Touch wood, Battlestar Galactica has not yet succumbed to that fate, although it is still a cult show, particularly in Europe where it's only available on cable and DVD. Do yourself a favour and check the series out - there's a reason why so many fans have found themselves staying up all night transfixed for 'just one more episode before I go to bed'. If you check the series out from the beginning, you won't be disappointed - that's a promise!

Monday, August 28, 2006

Crash (2004)

CrashGiven its 'surprise' oscar win for 'Best Film' at the Academy Awards earlier this year, it's perhaps to be expected that Pathe should decide to 'double-dip' with this new '2 disk Ultimate Director's Edition' DVD release, such a short time after the original DVD was released. The good news for those who bought the original DVD is that there's little new been added to justify the 'Ultimate' tag and hence no reason to spend more money on something already purchased. And for those who didn't get the original DVD release of this excellent film there's now a choice: the original can still be purchased for about £6 less than this new 'ultimate' edition, representing excellent value for money.

The basic plot of Crash has been well publicised by now. Nine separate stories challenging our perceptions of racial prejudice are cleverly woven together to make for a 'story' that leads the viewer down one blind alley after another, to the point that even when you're sat ready and waiting for the next twist and think you have things figured out, the co-writer/director Paul Haggis will take you in a different direction from the one you're expecting. This is the sort of 'food for the brain' that has provided, and will continue to provide, long water-cooler discussions all around the world. It's a film designed to stimulate debate and have you thinking about its message for days after you've seen it. That can only be a good thing!

The stellar cast, which includes Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle (also functioning as producer), Matt Dillon, Brendan Fraser, Thandie Newton and Ryan Phillippe are not the main attraction here - it's the writing and Los Angeles itself that are the real stars of the movie. It's not hard to see why the clever marketing campaign undertaken by its makers, who sent the DVD to all the American Academy voters who would otherwise have not seen it, helped the film 'steal' the 'Best Film' award from the more critically favoured, and arguably more controversial, Brokeback Mountain.

It's interesting to see that the critical ratings (as evidenced by seem to be lower than those from the general public (as evidenced by, and this discrepancy is probably best explained by the fact that this doesn't really feel like a 'film' as such. It feels more like a superior TV drama mini-series that's been edited down into a 'made for TV film', a fact confirmed by the revelation on the extra's that it only became a film when HBO deemed it too controversial to be made as a regular series!

The film seems to have as many detractors as admirers, with many dismissing it as too gimmicky by half. Certainly the film feels a little too clever for its own good at times - the lines delivered and the contrived circumstances that bring some of the stories together are just a little TOO perfect to reflect real life. For this viewer, there are times when the film feels a little smug and self-satisfied, an impression not contradicted by the director's commentary and extra's that accompany this release. But none of that should distract from the important message about prejudice that this film so intelligently conveys, or the portrayal of its main character Los Angeles, that has seldom been better portrayed on film.

The DVD itself doesn't live up to the 'ultimate' hype. The Directors Introduction is the same 10-second 'Hi. I hope you like the film' snippet featured on the original 'vanilla' release. The 'Director's Cut' of the film itself allegedly adds an extra four minutes to the original 103 minute running time, but you'd have to be a real anorak who's overly familiar with the original theatrical release to notice the additions (I didn't!) The commentary, repeated from the original release and featuring the writer/director and Don Cheadle, was made before the oscar win and is too self-congratulatory and reverential to hold much real interest. There are some new short marketing-oriented featurettes, but they constitute little real meat and don't add any real insight to the film, comprising for the most part endless gushing from assorted cast and crew members.

If you haven't seen Crash yet, you have no excuse with this DVD (or its cheaper earlier version) being so readily available. Whilst there's some debate over whether the film really deserved the Award for 'Best Film', there's no doubt it's one of the best films released over the last year or so and worth 107 minutes of anybody's time. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Odd Man Out (1947)

Odd Man OutOne of the reviewers over at The Internet Movie Database describes Odd Man Out, released to stores in a digitally restored 'special edition' tomorrow, as 'one of the most beautifully directed and photographed films I've ever seen'. I'd add 'scripted' and 'acted' to that list, and it's disappointing that Jurgen Muller's Best Movies of the 40s (which, until now, I've been using as my guide to old movies I should make an effort to see) doesn't include it in its best of 1947. Odd Man Out is an absolute gem of a film that stands up well today, and is definitely a highlight of not just the year it was released, but that whole 'film noir' decade as a whole.

On the surface the plot wouldn't seem to have a lot going for it: James Mason plays the idealistic leader of an 'illegal group' in Ireland, who in the opening scenes gets involved in a robbery where he accidentally kills a man and is himself shot. The film charters his journey as friends, enemies and the police try and close in on the seriously wounded man. While this might appear to be a film about Mason's character, Johnny, it's really an excuse to show us the lives and behaviours of all the different characters he encounters, shown through their reactions to his plight. It's full of wonderful comedic characters and performances, with a raft of mainly unknown Irish actors in cameo roles. As a Doctor Who fan of the William Hartnell era it was a real treat to catch the actor's engaging performance as a much younger man here, where his infamous 'hand manipluations' to ensure the viewer's eye is drawn to his face in close-ups when playing the Doctor are just as much in evidence in a bar scene. This is a scene where an older, slightly mad vagrant who's already been built up in the story was in danger of stealing the scene, and Hartnell was clearly having none of it!

The script cleverly defuses the IRA (who are never named) politics by showing Johnny as someone who, although the leader of his cell, is in serious doubt about the way his organisation is going. Before the crime is committed he is accused of having gone soft, and expresses disapproval that an accomplice is carrying a gun, advising him to make sure he doesn't use it. Later on the lead British policeman trying to hunt him down is shown as a man of equal integrity, honour and sympathy towards his fellow man: those hoping for propaganda for this cause or that cause are likely to be disappointed. Odd Man Out is not a film about Northern Ireland politics, but a film about the wonderfully diverse people of Ireland - and it works beautifully as such, moving from one fantastic cameo character scene to the next, each perfectly pitched and perfectly placed to tell a little story in its own right, while heightening the overall suspense and tension.

The lighting and 'film noir' cinematography are beautiful, and shown to their best advantage in this digitally restored print which is never less than stunning. The dialogue never seems stilted or dated, and one finds oneself wishing a tiny proportion of today's Hollywood's output were as intelligently written and directed as this.

The extra's are equally fascinating, if for all the wrong reasons. Readers of my Lord of the Rings weblogs will have sensed my incredulity at the behaviour of fans and 'amateur' journalists and film-makers when following the progress of the cast and crew of that movie franchise at various events - it's a cattle market of inanity, naivety and stupidity and for the cast and crew clearly not the glamorous exercise most would like to believe. But the scenes I personally witnessed are as nothing compared to the complete incompetence revealed in the 1972 interview with James Mason featured as an extra on this DVD. The interview is presented as 'unedited rushes', and what a fascinating story they have to tell. Every time Mason starts to give an interesting, brutally honest insight into his perceptions of Hollywood, or tries to discuss details of his experiences with Preston Sturgess he will be interrupted and stopped by a seemingly totally incompetent lighting/sound man, only to then have the interviewer move onto a completely different question as if the anecdote that had been about to be delivered couldn't possibly be of any interest. As such the rushes serve as a fascinating, if incredibly frustrating, insight into just how incompetent even the 'professional' programme makers can be. The snatched glimpses of Mason's face as these debacles ensue, alternating between bemused incredulity and simmering fury, are a joy to behold and lesser men would have got up and walked out (I know I would!). Allegedly filmed for a TV programme called 'All our Yesterdays', one suspects that if a programme of that title ever got screened it will have featured nothing from Mason, despite the intriguing insights he was apparently ready and willing to give!

The only other extra on the DVD itself is an hour long TV documentary from 1972 where James Mason revisits his home town of Huddersfield. It's a fun piece, if of no direct relevance to the film itself, and demonstrates just how much Michael Kitchen (best known away from his constant TV narration duties, as the detective Foyle in the series Foyle's War) has 'borrowed' from Mason - the two are audible dead-ringers for each other. Essentialy this is a documentary about the old vs the new. An anecdote about the 'scandal' of workers being paid to play cards really struck home, having had a very similar conversation with one of those card players/car workers at Ford Motor Company just a few months ago. Some things never really change!

The 'Special Edition' packaging for the DVD is rounded off with an excellent essay giving solid background information about the film, its director and cast, and is illustrated with movie stills in 20-page booklet form. It just shows how much most of the 'Piracy is killing us' film companies are ripping us off with giving not so much as a chapter index leaflet, when a DVD like this can retail online for a price of just £10.89. At that price this DVD is a complete steal. Highly recommended!

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Black Swan (1942)

The Black SwanThanks to Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom,
pirates are fashionable in the movies again, but to see real class in the pirate genre you need to go back to 1942's oscar-nominated The Black Swan, released on DVD for the first time this Monday.

Tyrone Power plays the rumbunctuous, hot-tempered, over-drinking pirate James Waring, who suddenly finds himself having to act respectably when his fellow pirate , Henry Morgan, is given a pardon from the king. Morgan is made governer of Jamaica and tasked with ridding the Caribbean of buccaneers and Waring suddenly finds himself having to live in an altogether different society. Margaret Denby (Maureen O'Hara is the stunningly beautiful love interest, although she spends most of the film repulsed by Waring and his uncouth behaviour. When Waring and Denby first meet she is knocked out cold by the pirate, who regards her as one of his spoils, and if you're looking for political correctness, at least in the first half hour, then this film is not for you!

It's staggering to see what was achievable on film more than 60 years ago, and the film has dated only in its rather pedestrian story (which, it must be said, seems to be a lot longer than the 81 minute running time would suggest) and the over-use of back-projections. Most of the film was shot in the studio, with the battle scenes involving a lot of model work, and unfortunately the transfer here is so crisp this probably shows more than it would have done to the original cinema-going audiences.

That being said, The Black Swan opens with an action set-piece battle that wouldn't look out of place in one of today's movies. Even more impressive is a closing sword fight sequence between Tyrone Powers' character and the big baddie of the piece, played by George Sanders. This sword fight sequence shows just how feeble so many of today's modern reproductions of such scenes are: contrast it with any sword fight from Pirates of the Caribbean and marvel at how much better and dangerous looking the one staged back in the early 1940's was!

Maureen O' Hara originally received some criticism for 'just looking pretty, which is OK because that's all she needs to do', which strikes me as somewhat unfair. Yes, she is stunningly beautiful - and this amazing restoration of the original saturated Technicolor shows that to full effect - but she's also more than able to stand her ground in the scenes where she appears with her co-star, Tyrone Powers, who has surely never been in better form than he is here. Spending most of the movie stripped naked to the waist, and with boyish looks and charm, it's not hard to see why women flocked to the cinema to see him in this movie.

I should point out that my ratings above are based on current entertainment value, and unfairly compare the film with modern contemporaries. Back in 1942, when the film was originally released, I'm sure it would have received an 8 or even a 9 rating, and the Academy Award it won for Best Cinematorgraphy was undoubtedly well deserved.

Ordinarily the DVD would receive a high rating just for the transfer, which is superb, but the lack of any extra's at all when clearly some were available (the Region 1 release earlier this year had a commentary track) mark it down - there comes a point where the continual ripping off of Region 2 purchasers when it comes to missing out extra's is inexcusable.

That being said, if you're a fan of movie history, and want your own copy of this classic it will be very hard to resist, and in its defence the price is more than reasonable for the DVD debut of an oscar-winning film.

Flirting (1991)

FlirtingNice film, shame about the title. Or rather, 'Nice film, shame about the piss-poor DVD'!

Flirting is a beautifully told coming-of-age story, perhaps most notable for featuring performances from Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts, before they were famous. Set in the boarding school world of Jennings, Billy Bunter and possibly St Trinians too, albeit a world with Australian accents, this is an old-fashioned movie, with some great performances, laugh-out-loud moments, and a nice little life lesson coda at the end.

Danny Embling (played by Noah Taylor) is the school dweeb, or as he calls it 'dag', constantly picked on and punished by bullying schoolmasters living a day-to-day existence, until he meets Thandie Newton (played by Thandie Newton), a Ugandan girl from the girl's boarding school across the lake. Whilst the relationship is initially a bit hard to believe - Newton is far too pretty for us to believe she'd fall for the nerdy, odd-looking Embling the first time she meets him - everything else about the film is true to character. This is no 'cheap laughs' film, and even the minor characters have an honesty to them that is rarely realised in adolescent films like this. Nicole Kidman delivers a strong performance in a nice little cameo as the stuck-up head prefect who decides to 'bless' the relationship that everyone else seems determined to destroy, and the whole thing is delivered with workman-like efficiency by John Dugan. It's not hard to see why the film won four Australian Film Institue awards, including 'Best Film', and why the critics rating over at RottenTomatoes is so high!

Unfortunately Warner Brothers have delivered what can only be described as a cheap and nasty DVD.

Admittedly the chosen title for the film is not a good one, but everything bad about it is made worse with this DVD release. The cover is terrible. The menu is terrible and looks like it was put together by a kid of five playing around on a PC for the first time. Not that a menu was needed because there's nothing on the disk at all except the film. And even that has been taken from a poor quality print with speckles and dust being its main feature. But it gets worse... Warner Brothers UK haven't even kept correct aspect ratio of the original Region 1 widescreen release. What you've got here is a nasty cropped 4:3 version instead. This might have been acceptable ten years ago when DVDs first launched, but not now.

The film is well worth seeing as a rental or if it pops up on satellite or TV, but as a DVD purchase this release is a definite no-no, even at the slightly reduced price compared with the other major releases. Somebody at Warner Brothers should be fired for giving such a great little movie such an appalling DVD release. Can I have my money back please?!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Lemming (2005)

LemmingThe British Film Industry may be stuck in the doldrums, but the French one is positively booming, at least if my experience with French titles released on DVD this year is anything to go by.

Lemming is another release from the excellent Artificial Eye, who specialise in releasing 'World Cinema' films, with the emphasis very much on 'critically acclaimed' movies. I've yet to find an Artificial Eye release I didn't enjoy, and Lemming is no exception, although it's a film that's hard to slot into any given category.

The film starts out almost as a humorous rom-com. Alain, played by Laurent Lucas, and his wife Benedicte, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg are a young 'model' couple who've just moved into a new house, with Alain having started a new job. He enjoys his work and his successful life and believes control is the key to his happiness. Then he invites his boss and his wife (played, in wonderfully suspenseful fashion, by Charlotte Rampling) to dinner and Alain's controlled life falls apart, starting with the discovery of a dead lemming blocking a sink outlet just before the guests arrive very late, and continuing into a dinner that will have your toes curling in discomfort at the way the boss's wife behaves. For the hero of the piece, things start to get very messy and very bad very quickly, and when a man's down you just know that's when he's going to get hit harder and harder.

What starts off as a gentle, albeit rather black, comedy suddenly turns into a psychological suspense story, then seems to become a Japanese-styled horror movie, and finally a supernatural thriller. This mixing and matching of genres might all sound a bit of a mess, but director Dominik Moll somehow manages to steer it all in a consistent direction. The film's greatest strength is the way it continually surprises you - just when you think you've figured it all out and know where it's going, it throws a wild curve at you. It's a long film at just over two hours, and perhaps too slow in places for the MTV attention deficit generation, but for me the suspense never once let up and there aren't many films these days that keep you guessing all the way through, the way this one does.

In truth, the film owes a lot to Alfred Hitchcock - it's very reminiscent of the best of his work in the 40's and 50's, and is all the more enjoyable for all that. Like Hitchcock's movies sound is cleverly used to build suspense, and the performances throughout are excellent, with Rampling being the stand for me, as the chilling villainess of the piece. Where the film falls somewhat is in its denoument. While the ending will prompt much discussion, it lacks the rational explanation one might have hoped for, even though common sense tells you as you watch the film that there isn't going to be a nice tidy, controlled explanation for everything that's happened. Ultimately Lemming is a ghost story, albeit one that doesn't really tie things up with a nice neat bow, but there's enough here to stimulate water cooler conversations for days afterwards and that can only be a good thing.

There is no director's commentary on the DVD, but fortunately one's not needed, as everything that needs to be covered and/or explained is covered in a 30 minute English interview with the director. Six (not five, as indicated on the box) featurettes of 3-6 minutes duration each, cover some of the aspects of the film and provide a useful 'behind the scenes' look that is unusual on foreign language releases.

If you don't 'get' Hitchcock, or can't stand films with subtitles then this is not for you. But if you want something thought-provoking and stimulating this comes highly recommended.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

L'Enfer (Hell) (2005)

L'Enfer (Hell)L'enfer tells the story of three sisters, all going their separate ways after a childhood trauma, and all living their own version of the Hell of the title.

The eldest sister suspects her husband of an affair and struggles to find the evidence she needs to confront him. The middle sister has effectively given up her life to look after her wheelchair-bound mother, until an attractive stranger appears and seems to be stalking her, perhaps with a romantic interest? The youngest sister is having an affair with an older married man and is madly in love with him, but he seems to be losing interest! The situations all three sisters find themselves in will take them down paths that don't make for cheerful viewing, and will ultimately result in them meeting up again to resolve some unanswered questions about the trauma that initially separated them and may be the cause of their salvation.

The first thing to say about the film, presented in French with subtitles, is it's a visually lush movie, albeit one that jumps between the three different stories (one for each sister) so rapidly that things can feel confusing and disjointed for the first half hour. The film has been called 'a woman's film' in some quarters, but that seems unfair given the poetic beauty the piece has. It's true that the few men in the piece have limited screen time, but that doesn't make the film any less interesting for men. That being said, this isn't a film for those who like a good strong, clearly linear storyline. It is a film for those who like quality indie cinema, and feels very much like a coffee-table book brought to life, featuring stunning cinematography, and subtle, quality acting but ultimately feeling rather empty for all that.

This is director Danis Tanovic's second movie, the first - No Man's Land - having won the oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2002, but it's a very different film in look and style. Alas, while the film certainly feels more 'grown up' and more 'big budget' than Tanovic's previous offering, it doesn't feel quite as good a movie. The disjointed nature of the film is too confusing and at times it's just a little TOO lethargic. Also one never really believes the three women featured are actually sisters - they're so different in looks and temperament, and the idea that they would never have contacted each other, but seem happy to see each other when they eventually do meet up, seems too far-fetched. However, the cast do the best with what they're given, and the musical score beautifully underlines some wonderful imagery. As such, this is well worth a viewing.

Unfortunately the DVD loses a couple of points for the transfer - the transfer isn't bad but it's non-anamorphic, which is unforgiveable in this day and age. It's amusing to see all the promises being made for HD-DVD and Blu-Ray's gimmicks and features that MIGHT be implemented on some releases when 10 years on we're still getting DVD transfers that are as shoddy as this and don't make use of all the features the format promised when first launched. The DVD does get a thumbs-up for the excellent hour long 'Making of' that is the only extra included here - it's very well put together, features all the cast and the director, and feels more like a good documentary than a marketing piece. Definitely worth a viewing, but not a purchase unless you really don't care about big screen picture quality.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Junebug (2005)

JunebugJunebug received strong critical reviews, and an oscar nomination for supporting actress Amy Adams earlier this year, but my heart initially sank at the 'indie' opening to the movie - poor Super 8 footage of some North Carolina locals making odd whooping noises, amateur big red blocky titles, and a tinny, weak mono soundtrack didn't make for an auspicious start.

Fortunately things quickly improved after the opening title sequence.

Embeth Davidtz plays Madelaine a British art dealer who gets smitten with handsome, clean-cut customer George (Alessandro Nivola) and after a whirlwind marriage takes the opportunity to mix business with pleasure by visiting his dysfunctional family in Northern Carolina some six months after their marriage.

I say 'dysfunctional', but the beauty of the piece is that each family member has some redeeming feature that most will be able to identify with. Although there's a lot of humour in the piece, it's always done so that one is laughing WITH the characters, rather than at them. There's the prickly mother Peg, her taciturn and rather sad husband Eugene, and George's brother, Johnny who is having a difficult time in his marriage to pregnant Ashley, and strongly resents his brother's return visit.

Amy Adams steals the show, with her performance as Ashley, the rather simplistic girl with the heart of gold, but she's backed up by strong performances all round. Alessandro Nivola shows he has leading man potential, with natural good looks, sexiness and even a good singing voice. Ben McKenzie, best known for his role as the lead in TV Series The O.C. shows critics of his TV performances that he CAN do more than simply roll his eyes and flash his eyelashes when required (although he DOES do rather too much of that here too!) Embeth Davidtz strikes just the right note as unintentionally patronising Madelaine, and Celia Weston excels as the matriarch of the family. With such a strong cast, and a strong script, it would be hard for director Phil Morrison to screw things up, even with the extremely limited budget he had, and thankfully he doesn't, turning in a heart-warming film that is never schmaltzy, and tells us the old-age story about how once we've left home we can never really go back.

Packaged as a two-disc set, one wonders why the two discs were really necessary, as the extra's are strong evidence of the 'little-to-no-budget indie' production. Unfortunately the director is largely invisible, and his comments on the deleted scenes, often very different variations of the same dialogue scene, could have added so much more to the package. The commentary track is from the two female leads, and suffers from being far too gushing in places. Accidental indiscretions about actors' insecurities are always amusing to hear and help make the track listenable, and for those looking there is genuine insight into how actors really are just very small cogs in the whole process of movie making.

There are six 3-5 minute featurettes, mainly centred around each of the main characters in the movie, and these vary from 'poor home movie footage' on-the-hoof tours to 'promotional talking head sound bites with repeated clips'. The standout extra is a 20 minute interview with Amy Adams at a screening in London, which gives insight into the acting process, which is further enhanced by two seemingly unedited audition performances from Adams and Ben McKenzie.

Junebug is a quirky film, but one that should appeal to most mainstream audiences and the strong cast make this a 'must see'. Highly recommended!

Postcard from Budapest: Final Thoughts

Folk Festival Horses Heads at the Palace

The holiday weekend featured a two day Folk Festival in the grounds of the palace just down the road from our hotel so we visited it late on our second day. Hundreds of stalls were selling various national bits and pieces and there were lots of demonstrations of local folk art. The searing sun, rather than the large crowds, are the main problem in trying to make the best of the festival which is very impressive.
Weaver at work

We caught an hour of 'World Dance' on the main stage featured inside the grounds of the palace, which featured some very colourful dances and music - definitely the highlight of the different acts we saw on stage.

World dancers

On our final day we had to fill in time between hotel checkout and taxi collection time and caught an hour of local Hungarian music and dance, which depicted three 'acts' of a local wedding proposal and acceptance. It featured some wonderful costumes, demonstrating how much work goes into dressing the ladies with those endless petticoats, but came across very much as a Hungarian equivalent of Morris Dancing, with embarrassed looking participants and music that too often sounded like nails being scraped down a blackboard to these Western ears.

We returned to the hotel to get some great viewsof rehearsals for the Red Bull Air Race - just as well since the Hilton Hotel reneged on their promise of late checkout, claiming they'd had a sudden rush of new bookings after we'd checked in - not impressed! The day of the race itself we caught some skydivers and a few of acrobatic plane routines we'd aleady seen so don't feel we missed too much by refusing to stand in the heat with the manic crowds who lined the few vantage points across the river.

We left before the fireworks in the evening, which turned out to be a lucky break as tragedy struck the festival on Sunday night. Budapest is a beautiful city and well worth a visit - it's not hard to see why people fall in love with the place. But the tragedy that occurred the evening we left leaves a sad, sour footnote to our visit. Our plane hit the storm that was the cause of the tragedy, and was the most turbulent 15 minutes I've ever suffered on an international flight - but we thankfully arrived back safely on time (if only the same could be said for our baggage - the baggage handling delays at Heathrow are a national scandal that should have been sorted out years ago). Hearing the news of the deaths and injuries in Budapest after our departure, one wonders what local folk are making of the inability of the miraculous 'Holy Right Hand of St Stephen' to protect them on the day of celebration of their founder and miracle worker!

Red Bull Air Race rehearsal

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Postcard from Budapest: Day Two

Our hotel rooms as viewed from the Peste side of the Danube and the Chain Bridge

I was up earlier than intended (6am) to catch the sunrise but initial plans to have an early start BEFORE breakfast somehow fell apart. We headed off to St Margaret's Island - bang in the middle of the Danube and about 5 km in circumference. The plan was to hire bikes for an hour to view it but we arrived before the place opened at 10am. This meant we got the chance to see 'Hungary's biggest fountain' with a special show that attempted to co-ordinate classical music with a water display. Without coloured lights to help, we found ourselves incredibly underwhelmed, but it passed time until the bike rental store magically appeared from nowhere bang on the dot of 10am.

Hungary's biggest fountain

The bikes were great fun. They were battered and wonky as hell, with brakes that didn't really work, but a bargain at about £2 for an hour, and a great way to do a round-trip of the island, which is very green and consists mainly, it seemed, of tourist stands selling drinks and the odd attraction ('Budapest Beach! The zoo! A sports centre!). It must be fantastic to work in the City and have this large area on your doorstep at weekends.

Mum cycling

We then used trams to get over to a high class shopping centre for Mum to get some expensive perfume. Despite advertising itself as open the place was closed - the St Stephens Day celebrations seem to have started early. Mum satisfied herself with buying some ribbons for making cards from one of the market stalls along the river bank at a bargain price instead. We headed over the Chain Bridge, which has been closed to traffic since we arrived, and took the Funiculaire (apparently operated since 1870) up to the hill on which our hotel is based, accidentally buying a ticket for the Folk Arts Festival in the process, so we're headed off there late this afternoon after a little siesta as the heat is unbearable after noon.

The Funiculaire

Postcard from Budapest: Day One

The National Museum

A very busy first day in Budapest in which we used all the different forms of the public transport system, which is excellent - clean, modern and efficient, although the minibuses do get very crowded. We're using a Budapest Card to get round which gives you not just unlimited travel but also free access to over 60 museums. Alas, we seemed to hit all the wrong ones as nearly everywhere we tried it was a case of the card giving us a 10% discount and not much else besides. Initial impressions are that Budapest is reminiscent of Paris - except it's cleaner, got more wide open spaces... and more tourists!

I wouldn't say it's cheap, in fact some places are downright expensive, but refreshments in the tourist areas are surprisingly affordable - can you see someone charging you 27p for a Peach ice cream cone in London?

Budapest Kiosks

We started the day on the Buda side of the River Danube, with the heat and humidity already clearly in evidence, and found some delightful kiosks near the main attractions close to our hotel (photo above). From there we went to the National Gallery and the Royal Opera House, the latter being a supposed 'must see', but a bit of a rip off as it was closed to public viewing unless you took an afternoon guided tour at 3pm or 4pm which cost money. As previously mentioned (last blog entry) I was much more impressed with St Stephens Church with its superb city views, and then we headed for Hero's Square which was beautiful. Our ticket did get us into an exhibition of modern art there that was pretentious beyond belief. The theme was 'over population' and lots of huge, mainly empty white-painted rooms held very sparse exhibits. Three rooms consisted of stick-men like graffiti that I could have drawn with supposed witty observations.

We also visited the Jewish memorial where I took the photo of Mum below - the tree is made of lots of leaves, each bearing the name of a victim of the Holocaust shot within the walls of the Holy place (shown inset on the photo below). Bulletholes are apparently still evident in places.

Jewish Memorial - each small leaf carries the name of a victim of the Holocaust

On a happier note, we caught the tail end of a wedding when we visited one of the museums, which added a bit of local colour. Ended up exhausted and with an early night for an early start on Saturday morning although I'm already feeling 'culture fatigue' with cramming so much into such a short period of time.

A Hungarian wedding

Budapest: The Holy Hand Grenade of Saint Antioch (or somesuch)

The Holy Right Hand

The highlight of yesterday's packed day of 'being a tourist n Budapest' for me was the visit to St Stephen's Church. The views of the city from the roof are quite stunning. However the visit had its surreal Monty Python and the Holy Grailmoments when we spotted the signs for The Chapel of the Holy Right Hand, featuring a photo of an embalmed, severely shrunken hand, daubed with all kinds of baubles and trinkets.

It turns out that St Stephen introduced Christianity to Hungary in the early 11th century and lost his hand in battle around 1014. The severed hand was discovered and has become a holy relic, with it eventually being returned to Hungary for a second time in 1945.

The Holy Right Hand is returned to Hungary in 1944/1945

The hand, no more than a couple of inches in size, is kept in the most ludicrously over-the-top presentation case and can be viewed by the public, although there are signs all over the place warning of 'no flash' (studiously ignored by one tourist while we were visiting, causing much tut-tutting from the security staff - people are ignorant no matter which country you go to). It seems that St Stephen's ability to perform miracles has not peristed since his death. To actually see the hand a light is needed, and that requires the insertion of a florin (about 27p) into a slot machine. The whole thing feels like something much more ludicrous than the Python's could ever have come up with.

The hand, complete with presentation casket, will apparently be part of the big National Holiday procession tomorrow, so will be leaving its place of rest. Will the little hand be getting a big hand from the public, one wonders? Unfortunately, it's becoming obvious I screwed up our return flight booking very royally since we'll miss the big fireworks display in the evening, and may end up missing much of the Red Bull Air Race too in our desperate attempts to get out of a city where everything grinds to a halt with immoveable crowds for a day. Ho hum!

Holy Right Hand in Presentation Case

Friday, August 18, 2006

I've arrived in Budapest!

View from my hotel room taken at 10pm in the evening

I'm in Budapest for 3 days, a trip made primarily as a holiday break birthday present for my mother, and also to see the Red Bull Air Race on Sunday that is supposed to be pretty spectacular.

The Heathrow situation turned out to be much better than indicated on the British Airwarys site or by the British press - no hovering outside on the pavements and we rushed through security and passport control with less queues than I recall in a long time. The small plane was full before the scheduled take off time and it seemed too good to be true when the captain announced that we would be departing in "three to four minutes", almost exactly on time. It was aof course, and an hour later we were still waiting for the plane to move! The only explanation given once we started to move was 'administrative problems' with the baggage.

The Hilton is wonderful and it was worth paying a bit extra for the river views, which are stunning. The photo at the top of this entry is taken from last night when we arrived, the one below at 7am this morning. It's going to be a hot day and the humidity hit us as soon as we arrived, after 8pm in the evening. We got to the hotel using the airport minibus service - very cheap at about £6 each but a long trip - the "40 minutes" the hotel had advised us of turned out to be more like 2 hours once airport wait time and stops at the other hotels, with people taking the wrong luggage, were included.

The area we are in is quiet and very quaint - 'more Disney than Disneyworld itself' as our guide book puts it. We arrived at the hotel after 10pm and spotted several restaurants closing down en route, but room service prices are outrageous and we resigned ourselves to eating nothing as it was so late. Luckily a charming little restaurant directly opposite the hotel was still serving food - and very reasonably priced it was too (compared with London) so we had a bite to eat and felt refreshed.

P.S. Hotel has wireless internet access (which refuses to work with Internet Explorer on my laptop - thank God I've also got Firefox preloaded) but I don't have email access (long story!) so don't email me until I'm back in London on Sunday evening!

View from my hotel room taken at 7am in the morning

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Scary Movie 4 (2006)

Scary Movie 4The Scary Movie franchise has not received an easy ride from the critics or, if the imdb ratings are to be believed, from the public either. Universally derided as puerile, unfunny, laboured pieces of work, the movies somehow seem able to turn massive profits, despite the consistently negative reviews. Scary Movie 4 received marginally better reviews than previous episodes in the franchise, so I decided to give it a go.

And I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. OK, so this isn't rocket science, and the humour isn't cerebral in any size, shape or form. The movie relies on slapstick, politically incorrect verbal punchlines, and audience knowledge of recent blockbusters for most of its laughs. But the important thing is that there ARE laughs, and although many of the jokes misfire, they're delivered at such a fast pace that you don't have long to wait for another belly laugh to show up.

Scary Movie 4 combines Spielberg's War of the Worlds with the Japanese-inspired horror Dark Water for its main ongoing story, with spoofs of The Village, Brokeback Mountain, Saw and countless other films also popping into place. There are even spoofs taken from real life (George Bush being told about 9/11 in a class full of children, Tom Cruise on Oprah's chat show) which if they don't produce a great belly laugh, will at least make you smile.

Director David Zucker, who also directed the third film in the franchise, gives the whole thing a 'big budget blockbuster' feel, and recreates the style of many of the original movies that are being spoofed here, mainly because it seems the producers had access to the props used in the original movies. The cast, which include cameos from the likes of Charlie Sheen and Leslie Nielson (in a nude scene I'm desperately trying to forget - I have no idea what possessed him to agree to this!), are excellent with the exception of some of the non-actor celebrities. An opening skit on Saw nearly fails because US "celebrity" Doctor Phil can't really act, but thankfully a good, if obvious, punchline saves the skit. The two leads, Craig Bierko and Anna Faris give convincing performances as cliched romantic leads, with both having the comic timing that is required to deliver the punch lines effectively.

Overall, the movie reminded me a lot of Airplane, arguably one of the funniest films of all time, and it turns out that Scary Movie 4 is from the same writers, so I'm at a bit of a loss as to explain the consistently negative reviews.

That being said, the film isn't all good. It doesn't really work as a film, being too disjointed without a consistent enough through-line. And too many of the jokes are obvious, or just not very funny. There's little originality here either - the makers owe a LOT to Buster Keaton. But given the choice between watching this or any of the offerings from the extremely unfunny, gurning crowd I think of as Saturday Night Live rejects (Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Mike Myers, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson etc) who seem to have a monopoly on any so-called 'comedy' coming out of Hollywood I'd take this in preference any time.

Extra's wise, things are pretty generous. The commentary from the director and producers is fun and informative, and a whole bunch of very short featurettes will please fans, although I can't really see much interest in trying to tell the story of the humour. Some of the deleted scenes, frequently alternative jokes for scenes that are in the movie, are actually as funny as what is included in the film, but the blooper reel didn't raise a laugh from this viewer.

Not a great film, but one that's better than its and imdb ratings imply. Certainly you could do a lot worse if you're looking for a popcorn comedy movie. If you don't like slapstick or juvenile (but funny) toilet/black humour then this is one to avoid, but if you want a few good belly laughs you could do a lot worse. I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would but depending on how many of the spoofed movies you've seen your mileage may vary.

Why do people use Amazon?

Why are Amazon so popular? I've tried using them many times in the past and on nearly every occasion they've screwed up.

You order something that's "available" and two weeks later you're still waiting for it.

More often than not a few months later you'll get an email telling you the item is no longer available. SO, AMAZON, WHY DID YOU SAY IT WAS AVAILABLE?

A few months ago I ordered a soundtrack CD from "Everything is Illuminated". They said it would take 2 weeks. A few weeks later they said it would take 2 months. Then a few weeks after that they said it looked like it wasn't available. The first alternative online store I tried had it in stock and it arrived the next day!

The same thing with the soundtrack CD for "Casanova".

Friends tell me I've just been unlucky, but surely nobody's that unlucky that consistently and repeatedly they find Amazon can't deliver what they promised when they promised.

Then there's the situation of their buying rules that they change at will to suit them NOT the customer.

At the beginning of this year I discovered the wonderful "Movies of the xxs" books by Jurgen Muller. The trouble is that most of the stores I checked didn't have the most recent volume (covering the 90s) and I wasn't prepared to commit to volumes covering the 40s through the 80s if I couldn't get the most recent volume in the series. So I ordered the lot from Amazon using their "only send them all in one package" - I figured that way they would either send the whole series or none at all.


You can guess what happened. The whole order got delayed for a couple of months because they were waiting for a delayed "Movies of the 90s" volume. Then suddenly, without any warning, they sent me all volumes EXCEPT the 90s volume, telling me the 90s volume wouldn't be available until August.

Some months later August is finally here. This morning I received an email telling me the title was no longer available.


The same thing happened with a soundtrack CD for "Jewel in the Crown" from one of their resellers. An email telling me it should be shipped within 24 hours. It never arrived and then 2 months later an email out of the blue saying they couldn't source it.

The truth is the vast majority of my orders have been unfullfillable or have taken over 2 weeks to ship when they've been advertised as immediately available.

I won't use them again. For computer books I get an incredible service (and big discounts) from - their customer service is light years ahead of Amazon who deliberately make it difficult to contact them.

So tell me, why do YOU use Amazon? Their discounts can nearly always be beaten. They're one of the few suppliers who don't give free postage until you order a substantial amount. They don't keep to their delivery promises. And yet most seem to love them??!!!

Personally I could do with a good online supplier of non- computer-related books. Any suggestions?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Paradise Now (2005)

Paradise NowNominated for the Academy Award for 'Best Foreign Film', Paradise Now is a powerful, moving drama that tells the story of two lifelong Palestinian friends, selected for martyrdom in action agaist Israel.

It sounds like the recipe for a tedious, political propoganda piece for Palestinian Liberation, right? Fortunately, it's a much more sophisticated offering than that, focussing on the human side of the two protagonists and the very real dilemma's they face. Ultimately it's a film that doesn't attempt to provide answers, or show one side as better than the other, but shows the very real human catastrophe that is being caused by the never-ending Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

Said and Kaled, living a lifeless existence in the occupied territories, are selected to be walking time bombs, used in a suicide mission in Tel Aviv. Initially resolute in their beliefs, an incident which causes a two day delay in their planned attack, causes them to question what they're doing, and ultimately the 'hook' to the movie is taking the journey with the characters to see if they will follow through on their initial promises or not.

Director Hany Abu-Assad tells his tale well, with twists and turns along the way that keep you gripped throughout. The cinematography is stunning, and the oppressive heat and overall meaninglessness of life are indelibly stamped throughout. But there's gentle humour too, with a particularly memorable scene featuring one of the would-be suicide bombers interrupting his filmed fervently anti-Israeli martyr's farewell speech to the authorities and his family, to tell his mother that she should go to a different store from her usual one because he's forgotten to tell her that they sell water filters cheaper than the store she usually buys her goods from. It's these subtle, human touches in the midst of the misery and ruthlessly planned atrocities that make you identify with the central characters and ultimately, the unsolvable dilemma they find themselves having to face.

The transfer to DVD is flawless, but I've marked it down a couple of points because of the pricing, even at discount rate, and the complete paucity of any extra's. There is a trailer and that's it. Given the number of film awards, and Q&A sessions there must have been, it's disgraceful that there's not a sniff of anything extra here - no commentary or 'Making of' featurette that may have shed light on the motivations and history of the film-making. The sleeve notes enticingly tell us that the crew faced real-life missile attacks, exploding land mines and the kidnapping of a crew member, so there are stories to be told - but not on this DVD it seems. It's also annoying, given the English title and packaging, to find one has to navigate the menu system to turn on English subtitles if one wants to actually follow this Arabic language film when the 'Play' button is hit.

Paradise Now is a thought-provoking, intelligent film on a subject that's already received much exposure. It's highly recommended - I just wish it had been presented in a much stronger DVD package than this rather over-priced 'vanilla' one.

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

The Squid and the WhaleThe Squid and the Whale is a film that's very hard to pin down, much like writer/director Noah Baumbach's previous big screen outing, The Life Aquatic, which I preferred, and which polarised opinions much more than this latest offering which the critics universally seem to love.

The film essentially documents the story of a family break-up, which explores the differences between the sexes, the generations, art and commerce, and the lifestyles of the bohemian and the bourgoisie in an intelligent and witty fashion. Very much an 'art house' film, in the sense that it feels more like a witty play than a movie and features camerawork and cinematography that shout 'home movie' or 'TV documentary' at you, stars Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are roped in to help move this indie pic to the mainstream. Linney and Daniels are both brilliant, but it's actually the two unknown child actors who steal the show, whether in tems of acting chops or just being able to deliver some of the best lines Baumbach had to offer I'm not quite sure. It's hard to see how the casting could have been any better, with each cast member playing their role to perfection.

The film essentially details the war of words and silly little mean-spirited actions that break out when a couple decide to split up. The behaviour of the parents, and of the children who change their allegiances through the movie, alternate between being savage one minute but civilised the next, and it's the way the parents try and use their children to get back at their partners which make for the biggest laughs. Underneath the surface humour though there are important messages about life, wry observations about humanity, and some honest advice about moving on when it's appropriate.

It's a movie that's hard to pin down. While this is very much an intelligent drama, there are so many wonderful, laugh out loud lines sprinkled throughout, it might better be described as an avante-garde comedy: every scene seems to have a witty, if slightly acerbic, observation to make. Basically, then, this is a feast for the brain, if not the eyes, and as such it's not hard to see why the critics loved it so much, when theatrically released a few months ago. For my part, whilst I admire the script, performances and overall feel of the piece (it is different from any other movie that I've seen) something doesn't quite gel with me. Too often, it feels a bit too clever for its own good, the writing feels just a tad TOO showy, and this initial unease was only exacerbated for me by the rather pretentious interviews and audio commentary that are included as extra's on the DVD. I mean it's a good film, but really, is it THAT good? Will I remember it in five years time? Somehow I doubt it, which is why I've ended up giving it a seven out of ten, rather than the eight out of ten most others seem to think it deserves.

It's a very short film, running at just 77 minutes (and that figure includes all the credits), but that succinctness is part of its strength: each scene says what it has to and then quickly moves on to the next - there's no padding here.

Unfortunately the extra's are also a bit on the short side too, over-promoted and exaggerated on the sleeve. The Audio Commentaries turn out to be a single audio essay by the writer/director that is not delivered against the film, but against a static screen slowly switching between publicity photos. There is a fairly long interview with Baumbach from another writer, Philip Lopate, but it was so self-congratulatory and over-the-top in terms of its own navel gazing I gave up on it 35 minutes in. The 'Behind the Scenes' featurette betrays the low budget and restricted shooting time available, consisting for the most part of a snatched interview with Linney and Daniels on a set of concrete steps between takes.

There's some confusion over how easy this DVD is to locate because licensing problems, presumably to do with the use of Pink Floyd's "Heh you" track mean that some stores are advising that the title has been withdrawn before release, while others seem to be selling pre-allocated stock. So if you think it sounds like your kind of movie then you probably need to move quickly.

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005)

Wal-Mart - the High Cost of Low PriceThe last couple of years have been very good for documentaries that highlight the evil machinations of big corporations. Super Size Me did a great job of entertaining the viewer, whilst also conveying an important political message about the way McDonalds achieves its big profits at the expense of our health. The Corporation emphasised the politics around the whole issue more, but also proved to be gripping viewing, with enough new shocking facts and figures to interest the most jaded pallette. Then of course there's the extremely skewed, but no less entertaining, work of Michael Moore whose films are highly entertaining if you can get past the fact that a dirty looking, overweight, unkempt presenter is lecturing you on how you should behave.

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price is more of the same sort of thing, but very much weaker than any of the afore-mentioned work. Most of us know, through media reports on our own national monopoly, Tesco, of the bad practices of the supermarket chains, and Wal-Mart, who run the Asda stores here in the UK, don't have as bad a reputation here as they do abroad, primarily because they're in a much weaker position.

The spark that lit the flame for this documentary's director Robert Greenwald was the discovery that Wal-Mart screws its own 'associates' (employees) by not giving them medical care. It's a fair story, but not one sufficient enough to sustain a whole film. A series of 'look how bad they are' stories get tacked on to try and exaggerate how evil the people behind the company are, but it's all very thin, and too often one can't help feeling the mountain that keeps being pointed out is really just a very small molehill. Is anyone really surprised that the billionaires who own Wal-Mart don't give enough money to charity, that one store had potentially dangerous goods stacked near a riverbank, or that people have been victims of crime in their car parks? The teary interviews from relatives and friends of a murder victim that was kidnapped from a Wal-Mart car park come across as needless wallowing in other people's misery - they're intrusive and not particularly relevant to the central story, and one can almost hear the interviewer prompting from behind the camera 'Can you turn it on a bit more, luv? Think about what actually happened to your friend, and how it STARTED AT WAL-MART, so we can get a bit more emotional impact'. Not to demean the slackness of Wal-Mart in refusing to pay for security staff to actually watch in real time the footage of the car park cameras, but the continued finger-pointing all comes across as a bit 'thin' to this viewer. And the finger is pointing at the wrong people! If people want cheap food it's the viewer that's to blame, not some faceless, greedy business owners. Humans are greedy and will take advantage of others where possible! Well, duh! We're damaging the planet with our insistence on cheap, tax-funded air travel, gas for our cars, and insistence on transportation of goods from faraway places instead of our own doorsteps etc but none of this would exist if we, as consumers, weren't choosing it every time we have an alternative choice.

As part of its 'look at the poor down-trodden American workers' strand it compares the United States employee situation with Wal-Mart in Germany where unions and government law have ensured that Wal-Mart employees there have managed to keep 36 days paid holiday a year, as if to say 'They're ripping Americans off because we let them'. So it's somewhat ironic that this week Wal-Mart pulled out of Germany, revealing that it hadn't made any profit there and couldn't compete with more established players in their field. So, despite the claims in the documentary that Wal-Mart can be tamed based on the German experience, what's better for the average Wal-Mart employee? To have a job or not have a job?

That's not to say that the information presented here isn't important or relevant. It is, but it was covered much more effectively in The Corporation and, frankly, if you haven't woken up to the fact that big business is based on greed, profiteering and eradicating competition where have you been for the last century? In America, this 'film' wasn't distributed in cinemas, and it's surprising that it has been in Europe. This is a fluffed up documentary for TV on a quiet night when there's not much on, not a film that makes money by putting bums on seats at the local movie emporium.

The DVD, much too highly priced even when the usual online discounts have been applied, has a 'behind the scenes' documentary that suffers from having too much gushing from naive young people working on the project and too much footage from an internal meeting that seems to be full of trendy, young types more interested in playing with their expensive laptops than listening to the director's pontifications on what research they need to do to make a film out of the basic 'no health care' idea. The deleted scenes have nothing to add to what was a very 'thin' film in the first place, and prove that the approach of using local amateurs to film scenes, rather than flying an official crew out, was not necessarily the best idea the director had to save costs. The interview with the director himself is more interesting, as he explains the history of the film, and encourages people to ignore the legal warnings that are on the start of all DVDs, by taking their rental/purchase and showing it in youth clubs and church halls, lending it to friends etc. to help spread the anti- Wal-Mart message.

This is definitely a 'watch as a rental when there's nothing on the telly' release and, as such, I find it hard to recommend, despite the good intent behind it. The message is important, but it's one that's been delivered far more effectively by other media.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Quadrophenia (Special Edition) (1979)

Quadrophenia (Special Edition)It's scary to think that it's nearly 30 years since I went to see Quadrophenia at the cinema when it was first theatrically released. At the time punk was winding down, but the film-makers cleverly roped in a 'new wave' star to try and attract an audience that would have otherwise had no interest in going to see a film about 'mods and rockers', or old fart Pete Townshend, who'd written this ode to the 60's, originally as a rock opera for his group The Who.

I hadn't enjoyed the movie on original release. Sting, the afore-mentioned 'new wave' star, had a very minor role that was strictly of the 'no acting required' variety. The language was all four-letter words, and, I felt, needlessly promoted nihilistic violence, drug taking, profanity and aggression. Plus there didn't seem to be any real story to the whole mess. It felt like continual improv, with no 'proper' story. I guess I can't have been paying too much attention!

27 years later, I like the film more, and it's not hard to see why the marketing folk are able to bandy about words like 'classic', without fear of intervention by the Advertising Standards Authority. The film was, in many ways, ahead of its time - at least in terms of the language, the nudity (which the directory jokingly refers to as his 'Brokeback moment' in the accompanying commentary), and the cinema verite style used throughout.

Admittedly all the things I disliked about the film when originally released are still there, but the message underlying the whole thing is that the hero only really grows up when he decides not to conform to the stereotypes he sees all around him. The acting performances, if that's what they are (really this is just a group of young working class hooligans given certain scenarios in which to improvise their own behaviour), have a documentary-style reality to them, and Phil Daniels is outstanding in the lead, although the punk fan in me can't help wondering what the movie would have been like with the the original first choice for the lead role: Johnny Rotten had to be 'let go' because the insurance companies wouldn't touch him, after all the bad Sex Pistols publicity). Many now-familiar TV faces (mainly from East Enders or The Bill) crop up in minor roles and Ray Winstone shows he could act even back then, albeit in a role that I'd like to have seen more of. Although this is essentially a working class 'coming of age' story set in 1964, it feels as relevant today as in the time it's set - just replace 'mod' with 'hoodie' and you're there!

The film was originally released on DVD back in 1999, in a terrible transfer that looked like a bad VHS copy. This new Special Edition corrects all the shortcomings of that original release, and contains some interesting 'looking back' features. The commentary, featuring first-time director Frank Roddam and lead actor Phil Daniels is interesting, if a little bit too 'old mates reminiscing down the pub' at times. Leslie Ash, who plays the girl that Daniels' character falls in love with, participates too, although it's obvious her comments were recorded separately and have been spliced into the main track. An hour long 'Looking Back' featurette has several of the cast (including Daniels and Toyah Wilcox, but not Sting or Ray Winstone and the director reminiscing about the film, their involvement and its initial reception, with tales of on-set debauchery and the difficulties of making a low-budget film almost entirely in real locations. A 10-15 minute 'On Location' featurette constrasts the locations that were used as they looked in 1979 with how they look today, and is an interesting diversion for those of us who live in London. Full marks for not only packaging the case in a deluxe cardboard sleeve, but also providing a booklet, whilst keeping the price low - you see, it CAN be done!

This is not a film that will be to everyone's tastes, but for those of us on the periphery of a similar drug/music culture that went through a similar experience when young, it makes for nostalgic viewing. Writer Pete Townshend describes Quadrophenia as "a universal story [where 'mod' is] a shorter word for 'young, beautiful and stupid' - we've all been there", and indeed we have. Well worth a viewing if you're not squeamish about drugs, violence and nudity.

Rome (The Complete First Season) (2005)

Rome (The Complete First Season)The press had a field day with Rome, when first broadcast on terrestrial TV at the end of last year. The reviews were generally negative, and gave me the impression that this was I Claudius meets Footballers Wives, but without a half-decent script. As a result, I made a point of avoiding it when originally broadcast.

Given the state of British television today - endless 'reality' shows and the sort of 'quality' that means amateur pap like Doctor Who can be confident of winning each and every television drama award going - one would have expected far more favourable press. So how on earth did things go wrong? And how could the series have been as misrepresented as it has been, promoted everywhere as 'pornography and violence packaged to be transmitted as a degenerate soap'?

The BBC need to take the biggest share of the blame. Despite spending 15 million dollars of tax payers money on the series, they decided to edit down the first three episodes into a single double-episode which lost, according to most reports, 50 minutes of character development and plot. Worse, when bombarded with complaints from those who spotted the discrepancies between the original HBO transmission times in the States and those here in old Blighty, they tried to justify this monumentally stupid decision with a disingenious statement to the effect that Europeans knew most of Rome's history and hence didn't need the explanations that their American counterparts did. Director Michael Apted gave a particularly scathing interview with The Sunday Times on how the BBC had completely ruined his work, leaving in the sex at the expense of the real story when taking their hatchet blade to the series.And he was right to. Many of us hark back to wonderful series like The Jewel in the Crown or Brideshead Revisited and despair at DVD commentaries that explain such series could never be made today with the current state of the television industry, and its obsession with making profit and playing it safe. So finally along comes a series that IS made today, IS given the lofty budget and talent it needs, and isn't too far from those lofty classics (it's not quite as well scripted, truth be told) and the press ridicule it??!!? Someone at the BBC should have lost their job over this!

OK, I've had my rant. Let's get back to the DVD...

The back-story to the series is essentially the story of Caeser's rivalry with Pompeii, and as the series progresses it moves on through Caeser's affair with Cleopatra, ending with Caesar's 'Et tu Brute' assassination at the Senate. This story is told with the depth, historical accuracy, and lavish sets one would expect from an expensive high-profile BBC production, with a clever 'soap'-like way into the whole thing, using two lead characters - soldiers in Caeser's army - as the focus of the main story. These two soldiers, initially bitter enemies, but soon firm friends somehow seem to become involved in all the major events, and stretch believability a bit too far at times, but when the sets, the acting (from the creme de la creme of the British acting world) and the direction are this good, I can forgive the odd 'suspension of disbelief' requirements that may occur from time to time. Titus Pollo, played by Ray Stevens, is the 'football hooligan' of the two friends - brash, impulsive, and a constant womaniser - where his commander and friend, Lucius Vorunus, played by Kevin McKidd, is a fiercely moral, loyal, family man whose superior manner frequently borders on the sanctimonious. These two leads are excellent, sexy (always a help!), and are backed up by a cast to die for (too many big names to list here). Most importantly of all, this is a drama that is really given time to breathe - which, of course, means that many of the MTV attention-deficit-disorder-generation critics have complained that the opening episodes are too slow. Well duh, you can't just introduce a core cast of characters that runs into the teens in a fast, five minute edit! To reveal more about the story would be to spoil things, but suffice to say that despite the well-known back story this is a series well worth the 11 hours of your time it will take to view all twelve episodes. Perhaps the series biggest weakness is that in its desire to be as authentic as possible with regard to the sexual moires of the time, it's too explicit with the violence and sex to make it suitable for children or a family audience - the very people who would probably benefit most from the gripping story about our history that it has to tell.

The DVD release is rather expensive given that it's really a half-season when compared to most TV series. Don't be fooled by the 'six disks' boast - this is a four-disk set, artifically spun out to make it look more impressive than it is. The first two disks contain three episodes each, then suddenly we're down to two 50 minute episodes a disk, so that three disks rather than two are artifically needed to complete the series. The sixth disk is an 'extra's disk, but it contains just two 25-minute extra's that could easily have been included on any of the other disks. So the DVD set loses a mark on the value-for-money front, only to regain it for the lavishness of its presentation.

An included fold-out booklet shows the main characters and their background, but is disgustingly flimsy, seemingly reprinted on recycled newspaper, and seems an odd choice given the luxury inherent in the rest of the package. The main digipack holding the six disks is lavish, and presented in a solid mylar case that oozes class. No cheap cardboard here, unless you count the sleeve that wraps the whole thing, foolishly hiding the treasures that lie underneath.

The DVD transfer is exemplary (I believe the series was shot on High Definition), and it's a refreshing change to see that even the DVD extra's are presented in anamorphic wide-screen instead of the usual squeezed 4:3 ratio. Commentary tracks tend to focus on the historical accuracy of the series rather than celebrity gossip, and give fascinating background stories about Roman society, but there are long pauses and the episodes which opt instead for an 'on screen text' history show that this is a better way of presenting the same information. The two '25 minute' making ofs are about the right length, giving a tour of all the different departments - rather like a tour of the different Weta departments as given on the Lord of the Rings DVD sets, but edited down into a more reasonable length. The truth is that there is only so much time one can waffle on about the attention to detail, pad out the 'behind the scenes' clips of the actors, and document the model department without it becoming like every other DVD extra that's already been produced.

Rome is much better than the critics would have you believe, and on DVD presented in a far better light than the mess that constituted the original BBC broadcasts. A second series has been announced, although this is largely down to contractual commitments HBO had to make when green lighting the series, based on the huge costs of the sets which need to be recouped somehow. This has upset a lot of Deadwood fans in particular, annoyed that their own show, which many believe to be a better series, has had to be cancelled because of HBO's need to recover costs incurred in building the massive sets needed to get the first season of Rome made. Personally I'm very much looking forward to a second series, although based on this first season's outing on DVD, I'll be waiting for the boxed set rather than wathing it on British TV.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

The Three Burials of Melquiades EstradaActor Tommy Lee Jones turns first-time director for The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, a film universally acclaimed by the critics and winner of a couple of awards at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival.

There's a lot to admire in the film. The cinematography is beautiful. The performances, particularly from the two leads, Barry Pepper and Tommy Lee Jones are outstanding. The basic story, about friendship, loyalty, revenge and redemption, written by Guillermo Arriaga, best known for 21 Grams and the upcoming Babel, is sound. So this should be a shoo-in for a high rating.

And yet....

The film left me pretty much stone cold. It reminded me in many ways of Robert Duvall'sThe Apostle from a few years back - there's a lot to admire, but ultimately the film doesn't move me, and I have no identification with the oddball characters that are at its core. It's as if the movie had a big sign saying 'I'm art, not populist dreck' stamped all over it, and one feels one is being somewhat 'educated to', rather than entertained.

The opening acts revolve around several characters and their rather miserable lives, in a backwater in border country of the United States. Rancher Tommy Lee Jones takes on an illegal immigrant (the Melquiades Estrada of the title) from Mexico and the two men become good friends, with a promise made by Jones character about returning his friend's body to Mexico if he should die first. A violent and unsympathetic rookie cop, played by Barry Pepper, accidentally kills Estrada and the movie, two acts in, suddenly focuses in on the two central characters, and turns into a Western road trip about transporting the body to Mexico, with Jones' character playing bullying mentor to Pepper's cop.

Part of my problem with the film is the constant switching around in time (Two of the "three burials" of the title are the same burial, just depicted in slightly different flashbacks at different times in the movie). The writer and director justify this by saying that the mind doesn't work in a linear fashion and this constant switching is more true to real life. I disagree. When you're telling a story, or living real life, it happens in linear fashion, not jumping all over the damned space-time continuum. It can be an interesting story-telling device to switch back and forth of course, but here it's over-used and becomes confusing and irritating, as one's never sure whether the scene one's watching happened before or after a scene previously shown.

Worse than that, there's little identification with the main characters. Jones' character should be the hero of the piece - the patient mentor who honours his promise to his dead friend, and turns around the life of the 'empty' cop he takes on his trip. But because Jones plays the part in true 'Clint Eastwood in a western' style, he has little dialogue and it's hard to understand the man and the reason he does some of the things he does.

Not a bad film, then. Just not one that didn't excite me in any way, or one that I want to rush to see again.

The DVD is a bit of a mixed bag. The commentary track is a dull affair, with Pepper's absence sticking out like a sore thumb. Lee Jones is known for being surly, irascible and not suffering fools gladly (there's a wonderful clip on the 'Making of' featurette where a major magazine photographer desperately tries to cajole the actor into posing in a certain style, and the actor steadfastly refuses saying 'It's too silly') and where he should lead the commentary he has little to say. He's known to be a man of few words anyway, but it's as if he doesn't want to be in the recording booth and is saying as much by having a sulk and saying as little as possible. He sounds bored and disinterested throughout. Unfortunately, although he's joined by two of the minor co-stars, who could have rescued things, they too have little to say - whether because they're terrified of incurring the wrath of their boss, or because they just don't have the experience to contribute anything isn't clear.

The afore-mentioned Making of featurette is a curious affair, concentrating almost exclusively on post-production promotion after a five-ten minute introduction of throwaway on-set clips. It's mainly a documentary showing how soulless and tiresome the whole promotional side of film-making is, which, while it was useful to see (confirming my own experiences covering The Lord of the Rings movies showing how unglamorous and tortuous the whole supposedly glamarous business is) will be of little interest to those more interested in the film than what the cast and crew are put through in terms of promotional duties.

There is also a 15 minute French event audience participation interview with the director and writer, which is thankfully edited down to include decent questions instead of the gushing, begging nonsense that is usually the norm at these things, but Lee Jones is clearly uncomfortable with the whole process, and his answers invariably tend towards the monosyllabic.

I feel I'm out of wack with the world at large, and certainly the more intelligent film critics, on this movie, given the high user ratings on imdb and rottentomatoes. Regardless of my opinion, it's a film that's worth seeing, if only for the wonderful cinematography and acting performances, particularly from Barry Pepper. But for me this is definitely a rental rather than a purchase.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Hostel (2005)

HostelWriter/director Eli Roth's debut feature, Cabin Fever, was an interesting, if fundamentally flawed, low budget horror film that made so much money Hollywood, and Quentin Tarantino in particular, were forced to sit up and take notice. Hostel is, in some ways, more of the same, albeit a more mature, and more extreme, offering than its predecessor, and one given much higher visibility, thanks largely to the 'Tarantino presents...' marketing that has had the less observant assuming he is the director.

Hostel is, when all's said and done, a deeply disturbing movie that pushes the envelope in terms of horror and gore. As such it has invoked the wrath of many critics, with The Daily Mail pretty much insisting that this was the end of civilisation as we know it, and resulting in some hilarious to-and-fro arguments between the paper's journalist and the film's writer/director which left neither side looking very mature or open to alternative views. Over on imdb, the people's voting web site, it gains a rather odd, and rather low, 5.8 score out of 10. This is a fairly unrealistic score in that it represents an average of two extremes - people are taking very polarised views on the film, giving it either nothing or 10/10, which really skews the picture when trying to work out whether this is a film worth seeing or not.

The premise for the story is a strong one: a group of backpackers find themselves victims of a business in Slovakia that lets rich Westerners torture people and get sick kicks for money. Attractive girls are used to lure naive foreigners at 'The Hostel' to a point where they can be drugged and then taken away to the decaying, delapidated building where other visitors pay their money according to the nationality of the person they wish to sadistically torture. To say more would be to give too much away, but those critics who dismiss the film as mindless pornography (the first half hour, featuring the backpackers indulging in everything Amsterdam has to offer, has more female breasts and attractive women than has been seen in a long, long time), followed by mindless gore have, I think, somewhat missed the point. The film's 'pornography' is there to show how reprehensible the behaviour of Americans abroad can be (whilst admittedly providing the teenage 'dude' audience with the mindless 'hot babes' they seem to think obligatory if they're going to part with their cash). The gore is pretty standard in a world that has genocide an almost daily occurence, and the Iraq/Afhanistan/Israeli wars getting bloodier by the day. Hostel is a story written for the American market, with the clearly signposted sub-text being that the world is a different place outside the United States and that you're being naive if you think you can travel around as if you own the world.

The first third of the film sets up the main characters, showing a group of rather obnoxious Americans taking advantage of the 'delights' (the drugs and prostitutes) of Amsterdam. The entire cast are pretty much unknown, and probably likely to remain so, but deliver the performances required here, where the aim is not so much to set up sympathy for the characters, but to draw parallels between the prostitution the youths happily indulge in, and the 'money for torture' situation they find themselves the victims of later. This first act is beautifully shot, with a clever title sequence that builds the tension up before the film's even started, and shows that Roth has made leaps and bounds, both in terms of writing and directing, since Cabin Fever.

The second act moves into the expected 'watch through the gaps in your fingers' story that has been publicised in most of the reviews as if it were the whole film, with the third act being a rather hokey, and over-the-top, chase/revenge story. Despite all the negative publicity, the three main torture scenes that have caused so much criticism do not take up much screen time, and if one examines them up close they are laughably bad and inconsistent - given the nature of most of the horror movies that Roth is a fan of, one wonders whether the glaring 'mistakes' in each one were deliberate or not. We see (or rather don't really see) a guy get his right knee drilled but then blood is shown flowing from the left leg. Another victim has a 'money shot' showing three of his fingers being shot off, but immediately recovers one for no apparent reason. And the most controversial scene, featuring a detached eyeball being snipped away from a rescued victim, is so silly, with thick yellow custard oozing from a very obvious prosthetics, somewhat later than it should have done, that one wonders how anybody could fail to see that this is anything other than very black humour.

The answer is that it's not what's shown on screen that feels 'sick'. It's the build-up in tension, the basic truth of the sick story (it's based on some real events reported on in Thailand), with some very good acting from unknown actors, that makes the premise seem real. And that only comes from great writing and great direction. That being said, for some reason this does feel at times just plain 'wrong' in places, in the sense that it feels like it's just strayed the wrong side of the line in terms of what should be acceptable as entertainment, even entertainment deliberately designed to make you jump and feel afraid. It's certainly not a comfortable film to watch, and Roth's third act is so hokey it doesn't sit well with what's preceded it, but there is talent on display here, and whatever else you think, it's a film that's very hard to forget.

Anybody who's seen Eli Roth talk about his movies knows that 'Motormouth' should be his middle name (yeah, yeah, I know it takes one to know one ;-)) but even by his own standards, the DVD is rather excessive with not one, not two, not three, but FOUR commenatries featuring the man and various accomplices. Even hard core fans who think this is the best movie in decades are going to struggle to sit and listen to that lot. I'm afraid I didn't have the patience, or interest, to listen to more than the first one, which features Roth with Tarantino and the other executive producers. It was a lively, fun romp, as one would expect from such large, extrovert personalities, but didn't leave me feeling I had to listen to the other three commentaries as well to get the most out of the package. There's also a multi-part featurette that is a good, entertaining 'behind the scenes/staff souvenir' of the whole shoot, and a pointless multi-angle scene from the movie that will only be of interest to those wanting to test that feature out on their DVD players.

All-in-all the DVD's good value for money, and with a chapter index leaflet and trailers that don't intrude because they're on a menu option rather than automatically played when the disc is inserted, one really can't complain about the package. But if you're at all squeamish then this one isn't for you.