Saturday, September 30, 2006

P.S. (2004)

P.S.I'm not sure if P.S. was ever released in UK cinemas. British stockists have this film listed as a 2006 release, but I don't recall it being reviewed, and other sources (imdb and film festival awards) indicate it was actually released in 2004.

The truth is that, despite starring the rarely-less-than-brilliant Laura Linney and being an official selection at several film festivals, it seems to have pretty much dropped like the proverbial stone.

It's a hard film to classify. On the surface it's a rom-com, but that's a label that usually implies a formulaic, light, rather ridiculous 'girl meets boy and eventually lives happily ever after' story. And P.S. doesn't really fit that category - it's far too well written for that.

Linney plays Louise Harrington, an intelligent, pretty, successful admissions officer who's never found happiness, partly due to losing the love of her life when she was at High School. Then a new student (played by Topher Grace) with the same name as her dead former muse applies for a University place and she decides to interview him, finding he not only looks like her lover from 20 years ago, but appears to be his reincarnation on every possible level. She becomes as smitten with him as she had been back in High School when she put her life on permanent hold, but struggles with being attracted to someone half her age and the idea that she can actually have a happy life.

One of the best things about the film, aside from Linney's excellent performance, and some real chemistry between her and her much younger co-star, is the way it doesn't feel it has to spell everything out. There's a wonderful subtle quality to the writing, with a cast that is thankfully able to convey that subtlety. And yet... somehow the film doesn't quite click, and I'm really not sure why, other than perhaps there isn't that much in the way of a lot of story-telling here.

The picture quality is fine, given the low budget nature of the film, and the inclusion of a DTS sound track as well as the usual Dolby Digital one seems somewhat over-the-top given the material. It's nice to see a booklet with film notes and chapter index included, but other than that the only extra is a commentary from the director and his director of photography, and it's a pretty dull affair. If you want something that doesn't spoon-feed you and assumes it's being watched by an intelligent audience, this is definitely worth a rental, but it's hard to see it being the sort of film you'd particularly want to watch again.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Joe Letteri on Digital Art: King Kong at The Tate Modern

Part of my reason for going into the office over the weekend was so I wouldn't feel too guilty about having to leave early today to attend a lecture at the Tate Modern. They are running a short series called "Digital Art", and tonight's talk (the second in the series) was given by three times Visual FX oscar winner Joe Letteri from Weta Digital

Joe has a long experience in the industry, having worked at Industrial Light and Magic (where one of his many projects was Jurassic Park) before joining Weta for the second of the Lord of the Rings movies, and then working on the final Return of the King movie before moving on to Peter Jackson's King Kong remake.

Personally I didn't like King Kong at all: Much too long, too self-indulgent, too many plot holes, too much rushed CGI work (the brontosaurs chase) and far too many missing plot strands. It smacked of the usual Jackson problem that has plagued all his movies - a movie that's running late, running at twice the length anybody wants, with the editing process left far too late in the whole process to deliver anything resembling coherence in terms of plot, dialogue and resolution of stories that have been started. But nobody could deny the visual effects were incredible, and I've yet to hear anybody from Weta who hasn't given a great presentation and bowled you over with their passion and enthusiasm.

The big worry with this talk was that it was aimed at 3D artists, and advertised mainly through a CGI magazine, Digit, so I was worried I'd get a bit lost with a lot of talk about 'polygraphic splines' (or whatever it is 3D modellers usually talk about) and the like. As it turned out this was a presentation that would have been better delivered to the typical Comic Con crowd or convention audience, which was great for me, if not for the CGI professionals in the audience, several of whom I heard complaining as they left about how "content free", "basic", or "only for beginners" it was.

There was some fascinating stuff shown, and I particularly enjoyed the "here's what we shot with the green screen" stuff that was then morphed into the digital stuff that was then added to totally transform scenes for the movie. We don't get enough of this stuff on the 'Making of' DVDs, in my view. But the talk did feel rather 'thin', and I have some sympathy with those who I overheard complaining as they left that it was much too short given the ticket price of a tenner. The whole thing, including a rambling, content-free intro from the organiser, an AutoDesk advertising showreel and an audience Q & A lasted an hour, even with a surprise 'second speaker' to help pad things out.

That surprise second speaker was Andy Serkis looking very different from when I last saw him with his new 'skinhead' cut. Andy was good value as always, but in all honesty, I think any fans of the movie will have heard most of what we heard about digital thespians, observing gorillas, working with actors so they can act naturally instead of working with a tennis ball on a pole etc in countless other interviews that have been given over the last three years.

All-in-all it was an entertaining way to spend an hour, particularly given that The Tate Modern is almost on my doorstep, and I'm glad I went. But I did think the promoters had mis-represented the talk somewhat, and that it was a missed opportunity given that most of the audience appeared to be professionals already working with 3D graphics tools (there was, of course, the obligatory audience question about 'How do I get a job at Weta?')

Apparently I was on TV last night!

Channel 5 Greatest Blockbusters

On Channel 5's 'Greatest Blockbusters' talking about 'Fellowship of the Ring'.

I missed it, thanks to the way TV programmes are made for next to no money these days. My appearance was filmed late last year and I was told that it would be broadcast in April and that the TV company, Diverse Productions, would email me to give me a transmission date.

Of course they didn't, which kind of puts the icing on the cake of a rather negative experience. I lost a day's pay to help them with the programme which was filmed here at home, which was OK because I thought it would be a fun experience, and the folks making the programme seemed nice. Alas, I didn't get the 'usual' £50 token fee and assumed when I heard nothing back that the programme had falled into a great black hole somewhere.

I have no idea what was actually transmitted from the footage that was shot. The screenshot above comes courtesy of a chap on one of the Microsoft forums I frequent who recognised me from Microsoft's PDC event last year.

In some ways I guess I'm glad I missed it. The questions asked caused much hilarity from friends (and rightly so - very, very dumbed down) and I kept being asked to 'say something in Elvish' which I refused several times before eventually giving in to pressure and delivering a very weak couple of words (please God, tell me that WASN'T broadcast!)

Anyway this morning I sent a rather stroppy email off to the contact who'd arranged the interview and had promised to tell me when the show would be broadcast. I got back an email saying she'd left the company and to try two other people. So I tried them and got emails back from them saying they'd left the company too.

All symptomatic of our multi-channel, no money TV network these days, I guess. Anybody else hanker for the old days when we just had four channels that everyone watched?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The King (2005)

The KingThe King, released on DVD tomorrow, is a tale of revenge and retribution starring William Hurt as a born-again preacher who's found contentment and is 'The King' of his castle, and Mexican heart-throb Gael Garcia Bernal as his returning prodigal, but unknown, son. Bernal was last seen in The Motorcycle Diaries, but he plays a very different role here.

Hurt's character, David Sandow, had a shady past before he discovered religion and a new wife and family, and that past comes back to haunt him in the form of his son, Elvis, who comes to live in his town after leaving the Navy. On learning of the existence of the son he never knew he had, Sandow's first reaction is to dismiss the reminder of his previous life and warn his family not to have anything to do with the stranger who shows up outside his house one day. But Elvis has other plans, and uses his good looks and charm to seduce Sandow's daughter, his own sister, in what turns out to be only the start of what the sleeve notes rightly describe as 'an explosion of violence and tragedy of Biblical proportions'.

The film is very much carried by Bernal's mesmerising performance, with the actor here looking very much like a teenage version of Viggo Mortensen's character in A History of Violence. It's a gripping feature, carried along by the fact that you're never really quite sure where it's going or what's going to happen next. But if you like endings that are wrapped up in a nice little bow, or explain what has happened in the previous 90 minutes for you, this isn't it, with the film ending suddenly and devastatingly so that you find yourself replaying the film in your mind over the closing credits, trying to work out what it was you just saw.

Co-writer and director James Marsh has previously made documentaries and this is his first feature film. I thought this showed, with great long scenes of rather shaky, hand-held camera work suddenly cropping up for no apparent reason. It felt a very 'choppy' film, albeit one that keeps you interested throughout because you're constantly trying to work out what's going to happen next. Marsh's accomplice on the script, Milo Addica, is best known for Monster's Ball and Birth which raised some uncomfortable questions, and this new film is no different. It's a thought-provoking film, if ultimately a frustrating one, because one never really understands the reasons behind Elvis' actions and what it is that makes him tick.

The transfer, in anamorphic widescreen, appears variable, presumably down to the constantly changing quality of the original film material. In general the film colours are heavily over-saturated, which I found very artificial and somewhat distracting, and there are some scenes, including the opening one, where there is so much digital noise, one starts the film assuming it's a really poor transfer. Things thankfully improve as soon as we move to some outdoor scenes. Whether this continual change in quality is deliberate, to present some sort of subliminal message, I couldn't work out!

There's a choice of Dolby or DTS sound-track and the sound is clear, with some excellent music that doesn't distract from the picture and is used very sparingly.

Tartan have done the release proud in terms of finding some extra's for what was a low-budget film. There's a 4-page booklet of sleeve notes and chapter index, a commentary from the writer/director and producer, deleted scenes, a blurry, soft, non-anamorphic trailer, a rehearsal scene and a couple of anamorphic widescreen 15 minute interviews with the two writers.

The commentary is rather dull, and doesn't really reveal much. The interviews are better, giving some insight into what the writers were trying to convey in this rather strange piece. The rehearsal scene is mildly interesting, only for proving initial observations that Gael Garcia Bernal can make himself look 10 years older by growing his hair longer and not shaving. He looks significantly younger in the main feature than he does in the rehearsal or in his previous outing The Motorcycle Diaries. The three deleted scenes don't really add anything, but give a little more insight into a couple of existing scenes that did make the final cut.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Cave of the Yellow Dog (2005)

The Cave of the Yellow DogThe Cave of the Yellow Dog, winner of the Palm d'Or at Cannes last year, has 'art house' written all over it. The few sentences on the jacket describing the story turn out to not be a summary, but the entire plot. If you like strong narrative, brilliant acting, or MTV-paced editing then this isn't a film for you.

The film is essentially a documentary about family, in this case a Mongolian nomad family very much at one with nature. The 'story', if there is one, is that of a young girl finding a cute dog which she takes under her wing, to the strong objections of her father, who is worried that the dog has lived with wolves and will encourage attacks on his herd of sheep. When the girl loses the dog while her father is away she encounters an old nomad woman who tells her the legend of the cave of the yellow dog, based very much on the belief that dogs are always reborn as humans.

Although the plot is paper-thin it's not really important here, because this is really a documentary about the nomadic life style that is about to disappear in Mongolia. The cinematography is stunning and the 'performances' from the children are totally natural - which is hardly surprising since this is a real family living their normal life that we're seeing on screen. The closest film I can compare it to, in terms of conveying nature in such a realistic way, albeit one really needing a big screen, is Terrence Malick's The New World.

Director Byambasuren Davaa has a strong eye for what makes a breath-taking shot. Her framing is perfect shot-after-shot, and at times one feels one is watching the movie equivalent of a coffee table book of photography, albeit one occasionally interrupted by the realities of family life with young children. On another night I might have enjoyed it less, but coming at the end of a stressful week at work, with a daily commute that has extended into Saturday and now into Sunday too, I found it a delightful way to relax and escape the trials and tribulations of the modern world. Sadly this gentler, slower way of life is being eroded by the global economy and we're lucky to have a beautiful film that captures what may, on the surface, appear a difficult way of life, but one which ultimately smacks of a much higher overall quality than we have in modern society, before it finally disappears.

The DVD release is very typical of most of those released by Tartan. The picture quality is generally excellent, there's a chapter index leaflet, and for this release a DTS sound track, as well as the usual Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 options.

But there's little in the way of extra's, other than a short (12 minute) 'UK exclusive' interview with the director. For 'art house' movies like this I don't think we can expect more and this will be more of a rental than a purchase for the majority interested in seeing it. That being said, if you're feeling the stress of City life and want to be transported somewhere else for 90 minutes, then it's hard to think of a better release for doing that.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

36This week saw the first release on DVD of four films from actor/director Max Ophuls. Having never seen any of this critically acclaimed director's work, I decided to tip my toe in the water with Letter from an Unknown Woman.

The film is set in Vienna around 1900 and opens with a dashing young man, Stefan, preparing to flee his appartment. He has been threatened with a duel to the death the following morning, and is preparing to vacate his premises and disappear.

As he orders his butler to pack everything away he discovers the recently delivered 'letter from an unknown woman' of the film's title. The long letter starts with the immortal line 'By the time you read this I will probably be dead', and the film then reveals the rest of the letter's contents, recounting the life of a young woman from late adolescence to the near present, as recounted in the letter. The letter - and hence the film - detail her lifelong love and obsession with the dandyish philanderer Stefan we've seen opening the letter and who can't even remember the woman who has seemingly devoted her life to him.

Letter from an Unknown Woman is a sad movie that gives a somewhat tainted view of events, as they were seen through the "unknown woman"'s eyes. However while it's primarily a film about Lisa's (for that is the "unknown woman"'s name) obsession, it also turns out to be a film documenting the last night of Stefan's life.

If this all sounds rather depressing, fear not, for this is essentially a tale of two people who have wasted their lives seeking some purpose, and only really discovering it close to death.

I'm a bit hit and miss about old black and white movies. Too often they tend to be more 'education' than 'enjoyment', but Letter from an Unknown Woman turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. Joan Fontaine who plays Lisa is stunningly beautiful, as, it must be said, is her muse, played by Louis Jordan. But it's the direction that makes this something a bit special. The film may have been made in 1948, but it feels and looks more modern than many films of the 60s, 70s and even 80s that I've had to sit through recently.

Ophuls' world is the world of heightened reality (or do I mean heightened unreality?) and the techniques he uses to show that are truly cinematic. There's some wonderful technical work in this film, with lots of movement, great lighting and just sheer craftsmanship on display throughout. Too many films of the same era feel dated because they are shot with mostly static cameras, and come across as filmed versions of theatre pieces. Not this one!

I enjoyed the film a lot. The story may not be deep, or even very plausible at times, but it's a touching movie with bitter-sweet sadness throughout. Needless to say, I was so impressed that I'm now looking at the other three titles in the series that were also released this week (The Reckless Moment, Le Plaisir, Madame de...)

The film is presented in 4:3 ratio in a digitally restored print. There are flecks here and there but, given the age of the film, nothing to complain about at all. As is usual for films of this vintage, it's pretty much a 'vanilla' disc (harumph! is a chapter index leaflet too much to expect, you cheapskates!). There is a single 'Video Essay' by 'Film Historian Tag Gallagher' but it's a deadly dull, dry affair that comes across as a badly edited 25 minute featurette hacked from something much longer. The narration's sound volume and background noise vary dramatically between individual, jarring and sudden sentences, and it's all a bit of a mess, particularly at the beginning and start. There's a lot of padding (and silence) while long, edited highlights of the film we've just seen are shown and commented upon.

The critics have given this movie a whopping 100% over at Rotten Tomatoes. It's not hard to see why. This is less 'art house' than one might imagine, and if you want to see a film with real class and craftsmanship this is well worth 84 minutes of your time. Recommended!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

36 (2004)

36Two heavyweights of French cinema, Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu, face off in 36, a film originally released in France in 2004, but delayed for two years before reaching the UK's cinemas. One suspects the film may not have had a release at all if Hidden hadn't turned out to be a surprise mainstream success at the start of this year.

Depardieu and Auteuil play two detectives heading up different departments in the Police force. Once close friends, they are now bitter rivals, and their emnity increases when a spate of bloody robberies result in the retiring Police Chief saying his replacement will be whichever of the two stops the gang responsible for the robberies.

Essentially this is a tale of morality, or the complete lack of it, as both men show they are prepared to do anything to get the promotion the other one desires. There's little to choose between the two - one is a cop who was once a good man who's become as bad as the criminals he's chasing, where the other just seems to be a very unpleasant man who never had any morals to start with.

Writer/director Olivier Marchal is a former policeman who says the film is based on real life events, which is kind of scary, if unsurprising in these days of 'innocent' deaths because of over-enthusiasm on the part of policeman trying to fight terrorism on terror!

This is apparently the most expensive film ever made in France and most of that spend is there on the screen. It could almost have been made in Hollywood, with some fantastic action scenes, a great cast, some wonderful cinematography and a story that has something sold at its core. So why the less than enthusiastic rating?

The problem is that what starts off as a gritty, believable and edge-of-your-seat thriller changes tone and direction half way through, and suddenly becomes a far-fetched piece of nonsense that has more holes in it than the average kitchen colander, with a series of coincidences and sudden changes in time and that one feels even Hollywood would turn its nose up at (well, OK maybe not always, but for the most part!). As a result, it turns out to be a very frustrating film: so much of the first 45 minutes is so right, and so much of the last 45 minutes is so wrong.

Jacket sleeve claims that this the French equivalent of Heat - they wish! It's not a bad movie, and it's an enjoyable romp if you can suspend disbelief, but sadly, a classic it ain't.

The DVD transfer is excellent and generously includes a DTS sound track as well as the usual Dolby Digital one. There's no director's commentary, but in all honesty none is needed because the included 'Making Of', 'Actor's Costume Tests' and 'Choice of Weapons' featurettes are pretty comprehensive and provide everything you could want to know. Instead of the commentary there's the choice of a dubbed version of this French language film, and it's very, very bad - stick to the subtitled French version if you want to really experience the film as it was intended to be experienced!

There's even a four page booklet included (remember those?) with background information, so as a DVD package for a relatively obscure film it's a pretty generous package. Well worth a rental, but probably only a purchase for die-hard fans of the two actors.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Long Good Friday (1980)

The Long Good FridayTime seems to move very differently in the DVD world.

By way of example, take this Special 25th Anniversary Edition of The Long Good Friday which was officialy released to stores yesterday. Different internet sources contradict each over whether the film was originally released in 1979 or 1980, but even if we take the latter figure as being correct this '25th anniversary' is being celebrated more than a year late!

It's symptomatic of the British Region 2 problem of course. A special edition was released a couple of years ago, but missing the very good 45 minute documentary with cast and crew that the Region 1 boasted, so here we are with a 'double dip' version not too many months later with the '25th anniversary' moniker used as the justification.

I shouldn't take the piss too much, because for those of us who've not seen the film before, and missed out on that special edition, this new '3 disk version' (ignore the packaging which, unlike the adverts, boasts '2 disk edition') which arrives with the usual Amray case packaged inside a very nice tin slipcase, represents exceptional value for money. Heck there's even an 8 page booklet so densely crammed with information you'll need a strong magnifying glass if you want to be able to read it.

Set in Thatcher's early reign at the tale end of the 70's, the film tells the story of Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins in his first major role, playing... himself for the most part), a gangster who's been happily running things in London gangland for 10 years without any problems whatsoever. He's about to sign a big deal with representatives from the Mafia in the States, who come over to England on Good Friday to check they are happy with Harold and his organisation. The trip should be a formality, but suddenly things start going wrong: key staff are murdered, bombs go off all around him, and Harold desperately has to try and figure out who's got it in for him and why, before the Mafia reps rush back to the States on the first available flight.

The role was written for Hoskins, and here he's supported by an all-round cast that will be perhaps overly familiar to British TV viewers (although it took me 3/4 of the film to realise that Hoskins' no. 2 was 'Charlie' from Casualty - blimey, the guy can act, after all!). Helen Mirren plays Shand's intelligent, upper-class wife, in a role that was clearly artificially enhanced because the actress demanded more lines. While Mirren is excellent, as always, it's hard to believe a woman so bright and attractive could be in any way attracted to a rough, overly-Cockney, crude gangster like Shand. A disgustingly youthful Piers Brosnan makes his first ever film appearance as an IRA hitman, although he has no spoken lines, with his claim to fame here being that he figures in the 'iconic' final scene of the film.

The action scenes are excellent for a British budgeted movie, and the cast all do well in an intriguing tale. The only problem - and we're back to that 'time' thing again - is how dated the film feels. It honestly felt and looked more like a film made in the 60's than the 80's to this viewer. Londoners will particularly appreciate the many views of London's Docklands area when it was run-down and decaying, before it underwent redevelopment and became the mass of concrete office buildings it is now, but the hair, the cars and the incredibly dated poppy music (think The Persuaders with added cheapness) mean this is a film that really feels its age, despite what the makers may say on the DVD extra's.

The transfer is excellent, although the picture is very soft in places and this appears to be solely down to the quality of the source material. The first disk contains the film and an accompanying commentary by the director (to be honest, I never got around to hearing it - too many DVDs out this week to spare the time!) Disk 2 contains the excellent 45 minute documentary the earlier version of this release was missing, and features all the main players, including Brosnan who generously gives of his time despite the fact he only appears for a few minutes. What emerges from this featurette is that we are very lucky that this British 'classic' ever got to see the light of day, given that ITC hated it, tried to over-dub Hoskins voice and put it in 'not to be released' hell until a chance meeting between Eric Idle and Hoskins at a party resulted in HandMade Films buying it up and releasing it. UK and US trailer are included (the US trailer is far better, but completely gives the ending away!), and there is a short interview with Hoskins and the director John Mackenzie. The third disk is a CD of the music soundtrack, which is actually quite enjoyable because it works better as a 'retro pop' album than a film soundtrack per se.

The Long Good Friday is currently in strong rotation on E4, but if you like the film this '25th Anniversary' package definitely shouts 'purchase not rental' at you with its lavish packaging, contents, and rock bottom price. Recommended!

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Brick (2006)

BrickIt seems like only a couple of weeks ago that my friend Brian Sibley, was enthusing about Brick on The Michael Parkinson Show on BBC Radio 2, and here it is on what looks on the surface to be a fairly lavish 2-disc DVD already!

Brian's opinion of the film seemed to coincide with that of most of the press reviews I've read and these are pretty unanimous in the way they talk about the film. This is a film with dense language, set in a quirky, 'unreal' High School world with film noir influences. Almost all reviewers have commented on how 'original' the film is, how 'talented' or 'brilliant' the writer/director' is and almost all conclude with the opinion that 'people will either love it or loathe it'.

Which all made me a bit nervous. Just what was Brick going to be like?

In fact I think it's a very simple to describe. It's film noir - following the very cliched, predictable storyline of that genre, with all the usual ingredients (cold 'detective', dead body, femme fatale, police informant who's at times useful and other times not, devious protagonist with double-crossing allies). This is a story that has been told MANY times before, albeit one obfuscated by introducing a couple of ideas to apply some smoke and mirrors to the lack of originality in the plotting.

Writer/director Rian Johnson talks about The Coen Brothers'Millers Crossing as having started his whole obsession with the film noire genre, but not having seen that film (yet! It's in the 'To be watched' pile) L.A. Confidential and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang were the most recent variations that immediately came to my mind.

What Johnson does, which earns him all those 'brilliant' and 'highly original' plaudits, is deliberately obfuscate the usual filmic cliches that would otherwise lead audiences down an overly-familiar path, by setting the whole thing in a high school. Of course that introduces a new problem: it's no good diverting an audience from one direction, but then pointing them in another that's equally cliched. High school films usually involve the sort of teen-soap that Hollywood bombards us with on an almost-weekly basis. As the Johnson himself puts it (several times on the included extra's) "Brick is to High School what Gotham City is to New York City". Introducing dense language is the trick used to immediately throw the viewer even further off the filme noir/high school cliche scent.

I wish someone had explained these two embellishments (high school and dense language) going in, and I might have understood more from the start instead of wondering why the first half hour or so seemed so impenetrable and, frankly, just plain weird.

You can probably gather from the comments above that I don't really subscribe to the overly-generous plaudits that have been heaped on the director. I think it's far too early to tell yet whether there's any genuine talent here, and much of the 'originality' the critics are shouting about is just a natural process that comes from the fairly obvious problems of trying to disguise a predictable story that's been told in a formulaic manner far too many times before.

Where I DO give the director credit is for his casting, and the way he is able to use the 'real life' high school experience (the paranoia of those corridor looks, being a kid in the wrong clique, rich kids vs poor kids etc) to re-enforce the traditional cliches and paranoia of film noir. The whole project could so easily have turned into an arch or camp mess, and that it doesn't do so is down to the brilliance of all the casting and, presumably, the way they were guided by their director.

I wouldn't want to single any of the cast out because they are uniformly excellent. But, this being a low budget indie movie, virtually all are unknowns, so it's probably worth mentioniong the only two familiar faces that do show up, albeit in very unfamiliar roles. The 'young Sam Spade' detective Brendan Frye is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, proving that his amazing performance in Mysterious Skin wasn't just a flash in the pan. And Emille de Ravin, while having limited screen time, plays a character very different from her Claire character in Lost.

I found myself having mixed views on the film. While admiring the clever mash-up of styles, the acting and, in particular, the clever use of sound and music, the downright 'no budget' indie feel of the whole thing was rather off-putting. The dense language requires concentration every minute of the time, and that makes the film hard work at times. There are also one or two scenes that don't quite work for me. Building up the main villain as 'the king of all badasses' before revealing him as disappointingly normal is a common cinematic trick, but having the villain diminished by his mother offering everyone orange juice seemed to me to step into inappropriate 'arch bordering on camp' territory.

Bottom line: I think those critics excited about Rian Johnson's writing and direction, rushing to assign sobriquets like 'brilliant' and 'talented' to the director, based on a single effort which has been seven years in the prepping/making, are being premature and over-stating the directorial flair somewhat. As usual your mileage may vary, and nobody could dismiss the film as 'uninteresting'. If you can get past the obvious low budget (MUCH too obvious at times, particularly with some of the sets used), there's no denying it's a well crafted and constructed piece.

The seemingly lavish two-disk presentation turns out not to be so lavish after all, and whilst the asking price is not unreasoable, one has to ask why on earth a second disk was needed, other than to give a false impression of a pumped-up package.

There's no chapter index or leaflet (although, annoyingly the specially prepped white 'brick of cocaine'-colored case does contain a slot for one. The film transfer is pretty much blemish free, but the problem is the source material which is often unnecessarily dark and murky, and at times much softer than it should be - this is not a DVD that you'll be using to show off the picture on your big plasma screen, but then, with an alleged total budget of $450,000 how could it be?

The Director's Commentary, much like the film, successfully walks the very thin line between two conflicting styles. The best DVD commentaries are informative and reveal new insights into the film-making process, the worst are just an excuse for old friends to hook up and swap small talk or gossip that's of no real interest to anybody outside their small group (or stalker-fans!). The commentary here tends to do a bit of both: The director gives a lively, enthusiastic introduction and then, one person at a time for 5-10 minutes, brings a cast member into the screening room to discuss their involvement or swap anecdotes. It works - just!

There is a half-hour 'UK exclusive' interview with the director which I found interesting for two reasons. Firstly because it's the first time ever someone has looked EXACTLY how I'd pictured them based on just hearing their voice! Secondly (and more importantly!), because it's effectively a more detailed version of the introduction we've heard on the commentary, heping to fill in some of the the detail on the genesis of the film, the raising of finance and the casting.

There are eight 'deleted/extended' scenes that mainly provide a bit of back story for a couple of the characters but are pretty disposable, two equally redundant demo auditions from a couple of the cast members, and a very disappointing director's video diary - disappointing because it turns out to be just four minutes of shaky hand-held footage of the director on a UK press tour, which shows how soul-destroying these things can be when you're not known or don't have 'cult of celebrity' appeal where the mainstream media are concerned. The stand-out extra by far for me was an 11-minute featurette on the music - one of the most inventive and interesting, if extremely low budget (are you sensing a theme here?!) movie music features I've seen on a DVD - Good stuff!

While thinking that the judgement 'You'll either love it or loathe it' is a cop-out, I can't think of any other way to describe the film and this DVD. I fell somewhere between the two extremes, but I suspect most will gravitate to one extreme or the other. For me this was a worthwhile purchase, if not quite the classic I was hoping for.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Hustler (1961)

The HustlerI saw a lot of Paul Newman films in my late teens, but for some strange reason The Hustler wasn't one of them. So it's fortuitous that Fox have released it now, positively bulging with extra's, as part of their Cinema Reserve classics series.

The Hustler is, according to the director's daughter who speaks on the commentary track, a film about winning and losing in America. It's certainly a story that's more about character than it is about pool (which is a good thing!)

The film recounts the story of young pool hustler 'Fast' Eddie Felson (played by Newman) who is desperate to beat another hustler Minesotta Fats (Jackie Gleason). At the start of the film, he essentially does this but, being brash, arrogant, immature and 'lacking in character', this is not enough for him and he feels he has to totally crush his opponent. In trying to do so he loses the match.

The climax of the film, effectively a rematch between the two players, shows how the events shown over the two hour running time, have changed Felson. He ends the film the winner, and one who now has 'character', but it's come at enormous personal cost. He's no longer the hustler from the start of the movie, but an indivdual with strong personal integriy.

George C. Scott gives an excellent performance, and was as the slimy gambler and manager who takes Felson on. He was apparently 'unimpressed' with Newman's performance in the film, which Newman himself says he understands: 'I was just working too hard, showing too much'. But the truth, despite excellent supporting performances from not just Scott and Gleason, but also Piper Laurie as his alcoholic girlfriend, is that it's Newman's performance and sheer on-screen presence that make the film. It's not hard to see why this film is perceived as the one that catapaulted Newman into the big time, marking the start of his best decade in films, but it's also true to say that at times one can't help comparing his performance with that of James Dean or Marlon Brando, and feeling that Newman's impact is lessened by the comparison.

Director Robert Rossen focusses on the actors' performances rather than flash pyrotechnics, although the first half hour of the film, dedicated almost exclusively to the first pool match between the two protagonists, shows some nice visual flourishes and good use of dissolve to heighten the sense of tension whilst also conveying the fatigue that sets in, particularly for Newman's character.

It's not hard to see why this is regarded as a 60's classic. It features an intelligently written script that packs an emotional punch that still has power today, more than 40 yeras after it was originally made. I'm still trying to work out how I could have missed it until now!

Cinema Reserve have set a pretty high standard with their releases to date and this is no different. The digitally restored picture looks fantastic, with only the occasional fleck (and the fact it's black and white) giving away its age. The commentary is fascinating, if something of a cheat given the way it's advertised on the packaging. This is not a 'commentary track by Paul Newman and Carol Rossen' (the director's daughter) as claimed: it's a series of sound interviews with six or seven different people, all spliced together from the accompanying documentaries, and bearing no relation at all to what's being shown on screen. Newman himself speaks for less than 5 minutes in total, which is pretty darned cheeky given the way the commentary's billed on the packaging. The included booklet is also somewhat disappointing, being a small, triangle-shaped fold-out booklet that really just equates to a single-sheet insert of marketing fluff.

Happily the other extra's help to restore confidence in the Cinema Reserve branding, and of course there's the usual rather plush 'plastic inside tin' case to justify the slightly increased asking price that Cinema Reserve titles demand. Four different features cover the making of the film and the history behind it. In truth these could have been made into one very long documentary, and the artificial splitting into four separarate documentaries means that there's more repetition than there should be, and rather too much reliance on the same film clips. Oddly, two of the features are presented in anamorphic widescreen, with the others being presented in 4:3 full screen, despite featuring clips mostly from the same sets of interviews.

The stand-out documentary is a 45 minute one on Paul Newman's career, which covers his life from before he entered acting right up to his most recent performance in The Road to Perdition. There are some wonderful old clips included in this, including some out-takes from East of Eden try-outs with James Dean begging Newman to 'Kiss me'!

This is a package that you're more likely to want to own and dip into occasionally than rent, and comes, like all the titles in the Cinema Reserve series, highly recommended.

Viridiana (1961)

ViridianaBy a strange coincidence, the very week I started reading Taschen's book on the surreal film director Luis Bunuel two of what are considered his best movies are released on DVD (Viridiana is the subject of this mini-review, the other being Exterminating Angel).

Viridiana is the first example of his work I've seen, but falls into the 'watch it as film education' rather than 'watch it as entertainment' category for me.

Made after 25 years of exile, the director was allowed back to his native Spain to make the film, only to have it denounced by the Vatican and suppressed by the Spanish government on the grounds that it was blasphemous and obscene. While its attack on pious religion is not exactly subtle, with the 'highlight' being a rather depraved group of beggars appearing in a tableau clearly meant to represent 'The Last Supper', it doesn't really warrant the attacks it received from its critics and detractors of the time.

The Viridiana of the title is an idealistic young nun who's stopped from taking her final vows by her Mother Superior who asks that she visit a distant dying uncle first. The uncle turns out to have a fetishistic interest in the nun, who resembles his wife who died on their wedding day. He attempts to corrupt Viridiana, and when he dies this corruption is continued by his illegitimate son who he's barely met but who inherits Viridiana's home.

It's a very well told, if rather perverse, tale with a diverse group of paupers and ne'er do wells, invited onto the estate by the former nun, providing comment and comic relief from the main plot, which appears initially to be marketing material for the Catholic church, but ultimately turns out to be an attack on it.

It's not hard to see why this is so popular with the 'film historian' crowd. It's beautifully shot and directed, with some clever visual flourishes and some very unusual props, such as a bizarre figure of Christ on the cross that turns out to be a knife (and is apparently a genuine trinket). But the narrative is bizarre to say the least, full of despicable people out to do our saintly nun harm. The 'climactic' Last Supper scene stands out most and is beautifully constructed, but ultimately I was left not caring about any of the rather miserable characters I'd spent some 87 minutes with (it felt longer!). Admittedly, the black and white nature of the film and the foreign language (the English subtitles are optional and not burnt into the film for those who speak Spanish) make watching this harder work than it should be for someone like me brought up very much with movies of the 80s and later. It all feels rather too stylised, artificial and like a movie from the silent era rather than the speaking one. As a result I'm afraid it failed to really engage me, the way some other movies from the same era have done. It's a film I can certainly admire, but not one that I can particularly say I enjoyed.

The film is advertised as being 4:3 full frame on the DVD packaging, but turns out to be non-anamorphic widescreen. I've expressed my thoughts on the laziness and cheapness of non-anamorphic prints before. Fortunately this cheapness doesn't extend to the quality of the print, which is excellent considering its age. Alas, the same cannot be said for the sound. The menu system boosts the sound levels to a horribly distorted level that is like fingernails being scraped down a board. This is not a DVD that's been put together by anybody who cares about the film or the quality of the DVD experience. THere are no extra's at all. Defintely worth seeing if you're a hardcore film fan, or interested in seeing what's reputed to be the best film made by one of the European greats. But for the vast majority one suspects this will come across as 'worthy but very dull', and the DVD is very much a 'vanilla' release with very little effort, other than restoration of the film, put into its presentation.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

The West Wing - The Complete Seventh Season (2006)

The West Wing - The Complete Seventh SeasonWho would have thought it? A drama about politics that's actually rivetting. So rivetting that seven years later The West Wing is one of the few American drama's that one can't help wishing had been allowed to carry on for longer. There are a lot more stories that could be told, as evidenced by this latest batch of 22 episodes, which are as fresh and well-written as the first series broadcast back in 1999.

In the UK the series has been shoddily treated, needlessly shunted around the TV schedules so frequently that it became impossible to watch the show and have any kind of sense of continuity. Thankfully DVD arrived to save the day, and if you've missed out on this drama, as so many Brits who slavishly follow the likes of The Sopranos or 24 have done, then you have a treat waiting for you with seven complete seasons now available on DVD. There aren't many TV series that have you staying up most of the night for 'just one more episode', but The West Wing is one of them. If you need further proof, look at the release date of the DVD set (it was officially released four days ago!) and do the sums on how long it takes to watch twenty-two 45 minute episodes!

The series tells the story of a 'fictional' American president, 'Jed' Bartlett, played by Martin Sheen and his support staff. It cleverly mixes fact (that can surely only have been provided by a White House insider) and fiction to provide gritty, funny and at times intensely moving drama. President Bartlett is a president nobody would have any problems voting for, albeit a figure fundamentally flawed at times, and the series has rightly won many acting awards for what is arguably the best ensemble cast ever assembled for a TV series.

But it's the writing that makes The West Wing truly soar and garner reviews like 'Best television drama series - ever!'. The dialogue is pitch perfect, and so fast and witty you need to be paying attention every step of the way, thanks initially to creator/writer Aaron Sorkin who wrote most of the first four series before being 'let go' (allegedly for problems caused by his alcoholism) and it took replacement writers, drafted in around the start of the fifth season, the best part of a year to find their feet and return the show to its former glories. Sadly, although the new writers had fully got the show back on track by the end of Season 5, the viewing figures never returned to their previous highs and it became clear that the series was living on borrowed time, much to the dismay of the critics, many of its fans and the lead Martin Sheen who took a pay cut to ensure the show's survival into a seventh year.

This final season bravely opens with a "Three years from now" tease which effectively tells us what will have happened to the major characters after the last episode has aired, while tantalisingly stopping just short of revealing who the replacement for President Bartlett will turn out to be. We're then suddenly back to the current time period and the rest of the season charts the run up to the new presidential elections, highlighting the intense competition between Bartlett's natural succesor, a young, dynamic, idealistic Latino Matthew Santos (who at the start of the previous season had been regarded as a hopeless underdog), and the opposition candidate Senator Vinick, played by Alan Alda, best known as 'Hawkeye' from the M.A.S.H. TV series. The show eventually concludes, in perhaps the only disappointing episode of this series - a rather lacklustre finale, given the highs of the previous few weeks' episodes - with the winner taking office and the former staffers moving on to the next stages of their lives.

One of the most emotionally engaging episodes of the series occurs mid-season and concerns the death of the president's Chief of Staff, played by the late John Spencer (the only celebrity I've ever spotted on the two Warner Brothers studio tours I've taken) who in a rare life-imitates-art event died of a heart attack before shooting completed.

In summary, this seventh season is a gripping, rollercoaster ride that takes risks but never loses its way: one episode was broadcast live, written as a televised presidential debate! For us Brits there's some wonderful digs at our 'lady prime minister' and her 'special relationship' and some digs about the queen and Europe to add an extra frisson of dark humour (or reality?!) and the only real disappointment of this DVD set is the realisation that the series is now officially over, seemingly never to return, and there won't be another DVD set to follow it around the same time next year.

The DVDs of The West Wing have always been patchy affairs. You're paying for the drama, not for the picture quality (which this time around is very good in places, but dark, murky and almost unwatchable in others - go figure!) or, here on Region 2 land, the extra's. While Region 1 purchasers get a farewell documentary and some other bits and pieces, yet again we Brits get absolutely nothing, unless you count some rather lavish digi-packaging which include a good chapter booklet, as deserving of the word 'extras'.

The West Wing is the series that inspired some of the more popular, intelligent drama's that are having great success today. You owe it to yourself to check it out on DVD if you missed it when first broadcast. You won't find a better written drama series - that's a promise!

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Little Britain - The Complete Third Series (2006)

Little Britain - The Complete Third SeriesThe third series of Little Britain, the BBC sketch show featuring David Walliams and Matt Lucas, shows all the problems of overly-popular BBC-commissioned comedy shows from the past - the most obvious being that it's been allowed to continue well past the point where it's actually funny.

Where the first two series were original, inventive and funny, to the extent that they contained sketches and catch phrases that were endlessly repeated in school playgrounds and offices up and down the land, the same three or four jokes repeated week-in, week-out are starting to pale after two years, and only an excellent first episode in this third run of six episodes stop this from looking just out-and-out desperate.

A large part of the blame must go to the BBC - it's a pattern we've seen so often in the past from the corporation as the attempt to cash in as quickly as possible takes precedence over any sensible application of budget constraints or quality control. It's a pattern we've seen before with series like The Fast Show and French and Saunders where actual jokes and initial popularity give way to massively increased budgets, increasingly lavish make-up prosthetics, but no real laughs, as the writers just repeat the same joke and 'catch phrase' each week rather than writing anything new.

With The Fast Show that meant having 'sketches' like the one where each week a guy would come out of a shed and say 'This week I shall mainly be...' before adding that week's mundane task as some sort of punchline that I, seeming alone out of millions of viewers, found totally unfunny and an example of the sort of 'writing' anybody could do simply by looking at their activity list over a few hours and adding a new one each week for a 'new' joke.

With French and Saunders the formula involved making more and more lavish reconstruction set pieces of famous films that ended up becoming indistinguishable from the originals, padded out with 'sketches' that involved long unfunny conversations. Someone forgot that the reason those film parodies were so popular in the first shows the comedy duo did is that they weren't just carbon copies - they contained jokes and funny send-ups.

Little Britain looked like it might escape this problem in its second series, by making each week's repetition of a specific joke or catch phrase more outrageous than the last, or cleverly twisting things so that the expected joke had an extra pay-off or a sudden twist. The opening episode of this third series does something similar, but alas by episode 2 we're back to just repeating the weaker implementations of the joke that we've already seen in earlier series. The familiar Lou and Andy sketch, which is essentially a joke about an obnoxious, seemingly disabled character who isn't disabled at all pulling the wool over his carer's eyes, get bigger and better as we see Lou disappear on a trip to the aquarium to almost instantaneously appear swimming with the sharks and dolphins behind his carer while he's distracted, or visiting an air show demo and then parachuting into his empty wheelchair while his carer is distracted. They're funny because although the joke's the same one we've seen countless times before, it's done on a bigger and better scale. But by episode 2 we're soon back to the 'running around in the background' punchline that we've seen so many times before in the last two series, and by the final episode the writers are having to resort to five or six sketches with the same couple that have no punchline at all and simply assume the viewer will instead be happy with a bit of 'soap opera' from their characters.

Lou and Andy aren't the only victims of this formulaic repetition. Series 2 introduced a great new character 'Bubbles' with outrageous, bordering on obscene, 'fat' prosthetics that got bawdier and ruder with each subsequent episode. In Series 3 the character returns but with every taboo already covered what we get this time around is less of the same. The 'new' element this time around involves adding a 'black' version of Bubbles to the sketches, and whilst one can admire the expensive prosthetics, one can't admire the fact that there's no new laughs to be had. The 'I'm a lady' or 'Guy going into a shop and asking for something obscure' sketches weren't that funny the first time around, lacking an obvious punch line or actual joke, but after so many repetitions over the last two series they just become one big yawn. The 'puking church ladies' are more repetition without any kind of advancement, the prime minister and the male secretary who's secretly in love with him is the same and... well so it goes on and on and on.

Ultimately one is forced to ask 'Why not just rewatch the first series if you want to see the same joke over and over?'. Even the 'new' characters introduced for this series - an incontinent woman who pisses gallons every time she's out talking to a friend (effectively just a repeat of the 'puking church lady' sketches that are also featured again this time round), a 'family values' MP appearing before the press with his wife and family trying to justify his clearly salacious activities as innocent misunderstanding, or a 'Thai Bride' sketch that always ends with the Thai lady (or her mother) going down on her knees to plea to be allowed to stay but in such a suggestive manner that the sleazy husband-to-be decides she can stay after all, are a single 'joke' that just gets repeated each and every week.

It's all too obvious that this third series has been rushed out so that Lucas and Williams can capitalise on the seemingly endless tie-in merchandising and instant popularity of their first two series before the bubble bursts. Seemingly though there's more 'squeeze every last penny out of the franchise' to come. Both disks in this set feature adverts for a forthcoming November DVD featuring the same sketches, but this time presented on their live tour. I mean c'mon guys, how much money do you need and how often do you expect us to buy the same thing?

If the sketch show itself is disappointing, the two disk DVD release is not and represents excellent value, especially considering the discounted prices available online. The menu system is original and inventive and choices allow one to watch individual episodes or select all the sketches that feature a single character. Each and every episode features a commentary by Walliams and Lucas that is brutally honest about the writing and filming process, sometimes providing anecdotes that are funnier than the show itself. These commentaries alone would make this a good value DVD, but also included is the excellent South Bank Show 50 minute documentary on the comedy duo, together with an interview from Richard and Judy, a half-hour 'Little Britain Night' set of interviews from BBC Three, David Walliams' appearance on Top Gear and a half-hour comedy quiz radio show Heresy that the two appeared on. More extra's of this sort of calibre please!

We live in a world where repetition and mindless catch phrases are more popular than originality or intelligent humour. With all the blanket coverage Walliams and Lucas are getting from the media ('It's British and therefore must be good') this DVD will undoubtedly sell by the bucket load. Schoolkids across the land will make sure of that, and no doubt will keep chuckling at the repetition in much the same way an infant will keep chuckling every time he hears a fart, no matter how many times he hears it. But for the rest of us this DVD set proves a huge disappointment, given the originality and wit of the first two series. Don't buy it - save yourself money and just watch one of the seemingly endless repeats on BBC Three.

The Wicker Man (1973)

The Wicker ManOptimum Releasing are turning out some very classy DVDs these days, albeit of titles previously released in inferior forms by other companies. Their release of the 1973 'cult classic' The Wicker Man, timed to coincide with the theatrical release of the 2006 remake starring Nicolas Cage, is another excellent offering from the company.

Edward Woodward plays Howie, a devoutly religious, if extremely sanctimonious, police officer who travels to a remote Scottish island to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a young girl. He finds a strange, pastoral community led by the rather odd Lord Summerisle (played by Christopher Lee) and goes on to discover what the packaging calls 'a secret society of wanton lust and pagan blasphemy'. Ultimately The Wicker Man tells the tale of how Howie has to deal with the repercussions of the clash between the local pagan culture and his own Christian beliefs.

I came to this film very late, having hunted it out just a few years ago after attending a fan Q&A event where actor Brad Dourif heavily promoted it as not just his favourite film, but an absolute 'must see'. On that first viewing I was somewhat disappointed, possibly because I'm such an admirer of Dourif that my expectations had been set too high, or possibly because the film appears very dated in terms of style and pacing and clearly lacks a large budget. It is also a film that's very hard to classify: it's a horror film without much 'obvious' horror, a thriller that doesn't follow the usual conventions of that genre. It is a film that is quintessentially British, and a film that realises genuinely frightening films don't have to restort to blood and guts - horror continually hinted at but not visually shown can make for a much more frightening experience than the likes of 'Saw' or 'Hostel'.

Revisiting the film earlier this week, it's not hard on a second viewing, to see why Mr Dourif, along with many others, regard this as a seriously underrateded classic. It's unique, perfectly scripted and, thanks to its shocking denouement, likely to give viewers some nightmarish food for thought for several days after initial viewing!

Edward Woodward, who is best known as the actor who played the lead in the TV series Callan, turns in a performance that he regards as the best in a long, if not prolific, film and TV career, and it's hard to disagree with him. He is effectively the viewer's eyes and ears for the events that unfold, and the horror of what he discovers is all the more vivid for the way we feel his pain and anguish which positively screams at you during the final reel. On the DVD commentary track Christopher Lee describes The Wicker Man as his 'favourite film', and whilst this is a plaudit he invariably rolls out to describe any non-Hammer film he's appeared in, there's no doubt that his performance here, while brief, is excellent, and that the film is certainly far better than its 'supporting feature' UK release and luke-warm initial reviews might lead you to believe. Britt Ekland rounds out the cast, albeit with a controversial stand-in for some of her nude scenes and another actress' voice for scenes where she has to sing. All the cast get the chance to shine in a highly original tale, beautifully shot by first-time director Robin Hardy, albeit on an all-too-obvious-at-times limited budget.

The original 'shock ending' still has the power to surprise today, and it's not hard to see why the film's distributors were so nervous about it that they ended up distributing it as a 'B' support movie to another release, rather than the premium release originally envisaged.

Warner Brothers originally released a very good two-disk DVD version of this film in 2002, featuring the 'hacked to pieces' theatrical cut, and the far superior 'Director's Cut' that went on limited release in America. This new release is essentially the same transfer, albeit with a few new extra's added to the original set. These new extra's are a 50 minute documentary, 'Burnt Offering', presented by critic Mark Kermode; home-movie type footage of the recording of the original audio commentary track; a new 8-page commemorative booklet and a new 'third disk' which turns out to be a CD soundtrack of the film's folksy music that plays such an important part in the film.

The picture transfer is generally excellent, but the additional 'directors cut' scenes stand out because they look like they've come from a VHS copy - the original negative for these scenes having apparently been 'lost'. That being said, the Director's Cut is the version to see, since the theatrical cut was artificially hacked to pieces to meet the timing requirements of British 'supporting feature' releases at the time of original release and misses out key scenes that, most noticeably, set up Edward Woodward's character and help give depth and meaning to the conflict that is at the heart of this story.

The audio commentary, 'moderated' by Mark Kermode and featuring the director and his two lead actors is interesting enough but suffers from being totally dominated by Christopher Lee. Not that Lee doesn't have interesting anecdotes to impart, but he gets extremely repetitive and rambling, repeating the same rather tired anecdotes of imagined slights towards his wife or how important his own missing scenes are, often at the expense of a far more interesting story from one of the other commentators that he's interrupted mid-flow and which then never gets concluded. As a result, it's a very frustrating listen and one can't help wishing Kermode had performed his role as moderator a little more effectively rather than let Lee bully his way through the whole thing.

A filmed version of parts of the commentary being recorded, which is new to this release, adds little to the original audio commentary, except to give some insight into the untidy environment in which these things are typically recorded.

The new 50 minute 'Burnt Offering' documentary, is presented, like the main feature, in anamorphic widescreen. It is an excellent look back at the film, featuring all the main cast and crew, and reveals how much of a troubled shoot this was (despite the 'rewriting of history' and general gushing that takes place on the audio commentary). Those taking part often contradict each other on the real facts of what took place and it's clear that old rivalries and bitterness still last to this day, particularly from the set designer and Britt Ekland.

The package also boasts a 25 minute American 'interview with Christopher Lee from 1973'. This actually turns out to be a TV show featuring a gushing critic and his two guests together - not just Lee, but also the film's director Robin Hardy. Unfortunately its most notable feature is the appalling picture quality (taken from a third-generation VHS copy which is very blurred and features a LOT of smearing). That being said, I found it interesting, if cringe-inducing, viewing, showing that Christopher Lee's pomposity and complete lack of any kind of sense of humour when it comes to discussing himself is NOT a recent phenomenon that one can just put down to his being very old. The programme has barely started before Lee is telling the sycophantic interviewer how he should be doing his job!

A movie this good, in a package this lavish, would get a high recommendation anyway regardless of its cost. But at a typical online price of £12.89 it's an absolute steal. If you've got the original release there's probably not enough new here to warrant a 'double-dip' upgrade and I prefer the original 2002 release's digi-pack design and presentation. That being said you might want to check your original copy as there are a LOT of internet reports of those original Warner Brothers disks turning 'milky' and becoming unplayable because of a pressing plant defect. For those who haven't yet caught up with this British classic and think they can cope with the quirky feel and distinctly old-fashioned pacing, this release has to count as a 'must purchase'.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005)

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"This film is not about a few bad apples at Enron. It's about all of us"

Writer/Director Alex Gibney is talking (on the Director's Commentary) about his film, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and captures in two simple sentences the real strength of this documentary, which is as much about how easily influenced we all are, as it is about the rise and dramatic fall of one of America's biggest corporations.

Enron is a film about people, and the real human tragedy that can arise from human greed, power and ultimate corruption in the corporate 'dog eat dog' marketplace. From the title you might expect a rather dull film about numbers and immoral accounting practices in the business world, in reality the documentary turns out to be something completely different. Focusing on the three main characters at the centre of the piece, it's an entertaining and gripping tale of human tragedy and ultimate misery. It's a moral story for our times.

Documentaries like The Corporation or the vastly inferior Walmart: The High Cost of Low Price have already documented the real cost of allowing corporations to ride roughshod over employees, stockholders and the very fabric of the planet we all live on. Enron's strength is that, unlike those earlier movies, it avoids getting preachy, and even expresses sympathy for some of the main players. The story it has to tell is fascinating, starting with a lesson about 'mark to market' accountancy practices that effectively let Enron invent its own 'expected income' figures to keep the stock market happy, even when the deals that were signed to bring in that 'expected income' were losing millions upon millions of dollars of money month-in, month-out. As debts grow, more and more outrageous exploits come to light as egos and greed remove all critical or moral faculties about the reality of the situation people are working in. We see millions wasted on a project in India without anybody stopping to think that expected income is based on a completely inaccurate assumption that Indians have lots of disposable income. We see they hype of 'movies on demand' broadband long before the technology is capable of delivering anything like what's required. We see gambling of vast amounts of company funds on the stock markets, based on an assumption that the player will always win. California's electricity supply is deliberately cut off and manipulated to drive up power prices and make even more money for Enron. As one insider puts it, who could have predicted that such machinations and the use of 'friends in powerful places' (that'll be George Bush) would not only result in massive profits at the cost of misery to thousands of Californians, but would also result in 'The Terminator' becoming Governor of California.

What's staggering is that not only did everybody cover up, with the big banks all donating millions in loans despite knowing what was going on, but that the all-too-few people who dared to question the madness they could sense, or point out that the increasingly rich and powerful emporer had no clothes, were ridiculed, bullied into submission or just plain fired for the sin of being honest.

The documentary manages to explain very complex accounting irregularities in very simple, understandable terms and in a way that is gripping throughout, even though we all know ultimately where the story is going to end. Clever editing and the use of archive film footage and popular music give the whole thing a polished feel, and a few laughs too. It's a very good example of how to take what might seem a dry subject and make it entertaining and fun.

The DVD is a nice clean anamorphic transfer, apparently shot on High Definition video, although quality obviously suffers when TV clips and archive VHS footage is shown.

The audio commentary by writer/director Alex Gibney is fast-paced, informative, and adds a lot of interesting detail to the facts behind the case, if being somewhat lacking in humour.

The short 'Making Of' feature, presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, is really more of a mini-documentary in its own right, giving the detail of how the story was discovered, became a book and eventually a film. There are also several deleted scenes, although for the most part these are extensions of existing scenes with the more boring interviews cut out.

The DVD does, unfortunately, suffer from not having been updated since the film was made in 2005, so that there's talk of the upcoming trial of two of the main characters, but no mention of the death of one of them. But that's a small criticism really. This is a film everybody should see, if not one they're likely to want to watch multiple times. A high priority rental, this comes highly recommended, and is due in stores this Monday.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005)

The Ballad of Jack and RoseDaniel Day-Lewis is one of those actors always worth watching. A 'method' actor who immerses himself totally in a role, to such an extent that one worries at times for his health and sanity, any film which features him is usually marked as something of an event.

In The Ballad of Jack and Rose Day-Lewis plays the part of Jack, an irascible, bitter character who lives on an abandoned island commune with his 16 year-old daughter, Rose, played by Camilla Belle. Property develpers are trying to move in at a time when Jack is becoming ill, and his daughter is changing from a child to a young woman. Jack allows his girlfriend and her two sons to move onto the island to join the couple, and the resultant change in the dynamics of the father-daughter relationship prove difficult for everyone.

Essentially an 'art house' picture about Rose's coming-of-age and about Jack's coming to terms with the disappointments of his life, there is little real meat to the story, and this is essentially a character piece. Although director Rebecca Miller is also credited as writer, one suspects that she had very little to do in terms of preparing a script - what we get here is a rather self-indulgent exercise in actor improvisation. Parts of it work rather well, but it's so slow moving, and so jarring in the way it's shot, that very early on in the film one stops caring about any of the characters and their bizarre lives. Hand-held camerawork too often comes across like bad home-movie footage, and while there's the occasional breathtaking natural beauty shot (Miller seems very good with plants and flowers) too often there are jarring cuts within a scene that make one wonder if someone maliciously cut a foot or two out of middle of the film reel, regardless of the fact it's mid-scene, to take as a souvenir.

Day-Lewis himself doesn't disappoint, adopting a convincing Scottish accent and Gypsy-like demeanour as a man whose simmering rage is always visible below the surface. The real surprise here is that Camilla Belle is able to rise to his level. She has to carry great, heavy long segments of the movie alone, and manages to do so, with a beauty and inner peace that is at times breath-taking. I would be surprised if we don't hear a lot more about this amazing new actress in the future.

Interestingly, for an 'art' or 'indie' film, the general public seem to like this a whole lot more than the critics one would normally expect to warm to this sort of thing. But if my 'borderline bad' rating seems harsh, check out the rottentomatoes critics rating of 46% which falls even lower to 41% when the 'cream of the crop' critics are averaged out instead. The Ballad of Jack and Rose isn't a BAD film, but it's a rather weak one that's too self-indulgent and slow-paced to be in any way enjoyable. It's a film to be admired, rather than liked, but somehow it fails even on that level.

The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen and the DVD itself is rather bare-bones, probably not surprising given the low budget and lack of box office success. What you get on the DVD is a trailer and about 20 minutes of sound bites. This latter feature is very rough with simple questions appearing on title cards as the only acknowledgement of any sort of editing having taken place. Nevertheless, getting an interview with the reclusive, and often difficult, Daniel Day-Lewis is more than one could have expected, particularly given the fact that he appears relaxed and even to be enjoying himself. All of the main characters and the actor/director are featured.

If you're channel hopping and The Ballad of Jack and Rose shows up one evening, it's probably worth sticking with for 10 to 15 minutes to see if you can cope with the snail-like pacing, and enjoy the film for its acting if not its script. Otherwise this is a DVD that's probably of little interest to most of us.

screen capture from 'The Ballad of Jack and Rose'

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Pierrepoint (2005)

PierrepointPierrepoint, released under the title The Last Hangman in the States (even though, technically speaking, Pierrepoint WASN'T the LAST hangman) is a dark, sombre character piece that was originally intended for broadcast as an ITV drama special. Given a limited, but enthusiastically received cinema release, earlier this year it's out on DVD tomorrow (Monday).

The 'film' is split into three acts: the first showing hangman Albert Pierrepoint effectively learning his trade, determined to do as good a job as his father had before him, albeit anonymously; the second showing his public 'outing' after executing 48 Nazi criminals in Germany at Lord Montgomery's request; and the third focusing on what happens when he suddenly discovers that the person he has to hang is someone he knows and regards as a friend.

Timothy Spall, always a class act, carries the whole weight of the film on his shoulders with what would, for any other actor, probably be counted as a career-best performance, but for Spall is just par for the course. It's a wonderfully subtle, moving performance that conveys the changes the character goes through as his ability to separate his work from his life changes. Juliet Stevenson, perhaps a little TOO familiar to viewers through her appearances in what seems like every Granada TV production going, plays Albert's rather hard-nosed and ambitious wife. She turns in a strong performance as the woman who refuses to discuss what it is her husband does for a living, even when he makes it painfully obvious he needs someone to talk to about it. Many familiar faces from different Granada TV shows turn up in minor parts, and for British audiences this can be very distracting - eg I spent half the film trying to remember exactly where I'd seen Pierrepoint's German-based assistant before (it turned out to be in HBO's Rome, playing the part of Brutus) when really one should be following what's happening on screen.

Pierrepoint is a film that's more about character than any real plot, and it raises some difficult questions about moral choices, and the price of those choices on the human soul. While the film doesn't make for comfortable viewing - focusing on Spall's 'work' for much of its duration - it's an impressive dramatic piece that's well scripted and, for the most part, well directed.

I'm not convinced it needed a theatrical release though and it does feel far more like a Sunday night 'two hour' (with adverts) drama series for the TV than a 'proper' film. There are some brave attempts in the cinematography at giving the small drama a 'big screen' feel, but I'm finding this recent obsession with over-use of desaturated film with ridiculously over-tinted green effect (did someone watch Capote when giving this film its final spit and polish?) irritating to the extreme. When white painted cell walls have a moss-coloured sheen and everything is so dark and murky it's hard to make anything out, things have gone too far. Viewers know they're watching a dark drama and really don't need everything to look dark green as some sort of designer's idea of 'subtly' conveying this in 'the movie's color palette design' (excuse my American spelling of 'color', but I think America is where a lot of this pretentious justification hails from!)

The British TV origins of the drama become evident when looking at the extra's - there aren't any. Not even a trailer, which given the rather high asking price, is taking the piss somewhat. One is forced to conclude that although this is an excellent piece well worth viewing, it would have been seen by more people if it had simply aired on terrestrial TV. As it is, my recommendation would be to avoid the over-priced vanilla DVD and either rent it if available cheaply or wait for the inevitable TV screening at some future date.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

'Superman Returns' in 3D at the London IMAX

I went to see 'Superman Returns' in 3D at the IMAX down the road this evening. I always feel bad that I don't get out to the cinema more often (what with it supposedly 'dying' and all) because I really want to support it, but as always happens when I make the effort, the trip only served as a reminder as to why I much prefer to watch a film on DVD at home.

The IMAX itself was impressive, and in pretty much a first time experience for me, showed a print that was almost flawless with no signs of wear and tear. The seating was excellent too, with chairs stacked very high in vertical tiers so that you don't suffer from the 'irritating tall person blocking the screen' problems that plague most High Street cinemas. The surround sound was awesome during the big action scenes - if only I could get away with playing at that sort of volume at home I'd be in cinematic heaven. So, all good so far on the BFI Imax experience front.

But the ticketing arrangements are very poor. There's something wrong when you're charged an extra £1 for the 'privelege' of booking the ticket yourself online instead of tying up expensive staff on the phone, only to then arrive at the venue and find the queue for pre-booked tickets is four times as long as the queue for people who haven't bothered to pre-book and causes you a fifteen minute delay in getting to the main auditorium.

The 3D presentation was actually just for 20 minutes of the film, split across four separate scenes. For those who've seen the film, interested in knowing what's in 3D and what isn't, the 3D scenes are as follows: (1) Superman dreaming about his younger days as Clark Kent when he learnt to bound great distances and fly, (2) the airline action scene from the start of things going wrong right up to the baseball ground conclusion, (3) the boat drowning scene, and (4) the last 20 seconds-one minute of the film where our caped hero flies off into the stars before the credits roll. These 3D scenes were, for the most part, as good as, if not slightly better than, those you get at the Universal theme park in Los Angeles, and not uncomfortable to watch with polarised glasses rather than the old-fashioned headache-inducing green/red cellophane jobs they used for 3D movies in the old days. But there were a couple of places where the technology that somehow magically converts 2D film into 3D failed. If you go to see the 3D version check out Lex Luthor's girlfriend holding her dog in the helicopter (the 'boat drowning' scene) and you'll see that she is a flat 2D card-board cutout in a sort-of 3D space that really takes you out of the movie, as do too many of the 3D 'distance flying' shots which shout 'CGI' at you in a way none of the 2D scenes in the rest of the movie do. These minor flaws apart, the 3D scenes are well worth checking out, and the very, very large screen at the IMAX is a great way to see a big budget blockbuster like this, even if it works out at £13 a ticket for the experience (ouch!)

So far so good, but yet again it was the audience that totally ruined the whole experience for me. One day I'll go to a cinema, hear the repeated warnings about turning off mobile phones and NOT have the movie interrupted by an incessantly ringing mobile, but I suspect that day will only exist in my dreams. For this performance I had the added joys of restless kids crunching popcorn bags and chatting incessantly through the movie, making the dialogue inaudible for the first 20 minutes of the film. Then there was the kid in the row behind kicking the whole row of seats I was in incessantly to the drum beat of a record only he could hear, whilst his mother refused to admonish him despite the vocal complaints from all around her. And 20 minutes into the film (40 minutes AFTER the advertised start time) we missed parts of the film because the screen was blocked by latecomers being allowed to disrupt everyone to get to their seats. I know London congestion can delay people but when people show that part of the reason they've decided to selfishly ruin everybody else's experience is because even after they arrived late they felt they HAD to go and queue up for popcorn and coke first, I have no sympathy at all. People talk about how watching DVDs at home means you miss out on 'the experience of seeing a movie with an audience'. But tonight confirmed one more time that the audience experience is precisely WHY so many of of us are deserting the multiplexes and preferring to wait a few months to watch the inevitable DVD releases at home.

I'll review the movie itself when the DVD comes out in a few months time, but suffice to say now that although one patron tonight rubbished the film as 'having cost a million dollars a minute' at least this time round that money was, for the most part, right up there and visible on the screen.

Eight Below (2006)

Eight BelowReviews of Eight Below have been somewhat mixed, although the critics' reviews at and the public's reviews over at appear to be roughly in line, until you realise that the 'Cream of the Crop' critics reviews drop the average grade to 53% and that a lot of Husky dog owners appear to have been swaying the vote over at imdb.

The truth is that this is almost a remake of The Incredible Journey, albeit with a pack of Husky dogs this time round. It's a classic, old-fashioned Disney movie, with all the baggage which that implies

One of the problems with a movie like this is that it's hard to get animals to 'act', but with those puppy-dog eyes, that furry tummy and 'come hug me' face, how could one resist? But enough about Paul Walker - the film thankfully features cute Husky dogs too!

Actually, I'm being mean to Walker, who isn't as bad an actor as so many working in the critical media would have you believe - he just seems to have lousy judgement when it comes to choosing the projects to become involved with. His last film, Running Scared, showed that he could successfully take on a gritty lead role, but alas here in Eight Below he's mainly back to playing his usual role: the male equivalent of 'dumb blonde bimbo' with not much acting required, and it's the dogs who are the true stars, despite adequate supporting performances from American Pie's Jason Biggs playing the 'comedy' friend, and Moon Bloodgood playing the love interest.

Walker plays surival guide Jerry, who finds himself having to leave behind his beloved working Husky dogs when a storm at the end of the Summer season arrives. The first 40 minutes of the film show the life Jerry has built, with some rather artificial 'action' scenes designed to show the bond that has developed between him and his dogs, with the remainder of the 115 minute movie being dedicated to showing how the dogs survive while their handler tries desperately to find a way back to the Antarctic to rescue them before the long, hard Winter really sets in.

The story is a heart-warming one, albeit featuring the biggest, cheesiest, most sentimental 'cheat' cop-out ending I've ever seen, and is targeted very much at the family audience. It's refreshing to see a film with no cuss words in it that still has some sense of reality to it (at least if you forget the saccharine ending and the way the film-makers cheat the viewer into believing one thing whilst quite clearly planning another), but there are scenes that shouldn't be considered suitable for young or sensitive children. Let's just say that not all the dogs make it to the end of the movie, and there are scenes where the dogs have to fight for survival that will make for uncomfortable viewing.

The cinematography is stunning, despite the fact that the film wasn't shot in Antarctica, but for the most part in northern Canada. A couple of scenes (particularly those on the boat) unfortunately stick out as being studio shots, but these are minor aberrations and the helocopter shots in particular are breath-taking.

It's becoming increasingly common these days for the advertised extra's on a disk's packaging to be incorrect (where are the Advertising Standards Authority when you need them?), but at least this time round the extra's exceed what is promised on the packaging. The 'trailer' is NOT on the disk, despite what the packaging may say, but two feature-length commentaries, which aren't mentioned, are. The first features the director and producer, while the second (the only one I listened to) whilst advertised on the menu as featuring the director and lead actor talking through the shoot, only feature Walker for 20 minutes before the cinematographer takes over. The director/actor section is an interesting listen with the director being worthy-but- dull and Walker balancing things out by being over-enthisiastic and naive. There are also several deleted scenes (I didn't count them all but there are certainly more than the 'three' that are advertised on the packaging), each with accompanying director's commentary. Unfortunately the 'Making of' featurette clocks in at a pitiful 10 minutes, and is mainly focused on how the dogs were trained and how Canada was substituted for Antarctica.

The DVD transfer is excellent, and this is certainly worth a rental, but unless you're a big Husky dog fan or have kids who love seeing films over and over again this isn't really a 'must buy' purchase.