Monday, October 30, 2006

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 29, 2006

London Film Festival: 'For Your Consideration' Screening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Hard Candy (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, October 27, 2006

Little Fish (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

London Film Festival: Great Expectations Restoration (1946)

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 23, 2006

Event Horizon (1997)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 22, 2006

London Film Festival: Of Mice and Men (1939)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ice Age 2: The Meltdown

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

This time around I stayed to the end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 21, 2006

London Film Festival: Dustin Hoffman Screen Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Slither (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Wah-Wah (2005)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Confetti (2006)

ConfettiBritish comedy on TV has been in a pretty dire state for quite a long time now. There's Little Britain, which started off well but then fell into the trap of week-in, week-out, repeating the same 'joke' involving tired, endlessly repeated catchphrases. The Office was an intelligent, cerebral comedy. And Extra's seems to be garnering rave critical reviews, if not the viewing figures, for reasons I'd love to think were down to viewers realising that completely stealing old sketches and ideas from the likes of Seinfeld or Curb Your Enthusiasm really isn't very original OR that funny.

And now we have a 'comedy' movie, featuring most of the 'flavour of the month' TV comedians that are on our screens at present. Could a British film possibly achieve what the TV shows haven't - a rare belly chuckle or raucous laugh?

Sadly the answer is 'no'. Indeed Confetti failed to raise so much as a smile from this viewer. The cinematic equivalent of watching paint dry, this tired, improvised mess of a 90 minute 'reality show spoof' is the laziest, most self-indulgent piece of nonsense I've seen in a long, long time.

The central conceit of the film is that it's a 'fly on the wall' documentary about a magazine competition for a themed wedding, with the entrants being very quickly whittled down to three sets of contestants - an overly-competitive tennis-mad couple, a relatively normal (I wonder who'll win!) 'dance-themed' couple, and a naturist couple which inevitably means there's a lot of full-frontal nudity in the film. There's a lot of comedic potential in the basic plot, but none of it is realised. Even the naturist couple - who should surely be a veritable mine of funny, if rather obvious, gags - just bore, being too shouty, too irritating and just plain dull to cause even a wry little giggle.

Sometimes one has to be in the mood for a laugh of course, but when I followed this film with a first viewing of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, a silent film made over 75 years ago, that film had me laughing out loud within minutes. It's not hard to see that it's the material - not the viewer - that's at fault in struggling to find anything even vaguely amusing here. Chaplin, you see, wrote jokes, where the cast of Confetti, normally used to delivering lines written by professional comedic writers, had to just make things up on the spot and are clearly not used to doing so.

Christopher Guest has proved that you can make good improvisational comedy, with movies like Best in Show or Spinal Tap, but he had a cast presumably well-versed in writing comedy. Confetti appears to have a bunch of people who THINK they can be funny, but, based on the evidence displayed here, can only deliver performances or lines that are as 'funny' as cancer or taxes.

Confetti is 90 minutes of my life I'll never get back, and for that I feel resentful. Please don't waste 90 minutes of YOUR life on it!

The transfer is a good one, as it should be given that it's a very recent release, but the picture quality is extremely soft throughout (the screencaps here have been reduced and then sharpened using a Photoshop 'sharpen' filter, so don't use them as a judge of the picture quality!) Whether this irritatingly soft focus is 'intentional' to reflect the low budget look of cheap TV 'reality' shows is a moot point, but suffice to say this really is a 'film' that is best seen on a small TV rather than the big screen.

Extra's include three alternate ending which show different scenarios at the competion end, together with a whole bunch of deleted scenes that according to some reviews are as long as the film itself. I'm afraid I didn't waste any time on them, given my aversion to the edited version of film.

Not a purchase then, and not even a rental. For the cost of a rental you can buy a joke book. It's a shame the makers of the film didn't think of that before putting this mess together!

Poseidon (2006)

36Whenever Hollywood decides to remake a film already regarded as a classic the inevitable response is 'Why?!', followed by a general critical mauling in the press. Poseidon, a remake of 1972's The Poseidon Adventure, is no different, as evidenced by the appallingly low 'Rotten Tomatoes' critics rating shown on the left.

Sometimes though we see the past through rose-tinted spectacles and, having watched the new 'special edition' of that original movie, released here a month or so ago, it has to be said the original film hasn't stood the test of time as well as one would hope. The characters are paper, shouty stereotypes that will have you wanting to rip your own fingernails out before the film's less than half way through its running time, and the whole thing is far more campy and cheesy than a film referred to with such reverence, deserves to be.

The problem with this newer version is that, despite director Wolfgang Petersen's claims to the contrary in the accompanying featurette, this is really a pretty redundant carbon copy of the original. If you can deal with it on that level you're in for a fairly enjoyable ride, although the deaths seem more brutal this time around and leave a rather nastier taste in the mouth as a result. Subtlety has never been Petersen's strongpoint, as evidenced by the director's previous effort, the execrable Troy.

The doomed characters aren't quite as annoying as most of the original 'shouty' one-dimensional cast of the 1972 version were, but against that neither Kurt Russell nor Josh Lucas deliver anything like the strong performances Gene Hackman and Shelley Winters gave in the original. The real stars here are the special effects - and the water - and the effects have been very much updated, with that ridiculously large budget all pretty much evident on screen. Water is very much Petersen's medium of course, having previously made Das Boot and The Perfect Storm.

The new film, clocking in at just over 90 minutes, is shorter than the original, but felt just as long somehow, even though the pace never felt sluggish. If you're looking for strong character development and a great story this isn't for you. If you're looking for pretty brainless, but well executed eye candy hokum on a Saturday night the film's well worth a look.

The picture transfer is good, with excellent use of surround sound, as one would expect from a bug-budget disaster movie like this. Extra's wise, there's just a single 22 minute featurette and a trailer, although the featurette is not the usual marketing fluff and gives some interesting behind-the-scenes interviews and explanations of how the effects were achieved. With not much else out this week you could do worse than pick up a copy of this, particularly if you like to see special effects done the way only very big budget Hollywood movies can do them.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Lake House (2006)

36The Lake House doesn't fall into a genre I really appreciate: for some reason most rom-coms or 'chick flicks' just leave me stone cold. So I was pleasantly surprised that the film held my attention throughout, and although I wouldn't say it's a film I'd particulary want to see again, it's nowhere near as bad as some of the critical reviews had lead me to believe.

Probably more of a 'date movie', than a rom-com per se, the idea of taking the traditional 'boy and girl fall in love but seem destined never to meet' story (for the girls) and then introducing a sort of science fiction time-travel twist (for the boys) is quite a good one. If you swallow the central conceit, and can happily suspend disbelief from the get-go, you're in for quite an enjoyable ride, at least from the basic story point-of-view. Unfortunately the ending 'twist' does rely somewhat on you not spotting a clue in the first act (I didn't!) so I guess your closing judgement will depend on whether or not you've predicted the ending an hour before it arrives!

The cliched 'good looking but lonely' single guy and lonely single girl live alone in the lake house of the title, but separated by a two year time period. Through a device that's thankfully quickly explained and dismissed, they find themselves corresponding via a postal box that seems to transport their messages between the two time periods. To further bond the couple it seems they are both owners of the same dog. Yes, it's all very silly, but have you ever seen a rom-com that wasn't?!

What makes the film just about sufferable for guys is that some of the twists caused by the time travel are quite nicely done, and the movie doesn't take itself too seriously. Plus Keanu Reeves isn't quite as wooden and as hopeless an actor as he usually is!

Unfortunately the film does fall down somewhat because of a lack of chemistry between the two lead actors, the afore-mentioned Reeves and his partner from Speed, Sandra Bullock. Part of the problem is that they're physically separate for most of the film's running time, but even when they're together in the same time period there's a distinct lack of fizz between them. The 'madly in love' situation is made even more unbelievable because of the casting of Dylan Walsh (best known as the 'sensible' partner in Nip/Tuck) as Bulloch's boyfriend, who supposedly lacks the spark that she is looking for, but comes across as sexier, better looking and far more committed than Reeves ever does. The script really should have made him more of a heel, instead of relying on one night of him working late and a restaurant reservation that he didn't plan ahead enough to try and make the audience believe Bulloch's character will be better off choosing someone else. As it is, Walsh's handling of their affair over the two year period, particularly when he finds his girlfriend kissing a stranger she's only just met, makes him far more the 'hero' of the piece (and hence Bulloch's character the 'villain') than the author and directors can surely have intended.

As is becoming the norm where a DVD release is made within weeks of the original theatrical release, The Lake House is pretty much a vanilla release. There are five deleted scenes (one is actually an out-take) and a trailer and that's it. This is also one of those annoying releases where one has to scroll through pages of languages to find the United Kingdom, only to realise that all this really does is force that wretched 'anti piracy' trailer on you as reward.

It's good to see the rom-com formula given a new idea, and although The Lake House doesn't really exploit the idea as much as it should, it's an enjoyable enough 90 minutes. But it's definitely a 'rental' rather than a 'purchase'.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The 50th London Film Festival

The 50th London Film Festival kicks off in just a week or two's time. I've never really bothered with this before, but having just joined the British Film Institute I got a programme guide and it's hard to resist the many temptations on offer. One of the nice perks of BFI membership is you can book tickets before they go on sale to the mass public. Rather scarily I got all the tickets I asked for, even those for the big gala performance of Babel which I'm really looking forward to (together with the accompanying volume from the wonderful Taschen Books.

I just hope work doesn't interfere with my plans. Despite trying to rein in my enthusiasm for so many classic films, I've managed to end up with tickets for the following:

  • Saturday 21st October, 1.30pm - Dustin Hoffman Screen Talk

  • Sunday 22nd October, 6.30pm - Of Mice and Men

  • Sunday 29th October, 4.00pm - For Your Consideration

  • Monday 30th October, 8.30pm - Hollywoodland

  • Thursday 2nd November, 7.00pm - Babel (Gala performance)

I would have liked to have booked The Last King of Scotland which is the opening Gala performance too, but it was all getting a bit expensive and weekdays are very hard to commit to with the work situation at the moment.

Monday, October 02, 2006

United 93 (2006)

P.S.We've had a spate of 9/11 documentaries on TV lately, and with World Trade Center hitting cinema's this week, there will probably be more to follow too. But it's hard to imagine anything equalling the powerful, harrowing United 93, released on DVD this week.

I approached this with some cynicism. We all know how the story ends, and most of what is believed to have happened before that end has been documented thousands of times in our national press. So just how intense or suprising a film could this be? A lot more than I expected, that's for sure. Told almost entirely in real time, the strength of the film is the way the documentary style pulls you into the 'story' from the get-go. Most of us have been in busy airports and can identify immediately with the activities that the passengers of that ill-fated United 93 flight had to go through, before the event that changed the world, and the lives of those passengers and their family and friends forever.

What's clever about the film is the way the director doesn't rely on cheap sentiment or emotions, letting the events that unfold speak for themselves, and based largely on the results of the 9/11 commission report of the events of that day. For example, a weaker director would have focused on the recipients of those last 'I love you' phone calls that the passengers made when they realised they were on a doomed flight. But there are no such sentimental shots here, with everything being kept to the claustrophobic confines of the ill-fated aeroplane to make the viewer feel as trapped as the doomed passengers. Shot in documentary style, with hand-held cameras, often held at waist level to give the viewpoint one typically has as a passenger strapped into a plane seat, the viewer is really made to feel like one of the other passengers.

There are no long back stories here, in fact there are no back stories at all. We barely know any of the people we meet on the plane through the duration of the film. The random snatches of conversation we would hear on any sort of flight are our only 'way in' to the characters we're seeing depicted. As a result most appear anonymous and remain so until the end of the film. According to convention this should alienate us, make us feel distant from the people we're watching, and leave us with nobody to really understand or root for. And yet we feel part of the action, one of those anonymous passengers ourselves - we feel we're on the plane alongside them, stunned into disbelief, as events unfold and the mad reality of that day and its events slowly become clear.

Director Paul Greengrass pitches the film perfectly, eschewing the use of any familiar faces amongst the actors, opting for a very low-key delicate music score that's used sparingly, and interspersing action on the plane with that of the various control centres around the U.S. The illusion of reality is strengthened by using many of the the army and flight tower professionals who were working that day rather than trained actors. Nor does the director attempt to take sides, showing events as they unfold in an impartial 'fly on the wall' manner, rather than attempting to force any kind of moral viewpoint on the audience through the use of invented or cliched dialogue.

United 93 is not easy viewing - indeed many will find it harrowing. But it's one of the most powerful films you'll see, deceptively simple in its execution. It's a film that shows the real tragedy (on all sides) of the current divide between the West and the more extreme Islamic movements. It's a film everybody should see!

It seems odd to be reviewing extra's, given the subject matter of the film, but one extra - the hour long United 93: The Families and The Film -deserves special mention since it serves as a powerful documentary in its own right. The stories of those passengers we've seen in the main feature, albeit briefly and without any real identification, get fleshed out as we meet the families of those who were killed - those people who in the real world were the recipients of those 'farewell' phone calls we have seen depicted earlier in the film. It's an incredibly moving documentary, albeit one that will have you fighting back the tears in a way the main feature didn't because the real damage and sense of loss of those left behind is still very real and very raw. Actors who meet the different families are greeted as if they were the dead passengers brought back to life, and break down in tears at the emotion on display and the responsibility they feel for the part they are playing. It's an extra that doesn't distract from the main feature in any way, but illuminates and puts a new perspective on it.

The only other extra is a commentary from the director. To be honest, it's a rather dull affair. The director speaks slowly and with a sense of reverence, clearly trying to maintain the right air of sincerity and without giving any offence to friends and family of those involved in the tragedy. Whilst there are some interesting observations about the approach taken when making the film, for the most part Greengrass opts for the option of 'stating the bleeding obvious' with regard to what's happening on screen to fill out what would otherise be long silences.

United 93 is probably not a 'must have' purchase, but it is a 'must see' rental. And if this doesn't get a nod come oscar time there's no justice in the world. United 93 is a remarkable film, and it's not hard to see why the families of those killed on that fateful day on the 11th September, whilst initially sceptical, have wholeheartedly endorsed the film. Highly recommended!

Sunday, October 01, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

36X-Men: The Last Stand is the third film in the X-Men franchise - and the first that I didn't bother going to the cinema to see. The troubled production shoot, caused initally by original director Brian Singer's decision to move on to make Superman Returns instead, quickly followed by the 'leaving for personal reasons' departure of replacement director Matthew Vaughn was one reason. Final director Brett Ratner (I'm not a fan!) was another. Add in the over-the-top 'tentpole' marketing and hype which has the likes of Empire, SFX et al. turning a 'featured article' into a free 30-age advertorial, and there was little to seemingly appeal to this viewer.

Catching up with the film on DVD (in stores tomorrow) I think I made the right choice, although the movie is by no means the disaster it looked like it was going to be. All things considered it's a pretty good popcorn flick.

That beind said, the film is the weakest of the three released so far. For me the script doesn't really keep to a consistent path, too often taking little side turns that don't really add to the story and seem to be there just to keep the overly-vocal comic book fanbase on the internet happy. Too many characters don't have any real purpose, whilst others are suddenly given ridiculously prominent roles. Halle Berry goes from having nothing to say or do in the first two movies, to.. erm, well actually pretty much the same situation in this third movie, except that this time around she has about 20 times the screen time and number of lines to say that she's had in the past!

Newcomer to the franchise, Kelsey Grammer (best known as Frasier from the comedy TV series of the same name), thankfully gets a fair crack of the whip, which is warranted by his role in the story as The Beast, but the desire to keep the minor subplots that were established in previous films moving forward as well as adding three new charactes all prove too much for the rather short 90-odd minute running time. Did we really need the new 'Angel' character, the 'Iceman and Rogue with new girl Kittie Pryde' storyline, the 'Iceman vs Pyro' storyline, the ongoing 'Wolverine vs Cyclops' storyline as well as the main story (a 'cure' for mutants arrives at the same time as the new powers of former X-(wo)Man Jean Grey)? The net result is that the film always has something interesting happening, but the attention seems to wander all over the place.This is a problem the first two films didn't have.

The dialogue and story-telling smack, to this viewer, of too many late-night, last-minute rewrites, with all the plot inconsistencies that inevitably result. Take the 'big bad' Magneto villain (played by Ian McKellen) as an example - the writers can't decide whether to play him as an honourable, if misguided, man, or as callous, selfish pantomime villain. In one scene he chastises one of the villains for making a wisecrack about his arch-nemesis Professor Xavier, pointing out that Xavier is a great man who should be honoured. Then a few scenes later when his most loyal, long-time supporter (and possibly his mistress) takes a hit intended for him that turns her from mutant to mere mortal, he dismisses her as swiftly as one would dismiss a fly. There's no character consistency here (nor in Ian McKellen's accent which switches between English and American for no apparent reason, sometimes even mid-sentence)!

The acting is pretty much of the 'No acting required' variety, although Hugh Jackman, given less to do here than in previous films, manages to impress in his role as Wolverine. Patrick Stewart repeats a good performance from previous films, albeit one where he's just playing himself (this is NOT the Professor Xavier I remember from the comic books!). Quite what the first director, Matthew Vaughn thought he was doing in casting Vinnie Jones as The Juggernaut is beyond me. OK, so it's a 'no acting required' role, but even so, with so many out-of-work actors around at the moment, hiring an ex-footballer with the acting chutzpah of a plank of wood seems a rather insensitive move.

Fortunately the cinematography and special effects (aside from an appallingly bad 'Xavier and Magneto as younger men' introductory scene which looks more like a not very good XBox game than a 'real life' movie) lift the film out of its poor script, and whilst there's little originality here (the much-touted 'finale' scene on the San Francisco bridge is shockingly short and comes across as an inferior version of the bridge scene in The Fantastic Four) there is a LOT of special effects work on show. It's hard to remember a movie that had so much eye candy going on throughout its entire playing time. It's the small attention to detail in even the background shots in some 'blink and you miss them' moments that have presumably endeared the film to its intended audience and resulted in the multiple viewings and leveraged box office takings.

Is it the last movie in the franchise, as initially indicated? Somehow I doubt it, and fans who think there is a nice tidy ending to the franchise with this film should make sure they watch to the end of the credits where an extra scene gives a very nice get-out for the film-makers!

It ain't clever, but X-Men: The Last Stand is a dumb, mindless, but fun popcorn movie that the whole family can enjoy and which kids will no doubt be happy to play repeatedly.

The 2-disk DVD set looked to be a strong release for a successful 'big' film that's this recent. After all, the temptation might have been to 'double dip' with a vanilla release first, and the 'special edition' a few months later. Unfortunately it quickly becomes clear that this DVD set has been rushed together and corners cut right, left and centre.The shimmering picture quality on the main trilogy documentary is appalling, as is the navigation system for the featurette and the main film. On my player the individual scenes selection indexes didn't work at all, constantly refreshing the same menu whenever a specific chapter index was selected. And it's not just the execution that's rushed: delve beyond the sheer quantity of advertised number of extra's and it's hard to find much that has any real quality or depth to it.

Disk 1 has two commentaries, which I didn't have time to listen to (work is still pretty manic at the moment!) but allegedly include a 'dull but fact-filled' one from the producers and a 'fun but content-free' one from the director and a couple of associates. The first disk also features Deleted Scenes turn out to be a disappointing set of incredibly short alternative takes where the titles introducing them more often than not last longer than the scenes.

Disk 2 kicks off with an excellent 40 minute Brett Ratner's Diary, which nicely edits down 'home movie' footage made during the entirety of the film shoot, covering the production from the first day's shoot to the premiere at Cannes, in a way that is exciting without giving the lie to the fact that most of the time spent on a film set is just plain boring and very unglamorous. Ratner comes across very well as the natural leader who inspires his troops on a difficult shoot, but there's nothing remotely controversial here unless you count James Marsden's minor strop to camera about the film suffering from too many ego's and minor comment about how someone now thinks she's the star of the movie (Halle or Famke? It's hard to guess - both appear to be rather up themselves!)

X-Men: Evolution of a Trilogy is 43 minutes of tired marketing guff covering all three movies, one at a time in sequence, and is incredibly pointless. This is stuff from promotional tours, intended to 'sell' the films just before their initial theatrical release, with the likes of McKellen and Stewart telling us who each character is and what their powers are - as if anybody who's seen the film doesn't already know. To add insult to injury although the picture is widescreen anamorphic the picture quality is pretty dreadful shimmering and phasing all over the place, which is inexcusable on as high profile a release as this!

X3: The Excitement Continues is, unfortunately, more of the same, effectively an alternative version of the final third of the 'Evolution of a Trilogy' that precedes it. The featurette X-Men Up Close is a navigation nightmare allowing you to read the history of each of the character (ie just stuff they could advertise on the sleeve to make it look like there's a lot of stuff here) and there's a short featurette on the San Francisco bridge scene. Curiously the most interesting stuff is tucked away in a section labelled Vignettes.

At the asking price it might seem churlish to criticise this two-disk release, but the extra's really aren't as voluminous as the packaging implies. That being said, kids will love the package and as such it's a 'purchase' rather than a 'rental' recommendation, albeit a rather grudging one, given the fundamental flaws in the package that appear to be down to a distinct lack of any kind of quality control in the haste with which the film has been rushed onto DVD, presumably to avoid getting lost in the deluge that's about to hit us in the lead-in to the Christmas rush.