Thursday, 30 November 2006

Barry Norman's Interactive Film Quiz (2006)

Barry Norman's Interactive Film Quiz

With Christmas looming, there's a sudden plethora of 'interactive DVD quizzes', and with Barry Norman as host, what could be better than a DVD that tests you on your film knowledge?

A hell of a lot, as it happens. A paper quiz is cheap and easy to produce, and you might expect an interactive DVD version to make some sort of use of the medium it's presented on. Alas, not! What you're paying for is lots of video of Barry asking the questions, and precious little else besides. Worse, the design of the menu system and the different way single player and multi-player options are handled within the quiz make the whole thing an exercise in extreme frustration.

The problem starts just after you've inserted the DVD. You get a quite long introduction from Barry that CAN'T BE SKIPPED! Want to play the quiz more than once? Be prepared for a long tedious wait each time you start the DVD.

Barry Norman's Interactive Film Quiz screencap

Then there's the questions, which seem to centre heavily on the same few films - films like Texas Chain Saw Massacre or All About Eve. One suspects this is down to wanting to maximise the use of picture or film clip rights that may have been procured, but when the questions are always in the same order it's ridiculous to have two or three questions on the same film within spitting distance of each other, particularly when one might realistically expect such a quiz to evenly cover over 70 years of movies!

Paper sheets are included for playing in teams, but effectively this is no different from playing single player mode because it's left to you to mark your answers and then someone to score them as the answers are revealed. There is one difference between the two modes: if you DO play single player mode you're not told what the correct answers are - just which ones you got wrong. Inconsistencies for no apparent reason abound, and it's very frustrating.

Then there's the film clips - seemingly averaging one or two per 30 or 40 questions, these are invariably projected at a fraction of the full screen size and looking suspiciously like they were sourced from a fifth generation VHS bootleg tape. We are not talking DVD picture quality here! As if that weren't bad enough, the question often asked after the clip usually has very little bearing on what you've just been shown.

If you're a movie buff and want to play a family quiz over Christmas do yourself a favour and buy a paperback book version. It'll be far cheaper and a lot more fun than this horrible excuse for a cheap cash-in on gullible punters!

Barry Norman's Interactive Film Quiz screencap

Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest (2006)

Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest

There seems little point in reviewing Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest since the box office takings are so ridiculously large (over a billion!) that there can't be many people on the planet who haven't already seen it. The makers are already talking about making two more movies after the third gets released next year, having previously insisted there would be no more. Money is everything and it seems that cashing-in on the success of what was meant to be a one-off movie, to make a trilogy, has paid off huge dividends even before the third film has hit the theatres.

Let's get the negative stuff out the way first. Pirates of the Caribbean 2 isn't a film - it's a series of set pieces strung together without any real coherence or sensible plot. This is eye candy pure and simple, and eye candy that outstays its welcome at close to 150 minutes. It also lacks the charm of the first film, mainly because the lead actor has been given too much free rein, so that what was amusing, witty, and mesmerising in the first film, has become self-indulgent, tedious and inconsistent this second time around.

On the positive side, the film lives up to its promise, in that it's very pirate-y! The special effects are excellent. Bill Nighy gives an interesting twist on the bad guy, making him likeable and jokey and certainly one of the highlights of the film. And, as is evident from the DVD sales released already, kids love it. If you turn off your brain at the door, grab yourself a tub of popcorn and settle back for two and a half hours, you may even convince yourself you've had a good time. I'm sure that for the kids of today this has the same sort of excitement value as the old Harryhausen adventures like Jason and the Argonauts had for my generation - it's just a shame it doesn't have the sense of story those older films have. So Pirates of the Caribbean 2 isn't a bad film, it's just not a very good one, which given the talent available and the huge budget, is pretty inexcusable and frankly rather depressing.

Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest screencap

Watching the extra's it soon becomes clear why the film is such a mess. Four months before filming is due to start and the director is complaining to the writers that he still doesn't have even a draft of a script. Props need to be build and so the set-pieces are being thought up first, with some sort of belief that a decent script will be produced in time! Everything is based on money, releasing the film at a certain date, and any ideas of having a script seem to be way down the list of priorities. On the one hand it's all pretty appalling. On the other one has to admire the honesty of the film studio in letting the warts-and-all behind the scenes out into the public domain. If I were reviewing the DVD based solely on the film, I'd say 'Avoid!', but the three hours 'Making of' gives one of the most thorough and entertaining behind the scenes I've seen in a long time, from the harrowing pre-production days right through to the end of post- production. It's excellent stuff.

The picture quality is superb, as one would expect from a 'tentpole' release like this. There's no chapter index, but when you get two disks with over five hours of material at the sort of price this is selling for it seems churlish to complain. And that five hours is excluding the director's commentary, which I have to confess I didn't listen to - I just don't care enough about the film to want to waste another two and a half hours of my life on it! The whole package is topped with some bloopers - about half of which are funny, and half of which are padding, but that's about par for the course.

This has already become the UK's biggest selling DVD. Ever! Yes, you read that right. And it's been out for just a week. So it seems pointless my saying rather indignantly 'Don't buy it - there's far more worthwhile fare around for your money'. And when all's said and done there's enough here to maintain interest, even if, like me, you didn't like the original movie. Certainly the extra's are well worth the DVD cost of admission, although I'd say they're probably better as a rental than a purchase.

Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest screencap

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Pet Shop Boys A Life in Pop (2006)

The Pet Shop Boys In A Life

I have a weak spot for The Pet Shop Boys. They're probably the only group who will still have me out on a Monday trying to buy up every variant of whatever song/album they've got out at the moment - a habit that someone coming up to their 50th birthday really should have kicked by now.

Not that I'm totally blinkered as to their talent. Too many rave reviews from 'luvvie' friends in the media who would normally trash this sort of 'pop' material is one thing that annoys. As is the lack of ability of most critics to differentiate between truly great Pet Shop Boys material, and the mediocre stuff that they have produced at times. Mindlessly praising every single item a group puts out (which is what the critics have invariably done, presumably because they just don't understand pop music but want to fall in with the pack) is pointless when the material is as variable as it has been over the years. Melody and great lyrics is what makes The Pet Shop Boys great, but unfortunately the former has sometimes been missing, with repetition or a 'clever/ironic' phrase being substituted instead of a decent melodic hook.

Nor do I hold to the opinion, repeated frequently in this DVD release, that the band have lots of originality (does anybody else think going on and about a lego-like plastic CD case as some kind of original, clever art is just kind of pathetic?!). Everything - and I really do mean everything - the band have done has been plagiarised and derivative, albeit done with obvious love, care and attention to detail that one soon forgets the original source material. Their strength, much like that of Oasis (at least when they started out with the first two albums before getting the idea they could actually invent their own material from scratch - big mistake!), is the way they can craft something that feels 'new' out of the stuff that would otherwise fail to reach mainstream ears, and that applies whether we're talking about reworking a Cat Stephens album track for It's a Sin or simply giving an old Elvis Presley song a 'gay flavour-of-the-month from last year' hi-energy slant (Always On My Mind). It's their ability to fine tune material a mainstream audience might otherwise not hear, and their taste - which is usually pretty impeccable - that impresses.

And this applies across the board - whether we're talking euphoric up-beat pop singles, drama-filled melancholic power-ballads, autobiographical movies (It Shouldn't Happen Here - when is THAT coming to DVD?!), 'silent' film soundtracks (Battleship Potemkin), or even musicals (Closer to Heaven - great songs, but with a weak, under-developed and frankly unbelievable story meant it was never going to be anything less than a disappointment as a piece of theatre).

Pet Shop Boys A Life in a Pop, just released on DVD, suffers from the band's recent lack of popularity with those who buy pop records ('thirteen year old girls and gay men', as Pete Waterman so eloquently put it) so that as a two hour twenty minute 'tribute' documentary it feels somewhat lacking. The signs that the band are well past their glory days in terms of pulling power are all too evident. Kudos for getting some screen time from Robbie Williams, but lead singers from bands who've barely been around a year, making minor 'man in the street' points at length shows how much the band's importance in pop culture has fallen over the last decade or two, and ultimately weakens rather than strengthens what should be a celebration of the band's impressive career.

First broadcast (much too late at night) on ITV earlier this year, albeit at about half the running time, the band's fans, of which I am one, will love the revisiting of some of the group's biggest successes, but for the average viewer it's probably an hour in self-indulgence too long. Unfortunately it suffers too from Tenant's plum-voiced dominance, which comes across as pretentious and po-faced, no matter how hard it tries not to. And while Lowe's down-to-earth 'I'm a working class Blackpool lad, me' occasional diversions try to attain some sort of balance, the ridiculous 'designer' fashions and 'enigmatic' (snort!) silence when the couple are interviewed together just ends up becoming annoying - it's a joke that's been repeated for over 20 years now, and extremely tiresome and disrespectful to those who've helped the band achieve their success. One wants to grab Lowe out of his chair and say "You think you're being enigmatic with your silly dark shades and your baseball cap, saying nothing, but you're over 40 now and people watching are just thinking 'What a twat!'". This 'joke' of the enigmatic 'talented but silent' partner was done much better by Soft Cell and Sparks (annoyingly, despite both having had Top 10 hits long before The Pet Shop Boys arrived on the scene, neither group gets any mention in the documentary as having been influences).

There's a certain amount of rewriting of history in the documentary too, which is unnecessary given the band's achievements (at least here in the UK), achievements which should not be under-estimated even though we live in a world where the likes of Kylie (an average actress, and a less than average singer who certainly got 'lucky, lucky, lucky') are revered as some kind of musical institution just because they've stuck around or been struck down by illness. The Managing Director of EMI foolishly complains about the bad reviews the album Behaviour received from music critics, going on to claim that it is now generally acknowledged (by who exactly?!) as their best work. Wrong! It was critically praised to the high heavens at the time of release - I speak as someone who read those reviews and rushed to buy the first day of release as a result and to this day find it my least favourite of all their albums.

Overall, Pet Shop Boys A Life in Pop is an interesting documentary for fans, but of limited interest to anybody who isn't a 'Pethead' (is that really what the fans call themselves?!) and falls strictly into the 'view once and then forget' category. It's the extra's that elevate this from the 'worth watching if it's on the telly' release to a possible 'worth a purchase' list, at least for fans of the band's music and videos.

Pet Shop Boys A Life in Pop screencap

The Pet Shop Boys have always made interesting videos, although these have got less interesting as the group have got older because of their lack of direct involvement in the process. Their greatest hits DVD package, released a couple of years back, suffered from not including their current hit single of the time, and since then there have been several new videos only available in awkward and 'limited availability' DVD singles. All the releases since that Greatest Hits package are included here, making it pretty much an essential purchase for fans of the band who want to collect all their music video work.

Also included are rare TV appearances (with Dusty Springfield miming badly, all the while looking like some gross overweight drag queen) at The Brits and a performance some years later of Go West with a Welsh choir at the same event, as well as their first ever TV performance.

So fans, who are well served by the group's own web site at, will have already purchased this item.

For those less obsessed, it's an interesting diversion and well worth a rental if you're feeling nostalgic, and a purchase if you've enjoyed the band's recent singles and videos (although I think they're by far the weakest made in the band's career). So, a somewhat reserved recommendation for most, but a 'must buy' for fans like myself who still regard the band as one of their favourites and want their most recent singles in a video format on one convenient disk.

Pet Shop Boys A Life in Pop screencap

Sunday, 26 November 2006

Balls (2004)


If you're one of those Brits who think that Germans have no sense of humour, then think again because if Balls is anything to go by, they know how to provide plenty of laughs.

Balls tells the story of a struggling football team whose goal-keeper Ecki suffers a double humiliation on the final match of the season - a cheating opponent gets a penalty that loses Ecki's team a much sought-after trophy, and his homophobic fellow players discover he's gay. The two incidents happening so close together are the excuse the team need to get rid of him, and his parents, particularly his football-mad father, add to the poor lad's misery by appearing distraught.

After a disagreement with his father Ecki moves out of his parents home and, with nowhere else to stay, asks his sister to put him up for a few nights. In a foolish argument he tells his old team that he will beat the team that defeated them with an 'all gay' football team, and having made a statement Ecki is not the sort of guy to give up. Naive and innocent, he and his sister proceed to hunt bars, restaurants and clubs for possible players and end up forming a team that features every gay stereotype imaginable - from the camp, swishing Spanish fast food worker who carries a picture of David Beckham in his pocket, through to a menage-a-trois of Hells' Angels-like leather-clad S&M queens, to the abusive, repressed 'straight' gay basher still hiding in the closet. In the process Ecki accidentally finds himself a boyfriend (the guy his sister has been chasing at work) and just to add to the confusion Ecki's sister finds herself a new admirer who pretends he's gay just so he can attend the football team practices and see more of her.

Despite the gay slant, the film is politically incorrect, and confident enough to send up stereotypes - gay and straight. The scenes where Ecki and his sister naively enter a gay S&M dungeon to try and recruit possible players alone are worth the price of admission, but there are plenty of laughs spread throughout the entire 100 minutes running time. It's not all laughs of course, and there's a touching side story about one of the player's attempts to get access to, and respect from his son following a bitter separation from the boy's mother.

What makes the film so enjoyable is not just the range of characters, and the determination not to preach or take itself too seriously, but the way it's all so good-hearted. There's none of the mean humour of the likes of Borat here and you get the feeling that the writers/director really liked all their characters, no matter how ridiculous they are. Nor does the film take the easy route of regurgitating gay propaganda either. Some of the best scenes feature a character who insists on visiting the baker's shop which Ecki's parents run, pretending he's gone in to buy something, only to deliver the most offensive, unfunny and politically incorrect anti-gay joke he can think of, laughing his head off at his wit each time. In weaker hands the figure would have become a hate-figure, but here you find yourself laughing at the character (even WITH him sometimes at the po-faced reactions he gets) and when he gets his inevitable come-uppance it's done in a light-hearted way. The message of 'Can't we all just get along?' may be simplistic, but it's nicely done and one doesn't feel one's being hit over the head with a shovel to get 'the message' across. It's all rather far-fetched and silly in places, a real 'fairy tale' if you will, but it's done with such a good heart it's hard to resist its charms.

Balls screencap

As is seemingly the norm with any foreign-language titles the extra's are sparse to say the least. A single Behind the Scenes featurette is all you get here, and it's a curious affair, starting off with a sort of 5 minute musical montage before suddenly switching into a real 'behind the scenes' featurette, albeit one that's primarily unedited footage. It's interesting enough, but a director's commentary would have been nice.

Balls won't be to everyone's taste - it features blokes snogging for goodness' sake! But if you're open minded enough to cope with that you'll find plenty of laughs in this warm-hearted, if rather ridiculous, 'feel good' story. Recommended!

Balls screencap

Cars (2006)

CarsIt's seemed that up to now Pixar could do no wrong. In a world that's become increasingly saturated with rather formulaic CGI 'toons' the studio has managed to maintain a quality bar that's way above the level of their competitors. The company's latest offering, Cars - coming on the back of Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and the Toy Story movies - has, however, received some criticisms on its theatrical release, with many saying it lacked the 'magic' that the company's previous offerings have had in abundance.

Unfortunately I have to agree with those criticisms. While the animation and rendering are breath-taking, and move the industry even further forward in terms of photo-realistic imagery, the film's pacing is all wrong and the story rather muddled in parts. The film also runs about half an hour longer than it should do!

That being said, there's a lot to love about the film. It carries a rather old-fashioned message about the rat race we live in and, in true Disney style, lays that message on with a trowel in places, but the characters are endearing and there are some great jokes for children and adults alike. The opening race scene is too long, and there are times where one finds oneself wishing that director John Lasseter hadn't been quite so self-indulgent with his love of cars and the industry around them. But the heart of the movie is in the right place, and touches like the introduction of cow-like tractors seem truly inspired. I suspect the film plays rather more to adults than it should, and that kids may get bored at times, particularly when some of the car characters are too similar or speak so fast the story can get lost, but hopefully the quality of the animation will distract from the rather thin story and sometimes confusing dialogue.

Cars screencap

The extra's are a bit thin this time round for a Pixar release. The highlight is a six and a half minute story, Master and the Ghostlight featuring all the main characters from Cars. It tells the story of how the residents of Radiator Springs get their own back on Lightning's best buddy Mater, when his practical jokes go a bit too far, and has the same high quality production values as the main feature.

One Man Band is a curiosity, a four and a half minute feature about two entertainers competing for a little girl's golden coin that she is about to throw into a fountain. This is technically superb, and rendered to the same high CGI standards as the main feature, but it's hard to see children having much interest in the rather odd little adventure that's portrayed.

Inspiration for Cars, clocking in at just under seven minutes, is the most interesting feature, and is prefaced by the 'epilogue' that features to one side of the main film's closing credits, this time blown up to full-screen size. Director John Lasseter explains why the story is such a personal one for him, and we're shown behind-the-scenes footage of the trip he and his crew made when traveling Route 66 to get inspiration for the story Lasseter wanted to tell, after reading a book about how small towns had been ruined by the opening of an interstate highway.

Most disappointing are the Deleted Scenes, which are fully voiced, but turn out to be coloured storyboard pencil drawings displayed in sequence, rather than the finished CGI animations one might have expected from the blurb on the packaging. Running at seven minutes it's clear these planned story sections were jettisoned very early on in the development process, with some of the dialogue being used in different scenes that replaced them in the finished film.

Cars is a fun film that looks amazing, and is arguably the most technically proficient CGI movie that's been made. The DVD transfer is as good as one would hope for given the film's CGI origins, although it's disappointing that there hasn't been a simultaneous high definition release (there are noticeable examples of 'the jaggies' or 'stair-casing' on some of the scenes on standard DVD). From any other company the film would be regarded as a triumph, but coming from Pixar one had somehow expected a bit more, and the DVD release is so devoid of extra's one just knows that this is an attempt to gouge purchasers quickly before hitting them again with the inevitable double-disk release some time next year. For that reason this DVD release is possibly best viewed as a rental rather than a purchase, unless you have kids who will want to watch it repeated times and can't wait another twelve months for something better to come along.

Cars screencap

Saturday, 25 November 2006

Joyeux Noel (2005)

Joyeux NoelIt's not often I come across a review that makes me REALLY angry, but Empire's review of Joyeux Noel in the January 2007 issue that's about to go on sale is one of them. KB informs Empire's readers that by the end of the film you'll be "willing them [the characters] to die just so this po-faced schlock will stop". Well sorry, 'KB', but you're wrong, as a simple glance at the public's reviews at imdb or the average critics reviews over at rottentomatoes clearly demonstrate.

Joyeux Noel tells the World War I story of how soldiers downed their weapons on 'No Man's Land' for Christmas Day, in a story first shown briefly in Oh! What a Lovely War, a story that apparently only came to light because of the ineptitude of the British staff responsible for monitoring all letters sent from the front. The film takes several stories that have been discovered about events and weaves them together into a tale of 'feel good' Christmas cheer that is presented in German, French and English to show the perspective from all three sides. If the stories seem a little far-fetched in places, the accompanying director's interview shows that some of the real life events depicted here (eg a cat shot for treason because it crossed between the French and German lines!) were even more ridiculous. The film does take one or two stories that don't have much to do with Christmas Day, but such divergence doesn't detract from the basic message of the film about how evil War is in all its manifestations.

It's not entirely comfortable viewing - War is messy after all - and the denouement, where all the units involved are disbanded and the events hushed up to avoid mass mutiny, makes for depressing viewing, but the basic message of hope for that brief period on Christmas Day is one that seems particularly relevant today, given what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. The film suffers from not having a central core, focussing instead on several different characters, most notably a Scottish vicar who finds himself at odds with his superiors over his actions on Christmas Day. A particularly nasty, vicious, racist sermon by a bishop towards the end of the film seems over-the-top and unnecessary, until one discovers on the commentary track that it is taken word-for-word from a real speech made by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time. Religion it seems has always had a lot to answer for!

The cinematography here is stunning, the multi-national cast uniformly excellent, and the transfer superb. All-in-all there's little here that warrants the dismissal Empire magazine have given it.

Joyeux Noel screencap

The extra's are limited to a rather cheap and cheerful question and answer session with the director and a commentary from director Christopher Carion. Ordinarily I'd mark the DVD down for the lack of a decent 'Making of' documentary, but the truth is that all the questions one naturally has at the end of the film ('Surely that scene was made up...') are dealt with perfectly in the director's interview. The commentary doesn't repeat the interview, although suffers from being a bit too dry, and is more about the real world events and the way they shaped the picture than the film itself.

I found Joyeux Noel to be a powerful, moving film, well presented on DVD. It has its weaknesses, mainly arising from the lack of a single strong narrative, but that's nit-picking when a film is as beautifully shot and as movingly told as this. Highly recommended!

Joyeux Noel screencap

Love in Thoughts (2004)

Love in Thoughts

Parasol Peccadillo specialise in quality world cinema releases, and have a particularly strong reputation for releasing gay-oriented 'art house' movies on DVD, so you could be forgiven for assuming this is another 'of interest to gays only' release, an assumption encouraged by the rather silly homo-erotic cover sleeve that totally misrepresents the film in this viewer's opinion.

Love in Thoughts centres around 'straight' poet Paul (played beautifully by Daniel Bruhl before the acne so evident in his performance as a German leader in Joyeux Noel exploded across his face) and the fragile relationships that fell apart at a weekend party in 1927. Paul is still a virgin and madly in love with his best friend's sister. Admittedly this best friend, Guenther, is gay, but the two are comfortable with each other's sexuality and there's no hint of anything that might frighten the horses going on between them. The same could be said of the film itself which, despite revolving around the events at a party where sex, booze and absinthe play the major role, manages to remain free of the sort of gratuitous scenes that independent film-makers seem to think obligatory to make the film seem more 'real'. Those of a nervous disposition about this sort of thing can rest assured that although there is some (boy on girl) nudity, the whole thing is more Merchant Ivory than the sort of soft homo-erotic porn that can often get mis-advertised as 'world cinema with a gay theme'.

The film opens with Paul being interrogated about two deaths at a recent party before going on to tell the main story leading up to the events at that party. As such it's clear from the start this is a story that is not going to have an entirely happy ending, and there's a sense of melancholy permeating every frame. Essentially this is a story that centres on the criss-crossing relationships between Paul and his sister, Hilde, euphamistically referred to as a 'free spirit' throughout the film, but who would perhaps more accurately be described as 'slutty'. Hilde toys with Paul's affections, while her best friend, Elli, a more plain, but good-hearted girl who is infatuated with Paul and has been for some time, has to make do with the few crumbs she is thrown when Paul feels rejected. Things get complicated when it becomes clear that Guenther's sister is actually having a fling with Guenther's ex-boyfriend, Hans. Guenther is still in love with the bi-sexual Hans and when he gatecrashes a four day party that has been built around booze and drugs, the end results can only be catastrophic.

The film won't be to everyone's taste - it takes time to build up to the party and to plant the seeds of 'The Suicide Club' that will provide the film with the climax that is hinted at in the opening scenes. Characters are given time to be properly set up, and the emphasis is on using the camera rather than dialogue to show the emotions that are bubbling below the surface of all the players. But for this viewer, it was a wonderful evocation of a time, place and series of emotions that have only really been successfully portrayed in novels up to now. It comes as a surprise to learn at the end of the film that the story is based on real events, rather than the over-intellectualising of some would-be poet rewriting the adolescent experiences of his youth.

Director Achim von Borries tells his story well, albeit at a speed that may be considered a little sophorific for some, and wisely concentrates on getting the best performances from an excellent cast, rather than getting carried away with clever camera moves, or flashy 'meaningful' shots. This is difficult material to present cinematographically, but Borries captures it very well, and if you're not moved by the story he has to tell you must have a heart of stone.

Love in Thoughts screencap

The film is presented in its original German with subtitles and although the transfer is flawless (no speckles or dust) the original material is very clearly 'low budget art house. In terms of extra's there's nothing at all other than the same rather tired trailers that decorate other Parasol Peccadillo releases. Although this tends to be the normal fare for low-budget world cinema releases, it's unusual not to even have the usual snatched 'director filmed at the distribution companies headquarters' interview that usually accompanies these DVDs.

Love in Thoughts is a beautifully acted, sensibly-paced, slightly melancholic story about love and passion that comes highly recommended, although more as a rental than a purchase. Daniel Bruhl's performance alone is worth the price of admission.

Love in Thoughts screencap

Friday, 24 November 2006

Oh! What a Lovely War (1969)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 30th October 2006.

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 represented 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 artifice 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.

Oh! What a Lovely War screencap

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 watching it - what was the director thinking? Anybody whose seen those silly ITV trailers where key cast members 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!

Oh! What a Lovely War screencap

Hard Candy (2006)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 28th October 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 24th Day, but done in a much more cinematic fashion, and one that belies its small budget.

Hard Candy screencap

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-caricatured monster. The film has sado-masochistic 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 satisfied 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.

Hard Candy screencap

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.

Hard Candy screencap

Little Fish (2006)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 27th October 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 clichéd 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.

Little Fish screencap

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.

Little Fish screencap

Event Horizon (Special Edition) (1997)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 23rd October 2006.

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.

Event Horizon (Special Edition) screencap

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 dissimilar 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.

Event Horizon (Special Edition) screencap

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Ice Age 2: The Meltdown (2006)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 22nd October 2006.

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.

Ice Age 2 screencap

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 again. 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 inappropriate 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'.

Ice Age 2 screencap

Slither (2006)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 15th October 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 clichés 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 pizzazz 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). Michael 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.

Slither screencap

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.

Slither screencap

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 15th October 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 mildly (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 successfully 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!

The Da Vinci Code screencap

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!

The Da Vinci Code screencap

Wah-Wah (2005)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 14th October 2006.

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 clichéd 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.

Wah-Wah screencap

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.

Wah-Wah screencap

Confetti (2006)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 8th October 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 catch phrases. 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!

Confetti screencap

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 competition 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!

Confetti screencap

Poseidon (2006)

This review was originally posted on Ian's Personal Blog on 8th October 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 strong point, 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.

Poseidon screencap

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.
Poseidon screencap