Sunday, 31 December 2006

Driving Lessons (2006)

Driving LessonsOne wonders if we'd have any kind of British film industry at all if it weren't for Richard Curtiss. I don't think he had specific involvement with Driving Lessons, a film based for the most part on the real life relationship between Dame Peggy Ashcroft and a young man who answered a job ad to help her, but the whole thing reeks of the sort of film that would normally have Hugh Grant grinning inanely all the way through it.

The basic plot has potential but alas, what should have been an excellent, classy look at life lessons across the generation gap, turns into yet another old-fashioned 'quaint', too-ridiculous-to-be-in-any-way-believable, British movie-by-numbers.

Driving Lessons has the usual British stalwarts in minor roles, with Julie Walters and Rupert Grint ('the ginger one' from the Harry Potter movies), playing the two main leads who have to carry most of the film on their shoulders. They're both good actors but, disappointingly, Walters appears to have taken the 'eccentric old actress' cue from the script as an excuse to recycle her Mrs Overall character from Acorn Antiques, and something about it doesn't gel. The usually reliable Laura Linney has also been roped in for a minor role as the Grint character's hypocritical, Bible-bashing mother, presumably to try and put American bums on seats for the theatrical release, but it's a performance that Linney could have dialled in by phone - there's nothing here that we haven't seen her do many times before in previous films.

The story does have its moments, but just as you think it's going to transcend the Curtiss-like formula, bucket loads of sentimentality are thrown in drowning all attempts at any kind of subtlety. In one particularly ridiculous scene, a group of silent church goers react to Walter's character loudly bursting into Church somewhat the worse for drink as if the Lord himself had graced them with His presence and burst into song and cheering. This may be entertainment and fantasy for the blue rinse rom-com brigade who will applaud anything so long as it's safe and doesn't feature anything too unpleasant, but for the rest of us it's just nauseatingly poor scripting.

It's all such a shame, because there are moments, particularly when Walters plays her character less for laughs and more for sympathy, when the film shows real poignancy, but such moments are invariably shattered by moments of silliness that undo any attempts at believability.

Looking back (it is New Year's Eve after all!) on this year's best films I see a whole host of wonderful films from Europe that I've enjoyed this year. But I'm struggling to find a single British one. We've lost our way, seemingly determined to make the same formulaic stuck-in-the-past 'gentle social comedies' that we've been making non-stop ever since The Full Monty was a surprise American box office success. It's time to move on, and Driving Lessons is yet another weak example of a genre that is well past its 'Sell by' date.

Driving Lessons screencap

The picture transfer is excellent, as one would expect from a film that was only launched at the box office a few weeks ago. Extra's -wise there's a first-time director's commentary that's so dull and pointless I had to stop it less than half an hour in. It offers no insight at all, with the director repeatedly telling us what we're seeing on screen and explaining what it means as if we're five year old children who can't understand the very obvious images we're being shown. There's an embarrassingly bad Q&A session with the two main stars, embarrassing because the smarmy, gauche interviewer hasn't got a clue and appears to be auditioning for a part in a send-up of children's Saturday morning television, and the trailer for the film is also included.

If you liked Mrs Henderson Presents... or Love Actually, or any of those movies starting Hugh Grant over the last few years, then this is probably worth a rental. For the rest of us this should carry a warning: "Learner director ahead" and be avoided.

Driving Lessons screencap

Ma Vrai Vie a Rouen (2002)

Ma Vrai Vie a Rouen

Ma Vrai Vie a Rouen (also known as Ma Vie or My Life on Ice) is a touching, if rather low budget and parochial, teenage coming-of-age story.

It's also, in part, a gay 'coming out' story, albeit a very subtle one that only really reveals itself in the last few minutes. Unfortunately Paradise Peccadillo have done their usual 'marketing for gays' job on the DVD sleeve and given it the kind of soft-core porn cover that may attract the pink pound (although such purchasers are likely to be disappointed at the lack of bare flesh on display!) but will have the potential mainstream audience quickly looking elsewhere for something to watch.

Which is a shame, when a film is as exhuberant, 'feel good' and downright charming as this one.

Etienne (Jimmy Tavares) is a young teen living with his single mother following the accidental death (or possible suicide!) of his stepfather. Etienne is a bit of a loner, spending most of his time ice-skating or just hanging out with his best friend, the far more worldly-wise, and traditionally good-looking Ludovic.

On his sixteenth birthday, timed as the film is about to start, Etienne has been given a movie camera from his grandmother who's won the lottery, and film-shooting becomes his new obsession.

Very much like Blair Witch, Ma Vie is shot as if it were cinema verité, with the film we watch being the footage that Etienne himself has shot on his new camera. It's an interesting device, albeit one that at times seems rather TOO cute as we witness the camera accidentally falling over, incorrectly positioned viewpoints, the owner struggling with a new 'Is it on?' remote control etc. as the film progresses. However this style of filming does help give the story a truthfulness that isn't let down by the very natural performances of its main leads.

As Etienne's prowess with the camera improves, he starts filming, in an almost stalker-like fashion, his good looking Geography teacher, before affecting a match between the teacher and his mother who go on to become an item. But were Etienne's motives entirely altruistic?

Interspersed with film of everyday life with his mother and grandmother, are discussions with Etienne's best friend Ludovic, mainly about girls and Etienne's inability to get laid because he is too shy. Slowly we (and Etienne himself) realise that maybe he's just not interested in girls, and the agony of unrequited love subtly reveals itself in filmed conversations with his 'handsome, sexy' best friend who does what any straight boy who finds his best friend giving out warning signals does - avoids the subject or runs a mile if it's brought up directly.

Although this is essentially a 'coming to terms with being gay' story (and it's far more subtle than the above description and DVD packaging would imply) the overall theme is a universal one - of teenage love and coming to terms with the pain of an unrequited first love.

The awkwardness of Etienne's intrusive filming is captured to good effect, but his natural charm and likeability ensure that all protagonists tolerate his behaviour, even when they seem far more aware of the unhealthy aspects of what he is doing than he does. While the film's charm is pretty much down to the natural performance of Tavares, he is helped by a uniformly excellent cast, who keep everything in the moment, despite the rather artifical device used to tell the story. The subject matter may sound slightly depressing but make no mistake this is an upbeat 'feel good' film, with the inevitable happy ending, and one that captures perfectly the magic of late adolescence and becoming happy with who one is and one's place in the world.

Ma Vrai vie a Rouen screencap

Shot on a fairly cheap Sony home movie camera, the film was never going to be a showcase DVD release. Shot in French in normal 4:3 ratio the picture obviously has no grain or speckle, but looks very much like a home movie, as intended by its makers. The English subtitles are at times overly-intrusive and can't be switched off, which is going to be very irritating if you can actually understand French.

Extra's-wise there's a very badly filmed introduction at a Lesbian and Gay Film Festival 2003 in London, where the director, writer and young lead talk very briefly and in very general terms about the film. There is also a commentary track that I didn't get around to listening to (too many other DVDs to watch and I felt the film had really spoken for itself and needed no illumination). The original screen tests for a couple of the actors are also featured, but really only prove what one has suspected all along (that one of the cast is merely being himself in front of the camera, while his depicted best friend is an actor who's learning lines and delivering a performance).

Art house films like this, even with the usual online discount, tend to be more expensive than the usual Hollywood blockbuster, and suffer by way of comparison when it comes to extra's. That being said you could do a lot worse than rent this charming, endearing film that wears its life-affirming heart on its sleeve. Recommended!

Ma Vrai vie a Rouen screencap

Saturday, 30 December 2006

Crank (2006)


Crank is not so much a movie, as an 80 minute MTV video, with all the style and substance which that implies. If you want something thought-provoking and stimulating you've come to the wrong place. If you're happy with a fast-paced piece of nonsense that features endless effect shots, slow/fast motion cuts, loud metal music and a basic plot that is very silly indeed then Crank will be right up your street. And if I'm honest, it was right up my street too - this is a film that clearly doesn't care about awards, or presenting any kind of reality, and just wants to have fun with lots of bangs, explosions and outrageous stunts. It is, in short, a lot of fun.

Jason Statham plays Chev Chelios, a heavy for hire, who wakes up to find that he's been injected with a lethal Chinese drug that will kill him within the hour by stopping his heart. The only way to delay the effects of the poison in his system is to keep his adrenaline flowing, and the film charts his progress around Los Angeles as he does everything imaginable to keep his heartbeat high (and I DO mean everything!) whilst trying to get to the root of who did what to him and why.

This is very much an action film for the noughties, and whilst the plot gets sillier and sillier as the film moves along - with one particularly ridiculous scene featuring Chelios publicly having sex with his girlfriend whilst crowds cheer him on - it's rarely less than entertaining. Stratham plays Chelios as a kind of Grant Mitchell from East Enders, albeit one who while playing the hard man is prepared to spend a significant portion of the movie running around Los Angeles wearing a less than fetching hospital gown. The loud music, fast cutting and over-used bleach/fast-cut effects irritate initially, but once you get into the flow of the movie its general good humour, albeit peppered with a lot of violence, sexist talk and foul language, ends up winning you over, despite its political incorrectness.

Crank screencap

The film ends with a stunning helicopter fight sequence that makes fantastic use of its Los Angeles backdrop, and goes on to deliver a final punchline that shows its makers have got their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks. Frankly, if you don't have a big grin on your face after seeing this unapologetic tosh then you must have had a sense of humour bypass.

The transfer is as good as one would expect for a film that only hit the box office a few short months ago, and there's good use of surround-sound throughout. But this is a very 'vanilla' release, with no extra's to speak of at all (unless you count trailers for other titles). Undoubtedly there will be a new version along, featuring behind-the-scenes featurettes and director's commentary in the not-too-distant future, so this is very much a rental rather than a purchase.

Crank screencap

Snakes on a Plane (2006)

Snakes on a Plane

Prior to its theatrical release Snakes on a Plane received a mass of 'free' internet publicity and hype, thanks mainly to the more juvenile 'movie blog' sites getting carried away by a simple title! The rationale of these sites went like this: "It's got snakes. On a plane. That MUST be good!"

Well forgive me for having more than a couple of brain-cells, but since when has the title of a film been any kind of indication of quality of the finished result? Sometimes I think the world really has gone mad! News that reshoots were hastily planned on the back of all the internet hype, to add 'more of what the fans wanted' set the warning bells off. Gee! Samuel L Jackson shooting new scenes just so he can say 'Get these motherfuckin' snakes off my motherfuckin' plane' really reeks of a quality, well thought-out film, doesn't it?!! The lack of any pre-screenings for critics when the film was finally ready for release seemed to be sending a message loud and clear: this film is a total turkey - avoid!!!! That the film was something of a commercial failure at the box office, in spite of all the childish 'fan boy' hype based on nothing more than a vague idea, shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone. But then sensible is a word that rarely applies to opinion printed as fact on the internet!

What WAS a surprise was the reaction from those critics who paid to go and see the film so that they could fulfill their reviewing duties. Most seemed to like the film, and watching it on DVD just three months after its theatrical 'failure' I too was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Sure, this isn't an intellectual exercise in characterisation and plot. But it is a surprisingly consistent and fairly well polished roller-coaster ride, taking the traditions of the disaster movie, presenting them well, and wisely playing it straight instead of going the campy route that could have turned it into 90 minutes of toe-curling embarrassment.

Snakes on a Plane screencap

The film starts with 'pretty boy' biker Sean Jones (Nathan Phillips) becoming an accidental witness to a brutal gangland murder, making him chief witness for the FBI, and someone in need of protection by FBI agent Neville Flynn (Samuel L. Jackson). Flying as a protected witness to the trial in Los Angeles, all hell breaks loose at 30,000 feet when some pheromone-elevated snakes are suddenly let lose to ensure that the witness and his protector never make it to the trial. Admittedly, the basic plot of 'death by snake bite' is rather ridiculous, but the film plays it for real and if you can put the silly pretext behind you the film does a good job of setting everything up for a fun 90 minutes.

The usual stock cast of disaster movie characters make an appearance. There's the badly behaved rapper who's forgotten his roots, the pompous and obnoxious British traveller, the rich heiress with her little dog (I wonder who THAT could be styled on!), the two young boys on their first flight alone, the just-married couple who are keen to join the 'Mile High' club (now I wonder if they'll survive ;-)) etc etc. but guessing who lives and who survives is not as straightforward as the clichés of the genre might imply.

The snakes themselves work well for the most part. Mainly CGI-generated, the film could have been an unconvincing mess, but thankfully there are only a couple of scenes where the snakes look somewhat unconvincing. The plot rushes along at quite a pace, although one flaw of the script is that having set up Nathan Phillips' character as one of the main characters at the start of the film he's given nothing to do once the film kicks into action with the arrival of the snakes.

Snakes on a Plane may not be high art and there's little that's original here, but what's done is done well. There are some nice subtle touches to the script (I particularly liked the 'Of course he's gay' male steward who has a nice pay-off when the plane finally lands in Los Angeles), which is surprising in a film this derivative, and the acting, characterisation and general pace of the film are all better than the 'cheap and nasty' title might lead you to expect.

Snakes on a Plane screencap

For a film as recent as Snakes on a Plane, the DVD is quite generous with its extra's. There's a feature commentary from the director and producers, deleted scenes, also with optional commentary, and several short, sharp but focussed 'making of' featurettes. The trailer and music video are also included, and the high quality transfer nicely round out the package.

Snakes on a Plane is never going to win any film awards, but if you fancy a fun Saturday night in you could do a lot worse than renting or purchasing this 'B Movie' feature. It's never less than entertaining, and as such, comes recommended.

Snakes on a Plane screencap

Friday, 29 December 2006

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

Tora! Tora! Tora!

Tora! Tora! Tora!, a docu-drama telling the story of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was not well received in America on its original release. Most pointed the finger of failure at its attempt to be historically accurate, portraying both sides of the story fairly, resulting in a film that was too long, too dull, and too documentary-like in its approach. 'Tora-ble! Tora-ble! Tora-ble' screamed the headlines of one review, which seems extremely unfair - you only have to look at the more recent Pearl Harbor to see what happens when you Hollywood-ise a story and start inventing audience crowd-pleasers (a silly love affair in the case of the latter picture). Re-appraised over thirty years later, the apparent weakness of 'sticking to the facts' comes across as the film's greatest asset.

A lot of new information about the event that effectively forced the Americans to take part in World War II is presented in Tora! Tora! Tora!. While it's true that the film takes its time to tell its story, the final half-hour featuring the big attack, has enough explosions, smoke and flames to satiate the appetite of the most fervent action-obsessed fan boy. That the whole thing was achieved in the days before CGI was available is nothing short of miraculous.

The use of two different teams to film the Japanese and American viewpoints, works well and the film moves easily between the two different sides as the momentous events of December 7th 1941 approach. Unfortunately despite being the second most expensive film made at the time - 'it cost several times more than the original invasion on which it is based cost' quipped one Fox exec - the film was an American box office disaster, although it was saved by huge success at the Japanese box office.

I think the Japanese audience got it right, and whilst the catalogue of mistakes and the ultimate result of those mistakes may mean the end result is a bit of a downer for any Americans, it's a film that's worth watching if mistakes are not to be repeated. 'I fear we have awoken a slumbering giant', the Japanese commander is quoted saying at the end of the film, with subsequent events proving him right.

The film is lushly photographed and well executed, although the characters featured are not the main story here - it's the event itself, and the politics leading up to it, that feature most. The Japanese director performs a better job of making the main characters on the Japanese side real flesh and blood characters we can identify with, but then the American director had less to work with on that front. The largely unknown cast of 'character' actors mean that there are no distractions from investing oneself in the story, although the key word here is 'investment' and you need to choose to commit yourself to the film if you're goint to enjoy the journey it wants to take you on. This is not a film you can just dip into, or watch as background, and it demands your attention throughout. It's not a short film either, with an intermission half way through being needed for those with weak bladders or uncomfortable chairs. But if you're as weak on history as I am you'll find this a fascinating insight into how one mistake on top of another can ultimately lead to unmitigated disaster.

Tora! Tora! Tora! screencap

As with other Cinema Reserve releases, the main feature is presented in its best possible format. The tin case holds a booklet with notes on the film and two discs - one with the main feature and a commentary from a Japanese historian and the American film director, the other featuring a 90 minute 'Making of' documentary, a 25-minute TV special 'Hollywood Backstory' on the film and ten fascinating Movietone news segments made covering the events that fateful day in December 1941. There's a certain amount of repetition, but each segment has new details on the politics, particularly the problems with the originally hired Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, who had to be 'let go' as rampant ego and paranoia took hold.

The MTV generation won't like the film much - it takes too much time to build up to its conclusion, and doesn't feature the fast-paced editing and over-the-top camera shots that modern audiences expect from blockbusters. But for the rest of us, this is a fascinating film that shows the current mess in Iraq is simply a repetition of the series of blunders that have gone before. In this excellent Cinema Reserve presentation, the DVD comes highly recommended.

Tora! Tora! Tora! screencap

Lost Season 2 (2005-2006)

Lost Season 2

After the worldwide phenomenon that was Lost Season 1, things seem to have cooled down considerably for Season 2. Viewing figures are down, both here and abroad, and endless critical reviews during the terrestrial transmission of this second series have almost consistently complained that the series is suffering from the same problems The X-Files suffered from when the creative well ran dry round about the fifth or sixth season.

I have to confess that I'm one of those who got irritated by the long, slow 'hatch' story development over the second half of series one, not helped by a series finale that answered nothing and left far too many cliff-hangers that weren't going to be answered for several months while the series took its annual hiatus.

Whilst Season 2's first three episodes went some way to addressing criticisms that the series was being eked out, explaining many of the mysteries that had cropped up in Season 1, by the time we got to episodes 4 and 5 the series seemed to be back to its slow crawl pacing which, coupled with non-stop adverts every five or ten minutes on Channel 4, meant I gave up on watching the show on any kind of regular basis.

So thank heavens for DVD. Without the annoying week-long delays and endless adverts, the second series stands up as an incredibly strong show. It's not easy straddling two quite different genres - science fiction mystery and soap-like 'real life' character drama - but I think Lost does it incredibly well, with individual episodes alternating between extending and explaining the science fiction mythology, whilst other episodes provide very moving character drama. The 'back story' mechanism is over-used, and many fans are complaining that in Season 2 we're just getting re-runs of back stories we were already told in Season 1, but I think such criticisms are, for the most part, unfair. The new back stories give more depth, introduce more twists, and, thank goodness, finally help explain mysteries that were started back at the start of the first season. By the end of this second season we understand the function of the mysterious hatch, why the Oceanic Airways flight crashed, what Katy did that had her hunted down by law enforcement officers, a lot more about the mysterious 'Others' who inhabit the other side of the island, and other details besides. The series moves a lot of strands forwards, despite the reports its detractors have written that would indicate otherwise.

Of course new mysteries have been introduced, but unlike say The X Files, the mythology isn't becoming so convoluted that it's clear the writers are making things up as they go along, with no real end-goal in sight. Everything about Lost is consistent and for the series to still be pulling so many rabbits out of the hat (there are some genuine shocks and surprises throughout Season 2) is no mean achievement. For the best example of this check out the last episode of the season where lots of questions are answered, the obligatory expected cliff-hangers are delivered, albeit with a sense of wrapping several things up nicely, and then suddenly the last two minutes completely change tack and deliver a complete mind-fuck that leaves the viewer stunned, wondering what the hell he just saw and whether it turns everything he'd assumed over the last two series completely on its head. It's brilliant writing and it's hard to recall a show that has had as many 'water cooler discussion' moments as this one has had. There is something wrong with a critical press that continually hypes up the juvenile tripe that is Doctor Who, while not trumpeting the quality inherent in a series like this which shows just how far away the quality bar is when it comes to British drama series.

Just as important as a clever, well-written script, and good cast, is the consistency of the series. There are no 'let's completely change the character or story arc' moments here, in spite of all the twists. Unlike most TV shows you can watch one episode after another in a long viewing marathon and everything is consistent, as if it were intended to be viewed that way rather than in a weekly episodic fashion. Shows like 24 have done very well on DVD, but single-sitting viewing of multiple episodes soon reveal the repetition, constant re-caps, and overall ridiculousness of the basic premise given the time periods involved. Lost suffers from no such flaws, which is a pretty amazing achievement.

Lost Season 2 screencap

Previously issued in two halves, to satisfy the 'must have it now' demand of fans, whilst not falling foul of the 'no DVDs until the episodes have been transmitted' rule, this boxed set contains all 24 episodes of the series, with three commentaries from those cast members who didn't do commentaries for Season One. In truth the commentaries are lacklustre affairs, with a clearly overworked cast happy just to watch episodes they haven't seen for a while rather than add any real value. An extra disk of supplementary material is also included and although artificially split into sections based on the Dharma mythology used in the series, what you're really getting here is a series of 5-10 minute featurettes on about half of the episodes. These don't reveal anything new about the show but make for interesting viewing. The writers are refreshingly honest about the whole writing process, and how story strands are often started with no real idea of where they will end, although why some episodes should be covered in such fashion, whilst others are neglected, is not clear.

The picture quality is, at times, reference standard (ie stunning), which is hardly surprising given that the series is shot in high definition, with a Blu-Ray release of the first season already announced for next year. The days of American shows being released in poor, murky brown NTSC transfers with little contrast (West Wing anyone?) are thankfully long gone.

All-in-all it's a pretty impressive package for a TV series. The danger here is that with all the extra's there's little incentive to actually watch the show on original broadcast transmission. Endless interruptions with long commercial breaks really don't help shows like this, but there must be a real danger with the dwindling audience share, that the series could get canned sooner rather than later, somewhat spoiling things for those of us enjoying the annual catch-up on DVD.

Lost is easily one of the best ongoing drama series being broadcast on television these days. The DVD package presents the series with the best possible picture quality, and a set of quality extra's. Highly recommended.

Lost Season 2 screencap

Thursday, 28 December 2006

Monster House (2006)

Monster House

2006 hasn't been a good year for CGI animations. The film companies have recognised that whilst expensive to produce any CGI 'toon is pretty much guaranteed to turn in a hefty profit. There is a seemingly insatiable appetite from the public for something to take the kids to, regardless of the quality of what that something might be. So this year we've been deluged by CGI variations on a theme, with talking animals going on an adventure being the choice of theme for most. Invariably these variations have involved distinctly sub-par plots and less than stellar visuals too, with even the mighty Pixar losing a little of their usual magic in the rush to get Cars to market so that it can generate all that much-needed merchandising revenue.

So it's a mighty relief when a film like Monster House comes along. It's original, beautifully directed, and is never overly predictable. Unfortunately it's also rather scary, such that it's only really suitable for children over the age of 12 - which means box office potential is somewhat limited. And there's little merchandising opportunities too. How on earth did this film get the green light? (Clue: It's executive produced by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg).

The plot is, on the surface, relatively straightforward: Halloween is approaching and when the curmudgeonly owner of the house opposite young hero 'DJ' has a seemingly terminal heart attack, the house starts to take on a life of its own. DJ and his chubby chum Chowder, and the extremely precocious but pretty Jenny, try to get to the bottom of the evil goings-on, and find themselves with more than they bargained for.

The dialogue in Monster House is beautifully written, and the film plays 'older' than its advertising might lead you to believe - check out the sales spiel from Jenny when she goes house-calling with her Halloween cookies for one of the funniest bitch-rants since Buffy the Vampire Slayer went off air. The CGI is gorgeous and the way the director takes maximum advantage of the medium, inventing 'crane shots' and zooms that would be impossible in the real world, is often stunning. And, perhaps most importantly of all, just when you think you know where the film is going, it throws another curve-ball at you. The characters are interesting and diverse, without falling into the 'characterisation by numbers' stereotypes that too many of these films tend to go with. All-in-all the film's a real treat.

Monster House screencap

As one would expect from a computer-generated feature, the picture quality on the DVD is stunning. There's excellent use of surround sound too, although a DTS sound track is missed. The DVD comes packaged in a cardboard outer sleeve that opens up with a rotating dial that enables the picture displayed on the front to be changed. A chapter index is also included inside the packaged Amray case.

Extra's wise there's an interesting fast-paced commentary (aimed very much at adults rather than kids), and several short featurettes that talk the viewer through the design of the characters and much of the production process, much of it involving innovative motion capture used as the basis for the CGI work.

If you're not a typical fan of this kind of 'family' film you might be pleasantly surprised by this offering, which comes recommended and is certainly better than most of its contemporaries that have dominated the box office over the last twelve months.

Monster House screencap

Renaissance (2006)


It seems to me that there's something slightly desperate about a DVD release that has to put a big 'Featuring the voice of Daniel Craig' sticker on the front as its main selling point, presumably in an attempt to gain something from all the hype around the new James Bond movie.

Renaissance is a French film that's unfortunately had its original French soundtrack removed (Amazon France has an HD-DVD version of the film with its original language track for those that prefer things in a more 'pure' form - but it has no English subtitles option. Doh!). New vocals are supplied by such acting luminaries as the afore-mentioned Craig, Ian Holm and Jonathan Pryce: the picture may look low-budget (it isn't of course) but the English cast certainly aren't. However it seems a terrible waste of talent because the dialogue here is pure dumbed-down comic book speak of the worst possible kind.

The story is set in Paris in the year 2054 where things have gone very Orwellian. Everything is monitored and the city's largest company, Avalon, controls almost every aspect of life. Avalon market long life and beauty but one of their young researcher at the company has been violently kidnapped and her company's employers are not happy. They contact Bartholomew Karas (Craig), an unorthodox kidnap rescue specialist, to retrieve her. The plot, once you get past the basic set-up, is pure 'comic book by numbers' and, unfortunately, the visuals don't add anything - they just make things much harder to follow.

This is a black and white film - in every sense of the word. The 'arty concept' is that there are no greys, just black and white line drawings. The problem is that the makers don't stick to this rule, and use 3D-like grayscale animations for holograms etc so that the things that should be vague stand out as being more real, where the real world just looks like a bad Hanna-Barber cartoon for most of the time. Occasionally a scene breaks into a sort of 'live action Roto-scoped' depiction that's quite impressive, but for no apparent reason. The film-makers compound the difficulties of following such a 'black and white' world with the 'direction' by using endless gimmicks that just confuse, particularly with regard to use of mirrors and glass walkways that are completely invisible using the black-and-white technique. Too often you're distracted from what you should be looking at because it's not clear that you're looking at someone talking to a reflection not a person in front of them, or that people seemingly walking elevated in the air are meant to be on glass corridors that have no reflections.

There is a tendency for those who earn their living from comic books, or those that just feel guilty about reading them in later years, to dress them up as if they were some kind of high art form, or intellectual stimulus. You can no longer call something a 'comic book', you have to call it a 'graphic novel' (to which the only sensible retort is 'Pretentious? Moi?' or 'Have you ever actually READ a novel?!') and unfortunately there's a surfeit of that sort of pretension in this film. If one were to analyse the story, the dialogue or even the direction away from the gimmicky black and white techniques that are used, it wouldn't gain any credence at all - it's a clichéd, poorly written mess. Comic book fans and the makers appear desperate to draw parallels with Sin City when doing so is a huge insult to that infinitely superior movie. The film cost $18 million to make - a staggering sum given the poor visual cohesiveness and nasty cheap look most of the film has. One or two Rotoscoped scenes aside the graphics are flat and lifeless and frequently look unfinished. At the time of writing, the film's made back less than a third of that, which is, frankly, more than it deserves. Comic book obsessives might find it an interesting film to experience, but for the mainstream it's a plodding, confusing mess.

Renaissance screencap

The transfer is fine, but then we're talking black and white line drawings here so there's no reason why it shouldn't be. Sound is OK and the British actors do a good job with the weak dialogue they've been given. The 'Making of' documentary is full of enthusiastic fans talking up the movie and the techniques used, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the different techniques used don't gel or make for any kind of a cohesive viewing experience. The same annoying techniques that made the film a mess of styles are used throughout the 'Making of' so that some interviews are colour, most are black and white, and most keep morphing from greyscale to black and white line art talking heads for no apparent rhyme or reason. That being said, those interested in this visual experiment should find enough here to keep them entertained.

Even as a former comic-book reader myself I found this film turgid and hard work. Too often I just wanted to stop the player and do something more useful with my time. I stopped buying comic books just a couple of years ago when I realised that 10 minutes entertainment for the same price as a DVD, in a market that treats its customers with such contempt when it comes to finishing story arcs, maintaining any kind of character consistency or just basic quality control, wasn't a good use of my money. Those still parting with large amounts of cash for their weekly comic book fix may find this worth shelling out for, but for the rest of us it's very much a case of 'for hardcore comic book geeks only' - and even then only as a rental. Avoid!

Renaissance screencap

Wednesday, 27 December 2006

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006)

Son Frere

On paper My Super Ex-Girlfriend looks like a wonderful, original and inventive variation on the rom-com (romantic comedy) theme. Tradition dictates that when you make a rom-com you stick rigidly to a well-proven formula that goes something like this: Girl loves boy and boy loves girl but hasn't realised it yet. Seemingly insurmountable obstacles get placed in boy and girl's way, with most of the running time of the film being dedicated to a series of misunderstandings that make it look like boy and girl will never hook up. The short, rushed final act suddenly has boy and girl finding the path to true love and living happily ever after. The end.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend sticks to that tried and trusted formula. So far so clichéd. But it adds in a super-hero twist, making the obligatory 'alternative love interest' that threatens the relationship of our boy and girl heroes, a paranoid and vicious 'ex' with scary powers that introduces the possibilities for a lot of laughs.

It's an idea that could have conceivably grabbed not just the usual female demographic for this rom-com genre, but its boyfriends too. There's potential here for a film that could have been not just original and funny, but a a great 'date' movie as well. Unfortunately, something appears to have gone seriously wrong between having the basic idea and producing the finished film, and most of that 'something' is down to appallingly bad casting, although a lazy, weak script should take its fair share of the blame too!

You know a film's in trouble when the blurb on the DVD sleeve has to keep telling you how 'hilarious' it is. The cast are at such great pains in the accompanying featurettes to tell you they took this gig because they found themselves laughing loud and hard at the scripts, one has to wonder if they had the script for an entirely different movie that they confused with this one. Watch the trailer and you've seen ALL the funny bits (of which there are, thankfully, a few - just not enought to sustain more than a trailer-length featurette)!

That being said, rom-coms aren't necessarily expected to be laugh-out-loud funny and the film could have easily succeeded with the right cast and a slightly tighter script. Alas Uma Thurman, as the main female lead, is woefully miscast, making her character so over-the-top that it's hard to have any sympathy for her. And when you don't have any sympathy for one of the main characters that are destined to find true love by the end of the film, it's hard to care about what happens to her, or anybody else around her that features in the film. Luke Wilson is amiable enough as the male lead who doesn't realise the love of his life, as played by Anna Faris, is right under his nose but his performance suffers in comparison with the same identikit role that was played, also opposite Faris, in Scary Movie 4 by Craig Bierko. Bierko has more charisma, more laughs and, let's face it, more sex appeal, than Wilson is able to deliver in what comes across as a me-too spoof movie that fails to reach even the relatively low laughter count set by the Scary Movie franchise.

But the biggest flaw in casting is that of Eddie Izzard as the chief villain and main love interest for the paranoid heroine. Cast as a good looking young teen in flashback scenes that show how Thurman's character gained her powers, the character morphs into a short, dumpy, camp, lisping caricature that one just can't see Thurman's character ever having any romantic feelings for. There is absolutely no chemistry here - and it's blindingly obvious in every scene the two have together. Every time Izzard's on screen the film stops and you're suddenly transported into Izzard's more usual milieu of the 'one man stand-up surreal comedy show'. Someone really should have told him to look up the words 'ensemble' and 'acting' in the dictionary!

It's not all bad. There are some good ideas in here, and the plot is original, with the cast, for the most part, delivering their lines with a joie de vivre that almost makes you overlook the weak, muddled script and poor casting choices. Special effects scenes are well done, and Owen's general affability, together with Faris' natural charm and 'cooky-but-innocent dumb blonde' temperament make the film less of a chore than many other rom-coms I've had to sit through. But it all comes across as a wasted opportunity, and a film that could have been so much better if a few more jokes had been written into the script and a different cast put in place so that some on-screen chemistry could occur.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend screencap

Picture quality is excellent and the transfer is as good as one would expect of a film as recent as this one. Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is adequate, if not stunning, as one would expect given the basic romantic comedy theme of the film.

The two short featurettes are marketing fluff for the most part, with far too much talking up of the movie from its cast, but better than expected for this type of film (rom com's, in my experience, tend to be very much bare bones releases). There's a short five minute featurette on how the film's showcase effects scene involving a shark was put together, which seems out-of-wack for the target audience for the film, but is interesting nevertheless, and the package is rounded out with a music video from Molly McQueen and some deleted scenes. The deleted scenes could as easily have been included as excluded in the feature, without having much effect on the overall film or its running time, but these days one should be grateful for any such crumbs I guess.

If you're looking for a date movie, or have a thing for Uma Thurman (who, it must be said, looks stunning when in her superhero role) then this is probably worth a rental. Or if you have a big bag of popcorn and want something light to unwind with it's worth a look. Otherwise I'd advise giving it a miss.

My Super Ex-Girlfriend screencap

Sunday, 10 December 2006

Son Frere (2003)

Son Frere

Son Frére, nominated for a couple of European Film awards 2003, was released on DVD in 2004, but I've only just caught up with the film, and I'm reviewing it now because it's available at a bargain basement price at some of the online stores.

The film synopsis explains that this is a story of two brothers Luc and Thomas. Luc is gay and in a relationship and has not spoken to his brother Thomas, who is straight, for several years. Thomas has been diagnosed with a potentially fatal blood disorder (not AIDS, but a disease having very similar symptoms) and one day he turns up unannounced on Luc's doorstep asking for help. The film depicts the struggle of Luc to forgive his brother for his behaviour towards him in the past, whilst also wanting to support him as a sibling when things get rough and Thomas' girlfriend is struggling to cope with the situation.

In truth this broad-stroke synopsis probably contains more 'plot' than is evident in the film. Essentially this is cinema verité about illness and coming to terms with one's sense of family, albeit done in a very naturalistic way. Much of the film is 'real time' and most of it is set in a hospital. Anybody who's had to spend any amount of time in a hospital with a sick loved one will immediately identify with the scenarios depicted here, and the film's main strength is that it has managed to capture the whole ghastly experience in a way that I've never seen truthfully captured on film before. What ultimately comes across is the power politics of doctors, the generosity of nursing staff, and the mind-numbing tedium of what hospital visits are typically like.

The director, Patrice Chérau won the Best Director award at the Berlin 2003 Film Festival for this film, but for me the 'European oscar' should go to actor Bruno Todeschini whose depiction of Thomas' declining health is nothing short of breath-taking. Eric Caravaca, too, turns in a strong, sympathetic performance as the healthy, good looking brother, struggling to overcome his resentment at having his life disrupted by the brother who disowned him when he first came out. The film jumps forwards and backwards in time, between the early hospital visits, and Thomas' last few months awaiting his fate at a seaside holiday home, and is presented in French with English subtitles.

Son Frere screencap

Picture quality here is acceptable, if not stunning, which I suspect is down to the original source material rather than any inherent problem with the digital transfer to DVD. A DTS soundtrack is provided, as well as the usual Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, but this is a character piece and there's little use made of the surround sound speakers.

The extra's, as is usually the case with these indie film releases, are extremely sparse, to the point of being almost non-existent. There's no commentary or 'Making of' featurette, just a single 'home video' interview with the director. The interview is, unfortunately, a rather rambling, unstructured affair that takes place in a noisy cafe with a lot of distracting background noise. The director explains his improvisational style, how he recruited real nurses as actors to give the film its authentic feel, but reveals little that couldn't be understood just from watching the film.

Son Frere is a moving, if extremely melancholy, film about the importance of family and coming to terms with loss. There is little narrative structure, and the DVD, while having no real faults, is never going to be a 'must see again' experience. That being said, at the current online price it's a bit of a bargain, and well worth viewing if you can cope with the lack of any real plot and the pretty downbeat ending. Recommended.

Son Frere screencap

Don't Look Now (Special Edition) (1973)

Don't Look Now

I should point out, right from the start, that there are many, many film critics who've given this film a full five star review. Many have called it a masterpiece. Some have gone so far as to call it the 'most terrifying film ever made' or even 'the best British film ever!' I beg to differ!

'What's brilliant about this film', the critical cognoscenti tell us, 'is that it's all explained in the first three minutes'. To which my retort can only be: "if that's the case, why put yourself through the misery of the 103 minutes of turgid symbolism and 'atmosphere' that follow it?!"

In those first three minutes we see the death (by accidental drowning) of a child. The impending death is 'sensed' by the child's father, who is reviewing some photographic slides at the time, and he rushes to save his daughter, unfortunately arriving minutes too late to be able to revive her. One of the slides the father has been looking at - of a church in Venice that he has been working on as an architectural advisor - has a smear of blood on it which grows to cover the whole slide. Oooh, spooky! Is the blood real or is it a warning of what is to come?

The remainder of the film, after that first three minute scene setter, jumps forward in time to deal with a working holiday the distraught parents, played by Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, take in Venice to try and get over their grief, depicting the strange 'horrific' events that seem to happen around them.

I won't spoil the film by giving away the 'explanation' for what unfolds, but suffice to say it's a very simple premise, that just isn't conveyed sensibly enough to make any real sense. While the film has great 'atmosphere' (to the extent that the authorities in Venice were very angry that the depiction of their city would damage tourism) it is too inconsistent, ponderous and confusing to be enjoyable.

Don't Look Now reminds me of The Wicker Man (which has also dated badly) but has none of that film's real terror and charm, and the conclusion here is much more confusing than Wicker Man's stunning climax, at least until you hear the 'explanation' on the accompanying extra's on the DVD release.

That being said, there are things that can be admired about the film. The acting from the two leads is perfect. The film has a very distinctive atmosphere - whether you find that 'terrifying' or just plain gloomy is down to interpretation I guess, but it is helped significantly by an excellent musical score.

But at the end of the day this is a very simple plot, stretched out over a painfully long 106 minutes. The 'red herrings' such as the police inspector who appears to be just doing his job on the one hand, but is also shown to have some connection to the two weird sisters who have the key to understanding the picture, to my mind make the film inconsistent and unbelievable.

Maybe I'd have warmed to Don't Look Now more if I'd seen it when first released in the 1970's, but all I can say seeing it for the first time in 2006 is that I found it painfully slow in pacing, unbelievably dated in look and feel, and confusing in the extreme. And I find the often-repeated justifications for the title 'masterpiece' made by some of its fans as pretentious beyond belief!

Don't Look Now screencap

The first thing I should say about the DVD transfer is that the picture quality, given the age of the material, is superb. This is a transfer that totally lives up to the promise of that misleading term 'digitally restored'. Unfortunately that good work is totally undermined by the work done on the sound, which is truly dreadful. I would go so far as to say this is the worst quality sound I have heard in a collection of over 2000 DVDs! At times the monaural soundtrack is so distorted I thought I'd blown my central speaker, and regrettably it makes some of the dialogue virtually inaudible. For a supposed 'Special Edition', and one that has clearly had so much time spent on fine-tuning the picture, this is totally unacceptable.

Fortunately the sound is the only blemish on this 'Special Edition' issue. The Amray case comes in a cardboard slipcase and there is fairly lavish 16 page booklet. Extra's wise you get an introduction from 'luvvie' Alan Jones whose gushing enthusiasm for the film just left me thinking 'what a load of pretentious old tosh'. This is a man who thinks that the fact that water and glass breaking are shown repeatedly throughout the film are 'deeply meaningful' and clever. Follow his arguments to their logical conclusion and all you need to do to create a 'masterpiece' is have a recurring motif (paint drying on a wall perhaps?)! Fetch the men in the white coats to carry this man away before his pretentious piffle catches on with other 'critics', please!

A Looking Back featurette with director Nicolas Roeg and his cinematographer and editor is much more interesting, if only because they contradict Jones and other critics. At the time of release there was much controversy over a rather explicit sex scene between the two lead actors. Critics go to great length to justify this scene, saying it is essential to the story, to convey the deep love between the married couple who've lost a child. Switch to the director admitting these were the first scenes shot and he didn't know what to do with them - hardly sounds "crucial" does it?! At 20 minutes the featurette is rather repetitive, but short enough that it doesn't totally outstay its welcome. There's also a 20 minute 'home video' interview with the film's composer, Pino Donnagio, which is thankfully free of marketing hype, and also an audio commentary from the director.

The general consensus is that this is a 'must have' purchase. I'm afraid I disagree, finding the film slow, dated, overly pretentious, and with sound so appallingly bad that at times listening to this can only be described as a difficult exercise in endurance. I can understand its success with the film-making intelligentsia, but I suspect your average movie viewer will feel much the same way as I did. I'd therefore suggest you rent this before considering a purchase, despite its seemingly bargain price.

Don't Look Now screencap