Sunday, 28 January 2007

Angel-A (2006)


In August 2005 I was in Paris with extended family (mother, brother, sister and respective partners) to celebrate my mother's 70th birthday. Paris is quiet during August because all the locals vacate the city for their annual holiday. Walking along the Seine we were surprised to see a large crane and film crew, pretty much ignored by the few members of the public around. The crane was holding a cage looking onto the main bridge, which seemed very odd, and when we inquired what they were filming we were told it was a film by Luc Besson.

It was only after I'd finished watching Angel-A on DVD over the weekend (on sale in stores this Monday) and dived into the extra's that I realised that I'd just seen the results of that day's filming, and the reason for the cage hanging high over the Seine and looking onto the bridge became clear. If I'd known what the resulting film would look like back on that Paris trip I'd probably have paid far more attention to what was going on that day! The film may have garnered some fairly lacklustre reviews, but I have to say I absolutely loved it!

Angel-A screencap

Let's get the negatives out the way first, or at least the negatives as far as most of the potential audience for a new DVD release will be concerned anyway.

First, the film is black and white. Second, the film is in French, with subtitles. Third, many of the reviews have pointed out that the film is a remake of It's a Wonderful Life, and given that 'Life' is world-reknowned as being a timeless classic, a modern 'remake' just seems pointless doesn't it?!

I won't bother trying to address the first two points (people are ignorant - what can I say?!!), but on the third point I have to say It's a Wonderful Life is one of my favourite films, and no, of course Angel-A isn't in the same league, but nor is it meant to be. It takes the same basic starting point - a man is about to commit suicide, thinking himself worthless, when an angel in human guise arrives to talk him out of it and show him the true meaning of life. But once we're over that initial premise things move very differently.

Angel-A screencap

Jamel Debouzze plays Andre, a bit of a slacker who's fallen on hard times, having run up huge debts with a group of loan sharks all wanting to do for him. With no way out he, more by accident than design, finds himself on a bridge, feeling that the only way out of his problems is to jump in. When he glances over to his left, he sees a beautiful, tear-streaked woman about to do the same and when she jumps in, he follows her and rescues her. The two tag along together through a series of adventures where Angela (Angel-A), as she reveals herself to be, earns enough money for Andre to pay off his debts, whilst also teaching him a few lessons about life and the importance of liking yourself.

What makes the movie work is Debouzze's roguish, but always charming, performance. He's like an Arabic 'Oliver', all cheeky charm and affability, with eyes like deep black pools of sadness and despair that pull you in, so that you desperately want him to redeem himself. He plays the role very much for comic effect, and there are several laugh-out-loud moments, but he has the dramatic gravitas to pull off the more melancholy scenes when he needs to. That he achieves all this despite having only one arm is nothing short of astounding (viewers will notice that the character always has his right hand in his pocket - this is because the actor suffered a severe train accident as a child and only has a stump where his right arm should be).

Angel-A screencap

The comedic effect is heightened by the height differences between Debouzze and his co-star, Rie Rasmussen, the Angel-A of the title, whose chosen human role is that of a leggy slut. While some critics have criticised the lack of chemistry between Rasmussen's character and Debouzze's (the two are supposed to be in love towards the end of the story), her rather distant demeanour for me fits the role she is supposed to be playing - that of a visitor to Earth, trying to save a troubled soul.

The film's third character is that of Paris itself. The city cannot be ignored, and has never looked so beautiful as it has here. Besson's love for the city shines through every frame, and the cinematography is stunning. Even those critics who found the film too long, or repetitive, had to admit that it is visually stunning. You could freeze frame it at almost any point and have a nicely composed still shot. It's not often I watch a film and then want to go back and watch it again immediately, but Angel-A is so beautiful to look at I found myself hitting the 'replay' button as soon as the film ended. This is one film I'd really like to own in high definition format. And the music too is beautifully placed throughout, heightening the mood without ever distracting from it. All-in-all this is a wonderfully constructed film, albeit one that is perhaps a little short on traditional narrative.

Angel-A screencap

The transfer is excellent, and does justice to the wonderful cinematography. The extra's are a little on the thin side, and somewhat annoyingly, also in black and white only, which seems a little excessive. There are basically two Making of... featurettes of about 20 minutes in length each. The first is pretty much a day-by-day diary of the actual shoot, which shows how much like his character Debouzze is - constantly joking and making wise-cracks on set, although it gives little insight into Besson's working methods. It thankfully steers clear of the endless clips and advertising that have marred other DVD releases. The second featurette, despite being titled Making of the Music is really about post-production, albeit with an emphasis on scoring the movie. A theatrical trailer rounds out the set of extra's on the DVD.

Angel-A may not be the most in-depth film you'll see - the general reviews from both public and critics alike demonstrate that. It's a bit of a throwaway confection, but a beautifully made one for all that. It's an upbeat, fun film with a good heart that's different from the mainstream fare mostly on offer. It's also Luc Besson's first film in seven years. I hope he doesn't leave it as long before he makes the next one. If you've ever been to Paris and fallen in love with it you'll find much here to delight, and unlike many films I think this one pays repeated viewings. As a result this one's a purchase rather than a rental, at least in my book!

Angel-A screencap

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Little Miss Sunshine

Every once in a while a life-affirming little gem of a film will come along, breaking all the conventional rules of story-telling, and somehow breaking out of its indie/art house low-budget beginnings to become a genuine mainstream hit. Little Miss Sunshine is just such a movie, and it's encouraging to see its 'surprise' nomination for an oscar in the same week that sees its release onto DVD in the UK.

Ostensibly this is a story about a dysfunctional family (the film's tag line is 'Everyone pretend to be normal') where the youngest member wants to enter one of those uniquely American child beauty contestants. But the film is so much more than that simple premise would suggest. It's a heart-warming, laugh-out-loud funny 'road' movie with real depth, wit and charm at its core, with a quirky narrative structure that means every time you think you know where it's going it will suddenly throw a left turn at you.

Little Miss Sunshine screencap

The film is built around an excellent cast who have to play a range of eccentric characters. Greg Kinnear plays the head of the family, Richard, a 'motivational success' speaker whose business is failing to deliver on the claims it is making to an ever-dwindling customer base, and whose over-exuberance and optimism are driving his whole family to distraction. Wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) has a pro-honesty philosophy that is threatening to tear the whole family apart. As the story starts she is collecting her gay, suicidal brother Frank (Steve Carell who seriously impresses by going against type and playing it straight - in both meanings of the word) from hospital. Frank won't be the first problematic inlaw to stay with the family - they're already struggling to cope with a foul-mouthed grandfather (Alan Arkin) who has been thrown out of his retirement home for his lewd and drug-fuelled behaviour.

To add to the problems son Dwayne (Paul Dano) is in that difficult stage of attaining puberty where he has decided he hates everybody, and has successfully maintained a vow of silence for several months. The family are rounded out with youngest child Olive (Abigail Breslin) - the would-be beauty queen desperate to win the 'Little Miss Sunshine' child beauty award from which the film takes its title.

Little Miss Sunshine screencap

When a winning regional contestant has to pull out of a big beauty contest on the other side of the coast, second-placed Olive has a chance to enter, and with money tight, and sick relatives to be watched for suicidal tendencies the only solution seems to be to take a camper van and drive the whole family to the contest. Things start to go awry pretty much from the start, when the van demonstrates its constant inability to start unless it's pushed at speed down a steep incline, and things go from bad to worse as the family find themselves forced to deal with each other's peculiarities in a very confined space, in order to support its youngest member. Not that there's anything mean about the family members, or the humour derived from their situation - this is all good clean fun, or would be if the grandfather weren't so foul-mouthed and so insistent that the depressed Frank buy him some porn to liven up the journey.

There are laughs aplenty throughout, but the core message here is the very basic one about the importance of family, and supporting each other in times of adversity, and the film successfully navigates its way between the difficult line separating comedy from drama, producing something that could so easily have been saccharine sweet, but thankfully isn't.

Little Miss Sunshine screencap

The film is written and directed by husband and wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who appear to have brought a wealth of experience bringing up their own family to the film. Best known for their music videos the couple make the move to long-running motion pictures as if they were born to it. Little Miss Sunshine is an impressive debut for the couple.

For a release as recent as this, and as low budget as this, it's hardly surprising that the extra's are a bit thin. The DVD is packaged in a cardboard slipcase, but there's no chapter index, and the only real extra is a commentary track by the writer/director couple. This is fast-placed, if a little dull. Other than that there's only a set of alternative endings (available with optional commentary) which serve only to demonstrate that the chosen ending was the right one to have taken, despite the original plans for a somewhat different closing scene.

Little Miss Sunshine screencap

Movies like Little Miss Sunshine are all too rare, and if you haven't seen the film yet, you're in for a real treat with the DVD. With a great story, great cast, great transfer and great direction what are you waiting for? Get it now and cross your fingers that this time next month it gets the oscar win it clearly deserves. Highly recommended!

Little Miss Sunshine screencap

Saturday, 27 January 2007

Art School Confidential (2006)

Art School Confidential

When you see as many movies a week as I do, you're constantly on the lookout for good films that don't just follow the usual, tired formulae. Too many films are either totally predictable 'feel good' or 'action' Hollywood copycat fare or 'worthy but dull' European efforts that can become rather TOO turgid in their attempts to win 'art house' or 'truly indie' classifications (For a perfect example of the latter see my personal blog posting about this week's World Cinema Award 2007).

Art School Confidential is one such 'good' film - no great oscar contender, but an enjoyably quirky 100 minutes that restores one's faith in cinema.

The film tells a solid, familiar story, albeit in a quirky, witty and rather misanthropic way, and fears some great acting from not just the relatively new lead upstart Max Minghella and Sophia Myles but old stalwarts John Malkovich, Jim Broadbent and Angelica Huston too.

On one level Art School Confidential is a murder mystery. On another it's an old-fashioned teenage love story. On a third level it's a savage satire on the world of art and film school.

Art School Confidential screencap

Max Minghella plays a naive, talented young artist, Jerome Platz, who starts art college enthusiastic and full of dreams, only to quickly have them dashed by his pretentious, bitter and disillusioned no-talent teacher, played by John Malkovich.

In one of his classes Jerome falls madly in love with one of the models, Audrey (Sophia Myles), who doesn't discourage him, but seems to prefer fellow student Jonah (Matt Keeslar), a bit of a loner who to the rest of the students - and Jonah in particular - seems much too 'traditional' in a clean-cut American way to be a real art student, despite the enthusiastic gushing about his work from the class teacher.

Through a slacker student friend Jonah meets failed artist and alcoholic Jimmy (Jim Broadbent), a rude, disillusioned figure who seems to be the only person who recognises Jerome's genuine talent. But what's the real story behind Jimmy and Jonah, and do either of them have anything to do with the recent serial murders that have been taking place on the student campus?

Art School Confidential screencap

Anyone who's seen TV Show Six Feet Under will find they're on familiar territory here, and in many ways that show, has pre-empted this film, weakening the impact of this extremely cynical take on the false pomposity of the art world. Nevertheless there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and the underlying 'nerdy' love story sustain interest throughout. Both Myles and Minghella turn in excellent performances, and while Malkovich has got to the stage where one wonders if he's ever really acting as opposed to just another parody of himself that's getting closer and closer to his real world persona, Jim Broadbent doesn't disappoint as the bitterly disillusioned Jimmy. What I liked about this film was the unpredictability of the storyline. Not only are you never quite sure where it's going, but you're never quite sure who the serial killer might be, and it's rather typical than when he's revealed it's in an almost throwaway fashion, some time before the end of the film.

At times the film does feel structurally messy. The first half hour is a series of comedy sketches aimed at the whole culture of art school, but slowly a more traditional boy-meets-girl story emerges in tandem with an odd 'is this a joke or is it real?' multiple murder sub-plot, and then all-of-a-sudden we're somewhere else entirely, with an ending that many will find a little downbeat with the obvious move away from the usual Hollywood clichéd 'boy and girl finally get together' ending. I don't think I'm spoiling the film in saying that the film delivers on the usual 'feel good' ending, but the manner in which it happens leaves rather more loose ends than typical film audiences are used to, which may account for those low critical scores. Personally I thought the ending worked well, as did the rest of the film, in following established convention enough to make the film watchable by a mainstream audience, whilst also offering enough originality to break out a little from the straitjacket formula most of these genre films have to adhere to.

Art School Confidential screencap

In one of the accompanying extra's John Malkovich talks about the film being 'tonally difficult', and one can only assume it is these 'tonal' difficulties that have caused the very low rotten tomatoes (critics average) rating of 35% - certainly it doesn't give a realistic impression of the quality of the script, film-editing, acting and direction that are on show.

While the picture is fine, if not outstanding (down to the source material rather than the transfer I suspect), the extra's are disappointing and lose the overall DVD rating a point. There's no commentary track, and the Making of is a rather thin piece. The Sundance featurette is really a Making Of... Part 2, being primarily a fly-on-the-wall short piece on a screening at the festival. The Blooper Reel is a mixture of extended scenes and 're-takes' rather than 'bloopers', along with bits that were filmed for the background news reports that are featured at one point in the film.

This one's definitely worth a rental, and perhaps a purchase too if you enjoy well-made, original films that don't deviate so far from the mainstream as to be completely unwatchable. Recommended!

Art School Confidential screencap

Sunday, 21 January 2007

Right At Your Door (2006)

Right At Your Door

Right at Your Door should, based on all the British reviews ( which were extremely favourable), have been right up my street: A small independent film with solid acting, a very small cast, and subject matter to make you think.

Unfortunately the film is lacking one key ingredient: credibility. Too often one is taken out of the movie because of the ridiculousness of things that happen, with the 'twist' ending being more silly than the silliest thing on the planet 'Verysillyindeed'! Right at Your Door has a script with potential, but it feels like a 30 minute short film that's been stretched way beyond the time it needed, and the low budget is far too much in evidence throughout. Fast cutting and quick-jerk camera movements can't disguise the fact that this film is an interesting idea, with 80% 'nothing at all is actually happening' padding.

Right at Your Door screencap

Rory Cochrane, fresh from A Scanner Darkly (just released on DVD, and which I'll be posting about next weekend), plays Brad, a stay-at-home musician married to Lexi, played by Mary McCormack, perhaps best known for her role in the under-achieving but superb Murder One TV series. Lexi is the bread winner, and while she's away in downtown Los Angeles a series of 'dirty' bombs go off. Lexi spends the first half hour of the film trying to get to his wife who isn't answering her cell phone, but finds himself thwarted by officials who are trying to cordon off the area because of the toxic ash in the air. Miraculously Lexi makes her way back to the couple's home, but she's infected, ill and dying and Brad decides he can't risk letting her into the now-sealed off house because that would jeapordise his own life.

The basic idea of a dying partner locked out by a living one has potential, but the way the situation is presented just shouts 'We had no money so we had to shoot a film that looks like this' at you. Brad apparently has no TV that works so the only 'news' of the unfolding scenario we get is through endless, and somewhat unconvincing, radio bulletins. The time between the bomb going off and cops turning up in the suburbs to block the one minor road Brad decides to use, despite there being virtually no traffic in the area, is ridiculously short. It seems that the authorities can not only determine something is toxic and slowly killing people within seconds of a bomb going off, but issue viral protection suits, shoot down citizens that might be infected trying to make their way home, and start sealing off houses within minutes too. Too silly!

Things don't improve when, after being unable to use her phone but somehow managing to get past the roadblocks Brad has had so much trouble with, Lexi arrives home. The actress' performance can't be faulted, but her shouting, aggressive attitude, the way she acts, and the dialogue she has to deliver, just don't ring true, particularly when she then suddenly goes through a complete transformation, accepts her situation and only wants to do the right thing by Brad.

When the army appear on the scene with their mysterious red 'contaminated' signs and Nazi-like behaviour and speech, any believability goes completely out the window, and one is forced to ask the question 'Who thought this would make a great, believable 100 minute movie?'.

The hand-held, mostly 'real time documentary' style, works well for the material, so long as you can cope with the MTV-style jump-cuts to artificially inject a sense of urgency, but setting the whole thing pretty much in one very small house, primarily reliant on one actor speaking to another unseen actor, does not make for a thrilling experience, even if the intended effect of claustrophobia is achieved. The dull, dark picture looks cheap and low budget before the film's really started, and the desaturation that occurs once the bombs have gone off, to emphasise the new ash-infected world make the film look even more low budget and cheap.

On the positive side, the acting from both leads is excellent, with a particularly draining performance from Rory Cochrane. The minimal special effects shots of the city in smoke in some backgrounds work well too. But one just comes away frustrated at the waste of a good idea with the talent and resources that were seemingly available. Ultimately films succeed or fail based on the script - and this is a script that just didn't go through enough rewrites.

Right at Your Door screencap

Because of the low budget, the picture quality is never really any better than low budget TV, although this is undoubtedly down to the quality of the original film and not the transfer. It's possible to make gripping film with just two actors and one small location (see Hard Candy, The 24th Day or even Phone Booth for good examples), but you need a solid, believable script and this film needed a lot more polish before cameras were committed. Sound is fine and the music appropriate, but with such a low budget this was never going to be a surround sound demo disc.

The extra's are a one-man show. Director/Writer Chris Gorak gives an edited solo 25-minute talking head interview about the film and his influences in Forearm Shiver, and a separate solo 25-minute talking head featurette recorded at the same time has him talking about Tips on Making an Independent Film, which will be of interest to budding film-makers, although even to this outsider it seemed to be pretty much a case of 'stating the bleeding obvious'.

The Commentary Track thankfully brings in an Empire magazine writer to ask questions, which makes for a fairly interesting commentary track, although all the main points made in the featurette are needlessly repeated. My advice would be to listen to the commentary track and ignore the featurette.

Right at Your Door has received as much exposure in the British media as a major Hollywood release, and so it's disappointing to have to report this time around that the underdog really should have stayed the underdog. While one can admire the acting talent on display, the ending only exaggerates the feeling that this film is one heck of a downer from start to finish. It has all the trademarks of a writer writing himself into a corner and then inventing a silly 'shock' ending to try and force some kind of artificial resolution. This one's a rental, not a purchase - and then only if you've exhausted the rest of the week's excellent releases.

Right at Your Door screencap

Saturday, 20 January 2007

Thank You For Smoking (2005)

Thank You For Smoking

Thank you for Smoking might appear, on the surface, to be a film satirising the smoking industry, but the reality is it's a witty and intelligent take on the art of 'spin'. It's not going to win any Academy Awards, but it's certainly one of the highlight releases of last year. Rarely are 'comedy' films as well-written, well-acted and well-directed as this.

Thank You for Smoking screencap

Aaron Eckhart plays tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor, a spin doctor of the worst kind, and someone we should dislike on principle. His character has an ego the size of Pluto, can twist anything to seemingly support his rather twisted message, and is struggling to build a relationship with his young son who sees him as nothing more than a liar. Eckhart captures perfectly the charm that makes him so successful in his job, and it's a performance perfectly balanced by that of William H Macey, who plays his nemesis - a character we should be rooting for, but inevitably end up laughing at and disliking for his sanctimonious approach to everything and complete lack of any kind of humour.

Thank You for Smoking is a low budget independent movie that manages to appear much bigger than it is, thanks largely to the number of big name cameo appearances that are featured. When a script's this strong it's not hard to see why the likes of Robert Duvall, Rob Lowe, J K Simmons, Sam Elliott and Katie Holmes were attracted to the project and prepared to drop their usual big box office fees. Only Holmes disappoints, cast as an ambitious super-bitch newspaper reporter who'll do anything to get her story, including sleeping with the enemy.

Writer/director Jason Reitman, son of Ivan Reitman who's perhaps best known for directing the mega hit Ghostbusters turns in a tightly-edited and very well-produced film. The picture is somewhat browner than I remember it being on theatrical release, although the director's commentary reveals this colour tone was deliberate to subliminally represent the tobacco industry, and the picture transfer is near perfect. This is very much a script that's based on dialogue and clever words, but Reitman turns in a film that is always interesting visually, and never comes across as the stage play it might have appeared to be if handled by a weaker director. The film deserves a special mention for the title credits, which are the best I've seen for a movie in a long time, perfectly matched to the subject matter and overall theme of the film.

Thank You for Smoking screencap

DVD-wise, I'm a little disappointed with the release. The transfer is fine, but the extra's really fail to deliver.

The Commentary Track is an embarrassing mess, thanks mainly to Reitman's over serious approach, Eckhart's complete inability to say anything at all, seemingly being more interested in watching the film, and the embarrassment that is David Koechner, who's appearance is odd given that his role in the film is so minor. He obviously feels he has been asked along to 'perform' and his constant interruptions, brown-nosing, general refusal to stay silent for more than 30 seconds, and the friction that results from a clearly annoyed Reitman just makes for a toe-curling experience.

The Making of featurette is of the 20-minute marketing material variety, with endless clips padding out the few 'talking head' quotes promoting the film. 13 Deleted Scenes are, for the most part, extended or slightly modified versions of existing scenes that add nothing of any real value to the main feature, and a America: Living in Spin featurette is really just an alternate take on the Making of featurette.

Thank You for Smoking should definitely be high on your 'Films to Rent' list if you haven't seen it. Whether or not it's a purchase is down to how often you think you'll want to revisit a film that is essentially a comedy where the jokes are great the first time, and may get a bit tired the second or third time around. However the film is so well-crafted and written that you might well want to add this to your collection. Recommended!

Thank You for Smoking screencap

An Evening With Kevin Smith 2: Evening Harder (2006)

An Evening with Kevin Smith 2: Evening Harder

One of the highlights of my first San Diego Comic Con convention attendance, back in 2002, was accidentally catching a Q & A session with writer/director Kevin Smith. The potty-mouthed Smith had a captive audience of some 6000 Lord of the Rings geeks waiting for a New Line Q&A eating out of the palm of his hand. I remember having chronic stomach pain from having laughed so hard.

Three years ago a filmed version (effectively edited highlights) of Smith's Q&A tour hit DVD, and it was as funny as I'd remembered his live appearance at Comic Con being, albeit with completely different material. One of the highlights was Smith's total indiscretion with regards to talking about his Hollywood experiences, and his account of working with the singer/songwriter Prince or his abortive attempts to work with 'glorified hairdresser turned producer' Jon Peters on a Superman movie, not only give horrifying insight into the way Hollywood is so messed up, but was laugh out loud funny.

So now we have a follow-up release, comprising two DVD disks from a more recent tour. The first filmed in Toronto, the second filmed here in London at a small West End Theatre. Unfortunately, it arrives bearing all the traits of the worst kind of sequel, with its biggest sin of all being that unlike the earlier release it's just not funny. Crudity and outrage CAN be funny, but only if there's some sort of punchline or joke to laugh at. This time out we just get the same obscenities without the laughs. To add insult to injury, when in London Smith seems to find it amusing to adopt an affected British accent to answer questions from those with a particularly strong Estuary accent. I'm sure American viewers will probably find this funny, but to the average Brit it's tired and unfunny the first time, never mind when it's still being done an hour after the 'show' has started.

Part of the problem is that the focus is much more on answering dumb questions from mindless fanboys/fangirls rather than telling funny stories. This is interesting if you're one of those fans who hangs on every word the renegade comic book writer/director has to say, but for the rest of us it's not exactly great viewing, and it goes on way too long. The obligatory 'surprise' appearance of Jason Mewes who has absolutely nothing to say or to add to the performance, other than to sit on a couch looking embarrassed, on both disks doesn't help either. The only real pleasure to be had after a marathon viewing session that over three hours of material presents, is that one hasn't had to pay West End prices to sit through this stuff being delivered live.

An Evening with Kevin Smith 2 screencap

The DVDs are presented in anamorphic widescreen in the normal 16:9 ratio (no black bars). The picture is crisp and sharp and the audio is .... audible - no mean achievement given the live theatres this material was recorded in, with a strong reliance on roving audience microphones.

A straight-to-DVD release like this is never going to have great extra's, and with a 'normal' asking price for a two disc release it would be churlish to criticise. Each disc has a seven or eight minute featurette where Smith does a 'roving reporter' routine with the local people of the city he's in. The Toronto featurette is the dullest of the two, playing it serious, and being very much of the 'home movie footage grabbed in the back of a taxi' variety. London fares better because the approach taken is more comedic with Jason Mewes interviewing random females on the streets of London with his obscene chat-up lines.

If you love everything Kevin Smith writes and want to know more about the man and his life, then you'll find these DVDs of interest, and the price is more than reasonable given the 3 hours of material that's on offer. But for the vast majority of us this proves to be a DVD release too far, and I wouldn't recommend it even as a rental. It's not really, really bad, at least not if you can cope with the four letter words and obscenities, it's just not very entertaining and certainly not very funny. You'd be far better saving your money for Clerks 2, which gets a Region 2 DVD release on February 19th, but is available on HD-DVD now (you can read my review over on my HD-DVD Review blog here).

An Evening with Kevin Smith 2 screencap

Saturday, 13 January 2007

Lady in the Water (2006)

Lady in the Water hits the UK stores on DVD this coming Monday. You can read a review of the American HD-DVD release of this film over on my HD-DVD blog. The transfer used, and the extra's supplied, are apparently identical on the two different formats.

Bones Series 1 (2005-2006)

Bones The Complete Series 1

While we British turn out endless 'assume the audience is pig-shit thick' drama like Torchwood or (God forbid) Robin Hood, the Americans continue to trounce us with one series after another of well-written, well-acted drama that wouldn't look out of place in the cinema. Admittedly the Americans may adhere rather too formulaically to whatever is deemed to currently be the 'flavour du jour' when it comes to audience ratings (currently the Crime Scene Investigation series) but when the quality bar is this high, who cares?!

Bones is yet another 'crime analysts with a twist' detective series (the twist this time around being that they use bones to determine who/what caused the 'murder of the week'), but it's done with such charm and humour it's hard not to resist, even when it enters areas of self-parody with its two leads spouting inevitable lines about 'Mulder and Scully'.

On the minus side, the 'problem and resolution' stories themselves are rather pedestrian for the most part, and frequently get too bogged down with medical science specifics. The characters, too, are strictly from the 'Book of 1001 series clichés': There's the slightly eccentric FBI agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz), who doesn't like geeks or medics, has a son by a broken marriage, seems to screw around a lot, but underneath it all just wants to settle down and be a good father. Booth's partner in crime us an unfeasibly pretty geek who's irascible and blunt, but who's hurting from the mysterious disappearance of her parents and underneath it all (all together now) 'has a heart of gold'. The investigation team that the two leads are involved with are rounded out with the quirky 'total nerd' character, the 'secretly filthy rich leftie who resents any kind of authority' character, the 'pretty but completely mad with a shoulder that everyone cries on' female character, the 'overly authoritative' department boss character, etc etc.

It sounds like a disaster right? Perhaps not least because the success of the series rests mostly on the strength or weaknesses of its two leads, neither of whom have any kind of real history that shows they are up to the job. David Boreanaz, famous mostly for being pretty and not having to say anything in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel is not exactly well known for his charisma or acting talent. It's one thing playing the 'strong, silent type' for teen-oriented drama when you've got the right genes and are as square-jawed as Boreanaz, but the demands of hour-long (with adverts in the States) prime time detective series is another ball game entirely. So the surprise here is that the piece really works because of the strength of the two leads, and the very real chemistry between them. Boreanaz shows he not only has the acting talent to play a convincing male lead, but that he has brilliant comedic timing too, while his opposite number, played by Emily Deschanel knocks the ball out of the park, when it comes to giving depth and believability to a character which on paper shouldn't work at all.

The episodes, of which there are 24, each running at just over 45 minutes, are standalone 'murder investigation' stories that contain minor ongoing soap-style elements (the usual 'will they-won't they realise they're meant for each other?' guff vs the 'what happened to the missing parents' story arc of Deschanel's character) to keep viewers tuning in, culminating in a season cliff-hanger which is entirely predictable and slightly underwheming as a result. The main weakness, apart from the continuity problems of Boreanaz' hair colour, which, depending on whether the actor's remembered his Hennah that day or not, can change from red to brown and back to red again within a single scene, is that because the two leads are so strong and charismatic on screen, the actors who make up the other team members get pretty much abandoned by the writers just a few episodes in, relegated to regurgitating techno-babble whenever it's needed to give the story some sort of scientific credibility.

Bones screencap

The series takes up six discs, presented in three slimline cases in a boxed holder. Compared to other series, even at its recommended retail price, it's a steal, and shows how overpriced other, weaker, series like Without a Trace (presented on cheap and nasty double-sided discs at twice the price of this set) are. The picture is anamorphic widescreen throughout and shows none of the 'murky NTSC' problems of earlier DVD releases of American shows.

Extra's wise things are pretty much par for the course for TV series as recent as this, where the cast and crew are already overworked trying to get each season completed and don't have the time available to film a lot of additonal material on top. That being said, there are several featurettes, and commentaries that give some insight. The two leads even find time to make a commentary on one episode, although as is usual with these things, most of the time is spent trying to remember the episode, or joshing with each other, rather than providing any real insight to the series. Commentaries from the writers and producers do better on this front, and give some insight into the artistic disagreements that can mould or break a series, and the difficulties of producing drama of this quality at the rate required by the American TV network.

If, like me, you missed this series on terrestrial TV (actually, I think this may have been exclusive to Sky Satellite channels) then you could do a lot worse than buying the DVD set. It's up to the standard of most good American series, if not quite up there with the best, and certainly far superior to what constitutes an ongoing British drama series. Recommended!

Bones screencap

Sunday, 7 January 2007

Severance (2006)


Just over a week ago, in my mini-review of Driving Lessons, I was bemoaning the state of the British Film Industry. What I was forgetting of course, is that although we make an awful lot of lazy, predictable and old-fashioned rom-coms, there is one genre we seem to excel at. And that genre is horror, especially when it's mixed with comedy.

28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead are both highly original, well made films that found success both here and abroad (although I did think the latter was somewhat over-hyped, in much the same way as The Full Monty had been, some years earlier)

And now there's Severance, which will, hopefully, become an American hit when released there in April this year, if only through word-of-mouth recommendation. It's an absolute gem of a movie, albeit a very sick one full of black humour and political incorrectness!

A team of various misfits from Palisade Defence, a company that sells military arms, are on a team building weekend in Hungary. Unfortunately, a wrong turn at a roadblock means that they find their corporate jolly becomes a fight for survival against a forgotten army of blood-thirsty maniacs armed with machetes, flame throwers, machine guns and knives.

Severance screencap

Comedy and horror have often gone hand-in-hand, but it can be very hard to get the balance right. Coming across as The Office meets one of the SAW movies, Severance gets it exactly right, and it's hard to recall a movie that had me so on-the-edge-of-my-seat one minute, and laughing out loud the next. If you've ever watched a horror movie and enjoyed it, you'll love Severence, not least for the way it takes the clichés of the genre, and turns them on their head.

The British cast are excellent, and there will be some familiar faces for British TV viewers, and fans of Black Adder. But the real surprise, and the stand-out performance, is from Danny Dyer. Here's an actor I'd previously lumped in with what I call the Eastenders 'No acting required - I'm a diamond geezer, me' crowd: the sort of 'actors' who get cast in a soap for their 'natural' performances, only to disappear without trace (and rightly so) when the soap gets cancelled. Dyer has, in previous films, come across as little more than a male version of Jade Goody - enough said! - but here, he gives a performance that is pure comedy gold, and shows he has some real acting chops to go with all those four letter words he seems to need to punctuate everything with. Admittedly he gets the most screen time, and has most of the best lines, but in a movie that was planned to be split equally between several main characters, it's no mean feat to have stolen the film from under everybody else's feet, particularly with a cast this strong.

Severance is a great fun movie, with wit and originality that puts most of its contemporary 'comedy' films, British or American, to shame. If you're not squeamish and can enjoy a good comedy/horror then this is a film that should be at the top of your viewing list.

Severance screencap

Unfortunately the DVD release of the film proves to be a disappointment in the picture quality department. This appears to be down to the original film, rather than the transfer. There is no dust, no annoying speckles or flecks, but the image lacks contrast and sharpness, and is so dark, soft and murky in places it could almost pass as a release on VHS.

Fortunately, it excels in all other areas, particularly in terms of the extra's for a film that was only released in theatres a few short months ago. The sound design is excellent, and there is good use of surround sound throughout, particularly when there is a need to ramp up the tension. I'd be surprised if this wasn't up for a BAFTA 'Best Sound' award this year.

As well as the expected Commentary from the director, cast and crew, there's an excellent half hour Making of that is very much a behind-the-scenes on-set diary, rather than the marketing fluff such featurettes can be on many DVDs.

The Being Danny Dyer featurette at around eight minutes is quirky, funny and original in its own way and well worth a viewing, as are the Deleted Scenes, if only for Danny's tripping sequence which features Carry On stalwart Leslie Phillips as the voice of a talking deer. Wonderful stuff. All the deleted scenes have an optional director's commentary.

The problems of a shoot that had to use a lot of Hungarian crew are revealed in part on the informative, and also amusing, Not So Special Effects Featurette where the rather cavalier, amateur standards of the Hungarian 'professionals' are revealed. Effect after effect is shown going wrong, and in one case almost ends in a fatal injury, and these scenes are intercut with interview excerpts from the individuals responsible, explaining one minute that they only got involved in the effects business because of the money, while claiming the next that they're used to working on much bigger projects. You couldn't invent this stuff!

Other minor featurettes round out the disk, and there's enough here to keep you entertained for the same running time as the original film.

Severance comes highly recommended. It's not often we Brits can give ourselves a pat on the back for turning out good films, but films like Severance mean we don't have to give up totally on any notion of a quality British film industry. Check it out, or if you want a taster for one of the sicker, although admittedly less sophisticated, comedy moments check out the exclusive excerpt that's been posted as a teaser on this American site (follow the link and click on the "Exclusive Clip (MP)" link on the left under the heading "Trailers + Clips" - thanks to for publicising the link).

Severance screencap

An Inconvenient Truth (2006)

An Inconvenient Truth

Sometimes I think the world's gone mad! And no, I'm not referring to the environmental disaster that's manifesting itself all around us, and manifesting itself to such an extent that at some point even George Bush is going to have to pull his head out of the sand.

I'm referring to the rave reviews and plaudits Al 'I'm the man who used to be the next president of the United States' Gore's An Inconvenient Truth is getting!

Many people whose opinions I'd normally admire are including this film in the 'Top 10 Films' lists that invariably appear around this time of year, and even as I type this mini-review Micahel Parkinson's Radio 2 radio programme is telling me, and the rest of its audience, that this is in the critics' Top 20 list of movies released last year.

To which the only sensible response can be 'Whaaaaaaaaaaat?!'

An Inconvenient Truth is NOT a good film. It IS a good - possibly even a great - 20 minute talk on what's happening to the planet. That 20 minute talk has been stretched and stretched again, so that its important message is, if anything, diluted by the film-making process rather than enhanced by it. A good talk has become an average lecture has become a sub-average film as each step of the journey has been taken. So what should have been a very punchy, fast-paced 20 minute piece has become a 40 minute lecture padded out with homilies and 'Isn't that beautiful?' asides, delivered to an audience that has been captured on film. That material has then been stretched out again to a 90 minute feature film by adding simple 'interview with the lecturer' footage grabbed seemingly at various airport departure lounges, or in cabs on their way to/from those lounges.

Contrary to all those Top 20 lists, the end result does not make for a great FILM - it actually makes for a rather plodding, unimaginative, and not very well edited one! And it's REALLY depressing in a year when so many good documentaries have been made - documentaries that have built real tension, real drama, and real substance out of simple, boring facts - that a documentary so sloppily put together as this one is getting to the top of all the critics lists, seemingly just because of the surprise that the lecturer is more than the robotic automaton his presidential campaign had lead us to believe he was!

An Inconvenient Truth screencap

Let's go back to the lecture that is the core of this film and which so many of the media folk have found so 'amazing'. Personally, I found Gore's presentation style patronising, overly-repetitive, and lacking in pacing, but maybe I've spent too long working with marketing folks who are better at getting a message across succinctly and in a flashy way. Gore has done his research and has some fascinating information to convey. Make no mistake, the material he has to present is sensational. Graphical charts are used to tell the shockingly real story of what we've been doing to the planet, but are presented in rather dull 2D PowerPoint format, albeit on large monitors for the audience that's experiencing the lecture in real time as it's being delivered. But too often this information is padded out with Gore homilies and sales-pitch push that just come across as patronising. This is understandable - Gore has to sell tickets to 'an event' and it's hard to do that when the event is less than 20 minutes long, so some padding is needed. But when Gore stops to tell me 'Isn't that beautiful? Isn't that amazing?' as he shows us some animations of the planet taken from space, all he's really doing is doing what the poorest salesmen do - patronising me by telling me what I should be thinking, challenging me to disagree with the blindingly obvious! I can see for myself and don't need the tactics of a cheap second-hand encyclopedia salesman to get a message across.

Bottm line: Sweeping crane shots of an audience hearing a Powerpoint presentation, interspersed with hand-held footage of interviews with the lecturer, seemingly grabbed in airport departure lounges, do not a gripping movie make, no matter how 'sensational' the facts presented in the televised lecture may be.

So when I see nonsense like 'Top 10 Film of the Year' I want to shout 'But the emporer has no clothes', not because the message isn't important - it is - but because the message here is presented in entirely the wrong format, diluted from its original form to poor effect, and ultimately making for very poor cinema.

Too many critics have taken their own ignorance on the subject of what's happening on the planet, and the revelations they've learnt from Gore's fact-filled lecture and interpreted that as some sort of life-changing experience which means this is a life-changing film and therefore one of the best. It might well be life-changing for those individuals, but as a film it's a mess!

Let's move on to the presentation on DVD...

The DVD is presented in a plastic DVD holder that's glued to what is proudly proclaimed to be '100% recycleable' packaging, not dissimilar from the material that egg box cartons are made from. One can't criticise the makers for not trying to do their bit in saving the planet (although one perhaps has to question the need for an additional slip-case to house the package). There are two commentary tracks, one from the director and another from the producers. I'm afraid I was so bored with Gore's repetitive assertions made in the main lecture, that I wasn't prepared to waste another 180 minutes listening to various people commenting twice on that same lecture. There's also a half-hour update on what's happened in the year since the lecture was originally filmed, in the form of an interview with Gore straight to camera, which is interesting only for the fact that it proves that the facts Gore highlighted were correct, which I don't think anyone was disputing.

By all means, if you're ignorant about what's happening to our planet, and the direction it's heading in, check out this DVD. The lecture has some key information to present as evidence that we need to change our ways. But this is definitely a rental, rather than a purchase, and those coming to this material expecting to be blown away by one of the 'Top 10 Films of the year' are likely to feel short-changed, as I did, given all the hype around it.

An Inconvenient Truth screencap

Saturday, 6 January 2007

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forbidden Planet, having already been released on special edition DVD and HD-DVD in the States, is scheduled for the same Special Edition treatment on a UK Region 2 release later this year. No firm date as yet, but the UK release is likely to mirror the US one and you can read my review of the Forbidden Planet HD-DVD release over on my HD-DVD blog.

Derailed (2005)

There's a review of the HD-DVD release of Derailed over on my separate HD-DVD Review Blog. The standard Region 2 DVD version of this title was made available on 19th June 2006, and can currently be found online at the bargain price of £6.89.

Monday, 1 January 2007

World Trade Center (2006)

I'm splitting my HD-DVD (High Definition DVD) mini-reviews out into their own blog, although most of the comments made will apply equally to the standard DVD release.

World Trade Center gets released on UK DVD on the 29th January, but you can read my review of World Trade Center on HD-DVD over at my new HD-DVD Review Blog.