Sunday, 25 February 2007

Red Road (2006)

Red Road

About an hour into Red Road I was ready to dismiss it as yet another of those tiresome 'art house' clichéd movies. You know the sort: the critics wet their pants over them but Joe Public look at them and go "Anybody with a movie camera could have made that! No story. No action. Wobbly camera with out-of-focus shots. What crap!".

The film follows the established 'indie' formula so much it's painful to have to even tick off the ingredients. Dodgy 'cinema verité' camerawork running at snail-like pace? Check. Little spoken dialog with obviously improvised 'real life' scenes? Check. Lots of shots of tower blocks on a council estate? Check. Gratuitous female full-frontal nudity (this time with full-on muff diving to boot - that should ramp up the ante a bit, eh?!)? Check. Obligatory single shot of erect male cock to get 'The Daily Mail' upset on behalf of some theoretical middle-class value system to improve the free publicity even more? Check.

Red Rose screencap

Well you get the picture! Haven't we seen this sort of thing done one million times before (and can I just say, on behalf of any gay male readers interested in possible porn masquerading as 'art', that the whole cock thing is done SO much better in Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs!)?

At least Ken Loach has things moving along at a fairly decent pace when he does this kind of thing! Earlier this week I saw a truly tiny budgeted New Zealand film called 1 nite (not reviewed on this UK DVD review blog because it's only available on import) which had far more originality and charm in terms of taking those rather hackneyed ingredients and shaking them up a bit, even if it lacked the acting talent Red Road writer/director Andrea Arnold was able to call on for this British offering.

Red Rose screencap

Arnold, who's already won a short film oscar for Wasp, may have suckered the BAFTA viewers with her 'What? Little old me getting a film award? I don't normally wear posh frocks, 'Gor blimey guv' routine, but I'm afraid it just doesn't wash with me. At one stage, in the feeble extra's that accompany this disk, she has the arrogance to say that she wishes she lived in Glasgow (really? So fucking move there luv!), before claiming that she totally understands the Glasgow culture and is jealous of the ingrained sense of Scottish pride, having spent a grand total of FIVE WEEKS shooting a film up there and after admitting it was only long after the film was completed she found out the reputation the area that gave her the film's title had amongst locals. To which the words 'get a grip, or at the very least SOME sense of reality, dear' are the only sensible response.

I take no joy in being so mean to someone who clearly has to struggle to get financing in the dog-eat-dog world of film-making, and I'm sure if I met her I'd find the woman charming, but given such ridiculous announcements as evidenced here, it's too easy to dismiss this film as yet another example of some middle class twat fooling herself into thinking she's got talent and an empathy with 'them thar working class folk' just because a few posh film folk have patronisingly slapped her on the back and said 'Oh my goooooorrrrd! It's all so real!'. How can people so foolishly delude themselves? Not only has the 'writer' taken a clichéd, simplistic story and stolen the 'on the hoof' shooting/improvising formula, lock, stock and barrel from Mr Loach, but she's even stolen one of his actors (Martin Compton from the vastly superior Loach productions Sweet Sixteen and Tickets) to boot. Let's not any of us pretend that there is ANYTHING remotely original or award winning about that!

Red Rose screencap

Red Road tells the story of CCTV operator Jackie (Katie Dickie) who one day spots a man she thinks she recognises from her past, and becomes obsessed with tracking his every behaviour. It slowly (and I really do mean slowly!) becomes clear that there is some history here, even though the man doesn't recognise her even when she resorts to personally stalking him out of work hours. Slowly clues are drip-fed to us. She rings the police asking about a man, and we learn he has been let out of jail early for good behaviour. We learn she lives on her own, having recently been bereaved. It's not rocket science to join the dots, even when the key elements are padded out as much as they are here.

Where the film does surprise is the turn it takes two thirds of the way in, seeming to lure you into a predictable 'feel bad' ending, but changing gear at the last minute to become a 'feel good' ending. Saying any more will spoil the film for those who have yet to see it.

The highlights of the film are undoubtedly the acting from both the female and male lead. Anybody can improvise a few lines here and there, or get their kit off and flap their bits around, but there's real acting required for the pay-off final twenty minutes and both actors deliver this in spades, with Tony Curran wisely underplaying a part which could easily have gone for easy emotion, while Kate Dickie breaks your heart with her vulnerability and obvious pain.

Red Rose screencap

I know this is a low-budget production, but given the high asking price of the DVD the extra features are something of a joke, if not an outright con. The hilariously mis-advertised Behind the Scenes turns out to be LESS THAN ONE MINUTE of a camera left switched on filming the group preparing a pub scene, with about 15 seconds of the main actress operating some CCTV equipment tacked on after it. There's what's known as 'taking the piss', and then there's what's been done here!

More happily, we do get a DVD insert with some film notes (don't read them before watching the film - they contain massive spoilers!). The trailer is also included (lots of ridiculous marketing quotes comparing the director with much more famous European indie directors like Michael Haneke - puhlease!) and there are about 20 minutes in total of 'all filmed on that day we shot the scene in the pub' interviews with the four main cast members and the director. Each endlessly gushes about how wonderful the script/director is and how great it is to be able to "contribute as an AC-TOR" by improvising. Pass the sick bucket, these are all very much a case of 'Move along - there is absolutely nothing to see here' interviews.

For the acting from the two leads alone Red Road is probably worth a rental if you like your indie fare to be cheap and miserable (albeit cheerful at the end), or want to see what it is that excites the people at BAFTA when judging small independent films. But a purchase it ain't!

Red Rose screencap

Saturday, 24 February 2007

Francois Truffaut - The Films 1: The 400 Blows (1959)

Francois Truffaut, from an interview included as one of the extra's on 'The 400 Blows' DVD

This week sees the release of the second batch of six films from French director Francois Truffaut, the first batch of six having been released in September last year. Bizarrely, I have only ever seen Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows) so now seems as good a time as any to review the films in chronological sequence, with this blog mini-review posting being the first of twelve that will appear over the coming weeks.

Truffaut is widely acknowledged as the 'father' of the French 'new wave' that shook up the film world in the late 50's. A film obsessive (he regularly skived off school to see afternoon matinee performances) who tried to commit suicide after foolishly enlisting in the Military and being disciplined for desertion, he eventually found work and popularity as a film critic for the influential French cinema review magazine Cahiers du Cinéma before making his first film, which received almost instantaneous recognition and critical acclaim. Not bad for someone who thought critics could never make good films!

The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups)

The 400 Blows is a French idiom for 'raising hell', and was Truffaut's second film after a short called Les Mistons (The Brats), which is also generously included as an extra on this DVD release.

I first saw The 400 Blows in my late teens on late night TV. It had a powerful effect on me then, just as it does now, many years later and remains one of my favourite films of all time. It was one of the first films I purchased as an import DVD (Criterion having published a 'definitive' edition on Region 1 some years ago), but is now presented as a British Region 2 release in a superior, digitally restored form, as are the rest of the eleven films in the DVD series. Each of the titles is presented in a cardboard slip-case with an accompanying 'postcard' insert that represents the film poster of the original release, with the first September batch of six currently being available at bargain prices on Each title includes extra's that include audio commentary tracks from experts or friends of Truffaut's, together with rare and informative TV footage of interviews with Truffaut, or documentaries, recorded around the time of each film's original release.

Paris is the backdrop for Truffaut's largely auto-biographical story

The 400 Blows is essentially the story of a fourteen year-old boy let down by his family and society as a whole. Ensconced in a tiny flat his mother has little time, and even less love, for him. Although his step-father encourages the lad, circumstances conspire to distance the pair. Unfairly picked on in school by his teacher, Doinel falls into bad habits and truancy until an incident following his discovery that his mother is having an affair causes him to re-evaluate things and determine to try and do better, if only to win over the love of his mother. Tragically his first concerted efforts to do well at school result in accusations from his teacher of outright plagiarism, and he falls back into his old resentful ways of skiving off school with his best friend René. René is a boy from a much wealthier family, but has similar parental problems to Antoine - his mother is an alcoholic, his father a workaholic and neither have any time for their son.

Antoine unfortunately gets caught out in a lie by panicking when asked to explain a day's absence, giving the excuse that his mother has died. Things escalate from bad to worse when his lie is discovered so that he runs away, trying to raise money by stealing a typewriter from his step-father's office. Unable to sell the device it is only when he tries to return it that he is discovered and arrested. His parents have him sentenced and sent to borstal, where his best friend René is refused any visits. When his mother does finally visit it is only to disown him and in the closing minutes of the film he escapes borstal to find freedom of a disconcertingly bleak kind. In one of the most iconic moments of cinema history (only the final frame of Planet of the Apes comes anywhere close in my view), the lad turns and stares directly into the camera in a freeze-frame shot that dares to ask the viewer 'So what is my future? How did I get to this stage in my life?'

Jean-Pierre Leaud stars as 14 year-old Antoine Doinel and went on to make other films based on the same character over a period of 20 years

Jean-Pierre Leaud is nothing less than sensational, and is on screen for virtually the whole of the running time. His real personality apparently changed the direction of much of the story (although based on Truffaut's own story, he was actually much shyer and more easily led than the extremely outgoing Leaud). It is some measure of the influence Truffaut had on him, and he on Truffaut, that the pair went on to make several more films in the Doinel series over a period of twenty years.

The film is a rather bleak one in many ways (Truffaut himself famously commented 'When they are finished, I realise that my films are always sadder than I intended'), thankfully alleviated somewhat by the natural charm and exhuberance of the young actors who play Antoine and René. There are comedic moments to relieve the despair, such as when the P.E. teacher takes his class of boys running and they peel off pair by pair to play truant, with the teacher so engrossed in his own performance that he's ignorant of what's happening. Ultimately the overall feel is one of nostalgia - there are many incidents here that will remind most of us of incidents from our own schooldays.

Antoine and his best friend Rene regularly skive off school

It's not hard to see why this film currently has a 100% rating on the film critics' site The low budget and 'on the hoof' documentary style of film-making enforce an authenticity that's all too lacking in too many of today's films, and was certainly not common-place in 1959 when the film was made. Not that the film doesn't have a striking visual style, from the claustrophobic, bleak opening shots of the Eiffel Tower used for the main title sequence, to stylised aerial shots, and unusually framed school-room scenes that help make the film feel as relevant and appropriate today, as it was when filmed nearly fifty years ago. While Leaud is undoubtedly the star performer here, the natural performances from the other characters, particularly Claire Maurier as his mother, add resonance and depth to the whole story which help it become the masterpiece most critics have rightly acknowledged it to be.

Ultimately, long after the film is over, one is left with that final stark, grainy, frozen image of a haunted youth with nowhere left to run. The freeze-frame ending may be common now, but it was an innovation at the time the film was released, and a very powerful one at that. If you're not moved by the tale that The 400 Blows has to tell then you most surely have a heart of stone.

It'll be fun over the next few weeks to see what happens to the character first depicted here in The 400 Blows, but one suspects it would be impossible for Truffaut to match the masterpiece he created here. Every scene is note perfect, with an important point to make, and the film is one of the few that reveals more on each repeated viewing, and one which I haven't tired off, even after the five or six viewings I've had over the years. It should be in every film buff's collection!

Antoine's mother and step-father are more interested in going away for weekend rally's than looking after their son

The transfer here is not up to Casablanca style, but given the low budget nature of the original shoot that's hardly surprising. There are the odd speckles or floating hairs, but not enough to distract, and given the age of the film the transfer is better than one might have expected. It's particularly gratifying to have the film presented in its original widescreen format, rather than the nasty 4:3 full screen version that has featured on television and previous DVD releases.

A commentary track from the director is impossible - Truffaut died in 1984, at the age of 52, less than a year after the birth of his third daughter. However we get the next best thing, with one of his closest colleagues Robert Lachenay reminiscing about the shoot and his friendship with the director. An informative four minute introduction to the film, from Serge Toubiana, gives some historical perspective, but curiously appears on the menu after the main film, presumably to avoid spoilers for those who haven't yet seen the film.

A twenty-five minute documentary, Portrait of Francois Truffaut, made in 1961 features the director himself talking at length about his first two films, his motivations and his insecurities and lack of confidence when making films. It gives a fascinating insight to the man who would go on to become a world-renowned film-maker, not to mention the author of arguably THE seminal book on Alfred Hitchcock, which is still in print and features lengthy interviews with the British director on each of his films.

The final shot of the movie turns into a sudden freeze-frame as Antoine turns away from the shore with nowhere else to run

The stand-out feature though is the inclusion of Truffaut's first film Les Mistons (The Brats), a twenty-three minute short that tells the story of a young couple, played by real-life husband and wife Gerard Blain and Bernadette Lafaont, tormented by a group of young boys. Truffaut's natural affinity with young children is much in evidence here, and the familiar themes of writing, love, children and death are all present.

For film fans, this disk is a 'must buy', particularly at the bargain basement price it's being offered at. Beautifully packaged, with a fairly generous set of extra's all that's really missing is a more recent retrospective on the film and its director, and some decent sleeve notes or a booklet. It would have been nice if a more expensive digital restoration could have been undertaken to remove the few remaining hairs and speckles in the film, but this is probably unrealistic given the finances and demand for old films like this. In its current form this disk comes very highly recommended.

Bernadette Lafont and Gerard Blain, husband and wife in real life, play a young couple tormented by a group of young boys in Truffaut's first film 'Les Mistons', which is included on the DVD of 'The 400 Blows'

The Black Dahlia (2006)

The Black Dahlia

Josh Hartnett seems to get a lot of flack for being too bland, too dull, too boring to play the role of Hollywood leading man. It seems not too many people are interested in seeing a male version of Gwyneth Paltrow perform, and most of the films he's starred in appear to have under-performed as a result.

The Black Dahlia seems to be another of those films, although this time around the role plays to Hartnett's strengths (there's no emotion required for his role as film noir detective Bucky Bleichert) rather than his weaknesses, and my guess is that it's the overly-elaborate and extremely confusing plot that appear to have resulted in poor critical reviews and lack of bums on seats when the film was theatrically released. Undoubtedly this is the fault of the original source material. Sometimes books should just be left as books!

The Black Dahlia screencap

Set in late 40's Hollywood, The Black Dahlia is the usual fictionalised, but based on a true story, account of the brutal murder of a Hollywood wannabe-actress. Unfortunately, before we get to the main story, with all its twists and turns, the setting up of the partnership of Hartnett's cop with his more emotional colleague, Lee Blanchard (played by Aaron Eckhart) has to take place. This revolves around several other sub-plots, making things very confusing as to what the real story is to be, right from the get-go.

The two partners are ex-boxers who fight each other to help promote their police department and become friends. Things get messy when Blanchard's girlfriend shows romantic interest in Blanchard's new best friend, who also has feelings for her. Add in a brutally murdered Hollywood starlet, and a back story that reveals Blanchard's younger sister was brutally murdered when he was younger, and you have the settings for a violent, emotional roller-coaster ride that you know isn't going to end happily for everyone involved.

The Black Dahlia screencap

Despite many problems with the script, there's a lot to like about the movie. Most importantly, the film noir feeling is captured beautifully by Brian de Palma, although as the screencaps on this page hopefully show, the full colour pictures shown on the DVD sleeve are a total misrepresentation of the sepia-toned, colour-drained picture that you're going to see. I've complained before about this ridiculous obsession with desaturating all colour from a film to give it a 'period' or 'mood' feel, but here it's taken to ridiculous extremes.

The cast are generally impressive too. Hartnett is perhaps the weakest link - he's fairly convincing in the title role, but is really too young for the character he plays. Fortunately he is supported by such a strong set of actors, you can forgive the makers this slight mis-step in casting.

Aaron Eckhart more than delivers in his role as the impetuous Blanchard, and is particularly impressive given the rather clichéd period lines he has to deliver. He's well matched by Scarlett Johansson as the woman with a dark past but now turned good, torn between two men she loves equally. Hilary Swank surprises in a femme fatale role that show she really should be given more in the way of sexy, glamorous roles. So if there's a problem with the film, it's certainly not with the cast.

The Black Dahlia screencap

Brian de Palma is a veteran film-maker and has the experience to turn out a good movie. Unfortunately, what he produces here is an extremely pedestrian one. Too often the camera-work complicates what is already a confusing scene, where it should be used to illuminate and make up for the shortcomings of the over-elaborate plot. There are some nice touches here and there, but the cutting and rapid-fire explanations all-too-often leave the viewer totally confused. By mid-picture you start to wonder if you really know likes who, who's done what to who in the past, and who's likely to be the main protagonist for good or evil in the story. Even the relationship between the two detectives gets muddied and seems so inconsistent at different points of the story I started to wonder if I was watching a cut of the movie which had accidentally edited the scenes out of sequence.

While most of the blame for this being a fairly average film rather than a good one lies with the script, I can't help feeling that a better director (or, rather, a different director) would have done a better job of removing or covering up those failures, or at the very least making the plot more understandable. Certainly he, or she, could have made the film feel more like entertainment and less like the hard work we're presented with here.

The Black Dahlia screencap

Colour issues aside, the transfer is nothing to complain about. Alas, the extra's are a little on the thin side: there's no director's commentary, or any other commentary for that matter, and the three featurettes included are nothing but lightweight puff pieces.

If you like film noir, or complex novels that form the basis for many a film noir, and can concentrate hard for the full 120 minute running time, then there's a lot to enjoy here. But one wishes De Palma and his writers had stripped out some of the exposition, and sub-plots to give a more coherent and less confusing story. I suspect the rewind button is going to be much used by those renting or purchasing this DVD, trying to work out who all the different characters are, what their relationship to each other is, and which conversations give the clues that you need to follow the trail to the film's conclusion. If you can cope with all that, then The Black Dahlia is certainly worth a rental, but I doubt it's a film you're going to want to watch and re-watch once you've grasped the complexities of the plot.

The Black Dahlia screencap

Friday, 23 February 2007

Volver (2006)


Alzheimer's disease, incest, death, murder and rape hardly sound like the subject matter for a 'feel good' optimistic movie, but then we are talking Pedro Almodovar here!

Volver screencap

Almadovar, who wrote and directed the screenplay for Volver, gives us an enchanting tale about a family of strong women, all battling with demons of different guises. It is at times sad, funny and intensely moving, but it's the good humour and the resilience of the women that stays with you after the closing credits have rolled. The film is sub-titled, which is normally a turn-off for most cinema-goers, and yet it has has done great business at the box office. It's not hard to see why - there's something here for everyone but most importantly, Almodovar hasn't resorted to the cloying sentimentalism that a Hollywood studio would have insisted upon.

The catalyst for the story is the seeming return of the ghost of the family's dead mother, shortly after the death of an aunt who had been suffering from Alzheimer's for many years. It goes without saying, for those who've seen Almodovar's other films, that this is a story written and directed by a man who loves women, no matter what their size, shape or form. Not that men don't figure, but when they do, they're undoubtedly the 'bad guys' of the film, and quickly dispensed with. What's different this time round is that the film is far more mainstream than the director's previous, frequently very quirky, efforts.

Volver screencap

Penelope Cruz plays the female lead, a cheerful, if oppressed and over-worked mother with a good-for-nothing husband and a daughter who seems happy to spend all her time running up bills on her mobile phone. Struggling to look after her own family, she also has to deal with an ailing aunt who brought her up as if she were her own child, but who lives some distance from the family home.

A tragic accident, following a depraved attack on Cruz's daughter by her step-father, enforces a change in direction for the over-worked mother, and the importance of truth, the family, and your friends and neighbours is the backdrop to a tale full of tears, but plenty of laughs too.

Almodovar applies a light touch to some potentially very dark subject matter, which works wonderfully, thanks to a truly impressive cast. For many Cruz will be seen as stealing the show, and she certainly dominates the screen in terms of running time, whilst also delivering a performance that feels totally natural and unforced, despite the bizarre goings-on around her. But without her strong supporting cast her light may not have shone so brightly, and it's small wonder that the Cannes Film Jury last year gave the 'Best Actress' award to the entire female cast of the movie, even if the oscars have chosen only to celebrate Cruz's performance.

Volver screencap

The transfer is excellent, as is thankfully becoming the norm these days of mass-market DVD, and it's a pleasure to see a film made in 2006 that doesn't resort to desaturated colours, or artificial colour grading in some sort of bizarre attempt to convey an atmosphere. The film is full of colourful characters and the natural colour of everyday life - if only more movies could say the same!

This has been given a double-disk release, and is presented in a nice embossed slip-case, although I'm not convinced it really needed a second disk just for the extra's. On the main disc there is a commentary track by the director and his lead actress, which I have to confess I didn't get around to listening to, but will at some stage when the 'DVDs waiting to be watched' pile isn't quite so high!

Volver screencap

The second disc has a documentary on the director that is rather light and fluffy. A conversation with the director and the female cast is more interesting, seemingly shot around a table in Almodovar's offices, but is embarrassingly awkward at times. One feels the actresses struggling to say the right thing and there are scenes where one of Almodovar's long-time actresses tells the director she's never seen him so passionate as he is when he's around Penelope Cruz that become toe-curlingly embarrassing as Almodovar turns into a love-sick boy of six, and Cruz tries to maintain a professional distance with over-gushing praise for her 'mentor'.

A short 'home movie' featurette on the Cannes Film Festival 2006 is a nice souvenir of what it's like to tout your wares at such an event (showing it's a nightmare for those involved on both sides of the camera, despite all the perceived glamour and glitz) but gives little information about the film itself. Separate marketing junket interviews with the director and two of the actresses are spoilt by the poor level of questions, asked by a journalist who clearly doesn't have English as her first language, coupled with poor unedited camerawork. There's little here that hasn't already been explained in the other featurettes.

Slightly disappointing extra's aside, Volver is a joyous, life-affirming, 'feel good' movie, and one that can withstand repeated viewings. As such it's a purchase rather than a rental. Highly recommended.

Volver screencap

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Hollywoodland (2006)

Hollywoodland gets a Region 2 release on 19th March, but is already availabe as an import on HD-DVD. You can read my review of the HD-DVD over on my HD-DVD Review blog.

Friday, 16 February 2007

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

John Tucker Must Die

Tuesday's free morning commuter newspaper, Metro, carried a review of John Tucker Must Die which I reviewed on DVD last week. Awarding it a lowly one star, the paper's reviewer dismissed it as unbelievable, unrealistic, juvenile tripe. The review might have carried more weight if the same issue hadn't also carried a review of The Devil Wears Prada, an equally unbelievable, unrealistic, juvenile film, which received a five star rating. Go figure!

It really does seem like there's one rule for a film that stars a himbo from a TV soap, and another completely different one that applies when the film stars an established, well-liked actress!

The Devil Wears Prada screencap

That being said, I have to admit that Meryl Streep is very good in The Devil Wears Prada - I just wish she'd been given a better script to play with. Not only is the whole story about the fashion industry even more unconvincing than that of John Tucker Must Die, there just aren't anywhere near as many laughs, partly because the film seems to want to poke fun at the fashion industry, whilst also promoting it. Talk about wanting to have your cake and eat it too (although presumably, given the subject matter here, it's more a case of wanting to eat your cake and
then throw it up too!)

The always likeable Anne Hathaway plays Andy Sachs, a recently graduated journalist looking for her first job, and forced to take on a role as chief gofer and doormat for a fashion magazine editor who's the primadonna monster from hell (played by Streep). Somehow Hathaway's character manages to survive her boss' ridiculous demands (including a demand for the latest unpublished Harry Potter novel for her kids - riiiiiiiight!) and turns from ugly fashion virgin into stunning fashion obsessive, losing her friends and boyfriend on the way, only coming to realise what's really important in life in the final moments of the film.

The Devil Wears Prada screencap

To say clichés abound here would be an insult to a cliché! We have the incredibly attractive Hathaway being treated as the 'poor kid with no looks or dress sense'. I mean, come on! Ugly Betty she isn't! The amazingly quick transformation into fashion goddess is just plain silly, as is her sudden personality change when it comes to prioritising the right things in her life. Then we get her nemesis, the girl out to do for her. She's mean! She's nasty! She's neurotic! I wonder what nationality they'll get to play her! Oh, quelle suprise - she's a Brit! One Hollywood cliché follows another to the point that one is watching the equivalent of a Size 0 screenplay filled out to a Size 6 with all the excess fat from every other 'safe' film that's been made.

There's nothing much to complain about in terms of direction, the characters, or the way things keep moving along, it's just that that's all they ever do - move along, without any real sense of purpose, direction or even a proper story. But Streep IS entertaining, and Hathaway is very easy on the eye.

The Devil Wears Prada screencap

I think it was Five Live film critic Mark Kermode who described the film as having been 'made for thirteen year old girls' and I think he's about got the measure of it. The film is bland, safe, predictable and just too 'nice' to be the witty satire it wants to be. Why the film should have received quite so much hype (earning itself a ridiculous amount of money at the box office), while other, similar films (like John Tucker Must Die) languish in 'dissed by the critics' hell I just don't understand.

This is another excellent transfer, and the extra's are pretty generous too, although someone really should tell the female producer who's featured that she's appearing in a documentary and not meant to be doing a send-up of an overly gushing, pretentious fashion magazine editor. As is becoming the norm with DVDs these days a single decent-length Making of feature is split into several mini-featurettes to make it appear the disc is jam-packed with goodies. Unfortunately the featurettes err far too much towards the 'marketing fluff' rather than genuinely informative side of things, and the same few tired clips, featured in endless TV ads and trailers, get repeated over and over again.

The Devil Wears Prada screencap

There's a generous 20 minutes of Deleted Scenes which are finished to the same high standard as the main feature itself and include optional director commentary, together with a five minute gag reel which isn't as shabby as most gag reels tend to be, and a theatrical trailer. There's also a Commentary track from the film's costume designer, director, writer, editor and photographer, but I'm afraid I just didn't have the patience or interest to listen to it.

This is an OK rental, and it's not a bad film for the middle of the road audience it's aimed at. It's certainly better than the likes of Mrs Henderson Presents, but there are so many better movies out there that unless you're a Streep fan who has to see everything she does, this is not a film you need to actively seek out to make a point of seeing. Streep's performance and Hathaway's cheery girl-next-door one are probably worth the price of admission, but it feels such a wasted opportunity that they haven't been given a better, more original script to work with. It's hard to imagine anybody wanting to see this more than once, so it's definitely a rental rather than a

The Devil Wears Prada screencap

Monday, 12 February 2007

John Tucker Must Die (2006)

John Tucker Must Die

From the sublime to the ridiculous: after reviewing DVDs about mental illness (Keane) and autism (Snow Cake) comes John Tucker Must Die, a teen-oriented flick with a lead actor known only for a mostly non-speaking part as 'hunky gardener' on the ridiculously over-the-top TV soap Desperate Housewives. Can Hollywood 'cash in and cash up' films get much worse than this?

Well actually, Yes! Given the extremely negative reviews the film has had you’d be forgiven for thinking that all a movie needs to get green-lit these days is a bunch of pretty faces that are well known to the public. But while there are plenty of pretty faces and bodies here – far too many to make the basic premise in any way believable – there are also plenty of laughs too.

John Tucker Must Die screencap

John Tucker Must Die is a pretty meaningless piece of fluff. But it’s fun for all that, and for those moments when you just want to kick off your shoes, sit back and watch a brainless, popcorn, make-believe movie it's perfect, especially if you're of the Buffy/The O.C. TV generation.

The afore-mentioned hunky gardener (Jesse Metcalfe - I wonder if Jesse has the same sexual connotation in the States as it does over here!) plays John, the school jock who has beautiful girls falling at his feet left, right and centre. Monogamy isn’t in the guy’s vocabulary but he gets away with his endless lies and cheating ways through a mixture of bluff, good looks and cheeky charm. Accuse him of being shallow and you'll get a quick rebuttal: "How can you say I’m not deep when I’m dating all of the Poetry Society?!".

John Tucker Must Die screencap

When three different girls find out he’s been lying and cheating to all of them, it’s newcomer Kate SPencer (Brittany Snow) who opens their eyes and suggests the best way to get back is to get even. Kate actually has a thing for John’s brother, the much more honest and introverted Scott (Penn Badgley who fortunately feels the same way about her, but she’s never had a boyfriend before and the two seem destined to never get their act together – particularly when her new friends set her up to become John’s new girlfriend so she can crush him when he falls in love with her. The hardly surprising result of course is that not only does he fall for her, but she finds herself falling for him too.

John Tucker Must Die screencap

Essentially this is an old-fashioned morality tale about being honest, saving yourself for your one true love, ya da ya da ya da! Set almost completely in a school comprising students who are all unfeasibly attractive (with the single exception being the obligatory 'black, fat homie' comic relief character) and seemingly in their late 20’s you need to suspend belief on admission, particularly with the leads' every appearance seeming to advertise the fact that they've just stepped out of a four hour session at a manicure, health and beauty spa - and that's just the MALE leads! However, if you CAN suspend belief it’s a fun ride, with some unexpected twists and turns along the way, and a surprisingly fast-moving and witty script.

The cast are clearly enjoying themselves, and although there’s not a lot of 'real acting' required, the two main leads are engaging and likeable enough to carry you along on the journey.

John Tucker Must Die screencap

The transfer from film to DVD is excellent, as you would expect for a release as recent as this. The extra’s are less so, and appear to have been constructed primarily so that the packaging can give the false impression that there’s a lot more here than is actually included.

The commentary from director Betty Thomas and editor Matt Friedman are fine enough, but there are several references to deleted scenes which sound interesting but haven’t been included. If you do click on the advertised Deleted Scenes featurette you get two pitifully short scenes that clock in at under a minute and a half in total.

The four, much-heralded featurettes follow a similar pattern with the longest clocking in at less than four minutes and the shortest at not much over a minute! These include a quick marketing ‘Making of’ featurette, a haphazard tour of the set by male lead Metcalfe (consisting mainly of him admiring another crew member’s bike and his mother phoning half way through the 'tour' - ahh bless!), and a very quick synopsis of the main characters. Two pop items (one performed live on set, but barely used in the film; the other being a pop record promotionm tie-in) complete the package. The extra’s are cheap and cheerful enough, but there’s really not much here.

If you want a fun night in with the girlfriend/boyfriend this is worth a rental, and the critics who've pooh-poohed it need to lighten up. However if you're looking for something deep and meaningful this one is probably best avoided.

John Tucker Must Die screencap

Sunday, 11 February 2007

Snow Cake (2005)

Snow Cake

Snow Cake is one of those little gems you stumble on all too rarely. It's an old-fashioned tale of ordinary folk coping with difficult circumstances, and overcoming adversity. In other circumstances, and with a cast of this calibre, this would be a shoo-in for a BAFTA or an oscar, but presumably the low budget, the international cast and the lack of funds to play the political games required, means that this time round Snow Cake lost out.

Whatever the reasons for lack of recognition may be, it certainly wasn't for the quality of the script or the acting, both of which demonstrate just how vacuous most of what fills our multiplexes each week is.

Snow Cake screencap

Alan Rickman plays Alex, a lonely, damaged figure who has just come out of prison for reasons that will become clear fairly late on in the story. He bumps into Vivienne (Emily Hampshire), an outgoing, bumptious teenager who persuades him to give her a lift. When a truck hits Alex's vehicle, through no fault of his own, Vivienne is killed and Alex feels the need to visit her mother, Linda (Sigourney Weaver) and express his condolensces and sense of guilt. Linda is autistic and doesn't play by anybody else's rules and the film explores the relationship that develops between Alex and Linda, together with the attractive, if somewhat promiscuous, Maggie (Carrie-Anne Moss).

Snow Cake screencap

The stand-out performance is undoubtedly that of Sigourney Weaver, whose unsentimental portrayal of autism is alternately laugh-out-loud funny, sad and moving. The actress apparently spent the best part of a year researching autism, and it shows in her performance. Her character, Linda, is difficult but ultimately the healer for Alex who comes to appreciate her honesty, innocence and complete lack of sentimentality, in ways her immediate friends and family have failed to.

Rickman is one of those actors who can be rather over-the-top in his performance, to the point where one sometimes feels he appears to think he is doing panto! Not so here, and his understated performance is just what the character needs. He is our way in to not just Linda's story, but that of Maggie who is to prove another vital element in the healing of Alex.

Snow Cake screencap

The cinematography is beautifully presented on this near-perfect transfer to DVD. The beautiful snow-bound countryside (much of it apparently fake as a thaw set in earlier than expected) of small-town Canada is beautifully depicted, and the music score by Broken Social Scene matches perfectly, with pop-rock classics also being used to reflect the influence of Vivienne where appropriate.

If you like your movies to be big-budget action set pieces then this probably isn't for you. But if you like beautifully observed character pieces, with strong dialogue and direction that let the story gently unfold at its own pace, then Snow Cake is a film I think you'll greatly enjoy.

Snow Cake screencap

Unusually, the twenty minutes of deleted scenes are the highlight of the extra's. Finished to the same standard as the film, complete with score and stunning transfer, they add little stories and anecdotes that add to the depth of the film - in many ways it's a shame they had to be cut out, presumably because the film was already running past the 'safe' 90 minute mark.

The 'Making of' at around 20 minutes isn't quite as fluffy as the usual marketing featurettes, and gives the history of the project, as seen from the director and various cast members' point of view. The only disappointment here is that the writer Angela Pell is conspicuous by her absence.

A trailer, curiously presented in 4:3 format instead of the original widescreen, is also included.

Snow Cake is a touching, funny and warm movie. Definitely it's worth a rental, if not an outright purchase. Highly recommended!

Snow Cake screencap

Miami Vice (2006)

Miami Vice starring Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx was released for the first time on DVD at the end of last year (27th November). You can read my review of the HD-DVD version, which was released a couple of weeks ago over on my HD-DVD Review blog.

Keane (2004)


There is something incredibly depressing about the fact that this film took more than a year to eventually surface in American cinemas and another year after that before it was able to secure a theatrical release in the UK (which it did - not that you'd have noticed - right at the tail end of 2006). Despite universally favourable reviews, and Stephen Soderbergh's name the box office figures show just how tough it is to make independent films these days.

And it's not just Keane which suffers from this problem. Later today I'll be reviewing another excellent film, Snow Cake, which despite having high-calibre actors and household names like Alan Rickman and Sigourney Weaver appearing in it, appears to have suffered a similar fate when it comes to turning a profit. Even when the costs are astonishingly low and the quality and the rave critical reviews are all over the quality media, it seems the audience isn't. Only dumbed-down roller-coaster movie rides are what pulls people into cinema's these days, and that's a very depressing thought to start the day on.

I write this blog entry on the morning that this year's BAFTA awards are to be announced. It used to be that award ceremonies were there to help 'the little guy' and gain visibility for quality films that might otherwise get unnoticed. I think Daniel Craig is one of our finest actors, but a high profile picture like Casino Royale barely scratches the surface of his talent, and hardly needs the publicity the award ceremony gives him. The same handful of films get nominated at each and every ceremony - BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, the Oscars - is ANYBODY able to tell the difference between these different 'popularity contests's any more??!! It's a crying shame that the best performances and films are getting shamelessly ignored in favour of the same small handful of films that have already performed well at the box office.

Keane screencap

Not that I'm saying Keane is an oscar-winning film. It's too 'art house' and lacking in real narrative structure for that. But I don't think anybody could deny that Damian Lewis' performance is anything less than world class. Playing a troubled loner with serious mental problems is not easy. Making that character sympathetic and conveying the pain and misery of mental illness, in the way the actor does in Keane, is nothing short of astounding. That Lewis is such an astonishing actor comes as something of a shock to those of us who've only seen him as a guest presenter - an incredibly witty and professional one, it must be said - on BBC 1's Have I Got News For You. And him being a 'ginge' and all. Who'd a thunk!

As the film opens Lewis plays Keane, a father clearly in some distress, trying to find his lost daughter. As the film moves on, and his behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, doubts start to emerge. Does the man actually have a daughter? Did she really go missing? What is the nature of Keane's obvious illness, for which he is self-medicating, and does it hold danger for the young girl and single mother he befriends?

Keane screencap

Not all these questions will be answered by the end of the film, but there is hope here. Hope and an insight into mental illness that this viewer has never seen so well portrayed on film. The hand-held nature of the filming, and obvious low budget approach may turn some viewers away, but the suspense is built up such that spends most of the journey the film takes you on, sat on the edge of one's seat, wondering how the various bits of puzzle presented fit together, and how the puzzle will resolve itself.

As in real life, the puzzle doesn't really resolve itself, and was never meant to. An alternate edit of Lodge Kerrigan's film, by producer Steven Soderbergh shows how different clues can be interpreted completely differently if the linear structure of the scenes is changed. Soderbergh's edit, included as a second disk version on this DVD release, cuts out the introductory 'hook' of the man searching for his lost daughter, and by shifting key scenes around, makes Keane appear to have targeted the mother and child having overheard a conversation which in the theatrical cut occurs after Keane has met them and come to their rescue. It's an interesting exercise in showing the power of the film editor, albeit one that is much better evidenced by studying Memento

Keane is a fascinating film, a film that, unlike Gilliam's Tideland does make you think, and will still have you thinking several days after you've seen it. Awards ceremonies were made to recognise films such as this, and it's a great shame that they don't!

Keane screencap

The double-disk 'Collector's Edition' title is confusing, and frankly the DVD set turns out to be a major disappointment on the extra's front. There's nothing to see here other than a trailer. No commentary, no deleted scenes, no 'Making of' featurette, not even a cheap and nasty Q&A session with the lead actor snatched during a coffee break! Instead one gets a second cut of the film which, in all honesty, will only be of interest to film students and wannabe editors. The guerilla approach to film-making adopted here means there are no alternate takes to draw on to make this alternate cut interesting enough to view a second time, and the 'fly on the wall' documentary style of the film means it's just not the sort of film you would want to sit through a second time.

The film is a rental, rather than a purchase because of the difficult nature of its subject matter. Its impact significantly lessens once you know where the narrative is going to lead. But it's a very good rental and one that comes highly recommended.

Keane screencap

The Wicker Man (2006)

The Wicker Man remake, starring Nicolas Cage was released for the first time on DVD on 22nd January. You can read my review of the HD-DVD version over on my HD-DVD Review blog.

Saturday, 10 February 2007

Tideland (2006)


The DVD of Tideland features an (optional) short introduction from the film's director, Terry Gilliam which prepares the potential viewer, and also readers of this blog for what is to follow:

"Hello! I'm Terry Gilliam and I've a confession to make: Many of you are not going to like this film! Many of you, luckily, are going to love it. And then there are many of you who are not going to know what to think when the film finishes - but hopefully you'll be thinking!

I should explain: this film is seen through the eyes of a child. If it's shocking it's because it's innocent. So I suggest you try to forget everything you've learned as an adult: the things that limit your view of the world, your fears, your prejudices, your preconceptions. Try to rediscover what it was like to be a child with a sense of wonder and innocence. And don't forget to laugh. And remember children are strong. They're resilient. They're designed to survive. WHen you drop them they tend to bounce. I was 64 years old when I made this film. I think I finally discovered the child within me. It turned out to be a little girl. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

Tideland screencap

If only things were as simple as Mr Gilliam would have us believe!

Tideland tells the story of Jeliza-Rose (played by Jodelle Ferland), a rather strange, lonely child who deals with her loneliness and survives her ordeals through conversations with imaginery friends, physically manifested as dismembered Barbie doll heads that she carries around on her fingers. Her father is a drug-addict rock performer who's well past his prime, and her mother a 'trailer trash' junkie who overdoses at the start of the film. When the same fate befalls her father the abandoned child finds she has to use all her imagination to cope with the situation, which is helped or hindered (depending on your view) by the discovery of her next door neighbour's - an eccentric taxidermist former girlfriend of her father's who's terrified of bees and her retarded brother (or is he her son?). Strangeness, as is common with Gilliam, abounds, albeit strangeness on a quick shoot with a low budget.

Tideland screencap

Gilliam has described the film, in typically lazy marketing sound bite style, as being 'Alice in Wonderland meets Psycho'. We should be so lucky! Even allowing for his commentary confession (or is it another in-joke?) that he's never seen a Hitchcock film, this is an extravagent claim too far. What we really get is the best part of two hours following a little girl talking to imaginary friends, with only the occasional interruption from the rest of the cast. Personally I can remember just how dreary listening to a child with only a doll as a friend was back in my youth - I don't need to witness it all again on film, even if there is the odd visual treat to liven the experience up. Gripping it isn't! And whilst Gilliam and his writer use the commentary track to make fun of the critics who didn't like the film (that'll be all of them then!), with constant complaints that 'Nothing's happening', there's too thin a thin line between satire and truth here.

A couple of rather impressive dream sequence effects aside (all the best bits are in the trailer, which cleverly gives the illusion that this is a film of big-budget Alice in Wonderland extravagance) the low-budget high-speed shoot origins are painfully obvious. Make no mistake - this is essentially two hours spent with a troubled little girl talking to herself, and not a lot else, at least plot-wise, besides. Why would anybody want to see that?

Tideland screencap

Well, as it turns out, there are a few reasons. Gilliam himself is one. In the homogenised world of Hollywood movies, his refreshingly different take on things can prove an interesting diversion. The cast are another. The performances throughout, from stalwart Jeff Bridges as the father, to newcomer Brenadan Fletcher as the mentally subnormal 'Dickens', through to Jodelle Ferland who has to carry the bulk of the film on her solitary shoulders, are impressive. The direction is quirky and imaginative: all strange angles, trick perspective and beautiful set design, albeit a single set for the bulk of the running time. But God, it's dull without anything other than the seemingly random thoughts of a young girl and her dolls as the main plot. One wants to like the film so much, but while there's a lot to admire here, watching it often feels just too much like hard work.

Tideland screencap

The DVD is beautifully packaged as a two-disk edition in slipcase, although I'm not convinced two disks were really needed. The Getting Gilliam - a 60 minute documentary is the main attraction, but much like the main feature it under-delivers coming in at 42 minutes in total. This feature is a mixture of on-set documentary and fan-homage, made by a young film maker given the sort of on-set access to Gilliam that most film-making students would kill for. It's quirky and different enough to ensure that Gilliam's 'enigmatic genius' myth isn't damaged, but at times one does feel that Gilliam labours the point somewhat. There are also two 'sit them on a chair and point a camera at them' low-budget interviews, one with Gilliam himself, the other with producer Jeremy Thomas but both were clearly in need of some editing, as is the very amateur Q&A session with Gilliam and the book's author Mitch Cullin at the Hay Festival. Minor deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer complete the second disk, but given the double-disk 'Special Edition' packaging it all feels a bit thin. Even the commentary track on the main feature under-delivers, being mainly a chance for Gilliam and his co-writer to moan about the critical reviews and send them up. Most of what's given here in terms of anecdotes and film-making has been delivered in more concise form in the talking head interviews and the film Q&A, so that when hears Gilliam's defence of the film's more graphic scenes for the third time it all sounds a bit weary.

If you're a Gilliam fan then the chances are you've already seen this (and voted over on imdb!) and own it. For the rest of us, it's maybe worth a look in a 'slow' week, but it's probably a rental rather than a purchase. Ultimately the film is a brave experiment, but a failed one that's only saved by the stunning digital transfer that's been made for the DVD, and some insight into Gilliam's working methods that are on the included extra's.

Tideland screencap