Saturday, 31 March 2007

The Verdict (1982)

The Verdict

The Verdict is the fourteenth title in Fox's Cinema Reserve series, and their second Paul Newman title, the first being The Hustler, which I reviewed back in September last year.

As with the previous titles, this Cinema Reserve edition is purported to be the best available version. It arrives as a two-disc edition featuring a reasonable number of extra's, packaged in a solid, plastic-inlayed tin box which also contains a short 'press kit marketing' booklet about the film.

This is a slightly older Newman than we're used to, having been made in the 80's rather than the 60's, and it's scary to think that this is a '25th anniversary' edition. The film was nominated for five oscars, including 'Best Film' (it lost to Ghandi), 'Best Actor' (for Newman) and 'Best Director' (Sidney Lumet) but didn't win any of them. To be honest, I'm not surprised. It's an interesting film, but I'd say too run-of-the-mill to be oscar worthy.

Paul Newman plays a washed-out, alcoholic lawyer who's given one last chance - a difficult case that could lead to his redemption

The Verdict is a tale of redemption: the redemption of alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin (Newman). Galvin is a man who's fallen on hard times after refusing to play the typical boy's game of lying and cheating in his previous employment at a big, prestigious firm of lawyers.

As the film opens Galvin is depressed and suffering from the shakes. He has been reduced to gate-crashing funerals to try and sell his services to grieving widows, presumably as some sort of ambulance chaser. With his business about to go under, and too much of his day spent in the local bar, it's his friend Mickey Morrisey (Jack Warden) who offers him a last-chance job - a negligence case involving a famous doctor and the Church which should prove an easy earner thanks to a generous out-of-court settlement opportunity.

Galvin has sunk to the gutter, but not so low that he doesn't recognise injustice when he sees it, and against all advice decides to fight the case to win more money. He finds himself pitted against silent, frightened witnesses, and a formidable team of City lawyers, headed up by Ed Concannon in what is a superb performance from James Mason. With even his best friend thinking he's made the wrong decision it's up to Galvin, and his newly discovered, supportive girlfriend Laura Fischer (Charlotte Rampling) to find the inner strength to persevere with the case, see that justice is done, and in the process redeem the human being he used to be.

Jack Warden plays the one friend who hasn't given up on Newman's character

As you've probably gathered, this is very much a character piece, and an enjoyable, if rather dated one, for all that. But it's not hard to see why the film lost out on many of the awards in the Academy Award categories it was nominated for.

The direction by Sidney Lumet is rather pedestrian, and too static for too much of the time. Whilst Newman, in a film many an actor would kill for, gives a great performance he's a bit too clean and good looking (even in his late 50's) to be totally believable as the washed-out, alcoholic lawyer he's playing here, despite some neat character tics that make the character feel more real. Mason is fantastic, even though approaching his later years, as the man determined to bring Newman down, in a role that could easily have become pantomime villain. Mason instills his character with decency and a sense of right, despite the behind-the-scenes manipulations he undertakes to ensure he wins his case. More importantly he re-energises the film every time he's on screen, often at times when our interest is beginning to flag. Charlotte Rampling, too, delivers in a somewhat clichéd and undemanding role - that of the enigmatic, British femme fatale who doesn't have to do a lot other than seem mysterious.

The film spent some time in development hell with numerous actors interested in the project, directors assigned and then leaving, and endless rewrites, with the main problem being indecision about how to deal with the ending. Or lack of one. The book on which the film is based stops short of 'The Verdict' of the title being given, and if the film does have a fault it's that it manufactures a conclusion that is too Hollywood to be believable, undoing the good work in 'keeping it real' that the previous two hours have achieved.

James Mason plays the formidable head of the opposing legal team, determined to quash any possible convictions

The transfer is slightly disappointing given the remit of this 'Cinema Reserve' series. The grain and general murkiness are clearly caused by the original shoot, but a professional digital restoration would have done something about the flecks and dust that mar the early part of the film. Admittedly this is the best shape we're going to see the film, but when you see restorations like Casablanca, Robin Hood or The Forbidden Planet you realise how completely meaningless the term 'digitally restored' can be as a measure of quality.

The extra's too prove somewhat thin. The commentary track on the main feature is rather falsely advertised as being 'by Sidney Lumet and Paul Newman' when, in fact, it is a Sidney Lumet one, with just a few minutes of taped Newman quotes being spliced into the track! Fortunately Lumet is a lively commentator, and has enough anecdotes at his beck-and-call to make the commentary a lively and interesting one, but nevetheless one can't help feeling cheated by the package's inflated claims as to Newman's involvement in the piece.

Charlotte Rampling plays the love interest who supports Newman during moments of self-doubt, but whose side is she really on?!

The most interesting featurette is the 'half hour' (actually 20 minutes when the American adverts that marred the original transmission are stripped out) Backstory which tells the history of the film, albeit with a certain air of condescension and general 'dumbing down' for the average American TV viewer. There are also four short featurettes that could really have been compiled into one Making of, featuring Lumet and Newman talking about the film, but these are so short that one suspects the addition of a second disc to the package is more about marketing and maintaining the illusion of value for money than necessity arising from the format's capacity. They make interesting viewing but don't really count above 'standard fare' where DVD extra's are concerned these days.

The Verdict is an interesting film, if only for the excellent performances from both Paul Newman and James Mason. However it's hard to imagine this being a film that purchasers will want to view multiple times, and as such it's a recommended rental rather than a purchase!

Newman was nominated for an oscar for his performance as lawyer Frank Galvin in 'The Verdict'

Friday, 30 March 2007

The Page Turner (2006)

The Page Turner

If The Page Turner were a book then its makers would have to change the title to avoid action from the Advertising Standards Authority. I like a good Hitchcock-ian thriller as much as the next man, and subtitles are always preferable to a badly-dubbed foreign sound-track, but this French attempt at a pyschological thriller disappoints on so many levels, it's hard to come away feeling less than cheated by the promise of the premise. (If Danny Kaye from The Court Jester, which I reviewed the other day, had seen this film I'm sure he'd have come up with a rhyme along the lines of 'The promise of the premise is the clue that is not true'!)

Julie Richalet plays the young Melanie Prouvost who could pass as Damien (from 'The Omen')'s sister

As the film opens we meet Melanie Prouvost, the young daughter of a butcher who appears to have a rare gift as a piano player. She has worked long and hard for her proud and doting parents, and an exam could mean the difference between outside support and financial difficulties for her struggling parents. Unfortunately the crucial exam goes wrong when one of the judges, a famous concert pianist, is momentarily interrupted by a request for a signed photo, which distracts the young Prouvost so much that she completely ruins the piece she has prepared as a result. As she exits the exam in tears, stony faced in a way that would have done The Omen's 'Damien, son of the Devil' proud, she slams a piano lid shut on an innocent girl preparing her own piano piece in an adjacent room. The menace is palpable and all that's missing is the shriek!-shriek!-shriek! of some Psycho -like violins! Bring on the big revenge story!

Suddenly it's ten years later, and the same girl (different actress!) has found a job as a student intern with a lawyer. The lawyer's wife, it turns out, is a famous concert pianist (aha!) recovering from a mysterious hit and run accident a couple of years earlier. She is highly-strung and anxious about a forthcoming radio concert that will be 'make or break' for her career. With a young son that needs looking after, and a long business trip abroad, the lawyer is looking for somebody to help his wife out as nanny. Melanie appears to be just the girl for the job and quickly ingratiates herself by being efficient, and helping the wife prepare for her concert by becoming her 'page turner' as she rehearses. The truth is, of course, she has never forgotten, or forgiven the teacher who's 'selfish' distraction caused her to abandon her dreams all those years ago. Make no mistake - she is out for revenge!

Deborah Francoise plays the older Melanie Prouvost who has revenge for a failed piano exam on her mind

All of which sounds great as the set-up for a The Hand That Rocked The Cradle - like thriller. We appear to be on fairly familiar, some might even say hackneyed, territory here and I'm a sucker for a good scary, psycho-revenge story. The problem is that the premise, used everywhere to promote the film and get bums on seats, takes about two thirds of the film's running time to set up. There are sinister moments, but they're merely rather weak suggestions for the most part, with nothing much really happening to keep you hooked. Even the casual mention of a 'hit and run accident' some years earlier is just tossed into the mix and then ignored, where a more traditional film would have had the surprise discovery about who that hit and run driver actually was. The film's defenders will no doubt argue that this is a subtle work, and one that ignores the rather crass traditions of the genre, but the problem is you spend most of the film wondering when something's going to happen. And when something eventually does happen right at the end of the film it's so ludicrous that one can't help but feel cheated. (SPOILER ALERT: 'Oh look, despite being married with a young son, I've suddenly become a lesbian and fallen in love with the sullen, pouty girl who let me down when I needed her most'!) All that set-up for this??!!!

Admittedly the women are beautifully cast, with both versions of Melanie Prouvost (the young girl, and then the young woman ten years later) looking so alike you'd swear the director had discovered the secrecy of time travel. Catherine Frot gives an excellent performance as the sympathetic, but overly-anxious victim who's attempting to rebuild her career and get life back on track, and there are some excellent actors in minor, supporting roles too. But without a believable conclusion, or even any real explanations for what happens, the whole thing is too much of a sow's ear for any force of acting talent to be able to turn it into a purse.

Catherine Frot is the famous pianist, rather fragile and highly strung after being involved in a hit and run accident a couple of years before

The film is somewhat low budget and lacks the visual 'spit and polish' of a Hollywood mainstream movie. The musical sound-track, whilst appropriate to the background theme of piano's and pianists, could have helped the piece, but unfortunately doesn't inject any much-needed excitement into the piece. The psychotic wrong-doer is pretty much a blank personality, which means that much of the film features little dialogue or much in the way of emotion. English critics weren't taken in by the ponderous pace and rather pretentious feel of the whole thing and generally recognised the film for what it is, with negative reviews being pretty much the norm. Look on the other side of The Pond however, and things appear to be very different - at least if those imdb and rotten tomatoes ratings can be believed.

If you like your films to be foreign, slow and vaguely thought-provoking, then you might enjoy The Page Turner. For me the film reeks of 'film student pretension', slightly diverting but with no real meat at its core. If you're looking for a good psychological thriller, as indicated by the synopsis being used to promote the film, you're best advised to steer clear. There's much better fare out there for fans of the genre.

Pascal Gregory plays Jean Fouchecourt who has hired Deborah as a nanny for his anxious wife, little realising the two have crossed paths in the past

The transfer to DVD is excellent, given the low budget of the original film which is, at times, all too evident. There are no signs of dust, dirt or film print damage on the transfer. The extra's are generous, if somewhat dull, with the director pontificating (in accented English) for over 40 minutes on how wonderful his own film is.

The Making of documentary appears to be endless 'behind the scenes' footage - long unedited takes with no dialogue or commentary and only the odd 'talking head' interview between each long take to liven things up. Anyone who's ever been on a film set will know how boring this stuff can be! On my copy I found it impossible to display English subtitles for this feature which made the whole thing even more impenetrable. The original theatrical trailer - much more exciting than the actual film, since it edits all the highlights down into a succinct few minutes - rounds out the package.

If you like 'world cinema art house' movies then this is probably worth a rental. Otherwise I'd give this one a miss. Extremely disappointing!

A lecherous musician is about to find out that it's not just drinks that can be spiked!

Thursday, 29 March 2007

Extras Season 2 (2006)

Extras Series 2

Most critics seem to be in general agreement that the first series of Extras, the sitcom from Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, wasn't in the same league as the pair's previous show, The Office. Given the uniqueness and excellence of that show, how could it be?

Extras is set in the world of show business and the first six shows seemed to rely too much on the fame of the celebrities that featured each week, and having them play 'themselves' (albeit as extreme versions based on tabloid rumour), rather than any jokes per se.

The Office demonstrated that Gervais and Merchant as writers can take a while to settle into their stride, and Extras has prived to be no different. In this second series, comprising six half hour episodes, a more common theme (that of 'selling your soul') comes into play across the episodes. The celebrity guest appearances are still a main part of the show, with the star power this time around being even higher, but this time around they feel more like they serve the story being told than the self-indulgent and rather irrelevant 'treat' they were in the first series.

Writers/actors Steve Merchant and Ricky Gervais don't seem impressed with the endless 'Not as good as The Office' reviews!

Orlando Bloom, David Bowie, Sir Ian McKellen, Daniel Radcliffe, Steve Martin (Coldplay), Dame Diana Rigg, Robert Lindsay, Keith Chegwin, Jonathan Ross, Ronnie Corbett and Robert de Niro all make appearances as exaggerated versions of themselves this time round. They are 'themselves' only as they would be if written by the worst kind of tabloid journalists! It's good fun if you're a fan of the particular celebrity featured each week, but it does seem at times that the same formula is being used in every episode, with little new being added in any given show.

While the series feels better written (not under-written, the way the first series was) there's still too much repetition here, with the familiar themes of political correctness provoking awkwardness around racism, bigotry and homophobia played out time and time again. While there's an underlying intelligence to the structure of each episode - an intelligence that wasn't so evident in the first series - one still comes away wishing there were just a few MORE belly laughs than are evident here. And perhaps a touch more originality too. In truth there's little here that hasn't already been seen on the American show Curb Your Enthusiasm. If I'm honest I have to say that I felt that the American show does the whole thing with rather more panache, if less mainstream appeal, than is evident here.

Extras features a sitcom within a sitcom

What humour there is for the most part relies on putting the show's hero, now promoted to writer and actor in a new TV sitcom, into embarrassing situations and have him dig himself deeper and deeper into a hole. This was a common theme for The Office too, but that series made such situations much bigger and piled on the agony to such an extent that at times it became difficult to watch. With Extras such moments are down-played more, and the show is weaker as a result. One can argue that the humour is meant to be more cerebral than the traditional sit-com show, but there's something not quite right when you're laughing more at the weak jokes and catchphrase's in the 'sit com within a sit com' which the show has intended to be used as a vehicle to show what happens when people 'sell out'.

Not that there isn't much to enjoy in this second series. Highlights include BBC News Reader Moira Stewart being body-searched for drugs and giving Ricky Gervais the finger when she thinks Gervais' character and Ronnie Corbett have sold her out as their drug dealer. There's a wonderful po-faced speech about the recurring character's Barry from EastEnders dignity and integrity in walking away from Britain's biggest soap, just seconds before the actors jacket suddenly lets loose a deluge of sweets and snacks the actor has purloined from the set canteen. And there's some wonderful performances from the likes of Radcliffe, McKellen and de Niro who seem more than happy to send themselves up something rotten. Even Orlando Bloom manages to come away from the series with what little kudos he has for being a 'proper' actor intact!

'Barry from EastEnders' has a bigger role this series

This second series is the last that will be produced, although a Christmas special is apparently on its way to wrap things up. Gervais and Merchant seem to think the series has reached its natural conclusion, and with so many repetitions of themes that had already been covered in the first series, it's hard to disagree. For the most part the sketches and structure of each episode are better developed this time round, which means this second series is rather better than the first, if not in terms of number of laughs, at least in terms of polish.

Extras Series 2 may not be the writers' best work, but it's still so far ahead of most of what passes as British sit-com these days, that it's worth a rental, if not a purchase, if you missed the original broadcasts.

The series is presented as a two-disc set: the first comprising the series itself, the second featuring extra's that are more than generous for a TV series. The highlights are easily the 8-10 minute featurettes, one for each episode, where Merchant and Gervais discuss the episode with occasional sound bites from the featured guest star.

Daniel Radcliff reprises his Harry Potter role in one of the many celebrity appearances scattered throughout the series

The Art of Corpsing is an irritatingly long series of clips showing the actors, but mainly Gervais, fluffing their lines as they break into giggles over the simplest of lines. Those who've seen Gervais on chat shows will know that he has a nervous, rather fake-sounding laugh that he appears to invoke in response to anything anybody says, and this featurette just shows how quickly it can get annoying. It seems a particularly odd inclusion given Gervais' eloquent explanation on how awful corpsing is for those around the actor suffering from it. If corpsing is that unamusing for everyone other than the actor involved, why force us to sit through 10-20 repetitions of the same unfunny line?

The Outtakes is unfortunately more of the same, its only real purpose being to show that the guest celebrities can sometimes have problems remembering their lines or keeping a straight face too.

The package is rounded out with Taping Nigel, which is, frankly, a rather disturbing feature on the bullying 'practical jokes' the series editor has to suffer at the hands of Gervais. If you thought Gervais was a sophisticated, witty humourist based on the show you've just finished watching you may think again after seeing this feature. It's alarming how easily that Hyena-like laugh can be invoked at such length, and at such frequency by the most juvenile and schoolboyish of 'jape's. Men behaving like little schoolboys is never a trait I've found particularly attractive, particularly when there's a victim, reliant on the perpetrator for their daily wage, at the end of it!

If you missed the series on TV, the DVD is well worth a purchase. An excellent transfer presented in anamorphic widescreen means the show looks good, and it certainly has subtleties in the writing that repay repeated viewing. I just wish there were a few more belly laughs in it.

Robert de Niro is kept waiting for Gervais' character in the final episode of the series

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

The Prestige (2006)

The Prestige

There are only a small handful of directors who I make a point of keeping an eye out for, just as there are only a few actors I follow because they can turn even the lamest script into something worth seeing.

Christopher Nolan is one such director, and Christian Bale is one such actor. So when the two work together, as they have done on The Prestige, it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that the end result is going to be worth seeing. And in this instance it's a conclusion that proves correct. This may not be quite up to the director's best work (Memento) but it's not far off it!

Hugh Jackman plays Robert Angier, friends with fellow magician Alfred Borden until the night a magic illusion goes wrong with tragic consequences

There are some very obvious echoes of that earlier film here. The screenplay has, once again, been written by the director's brother Jonathan Nolan, and features frequent temporal shifts that mean the film can quickly get confusing if you're not paying attention: There's a reason why the film opens with the line 'Are you watching closely?'!

That being said, I'm told the book on which this film is based is even more confusing, and there are real rewards here for those who pay attention to the clues which help identify the twists and turns that will dominate the final act.

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale play two magicians, Angier and Borden, under the tutelage of Michael Caine's magic trick designer 'Cutter'. The two magicians have very different personalities. Angier is a natural entertainer who has little interest in the mechanics of a trick, while Bale understands the technicalities perfectly but has little of the showmanship skills required to become a truly great magician.

The two magicians are friends until a tragic accident during an evening performance kills Borden's wife. There is a hint that the overly-confident Borden may have been partly to blame and what was friendly rivalry between the two men becomes bitter enmity. As the film moves forward the two men become increasingly obsessed with one-upmanship and dominance, no matter what the cost might be, whether that cost is measured in financial, personal or human terms.

Christian Bale adopts an East End of London accent for the role of rival magician Alfred Borden

The narrative structure moves backwards and forwards in time, showing each magician's view through personal diaries and flashbacks. Although the secrets to some Victorian tricks are revealed (who knew that so many birds were killed in the name of entertainment?!) the film is essentially about obsession, rather than magic tricks per se.

The acting, as one would expect from both Bale and Jackman, is superb, and enhanced by an incredibly strong supporting cast. David Bowie has received some flack in certain quarters for his role as German scientist, Tesla, but I never found him less than convincing. The two female leads, Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson prove themselves the equal of the men, and there are nice turns too from Andy Serkis, as Tesla's assistant, Roger Reese as Borden's lawyer, and a host of recognisable faces in smaller parts (including Chesterton Lewis from Frasier - who'd have thought?!). Even Michael Caine deviates from his usual 'dial it in' performance, although recent claims on Michael Parkinson's TV Show of the actor having worked hard at developing a specific accent are laughable based on the evidence on show here. This is Michael Caine performing pretty much the same act, using the same accent, as he always has!

Michael Caine claims he spent many long hours perfecting a new accent for his character. Odd that - he sounds exactly like he always does!

The film is beautifully crafted, and the story intriguing enough to keep you hooked to the end. While the denouement is perhaps a little hokey, reliant on the audience accepting some rather fantastical science fiction being added to the 'real' world of Victorian magic that we're shown, the overall effect is so enchanting that one doesn't feel too cheated at the multiple explanations and demonstrations of 'The Prestige' that constitute the final act of the film. Director and actors alike have done what they told us they would do right at the start of the film - used distraction and clever manipulation to impress us with The Prestige of making what was a fairly good trick suddenly become a very impressive one.

Nolan has proved himself to be a director of great distinction, and The Prestige is probably his best work after Memento (I wasn't really a fan of Insomnia, and whilst Batman Begins was very good, I'm not convinced Nolan has quite got the hang of a fast-paced action movie yet). It's hard to think of another director who could have produced something as epic, beautifully shot, and internally consistent as this, and certainly not on the limited budget that was available.

This is a film for the brain, rather than the heart, with neither of the two main characters being particularly likeable. It's a sign of Nolan's skill as director that the lack of identification with the two main protagonists doesn't mean we're any less enthralled by the story that unfolds.

Andy Serkis has a small role as German scientist Tesla's assistant

The extra's on this DVD release (also due to become available in high definition soon - drat! I should have waited!) are acceptable rather than genrous.

There's the usual Making of 20 minute feature (called The Director's Notebook, together with five very short featurettes on different aspects of the production. Disappointingly, there's no director's commentary - something I think many viewers would have hoped for, given some of the obscurity of the main feature and the questions that are inevitably raised as a result.

The Prestige is film-making at its best, and it's a film that will repay repeated viewings. As such it's recommended highly as a purchase, rather than a rental. I can't wait to see what the director does next!

David Bowie received some flack in many quarters for his performance as Tesla. In fact he's fine in the role.

Monday, 26 March 2007

The Court Jester (1955)

The Court Jester

"The pellet with the poison's in the vessel with the pestle. No, The pellet with the poison's in the flagon with the dragon. The chalice from the palace has the brew that is true.".

Brian Sibley's quoting of some rhyme from The Court Jester, just a few weeks ago, drew a complete blank from me, so it seems very fortuitous that a new DVD release of a 'classic' film I've never seen should become available just a week or two later.

The Court Jester is a Danny Kaye film from 1955, a sort of musical spoof of 1936's Robin Hood (which I have on a stunning transfer on HD-DVD and must get around to viewing!) and is regarded by many as Danny Kaye's finest film.

Brian was quoting the rhyming lines above because he is a big Danny Kaye fan. I, on the other hand, am not - I have too many TV memories of the sort of 'stupid' behaviour that really annoyed me as a kid, and which annoys me even more as an adult when the likes of Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn take it to the next, even more irritating, level.

However, watching The Court Jester more than 50 years after it was made, I may be forced to re-evaluate my dislike of Kaye. The truth is that The Court Jester is an absolute hoot. It's a movie that has real 'jokes' in it - 'jokes' I've heard repeated in many films/TV series made since - and a film that demonstrates that Monty Python weren't the inventors of the sort of zany kind of comedy I love, after all.

The film titles are a hoot, especially when the actor credit for bad guy Basil Rathbone keeps making unwanted repeat visits

The fun starts with the title sequence, which is a fast-moving romp of clever lyrics and song, performed while Danny Kaye, in jester costume, flips around the titles that keep intruding on his performance area. The whole thing's beautifully cut together and performed, with some wonderfully subtle jokes I didn't catch until watching the film for a second time to grab some screencaps. Watch how the name of the 'lead' actor Basil Rathbone, playing the evil King Roderick, keeps making a re-appearance, no matter how often Kaye's jester tries to push it off the stage. Fun stuff!

The camerawork is admittedly very static and rather dated, but if you can ignore that and listen for the witty verbal wordplay, and wonderful pastiches of great genre movies of the time, you're in for a treat. The songs featured here put the modern trait of just taking established tunes and reworking them, to shame, and show just how poor a job is being done by the likes of Elton John and Tim Rice when compared with the old masters Norman Frank and Norman Panama.

Basil Rathbone is the evil and murderous King Roderick, shown here with a bunch of chronies plotting to assassinate him for evil motives of their own

The plot, such as it is, is all over the place, with farce being the main element, and twists and turns that make you think the 'hero' is never going to get his girl and defeat the villain. At times it feels that the writers are just throwing too much into the mix to try and make something stick, but fortunately this is not a big problem because the plot is merely a small hook to hang the songs, the comedy and Kaye's performance on. Fortunately these are impressive enough to make up for any plot confusions or inconsistencies.

I thought the catch-phrase was a fairly modern phenomenon, but The Court Jester proves me wrong, with its 'Get it? Got it? Good' line repeated by Kaye several times throughout the run. But the film doesn't rely just on catch-phrases for humour, with the afore-mentioned witty verbal jokes, and some beautifully choreographed slap-stick that shows just how talented a performer Danny Kaye was. It's hard to imagine anybody not having a grin on their face during his performance to entertain the king, or his attempts to learn the rhyme that starts off this mini-review, and which instigated this mini-review.

A heavily made-up Danny Kaye shows he can do 'serious' when he needs to, shown here with co-star Glynis Johns

Basil Rathbone is perhaps too charismatic and jolly a man to be taken seriously as chief villain, but his evil, scheming cohorts make up for that. Angela Lansbury makes a believable beautiful princess, getting comedic laughs through playing things completely 'straight', and Glynis Johns shows she can be Kaye's equal in comedy performing when she needs to be.

But this is Danny Kaye's film, and he demonstrates time and time again what a gifted actor he is, whether being called on to play it straight, play the buffoon, or just sing and dance. It's not hard to see why the actor had so many fans.

The transfer to DVD is stunning, with the overly-saturated 'Vista-Vision' colours being beautifully presented in anamorphic widescreen. Admittedly the picture is rather soft, but given the age of the material this is hardly surprising. The transfer is remarkably free of flecks, dust or even grain and it's doubtful that the film has ever looked as good as it does here.

Angela Lansbury plays Princess Gwendolyn, besotted with Kaye's character who has been hypnotised by Gwendolyn's assistant into thinking he is in love with her.

Unfortunately the DVD is 'vanilla' with nothing extra at all. Given the stature of the film, one would have expected some sort of commentary, even if most of those actually involved in the making of the film are now dead. However, given the quality of the transfer and the ridiculously low asking price one can't really grumble.

Is the film a rental or a purchase? I would err towards the latter - this really is a film where the humour is so fast and sharp the film will pay repeated viewings. If I can quote Mr Kaye: Get it? Got it? Good!

The jester's hope that nobody would notice the basket containing the true heir to the throne seemed somewhat naive!

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Who Killed the Electric Car? (2006)

Who Killed The Electric Car?

Morgan Spurlock's got a lot to answer for! His Super Size Me film, which looked at the junk food industry, set in motion a whole set of theatrical releases of documentary films which would previously have been consigned to a 30 minute slot on Horizon, Newsnight or some other current affairs programme.

I'd hoped the whole obsession with 'green' documentaries had reached its final nadir with Al Gore's 'poorly edited PowerPoint presentation masquerading as a film', more widely known as An Inconvenient Truth. And while I'm on the subject: an oscar for this unimaginatively filmed thirty minute lecture spun out to a 90 minute 'film'???!! Give me a break! I know American TV is pretty bad, and that presented with the likes of Fox News Americans need all the facts they can get, but seriously!

Alas! Awards and plaudits from punters I can only assume are so ignorant they don't read newspapers - or understand some very basic facts about our planet - means we're in for more of the same self-righteous cant, as the world suffers a terrible guilt complex about the way our planet's climate is changing. It's as if giving such documentaries the big thumbs up, getting them made, and giving endless awards to them means nobody has to feel bad about their unchanging lifestyles, whether we're talking endless, ridiculously subsidised cheap flights around the globe, leaving increasingly large numbers of energy-consuming big TV's on standby, or taking the kids on a five minute drive to school in a gas-guzzling people carrier. Applaud a message about the environment, no matter how poorly presented it is, and you can hopefully then avoid actually doing anything to avoid the problems the message is warning you about!

The film opens with a funeral for the electrical car

What all these films miss, and particularly Al Gore's self-congratulatory and ultimately hypocritical 'movie', is that Spurlock's film was so popular and entertaining with cinema-going audiences because he took a fairly serious subject and treated it with humour. There was also the frisson of danger that can only be felt when one sees a film-maker putting his health at serious risk in order to make an important point. You felt compelled to stay to the end, if only to see if the guy entertaining you made it through 30 days of junk food with a clean bill of health or a note from the doctor saying 'You have just 3 weeks left to live!' Spurlock, with years of experience at MTV under his belt, knows how to entertain AND inform at the same time. If only the same were true of those who've followed in his footsteps!

Who Killed the Electric Car? is yet another of those 'green' documentaries that has a serious message to impart, but it feels like the law of diminishing returns really has set in with this format, and what should be a simple 30 minute message is yet again stretched out over 90 minutes with so much repetition that one just wants to shout 'Enough already! We get it! The car companies made an environmentally friendly car and then withdrew it and you're upset. Get over it!'

My big problem with the film is not just that it's message is delivered in a manner akin to being hit over the head repeatedly with a sledgehammer, but that the arguments put forward are biased, inconsistent and, frankly, don't appear to bear close examination.

The EV-1 electric car. Looks pretty. Those who leased it liked it. But the car companies recalled them and trashed them.

Let me give you an example: we are repeatedly told that one reason the electric car was 'killed' was the limited mileage available between recharges. It's claimed that the car companies 'deliberately' used the wrong batteries, and it is repeatedly stated that distances of over 140 miles are achievable if the correct batteries are used. One year after this documentary was made electric cars are available again, albeit from a smaller independent manufacturer who the film-makers are promoting via a sticker on the DVD release of their documentary. The independent manufacturer is boasting a mileage of... 40-45 miles (lower on anything less than the top-end model)! Forgive my cynicism, but it seems like it's not just the big car companies 'deliberately' trying to kill a technology by using the wrong batteries!

Admittedly the film is well constructed. Old, jokey silent-film footage of possible prototype electric vehicles, diagrams to explain the basics, a closing 'whodunit' murder summary, and fast editing and jump-cuts attempt to breathe life into a story that is, ultimately, about a handful of people being upset that they had their leased electric cars recalled. The main spokesman and on-screen representative, Chelsea Sexton is young, pretty and charismatic, which is all good. But she actually worked on the design of the vehicle and lost her job when her employer decided to 'kill' the electric car, so she's hardly unbiased! If I were really cynical I could say she's so bitter about losing her job she's managed to motivate a handful of owners into making a mountain out of a molehill, and when the height of outrage in your documentary is the revelation that having recalled all the leased cars they could the manufacturers deliberately destroyed them - well, is this really THAT big a story?!

One of the many talking heads featured in the documenatary.

The film opens with scenes from the 'mock funeral' for the electric car, a last gasp attempt to drum up publicity and media coverage after it has become clear that the car manufacturers are not going to reverse their decision to recall and destroy all the electric cars that have been sold. It then proceeds to tell us the story of the electric car from the beginning, mainly through use of a lot of 'talking heads'. Ostensibly interviewee's from both sides of the argument about whether the electric car was murdered or not, present their cases. However the tone is clear from the start: government and car companies: bad; those who bought electric cars and want them to continue: good. Propounding various collusions and conspiracy theories, the documentary presents a gloomy view of the power of companies, the corruption of government, and the inability of the little man to fight back. All of which seems fairly consistent until the final third act when, for no apparent reason, the direction completely changes tack!

All those doom-and-gloomy interviewee's from the first two thirds of the film suddenly appear to drink from their 'glass half full' beverages and decide the future's rosy after all. It seems we've learnt a lot from the electric car and so the future's rosy! New hybrid vehicles are showing promise, we're told. New companies are looking at manufacturing their own electric cars. This begs the question of why the film kept bringing up the subjects of 'death' and 'murder'. Why have the makers wasted the first hour of our time telling us about a 'dead' friend, only to shout 'He's alive' in the final reel? The film is a mess of incoherence and inconsistencies, and any good work done by giving us the facts about the seemingly real scandal around decisions made by State of California officials, the American government's deliberate intervention against the public interest, and the collusion of the bigger car manufacturers are, for me at least, completely undone by this sudden reversal of opinions about what exactly the current state of play is.

Chelsea Sexton helped design the electric car. She's upset she was 'let go'.

Given how much the basic material has been stretched out for the main feature, it's somewhat surprising to find that amongst the extra's are a whole bunch of Deleted Scenes. In reality these turn out to be simple talking head quotes that aren't directly relevant, stripped out from the interviews that have been included in the film. There's a dreadfully dull music video and an extra short documentary Jump-Starting the Future which is really just more of the same. Not too shabby, but not too essential either.

As with any of these 'green' documentaries, this one is worth a viewing, if only to find out what arguments the slightly loopy, and incredibly po-faced proponents are putting forward to convince the general populace that a grave injustice has been committed. The documentary itself is well constructed, beautifully edited, and has moments of clever inspiration. It's entertaining enough given the seriousness of its subject, but once you get past the flash and the gloss there really isn't much here that couldn't have been covered in a five minute news report. Certainly it's not the sort of film you're ever going to want to sit through a second time. Check it out, but perhaps help the environment by ripping a copy off the internet instead of actually buying it!

Another rather weird 'talking head' makes the case for the defence of keeping the electric car. Using such caricatures helps convince the mainstream how exactly?

Sunday, 18 March 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Pan's Labyrinth

In November last year I saw a special preview of Pan's Labyrinth at the NFT, and now here it is on DVD, just a week after losing out on the 'Best Foreign Film' title at the Oscars. Personally I never thought it should have been entered into that category anyway - it should have been nominated for 'Best Film', period.

One of my favourite films of the last twelve months, it has been interesting to revisit 'Labyrinth' in this inaugural DVD edition, released to UK stores last Monday, and available either as a two-disc special edition, or as a single disc edition in a boxed set that includes two of writer/director Guillermo del Toro's previous foreign language films Cronos and The Devil's Backbone.

This review is based on the two-disc single-title edition, but a review of the boxed set may well follow at a future date. The word 'masterpiece' is an oft-overused one, but I think the word applies here. Watching the film several months on, I'm more impressed than ever with how well the film has been executed. This is a movie that stands up to repeated viewings, and there are touches so subtle you need repeat viewings to pick up on them.

Ivana Baquero is the young girl at the heart of the story told in Pan's Labyrinth

The film tells two parallel stories: one set in the harsh, brutal real world of Franco's post war era of Spain, the other in the innocent, fantasy world of fairy tales. The common thread through these two disparate worlds is Ofelia, a young girl uprooted from her home to go and live in a military outpost that is run by her new stepfather. Her mother is having a difficult pregnancy, and the stepfather turns out to be a cruel, brutal, sadistic brute seemingly only tolerating Ofelia and her mother because of the possibility of having a son.

Ofelia finds some escape from the horrors of war and life with the outpost captain in the world of 'The Faun's Labyrinth', where she meets a centuries old faun who sets her three tasks to complete if she is to escape the real world to return to her rightful place as princess of loving parents in the underworld.

The fantastical elements of the film are mixed with the real elements through clever use of lighting, colour and symbolism (one world features very round objects, the other the harsh, straight lines of the stepfather's orderly world that indicate him to be obsessive-compulsive, if not outright psychotic).

Early pictures and some of the screen caps here may give the impression that this is an 'Alice in Wonderland' -like fairytale, suitable for children. Make no mistakes - it isn't. This is a fairy tale for adults, with violence and brutality levels set accordingly. Children who have parents stupid enough to let them watch it are likely to be wetting their beds for months to come!

The faun is the first magical creature our heroin meets, but is he good or evil?

The film is multi-layered, with enough here to keep film students busy for months. The CGI work is seamless, the prosthetics well executed, and the fantasy elements beautifully depicted - all the more impressive given the relatively low budget the film has. The cast are uniformly excellent, so what's not to like?

Some have criticised the story for not being clear enough in identifying whether the fantasy world is real, or just Ofelia's imagination working overtime so that she can momentarily escape the nightmare that is her life in the real world. It seems ambiguity isn't as popular as it should be. del Toro seems convinced that the fantasy elements are real, pointing out (in one of the accompanying extra's) the clue he has planted to show a scene taking place in the real world that could not have happened if the fantasy world were mere imagination. It's subtle little tricks like this that make the film so rewarding on repeat viewings.

Sergi Lopez plays the handsome, but evil and sadistic Captain Vidal

The narrative strands of the fantasy world have received criticism too. At the risk of giving away the ending, it can be argued that strictly speaking the girl fails the three tasks she has been set and yet manages to reap the rewards as if she had passed. She ignores repeated instructions twice on one task, taking contrary actions that ultimately result in her three fairy guides being devoured and her at risk for her life. del Toro's point here is that the whole point of the tasks is not about blindly following instructions, but making mistakes and learning to live with them. The film is essentially about refusing to give up when all seems lost (in both the real world and the fantasy world), and it's a lesson that's beautifully told here.

If there was one thing that disappointed me about the original film, it was the dark and murky quality of the print. Thankfully much of that has been rectified on the DVD transfer. The film is a dark one, with little detail in the shadows and quite a bit of bloom and dark blacks. The colour and light design, exaggerated to differentiate between the two worlds of reality and fantasy, mean that the film stock appears to have been processed to hell and back, losing subtle detail that a good home cinema system might reveal. But given these basic limitations of the source material, the transfer is a gorgeous one and one doubts it has ever been better presented on film.

He may have no eyes, but he eats babies, good fairies (no, not me, you fool!) and little girls. If you're foolish enough to take some food from the table he may suddenly develop sight.

The main disk features a lively and informative fact-filled commentary track from the director. The only disappointment is that del Toro's usual self-deprecating sense of humour that has often turned his Q&A sessions into a one man stand-up comedy act isn't much in evidence. The second disc contains several good featurettes made during the original production and then after the production has completed. These mostly concentrate on the effects and prosthetics, or on explanatory interviews about the characters, the story or the production process with the director.

The Q&A session at the NFT, which I attended in person, is also included, although very badly presented, with jump cuts where film clips originally appeared, a static camera throughout, and no introduction so that one is never made aware that the interviewer on stage with del Toro is Mark Kermode.

I think there's just about enough here to justify a second disk, but it's a bit of a close call. What's missing is any input from the cast. Given comments made by the various effects and prosthetics personnel one gets the sense that beneath the 'cuddly' persona del Toro wheels out for public display is a rather large ego, and a perfectionist who doesn't suffer fools (or actors who don't quite understand his vision?) gladly. It seems odd when so many other details of the production are covered so well that the cast should be almost entirely absent from these extra features.

Pan's Labyrinth is a wonderful, and original film. Its sub-titled foreign language has apparently stopped people putting their bums on seats in the cinema's - their loss! If you're a fan of adventurous, leading edge cinema with the ability to transport you to a different time and place, then you can't afford to miss this. And given its subtleties and strengths that stand up to repeated viewings this is most definitely a purchase, rather than a rental. Very, very highly recommended!

The film makes good use of CGI, without over-doing it or allowing you to spot 'the dodgy effects'

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Down in the Valley (2006)

Down in the Valley

Edward Norton is always an actor worth watching in my view. He's one of those rare Hollywood actors who seems to choose quality (or at least 'quirky') over quantity when selecting his film roles.

The trailer for Down in the Valley is an intriguing one too, albeit touching on subject matter that seems to have already been covered in last year's The King. So this was on my 'Must See' radar very early on, despite the extremely luke-warm reviews the film received on its theatrical release. The signs had been there of course with the long delay between completion of post-production in 2005 and the eventual theatrical release late in 2006.

Ed Norton plays Harlan, a seemingly friendly rancher with old world values

David Morse plays the distant and rather severe single-parent to a withdrawn, emotionally damaged young boy (Rory Culkin) and a rather obnoxious, petulant and disobedient teenage girl 'Tobe' (Evan Rachel Wood). As the film opens we see that the family are still individually nursing their wounds after the death, presumed to be some years earlier, of the wife and mother of the family.

A chance encounter between Tobe and Norton's character, Harlan Carruthers - a charismatic and seemingly charmingly old-fashioned cowboy - sets in motion a sequence of events that will have fatal consequences for the dysfunctional, but firmly bonded, family that Carruthers inveigles his way into.

Signs that the charming Carruthers might not be all he appears to be are there from his first chance encounter with Tobe at a filling station. Taunted and laughed at by Tobe's friends for being a simpleton from Hicksville, he gives up his job and sole means of income on a whim when Tobe invites him to join her and her friends on a beach trip. Tobe's immature and somewhat furtive infatuation causes problems when it becomes clear how intense Carruthers feelings are. We're talking not so much Down in the Valley here as 'Going Down' in the Valley! Tobe's father is a stern man with old-fashioned values, no matter how charming his daughter's new suitor may appear to be on the surface. He is a suspicious man and not a stupid one, and confrontation seems inevitable when Tobe is arrested with her new boyfriend and there are tell-tale signs that his lonely, fragile son is also being seduced by the new 'father figure' he's secretly been yearning for. While the real father is out earning money to keep the wolves from the door, Carruthers is building relationships that will not only tear the family apart (perhaps before bringing them closer together again?), but will ultimately have tragic consequences.

Evan Rachel Wood is precocious teenager Tobe, who may have taken on more than she's realised when she starts seeing Harlan behind her father's back

If you're looking for a cheery, 'feel good' movie then this isn't it! But if you're looking for an interesting character study, albeit with no great in-depth plot or complex story, then Down in the Valley is well worth 112 minute of your time.

The story, such as it is, is languidly told, with some beautiful cinematography and excellent acting throughout. Admittedly this is primarily a vehicle for Norton, never less than impressive with his fake drawl and beautifully portrayed moments of psychotic behaviour. In weaker hands the Carruthers character would have been inconsistent and far too irrational to be believable, and certainly not the likeable, sympathetic and somewhat tragic character we get here. Norton imbues Carruthers with traits that make his behaviour not only believable, but also somehow justifiable, despite the increasingly obvious signs of mental illness. One never has the sense that this is an evil or deliberately evil man, as one might have had with a weaker performer.

Of course, much of this is down to having a good script, helped significantly, to the detriment of the other characters perhaps, by the amount of screen time Norton is given here to work his performance. But it's the subtle mannerisms that Norton works into the many silent moments he has that convince you his character is real flesh-and-blood rather then esoteric words on a page. There aren't too many actors in Hollywood today who could pull off a performance with as much depth and subtlety as is evident here.

David Morse is single parent Wade, struggling to hold his family together, and suspicious of Harlan from the get-go

If the film does have a weakness, it's that one never feels any real involvement in, or sympathy for, the character who is Carruthers' main protagonist. David Morse is a good actor, but he's not given enough meat in his thinly written part for us to understand his motives, want to identify with him or even to care what happens to him and his family. As a result the big clash of the movie - the showdown between two men totally at odds with each other and fighting for control of the same family - feels more like a damp squib than the climactic ending it should have been. I suspect it's this, rather than the finely detailed, and beautifully depicted journey we've been taken on, at least for the first two thirds of the film, that has resulted in all the luke-warm reviews.

Credibility is needlessly stretched in trying to justify to the audience that Carruthers' Wild West delusions about himself as a cowboy hero from the old Wild West are genuine. A totally unnecessary, distracting and completely unbelievable trick is used to try and show Carruthers' world viewpoint. We are transported with Carruthers back to the old frontier days for several minutes, wondering if what we're seeing is a dream, a fantasy from Carruthers' viewpoint or something else entirely. Eventually a camera is revealed in the background to show that Carruthers has in fact stumbled onto a Western film set and is talking to actors who are playing roles in character, which is a stretch in audience credibility too far. Even the most infrequent film or television viewer surely knows that consecutive scenes are not shot in sequence, without interruption and from different viewpoints in real time, even if they don't twig that you couldn't shoot all the angles and changes shown using a single distant camera! The overall effect is for the audience to go "Whaaaaaaaaat?! You're kidding right?!" at the camera reveal, and as soon as the audience does that you've lost them.

Rory Culkin plays the emotionally stunted Lonnie, who latches onto Harlan as a surrogate father figure

Director/writer David Jacobson's beautifully shot film is flawlessly transferred to DVD, so it's disappointing to have to mark the DVD release down on account of it's having no extra's. You'd think Jacobson would have SOMETHING to say about his film! Only a trailer is included on this 'vanilla' release, and even that's included in one of those 'widescreen displayed inside 4:3 format' versions that lazy film companies seem to have made the norm on releases that are anamorphic widescreen for the main feature.

Down in the Valley is well worth viewing, despite the disappointing box office, if you like your films to be different from the Hollywood formulaic norm. In many ways flawed, it's nevertheless an interesting character study with an acting performance from Norton that's well worth seeing. I recommend it as a rental, or if you're feeling flush, for purchase.

It soon becomes clear that Harlan is not the character he first appears to be

Friday, 16 March 2007

The Queen (2006)

The Queen

If you haven't heard of The Queen you must have been hiding under a rock for the last few months.

Seemingly our only hope at this year's oscars, the film's star, Dame Helen Mirren seems to have won every 'Best Actress' gong going, for her performance here as our Royal Ruler.

Following a worrying trend that started with Pierrepoint, the film represents yet another 'made for TV' drama that, at the last minute, was pulled from the broadcast schedules and rushed into multiplexes instead. Is it any wonder that nobody bothers watching British TV any more? All the decent stuff's being shunted off to try and make money in cinema's instead!

Dame Helen Mirren won an oscar for her performance as Her Madge, The Queen

To say the film has been a huge success would be putting it mildly - just look at the box office takings of over $100 million! Not bad for a film that was produced with only a shoestring TV drama budget to feed it. The critics loved it. The public went and saw it. Dame Helen got an oscar. And seemingly only Mark Kermode had the nerve to swim against the tide pointing out that it really didn't need to be seen on the big screen and didn't really constitute a 'proper' film. Unfortunately I'd have to say I think he hit the nail on the head.

I'd also argue that it's the sort of 'fact based on fiction' piece that is completely misleading and rather dangerous in the 'believe everything you're told' society we tend to live in. In the same way that certain politicians had their entire careers ruined by the satirical TV show Spitting Image, because the public couldn't tell the difference between caricature and reality, The Queen dangerously presents numerous fictions for our entertainment, forgetting to point out that it isn't fact.

Dame Helen Mirren may well be a brilliant actress, but I think her performance here leans too much towards impersonation rather than the best female acting performance of the year, as so many international awards have indicated. There's nothing particularly wrong with impersonation - it's what the part demanded - but it does seem odd that so many people who were outraged at the notion that Sasha Baron Cohen might get a 'Best Actor' nomination for his performance as Borat think nothing of Helen Mirren getting the same for her impersonation of Her Majesty the Queen.

Michael Sheen and Helen McRory as Tony and Cherie Blair

The film, just in case anybody doesn't know, tells the story of the aftermath of the death of Diana Princess of Wales. Thanks to numerous - some might argue TOO numerous - newsreel clips from around the time of her death, she plays almost as big a role in the film as the two main leads: the afore-mentioned Dame Helen and Michael Sheen. Sheen plays the part of Tony Blair, a man in touch with 'his people' in a way that The Queen clearly is not, at least for the first half of the film. I can't help feeling that the actor has suffered somewhat from being in the shadow of the unstoppable Mirren. Where in other years it might have been him up for all the award ceremonies, the attention has all been on the Great Dame of British Acting. Of course Mirren's rivetting, but Sheen's performance is equally compelling, and equally awards-worthy.

Stephen Frears directs, but in a very pedestrian way and no real panache. The low budget is all too obvious, with most of the action seemingly taking place on a single set. There's only the odd sweeping helicopter shot of the local countryside and the endless newsreel clips to really hide the fact that this is a 'film' that didn't have much money at its disposal. Certainly this is not a DVD to show off the home cinema system, or to galvanise wannabe directors across the land into action.

Part of the problem with the film, on reflection, is not just the direction, but also the script. It's obvious that the 'story' is about The Queen, and indeed she's the only character here with any real depth or feeling, or who goes on any kind of journey. But her story is wafer-thin, and there's little to endear her to the general public - her life is too different and alien to most of us.

The film also relies far too much on what it ostensibly wants to criticise - the mass outpouring of emotion and over-the-top hysterical displays of grief for a woman that none of us really knew. I think this is called 'wanting to have your cake and eating it'. One suspects that part of the popularity of this film is the ease with which it enables those who got rather carried away the first time around to relive the experience as if it had happened just yesterday. It seems everybody can remember where they were, and what they were doing, on THAT day, and the film capitalises on that, but without really adding anything new.

Sylvia Sims plays HM The Queen Mother, depicted as an out-of-touch character who likes her tipple

If I seem too down on the film, it's because I'd expected a lot more from a 'film' that was nominated at The Academy Awards for 'Best Film'. It reminds me of other 'great' British efforts like The Full Monty and Shakespeare in Love - not bad films by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly not films I'd include in any 'Best films' list I was drawing up.

There's some nice subtle writing around real-life events here, and some excellent performances from the leading cast too, but the whole piece doesn't feel any more special than the sort of quality drama we used to get on TV for free on an almost weekly basis. And too much of it feels downright dishonest. But don't take my word for it - listen to the accompanying commentary track where the writer and director admit to how much of what is shown was made up, frequently around the tiniest sliver of a rumour or common gossip.

Let me give an example to illustrate my main objection. Towards the end of the second act there is a scene where the Queen, out driving on her own (really?!!)suffers a vehicle breakdown. She encounters a beautiful stag and shares a moment of empathy with it, only to find a short time later that it has been hunted and shot, probably by one of the princes. It's a scene which effectively proves the turning point for the character - an acceptance, and a humanity that the British people and the media in particular have been clamouring for. But it feels utterly contrived and artificial, and indeed the writers confess it was completely invented. I find it hard to identify with a film that presents endless fiction (Cherie Blair offering her husband fishfingers for tea, Blair himself spending most of the day in a football shirt etc) using the names and characters of people that are household names and still alive today.

Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) is not only upset at Diana's death, but terrified that he might get shot by a member of the public

The DVD Amray case arrives in a cardboard slipcase, which seems to be becoming more and more the norm with high profile DVD releases these days. Personally I'd prefer a chapter insert or even a booklet inside the case itself, but I guess beggars can't be choosers.

The low budget pretty of the original production pretty much extends to the extra's that could be made as well. There's the usual rather light Making Of, featureing marketing sound bites from the cast and crew, but looking suspiciously like everyone was filmed on the same day, and at the same location, between takes. It's more of a pre-release advert than anything else.

The commentary track, from director Stephen Frears and writer Peter Morgan, should have proved interesting, but is let down by Frears having seemingly been struck mute for the duration. Morgan tries to get more than the odd grunt of agreement or disagreement out of him, but you can tell his heart's not really in it. The few interesting points made are down to Morgan being terribly indiscrete about others, rather than the 'insider's guide' one might have hoped for.

The Queen is definitely worth a rental, if only to see why Mirren's suddenly clutching a whole bunch of awards. But it's hard to imagine anyone ever wanting to sit through this rather pedestrian drama for a second time. As a result it's not a purchase I'd recommend.

It's not really known whether Tony Blair ever actually went down on one knee when meeting the Queen for the first time