Thursday, 12 April 2007

Doctor Who and the Runaway Bride (2006)

Dr Who - The Runaway Bride

As a license payer, I suppose I should be grateful that BBC Merchandising are screwing Doctor Who fans for every penny they can get. I just wish they'd spend some of the ill-gotten gains from their biggest cash cow on getting some decent scripts written. You've no doubt seen the endless variations on dalek figurines, cyber-men utensils, Doctor Who mugs, magnets, t-shirts and posters that make the over-saturation of the market with 'Lord of the Rings' merchandise back in 2001 look like a famine by way of comparison. And all that's before the profits from 'The Great DVD Rip off' kick in!

The rip off has been implemented with a DVD release strategy that has been cleverly crafted to squeeze every last penny out of gullible fans of the TV series. It goes like this: Release the episodes, three episodes at a time in 'vanilla' versions at the same price as a major motion picture release; then when you've sold the entire series, release a cheaper boxed set that includes all the episodes and a bunch of extra's too so that fans are forced to double-dip. Clever, but indicative of a company at the height of greed, right?

Wrong! Last time around (Season 1 of 'new' Who) the Beeb at least had the decency to include the 'standalone' Christmas episode with the regular episodes. This year the desire to squeeze every last penny out of fans means that you get a single episode on its own DVD selling at a recommended retail price of over £13. Roll on up, suckers! The BBC just loves taking its 'customers' for every penny it can, and it seems that when we're talking a 'National institution' like Doctor Who people just love getting screwed!

'Am I bovvered?'. Catherine Tate plays 'The Runaway Bride'

I mentioned this Christmas episode when it aired on terrestrial TV and, as you may have gathered, I was spectacularly unimpressed. Amongst my complaints at the time were the appallingly loud and totally inappropriate music that crashed and killed every on-screen moment, the infantile scripting, the usual 'ex deus machina' crap ending, and a final act that seemed to be a complete repeat of the first episode of the series that aired with Christopher Ecclestone.

Four months later, re-visiting the episode in the cold light of an Easter Monday, rather than whilst suffering from post-Christmas disappointment, have any of my views changed?

I wish!

'The special effects boys do a good job on a totally gratuitous 'TARDIS careering down the motorway' scene

At least this time around the reason for the bombastic and totally inappropriate music becomes clear. The single episode included is accompanied on the DVD by a rather good one hour documentary about a 'Children in Need' Music and Monsters concert performed in front of 2000 people at Cardiff before the Christmas episode aired. This documentary is the reason why you're looking at a DVD score of five out of ten rather than the four out of ten it really warrants for the featured episode.

After watching the documentary it's very apparent to this viewer that the music which killed that episode was composed entirely for a concert audience, as a reason to justify showing them an 'exclusive' from the upcoming Christmas episode. There is no other excuse I can think of for having silly, big budget Spielberg-like bucanner music playing over every second of on-screen drama!

As for the rest, well I'll grant the series its production values. The 'monster' costume is a bit naff - how could it not be?!, but the rest is pretty impressive for a British TV production. I guess, having had a chance to calm down a bit now, I'll even forgive writer Russel T Davies his endless gay propoganda in a show targeted at children (in this episode the variation on a theme is a highlighted over-the-top all-over-each-other gay couple at the wedding).

But I can't forgive him his appalling storylines, weak, repetitive ending and totally inconsistencies that are introduced purely so that Davies can tell a joke that even a four year old would groan at.

David Tennant plays the Doctor as an over-gurning enthusiastic schoolboy

Several times I wondered why the script kept repeating the fact that the groom was head of human resources. We'd been shown his introduction to the bride in an office which didn't look anything like that frequented by any 'head of human resources', and the repeated mentions sounded artificial and out-of-place. Suddenly it all became clear. It was so that Davies could deliver his 'hilarious' punch line 'We're back - and this time it's personnel'. Laugh? I nearly bought a round! How old is Mr Davies, exactly?!!!

I know this is a show aimed at 'the kids', but do the writers and the producer have any sort of clue as to how to produce a show for children that they'll remember in 40 years time, the way those of us who saw the show in its first incarnations remember it? I doubt it! There are no consistencies to the scripting at all. Rules are made up and then thrown away at random mere moments later. It's lazy writing of the worst order.

Last year's villains - the death-trombone playing Santa's - are back again, for no apparent reason other than this is a Christmas episode and Russel T Davies can't come up with a new idea even if it kicks him in the face. Last year they were the robotic agents of an alien race hell-bent on taking over Earth. This year they're the same agents of a completely different alien race, with no relation to the first, hell-bent on doing the same thing. Go figure!

Sarah Lancashire is totally wasted as a pantomime-styled spider villain

The picture quality is excellent and this is a good DVD tranfer, as is to be expected given the stories that Doctor Who is being shot in high definition these days. Fortunately the DVD is saved somewhat by the 'Music and Monsters' concert documentary, which shows that series composer, Murray Gold, has actually written some good music for the series, it's just that nobody's had the sense to realise when it's appropriate to the story and when it isn't. Sometimes less is more, but nobody on Doctor Who seems to have realised that. And the endless gushing and sycophantic back-slapping is just plain nauseating after a while. As if Billy Bunter and his chronies weren't bad enough, this time around we get a cyberman of all people, gushing about how he'll never forget the day he got to WALK DOWN SOME STAIRS IN FRONT OF AN AUDIENCE OF 2000 PEOPLE AT A CONCERT. To which the only possible response can be 'Get a grip!'. Really, never has so much been made of so little!

The concert itself looked like a good show, although ironically aimed at an entirely different audience from the TV show. Where the TV show is infantile, and aims its storylines and 'jokes' at the lowest common denominator (five year old schoolboys), the concert was a much more high-brow affair, as evidenced by the numerous bored-looking kids in the audience, constantly elbowed into action by parents just a few seconds too late when they realise their cherished ones might be shown on the telly. In one hilarious moment, after we've been shown a whole series of bored children we get the executive producer saying how it has all been worth while just to see the faces on the kids who enjoyed it all so much. You couldn't invent better comedy! The arrogance of the people behind Who in ignoring the evidence right before their eyes is unbelievable. No wonder so many episodes of the new series are such a mess, if these idiots are in charge!

Still, I guess at the online reduced price of £10.89 it's cheaper than a couple of cheap and nasty Christmas Crackers, the sort you get with crap riddles in them, which is the closest analogy I can come up with for this steaming pile of poo, sorry I mean Who.

There's a saying that you can't polish a turd, or put lipstick on a pig. I would argue that this DVD is proof of exactly the opposite. It has, of course, already sold by the bucketload! :(

Haven't we seen this studio set several times before?

Monday, 9 April 2007

The Devil's Backbone (2001)

The Devil's Backbone

The Devil's Backbone is the earlier 'brother' movie to writer/director Guillermo del Toro's triumphant Pan's Labyrinth which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film earlier this year, and which I reviewed here.

Like its 'sister' movie, The Devil's Backbone is set in the time of the Spanish Civil War and can loosely be termed a 'horror' movie, albeit one with such intelligence and depth of character that the usual labels don't apply. The film was previously (I've been told) only available as a rather poor non-anamorphic DVD, but has now been released in a pristine new transfer as part of this Guillermo del Toro box set, which leaves the director's fans with a difficult decision: do they purchase Pan's Labyrinth on its own as a double-disc set, or forfeit the extra disc and purchase it in this boxed set which includes the new edition of The Devil's Backbone, as well as the Special Edition of the director's first film Cronos (which is also available separately, where The Devil's Backbone isn't!)

Personally I'd opt for the latter - The Devil's Backbone is an exceptionally good film, and although the critics generally seem to think the later Labyrinth movie is the better of the two - and a real masterpiece - I find it hard to favour one over the other. In some ways The Devil's Backbone is more mainstream, omitting some of the extreme violence that peppered Pan's Labyrinth and made the film less accessible to some.

Carlos is the new arrival at the orphanage. Not realising why he is there he nevertheless senses the presence of a ghostly young boy of about his own age

As the film starts we meet Carlos, on a 'visit' to a rather remote orphanage that is intended to be a permanent one. Carlos is a young boy whose father has been killed in the War, although he doesn't know it yet. The orphanage is run by the kindly, but somewhat curt, Carmen, who tries to keep the boys fed and clothed, despite difficulties caused by the ongoing Spanish Civil War which cause appalling poverty and rationing. Carmen has gold to keep the orphanage running, but it seems even gold is no longer enough to acquire the required food and munitions, with the fascists starting to close in. She runs the orphanage with the help of the kindly Professor Cesares and the young couple Jacarto and Conchita, who, it appears, are planning to get married. However Jacarto, a former pupil at the orphanage, is only helping out in order to steal Carmen's gold, and is using Conchita just as he's using the elderly Carmen who he's sleeping with.

Carlos becomes the victim of bullies, but holds his ground and appears to take some solace in 'talking' to an unexploded, reportedly harmless, bomb that is the main feature of the orphanage courtyard. During one of these talks he sees the ghost of a boy, Santi, of about his own age who warns him that 'Many will die'. As the fascist troops appear to be about to move in Jacarto is ready to make his move and steal Carmen's gold, and Carlos becomes less afraid of the ghost who appears to be trying to warn him of the death and bloodshed that will soon arrive.

In fact there's a lot more to the story, than the somewhat crude synopsis above reveals (two unrequited love stories just for starters) and it's these side stories that make del Toro's work so intruguing

The orphanage is run by the curt, but good-hearted, Carmen with the help of the kindly Professor Casares

In many ways it's hard to find something new to say about this film when compared with others from the same director. All the things I've come to expect are here: a brilliant, totally believable cast, wonderful cinematography, a script that has real depth and subtle touches that only get noticed on subsequent re-viewings.

It's actually impossible to highlight the best acting performance because they are all so good. Edoardo Noriega, as the fascistic Jacarto, manages to convince in a very difficult role where he has to be the blacker-than-black villain, whilst also being good-looking, sexy and charming enough to convince us that the kind-hearted Conchitta and older Carmen would fall for his charms. Federico Luppi breaks your heart as the kindly professor, in a role very different from that he played in the same director's previous Cronos film. Fernando Tielve feels like he's stepped off the page of many a traditional children's fairy tale, giving what could have been a two-dimensional character real flesh and blood. And... the list goes on. There is not a dud performance here, not even in the most minor of roles.

Jacinto has the charm and good looks to fool the ladies of the orphanage he was formerly a pupil at, but he has a black soul and is using the women and their orphanage for his own means

If you like your stories one dimensional, with little other than the main 'ghost' story featured, then this may not be the film for you. It's the depth del Toro gives in small side-stories and characters that, for me, make films like this stand head and shoulders above the simplistic, unimaginative likes of the Harry Potter movies. You might argue that this is an unfair comparison since one is a children's adventure story, and the other is a horror movie, but I would argue that these films are actually very similar in the sort of story they have to tell - they are both 'rites of passage' movies - it's just that one is extremely infantile and derivative, where the other is intelligent and has real depth.

That del Toro manages to achieve what he does, with uniformly enthusiastic reviews from public and critics alike, despite the film 'suffering' from a non-English language soundtrack, is a testimony to the power of his work as a film-maker, and it's scandalous that the man hasn't had the freedom he should have had when making his English-language Hollywood films. The Devil's Backbone is a wonderful film, and if you enjoyed Pan's Labyrinth I strongly urge you to check out The Devil's Backbone too - it really is in the same league.

'Many of you will die' warns the ghost of Santi, a former pupil at the orphanage

The film may be excellent, but the DVD loses a mark for the extra's. Unfortunately the decent extra's have been placed on other releases in the del Toro box set, or in the two disc release of Pan's Labyrinth. You get a short Making of featurette and that's pretty much it, other than the excellent 'UK exclusive' director's commentary. As has become par for the course the director points out lots of little gems that you wouldn't notice on a single viewing (eg all the 'good' characters have names that begin with a 'C', all the 'bad' characters names begin with a 'J', while the bully who could go either way has a name that starts with a deliberately ambiguous 'H'!). There is an extra that looks like it's going to be a featurette on the film's effects, but it turns out to be just raw footage used that is the film equivalent of watching paint dry. The commentary is full of the usual fascinating insights from del Toro, but is hidden away on the audio menu, not the extra's one, so easy to miss.

So the DVD is excellent, but the way the film company have chosen to make this new pristine DVD transfer and diretor's commentary exclusive to this boxed set is extremely annoying for those fans who want the most complete versions of all del Toro's Spanish films. If you want the most complete and interesting versions of each DVD you will end up, like me, having to buy Pan's Labyrinth again to get the decent extra's that are exclusive to the standalone two-disc release. If the film company had released this excellent new version of The Devil's Backbone as a standalone release, would-be purchasers could then have purchased the best versions of all three films without having to make double-dip purchases. I suspect that a standalone version of this film will suddenly appear on the schedules once this boxed set has been given the time needed to maximise its sales.

Which brings me onto the box set itself. Overall I'll give it an eight out of ten. Cronos lets it down because of the poor picture quality, but otherwise it's an excellent value-for-money package, and comes with a nice 16-page colour booklet that summarises del Toro's film career. Highly recommended!

Thwarted in his attempts to steal gold from the orphenage, Jacinto destroys the gasoline needed to get the boys to safety in an explosion that destroys part of the building, which has fatal consequences for Professor Cesares

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Cronos (1993)


Cronos is Mexican director Guillermo del Torro's take on the Dracula legend, given a very different setting from that which you might expect, and with very much an 'art house' feel.

The budget may be low, but the ideas and the director's imagination aren't, despite this being his first film, and the end results give a refreshingly different take on the whole legend of eternal life sustained through blood-sucking vampirism.

So this would be a recommended rental from me, if it weren't for the very disappointing quality of the transfer on this DVD. Too often the quality is worse than a poor VHS recording, making this very much the poor relation to the other two releases in the Guillermo del Toro boxed set.

Please note that the ratings given in the 'At a Glance' box are for this disc alone, and not for the whole box set, which will be reviewed in its own right as part of the separate The Devil's Backbone review, scheduled to appear late in the day tomorrow (Sunday).

Federico Luppi and Tamara Shanath as Jesus Gris and grand-daughter Aurora before Jesus becomes infected by the Cronos device

The unsubtly named Jesus Gris, played by Federico Luppi, runs an antique shop and helps bring up his orphaned grand-daughter Aurora with the help of his wife Mercedes. On Christmas Eve he discovers a scarab-beetle like mechanical device which he activates, not realising that it is the work of a sixteenth century alchemist who appears to have discovered the secret to eternal life. The alchemist has lost the device and died when the building in which he lives collapses, causing a wooden stake-shaped wooden raft to pierce his heart.

A wealthy, terminally ill, industrialist Dieter de la Guardia (Claudio Brook), has discovered the handbook to the device and has a hired henchman Angel (Ron Perlman) to search all the antique shops in Mexico in an attempt to find the device itself.

Jesus finds himself becoming addicted to using the device, discovering it appears to have a side-effect of giving him a more youthful appearance, but is eventually tracked down by the industrialist who warns him of the dangers of using the device without the instruction booklet. Angel ransacks Jesus' shop but is unable to find the device his master is prepared to pay a lot of money for.

At a New Year's Eve party Jesus finds himself thirsting for blood, just before Angel attacks him, and beats him to a pulp trying to discover the whereabouts of the Cronos device his employer wants. Accidentally killing Jesus, he stages a car accident to kill him but on advice from his employer gatecrashes the funeral to discover the body appears to have vanished just before a planned cremation. Thanks to the device Jesus has risen from the dead, and it's now up to him and his grand-daughter Aurora to stop the industrialist and his henchman getting their hands on the device to prolong their own lives. Will Jesus become the vampire of legend, or remain loyal to his grand-daughter, so desperate to help him remain alive?

Ron Perlman plays the thuggish Angel de la Guardia, who will help Jesus achieve his destiny

The religious analogies are fairly obvious, from the timing of the story, through the naming of the main character, his 'three day resurrection', and even down to the naming of the thuggish character who will ultimately help Jesus fulfill his destiny. However there are also some wonderfully subtle puzzles and clues left by del Torro, such as the thug's obsession to earn the money needed to have his nose changed through plastic surgery (many believe the soul leaves the body through the nose). De Toro's use of a mixture of pagean and religious icons and motifs make the film a fun one for trainspotters and film students alike.

The performances, particularly from Federico Luppi as Jesus, are excellent and Del Toro also shows he can get surprisingly good performances out of very young child actors, something that he has capitalised on with virtually every film he's made since. Although less mainstream than his other Spanish language movies, there's the same originality and intelligence on display here, with some wonderfully deft touches that belie the extremely low budget the film had at its disposal. This is not the Dracula story as most of us know it, and it's a much stronger film, if a tougher sell, as a result.

Although advertised as Del Toro's first Spanish language film - in fact his first film, full-stop - much of the dialog is spoken in English so this is not so difficult for English audiences averse to reading words on a screen to sit through as the director's later work that is also included in this box set.

Claudio Brook as the wealthy industrialist Dieter de la Guardia, desperate to get hold of the Cronos device

The film will probably be of most interest to film students keen to see where Pan's Labyrinth and some of the director's Hollywood movies (especially Mimic and Hellboy) actually came from. Where the director's other Spanish language movies are far superior to anything the director made when forced to compromise with Hollywood studio heads and 'the suits', Cronos is more on a par with those Hollywood films, feeling somewhat compromised in its delivery, mainly because of budgetary problems and inexperience.

The transfer to DVD is quite dreadful with little detail evident, and a picture that is so murky, muddy and soft one might think it had been sourced from a poor VHS transfer. There are terrible combing artefacts throughout, making the whole thing almost painful to watch on a big screen. This is not a DVD to show off your big screen TV!

Jesus finds the device has made him younger, but left him with some odd cravings

The DVD loses a couple of points for the appallingly bad picture quality, but wins them back for the extra's, which have been updated for 2006. An hour long interview with director/writer Guillermo del Toro covers all of his career, and gives a fascinating insight into how difficult making this film, and the one that followed it, was. The film may have cost very little but crippling bank interest charges, incurred when an American producer pulled out at the last minute, meant that the film went way over budget.

There is also an eight minute interview with Del Toro's cinematographer and friend Guillermo Navarro, but the stand-out extra is the director's commentary where Del Toro points out the different religious analogies he was making, revealing the often subtle clues that pepper the film as it progresses.

Available as a stand-alone 'Special Edition' release, currently available online for just £7.89 I'd steer clear of this release unless you already have both Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone. The boxed set contains a superior version of the next film in sequence, as well as a superb transfer of Pan's Labyrinth. Although Cronos is an interesting film, it is not in the same league as the films that were to follow, and given the very poor picture quality here this is one release you may want to check out as a rental rather than a purchase.

The Cronos device mixes the biological and the mechanical to achieve its results

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Over The Hedge (2006)

Over The Hedge

Anybody who's had the misfortune to have to sit through a TV chat show interview with Bruce Willis knows that the man appears to have had a serious personality bypass. Getting him to volunteer any information is like pulling teeth, and in real life he appears to have all the charisma of a plank of wood.

So it seems bizarre to say the least to have him heading up the cast in a CGI 'toon. Voice acting for such projects involves having to over-project and exaggerate personality and speech. And if there isn't much personality there to start with.... What's really very impressive is that Willis actually pulls it off. Who'd a thunk?!

Garry Shandling plays Verne, the wise tortoise in the group

Over The Hedge is yet another of those 'diverse animals on a big adventure' stories. You know the sort - lots of 'different' personalities and some sort of 'life lesson' subject buried in amongst the fart and sight gags. This time around it's ecology (again!) with us humans being the butt of the criticism, what with our wasteful ways and all. Want an example? Encountering a people carrier one animal asks how many humans it carries. 'Usually one' comes the rather tart reply. If subtlety's your thing then this film probably isn't for you!

Fortunately, although the ecology message is plastered all over the film with a trowel, it is saved by a lively action-packed yarn, and an array of characters that have plenty to do. As a result, it's very hard to resist its not inconsiderable charms, despite the clichés that abound. Unlike Happy Feet, which I reviewed a couple of days ago on HD-DVD, young kids are unlikely to get bored by the lack of change of background scenery or slapstick action with this film.

The Laughing Hyenas

Bruce Willis plays 'RJ' a rather over-coiffured raccoon who's on the run from a large bear, with time running out on a promise that he'll return stolen food or face the consequences. He finds a group of gullible animals just walking up from hibernation, who have just discovered that a large hedge has appeared on their land, severely limiting their opportunities for finding food. With his knowledge of the new suburbia that's encroaching on their land, RJ sets out to take advantage of the animals and get them to steal food from the humans that he can use to pay off his debt to the bear.

You can probably guess the ending already. As is usual with these things, RJ eventually sees the error of his ways, and comes to learn that friends and loyalty are more important than being a loner who constantly steals and scavenges. Hoorah!

The cast all do an excellent job, and what a cast this is! Garry Shandling plays the cool, calm and collected Verne who has been the leader of the animals until they've fallen under the spell of the new usurper from out of town. Steve Carrell plays the completely mad, hyper-active Hammy. Check out the cast list on imdb and you'll see William Shatner and Nick Nolte and... well the list of celebrities is endless, and they all manage to acquit themselves with honour. Half of the fun with this film, for adults at least, is vaguely recognising a voice and trying to guess which famous celebrity it is.

A Skunk with Attitude!

Of the three CGI 'toons I've reviewed this week, this is probably the one that will be most popular with younger kids, featuring a lot of slapstick and visual sight gags, instead of aiming too much of the story over their heads at adults. Not that adults will be bored - the ridiculously diverse characters are too entertaining for that, and even if a scene comes along that is a bit too clichéd or boring things move along so fast that you can relax, knowing there will be something more interesting coming along any minute.

If the film does have a fault it's that it's a bit of a hotch-potch. Not so much a story, as a series of sketches slotted together pretending to be a story!

The transfer to DVD is stunning. Colours are nice and vibrant, so that at times the picture feels almost 3D-like. This could give some of the weaker High Definition releases a run for their money!

The extra's on the main DVD are a little skimpy, although the obscure animated menu does its best to disguise the fact. A couple of different menu items take you to the same extra, and often the item is just a short trailer or very short featurette or, worse, an advert for yet another CGI adventure or traditional cartoon available on DVD. Such blatent marketing to kids really shouldn't be allowed.

The frenetic, slightly mad squirrel

The DVD packaging boasts of 'bags of bonus features', but that's bags as in the size of the ones you get under your eyes, rather than anything that would really count as being substantial.

The highlight is the short (as in just a few minutes) Hammy's Boomerang Adventure, and it's joined by a short Making of which shows most of the celebrity talent behind the vocals, a rather odd Dwayne's Verm-Tech Infomercial which is a spoof ad for the rodent disposal company featured in the main film, and an Insiders Look which seems to consist mainly of people boasting about how they've managed to realistically reproduce fur. It's never much fun seeing rather immodest people patting themselves on the backs for the new realism they've produced, and I think the screencaps on this page show how exaggerated some of their claims might be. It's not that the CGI is bad, it's just that somehow it doesn't feel quite finished in too many places.

That being said, it's an enjoyable enough 'toon, and certainly one of the better ones that received a theatrical release last year. It's currently available in a special twin-pack that includes a Dreamworks Interactive DVD Game, all for the same price as an ordinary single DVD would sell for, so it's a bit of a bargain. Kids will find plenty to play and re-play with this DVD set and so this is a recommended purchase rather than a rental.

The other side of the hedge

Monday, 2 April 2007

Flushed Away (2006)

Flushed Away

I think I must be reading the wrong critics. According to the sleeve on the Flushed Away DVD, officially released in stores today, the film was "one of the year's best-reviewed films".

My recollection of the reviews published at the time of the film's theatrical release is that critics were generally unimpressed by Aardman's first foray into CGI work, with the broad concensus being that this was very much a 'me too' film with little to differentiate it from the veritable deluge of CGI movies we've seen over the last twelve months.

More recently the media seem to have leapt on the box-office faulure of this film as being the reason why the lucrative deal between Aardman and DreamWorks has just been terminated, presumably making it difficult for Aardman to finance and distribute similar big-budget efforts in the future. To me, this is very much a case of history being rewritten since the signs of potential problems were there long before the release of Flushed Away, when Aardman's Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit failed to deliver at the American box office, despite incredibly enthusiastic reviews and official oscar recognition.

Flushed Away controversially moves away from Aardman's traditional, world-reknowned plasticine animation process into the world of CGI, and as such was always going to be a rather high risk venture. Add in the fact that the film doesn't have familiar, well-known characters to pull people in, the way the Wallace and Gromit movie did, and it's fairly obvious that Flushed Away was always going to be a tougher sell. The relatively disappointing American box office should have been expected, even if some of the American reviewers had been far more fulsome in their praise of the film than they actually turned out to be.

Hugh Jackman voices pampered pet mouse Roddy St James

Unfortunately the finished film does occasionally feel like it has a split-personality. At times the CGI work looks like the best work we've come to expect from the Americans. At others it has the slightly clunkier feel of its plasticine counterparts. You can't help notice instances where only parts of a figure are moving, where your brain is telling your eyes that more should be happening since this ISN'T a plasticine production. We've come to expect more in terms of real life movement thanks to the likes of Cars which have moved things so far forwards in terms of what can be accomplished technically in the CGI world.

But that's a small criticism given the wit and overall inventiveness shown here. The opening scene alone is worth the price of admission, with the genre sending itself up something rotten, as Roddy the mouse rodent plays with static Toy Story-like pals, attempting to emulate real life in an empty Hampstead house. The humour may be somewhat slap-stick at times but there are constant reminders that perfectionists have been at work on the film, adding touches here and there that will only get noticed on a second or third viewing, and adding much-needed subtlety for those of us that prefer our humour to be a bit more intellectual.

I've enjoyed several CGI films this year, and I'll be reviewing a couple more good CGI movies recently released on DVD and HD-DVD over the next couple of days, but I can't say any of them have had me laughing out loud the way Flushed Away had me doing in more than just a couple of places.

Roddy's life changes dramatically when punk rat Sid, voiced by Shane Ritchie, invades his Hampstead flat

The core story about a posh rodent losing his home, meeting a rough girl with a huge family from the suburbs (or sewers) and battling an evil maniac intent on destroying the world may not be new, but the embellishments and the telling of the story are wonderfully inventive at times and, thankfully, wonderfully British.It's refreshing to see a big-budget film that doesn't pander overmuch to its Hollywood paymasters when it comes to delivering punchlines and in-jokes. One suspects that there is a lot here that won't have anything like the same comedy impact Stateside, but is that such a bad thing when we have so little cultural identity of our own?

Roddy the Rodent is voiced by Hugh Jackman, a real revelation in the role of the terribly British Roddy. He manages the difficult task of making Roddy both snobbish and patronising, whilst also vulnerable and loveable, switching from slapstick comedy one moment to bathos the next. And he can sing too. The man has far too much talent than is natural for any one person to posess. Kate Winslett proves all those acting awards are given her for a reason, playing Roddy's rough diamond love interest as a cross between Catherine Tate's 'Am I bovvered?' character and Angeline Jolie's action figure in the Tomb Raider series. The two leads are supported by wonderful performances from an all-star cast - a barely recognisable William Nighy and Andy Serkis as the two henchman to Ian McKellen's wonderfully over-the-top villain Mr Toad. And let's not forget Jean Reno who gamely plays along with the British-perceived stereotypical French character of Le Frog, admitting at one point 'It's because I'm French' in a way that one would have never expected from a country that at times seems to take itself way too seriously. It's great stuff!

The big villain of the piece is Prince Charles' former pet The Toad, voiced by Sir Ian McKellen

Ian La Frenais and Dick Clement are well known as the writers of sit-coms that were particularly successful in the last century, but it's hard to think of recent work of theirs that has impressed (Have you seen Goal!? - Enough said!) But Flushed Away does impress. Not with the basic plot which is an extremely familiar one, but with the way scenes have been invented around traditional story elements that have already been done to death, to give them a freshness and vitality that's all too rare in CGI films like this. Whether this is down to a 'spit and polish' from co-writers Sam Fell and Peter Lord is hard to say, but the important thing is that the story works on several levels - a basic morality tale for the kids, and a laughter roller-coaster ride for the adults. The film is a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it far more than I'd expected to.

The picture quality on this DVD transfer is superb, as one has come to expect from CGI work, and good use is made of surround sound too. Surprisingly I found the occasional use of standard pop tunes worked for me much better than the main film score, which the creators gush about endlessly on the extra's as having turned the movie into a 'real film', but which to me just sounds old-fashioned and like a million other 'me too' film scores. The gimmick of the singing slugs is somewhat over-used, but in general the pop tunes work because they add something to the plot, lifting the mood and also being lyrically relevant, which is unusual in this genre.

Kate Winslett polished off her Catherine Tate impression to play Roddy's love interest, Kate, a bit of a rough diamond, but with a heart of gold

The extra's include the usual 'kids games' and a bunch of gimmicks that promise more than they deliver. The Slug Singers present three songs, but these are merely short extracts (less than a minute) rather than complete songs. The heavily promoted Flushed Away Jukebox turns out to be simply a selection of 4:3 aspect ratio video extracts from other CGI films like Shrek, Shrek II and Over the Hedge with the unsubtle sales message 'Available on DVD' flashed at various strategic points.

Fortunately the adults haven't been entirely forgotten. There is a Making of which features the usual talking heads and shows the celebrity voice actors at work - this is very much a marketing fluff featurette, but fun to watch nevertheless. There is a commentary track from the two directors, but it feels like a wasted opportunity. The directors interrupt each other far too often, usually just at the point when it sounds like something interesting is going to be revealed. There's a lot of talk about scenes that were excluded or changed, but too often no reason is given to explain the omission or change of heart.

Flushed Away is a fun ride, and one that follows the conventions of Aardman's plasticine productions. Repeat viewings will reveal new comic gems frequently missed on an initial viewing, with so much happening in the backgrounds of scenes away from the main action. Although the film follows a rather hackneyed plot there are enough 'in' jokes and genuinely inventive moments to keep adults and kids equally amused. This one's recommended as a purchase!

The bustling underground hidden in our sewers

Sunday, 1 April 2007

The Notorious Bettie Page

The Notorious Betty Page

Filmed mainly in black and white to recreate the atmosphere of 1950's New York, The Notorious Bettie Page tells the real life story of the woman who was 'the pin-up sensation that shocked a nation'.

Directed and co-written by Mary Harron who, aside from the wonderful American Psycho has worked mainly on television shows, the stylishly shot film received very luke-warm reviews on theatrical release. Based on the photographic evidence available the real-life Bettie Page certainly had legs, but can the same be said of the film that bears her name?

Gretchen Moll stars as 'The Notorious Bettie Page', the pin-up sensation that shocked a nation

The film opens with a visit to a seedy 'pin-up/nude magazine' store. An undercover detective uses discrete language to ask for some fetishistic bondage photo's and is offered a picture of Bettie Page wearing kinky boots and girdle. This is the cue for him to show his badge and grab all available evidence for an upcoming congressional hearing into pornography and sleaze. David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck) plays the Tennessee senator who's effectively the presiding prosecutor, judge and jury in the hearings. The senator believes that the sort of pictures taken by the police pose more of a threat to America than drugs and Communism. The hearings serve as the introduction to what will be a long series of flashbacks devoted to telling Bettie Page's back story.

Page is a Christian girl who's had a strict upbringing in Nashville, Tennessee albeit with a sense of optimism and a certain flirty joie de vivre that she maintains despite some fairly traumatic experiences. There is a hint, albeit a single non-explicit one, that as a teenage girl she is be being sexually abused by her father. Protected from a long line of would-be courters by her controlling mother she leaps on the chance to escape when a forward young man manages to somehow evade her mother and ask her on a date, declaring to his best friend that he will marry her. The marriage materialises, but is short-lived when the new husband turns abusive, and Bettie escapes to New York with the hope of becoming an actress.

Jonathan M Woodward is Marvin, a 'Montgomery Clift lookalike' who becomes Bettie's boyfriend but struggles to cope with Bettie's perverse modelling work

More by accident than design she finds herself becoming a glamour model, and eventually meets husband and wife team, Paula and Irving Klaw who run a movie memorabilia shop but find that a sideline of selling glamour photos is more profitable. Bettie is soon asked to pose for photo's for special clients who want bondage photo's, and regarding it as all a game she is happy to oblige. Her popularity rises and the money comes in useful when the acting jobs fail to come through. At her acting class she meets Marvin, a "Montgomery Clift look-alike", and the two soon become an item. Marvin is a decent sort who never understands Bettie's modeling career, and eventually falls out with her when he finds some of her more kinky photo's abandoned by a fan who approaches her at a party, hoping she will dominate him! The Klaws are forced to burn their negatives and shut up shop after the congressional hearing, and Bettie is never called to testify, but disillusioned with her boyfriend and the attitude of people in general she turns back to Christianity and becomes an ambassador for the church.

The film presents Bettie as a good-hearted soul who sees no harm in the work she does. When asked how she can justify posing naked, given her belief in God, she refers to the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, pointing out that they spent most of their time naked and that trouble only started when they started putting clothes on! Her positive energy, somewhat naive enthusiasm and ability to trust people despite some very bad early encounters (which include an abusive father, a wife-beating husband and a gang rape), have the potential to deliver a heart-warming story of a struggle against adversity. Unfortunately it's a potential that's never realised because once the early years are out the way in the first 20 minutes, there's little more to the story. The plot feels thin, and lacks the underlying core that will have the audience rooting for the heroine, or even forming any kind of bond with her.

Lili Taylor, last seen in 'Six Feet Under' plays Paula Klaw, one half of the husband and wife team who hire Bettie for photographic modelling work

Although the subject matter is potentially interesting, everybody involved in the porn game is one-dimenstional: uniformly nice, well meaning and incredibly bland. Bettie's motives, particularly given her strict upbringing, make no real sense, and this is compounded by the details given of her relationship with her only real close friend, Marvin. Marvin is a decent sort, who tolerates his girlfriend's modeling work until it becomes obvious that the sort of work she is doing is not 'normal' by any acceptable 1950's definition of the word. Not unreasonably he makes his feelings clear and is immediately rejected, with Bettie picking up a stranger on a beach walk before deciding that any relationship there is also doomed to failure. She discovers a late night church service and finds comfort there, deciding to give up her previous life and work for the Church. It's hard to identify with someone who has been so horribly abused, but when presented with a good man and salvation seems so determined to turn it down. The sudden transition to a life in the Church just doesn't ring true given what we've seen of her attitude to her work earlier in the film.

The film is stylish, and beautifully shot, perfectly evoking the mood of 1950's New York. The use of colour is sparse, but effective when used, highlighting the glamour of the rather innocent, by today's standards, pin-up magazines, and mimicking early Super 8 colour films. The acting, particularly from Gretchen Moll, is outstanding with an excellent supporting cast even in the minor roles. But the plot lacks substance, and the film never really takes off as a result. As the final credits roll after a light and breezy 90 minutes, one is forced to ask 'Why did someone think Bettie Page's life was interesting enough to form the basis of a film?'. The truth is that this is the sort of 'slutty girl with a heart of gold' story that's been told many times before, but usually as part of a much more important, forceful, and stronger story.

Chris Bauer is Irving Klaw who finds himself the victim of an anti-sleaze campaign by congressional senators

The transfer to DVD is excellent, with no flecks, specks or dust, although problems between different film/power ratings in the US and UK mean that some early motion scenes in the film are very jerky and unsettling if seen on a large screen. There's good use of period music, and the black and white cinematography is at times positively stunning. One problem this causes is that archive footage used to depict certain scenes sticks out like a sore thumb, being considerably softer and somewhat print-damaged compared with the new material.

Extra's include a commentary by the director, co-writers and leading actress, which is in some ways far more entertaining and informative than the main feature itself. Unfortunately there's no Making of as such, although there is about 35 minutes of roughly-edited interviews with four different members of the cast and crew. There's also a two-three minute short 'titillation' colour film featuring the original Bettie Page herself, together with the original trailer.

The film is worth a rental, if only for the stylish cinematography and Moll's excellent performance. But it's not really a keeper and while Bettie Page certainly had legs, unfortunately the film bearing her name doesn't!

Naive innocent or practical victim? The viewera are left to make up their own minds