Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Flood (2007)

Flood: Film 6 out of 10, DVD 6 out of 10, On Sale 29th October 2007 at a typical online price of £12.89. Imdb rating at time of writing is 5.6

Confusion abounds over whether Flood is a genuine British film that was released theatrically, or simply a direct-to-DVD unaired TV show. What can be stated with some degree of certainty is that in New Zealand it aired as a two-part TV drama, and that if it did get a theatrical release in the UK, it's probably only because somebody got carried away with how well another TV drama (aka The Queen) had done at the oscars, and assumed this might have similar box office success.

Whether the release to just one or two cinema's was a deliberate choice (to avoid the dreaded 'Direct to DVD' tag) or enforced by a need to be sensitive in a year that saw unprecedented bad weather hit Britain earlier this year, is a bit of a moot point, because unfortunately the 'film' has 'TV drama' rather than 'epic disaster movie' written all over it.

Robert Carlyle plays marine engineer Rob Morrison

Perhaps the biggest giveaway of its TV origins is the cast. OK, so maybe Tom Courtenay and Robert Carlyle can be counted as movie stars, but they stand isolated from so many stalwarts of British TV series over the years that part of the problem with the film is the continual distraction of wanting to 'name the show this or that actor was last in'. I lost count after wasting too much time trying to remember 'Neil from the Young Ones', 'that girl who got raped in The Jewel in the Crown' or 'Inspector Poirot', as familiar faces appeared in quick succession in a never-ending series of cameos from the British TV acting establishment.

Jessalyn Gilsig, recognisable from bit parts in several popular U.S. TV shows, is brought in to help increase the chance of possible sales in the USA, and helps round out a strong cast that are in urgent need of a half-decent script.

Jessalyn Gilsig plays the part of 'Thames Barrier expert' and ex-wife who Morrison is still in love with. You can just guess how this is all going to end, can't you?!

It was standard fare in the Hollywood disaster movies of the 70's to have little in the way of 'character' or 'plot', because the emphasis was always on the big effects. But things have moved on, and without the big-budget effects available to Hollywood, the clichéd seen-it-all-100-times-before storyline just comes across as weak, uninspired and, by the time we've got an hour in and most of the CGI work has been shown, just plain dull.

The story, for what it is, centres primarily around three characters: Rob Morrison (Robert Carlyle with an accent that is sure it's British, but can't seem to make up its mind as to whether it's working class or middle class) is a marine engineer, still in love with the wife Sam (a Thames Barrier 'expert') who has been separated from him for several months. For added depth, the character also gets an estranged father who is resented for having spent too much time with silly ideas about the Thames Barrier not working, rather than at home nursing his dying, cancer-stricken, wife. It's exactly rocket science to work how these relationships are all going to pan out, given that 'unexpected' floods are suddenly hurling towards London, threatening to kill hundreds of thousands of people.

Even if the character set-up we're given had been less 'do it by numbers', it's doubtful the characters would be any more sympathetic given the way they're pushed aside whenever someone somewhere has decided the 'film' isn't moving fast enough. Edits are fast and flashy, mainly one suspects to cover up the fact that there's so little money available for what we've really come to see here - those CGI shots of London under water.

The shooting style doesn't help either, featuring what looks like a poor imitation of the big American shows like 24 and Battlestar Galactica: all hand-held, quick-zoom, 'adjust the focus whilst shooting' nonsense that the Americans are currently in love with. If one switched into this DVD half-way through one could be forgiven for thinking one had turned on a recent episode of Spooks, albeit an episode with a higher-than-average budget for water tanks, if a lower-than-average budget for the script!

The biggest sin though appears to have been the rush to fit everything into two 50-minute halves for TV sales (as evidenced by a silly cliff-hanger exactly mid-way into the running time of the 'movie') which has made a nonsense of any sense of continuity and pacing. The first half tacks on a silly 'Scotland flooded first' to lure the viewers in at the start, meaning that the rest of the first 50 minutes has to be rushed to get to the cliff-hanger in time, and the second half drags to the point of utter tedium once the flood has finished doing its stuff.

As just one example of this poor editing, consider a scene where we have Carlyle's character refusing point-blank to even meet his father, denouncing him as a crazy lunatic with a deluded obsession that the Thames Barrier won't cope with any floodwater, only to then cut to a scene where his father is reporting via video camera to the government, with the suddenly reconciled-for-no-apparent-reason son appearing alongside him and speaking up on his behalf! It's a rather confusing mess!

Inspector Poirot is called in to help, but finds it all too stressful. Plenty of dead bodies, but you can't arrest a flood!

All that being said, it's doubtful that disaster movie fans, who after all are the most likely purchasers given the way the DVD has been presented and marketed, will necessarily care about such things. The same vicarious thrills experienced on seeing The White House destroyed in Independence Day back in the 90's, can be experienced here again, with all the big London landmarks having their moments of CGI fame. And whilst the CGI work may not be up to Hollywood blockbuster standards, they're thankfully superior to those featured on the BBC's 'flag ship' (stop laughing at the back, there) Saturday night offering Dr Who.

The cast, as one would expect given the pretty heavyweight talent featured here, do a sterling job of trying to deliver the shoddy lines they've been given, and the various water tank scenes are very impressive, particularly if you make believe you're watching a British TV show rather than a 'real' film.

Tom Courtenay plays Morrison's estranged father. Seems he made a lousy Dad because he spent every waking hour warning people what would happen if there was a flood. But will he get the chance to say 'Nyaaa! Nyaaa!' before he drowns?!

Picture quality is up to TV broadcast standards, and the sound too is acceptable, particularly when it needs to be expansive, during the big flood scenes.

Given the money that's been spent here (how will they make any of it back?!) one might have expected something some pretty decent material being available on the extra's front. It's clear that, in the action scenes at least, a lot of work was put in, and given the quality of the special effecs, along with the propensity of Soho FX house staff to talk endlessly and enthusiastically about their work, one might have expected quite a lot. Alas, all we get are a few tired sound-bites from a few of the main cast members and the producers, artificially split up by 'white text on black background' captioned questions. Annoyingly, the badly edited replies all fade out the sound before the picture, leaving actors with mouths moving but no sound before the next dreary caption appears.

If you live in London, or just fancy a bit of TV drama instead of yet another reality TV show, the DVD is probably worth a rental, if only to see some of our best British thespians at work, or to snigger at familiar landmarks being laid waste by water damage. But it's hard to imagine anybody wanting to sit through a repeat viewing, when so much of what's featured here seems to have already been shown on our screens many, many times before. It's not a terrible DVD but, when all things are taken into account one is forced to the conclusion that the characters are all too wet and that Flood is nothing more than a damp squib.

Tower Bridge goes under as Monty Python point out 'It's only a model!'

Monday, 29 October 2007

Kiss of Death (1947)

Kiss of Death: Film 8 out of 10, DVD 8 out of 10, On Sale 15th October 2007 at a typical online price of £13.89. Imdb rating at time of writing is 7.6, Rotten Tomatoes is 92% fresh

If you're a fan of Film Noir, you'll love Kiss of Death, beautifully presented here in its original 4:3 black and white format, in a digital restoration from the British Film Institute (BFI).

The film is perhaps best known for featuring actor Richard Widmark's first appearance in front of the camera. It's an astonishing debut in the role of psychotic killer Tommy Udo, a performance which rightly won the actor an oscar nomination. Invested with a nervous giggle and twitchy manner that Widmark invented for the character, Tommy Udo becomes an iconic villain, and the actor burns up the screen with every second of his performance.

Arguably the film's most infamous scene is that featuring Udo's revenge when, frustrated at being unable to find his intended 'snitch', he almost casually pushes the intended victim's wheelchair-bound mother down a steep flight of stairs. Despite some fairly obvious stunt work (it's pretty obvious that the woman falling out the chair is just a bundle of clothes with nobody inside!) the scene still has the power to shock, with its unexpected intensity and display of casual violence.

Victor Mature plays petty crook turned 'stool pigeon' Nick Bianco

Victor Mature plays Nick Bianco, a petty crook who's fallen in with the wrong crowd, and become reduced to theft and petty violence in order to support his wife (who, we're told, has a drink problem) and two small daughters. The film opens with an exciting, tension-filled jewellery heist that ultimately goes wrong, leaving Bianco's accomplices injured or dead, with the man himself facing a long jail term unless he accepts a parole offer, made by kindly Assistant District Attorney Louis D'Angelo (Brian Donlevy).

Bianco initially refuses, proud of his chosen 'profession' - pride which vanishes some months after he starts his jail sentence, in part because he sees no sign of the parole initially promised by his gangster attorney. Disillusionment really sets in when his family's former child minder Nettie Cavallo (Colleen Gray), visits him in prison to tell him his children have been taken into care following the suicide of his wife.

There is obvious chemistry between Bianco and Cavallo - chemistry which causes him to decide to go straight when 'The Kiss of Death' of the film's title takes place between the two.

With early parole and future happiness with his new family on offer, Bianco 'squeals' on former colleague and psychopath Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark), only to find the case against Udo is thrown out by the jury, leaving the psychopath free to exact revenge on not just his former best friend, but his new-found family too.

Brian Donlevy is sympathetic Assistant District Attorney Louis D'Angelo

Critics of the time praised Victor Mature, who up to this point had been given leading man roles based on his smouldering looks rather than any innate acting talent. But it's the supporting cast, and Richard Widmark in particular, that make this a classic.

Mature is OK, but when supporting characters like Donlevy and Gray appear on screen their much more naturalistic performances out-class that of Mature at almost every turn. It's not that he's a terrible actor, just that you're continually aware that he is acting, too frequently with rather exaggerated effect. At times his performance is reminiscent of a hulking Sylvester Stallone, with a complete lack of the sort of subtlety or contrasts of light and shade that would have added real depth to the role. Too often his performance feels like a missed opportunity.

Fortunately, none of that really matters because of the combination of a beautifully-paced plot, more than acceptable direction from Henry Hathaway and a blistering screen debut from Richard Widmark as the psychotic villain of the piece. Widmark himself has since called his performance 'too over-the-top', but when 'over the top' is this good, who cares?! The actor is never less than mesmerising, despite his limited screen time, and it's not hard to see why this was an oscar-nominated performance.

Assistant D.A Louis D'Angelo's pleas for Nick to rat out his accomplices fall on deaf ears.

The picture quality on this 1947 movie is superb, and the monaural soundtrack is clear and surprisingly free of noise. Clearly a lot of work has been done on digitally restoring the print, as evidenced by comparing scenes from the film with the almost impenetrably murky footage of the same scenes shown in the trailer that's included on the disc. Aside from the trailer, which is more entertaining than is usually the case in that it features additional footage specially shot to promote the film, the only other extra is a 20-minute interview at London's National Film Theatre with the actor Richard Widmark, recorded in the late 1990's.

The interview with the now-elderly Widmark has some fascinating anecdotes about the shooting of the film, with the actor being very down-to-earth and unassuming in discussing his career over the years. It makes for fascinating viewing.

Richard Widmark impresses in his first film role, as Tommy Udo - a role which won him an oscar nomination, and rightly so.

The BFI are always very good at putting together a decent DVD package, and this one is no exception. A lavish 16-page booklet features original poster designs and set photo's, with the main feature being a short essay on the film by Lee Server.

If you like your movies to be of the 'film noir' variety, and relish a beautifully put-together black and white classic from the late 1940's, then this is definitely worth a rental, if not an outright purchase. Indeed I enjoyed it so much that I've already ordered a couple of other titles in the same series, including Night and the City (1950), which features a return performance from Richard Widmark. Highly recommended!

Coleen Gray plays love interest 'Nattie' - her kiss is enough to persuade Nick he can find happiness IF he's happy to snitch on his former colleagues to get parole.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

Tell No One (2007)

Tell No One At a Glance: Film and DVD 7 out of 10, On Sale 15th October 2007 at a typical online price of £13.89. Imdb rating at time of writing is 7.4, Rotten Tomatoes is at 93% approval

Tell No One seems to have captured the imagination of the British film-going public, and certainly the critics, with universally enthusiastic reviews and a Top 10 placing in the UK Box Office Top 10. Such enthusiasm probably says as much about the current state of the Hollywood thriller as it does about the quality of this French-speaking, English-subtitled film.

Nevertheless, the film's success is no mean achievement, particularly given the general aversion of the great British public to pay good money to 'read a film, rather than watch it', and it's received a generous launch on dual shiny DVD discs from Revolver Entertainment, just a couple of months after its strong UK box office debut.

Alex and Margot, childhood sweethearts head off for a camping trip that will end disasterously for both of them

In truth, Tell No One is a well-written, well-acted, well-paced thriller as one would expect from the general raves.

I just wish I thought it was as clever or flawless as most of the critics have implied.

For me there were too many 'suspend disbelief' moments to mark the film out as a true masterpiece. A final, unnecessary 'one twist too many' plot-point at the end of the movie also smacked more of desperation than the careful thought-out planning that's in evidence for most of the film's running time. It's as if the film-makers had panicked when they didn't need to, and tacked on a final twist to try and give a heightened sense of climax that really wasn't needed or warranted.

Carving their names on each yearly visit. Don't do this at home kids, it's vandalism!

Francois Cluzet plays the 'every man' Dr Alex Beck, whose romantic weekend countryside tryst with his childhood sweetheart (Marie-Josée Croze) is wrecked when she is seemingly grabbed and murdered by a serial killer on the loose, witht he good doctor left unconscious to wonder what exactly happened after he saw his wife grabbed and heard her screams for help.

Ten minutes in and the film jumps forward eight years in time. The doctor, still seemingly coming to terms with his grief, receives an anonymous email with a link to a public webcam that appears to show his wife Margot's face in a crowd. This all happens as the bodies of two seemingly murdered men are unearthed at the scene of the original crime. Suddenly Alex is under investigation not just for his wife's murder, but for that of the two newly discovered men and finds himself in a race against time to find out if the face seen in the crowd really is that of the one woman who may hold some answers to him.

The ongoing plot revelations make for fun viewing, with a central showcase police chase sequence across a busy motorway being particularly impressive, not least for being on foot rather than following the car-chase clichés of the genre.

The film is undoubtedly at its best when following the usual edge-of-your-seat 'thriller' formula, albeit with gaps in plausibility that will have you groaning out loud in places, but unfortunately the director, former 'pretty boy'/'French heart throb' actor Guillaume Canet tries to also graft on a love story, which for me didn't work, mainly because of the lack of chemistry between his two leads.

Lack of romantic chemistry issues aside, Cluzet delivers a strong performance as the 'everyman' forced to go on the run and become someone different when his life is threatened, which is just as well since he appears in nearly every single scene. Kristin Scott Thomas pops up in one of several minor, but important, roles with Francois Berleand standing out in the role of the investigating office trying to get to the truth of what happened.

One of Beck's patients is the son of a crook in the seedy underworld of drugs and crime - kinda convenient when Beck finds himself on the run from the police

The picture transfer is flawless, such that at times I felt I was almost watching an HD-DVD transfer, the picture quality being almost 3D-like on some exterior shots. Sound is adequate - reinforcing the action when needed, without imposing itself too much. It serves the needs of the film but there's nothing here that's going to have you whipping the disc out to show off your new sound system to the neighbours.

The extra's are generous enough to warrant a second disc, but annoyingly are presented for the most part in non-anamorphic widescreen which means on my plasma screen they occupy a small percentage of the screen with black borders around all four sides. The hour-long 'Making of' is more an on-set diary, and gives good insight to the film-making process, and particularly in how the director Guillaume Canet works with his cast and crew.

Alex's father-in-law doesn't want to talk about the state of Margot's body when he found it - is he hiding something?!

The trailer, deleted scenes, out-takes, and bizarre pranks played on the actors when they've finished their last scenes (obscure enough to only be funny to those directly involved) round out this package, making this good value, with the director's short, and rather inconsequential, 15 minute short film I Can't Sleep also included as a bonus. The slipcase sleeve also boasts 'Hidden Extra's, but I'm afraid I've never understood the obsession with making it difficult for the DVD purchaser to find what they've paid for and didn't waste time trying to find them.

Overall this is an above-average thriller, if not quite the masterpiece some are claiming it to be. It's certainly well worth a rental, but I'd question the need to purchase it given that its charm lies mainly in the viewer's ability to fail at second-guessing what might happen next. Nevertheless it's a cut above the average and well worth a couple of hours of your time. Recommended.

The police suspect Alex may have murdered his wife eight years earlier and evidence starts to mount up against him as the film progresses