Archive for the 'Other' Category

My Name is Bruce

2007, US, Directed by Bruce Campbell

Colour, Running Time: 84 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, Region B, Anchor Bay; Video: 1.78:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: DTS HD MA

(Review also over at the new Grim Cellar) Bruce Campbell is a B movie loser whose career has been on a downward spiral now for several years (this is the plot of the film by the way, not a biographical summary!) and his current project, Cave Alien 2, shows now sign of turning things around. A few states away in the backwoods town of Goldlick, a group of foolish teenagers steal a relic from a Chinese cemetery, unleashing Samurai demon Guan, who predictably reaps bloody havoc on passers-by. Campbell’s biggest fan - one of the aforementioned teenagers - sees no other option but to kidnap the fading actor so that the once-chainsaw wielding superstar can put the ugly demon back in its grave. Of course, Campbell, once released from the teen’s car boot, initially thinks this is a birthday present set-up courtesy of his producer and heads off into battle, before making a sharp about-turn and heading with haste in the other direction when he realises what he’s really been brought up against.

Lots of ideas from writer Mark Verheiden (Timecop, The Mask) are thrown into the mix to create a self-referential satire of Bruce Campbell himself, the actor (and director/producer here) willfully playing along. The problem for me is that, while I think they could work if handled by a more appropriately skilled crew, the jokes largely fall flat. Campbell is portrayed as a pretty repulsive person and despite this factor eventually serving the purpose of outlining the character arc that he follows (i.e. he gradually realises what his faults are and makes amends to win the day), he’s probably not the kind of person most of the audience can (or would want to) identify with and therefore it’s hard to enjoy what’s going on around/to him. I personally think it would have worked better if he was a bummed out B movie actor, albeit a fairly nice guy (à la a Ben Stiller type of character) and someone who you would at least sympathise with. Looking around at the opinions of others online, it seems I’m not necessarily in the majority but for me this film became a chore to sit through - the worst kind of movie: a comedy that’s not funny - and I found myself actually getting a little irritated by Bruce; something that I’ve not experienced before watching any of his other movies. One of those movies that’s probably either going to work for you or it isn’t.

Anchor Bay’s UK Blu-ray Disc is similar to the stateside Image release, albeit without the comic book that was included in the case of the US version. The main extras are an audio commentary from Campbell, its inclusion to be expected given his tendency to provide them for the better films that he’s contributed his talents to in the past, plus an hour long making-of documentary. There are a few other bits that are barely worth looking at. Image quality of the film itself is average - at a glance it looks pretty good but there are a few very noticeable moments of macro blocking which are unacceptable in this day and age - it took me back to some of the early DVDs that I was picking up around 1998/9. The audio track is reasonably well handled. Anchor Bay have certainly not short-changed their audience in terms of extras (speaking of quantity at least), but the film leaves a lot to be desired I’m afraid.

Posted on 28th December 2011
Under: Horror, Other | No Comments »

Good Will Hunting

1997, US, Directed by Gus Van Sant

Colour, Running Time: 121 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Buena Vista; Video: Letterbox 1.85:1, Audio: DD 5.0

Will Hunting is a 20 year old genius with a few problems. Having grown up through a troubled childhood, losing his parents and being maltreated by subsequent guardians, he’s now on a path to persistent criminality via delinquent behaviour. Working at the lower intellectual end of the vocational spectrum (janitorial jobs, etc) he demonstrates an apparent lack of interest in taking advantage of his mental faculties, but by evening is drawn to reading incessantly and filling his brain with seemingly limitless knowledge. He is also mathematically gifted, this bringing him to anonymously solve a competitive equation put forward by the professor of maths, Gerald Lambeau, at the institution where Will cleans floors. Once his identity is discovered by the award-winning academic, Lambeau rescues Will from serving time in prison by having the lad agree to see him once a week for maths tuition, in addition to seeing a therapist weekly. Will is not overly eager to bare his soul to some old psychologist so repeatedly wastes their time and insults them as a means of forcing them to quit consultations with him. Until Lambeau drafts in an old college friend that is - Sean Maguire, an intuitive, sensitive expert in the field of therapy who has taken a different academic route to his more distinguished buddy. Lambeau doesn’t entirely approve of Maguire’s approach but it gradually works its way through Will’s defences until the two become friends, and glimmering signs of the young rebel improving his wayward existence become apparent.

Good Will Hunting Soundtrack

Utilising quite a few ‘name’ actors - Matt Damon as Will, Robin Williams as Maguire, Ben Affleck as Will’s best friend, and Minnie Driver as the rogue’s love interest - this is a high quality offering of thought-provoking material. To an extent there is a certain degree of egotism on display (main actors Damon and Affleck wrote the story and script, with consultations courtesy of William Goldman) but it’s executed with a great deal of skill and awareness. Several scenes are difficult to watch, generally those where we and various characters come close to Will’s damaged past and essentially fragile state of mind, whereas others are a touch corny (for example, when Driver’s got her silly head on, or Affleck‘s portrayal of a minion), plus there’s a noticeable excess of verbal profanity on display (hey, I’m getting old, okay?!), however we are presented with a good portion of uplifting and inspirational scenes such as when Will and Maguire are progressing their friendship, Maguire is philosophically evaluating the nature of relationships (often with a touch of humour), or Will’s complex life is being explored with an air of optimism, etc. The dialogue exchanges between Damon and Williams, playing two deep men who are intelligent in different ways, are involving whilst stimulating plenty of thought. On a more technical level, the use of music - whether Danny Elfman’s score or various track clips such as Rafferty’s Baker Street - is mostly careful and considered in its selection and implementation. I found Escoffier’s cinematographic style to be consistently attractive on the eye, especially as many of the locations could be described as ‘a dump’; a personal favourite shot of mine occurs as Williams is talking by the riverside, his head surrounded by a contrasting and painterly array of exquisite greens. Gus Van Sant’s direction is calm and thoughtful as he allows viewers to ponder upon Will’s journey through self discovery and the realisation of his potential - not, perhaps, potential of the mind, but potential to connect successfully with others.

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This ancient Disney DVD reflects the aforementioned photography very well in terms of colour reproduction, but lacks fine detail (a symptom of the fact that it’s not been transferred anamorphically) - nevertheless it’s fairly pleasing to look at. Audio is quite nicely rendered, particularly during musical moments. A more recent Canadian Blu-ray Disc from Alliance Atlantis obviously improves the A/V qualities quite significantly. As it’s the festive season I’ve reluctantly avoided the tradition amongst lovers of the macabre of reviewing Black Christmas and taken a look back at a film that taps at the heart, occasionally makes one smile, and offers insight into a fictional life that we can strangely identify with, despite probably sharing few of the protagonist’s characteristics.

Posted on 25th December 2010
Under: Other | No Comments »

Underworld

2003, US, Directed by Len Wiseman

Colour, Running Time: 139 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, RB, EIV; Video: 2.39:1 1080p 24fps, Audio: DTS

A rivalry between werewolves and vampires that began a millennium ago continues into the present day when it becomes apparent to the coven of vampires that a foreboding ‘lycan’ is killing off the bloodsuckers with a small army and a new weapon. Action vampiress Selene notices that the lycans appear to be pursuing what looks like an ordinary human called Michael and sets out to find out what’s going on - it turns out that Michael is blissfully ignorant himself, until it’s revealed that he’s the unwitting carrier of a unique gene that holds the key to a new hybrid species. Developing mutual attraction, Selene becomes the protector of Michael as both species indulge their interest in him for one reason or another, leading to a bloody subterranean showdown between the ancient rivals.

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When the film was released a few years ago Underworld looked like little more than a popcorn foray into gothic/action horror, one the earlier examples of a contemporary generation that manifests itself to this day with the likes of the Twilight films. The (original) story was a little convoluted and hard to follow considering one would go into something like this expecting to temporarily detach the brain from consciousness and the accomplished visuals gave the impression of an emphasis of style over content. Clearly amassing some popularity, the film has spawned a couple of sequels and has probably proved to be quite influential several years later (contribution towards what is now an unnecessary proliferation of vampire TV and cinema). I always thought it was reasonably entertaining candy for the eyes at best, though that opinion has improved a little thanks to repeat viewings, and more so finally seeing it on Blu-ray. The persistently dark visuals do certainly take centre stage, almost stealing the spotlight throughout, however the story has grown on me over the years. Kate Beckinsale had been around as an actress for a while but it was Underworld that granted her a certain degree of appeal to larger numbers of fans - this is mainly because she is utterly gorgeous as Selene, and dressed in a ridiculously tight spandex/leathery suit that would be welcome in most S&M dungeons (as well as the majority of bedrooms). It also had the unfortunate (from her perspective) side effect of pigeonholing the British actress to a degree, resulting in her repeatedly threatening to quit acting but never quite managing. The rest of the cast do an acceptable job of looking like the yuppie Goth outsiders they’re supposed to be. The action sequences are usually accompanied by machine gunfire exploding from all directions and despite promoting mild excitement these scenes do seem to be aimed mostly at the teen crowd. Special effects tend to be very good and include some excellent werewolf transformations amidst the copious body-dropping, although the revelation of the hybrid creature that feels like it should be climactic turns out to give us a less than powerful disappointment of a monster that was built up by the script but has to have its butt saved by a lady. With a film such as this there are going to be shortcomings from anybody’s point of view, but it does create a tangible world of darkness where humans are rarely seen, incorporating characters wrapped up in their own little soap opera in between bouts of blowing each other away with limitless ammunition. The conclusion sets itself up nicely for the sequel that followed three years later.

Beckinsale, I'm gonna marry ya!

Having watched this on VHS many full moons ago, followed by DVD on a few occasions since, I actually enjoyed Underworld more on Blu-ray than before, probably due to the noticeable enhancements to the image quality. There are fluctuating grain levels but the detail is improved to a point where individual hairs on Beckinsale’s beautiful head are often quite vivid. There isn’t a great range to the palette, which largely consists of blues and blacks, but I suspect the original cinematography is fairly faithfully reproduced. I was disappointed by the lone inclusion of a non-HD DTS track, meaning that the Blu-ray doesn’t offer much of an upgrade audio-wise. This track is foolishly referred to as ‘Dolby Digital 5.1’ in the menu system and EIV’s ignorance extends to the cover details that claim this is ‘anamorphic widescreen’ - anybody who knows anything about the technical specifications of DVD and Blu-ray knows that this refers to the electronic compression/decompression technique employed on DVDs to provide increased resolution for the benefit of widescreen VDU owners - it has no relevance in Blu-ray terminology (though you’ll still see reviewers erroneously say that Blu-rays are presented in anamorphic widescreen) which delivers a resolution most suitable to widescreen displays by default. The disc also seems to be missing an audio commentary, although the rest of the useful extras are still there alongside the fact that the film is presented in its extended cut. EIV took an age to understand the difference between VHS and DVD, so it’s not a surprise to find them a bit slow taking full advantage of superior Blu-ray technology - for example, the US Sony disc comes with an uncompressed 5.1 PCM track. Despite the fact that the release could be better, Underworld on Blu-ray still beats the DVD with the marked improvement in picture quality, and I found the movie itself highly watchable in high definition.

Posted on 17th July 2010
Under: Horror, Other | 2 Comments »

How To Train Your Dragon

2010, US, Directed by Dean DeBlois/Chris Sanders

Animation, Running Time: 98 minutes

Review Source: IMAX screening; Image: 1.44:1, Digital 3D

The pesky Vikings invaded our land; they slaughtered, brutally raped, and thieved their genetically violent way to our crops, bloodying every English and Scottish native in their Odin-loving path (but am I demanding a Danish political apology…?). Or at least they kindly bludgeoned the dumb Brits that weren’t worth keeping alive anyway. One of them (or two probably) also produced a clumsy outcast son called Hiccup, and it’s primarily Hiccup that the story concerns. His reasonably sized settlement has attracted the unfortunate side effect of having its livestock periodically stolen or burnt to death by marauding dragons and like the beefier warriors of the tribe, Hiccup would be honoured to dismember and wipe out a dragon on his way to becoming a true Viking. If it wasn’t for the fact that he can barely lift up a medium sized broadsword, let alone hit anything with it. Recognising the fact that he’s more of a hindrance than an aid he’s relegated by his oversized adult superiors to assisting blacksmiths and the like, at least until his father - leader of the tribe - can figure out what the hell else to do with him. Not only that but Hiccup fancies one of the teenage Viking girls who herself is enviably training to slay dragons, but she thinks he’s a dork too. So, the solution is to knock off a large reptile - the village will respect him, his dad with about-turn on his way to disowning the little tyke, and he’ll get the sexy chick too.

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In the midst of a huge dragon attack, and the ensuing chaos that this brings with it, Hiccup is determined not just to kill any randomly selected one of the creatures, but to nail the one nasty-ass big boy that nobody has ever slain before - Night Fury, a mysterious monster than mercilessly projects rocket-like fireballs with frightening accuracy, but itself is so fast nobody can quite catch it. Hiccup charges out into the battling crowd and uses a machine launched slingshot aimed at one of these so-called Night Fury beasts, or in the approximate direction at least… and hits! The dragon goes down but amidst the frantic battle nobody actually sees the victory. What they do see, however, is the resulting trouble that Hiccup’s attempts to prove himself have caused, and once again he is demonstrated as a complete imbecile. It’s by serendipitous accident that Hiccup later discovers the Night Fury he brought down, now trapped by the slingshot and injured in the forest. Finally he has his chance to kill a dragon and prove it… but holding a knife over the helpless creature he finds that he’s unable - not only does he let the dragon go but he subsequently finds that the intuitively docile creature responds well to the boy’s benevolent supply of fish food. Thus begins Hiccup’s quest to help ‘Toothless’, as he calls it, over its injuries, the two of them becoming amiable companions in the process.

Hell I hope one of these things doesn't shit on me!

From renowned studio Dreamworks, How To Train Your Dragon has been released in conventional 2D and the now very popular 3D formats, the latter also rendered at very high resolution for IMAX cinemas. Quickly apparent is the smartly realised nature of lead character Hiccup - brought to life by lovely characterisation that makes the teen tyke quite easy to identify with for the majority of us geeks out here. He is similarly supported by hordes of well crafted Viking characters, from his narrow-minded father Stoick to the consistently amusing gang of wannabe dragon-slayer teens that laugh at Hiccup before coming to think he’s the coolest kid in town just because he tricks them into believing he has mastery over the reptiles. The screenplay is also littered with verbal and visual gags that are well thought through and frequently witty - as with many great animated films, there are so many excellent ideas in this film it’s impossible to pick it all up in one sitting. The story itself is formed on the basis of core concepts that are almost simply family movie staples, and therefore it could have been a generic offering by the end of production, but the crew’s clearly abundant talent and intelligence brought this project to unexpected life. The artists must also have had plenty of fun with putting together ideas for the many different species of dragon, after which the animators have given these species differing personalities seemingly by associating their behavioural patterns with that of domestic animals (and therefore acquiring our sympathy). Continuing the Dreamworks tendency for popularising the Scottish accent, many of the villagers seem inclined to speak in such a manner (despite originating from Scandinavia, but that would probably have resulted in a less endearing effect - a debate for another day perhaps…). Vocal dubbing, thankfully missing the huge horde of big celebrity names most CGI animated films tend to come burdened with nowadays, is generally highly fitting and energetic enough for the lively nature of their digital representations.

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The visual design of this film is striking, and this is 100% embellished by the IMAX digital projection. So vivid are the colours and sharp are the details, it’s almost more refined than looking at something in reality (though a good seating position is paramount here). The addition of a third dimension is highly effective and enhances the many action and flight sequences, as well as everything else. In fact it was this that early on prevented me from thinking much about the plot or people within it - so incredible are the three dimensional visuals they’re initially a distraction. It certainly absorbs your attention. Aside from this significant presentational bonus (albeit a bonus that one has to pay for!), I’d like to think that HTTYD is genuinely a thoroughly exciting, amusing and intelligent film, despite some underlying fundamental elements that are a bit too common these days, and its makes for a robust movie experience.

Posted on 5th April 2010
Under: Other | 2 Comments »

In Good Company

2004, US, Directed by Paul Weitz

Colour, Running Time: 109 minutes

Review Source: Film 4 Broadcast; Image: 1.78:1, Audio: Dolby Surround

Upcoming marketing hotshot Carter lands himself an executive position with a globally advancing company, placing him in commanding roles over a department of people mostly with years of experience more than him, as well as being near enough twice his age in many cases. Carter settles into his new boasting in an energetic, motivational manner that pleases his immediate boss, earns him a fat salary, but little respect from his subordinates as a subsequent regime of early retirement takes place to relieve the company of a burden costing hundreds of thousands a year. Not all is rosy in Carter’s life, however, as his wife of a paltry seven months deserts him, his new Porsche is crashed within seconds of driving it from the forecourt, and he suddenly realises that he’s rather lonely in his penthouse apartment. But at least he has his booming career… 51 year old Dan is one of the men shuffled into the backseat as Carter takes the reins, and it materialises that Dan also has a very attractive daughter that the rebounding Carter finds himself wining/dining pretty quickly, unbeknownst to the father. As company politics snowball and Dan discovers the slippery slope towards the old-age landfill before him, it’s only a matter of time before all issues collide to produce some sort of dramatic mutant offspring.

Slimy Still Of The Year 2009

There are quite a few threads going on in the film that makes it hard to quantify in terms of genre (should that even be considered a necessity) - it appears to be heading the direction of comedy, when it opts for the romantic turn, before diverting for drama. In that sense it’s ambitious though I’m not fully convinced it knows exactly what it’s doing all of the time. There are also a couple of central characters so the individual perspective is blurred a little - Carter is an arrogant youngster who’s not easy to like, probably a deliberate effort as attempts are later revealed to induce sympathy within us for the person that probably represents someone most of us despise in real life. Then there is Dan who is teetering on the edge of the scrap heap that inevitably awaits all of us in a world designed essentially by and for the young. It’s clearly easy to empathise with the latter’s plight, even more so when it becomes apparent that his relationship with his daughter is deteriorating due to her relationship with the whippersnapper that holds the father’s career, and possibly life-value, in the palm of his sweaty hand. Scarlett Johannsen, playing the daughter, is less utilised here than she might have been had the film been made a year or more later, 2004 being around the breakthrough point for her more than anything preceding that. She appealingly plays her character as someone just shy of maturity in the earlier scenes, progressing to more of a grown woman during the course of the story. This causes her dad much strife as she transforms from the innocent child of his moulding, into an adult that formulates decisions on who to mate with, etc., before deciding to mate with the biggest asshole of Dan’s nightmares at that point in time.

 

Wrapped around the lives of these people is a fairly clichéd view of how major business works, from a pretty typical notion of corporate monsters (obvious, but debatably accurate) to the apparent power of the individual underling to overthrow some despotic manager if they’re willing to stand up to the big boys (this relates to a particularly pathetic scene in the film). From my experience people aren‘t usually this brave/foolish, though quaint it is. Carter does go through his own personality development during the movie that strangely sees him traversing from over-the-top twat to all round reasonable dude with some sense. Maybe this is possible, but again in my experience assholes generally remain assholes. Despite a nagging feeling that In Good Company is masquerading to be something more than it really is, there is a likeable story partly disguising the old recycled ideas and it’s certainly something that I didn’t have a bad time watching.

Posted on 21st November 2009
Under: Other | No Comments »

9

2009, US, Directed by Shane Acker

Animation, Running Time: 79 minutes

Review Source: Cinema screening; Image: 1.85:1 Digital

Shane Acker first attracted the desirable attention that would break him into a small portion of Hollywood’s limelight with the ten minute film ‘9’ four years ago, the third in a line of animated shorts that would finally find him a nomination at the Oscars. Expanded to feature-length 9 adopts the rough plot outline of its ancestral parent, utilises a very similar visual style, and brings an essentially arty CGI animation (that reminded me in places of work by the Quays and Svankmajer) to a wider audience. Set in a world that vaguely resembles our own, albeit with some deliberate historical juggling, mankind has been devastated by the evolution of machines initially designed to aid us in war, the machines themselves eventually turning on their creators - Matrix-style - to leave the planet a ruined, desolate place devoid of humanity, so it seems. Before you suspect further inspiration from Wall-E, you’ll be pleased/disappointed to hear that in our place, aside from the destructive machines, are tiny automatons that were created from bits of cloth and metal by a human scientist; creatures that are by comparison placid and harmless. However, the curiosity of one such creature, referred to like his siblings only by a number (‘9’ of course), reawakens a monolithic construction that threatens the existence of the entire community of tiny rubble dwellers, but therein may lie the answers that 9 seeks.

Kicking some CGI ass

Leading a small team of animators in the mid-noughties Acker managed to create a visually imaginative short film that thrived on mystery and menace as much as its perceived ambient qualities, and to some extent those attributes have been effectively conveyed in this feature adaptation. Some sacrifices have had to be made in good will towards commercialisation: some of these necessary to keep the film afloat financially rather than having it flop in some art house swamp while other sacrifices are more debatable. The most obvious alteration initially is one that changes the non-verbal nature of the characters of the short, to the more generally present speech in the feature. This can’t help but dispel some of the mystery, as background details are explained to the viewer and character motivations made more obvious, but for a film doing the rounds at mainstream cinemas this is probably a necessary development (though Wall-E admirably proved that successful long periods of silence in film-making could still be achieved). Much like in the short the numerical little things that wander around in the conceptual dark are threatened by huge mechanical monsters as 9 himself tries to make some sense of the world and where they all came from. The primary action sequence of the short is exploited somewhat here to throw several such set pieces at the viewer, thereby maintaining interest in an audience that is all too easily bored nowadays. These are well executed scenes that inadvertently walk a tightrope when it comes to balancing the integrity of the original vision, especially as far as the presence of kung-fu fighting female number 7 is concerned (voiced by lovely Jennifer Connelly), a slightly contrived addition to the mythos that’s undoubtedly there to enhance appeal to certain youthful portions of any potential audience. Speaking of which, it is surprising to find that an animated feature nowadays has done so little to sell itself to children - the film is almost completely devoid of humour and the offbeat concept combined with dark imagery is not necessarily going to facilitate popularity with the young beasts that will one day be running our councils. It’s to be appreciated that the imposing stylistic imagery of the short is closely adhered to in the feature, from the doll-like protagonists (looking almost identical) to the apocalyptic backdrop that serves as the setting, and compositions are notable in the thoughtfulness behind them. Rather than taking on a similarly quirky score (and partly abandoning the relentless industrial sound design of the original) it’s slightly unfortunate that the producers opted for a fairly generic orchestral outing, again eroding away slightly at the strangeness given birth by the source. The marginally clichéd conclusion is certainly preceded by plenty of unusual ideas, picturesque feasts for the eyes, a pace that’s not completely compliant with the norm, and the manifestation of technical talent in the telling of a story that has its fair share of fast moments and those that are just a tiny bit touching.

 

While not quite all it could have been (that would have resulted in a non-cinematic voyage for the outing almost surely) it has to be said that the film does keep one’s attention fixated, the animation itself is throughout very attractive, both in design and motion, and it’s highly commendable that a project like this can be whisked from the underground into mainstream by Hollywood’s midfield players. There’s plenty to enjoy and saviour here, though the masterpiece that the short film (and possibly trailer) perhaps hinted at is regrettably absent.

Posted on 4th November 2009
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Shadow of the Vampire

2000, UK/US, Directed by E Elias Merhige

Colour, Running Time: 89 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Metrodome; Video: Anamorphic 1.78:1, Audio: DD 5.1

Somewhere in Europe in the early 1920s, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau is attempting to direct a film sneakily based on Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel with names, film title, etc., switched around in the hope of avoiding the legal attentions of Stoker’s obstinate estate. Faced with mounting concerns from the production’s financiers, Murnau relentlessly pursues his unusual vision of the ancient vampire’s story of love and everlasting death. The film’s titular portrayer however is not revealed to the rest of the crew until later on, when he apparently refuses to appear to them in any sense except as his onscreen character, along with full ‘make-up‘. It becomes apparent that Murnau has made some sort of pact with the mysterious Max Scheck that keeps the strange man participating in something that may be at odds with his personal interests. But then Schreck begins making his own demands on the production, and before long people are being hurt by forces they’re unable to describe.

Schreck

Steven Katz’s story takes the novel approach of using a true life event (i.e. the filming of the silent classic Nosferatu) and injecting it with something (probably…) fictitious, in this case the suggestion that the person playing the monster was in reality a vampire himself, this essentially capitalising on the fact that there’s not a great deal known about the real-life Max Schreck. Bringing an unprecedented style to Schreck is Willem Dafoe, in what justifiably proved to be an Oscar-nominated performance - by all accounts uncanny, repulsive, and downright odd, he’s almost unrecognisable due to both extensive make-up and characteristic portrayal of the strange being. In fact he heads up an adept cast all round: John Malkovich is typically manic and emotive as the director, Eddie Izzard is a frightened Gustav (playing Hutter from Nosferatu - essentially the Jonathon Harker semi-hero renamed), the lovely appearance of Udo Kier as the perpetually oblivious producer, his natural accent fitting in well with the forced dialects of the rest of the cast, and finally Catherine McCormack as Hutter and Orlok’s stuck-up love-interest. The overall cinematographic approach is one of murkiness and gloom; quite suitable given this rather dark excursion, while punctuating the story are genuine snippets of Nosteratu alongside close recreations of shots with the actors of this film as ‘Murnau‘ shoots his masterwork - the genuine clips prove to be a reminder of the potency ingeniously injected into the 1922 chiller by the contextual suppositions made by Katz. Indeed, after watching this I think the natural urge is to seek out the real Murnau film on one of its many DVD incarnations.

 Schreck and Hutter

But not only is there a bit of terror and drama in Shadow…, we’re also treated to sly portions of black humour that induce the occasional smile. I guess a film such as this was always going to have difficulty finding a target audience among the masses due to a refusal to fixate itself on any particular genre conventions - even the vampire elements are masked by ambiguity as Schreck’s bloodsucking tendencies may possibly be those of a madman or something altogether unprecedented. Instead this is a thoroughly original treatment that seems to have paid the price that steers many producers into safer territory nowadays (hence the apparent stagnation of the film industry that we appear to be suffering nowadays).

Posted on 1st August 2009
Under: Horror, Other | 5 Comments »

The Nightmare Before Christmas

1993, US, Directed by Henry Selick

Colour, Running Time: 76 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, RB, Disney; Video: 1080p 24fps 1.66:1, Audio: D TrueHD

Jack Skellington is an influential force in Halloween Town: the inhabitants look up to him to orchestrate the arrangements of each Halloween night, the primary purpose being to annually frighten the residents of the human world above and then spend the rest of the year preparing the following festival. But from Jack’s point of view the whole routine is becoming meaningless. As with most reasonably intelligent individuals he’s beginning to question the point of it all and yearns for something to break the mould. One night wandering through an unexplored part of the woods he stumbles across a doorway to Christmas Town. Having a look around the place his enthusiasm is re-ignited as he decides to take over the Christmas celebrations of the human world and add his own personal spin on things. Authorising the kidnapping of ‘Sandy Claws’ to keep the big man out of the way, Jack utilises the help of Halloween Town’s infinitely macabre residents to prepare some new ways of celebrating. But being a little misguided Jack manages to make a bit of a mess of things when he angers humanity with his strange gifts (severed heads, snakes, etc.), putting his own life in peril in the process.

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Derived from a story and accompanying sketches produced by Burton several years previous, Disney (the film was eventually released under their more ‘adult’ subsidiary, Touchstone Pictures) bravely permitted the project to be realised using stop motion animation, an incredibly time consuming and arduous technique that involves meticulously moving hand crafted models frame by frame, each shot usually accommodating either 1/12th or 1/24th of a second depending on the level of sophistication required. It’s worth remembering that CGI was in its relative infancy at the time and the first fully computer animated feature (Toy Story) was still a couple of years away so at this point traditional 2D (generally drawn) was the method of choice for the majority of full length animated films. To take on a feature project using the laborious stop motion process was close to madness but thankfully it’s something that appears to have paid off, both critically and commercially - the movie’s subsequent success easily returned profits on the original investment of (approximately) eighteen million dollars.

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The magnitude of this technical achievement, however, would have been nothing were it not for the abundance of incredibly imaginative ideas on display: every single shot oozes dark beauty both in the designs and character movements. Each hand-created model, from ornaments and buildings to trees and entire towns, is almost a work of art in its own right, the pinnacle being the characters themselves: accurately reflecting Burton’s original sketches these statuettes are brought to life so exquisitely they could fool you into thinking they’re autonomous entities in their own right. Jack Skellington himself makes a charismatic lead, someone with both entertaining personality and the deeper flaws that almost bring about his downfall as he desperately tries to understand and emulate a cultural tradition that he’s completely unfamiliar with. Though the results of his actions bring about despair upon humankind he’s not specifically an evil person, more so misguided and misunderstood, hence there is a complexity there not as common as it should be in feature films, both live-action and animated. His stubborn attempts to bring meaning to his own life through recreating the Christmas spirit are counter-balanced by Sally, someone who can see clearly what’s going wrong but can’t quite get her point across. Of course she has her own problems in the form of scientist and captor, the gorgeously realised Dr Finkelstein. The efforts of the artists don’t stop at the primary characters though - even bit parts (especially the fantastic human children) are great to watch, ensuring there are things going on that you’ll be noticing afresh for viewings to come.

NBC3

Danny Elfman must have loved this project, composing a near constant score as well as writing the lyrics throughout and providing the singing voice for Jack. Not being a fan of musicals I admittedly didn’t warm to the soundtrack until after perhaps two or three viewings; nowadays it’s impossible to imagine this film sounding any other way. Of course Burton himself didn’t actually direct this film - his name over the title reflects the fact that it’s based on his story, visuals and concepts. While he stood in as producer (along with, at that point, regular collaborator Denise Di Novi) Henry Selick was offered directorial duties, something that requires a certain degree of awareness outside of the norm due to the extremely slow nature of filming. It may be fair to say that Selick’s contribution was initially less acknowledged than it should have been, what with Burton’s creative shadow obscuring recognition of the lesser known man’s presence somewhat. What’s almost as bad is the fact that he then went on to direct James and the Giant Peach, a Roald Dahl story that Burton obviously had not created, so the producers added Dahl’s name above the title! The talented guy just doesn’t seem to be destined for fame somehow. Aside from the fact that Nightmare Before Christmas has very little competition as far as stop motion feature films are concerned, it’s nevertheless an amazing film both artistically and technically, one that revels in visual beauty from the opening seconds onwards and a moment of real creative integrity for Hollywood, something that‘s way too uncommon in a world where cinema has been hijacked by business people.

 

Seeing this film for years on DVD brought about a familiarity that really gave birth to unprecedented appreciation when I watched the Blu-ray Disc - the transfer (finally framed at its correct ratio) brings the film to life in a manner I simply didn’t expect. Model work is truly granted justice as every crevice now seems to be visible, while the colour is so vivid a direct comparison to the DVDs previously released makes them look like going back to VHS (note that the screen grabs are from the DVD SE). Similarly there were sounds in the Dolby TrueHD track that I’m sure I’d never heard before, such is the clarity of the audio. The disc is rammed with extras with Burton’s old films Vincent and Frankenweenie being retained (though not looking as good as the feature obviously). A true gem of a film is blessed with a BD that should be owned by all film-lovers.

Posted on 12th May 2009
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Cars

2006, US, Directed by John Lasseter

Animation, Running Time: 116 minutes

Review Source: Blu-ray, RB, Disney; Video: 1080p 24fps 2.39:1, Audio: DD TrueHD

When I originally caught a preview trailer of Cars on one of Pixar’s earlier DVDs (long prior to the film’s production completion) I thought it was a bit of a dunce idea to be honest. There was little there that looked appealing beyond the attractively designed graphics, so it was not on the priority viewing list. Alongside favourable reviews, some unbelievably competitive pricing by Amazon on the region B Blu-ray Disc, however, forced me to reach for the credit card. The story arcs in a similar fashion to most of the Rocky movies actually: Lightning McQueen (a nicely cast Owen Wilson) is a ‘dashing’ race car who’s pretty sure of himself and the film opens with him taking part in an exciting race where he ends up effectively crossing the finish line at exactly the same moment in time as a couple of his competitors, resulting in an indisputable tie. A rematch is scheduled for a week later but on a routine cross country trip the sleeping McQueen rolls out of his trailer, ending up in the middle of the desert. Realising his predicament he speeds on to catch up with the trailer but attracts the attention of a small-town police car, this resulting in a chase that wrecks half of the town and McQueen’s consequential court appearance. The locals decide that the race car should repair damage to the road as his sentence before he’s permitted to leave, so with time against him (his showdown race takes place in mere days) McQueen sets about putting right his accidental wrongs as quickly as possible (after escape attempts prove useless of course).

Taste the dark matter from my ASS!

What happened to animated feature running times? They used to be so short, partly because of the vast work involved and partly because target audience (children) attention spans are notoriously limited. Over time I suppose companies such as Pixar have realised the appeal of their work spreads to adults as well as their offspring, plus their famed storytelling abilities could probably carry films beyond a conventional 80 or 90 minutes. That’s the case with Cars: an endearing story fills out a near two hour running time seemingly without effort, and there is little in there that’s worth ditching. Of course it’s about super confident McQueen being brought down a peg or two along the way, in addition to him learning that ‘winning’ isn’t the only thing that matters (something that no doubt conflicts with his ‘genetic’ foundations, being a race car and all that). There are a few other morals built in there, typical of Pixar movies certainly, and you can take or leave that side of things when there is so much else in there to revel in: animated anthropomorphism is absolutely world class, and no opportunity here for cheating motion capture either; dialogue is consistently smart and often amusing; pacing is maintained with periodic bouts of frantic activity - the races themselves are surprisingly rousing for example. Oh, of course there’s a bit of a love story built in for good measure, although a reasonable standard of taste is upheld - we don’t actually get to see the cars snogging at any point… Despite my initial reservations Cars surprised me by proving to be a first rate movie experience. One final point that must be expressed: the visuals are absolutely stunning throughout, and this presents a perfect opportunity for Blu-ray to show off what it can really do (given an appropriately sophisticated system of course). Colours are vivid beyond anything you could have hoped for in home cinema, while detail is unquestionably extensive. Standing a couple of feet away from a 70+ inch screen you realise that this transfer could be blown up to the size of a wall and still look sumptuous - this has to be one of the most gorgeous films ever crafted (animated or not), and with Blu-ray you damn well know it! Supporting the pictures is a thundering soundtrack courtesy of Dolby’s lossless audio codec, the likes of car revs vibrating your very skeletal structure. Extras seem to be pretty comprehensive (including a couple of shorts, serving Pixar tradition), though I’ve not had time to trawl through these at time of reviewing. With A/V quality this thrilling the price is already justified.

Posted on 17th April 2009
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Pi

1998, US, Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Black & White, Running Time: 80 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Pathe; Video: Letterbox 1.66:1, Audio: DD Stereo

Living perpetually isolated from society as far as is possible, IT geek Max Cohen has become obsessed with the theoretical relationships between mathematics and physical existence, hypothesising that the former is a language designed to understand the latter and in such there are recognisable, calculable patterns that would permit one to effectively predict complex outcomes or uncover previously incomprehensible details. The implications are as follows: Max’s obsession turns him personally to the stock market in his attempts to analyse his theoretical patterns for the purposes of pre-empting numerical outcomes, though his motivations are strangely lacking in a desire for materialistic acquisition - it seems that his interests lie more so in scientific comprehension than the benefits that could follow the success of his experiments. Simultaneously, and because of Max’s renowned work with numbers, a couple of other organisations have become attracted to Max’s genius as a tool that can help them achieve their own goals - a group of Jewish God-worshippers believe that Max may hold the key to deciphering religious texts that could reveal the true name of God, while other people are aggressively interested in the possibility that Max should be instrumental in enhancing their own obscure business sensibilities. Max is also ill, suffering from extreme migraines periodically that momentarily shut down his consciousness, something that’s only partially controlled by drugs. His grip on what a normal person would have considered to be reality is only briefly prevented from slipping completely by an old professor friend of his, a man who wants to bring perspective to Max’s increasingly self-destructive urge to understand the mechanics of the universe.

City of the crazy hairstyles

This is an incredibly absorbing piece of film from the man that would develop a cult following with the likes of Requiem For A Dream and - possibly less so - The Fountain, projects that have occasionally split opinions thanks to deliberately ambiguous philosophical pretensions. Pi is really where it all began for Aronofsky, a clearly low-budget outing that refused to be restricted in scope by availability of resources. Sean Gullette is just amazing as Max Cohen, here given his break into the world of feature acting by Aronofsky after a couple of other very minor entries on his C.V. His recreation of obsession and pain is gripping, and almost painful to watch as Max dreadfully descends into one of the fits that hit him more and more throughout the story. Max’s virtually unbreakable focus is not helped by the drug-induced pain reduction that might be assisting a hallucinogenic perception of what’s happening around him - several times there are unexplained events that appear to hold some meaning in Max’s search for truth in numbers. The reasons for Max’s genesis as a philosophical mathematician may be hinted at in comments made about his childhood - his mother told him not to do something (stare into the sun) so he did anyway, the damage done to his eyes gradually being superseded by a sense of almost spiritual clarity. His curiosity concerning that which he should not attempt to dissect was piqued and allegedly rewarded. His apartment also drops a hint, I think, about what Max is overlooking in his obsessive search: crawling over the endless heaps of computer equipment and wiring are ants, some of which he occasionally kills. In this I believe there lies a contrast which has come to be ignored or explained away by amateur science: nature supposedly functions in a machine-like fashion, much of which we ape in our creations of machines that do some of our work for us (the computers proliferating throughout Max‘s apartment, for example), however, in our attempts to understand nature we (and Max) forget to acknowledge an element of the unknown that drives things through existence. Chaos? There’s something unpredictable in nature that will forever keep Max on a search with no end due to the inability of the human mind to conceive things outside of its meagre comprehension, and maybe by the film’s cryptic conclusion Max comes to realise this. While not quite as intensely realised as the director‘s later projects, the progressive impact on the viewer spirals almost out of control as the film matures, something that’s become a staple of Aronofsky’s work. Pi is a relentlessly amazing film with smart dialogue, alluring inhabitants, and a story of mind-bending significance that dares you to fully decipher it.

 

Shot largely using black & white reversal materials with a low budget, Pi understandably looks very rough. Contrasts are quite often extreme, grain is omnipresent, and detail is sometimes hard to make out - this is all part of the source though the old DVD transfer permitted macro blocking in places and did not take advantage of an increase in resolution that would have resulted from mastering anamorphically. The pretty cool industrial soundtrack is moderately well served with a stereo track and accompanying this are a couple of commentaries from the director and Gullette. The film is essential viewing and while the DVD could be improved nowadays it’s still the only way to watch it.

Posted on 1st March 2009
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Billy Liar

1963, UK, Directed by John Schlesinger

Black & White, Running Time: 98 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R1, Criterion; Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: DD Mono

The original novel of Billy Liar, written by Keith Waterhouse, earned notable critical commendation on its release in 1959 prior to its adaptation as a stage play (co-written between the book’s author and Willis Hall). During its initial West End run it was Albert Finney who played the lead role Billy Fisher, bringing a wider audience to the production as Saturday Night And Sunday Morning became a big hit, but his departure opened up a slot in the play for Tom Courtenay, an actor who would attract some acclaim for his part in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner before securing himself the part of Billy again for the movie adaptation of Billy Liar. The film’s narrative wasn’t too far removed from its literary counterpart: Fisher works in an administrative capacity at a funeral parlour dreaming of greater things, particularly becoming an author of either comedy scripts or novels, whilst allowing his love life to become an increasingly tangled mess. He also has a tendency to fabricate the truth to others as his imagination runs largely unrestrained in addition to the apparent ongoing requirement for such manipulation to cover up his proclivity towards laziness and almost accidental dishonesty, for example his failure to post a batch of calendars on behalf of his employers leading to the absorption of the postal money into his own pocket. The story effectively snapshots one day in his life as he awakens one morning before work (his parents having great difficulty actually getting him up and on his way), endures the short working day before handing in his notice to take up the script-writing job that hasn’t quite made it to reality, tries to sort out the periodic incidents with his multiple girlfriends, goes to a dancehall in the evening where a number of problems inconveniently collide, and makes a decision to head off to London with his favoured woman, Liz, at the end of the day after his gran dies.

Julie Christie and Tom Courtenay

There are a fantastic array of characters that either get in Billy’s way throughout, or become antagonised by his inconsistent ability to be honest: his mother and father for starters, the latter almost constantly shouting at the lad or doubting his ability to do anything, something which might have instigated Billy’s all thought and no action approach to life. At work we then meet his best mate, Arthur Crabtree (Rodney Bewes), who Billy ends up arguing with after telling a lie to Arthur’s mom, and beyond that there is Barbara, Rita, and Liz (Julie Christie), Billy’s three antithetical girlfriends. Barbara is an uptight virgin who won’t let Billy even touch her until they’re married, Rita is the promiscuous tart who’s relentlessly squawking and nagging him, primarily about the engagement ring that she doesn’t know is actually on Barbara’s finger, and finally Liz is the girl who likes to drift between towns, refusing to pin herself down to a place she cannot identify with. In most respects Liz is the girl most suited to Billy’s unpredictable strategy for dealing with life’s more mundane details, someone who similarly uses her imagination to free herself from the constraints of a humdrum existence. One crucial difference manifests itself as the separating factor between Billy and Liz however, and that’s the fact that Liz acts on her impulses while Billy doesn’t, and it’s that issue that will ultimately determine the outcome of their relationship - at least on the day focused on by the story. Billy’s daydreams are given life by cinema: reality is punctuated by episodes of mental wanderings as Billy imagines himself in a plethora of situations adopting roles preferable to that which he has to endure on a daily basis, from a surviving war veteran, to a reformed prisoner-cum-successful author, with the inhabitants of his ‘real’ life often making an appearance somewhere (spot Liz alongside him in one of his early fantasies before we’ve even met her, suggesting that she has a relevant part to play in his ideologies). These episodes don’t tend to be my favourite pieces in the film, however. What rises the film to a higher plane is the ongoing complexity of Billy’s relationships, these giving rise to beautiful moments of drama. The characters throughout appear to have their own agenda, merely getting caught up in Billy’s confused world where fact and fiction aren’t mutually exclusive concepts, and most of these characters are granted life by the astounding talents of a well selected cast. While this film would most likely be categorised as a ‘drama’ it’s not without its frequent moments of amusement as Billy progresses from one awkward situation to the next and even when his gran dies the film refuses to get bogged down too much in melancholy. Hence Billy Liar remains an uplifting experience every time, featuring people whose actions can be scrutinised, dialogue that is fascinating despite familiarity granted over repeat viewings, and a gorgeous Northern ‘kitchen-sink’ appeal throughout. Stripped of glamour, but not beauty, Billy Liar is one of the greatest triumphs of sixties British cinema, and almost certainly one of the greatest irrespective of era or geographical origin.

 

Stamping on the old pan & scan video cassettes and TV broadcasts that we had to put up with in the distant past, Criterion’s DVD presented the film accurately representing its CinemaScope ratio (the 4:3 transfers were simply awful). It’s a decent looking image that could be improved slightly I suspect, but is satisfying nonetheless. An informative commentary from the director, Courtenay and Christie accompanies a 15 minute TV featurette that focused on Billy Liar and another of Schlesinger’s earlier films, A Kind of Loving. Hardly in-depth but the package is rounded out by excellent liner notes by Bruce Goldstein, the founder of the company (Rialto) that rescued Billy Liar to provide a theatrical re-release 35 years after it was made. The British DVD lost the majority of the bonuses but obviously came in a lot cheaper. This disc/film remains one of the most valued entities of my movie shelves.

Posted on 19th February 2009
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Titanic

1997, US, Directed by James Cameron

Colour, Running Time: 187 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Fox; Video: Letterbox 2.30:1, Audio: DD 5.1

Cameron’s nineties blockbuster Titanic is one of those movies that neatly slots people into categories: there are those that love(d) it, those that have seen it and hate it, and those that haven’t seen it but hate it anyway. It attracts such polarised responses not for the extent of its qualities as a piece of art or cinema I believe, but more so because of its status as an epic romance - hardly a recommendation for hip factor or street cred. The most obvious initial problem with tackling the story of the Titanic’s sinking is that everybody would already know how it ends (well, excepting today’s youth generation perhaps, who are apparently more aware of who Simon Cowell is than God himself according to recent surveys). What Cameron decided to do was weave in a fictitious onboard romantic drama with the historical details, one that should invite in audience sympathy via a side door rather than attempt the more obvious front door and risk preconceived boredom. Using a present-day wraparound idea, an old woman recounts her days aboard the Titanic ship on its maiden (and only - for the youngsters) voyage. An upper-class girl, Rose is about to be roped into a marriage to an abhorrent man, ultimately leading a life of unfulfilment and worthlessness. She feels trapped and suffocated by the fact that she’s being ushered along by cultural expectation and social/family pressures, thus she attempts to resort to the only escape she can imagine: suicide. That is until Jack persuades her otherwise. Having won his ticket to board, he’s essentially a homeless wanderer who lives purely for what each day brings as it materialises, travels to wherever he pleases, and does almost as he likes without really harming anyone. By all accounts he’s the antithesis of Rose and where he’s happy with his minimal status and non-existent financial worth she has everything materialistically to look forward but no joy. The instant and developing attraction between them is the cause for much class and personal conflict amongst Rose’s aristocratic acquaintances - then the boat hits an iceberg and their fight to survive together becomes infinitely more desperate.

The boat's made of iron and can't sink, ayeeeeee

Cameron had progressed his varying movie-making skills over the years, realising talents that were clearly budding back when Terminator was released, proving that with modest resource he could put together a cracking, technically adept story that brought in reasonable returns. Through The Abyss and the sequel to the 1984 Arnie classic Cameron established an ability to utilise cinema’s technologies, not just in a derivative manner but to a point where he was instrumental in their evolution. But beneath the wizardry he understood how to craft a story and this is the factor that’s kept his films alive all these years, including Titanic. If you can’t (or don’t want to) identify with the characters of Rose and Jack and their ensuing relationship then the film will fail for you - everything sinks or floats (excuse the pun) based on that. Thankfully I can identify with them, despite not having much of a liking for Leonardo DiCaprio, and I get sucked right in I’m sorry to say! Kate Winslet was at peak here and was photographed stunningly - her beauty was astounding and the plight that brings her to almost self-destruction is understandable and engaging. Titanic is almost a film of two halves, the first establishing the people along with their various situations while snowballing the relationship between the two leads, the second focusing on the effects of the catastrophic impact between ship and iceberg, the love story operating alongside. Because most of us truly feel for Rose and Jack by the time the ship strikes the berg there is a tingling emotional connection between us and the disaster that unfolds: the impact on the viewer is magnificent despite being pre-empted due to its historical significance. And even after seeing the movie several times, scenes where Rose is attempting to break Jack free from his handcuffs as water rises or the fumbling of a key in the lock of a barrier, for example, are incredibly tense; a sign of great cinematic storytelling. Underlying this are the class struggles that seemed to be more apparent in preceding eras, though divisions are probably as present now as they ever were. Herein people are treated according to their fateful status in life, and there is in hindsight a rather sledgehammer approach to this - the fact that Jack and Rose are from essentially opposing classes accentuates this social/political aspect of the narrative. This black and white view of life is where the only real problem in the film lies for me - the upper classes generate the handful of evil people in Titanic, and these people are all English of course (good being generally represented by Irish and American). This seemed to be the start of a trend for English-bashing in film, something that’s an easy target in today’s PC times. Aside from this hiccup, unconscious or otherwise, and a smattering of corny occurrences along the voyage that I don‘t really need to go into, Cameron pulls us inevitably to the sinking of the ship. This monolithic climax lasts for at least an hour, one very frightening and sobering hour, and this leads to a very emotional conclusion. The touching score is instrumental in maintaining the ongoing emotive drive and thankfully Celine Dion’s sappy voice and the piece that infinitely did the rounds on the radio back in ‘98 doesn’t kick in until the end credits are rolling. Whether Titanic is a historical recreation first and foremost or a romantic epic is up to the viewer to decide, but either way it’s a powerful and emotionally vibrant tale from a gifted director who’s been absent from feature films for way too long.

Posted on 1st January 2009
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