DVD review: Ghosts – Series 1

BBC Studios Home Entertainment, Out: now

Lolly Adefope, Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard, Charlotte Ritchie, Kiell Smith-Bynoe, Ben Willbond, Katy Wix

The spirit of Rentaghost is resurrected in this recent BBC sitcom, the highest rated British TV comedy series of 2019 thus far.

Charlotte Ritchie and Kiell Smith-Bynoe play Alison and Mike, a young married couple whose lives are transformed when Alison unexpectedly inherits a large, but dilapidated rural manor house, following the death of an unknown elderly aunt.

The house contains many secrets, however, not least a large party of ghosts who dwell within. All are from different historical time periods and all are invisible to most normal humans, ensuring their initial attempts to haunt the house’s new owners all in vain, rather like the Tim Burton film, Beetlejuice. This changes when Alison (Ritchie star of Fresh Meat and Call The Midwife) bangs her head in an accident. Soon, she alone, can see the home’s phantom residents, whether she wants to or not.

The ghosts – all played by the former cast of the acclaimed Horrible Histories and Yonderland and who, mostly, also wrote this – are, of course, the chief source of fun here. Mathew Baynton (The Wrong Mans, Quacks), for example, plays a romantic poet hopelessly besotted with the still very much alive and married Alison, while Katy Wix (Not Going Out) plays the ghost of a slightly charred 17th century peasant woman apparently burnt to death for witchcraft.

Most hilarious are the great Simon Farnaby (The Detectorists and, appropriately, the man who sang ‘Stupid Deaths’ on Horrible Histories) as a disgraced 1990s Tory politician, still massively pompous, despite now being permanently trouser-less having died in some unspecified sex accident. Laurence Rickard also works wonders as Robin, (“bum and chips!”) a caveman, who lived on the grounds of the estate, long before it was built.

How did such a random assortment of characters ever come to live in the same house, even at different times? Why does every one of the Ghosts seem to have died prematurely? Doesn’t it all feel a bit like a children’s programme? Ultimately, none of these things really matter. Were it not for the presence of a few deliberate adult references (including a brief appearance by a genuinely scary child ghost), this would fit in perfectly well on CBBC.

Again, though, this hardly matters. Occasionally, Ghosts’ large regular cast works against it and the show is overwhelmed by chaos and silliness. But overall, this is good fun from a talented bunch of actors and writers. If your mansion house needs haunting, look no further.

A second series is on its way, in 2020.

Advertisements

The Crown

Preview, gratefully reproduced from Bingebox magazine (2016).

The Crown Season 1

It is sometimes described as one great soap opera: the longest running drama in British history. So why not make a big TV drama based around the Royal family? Indeed, why not make one based in the life of Queen Elizabeth II herself, a person whose image adorns either a stamp, coin or banknote on the person of nearly everyone reading this? Well, Left Bank Pictures have produced just such a series, a ten-part epic available on Netflix since November 4th 2016. Indeed, they have big plans. The first series covers the period from the young Princess’s marriage in 1947 to the first few years of her reign following her ascension to the throne in 1952. But five more series are planned. If all goes well, in a few years’ time we should have sixty hours of drama covering the Queen’s sixty or seventy years on the throne.

REIGN OF THRONES

Dramas about the royals are, of course, nothing new – Victoria, Henry V, The Madness of King George are just three examples of historical monarchs who have seen their lives dramatised. But until Stephen Frears’ 2006 film The Queen, scripted by Peter Morgan, which focused on the potential public relations disaster which almost engulfed the monarchy following Princess Diana’s death in 1997, dramas about the current monarch were almost unheard of. The King’s Speech, which features the future Queen as a young girl, was another successful Oscar-winning stab at comparatively recent royal history. But it is Morgan – the author of The Queen as well as the play The Audience which also starred Helen Mirren as the Queen who has brought his formidable writing powers to The Crown. Stephen Daldry, famed for Billy Elliott and The Hours directs.

The Crown’s credentials are impeccable. The casting was always going to be controversial, however. Few are likely to gripe about Claire Foy in the role of HRH but as with Victoria which saw former Doctor Who companion Jenna-Louise Coleman cast in the main role, the producers have turned to the Tardis for the role of Prince Philip. Recent Doctor Who Matt Smith is not an obvious choice for the role, but then who is? James Cromwell and David Threlfall have both played the Duke of Edinburgh before but as a much older man. Smith is a fine actor and delivers a first-class performance. However, time will inevitably become an issue. Both he and Foy are in their thirties and are likely to be replaced at least once if the show is to cover the Queen’s entire reign.

The choice of American ‘Third Rock From The Sun’ actor, John Lithgow to play Churchill, the Queen’s first Prime Minister might also raise a few eyebrows in some quarters. Yet Lithgow is an accomplished actor experienced way beyond the realm of comedy and thanks in part to some due some modifications to alter his appearance (Lithgow is nearly a foot taller and slimmer than Winnie was) he is great in this. And Churchill was half-American anyway. What’s the problem?

MONARCHY IN THE UK

“I have seen three great monarchies brought down through their failure to separate personal indulgences from duty,” says Eileen Atkins’ Queen Mary at one point, warning her granddaughter Elizabeth, “you must not allow yourself to make similar mistakes. The Crown must win.”

Rather like Maggie Smith’s character in Downton Abbey, The Crown’s Queen Mary seems to specialise in saying controversial and sometimes prophetic things in this. Presumably, the three monarchies she means are Victoria (who arguably indulged herself by grieving over Prince Albert’s death excessively), Edward VII (who basically drank, ate and womanised his way to death) and her own son Edward VIII, who abdicated. Although as a heavy drinker and smoker, Elizabeth’s father George VI (also Mary’s son) was hardly free of personal indulgence either.

The excellent Alex Jennings incidentally crops up as the Duke of Windsor, whose abdication in 1936 (as Edward VIII) ensured Elizabeth would be Queen. Jennings also played Prince Charles in the film The Queen.

As with any good drama, there is the potential for controversy. Though the Queen no longer has the power to put people who annoy her in the Tower, there will still be a desire not to cause offence.

WINDSOR CHANGE

If The Crown proves a success, five more series could be in the offing. The opening episode which begins in 1947, clearly lays out the framework for what is to come. The King (Jared Harris, son of the late Richard Harris and perhaps best known for his role as the token Brit in Mad Men) has a bad cough and is clearly not long for this world. His daughter Princess Elizabeth is about to marry Prince Philip and though the couple are happy, there are hints of awkwardness to come. Philip is giving up a lot for “the greatest prize on Earth” including his love of smoking and Greek nationality. “Not a single person supported the match,” warns Queen Mary.

The action then jumps forward four years to 1951 during which time, the King’s health has deteriorated further and Elizabeth and Philip’s marriage has yielded two children, Charles and Anne. There are also allusions to trouble brewing with Elizabeth’s younger sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), notably the strong suggestion of an affair with dashing equerry Group Captain Peter Townsend (Ben Miles), a married man. With a title sequence, reminiscent of Game of Thrones, there are also political manoeuvrings afoot. Returning Prime Minister Winston Churchill soon knows more about the true state of the King’s health than the monarch does himself.  And Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam) is already assessing the great war leader’s vulnerabilities: as Tory heir apparent in effect, he is clearly eyeing up the elderly Churchill’s job.

Ultimately The Crown is essential viewing. It is as much about how Britain has changed in the last seventy years as the monarchy has. There is certainly plenty of material.

The Crown

AND WHAT DO YOU DO…?
Three stars of The Crown…

Claire Foy as Princess Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth II

Foy has played royalty before and was the ill-fated mother of the Queen’s Tudor namesake (Elizabeth I) Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall.  She sprung to fame in the title role in the BBC’s Little Dorrit in 2008.

Matt Smith as Prince Philip

Best known for playing the last Doctor Who but one, the thirty-four -year-old Smith plays the young Duke of Edinburgh, a man struggling in the traditionally feminine role of partner to the monarch.

John Lithgow as Winston Churchill

Although often associated with comedy roles such as Bigfoot and the Hendersons and Dick in the sitcom Third Rock From The Sun, veteran US star Lithgow is an acclaimed and prolific dramatic actor.

Film review: Begin Again (2014)

Review first published on Movie Muser, November 2014  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: Keira Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, James Corden, Catherine Keener Directed By: John Carney. Running Time: 104 minutes. UK Release Date: November 10, 2014 . Certificate: 15. Your Rating: 4 out of 5

Gretta (Knightley) is young, English and has some talent as a musician. She also has a good comedy sidekick/friend in Steve (James Corden). But her dreams of musical success in New York lie in tatters. After her recent break-up with boyfriend and collaborator Dave (Levine), she is bound for the next flight home.

Dan (Ruffalo), meanwhile, is middle-aged and seems to be on the way down after both a successful producing career and his marriage come to an end. He happens to see Gretta performing at an open mic session on her last night in town. Could this meeting be exactly what these two lost souls need?

Admittedly, this film from Once director John Carney sounds predictable as hell on paper and to some extent, this is true. But Ruffalo is great, making a potentially sleazy character likeable. Knightly can sing and has some nice scenes bonding with Dan’s teenage daughter. There are no real villains here – even Gretta’s ex has redeeming qualities and yes, this is relentlessly feelgood. But it’s not stupid either. So what’s wrong with that?

There is a “making of” featurette and some music videos on the DVD/Blu-ray. Haters of James Corden or Keira Knightley (and, yes, such people do exist) will want to steer clear and the music might repel some. But everyone else should find this an uplifting and rewarding musical treat.

Overall Verdict: The Hulk and Anna Karenina: together at last and unleashed on New York.

Special Features: The Making of Begin Again Featurette, Music Videos

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

Film review: Calvary (2014)

Review first published on Movie Muser, August 2014  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Chris O’Dowd, Kelly Reilly, Aiden Gillen, Dylan Moran, Domhnall Gleeson

Directed By: John Michael McDonagh. Running Time: 100 minutes. UK DVD Release Date: August 11, 2014. Certificate: 15

Your Rating: 5 out of 5

Review: Father James (Gleeson) is a priest. Once driven to alcoholism by the death of his wife, he appears to have found solace in his vocation, living a peaceful existence with his dog in an apparently serene Irish coastal village.

Or at least that would be the case if the villagers ever left him alone. Chris O’Dowd’s local butcher Jack, for example, has serious marital problems, his wife “sharing” him with another man. Then there’s the local millionaire Michael, played by Dylan Moran. Prone to alcoholism and urinating on priceless Holbein portraits, he is just one of the village’s many eccentrics whose grievances range from sexual frustration to an elderly American man (M. Emmett Walsh) who wants Father James to shoot him to death

Things get more personal, however, when the priest’s daughter (Reilly) turns up after a suicide attempt and Father James soon finds himself and his church subject to a series of threats and outright attacks from foes known and unknown.

Initially, it appears we might be in for a tale of whimsy and humour with the populace resembling the eccentric Craggy Islanders of Father Ted. But McDonagh (director of the lighter although similarly excellent The Guard, also starring Gleeson) makes it clear we’re in for a much darker adventure from the very first scene. There is humour here, yes. But all the characters seem deeply troubled, often by unspecified problems in their past. Moran’s Michael clearly has serious problems while some such as the doctor played by Game of Thrones’ Aidan Gillen seem to be positively evil. Although a genuinely good man himself, Father James soon faces the wrath of a very angry community reflecting an Ireland still scarred by the after-effects of the numerous real-life scandals concerning paedophile priests.

This is a superb film which benefits from all the cast truly giving their all even to the tiniest role.

Overall Verdict:

Another darkly humorous instant classic from the hugely talented John Michael McDonagh.

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

DVD review: Just Like Heaven (2005)

aaaaaaa

The following review was first published in DVD Monthly magazine in 2005.

Sub-heading suggestions: Reese almighty/High spirits/Spirited away/While she was sleeping.

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Jon Heder, Donal Logue, Dina Spybey, Ben Shenkman

Director: Mark Waters

Distributor: DreamWorks Pictures Original Release: 2005

The Lowdown: When ER doctor Elizabeth’s overworked, socially undernourished existence is brought to an abrupt halt by a wayward truck, she soon finds her spiritual form sharing her flat with lonely semi-alcoholic, widower architect David. But is Elizabeth really dead? Why can only David see her? And can stoner bookshop employee Darryl help?

Review: While few men would balk at the prospect of suddenly discovering Reese Witherspoon was their room-mate, Just Like Heaven is a rom-com with a supernatural twist. For as with Brad Pitt at the start of Meet Joe Black, here we’ve barely had a chance to get familiar with the overworked singleton lifestyle of Witherspoon’s medic (a sort of cross between Bridget Jones and the one of the cast of ‘ER’) before she has a close encounter with a runaway lorry and is killed.

However, as with the unfortunate couple in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, the next thing she knows she’s back in her apartment and railing against the intrusion of new resident David.

We’ve been here before, of course. In addition to the films already mentioned, Just Like Heaven draws on everything from (most obviously) Ghost, to the 1930s Topper movies and even has shades of While You Were Sleeping. But happily Just Like Heaven is (just) cute enough to get away with it’s somewhat less than groundbreaking premise.

Partly this is down to Reese Witherspoon. While (as with Sweet Home Alabama) she’s clearly working with less incisive material than in her best work (Election, Pleasantville) she is never less than her usual luminous and quirky onscreen self. As David, Ruffalo is less good, never really proving that he has the aptitude either for physical comedy or for the dour ‘sad Tom Hanks in Sleepless In Seattle’ type romantic lead role the screenplay demands of him, though this isn’t a serious problem.

Indeed, comedic honours probably go to Jon Heder who as semi-psychic alternative bookshop assistant Darryl is good in his first significant if small post-Napoleon Dynamite role, a sort of stoner answer to Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Ghost.

The film has its problems. For one thing, it’s rarely that funny. The early scenes detailing Elizabeth and David’s fractious first encounters wherein both argue vigorously over who is intruding upon whose flat are fine. Elizabeth (who like the ‘dead people’ in The Sixth Sense doesn’t know she’s a ghost) reasons that the drunken David is a vagrant who has wondered in off the streets. But the film gets funnier once David recognises Elizabeth is more than a product of his lonely alcoholic mind and enlists a range of solutions to vanquish her from the flat: namely a New Age guru, some amateurish ‘Ghostbusters’ and a priest who repeatedly intones “The power of Christ compels you!” to no discernible effect.

Some too, might lament that Waters, who did, after all, direct the dark edged Mean Girls in addition to cheerier fare such as Freaky Friday hasn’t produced a blacker film. But darkness and romantic comedy can be uneasy bedfellows and it’s probably to its benefit that Just Like Heaven is good-natured to its core.

Sadly, the extras never really rise above the average. The ‘Making Of’ featurette is the usual promotional fare and is supplemented by a similar and fairly unnecessary ‘Meet the Cast’ featurette (high court judges aside, even before Walk The Line was there anyone out there unfamiliar with Reese Witherspoon?). And despite the slightly surprising revelation that the film is based on a French novel (Marc Levy’s ‘If Only It Were True’), you’ll soon find your attention wandering during the filmmaker’s commentary.

Although in fairness this isn’t really the sort of film that readily lends itself to hours of dissection and analysis. For make no mistake: while this won’t linger long in the memory, Just Like Heaven is against all odds, one of the better romantic comedies of the past year. It’s just that as with ‘Great Films Starring Hilary Duff’ and ‘Intelligent Statements Made By President Bush’ this isn’t exactly an overcrowded field.

Final Verdict It’s not going to change the world but if you do fancy a Friday night date movie, you could do a lot worse.

Rating FILM: 6 EXTRAS: 5

Text By Chris Hallam

DVD review: The Men Who Stare At Goats (2010)

Review first published on Movie Muser, 2010  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Robert Patrick. Directed By: Grant Heslov

Fox Mulder was right. The truth really was out there, all along. But, as Jon Ronson’s excellent 2004 non-fiction book demonstrated, the reality of what certain elements of the US military and government were up to in the 70s and 80s, was far stranger than anything in The X-Files.

There’s the army general, for example, who became so convinced that he could will his body to pass through solid objects that he actually physically ran into his office wall. He failed to go through it. He just crashed into it.

Then, there are the military operatives who, taking their cue from an earlier science fiction franchise, named themselves “Jedi warriors”. And then there are the men who stare at goats themselves: a crack division who become convinced that they could actually kill animals merely by deploying their ‘psychic’ powers while staring at them, causing their hearts to explode. Goats are judged to be the perfect test subjects for these experiments, it is revealed. While many soldiers felt uncomfortable staring at dogs, it is apparently much harder to forge an emotional bond with a goat.

Yet while the book was by turns hilarious and fascinating, there are causes for concern here. For one thing, this isn’t a documentary. Director Heslov has gone down the route of dramatising a non-fiction book – a feat attempted before by Richard Linklater on his version of Eric Schlosser’s ‘Fast Food Nation’. The result then was a failure. Ewan McGregor is also cast unconvincingly as a fictional American journo (presumably based on the book’s author Ronson, which is odd as both men are British anyway) partly, it is presumed, so the ‘Star Wars’ star can make play of the story’s Jedi references.

The film also makes little attempt to confront the darker aspects of the book. The bohemian freethinking of the First Earth Battalion ultimately led to some of the torture methods used in the War on Terror, but this is only alluded to here.

Despite everything, this still manages to be a consistently entertaining, compelling and amusing film. It doesn’t hurt that a bit of effort has been made on the extras, although neither the commentary from director Heslov or from the book’s author Ronson are as exciting as they could have been. Other featurettes, however, give added weight to a narrative that is always difficult to fully believe.

This is, however, fascinating enough to overcome most of its flaws. And yes, in case you’re wondering, one goat did die during the many goat staring experiments. It may well have been just a coincidence, but for safety’s sake, perhaps don’t try it out on your hamster at home. Just in case.

Bonus features:

Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion Featurette

Project Hollywood: A Classified Report From The Set Featurette

Audio Commentary with Director Grant Heslov

Audio Commentary with Author Jon Ronson

Character Bios

Deleted Scenes

Rating: 4 out of 5


Overall Verdict:

Undeniably a bit of a mess, but the story is bizarre and fascinating enough to win the day.

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

DVD review: Danny Collins (2015)


Review first published on Movie Muser, October 2015  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Jennifer Garner, Bobby Cannavale, Christopher Plummer

Directed By: Dan Fogelman

Al Pacino plays Danny Collins, a fictional music star whose career seems to have peaked at some point in the Seventies. Although not officially a has-been – he still appears to be very wealthy and is widely recognised by young and old everywhere he goes, Collins is unsatisfied. He hasn’t written a song in thirty years and seems less than enthused about his much younger fiancée (Katarina Cas).

While, as his agent (the ever excellent Christopher Plummer) points out, his problems are extremely minor compared to some people’s, the revelation that Collins was once sent an admiring letter by John Lennon which never got to him, triggers what can only be described as a very late midlife crisis. He begins to reassess his priorities attempting to rebuild relations with the family of his estranged son (Cannavale and Garner). He also moves into a hotel and soon he begins wooing the straitlaced manager (Bening).

The Lennon stuff seems to be largely an excuse to get some of the Beatle’s music on the soundtrack. This turns out to be a godsend as all the music performed by Pacino is absolutely awful. It is hard to see how Collins would ever have made it as a music star, even allowing for the fact that he is supposed to have worsened with age.

The performances are fine though particularly Garner and Plummer and as Collins notes he and Bening’s character do generate some “good patter” (as in banter).

The mock up album covers on the extras using pictures from Pacino’s own long career are good fun too. There’s an okay, short advertising featurette too in which Al Pacino at one point unwisely compares his decision to take the role to his decision to play Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather’. Needless to say , the comparison to his past glories would have been best left unmade.


Special Features: Danny Collins – Album Covers Through The Years Behind The Scenes of Danny Collins Featurette


Overall Verdict: Not likely to make Al Pacino’s own Greatest Hits album. Distinctly average.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

DVD review: Capote (2005)

The following review was first published in DVD Monthly magazine in 2005.


Sub-heading: The Truman Show

Region 1 review. Text by Chris Hallam Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins Jr., Chris Cooper, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Balaban Director: Bennett Miller

The Lowdown: On learning of the brutal murder of the Clutter family in rural Kansas, author and celebrity Truman Capote travels to the victims’ town with his lifelong friend, novelist Harper Lee. By befriending the local community, sheriff and the killers, he finds material for his literary masterpiece ‘In Cold Blood’.

God knows what the good people of Kansas made of Truman Capote in 1959. Short, portly and as camp as a field of boy scouts, the ‘Breakfast At Tiffany’s’ author was openly gay and more familiar with swanky New York literary parties than courtrooms and jail cells.

Capote’s personal investigation into the Clutter murders was to prove a turning point not just in his own life but also in the history of literature. ‘In Cold Blood’ would provide a compelling mix of fact and fiction that would revolutionise modern journalism. Yet the moment of Capote’s greatest triumph would also precipitate his downfall. The film centres on the author’s conflict as he befriends one of the accused men Perry Smith while ultimately hoping to benefit from his execution (if only because it would guarantee a suitable finale for his book). By focusing exclusively on the crucial 1959-1965 period, ‘Capote’ reveals as much as any standard cradle to grave ‘Truman is born, realises he’s gay, writes, becomes a success, parties, drinks a lot, falls out with everyone, dies’ biopic would have done. It also gets round the thorny issue that unless the subject is a suicidal maniac like Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath, the process of writing (as with the world of computer hacking) is notoriously un-cinematic.

As Capote, Hollywood’s second most famous Hoffman is great, richly deserving his Oscar. But he’s not the only good thing here. The ever excellent Catherine Keener also excels as Harper Lee, Capote’s lifelong friend (Truman was the model for Dill in her ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’) whose success eats Capote up with jealousy. And with a flawless cast and sensitive intelligent screenplay from TV actor Dan Futterman, newbie director Miller (who has only directed one documentary before) doesn’t put a foot wrong.

Extras-wise, as so often before, the splitting of the ‘Making of’ featurette into two, merely serves as a none too convincing cover for the fact that neither are more than a few minutes long. And while both are good – the first half cantering more on Capote the man, the second more on ‘Capote’ the film – a longer documentary on Capote is sorely missed as it’s exactly the sort of film to leaves you thirsting for more info about its subject. Hoffman and Miller’s generally sedate commentary is lifted by Hoffman’s refreshing frankness in frequently admitting his struggle to get into character in many of his (ostensibly flawless) scenes. The other commentary in which Miller returns with cinematographer Kimmel is less interesting. But while more input from the screenwriters would have been appreciated, this is a generally fine package, which like the film, cannot easily be faulted.

Text By Chris Hallam

Captions 1: Hoffman lost 40 pounds for the role (although is still six and half inches taller than Capote was).

2: Catherine Keener plays Capote’s friend, author Harper Lee. The real Lee reputedly liked the film.

3: Unusually, two out of five of this year’s Best Picture nominees centred on gay characters.

4: Chris Cooper: in this and every other film this year seemingly.

5: The accused men have rather more riding on the outcome of the case than the success of a book. 6: The real Capote boozed himself to death in 1984.

Final Verdict An excellent, well-acted portrait of a troubled, super intelligent man at a pivotal stage in his life.

Rating FILM: 8 EXTRAS: 7

DVD review: Blue Valentine (2011)

Review first published on Movie Muser, 2011  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Michelle Williams, John Doman, Mike Vogel, Jen Jones Directed By: Derek Cianfrance Running Time:112 minutes UK Release Date: May 8. 2011 Certificate: 15

Rating: 5 out of 5

Happy families are all alike, Tolstoy famously wrote, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. If this is true, then perhaps unhappy marriages follow a similar pattern. What isn’t in doubt and what becomes apparent very quickly in this is that the young couple, Dean and Cindy, portrayed here by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams, are a very unhappy couple indeed.

It also becomes clear very early on is that the narrative sequence of the film has been deliberately jumbled up. Yes, it’s one of those films a bit like Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. We might first witness (for example), a scene of a balding, drunken Dean consumed with suspicion, paranoia and jealousy over the suspected infidelities of his desperately unhappy wife. The next minute, he’s a happier, more charming and carefree younger man wooing the willing Cindy by playing (with unintentional irony) You Always Hurt The One You Love to her on his mandolin.

The emotional impact of the juxtaposition of these scenes is frequently devastating. Dean and Cindy can clearly barely speak to each other by the later stages of their marriage and as some very uncomfortable sex scenes make clear she is ultimately physically repelled by him. Neither character is entirely black and white, however, and while Gosling’s Dean is generally the less sympathetic of the two, even he musters some sympathy.

As you’ve probably gathered, Blue Valentine isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. So why on Earth should you want to watch it at all?

The short answer is because it’s a superb, beautifully made film, criminally neglected at the Oscars. Although he perhaps doesn’t need an ego boost, Gosling consolidates his status (demonstrated in the underrated Lars and the Real Girl) as one of the best young actors in Hollywood. Michelle Williams is, if anything, even better, giving a heart rending Oscar-worthy performance. “The Creek” now seems like a very long time ago indeed: Dawson Leery wouldn’t recognise her.

There’s also a solid Bonus Features package including a commentary from director Derek Cianfrance and editor Jim Hendon, a Q and A session from the Sundance Film Festival and a making of featurette. There are also some home movie sequences, glimpsed briefly in the film, played out in full.

But if you’ve ever looked at an unhappy couple and wondered why they ever got together in the first place, this could be the film for you.

Overall Verdict:

Not an easy evening’s viewing: the emphasis is more on the “blue” than on the “valentine”. But both Williams and Gosling are sensational and it’s undoubtedly one of the better films of the past year.

Special Features:

Audio Commentary with Director Derek Cianfrance and Editor Jim Helton

Q and A Featurette

Deleted Scenes

Making of Blue Valentine Featurette

Home Movies Clips

Trailer

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

DVD review: The Last Station (2010)

Review first published on Movie Muser, June 2010  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Director: Michael Hoffman

Cast: Christopher Plummer, Helen Mirren, James McAvoy, Anne-Marie Duff, Paul Giamatti, Kerry Condon, John Sessions

Running time: 107 minutes

Russia: 1910. With the First World War and the Russian Revolution still a few years off, ageing War and Peace author Leo Tolstoy (Plummer) might be expected to be enjoying a peaceful retirement. In fact, torn between the conflicting demands of his strong willed wife Countess Sofya (Mirren) and those of his increasingly zealous Tolstoyan followers, the author’s life is barely less turbulent than the events of one of his great novels.

The Last Station is less about Tolstoy himself than the plethora of characters surrounding him. The most sympathetic is perhaps young Valentin Bulgarov (McAvoy), a brainy but self conscious acolyte of the author. Arriving at the Tolstoy Estate as the author’s new private secretary, Valentin soon finds his loyalties divided. Should he side with the clique effectively led by his boss Vladimir Chertkov (Giamatti), in attempting to build a personality cult around the author or with the more reasonable wishes of Tolstoy’s undeniably unstable wife?


For a film dealing with such weighty issues, the first half of The Last Station is remarkably cheery stuff. Perhaps wary of scaring off his audience, director Hoffman devotes much screen time to the sneezing and reticent McAvoy’s tentative relationship with ballsy proto-feminist Masha (Condon). Only in the second half, does the film’s mood darken to a suitably more sombre state, yet the change is so dramatic (McAvoy’s character also transforming overnight) that it unbalances the film. 

The film is beautifully acted, however, Plummer almost looking like an American (okay, Canadian) reincarnation of Tolstoy at times and Mirren equally great as his long-suffering spouse, a woman clearly prone to emotional volatility, expressed through occasional gun-play and chicken impression, but who nevertheless has good reason to feel aggrieved.

The accompanying commentary and interviews give some insight into a project which was apparently in the pipeline for around twenty years. But ultimately it’s a problem of tone. Too lightweight in the first half, while too melancholy (and despite dramatic events, frankly, dull) in the second, somehow The Last Station never quite scales the epic heights it threatens to achieve.
Overall Verdict: Great performances elevate a film which falls just short of Tolstoyan brilliance itself.