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
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.
Another darkly humorous instant classic from the hugely talented John Michael McDonagh.
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.
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.
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
Rating: 4 out of 5
Undeniably a bit of a mess, but the story is bizarre and fascinating enough to win the day.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Audio Commentary with Director Derek Cianfrance and Editor Jim Helton
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.
Review: Queen Victoria didn’t just reign. She ruled.She in fact ruled for nearly 64 years, longer than anyone else, a record the present Queen may beat if she holds out until 2016 (update: this has since happened).
Yet while most films about, say, Henry VIII see him transformed from a handsome young Jonathan Rhys Meyers-type into an obese Charles Laughton-like glutton, movies about Victoria usually centre exclusively on her later years as a gloomy, sour faced old widow. This is different. Opening in the 1830s, we first meet Emily Blunt’s teenaged Princess Victoria as she develops an initially awkward romance with her German suitor, Prince Albert (Rupert Friend), before we move onto her early years on the throne.
In the meantime, she finds herself in a constant battle to assert her authority over her Germanic mother (Miranda Richardson) and bossy baron, Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong).
Although too tall and, frankly, much too attractive to be Queen Victoria at any age, Emily Blunt is otherwise perfect for the role while Rupert Friend is impressive as the crusading Albert. Some of the smaller roles are less well-handled, however. Paul Bettany just looks weird as the sixty-something Lord Melbourne and Jim Broadbent, while brilliant as ever as Victoria’s eccentric uncle, William IV, is so heavily made up that during the state banquet scene he resembles Bilbo Baggins at his eleventy-first birthday party.Yet, for the most part, the film is both visually authentic and well cast.
The problem really is the setting. Victoria came to the throne at a relatively peaceful time in the nation’s history. Her life wasn’t untroubled by any means, but despite a reasonable attempt to demonise Mark Strong’s Conroy, there’s little scope for dramatic conflict. Recognising this, screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park) sexes up events by heavily fictionalising a major event towards the end of the film. This contrivance apparently provoked the ire of the present Queen, not a good idea if Fellowes ever wants a knighthood (update: Fellowes was elevated to the peerage in 2011).
The five featurettes here are all less than ten minutes long and primarily focus on the set design, costumes and historical background to the film. ‘The Real Queen Victoria’ is perhaps the best of these, enlivened by diary entries from Victoria herself, even if these are undermined by them being read by someone apparently auditioning for a part in ‘EastEnders’.
For quiet Sunday evening viewing though, The Young Victoria is hard to fault.
Overall Verdict:Blunt and Friend are okay and the central romance is well-handled but anyone fancying something racier should go for ‘The Duchess’ instead.
‘The Making Of Young Victoria’ Featurette
‘The Coronation’ Featurette
‘Lavish History: A Look at The Costumes and Locations’ Featurette
Cousins Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe live in an unnamed village in the Cotswolds. Although both have finished school, they are both poorly educated and are still yet to break out of their childhood habits. There is literally almost nothing to do in the village and the suspicion is that the longer they stay there the more likely they are to turn into one of the assorted eccentric weirdos who already roam the landscape. Indeed, they are already well on the way.
The duo are in fact played by real-life brother and sister, Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper who also wrote the series which is filmed in a mockumentary format. The Mucklowe’s only real ally in the world – although a much underappreciated one – is the well-meaning local vicar (Paul Chahidi).
Kerry is almost invariably dressed in a football t-shirt and lives with her mother, who rather like Howard’s mother in early episodes of the US sitcom, Big Bang Theory, is an unseen presence (in this case, voiced by Daisy May Cooper herself) endlessly shouting inane instructions or complaints to her daughter in an agitated rasping voice.
Kerry is, a formidable presence in her own right:
“I’ve got enemies in South Cerney,” she boasts boldly at one point. “I’ve got enemies in North Cerney, I’ve got enemies in Cerney Wick. I’ve got enemies in Bourton-on-the-Water. There’s a tea rooms there and under the counter they’ve got a panic button and if I take one step inside, they can press that.”
Both she and the hapless Kurtan are great comic creations. This Country is not a series that benefits from extensive hype: it is perhaps best discovered for yourself.