Tag Archives: DVD

DVD Review: Dream House


Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz are Hollywood’s latest power couple. Together they are more than capable of flying the flag for Britain in the vast cinematic universe. Iconic movies from recent years litter their CVs, from The Mummy to Casino Royale. Interestingly, and perhaps dangerously for their happiness, they will go head to head in 2012, both critically and at the box office, when Weisz stars in The Bourne Legacy and Craig returns as James Bond in Skyfall. Every aspect of this super spy battle will play out under a media spotlight, but their real life relationship began on the set of a film that would turn out to be an unnoticed flop, in every department, despite the A-list names attached.

Dream House is a film ripe for critical clichés. It suffers from a severe identity crisis. Marketed as a horror and psychological thriller, it succeeds at being neither. It is telling that the cover of the DVD is adorned with a vague quote, “scary thrills”, from a publication as prestigious as The Daily Star. The movie has a mere 7% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and most reviewers only throw out the odd crumb of kindness because they feel sorry for the talented stars, mired by the mess. Ironically though, the terrible reception for Dream House at the tail end of 2011 may be its saving grace on DVD.

Dream House was nowhere near as bad as I was expecting it to be. The slightest bit of research into the film will expose its dodgy development and crisis ridden path to release. Scenes were hastily reshot at the last minute and there were huge creative differences. The trailer reveals the major twist, stripping the narrative naked so that there is no interest or excitement left to be discovered when you sit down to watch the film itself. In any case the story is an uninspiring creature, which simply mimics much better films from the horror and thriller genres.

For what it’s worth, Craig and Weisz play Will and Libby, a happy couple settling down in their dream home in the country. Will has left his job at a publishing company to write his own book. Libby doesn’t seem to be doing much, so clearly this couple are as financially comfortable as Craig and Weisz in the real world. Their kids require little effort and are just great fun. But then things start going bump outside and the neighbour (Naomi Watts) is acting “mysteriously” by refusing to answer Will’s questions. Eventually the family discover that a murder took place in their beloved new home.

If you manage to forget the precise nature of the twist, despite the trailer’s best efforts, there are some surprises left in Dream House.  I remembered the twist about a quarter of the way through the film, after some pretty obvious clues refreshed my memory. Rather than having an excruciating wait until the end, I was shocked to find that Dream House proudly unveils its big secret half way through its short 88 minute runtime. Initially I saw this as a bold move. It completely wrong footed me, and I presumed it meant that there was a real, even more satisfying reveal to come.

Perhaps my lowered expectations were going to allow me to enjoy Dream House. Or perhaps not. There were a couple of ounces of plot left to add to the mix, but the final ingredients took forever to fall into the pot. This is where the identity crisis comes in. Once the twist jumps out on us, Daniel Craig takes centre stage. Most of the awful attempts at horror stop and Craig is left to convince us that the twist was plausible, and that its impact is emotionally horrific for his character. In fairness to the film, you do get the satisfaction of saying to yourself “oh that’s why she said that earlier”. Everything before the twist fits and makes sense. But pretty much everything after the twist is an anti-climax.

There are aspects to Dream House that will almost make you like it. It’s nice to watch a film that doesn’t fall back on the ridiculously supernatural to be unsettling. The simple fact that there was a murder in your house is never really exploited to its fullest though, and by the end the film is as ludicrous as any other disappointing horror. Its structure is all over the place. It is neither scary, nor jumpy, nor thrilling. Rachel Weisz and Naomi Watts give atrocious performances, after being given very little to work with by the script. Daniel Craig is left to the carry the film, and whilst he is not bad, he is also far from his best. Having said all this, Dream House is an acceptable DVD rental that will get you talking with whoever you choose to watch it with.

 

DVD Review: Sensation


The opening minutes of Sensation are not a stimulating thrill ride or a feast for the senses. In fact, they could be described as bleak. I’m going to be careful not to mislead you here; I don’t want the word bleak to imply that the early scenes are moving, or interestingly dark. Instead, I mean bleak as in “without hope or expectation of success or improvement”. The world of central character Donal is defined by its dullness and the fact that it is never likely to change. His uneventful life has left him numb, and so emotionless that when he discovers his father dead on the stair lift, he uses the remote to bring the cold corpse slowly down, rather than rushing up.

You may find that, as I did, the start of Sensation will induce that “where have I seen him before?” feeling. This was the most pressing thing about the film for its first quarter of an hour, that nagging frustration that is impossible to shake.  So I paused the film, utilised a well known internet search engine and discovered that lead actor Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Donal, also played Bill Weasley in the last few Harry Potter films. Cue the knowing nod that accompanies the phrase “I knew I recognised him!”. Curiosity quenched, I could now begin to concentrate on the film itself.

Following the funeral of Donal’s father we watch a young man shuffle through a very lonely existence. The really disheartening thing about Donal’s grief is that it is so minimal. He had clearly been expecting his father’s death and we do not really witness any sadness relating to it. It’s also clear that Donal’s loneliness goes back far, far further than the eventual demise of his sick dad. His best friend Karl, who lives in a caravan on Donal’s farm land, suggests that the funds freed up by his father’s death might be the making of Donal. But Donal has no idea how to use the cash wisely in the nothingness of the Irish countryside. His only half plan is to move to Dublin.

This complicated, but essentially sympathetic portrayal of Donal, is offset by hints towards a darker side of his character. That initial moment where he waits for the stair lift’s grim and personal cargo to descend is both shocking and repulsive. It’s symbolic of Donal’s laziness, lack of drive and dangerous naivety.  Whilst Donal’s problems are real and capable of inspiring sympathy, his only solace is sordid and shameful. Ignorant of girls and relationships, Donal is fascinated by sex. However, his perception of sex is skewed by the internet. His only experience of it comes from the online world, where he sports the nickname of “Sweetdick” in a chat room. He masturbates furiously, in a way that seems to be a brutal release. He seems to have little awareness of intimacy, although a dim desire for it grows once he has satisfied his raw lust.

Suddenly not lacking in cash after receiving a sizeable inheritance, Donal’s first port of call is a website advertising escorts. One of them, called Courtney, has been recommended to him by an online chat room buddy. At first, he tentatively asks for an hour with her, only to be persuaded over the phone that the “full girlfriend experience” will be worth his while (and hers, financially). They meet in a restaurant, where she is surprised that he actually wants to eat. She reassures him that seduction is not necessary, but Donal orders a chicken kiev anyway. That’s where the civilized behaviour stops though. Back at his farm, Donal rapidly enjoys what he’s paid for. As Courtney says later, this is not Pretty Woman.

But the parallels are certainly there. Donal has money, albeit not on the scale of Richard Gere’s millionaire, but enough to make him of use to Courtney, whose real name is Kim. When events ensure that Kim and Donal get to know each other personally, they begin to form an ambiguous bond. Their feelings are tested and disguised because of the shadowy, theatrical business of the sex trade. Donal starts out wanting to help Kim rescue herself. He then falls for her, before ending up seeing her as a commodity.

Boiled down to its basics, Sensation is a simple story about two very different, lonely people crossing paths. It stands above this classic blueprint because of the strength of its characterisation and acting. Donal is volatile and unpredictable because of his troubled youth, and Kim is determined and twisted because of her profession. You’re never quite sure where their true loyalties lie. In this way Sensation is realistic, with its incorporation of modern themes and the lack of trust between a group of people who have recently joined forces in a backstabbing industry. However, Sensation also has many weak points. Its fringe characters are less well acted and unconvincingly drawn. The ending is rushed and more than a little predictable, and sections of the film drag. In my view, this is an excellent effort from writer/director Tom Hall. It is occasionally funny, although not to the point of laughter, and ultimately touching, despite a difficult subject matter.

DVD Review: The Deep Blue Sea


Think of post-war Britain and an archive of stock images springs to mind. There was the tyranny of the rationing card and the pile of rubble down the road that used to be a neighbour’s house. There were widows, orphans and military veterans. Cigarettes were a stylish release from the everyday gloom, rather than a health risk. Pubs were indispensable social hubs full of heart warming camaraderie and spontaneous singing.

Life in Britain after the eventual triumph of 1945 then, trudged on as if viewed through a sepia lens. In short, all was brown. Dresses, walls, shirts, cars, pubs, drinks, underwear, sheets, food, packaging and carpets, were all various shades of drab. Surely, despite the truth underlining it, this clichéd view of how things were then must be a gross simplification? Apparently no, according to director Terence Davies, that was just how it was. Speaking in an interview from The Deep Blue Sea’s special features, he claims that you only ever saw primary colours on particular sweet wrappers, along with the occasional glimpse of red when someone got engaged.

Davies has been widely praised for his total understanding of post-war Britain. He lived through it in his formative years and talks about personal memories in the interview on the DVD. He has also expressed his knowledge of the subject numerous times on film, in fictitious and factual form. Despite The Deep Blue Sea being an adaptation of a Terence Rattigan play, Davies’ own independent influences are evident throughout. At times these directorial flights of fancy give the film a lift, but at others they feel like thoroughly artificial flourishes that deflate the drama.

Much of The Deep Blue Sea is told in flashback as its protagonist, Rachel Weisz’s Hester Collyer, recovers from an attempted suicide attempt. Initially we are wrapped up in the mood of the story and Davies does appear to have a masterful command over the details of the period. Quickly though, the background to Hester’s affair with Tom Hiddleston’s pilot Freddie Page becomes extremely tiresome. There is the odd interesting flashpoint, such as a quietly dramatic dinner with Hester’s mother-in-law. Here, Hester is lectured on the downsides of passion, whilst her husband, Simon Russell Beale’s much older judge, looks on passively. Hester defiantly stands her ground, convinced of the importance of excitement in such a dull world. She does not hate her husband; in fact they mostly get on well and share platonic affection. But Hester craves something more in her life.

That something more turns out to be a younger man, and perhaps the sex such a man can supply on demand. Hiddleston is handsome and charming, pulling off a decent impression of a restless RAF chap. It’s easy enough to see why Weisz jumps for him over Russell Beale. However, the supposed passion of their affair never really comes across. This might be because of the sensibilities of the time. Or it might be because of what happens in the final part of the film.

I was very tempted to write off The Deep Blue Sea as tasteful melodrama until its climax. For all the praise heaped on the performances of Weisz and Hiddleston, they appeared to be sporadically brilliant, but more often ridiculous. Hiddleston’s pompous pilot was 90% impersonation, 10% acting. Weisz’s Hester was beautiful but unrealistically pathetic. Then a shouting match outside a pub saves The Deep Blue Sea from drowning in its period features. The argument between the lovers is so loud and fierce that it makes up for many of the terrible lines in the script. This is not just because we finally see some drama in drab 50s London, but also because the narrative finally gets an injection of believable characterisation.

DVD Review: Moss


No one likes disappointing a friend. I’m sure “stop letting friends down” or “make more time for people I care about” will rank highly amongst the more realistic New Year’s resolutions made this January. Imagine my irritation then when, just days into this New Year, a film of my choosing was a source of both disappointment and bafflement as I met a friend for the last time in at least weeks, perhaps months.

There’s nothing quite like sharing fear. Love might come close, maybe, but fear is much easier to talk about afterwards and grows funnier with hindsight, whilst love’s sadness merely mellows with age. What could be better then, than a horror film send off? Where better to have it than a dark, secluded, silent spot in the wind battered countryside? What better concept for the story than a weird mix of mysterious murderers, seeking salvation from their sins in the supernatural, founding an isolated community and terrorising an outsider to protect their secrets?

I was anticipating a creepy, jumpy thrill ride through shocks and secrets of unspeakable evil. Or something to that effect. Moss is a Korean film and I was therefore expecting it to be free of any British sensibility or pretentious European limitations. I’d heard Korean horror was something to be genuinely feared and was expecting a double barrelled fright fest.

Instead I’m not quite sure what it was we got. It was certainly long. Only just less than 3 hours long, in fact. Moments in the film were clearly intended to be terrifying but I think that Moss’s marketing campaign, which places it firmly in the genre of horror, was misguided to the say the least. But then again I’m not sure what else to call it. The plot is evidently meant to be a complex web of revelations and reverses but I was left, at the end of the marathon runtime, feeling like I’d learnt nothing new. If this is a mystery there is precious little to start with and no more by the end.

The drawn out story follows Yu, who arrives in a remote community after his estranged father (also called Yu) suddenly dies. We learn through regular flashbacks that the older Yu had some sort of spiritual gift, which maverick Detective Cheon decided to harness in order to rehabilitate killers. For young Yu, arriving in an odd and small village of eccentrics, doubts continue to hang over the nature of his father’s death. Did he fall from the land of the living or was he pushed? What exactly was his father doing in the middle of nowhere with this man called Cheon, who everyone appears to worship despite an aura of danger surrounding him?

Moss meanders through themes as diverse as corruption and rape, spirituality and bureaucracy. It never succeeds as a horror because the monsters are in plain sight from the start, with most of them succeeding only at being hilariously inept. One character in particular is so bumbling that had the script tossed him a few innuendos we could have been watching “Carry On Korean Conspiracy”. The lighting undermines any potentially scary moment, even when the soundtrack is trying its hardest to initiate some jitters. The dialogue, at least when rendered as English subtitles, is expositional, dull and far from conducive to horror.

Moss fails to manage a single scare and even more importantly as the story drags endlessly on; it never makes you care either.

DVD Review: The Lost Bladesman


If your new film is a box office smash in China there’s a good chance you’ll never have to work again; unless you were just in charge of fetching the coffee and sandwich orders on set. Everybody knows the Chinese population is practically a whole other world full of people crammed into the confines of one (albeit large) country. But these days they’re not just statistics briefly gawped at in GCSE Geography lessons. Scrap that, they remain figures for most of us in little old England, but now they’re far less distant and a lot more accessible and relevant.

America has just lost its top credit rating, Europe remains poised on a perpetual precipice of financial collapse, whilst emerging economic powerhouses, such as China and also India, look set to pick up the pieces of global influence. Historians, politicians and commentators have been debating the apparent shift from Western to Eastern dominance for a long time now. But even as the evidence continues to suggest a more uncertain future for us in the West, along with greater strength and security for the likes of China, it’s Western cultural phenomena and trends that continue to capture the world’s imagination, as well as drive the entertainment sectors of the international economy. It’s undoubtedly significant that China’s ascent in the last few years has coincided with increasingly Western elements to its economy and society.

Last year, according to Film Business Asia, China’s box office receipts grew by 64% to $1.53 billion. This is just a part of an increasingly Western feel to Chinese leisure time. With such a huge market for Hollywood studios to target, you wonder why they bother with our British pennies at all.

The Lost Bladesman is a film about old China, made in China. It was a hit at the Chinese box office and arrives on DVD and Blu-Ray today. It isn’t a Hollywood production but it’s a reasonably accurate representation of the way Western culture has portrayed China on film over the years. This is a period martial arts epic, with plenty of high kicking choreography and obviously important talk of honour. So far we haven’t really caught up with the changing times and “new” China hasn’t been properly explored at the cinema.

One reason for this is that huge fights scenes full of ninjas and sword slashing are very popular. Martial arts films continue to have a dedicated fan base around the world. The moneymen behind the filmmakers like to stick to safe bets, hence endless editions of identikit Jackie Chan thrillers. But as I’ve said The Lost Bladesman is a Chinese production, so clearly within China itself there is also a reluctance to abandon the old for the new.

If you like kung fu and karate shenanigans then there are certainly a few set pieces in The Lost Bladesman that are worth a look. However if you’re after something plot driven then don’t invest too much hope in this. There isn’t much of a story and what there is you may not be able to comprehend (I was frequently confused) amidst the battle scenes, slow mo duels and serious, subtitled dialogue. Appropriately, given the film’s title, it seems to lose its way a great deal, lurching messily from one painstakingly choreographed set piece to another.

Without the production notes and its synopsis I would have had no clue what was happening at times. There are too many enemies to keep track of and it’s difficult to remember why any of it is happening. It all begins on the battlefield. Despite the scale of these scenes they are mostly uninteresting. Then with impressive scenery as a constant backdrop, Donnie Yen’s Guan Yun Chang goes on the run. It says that he’s trying to return his “sworn brother’s” concubine but it’s really not clear whose side he is on as he travels through China, killing a lot of people on the way and failing miserably to fall in love, whilst warlords talk grimly about, well, war.

Yen’s meticulously planned and noisily realised scenes of ninja combat are the only real reason to see The Lost Bladesman. They are far more impressive than the handful of battles on show. After the first proper mortal duel in a narrow space had me gripped though, even the rest of Yen’s dances with death began to lose their appeal. I was glad to see the credits.

DVD Review: Beyond the Border


World War Two remains a rich source of inspiration to be mined again and again by storytellers. But even for those that love watching Nazi asses getting kicked behind enemy lines (like me) the same old bland tales that we’ve all seen a thousand times before can get extremely tiresome. It was refreshing then to find something slightly different and mostly enjoyable in the shape of Swedish film Beyond the Border.

It follows Lieutenant Aron Stenström who at first appears to be an authoritative officer and loving fiancé. He greets his brother Sven at the station before driving him to his new home, a roadblock 5km from German occupied Norway.  As Sven settles in with his comrades it gradually becomes clear that our mustachioed protagonist is conducting frequent secret missions across the border, much to the frustration of his pregnant beloved, who wants to marry him before the bump starts showing.

These forays into forbidden territory are not just secret from those on the other side of the border. Officially Sweden is out of the war, with nothing to fear from Hitler’s all conquering mechanized army. Aron’s superior, Major Adolfsson, is suspicious of the Nazis though and sets about ensuring his country is prepared for the worst. He orders his Lieutenant to mine bridges over the border so that they can be blown if needed.

It’s perhaps the Swedish setting of Beyond the Border that most sets it apart from other films of its ilk. Apart from anything else you are reminded of the sheer scale of the conflict. There are so many untold or rarely told stories from smaller nations that were occupied, in Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe. They all had their own life or death battles to overcome. Not everything of importance played out in France, Britain or somewhere tropical with American soldiers swaggering about. It appears that in Sweden the political climate was particularly complicated, which makes for compelling and mysterious viewing and adds to the heroism of the central characters.

Meanwhile Aron’s brother Sven has a heated and alcohol fuelled argument with fellow sentry Bergström. Sven believes passionately that Sweden should prepare to stand against Germany, whilst Bergström is a mild sympathizer, pragmatically suggesting he’d prefer Hitler to Stalin. Later we find out that there is history here; many men in the Swedish ranks have fought the Russians in the past, whereas there are obvious shared links to German culture.

Sven is shaken by the ideological spat and unable to sleep in such close proximity to Bergström. He heads off to scout out the border in the dead of night, joined eventually by a reluctant colleague who thought better of leaving him alone. They stumble upon a Nazi truck searching for a fleeing Norwegian, who ends up collapsing studded with bullets at their feet in the snow. Sven returns fire in a desperate attempt to help the man and he is captured.

Elder brother Aron finds that Sven has disappeared on his way to a clandestine rendezvous deep into Norway. His orders go out the window and Aron begins to lose his cool in the Arctic cold as he and his men discover evidence of his brother’s capture. Sven’s reluctant escort is dead, tied to a tree as a trophy. Any subtlety and ambiguity as to whether the Nazis are “evil” or “bad” is abandoned when we meet the stereotypically sadistic Captain Keller. However the Swedes remain rounded human beings rather than chess pieces to be shunted around in action sequences.

Even as the plot thickens and wanders off in several directions through the striking, oppressive snow-scapes of Norway and Sweden, Beyond the Border’s heroes remain grounded. Richard Holm’s direction must be praised for handling scenes of moody introspection as well as modern and exciting gun fights.  Indeed this is a film that manages to be brutal, bleak, bloody and thrilling all at once at times.

Further variety is thrown into the mix as Aron experiences some arty and stylish hallucinations in the search for his brother. He and his wife-to-be parted with an argument, which he regrets as he feels light-years away from her in the harsh heat of war. He sees her and a Nazi he killed in disorientating flashes; even though he is a trained military man and the Swedes know the terrain, they are not practiced killers like their opponents. Only Antti Reini’s character is a hardened and knowing veteran of real conflict.

For all Beyond the Border’s strengths however there is something unsatisfying about it. Maybe the characterization feels forced rather than developed. Maybe it does just feel like another war film despite the accomplished execution and refreshing themes. Maybe it’s too long. Just as the characters need to take breaks from their cold and disheartening surroundings, it might help to take lighthearted breaks from Beyond the Border’s 117 minutes when it’s released on August the 8th. Mostly though it’s a decent watch.

DVD Review: The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell


We get superhero reboots and bombastic blockbusters every summer. But is that what the public really want to see? Wouldn’t they rather watch a Brazilian version of The Hangover?

Sorry to disappoint fans of The Hangover but I’m not talking about the third instalment of the franchise set in Rio or Sao Paulo. The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell is actually far superior and extremely different to the gross out antics of Bradley Cooper and co. Despite the promise of a “wild time” on the production notes and lots of mad rushing around the seedier side of an exotic city, The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell is a light hearted and warm tale about the joy of life.

It’s the story of Quincas who dies in bed, bottle in hand, on his 72nd birthday. His friends, all of whom resemble tramps or whores, are waiting to throw him a surprise party. When he doesn’t show and they discover his death, they are left devastated. A group of guys, this film’s very own wolf pack, even refer to him as their “Daddy”.

Meanwhile in a more respectable and well dressed part of town, his real daughter, Vanda, is informed of his death. After the initial shock she and her husband panic because in their social circles they have spread the elaborate explanation that Quincas ran off with a rich Italian heiress. She is ashamed of the sordid lifestyle her father embraced and prefers to dwell on the memory of him receiving a gold watch for years of service as a clerk, accountant or some such boring bureaucratic role. Underneath all her snobbish judgements she is simply jealous of her father’s new family of eccentrics. She had not seen him for 15 years, until she laid eyes on his corpse.

Quincas, played by Paulo Jose, narrates the bumbling night of adventure that follows his disappointingly ordinary passing. Adapted from Jorge Amado’s novel by writer/director Sergio Machado, this is a film full of extraordinary and colourful characters, providing humour of all kinds. Rather than a gasping heap of giggles on the floor, you are left glowing, with a heartfelt smile across your face and the beginnings of a laugh, whether the gag is a farting aunt or misguided poetry.

The mischievous friends of the deceased, once slightly liberated by booze, decide to take him for the birthday party on the town he would have wanted. They convince themselves that he is not dead for the purposes of the evening’s gallivanting. Driven by grief, camaraderie and anger at the stuck up family trampling on his personal philosophy, they go for a tour of Quincas’ old haunts. Eventually they are pursued by the police and his daughter, who learn their own lessons about life along the way.

You get a sense that pulsing at the core of this film is the essence of the original novel, which accounts for its strong, captivating characters and life affirming messages. Quincas was living the dream, bold enough to shake off the shackles of his dreary day to day life in favour of fun and freedom in his final years. So many stories revolve around that wise old saying, life is short, but The Two Deaths of Quincas Wateryell really shows that the happiness to be found in one night, in the saddest of circumstances, can better a lifetime of respectable conformity.

Out on August the 1st on Blu-Ray and DVD, this is a feel good film with a difference, full of wit and wisdom.