Category Archives: DVD

Review: Love Is All You Need

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Collaborating for the fifth time with writer Anders Thomas Jensen – following Open Hearts (2002), Brothers (2004), After the Wedding (2007) and the Academy Award winning In a Better World (2010), Danish director Susanne Bier returns to cinematic consciousness with Love Is All You Need (2012), perhaps her most broadly mainstream film yet. Set both in her native Denmark and the sun-kissed shores of the southern coast of Italy, Bier’s latest is a frothy mixture of romantic comedy and familial unrest as she surveys the looming nuptials of a young couple whose respective parents are reaching something of a crossroads in their vastly dissimilar lives.

 The remarkable Trine Dyrholm plays Ida, a Danish hairdresser who, whilst recuperating from chemotherapy and waiting for the results of her final oncological tests, discovers her slobbish husband Leife (Kim Bodnia) is cheating on her with a younger woman. Meanwhile Philip (played by Pierce Brosnan), an Englishman living in Denmark, is a lonely, middle-aged widower and estranged single father whose contentment in a life of moneyed solitude has rendered him consistently uninterested in forming lasting relationships.

 Events conspire to entwine these two increasingly lost souls as they embark on their journey for Italy to attend the wedding of Ida’s daughter Astrid and Philip’s son Patrick, young lovers whose path to matrimony has a few obstacles in store.

 Marking a notable change in tone in comparison to her previous hard-hitting dramas, Bier’s Love Is All You Need is a grounded but somewhat slight and uninspired perusal through several romantic comedy clichés, suffering from a narrative that owes a considerable debt to films such as Mamma Mia! (2008) and Laws of Attraction (2004), both of which also star Brosnan. In a rather sloppy appropriation of the genre, Jensen’s screenplay spends too much time establishing the characters and their respective settings that he forgets to actually imbue them with any particularly memorable flavours, entrenched as they are in well-worn tropes and characteristics. The relationships shared between the various lovers, friends and family feel shallow and underdeveloped, making early sequences – and many pivotal later ones – appear weightless and underdone, giving the illusion of believability despite a distinct lack of properly drawn histories and emotions. This is notable through Brosnan’s character, whose alienated relationship with his progressively confounded son isn’t given the time to breath or develop.

 Sumptuously captured by cinematographer Morten Søborg, the film moves along at a brisk pace and slowly becomes more engrossing once it decides that the budding relationship shared between Dyrholm and Brosnan is its most significant overarching plot, but the beautiful, sun-dappled scenery barely masks a threadbare story that wears its predictabilities on its sleeves. If warmth is all you need for a comfortable romantic comedy, then Love Is All You Need provides the requisite fodder, just don’t expect anything particularly affecting from a filmmaker trying to meet Dogme-inflected panache with a more conventional model.

Review: I Give It a Year

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(Originally posted at CineVue)

Ever since the Working Title stable made a decision to fund acclaimed, lucrative comedies that were as romantic as they were inherently British, the desire to replicate such successes has rendered the UK’s grasp of the genre somewhat wanting. However, Dan Mazer’s timely I Give It a Year (2013) looks to reinstate our nation’s taste for domestically tinged romantic comedies by offering – like Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004) before it – the antidote to such stale proceedings by effectively exploring the subsequent travails of the happily ever after idyll. The film attempts to give answers to the question: what happens after you say “I do”? by circumnavigating stale convention, but finds itself trapped within its own conformism.

Rafe Spall (in his first leading role) and Rose Byrne play Josh and Nat respectively, a couple who, after an all too brief seven-month romance – signified by an all too brief one minute opening montage – upgrade their whirlwind relationship and tie the knot. Once the couple’s notions of wedded bliss begin to dwindle and the honeymoon period draws to a weary stop, the cracks in their spontaneously thrown together affair begin to show; conflicting traits and career path’s swell whilst dissimilar lifestyles exacerbate their already ingrained problems.

Flitting back and forth between the numerous pleasures and pitfalls of their first few married months and, latterly, sessions with a cantankerous relationship councillor (an over the top Olivia Colman), the film charts Nat and Josh’s questioning of whether they did indeed make the right decisions. Their nuptials are further challenged by attractive alternatives in the form of Josh’s kooky humanitarian ex-girlfriend Chloe (Anna Faris) and Nat’s suave American client Guy (Simon Baker), whose respective suitability test the couple’s devotion and ultimately force them to decide between passion and dependability.

Peppered with a similar amount of gross-out gags, garishly shaped supporting characters and the supposedly satirical humour Mazer injected to his previous projects Borat (2006) and Bruno (2009), I Give It a Year is a triumph of mediocrity accentuated by an unrequited desire to do what the debut filmmaker is unable to achieve. In attempting to seek the supposedly unseen truths behind an uncomfortable dichotomy between the perfect marriage between two people who aren’t necessarily perfect for each other, Mazer has optimistically crafted an imbalanced film fuelled by incompetent filmmaking and sloppy characterisation. Both the portrayal of Josh and Nat and their relationship is rushed and underdeveloped, so when their affections become intercepted by equally listless characters, the film feels more passive than natural and honest. As narrative convolutions begin to stack up, Mazer continues to lifelessly counter the established permutations of the genre despite eventually giving in and welcoming a contented climax, no matter how awkward and hasty it appears to be. The genre continues to struggle, and I Give It a Year won’t be reigniting its diminishing flame any time soon.

DVD Review: Breaking Bad Season 5 – Part One

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(Originally posted at CineVue)

Mere months away from the final batch of episodes of Vince Gilligan’s critically acclaimed televisual juggernaut that will round off the show’s judicious lifespan, fans now have the chance to reacquaint themselves with the first eight in Breaking Bad – Season 5. Following on from the suspense-laden, action-packed fourth season, which saw Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) struggling to overcome the extenuating forces stopping him from becoming the undisputed kingpin of his local crime underworld, SeasonFive – part one sees Gilligan diligently slotting every miscellaneous element into place before an almighty send-off, all the while delivering a prelude that is just as exhilarating and cunning as season’s before it, perhaps even more so.

After overcoming the sinister grip of meticulous criminal kingpin Gustavo Fring last season, whose Machiavellian hold over the duo’s methamphetamine drug syndicate proved to be his ultimate undoing, Walter quickly begins establishing himself as the ruthless new head honcho of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Cementing his transformation from well-meaning chemistry teacher and family man to full-blown drug lord, Walter partners up with various sources – including shady handyman Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) – and fully subsidises a supremely lucrative venture that once started as a means to a protective end for his family.

Now his cancer is in remission, Walter begins to lose sight of his original motivations yet continues a venture into the capitalism of narcotics fuelled only by greed and the thirst for power. However, the fruits of his nefarious, and increasingly homicidal, schemes are threatened by a new development in the investigation led by his relentless brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent circling closer to his long sought-after prey. As explosive events conspire to challenge his ascension, Walter begins to recognise the difficulties and unease that comes with his wearing of a most perilous of crowns.

Thriving within what some are calling the latest “golden age of television”, where a handful of shows channel and challenge their more filmic equivalents, Breaking Bad has remained a fixture for audiences with a hankering for phenomenally handled and acted drama. These preliminary episodes represent the show at its towering best, offering breakneck narrative advancement with the sort of visual flairs and complex story arcs many shows merely dream about replicating. It’s all too rare for a show as packed with incident and events as this to remain fresh and inventive, yet this is testament to Gilligan’s careful maintenance and delineation of a well-constructed story peppered with engaging, deeply realised and relatable characters.

The acting is, as usual, astounding; from Cranston’s colossally frustrated Walter to Aaron Paul’s moralistic yin to his partner’s unsettling yang, and there isn’t a weak episode in the bunch, filled as they are with scenes of relentlessly high stakes plot development. A scene of Walter and his increasingly frightened wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) gazing at the mounds of illicit cash his empire has amassed is as powerful as anything the show has conjured before, detailing both the lengths this man will go for the preservation of his family and the enticement of megalomania.

Packed with in-depth special features, Breaking Bad – Season Five is a bracing preface to – based on this evidence alone – a final portion that will be a monumental event and an almighty cause of sorrow for fans the world over.

DVD Review: I, Anna.

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(Barnaby Southcombe, 2012)
(Originally posted at Lost in the Multiplex)

Transcending an industrious career in television, Barnaby Southcombe makes his feature filmmaking debut with I, Anna (2012) based on Elsa Lewin’s novel; a noirish, pseudo-psychological thriller set in a moody contemporary London and starring Charlotte Rampling, Southcombe’s off-screen mother. Collating and using as inspiration the work of his personal heroes of French cinema, chiefly the moody and minimalist crime dramas that made up a large portion of Jean-Pierre Melville’s filmography, Southcombe here has developed an atmospheric and bluntly tragic tale of loneliness and repression, yet whatever progress he makes visually is hampered by an uninspiring screenplay latched to a narrative that is too impenetrable for its own good.

Rampling stars as the titular Anna, a hushed divorcee with a seductive yet vulnerable disposition, who peruses swanky speed-dating evenings in an attempt to burst her isolated bubble. She is that most established form of femme fatale: a guarded woman trapped by a secret buried deep within her psyche, a secret that threatens her relationship with both herself and those around her. Her life becomes intersected with that of Gabriel Byrne’s troubled, detached detective Bernie, however, when she awakens, blood-soaked, next to the body of her latest conquest, and the subsequent investigation leads the two lost souls into a tangled web of passion, intrigue and deceit.

Ostensibly a straightforward story of a meandering murder case, complete with investigative detectives (namely Eddie Marsan’s dedicated D.I) and a soundtrack by French electronic band K.I.D (which adds to the film’s moody charisma), the dark nuances at play in I, Anna slowly ebb away under the cool and calculating surfaces only to build to a conclusion that is as incomprehensible as it is unnecessarily convoluted. Southcombe takes a stellar approach to balancing his two estimable leads against the backdrop of a jagged, stark Barbican (which looks highly cinematic in many of cinematographer Ben Smithard’s composed shots), yet he fails at making the feeling of ambiguity that permeates throughout the screenplay as riveting as he clearly believes, and more importantly wants, it to be.

The disc, which is neatly assembled by Artificial Eye, comes with a selection of deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer, as well as a typically pithy but uninformative making-of featurette that saves the deeper anecdotes and collaborative illuminations for the commentary shared by Southcombe and Rampling.

DVD Review: La Folie d’Amour

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(Originally posted at CineVue)

Piecing together the impressive first three films in what will undeniably become an illustrious and bountiful career, La Folie d’Amour: The Xavier Dolan Collection offers the chance to experience the work of precocious enfante terrible and Québécois hotshot Xavier Dolan. The writer, director, producer, sometimes actor and editor of his projects, with stakes in their respective art and costume departments, Dolan has done what few contemporary filmmakers succeed at: establishing at an incredibly early age deeply idiosyncratic –not to mention exhaustively prolific – auteurist sensibilities saturated by raw and deeply felt story’s and subject matters.

His cinema is founded on stylised melodrama that is, itself, derived from topics ranging from maternal unrest, the complications that arise from unrequited love, transvestism in the daring new world of the ‘90s, and everything that lays, posturing, in between. The first rung on his rapidly ascending cinematic career is I Killed My Mother (J‘ai tué ma mère) (2009), an impeccably focused and confident debut that plants the seeds of Dolan’s strong awareness of the filmic balance between style and substance. Based on a semi-autobiographical screenplay Dolan wrote at 16 years of age, the film depicts the turbulent relationship between a teenager, Hubert (played by Dolan), and his mother, astonishingly played by Anne Dorval, who he believes isn’t a suitable presence in his life. It’s a schizophrenic blend of love and hate made all the more strained by his burgeoning adolescence and the homosexuality he keeps a secret from her, a secret than manifests in a number of emotionally calculating ways.

His sophomore outing, Heartbeats (2010), is an equally flowing but slightly less engrossing tale of doomed fixations and stifled lust; something of an inversion of Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962). Dolan plays Francis, whose close friendship with fellow hipster Marie (Monia Chokri) is severely tested when they meet Nicolas (Niels Schneider), a sexually ambivalent country boy who becomes an object of intense desire between the two friends. A complex psychological ménage a trois ensues, with Nicholas’ subtle manipulations leading Francis and Marie into an obsessive and ultimately tragic frenzy.

Whatever lack of deep characterisation there is in Heartbeats is made up for in Laurence Anyways (2012), his most sprawling and flamboyant film to date; a lavishly budgeted passion project that houses a palpable examination of sexual identity under its broad 160-minute runtime. Melvil Poupaud plays Laurence, an outwardly composed and intelligent high school teacher who reveals to his girlfriend (the superb Suzanne Clément) that he wishes to embrace the woman he was born to be. Chronicling their blustery, decade long relationship, the film matches handsomely messy cinematic decadence with a vivid evocation of the 1990s conveyed through impeccably rendered fashion and music, with some scenes actually slowing down to accommodate the elegance of catwalk euphoria. It is plodding but ultimately beautiful and rewarding, and is analogous of Dolan’s ambitious, fluid and perfectly coiffed career thus far.

Review: Dance Hall

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(Charles Crichton, 1950)
(Originally posted at CineVue)

Following the recent retrospective ‘Ealing: Light and Dark’ at the BFI, which reintroduced cinemagoers to the lesser known body of work of the distinctly British studio, StudioCanal continue the task of dusting off and digitally remastering said underlings, giving them their first lease of life on DVD. Their latest, Dance Hall (1950) – perhaps one of Ealing’s most overlooked productions – is an early and somewhat lightweight venture for director Charles Crichton before his more celebrated and refined works such as The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), but offers as much insight into the inner workings of post-war kitchen sink frugality as its more distinguished cinematic peers.

The slim narrative of Dance Hall centres on the lives and loves of four working-class women, who spend their days toiling in a greasy factory and nights dancing away the brewing tensions of their repressed community at the Chiswick Palais, whose music is provided by Ted Heath and his big band (who make live appearances). Natasha Parry plays Eve, a modest housewife whose love for treading the boards quickly affects her marriage to her dull husband Phil (Donald Houston), whose jealousy swells when his wife’s affections are targeted by the local philanderer, Alec (Bonar Colleano). Elsewhere, the film’s other major plot sees Georgie (Petula Clark) attempting to realise her ambition of becoming the winner of the upcoming dance championship by overcoming the diffidence of her cautious and unsuspecting parents.

Appealingly shot by Ealing regular Douglas Slocombe, Crichton’s early film is an ostensibly insignificant film whose melodramatic edges are blunted by a series of impressively choreographed but disrupting dance sequences that intrude upon the progressive flow of Eve and Phil’s marital degradation. However, once the sober development of the few dangling narrative threads begins to take shape, the evocations brought about from the film’s sociological standpoint give flavour to a once unexciting story. As explained by film historian and writer Charles Barr in the disc’s only featurette, ‘Remembering Dance Hall’, the film is one of the few Ealing films that fully concentrated on both women and their standing in a post-war society blighted by fruitless monotony and the frustrations of rationing and being a pillar of domesticity.

Co-written by Alexander Mackendrick (famous for The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955)) and Diana Morgan – who Barr clarifies was the only female writer in Ealing’s “creative elite”, Dance Hall is an interesting veering away from the studio’s overtly male-dominated army and war films not only because it features a clutch of fine and capable performances from the leading cast (especially Clark in an early role), but because it exposes a deeply unsettled context for these women within the contrasts of the factory and the dance floor. Though it is inherently unmemorable (brought about by Crichton’s clearly indifferent direction), the film is a fascinating depiction of a bygone era that, subsequently, amounts to more than the sum of its parts.

Review: Take This Waltz

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(Sarah Polley, 2011)
(Originally posted at CineVue)

Following her most notable directorial effort  – the Academy Award nominated Away From Her (2006) – actress-cum-filmmaker Sarah Polley follows suit with Take This Waltz (2011), a puffy and unnerving study of grown up problems and specifically adult relationships. Just as Away From Her was something of an examination of how Alzheimer’s disease affects an elderly couple and their once unbreakable marriage, Polley maintains similar themes but relocates them to a more accessible but equally challenging portrayal of a woman caught between her affections for two disparate suitors.

Michelle Williams plays the central character Margot, a jobbing writer who meets the artistic, rickshaw-pulling Daniel (Luke Kirby) whilst on a business trip. They share an instant, intense chemistry fuelled as much by her sensitive vulnerability (“I’m afraid of being afraid”, she confesses) as his ability to pinpoint and make light of her various eccentricities. However, their looming and seemingly inevitable liaison is scuppered by her admission that she is happily married to cookbook writer Lou (a plausible and refreshingly understated Seth Rogen).

When, in a playful contrivance, Margot realises that Daniel actually lives across the street from her and Lou’s homespun idyll, the certainties that came with domesticity are shattered and she is forced to choose between the modest Lou and the more mystifying Daniel, with whom she secretly steals away erotically charged moments under the punishing gaze of a steaming Toronto sun.

Known mostly for supporting roles in films such as Mr. Nobody (2009) and Splice (2009), Polley once again excels at weaving together the numerous poignancies of relationships with a cinematically aware – and not to mention an incredibly lucid, mise-en- scène friendly cinematography courtesy of DoP Luc Montpellier – approach to drama. Take This Waltz is an offbeat and blazingly sexy look at the combined sizzling and cooling of a correlative three-way moored by the unreliable focal point that is Margot. Yet, It is with Margot that the tight weaving of the film unfortunately begins to unravel; though Polley sculpts an astute and observational character, brought to life by a physically and emotionally bare Williams in a typically engaging interpretation, her numerous self-consciously quirky foibles begin to grate, her whimsicality diluting the films exacting timbre.

While fine-tuning yet another female-focused distillation of emotional cracks, Polley is all too ready to introduce the beauty that comes with speculation without necessarily delving into the truths her film believes to be providing, so preoccupied it is with conveying unrest through buzzing, and admittedly glorious, visual and aural mastery. An appealing sequence at a pulsating, neon-lit fairground ride (cut to The Buggles’ ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’) perfectly captures the whirring euphoric turbulence Margot is facing, yet it is one of many mere bandages that struggle to cover the sometimes insufferable posturing found elsewhere. As a study of a restless young woman trapped in a thirty year old body she is yet to acquaint herself with, Polley goes to great lengths to create a cerebral understanding of her emotional crisis, but does so only by making her film gradually lifeless and unsubtle. Like the aforementioned fairground scene, the lights abruptly come up and the coldness of reality worms its way back to the surface, exposing the tonal shallowness residing underneath.