DVD Review: Babel

The title of this film is taken from the story of the Tower of Babel, where the languages of the world were first confused. And so we end up with a sprawling movie, moving from Morocco to Mexico to Japan, giving us examples of misunderstandings, miscommunications and racial prejudices that build up into a deeply sad picture of how little we really understand each other.

In the Moroccan story, two young boys are guarding sheep; their father has entrusted them with a new rifle to kill jackals. While foolishly trying out the rifle, they decide to take a potshot at a tourist bus to see whether the gun can reach as far as it was said it could reach. In so doing, they shoot an American tourist (Cate Blanchett) travelling with her husband (Brad Pitt) and the event is immediately perceived as an act of terrorism. In the meantime, just watching Pitt’s meltdown as he tries to help his wife in a strange, alien culture he knows nothing about just drives home the huge differences between cultures – we’re all human beings on one level; but we’re so different on others.

Meanwhile, back home in the US, the children of the tourists are being looked after by their Mexican housekeeper/babysitter. Unable to find someone else to look after the children on the day of her son’s wedding, she decides to take them with her across the border to the wedding. While the initial feel of it all is very celebratory, I had a bad feeling about it and sure enough, everything goes spectacularly wrong.

Finally, the third strand (which appears to be unrelated for a good hour at least but finally gets tied back in) talks about a deaf/mute girl in Tokyo. While she doesn’t have a cultural difference to the world around her, her disability causes her to be an isolated person in the midst of a bustling city and we see her loneliness and its consequences.

Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu is a master storyteller, and I’m guessing, as a Mexican, he would understand firsthand the sort of cultural gaps that exist in the world.

Not an easy film to watch, but never dull.

4 ½ out of 5

 

DVD Review: Generation Kill

This TV series by the writers of The Wire takes their same ambivalent approach to cop/gangster life and then transplants it to the heart of the Iraq invasion by US troops in 2004.

This 7-part miniseries follows a bunch of potty-mouthed reconnaissance marines who are given the task of advancing into Iraq. Being reconnaissance, they’re not really equipped for combat, but order are orders, and soon these bunch of guys in their small vehicles with guns on top make their way into the heart of Saddam Hussein’s territory.

This is one of the most difficult-to-categories series I’ve ever seen. While it obviously falls under the broad genre “War”, that is not sufficient enough to describe it. Because most war films that you see have a certain angle that they take. Some take the action angle – all guns and explosions. Others are about heroism – men being brave under extraordinary circumstances, being leaders and rising to the occasion (complete with lots of trumpet fanfares). Others are anti-war films, showing the horrors of war, the madness of it all.

Generation Kill is all of these at once – thus leading to the conclusion. It’s striving (and it succeeds) in being a real picture of real soldiers – in fact, every character in the story is a real Marine in real life. (With a couple even playing themselves.) So if you want to find heroic characters, there are a couple in there. If you’ve always suspected that American soldiers are gun-toting hicks who just want to kill people – well, there are a couple of them in there as well.

What makes the series work (and also makes it so complicated to follow) is simply that the show’s creator David Simon simply refuses to let us have a break from real life. He refuses to simplify down the material to give us an easy-to-digest theme.

This is real life – it’s messy, conflicting, disorganised – and there it is on the screen. It’s not necessarily the approach you’d want to every war film, but it works well for this one.

Note to easily-offended viewers: American soldiers spend most of their time between and during combat swearing and telling dirty jokes. You have been warned.

4 out of 5.

 

DVD Review: The Sugarland Express

I’ve been going back and watching some of the early films of Steven Spielberg (which reminds me, I should put up a review of Duel at some stage). The Sugarland Express was the very first film Spielberg ever directed for the big screen. Based on a true incident that took place in 1969, it stars Goldie Hawn as Lou Jean, a 25-year-old woman with an imprisoned husband and a two-year-old who has just been taken off her by welfare.

Her husband only has four months to go till parole, but she persuades him that they need to escape that very day and make their way to Sugarland to get their baby back. As if prison escape wasn’t reckless enough, they very soon end up hijacking a police vehicle and kidnapping a police officer. This sets up a huge statewide manhunt, with hundreds of police cars following the two lovebirds in bizarre caravan across the state of Texas.

Spielberg doesn’t put a foot wrong as a director – he absolutely nails the atmosphere of Texas, from the big hats to the Southern dialect to the obsession with guns. The car chase sequences (reminding me a lot of the action in Duel) are nicely choreagraphed – not the quickly edited stuff that I often yawn through in action films today. And as the scale of the case grows, Spielberg gives the film an increasingly epic feel.

What I wasn’t clear coming in, though, was how it would all pan out. The look of the film from the trailer and the opening of the film is a sort of humorous Texan romp, with liberal doses of quirkiness and humour. But it soon becomes apparent that, likeable as our two not-too-bright escapees are, kidnapping a policeman is a serious thing, and that however this thing pans out – the consequences could be very grave.

It also marks the first film collaboration between composer John Williams and Spielberg, so you might be interested in it from that angle.

I won’t say any more, because if you get bored one night, there are a lot worse ways to spend an evening than watching this film.

4 out of 5.

DVD Review: The Wire – Season One

Before I’d seen The Wire, every time I’d read a review of it, I’d always been struck by the fact that it didn’t sound like a particularly interesting story – cops trying to track down drug dealers (yawn!) – but despite that, the reviewer would be using phrases like “the greatest show on television”. How did that work?

So I decided to finally watch the series and find out what was going on. I can now understand what it’s about.

There is a sense in which this story could be quite pedestrian. It is, on the face of it, a cops/gangster drama. Over the course of 13 episodes, it details how a group of police from the Narcotics and the Homicide divisions of the Baltimore police were put together to catch a drug kingpin, Avon Barksdale. However, the story is much deeper than that.

Writer David Simon wanted to make a point about the social structures that we find ourselves part of and how, in our cities, that those social structures drag us down, despite our best intentions. So he presents us with well-intentioned cops who struggle with the corruption and politics in the police force, but on the other hand, he shows us quite smart young African-American guys who are caught in a tradition of drug-dealing and crime from which they cannot escape. Any time you think you have worked out how to peg somebody’s character, the next episode will show you a new layer that reveals something else.

What I liked most about this story was that it took the concept of episodic television and converted it into a large novel. Unlike a regular series, where there is a certain level of payoff in each episode, The Wire simply begins each episode where it last left off and then ends when the hour runs out – cliffhanger or no. This means that if you first start to watch it, and you find it rather slow going because that’s a bit like reading a few chapters of a novel and giving up. It’s only when you watch it in its entirety that it all comes together.

The other thing that struck me was exactly how little there was of the “protect and serve” mentality among the cops (except as a joke). In every other cop show, cops are driven by a desire to catch bad guys and see justice done. There’s none of the in The Wire. The cops are driven by, if anything, a satisfaction of showing that they’re more clever than the criminal out there and – above else – a desire to get their stats us. So it’s amazing how little enthusiasm there is among the top ranks for actually doing anything about crime. Sad to say, given that David Simon was a cop before he started writing for television, this is probably an accurate picture of the modern police force.

The other bit of artistry that struck me is that this series has no music (apart from the opening and closing credits of each exercise). And so, because of that, you have no way of gauging emotionally what you should be feeling about a scene – which is rather like real life, isn’t it? The only time they break this rule is over a montage at the end of the very last episode – which means that the use of music there is far more powerful.

The final warning that I should offer is that everything you’ve heard about the level of swearing in this series is correct. There is a lot and if that will offend you, then don’t even consider the series. But if you can get past that, and you want a series that will both entertain and challenge your mind, this is one of the great TV series of the last 10 years.

5 out of 5.

DVD Review: The Queen

A 1001 Films review. The Queen documents the week in which Princess Diana died, and the royals ummed and ahhed over how to publicly react to her death. She was no longer really a royal, so officially it should have been “a private matter”. However, the public were grieving the loss of “the people’s princess” and wanting the Royal Family to acknowledge that.

Most of the film is a sort of back and forth between the newly-elected Tony Blair (played by Michael Sheen, who was actually revising the role of Blair from an earlier TV movie called The Deal), and Queen Elizabeth II (a spot-on performance by Helen Mirren).

The film is quite impressive from an acting perspective, and Alexandre Desplat’s score is quite rich – and the DVD has a nice 5.1 mix that lets it ring out. But there are also many times when I felt that things were being spelt out quite simply (perhaps for Americans?).

On the whole, the best strength of the film is that whether you are Republican or Royalist, the film manages to touch on all those points of view, but ultimately rises above it to become a film about people, the traditions they inherit, and the steps that we sometimes have to take to keep up with the times.

4 out of 5.

 

DVD Review: Rome – Season 1

One of the more unusual shows I saw on DVD last year was the first season of Rome. As soon as you pick up the box, you realise that it’s not designed for everyone. It shows a pair of Roman-sandalled feet standing on cobble-stone streets running with blood and (in Australia), it has a rather large R rating on the front warning you about the sex and violence.

This clever series weaves a mixture of fictional/non-fictional events starting with Julius Caesar’s victory in Gaul all the way through to his eventual assassination in the Senate. The very fact that there is a long rise and fall arc in the series immediately makes it more interesting than a regular TV series, with its “let’s fix all problems in the one episode” set-up.

It follows all the famous true-life characters in this drama: Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds), Pompey (Kenneth Cranham), Mark Antony (James Purefoy), Marcus Brutus (Tobias Menzies) and Co. Then there’s the fictional characters: a couple of Roman soldiers, Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). In addition, there are some spectacularly revenge-driven women in the story: Atia (Polly Walker) and Servilia (Lindsay Duncan). There are lots more characters (it’s quite a large ensemble), but these are the main players, whose lives connect and intersect over 13 hours.

If you’ve got the stomach for it, you can enjoy this for the convoluted, twisting plot. Or you might enjoy the historical detail – especially if you have the DVD, where you can turn on a feature called “All Roads Lead To Rome”, which puts up informative historical facts on the screen while you’re watching.

On the whole, I found it a show that gave me mixed emotions – primarily because of the writing. The two main creators of the show, Bruno Heller and Jonathan Stamp point out many times on their commentaries and extra features that they deliberately set out to create a world where Judeo-Christian morality did not exist. And so they have written their Romans to sometimes act like us (e.g. wives, romance, business intrigue) and then sometimes not (e.g. beating slaves, killing people with no compassion). Because all the actors speak with perfect English accents, this enhances the feeling that these people are real, so when they suddenly turn savage, it’s quite a shock.

I think Heller and Stamp secretly like the Romans unbridled way of living (especially the sex), but obviously feel uncomfortable with the violence that went with it. To my mind, don’t the two go hand in hand? If you have unrestraint in one area of society, why would you hold back in another? To be honest, what this series did do for me was explain quite clearly how Christianity ripped through Rome and took hold. It would have only taken a few Christians committed to caring for people around them and looking after those less fortunate than themselves, and they would have stuck out like a sore thumb, and caused major social change.

4 out of 5.

DVD Review: The Departed

 

Another film from the back end of the 1001 Films guilt list. I’m not sure what I make of Martin Scorsese as a director. As a visual storyteller, the man is one of the masters. His trademark visual style, smooth shots and quick editing (courtesy of his “only works for Scorsese” editor, Thelma Schoonmaker) are amazing. A story that could take four hours to tell whips past in 2 ½, with barely a chance to breathe.

But it’s not just all camerawork and editing – the performance he elicits from his stars are nothing less than full intensity – no matter who is on screen, you can’t take your eyes off them.

But then, by the same token, the man seems drawn to telling stories of brutal, violent people. I can only ask: Why? I’m not sure. His gangster characters in Goodfellas and Casino are some of the most vicious characters ever brought to screen. Don’t even get me started on boxer, Jake LaMotta, from Raging Bull – a horrible, violent, wife-bashing man. Why all these types of characters? (In his favour, it should be mentioned that Scorsese also occasionally makes other types of stories as well. The respectfully Buddhist style of Kundun, about the Dalai Lama, for instance, or The Aviator, the most blatantly pro-capitalist film released in the last few years.)

Which brings us to The Departed, probably his best film in recent years, a complex and gripping suspense thriller set amongst the Irish-American gangsters of Boston, Massachusetts. It tells the story of two young men who join the police force at the same time – Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), sent to join the police by gangster, Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson), to be a “mole” in the police force, informing Costello of what is going on; and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio), who joins the police force to escape his sordid family tress only to be promptly sent back out by the police force to infiltrate Costello’s gang as a criminal and inform them what is going on.

The suspense of this film is in watching how quickly things start spinning out of control and how close both Sullivan and Costigan come to being caught by their respective employers – and once Sullivan discovers that a mole exists in Costello’s gang and Costigan discovers that there’s a mole in the police force, the tension really ratchets up.

You certainly won’t be bored, but Scorsese is continually pushing the language and violence boundaries of this type of film, so I would warn away those easily offended. The way all the loose ends are tied up felt very Asian to me, which is no surprise, considering that the film is a remake of Hong Kong film, Infernal Affairs, which I have still yet to see. I don’t want to give too much away, but it possibly doesn’t end the way you expect it to.

In the end, I love the craftsmanship of this story and the acting is top-notch (especially Leonardo DiCaprio, who steals the show as the tortured Costigan – who joined the police to escape his past and now finds himself in the thick of the criminal word – committing acts he never hoped to have to do). But I’m not sure this is the type of story I could watch over and over again.

4 out of 5.

DVD Review: Band of Brothers

At the beginning of the year, some friends and I came up with a novel way to pass the time between when we caught up (because we all live in different parts of Australia) – we’d go out and buy the same TV show on DVD, watch one episode a week and then swap notes about the episode via SMS or phone calls or whatever. There were only three of us, so taking it in turns to pick a show means that we basically get 1-2 picks a year.

The inaugural show picked by the youngest member of our troupe was the famous Band of Brothers, which I’d heard of many, many times but never gotten around to watching, so it was good to have the excuse to watch the whole thing.

If you haven’t ever heard of it, this miniseries was made for the HBO cable channel about 10 years ago, and was the brainchild of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, both of whom wanted the chance to tell another World War II story after the success of Saving Private Ryan.

Based on the book Band of Brothers, by Stephen Ambrose, they found the perfect war tale. The miniseries, over the course of 10 episodes, follows the adventures of Easy Company, a paratrooping company from America. They’re a great group to follow for World War II, because they were in a lot of the major skirmishes of the time. They were parachuted into France on D-Day, then later on found themselves in Holland, Germany and other places.

What makes this different from many other war films is that there are no fictional characters here. Every actor, even in a small role, is playing a real historical character. To further emphasise this, each episode begins with a filmed interview of some of the real members of Easy Company (obviously now quite elderly) describing their recollections of the battle. If you watch the excellent extra features on this disc, you will find that all of the actors were sent on training boot camp where they were required to take on the name of the soldier they were playing. This has clearly carried over into the film, where all the actors take on their roles with great seriousness and professionalism.

In the end, though, this attention to detail is the main drawback. Because nearly all the actors are little-known (and, oddly enough, many of the leads are British performing with American accents), it took me several episodes to really get the hang of who’s who in the company. There’s also not much time given for explaining the various military strategies being used. This is very much a program where the viewer has to “sit forward”, as it were, and pay attention.

However, that won’t be too hard for most people. The production design on this show is phenomenal. This show successfully proved that there’s no reason why TV has to be a poor cousin to cinema. The action is engaging, the special effects, sound design (especially if you can watch this in Dolby Digital 5.1!) and cinematography are all top-notch. (Depending on how much you like hand-held camera and a washed-out green colour. This series has taken its lead from Saving Private Ryan in terms of the look and feel.)

For an insight into what it was like to fight in World War II, this is probably as good as it gets – and makes me very glad that we haven’t had a war on that scale since. Definitely check it out.

4 ½ out of 5.

 

DVD Review: Volver

To make a change from all the silent films I’d been watching because of the infamous 1001 Films to Guilt You Before You Die book, I thought I’d skip to the tail end of the book and work backwards for a bit. (It’s also a lot easier to get hold of films made a few years ago.) So Volver (Return or Coming Back) was the film right up the tail end, so that’s where I ended up.

This is directed by Pedro Almodóvar, the quite-famous Spanish director. That said, I’ve only seen one of his films before, called Talk To Her, and while I could admire the craft of that one, there were several sequences which were just a bit too much for me.

Volver is a bit more mainstream, though that said, it would be unusual to see this kind of film come out of the Hollywood system. It opens with a shot of a cemetery in La Mancha, a notoriously windy (and I mean windy) region of Spain, and the graveyard is full of women cleaning and polishing graves. These three themes (women, death and wind) pretty much form the basis of the entire film.

This is an ensemble cast of nearly entirely women. The two main characters are the independent Raimunda (Penélope Cruz) and the much meeker Sole (Lola Dueñas), sisters living in Madrid – both of them struggling with the fact that the men in their life just aren’t any good. In Sole’s case, her husband deserted her a long time ago and, in Raimunda’s case, she has a husband – but he is an unemployed bum with a roving eye. As well as the contrast between these two women, the film constantly contrasts the two locations these women have inhabited – Madrid, where everything is modern, but where women feel isolated and lonely – and La Mancha, where the women band together with an incredible solidarity and look after one another. (This is exemplified by the secondary but important character of Agustina (Blanca Portillo), a friend of their mother’s who lives in La Mancha and “checks in” every day on how their elderly aunt is going.) While Raimunda and Sole haven’t had much luck with their love lives, they think fondly about their mother, who died in a fire three years before – in the arms of her husband.

Up until then, the story (which I confess I didn’t know a lot about – I don’t remember hearing much more than the title of this film when it was released) is rather conventional, but then two things suddenly happen which set things in motion: first, Raimunda’s husband dies under circumstances which leave her with tough choices to make and, secondly, Sole comes back from a funeral in La Mancha only to find her dead mother has stowed away in the boot of her car and wants to come and live with her.

I won’t say any more than that, but what unfolds is less a story and more an exploration of themes – women looking out for each other, loneliness, betrayal, death and its effect on people, secrets, similarities between past and present and a complete absence of any decent men on the scene.

This film rather successfully passes the Bechdel test, which I read about on my friend cafedave’s blog, which means simply that the film has to: a. feature two women, b. talking to one another c. not about men. When I first read about that test, I realised how little of that there is in modern film (certainly in mainstream Hollywood fare), so it was quite refreshing to watch something in a foreign language about a different culture featuring women. And certainly, the most astonishing revelation of the film is Penélope Cruz. In anything I’ve seen her in, she’s always come across as this kind of irritating character with a strong accent who’s only claim to fame was stealing Tom Cruise from Nicole Kidman. However, as the character of Raimunda, she absolutely glows on the screen.

I think what I found most disturbing, in the end, however, was what this film seemed to be saying about men. Now, I understand, the fact that men are all love rats in this film is just this story and not reality, but it certainly felt that way. I know that Almodóvar has said that this film is very much a homage to the women in his life when he was young. What is unspoken, in all of the reviews I’ve seen or any of the DVD interviews – is that if these are what the women were like that he grew up around – what does that say about the men that he knew when he was a boy?

4 out of 5 if you’re into arthouse cinema.

DVD Review: Watchmen – The Complete Motion Comic

This review is, of course, over a year late – seeing as the Watchmen craze well and truly died after Zac Snyder’s rather juvenile attempt at a film version last year. (Or was it the year before that?)

This DVD is rather an interesting project – it’s the original Watchmen graphic novel (minus the articles and short stories and other text-based features that you would read at the end of each of the 12 issues if you bought the book) animated frame by frame. So effectively you can watch the complete book as it was drawn. The back of the DVD warns you that the book is brought to life with “limited motion, voice and sound”. So it’s by no means an animated feature film. Instead, it’s each frame of the comic, moving as much as possible. And despite the word “limited”, there’s actually quite a lot of motion in this motion comic.

Curtains rustle in the breeze, papers blow along the street, characters walk. Some of the transitions from frame to frame (such as the zoom in and zoom out effects that Gibbons and Moore were trying to create in the original) are all preserved and, in fact, enhanced. Even speech bubbles and captions appear on screen (although they are narrated out loud), so nothing has been cut from the visuals here.

I quite enjoyed this, as a way of reliving the comic (which I’d already read). My main quibble is with the narration. Believe it or not, the whole book – every character – is voiced by one Tom Stechschulte. Don’t get me wrong – he does a great job – and every character has a unique and different voice characterisation and if you didn’t know it was one guy, you might be tempted to think it was several. But it’s quite jarring when the female characters suddenly start speaking in a male voice, and I really wish they could have got a female actress in to do the voice parts for them. Would that have been too much trouble or cost?

Other than that, whether you’ll like it or not is a different matter. If you’re a Watchmen fan already, presumably you have the books and you’ve seen the film – do you really want to see the book acted out blow by blow? Probably, like I did, you would buy this if you were curious to get a glimpse of what Watchmen would have looked like had the film been more faithful to the source material. Certainly, it’s less Neanderthal than Snyder’s dressed-up excuse for lots of gut-wrenching slo-mo violence. But, at the same time, watching a comic book unfold like this also makes you realise that there are differences between books and film. And so sometimes the pacing of the thing is quite slow. (Which is to be expected, given that it takes 12 half-hour episodes for the whole thing to unfold.)

All in all, though, I would keep this one as an interesting film of Watchmen, much more so than Snyder’s film, which on the second viewing became even more flawed. I haven’t yet seen his “Ultimate Cut”, which might fix things up a bit, but I’m not so convinced his film can be saved.

4 out of 5.