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July 7, 2016

DVD Review: The Family Fang - Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman & Christopher Walken


The Family Fang, being released on DVD July 5 2016 by Anchor Bay Entertainment isn't a movie about a stereotypical family. Sure there's two kids and a mom and a pop, but any similarities between them and the idealized world of American fantasy, ends with that equation.
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The movie is told through the eyes of the Fang children, Annie (Nicole Kidman) and Baxter (Jason Bateman). Annie and Baxter are both struggling to come out from under the shadow that was cast on them by their parents. While both children have grown up to have success in their chosen fields - she's an actor he's a writer - they are both currently having troubles.

Through a series of old film clips we begin to understand how their parents, Caleb (Christopher Walken ) and Camille (Maryann Plunkett) used the children as props in their experimental performance art pieces. They would stage events in a public place in order to provoke those watching and film the resulting mayhem and reactions.

While initially the children were in on the plans, as the movie develops, we see how as they aged their parents would start using them without their knowledge to make the "moment" more real. While the children know they didn't receive what would be called a normal upbringing, it's only when their parents are reported missing and they start watching old footage are uncomfortable memories triggered.

However, it all comes to a head when Annie and Baxter, Caleb refers to them as A & B, meet with an old colleague of their parents. He gives them a rough cut of a documentary he was making about the Fangs and their work which contains a very disturbing revelation about how Caleb viewed his relationship with his kids.

Adapted from Kevin Wilson's book of the same name by David Lindsay-Abaire The Family Fang constantly takes you by surprise. Initially the movie is quirky and funny as we're introduced to some of the family's movie projects starring the young Annie and Baxter. They are genuinely funny and provocative, just what good performance art and happenings should be. Even the opening scenes with Annie and Baxter as adults are quite funny.

However, both of them are pushing the limits of their existences, and what we're laughing at is other people's reactions to the damage they're inflicting upon themselves, both literally and figuratively. The pathos revealed by these scenes gradually helps us to develop a truer picture of what both of them are struggling to overcome as adults.

Bateman's direction throughout the movie is spot on. Not only does he set each scene wonderfully, he also allows the story to develop at the perfect pace. Viewers are given the right amount of time to absorb the information they need to understand what's going on beneath the surface for each character. However, he never lets anything drag. What's nice is how when the pace speeds up it seems to be a reflection of the characters' needs - not an attempt to force something to happen for the sake of have something happen.

As you would expect from quality of the cast the performances are wonderful. Bateman and Kidman have managed to create the perfect brother and sister chemistry on screen and their scenes together are wonderful. There is an ease about them together on screen which speaks to a long familiarity - not always friendly, but able to know how the other person is going to react - that you only find between siblings.
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As the parents, Walken and Plunkett are equally good. Walken is of course ideal for the role of the driven artist who has forgotten something about humanity - nobody else has as an intense a stare. However, he also manages to instil a degree of humanity into his role - we may not feel any sympathy for him, but we do come to understand him and how he thinks in sort of a round about way.

Plunkett makes a good foil for Walken. For, while she is caught up in Caleb's artistic ambitions she has not completely lost sight of her humanity and the fact her children aren't merely props. However, this doesn't stop her from going along with his plans to the extent she even curtails her own artistic ambitions. There's is an undercurrent of fear to her performance which gives the viewer clues there might be something more than what we see on the surface for all the characters.

The Family Fang does a magnificent job of exploring the delicate dynamics of art and interpersonal relationships. Can you really justify anything in the name of art - or is there a line if crossed which turns behaviour into abuse? We also see, with beautiful subtlety, how adult survivors of abuse learn to take control of their lives. There's no big moment or blinding revelation, it's just a process of acceptance and then learning how to get on with life.

The Family Fang is funny, poignant, and a little disturbing. It will make you think about life, art, and the human condition - which when you come to think of it is the purpose of art. This is the best kind of art film - it has no pretensions to anything beyond telling its story and does so in the simplest and most straightforward manner it can. However, the sum of its parts add up to something beautiful that moves us as only art can.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: The Family Fang - Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman & Christopher Walken)

June 24, 2014

Television Preview: Vicious Starring Sir Ian McKellan and Sir Derek Jacobi


Mainstream television and film's depiction of homosexuals has always been tentative at best. While openly gay characters have been showing up more frequently on both screens in recent years, too often the characters in question have been used as comic relief or the sensitive friend, instead of being fully developed people in their own right. The idea these people might be either sexually active or involved in long term relationships is something nobody seems to want to admit. This is especially true for gay male characters. While there are some shows which make a big deal out of having sexually active lesbians, they seem to be more about fulfilling heterosexual male fantasies than actually being about the lives of gay women.

The few times attempts have been made to honestly depict the lives of gay men the backlash against the shows in question has been swift and cruel. (A television adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, depicting life in San Francisco in the 1970s aired in the 1990s and resulted in some of the Public Broadcasting Systems (PBS) stations airing it receiving bomb threats and other forms of intimidation) To think the atmosphere might have changed since then is to be incredibly naive. Just look at the opposition to same sex marriage in the US and the laws being passed in other countries making homosexuality illegal.

So it takes a certain amount of courage on the part of PBS to decide to pick up the British made situation comedyVicious whose main characters are a gay couple who have been in long term relationship for nearly fifty years. Airing for six consecutive Sunday nights at 10:30pm EST starting June 29 until August 3 2014 the show not only features two gay characters, but stars two openly gay actors in the title roles, Sir Ian McKellen (Freddy) and Sir Derek Jacobi (Stuart). Freddy is a moderately successful actor who occasionally still receives small roles on television shows, but they are both pretty much retired. However, the show deals mainly with their rather tempestuous personal life and the friends who become caught up in the cross fire.
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The two men seem to be in a constant state of open verbal warfare with almost every word they direct towards each other being an insult. While some of the exchanges verge on cruel, McKellen has the memorable line "I'm never quite sure when I've gone to far, but I'm always happy when I do", they are obviously born out of habit and long familiarity. However, it's not just each other they treat with apparent disdain, as their long time friend Violet (Frances de la Tour) comes in for her share of insults from both men during her frequent visits to their flat. While the insults are initially shocking, we quickly become as inured to them as the characters as we realize how little impact they have.

The first episode introduces a new diversion into their lives in the form of a new neighbour. Ash (Iwan Rheon) gives whole new meaning to the term "straight man". For not only is he straight, he's also a new audience for the boys and their friend, and they can't help putting on a show for him. At first non-plussed by walking into an apparent free-fire zone, Ash soon figures out what anybody with eyes can see. That beneath the caustic comments flying between Freddy and Stuart lies genuine love and affection. He also proves he's not the oblivious young man they've taken him for. Unsure of his sexual orientation ("You just can't tell these days") Freddy tries with an increasing lack of subtlety to get Ash reveal his nature. As the episode ends he pauses before leaving their apartment and, with a big smile on his face, tells them he's straight.

As Freddy and Stuart, McKellen and Jacobi are magnificent. They manage to walk the fine line between caricature and character beautifully. While part of the fun is listening to these two classically trained actors deliver lines like "bollocks that was a bitch" in their beautifully modulated voices, it's also a delight to watch them having so much fun creating the relationship between the two men. For over the course of the six episodes they gradually reveal the depth of feeling which exists between the two men. They might snipe at each other constantly, but let anybody else treat one of them with anything less than respect, and each will quickly rise to the other's defence.
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As their sex-starved and lonely friend Violet, de la Tour manages to take a character who in most people's hands would have been flat and one dimensional and turn her into a funny and real person. While she flirts shamelessly with Ash, loading her conversations with enough sexual innuendo to make a teamster blush, she also manages to show us the loneliness lying beneath her rather carnivorous exterior. The boys tease her mercilessly about her countless disastrous relationships, but she's part of their extended family and trusted and loved accordingly. You have the feeling they wouldn't put up with each other's behaviour if there wasn't a genuine bond between the three of them.

Initially viewers might be confused as to why the young man Ash continues to hang out with these people who seemingly have so little in common with him. However, Rheon does a very credible job of showing how his character sees Freddy and Stuart as a mixture of surrogate parents (his father is serving a ten year sentence for armed robbery) and friends he can come to for advice. He looks at them and sees the genuine affection they feel for each other beneath the bitchy comments and can't help but admire and envy them their closeness. The episode where he brings a girl friend over to dinner with the boys is priceless. Not only is it hilarious, we watch as Ash's relationship dissolves over the course of dinner, it also throws in stark relief the difference between a real partnership based on trust and love, and one based on nothing more than wanting to be in love.

While Vicious is a brilliant show filled with great acting and genuinely funny dialogue, I'm sure there are bound to be plenty of people who will find it offensive. Both those who object to positive depictions of homosexuality and the politically correct who don't have a sense of humour will find something to object to. However, they should all just grow up and learn how to be more accepting. The latter might decry how unrealistic the show is in its depiction of gay couples, but I've known plenty of couples, both straight and gay, who act just like the two main characters. For those of you not so full of yourself and able to see past this type of crap, this show will delight you. Vicious airs on PBS Sunday evenings at 10:30 pm EST from June 29 to August 3 2014 - check your local listings for times and stations.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as TV Review: Vicious Starring Sir Ian McKellan and Derek Jacobi)

April 17, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Philomena


Up until as late as 1996, when the last one was finally closed, The Magdalene Laundries were the dumping grounds for any young woman considered "fallen" by Irish society. Most of these were single mothers whose family had discarded them. They were forced into the various abbeys and convents where the Laundries were located and after giving birth had to work as slave labour for the nuns as payment and penance for the delivery and the sin of having a child out of wedlock. The children of these young women were taken from their mothers and "adopted" (sometimes this meant sold) by the nuns to couples from all over the world - usually Americans. Further compounding their crime the so called laundries conspired to keep records of all adoptions from both the birth mothers and the adopted children through convenient fires and other means.

While the Irish government has finally agreed to compensation for the victims, the public at large still knows very little about what the women who survived these horrific conditions experienced. While facts have been reported in various newspapers that might have explained things intellectually, they fall short in being able to reach people emotionally. Well, that's about to change with the release of the Blu-ray version of Philomena by The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment. Adapted from the book The Lost Child Of Philomena Lee by British journalist Martin Sixsmith, the movie tells the story of one woman's search for her son who was given up for adaption by the nuns who ran the Magdalene Laundry where she had been confined.

Under normal circumstances this is a movie I probably would have avoided like the plague. Usually this type of story is handled in such a way it ends up manipulating the audiences emotions with sentimental tripe instead of simply allowing the story to speak for itself. However, the combination of a cast starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in the roles of Philomena and Sixsmith respectively, the fact Coogan wrote the script and it was directed by Stephen Frears (High Fidelity and The Queen), made me think it had a chance of avoiding the pit falls this type of movie would normally fall into.
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On the surface the story sounds like some standard TV Movie of the week put out by Hallmark Cards. If it were to follow the typical cliches the movie would have the cynical journalist, Sixsmith, meeting the elderly Irish woman, Lee, and in the course of helping her discover what happened to her child rediscover his own heart. Not having read Sixsmith's book I can't speak for how he approached the story, but Coogan's screen adaptation never once descends into the world of cliche or mawkish sentimentality. For while the two very different characters do manage to find enough common ground for friendship, neither really make any fundamental changes in each others character.

Sixsmith is a highly educated intellectual who served in Tony Blair's government as Press Secretary for the Ministry of Transport. He went to Oxford University and served as a foreign correspondent for the BBC in Russia during the end of the Cold War and in the USA during the first term of Bill Clinton's presidency. Most importantly he's also a lapsed Catholic who no longer believes in God. Lee, on the other hand, remains a devout Catholic with a firm belief in God and has worked as a nurse all her life. She's kept the story of her lost child secret from her family as she was too ashamed to admit she had sex prior to being married let alone had a child out of wedlock. Like other young women of her generation she was firmly convinced that she had committed a sin through both acts. While it hurt to lose her child, she had willingly signed the papers giving up her rights to him as she had been convinced it was the right thing to do.

This dichotomy is one of the constant strains between the two main characters as Sixsmith can't understand how Lee can still have respect for the institution which treated her so badly. Lee, on the other hand, can't understand why Sixsmith expresses so much antipathy for the church and God. In one of the funnier parts of the movie after Sixsmith makes one too many comments about God and the church for her Lee retorts by calling him a "fecking idjit". While neither character changes their opinions, they do manage to learn respect for each other's beliefs and values. Sixsmith can't understand how Lee is able to forgive the nuns for what they've done to her, yet he has enough respect and compassion for her to stop questioning her beliefs and to respect her strength. When he tells her he'd never be able to forgive them, she turns to him and says it was the hardest thing she ever had to do.

I've deliberately not gone into any of the details of what they discover about Lee's missing son as I don't want to spoil the actual story. However, in a movie like this what's just as important is the way in which the story is told. Casting Dench and Coogan in the lead roles was inspired as both are able to make both characters not only alive, but believable. Coogan is perfect as the world weary and cynical ex-political spin doctor who originally dismisses Lee's story as Human Interest fodder for the non thinking masses until he becomes almost her champion. Yet, they continue to be on opposite sides of the issue as his righteous indignation on her behalf is diametrically opposed to Lee's more passive attitudes. She only wants to find out about her son and doesn't care about retribution or vengeance.
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Dench's performance is all we've come to expect from her. She manages to give us a complete picture of Lee as a human being even while expressing what seem to be a set of conflicting emotions and beliefs. For on the one hand she misses her son horribly and desires nothing more to find out what happened to him and find out if he ever thought of her or Ireland. However, at the same time she refuses to blame anyone for what happened. Even when it's revealed the nuns kept her whereabouts secret from her son when he asked about her nor told her he was looking for her, she refuses to change her mind.

While the special features on the Blu-ray edition of the film are minimal, they are interesting as they include in depth interviews with both Coogan and Dench, plus a nice feature on Philomena Lee herself. The Blu-ray edition also comes with a code so you can download a digital version of the movie to your computer or mobile device. However, what makes Philomena special is the movie and the way the story is told. If you desire you can do a search online and find out the story in advance as its public knowledge now and all the events and characters described in the movie are based on reality. However, if you plan on watching the movie, don't deny yourself the pleasure of watching the story unfold in front of you on your home theatre system. It does the nearly impossible of going behind the facts and figures to get to the emotional heart of the story without ever descending into sentimentally.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Philomena)

October 14, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Bones: The Complete Eighth Season


I'm not a really big fan of television. In fact I don't even have cable. I have a home entertainment system and watch Bly-rays and DVDs. From what I've seen of what's offered regularly on television, I've no desire to pay the close to $80.00 a month cabal companies in Canada charge for what they call entertainment. The problem I've run into over and over again is any shows I've liked either are cancelled after a year or two, or, even worse, after a couple of seasons the quality deteriorates to the point where they become unwatchable.

However, there's always the exception to every rule. Over the summer I bought a Blu-ray player with wireless capabilities and a free month's subscription to Netflix. Through it I discovered the Fox Network's show Bones. I was blown away not only by the inventiveness of the scripts, but the characters and the careful way the people involved with the show developed the relationship between not only the lead roles, but how the interactions between everybody on the show progressed over the course of the seven seasons Netflix had available. The only question I had was would they be able to sustain this?

Well, after watching the Blu-ray version of Bones: The Complete Eighth Season I can honestly say they not only have been able to sustain what they started, they have actually continued to make it better. Not only do both the ongoing story lines continue to be interesting, but the individual cases dealt with in each episode are just as fascinating, and bizarre, as they ever were. Even more impressive is how they never seem to take the easy way out when dealing with serious issues. Instead of opting for cheap sentimentality to manipulate a reaction, they manage to create situations and scenarios which elicit genuine emotional responses in the audience.
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For those who don't know, the show details the work of a group of forensic scientists who work with the FBI. Led by Dr, Temperance "Bones" Brennan (Emily Deschanel), a brilliant forensic anthropologist, the team examines decomposed remains of murder victims in order to discover who they were, and who was responsible for their death. Working with their FBI liaison, Special Agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) the team from the Jeffersonian Institute: Angela Montenegro, (Michaela Conlin) Dr. Jack Hodgins (T.J.Thyne) and Dr. Camille Saroyan, (Tamara Taylor) have gained a reputation for being able to solve the un-solvable. Along with FBI psychologist, Dr Lance Sweets (John Francis Daley) they are the nucleus the show revolves around.

Over the first seven seasons the relationships between these characters has been carefully and skillfully developed, especially the one between Brennan and Booth. While on the surface they are complete opposites, she's rationale and super intelligent while he works on instincts and is very emotional, they compliment each other perfectly. Over the course of the show their relationship has developed from being a great working partnership to being a great partnership period to the point where they now have a child and live together. While the seventh season ended in a crises, with Bones being framed for a murder by a super hacker, the eighth season opens with them solving the crime and then settling back into the regular routine at work with their relationship stronger than ever.

As a way of keeping the series fresh, the creators have come up with a series of rotating continuing characters who make periodic appearances. The most frequent of these are the six interns studying with Bones. Each of these characters bring something different to the show by giving the main characters somebody else to interact with. The character of Sweets even becomes romantically involved with one of them, Daisy Wick (Carla Gallo), in spite of how everybody else finds her incredibly annoying. To be honest I find her character incredibly annoying, and much prefer it when one of the other interns make an appearance. Whether it's supremely depressed Colin Fisher (Joel David Moore), descent Wendell Bray (Michael Grant Terry), the fussy but brilliant Dr. Clarke Edison (Eugene Byrd), serious and intense Arastoo Vaziri (Pej Vahdat) or the Southerner Finn Abernathy (Luke Lkeintank) each are interesting characters who change the dynamic of the show whenever they show up.

One of the highlights of season eight is the episode featuring all five male interns working together. After Bones watches a basketball game she becomes fascinated with the idea of teamwork and brings them in to see if they can work together. We watch as the five men gradually work out how they can best pool their combined knowledge and intelligence to solve a mystery involving a homeless man whose body was found in a parking garage. Not only was the way they were able to overcome their desire to overshadow their fellows depicted with intelligence and humour, but the subject matter of the episode was dealt with admirably. The show ended up dealing with 9/11 and the plane which hit the Pentagon and how the homeless man was involved. Instead of making it a patriotic statement or something equally manipulative, it was a very personal story about this one man and his experiences. It was remarkable for its ability in bringing home both the horror of the event, and how what the homeless man had endured tied in with it.
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While each episode is most often an entity on to itself, with the cast usually dealing with a new set of remains and its accompanying mystery each time out, the various continuing story lines running through this season, and the history of the show, gives the series a substance you don't often find on television. While the subplots of the various ongoing relationships are ongoing (for those of you who haven't watched the season yet there's a surprising new one) and beautifully handled, a new one is added to the mix and one from season seven continues. The new one has Sweets moving in with Bones and Booth temporarily making for interesting scenes of all of them on the home front together. Not only is the situation handled in the show's usual able manner, it also gives us an opportunity to see different sides of both Booth and Sweets. Their friendship, which has sort of been like that of an older brother and younger brother up until now, becomes more one of mutual respect over the course of the season and Sweets staying with them.

The storyline continuing on from the previous season involves everybody's favourite serial killer and computer genius Christopher Pelant (Andrew Leeds). After forcing Bones on the run by framing her for murder he escapes justice when he to erase his identity and turn himself into an Egyptian national. Even though he's whisked off to Egypt in the first episode of the season, you just know we haven't heard the last of him. His obsession with proving he's smarter than the folk at The Jeffersonian, especially Bones, ensures he'll be back. He pops in for a visit in Episode 12, and then is back again to close out the season and wreck his usual havoc on everybody's lives, especially Bones and Booth.

The five disc Blu-ray package of Bones: The Complete Eighth Season comes complete with the usual accoutrement of special features, Even here the producers show their originality. For once the gag reel is more than just the cast hamming it up for the camera, and we see some genuine mistakes and the actors falling out of character. However, the bit I liked best was when the actors answered a series of questions about their characters, the show and other related matter fans had submitted. Each of the questions was taken seriously and answered with humour and intelligence.

While the Blu-ray is high definition all the way with both great sound and video, be prepared to have to update the firmware for your player as some of the menu features require you to have the latest versions. I'm not sure how much I like all these features, or see the need; there's one which allows you to select continuous play so you can remove the disc at any time and it will automatically restart where you left off. However, if you elect to use the single episode option, no matter what disc you insert into the player the menu always reads disc one, episode one and you have to scroll through to find where you left off. Still, that's only a minor inconvenience when it comes to watching a show of this quality.

There has been a disturbing trend over the past little while of depicting intelligent people as freaks and objects of ridicule in popular culture. While the characters in Bones have their eccentricities, they have always been depicted as complete human beings, not much different than the rest of us save for the level of their intelligence and their rather unique skill sets. The series has done a wonderful job of not only bring these people to life, but in allowing their characters to develop and grow. Watching Bones: The Complete Eighth Season one sees the process continue in front of your eyes. What's even better is they grow without ever changing their core characters.

It sometimes seems if a show remains on the air too long the quality will start to fall off. Well as Bones enters its ninth season, it not only hasn't depreciated, it has actually improved. There aren't many shows you can say that of. Through its combination of great scripts, wonderful characters and good acting Bones continues to amaze and astound. If there were more shows like this on television I might actually consider getting cable.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Bones: The Complete Eighth Season)

August 27, 2013

DVD Review: Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition


I remember reading someone describing San Francisco as being a country separate from the rest of the United States. However, not only is it different from the rest of the country, its even quite different from the rest of the State of California. How else could you explain the city home to The Grateful Dead, Grace Slick and City Lights Book Store being part of a system which elected both Ronald Regan and Arnold Shwarzenegger as Governor? To the rest of the country the city has always represented freedom or licentiousness personified depending on your perspective. It was here flower power and drugs bloomed the strongest in the 1960s and the sexual revolution flourished most during the early years of the 1970s.

While outsiders might have had their own ideas of what went on in the city by Pacific Ocean, it took an insider to tell the story of the people and the places where it all happened.Armistead Maupin wrote with honesty and objectivity about an era now coloured by the spectre of AIDS and managed to capture both the innocence and sadness of the times. His books were love stories, comedies and historical records of a time of excitement and exploration which will probably never come again. In 1993 the first of these books was made into a television mini-series. Now, twenty years later, the series is being honoured with the release of a newly packaged and remastered special edition, Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition, by Acorn Media.

As you may have figured out the story takes place in the mid 70s when the sexual revolution was peaking with gay rights. Literally fresh off the bus from Cleveland Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) is both shocked and thrilled by what she sees around her. While she's nowhere near ready for the club scene and the rotating partners that goes with it, she loves the freedom and opportunities the city has to offer. Her entrance into life in San Francisco is eased along when she responds to an add for an apartment at 28 Barbary Lane. With landlady Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) playing den mother to its collection of tenants, Barbary Lane and its inhabitants quickly becomes the focal point of the story.
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Via Mary Jane we meet the very liberated Mona Ramsey, (Chloe Webb) her gay sometime room mate Michael "Mouse" Toliver (Marcus D'Amico) and the happily straight Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross). It's through Mona, Mary Jane lands her first job in the city, secretary to the head of the advertising firm her neighbour works for, Edgar Halcyon. (Donald Moffat)

With Barbary Lane as the nexus for the story we travel all over the city and the surrounding areas, meeting people from all social backgrounds. We watch the central characters' struggles with life and love as they look for just the right person to share their lives with. What makes the show so special is the wonderful depth to each character. From country club going Halcyon to seemingly carefree bachelor Hawkins, there is more to each of them than we first realize. While books are known for the way in which they allow characters to develop, it's rare to see the same thing in a television series. Normally a show like this would be more caught up in what the people do than in who they are. Thankfully, that's not the case here.

The script carefully takes us through each characters' experiences and uses them to give us a more complete picture of who they are. Even better is how each of the actors allows themselves to be guided by the script. As a result watching the people on screen is like getting to know people in real life. The more time we spend with them, the more we come to understand and appreciate them, just like we would with anyone else new in our lives. It's in this way we gradually see the nice man hiding behind the swinger in Brian Hawkins as he shows unexpected compassion and empathy towards the various women he encounters in bars and bed.

We also learn how vulnerable and insecure both Mouse and Mona really are. Webb does a wonderful job of showing the cracks in her character's veneer of coolness and the sense of loss she seems to be carrying with her. D'Amico does a great job of portraying the looking for love in all the wrong places Mouse. Unlike many of the gay men he meets, he's not interested in one night stands, but is looking for his one true love. Unfortunately he doesn't seem to be having much luck as his partners keep turning out to be inappropriate or far less interested in commitment than he is.
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Of course at the centre of everything are Dukakis and Linney. While Singleton's brittle innocence is a bit trying at times, Linney does a remarkable job of showing her character's gradual willingness to be more open and accepting. She gradually learns to set aside her Cleveland morality and learn the value of loyalty and friendship, no matter how odd those friends might be. As for Dukakis, she looks like she was born to play Anna Madrigal. On the surface outrageous and eccentric - she gifts each new tenant with a carefully rolled joint made with the pot she grows in her garden - she has a secret buried beneath her poetry quoting exterior and a sentimental streak as a wide as any of the youngsters in her charge.

Watching her gradually developing relationship with Halcyon is a thing of beauty. Both Dukakis and Moffat do a wonderful job of showing how love isn't only for young people. While he gradually reveals the man who has hidden behind propriety and suits all his life, she lets us see the tender heart beating beneath Madrigal's eccentricity. These two old pros steal the show away from the youngsters without even trying, and their scenes together are some of the best in the series.

With the show having been originally aired in 1993 even digital remastering isn't able to compensate for any of the original deficiencies in sound and audio. Still, all things considered, the quality is more than adequate for watching on a home theatre system if you remember to set your system for stereo transmission instead of surround sound. While the special features on the disc are limited to video of rehearsal and a couple of behind the scenes shots, the booklet included in the DVD package provides a great deal of information about the series and the book its based on.

Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition is a wonderful reminder of just how great character driven television can be when performed and scripted well. Its also a beautiful trip back in time. While the show makes no secret of how many people during the 1970s were more concerned with self-gratification than anything else, we also see how there was also a level of innocence sadly lacking today. It was a time of exploration and self-discovery as well and never has this strange dichotomy been captured on film quite as well as is done here. This is one of those rare times when the adaptation does a book proud. It not only captures the action of the original but the spirit as well.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as DVD Review: Tales Of The City: 20th Anniversary Edition)

August 6, 2013

Blu-ray Review: The Sapphires


Like many other indigenous people the Aboriginals of Australia saw colonizers steal their land and attempt to destroy their way of life and culture. One of the more insidious ways invaders have attempted to carry out cultural genocide has been to steal the children of indigenous people in order to civilize them. In Canada and the US we had the residential schools where we beat the "Indian" out of children in an attempt to make them white. In Australia Aboriginal children who could pass for white were taken from their families and placed in white institutions cutting them off from their communities and destroying connections to their history and culture.

Somehow, in spite of the of the best efforts of their colonial masters, Native peoples in most parts of the world have survived and managed to retain their cultural identity. They have even regained enough strength to begin telling the stories of the people who lived through the bad times. Not all of the stories have had happy endings, but neither have all the stories had sad endings. In fact some of the stories are uplifting and inspiring. One of those stories is the tale of four young Aboriginal women who for a year, 1968, were a singing group who performed American soul and R&B music for troops in Viet Nam. Written by Tony Blair, son of one of the woman in the group, The Sapphires was first a stage play and then a movie and is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Anchor Bay Entertainment and Miramax Films.

While the majority of the movie is set in 1968 the year The Sapphires were performing, the movie opens in 1958. Four little girls are preparing to sing for their friends and family on the back of a flat bed truck. In the middle of the performance they are interrupted by an invasion of white men in cars come to steal any "white" looking children. The children flee into the woods, the bigger ones helping the little ones, in an attempt to escape. The movie then jumps ahead ten years to three young Aboriginal women leaving their "settlement" (the Australian equivalent of a reservation) to go into a white town to enter a talent contest run by the very hung over, down on his luck, talent scout/music lover/want a be manager, Dave Lovelace. (Chris O'Dowd)
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Even in his rather fragile state Lovelace can see Gail, (Deborah Mailman) Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) and Julie (Jessica Mauboy) are obviously the class of the contest. In fact he even manages to stir from his alcoholic stupor enough to provide them with piano accompaniment for their performance. In spite of them being much better than anyone else in the contest, the three lose. Of course they had as much chance of winning as The Supremes would have had at a contest run by the Ku Klux Klan, and both Lovelace and they are pretty much kicked out when the contest is over.

However, Cynthia convinces Lovelace to help them respond to an audition notice requesting entertainers for American troops in Viet Nam. He does so, but only on the condition they stop singing Merle Haggard songs and start singing soul music. He might be a pasty faced white guy from Melbourne, but he's got the blood of a soul musician floating in his veins. After he manages to convince their family to let him take the girls to the audition, and maybe Viet Nam, the scene shifts to Melbourne where it takes place and the trio expands to a quartet. Their cousin Kay, (Shari Sebbens) the fourth girl at the beginning of the movie singing with them, had been stolen by the government and placed in the white world and is now living in Melbourne. They reclaim her for the family and the singing group.

The movie follows the arc you'd expect. The girls experience success as performers in Viet Nam and start to play to larger and larger collections of troops. Of course it's not all smooth sailing with Cynthia resenting her younger sister Julie being the centre of attention as the lead singer and acting out by drinking too much and trying to steal the spotlight. However, it's Lovelace's irresponsible behaviour and drinking which gets them into serious trouble. He drunkenly agrees to take the girls to a base close to enemy lines, but forgets to tell them they will have to make the trip without the military escort they've had previously.

Gail, the eldest, and thus responsible for the other three, had taken the longest to trust Lovelace. However, when she did start to trust him the two became, against her misgivings and better judgement, romantically involved. When she finds out what he did she's furious with both herself and Lovelace. While they make the trip to the base safely enough it comes under attack while they are there. The girls are airlifted to safety, but as they lift off they see Lovelace go down. They arrive back in Saigon not knowing whether he's alive or not, only to find out Martin Luther King has been assassinated.

The Sapphires is the type of movie which in the wrong hands could be maudlin and sentimental trash. Instead, what we are given is a very realistic portrayal of four young women having the time of their lives in the middle of a horrible situation. At the same time it manages, without any overt politicalization, to show the damage done the Aboriginal people of Australia by the policy of taking their children away from them. With the character of Kay we see how these children became both alienated from their people while never really fitting into the "white" world. Putting up with having their land stolen and overt racism is bad enough, but to have your own children turned against you must have been the real knife in some people's hearts.
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In the role of Lovelace O'Dowd continues to impress as an actor. He's one of those people who have the wonderful ability to wear their heart's on their sleeve without ever overplaying a scene. While a natural comic, he's also able to communicate what hides behind his character's bluff exterior and grins. Like his character, O'Dowd has soul, and it shines through in his entire performance. While the four women aren't as experienced as O'Dowd, only Mailman has any real acting experience and this is Sebbens' first movie, they all do wonderful jobs with their characters.

Each bring a level of credibility to their performances which helps make the movie a joy to watch. Mauboy is a professional singer and does all her own singing as the lead singer for the group Julie, but seeing her on screen she does such a good job in her role you think of her as an actor doing some singing, not a singer doing some acting. In spite of their inexperience, neither Tapsell and Sebbens are weak links. As the dispossessed Kay, Sebbens gives an especially moving and strong performance as she attempts to reclaim her heritage.

Seeing a movie like this at home on Blu-ray through a good home theatre system with 5.1 sound makes you appreciate the potency of the music the girls sing all over again. The sound and visuals are as good you've come to expect from the new technology, and thoroughly enhance the story. What's nice, is unlike movies which try and compensate for any weak spots in the script by turning it into spectacle through effects instead of telling the story, here the audio enhances the story and helps set the atmosphere.

The special features on this Blu-ray are much better than usual as they not only give you a chance to meet the actors and learn about how the movie was made, you also meet the original Sapphires. After their tour of Viet Nam none of them continued to work as singers, although one was the first ever Aboriginal model in Australia for a while, instead they returned to their communities and worked tirelessly to help their own people. They are all still alive and the interviews with them in the special features are almost as interesting as the movie itself. They probably won't make a sequel to The Sapphires, as their lives aren't as glamourous now as they were for that one year, but the story of what they've done since is every bit as impressive.

The Sapphires is the story of four women who grabbed a moment and ran with it for all they were worth. It's fun, sad and best of all, very real. For some reason the movie seems to have come and gone without much notice when it played in the theatres and it would be a shame if the same thing happened now that's it out on Blu-ray and DVD. This is a wonderful movie filled with great performances and some of the best soul music to come out of the 1960s - what more could you ask for?

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: The Sapphires)

June 18, 2013

Blu-ray Review: Quartet


Far too often films depict the elderly as either dotty, funny or sick. Oh sure, we might get the occasional wise older person passing on sage advice to some youngster, but that's still not much more than another brand of stereotype. How many movies can you name where the majority of the cast are over sixty-five, but the main focus isn't on death, illness or the characters aren't some variation on "aren't they cutest things"? While there might be some out there, they are definitely few and far between. Thankfully, there's a new movie which can be included in that number being released on Blu-ray and DVD Tuesday June 18 2013 by The Weinstein Company and Anchor Bay Entertainment, Quartet.

The premise of the movie is simple enough. Set in a retirement home for musicians, four retired opera singers who had once scored international success together try to reconcile their differences after not seeing one of their members in decades. Three of them have been living in the home, Beecham House for an undetermined time, when the fourth, joins them. Her arrival coincides with the residents preparing their annual fundraising gala. An event which the facility depends on for its survival.

It turns out two of the quartet, Jean Horton (Maggie Smith) and Reginald Paget (Tom Courtenay) had been briefly married, but had divorced when she confessed to an affair. While Paget is obviously less than thrilled by the new arrival, the other two members of the quartet, Wilf Bond (Billy Connolly) and Cissy Robson (Pauline Collins) are more than happy to welcome their old friend.
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While Paget eventually is able to find it within himself to reconcile with his ex-wife, tensions arise between the four of them when the director of the gala, Cedric Livingston, (Michael Gambon) prevails upon the original three to try and convince Horton to join them in recreating their success for the performance. He's sure their inclusion would allow the home to charge top dollar for tickets and guarantee its survival for another year. However, Horton thinks the idea of four retired opera singers attempting to perform is ridiculous. She has refused to sing publicly for years for that very reason. Her pride won't let her be seen in public as anything less than the star she once was.

Needless to say there's nothing really original or overly suspenseful about the plot of the movie. We know everything will turn out for the best in the end, it's just the way these movies work. However, sometimes, how the story is told matters far more than what it's about and how it ends, and this story is told beautifully.

One of the wonderful things about the movie is the fact the majority of the supporting cast are made up of retired musicians ranging from music hall performers, former orchestra players to opera singers. They not only bring credibility to the musical numbers included in the movie, it ensures the depiction of the elderly in this movie is nothing like you've seen before. Instead of shots of people sitting around in wheel chairs playing bingo or staring off into space, we walk into rooms filled with vital, animated and active people. Sure they might have to use a cane or a stair lift to get around, but they have more joie de vive than most people half their age.

Watching the four leads work is a joy. Each of them play their characters with an understated elegance which only experience and talent make possible. As the irrepressible Bond, he flirts with pretty nurses and staff and arranges to have pints of whisky hidden on the grounds for him and his friends, Connolly brings a wonderful humanity to what could have easily been a caricature of a dirty old man. Instead we see a man who refuses to believe aging means you must stop enjoying life.

Collins has the far more difficult task of playing a woman in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's. She imbues Robson with a sweetness and innocence which make her a delight to watch and those moments when she loses her way all the more poignant. Those times when her face goes slack and she loses track of where she is and what she's supposed to be doing are some of the most powerful in the film. Collins does a magnificent job of not telegraphing when an episode is about to begin making her moments of dissociation all the more moving when they occur.

As the former married couple Horton and Paget, Smith and Courtenayt are wonderful. Watching Smith rehearse what she's going to say to him on the drive to the home in preparation for their first meeting gives us some indication of the state of their relationship. Throughout the movie Smith does a wonderful job of gradually exposing the wounded and regretful person hidden beneath her pride. Courtenay's Paget has held on to his hurt and betrayal for so long it's difficult for him to let go of them. However, the reason he's held on to those feelings is he never stopped loving her. Once they are in each other's company again we watch him gradually warm up to her until he's able to let down his defences. The way the two actors gradually develop the relationship between their characters again is a thing of beauty to watch and as fine an example of acting as you'll see on screen for a good while.
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First time director Dustin Hoffman has done a wonderful job of staying out his actors' way. In the special features included on the disc the actors talk about working with him and say the main direction he gave them was to "stop acting". In other words to be as natural as possible in their performance. By trusting them and their instincts to deliver the performances required to make this movie work, he ensured each of his leads, and the supporting cast as well, gave some of the best and least affected performances I've seen from any group of actors in ages.

Other bonus features included in the disc were brief little asides about the story, the music used in the movie and comments from the actors on the movie itself. One of the most telling comments came from Smith when she said how rare it was to find a romantic comedy with a cast in this age range and what a treat it was to perform in. In fact the actors were pretty much uniform in their appreciation for the way movie depicted aging and older people. In his interview Gambon makes a point of saying people in nursing homes or facilities for the aged should make a point of behaving irresponsibly.

This is only about the third or fourth Blu ray disc I've watched and the quality of both audio and picture continue to amaze me. The music, so important to this movie, is beautifully reproduced, especially those times when the cast themselves are singing or performing. Even more impressive is the balance between incidental music and dialogue making it easy to hear the actors. One might think without special effects or action high definition is wasted on a movie. However, there's a depth of field to the images on screen which brings everything alive and makes the world depicted even more believable.

Quartet is a wonderfully acted, intelligently written and carefully directed movie which has made the transition to the home screen beautifully. It not only is a wonderful story about friendship, love and the passions music can generate, it reminds audiences just because a person is old doesn't mean they have nothing left to contribute or can't have a rich and diverse life. My mother will be turning 80 in July and she just returned from a two week trip to Europe which saw her travel through France and Spain and currently her biggest worry is finding a publisher for her book on Romanesque art. It was nice to see a movie which recognizes she's not a rarity.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Blu-ray Review: Quartet)